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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

I love nature shows, and so I am a huge fan of the BBC Planet Earth series.  A second set of programs is upon us (BBC One’s Planet Earth II).  Recently I saw this four minute teaser video on YouTube of the African grasslands at night used to advertise the show. Here is the accompanying BBC description:

“Programme website: http://bbc.in/2gDYHU7. Take your chances in the savannah at night, surrounded by some of the largest and most fearsome animals in Africa. This video has 360 spatial sound, so put your headphones on, turn up the volume, and try to keep track of the creatures around you!”

Watching the short video was thrilling.  Memories burst forth in me of the sheer terror I felt every time I camped in the African wilderness of Botswana, something I used to do with regularity for about ten years, starting in 1991.  At the time I was living and working periodically in Johannesburg, South Africa, flying home occasionally where I maintained a residence in Raleigh (NC).  I spent virtually every weekend traveling around in what’s called the ”Southern Cone” of Africa (Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa).

I steered clear of Angola and Mozambique because shooting wars were still underway then in those Portuguese-speaking countries, and I never did make it to little Malawi, a bit too far north for me to reach.  But I became quite familiar with parts of “Zim” and “Zam” (Zimbabwe and Zambia, formerly Southern and Northern Rhodesia), with Namibia (where in naïve ignorance of the risks, I drove all over the country, including across the trackless Namib Desert from Windhoek, the capital, to the German coastal town of Swakopmund), with South Africa, and with my favorite country in that part of the world, Botswana.

There, in Botswana, I did a lot of wilderness camping.  About 45% of the land area of Botswana is protected, and because of that, it is one of the last remaining true and very large refuges for African wildlife.  The numbers and the diversity of its wildlife rivals that found on the plains of East Africa in Tanzania and Kenya.

Just hearing the name “Botswana” now evokes vivid images of many hundreds of elephants along the Chobe River in the north, and of vast, seemingly endless herds of Cape Buffalo in the shallow water reeds of the Okavango swamp, and of thousands of zebras migrating from the Savuti Channel to better water in the west as the dry season approached.

I saw those and many other animals in Botswana in the company of very small groups of campers (10-12).  In those places I slept every night in a modest outside-frame tent on the ground.  We helped to collect firewood and to cook our meals.  The designated “campgrounds” were merely cleared spots in the grasslands or the Kalahari with crude ablutions and no fences to shield us from the wilderness.  Often the makeshift campground toilets and showers were busted up by elephant herds looking for water.

During the day, we had to keep everything locked up and zipped up tight to avoid predation by marauding baboons, monkeys, and families of mongoose.  Mongoose love eggs, for instance; baboons and monkeys like to destroy and try to eat everything they can get their hands on.

Birds, too, would steal any morsel they could, such as Red-billed hornbills swooping down silently from watchful perches in acacia bushes to take food I was eating right out of my hand.  Goodbye, lunch! Tents had to be kept tightly zipped shut to keep out snakes like Black Mambas and crustaceans like big scorpions and spiders seeking shelter from the sun as well as food.  Elephants liked to walk through the camp as if they owned it (well, they did, actually).  We always gave them a wide berth, and the pachyderms daintily picked their way among the tents, never so much as snagging a rope.

It was a constant, if exciting, battle to live amongst the local fauna during the day.

Nighttime, however, was a different experience altogether. The BBC video made me remember the primeval fear that gripped us all at dusk.  The video was spot on; it was no exaggeration of the deep-seated dread humans feel in the African grasslands in the dark of night. Suddenly, we realize that we are just another prey animal like Wildebeest and Impala.

One never sleeps soundly when camping in the African bush, not even in the relative safety of a “luxury camping safari” surrounded by guides with rifles. I never felt entirely safe in the African wilderness. It’s totally different from camping anywhere else on earth. I’ve slept peacefully camping in the bear country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana because the chances of a big animal encounter are low.

Not so in Botswana.  Every night—no exceptions—brought predators through the camp, looking for their next meal.

It’s not elephants, or even leopards, one worried about. My experience is that those two species just don’t care about people and generally ignored us at night unless provoked. In order of potential danger to humans, it’s hyenas first (highly opportunistic, unfussy eaters, incredibly strong, range widely each night in well-coordinated packs, and clever), and lions second (not usually man-eaters, but tend to kill anything that gets too close anyway–and whether or not they then consume your carcass, dead is, after all, dead, a condition to be avoided).  There are many, many hyena and lion families in the Botswana wilderness, all hungry for protein.

I am doing it one last time this coming February in Tanzania: a camping safari. I will always go back to Africa as long as my health and my money hold out, but on lodge safaris, like to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is surrounded by the safety of an enclosure to keep out the indiscriminate predators. After the trip in February, I doubt I’ll go on another African wilderness camping safari. Being savagely consumed while still alive, starting with one’s bloody entrails being ripped out of the abdomen, by a fellow carnivore in the dark of night isn’t a welcome image for me.

But camping on the African savanna always renewed my spirit, always gave it a unique jolt, like no other experience. Afterwards, I have never felt more alive. I highly recommend it.

Recently American Airlines sent me the usual end-of-year enticement to buy AAdvantage miles with bonuses, especially for the largest number of miles offered (buy 150,000 AAdvantage miles, get 120,000 miles as a bonus).  So, should frequent business flyers bite on buying AAdvantage bonus miles?

Frankly, I thought the answer would be a resounding “NO!”  However, after doing so rudimentary analysis, the answer is, “Probably not, but it depends.”

Please note that I don’t claim my analysis which follows is statistically valid.  It’s just a random sample, a snapshot of dollar-based fares versus mileage-based fares in one market to get a feeling for the value of such frequent flyer mile purchases.

Furthermore, I looked only at American Airlines and one partner because only AA offered to sell miles to me with bonuses.  I don’t know know whether buying miles from other carriers might be better or worse.

Here’s how I compared the comparable value of miles to money:

  • Buying the largest number of miles (150,000) would cost $4,425 plus excise taxes ($332) and an AA “processing charge” ($30) = $4,787 total.
  • AA gives 120,000 “bonus” miles with the purchase, for a total of 270,000 AAdvantage miles for $4,787. That’s about $0.018/AAdvantage mile.
  • Just for comparison, on the same table of miles for sale, one can buy as few as 1,000 miles, which doesn’t come with any bonus mileage, for a total of about $0.06/AAdvantage mile. The more miles you buy, obviously, the cheaper the price per mile.
  • For this analysis, I assumed purchasing 270,000 AAdvantage miles (150 + 120) for $4,787.

So what is that worth?  The value range is almost infinite.  Depends on what days you want to travel, what city-pair markets, what class of service, and what degree of flexibility you wish to have in changing travel plans.

I arbitrarily chose RDU (my home airport) to SFO because I like San Francisco and seem to have frequent business reasons to go there for the market analysis.

I selected RDU/SFO on 11-Feb-17, returning SFO/RDU 15-Feb-17, once again at random, though I did want to go out a few weeks and away from the holiday season, reasoning that would produce more average fares and a better range of award ticket mileage costs.

Here are the results of my searches on AA.com:


  • For award travel in coach (all comparisons are RDU/SFO in February, 2017), “saver” tickets cost as little at 25,000 miles round trip.
  • For dollar travel in coach, the cheapest fares were $392-555 round trip. I used $392 for my analysis in order to base the comparison on the lowest possible fare.
  • 270,000 miles divided by 25,000 miles = 10.8 equivalent award trips X $392/trip (if I paid for it) = $4,234 in equivalent cost.
  • $4,234 less my basis for the 270,000 miles of $4,787 = ($553).
  • Therefore, using my 270,000 purchased miles for nonrefundable coach travel to SFO would not be a good deal. I would lose $553.
  • But the same analysis using the cheapest award “anytime” coach travel award (40,000 miles) against the cheapest flex coach dollar fare ($1,146) yielded a much more favorable return of $2,949 (270 divided by 40 = 6.75 X $1,146 = $7,736 equivalent value less the $4,787 investment = $2,949 saved).
  • Thus, if I used the 270,000 miles for the cheapest flex award coach seats (40,000 miles), the investment would really pay off.


  • For award travel in domestic first class, “saver” tickets cost as little at 50,000 miles round trip.
  • For dollar travel in domestic first, the cheapest fares were $1,014-2,238 round trip. I used $1,014 for my analysis.
  • 270,000 miles divided by 50,000 miles = 5.4 equivalent award trips X $1,014/trip (if I paid for it) = $5,475 in equivalent cost.
  • $5,475 less my basis for the 270,000 miles of $4,787 = $689.
  • Therefore, using mileage awards for saver domestic first class awards would be worth $689.
  • The same analysis using the cheapest “anytime” domestic first class travel award (90,000 miles) against the cheapest flex first class dollar fare ($1,700) yielded a less favorable return of just $313 (270 divided by 90 = 3.00 X $1,700 = $5,100 equivalent value less the $4,787 investment = $313). Heck, that’s practically a wash and hardly worth the effort.

Bottom line in domestic comparisons is that it is not really worth it unless you need or just want to fly on flexible coach tickets that allow you to make frequent changes.  If so, buying the 270,000 AAdvantage miles might be a good investment.


I didn’t spend a lot of time researching partner airlines, partly because, except for BA, AA’s international partner airline overseas award travel mileages are not visible.  Because the partner awards don’t show online, you have to call a real AA rez agent and ask to look for partner award travel tickets for you.  So I did that for RDU to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania (JRO) for a two week trip in February, 2017.  Here’s what I found:

  • The cheapest award travel in business class was 165,000 miles round trip RDU/JRO on Qatar Airways. The routing is RDU/PHL on AA in domestic first class, then PHL/DOH (Doha) in international business class, and finally DOH/JRO in international business class.
  • The published (MRSP) business class fare RDU/JRO for the same dates in $8.304.
  • Occasionally, discounted business class fares on Qatar RDU/JRO round trip are priced on the Qatar website for as little as $4,400. I know because I flew on one this year to JRO for exactly that figure.
  • Using either the full business fare or the discounted fare yields a good return on the purchase of 270, 000 miles:
  • 270 divided by 165 = 1.64 X $4,400 (the discounted business fare) = $7,200 less the $4,787 investment = $2,413 return.
  • 270 divided by 165 = 1.64 X $8,304 (the full business fare) = $13,588 less the $4,787 investment = a whopping $8,801 return.

Similar comparisons on partner airlines (other than British, which is never a good deal) may or may not yield as splendid a return, and of course you would have to get the least expensive (in AAdvantage miles) award travel ticket, not a sure thing. But those variable assumptions would apply to any other possible domestic or international itinerary.

It’s a high risk game, and not one to be taken lightly. The airlines not only control the capacity of award seats, but of course can change the minimum number of miles required (pricing) for award travel at any time.  This year alone most U.S. airline frequent flyer programs have seen huge devaluations in earning potential (now revenue-based instead of mileage-based), in mileage required per leg, and in just plain award seat availability.  On top of that, award charts have become opaque or simply hidden entirely (e.g., Delta Airlines).

Speaking for myself, even after undertaking this analysis, I decided against purchasing any miles due to the sheer number of uncertainties over which I have no control.

Maybe Delta should call its premium economy section “Discomfort+” or “Comfort-“ because no matter how you cut it, the product is not comfortable.


Delta’s new seat designs in Comfort + look cool, but they are as narrow and uncomfortable as ever.

Okay, I give Delta credit for at least legitimately stretching the seat pitch (distance front to rear, measured in inches from seat back to seat back) in the Comfort+ rows.  That’s honest.

By contrast, American Airlines’ premium economy (called MCE for “Main cabin Extra”) seats on their A319, A320, A321 aircraft are just as close together (pitch) as the rows in the back of the plane. Even the AA FAs told me there is no difference between MCE seat pitch and sardine class seat pitch on those Airbus models.

Delta or American, though, so-called premium economy lacks any extra seat WIDTH from the rest of coach, and with Americans tubbier than ever these days (myself included, sadly), squeezing into a tiny seat and fighting for elbow space with one’s neighbors is no fun.  It’s agony.

Making matters worse, on a recent Delta 757 gussied up with their brand new cabin refurbishment, including tacky blue LED accent lighting outlining the overhead control panel, I was assigned Comfort+ 15A, a window seat just behind first class.  I was smushed up against the fuselage and felt like a clove of garlic in a press.  I couldn’t move side to side once the middle seat was occupied.

But I had lots of leg room.


The two extra rows of “Comfort+” squeezed into the new 757 forward cabin configuration.

While in my torture seat, I had plenty of time to deconstruct why I was so compressed, so claustrophobic, so uncomfortable.  Delta has reconfigured domestic 757 first class compartments from 6 rows of first to 5 by squeezing them tighter and putting 2 rows of Comfort+ (rows 15 & 16) in the tiny space. Seat 15A, a window seat right behind row 5 of first class, has tons of leg room but zero—ZERO!—width. Crushed against the window, I could not move laterally at all.

But Delta achieved their aim, that is, to add two rows deemed “comfortable” to an already tight forward cabin area.  Probably looked good on paper, but I doubt a designer actually tried one after installation.

Luckily, it was just a one hour RDU/ATL flight.  I could not have survived a longer misery.

So why was this so-called “Comfort+” so much less comfortable than the 12-14 hour flights I took on Emirates in coach earlier this year?  Those long legs, by the way, were in Emirates’ ordinary coach seats not any wider than my Delta coach seats.

My answer is, I don’t know for sure, but I know the difference is real.

However, I can point out some elements that might make the Delta (or AA) coach experience versus the Emirates coach experience feel different:

  • On four long Emirates flights I managed to snag aisle seats. Aisle seats always seem more comfortable to me, though I feel cramped and spiritually compromised even in aisle seats on DL and AA flights.
  • Usually we measure seat comfort in two dimensions: front to rear and side to side. The Emirates flights were all on widebody airplanes that had relatively high interior ceiling designs, which contributed to a feeling of greater space in a third dimension: vertical. I think perhaps the vertical spatial component made me feel more comfortable despite the same old cramped seat.  Delta and American can’t offer that advantage on the usual domestic aircraft in service.
  • Emirates had oodles of cabin staff, unlike U.S. carriers. Emirates flight attendants offered hot towels and boarding beverages on the ground, and they were ever-present with food, beverages, and to offer assistance with genuine smiles during the entire flights.  I was nonplussed by their great attitudes and service.
  • Emirates provides complimentary headphones and a deep selection of entertainment via seatback flat-screens, so it’s impossible to become bored. The phones are cheap but adequate for listening while watching.
  • I’ve already mentioned that Emirates FAs are constantly busy with service offerings of food and drink. In addition, snacks, water, and juices are set up at several galleys throughout coach in the big planes, and passengers are encouraged to help themselves while walking around.  Only first class sections get that kind of attention on flights within the USA.
  • Getting up often on Emirates to stretch, walk, visit the lav, have a snack or grab a water, are encouraged, too, which makes the flight go faster and attenuates the physical and mental pain of being strapped in a coach seat. While this is tolerated on long Delta flights, such as the 16-hour DL200/201 between ATL and JNB, the flight attendants on U.S. carriers are much more likely to ask passengers to sit down.  During short flights within the United States, cabin crews frown on leaving one’s seat except to make trips to the lav and get fidgety even then in clear air if a queue forms. The desire to keep us buckled in feels too much like shackles and deepens the anguish already upon us in the uncomfortable seats.

The new blue LED accents lights surrounding refurbished Delta interiors look nice, but they in no way add to comfort.

I pondered this all while shoehorned into 15A and trying not to shriek in frustration for an hour and five minutes to Atlanta.  On my long journey flying over five decades to reach five million miles on Delta, I never envisioned that in my golden years I’d be subjected to such discomfort in a seat the airline hypocritically deems an upgrade.  Delta’s notion of a fitting reward for my lifetime of loyalty doesn’t jive with my own.

If, like me, you are from eastern North Carolina, then just reading the terms “pig-picking” and “oyster roast” will start your mouth watering in a Pavlovian response to powerful competing good-time memories: On the one hand, using fingers to pull slender slices of succulent pork off a hefty hog’s carcass slow-cooked and smoked all day to flawlessness on a large grill to be drenched in peppery, tart vinegar-based barbecue sauce and then eaten with gusto, and, on the other hand, prizing open steaming hot oysters following six or seven minutes of heating on the backyard grill to devour the briny, luscious shellfish inside after plunging the juicy morsel into a cocktail concoction of Atomic Horseradish, catsup, Texas Pete hot sauce (made only in North Carolina), and freshly squeezed lemon juice.  Mmm, mmm, mmm!  Gourmand dreams just don’t get any better than that!

Pig-pickings and oyster roasts are traditional—very nearly holy—social occasions in eastern North Carolina.  Perhaps it’s the proximity to the coast and North Carolina’s almost infinite network of brackish sounds and inlets where oysters thrive, and certainly where swine left to forage in the fields flourish and fatten on the leftovers of bounteous peanut and corn harvests grown in the rich black topsoil of the low and wide eastern NC river valleys.  Feeding, too, on acorns and other natural fodder, piggies left to sate their own instinctive palates before slaughter yield some mighty fine flavors when roasted in an open pit (the old-fashioned method) or grilled on a great steel pig cooker.  Either way—pit or big grill—the cooking process is sloooow, lasting from dawn until mid-afternoon to achieve righteous perfection evidenced in the tender, moist, subtly smoky, and highly complex savors of the meat.

Image result for eastern nc

Note my hometown of Kinston in the center of eastern North Carolina.

Such old-time happenings are all too rare these days in Raleigh, perched as it is on the edge of North Carolina’s rolling Piedmont and overlooking the vast flatness of the coastal plain that characterizes the topography of the eastern third of the state, a wee bit too far removed from the old ways of the east.  Or maybe it’s Raleigh’s bigness these days and its increasing diversity of denizens.  So many newcomers from the globe’s and the nation’s far corners tend to dilute the old customs.

But the old ways are alive and well east of Interstate 95, and I was happy to bring the magic to Raleigh last weekend by putting on a pig-picking and oyster roast as a thank-you celebration for the many elected officials, private sector businesses, and public sector professionals who have collaborated so well to craft a good transit plan for Wake County in which Raleigh sits.  I am myself proud to have played a modest role in that effort.

You may be wondering what cooking pigs and oysters has to do with business travel.  Well, absolutely nothing in a direct way. But public transit provided by buses and rail vehicles is a critically important component of overall mobility, together with private rubber-tired vehicles, bicycles, walking, and, of course, flying.  In Wake County we haven’t kept up with public transit services to meet the burgeoning demand of this vibrant region.  That is, until now.  We have a half cent sales tax referendum exclusively for public transportation on the ballot, a plan that has been two years in the making and is thirty years overdue.  Win or lose, it’s been a long slog to get to this point, and I wanted to celebrate the effort with the key players who made it possible.  Hence the pig-picking and oyster roast.

Every master pig chef has her or his secrets—especially around the homemade sauce recipe, and while I cannot divulge the fine details of either roasting or sauce prep, I can describe the process from start to finish, thanks to my friend and neighbor, John Lytton, who cooked this hog for the party last week.  Speaking from a lifetime of experience, I can certify that it requires a good deal of care and attention to get just right, being more art than science, and my friend John is a genuine expert.

Steaming or roasting oysters is easy by comparison; anyone can do it.

First, though, the pig. You gotta get a good pig—a whole hog, not the parts—and it has to be cut correctly: trimmed of most fat and bisected evenly down the spine with head removed and absent.  Don’t need the head for a pig-picking, but it’s good to have the tail, as some folks like to gnaw on it once cooked up.  Also the legs and feet, including the toes, as some go for the knuckles and connective tissue there.


The two pig halves are positioned on the grill just past six in the morning.

Whole pigs are not available just anywhere, not even in North Carolina.  This one, a jumbo 130 pounds once cleaned and with the head gone, was ordered special through the area’s best pork barbecue joint.  Places like Nahunta Pork Center can acquire an entire hog carcass, but they don’t always butcher it in the proper manner without close instruction and follow-on scrutiny.


The two halves of the pig on the grill, skin-side up to begin cooking.  Note oven thermometer is one of two (they must agree), and gallon jug of homemade barbecue sauce at the ready.

The pig should be freshly killed and still dripping blood when loaded onto the truck, as mine was.  Hog-killing is an ancient and noble ritual in its own right, and I won’t go into the long details here except to say that just collecting up the two halves of a pig ready for cooking from a local walk-in cooler says nothing about the honorable work ceremony preceding that moment that made it possible.


Killing hogs has long been a family farm tradition in NC.


An old-time hog killing.

On arrival home, the two mirror image pig body halves were removed to the large grill, which is called a pig cooker.  This essential piece of equipment normally takes the form of a very large grill on wheels with an enormous lid, all made of heavy-duty steel.  Pig cookers are invariably black.


The essential pig cooker.  Note charcoal for adding a smoky essence, and drip pans to catch the fat as it cooks off.

Powered by propane tanks, the precise design and layout of the cooker’s gas burners are customized by the chef according to personal preference based on long experience.  Like the sauce recipe, burner position is a closely-guarded secret.


Lighting off the pig cooker just after 6:00 AM.

Once our pig was positioned on the grill, the burners were lit.  Good quality charcoal (never the self-lighting variety) and seasoned hardwood chips and pieces were positioned along the burner edges beneath the grill to smolder and smoke the meat slowly over time.  More of both can be added during the cook as necessary, depending upon the level of smokiness desired in the end product.  I prefer hints of smoke evenly infused into the pig so that the natural pork flavors are not overpowered.  Swine meat essences are subtle and mouth-watering, so why stomp all over those complexities with a lot of harsh smoke?


Positioning the carcass  halves skin-side up during initial cooking.

It’s important to start early for a 4:00 PM event as mine was last weekend.  I was loading the pig from the cooler at around 5:45 AM, and we lit off the cooker just past 6:00 AM.  The burner heat was adjusted carefully all morning and required constant attention to cook slowly but thoroughly.  This ensures safe cooking and preserves the natural juiciness.


The master pig chef at peace, waiting patiently for the heat to do its work. Note gallon of homemade barbecue sauce always at the ready to douse the hog periodically.

The homemade barbecue sauce, prepared weeks in advance and stored in gallon jugs, is doused upon the pig carcass at regular intervals to seep into the meat.  The two halves are placed skin-side up to start with to get the heat into every nook and cranny.  After about four to five hours, determined by internal muscle temperatures, we turned the two sides over to skin-side down and continued the dousing with sauce in earnest onto the meat now upward exposed.  That, of course, is always its final position so as to be accessible for the “picking” of the savory meat, with the skin on the bottom of the grill holding the succulent, well-cooked flesh in place, thus keeping it from falling between the grill bars onto the burners below.  This position also allows the chef to crisp up the skin for “crackling,” which is a delicious crunchy delicacy in its own right and a favorite side dish for many pickers as they pull the hot, moist hog meat from the bones.


This pig is done!  It is 2:30 PM.

By 2:30 PM our pig was perfectly done, as moist as a Christmas turkey but far more flavorful, and with just the right notes of smoke and BBQ sauce.  The heat was reduced to a bare minimum to keep it warm until 4:00 PM when guests would arrive.

Meantime, I cooked up two big pots of pork and beans chock full of cooked bacon (LOTS of bacon, cut into short one inch lengths), chopped Vidalia onion (again, LOTS of onion), brown sugar, molasses, honey, copious quantities of cayenne pepper, lots of Tabasco and Texas Pete hot sauces (never smoky sauces in beans), and ground hot red peppers.  Finely ground coleslaw was also on hand, as was Mexican corn bread.  To top it off, that mainstay dessert of all pig-pickings, homemade banana pudding.


Chopped BBQ pork, coleslaw, pork and beans, Mexican cornbread, and the secret barbecue sauce on the side.

Back to the pig: We usually chop up the meat pulled from one of the two halves, mixing dark and light muscles together once shopped to distribute the flavors, and then liberally douse the piles of chopped pork with the secret barbecue sauce as the chopped pork portions are transferred to large serving pans.  Some prefer to come to the grill to use forks, knives, and their hands to pull and pick the meat from the bones (hence the term “pig-picking”).  We left the other half of the carcass on the grill for the hardened traditionalists.


The festivities get underway.

By the end of last Saturday evening, my scores of guests had done serious damage to the very big hog on the grill.

Oh, about the oysters:  The hardest part of oysters is washing them.  I don’t know a seafood dealer that prewashes oysters, and good oysters are always covered in mud and slime from the sea.  It helps to keep them alive while in transport and awaiting a customer.  I recommend a powerwasher to clean the shells in advance and to adorn your dirtiest clothes for the job.  Obviously this is very hard work and needs to be done well in advance of guests arriving, but must be done the same day, because oysters have to remain alive to be cooked and eaten.  Eating dead shellfish, whether cooked or raw, is a prescription for serious and sometimes fatal food poisoning.

Now devoid of mud, the oysters are ready for cooking.  The easiest method, which I use, is to spread a bunch of oysters on a hot grill and close the cover for 6-8 minutes.  That steams them in their own juices.  Once dead, the oysters relax their powerful muscles, and the shells will all have a gap showing, making the shells easy to open with an oyster knife.


Oysters cooking on the grill.

Oyster knives are usually blunt, but holding an oyster in one hand while using the knife to pry it open with the other can cause even a blunt blade to bruise of cut a hand.  I always use a heavy glove.  I provided a lot of gloves and oyster knives for my guests last weekend, and the shells were flying!


Oyster shells were flying.

Once the knife has opened the shell completely, the top half is discarded and the muscle that attaches the oyster body to the bottom shell should be cut to allow the oyster to be removed and eaten.  I like them in their own salty juices, but having a favorite cocktail sauces like the one I described above can make the eating experience even more divine!


Oysters were popular!

The event was billed as a “transit-oriented pig-picking and oyster roast,” a tongue-in-cheek takeoff of the well-known “transit-oriented development” (TOD) concept of compact development that often springs up around light rail transit stops.  Feedback was universally good after the party, and what a relief it was to get our minds off this wretched national election for a few hours.


After 50 years of flying, three and a half decades of which I’ve been a member in most U.S. airlines’ frequent flyer programs, “lifetime” Platinum and Gold statuses have been bestowed upon me as a reward for loyalty by Delta and American.  At first glance it’s satisfying to receive the recognition.

But what does lifetime status promise, and what does it deliver?  My experience in the American Airlines and Delta Airlines “lifetime” programs has so far proven to be a mixed bag.

Everyone has her or his own notion of value in the airlines’ tiered loyalty programs. My top priority is to escape the wretched coach compartment as often as possible.  The forward set of seats in domestic first class offers a sanctuary of sanity compared to the stress of sitting in sardine class.

To digress on this subject for a moment, I noted in the mid-1980s that domestic first class service and coach class service had suffered a significant nosedive (with many more step-downs to follow). First class lost its aura as service declined, but it was still superior as a refuge from the back of the plane.  Therefore, I suggested at the time, airlines should be honest about their own class degradation and stop designating the front cabin as “F” for First Class, but instead call it “NC” (for “Not Coach”).

Nothing has changed in the intervening decades to make economy seating more tolerable.  In fact it is more cramped and uncomfortable than ever before.  Even the so-called premium economy on Delta (Comfort+) and American (Main Cabin Extra) offer, at best, an inch or two more pitch (front to back seat spacing), but no more width.  The seats there, just like the rest of economy, are far too narrow, permitting no room to work and barely enough to breathe. The best I can say for the so-called domestic premium economy is that the rows immediately behind the front cabin are designated as such, which means quicker deplaning for those seated there.

Coming back to point, no seats behind the front cabin’s flimsy divider curtain are remotely comfortable, and thus my top choice for benefit in a lifetime status program is to be upgraded.  Unfortunately, while both DL and AA promise domestic upgrades out the ying-yang for Golds and Platinums, the reality is that both categories, whether held perpetually (“Lifetime”) or earned annually, have become an empty promise of upgrades that almost never gets fulfilled.  Let me explain.

At American Airlines I am designated a Lifetime Gold AAdvantage member because of the 1,237,992 AAdvantage miles I have earned on AA since joining the program in 1981— though it seems like yesterday, 35 years have since ticked by.

That doesn’t count at least a million more miles flown before the carrier started counting.  However, no airline recognizes pre-1981 loyalty because they didn’t systematically track customer flying then.

So Lifetime Gold on AA is my reward for, well, a lifetime of stuffing myself into the carrier’s silvery aluminum tubes.

My American AAdvantage account currently has a balance of 34 first class upgrades, each one in theory “worth” 500 miles when used to flee economy for the front of the plane.  Each 500-mile upgrade is either earned or purchased ($40 each at present).

Thus a coast-to-coast CLT/SFO leg would require 5 such upgrade certificates, or $200 one way.  Again, theoretically, since actual upgrades are doled out according to a strict algorithm that includes such factors as AAdvantage status and fare class.  Higher loyalty status (Executive Platinum is the top AAdvantage loyalty category, two levels above Gold) and higher fares are especially important to ranking customers on upgrade lists.

Similarly, at Delta Airlines I am designated a Lifetime Platinum SkyMiles member because of the 5,338,738 SkyMiles earned on DL since joining the program in the early eighties when it was launched.  At Delta, upgrades to first class (domestically) are theoretically unlimited and cost-free, unlike the 500-mile ones either earned or purchased at AA.

In addition, depending upon status (Diamond is the top tier, a step above Platinum), Delta offers a few Medallion Program upgrade certificates that are confirmed one-way (see here).

But the so-called unlimited upgrades work just like the AA ones; that is, high loyalty status (Diamond) and higher fares earn a higher upgrade list rank than, say, Platinum.

Thus, in both the AA and DL “Lifetime” programs, it’s hard to get upgraded.  At Delta, because I am a Platinum, upgrades come through now and then, especially on lower volume travel days and on thinly-traveled routes.  To or from a busy city like New York, Chicago, or L.A., though, it never happens, nor have I been seated up front on a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Friday flight in recent memory.

But at least on Delta I can sometimes enjoy the “Lifetime” program upgrade privilege. Never am I upgraded on American.  Being a Gold, even a Lifetime Gold, means nothing on an AA upgrade list.  There are too many Executive Platinums and Platinums for a Gold to ever hope for a coveted first class upgrade.

More and more, too, affluent business travelers are paying their way into first class, which of course cuts the number of open seats available for upgrades, regardless of loyalty status.

How does this impact me?  On a recent four-leg trip to San Francisco (RDU/CLT/SFO and return), for instance, a gate agent told me at SFO gate 45A that I was number thirty-something on the upgrade list for the five hour flight back to Charlotte—and I wasn’t at the bottom of the list.  She told me that 11 EPs (Exec Platinum customers) were also going to be disappointed.

If eleven top-category flyers couldn’t win an upgrade, what chance does a Gold have? Or a Plainum?

Even on the short 33-minute flight from Charlotte to Raleigh on a late Wednesday night, I was number 21 on the AA upgrade list (I am “ALL,W” in the picture below).  The list had a total of 32 people hoping to briefly warm a front cabin seat; not one was upgraded.  The entire first class cabin checked in full.


ALL, W, me, number 21 on the 32-person upgrade list for a 33-minute late night flight on a Wednesday.

In sum, the most valuable “Lifetime” status privilege to me—sitting in first class after bolting from coach—doesn’t happen often even as a Platinum on Delta, and it does not happen at all as a Gold on American.  In both programs it is a false promise, which I resent.  Both airlines well know that the upgrades are not realistic promises, yet they continue to tout them with fanfare.  They might as well promise solid gold bars to take home after a flight because such largesse would be just as fanciful.

Lifetime Gold and Platinum status has other privileges, of course: such things as no bag-check fees, priority boarding, and priority seat selection nearer the front of the aircraft (assuming one’s fare basis reaches the threshold for advance seat assignments at all).  In particular, boarding early is important, regardless of seat assignment, for people like me who prefer not to check luggage.  Boarding late can mean overhead compartments are filled to capacity, the equivalent of airplane musical chairs.

Valuable perks, all, but at the end of the day I am still stuck in cattle class.


Dolefully, I view the first class cabin from my cramped seat in coach on a five-hour transcon flight.

Or perhaps I should not demean cattle.  After all, even cattle transport is subject to standards, aimed at giving the bovine beasts adequate space to reduce stress in transit (see here). As far as I am aware, no such standards exist for transporting humans aboard aircraft.

Flying in coach before the mid-eighties wasn’t bad. Much of the time it was enjoyable.  Piedmont Airlines and PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines)—both superb carriers gobbled up and lost to US Air—didn’t even offer first class cabins, and we all loved their services.  That was before the airlines got greedy and reduced pitch and width, making flying in the back so miserable.  Only flying on the Eastern Shuttle between Washington and LaGuardia was as cramped and uncomfortable as it is now.

Most economy compartments were then okay.  The occasional upgrade to First Class was a real luxury.  I never thought of sitting up front as an escape from the back.

Nowadays, though, riding sharp end is a necessity to maintain my sanity. The airlines’ rigged system of promising upgrades to Gold and Platinum customers that they can’t deliver is dishonest and vexes me no end.

My first impression of Singapore was formed in late 1987 when I arrived on a Japan Air Lines 747 in an early iteration of Business Class from Tokyo.  I went back to Singapore quite a number of times after that through the nineties and early 2000s on business, but my recent trip was the first in over a decade.  I was curious to see what had changed since my first time there 28 years ago.

Three decades ago Singapore was hailed as a modern miracle of free enterprise, a gleaming jewel of unfettered capitalism, and the rising star of Southeast Asian prosperity.  It was said to have it all: brand new infrastructure, high tech manufacturing, cheap labor and living costs, a happy and productive workforce, absolute safety, virtually no poverty, a happy populace, and an unmatched quality of life.

Riding by taxi into the city from sparkling new Changi Airport to the sparkling new towers of the city center, I was impressed with the cleanliness and orderliness of everything: the spotless new cars (as if they’ve just driven off the showroom floor), the Interstate-like highway, the flawless landscaping.  It all struck me as if the Disney World team of designers had taken a detour to this tiny island nation nearly on the Equator at the south end of the Malay Peninsula for a similar exercise in creating artificial perfection.  Row upon row of high rise flats punctuated by factories and commercial sites lined the road.  And all seen through the high humidity solar prism of the Equatorial environment.  Even peering up at the thousands of majestic palms planted in precision along the roadway made one squint in wonder and awe.

Then I heard a “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” bell ringing, a low volume but annoying, persistent noise emanating from the dashboard.  I leaned forward and asked the driver if he spoke English.  “Of course, yes!” came the friendly reply.

“What’s that tingly sound?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“I am speeding,” he said. “Not much [giggle], but in Singapore every car has a bell that rings constantly if you are over the maximum speed limit, even a little.”

I noticed we weren’t going very fast, and though I don’t recall whether the max Singapore speed limit was then as now (90 km/h (56 mph)), our speed was not swift.  Yet the incessant “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” became irritating very fast, and it would not stop. I would soon discover that all taxi drivers had learned to ignore it.

But this was my first ride in a Singapore taxi, and I was curious.  “Why do you speed?” I asked, innocently.

“Oh, kind sir, because we MUST speed in order to make a living driving a taxi!” came the reply.  “The government regulates our speed, yes, but we cannot make money unless we exceed the speed limit in order to make more trips in the day. You see, do you not?”

As an admirer of capitalism and the profit motive, I certainly did see.  But I thought it curious that a government so famous for encouraging free enterprise would install so petty a damper on that courageous bastion of small business everywhere, the taxi driver.

Having started a conversation with my driver, I sought to delve into the matter of government control and asked him about some of the laws I had read about for seemingly minor infractions like jaywalking.  He chuckled again and nodded, saying no native Singaporean jaywalked or chewed gum because they wished to avoid the high fines.

“If you see people crossing streets illegally or chewing gum, then you know right away they are foreigners.” He laughed. “Better not do it!”

He was correct. Over the next few days I noticed stern-faced uniformed police working in pairs out in force stopping Europeans and Americans for such infractions, including for spitting into the gutter and flicking a cigarette butt into the street.

Over lunch the following day, I asked another taxi driver how he liked Singapore (I had invited him to dine with me).  “BORING!” he exclaimed, laughing. “BORING, BORING, BORING!  Same-same every day.  Nothing to do after work.  No fun!”  I asked him if he liked being in Singapore if he was so bored.

“Oh, yes!  Good place to live.  Good place to raise family.  Always food, always money, very safe.  Just boring!”  He laughed again.  I asked him what he did for fun.

“I fly to BANGKOK!” he said, his face beaming. “Many GIRLS and SEX there!  No sex in Singapore!”

“Oh,” I replied, more than a little surprised.  I had not anticipated this line of discussion.

“Then I take bus to Chang Mai to drink SNAKE’S BLOOD!” my driver proclaimed, smiling.  “Snake’s blood good for giving man MUCH SEX!  I drink only COBRA blood for STRONG LOVEMAKING!”

“Really?” This time more meekly, as I noticed several heads turning in our direction in Muthu’s Curry Restaurant, where we were enjoying scrumptious fish head curry served the traditional way with rice on banana leaves.

“Oh, YES!” he said. “Singapore BORING!  Thailand FUN!”

At that instant the words of a wealthy Swiss seatmate on the JAL flight inbound to Changi came back to me.  He’d told me that he lived with his family in Singapore because it was the safest place on earth.  “Safer than Switzerland?” I had asked, eyebrows raised.

“Absolutely,” the Swiss businessman said. “I can let my 12 year old daughter play in the streets of Singapore at night without worrying about her.”

And so it was.  I found Singapore in 1987 to be full of surprises and contradictions.  At the end of my first visit, I had begun to think of the small city-state as a unique example of what I labeled benign fascism, a place safe enough to let small children roam without supervision day or night, but with a good many strictures on personal freedom and a muzzled press (e.g., the hullabaloo of gagging the Wall Street Journal which had criticized the Singaporean government).  Nonetheless, I fell in love with the country, captivated by its unique charms.

So what’s changed all these years later?  Not too much, I was glad to find, among its better attributes.

Singapore is as clean and neat as ever, almost.  I noticed the streets and subways and cabs were not quite as gleaming as they seemed to me to be in 1987.

Singapore was a tremendous bargain in the eighties, with five-star hotels like the Hyatt going for a hundred bucks a night and sometimes cheaper.  Food was inexpensive, too, and Singapore was the place to go then for cheap electronics.  No more.  Hotel rack rates vie with London’s as the highest to be found.  The cost of living in Singapore has caught up with places like it.

Most manufacturing, high tech and otherwise, long ago fled to cheaper labor and lower living cost markets like China and Vietnam.

Changi Airport has undergone unending renewal so that it is mostly as sparkling as my first impression of it nearly 30 years ago.  Everything works at Changi, unlike some modern airports.  I landed at Terminal 1 and rode the airport train to Terminal 3, there to connect to the MRT (subway) train to my hotel in the city.  The MRT was very crowded with Millennial-age Singaporeans of many ethnic backgrounds—a multi-ethnic population being a hallmark of the city—and was very fast.  A young man of Indian ancestry offered me his seat out of respect for my age, a courtesy which surprised me since I don’t often experience that in the USA any more.

The ceaseless energy of the CBD is still very much part of Singapore, and while it’s not as spotless as it once was, I did not see a dingy side of Singapore except at the causeway border crossing to Malaysia, which is as it always was, rather grim and chaotic, about which I wrote in an earlier post here.

Everybody I met, whether public servants, families on the street, merchants, business people, or service personnel, all seemed happy.  Contemporary Singaporeans seem to enjoy their country and lifestyle as much as they seemed to in 1987.

I had to wonder, though, if they had since found a way to have fun in their leisure time that didn’t involve flying to northern Thailand to drink snake’s blood.  I should have asked.