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Recent air travel news prompted me to ask: Why?  A lot of whys, actually.

Why, oh why would a well-known TV personality and writer of a slew of best sellers who is reputedly worth at least $8.5 million and who is a frequent flyer ever buy a coach ticket?  Yet that’s what Ann Coulter did, a wealthy woman famous for taking no prisoners and being a sharp thinker.  While it’s true that she bought a supposedly upgraded seat in what Delta markets as their premium economy cabin (called Comfort+), it’s STILL coach, and we all know it.  Although you can see the first class cabin from there without squinting.

Why wouldn’t a rich and famous person like her simply buy a first class ticket?  This was just a domestic flight, after all, not a pricy international business class.  The fare difference is a rounding error compared to her annual income, and airfare is a fully deductible expense, assuming she was traveling on business.  I don’t blame her, frankly, for being upset about being moved from the seat she chose, but that brouhaha is a distraction.

The real question remains: What was she doing in coach to begin with?  Had she purchased a first class ticket and then moved to a different first class seat from the one she selected, would it have mattered?  Maybe, but are there really any bad seats in the front cabin?

Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to fly in ANY PART of the coach cabin these days if money was no object?  To my mind, she brought this on herself and deserved the embarrassment of having Delta refund her the paltry thirty dollars—THIRTY DOLLARS!—she paid for the “privilege” to fly in Discomfort+.  Geez!  Much ado about nothing.

As if that wasn’t laughable enough, why, oh why would any airline dignify her craziness with a pompous and hypocritical statement like the one Delta issued:

“We are sorry that the customer did not receive the seat she reserved and paid for. More importantly, we are disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media. Her actions are unnecessary and unacceptable.                   

“Each of our employees is charged with treating each other as well as our customers with dignity and respect. And we hold each other accountable when that does not happen.

“Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience.”

Oh, brother, Delta, please spare me the sanctimonious corporate swoon as you unconvincingly feign to have your commercial feelings bruised on account of being entirely undeserving of reproach. As if an airline could shed a tear from the hurt of being disparaged.

Overlong whining in your proclamation as well:  As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, methinks thou protest too much.  While you and your winged ilk self-righteously pretend to treat your customers “with dignity and respect,” too often our utter misery in the sardine can seats your marketing prodigies call comfortable is masked by our fear of being blackballed as a “security risk” if we complain and by our fierce determination to act civil not to you, but to our fellow prisoners crushed with us into your all-too-narrow aluminum tubes.

Why, oh why did our Congress abandon its duty to protect the American consumer and allow the consolidation of U.S. airlines to just three majors (four, if you count Southwest)?  The result?  United Airlines, the worst of the worst, with a reputation lower than whale dung that drifts to the bottom of the ocean, “posted a profit of $818 million in the most recent quarter, ending in June, up 39 percent compared with last year. Sales rose, too, as more customers booked flights with the carrier…” This despite the infamous incident of beating 69 year old Dr. Dao into unconsciousness and then dragging him off a plane three months ago (you can see the video embedded again in this NYT article here).

The other airlines aren’t doing so poorly, either, according to all reports.  With little or no competition in many markets now, fares have skyrocketed. Why? Because with no regulation and no competition, the airlines can charge as much as they like. I just (reluctantly) paid $544 for a round trip coach ticket RDU/MSP in mid-August to take my son to college, leaving early on a Thursday and returning early Sunday morning—not exactly peak travel periods.  It was the least expensive fare I could find on these off-travel days/times in a mundane market, a ticket that used to cost just under $300.

Why, oh why have Americans opted for price over comfort, with no balance, no compromise?  Apparently, no airline seat is too cramped and inhumanly tight side to side and front to back to cause the average American to cry “Uncle!” or to emit even the slightest whimper of protest.  Where are the minimum federally-mandated standards of seat width and pitch?  Indeed, where is the simple outrage?  Anyone who has flown on a Canadair CRJ knows the 2-2 seat configuration should long ago have been banned.  Compare two hours smushed into one of those torture chambers with two hours on an Embraer ERJ in the usual 1-2 configuration.  Close-fitting?  Absolutely.  Agonizing?  Not to me. Yet the CRJs ply the skies daily, sowing torment, and I hear no one complaining.

In the same vein, why, oh why do we succumb to ever-trickier airfare pricing schemes? Joe Brancatelli pointed out in his JoeSentMe column on Bastille Day and the L.A. Times ran a story the same day (see here) about UA considering a new program to buy back tickets from passengers and resell them to people willing to pay more. Delta has had its own version of this hat trick (see the same LAT article).  These programs are currently voluntary, but will they morph into common practice that those who pay the least are never guaranteed a seat until the door closes?  Why not?  Nothing has stopped the airlines from unbounded flimflammery up to now.  Don’t believe me?  Check the current value of your favorite frequent flyer programs.

If all these things are true, then why, oh why do we keep heaping these buckets of misery on ourselves? Perhaps because we used to love to travel, or because we have to fly for any number of reasons.

Or, if you’re like me, because you still do love to travel by air despite the pain and suffering, no matter the death by a thousand cuts, and even while paying through the nose for the wretched travails of contemporary flying. Because going places and meeting new people and seeing how they live, work, and play are among the most exciting and mind-expanding experiences of life.

And also because, in America, there are big tradeoffs in time among the few mobility alternatives to air: Highways are congested and slow, and the voting public hates high speed trains, or even slow ones, so Amtrak service is too Spartan to be taken seriously. Flying becomes the least-worst alternative, which is a sorry state of affairs.

After the wheels touch down at your destination, how do you leave the airport?  Never have we had so many choices before: rental car, black car service, taxi, Uber/Lyft, ZIP Car/Car2Go, limousine, and public transit.

Wait, did I say public transit?  Airport transit connections have been commonplace in Europe for decades, but in America?  Or in Asia?

Well, yeah.  Things are changing.  When the demands of management consulting made me a road warrior in the 70s, I headed straight for the Avis or Hertz counter after landing.  The thought of taking public transit from any American airport never entered my mind because few such options then existed.

Now, though, public transit connections from U.S. airports are growing. SmarterTravel lists so many I couldn’t keep count (https://www.smartertravel.com/2012/08/07/best-u-s-airports-for-public-transportation/), although their facts are wrong about Salt Lake City.  SLC Airport has had excellent light rail connecting service to downtown from the airport for several years.

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Utah Transit Authority light rail from SLC Airport to downtown Salt Lake

Asian public transit is also improving.  In the old days, when my 747 landed at Hong Kong, I made a beeline for the taxi queue.  Now there’s a fast and frequent airport train service that goes to Kowloon and Central that I prefer over taxi service (http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/transport/to-from-airport/airport-express.html).  I’ve tried both the train and the taxi, and the train is a lot cheaper unless you have three or four in your group traveling together.  And it’s almost always faster and less stressful than the horrific traffic snarls in Hong Kong.

Singapore also has good subway service from Changi airport, though you have to be sure you’re in Terminal 2 or 3 and find your way to the basement station (http://www.changiairport.com/en/transport/public-transport.html).

Regardless of destination—Europe, U.S., or Asia—public transit options, when useful, give me one more mobility choice, and that’s good.  Last week I mentioned the great light rail service at MSP Airport that connects to almost everywhere in the Twin Cities region.  Often I can avoid a rental car altogether by taking public transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, supplementing when I must with a car-sharing service like Uber.

I did the same in San Francisco last October, taking BART into the city from SFO, and then using Lyft, Flywheel, CalTrain commuter rail, and MUNI buses to get where I needed to go. Using those modes avoided having to rent and park a car.  It was wonderful!

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BART train at SFO Airport to San Francisco CBD

Last time I flew into Salt Lake City, I used light rail from the airport to connect to the FrontRunner commuter rail train to travel south to Provo.  I had a meeting at BYU, not far from the Provo station. My hotel provided a shuttle to get me back and forth to the rail station.  Again, no rental car.

A new electric commuter rail “A Line” runs now between DIA and downtown Denver where great connections can be made to the citywide bus and light rail transit network. I’ll be there in September for a conference, and once again, thank God, I won’t have to rent a car, and I will not have to fret about parking a car.  Best of all, by not having to drive from the Denver airport, I won’t have to worry about which toll roads I accidentally enter that ding me for exorbitant charges (https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/electronic-toll-collectors-generate-expensive-surprises-for-rental-car-drivers-052715.html).

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The new commuter rail line between DIA and central Denver

If you got excited when I mentioned limousines as one mobility possibility to take you away in style from your destination airport, then you may be sad to learn that Etihad just announced no more limos for premium customers (http://www.etihad.com/en/about-us/etihad-news/archive/2017/etihad-updates-to-ground-and-inflight-services). Kind of a bummer to lose that perk, even though I never used it.

Okay, no fancy stretch limo or driver in livery, but I am still a happy camper because public transit options from more airports give me just that: another option. Transit provides an additional mobility choice at the airport, and if it is frequent, fast, and reasonably inexpensive, then it’s a useful option, too.

Every business trip has its own special set of mobility requirements, of course, and I can’t always use public transit as a result. But when I can, I do, and I don’t miss my rental car.

The anticipation of attending a three-day transit workshop in Minneapolis last week delighted me in many ways beyond the content of the event itself: a nonstop flight (rather than enduring a connection) of reasonable duration (just 2.5 hours); the prospect of using one of our country’s best-integrated, most frequent, and best-networked public transit systems (rather than the bother of driving and parking a rental car); and the fun of trying out a new (new for me) hotel brand, the AC By Marriott.  My pleasurable expectations were fulfilled, save for the flight home.  Many business trips are an endurance contest, start to finish, whereas as this one was just short of a joy all the way. How often can we say that about traveling?

An unexpected amusement at the outset of my journey: The recent RDU Delta Sky Club renovation included the whimsical addition of five pictures of native North Carolina food and drink: Lance Nabs (the famous crackers were founded in Charlotte and still made there), Cheerwine (the very cherry soda founded in Salisbury, NC a century ago), Mount Olive Pickles (from, well, Mount Olive, NC), Texas Pete Hot Sauce (founded in Winston-Salem) and Krispy Kreme Donuts (founded in Greensboro).

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All well and good, but where, I wondered, was the picture of Pepsi-Cola?  After all, Pepsi was founded in 1898, and my Great-Grandfather, attorney Alfred Decatur Ward, incorporated and patented Pepsi-Cola for the inventor in New Bern, NC.

I was quite pleased with the RDU Sky Club in other respects, too.  It now has roughly twice the interior space of the old one, and the décor is sunny and light, and the atmosphere quieter than, say, any of the horribly-overcrowded Sky Clubs at MSP, my destination.

Once at my gate, I mused as I waited to board about the spacious and sunny feeling of the concourse, too.  It feels so serene compared to the claustrophobic nature of low-ceiling airport terminals like Charlotte and Philly.

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The plane was the usual despicable, way-too-small RJ that airlines often dispatch these days instead of real aircraft, but I had been notified two days earlier that my upgrade request cleared, so I breathed easy as the massing crowd began to circle the gate to board.  I was reminded that airline employees, not usually paragons of sincere kind-heartedness, privately disparage those who wait close to the boarding area as “gate lice.”

I settled into my one-side seat 1A and dozed until takeoff.  On climb-out I was surprised to be offered a cold breakfast.  I accepted and was soon sated, glad I had scheduled myself on a morning flight.

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After dining I snoozed and read until the wheels went down for landing.  Looking out the window I caught a magnificent view of the Minneapolis CBD and fumbled with my phone to get a quick picture.

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Normally I pay close attention to my arrival gate at any airport because I have to figure out how to navigate to the rental car shuttle, but knowing I was taking light rail transit from the heart of MSP Airport, I didn’t even take note of our gate when the plane parked.  Instead, I looked overhead for the sign directing me to the light rail station in the basement and followed the excellent signage to the subterranean platform for the train into downtown Minneapolis.

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So what is light rail, or LRT (light rail transit)?  It is an all-electric fast train that runs on tracks in its own exclusive corridor. In the Twin Cities it operates at ten minute intervals for 20 hours a day so that you don’t have to consult schedules.  Just show up at a station, and a train is never more than 9 minutes away.   Once riders near bus or LRT lines know the routes and connections, they rarely have to drive again.  The secret of an integrated system like that of the Twin Cities Metro lies in network strength and frequency.  Both equate to freedom from having to drive and park.  The more robust the frequent service transit network (“frequent” transit meaning service at least every 15 minutes), the more likely it’s going where you need to go.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul the buses and trains are all-weather, too, and always have been, even when streetcars were the way to go, as this picture from the Metro operations center shows:

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And they were always frequent, too, as seen in this old State Fair photograph:

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Transit guru Jarrett Walker is fond of saying that “frequency is freedom” and Metro lives by that mantra, as advertised everywhere:

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Back to my easy transit odyssey from the MSP Airport to downtown Minneapolis:  I had already obtained and activated an all-day pass through the first-rate Metro Transit app on my phone, so I just boarded the train and enjoyed the ride.

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The Twin Cities Metro Blue Line light rail is above ground everywhere but at the airport.  One of two LRT lines, the Blue Line carries an amazing 30,000 weekday riders between the Mall of America where there are excellent BRT and regular bus connections and Target Field in downtown Minneapolis with many more transit connections, including the Northstar commuter rail line and the Green Line LRT to the University of Minnesota and to St. Paul (which carries an astonishing 40,000 weekday riders).

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I got off at the Hennepin Ave station and was immediately asked by a smiling Metro Transit customer service rep on the platform where I was going. When I told her the AC By Marriott Hotel, she walked me to the corner and pointed the way.  A block later I was standing in front of the hotel.

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Or at least I thought I was. The building proudly announced it was the AC, but I could not locate the entrance, and the street-level windows were all curtained, which made peering in impossible.  Where was the entry?  I tried a nondescript door which looked like a service entrance and found myself inside a vestibule with another door to what, as I squinted to look in, might be a lobby.

But the door was locked.  I noticed a squawk box and pushed the button to call someone.  When I announced myself as an arriving guest, the interior door slid open.

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It was not a reassuring first impression of this newish brand (new for me, at least) of Marriott.  Taking the measure of the interior space, which was quite dark compared to the sunlit street, I spotted what I thought could be the front desk, though it was modest by most hotel standards.  As my eyes adjusted to the shaded environment, I saw two smiling young women beckoning me forward.  In no time they had me checked in and assigned to a room, even though I had arrived just past noon.  No rigmarole about room availability or arriving early; they gave me my key and pointed me to the lifts.

As I surveyed the lobby and adjacent bar and breakfast area, I was struck by how trendy, modern, hip, and chic the minimalist furnishings and décor were.  All blond woods and some stainless steel, but the woods had won the day by far.  The public spaces looked and felt expensive, arty, relaxed, cool, and classy.  Huh! I thought.  I never associate “class” with any Marriott hotel brand.  “Turgid,” maybe.  But the AC lobby felt, by contrast, European, unlike any Marriott I’ve ever seen.

Upstairs in the room my initial impression was mixed: Like the lobby, a Euro-minimalist design with a lot of wood, but only one window to the outside world.  However, as the room seeped into me, I realized that I liked the unique hardwood floors very much, and also the room’s dark wood and natural colors. Bathroom and shower were also spiffy, with lots of glass and a rain shower head.

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Back downstairs in the lobby/bar area, I asked the doorman why the front doors were locked. Locked 24/7 to keep street riffraff out, he cheerfully told me, and the elevators worked only by key card to any floor, again to keep out undesirables.  He apologized for my trouble getting in and slipped me an elite pass to the free evening drinks and modest buffet in the lobby. Later, the barman would also comp me a drink for no reason except that I chatted him up and told him how much I liked the upbeat modern design of the hotel.

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By contrast to the breezy AC atmosphere, I stopped at the nearby Marriott Renaissance for drinks with colleagues the following night, and I realized that I loathed its cookie cutter pretentiousness.  Didn’t much like the Renaissance’s $131 bill for one round of eight drinks, either. Over sixteen bucks per drink for the usual beer and wine made me like the AC even better.

Asking around, I learned that the AC hotel brand was created by a Spaniard, Antonio Catalan, in 1998. Senor Catalan envisioned more casual, Spanish-styled properties, which tend to be less formal, but modern in flair. He sold the chain to Marriott in 2011.

Marriott seems to have done well with AC in the US by not monkeying around with the concept, even though Marriott is reputed to be indifferent to its properties these days. Some observers view Marriott’s strategy as creating brands to pump rooms into markets and then to sell everything by marketing Marriott Rewards and Marriott generically.

Be that as it may, the AC was a refreshing change.  It made me feel young and made me think of words like “pizzazz” and “zest.” It exuded a relaxed, understated elegance without self-importance.

Returning to the airport by the same efficient and fast Blue Line LRT, I ran the TSA gauntlet and found my way to the nearest Delta Sky Club.  It was claustrophobically over-crowded, but I needed some fluids and a snack.  I stayed long enough to sample the buffet, but the human congestion drove me out to another Sky Club nearer my gate.  Finding that one SRO as well—and looking very messy, like a bar after the big game was over, I didn’t stay.  My wait at the gate was more pleasant than the club though the airport was mobbed everywhere.

No upgrade awaited me that night, and on yet another dreaded RJ.  Sure, I had a seat in the so-called Comfort+ rows that claimed to be a few generous inches more spacious front to back than the rest of coach, but the four-across seats in the slender CRJ tube are equally cramped whether just behind the first class curtain or in the last row.  The large guy seated next to me in the window seat of row 6 was a Diamond also denied an upgrade, and he was rightfully glum.  As we were both very frequent flyers, we toughed it out for two and half hours to Raleigh without complaint, shoulder to shoulder with zero room between us, both uncomfortable as hell.  It was the lone unpleasant experience on an otherwise remarkably tranquil trek.

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