Sunday, June 2, 2013

Royal Brunei: not the kind of experience I expected

It was midnight when I arrived back in Dubai, after spending the day visiting friends in Qatar. I had two hours until my Royal Brunei flight to London. More than enough time I thought to change terminals. I went to the connections desk as instructed and told a woman there I was transferring to a flight to London. She pointed me to another counter a short distance away.
I replayed my story about needing to transfer to terminal 1 for a flight to London. She began filling out some paperwork.
“Where is your boarding pass for your flight to Qatar?” she asked.
I told her it was in my suitcase, unsure why it was needed, considering I took that flight earlier in the day.
“I need it,” she said, while the clock was ticking toward my departing flight.
“Really,” I replied, shooting her one of those looks that didn’t disguise my displeasure at this unnecessary bureaucracy.
I flipped through some emails on my phone until I found the boarding pass and showed it to her.
“I need you to email it to me,” she said, while her two colleagues sat and looked on.
I obliged, despite the frustration building inside of me. I wondered if they too saw the ridiculousness in this charade.
After finishing with the papers, she told me I needed to return to the first counter I had gone to. A short line now appeared. I handed over the ream of papers and told the woman again that I needed to transfer to terminal 1. I started getting a little anxious. It was now 1:00 am, and I had been here for an hour. My flight to London was leaving in 50 minutes, and I hadn’t yet checked in.
“A transfer bus will now take you to the other terminal,” I was told.
“How long will I have to flight leaves in less than an hour?” I asked.
About five minutes was the reply. I kept looking at my watch. It was as if the second hand was going faster than normal as the minutes ticked away.
The bus finally arrived, but it just sat idling. “Can we go soon,” I blurted out to the driver.   
It took an excruciating 20 minutes to cross the airport and get to terminal 1. Red lights. Slow-moving baggage carts in front of us. It was as if everything was conspiring against me. Finally at the terminal, I jumped off the bus, ran inside and sprinted up the stairs to the transfer desk. The plane was scheduled to leave in 30 minutes and I still needed to check in. My wife says that I would only worry if a gun was pointed at my head (even then I’d think there’s still a chance), but now I felt the tension twisting inside of me.
When the woman at the counter asked me what airline I was flying, nothing came out of my mouth. My brain was saying…Royal Brunei, but the anxiety had rendered me speechless. It took a moment to compose myself before I could tell her.
Hoping that time would stand still, I looked at my watch, while she tapped away at her computer. Without saying anything to me she called her supervisor over, and then both stared blankly at the monitor. “We don’t have a reservation for you in the system,” the man said, looking up at me.
The airline had arranged a sponsored ticket, and I had a print out of my reservation. Because the airline’s communications department didn’t fill me with confidence, I purposely connected with my contact at Royal Brunei earlier in the day to confirm that everything was okay with my reservation, as I didn’t want to encounter any issues.
The man escorted me to the gate, where passengers were now boarding. I told the gate agents that I was writing a magazine article and would be profiling their airline. I produced my reservation, and even showed them the email from the airline’s head office confirming my seat.  
To no avail. Without a reservation in the system, I could not board. Anxiety had now turned to anger. I couldn’t afford to be stuck in Dubai to sort this out. My connections the next two days in London and Brussels were tight.
My only option was to purchase a ticket for 2,800 dirhams, or $800. If I didn’t want this flight, they said I could purchase a ticket on British Airways or Emirates. But my only chance at getting a refund was flying on Royal Brunei.  
Just before boarding the aircraft with 10 minutes to go before departure, the station manager told me that my bag was still over at terminal 2, and that it wouldn’t be coming with me on this flight. He assured me that they would get it on an Emirates flight leaving shortly, and I could retrieve it in London.
Ever the patient one, I never raised my voice with anyone. But seething, and overflowing with anger, I plunked myself down in seat 51H. I can’t remember ever feeling this way. And when I discovered that they put me in a broken seat that wouldn’t recline, I just shook my head. I looked around at other passengers who were now sprawled across extra seats, as we settled into our seven-and-a-half hour overnight flight.
Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep, I just wanted to close my eyes and try to relax. But the man across the aisle from me, who had claimed four seats, was snoring. Maybe any other time, I would have been able to block it out, but not now with my heightened state of mind. I leaned over and kicked his seat hoping it would jolt him enough that he’d stop snoring. It didn’t work. I kicked the seat again. He didn’t move. With few other options left, I reached over and pulled the pillow from out under his head and tossed it on him. He sat up and looked around. After a short time, he went back to sleep, but this time he put his head on the other side of the airplane from me.   
Upon landing in London, the airline’s ground staff informed me that my bag would arrive in an hour’s time. The woman at the immigration counter was interested in my ‘round the world adventure, and asked how Royal Brunei was.
I hesitated before telling her that I expected it to be better.          

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Will I miss this flight: Part 1

I often have dreams that I miss a flight. It usually involves me running toward the airport.

I checked in for my Kenya Airways flight from Hong Kong to Dubai with a little more than two hours before it was scheduled to depart. I handed the agent my passport. He poked at his computer. Then he looked up at me and asked if I had a visa for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), of which Dubai is a part of.

“I’ll get one of arrival,” I said
He looked at his computer, and replied that Canada wasn’t one of the countries listed that could get a visa on arrival, and he wouldn’t be able to check me in for the flight unless I had a visa. Even though I remember reading online somewhere that I could get a visa on arrival, my heart dropped to the floor. My schedule couldn’t afford to be stuck in Hong Kong. Besides, Kenya Airways only operated to Hong Kong three times a week, so even if I could get a visa the next day, I’d still have to wait for the next flight in a few days’ time. Was that dream coming true?

I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the Internet trying to find anything that could bolster my case. I found a news article that reported that Canada and the UAE had patched up their diplomatic spat, and the UAE agreed to lift their visa restriction on Canadian citizens. The news piece didn’t matter much to the check-in agent, because he could only approve what his list said.

Then the airline’s station manager arrived, and with me still on the Internet, he started making calls on my behalf. By now, an hour had passed and the flight was scheduled to leave in an hour. It was like staring at an hour glass. Time was running out.

How could this be? I was sure I’d read that I could get a visa on arrival. Knowing that I would only be in Dubai just long enough for an overnight stay, I typed into my phone…Dubai transit visa on arrival. Reading the screen was like winning a game of bingo. I held up the screen of my phone, like I would have a bingo card, and told the agent that I could get a transit visa on arrival. He looked at the information on my phone then went back to his computer. I gave him my onward flight details and he gave me a boarding pass.

After a flight lasting more than eight hours, I arrived bleary eyed in Dubai at two o’clock in the morning. I was told I needed to go the Marhaba desk to obtain a transit visa. Ignored for a short time, a woman finally asked me what I needed. I told her that I would only be in Dubai for less than nine hours, as I had a flight to Qatar leaving at 1100, and I needed a transit visa.

“Go to the immigration office,” she said pointing to a door a short distance away.

I walked into a large room, where about seven young guys were seated, all wearing a Thawb, the long, white, traditional Arab garment worn my men.
“What do you want?” one asked without getting out of his chair.
I told him the same story I had just relayed to the other woman a few minutes ago. “So, what do you want to do?” he asked, still making no effort to get out of his chair.
“I just want to go to my hotel and get some sleep,” I said, sounding exhausted.
“Go get a visa from the Arabian Adventure desk,” he said motioning me to the door.
I wandered to over to yet another desk and told the couple sitting there that I needed a transit visa. They took my passport and told me it would be $155.
“A hundred and fifty five dollars?” I questioned. “In my country, we’d call that’s highway robbery.”
“No it’s not,” the woman replied.
“Who’s making all the money?” I questioned.
“We are,” they both responded smugly.
The woman looked at me and said, “You have a choice. You can either pay and get a visa or you can stay in the airport.”

An expensive stamp

It was now three in the morning, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I handed over my credit card. Once at my hotel, I put my head on the pillow at 4:00 am, having just set my phone to wake me four hours later.   

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Lost in Translation

Amusing always are signs that have been translated into English. I found these in Japan.

Human Transport? I thought that was what buses were for
Instructions on toilets scare me. It shouldn't be complicated, should it? This one was in my hotel room.   

This was a sign in the elevator of my hotel. Looks as if they had Scooby Doo doing the editing. That or Robby works the front desk.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Still lovin' Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island
Few cities have a hold on me like Hong Kong does. And so I was looking forwarding to visiting, even if just for a day. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the familiarity of having been several times before, visiting with friends. Maybe it’s the dramatic topography—lush hills carpeted in green rising up like the body of a dragon. Maybe it’s the comfort of the city’s many English names—Victoria Harbour, Stanley, Aberdeen, and Salisbury Road—blended with a tinge of the exotic—Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s a city with a pulse.  

For more than 100 years, the Star Ferries have crossed Victoria Harbour

Hong Kong is warm and humid. It gets into your pores and tugs at your heart, luring you back. It’s a city of contrasts where unimaginable extravagance, like the Peninsula hotel’s $2200 (one-way) helicopter shuttle from the hotel to Hong Kong airport, brushes up against gritty and tired-looking apartment blocks home to cramped flats. Or where the remedy to the city’s frenzied pace is just a short ferry ride away to one of the many small and quaint islands nearby.

I exited the subway station at Tsim Sha Tsui and fell into the bustle of the city. I first walked to the harbour for a view across to Hong Kong Island, where the dazzling glass monuments to commerce crowd each for space against the backdrop of Victoria Peak. To be sure, more buildings have gone up since I was last here, but the view is as I remember. Stunning still even on a gray day.  

The guy on this boat was scooping up trash from the harbour
Like others around me, I captured the moment in my camera and then walked a short distance to Nathan Road, one of the city’s popular shopping areas. In some cities the touts harass you for hookers and camel rides. In Hong Kong, it’s about fake Rolex watches and suits. It didn’t take long for them to accost me. I kept walking, swatting them away like flies. One trailed after me, talking as I pushed on.

“Good suit for you...high quality, hundred and fifty dollars. We make nice shirts too.”

I kept walking.

“You know you’re looking for something,” he said before giving up on me and returning to the street corner chasing sales.
I thought about the profoundness of what he said. It’s true we are all looking for something. That day it just wasn’t a suit.

I turned down a side street, and then another before walking to the Star Ferry terminal, where I hopped on one of the iconic green and white ferries for the short trip across Victoria Harbour. At 2.50 HKD (33 cents), it’s surely the best bargain in Hong Kong. Even cheaper would have been the lower deck fare.
The Star ferries have been plying this busy route for more than 100 years. Decades ago, the only way to cross the harbour to Hong Kong Island would have been by boat. But even with underwater vehicle and train tunnels, the Star Ferry is still popular.

Wooden decks and wood varnished bulkheads give the little ferries that old world charm. I found a seat at the front, the humid air entered freely through the open windows. Nearby a young boy gazed out onto the harbour. I hoped that when he grew older he’d still look out upon Hong Kong with the same sense of wonderment.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Tranquil Kyoto

Jetlag is a funny thing. It’ll get you up and knock you down at the worst times. Such was my first morning in Kyoto when I woke at 5:00am. While jetlag can be a bane mostly, it can sometimes provide an opportunity. By six I hit the streets and meandered down to the Kamo River, a wide open space with walking paths on either side. The river moved swiftly despite being ankle deep in most places.

Kamo River

The city was peacefully quiet. There were few cars on the road. It was as if this city of 1.5 million was still asleep (indeed, most probably were). Along the river, a handful of people jogged passed me, while on the other side a group of school children clad in white shirts and purple shorts. The morning sun made quick work of clearing up the cloud that drifted in overnight.

I pushed on for close to an hour before deciding to turn away from the river. By chance, I came upon Imperial Palace Park, a rectangular space in the centre of the city that runs north to south for 1.5 km.  In the middle of this oasis, surrounded by gardens and trees, is the former Imperial Palace (the Emperor’s head office moved to Tokyo in the 1880s). The palace is walled away from early morning intruders like me, so I walked throughout the park revelling in its beauty.
Entrance to Imperial Palace Park...many people on bicycles in the city

Eastern Gate of Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace Park

Fabulous collection of trees. One was more than 300 hundred years old, and wooden supports to keep it from falling down. I think if I was 300 years old I'd need some support to hold me up

Early morning stretch
I came upon a Shinto temple and watched quietly as a man performed his rituals. When he was done, I tried asking about the symbolism of his actions, but he told me his English was not very good. He led me to a poster tacked on a wall. The only thing I could read were the numbers “5” and “18”.

“This is today,” he said. “At the North Gate from 5:00–6:00 PM.”

It seemed to be a celebration of sorts. I realized that the numbers were the date. It was May 18th. I made a note to return.

After having walked for about three hours I returned to my hotel for breakfast—rice, noodles covered in a red sauce that resembled spaghetti, but tasted different, and some fish. And to remind me of home a flaky bun with strawberry jam.

After a short rest, I was out on the streets again. This time I headed west to Nijo Castle, built in 1626. It was the first time I had seen so many tourists. Despite having missed the cherry blossoms by a month, the gardens and grounds were still spectacular. In one tree, were a number of gardeners perched on branches pruning by hand.

Nijo Castle

Lots of spring blossoms

Nijo Castle, a collection of five different buildings

Gardens at Nijo Castle
Leaving the castle, I looked at my watch and decided to make my way over to the Imperial Palace for the celebration that was to start at 5:00PM. I turned the wrong and spent some time walking in the wrong direction before realizing my error.  I turned back finding the Park, where a large crowd had gathered at the North Gate.

A woman, I presumed from the U.S. (or Canada), came up to me and asked if I knew what was going on. I said I didn’t.

“I keep thinking it’s Angelina Jolie,” she offered.

“It’s not,” I shot back sounding as if I really knew what was happening and trying not to let her know how ridiculous I thought her suggestion was.

The sullen sound of a lone beating drum signalled the start of a long parade that included people dressed in traditional clothing. I stayed for some time, but left before the rituals and activities began. Outside the park, I looked at my watch and figured that I’d spent more than seven hours walking. I gave in to modern convenience and took the subway back to my hotel.        
It aint Angelina Jolie

One of many temples throughout the city

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Jetting to the other side of the world

The first leg of my round the world adventure was a 14 hour flight from New York to Osaka, Japan on China Airlines—made comfortable by a seat in business class. With an afternoon departure, and because of the route, the entire flight was made in daylight. In fact, my window shade (actually I had three windows given the ample space) was down most of the way protecting me from the sun’s bright glare. And of the sun’s harmful radiation warming me throughout the flight? Maybe like sitting in an x-ray for14 hours, except there no one comes to fill up your wine glass.

Flying over Quebec and across Hudson Bay, I stole peeks out the window. Chunks of ice—large and small—sparkled in the sea below. It was as if someone had dropped a bag of diamonds from the sky. Beautiful.

Eastern Russia from 34,000 feet

 Despite the countless flights I’ve taken, air travel still amazes me. In this case, 365 of us seated ourselves in a cylindrical tube and rocketed down a strip of concrete fast enough that said tube climbed into the sky—and stayed there until directed to come back to earth. Smiling people came around with food and drink, and then in a half day’s time we’re on the side of the world. Feeling like crap, mind you. Amazing.

A delicious appetizer of pan fried scallops with roasted red bell pepper coulis, manchego cheese, along with artichoke and mesclun salad

Dessert, following the grilled beef tenderloin with herb butter broccoli rabe, carrot, potato, red wine sauce

We approached Osaka from the north flying over Japan’s largest island, Honshu and crossing Osaka Bay. It is here that you see Japanese ingenuity. How do you fit more than 120 million people on a string of islands that in large part are covered by mountains? You reclaim land from the sea, a technical term for dumping a whole bunch of earth into the ocean until there is no more water.

We passed Kobe airport, which from above looks like a large platform built out in the ocean. On the other side of the bay is Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, which too was built on an artificial island. The challenge here is that the land that the airport sits has sunk more than expected. To compensate, adjustable columns have been used to support the terminal building. 

With three days in Japan, I opted to spend it in Kyoto, an hour’s train ride from Osaka. Many people know of Kyoto only through the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed in the city in 1997, which required industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beset by controversy, the United States signed but never ratified the Protocol and Canada subsequently withdrew. Politics aside, many probably don’t know that Kyoto is steeped in history, serving as the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years until it moved to Tokyo in the 1860s.

My wife often tells me I have a poor sense of direction. I’m not sure, but I’ve been all over the world and always seem to return home. It was about eight in the evening when I exited Kyoto’s main train station. The plaza in front of the station was busy with people. Some were having photos of themselves taken against red hued backdrop of the Kyoto Tower rising behind them across the street. I passed others seemingly amazed at what must have been the world’s smallest light and water display.
Given to my frugal nature, I’m often apt to forgo transportation that involves money leaving my pocket  when my two feet can deliver me to my destination, and so I set off from the train station with only a vague sense of where my hotel was. Sure this strategy has on occasion led to long walks in the wrong direction, but it’s about the journey and not the destination, isn’t it?
I had been walking for about 20 minutes when a sliver of doubt entered my mind. Had I turned down the wrong street? Had I passed the hotel already? I pushed on a little further, my suitcase trailing behind and the weight of my small backpack pulling on my shoulders. Then, as if I had known it all along, I happened upon my hotel.
Home for the next three days was the Kyoto Rich Hotel, which is ironic, because of you were rich you wouldn’t be staying here. This isn’t a slight against the hotel. For sure the hotel is clean and functional. It’s just that the rooms are...let’s say smaller than small. Little more than six feet wide, there is enough space for a single bed and a desk next to it. But it comes with its own bathroom, which when you step into leaves little head room. Anyone over six feet would have to lean their head down to avoid hitting the ceiling. But at $45 it’s a steal in this expensive country.
Having been up for more than 24 hours, I climbed into bed and hoped for a long and restful sleep.       
Small, yet cozy room in Kyoto

Saturday, May 18, 2013

NY cabbie now knows China Airlines and Air China are different

The other day as my taxi was nearing New York's Kennedy Airport, the driver asked me what airline I was flying.

"China Airlines," I replied.

As we passed the large roadside signs displaying the various airlines and respective terminals they operate out of, I noted that China Airlines was at Terminal 4, so it was surprise when the driver pulled up to Terminal 1.

"I think we need Terminal 4," I offered.

"No, this is it," he responded assuredly and pointing to a sign that read, Air China.

"But I'm flying China Airlines..."

"Oh," he said sounding puzzled. He drove on, navigating the circuitous roadway that snaked around to Terminal 4, where he deposited me in front of a sign that read, China Airlines

China Airlines is Taiwan's largest airline and based in Taipei. (read more in a detailed article by this author), Air China by contrast is one of China's largest airlines and is based in Beijing. Still confused? Not to worry, just remember two different airlines. Now at your next cocktail party when the topic of global aviation comes up you'll sound enlightened. My gift to you.

Exhibit 1: This is a China Airlines Boeing 747-400 arriving at JFK two hours before transporting me to Osaka, Japan

Exhibit 2: An Air China Boeing 737 photographed on arrival at Osaka from seat 18A on the China Airlines aircraft pictured above

Friday, May 17, 2013

Travel is a lot like life

Travel is a lot like life. One minute it can be amazingly beautiful and the next it can be difficult and unpredictable. I arrived at Newark airport at about 12:30am, and when I got to my hotel (SpringHill Suites), I was told there was a problem with some of the rooms, and they couldn’t honour my reservation, because the hotel was full. Instead they had arranged a room at the Quality Inn in Lyndhurst. Wherever that was. They promised to refund the room charge (something frugal guy likes) and a taxi would bring me back in the morning.

This part of New Jersey has a reputation for being gritty and tough. Beautiful isn’t a word that you’d use to describe this area. I tried to get my bearings as the taxi sped along a two-lane road at 120 km/hour.  Were we going west or north? I wasn’t sure. After about 20 minutes, we turned into the Quality Inn’s parking lot.
Not surprising considering the early hour, the lobby was empty. A tallish man, probably in his early thirties and working the front desk, came out from a small room. He wore glasses and wouldn’t have looked out of place had he been in my high school’s camera club. He seemed about as excited to be there as I was. 
The two-level hotel had a musty, well used smell to it. In some of the hallways the wallpaper was peeling. The hotel seemed past its best before date. I imagined a large stamp on the side of the before 1989. And it didn’t look any more impressive in the daylight. In fact, they could probably bulldoze the hotel, and no one would notice it was gone.
I located my room and opened the door. I was met by the kind of smell one would have found in an empty bingo hall 30 years ago. Then I spied the ashtray on the desk. Lovely, I thought. I didn’t think they still have smoking rooms in hotels. Later, over a breakfast of dry croissants, I saw a cigarette vending machine in the hotel restaurant. What decade was I in?

The washroom fixtures in the room were mismatched. The white toilet clashed with the coffee coloured bathtub that looked as if it was an original vintage. The wall coverings were off-white in colour, but I didn’t know if that was how it might have looked when the hotel opened, or if years of cigarette smoke had turned it that way. It reminded me of the kind of place a fugitive would have been holed up in a Hollywood movie. Admittedly, I have stayed in worse places, but I did pull down the bed cover and sheets to make sure the bed was clean.
I was assured that a taxi would come at 9:45 am, allowing enough time to catch a shuttle bus for the hour-long trip across the city from Newark to Kennedy airport. With no taxi in sight at 10:05, I called the hotel and asked when it would be coming. Oh, we’ll send one out now. At 10:30 a driver arrived and 20 minutes later dropped me off at Newark airport.

I went inside to the ground transportation counter to get a bus ticket. “The next bus is at 11:00,” a woman behind the counter said. What perfect timing I thought. She asked for my name and then called the bus company. Getting off the phone, she looked at me and said this bus was full, but there is another at noon. “When is your flight,” she queried. When I told her 3:00PM, she said it was best I take a taxi. I smiled and laughed to myself inside. Taking a taxi from Newark to Kennedy Airport was the very thing I had been trying to avoid. Five years ago, I had been in a not too different situation. My Qatar Airways flight into Newark had to do a go-around on approach to the airport, and then a further 30 minute delay on the ground forced me then to abandon any chance I had of taking the cheaper option of a train into Manhattan and then another to JFK. I remember the taxi costing more than $120.
Standing in the taxi queue outside the terminal I couldn’t help but smile. “That’ll be $86 for the taxi and $30 for road tolls,” a woman said to me. Emptying my wallet into the hands of the driver an hour later, I was reminded how travel can be unpredictable, but like life itself you just have to roll with it.