A better meal – a better life?


Dorothy Boyd, who was Renee Zellweger’s character in the film ‘Jerry McGuire’ said “it used to be a better meal, now its a better life” when speaking about first class and how wrong it all was.  Well Dorothy, sorry, but I can’t agree.

Today has me on a 31 hour odyssey from Melbourne to Copenhagen, via Sydney and Dubai. The first leg is a manageable two hours and I think I may have referred to my usual position of being right at the rear of the plane before? On a flight like this one, I can sit anywhere, even in the middle seat, if I had to, but one of the perks of air mile numbers that look like Lat/Long references, is that I can usually book ahead to achieve an aisle seat and one thats somewhere near the front of the economy rows, just so as I can get off the thing faster. I refuse on principle, to use my airmiles to upgrade on work trips and instead, I cling to the forlorn hope that on the rare instances when I fly for fun, I’ll be able to lord it up over the plebs in the back and give the impression that I always fly this way.

On the short leg of this trip, as one of those plebs, I witnessed the hoi polloi scrambling to get their numerous bags in the overhead lockers regardless of the actual location of their seats. Passengers who struggle in late find themselves having to sit with their luggage at their feet, which isn’t the best prospect, even for a couple of hours. Those unlucky souls who will spend their trip folded like a swiss army knife will often exclaim sotto voce “well, SOMEONE has taken the luggage space above MY seat” and then another shirty voice will justify their swinery with the claim that “SOMEONE took MINE first” It’s funny, but you never seem to hear that up the front of the plane.

I travel with the absolute minimum of luggage (note that I didn’t say baggage, as I have plenty of that) and I pride myself on being able to move through airports like a guided missile, from A to B like I was on rails. A is usually the taxi and B, thanks to excess Qantas air miles, is the first class lounge. I can always get a decent meal and successfully self medicate on cabernet sauvignon before leaving this haven of civility and head back to the lower decks, both literally and figuratively. On this occasion, I had sufficient warning of a trip to carefully book myself a seat on the upper deck of a relatively new A380 aircraft, it was economy of course, but the economy seats on the upper deck seem to be populated with a more discerning clientele. I moved through the almost empty business class section, with the air of a person who was just going to sit down amongst the nobs and ever so casually, slipped my small suitcase in their overhead locker. Ha, no fighting for locker space for me!

Seeing the semi detached palaces of business class seats took me back to a previous incarnation when I worked for a US bank. Banks, of course, always sit up front as they are spending our money, not their own and this just happened to be the first Singapore airlines flight on their brand new A380. There was a great celebration in the business class lounge and lashings of champagne to be had. My boss at the time and I had arrived some three hours early for the flight, which was unheard of in Singapore as even with as little time as 30 minutes (with carry on luggage mind you), I have made flights, the airport is just so efficient. Needless to say, our time in the lounge was quite convivial and we were amply hydrated for the journey. We had found ourselves chatting to a couple of pleasant young ladies who had been working as flight attendants for some years and had been detailed off as hostesses for the celebration. They promised to ‘put a good word in’ for us with their colleagues on board with regards to the liberal service of alcohol and off we all unsteadily trooped to the gate with great fanfare.

The business class seats looked at first glance to be a huge leather bench and had an airbag in the seatbelt. They were also about as comfortable as a court bench.  I had actually been sitting two rows behind my boss and so, when the seat belt lights went off, I was invited to join him by one of the hostesses who sweetened the deal with a bottle of champagne. I realised, of course, that the seats were for one person, but as they were so generous, it wasn’t a hassle to share one for a while. As one bottle became three, I realised that the attendants in the lounge had completely misunderstood the relationship that my boss and I had and this was reinforced by the staff’s knowing smiles and merry “cheers” each time they topped up our glasses.  A visit from the very clean cut and winking second officer who laughingly declined a glass of champagne finally convinced me that they had been ‘greasing the skids’ (so to speak) for the first homosexual tryst on board the inaugural flight.

My innate hetrosexuality plus increasing fatigue defeated the persistent matchmaking intentions of the flight crew and I declined the offer of a nightcap and struggled back to my cold court bench.  I then attempted to get some sleep before the inevitable hangover arrived. After a couple of hours, I awoke to the feeling that I had been pulled out of a matchbox to see one of the attendants standing over me with what looked like a swag (for non Australians – that’s kind of a bed roll). As I looked around, it dawned on me that my time in the dock was wasted, there was in fact a completely flat bed, lurking under the hard leather seat. Needless to say, once she had finished fluffing, I wasted no more time and slipped under the duvet.

On this current and not nearly as glamorous flight on the ‘upper deck’ I had pre booked an economy aisle seat, so there was a reasonable chance of at least having some leg room and it turned out that the crew were delightful mix of Aussies and Brits, who smilingly served the almost edible pap that passes for airline food. Without the self medication (I am occasionally sensible pre flight) I struggled to do more than cat nap, but I have survived MEL-SYD-DXB and I am just about to land at LHX where I hope to able to pass quickly through the great unwashed and into the once more rarified air in the lounge for a wash and brush up before the next leg in a couple of hours.

Dining in Ahmedabad

I’m currently up in the NW of India, in a city called Ahmedabad. It’s relatively close to the Pakistan border with all of the cultural impact of the competing countries. Last night some local friends took me out for dinner. It wasn’t exactly roughing it, as it was at a private club, known for its Gujarati cuisine. The style of eating here is to have a large steel tray, with several small bowls sitting on it. The waiters (lots of them) constantly circle the table, looking for an opening to dart in and ladle all sorts of exotic dahl, curry and spicy vegetables onto your tray. You eat with your fingers. Carefully.

A not so quick aside. Speaking of circling the table – In the early noughties whilst in a neighbouring country, as they say; I stayed on the upper floor of the old Karachi Sheraton just before it was bombed and it had a great view of the city. Even better than the view of the city was the constant and close up view of large raptors that rode the thermals and watched you through the blast proof film on your window. You could actually see the lazy curiosity in their eyes as they glanced over their shoulder, made real eye contact and swept gracefully by. In order to get a beer, you had to order one from room service, sign a chit saying that you were 1. not muslim and 2. alcoholic and for medical reasons, needed the booze. Invariably, the first one would be brought to your room in a small box and it would be warm. If you were polite and tipped heavily enough, you could send it back and you’d be rewarded by a stream of very cold single beers brought by the same waiter, who breathlessly thanked you for each tip every time, after having ran up and down the stairs reserved for the waiters who served the heathen alcoholics.

Sorry, but I did say a not so quick aside. Back to circling the table. I asked my waiter why there were so many eagles outside the window? “The tower of silence Sir” was my answer. I must have looked a bit simple, so he added “the people of the flame Sir” No wiser, I said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” – he politely bowed as he accepted my tip and reversed out of the room as if he was on wheels, closing the door with a slam that only Indian waiters and ‘B roll’ horror film actors can get away with.

I called down to the front desk and asked them what the ‘tower of silence’ was and was set off on a polite round of ‘I don’t want to talk to the foreigner’ call passing between staff. Eventually, I reached the concierge, who in any country of the world can be relied upon to provide down to earth, no shit advice on how to get a decent gin and tonic, buy a gun or a starter motor for a 1959 Morris Minor. The concierge explained that in the Zoroastrian religion, dead bodies were left unburied or cremated and instead were laid to rest on the ‘tower of silence’ – literally, a tower where the dead were left in the sun, to be devoured by Vultures and other birds of prey. There was apparently, such a tower a couple of blocks away, surrounded by tall trees, for privacy. Circling the table indeed.

Anyway, I digress. Being Gujarat, it’s a dry state (quelle horreur!) and 99% vegetarian, both of which are actually probably very good for me. The problem is that if you don’t say ‘no more’ to the waiters, they will keep coming round and dumping more food on you. If you do say ‘no more’ they will be quite offended, not being used to the comparatively minuscule portions of veggies that simple caucasians can eat and will retreat to their observation posts around the walls and glower at you. The food was just fantastic and I really could switch to veg for a while. I say for a while, because even my local host, who had lived in Denmark for 16 years, confided that he had to head out of state for a steak every now and then.

On the way out of the club, my host noted that there was some traditional dancing classes being held in a room off the main entrance. Now, I can smell a stitch up a mile off and having the dance floor grace of a piece of broken farm machinery, I made like an elderly greyhound out of a trap and limped towards the exit muttering something along the lines of ‘nice, but there’s not an ‘f’ing hope in hell of me trying that…’ My host was far from offended and laughed like a drain.

Incredible India indeed.

For a bit more fascinating information on Zoroastrianism, try this for a read –

And thanks to ‘R’ – here’s some background on the towers of silence and the need for more vultures.  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/26/death-city-lack-vultures-threatens-mumbai-towers-of-silence

Down in the Deep South

This week I am in Southern Thailand, or the ‘Deep South’ as its referred to by the Thai media.  It has been conflict afflicted for quite a few years thanks to a separatist insurgency.  The three largely muslim southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have been in state of what is effectively a civil war, but in reality is a fight between a few die hard separatists who believe that the deep south should rightfully be self governing as a Sultantate and be more closely aligned to Malaysia.  The Thai authorities refuse to countenance that of course and they pour millions of dollars worth of aid each year into containing the violence.  The conflict started in 1948 but it has really picked up in intensity since 2001.

Driving into Yaring, which is known as being ‘ground zero’ for the conflict, I noticed that there were a number of similarities between 1980’s Belfast and 2017 Southern Thailand, soldiers with automatic weapons at check points on almost every corner, armoured Police cars, heavily fortified barracks and police stations with makeshift grenade screens and hundreds of metres of razor wire, but then I thought about the differences; friendly locals, good food, great weather, incredible beaches and the like, so, nothing at all like Belfast then….

All the beaches along this part of the coast are the same – deserted and clean.

Damage from the conflict is repaired almost immediately by the local government and this is an extension of the ‘broken windows’ theory where damage and vandalism left, leads to further civil disorder and attracts criminal activity.  A by product of this is lots of fresh paint and new buildings in the area, so there is somewhat of a silver lining.

There are weekly attacks and just today a car bomb exploded just outside a hotel that the media claims was popular with western tourists.  I don’t know about that because I only saw one westerner there the whole time I was in the area and Caucasians do certainly draw the eye. I am not going to post pictures of what happened, but you can see for yourself here


It’s really not a good idea to be taking pictures of all the road blocks in the city so I kept the camera down and tried to look harmless. I did however manage to snap one check point not far from the village we were visiting.

Just a normal checkpoint in the country!

The locals or ‘Bangso Yawi’ as they are called are very traditional and devout, but excluding the few who have actually taken up arms, they are not at all extreme in their views.  The countryside is similar to North Eastern Malaysia, mostly flat and covered with rubber trees and palm oil plantations. As the country narrows before it reaches Malaysia there are beautiful beaches both on the East and the West sides.  Small fishing villages that have racks of very smelly drying fish are all along the coast and there are very few cars or trucks, which is in complete contrast to the northern cities.

Fishermen working on their boats before going home and sleeping through the heat of the day.

I spent quite a while working in the North East of Malaysia in years past and I remember it as being distinctly less friendly than it is here. There was a lot of smuggling and cross border violence back then, but even though the insurgency hasn’t really dimmed in its intensity, with murders and bombings being common, the locals here at least haven’t lost their charm.  We visited the village headman at his home and they made us very welcome, laying on a feast of organic fruit and coconut water fresh from the nut.  For security reasons they asked us not to take photographs of them and they got very tense when an Army reconnaissance patrol rode past the house very slowly on motorcycles.  Being naturally alert to tension in these circumstances, it did make me wonder just who we were working with.

I thought the black cloth was an emergency sail, but it’s actually a sun shade

Just like 1980’s Northern Ireland you never really knew for sure ‘who was who, in the zoo’ and special interests abound in a country like Thailand.  But, the bottom line is – they want investment and infrastructure brings that.  All in all, it was a good week and it seems certain that IED’s permitting, I’ll be back soon!