The Law of Unintended Consequence impacts all our decisions and actions in ways we didn’t expect, no matter how well-meaning or poorly-contrived the original rationale.  If laptops and tablets and e-book readers disappear from airplane cabins (on flights from Europe and the Middle East to begin with), we may find that it’s a mixed blessing.

The chest-beating, hair-pulling, primal-scream consternation of business flyers reacting to the pending loss of laptops and tablets on board flights from Europe can be heard around the globe.  Like many business people, I have spent a good deal of time recently thinking about the dire implications of not having my laptop with me on the road.  Bottom line:  It’s a nonstarter.  I require it.  My laptop is a precious extension of my brain—and ofttimes more useful. Its value to business pursuits is irreplaceable.

Heck, we should complain; never has it been more “mete and right so to do” as I recall the 1928 Episcopal prayer book words in the Liturgy. Not having an electronic device at hand in flight can be detrimental to productivity; not having a laptop at all on a business trip is nearly fatal to achieving the trip’s mission in the first place. Much ink is currently being spilled on this subject.

But what about the more trivial pursuits that a tablet or laptop sitting on an airplane tray table provides access to?  Will we miss those recreations quite as much as studying complex spreadsheets, or sweating over PowerPoint bullets, or updating Outlook Calendar?

For instance, more than once on an airplane I have innocently glanced over at an open laptop next to me in the compressed spaces of coach and seen video porn running on the screen.  This occurred with the viewer, my seatmate, uncomfortably close to begin with in those inhumanly cramped spaces, so rapt with attention to the sweaty contortions of the naked participants onscreen, that he (and it’s always a guy watching) was oblivious to being in a most public place where anybody could watch along with him.

For some reason it’s always the fellow in the center seat watching pornography on a plane.  By choice, I am always in an aisle seat, so I can turn away.  But on one such flight I noticed the woman in the window seat observed what was playing and turned bright red and remained frowning and flushed throughout the flight.  She turned to the window and never looked back until we landed.

Who can blame her?  I am no prude, but seeing such things in a confined space where escape is impossible always makes me feel slightly unclean, especially since contact with my fellow passenger’s body is unavoidable in such close quarters.  I won’t miss such chance encounters with boors when laptops are banned on board. No, not at all.

A happier impact of eliminating laptops will be to see tray tables shorn of the familiar black clamshell devices, making it far easier for customers in center and window seats to get out to reach the lavatories.

Speaking of trips to the rear lavs in economy, returning to one’s seat up the aisle is the best way to comprehend the ubiquity of electronic devices on board flights: Nearly everybody has one going.  Small as they are, tablets and laptops in aggregate must account for a fair portion of overhead and underseat space on flights.  Perhaps when we are forced to travel that much lighter, so will the cabin spaces be less cluttered, leaving sufficient room for everyone’s belongings at our feet or in the compartments above our heads. (Okay, maybe I’m dreaming.)

On the other hand, if Marx was right when he wrote in the 19th century that religion was “the opiate of the people,” then surely Netflix and Amazon Prime movies and TV shows are the opiate of the 21st century flying public, keeping them nicely sedated during today’s horribly claustrophobic and often-delayed flights.  Yes, you can stream movies and TV shows on your smartphone, but it’s tedious and suboptimal, isn’t it?  Only a video screened on a tablet or laptop makes the flights, well, fly by.  So what will stress levels be like when no passenger has a suitable device to placate the troubled soul by watching a movie?  I can almost feel the in-flight tension rising just contemplating the ban.

The prospect of a passenger blowing a fuse because not properly medicated through immersion in some meaningless, escapist motion picture tripe (exactly the type I like) does worry me.  Remember when airlines routinely gave out playing cards to anyone who asked? And plenty of current magazines were stocked on board?  Even in those less stressful times when flights were not always completely full and seat spacing followed humane measures of legroom, airlines knew that a passenger’s mind occupied playing cards or reading a magazine was less likely to cause trouble. Gin rummy, anyone?

Speaking of reading, will passengers now go back to bringing aboard books made of paper when e-book readers are given the boot along with tablets and laptops?  Personally, I never kicked that habit, especially since Amazon sells used books for a penny plus $3.99 for shipping.  I take books on every flight, read them, and then give them away.  They don’t require batteries and never malfunction unless my bookmark falls out.  After e-devices vanish from airplane cabins, I hope to see more folks heads-down, buried in a good novel or perhaps a Civil War history (or, if you are from the South, a tome about the so-called “War of Northern Aggression”).

Another advantage of paper over e-devices is that books don’t take up much room in overhead compartments or in luggage. Call me a Pollyanna, but I am always looking for ways to optimize airplane cabin overhead space.

Of course, some folks just enjoy cruising the Internet or catching up on email by connecting their electronic device to in-flight wifi. The service isn’t cheap. I’ve often wondered whether on-the-go wifi was a decent revenue stream for the airlines.  Whether it’s a money-spinner or not, I don’t foresee as many passengers opting for that purchase to connect their smartphone as for their laptop or tablet. Will the ban cause airlines to discontinue in-flight wifi due to shriveling fees?  Will anyone care?

We will soon see how the e-device cabin prohibition falls out to us business travelers.  I didn’t consider the ancillary consequences until the ban loomed close at hand.  All this thinking has given me a headache.  Whatever happens, though, I am sure that frequent flyers will adapt to the changes, intended and unintended, as we always have.

Heck, let’s just move on.  Your next drink in the Club is on me.

The recent brouhaha with United Airlines, followed by the mysterious death of a giant rabbit on another UA flight, got me reflecting on the way I’ve been treated in the air since the 1970s when I began flying frequently.  Has the experience from start to finish really changed that much?  Yes, it has, I concluded upon reflection, although I’ve never had occasion to ship a big rabbit, much less had one expire on an airplane.  But I have witnessed a steady decline in service with a corresponding rise in stress.

Flying used to be simple: Buy a ticket through a travel agent or by phone directly from an airline, then relax and enjoy the trip. The issuer (airline or agent) would mail the physical ticket to me, sometimes delivering it in person. Easy. Stress-free, as long as I remembered to keep the ticket with me at all times, since tickets could be converted to cash and airlines would not let you check in or fly without a physical ticket.

Heck, up until the early eighties I couldn’t even get a seat assignment in advance and never worried about it.  Seats were assigned at the gate using little stickers pulled from a master sheet containing all the seat numbers for that particular flight’s type of plane. Even in the seventies, airlines had computers, of course: big hulking CRT monochrome monitors with ancient software running somewhere on huge IBM mainframes in Atlanta or New York or London communicating (not very fast) over Ma Bell phone lines. But the systems often broke down or just froze up—at least at RDU—and gate agents relied on my handwritten ticket as proof that I was legitimately booked on the flight. No panic, no stress.

In airline back offices somewhere, the computers were keeping track of my flying then, because I started to get recognized for my loyalty even in those dinosaur days before frequent flyer programs existed.  If you were a regular on Eastern, for instance, they’d make you an “Executive Traveler” and give you free upgrades to First Class.  Not always, but whenever First wasn’t totally booked with paying customers.  It was totally in the discretion of the gate agent and based on “first come, first served” at the gate.  I was (and still am) obsessively early, and so I was usually first on the ET upgrade list at Eastern. At the time I was often flying to NYC LaGuardia and loved those Eastern Airlines 727s on the route: so comfortable, even in coach. Again, no stress, not even when flying in the back.

The ET program was fair, too. Upgrades were awarded based on time of check-in at the gate, not miles flown (they had no way to track that precisely then) or amount paid. Famed UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was often booked on the same flight, but he was chronically late arriving, by which time I already had my upgrade in hand. Coach Smith would scowl when passing me perched in First as he lurched unhappily back to his coach seat, garment bag over his shoulder.  Sometimes neither of us got an upgrade, and we’d sit together in coach.  I recall that even in the back it was pretty comfortable, and the service was good.

Delta at first didn’t have a similar systematic upgrade program, but they somehow recognized me as a regular customer and made me a “Flying Colonel.”  That status gave me free access to Delta Crown Rooms, which were then free and small, open only to invited guests like Flying Colonels and VIPs.  Delta soon thereafter would give me upgrades even without a formal list.  However, flying in coach, as on Eastern, then was fine, not cramped and uncomfortable like it is now.

During the same period I was flying quite a lot from JFK to London (LHR), and British Airways wanted my business.  The other choices on the route were mainly PanAm and TWA.  BA offered me complimentary upgrades to either First Class (rarely) or (more often) to their earliest version of business class, which was a section of coach just behind First Class in which BA would leave empty seats between passengers and provide free alcohol and better meals.  How did they know to do that when I checked in?  The BA computer, ancient as it was, had me tagged with a special code, “passenger previously mishandled,” which alerted the counter to give me upgrades.  I quickly abandoned PanAm for British after that and often flew the only subsonic daylight flight to London, BA178, at the time an extremely comfortable first generation 707.

Flying wasn’t luxurious or romantic in the seventies and eighties (except, occasionally, in First Class), but it was much more than merely tolerable: comfortable, friendly, reliable.  United’s old catchphrase “Fly the friendly skies” had real meaning in those decades.

What has changed?  In a word: trust.  The bond between and among customers and airline staff at all levels from reservation agent to ticket counter to gate agent to cockpit and cabin crew to baggage handlers was tight and honest.  We all trusted one another.  Now not even multi-million milers are immune to mistreatment and mistakes.

As trust has withered, so has civility—on both sides, not just airline employees—and more’s the pity. These days we arrive at the airport with guerrilla mindsets.

Who’s to blame? Certainly the airline companies are not managed the way they used to be and bear most of the responsibility for the embattled nature of flying nowadays. They have nickel-dimed us to death, charging for seat assignments, luggage, food and nearly every amenity except using the toilet (possibly next?). They enticed us with frequent flyer programs and then devalued them shamelessly while lying to our faces using weasel-words that no one believes. They have crammed seats so close together that no sane person dares to recline his or her seatback for fear of inciting a riot.

Airlines overbook their flights, over-schedule at airports already well beyond capacity (e.g., DCA, LGA, etc.), and run slip-shod operations that chronically fall behind their own schedules even on bluebird days. When airline-caused delays occur, airline staff are trained to explain them away with more lies; they were masters of “alternative facts” long before that sad term was coined.

On board, finding harmony in the claustrophobic aluminum tube that necessarily defines a device meant to pierce the sky at a high rate of speed has always been a challenge.  These days the grind and the stress have made flights tense for all aboard the tiny arks.  The ratio of passengers to FAs has worsened, leading to hurried, often incomplete service.  Meals have been mostly eliminated. Passengers suffer in the cramped misery of too-small seats set too close together. As the mutual trust between flyer and FA has eroded, flight attendants too often look for the slightest provocation from a passenger to take punitive action.

No one deserves the Nazi tactics of the recent UA event. That said, we flyers, especially frequent flyers, bear some of the blame for expecting airlines to provide more than just bus service.  After all, who expects Greyhound to be more than what they are? Riding a bus was never dreamy. Flying, once viewed as something deluxe, has become a far less savory experience than taking Megabus, let alone cruising in the relative calm and humane comfort of an Amtrak train.  More often than not, “dread” is the emotion most people now associate with flying.

Something has to change.

 

Recently I passed another natal day, a sobering reminder that I’ve seen a lot of summers (69 years on the planet).  My first sensation on awakening, as always, was deep gratitude and love for my parents.  Their hard work and kindness got me off to a great start in life.

My lifelong love of travel, though, came to me without a parental pedigree.  What, I pondered on my birthday, have been the big changes I’ve witnessed traveling the world and America these past seven decades.  Change has been a constant in my life, as constant as travel, and I am comfortable with it.  However, I struggle sometimes to understand some of it.

No sooner had that question floated into my brain than the morning news presented a stark example:  The new Berlin Flughafen (airport) is currently five years late and at least $5 billion over budget.  This Bloomberg story is just one of many telling the sad tale.

Reading it, I was mystified to grasp what has happened to German efficiency, something I thought was hardwired into the culture, leading me to reminisce about my time among the Teutons. The year and a half that I lived in Munich in 1975-76 was a very happy experience, and as the time approached to leave, I considered making Munich my permanent home. I really liked the Germans and their country.

It was then a mere 30 years after WWII. In those days I’d still hear the Horst Wessel Lied (Nazi anthem) being sung by 50-something men coming out of beer halls drunk late at night, men who’d fought for Hitler in their teens and early twenties and had perhaps been among the throngs at the infamous Nuremberg amphitheater Nazi party rallies called by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, “the cathedral of light”.

At the time hearing that infamous melody was very creepy to me, raising the hairs on the back of my neck, and I would cross the street to avoid them.  But now I don’t think those men missed the Nazi era as much as, fueled by strong Bavarian lager, they were remembering their shared experience as soldiers in battle when very young men.  The bonds developed under fire are universal and lifelong, regardless of flag or cause.  Some of the men who’d been raised in Nazi Youth groups and fought on the Eastern Front befriended me when I lived there.  They would somberly raise a sardonic toast on April 20 to thank God that Hitler’s birthday was no longer a national holiday.

Everything in Germany worked in 1975-76: the trains, the trams, the post, the Gesundheitamt (health department), the Polizei.  The ordilessness that the Germans were famous for ruled everything, down to the exact time each day when the street sweepers would be on each Straße (street). Everyone drove the precise speed limit in town and as fast as possible on the Autobahn. Everybody used their turn signals and drove on the right on the Autobahn (huge billboards warned: “Rechts Fahren!” Meaning “drive right!”) and wore their seat belts (I was stopped by the police only once when I lived in Deutschland, and that was on the Autobahn near Nuremberg in 1976 for not wearing my seat belt). Every damn thing worked down to a gnat’s behind.

Now, I thought, it’s 42 years after I lived there! And 72 years after the war ended. So of course Germany has changed.  Just the same, how could they so botch the construction of a symbolic airport in their capital and landmark city, Berlin?  I never imagined their deepest core value to obsess to perfection–the epitome of Germanness: making sure that everything worked, by God!–would ever dissipate. To me, it’s as shocking as if the British were to suddenly outlaw cricket in favor of American baseball.

Back for a visit several years ago I traveled Frankfurt to Munich to Nuremberg and back on many high-speed ICE trains (Inter-City Express).  Many of the trains were late, and some were even canceled due to labor, track, equipment, or unspecified reasons.  It was as if I was in Italy where such glitches are the norm, but never in Germany!  Even some of the buses, trams, and S-Bahn commuter trains in Munich were late, unheard-of in the 1970s.

An American friend who worked two weeks in Hamburg in the 1980s told of staying at The Atlantic, a very fine hotel. In those days the airport bus would stop at the corner by The Atlantic and was scheduled to come about every 25 minutes. Every time he was in the room over those two weeks he would look out to see how early or late the bus was running.  He was amazed to observe that the bus was never early and never late. It pulled up at exactly the minute the schedule had, not a minute before or after. But today no bus runs there at all.

The Berlin airport isn’t the only tardy German scheme. The Hamburg opera house in Hamburg was six years behind schedule. The “Stuttgart 21” rail project was first proposed in 1995 and is now projected to be completed in 2021, if ever. Lack of precision seems a systemic German problem in the 21st century.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that such undesirable changes must be balanced against Germany’s achievements in the past fifty years.  The country integrated the impoverished East Germany while maintaining its stellar growth and EU primacy in economic strength—a feat nothing short of a miracle.  In 2015 alone, Germany absorbed 1.1 immigrants, the most of any EU country except Turkey (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36169684).  Musing on my birthday, I concluded the German culture maintains deep-rooted strengths of compassion, mastery of industry, and devotion to hard work.  These values are more admirable than efficiency alone, and I need to cut the Germans some slack.  I am confident that German efficiency remains in their nature.  It will be back.

This is a companion report to my post two weeks ago on camping in Tanzania during twelve days in February, 2017 with ten companions. This piece is not an ordinary blog entry of 500-1000 words, but is instead a lengthy journal account of 5,000 words, so please approach with the knowledge that it’s a long ride, complementary to the March 9 post, and feel free to skip it until next week when I return to a more compact entry.

Did I say camping?  Well, okay, it wasn’t hardship camping, but luxury camping, even at the most basic level, very comfortable and stress-free.  In 26 years of nearly annual trips to see the wilderness and wildlife of Africa in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, this was the finest experience, the most enthralling.

That accolade was earned thanks to the superb planning of trip organizer Robin Bedenbaugh, an expert wetlands consultant and lifelong amateur wildlife and bird sleuth.  The trip’s success was also due to flawless execution by camping safari operator, Dorobo Safaris.  Robin put this trip together as a favor to us all at no charge because he spent his first 16 years in Tanzania with his missionary parents and wanted to share his enthusiasm for African flora and fauna.

Tarangire Lilac-Breasted Roller (5)

My favorite African bird, the Lilac-breasted Roller, often observed, as here, perched to hawk insects and small reptiles, so ubiquitous a species that it’s often called simply “LBR”

While on the trip I dispatched daily updates by email recording my impressions in real time, some of which were delivered several days after creation due to intermittent cell service in the Tanzanian wilderness.  This post takes the form of a chronology of those messages strung together like a diary around the day-by-day itinerary description.  I have mostly left my clipped verbiage intact, some written in the first person, in the daily email updates.

Unless otherwise noted, the stunning photos this week were taken by trip organizer Robin Bedenbaugh.  Robin took along several digital cameras coupled to very long lenses set on the highest possible digital resolution, often on the “RAW” setting, which produces nearly flawless pictures, but makes for very large files.

Ngorongoro Crater Wildlife (1)

A huge dust devil in the Ngorongoro caldera forms a dramatic backdrop to this long telephoto shot that captures a panoply of African wildlife..

February 7:  Depart from the USA

Something I could never do when consulting: imbibe an early morning Bloody Mary. But flying in First Class to Philadelphia to catch my overseas flight on Qatar Airways in international Business Class to Doha and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I can jolly well do as I please.

God help me, I do love traveling and never tire of it!

Flew business class on Qatar Airways from Philly through Doha, Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula and wasn’t mistreated or maligned by either Trumpistas or Middle Eastern citizens. Everything seemed like business as usual, but I was glad to be leaving the turmoil of American politics behind.  [See my earlier post detailing the flights.]

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We fly over Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. blazing with light even in the middle of the night (Will Allen photo)

The big, gleaming Arabian cities like Doha, Dubai, and Riyadh look just like modern U.S. cities except for the dual English-Arabic signage.  If you squint, they look very like any up-to-date airport in America.

Unlike my trip through the Doha airport last year, Qatar Airways’ huge business lounge has a 90 min wait for showers. I have located a second shower room with a shorter queue and will have to hustle to wash and redress.

Now to find my connecting flight to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania.

February 8:  arrive Kilimanjaro Airport – night at Ngare Sero Lodge http://www.ngare-sero-lodge.com/  Afternoon walks around the forest and lake beside the lodge.  Excellent birding.

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Ngare Sero Lodge, Arusha, Tanzania (Will Allen photo)

All eleven of us arrived safely and with our belongings, and all seem compatible. The Ngare Sero Lodge is reminiscent of Mas Villa where I once stayed in the inland tea hills of Sri Lanka: beautiful and tranquil.

Lots of birds and monkeys here, but nothing special in the way of very wild wildlife, though my companions are quite pleased by all the birdlife. Staff at the lodge is extremely nice—exemplary, and the food is good, if not memorable.  Excitement beckons beyond the serenity of this temporary refuge, the perfect place to take a breath and shuffle off jetlag before we venture into the wilderness.

We’re totally exhausted and going to bed. I hope I’m so tired that I sleep through this first night. [I did.]

February 9:  Visit Arusha National Park and climb into the crater of Mount Meru, afternoon at Momella Lakes – night at Ngare Sero Lodge.

 

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The gorgeous view from 9,000 feet inside the Mt. Meru caldera in the Arusha National Park (Will Allen photo)

This photo was taken in the Arusha National Park. Our group of 11, all proving to be collegial, was in the midst of a 3-hour walk way, way up into the Mount Meru caldera, the sister mountain to Mount Kilimanjaro. We hiked only up to 9000 ft elevation on the 14,900 ft Mount Meru. As usual for me, it was much easier going up than coming down. The steep and very rocky path, well-used by the many Cape Buffalo we saw, was treacherous and led to a number of cuts and bruises (though, luckily, not to me).

The Park Ranger accompanying us carried a high-powered rifle to shoot any aggressive buffalo we might, but did not, encounter up close. We did, however, spot a Leopard tail as the big cat disappeared into a tree canopy.

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Jackson’s Chameleon shows off its horn while strolling on my arm on Mt. Meru (Will Allen photo)

Took photos of a Jackson’s Chameleon, a rare species known only to this small area of Africa between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. I let it crawl over my hand and arm until everyone had pictures, then put the fascinating reptile back on the branch where it had been patiently waiting for passing insects when spotted.

It wasn’t easy trying to take the picture with one hand while the chameleon was busily walking up my other arm.

If you zoom in on the hi-res picture, take a close look at the characteristic splayed feet of African chameleons.

February 10: early departure to Arusha and on to Tarangire Safari Lodge – afternoon for wildlife viewing in Tarangire National Park – night at Tarangire Safari Lodge  http://www.tarangiresafarilodge.com/

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Woman preparing to cook and sell cassava in Arusha (Will Allen photo)

Today I send four photos emblematic of Tanzania’s many faces. These first is of a woman cutting cassava as she preps to roast it over her homemade charcoal stove by the side of a road. She will sell it once cooked to passersby. This type of individual enterprise is the rule in much of Africa. I wish we’d had time to wait for the finished product.

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Maasai herdsman (Will Allen photo)

The second photo is of a typical Maasai herdsman tending his cows and goats which are just ahead of him. Maasai pastoralists like this fellow are seen everywhere around the country, and many continue to work barefooted. This man’s modern shoes are a concession, I suppose, to living in the 21st century.

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Typical stores in rural Tanzania; one sporting a satellite dish (Will Allen photo)

The third picture is of a very ordinary set of small stores, the likes of which pervade the country and most of Africa. By Americans standards they appear to be crude and rustic; however, stores like this are invariably well-stocked and run by friendly proprietors. Note the satellite dish. This is out on the boonies, but most Tanzanians who want it enjoy electricity and have satellite dishes. People here almost always asked me about Obama when he was president and now ask about Trump.

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The breathtaking view from the Tarangire Safari Lodge (Will Allen photo)

The fourth photo is of one of the big national safari parks in Tanzania, Tarangire. I took this from our lodge in the park with a sharp focus on the pervasive African thorns one encounters here and the gorgeous plains full of acacia trees and Baobab trees blurred in the distance. Although not visible in the picture, we can easily see a big herd of elephants there, plus zebra, Cape Buffalo, wildebeest, ostrich, eland, Grant’s Gazelle, and giraffe out there.

The tourist industry in Tanzania is a crucial economic driver. Arusha, in NE Tanzania, is the heart of the safari business. Arusha is where folks take off for Tarangire, Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro crater and conservation area. Thanks to tourism, what’s known now as the Arusha Region has grown from 50,000 in 1978 to 1.7 million population now.

Last night at the Ngare Sero Lodge the co-owner of Dorobo Safaris, Thad Peterson, dined with us. I learned from him that Tanzania boasts 1005 species of birds. He challenged us to come back with a list of 250 bird species we had seen by Feb 20. Sounds like an impossible task, and yet today is our second full day, and we have already seen 78 bird species.

February 11: morning wildlife viewing in Tarangire (or Lake Manyara) – after lunch head to Ngorongoro Crater – night at Pakulala Tented Camp. http://www.suraafrikasafaricamps.com  

Tarangire is known for its magnificent Baobab groves, tree-climbing lions (which I saw last year but didn’t see this time), and 2600 elephants. It also boasts gorgeous views.

Tarangire Orange-Bellied Parrot (2)

Orange-bellied Parrot (Tarangire National Park)

From here in Tarangire we drive this morning to the Ngorongoro crater and likely no cell coverage, so am sending this early.

[late afternoon] 2/11 – Must have been close to 100 Fahrenheit today, and these safari trucks (all Toyota Land Cruisers) are the old type with fold-up canvas covering the roof holes where tourists stand up to take photos. More modern safari trucks have pop-up solid fiberglass tops that continue to provide shade. With this type there is no escape from the sun. For me that’s killer. I slather on tons of sunscreen and still get burned.

None of us has been getting enough sleep. So being tired and unable to escape the sun, I think I have developed sun poison and heat exhaustion. It’s been a very, very painful day for me with no escape from solar radiation.

Manyara Yellow-Billed Storks (1)

Yellow-Billed Storks (Lake Manyara National Park)

Being over-heated is exacerbating my frustration at stopping to look at every tiny bird for long stretches of time. We have serious birders in our group!  I share their fascination with African avian species, but my thrall is diminished today by the unrelenting, punishing Equatorial sun. It’s no one’s fault, just unfortunate for me.

Now late afternoon, and we are finally on the Ngorongoro crater rim at 7200′ elevation. After being over a hundred today, it will be well below freezing tonight.  After today’s searing heat, I’m not complaining.

February 12: full day wildlife viewing in Ngorongoro Crater – night at Pakulala Tented Camp.

We had hyenas, zebra, and buffalo around the tents all night.  I slept like a rock except to dispense the beer I drank at dinner. That’s when I heard the hyenas.

Ngorongoro Eland Bull (2)

Eland bull on the slopes of the Ngorongoro caldera

We came across a lioness on the road down into the caldera devouring a wildebeest. Her sister and a big male were not far away, apparently full and digesting.  A bit further on we saw an Eland very close, which is rare.  This large antelope is unaccountably shy.

Tomorrow we drive to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (a huge plains area adjacent to the Ngorongoro caldera and contiguous to the Serengeti plains) where we may find the two million wildebeest and zebra migration.  Cell service is usually spotty to nonexistent, so I may be out of touch for a few days.

We enjoyed homemade crème caramel for dessert last night that was exceptionally delicious. They even serve Hendricks’s gin.  Well, it is, after all, luxury camping!

I’m enjoying the people and the place enormously, but have digestive issues thanks to the near-heat stroke I suffered two days ago. My body is seizing up from the heat and am worried I may not make the entire trip. There are no cures for such issues here.  We had a spectacular day in the crater, but it’s hard to stay upbeat when I am concerned my body is shutting down. Of course it’s natural when becoming ill in the middle of nowhere to wonder if I should not have come.  But I am trying to tough this out as much for my traveling companions, fast becoming my friends, as for me.  I don’t want to ruin their trip or my own.

[Note: My malady was later diagnosed as ileus, a sometimes dangerous condition characterized by the cessation of peristalsis in the digestive tract, in my case due to the severe depletion of electrolytes brought on by too much sun.]

February 13:  to Kakesio area – southwest Ngorongoro/Serengeti ecosystem – camp at Loirujruj or edge of woodlands and plains.  Afternoon walk – night in Dorobo mobile camp. http://www.dorobosafaris.com/

Zebra Stallion Tarangire (1)

Zebra, one of countless thousands we saw

Sent 2/17 but written about 2/13 – Very long and arduous journey from the Ngorongoro caldera down to the plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and then later in the day ascending he ridgeline in the southwest corner of the Conservation Area where the Dorobo camp was well-concealed deep in the bush.

En route down the escarpment from the caldera we passed many Maasai assemblages—I hesitate to call them either villages or encampments, as they are somewhere in-between.  Lots of Maasai men, women, and children were moving along the bumpy track.  As we passed three teen Maasai girls we stopped to speak with them (our Maasai guides spoke Swahili, of course), and I was permitted to take their photo (see Part 1 post photo).  I could see the potential with the light, angle, wisp of cloud, and the sheer natural  beauty of the shy girls in their best outfits and jewelry walking to market. They were astonished at the photo when I showed it to them. The Maasai are known to be vain, we were told. They like to look at themselves in mirrors, both men and women, and given how beautiful they all are, it’s no wonder.

Ngorongoro Black Rhino (7)

Black Rhino in the Ngorongoro caldera

We passed the next two nights in the Dorobo camp surrounded by Maasai settlements and in the company of Maasai men on whose lands we were visiting.  The elder slaughtered a goat and roasted it in our honor, a ritual ceremony we all witnessed firsthand.  We also visited a nearby Maasai boma, a large circle of thorn fences enclosing several houses of sticks and a corral for protection at night of the cows, sheep, and goats that the Maasai famously herd.  It was very peaceful, a simple world so starkly separate from the dense, twisted complexities of Western “civilization” that it was hard to leave.  I knew I did not want to live that way—in fact, could not have adapted to the lack of creature comforts to which I have become accustomed—but I felt a strong pull of spirit to the utter simplicity of their lifestyles and its remarkable harmony with nature.

During those two days I painfully suffered through my bout of ileus, the suffering so extreme and persistent that I often wondered if I was going to make it.  But I was not terrified; I decided it was okay if I died there. I knew that I didn’t want to expire quite so soon, but it seemed a good place for it.  I even gave instructions to leave my remains for the animals if it came to that.

February 14:  excursions Kakesio area – walks, driving, Maasai interaction – night in Dorobo mobile camp.

Tarangire Striped Swallow (1)

Striped Swallow (Tarangire National Park)

2/14 update – I am recovering. My guts still extremely sore from 3 days of racking pain, but I hope the worst is over. We will see. I am eating very little, mainly fruits and cooked veggies, no meat and little carbs. I did have some goat last night after the Maasai here slaughtered it for us. I have photos of them drinking the goat blood and eating the raw bloody kidneys. The goat meat was tasty but incredibly tough, like leather.

Serengeti Cheetah #4 (2)

Cheetah

We leave this camp this morning, finally, for the Serengeti for 4 nights. This place is practically devoid of wildlife, just the odd giraffe and wildebeest and a few birds and lizards. It was a good place to be sick and then get well, though, as not much to do except hang out with the Maasai, which we did for 2 days. I enjoyed the cultural experience, but mainly was grateful for a chance to get well after the horrendous experience of the previous 3 days. It was a new and terrible pain that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

February 15: wildlife viewing through the short grass plains via Ndutu and to Naabi Hill – center of short grass plains.  Wildebeest should be in this area along with Zebra and an abundance of other plains game.  Lions often seen around the kopjes – night at Matembezi Classic Camp.  http://matembezi.co.tz/accommodation/classic-camp/

Tarangire Yellow-Collared Lovebird (2)

Yellow-collared Lovebird (Tarangire National Park)

Once we left the Dorobo camp and the ridgeline that defines the southwest corner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which has elevation sufficient to sustain a weak cell signal, everyone in our group of Virginians and Marylanders (I was the sole North Carolinian) lost contact through our smartphones with the outside world. We have been in the southern reaches of the adjacent Serengeti ever since, enjoying the astonishing biodiversity that famously characterizes these great plains.

En route to the Serengeti, we came across 2 male Cheetah relaxing in a rare bit of mid-afternoon shade on the great plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Serengeti Lion king of the pride (1)

One of many male lions spotted on this trip

After crossing the Ngorongoro Conservation Area we entered the Serengeti National Park at a remote ranger station (after some bureaucratic difficulty) and made our way to Naabi Hill to the magnificent Matembezi Tented Camp on the western slopes overlooking the Serenegeti plains.

February 16:  wildlife viewing excursions by vehicle in the Serengeti short grass plains.  Wildebeest calving and lots of other wildlife – night at Matembezi Classic Camp.

Tarangire Leopard (4)

Leopard resting

We spent the day on game drives in the southern short grass plains of the Serengeti National Park, seeing birds and wildlife everywhere. Indeed, “Serengeti” is a Maasai word that means “endless plains.” Owing to the failure of the annual “short rains” of Oct-Nov (generally followed annually by the “long rains” of Mar-Apr-May), the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti are abnormally parched for this time of year, generating billowing clouds of dust and gigantic, impressive dust devils that tower to the sky.

The wind blows fiercely and always in the wrong direction when we’re driving, making it impossible to outrun our own clouds of dust. The dust envelops our Toyota Land Cruisers and layers in and on us. We’re hacking and coughing, but seeing the wildlife is worth it, and as we now move into the tall grass plains of the middle Serengeti plains, we’ll leave the dust behind.

Dust or no, it’ll be hard to depart the luxurious confines of the Matembezi Tented Camp on the west flank of Naabi Hill, the finest places I’ve ever stayed in the African wilderness, a universal sentiment among our group. Last night the Matembezi chef’s dessert was candied ginger root syrup over sliced mango, a simple yet inspired end to a great meal.  If I ever return to Tanzania, it will include several nights again with Matembezi.

Tarangire Giraffe (1)

Inquisitive giraffe shows off its long eyelashes

The two million-strong wildebeest and zebra are aggregating in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to form the massive herds that migrate north through the Serengeti to eventually cross into the Maasai Mara of Kenya as they follows the green grasses that sustain them. Some have already moved to the Seronera region of the central Serengeti where we are headed. We hope to see them today and tomorrow.

February 17:  morning wildlife viewing excursions by vehicle in the Serengeti short grass plains, then game viewing drive north to Seronera – night at Serengeti Wilderness Camp.  http://www.tanzaniawildernesscamps.com/index.php?q=con,33

Tarangire Leopard (3)

Sleeping leopard

2/17 Continue to pass zebra and a few wildebeest in the central Serengeti, a small herd among the 2 million wildebeest and zebra migration, as we make our slow way to Seronera.  Stopped to marvel at a nearby lone cheetah patroling the Serengeti plains south of the Seronera River region.

Trip continues to be beyond spectacular. Now up near Seronera watching a Cheetah kill which we witnessed. I’ve been looking hard for reptiles, but we haven’t spotted more than two common Agama Lizard species.

It’s been a word class trip!

Serengeti Lioness and Wildebeest foetus (2)

Lioness extracts the fetus from a mama wildebeest

We’ve seen some amazing things today: so many lions on so many kills, including a lioness pulling a fetus from a wildebeest mama, and later a Cheetah actually bringing down and then eating a young wildebeest. Just saw another lion almost get a young zebra.

February 18:  Seronera game viewing excursions Seronera Valley area.  Some resident wildlife species not typically seen further south on the short grass plains, such as topi.  Also best area in Serengeti for seeing leopard – night at the Serengeti Wilderness Camp.

2/18 Noted many safari trucks stalking the teeming wildebeest as persistently as a lion pride. Watched two lions mating.

Serengeti Mating Lions (9)

Lions mating in the Serengeti

A long and sleepless night for me as a lion pride killed and ate something not 30 yds from our tents. The snarling, growling, and bones crunching didn’t do much to induce sleeping. Today is our last day in the wild.

Most animals ignore the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers all around.

Serengeti Leopard #3 (4)

Leopard devouring a young wildebeest

Watched a Leopard in a tree above us chowing down on a nice young wildebeest it killed. Lots of blood and gore.

We are constantly up close because it’s possible to be literally in the herds. It’s thrilling!

Serengeti Lion Pride on hill (1)

Lion pride watches the Serengeti plains for its next meal

The grass here is trodden by two million wildebeest, zebra, Cape Buffalo, and sundry other antelope species, not to mention the traveling show of lion prides, hyena families, buzzards by the thousands, Maribou Storks by the many hundreds, and jackals that all consume the tiniest leftover morsels of kills.

8000 wildebeest per day are born here for 3 weeks, 168,000 baby wildebeest in 21 days.

Ngorongoro Abdim's Stork (1)

Abdim’s Stork

Back at our camp, people from other countries we meet keep asking if we have left the USA to escape our president. Haven’t met any foreigners from any country so far who claim to admire him.

The Seronera region of the Serengeti where we are now is named for the Seronera River which provides permanent water to this part (the central area) of the Serengeti.

Ngorongoro Spotted Hyena (1)

Hyena digests while cooling in the mud at midday in the Serengeti

The numbers of wildlife here of all kinds beats anything I’ve ever seen, even in Botswana. It’s spectacular, awe-inspiring, and unending. Our tented camp is deep in the peripheral woodlands, not in the great Serengeti plains, and even a half hour distance from the great herds we have many animals in the camp all the time, including wildebeest, zebra, and many lions nearby. I heard 4 different lion prides roaring last night. Also way too many hyena, including right around the tents all night. I didn’t sleep much last night.

Serengeti Leopard #2 (6)

Yet another Serengeti Leopard (I lost count of how many we saw in total)

I do not see how i will ever top this trip to anywhere in Africa. In addition to the astonishing numbers and variety of wildlife, cultural experiences, and geography, my 10 companions are all congenial and funny. I like them all very much and will miss them when the trip ends, as it will soon.

Tonight is our last night in the bush. We fly in a small plane at midday tomorrow back to Arusha for a final night there at the Ngare Sero Lodge where we began this journey. The following morning I take off for the Kilimanjaro Airport about 11am for my 230pm flight to Doha, then Philadelphia, then RDU.

Serengeti Lion dark-skinned male (2)

The king of beasts takes a breather during heat of midday on the Serengeti plains

The digestive issues I suffered were horrible, but I feel 100% now. Just the same, I want to get thoroughly checked over when I get home.  Just grateful not to be in pain any more.

February 19:  catch a scheduled charter flight to Arusha – departs at 11 AM and arrives at 12:10 – lunch and shopping in Arusha – spend night at Ngare Sero Lodge.

2/19 Survived another night of lions and hyena nearby. Leaving the Serengeti late this morning, sadly, to return to Arusha, then start the flights home tomorrow afternoon, arriving Tuesday late morning. Words simply don’t do these Serengeti wilderness scenes justice.

Serengeti Leopard #4 (4)

Leopards take their meals up into trees to prevent lions and hyenas sealing the kills

It was hard to board the small plane back to Arusha and even harder to watch the great plains of Equatorial Africa disappear among the clouds on the long, lumbering climbout.

2/19 – Back at the Ngare Sero Lodge in Arusha where we are staying tonight. My room has a magnificent balcony that boasts a fabulous view of Mount Kilimanjaro when the clouds permit, as they did in late afternoon.

This was a German farm built in 1898 and doubled as a German stronghold in colonial days. The thick walls with rifle slots speak of that competitive period. It’s now owned by a very old man who lovingly restored it and converted the old stables to more rooms.  Ngare Sero is an oasis in the urban madness of the greater Arusha area, which has ballooned to 1.7 million people. The property is tens of acres. It has a spring-fed cold water lake rich in birdlife. The lake in turn feeds a trout farm. The property grows coffee as well. I recommend the Ngare Sero Lodge for its serenity and natural beauty as much as for its safe and comfortable rooms and good food. The staff is exceptionally warm and helpful.

Manyara Baby Baboon (1)

Young baboon

Arusha’s burgeoning demand for housing is forcing change, as everywhere, but here no NIMBYs block it. For instance, on the west side of town, the Arusha Coffee Plantation, the oldest coffee producer in the country, is slated in the Arusha Master Plan (like our Comprehensive Plans) to be moved some 20-30 miles away and replaced by fancy residential development. No one complains of the loss of the oldest coffee plantings in the country, nor of the inevitable difference in quality of coffee to be made from the new plantings.

Ngorongoro Elephant Bull (2)

Elephant on the Ngorongoro ridge just outside our tented camp there

2/19 – Tonight is my 12th and final in Tanzania for this trip, and possibly forever, as these trips are very expensive. Because I suffered sun poisoning and then heat exhaustion on day 4, days 5 and 6 in the remote wilderness of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area were miserable for me. I was pretty sick in a place far from civilization, with only the Maasai for company. I didn’t know if I was going to make it for a couple of days. Spiritually as well as physically, those days were the toughest challenge I’ve had to face. After the worst had passed, it took the rest of the trip to regain my strength after losing about 10 lbs in 96 hrs, judging by my belt loops. It was sobering.

Newborn Wildebeest Tarangire (3)

Mother and baby wildebeest on the Serengeti

February 20:  Spend leisurely day at Ngare Sero Lodge or sightseeing around the Arusha area, pack for late afternoon/early evening departure to Kilimanjaro Airport.   Fly out on return trip.

2/20 – Sitting in the ninety degree heat of the so-called business lounge at Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) waiting for my Qatar flight to Doha. This airport is a wreck of a place, but because Tanzania is so desperately poor, it’s hard to complain. Anyway, I really love this country and its people.

Mom and Baby Vervet Tarangire

Mom and baby Vervet Monkey

2/20 – I send this from Zanzibar, where my Qatar flight has stopped to pick up a full load of passengers for Doha after boarding just 19 at Kilimanjaro (varies by day–yesterday’s JRO/DOH flight was almost full). I gratefully ride in Business Class of this A320 after what I am just now realizing was the greatest adventure of my life.

Why greatest? I guess because getting really ill and having to face my own mortality in the remote southwest corner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, very distant from anything resembling civilization, in the sole company of my traveling companions and a very welcoming Maasai tribe, made me realize how precious life is, especially life without chronic pain. I was prepared to succumb way out there, and I left instructions for them to drag my carcass out to be scavenged by the native wildlife, stripping off only my remaining money, passport, and wedding ring to be returned to my family. I really thought I was done for.

No one can appreciate how good it is to be alive and without chronic pain until having an experience like mine. As I regained my strength over the next week, every day was a miracle, sparkling with joy and radiating with alertness.

Surviving when you think you won’t produces a sensational feeling of gratitude. I don’t recommend the circumstances leading up to it. Yet here I am.

Manyara Hippo Yawn (1)

Hippo yawning

2/20 – Still in Zanzibar, Ironically I can’t help but notice the mundane as I contemplate my existence and how grateful I am to be alive: The Qatar safety announcement hasn’t changed since last year. It is very tired now and needs refreshing.  Why do I care?  I don’t know.

2/20 – In Doha airport. Doha boarding are up 20%+ over last year, straining the infrastructure here (I am connecting from JRO to my PHL flight). Gates are scarce, and our inbound had to park on the ramp again.

February 21:  Arrive United States.

Manyara Cape Buffalo (3)

Cape Buffalo

2/21 Great in-flight service for 14 hrs. Love the Qatar angled-in business seats at the windows. Feels private and real comfortable.

Landed 730am (15 mins early), off plane at 740am, through Customs & Immigration at 744am thx to Global Entry kiosks, by 750am had a boarding pass for an illegal connection at 845am to RDU and had passed thru TSA security, ran from international gate to C31 at Philly, a long distance, by 812am, and we boarded for RDU at 815am. Now I get home 2.5 hrs earlier than scheduled, thank God.

Tarangire Lilac-Breasted Roller (1)

Another shot of my favorite African bird, the Lilac-breasted Roller

March 21: (one month later) Raleigh, back in the everyday busy routine

Tanzania?  Camping?  The wilderness among the Maasai and the wildlife?  It all seems like a dream I had now.  Glad I took notes to help me remember and reflect.

Life is short.  Gotta grab hold of every adventure and hang on!

Ngorongoro Lioness (1)

In the Serengeti, nature is still red in tooth and claw every day

 

In Washington, DC this past week for an annual transit legislative conference—my third trip to our nation’s capital in the past 12 months—I flew again to Washington Reagan Airport via American Airlines.  It’s just a 45-minute hop of about 300 miles from RDU to DCA, and AA has the most frequencies at the cheapest fares.  The flights up and back should be quick and painless, right?  Getting there wasn’t too bad on Sunday, but AA did its best—for the third time in a row—to make the return flight as ugly an experience as could be imagined.  The airline seems determined to prove once again that it has no pride and no shame.

Since the big nor’easter snowstorm (dubbed “Stella” by The Weather Channel) was forecast to blow through Washington on Tuesday, I changed my return to RDU from Tuesday afternoon—smack in the middle of the storm’s fury—to a Monday evening 7:29 PM departure (AA4378) to ensure not being stuck in DC for several days.   Fearing transportation and transit options would begin to shut down before the storm hit at eight o’clock, with all-too-predictable slowdowns, I left the hotel at 4:00 PM by cab and arrived at the airport before 4:30, three hours before the flight.  The notifications I’d set up at AA.com chirped at me continuously on my smartphone with assurances that AA4378 was on time.

The text messages also told me that my flight, an Embraer EMB-145 commuter jet, was departing from Gate 35X. That gave me pause, since my two previous flights on AA back to RDU from Reagan had also been from 35X and both miserable experiences (see this post from June, 2016) After the security screen ordeal, I had plenty of time to grab some Chinese food before wandering back to the claustrophobic chaos that characterizes AA operations at Gates 35 and 35X even on a good day.

Gate 35 is at the concourse level, while 35X is a basement area directly beneath 35.  Both are always crowded with passengers waiting to be called to the sub-level to board shuttle bus transfers to their respective airplanes, which are parked remotely on the ramp.  Typically, neither area contains sufficient seating for the hundreds of customers, and the number of people standing makes it impossible to move quickly through the throng to get to the buses when the garbled announcements are made.

Luckily I don’t have to travel to Washington, DC very often, because there is no “least worst” way to make the journey from Raleigh.  If I drive, it’s on the nightmarish I-95 corridor, with chronic creeping congestion north of Richmond that makes me want to shoot myself.  If I take Amtrak, it’s great when it works, but trains are often delayed for hours, or even canceled, due to never-ending CSX track congestion south of DC.  If I fly, I have to endure the protracted delays and cancellations of services into Washington Reagan Airport, not to mention the extremely disagreeable experience of flying out of DCA’s gate 35X. No option is ideal, but I most often fly because, when things run smoothly, it’s faster than by rail or car.

Misery at 35X is well-known.  Here’s what the local business journal had to say in June, 2015 when it announced improvements were on the way:

“A timetable has not been announced, but one of the first contracts as part of a $1 billion construction program at Reagan National Airport has been awarded that will, among other things, address the airport’s unpleasant Gate 35X.

“That’s the Terminal B gate where passengers are herded down escalators and onto shuttle busses that take them to small commuter planes parked outside several hundred yards away.

“DCA’s Gate 35X will go away as part of a major construction project.

“Architectural and engineering firm AIR Alliance, a joint venture between AECOM and PGAL, has been awarded a contract worth up to $75 million for design and program management of a new pier that will replace the 14 outdoor boarding positions with indoor gate access.

“More than 5,000 passengers a day go through Gate 35X.”

Almost two years on, there is no discernable progress being made to achieve those promises.

The happy chirps kept coming from AA on my phone reassuring an on-time departure of AA4378, but it was all a lie.  I watched the board for news of our flight, and I asked several AA working the gates when we would board.  They all said 30 minutes ahead and confirmed the plane was on time.

But at 7:15 when no call had come, I knew the flight was not leaving at 7:29.  I again asked a staffer, and this time discovered from a passing supervisor that the inbound aircraft was coming from CVG and was still circling.  Armed with the inbound flight number, I was able to track its status on FlightAware.com.  It was agonizing to watch the updates come in, especially when the plane had to circle for 15 minutes before being given the okay to land.

More time passed, and the board, defectively showing parts of two screens on the left screen and the remainder on the right screen, continued to show the flight on time.  So did AA.com.  I again asked a staff person whether we’d be boarding soon.  She did not know, but referred me to the same supervisor I’d spoken to once before, who said the aircraft was waiting for a parking spot on the ramp.

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Even DCA Gate 35X departure boards are messed up.  Also note that the board is showing AA4378 to RDU as leaving at 7:47 PM, but the time is 7:50 PM, and we have not yet boarded.

Until I spoke to the supervisor, not a single AA employee at gates 35/35X had a clue where AA4378’s airplane was, whether there was a crew to RDU, why the flight was late, or when the flight might leave. I had by then asked at least seven different staff people on duty (not counting the supervisor), and not one had the slightest idea about our flight.

Perhaps, I mused, this is all emblematic of the disintegration of DC and the loss of pride in efficiency in American business in general. Meantime, it had begun to snow at 8:00 PM, just as predicted.  I began to worry that the flight would be canceled or the field closed.

Finally AA posted a new flight departure time: 7:47 PM.  By then I had been waiting in the Third World dysfunctional madness of American Airlines’ DCA gates 35/35X for three hours.  I stared at the insanity of the busted departure board which showed AA4378 leaving at 7:29, no, then at 7:47, no, wait, it was 7:50 on the clock when I took the photo.  Yet the board showed the plane leaving three minutes earlier and never updated again.

Suddenly at 8:18 we were called to board a shuttle bus: no explanation why, and no apologies offered.  At 8:25 the bus reached the plane, and by then it was snowing hard, a fact which would require the aircraft to deice—always a lengthy delay.  Everyone scampered quickly on board, and people were settled in and ready to go by 8:34, now over an hour late.  Outside, the slow was flying furiously.

Unfortunately, AA did not share our sense of urgency, and we sat, and sat, and sat.  I was in seat 1A by the door and nearest to the cockpit, so I saw and heard everything being communicated therein.  The captain finally announced that, due to the snow and required deicing, he wanted to “top off” the fuel, just in case we needed it.  No argument there from anyone on board; we certainly did not care to run out of fuel.  He also mentioned that the left engine required “several quarts of oil” and that a certified AA mechanic had been called to fill up with lubricant.  “Won’t take long,” he cheerfully promised.

But he lied.  At 8:50 we were still waiting on maintenance to bring us oil for the left engine that the captain had first requested when he landed more than an hour previous. The snow was worsening by the second, and I fretted that the flight might be canceled when the field closed while we continued waiting for incompetent AA staff with a few cans of oil.  Meantime, I was seated directly by the open door, shivering as snow blew in on my feet.

Another flying nightmare, I thought, and no drink in sight when I needed one, not even a bottle of water.  I watched the flight attendant go into the cockpit and begin laughing with the pilots. They don’t give a damn about us paying passengers, I thought.

At some point near half past nine, the maintenance guy finally showed up and filled the left engine’s oil reserves, after which the door was secured (it had snowed on me for an hour), and we began a long taxi to the deicing station near the takeoff point.  We held there in a queue before finally getting a double dose of deicing chemicals.

AA4378 was at last in the air out of DCA at 9:56, two and a half hours late.  It was a rough climb-out in the huge snowstorm. The plane touched down at RDU at 10:49.  As we taxied in, I thought it a miracle that we had finally arrived, no thanks to AA’s shoddy, indifferent operation at Reagan. What a bunch of clueless clowns.

Reflecting on three nearly identical rotten experiences in the past year on AA out of DCA Gate 35X, it’s easy to believe that the carrier has calculated exactly how crummy, spiritually depleting, and inefficient their operations at places like DCA can become before losing many customers forced to ride their planes to and from Washington  It sure feels like AA won’t invest a nickel in making things better above that minimalist line in the sand.  Maybe AA’s motto should be, “Okay, we are BAD, but, hey, at least we’re not UNITED AIRLINES!”

The truth is probably simpler:  American Airlines (which is actually the disreputable America West hiding under the dysfunctional husk of US Airways now hiding under the AA cloak of half-ass respectability–an unsubtle Russian doll of deception) just doesn’t care.

When I was consulting and on the road 48-50 weeks a year, the need to depressurize when time off rolled around was imperative for my sanity.  I strove to choose wisely when planning in order to minimize stress and maximize enjoyment.  I may not be traveling these days like I did for decades, but those principles still apply to vacation choices.

Sometimes I choose my trips poorly, and when I do, I try to learn from my mistakes. I certainly erred last year (early 2016) when on an initial safari to Tanzania, and I blogged about my blunder (see here).

Determined to have the East African experience I always dreamed of, I signed on to an alternative type of safari to Tanzania in February, 2016.  This post chronicles the contrast between last year’s disappointing trip and this year’s near-perfect one.

To recap, the safari in 2016 was a jarring mix of awe and disappointment, the downer part because of the nature of the trip I had booked. I discovered quickly that being tethered each night to immovable luxury lodges had the unintended effect of putting human comforts over animal viewing.  The daily game drives that started and ended at a stationary lodge were perforce limited to a certain geographic radius anchored to the property which didn’t always jive with where the animals happened to be congregating during the annual migration out on the great plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.  On the bright side, I took careful note of things I didn’t like while there last year and achieved pretty good in-country research to get smart about alternative types of safaris more suited to my temperament and tastes.

In early 2017, therefore, I returned to Tanzania for two weeks, sleeping each night not in lodges, but in what are called “mobile tented camps.”  In truth, the tented camps are not mobile in a nimble sense.  They are put up with the intent of remaining in one place for at least a few weeks, and sometimes up to three months.

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A Blue Monkey dabbles in the water at the Ngare Sero Lodge, Arusha (Tanzania), where we stayed the first and last nights of our two week safari.

Just the same, the emphasis on “mobile” refers to the ability of the tented camps to move to choice locations close to, or not far from, the great herds of two million Wildebeest and Zebra that constitute the bulk of the annual migration.  Thus sleeping in mobile tented camps rather than in permanent lodges almost guarantees a rich daily panoply of African wildlife.

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Our tented camp on the Ngorongoro ridge above the caldera.  At about 7,000 ft, nighttime temps often plummeted below freezing here, just two degrees south of the Equator. 

There are several hundred Tanzanian safari companies, large and small, almost all based in the growing town of Arusha.  The Arusha region is nearest to the big nature parks of NE Tanzania (Tarangire, Arusha/Mount Meru, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro caldera, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti, and Kilimanjaro) and is 45 minutes from Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO), which hosts daily international flights (e.g., KLM, Turkish Air, Ethiopian Air, Qatar).  Through a friend who grew up in Tanzania and who organized this trip, I was fortunate to have made contact with the best of Arusha safari companies, Dorobo (see here).

Dorobo is owned by the Peterson family, and we spent an evening with Thad Peterson when I arrived back in Tanzania. His company provided the most spectacular safari I’ve ever experienced in 26 years of travels to Africa.

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A rare Jackson’s Chameleon walks on my hand at around 7,200 ft on Mt. Meru. Dorobo Safari co-owner Thad Peterson identified this unicorn-horned lizard after our Mt. Meru ascent.

I was privileged to be in the company of ten other adventurers, all but me from Virginian and Maryland. It turned out to be a most congenial group.  Amiability is a critical success factor in groups seeking to experience Tanzanian wildlife on a tented camping safari. Our assemblage agreed in advance to leave politics at home, and we nurtured and maintained good-natured spirit for two weeks living in close proximity.  We traveled in two Toyota Land Cruisers with open tops to stand up in and view wildlife, the SOP of East African safaris.  We were led by two highly expert Dorobo guides, Kisana Mollel and Killerai Munka, both Maasai tribesmen from Arusha.

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Our expert Dorobo guides, Kisana and Killerai, with trip organizer Robin Bendenbaugh, who lived his first 16 years in Tanzania. Robin describes being there as the ultimate boy’s life!

I am familiar with very skilled wildlife guides and trackers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.  None compare to the natural world knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.  It was impossible to stump either one.  Whether fur or feather, Kisana and Killerai could instantly and correctly identify the specie.

This talent is particularly impressive with birds on the wing.  Tanzania boasts 1005 species of birds. Dorobo co-owner Thad Peterson challenged our group to come back with a list of 250 bird species we had seen by the end of the trip. Sounds like an impossible task, and yet on our second full day we had already seen 78 species (there were serious birders among us, Robin included).  By the end of the trip 212 or better bird species (lists differed) had been spotted.  Much of the credit for racking up so many was due to the eagle eyes and deep knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.

Continuing with details about the trip itself: The tents are not the rustic, do-it-yourself, Boy Scout kind of thing, mind you.  Tents are in place upon arrival and quite impressive in size and accoutrements.  They are set up by experienced camp staff who also cook, clean, and provide every chore one can imagine.

 

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Closeup of our tent overlooking Ngorongoro caldera.

The canvas contraptions should be properly called—and sometimes are—”luxury” tents because the usual setup is very spacious with plenty of headroom and furnished with two single beds, solar-powered lamps and lights, various bed stands, shelves, and luggage racks.  Typically the tents have en suite ablution facilities behind the sleeping area consisting of a sun shower (using solar-heated hot water), a toilet, and a wash basin.  More solar-powered electric fixtures illuminate the back area, which is separated by canvas and mesh doors (flaps) from the sleeping area.  Tent front entry includes a deep canvas sunshade and two comfortable lounge chairs from which patrons can sip a Hendricks G&T in serene contemplation of the African veldt.

 

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Inside a “luxury” tent, with a view of the washbasin in the rear.  On either side is a toilet and a shower.

Have I painted a picture of ease and tranquility?  I hope so, because my intent is to demonstrate that such accommodation, while not as cushy, classy, or comfy as a fancy safari lodge, gives the sense (and reality) of being literally cheek-by-jowl close to nature at little expense to security or comfort.

Luxury tents have lots of mesh windows for ventilation and big mesh screen flaps secured by zippers for ingress and egress.  Heavy canvas flaps can also be zippered shut tightly for extra refuge from things that go bump in the night, as things are wont to do in the Tanzanian outdoors.

Okay, security can be an issue, since even luxury tents are staked smack in the Serengeti wilderness, but the only worry is outside the tent, not in.  Lots of Cape Buffalo, Wildebeest, Zebra, antelope, and other creatures of the African plain wander through, especially at night.  So do the predators that feed on the grass-eaters.  Lions and hyenas are regular visitors to tented camps, but the beasts are normally in search of the usual species on their menus, which do not include humans.

Well, not unless you leave the tent at night, which is strictly forbidden.  Even if wandering about after dark was allowed, I don’t recommend it unless you want to bequeath to your family a dramatic close-up photo of a lion pouncing, massive jaw agape and razor-sharp claws extended in anticipatory embrace of an exotic meal.

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Our less luxe but very comfortable tent in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where we lived for two days among the Maasai.

Even the East African safari genre described as mobile tented camps, however, can have considerable variability, as I found.  None were crude or primitive, but each tented camp had its own special character.  The least luxe but most mobile was the Dorobo tented camp in the southwest highlands of the Nogorongoro Conservation Area.  There we lived for two days and nights among the Maasai.  They slaughtered and roasted a goat in our honor in the ritual Maasai manner.

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William, the Maasai elder who was our host when camping in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Tents there were smaller in comparison to other tented camps, but still spacious enough to stand up in, and the beds were sturdy cots with foam mattresses rather than fancy beds with real mattresses.  However, I was very comfortable and slept especially soundly in those Dorobo tents among the Maasai.  In retrospect, the 48 hours we spent in that area is a favorite memory.

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Our Maasai hosts in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area slaughtered a goat in the traditional manner.  The boys collected and drank the blood and ate the raw kidneys, their portion rewards for skinning and butchering the goat to prep for roasting.

Many of the best niche tented safari operators based in Arusha cooperate with each other, and thus Dorobo handed us off to Matembezi Safaris (see here) at our next encampment, located on the gentle western slope of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.  The Matembezi tented camp was my favorite of the entire trip, in part because of the particularly gracious and efficient staff, in part because of the huge, comfortable tents, and in part because of the gorgeous location overlooking the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti.  Big herds of Wildebeest and Zebra moved back and forth across the horizon while we sipped late afternoon South African wine or a single malt Scotch after our game drive and a quick hot shower to shed the dust.  It was a real pleasant moment, one I looked forward to every day.

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The glorious Matembezi encampment on the slopes of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.

The usual routine at camps was to arrive late afternoon from a game drive and disappear into our tents (usually two persons per) for a sun shower.  The staff would have lots of solar-heated water ready, mixed with cold water to get it to a non-scalding temp.  The water was plentiful for every person in our group of eleven.  We would then don fresh clothes and hand over the dirty laundry to the staff, who would wash and fold everything by the following afternoon.

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The comfortable interior of our Matembezi tent. Behind me are the ablutions in the rear section (toilet, shower, wash basin). 

The cocktail hour then followed, usually with a good choice of beer, wine, and liquor.  I was quite surprised that Matembezi’s liquor stock included Hendricks gin and a decent single malt whisky.

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Pretty elegant booze choices at Matembezi Camp in the middle of the Serengeti.

Only Dorobo and Matembezi included alcohol and laundry in their service offering at no extra cost; other tented camps charged us separately for booze, beer, soft drinks, and laundry, albeit not exorbitant prices.

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Trip organizer and Tanzanian wildlife and bird expert Robin Bedenbaugh enjoying a sundowner at Matembezi Camp on Naabi Hill overlooking the Serengeti shortgrass plains.

Darkness comes fast near the Equator, and we were just two degrees south.  Even with daytime temps in the nineties, the Serengeti cools off after the sun sets, and we welcomed the nightly fire of deadwood as we downed our drinks.  Dinner followed, always a convivial affair with lots of variety in soups, salads, entrees, vegetables, and desserts.  Meals were always good, sometimes outstanding.

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Matembezi meal tent set for dinner.

Nobody went hungry, and the evening repast was usually at an end by eight o’clock, after which we all turned in.  The relentless African sun left us knackered by early evening, and we slept most every night to the sounds of hyenas calling, lions roaring, and antelopes browsing not far from our tents. To me, the entire trip was heaven on earth every day and night, despite a serious bout of ileus which I’ll talk about in the next post.  Before signing off, though, I want to discuss picture-taking on safari.

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Three teen Maasai girls on their way to market in the Ngorongoro highlands. Maasai girls often shave their heads because water is scarce for bathing.

Most folks in our group brought several serious digital cameras and long lenses, all stowed into heavy camera and photographic accessory bags.  I did the same for twenty years of trips to Africa before realizing that I cared more about framing, color, and composition than I did about capturing the fuzzy image of a leopard’s tail wagging on a distant tree limb.

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A lone cheetah patrols the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti. All photos were taken with my Samsung S7 Edge camera.

So, instead of a big Nikon, I now use only my Samsung S7 Edge mobile phone for a camera.  The photos posted here were all taken on the S7.  I’ve been practicing with the Samsung phone cameras for several years as they have gradually improved to compete with iPhone cameras.  With the current top camera on the Samsung S7 Edge, they have surpassed iPhone camera quality.

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A male lion rests in the midday shadows on the Serengeti near Serondela.

I first noticed that pictures taken on the Samsung S5 were as good or better than those on my Nikon SLR, the primary difference being that the Nikon boasted several long telephoto lenses that could bring the animals closer.  However, doing so often compromised picture quality, and the light had to be excellent to get fine detail in hi-res telephoto shots.  I came to realize that I was better off taking photos of animals and birds near enough that I didn’t require a telephoto.  I then sold my Nikon and all my equipment.  I was pleased to be rid of bulk, weight, and worry about taking all that stuff with me overseas.

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Hippo pool in the Ngorongoro caldera.

When I upgraded my phone to a Samsung S6 Edge, I was flabbergasted that the camera quality had jumped several levels over the S5, which I considered so good that it had led me to ditch my big cameras. Just before I left on this trip, I upgraded again to the Samsung S7 Edge, and its camera is the pinnacle of perfection to date.

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A cheetah on the lookout from a copse in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The S7 camera has a lot of built-in options, too, including to shoot RAW photos, but I do not (takes up too much memory).  I stick with a high resolution 16:9 (9.1M) 4032×2268 setting, but there is a 4:3 (12M) 4032×3024 higher resolution before getting to RAW.  There are many modes to choose from, including Auto and Pro.  Pro gives the most control over individual pictures, but I have found that I can more quickly manipulate the focus and light onscreen using the Auto setting than using the Pro setting, so I generally leave it on Auto.  However, it takes only a second to change modes, so if I have the time to compose a picture, I will change to the Pro setting.  I also like the easy-to-use panoramic setting, though it is sometimes a challenge to keep the camera steady when capturing a panoramic image.

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Some the two million Wildebeest and Zebra migration on the tallgrass Serengeti plains near Serondela “where the grass eats the sky.”

All the pictures posted here were shot using the Auto setting, albeit with a good deal of fast onscreen manipulation to get the light and focus the way I wanted (when I had time).  Getting that Cheetah walking (above) was difficult.  I took several pictures I wasn’t happy with until getting the one I posted.  All the photos were taken in about 8-15 seconds because that’s all the time I had before, for example, the Cheetah was not in the frame I wanted.

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Baobab sunrise in the Tarangire National Park.

A general shortcoming of all camera phones is the digital zoom.  Ruins resolution.  So far there is no way to overcome that, but I look forward to technological advances that will improve the picture eventually.  Meantime, I don’t care, because I can get such great pictures with what I have using no zoom whatsoever.

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Market day in Makuyuni, Tanzania, as we drove from Tarangire to Ngorongoro.

Next week I will post part two, which will include the day-by-day itinerary camping in Tanzania.

When I flew Qatar Airways in business class from Philadelphia to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) in January, 2016, I didn’t imagine that I’d be repeating the exact itinerary 13 months later.  Doing so in February, 2017 gave me an opportunity to compare the end-to-end experience year over year.  The two journeys were remarkably consistent in some ways—a credit to Qatar—marred only by hiccups connecting through Hamad International Airport in Doha (Qatar), the enormous, gleaming, modern hub airport for Qatar Airways.

Whereas everyone seems to know that rival airline Emirates Airways flies through Dubai, Qatar the airline and Qatar the country are not as famous.  Here’s how one Internet source describes the small nation:

“Qatar is a peninsular Arab country whose terrain comprises arid desert and a long Persian (Arab) Gulf shoreline of beaches and dunes. Also on the coast is the capital, Doha, known for its futuristic skyscrapers and other ultramodern architecture inspired by ancient Islamic design, such as the limestone Museum of Islamic Art. The museum sits on the city’s Corniche waterfront promenade.”

I wrote about Qatar Airways last year in this post when comparing its business class to business class on Cathay. However, I described only the long-haul flights between PHL and Doha, about 13 hours going east and 14 hours returning. Reflecting now on the 2016 flights compared to the Qatar flights in 2017, lavish praise both years is well-deserved.

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I always carry soft-sided luggage on overseas trips and never check them. The contents of these bags were sufficient for two weeks camping in the Serengeti (Tanzania), including two pairs of Nikon binoculars, maps, and guide books.

My trip actually began in Raleigh (RDU) on an American Airlines ERJ-190.  The small first class compartment was comfortable and the overhead compartments adequate for my two large but soft-sided bags.

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My two soft bags conform easily to overhead compartments, even on this ERJ-190.

I never check my luggage, not even when embarking for two weeks of camping in the Serengeti as I was on this adventure.  I settled sleepily into my seat and happily sipped a Bloody Mary. After all, I was on vacation. The flight was uneventful, and I dozed all the way to PHL.

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The Bloody Mary put me to sleep even though this page-turner is J. K. Rowling’s best book so far.

Carrying one’s own bags, especially soft cases with no wheels, has its challenges.  Philly is a huge airport, and it was a long walk from my inbound gate to Terminal A-West where the international flights are parked.  My shoulders were sagging when I finally saw the Qatar lounge sign.

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Qatar Airways uses the BA Lounge for its premium cabin customers at Philadelphia.

Qatar patrons enjoy the use of the modest but satisfactory British Airways Lounge at Philadelphia.  I remember thinking last year that the BA club was too small and the services inadequate, but this year I came away with a better impression.  Perhaps it was because I had a longer layover and spent more time poking around the lounge.  The breakfast items were fresh and tasty, and I could have enjoyed Champagne had I wanted.  It was quiet and clean, just the sort of oasis I needed between flights.

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The nicely appointed BA Lounge at PHL, far nicer than the much larger BA Lounge at JFK.

Qatar boarded a good 40 minutes ahead of departure, a short walk from the BA Lounge, and I made my way to seat 2K (right side window) to settle in.

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About to board the Qatar A350 PHL/DOH.

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I prefer a window seat (2K on this flight) on Qatar A350 aircraft.

The A350, brand new a year ago on my initial trip, showed no signs of age.  Everything was shiny, shipshape, functional, and comfortable.

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Qatar flight QR728, an A350, at PHL gate A16. 

The large business class cabin crew began its hovering to take care of my every need.  I was shocked when perusing the wine list to find that they were serving a 2006 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, a top Champagne. When they offered a glass, I eagerly accepted and sipped it through the boarding process: a delicious way to start a 13 hour flight.

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One of the finest Champagnes made was served on boarding and throughout the flight.

Just as last year, the flight pushed back on time, but was followed by a long taxi before becoming airborne.  Nonetheless, the captain said we would arrive 15 minutes ahead of schedule.  I settled in to read and watch a movie, eschewing the first food offering, as I’d enjoyed a bagel in the BA Lounge.

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Aaah! I could finally relax with a glass of Taittinger and dig in for 13 hours in the air.

Qatar Airways allows business class customers to order any food on the menu at any time during the flight.  I dozed off for a few hours, making up for my short night’s sleep, and enjoyed several appetizer portions of smoked salmon without an entrée when I awoke.

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Seat 2K is a window seat on Qatar A350 airplanes and is slightly angled in for privacy.

I always travel internationally with my own Bose over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, but I had forgotten that Qatar provides its own noise-canceling headphones, also over-the-ear.  The Qatar phones have a nonstandard three-prong plug unique to their planes, so I was forced to use them.  Turns out they were very good and quite comfortable.  I need not have taken my own Bose phones.

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Looking forward at the business class section from the second left door mid-cabin area. There are more, but fewer, rows of business class seats in the section behind me.

Even when lucky enough to ride up front in business, I long ago developed a routine for surviving very long legs by air (see here), and I was up standing in the mid-cabin area stretching many times during the flight. Several movies and a several naps later, we were descending into Doha.  The on-board service was near-perfect for me, almost a carbon copy of the same flight experience a year previous.

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The digital map showing progress from PHL to Doha.

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Intermittent safety messages played between map updates.

However, things started going awry once we hit the tarmac at beautiful Hamad International Airport in Doha.  First, there were no free gates for the big A350 after a 13-hour flight.  Last year we pulled directly into a gate.  This year we parked remotely from the terminal and waited for buses to cart us to the terminal.

The buses did not come for 20 minutes, a long wait.  Good thing we were 15 minutes early, I thought, but I desperately wanted to get to the humongous business class lounge that I enjoyed last year and take a shower.  I had a two hour connection window, closing fast as we waited.

Finally the ramp buses arrived, and Qatar allowed business class off ahead of coach.  Turned out the buses were tricked out with luxurious big fat first class seats, obviously shuttles used exclusively for Qatar’s premium customers.  Once full, the buses trundled off across the heavily-congested tarmac, dodging other airplanes, jockeying with other shuttle buses and baggage trolleys and sundry service vehicles.  For twelve minutes we were taken on a tour of the terminal ground areas, going this way and that and back again, finally reaching a door and deposited.

There we joined the hordes trying to traverse the airport, just another peon among the masses.  Doha requires all inbound passengers to endure a full TSA-style rescreening process, and even though I eventually located the premium customer line, it was a long wait to reach the machines.  Everything had to be removed: belts, shoes, watches, etc., just like the TSA non-PRE lines.

Once I was put back together and certain I had everything, I shouldered my luggage and took the long escalator down to the main floor.  After being jostled by the SRO crowds, I was able to locate a Qatar Airways rep who pointed me to the business lounge.  As I made my way to the lounge through the human congestion, it occurred to me that the airport seemed much more packed than the previous year.

The same was true at the business lounge.  As I reported last year, the Qatar Airways business lounge is enormous, bigger than some airports, yet it felt over-crowded this year compared to last year.  I had lost a lot of time between the plane and bus and security and walking, and now I had only an hour before my connecting flight.  I quickly found one set of showers (there are two sets of showers in the lounge) and was told there was a 45-60 minute wait.  Unacceptable, I said.  My complaint was met with an indifferent shrug.

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One view of the gigantic Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha.

I hurried instead to the second, more distant, set of showers at the far end of the business lounge and was told the wait there was at least half an hour.  Long story short, I discreetly bribed the attendant with $5 and was taking a shower within a few minutes, but I didn’t like having to cut the queue.

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Another view of the capacious Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha. Big as it was, demand for showers exceeded supply.

I barely had time to grab a Diet Coke as I departed, presaging a longish walk to my departure gate—a real gate, at least.  My connecting flight was a modest A320 that would wing its way for five more hours to the Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) in Tanzania, the gateway to Arusha, which is the city Serengeti safaris begin from.  Boarding began almost as soon as I entered the gate area, and I was soon in my tired-looking business class seat on the narrow body aircraft bound for JRO.

The on-board service en route to Kilimanjaro was excellent, just as good as on the very long widebody flight from Philly.  Same good selection of food and drink, and this time I ate heartily, as my marathon through the Doha airport had left no time for relaxation or dining.  I even napped a little more, glad to have left the frenetic connection behind.  What, I wondered, had changed in a year at the Doha airport?  Last year the connection was easy; this year it was like making a 35-minute connection in Atlanta between the T and F concourses: I had to hustle. Stress is not what one expects from an expensive international business class experience.

As I was thus musing while watching Doha disappear behind us in the clouds, one of the flight attendants offered me a local English-language newspaper, The Peninsula, which carried an article relevant to my question.  The headline read: “Record 37.3 million passengers pass through Hamad International Airport (Doha) last year.”  The article’s key point was a 20.5% increase in passengers over the previous year.  No wonder there were no gates, a shortage of buses, no room for the buses to maneuver on the tarmac, long lines at inbound security screens, hordes of humanity milling about in the main terminal, densely-packed business class lounge, and one hour waits for a shower. The big increase in passengers had not been accompanied by any additional airport capacity.

The flight into Kilimanjaro was easy and relaxing.  I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a Riyadh-based Saudi going from a two week private tiger-watching safari in India to another two week private safari on the Serengeti in Tanzania.  He asked me about our new president, saying the Saudis were concerned about Trump’s stability.  I was no help assuaging his concern.

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The seat controls for the business class seats on Qatar A320 airplanes.

I played with the weird seat controls, trying to get the leg-rest into a position that didn’t conflict with the back of the seat in front of me (and finally succeeded).  I accepted an iPad and noise-canceling headphones from the cabin crew to watch movies, and we arrived early.

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Kilimanjaro Airport check-in area was undergoing serious reconstruction in February, 2017.

Heading back home two weeks later, I checked in at Kilimanjaro Airport and found it a major construction zone.  Dodging ladders and wires dangling from the ceiling, I was given a pass into the small all-airline business lounge.  The less said about that impoverished facility, the better: No air-conditioning in ninety degree heat, outside security doors open to the terrace above the runway, a clueless staff absent much of the time, beverage coolers unplugged and not working, and a few dreary cold cuts, potato chips, and peanuts set out for nibbles.

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My Qatar Airways A320 flight to Doha arrives at Kilimanjaro Airport.

The Qatar A320 was on time leaving JRO and made a stop at Zanzibar before heading back to Doha.  There we picked up a planeload of Swedes and Danes who had spent a week escaping the Northern European winter, collecting rays on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar.  Once they discovered that I was an American, they asked about our new president and how we could have elected him, giving me an opportunity to practice my diplomatic skills.  I failed to mitigate their worries.

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Business class seats on the Qatar A320 aircraft used between Doha and Kilimanjaro.

The flight was dead on time into Doha.  However, as before, gates were scarce, and our plane had to park on the ramp again. Then a 17-minute wait for buses. They allowed us in business class to get off first again, apparently standard practice. We again boarded special luxury buses solely for premium passengers, but then took another slow 14-minute tour of the ramp before finally being let off. That foreshadowed another long queue at inbound security even though it was a dedicated premium cabin security line.

This was all a good long walk from the business class lounge, where I again had to slip the Filipino shower attendant a fiver not to have to wait 30 minutes for a shower. Good thing I did, because I barely had time to choke down another Diet Coke before making a mad dash to C4 (a real gate!) for my Philly flight. There another full-blown TSA take-everything-off security screen and bag searches, followed by a real hard scrutiny of each individual and passports. It took 4 minutes to clear the man ahead of me traveling on a Mideast passport. The boarding area was SRO, even in the area designated for business class flyers. Qatar didn’t board until 26 minutes prior to flight time. On a less important note the boarding Champagne was not chilled, merely a little bit cool.  Okay, this is a small nit, but luxury cuvee Champagne should be served respectfully and properly, that is, fully chilled.

Flying Doha to Philly was a mirror image of the outbound flight, which is to say, near-perfect.  Great cabin crew, great service, spotless airplane, good food and drink, quiet environment, and the plane was 15 minutes early at PHL.

I was not the first off the plane, but I nonetheless blazed through customs and immigration using my Global Entry credentials and was able to make a much earlier connection home to RDU.  Here are my notes for this amazing speed from international arrival to domestic departure:

“Landed 730am (15 mins early), off plane at 740am, through Customs & Immigration at 744am thx to Global Entry kiosks, by 750am had a boarding pass for an illegal connection at 845am to RDU and had passed thru TSA security, ran from international gate to C31 at Philly, a long distance, by 812am, and we boarded for RDU at 815am. Arrived home 2.5 hrs earlier than scheduled.  To stand by for the flight, I was downgraded to coach and seated in the last row at 26D. But even boarding with group #4 there was plenty of overhead space for my 2 bulging bags full of gifts brought back from Tanzania. Soon after, though, when the hordes arrived, the overhead space disappeared quickly.”

The business class service overall on Qatar Airways this year was world-class except for the frenzied connections in both directions at Doha. That stress was absent from last year’s flights. Coming home, it was the same great in-flight service on both legs, just like 2016.  For the long 14-hour leg to the USA, I enjoyed the Qatar angled-in business seats at the windows both years. They feel private and real comfortable, and the position is conducive to sleeping. I hope I have another opportunity to use Qatar in business, but if I do, I will be careful to schedule longer layovers between flights in Doha to account for the over-crowding there.