Monday, August 31, 2009

Tourist! Overseas Aromas

The door swooshes open. Everyone to this point has minded their own business. They start to glance up from the universal posture of gazing down at their shoes or pretending to check their watches. Silently, swiftly and with deadly precision, the attack leaves no one unscathed. The clawing for air, the choking gargles, the eyes flaming red from the undeterred onslaught of....perfume.

Who hasn't been in that elevator? In this second installment on ways tourists stand out the concern here is how locals can smell a tourist long before the unsuspecting holidaymaker hoves in to view. And just as predators can see, hear and smell unsuspecting prey that strays too close so, too, can the shopkeepers smell unaware tourists and their money the world over.

Hygiene is always a good thing but all those layers of soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, mouth rinse, body powder, lotion, cologne and Desenex just SHOUT uber-groomed American tourist! And that's before donning a wardrobe reeking of Mountain Spring Tide, Lavender Clorox bleach, April Fresh Downy and Vanilla and Jasmine Snuggles dryer sheets! But I digress.
In plain English the French may have created the modern industry but few cultures spend as much money on toiletries as we proud Americans. Fewer still manage to wear all of them at the same time all day long like we do. In trying not to offend our own senses we fail to realize that everyone around us is breaking out in hives from the clouds of Shower to Shower and the rose and sandalwood vapors rising in waves from our very pores.

Less is more people: It’s ok, ladies, to put your “casual” face on but make it “Day With the Kids” and not “Night at the Opera.” A little lipstick, soften the eyes, even the skin a tad and head for the door. Dragon lashes and cheekbones are always after dark anyway so hold off on the mascara running in to the foundation thing until after sundown.

Guys, a good long shower, 2-3 swipes of deodorant and go. If you’re taking longer than she is to gel-mousse your hair then it’s not a vacation anymore but a job interview. Remember the days when a wet comb did the trick? It still works!

I had to learn a while back that there is no real purpose in wearing cologne during a day of touring. Part of the full experience of a musty museum or cluttered cathedral is the smell of the building itself, right? Excessive colognes and perfumes not only repel most locals and damage artwork but attract bugs to say nothing of the vultures lurking in the gift shop doorway. Leave the spray bottles for after a second long, hot shower right before a well deserved night on the town or a quiet, evening swaddled in terrycloth and slippers.

Wanna blend in? Start with the basics and ix-nay on the White Diamonds until sundown.
Wanna find the tourist? Follow your nose, it always knows.

Gotta go!

"Outhouse" courtesy of Flickr.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Jerusalem Underground

We were towards the end of our second day in Israel where my three friends and I had wrapped up the standard list of must-see highlights. After a day of touring Jerusalem the four of us were wondering how things were settling down around town. The day before there had been a sniper attack in the city that had claimed one victim. The folks back home both crowed about being right and worried all the more for our safety.

“Stop worrying, Ma,” I implored before leaving. “Things are worse in the ghettos.”

“I don’t go over there, either!” Whaddya gonna do?

The evening scene was so normal it could have been the Gas Lamp district of San Diego. Instead of cowering in doorways or quivering behind locked windows people filled the gloaming streets, enjoying a night on the town as if, for them, nothing unusual had happened. We even saw the mayor himself walking the streets, pressing flesh and soothing those nerves that had indeed frayed from the incident.

As we continued along Yael Solomon we found a very unique example of “normal” nightlife in Jerusalem. Beckoning off our left shoulder was an exact copy of the London “Underground” sign. Jerusalem doesn’t have a subway, we thought. Oh, cool! It was a nightclub! We skipped the patio area at ground level and went downstairs to the dance floor. The lone female in our group was a trained dancer and had been dying to let off some steam after touring and the sniper. And they were playing Bob Marley!

Our lady companion took the floor with a swan’s grace and a tiger’s eye, spelling each of the three of us in quick succession. We noticed, however, that a good third of the crowd were soldiers of the recently recruited variety, young, hormonal and deadly. Our expressions went cold at the sight of uniformed militia in a club. We softened a bit upon realizing they were simply out for a good time but went even colder when we noticed their rifles stacked along the walls. They took turns, though, some hanging back at their table and guarding the weapons while the others did what young soldiers in a disco do the world over. We settled down, determined to relax like any local in the place.

“Crack!” The music faded instantly in our minds and everything fell to a slow motion crawl. Someone had gotten too close to the rifle pool and bumped against one, sending it clattering to the floor with a sharp and rattling report. It was an accident. There was no gunshot and in more than one language we realized in a blink’s eye that felt like hours that the safety was engaged and had held true.

Not good enough! Leading the way to the stairs and the now relative safety of the streets above, our dancing queen had had enough night crawling and dragged us three protesting fellas by the hand back to our hotel. Oh well…

Gotta go!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Counting Copenhagen

We went for a day. Some co-workers and I flew on a weeklong assignment from Chicago to Zurich and London before returning home. Between Zurich and London we were booked on SAS via Copenhagen which prompted me to look for a way to stop over in the Danish capital since I’d never been there before. I arranged a late evening departure from Zurich which gave us an overnight stay so we could wander around before continuing on with our business.

The question is does that count as a visit? What experience can one really get with less than 24 hours on the ground?

Friends at the airlines formed loose associations with such titles as the “100-Club” or the “200-Club,” indicating the number of countries the person has visited around the world. The only proof required was the passport entry stamp and some took it to exactly that minimalist extreme. One colleague of mine flew from New York to Brussels simply to boast not only flying on what was then an inaugural service but also merely to collect the passport stamp. Having little interest in Belgium itself he turned around and flew the same plane back to New York that afternoon.
The only locals we met in Denmark were the drivers to and from the airport and the desk clerk at our hotel. We largely had only one thing in mind for this hot minute in Denmark.
Copenhagen is closer to Sweden, which we couldn’t see and weren’t looking for as we dashed about town on a mission to see the Little Mermaid before catching our flight that night to England. This iconic, often vandalized statue is a good hike to what must have been the edge of town when the work was first unveiled. It is located near the Kastellet, a pentagram-shaped fortress guarding the inner approaches and is a lot smaller than imagined. Worse, where she might once have gazed across the open sea one as one would expect, today she sits across the inlet from a major industrial port built on a manmade extension. Forlorn as ever, though, we walked around it, stared at it and snapped the close-up pictures that give the work the mystical setting expected - as well as to hide all the container ships barely 1,000 yards away - and then dashed back to Kastrup International Airport.

Mission accomplished and we all could say “been there, done that” but did I really and would I go back? We didn’t get to Billund, the home of a favorite childhood toy, Legos; we didn’t get to Skagen on the north cape of Jutland where the Baltic meets the North Sea in explosive fashion; not even Elsinore at the far end of Zealand, famous for Shakespeare’s setting of Hamlet. Despite skipping the Tivoli Gardens we headed for the airport, satisfied that at least it was a day trip to Denmark instead of 45 minutes at the airport. Still, I think of my friend on the Brussels flight and others who deign only to drive or walk across a border, collect the stamp and turn around on the spot, their attitude being “C’mon…what is there to do in Luxembourg?”
If they only knew.
Gotta go!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Subway Zombies of Tokyo

My first day in Tokyo on business found me nervous about trying to remember the basics of making a good impression in Japan. Co-workers who had been before showed me how to purchase the correct joint ticket for our connecting journey using the two independent operators of the massive Tokyo Metro system. What my colleagues failed to inform me of as part of the experience was the show that was about to begin as soon as the train left the station.

The Suitengumae subway station is directly below our hotel, the Royal Park which featured a cross-walk connecting it to the Tokyo City Air Terminal. From there we transferred at Jimbocho for the rest of our trip to Kasuga where our offices were, a few blocks north of the Tokyo Dome, home of the Giants baseball club. As the train pulled out a stream of passengers began shuffling single file thru the car, making their way deeper in to the belly of the snake slithering beneath the teeming city above.

At first I was confused. There was plenty of open seating and hand grips yet they marched steadily onward. Subway Zombies. I then wondered if they didn’t want to sit next to the “gaikokujin” (foreigner) or worse, if my three scrubbings in the shower that morning was one scrubbing short for the famously fastidious Japanese.

We slowly learned that each train stops at precisely the same location at every station, all of which are served by several access points to the street above. Instead of fighting thru crowded platforms to the car closest to their preferred exit they peacefully, robotically walked the length of the open-ended train while in transit.

No one pushed or shoved. Indeed, on our routing we did not see any of the famous platform “Pushers” who intimately squeeze more riders on board before the doors closed. Once they reached their preferred car each zombie would peel off in stride, stepping out of the way for the others to wordlessly continue unabated. Those already set knew to keep the center clear so the Zombies could find their place as we wound our way across town. Polite, respectful, efficient. Sleepy.

We never made being a Subway Zombie work for us but the show wasn’t over yet. Tokyo revealed a whole new kind of endless commute which included some riders needing two subways, two trains, some buses and three hours each way to get to and from work.

Back at Suitengumae on the way home, bleary eyed riders would wake up, look around and realize that they had slept thru their connecting station somewhere back up the line. As we made our way up stairs and elevators to the sanctuary of our rooms, the Subway Zombies of Tokyo sighed their weary sighs below, trudged across the platform to the next train heading in the other direction, took a seat and, hoping for better timing, promptly fell asleep again.

Gotta go!

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Customer's Credo

The bank had recently restricted my card due to an uptick in recent activity. I was miffed at having a transaction declined and immediately got on the phone to customer service, loaded for bear. You tend to lose your humanity when someone messes with your money.

What monsters we can be! Gone are the days when a courtesy was unexpected and even appreciated. We live in a something-for-nothing world now, where once-in-a-lifetime is still often enough to demand red carpet treatment if our honor is impugned or our “valuable” time wasted lest we take our bargain-hunting business elsewhere.

But who really created those monsters? A dollar is a dollar, even a discounted one, so companies create service goals as equally unrealistic in their execution as the customers’ demands are unreasonable. “Satisfaction guaranteed” leaves the frontline employee at the bottom of the corporate food chain unprepared, untrained and bereft of any real ability to meet the demands of the demanding customer head on:

I don’t care that you’re losing money on this sale.
I don’t care that you are having staffing issues.
I don’t care that your third-party contractor failed to perform.
I don’t care that your affiliate operates differently from you.
I don’t care that your supplier is having logistics issues.
I don't care that it is five days past the 30 day return period.
I don't care that the warranty just expired.
I don't care that you sold out sooner than expected.

and the prize winner of them all...

I don't care that you or the manufacturer no longer makes or sells the product!

Enter the fine print which is constantly getting smaller to read and harder to interpret. Companies have service policies nearly as long as their operating manuals and far, far longer than their blanket mission statements!

“We strive to be the best in our business, anticipating the needs of our customers and returning real value to our employees and shareholders.” That's the usual refrain, right?

Best Buy has a four-statement version of "values" which is to unleash the power of their people, have fun while being the best, show respect, humility and integrity and learn from challenge and change. All sounds good, right? Or how about United Airlines, who at one time wanted to be "The worldwide airline of choice?"

Right. Now click here to view Best Buy's return policy and bring a cup of Joe with you. Better to say “We’ll do our best to earn your business without going broke or over-committing our own capabilities.” I’d be the first to sign up with someone who just kept it real.

Companies know the score and have seen their share of "rocks in the box" but the real ugliness bears its fangs when the paranoid retailer hides behind policy rather than genuinely try to make things right for a guileless customer.

The bank? They wanted to make sure it was really me running up a tab over the past 48 hours. I was just paying monthly bills online! I kept my cool, though, and truly surprised the agent on the other end when I wished her a pleasant rest of the day.

Misunderstandings happen. Having been on both sides of the counter, I’ve found it far less stressful to simply remember my humanity and encourage theirs to shine just as brightly.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 2

In the first installment of my own personal “Bucket List” I mentioned the desire to travel with the presidential entourage on Air Force One. Also, that in creating this list of ten achievements I devised a validity test of at least three of five attributes that each quest must satisfy. In the second of the ten items on my list I would like to witness the discovery of the "Kido Butai," the Japanese fighting force of six aircraft carriers of the "Combined Fleet" that attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

The story of Pearl Harbor and the outcome of the Second World War has been told and in many ways is still unfolding. The hole left in this story, however, is why no effort has been made to find these historical vessels. Their combined and individual exploits under the Imperial Chrysanthemum shown above have likewise been well documented; what is not documented is exactly where each vessel rests.

Why not?

A National Geographic documentary highlighting the discovery of the USS "Yorktown" included two Japanese survivors of the Battle of Midway who were on board in case “Kaga,” their home carrier was also discovered. I remember most chillingly from the video that a 30,000 ton aircraft carrier would look like a single grain of rice on the radar screen from three miles down! "Kaga" was not found but the emotions felt by these gentlemen once again sailing on the waters of battle were palpable.

It occurred to me from this documentary and also thru time spent in Japan that this is a people deeply in touch with their ancestors and strongly desirous in seeking to ensure those forebears are able to rest peacefully. Four of the six were infamously lost in one day while the last was sunk nearly a year before the final end of the war.

"Akagi," lost at the Battle of Midway by dive bombers, June 4, 1942. 267 men lost
"Kaga," lost at the Battle of Midway by dive bombers, June 4, 1942. 811 men lost.
"Soryu," lost at the Battle of Midway by dive bombers, June 4, 1942. 711 men lost.
"Hiryu," lost at the Battle of Midway by dive bombers, June 4, 1942. 392 men lost.
"Shokaku," lost at the Battle of the Philippine Sea by submarine attack, June 19, 1944. 1, 272 men lost.
"Zuikaku," lost at the Battle of Cape Enganao by torpedoes and bombs, October 25, 1944. 843 men lost.

The "Titanic," "Bismarck" and "Yorktown" were each found and by the same man leading the way, Dr. Robert Ballard. Surely the families of nearly 4,300 men deserve similar closure over 65 years later?

Gotta go.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Musings From A Muddled Mind - DFW to San Diego

As I was jotting notes for my first detailed “Trip Report” I noticed that I was keeping a running tally on updates and events exactly as they unfolded. Therefore, mixed in with general rambling thoughts at the same moment, here is the story of American Airlines Flight 1505 on Friday, August 14, 2009.

The pic includes my first sighting of a "blended wing" 767. The MD80 on the left is going to Mexico City while on the right is Puerto Vallarta. Mine is behind the jetbridge, broken as you please.

1345 – Car wreck less than a mile from the office on the way to the airport. Uh oh.
1415 – Check in fast and friendly. Had my bag tag ready before I even got to the counter.
1420 – Security equally fast and efficient but what’s up with the new air puff machines? It felt like air loogies being hocked all over my body.
1530 – Departure? Mechanical. Gate D29, and MD-80. At D28 was AA#1211 to Cancun, a 757. Whaddya bet they leave first?
1605 – The 4:30PM “departure” is now a 4:30PM “decision!” They’ll let us know. AA#50, a 777, is four gates down and will undoubtedly leave before us as well. Included with the “decision” was the disclosure that they were searching for an alternate aircraft.

Oh well: I don’t have to be in the office until Monday.

1613 – Cancun is oversold and they need one, no, two volunteers to come off the plane. Each volunteer gets $800, hotel and meals in Dallas. If they have to resort to “involuntary” passengers, how do they decide who stays behind?

1644 – Jet bridge pulls back on AA#50, right on schedule. Don't I wish!
1648 – Cancun’s problems seem solved; their bridge is pulling back, too. My flight is now 5:30PM.

Four year old “Evan, not Adam” climbed over the back of the chair next to me to introduce himself before his older sister dragged him away.

1710 – 1st disclosure of the actual problem. It’s an oil leak in Engine #2. Still working on it.
1714 – Young Mr. “Evan, not Adam” is playing peacefully in the floor at the feet of his family. He’s aggressively “coloring” a Sesame Street book, doing his best to burn off steam. His older sister is leaning against the window and working on her Girl-Pink laptop.
1717 – The coloring book diversion has run its course. “Evan, not Adam” is climbing on the window braces about three feet off the ground, alternating between them and his mother for monkey bars.
1727 – I’m back from my third trip to the restroom, trying to be able to stay seated for the 3-hour flight. I have lost at least two productive hours at the office I could have used.
1800 – The newest departure time is right now. Nada.
1806 – Time for comfort food – Mickey D’s fries!
1820 – NOW they hand out meal vouchers!

1910 – We have a new plane down at D22 but, predictably, no one in sight to meet and park the thing.
1935 – Pre-boarding for San Diego! “Evan, not Adam” is riding his mother’s laptop roller-bag, about as done for the day as he can be.
1955 – Everybody on, all ready to go.
2003 – Push back.

Somewhere between Texas and Arizona:
The flight attendants were poised, polite and charming. Open bar, too.
“Steve” is the soldier on the aisle who loves his girl, his son, golf and all things Korean. “Mike” is in the middle seat and enjoys the surprise of talking to someone else (me) who knows New Zealand very well. His lady fair is an Islander by way of Auckland. We trade these and, of course, “Drunk Buddy” stories to pass the time, including an instant classic about “Steve” having lost all memory of the night before and waking up on a curb in Japan!

“Let them figure out whether or not you were already in the country,” Mike and I clap gleefully.

I need to get business cards to hand out to people about my website, I muse. This was a golden opportunity.

2043 – Touchdown!
2101 – First bag on the carousel.
2104 – Mine pops up from the netherworld below. All is finally right in San Diego.

Gotta go!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Come Go With Me to New Zealand!

New Zealand is like a second home to me. I’ve been traveling to this remarkable island nation for the past 15 years and am very excited to be returning after a three year gap since my last visit.

I plan to post regularly from this unparalleled country as I reconnect with friends I’ve made there over the years and re-discover some of my favorite nooks and crannies of the North Island. This trip also promises new sights and sensations as I plan to spend more time in the Taranaki region along the western side of the island. You may recall this area as having hosted the filming for “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise.

The final itinerary is fairly worked out but it’s always best on trips like this not to schedule every minute of the day. The loose outline thus far is a hodge-podge of airlines and dates but it looks something like this:

Oct. 22, DFW – LAX: American Airlines, 757
Oct. 22, LAX – AKL: Qantas Airways, 747
Oct. 24, First day in Auckland to recover
Oct. 24, AKL-WLG, JetStar, A320 @ 17:10

Oct. 25-Nov. 3 = Driving tour from Wellington to New Plymouth to Auckland, possibly Cape Reinga. Maybe one day in Wellington I’ll take the Interislander across the Cook to Picton for lunch!

Nov. 3, AKL – SYD, Emirates, featuring the A380

Nov.3-6 = Relaxing, if that’s possible, in Sydney. I’ve never seen the Olympic Park and have heard that Maroubra is the undiscovered place to go for time at the beach. Then again, being the airplane geek that I am, a few hours at this beach by the airport would suit me just fine, too!

Nov. 6, SYD – LAX, Qantas, featuring the A380
Nov. 6, LAX – DFW, American Airlines, 767
Fourteen days, four airlines and about four hundred miles of driving, on the left, of course! Then there are the restaurants I hope to visit again:
Tulsi,” a delightful Indian Bistro named for the Indian basil plant that I enjoy in Wellington.
Santa Lucia,” a sublime Italian restaurant on Mission Bay in Auckland.
“Mekong Neua,” an artsy Thai and Laotian blend with great soups in Kingsland, Auckland on New North Road.

Finally there is “Tony’s,” a wonderfully eclectic steakhouse on Wellesley in the Auckland CBD that is simply a must-stop on every tour.

I’m already researching new places to add to the list as well but still leaving room for those sinfully decadent meat-pies that bloat the body for less than $2! Oh, and since it’s the late Spring that time of the year, the first wave of beachgoers should be out in numbers!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nothing Much at Naseby

From a young age I’ve always enjoyed “period” films depicting events from an earlier, more colorful time. The style of speech, the battle scenes and the depiction of life from lowly serf to highest royalty fascinated me and "Cromwell" had it all, including a “live” depiction of a royal execution! What eight-year old boy could pass that up?

Many years later I was an invited guest to a Highlander’s Wedding in Daventry, Northamptonshire, about 80 miles northwest of London. In the "Pancreas" of England between Birmingham at the west, Stratford-Upon-Avon to the south and Leicester to the northeast lay the birthplace of rugby, Warwick Castle and the Roman Road of “Watling Street.” Most exciting of all to me, however, was the Battlefield of Naseby only 15 miles from the site of the wedding!

In June of 1645 the “unthinkable” English Civil War had been raging for nearly three years and things were starting to turn against the crown. King Charles I (played in the film by Sir Alec Guinness seven years before Obi Wan),was heading south to his base at Oxford following a costly victory at Leicester when he was flushed out by the Parliamentarian “New Model Army” racing northward under Sir Thomas Fairfax to catch him. Unable to meet up with reinforcements from Wales and Somerset, Charles swung back north to regroup at Newark but was forced to turn and fight on the fields of Broad Moor at Naseby.

Oliver Cromwell (a scene chewing Richard Harris) made light work of Sir Langdale, his direct opponent on the King’s left. He then charged to the west through the weakened center of the Royalist infantry towards the remaining cavalry of Prince Rupert (a scene stealing Timothy Dalton) on the King’s right, routing the royal army in short order, just as he had done the year before at Marston Moor.

The film that I first saw as a boy covered nine years of British history in under three hours. The Battle of Naseby itself lasted about as long.

Few historical films are ever 100% accurate and “Cromwell” is loaded with inaccuracies and blatant omissions but it hardly mattered to a mesmerized eight-year old. One thing is certain: Charles lost the war and ultimately his own head, the only sitting monarch in English history to be executed. It ran in the family: his grandmother was Mary, Queen of Scots. To this day, however, he maintains a loyal following of supporters.

This is not an American Civil War battlefield. On the edge of an unremarkable field stands a weather-beaten monument that seems cast aside, woebegone and misplaced but in truth marks the center of the “Roundhead” Parliamentary line. No manicured green space, tour bus parking lot ringed with gift shops and cafes, "timeline trails" stuffed with placques and markers detailing what happened "at this very spot" or guides to retell the tale. There’s not even a McDonald’s; just an open field gently sloping downward beside a quiet country road before rising again barely a half-mile away at Dust Hill where the Royalist army was positioned on the northern ridge.

The entire area is pregnant with silence, the Sulby Hedges at the western edge of Broad Moor field are the lone surviving witnesses, resolutely maintaining a 360 year covenant with the stillness. Where buglers sounded, calling to nameless and forgotten men at odds, today hardly even the winds remain.

At least it is still there. If every battlefield in England were preserved there’d be no living England to speak of. Yet for as much fighting that has taken place on and above British soil only the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Britain ever garner much in the way of conscious thought. Naseby in comparison may as well have not happened at all.

In the grand scheme of things Naseby merely started the transition from monarchial to parliamentary rule, little more than the natural evolution of government in one country among many. Right. And nothing much ever really came from the Battle of Yorktown either.

Gotta go.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nesting with The Angel of Downy

It was going to be a long flight, there was just no getting around it. Fifteen hours to Australia…in coach. Still, I wasn’t too afraid. They weren’t going to take me alive! I had a plan, unlike so many unprepared folks on this very flight.

The first part was choosing Qantas’ daylight flight, a one o’clock departure that would arrive in Sydney at eight-thirty in the evening the “next day.” Psychologically that seemed a lot shorter than losing all of Tuesday somewhere between Catalina and Tahiti on the regular “two days later” services out of California.

I found my preferred window seat, the second preparation for marathon flying simply so I can prop against the sidewall instead of drooling on my neighbor’s shoulder. Blankets, check, shoes in the overhead, done, the amenity kit (remember those?) and next the music and reading material. Then came the final, grand prize in building my "nest" in coach.

From seemingly nowhere I unfolded “Pillow,” the purest white, fluffiest bedroom pillow that would fit within the confines of my carry-on bag. Encased in 600 thread count linen, Pillow positively reeked of April Fresh Downy, as if it were a 100-proof rinse without a single drop of water. Pillow had to last not only this flight but two weeks of hotels, driving and sailing around the South Pacific!

I caught a few smirking glances coming my way, every piercing stare and squinted glance decrying the sight of such an amateur. Clearly I didn’t have the good sense God gave a blade of grass to buy a neck pillow instead. Obviously I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that the airlines would provide pillows for flights like this.

Not so much as a Dramamine among them, I smiled to myself as I settled in to my seat and mashed my nose against the window, a ritual I've performed since my earliest memory. My body twitched and rocked with barely controlled anticipation for the adrenalin rush of take-off heralding the start of an incomparable vacation.

We pushed from the terminal, paraded majestically to the end of the runway and roared in to the air in an unusual eastbound take-off over The 405 and central Los Angeles. I held Pillow tightly in my lap as a child would clutch a favorite stuffed animal, smiling out the window as my 747, this favorite of all airplanes, banked smoothly over Long Beach and out over the ocean for the southern track to Sydney.

Six hours later Pillow and I were snoring blithely until it was time for a restroom break. A quick peek out the window showed the seemingly motionless wing with the same two engines right where I'd left them, calmly droning away in to the blue. I entered the aisle to head to the lavatory and noticed even more stares coming my way. This time every venomous stare and hateful sneer had the look of theft and murder in mind.

Dry cabin air carries insidious aromas no matter how many times the air is exchanged to freshen things up. The Angel of Downy had wafted thru that cabin as surely as if it were the 11th Plague of Egypt. I chuckled to myself as I glanced once more towards my seat. Pillow, who would endure many more salacious stares before this trip was over, remained unmolested as I closed the lav door.

I'm going again in October!

Gotta go!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Just Pay the Freight......Please?

Air fares to Australia from the United States have traditionally been some of the highest in the world thanks to the nonstop duopoly that has existed in the market since Pan Am first ran the trip with the 747SP. Eliminating oh-dark-hundred red-eye fueling stops in Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji or other such places was a premium folks were willing to pay and oh, how the airlines knew it. Until now.

Fact: For many reasons the global economy is dramatically down, business travel is both downgraded and down in general while discretionary travel feels virtually dried up.

Fact: Airlines “net” their revenues down to what’s left over after taxes and non-airline related surcharges and fees. Their argument is that the total fare is not what it seems.

Fact: Customers tend to look at the total outlay, regardless of who gets the money. Few are willing to pay extra to the airline just to match the government fees.

Oh, how the airlines know it. British Airways recently offered fares between New York and London for $156 each way which included nearly all government surcharges and also included two free nights in a central hotel. Competing airlines of course were forced to match the deal.

For its trouble British Airways got virtually nothing, paying out nearly every penny to the authorities and possibly on the hook to the hoteliers in to the bargain. Why? “The plane was going anyway,” meaning they won’t scrap underperforming flights that probably have other traffic booked already. They also hope to either break even or not lose as much as they could have and still secure repeat business in the future.

"Just pay the freight, please?" they beg. It's better to lose a shirt instead of the wardrobe. And flying to Australia now is literally a perfect storm disaster for the airlines and windfall for customers.

Stepped up competition to the South Pacific has certainly helped in addition to the sour economic outlook. If one doesn't mind going back to the good ol' days and stopping in Tahiti or Fiji, Air Tahiti Nui and Air Pacific, respectively, will happily pick up some extra sales. Otherwise, where there were once only two nonstop airlines, today Delta, Qantas, United, V-Australia and Air New Zealand all field nonstops to Australia or New Zealand. Each is absolutely begging for business with firesale rates to Down Under destinations. Since early this year Qantas, the way out in front leader in the marketplace, has had its hands full, changing its rates almost daily, swinging from $229 to $505 each way that I've seen so far.

The economy is in terrible shape. New competition is flooding the market with more seats than the market needs even in good times and some of those airlines (G'day, Qantas!) have massive new aircraft like the A380 to fill. These are the best of times....

Hotels, restaurants and car rental firms are of course equally in the basement. Two years ago roundtrip coach fares were approaching $2000, a total investment that today can easily cover the entire cost of the trip. My own ticket down and back, including Auckland, one domestic New Zealand leg and a flight across "The Ditch" to Sydney came in at barely half that. What?!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why The Red Snow

"Why?" It was a simple question, yes, but one from a place of incomprehension rather than of curiosity. A co-worker wanted to know what could possibly be of such interest as to use valuable vacation days in going to Auschwitz. And in February, no less. Time off was not to be “wasted” (her word) visiting a WW-II concentration camp.

Auschwitz compels. It demands attention as if witnessing a horrific tragedy in real time. Time away from the daily grind relaxing is good, of course but I wanted to see the camp at its worst, to reaffirm the value of life in as fulfilling a way as any sun-drenched vacation is regenerating.

It was cold the day we toured two of the three main camps, the original Auschwitz and the larger Birkenau barely a mile to the west and made famous in such films as “Schindler’s List” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The sun shone brightly, however, here in southern Poland, not far from the Czech and Slovakian borders. The sharp winter air seemed quite still as if afraid to stir up harsh memories and scattered ashes.

Easily the most sinister building on Earth stood before us, its central train access port yawning wide as if it were the very mouth of Hell. Inside, where Auschwitz was largely intact the Birkenau camp was indeed stripped of the majority of its buildings. A few bunkhouses remained while the four crematoriums were mere piles of rubble, left as they were the day the camp was abandoned.

The affect was stupefying. Slack-jawed at the expansive visage of a partially destroyed camp the mind begs to know what it was like in full operation. Vintage, grainy black and white photos only imply the true scale of horrors when viewed and imagined in living color. Chilly winds whistled through the rickety barracks and also the barbed wire still surrounding the grounds. The cold concrete of the train platform and the tracks themselves echoed in our steps the cries of the victims gone before while the watchtowers leaned menacingly inward, still daring one and all to put a single toe out of line.

Nine days before the Soviet Army arrived in the area the camp was evacuated in January of 1945 and attempts made to destroy the evidence. Some 60,000 prisoners were forcibly marched 35 miles in mid-Winter at least partly along what is today Route #933 to Wodzislaw Slaski (Loslau), there to be boarded on trains to other camps. In three days roughly 15,000 died on the way from abuse, exhaustion, exposure, murder and starvation, blood marking the death of those eliminated for being unable to keep pace, their essence absorbed into the snowy winter soil.

A satellite image of Oswiecim today shows an unnatural square, a symmetrical scar between the villages of Plawy and Brzezinka, the original Polish for “Birkenau.” If viewed in "Map" mode a single railhead peels off to the west jus above Plawy from the main line, as if serving no purpose but in actuality the end of the line like no other on Earth. It marks the failure to obscure the truth as indelibly as the atrocities here and elsewhere are etched in memory. And it begs the question: What path will others walk? I know what I have gained.

I have sacrificed a few days in the sun to be touched by the souls of the blood red snow.

Gotta go.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Fistful of Firsts in France

It was the Summer of 1976 and time to fly home from Germany for a family reunion. We were booked on TWA’s Paris to Washington/Dulles service in both directions with connections at the shining new airport north of the city, Charles de Gaulle. Oh, how this was going to be a fun day for this young aviation enthusiast!

In the first of many firsts our originating flights were on Air France and included flying on easily the strangest thing with wings I had ever seen in my life. The unimpressed, seen-‘em-all gate agent informed us it was a French “Caravelle,” a short-to-medium range bird seating 80 passengers with Rolls Royce engines, perfect for a typical intra-European service.

The pioneering Caravelle featured a host of cutting edge designs, including the first “clean wing” concept by having the engines located in the back. Not seeing the engines wasn’t nearly as jaw-dropping, though, as the triangle shaped windows that distorted images around the edges like a magnifying glass! This strange magic may not have looked like a typical airplane but it sounded and flew like one, landing us safely at Charles de Gaulle, the mother lode of all firsts.

Aeroports de Paris set the bar early for cutting edge designs that deviated from mere bunkers with bridges. The terminal was a living test bed for the future with its bundt cake design, glass-encased escalators suspended in mid-air and tunnels dipping under live taxiways only to rise again to seven attending satellites. This new gateway to Paris was indeed striking although the arresting form did not translate in to efficient function and, as we know, was not repeated.

Once Mom was settled at the TWA gate with time to spare before boarding, we took off back down the tunnel to savor actually being under an active taxiway. The tunnel itself offered new things for us as well, such as the longest moving sidewalk we had ever seen, the smooth walls with indirect lighting from underneath the tiled flooring and those hypnotic advertising “eggs” with images flashing on either side.

When we got to the other end and made to go thru security back to our gate the agents asked us for our passports. Oops. Seems we’d re-entered the country on our sight-seeing dash thru the tunnel. Neither spoke the other’s language but wayward international passengers have been in the airport worker’s job since Lindbergh. “Mom,” is a universal word and us frantically pointing up the tunnel was all they needed to fetch our more than miffed mother with the documents needed to process us back “out” of France in time to catch our flight to Washington.

TWA offered “Strange Magic” by E.L.O. on its popular hits channel but the strangest and most wonderful magic of all was the Caravelle and that mesmerizing bundt cake terminal at Charles de Gaulle.

We couldn’t wait to do it again!

Gotta go!