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

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!

Jozi does it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are very proud of their new bus lanes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Don't hemisphere the reaper

Admit it, that's a cracking title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

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

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

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


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

And it's all in economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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