Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fight For Jamaican Airport Liberation

So yes, I just got back from Abu Dhabi like two weeks ago and it is a bit crazy that we are already leaving the country again to visit Jamaica. I'm happy to report though that both our airfare and hotel for the trip were completely paid for with credit card points. So there.

It's an unfortunate part of traveling that each trip has to begin with waiting in line to speak to a crabby immigration bureaucrat to exchange largely meaningless paperwork. The lines at the Montego Bay airport were long and unmoving. We heard whispers among the other inmates that there were some automated machines on the far end of the building that were dispensing immigrations like delicious gumballs. I left Lydia in line guarding our luggage and went to find an airport employee. She politely confirmed that yes, we could use the machines and that the line we were in was in fact a trap for Kafka fans and the unambitious. I cheerfully collected Lydia and our bags. Tales of my exploits spread quickly and I now had several followers. Only two out of 10 of the brightly lit, inviting machines were even being used. It was quickly apparent why: "You can't use these machines with the airline you came on", stated my new adversary standing next to the machines. When I asked for a list of what airlines were eligible, he rambled off a few airlines I'd never heard of from memory. That didn't sound right at all.

I gathered up all of my courage and... went and tattled to the first lady I'd talked to, and she came over and told the dude to step aside. My disciples and I were now liberated, and the day was won. Was I a Moses or more of a Gandalf? I'll let you decide.

I paid a dire price for my heroics that day. The machine printed out a little paper, a worker ripped the top off of it, and I was done. No. Stamp. In. My. Passport. I walked over to a different lady and politely asked for a stamp, and she told me no. I honestly wished I was back in that stupid long line with the other losers.

The passport stamp is the purest form of souvenir ever, bestowed directly by the people of a nation onto my official government document. They are two dimensional, nontransferable, free, and friggin' magical. Sometimes when I'm at home I crack open my passport and just look at them all.

Anyway so not getting my passport stamped was a little annoying but I think it was the worst thing that happened on the entire trip, so I can't complain too much.

Jamaica has a solid solution to the torture of constantly haggling with taxi drivers. There was a sign outside the Montego Bay airport with common destinations listed. Our resort's location, Rose Hall, was clearly marked with the price next to it in US dollars. Problem averted.

The Hilton Rose Hall Resort was pretty nice. Check in was funny because I gave the receptionist my membership number and she got all excited when she saw I'm a gold level member. It usually takes 20 stays or 40 nights to get that far up the ladder but I ain't got time for that. I signed up for one of the Hilton credit cards that give you gold status for as long as you have the card. Pretty fancy. Anyway, it gives you little perks like free internet and stuff like that.

The most fun part of the gold status thing for me was the shiny gold wrist bands that we got to wear, while the "normals" had to wear plain white ones. It was helpful for the common folk to remember to avert their eyes whilst addressing me. I requested that Lydia call me "Johnny Gold" the whole trip. As you can see I am very easily amused.


Having a shiny head with the sun behind you is a great idea.

Food and booze was included, there was a beach and a little water park, and there was a live show every night. The "own little universe" nature of it did remind me of a cruise, which I hate, but with the important distinction that I could leave whenever I wanted. And we did leave. Often. For this first day though we just relaxed and explored the resort. The food was respectable, and they seemed to mix in a Jamaican dish and at least one weird fruit per meal which I greatly appreciated. We only ate offsite twice the whole trip.

There was this little promontory thing where you could look back at the hotel across the water.

We gave the bartenders plenty to do.

The fruit station was my favorite place at the buffet. The first time I walked over this guy was chopping sugar cane for guests to chew on. So awesome.

Soursop was my first weird fruit of the trip. It had a really strange consistency. I think Lydia compared it to a seafood mouthfeel. The taste was a little sour but still sweet enough to be enjoyable. It had lots of black seeds interspersed. Very interesting.

The night's entertainment was a steel drum band. It's funny because I had been actively looking for one of these throughout the last six Caribbean countries I've been to. I go to Jamaica one night and an awesome steel band just fell into my lap. They played songs that sounded pretty Caribbean but then mixed in some American pop hits. They did a Michael Jackson medley which was particularly fun.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Oman, Then Abu Dhabi, Then Home

I'd had such a good experience with my cab guy that I got his phone number and had the hotel call him to pick me up the next morning. His name is Ali Said, he has two sons, one of whom is young enough to like eating at McDonald's for the Happy Meal toys.

The breakfast at the Best Western Premier Muscat was so free, plentiful, and awesome that I went to town on it and then skipped lunch. In true pork hating form, they have beef bacon and turkey sausage.

So Ali the cab magician picked me up bright and early, and I told him I wanted to go to the Muscat Festival I had been hearing so much about. He replied with the hard truth: the festival wouldn't open until 4pm. What followed was a whole lot of hours of time killing.

We stopped by the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque for a peak. Ali started being awesome right away. The grounds were technically closed to visitors at this time but Ali wasn't having any of that. He argued with the guard until we were let in. So awesome. We couldn't go inside the actual building though, and I still have dreams about how lovely the second largest hand-woven carpet in world must be. 

We drove up to through the mountains on some back roads that most people don't use anymore.

We took a closer look at the city walls. It was funny because we were about ready to leave when Ali started chatting with a groundskeeper. I did my charming foreigner routine of "hi howya doin?" and the groundskeeper replied: "have you seen the museum?" I'd just scooped a tourist tip that even Ali didn't know about.

My favorite part of the museum was this wooden map of the Muscat area, and how the area changed under Portuguese control. The wooden panels would flip a few times and show more development as time passed.

I think this sound is my favorite thing about the Middle East.

Yes, I saw the palace from the bus yesterday but Ali didn't believe that was enough palace time.

I don't think I've mentioned it yet, but that X with a J in the middle symbol you keep seeing everywhere is the national emblem of Oman. It features two crossed swords with a ceremonial dagger called a khanjar in the middle.

The same symbol can be seen on the flag of Oman.

Ali was really pushing to go to the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum, and I didn't have a good reason to refuse. Only later did Ali reveal that he had been in the army for 15+ years, so his interest in the subject made sense.

The gate guard was attempting to scold me for taking this picture, but Ali pretty much told him to cram it.

We were accompanied by a military guide from the time we walked in to the museum until we left.

This is an armored Cadillac that I assume was for the Sultan. The windows were ridiculously thick.

I didn't catch our guide's name, but he did say he was a member of the royal guard and used to work at the palace.

The Royal Opera House Muscat was epically opulent. I really wished I could have seen a show here. In a cruel twist of fate I missed a production of the opera Falstaff by a single day.

Now before you go run and tell that John is some sort of snooty opera dork, the only reason I'm even familiar with the word "Falstaff" is the defunct St. Louis beer brand. See, I'm cool.

Orson Welles adapted, directed, and starred in a film titled Falstaff.

It's available here in its entirety. I'm about half way through and I'm really enjoying it. I had no idea that Welles did any Shakespeare.

Also this.

Anyway what was I talking about? Oh yeah, that time I went to the Middle East.

Another shot of the opera house.

I wish the sultan's palace was open for tours, because I can't imagine it looks as nice inside as the opera house.

Ali would turn the radio on in the cab whenever our conversations hit a lull. I imagine it was for my benefit, but he would always tune in to American music stations. Listening to Katy Perry while looking out the window at the mountains of Oman was a jarring experience that I do not recommend.

There were lots of non-alcoholic beers available in grocery stores and gas stations. I drank zero of them.

Finally it was time for the Muscat Festival. Not only did it not open until 4pm, but it wasn't exactly brimming with activity even then. That was a little annoying but I'm still glad I checked it out.

One of my favorite parts was this little international village area. It's hard for me to explain how awesome Ali was being. In the past cab drivers I've hired for the day have just waited in the parking lot and napped, or even worse left and went who-knows-where only to return at an agreed upon time. Ali though, was like my new buddy. He came with me everywhere including the fair. And he paid every entrance fee, bought water bottles for me here and there, and just acted awesome. He really got into the international village in particular. He liked chatting up the people selling different little knickknacks. 

The international shops were especially cool for me because they were from countries you'd never see at a similar thing in the US. Uzbekistan and Jordan are a couple of the rarities that come to mind.

My awkward bus companion when I was fresh off the boat in Abu Dhabi mentioned that people liked to eat just warmed up canned corn in a cup at festivals. I was excited to see that Happy Corn is real.


There were several craftsmen making things. I think these were baskets for dates?

The mushy halwa dessert that I tried yesterday was being made in big wood-fired vats.

I bought some fried dough ball things. Again Ali insisted on paying for them.

They were kind of honey tasting and had a sprinkling of coconut on top.

It was then time to say goodbye to Ali and the lovely country of Oman. I would consider coming back here someday, if not just because I only saw the capital and almost none of the countryside. It was an awesome place. By the way, Ali Said's cell phone number is (+968) 99267474 if you are ever in the Muscat area and need a cab. I highly recommend him.

"Turn off all electronic devices." There was some more flying back and forth. This time I had a layover in Doha, Qatar. Unfortunately by the holy, unwritten, and completely made-up rules of my quest I'm not allowed to count that as a country I've seen. I shall return!

The airport in Doha didn't disappoint with it's odd airport sculptures.

Abu Dhabi airport again.

Charmingly, at this point I realized my suitcase was lost by Qatar Airways. This was an awkward time for this to happen because it was late and my flight back to Chicago was early the next morning.

Well I figured I should stay someplace nice for my last night in the Middle East. This was kind of bad planning because I had to leave so early in the morning for my flight. I enjoyed the Shangri-La Hotel while I was there anyway.

The room was pretty epic.

This was just the closet!

I told them my sob story about my luggage being lost and they sent someone to my room with a little care package box containing sweat pants, t shirt, and some socks. I thought that was really nice.

My suitcase was miraculously at the front desk waiting for me in the morning, so that was that.

I needed to hit an ATM real quick in order to have enough cash to pay for the cab to the airport. There wasn't an ATM in the hotel lobby, so they had an employee swing by in a golf cart and drive me to the nearest one. That was a fun way to start the day.

Airport customs people, hotel personnel, etcetera asked little questions in Abu Dhabi that I had the weirdest answers to. Such as:

"Is this your first time to UAE?"
"No I was here two days ago."
"On business?"
"No just visiting."

I especially didn't want to act odd in front of the Homeland Security people, but that happened anyway with a very similar version of the same conversation. Abu Dhabi airport is one of those foreign airports where you go through US customs and immigration before you even get on the plane, then when you land in the US you are treated like a domestic arrival. I thought that was kinda cool.

So I'm putting my bags through security and of course it beeps and they pull my bag off of the conveyor belt to check it. The guy is riffling around in my bag and pulls out the big tub of gel frankincense flavored halwa that I bought yesterday. I was a little worried. This wasn't just some tube of toothpaste, this was an awesome souvenir that I was looking forward to making Lydia taste.

Imagine the odds of getting a large tub of gel with Arabic writing all over it through security in an American airport. Luckily as this moment we were a very far ways away from America. The guy with my bag conversed in Arabic about my halwa (the only word I understood was "halwa") with the guy working the baggage scanner. Baggage scanner guy smiles, says "halwa" (he didn't speak English) gives me the "white boy can hang" thumbs up, and lets me go with my prize. That was a pretty awesome moment.

Even the air traffic control tower was cool.

The flight back was 14.5 hours of sitting in a small uncomfortable chair.

Do you know how to tell when someone is cool and works out a lot? When they wear their Gold's Gym lifting gloves on a plane. That's the only way you can be sure.

The end.