I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What's your favourite dish?


The destination was as relaxing as the travel had been (deliberately) punishing. That first hour or so notwithstanding, I went offline for the whole time and settled down into a pattern of pretty much nothing but recreational sleeping, reading, and drinking. I stayed on the resort grounds, no day tours to Stone Town or anywhere else; this was an escape.

The accommodation was pretty swanky. A four-poster bed (with mosquito netting), an enormous bathroom with an enormous bath and two showers, one being outdoors(!), and an outside area with a couple of seats and a table. Housekeeping came round 4 times a day, which is a bit bloody much, especially the 9pm call (and it didn't help that the "Do Not Disturb" thing kept getting blown off the door handle outside). I'd been told at checkin that the mini-bar was free for first use, but if I ever needed it refilled it would be charged. Free mini-bar, you say? Such a shame that this consisted merely of water, fanta, diet coke, and soda water.

Also a big screen TV, on which I watched England beat Sweden 3-2. I did think about going to the bar, but really I was just way too tired to move. Been a long time since I saw England lose a lead or otherwise go behind and not let their heads drop, longer still since they successfully came back to win. Was chuffed with that. And then I slept more. A lot more. Woke up about 11 hours later, which meant I was too late for breakfast. Never mind.

I wandered around the resort grounds for a bit, took a couple of photos, and settled on which shaded longer on which to spend the next 3 hours reading. Then I went back to the room, got changed, and headed out to the jetty bar over the ocean. It felt a little, but not massively, Blood Diamond, being the white guy sitting at a bar by the water in Africa. Went for the Tanzanian beer "Serengeti lager", which I honestly did not expect to be much cop, only to discover that it's almost as nice as Brooklyn Lager, which is my favourite lager in the world. Holy smokes. Three drinks there, then headed back onto land to watch the evening's game in the Library Bar (via a very swift meal at the buffet). Was amused to see a huge England flag hanging up, and a printout of the whole Euro 2012 match schedule on each table. 

As an aside: Zanzibar is mad for football: on the drive to the resort we'd passed probably 7 or 8 impromptu games of football being played, and two club houses. I'd seen Arsenal and other shirts being worn, and one van which had nearly half its windscreen covered in a Chelsea sticker.

Anyway, that was the pattern for each of the 3 full days I was there: sleep, breakfast, lounging + reading, sleeping, drinks on stilts, more drinks with the footy. There were some experiences unique to the days, I guess: on that first trip to the bar I got chatting to the board of directors of a Tanzanian ISP who were there for a strategy meeting, which mostly seemed to involve getting wankered and putting on South London accents while referring to me as GEEZAH and GANGSTA. I turned down their invite to some mad party on the other side of the island (so, 40-odd miles away), what with already being 6 drinks down and there to relax. And also being moderately terrified of the prospect.

On the last full day I thought about doing some exercise. I'd taken my running/gym kit, and scouted the gym facilities, but honestly could not be bothered with it. Instead I improvised a circuit of abs exercises and steps/knee raises/lunges using the perfect-height stone shelf in my room. Oh, and held a plank for 60 seconds, which I thought was pretty good. I actually worked up a properly decent sweat, and the next day my calf muscles told me I might even have overdone it a bit. #projectrollins never stops, eh.

Service was kinda weird. I found most of the bar and waiting staff to be uncomfortably deferential, either unable or unwilling to engage in conversation even when I was the only person sitting at a bar with 5 staff. The friendliest and most outgoing member of staff was the cleaner with a gorgeous smile who unprompted decided to teach me the kiswahili for "you're welcome", "thank you" and "bye bye". They say "you're welcome" a lot.

I got through the Mick Foley book ("Foley Is Good"), Shawn Michaels's autobiography "Heartbreak and Triumph", and Mark Kermode's "It's Only A Film", each in single sittings. Never realised HBK was such a god-botherer; should have read Foley's first book first, especially as so many chapters were stories about "how I wrote the first book"; Kermode's book is bloody awesome.

On the last day I asked at breakfast what time my car to the airport was. They said I had to checkout at midday, but my car would be at 1pm. Since none of the bars accept money, this was going to leave me with an hour of just sitting around in reception. Unimpressed. Anyway, since I was about to embark upon another 29hr 3000-mile 5-flights trip, I took the opportunity to watch a couple of episodes of Air Crash Investigation. I was tickled pink that the first one was about a hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines flight, ha!

In the end they shoved me in a car straight away. The drive back to the airport was mostly uneventful apart from all the cows, and getting spat at by some kids. Ho hum.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hurry boy she's waiting there for you

The Brussels Airlines lounge desk staff were a bit confused. I don't think many people fly Ethiopian Airlines from Brussels, but it's Star Alliance and they let me in OK. There was free wifi... for 1 hour only. Which is a bit odd. And I had over 2 hours to kill, thank heavens for tethering, even in mainland Europe. I knew I'd be able to leave right at the last minute, 'cos I could see my plane from the non-balcony next to my table.

Cheese and Leffe Brune (aka Leffe Bruin, aka Leffe (B)ruin) tasted amazing. I mean, like, amazing. Clearly this is not revelatory, what with cheese and beer both being awesome -- but what I mean is, together they actually tasted more amazing than separately. Again, nothing new to most people, but I have such a terrible palette it was an almost religious experience. So I got a second plate of cheese. My diet is ace.

I sauntered to the gate, my boarding pass made the computer beep, and I held up the queue.

"Ah! Mr Foreman. Do you already have your onward boarding pass?"
"Actually no, I don't"
"Please wait here"
"So, here's your boarding pass from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar. I'm sorry, it looks improvised, but please, all the information is there and accurate, it's fine"

I don't think I've ever had a handwritten boarding pass before. It said "Class: Y" on it. Y is economy. That caused a bit of a panic later, as I wondered if I'd be able to use the lounge at Addis Ababa.

At checkin they'd told me the flight was very busy, in fact full from Milan, but (I guess because I'd been so early) allocating me a window seat had been fine. So I perched in seat 4L, the last row of business class, kinda half straddling with economy (but with a curtain to separate us). There was one other person in business, a pilot.

Two cabin crew poured me a champagne, one supervising the other: "it's her first time on a big plane". I got used to the seat, which didn't take much getting used to tbh. Ethiopian Airlines is not, in seating terms, radically different from BA's premium economy with a bit more leg room. And in several ways it's worse, in particular the complete lack of personal TV. So no movies, no map, no nothing. There were tiny screens hanging down every few rows but I couldn't see one from my seat anyway, and it's broadcast rather than on demand. So, y'know, not great. I've been lucky enough to fly some of the best business classes in the sky, and it's fair to say that Ethiopian is pretty low down the ranking (though I had a much worse experience on Thai once). But I'm clearly being a bit churlish and snobbish: business class is still business class, the seat was comfortable and the service great.

Straight after take off I was given a beer and a cake. A "local", ie Ethiopian beer, called St George. "Fly Ethiopian, Drink Ethiopian". Nice it was too, an opinion which was later canvassed by the staff who were eager to know what I thought, having never tasted it themselves what with being teetotal.

With no entertainment I had 3 ways to entertain myself: keep a notebook, look out the window, or read a book. The notebook is the reason I end up writing so much here, because I wrote so much there, and have no real sense of how to edit myself. I type too much. But anyone who's ever read my blog knows that anyway.

The Alps are gorgeous. I took a bunch of photos of mountains. I'll put them up somewhere soon, I guess.

The book I was reading is Mick Foley's "Foley is Good". I almost gave up on it when he badmouthed the Misfits - only one of the BEST BANDS EVER - on pages 86-87. Bastard. But since he's a double-hard bastard I'll let him off.

We stopped for an hour in Milan, to pick up passengers. Business class did not fill up, in fact only 2 more people came in to this cabin. But occupying the first 2 rows of economy, immediately behind me, were 2 adults and about 8 kids. Young kids. Loud kids. I tried not to let my exasperation show (apart from on twitter) but even the flight attendants were struggling a bit, and they suggested I move about 3 times. On the 3rd time I did, to row 1. For a start this gave me a view of one of the shared screens, but it also put me in front of the two newbies.

Because I could see a screen, I could now keep tabs on the safety announcement. I'm sure they said we had to turn off PDFs rather than PDAs.

Amharic is definitely one of the source languages for the whole "African languages just sound like clicks" stereotype.

The newbies ended up talking very loudly for the first 3 hours, as it was some self-important businessman dictating to his PA. The staff actually suggested I move again, apologising for my bad luck, but I stuck with it. They were always so friendly, and oh boy did they keep the alcohol flowing. Having already had booze in two lounges and two flights I was heading towards drunk, and by the time the meal finished I was another champagne, two beers and a port in. Oh my. The meal itself was a decent chicken curry, albeit with an Ethiopian "hot sauce" that actually seemed to lessen the spiciness of the chicken, not enhance it. Huh. Maybe my awful palette is still awful after all.

I kipped for a bit. It wasn't the best sleep, and was only about 3 hours, but I've had worse on better seats/beds. It was after I woke that I had the realisation that I might need to *ahem* charm the lounge staff into letting me in, having stepped off a business class flight with an economy boarding pass for the next leg(s). But I was in no fit state to charm anyone, what with being shattered and half cut. I also realised I was 216 pages through the biggest book of the 3 I had with me, on day 1 of a 7 day trip; and that this was, actually, my furthest solo holiday ever which hasn't included Australia. Huh.

Landed at Addis Ababa terminal 2 at about 6am, I think. It was not desperately hot, just pleasantly warm. I was first off the plane and into the terminal, shepherded up an escalator, along a corridor, down an escalator and back out onto the tarmac to get a bus to terminal 1 for Zanzibar.

Terminal 2, from the outside and my short experience of its interior, seems pretty modern and nice. Terminal 1 looked, from the outside, like an old hospital.

Terminal 1, on the inside, is like a hospital. No wards, but a big waiting area and 3 League of Friends shops. And a cafe called "London cafe". Heathrow it ain't. Singapore, Hong Kong, hell, Flagstaff it ain't. But there was a lounge, and I was allowed in, without even attempting a winning smile.

The lounge had all the appearance of a British seaside venue, like the dance hall of a hotel that's seen better days - except without the dance floor, just the chrome + leather seats and mirrored walls that surround it. This was pretty charming, actually: I love the bleak British seaside. I also love serving myself a huge plate of omelette and potatoes, washing it down with an Ethiopian Diet Coke. But most of all - in terms relevant to this experience - I love my "it's always 7am somewhere" attitude to long-haul travel, during which I childishly and unhealthily revel in grabbing myself a beer at 7am local time. That's the very long way of saying I grabbed another beer. And, since I was in Ethiopia now, I made it a, er, Heineken. Go me!

I got online and tried to stay awake. I was blinking for ever longer periods of time, sometimes 90-120 seconds. Another diet coke helped me a bit, but not as much as the increasing panic over whether I was actually going to make it to Zanzibar or not. My flight was showing a 75 minute delay, and the lounge completely emptied of people apart from 2 others. The Dar es Salaam-Zanzibar flight is the last of the morning, despite leaving at 1030 - now 1145. The staff had come round announcing each earlier flight so I did assume they would let us know when ours was finally ready for boarding, but panic got the better of me and I left, went through x-rays, and went to the only gate which had people by it.

Lots of people.

Lots of people who didn't speak English. I asked the first guy I saw who looked like staff if it was the Zanzibar flight; his reply was not in English, but he did push me to the desk where, after a phone call, the woman said "Yes!" to me, put a stamp on my boarding pass for no apparent reason, and waved me away. It was about 1150 and boarding hadn't started, but when it did I was glad to leave terminal 1 and ... be put on a bus to the plane, which was sat outside a gate in the superficially much nicer terminal 2. YOU BASTARDS.

Got on, sat down nice and quickly - row 2 - and got back on the champagne. Ah, how sweet it was. It was actually a much nicer and more modern plane, though still without personal TV screens. Again economy was heaving but business mostly empty, and I was tickled when they announced "our first stop is Dar es Salaam", like on a train. A train to Dar es Salaam, I guess.

The safety announcement said laptops were fine once the seatbelt signs were off, but no laptop accessories. There was a picture of a printer with a red line through it. Who the fuck would take a printer on a plane and try to use it?

The woman sat across the aisle from me was SO AGGRAVATING. She complained about the seat - "is this as far as it goes back? the one on my last flight was much better, you know". She ummed and ahhed about whether to have a champagne, orange, or water. She complained about the wine. She complained about the bread. She complained about a lack of garlic. She pretty much stopped a member of cabin crew every other time one of them walked past to make an issue about something. GRARGH.

At Dar es Salaam she spoke to me. To complain, about the cigarette rage we'd just witnessed. Some people had wanted to pop outside for a smoke, just standing on the tarmac... at an airport while we were refuelling. Like one of the most dangerous places you could do that. The cabin crew were so angry with them, almost shouting. "No! This is an airport! Just go and sit back down!". Madness.

By this point I had turned down a beer. The only one of the trip, I think. I had had a post-breakfast Cointreau though. There was no service on the last leg, you couldn't even undo your seatbelts. It was only a 45 mile flight, after all.

At Zanzibar I was first off the plane, and met at the bottom of the steps by a woman who escorted me across the tarmac to the arrivals part of the terminal. Wow. I already had a visa for Tanzania, which seemed to surprise the staff there. So I filled out an arrivals card, turned around from the desk, and was grabbed by the arm. The guy took my card and passport, handed it to one of the immigration officials at a desk - over the shoulders of about 3 or 4 others, none of that "wait at the yellow line" thing going on here, just total chaos. I reached through the crowd to have my fingerprints taken, just generally being let through the border at arm's length. Baggage reclaim was kinda like Launceston in Tasmania: all the bags individually being humped from a dolly onto a desk, with a scramble to grab them. Mine came in on the second batch and I spotted it, signalling to the guy out back who was picking it up, who in turn signalled back.

He understood. I understood. He brought my bag - just my bag - out, and around, into my hands, and while I was fumbling for a tip whispered "tip. tip. tip. tip. tip" into my ear.

In Zanzibar, it pays to be well prepared, and the well prepared pay.

Stumbling into a bevy of cab drivers, looking every bit the disheveled mess I was, I hunted for a guy with my name on a piece of paper. I failed. So I found someone with the same hotel written down and he pointed me towards my guy, who'd been off making a phone call. Luggage in the back, welcomes proffered, water opened and air conditioning turned on, we were off to the hotel. I was somewhat disappointed by how ruly everything was, expecting - for no good reason, really - the roads to be kinda chaotic as per, say, Istanbul, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangalore, Mumbai... y'know, just that general ivory tower "outside Europe and big cities, all traffic is dreadful" stereotype. But it was fine, not a white knuckle ride at all. Rules being kept, safe junctions, etc.

I tweeted this disappointment 30 seconds before we went past a totalled upside down bus being lifted by a crane. And as we left the town outskirts for the 30 miles to the hotel, my driver was ever more frequently picking which side of the road to use based on, I dunno, essentially nothing. There was less and less traffic and more and more cows. And then a police roadblock outside the area of the island where my resort, along with plenty of others, were.

We arrived. I checked in. I tipped various people. I got online. And then I slept. Hello, Africa!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To Brussels. And beyond?

I'm kinda tired. It's been a long day. A long week in fact. In order to best carry that impression onto the page, I'm going to write - at length, so much length - about what happened. Twitter is your best bet if you want a tl;dr version.

Last Thursday I left my flat with a backpack and a suitcase, headed down the hill, up the steps, over the bridge of Surbiton station, down the steps on the other side... and stopped. Swore. Did the journey in reverse. I'd left my mp3 player at home, as well as my notepad. The latter wasn't so bad, I could always buy new paper, but there's no way I was going to survive a week without music, especially as I'd only just taken delivery of 4 Prince albums. So I headed back, stuffed the missing items into my rucksack, and started again. This was inauspicious, and I could really have done with some auspicion. But in its absence, what I needed most was a bus. Then another bus. Then a tube. And then a plane.

Just the one plane. That's all I knew for sure.

I'd been anxious for a while, kinda inexplicably. On a lot of my solo jaunts, in fact on pretty much all of them, I'm pretty carefree. So long as I've got a passport and a credit card or two then, if push comes to shove, there's really not going to be that much of a problem. So I'm not really sure what I was so worried about, but worried I was. I had a BA flight from Heathrow to Brussels booked for sure, and then, well, hrm. I either had zero, one, or two tickets to Zanzibar. That's not normal. One is normal. Zero and two are not.

If you read the post prior to this, you'll see my plan. The dates had changed but the itinerary hadn't. I had spent the last* of my BMI miles on two one-way redemptions: Brussels to Zanzibar via Addis Ababa (and two fuel stops), with Ethiopian Airlines; and Zanzibar to London via Addis Ababa, Frankfurt, and two fuel stops, with Ethiopian and Lufthansa. I'd booked it weeks ago, paid, and heard of no alterations. Yet 4 days before I was leaving, I headed over to checkmytrip.com and, er, neither reservation showed up. On flybmi.com they showed as being on the original dates, and on ba.com they showed as being PAPER TICKETS ONLY.

Wait. What? Paper tickets? No-one gives out paper tickets these days, and I certainly didn't have any. And why was I looking at ba.com anyway? Well, BA bought BMI, and their IT systems were merging. Badly. I got a bit of solace from flyertalk.com users who pointed me to a "classic" version of checkmytrip.com - "classic" being code for "works properly" - and lo and behold, there was my booking. Dates correct, flights correct, no seat assignments (despite me having done those back in April), and an e-ticket number. Good.

And another e-ticket number.


There's a way to check your booking via ticket numbers, directly with Amadeus (the backend system some airlines use). I did that. Both numbers showed up, only one had my name next to it, and an attempt to get the full details just threw errors.

I had tried to checkin online with Ethiopian Airlines. It recognised my booking, had my name and the correct flights, invited me to click ... and then threw an error. Specifically an error saying something non-specific(!) had changed to do with my flights or reservation or ticket, and that I really should call Ethiopian Airlines. In Ethiopia.

I thought about calling (not just Ethiopian, but maybe BMI? or even BA?) to see what the hell was going on, but since I hate phone calls I didn't bother. No, I'd take my separate flight to Brussels, wait, for checkin to open, and see what happened. All part of the adventure, right?

I'd checked in on my phone for the BA flight, so as soon as I got off the tube I went to a bag drop desk and, um, paused. The BA app wouldn't show the boarding pass, because it just kept crashing. Way to go, Android. Turns out it throws a fatal error if it can't get a data signal, something it was struggling to do. Eventually it worked and I resolved to just keep the damn thing on screen as much as possible.

At security I ended up in a queue behind what appeared to be Tetsuo. Or maybe Barry Sheen. That metal detector sure did love him.

It had been a long time since I'd been in a BA lounge. Because of my BMI/Star Alliance allegiance I'd hardly flown BA for years, and when I did I had no means of getting into a lounge. I'm not forking out silly money for business class intra-Europe, and I don't have any shiny cards. Except I do! Hurrah! Thanks to my Amex Platinum - taken out purely to get a bunch of miles, of course - I've got a Cathay Pacific gold card despite not flying them since 2006. Gold with them is equivalent of Silver with BA, and otherwise known as Sapphire across the whole oneworld alliance. Yeah. Uh. Whatever. Basically this means I can get into the business class lounges when I fly BA, so that's what I did.

"Hello! Here's my boarding pass , and, er, I've got this card"
"OK Mr Foreman, you're fly...ing....econ...omy...let's...see... this card isn't on the booking?"
"No, it's not. I want to collect miles with BA. But this card lets me in, right?"
"Right, yes, yes it does. I'm going to add 'oneworld sapphire' to your booking. Welcome!"

They may or may not have pronounced the correct typography. But, y'know, yay! [Like]

I'd decided to start using foursquare.com while heading to Heathrow. Essentially because I wanted to do location stuff on twitter, not Facebook, which I've mostly given up using. So when I got into BA lounge I did my very first checkin.

Oh dear. It auto-tweeted some horrifying thing about being a certified newbie. I was so ashamed. But, as usual, the first flush of free alcohol helped to nullify the shame. As is customary, I started with a London Pride. Mmm. London Pride. From a, er, tin. Bleh. But, free.

BA lounge food has got a lot better in the last couple of years. Self-service chicken korma was very decent, and I washed it down with a second Pride and a Malarone anti-malarial tablet. Being the reading type (and the writing type) and the somewhat nervous about health type, I read the leaflet about side-effects. The nurse at my surgery had warned me to take paracetamol because I was likely to feel ropey. The leaflet listed symptoms that over 1 in 10 people get. That's a huge proportion! And then the symptoms which "up to" 1 in 10 people get, and then the ones where they just don't know the frequency, OK? STOP ASKING.

One of the symptoms is "crying". Like Rob said: these were, potentially, emo tablets. Was giving them to a melodrama queen like me such a good idea? I s'pose avoiding malaria is kinda worth it...

I didn't have any paracetamol. I had no idea what gate my flight was at (and it could have been at the satellite terminal, which adds a good 20 minutes to the walk). And I didn't want to drink too much, in case I had to be properly with it in Brussels. So I upped, 2 drinks in, and headed out to Boots.

By which I mean WH Smith. I walked all over T5 and could not bloody find Boots, apart from a big "coming soon: Boots!" sign. Even after following the "Pharmacy --->" sign I failed. I did see a lot of duty free shops, which reminded me of the ones in Sydney which were dishing out free spirits samples at 9am back in January. Just as I was thinking, pah, Sydney beats London, that's not good, I spotted a lass handing out free Jura whisky. Didn't partake, but TAKE THAT, Australia.

I had a gin and tonic on the flight. And that's it. There was no food service. To be fair we were only in the air for about 40 minutes, but they used to do a lightning service even on the shortest hauls. I mean, this isn't a big deal, but just a bit surprising.

So. I'm in Belgium. I've got my suitcase back. I've found the Ethiopian Airlines checkin desk. I've got a €50 note in my pocket, a shitload of US dollars in my bag (useful currency in Africa, especially in countries where it's illegal to take their own currency out. Like, say, Tanzania). And I've got an hour to kill. There was a bar called "CafĂ© Stella Artois" which sold Leffe, and it was tempting, as was the American diner, but instead I just perched on a seat and fretted.

5.15pm - 3hrs before takeoff - arrived, and I sauntered up to the business class checkin desk. Handed over my passport and a printout of (one of) my e-ticket(s).

"Tanzania? Visa on arrival?"
"No, there's a visa in there"
"Oh, yes. Great!"

and pretty much before I knew it, there I was, checked in all the way to Zanzibar, my final destination. Hurrah! Not that I had boarding passes for both legs, mind - for some unexplained reason they couldn't issue the second flight's pass there at the desk, but I was assured that "someone will find [me] at the gate". Well alrighty then. I was off to Africa, via the Brussels Airlines lounge, a bottle of Leffe Brune, a Stella, and a whole lot of cheese. And Milan. But, eventually, it would be new continent ahoy!