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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

That Was The Greek That Was

Well Friday night was a washout. Stayed in my room for a few hours, couldn't be bothered trekking down hills in the rain to anywhere for a Friday night by myself in central Athens so figured I'd just eat in the hotel. Went to the bar and they told me they didn't do food. Had the place to myself for 2 beers worth of time before heading to bed, foodless, and to watch WWE NXT Takeover REvolution which was fucking fantastic.

Slept pretty badly. Probably as a result of dehydration and general lack of calories throughout Friday, but it wasn't helped by being woken up by the shagging couple upstairs at 0430. Tried to drown them out with some BBC R4 which didn't work very well, eventually nodded off for some shitty quality sleep and managed to crawl out of bed to get breakfast at 0915. So much for my plan of a long night's uninterrupted kip followed by an early checkout for lots of Athens viewing but, ah, whatever.

The weather and breakfast were both much better than on Friday. The olives didn't smell so bad and there was more of everything, presumably because I hadn't turned up with only 5 minutes to go. Hadn't taken my bag and wasn't in a hurry, I figured I would have a shower and pack and then go for the 1111 bus. But y'know what? Fuck that bus. I've walked around Venice without a map so I'm pretty sure I can navigate Athens. Bag on my back, up to the Acropolis and down the pedestrianised bit past the man walking his dog while riding a segway (what?) and hey presto, I come out exactly where I want to be, at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. €2 off a surly ticket guy and I'm in, for a wander around some pretty pretty ruined ruins. The sky is blue, it's warm, and the ruins look excellent. I bring out the Hipstamatic filters to see if I can pretend I know how to compose a photo, and get annoyed by photobombers.

Back out via a photo of the arch, I walk through the natural gardens, which is nice enough. There are lots and lots of dogs. I go past some yellow building which looks fairly interesting, but I have no idea what it is and am not of a mind to particularly find out. My spidey sense tells me I'm heading in the right direction for the Panatheniac stadium and after some statue of a bloke on a horse, there it is. It looks magnificent.

Surly ticket seller gives way to surly ticket checker and surly audio guide distributor and I am standing in the world's only stadium made of marble, a place 2400+ years old which holds 60k+ people and was home to quite a lot of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It's amazing. I slowly peel around the side of the track listening to the audio guide, stopping to look at the original royal box, climbing up a bunch of rows but refusing to go up the way way way too steep second tier. It's so much better than the Samaranch egotism of the Barcelona stadium and museum.

The views from every angle are fantastic and you're allowed on the track, but I don't go in just yet, choosing instead to follow the audio tour guide. Past the half way point there is a large door and there isn't just a story, but you go in, through this cave-like tunnel, up to an area where naked women used to dance around flames to try and make sure they'd snag decent fellas, and then up into the changing rooms where there is an exhibition of actual Olympic flame torches from masses of games - Summer and Winter - plus official posters. It is a bit jarring to see the 1936 (Nazi Berlin) and 1948 (London) posters next to each other. I am in awe of the sporting history and getting goosebumps.

Back down through the tunnel I really can imagine what it must have been like - well, of course I can't, but you know what I mean - to have been an athlete stepping out in front of a ravenous crowd of so many people ready to watch the pinnacle of human sporting achievement. There are stories from 1896, where 70,000 people packed in from a city which at the time only had a population of 128,000. Holy shit!

Everything is marble. Some of the architectural members are originals from 2400 years ago. The drainage system is 1800 years old and has never had any work done to it. You can see all of Athens's other major landmarks from the seats - the Acropolis and Parthenon, St George's cathedral, the mountains, etc. I learn that the length of one side of the track is 185 yards, a distance which used to be called a 'stade', and that's why places where sports take place are called stadiums. I learn that the 1900 and 1904 Olympics were both shit so there was a bonus 1906 "intermediate" games, in Athens, to show Paris and St Louis how to do it - followed by the 1908 where we Brits changed the length of the marathon because reasons.

I am totally overwhelmed by how much I enjoy the whole place, and finish the tour by walking a full circuit of the track in lane 4, and wishing there was someone around who could take a photo of me standing on the podium.

It's a shame to leave, but leave I do. I decide it's kinda time to try and get a Guinness, since all this proper tourism is making me quite emotional. Back through the natural gardens I wander up to Syntagma square oppoosite the parliament, figuring a photo of the legislature of the home of democracy is probably the done thing. The guard is being changed by the tomb of the unknown soldier but I cannot be arsed to watch it, especially because it's so much worse than the Moscow version. Sorry, Athens, but it is.

Past the square and all the groups of protestors and hordes of other folk I'm in winging it mode. I stroll through lots of pedestrianised streets, where "pedestrianised" means "also two way for motorbikes", and nearly trip over numerous stray dogs. I'm totally guessing my way towards Monastiraki where I believe the James Joyce Irish pub is. After a while on lots of side streets which appear to constitute the ancient hardware store quarter of Athens I decide to give up and check a map. I am about 10 minutes walk from the pub but have indeed gone slightly wrong.

The walk from where I am to where I want to be takes me past yet more bona fide tourism - the super-bustling fruit, veg and fish markets. They smell incredible. The streets are really fucking busy and I'm really quite enjoying myself. This has to stop, and sure enough does when on one of those streets where its pretty impossible to figure out how traffic ever gets anywhere, I get stuck behind two locals who seem unable to cross the fucking road. Jesus Christ, the cars are going to slowly it would be impossible to get hurt. Just step out! Someone else arrives and does just that, kinda barging the girls out of the way, and I cross in their wake.

All along the walk I'd been prepared to go in the first Guinness vendor I saw, but actually I saw barely any pubs. Maybe bad luck, but I think more likely that drinking is done in districts (unlike England with its "pubs everywhere" philosophy). Just before I reach my destination, another Guinness-pimping boozer looms but since I'm only a couple of doors away I hold firm.

I grab a seat at the bar and order a pint of Guinness and a plate of fish and chips. The drink is divine, and both the fish and the chips are giant hefting great examples of their ilk. I nom the lot down like a bastard and then ask the barman how long it'll take to get to the airport. I suggest it's about an hour, he says 'noo, nothing like it', asks me what time I'm flying, skirts around the point, and convinces me to buy a second pint. It was not difficult.

In my pad I write ATHENS in big letters, with a box next to it, which I tick. I take my metaphors very seriously. I am inordinately happy with all kinds of things, and tell Mike by text - who was kind enough to tell me that this weekend I have won the Internet - that there is yet another decent blog post title on its way. I hope he's satisfied with this one.

My flight is delayed. So is the previous one. Mine is showing anything between 30 and 45 minutes, while the 1430 is now not leaving until 1735. Since I was aiming for the airport at about 1615 anyway, I hatch a plan. The airport does, of course, take about an hour to get to, because I'm right and I know my stuff and that barman shouldn't have doubted me. The tube journey is spent standing because it's busy, and I am wondering why the busking kids choose to use accordions. Second only to fucking bagpipes, the only way they're getting euros out of me is if they promise to fucking stop playing their cunting instruments.

Airports are easy to navigate and before I know it I am in the BA lounge, asking if they can fit me on the delayed flight. Probably not, unless I have a flexible ticket, is the answer. I say I presume the delays are a knock-on from yesterday's London airspace issue and she looks at me like I'm some kind of fucking idiot while telling me that no, it's totally unrelated. Sitting down, I see her print out a boarding pass and wonder if she has managed to get me on the early flight but alas no, she's just telling me the plane has changed and so has my seat. Damn it. For this flight I've had seat 6A, 18A, 21A, 10E, and now 12J. I feel dizzy :-(

And, uh, that's it. I fly in some indeterminate amount of time to Heathrow and that's country 50 done. I need to buy some ouzo, and then bask in my own narcissistic glory. Here, almost certainly, endeth my blog for 2014 and right now I have no travel planned for 2015 until July. It surely can't stay that way for long...

Friday, December 12, 2014

Whoops Acropolis

Blogging is so much easier now I have a keyboard for my iPad. However, it beomes harder again when I lean back on the headboard of this bed only to discover it's not a headboard, but the wall, and as I lean the bed rolls forward away from it. Gah.

Yeah, in - well, on - bed at just gone 3pm Friday. But I have, like, done stuff.

Didn't go to the bar last night after all. Watched a bit of BBC World and then kipped in pitch darkness for fucking ages. Hell(enic) yeah recreational sleep. Woke up about 8am and laid around listening to iPlayer 'til finally getting up just in time to make it down for breakfast. I hadn't remembered ordering a room which came with breakfast but am very glad I did.

Mind you, it was pretty ropey. The room in which it's served is next to the pool - one of the least attractive propositions ever, given the continued grim, bleak, rainy weather. The whole city was covered in fog and cloud. The scrambled eggs were nice, as were the meats and orange juice but Jesus Christ the olives smelt DISGUSTING. Also had a bowl of fruit and yoghurt, which I believe counts as legit tourism.

Having seen the city sightseeing bus leaflet at reception yesterday I figured I'd ask them where the stop was. As it goes they sold me a ticket for the dual tour (there are two routes) and the stop is just up the road, with the bus due to leave in just under 10 minutes. Whoa! Thankfully I'd brought all my stuff with me to breakfast so set off out in the pissing awful rain, trying to keep my feet on the slippery pavements - where there were pavements, that is. They disappear every few yards and occasionally reappear on the other side of the road. Meh.

Got to the stop at the exact same time as the bus. Took a seat downstairs, even though they'd put the covers on upstairs I figured it would still be quite wet up there. Plugged the headphones in and settled back for a tour of Athens.

The tour has mutltiple themes running through it. Athens is full of old shit; they invented democracy and drama; they love sport; every single stop is a fantastic place to get off and do stuff on hot summer days. That last one was rammed home so much I almost stopped enjoying the bleak, off season misery painted on everyone's faces.

There's a funicular railway up a hill, which I might seek out tomorrow. Some excavations during the building of the metro led them to find even more ancient stuff, as if they haven't got enough, and that's pretty cool. Like Crossrail and that. Went past the big hitters - Syntagma square, parliament (complete with protestors opposite), the national gardens, this incredible old panathenaic(?) stadium, tomb of the unknown soldiers - of which I got precisely no photos. Most of the windows downstairs on the tour bus are impossible to see through, and anyway the weather was bleak and etc. I made notes both of what I was learning and where I might want to get off on a subsequent circuit, if the weather gets better.

At one point they mentioned a site where Paul - biblical Paul, that is - proselytized to a tough crowd of philosophers, stoics, and epicureans. Pick your audience, man. And in one part of town they made an explicit "yeah, looks shady, but try not to be scared" point. There was an Irish bar near there. Hmm.

During one long gap between stops they do a bit of spiel about how City Sightseeing is all over the world, you can get a 10% discount on future tours with today's ticket, and then list off some of the exciting amazing places you can do these tours. Their very first example is Blackpool. Later on, Norwich. Um. Really.

At Syntagma Square, second time, we were shunted from one bus onto another so I took the opportunity to sit upstairs in the wet and cold. We went past Hadrian's Arch and they said, um, something in the vicinity took 637 years to build. Bloody hell. And then, after that, we reached the stop where I'd got on, at the Acropolis. The weather hadn't got any better so, fuck it, I'm clearly not going to do any of those other places so I might as well do the one nearest my hotel.

Turns out the whole Acropolis/Parthenon thing is fucking fantastic. €12 to get in and it's this vast site full of ruins and aceness. I had it mostly to myself, only a handful of other hardy resolute fools braving the rain which was coupled with quite an annoying wind, what with being up top of a hoofing great hill. Most people fought with umbrellas, because they're idiots.

As I left the Parthenon to explore the rest of the complex, about 200 people arrived on some tour. I think I photobombed nearly everyone's first two pics. I had to stand and just chill for a bit as they just got to the top of some steps and crowded there so no-one could get past. It wasn't even the place with the best view, nor most room. GET OUT OF MY WAY.

Eventually got past them and then headed down to the Dionysus Theatre. Having now seen it I think Dionysus is Greek for "Dave the Precarious", what with it being totally bonkers steep, flanked by slippery paving and landslips. Took a bunch more photos of old stuff. The rain had actually largely disappeared, but it was still very dark and ominously cloudy. Some statues were made in the 4th C BC. That's pretty fucking old!

Bought a very very cheap bottle of water and wandered back to the main complex towards the exit, during which walk I had my ticket checked by a lass at a gate. By doing this, she seemed to make the stray cat next to her very very angry and demand a lot more attention. Back out and to this other marble bit of ruins just outside the ticket area and a set of stray dogs were following one couple who clearly had a very nice smelling bag. Soon after they disappeared a shitload of dog barking echoed around the area. Suspicious.

Back to the bus stop, well timed for the second tour of the day. My ticket is valid for 48 hours on two routes, one around Athens and one out to Piraeus, the main port. So having done the former I figured I'd do the latter. A group of Australian tourists were getting off my bus and asking for help with getting to some address, by asking repeatedly what area they should put in their GPS. "Athens. Put Athens" "But our GPS won't accept Athens". And to think they were trying to find out how to get to where their hire car is waiting...

The Piraeus tour started off in surprisingly intelligent fashion, wielding the words "vicissitudes" and "capricious" in the first couple of minutes. But that was really the most interesting thing about the tour. We drove along a motorway, passed Olympiakos's stadium and a bunch of 2004 summer olympics venues and about 100 massive strip clubs.

In Piraeus there was an English bar and Irish bar near the main cruise terminal but I chose not to get off. Then regretted it, but, no matter. Piraeus is a giant port with 40km of working coastline, plus a couple of nice (in the summer, etc etc) beach and port resorts on the way back. Also branches of Natwest and RBS. What?

Throughout that second tour the rain had started to really come down again. Back at the Acropolis I was thinking how badly situated my hotel is for going out on the sauce, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that I'm fucking starving, and can't decide which of "Whoops Acropolis" and "Acropolis Now" makes for the better blog post title. Having come back to the hotel to write this and therefore solve the latter problem, I guess it's about time I sought some solids.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Greek mid-winter

Anyone who doesn't think that's the fucking jackpot of champagne-swigging first class blog post titles can stop reading right now.

I stayed in the lounge until about 1130, with a flight time of 1220. I don't really know why I haven't learnt my lesson yet but I still give myself way too much time at the gate - big bird to Joburg notwithstanding - when flying cattle class and/or from airports where boarding announcements aren't made from the lounge.

Flight BA632 LHR-ATH was leaving from gate A12, slap bang in the middle of the main T5 terminal. Right now it's hidden behind a load of building works which means all the passengers are cramped in to an area not really big enough for them. I walked to and straight through it since I was way too early, but I did spot that fast track boarding would be in effect. Trying to be sensible, I rearranged all my explosives and other stuff such that everything I wanted for the flight was in my coat pockets or hands.

Fast track boarding was a fucking joke. They announced it very clearly, slowly, obviously, and then various members of staff got angry, shouting at the hordes of people trying to get on board when they weren't yet allowed. And then some passengers got angry too. For fucks sake. I eventually bowled through and took my seat 19A, window, over the wing.

I forgot how little room you get for stuff in an economy seat. I shouldn't have forgotten - for fucks sake, I've almost flown as many economy miles as fat cat this year, and over 25000 since the last time I was up front. But still I got it wrong. It was trick to stow my pad, phone, USB brick, iPad and headphones as well as the coat and I was all kinds of clumsy and uncomfortable. Then I felt better when the clumsy git with the giant laptop and tablet sat next to me and proceeded to have a loud conversation with the row behind - which mostly involved him turning his head half way and shouting in my fucking ear.

Kept dozing off. Don't really know why. At one point I woke up and my headphones were nowhere to be seen, and I still don't have them now. It's a mystery to me how I can have lost them, but I did, so I opened the provided ones which were fucking awful and broken. No podcasts for me. The plane was heaving full and I was actually, finally, a little bit excited to be going to Athens.

We didn't leave. The first officer made an announcement - they'd found a drawing pin stuck into one of the tyres, so had sent for engineers to change it. This does not appear to be as efficient a manoeuvre as in Formula One and they said it would take 20 minutes. 25 minutes later I'd received a helpful alert from kayak telling me my flight was going to leave late, and the first officer said we'd take another 20 minutes. We eventually left an hour and a quarter late, with my seatmate being called out by the staff for still dicking around with his bag in the aisle as we were on the runway. Sigh.

The doziness wore off and I played a bit of pinball on the iPad, eventually scoring 2 of my highest ever 6 scores on the table I've played more than any other. Go me! And then service started. First, beer and a bag of bird seed. Some people tried to complain about the food, not realising - by which I mean, not listening to them having said - that the proper food was coming separately. I appreciated the announcement that if anyone wanted a drink, just hit call. For some reason my seatmate hit call just as they were serving 2 rows ahead of us. I was quite distressed by the lack of space and constant mouth and elbows all flight. Meh.

At some point there were some nice mountains outside, but the 767 has entertainment on the drop down screens rather than a moving map so I'm fucked if I know what and where they were. The main food was a full meal - pasta bake with bacon and mushrooms, bread roll, cheese and crackers, and a ginger sponge cake. And another beer. The cabin crew member asked me if he could borrow the milk from my tray since I wasn't going to have coffee. Borrow?

I bought some headphones from Duty Free thus making myself the first person I've ever seen buying electronics from the inflight magazine.

Landing was bumpy. Nigh on 80% of the cabin leaped to their feet and started fighting for their bags before the sign went off and consequently ended up standing up queueing to get out for a good 15 minutes. I just sat still. I know we were late, but, really, enough with the hurrying. I overtook half of them anyway on the way to the exit.

I navigated Athens airport like a champ. Stepped out landside - hello, country #50, box ticked - and went straight to the ATM for €120. Turned away and was already facing the signs to the trains - out the door, across the road, holy shit that is some serious rain. Along the pavement, up one floor in the lift, round the corner to two escalators, across a bridge and here's the ticket office. As usual, most people seem to be ignoring the machines so I just waltzed up to the one labeled Metro (not Suburban Railway) and bought a return to the city, down the stairs and onto the almost deserted, freezing cold, wet station platform. This is proper horror movie opening scene torrential rain, really noisy and the station has a roof but is exposed still and everyone else - there are about 10 peope around - looks fucking miserable. I am happier than a pig in shit and can tell I'm grinning.

The metro arrives after 15 minutes and a guy starts talking to me as we get on. He starts off in Greek which draws a blank look, so asks me if I'm English, which I am. I learn he's staying just round the corner from Acropoli metro which, as far as I know, so am I. I spend the first 15 minutes of conversation totally failing to figure out if his accent is Welsh or not. He is German. I'm not doing very well here. We chat, and a couple of English lads ask me for tube advice/directions too. Clearly I look knowledgable.

The metro to Syntagma takes forever and gets really fucking mad crowded. Me and the German change onto the line to Acropoli at which he consults his phone for directions. Despite wearing glasses and having giant fonts, he still has to hold it about 1cm from his eyes. Wow. His hotel is nearer the station to me and because of cobbles and just general geniality I help him with his bags to his hotel and then set off to my own using Google maps as my guide. It takes me straight into a deserted unlit residential area but I am a slae to the blue dot on the blue line and trust it. At one point I go up a very steep road which ends with a much much steeper set of stairs, which makes me wonder why the fuck I chose a hotel with "Hill" in its name.

But, hey presto, there it is, the Acropolis Hill hotel. It seems very quiet. There was no-one in the streets and there is no-one in the bar (yet). I check in and have things explained to me, starting with how to find room 504. Turns out reception, at street level, is on floor 3. So I'm 2 floors above that, and breakfast, on the 1st floor, is two floors below reception. I mean what the fuck. Didn't this lot invent numbers? How have they got this so wrong?

There's a cracking view of the Acropolis and Athens in general from a roof terrace, and a shit view of a wall with graffiti on it from my room's balcony. I believe they also invented democracy round here somewhere and today, with Russell Brand and Nigel Farage on Question Time back home, I mostly feel like apologising to everyone for what we've done. It was never meant to be this way.

Greece is the word

Oh, hello London Heathrow terminal 5, BA galleries lounge. What an excellent place to be on an excellent day. Though obviously it rarely fails to be an excellent day when I'm on the free scran and sauce about to board a plane. This is a bit different though - I'm not just flying somewhere random, I'm about to hit my half century of countries before 2014 finishes. And I'm quite chuffed about that.

I wrote about my supposed quest to reach 50 countries last year. I really wasn't sure I'd make it so soon back then, but this has been a bit of a decent year for travel even without the assistance of any GCERC-style lunacy. And in fact, if plans had gone as they were meant to go I would have been finishing 2014 in country number 51, and that country would have been North Korea, and I would have been in a brewery, and I'm not even joking. But then ebola broke out in various west African nations so Kim decided to close his country's borders to everyone - after I'd already booked flights and a tour, dagnabbit - so I had to scrabble around for an alternative. So this post finds me settling in to a couple of cans of London Pride and some thoroughly disappointing elevenses prior to a flight to Athens in that there Greece.

As it goes I'm really quite ambivalent about the North Korea thing. On the one hand I'm really fucked off about it - it's my absolute number one dream destination to visit and they had best not have some form of populace liberating transition to unity and a removal of their pariah status before I get my mollycoddled guided tour. On the other hand, I would have been out of the country when AFC Wimbledon host Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup and fuck that for a lark. I've missed enough big games and I have not looked forward to a game like this in fucking years. A decent silver lining that.

Aaaaanyway. I haven't been so unprepared for a trip in ages. I left the house at 0840 having started packing at 0825. I washed some clothes at 0030, after I got in from a night out boozing and stuff. I haven't printed out the address of my hotel, any guides on how to use the Athens metro, or in fact anything at all. I have no euros and the only thing I know for certain is that when I get there I shouldn't moon people because the UK government says not to.

I presume that everything will work out just fine because it basically always does. I'm staying in a hotel with Acropolis in its name, near the Acropolis, near Acropolis metro station. If I can't find the Acropolis in Athens then I should have my passport confiscated. Pfft.

So my journey here. Meh. Woke up to an email telling me my flight was an hour late, then another saying it was 45 minutes, then 19 minutes, then on time. I was kinda hoping it would stay an hour late tbh. Left the house way earlier than I do for work and suffered a horrific rush hour bus ride to Kingston followed by a much better one to Hatton Cross. Lots of people confused that the bus was terminating there rather than the central bus station and a bit angry, none of them seemingly aware - or believing the driver - that they will get to their termin much quicker by changing at Hatton Cross for the tube. I spent the whole journey listening to wrestling podcasts (Steve Austin seems to think a JD and coke is a cocktail - really, Steve) and Freakonomics talk lots about fraud in the pet cremation business, which was an odd topic. I also wrote down fucking loads of puns involving the word "Greek" and have come up with what I consider to be the perfect one, which I will unleash on a later post.

At Feltham a lorry went past which had the words LINFORD CHRISTIE emblazoned across the top of the windscreen, as if the driver was called Linford and the passenger Christie. Really?

As usual I was totally well prepared for going through security like a boss. There were virtually no queues but I was hindered by a girl who seemed to have hand luggage WAY too heavy for her to carry or even drag on wheels. Went in a different queue, brief chat with the friendly security guy, through the x-ray, waited for my bag and coat and etc to come out the other side.

Why isn't it coming out the other side? Why is the woman asking whose iPad that is? Why is my bag going down the secondary "this set off alarms" route?

Turns out my bag set off alarms. Oh. I was asked to unzip it and then she delved through the contents, taking stuff out and swabbing it with that magic stick thing and pointing out to me on the monitor that my little carrier bag full of electronics (USB batteries, cables, plugs, etc) was densely packed and looked shifty. But she was fine with it, just had to check the swab and put the bag back through.

BING BING BING BING BING loud noise everyone stares. Me and someone on the next lane simulatenously set off the second stage alarms with the results of that test. Oh. So she pisses off to find a supervisor. He comes along, asks what the deal is, looks happy and genial with a clipboard and then looks at something on the screen and then at me and comes to have a word. The geniality drops from his face a bit. My bag has indeed tested positive for explosives.

This is quite a surprise. I tell them that everything in the bag is mine, tempting as it was to just blame someone else. I tell them I'm flying direct, that I don't work with chemicals, and that I'm travelling for pleasure. And he writes these things down on the form on his clipboard and then says that they'll have to do something else, and away he goes. There is some conflab, after which the first woman comes back with my stuff and says, OK, you're fine to go now. I am somewhat bemused, largely relieved I haven't accidentally brought semtex with me but ever so slightly disappointed I didn't get to experience the full-on "take the guy with the big beard into an interrogation room" experience.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Putting the 'fun' into 'funicular'

A nondescript flight ensued. Crap tea accompanied a passable ham and cheese croissant plus some juice orange in name and colour, but not in taste and presumably not in composition either. We all had our own entertainment - Loz's daughter was alternately excited by the outdoors and the iPad, Loz kindle fiddled, and I got angry at pinball. Why is my best game always the one as I'm coming in to land? Bah.

It was a pretty bumpy descent. Winds had already closed the cable car up Ulriken-ken-ken and we felt why. I don't mind a bit of turbulence but it turns out Loz really isn't a fan. Aww.

On the ground, I scoped out how easy a back-to-back turn at BGO is and discovered it would be trivially easy, almost easier than at Jersey, which kinda makes me annoyed I didn't book one of the double open jaw Norway-USA/USA-Germany flights I was tracking for a while the other week. Bah.

BA have their own gates here, presumably thanks to our awkward refusal to participate in Schengen. So there are passport checks right there, and we went through after a few minutes while Loz got some BA ground staff to retrieve his daughter's lost cardigan from the plane.

Through the terminal and out, we went to the car hire desk and picked up some paperwork which allowed us to go to a different car hire desk underneath a hotel a few hundred yards away. 1150 and we're in a car. None of us really know what we're doing. Loz hasn't driven on the right for a while and I'm navigating while we are ... distracted by some input from the back seat. There is only one moment where we almost crash as we head into Bergen proper.

The city centre is a bit confusing with regards where to park but we eventually find a huis near where we think we want to be, and get out for a day of doing stuff. By now it's about 1230, and raining, though not too badly. Unknown to us, we stroll right past the tourist information place and immediately spot the Floibanen entrance. This is a funicular railway from the city centre up top of one of Bergen's 7 mountains, our back up plan given the Ulriken fail.

After discussing currency strategy we settle on using Loz's commission free credit card, only to discover while attempting to pay for tickets that he's actually forgotten the bloody PIN. So I pay instead, and we get on a crowded carriage ready for our trip up to 320m above sea level. Ears have barely recovered from the flight and they get another workout, but 10 minutes later we are looking out over Bergen's awesome vistas.

Photos are taken and I get jealous of the people running. It's a stunning place to be, even given the cold and grey weather. After Loz attempts to explain to his nipper what he'd like to do, he gets an excellent "yes but it's not always about what you want, dad" response. We go into the restaurant, where sweet goods are purchased and (grudgingly) eaten. Pretty much as soon as we go inside, the heavens open in a big way. It is torrential out there and our timing is excellent because, being so windy, the rain disappears when we set foot back outside after finishing up.

A couple more photos of fjord glimpses and we find the children's playground complete with troll at the entrance. I want a photo of course, but there are 3 women taking photos of themselves in various poses. In fact they seem intent on each having a solo pic taken with it, then every combination of 2 of them, and aren't willing to pause their choreography for anyone until they spend 5 minutes agonising over the photos they did take... at which point a few people jumped in front of me. But finally I got my shot. It is unimpressive.

Our young cohort had spent all the time blissfully unaware of my misanthropy, instead amusing herself on the swings. But the weather was turning again, with a bit of rain and some bitter winds, so we set off back down the mountain.

Half way down, we stopped. After a couple of minutes an announcement was made in Norwegian, which someone prompted her to repeat in English. Turns out the train was broken, she couldn't fix it, and she had to wait for a technician to come fix it. We weren't next to any platforms (there are intermediate stops), but she was still willing to let people out if they were up to stepping across the gap and clambering along a slippery thin wall on a 20% incline in the passing freezing windy rain.

Surprisingly to me at least, plenty of people were willing to take that offer. It's a 20 minute walk back down from where we are stuck, and I see Loz and child leave their carriage. What? Turns out it's an emergency loo break, after which they just about persuade the grumpy driver to open the fence gate and let them back into my carriage.

I'm loving this and so is Loz. Disaster is not disaster and besides, I'm good at submitting to the unchangeable. An excuse to just do nothing for a while is great, and anyway I just like unforeseen things happening in my normally ruthlessly well planned travels.

8.5 year olds do not feel the same. This one very much wanted to get out and walk, down a very steep mountain in what is now fully apocalyptic rain, rather than be bored sitting in a train which ain't moving. Honestly the weather is so so shocking so Loz and I hold firm, until about 20 minutes in we are on the verge of relenting when, without announcement or ceremony, the train starts up and before we know it were back at ground level.

Someone is thirsty and has been promised a drink. More than one person, in fact. The rain falling at higher altitudes has the cheek to continue failing down to the bottom - we are getting soaked, and my decision to wear no waterproof coat, leaky footwear, and my least waterproof trousers is not paying off. Seeking out good liquids, we wander past McDonald's and a hybrid Indian/Spanish restaurant before my pub radar is called upon, and I lead is towards a sign I had the briefest glimpse of a few steps back.

What a cracking pub. Had a local beer which, I believe, was £8 for 500ml. Yowser. This kid noted the speed with which my drink disappeared: "you must really like beer!". I assured the precocious (and completely right) scamp that all liquids disappear at a similar rate, actually.

While there, I hunted things to do in Bergen that aren't boats or mountains. Turns out there are loads of museums including a Leprosy Museum - which I would have LOVED to go to - but basically everywhere is shut, either for the day or the year (indeed, until May). The only one which does not say it's shut is a school museum just up the road.

Just up the very very very very wet road, that is. We get totally soaked, again, walking past an excellently stereotypical poster for a black metal gig in Bergen. Heh. The museum is easy to find but we virtually have to break in through the gates to get to the door, which is shut because the museum is shut because. I presume, it's winter. I know it's off season, but, c'mon.

Back towards the water and a stop in McDonald's. I don't eat, but am told it's £8 for a cheeseburger, the smallest size of which they sell is a double, and that despite tens of happy meal balloons they don't do happy meals. Out of the window I discern that rain has stopped, so we can go do some more tourism.

The old town in Bergen is a UNESCO world heritage site, and thus largely made of wood. We enter the complex via the nearest corridor (beyond yet another shut museum) and seem to spook a peculiarly scantily dressed woman, who hurries off ahead of us. A few pics of wooden buildings are taken and the other two enter a fishing supplies shop, which is apparently an interesting experience. "Shitfisk" maybe?

We keep walking alongside the port until running out of Bergen, so head back. The rain comes back and with it a sudden desire for the loo. Not by yours truly, you understand. When do schools start teaching the value of the tactical piss anyway? As father and daughter nip into Starbucks I wait outside, and now the rain really starts. I still haven't succumbed to putting my coat on, but now have to resort to double bagging my head with beanie and hood. It is thoroughly unpleasant and I am having a fucking ball, as I have been all day and in fact as we all have, age related pico-tantrums notwithstanding.

We wander back round the port and see that the tourist information board is, in fact, closed. Of course it is. There's seemingly fuck all left for us to do, and I certainly cannot conjure up any suggestions. If I was on my own I'd probably have just gone back to the pub, or maybe tried either Scruffy Murphy's or the horrific English pub called "Three Lions" we'd spotted earlier. But I'm not alone, there's a driver and a child and hours to kill.

Proving my worth, I navigate us back to the car park with 100% confidence despite no map, and via streets we had neither driven nor walked before. I do like my sense of direction, and now so do Loz and his kid. We decide to drive towards the airport and then look for interesting stuff en route or nearby.

There's fuck all. The entire internet says all the interesting things near Bergen airport are in Bergen. So we drive straight past the airport and wing it. My phone says there's some kind of town on a peninsular nearby, but Loz's satnav app doesn't believe the place exists. Nonetheless we head down dark gravel tracks through unlit forests with bears and horses and stuff and end up in this tiny enclave of fjordfront houses and are impressed, bemused, and wondering just how Norse-Deliverance it might be around here. 

We bother the horses once more as we return to the airport via a petrol station where finally something is cheap: petrol. Then our finances take a massive beating as we retreat, 3 hours before our flight, to the bar in the hotel above our car hire return and pay ELEVEN BASTARD QUID A PINT for Norse lager. Time to go back to the glory of £4,24 a pint at home, methinks,

What the duck?

Greetings from, currently, seat 8C on BA758 from Heathrow to Bergen, Norway. I'm sat next to Loz, his daughter, and her duck who keeps thinking I'm Wooj. I have no idea who should be more offended by this continual misidentification. I haven't gone full Keith Harris yet, but I'm not betting against it before the day is out.

Pretty much as soon as I got back from the Joburg madness I thought, y'know, maybe I should take a break from flying for a while. That really was a bit much. But then a couple of hours passed and I thought, hang on, I made BA bronze and quite fancy making a run for silver in the 2014/15 year plus, well, flying is ace. I already had a big hurrah booked for the end of the year, a trip in which I'd make my 50th (and 51st) country but I'm sure I could squeeze out another jaunt.. couldn't I? So I looked at BA's day trip prices and found a bunch of sub-£100 fares to various Scandiwegian destinations.

After my ridiculously stressful jaunt to the Holy See earlier in the year, Loz had expressed an interest in joining me on future endeavours so I texted him about the idea of a day trip to Norway. He was in, and wanted to bring his offspring. So, uncharacteristic thing #1: a non-solo trip.

Uncharacteristic thing #2: I failed to go out on the piss last night. Truth is I'd felt rotten since Thursday morning after a heavy night at wrestling on weds and yesterday's exuberant and excited messages from Loz did me no good at all. All I really wanted to do was get a lot of work done, and sleep. But in the office I was convinced to have a beer, and a couple of hours later at home I felt pretty human. Originally intending to get to bed about 10pm, for reasons of tiredness and the early start, I ended up falling asleep about 1am with three alarms set.

Three fucking alarms. Paranoid much? Of course the first one woke me up with barely any effort and I didn't need snooze let alone the others. But, fucking hell, 5am on a Saturday morning. Shower, teeth, sundry stuff shoved in a bag and out for the bus by 0530. Conspiracy lunacy courtesy of the Higherside Chats in my ears - did you know, every single virus outbreak of the last 50 years is just a front for, erm, the medical industry elite who exist only to pimp their drugs which themselves are full of toxins? That HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that Ebola essentially doesn't exist, and that MMR jabs cause autism DELIBERATELY? Jesus H lord Christ.

Bus to Kingston. No chimney companion on the X26 but I'd downloaded the most recent episode of the Blacklist, which kept me entertained. Loz and his nipper had stayed at the Jury's Inn near Hatton Cross on my recommendation because our flight was at 0830, so I half expected to run into them at the tube but did not. Texted him as I was on the tube and then set off to the lounge. T5 north security was so busy - at 0630! - that it was closed, so I wandered to south and go through in no time.

Glanced at the entrance to the Concorde room. Sigh. I want to fly First again. Maybe I will next year, now that my big NYE trip is cancelled and I've got a sudden surfeit of miles in my account. But, for now, Euro Traveller it is so I make the circuitous route to Galleries South via a brief stop in Dixons to see if my dislike of the iPhone 6 will hold true once I actually hold one. Turns out I hate it even more in practice than in theory. Too big. I don't understand why the world only likes giant comedy phones now :-(

In the lounge, still no reply from Loz regarding where and when we should meet so I stock up on free grub - a huge fruit salad with yoghurt, two bacon rolls and a cheese omelette muffin. And the last 10 minutes of the Blacklist.

Texts! They are in the Wetherspoons pub down by gate A6, the totally opposite end of T5. Uncharacteristic thing #3, I leave the lounge having had no booze and go to find them, after which event I immediately order a Guinness. Everyone knows airside pubs are brutal rip offs, well, the Guinness here cost a whole one pence more than in my Surbiton local. Bleurgh. Beer is expensive these days. Good job I'm taking a flight to somewhere so cheap... oh.

The kid is excited and gets more so after necking a bunch of Loz's coffee. But we're all excited. Bergen looks awesome and, apart from the slight disappointment of the trams being out of action due to high winds, it should be nigh on impossible to have a shit time.

With our gate announced, at the totally opposite end of the terminal again back beyond the lounge I'd been in, we get a fairly good cardio workout weaving between hordes of confused passengers who stop and change direction less realistically than most AI models would have enemies do in a 1982 ZX Spectrum game. Bleh. We had hurried a bit because all the other 0825-30 flights were closing, but ours still wasn't boarding. But it started within about 90 seconds and we could trump even the snobs with their shiny cards by boarding first thanks to the kid with us. Fuck yeah priority boarding. Norway here we come.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Run over

Think I'm gonna pass out. When I got off the plane I actually felt legimitately like I could pull through a day's work but, now, post-shower and sat on my sofa, I am very much on the verge of sleep. Let's see if I can knock out a wrap-up post in one sitting...

I was in a pretty bad mood in the lounge, a bit Moscow-in-April as I hadn't eaten anything since about, I dunno, 5am. Plus sleep deprivation, exhaustion, tiredness, effects of altitude, and dehydration were all in full force and I'd been annoyed at the lack of pub visit in Joburg and my needless skipping of two interesting museums. As good as the apartheid museum was, I ended up with less time out of the airport on the longer of my two weekends, plus - I admit it - I was not really looking forward to 11 hours in economy on a clapped out 747.

Ah well, never mind. I spent a few hours getting frustrated with the BA lounge wifi repeatedly kicking me off.

(No, I can't write this in one sitting. I did pass out, and have just possibly given myself jetlag by taking 3.5hrs sleep in the middle of the day. Go Darren!)

As well as the wifi issues, I largely spent my time in the lounge necking free booze (Castle lager, LOTS of Gordons gin) and partaking of almost every kind of free food they had. Chicken curry, pasta, sweet potato gratin, cheese plate, trifle, carrot cake, some salad. Oh, and some diet coke. I was fucking ravenous, though none of it did much to improve my mood.

A few announcements came but again, my name wasn't called. A very loud and angry announcement was made for some one couple by name, with large chunks of the airport being informed that they had missed their flight and their luggage was being offloaded. Bad people. I've always wondered how people go missing between check-in and departure, despite being perilously close to it myself on Saturday at Heathrow on a connection. At Joburg it's a much smaller operation where it seems to me you'd have to make a real effort not to get to your gate.

I left the lounge before the flight was called, we were departing from the very last gate at the end of the terminal and en route I managed to spend most of my remaining metal rand on another diet coke. I'm sure all this caffeine must be really bad for me but whatever.

The boarding regime at gate A16 is one of the best I've seen - boarding directly from a lounge notwithstanding - for fast track boarding. The gate is split in two, A16 and A17, and you can only enter gate A16 if you are allowed through fast track. The woman guarding entry there gave me a thoroughly disapproving look and barked "ARE YOU TRAVELLING BUSINESS OR FIRST CLASS?" at me when I got within about 10 feet. I mumbled "no, but I have a sapphire card" and she grudgingly let me in.

At this point, I stared at my boarding pass (hoping it would beep at the desk, for an upgrade) and my jaw fell open. There was no frequent flyer number on it. My BA number. The whole fucking point of this trip is to earn miles cheaply. OK so I like flying and got a new passport stamp as well, but, it's a mileage run. You can't be telling me I might not earn miles for one of the long hauls? Fucking hell. (I later discovered it's possible to retro claim in cases like this, phew, though I dunno if the fact it was a code share might make it tricky).

Boarding started pretty soon after, and my pass didn't beep. Seat 29k in economy it is. It's an exit row seat with unlimited legroom but jesus christ, the reviews saying it's a bit narrower due to the table + TV being in the arm rest are not wrong. It's a very snug fit. I dumped my passport, iPad and pad into the side pocket with the sick bag, magazines, etc. I love reading the inflight magazines, but this being my 9th BA flight in September there really was no point. The plane filled up. I never seem to get empty services, where are all these "after take-off I got a row to myself" routes?

The flight was pretty nondescript. Drinks came, a meal came, I watched BBC Knowledge's Secret Life of Cats and thought, y'know, I should get me a cat. Cats are awesome. Started on the film A Long Way Down but realised actually that I was finally going to get some sleep, so turned off the screen, reclined just a bit, and stretched out. And lo, I do believe I managed an uninterrupted 4hrs sleep with no bizarre dreams or anything. Woke up feeling actually quite refreshed, and watched that there film. It was OK.

Basically nothing else happened from then on. It was dark and noisy, I watched, erm, some other film, I forget what. Oh, Two Faces Of January. It was OK, nothing special. And 3 episodes of Episodes.

As we came in for final descent, I stowed my tray table and returned my screen to its original position. I made sure my seat was in its upright position and that the floor area around me was completely clear. I continued to use my handheld electronic devices, ensuring they were being held firmly. And I put my passport and pad back in my pocket. Except, oh, for fucks sake, why is my passport stuck to something?

It's stuck to a sick bag. Because there's some fucking chewing gum on it. So now my passport front has a massive chunk of chewing gum on it. Fucking hell, gross, and what the fuck? How did the cleaners - who had 12 whole hours to fix up this plane on the ground in JNB - not see and remove that? I scraped a bunch of it off using the sick bag but it wasn't too useful, so then tried to remove some more with the sticky luggage stickers. I got most of it off but, bloody hell, how disgusting to have someone's used chewing gum all over my passport. Everyone was sat down and I couldn't get sight of the cabin crew, so just screwed up the sick bag and left it next to an empty bottle, to make sure the next cleaners would get it. As I did that I saw that the inflight magazine in my pocket also had a huge load of gum on it too. What kind of wanker chews gum on a plane and doesn't get rid of it properly, but just leaves it stuck to the outside of a sick bag, or a magazine? Fucking animals.

We landed early but then taxied for about 35 minutes, having had our original gate (at T5B) stolen from us so we got moved to T5C. Thank fuck I wasn't on a tight connection today, and woe to those that were

Skipped the first monorail as it was heaving, and a second one was only a minute behind. The UK border at T5 main was rammed worse than Joburg's border yesterday morning - the "fast track" queue seemed to have over 50 people in it, the non-EU/UK citizens line was backed up pretty much to the top of the escalators from the arrivals corridors/monorail, the UK citizens line I estimate had 150 or so people in it. I joined the Oyster-esque ePassport gates line which itself had probably 50 people in it, but was (obviously) the fastest moving line.

Through, down, past carousels, and out. I seem to have developed a particular routine for arriving at T5 which involves going to the same loo each time, the one landside next to M&S and WH Smith, after which I buy a diet coke in the latter before getting the tube to Hatton Cross. So I did all that, and emerged at Hatton Cross to find an X26 "express" bus to Kingston at the stand. I was the last but one person to board and we completely failed to speed our way through Monday morning SW London rush hour traffic. Got home at just after 9am, which is earlier than I normally leave for work. Honestly I briefly considered going in, to claim my day off back for use elsewhere, but instead though, no, bollocks, I'm going to watch wrestling.

And then I passed out. During my sleep a shiny new Bronze card from BA Executive club came through my door. #timing And I've woken up too late to reach Heathrow and catch the final leg back to Paris Orly. Never mind.

So, that's my first ever pure mileage run done. Overall I should bank exactly 41,000 Avios from the whole shebang, including the 10,000 I was given for complaining about the broken entertainment system a couple of weeks ago. The mistake ticket cost me £328 and I spent ~£300 on the other flights (more than it needed to be, I booked them too late). For comparison, you can purchase a maximum of 27,000 Avios in one year direct from BA and that costs £447 if bought in one go, more otherwise (there's a transaction fee). So 41k, bronze status for the next year, plus two very fun weekends of flying and a new passport stamp, for ~£630, paid in 3 instalments over 9 months? A fucking result. Not to mention the value I'll get when I spunk them on a business or first class flight somewhere...

But that's not for a while. I believe I'm staying on the ground until after Christmas now. I've flown 77,703 miles so far in 2014. A mere 5567 to go. Roll on 2015 ;)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ebony and ivory

Let's call today a draw.

When I thought I'd be on the 9 o'clock bus my plan was this: an hour in the transport museum, 2 hours in the apartheid museum, maybe an hour in the origins museum, then however long I had left to spend in the same pub as last time before getting back to the airport for about 6pm. But I was an hour later than that, so the transport museum had to go.

I plugged in the audio tour headphones and left the volume on super high, perching on the side of the bus which gets most shade and trying to connect to wifi while taking the odd unimpressive photo of unimpressive things. The hallucinatory long blinks kept coming and a few times I almost totally passed out, even given the diet coke. It's an hour and 7 stops to the apartheid museum and I'm happy to report I didn't miss it.

In fact, I'm very happy to report that, because the apartheid museum is fantastic.

You start by having the most ludicrously cursory security check I could imagine, and then confusing the ticket woman by refusing to accept the "you came off that bus" discount. Hey, it's my last day, I have rand to spare, and I like museums being funded.

There are 3 suggested itineraries based on time: a quick 1hr involves scooting between the big guns; reading all the black signs and things to which they refer should take 2-2.5 hours, and if you read all the grey stuff as well you could be there forever.

The first exhibits are outside. There are 7 huge pillars, each labelled with one of South Africa's core values. Freedom, respect, that sort of thing. They are very imposing, and there's a few quotes from some famous non-racists plus some benches marked "do not sit on this bench". So far, so flippant.

But then you go inside.

Your first steps indoors are dictated by the random classification given to you on your ticket: white or non-white. Inside there is a display of identification/racial classification cards, as well as lots of text from Siffrican parliaments and parliamentarians over the years, explaining how it works. Race was more than just skin colour, but behaviour, languages spoken, heritage, a few characteristics that all led to what was written on your card and thus dictated what you could do and where you could live. I walked under huge "taxis for whites" signs and read so much awful text. Very powerful and sobering.

Back outside, you walk up a long ramp with mining heritage rocks on the left and human heritage stone art on the right (though I'm sure Tsoukalos would say it was aliens). There are life size pictures of relatives of the early anti-apartheid campaigners "walking" uphill with you.

You reach the roof, and get a view of the Joburg skyline in the background with an old mine head in front. And then, back inside for a 20 minute film about the history of humanity in South Africa, montage style, leading up to the early 20th century. A room full of trinkets donated by the same anti-apartheid relatives is next, with quotes from and about them, before a massive Nelson Mandela temporary exhibit. This is utterly chock full of stories and quotes and pictures from his entire life, in chronological order and grouped by a single noun: from child to statesman via prisoner, politician, lawyer, etc.

Discrepancies in his family's backstory compared to what records show are present, as are other negative reactions to him. Joburg does not appear to flinch from bad stuff, and while obviously he is held in crazily high regard, even in an exhibition about him he is not beyond criticism. I liked (in a way) that he or one of his cohorts was once nicked for "statutory communism".

Back into the main museum and, well, I didn't make notes of it all - I'm sure they have a website which goes into detail. But there is a staggeringly well presented story of race relations in South Africa with large amounts of utterly horrifying detail. Migrant worker pay stayed at a fixed level for 60 years. Blacks were referred to by members of parliament on TV as "these underdeveloped people...who cannot govern themselves" and some stuff about the white man's responsibility, burden even! to teach these savages the value of work, and that life doesn't have to just be hunting and fighting. Paul Sauer, fuck off.

This is less than 60 years ago, remember. I was very worried by how some of the policies closely matched to the kind of rhetoric coming from the EDL, UKIP, Daily Express and Mail, etc. Sigh.

One room has 131 nooses hanging from the ceiling to represent the political prisoners executed by the apartheid regime. I almost cried. :-( In that same room are vivid descriptions of the demise of some prominent folk including Steven Biko.

It's an amazing story, I am a sucker for good overcoming evil, but also just in generic museum terms one of the best I've ever visited. There is video, audio, text, some astonishing photos, and they don't gloss over anything. The room with the 4 video screens showing massacre aftermath next to a cage of decommissioned weapons...eesh. The worst thing was the midway diet coke machine not accepting my coins.

I ended up being there for 3.5 hours, emerging just in time for the 1440 bus. Since that was longer than anticipated, I also had to sack off one of the two remaining ideas so naturally gave up on the origins museum and went to the pub...

...except ALL THE FUCKING PUBS WERE SHUT. What the fuck, Joburg? The bus stop in the studenty drinking district goes past the boozers before stopping so I didn't even get off: everything was shut apart from one coffee shop. Ffhs. Now what am I meant to do?

Bus wifi was working so I sought Guinness and came up dry, so looked for boozers in Sandton. It's a northern flashy suburb where I have to change trains anyway, so I figured I'd get out and drink there. Well, one out of two is pretty bad. I got out, walked a few blocks, everything looked totally not setup for doing much except for a giant mall and some posh hotels, so just went back to the station. One woman not only didn't wait for everyone to get off before boarding. she got on before anyone had got off (it's a terminus!) thus making a good 20 or so people's lives - including her own - quite a lot worse than they needed to be, for a couple of minutes. Another hallucinatory ride later and I'm at the airport, 5 hours before my flight. Boo!

Failed to ask about upgrade possibilities at check in but got my exit row seat, which means it doesn't really matter. At security there were two women funnelling the big queue into little queues for scanners, and one of them pointed at me while shouting something to the other, who stared at me and nodded. Sure enough, my boarding pass got scanned but no one else's did. No idea what that was about. Passports waved me through and before I knew it I was in the lounge necking a diet coke, plate full of pasta, and a beer. How the fuck I haven't passed out yet I do not know.

083A A380

What an excellently palindromic way to travel.

I just spent 11 hours with my headphones in. My ears feel a bit weird. They went in as soon as I was settled in my seat, because they knock shit out of the BA provided pieces of junk. I dived straight into Curb your Enthusiasm and but there was only one episode I hadn't seen last time. After that, 21 Jump Street, which this time I was able to get past the 4 minute mark and all the way to the end. Did lol.

Took a beer at drinks service, then when the food came around they were offering two drinks to everyone, perhaps as a way of making up for there being no meal choice; mind you, the pasta thing which was all they had left is exactly what I would have ordered anyway. Not long after, one of the cabin crew just popped up randomly to hand me another unsolicited beer, which was nice.

Tried to watch Grudge Match but the inflight entertainment system broke, for everyone, like last time. Well not totally like it - this time it was just down for 20 minutes but not in a reboot cycle. After I blogged about my intention to submit a fairly frivolous complaint to BA for that experience, I submitted a fairly frivolous complaint to BA and got awarded 10,000 bonus Avios within 3 days. Fucking score. This whole trip was slated to earn me about 30-32k so that's a shiny bonus top up if ever there was one. Unfortunately this time around there was nothing worth bitching about, except the short one off outage and the nearest shitter going tonto with 45 minutes to go.

So I watched another sopranos and then went to sleep. It wasn't great - my legs were a bit cramped because of a big inflight entertainment system PC box under the seat in front of me, but at least I could recline. I managed a few hours of interrupted kip, marked most prominently with the dream that we landed and then immediately took back of for a go around because of something in our way on the runway.

When I finally decided to stay awake deliberately, I got engrossed in the moving map display which is awesome with all kinds of pitch and zoom tools and 3d graphics and etc. It was a bit worrying that it reported the estimated arrival time of "n/a". What is this, Malaysia airlines?

Breakfast was ropey, 3 episodes of Louie were excellent but he's still too reminiscent of my mate Tom. I watched that as the sun rose over Africa, and a bland breakfast was served. We landed to clear skies at 0700 and it then took two fucking hours to get out thanks to arriving at the same time as two other jumbo or superjumbos, plus what with being in the last row and everything. Immigration queues were insane, longer for residents than tourists but still a good 300 or 400 people ahead of me I reckon. Thank fuck they man all the desks and do it efficiently. At the front of the queue the woman ahead got a hug, but the queue guy apologised that he wouldn't or couldn't hug me too. That's fine mate, don't worry. Glasses off and through, I got to the Gautrain station and used the remaining credit from last time. Tried to blog first, but wifi wasn't playing ball.

On both legs of the subway I was having micro sleep madness the whole way, a veritable Bulgaria-during-GCERC series of hallucinations and bizarre dreams every time I closed my eyes, with most blinks lasting a good few seconds. At one point the main characters from 21 Jump Street were somehow involved with my forthcoming bus tour. I was writing the start of this, but kept dozing with my fingers all over randomr letters on the ipad keyboard. Oh dear. I still had 11 hours til my next flight, htf am I going to manage this?  Maybe I really should have got a day room at a hotel.

A diet coke did no immediate good, but at least at Park I found wifi to post a blog entry. The 1000 bus was on time. Would I stay awake for my stop?

T5 ABC, easy as 123

Good lord.

OK so the food was cold, whatever, The beer was nice and I settled down to watch another episode and a half of the Sopranos, this time in the right order. Pretty good. I'm starting from series one cos I've not seen any of it before. The sound effects for punching are mad though, like some crazy 70s Kung fu flick.

Of course what I should have done is start on the preceding blog post but, well, I didn't. Plenty of time for that on the ground.

Scheduled landing time was 1740 but we touched down at 1719, woohoo! What's more we were at a pretty close gate to the flight connections centre which, along with security, was a total breeze. And better yet, emails told me my Joburg flight is leaving late! Boarding is at 1840 from a gate in the T5C satellite and I'm already airside in the main terminal by 1745. So no panic this week, and plenty of time for the lounge. A hundred or so more emails then come in telling me my is flight delayed a bit more, but then on time. Boo. But still plenty of time.

Immediately through security is the main lounge and I ask at the desk I'd there's a lounge in C - there isn't, but I should use the one in B. Fair enough, I've been there, two weeks ago on my way to Joburg on a connection.

The walk to transit is relatively unhindered. I miss a lift by seconds but the next is soon enough, the transit is fast, I know where I'm going. Excellent.

In the lounge, straight into the loo and get changed. Feels good. Then, found a seat and grabbed a plate of quiche and potato salad, and a can of Heineken. True groundhog experience. And then I sat down to write the last post.

You'll note that post ended somewhat hastily. I mean, I had time, but I wanted to eat and drink plus I still had to get to C, so, y'know, I didn't have LOADS of time. But enough. I left the lounge at 1825. 45 minutes til the plane leaves. Easy.

The signs in B say to go to a different transit area to where I got off. Huh, ok. But signs are signs so I follow them. There's no one else around and it looks like I've just missed a monorail. Never mind. A couple of other people arrive and then a transit...whose doors don't open. There are people on it but no announcements. Through the other side, I see people getting on it. I have no idea how to get to that other side. A tiny tiny teeny bit of panic sets in.

The family who had arrived were as confused as me. With no signs or announcements and, worse, another transit visible through the other side, seemingly going to the C gates, the panic gets a bit bigger. It's 1835 now. I run up the escalators and through the terminal to the lift I'd got up when I arrived. Same deal. No signs at the bottom, no announcements, and I just missed a train. It seems like I'm in exactly the same place as before even though I can't be.

This is bullshit. It's 1840. Boarding o'clock. Apparently, according to one sign I have seen, I'm 10 minutes from C. This flight is on an A380 and these are giant planes who open and close boarding early. For fucks sake. Panic is now very high. I run back up the nearest escalators, again through the terminal, back to the first platform. The family are there, having been told by some staff up top that yes, it's the right place, but there are monorails in both directions from there and they don't announce them. You just get on the one whose doors open. Christ. So now it's 1850 and a transit arrives and I'm texting Chris to tell him I might miss the flight, and having a conversation about homemade Cornish pasties with Alex. Priorities are priorities.

I get to C. Peg it up a third set of escalators in ~15 minutes and stride very purposefully towards gate C56, two along from where I surfaced. There's a lot of people hanging around and some announcement about crew not being ready yet so there's a bit of a delay, to a destination ending in -burg. I relax a bit. They repeat and say Hamburg. I speed up. For gods sake BA, do not fly to destinations with the same last syllable from adjacent gates!

Two strides on and there's another loud, serious sounding announcement. Apparently anyone intending to fly to Johannesburg should get to gate C56 immediately or be offloaded. Last and final call. Well OK then!

I have never seen an emptier gate which isn't actually closed than C56. I get to the desk and, phew, I'm through. I think no one else gets on behind me, but then I spot one person, And only one person. I am the last but one to board a heaving double decker plane. Jesus H Christ. Stressed, panicky, hot and sweaty, heart racing, but also laughing at myself a bit. Gotta get my free beer and post to my blog, eh? Just can't do anything simply...

The cabins are boiling hot and carnage, with everyone having a real barney about finding somewhere to put their bags. It's a common thread all fucking day. Mine fits under my seat, but I guess I'm not taking much for 48 hours away.

My boarding pass didn't beep anywhere. The exit row I thought I had secured, I had not secured. I'm in my previously chosen seat, 83A, the very last seat on the left hand side of the upper deck. I picked it so I can recline without worrying about the person behind me (if I'm in front of someone, I just don't recline, simple). I'm gonna need this recline too, if my heart rate ever drops down to a speed conducive to sleep...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

BA Barajas

Turns out I watched the wrong episode of the Sopranos. Sky Go has put them in random order.

Anyway, listen, I don't have a lot of time and there's free beer and quiche to be had so I'll make this quick. Probably not brief, but quick. Forgive the even worse typos than usual.

When we landed in MAD, about 50% of the cabin jumped up as soon as we stopped, first time, way before the seatbelt signs went off. And then we moved and people were surprised. Jesus. The airbridge was a giant, like, 1km long or something u-shaped thing attached to the very very very end of Madrid terminal 4, this small set of non-schengen gates in an otherwise Schengen terminal (look it up if you don't know what it means, but care). Arriving and departing passengers mix so I could have just hung around, and there was a pub, but I was unsure about my check in status and whether the QR code in my possession would work. Plus I had 3.5 hours and lounge access.

So, though passport control and along terminal 4's single, loooooong corridor. Thought about going in the lounge, but same thought as before took over - even though it's Iberia run, and they could have fixed it for me - so ended up landside. Went to the loo and straight up the escalators to departures. Then I realised that desk check in wasn't open, because I was so early, so I put my passport in a machine and it told me to find some staff. Fuck that. Typed in one of the references and it said, hey, you're already checked in, want a paper boarding pass? Lo and behold, out came paper for the whole way to Joburg. The wrong seat on the long haul, but I'll fix that later...hopefully.

Madrid security is very simple and quick and I was back through and directly opposite the lounge. In I went. I'd read that this is nowhere near as good as the one I was in two weeks ago. I'd read wrong. It was fantastic. Better design, fewer people, less of a Wetherspoons feel, and better food (time of day may be responsible for that). I blogged and cracked into some beer, eventually having 4x 250ml cans in 2.5hours which left me far more pissed the it should have been. Also stocked up on non alcohol and basically every kind of food they had, including these odd random meats that looked like turds which had been left in snow and then half melted again. They tasted better than that.

Every minute or so someone was called to the desk and I kept half expecting to be next, but my name never came up. The internet access experience was as poor as last time, except actually worse because I gave up and paid Three a fiver just so I could roam, and when that kicked in I could only access about two sites. Sigh.

I had a brief panic about Johannesburg. I've got 13 hours there. That's a long time. I rarely spend 13 hours outside my flat in a day. How the fuck am I going to last, and fill the time?

My mood was considerably better by now and I was thinking how I don't have a drinking problem, I have a drinking solution. Then I stole a diet coke and walked out of the lounge. At the passport gates up the end, the same guy who let me into Spain let me back out, with a slightly odd look and raised eyebrow while doing so. The gate was ready for boarding as soon as I was there and hey presto, this time I really did have epic legroom on a genuine exit row.

It was the same plane and gate but different crew. I stretched, watched people board with much less idiocy than the outbound, and dozed off. Only for a few minutes, like.  A seatmate arrived and annoyed me, but the flight was much less busy and after the doors shut they fucked off to the other side of the aisle. The announcements kept ending with "thank you for your collaboration"; I expected cooperation, collaboration sounds like something you do with an occupying force.

The inflight menu offered a pizza with two toppings: ham and bacon. Nom. Though I went for an estrella and a Spanish omelette baguette, encased in a film with "hot film" written on it. it was stone cold.

Ok I gotta go to South Africa. This has to wait.

I'm going slightly MAD

I'm starting this at 8am on a Saturday. I've had a two course breakfast and a few liquids, and am staring at Heathrow's runway/apron, wondering why I'm doing this. But actually I've done the arithmetic and I know full well why. But that doesn't mean I'm not tempted to sack it off and go home right now...

Been in a shitty mood since Thursday evening, when it felt very much like a literal switch flicked in my head. I suppose it was coming: I've been unable to talk myself into running for a number of weeks now, and regularly falling off the bad food wagon, both of which are bad signs. On the flipside, I felt as though I've been largely happy with life and enjoying work - in fact, the last few weeks have been my most productive and enjoyable for probably 6 years or so. And after another pretty stellar day on Thursday I really wanted a pint and some company.  I was in a great mood and didn't want the day to finish. And that's why it all went wrong.

I really really didn't just want to go home and sit alone on my sofa again, but there seemed like no other option. The office drinking culture has largely dried up since we moved buildings, and the one person I could think of to grab a midweek beer with was already home by 6pm (it's probably a really bad sign, and offensive to some of my friends, that I only considered one person, but even so, my circle of midweek drinking partners is distressingly small and irregular these days). So instead of going home I worked late, for the fourth day on the spin being first in last out, and when I left I thought, fuck it, I want a pint I'll have a pint. Went to my favourite pub in the world and...sat drinking alone, wishing very much that I wasn't drinking alone.

For around 18 months now I've been very good at not being lonely. I used to spend significant amounts of time and emotional energy wishing I wasn't single, or if in a relationship that I was able to spend every moment with my partner, so that they could distract me from (or even cure) my misery. I wanted a woman to fix my head, which is a thoroughly unreasonable ask. But once I learnt how that's actually my responsibility, I took it and largely did it. So far so good. The problem on Thursday was the opposite. I was in a great mood, wanting to share that, to be happy hyper fun Darren, but I had no choice but to be alone and that pissed me off so fucking much that I got very depressed very quickly. Tried to gee myself up by force anticipating the weekend's flying, only to ruminate on how I wished I wasn't doing that solo either, or at least that the miles I earn weren't just going to spent on yet more time alone (albeit in fancier cabins with better drinks). I did get a bit lost in the massive drama unfolding as a lass spent the best part of an hour ranting about the sexist and racist treatment she'd got at work, while her two companions first failed to comfort her, and then made her feel much much worse such that she was in tears when they all left. Sigh. And at least I could congratulate myself for not going on the fruit machine... only I then spunked £40 in one at the Beer House. So I sat down thinking about the number 40 before finally succumbing to desperation and posting an attention seeking status on Facebook loosely dressed up as an announcement for my adoring audience. Truth is my primary audience for my blog is me - though I do get a very big ego kick out of the fact that a bunch of people are keeping tabs on and enjoying (not) doing this stuff vicariously, I'd put good money on 90% of my hits coming from me. But on Thursday I needed that kick so tried to force it.

It worked, of course. I got some nice public comments and more private ones, in particular a long chat with my only other mileage-running friend in the world (who I'd go on runs with if we didn't live 6000 miles apart), and a brief conversation at 5am with someone I'd not spoken to for way too long - key quote: "just talking to you makes me think about and crave Guinness". So, thanks for taking the bait and all the kind words, folks. Much appreciated. :)

Anyway, enough about my depression.

Friday was another decent day at work. I don't seem to have indecent ones. Sadly no table tennis, but this also means no-one broke their nose which I suppose is a good thing. I left early, having drawn a line in the sand and sent out requests for 6 code reviews to be done in my Monday absence. I wanted to get away early anyway because I was staying in a hotel near Heathrow on Friday night. The Surbiton festival is on this weekend (if that's not reason enough to travel 5300 miles away I don't know what is) and road closures were scheduled to start at some ungodly hour on Saturday, which would make getting to the airport in the morning even more unpleasant than normal. And my flight is at 0910, meaning I really wanted to be there for 7am. I figured £65 for the convenience of being close, and getting probably 2 hours more sleep, was a good deal.

Went home first and had terrible food, while getting very fucking angry at broadband being so slow it wouldn't stream WWE NXT. Wooj was in no mood for a Friday pint so I packed up and fucked off for the bus. At Kingston a man was kneeling on the pavement while smoking and he subsequently sat next to me on the bus, smelling like tobacco and kippers. Meanwhile my mood led me to have a Stanhope-esque rant about charity fundraising elsewhere. If you want me to give money to a cause you like, just ask, OK? The idea of giving money to fight cancer only if you suffer through October without any booze doesn't sit right with me.

On the bus I was obsessively checking the details about Saturday's 3 flights. The London to Johannesburg leg was showing as delayed by 20 minutes, which was great news as that meant lounge time and free sauce. My seats were showing as exit rows, which is also great news but I'm not sure I believe it. I don't actually know what's going on with flights 2 and 3 - since booking them last November I've had 3 different reference numbers (PNRs) and each of them serves a slightly different purpose. Using one of them, I could pick seats on 7 of the 8 flights in the itinerary; on another, I could pick seats on the other flight. The BA site would let me pick some seats but, if I engaged in some jiggery pokery, I could convince the Qatar Airways site (no, I'm not flying Qatar airways) to let me pick exit rows. Except that sometimes wouldn't stick, and I'd ended up with three different seat assignments depending on where I looked.

What's more, online check in had been very wonky. BA had let me check in for the morning flight, because it's booked with a BA code despite being operated by Iberia. Iberia had seemingly let me check in for the afternoon and evening flight, and even sent me boarding passes, except one of them was full of question marks and when I requested a reissue as QR codes, I got two for the same flight. Lastly, a few hours after this half-assed check in, I got a notification that my seats had changed to exit rows but not the ones I'd picked. I mean I really have no idea what's going on now. Why can't I just leave it alone?

I reached Hatton Cross with a dying phone telling me the delay to BA55 has disappeared, and the last More or Less of the series finishing in my ears.  My headphones are a mess, the cable is all kinds of fucked and it feels like they could break at any moment. I've taken no care of them at all, yet this pair has lasted longer than each of my last 5 pairs which I've cared for assiduously. Whatever.

The Jurys Inn at Hatton Cross is a very short, easy, and flat walk along one straight road. There are numerous reviews on Hotels.com complaining about the transport - expensive cabs to the terminals, no cabs from the tube to the hotel, buses to terminals infrequent, etc etc. I repeat: very short, easy, flat walk along one straight road from a tube station where the price of getting to any of the terminals is exactly zero pounds and zero pence sterling. I have no idea why people leave such bizarre reviews.

Perhaps the price is confusing. Because after checking in - next to a party of 35, and into "one of our refurbished rooms", dontcha know - I went to the bar and witnessed countless people struggling with sterling currency. On their last night in England before flying home. How had they coped during their time here? Half of them didn't know the value of the coins in their pockets and needed lots of help paying. I also heard numerous requests for "a medium Stella please" and saw people try and tip the barmen. Seriously, which part of the UK have these people been to? Who taught you to buy a medium beer? I can't think of anywhere in the world I've been which has medium beers except maybe oktoberfest.

On my third pint, I shouted at the barman and interrupted him taking someone else's order. I hadn't said much out loud for a few hours and had kinda forgotten how to regulate my volume, plus he'd just short changed me by a fiver, the twat. The Guinness was nice, but watered down. I idly mused at the feasibility of taking the frankly obscene amount of credit available in my wallet, stealing it all, and fucking off permanently.

The bar was heaving for hours, until it very suddenly wasn't. Despite being open until 1am, at about 11:20pm EVERYONE left, and the new comparative silence was pierced by some staggeringly excitable football commentary on a TV at the far end of the bar. And then it was beyond midnight, time for bed.

Startled into life by my 0620 alarm, I almost literally jumped out of bed. Showered, dressed and outside by 0637, tube station timed perfectly and a fairly efficient security regime: hey presto, by 0710 I was sat in the BA lounge with a plate full of bacon baguettes and omelette muffins, accompanied by sundry liquids. Surprisingly, considering my laissez faire attitude to societal norms once airside, I stayed dry. In fact, I chose to get some Headspace (dotcom) because my mood was still pretty low. These meditations really are not well suited to being done in public but it wasn't a total waste and I did feel a bit more relaxed afterwards.

And that's where we came in. I may have been relaxed, but still wasn't fully behind the whole thing, I hadn't had that wave of "this, this is what I want to be doing most of all right now" which being in an airport normally causes. But a few more sugary goods and a bit of typing made me feel better yet, and a further inexplicable boost came from the gate being A1. Top of the heap.

En route to the gate I was waylaid by a man in his inflatable "I'm Scottish!" outfit and his kilted companions. Honestly I don't know whether I'm disappointed or glad that they're not going to Madrid, but Munich. Fast track boarding was hidden away and I sauntered on fairly late, being hindered on the way to my seat by a man who deliberately went 4 rows further back to dump his bag before retreating to his seat. I took the apparently bizarre decision to place my own bag in the locker directly above my seat, which was easy to find because the numbers and letters on this plane are on display and in order. Like on every plane ever. But despite the entire lack of confusing layout and deviation from sense and order, from my seat I watched tens of people stare blankly at the the numbers and letters, then ask the cabin crew questions like "where is row 23?", "where is row 27?". The rows are clearly and sequentially labelled, without gaps. There is no mystery. So what gives?

My exit row smugness dissipates. Row 22 on this plane is next to a crew jump seat and has less legroom than the regular rows. Bah. And being Iberia, there's no free scran on this plane. I don't have any euros to buy from the trolley, so I guess beer can wait until the Madrid wetherspoons lounge - assuming I'm allowed in, that is. The Schengen situation at MAD is a confusing mess, so I'm told, and there is fun to be had when I land. But first, I'm going to watch the Sopranos.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Breaking MAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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