Me, Myself, and I

Is it me? Something that I said or didn’t say? Something that I did or didn’t do? For reasons I don’t fathom, I couldn’t convince anyone to accompany me on a trip to Africa. It will be my second time to the continent and I find that I’m still as excited about this visit as I was for my first. Perhaps even more so, because I have a better idea of what to expect: warm hospitality, endless sky, wide open plains and pure unaltered nature. Africa is everything you expect it will be, with a few surprises thrown in here and there.  The purpose for my visit was to attend the annual American Society of Travel Agents Destination Expo held this year in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.Image result for kenya landscape

The location of the Expo changes each year and I’ve enjoyed attending many of these events. The entertainment is regional and always exceptional. The hospitality is both warm and sincere. There’s no better way to learn about an area than to experience it in person.  I had the option to bring guests with me to the convention. I actually anticipated having to choose between eager invitees and constructed a contingency plan that would allow for travelling with several intrepid adventurers. But alas, while there was lots of up front interest, no one was willing to commit. Except for me. I decided that as a party of “3” – me, myself and I, it would still be a good time and oh, the sights we would see! Even though I would travel solo I wouldn’t be completely alone for the entire time. I maintain a membership with the American Society of Travel Agents, the world’s largest association of travel professionals. Our members include travel agents and tour companies, hotel chains, cruise lines, car rental companies and international tourist boards. ASTA advocates not only for the travel industry but also for the traveling public. ASTA is active in ensuring that the public has full access to all travel venues and is vigilant in uncovering travel scams. Once I arrived in Nairobi, the Capitol city of Kenya, I would have the company of hundreds of other people in the travel industry while at the convention. Surely I would make “friends” along the way. The ASTA Destination Expo offered the opportunity to meet our Kenyan counterparts and to make connections with local tour operators and hoteliers. I was excited to go but I harbored concerns about how I would handle potential bumps in the road. Would I be lonely, bored or worse, scared? As a female travelling alone, anywhere, there’s an implied risk that I might be a potential victim and I thought that it would be best if there was some structure in my new found freedom. I invested a few extra dollars in private transportation each time I changed locations. The comfort of knowing exactly who would be meeting me at the airports and other locations was worth the money.  Staying at Safari lodges assured that all my transportation, touring and meals would be handled by the resorts. Travelling solo gave me a freedom I hadn’t realized I was missing. There was no need to consult with anyone else about closet space, departure times or worse, listen to someone else’s snoring. Meeting new people and enjoying the stories of their previous travels was an unexpected pleasure. Africa is usually not a first destination for travelers so there are often lots of tales to share and compare. My preference would have been to stay at a unique, boutiquey type hotel but it was more convenient to stay at the corporate-style host hotel, Nairobi Intercontinental.Image result for nairobi intercontinental hotel

The majority of conference attendees would be housed here and I was sure to see some familiar faces. My decision was further influenced by the level of security the property employs; each vehicle entering the hotel grounds is thoroughly scanned as are all on-foot visitors. Most of the airlines servicing Nairobi National Airport house their crew at the hotel so there was a steady stream of impossibly well-groomed pilots and flight attendants coming and going. In other words, it was a good place to be if you were in the travel industry. My days were filled with classes and social functions and due to our proximity to the Convention Center, I often chose to eschew the complimentary transport buses and walked to and from the Convention Center and hotel. The benefits were many. The exercise helped work off a little bit of the dessert, okay – desserts, I consumed. Observing the local population as they went about their daily lives offered tremendous cultural insight. After enjoying a few brief exchanges with some of the people, I found that they kept to themselves until approached and then were more than willing to assist with questions or directions. Might I have ventured off on my own if I’d had a travel companion? Perhaps, but most likely we would have conversed amongst ourselves. That’s how it often goes – you dance with the “date” that brought you to the dance. If I’d had a steady dance partner it’s unlikely that I would have sat next to a very gregarious woman from the Philippines who dug her elbow into my side every single time she told a joke and made herself laugh. I wouldn’t have met her equally engaging family who accepted me as one of their own. We continued the journey together as, what in high school would be called, the popular kids. Other agents flocked to our growing group and it became necessary to connect several tables to seat us all together for meals. My current plan is to join them at a future conference in China where hopefully it will be me, myself and them.Image result for china landscape

 

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Don’t Leave Home without It

“Don’t leave home without it”. Truer words might not have been spoken, even if it is the slogan for a major credit card company.  This is the story of how I embarked on my recent trans-continental journey and inadvertently left my credit and debit cards at home.

When I am preparing to travel I utilize a master packing list. It’s a compilation of basic and necessary items that I bring on every trip. As I pack something I cross it off the list. It’s a pretty simple and usually effective system, with the purpose of preventing me from forgetting essentials. My first destination was Kenya, Africa and I would be on the go visiting several areas and two countries. My goal was to travel as lightly as possible but I still would be checking a piece of luggage with the airline. I would also bring a carryon bag, a small backpack and my pocketbook. I finished preparing for my departure 30 minutes earlier than I allowed, sat down and congratulated myself on my organization. In that half hour I made a critical decision: I saw no need to bring both a backpack and pocketbook. I chose to leave the pocketbook at home in lieu of a new RFID, Radio Frequency ID blocking, theft proof cross-body passport holder/wallet combo. The new bag would be a more appropriate and functional choice for travelling. The car service that would bring me to the airport arrived a bit early and since I had cleared myself for takeoff we departed. The ride was uneventful and the traffic cooperated. My check in and screening process went smoothly and I found myself with 3 hours of free time to catch up on Hollywood gossip via the magazines I brought from home. The boarding process went smoothly and the plane was not quite full. My seat assignment placed me in a row with 3 seats where I was the only passenger. I relaxed, stretched out and watched a movie while immaculately groomed attendants brought me food and pillows. This was a great start to what would be a grand adventure.

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Sometime after dinner and dessert and before the pizza snacks would be served, my subconscious urged me to check for my credit cards. Even as I reached for my bag, in my gut, I already knew what I wouldn’t find.  I searched through my 2 carryon items and RFID bag. When I was done, I searched again and yet again. I had left my credit cards at home in my pocketbook.  Dread turned to panic and I had to remind myself that there was nothing I could do at almost 40,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  I needed to calm myself and devise a plan for when I changed planes in Dubai.  After exiting the plane I immediately attempted to call my office but the call went unanswered. I had miscalculated the time difference. The office was closed and wouldn’t reopen until I was airborne continuing to Kenya. I counted my cash and determined that I might have enough to get me through the first day. My usual strategy is to minimize risk by carrying only a small amount of starter cash. Upon arrival at any destination I locate an ATM and obtain local currency. It’s usually the most cost effective method, minimizes fees and the possibility of theft or misplacing cash. I had reservations for the first night at a hotel that was located near the local airport that I would utilize the following early morning. My reservation was confirmed so the front desk was expecting me. They were also expecting that I would pay. This became my first challenge as I knew that I needed to conserve any remaining cash I had with me.  The time difference now worked to my advantage as I was able to call my office when I arrived in Kenya. The hotel was kind enough to allow my office to call in a credit card number to pay for my room. Success! I would have shelter for the first night.

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Early the next morning the hotel shuttle took me to the regional airport. A portion of the cash I conserved from the previous night was used to pay the driver. The prepaid flight from Nairobi to Amboseli was on a 14 seat plane and the view of the open space of the Kenyan plains below was a welcome distraction. I and the other passengers arrived to find our future safari guides and vehicles waiting to take us to our respective lodges. I had forgotten that I was expected to pay Game Park fees upon arrival. They could not add it to my room bill because it was a government imposed fee. I explained my situation as sincerely as possible. Multiple conversations between my future driver/guide and the main office of my intended destination, the Serena Lodge, and the Park Ranger, transpired as they negotiated the liability I presented. Perhaps it was my honest approach, but soon I was on my way to the park resort. My driver, James had paid the park fees on my behalf. Upon arrival at the Amboseli Lodge, the scene replayed itself like a summer rerun. I told and retold the story of how I arrived on their doorstep with no way to pay as each staff member declined to make a decision and referred me to the next person in charge. Eventually, they took me at my word and I was given a room and invited to the main dining room for lunch in preparation for the afternoon Safari. I knew that my intention to pay was honest, but no one else could be sure of that. It says a lot about the Kenyan people, each and every one, who treated me with respect and the courtesy due any paying customer, even without a guarantee.  Still, I needed a solution. After two days on safari I would be returning to the city of Nairobi for several nights. My hotel was prepaid and some meals were provided at the convention center but I would be without any cash for beverages or any other expenses.

The best option and likely only opportunity to have my cards successfully reach me would be while I was in the city. My staff did the sleuth work to find the best way to expedite a shipment to Nairobi. The window of opportunity would definitely close after I left for the next safari lodge in the Masai Mara. We devised a strategy. First, I needed to get my credit cards to the agency. My super hero of a pet sitter agreed to go to my house, retrieve my cards and bring them to my office. Second, it had been determined that Federal Express was the only shipper that could guarantee a two day shipment to Nairobi. Third, lacking a Federal Express account, my staff had to locate a Fed Ex shipper that would accept the time sensitive mission. The Embassy Travel crew went above any expectation and my cards were finally on their way.  They say big things come in small packages and seeing the Fed Ex envelope in my hotel room was epic. I am not ashamed to say that I did a happy dance when I saw the familiar faces of my cards. If you’re wondering about the final tally, it could have been worse…

$209.30 long distance calls

26.52 text messages after my staff reminded me that I was running up a heck of a phone bill

122.75 shipping charges plus unlimited stress on both my part and those in my office.

Total: $358.57 – Perhaps a small price to learn a valuable lesson. Best words of advice when travelling: “Don’t leave home without it”.

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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

First, there was Washington’s Watergate. Then football had Deflategate, New Jersey had Bridgegate and most recently, the travel industry has been embroiled in Leggingsgate. Not the entire industry, just one particular airline. Unless you are media adverse I’m sure you know which airline has had their luggage handed to them and sent packing. Two separate incidents have shown that the skies are a lot less friendlier than the airline in question would have us believe.  The first incident involved a family of 3, a father and his two daughters. They checked in for their flight but were denied boarding because the two young girls were wearing leggings, a comfortable hybrid of pants and tights. Somehow the media became or was made aware and reported the incident. This thrust the airline squarely in the public eye and not for a good reason. By public eye I mean trending on twitter, becoming a top news radio story, on the front page of major news outlets and the main joke of every late night television host. What should have been a minor incident was now dubbed “Leggings-gate”. The internet went crazy with well-known starlets wearing leggings to their local airport in support of the young girls. I can understand how ridiculous the situation must appear to the public. Why would and how could the airline ban leggings?  What the news outlets failed to reveal and starlets were blissfully unaware of is that the father of these two girls is an employee of the airline. As an employee, one of the perques he enjoys is reduced rate travel and the privilege of being allowed to share that discount with immediate family members. With that privilege comes rules. When travelling on reduced rate industry fares you are essentially considered representatives of the airline. As such, you are required to dress appropriately. The airlines very clearly spell out what is acceptable attire when travelling on a reduced rate pass. Leggings are not on that list. The father was either ignorant of the longstanding policy or willfully chose to ignore it.  It was definitely within the jurisdiction of the airline to deny boarding to the employee and his two daughters.  Is the rule outdated? Perhaps, perhaps not. I can’t fault any airline for wanting their employees to appear professional and abide by a dress code. It’s a small request to honor in return for the airline’s significant generosity towards the employee’s family. Before Leggingsgate had time to fade from our collective memory, a second incident placed the airline in the public eye again. This time the criticism was fueled by intense disbelief. The airline became the subject of public scorn, ridicule and likely a multiple million dollar lawsuit.  On April 9 the same airline had a flight scheduled to depart from Chicago O’Hare and went into an “oversold” situation. In layman’s terms, they sold more seats than were available on the plane. In this case the airline needed to transport 4 of their own employees to Kentucky to work on a flight departing from Louisville. Their request for volunteers to sacrifice their seats in return for future flight credit received no takers. That doesn’t often happen. When it does the next option usually results in the airline amping up the monetary reward for voluntarily deplaning.  In this case, the airline made the decision to randomly choose 4 passengers to deplane. Three got off the plane without incident and one, a doctor, refused to go. The flight crew contacted the authorities who boarded the plane to escort the passenger off the aircraft. Unfortunately, the passenger resisted and was seriously injured during his removal. Here’s where it gets murky. It’s still unclear why the passenger was injured. The airline claims the passenger was injured when he failed to comply with the Officers who then dragged the passenger from his seat and up the aisle. Fellow passengers claim that the airline employees used unnecessary force and are responsible for the injuries. Videos recorded by fellow travelers bear witness to the physical removal of the passenger and the obvious injuries sustained by the Doctor. Social media took over and held a trial by tweets. The airline was again found “Guilty” of poor customer service! The memes were creative and relentless. Eventually, the airline CEO needed to make a public statement. His first step was to put a well-heeled foot into his own mouth by blaming the victim. The public response was swift, vicious and often bitterly funny. The media covered every bit and it turned into a very public cry for justice for the injured Doctor.  Yielding to public pressure, the CEO’s second attempt at addressing the public came from a place of accepting responsibility. He tried to assure us that the airline could and will do better going forward. This is the message that we wanted to hear.  It would be challenging for the airline to continue to vilify the Doctor after news outlets reported that he suffered a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth. It was recently announced that the airline reached an undisclosed settlement with the Doctor. The airline has also committed to making the follow passenger-friendly changes:

  • “limit the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only
  • not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seats involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk
  • ensure crews are booked on to flights at least 60 minutes prior to departure
  • reduce the amount of overbooking
  • eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a ‘no questions asked’ policy on lost luggage.
  • the airline will pay up to $10,000 to passengers who voluntarily give up their seats on overbooked flights.”

 

Professionally, I take umbrage with any overbooking. The majority of airline tickets are nonrefundable. Therefore, the majority of ticket holders arrive at the airport expecting to board the aircraft. Most notably, business travelers are the passengers most likely to book last-minute or change or cancel their reservations last-minute. They pay dearly for that privilege at rates that are likely 10 times what you would pay for your air reservations. If they cancel, it results in an empty, nonrevenue generating seat, which the airline compensates for and anticipates. Thus, the unreasonably high airfare rates for those business travelers. The airlines might be better served, and the travelling public as well, by issuing “stand by” tickets more frequently. It’s my belief that they are an under-utilized option of filling seats that might otherwise go empty.

 

If this recent debacle has you reconsidering flying on your next vacation, I would say that there’s likely never been a better time to fly. The airlines need to regain the trust of the travelling public. Customer service may never be more attentive than it will be under the watchful eye of an eager media looking for an additional story. I can’t guarantee the rates will drop but I bet, if you ask, you just might get an extra bag of pretzels on your next flight.

Everything’s Coming Up Asparagus

There are vegetable lovers and vegetable haters. If, as a child, you needed to be cajoled, bribed, threatened and eventually sent to bed before you would touch a broccoli spear, you qualify as a vegetable hater. The Germans fall into the category of vegetable lovers and turn it into a veritable orgy during asparagus season. This rock star of a vegetable makes groupies out of the entire nation and creates an asparagus frenzy barely sated by the almost 60,000 tons of delicate stalks harvested and consumed during the 2 month period known as Sparglezeit.Image result for asparagus If you’re wondering how I morphed into an Asparagus Aficionado, it’s thanks to a rather lengthy bus ride from the port at Mainz, Germany to Heidelberg. The Tour Guide was attempting to fill the silence with interesting facts about the local area. I assumed she’d run out of topics when she started telling us about locally farmed asparagus, but soon learned that asparagus is a big deal in Germany. On a list of favorite vegetables in these United States, asparagus fails to crack the top 10, and in fact ranks # 21 out of 31 options. Surprisingly, asparagus ranks below spinach and cauliflower and way behind the humble potato, revered to such a degree in America that it is our #1 vegetable choice. Perhaps that explains our expanding waistlines. A short growing season and limited availability likely contributes to the asparagus-mania in Deutschland. It’s a root plant that pushes up its tender shoots in the cooler weather of early spring and heralds the end of winter. Americans who do enjoy asparagus, are most familiar with the green variety while Germans and other Europeans, prefer the white option. The pale asparagus is less sweet and more tender than its thin stalked green cousin. The lack of color makes for a less appealing visual presentation but the vegetable compensates with a milder, nuttier flavor. The locals go wild for the vegetable, so beloved, it is served as the main course with a side vegetable. No doubt, a child’s worst nightmare. Adults will pair it with wine and perhaps cheese and bread. Steaming the stalks is the preferred cooking method, often topped with butter or, if you’re feeling ambitious, rich Hollandaise sauce. White asparagus is not naturally occurring and a great deal of effort is involved to keep the budding shoots in the dark. The plants are deliberately forced to grow underground as long as possible, continually covered, by dirt or black plastic, to deprive them of the sun producing chlorophyll which gives vegetables their color. White asparagus attained the royal title of King of the Vegetables due to the repetitive act of kneeling before each plant. First as it is put in the ground, second when the buds are covered with additional dirt and finally when the stalk is cut and manually retrieved from its earthy mound.  Much like royalty demands the best, so too do the purveyors of the pale jewel, paying upwards of $9.00 per pound. It’s refreshing to discover that most German farmers prefer a hands on approach to growing and harvesting the valuable crop. The labor intensive process relies upon skilled workers from surrounding countries, with the majority of paid help originating in Poland or Slovakia. Each worker pays 1 euro (approximately $1.67) a day for housing arranged in shared barracks. If you’re wondering what you get for 1 euro a day, the list includes your bed, which is made up on a daily basis and your laundry washed and returned to you, folded. You also receive daily meals. It’s a prime gig if you can get it and are physically able to do the job. If you were to ask the question as to why Germans don’t harvest their own asparagus, the answer is probably the same as to why Americans often rely upon international labor to pick our own fruits and vegetables. Time and money! Since a fresh cut equals the freshest taste, time is of the essence in harvesting the emerging crops and farmers need to minimize their production costs in order to increase profits. However, sometimes labor is understaffed or overwhelmed and therefore white asparagus is sometimes harvested mechanically. Asparagati; the true devotees of asparagus and a label developed specifically for this article, insist on the traditional farming and extraction methods. We Americans prefer our green stalks to be model thin, providing the diner with a delicate and tender culinary experience.Image result for asparagus fields Europeans operate under the concept that “bigger is better” and robust stalks are their vegetable of choice. At the peak of the season, the German appetite for thick, white asparagus is so voracious that domestic production satisfies only 60 percent of the demand. The additional bounty needs to be imported from surrounding countries. According to the website “Asparagus Friends”, “white asparagus is rich in aspartic acid, which stimulates renal activity and has dehydrating effects.” It also contains large amounts of Vitamin A, C, B1, B2, minerals, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. A full serving will contain only 210 calories. Asparagus consists of 95% water and has no cholesterol. It’s the perfect diet food! But at the end of the day, or at least the end of the meal. you find that you still can’t abide asparagus, there is another option.  You can smother asparagus in myriad ways. Murder by cheese sauce is likely the most popular option while the low brow version might be with ketchup. However, if you prefer a more gourmet option, I suggest Hollandaise sauce, the classic egg, butter, lemon juice and spice mix. By the way, if you’re adventurous and have access to bountiful market options you can also find purple asparagus. If you’re a potential “stalker”, and want more info, you might want to access this website.  http://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/white-asparagus/  Bon Appetit!Image result for asparagus dishes

Pay to Play

Are you old enough to remember buying an airline ticket, receiving a seat assignment, and being welcomed aboard a clean plane? Your luggage was checked without a fee, and as you settled into the aisle seat you requested, the Flight Attendant handed you a complimentary blanket. You also received a headset that allowed you to enjoy the complimentary in flight entertainment. A selection of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages accompanied a hot meal on long flights or a snack on shorter flights.Image result for airline food cart

An experience such as this can still be had aboard international carriers. On domestic flights it’s gone the way of airport porters and refundable economy tickets and both no longer exist. The airlines say it’s all about “options”. I say it’s about profit.  Their seemingly selfless goal is to allow each passenger to choose his or her amenities to personalize their trip to their liking. I would call that fancy marketing.  The air carriers graciously allow you to pay more if you want an aisle or window seat. You can also pay more if you wish to have the exit aisle with the extra legroom, but buyer beware.Image result for crowded airplane seats The mantle of authority is transferred to you because sitting at the exit row comes with additional responsibility. In the event of an emergency, should it become necessary, you will be the hero who unlocks and opens the emergency door. Your mission, should you accept it, also includes assisting others off the plane before you too, beat a hasty retreat. Perhaps they should pay you for agreeing to do what should be the responsibility of the crew. Once airborne, you’ll barely have time to put your seat back tray in an upright and locked position before flight attendants will offer headsets for sale, mileage earning credit cards and Sky Mall catalogs from which the truly bored with extra money order odd items to be delivered to their home. From the very first time a passenger paid to sit on the aisle I hung my head, recognizing the beginning of the end of basic on board amenities. The amenities are still available to passengers but no longer on a complimentary basis. Most carriers proudly proclaim that it’s all about choice. From my middle seat the only choice I see is pay for good service or don’t pay and receive no service.  Surely, we all deserve a fair amount of leg room? At five foot two I rarely have space issues. Still, I sit in solidarity with my fellow, taller travelers who are allotted less legroom than found at the local movie theatre. You usually pay about $10.00 at the theatre but at least you get a first run movie with decent sound quality. Today’s modern theatres offer seats that recline to a comfortable position and some even swivel.  Why should we have to pay to check luggage? Surely if we were taking a short jaunt we would drive our own vehicles and fill our trunks or hatchbacks and depart on time. It’s obvious, at least to me, that if we’re flying, it’s most likely to a destination out of local driving range. Shouldn’t it be presumed that we will need to bring some personal items along for the ride? The only travelers I’ve met who didn’t need to bring luggage were business travelers and nudists. I know what business fares cost. Believe me when I tell you that business travelers pay air rates high enough to allow you, me and everyone in rows 15 through 19 to check luggage for free. Business folk might need a change of shirt, underwear and a briefcase filled with paperwork and nudists, well they just need a toothbrush and some sunscreen. Seats and meals were just the start of the fees. It used to be a pleasure to escort a young adventurer on their very first flight. Most airlines even had special toys or coloring books for the wee solo travelers. The toys are long gone and have been replaced with fees as high as $100.00 in each direction to send Junior to visit Grandma. My estimates put the sky high babysitting cost at about $2.00 a minute.Image result for empty wallet

That’s long enough to escort the UM (unaccompanied minor) to their seat and assure that their seat belt is fastened correctly. They get checked on a few times during the flight and then after arriving at their destination, are walked off into the loving arms of their waiting family. I’m not sure how the airlines justify this fee since it would be a challenge for the minor to wander off a moving aircraft and get lost. If you’ve decided that you just can’t leave your best friend home you can expect to pay anywhere from $35.00 to $195.00 for Fido’s flight, in each direction. That’s a lot of kibble, especially since the pet carrier is expected to go under seat in front of you where you would normally place a carry on bag. As an animal lover, with that fee, I would expect the royal treatment for my dog to include a special showing of “Lassie” and gourmet biscuits.Image result for animals in suitcase

The bright side to all of these fees is that airfare prices have remained fairly constant through the decades. My very first flight was to Florida and the cost of the transportation was somewhere south of $200.00. Today you can book a nonstop flight from New York to Miami for under $160.00 including taxes! That’s definitely progress. It’s your choice to raise that fare by paying the fees for extra luggage or food or movies or legroom with the key word being “choice”. There are fewer airlines flying today compared to 30 years ago but competition remains vigorous and the airlines look for ways to keep their costs low so their prices remain lean and accessible to the masses. Deregulation of the airlines may have been the catalyst for the competition but charging fees is now part of a long term concierge style strategy and is here to stay.