Published Dec 17, 2011

Habati from Africa! At least, I think that’s the word. It’s kind of hard to tell details like “what’s the language” and “where am I?” and “what time is it?” after a flight halfway around the world.See, we left the house at 2:30pm and then finally arrived at our destination at 9:30am two days later. Taking into account time change fun, that totals up to about 30 hours in four airports, three planes, and a Toyota Land Cruiser.

It all started in LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, which was a wonderful reminder of just how much of a shithole LAX actually is. I’d last flown out of that terminal probably six years ago, when much of the construction was still ongoing (for instance: the big TSA luggage x-ray machines were right at the front of the building, because that was the only place that there was room, which also meant a building-long line of people waiting for checked luggage clearance that you had to somehow make your way past before you could even get to the line for the check-in counter). I was excited to see the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, with its many restaurants and shops that the wife and I could pass hours in as we waited for our flight.

So we arrived, responsibly, a bit more than 3 hours early (driven by the only good cab driver I’ve had since 1993 in LA, by the way, or at least only the second one who knew where he was going; he got a big holiday tip). And security was fast and we got right in to the gates area. And then we discovered that the restaurants were actually outside the gates, and there was almost nothing to do inside. Well-played, LAX, well-played: you almost made me forget what a shithole you are with your nice, clean Tom Bradley International Terminal.

But it was actually OK, because we’d had a pretty outstanding experience checking in for our flight. And how many times have you ever said that? We flew Turkish Airlines — you may not know, since we didn’t, that they won Best Airline in Europe last year — mostly because they met the big two priorities we had:

  • Reasonable Price
  • Layover less than 8 hours

In addition, they had an add-on bonus that didn’t contribute to our selection of them but certainly made us more excited: a brand-new premium economy section that they were selling at almost-economy prices, and that we could fly on our first leg, the preposterously-long LAX-Istanbul non-stop route. When we arrived for check-in, we discovered an entire queue set up just for premium economy, so we sped to the counter. Once there, we had to talk to a nice lady in ticketing; as she started to help us, she repeated our names back to us, which resulted in the nice lady next to her saying “Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong! I know you. Your ticket is right here!”

That’s right, apparently we’re so important that the desk agents at Turkish Airlines recognize us straight away. I assume that this is because my wife works in TV; all fame in LA comes from TV. At least, I assume it’s not because the agent has a thing for content management systems.

Thus, despite the continuing incompetence of LA World Airports, we were able to enjoy our sojourn at the gate with a reserve of good attitude. And then, speaking of good attitude, we got on the plane.

When we bought premium economy, we pretty much expected what we saw on other domestic airlines: a couple of inches more seat pitch, some premium in-flight entertainment, and business-class food. Maybe free booze too, if we were lucky. What we didn’t expect — and what we saw as soon as we walked in — was pretty much what they called “Business Class” 10 years ago. With a probably inappropriate level of oohing and aahing, we sat down — me next to the window, Court along the aisle, in a 2+4+2 widebody configuration — and then suddenly realized that I could get up and walk past my wife to get to, say, the bathroom without her actually having to leave her seat. And there was a footrest. And those little reading lights on the flexible stalks. And a ton of recent movies on the inflight entertainment.

And, just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, the cabin crew brought us our dinner menu. So that we could make our selections. It looked delicious — when was the last time you said that about an airline menu? — and we were excited. Then it came, and it was delicious, with a salad with good-quality feta and fresh olive oil, and great chicken and fish, and delicious rice and sauce and veggies, and free whisky for the both of us.

The upshot is: the next time you only have 24-30 hours for vacation, you might just want to book a round-trip on Turkish Air and enjoy the free movies, the delicious food, the friendly cabin crew, and the outrageous seats. Apart from the risk of thrombosis, I think I could’ve spent three weeks on that flight!

Flying from Istanbul to Dar Es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, wasn’t quite as luxurious, but we still got to travel on a brand-new 737-900. And the meals were good again, even the breakfast that came in your standard airline box. Which just begs the question: why does anyone ever take a US carrier? Or, more than that, why are US carriers so awful?

We landed at 3am at the very relaxed, very tropical Dar airport, waited in line for a while to get a very nifty-looking visa stamped into our passports — it even has our photos on it! — and then hung out on a bench waiting for check-in to open for our final leg of our flight, about 3 hours later. So we waited and read — and I accidentally walked around security and off practically onto a boarding walkway, but they were very nice about it — and finally got in a nice, quick line to check in with local low-cost carrier Precision Air.

Again, the flight was lovely, with smiling cabin attendants who somehow pulled off their yellow-and-lime-green uniforms and comfortable-enough seats even on the little ATR turboprop. Luckily enough, we were even seated on the right side of the plane to get a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro as we went in to land.

The Kilimanjaro airport made Dar, with its actual multiple floors and gates and queues seem bustling. In minutes our bags were up and we found a nice man with a sign that said “Armstrong Wade” (my name order is surprisingly unclear when coming at it from another culture, actually) and a big, tan Toyota Land Cruiser. He took us down well-maintained highways, past a town with a market days and past a bunch of guys on good-looking motorcycles with chrome polished to a rare shine — to our first destination: the lodge at the Moivaro Coffee Plantation, just a bit outside of Tazania’s resort center of Arusha and about 3000 feet up the side of Kilimanjaro.

Which is where I’m writing you from, enjoying a caramel-y Serengeti Lager while Court savors her crisp-yet-nutty Kilimanjaro lager, on a verandah while the sun goes down around us, the birds whistle in the nearby jungle, and the locusts chirp a soothing story. Tonight, it’s luxury under a mosquito net in our little hut. Because, after thirty hours, it’s been well time.