The first group tends to be incredulous about anybody who claims to travel more than once a year on their annual vacation. The concept of the road warrior trudging from city to city, anonymous hotel to anonymous hotel and living out of a suitcase is just as alien to them as martians selling icecream. The second group are the "oh, you're so lucky to travel so much" people. These are the folks who think that a business trip to Europe with a redeye outbound and a day full of meetings is somehow similar to their dream vacation that features gondolas, rose petals and a masseur with fragrant oils. The third group are the grizzled veterans for whom nothing can raise an eyebrow. You flew 100,000 miles in a week? No big deal, I did 200,000 miles once. Had to change camels in Timbuktu on the way to Lesotho? Well, I took a flying cockroach to Nauru.
Where do I fall? Somewhere near the third category of late. The current project that I am working on has the tendency to impose travel schedules that even the most naive member of category two would balk at. I firmly believe that its a matter of attitude though. If travel deals you lemons, you make lemonade. Accordingly, I have penned this half-memoir, half-documentary and half-guide about
(subtitled as BOM-MXP-LHR-MXP-LOS-ACC-AMS-LHR-MAN-CDG-DUS-CDG-LHR-AMS-ACC-JNB-CPT-JNB-ACC-JNB-ACC-MXP-LHR-
FCO-MXP-GVA-FCO-MXP-TXL-MXP-CDG-FCO-LHR-FCO-MXP-LOS-ACC on AZ,KL,LS,AF,SA for the traditionalists).
NOTE : Click on most thumbnail images to see them in full size.
This tale starts in Mumbai, India. Well, sorta. I didn't actually plan it that way you see. I had arrived in London for meetings with a UK Government agency the previous week when suddenly a decree was passed (in a manner that only Governments can do with impunity) that the meetings were to be postponed by 5 days. Well, that means I could either head back to the client's office to cool my heels over the weekend or I could spend that time in the UK alternating between watching pay-per-view porn at the hotel and getting sozzled at the local pub. Neither seemed particularly attractive, so being the resourceful type that I am, I picked option three. Most sane people would not even consider this to be an option, but to me it was the most natural thing in the world. Since I was already in the UK, whats another 5000 miles. I'll hop a plane to India and go visit my mommy.
And so it came to pass that I wound up lying in bed in Mumbai with a 104F fever and the family doctor urging me bed rest while the emails kept pouring in stressing the importance of my return to London for the rescheduled meetings. Armed with a prescription for antibiotics and a 2 week supply of the same, I staggered to the airport to catch my flight west. Now, I am also somewhat of what my friends politely refer to as a "mileage whore". Skyteam is my alliance du jour, so I'm flying to London via Milan on Alitalia. This flight is usually an MD-11 but for whatever reason we have the crappy old 767 instead tonight. Still, I get assigned my preferred seat 3D which is the solo middle in the Magnifica cabin so it won't be all bad.
Alitalia airport services in Mumbai suck wind. They have a seperate line for Magnifica passengers but it leads to the same counter that handles the excess baggage and standby passengers, so service isn't exactly expedited. Even the red carpet is tattered and features a stain of questionable origin in the middle of the logo. The airport is typically bustling at this midnight hour so I make my way to what masquerades as the "Lounge" for premium passengers. Of course, this is equally bustling - so much so that they decline to let me in due to overcrowding. Just peachy. Interestingly, I also observe Ratan Tata (Forbes magazine's 2004 "Asian Business Leader of the Year") turned away for the same reason. At least they are equal opportunity obnoxious.
I take the opportunity to wander through the proletariat areas of Terminal II-A, something that I rarely get to do nowadays. My airport experiences tend to be confined to a counter-to-lounge-to-airplane flow, which is mighty convenient (usually) but doesn't really give you the feel of the place. I am quite impressed by the shiny neon signs and marble floors everywhere. If I didn't know better I might actually consider this a halfway decent airport.
Finally, Alitalia calls boarding and I climb aboard "Giovanni da Varrazzano", a 767-300ER named after one of the lesser known Italian explorers whose claim to fame is that he discovered New York (almost 80 years before Henry Hudson showed up actually!). There is someone sitting in my seat and she gives me some cock-and-bull excuse that she had booked this seat months ago but it got screwed up at checkin. Hint - if you are so desperate as to make up a story to snag a better seat, do some research. I smiled and told her very politely that when she booked the flight, the aircraft was supposed to be an MD-11 so the center single seat didn't even exist. All she had to do was ask me nicely if she wanted to swap seats. Shameless lady actually went ahead and asked anyway.
Let this be a lesson to those Doubting Thomases who believe that no good deed goes unpunished. No sooner had I settled into the aisle seat that our lying friend had been assigned to than one of the most gorgeous apparitions appears before me trying to scoot into the window. She looks very familiar though. I glance at the newspaper in my seat pocket and sure enough on the back page is the same gorgeous face smiling at me under a headline of "Israeli wins Mrs. World pageant". Ok, so its only "Mrs" World which isn't quite as high profile as "Miss" World, but don't let that take anything away from her looks. Yowza.
My usual modus operandi on this flight is to grab the appetizer from the supper service and then grab about 6 hours of sleep before awakening for breakfast and then landing. Today that consists of a shrimp plate which is pretty decent. I make sure to pop my antibiotics and I'm in dreamland before the crew roll out the cart for the main course.
Four hours later I awake shivering and with a fever like you wouldn't believe. I pull the seat upright and try to stand up but my head is spinning too much. Having been raised a non-rev, pressing the call button is something akin to dialling 911 - you are taught how to do it but it better be a life-or-death moment when you actually do so. This qualified. A few seconds later an Italian lady materialises at my side. I stumble over the words. "There is a bottle of medication in my laptop case. Can you please help me get it down." Kudos to her. She realises there is a problem and I am popping my pills within a minute. I zonk off back to sleep within a few minutes.
Another three hours later its time for breakfast. Fever gone, I am now ravenous. Thankfully this is one of those rare overnight flights where the breakfast isn't some miserable excuse of croissants and Danish pastries accompanied by a fruit plate. If an animal didn't die to feed me, it ain't a real meal.
One thing (well many things actually but this one is top of the list) annoys me about Alitalia in Milan. You can land at oh-dark-thirty (which we did) with every single jetway in the airport available but they will direct you to a remote stand. You then climb down a rickety set of stairs into the below freezing temperatures as you wait for a bus to come drive you to the terminal where a dozen empty jetways stand mocking you with their central heating. This of course after a flight from India where exactly zero people on board are decked out in warm clothes.
There are only two flights that arrive at this horrible hour, namely Accra and Mumbai. These are both my regular routes and invariably whichever one I am on arrives second, meaning that the lines at the transfer desk stretch forever. My patented technique is to go out through passport control, up the escalator outside and back through passport control to get to the departures level at least 30 minutes faster than standing in the slow moving line. Sure enough, this worked today as well and I was safely ensconsced in the lounge within minutes.
During my 3-hours in the lounge it began to snow. This being Italy where efficiency is hard to find even during sunny weather, snow meant that the entire airport goes into paralysis. Flights began diverting everywhere and cancellations began showing up on the departures screen. I was lucky. My flight was probably the only one that didn't cancel but simply took an hour delay. As I was riding the bus out to the aircraft, my cellphone beeps with a text message. "Mtg at Embassy @ 12. C U There". Argh. I call right back. "Hey, I just sent you a text message". "I'm in Milan and its snowing. No way I can get there by 12." "Well, make it as soon as you can." "I'll call as soon as we land."
Thankfully our delay did not drag on much longer and we were airborn soon afterwards. There was a panoramic view of the Alps as we crossed overhead while I ate my second Alitalia breakfast of the morning. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this breakfast though, which meant that I didn't enjoy it half as much.
I usually dread the non-EU Terminal 2 immigration lines, but today was surprisingly painless and I rushed to the tube station with luggage in hand while I got directions to the Embassy. In the end, I wound up being barely an hour behind schedule - which meant that the meeting hadn't even started yet! An afternoon of discussion ended with a cab ride to my hotel, the Hilton Olympia, and a takeaway dinner before I crashed into bed with a fever looming yet again.
Next two days were full of meetings, but I managed to get enough time off to do dinner with two friends both named Ben (Ben and British767) at Covent Garden on the first night. On the second evening, meetings ran till almost 9pm which meant that by the time I had hoofed my way down to Heathrow where I was staying my final night at the Holiday Inn M4J4, it was past 11pm. A short night and I was back at Terminal 2 the next morning heading to Accra.
There is no line at the Prima/Elite checkin counter, but to my absolute annoyance the agent cannot find a trace of my reservation despite a paper ticket that very clearly indicated its existence. So I get packed off to the ticket counter to troubleshoot where I spend a good 30 minutes cooling my heels while a Nigerian lady in front of me tries to haggle over the price of transporting her 60kgs of excess baggage. Finally, I get my reservation sorted out but by now it is only 10 minutes to departure. I resign myself to missing this flight, but the Alitalia supervisor won't accept that. "How much luggage do you have?" "Just these two plus the laptop." "Ok, anything sharp in either of them?" "Nope." "Right then, come with me." And off we went to the front of the snaking security line, through the terminal like bats out of hell and to the gate where a ramper was waiting with a gate-check tag as I ran aboard the waiting Airbus. While the safety demo plays, I feel the cargo door open and shut as my bags are thrown inside. And then presto, before I know it we're climbing into the British sky for the 90 minute hop over to Milan.
If you thought Malpensa was bad a few days ago with a light sprinkling of snow, today was definitely not for the faint of heart. The line for the de-icing pad stretched halfway to the Swiss border and there was no way in hell we were going to get out of town anywhere near on schedule. Imagine my surprise however when the sign in the terminal announced the start of boarding a mere 30 minutes late. Once again, we were forced to trudge our way through the good inch of sludge on the tarmac as some wise guy decided to park Giovanni the 767 (yep, same plane as last week's flight) in east bumblefick.
Of course, once we get on board the captain makes a very polite announcement apologising for the delay and advising that we would have to wait approximately 5 hours to de-ice. I beckoned the Flight Attendant over. "There must be something wrong with my hearing, I could swear he just said we had to wait 5 hours." "Si. Five hours." %*!&%#$* Alitalia. Fortunately, all the flight cancellations meant that we had exactly 26 passengers on board this 225 seater aircraft today so I found myself a quiet row and caught up on some much needed sleep. We made up time en route and again during our brief Lagos pitstop, so I landed into Accra at barely 230am in the end.
A couple weeks later it was time to head back to London on short notice for a bunch of meetings. When I say short notice, I'm not kidding. I got my tickets at 7pm for a 9pm departure. I had to rush from the office to the airport to make the checkin deadline and then rush back to finish packing otherwise I would have missed the flight.
The KLM flight up to Amsterdam was quite eventful (read all about it here) and I was very much the sleep-deprived zombie by the time I boarded my connecting flight to Heathrow aboard a 767 christened "King Hussein Bridge". Thankfully, we were delayed an hour on ground and I managed to grab a fair amount of shuteye by the time we pulled into our gate at Terminal 4. I had an urgent package to deliver for a friend, but thankfully the person I was delivering it to had seen the delay online and had made her way to the airport to save time. I met up with her quickly and managed to bum a ride to my hotel (again the lovely Holiday Inn M4J4). There, I had a quick shower and shave before it was time to head out the door to my next set of meetings.
Work done, I exchange text messages with the office and find out that since I'm already in Europe, they want me to stick around and go to Dusseldorf on Monday. That leaves me with an entire weekend to play with. Well, my buddy Nuno (captaingomes) from Canada is gonna be in Manchester this weekend for work himself. Since my meetings the next morning are in Crawley anyway, I grab a 40 quid one-way on Jet2 from Gatwick up to Manchester for the weekend and ask the office to ticket my Dusseldorf trip out of there instead.
[Edited 2005-07-11 23:33:20]