AC460 YYZ-YOW B737? seat ?

YYZ’s Maple Leaf Lounge is the best AC lounge I’ve seen to date: modern, stylish, and (in a very un-American way) equipped with free grub of the salad-and-soup variety, a fully stocked free booze bar and, the crowning touch, free Internet.

No puking toddlers or harried families on this flight, it was pinstriped suits and one weird Nordic guy with a laptop and a “HACKER” T-shirt all the way. I had an exit row bulkhead aisle seat, which was nice, but on this B737(?) that means there was no window, just a teensy porthole to squint at. We took off on time, business class was served refreshment but we weren’t, and pretty soon we landed. But there are worse things than uneventful flights.

RTW2007: Toronto, wherein our tyrannical tourist cheats the TTC, minces around a pottery museum and makes mincemeat of a ginormous pile of Chinese food.

As downtown Toronto seemed to have no sensibly priced/available with points Marriotts, I spent the night at the Fairfield Inn Toronto Airport, which has drawn rave reviews (for an FI) on Flyertalk. I was bumped up into a thoroughly unnecessary if not unwelcome suite, had my Platinum water & pretzels waiting, and had an edible and not unreasonably priced meal at the cafe downstairs. (This is the hotel’s Achilles heel; there are absolutely zero other eating options in the vicinity, unless you can eat gravel or ball bearings.)

Next morning, earlier than I would have liked but still in a bit of a rush, I hit the gym, the buffet breakfast and the airport shuttle back to YYZ. Air Canada’s website states in no uncertain terms that baggage can only be checked in from 4 hours before a flight, but I tried my luck anyway and was pleasantly surprised that they took in my bag without the slightest quibble. My ATM luck was still zilch though, so I ended up changing US$40 cash into C$40.50, a rate that could charitably be described as ungenerous, but certainly does wonders for any Canadians with lingering currency inferiority complexes.

And then it was time to face the Toronto Transit Commission and try to make my way into the city. The TTC offers handy day passes and packs of five tokens, but they’re not available at the airport: your only choice is to fork out C$2.75 in exact change for a single fare, which is kinda tough if you’ve only got tens and two quarters. Luckily, the bus driver (who probably sees this all the time) let me board for free, and the Airport Rocket’s destination, Kipling station, had a token-o-mat.

Toronto Harbourfront and CN Tower Tall, Rich, Blonde and Available

Moose on the loose in Chinatown The C$3.50 Lunch

It was around 11 AM by the time I reached the city center, leaving me around 4 hours to sightsee. The Art Gallery of Ontario was closed, and the Royal Ontario Museum seemed rather to massive to tackle, so I tried the Gardiner Ceramic museum instead. It was small, but very nice (well, at least if you share my unmanly hobby of collecting Asian pottery), if fairly expensive at $12 a throw. Walking down through the U of Toronto grounds was free though, and I saw more attractive Indian women in one hour than I did during 6 months in Delhi. A loop through Chinatown, where I was delighted to find the Merlion Singaporean Restaurant yet bitterly disappointed to find it closed — I ended up wandering into a very Chinese shopping mall (you can always tell by the smell of dried seahorses wafting from the herbalist) and into the basement, where I correctly surmised there’d be cheap food aplenty. There were half a dozen stalls with an identical deal: pay C$3.50 and get your choice of 6 toppings piled on rice… and when they said pile, they weren’t kidding. Quality was queasy (pink mincemeat is never a good sign) and, while authentic, it was still terrible. Sometimes pinching pennies is a waste.

Then past the CN Tower to the Harbourfront, which with its flocks of seagulls (lakegulls?) and pointy buildings rather reminded me of Vancouver minus the mountains. A detour into the Design Exchange, a purposeful stroll through a small chunk of PATH, a photo of egregious misuse of umlauts (you talkin’ to me?) and then it was time to head back to the airport.

 

AC981 NAS-YYZ A319 seat 27F

NAS has a seriously bizarre boarding procedure. Once the boarding call comes, your boarding pass is checked, but kept intact, and you can’t board the plane: instead, you’re just moved to sit (or stand) in a corridor near the gates. Then, once everybody has been corralled up, the door is opened and you’re allowed to trek across to the plane, where your boarding card is finally collected. Is there a point to this?

After taking off, the aircraft did a 270 degree turn and flew over central Nassau and Paradise Island, rising up in its emerald majesty from the fathomless depths. Da-yamn.

They say Canada feels American if you arrive from Europe and European if you arrive from America, and boarding Air Canada flights fits the pattern. This A319 is old and crusty, but not as bad as mainline US carriers; seat pitch is bad, but not terrible; your meal is free, but booze still costs money; and there’s some inflight entertainment, just not much of it. Kind of a halfway house, in other words.

The plane arrived at Toronto more or less on time; unfortunately, Toronto was in the process of being hammered by a thunderstorm, so the pilot flew leisurely bumpy loops around it for an hour, allowing all passengers to get a good look at the impenetrable fog. Engrossed in my laptop, it didn’t even occur to me that others might find this distressing, but there was an audible groan when the pilot announced for the third time that we’d be on the ground in “20 minutes”, and only when landing (with distraction devices packed away) did I realize that the cabin was getting kinda whiffy. After landing, we spent another good half hour sitting around on tarmac, and the increasingly puke-laden atmosphere prompted the little girl in the seat in front of me to announce that she was going to be sick, even though the plane was perfectly stationary. On the way out, slowed down by an interminable shuffle of strollers and oversized carryons, we all got a good luck at the cause of the carnage: two green-faced toddlers and a spew of projectile vomit over any nearby seats. Welcome back to reality.

The new international wing of Toronto Pearson opened in January 2007, a mere 3 months before my first visit, so it’s nice and new-looking, although I do like the way they’ve nostalgically clung onto that fixture of North American airports, the big red dot LED panel, and used “dot matrix” fonts for spelling out gate numbers, baggage carousel numbers, etc. Immigration was fairly painless, with the agent spending most of his time looking for the fullest possible page in my passport and then clobbering a Korean stamp with his maple-leaved overprint, but baggage took ages to arrive.

I then had my first suspicion that this airport wasn’t quite up to its appearance when I had some trouble locating the exit from the baggage carousels. My suspicions deepened when the ATM manifestly refused to be where the map said it should be, and none of the three I eventually found would accept Visa Plus (which is, after all, only the world’s most common system) despite wanting $2 service fees. Every American airport has a handy panel of courtesy phones from where you can call your hotel; but YYZ doesn’t. Hotel shuttle signage was absent, but I consulted the map (of missing ATM fame) and navigated my way to the basement, which had a lonely looking stand outside. A call to the hotel on my own dime then revealed that the shuttle stops at “S5”; I peered around quizzically, unsuccessfully looking for numbers or letters on the stands scattered about, until I realized that the concrete pillars holding up the building were numbered high up, and “S5” was waaaaaaaaay at the other end, near the stand labeled “Group Drop-Off Only”.

Once I eventually schlepped myself to the other end, I lucked out and caught the shuttle almost immediately, and when I whined about how difficult it was to find, the driver commiserated: “Yeah, everybody else says that too.” Sigh.

 

RTW2007: Bahamas, wherein our piratical plunderer pretends to be James Bond, goes iguana-spotting and gets his timbers thoroughly shivered with a complimentary double exfoliation treatment.

Nassau‘s Lynden Pindling International Airport is surprisingly run-down and ramshackle, but unlike coldly formal San Juan, at least they welcome you into the immigration hall with a live ”goombay” band tooting out tropical numbers. (No free pink drink service this time, though.) After being stamped in and congratulated on coming in all the way from Singapore, I located my bag from a host of carousels, all with LED scrollers reading “BAHAMAS — IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME!!!” (as opposed to telling which flight’s bags were where, and just how bad was it before, anyway?). My host was waiting for me and we zoomed off across the island.

Pier at Saddleback Cay Iguana at the beach

Path to the beach at the Ocean Club Marina Village, near Atlantis Resort

Now, I like to think I’m not much given to effusive gushing, but the Bahamas are, quite simply, the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been to. I was initially thrown off by the comparative dryness, quite unlike the tropical humidity of Puerto Rico (or Singapore), but the beaches are just jaw-dropping: white sand, crystal clear water, and an unearthly hue of aqua quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before where they meet. Add in pastel pink government buildings, lots of palm trees and a laid-back vibe that felt far more Caribbean than Puerto Rico, and the realization that it’s actually more pleasant to be out and about when humidity isn’t 100% all the time, and I think I fell in love.

Beaches aside, my Bahamas experience was rather significantly improved from the average package tourist’s lot by me managing to inveigle an invitation to the mansion of a local resident and his lovely wife, located in the ultra-exclusive Ocean Club Estates (part of and next to the Ocean Club, where Casino Royale was filmed) on the aptly named Paradise Island, best known as the home of the gargantuan and exceedingly Vegas-esque Atlantis resort. And as luck would have it, the owner’s gorgeous twentysomething daughter C and her equally attractive best friend R were in town, and willingly took up the task of showing me around. And oh, it was brutal: cocktails at the Ocean Club, a spot of gambling at Atlantis (which proved that my luck did have its limits), checking out the golf course and the yacht, being stuffed full of amazing homemade food, lazing about the pool and hot tub with a cold Kalik or two, and shivering our timbers with the Pirate Museum and dark & stormy games of Dread Pirate (arr!). On the last day, we went on a full-day excursion out to the Exuma islands, which had yet more impossibly picturesque beaches, snorkeling, rum punch, shark-feeding, iguana-spotting and two complimentary one-hour Salty Spray(tm) exfoliation treatments, lovingly administered at 30 knots by dual 200-hp engines on the way in and out.

And then came the sad moment of goodbye and a harsh return to reality at Nassau’s remarkably charmless international terminal, which serves the (few) non-US international flights that depart from the Bahamas, including mine. Arriving a good two hours before the flight, check-in and security were completed quickly, but once through there’s only a distinctly unappetizing snack shop left to entertain you. Fortunately, my laptop managed to snag a Internet signal and I was spared from having to entertain myself by watching dust gather on the shelves of the closed gift shop.

US1053 CLT-NAS B737-400 seat 13A

In the gloom of rain CLT looked like any other older American airport, all scuffed linoleum, white-on-black signage and acres and acres devoted to parking, but next morning proved sunnier and the terminal looked rather more modern and welcoming. US Airways made amends by checking me in speedily (although I had to assist the check-in lady with punching in my EuroBonus card) and allowing me into the US Airways Club which, to damn it with faint praise, was the best I’ve seen in the USA to date. Clean, spacious, free ice water, a powerplug-equipped cubicle to compute in and more free T-Mobile goodness was all I needed.

Today’s airplane was a bog-standard regional B737, which didn’t even pretend to offer frills like headphones or movies for this two-hour flight. The seat pitch was as bad as previously, but my seat was a window over the wing and thus a marginal improvement on yesterday, especially as I had no seatmates in my 3-seat row and was thus able to sprawl out freely.

No matter how many times I’ve done it, I still love the first few minutes of flight. Hitting the throttle, feeling the aircraft accelerate to Ludicrous Speed(tm), the moment of takeoff — and then as the aircraft banks, twists and turns on its way to its flight path and level, the cabin moving around in three dimensions, you remember that this is not a bus and you’re flying, an idea so magical and captivating that the entire state of North Carolina still commemorates the first successful attempt on its license plates.

Signs you’re in a country where people don’t do too much international travel: the pilot spends 10 minutes announcing line by line how to fill in the Bahamas immigration form and how to fill out the US Customs form for the return leg.

 

RTW2007: Charlotte in transit, wherein our rowdy redneck escapes from the rain and cracks open a barrel of turnip greens.

This was the second stop in the US where I cursed my limited time — I earlier passed through San Francisco for the first time in 25 years without seeing much more than tarmac and a terminal, and now my return to Charlotte after the better part of 15 would be equally stunted.

It was pissing rain from dark clouds as we landed an hour and a half behind schedule, black US Airways planes lurking ominously in the drizzle like birds of bad weather (to quote a Finnish expression). But while others cursed and moaned about their missed connections, I was not in a hurry tonight, and the miserable weather just meant that I wasn’t kicking myself for missing this sightseeing chance. After waiting another hour for first my bag and then the shuttle bus to show up, it was closer to nine by the time I was checked into my hotel and could head out to grab a long-delayed dinner. I wanted something Southern, something filling, and something cheap, and the Cracker Barrel a block away — the only restaurant within walking distance from the otherwise fine Fairfield Inn Charlotte Airport — filled all three counts perfectly. They were out of turkey, alas, but I substituted meatloaf (badly microwaved), battered fried okra (which proved that everything tastes good deep-fried, except okra), turnip greens (an interesting new acquaintance), mashed potatoes with gravy (yum) and cornbread with butter (sweet enough to be my dessert). I paid my $8.57 at the cashier as directed (was I supposed to tip the waitress? Probably, but when and how?) — and, sated, rolled downhill to sleep.

 

US968 SJU-CLT B767 seat 8F

SJU looks slick from the outside (well, at least those parts that aren’t under construction), but there’s a fair dose of island/US airline lackadaisicalness about it. After I’d queued for 15 min in the First/Star Gold line, I was asked why my check-in bag didn’t have an agricultural inspection tag. What inspection? That inspection, she said, pointing over to a room behind me and off to the side, with a gaggle of people swarming around it. How was I supposed to know? Well, if you came regularly you’d know, she pouted. So why can’t you put a sign to tell people to go there before checking in? It’s a USDA inspection and not our problem. No, I told her, it’s your problem because it’s your line. I was advised to go complain to the USDA, and was duly punished for my effrontery by being assigned an aisle seat next to a blocked window, with a strategic sprinkling of crying babies around me.

As if this initial impression of US Airways weren’t unpleasant enough, the flight was also delayed by an hour. Once past the security circus filled with vacationing clowns (“Hey Bozo! Is Diet Coke a liquid?”), I settled down to munch on my mallorca con jamon y queso and mooch somebody’s free wifi.

On board, the plane smelled of old as soon as I stepped and was still in the old USAir livery. My knees were firmly jammed against the seat in front, just the way I like to spend 4-hour flights, but at least I was assigned a harmless (and non-bulky) crossword-filling granny as a seatmate. The deepest impression, though, was the sheer incompetence displayed by the staff when trying to run through the in-flight safety demo: not only did two different steward(esse)s try to talk simultaneously, but they did so on top of the video, with both their mike and the video flaking out at random intervals. Just how hard can it be?

US Airways’s in-flight magazine consists of thinly disguised advertorials and you have to pay $5 for headphones if you want to listen to Yanni on Channel 1. Not for the first time, I said a prayer of thanks to the elves at Panasonic’s battery factory and set to work computing. But I’ll say one good thing about US: at least they give you a full can of drink, even juice, instead of fiddling about with United-style urine sample cups.

 

RTW2007: Puerto Rico, wherein our pedestrian polymath battles with mofongo, hunts for porky goodness and understands why nobody else uses the island’s pimped-out public transportation system.

I spent a week in Puerto Rico for the First Annual Wikitravel Get-Together, and you can read all about it, from multiple angles like the refractions of a prism, right here: Get-together07

And here’s a pointer to the one extended story I wrote myself, on the delights of public transportation on the island: Poco loco publico. (Don’t worry, it’s a little more exciting than it sounds. I promise.)

Watchtower at El Morro Colonial house in Old San Juan

San Jacinto restaurant Highway in Puerto Rico

Giving a pithy summary of Puerto Rico is rather difficult, but saying what it’s not requires only two words: “not Caribbean”. On the face of it this seems like an odd assertion, and the climate is tropical all right (to a resident of Singapore, it felt almost like coming home), but it just doesn’t have that laid-back Caribbean vibe I was expecting (and found a little later on this trip). Puerto Rico’s not that big an island sizewise — you could drive around it in half a day if it weren’t for the traffic jams — but it manages to pack in a surprisingly varied amount of scenery, ranging from misty mountains and jungles in the center to near-desert with cacti on the arid south coast.

But the bigger difference is cultural: Puerto Rico also has only a small number of black people, resulting in a population that seems almost monolithically Latin. The older bits of Puerto Rico, such as the touristy but very pretty Old Town of San Juan and the colonial cores of places like Ponce and San German, are imported straight from Spain, with musty old fortresses and churches, pastel-colored colonial houses and stately plazas. But despite a few token attempts at resistance, like all official signage being exclusively in Spanish and distances in kilometers (while speed limits are in miles!), much of modern Puerto Rico is squarely American. At one end of the spectrum are the office buildings of central SJ and the plastic-y resort hotels of Condado; at the other are the dodgy strip malls and barrios around the city cores of both SJ and Ponce that look precisely like the worst bits of South Central LA. But outside the cities, you could occasionally find bits of the elusive “real Puerto Rico” like the seafood shacks of Pinones or the beaches of Guanica that, if you squint a little, wouldn’t look too much out of place in Thailand.

Pork chops (chuletas) in Puerto Rico Fish, plantains and salad at San Jacinto

As always, I spent some time digging into the local cuisine, and on Puerto Rico this can be summed up in two words: pork and plantains (looks like a banana, tastes like a potato). The Puerto Rico-est dish of them all is the infamous mofongo, which sounds like the punchline to a joke but is, in fact, a very real dish consisting of plantains repeatedly mashed and deepfried until you get a ball of solid grease and starch, occasionally leavened with bacon bits. It sounds terrible, and it can be, but if thoroughly soaked in seafoody sauce it’s actually pretty tasty. Alas, my explorations of the porkier dimensions of Borinquen cuisine were rather limited by traveling most of the time with four non-meatarians, so I missed out on sampling lechon asado and blood sausage — but at least the pork chops were pretty good.

UA960 IAD-SJU B757 seat 9A

I haven’t been to Dulles in ages (some 25 years, in fact), but it looks just like any other older US airport: crowded and grim. I paid a rip-off price for a Nokia charger, a more reasonable price for a footlong Subway, and sequestered myself in the dark and gloomy cubicles of the business section of the Red Carpet Club until it was time to fly on.

And now a mainline UA flight, not that anything seems very different. I again lucked out with not just a Economy Plus seat, but one of the ones right in front of the door, with ludicrous legroom (but no place to stow your bags). Inflight entertainment was provided by the Flaming Latinos, a pair of, um, very intimate stewards who kept up a patter of rapidfire Spanglish with each other (“…that guy uah te digo que muy guapo and then when Juan said like oh my god voy a quitarle al mondongo un peso de encima…“) and did their best to crack each other up during any public announcements.

Drink service was the usual: OJ and pretzels. Thanks to the Great Terrorist Hunt, the seatbelt sign was kept on for 30 minutes until we were well and duly clear of the capital.

UA1470 LAS-IAD A320 seat 10D

Despite living in the US for the better part of five years, I don’t think I really understood just how much Americans drive until I returned a rental car at LAS. I’ve seen 10-million-pax-a-year airports that are considerably smaller than the rental car depot here, complete with wings for different airlines, err, rental agencies and automated check-out machines, and the shuttle buses to the airport itself are packed despite leaving at 30-second intervals.

Once there, the agent at check-in just rolled her eyes when I asked if there was a lounge I could use. Then again, this, too, makes perfect sense when you think about it with Vegas logic — there are slot machines all the way to the gates, and not a few glassy-eyed people pumping the bandits’ arms at 7 AM in the morning.

Like my flight in, this flight was operated by Ted, and as it’s a 4.5-hour flight, he (it?) gave me two tasteless biscuits in addition to a glass of juice, and graciously allowed us the opportunity to purchase a Snack Pack. Thank you, Ted! But Ted did also give me an Economy Extra seat, and I had the foresight to stuff myself with breakfast first, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.

XM Satellite Radio’s “BPM” channel gives me the chills. I can’t believe they’re playing Detroit techno and supa-frooty trance, and OMG does it feel good after a week of solid country music, if interleaved with the occasional “Nacho Nacho” courtesy of Punjabi superstar Sarbjit Cheema. (Click the link. You know you want to.)