Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009




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

Pipe Dreams

23 02 2009


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

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 67

5 02 2009


“It says: beware of man with shiny shoes for he has empty pockets.” (Istanbul, Turkey)


Never look where you’re going.


A friend and I were heading back to our hotel late one afternoon in Istanbul. As we rounded the final corner someone dodged the heavy traffic and hurriedly crossed the road just ahead of us. As his feet landed on the sidewalk and he jogged away, something fell to the ground with a clatter. My friend reacted quickest, bent down, picked up the shoe-shine brush and shouted after him over the noise of the cars, but he kept hurrying forward. My friend shouted again and this time he stopped, turned around and came back.


“You dropped this” my friend explained, proferring the brush.


The shoe-shiner looked at the brush, then into his wooden box and stepped towards us.


“Thank you so much” he said, with a big smile. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost it. You are good man. Honest man. I give you shoe-shine.”


My friend protested that there was no need, but our new chum was already kneeling down with his box beside him and moving towards his brown shoes, rag in one hand, brush in the other. My friend resigned himself to the service on offer.


“Where you from?” the entrepreneur asked, as he polished and buffed.


“Canada.” we answered.


“I have cousin in Vancouver” he explained, his hands working at lightning speed.


“Have you ever been?” my friend asked, attempting to make conversation.


The shoe-shiner stopped mid-buff, raised his head and inclined it to one side. Looking him squarely in the face he soberly said: “I am shoe-shine boy” and resumed his cleaning in silence.


We uncomfortably gazed at each other somewhat embarrassed.


The shiner put away his cloths, polish and brushes, stood up and extended his hand.


“That will be 10 lira” he said.


“But I thought it was fr….” my friend began to stutter before realising that there was no room for negotiation. The service was complete. His shoes gleamed…and he still felt guilty asking if a shoe-shine boy could afford a long-haul flight to the other side of the world. He reached into his pocket and handed over 10 lira.


“He dropped that brush on purpose, didn’t he?” he asked as we watched the shoe-shiner skip away back across the busy road, tucking the notes into his pocket.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

I Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me…

25 08 2008

Victim number one, come on down…                       (Maroon village, Suriname)

At age 10 I was evicted from the school choir because my voice was breaking. In fact, my spoken voice was still an exquisite falsetto that would have been the envy of the most successful of boy sopranos, but my singing voice was then, as it remains now, an instrument of abject aural torture. My choirmaster, in a gallant effort to save my feelings from the inexorable truth, simply stated that vocal manhood was coming early to my diminutive frame and showed me to the door to save her professional reputation and the eardrums of my colleagues.


Sadly, my dancing skills are similarly blighted. My abilities tend to be limited to subtle head-nodding and, when excited, foot-tapping. Any greater participation risks serious public embarrassment for me and possible injury for those nearby as could be witnessed at a Gipsy Kings’ amphitheatre concert some years ago. As the fiery music got the better of my commonsense, my legs became entangled with each other causing me to fall flat on the grass and roll downhill towards the stage. Fortunately, no one was killed and as it was dark I wasn’t asked to leave.


My rhythmic shortcomings haven’t prevented me from enjoying those more musically blessed, especially when travelling – although whenever there’s a hint of audience participation I usually seek safety in the furthest reaches of darkness.


In a roof-top nightclub in an Istanbul back street, a talented belly-dancer was wiggling her wares with time-honoured skill. I was captivated by her riveting rotations and tinkling jewellery…until she grabbed the first innocent victim from the watching masses. I immediately began to retreat to the corner, the familiar cold sweat beading on my forehead. One by one she drew participants forward with relentless enthusiasm and I edged closer to the edge of the roof. I stared skyward at the stars, out over the city to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and hid my face behind my beer glass all in the quest for invisibility…but still she came closer. Just as I was about to plunge onto the street below, she twirled away and returned to the dance floor leaving me and my pounding heart to order another, stiffer drink.


In Madrid, I was contentedly pinned behind a table in a tiny tapas bar and able to enjoy a hypnotic display of flamenco free from fear. In Buenos Aires, I was equally comfortable watching a tango show, correctly confident that the establishment was too refined and the Argentine clientele too discerning to tolerate audience participation. Less secure in Cuba however, I hid behind a shadowy pillar to avoid participating in a sensuous spectacle of rumba.


Occasionally though, participation can’t be avoided and the terror is justified. One such occasion came deep in the Amazonian jungles of Suriname.


One evening we were invited to travel downstream to a small village. The jungle was pitch-black and our able pilot navigated the rapids and shallows by memory rather than flashlight. Eventually, over the din of our outboard motor drifted the sounds of singing and music and we arrived at a small sandy beach, dragged our motorised canoes ashore and walked up to the village clearing.


Once greeted by the chief, we were directed to a hut and asked to change into more traditional attire which consisted of loose cotton tops, neckerchiefs and loin cloths and self-consciously returned to the village’s main hut to the hoots and giggles of the villagers.


After a feast of cassava and fish, the entertainment began. Our small group sat on benches around the inside perimeter and watched impressive traditional dancing that re-enacted the village’s age-old legends and tales of hunts, gods and jungle beasts all to pounding drum beats and singing. Then, my worst nightmare came true. As if sitting cross-legged all night to protect my modesty wasn’t enough, I was dragged onto centre-stage to shake my booty with the best.


My sunburned skin hid my blushes and the intense jungle heat disguised my cold sweat, but there was no hiding my two left-feet before the assembled masses. As self-conscious as a lobster in the tank of a seafood restaurant, I earnestly tried to follow the lead of my partner and instructor, moving in time to the music and attempting to control my flailing limbs so as not to hurt anyone and cause an international incident. I secretly longed for an overhead beam to fall on me or for a jaguar to leap through the open door and drag me into the darkness, but sadly there was no escape. My time as the centre of attention seemed to last forever before my companions came forth and the entire village and guests boogied the evening away to a cacophony of laughs and shouts.


After all-around hugs, we changed back into our own clothes, waved good-bye to our new friends and headed off back upstream to our camp. A million stars illuminated the swathe cut through the jungle by the viscous river, and moonlight reflected in the eyes of lurking caimans and unidentified beasties.


Thankfully, no one commented on my spectacle. Perhaps they’d all been entranced by the magical surroundings and the unforgettable hospitality of the isolated village and hadn’t noticed…or perhaps they’d been scared into silence by the erratic uncoordinated nocturnal spasms of the campmate with whom they were now spending the night alone!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Most Taxing

15 07 2008


“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxis” (Benjamin Franklin – sort of)

I am generally a trusting person, although deserved or not, I must confess that taxi drivers tend to arouse my most suspicious tendencies.


There is no finer way for me to explore anywhere than on foot. I like nothing better than to tuck a map into my back pocket and simply lose myself in the backstreets with just a general sense of direction and a major sense of curiosity. It’s not only the best way to sample the atmosphere, soak up the sights and smells and get to know the people, but it’s also the only way to see the little things that would certainly be otherwise missed.


However, if the distances are too great, energy levels are flagging or public transit isn’t an option, sooner or later we may have to opt for a little car with a light on its roof.


I should stress that my suspicion of taxis is really not well founded as my positive experiences far outweigh my negative ones (that I am aware of!), but I do have this overwhelming fear of being taken…for a ride!


During a trip from Istanbul airport to my hotel, I couldn’t help but notice I was being intently watched in the rear view mirror. I shifted uncomfortably and then, suspicion aroused, did what I do in any taxi anywhere and tried to locate the fare meter. Eventually, sliding towards the centre of the back seat, I spied it near the dashboard. The driver’s eyes loomed large in his mirror when he realised the focus of my attention.


His meter was off.


I raised an eyebrow in true Sean Connery fashion, and glared back at the bodiless eyes floating in the centre of the windscreen. His hand groped across, flicked on the meter…and then re-adjusted the mirror to avoid my stare. I continued the journey in the centre seat watching him carefully, pretending that I knew where I was going.


…Which is precisely the problem with cab rides in strange cities: you usually have no idea where you are or whether you are indeed being led astray. I always request my destination authoritatively, try to act disinterestedly and watch my surroundings with a nonchalant detachment as though I’ve been there before. Otherwise, my excitement may betray my vulnerability. The fact is, I could be driven mad and wouldn’t know.


Except once in Cairo.


A group of us had split into two taxis one evening for a journey across town. I was sitting in the front seat of the first taxi and enjoying the hustle, bustle and organised anarchy of Cairo’s busy streets. We tooted and weaved our way around, narrowly missing dozens of sprinting pedestrians and playing chicken with over-crowded buses and exhaust-spewing trucks. Finally, we arrived at our destination. The driver reached down to the meter, looked at me and said:


“Sixty pounds.”


We’d just spent two weeks traversing Egypt in minivans, motor coaches, public buses, donkeys, camels, horse-drawn carriages, a felucca and a sleeper train…and during that time I had not only learned a great deal about ancient Egypt, Bedouins, Nubians and the current Middle East, but also half a dozen Arabic phrases and most conveniently, Arabic numbers.


I glanced at the meter and could see that the actual fare was considerably less than I had just been quoted.


“No, it’s 20 pounds.” I replied.


“Sixty pounds.” He reiterated gravely.


“No,” I responded again, pointing at the meter, “it says 20 pounds.”


With that, he burst into a wide smile and extended his hand to shake.


“You are very clever man. Twenty pounds.” he grinned.


I laughed, handed him 25 pounds and got out of the taxi just as our second vehicle pulled up.


“How much was yours?” my fellow traveller asked as he put away his wallet. Proudly adding: “I bargained mine down to 70 pounds.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Of Mosques, Minarets and Memories

18 06 2008

Nile night

The Upper Nile.

There is nothing more evocative than the call to prayer from a mosque. Nothing transports me quicker to narrow souks, humid evenings, dusty streets or fresh mornings than the sound of a muezzin’s hypnotic voice drifting through the air. Although heard in parts of London, Sydney or Toronto, it is a sound that for me will always be synonymous with wonderful travels, great experiences, new cuisine and the silhouettes of minarets dominating a simple skyline.


My first exposure came in Zanzibar as I walked through the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town. The call echoed from an unseen minaret, hidden by whitewashed homes and businesses and pulsing in the gentle sea breezes. Early the following morning, the call drifted between the wooden slats of my open window shutters and through the mosquito netting that covered my rustic four-poster bed, rousing me from my sleep.


In Egypt, from an unseen village it eased across the Nile like a gentle mist. Our felucca was moored to the bank of the life-giving river and we had settled down for the night. The Sahara, which swept away in either direction as far as the eye could see, had surrendered the extreme heat of the day leaving a slight chill rising from the water.  We were lying on the deck in our sleeping bags, watching the moon cast its spell across the tranquil river when the muezzin’s voice suddenly rose from nowhere. We listened in silence as the water gently lapped at our wooden hull.


Istanbul 1

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul


In Istanbul it competed with the rush of traffic. At street level, the minarets were hidden by skyscrapers and concrete office towers, but despite the cacophony of big city noise, the ancient call still cut through the din. Turning away from modern roads we wandered through the narrowing side streets. The sun had set and there was little light. Indistinguishable figures slipped past in the growing darkness while the call grew louder the further we ventured from the main thoroughfare. We turned a corner and a warm yellow light poured from the mosque’s doors as people hurried in for prayer. Glancing skyward, the minaret was a jet silhouette against the subtle deep blue glow of the surrounding city.


For the devoted, it is a call to prayer. For me, it is a call to exotic lands and rich memories.



Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008