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Living Geo Lesson On American Airlines

IT was odd, overflying the pretty market town of Faringdon – the nearby Iron Age massive White Horse of Uffington carved into chalk hills clearly visible from 38 000 feet – five hours after temporarily leaving the place.

I could see the Red Lion in the venerable town’s market square with my naked eyes. We enjoyed family supper there the night before: scarce (when you’re from Zimbabwe) cod for me, even rarer (in both senses) rump steak for my daughter and her Zimbabwe-born spouse, toddler grand-daughter had firm favourite fish-fingers and baked beans.

Good company, humour, food and fine ale were abundant in the warm, welcoming lounge of a pub where beer was first brewed in the 15th century; where King Charles’ Laughing Cavaliers dossed before thumping Cromwell’s dour, sour-faced Bible-punching Roundheads; a hostelry which flourished when appearing in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

From a window seat of a totally packed American Airlines Boeing 777, I looked down on a patchwork quilt of Thames Valley fields often trekked through in three recent trips to the Disunited Kingdom (UK).

It was like using Google Earth, seeing the parish church where we attended a lovely children’s service, Christtingle, and again on Christmas Day; the RC church where, with my daughter-in-law, we went the Sunday between Christmas and New Year and the impressive, if rather pointlessly famous, Faringdon Folly tower.

We spent part of New Year’s Eve in a fun-filled Folly Inn, fervently wishing 2009 better than 2008.
Something’s happened to American Airlines recruiting recently.

The usual tall, willowy, blonde stewardesses have, to a bimbette, been replaced by more homely, matronly, mature specimens of womanhood and few male cabin staff are of the limp-wrist archetype.

Food wasn’t as good as it used to be (not a patch on AirZim’s) and served at rum times.

Up since 5.15am for a lift to Oxford for the 90-minute 6.30am Heathrow bus trip, it was impossible to check-in an allegedly obligatory three hours before a 10am inter-continental flight.

Self-checking-in – via computer, swiping your own passport – is new, saving no time at all in my case. Being almost computer illiterate, it took combined efforts of three airline and security staff to complete this “time-saving” operation with me!

Having scarcely reached the grim Brecon Beacons, in Welsh West Wales (where SAS, Para and Royal Marine Commando selections are held) the drinks trolley came.

I was saved embarrassment on hearing a German father-and-son in front of me order pre-breakfast beer. I also fancied an eye-opener, but was shocked when they paid US$6 (or three pounds) each for tins of insipid American Budweiser.

Thinking drinks were free on IATA flights… and as six cans of Czech Republic-brewed “Bud” (there IS a drink!) cost just five pounds at the local store and budget was limited, I reluctantly chose coffee with not the expected brunch, but chicken or beef stew, mash and veg (at 10.40am?)

After crossing an Emerald Isle living up to that name: thin sun lighting lush Irish pasture, my navigation skills were confirmed by a GPS/audio/video/movies/games system on chair back as we banked north-north-west instead of WSW, presumably the most direct way to Miami, Florida’s sunny skyscraper capital.

It must be standard operating procedure: flying almost to the arctic circle (north of Halifax, Nova Scotia) to reach a destination nearer the Tropic of Cancer, because pals travelling the same day on BA and Virgin also took that route.

London-Miami is a scheduled nine-and-a-quarter-hour flight, but given time zone differences you arrive four-and-a—quarter hours after take-off, notwithstanding air tours of the northern hemisphere, giving an unwelcome return to jet-lag.

A major bonus was that the day was as clear as Nyanga spa water. Flying down the eastern seaboard of Canada and the USA was a fascinating living geography lesson.

Talking to AA pilots in the pub at Ft Lauderdale International Airport’s Sheraton that night (when they could drag their eyes off something called “The Play-Offs” on TV: never-ending infantile, irritatingly repetitive advertising, mainly for slimming potions, breaking up a dull game, vaguely like rugby) I wondered aloud if a video voice-over couldn’t be rigged up, tying what we saw from a mile high, with GPS coverage (even on a dull day.)

Everyone can recognise Boston Harbour, the Statue of Liberty; many folk Ellis Island from above, but what happens at St John’s, Newfoundland? Or St George, Bermuda? What’s that naval base below? Are those tobacco barns? Is that a fishing fleet setting sail? Why is Cape Fear so called? Just a thought!

An hour before landing (lunch time in Florida), we got a pizza apiece! Odd eating habits, our American cousins!

At the pilots’ urging, I had an enormous burger supper at the bar. “Real American food” they bragged.
A huge “bun” held a whack of char-grilled “ground beef”, bacon, Jack cheese (whatever that is), a mound of “fries”, dill pickle (gherkin), salad; an unopened bottle of tomato ketchup and mayonnaise arrived. Loads of scoff…but totally tasteless, I regret to report.

After some argument next day (they’d charged for two breakfasts), the bill for supper, several bottled and draught (“draft” they write) American and Mexican beers and solo breakfast was under US$40.

Possibly due to a Zimbabwean “profile” on Sheraton’s computer, I had an 8th floor Starwood Preferred Guest room with bed on which you could have held the play-offs and TV screen the size of a small cinema. But, sadly, the room had a cracked basin and a huge solitary cockroach (I thought it was a baby turtle!) crawled across tiled bathroom floor.

An unusual incident in the bar was being approached by an Irish-looking girl of, say, 23 with long red-hair and stunning green eyes, asking to see the dessert menu. Failing to elicit my undivided attention in explaining intricacies of NFL play-offs, she suddenly asked if I’d like to sleep with her for US$150!

“Having gained five hours on the flight, I’m really not tired yet,” I said gently, “but, following the total collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar and a seriously weak pound sterling, I could certainly do with that sort of money!”

She made her excuses and left!


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