Sunday, September 14, 2014

Breaking MAD

So there I was, finally on a BA A380. It's my third A380 trip of the year, the first two being Malaysian airlines from Paris to Kuala Lumpur in late Feb and Qantas from Sydney to London a couple of weeks later. They were a bit more auspcious than this, but nonetheless first impressions were good.

OK, yes, it's economy, but the legroom was again surprisingly OK. I didn't have any grief with my knees on either of the long hauls. Sure, the seat could be a bit wider but as previously mentioned I wasn't going to pay a £600 premium for that. More importantly, the inflight entertainment system is a world apart from the awful piece of crap on the 747. This was a fancy, accurate and responsive touch screen, a decent size, and with a correspondingly fancy remote (which I never once needed to use). This plane also had a bigger library of entertainment - more movies, more audio, and more episodes of the same TV shows. I dove straight back into Happy Valley and binged through the whole series, enjoying it immensely though finding the ending a bit meh.

A380 entertainment system. Woo.
The moving map service was also very fancy, and kept telling me we were going to arrive before 5am. My connection to Madrid was scheduled to leave at 6.20am with boarding closing at 6am, as tight as on the way out but the consequences of missing it a lot worse. I tried to put such thoughts out of my head as the food and booze arrived, a chicken curry served in - what the deuce? - not plastic! The cutlery was still plastic, but the dish itself was actually ceramic. In economy. Colour me surprised.

I made a note to also watch the Marco Pantani documentary that's based on the book I've read twice, and 21 Jump Street, a recommendation from August's random boozeathon in Birmingham. Midway through the former I was very properly nodding off, so decided to actually just try and get some sleep. I managed, but it was much worse quality than on the 747 on the way out. Once I decided to give up, and put the screen back on, things got even worse - I tried 5 times to watch 21 Jump Street but the in-flight system was rebooting every 30 seconds or so. Not just mine, everyone's - despite most people being asleep and with the screen off, the reboots were causing them to all come on with a splash screen before timing out. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Nothing was said about this by any of the crew's announcements at the end of the flight, and I'm going to frivolously complain to BA just to see if I can't wangle some bonus Avios.

At the end of the flight it had been fixed enough for me to catch another 3 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love Larry David. Breakfast of a cheese omelette with sausage arrived, and the moving map stuff was so detailed it even had the correct livery on the plane. I love that attention to detail.

Anyway, we ended up landing at about 5am and I'm already nervous. Sitting in the back of the plane wasn't sensible since I was always going to take a while to get out, but it didn't help that the entire section ahead of us was occupied by a group of youngsters who wouldn't know a sense of urgency if one came up to them and said, hello, I'm a sense of urgency. Fidgety Darren is fidgety.
Appetising breakfast is appetising.

We've landed at T5 satellite C, the furthest from the main terminal (aka A). There are flight connections desks in each part of T5 and monitors showing the gates for flights. I am, of course, flying from A. God damn it. My fellow passengers saunter very slowly and hinder expertly, and at the monorail I have to sprint to get in before the doors shut. We stop at B before A and there is confusion and we fill up. At A there are shitloads of people - super early doors is when a lot of red-eye A380s and B747s arrive. I'm really hoping not many of them are getting on another plane, and also that not many people topside are doing something so daft as to catch a 6am flight on a Sunday.

The first part is fine; the connection desks are as easy as on Friday night. Security is a different kettle of frogs, as very few scanners are operating and the queue I'm instructed to join is not moving. Neither is the conveyor belt. I'm staring at the big departure screen clock and it's 0535, and I'm stood behind what I estimate to be 25 people. And because two queues turn into one at the scanner, I'm feeling like I have a genuine chance of missing my flight.

And then, a miracle occurs. The second I step to the first dog leg of my queue, the conveyor next door opens up and I steal in, becoming 2nd person in the queue. I dump everything in a box and just as I'm about to get scanned I'm told to stop, because once again I'm behind Metal Mickey. A minute of patting him down and I'm allowed through, setting off no alarms. But my bag and stuff takes an age. This is a bag which has gone through x-ray machines about 6 times in the last 40 hours, I mean c'mon...

OK, Darren, relax. It's now 0545 and I'm through. I briefly think about going into the lounge but don't, instead searching for gate A5 immediately. It's the closest one to both where I'm standing and the lounge, as it happens.

Knowing that I am now actually going to make my flight, I check-in for my Madrid to London flight. To remind you: the main ticket I'm flying this weekend is the outbound leg of a Paris to Madrid ticket, which just happens to go via Johannesburg. Well, I need to get back from Madrid and so I bought a separate ticket for that. I have around 2 hours and 15 minutes between scheduled landing and departure, so if I'd missed my outbound I'd have been in real financial grief: BA would have kept their part of the deal and got me to Madrid, but I'd have been too late and that separate ticket is none of their business! So thank fuck I made it.

Obligatory exit-row-legroom shot
Talking of business, when I checked in my phone said "well now, before you do this, do you fancy upgrading to business? It's €109". Quick currency conversion and I'm thinking, yes, yes I fucking do. So I try, and it says "well you can't, unles you want to pay €389". Oh fuck off. That happens about 5 times as I hope and hope and hope for it being a glitch, but boarding starts so I check-in in economy and scowl a bit. Fuck you, BA! (Dear BA, I love you really)

At the plane I'm greeted by a steward who tells me I have the best seat on the plane with 27A, "and I don't say that to just anyone!". It is indeed a virtually-unlimited-legroom seat, being an exit row on a 767 (two aisles, even for short haul, dontcha know). I settle down, a seatmate arrives and goes immediately to sleep, and we set off.

I spend most of the flight writing the previous blog post. It's not an interesting flight, the most noteworthy part being the captain's description of the route being "and then we take a detour because we have to avoid some rich people's houses". There's no entertainment, it's 2.5 hours but there's only the tiniest of service - an orange juice and "sausage and tomato mayonnaise croissant" plus optional cup o'tea, no booze and not even a second service despite the length of time. C'mon BA, I've had 2 beers on a Manchester to London hop before!

For the last half hour, my seatmate is awake and we have a chinwag. He's heading to Madrid to work, and his work is jumping off mountains in them suits that make you fly. Wow. He's running this startup business in south Wales all about niche/adventure sports and I said I'd pimp it on my blog, even though (and I told him) I only have about 10 or 15 readers. So, you lot, see if Geckgo floats your boat. DISCLAIMER: I've barely looked at it, and the real full launch is the festival next April. Expect lots of rough edges, I think.

For my part, I explained to him what I was up to and he didn't seem particularly fazed. Good stuff. But saying it out loud did make it seem all a bit mad. I mean, madder than I already realise it is. I've just got off a flight from Johannesburg, changed onto a Madrid flight, and when in Madrid all I'm doing is ... getting on a plane back to London? Fucking behave.

Flyertalk had told me there is no security at Madrid airport if you arrive at Terminal 4S and are leaving from the same one. Sadly, this is not true, and there was a big queue 'n all. Nonetheless it was largely hassle free and the Iberia lounge was easy to find.

First impressions are that it was great. Airy, excellent views of the runways etc, lots of seats and food and booze. I found a seat fairly easily and got on the free wifi, which lasts half an hour only. Posted my blog and grabbed a diet coke and some salty stuff. That done, and falling offline, I went in search of more food and booze.

Hmm. The booze selection is actually pretty dire and I can't spot any beer. Most of the plates of food set out for breakfast are only good for dregs and I charitably assume things will improve as we are possibly at crossover o'clock, it being around 10.30am.

Things don't improve. I find beer at the very opposite end of the lounge - it's largely a mirror image with reception in the middle, but the far end also has a big wine selection and some showers. The beer is a Spanish brand of which I've never heard before, and the can is passable enough. The whole lounge is now very busy and seats are at a premium.

I decide to pay for internet. This is a mistake. The signup process is horrifically broken and it takes me three attempts and two browsers to finally make a payment, only for the "congrats, you're online" redirect to fail and I've ended up spending €5.50 on fuck all. So instead, I go back to reception and ask for another half hour free and they happily give me that, but the username and password first doesn't work and second time does the same as my paid attempt. Third time works though, and I waste my half hour seething and not really doing much else.

I grab a second beer, a bottled sort of Lite stuff. It's not calorie free nor alcohol free, it's a mere 3.5%. And it is fucking disgusting. The plates of food are still pretty ropey and I get some unsatisfactory salmon, cheese and ham. Bleh. Unhappy with everything I pack my bag up and go to at least find a better seat. The lounge is now heaving with people seated on floors, all sense of calm or separation from the riffraff now gone and the place basically being a bad self-service Wetherspoons.

The sixth of six.
I just about manage to grab a seat that someone is vacating as I pass. It's comfortable enough such that, combined with my now vastly apparent tiredness, I fall asleep. This is bad. It's only about 40 minutes 'til my flight and if I miss it I am in as much schtuck as if the inbound had been late after all. So I get up and go to the loo, which finishes off my dissatisfaction by having only 3 urinals and a long queue. Fuck this, I leave and go into the main terminal. It's less crowded, and there are more loos.

I stop briefly at the vending machines selling electronics, including €799 for an iPhone 5S. That's some vending machine! But before I know it I'm at my gate, people are already boarding and I go straight to seat 15D, my only aisle seat of the trip. There had been no window seats available and as with every plane so far, almost, the thing is rammed. The middle seat is occupied by a commuting member of cabin crew, in uniform.

As with the outbound, this is a mediocre flight. Only one service run, I have a beer and the chicken sandwich. There is no choice, and those who ask for something vegetarian are largely denied food because they only loaded 5 of that choice. The couple of hours pass uneventfully and at Heathrow I have my worst arrival experience for a long time.

First, get a remote stand, so have to wait for buses to take us to the terminal. It's raining as I walk across the tarmac. In the terminal building the hinderers are out in force and we have arrived at the same time as two other planes next to us. Immigration is as busy as I've ever seen it, even the queue for the e-passport gates is long and people at the front are failing to cope with the staggeringly simple instructions (wait to be told, do as told, leave booth). Grargh.

Baggage reclaim is a zoo despite me not even needing it, and at customs there are 6 different people having their goods examined. I overhear one "so, all these cigarettes are for personal use?". Heh. Landside I source diet coke and an egg-based sandwich and get the tube to Hatton Cross. Citymapper tells me an X26 is due in 5 minutes to I eschew the rammed 285, and the X26 takes another half hour to arrive. But I get a seat and don't sleep past my stop; at Kingston three different people ask me if they've missed the X26 and I have to deliver the bad news to them. But then, just before 4pm and the Man Utd vs QPR game, I'm at home and on my sofa.

Truth told the whole thing was much less horrific than I expected. The uber-snob in me was dreading the thought of all those miles in economy given my usual travel habits, but a man's gotta earn miles somehow and y'know what, that's perfectly doable down the back. Sure it's physically punishing, but I've just done back-to-back red-eye long hauls with 4 short hauls bookending them and no proper sleep, no time spent horizontal, and I'm totally in one piece and had a whale of a time. Good job too, since I repeat it (except with added brutality) in reverse in a couple of weeks' time :)

The final tally: 52 hours out of my flat, 6 flights, 5 airports, 4 lounges, 4 countries, and 13233 miles travelled. When the tier points hit, I should move up to the Bronze tier in BA's scheme, and the Avios earned get me that much closer to a future business or first class leg for which I've got a much less take-for-granted appreciation now. Huzzah!

Jozi does it

The sun just came up. I'm staring at a visibly lightening sky out of the window from seat 27a on a soon-to-depart flight from London to Madrid, having just changed from my flight back from Johannesburg. Getting quite tired now.

I of course knew what I was going to do in Joburg yesterday. I'd booked a sightseeing bus tour in advance, and knew how to get there. Research, I had it. What I hadn't realised is that the Joburg Gautrain system would be so ... I dunno. The train was nice, and there were guards (though with no arms, unlike the hordes of scowling machine gun toting folk in Paris. Why look so miserable if you have a gun?). The scrolling display seemed to be saying stuff in 4 languages and it was a short 12 minute ride to Sandton, where it terminated and a slow moving mass of people made getting up the escalator hard work.

I was changing onto the service to Park, only another two or three stops. Each line only has half hourly services and they aren't timetabled to meet one another, so I had another 20 minute wait. Picked a spot with one of those half-bench things and spent most of the 20 minutes constantly adjusting my stance as the platform surface was so shiny and slippery that my feet kept moving forward involuntarily.

I was really starting to feel it now. I hadn't had a diet coke (no drinks on the Gautrain) and I'm on the verge of passing out from tiredness. A few of my blinks on the train to Park lasted at least a minute. So when I emerged, I spotted the bus tour office but went straight past it, looking for an ATM. I found hundreds. Drew out, er, I forget how many rand. A few hundred. And then went back to the office, exchanging my print out for a proper ticket, headphones for the audio guide, and a timetable and map. They said a colleague would collect all the tourists from just outside the office, and I nipped into the little shop next door to get a diet coke.

When I emerged, they'd all fucked off without me. Bastards. I spotted them and power walked to catch them up, and plonked my dishevelled arse on the concrete at the stop. The bus arrived within 5 minutes and on I got.

I'd already examined the route beforehand and kinda knew what I wanted to do, though as usual plans changed once reality bit. For a start, I was much later than expected - on the 1130 bus when I'd hoped to be on the 1030 or even 1000. Plus I was way way more tired than I thought I would be. But, most importantly, the guide told me that one of the attractions was not open on Sundays. Yesterday was Saturday, and my next trip is on a Sunday. So, am I interested in the thing I can only do today?

That thing was called SAB World of Beer. What do you think?

The tour is very good. The audio is clear and loud and explains things at perfect times. Joburg city centre is not pretty but it is very interesting. We drive around the main shopping and business districts first, going past masses of hawkers and shops and some giant mass of people shouting at each other about something. On every corner the bins, lamp posts, and newspaper holders are plastered with stickers advertising penis enlargement or "safe and 30 minutes" or "safe and pain free" abortions, with no other information save for a mobile number. Yeesh.
Gold Reef City

There are government buildings and our first stop is Gandhi Square, a big bus terminal with some restaurants and a statue of Gandhi. He lived in Siffrica for years and developed his philosophy of peaceful resistance after being subjected to shitloads of racism in the first 14 years of the 1900s. I'm learning stuff. Lots of stuff. I didn't realise the city was less than 130 years old, founded entirely on the discovery of gold which caused a rush everyone expected to be temporary.

They are very proud of their new bus lanes.

We go past the faded glory of some old private members club with, apparently, the longest bar in Africa? I think. I dunno. I've just written down "longest bar". Then, some bricked up buildings which until recently were hijacked by gangsters and scenes of mad violence and shit. We are still in the middle of the city yet these look like the places Louis Theroux made his documentary on.

The whole tour does nothing to hide anything unsavoury about Joburg's present or past, nor is it excessively contrite. Dispassionate and factual but enthusiastic about the good shit, like our next stop, the tallest building in Africa. It's 50 storeys tall and, y'know what, I got over altitude tourism back in 2006.

Good god, I still felt so tired. The diet coke was having some effect but I was still thinking that maybe next time I'll just get a day room in an airport hotel.

There's no stop #4 on the tour. Not that we miss it out, it just doesn't exist, on the map or anywhere. Uh. So we head out if the centre to the next place, changing within one block to shanty shacks and industrial units. We're told that no one knows which of three Johans the city is named after, and a lot more about gold. Hills rise up and these are mine dumps, land made out of stuff extracted from the mines further out and also used in apartheid years as a boundary between white and black areas. They only recently added grass and trees, prior to that the city was constantly subject to dust storms from these things.

It's quite a drive to the next stop, the transport museum - past "Santarama miniland" which has nothing to do with Christmas. Also musical fountains and a lovely lake and park. The transport museum is on my list, for next time.

Soweto is a big place. 4 million people live there. At stop #6 there is the chance to get on a separate tour to go there, but I'd chosen not to. It's at a gaudy casino complex (winners know when to stop) called Gold Reef City where there is also a bona fide mine shaft you can go down. I stretched my legs as the bus takes a break, took a couple of photos but couldn't be bothered actually going inside because the security was stricter than at the airport, and my pockets were full of all kinds of crap. Joburg loves gambling - in the city I'd seen a preposterously large bookmaker, and we also drove past a race track. On the road just outside the entrance to the casino was a 24 hour pawnbroker and loan shark. Oh dear.

Back on the bus and to the Apartheid museum. This is the tour's big gun, but you need 2 hours and I don't have it. Also, World of Beer. So we drive back to the city via some more knowledge - the whole Joburg metropolitan area is 4 times the size of greater London, it's the world's biggest non-waterside city, and is 1700m above sea level.

Wait, what? Honestly I'd never looked that up and had no idea. No wonder I'm feeling so fucked.
the old Park station platforms

The drive back to the city was not visually appealing, except for Soccer City being a camouflaged stadium. But soon we are back in the thick of things, touring the mining district and then Newtown, home to World of Beer.

I didn't get off. Bleurgh. We went past the entrance and stopped around two corners and were already a few minutes late. No one else was getting off, and anyway the tour was 75 minutes and started on the hour - and it was now 1310. So, bollocks, I'll do almost the full circuit and get off at stop 12.

First, we cross a bridge named after some Mandela bloke and over top of about 100 trains in a yard, plus a wrought iron platform structure moved from the old Park station when it was redeveloped into the non-segregated fancy terminus it now is. On the other side we drive around the university district and past the origin centre, a museum of humanity's history - in tandem with the Cradle of Humankind a few miles outside the city, where the earliest hominid fossils have been found.
Local lager for visiting people

And then, Braamfontein. The map said this had Joburg's oldest pub but the audio guide said it was the second oldest. That'd do. It was a hipster and student district and really there was a lot going on, Kitchener's, the aforementioned pub, was busy but not so bad that I couldn't get a stool at the bar. Three attempts at getting them to understand the word "lager" failed, but "Castle" worked. This used to be my favourite lager in the world, and I had shitloads of it at £1/bottle back in uni days.

There was rugby on the TV, then premiership football, then rugby, then football, as different people kept asking (by shouting at the staff) for it to be switched over. Eventually rugby won out until the match finished and was replaced by Arsenal vs Man City. In the second room, to my left, there was a breathy female singer songwriter belting out her tunes and she was really very good. Not sure about her cover of Don't Worry, Be Happy, but the other clientele loved it and sang along. Also, people were smoking indoors and I'd forgotten how weird a thing that is nowadays. On the walls are bank notes from around the world and I spot a fantastic Zimbabwean $50,000,000 bill.

I observed the tipping regime as numerous rounds of "black label" were ordered over my shoulder. Carling, not Johnnie Walker. Do we even still call it Carling Black Label in the UK? My second beer was ordered just by pointing and the bar is getting ever rowdier - it's about 2pm and people are having chasers, double sized tequila slammers, and endless lager. I feel at home despite the lack of Guinness. A huge smile comes out as I am absurdly proud of myself for coming up with "don't hemisphere the reaper".

Actually, I feel a bit drunk, certainly after the third beer. These are 340ml bottles - I have had less to drink the whole trip so far than on pretty much any single flight of my last holiday - but the tiredness, altitude, and lack of food are all conspiring like a posse of illuminati IMF Bilderbergers to weaken my mind and body. I decide to forego a fourth, and also that it's too late to order food in the bar, and walk back to stop 12. While waiting for the late bus I watch a team of breakdancers breakdancing without music.

The last stop between Braamfontein and Park is Constitution Hill, full of prisons and brutalist architecture, and an eternal flame of democracy.

At Park, I'd spotted in the morning "King of Pies" and since I was so hungry, resolved to go there. But then I remembered the Gautrain being a bit shit, timewise, and that you can't eat or drink on it. So fuck it, down i went and sure enough, a ten minute wait there followed by a 15 minute wait at Sandton.

This whole time, I've been without communication. In most countries I've been to this year I could find wifi, or even use free data roaming. In South Africa I couldn't even send text messages. I could receive them, but not reply. And as I arrived back at OR Tambo airport I got one from Ian, asking if I'd made it safely to SA.

As it happens, I got back to the airport exactly 3 hours before my flight, which was exactly what I wanted. I was yet to checkin - more code share grief - so set off to find the desks. Now, in the morning I had arrived at terminal B, so that's where I headed. The BA desks were easy to find, and they turned me away. Apparently these were for BA's domestic South African flights only, and for London I had to return to terminal A. Groundhog Day from Orly. Sigh.

At the proper BA desk I'm shunted for no reason to the business class desk despite not wielding my card. I ask if it's possible to buy an upgrade, because I quite fancied a bit more space and I know someone else on this ticket got offered premium economy for £125, business class for £749. She says, yes, upgrades are available - for 9999 rand, I've no currency converter but some arithmetic using the figure Chris had told me in the morning led me to believe this was about £560-600. And that's just for upgrading to premium economy? Yes. Right, well bollocks to that then.

I'm given my boarding passes all the way to Madrid, reminding me that my connection at Heathrow is tight as fuck. Immigration and security are a chaotic mess and boarding for my 1905 flight starts at 1805 - it is, after all, an A380 - so I eventually make it into the BA lounge at about 1720, way later than I wanted. I'd noted that somehow my BA Executive Club number had disappeared from the booking so once again played the "this card gets me in, that card earns me miles" game at reception.

Oh, a shower and change of clothes. How great did that feel. I was surprisingly not smelling that much anyway, but nonetheless felt so so much better after using the facilities.  The shower unit itself was great, with about 8 nozzles at various places as well as the main head. I felt pretty invigorated afterwards and realised that my earlier feeling of dread towards this flight - for fucks sake, back to back overnights in economy! - had been replaced by anticipation. I was looking forwards to it!

The good mood was temporary as I stressed myself out in the lounge. Found a seat and grabbed a plate full of food, and a beer, and set to work blogging. The wifi was frustratingly unreliable, booting me off every 30 seconds or so on both iPhone and iPad. I'd spent the whole day offline and incommunicado and wanted to at least reply to Ian, as well as post to here, and I just about fitted it in (between extra trips to the free buffet and fridge) - plus the stupid AFC Wimbledon result came through - before boarding was announced.

The gate was very close and boarding was already in full swing. I walked on and was a bit disappointed that you board directly to the correct deck. It's a beatiful double decker beast, the A380, though won't ever be as pretty as the 747, but you don't go upstairs (or downstairs). In fact, I didn't even see a stairwell.

Again I'd picked a seat in a double rather than triple section, back in row 82. A window seat with extra storage cabinets at my side, I plonked in, my seatmate this time being a young lad with no mobility problems. Maybe I'd be able to have a piss on this flight?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Don't hemisphere the reaper

Admit it, that's a cracking title.

So I was in Orly ouest and actually kinda sorta hoping my flights were going to get messed up, as it seemed they might. And what happens? Suddenly, it's on time again. The 9-going-on-16 minute delay has evaporated and it's now almost 7pm, I'm just starting a new (admittedly 250ml, fun size) beer and in a lounge in the wrong hall. Necked it, abruptly ended my conversation with Ian and fucked off to hall 3.

Hall 3 seems to actually only have a departures area leading to one gate number, my 31. But, of course, split A-D. Pretty much the second I am through security, priority boarding is announced and roughly half a plane full of people queue up. It's not hard for that to be legit. I join in, it moves verrrry slowly and after a while they decide to split it between business class, and priority due to shiny card but seated in economy. I shift to the latter and it moves even slower than before, so I just give up and go to the loo.

By the time I return, the four or five people directly in front of me when I bailed still hadn't reached the front, but the business class queue was empty and general boarding was announced. I strolled up to business and said "I can get on here with my sapphire card right?" and was indeed right. Queue successfully jumped.

The plane is absolutely heaving full. Despite being on time we leave late after some boarding hassles, and the taxi is short but slow. I dick around with hyperlapse before we are airborne and a sub-CityJet service commences. Maybe that's unfair: I did get beer. But the food was a single shortbread that paled against the chocolate.
CHEMTRAILS
We make good time but there are evil chemtrails everywhere, plus we're rewarded by having to circle over Biggin Hill for a bit. We eventually touch down at about 2000.  My next flight supposedly closes its doors at 2100 and this is perilously close to being an inadvisably - maybe even impossibly - short connection.

It was a long walk to flight connections. I made good time and was waved straight through. Up the escalators and I'm in a very short security queue, which goes static for 5 minutes because apparently Metal Mickey is ahead of us and anyway one of the scanner scanners wants to go on a break. Through, I consult the board and see I'm departing from a B gate, in the satellite. I'm not sure I can get worthwhile lounge time in T5 main so head to the transit monorail thing, surrounded by about 4 other passengers and 80-odd flight and cabin crew.

I reach the B satellite and find gate 35 to be immediately next door to the lounge. It's about 2035. Fuck it, I'm staving and want to change my shirt - so in I go, with a nod and a wink from the lass on the desk as I waved my Cathay card at her. Collecting miles on one card while using another for privileges like lounge access and boarding always takes a bit of "I know I'm allowed this, y'know..." sweet talking.

In, changed, found a space to sit, got a beer and a bowl full of quiche and chilli and beans and just loads of stuff at once. It was lovely and sorely needed, as was the water, but before I'd finished any of them boarding was open. Lounge time: 8 minutes? Long enough for a trip to the Vatican I reckon.

I could see my bird from my seat, a once glorious queen of the skies now showing its age inside and out. Not that I was inside yet. The exact same scenario as at Orly played out - joined fast track, it was slow, went to the loo, came back and waltzed on. This time, general boarding was announced for the rearmost rows in economy the second I walked through, which gave me a useful head start. I properly bombed it down the back toward the carefully chosen seat for maximum goodness on this flight, 51B.

51B is one of the window seats without a seat A next to it, as the fuselage narrows at the very back. Instead there is extra storage and sideways legroom. Expert Flyer had told me the flight was busy but no one had picked the seat next to me, so I strode triumphantly down the aisle and found...someone in 51C. A very old woman who had been escorted on first and couldn't really even get up to let me in. I nipped round via row 52.

So now I'm thinking, I hope I don't need the loo at all. I ask the nearby cabin attendant if we are busy tonight and he says we are full. So it proves - we depart late after another load of boarding issues, and lukewarm arguments about hand baggage placement. I bask in my space and then get angry when I discover I've lost a bud off my headphones.

BA's old economy cabins really are pretty dire compared to a lot of places, let alone a lot of what I've experienced this year, but hey, as I always tell those who ask me: one of the best ways to earn a lot of miles redeemable for fancy business and first class is to actually fly. This here Iberian mistake is a prime way to earn a raft of miles down the back, aka a "mileage run" which we Englanders are short of compared to them across the pond.
This is not a large screen. Also my fingernails are grim.

That said, I'm pleasantly surprised by the legroom - better than I remember from the unblogged Dallas to Heathrow trip last May - and the entertainment system seems to be gate-to-gate so before we take off, I start watching the movie Frank.

After we take off, I start Frank again, because I am forced to. For whatever reason, the creepily voiced safety video (I swear they've had it redone with someone more disconcerting than the last lass) causes everything to start again. I try and find my spot about 20 minutes in, and after another 90 seconds the whole system goes away again. It says I'm allowed to listen to broadcast stuff, but that also seems to be a lie.

Drinks! Beer, please. Food! Chicken or veg? I take the chicken, a bland thing in a plastic dish topped by scalding hot tin foil. There's also a bread roll and some kind of dessert mousse. Aware of my probable inability to visit the loo for the next 10 hours I don't overdo liquids.

Frank is pretty good. Not remotely what I expected. The size of the TV was very very small, and what's more my viewing angle was slightly skewiff because my companion needed the whole armrest. I hum a reworded version of Wonk Unit's "Elbows" to myself.

I'm not being mean about her. Fair play to her for travelling. She didn't have the strength to open her plastic quarter bottle of wine and so asked me to do it, and couldn't lift her aisle armrest without help. Very old, very frail, yet still gallivanting and on the sauce. Briefly I think a "you slily bastard" thought in my dad's direction as I wish he'd done the fucking same.

As far as I could tell from a brief visual survey, the first person to recline their seat was the person in 50B, directly in front of me. All flight the row kept reclining, straightening, reclining, straightening. The old girl next to me several times had the tray table dug shoved unceremoniously into her midriff as she leant forward to try and eat with some elegance. They were the height of inconsideration IMO. The window guy opened his shade and brought dazzling sunshine onto about 9 people 2 hours before the whole cabin was awake too. Sigh.

I thought, fuck it, let's see how sleep works here. And y'know what? It works pretty well. I was using my own headphones, which cancel noise much better than the flimsy leaky crap supplied by BA. I put on a playlist of "all the instrumental 'well being' stuff" and had around 4 hours of honestly not terrible quality sleep. There were a lot of interruptions, and a flat bed it most assuredly was not, but it was fine. I often get by with just 4 hours at home too.
Dinner is served

Watched a couple of Familiar Guy episodes, slept a bit more, then caught 3 episodes of a Rhys Darby vehicle called Short Poppies. Curbed my enthusiasm, and ate breakfast - an omelette and, bravely, a cup of tea. No disaster this time. Started on Happy Valley which I liked a lot.

And then, we were at Johannesburg. Landed at 0901 and 51C said she was hanging around but would try and let me out - I assured I her I was in no hurry.

Thing is, I was in a bit of a hurry. Dear lord was I ever busting. After walking through a 747 that now resembled a war zone I stumbled through the unfamiliar surroundings of JNB, failing to spot a loo until right at Immigraton. Upon my emergence, the queue for non-locals was massive; I got on wifi, as there's no data roaming or even outbound SMS support in siffrica, and found Chris online on Facebook messenger. I got him to tell me the exchange rate and otherwise gave him a load of spoilers for this before my half hour allowance ran out just as I reached the front of the queue.

They ask you to take your glasses off even before you approach the desk. Huh. And I was asked what the purpose of my visit was. Um, purpose...? "In transit until tonight" was a satisfactory answer and, hello, country 49!

There were a lot of bureaux de change by baggage reclaim, and no ATMs. I had hoped I could get away without withdrawing any cash but I was very desperate for diet caffeine so really wanted some. I didn't see any landside in the terminal either, anywhere between where I came out and the Gautrain station. By now I was understandably as bit worried, in case of Hong Kong style machines which don't accept cards. As it happens, there are 6 card accepting machines at the station and only one person using any, but a queu about 8 strong at the counter. I figure it can't be so hard to use the machine that all these people had to queue up and... I'm right. The machine is easy. I am cashless but in possession of a shiny new gold card, and only 28 minutes until my train into Central Johannesburg. It's 1001, so 9 hours until my flight. What to do?

Friday, September 12, 2014

I don't know where I'm going, but I sure know where I've been

Whee, I'm in an airport lounge necking free booze again. Yay! Been here about half an hour, got, I dunno, 75 minutes left? Though maybe more. Who knows. Right now the only thing I can say with some certainty is that I'm sitting in the Iberia/Melia "Salon VIP", a landside lounge at Paris Orly terminal ouest, waiting for a flight to London. Though, uh, not just London...

Oh, Iberia. The foolish fools. In November 2013, someone made a mistake. They put a fare up for sale for Paris to Madrid return, around £300. That's about the right price. It had to be on Iberia flights - not Iberia planes, but you had to book onto an IB number even if the plane was BA's. And someone forgot to activate the "but nothing fucking stupid" clause present in the rules governing most tickets.

So.

I bought a ticket from Paris to Madrid, return. And my outbound route is: Paris to London to Johannesburg to London to Madrid. Now, what the fare rules do not allow is for a passenger to stop more than 24 hours somewhere, and so consequently I am doing this all in the space of 40 hours or so.

And it's all in economy.

And that's why I'm now in Paris. Here's how I got here.

I flew from London City airport. Despite my office being roughly halfway between my flat and LCY, the journey time is similar, so I opted to work from home this morning, so I didn't waste time commuting - by wfh I could (and did) start at 8am to get a proper half day in. I have every idea when I became so diligent; I really fucking like my current job.

Come 1145 I was still working, in my pyjamas, and had just had it pointed out to me that I'd misremembered my flight time. It wasn't 1435, it was 1415. Shit! Lightning shower and got dressed, shoved a few shirts and pants into a bag, got my passport and print out and fucked off out.

I don't normally like to print much out. I'd prefer to keep everything on my phone, but I'd been unable to check in for my BA/IB flights with a message about the ticket needing reissue or revalidation, though BA customer services had reassured me everything was fine but the code share was confusing things. Just go to the airport, it'll be fine... easy to say, but "the airport" is in a different country on the end of a single ticket. Still, in for a penny.

Out of the house just after midday, onto the 1208 express to Waterloo, onto the jubilee, some frustration at Canning Town (scene of numerous failsome episodes in my recent life) and finally a DLR to City Airport - I'm through security - after some epic queue jumping, the guy getting really pissed off when told he had to get behind the 3 people he'd stolen in front of - and at the bar by 1pm. That is pretty fucking good going right there.

The bar was not pretty good going. My flight was with CityJet, a low cost spin off from Air France and KLM, on a ticket purchased only in July. Truth is when I booked the main trip I honestly thought Iberia or BA would go, ok, well done, you found a mistake - you can't fly it, you have to go direct to Madrid. Or they'd just cancel it. But, no, they've honoured them all - even the ones where people went to Singapore or Sydney. But by the time I'd twigged that I was definitely going ahead, all the mile-earning BA flights were too expensive and so CityJet it was, hence no lounge but instead the bar, "The City".

£5.50 for a fucking rotten Guinness. Bollocks to doing that again.

Meet the Fokker
Boarding opened so I walked down to gate 22, the first of the four, ordered 22, 21, 24, 23. What? At the gate the guy in front of me's boarding pass did the bad beep thing. The lass at the desk spent a couple of minutes searching for a pen and failing to find one, though it wasn't obvious until she asked "anyone got a pen?" and of course I did for my incessant note taking. So she borrowed it and asked to keep it until everyone was through. Ok. I have a spare anyway. But I thought about reacting like the "my pen! my pen!" guy from Kids In The Hall briefly.

My boarding pass also did the bad beep thing. The few times this has happened before have been because I was either getting an upgrade, or my chosen seat had broken inflight entertainment. But this is slow cost carrier with neither possibility. Furthermore I'd been the very first person to check in for this flight, sequence number 001, and there's only about 30 people here. What the fuck? Why can't I sit in 2A?

When my pass had been rejected, the guy behind me did an epic tut and then started mouthing off about me using my phone as a boarding pass, complaining about modern technology being as good as old school paper. Modern technology? Mate, you're about to GET ON A FUCKING PLANE. A big metal box travelling very bloody fast IN THE AIR in comfort and safety. How's that for modern technology? How about you just walk and swim to Paris? Ffhs.

My new pass had a revised boarding time of 1351 (from 1345) on it. It was already 1358. Some of us notice these things.

Anyway. Boarding started, and we were invited to walk down the stairwell labelled "pedestrians use the handrail", as if anyone other than pedestrians use the stairs here. A short walk across the Tarmac to the 6-high steps onto a tiny prop Fokker 50 and I see "CityJet premium" adornments on the first row, in which some heavily pinstriped men are getting comfortable. I guess that's what counts as business class.

Meanwhile in row 3a I am very pleased indeed. I have a great view of the left propeller, no one sitting next to me, and more legroom than BA's European business class - possibly even more than that Singapore airlines flight from Colombo last month. It's fantastic.

The woman from the gate comes onboard, and hands me my pen back. Behind her a man with a clipboard shouts "Mr FOREMAN!" at me, and I say "yes?. He responds "OK" and fucks off. People stare. I am bemused.

Doors lock and a propeller fires up. On the right. Not on the left. Aren't they both meant to be going? A couple of minutes later and they are, as are we all. It's a lovely day with great views of London and the Thames estuary, then Kent and the very very tip of Southeast England. At cruising altitude I am surprised that free snacks are given out, though hardly anything - I opt for an out of character cup of tea, and a frankly delicious Belgian chocolate.

The stewardess places my stuff on the table in front of the empty seat next to me, but I transfer it to my own table which I place in the slightly higher position than that one.  A few seconds later my folly is revealed as disaster strikes: my table jolts down to the one and only true, lower position, and the tea goes all over the show, with a huge patch on my right leg looking just like I've pissed myself.
SE England. Literally.

I laugh out loud. What a dick. Wonderfully, I realise I forgot to pack a pair of shorts - my only changes are shirts and underwear, with my jeans meant to last me 48 hours (not my design, but by idiocy). And now I'm sat with a big wet stain on me. The tea, mercifully, was piss weak and I hadn't added milk, nor was it remotely hot. But, for fucks sake Darren.

The rest of the flight is unassuming. There are no more liquids for me to have mishaps with, and the views of coastal and inland France are great. I have a fantastic sight of the Eiffel Tower as we approach Orly and think back to how right I am about Gatwick being a shit airport for London, because passengers don't get the "wow, look at London!" thing as they fly over Sussex. We land at 1640 local time, on time.
I've never been to Paris Orly before. I know two things: that I have to check in at a desk, and that the Iberia lounge is landside. As I am 3hrs before my flight and it's a busy place, my flight isn't on the monitors yet. I can't see any Iberia or BA desks, but there are earlier Iberia flights where check in is in Hall 1. I am in Hall 3.

Hall 1 is a bit of a trek, not least due to unfamiliar surroundings. But I find it, and the Iberia desks have no queues. I stroll up and he asks if I'm going to Madrid. Well, yes, sort of... but no, London. London? We don't fly to London. You need BA. They are in Hall 3. Grargh!

Back to hall 3 and a bit deeper in, I find the BA desks. Again, no queue. I hand him my passport. "Sir, you are flying from Paris to London, London to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to London, London to Madrid?" I asked, each clause said slower than the last and with a corresponding raise of the eyebrows. I thought he was going to strain them. "Uh, yes, that's right" I say. He looks astonished. And then he checks me in and gives me two boarding passes, one to London and one to Johannesburg.

He also says my BA number isn't in my booking, and should it be? Well fuck yes it should be, one of the main points of doing this is that it's a comparatively cheap way to earn almost 30,000 avios which I can spend on a less punishing...ok, who am I kidding, an equally punishing but more comfortable trip in the future. So he fixes it up, and then confirms I can use my other shiny card to get into the lounge. Which is, of course, back in hall fucking 1. 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, and the flight goes from gate 31. Enough already!

Aaaand that's where we came in. I'm waiting to start this preposterous ticket, looking forward to a trip in economy at the back of a dilapidated 747 to a country where people shoot people. But am I actually going? Officially, I have 1h20m between flights at Heathrow this evening, and I think the minimum legal connection time is 50 minutes. Last I heard, my flight from here is 16 minutes late...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

All The Way Home

Oh good lord my sofa is so so comfortable. Shame my living room lights have gone tonto again. And, for fucks sake, I was going to call this post "Singapore sling your hook" but upon searching to see how common a phrase that is I discover that I used it on here in 2006. Damn it!

So anyway, I wandered up to the gate in Colombo airport, which had a single security checkpont for two flights leaving very close, timewise, to one another. There seemed to be a bit of a panic on as someone was walking along the line shouting "anyone travelling on Singapore Airlines?".

I'm flying Singapore Airlines. This is the most ridiculous ticket of the whole itinerary, one "bought" using miles purchased during a half price promotion from a Colombian airline's frequent flyer scheme, put towards a "part miles part cash" purchase. Singapore Airlines business class seats are really really hard to find available with miles from other airlines, and Sri Lanka to Singapore to London is not remotely direct. But somehow I managed to find spaces which fit my dates perfectly and guaranteed my last leg would be on the very latest iteration of their long haul business class seats. Huzzah!

But first, my connecting flight. The family in front of me made a fucking huge meal of getting through the x-ray machine and having zero awareness that there might be someone else behind them that isn't quite so rubbish at it. On the plane I was warmly greeted by name and escorted to my seat. It wasn't an awful seat, but not comparable to the other services I've been on (Gatwick-Jersey and v.v. notwithstanding). The legroom is more than acceptable for a daytime flight but this is a red-eye from hell: my first eastbound flight, departing at 0120 and landing at 0740 (local times) but only taking 3 hours and 20 minutes. So really no time for any proper sleep, especially on a seat that doesn't turn into a bed. Curse you, regional SQ equipment!

The staff were so so friendly the whole time. A pre-flight chamapagne arrived and then the cabin rounds were done, in an order which looked random so I assume was done on the basis of frequent flyer status etc. I was asked last, the questions being "what do you want to drink after take off, and will you be wanting to eat?". Champagne, and no.

I intended to try and sleep but then, par for the course, chose not to, instead watching 3 episodes of Family Guy and then a film called Pi. My mind wandered quite a lot as my brain deemed it appropriate to ruminate on everything, enumerating the things I get out of a manic trip like this and pondering whether I needed to justify it to myself, let alone anyone else. I don't remember coming to any conclusions as I kinda nodded off.

There was no amenity kit beyond a weird pair of hybrid flight socks and slippers, which I didn't bother using. After Pi I watched a terrible documentary called Dangerous Journeys, and then OH MY GOD, an episode of classic 70s racist British sitcom Mind Your Language! I wholeheartedly enjoy the festival of accents and stereotypes and appallingness.

Arrived at Singapore to what the captain said was a "surprising" 23c, and absolute pissing rain. I had 5 hours 'til my last hurrah, a long haul Singapore Airlines flight in business class - something I've been trying to get on for years and years, I even had such a flight booked 5 years ago but ended up cancelling in appalling circumstances. Very very excited to finally be trying it out.

But, yeah, 5 hours to kill. We'd landed at T2 and I was flying from T3 so, first, a monorail trip. These are rubbish in bad weather. The SilverKris lounge is at the complete opposite end of the terminal, a good 20 minute walk made a few seconds longer and blood pressure points higher by the expert hinderer stopping dead at the top of the escalator in front of me. Twat.

The lounge is massive, elegant, has utterly giant flatscreen TVs dotted around the place and a very big food buffet. It's about 9am by the time I've picked a spot and plugged my phone in and I crack on with a giant breakfast plate and a diet coke, followed by a second somewhat smaller plate. I chat by SMS with Chris, the man who I've managed to talk to the most since he's almost always awake in the middle of the night, the unemployed arse. (Someone give him a job, in Nottingham, preferably involving lots of travel?)
Singapore Airlines SilverKris business class lounge, Singapore T3
Soon I had an itch to scratch, and went to get a champagne. You have to ask a member of staff for it, so that's exactly what I did and she brought a glass to me. With still 2.5 hours to kill and fuck all to do, I find a dodgy stream of WWE Monday Night Raw and watch that, interrupting only to pour myself a Tiger lager from the self-service tap into a lovely frosted glass. But other than that my lounge time is spent lounging.

My boarding pass said boarding time was 1215 for my 1245 departure. I was in a Singapore Airlines lounge and expected boarding calls but only ever heard last calls, so after Raw finished I set off for the gate and spotted "last call" on the monitors. Eek! But, for fucks sake, how have I STILL not learnt that this means fuck all? I arrive at gate A12 and boarding hasn't even started yet.

However, there is pretty much nowhere to sit. I just about find a perch only for first and business class boarding to be announced, so I walk onto the plane - there are no desks to show the pass to, no-one doing any kind of checks, just a few people get up and head onto the plane. This strikes me as very bizarre, that there's nothing to stop a stampede. Huh.

For the first time this whole trip, I have to walk through a cabin better than the one in which I'm flying. The AA flight last Tuesday had a first class cabin but I didn't get to see it. But now I am instantly jealous because Singapore's first looks incredible. I swear their TVs are almost as big as the one I have at home.

However, Singapore's business is also very fucking decent. The seat looks at first glance to have similar or even more room than that Qantas or Cathay first class seats, though I discover as soon as I sit down to take the obligatory legroom photo that, actually, my stumpy 5'9" legs reach the wall in front of me. Whoa. But it's wide - the overall "suite" effect is quite nice, being a much squarer space than the other seats I've been in.
There is loads of storage space, loads of slots to plug stuff into including power, USB and, bizarrely, HDMI. The seat is comfortable and I'm super-eager to use the inflight entertainment system but it's not turned on until we take off. A member of staff introduces themselves to me, refers to me by name and asks to confirm that they're pronouncing my surname properly. They also bring me a champagne, of course. I'm gobsmacked that I - the heavily ginger bearded scruffy dishevelled bloke in shorts and a grindcore band t-shirt - am far from the least business-classily dressed person in the cabin when the seat across the aisle is occupied by a bloke in (what looks like) a basketball kit and flip flops.

As always I'm asked what I'll drink after take off and I pick champagne. They confirm with me that I booked my food in advance and so don't really need the menu, though obviously I've read it and noticed that holy shit they have onboard Guinness!

We push back from the gate early and the inflight system comes on. The remote control is the best yet - a full touchscreen colour doohickey, operated by swipes and taps. It's like a small PSP and really responsive, the inflight moving map is on there too. I play with it for ages, and then add a couple of films to my playlist - Blood Ties, and Bag Man.

Mealtime starts and god help me, I've even impressed by the table - because you can control the angle and height. I said the seat is wide, and actually this means it's possible to sit diagonally and then the legroom really does match all the other carriers. Some satay arrives and the lamb is fantastic. Chicken and peanuts for me don't work though. I watch Blood Ties and it's ... meh. It doesn't make me cry. It's boring is what it is.

My main dish is Assam fish and it's nice, but I barely get half way through it. My stomach is angry, I think finally 9 days of absurd indulgence is catching up with me. I brave my way through a diet coke and one last champagne but refuse dessert, cheese, wine, tea, coffee, until finally the hostess gets the message and says "I'll just hit 'do not disturb' for you so no-one else offers you anything". A couple of minutes later a different member of staff offers me dessert, and I explain that I want to but just can't :-(

I start Bag Man, and fall asleep through most of it. So I stop it and put on an audiobook, turn the screen off and try to sleep. I actually manage around 6 hours or so of decent quality sleep, and although I wake up around 15 times or so I'm actually refreshed by the end of it. So I start Bag Man again and it's decent, better than Blood Ties, but still nothing wonderful and the ending is pretty shit. John Cusack rarely goes wrong though.

There's loads of turbulence throughout the journey, outside and in; my stomach remains angry. I am briefly tempted to try out the inflight wifi, and intrigued by the apparent inflight GSM service but resist both. Instead, I watch an Irish film called Life's A Breeze which is a half-decent feel good comedy "aren't we a bit crap, eh?" romp thing. I look jealously as 11F gets his food service, then realise my Do Not Disturb sign is still on so I turn it off.

The second food service comes with about 2.5 hours of the flight to go. Again, I'd pre-ordered, this time Nasi Lemak. The attendant was complimentary about my choice and she was right to be so, because it tasted fucking lovely. But again, I barely finished it and turned down two other courses. My stomach, my stomach... 2 cans of Guinness helped though. This I accompanied with 3 episodes of Silicon Valley, which is quite funny but kinda not much more than a very late and less offensive US version of Nathan Barley.

We're told by the captain that we'll land a bit late, maybe 25 minutes or so, because the headwinds have been unseasonable. I love arriving at Heathrow and am karmically rewarded for this by a stellar journey home - there's no point in using the Fast Track coupon when you're a British citizen with an e-passport. We touch down at 1928; taxi, park, disembark, immigration, a shit, baggage reclaim, and walk from T3 to the bus stop takes under 40 minutes and the express bus to Kingston is perfectly timed, and as soon as I'm onboard I get an SMS asking if I fancy a pint tomorrow. Heh. I'm on my sofa only 80 minutes after the wheels hit the tarmac, using public transport.

8 days of madness.
Final stats are: 23,000 miles flown in 9 days, comprising 8 flights taking 49 hours and 15 minutes with 5 airlines through 7 airports. I hit up 12 lounges in 4 countries, and got 1 new passport stamp (taking my country tally to 48). Bloody hell.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wham, scam, thank you ma'am

As I type, it is 2335 local time and I am in the Araliya lounge at CMB, Colombo Bandanaraike airport. My flight from here leaves in just under 2 hours, and after I land it's 5 hours til my next one. My love of flying gets a real workout tonight.

Also, it's Tuesday, going on Wednesday. I arrived on Saturday, going on Sunday. I'm sure you're all desperate to learn what I did, and equally sure you will end up on a scale somewhere between bored, disappointed, or horrified. But I shouldn't guess. I'll just describe.

The hotel had no wifi, at least not in the room. Actually there is wifi, provided by a mobile network, but after 3 attempts at buying 50 hours access I figure out why it doesn't work: in order to get on the Internet it needs my money, and in order to take my money, it needs to redirect me to the MBNA UK site to do 3D secure, and I can't do that until I'm on the internet. Excellent catch 22. I wrote my blog post and couldn't post it, so, whatever, I packed a bag full of necessities and went out for a walk, after first sending an SMS to Guy - my local, non-expat ex-colleague who I'd first warned of my arrival some 10 months ago. Since I got no response, I was content to just explore the local area.

As far as I knew,  my hotel was close to the commercial centre and a few bits of tourism were walkable. It was mid afternoon and the temperature was bearable, but before I'd even reached a corner a local had started chatting to me and recommended somewhere to see. We walked for a good 10 minutes before he finally bundled us into a tuk tuk. Alarm bells were flashing, but not too loudly. This guy was - if to be believed - one of the cooks at my hotel. And besides, he delivered on taking me to cool stuff I wouldn't have seen otherwise. First, a Hindu temple. Next, a Buddhist temple. And then a whole bunch of Colombo.

All in all this guy and the driver kidnapped me for 2.5 hours, and ripped me off but I wasn't concerned. It was an empty day on the streets and I'd legitimately seen lots of stuff, got a few photos, and they dropped me off at Colombo Fort railway station. Stupidly, I chose not to try and buy a ticket for the following day's Kandy tourist train.

I started to walk back to the hotel, fairly sure I knew where I was going and that I was close. But then...I hadn't eaten, it was hot, and my defences were down. So I'm in country number 48 and it happens: I get scammed. Some unsolicited friendliness and directions from a local turns into being bundled into another tuk tuk and paying the same amount as the 2.5 hour trip for a round the houses 20 minute "hide the fact he's close" route through fuck knows where until we reach my hotel. I know full well what's happened and surrender to it, wishing I had it in me to do a Lester-at-Mokra-Gora style rant but fuck it, just take the money and fuck off.

I'm angry at myself, and tired. I like that I've seen the city. Guy gets hold of me on Facebook - turns out my SMS had reached him, but his two to me never did arrive - and we arrange to meet, and sure enough he comes to get me. He takes me out on a bit of a tour and feeds me prawn curry and beer, and we end up sitting outside the beautiful pool of a city centre hotel with me necking an 8.8% local stout. I've not seen Guy for almost 2 years and our chins wag a lot, it's great. We talk about work, life, and cricket in equal measure. I am deposited back at my hotel just around midnight and we talk about meeting up again before I piss off.

On Monday, I sleep, again. I partly feel like there's a need to justify how little I'm doing in Colombo but there really fucking isn't. My body knows that, with no imminent flights, it's OK to let go and so I do. Another 11 hours - at home I sleep 4-6 each night - and I leave the room just after 1230 to go upstairs to the Harbour Bar.

There's a buffet lunch and I am starving. They seat me at the window, staring at the spectacularly unpicturesque view of a working port and I order a beer. As that arrives, and I get up to start my feed, around 100 Germans arrive. It turns out Colombo is a popular destination for those guys. I take two runs, first a few weak things and second a plate full of strong stuff that even the pineapple makes me sweat (it's called "hot pineapple", to be fair).

Back to my room, I think about going out but I fall asleep. It's too hot and I'm too ginger and pale anyway, it's full on cancer weather. I tried earlier to get tickets for Tuesday's Kandy train but it too was full. I thought about getting a coach instead, but opted for...just doing nothing. This whole trip has 3 aims: experience a bunch of cabins I've never experienced before, visit friends in NYC and Colombo, and get a new passport stamp. I've done them all. Relaxing to the point of doing nothing is welcome and my body rewards me for it.

That evening Guy comes to get me again, this time to go to a Burgher restaurant (the 'h' is not a typo) from before this place was British colonial. Sadly it was undergoing refurbishment and members only for the main bar, but we had an amazing and spicy curry buffet as well as beer and the most staggeringly refreshing home made ginger beer I've ever tasted. Guy's brother called and the evening was cut short, but we agreed to meet for lunch on my last day.

Back at my room I started dozing in front of BBC world news so got into bed, and then couldn't sleep. There are 4 channels on TV showing cricket but I can't cope with that, especially as England's ODI was rained off. Managed via a faff to post a blog post and eventually got to kip around 3am, well after the horrifically childish and embarrassing Scotland Decides debate finished.

Tuesday arrives and I sleep forever again. Facebook fails me and I miss Guy's messages about lunch. I think I should have possibly stayed in Negombo, a beach resort nearer the airport, just because it more suits my "do nothing" desires, but hanging in the hotel is fine. I read, I sleep, I play Threes, and I go to the bar.

They are out of Irish Dark, which isn't Irish. I have another Lion stout and then spend 4 hours watching Sri Lanka vs Pakistan in an ODI. It's exciting and the barman scares me, as every Sri Lankan has, with their in depth knowledge of cricket. My choice of favourite player ever is sneered at. The cab to the airport is trickier to arrange than the "it's all arranged for you" email led me to believe, but is sorted for 10pm. I finish my time propping the bar with a glass of Arrack, the local coconut spirit that Guy had told me is disgusting.

It's disgusting.

By now Pakistan are batting, and I'm drunk and having 3 conversations at once. Pakistan start their innings well but collapse and Sri Lanka win while I'm on the freeway to the airport. As with the inbound, my driver waits for me - carrying my own bags - to open doors for us both, and I'm finding it curious. He tells me he's ex-police with 22 years service and I hope this means he'll drive like a nutter if required.

I get to the airport and tip him every last Sri Lanka rupee in my possession. My MBNA card has worked multiple times in multiple locations, which is good considering I didn't tell them where I was going. Last time I actually warned them, it was as rejected on day one. I hate MBNA but my card is just too damn lucrative to give up. I earn 2.5 miles Avios per pound on every purchase, which adds up to a significant portion of what's required to pull off a trip like this.

There are 3 security checkpoints but I am well prepared for all of them. In fact I prepare too well to go airside, because I pick up and fill out a departure card that's for Sri Lankan nationals only. I'm quite drunk and dreading the red eye from hell, regardless of it being business class, and stumble a bit failing to find the lounge which is totally hidden in plain sight. - being stopped only to lend a Chinese woman my passport in order for her to change some currency (meh, I dunno, I asked the counter guy if bad things could happen and he said no...sounds legit, right?).  Inside I grab a giant plate of epic curry and start to write this. As I finish a Chinese couple have perched opposite me, and the woman keeps smacking fuck out of the bloke's leg while shouting a lot. It seems like a massive argument and I'm loathe to get involved; he's remaining calm but I think they might have an unhappy flight home. And then I reach this sentence, and stop.

And then because I'm in Colombo, I feel like making a terrible "one more thing" addendum, but don't. Ah crap.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Uh, just one more thing

[posted 35 hours after I wrote the text]

It's 1:30pm and I've only been awake half an hour after 12 hours recreational sleep. I don't have a flight today, or even one to check in for. Guess I must finally be on holiday.

After writing up my evening in Hong Kong, I headed downstairs for free breakfast in the hotel's Thai restaurant. Had a double go at the buffet, one plate full of English stuff and one plate a mix of English and Chinese stuff. Apparently I was hungry again. Because I'm on my own I got fast tracked through the queue, though seating was not private - they just shoved me into a chair between other groups of people at a huge 20 seater table.

Went downstairs and out for a wander. There's a subway station very close to the hotel and I follow the signs towards it, which subsequently disappear and I fail to find the station. My idea is to get the tube to the airport station but that's clearly not going to happen. My wander is pretty short, it's brutally hot and I have to checkout of the hotel in 90 minutes so I go back to my room and chill for a bit.

Doing the maths (which means "looking at my watch") I see it's approaching midnight in New York on Friday. I have a bit of time to kill but don't really want to arrive at the airport a stinky sweaty mess so I call reception and ask for a 2pm checkout which they're happy to give me, and I stream a copy of WWE Smackdown which has only just been posted. Always with the wrestling...

During the show I nod off a couple of times. Knowing this was genuine tiredness I set an alarm for 1315, just in case. In the end I need it, cos I'm doing that thing where I think I'm blinking, but half an hour is passing. I take a long shower which is fantastic and invigorating, and take a while cramming all my stuff into the bags.

Downstairs and checked out, I step into that there 30°c heat and walk back through HK's streets to the airport express station. My holdall is uncomfortably heavy and I want rid of it. In Hong Kong there are a lot of airlines which operate in-town checkin desks and I believe Sri Lanka are one, even though they only have 3 flights a week. But I can't see their desk. A sign tells me they definitely are there so I buy my train ticket and use it to enter checkin. Aha, desk 7. Turns out my holdall is now 10kg. The girl asks where I'm going and sees I've already checked in online. Then she prints out passes, rips them up, prints out three new coupons, stares at one and asks me where I'm going another twice. I give the same answer every time which seems to satisfy her, so she rips up one coupon and hands me the other two. Odd.

One coupon is my boarding pass, the other. lounge invitation. Sri Lankan airlines give their business class customers entry into a lounge that anyone can pay to get in and the huge snob in me is expecting not great things. But the knowledgable traveller in me also knows I can use any other business class lounge operated by any airline in the oneworld alliance.

But I'm not at the airport yet. I leave checkin, go downstairs to the platform and it's 10 minutes til the train. I need a diet coke but the shop only has full fat or zero. Back upstairs and find a 7-11 and I get one, start on it, back to the platform with the train now there. No food or drink on the train. FFHS. 25 minutes later I'm at the airport and they're announcing which way to go for each terminal - and I realise I don't actually know which terminal I'm leaving from. I guess T1 and I'm right. Ahead of me, about 30 or so people are literally sprinting off the train to the departure area. I slowly drink the DC and think to myself "wow, why are there so many Cathay desks?". At Cathay's home airport. Skills, Darren.

Up to security and into a longish queue. It moves at varying speeds and as I get close I realise why each individual isn't taking a uniform amount of time: 3 of the 4 people immediately ahead of me not kinky haven't filled out their departure cards (a sheet left in your passport upon arrival), they don't even have departure cards. So they get handed new ones and fill them out. Jesus Christ people. Obviously I've filled mine out well ahead of time and am pretty much just waved through.

There's a lounge very close, Cathay's The Wing. I go straight there and wave my boarding pass and Cathay gold card but ask them to leave my booking alone, i.e. do not change the number from my BA account as, horror of horrors, I've actually paid cash money for this flight and want to earn BA tier points and avios. Everything is a down payment... as it goes, I had originally spent avios on another Cathay flight, CX711 for this leg but cancelled that when I saw that Sri Lankan were available for an amount I could afford, and I redirected those Avios into making the previous leg first class. My holidays are so bloody complex to book.

So, The Wing. I walk in and it's crowded but there are seats at the bar. This place hasn't changed since I was here in 2006 but back then the bar wasn't open at 9am, but now it's 3:30pm and I take a perch. A beer, some photos of the apron, and I flinch a bit when they call the aforementioned CX711. A drinks menu arrives but I opt for a second beer, and am just pondering leaving when I'm offered a refill and opt for a champagne. Because champagne.

Next, time to lounge hop. The nearest lounge to me is the pay lounge which I have a free invite for, so what the hell, let's see. My invite is taken from me - so no re-entry - and my boarding pass is stamped "allowed free alcohol". I grab a San Miguel and struggle to find a seat for two reasons: it's almost pitch black, and it's crowded as fuck. There's a real crammed feel and there's loud Muzak. I'm not impressed. Eventually I find a seat, neck my beer, and piss off.

By now, Kayak has emailed me to tell me which gate I'm leaving from - 28 - and there's only about 90 minutes to go. Another lounge is near gate 23, Cathay's The Cabin. Realistically it's the only one I can fit in as the others are all miles away, like near gate 65 or two floors up and in a satellite. So I go into the Cabin and enjoy the even closer views, and fill a tray full of rice and noodles and buns and a diet coke and a can of Tsing Tao. Nom. Then I sit at the small bar and have a champagne, then another, but turn down a third: "I wish, but unfortunately I have a flight to catch". 5 seconds later as I'm still packing up another barman offers me a glass and gets the same reply.

The gate already has a long queue with a smaller queue for business class. But boarding hasn't started. I get a photo of the bird and the doors open, I'm about 6th in the queue but down the airbridge I'm the only one to turn into the business class corridor. I'm sitting in 1K, the window seat on the plane's right hand side and I'm greeted personally by 4 members of Sri Lankan staff.

The seats are of course not comparable to Cathay first, nor American's business. But they are decent. Fairly wide, huge legroom as these seem to be the newest seats in their fleet, the ones which go fully flat. The inflight entertainment screen is very big but I don't know where the remote is. An orange juice and menu arrives and before we take off I'm asked what I want to eat and drink in the air. The chicken, and a champagne, please.

Slowly a few other people arrive in the cabin, including a very loud kid who seems full of entitlement. Grargh. They are on the other side of the plane but the voice pierces and is constant. I plug my phone into the USB socket but it vibrates constantly - there's no real power here. I find a full proper power socket taking English plugs and use that. The doors close on time but we take forever to take off, about 40 minutes.

Despite the modern video system, we are treated to an old-skool manual safety demo and are told it's less than 3 hours to Bangkok, where we stop for fuel and also for passengers to leave/get on. I read the "complimentary magazine" (sic) but can't find the compliments. I am totally besotted with a big elephant though.

I realise the little metal thing with a light control etc on is actually the remote, and it is AWESOME. Hella fun to use - the unlabelled button is actually a trackpad for an on screen cursor so just navigating the system feels a bit like playing a Wii. I dick around with it for a while just because I'm enjoying it, but then food and drink arrives so I plug my 'phones in - the supplied headphones look like £3 motorway service station jobs - and am delighted to discover that not only is the plane noise drowned out, but also the kid.

My movie of choice is The Monuments Men. Typical Clooney and Damon affair, I liked it though it wasn't spectacular and I didn't cry. In the end I've timed it perfectly, because the end credits roll literally as the wheels touch down.

But back at the film's start, the food and drink arrives. Starter is some kind of cream cheese sandwich using melon instead of bread, and is nice. Main is chicken and is lovely. The champagne doesn't get empty until the food finishes; there's no dessert other than a fruit plate.

I hit the massage button on the seat controls and am surprised how long the programme lasts, before realising it's an on/off button and labelled as such FFHS. Making the seat recline actually lifts it up, which is disconcerting and makes me feel like I'm at the dentist. But the seat is very comfortable.

During our descent I discover the PA announcements do not come through the headphones. Strange. We land at Bangkok and there's about an hour or so til takeoff but Colombo passengers are not allowed off so I stay in my seat as shitloads of staff zoom through the cabin dropping off blankets, leaving bottled water, hoovering, picking up crap, etc. Then the seats start to fill up. I'm hoping not to get a seatmate and it looks like I'm in luck...until the very last minute and 1H is occupied. Bah.

On the ground I started watching the only other film I was interested in: Divergent. It is fucking shit. For the first hour I thought it was merely slow, but actually when the main plot starts to kick in it just becomes really, really bad.

Some nuts and champagne arrive after take off. I order the red snapper and after a mediocre noodle salad starter it arrives and is fucking gorgeous. Another fruit plate and then I'm asked if I want dessert and say yes. 5 minutes later it hadn't arrived and I'm asked by the same lass "I thought you wanted dessert?" "Er, yes, I do". It wasn't really worth the wait.

My seat mate interrupts me for a chat, asks if I'm from the UK and proclaims his love for London, asking me what the weather will be like in September. He gives me loads of recommendations for Sri Lanka and then we appear to spend an hour or more talking about global and middle eastern politics and I'm delighted to be spoken at most of the time. It's awesome to meet someone who actually believes some of the stuff he was coming out with: Jews are clever and control the world because they control the USA who controls Europe who controls Asia etc. Also the masons control everything too. There's a Masonic pyramid and Star of David on the dollar bill! Oh my god! and Starbucks aren't about coffee, pfft. Star is Star of David! Bucks is money! The guy was very nice and very sad about the endless cycle of violence in the Middle East (he's an Arab Muslim from a middle eastern country himself), but dude needs to read a bit of conspiracy debunking methinks.

We landed a little ahead of the scheduled 2300 arrival time. Phone goes on and I find out AFC Wimbledon lost at home. A great start to my 48th country. I wield my fast track immigration invite to go through the slower-than-normal-track security line. The guy hands me a Dept Of Immigration and Emigration sponsored free SIM card. At baggage reclaim I am normally smug because my beige holdall is easy to recognise. Well, on this flight there appears to have been some huge group travel down the back and literally 40 beige holdalls come out. Bah. But mine comes pretty quickly and I walk out to arrivals - past the duty free white goods shops and no, I'm not kidding - expecting to find a man with my name on a sign because I've prebooked airport transfer to my hotel in Colombo.

There is no man with my name on a sign.

Oh. Well maybe it's because we're a bit early...though there are a lot of men with signs with names. I try to get some rupees from a desk but they don't take cards, but a cleaner directs me to an ATM. This time, I look up the exchange rate first. And then I make a second circuit of the men with signs. Still no one. Umm. I get my booking up on my phone but would really rather not have to call anyone, and there are a lot of comings and goings so I make one very slow and deliberate crawl along the line. My name isn't there.

By now, the unbooked taxi drivers are really starting to try and convince me to hire them. I'd rather not, so I do call my hotel. I'm put on hold three times and the told to approach one of the desks and tell them who I am, and it'll all get sorted. I ask three times which desk but still don't quite understand, so I pick one at random. It's the wrong desk and they try to sell me a ride, but finally someone else comes up: "are you Mr Foreman?". Phew!

He walks me out to the cab ranks and directs me to stand around, then 5 minutes later tells me to get in a car. I do, and the drive takes next to no time. The driver asks me where I want to go, which confuses me a bit as I think I've just been scammed by enterprising cabbies who heard me give my name on the phone. Whatever. He starts to chat but is interrupted by a phone call and I'm tired and not really in a talkative mood anyway. It's past midnight now. I pay the toll for the expressway and soon enough we're at my hotel, lit up by a sign for STALLION PUB. I have no idea how payment is working and ask the driver, he says he'll come in with me. So at reception, as I check in he has a conversation with someone and seems happy enough - I pay nothing and he leaves.

The receptionist hands me my key attached to a giant comedy metal keyfob and I take the lift to the third floor, which takes longer than my Hong Kong hotel lift took to do 32 floors. It's an impressive, long, and occasionally dark walk to my room and once inside I put the TV on. It's a cricket channel. But of course. There are two beds shunted together and OH MY GOD NO WIFI. But, according to the hotel feature list, I do have access to hot water and billiards. All is well with the world and I feel like maybe I need a kip.