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.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Octopus rift

It's half eight on Saturday morning and grey outside. I imagine it's about 28-30°c, because it always is in Hong Kong. I'm a bit annoyed there isn't a lot of well choreographed martial arts and gun-fu going on outside. Have the Shaw brothers and John Woo lied to me?


So yesterday, I am second off the plane and the walk to immigration and baggage reclaim is verrrry long. I am preoccupied by the blue ink on my hand. I've been scribbling notes all trip but my pen is black. Who drew blue on me?


The immigration queue looked bad but was very fast, with no questions asked of me by the masked official. Around half the people I see are wearing masks. I dunno if this is only common since bird flu or has an earlier genesis but it always makes me feel a bit nervous, especially with my ropey lungs. But actually when I emerge into Hong Kong air I find it much less oppressive and unpleasant than I used to, possibly because I'm fitter than before.


It's a good job my fitness levels are up. After getting my bag (first out after the crew's) I carry everything slowly towards where I thought I remembered the arrivals lounge was located. I had in my mind a pictorial guide posted to Flyertalk that I had stupidly not saved to my phone, as well as the bad terminal diagram from the Cathay magazine. Slow became a halt as I lost confidence and decided to pull out my phone and search for help. Turns out I was around 20 steps away.


The staff took my invitation and my holdall, giving me a receipt and directing me to sit down. This is a tiny lounge, maybe 40 or so capacity, with 6 computers, a TV, and some soft drinks, snacks, and showers. I grabbed a diet coke, some water and ritz crackers (which I had a hankering for, brought about by Labor Day) and sat down. One of the staff approached with a menu, asking if I'd like to choose something more substantive. Oh, go on then, I'll have a small bowl of vegetarian noodle soup.


A frankly enormous bowl of soup arrived and I managed about half of it. Then, time for google maps to tell me I was 1h20m away from my hotel by public transport. Hang on, what? 80 minutes? Isn't my hotel basically next door to Central station, which is only a 24 minute train ride away?


No, it isn't. For starters the train doesn't seem to go to Central station. For seconders, my hotel is over a kilometre from Central and around 2km from the airport express terminus. Ah whatever, I'll just play it by ear. But first, a fantastically refreshing shower and change of clothes.


Went to an airport express ticket machine and discovered it doesn't take cards. Crap. I have no Hong Kong dollars so go fo an ATM and withdraw a random amount without checking the exchange rate first. This means I ended up drawing out £155 worth, which is fucking stupid and not an amount I have a hope in hell of spending. Still, it at least means I have the means with which to buy a train ticket and soon I'm zooming to Hong Kong Island.


It's sunny outside. It's rarely sunny here. Last time it was cloudy for 4 days and now it looks vastly different, and gorgeous. I reach Hong Kong station and have a massive faff, changing my mind on a second by second basis about whether to walk or not. Thinking I might as well spend some currency, and that lugging my 15kg of bags 2km through 30°c in Honkers' busy streets will be horrid, I try to buy a ticket for the subway. The machines don't take notes bigger than 20HKD and my smallest is a 100. I couldn't find a machine selling Octupus cards (HK's oyster thing) and the queues at desks were too big for me to bother with. Fuck it, I'll walk after all.


Lugging my 15kg of bags 2km thorough 30°c in Honkers' busy streets was amazing. My sense of direction is good and I take no wrong turns, navigating the covered walkways like a boss and hitting ground level at the bottom of the ecalators. The roads are wonderful: names, curves, junctions which aren't just crossroads, everything much less logical and systematic than American roads and bizarrely much less confusing to me as a consequence. I find my hotel with ease and check in to an upgraded room on the 32nd floor with views of the sea. Beyond all the other massive buildings.


By now it's 5pm and time to blog the flight. After that I start to flag, but Yahoo! messenger keeps me awake because it's completely impossible to sign out on iOS and Paul pipes up for a chat. At 7pm I leave, wondering what Friday in Hong Kong has in store, and whether I can find a decent Guinness. But first, a trip to one of the several billion branches of 7-11 to buy an octopus card.


The man in the 7-11 shouted NO, NO at me when I asked for an octopus card so I just settled for a diet coke, and walked through random streets back towards Central. Hitting the area where the mid level escalators are, and a zillion food outlets, bars, and massage parlours, I forego the escalators and climb the hilly streets. My legs get a huge workout as I wander aimlessly for a while, stumbling across such authentic local experiences as an M&S food hall and a pub called the Yorkshire Pudding. There is masses of western stuff - and western people - here but it still feels very very unlike the west.


The heat is hot but not unpleasant, and one of my favourite things about here is that people sweat. Every hot country I visit I am completely befuddled by the locals not sweating like fuck. I constantly want to ask "aren't you hot?". But here people are using fans, mopping their brows, and covered in sweat. And not just the westerners. I feel normal.


I don't really fancy a drink just yet but keep a few places in mind, and walk all the way back down and through the walkways to the star ferry terminal. My plan is STILL to buy an octopus card, and yet again I find no vendors. Actually I do walk past another 7-11 which says it sells them but it's too crowded for me to be arsed with. Mind you, everywhere and everything is crowded. Hong Kong is dense and loud and bustle like nowhere else I've been.


So at the ferry terminal I buy 4 tokens, thinking I'll go across to Tsim Sha Tsui and back, then get another boat to the terminal near my Kowloon hotel from last time. In the end I only do a single return trip, to TST where I explore for a bit. There are tens of thousands of people teeming everywhere, and seemingly every single one of them is taking a photograph. The island skyline is beautiful. I follow a sign to Nathan Road but don't reach it, as the vast crowds on Canton road gawping at the high end shops piss me off, and I'm not interesting in buying a watch from any of the men who want to sell me one.


On the other side of the ferry terminal is a harbour walkway. Again, thousands of people, armed with phablets and selfie-sticks. It's still wonderful. I saunter very slowly and take some grainy photos, and then I just sit at the front and chill for quarter of an hour. I can't get over now much I love it here and want to come back for a lengthier stop, and think how unlikely but nice it might be to actually do it not on my own.


Back to the ferry terminal via an ice cream and drinks stop. I am taking on fluids like nobody's business and back at the island have a piss that seems to take about 5 minutes. I muse that it's surprising my piss isn't fizzy at the moment, and how blogging about taking a piss seems like something I will doubtless do despite knowing I really shouldn't. Don't over-share, Darren.


I walk back to the ecalators and decide to actually use it this time. I'm seeking the Globe, apparently Hong Kong's best beer bar. It's simple to find but on the steepest road yet (steps, not pavements), and one heaving with taxis and impossibly beautiful women. I don't go in because I don't immediately spot any single seats at the bar and besides, I'm in an area I've not yet explored. Up to the top and around, the pavements are tricky and traffic dense. In the end I scare an old woman by wanting to overtake her on the steps, and go into the Globe. I browse the beers and discover that literally nothing on view isn't available in pretty much every pub in London, and there's no Guinness tap that I can see. I walk straight back out, and head back to the big Irish I'd spotted earlier. Except I don't, because I finally get lost, only to find another brew pub underneath which is a different Irish pub with seats at the bar.


The Guinness is welcome, and great. Unlike everyone else, I don't bother paying for my drink, assuming I can just pay at the end, and the two barman conspire to have a new drink ready before I finish the last. The loud AC/DC and Bon Jovi is also welcome. Four slow pints later, the pub is heaving and the woman who'd cracked her head open just as I arrived is happily waitressing again. The bill helps me eat into my surplus currency, with it being 88HKD (aka £7) a pint. I manage to count out the exact 352 required leaving me with only a few coins and some 500s that I intend not to break.


Walking back to the hotel is somewhat tricky. The roads are very very steep, totally uneven, and I'm a little bit drunk. Also my phone is nearly dead as I'd spent a fair bit of time emailing and otherwise chatting with folks back home - Al, Rob, Nige, Chris, Wimbledon fans, sundry people on Facebook - plus asking Guy what currency I need for my next country. With no battery I eschew google maps and use the force, taking yet more unfamiliar roads and hey presto, there's the 7-11 in which I got shouted at earlier. I pop in for a snack, finally being a little hungry and they shout at me when my card is declined and I have to break a 500. For fucks sake.


Almost midnight and I'm shattered. I must have walked over 4 miles in sweltering heat and with a lot of hills. In my room, the "these curtains automatically close at 11pm" curtains have not closed, beause "automatically" appears to mean "automatically, if you press this button". Thankfully it also worked at times other than 11pm, and everything went very very dark.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Darren. F.

I appear to be in a hotel room in Hong Kong, 72 hours on from being in Jersey. It's 5pm on Friday evening but concepts like am and pm, days of the week and evenings are starting to feel alien. I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an Englishman who just left New York.

I say "just left", but that's a bit of a stretch. It was a while ago I was there.

When I woke, earlier than either of my "wake the fuck up" alarms, I naturally lazed around until the first one went off. My flight was at 1000 and on time, and the journey from JFK to the hotel had been so smooth I was pretty confident about the return. A bill for my 3 Guinesses had appeared on the floor by my door and I asked at reception if I needed to sign or pay or something and the bloke didn't seem to understand my question, so I just gave him my key and left.

Having angrily enjoyed NYC on my day on terra firma, I obviously followed that up by not getting remotely lost or confused by any part of the trip to the airport. Well, Penn Station was a bit horrible at half six and it was slightly difficult to find the right platform but I jumped on the 0636 Jamaica train with 10 seconds to spare and trundled. Missed my connection by literally half a second so sat and played Threes for a bit, before staring at the "we stop at all terminals" thing noticing JFK doesn't like threes - "all" is 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8. Hmm. The journey was quite nice as the sun rose and we went past a lot of beautiful 747s, and as I had to hold on til T7 an ensuing fight through the crowd was unpleasant.

T7 is BA's not-quite-private terminal. They do have a lot of flights there, but Cathay Pacific also use it as well as the BA lounges. They have their own premium checkin area though, which was well enough signposted. I could have used it regardless of what my flight was doing as I have a Cathay gold card courtesy of a no-longer-available benefit on a charge card I don't have. But this time I could use it straight off the back of my booking...because I was flying in F. F is for First.

There's one checkin desk for F. A family was there, seemingly being awkward. I waltzed up to a business class desk and was checked in super quickly, being referred to by name the whole time and my gold card kept getting mentioned too. He asked if I was familiar with the lounges - well, in 2007 I spent 9 hours in the business class lounge... also, would I like an invitation to the arrivals lounge at Hong Kong? Why yes, yes I would, thank you.

He then left the desk to escort me as far as he could, all the while explaining the terminal layout, the two lounges I could go in and their different atmospheres and so on. He said the First lounge would be quiet, a place to work or relax, and the business lounge a bit more fun and maybe the place to go if I wanted some booze. I said to him, with a straight face, "it's a bit early for that!". "Oh, you'd be surprised, Mr Foreman"

No. I wouldn't.

He left me at fast track security, which was indeed fast. The lounge entrances are right next door, up a tiny escalator, lo and behold I reached the first class lounge at 0747. Such a pleasing time of day.

I had it to myself. Wow. It isn't huge, but it is a nice relaxing place. I filled a plate with cold meats and cheeses and grabbed a diet coke. Then a large fruit salad with yoghurt. And then a champagne. Nom.

Wrote yesterday's blog post in total peace and quiet. Loved it. The staff appeared here and then, and after an hour or so a few more people arrived. There only seemed to be the Cathay flight leaving, no BA scheduled until after midday. Boarding pass had said gate 6 by 0935, but at 0930 a very loud THE FLIGHT IS NOT BOARDING YET announcement came over the tannoy. A few minutes later, another one, the woman sounding exasperated as if people kept going to the desk asking what was going on.

I just stayed in my seat until boarding was finally announced. Apparently the crew had got stuck in a traffic jam.

So, to gate 6, boarding pass for seat 1A in my sky rocket. A huge queue for priority boarding slimmed down very quickly as group after group of 4+ people reached the front only to be directed to the regular queue. I strolled through and was greeted at the door, directed left, and saw my seat.

Oh. My. God. That's not an aeroplane seat, that's a fucking sofa.

About Cathay Pacific first class. On their longest haul planes, they have what is widely regarded as one of the best first class cabins and experiences in the world, not including the mad fully-enclosed-suite things you can get on some middle eastern airlines. The JFK to Hong Kong flight is one of the longest non-stop flights in the world by both distance and time, and therefore one of the longest first class trips possible. What's more, this route is an anomaly in the BA spend-your-Avios chart. By rights it should cost way more than the 105,000 it does given the distance. Finally, the taxes, fees and surcharges component is on,y about £75. There are only 6 first class seats on the plane, not all available for miles. It's cheap, exclusive and astonishing.

So, the sofa. I'm not joking. There's enough space for two people to sit side by side, or for me to sit in a variety of positions with my feet not on the floor. I can't reach the footrest, and my bag isn't stored under it because Fiona has put it in my personal wardrobe.

Oh, hello Fiona. Nice to meet you. She was pretty much my personal member of cabin crew for this flight, setting me up with a pre-flight amuse bouche of lobster and a glass of Krug champagne. I might try another one of those. She also handed me my sleeper suit in a bag, as the captain told us about the flight. Apparently a flight time of 15h20m, to a Hong Kong with "unusually good visibility" and 30°c. We'd fly north then south, crossing the North Pole to our right. Over the top like a bad Stallone movie.

We took off a bit behind schedule and the crew changed into their airborne uniforms, different from their land-based ones. I played with the staggeringly good entertainment system, more responsive than any other I've ever used (or my smart TV for that matter) and I added 2 films and 5 TV shows to my playlist. For TV shows they have full seasons, not just a few episodes. Having seen a single episode of Brooklyn  Nine Nine on the AA flight I quite fancied a few more. Andy Samberg FTW.

"You had me at 'no paperwork'"
"That was the very end of the sentence"

Some nuts arrived, and more champagne. And then some bread, caviar, egg, pancakes, and creme fraiche. I suppose I have some space for that. After the caviar, a gorgeous Caesar salad. After the salad, a bowl of clam chowder and then my chosen main course: lobster. Was I ok with chopsticks? Of course I was ok with chopsticks.

Christ, everything was so bloody nice. The champagne didn't stop coming, even the table water was particularly lovely. After my main was cleared away I opted for a cheese plate - having been shown a slate full of cheeses from which to choose. I chose all of them. It came with grapes and crackers and quince and the most astonishingly nice port I've ever tasted.

Not a bad start to the journey, this. By now I'm about 4 episodes of Brooklyn Nine Nine in and we're somewhere over some really extreme points of Canada. There's an outdoor camera which was quite interesting, though not as interesting as the window views. We were about 2.5 hours in now. so only 13 to go.

With the food service over - I actually turned down dessert - the champagne still kept coming, and I watched the film Railway Man. As usual, in the air I am more emotional than on the ground and so at the end of it I was in floods of tears. Loved the film. Romance, revenge and redemption all in one.

Next, I tried to watch an interesting looking Chinese film but kept nodding off, so I went to the loo to get changed into my sleeper suit while Fiona made my bed. On Cathay it isn't just a seat that turns into a end and you are given a blanket - they also fit a mattress with special holes for the seat belt to go through. I returned and climbed into it, getting comfortable and... couldn't really drop off. The noise cancelling headphones are too cumbersome to wear lying down and I don't get on with ear plugs. So, I just kinda laid there, doing a few mindfulness techniques which didn't work... so I rearranged the seat into a recliner, pulled the TV back out, and put on Labor Day.

Odd film. Some really heartening bits during which I of course welled up, but then a really terrible few segments and awful plot twist. And then the awfulness is kinda glossed over and a regular ending takes place. Quite unsatisfactory. Browsed the movies some more but opted just to go back to Brooklyn Nine Nine. There are 22 episodes after all.

A couple of hours later, with still 7 or so to go of the flight, I hit the service button. Almost before I'd lifted my finger, Fiona appeared. Could I get a burger, please? And a glass of champagne? Of course, Mr Foreman. It took a while to arrive since they had to cook the bastard, and when it did she asked me to let her know if the fizz was flat; if so, she'd open a new bottle for me. Which she had to anyway as I wanted refill. And another one.

Back to movies! Anchorman, and finally I slept a bit, Dozed and slept well, but off and on, through Anchorman and The Informant! after which I woke up feeling quite ropey, like super dehydrated as if the air quality had rather suddenly changed. But that went away when I got changed, used loads of posh toiletries to moisturise and cleaned me teeth and swigged mouthwash. Turned my bed back into a very comfortable seat and we are just over an hour from landing.

Would I like some breakfast? Oh, go on then. Something to drink? Is champagne OK? Of course. So here's a bowl of fruit, then some sea bass with rice and vegetables. And yet more Brooklyn Nine Nine. I think I watched 15 episodes I total. This whole flight was about bingeing in one way or another.

The views of the seas and islands around Hong Kong were spectacular. When I was here in 2007 for 4 days I barely saw the sun, but now we were circling HK in light cloud and it looked amazing. The outdoor camera came into its own during landing and, oh, hello. I'm in Hong Kong. It was a 16 hour flight to literally go half way round the world, as NYC and HK are exactly 12 hours apart in time. Did I have a very long Thursday, or very short? I don't really know or care, I only know it was very awesome.

(Final champagne tally: 11 or 12 glasses; 2 on the ground and the rest on the plane)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's all about the game, and how you play it

Holy shit I have the entire BA first class lounge at JFK T7 to myself. Surely someone else will show up in the next 90 minutes? Kinda hope they don't as it goes.

So I woke up really early on Wednesday, having fallen asleep dead at about 10pm Tuesday. I didn't really care about jet lag - it's not like I'm staying in NYC long enough to bother acclimatising anyway. But 6am really was too early to get out and do stuff, so I did what I always do: blog, and watch TV.

TV was shit. The most noteworthy thing was an advert for paid sick leave, and Jason Statham playing his zero trick pony act. Oh, and BBC America appears to only show Doctor Who. Come 9am and I thought about getting up and doing stuff, though the thought of just staying in my room did appeal. I hate New York.

But, no. Stuff to do. Since I wasn't flying today, my first port of call was the Intrepid Museum. This is a museum actually on an aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid. It's an aviation museum and has a space shuttle and Concorde. Because planes.

To get there I had to walk a mile through Hell's Kitchen. Just past the police station next to my hotel I saw Mane Advocates which, sadly, is some kind of Better Call Saul lawyer rather than a wig shop. And that was the best thing about the walk. The route was largely nondescript and through a very non touristy party of town, except for 42nd Street which is famous or something. I did source a Diet Dr Pepper, the ready availability of which is one of my favourite things about the USA, and joined the hot queue for tickets at the museum.

After being in the queue for half an hour they were shouting that it was cash only. I hadn't been to an ATM, but thankfully the $80 I had leftover from Indonesia(!) was more than enough. Another half hour behind Mr Nike (Nike shoes, shorts, t-shirt, and watch; fanboy to the max) I got to the desk and asked for a ticket for Intrepid, the Space Shuttle, and Concorde. She said something and I couldn't make a word out. Turns out their mics were off. And their tills. And printers. The whole building had no power, which also meant she couldn't sell me a Concorde tour anyway because they didn't know if it was full. I could pay when I got there though.

Walked through, up to the flight deck, and ... wow. Shitloads of fighter planes and helicopters and it was fantastic. I didn't bother with an audio tour, just wandered around taking photos and looking surly enough that parents were making their kids move out of my way.

The A12 jet can fly at 85,000ft and go three times the speed of sound. Awesome piece of kit. But somewhat overshadowed by the space shuttle which is just incredible. It's actually not one which went into space, Enterprise being a prototype (and honestly named after Star Trek)  from which NASA learnt enough to warrant a redesign which would be too costly to retrofit. But it is a real thing and I did wander all around it and soak up all the exhibits surrounding it about the space shuttle programme. Got actual goosebumps thinking about the incredible feats of engineering that meant we had, for 30 years, essentially planes which go into space. So fucking awesome, literally.

Also in the shuttle pavilion was a Soyuz capsule, a cramped piece of shit which went up in 2005 and is on loan from a private individual who was one of the first civilian space tourists. I don't know if I'm jealous or not. It looks terrifyingly claustrophobic. As I circled it, a kid asked their dad if it had aircon.

There was a video narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and it was rubbish. I liked the reference on one info board to a "surplus 747". Space shuttles travelled at 20x the speed of sound. Wow.

Back out to the flight deck and into the quarters and decks. First, the admiral's deck, where the guide explained about the hundred phones and horns and stuff. Then the captain's deck, quarters, navigation rooms, etc. All fascinating. Some actual Vietnam vets were there and shaking hands with some actual USS intrepid vets. Aww.

Down, out, down, and in to the hangar deck. More like a traditional museum, albeit one in an aircraft carrier hangar and mess hall, lots of guns and turrets and helicopters and propellers and oh, a multi screen presentation recreation of the day 2 kamikaze pilots flew right into where we were standing, in November 1944, complete with smoke upon impact. That was quite bleak.

The Concorde tours are on the hour, and it was now 1301. I wandered over just to get a bit goosebumpy anyway, took some photos, and chilled on the seats under its wings for a while. One day I'll actually go inside one, but today was failing as much as my visit to Brooklands had.

So enough Intrepid. Bought some food and left, intending to now hit the High Line. This is a disused railway track above Manhattan that has, since my last visit, been reopened as a public garden and walkway above the city, just over a mile long. I really wanted to see it, but as I walked I started to fry - all the cloud had burnt away and the sun was beating down directly overhead. I bailed early and went to the hotel to escape the weather.  My phone turned red hot as 20 duplicate texts from Chris arrived.

In my room, I got online and chatted for a bit but mostly watched wrestling. Then I fell asleep for 10 minutes, which was worrying as I had to be at Stout by 5pm to meet Anil, an ex colleague who now lives in NYC. Set an alarm in case it happened again, and then stayed awake fine.

Stout is great. The beer and the pub. Normally when I go on holiday I, as anyone who has ever met me knows, seek Guinness and gauge my opinion of the entire country and all its citizens on how nice it is. Well, not New York. Here there are more Irish pubs than subway stations and indeed Stout is sandwiched between two and opposite another. More Guinness vendors than Temple Bar, so y'know what, fuck Guinness. Stout has 35 kinds of stout on the menu!

Anil was at the door as I arrived and we caught up. Actually we spoke a million mph about all kinds of things, including how hard to play the air miles game. He earns through work, me through credit cards, and we each play pretty hard and win. I explained my itinerary to him, which took some doing. We chatted about work and life - both of us enjoying both much more than for years - and then he had to go and meet his real friends. He wanted me to go with but, meh, it was 7pm and I had an early start. Plus I was in a bar with 35 kinds of stout on sale for fucks sake. And I didn't have the emotional energy to meet strangers. So, he left, and I ... also left. Stout wasn't really setup for people drinking alone. I couldn't hog a table to myself, but there was no space to sit at the bar. Never mind. Probably for the best that I call it a night drinks wise anyway.

Walked back toward the hotel and cursed my foolishness at missing out on the High Line. Checked it's website on my phone to confirm my memory of it shutting at 7pm and, no! It's open until 11pm! Huzzah! Bought a celebratory Diet Dr Pepper and headed straight to 10th and 30th. On the way I passed an Epoch Times vendor and hoped every byline was dated January 1st 1970.

The High Line is great. There's not much more to say about it than the description of what it is, and that I enjoyed it. I started off being quite annoyed there wasn't much evidence of the old railway tracks, but that went away when I realised I was surrounded by masses of old railway tracks and sleepers and had just been blind for the first 2 minutes.

I walked the entire length of it, stopping to sit and write a couple of times and helping out with some photos plus taking a few of my own. I thought it would be a marvellous location for a parkrun. And then I realised... I really liked New York today. I enjoyed everything. I didn't get lost. Nothing annoyed me except the beautiful weather. God fucking damn it, I'm meant to hate New York!

Back to the hotel, annoyed with my good mood. Sat at the bar and had a Guinness. It were ok. So were the second and third. I tried a sip of the "made with genuine Atlantic sea salt" ale and it was fucking horrible. They kept offering me food and I kept declining. Some Germans ordered wine and it wasn't clear whether they said "dry white wine" or "drei white wine". I watched CNN which had turned into The Ferguson, Missouri and Beheaded Journalist channel, and was amazed by the eloquence of a newscaster saying "as if this saga wasn't replete with metaphors enough".

And after everything, I realised I was extraordinarily excited about my next flight, which was by now less than 12 hours away, and so should go to bed. Checked the seat plan and it looked like there might only be me in the cabin. Checked the train times to get to JFK. Thursday was going to be ... long? Short? I'm really not sure.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Start spreading the booze

I just woke up in the city that never sleeps. Feel like I should watch an episode of King of the Hill, but I can't find much of interest on the TV to be honest so I've got a muted BBC America. I quite fancy some egg based breakfast actually. But first, this.

I fucked off from the AA lounge at about 1615. They'd said they were going to announce boarding about then, and that time was also written on my boarding pass. What's more, page four of the T3 PDF says gate 36 is 20 minutes walk at least, and I knew there'd be awkward secondary security and all that "are your electronics actually bombs?" stuff. So 45 minutes felt about right.

I was in my seat on the plane by 1624. 20 minutes to walk seems remarkably conservative. I know you have to get people to the gates on time so as to minimise delays and chaos but, I mean, really? I wasn't just at the gate in 9 minutes, I was on the fucking plane! Granted I did, in fact, not have secondary or any kind of security to deal with, and priority boarding was working well. Plus my seat was quite near the door, what with being in row 3.

Wow. What a seat. I'd booked this flight specifically to experience AA's new business class cabin, a supposedly giant leap forward taking them up to being one of the best in the sky. I was very impressed with it at first sight. The legroom was ridiculous, possibly even more than Qantas first class. The seat was not as wide or private, but there was loads of storage space and a fancy entertainment system. A blanket and pillows were on the footrest - too far for me to reach with my feet, mind. I sat and got comfy while being blasted by the loudest aircon I've ever heard.

It took 20 minutes for me to see a member of staff. Every business class I've been on, the staff come to ask to hang your coat, give you a drink or newspaper, ask if you need anything. I know it was still a long time to take off but to see no-one felt a bit... meh. I was in the front row of business, row 3, with a half decent view of First class which really didn't look like much of a step up.

Champagne arrived in a plastic cup. Plastic? Really? But, y'know, champagne... I also got handed my Bose noise cancelling headphones. Which I then spent about half an hour trying and failing to plug in. Their jack is actually 3 jacks in a triangle, and just above the USB socket was a triangle of sockets, but I just could not plug the fucker in. I also tried my own headphones in each of the three, and failed. For fucks sake. Wondered if I was going to have to move seat, if this was broken, so when a hot towel arrived I asked if there was a knack - and got told that the design is stupid, no one gets this right...and that the real headphone jack is inside one of the storage bits. The visible one is for component cables for video, wtf! Should I have bought my Wii?

They handed me a menu but correctly remembered that I'd pre-ordered chicken. We took off a bit late because some people weren't cleared to fly, I think. Not sure what time we left, I was too busy playing Threes... stupid fucking game.

Up in the air, champagne and nuts arrived and I slapped on Anchorman 2. Also bought wifi and got online, just for the sake of it. Meal service started really early, and it was announced that the flight time would only be 6:24 having been scheduled for 8:00, arrival time 2000.

The starters were absolutely delicious. Presentation was decent but these little cheap greasy spoon plastic salt and pepper shakers were oddly out of place. This is meant to be "premium", and it wouldn't cost fuck all to get some less flimsy pieces of crap to go with everything else. Weird. And such an insubstantive thing to complain about. The main course of chicken was nice too, and I turned down dessert in lieu of a cheese plate...which was tiny. Nice, but not enough for this fat bastard.

Loved Anchorman 2. Laughed out loud a lot. More champagne arrived and I set to writing the previous blog post while trying to watch Through The Wormhole With Morgan Freeman, which really pissed me off. The episode I had on was "Do we have free will?" and, grargh, I just wanted to shout OH FUCK OFF at half the segments. Especially the video vignette that seemed to say war and apartheid are like hurdling. I'm not making that up.

All throughout, the champagne came in a tumbler rather than a flute or wine glass. The quantity was vast.

It took me ages to write the blog post. Not entirely sure why. I fell into the trap of just "being online", so checking a guestbook here or there, looking at Facebook, etc. It felt bad. I couldn't concentrate, and missed the normal experience of just being free from everything by being in the air. I did very much like being able to keep tabs on Southend vs AFC Wimbledon though. Come on you Dons!

Gave up on the Wormhole and scanned through the vast film library. Loads of good stuff but I wanted something I'd not seen before and picked Oculus, which sounded OK. I learnt during the intro credits that it's from WWE studios.

After a while I'd realised skipping dessert wasn't ideal cos I fancied summat sweet. I also remembered there was a self service bar/snack area, and obviously wanted to give that a go. A member of cabin crew told me to just help myself and then disappeared, without actually telling me where the beer was. A different guy appeared though, and told me which of the mini desserts I should have. Put 3 on a plate and asked where the beer was - he said he'd bring me one, which sure enough he did along with a chipped glass. C'mon American, where's the flawlessness?

Turned off wifi and gave up on Oculus, deciding instead to opt for 12 Years A Slave. Dozed for half hour, and got woken up by cabin crew prodding me to ask if I wanted a light meal before landing. Well, yes, of course I do: turkey sliders and a diet coke. "Sliders" appear to be mini burgers which aren't very nice.

A "how to arrive in the USA" video got played, and I checked in online for my next flight (on Thursday). The remaining time was spent looking at sunset over NE America, bemoaning how bad the TV choice was given the excellent movie choice. We landed at 1925 and fuck me did they slam on the brakes or what. Turned my phone on to get a variety of texts and Facebook messages, all complimentary it seems. Thanks :)

So I'm not sure what to make of that flight. I had privacy (especially as there was no one in the seats near me) and the seat was spacious, the screen great, the movie selection fantastic...but I didn't make the most of it because I just dicked around on my ipad like I would at home. I didn't make it special. I did neck a lot of free booze and have good food too. Some of the small things felt big because they were out of place, and I didn't really enjoy the service. Hard to really describe why, but just generally felt a bit rigid, timetabled, there was no real personalised touch. I guess I just didn't find them friendly. But maybe it's me that isn't? Meh.

Anyway, hello JFK T7.  Everyone knows that US immigration is awful, slow, etc. And upon entering the arrivals hall I thought, uh oh. There was only one staffed desk - out of 15 - for the visitors queue, which rapidly grew to over 100 people. I was tenth or so from the front and the first person took 6 minutes to clear. Glance at the watch. 1939. Could be here a while.

Or not. They started sending people to queue up at the residents' booths.  I got very few questions from the official and walked right past the baggage carousels because I fucking win. Straight into the terminal landside and followed the signs to AirTrain. I knew the deal here: you buy your ticket at the end, not the start. By 2000 I was on my way to Jamaica station.

Very easy vending machines to use, card bought, and out into the main station. Followed the signs to the Long Island Railroad, bought a return to Penn station, got on the train imminently leaving, the 2021. Sat by the door opposite the sleeping beach goers and chatted to Chris by text. Reached Penn within 20 odd minutes, followed the signs to 8th avenue exit and GOD FUCKING DAMN IT I HATE NEW YORK.

I don't understand the roads. I knew I wanted W 35th Street and just needed to go along 8th Avenue to find it.  So I emerge from the 8th Avenue exit outside Madison Square Garden and follow the blue dot on google maps by walking straight ahead. First street: 32nd. How do I know if I'm going the right way? I just guess, and follow the dot. Next block: 31st. For fucks sake! Turn round walk back 4 blocks, bemoan how easy I find NYC's numbering system to get lost in every fucking time I'm here.

My hotel is down a side street, past the backstage area of some venue - Hammerstein Ballroom I think? And appears to be next to a police station. I check in and am told the bar shuts in 2 hours. In my room and online by 2100 - which, for a scheduled 2000 landing at JFK is pretty fucking good.

Tired. Chris was awake so I chatted to him. Turned the TV on hoping to find WWE Main Event but failed. Thought about going for a nightcap but, y'know what? I've been awake 21 hours, taken 3 flights 2 monorails 1 train 1 coach and travelled over 3700 miles. I've had 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 1 dinner and lots of snacks. And I've had a bunch of champagne and beer and...maybe I should just go to bed.