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.

Voting instructions in Bhutan, posted at the bank in Haa

PS. DPT won! Tashi Delek DPT!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Voluntouring continued...

A reader, who’s currently on a DIY voluntour, sent me an email with some very thoughtful comments and observations. She wishes to remain anonymous, because she doesn’t want her boss in real life to see what she’s up to. (And by the way, since when have I become the leading internet authority on DIY volunteer trips?)

This woman is not exactly a volunteer virgin, she did a fee-based program abroad with one of the many non-profits that offer them.  She liked the idea and decided to do something on her own. Emailing from an internet café somewhere in South-East Asia, she described how totally unprepared she was for the reality on the ground. According to her, fee-based programs, while providing a valuable service, shield their participants from the day-to-day realities that the local people live with. She likened the experience to an organized safari trip, or a “volunteer theme park” (her words, not mine), where you get a glimpse of what life is like, get down and dirty, think you’re roughing it, and go home feeling good about yourself.

Honestly, I wouldn’t know. I have never participated in a fee-based volunteer program abroad. I’m simply not that rich. And even if I had that much money (those fees can run into thousands of dollars), I can think of a few much better ways to spend it. There’s this one slum school in India that could really use some books for their students, know what I’m saying?

But, in all other respects, I have to agree with my reader. You are never truly prepared for what you will see at your destination. Every day when you wake up, you marvel at the resilience of the human race, and watch in awe how people, who have so little, manage to cope with smiles on their faces.

And then, there’s the issue of cultural sensitivities. And it's not just proper attire we're talking about.

As a DIY volunteer, you will most likely live with a local family. Your digs will be far from luxurious, just a piece of floor space to unroll your sleeping bag, and a couple of hooks for a mosquito net, if you’re THAT lucky. Yet, hosting you will be a source of enormous pride to the family, and they will frequently forgo their own comforts for your benefit. Daughters may be delegated to sleep outside, wives – to borrow chickens or eggs from the neighbors, and fathers - to work extra hours in order to provide you with basic meals. Your attempts at financial renumeration will be scoffed at, if not considered outright offensive.

My reader is in such a situation right now, and I have been there more than once myself.

How to relieve your hosts from the obvious burden that you are to them, yet without hurting their pride and honor? I still don’t have a good answer to that.

But here are some ideas that worked for me:

-    Make a deal with the family that since the woman of the house cooks for you, you should buy weekly provisions for the whole household. It will cost you less than a week of lattes at Starbucks back home.

-    Hire the daughter to do your laundry, or the sons to fetch your water. After insisting that these amenities should be free for their “guest”, they will eventually agree to your arrangement. Such barter system is normally accepted and you’ll be respected for your suggestions.

-    If money is scoffed at, contribute in other ways – buy the family a few chickens, or a goat if you can afford it, or new seedlings for their garden. Call it a payment for their services, NOT a payment for their hospitality. That subtle difference will allow them to save their face.

-    The parents may balk at outright charity, (yes they may be poor, but they also have dignity), but as most parents the world over, they will appreciate your praise of their children.

-    It’s much easier to convince a family to accept a gift, if it’s for the little wee ones in the house. Just make sure it’s not a mindless souvenir.

-    And finally, don’t force your charity on your hosts, it will be most likely resented.


Happy voluntouring!

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!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Voluntourism and visas

I wrote a little something for Intelligent Travel (love them, by the way) about voluntourism.
I’ve been volunteering during my trips near and far for the past 15 years. From teaching bad English to playing with orphans to distributing condoms to building irrigation systems, I’ve done it all. Without ever paying a program fee or using a voluntour packager.


There is one aspect of voluntourism, however, that I did not cover in my story for Intelligent Travel. The legal side of short term volunteering abroad.

Simply put, if you enter a country on a tourist visa, or a visa waiver, you are not permitted to engage in any paid or UNPAID work, unless you happen to be an EU national volunteering in another EU country. Many organizations and individuals, myself included, conveniently ignore that small print on the entry card. We simply write “tourist” as the purpose of our visit and NEVER mention any volunteer WORK.

In that respect, the adventure tourism packagers that organize voluntour programs are very straightforward and transparent and use the euphemism “recreational activities” on their Terms & Conditions forms. Which is true and accurate. You pay them money, and they provide you with activities, which may or may not include digging ditches and building houses.

Long-term volunteer projects require a special visa, which any reputable non-profit organization will help arrange BEFORE you arrive in your host country.

I am mentioning it, because while most police and immigration officers will let you be, there are some that can cause trouble and demand “baksheesh” for keeping their mouths shut. And as anyone who spent a night, or two, in a third-world country jail can tell you, it’s not pleasant. I did – in a certain banana republic, for this very offense. It cost me 400 bucks to get out without a nasty stamp in my passport. Your embassy will not help you – you WERE breaking the law, technically, by working without a proper visa.

Something to keep in mind if you plan on doing good deeds on your next vacation.

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!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gamla Stan - in pictures

Stockholm's Old Town and I have a love/hate relationship. The most picturesque part of the Swedish capital is also the most pretentious, overpriced and frequently tacky. Then why do I insist on going there every time I'm in Stockholm? Even if it happens to be in the middle of the night? Or at 6AM? In winter?

Gamla Stan is waking up...

Green, red and yellow. Three of the most photographed buildings in Sweden.

What is that thing above the street, I don't know. But it does look like seaweed.

Now fully awake and ready for another day of rain and slush...