Monday, February 22, 2010

The Last Great Fiefdom: Airlines

I am sick to death of airlines and their arbitrary rules.

For the most part, I’m able to fly under the radar. I pack light (avoiding baggage restrictions/fees/checked luggage), grasp the concept of the 3 oz. rule, and can get in and out of security in less than one minute – shoes and laptop included - if there’s no line.

However, not only is each country different, but each airline also has different rules. Getting on the aircraft is only half the battle.

Once on, you’re in “their” territory and they way they treat you depends strictly, on classism, (and, I believe, more and more on the fickle attitudes of flight attendants).

First, if you can afford, literally, a higher class ticket, then you’ll have a better seat. You’ll get a bit more room, free alcohol (US domestic flights), actual silverware, and a private bathroom near the (gasp!) cockpit (apparently, first class passengers couldn’t possibly be terrorists, or terrorists haven’t yet scraped together enough clams for these exorbitantly priced seats).

Secondly, the flight attendants, who have got to have the worst jobs I the world, have obviously caught on. They are, for the most part, very grumpy individuals (except for those beautiful Singpore airline stewardesses, but I’m convinced that they’re fembots). It’s their job to enforce baseless, fickle rules, such as keeping your electronic devices shut off until you reach cruising altitude, lest they interfere with the plane’s operation.

Speaking as a person who has both a) accidentally left her phone on for an entire flight and b) once called her sister, who’s phone rang (and she answered!) while in flight, and I call complete and total shenanigans on this one.

Ipods pose a particularly interesting problem, as they have no on/off switch. There’s a “freeze” button, but you can certainly “freeze” it in the on position as well as off. Furthermore, overseas, they’ve mostly dropped this rule – it’s only in the hyper sensitive US that we still believe this baloney.

(Save the South African airways attendant who insisted that I take my earbuds out my ears, even though my DVD player was no only off, the battery was completely dead. I was keeping the buds in to drown out the noise of the engines. I tried explaining this to her several times but she stood fast. I was tempted to tell her I had a hearing condition, but being that my desire to get home superceded my desire to make a point, I took them out. )

But that’s just it, no matter what you do, the airlines have the trump card: they can throw you off. Not only that, they can throw you in JAIL. So you have to take out your earbuds, sit up straight, stow your tray tables, do jumping jacks – whatever they require! Somehow, I missed the forfeiture of my rights in the fine print.

In the US, if you’re leaving the country, you can take as much water/liquids with you as you want. Woe be the person returning, however, with so much as a bottle of water for a sixteen hour flight. I find this downright inhumane. The human body NEEDS water. How can the US government deny us this need? What’s next, air?

Aren’t we more secure?, you may be asking, What about the Greater Good? I agree, to some extent, an airplane ride may be tantamount to a social contract. We are all, literally, headed towards the same goal. It makes sense that we have a basic modicum of expectations and rules. When I get on a flight, I don’t expect to be able to act like I do at home; I am, in fact, in public.

However, airlines are taking this too far, all in the name of profit margin. While the US government has upped security requirements, they’ve lowered services, and the only one that gets pinched are THE PASSENGERS. They’re pinching their steady revenue source, and ultimately, shooting themselves in the foot. They’ll soon fine that this “steady” revenue source is more price sensitive than they thought. The more they push us cattle-class to the margins, families and other casual traveler’s will switch to other, more affordable, less Machiavellian forms of transport - like walking across hot stones.

With the advent of global telecommunications, more and more businesses will choose to stay at home, and hop on their WebEx instead.

I want to sympathize with the global airline industry, I really do.

But I also want to keep my earbuds in.

My Dilemma

Pursuant to my previous posting, I’ve recently re-opened the situation with Michael Pollan, and his dilemma. I was home sick a few weeks ago and caught him on Oprah, where he didn’t immediately strike me as a pompous nutjob. I remembered that I still had his book.

In fact, during my trip to Italy in November, my friend had asked my opinion about it. A fan of the Slow Food revolution (which started there), she was eager to see what I thought. I sheepishly mentioned something vaguely about not being able to “get into it” and noted that she, mercifully, is not a big follower of my blog.

This, plus upcoming long flight to South Africa, lead me to slip it into my back before I left. Plus, I reasoned, it’s soft cover. My general travel M.O is to bring softcovers and leave them behind when I’m finished, thus lightening my load. (This does not apply to hardcovers, library books or anything I haven’t finished). So, if I finished, or got bored with Mr. Pollan, I could leave him behind.

Somewhere between Livingstone and Lusaka, while waiting for my internet connection to work, I pulled it out. (I find that distracting myself while things “load” lessens my desire to chuck the entire computer out the window). At any rate, I kind of got into it. He outlines the food chain for three types of meals: corn fed (industrial agriculture), grass fed (for lack of a better word, alternative (?) agriculture) and hunting/foraging.

Yes, he gets a little over philosophical - and down right weepy - in parts, especially about hunting. The chapters on industrial agriculture, where he uncovers the insidiousness of corn and how it has transformed our food chain was actually really interesting. I’d always wondered how corn was refined into High Fructose Corn Syrup, for example. Similarly, his outlining of the rise and dissonance between “Big” and “Little” Organic farming was quite revealing, and refreshing. Overall, the book was informative, if slanted under a liberal gaze. (Being a liberal myself, I didn’t so much mind this, but it was quite obvious in places, which I found annoying. I skimmed.)

My favorite passage was near the end, when he muses that it wouldn’t be possible to eat all meals like the first one (McDonald) or all meals like the last (foraged all by hand), but that there had to be some ground in the middle.

I still have criticism though – my book states it was a history of four meals: Corn-fed, grass-fed and foraged. That’s only three. Was this a printing typo, or was I supposed to make a meal of the book, too? I left it in the seat pocket of my flight from Lusaka to Johannesburg for the next person to figure that out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Ok, yes. I am in Zambia.

Admittedly, I have let this trip slip.

BUT - it's technically not my fault. Technically, I've had difficulties with the internet - I've barely been able to check in with work. There's something about African wireless services that makes my slooowwwww ass computer melt down into a tiny little lump.


So, ahem, Zambia. I have known ye before.

You may remember this post about a weekend trip I took to Lusaka with some friends while I was living in Malawi for the summer. A great three days, with more than a little driving in the back of an ambulance.

It's a trip to be back here. It's been so long that my friends friends no longer live here, and there's nothing much more to see that wasn't already explored the first time around. I did, however, find myself back at the very same shopping mall.

Sigh. Sometimes I think my working life is just a series of conference halls, hotel rooms and shopping malls. (This is not a complaint; just an......observance).

At any rate, there have been some new things. The conference I was attending was in Livingstone, 8 hours south, on the border with Zimbabwe....and home to the famous Victoria Falls. I've been to Niagara, and this is no Niagara. It's simply - breathtaking (and wet). Known as Mosi-ou-Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders", it's quite deafening; so much so that you can barely hear those next to you when crossing over a few small bridges to see the Zimbabwean side.
Some other highlights of this trip have been: finding a shard of glass in my rice, eating a side-of-the-road restaurant named "Tooters" and getting reacquainted with nsima, the starchy, bland side-dish served all over Southern Africa.
I've now got a bead on a more secure internet line, so if anything more interesting happens in the next two days, I'll be sure to make note.