The Long Ride Home

You can try to shelter yourself from travel’s inconveniences but you’re never completely successful.  We’re used to negotiating travel’s mine fields (sometimes literally.)  We’ve done winding dusty mountain roads in third world busses, train rides with goats and chickens, and dealt with shakedowns by corrupt border police.  I’ve been robbed a time or two, sometimes by artful pickpockets, sometimes by not so artful airport security guys, one who nicked my watch, and one who told me I had too much metal and relieved me of all my coins. One corrupt cop tried to arrest me for “intent to speed” because I was wearing a shoulder belt.  “Only people who intend to speed would wear a belt.”  He gave me two choices, wait three days in his jail for the judge to come or deal with the issue directly – now. (I reported it to the US Embassy, who were too busy laughing to effectively deal with it.)

We’re  trying to change our style, easing into “elder travel” through cruising, where things are pretty well laid out.  And we opted to fly business class because we have lots of miles accumulated through our earlier hard traveling.  Time for a little soft traveling.

But sometimes even soft traveling can have glitches.  A British Air “free” mileage ticket ain’t free when it comes with $500 in “incidental fees” and taxes for each of us.  So, we opted to pay about $75 in “incidental fees” for our “free” tickets and take Emirates Business Class through Dubai.  Thirty-five hours portal to portal from our Amsterdam hotel to our front door.  Flying Emirates business class is a real trip.

The Airbus A380 is a mighty aircraft, but because it is so big it seems was relegated to the last gate of the most remote concourse at Amsterdam airport.  At check in the agent told us it was a 30-minute walk to Emirates Business Class Lounge and another 20-minute walk to the gate.  It took us a little less than that but Schiphol is a BIG airport.  Other big airports (Dubai, and Seattle for example) have little trains that go between concourses.  You’d think the Dutch would have bikes and bike lanes at the airport.   We arrived 3½ hours before flight time.  Long walk – no problem — we thought.

There were long lines at each of the immigration kiosks exiting the Netherlands.  We chose the wrong lane.  Our guard was particularly thorough, looking carefully through each page of each passport.  (The other guards just kind of fanned the passports, stamped them and sent folks on their way.)  When we got to the head of the line, she started looking through our passports, which are “interesting,” and perhaps suspicious, to, I suspect, a new border guard.  Ours have visas for South Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Jordan and other “interesting” places in alphabets they do not recognize (Georgian and Armenian as well as Arabic and Cyrillic.)  But the problem wasn’t the stamps she did find, it was was the stamp she couldn’t find, a recent entry stamp into the Schengen area of Europe.  There was a lot to look through and she kept looking.  Finally, she asked “Where and when did you enter the European Union?” 

“April 30 in the UK.” 

“The UK doesn’t count. What was your next country in the EU?”

“Ireland.”  She could not, with any political correctness, say “Ireland doesn’t count.”  But I knew what she wanted and said “We entered Schengen at Zeebrugge, we were on a cruise.  They didn’t stamp our passport.”

“They had to stamp your passport or else you are not in the EU.”

“We’re here!”  The poor woman was having a bad day. 

“Wait, I get my supervisor.”  She walked away with our passports.

The supervisor came back with our passports and said “Follow me.”  We followed – into a hot little room with plastic chairs and harsh fluorescent lights.  I’ve been in such hot little rooms before.  They are never pleasant experiences.  This is usually where the shakedown happens, or where you’re detained because of some dispute between the US and the country you are trying to leave or enter.  (It’s even happened to us in Canada, during one of the salmon disputes, when we said we were from Alaska.  The Canadians were not shaking us down for a bribe, they were just being untypically nasty for Canadians.)  But I knew this would be different, this was the EU, not some corrupt third world country or Canada.  Plus, the supervisor was a jolly Dutchman.  It could be bureaucratic but not nasty.  The jolly Dutchman asked about the cruise.  Fortunately, Suzi had an itinerary in her carry-on.  The jolly Dutchman took it, with our passports, to another room.  We could hear whispered conversations and then furious stamping.  When I heard the stamping, I turned to Suzi and said “We’re ok.”  And we were.  The Jolly Dutchman came back with a big smile and said “You now have a very unique and interesting stamp in your passport,” with a gesture that said, “as if you need another unique and interesting stamp in your passport.”  It was an EU “correction stamp” saying we had entered Schengen in Brussels, a city we did not visit on this trip.  The jolly Dutchman had placed the stamps on a page that already had stamps, not taking up one of the blank pages, which are in short supply in our passports.  The guy was a real pro.

Our new “interesting” stamp (lower right) with some, perhaps, even more interesting stamps.

So. we were a little late getting to the gate.  They had already boarded first and business and were loading economy.  The jetway splits in the middle, one ramp going up to business and first the other going down to economy.  While there is a sign saying “First and business only” in English, Dutch and Arabic at the juncture an awful lot of people were coming back down the ramp from the upper deck having made a “wrong turn.”  I think they just wanted a peek at the upper deck.  I would.  The top deck is a wonder.  First class does not just have seats, it has cabins with louvered sliding doors.  (I “accidently” turned left rather than right at the top of the ramp to have my own peek.)

I tried to find some overhead space for my bag.  The compartments were full but I couldn’t make out what they were full of.  A cabin attendant shuffled a few things around for my bag and I made my way to my seat.  Each chair is equipped with its own mini-bar with Evian, Perrier, Pepsi, and 7-Up –no extra cost.  Each seat has two entertainment screens, a big one in front of the chair and a tablet.  With a touch of the screen a compass appeared pointing the way to Mecca with a countdown clock to the next prayer time.  I did not see any prayer rugs in the overhead.

The direction to Mecca.

The seats fold flat and we had a big pillow and fluffy comforter.  But the real kicker was after we took off the flight attendant went to the overhead bins. The mysterious stuffings were matrasses!  I laid my seat flat and she made it up into a bed.  We had power tilt on the seat so we could lie flat or sit up in bed, or sit up fully for the meal, which was really, and I mean really, good with expensive wines, all included. 

Our takeoff was delayed an hour because a thunderstorm rolled over the airport.  The wind really shook the plane but once airborne it was, perhaps, the smoothest ride I’ve ever enjoyed.  The windows had power driven double shades, one was translucent the other opaque.  When “night” fell on the plane the shades went down and the lights dimmed to a red sunset glow that faded into a dark and starry sky.  The ceiling had little stars. 

Starry Night on an A380

At daybreak the red glow would slowly brighten and first the opaque and then the translucent shades rose automatically.  Suzi and I decided to stay awake on this “overnight” leg to Dubai because we would be getting on the 14-hour leg to Seattle just at Sitka bedtime.  We would sleep then.  So, I explored.  There was a bar and lounge in the rear of the plane, a bartender pushed “free” drinks and snacks.  This is way cooler than KLM, Delta or British Airways. 

We landed in Dubai in a heat haze, it was 7 AM and already 95o (35o Celsius).  When we took off just before 10 AM it would be up to 104o (40o Celsius). 

Soon we would almost directly over the North Pole.  But first we had to get through Dubai airport.  As soon as we got off the plane we went through security.  Exiting security we saw a display proclaiming “Eid Mubarak” (marking the end of Ramadan) sitting next to a new Mercedes Benz being raffled off.  This airport is full of contradictions.  It is in the middle of the desert but you always hear the sound of running water, there are fountains shooting up and waterfalls cascading down from arrivals to the baggage claim.  Looking at the thermostats it was about 77o (25 Celsius) in the terminal but the sound of water made it feel cooler than that.  The whole airport is a giant shopping mall. We took a train from the A concourse shopping mall to the B concourse shopping mall.

My boarding pass had the dreaded SSSS code printed on the bottom, which means “Selected for Special Security Screening.”  When we got to the boarding gate I was separated from Suzi.  The Emirati security man hand checked my bags, wanded me, frisked me and then swabbed my hands, arms and forehead to test for traces of heaven knows what.  I asked “why me.”  The Emirati security guy pointed to the SSSS and said “That is your TSA, not us.  You can blame this on ‘you know who.’”  I do know who.

The flight out was on a no less luxurious Boeing 777.  We us a good view of the desert before we headed for the North Pole. 

Dubai, Cit in the desert.

The great circle route from Dubai to Seattle goes right over the pole.  I slept until we passed from the continent to the Arctic Ocean.  At Franz Josef Land (A group of Arcthc Islands Nansen explored) we saw mountains break through the clouds, the clouds cleared and we saw the margin of the icepack, with bergs breaking off from the main ice field.  Then we were over the polar icecap with its pressure ridges and many leads of open water. 

We made landfall again over Banks Island in Canada, crossed the Beaufort Sea to the mainland.  From there was still more than four hours down to Seattle.

Our 777 from Alaska flight 67

On Alaska Airlines the first-class lunch was a choice between humus on pita or a bacon and cheese sandwich.  The humus on Emirates was great.  I didn’t think Alaska could match it.  I enjoyed the cheese sandwich as we flew up “our” coast to Sitka with its dramatic mix of sun and clouds.  Welcome Home!

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