Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Traveling in Shithole Countries

The Philippines - My 120th Country Visited

Recently the child occupying the White House in Washington DC disrespected a large number of countries (all of them non-white) when he referred to them as "Shithole Countries."  Apparently the man-child believes countries and the people in them have no value and aren't worthy of his lofty ego unless they are filthy rich and white like him. As he disrespected those nation's he asked why more people from Norway don't move to the United States.

I recently traveled to the Philippines.  When we landed in Cebu, the Philippines became the 120th country I have visited. With the exception of Canada (eh), Japan, China, Israel, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and each of the 32 countries I’ve visited in Europe (although a couple of them are sketchy!), the bulk of the countries on my visit list would be considered “Shithole Countries” by Donald tRump. The Philippines are no exception

The main thing I have learned from all this travel is that the kindest, most giving and unassuming people on the planet are those who come from “Shithole Countries.”

Consider the man in the lowlands of Veracruz Mexico, who took me in on Christmas Eve when my car broke down in front of his family’s thatched-roof hut along a river. I had more money in my wallet than this man saw in a year yet his family fed me, sheltered me, and even made a handmade Christmas gift for me so I didn’t feel left out of their humble Christmas celebration

Or consider the store owner in Thailand who chased the customers from her store, locked the doors, and then led me on her motor scooter for 40 kilometers (24 miles) one way to the Bangkok Motorway when I had become horribly lost and could not read road signs written in Thai script. Then when I offered her the equivalent of $10 US for her time she felt offended that I even offered.

Or the man in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula who called me his brother and made me some Arabic coffee to share with him simply because I tried to speak to him in my rustic Arabic instead of insisting on him speaking English to me.

Or the gargantuan man in South Africa who lifted me off my feet and swirled me around like a piece of paper when I told him I wanted South Africa to win the Rugby World Cup. “You’re American and you care about South Africa?”, he asked before spinning me around

There are many other examples, including all of the kindness Cathy and I experienced in this crushingly beautiful and impoverished nation in the Pacific. Curiously on the first of our two return flights from the Philippines I talked with an Emirates Airlines pilot who was from Norway.  I asked him about tRump's shithole comment and about his wish for more Norwegian's to move to the United States.

The pilot laughed and said, "Why on earth would anyone from Norway want to move to a country like yours with its shithole president?"  I couldn't agree more.

As far as I’m concerned I’ll take a “Shithole Country” and the people in it any day.

Whining By US Airlines Doesn't Cut It

Emirates Airlines is regularly voted the best airline in the world - and with good reason.  US Airlines could learn from Emirates if they stopped whining and returned to providing enjoyable customer service

A month ago we flew from Sarasota to Washington DC aboard Delta Airlines.   While in the air I strummed through the Delta in-flight magazine where I found a full-page advertisement (better described as a temper tantrum) in which Delta complained that Middle Eastern airlines were being unfair to US airlines.  The unfairness comes largely from subsidies being paid by middle eastern countries (Qatar, United Arab Emirates were the two countries causing the most angst) that US airlines claim makes competing against those airlines difficult at best.

The US argument is a joke of the highest order because US airlines have been sucking at the federal tit ever since the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 was implemented providing for federal subsidies to support US airlines.  And lets not forget the Essential Air Service program, which currently provides subsidies for airlines serving 163 rural communities nationwide. There’s also the Fly America Act, which since 1974 has required federal agencies to use U.S. air carriers to transport passengers and cargo when such travel is funded by the government.  Delta Airlines, who whined in their inflight magazine about other countries giving airlines subsidies received about $900,000,000 in Federal subsidies in 2014 alone!

I have now traveled to 120 countries around the world.  I've flown on 3,124 actual flight segments since my first flight on October 31, 1977 aboard Ozark Airlines from Minneapolis to St. Louis.  Among all those flights I have flown 1,963,417 actual miles (not frequent flier miles but actual miles in the air).  I know this because since my first flight in 1977 I have kept track of each flight I've taken, the airline and aircraft type flown, the route flown, and the actual air mileage between airports.  If you assume the maximum circumference of the earth is 24,000 miles, then I have flown enough miles on jet aircraft to have circumnavigated the globe 81.8 times.  I know a little bit about being a passenger on a plane.

The issue is not one of government subsidies creating "unfairness" among airlines and countries.  The issue is customer service or, in the case of US airlines, the lack of customer service.

On a recent trip from Orlando, Florida to Cebu, Philippines via Dubai, United Arab Emirates, I discovered what an absolute treat it is to fly on Emirates Airlines. From the moment you step on the plane you are treated with respect and civility - there is no feeling of being cattle in a cattle car like you feel on most airlines in the US. Flight attendants refer to you as "sir" or "madame".  Each is dressed smartly in matching outfits (for males and for females).  The supervising flight attendant for each section of the plane personally greets everyone and encourages you to contact them if you need anything.  Meals are served promptly and bountifully (unlike on US airlines).  If there is a 5-minute delay pushing back from the gate (as happened on our return from Cebu to Dubai, the pilot is on the intercom informing everyone about what they consider a "delay" and apologizing profusely for any inconvenience this may cause each traveler.

When was the last time you saw a flight attendant on a US airline dressed professionally like this Emirates attendant?  I don't remember either.

On Emirates Airlines you are a valued customer. You are not a number.   On Emirates Airlines you don't have to worry about being beaten and dragged from the flight as recently happened on United Airlines.  There is no need to worry about your luggage being used for batting practice (also on United).   You'll never find an Emirates flight attendant treating passengers like this American Airlines flight attendant did.   

The thing Emirates (and Qatar Airways that we will fly in June) have over Delta, United and American is customer service. That is a concept US airlines have forgotten in their rush to charge for everything, cram more rows of smaller seats into a finite space, and reward their shareholders at the expense of their customers.  It’s all about treating passengers like they matter rather than treating them like cattle. US airlines could learn a lot from those they criticize the most.

During all of my travel over the last 41 years I've come to the conclusion that there are only two airlines left in this country that know the definition of customer service and they practice it on every flight.  One is JetBlue and the other is Alaska Airlines.  If only both airlines had flight systems as extensive as Delta, American, Southwest, and United.  Maybe some day.

When Things Go Wrong Halfway Around the World

Malapascua Island, a 40 minute boat ride north of Cebu in the Philippines, is a scuba diver's dream come true.  Travel to and from the island can be problematic at times.

Oh the stories you can tell. If it all blows up and goes to hell. If you ever wonder why you ride the carousel, you do it for the stories you can tell.” ... Jimmy Buffett

After having traveled to 120 countries on the 6 inhabited continents I've learned that when something goes wrong no matter how bleak it seems at first, eventually everything works out. 

Like Friday when we transferred between three boats in the Visayan Sea on our way to the mainland At one point the seas were so rough that the flat boat we transferred to from a larger boat almost swamped in a huge wave. Cathy, leaping from the larger boat to the smaller one, nearly broke her leg when she slipped on the ocean-soaked deck. Then eventually when we arrived in Cebu we discovered that I screwed up and booked our flight for a day later!

So where is the silver lining in this story? Saturday it was storming like crazy on the north coast of Cebu where we came ashore 24 hours earlier.  Lightning, thunder and likely waves that made yesterday’s waves look like they were in the minor leagues. Had we left the island on Saturday we likely wouldn’t have been able to make the crossing to the mainland because of weather and waves

So instead we hung out in the lobby of the Bellavista Hotel where Cathy was knitting away in Margaritaville. I’m watching the Philippines roar by on the street and we are a safe and easy 5 minute ride from the airport and two seats in Business Class on Emirates Airlines, regularly voted the best airline in the world.

Moral of the story is that a minor mistake turned into a positive as usually happens when things go wrong far from home

Paying Tax on a Tax in the Philippines

Receipt for the 750 Philippine Peso Departure Tax paid at the Cebu, Philippines, airport on February 24, 2018

This is a tad funny and ironic when you think about it Most countries impose a “departure tax” on travelers leaving the country. It’s simply another way for countries to legally generate funds without having to indicate how the funds will be used or, in the case of the Philippines, which politician’s pocket the funds will land.

Most countries, including the United States, include the departure tax in your ticket price but not so the Philippines. There after checking in for your international flight you go to a desk and pay a 750 Peso (about $15 US) departure tax

This image shows that the cost breakdown on the 750 Philippine Pesos includes about 63 pesos for VAT or “value added tax”. Thus in the Philippines, travelers not only pay a departure tax but we also pay a tax on that tax! 

Maybe tRump should consider that scam to pay for his ridiculous wall