London to Split: It Could’ve Been Worse.

Before we had even begun, our trip from England to Croatia had already suffered several blows. Our original plan had been to meet our friend Lauren at Heathrow on the 27th then leave from Gatwick at 5:45 the next morning. Unfortunately, I’d unthinkingly booked us a hotel at Heathrow rather than Gatwick so that meant getting up at 2:30 to get  a taxi at 3am to get to the airport at 4 so we’d have plenty of time for our flight. Unfortunately Lauren’s job situation was thrown into confusion just days before she was due to fly out and she ended up having to cancel the trip, which we were rather sad about as she is an excellent (tried and tested) travel companion and would’ve relieved us of the monotony of talking to each other. Just kidding! (Mostly)

So, we made our way from Cambridge to the Premier Inn on Bath Road – would you believe there are FOUR Premier Inns at Heathrow? Luckily only one is on Bath Road and the bus there is free.

The room was nice, the food at the hotel wasn’t too bad, people were watching Germany get kicked out of the World Cup and seemed to be enjoying it. We got about six hours sleep (champions that we are.. drinking lots helped) and woke up in time to meet our taxi and encountered no traffic or road works on the drive. We congratulated ourselves for being so well-organised and checked in our bags then headed for the gate.

This was when Luke realised that he’d left his passport in his checked bag.

As the blood drained from his face he experienced an adrenaline rush like none in recent memory. We raced to the gate and were initially told, by a geriatric flight attendant who looked to be one of those ‘I know the rules and I’m going to tell you about them multiple times’ types that Luke flat-out wouldn’t be able to fly. What precisely would happen to his bag, since it was checked in under my name, we struggled to work out.

He turned and told another member of staff that Luke had left his passport in his checked bag. “If that’s true,” the man said, “that is the most monumentally stupid thing I have ever heard.” Luke agreed with him wholeheartedly. Then this man, a Turn Controller named Jonathon, proceeded to be just the type of guy you want in your corner during a crisis of this nature. He was calm, kind, decisive and communicative. It also helped, as he pointed out, that the plane couldn’t leave until he signed off on it – and he’d do everything he could to remedy the situation before he did so.

What that involved was Jonathon waiting for Luke’s bag to arrive at the plane, snagging it before it was loaded, and then getting security to oversee Luke removing his passport from the bag before loading it on to the plane. While that all sounds straightforward, given that time was ticking, security was being slightly unhelpful and the geriatric gate guard was blustering at us any time Jonathan wasn’t around to fend him off, it was a very close call. But in the end the passport was retrieved, Jonathan saw Luke on to the plane with a handshake, and he took the seat next to mine.

The sigh of relief Luke let out as he sat down was both palpable and heartfelt. Jonathan popped in to the cockpit to approve the plane for take off and even gave Luke a wink as he left the cabin. What a hero!

Well, obviously we congratulated ourselves on dodging a situation that might have cost us a great deal of time and money (well, cost Luke… I would’ve gone anyhow to save having to buy two new fares) and relaxed, safe in the knowledge that surely nothing else could go wrong.

Honestly, what else could go wrong? Nothing, that’s what.

After enduring the free-for-all that is Croatian passport control, we headed out to pick up our bags. Because we’d been in the non-European queue we were almost last out and the conveyor stopped moving almost immediately with only a handful of pieces of luggage left. Luke’s bag was visible but mine wasn’t.

And wasn’t.

And wasn’t.

We waited for nearly an hour before going to the lost property office and registering my bag as missing. Because of the passport issue in London I had accidentally left my luggage receipt at Gatwick but had, oh-so-fortunately, taken a photo of it before handing it to the staff there, which meant I had all the details of my tag. THANK GOD. I don’t know how hard it would’ve been to retrieve the bag without it.

Somewhat heavy of heart we boarded the bus into town, having to stand up for the forty minute drive because we were nearly last in line.

After a bit of wandering around the back streets of Split we found our Airbnb (phone GPS doesn’t always work so well in narrow stone alleys and apartments don’t seem to have numbers here) and our host was lovely and helpful.

The local markets were only a few steps away and I bought a cheap spare pair of underpants and then we bought a few bits of food and wandered around town.

When I got back I took a photo of everything that was in my small backpack.

Of all the things I didn’t have, a belt was probably the thing I missed most as my new jeans were stretching and I had to keep pulling them up every five minutes. So dignified.

Fortunately that afternoon EasyJet sent us a message letting us know the bag had arrived at ‘an’ airport (which one wasn’t clear but it was nice to know it was definitely somewhere) and the next morning my bag was delivered and order was restored to the universe.

By far the most upsetting part of the whole journey was Luke’s passport incident. I think my weeks of camping and being grotty had left me quite happy to wear the same clothes several days in a row. We also felt good, once the whole thing was over, about how calmly we’d dealt with it. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you have to go through a crisis (however small) together.

Lesson learned though – passport in hand when checking in bags!

Canada and Alaska: Whistler and a Float Plane Ride

Whistler rivals Banff for prettiness and the mountains, dare I say it, are even more spectacular. Here’s Mum and I at the float plane dock.

Although who can really say which place we’ve been is the best? I’m reaching that stage of travel where I can’t honestly recall precisely what Banff’s mountains looked like. Lucky I’ve got five million photos!

The float plane was fantastic but slightly wobbly. The scenery was a ring of mountains with glaciers and lakes. The colour of the water was really stunning from the air.

As always, I felt my stomach lurch when the plane bumped up and down, but it was worth it! The other good thing about doing the flying options is that they’re quick (20 minutes this time) and so there’s time to do some walking around afterwards. Whistler town centre is a pedestrian mall and the town is set up for lots of summer sports. BMX and mountain bikers we catching the chair lifts up and riding down the mountain right to the middle of town. I got a free gondola ride and watched them from above.

I didn’t go up the mountain until late so I just did a little walk around, enjoyed the scenery and then came down. The gondola is one of the longest in the world and takes 20 minutes to go all the way to the top. Dare I say it even got a little boring? The views were great though, when it wasn’t rocking in the wind.

After having lunch at a cheap pasta place, Mum and I had enough leftovers to heat up for dinner in our room, which had a microwave. Imagine being able to eat what you wanted, with only a one minute wait and not have to make conversation with a waiter or try to work it tips! Luxury!

How one’s priorities change when traveling, hey?

Next: we go to another place and do more things.

From Hoi An to Bangkok

It came time to depart Hoi An and head to Bangkok. We would be flying there from Da Nang via Ho Chi Minh City. It was more eventful than we’d expected.

A few days prior the resort manager approached me to offer his thanks to our group for being such great guests, and kindly offered us a free airport transfer for our departure. Maybe he felt it was the least he could do after spending so much money at his resort’s bar day after day. As our flight left at 9:45am and check-in began at 8:45am, he suggested leaving at 7:45am. I made it 7:30am – never hurts to have an extra 15 minutes up your sleeve at an airport, especially with a group.

After an early breakfast, we finished packing the last of our gear, all wrote on a card that Matt and Michael would give to Tin later in the day, and took some group photos out the front of the resort. We piled in to our van and got underway as the resort staff waved us off.


We made good time to the airport and waited to check-in. When we got to the front we were told we were in the wrong line. Fortunately no-one was in the other queue yet so we went straight to the front. Unfortunately when we got there we were told our flight had left an hour ago, and we’d been advised of the time change by email two days prior.

We hadn’t thought to check the flight’s status, and throughout our nine months of travel a few years ago, none of our flights ever got changed. We quickly purchased tickets through another airline but then had to scramble through check-in and security, having to jump straight to the front of both queues, just to make the flight on time. If we’d left 15 minutes later, we may not have all made it on the flight.

After arriving in Ho Chi Minh City we had some time to kill before our next flight. Quite a bit of time, as it turns out, as nearly all the flights out of that airport had been delayed due to some kind of system error. Our two hour layover turned in to four hours, and we later heard some people had been delayed even longer than that.

I found this article regarding the delays in the paper the next day.

After another quick flight, we finally touched down in Bangkok. We found our driver (who filled us in on how bad the delays had been getting throughout the day) and got underway. For most people in our group, it was the first time they’d been in Bangkok, and it’s always an impressive city to drive through at night with its myriad of huge advertising billboards and well-lit buildings.

We arrived at Lebua at State Tower and started the check-in process. While we waited we enjoyed the lobby’s piano player, who was belting out a medley of random songs. I wish I’d got some footage of this guy, he was really getting in to it! We all tried to figure out each song as it came up. Certainly helped pass the time quickly.

Once we were checked in, we went to take a look at our suite. Kupp greeted us as we walked through the door, as he’d arrived a few hours before us. The place was massive. A huge lounge and kitchen area was flanked on either side by three bedrooms, with two on one side, and one on the other, that one alone being as big as the suite we’d stayed in the last time Amanda and I were there.

The living room! Kitchen to the left, and those doors lead to two of the bedrooms.

After kicking Kupp out of that room and taking it for ourselves (sorry mate! I promise that when it’s your birthday you can have whichever room you want!) we went downstairs to catch up with the others. It just so happens that they had managed to score the Hangover Suite. It is ostensibly the same as every other suite, but it has photos from the movie up on the walls, and other decor that references the film. For those not in the know, several scenes from The Hangover 2 were filmed at Lebua, and they’ve capitalised on this in their marketing. Nikki and Leigh surprised Amanda with an expensive bottle of champagne to kick off the celebrations!

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After spending some time catching up, we all decided to spend our first night up on Lebua’s roof at the Sky Bar. Just as we remembered, the views were as incredible as the price of the drinks ($15 AUD for a glass of beer). Still, it was a great way to kick off the Bangkok Birthday Bash!

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Hoi An Day One

It’s 4am and I’m sitting by the pool at our hotel listening to the occasional boat putter by on the river. After a very early start the day before yesterday, and no sleep all night, I was pretty impressed with myself for having enough energy to hang out at the bar for a few hours before flopping into bed at about 5pm. No caffiene along the way either! 

My very first impression of the hotel was a cement stairway on a dirty side street (to be fair, all the streets here a pretty dirty) but then we climbed up to the airy, flower-filled reception and a view over a long pool to an emerald lawn leading to the river – it was gorgeous. The grounds are full or orchids and frangipani trees in flower. I met a staff member, Nu, who showed me that if I dipped a finger in the little pond around the dining room, little goldfish would come and nibble my finger. 

  

  
The hotel has a four hour Happy Hour, which started just before we arrived. Two for one cocktails, which made them around $2 each. 

They also do a street food tasting on the lawn at 4:30 every afternoon. We tried a bunch of tasty fritters, rolls and noodles and I failed to pronounce ‘that was delicious’ in Vietnamese. The only consolation, when trying to pronounce Vietnamese words, is the obvious difficulty Vietnamese people have with English. Even people with big vocabularies are barely intelligible.  

  After being shown to our rooms, Luke and I had a quick, much needed shower, then went for a wander down to the pool and found Matt and Michael already on first name terms with Tin (or Super Tin, as he is now known). Although I try hard to be friendly to everyone, being with Michael and Matt is like being with two Crocodile Dundees – if Crocodile Dundee spent all his time looking for bars.

The weather is looking like being very warm today (and always sticky-humid) but possibly cooler after that so we’re thinking of having a day by the pool to relax then getting our tailoring underway the next day, plus signing up for some cooking classes and tours. Or maybe we’ll just sit by the pool or the riverside bar, which we seem to have commandeered.

  

Here Comes The Planet 49 – Tanzania 05

In this episode Team Toto soar above the Serengeti in a hot air balloon and drink champagne like the rock stars they wish they were! An unforgettable experience that we shared with many of our travel companions.

Also, I deliver on a promise I made to amp up the excitement of a balloon coming in to land… 😉

Thanks again to Pete and Deb for letting us use some of their footage!

Greenwich, New York.

Whoah. Since we got here I feel as though we’ve barely stopped moving. New York is probably supposed to be like that. But before I start a long and envy-inducing list of what we’ve been doing and my first impressions, let me tell you what happened in London.

We spent a last morning shopping in Camden (when I say ‘we’ I mean I shopped and Luke watched – he’s good like that) and I bought a couple of last piecess of funky clothing. I also had a heart-stopping moment where I tried on a skirt that was labelled ‘Large’ and it didn’t fit over my knees. The shop guy and I then held it up against some smaller sized clothes and realised it was mis-labelled. Whew.

Then we went back to our adorable English pub, grabbed our bags and got to the airport about 4 hours before our flight was due to take off. Sometimes being a super early person has its advantages – when we got to the counter the lady said our flight had been delayed by 4.5 hours but the earlier flight, departing in 40 minutes, had space and we could jump on that. Win! So we half ran through the airport after Luke got stuck in security for no reason apart from his bag being full of electrical cables, and were the last ones on the plane.

We flew United, which I’d heard bad things about but it was actually a nice flight, apart from the alcohol costing money (in retrospect this was probably a good thing) and the food was nice, there were lots of films to choose from and, my favourite, the window rows had only two seats, so no being jammed in with a smelly stranger.

The plane even arrived half an hour early and we found that scary US customs involves some guy asking what’s in our bags, me saying ‘wine’ and him waving us through without even looking. We didn’t even get asked how long we were staying for, whether we had visas or were planning on working… nothing! UK customs are waaaay more intense.

We caught a bus into the city and found our accommodation pretty easily. We’re staying in a 4th floor walk up (blurgh) apartment in Greenwich, one of the more bohemian areas of NYC, for one week then we’re off to Brooklyn for a week. I might save first impressions of New York, and our catch up with friends for the next post. Right now I need to rub my sore feet and work out where to buy some more yarn for my crocheting. I made 6 squares while on the flight over – it’s so addictive. I just wish I’d started out with colours that matched anything in my house.

More tomorrow!

Arusha, Tanzania

We spent more time in transit getting from London to Arusha than you would normally spend getting from Australia to the UK, which is twice the distance. Mainly because we had a huge gap between arriving in Tanzania and the domestic flight to Arusha, Tanzania’s second largest city, not far from Mt Kilamanjaro.

Dar Es Salaam airport, where we landed, was possibly the most basic airport we’ve been to so far. We arrived at about 2:30am and, apart from all the people getting off the plane, the airport was almost deserted. We found a shop in the airport complex that would mind our bags for the night. Not a shop that actually advertised bag minding, mind you, just somewhere the lady at the check in counter recommended and I found the owner asleep in a plastic chair out the front of his shop. Thank goodness we bought the pac safe before we left. We were farewelled with ‘Hakuna Matata’, which you will be instantly familiar with from the Lion King and is either something people here say all the time or something people here think tourists expect to hear all the time.

Divested of our huge travel packs, we lay down on some purgatorial metal benches and managed to fall asleep for a few hours, despite garbled loud speaker announcements, occasional blaring of soccer on the nearby tv and the bright fluorescent lights.

We looked, felt and smelled like hobos when we woke up at about 8am to check in for our 11am flight. Fortunately so did half the other people in the airport. The other half were dressed in the fantastically bright colours that I associate with Africa. One lady had on what looked like a black business suit that has had a terminal collision with a flamingo. And shoes! African women like them with gigantic wedge heels with as much sparkle as can be managed. The obvious choice for long haul flights.

We sampled the rather limited fare at the airport… canteen? I’d use the word ‘cafe’ but that would give entirely the wrong impression. It was a lot like a school canteen but nearly everyone looked miserable. So actually more like a hospital canteen. They also refused to take the pre 2003 US dollars which the bank in London had given Luke. Fortunately there weren’t too many of those notes. Apparently people do not like them because they are easily forged.

The flight to Arusha was in a quite small plane. I did not realise how much the size of the plane affects the amount it shudders and bumps in the air. Getting up to cruising altitude and down again was somewhat hair-raising. It was a relatively modern plane – no crates of chickens or wooden benches to sit on a la Indiana Jones (to my disappointment) but the lady in front of me did leave her rather large bag in the aisle nearly the whole flight and the attendants just stepped over it. It seemed a minor thing but so unthinkable to me – how many microseconds exactly would a bag last in the aisle of an Australian plane?

Speaking of planes, the flight from Istanbul was 7 hours and the guy next to me was one of those charming people who does not fit into his seat and does not do anything to help matters, sitting with his foot in my footwell (he was in the aisle seat) and having his elbow and shoulder in my space. It’s a difficult issue – no one wants their space invaded, and yet telling people to buy a more expensive seat or lose 30 kgs doesn’t seem right either. Or does it? I don’t know.

We made it to our Arusha hotel without incident and checked into our rather sparse two bedroom suite. It’s right in the middle of town with a view over the local, rather derelict, sporting field. From our room the sound of car horns is pretty much constant and the mosques can be frequently heard.

We lay down for a rather long nap then headed out for dinner to a place called ‘Khan’s’, which advertises itself as ‘chicken on the bonnet’ because it is a mechanic’s by day and then they grill food out the front at night. The guys there were all super friendly and the food smelled amazing. It also happened to be on the same street as the hotel but two blocks down so nice and easy to find. Another Tripadvisor find. I must say that, while it seems almost lazy to be getting recommendations for things from just one website, Tripadvisor is yet to steer us wrong.

We had a shared meal and drinks for about $7 US each. We helped ourselves to a plate of salad each then they brought over plates of meat, bread and chips. The chips were not great but everything else was really tasty. Tandoori-style chicken, mince cooked on skewers, beef pieces were all really nice.

Chicken pieces over coals.

My ‘passionfruit’ drink was a disturbingly radioactive colour but turned out to be quite nice. The boys got totally retro coke and pepsi bottles.

As we finished a lady, obviously quite poor, wandered up and made motions towards the food. We had eaten everything except the chips so I said she could have them. A couple of guys from the restaurant wandered over and she tipped the chips into her bag. They were telling her to go but she was saying something back (it was all in Swahili) but then hit them and they started fighting! The men were trying to restrain her and push her away then she started ranting at us and called us ‘Americanos’ but we had no idea what she was saying. We got up to go and pay and the owners were very angry with her. Seems like they get people like this coming by and causing trouble. I felt a bit guilty for starting it but they said it happens. They did not have the most charitable attitude towards her, which I can understand, but she genuinely seemed mentally disturbed to me. You wouldn’t think giving unwanted food to a person would start a fight. I couldn’t help but think it was like feeding a seagull at the beach. Things start off calm then swiftly descend into madness.

We wandered back up the road, buying one of those ubiquitous woven bracelets (‘Because it is Ramadan! You help!’) for a couple of dollars. Touts here, as Luke observed, seem more friendly than in Asia. At least they will walk and talk with you for a bit before trying to sell you something. not just ‘You buy! You buy!’.

An early start tomorrow, hopefully the World Vision meet up goes well and then I can relax!