Sunday, December 28, 2008

Don't Go There - The Book

Dontgothere I’m a fan of Vagablogging, because I’m a fan of "Vagabonding" and Rolf Potts.

Sadly, on December 23rd Vagablogging has reached a new low. It posted a book “review” in which the contributing blogger freely admitted to not reading the book she was talking about. So, she trashed the book based on what? Her ESP perhaps and another review she had read elsewhere.

Is that even allowed? Not to mention, honest and ethical?

The book in question is “Don’t Go There” by Peter Greenberg. A wholly excellent book, which tells you about places you should put on your “must-miss” list. As a person who has her own must-miss lists (as opposed to “must-see” lists) I appreciate the idea. My must-miss list includes the Taj Mahal and Beijing on cloudy days (unless you really want to find out if your medical insurance covers hospitalization abroad due to sudden asthma attacks), Iowa on any day, the islands of Sal, Tenerife, and big chunks of Costa del Sol, among others. And Naples. I love Italy, but Naples is just dreadful in more ways that you can imagine. My list of must-never-stay-there-again hotels is by now about three pages long.

So, I understand Mr. Greenberg’s sentiment. But the person “reviewing” the book for Vagablogging, Abha Malpani, apparently did not.

Abha, honey, if you think there are no must-miss places, then you still have a long ways to go as a traveler. Get out and SEE the world, really see it, the filth, stench, bedbugs and all. Abha, the “reviewer” says, “You’ve got to be really travel frustrated to come up with a stink list of places not to visit, no?”

No hon, coming up with a stink list of places not to visit simply means that you’ve been around the block a few times and seen some REAL stink. Which only proves once again how pitifully arrogant and incompetent you are in your “review” and travel experience.

Oh, and not allowing any more comments on that post is a really good move. You’d get trashed.

Eeegadz, now you see just how low Vagablogging has fallen as of late. I didn’t even know they allowed total cretins to write for them these days.


PS. Since they’re also looking for contributing writers, I sent them an email, but needless to say, I don’t expect an answer. Oh well…





PS2. Mr. Greenberg also has a very cool website DontGoThere.org where you can send in your tales about places from hell.


And finally, PS3.

Because I am getting emails about it from people who obviously have serious reading and comprehension problems, let me spell it out here, in simple words of 3 syllables or less, OK?

I have nothing against Abha expressing her negative opinion about the book. But to do so WITHOUT reading the book first, and to do so under the highly-respected name of Vagablogging is not cool. If she had read it and THEN trashed it, fine, that's what people reviewing books occasionally have to do. 

And I apologize  that "occasionally" has five syllables.

Now, don't you people have some traveling to do, or something?


Thursday, October 16, 2008

CADIP Continued...

It's official, I am NO LONGER recommending CADIP as an option for prospective volunteers. Bad feedback has been piling up and the staffer at CADIP with whom I was corresponding was either unwilling or unable to provide his last name for the record. Instead, he kept responding with semi-correct pre-packaged bits of information.

So, to all you potential CADIPers out there - hold on to your monies. There are better options. I'll show you where, too! No worries.

PS> I apologize for my long silence. I was translating one book and finishing writing another and volunteering all at the same time. Life has been a little bit crazy over here recently.

But now, we're back in business! And by the way, I HATE the way that typepad has "improved" their text editor. Urgh! Who thought up this shit, huh?


Monday, August 11, 2008

I read books - about Mexico City

David_lida_book One of the fun things about blogging about travel is that people send you stuff. Just because. They don’t even expect you to write anything about it, but of course are delighted if you do. Especially when you write something positive.


Most of the time, I don’t bother to write anything, because either the stuff is crap, or totally irrelevant to this blog. However, books are always welcome. Send me more books, please. Even if I don’t like them, I can always use them as doorstops. Or give them away as last-minute gifts, or what-not. And I may even write about them, too.


And speaking of writing… I’m really enjoying the writing of David Lida. He’s a journalist based in Mexico City, and his new book “First Stop in the New World” came in the mail not so long ago. And this is one book definitely worth saying positive things about.


Mr. Lida moved to Mexico City in 1990, if I remember correctly. And if I’m not going totally senile here, my first Mexico City adventure was in the early 1990s, too.


I got robbed silly in Cancun and the friendly police chief there who took my statement, felt sorry for me and actually gave me enough money for a bus ride to Mexico City. I was to go straight to the embassy to sort out my travel documents, and then to an Amex office to pick up the cash my best buddy dutifully wired to me.


The bus ride was long. And boring. I was hungry and tired and did my best to sleep. We stopped in Veracruz and it seemed we were going to stay there forever. Which I didn’t mind at all, as I had the worst bout of the worst motion sickness ever. Later it turned out it wasn’t motion sickness at all, but a bad burger from Wendy’s in Cancun. Quite a few people got food poisoning from that joint that summer, and mine was a relatively mild case. Still, it was no fun to go through it on a cross-country Mexican bus ride.


But anyway, where were we? In Veracruz, right? So, this guy got on the bus, and because the only empty seat was next to me, he had no choice but to be brave, sit down and inhale the vapors of my vomit. The alternative was standing for the next 14 hours, or so. Actually, more like 20 hours, because the bus broke down soon after leaving Veracruz.


For the life of me, I don’t remember the guy’s name. He was from Arizona, or maybe Arkansas, and on his way to see his relatives in Mexico City. His car was stolen in Veracruz and we immediately bonded over our mutual misfortunes. He spoke Spanish, seemed to know where he was going and took me under his wing, vomit and all.


His relatives owned a swanky little restaurant somewhere in Mexico City and that was our first destination. To get there we rode the metro. I had been told what a horrid, dangerous place this Mexico City was, where at every corner evil characters waited to take my money, or my virginity. The metro was supposed to be even worse. But because I had no money left, and my virginity was highly questionable at that point, I let myself be led into the bowels of the Mexico City underground transport system. And surprise, surprise. It turned out to be clean, cheap and efficient. With helpful pictograms at every turn to aid those who couldn’t read Spanish (like me, back in those days, for example). Though my new friend explained the pictures were aimed at illiterate campesinos, who were flooding Mexico City with hopes of a better life.


I was enamored with Mexico City. It was frantic and crazy, crowded and vibrant, yet friendly and somehow oddly familiar at the same time. Exactly how Mr. Lida describes it.


We ate at the guy’s relatives’ restaurant and were quickly sorted a place to crash for the night somewhere behind the kitchen. We listened to live music long into the night, and in the morning were rustled back to life by the sounds of a produce deliveryman.


When my week in Mexico City had come to an end, I was in love. With the place. Not with the guy – in any case, he was batting for the other team. A pity, too. The guy was hot.


Reading Mr. Lida’s book brought back all those memories, and then some. His book is meticulous when it comes to facts and details. You can use it as a guidebook, if you want. All you ever needed to know about Mexico City is there. Now, if it only had a bit of humor in it, it would have been perfect.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

End of misleading airfare ads?

Hallefreakinlujah! It’s about time! What took them so long?


Finally, some big poobahs in charge woke up and decided it would be a good idea to tell Ryanair and other offenders just where they can shove their 1 euro promotional airfares.


Full article in The Guardian here.


Now all the budget airlines are required to include all fees and taxes in their advertised fares. Which makes me very, very happy. So now Ryanair quickly raised their promotional prices to the equivalent of 5 or 10 euro (at least in Sweden).


Ryanair1_copy




But it appears Ryanair bosses only got the first page of the memo, because their fares still don’t include taxes and other charges.


It seems that SkyEurope got the whole memo. They advertise prices for 1 euro/pound all inclusive. Which looks mighty fine until you actually try to book one of those special fares. Yeah, right. Good luck!


Skyeurope




And then you read the fine print, which says:


One-way, ALL INCLUSIVE. Subject to availability. Web reservations only. 14-days advance purchase applies. Subject to payment of credit/debit card fees and baggage fee.


Some morons (I was going to use a much stronger word, but since this is a family blog and all that, morons will have to do for now) will just never learn. I hate budget airlines.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

They can't be serious!

Every so often I’m asked to review things, which if I feel like it, I do. Occasionally, an odd company here and there will flat out ask for a favorable review in exchange for monetary compensation. And that immediately makes me wonder just how lame you have to be to even suggest that. I never respond to such offers.


But then this morning, I got a very nice email from Katie, who also wanted me to review something. Katie went a step further – she asked for an unbiased review AND offered payment. Sweet! I get to trash something AND get paid?


Unfortunately for me and Katie, I do not accept money for reviews. If I recommend something, it’s because it’s good and useful and I like it. And if I don’t like something, I’ll tell y’all for free.


Katie wanted me to review a cheap airfare searching/booking site. I’m not going to give you a link, because trust me, it’s not worth it. It’s THAT bad.


The site claims to have 4 unique golden guarantees, with the first one being “Lowest Airfare & Hotel Rate”. Oh what a crock of BS! I plugged in a set of dates into their search boxes, Stockholm to JFK August 20-27, and the cheapest result I got was:


  • British Airways - $946.60 round trip - that was the lowest option.

I plugged in the same dates into kayak.com and got $922 for the same flights, directly from BA.


But guess what? Kayak also provided options that the other schmucks didn’t, options that were even cheaper: $744 on KLM/Northwest.


There went that first golden guarantee. I really didn’t feel like bothering with the other three.


But wait! It gets worse. The airfares they list do not include all fees and taxes, you have to click something to get that info. You people can’t be serious? That is like so mid 90s. Do you honestly think that I am going to buy something, anything, from you if you can’t be upfront about the costs involved?


I’ll spare you the rest – pathetic hotel search results (again found cheaper elsewhere), bad design, lack of currency conversion function, and the most curious of all – the cheapest fares are NOT listed on the very top, you have to scroll quite a long way down to see them.


Either that site is a joke, or a scam, because I seriously cannot imagine why anyone with two brain cells to rub together would use it.


Nr_station_2

Yes, that unfortunate company is located in NYC (at least that's what it says on their website), about 12 blocks up from there. Ah, New York...




Monday, June 23, 2008

Musical journeys

When hearing musical journeys y’all probably think I’m gonna go all Césaria Évora or Maria de Barros on you. Nah, not this time. That would be way too easy. Though I admit to being a huge fan of Cape Verdean music, and I wish I could be in Mindelo for the Baia das Gatas festival in August, there’s more to Anna’s musical travels than São Vicente.


Actually, I’d much rather be in Canada on July 1st to see Daniel Lanois play at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Now, I’m not a fan of jazz - too noisy for my taste. But I do like Montreal, and oddly enough, have never been there during summer.


Daniel Lanois is a whole ‘nuther thing altogether. I bought “Acadie” way back when at a garage sale simply because I thought he looked cute in the cover photo. It was only 2 bucks and fortunately, the music turned out to be nice. Very nice, actually. A nice blend of something very listenable. I’m clueless when it comes to music and normally divide it into the kind I like and the rest. “Acadie” I liked. Which was odd, because to this day I’m not a fan of artists Lanois produced. Including U2. And even weirder, the only U2 album I do like – "Zooropa", he didn’t produce.


Acadie”, however, was impossible NOT to like. That the sexy voice occasionally sung in French helped, too. The following album “For The Beauty of Wynona” made me want to chew my leg off and bleed to death. And that was it.


I went about my happy life and listened to “Acadie” every now and then. For the past 15 years, or so…


Then sometime this April I turned on the TV and saw some ugly old fart talking at me about the new U2 album. I’ll be damned. Lanois was still alive. And on Swedish TV. He even had a record out of his own. And a documentary film. And probably a few other things as well.
I diligently trolled the internet to get the feel for his new album and decided I quite liked it. (Don’t worry, I didn’t deprive a rich guy of his royalties, I only listened to the free samples.)


Turned out Mr. Lanois has quite a following in Sweden, complete with hysterical fan girls fainting at the very mention of his name (not bad for an man, wouldn’t you say?). And it was one of those fan girls who told me about her planned trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival. 
And here I thought I was bad for flying down to Stockholm to see Crowded House last year! Ha! That’s nothing compared with a trek from Sweden to Canada. Well, at least Neil Finn being still somewhat vaguely good-looking wasn’t an assault on the eyes. But Daniel Lanois? Man! That guy has AGED!


However, if I didn’t have to look at Mr. Lanois up close, I quite would like to hear him play live, I admit. At least he still has his sexy voice. But maybe next time… So don’t die on me, old man! At least not before you play “Still Waters” for me live, OK?


And this is the song that has been the soundtrack to my travels for the past 15 years. A curious choice for a non-believer like me.



And here's a great site dedicated to Mr. Lanois put together by some guy on squidoo.



PS. I still can't over the fact that the old man has screaming fan girls who follow him around the world.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ten airlines with decent ECONOMY class food

Articles like this one make me laugh. Golly gee whiz! So the airlines still serve gourmet meals in first/premium/business/or whatever it’s called these days class? And how exactly is that newsworthy?


Unfortunately, whenever we hear about improvements in the on-board chow, it’s always for the folks sitting in the front of the bus. For the cattle class economy, the reality is starkly different.


I bet if Ms. Heger was to write about outstanding food served in the poor people class, she wouldn’t have all that much to say. And why should she? It’s so much easier to blab on about the fabulous first class cuisine in first class on Singapore Airlines. And because I fly economy, stories like hers are about as useful to me as two tits on a bull.


A real achievement would be listing those airlines that still feed decent food to the cheap hordes flying in seats that don’t recline into lie-flat beds. Do such airlines even still exist?


Yep, and here’s a few:

1. Kingfisher. I dunno how they do it, but somehow they do it. They manage not to poison you with their meals. The food is always tasty, fresh and served with a smile.
I love Vijay Mallya, I love Kingfisher and can’t wait until they start flying internationally. Kingfisher is India’s first and only 5-star airline and it shows. Even in economy.


The rest is listed in no particular order.


2. Asiana. Even on short haul routes between Korea and Japan you get a nice, edible, pretty looking meal.


3. Japan Airlines. Not bad for economy class. But on shorter flights all you get is a drink. Bummer…


4. Korean Air. If you go for the Korean style meal, you will do just fine.


5. Singapore Airlines. I think this is one airline where you just can’t go wrong, be it in business or economy. They’ll feed you good.


6. Qatar Airways. I was duly impressed with the chow in the back of the bus. Nice and filling. And pretty looking, too. And I’m even more impressed now that Qatar flies to Stockholm.


7. El Al. This might be the only airline where the food in economy gets better marks than in business class. And I’m saying this even though I can’t stand hummus.


8. Emirates. Well, this is a toss up. Last time I flew with them, the food was only OK. But it seems that on flights to Japan, the food is much better than on those to India. Hmmm... Interesting...


9. Thai Airways. Personally I can’t stand this airline, but their economy food is good. Much better than Malaysia Air.


10. EVA Air. I somehow always end up with the Asian style meal on their flights but can’t complain. As most Asia based airlines, they take care of their passengers and don’t make them gag.


See, it wasn’t impossible! Ten airlines that don’t poison you in economy, at least not according to my taste. True, my taste has been known to be somewhat perverted, but I'm not dead yet (which incidentally, almost happened after consuming the suspicious goo served by Finnair on a flight to Narita.)


For more on airline meals go to this site. These people are hardcore and even take photos. Now, how’s that for dedication, huh?


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In Pictures - Bhutan

I’m down with a vicious case of summer flu (or whatever it is that sits in my throat, nose and head) and that makes me a very cranky person. On a day like today, I just wish I were somewhere else. So to facilitate my escapism, I’m going to sort through some pretty photos.
(Because there's no Calgon where I live.)


Thimphu_at_night
Thimphu at night



Prayer_flags_in_the_wind
On the way to Haa




Panoramic_paro


Panoramic Paro




Monk_shaving_4


Seen in Thimphu








Friday, May 23, 2008

Yes, we pay for that too...

It looks like travelers in the US are getting their panties all up in a wad, because American Airlines decided to charge monies for ALL checked bags.


So what’s the big deal here anyway? Have you been to Europe recently? We’ve been paying for the privilege of flying with checked luggage for quite some time now. For that very reason, I always avoided Ryanair like the plague…


Unfortunately, when FlyNordic merged with Norwegian, and became one of the two airlines that fly to my Arctic village (the third one doesn’t really count), they instituted the same policy.


Three days ago, on May 19, Germanwings began charging 5 euro per bag. WizzAir also wants money for checking in your luggage.


AirBaltic has this to say: Economy Class – there is fee of EUR 9 (if paying for baggage and ticket together) or EUR 15 (if paying for baggage separately) on each flight segment for each piece of baggage with total weight up to 20 kg.


And these are just the ones I flew on recently. The big national carriers are still trying to hold on to the “1 bag of up to 20kgs free” policy, though rumors abound it’ll change soon. It’s only a matter of time before the likes of SAS and Lufthansa start charging for all bags, as well.


I guess it will be a rude awakening for Americans traveling in Europe this summer. You see? Your airlines are just getting on with the program. Too bad it was the dismal American Airlines that decided to go first. And yes, I totally agree they suck. I’d rather walk than fly AA.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Shopping and sleeping part 2

When living in more or less civilized countries, I never had to think about the lowly concept of sleeping in airports. There were always hotels around, some with airport pick-up, some without, some expensive, and some cheap. And with a bit of searching, I always managed to find a place for the night.


Even in one of the most expensive (supposedly) countries in the world - Japan, at the Narita Airport Washington Hotel a double room for one night set me back all of US$80. With a pick up at the JR station in Narita and a drop off at my terminal the next morning. And complimentary drinks, alcoholic even! Ha! 80 bucks at last year’s exchange rates, is what? SEK 560, and I’m being really generous here.


CDG, Paris? A slew of cheap options nearby. Heathrow, London? There’s a Travelodge right there under your nose, I mean the ill-fated Terminal 5. And if you’re willing to go a bit further inland, there’s no shortage of affordable places.


Arlanda






Enter Arlanda, Stockholm. Where affordable means a coffin-like room at Rest&Fly and communal showers at the end of the hall. And not just any old room, it’s a “night room” where your stay is calculated by the hour, and where 10 hours will cost you SEK 540. And dude! They have bunk beds!


Rest&Fly proudly proclaims on their webpage that 70,000 happy guests can’t be wrong, R&F is fab. Well, sure it is! It’s the ONLY budget option available.


Every time I attempted to book a coffin at R&F, the place was full. And just as well. Sleeping in the airport itself is not a problem at Arlanda, it’s a silent airport (the announcements are limited to the absolute minimum), most seats are padded and don’t have arm rests, and the security lets you be… And you save SEK540 in the process.


It’s a no-brainer to me. I’d rather sleep in the terminal. My favorite spots are:


  • in Sky City by the hairdresser's (comfortable and close to the bathroom)

  • downstairs in Terminal 5 in the left/lost luggage area (quiet).

Because seemingly, everyone else overnighting at Arlanda has the same brilliant idea, be sure to claim your spot early. Come 2AM Sky City will look like a refugee camp, or a homeless shelter. People on the floor everywhere, people under the tables everywhere. People on the tables, if all other space is taken.


And if you don’t feel like sleeping? There’s Sidewalk Café internet for your pleasure. Nothing like playing mahjong on-line all night long.


So, while Arlanda gets a big fat zero for its shopping options, it feels like a freaking Club Med when it comes to airport sleeping. I consider it my puny contribution towards reducing my carbon footprint. It’s economical and environmentally friendly, because hey, the bloody airport is always open, anyway…





Thursday, May 15, 2008

100 really cool travel blogs

So… The good folks over at Travel Hacker made a massive list of one hundred “required reading” travel blogs. And they even included yours truly. Thanks guys!


Their list saved me a lot of searching and googling (I love when someone else does the manual labor!), because now, I no longer have to worry about updating my links. And as y’all know, I suck at updating my links.


I’m already familiar with some of the blogs listed there, I even have quite a few of them bookmarked. But there’s also plenty I haven’t read before. And I can tell you already, I have a new obsession. And her name is Girl Solo in Arabia.



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The idiocy of it all...

I admit it, I never understood the hoopla over airfare aggregator sites. You know, the ones like kayak, or kelkoo.


Kelkoo gets my vote every time, as it doesn’t limit itself to travel and aggregates just about anything you can think of, but in Swedish. Kayak, on the other hand, always rubbed me the wrong way. So what’s my problem? While these sites are indeed designed for lazy people, they are not for those of us who are both lazy AND cheap. Like me.


For people who don’t mind flying the likes of Frankie’s Western Sky Pacific Airservice (and who cares that there are goats on the plane, it’s CHEAP!), and who pride themselves on making it from Stockholm to Mumbai for less than 350 euro return (yes, it involved changes in Istanbul, Dubai, and Yerevan, but damn, it was CHEAP!), the aggregator sites offer little help. Because we give a whole new meaning to the word "budget".
And sorry, but I'd rather spend my money on designer purses (for me) or coloring books (for slum kids in India) than on airfares.


Today, just for gits and shiggles I gave kayak another run. And then went directly to the airlines’ websites. Just because, you know? And guess what? Nine out of ten, what kayak showed as the best deal, wasn’t.


And speaking of deals…


Why is it that a round-trip ticket Stockholm-Helsinki-Seoul costs almost SEK10,000 (well, 9 thousand and change), Helsinki-Seoul about SEK8,000 but London-Helsinki-Seoul less than SEK6,000? And Paris-Helsinki-Seoul around SEK7,000? (No, I’m not gonna give you the exchange rate! What am I? A bloody calculator?)


The Helsinki-Seoul leg of the trip is the same in all cases.


Finnair has me stumped. Or is Sweden really that much more expensive than the rest of the continent? I shudder at the thought…


Well, it’s a no-brainer to me. My frequent flyer miles will get me to London, I’ll go shopping, spend the night in some Travelodge, and still pay less than when flying from Stockholm to Helsinki directly…


But at least in London I’ll be able to shop at decent stores and hopefully pick gifts that won’t be cringe inducing… Sorry, I love the North and all that, but reindeer skins, Viking hats and bone-handle cheese slicers just don’t do it for me. And Swedish design is highly over-rated...


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shopping and sleeping part 1

My last post made me think about airports in general. There are some that I love, there are some that I hate, and finally, there are some that I’d rather chew my leg off and bleed to death than visit ever again. In other words, I’m just like most travelers.


But unlike most travelers, I rate my airports according to a super-sophisticated, scientific methodology. It’s extensive and complex, and took years to perfect, but fortunately, it neatly comes down to two easy to grasp points: shopping and sleeping.


(Eating is not all that important to me, as long as there’s a soda vending machine nearby and a place to buy a bag of chips, I’m all set.)


Shopping is self-explanatory. I love to shop. It’s hands-down my most favorite activity. And because I’m lazy by nature, I don’t want to go far to indulge my need for designer sunglasses and skin creams.


Some airports, simply based on their proximity to shopping nirvanas of New York or Paris, you’d think would be magnificent places to buy, buy and then buy some more. Sadly, you’d think wrong.


Paris CDG is a vile pit of dirt with pedestrian selection of big-name brands. The airport shopping options seem to cater almost exclusively to Russians and Chinese, who push and shove and scoop up make-up on sale like it’s going out of style.


New York airports are shopping disasters not even worth mentioning here.


And then, there are the likes of Dubai and Narita. As far as I’m concerned, Dubai is as close to paradise as one can get. What am I saying? Dubai IS paradise. A 24-hours a day, 7-days a week shopping paradise, all within the comforts of your departure gate. And there’s even a Baskin Robbins there. Yes, I’m sure the rest of Dubai is also lovely, but why bother? I can satisfy all my needs without ever visiting the city.


Baskin_robbins_in_dubai

After several years of living in a third-world country without a donut in sight, this proved to be an orgasmic experience.





Narita, on the other hand, is Narita, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from the Japanese, right?


Unfortunately, when traveling to Seoul this summer, I won’t be transiting through either Dubai or Tokyo. Not even Paris. I’ll have to make do with Helsinki. Which leaves me with a serious problem, and anyone who’s seen the airport shopping options in Helsinki will understand my pain…


Dubai_shopping

Dubai, oh how I miss thee, let me count the ways... Chanel, Dior, Michael Kors, Prada...


Next time, we’ll discuss sleeping in airports.


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shallow and proud of it

There are two things, on which I spend the majority of my hard-earned money. Beauty treatments and travel. The travel bit is obvious – I’m nosey by nature and want to know for sure that life is beautiful around the world. (Yes, someday, when I have enough time, I may compose an entire blog post using only RHCP quotes.)


Back to the topic.


And the other thing that gets my cash? Beauty treatments.
Yes, I’m THAT shallow.


I’m not exactly a ravishing blond with huge bazongas, you know? Despite many years of braces, my teeth are still crooked (and someday, I’ll just replace the bloody lot with dental implants, I swear!), I’m short and not particularly attractive. So, I’m forced to take care of what I’m stuck with. And even what I’m stuck with doesn’t have to be permanent – hello butt liposuction*!


Yesterday, instead of buying a round trip ticket to Dubai, I treated myself to botox.
Anna loves botox. Anna wants botox everywhere. Just pump it in! Though maybe next time, I should try Restylene, instead – that’s my spirit of exploration for ya.


I am seriously considering a trip to Iran for a nose job, a trip to Estonia for new teeth, and a trip to the gym for new abs. I know, I know… The last one will be the hardest – I’m allergic to gyms.


What about new funbags? Nah, for now I’m happy with trips to Paris for new heavy-duty support equipment – I’m still searching for that perfect push up bra.


And now, if you excuse me, I have to look for A-melan on the net, because they don’t sell it here in Sweden. Which explains, why Swedish women over 30 look like they’re over 40.


And next week, I'm thinking to go blond for a while...


* Yes, I do have an appointment with a plastic surgeon to discuss my butt. Oh, the things we do (ok, some of us do) to look good in a bikini! Because sure as hell, I’m NOT giving up ice-cream.


PS. For obvious reasons, I'll spare you the visuals today.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lonely Planet, schmonely planet...

I am a poster child for brand loyalty. Be it face powder, fabric softener or cat litter, once I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. Sometimes my opinion is based on such important factors like the package design and pretty graphics, especially if they are in a language I can’t read. But more often than not, I am more concerned with the quality of the product, and if it works, I will keep buying it (like DiorSnow face cream for example). I’m simply too lazy to look for something else…


Same with travel guidebooks.


My very first guidebooks to Peru and Ecuador (sometime in the early 1990s) were Lonely Planet. The Peru book, by Rob Rachowiecki had not only pretty pictures, but also decent content. It got stolen, along with the rest of my luggage, somewhere on a bus to Ayacucho. But I remember it fondly, and when it came to getting an Ecuador guidebook, I also purchased a Lonely Planet edition. I liked it, too.


Then came the disastrous book on Bolivia. What a mess it was! We used the pages to make origami for school children somewhere in the Andes, because the paper was too hard and fancy to wipe our asses (even after scrunching it up).


And then the Colombia guidebook, the ancient one, written by Krzysztof Dydynski! What a waste of paper! And a lot of hurt national pride. I expected a better job from a Pole. The book was so useless and terrible, it ended up as a support for my wobbly desk in a Spanish class I was taking in Cartagena. I seriously questioned if Mr. Dydynski ever visited the places he was writing about.


The Colombia guidebook must have been cursed from the beginning. The new editions are as bad as the old ones.


And now LP is in all sorts of news, because of a writer's claim that he faked a book, including parts of the Colombia guide. Oh! For crap’s sakes!


Apart from the detail that the writer in question is a petty opportunist promoting his own book, and who obviously belongs to the school of “there is no bad publicity”, the fact remains that the LP guides are getting worse and worse.


I know, because I stayed loyal to the brand. LP can dispute the claims all they want, and stand by their accuracy, but the truth is, the days of Tony and Maureen Wheeler are over.


I don’t treat the LP books as a source of travel knowledge anymore. I read them for fun and amusement, because for anything else, they’re as useless as two tits on a bull – the West Africa guide immediately comes to mind.


The not so far-flung destinations are no better. I know, because I lived in a few, and just for gits and shiggles compared what’s around me with what’s in an LP guidebook.


So why do I keep on reading the Lonely Planet offerings? Well, this is the only English language guidebook publisher that my local library stocks, so I have little choice.


And once in a blue moon, there is a book that makes it all worthwhile, and for me it’s LP’s Bhutan guide. A truly excellent piece of guidebook writing. Accurate and to the point. A pleasure to lug around when you frolic in the Bhutanese countryside. But duh, no wonder! The first and second editions were written by Stan Armington, and the updating authors had enough brains not to fiddle too much with the Master’s words.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Oooohhhh... cherry blossoms!

Out of the many things that confuddle me about Japan, the national obsession with cherry blossoms is pretty high on the list. A cherry blossom is a cherry blossom is ought to be a cherry. I much rather prefer the cherries than the flowers. Cherries are yummy and don’t make me sneeze. But sadly, the yummy cherry comes from a different species of cherry trees.


Sakura, on the other hand, while pretty, provokes the consumption of massive amounts of Singulair. At least for me. And because I’m a crude gaijin, the esthetics tend to be lost on me anyway.


For years I managed to valiantly avoid cherry blossom viewings, claiming asthma, PMS, food poisoning and alien abductions as my excuses. And because the Japanese are, by and large, a very gullible breed, they just nodded and left me alone. Until one year when a non-Japanese cherry blossom obsessed friend got her hands on me... I was kidnapped in the middle of the night, whisked away in an unmarked minivan to Kyoto, and subjected to a sakura extravaganza.


From Kyoto to Nara to Tokyo, I witnessed numerous parks filled with herds of Japanese of all ages, shapes and sizes. From infants in buggies to old ladies in tour buses. There were poets, and painters, and lovers sitting under the cherry trees. And groups of retirees ooohhed and aaahhed, commenting that the blossoms of 1963, or 1971, or whatever year they happened to fall in love, were so unforgettable, and so much better.


I finally managed to chew through the restraints somewhere in the Tochigi prefecture and sought refuge at the Sano Outlet Mall.


And while the blossoms were indeed lovely, the Chanel coat I bought at Sano (80% off - an after season sale) was even lovelier.


One thing that I never had the pleasure of experiencing, however, was the nighttime sakura viewing – with the trees lit up from different angles, all to better showcase the beauty of the flowers. Yeah, only in Japan…


My super-dutiful friend, Miki of Soul Box in Tokyo, did the nighttime cherry blossom appreciation madness, and because she’s just all kinds of wonderful, sent me the photographic evidence. Now, how’s that for a really dedicated, proud Japanese woman?



Sakura_night_1


Sakura_night_2



And here's a bit of sakura in Kyoto taken during my cherry blossom viewing abduction a couple of years ago:


 

Kyoto_sakura




Sunday, March 30, 2008

Heathrow's T5 - I shudder at the thought!

My friend just called me from Heathrow’s Terminal 5. She’s been camping out there since Friday morning, and though she normally has the disposition of a saint, this T5 fiasco has been too much even for her. She decided to cancel her US trip and head back to Glasgow. But wait, she can’t head back to Glasgow, because the whole Terminal 5 went tits up! (BBC link)


That, my dears, is a very valuable lesson on oh-so-many levels.


First, why would any sane person with a shred of brain activity left choose to fly BA is truly beyond me. And why fly in or out of Heathrow is an even greater mystery.


I learned to avoid BA after a series of disastrous flights to South Africa back in the early 1990s. Not sure why exactly I was flying with them in the first place, they weren’t all that cheap or convenient. Or maybe because the other choices were just as bad. Remember Sabena? What a disaster of an airline! Nothing like being held-up on a runway in Brazzaville by a group of angry thugs waving machine guns. Oh, the good, ole days of African travel…


But, back to the story.


During my ill-fated transfer at Heathrow back in the hey-day of BA, I too was delayed for a few days. And there was no plush, brand spanking new Terminal 5 to sleep in. As a holder of a not-so-desirable passport (back then), I was not permitted to leave the transit area and had to camp on the floor for a couple of days. I made friends with other undesirables, from Sri Lanka and Uganda, Russia and Nigeria. I also made a vow never to fly BA again.


That vow was broken during my subsequent trips to Africa, until I learned not to be afraid of people who speak French and eat baguettes with every meal. Yep, I began to fly Air France. And never set foot on a BA flight again.


Got close a couple of times, but with the BA’s policy on cabin luggage (“and so what if you are stupid enough to fly with three cameras, we allow ONE piece ONLY and that would be your purse, missy”) I chose to pay more and make sure that my hand luggage is still in my hands when arriving at my destination.


And now my pal tells me that not only Heathrow hasn’t improved, it got WORSE! And she’s not going to Miami anymore, now all she wants is just to get home to Glasgow. I told her to take a train. She says, she would, but her luggage is stuck in the belly of the Beast Terminal 5, and after this monumental fiasco, she doesn’t trust BA to give it back to her if she leaves.


“Your cats would do a better job of running a bloody airport,” she said.


Yep, and they don’t even have opposing thumbs. Are my cats awesome, or what?


The only problem is – now that she’s not going to the US anymore, I need to find someone else to supply me with Jolly Ranchers and hair gel. Damn…


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bhutan is voting today

Today the good people of Bhutan headed to the polls for the second round of voting in their first ever elections. And not just any “democratic elections” but first-ever-transition-from-absolute-monarchy-elections. Which means that now there’s only one absolute monarchy left in the world, and from the looks of it, the winds of change are blowing in the Desert Kingdom, too.


But, back to Bhutan.


While the foreign news outlets happily broadcast that the people of Bhutan voted, and are anxious to become a fully democratic society, that is just the official, politically correct version that the outside world expects to hear.


The reality is not quite as cheerful. Many Bhutanese I met in January were not so keen on democracy at all. They liked the way things worked in the old days, they were happy with the Fourth King (and I “heart” Jigme Wangchuck, too!), and truth be told, while they knew that change was unavoidable, they were not in any hurry to become a constitutional monarchy.


In January I spoke with a few politicians from the People’s Democratic Party, and they gladly shared the challenges facing both them, and their rivals – the Bhutan Harmony Party (DPT).


“People don’t know what democracy is,” an official from PDP explained. “We travel to villages, on horseback if we have to, and teach people about the election process, show them how to vote, and what the change will mean to them.”


Explaining the concept of democracy in a country where the king is universally revered is no easy task. Doing it in a region as mountainous and inaccessible as the interior of Bhutan is even harder.


And the biggest problem?


“People look at Nepal and are afraid that the same may happen here. People look at India and see how inefficient and corrupt democracy can be. Our job is to convince them that we can do better,” the young politician said.


And can Bhutan do better? Only time will tell.


Election_day
Voting instructions in Bhutan, posted at the bank in Haa


PS. DPT won! Tashi Delek DPT!


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bhutan on my mind...

Pale_blue_skyBhutan was on my mind quite a lot lately. Maybe because of a dream I had the other night. Oh shut up! Not THAT kind of dream! What were you thinking???


I dreamt I was back in Bhutan. And in fact, I do indeed want to return.


My last journey was cut short due to the lame attempts at terrorist activity by the local Maoist rebels. And instead of exploring more of the country, at the recommendation of my tour operator we made a mad dash for the border. I understand it was for my own safety and protection. And I did get a refund for the “unused” days of my pre-paid trip.


But I think that for my next expedition to Bhutan, I will use a different company. And why wouldn’t I? There are more than 300 tour operators in Bhutan alone, and they all need to make a living somehow, you know? And that’s not even counting those outside the country. They’re all supposed to be government approved, they have to be in order to apply for visas for their clients, and provide the same level of service.


To be perfectly honest, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my previous company. From the looks of it, they actually seemed better than some others I noticed along the way. The guide was super-knowledgeable and went above and beyond his call of duty. The driver had nerves of steel, and even let me behind the wheel for a while - very much against the law. And the boss took upon himself to arrange permits for places normally not open to tourists. All under the assumption that I was a practicing Buddhist - that one semester spent at a Buddhist university sure came in handy.


So, how am I going to pick a new tour company? Why do you think I insisted on bringing back a Bhutanese phone book with me? Because I like to carry heavy objects around for kicks and giggles? Duh!


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bad, bad One Pass!

When I signed up for Continental’s One Pass program, I did it, because their miles don’t expire as fast as other airlines’. I also liked the fact that Northwest had a hub in Asia. It made my travels easy. In the past, I managed to redeem my miles for flights on KLM or Air France. I was happy. Even when an occasional One Pass Rewards booking agent screw up left me sleeping in an airport somewhere.


But I’m not happy anymore. These days I’m cheap and fly with whomever offers the best deal, miles and points be damned. My budget comes first! For a while, I did dutifully sign up for the miles thingies with Lufthansa and Finnair, and I even remembered to hand over proper miles thingy cards when checking in. Sadly, Star Alliance miles expire faster than I can earn them. And Finnair and their One World scheme? I fly them only once a year.


So now, I find myself with a bunch of miles. A bunch big enough for a round trip in Europe or Asia, with some left over… But not big enough for a trip between Europe and Asia.


Instead, I figured, it would be nice if I could turn the miles into a hotel stay. I rummaged through my pile of different hotel loyalty cards and picked those with properties in places I wanted to visit. And guess what? My miles are as useless as two tits on a bull. Can’t exchange them for/into hotel points.


“Continental miles no good,” said a friendly Hilton customer service rep, “Virgin miles much better!”


And the moral of the story? You get what you pay for. Continental cheap but no good. Virgin no cheap but better.


I guess I will have to fly somewhere to redeem those bloody miles after all. On a Sky Team airline, no less. Hmmm… Korean Air does fly between Ulaan Baatar and Seoul… Now that’s a possibility! And how I’m gonna get me to Mongolia? I’ll worry about it later. Gotta redeem those miles before they no good!


Thursday, February 28, 2008

North Korea is suddenly fashionable...

So, Hilary Howard writes in The New York Times travel section (no link, because you'll have to log in and all that), that Snow Lion Expeditions, a company from Utah, started to offer trips to North Korea for American citizens.
And the big deal here is what exactly?
Americans could always book a tour to the Stalinist theme park using one of the many European operators.


Which brings me to this comment by Steve Pastorino, VP of marketing for the company: “We have a crack in the door for Americans to get in.”


Oh what a crock of BS! Despite all the official propaganda, Americans are able to visit NK on certain dates, which must be approved by the great communist honchos in charge. Those days coincide with the Arirang Mass Games held in Pyongyang. No mystery here.


European tour operators, like for example Korea Konsult in Sweden, have been offering the American option for quite some time. And there is no need to combine their itinerary with a stay in South Korea. Here are their approved dates for Americans for 2008.


And wouldn't you know it, they're exactly the same as Snow Lion's. What a coincidence!


Duh!


But it's nice to see that The New York Times has finally mentioned it at all. Must be a byproduct of the NY Philharmonic visit in Pyongyang...


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Paper, no plastic

The question of “paper or plastic” does not exist in Bhutan. It’s always paper. Or crumpled, old newspapers. Or sheets of promotional gift wrap adorned with corporate logos, that somehow found its way from Japan. At fancier establishments, you will get a paper, or a canvas sack to carry your purchases to wherever you need to carry them.


Paper_no_plastic



Being at the forefront of environmental awareness, Bhutan banned plastic bags. A long time ago.
“How cool!”
I thought. Something that I totally agree with!


In hotel rooms, old newspapers line waste baskets, and in bathrooms - little paper baggies with printed instructions beckon you to use them for feminine products.
“Very environmentally friendly, but not so friendly for the cleaning staff,” I thought to myself.


Still, this was something I could embrace…


On Sunday, it rained. Dorji and I got totally soaked when walking back to the hotel. He reminded me to be ready at 6AM, bright and early, for the next day’s adventures. Sure, no problem! As long as I’ll find a way to wrap my wet clothes and shoes into something.


Suddenly, this environmental consciousness proved to be quite inconvenient. The front desk didn’t have any plastic bags. Neither did the housekeeping. In desperation, I went to the kitchen and explained my wet predicament. The chef laughed and translated the story for his staff. They all laughed. And gifted me with a giant sack. Burlap, of course.


My wet jacket smelled of chili powder for the rest of the trip.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ryanair across the Atlantic?

I shudder at the thought. Though it may be so. And sooner than you think.


On March 30, 2008 the Open Skies agreement is coming into effect, which will end the decades of strict regulations of transatlantic flights.


So basically, any European or American schmuck with a plane, who calls themselves an airline, will be able to fly from any airport in the EU to any airport in the US. And vice versa.


Will it bring the fares down? Maybe. And maybe not. It all depends on the budget airlines joining the transatlantic stampede. While I don’t really mind flying across the ocean on Jet Blue, I’d rather chew my leg off and bleed to death at the very thought of spending 7 hours on a Ryanair flight.


But hey! If it’s cheap enough, I know plenty of folks who’d be up for the challenge…


Full article here.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hypocrisy at its finest

The stupidity of some publicity hungry morons never ceases to amaze me. Take for example the most recent call for the boycott of the Lonely Planet guide to Burma. Myanmar, or whatever it is called these days.


As BBC so helpfully reports, some organizations, such as the TUC, Tourism Concern, Burma Campaign UK and the New Internationalist, have launched an online petition calling for the immediate withdrawal of the book.


Why? Probably because it’s the only way they can draw attention to their existence.


Especially since it’s much easier to feel self-righteous by attacking a major guidebook publisher than doing something constructive about the Burma issue. I feel your pain… Like, totally...


But why just Burma? Why not the grand-daddy of all human right abuses – China? And what about Cuba? And the great majority of African fiefdoms?


Oh yes, I forgot! Burma is hot, and it’s always easier to be fashionably sensitive than objective.


New Internationalist co-editor, Chris Brazier, said: "Holidaying in Burma is one of the most unethical trips you could make, given the brutality of the current regime.”


With that I fully agree. I just hope that Chris will follow what he preaches and avoid China, Cuba, most of the Middle East, Egypt, Nepal, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and pretty much the whole of Africa.


And the best part? This:


The TUC's international secretary, Owen Tudor, said Lonely Planet was being singled out because "The country's main trade union organisation and the people of Burma oppose tourism."


He denied the Lonely Planet boycott should also apply to guide books on Cuba, Saudi Arabia or other governments around the world with poor human rights records.


Hypocrisy at its finest…


You can read the full article here.




PS. And for the record, I love LP guides, even if some of them suck really bad. It's a sentimental thing, you know...


Monday, February 18, 2008

Light my fire!

In Bhutan, you never need to wonder what’s for dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast. The answer is always the same – chilies. Chilies with cheese, chilies with cheese and potatoes, chilies with cheese and spinach, chilies with chicken, or chilies with blobs of fried pork fat. You can literally feel your stomach ulcers forming…



“Can you eat spicy?” my guide asked with certain trepidation. We were late for lunch and the standard tourist fare at the hotel restaurant was already gone. Can I eat spicy? Are you kidding me? My kimchee has been known to make native Koreans weep!

“Duh! Sure I can!” But my guide was not convinced.
“In Bhutan,” he began, and I noticed he had a curious habit of starting almost every sentence with those words, “in Bhutan, chilies are a vegetable, not a seasoning,” he explained, stressing the word not.

What he should have asked me was how much cheese I could comfortably consume without getting the runs… Oh yes, cheese…

The most popular Bhutanese dish – ema datse – eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, consists of copious amounts of chilies smothered in a sticky cheese sauce. In fact, not only chilies come smothered in the ubiquitous cheese sauce. Potatoes, spinach, okra, carrots, mushrooms, and seemingly everything else, are fair game, too.

To the amazement of my guide, I woofed down my ema datse (ema=chili, datse=cheese in Dzongkha), diluting it with large helpings of red rice.

It was the hotel dinner buffet that evening that provoked my loud complaints. Spaghetti Bolognese, chicken cacciatore, sweet and sour pork. Even Swedish meatballs - no doubt requested by a group of Swedish tourists sitting at a table next to ours, who simply couldn’t survive without their national fare.

“Listen,” I told my crew, “I didn’t schlep all the way to Bhutan to eat spaghetti and meatballs.”
They looked at me with unease.
“But all the tourists eat that. They don’t like Bhutanese food,” my guide answered while staring at his plate of bja sha maroo (chicken with garlic and butter sauce), which oddly, was not available for the likes of me.
“Here! We’ll share!” and with that, he scooped away half of my spaghetti, and deposited chunks of his chicken in its place.

From that day on until the end of my trip, I was fed only local food. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. That included drinks as well. Apart from an odd practice of drinking warm, or boiling, water with their meals, the Bhutanese share with their Tibetan brethren a fondness for butter tea. Sudja, a milky concoction with a dollop of butter, and with salt instead of sugar, is not as vile as it seems. Thinking of it as the ultimate energy drink, Bhutanese style, helps the brew go down.



At the Red Rice restaurant in Paro... nothing to write home about.



My adventure with local cuisine ended abruptly in a little restaurant behind the Paper Factory in Thimphu. The place was a hole in the wall, lovingly adorned with photos of the Benevolent King (the handsome one) and the Crown Prince (the not handsome one).

Our lunch was served. Ema datse, potatoes with cheese, and other mysterious, chili-laden dishes. I dug in... and suddenly, my brain exploded into a billion tiny, little pieces. Tears started rolling down my face. I grabbed a pitcher of water, and proceeded to drink directly from the jug. And then gulped down my driver’s butter tea. My mouth was on fire. I could feel the flames traveling down into my stomach. The snot from my nose mixed with tears dripped slowly onto my plate. I was unable to speak. Unable to think. Unable to breathe. Vaguely, I recalled a time a few years back, when a bowl of Thai soup sent my friend to the ER… I started wondering what Bhutanese hospitals might be like…

Dorji, the driver, who just a few days ago proclaimed that he couldn’t eat food WITHOUT chilies, because it had no taste, took a large helping of my lethal ema datse. His eyes bulged out in horror.
“Damn!” he breathed trying to control his composure, “That was too hot even for me!”

“Tea!” Dorji yelled for the proprietor’s daughter, who doubled as our waitress. He made me drink the milky liquid until I regained my ability to speak. I couldn’t even taste its buttery saltiness.

Later that day, I had ice chips for dinner…


Yep, chilis, chilis and more chilis everywhere you look...


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Anna and the King…

Bhutan was on my mind a lot. Every time I saw a story about the handsome king, the upcoming elections, and the Gross National Happiness, my resolve to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon got stronger. Last year, I finally scrambled the cash together, and a couple thousand dollars later, I was a proud owner of a plane ticket on Druk Air – Royal Bhutan Airlines.



Bhutan ain’t cheap, that’s for sure. Every visitor pays a daily tourist fee set by the government, which means that only the truly determined, or very rich, make it there. There are no budget options and no hordes of shoestring travelers prancing around the countryside. Poor foreign folk stay in India or trek in Nepal. Bhutan is for the few chosen ones… And few it is, indeed. In 2007 only 17 thousand people visited the country, and this year the number is expected to be just a bit over 20 thousand.

However, with the US dollar getting weaker, 200 bucks a day in the high season suddenly doesn’t sound so bad. Especially since the cash covers all of your standard accommodations, food, transport, plus a guide and a driver at your beck and call. There’s also a hefty surcharge for solo travelers, but that only means you have two strapping young men, ready to cater to your every whim and desire, all to yourself.

So why, with all the places in the world, many of them cheaper and much easier to get to, I insisted on going to Bhutan? Well, for one, their king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck is hot. Like a combination of Chow Yun Fat and Ken Watanabe hot. Of course, as a huge fan of both, I felt the irresistible urge to check out the rest of the Bhutanese male population. Even if it had to cost me US$165 a day - the low season discount.



Yes, I’m THAT shallow. But the breakneck speed of social changes in Bhutan, and the fact that the country is soon to become a democratic, constitutional monarchy were just as fascinating as the studly king himself.



So the verdict? Social issues aside, the Haa Valley peasants were simply extraordinary. And very photogenic. Handsome men, looking mighty fine in their ghos (traditional outfits) and knee-high socks, having an archery competition a sunny afternoon. And showing off their mad skillz for the benefit of a lonesome foreign lady in their midst. The last Shangri-La, indeed. Archery is the national sport, and seemingly, even the poorest farmer is a proud owner of a fancy imported Hoyt bow.



Judging by the warning in the Lonely Planet guidebook, that romantic liaisons between female travelers and Bhutanese men are common, and the fact that many a tour guide actually married their foreign tourist lady, the appeal of handsome peasants was not to be taken lightly. But with the reputation of every foreign woman going to Bhutan resting on my shoulders, I simply smiled, shook my head and stayed proper.

And no, I didn’t meet His Royal Highness. And just as well. He has four wives and rabid hordes of local fan girls already. And his son, while kind and educated and very princely, is nothing to look at. So much for my Anna and the King fantasy…




Sharpshooting in Haa Valley

Friday, February 15, 2008

How I learned to care about travellers with disabilities...

How people with disabilities travel, was not something I thought much about. True, there was occasional pity, maybe on a train in Tokyo, or on the steps from the metro in Paris. The only time I paid any attention at all was at the airport, when the announcement invited “passengers with disabilities and those requiring special assistance to board now.” A couple of shaking grandmas, or an occasional young person, in wheelchairs pushed down the corridor by oblivious airport staff. As long as they were not screaming toddlers and sat next to me, I didn’t care.

Then I went to India… And everything changed. A close encounter with an Indian sidewalk left my legs covered with bandages the size of hockey pads, and my hands resembling baseball gloves. While I could take a few wobbly steps on an even surface, stairs were out of the question. I found myself sitting in an airport wheelchair, being pushed around by an oblivious airport worker. Suddenly, I started to care.

The bus ride from the gate to the plane was uneventful. I was very efficiently loaded in by two guys and wished a pleasant journey. We arrived at the aircraft when a handsome young man appeared, and in a true Bollywood style, he scooped me into his arms and carried me onto the plane. He sat me down and an equally handsome flight attendant took over. Damn, what I want to know is where Kingfisher finds all these good-looking men?

In Chennai, the process was repeated in reverse. A Kingfisher ground employee (sadly, not as handsome) retrieved my checked-in luggage, and zoomed me over to the international terminal. He refused a tip, and wished me a pleasant journey. My bags and chair were handed over to an oblivious Chennai airport worker. After banging into a couple of unsuspecting passengers, he slammed me into the check-in counter. Well, at least I got to skip the line…

In a similar fashion, we breezed through the immigration and security lines, while hordes of tired, sweaty people started at me with hate in their eyes. At the gate my handler extended his hand and announced, “tip!” He looked with disgust at the 5-dollar bill in my hand.
“Sorry, I’m all out of rupees.”
He grabbed the money and disappeared.

The flight to Paris was hell. The Air France drill sergeants flight attendants would not let me use the bathroom located 2 meters ahead (“First class only!” one of them barked), making me hobble the length of the plane to the back.

In Paris, I was told I missed my connecting flight. The next flight to Stockholm was too late for my Swedish connection.
“Wait! Can’t you fly me through Amsterdam?”
I pleaded.
“No madam. Wheelchair passengers must go directly, airline policy,” a bored dude manning the transfer desk at CDG said and threw my boarding pass at me.
“What about my domestic flight? If I go through Amsterdam, I’ll make it!”
“Not my problem,” he said and blew his nose.

I was deposited at my gate, and with 6 hours to kill, decided to explore a little. Sadly, the shopping area was not designed to accommodate wheelchair passengers. Go to the food court instead? Yeah, try again! While there was an elevator, the food court had an additional step, which proved impossible to conquer. The bathroom? The handicapped stall did have enough room to maneuver, but all the handles and dispensers were positioned with mega-giants in mind.

A few years later, it was time to board.

“Can you walk down the stairs?” a woman checking boarding passes asked. Sure lady, and I’m just sitting in this wheelchair for shits and giggles. She sighed and called for assistance. We rode a special handicapped van to where the plane was parked. And then, there were the steps again, this time - no handsome Bollywood look-alike to carry me up.



“Elevator truck. We need an elevator,” my airport handler screamed into a walkie-talkie. He wanted to know why a healthy looking young woman couldn’t brave a flight of stairs onto the aircraft. I lifted my long skirt and showed him my legs. One of the hockey pad sized dressings was soaked with blood.



“Merde!” he yelled into the walkie-talkie some more.

Other passengers finished boarding. And we waited. And waited. 50 minutes later, the elevator truck arrived. A flight attendant opening the back door rolled her eyes upon seeing a seemingly fit young woman in a wheelchair. I felt like giving her the finger. Other passengers looked at me with disgust while I hobbled to my seat. Somebody was complaining about the delay. Somebody else bitched about missing a connection.




“Cripples shouldn’t travel,” a man in a fancy business suit said in French to a woman next to him.
"And assholes shouldn't fly," I responded in English and gave him the finger.

And all the way to Stockholm I marveled at how disabled travelers manage to move from point A to point B, and still smile and look gracious upon arrival.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bus travels...

Duty called me to Stockholm last week, and because I had loads of time, but not money, I decided to go by bus.

Truth be told that given a choice of planes, trains and automobiles, I pick the road transport. Every time. Is it really that weird to prefer spending 6 hours in a car or on a bus than 1 hour on a plane? I don’t think so. There is nothing more exciting than sitting in the passenger seat, sticking your head out the window, your hair, ears and tongue flapping in the wind. Damn, I must have been a dog in my previous life…

Traveling by bus became an economical choice for me. It’s cheaper than driving there myself, and definitely cheaper than flying. True, it’s not the most earth friendly option out there, but until the train companies can match bus prices, you will find me on the road. Especially during the winter months.

Stockholm was lovely, as always. If a bit contradictory, at times…



Swedish furs right next door to a pet shop. I don’t want to know…