Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Like previous blog posts, I tend to pay to go on tours and then decide that, if I could do it a different way, I would. Back in March, I traveled to Norway to take advantage of a $400 Delta voucher and do some teaching research. I had a few research interests in mind: Edvard Munch, Norway and Sweden’s reactions to the Holocaust, healthcare in Scandinavia (how it works for everyday folk), Viking travel eastward through Russia and silk road, and the Hanseatic League. Part of the trip I planned involved getting from Oslo to Bergen via train and fjord cruise, otherwise referred to as Norway in a Nutshell.

Norway In A Nutshell is, essentially, the quick way to see the fjords. Rick Steves and all the travel books will tell you this. Considering they teach what a fjord is in 7th grade Geography class in Florida, I figured it was important to see this geographical wonder of Scandinavia. The Vikings sailed through them and they include a fjord scene on the Norway ride at EPCOT. Really though, fjords are just part of Norway. I’m not sure what else you’d do if you didn’t see them while there. It’s a small country with little to do in March.

I mean, really, our days consisted of eating Thai and Indian food in Norway and Sweden, quite good food too, and going to museums. That is what I had to do. But when the day came to get from Oslo to Bergen, we switched modes from doing-it-on-our-own to having-it-done-for-you. Not really our thing, but time constraints required such.

The journey begins on a train, from Oslo to Myrdal, just a pretty and scenic ride up into the mountains of Norway. I was enrolled in a graduate course in philosophy that semester, so much of my early morning consisted of coffee and writing answers for a midterm exam until the scenery became photo-worthy. Gradually we ascended into hills with residual snow and frozen lakes, for much of Oslo’s snow had melted by this point in March. The scenery builds in beauty. 

The Nutshell train starts taking you into the mountains...

Nice morning views...

Then you hit high elevation towns...

We arrived in Myrdal around 1 pm and then boarded a smaller, historic train to Flam.
It cranks along up much steeper tracks to high elevation towns like Finse at 4000+ ft before screeching downhill (really screeching with an old timey sort of hand brake) to the Fjord shores of Flam. You then have to carry your luggage over to the ship and drop it off and grab a bite to eat in the short, forty-five-minute window of time you have. I had the meatballs. Flam would be a nice place to stay the night and continue the journey the next afternoon. Maybe two afternoons later.

Fjord towns...

Once onboard the ship our views consisted of snowy cliffs and calm waters reflecting a dim sun and late winter clouds. In summer, waterfalls are the draw, but I liked the glum, snowy scenery much more than what most crowds go to see. Being that we went in March, there was barely a crowd on the tour—four ladies with Long Island accents, some developmentally arrested, thirty-something, Goth couple, a few dozen Asian tourists, and us. The cruise goes for a little more than two hours, and there are long enough stretches of time getting from one point of interest to the next that you doze off. 

When the cruise ends in Gudvangen, you board a bus to Voss and then take a train to Bergen. The day begins early and ends late, and we still had to find an Air BnB in Bergen that was close to everything but had an address that left our cabby confused and leaving us on a “corner just down the street from it, but the car can’t go further” and annoyed, eventually finding our way with the help of a local and his smartphone. 

I’m not going to say that Norway In A Nutshell isn’t worth the money. It is, if you can extend your time and not do it “in a nutshell.” Doing it in one day sucks, even if you have much of the boat, train and bus to yourself. 

I have no complaints about the services on the tour or the employees. The whole production is very professional. What bothers me is that some of the sights on this tour are truly extraordinary and deserve much more time. If I were to do a fjord tour again, and I hope to, I’d definitely stay in towns like Flam, Finse or any of the tiny little towns we briefly stopped at while on the boat. There are stave churches in the hillsides one could wander to and small inns with restaurants worth a visit—for the people-watching if not the cuisine. 

In the tourist season, one can rent mountain bikes or take kayak tours or hike up to a glacier, and this is why we opted out of extending it into a two-day jaunt—the web gave us little to no indication of whether or not we could rent bikes, a kayak, hike on any open trails. 

So, in short, a one-day fjord tour that requires you to endure a sixteen or seventeen-hour day was a stupid thing to do that I’m glad I did but wouldn’t do the same way again. How ‘bout that? Coming from Florida, hundreds of thousands of people do this very thing at Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios every day of the year. It’s a very typical, touristy thing to do—spend lots of money to get a couple of “oohs” and “ahhs” in an otherwise exhausting day. It’s something you do when circumstances leave you tight on time with no other choice. 

By the end of the day everyone is tired. 

Some of them missed this view. 

If you are just a regular tourist who is going to travel all the way to Norway for God’s sake, give the natural beauty more than just a day. I wish we had. Aside from museums, nature and outdoor activities are what Norway has to offer. Either use the Norway in a Nutshell website to extend your time on the fjord and in the towns, or rent a car and drive to fjords on your own and have an adventure. If it’s in season, you’ll be able to just show up and pick the daytime activities you would like to do when you get there. If you are worried about cost, well, it’s going to cost money to be in Norway either way. If you are in a city like Oslo, you’ll be spending money on food and lodging and the sights no differently than in the country side. In the countryside at least, you get to see the land that Vikings launched their ships from, that many Norwegians emigrated from. I mean, once out there, I wondered what life must have been like for folks raised in those little towns: making goat cheese, fishing, splitting firewood. Spending a few days in the area makes as much sense as leaving it if you grew up there.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don't Let Delta Dick You Over: Ways To Approach Reservations and Customer Support

If Delta has changed your international flight reservation and sent you a worse itinerary, this might help:

So last August on the way home from the Baltics I had a layover in Atlanta, GA. It was the last Delta flight to Orlando that night, and the plane was overbooked. They offered a night's stay in a hotel, a $400 voucher, and a seat on any flight home the next day. I took the voucher and just recently redeemed it for a ticket to Oslo. I booked the flight almost a year ahead of time to score the cheapest fare, and in the end, after cashing in the voucher, I paid an additional $86. Fucking Score!

Problem is, a few months later I get this e-mail from Delta saying that they added an additional stop to my itinerary.

The original itinerary looked like this: Newark - Amsterdam - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - New York City

Out of nowhere, Delta reschedules with and squeezes in a connecting flight to Detroit? Detroit? Suck it. I'm not going to Detroit. The new itinerary looked like this:

Newark - Detroit - Amsterdam - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - JFK

Of course, I could live with this and just go on the extra flight, but there were two issues. 1) I was bringing my lady. 2) We were flying on a separate ticket from Florida to get to Newark and out of JFK.

Our original flight was supposed to land in Oslo at noon, and the new reservation had us landing after 4 pm. On the new reservation was a note that said the following:

I tried to change the flight using their website, but website said I needed to contact a reservation office. So I called them on a Monday afternoon, and I explained that we were already flying on a separate ticket to Newark, and the Detroit flight now makes four flights to get to Oslo. I then asked the woman on the phone if we could either just fly out of Detroit and save ourselves time and Delta would have two extra seats for the Newark to Detroit flight. She tells me I can't do this because she would have to rebook the entire ticket and then charge me a $300 change fee for each ticket and any additional price difference in the fare price. Discouraged, I thanked her and hung up. And, she said that because I booked my flight on a voucher that I might not be able to change my ticket, on my girlfriend's. 

I sat around for a few days thinking about how much this would suck. We are meeting someone in Oslo, and now we will be getting there four hours later. I then searched the web on this problem, and a number of sites said to simply call back and ask for them to change it again and see what they say. Apparently, you can just try again and again and maybe get lucky. 

I then went back to the website and read the green text that I posted above. I looked at "conditions apply" and discovered that I was indeed entitled to a no-fee, no fare-difference rescheduling of my itinerary. See here: 

Considering that Delta had delayed my arrival by four hours and ADDED a flight to the itinerary, I figured it was worth calling them back. Also, I looked for an alternate flight to Oslo from Newark, and there were dozens going through Paris and Amsterdam. It doesn't matter where the flight stops in the middle of the itinerary, only where it begins and ends. 

I then called Delta on a Friday night, and I explained that Delta changed my itinerary so that I was landing four hours later and also going through an additional city. I then pointed out the green text and explained what it said and what the conditions were. 

Right away, the guy says, "Well, if they changed your itinerary and ADDED another flight, I think I can reschedule and rebook that flight at no charge." 

What a difference! He and I searched for flights leaving Newark, spotted one that fit my schedule and booked it on the spot. So now, we are going from Newark - Paris - Oslo / Oslo - Paris - NYC. Best part is, the guy was nice.

He sent me a rescheduled flight confirmation for both of our tickets while still on the phone. 

By this point you might be thinking, "Well, duh, the website says you can do that." But what I find funny is that the first person I spoke with immediately blew me off. She didn't inquire about any language or options on the website that allowed me to change my ticket. Right away she scared me off with the mention of $300 change fees to even begin and then additional differences in fare prices. 

This reflects a couple of issues. For one, the first person I spoke to was quick to make the airline money and leave a customer convinced that these were simply the rules. Secondly, she proved that she adheres to some rather black and white thinking in regards to doing her job. She wanted to get through my call and onto the next. I also think that by mentioning that I was already going to have to fly up to New York from Florida on a separate ticket revealed to her that I was a "rational, savvy, budget flyer looking to save my money" as opposed to some Platinum status Corporate airline dickstroker. For her, I think it was either a "make money for Delta or fuck off" diagnosis for my call because of the information I revealed about my flight. And, I also don't think she wanted to think about it or ask anyone else what my possibilities were. 

Also, I didn't go into the call prepared. After hanging up from the first call annoyed and pissed off at what they did, I rethought my approach. When I called a second time, I VERY NICELY explained that I had booked a ticket that Delta later changed and "green writing on the web page said that I could..." 

So, the lesson here is tell Delta, or any airline for that matter, what THEY DID to fuck up. POLITELY give them as little info as you have to about your plans, your trip, your reasons. Just put the ball in their court. And if one person says no, try again a few days later. Also, think about how many people aren't calling Delta at 9 pm on a Friday night and talking to those folks like they are stupid pieces of dog shit. That guy was in a far less hurried mood than the lady on Monday. He was also eager to help and sounded a little unsurprised that Delta had changed my itinerary. 

Now, one last thing, there is a chance that Delta chose to reschedule the original itinerary because I scored a trans-Atlantic flight to Norway for very, very cheap, AND with a voucher. So Delta is making no money on my flight. They aren't even getting all the taxes they need to pay on that ticket by charging me $86. It might have helped that I bought a ticket of the same price at full fare for my girlfriend when I had to change the ticket, but I have a feeling like voucher redemption had something to do with giving me the shittiest rescheduled itinerary in the first place. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hang Out With Aborigines, But Beware the Jun-Jiddy Man!

Bennelong, an aboriginal used for "show and tell" back in England

I've always been fascinated by aboriginal culture of Australia. As an American, the story is eerily familiar. The British showed up on boats. They tried to interact with the local indigenous folk, but a lack of cultural understanding always seemed to screw things up. Ultimately, much of the native population dies off from disease or get killed. The survivors are relocated to a small portion of their "native lands."

Here is one account of how things went wrong early on with the aboriginals. The story from 1790 has to do with a beached sperm whale and a group of sailors rowing to shore to investigate.

The cove was full of natives allured by the attractions of a whale feast; and it being remarked during the conference that the twenty of thirty which appeared were drawing themselves into a circle round the governor and his small unarmed party (for that was literally and most inexcusably the situation) the governor proposed retiring to the boat by degrees; but Bennillong, who had presented to him several natives by name, pointed out one, whom the governor, thinking to take particular notice of, stepped forward to meet, holding out both his hands toward him. The savage not understanding this civility, and perhaps thinking that he was going to seize him as a prisoner, lifted a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor. The spear entered a little above the collar bone, and had been discharged with such force, that the barb of it came through on the other side. Several other spears were thrown, but happily no further mischief was effected. The spear was with difficulty broken by Lieutenant Waterhouse, and while the governor was leading down to the boat the people landed with the arms, but of four muskets which they brought on shore one only could be fired.

Ahhh, the colonial period. And in 1790 I think European philosophers in general were hoping that at some point during their sea voyages they would encounter the "noble savage" as Rousseau called them. They had this idea that people not reared in European society might actually have a more pure, civil, civilization free from concepts of property or vice or greed or dishonesty. Yeah... that's as dreamy as El Dorado. Upon close examination it became clear that anywhere you find humanity you find assholery, and every culture has its own cocktail of fucked up beliefs and behaviors.

Here is a clip from Where the Green Ants Dream by Werner Herzog, a great film that illustrates the cultural discordance between settler and aboriginal culture:

Anyway, anytime I meet an Australian I ask about aborigines. The responses are just as varied as those you might hear if asking an American about Obama or their country's foreign policy. Many responses are sensitive and intelligent, showing a similar awareness about Australia's colonial history that many Americans have about their own. I think most Americans and Australians, and anyone with familial roots to a major European country are aware of their Midas touch for cultural annihilation!

But here are a few classy statements I've heard from non-aboriginal Australians over the years, for the sake of scoffing:

--"All they do is sit around drinking alcohol and sniffing glue."

--"We give them money and housing, and all they do is spend it on drink and then tear the house apart and sell the appliances and wiring for more drink. Then they tear the wood out of the house and use it for their cooking fires. In the end they just sit around a campfire burning on the foundation of the home our government gave them."

--"The abo' is a prehistoric man. He can't think like the modern man."

--"The government gives them so much money as an apology for what we did hundreds of years ago. When is it ever going to be enough?"

Last time I heard, only six of three hundred languages spoken by Aboriginals still exist. The rest are forgotten and lost, never to be relearned. No resources to do so. Much like our own Native Americans, much of what once existed is lost. Hell, by the mid-1800s most northeastern Native Americans had died  of disease or warfare. Those in the southwest escaped to high elevation mountain ranges to avoid us. The remaining ones were resettled on the Trail of Tears or eradicated in a number of wars out West and in the Southeast.

Before venturing to Australia, I used to ask, "Do aborigines live in the cities? Like, do they walk around and work jobs? The answers were mixed, but from what I could gather most aboriginals lived on their native lands with a few occasionally assimilating into society. But when I walked throughout Melbourne and Sydney I didn't see anyone I could identify as aboriginal. Then I got to Darwin where aboriginals hung out in the town. Unfortunately, some did sniff glue. One guy approached me offering me a didgeridoo for $15. His voice was thrashed, and his breath smelled like booze. But I didn't take the interaction with him as an indication that "they must all be this way." Unfortunately, like many Native Americans, there is an epidemic of alcoholism amongst the indigenous folk. On the tour into Kakadu National Park, we stopped at a petrol station for morning coffees. I was standing at a picnic table drinking a Farmer's Union Coffee (basically an Australian and better version of one of those chilled Starbucks drinks in the little jars) where an Aboriginal man startled me. He'd approached from behind asking, "Got a cigarette, mate?" I didn't, but our guide had one to give him. After our guide gave him a light, he disappeared into the bush just as quickly and quietly as he'd appeared. Ghostlike, really. It was pretty awesome.

In Darwin city, I was walking along the beach and saw a number of aboriginals just hanging out on the shore. I noticed that no tourists or white person, for that matter, interacted with them, approached them, or even looked at them. I was eager to talk to them, especially after hanging out with this weird French girl. I mentioned how I wanted to talk to some of the aborigines we saw around Darwin, and she condemned it, as if I was harassing the wildlife, or as if that "take only photographs, leave nothing but footprints" bullshit applied to them! It didn't make sense to me. They're human beings. Compassionate, interesting human beings. Why couldn't an American kid walk up to an aborigine and shoot the shit?

Oddly enough, a couple who were fishing with a hand reel for crabs had more to say to me than I did them. I simply asked what they'd caught for the day, and I ended up fishing with them for an hour. They were a husband and wife what had made their way from Western Australia on foot, camping each night and subsisting on a mix of store bought groceries and tucker found along the way. 

"Florida?" the man asked, "that's right up there near Canada. Right, mate?"

Of course, I can't remember their names, long aboriginal names, but that hour of hanging out and fishing for crab with them was simply a lesson of having the nerve to approach a stranger and have a friendly conversation--a rather Australian thing to do. More and more it seems like this is harder and harder for people to do in general. And, it was awesome to just hang out with aborigines. Most folks only learn about aborigines from the movies.

I remember I took a course in college called "The Australian Experience" which consisted of reading about the life in Australia from the early days of 18th century penal convicts and free settlers up to the 20th century. Our professor was visiting from Sydney, and I remember her talking about some of the complications in getting aboriginals to assimilate with today's Australia. A big issue, she explained, was the notion of walkabout. When one tries to hire an aboriginal for a job, the aboriginal might just not show up one day, having gone walkabout. This, I can imagine, is complicating and annoying. Imagine a carpenter who hires an aboriginal as his helper yet lost him to this concept of "walkabout." And what about the concept of time? Property? Money? Does an aboriginal show up on time? The fact that they don't have to, the fact that "walkabout" still exists in the world today as a real thing that happens, is beautiful. It is one example of a displaced culture biting it's thumb at the hegemony of the Western world. The "global village" merely replaced colonialism. Good on them to disregard it and not even muster the energy it would take to give it the middle finger.

It also serves as evidence that the colonial impact on aboriginals is, perhaps, slightly less devastating than it was on Native Americans. I can't think of anywhere in the United States where Native Americans can wander from one side of the country to another subsisting off of the land, and it being allowed without a hassle such as "this is my property, get out!" While some Native American tribes have had a great opportunity with casinos, they only have those casinos because their lawyers found loopholes in the law regarding their rights as "nations." Really, if I had to compare the ugly history of the United States and the Native Americans to the English settlers and the aborigines, the aborigines have faired better in a number of ways. The government declared a day of apology, many aboriginals have received reparation pay as an apology for half-casting, and tribal lands such as Arnhem land require permission before non-aboriginals can enter. This is done in an effort to preserve what is left of aboriginal culture. That's pretty impressive, considering American elementary schools still teach kids that an indian named Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive in the early days of the colonies and that they and the indians gathered around a table and all had a big Thankgiving dinner. Most people never learn that Squanto was the survivor and millions of others natives would perish.

Based on my interactions with aboriginals on my first trip to Australia, I took the opportunity to chat with two aboriginal ladies in a bar on my second trip while in Cairns. Granted, not every bar in Cairns is frequented by aboriginals. I was at a bar called the Railway Inn. Inside was a mix of aboriginals and some serious bruiser-looking men still in their hazard clothing at the end of a workday. With a camera in hand, I got a dirty look from a few of the white folk, (I would later tell some local skaters in Cairns that I hung out there only to be met with surprise, for the Railway is a bar of aboriginals, derelicts and "people that are hooked on ice". People also "get shot there!" said the kid. But why would an American fear a place where shots are fired?) but these two ladies asked where I was from.

"What ya doin' in Australia, Mister?" asked the one on the right.

"Oh, just seeing the country. First time in Cairns. I went out on the reef for a few days, and now I'm fixing to rent a car and explore. I heard there were rain forests north of here, and aboriginal lands. Are they worth driving to?"

"Indeed. You should look for my cousin. At the Albatross Hotel. He'll take you fishing," said the lady on the left.

"Do you have a phone number?"

"No number. Robbie Nelson. If you go ask for him at the Albatross, you'll find him. There he'll take you out to catch barra. You know the fish?"

"Barramundi? It's tasty. We have it in America now. At the restaurant I work, we had it."

"You've eaten barra? But have you caught one?"


"Well, Robbie will take you. Bloody strong fish. They fight you. But watch out for crocs. Keep a fire burning all night. Otherwise the crocs will eat through your eski looking for barra, and maybe eat you."

"That dangerous is it?"

"Yes, and there is another one to watch for... the Gungganydji man!" (Pronounced like "jun-jiddy")

"Who is the Gungganydji man?" I asked. 

"A small bugger. He will sneak up in the night as you sleep and take your barra. He'll take whatever he wants. And he's quick. And small."

"Small? How small?" 

"A very small man, but very strong. The Gungganydji man will wrestle you and win. They love to wrestle. He'll always beat you in a wrestling match. He lives in the forest, with no clothes. They are little ones of us. Very little, but be careful. They are powerful." 

Again, how would one have such a great experience if they couldn't get past their weird colonial-elephant-in-the-room guilt and say "What's up?" to an aborigine. What is travel without interaction with the locals? It's a lesson far too many people will never learn. 

I was intrigued enough by the story of the Gungganydji man that I researched who he was. It turns out it is not a man, but a tribe, an extinct tribe

The woman's description of small, strong men came from the fact that the Gungganydjis were pygmies. The woman I spoke to, who was most likely a child of an aboriginal half-caste or one of the stolen generation herself, must have either directly experienced the Gungganydji or grew up hearing lore about them. The tribe went extinct in the latter half of the 1900s apparently, but her story intrigued me enough to venture northwards... until I realized that I had no idea of how to find the Albatross Hotel. Nor could I spare the two or three days to go fishing when I needed to drive 1800+ km from Cairns to Brisbane in just over a week, at a max of 50 mph, and that drive pretty much sucked.

It would have been fun wrestling the Gungganydji men with you, instead, Robbie Nelson. Sorry I never made it.