Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

That fine and mysterious Muslim month of Ramadan is upon us. I very rarely claim to be an expert on anything, and Muslim holidays are no exception.  I have not read any books about this special month but have discussed it with the Arabs that I work with and seen it for myself.  

For this turn of the moon, as the Muslim calendar is based on the moon, the followers of Allah must fast while the sun is showing.  This means no eating, drinking, smoking, or pretty much anything else you can think of. Expats and Non-Muslims have to hide to eat, drink, and smoke.  Most work sites and compounds put up a “Non-Muslim Break Area” sign for rooms where these things are allowed which appears to be well tolerated. Getting caught in the open doing any of these things is severely offensive and not recommended. Not in your car, hospital, or anywhere in the open. Shops and restaurants are closed all day and the streets look like a ghost town while there is daylight.  Very few cars on the road, all shops shuttered, trash blowing through empty streets like some Arab Western. They claim the purpose of this is to show every person the suffering of those that are doing without, so they can better understand the difficulties of the needy and be appreciative of what they have.  

This all sounds very nice and I approve, but there have been some doubts raised in my mind the past few days as we have have gotten into this holiday.  The night brings out a different and crazy animal. Roads become clogged, which is a good thing, as any open tarmac will have youths in Toyota pick-ups, Landcruiser’s, Hyundai’s and Kia’s drifting.  Sometimes missing your car by a hair and sometimes losing control and spinning around to flood your face with their headlights before laughing and carrying on. Restaurants and shops change their hours to be open at night. Locals feast as soon as the sun disappears under the horizon and go to cafes to smoke and converse. Companies change their work hours for observers from a normal four hours to perhaps two hours so they can sleep during the day.  

Now it is true that my worries may be unfounded or incorrect but this sounds a bit like just changing everything 12 hours and becoming nocturnal.  Sleeping during the day and doing all manner of normal human activity at night does not make a fast or sacrifice.  Especially when the the air is like an oven during the day. Night is the only bearable time to be outside. I leave it for the reader to decide. 

Healthcare and Death

The worlds irrational fear of death has made healthcare unpractical.  No healthcare system in the world is viable.  They all lose money at incredible rates.  From Europe’s universal systems to America’s insurance system.  It doesn’t matter if an emergency room visit is free as in the UK or if an aspirin in an ER costs $60 as in the USA.

The major problem relates to our current culture.  Namely that every life is precious and death should be avoided at all costs.  Both of which are wrong.  We all have a price and death is no where near as important as quality of life.  Death is our curtain call.  Every show must end. Hopefully we have entertained and been entertained and leave with dignity as the curtain falls.  Nobody enjoys a show that ends badly or drags on.

Our healthcare systems should focus on two points.  Taking care of the young so they can contribute by working, and preparing the old for death.  But let us progress from birth to death.

At birth we are all equals.  There are no Hitlers or Einsteins.  So there should be a very straightforward process.  If you are born premature where you need an incubator nature should be allowed to take you.  Spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and living in a little oven for months is ridiculous.  I’m sorry that some mistake was made but your parents can try again.  The same if you have a crippling disease.  It is selfish of parents to tell a doctor to do everything to keep you alive, especially when it is known that you won’t live long and those days will be in extreme pain.  No, if you cannot survive on your own at birth you should be allowed to die.

Next come children and adults.  Some will have issues such as asthma, allergies, and others.  No problem.  We have cheap medications where they can live normal lives at a reasonable cost to society.  Bones will be broken and trauma had.  This is normal and easy to fix.  No issues with a healthcare system covering these issues.  Other rare diseases would be on a case by case basis depending on cost and outcomes.  Call them death panels if you will, but we all have a worth.  Very few people would be worth millions of dollars for treatment.  A cancer removed by surgery is cheap and effective.  If that cancer becomes systemic and costs millions of dollars in chemotherapy treatments then it does not become worth it.  You may throw out all the miracle stories you wish but it is the odds that matter in this, not the individual.

Old people need palliative care.  An 80 year old getting a $100,000 hip surgery is not practical.  The use they will get out of it is not worth the cost.  Instead of extending life we should respect when it ends.  On a personal note I refused to see my grandfather once he developed dementia.  I did not want him to treat me as a stranger.  I wanted to remember him as the excellent grandfather he was, not some crazy old man who didn’t recognize me.  I was ticked with the half my relatives that made him get a pacemaker, which just extended his unhappiness.  He wished for death in his lucid moments and I hate my relatives for doing that to him.  On the flip side my aunt is 106 and still kicking.  Amazingly she lives at home alone and has never had a serious surgery.  It is the quality of the persons life that matters, not the length of it.

Old people, seniors if you wish, take up a huge percentage of healthcare funding.  If we would change our beliefs and honor and accept death we could make a healthcare system that works for all.  On our present course in just a few decades the solution will be much more intense and severe.  It will be much scarier than death ever is.

Lufthansa

The national carrier of Germany has joined all other major carriers in a race for the bottom.  Once my favorite airline it has become yet another average experience in a world taken over by low cost carriers.

German airports are usually clean and efficient, especially Munich and Frankfurt considering how much foot traffic passes through.  Berlin Tegel, on the other hand, is a mess.  I believe it was built in Roman times and has never been updated, though it is due for closure sometime between five years ago and fifty years from now.

Check-in is efficient and easy as is standard in Germany.  Ticket agents have always been helpful and quite good(though in Chicago my ticket agent was quite incompetent, though that may have been do to never seeing a Saudi visa before).  Waiting areas are fantastic.  Excellent restaurants with superb beer, pay showers, and sleeping pods welcome you while waiting for your flight.  Boarding is actually a pleasure.  One domestic German flight I was on everyone actually waited until their section was called and didn’t crowd the gate.  It was a miracle.  But that was only once.  Normally the foreigner’s or bad Germans mess the system up like everywhere else in the world.  Me first, me first.

On the plane the perfect maintenance and cleanliness continues.  Lufthansa’s planes are consistently the nicest I fly on.  Seats are comfortable and there is an in-flight entertainment system.  The screens are beautiful though the library of films is not as extensive as some other airlines.  Cabin crews are good but not as good as ten years ago.  WizzAir and Turkish have better cabin crews.  The pilots have always been the best.  Smooth flights and landings with never so much as a hint of an issue.  But here we come to my biggest complaint.  Lufthansa has joined America in being way too safety first.  On my recent flight from Germany to Miami we had mild turbulence from take off to landing.  Most of the flight the cabin crew were asked to suspend meal and drink service.  So we never received a meal and only half the passengers received a drink.  This is terrible.  Cabin crews should work in mild and moderate turbulence.  A risk of injury comes with the job, just like firefighters risk dying and doctors risk getting ill.  You accept the risk when you take the job.  Also the passengers must accept their decisions.  If you order a hot coffee in turbulence and it gets spilled in your lap it is your fault, not the flight attendant who was trying to serve you.  Lufthansa, please tell your cabin and cockpit crews to take care of your customers.  Perhaps Lufthansa has gotten as bad as the USA with lawsuits and no personal responsibility.  If that is the case I shed a tear as I thought the USA was the only place where personal responsibility no longer existed.

Overall Lufthansa is still one of the best major carriers in the world but they are fading fast.  Only one free checked bag on international flights, charging for a seat reservation, and some of the worst airline food ever in economy.  I wasn’t actually too upset not getting a meal on the flight to Miami as the meals I have had with them the past few years are disgusting.  I’d prefer pretzels or a sandwich over the hot plate they claim to be food.  Bring on some Bavarian pretzels and sausage and not the gruel you have now.

 

The End

Terminators, epidemic, nuclear war.  How would you prefer to see the world end?

The end must be near for a simple reason.  We are advancing too quickly.  Place our scientific advancements on a graph and it will be near perfectly flat up to the past fifty years.  Then it will go near vertical.  We advance in a day what used to take a hundred years.  There has to be a limit.  An end.

Advancement will not slow, that is impossible.  It can only get faster and faster and someday it will reach its limit.  Perhaps the Internet of Things and AI will combine to make Terminators.  Maybe gene splicing or CRISPR will produce an invincible bacteria.  All these advancements are happening so quickly that if problems arise we will not be able to combat them.

Perhaps I am wrong.  The end of the world gets predicted every decade, but I really don’t see how we can continue on this path, and to be honest, I’m not really sure I want to.  The human race as an experiment is a failure.  We destroy everything we touch and use emotions instead of reason. Global warming doesn’t exist because it is still cold where I live.  The Chinese are stealing our jobs(instead of the natural progression of job loss.  Sorry coal miners, your days are numbered, same as lamp lighters, butlers, and thousands of other jobs through history).  I shouldn’t have to pay for healthcare(until I or a family member gets sick or hurt and then it changes to why isn’t this free), and all the other stupid arguments the human race can throw up.  We are a selfish unthinking race and it disappoints me to try and have conversations(except with people that already have similar beliefs to me).  Maybe we are going to break off into two separate groups and evolve into different species.  If you don’t believe we evolve you are in the other group(but you should already have known that from the global warming comment earlier).

You can’t argue with stupid, they have had years of experience.  I try to remember this everyday but oh how frustrating it can be.  I try to use facts and reason and sometimes make mistakes and the wrong choices, but to be woefully ignorant and just parrot what you hear from the news or other people is unbelievable.  2017 and the world is flat! That is all the proof I need for welcoming the end of the world.

So I hope for a nuclear or biological end game.  Terminators just seem much too scary.   Nature might get in on it and throw an unexpected curve ball.  That would be fun.

 

Turkish Airlines(and Ataturk Airport)

The national carrier of Turkey is my favorite major carrier.  They knock Lufthansa out of my top spot this year.  Entschuldigung Lufthansa, but your cost cutting and competing with the low cost carriers has hurt, not improved, your business.

Turkish has a large route network, all focused through Istanbul.  Be sure to check where you are flying to as Istanbul has two airports.  Ataturk(IST) is the hub.  It is large and a bit dated.  Sabiha Gokcen(SAW) is the smaller low cost carrier airport though some low cost flights go through IST and some Turkish flights go through SAW.  I would recommend not booking flights through separate airports as they on opposite sides of this massive city and could take you over three hours to get between them.  Pay the extra money to fly through one or the other, or better yet switch airports but spend a few amazing days making your way slowly across the impressiveness that is Istanbul.

The duty free area in Ataturk is as crowded as a Manhatten sidewalk and the queues for everything are ridiculous.  But it is still leagues better than an American airport and the benefits outweigh these little gripes. There are pubs with Efes, one of the best beers ever made.  It is a Turkish beer so enjoy yourself everywhere you go in the country.  It is also possible to easily get to the tourist areas during a long layover.  Take a taxi or a metro-tram combo to Sultanahmet.  It will take you thirty minutes to an hour.  Do know that you have to pay a visa fee to leave the airport.  Be sure to go to the visa desk before getting in the immigration queue.  The city is one of the most amazing in the world.  If you don’t want to go far the aquarium is just behind the airport, so a short taxi ride and you have hours to spend at a fantastic and modern aquarium.  It backs to a promenade on the sea with many restaurants and a great view of the flights landing overhead.

Turkish short haul flights are nothing special(the same as any short haul flight around the world).  Normal legroom, seat space, et cetera, et cetera.  The food and service is better than average and you get Turkish Delight(A gelatin fruit candy).

Long haul flights are outstanding.  Service is wonderful, food is delicious, cockpit and cabin crew fantastic.  The planes are clean and modern.  In-flight entertainment is varied and comprehensive.  I have always been on-time and never lost any luggage(unlike Etihad which lost both my checked bags for a week BOTH ways).

There is a reason Turkish Airlines keeps winning Airline of the Year.  They deserve it.

Kingston-New Zealand

Contrary to the name, Kingston is the minor spouse of Queenstown.  It is a tiny town on the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, about forty seven kilometers from Queenstown.  It has none of the recognition of its Queen nor anything to do besides a tourist train.

The Kingston Flyer, as the train is known, is all the town is associated with.  It is a tourist trap that doesn’t really go anywhere.  My tour bus stopped here on its way to Milford Sound for what reason I could not deduce beyond the owner of the Kingston Flyer paying them to.   Kingston Flyer 1.JPG

Having a coffee, looking out over the clear blue lake, and watching the steam train slowly pull out of the fake station was how I spent our hour or two here.  Afterwards we continued our journey without me having walked more than fifty meters from where I stepped off the bus.  Kingston Flyer 4.JPG

Kingston would be great for a nice quiet picnic but it offers very little to tourists, unless you are a fan of trains.  Stick with Queenstown on the North of the lake and make Kingston a rest stop on your drive south and all will be well.

Crossing Cook Strait

When traveling between the North and South Islands of New Zealand I enjoy swimming the Cook Strait, but I understand this is not possible for everyone.  For those who prefer to stay dry and travel at a higher rate of speed there is good news.  A ferry cleverly called the Interislander makes the round trip journey three times a day.  NZ '05 - 132.JPG

Our journey begins in New Zealand’s capital, which despite public opinion is not Auckland in the North of the North island, but Wellington in the South of the North island.  This could get confusing so have maps at the ready for reference. Those familiar with ferry rides anywhere in the world will meet with no surprises on the Interislander.  For those who are ferrying for the first time we shall begin at the gate.  Here you will pay for whatever you are bringing on board, be it just yourself, or with a bicycle, a car full of people, or even a truck.  They accept everything for a price.  A person will run you about $60 and a car $210 for a one way journey.  These prices may stagger you a bit, or maybe that is sea sickness setting in.  Once you have paid you sit in a giant parking lot queue until boarding time.  Then you will drive your vehicle or walk on board, depending on your circumstances.  Once parked you just leave your car and walk inside.  L1030380.JPG

Now this is no small fry ferry.  This is more like a cruise ship.  There is a cafe, cinema, kids play area and more.  But being only a three hour journey I skip all this and go out on the deck to enjoy the fabulous water and tree covered islands along the way.  Bring a sweater with you as it will be cool on the sea even on a hot day.  Watch the skyline of Wellington fade in the distance, enjoy the open ocean, then be stunned by the water color, windsurfers, and beautiful hills as you ride the final channel to your destination, Picton. NZ '05 - 152.JPG

Picton is a tiny town on the North of the South Island and a major transport hub.  Once you dock you will probably leave straight away.  I have no recommendations for Picton as this is exactly what I have always done.  As you drive away you will think back that you just got to travel between the islands in comfort and sightsee at the same time.  You will finish this thought knowing that the price you paid is more than fair.  NZ '05 - 174.JPG