Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Meet me at Angus & Robertson Carindale this Sunday

Ever wondered what it would be like to live in Ireland? My book, 'a Few Drops short of a Pint' is all about my sometimes comical, sometimes life-changing experiences in the Emerald Isle. Come say hello and ask me about Ireland. I'm signing copies of my book this Sunday at Angus and Robertson.

Where: Angus and Robertson, Shop 2008, Carindale shopping centre, Brisbane QLD
When: 12 to 2PM, this Sunday 7th November
Angus and Robertson - ph: 3843 1143

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Ryanair - the world's most hated airline

Barbara Cassani, CEO of former airline Go, once described Ryanair as a "flying Irish pub". While she didn't say as much, she wasn't referring to the enjoyable bits of an Irish pub - like good music, great conversation and fine stout. She was referring to the bad bits - like having your head shoved aside by the arms of waitresses who are retrieving empty glasses.

When Kerryn and I lived in Ireland, we experienced Ryanair's infamous customer service twice. I will never use them again if I have a choice to use another airline. Obviously other passengers of the budget Irish-based airline feel the same way as I do, because Robert Tyler of the UK began a site called IhateRyanAir. The site is full of angry stories about the experiences of passengers, staff and unfortunate government officials that try to get in the way of the airline's boss, Micheal O'Leary.

Recently Ryanair took Mr Tyler to court to get him to take down his site. "Ryanair complained that the site took unfair advantage of the brand’s name and claimed it hosted damaging and defamatory articles including false comments about its safety, maintenance and operating standards."

If you've ever flown with the airline, the stories on this site are hilarious. Take a look at for more. If you haven't, look on it as a warning: don't be fooled by the low prices - Ryanair will ensure your flying experience with them is so bad that you will forever regret trying to save a few dollars or pounds. My experience below is relatively tame.

Dublin, Ireland 2002

At five AM on Monday morning, Kerryn and I awoke to the sound of our alarm clock in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines for the last time. We had breakfast and packed the rest of our stuff into plastic bags. I wheeled our two suitcases out onto the street and hoisted my daypack onto my back. Kerryn turned the lock behind us and pushed the key back under the door.

On the way to the airport, one of Van Morrison’s tunes played over the bus sound system.

When it’s not always raining, there’ll be days like this. When there’s no-one complaining, there’ll be days like this. Everything falls into place, like the flick of a switch, well my mama told me, there’ll be days like this.

I reflected back over our last seven months in Ireland and the times I’d had. I’d sung Waltzing Matilda in a pub at Christmas time. I’d seen the hills of Connemarra and jaywalked with the rest of the population across the streets of Dublin. I’d played Gaelic football with real Gaelic people. I’d eaten black pudding for breakfast and sat in the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Brewery to sample Ireland’s most famous stout.

I was still humming Van Morrison’s song when we arrived at the airport. We walked up to Ryan Air’s desk, to check in for our flight to London, for the first leg of our journey back to our home on the other side of the world.

“Sorr, your bags are overweight by over 20 kilograms. We’ll have to charge you another 180 euros to carry everything,” said the attendant.

“Oh, that can’t be right. They only weigh 25 kilos each,” I replied.

“Sorr, the baggage limit for Ryan Air is 15 kilograms. You are carrying a lot of other bags. I will not let you on.”

Van Morrison’s song stopped playing in my mind like a needle screeching across an old LP record. We'd paid about 50 Euros each for the tickets, so another 180 Euros was ridiculous.

Our solution: we huffed our way across to a garbage bin and threw in pillows, sheets and lots of other useful things. The Salvation Army or the Red Cross should put a collection service next to every Ryanair check-in, because they would benefit greatly from Ryanair's mean policies that try to crank up advertised 10 Euro airfares (not including booking fees, credit card fees, baggage fees) into 200 Euros with hundreds of unfortunate passenger every day.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

My Journey to Colombia from New York: Part Four

‘Would you like to stop for a coffee?’ asked Gustavo waving his arm enthusiastically at roadside stores.

Lucas and I looked at each other with harried expressions. ‘Er no, I think we’d better keep going to get the suits organised,’ replied Lucas.

We wound our way downhill. The surfaces of the roads were excellent and were not bumpy at all, but the curves and intersections seemed countless, which slowed our progress towards the city below us.

‘There’s a faster road down, but it’s very steep and the surface would be damp after the rain. It’s better to be safe than sorry,’ said Gustavo.

After the earlier overtaking manoeuvre, I was happy to agree. Anything that limited Auntie’s ability to travel at increased speed sounded like a good idea. I looked out again at the striking city below me. ‘Does the city ever have flooding problems? Because it’s in the deep valley?’ I asked.

‘No, there’s no problem with flooding. Except perhaps in the very poor areas, where there are shanty towns,’ replied Gustavo.

About one hour after I’d landed, we arrived at a modern multi-storey shopping centre on the lower slopes of the city. We took an elevator up two floors and stepped out. A lot of the shop spaces seemed to be empty, with only a gym and a tailor open. ‘They keep constructing new shopping centres in every new building. The economy isn’t strong enough to fill all the space,’ said Gustavo.

The head tailor looked like she was in her late 20’s or early 30’s. She had slim features with brown hair and bright light-brown eyes. ‘I know you sent your measurements over from Australia, but they insisted that they needed to measure you here,’ said Lucas.

‘That’s OK – no problem,’ I replied. I stood quietly, quite enjoying her studying me with concentration while she whisked a tape measure across my body. She grabbed a trial jacket and helped get it onto my shoulders. ‘Él es tan alto que apenas puede alcanzar hasta poner la chaqueta!’ she said.

‘What did she say?’ I asked.

‘She said you’re so tall that she can barely reach to get the jacket on. She will have to make some alterations while we wait. Shall we go and get a coffee?’ said Gustavo.

The nearby gym had a cafe attached to it. I ordered a banana milkshake while Gustavo and Lucas ordered coffees. Auntie disappeared somewhere, while we sipped our drinks. Actually, I gulped mine down because I hadn’t had anything since my wait at the boarding gate in Bogota. ‘How amazing is it that a tailor would stay back after 5PM to alter a wedding suit on the day of the wedding. What tailor in Australia would do that?’ I thought to myself.

We returned to the tailor and paid for everything after trying it all on. By about 6:15PM, we were standing at the locked car, waiting for Auntie. ‘Where has she gone?’ I asked Gustavo, with the suit hanging in its plastic bag hotly over my shoulder.

‘Well, she was going to the restroom. Perhaps I should go and look for her,’ he said. He and I climbed into the elevator and pressed the button. As the doors closer, we noticed Auntie coming down the escalator. ‘There she is!’

By 6:30PM we were on the road. We have 90 minutes until the wedding started. We drove along a six lane road through the city, beside the river. Then we were on a different four lane road. Then we were on an interchange to get on a freeway. Then we got caught up in traffic on suburban roads, with countless winding roads and red traffic lights. At 6:45PM, at a red traffic light in the middle of a busy commercial district, Gustavo got out saying, ‘I need to go now – I have some things to do in town. Don’t worry Lucas, I’m sure you’ll get to the wedding on time. I'm sure it will all go fine,’ he said, shutting the door as the lights turned green. He disappeared into the crowds on the street as we raced away up a hill.

I clenched my jaw shut tightly and ground my teeth. We were in a car with Auntie, who could only speak Spanish. Lucas and I could only speak English, apart from saying polite hellos, goodbyes and being able to exclaim how good something was. At 6:50PM, we arrived at an apartment building after a long uphill run past other similar buildings. I breathed a sigh of relief until Lucas spoke.

‘Ah, this is the wrong place – this is Angela’s Mum’s place. We have to go back down the hill to another building. I had to come here to figure out where I was,’ said Lucas. ‘Uh, no no, wrong apartmento,’ said Lucas. ‘Damn, I can’t think of the word for “left”’.

He proceeded to wave his arms, shouting ‘Si and No’ alternatively as we made our way back down the hill towards the river. The beads of sweat on Auntie’s forehead grew as we looped around on ourselves a few times, narrowly missing several crazed motorcycle riders as we made our way back through a busy commercial district that looked exactly the same as the one we’d left Gustavo at. ‘Si, Si. Uh No, No!’ exclaimed Lucas as we turned left and retraced our steps over the river. I clenched my door handle tightly and closed my eyes. Auntie steered back around to the same intersection, and Lucas pointed straight ahead. Auntie followed straight through the intersection. ‘Si, Si!’ encouraged Lucas. A little further on, he waved to the left. Auntie obligingly steered over another bridge into a small street that ended with a tall terracotta coloured apartment building, protected by a large metal gate and a guardhouse. It was now 7:10PM.

Auntie addressed the guard through a speaker, telling him we are staying in Apartment number 603. He dialled a phone, presumably calling someone in the apartment to check that we were legitimate.

‘No,’ he says. I found it interesting that the word sounded the same in Spanish, but then I reacted.

‘He’s got to be kidding hasn’t he?’ I asked Lucas, while Auntie and the guard exchanged volleys of conversational Spanish at ever-increasing volumes. Behind us, another car rolled up, with its headlights boring through the back windscreen at me. The guard opened the gate, apparently to let us park just inside to let the other car past. It seemed we weren’t permitted to go any further.

‘Mum and Dad should be up there, but they won’t answer because they won’t answer because they don’t speak Spanish,’ said Lucas. This only frustrated me further. Here I was, at 7:15 at night, sweating from the suit and backpack sitting on my knees, in the back of a tiny little car after travelling since 4:30AM. I still had to get dressed for the wedding and I had no idea how long it take to get to the church, but every journey so far in Medellin had taken almost an hour. I couldn’t see how we were going to make it.

‘Why can’t we just walk up to the elevator and go up? It’s just over there. Stuff the guard,’ I said.

‘There could be a lot of trouble if we did that. He’s got a gun you know,’ said Lucas.

‘Well what the heck are we going to do? You’ve tried to call Angela and the phone won’t work. Arrggh!’

I looked up at the balconies of the building and noticed a door open. Suddenly, Lucas’ Mum steps out.

‘Brenda – we’re down here! Answer the phone so the guard will let us in,’ I called.

It was 7:25PM by the time we got into the building. The guard could not understand Brenda on the phone, because he spoke Spanish. It turned out that Auntie managed to get on the phone to Angela, and Angela had called another person in the building, who was a friend of the owners of Apartment 603. The owners of Apartment 603 were away in Australia, so this friend rang the guard and told him it was OK to let us in. Did you follow all that? If you didn’t, that’s OK – because I didn’t either. The main thing was we were allowed into the apartment we were staying in. Auntie said, ‘Bye’ and drove off, worn out and probably immeasurably relieved that her part in the night’s proceedings was over.

‘Just a simple white shirt and tie with the suit trousers tonight,’ said Lucas. I grabbed the stuff and started to get changed in the bedroom assigned to me. It was obviously usually a study, but there was a partly inflated air bed on the floor. The apartment was very modern by the way, and equal or better than any other I’d seen in Australia.

‘Aren’t you going to have a shower,’ asked Lucas’ Dad (Bob) who was already dressed in a suit. ‘You’ve been travelling since 4:30 haven’t you?’

‘Surely I don’t have enough time?’ I said.

‘Well Lucas is having a shower in the ensuite, so you’ve got time to have one in the main bathroom. Go on, it’ll make you feel more awake.’

It was 7:45PM by the time Angela’s older sister, Nina, picked us up. ‘Hello, how are you! You have come a long way today. Welcome to Medellin.’

We headed off along more winding suburban roads. I felt a wave of guilt – I’d already caused the cancellation and then delay of the wedding, and it looked like we were going to be late again. It seemed impossible that anywhere in Medellin was only 15 minutes away...

Saturday, 27 February 2010

My Journey to Colombia from New York: Part Three

The old phone I’d brought with me was an unreliable heap of junk but it had one redeeming feature - it allowed me to select a network mode and frequency. I tried all three options without apparent success and dropped it in my pocket, grimacing. I would find out later that connecting an overseas phone to one of Colombia’s networks was highly unpredictable, but my priority now was to get to the boarding gate for my next flight.

Provided I got to the flight, I could still make it to Lucas’ wedding in Medellin at 6PM. I politely made my way through the poorly lit Customs and Immigration area, full of black uniform wearing DAS officers and their grave expressions. I found the Avianca desk that Connie had told me to visit, and got a boarding pass for the flight to Medellin. I boarded bus between Bogota’s international and domestic terminals, and raced across the tarmac between planes and cargo vehicles. A tall girl with honey-coloured skin in her early twenties stood in front of me, wearing tight fitting jeans and a low cut top showing a depth of cleavage that had to be cosmetically enhanced. The stunned expression on my face must have looked like a smile, because she smiled back at me as she patted her wavy dark hair. The vehicle screeched to a halt as I collected my jaw from the floor of the bus: the doors opened, and she was gone. In front of me, a large building of unmemorable colour waited.

‘Habla usted ingles, Senora?’ I asked a middle aged fellow- passenger as we climbed down the bus steps.

‘Si – yes. This is the domestic terminal. Where are you flying to?’ she said, smiling at me with her dark brown eyes.

‘Medellin,’ I replied.

‘Ah – Meda-jin. Will this be your first time to the city – yes? Oh, you will like it – very friendly there.’

‘Do you live there?’

‘No, I live in Boston – I’m flying back there tomorrow. But welcome to Colombia and I hope you will enjoy it very much. If you walk through the building and turn right, your boarding gate should be along near the end.’

I walked through the building past a long avenue of mobile phone stores, newsagents and flower stalls. I looked for a public phone and walked up to all metal boxes hopefully, because I couldn’t read any Spanish. I stopped short when my phone beeped into life. It was about twenty minutes since I’d turned it on. ‘Please call me. I’m OK, but please call,’ read the first message. It was from my wife, Kerryn, who had stayed in New York because she was pregnant and unable to have the recommended vaccinations for people travelling to Colombia.

‘Where are you? Can you please call,’ read the second message.

‘Don’t worry, they’ve postponed the wedding until another day. Please call,’ asked the third message, also from Kerryn.

‘Hi, where are you?’ asked Kerryn after I hurriedly dialled three times to get through to her.

‘I’m in Bogota. I had to change flights to get down here – I should be in Medellin by four.’

‘You’d better call Lucas and Angela. They’ve been trying to reach you all day. They’ve postponed the wedding until Wednesday.’

‘They’re crazy – why would they do that?’ I said, feeling racked with guilt as I imagined their cancellation phone calls to guests, priests and goodness knows who else. ‘I’ll do my best, but the phone is unreliable here. Can you call them while I get through security at the boarding gate? I don’t want to miss this plane or I definitely won’t make it there today. ’

‘OK, but you need to call them too! I’ve been taking calls all day from them – it’s been very stressful. There’s been so much drama.’

After being patted down and passing through the metal detector, I dialled Angela’s mobile phone, which she’d brought over from Australia, using the Australian country code at the start. ‘Boop Boop Boop,’ replied my phone negatively. I replaced the Australian code with the Colombian +57. ‘Boop Boop Boop.’

I tried the number of Angela’s brother, who advisedly spoke English. ‘Hola, éste es Luis Parra. Por favor, deje un mensaje después del tono,’ answered a rapid phone message at the other end. I left a message hopefully, without knowing if I’d even called the right person. Last chance - I keyed in the number of Angela’s mother. I knew that she didn’t speak any English, but I hoped someone else would be able to.

‘Hola, éste es Angela. ¿Quién habla por favor? Hola?’

I tried furiously to think of the few Spanish words I’d crammed into my brain during the last week, but nothing came. ‘Ah – it’s Chris,’ I said optimistically.

‘Chreees – it’s you! Where have you been? This is Angela here. I will put Lucas onto the phone.’ There was a short delay and then my phone’s speaker rumbled as the receiver at the other end was picked up.

‘Hello. I’ve heard you’ve had a bit of an adventure. So you’re getting here at 4PM? We might still go ahead, then,’ said Lucas, with a calming tone.

‘Yeah, my original flight to Medellin got delayed as you obviously found out. I had a choice – grab the flight to Bogota which was leaving straight away and then transfer across, or call you and wait six or seven hours for the original flight – and I definitely wouldn’t have made it in time. It’s up to you and Ange whether you go ahead with the ceremony or not, but I’ll be there by four PM.’

‘OK, I’ll meet you at the airport. We’ll have decided by then.’


The Fokker 100 jet that took off from Bogota seemed a bit more aged than the Airbus that had got me here. It had two jet engines on the tail. The interior was clean, but faded.

It alarmed me to know that the Fokker Company had become insolvent in 1996. ‘How well can a jet plane be maintained when the company that built it no longer exists? Where do the spare parts come from?’ I wondered to myself.

I was fascinated but more than a bit paranoid about flight. The approach of my own industry, structural engineering, was to build extra factors of safety into our designs to compensate for the errors we repeatedly saw made within the construction industry. And to put the issues in perspective, structural engineers didn’t need their designs to fly through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, with the metal structure contracting in length through sub zero air temperatures and then expanding again when they landed in sun parched equatorial temperatures at Dubai or somewhere.

The pilot didn’t make me feel any more comfortable about the flight to Medellin. On my left, I could see mountains soaring up to the level we were flying at. They looked a bit like the Swiss Alps in spring and were partly covered by clouds. The alarming thing was that the pilot kept throttling the engines up and down, so the plane would sink into the clouds and rise up again. I wondered how high the cloud-obscured mountains were between Bogota and Medellin. These were the northern outposts of the Andes, the mighty mountain range that bounded the entire west side of South America, a distance of 7000 kilometres. The highest mountain in the Andes was 6962 metres (22,840 ft) above sea level, which was considerably higher than the highest of the Swiss Alps (4,545 metres or 14,911 ft) and more than three times higher than 2228 metres for Mount Kosciusko, the highest mountain in Australia. Bogota itself was located at 2640 metres above sea level; and the highest mountain in Colombia was 5365 metres above sea level. I wasn’t sure if that meant the mountains we had to pass were just below us… or just above. I hoped my pilot had plenty of Colombian flying hours on his log, because navigating here must be extremely challenging. But apart from the constant winding up and down of the engines, the trip was uneventful.

It was raining lightly when we landed at Medellin’s Jose Marie Cordova international airport. Like many airports around the world, there was extension and renovation work going on, so I had to make my way through arrival corridors framed by scaffolding. Fortunately for me, I had already been through immigration at Bogota, so I could walk straight out into the arrivals foyer.

The foyer was dimly lit and looked well used, but it was clean. I walked outside, where I suspected Lucas might be waiting, but I couldn’t see him. A woman selling flowers and other items waved some at me. ‘Senor?’

‘No, gracias Senora,’ I replied - some Spanish words had finally come to me. Beyond the overhead concrete of the departures level, I could see it was still raining, and the trees and grasses around the airport were very green. The temperature was very pleasant, probably in the low twenties (Celcius, not Fahrenheit); and despite the rain, the humidity level was more than comfortable. Given the fact that Medellin was just north of the Equator, this was a relief. Angela had told me the climate was exceptional, because of elevation: the airport is 2142 metres above sea level, and the city itself is at an altitude of 1500 metres. I’d been watching the city’s temperature hovering between 15 and 28 degrees Celcius on my work computer for weeks, but I hadn’t really believed it until now. Medellin’s climate is so fantastic that it is known as the “City of Eternal Spring”.

In comparison, the Australian city I live near, Brisbane, can reach the high thirties (in degrees Celcius) during summer, with humidity of 70-90% at the same time. It is nowhere near the equator – in fact it is 2800 kilometres south – but it can get bloody uncomfortable for a few weeks in late December through to February. During the past week, I’d received messages from friends at home suggesting they could fry an egg simply by putting the pan outside on the road. I cannot describe how happy I was to be in Medellin away from such weather.

I walked back inside, and stood to the side to allow the stream of fellow passengers exit the door. Then I noticed Lucas just in front of me. Like me, he looked pale and extremely Caucasian beside the Latin locals. His slightly receded straight dark hair contrasted with the flowing hair of the women I’d passed on the way out.

‘There you are,’ he beamed. ‘This is Angela’s Uncle Gustavo,’ he added, gesturing at the slender elderly man next to him.

‘Ah, Buenos dias, Senor,’ I said, shaking his hand.

‘Hello, how are you,’ he replied with a U.S sounding accent, smiling with his brown eyes under slightly unkempt grey hair.

‘I’m good – now I’ve made it here.’

‘Yes, it must have been a big day for you so far. Gustavo teaches English, by the way,’ said Lucas.

‘I’m a professor of English at one of the universities. I teach and translate,’ added Gustavo, with a smile. ‘I’m old enough to retire, but it’s expensive to live here and I figure I may as well keep myself active.’

‘Yes, it’s a good idea for everyone to keep themselves active somehow,’ I agreed.

‘We’d better get to the car and get going. We have to get you fitted for the suit and then take it with us,’ said Lucas.

‘So you’re going ahead with the wedding today, then?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but we’ve shifted it to eight PM.’

Lucas introduced me to the driver, who turned out to Angela’s auntie. Her shortish grey hair and careworn expression suggested she was in her late fifties or early sixties. She spoke Spanish and I only spoke English, so I beamed at her and shook her hand, saying what I could. ‘Buenos dias, Senora.’

We climbed into the little car, which looked like a weather-beaten Daihatsu Charade, but was actually a Chevrolet. As we rolled away from the terminal, I could tell it didn’t have the features that I (and other male Australians) associate with Chevrolets – the motor in this car could have faced serious competition from a child’s wind-up toy. I piled my gear onto my knees in front of me as no-one had offered the boot (trunk) for it.

Auntie didn’t let a small engine stop her. She put her foot down and wound up and down through the gears to maximise the noise in the cabin. After travelling up and down through some rolling green hills, we got caught behind an old minivan, pouring out smoke as it struggled up the next slope. Auntie swerved left across the continuous yellow dividing line to the other side of the road, and pressed down the accelerator further. Our car’s engine responded and steadily poured on another two or three kilometres an hour of speed. I looked ahead at the long line of traffic coming head-on towards us, and then looked at the van now beside us. At the rate we were passing, the oncoming traffic would smash us to blithereens before we passed. We would have to hit the brakes and go in behind the junk-heap of a van.

‘By the way, we had a small accident on the way to the airport,’ Lucas mentioned, in the midst of this.

‘Oh, really?’ I asked.

I wasn’t able to hear his reply because my eyes were glued to the drama in front of me. Just before the leading car hit us, two things happened. Auntie managed to get the rear bumper of our car to a position about one inch in front of the van. She swerved back to the right, as the oncoming line of traffic swerved to our left in a wide curving S manoeuvre onto the outside edge of the road to avoid us.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened my eyes again. ‘After driving in Ireland, I thought I’d seen most forms of scary driving,’ I thought to myself.

The funny thing was, none of the drivers in the oncoming vehicles had beeped their horns or flashed their lights. If we’d done that in Australia, some of the drivers would definitely have shaken their fists and squealed the brakes on - one or two might have even turned around to pursue us. It was almost like this sort of driving in Colombia was normal.

‘I heard you had a good metro system here?’ I asked Gustavo, thinking public transport might be a safer mode of transport for my well-being.

‘Yes, but it only runs through the flat parts of the city. The middle class and the rich who live on the hills do not use it. The city has tried to provide access for them to the metro with buses, but who wants to ride a bus! Everyone prefers to drive a car if they can,’ said Gustavo. ‘We are taking you back by the older road – it’s windier, but it’s free. There is a new motorway out to the airport, but it is a tollway. It is very expensive to build motorways here. You see, all the steep hills have landslides. We have to build expensive structures like that.’

He pointed to a half-built suspended concrete motorway on the side of the hill that ran up to each side of a house and stopped. ‘That guy doesn’t want to leave, so he’s hanging on. He has a great location – look at the view.’

An enormous valley spread out in front of us. I took a breath. It was striking, not because of its natural beauty, but because a city had been built in it. The city extended as far as I could see, stretching around the corners in the valley. It sat there in quiet majesty, with tiny cars moving silently along the roads and streets. Multi-storey buildings apartments across and up the slopes above the centre, and were a beautiful terracotta colour that I’d never seen on high-rise buildings before. There was a feeling, a sense of the place that reached out and tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Look, this is what you’ve travelled to the other side of the world to see.’

‘It’s stunning,’ I said.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

My Journey to Colombia from New York: Part Two

The Avianca A319 Airbus destined for Colombia's capital, Bogota, waited on the taxiway at New York's JFK airport. I looked out my window and could see planes waiting on the intersecting taxiway – there were about nine other planes ahead of us. This gave me time to cast my eyes around the inside of my plane, as I always do. It was my first flight on a South American airline, so I was more than usually curious. Particularly as Avianca is a Colombian airline and Colombia is described by some as a third world nation.

The interior looked clean and tidy. The air stewards and stewardesses were dressed in neat red uniforms. I had an interactive screen in front of me. I grabbed the controller for the screen: some airlines had satellite phones in these things, which would be great, because I needed to call Lucas to let him know I'd changed flights in an attempt to get to his wedding in Medellin on time. I was originally going to fly directly to Medellin and land five hours before the ceremony started, but that flight had been delayed. If everything went right, this plane would get me to Bogota by 1:30PM, and then I would get another flight to Medellin, arriving two hours before the wedding started. Unfortunately, my mobile (cell) phone hadn't worked in the terminal, and there was no satellite phone built into the controller - I swiped my credit card hopefully in the provided slot, but nothing happened.

‘I hope my card details haven’t been recorded for future retrieval by some plane cleaner,’ I thought. 'I'll contact Lucas when I get to Bogota.' I looked out the window again. The wings looked shiny and crack free (although fatigue cracks are invisible to the eye: by the time you can see one, it’s a bit late).

‘An A319 is a pretty small plane and it’s a long way from New York to Colombia. Wasn’t it an Airbus crashed and sank in the Atlantic Ocean a few months ago - it was flying from South America. Actually, I think two Airbuses have crashed in the last year,’ had said one of the guys at work.

Such words were not comforting. Other people had better things to say. ‘Avianca are supposed to have the best service for airlines operating in the States,’ a US courtesy bus driver had said to me. ‘It’s a pity they aren’t bigger – they would really shake the industry up.’

When the time came, the plane took off without incident. ‘Colombia here we come,’ I thought. I really didn’t know what to expect when I landed. I’d done some research, and there were a lot of conflicting messages.

‘Oh you will have the best time. We will show you all around the city. People are so friendly and generous,’ Lucas’ bride Angela had said.

‘We have some Colombian friends are know that they are just the nicest people over there,’ another friend had said.

I wanted to believe them, but I’d heard so much about Colombia’s dark past. The 1984 movie ‘Romancing the Stone’, starring Michael Douglas and Katherine Turner, was set in Colombia. It left me with a fairly terrified impression of the country. Particularly the scene where a baddie threatens to feed the heroes to his crocodiles and someone’s hand gets bitten off. Although the story was fictional, there is the very real statistic that Colombia has a high homicide rate, at 36 people per 100,000 head of population in 2008. Sure, homicides in Colombia have almost halved from the year 2000 rate, but that’s a still heck of a lot compared to 5.4 per 100,000 in the United States, or 1.2 per 100,000 in Australia.

In the 1980s, Colombia was the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. (In fact, it still is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.) Pablo Escobar, infamous leader of one of the drug cartels, was from the city I was headed for (after changing at Bogota): Medellin. He coined the term ‘silver or lead’ for his policy in dealing with government and law enforcement officials. He rewarded those who assisted him with bribe money, and gunned down those who resisted him. Hundreds of people were killed, perhaps thousands. But he also cultivated a Robin Hood image with the poor in Medellin - he contributed money for infrastructure and many churches around the city were built with his finance. The money in cocaine was more than lucrative – it was a business worth billions. In 1989, he was thought to be the world’s seventh richest man, worth $25 billion dollars. Rumor had it that Pablo had so many crates of US dollars that about 10% got eaten by rats or went mouldy.

With political changes in Bogota, Escobar was eventually caught and jailed. A measure of his influence was that he was allowed to build a prison (actually it sounded like a playboy mansion) of his own design, where he continued to run his cartel until a decision was made to relocate him to a real prison. He escaped and the government hunted him for eighteen months, until they shot him on the rooftops of Medellin in 1993.

The terrorist groups who took control of Colombia’s drug operations after the power vacuum following Escobar’s demise have regularly plotted the downfall of the government. They also kidnap people. 2002 Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped and imprisoned by FARC for years, until Colombia’s President Uribe ordered a successful rescue operation in 2008. I don't know how she’d managed to survive in the jungle for six years, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to experience it firsthand.

The current president, Alvaro Uribe, was also from Medellin, like Escobar. His father was gunned down by FARC in 1983. (They were attempting to kidnap his father.) Since the beginning of Uribe’s presidency in 2002, he has directed the military to eliminate terrorist forces, particularly FARC. He is a popular president because the population is generally tired of conflict and war in their country. He has made close ties with the United States, permitting U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia to fight drugs and terrorism. He also supports extradition of drug trade operators to the U.S. and other countries. However, he may not have been so resisting of the drug trade in the past. A 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency report suggests that Uribe was a close personal friend of Escobar’s, dedicated to assisting his drug cartel at the highest levels in government. Pablo Escobar allegedly lent Uribe a helicopter in 1983 to collect his father’s body and his injured brother. Given that Uribe was Medellin’s mayor in 1982 and one of the country’s senators from 1986 to 1994, to me it seems impossible that Escobar did not approach Uribe with one of his “silver or lead” offers. Uribe denies the allegations, saying he was never a friend of Escobar, even when it was fashionable, and that he would never have entered the helicopter if he’d known it was Escobar’s. I had to wonder a bit.

I suspect he works for the greater good of his country, but looking from afar, it is a definite worry when a country’s democratically elected leader changes the rules affecting how long he can stay. I found out later that he changed the country’s constitution so he could successfully run for a second term, and is now trying to change the law again so he can run for a third term from 2010. Ultimate power ultimately corrupts… that’s all I’m saying. Don’t become another dictator, Alvaro.

With all this in mind, my stomach clenched when the Avianca plane crossed over land again, after flying over the ocean for about five hours. The country underneath me looked very green and hilly: difficult to cross by land. Like Australia’s Qantas, Avianca is one of the oldest airlines in the world and it was formed for a similar reason: in the early 20th century, the lack of decent roads in both countries meant that people couldn’t get to hospitals and obtain important services when they needed them. The impenetrable jungles and soaring mountains in Colombia were quite different to the vast open plains of Australia (which turned into impassable mud every time it rained), but the result was the same. Airlines could fly straight over the top, and get people where they needed to go.

The chief stewardess announced something in Spanish and then spoke in English for “gringos” like me. ‘… Muchos Gracias… Excuse me passengers. We will be landing in Bogota shortly. Would you please stow all belongings under the seat in front of you, put away your tray, return your chair to the upright position and ensure your seat belt is fastened. Thank you.’

Many passengers promptly got out of their chairs, opened up the lockers over their seats and pulled out copious quantities of luggage. Others decided it was a good time to visit the toilet. I found it amusing, because President Obama had been on U.S. television yesterday saying that new security measures could require all airline passengers to stay in their seats for the last hour of international flights, without accessing their carry-on luggage and without being permitted to go to the restroom. Of course, that rule applied to planes in U.S. airspace, which we clearly weren’t in now. One passenger unloaded items of clothing and spread them on his seat. Another managed to drop his sizeable bag on top of a seated passenger’s head. The air-stewards and stewardesses smiled patiently and helped people get back into their seats.

The plane descended down towards a plateau between the surrounding hilltops. We went straight over the runway without attempting to land, and flew low across the city. Bogota was enormous, set out in neat grids. Square grey concrete rooftops looked up at me. I could see a six lane highway running along one gridline, with heavy traffic stopping and starting between traffic lights. We made a hard turn over what seemed to be the middle, and dropped towards another runway.

‘Woah. Ohhh. PPPPfff,’sighed the other passengers around as the plane wobbled slightly from side to side. My hands gripped the armrests tightly, as the buildings underneath reached closer and closer towards us.

‘Oooo. Aaaaa,’ sighed some of the passengers, as the plane hung over the runway, almost like a hovering bird – a bird weighing 62 tonnes. Without drama, the plane touched down onto the runway neatly and braked. Simultaneously, the other passengers cheered and clapped their hands. I looked around wide eyed, and then clapped my hands as well.

I’d made it to Colombia. It was about 1:30PM. Now I just had to get to the right city. There were a few more hoops I had to jump through yet…

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

My Journey to Colombia from New York: Part One

4:30AM, December 28th, 2009. I’d just missed a train, which had been leaving as I’d got to the steps on the corner of Broadway and West 79th Street. I stood, shivering, in the 79th Street subway station, waiting for a “One” train to take me to Penn Station on 34th Street. I was wearing my thermal undershirt, jeans, long sleeved shirt, leather jacket, scarf and beanie. I’d left my jumper in my suitcase with my wife Kerryn. I hadn't wanted to deal with the jumper's bulkiness. I was paying for it with the air temperature.

Fortunately, no snow had fallen since the previous weekend, when there’d been a snow blizzard – some had called it a “Snowpocalyse”. Weather commentators had been calling it the coldest winter in 20 years. We’d been in midair at the time, travelling from Australia via Japan. Luckily, the runways had been cleared by the time we got to New York.

I was on my way back to JFK airport, to catch a plane to Colombia in South America. A few days ago my friends Lucas and Angela had advised me that their wedding ceremony had been changed to six PM on the day I was arriving there - today. ‘I’ll be there, provided the flights are OK,’ I had said.

I stood near the platform edge, tapping my foot. The New York subway is one of the few mass transit systems in the world that runs twenty four hours a day and I hoped that a train would be along shortly. There is always demand for it, because there are always people working. There are two Apple stores in Manhattan (the iPhone, not the fruit variety) that are open 24 hours a day. There is a 3-storey M&M world on 7th Avenue that is open until 12AM (yes, 3 storeys of merchandise for the bright coloured chocolate candy). There are policeman, fireman and wailing sirens on the streets all night.

I had no idea when the next train was coming because there weren’t countdown information boards in most stations. Apparently the boards were under trial in a few places around the city. ‘New Yorkers stick their heads out from the platform edge to look for lights of the next train,’ my friend Stephen had said, who’d recently moved to the city for work. ‘It’s pretty funny at peak hour time, because the entire platform is full of people who are leaning out over the platform edge.’

This seemed a bit dangerous to me. It reminded me of the story of a person approaching the end of the tunnel, only to realise that the light was coming from an approaching train. But I needed to get to the airport, so after waiting for ten minutes, I stuck my head out over the platform and had a good look. Nothing – the tunnel was as black as the far recesses of the universe.

A little later, I could hear a train in the distance. ‘Clack Clack. Squeal. Clack Clack. Squeal. CLACK CLACK. CLACK. CLACK. ’ When the noise came closer, it was an express train that raced past on the inner set of rails, far away from the platform. Fifteen minutes had passed - I was starting to worry. I had to catch a subway and two different trains to JFK and I wasn’t sure how long I'd have to wait for each connection, given the time of day. ‘OK, I’ll wait another five minutes, if nothing comes by then I’m catching a taxi.’

I was ready to race out of the station, when a stainless-steel train finally slowed down at the platform with a whine of its electric motors. By about minutes past five, I’d made it to Penn Station, bought a ticket and boarded the Long Island Railroad for Jamaica Station. The train raced through tunnels for about ten minutes, before coming to the surface somewhere in Queens. It was still dark, and we clattered past streetlights and multistory apartments with lights in some windows. There was no rain or snow, so I imagined there would be no reasons for delays at the airport. How wrong I was to be.

At Jamaica station, I changed along with about 20 other passengers to the Airtrain, which steered driverlessly along elevated bridges to get me to Terminal Four. JFK has eight terminals – it is truly enormous and employs about 35000 people. Icy air whooshed through the small gap between the train doors and the station doors, and the concourse in the station was only slightly warmer. I made my way upstairs to the Avianca check-in desk and got into the queue.

‘Phew, I’ve made it through all the public transport. The weather looks OK. Everything should be fi… what the!’ I thought to myself as I received my boarding pass. The eight AM departure time had been crossed out with a biro and changed to one PM.

I did the calculations in my head. The flight time was five hours and twenty-five minutes. Customs and immigration usually took an hour. Then I would have to get dressed – in a suit I was supposed to pick up in Colombia today. I wouldn’t be at the wedding until eight PM at the earliest. ‘Shit, that isn’t going to work. The wedding is why I’ve come over from Australia. What do I do?’ I thought to myself. ‘OK – I can either accept the situation and go and get breakfast, or I can be positive and create the possibility that there’s a way to get there on time.’

I picked up my phone. It read ‘Emergency Service Only.’ I couldn’t call anyone using it and it was too early anyway. I made my choice. ‘Is there any way you can get me on an earlier flight? My friends are getting married in Medellin at six tonight.’
‘The flight is delayed sir – there’s nothing we can do about it. If you see the supervisor, she will give you a voucher for breakfast and lunch.’
‘Which person is your supervisor?’ I asked.
‘The one wearing the red coat.’
‘They’re all wearing a red coat, aren’t they? Which one do you mean?’
‘The third one from here. The older lady,’ she gestured, pointing one hand.

I looked across through the frustrated expressions of other customers. Her supervisor was talking on two phones at once, with one cradled between her shoulder and her brown hair. She put one down and picked up a walkie-talkie. She spoke to two customers, whose faces wore stressed looks. She nodded her head at them and issued a rapid command to a nearby colleague. She was interrupted briefly by a cargo handler, and then she turned back to the customers. She asked them to stand nearby and then waved at me. She handed me a $10 voucher to spend in the terminal. ‘Uh – I really need to get to Medellin. My friends are getting married there at six tonight. I’m the best man,’ I said.

I smiled and put my best hopeful look. She looked at me with sky blue eyes in a careworn face. ‘OK Sir, please stand over there and I’ll see what I can do,’ she said.

By now, it was about 6:50AM. I waited as she talked to more customers, answered questions from the check-in staff around her, and made calls on phones and the walkie-talkie. After ten minutes, she ushered me over and waved to a colleague. ‘Connie here is going to arrange for your boarding pass and put you on the flight to Bogota. It is leaving very soon. We will put you on a domestic flight from there to Medellin.’
‘Thank you very much,’ I said.

Connie had a short, stocky frame, with a medium complexion. ‘OK Sir, let me get your boarding pass. Is your only luggage the daypack you’re carrying? Have you got any liquids or gels greater than 3 onces? Are you carrying any scissors or knives?’ she said, patting the side of her dark hair.
‘Yes, No and No,’ I answered.
‘OK. So you’re going to a wedding in Medellin tonight? Will this be your first visit to Colombia?’
‘Yes – it will be my first time in Colombia. My first time in South America too.’
‘OK – here’s your pass. The flight is leaving very soon. Let me get my things and I’ll take you through.’

Now, it should be noted that the flight was leaving in ten minutes, and I was standing at the check-in desk. I hadn’t been through security yet and only three days before, an idiot had tried to blow up a plane with explosives sewed into his underpants. Terrorist activity was still alive and unwell.

We approached lines of people and security staff. Connie walked in front of me, with her identity tag slung across her chest. ‘Hi, how are you. Hellooo,’ she smiled and waved.

We raced up to the very last X-ray machine, and loaded it up with my possessions. Connie went through ahead of me. I took off my shoes and belt, threw them in and stepped through the metal detector. ‘I’ll take your stuff down to the gate. Get your shoes on and catch me up,’ said Connie.
'Have you got your passport?’ she asked, when I sprinted up beside her.

Oh Oh. I thought she had it. I patted my jean pockets and felt nothing. I tried the pockets in my coat. My fingers felt the familiar booklet shape – I pulled it out and checked it. ‘OK, got it,’ I said.
‘All right. So we can’t get your boarding pass printed out for the flight from Bogota to Medellin. Just go to the Avianca desk and tell them Connie in New York sent you. We’ll have sent down your details by the time you get there. Go and get on the flight.’
‘Thank you so much for everything. Muchos Gracias, Senora,’ I said.
‘You’re welcome. Now go and enjoy the party tonight,’ she said.

I walked down the loading bridge to the plane. I was on my way, although nobody except a few Avianca staff members and I knew it. I hoped I would be able to call Lucas and Angela in Medellin before anyone got worried.

The journey had only just begun…

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Limerick's Christmas tree is not a joke.. really

The 100ft Green Tree, envisaged as the tallest Christmas tree in Ireland this year, broke its moorings and hit Shannon Bridge in Limerick city last night, causing closure of the bridge and resulting in traffic chaos. Photograph: Arthur Ellis/Press22

Limerick's Christmas tree for 2009 has been widely touted as the tallest Christmas tree in all of Ireland. It is made of recycled steel from a couple of big construction projects, and sits on a floating pontoon in the Shannon River. Imagine the children's disappointment when they discover the tree lights cannot be turned on... because it has moved downstream, struck the Shannon Bridge and developed a 45 degree list.

See the articles if you don't believe me:-

New York - the first day

We arrived in New York yesterday evening. We stayed at a hotel near the airport on the first night - there had been a snow blizzard the day before we arrived, so there has been snow everywhere. It caused a fair number of delays with planes and trains etc, so we were lucky we arrived after they'd cleared the runway of snow. But the snow looks great - we love it. Its very light and fluffly, at least until traffic has run over it - then its grey mush.

We caught the subway (the 'A' as they call the particular line) into town this morning and moved to the hotel in Manhattan that Kerryn may have shown you on the list. It's basic, but its neat, clean and heated. When we go outside, Kerryn and I have been wearing thermal underware + clothes + jumper + jacket + scarf + gloves + beenie and have still been cold. Kerryn said I looked like 'a stupid elf' because of the way I'd arranged the beenie on my head. She pulled it down and folded the rim properly for me.

We've briefly seen one edge of Central Park, Times Square, Macy's department store, JC Penneys dept store, K Mart dept store, and countless other stores. We been touted by an African American beggar. He wanted $10 - Kerryn gave him $1 and he complained. I told him 'you get what you get mate and thats it'. He left us alone after that, but a family that had walked past and seen it happen warned us to avoid these beggars (very logical) because they can grab your wallet and run off with it. Fortunately that hasn't happened and we're wiser to it now.

Have listened to a grumpy old lady talk to her grumpy old husband in a strong New York accent; while we had lunch in one of those booth type restaurants like you see on Seinfeld. 'What family do you want to talk about, since you don't want to talk about mine?' she asked. 'I don't want to talk about any family,' he replied. 'You never want to talk. I'm sick of you. I come in here to spend time with you and you're wanting to start an arguement,' she replied. 'I'm trying to respond to your dialogue,' he said. 'No you're not - your spoiling for a fight. I've had enough - I'm not staying here for this - I'm leaving,' she announced. She put on her coat and stalked out, after muttering something about people what happens when people actually care about each other. He stayed there until he'd finished his meal, and then left without a sound. I wonder if they'll be sleeping under the same roof tonight?

We got sick of getting our feet wet in the partly melted grey mush snow at each street corner, so we went out shopping - I got a pair of waterproof shoes and she got boots. Both were very cheap compared to prices at home. Part of the way through, I sat (slumped) down onto a chair in Macy's as Kerryn circled around looking for her boots. An aged, respectable looking African American sat down next to me and we sympathised about the nature of wives when they enter department stores. It should be noted that Macy's is the largest department store in the world (so they say), and there is an enormous level of choice available.

'There's nothing that suits me here - let's go,' said Kerryn upon her return. 'What - you're telling me you can't find what you want in the largest department store in the world?' I laughed. 'There's nothing I like that actually feels comfortable for my feet,' she replied. We found some eventually, in a small store just near our hotel on West 77th Street.