Country number: 32 (USA)
Territory number: 181
When? December 2017, Start of trip, Heathrow via Seoul. Going on to Guam.
Today, I’m witnessing a text book example of how not to manage a business. British Airways have soared to 1 out of a 100 for customer service. They have cancelled virtually every single flight out of Terminal 5 today but they’ve done it surreptitiously, one at time, so the flight departure board isn’t a total sea of red and the queue of irate passengers waiting to get rebooked lengthens gradually. Their announcements only say that ‘some’ flights’ have been cancelled. Harrumph. My flight to Seoul, scheduled for 1 pm is delayed and delayed until, several gin and tonics later, it’s cancelled at 5 pm.
I’m told to queue at the guest services desk in the lounge to re-book. There are five computers, but only one person actually servicing re-bookings. Other BA employees drift in and out, but seem to do nothing. Guest relations ladies are confused and can offer little information other than passing on the horrifying news that there is a mountain of bags downstairs and it could take up to two days to retrieve our luggage via the gate. So not the remotest chance of cancelling and re-booking ourselves. The advice is to stay in the queue, re-book and hope the bag is tracked onto the new flight. So I do. The processing is taking roughly 20 minutes per person. Sometimes the line stops moving altogether. There are a few officious announcements, and folk are understandably irate. One particularly depressing announcement informs us that even if we leave the lounge we won’t be able to get out of the airport as we have to pass through immigration, which is locked solid. ‘Stay in the lounge and have a drink’. They regret that advice later as time moves inexorably on and we are told that the re-booking desk will close at 10 pm. The queue extends right to the other end of the lounge. Peeping out, we can see that things are even worse downstairs. The alcohol and food are quietly removed.
They section off the front part of the queue and tell the huge snake behind it to go away, they will not be dealt with today. There is, understandably some dissension. ‘Nothing we can do’, the staff mumble. The queue goes even slower and I’m not convinced I will be seen before the deadline, even though it has now been extended to 10.30. I’ve been standing in line with an American, who I’ve dubbed Philadelphia Man- that’s where he’s going – and three guys, all Seoul bound like me. There’s an engineer from Bristol and two cameramen going out to film preparations for the Winter Olympics. Which they fear will be finished by the time they arrive. (Their cameras are in the mountain of luggage.) One of them is Dicky Davies’ (World of Sports) son. We have a little wine and cheese party on swivel seats, inching them along with the queue. A Frenchman raises his voice a little, whilst understandably requesting that BA deploy more staff who can man the computers. A manager tells him she will call the police – they will be armed- if he speaks to her like that. And she does. Ridiculous. No giving of information, no soothing, no looking after clients, just staff avoiding confrontation and sidling away.
The kind lady manning the one re-booking computer agrees to stay till eleven (she is the 1% that BA scored) and glory be, she re-books me just before the Cinderella hour. Korean Air, tomorrow evening. I’m not risking BA again.
I wave good bye to my queue comrades. The cameramen are going via Hong Kong tomorrow- good luck to them- it’s a BA connection and they have already started cancelling tomorrow’s flights. Now, all I have to do is get out of the airport. A scurrying shop assistant tells me I need to exit via gate 20- I don’t know how he knows this- but no-one else has been thoughtful enough to pass this information on. Down the steps and then I spy the immigration queue. It is truly horrendous. I take the channel for transit instead and then notice, to my delight, that the line for the EU electronic passports is virtually empty. This whole melee consists of poor stranded foreigners. So I thread my way out and emerge landside. I’ve contemplated sleeping here, I’ve been told there are no hotels with vacancies this side of Gatwick, but airside has been totally closed down and landside is teeming. It will be murder. So I try Hotels. Com and come up with one in Windsor, only 11 km excellent. I will use Uber. Who accept the booking and then mysteriously the approaching car vanishes in a whirring app dot. As does any possibility of a replacement. There is a long line of taxis waiting- hurrah- but an even longer line of folk waiting to take one. And the system must have been organised by BA staff- well it is Terminal 5- as the process for loading and unloading is tortuous. I wait for an hour in the sub-zero temperatures talking to other passengers. It seems that other airlines have been running, if behind schedule. It’s only BA that have cancelled nearly everything. Two ladies in front of me were actually on the tarmac for four hours before being de-planed again and they report that a flight attendant told them that some of the pilots had walked out, while the planes were being de-iced. Finally, I reach the front of the quuee, I haven’t quite qualified as a slush puppy. 11 kilometres won’t cost much will it?’ ‘Seventy five pounds flat fare,’ the female driver announces as we leave the airport. ‘I can take you back if you don’t want to do it’. O yes-to the back of the taxi queue. What a glorious day.
The hotel restaurant isn’t much better than the British Airways terminal. Its freezing cold- we’re all sitting here in our coats. There’s gas fire in a tiled Victorian surround, but I’m informed that it doesn’t work. Neither does the nearest radiator. The scrambled eggs are cold and congealed and the hash browns rock hard. Most of the other chafing dishes, tantalisingly labelled sausage, bacon etc. are empty. The waitress brings me cold toast and tells me she will inform me when the dishes are replenished. I slurp runny yogurt and sour fruits of the forest while I’m waiting. Half an hour later she nods at me. There are fresh eggs and a platter of charred bacon.
My plan is to check in as early as I can to allow maximum time for my bag to be tracked down. But all in vain. There is eye rolling at check-in when I inquire if they will be able to locate my bag today. I’m not optimistic. At the gate it is clear that no-one has made the slightest attempt to load it onto the plane. It’s still in a great heap somewhere. Even if it follows, catching it up with me will be a nightmare.
And I’m away for seven weeks. I was concerned about flying to Seoul’s airport at Incheon in any case, as it’s situated right next to the North Korean border. Then I’m going on to Saipan and Guam, in theory, so Trump has another week to keep his finger off the nuclear button before I’m clear of the possible disaster area.
This day came and went very quickly. Korean Air was very comfortable, with great food – even steaks cooked perfectly to order. (BA take note.) Though the entertainment consists of very old family film. The counter clerks at Seoul are solicitous and super-efficient. (BA take note again.) I have every confidence they will deliver my bag to me if they possibly can. I just don’t have any confidence that BA will find it and get it out here. Déjà vu at Incheon airport as I wander around looking for something good to eat. Pork and rice is a welcome discovery.
Air Asiana from Incheon to Saipan is a new experience; it’s very brown. Dijon mustard cloth seats, cream fuselage, coffee coloured uniforms and chicken with rice. Immigration isn’t quite the usual American interrogation. The officer is in convivial mode. He notes that I had been to Iran (Ha!) and starts wittering about Moslem terrorists. He confides that a man has tried to blow himself up in Manhattan today with a pipe bomb (I know, I read the news). ‘Idiot,’ he goes on, ’he couldn’t even do that properly. It’s easy enough to make a decent bomb.’ And he proceeds to tell me how to do it. I can’t believe my ears. He’s either very bored or this is a cunning plot to see if I am overly interested. I collapse into bed at 4a.m.
Saipan was shoehorned in as a last minute addition, after Shane showed me the BEEN app in Central Asia. I only had two nights originally. Now I’m down to one. Well almost. I fly out to Guam at ten this evening. I’ve arranged for a whistle stop tour, to be followed by some snoozing on the beach. First, some shopping in the supermarket. A black and white capsule wardrobe, the best the reductions bin has to offer. Even so, clothes, toiletries and bag, have already added up to over 200 dollars. The flip-flops are already beginning to hurt. I don’t think they will make it home. It will do me good to live like a hippy. At least I won’t have to agonise over what to wear, or exceeding the luggage allowance.
My guide is very friendly little Japanese man called Mitsu (as in Mitsu-bishi- he helpfully adds.) Mitsu says that there are only 1,000 Japanese left now, out of a total population of 60,000. Twenty thousand of these are Filipinos, working on building projects and in the hotels. There were a lot of Chinese last year, but they had to go home because of Trump’s new visa policy. So the huge gilded and garish casino is only half complete. It’s being phased in so all the Filipinos will go home next year. Then there won’t be anyone left to do the work. He says most of the tourists used to be Japanese but now they are mainly Chinese and Korean. I know from visiting Macau, that Chinese tourists love casinos.
Saipan is tiny, 22 miles long with a very pretty turquoise lagoon on the west side. The mountains are in the north and this is where the sights are, mainly views from towering cliff tops. Japanese memorials mark Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff, sites from the 1944 Battle of Saipan. Whole families committed ritual suicide onto the rocks, or into the boiling sea below, to avoid the shame of surrender to the Americans. It’s a gorgeous view, so the site generates very mixed emotions, especially when you read that the older children had to push the younger ones over in turn. Emperor Hirohito had written that Saipan was strategically too important and should be defended at all costs.
There are also some pretty palm-fringed white sand beaches and a blue grotto where you can snorkel, if you want to clamber down 110 slippy steps, and that’s about it. Three hours does it nicely. Or it would have, if Mitsu’s transport had co-operated. His people carrier is wheezing and clanging along. ‘Alternator’, he explains. We edge up the hills painfully, unlike the Chinese tourists. It seems it’s fashionable to rent a Mustang in red, shocking pink or yellow. The shocking pink is the most popular. Then you find a scenic spot, elevate the doors at a rakish angle and pose for selfies.
Mitsu decrees that we should change vehicle to tackle the highest mountain in Saipan, for the 360 degree view of the island. He brings round a pick up. Good, we might pick up a little pace now. But no, this one begins juddering too. ‘Fuel pump’, Mitsu says, pulling apologetic faces. The island is quietly green and jungle covered, with just one urban strip – the ‘capital’ Garapan.
The hotel is one of those places that looks better at night. It’s prettily illuminated with blue streams of lights round the pool, not to forget the blue trees and reindeer. Lights on water are always nice. Out front it’s luxe gold lights and more reindeer. It’s good cover for the concrete slabs surrounding the pool, the mildly depressing ambience and the unremarkable beach. I don’t understand the Trip Advisor review plaudits on the amazing views here. I keep checking to make sure I haven’t missed anything. There was a much nicer beach (called Micro, for obvious reasons) down near Garapan. I abandon my snoozing plans. The website says that this place is number one in Saipan. The room smells very musty, probably because the air con doesn’t work, and the thermostat is taped at 77 degrees. I can’t get the ceiling fan to operate either, though to be fair the staff sorted that out quickly, at my behest. The staff were very helpful before I arrived, but it doesn’t stop them from charging for my missed night. I negotiate 50% off my late check out, in lieu. If this is the best in Saipan I’m glad I didn’t try anywhere else.
Guam up next.
Saipan is the largest, and capital, of the 22 Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the United States in the western Pacific Ocean and the second-largest island in the Mariana Islands archipelago, after Guam
The Americans held onto Saipan after taking it during World War II
It’s therefore unsurprising that the US Dollar is the official currency here.
Saipan has the cleanest air in the United States and the most consistent temperature in the world (79-89)!
To see more of my photos of The Northern Mariana Islands, visit this page.