Wednesday, August 26, 2009

4 movies, 16 hours, 7 time zones

Saturday 01 August 2009

I woke up to the sound of rain yesterday morning. Not the heavy pounding of the rain I have grown accustomed to in Houston, but the light patter of rain on a tin roof, the rain of my childhood. It brought back happy memories of crisp spring mornings, flannel pajamas and sometimes – if we children could prevail on my mother – an afternoon snack of pannekoek, a South African version of crepes served with lots of sugar and cinnamon. A real treat.

Rain in Pretoria on an August morning means only one thing: a strong cold front from the Cape has blown bad weather a good 1,000 miles north into the interior. And so it was. The cold, blustery conditions which we have been experiencing here in South Africa the last few days are the complete opposite of the oppressively hot weather which we left behind in Texas. We’re hoping that it will be considerably warmer in Zambia by the time we arrive there on Tuesday next week. Otherwise those morning game drives are going to be awfully uncomfortable.

Our flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg on one of Delta’s new Boeing 777’s was uneventful and at least for me, less tiring than some previous trips. Sure the non-stop 16-hour flight is a doozy, but I much prefer this ‘bite the bullet’ approach of getting to Africa from the USA, over the 2-day trip via Europe. Of course, if one has the luxury of time to kill a few days in Paris or London or Amsterdam en route, by all means. But for just getting there, the non-stop Delta flight has a lot going for it. Arrival in Johannesburg is around 6:00P in the afternoon which is just in time for an overnight stay before going on to Botswana or wherever.

This was our first transatlantic crossing on Delta and we really have no complaints except perhaps about the catering. The ‘pure vegetarian’ meals (I got the exact same sauteed veggies and rice for dinner and breakfast) were adequate but unimaginative. The meal services in general were poorly executed with seemingly too few attendants serving the full plane of more than 245 people. Otherwise the seat was quite comfortable, the entertainment center had innumerable choices of movies, TV shows, and music and there were no refueling stops at dingy airports in Dakar Senegal or Ilha do Sol in the Cape Verde Islands.

Why is it that long-haul flying seems to be stuck in a time warp? Since the early 1980's we have seen computers evolve from the baby steps of an Apple IIe to the colossal strides of today's PC's and laptops. Upgrade your hard drive for an additional $200 or so and you can practically take the entire Library of Congress with you digitally, on your next weekend trip. Has crossing the Atlantic kept pace with that kind of reality-altering progress? Not exactly. It takes just about as long as it used to, 20 years ago: 'modern' aircraft have been traveling at about 500 mph for decades now. The flight attendants are grumpier, there is less legroom, the food is a lot worse and you'd better not hang around the front toilet area unless you are really keen to flush the undercover Federal Marshall on your flight. No pun intended.

A client of mine once remarked that his first ever long distance flight was on a Pan Am Clipper Constellation from the US West Coast to a South American destination. Probably sometime in the early 1960's. "(Flying) has been all down-hill since then," he said. If you are a rock star or a diplomat - or have gazillions of frequent flier miles - it might be possible to upgrade to the 'business elite' seats in the front of the plane. I think there were 19 of them on our flight. Having flown plain old business class on a transatlantic crossing some years ago, I can attest to the fact that it makes all the difference. These new seats are so much better - unless you are a basketball player you can lie down and almost stretch out. Imagine that, it's practically like taking a boat or a train. Except for the Federal Marshall of course. And the liquid in tiny bottles, taking off your shoes, your belt, jacket... Still beeping? Come with me, sir.

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