April 30, 2012

#USAir #FAIL times six, plus a #WIN #srsly #wow

Taking a break from my Nepal travelogue to share today's US Air fail.

Like many people, I travel for work a lot. I generally fly Southwest or United due to frequent flyer shme. Today I flew US Air (a United partner) against all advice and my own better judgment. But their schedule fit mine, and the price was right, and it was a cross-country direct flight, so...

Scheduled departure from San Francisco 8:50 a.m.; scheduled arrival in Charlotte 4:50 p.m. Dinner with colleagues/friends in Charlotte scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

At 6 a.m., after I'd left for the airport, I got a notice from tripcase (highly recommended, BTW) that my flight was rescheduled to 11 a.m. with new arrival 6:50 p.m. WTF? Okay, sometimes planes or flight crews are delayed arriving. Nothing dire. Pain in the neck. But it put my dinner at risk.

Got to the airport. Logged in and worked on the laptop. No problem for a road warrior like me. Rescheduled dinner to 7:30 (these are very good friends, apparently... they both have small children).

Found out the two hour delay was to fix a broken captain's chair.

Excuse me? The plane was sitting here all night long, and you couldn't fix a chair until two hours after scheduled departure?

OK, so they kindly kept us updated and actually boarded us for an 11 a.m. departure as scheduled. Then we sat. And sat. And sat.  At 11:10, the captain informed us that while the chair was being fixed, the ground crew overfueled the airplane. It would take ten minutes to pump the extra out, and 15 minutes to top off and sign off the paperwork.

Excuse me?You have done this before, right? I mean, put fuel in an airplane?

So we sat for the 25 minutes they predicted. And we sat some more. Finally the captain came on again and told us they misunderestimated the time to correct the fuel. New departure time noon. NOON?

At 11:45 a.m., still sitting parked at the gate, I got a call on my cell from United Airlines (this was a code share flight operated by US Air). United helpfully informed me that my 8:50 a.m. flight could possibly maybe experience some delays, but that I should arrive at the gate before the originally scheduled flight time. Just in case.

I laughed. I shared this information with my seatmate, who laughed and said she'd just gotten the same call. 

We actually got off the dock about 12:10 p.m.
Three hours and 20 minutes late.

Once in the air, the plane was cold, and my seatmate politely asked the flight attendant if they had any blankets. I expected the flight attendant to run and get one. Right? Delayed three-plus hours for a captain's chair and refueling?

Yes ma'am, I'll get you a blanket right away. And would you like a free glass of wine for all the trouble today?

Um, ha ha. Ha Ha. HAHAHAHA. Not damn likely on US Air. My seatmate was informed (politely) that the only blankets on board could be purchased for seven bucks (but it came with a pillow and headphones).

I heard the guy behind me tell his seatmate, "Hey, want a giggle? Check out page 12 of the inflight magazine."

What the heck. I checked it out. It was a feature article on how complex the refueling process is.

I'm all like, srsly? Wow. You should show this to your ground crew.

We arrived in Charlotte a little before 8 p.m., three hours late. Because of a broken chair and a refueling issue.

I am thrilled that my luggage also arrived. Which is not necessarily common when I travel to the east coast.

April 29, 2012

#Nepal #travelogue part 5: driving to Pokhara

This is the fifth of several posts about our recent totally awesome family vacation to Nepal. We worked with the fabulous folks at Geographic Expeditions to plan and book the trip.

After breakfast, we drove out of Chitwan to Meghouli airport again, where we met our driver that was to take us to Pokhara. A nice, big minivan with comfortable seats--seems to be the standard issue for Geographic Expedition drivers in Nepal.

The drive was expected to take about four hours, and on a map it looks a little more than 100 miles perhaps. That seemed a slow pace to us since we regularly drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas (550 miles) in under 10 hours. Right away we found out why travel is so slow in Nepal: The dirt tracks in Chitwan are often better driving surfaces than the paved roads in Nepalese villages.

Driving in cities and villages in Nepal is an exciting experience because the roads are dreadfully crowded with cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, and cows. It seems drivers spend more time honking and passing than they do in their normal lane of travel. But it doesn't feel dangerous in a city because you can't go more than 15 miles per hour at any given moment. A head-on collision will prove more of an annoyance than a danger.

The highways, however, are another matter.

First, "highway" is a generous term. Mostly these are what Americans and Brits would consider regular country roads, though not as well paved and far more crowded. Second, these highways are populated with regular cars, motorbikes, cargo trucks, and buses. The cargo trucks crawl along but are generally very courteous about giving way and letting faster cars pass.

The buses, however, are not much more than speeding death machines. Big and bulky, they are typically packed to the ceiling (and sometimes beyond) with people. Younger men often hang off the sides, holding on to the door handle. Within cities (not so much on the highways), it's common to see a dozen or more people riding on the top of the bus.

Buses are the only transportation many Nepalese have in rural areas.

View through the driver's window of a rural village.

And another.

This bus isn't following us... it's coming at us. Um, yeah. Which side of the road do you want?

This might be Bharatpur, I'm not sure.
Cities like this were few and far between, but they were busy and crowded and dusty, just like Kathmandu.

Coming up on a truck and getting ready to pass.

Another truck at some "welcome to town" sign.

Worse, the bus drivers are certifiably insane. They drive fast, pass on curves and bridges, and don't appear to know that they have a brake pedal. More than once I thought we were going to be done in by a bus. I don't know how common crashes are, but I guarantee any crash will be deadly.

One time, which I will never forget, we were crossing a narrow bridge, and four women were walking along our side, narrowing the bridge further. Our driver slowed because a bus was barreling down the hill from the other direction. As it turned the curve onto the bridge, it swayed like crazy, and if all four wheels stayed on the ground, I'd be shocked. It leaned heavily, and I swear it was just at the tipping point before it settled back onto all four wheels. Had it tipped over, it would have slammed into us at 40 miles per hour, head-on, and killed us all. There is no doubt.

Not too much farther along, maybe five miles, we passed the twisted, hulking remains of a bus that had gone off the road. I am sure most, if not all, on that bus, died. No idea how long ago that crash was. Shortly after, our driver stopped at a roadside restaurant. We ate our box lunches and bought sodas, and he sat on the grass off to the side, looking a little shaken.

Ignoring the buses, the drive was actually quite beautiful. We didn't get many good photographs, unfortunately. Houses in rural Nepal are painted the most cheerful and festive colors. The poverty is striking, with many families still using public water sources for washing clothes. Everything is agriculture outside the cities, and cities are small but busy. I'm glad we survived the drive.

We loved seeing the people in their daily activities, even if we weren't sure what they were doing.

Some of the houses were draped with the prayer flags we'd seen at the monkey temple.

Little shacks like this dotted the roadsides all through the country.

Most homes were colorful like this. This is the rule, not the exception.

Every storefront seemed to be a sidewalk display with a shallow, narrow room open to the street. Some had living space above or behind, but all were tiny.

Much of the drive was along this river gorge. Any accident would have sent us flying down the cliff.

Along the river, we saw four or five bridges like this with people walking over them. I can't imagine how they're attached at the ends or how safe they are. Must be terrifying. 

A lot of the landscape is very pretty. Nearly all of it is terraced for farming. I'm sure these terraces were first carved out a thousand years ago, or more.

We drove through Pokhara and did not stop, heading straight for Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge. More on that in the next post, but I'd say it's one for everyone's bucket list.

April 25, 2012

#Nepal #travelogue part 4: crocodiles and #elephant baths

This is the fourth of several posts about our recent totally awesome family vacation to Nepal. We worked with the fabulous folks at Geographic Expeditions to plan and book the trip.

Our night at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge was lovely, and our ancient cabana boy delivered tea and biscuits when he woke us for our boat safari at 5:30 a.m.

Only a handful of things give me a visceral, blood-chilling reaction. Big, creepy, scary-looking spiders. Scorpions. Crocodiles. Our second day in Chitwan featured all three, sort of. Also elephants having a bath and a rhino fight.

We began at 6 a.m. by getting in the jeep with our most excellent driver (name unknown) and our awesome ranger guide, Jitu. Joining us were Simon (whom we met the night before) and Alisa (whom we were to get to know well over the next few days).

 Our driver, who smoothed the bumps as best he could.

Jitu, our outstanding and highly experienced guide and host in the Tented Camp.

The jeep took us to our "boat safari." I liked the idea of a boat safari, floating placidly down the serene river just after sunrise, checking out wildlife and scenery from river level. Then they told us we were actually going looking for a rare type of enormous crocodile. With only 19 of them in the park, our guides didn't expect to see one, but I began to question the wisdom of putting my children in a small, wooden craft and floating them into crocodile territory. At breakfast time.

SPOILER ALERT: We saw no crocodiles.

Saw some birds but really no other wildlife. But the serenity of the still, slow river was a perfect way to start a long, busy, hot day. Photos from the uneventful float:

 A random shack at the river's edge.

  These "water cabbage" were actually quite pretty floating down the river. They looked like lilies sent downstream by some unknown people upriver

Not part of our safari, this local was, I think, a fisherman.

 Ah, here comes our boat now. We're going crocodile hunting in that?



 Crocodile bait!

Unapproved photo of my wife! See, if I can go hunting crocodiles by boat and tigers by elephant, then I am courageous enough to post a photo of my wife without vetting it with her first. (I said courageous, not wise.)

 A view of the early sun through the punting poles.

Our guide at the prow, with a good view of the Chitwan savannah.

Although uneventful, the boat safari is still one of my favorite parts of our trip. Quiet and peaceful, we really felt like we were part of the landscape for a short time rather than interloping tourists.

A decent breakfast after our jeep ride back to the main lodge, then another drive from the Jungle Lodge to the Tented Camp. Along the way we saw more wildlife than we'd seen from the boat:
Deer! We saw dozens and dozens of deer (a.k.a. tiger snacks) during our two days in Chitwan, but we only saw two fellows with antlers. This one was nice enough to pose momentarily.

We also saw a few wild boar. This family (the mama is off camera) scurried past a couple of times on this day.

We don't have any really good photos of the Tented Camp, unfortunately. The camp is small, with twelve tents, each of which has two cots and a small bathroom/shower behind it. They are comfortable and cozy, but you definitely want to keep the zippers tight all day and all night. When we went to bed that night, we saw not only two caterpillars had squeezed inside, but there was a tiny scorpion on the signpost just feet from our tent, and a ginormous, creepy, brightly colored and spindly-legged spider on the outside of the tent's windowscreen. Poor Ethan had a bit of a panic attack when he went to shower before bed and saw two of those creepmonsters in his flashlight beam. Hey, we're in the jungle, right?

Jitu did tell us there was nothing deadly poisonous out there. But still, the creep factor went to eleven.

After a scrumptious Nepali lunch at the Tented Camp's dining room, which is comfortable and has its own well stocked bar, as well as a sweeping, panoramic view of the savannah, we took a short nature hike to an observation tower up in the hills. Didn't see much, but we did run into an armed military patrol on the path. Unfortunately, these patrols tend to leave trash and cigarette butts on the trails. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the tourists have greater respect for the gorgeous surroundings. Ah well.

Mister Safari Guy!

 The observation tower. Something tells me it isn't designed to San Francisco's earthquake codes.

Observing the view, listening to nature, being one with the universe.

At this point, our day was only half over. Which means this blog post is only half done.

With the hike behind us, we returned (by jeep again) to the Jungle Lodge for the "elephant washing." Simon and I were a little skeptical, and the boys really didn't care to watch elephants being washed. Sounded like a tourist attraction at a mid-range zoo in the states. "Hey, let's show you that elephants can be hosed down!" But Maria insisted, and we learned we could later take our jeep safari right from the main lodge instead of the Tented Camp. So we dragged them over there.

It was pretty cool.

Tiger Tops is home to many elephants; I don't remember how many, but I want to say 17. They have one bull, a full tusker, and the rest are females used for safaris. We sat with a newly arrived group from an international school in Europe somewhere and listened to one of the guides--the head elephant man--talk about elephants, the habitat, the history of the park, the history of the Tiger Tops, and many other things for quite a while. Then we headed down to the river, and a lot of the kids from the school waded right in with the elephants to wash them. The whole time they were splashing around, my one thought was, "Keep your mouths closed, kids!" (Especially those girls who were downstream from the elephant that decided bathtime would also be a good time to poop.)

We also learned about Valentino, a wild male elephant who had been coming around the pens and wooing the lady elephants. We later saw him, the next day, when our time in Chitwan was over and we were leaving the park. Since he's wild and untrained, he can be quite dangerous.

 The elephant pens. I don't know what they're really called.

 Our head elephant guy (with his back to us) and one of the elephant drivers.

 The line for the bath, heading to the river.

It's a massacre! No, ha ha, fooled you, it's not. They lie down so the students can wash them while contracting various water-borne jungle diseases.

From the elephant bathing, we embarked on our final safari. We'd done elephant and boat, so this was to be by jeep. We hoped to see a lot of wildlife, and we were not disappointed. Personally, I hoped to see a leopard or a tiger, but neither came out. Jitu said he hadn't seen a leopard all year, that's how rare they are. We thought we might be near a tiger at one point, but it was a false alarm. It also happened that moments later we got stuck in the mud for several minutes. It's at moments like that you remember you're in the wild. With wild animals. Deadly, wild animals. And you start thinking of those scenes from Jurassic Park where the tourists turn into prey. And you make jokes and giggle nervously while the guides roll their eyes and try not to say anything derisive while getting the jeep unstuck.

Missus Safari Lady! (Another photo she hates but I adore.)

At times, Ethan totally looked like he should be in the old TV show MASH.

Not to be outdone by the elephants, this rhino also took a bath. And again, we declined to get in the water to help him out.

The mud where we got stuck. They got us unstuck, and Jitu then got out to survey the track and oversee the slog back through it to the far side.

I just thought this was a very pretty moment, with beautiful light.

This guy didn't seem to like the jeep much. He snorted at us a couple times. Unlike the photo of the rhino above in the water, this one is almost unzoomed. He was only a few dozen yards away at most.

I love silhouetted photos like this. You can see in the foreground how wet and muddy the tracks were in places after the epic overnight rain.

 This guy was in the process of charging another rhino, just off camera. We saw a rhino fight! Two pair faced off in the tall grass about 20 yards off the road, huffing and snorting at each other. We stopped to watch, and suddenly this one gave a big snort and ran at one of the others. Wisely, he turned and fled. Moments later, this guy turned toward the jeep and decided he wasn't done fighting. That's when we restarted the engine and carried on with our safari.


Beer! These Nepali guides really know how to run a safari.

We bumped around the wilderness for about two hours, then returned to another fabulous dinner at the Tented Camp. It was a huge mistake not to shower before dinner, though, as the showers are solar heated. Which means, of course, that they don't warm up overnight. The boys and I had a brisk and refreshing awakening the next morning.

Finally, here are the only photos we have of the tents. The next morning we left Chitwan on a terrifying near-death drive through the gorgeous towns and countryside to Pokhara.

Keep the zipper tightly closed, boys!

Comfortable cots. More comfortable than they look, actually.

Little bathroom with running water, shower, and flush toilet. Plus, bonus spiders at nighttime. Probably just to create that "jungle ambiance" so necessary for a good tourist experience.