Monday, November 25, 2013

Thoughts on Flying on the Cheap

Last week or whenever it was, Westjet announced that it was flying to Dublin, Ireland for the low fare of $199 o/w. Now this post isn’t going to be a post about how much I dislike Westjet and how much I like Air Canada, but rather it is going to be my thoughts on Canadians and discount airlines, although I am going to take this opportunity (because this is my blog) to comment on this anyways. Firstly, I need to make the following very clear – last year I got SuperElite or Altitude 100K on Air Canada the hard way – flying 100 segments with about 90% of it in economy, and often on a small CRJ 100/200 – often to Fort McMurray – so no glamour there! The one person who really seemed to benefit from all of my travels was my chiro, Dr. Kim (at Bow Valley Chiropractic – shameless plug I know but he is amazing!) as those seats often did a number on my poor hips and glutes! So for all of you that think that I don’t fly economy – I do and I did and now I am just fortunate to have a job that allows me to fly business.

EasyJet Waiting Area - AMS

But now back to my point. There is no way I would want to ever fly from Calgary to Dublin on a 737 – no matter if it was Air Canada or Westjet – that is just far too long of a journey to be a plane like that. Now here is where the Westjet bashing begins, so if you are a Westjet lover you may just want to skip ahead. #1 - the $199 o/w deal is from St. John’s Nfld. To Dublin – keep that in mind because last time I checked a flight from Calgary to St. John’s was not cheap. So that “cheap trip to Dublin” isn’t so cheap anymore. #2 – I looked into the length of the flight (on Westjet) and it is about 14 hours with no less than 2 stops – one in Toronto and one in St. John’s – did you think about that? Yes – Westjet may have a direct flight to St. John’s from Calgary but direct and non-stop are not the same in the airline world. Now add to that some quality time in the airport in Toronto & St. John’s. #3 – on a flight that long, you still have to buy your movies (I know most people take an iPad but still) and you have to buy your food. At least on Air Canada you get free food & snacks and movies (I am not saying that it is good food– I am just saying it is free!) #4 – on a random search that I did, Air Canada/Air Lingus were cheaper than Westjet by a couple hundred dollars – I am just sayin’. . . .

Cattle class holding pen
Now to what this post is really about - I am not sure that Canadians or North Americans for that matter are ready for truly discount travel – and by that, I mean travel on airlines like EasyJet or RyanAir or the plethora of other discount airlines that none of us has ever heard of that travel around Europe. Why do I say this? Well firstly, we complain about being treated like cattle if we have to cue up too much and these airlines treat you just like that – they put you in pens! The waiting lounge in Amsterdam featured bleacher seating and everyone waited with baited breath for the gate # to pop up on the board (1 hour before flight) and then you saw the stampede to the gate! I am not sure why because EasyJet is assigned seating, maybe it is a Ryanair hangover – there it is survival of the fittest for getting a good seat.
Heading down to the pen

These airlines also nickel and dime you to death. Yes, we whine a little about having to pay for food on Air Canada and Westjet but on EasyJet, you pay for everything, including spending 3 euros or about $4 for a cup of coffee! So next time you scoff at the free beverage that you are getting, remember this. If you want to be treated a little more humanly and not have to be subjected to the cattle pens (that is what I call them) you pay a little extra – it is called “Speedy Boarding”. This also allows you and your 1 bag (will get to this) get on first without everyone pushing at you. And supposedly there is a “speedy check-in” line but if you don’t check in online and print your boarding pass at home, they charge you for that as well.

Now here is where I think North American’s, particularly our friends to the south, will really struggle with discount airlines – luggage. When they say that you get 1 piece of carry-on, you only get 1 piece of carry-on. That doesn’t mean 1 roller board + purse + computer bag. Nor does it mean 1 purse + 1 diaper bag + 1 roller board – it means 1 piece of carry-on of the very specific size of 56cm x 45cm x 25 cm including wheels and handles and they measure each bag to make sure that it fits into those bag sizers at the airports that we all ignore. So that meant, I was shoving my purse into my already small carry-on (North American sized roller boards are likely too big) prior to boarding. If when you arrive at the airport and decide to check in your bag then, you pay more. In Canada, where we have to pay for our bags and don't want to, we can still take on board our carry on even though it doesn’t fit into the sizer,  plus whatever other bags we can seem to physically manage at no additional cost.  You need  keep that in mind when considering how great low cost travel is. ;-) Oh, and lastly, a lot of these discount airlines fly in and out of places or airports that we may or may not have heard about and often the “low cost carrier” terminal is a bit of a hole! They often make the Peace River or Fort McMurray airports look really good!!

 So really, how was my experience, well on our way to Geneva, I had what I called “European Business Class”. In Europe, business class is often just the normal economy seat space but no one sits in the middle seat – that is what we had on our way there. On our way back, we were jammed in there like sardines as the flight was full and I got to experience the full discount airlines experience minus the cattle class ques. Would I fly them again – possibly. I am a points whore so I will always default to my main carriers first but sometimes these discount airlines have better schedules, fly to places the big carriers don’t go to and can be cheaper, and really, the flight was only 1 hour long, so it wasn’t that bad. . . .
The distance between my seat and my knees - tight!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Over thinking Brunei

The title says it all, I over thought Brunei and I will get to that in a minute but first - I am in Brunei.  Where is Brunei you ask?  Well Brunei is on the island of Borneo (bet you thought Borneo was a country - but it's not).  Borneo is an island made up of 3 countries - Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.  Brunei is also ruled by a Sultan and is a very Muslim country, which lead me to over thinking it.  As you know, I have been travelling a fair bit lately to SE Asia and in particular, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is also a Muslim country.  One think to keep in mind when thinking about Malaysia, it isn't Middle East, wear a burka type of Muslim, but rather wear a pretty floral dress to the floor along with a matching head scarf type of Muslim, so when I am in KL, I tend to dress normally and by normal, I mean normal.  I don't let it all hang out nor do I stay all covered up - I am somewhere in the middle in the range of what I would consider appropriate and I have never had issues with how I have dressed, nor have I ever felt uncomfortable.  Hell, down at the KLCC (big shopping mall in KL), I have seen girls with it all hanging out next to women clad head to toe, face covered, only eyes showing burkas.

When I found out I was coming to Brunei (this particular trip has been cancelled and rescheduled 3 times) I did a little research and asking around the office of what is appropriate to wear and this is where my over thinking came in.  I fretted last week about what to bring b/c Brunei is a tropical country, much like Malaysia and when I am in Malaysia I often wear a cardigan, tank top and a skirt to work with a nice little wedge sandal - something generally nice a cool.  But I couldn't wear that in Brunei!  I mean it is a very Muslim country.  My knees need to be covered, as do my shoulders and surely cleavage is a no-no. (unless I want to be in Prince Jeffrey's harem but that is another story!)  Or so I thought. . . until I got to the gate at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and I saw local girls sitting there in their short skirts and bare arms.

Really, at the end the day, I think that dressing in foreign countries comes down to a few common sense things (which I didn't really use :-( )

  1. Think, "would I wear this out to dinner with my parents, boss, in-laws, etc" or "could I wear this to the office and feel comfortable".  If so, it is probably safe
  2. Don't wear anything with slogans or logos that may offend people.  Personally, not the biggest fan of being a walking advertisement
  3. Don't always trust what you read on the internet - talk to locals about what is appropriate
  4. Lastly, don't over think it!

And when it comes to the beach in places like this, you will see everything - including the lovely skirted, 2 piece burkini!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Holiday from Heaven

As mentioned, I am very behind on my travel blog,  so I am hoping to use the next little while to catch up.

Back in May when I was in China, I got a BBM (blackberry message) from my friend Janet in Houston (Janet and I used to work together in Calgary at Shell) asking if I wanted to go on a SCUBA diving holiday to Honduras in September.  Now those of you who know me well, I am not very good at committing to anything that is too far out i.e. more than 1 month, but I thought – hell why not, so I quickly said yes.  By the next day, much to Janet’s surprise, I had my flights to Houston and on to Roatan booked!  A colleague of ours, who is uber picky had recommended the resort – Anthony’s Key Resort and we both figured that it was good enough for her, it would be more than good enough for us – and boy was it ever!  This was our holiday from heaven!

Anthony’s Key Resort or AKR as those familiar with it affectionately call it, is located on the southwest side of Roatan (an island off the east coast of Honduras in the Caribbean).  It is essentially an all-inclusive diving resort however they do cater to non-divers as well. 

So what made this the holiday from heaven – we did not have to think – AT ALL!  Both Janet and I have very busy jobs that often require a lot of brain power and to be able to go on a holiday where you don’t have to make any decisions beyond do I want soup or salad at lunch and dinner and do I want entrée A or entrée B at lunch and supper is so relaxing.  Every part of our day was planned for us but not in a suffocating type of way.  We would get up most mornings around 6:30am, go have breakfast and then would have to be at the dock for about 7:45am to go for our first dive.  We would then go out for our first dive, which was usually only a 5-10 minute boat ride away.  We would then come back to the dock for a break for generally 45 minutes and hang out, then go for our 2nd dive.  Come back, go for lunch.  We didn’t do our 3rd dive of the day until 2:30pm, so we would usually just go and float in the pool and soak up more vitamin D.  Just before 2:30 we would head back to the dock, get on the boat, go do our 3rd dive and then come back.  From there, we would head back to the pool, have our daily margarita or two in the pool.  Got to our room around 6pm to shower and change and then supper at 7pm.  Most nights we were in bed by 9pm and asleep by 9:30pm.  We were told what to do and when and it was great!  We both commented repeatedly how relaxing it was to not have to think!

On top on the not thinking, our room/cabin was located on a small quay across from the main island and on the quay, although there was a small bar, pool and spa, there was no Wi-Fi connectivity and the rooms had no TVs J which added to another level of relaxation.  The first couple of days it did feel awkward to be so disconnected from the world but at the same time, it was nice to have the electronic break.  I did have my blackberry with me, but I couldn’t get any work email J and I posted on Facebook a few times but since roaming is so expensive, I limited my time to about 2-3 minutes.  Had we wanted WiFi, we could have gotten it in the main part of the resort but that would have meant lugging around my iPad, which I didn’t want to do.

 One thing that made this holiday so awesome was the people that we met and the people who work at AKR.  On our first day, we met a bunch of people in the shuttle from the airport to the resort and they had all been to AKR multiple times before (one couple – it was their 20th time).  We then got to know them later in the day when we were all hanging in the pool.  They had tried to get us on their dive boat, however it was full, but that was okay, because we all fell into a little pattern and Janet and I would eat supper with their group every night.

When you hang out with people who share the same interests as you for a week, you pick up little tricks of the trade, you get ideas of equipment to buy and you learn about different dive resorts/live aboards, etc.    We both walked away we a few more friends and look forward to seeing them again in the water.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Big Ol' Beijing

Beautiful blue sky Beijing day!  Never thought that I would ever hear those words come out of my mouth.  As I have previously mentioned, the air quality in Beijing is generally hazardous to your health at best - I am not over exaggerating here.  According to the air quality people, anything over 300 ppm of pm2.5 (some particulate matter thing) is hazardous to the health of a healthy person - imagine being young, old, ill, etc - it can be down right deadly.  But today, it was nice and clear and from the office you could see for miles and all I can say is WOW is Beijing ever dense.  I don't know that I had ever really gotten a good sense of how big Beijing truly is.  I mean it is one of the largest cities in the world, with over 20 million people, but with the exception of the subway during rush hour, it never seems that way.  So today I took some time to just stare out the window to get a good sense of how big Beijing really is and then is when I got a good feeling of the density and the sheer volume of high rises - I guess I never had that great of an appreciation for just how many of them there are.  Mind you, this 20 million plus people have to live somewhere. . .

I made the picture extra big so you could start to see how the density.
I also had this realization today, well actually earlier in the week but it was amplified today when I could see how big Beijing is, I really don't know Beijing at all.  Sure, I am becoming quite adept at finding my around in the 5km radius of my hotel and work.  Beyond that, I have really had very little exposure to Beijing and I am not sure that that will change a whole lot. Beijing isn't one of those places where you can just hope on a bus and see where it takes you - mainly b/c bus transit is very slow.  Plus, there is this little thing called a language barrier - at least in The Netherlands, I can kinda make out what words mean and make sense of sign, in China, not so much.  As previously mentioned, my Mandarin skills are non-existent!  I think for now, I will keep to my little radius and continue to explore it and appreciate it - it is filled with quite a lot of parks and green spaces and continue to become more comfortable with it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Don't Look Them In The Eye

This isn't even busy!
Some of the best advice I have received so far whilst being in China has been "don't look them in the eye".  Who might you be asking?  Cabs, cars, other pedestrians, etc.  I have started to implement this approach as I get off the subway, as I am trying to cross a crazy Beijing intersection or I am walking thru a throng of people.  As soon as you look them in the eye - you are dead as it means that you have acknowledged them, you know that they are there and then you have to get out of the way!  However, if you continue to look down or down and ahead, all while paying attention to what is in your peripheral vision, like a bus which will not stop for anyone, and the odd cab who doesn't care, you can pretty much move safely around Beijing.

So this is my 3rd trip to China in less than 2 months (I wasn't anticipating being here this much - my 2nd trip was unanticipated) and I am definitely feeling much more comfortable and much more sure of myself.  Now I know that shocks some of you, as you see me as this travelling warriorette, but this warriorette does get scared and isn't always comfortable when she travels.  For my past 2 visits I have opted to stay at the Grand Hyatt Beijing, partly b/c I am a Hyatt Passport holder and know that I am going to have enough stays this year to move up the ol' frequent stayer food chain, but also because the Hyatt has a better room service menu than Trader's did, and in a place like China, having some N. American comfort food at easy disposal is important!

The trade off with staying at the Hyatt is that I am about a 10 minute cab ride to work (which costs about $3 CDN) or a 4 stop subway ride.  Normally what I have been doing is taking a cab in the morning and then the subway home - mainly because I am lazy, but today I took the subway both ways.  A one-way trip on the subway costs me about 50 cents and I even went so far as to buy a subway card last week, once again using my famous pointing and nodding skills as well as presenting money.  Hell - the lady at the ticket counter was able to figure out what I wanted.  If I catch the subway around 8am and around 5:30pm, it isn't usually that busy - give it 30 minutes more on each and then it is me and 1000 of my closest Chinese friends making our way to work.
One of my subway stations
Beijing is DEFINITELY getting easier and I am starting to venture out just a little bit more.  I am feeling fairly confident when taking a cab and I always have my hotel taxi card with - it says where I am staying in Mandarin characters and I know which main road I am staying on and can point in the general direction.  I have also learned that tapping, pointing, and nodding are effective communication tools, particularly when my Mandarin is non-existent and their English is the same - most times we can figure it out.  Most taxis in Beijing are metered, except for the ones outside of the Silk Market and I know how much it should cost me to get back to my hotel 20 RMB not 150 RMB and have been able to practice my "screw off" in English there :-)

I am not to the point where I  LOVE Beijing yet and I am not sure that I will ever get there, but I am definitely finding my own here.  By nature I am not the most patient person - I know - shocking, but I have had to be patient with Beijing because it has pushed me far outside of my comfort zone and in order to get back to my comfort zone, I have had to be patient, and it is now starting to pay off.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Maison Boulud Beijing

Those who know me, know that I LOVE good food and don't have an issue spending good money for an amazing meal, as those types of meals are not just about the food but also about the experience.  So for as much as I have commented on the food here in China, truth be told, I have yet to have a bad meal. Yes, there have been some crazy (and nasty) things on the menu, and yes we did order donkey once (which I DID NOT eat), I have generally had good food and brunch today was no exception.

When I was in Beijing a few weeks back, I discovered a few high end restaurants and decided that on this trip that I would see if I could try one or two of them out, so today I went to Maison Boulud for brunch.  Daniel Boulud, for those who don't know, is an award winning French Chef with a 3 Michelin Star restaurant in NYC called Daniel.
Keeping my fingers crossed, I sent off an email yesterday afternoon to see if it would be possible to get a reservation for 1 for brunch for today - late, I know.  Brian Reimer, the executive chef quickly responded saying that they would have a place for me at noon.  The restaurant is located in Chi'en Men 23 which is where the old American Embassy used to be and is about a 5 minute taxi from my hotel.  When I arrived, they quickly acknowledged me and it was almost as though they were waiting for this solo diner.  I was quickly escorted to my table, which btw was not tucked away in the corner by the kitchen, but rather near the front of the restaurant where I could see everything.

Below is a photo montage of what I had for my 3 course brunch.  Unfortunately I didn't get pictures of the wine but I started with a 2012 Chateau d'Esclans Whispering Angel Rose Cotes de Provence and then for my burger, asked the sommelier to pair something to go with the burger.  He chose a 2006 Chateau Baret - which was lovely.

Bread basket with Cherry & Apple Preserves & Whipped Cream - there was also a muffins tray

Soup of Five Peas and Lettuce, Savory Cream Smoked Bacon, Brioche Croutons 
The db Burger
Sirloin Burger Filled with Braised Short Ribs & Foie Gras Served with Pomme Frites 

White Peach Sorbet

Hot Madeleines

"Just because" treats - home made caramel, macaroons & nougat - yummy!
To finish it all off

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Favourite or First World Problems

Yep - it is back to Beijing and like I say, 3rd time is a charm.  With each trip here, I am becoming more and more comfortable with it, although the whole food thing still has me a little edge, although this has yet to lead to any sort of weight loss but I digress.

For this trip I was hoping to fly on Singapore Airlines as they are supposed to have an amazing business class product but I am quickly finding out that unless I book at least 4-6 weeks in advance, they typically sell out, particularly over the weekend & Mondays, which is when I usually want to travel.  On my first trip I flew Lufthansa on the A380 (the double-decker) and it was okay however they don't have lie-flat seats - I know, first world problems, but I will come back to that.  For my 2nd trip to Beijing, which wasn't planned, I flew on Malaysia Airlines from KL and on China Southern back to Amsterdam - both were okay but once again, no lie-flat seats.  I generally also rule out KLM as well because as much as I want to collect the little blue and white houses that you get in business, they too don't have a lie-flat seat - so who does that leave me with.   I think Cathay Pacific, Emerites and Air China, and given that I am trying to requalify for my Aeroplan Super Elite 100K, I went with Air China, which is part of the Star Alliance, and to be honest, I think I have a new favourite airline!
My pre-take off Champagne

The seat is very, very comfortable.  I think it is the same seat that United has put in their new planes (okay - so there is one thing I like about United) and that Air Canada is putting in their new planes as well.  And more importantly, it lies flat.   So why is this so important to me, well the flight to China from Western Europe is between 10-12 hours depending on where you fly from, and generally lands early in the morning in Beijing.  So for me, that means that I land, go to the hotel and have a shower and then off to the office I go and with the time difference (+6 hours), I want to have had some decent sleep on the plane.  With the angle-flat seats that a lot of airlines have, my legs dangle, down, you slide down to the bottom of your footrest and it is generally very uncomfortable.  First world problems I know, but when you land and then go to work, having been able to sleep and get your body adjusted, is important to me.

The food is very good and there is definitely no shortage of it.  Asall flights heading to Asia, you have the option of a Chinese or a Western menu and for this flight, I decided to be adventurous and went with the Chinese menu and it was very good (and there was no donkey or parts).
Amuse bouche
Appetizers & salad

They provide you with a very nice (and large) pillow and a large duvet - no thin knit blanket here..   And frankly, being comfortable is important to me, especially when I am in the air for so long.  The only downside with Air China is the movie/TV selection - it is rather limited (reviews had forewarned me) but I came prepared with my laptop loaded up with movies/TV shows.

Most of you probably don't know, but I suffer from minor panic attacks and usually I can talk myself through them, as half of my brain knows that I am having the attack and tries to rationalize with the other half which is flipping out.   There are 3 main places/times when I have them - movie theatres (weird - I know), scuba diving and when flying.   I generally have 1 panic attack per long-haul flight and they usually look like this - my heart starts to race, I start to breath quickly and I think, get me the f*#k out of here now. - this is consistent with all locations. I have this urge/need to get off/out of the plane and while the rationale side of me knows that this isn't possible, the panic side of me continues to flip out.  They usually last 5-10 minutes and when they are over,  I am fine and I suffer in silence - pretty sure that those around me don't even realize that they are happening.  The good news is that I didn't have one on this flight :-)  Yeah me.

Main course - some sort of Chinese prawns - no donkey!

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Little Bit More Lisbon

For our first full day in Lisbon, we got off to a rather late start as we both slept in. I am suffering from a little jet lag having just gotten back from China on Wednesday morning and we left for Lisbon on Wednesday night - that was my excuse. Our first course of action was to get some food, so we asked at the front desk of our hotel what she recommended that was close. Up the street from us was this great little bakery/lunch counter that seemed to fill up with people right after we arrived.  There was a little bit of a language barrier but the woman serving us knew that we were hungry and wanted to eat, so brought us this yummy seafood and rice dish.

Portugese Coke Zero

Our next course of action was to find the Hop On/Hop Off bus stop, which happened to be about a 10 minute walk from our hotel.  For the next hour and half, we happily rode around Lisbon taking in the sites and sounds of the city (and no, we didn't hop off).  After riding most of the Red Line of the bus, we got off in the central part of the old part of Lisbon (it has some name but I don't know what it is) and decided that we wanted to go up to the Castelo De S. Jorge,  which is this old castle that looks over Lisbon. It was built in the 11th century and much of it is still standing. Both Rebecca and I commented on the craftsmanship and wondered how the hell they built this at that time?! It truly is amazing what they did with very little technology (as we know it) 

Now the castle sits up above Lisbon, up high on a hill and honestly, the thought of trekking up there was not high on my list, so we took Tram 28 which a historic tram. Given that the streets in this part of Lisbon are old cobblestone, and the tramline is set in the old
cobblestone, it was a very rough ride up but we both agreed that it was much better than walking! We probably spent a good hour up there just wandering around, looking at the views of Lisbon and just enjoying the great weather.

After the castle, we found the bus (public transit) that would take us back down the hill, not that we were opposed to walking but we saw the bus and it was going where we were wanting to go, so why not?! We went back down to the square (who's name I don't know) where we finally found the elusive gelato. About 4 hours earlier I had said that we should have some gelato - do you think we could find any - no. But lo and behold, just after we got off the bus, I looked across the square and there it was - a gelato place. 

A big international mask festival was being kicked off  in a different square about a block away and we happened to catch the end of it. There were also a bunch of food booths and little kiosks of stuff to buy, including this really cool wool shop where I bought a small purse and Rebecca got the cutest little toque for the winter. While here, we also discovered some amazing food including some sort of cherry liquor in chocolate cups (yummy), a melted cheese on bread - hard to explain - see picture, then it was back to the Portugese bakery stalls, where we each had a chocolate egg tart.  
This is the cheese being melted

OMG these were so good - now I can see why they are so famous!
Trust me - it doesn't look like much but it is oh so good!

By now we had been touring about for 6.5 hours and decided that we would grab the Hop On/Hop Off bus and head back towards our hotel for a little rest, freshen up and would head down to the Port of Lisbon area for supper. Yah - that never happened. We got back to our hotel, and each laid down for a little rest.  I think I fell asleep first and when I woke up, Rebecca was sleeping so I went back to sleep. I heard her go out about 10:30pm I think, and when I got up this morning, I saw that she had McDonalds (it is just down the street from us) and bought me a cheeseburger :-)

Today we are heading out towards Alcochete, where there is a designer outlet mall for some shopping! Alchochote is located on the left bank of the River Tagus and is an authentic/traditional Portugese vaillage - so we should get some culture today as well :-) After that, the plan is to head down to the train station (we know where it is now) and take the train out to Estoril, which is where we will spend Saturday & Sunday, mainly relaxing on the beach, or at least that is the plan for now.

Lisbon Long Weekend

The one downside about living in the Netherlands is the lack of statutory holidays - there aren't as many as there are back in Canada and they all seem to be lumped together within 3 weeks - seriously. We got April 30 for Queen's Day, May 9 for Ascension, May 10 for who knows why and May 20 for WhitMonday and then we don't get anymore stats until Christmas. Unfortunately I didn't get to partake in Queen's Day as I was in Malaysia (and will eventually get all of my blogs posted :-) ) but luckily, I had made plans early in April with a colleague/friend Rebecca to take advantage of the first May long weekend by going to Portugal for 5 days.

I know Rebecca through work but it goes beyond that. When I first started working in oil & gas, I worked with her dad at Anderson/Devon and he used to talk about his daughters Rebecca & Renee who would have been in junior high at the time (this should give you an idea of the age difference). Flash forward about 14 years and her and I now both work for Shell and started to work together on a few projects in Heavy Oil (she is a landman). In early December she found out that she got a short term international assignment (STIA) over to the Netherlands to a place called Groningen and moved there in March. What is good for me is that she loves to travel too, so her and I had got to talking at work and decided that we would try this weekend together.

For me, this is the least planned I have been on a trip, and I am not an uber planner. Essentially, all we had booked was our flights (KLM to Lisbon on Wednesday night) and our hotels in both Lisbon & Estoril. Rebecca was in charge of booking our first 2 nights in Lisbon and I booked our rooms in Estoril and our last night in Lisbon. We are leaving nice, bright and early (6:30am - ugh) on Monday, so I just booked us at the Holiday Inn up by the airport. Rebecca scored for us in Lisbon big time. She booked us into the Clarion Suites, which had decent ratings on TripAdvisor and was in a pretty central location. When we arrived, which was about midnight, the guy upgraded us to the penthouse suite, which was essentially a 2 bedroom apartment. We had a living room, 2 bedrooms each with a king sized bed and 2 full bathrooms - all for 175 euros!

We have nothing planned for this trip except that we would do the Hop On/Hop Off bus to get a sense of the city and then would just go from there. Normally I have done some searching on the internet or picked up a travel book - for this trip - nope. Just winging it!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Married or Single? Depends on the Cab

Once again, I apologize for the randomness of these posts. I think I might have another one or two on my laptop at home about China and I know that I have one on my iPad about this trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – yes, I am here now.

I have taken 3 cab rides so far while I have been here in KL (for the most part I have been taking public transit) and each time, my marital status has been questioned.  Just for the record, I am single.  I have been asked if I was married. If I was single. Did I want a Malaysian boyfriend because he is looking for a woman just like me. All of sudden, I had an imaginary fiancé. :-) My diamond ring comes in handy sometimes and I just casually slipped it over to the other hand in case he looked. I was asked if I was allowed to travel alone? Why wouldn’t I? One cabbie asked me if I had kids and then asked if I was 28 years old. When I told him that I was turning 39, he told me that I’d better get busy on having kids (who said I wanted them!) I have really learned that nothing is off limits with the cab drivers here. And they are the most enterprising bunch. They have all asked me if I need a ride to work or from work each day – I don’t because I have now bought a KL Myrapid Pass and take the LRT to the Sentral Station (their spelling, not mine) and then catch the Shell Shuttle to the office. So far I have spent a total of €2 on travel to and from work – talk about cheap!

As mentioned before, I can be a bit of a picky eater – meaning that I am sensitive to new tastes and particularly textures, so Asia is generally a challenge for me. But not Malaysia! Unlike China, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for “parts”. I think that might have something to do with the fact that is predominantly Muslim here and they avoid pork like the plague. So much so that when you order anything with “sausage”, it is usually some sort of chicken-type product or mystery meat. As for bacon, and we know I LOVE bacon, they have what they call “crisp” here, which is like chicken or turkey bacon. Not the same and not as good, but at least it meets the nitrate laden meat product craving.  As per usual, I have managed to find some Mexican food – at the mall. Last night I had nachos with cream cheese (cheese sauce) and a beef and sausage taco (aka chicken hot dog). Didn’t like the taste of the sausage so I took it out. I haven’t really discovered any street food here as I currently staying in a more upscale area, so there aren’t many vendors but I am hoping this weekend to find a food stall or two where I can have some more local fare. Haven’t have my requisite McDonald’s yet but I am sure that it is coming. Hell, I can’t come to Malaysia and not have McDonald’s! Oh and yesterday when I was out getting my passport photos taken (another story for the next blog), I stopped at Starbucks – yes they are everywhere here, and got to chatting with the girls. Turns out one of the girls working there is moving to Ontario in August and will be going to Waterloo to take kinesiology – what a small world!

Now I know that most of you think that I have this glamorous life of travel, but it isn’t a glamorous as you might think. Yes, I will be the first to admit that I do get to travel a lot and lately, the locales have been a little bit more spectacular than Fort McMurray. With that being said, I need to clarify or set something straight – travel for work, isn’t all that glamorous. Yes, I get to fly business class if my flight is over 4 hours; and yes, I generally get to stay in a 4 or 5 star hotel; and yes, lately I have been going to cool places. So I know that you are sitting there saying “so what isn’t glamorous about that?!” Well for the most parts what I see of a new place is what I pass on my way from the airport to my hotel to the office, and usually anything I see of the actual place, is in the dark and at night. Couple that with the fact that most of my flights lately have been 12+ hours and a 6-7 hour time difference, I usually have jetlag, so going out after work usually loses out to sleep! Throw on top of that living in a hotel for a week and not having any creature comforts. Then the kicker – I am here to work, which takes away all of the fun (and time) of being a tourist. So in essence, I am just moving my work location over to another country – so really, not that glamorous. I do try and build in a little time on either side of my trip, but given that my travel time is now so long, it is hard to build in more time without totally losing my weekends.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It Doesn't Smell Like Chinatown

I know, I know, I am a little behind on my blogs about China - my apologies.  In fact, I have found a bunch of draft blogs saved in various places that I need to/will post.  You know the one thing that I noticed about China is that it didn't smell like Chinatown.   It seems as though it doesn't matter which Chinatown I have ever been in - Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, The Hague, Chinatown has that smell and China didn't smell that way at all.  For a bit I thought that it might be because of the pollution - you could definitely smell that, but I think what it is is that Beijing is so big and there weren't a bunch of markets all squished into 4 square blocks all selling food stuff.

And speaking of pollution, the pollution was beyond the "hazardous" level for most of the days that I was there.  The measure something called PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5) and normally in a city like Calgary it is something probably under 10?  In Beijing, it was consistently over 400 while I was there, with the exception of one day when it seemed to blow out over night.  What surprises me is that trees and flowers and the like all seem to grown regardless of the pollution - I guess they have adapted, just as the people have.  I was given a face mask when I first got there - no, I didn't wear it except to take some pictures of me with it on, but I also limited my exposure outside.  You did see a fair bit of people wearing them and you can also get them all blinged out.  Mine, unfortunately looked like a standard home improvements type of mask.  I can say that by the end of the week though that my lungs were sore - it almost felt like I was just getting over a cold and they were kinda phlegmy.

So that is that on pollution and China.  I am going back shortly and it will be interesting to 1) see how the trees and the grass are and 2) see I'd the pollution is as bad in the spring.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinese Food for Breakfast, Chinese Food for Lunch, Chinese Food for Supper

I wrote this blog entry when I was in China but the Chinese firewall blocked access to my blog when I was there unless I was hooked up to the network at work.  I am just now getting around to actually posting my blogs.

If you follow my blog at all, you will know that I have realized and acknowledged that I am a fussy eater – this really came out when I went to Seoul, Korea a few years back, so when I found out I was coming to China, I immediately started get scared.  You hear all of these stories about the different “things” that they eat over here and by things, I mean parts!  And I don’t eat parts.  Or donkey.

One of my friends asked me what I have been eating and I said “Chinese food” and she called me an “asshole” thinking that it was a flippant response, but it is true – that is all that I have been eating and I am getting tired of it.  It’s not that the food is back because it isn’t, but honestly, eating the same sort of food every day for a week for 2 of your 3 meals gets really tiring.  If I wanted, I could have Chinese for breakfast, lunch and dinner but so far I have limited it to lunch and dinner as my hotel has a buffet at breakfast that includes western food like bacon. . .I LOVE bacon.  Now I have to admit, I was apprehensive on the first day with the bacon because not all bacon is created equal and it did look a little different – it has a different type of marbling, so I only took 1 piece.  Well boy was I ever surprised – the bacon here is AWESOME so I went back for more.  For the mornings when I have gone down for breakfast it has typically been bacon, a croissant, OJ and a cooked tomato – not very exciting I know but honestly, eating congee or some other Chinese creation at breakfast is not my thing.  For the days when I skip breakfast, I am happy to report that there is a Starbucks in our building and even in China, they charge European prices = EXPENSIVE!  (but worth it)

Last night (Wednesday) one of my colleagues, Zhuang wanted to share with us one of his favourite Peking Duck restaurants, so who was I to say no, even though the thought of eating duck scared me, as I have never been a big duck fan.  Well, let’s put it this way, no part of the duck goes to waste!  Just looking at the menu sent me into a mental tizzy.  But boy was the duck ever good!!!  I can honestly say, that I will have Peking duck again (minus the soup with the parts)

So today (Thursday) for lunch my two co-workers asked what I wanted and I said “not Chinese”, so off to Fat Burger it was.  You would swear by how quickly I scarfed down that burger and onion rings that I hadn’t eaten in weeks!  After I ate it, I realized that it was the first “North American” type of food that I have had in 6 weeks since I moved to The Netherlands and boy did it ever taste good!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chinese Torture

I have come up with two of my own forms of Chinese torture.

#1 – Go into a Chinese lingerie shop and ask them to fit me for a bra.

#2 – At the market where all you hear is “hey lady – wanna buy some shoes? Uggs, Toms, Converse” “I have big feet” “oh, we have you size” “I have big feet” “oh no worry, we have you size” after trying to jam my feet into a shoe “oh you have big feet”.

These are being posted out of order due to the fact that the great Chinese firewall blocks this website.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Off to China

Who knows if you will get to read these real time or if I will only be able to post them when I get back to Europe - but for those of you who don't know, which is probably most of you, I am heading to Beijing, China for a week. I have told a few people about this, mainly my parents, closest friends and my colleagues at work, but I haven't been overly vocal about it. Let's put it this way - I haven't put it on Facebook yet and depending on whether or not I will be able to access Facebook or not, people might not find out until I get back.

I think travelling through Schipol (the airport in Amsterdam) is going to take some adjusting. Now I am a Star Alliance girl, in fact I have my Altitude 100K with Aeroplan (the old Super Elite) and Schipol is a KLM/Sky Miles airport. Fortunately KLM has status matched my Aeroplan so I also have my Flying Blue Gold with them but I digress. I am flying Lufthansa via Frankfurt to go to Beiiing. I had the option of taking the direct KLM flight, however I opted for Lufthansa for a few reasons. #1 - my aeroplan points. I want to hold on to a high level of status with Aeroplan b/c for me, they have the best benefits (upgrade credits and the best baggage allowance). This flight should net me about 10 000 aeroplan points or so. #2 - I wasn't happy with the KLM business class seats when I moved to The Hague - they didn't seem to recline that far. For this flight I could have flown KLM, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific or Austrian. I researched out each one's business class, as that is the class that I can fly and although I have heard great things about Cathay Pacific, their points are with oneWorld, which is British Airways, American, etc - and I have been status matched with BA to their highest as well, but it just isn't a good program, so why waste good mile accurage on them. Being that this is a KLM hub, the Lufthansa counter was relegated to the back corner and unless you really look, you can't see the dedicated First/Business/Star Alliance Gold check-in. Now I am a bit of a princess when I travel - I know, surprise, surprise, but this is one of the perks that I enjoy - dedicated check-in. I want to go up to a person and I want to see them tag my bag. I don't want to have to go to a kiosk and do it myself. Well I like I said, the dedicated check-in was buried in the back and I almost used a kiosk to check in but at the last minute spotted the dedicated check-in. I had thought that surely there must be check-in for business!

The my next little bit of hell was the security line-up. In Canada I had my Nexus card (oh how I love you) and as a priority member person with aeroplan, you could go in the "quick" line. Imagine my horror as I joined the regular line up today! It was busy and crowded and once again I thought - surely there must be a line for us special people. I kept looking around for someone to ask but couldn't find anyone. After standing in the line for about 2 minutes, I once again spotted a sign up ahead for Priority Members, so I had to make my way out of the line and quickly entered the Priority Line - much, much better and much, much more what I am used to! :-) The only crap thing was there was this little kid who needed a good spanking. He was about 2 1/2 years old and throwing a huge fit, that lasted a good 5 minutes b/c his monther wouldn't carry him. How could she - she also had a set of 5 month old twins in car seats that she was also trying to get through security. Fortunately she did have her dad with her (or at least I hope he was her dad). Even after they go through security and into the main hall, the kid kept on screaming for no apparent reason. Spanking if you ask me!

Now security here - you have to take out EVERYTHING that is electronic, including iPads, phones, cameras, computers and all chargers and plug-ins. Normally it's not a biggy as I pack with my laptop close to the top - easy to get in and out but the rest of it, it was buried here and there. I think to be quick and efficient at security and this time I wasn't as I had to dig through my bag to find everything, and then put it back when I got through. I am going to have to rethink my Schipol security strategy.

Getting back to being the 2nd class citizen in this airport, I am currently sitting in the Serviceair lounge which

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Do you like Brussels?

European Union
Church in the fog
I think that Brussels are like brussels sprouts - at first you don't really like them, or as a kid you in fact hate them, but as you get older or over time, you develop an appreciation for them.  In my case, I LOVE brussel sprouts now that have been roasted and topped with parmesan and bacon - yummy!  My impressions of Brussels is that I didn't particularly love it but I think that over time I could come to appreciate it.  I mean, hell it is the head of the European Union so surely that must account for something doesn't it?!

Today I did the Hop On/Hop Off city bus tour of Brussels except that I don't ever get off and just ride around and listen to the little tape and see the sights. I can honestly say that I am getting a better impression of Brussels today.  Over all I would say that it definitely 2 1/2 hours well spent and would probably do it again and actually get off of the bus :-)

Starting a tour in the fog is probably not the best thing but I had to take what Mother Nature was providing me.  I guess it just means that I am going to have to come back here in either the spring or summer, when it is green to get a better appreciation of the city.  After doing the bus trip, I have revised my impression of Brussels - it is less of a hole than I had initially thought but honestly, it still isn't my favourite city.   With that being said, don't think that I won't come back, because I probably will if only for a day trip and to go shopping and maybe to check out more of the sites in the sunshine!

Another thing about Brussels is that I saw a lot of homeless people, beggars and panhandlers.  There seemed to be people on most streets either asking for money or  sleeping in the metro.  There is also a very large North African/middle eastern population here and it is reflected in the culinary choices - you can get a donair on just about every corner.

I thought that I was going to be sick on my train ride from Brussels to Antwerp as the guy across from me spent the better part of the trip mining his nose.  Had I had a kleenex I would have offered it to him as it was really starting to gross me out!  I also learned on the way home that there is indeed a 1st class section - you just have to look for it and it definitely made a difference on the one train as I felt a little like being in India!  For one thing, it had seats and not just benches, it was cleaner, quieter and way less people.  I am still not convinced though that it is worth it b/c I was only able to find it on the one train.