Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LA Metro Green Line

So after spending two weeks in Tunisia, I spent about 22 hours traveling home (4am Tunis time to 6pm Pacific time). The most frustrating part of the return trip was trying to get from LAX to work, where my carpool buddy would drive me home.

My flight was supposed to arrive at 4:30pm but we actually landed at and pulled up to the gate at 4:15pm. Bradley terminal was surprisingly empty but it was a very long walk from the gate to immigration. I have not traveled internationally for a few years so it was my first time in the renovated terminal. I walked up to an automated kiosk, answered a few questions, had my photo taken, and was given a receipt. I was also directed to a very short line and was out of the terminal in ~20 minutes!

Since I was early, I decided to save a few bucks and take the Green line from LAX to work. It's only a short bus ride (<3 miles) and two stops on the Green line. How bad can it be? Bad.

Metro Green Line

The Green line "G" shuttle bus is basically the unofficial LAX employee shuttle. It was the third bus that pulled up to the blue shuttle stop and it was about 80% full. I'd estimate about 2/3rd of the passengers were airport employees, from TSA to airline employees to baggage handlers. By the time we left the airport, the bus was completely full... standing room only. The bus drive chose to take Century Blvd to Aviation except there was some kind of road construction on Century (on a Friday afternoon?!) so the bus ride took ~40 minutes. When I rode the train last time (3 years ago?), it was only $1.50 and no one checked. Now they've implemented a card system where you have to scan in and out. The card costs $1 and the fare was $1.75 so the short trip cost me $2.75 total. Now I have another piece of plastic in my wallet.

I used to complain about LAX a lot, especially the international terminal since it was an embarrassment compared to airports at other major cities. I think they've fixed the terminal, but getting to/from LAX is still a major disaster. Since there no light rail option, there are a million shuttle buses for hotels, rental cars, parking lots, short and long-distance buses, airport shuttles, and lots of private cars, all circling the single road. In Hong Kong, I can get from the airport to Kowloon or Central in ~20 minutes. Try that at LAX during Friday rush hour.

Next time, I think I'll splurge and take a taxi or Uber.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tunisia Trip Day 11

Travel day back to LAX via CDG/Paris. No Roman ruins but lots of airplane pics.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I had to leave the hotel at 4:30am. Originally I was going to take a taxi but our driver said he would take me since the airport transfer was part of the tour package. When we arrived at the hotel last night, he then said a "friend" would pick me up. Are you sure? No problem! So at 4:30am, another driver shows up and asks me for the transfer form or something; he didn't speak English. I said I don't have anything, he hesitated, then took me to the airport anyway, with a busted seatbelt in the passenger seat. At the airport, he followed me around, trying to show me where to go. I was trying to explain that I've been to many airports and I'll be fine, but he waited until I got my boarding pass, then asked for money. Sigh. The smallest I had was 10 dinar so I gave him that. I paid for the ride beforehand, gave our regular driver a large tip, and I'm still being nickeled and dimed. It's like the scamming employees at the Bardo Museum.

Same thing for the Tunisian government. They just implemented an exit tax effective 10/1/2014 of 30 dinars. Welcome to Tunisia... now you need to pay for us to let you go home. I had to find a bank counter at the airport to buy the exit stamp to stick in my passport. I did this but when I went through security at the airport, the border guy was complaining about the stamp in French. I gave him a blank look so after a few moments, he looked at me like I was an idiot, then dismissed me. Huh? Later I find out that since I arrived on 9/30/2014, I didn't have to pay the exit tax. Whatever. Just let me go home.

Finally, since I'm complaining, Air France sucks. When I bought the tickets originally, I purchased premium economy seats thinking that I would be able to pre-select (aisle) seats, but that wasn't the case. After much complaining on Twitter, they were suddenly able to assign me a window seat from LAX-CDG, which I was then able to change online. Cool... not. Then Air France pilots go on strike for two weeks, fortunately ending the day before I was to leave. I was able to get to Paris but the flight arrived late so I had to run like crazy through CDG airport to make my connection though my luggage did not. At Tunis, my bag made it on a later flight but I had to go back to the airport to get it myself as they did not deliver. I wonder if they treat first class customers the same way. On the way back home, I tried for two days to check-in online but it would only process the TUN-CDG flight; the website said I was on standby for the CDG-LAX flight. WUWT?! I tried a direct Twitter message and a phone call to the AF US customer service number but both were unable (or unwilling) to do anything. At Tunis airport, the gate agent said that I had to check with a customer service agent in Paris for seats. When I arrived at CDG, the only seat available was a window seat. Arg, I paid AF $1700 four months before the trip! Frustrating. I'm never ever flying Air France again. I hope I can at least trade my miles from this trip for some useful stuff.


Carthage-Tunis Airport sunrise

CDG airport was pretty nice. There were a lot of shops and everything was clean though expensive. I bought a bottle of French wine at the duty free shop. They also had these "billboards" but with live plants.

Vietnamese Airlines Boeing 777-200ER. Never seen one at LAX.

British Aerospace 146 (Avro RJ85)

Air France Airbus A380-800. This is the same type of plane for my LAX-CDG trip. Very large plane.

Air France Boeing 777-300ER. This was my ride home. Unlike the A380, the interior was a bit worn. The in-flight entertainment system stopped working for me and my neighbor about an hour into the flight. Fortunately, there was an empty seat but it had a broken leg rest (thus unoccupied). I ended up sitting there for most of the 11.5 hour flight since I couldn't deal with my window seat. Also, the food seems to be worse than the A380 as well. More importantly, the premium economy seats were similar and both sucked.

Entry and exit stamps... and the 30 dinar exit tax stamp that I didn't have to buy

Back to sleep!

Tunisia Trip Day 10

Whew, last full day in Tunisia. I enjoyed the time off from work since there was no Internet most of the trip, but I'm ready to go home. Today was mainly spent at The National Bardo Museum and the many ancient Carthage ruin sites.

First stop was the Bardo. For some reason, our driver didn't know the operating hours so we got there at 8:45am but the museum didn't open until 9:30am so he had us wait. We tried to walk behind the museum to see the parliament building but a guy in an uniform and an assault rifle (pretty sure it was a Steyr AUG) stopped us and told us to go back. Nevermind.

The museum was modern and housed lots of excellent exhibits. However, one thing bothered me. Some exhibits were roped off that weren't really closed. I was approached by an employee who took me to see a few items behind ropes and told to take pictures quickly. I knew where this was going but went along anyway. After about 10 minutes of this, he asked for money. I was about to give him a few dinars but he asked for US currency. Thinking I had a few $1 bills, I pulled out my wallet and only had a $5 so I gave that to him. Another person in our group said the same guy was doing the same thing when he was here back in February.

Entrance to Bardo... not open yet

Tunisia has lots of beautiful doors

The Demna baptistery (Byzantine)

Room full of huge mosaics

Mosaic in the museum lobby

Parliament building behind museum

Next on the agenda was Carthage. Since ancient Carthage was so large, archaeological sites were spread across a wide area. We stopped at a few sites and the Carthage museum. We also stopped to visit the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial.

Another amphitheater. This was just next to the road and not very well maintained.

View from the Carthage Museum

Huge new mosque

Ruins of a 5th century church next to the mosque

American Cemetery and Memorial

The Antonine Baths near the coast

I had a pizza and two cans of cold soda for lunch... glorious. The pizza was okay.

The final stop of the day was Sidi Bou Said which is sometimes called the Santorini of Tunisia due to the white buildings and blue doors. We walked around the streets a bit, took lots of photos, then went back to the hotel for dinner, and said our goodbyes since I was leaving for the airport the next morning at 4:30am. I thought it was too early but our driver said it was good.


Door + window

Another door

Cafe des Delices

Hotel Majestic. The only hotel we stayed at that had consistent AC and wifi.

Tunisia Trip Day 9

By this time in the trip, I was tired. Most of it was physical: not sleeping well because of the heat, getting up at 7am to sit in the van, magically always sitting on the sun side of the van, and not eating that much during meals. Some of it was mental too: not understanding what was said most of the time, whether Arabic/French with locals, or Cantonese with travel group.

This morning, "we" wanted to leave at 7:30am since it was another day of long drives. I came downstairs at 7:05am, quickly checked email since there was no one crowding the wifi this early, and ate breakfast in 10 minutes so I can take a few photos of the hotel.

View from room; too bad the "Miami Diaco" was right downstairs and kept me up all night

Beautiful swimming pool; we never got a chance to use any of the hotel swimming pools on this trip

Hotel was right off the Mediterranean and looks good from the outside... inside, not so good

Eat. Drive. Look around. Sleep. Repeat. Luckily I started tracking our trip on my Android phone using My Tracks, otherwise I'd have no idea where we went. After breakfast (we spend way too much time eating), we drove 2 hours up the coast to Hammamet. Here we stopped to check out some catacombs but found it has been closed for weeks, so we just drove around town taking some more photos. Meh.

Las Vegas, baby! There were a few casinos in town; I think they were more for tourists.

I like how they just punch through the door panels to put a chain and padlock on the door... CLOSED!

Carthage Land... not sure what this was but it screams "tourist trap"

Hammamet coastline

Fishing trip?

Back in the van and continue driving up the coast. Next stop was Nabeul, our driver's hometown. I don't think the stop was on the original itinerary but the AC was broken in the van, so he let us off in the market while he went to try and fix it. Walking through the market, people (mostly shop vendors) were shouting nihao and konnichiwa, and sometimes even Kawasaki and Suzuki. Maybe they were just trying to get our attention but along with lots of staring by locals, I feel like a white guy in China.

Pedestrian market street

Lots of items for sale but I think it's mostly for tourists

Quite a large selection of athletic shoes they have in Tunisia

So as we were standing in from of the market waiting for our driver, a Porsche Cayenne pulls up and parks right in front of the market gate. Arrogant looking people got out and went into the market. The license plate is different from all the other ones I've seen so maybe it's military/government? Is this the equivalent of a black Audi A6 in China?

AC temporarily repaired, our driver picked us up and we continued north towards the tip of Cape Bon. We stopped at a commercial fishing port (huh?) then lunch at a restaurant with a view. Next to the restaurant was where stones were quarried and shipped inland to build all those ancient buildings so we took at look at that too.

That boat doesn't look too stable

Lunch. I had the seafood spaghetti since we're by the coast.

More lunch scenary

Beautiful coastline

Tunisian landscape and scenery is beautiful but when taking photos, I had to zoom/crop to avoid shooting trash and graffiti. Seriously, there was trash everywhere along our travel route, even in this seemingly barren coast. Sigh.

The day ended with us driving back to Tunis hotel with a quick stop at Korbous to look at a oceanside hot spring.

More beautiful and rugged Tunisian coastline

But just to the left, you have this... :(

Hot spring at Korbous. It was just down a flight of stairs next to the road. The hot water flows down to the ocean and there were lots of people swimming in a tiny area.

It was a long drive back to Tunis; we didn't get there until after dark

Back to Hotel Majestic. This time they put me up in a junior suite-like room with a separate living room area. I didn't care as long as the AC worked (it did).