I managed to get to some interesting places across the water in 2016, racking up tens of thousands of flight miles from Hong Kong and Singapore to the Maldives and the Netherlands to Tanzania and the UAE. And I flew to at least 16 domestic destination, too. Didn’t suffer any real serious disruptions, either, especially compared to previous years.

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Dawn over the Oakland Bay Bridge from my Hyatt Regency Embarcadero window.

Still and all, it is the least I have traveled in any one year in decades, I think.  We promised our son, now 18, that we wouldn’t go anywhere during his senior year in high school (though I did have to make a second trip to the Bay Area in October).  Hence, we won’t travel again much until June of 2017.

Thinking back over my travel experiences of early 2016 evoked these memories:

A few days before I took off to Tanzania in February, my in-laws visited us in Raleigh. When they flew home to Fargo, North Dakota, connecting through the Twin Cities, a winter weather event that had occurred two days before impacted their flights, causing many hours of delays and eventually an overnight stay in Minneapolis (which the airline picked up).  As they are in their mid-eighties, we were especially concerned, but they are tough and flexible and got through it fine.

Just the same, their two domestic flights took 22 hours RDU/FAR, a distance of 1,454 miles.  Google maps says Raleigh to Fargo can be driven in 22 hours.  Yet my three flights Raleigh to Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) in Tanzania took just 25 hours total, covering a distance of 9,392 miles (point-to-point = 7,784 miles), even counting a long layover in Doha, Qatar.

The daylight train up the Malaysian peninsula from Johor Bahru was thrilling, and I particularly loved this guy smoking in the vestibule between cars. He just seemed to be enjoying life!

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Note typical Asian squat toilet in the lav.

I’ve visited Malaysia off and on since the 1980s, and it’s never looked more prosperous than now.  It was heartening to witness and reaffirmed my strong belief that jobs and low unemployment = prosperity = peace and harmony.

Another train trip, this one in Thailand, overnight in a second class sleeper from Hat Yai, a richly multicultural and thriving city way down the peninsula, north to Bangkok, put me in touch with everyday people and made me feel, if fleetingly, like a Thai.  I didn’t want to leave the train.

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Meeting fellow travelers in the overnight Thai train from Hat Yai to Bangkok.

An intimate study of the overland safari industry in Tanzania revealed how it is almost completely controlled by ex-pat, very wealthy Indian families based in the U.K.  Few native Tanzanians, black or white, enjoy a share in the riches to be had charging $500 to $2000 per day for trips into their famous game parks like the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti.  While poverty pervades the overwhelming majority of citizens, the very rich of the world are ensconced in over-the-top luxury lodges scattered throughout the wilderness areas.  I was amused to observe that the one-percenters were nonetheless forced to endure and become mired in Tanzania’s world-class mud roads in the Serengeti just like us peons.  Turns out deep mud is a great social leveler.

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Serengeti mud: Not even a billion dollars can keep from getting stuck.

Getting to and from Tanzania via Qatar Airways in business class gave me access to the glittering airport at Doha and to Qatar’s astonishing business class lounge there.  Bigger than many good-sized airport concourses, the business lounge has every amenity one could imagine and is spotlessly clean.  I also had a glimpse of the nearby Qatar first class lounge, which takes luxe to an even loftier plane.

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One view of Qatar’s enormous business class lounge in Doha.

On a different trip using Emirates through Dubai, but this time in coach, I was treated like a king despite my dirt-cheap economy ticket.  Emirates gave me food vouchers because the wait between flights was a little longer than the airline deemed appropriate, a simple gesture that I have not forgotten, nor will I.

I was deeply touched by a young man of 25 in the Mpumalanga area of South Africa who, for five bucks (his asking price), thoroughly washed my very dusty car inside and out.  He claimed to be the bastard son of a local Gazankulu chief and was proud of his Shangaan Tsonga heritage.  The young man begged me to adopt him and take him home to America where, he said, he could earn money to send home to his dad and other family in South Africa.  He was serious, and he didn’t ask or insinuate that I should give him money beyond our agreed price (I gave him the equivalent of ten dollars anyway).

What do you say to such a request?  I stopped a Londolozi ranger the next day on the road and recommended that the famous (and wealthy) game lodge hire the young man and told the game ranger where to find him.

Fiddling around all year with various travel portals, I was sad to see that Kayak’s access to consistently good fares has become hit or miss, and I was glad to discover that Hotels.com and Travelocity now have great hotel inventories and prices. In past years I viewed both sites dismissively, and now I check them routinely.

In little Columbus, Montana I lucked upon a thrift and knickknacks store selling an old bundle of railroad maps for a song.  Among the items was a large format 1929 railroad wall map of Nebraska.  The document had not been stored properly; it was brittle and beginning to fall apart.

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May sound ho-hum to most folks, but that original map in four colors is a priceless historical treasure.  I bought it and had it digitally scanned and then professionally laminated.  I subsequently donated the artifact to the Nebraska Department of Roads in return for a tax write-off which will cover my costs.  The Cornhusker state eschews mobility options other than rubber-tired vehicles on asphalt or concrete and thus doesn’t have a rail division, but since the state was built on the railroads, the good folks at NDOR were happy to put the map in their permanent archive.  Another little bit of rail history saved, amen!

A lesson learned well this year is to avoid the hope, much less the expectation, that I will ever again be upgraded on American Airlines while traveling on a cheap coach fare.  Despite being Lifetime Gold and having accumulated 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades in my account, demand is so high for F seats domestically that those who sit there have almost always paid for the privilege.  Few Executive Platinums even get upgraded routinely any more.  And now AA has parsed its elite levels to create a Double Secret elite level far above EP, with a Super-Sized EP sandwiched in-between.  Goodbye, sharp end!

I am still pondering the year in travel and may have more recollections by next week, the end of December.  One 2016 blessing unlikely to persist was mostly dodging the bullet on weather and air traffic delays and cancellations.  The worst events were a couple of canceled flights that kept me at DCA and PHL for an extra two to three hours.  Compared to previous nightmare flights, those interruptions were trivial.

However you celebrate the holidays, I wish you and your loved ones well.  May 2017 bring you health, prosperity, and happiness!

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