Flying for the first time ever

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The world’s most incredible views: from the sky

As I marched through Southampton airport, I was focused on getting a large cup of tea before boarding a Sunday morning dawn flight to Spain.  I approached the queue at security feeling smug because all my toiletries were already in a regulation plastic bag, my laptop was out of my holdall and I had unzipped my boots ready to put them into the grey plastic tray and saunter through the electric gate like the veteran of flying that I was.  I initially didn’t notice the 50-something lady with the straw hat and immaculate make-up looking somewhat bewildered next to the smiley and sad face buttons of a ‘how have we done here today’ machine in departures that you’re supposed to press on your way through as an ‘on the go’ customer survey.  I stopped because she was the only person not rushing around furiously or carrying a sombrero.

While fingering an IKEA ziplocked bag with miniature shampoo and conditioner in it, she asked if her choice of container would pass muster with the bulldogs at security; “I’ve never flown before so this is all a bit new to me”, she said.  We compared plastic bags and I told her she would no doubt be fine, while gasping inwardly.  How, in 2018 had she never flown before.  Judging by her appearance (and it is dangerous to judge any book by its cover) and the makes of the toiletries in her bag, she was smart, probably educated and had spare cash.  So how was she one of the apparently only 22% of Britons who have never travelled in a plane (according to a survey by Kayak, a travel website)?  I asked if she was nervous or excited and she answered “a bit nervous but mostly excited; I’m going to visit a friend who’s moved to Spain”.

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Later at the departures gate there was a bit of a commotion in the queue ahead of me when a passenger told the Flybe operator that they were not comfortable in an exit seat. Seats had been allocated randomly and the Flybe employee had asked the question on the assumption it was a no-brainer. Exit seats have much more leg room so tend to be at a premium.  But it was my friend on her maiden flight and she wasn’t “at all sure I could open the door if I needed to”.  I told her if it came to that we were all in trouble and that flying was the safest form of travel, but she was clearly not going to enjoy the flight with the burden of even the slightest of probabilities.  So I offered to swap seats.  I was her rather embarrassed hero as I settled into her original seat, the spacious and neighbour-free 1A on the propeller-driven Q400 Dash 8 aircraft, and she made her way back to the considerably more cramped seat 11A.

This was just a 2 and a half hour flight to Spain on a budget airline and even though I absolutely love flying, I was focused on just getting to destination and getting the job done.  On this occasion I had been completely taking the journey for granted.  So as we pulled out of our stand, I tried to put myself in this lady’s shoes, seeing all this for the first time:

I actually watched the safety demonstration closely.  If you really think about it, it is somewhat alarming – albeit necessary – that someone stands there calmly telling you how to inflate a lifevest, “topping it up here” and “with a light and whistle to attract attention here”.  I mean, where else do you go where the first thing you’re told is what to do in the worst-case scenario?  Hardly something to fill you with confidence on your first ever trip; no wonder she didn’t want to have to contend with opening the emergency door too.

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Ready for take-off

I got a pang of disappointment on her behalf that she was experiencing flying in the modern age of budget travel and had missed out on the glamorous old days of flying where you were offered a drink on take-off (usually served on a small square napkin with some peanuts and always with lemon and ice even if you’d only asked for water).  You were then served a meal (included in the price of your ticket) and it was served with metal cutlery and a warm smile (with the notable exception of one 26-hour Alitalia flight when I was about 10 years old where the air hostesses made absolutely sure we felt their pain too) by an immaculate air hostess.  To be fair, Sarah and her colleague – now called cabin attendants – were lovely and very professional.  Both even had the colourful scarves tied around their necks at a jaunty angle, harking back to British Airways adverts in the 1980s when the airline’s logo was “We’ll take more care of you” and they really did. Now you get the hospitality and warmth of that VIP treatment, but only if you’re paying the VIP prices.

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Dawn above the clouds

The lady did get one priceless treat though; we took off as the pink dawn broke over clear skies and we flew low over the unmistakable wide Thames snaking through Greater London. Small marinas dotted around the tributaries and on the coast, the toy yachts carefully lined up in their berths. She couldn’t have picked a better day to see the world from the air.  We reached the top of the climb and you could almost touch the white fluffy cotton wool clouds as we passed them and settled at cruising altitude just above the duvet with a golden glow from the early sun.

Arrival in Alicante was equally spectacular.  With only the odd wisp of cloud, the temperature was “nudging 30 degrees” according to the Captain.  The rising tower blocks of the Costa Brava and the scattered bright blue squares of swimming pools nestled incongruously against the moonscape of the limestone peaks of the Alicante mountains.  The sea, dotted with pleasure boats and larger ships further out, stretched as far as the eye could see.

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The Alicante mountains

We touched down with barely a bump and trundled round to our stand.  It was textbook and probably the ideal flight on which to travel for the first time.  As I disembarked, my mind went back to business and I strode off to find the sign with my name on it in arrivals.  I hope the lady in 11A enjoyed her first flight and – holiday notwithstanding – cannot wait for the return journey.  She certainly helped to remind me of the magic of flying.  Even on the shortest flights and even in an age when commercial imperatives have binned much of the glamour and the fast pace of life has taken some of the sheen off, it remains one of the wonders of our age.  No amount of budget packaging or familiarity should take away from the fact you can eat breakfast on one continent, lunch in the air, and be ready for dinner on the other side of the world.  We can admire the most spectacular views in the world, all while somehow travelling at hundreds of miles per hour up at 30 thousand feet in a tin can.  I don’t know about the lady now relaxing in Alicante with her friend, but I’m already looking forward to my next take-off.

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Landed safely

 

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KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 3/3)

PART 3/3 – A MUSICAL PRIVILEGE

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Knuckleheads – settling in for a musical treat

Equipped with glasses of Bourbon and chilled cans of Kansas-brewed beer, we perched on stools in the shady area, alongside a pair of toe-tapping cowboy boots and bright pink cropped top.  And onto the stage came Scotty Dennis and his incredible voice.

Wearing jeans and a short-sleaved panelled shirt with a baseball cap and dark glasses, Scotty was about 6 feet tall and a big strong man with lungs to match.  He oozed soul as he sang Eric Clapton’s “Five Long Years” and gave the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Wait on Time” an epic Blues makeover, making the hairs on my arms stand on end.  Through the loud beat thumping out of the speakers, John shouted in my ear that it would put hairs on my chest, but I think he was referring to the rather strong Bourbon he was sampling in small shot glasses, rather than our friend Dennis. As the big man wandered past our table after his set, we couldn’t help gushing at him how brilliant he was. Ever the professional, he handed me a card for his band Scotty and the Soultones, told me about his recording contract and when his next album was coming out, before ‘disappearing’ me into a huge bear hug.  I got a faceful of pecs and biceps and a drawled deep gravelly “Thank you Lorna” in my one uncompromised ear.  He could sing to me anytime.

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The big man with the big voice – Scotty Dennis

As the resident band carried on and Dennis worked his audience shaking hands and hugging people all around, country music followed soul and the scorching sun over Kansas City continued to burn the necks and shoulders in the seats in front of us.

As the afternoon jamming session was drawing to a close, a striking looking woman, with dramatically black cropped and shaved hair with a shock of orange on top, heavy eye make-up and covered in tattoos made her way towards the stage.  She was one of the few non-bikers at the venue and had been noticeable throughout the afternoon for sitting quietly at one of the picnic tables near the stage.  She had spent that time watching and filming her friend on her phone.  The friend was tall and lithe with long bleach blond hair extensions, ‘boyfriend’ torn jeans, and a cropped knotted T-shirt showing off a very tanned and taut midriff and was making the most of her fabulous figure.  About 30 years younger and at least fifty pounds lighter than most of the biker ladies boogeying on the dance gravel, and with legs up to her armpits, the friend threw her legs up into splits high kicks repeatedly, posed suggestively, laughed theatrically and threw her head forward and back swishing her extensions like a mane in the manner of a shampoo advert.  But when Megan Ruger took to the stage and picked up the microphone, her platinum friend became photographer, general groupie and proudest fan.  Megan kicked off her shoes and – in her ripped jeans, socks, Rock n Roll black T-Shirt and Ray Ban Aviator glasses – was, as Simon Cowell might say, “stripped back”. And she had a voice worth waiting for. She flipped from country to rock with ease.  She projected gutsy chesty notes across the train tracks, talked through some toe-tapping old country favourite lyrics and held the most delicate breathy high notes while holding the band and the audience under her spell throughout.  I might even have got up for a bit of a dance so she must have been doing something right.

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Megan Ruger

It turned out Megan and her friend were visiting for a couple of days from Vegas, where she is currently appearing in a tribute show (John and I found this out by shamelessly fawning over her like two groupies when she grabbed a beer at the bar).  Her friend was probably, judging by her dancing moves, in another show in Vegas.  Megan had spent some time in Nashville and, keen to pursue her love for rock rather than country, had gone to Vegas.  The old favourite country songs and her rock renditions of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on their feet.

Who knew that such a gem as Knuckleheads could be found on the wrong side of the tracks in Kansas City hidden in amongst the industrial hangars and deafening horns of passing freight trains.  What a revelation of a Sunday afternoon… my friends and I were welcomed into the bikers’ haven like old friends, served inexpensive cold beer and lip-smacking barbecue meat.  But most of all for a small optional donation into a bucket, we were entertained by a talented band of musicians who played for the best part of five hours and by two standout performers.  They sang live – no frills and nothing but musicians to support them – and had talent and voices that would put many of the popstrels, boybands and divas in the charts today to shame.

The X Factor and American Idol don’t know what they’re missing, and I hope Dennis and Megan get to perform in their own right to sell-out arenas.  But just for that Sunday in Kansas City, I felt selfishly thrilled to have our own intimate live gig, and the music world’s loss – at least temporarily – was our gain.

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A musical treat

 

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 2/3)

PART 2/3 – BLENDING IN….IN HARLEY HEAVEN

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We’ve arrived?

With a name like Knuckleheads, its location should not have come as a surprise and – in hindsight – its clientele probably should not have either.  Glowing profusely in the scorching midday sun and humid 35C degree heat – having been shivering in the taxi’s air conditioning just seconds before –  and dragging our weekend bags behind us, we made our way toward the heavy beat.  A simple gate entrance led us into a dusty bit of road, temporarily turned into the Knuckleheads parking area.

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Knuckleheads, Kansas City

Over a hundred Harley Davidson motorbikes stood glinting in the blinding sunshine, guarded by a heavily tattooed man wearing black wraparound shades below a bandana-covered head and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache.  As he was busily tucking into what looked like half a fried chicken and had both his large muscular arms and his mouth full, I thought John and I might just be able to take him on.  Thankfully we never had to find out as he gave us an apologetic greasy smile as he wiped his mouth, said “Howdy” and waved us in.

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The entire hangar wall at the entrance to Knuckleheads was a shrine to musical greats – with huge black and white graffiti type paintings of artists ranging from Prince to John Lennon, and Johnny Cash to James Brown.

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A shrine to musical greats

John and I eventually tracked Witek down – our concern that he might have been taken round the back and filled in was unfounded – and were able to dispose of our travel bags in his hire car.  Relieved that we would now be able to truly blend in, we made our way through the throng of black Harley Davidson T-Shirts, bushy sideburns and ponytails (the men), rhinestoned bandanas and unfeasibly tight and trendily torn jeans (the ladies) and lengths of skin adorned with garish tattoos depicting skulls, American flags and what looked like scenes from horror movies (both).

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Beards, beer and bandanas

Inside, Knuckleheads had a basic outdoor stage constructed from what looked like scaffolding poles and wooden slats, facing a small gravel dance area and a collection of wooden picnic tables and benches.  Further back and under the shade of a protruding roof, were long bar tables with stools down either side.  Further back still, was an indoor warren of smaller rooms with stages and seating areas. Dotted inside and out, were bars cluttered with neon lights and rows of different types of beers and Bourbon, and a brightly lit hatch where you could order the ubiquitous Kansas BBQ food. Every wall was covered from top to bottom with music memorabilia, cowboy hats and plaques shouting philosophical statements.

As I stood trying to read a sign that was perched upside down over a doorway, I came face to face with a T-Shirt that read ‘Harley Fucking Davidson” stretched over a very large pair of breasts.  I stumbled out of the way feeling thoroughly inadequate, un-motto’d as I was in my patterned linen shirt.  I needn’t have worried.  John, anticipating my unease, reappeared having bought me a memento of our visit – a bright pink T-Shirt with ‘Knuckleheads’ emblazoned across it.  I resolved to wear it on Monday back at Fort Leavenworth for our first session back in class, as an adviser to the US and UK military on their joint military planning exercise.

Next Part 3/3: A Musical Privilege…

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

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Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

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Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

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Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm