Cockpit Chronicles: A new year’s eve to celebrate in London

London New YearsWhen I was in high school, I got to know a sweet and charming exchange student from Germany named Linda. We hung out together and I did my best to show her around Seattle before she had to go home six weeks later. I regretted not having the opportunity to get to know her ten months earlier when she first came to the U.S.

Five years went by, and we would write an occasional letter. She’d tell me about her life in Germany, which revolved around a constant barrage of tests or how she’d been accepted into a school she’d always wanted to attend and I’d tell her about whatever flying rating I was chasing or what classes I was taking at the time. I always knew I’d see her again, or at least I had hoped I would.

While flying for Era, a regional airline based in Anchorage, I happened to write a letter that would forever change my life. I was in the town of Deadhorse, up on the north slope of Alaska, flying some scientists who were tracking the migration patterns of bowhead whales. For nearly a week, the weather wasn’t good enough to look for these whales from the air, so I wrote to Linda and happened to mention that I could travel cheaply-free in fact, if I were willing to ride on a FedEx cargo plane to Germany from Anchorage-and that I would love to see where she lived.
Before heading out to dinner one night in Anchorage, I checked the mail. A letter from Germany had arrived. I stuffed it in my coat pocket and drove to the restaurant with my sister and a good friend. I couldn’t wait to open it, so after placing my order for beer battered Halibut, I tore open the envelope. Linda hadn’t wasted much time writing back. The letter explained that she’d be in London for New Year’s eve with some friends from school and invited me to join them if that was possible. I was excited to leave right away, but I wondered if we’d have anything in common, since we last saw each other at the age of seventeen.

In London, we stayed at a place called “Ken’s Guest House” in a room that wasn’t much larger than a walk-in closet. The decor included three black and white TVs stacked on top of each other in the corner, no furniture to speak of and a shared bathroom down the hall. We didn’t really mind the spartan room since we wouldn’t be staying there long-we’d be moving to a youth hostel the next day anyway. After ringing in New Year’s of 1991, we talked until 7a.m. For a better idea of what happened to us, just watch the movie Before Sunrise. The next day, Linda introduced me to her parents who were also visiting London.

It wasn’t long before Linda was visiting me in Anchorage and I was spending all of my time traveling to see her in Germany and later in Wales. For two years I commuted from Alaska to Europe. We were married in Seattle just weeks before I landed a job at a major airline that promptly furloughed the bottom 600 pilots. We moved ten times during those next three years, but now we’re happily settled in New England.

Today, I fly to London regularly as a crew member and I can’t help but think of that first meeting with Linda, at the Victoria train station, and how we celebrated New Year’s eve together at Trafalger Square in 1991. Twenty years later, I managed to trade away my Barbados 25-hour overnight for a 44-hour layover to Heathrow. With so much time in London, why not bring my wife along to celebrate twenty years since the date that brought us together. We could swing through the Victoria station and just catch the midnight swarm of people at the square.

I immediately checked the loads, which is to say, just how full the flight was over and back. Three months earlier, I tried to get Linda on one of my trips while her mother was visiting from Germany and was willing to watch the kids. Unfortunately, I found myself waving goodbye to her from the cockpit as we were pushing back from the gate in Boston. Every seat was filled on the 767.

According to the computer, this time we’d have plenty of seats on the flight over. Coming home would be a different story. Should we risk it, I asked? Linda thought there were worse things in life than being stuck in London, a position I’m sure a few London travelers who had been stuck at the airport earlier that week would disagree with.

It couldn’t have worked out better. Linda got a seat in the back but stayed up in the cockpit while the passengers boarded and I explained just how to preflight the airplane, what we checked for and what everything on the overhead panel did. It had been eight years since Linda had been on a flight with me, and I was probably more excited than she was to have her come along.

London New Years

Let’s face it, layovers by yourself can be boring, repetitive and even depressing. Flying to the same hotel, in the same city over and over, with little energy or motivation to get out-especially in the winter-can leave you wishing you could bring along a friend or loved one. Of course, it’s nice to fly with co-workers you consider friends, as I’ve written about in the past, but it’s a huge treat to bring along a spouse.

It was my ‘leg’ to fly over to London, so of course, anytime you know someone in the back, the pressure is always there to make an extra smooth landing. With a little help from the tower controllers at Heathrow, the touchdown was even better than my usual “landing only a mother could love.”

Typically at Heathrow there is an airplane flying just 3 miles behind you when you touchdown. This means flights are required to spend a minimum amount of time on the runway. That night however, the tower informed us that there was no one behind and we could plan on rolling to whatever turnoff we’d prefer. I touched down in the normal target a thousand feet down the runway and then instead of using a significant amount of brakes and reverse thrust, elected to roll to a slow stop using two thirds of the two mile long runway.

I escorted Linda through the terminal, meeting up with the rest of the crew as they pulled up in the bus that would take us to the hotel in western London.

By this time it was 8:30 p.m., so we decided to get some dinner after changing at the hotel. We made an appearance at the pub downstairs and had just enough time for a drink and visit with a few others from our flight before going upstairs to watch the rumored fireworks from the window of our room. I had heard that most of the fireworks would be near the London Eye, but we were shocked by the spectacular display which broke out directly from the giant wheel. Without a doubt, they were the best fireworks display we’d ever seen. From the BBC:

A 44-hour layover gives you the luxury of sleeping in a bit and staying closer to your home time zone. As much as London has to offer on January 1st, Linda was very much looking forward to not having to set an alarm clock.

We wandered down to a Starbucks quaint cafe for some tea.

“Did you put sugar in my tea?” Linda asked.

“Uh, yeah. Don’t you take milk and sugar?” I said, realizing immediately that she didn’t.

“I’ve never put sugar in my tea!”

This was bad. Linda was actually born in Belfast before she moved as a kid to Germany. The one cultural habit she kept from her years in Northern Ireland was an affinity for tea. And not just an occasional cup of tea, she started the day with tea and she took time in the afternoon for her “wee cup of tea.” After eighteen years of marriage, not knowing how she took her tea was not a good way to start off a romantic weekend getaway.

After retracing some of our steps twenty years ago, such as finding the best book stores in London and eating at a Chinese restaurant where I first got to know her parents, we popped into a cafe (this time not Starbucks) for a pre-theatre cup of tea. I managed to get the order right and we joked about it a bit.

I may have salvaged the tea faux pas with tickets to We will Rock You, which I knew would be the perfect musical to see if we were feeling a bit jet lagged. Linda loved the show and we were certainly wide awake afterwards, so we headed down to Trafalgar Square to see the area where the New Year’s celebration had been-the night before and ours twenty years ago.

A few blocks south was the Thames, so we headed down there to look at the London Eye across the river. We headed back toward another tube station, and just passed Big Ben as the clock struck midnight and the bells wailed.

The next morning we still had plenty of time to tour the city, so we set out to walk in front of Buckingham Palace and then to take a peak into the famous department store Harrods, during their one and only annual sale. Harrods turned out to be absolutely packed, and honestly there wasn’t anything there that either of us were interested in. But it was a spectacle to be seen, that’s for sure.

With just a couple of seats open for the flight home, we were a bit worried about Linda getting a seat. Fortunately the loads improved and the flight ended up with ten open coach seats. The flight attendants, some of whom I hadn’t worked with before, gave Linda a little extra special attention without making her feel like a burden on them.

So while being married to a pilot may have a few significant drawbacks-Linda often feels like she’s a single mother-there are occasionally some times when a really good deal like this comes along.

Thanks Linda for putting up with twenty years of this often turbulent career. It looks like a smoother ride is ahead, I think. But maybe we’ll just leave the seatbelt sign on.

London Travel Guide

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

London New Years

Road trip: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is like the United States–it’s best seen on a long road trip. The easiest way to see Ethiopia’s beautiful landscape and ancient monuments is to hire a driver and vehicle in the capital Addis Ababa.

My wife and I picked Abey Roads based on a personal recommendation and decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by doing the popular two-week “northern loop” encompassing the provinces of Amhara and Tigray and the most famous of Ethiopia’s ancient sites. Our driver Sntayehu Mekonen turned out to be a handy translator/guide/fixer, not to mention a fun travel companion. Many independent travelers prefer going it alone on public transport and while that is certainly cheaper, hiring a vehicle gives you more freedom of movement plus someone who is able to tell you about the country and show you out-of-the-way spots. So after some good first impressions of Ethiopia, we headed out.

The ride north out of Addis Ababa climbs up the steep slopes of the Entonto Hills through eucalyptus forest. This fast-growing Australian import was first planted by the Emperor Menelik more than a century ago. It provides a ready supply of construction material and the leaves are used for fuel. Women carry huge bundles of the leaves on their heads several miles downhill to sell in the market. Trucks speed past them with mountains of the stuff. Coming uphill we see one of Ethiopia’s famous runners, sprinting up a steep incline at 3,000 meters (9,000+ feet). Runners train in these hills so that when they race at lower elevations they can easily outpace the competition.

Up and over the hills and we’re speeding along the Oromo and Amhara uplands, a green and fertile region that looks nothing like the image most people have of Ethiopia. Acacia and eucalyptus dot the countryside and thatched roof huts are everywhere, their walls made of the thin trunks of eucalyptus. Children herding cows and goats wave at our car as their fathers thresh teff, a popular grain in Ethiopia. Teff is used to make injeera, the sour bread typical of Ethiopian cuisine, and it fetches a higher price than any other cereal crop. The tiny grains (the word derives from the Amharic term for “lost”) are separated from their husks by having cattle walk in circles over a heap of it until all the husks are crushed.

The first stop for most travelers on the northern historic loop is the monastery of Debre Libanos, 100 km north of Addis Ababa. A rough dirt road winds down a sheer 700 meter canyon to one of the holiest spots for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was here in a cave in the cliff that the holy man Tekle Heymonot lived for many years praying and fasting. Deciding this wasn’t enough, he stood on one leg until the other one fell off. Some paintings of the saint show him ascending to heaven, his detached leg equipped with its own set of wings.

%Gallery-87468%Like holy places the world over, Debre Libanos is permeated with a sense of transcendent calm. The verdant cliffs overlooking it to one side and the sweeping views on the other make are beautiful, and the church’s bright dome shines in the sun, appearing smaller than it is in the imposing landscape.

Once inside the scene changes completely. The interior is dim, lit only by candles and colored light filtering through a row of stained glass windows. Men and women worship on separate sides, their prayers mingling with the chants of priests intoning ancient hymns in front of Tekla Heymonot’s tomb. The liturgical language is Ge’ez, an ancient tongue that uses the same alphabet as Amharic but is unintelligible to modern speakers, a bit like Latin.

Our guide is a former engineer who speaks flawless English. Many years ago he got sick and his parents brought him here to be healed. Miraculously he was, and he gave up his job to become a monk. He takes us to every corner of the compound, from the cellar where monks stand in a circle chanting for hours as they lean wearily on staffs, up to the cave of Tekla Heymonot, where holy water drips from the ceiling into blue plastic buckets. He takes us to every place but one–the holy of holies found in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, is hidden from the sight of all but the priests and monks. The true Ark is said to be in a special building in the northern city of Axum. Only a single caretaker is allowed to gaze upon it.

The best thing about travel by car is seeing the in-between places. Many visitors to Ethiopia bypass the country’s long and often rough roads by flying from city to city. That’s no way to learn about a country. After Debre Libanos the next popular stop on the overland route is the source of the Blue Nile. To be honest it’s nothing more than a geographical curiosity–a muddy little spring that’s considered so holy that visitors can’t photograph it. But getting there proved that the journey is not the destination. Bumping along a rocky back road we spot a horse race in a nearby field. Local farmers, decked out in red and gold costumes, are racing in pairs across a long stretch of pasture marked out with poles as a small crowd cheers them on. We randomly pick our favorites and cheer too.

This of, course, attracts everybody’s attention, and soon we’re encircled by curious kids practicing their schoolbook English. After we decide we’ve stolen enough of the horsemen’s thunder, we say goodbye and go to the source of the Blue Nile. The same thing happens again. Soon the Nile is forgotten and we’re trading English words for Amharic. “Butterfly,” we say, pointing at one flying past. “Birabiro!” shout a dozen kids. “Acacia?” “Graal!” “Pen?” “Esceribto!”

Some of the kids are in high school and have good enough English to carry on a conversation. My wife explains what her work as an astronomer is like and encourages the girls to study science. As I watch her surrounded by these girls, telling them can be anything they want in life, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I married her.

And that’s what a tenth anniversary trip is all about, isn’t it?

First impressions of Ethiopia

They say first impressions are lasting impressions, and while that’s a cliché, strong first impressions of a country can tell you a lot.

I’ve been in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for four days now. My wife has just joined me and I’m treating her to a two-week road trip around the historic northern part of the country to celebrate our tenth anniversary. Memories make the best presents, after all.

This is our first time in sub-Saharan Africa and we’ve both been taken by surprise, summed up by my wife’s assessment of the Ethiopians: “They’re like us.”

(She’s Spanish, so when she says “us” she means Mediterranean people.)

To a great extent they are–in attitudes, priorities, even many mannerisms. With 1500 years of Christianity and an even longer period of nationhood, along with several centuries of Islamic learning and contact with the Mediterranean, Middle East, and South Asia, they’ve developed a culture similar enough to Southern Europe to be recognizable while different enough to be intriguing.

Take social life, for instance. Ethiopians have a great cafe culture and love to while away the hours sipping coffee, chatting with friends, and reading the paper at their favorite cafe. Addis Ababa has a wealth of cafes, both traditional and modern, to suit every mood. The Ethiopians discovered coffee, and it’s equally excellent everywhere, so you pick your place by location and decor.

Their attitude to education is similar to ours too. Private schools abound, the capital has plenty of good bookshops, and every city of any size has at least one university. I’ll be taking a closer look at the schools in a later post in the series.

There’s a relaxed relationship between the sexes here that’s much like our own. While many people frown on premarital sex, that doesn’t stop them from having dating. This has a beneficial effect for female Western travelers in that they won’t be constantly harassed by chronically lonely men like often happens in northern India and parts of the Middle East. Both male and female travelers will receive a fair amount of innocent flirting, though. Considering how good looking the Ethiopians are, this isn’t a bad thing.

%Gallery-85449%I’m ashamed to admit that I thought Addis Ababa was going to be dirty. While it’s a poor city, a small army of street sweepers keeps it pretty tidy. They can’t stop the dust that blows everywhere, though, and the pollution is as bad as a Western city during rush hour. One stark difference is the poverty. There are countless beggars. Many of them are farmers whose crops have failed and they’ve been forced to come to the city to find food. Others are handicapped or have suffered injuries that keep them from working. More prosperous Ethiopians readily give to beggars and don’t judge them simply because they’re poor. This is a pleasant difference from our own culture.

So in the first four days we haven’t had any real culture shock. Expats living in Addis Ababa say it’s easy to slip into daily life here. The Ethiopians we know in Madrid say the same thing about Spain!

Of course we’ve only seen the capital city so far and talked to members of only three of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, so as we travel around Ethiopia for the next two months I suspect we’ll discover many differences.

But I bet we’ll find some more similarities too.

SkyMall Monday: Anniversary Gift Card Giveaway

Get the champagne on ice, don your finest party hat and put out a cheese plate, because today we are celebrating the ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF SKYMALL MONDAY! On October 13, 2008, Gadling charged me with delivering to you, our dear readers, one SkyMall product review per week. Did I want that responsibility? Yes. Do I enjoy doing it? Of course. Should I be celebrated for it? Absolutely. But you know who else should reap the benefits of our weekly SkyMall dalliances? You! So, to celebrate the first anniversary of SkyMall Monday, we’re giving away a $100 gift card to…SKYMALL!

First things first. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at some of the best products featured in SkyMall Monday over the past 12 months. From massive travel pillows to motorized coolers to umbrellas built for two, I’ve reviewed plenty of amazing gear that you most certainly now own. And to make things interesting, we have a poll to decide which SkyMall Monday was your favorite.

After the jump, a look back at some of our favorites and your chance to win that $100 SkyMall gift card.

  • SkyRest Travel Pillow Do you like sleeping on planes and being an asshole? Then why not block everyone sitting next to you from using the restroom while you sleep on a giant wedge of cheese balanced on your lap.
  • Baseball Bat Pepper GrinderYou love baseball. You love seasoning. You feel insecure about the size of your penis. You own this.
  • Wine Glass Holder NecklaceAs the old saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your functional alcoholism closer.”
  • The Double UmbrellaOne of the first SkyMall Mondays remains one of my favorites. What better way to avoid the rain and show everyone from your old high school that you’re not Most Likely to Die Alone? (Note: It appears that SkyMall no longer sells the Double Umbrella. This is a travesty!)
  • Cruzin CoolerIf your cooler had sex with a go-kart and gave birth after the typical ice chest gestation period of four months, the doctor would slap this bad boy on the ass, fill it with Schlitz and ride it down to Daytona Beach.

Now for the fun stuff. Vote for your favorite SkyMall Monday in our poll below and leave us a comment letting us know how you voted. Read the legal muckety muck for more details, but one very lucky commenter will be picked at random to receive a $100 SkyMall gift card!

To enter the contest for the chance to win the $100 SkyMall gift card:

  • Simply leave a comment below telling us which SkyMall Monday you voted for.
  • The comment must be left before Friday, October 16, 2009 at 5:00PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing.
  • This random winner will receive a SkyMall gift card worth $100.
  • Click here for complete Official Rules.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States, including the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.

Special thanks to Joey O’Donnell and all the folks at SkyMall for the gift card and for having a sense of humor.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

In Monterey this fall: The Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates its silver anniversary

Something must be in the air in Monterey this fall, because there are so many anniversaries and celebrations it would be hard to pass up a trip to California’s coast to catch some art and culture with a little history mixed in.

Earlier this fall, I told you about the Monterey Museum of Art celebrating its 50th anniversary and the 52nd Monterey Jazz Festival. Fortunately, Monterey has one more big celebration up its sleeve. The Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates its silver anniversary later this month.

The famous aquarium opened its doors on October 20, 1984. In the first year alone, nearly 2.5 million guests paid a visit. 25 years later, the aquarium hosted more than 44 million visitors and currently has 250,000 members. Approximately 35,000 animals and plants are housed there, and there are nearly 500 employees and 1000 volunteers to keep things running.

This historic aquarium’s silver anniversary celebration will be held on October 17-18. For a complete celebration schedule and a timeline featuring images and accounts of its 25 years of existence, visit the aquarium’s web site.