EY 315 AUH-RUH Y B777-300W seat 19C

Again a short hop and an almost unnecessarily luxurious plane, but while similar to the A346 in appearance, the seat pitch was an inch or two more generous. This was a relief: I’ll be flying back to SIN in one of these (or at least am scheduled to), and that inch will make all the difference. Today the usual complement of Filipinas was joined by the lovely Kyeong-Soo from Korea, who pacified us with a tasty chicken or veg sandwich and a small bottle of juice before leaving us to giggle at the inane antics of Juste pour rire, Montreal’s ripoff of Candid Camera that seems to have a remarkable hold on transport operators the world around, ranging from business class on Garuda Indonesia to the buses of SBS Transit in Singapore.  The plane was equipped with the same IFE system as the A346; it was just turned off, and no headphones were passed out.

My stomach was still bubbling discontentedly, and it was approaching 6 AM Singapore time, so I did my best to zonk out — not entirely successfully, but soon enough the 80-minute flight was over and we landed at King Khalid International, quiet as ever in the middle of the night. Having purposely booked a seat towards the front of the plane, I reached Immigration well before the queues formed. My suitcase was out almost surprisingly fast, and the irritatingly persistent taxi tout waiting for me outside Customs turned out to be the first guy in line at the official taxi rank. I negotiated his ridiculous initial offer of SR160 to a somewhat more reasonable SR80 (still a good 25% premium on the official fare), and we zoomed off down the desert highway to Riyadh.

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Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is not one of the world’s great airports by any measure, but its quirky terminal seemed downright snazzy after the swirling chaos of DEL. Midnight is rush hour at AUH, but I had no problems snagging a seat from where I could contemplate the utterly bizarre mushroom-shaped spout of lime green and blue tiling that dominates the terminal, although any notions of Zen serenity were blasted out of the water by the endless loop of really, really loud trilingual announcements about vol eh-ygrec trois-trois-cinq a Casablanca or whereever. We’d rolled past Etihad’s future home Terminal 3 on the way in, but despite a few planes parked up to it’s still several months away from completion and Abu Dhabi has, inevitably, already started designing an entirely new airport expressly designed to put those young whippersnappers in Dubai in their place.

Etihad’s slogan is “The Airline of Abu Dhabi”, which left me ruminating. Sure, that’s an undeniable fact, but what do they mean by it? If they mean that Etihad is good because it’s associated with Abu Dhabi, I don’t think that line of argument will quite fly, as for most people “Abu Dhabi” is the faintly ridiculous-sounding place in the middle of nowhere (see also: Timbuktu, Ouagadougou) where Garfield regularly mails obnoxiously cute kittens. Alternatively, they might mean that Abu Dhabi is good because its airline is Etihad, but this has pretty much the same problem — when I told a colleague that I was flying Etihad via Abu Dhabi, her genuine reaction was “Where the heck is Abu Dhabi, and what on earth is an Etihad?” (Etihad, for the record, is Arabic for “United”, and with Air Arabia and Emirates completes the trio of large airlines using all components of the name United Arab Emirates.) Either way, it’ll take another good ten years until these guys get over their name recognition problem…

At any rate, the booze selection in AUH Tax Free was pretty good, although obviously for this leg of the trip I had to limit myself to window-shopping. An hour before my flight the gae number popped up and I headed down to Gate 22, which turned out to be a bus lounge, dominated by a colorful but orderly procession of Indonesian ladies going to work in Saudi. In the bus on the way to the plane, one of the younger women knelt on the floor and wordlessly pressed her head into the lap of a motherly older veteran. For one, the terrors of the unknown; for the other, resignation to the known.

EY 211 DEL-AUH Y A340-600 seat 43A

On my last day, the trip from Noida to the airport was (much to my surprise) over in barely an hour, leaving me with a rather too-generous four hours to kill at DEL. The Departures floor is under such heavy construction that I could barely recognize it, one of the check-in desk rows (Row 1) already reworked into the 21st century, the others still falling apart. I’d arrived so early that Etihad hadn’t even started checking in, but after I’d completed one circuit of the terminal looking for them, I spotted a bunch of unlabeled checkin desks with their monitors turned off… and a stack of Etihad luggage tags. Bingo. They’d just opened, and I got sequence number 002 for DEL-AUH, with sequence number 270 for AUH-RUH. How does that work?

Construction prevailed at the immigration desks (over in a jiffy) and the airside had been transformed to such an extent that I could only gape. Gone were the plastic bucket chairs, gone was the Flamingo duty free shop where I used to buy my Indian wines (better than you’d think), gone was the ITC lounge downstairs, even the security queue had transmogrified into something new. In their place were lots of construction hoardings and drilling noises, and I shuddered at the thought of having to spend four hours here. But there was a sign pointing to the Clipper lounge upstairs, and having done my research on FlyerTalk’s India forum I headed up with my Mastercard in hand. Now, in America gold Mastercards are included in boxes of cereal, and even in Singapore the income requirements for one aren’t too lofty, but in India they’re apparently still beyond the means of the hoi polloi — which is why Mastercard graciously offers free use of the Clipper Lounge for every holder of a Gold, Platinum, Titanium or World mastercard. It was still before the evening rush, and aside from a few JAL pax I had the blessedly peaceful lounge (and its fridge full of Kingfisher beer) to myself.

An hour before departure I headed out, and back in the less rarified realms of the terminal the security lines were as bad as ever, with powertripping jawans doing their best to harass the poor bunch of workers heading to the Gulf, barking at them for not waiting at the yellow line (as if they could read the signs) and emptying out every last slip of paper from their pockets. Once they were finally done with them, white sahibs like me were promptly passed through and I headed to Gate 3 to board my first Etihad plane.

The good news was that it was, indeed, the promised Airbus 340-600; why they’re operating a smallish long-haul plane on a low-yield short-haul route like DEL-AUH, though, is beyond me. The plane looked nice, all muted tones of desert tan (shades of Emirates), but the seat pitch was surprisingly cramped, with sharp bits of the seatback poking into my knees no matter how I moved my legs. Fine for this three hour flight, but I’d definitely steer clear of this plane for a real long-haul. The IFE screen was big and the headphones were unusually high-quality, but the interface was kinda slow and clunky, although there was a largeish (if dull) movie selection and an immense library of music — minus, alas, any ghazals. And no sign of the rumored in-seat power plug.

The bad news was that the plane was packed to hilt and 95% of the passengers in economy were workers headed to the Gulf, who aren’t exactly a frequent-flying bunch. Sitting as I was in the back, there was a constant jingle of “bong! bong! bong!” tones as people fiddling with remote controls unwittingly punched at the stewardess call buttons and little lights blinked on and off above the seats. Etihad also certainly didn’t bend over to serve this constituency of its passengers: all announcements and printed matter were in Arabic and English alone, with not a word of Hindi, and only one harried flight attendant appeared to speak the language. At least remarkably creepy safety video, which turned those 70s-style safety card cartoons into 3D computer animations of corpselike ghostly figures stoically enduring oxygen loss, crashes and evacuations, was probably equally incomprehensible in any language…

Meal service started soon after takeoff, and at least this was Indian style: Goan fish curry, curried peas and carrot, pulao, parantha and two balls of rasgulla. Reasonably tasty if unremarkable, and the carrots were red, so you could tell it was made in India. Drink service was a little odd: we received cups of water before takeoff, nothing immediately with the meal, a juice run after it was served, and then tea, coffee and hard liquors on demand while clearing the trays. Alas, the carbonation in the beer I’d drunk earlier has started disagreeing with the reduced air pressure and my stomach by this point, and while eating dinner helped — oddly, it usually does — I wasn’t quite in a position to appreciate the meal, or the flight, to its fullest. The workers, on the other hand, were enjoying the novel experience, with the jolly fellow in the row in front happily popping powdered coffee creamer into his mouth, like a Western version of paan masala, and chomping away.

The lights stayed on, but I pulled on my shades and attempted to rest a bit. Three hours into the flight we crossed over the coast at Oman and started coasting down to a descent in Abu Dhabi.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi

It’s been a good nine months since I was last in Dilli, and I was quite amazed by the speed at which (some) things have progressed. The Metro extensions to Noida and Gurgaon, a few tentative rebar poking out from the ground in fall 2007, had sprouted into an almost unbroken row of lofty concrete pillars with viaduct cranes connecting the tops and station boxes starting to take shape — they just might make the 2010 deadline. The Great India Place in Noida and the MGF Metropolitan in Saket had both opened and finally given Delhi malls that wouldn’t look too much out of the place in Singapore. The amazingly banged-up super-high-floor city buses slaughering pedestrians on Delhi’s roads have been joined by a growing fleet of slick green low-floor buses, and the Bus Rapid Transit line from Moolchand to Ambedkar Nagar is set to open in a few months. NH-8 from Delhi to Gurgaon has finally opened and the slick swooping curves of the grade-separated intersections around Mahipalpur and the airport are an infinite improvement on the previous jams. Last but not least, the airport’s tentative renovations are now in full swing: the entire five kilometers from NH-8 to the current terminal is now one giant construction site with worker ants scurrying about building the new terminal, the third runway and the Airport Express line. What’s this place going to look like two years down the line when everything is complete for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

On the flip side of the coin, nine months away from India was enough to tune my eye again to the daily weirdnesses of life in India. Zooming on an on-ramp to the DND Flyway, one of Delhi’s still regrettably few expressways, a wandering swami had decided that the side of the road, ten meters up in the air and inches away from speeding cars, would be a good place to build a bonfire and warm himself. Going to lunch at the Shipra Mall in Noida, a ridiculously pompous palace of consumerism decked out with statues and Romanesque pillars and consequently rather resembling a cross between a Las Vegas hotel and Bangkok massage parlor, had one of the lanes on its entry way under repair — so they’d thrown up a strand of barbed wire across the road, with somebody’s pants hanging in the middle so drivers would see it. On the way out, an empty field between the glass offices of the call centers and outsourcing labs was covered from end to end in cow patties, drying in the sun. Under the flyovers lurk Delhi’s underworld of dirty street kids and destitute beggars, naked toddlers with dust-caked hair running about the median between the roads.

And in the sterile comfort of the bland Sheraton, where a week’s stay costs about the same as a Tata Nano microcar, I flipped my TV to state broadcaster Doordarshan’s Sports channel in prime time and was treated to a rerun of the 2000 World Chess Championship, long ago live from Tehran — another vaguely funny reminder of how India’s well-meaning government continues to cripple the country through misguided initiatives. The week’s talk of the town was the LPG shortage, caused by government fixed rates making it unprofitable to supply, and the limited supplies thus being diverted to commercial use at Rs.600 each or the black market at as much as Rs.1000 a pop, instead of the heavily loss-making consumer rate of Rs.300. The government’s reaction? Raids against retailers to make sure they aren’t selling them on the black market or “hoarding”. Sigh.

9W 017 SIN-DEL Y A330-200 seat 19A

I’ve flown this sector umpteen times, but to date always on SQ. However, this week they were booked full for days on end (the second daily flight starting this summer is not a moment too soon), so it was time to try out my first longer flight on Jet. My previous experience with the carrier has been limited to a single one-way Amritsar-Delhi hop, but I’ll confess not to paying my usual obsessive attention to the minutiae of the flight, as my intestines were in the rather unpleasant process of being roiled by amoebic dysentery at the time and I’d only narrowly avoided messy disaster in the check-in line.

This time, I was in harmony with my intestinal flora and looking forward to the trip. The plane looked new and very good, with lie-flat pods in business and modern burgundy-and-cream seating in economy in a 2-4-2 configuration. On the rather interminable taxi out from T1 to the runway, I spotted Etihad’s 777ER taking off — the very same thrice-weekly flight I was originally supposed to be on.

Take off, a towel run, and then straight into dinner with no menu, just a choice of “chicken, fish or veg”. The dinner selection looked impressive, with a miniature tablecloth on a tray, metal cutlery and a cloth napkin that looked almost good enough to steal, but the food was a bit of a disappointment: the chicken’s sauce was a pale Western approximation of a curry, just a sauce with turmeric really, and the raita tasted like it was made with sweetened low-fat yogurt. The salad was watery and the chapattiesque thing was thick and greasy, and only the finishing notes lifted the average a bit: a Magnum ice cream bar and a bag of Indian after-dinner mint spice mix. SQ wins this round.

Jet’s inflight entertainment system is really good, probably the best I’ve used interfacewise and far better than SQ’s Wiseman. It’s fast, responsive, easy to navigate and intuitive, as important settings like volume, brightness and screen on/off have their own buttons on the bottom of the screen, which can easily be manipulated by touch alone. The screen is nice and big, and there’s a pretty decent selection of programs, if with an understandable Indian slant. Today’s selections: episodes of Rome, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, The Office (US) and then a lengthy trawl through the dedicated Ghazals section of the music selection, where I drifted off to Lotus-land listening to Ghulam Ali. I was introduced to this amazing singer by trash novelist Shobhaa De‘s works, where the mango-breasted heroines rave about the aphrodisiac properties of his songs, and while they took a while to grow on me I’m starting to agree: a few bars, and I feel like I’m smoking opium and crushed pearls from a jewel-encrusted hookah while watching Hyderabad’s finest nautch girls dance. Score one for Jet.

Service was quite good also: Jet’s crew aren’t quite as dolled up as the SQ girls, nor are their faces contorted into a permanent rictus of a smile, but everything does work quite well. There was no water/drink service during the “night” while the lights are off, but I snagged a miniature water bottle from the galley and they did do a juice run before descent. Tie with SQ on this one.

The one big downside to Jet from SIN, though, is the terrible flight timing. Arrival into DEL is after 2 AM (meaning you’ll be lucky to get to your hotel by 4 AM), and the return flight wastes a full day by leaving DEL at 8 AM and arriving in SIN around 5 PM. And the smaller downside is the lack of alliance mileage, although I did manage to park the miles in my comatose Northwest account. Now to figure out a way to do something useful with the ~7500 miles I have in there…

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi, Riyadh, Jeddah and Janadriyah

This trip report is a followup to the original Wahhabalinese Adventures, detailing my second sojourn to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll be traveling a bit longer this time, and hence my agenda includes a little sightseeing and scuba diving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and commercial capital.


This was supposed to be a straight Singapore-Saudi round-trip with a local round-trp thrown in.  However, two days before my planned departure I got an early-morning phone call, and by the end of it I’d changed my plans to head to Delhi for a week first instead. Our corporate travel agent, who are good at everything except finding cheap fares, first suggested a ridiculous SIN-DEL-BAH-RUH-JED-AUH-SIN routing on 9W/GF/SV/SQ that would’ve cost nearly US$3000, but Etihad’s remarkably helpful Singapore office managed to rebook me on DEL-RUH-SIN for barely a third of that — it actually ended up costing substantially less than my previous SIN-RUH return!  Here’s the final route:

Index

SQ 943 DPS-SIN C B777-200 seat 15D

We left for the airport two hours before our flight, figuring we’d get there in half an hour, but due to a Galungan parade one of the main roads was closed and the alternate routes were thus jammed bumper to bumper. It took us one hour just to get near Kuta, usually a 10-15 minute trip, but then the traffic miraculously cleared up and we got to the airport a little under an hour before our flight.

Check-in was unproblematic, although I realized only later that we’d been unceremoniously shifted from my prebooked A/C seats across to D/E. Some last-minute duty-free shopping (bottle of Hatten rose wine, check) and a 5-minute breather in the lounge, which is a little tired, but has a reasonable selection of eats, a ridiculous amount of staff and has a noisy little outdoor patio in the “nice idea, poor execution” category… and then to the gate, past the economy class boarding scrum via the business class line. Rank hath its privileges.

There wasn’t much difference to the flight in, except that this time the plane did have AVOD, and (as all ex-DPS flights) there was no Book the Cook service. I neglected to snag the menu, but I had a rather blah baked snowfish dish, while Z tried out a rather reasonable lamb. The meal service was even more abbreviated than last time, with the ice cream replaced by such a generic dessert that I can’t even recall it afterwards. Z noted that the flight attendents addressed her by name, but not me, which may not be unrelated to the fact that my name is twice as long as hers…

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully and, to my mild disappointment, the flight landed at T2. Back in Singapore — but not for very long.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Kafe Warisan, Seminyak, Bali

When I booked Kafe Warisan for a friend’s birthday dinner, I couldn’t help but snigger at their slogan of “World Famous French Mediterranean Cuisine in a Classic Rice Terrace Setting” — surely a little pretentious for a small restaurant in a podunk town in rural Bali, no? And thus I was expecting mediocre, somewhat overpriced food in a cheesy Balinese setting… only to get way more than I expected. This was easily among the best Western meals I’ve had in Asia, or anywhere else for that matter.

First a word about the restaurant: it’s been around for a good 15 years now and looks quite unremarkable from the dusty main street outside, but everything changes once you’re inside: it turns out to be a sprawling colonial-style house, with the sun setting over the rice paddies in front — bought and maintained by the restaurant to make sure they stay there! — as you settle down for dinner.

We had dinner on the patio outside, which certainly has the best views in the place but, being open-air, can be kind of hot. (Once we’d settled down, though, it was fine.) Service is excellent, with staff always there when you need them, but not in your face like they are in most of Singapore’s fancy Western places. The restaurant offers both set meals (which should be booked in advance) and a huge a la carte menu, along with a lengthy wine list, but alas, due to Indonesia’s silly tax policies, a bottle that would set you back $10 in the US was selling for $40 here. We picked an interesting-sounding bottle of Costieres De Nimes Domaine de Perrieres 2001 from the cheaper end of the list, which turned out to be a decent choice: a fairly dry, strong red that was a good fit for the mains.

On to the food!

Artichoke Ravioli, Grilled Scallop and Prawn, Lemon Butter Sauce

We shared this appetizer. The artichoke ravioli (all three or four of them) were a little limp in texture and muddled in taste, but the scallop and prawn on top were both outstanding: huge, fresh and juicy, and the mild lemon butter sauce just accentuated the taste.

Hers: Duck Leg Confit, Cêpes Mushrooms, Garlic and Parsley Sauté Potatoes

This was just spectacular. Duck is a Balinese favorite, and I thought I’d had some pretty decent entrees elsewhere (esp. bebek betutu, the local “blackened duck” rubbed with spices and cooked in a banana leaf). However, these guys managed to cook it perfectly: the skin had crystallised into a crispy layer that just burst with fatty goodness as soon as it hit your teeth, while meat inside was so rich and moist that it literally just fell off the bone. On the side, I found the cepes a little astringent, but she liked them as well.

His: Pan Roasted Black Angus Tenderloin, Braised Oxtail with Shimeji Mushrooms, Black Truffle Sauce and Potato Galette

I’d asked for my steak medium rare, and while it came back rare by any measure, I was glad the chef overruled me: I’m usually not a huge steak fan, but this was just out of this world. Cooked to perfection, grilled on the outside, marbled smooth as silk on the inside, not even the tiniest hint of stringiness. The side dishes kind of faded in comparison, but the mushrooms were inoffensive and sauce was a good fit.

Passion Fruit Sherbet

To top it off, a shared scoop of their homemade sherbet, which really did taste like the Indonesian markisa passionfruit: crisp, acidic and refreshing. The perfect ending to a meal.

And the bill for two with a bottle of wine after one of the best meals of my life? About $100 — a month’s wages in Bali, to be sure, but for a meal of this caliber it was excellent value by Singapore standards.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Bali

Ah, Bali. I’ve spent a lot of time working and traveling around in Indonesia, and the Island of the Gods is the one place I always seem to end up returning to. In fact, for this trip Plan A was go to Phuket, but there was no availability or remotely reasonable pricing at the JW Marriott. Plan B was the Marriott Hua Hin, but while the hotel was OK, getting there from Singapore is kinda painful. So we ended up with Plan C: award tickets on SQ and a dirt-cheap reservation (US$53/night, with breakfast for two!) at a great little place I’d stayed at twice before, Tony’s Villa.

Alas, this time returning to paradise was a bit disappointing. Kerobokan, long a bizarre mix of rural Bali (paddy fields and cows) with overflow from neighboring Seminyak (superhip bars, trendy shops, fancy restaurants) was booming, with half the establishments on the road to the beach new since my last visit less than two years ago and multi-story buildings noisily going up on both sides of once blissfully quiet Tony’s. Even Tony’s itself was looking a little worse for the wear, with no less than half a dozen cockroaches skittering about outdoor shower-bath area on the night we arrived. To their credit, the staff seemed genuinely concerned, and after a thorough extermination operation on the first night they didn’t come back. Presumably the villa hadn’t been used for a while, and the critters had found a nice place for a nest in the drains.

Fortunately it was pretty much uphill from there. We’d arrived during the Balinese festival of Galungan, so teetering penjor straw poles decked all the streets and temples like a Balinese Christmas. Hu’u, Ku de Ta and the usual cast of Petitenget Beach hotspots were rocking, and Z’s birthday dinner at Kafe Warisan was just stupendously good, way exceeding our expectations. Full review:

Both of us had already “done” the usual tourist spots, so we limited sightseeing to a visit to Tanah Lot: I’d been there before, but with a flat battery in my camera, so I wasn’t averse to a second trip. This time, too, it was a bit of a disappointment: Tanah Lot is ”really” commercialized, with a vast maze of souvenir hawkers to navigate before you can even get in, high entry fees, hordes of tour groups clambering on rocks in the temple grounds in miniskirts, etc. And to top it off, after two days of clear blue skies, the sky was now dark and predicting imminent rain, with coupled with the sun behind the famous island temple made photography pretty much impossible. Sigh.

Will I come back to Bali? Oh yes. But next time, it’ll be time to wave goodbye to the Seminyak scene and take at least a week off to go around the island.

Next flight: SQ 943 DPS-SIN C B777-200 seat 15D

SQ 946 SIN-DPS C B777-200 seat 15A

As I’d expected, the plane turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models, without even on-demand video. I’d prebooked seats together for us and, as I kicked back and praised the joys of having some space in front of me for once, Z poured rain on my parade by noting that she’s small enough to sit in any seat and has a proven ability to sleep anywhere. Well, the back of the bus is that way, m’dear… but then a stewardess came to distract us with a glass of champagne and a terrible drink of the month involving apples, bitter lemon and 7-Up, and her fear of business class (a rather rare ailment about frequent flyers, I suspect) subsided into a mixture of relief and a wrinkled nose of disapproval when a passenger on the opposite site turned out to be wearing flip-flops and shorts revealing pale, hairy legs. So much for business class being all business.

I had one last surprise up my sleeve: I’d preordered Book the Cook for us and even gotten her selection for it by asking her to pick her favorites off an e-mailed menu without telling her what it was for. Reconstructed from memory, our “Light Lunch” menu was:

Appetizer
Scallops with avocado salsa

Main
Hers: Slipper lobster Thermidor, buttered asparagus, and slow-roasted
vine-ripened tomato, and saffron rice
His: Fish souffle and spicy minced chicken served with pineapple rice and
curried vegetables

Dessert
Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough or Strawberry Something ice cream

The scallops were sublime, big and juicy and a surprisingly good fit for the avocado, definitely one of the best things I’ve eaten on a plane. The lobster — originally my choice, but ever the gentleman, I bowed to her birthday veto — was also cooked to perfection, but my Thai-influenced entree was a bit of a disappointment: all of it (souffle, red curry chicken, green curry veggies) was furiously spicy and tasted like something I’d get in a Bangkok canteen for 30 baht, which isn’t to say it was bad, just not what I’d associate with “gourmet”. The Italian wine she opted for was quite tasty, while the German riesling (the only other white on the menu) was sickeningly sweet and singularly unsuitable for my dish.

It’s a short flight to Denpasar, so the meal service was abbreviated, with no dessert/cheese platter or liqueurs (although port was on the menu). But the ice cream was tasty, even though I had to ask for it twice, and by the time Z finished exploring her seat controls, it was already time to descend.