Ever been scared out of your wits? Yes and no…

English: Pizza slicer or cutter

English: Pizza slicer or cutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever known sheer terror? That heart-stopping feeling where you know there is a high likelihood of shuffling off this mortal coil? I know of one time when I felt that fear and another when I should have, but didn’t. In general, I am a stranger to fear. Sure, I get nervous before I give a big presentation or just before I do something which is important to me, but that’s not true fear. That’s its close cousin, known in this country as the collywobble or the heebie-jeebies.

In hindsight, the time when I should have felt fear was on an aeroplane. Myself and a colleague were on the way back from a regular trip to India. We left it too late to book a direct flight, so the plane was on final approach into Dubai. Everything seemed normal. The seatbelt signs were on and we descended nicely towards the airport. The flight was only half full and everyone had plenty of room.

All of a sudden, the plane violently climbed and veered left.

From the galley, we could hear the sound of something crashing to the floor. An overhead locker burst open and a bag flew out. I looked at the aircrew strapped into the jump seat in front of us. One of them looked very nervous indeed. The other was in frantic conversation on the phone to someone (maybe the cockpit). She put the phone down, signalled to her colleague and they both made their way to the galley.

The plane shook violently now and descended again. A man released himself from his seat, clutched his chest and screamed for help in a language I didn’t understand. The stewardess told him to get back to his seat. He promptly collapsed in the aisle and they dragged him into the galley. I should have been scared out of my wits, but wasn’t. I felt cool as a cucumber and turned to my colleague and made a joke about whether this was it. Were we about to meet our respective makers.

It was almost as if I knew that this wasn’t the time.

The time I came face to face with fear and looked him right in the eye, was on another trip. Maybe I should stop flying. Myself and a colleague were in an airport waiting for the flight home. We ordered a pizza whilst we waited for the plane. At some point whilst eating this pizza, a tiny piece of crust broke off and lodged itself in my airway. I couldn’t breathe. At first I thought it was temporary, but after a minute or so of not being able to catch a breath, I started to think I might die.

My colleague stood up and looked around the place. He had purpose in his eyes, like he knew exactly what to do. Just at the moment he leapt into action, my airway cleared. I could breathe once more. We both relaxed as I slowly caught my breath. Once I felt almost normal, I asked my colleague in a croak what he planned to do in that instant before I stopped choking.

He told me he was looking around for a sharp knife with which to slit my throat open so I could breathe. It was then I felt true terror.

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Not in Kansas anymore

English: Kapitanska-captain's Polish vodka

English: Kapitanska-captain’s Polish vodka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I became blase about travelling to Poland. After all, I’d been to Warsaw several times before. I remember one trip in particular when we went for a celebratory meal in a restaurant. It was a very cold January outside. Inside, it was like entering Dante‘s inferno. We travelled downstairs where the inside of the restaurant glowed red from the infernal heat of the kilns.

As we took off our coats, a waiter approached us brandishing a bottle. In heavily accented English he asked if we would like some vodka. We declined and asked for the wine list. He looked puzzled and offered the bottle again with a single word “vodka?” We gave up on the wine list and used one of the few Polish words we’d learnt. I held up 3 fingers and said “Pifco” indicating we’d like some beers. “Vodka?” was the reply.

The vodka was so cold that we found it refreshing in the searing heat of the restaurant. However, it didn’t last. The warmth of the surroundings seeped into the vodka and as the temperature rose, the drink became more and more chewy. The relief when the last of it disappeared was palpable. I couldn’t believe it when my boss called the waiter over and asked for another bottle. We all looked at him dumbfounded and he explained “We can’t just drink one bottle – they’ll think we’re poofs!”

This particular trip, however, was not to Warsaw – it was to the industrial heartland of Katowice. The plane was so small that the pilot gave the safety briefing. Katowice airport had exactly one gate, exactly one luggage carousel, exactly one x-ray arch and exactly one runway. Yet all the signage was strangely reminiscent of a larger airport. A young guy picked me up – a sheet of paper with our company logo the sole means of communication between us.

The hotel was an old KGB headquarters and seldom have I stayed in such a dour building. I checked in after a game of charades with the receptionist. Upstairs a bizarre Benny Hill style sketch played out between the prostitutes leaving cards with their phone numbers everywhere and the hotel staff getting rid of them.

I went down to the bar. Getting a drink was easy enough. Not only did I know the Polish word for beer, but there was a nice big pump I could point to. I asked for a menu and the barman looked puzzled. I mimed shovelling things into my mouth and the penny dropped. He gave me a laminated sheet which was no use to me at all – everything was in Polish characters.

I kept asking if anyone spoke English and after a while, someone had a light bulb moment. They dashed off and returned with a boy wearing a ridiculously large rubber apron and rubber gloves that looked like they might fall off any second.

“Please?” he said.

“Do you speak English?”

“Please?”

I thought what the hell and asked for a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. He nodded as if he understood and disappeared off to the kitchen. I sat back, wondering what manner of food lay ahead of me. After a short delay, a waiter appeared with a massive silver platter topped with a handled dome. With a flourish, he revealed my meal. Underneath was a beautifully prepared salad, topped with two slices of toast upon which stood a cube of cheese.

I couldn’t help but smile.

Jet lag

Jet Lag (album)

Jet Lag (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a long night flight, I don’t know what I want. I’m usually too wired to sleep and too tired to undertake anything but the simplest of tasks. I don’t know whether I feel hungry or thirsty. I just feel a general malaise and a burning desire for it all to go away. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure or none that I’m aware of. Depending on how far your journey took you and whether you went East or West, recovery could take days.

When I arrived home very early on Friday morning from Abu Dhabi, I felt exhausted. Last week was the company’s annual conference and it was a massive success. It was positive in every way, but it made no difference to the jet lag. After the buzz of the conference came the awfully timed flight home and that familiar washed out feeling when we landed.

My strategy for dealing with the jet lag was to stay awake for a few hours, have some lunch followed by a short nap in the afternoon. Hopefully, this would be just enough to bridge the gap until that night when I could crash out and hopefully sleep through until morning.

We decided to surprise our 3-year-old niece, Maisie, by picking her up from school. She had no idea and was expecting her mum to pick her up. When we arrived at the class room, the teacher carefully monitored the people coming into the classroom and released children as appropriate. Before the teacher could release her, Maisie spotted me and cried out “Mart-Mart” before running headlong towards me and jumping into my arms. The teacher smiled and nodded her assent for Maisie to go with us.

She showed me what she made at school that day and insisted on showing me her hook where we found her coat and her bag. She told me about her day and insisted on showing me the way home, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we had already found our way to the school in the first place.

We went out for lunch where we conspiratorially blew out all the candles we could find. Then we wafted as much smoke as we could from the smouldering wicks whilst laughing maniacally the whole time. I taught her to stick her finger in the melted wax to form a crust around her finger which made her laugh even more.

On the way home, I suggested that Maisie go back to her mum. After all, I really needed that nap. She insisted on coming with us to the house. As I lay on the sofa, she insisted on lying with me. After 5 short minutes we were both fast asleep.

If ever you have jet lag, seek out the Maisie in your life. I guarantee it helps.

The monster

Public domain image of an explosive device.

Public domain image of an explosive device. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was something bestial about it. As the man pulled down the switch, the machine shuddered and groaned whilst emitting an unholy noise. Although the switch was electrical in nature, the cacophony suggested something much more primal. Internal combustion maybe, or perhaps steam.

Either way, there was an enormous deafening construction in front of me. I never would have thought such a thing would have existed under a modern office block and yet, down here in the bowels of the building, it lived.

As well as being noisy, the room was dark and dusty. The sign on the side of the machine declared it a bomb scanner. My companion looked bored. I helped him load the heavy mailbags onto the conveyer belt so that they could be ingested by the gigantic machine. I felt so important. Here I was, heroically scanning the incoming mail for terrorist devices, risking my life to make sure that the employees of BP Oil (UK) Ltd were safe.

“Have you ever found anything?” I shouted expectantly above the incessant roar of the machine. He fixed me with a look and slowly shook his head. His movements suggested that this was a well trodden path. He told me that any modern bomb would be set off by the scanner anyway. My shoulders involuntarily sank.

So what was the point? There was probably a risk analysis somewhere that said that our company might be a target for terrorism. In the mitigation column, it would say that the incoming post would be scanned before delivery. Everyone could relax, safe in the knowledge that we had all bases covered. Except, as my grisly colleague pointed out, the terrorists were smarter than that.

It’s difficult to find reliable statistics, but several sites seem to suggest that there are roughly 3Bn air passenger journeys per year. Every one of these passengers will spend roughly half an hour of their life passing through security. All of them will have to separate out their liquids and many of them will need to take off their shoes. Not because of our advanced x-ray scanning machines, but because in the past terrorists have been foiled attempted to blow up planes using either liquid explosive or the contents of their shoes.

I’m glad these guys were caught, but we left it a bit late. I look forward to the day when the machines at the airport are so sophisticated, that you don’t even notice them. They just happen to scan you when you’re least expecting it. Maybe while you get out of the taxi or as you walk past the newsagents buying your reading material for the flight. They’re probably not even looking for bombs. They will examine behaviour, looking for anything remotely out of the ordinary.

Surely that must be more effective than lining everyone up and marching them through the obvious (and not particularly effective) bomb scanner.

Being left in the dark

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International ...

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No-one likes being left in the dark, particularly when they’re travelling. I’ve been there and it was no fun. I was due to fly out of Geneva airport on the 9:15 Swiss Air flight to London Heathrow. When I arrived at the airport, the information board had an entry against my flight saying “More information 9PM”. Plainly, my flight was delayed, because at 9PM, I would have expected to be on the aircraft rather than waiting for information. There was a large booth in Geneva airport proudly displaying a sign saying “Information”, so I thought I would ask about my flight. The polite lady behind the desk could not give me any information, but she gave me a drinks voucher and said that an announcement would be made at 9PM.

At the designated hour, an announcement duly came telling us that the aeroplane that we were going to fly with had developed a fuel leak. Another aircraft was flying in to take us to London Heathrow and our new flight time was 11:05PM. At almost exactly the same time, every bar, restaurant, café, shop, kiosk in Geneva airport closed for the night, their work seemingly done. I sat down and started reading my book. There is a certain irony in reading “Around the World in 80 days” whilst stuck in Geneva airport.

Our flight was called and we boarded. The Captain came over the tannoy and assured us that all was well and we were just waiting for the last of our paperwork and we would be on our way. Time ticked by and more time ticked by. I was in danger of finishing my book. The Captain came back on to the tannoy and told us that there was a problem with the door and an engineer was on the way. Alas, the engineer tried, and failed to fix the broken door. The captain addressed us again, only this time he had come out of the cabin to do so in person – never a good sign.

Geneva

Geneva (Photo credit: Alan M Hughes)

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very strange announcement to make, and a very strange request. The strange announcement is that there is still a problem with this aircraft door and it must be considered out of service. We have consulted the legal articles and we are still allowed to fly, but with a reduced number of passengers. Therefore, could I have 47 volunteers to disembark the aircraft and spend the night in Geneva so that the remaining 90 people can fly to London Heathrow this evening.”

The effect of this announcement was a stunned silence while the message sank in, and then a crowd of people surged up to the front all with questions for the captain.

Would we get a hotel room? Would we get a flight tomorrow? Would we get any compensation? How long did we have to get 47 people off the aircraft? All fairly obvious questions that could have easily been anticipated and answered up front, had anyone thought about it. The chaos continued with some people getting off, some people standing up to stretch their legs, some standing up to complain, some standing up to move their hand luggage to somewhere more convenient. The stewardesses were in among the throng trying to count and recount the passengers to see whether enough have disembarked. Meanwhile you could hear people in the hold crashing around trying to find bags that had to be unloaded.

Eventually, the Captain came back on to say that the airport was shutting and our flight was now cancelled. Amidst a lot of moaning and groaning, everyone got their bags and filed off the plane.

There was no-one to direct us or tell us where to go, so where do you go? There was a big queue of people at the gate where we boarded, so I headed for there, assuming that was where I needed to go. It became clear after a while that the big queue of people was queuing up to be told that we were in the wrong place and we should go to the information desk in the main terminal. They had a tannoy at the gate, why didn’t someone at the gate have the presence of mind to use it and tell everyone at once where to go?

When we got to the information desk, it was another queue. When you got to the front of this queue, you were given a voucher for a hotel room. Everyone had the same questions; How do I get to the hotel? How do I get back again, Which flight will I get in the morning? Is there any food anywhere? Everyone queued up to ask these questions. Why didn’t someone have the gumption to announce to the crowd what was going to happen? The queue would have been more orderly, would have moved quicker and everyone would have got to bed a little earlier.

The thread that runs through this story is a lack of information. If you look at what people do when they need information but are not getting it – they panic, they get upset, confused, rumours start. In the absence of anything concrete, rumours get believed and twisted and built upon. Kill off the panic and rumourmongering. Tell people what they need to know.

Too much baggage

English: This image is licensed to use under t...

English: This image is licensed to use under the terms outlined below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had only just started secondary school when my headmaster once overheard me calling our needlework teacher, Mrs Morrison, a nazi. She was ridiculously strict and if you were no good at needlework (I was terrible), every lesson came with a guarantee of a good tongue-lashing.

The headmaster was furious and took me up to his office. He asked me if I knew exactly what a nazi was. The sum total of my knowledge of nazis at the time was that they were the bad guys in my commando comics. At the end of the conversation, I knew exactly what nazis were and I also knew that Mrs Morrison had been a resistance fighter in France during the war. I have never been so ashamed.

The luggage police at the front of the queue on budget airlines remind me of Mrs Morrison sometimes. They have their luggage gauge and they are not afraid to use it. Anyone whose bag doesn’t fit or is too heavy is going in the hold for some extortionate fee or is it the luggage – I can never remember. On normal carriers, they seem more relaxed about hand luggage. Some of the cases I’ve seen people take on to a plane are absolutely enormous.

There are lots of good reasons for travelling with hand baggage only. It can save you money on a low-cost airline. You know the airline can’t lose your bag if it’s safely stowed above your head. It saves time at the other end, but the main reason is that collecting luggage is the most mind-numbingly tedious activity known to man.

You hike the mile from the gate into the terminal, then queue up for ages at immigration before arriving in the baggage hall. You walk over to the screens to find out which carousel is yours only to find that your luggage still hasn’t appeared. As you wait for the luggage from your flight to start spewing forth onto the carousel, a rugby scrum of people will build up. No matter how close you stand to the carousel – someone will stand in front of you blocking your view.

If I built an airport, I would offer a service to text the passengers as their luggage appeared. I would also provide a relaxing environment in which to wait. I might even offer food and drink. Entertainment would be laid on for people as they patiently waited to receive their text message. I would also offer a service whereby you could leave a forwarding address and I would courier your luggage to you so you didn’t have to wait.

Everyone would want to fly from my airport. Even Mrs Morrison would be happy.

The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.

The romance of travel

"A fanciful view of future airship trave&...

“A fanciful view of future airship trave” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I watch an old Indiana Jones film where they sneak their way onto an airship, I always feel a pang of jealousy that they are using a mode of transport that I probably never will. Modern aircraft feel so claustrophobic with their closely packed seats and tiny windows. The only way to stretch your legs is by dodging the trolley dollies and the toilet-goers in the extremely narrow aisles.

Airship gondolas are always depicted in films as luxurious, spacious affairs with uniformed attendants serving dinner at large tables. Because the gondola hangs below the airship, the passengers have an unimpeded view through the large picture windows. Progress is sedate and dependent on the wind direction, but I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to travel.

I really wouldn’t mind if it took me days to get somewhere. Fit wireless internet and you could even work up there, although if the films are anything to go by, you might get interrupted by the odd murder or gun-toting Nazis looking to take over the world.

I’m not sure I’d feel quite so nostalgic for travelling by ship. If I was travelling on business, according to company policy I’d be in steerage. According to Wikipedia, steerage means limited toilet use, no privacy and poor food. Sounds a bit like economy class on most airlines. The only trouble is that ships are slow. Living in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and loads of other people for extended periods of time leads to disease.

Steam trains hold a special place in my heart too. If I could get aftershave that was eau de steam train, I would buy bottles of the stuff. I simply can’t imagine a nicer smell. There is nothing like the drama of a big steam train pulling into a train station amid clouds of sweet-smelling steam and then pulling out again to a gradually increasing clamour of puffing.

I remember when trains had compartments and really comfortable seats. You also had a reasonable chance of sitting on them too. Trains seemed to be much less busy back then.

With the exception of personal transportation, like the motor car and motorbike, it seems that although transport has become much more efficient, it has also become much more cramped and uncomfortable. When are we going to see a new transport development that takes us back to travelling comfortably without breaking the bank?

My journey in ten years time

English: Sydney International Airport Terminal

English: Sydney International Airport Terminal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the way to the airport, I sit in the back of my car reading my newspaper. It almost feels like a newspaper of old, appearing as it does on a foldable, flexible, digital device. My wife chats to her family using the onboard video conferencing facilities.

The journey is whisper quiet as the hydrogen fuel cell propels us effortlessly along the motorway. Without drama, a voice announces that we are five minutes away from the airport. I fold the paper 4 times until it is small enough to fit into my pocket.

As we approach the airport terminal, the sensors overhead automatically validate that we have the necessary travel documents and the voice inside the car asks us to confirm that no-one could have interfered with our bags and yes it was us that packed them. The safety video is played to us on our in car entertainment system. The RFID tags in our luggage are automatically registered and associated with our booking.

As we pull up outside the terminal, we disembark. An automaton retrieves our luggage from the back of the car before rumbling off on its merry way towards the aircraft hold. The car disappears to go and park itself and we know that the next time we see it will be just outside the arrivals hall when we return.

Before long, we are aboard the aircraft and trundling down the runway. My wife picks up where her conversation left off using the videoconferencing facilities onboard the aircraft. I unfold my newspaper once more and pick up where I left off. Without any request from us, an automaton appears with our choice of drinks and food before going off to serve someone else.

Travelling from England to Australia used to take near enough a full day, but nowadays it’s just a brief suborbital hop and we arrive in a couple of hours. The touchdown is smooth and before too long, we are disembarking. As we walk down the the air bridge, we are automatically scanned for contraband and our travel documents are checked. We head for the exit and find our way to the queue for transit onto our final destination.

On the way to the transit, an automaton carrying our luggage catches up with us. As we board the vehicle, our luggage is automatically stowed and we set off. No need to specify where we are going as the vehicle has already worked that out. After a short journey, during which we are automatically checked in, we pull up outside the hotel.

We walk straight in, as another mindless robot picks up our luggage before taking us straight to our room. As we tuck into some welcoming drinks, the robot packs our things away.

There’s nothing quite so relaxing as travelling from one side of the planet to the other.

Where would you like to go today?

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I started work, I had never been up in an aeroplane (unless you count a brief flight over Dunstable downs in a glider). As kids, holidays consisted of a couple of weeks in a holiday camp or caravan park. I think the furthest we ever went was Minehead in Somerset. The entertainment was a mixture of bingo and the odd knobbly knee competition.

When my employer said that they wanted me over in Zurich for a few days, it was a cue to my fellow employees to start winding me up about how scary flying was. Although I had grown up on a diet of 1970s aircraft disaster movies, I took no notice and as the thrust of the aircraft’s engines pushed me back in my seat, an involuntary smile lit up my face. I loved the sensation of speed and the feeling of lift as the aircraft took off. The view through the window of the verdant English countryside slowly shrinking away was sublime. After hundreds of subsequent flights, the appeal has somewhat diminished.

At the time, the only people who flew were either on business or a package holiday. Air travel was expensive and usually booked through travel agents. 30 years ago, budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet didn’t even exist. Today, they fly the best part of 130 million customers per year on a combined fleet of over 600 aircraft. It’s fair to say that they revolutionised the way we book, pay for and undertake our international travel. They were among the first to offer direct internet booking and their variable prices per seat tended to significantly undercut the prices of the traditional operators. The other airlines eventually followed suit and air travel is probably cheaper than it has ever been, opening up ideas like commuting to another country or just nipping over to see the Geneva motor show for the day.

Cruise ships also used to be way out of reach for most travellers being solely the reserve of the rich and famous. Most cruise ships up to the 1960s were converted liners rather than purpose built. Over the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of companies offering cruises. Both the number and size of cruise ships have ballooned. Coupled with the cost reduction in air travel, prices have tumbled in real terms. Not only that, but today’s cruise ships have gone to great lengths to outdo each other in terms of the entertainment offered on board. On some ships you can play golf in the morning, go surfing in the afternoon and go climbing in the evening.

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recover...

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recovered defective satellite for sale during a space walk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the whole, people have become much more adventurous about where they go on holiday although it varies from country to country (roughly 38% of people in the USA own a passport compared with 80% in the UK).  It wasn’t so very long ago that travellers heading to Africa would probably go on a steamship and be accompanied by a big game hunter in a pith helmet. Nowadays, many people go on safari for their honeymoon.

What will tourism look like 30 years from now? There is no doubt that for many of us, spaceflight tourism will become commonplace. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture has all but sold out of the first 500 seats at $200k a throw. You can even charter a spaceship from him for a million dollars. The American government have even come up with a set of procedures for space travellers. Will I be partaking? Well, no, not at that price. Even if it was cheaper, it all sounds a little bit dangerous with roughly 1 flight in 50 resulting in fatalities.

I wonder how long it will be before we get an “Easyrocket” or “Ryanspace”