Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Denver Layover

Our United Express flight DRO-DEN actually made up for some lost time and we were walking toward the United Club by 10:45 a.m. We're relaxing here and it's not too crowded, which is a treat. Our DEN-SEA flight doesn't leave until 3:30 p.m. so we may head out of the club for a bite to eat.

A Positive "Opt-Out" Experience at DRO

DRO has a new back-scatter machine they were filtering everybody through this morning, and both of us opted out.

The employees immediately held up our bags and trays, and seated us in plain view of them. We did have a wait but they put us through one at a time, only sending our bags through when we were at the other end to receive them.

They treated us courteously throughout and the searches were as respectful as they could be, given that they're by definition and practice extremely disrespectful and in our opinion something nobody should have to endure simply to board a plane. Brian also commended the fellow searching him for not using the word "resistance," and for actually saying "buttocks," which got a smile out of him.

At the end, he politely asked Brian why he opted out, and he replied "because I still can." When Brian told them that, in another "bastion of freedom," the UK, passengers did not have the right to opt out, he and a fellow worker expressed surprise. When Brian opined that we as a country are on a very slippery slope let's just say they didn't disagree.

Brian also told them he hoped they got dosimeters for themselves, and both said they'd heard rumors but would believe it when they see it.

After our very worst experience in SEA at a TSA checkpoint just a few weeks ago, this was about as "good" as it could be, a very relative term of course.

United Airlines: Plane And Computer Problems

Just before we left our hotel this morning, Kathy checked our reservations one last time and found that today's routing of DRO-DEN-SFO-SEA had been changed. Instead we were now booked DRO-DEN-SEA, due to a maintenance issue on one flight or another.

She called the 1K line. Before getting disconnected, the agent pointed out that we'd been re-booked into an illegal connection, i.e. with not enough time between flights.

She called again as we drove to DRO, and she eventually got us booked into an exit row on a 3:30 p.m. flight. The agent suggested we transfer to a noon flight out of DRO, but there was no point to that since we were checked out of our hotel and already on the way to the airport, so we have a layover to look forward to.

We've just gotten another UA Easy Update notice telling us that our DRO-DEN flight has been delayed a half hour due to the late arrival of the incoming plane. It's clearly obvious we would missed that 25-minute connection.

No announcement at the airport, of course, but the free Internet gives us something to do while we sit.

With all of its systems in place, United can still manage to screw things up. We'll be happy if we arrive at SEA at a halfway reasonable hour without any additional complications.

By Diplomatic Pouch: Wow!

We were very pleased - heck, thrilled - to get that e-mail from the US Embassy in Delhi India telling us they were in possession of Kathy's stolen driver's license and "two other cards." She e-mailed back to inquire about having them mailed and received a reply overnight:

Dear Kathryn,

We have sent your license and other cards by diplomatic pouch and you should receive them in 2-3 weeks.

Best regards,

Xxxxx Xxxxx

American Citizen Services
New Delhi, India

This email is UNCLASSIFIED.

Via diplomatic pouch! This is one occasion that we can offer a wholehearted thanks to "the government," and certainly its employees. We'll add to that "our tax dollars at work" without a hint of sarcasm for once.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Another Night, Another Hotel

We've driven back to Durango to the Hampton Inn for the final night of our stay in the Four Corners. We've been upgraded to a two-room suite, which allows us to nap as we wish and play on the Internet without disturbing each other.

Last night we stayed at the Farmington Hampton Inn. There was no upgrade but our room was spacious and the breakfast was again much better than the old standards, with even a chile verde available.

Between those two properties and the Doubletree, we'll have knocked off five stays at very reasonable prices en route to re-qualifying for status in 2013.

We're invited to Tom's house for steak tonight. Between last night's Prime prime rib at Greg's house and tonight, we're beefing our systems up after two weeks in India, and really enjoying it.

The American Embassy In Delhi E-Mails Us

When Kathy's wallet was stolen as we traversed Delhi about 12 days ago, we assumed we'd never see any of the contents again. We were quite surprised to receive the following e-mail last night, soon after returning from a terrific party in Farmington New Mexico at the home of one of her brothers:

We have your driver's license and other cards at U.S. Embassy New Delhi

Dear Kathryn,

We have your Washington state driver’s license and two other cards at the U.S. Embassy in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. You are welcome to come here (Gate 6) anytime during normal business hours to collect them. Please call us at xx-xxxx-xxxx (ask for American Citizen Services) or reply to this email if you have any questions/need directions/require any other assistance.

All the best,


Xxxx X. Xxxx
Vice Consul, American Citizen Services
U.S. Embassy New Delhi

This email is UNCLASSIFIED.

We've e-mailed back our thanks and a request that they be mailed to us at home. Kathy may not need a new driver's license after all. And it'll be interesting to find out what the other two cards are.

Amazing to imagine in that huge city that these documents would have ended up at the American Embassy!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Short Shelf-Life of "Lifetime" United Airlines Benefits

The complaints of us and of others about the way United Airlines has broken commitments post-merger to its Million Mile Flyers are now being discussed by the Wall Street Journal Middle Seat columnist, Scott McCartney, in an extended comment on his blog, including quotes from fellow FlyerTalkers.

McCartney offers a fair and balanced approach, offering both sides of the story, which can be read here.

While we won't get down in the weeds too much right now, we'll point out that Mr. Jeff Foland, the new young president of UA's MileagePlus program, is quoted as making statements that are untrue in one instance and somewhat misleading or even disingenuous in another.

Contributors to the relevant FlyerTalk thread are speculating more about the possibility of a class action lawsuit, and Mr Foland's comments have provided grist for the mill.

We can only hope that common sense, and a sense of what is moral and right, prevail at United and that they "grandfather" the benefits of us pre-merger Million Mile Flyers, notwithstanding the extent to which their new corporate objective may be to devalue their entire loyalty program.

A professional writer and blogger back in August 2010 described the conflicting pre-merger cultures at UA and CO regarding their respective loyalty programs with great prescience, at least up to his overly-optimistic final paragraph. It seems obvious that the CO attitude has prevailed.

We'll just have to wait and see.

Phone Calls Abroad

On our just-completed trip to India we were really fortunate to have an Indian wireless phone provided by a friend of son David. What about all the other times when we're not so fortunate?

For starters, we have Skype installed on our netbook, and can call anywhere if we have access to an Internet connection.

Our quad-band ATT phone allows us to make and receive calls if we want, albeit it an expensive rate that can approach or even exceed $2 a minute, depending on the country. We also use our phone to send and receive text messages, which is far more cost-effective.

A travel column in the Washington Post, while a few months old, provides what looks to us like a reasonable overview of the options available. If anybody has any better (cheaper!) ideas, please let us know. In the meantime, you can read it here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Durango's Highway 3 Roadhouse

We dined here last night at large table that included all three of Kathy's brothers and their wives, a nephew, his wife, and their two sweet little children.

The owner, Chuck Norton, is a venerable caterer and restaurateur who's been in Durango for years. He's originally from New Orleans and that was the emphasis of the menu.

It gets good reviews and the food was reasonably priced. The ambience was noisy but fun.

It made for a very enjoyable evening. As a bonus, it didn't complicate things for our still tender Delhi Bellies.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hilton Hopping In The Four Corners

Last night Durango's Hampton Inn kindly upgraded us to a large suite, which probably houses up to six skiers when snow conditions are good. All we did was sleep, toss, and turn. We enjoyed the best Hampton Inn breakfast we've ever seen - of course, everything so far has looked good to us post-India and we'll probably break into tears the first time we eat ice cream.

After a pleasant reunion lunch with Tom and Ellyn - she's been back at work two days and looks as fresh as a daisy - we checked in at the Doubletree, where we're enjoying a corner room on the top floor with a lovely view of the Animas River from our balcony.

Hilton continues to treat us well as a Hilton Diamond couple, and motivates us to log three more stays during this trip to the Four Corners, giving us a head start on requalifying for 2013.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Durango Sunset

The view driving into Durango...

SEA-SFO Sunrise

A slightly scratched window but still a great sight about 7:30 a.m. at 30,000 feet.

Another 7:00 a.m. Flight

We always like a good hamburger, but we really savored the SEA Doubletree's version last night. Yes, we're sure Indian folks feel the same way tucking into their first butter chicken when they return home.

Today is another day of flying, since we have a few things to attend to in the Southwest. We fly SEA-DEN-DRO and don't manage to land in Durango until about 5:00 p.m. Mountain Time.

No, we didn't need the alarm to wake up this morning.

Yes, we've already volunteered for a bump on the DEN-DRO flight this afternoon, a small chance but a free lottery ticket.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's Nap Time

A pleasant transcon EWR-SEA with a nice crew. We snoozed a bit but woke up crossing the Rockies to one of the bumpiest bits of flying we've ever experienced. The pilot came on later to mention something about updrafts but we were too drowsy to recall the details.

Back at the SEA Doubletree after about 22 hours on planes and ready for a nap.

Beautiful Newark Airport

"Beautiful Newark Airport" is not a phrase you're going to hear too often among frequent travelers, but that's the way we feel this morning.

After a perfectly decent flight (although the CO crew seemed more interested in having their own little party, especially in comparison to the superb service outbound), we landed at EWR at just about 4:00 a.m. local time.

We used our Global Entry status for the first time, although the lines were sparse and Tom, Ellyn, and Haley were through Immigration almost as quickly as we were. There was a not-too-horrible wait for our checked bags (the Star Alliance Priority tags were emerging toward the front), we handed in our cards at Customs and before we knew it were in a very short TSA line.

Brian spotted a line at the end using the WTMD (walk-through metal detector) and we all zipped through there with an X-ray nor an invasive search. Of course, after four body searches just to get from the hotel to the airport yesterday (one for each Metro Train ride, the usual thorough wanding at security, and the grand finale by hand as part of the honor involved for US-bound passengers), we're just about ready for anything.

We two enjoyed long lingering showers, and we're all enjoying coffee, bagels, bananas, and cereal in the United Club.

Our flight to SEA doesn't leave for another three hours, and we'll say goodbye to Tom, Ellyn, and Haley as they board their flight to DEN about an hour earlier.

Yes, it's nice to be home.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Homeward Bound From DEL

Today was pleasant and a fairly relaxed way to spend our final day in India. Our driver picked us up at 10:30 a.m. and we headed toward the Red Fort. It turns out the Red Fort is closed today, possibly for security reasons, as there were even more police and soldiers present than we've seen previously in various locations, some even lurking behind the sandbag bunkers which are surprisingly common.

We spent some time in Old Delhi, where Ellyn and Haley ventured into a mosque and the rest of us didn't, wandered around a couple of bazaars, enjoyed our farewell-to-India lunch at Lazeez Affaire recommended by Jitten, and enjoyed driving around Delhi one final time before Raj, our excellent driver, dropped us off at the Hilton to pick up our bags.

Now we're sitting in the very warm contract lounge at DEL, Indira Gandhi International Airport, and waiting to board our flight to EWR and onward.

Tom is coughing, Brian is still suffering from a touch of Delhi Belly, and Kathy still misses her wallet and all those shiny credit cards that were stolen. Still, despite everything - or perhaps because of all of our good and not-so-good experiences - India has proven to be an amazing place to visit, and one that's truly unique in our experience.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Delhi Sightseeing

Yesterday (Monday) was our last full day in Delhi and we made the most of it.

Dave's Indian friend had asked one of his Indian employees to make arrangements for a car and tour guide for us. That young man, Jittin, decided he himself would guide us and we enjoyed a terrific day with this charming 25-year-old who has already earned his MBA and speaks fluent English.

They were late in arriving at our hotel because many routes have been closed for security reasons, in anticipation of Republic Day January 26. Our driver was skillful and smooth. After some of our travels, we were actually surprised to find out that much of our driving through Delhi was fairly similar to driving in a large European city. Oh, there are still moments. This is India.

We first visited Qutb Minar, a very impressive tower that looks like an ornately decorated Leaning Tower of Pisa.

After a stop for some shopping we enjoyed lunch with Jittin, who, as a vegetarian himself, chose some delicious selections for us. As we've experienced before, the dishes are so complex and interesting that we'd never know they didn't include meat.

After lunch we visited Humayun's tomb, wandering around the building and the grounds for some time. It's strikingly reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in size, general design, and layout, not surprising since it was built in the same era by Muslim architects.

Jittin told us this was the first time he had visited either of these historical sites. Like many others, he knew they were there but had never taken the time to see them.

Our driver then skillfully wended his way back to the hotel and Jittin joined us for a couple of drinks in the lounge. We were able to ask him frank questions about India, and he did likewise about "America." We also learned that he has an absolutely encyclopedic memory of Hollywood movies from the 1980s onward, being able to name the movie, the director, and the Oscars won. He told us he owns about 2000 DVDs, and he obviously makes use of them. From his days working at a call center, he can still name all of our state capitals, apparently a test requirement.

It was a great day. Jittin will be working the night shift tonight, but the driver is to pick us up and take us to the Red Fort, the third UNESCO World Heritage Site we will visit in Delhi on our whirlwind visit.

Then it will be back to the hotel to pick up our baggage and one final ride to the airport on the Metro Train to catch our flight back home. After all of the hustle and bustle, we're hoping to catch a few hours of sleep in our flatbed seats before returning to reality.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A View Of Jaipur From Our Tuk Tuk

Our Own Celebrity Blonde In India

We're very proud of the academic and athletic achievements of our niece, Haley. It turns out there are a lot of young Indian men (and a few women) proud and even thrilled to have their photo taken with our six-foot blonde female.

Even though Haley's dad stands about 6'5" and is also blonde, Tom simply draws stares rather than requests for photos. Funny about that...

Monkey Business in Jaipur

The Rhesus Macaque monkeys of Jaipur are so fascinating in their inter-actions with humans that National Geographic UK produced a special about them.

We enjoyed catching views of them in a couple of places during our tour of Jaipur, including the walk up toward the actual Monkey Temple. They're quite relaxed around humans. In the very short video we shot below, we're watching them replace jungle vines with power (or telephone) lines and they really seem to be having fun, even the little guy who can never quite reach the wire.

They were fascinating to watch, right at home amidst the ruins and using the power lines as jungle vines.

Delhi: Our Final Stop

Yes, 4:30 a.m. did come early this morning but we were ready to go by 5:00 a.m. Somehow we'd been so engaged in telling Tom, Haley, and Ellyn not to lose their e-tickets that we mislaid our own, and a frantic search didn't reveal them. The good news is that we still had two pages of the original PNR document including all five names, and that got us through the ID check at the entrance to the airport.

We were finally directed to the line where we had to have our checked baggage screened. That was fairly efficient and we then returned to the Jet Airways counter to get our tickets. More good news: we didn't have to re-clear security at Mumbai as we did on the outbound flight. The screening wasn't bad (we'll take the intensive wanding any day over the TSA custodial-type searches) and we found a place to sit and wait.

At this point Brian discovered Kathy's iPod Touch in his vest pocket. Kathy thought she'd left it at the hotel but it turns she'd accidentally slipped it into the wrong vest. Ellyn feared that she might have lost a pouch wallet containing jewelry and ID but was relieved to find she had indeed packed it in her checked suitcase. It's been that kind of trip.

The first flight was fine, although we didn't get the exit rows that the website had promised Kathy. The flight was empty and Tom was allowed to move up two rows to an empty aisle exit seat. When a slob in front of Kathy reclined his seat all the way, Brian was able to move forward one row to another empty aisle seat and Kathy moved over to Brian's now-vacant seat, making for a pleasant one-hour flight for all of us.

As we entered the jet bridge at Mumbai, an employee started calling "Delhi" and one other destination. We waited there about 15 minutes as she collected boarding passes and laboriously checked them by hand. We then re-boarded the same plane - this time all in exit row seats which maybe aren't as enticing to the generally shorter Indians - and sat in cool comfort as the new cabin crew prepared the plane and passed out newspapers.

We had a sandwich on the first flight, and a meal on the second flight. Yes, the Jet Airways product makes North American airlines look pretty lame in comparison.

We're at the Hilton Janakpuri and enjoying just relaxing today. Tomorrow will be a tour conducted personally by an associate of an associate of our Dave. We're looking forward to meeting Jittin in person, giving him back the wireless phone he so kindly lent us, and hosting him at dinner if his schedule permits.

Other than the ghastly starting hour, this has been our most relaxing day of travel so far, following our most relaxing day of the trip. Yes, we all feel we deserve it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Relaxing In Goa

Today is probably the most relaxing day of our trip. We all wandered down to the beach and walked along the sands, passing vendors and food shacks along the way until we arrived at the one recommended to us.

We ate well there, although it was a very expensive lunch by Indian standards, but still a good value, as we shared a large crab, giant prawns, and sea bass.

We then strolled back and off the vendors without hassles, since they're apparently under government regulation not to harass tourists.

Tomorrow we'll be leaving here at 5:00 a.m. to catch a 7:00 a.m. flight. If all goes well we'll be back at our hotel, again the Hilton Janakpuri, by early afternoon. We've learned not to take anything for granted though. We've found out that the flimsy boarding passes Ellyn and Haley held for our ongoing flight BOM-GOI the other day are not acceptable to security, requiring them to go back to a service counter for a stamp. Brian also found out that a fresh new luggage tag was required by Mumbai security for the second leg after the security employee ceremoniously ripped off the original one. It's a different experience traveling here and every trip appears to be some sort of adventure, at least for us.

The old Portuguese mansion that is our hotel, Vivenda dos Palhacos or The House of Clowns.

Goa is extremely clean compared to other places we've visited so far, being closer to Mexican standards, to give one example. It's still not exactly pristine in spots.

The beach itself is lovely, and it proved to be a great spot to enjoy a fresh seafood lunch.

The fish is fresh, very fresh.

We'll pass on the shark, thank you.

Excellent seafood and a beautifully breezy day that isn't too hot for us. We make our selections and dine well.

That should hold us nicely until dinner, which will be followed by an early bedtime and a ghastly 5:00 a.m. drive to the airport and our return flights to Delhi.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Great Guide For Goa Goings

Today was a fine day for 80% of our group. A couple of days ago Kathy was the first in our group to contract Delhi Belly, and that doesn't mean she was watching the Bollywood movie of that name. It made for a couple of difficult days of travel but she's feeling much better.

Last night after midnight it was the turn of both Haley and Brian. Haley wisely decided to take the day off and relaxed around the property here. Brian was feeling remarkably better (touch wood) and went along on a tour of some of the sites of Goa. Our guide, Jonas, was absolutely outstanding. We toured several Catholic churches that reflect the fact that Goa was a Portuguese colony for several hundred years right up to 1961.

Jonas was a wealth of information and his English is the best we've encountered from a guide the entire trip. He was comfortable in explaining to us that 26% of the populations is Christian, and that the Portuguese civil code still prevails here. Although the caste system exists here as elsewhere, he gave us the impression that this is a more secular society than elsewhere in India, and that minorities and women are accorded more rights, including inheritance rights, than they are elsewhere.

He also took us to the Viva Panjim Family Restaurant, one of the leading restaurants in Panjim, where we enjoyed an excellent seafood lunch.

After a quick walk through the markets, which were largely closed down for the day but still interesting (and Kathy was able to buy a temporary backpack with a little bargaining help from Jonas), we've returned to Vivenda Dos Palhaco, and are happy to find out that Haley is feeling a little better.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Slit Shoulder Bag and Stolen Wallet: Another India Adventure

We've arrived in Goa and are staying a self-described quirky establishment called Vivenda Dos Palhacos.

Just before leaving our hotel this morning to catch a 9:50 a.m. flight, Kathy realized that the canvas shoulder bag had been slit and her wallet was gone. As well her metal pouch containing medications was cut and bottles had spilled out. Fortunately we had kept very precise tabs of who had which credit card and ATM card and divided them between us. She lost no cash so the only monetary loss is the leather wallet and the slit bag, which we left in the garbage can.

We immediately e-mailed and called son Dave, who very efficiently contacted the various outfits on our behalf. Luckily he was home from work anyway due to snow.

Later on the bus to the plane, a British citizen of Indian heritage told Kathy that he had had the same thing happen to him en route to Goa a year earlier. The first he knew about it was when his bank phoned to say that purchases were made in Australia using the card. Apparently the thieves quickly sell the cards to people who operate a very sophisticated scheme to crack the pins and passwords profitably.

India continues to strike us as a very tiring place in which to travel. Without going into too many details, we faced serious challenges in getting our boarding passes printed, and we were fortunate to sit together on both flights.

Our first flight to Mumbai was a lot quicker than we thought and this 1 3/4 hour trip included a meal that wasn't bad. Transferring at Mumbai is another thing.

First, we had to walk a considerable distance. We then learned that we had to go through security again. This one was a challenge. The authorities for whatever reason would not accept Ellyn's and Haley's boarding passes, printed on flimsy paper, and they had to return to a service center that would place the stamp of approval on it, which an employee literally did, without looking at it.

It turns out that one is supposed to have a separate tag on one's hand luggage for each leg of the trip. An official ceremoniously tore off the tag on Brian's computer bag and placed it on the floor. In due course, however, the official put another tag on it and stamped it. Kathy was made to find, open, and turn on her electric toothbrush. One of the officials unrolled Kathy's carefully rolled up Scotty vest and shook it. A few minutes later another passenger asked if the i-pod which had been shifted into her belongings belonged to Kathy. We made it to the gate with a fairly comfortable 20 minutes to spare before boarding started.

The plane that was to take us to Goa was stranded someplace else due to fog, but Jet Star found a replacement plane and we left only 10-15 minutes late.

It's been another day that we're surprised how tired we are. India is a challenging place to get around.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is Goa A Go?

It's very early here but we sleep as we can. Our plan today is to fly from Delhi to Goa via Mumbai (BOM). We'll leave by 7:00 a.m. local time for the airport but won't know for sure whether fog is a factor today, as it was yesterday, until some point later.

At least any waits will be inside the terminal, rather than at a chilly train station.

Tuk-Tuk Time In Jaipur

We hired two tuk-tuks for our second day in Jaipur. To be more accurate, the drivers hired themselves. Once we got used to the carnival ride / video game aspect of it, we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.

Several times Tom's driver would come up alongside us and Tom would reach to grab us from one side or the other. It made us jump and it sent our driver into gales of almost uncontrollable laughter, only adding to the excitement.

Agra To Delhi: When Getting There Is Not Half The Fun

We left our beautiful hotel a little after 6:30 a.m. to make sure we could catch the 7:35 a.m. train. Two "coolies" (porters) carried a couple of our bags on their heads and took us to exactly the right spot to board our carriage, although we didn't know it at the time.

The train was two hours late and we shivered on the platform in the meantime. It was cold enough that we could see our breath.

The AC First Class sleeper (no air conditioning needed today, thank you) was quite comfortable. We shared a compartment with a friendly oil company employee who had boarded somewhere at 4:00 a.m. and told us the train was late due to fog. We used the berths and Brian caught close to three hours sleep. Tom, Ellyn, and Haley next door had their compartment all to themselves and relaxed as well.

It was chaos at the main Delhi station as we tried to find our way to the Metro train station. We eventually did about a half hour later, after climbing many sets of stairs in vain, all with our luggage.

Buying a token and going through security all took time, but we eventually arrived back at the Hilton and are ready for another nap.

Travel in India, as we were advised (warned) before our trip, is an experience in itself. Tomorrow we're due to fly to Goa with a connection in Mumbai and we've heard that flights were delayed or canceled today due to fog. Tomorrow could be another interesting travel day.

Tom eventually surrenders his pride and borrows a sweater.

A beggar woman sits down in the middle of the train platform to eat the sandwiches we gave her.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Seeing Jaipur Tuk Tuk Style

Today we're expecting a large ten-passenger van from Four Wheel Drive India to pick up us and our luggage for the drive from Jaipur to Agra. That will be a change from our sightseeing adventure in Jaipur.

Our first day in Jaipur featured a drive in a fairly conventional "large" car, in which passengers four and five sit facing each other sideways at the back. We saw most, if not all, of the major tourist attractions, and will post photos when time and Internet permit.

The macaque monkeys were interesting and captivating to watch at a couple of our stops, including the Monkey Temple itself.

Tom and Ellyn encountered the tuk tuk driver who had toured their friend around the city when she'd visited and, in a small coincidence, stayed at the same hotel as we did. He was easy to recognize, having lost much of his nose when he had leprosy.

He and his partner toured us around the city for much of yesterday, and then again last night as we went out to dinner. There's nothing like riding around an Indian city in a pair of tuk tuks (also called motorized rickshaws). The driving appears maniacal but has its own pattern and we sat back and pretended we were playing a video game with obstacles coming at us non-stop.

We shopped, despite our best intentions, and now have a bedspread that seems to fit into one of our carry-ons. It's been a fascinating two days and we're looking forward to our road trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Timing In India

We're finding out what people what people were advising us about before our trip. To put it in a nutshell, don't count on a task or activity taking the same amount of time as it does "back home."

Yesterday our flight was a half hour late. We wait at the baggage carousel for some length of time (half the flying time of our 45-minute flight) before our bags emerge, just like we usually do at home when we're stuck checking luggage. We go outside and find a driver holding up a sign with "Brian" on it. This very friendly fellow walks us toward his car, and stows our bags on top, since there's no room inside for anything but a tight squeeze for us. We shoehorn ourselves in and enjoy a pleasant 25-minute drive to the Pearl Palace Boutique Guest House. The traffic isn't as busy as we found it in Delhi and all our bags remain on top, to our pleasant surprise.

The driver solicits our business for touring the following day, and we can't elicit whether he's the guide Mr. Singh has selected for us. Mr. Singh specifically warns customers in writing to avoid touts so we won't make commitments until we've talked to him.

A young manager greets us warmly as we and our bags enter. Then, a couple of guests returning to the hotel ask him about the decorations on the wall and his attention is completely diverted by them for a couple of minutes before he returns to us. Checking in reminded more than one of us of the "signing" part of a wedding ceremony. Each one of the five of us takes our turn at the desk to fill out two forms: where are we from, how long are we staying in India, etc. Of course, we hand our passports over as well.

Finally we're taken upstairs to tour our rooms, which are actually small suites and lovely. Photos will follow at some point but the Internet connection here may not support uploads.

We then ask for water and beer, being very thirsty. It takes upwards of 30 minutes but eventually arrives. We're all hungry and tired so decide to to go to dinner at the well-recommended hotel restaurant, a free tuk-tuk ride of less than five minutes.

It's a rooftop restaurant with three or maybe even four - floors of dining. By the time we arrive at the very top, where one large table is available on this busy Saturday night, we've climbed six flights of stairs. We eventually manage to get our dinner ordered and wait and wait and wait...

An hour and a half later (more or less) it finally arrives. Actually, it's quite tasty although we're so hungry we're inhaling it rather than savoring it. The bill for the feast comes to about USD $40. We then descend the stairs, climb into tuk-tuks again, listen to the offers from these drivers to chauffeur us around Jaipur in their tuk-tuks tomorrow (yeah, right), and fall into bed.

We both sleep hard, the longest sleep since we've landed for Brian. He doesn't awaken until 5:00 a.m., despite the continual sound of train whistles coming from the nearby rail line. Other sounds intrude. Somebody is violently ill in another room. There's a Muslim call to prayer - there must be a mosque nearby. Dogs bark. Two bells ring slowly and rhythmically for several minutes in what must be another religious ceremony. Morning is breaking in Jaipur.

Brian wonders about getting some laundry done, since we're here three nights. Will a shirt be returned before we leave? We realize it's time to adjust our expectations and to enjoy the experience.

We already know it'll be an interesting day.

The Kites Of Jaipur

DEL has a beautiful domestic terminal where we sat waiting for our Jaipur flight after a smooth light rail ride (cheap, almost deserted on Saturday, and only one easy transfer to the airport train) from our hotel.

We finally boarded our Jet Airways flight after a 30-minute delay. Brian fell asleep shortly after takeoff and Kathy awakened him 30 seconds before we landed in Jaipur on a beautiful day. A taxi driver picked us up as planned, and Tom with his long arms helped him place our suitcases up on the roof. Even before we left the airport area, we saw the first of literally thousands of kites, the driver explaining to us that January 14 is the date of the annual kite festival.

We've just arrived at the Pearl Palace Heritage Guest House. It strikes us initially as an utterly charming place, and we're looking forward to our three nights here.

The fireworks are noisily marking the celebration and we're looking forward to a beer on the balcony and dinner at the restaurant owned by our hotelier-host, Mr. Singh.

We're happy to be here and really excited about touring tomorrow.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Our Group Assembles

Tom, Ellyn, and Haley arrived after enjoying their flight. It was good to see us all in one room, in this case the Hilton Janakpuri Executive Lounge, and we're off to Jaipur tomorrow, hopefully after a good sleep.

Hanging Out At the Hilton Janakpuri

We're already looking forward to returning to the Hilton Janakpuri. Our room right across from the Executive Lounges is very comfortable and we feel right at home.

Drink and appetizers are available for Executive Floor guests in a main floor bar between 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and we ate enough well prepared Chicken Tikka and a variety of other goodies that a more formal dinner is unnecessary tonight. We also enjoyed our first taste of Kingfisher Beer.

In case you didn't notice - and we hadn't - India's time zone is 30 minutes off from the hourly deviations found through much of the world. Why? Well, to some extent we can probably blame politics. The province of Newfoundland runs its time zones on the half hour as it well, but it has a couple of excuses. First, it didn't formally become a Canadian province until 1949. Second, it's smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Time Zone, meaning that Happy Hour for Newfies and Indians is a half hour out of kilter with most everybody else.

A Free Adventure With Every Taxi Ride

Just above is a 30-second excerpt of our taxi ride from the Courtyard by Marriott Gurgaon to the Hilton Janakpuri. The taxi fare was INR 1300, which is a relative bargain at about USD $26.

We've already learned a little about about driving customs here. While there is a lot of honking, most of it is simply to warn other drivers that you're overtaking them on the right or the left. Driver set their rearview mirrors to look out the side to see who's sneaking up alongside (as our Dave found out on his visit) and they don't worry as much as we do about who's behind them, hence the honking.

As in some other countries, the painted lines on the pavement are a guideline rather than a rule, and it's quite common to see three vehicles crowding into two lanes. A huge variety of vehicles co-exist to some extent, from bicycles to carts pulled by animals, to bicycle rickshaws, to tuk-tuks (those funny three-wheeled vehicles), to cars, to big trucks and buses, with pedestrians walking across the street at points where we'd never venture.

We saw numerous sacred cows along the way - heck, we saw a a large pig roaming around in a lot outside the Courtyard this morning - and the sights and sounds and contrasts are quite amazing to gawk at for the first time.

Even before we checked out of the Marriott, it was intriguing during a stroll around the pool to a watch window washer cleaning windows with his partner crouched at the edge on top to guide him. Obviously neither is afraid of heights.

From there it was into the taxi for the ride from Gurgaon to Janakpuri.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Our First Indian Breakfast

We've been eating and enjoying Indian food at home for years, but this was our first breakfast of Indian food anywhere, and it was delicious. That even accounts for the fact that we were very hungry.

What a great variety of flavors in the several dishes that tried. Our taste buds are still tingling.

Number One Son recommended we order South Indian Coffee. Good call, Dave! A second cup of this cappuccino-like beverage and we're now ready to start the day, nearly noon here but just after 9:00 p.m. at home.

Our First Morning In India

It started quite early, at least for Brian. A few hours of sleep are better than none, and it was fun to exchange e-mails with Tom and to learn that all three of them had been upgraded into CO Business First, leaving us only to suggest dinner choices (we recommend the lamb).

We two have to move hotels as we toward an unexpected stay at the Hilton New Delhi/Janakpuri hotel, our first of what's now three stays there during our trip.

Our overnight at the Marriott Courtyard Gurgaon has been pleasant, despite the extended transfer from the airport. Hotel points can be very helpful...

We went for a very short walk in the front entry area before leaving. There are three people manning a metal detector and luggage x-ray belt at the front door, along with a wand to check for metal on bodies. At the end of the driveway is a full check point with all doors opened and a sniffer dog to check things out. That's why we limited ourselves to a couple of minutes after fresh air. We were never out of sight of the security staff and they let us back in without another screening. At least they're friendlier than a couple of TSA employees who've rubbed up against us lately.

We'll give breakfast a try at some point. After reading this article in The Times of India on the plane, we'll be ordering our coffee black.

One Last Wrinkle To A Long Travel Day

Our Continental flight EWR-DEL was great, although we were disappointed Tom, Ellyn, and Haley weren't on it with us.

Immigration and Customs weren't bad at the airport, and we found our driver - actually, two drivers - without a problem. We did cancel the second room and Brian thought he mentioned the airport transportation but these things will happen. There was quite a lineup just to leave the airport parking area and as we approached the guards it was clear our driver was searching through his pockets for his ticket.

The honking of horns behind us was interesting as he had to back out and return to the parking area. The poor fellow searched for 10 minutes and couldn't find it. It turns out that there's a 1000 rupee fine (about $20 USD) for losing one's ticket.

Brian eventually paid the fine after the driver and official spent another five minutes searching the car for it. As we finally drove off after a nearly one-hour delay, the driver said "I am so ashamed," so we had to spend part of the hair-rising drive trying to cheer him up. This included the gift for his baby daughter of a little doll Kathy had brought along and a generous tip. It's possible people can lose their jobs here for mistakes like that, and we hope he doesn't.

We're now about to go to bed, after talking to Tom in Newark on Skype and hearing that things look good for their flight.

More tomorrow after a good night's sleep.

We are in India for the time in our lives!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Travel Fiasco

Three voice-mails from Tom as we turned our wireless on after landing at EWR did not constitute a good sign.

Basically, they were stuck in DEN due to a variety of circumstances that sound suspiciously like "mechanical," although Continental is claiming it's "weather."

Tom, Ellyn, and Haley may be landing less than an hour after we take off. Odd that Continental couldn't find another way to get them here in time.

We've been scrambling for the last two hours changing our first flight in India one day, informing hotels and changing reservations as needed. We of course decided to wait in Delhi for the other three in our party. Jet Airways was great when Brian called all the way to India. Continental was not at all helpful, and they can expect a couple of complaint letters, which will almost inevitably not do any good at all.

We'll have two rooms at a Delhi airport-area Marriott to lounge in, as it's already tomorrow there and too late to cancel.

Tom, Ellyn and Haley are probably lucky to have two Business First seats to share among the three of them tomorrow EWR-DEL, although we wouldn't blame them for not feeling that happy about it.

These things happen when one travels, and we're bound and doubly determined to make it a great trip.

SEA TSA Checkpoint Blues

By far our worst TSA experience to date this morning at SEA B gates entry...

We "opted out," meaning we didn't want to go through the X-Ray scanner, and a couple from AMS did at the same time. This seemed to overwhelm the employee directing people. He was "assertive" from the outset and wanted to share his expertise about the safety of the X-Ray scanners. Brian told him we couldn't see our belongings and he replied "I can't do anything about that." Brian requested a supervisor at that point.

A screener at the adjacent machine said Brian could get his belongings and we pointed out that they were contradicting each other - indeed, the first employee told him he couldn't.

Suddenly Brian was let through the magic gate, although Kathy was held back. He was told to sit down and to identify his belongings and her from his chair. He actually missed one of Kathy's bags. When a supervisor showed up, the screener, in front of Kathy, pointed out it was "that jerk there" who had requested one. Brian of course didn't hear that but did see her give him the thumbs-up before she came over to ask what he wanted. That was, of course, that we couldn't see our belongings.

Brian enjoyed a very thorough search, and giggled loudly when the designated searcher brushed against his resistance. The searcher started, "If you don't like it, you could..." Brian interrupted him politely and and said he was sure he didn't want it to sound "retaliatory."

When we two met up (Kathy's screening was behind Brian's back and also "thorough"), we shared a few choice words and a supervisor who could see our body language appeared on the spot. He was actually very sympathetic and we explained the whole situation to him in a 10-minute conversation, basically that the operation at this particular check point was dysfunctional even by TSA standards. It was the employee directing pax to one machine or another who is unfortunately setting the tone for the whole check point.

We're quite sure our chat with the supervisor won't do a bit of good, but if these employees think they've intimidated us they're quite wrong.

Not a good start to a 24-hour day that ends in DEL, although a couple of cups of coffee in the United Club and we're ready to board our first flight.

An Early Start

It's 4:00 a.m. Time to check out of the DoubleTree and catch a shuttle across the street to SEA. We have to remember to tell the driver we're flying Continental today. Years of flying United have gotten us used to that first stop.

The day begins.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Moon Over Thunderbird Lake

The view from our back yard is lovely this morning, our last glimpse of magnificent Thunderbird Lake for a couple of weeks as we fly to Delhi India tomorrow (SEA-EWR-DEL).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Working On A Cruise Ship

We've known people who have - one of Kathy's former students who was a dancer and a former teaching colleague who was a waiter years ago - but we've never spoken at length to anybody about the experience.

We just ran across a short article that provides a starter. You'll find it here.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Our Countdown To India Continues

Reading, sorting, and packing are keeping us busy.

Over the past couple of days we've reconfirmed by e-mail a hotel shuttle to pick us up when we land at DEL, our stay at a small hotel in Jaipur, and a van to transport us from Jaipur to Agra with sightseeing along the way. We've also changed our train reservations to First Class on an earlier train rather than Second Class on a later train from Agra to Delhi. We gather that the better train is worth getting up early to catch and seats became available.

Two more sleeps and we drive to Seattle for our final overnight before the flight.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Stormy Weather At Düsseldorf

One of our favorite travel bloggers, Lucky, at One Mile at a Time, just posted a recent a video of landings and takeoffs at the Düsseldorf Airport on a stormy day with a lot of crosswinds.

Even the first couple of minutes give you the idea, but we watched it all the way through.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

EWR-DEL: A Long Ride

We're looking forward to a lot of flying next week. We're due to take off at 7:00 a.m. Wednesday to fly SEA-EWR (Newark). Once we've arrived in EWR (Newark NJ), we'll meet up in a lounge for a cozy five-hour layover with Kathy's brother Tom, his wife Ellyn, and their daughter Haley, who are all flying in from Colorado.

We'll then settle in to our BusinessFirst seats on CO82 (UA82), a Boeing 777-200ER (extended range) to fly EWR-DEL.

That's one of the longer current non-stop commercial flights. Once you slide past the Singapore Airlines flight EWR-SIN, which tops all others at 9535 miles and nearly 19 hours, most of the other flights bunch together at or around 16-17 hours and within 500 miles of 8000 on either side. One listing of such flights may be seen here. On another list in which the distances are measured in nautical miles, EWR-DEL is number 35.

We flew another of these marathon flights with Tom and Ellyn four years ago from New York to Johannesburg. We were squeezed into economy seats on that flight, and this will be a big improvement.

CO estimates our flight time to be 14 hr 13 minutes, and the distance to be 7,323 miles, both well below the list. It all literally depends on which way the wind is blowing and a number of other factors, but it'll be another new destination for us.

Adding in the 5 hr 14 minute flight of 2,401 miles SEA-EWR, CO estimates we'll be in the air for a total of 24 hr 50 minutes from start to finish and will have flown 9724 miles, a good start to our flying year.

The Countdown To India Begins

Packing list, bills to pay, odd jobs to finish... funny to realize we're scheduled to be in Delhi India a week from today.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Whither MileagePlus®: Is Our Million-Mile Ride Ending? Will Cash Be King in Airline Loyalty Programs?

 A line from a recent USA Today article caught our attention. In 2011 the most financially successful U.S. airline, Southwest, drastically revised its loyalty program to recognize how much money customers spent on flights rather than simply how many miles they flew. The airline is quoted in this article as claiming it's "adding new members at a rate that is 50 percent higher than in the past since the program debuted."

We've enjoyed a great ride, mainly on United Airlines for the past decade, flying our way to Million Mile status on UA through 9/11 and Chapter 11 with bankruptcy and beyond in those "Friendly Skies." That ride, at least as we've come to enjoy it, may be coming to an end.

One of the outcomes of the merger of United and Continental is that certain features of each airline's former program have been incorporated into the new program. The revised MileagePlus® (now spelled as one word) program represents a significant devaluation for us. An example? Let's look at the revised Million-Miler program.

We've been aiming for that for at least the past couple of years because UA advertised its program as including the following benefits:
  • lifetime Star Gold status (the next-to-top tier);
  • 100% bonus miles awarded for all flights;
  • a one-time award of international upgrades;
  • a set of domestic upgrades awarded annually.
The new program mercifully maintains us (at least for now) as Star Alliance Gold. The new United has appropriated and inserted a Platinum tier from Continental between Gold and the top-tier 1K. UA has taken Continental's honorary benefit for nominated spouses and "significant others" and announced it as a replacement for the assorted upgrades. The nominees will hold the same status when they fly by themselves. This, of course, is of no benefit to Kathy and Brian because we hold the same status already by always flying as a couple; in fact, it will add an unknown number of competitors for exit rows and upgrades. Ironically, we flew "extra" to make sure we qualified before the merger.

The former Continental program did not limit lifetime mileage-earning to Continental metal (planes) and their Million-Milers only earned lifetime Silver status. As part of merging the programs, United "bumped-up" all members December 31, 2011, by adding to their lifetime miles flights on partner airlines, mileage promotions, and class of service bonuses. We, for example, went from just over 1 million lifetime miles to 1.3 million miles. When our lifetime Continental miles are added later this year, we will have over 1.4 million lifetime miles. Consequently, a lot of excited new Million Milers have been added to the "club," including the former Continental Million-Milers who now find themselves Gold rather than Silver.

What some folks are overlooking in their excitement is that all this is the equivalent of grade inflation in academia. As the old saying goes, "when everybody is special, nobody is special." As Groucho Marx famously quipped, "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." Our new Million-Miler benefits look like this:

  • lifetime Star Gold status (the second-from-the-top tier);
  • 50% bonus miles awarded for all flights; 
  • the ability to nominate a "significant other" to share status.

Are we about to whine about it all? No (well, maybe a little). It only affirms our decision to fly so much over the past decade and take advantage of all those upgrades to Domestic First and International Business. Besides, we have between us more than two million United Miles in the "bank" and 70,000 international flight miles already confirmed this year, most legs of which are already upgraded, and we'll continue to enjoy the ride.

Monday, January 2, 2012

British Columbia / Washington State Border Cams And Radio Reports: Look And Listen Before You Line Up

If you're driving south from B.C. into Washington, you can find cameras and estimated lineup times here.

If you're driving north from Washington into B.C., you can find cameras and estimated lineup times here.

You can listen to the latest border wait estimates every 10 minutes at two Vancouver-based stations, AM 730 "All Traffic" and News 1130.

After all that checking, you drive to your border crossing of choice and try not to feel betrayed if the information provided by these sources proves to be inaccurate. We'll also include a few notes about what residents and visitors can take into both countries...

If you're a U.S. resident returning to the U.S., you can find details about Customs exemptions here. If you're a foreign visitor to the U.S., you can find information here.

If you're a Canadian resident returning to Canada, you can find information about Customs exemptions here. If you're a foreign resident visiting Canada, you can find information here.

Probably just about everybody knows by know that acceptable documentation - passport, enhanced driver's license, NEXUS card - is a strict requirement to enter either country. Everybody should also know that there are strict restrictions on certain items. Two examples: Americans entering Canada on or around July 4 may well be asked if they have fireworks, which are very strictly regulated in Canada. Likewise, don't plan to take those Japanese Mandarin oranges (or any other citrus fruit) into the U.S.

Try to look it up before you leave. At the worst, ask the border guard immediately about any item that you think might be a problem. We were brought some lovely Canadian flowers recently, once they'd been checked over at the border inside the US Customs Office.

Brian in particular carries a list if we have more than one or two items and babbles on with every little detail until their eyes glaze over and they wave us on. Honesty is not only best policy, it's the easiest policy to follow.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Airline Funny Business

Kathy and Brian re-qualified months ago for the top tier of United Airlines for 2012.

We're less than happy with the way in which the Million Mile Flyer benefits have apparently been devalued, although we're not giving up on United yet.

Now we find out that what may be a computer glitch has promoted many of us to Continental's super-elite tier, known as Presidential Platinum Elite Status.

That status identifies customers who've spent a minimum of $30,000 on CO tickets. Uh, no we haven't (we're just a little over $29,000 short) but we've already printed out our new cards and will flash them at every opportunity.

Take that, George Clooney.