Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009

 YYZ

 

 

You’re not a real traveller until you can talk in airport codes. It’s all fine and well to say you’re connecting in Chicago, but until you’ve texted your friends and said you’re grabbing a hot dog in ORD, you haven’t lived.

 

Every airport in the world has a three letter code. The system was based on one introduced by the U.S. National Weather Service who created two-letter codes to organise the data they gathered from their weather stations around the country. Airlines copied it, but as commercial aviation expanded in the 1930s and airports began to appear in places that didn’t have weather stations, it became clear that two-letter codes were insufficient…and so they expanded to the three-letter system that is today officially known as the “International Air Transport Association Location Identifier.”

 

Many codes are easily identifiable with their cities, like AMS for Amsterdam, CAI for Cairo or SIN for Singapore, or with their proper airport name like CDG for Charles de Gaulle, JFK for Kennedy or LHR for London Heathrow. But some aren’t so obvious, like YYZ for Toronto or EWR for Newark.

 

As the U.S. created the system, they had first crack at the codes. The U.S. Navy quickly claimed all the N codes for their bases, which is why somewhere like Newark is EWR while Canada claimed the Y codes, hence YVR for Vancouver etc. Although don’t be fooled, not every Y is in Canada and not all Canadian airports begin with Y.

 

That would be far too simple!

 

Unless you work for an airline or are in the travel industry, you will likely only learn airport codes through your own travel experiences. As your airport code vocabulary expands, you can start to read people’s luggage tags as you await your bag at the carrousel. “Oh look,” you can mindlessly think to yourself as that large tartan case with the pink ribbon tied to the handle trundles past for the fourth time “they’ve come from Istanbul and are continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska.”

 

Well, it beats throwing paperclips at the security guards!

 

If you have a very small brain like me, you can even amuse yourself by giggling at humourous codes or trying to think up interesting routings just to get a combination of codes onto a plane ticket. For example, did you know that if you flew from San Vito, Costa Rica to Fresno Yosemite your itinerary would read TOO FAT? Or that if your baggage claim tag reads SAY BIE it’s probably not that you’ll never seen it again but rather because you’re flying from Siena, Italy to Beatrice, Nebraska.

 

Apart from the fun you can have, there is a practical reason for familiarising yourself with airport codes and that’s that you can double-check that your bag has been properly tagged by the airline representative when you check-in for your flight. If it at least has the correct destination on it, there’s already a better chance you’ll see it again.

 

But just remember, the next time that airline rep hands you a tag that says BIG BUM on it, don’t get angry: it could just be that you’re on a domestic U.S. flight from Intermediate Airfield, Alaska to Butler, Missouri!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A Chip Off The Old Block

19 05 2009

Stonehenge mwIt was recently reported that two U.S. tourists have returned a small piece of Rome’s Colosseum that they chipped off 25 years ago. The fragment of stone, small enough to fit into a pocket, arrived in Italy in a package from California and was accompanied by an apology that explained they “…should have done this sooner.” The couple said that every time they looked at their little souvenir they felt guilty and realised that if every visitor chipped off a piece of the Colosseum as they had done, there would be nothing left.

I was reminded of visiting the pyramids and crouching down beside the great structures to tie my bootlaces. The shade of the massive limestone blocks provided a wonderful respite from the blazing sun and as I pulled my laces taut, I realised I was kneeling on a treasure-trove of tiny fragments of the ancient monuments that were far superior souvenirs to the mass-produced papyrus sold around the corner. It would have been easy to casually pick up a particularly appetising fragment and slip it inside my boot for transport home –until I noticed the heavily-armed Tourism and Antiquities Police officer standing a few feet away smoking a cigarette.

Even if I hadn’t spotted the machine-gun glistening in the sun and the nicotine-stained finger idly caressing the trigger, I am pleased to say that I actually wouldn’t have slipped away with a morsel of ancient Egypt. Partly out of respect for the site and future visitors, and partly out of fear for being caught with my illicit souvenir at the airport and spending 20 years in a Cairo prison. But I can appreciate the temptation and understand the Colosseum tourists’ actions – except for the bit about actually carving off a chunk: that goes beyond souvenir-collecting and headlong into sheer vandalism.

I imagine that Rome and Egypt aren’t the only places that have this problem. In fact, every famous site in the world likely has similar difficulties. It is likely only perimeter ropes, security and pangs of conscience that have prevented Stonehenge from being whittled down to a ring of miniscule stone-teeth over the years. There was a similar dilemma in Israel with the mountain-top fortress of Masada. I once read that the problem of visitors collecting rocks and pebbles from this ancient site became so great that the authorities began trucking in a load of gravel every week to top-up the ground on which the visitors walked. This not only helped preserve the site – and stopped Masada being turned from a mountain into a molehill – but also means that there are likely thousands of tourists around the world who treasure shards of rock from some anonymous southern Israeli quarry!

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: L is for Luxor

3 04 2009

 tomb-of-tutankhamun-mw

“With a sign that big, I can’t understand why it was so hard for Howard Carter to find it!”

 

Although the Pyramids may get the headlines, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to Luxor.

 

Located in Upper Egypt, Luxor (or Thebes, as it was once known) straddles the Nile and is the starting (or finishing) point for most Nile cruises and home to the fabled Valley of the Kings.

 

Starting on the East Bank, visitors to the Valley of the Kings must first cross the wide expanse of the Nile. Although there is a bridge a few kilometres upstream from the city centre, most visitors prefer a trip through time and instead opt for the ferries that regularly cross the river. Once on the West Bank, transportation to the tombs of the pharaohs range from buses to taxis – although yet again, for the more adventurous there is only one option: a donkey! Dodging traffic and racing along the busy roads before winding in amongst the spartan hills and into the valley itself is a great start to what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable day.

 

While the treasures of the Pharaohs have long since been moved to museums around the world, it is the tombs that concealed that wealth and which were intended to be the Pharaohs’ final resting places that can be visited in the Valley of the Kings. Each tomb has its own entry fee and not all are open on any given day, but it is well worth visiting as many as time and budget permits. Photography is generally not permitted inside the tombs but postcards and books are widely available in the visitor centre and in town.

 

While the Valley of the Kings may not be the hottest place on earth, it certainly feels like it after a day of exploring. The relentless sun bounces mercilessly off the neighbouring hills broiling ill-prepared visitors below. With very little shade available, if not properly equipped with hat, sunscreen and plenty of water, visitors can soon fall victim to a climatically-controlled Curse of the Mummy.

 

While still on the West Bank, don’t miss the Valley of the Queens, the spectacular temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the Worker’s Village and the Colossi of Memnon. With a sharp eye, you may even spot the house that archeologist Howard Carter lived in while searching for King Tut’s treasure.

 

Back on the East Bank, the Temple of Karnak is as grand as anything anywhere else in the country with its vast size, huge monuments and pristine colours while the Luxor Museum is home to treasures that would form pride of place in any institution in the world yet often go overlooked here.

 

Although it may be the Pyramids of Giza or the treasures of King Tutankhamun and Cairo’s National Museum that lure you to Egypt, it may well be Luxor that makes the greatest impression.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Grave Discoveries

30 03 2009

 cristobal-colon-mw2

                               Cementerio Cristobal Colon,  Havana                                   

 

Geography question: How do you find the dead centre of a city?

 

Answer: Follow the signs to the cemetery.

 

Okay, I’ll admit that jokes like that could be the death of me, but cemeteries are often some of the most interesting places in any city and yet overlooked by many visitors – even though people are just dying to get in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist it). Although often filled with architectural masterpieces in the forms of monuments and mausoleums and tributes to some of that city’s most famous sons and daughters, their locations are often buried in most guidebooks (I promise, that was the last one…maybe!).

 

There are some famous cemeteries around the world that do feature on the tourist trail, however. Moscow’s Novodivechy is that city’s third most popular tourist attraction and is ‘home’ to Chekhov, Prokofiev, Schostakovich, Gogol and Eisenstein as well as cosmonauts and former presidents. London’s Highgate attracts so many visitors keen to see its beautiful monuments – not to mention the grave of famous Marx brother Karl – that they charge admission, even if you’re not in a wooden box!

 

Paris’s Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise has a steady line of visitors coming through its Doors to see Jim Morrison’s grave, while hundreds of thousands of people pay their respect to former teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa by visiting Giants Stadium each year.

 

Even if a cemetery doesn’t boast the rich and famous or its head stones are in an unintelligible script, they are still culturally and historically significant and well worth a visit. Cairo’s “Cities of the Dead” are home not only to the dead but also to the living who have moved into many of the vaults and turned the cemeteries into overcrowded neighbourhoods. Havana’s Cristobal Colon cemetery encapsulates the city’s history where cardinals rub shoulders with communists and even the country’s love of baseball is acknowledged.

 

If you want to visit a cemetery, first enquire if it is permitted to do so as different cultures have different traditions when it comes to their dead. Also check if there is a dress code, if it is allowed to take photographs, if you need a guide or even if it’s safe to go alone: some cemeteries are in less than desirable neighbourhoods where visitors and even mourners are known to fall victim to thieves. Most importantly, if you do visit a cemetery, always be respectful. 

 

And finally, if there’s a particular grave you’re looking for, make sure you obtain a map so that you don’t lose the plot (that’s the last one, I promise!).

 

The end.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Pipe Dreams

23 02 2009

 shisha

At age 4, I had a nasty accident with a candy cigarette when the sharp red end poked me in the eye. It was not only sufficient for me to give up the filthy habit forever, but the trauma also ensured that in my teen years when under daunting peer pressure I was never so much as tempted to try a genuine cigarette, a fine Havana cigar or even a smoldering Meerschaum pipe. But my aversion to inhaled substances didn’t last forever and in Turkey I proved that I can indeed resist everything except temptation.

 

I had always been fascinated by photographs of men savouring a shisha pipe. There was something so singularly exotic about such an image that even if the photos were taken that morning and the men were sporting Hugo Boss suits or a Jay-Z t-shirt, it still resonated with thoughts of mysterious lands, crowded casbahs, dates and camels and certainly had more romantic allure than a pack of Marlboros and a Bic lighter.

 

The shisha is a water pipe used to smoke tobacco, fruit… or other substances of a less corner-store variety. You often see men smoking the shisha in small bars or narrow bustling sidewalk cafes. Some sit alone and stare vacantly with glossy eyes (usually a sign that they don’t have strawberries in their pipe) or while chatting with friends or reading the newspaper. Sometimes each person has their own pipe, other times they share one, passing around the hose.

 

I had seen them everywhere in Egypt but never tried one, but when an opportunity arose in Istanbul, I thought I’d give it a whirl…or a suck, as the case may be. A group of friends were sitting on cushions on the floor surrounding a hookah pipe, as they’re known in Turkey. The water bubbled and the hose was passed around the group. They laughed and chatted convivially and motioned me to an empty cushion.

 

At the base of the pipe were clean disposable mouthpieces. The hose was passed to me and I clipped one on. Unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled. I heard the water bubble into life and felt a nice fresh apple flavour circulate around my mouth. I exhaled through my nostrils and took another drag. Fortunately, this pipe had been prepared with amateurs in mind and was appropriately mild otherwise my virginal lungs would likely have had me sprawled on the floor coughing and spluttering. Despite that, I found the experience quite intoxicating and took another deep drag. Common courtesy made me reluctantly pass the hose onto the person on my left, but I longed for its return.

 

Soon enough, the hose was back and I sucked on it like a pro, visions of opium dens dancing in my head. With eyes closed I pictured myself as the decadent colonial sporting a flowing cotton gown, sprawled luxuriantly across a sea of fluffy silk cushions, propped on one elegant elbow. A fan wallah tirelessly worked to keep the beading perspiration from my tanned brow. I could see shafts of sunlight streaming through the latticework shutters and illuminating the blue smoke that drifted towards the wooden-beamed ceiling. The hustle and bustle of the street outside barely penetrated the sanctum as I drifted in and out of consciousness. The hunched and fawning proprietor made his way towards me: “Sir…Sir…” he called….

 

“Hey dude,” the guy on my left said while kicking out at my foot. “Can I please have the pipe back now?”

 

Post and photo (of shisha…or possibly just a small Egyptian perfume bottle, hair band, sticky tape and tin foil!) by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: E is for Egypt

12 02 2009

philaetemple

                     “Needs a bit of work, but has potential…”              (Philae, Egypt)

 

I always like to save the best for last. Whether it’s a box of Smarties or the biggest and heaviest Christmas present, half the fun is working your way up to your favourite. So, when my two week tour of Egypt started with the pyramids I thought it would be all downhill from there. I could not have been more wrong and not only did each site surpass the previous one, but the entire country exceeded my already very high expectations!

 

Egypt seems to offer more history than the rest of the world combined. After a few days, a temple merely dating back a thousand years feels as modern as Frank Gehry’s latest creation and the vivid colours painted on a ceiling look fresher than a Cairo bus shelter.

 

Cairo is an enormous, bustling city that sprawls around the lower Nile. Apart from the glorious if somewhat faded Egyptian Museum and its awe-inspiring King Tutankhamun room, and the equally magnificent pyramids of Giza, Cairo offers wonderful markets and enough restaurants to sate a pharaoh. There are dinner cruises on the Nile, casinos and 5-star hotels – or hostels at barely $1 a night. Not only is Cairo the starting point for any Egyptian adventure, but it is also a great destination in its own right.

 

A short flight or sleeper-train ride south lies Aswan. Flanked by the rolling sands of the Sahara and the palm-fringed great expanse of the Nile, Aswan has the feel of an elegant frontier town. The Old Cataract Hotel is the setting for Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” and a great spot for afternoon tea (when it reopens from its current renovations!), while further up river sits the tranquil site of Philae. Aswan can be the base to explore Nubian villages, to see the great Aswan High Dam or to head further south towards the Sudanese border and the truly incredible Abu Simbel on the shores of Lake Nasser. Day trips are offered by bus (leaving in the very early hours for a lengthy trek across the Sahara, returning late afternoon) or by air.

 

Egypt can be navigated by land or air, but perhaps the most romantic method is by water: the Nile. There are many cruise boats operating between Aswan and Luxor. Some offer all the facilities of a 5-star hotel including swimming pools and gourmet food while others are better suited to the budget-conscious. For the truly intrepid, try living on the deck of a traditional felucca, sailing by day zig-zagging from bank-to-bank and sleeping moored to the shore at night. Feluccas offer no luxuries – or even facilities! – but provide a lifetime of memories.

 

Edfu and Luxor keep the excitement levels high with Kom Ombo and the Temple of Karnak. An early start by boat across the Nile and then by taxi, bus or even donkey for those so inclined, takes travellers to the Valley of the Kings – home to King Tut’s tomb and those of the other pharoahs. Although the treasure now sits in museums, the thrill of visiting the tombs first re-opened by Howard Carter and his team almost a century ago is every bit as exciting as seeing the glittering gold and jewels.

 

If the desert calls you to escape the beaten path, head west to the wilderness that surrounds Siwa Oasis. Siwa town is a maze of tunnel-like alleys and sun-dried brick houses, completely untouched by time and by tourist masses. Return via the Mediterranean coast and the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria which may no longer have a lighthouse, but does have European feel with North African flavour.

 

Across the Suez Canal sits the Sinai: a rugged chunk of desert that screams out to adventure-seekers. Whether trekking with the Bedouin and sleeping in oases, or climbing Mount Sinai at dusk or dawn, the Sinai is an adventure paradise. Once you’re ready to clean the sand from your ears, head to the Red Sea for snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming…or just relaxing on a carpet of cushions with a sheesha pipe and some dates.

 

Egypt can be as economical or expensive as you wish, as adventurous or luxurious. The food will tempt and please, the history will marvel and awe, the desert will challenge and the coastline will refresh and rejuvenate. Egypt is truly one of the world’s great destinations.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Jewel Off The Nile

11 09 2008

“I’m sorry, but do you have a room with a better view?”  (The Mena House, Cairo)

I am more than happy to call a tent my home, to share a dorm room with eleven flatulent souls, to sleep on a dirt floor surrounded by unseen nimble-footed scurriers or to squat in a budget hotel so budget that water comes in a large bucket…but only when the end justifies the sleeps. If the only way to veer from the beaten track is to forgo the flat panel television, the Parisian toiletries and the lush bathrobe, then sign me up! Besides, there’s a sense of achievement and a strengthening of character that comes from filtering the brown tap water before you clean your teeth, of keeping an eye on a herd of elephants in your shaving mirror or covering yourself in wet towels to try to sleep in the broiling heat of an equatorial no-star hotel room.

 

Of course, adventure travel and the absence of ceiling geckos, one-eyed night watchmen armed with bows and arrows and mosquito-netted bunk beds are not mutually exclusive. In fact, sometimes the very essence of an adventure is not the hardship you endure but the exotic luxury you savour in the most unlikely of places.

 

As I have grown older, my lust for adventure travel hasn’t diminished in the slightest but my creaking bones do need a little pampering from time to time. When I travel now, I like to splurge on a nice hotel for my first night before moving on to more modest abodes. Nice doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or well known. Instead, I seek a refuge with history, character and perhaps a telephone in the bathroom, a brass toilet plunger and a 12,000 finger massage bed.

 

In Cairo, the Mena House fit the bill perfectly…except for the telephone, plunger and vibrating bed. Once a sumptuous private home, the Mena House is unique in that the pyramids are quite literally in its back garden. Although it has a modern wing with all the amenities you would expect, the original building oozes opulence and past privilege and is rich with enough Egyptian, Ottoman and colonial grandeur to transport you to a bygone era. In fact, I was wishing I’d packed my jodhpurs…if I actually knew what they were.

 

It was all so gentrified and evocative that I felt compelled to stroll everywhere slowly with my hands clasped behind my back, nodding reverentially to anyone I passed, and to order only gin and tonic in the bar. A pre-dinner wander through the immaculately manicured lawns of the Churchill Garden had me gazing awestruck at the pyramids which loomed over the flowering hedges. It was only the mosquitoes biting my ankles that brought me back down to earth.

 

After a blissful sleep, I pulled back the curtains to a magnificent view of the wonders of ancient Egypt bathed in morning light. It seemed heresy to turn on the television so instead I took my breakfast onto the balcony and breathlessly drank in the view as I quaffed my croissants.

 

All too soon, my indulgence was over. I dragged my dusty backpack down to reception, checked-out, and quietly whispered the name of my budget hotel to the doorman so that he could hail a taxi. He feigned ignorance of its location, but I saw his nose twitch as he passed on my request to the driver. I clambered in and he closed the door with disdain, then wiped his now-soiled white gloves on his trousers.

 

For the amount that my one night where Churchill, Conan Doyle and Waugh had stayed cost me, I could have spent a week in my rustic new accommodation with a front door that didn’t close properly and a view of an alley between two office buildings. I dropped my bag on the rickety bed, cranked on the deafening air conditioning and headed to the bathroom….to find a telephone and a tarnished brass toilet plunger.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan