Oct 6, 2015

Traveling to (and in and from) America... Part Three: Around the world in four countries

30 August—Family & Friends
How she does it, I will never know. Every year, Liz invites a LOT of people (both family and friends) to join her at a Tacoma Rainiers game for food, beer, conversation, fun, and birthday cake in whatever order works for them. I've been fortunate to remain on the guest list since Liz and I first met. Knowing her as I do, it's for more than my ensuring everyone gets photographed—even those (both family and friends) whom I would rather hoist up the flagpole by their private parts for how they've treated her over the years. I did omit photos of three of them who had the huevos to show up to eat and drink on Liz's dime while pretending they're human. If you were there and are wondering if I'm referring to you, one is blood; the second is married to one; and the third is a gym rat whose name starts with "Blake".

Whomever first said "blood is thicker than water" never could've imagined how seriously Liz takes it. She's a heart with feet...

As always, there was too much food and just enough beer, wine, and laughter. Thank you, Liz, from someone who does not have the "sports fan" gene, for a great Sunday afternoon at the ballpark!

Thanks, Liz, for another memorable party!

03 September—I usually travel overseas using Alaska Airlines’ frequent flyer miles, so I am "constrained" to the selection of travel dates and airlines available at the moment I call to make a reservation. The good news is that Alaska is apparently still considered a “regional carrier” by the BIG boys, so they offer a wide variety of partner airlines and, therefore, possible destinations. The less-than-good news is that I sometimes get to call 10-15 times over a period of weeks to book flights on or near the dates I want to travel. The better news is that by doing this, I usually end up with either the flights I want or flights awfully close to them.

One of the nice thing about flying on miles is the price— ~$100 total out-of-pocket in taxes/fees for a Business or First Class ticket for which others pay up to $14,000. Another is the ability to layover in the connecting city for no extra fee. In 30+ years of racking up frequent flyer miles, I’ve flown overseas and free to:

  • The UK
  • Spain
  • Oceana (Australia/New Zealand)
  • The Philippines (x3)
  • Peru
  • Việt Nam (x4)
  • Mexico
  • The Caymans
Depending on the airline flown, the free tickets had me changing planes in and often spending some time in Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Vancouver (BC), LA, San Francisco, New York, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Tokyo, Seoul, and now Dubai. Without frequent flyer miles, there is no way I'd either get to travel to 27 countries or need to add pages to my less-than-three-year-old passport. Without FF miles, I might still be living in the U.S. with little chance to explore the world, let alone live in Việt Nam.

The wonderful cabin crews and very high level of service offered make Cathay Pacific my Pacific Rim airline of choice. They connect to Asia/Oceana via Hong Kong and over the years I’ve spent enough time in HK that I no longer take advantage of the layover opportunity—unless I want to visit the excellent tailor (House Tailor), to whom I was introduced just before my first visit in 2003.

Cathay flights were unavailable for award (free) travel in the timeframe I wished to return to VN, so I took what was offered—Emirates and my first flight on the massive A380 double-decker jumbo jet seating 90 upstairs in First and Business Class and 399 downstairs in Economy (a.k.a. Steerage). I didn't even realize I was upstairs until I looked out the window... and down to the wing while playing with the powered double window shades

Flying Emerites is how I got to spend about 45 hours in Dubai on my recent return to VN. I looked forward to Dubai because it was the first, and probably only, time I would visit the Middle East. I’m unsure if it’s the HEAT (102F on arrival) or my perception of the areas, but the Middle East and Africa (with the exception of Morocco and Egypt) were never on my list of places I want to visit.

Now that I’ve visited the city with the world’s highest building(Burj Khalifa)

and the world’s tallest hotel (the twin-tower JW Marriott Marquis, where I stayed [again free with points] on the 60th floor),
my interest in further exploration of the area is even less than before.

The JW Marriott Marquis and its staff were great—in part because my Gold level granted me an upgrade to a great room with an incredible bathroom,

access to the Concierge level, and the Executive Lounge with a daily free breakfast buffet as well as a Happy Hour with food sufficient to replace dinner.

Dubai is HOT, expensive, and crowded. This time of year, the skies are quite opaque and grey do to the inversion layer, so the few photos I took are less than impressive. Lucky you, I’m still posting them because I forgot to look for pretty postcards at the airport.

My first morning in Dubai, I woke up at 3 a.m. and could NOT get back to sleep. At 4, I gave up trying to sleep, checked email, showered, and waited for the 6 a.m. start of the Executive Lounge breakfast. After filling up on fruit, muesli, cheese, cereal, yogurt, and green tea, I went back to the room and took a three-hour nap. Dubai is literally on the other side of the world and 12 time zones from the Pacific Northwest and I had a BAD case of jet lag. When I woke at 10:30, I seriously considered lying about all day. The only reason I didn’t was that this was my one chance to see a little of Dubai—so I drug my sorry ass out of the hotel and dumped it in a taxi.

Sunday traffic was surprisingly heavy until I remembered that Thursday and Friday are the Arab world’s weekend and their Sunday is the same as our Tuesday. The 35 durien cab ride dropped me at the dock for the boats that cross the Dubai Creek—a river by Western standards. The driver would’ve happily taken me all the way to the Spice Souk, but I’d read about the boats and wanted the experience.

One durien (about 28 cents, US) gets you across

and into the arms of the vendors of hand-made shoes, cashmere scarves, and tacky souvenirs. I succumbed and bought a pair of hand-made shoes for a friend in VN. Note: Size 35 in the UAE is significantly larger than size 35 in Asia—they didn't fit :-(

I walked around the Spice Souk, took some photos, bought a kilo each of cashews and pistachios, and grabbed lunch at a street café...

This is a cooling tower... the predecessor to modern air conditioning

The metro is modern, quiet, clean, and quite crowded. It cost 8.5 durien to ride from near the Spice Souks to the Dubai Mall… about US$2.38 and 10% the cost of a taxi, hence the crowds. While transferring from one line to the next, I stood in the shortest queue—until a nice local gentleman informed me that I was queuing for the “Women and children only” car. I shuffled over to the everybody car and thanked him for saving me. I don’t know what the penalty is for not seeing the big and bright fuscia “Women and children only” signs both on the glass doors and on the floor, though I’m sure I do not want to find out.

After disembarking at the “Dubai Mall” Metro Station, it’s a 10 minute or so walk through a wide air-conditioned walkway to the actual mall, during which you pass the Burj Khalifa about 150 meters away. If you’re me, you spend half the walk thinking that you missed the sign you were looking for telling you how to get there. You would be wrong…

Follow the crowd and take a left upon entering the Mall (your only viable option). Then bear right and look for an escalator. Take the escalator down two floors and follow the signs for the Top of the Burj (or something like that). One short down elevator ride later, you FINALLY arrive at the ticket counter.

Prior to my arrival at the mall via the Metro, I planned on visiting the top (124+ floor). When I arrived at the ticket counter and found that the ticket cost 500 durien (US$141), it took me about 5 seconds to decide to forgo bragging rights and save the money for 10 day's worth of food and drink for two in VN.

The mall is also home to a large aquarium 

in which you can go diving or hang out in a cage with the sharks—you’re the caged exhibit; the sharks are outside poking at you. A number of underwater adventures start at about US$100 and go up from there; playing with the sharks is a lot more, so I stayed dry.

Total time in Dubai was a bit under 48 hours...

Upon my arrival in Saigon, I completed my first trip around the world, most of it at ~35,000 feet:
  • Hong Kong
  • Los Angeles
  • Seattle
  • Dallas

  • Dubai
  • Saigon
While landing in only four countries. I also spent four days in Canada, ground-bound the entire time.

Next time I go 'round-the-world, I want to stay ground-bound as much as possible…

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