Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 4 of 6)

Photo Credit: Jérôme Decq

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read parts one, sale two and three.

In the last article of this series we talked about surviving the flight and staying sane at the same time. Now you should be outside the plane and try to find your way to immigration and baggage retrieval. If you have no luggage other than hand luggage, dosage you can start hurrying not to be stuck in the queue at immigration. If you have bags to collect, there is no point in hurrying as most likely you will stand at the luggage belt a long time waiting for your bags to arrive. So, keep calm and walk with purpose but without pushing.

You probably will want to use a washroom after the flight. Skip the first one you encounter as this one will be rammed with people with children and others that needed it very quickly. On average there are at least two washrooms until you get to immigration so go for the second.

Paperwork

The main thing to check is that you have all the papers to get out – your passport and boarding pass – and that you filled out all the necessary forms to be allowed outside.

This differs from country to country. For example in the US you have visa voucher applications (which used to be on paper but now are actually to be filled out and paid for online at this incredibly beautiful and usable web site) which have interesting questions on them like “have you been involved in espionage in the time period of 1939 to 1945”. I always wondered what I did back then–probably being -30. You will also have to have a customs voucher declaring that you have less than $10k cash on you and that you are not bringing in any plants or animals.

These forms can be tricky to fill out – be sure to check front and back and that the addresses and dates are in the right format. There is nothing more annoying than having queued up for half an hour just to delay the rest of the waiting people even more or–even worse–being sent back to the end of the line.

Funnily enough a lot of airports don’t allow you to use mobiles or ipods whilst waiting for your turn with the immigration officer – I normally read a book in the queue.

If you travel a lot from London Heathrow, sign up for IRIS. This is a retina recognition system that basically means you can smugly strut past the people queueing up, look into a box and get a computerised “Thank you”. You walk out in a matter of minutes. If you are like me you hum the James Bond Theme while you do it as it is quite Science Fiction if you think about it.

Immigration

Immigration can be daunting or quick, depending on the country. Again, this is something you have no choice but just to deal with. Be friendly, state the truth and you’ll be out fast. You might get stuck behind people who do not do the same. In this case, roll your eyes and look helpless and some official normally points you to an alternative booth with another official.

The baggage belt – meet the Mensa club

After immigration you will get to one of the things that always fascinates me – no matter how often I encounter it. Baggage belts are the things that illustrate the difference between greedy cavemen and people who in their ancestry went through a period of enlightenment. Here is the task: identify and pick your luggage from a long moving belt that gets the luggage in random order.

Less enlightened people do the following: move as close as possible to the belt and be ready to pounce like a very hungry tiger onto anything that remotely looks like your luggage. Also bend over and peer down the belt as if you can manage the Force and bring your luggage to you faster that way. The effect of this is that these people are in the way of others who stand by and try to just pick their luggage.

Those worthy of not being displayed in museums next to Mammoths all take one step back and calmly wait until their luggage is in front of them and then quickly grab it. That way nobody is in each other’s way and you don’t need to budge through people to get your suitcase.

The fun thing is that airports encourage that kind of behaviour by, oh, paint an area of the carpet around the belt differently or display a line. The following shot taken at the SFO airport shows what I mean and the labels explain my take on the subject matter:

The difference between obstacles and clever people

Regardless of your approach, sooner or later you’ll get your luggage. If it doesn’t show up and the belt stops moving – that’s a bad sign and you should contact the airline. Sometimes lost luggage is actually quite cool as it means the airline will deliver it to your place and you don’t need to lug your massive suitcase around. If it genuinely is lost then it is really annoying as the replacement money you get from airlines is not really enough to make up both for the lost clothes and the memories or hardship of finding just the right pair of trousers.

If your luggage is damaged, complain immediately. Preferably to an airline official rather than people next to you or people who offer to carry your luggage. Which reminds me: in India you will find a lot of these and sometimes it is a great idea to take their offer as your journey and communication attempts with official security staff at the door will be accelerated if someone speaks the local tongue. Back to the damaged luggage: I had a handle broken on a brand new bag once and asked for replacement. BA replaced the whole bag with a smaller bag of different make as that is their policy. This will happen, so don’t get emotionally attached to your suitcase.

Leaving the airport and choosing a mode of transport

Once you got past customs – which always means choosing the “Arrivals from the European Union” or “Nothing to declare” channels and looking very relaxed and in-suspicious (remember, always remove the packaging of new Apple hardware and use it in your hand luggage – even when you bring it as presents) you get to the outside of the airport. There you have a few choices of transport.

  • You get picked up – kiss the person if you are in a relationship or thank the official drivers for picking you up (kissing is only allowed in very rare edge cases). Also be prepared to decipher various mis-spellings of your name and company or conference names to pick your driver. One time in Bangalore it took me 20 minutes to pick my driver from around 100 waiting ones as Mr. Kahl Ehliman was on the adventurous side of transcription.
  • Be prepared to travel and queue to get your rental car – most pick-up locations are a bit outside the airport, either connected with a train (SFO, for example) or by coach shuttle (Lyon, France). As everybody will pick up their cars at the same time there will be a queue – get a coffee to avoid it.
  • Take a train from the airport – if you travel light and you have to go to a Hotel in the centre of the town this is normally the best option. A lot of airports have great fast trains taking you directly where you want to go – London, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Oslo are great examples.
  • Get a cab to get you to where you need to be – always take official cabs, it is dangerous and almost always much more expensive to go with “need cab, sir” people who approach you directly. There is always an official place where cabs stop – go there.

In any case it is a good idea to have the address of your hotel as a printout or on your smart phone. That way you can just hand it to any driver or ask about it. On the smart phone you also have the benefit of translating it into other languages. In Taiwan for example I found it pointless to show English addresses to cab drivers. Maybe also ask your office or the conference organisers in the other country to provide you with a local version.

Checking in and finding your bearing

Once arrived in the hotel check in. If you have to wait a while for the room to be ready ask them to keep your luggage and go exploring the immediate area. I found for example that a coffee outside the hotel is always significantly cheaper and you already get your bearings of the area. Of course check beforehand that the area is safe.

Once in the room I either go to the gym of the hotel to sort out my stiff back from the flight and fight jetlag or have a shower to do the same. I then go outside and deliberately lose my way to force myself to ask the way back to the hotel and gain a bit of independence in my travels that way. If you are on a very tight schedule you might already have a speaker’s dinner or something lined up so that’s the evening planned. The best way to avoid jetlag to me is to immediately get into the time zone of the place you visit – if that means staying up 27 hours, do it. Sleeping as the first thing will only mess you up for the next few days. Thankfully arriving in a strange new town or re-visiting one I enjoyed beforehand always gives me an adrenaline rush that makes this easy.

Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 3 of 6)

Photo Credit: Jérôme Decq

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read parts one and two.

If you’ve followed the last two parts of this series we talked about packing, viagra 60mg getting to the airport and going through the airport. You will now find yourself at the gate to the plane and you successfully passed the people who rip your boarding pass and give you the piece of paper that holds the key to your seat.

This paper also normally holds the sticker for your lost luggage so it is a good idea to keep that one. Its size and the fact that the sticker is just ever so slightly bigger and overlaps the boundaries with just enough sticky part to be annoying doesn’t make it easy. That aside, drugstore find a good spot for it.

For now, hold on to it as there will be a discussion on the plane if your seat really is your seat. The amount of confusion a seemingly organised concept of row numbers and letters A to G (sometimes H) can cause is always staggering.

The SSS phase (Sit down, Strap In, Shut Up)

Once you were told where to go and you located your seat and you are not in business class you will most likely realise that the allocated space in the locker above your head of your seat will be occupied by somebody else’s stuff. I don’t know how that can happen but it does – a lot. Try to wrench your one bag in between the massive backpacks, tents, extra life rafts, stuffed tigers and barrels of olive oil (or whatever your other passengers brought) but beforehand remove a few things:

  • Your laptop (in case you want to work – skip the power adaptor as there are no outlets except in business class)
  • A pen (as you will have to fill out landing cards)
  • Your passport (for the same reason – the information on your passport will have to be entered in the form again as there is no such thing as accessing the data you already entered on the internet or when the customs officer swipes your passport. Crazy talk – all of that. It would involve computers and somesuch)
  • Your headphones (spend money on damn good headphones. The sound is irrelevant as the audio system of the flight entertainment system will be bad in any case – the important thing is how good they are at cancelling out noise from the outside like screaming kids or snoring passengers)
  • Chewing gum and/or sweets
  • Handkerchiefs in case you need to sneeze and in the very likely event that there will be some spillage
  • A book (to keep you entertained without technology during landing and take-off)

If you won’t need your mobile(s) during the flight, shut them off or set them to flight mode and put them in your bag before stowing it. If you want to use them for playing, listening to music, watching videos or you need contact information on them put them in flight mode and take them with you.

Sit down and take off your shoes – put all the things that could slip out of your pockets in your shoes and put them under the seat in front of you. This means they cannot fall out of your pockets when you sleep or use the facilities. It is also a great reminder where they are when you land and you are a bit woozy after a long time of recycled air and bad sleep. If they are in the way of your feet then you remember you have them. If you hear a crunching noise putting on your shoes you were too fast. Removing your shoes is a good idea in terms of blood circulation.

Buckle your safety belt and you are ready. Unless you are in the aisle seat. In that case get ready to have to stand up again – probably several times – as the person next to you will have to sit down and will have forgotten something in their hand luggage.

The first 40 minutes of a flight and the last hour of your flight are completely wasted time. There is nothing productive you can do as you are strapped in, not allowed to move around and will have to listen to the announcements of the crew. These are the same every single time and a lot of them questionable (landing on water may mean you will survive – in 99% of the cases you’ll die during the impact. If you follow all the advice you can be lucky enough to survive 10 minutes before hypothermia kicks in – but no matter…) but it is their job to tell you about them and your job to nod and understand that the exit is where you will leave the plane. A lot of airlines now have videos for that so at least the flight attendants don’t have to do the swimming motions any more.

I am bad at listening as I fall asleep 5 minutes after being strapped in – unless the person next to me is interested in conversation or interesting enough to start one. I heard that flight attendants hate people who talk to each other on flights but I have to say, I’ve met very interesting people during flights. When there is no conversation I do fall asleep and I normally get woken up when it is time to get my peanuts and free drink. This is actually a good aim as these first few minutes are the only time you really will be able to sleep properly.

You will meet a lot of people who fly and are afraid of flying. One time I had a female police officer who was terribly afraid of flying. She asked me to hold her hand during take-off and landing and was quite amazed to hear that there is a train between Boston and New York and she doesn’t really have to take the plane. The other time I had a man who pressed his forehead against the seat in front of him, read from the Bible and listened to whales singing from a portable CD player which just calmed him down enough not to hyperventilate. I managed to re-assure the police officer that everything was fine but I knew I was beat with the other guy.

Things happening during a flight

There is not much order to what happens on a flight so let’s just tell you about a few of the things that make it more enjoyable or less enjoyable:

Children

I love children. I love their honesty, their pragmatism, their ability to be easily excited. Hell I am a kid myself when I find out about new things. On planes, however, kids can be very annoying and amazingly loud. One of the things a lot of parents forget is that a lot of the screaming happens during landing and takeoff and the reason is the change in air pressure which makes the ears hurt. As grown ups we close our nose and blow – much like you do it when scuba diving (I actually like the plop this makes) but that can hurt, too. This is where the sweets and chewing gums come in. A kid sucking on a sweet or chewing on gum will not get into the pressure trouble as the jaws are in motion. So give your gum or sweets to parents with screaming kids and explain that it’s for instant silence. Don’t give the sweets directly to the kids for obvious reasons.

Kids are also immensely bad at flight disturbances. You know those “holes in the sky” where the plane gets wobbly and your stomach says “can you please stop that”. As kids are likely to pig out on the free food on the plane and not as modest about stomach issues, this can be an explosive situation. I once had a kid next to me who threw up six times during the flight and the loving mother kept loading them up with food. Surely there has to be a learning moment about what goes in comes out after the third time, right?

Facilities, Washrooms, Toilets

Airplane toilets are to be used as soon as possible. The amount of deterioration of in-flight bathrooms is stunning. Within an hour it can turn from the comfort of a Holiday Inn bathroom to the john of a biker bar after a free bar and chili cookout. If you are considering joining the mile high club (I still consider it a myth) then do so as early as possible.

I’ve learned to climb over sleeping people next to me without waking them up when I need the bathroom. If your dexterity does not stretch that far and you don’t want to have someone waking up looking at your crotch just gently nudge them to get out of the way.

Going to the loo is a good chance to stretch your legs – so use the ones at the end of the plane and walk around a bit – always a good idea to keep the circulation up and running.

Food and drink

Airline food has been standup comics’ material for years now so you probably know all about it. I love being a Vegetarian as that means I get my food first and I don’t have to wait for the trolley to come through. I also once got upgraded as there was a catering problem and they had no Vegetarian meal in Premium Economy.

Airline food is a pain to get right. In business you have your crockery, cutlery and nice plates but the space restrictions in economy makes it tough for airlines to give you quality. As it is, you can bet your life that something on your tray will make it onto your shirt or trousers – if you are lucky it’ll be your own food and not your seat neighbour’s or because of a clumsy flight attendant (I once had my seat neighbour’s Cognac spilled all over me – that was “fun” in customs).

I normally don’t eat much during the flight as I don’t move and it just sits in you. In business this means I can order less, in economy I always feel bad for leaving a lot behind.

I normally don’t drink during flights as I get a rental car when I arrive. If you want to sleep and you can’t or you just want to get drunk fast, drinking on planes is a great idea as the lighter air accelerates your blood flow.

One thing to make sure you have lots of is water. You are effectively being freeze-dried during a flight, so replace as much as you can. If you have a weak bladder, maybe not so much unless you have the aisle seat.

Paperwork

As I said before, you will have to fill out landing cards. Instead of waiting for the flight attendants to give them out, get them during check-in and fill them out as soon as possible. Your brain will be tapioca by the end of the flight so get it out of your way as soon as possible. Help people around you as they will be slowing down the queue in the destination airport if they made mistakes. Always check the back of the forms, there is normally some hidden signature or date field to fill in.

Sleeping

Sleep doesn’t come easy for a lot of people on flights. I can fall asleep easily but I have to say, sleeping on a plane never is relaxing – you wake up more exhausted than before you fell asleep. If you want to sleep make sure you recline your seat, cover yourself with a blanket (as you will get cold) and put your seat belt on over the blanket so that the flight attendant won’t have to wake you up in case of turbulence.

Working on your laptop

Sometimes I work on my laptop but it is not easy. First of all I don’t like people looking at my screen. You can get one of those screen covers that prevents that but that normally results in the person next to you asking where you can get those. You normally also have to answer questions about your computer and as having a computer and not wearing a suit automatically makes you a technical person you’d have to answer questions about problems people have with their computers. There was a joke screen saver going around that had arabic writing and a countdown in big red letters which would stop any of these conversations but not everyone would get the dark humour of this one.

In-flight entertainment

Depending on the airline and class you fly with the in-flight entertainment can reach from free newspapers or a huge screen with a predefined (and inevitably awful) movie to a fully interactive small touch screen system in the back of the seat in front of you. The latter is more and more the norm and is great as you can choose from a lot of movies, games, TV and audio programs. The best systems have a way for you to stop and start and fast forward movies in case you need a nap or you want to skip painful scenes like any romantic conversation in a George Lucas movie. More annoying systems have a running playlist of movies without being able to stop or skip. This is especially annoying as you have to wait for all movies to finish before a new one starts. So if one of them is Lord of the Rings or the uncut original of Metropolis you might look at an hour of static.

Another big issue is that by the time you’ve found the right tilt for the screen in the seat in front of you, the person in front of you will recline their seat which means that you also have to recline yours, annoying the person behind you. Smacking their head is not an option but admittedly has gone through my head a lot.

One thing every system has is that it is prone to crashing so it is a good idea to have backup in the form of a book or a movie on your iPod or laptop. It is also a vicious circle as when systems crash they get rebooted which means that after reboot everybody fast forwards to where they got stuck which of course crashes the system again. This is why by now flight attendants tell people row by row about the reboot and not the whole plane.

Be aware that you are in a vulnerable situation – you are strapped in a seat and have no way to leave and you breathe recycled air. That means that whatever positive impression you get of a movie is most likely false. I’ve bought DVDs after thoroughly enjoying a movie on a plane just to want to burn it when I watched it at home. On the small screen even Transformers appeared to have traces of acting.

The most annoying thing about British Airways especially is that if you have half an hour left in a movie one hour before landing, there is no way that you will finish it. The last hour belongs to the pilot telling you a 5 minute information piece about the destination and the flight crew repeating the information about 10 times in different languages. Every time that happens your movie will get stopped and 20 minutes before landing your headsets will get collected. It is annoying as hell. Announcements starting with “As you just heard from the captain…” make me cringe. Yes we did, why do you repeat it? So always end your flight with a half hour TV series episode or some music. Or read your book as you will also have to shut down laptops and take out any headphones as you will have to be able to hear announcements from the flight crew.

Landing

Once the plane lands there is no need to rush. If you have no luggage you may be able to get a head start, but if you do you will meet anyone you overtake on the way out at the luggage carousel. The worst that can happen is not landing at the airport terminal but having to take a bus to the terminal. This means you have to wait for everyone to get out.

Collect your things, put on your shoes and jacket, get your hand luggage out making sure you don’t have stuff falling on your head. Help people get theirs out if they are short, frail or too drunk. Check that you didn’t forget something or other people haven’t. Have your passport and paperwork ready and slowly get out thanking the flight crew as you pass them. Take a deep breath and get ready to face the destination airport.

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 2: Not In The Shire Anymore

Photo Credit: Phillip Capper

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, approved I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just. (Read Part 1)

In Search of a Summit

After wandering around the back streets of Paraparaumu looking for something — anything, really — that read “Hiking Trail,” I finally stumbled upon a gate with some signage that gave me hope. Granted, the font used was rather small, and the sign was so covered in mud that it was barely legible, but it was a start! The sign read:

Nikau Reserve entrance

That was enough for me! I’d finally found a path to follow that was lined with grass and dirt, rather than the concrete that I had persisted with to this point. With the adrenalin in my veins overriding the pain in my leg, I opened the gate and began my journey to, well, I had no idea — hopefully the top of a hill.

Calling the “path” ahead of me a path would be extremely generous. It was more like a paddock that a tractor had travelled over a few times to clear the grass out the way — a marshy paddock. I pressed on, and the rain came down harder, the ground got muddier, and the grass got higher. Eventually I abandoned all hope of having a trail to even look for, and started exploring the paddock.

Which was fine — I was having fun. This was an adventure, and a far cry from spending the day in front of a computer. Besides, I could see a hill up ahead that was thick with lush green ferns and towering trees. It looked like a real Middle Earth-style rainforest, and I wanted a piece of it.

Dressed For The Occasion

A babbling creek kept me company as I meandered my way through the mud. For the first 20 minutes I managed to maintain a healthy distance from my watery friend, but I eventually reached a point when I needed to cross. It was a short jump, and I felt confident that I could make it. What I didn’t take into account was the stability of the river’s bank …

I gave a short run-up to give myself a buffer on the other side (you know, so I could high-five myself after clearing the creek by this much) and took a flying leap. Legendary decathlete Daley Thompson (man I loved that game) would have been proud of the distance I covered, and I’m sure my landing was graceful.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. It turns out the entire paddock on the other side of the creek was basically just one big swamp, and my left leg was now submersed up to my knee in mud. And this was the only pair of jeans I brought with me.

Funnily enough, I was still having fun. I waddled my way to firmer ground, and pressed onwards until I hit a fence … and that was it. What had started out as a barely navigable path had deteriorated into a marshy paddock, and this was what the locals called a walking trail?

Well, I wasn’t settling for that.

From Field to Forest

I followed the fence line with my eyes and saw that it ran across the creek (which by now had expanded into a fully fledged river) and climbed up a hill covered in luscious, thick forest. The change in landscape on the other side of the river was dramatic — the hill was covered in enormous ferns standing shoulder to shoulder, dwarfed by a thick canopy of towering trees that were probably hundreds of years old. This was my hill.

I saddled the wire fence and precariously shuffled across, and this time my water-crossing attempt was more successful. I began working my way through the forest, casting aside vines and ducking under branches, David Attenborough-style. This was exactly what I was looking for! The real New Zealand.

My goal was to get to the top of the hill. It wasn’t enormous, but it was big enough for me to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then I would turn around and retrace my steps back to the train station. Hopefully without falling into the marsh again.

At One With Nature

At this stage I was unconcerned with the following facts, but in hindsight I probably should have been:

  • I had no way of contacting anyone should I run into trouble (I hadn’t enabled roaming on my phone, as it was expensive and I was only in the country for a few days).
  • I had no GPS (I had my iPhone, but it was useless as a mapping device without a network connection to load map data).
  • I had no compass.
  • Nobody knew where I was.
  • I was alone.

I did have a basic sense of where I was, based on the noise of the cars that I could hear in the distance (the highway that ran north-south along the coast) and the position of the sun in the sky. I figured as long as I could hear the car noise, I’d know that the coast was near.

It only took me 20 minutes to make it to the top of the hill, and it was a fun climb. In Australia, trekking through unmarked bush can bring you into contact with any manner of poisonous beasties — deadly spiders, the most poisonous snakes in the world, scorpions.

New Zealand, however, is refreshingly devoid of these inconveniences. With this inside knowledge, I could pretend to be a pioneer who was setting foot on a land of untouched beauty for the first time. Knowing that nothing was going to drop down from the trees and kill me had me telling myself that it was easier to press on than to turn back. Besides, the canopy was so thick that I had yet to find that stunning view that I’d promised myself.

This Way To Success

After about an hour of peeling back vines and spiky branches that were becoming increasingly impenetrable, I was relieved to notice a bright pink arrow attached to a tree. “Ah ha,” I thought. “The trail! Finally I have some guidance.” I thrashed my way through the forest until I spotted a second arrow, and then a third.

The thing is, the arrow didn’t seem to point anywhere particularly related to any trail that I could see. I figured that the trail they were marking mustn’t have been followed in a very long time, and that the arrows were in urgent need of remarking.

I climbed the second, larger hill, and stopped to catch my breath. There was still no view to appreciate (all those damn trees in the way!) and I was a little puzzled that the pink arrows were daring me to venture downwards into a steep ravine. I peered over the edge and found myself staring at a severe drop-off that I remember thinking would have possibly been a fun descent … if I were abseiling. However, climbing down without ropes and a harness would have been suicide.

It was at this point that I had two realisations.

  1. This isn’t fun any more.
  2. I can’t hear the cars.

At Odds With Nature

I’m not one to panic, but even an optimist like me can identify when things are looking dire. Here I was alone, in a foreign country, lost in the jungle, covered in mud, unable to orient myself, with a phone that didn’t work, a packet of chips and a few mouthfuls left in my bottle of water. It was nearly 3.00pm and nobody knew where I was.

It dawned on me how genuinely stupid my predicament was. Seriously, who goes hiking in the jungle by himself, literally carving out his own trail, and doesn’t expect to get lost? Grim questions flashed through my head: What if I can’t find a clearing before it gets dark, and I have to sleep on the ground or something stupid? How would anyone find me? It’s wet — would I have enough warm clothes to survive a night? What about food and water? I could really be in trouble. I thought of my wife and daughter back home in Australia, and began imagining newspaper headlines reporting my demise.

“Some trail!” I shouted out loud.

Nobody responded.

Fuck.

Next issue, Part 3: The Two Trails

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 1: One Map To Rule Them All

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, buy I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just.

Going Off The Grid

I had a full day between my speaking engagement and the FullCodePress event kicking off, and I intended to make the most of it. It was my first time visiting New Zealand – rather than spend it in museums or tourist attractions, I was determined to get out of the city.

You see, before I actually set foot in the place, the words “New Zealand” conjured up two images for me (in the following order):

As you can imagine, my trip would have felt incomplete if I had returned home without seeing a good amount of either of these things. Some hasty web-based research revealed a sleepy coastal town by the name of Paraparaumu (Para-pa-raow-moo) on the Kapiti coast – an hour’s train ride from Wellington. Given my hotel was a short walk from the train station and a ticket cost only NZ $10, it all seemed too serendipitous. And if I caught the 5pm back to Wellington, I would even have enough time to meet up with the Aussie FullCodePress team for dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

Chugga-chugga-choo-choo

Train travel will always be the most romantic form of travel – except perhaps rickshaw, but the only time I’ve tried that was when I was in Austin Texas for the SXSW conference one year. I was, well, drunk off my ass, and my caring colleagues kindly paid for a rickshaw to take my sorry self back to our hotel before I fell asleep in the corner of the bar. Actually, I might have fallen asleep in the bar first, which is probably why they called the rickshaw. But I digress. Damn Yahoo! and their bar tab.

Anyway … after the rickshaw, train travel is definitely up there for me. I know there are hardcore train boffins out there who can rattle off the names of every steam engine built in the last 500 years. Trust me, I’m not one of them. But I do love the speed at which long distance trains chug along – always constant, but never too hurried that you can’t appreciate the scenery outside.

And plenty of scenery there was – the railway to Paraparaumu hugs coastal cliffs and tunnels through ominous mountains. The view out the window was nothing short of stunning, and I sat glued to my window as every twist and turn revealed more lush forest, grassy meadows, and – yes – plenty of sheep.

Halfway there, it started to rain. It should have been a sign, but I shrugged it off. I’m an optimist and figured it would probably stop soon. Plus, I had my raincoat. I was in New Zealand, and it was choice, bro.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Trails

The next warning sign to which I should have paid attention was the fact that the Paraparaumu information centre was closed. It had been open the day before (they were moving premises) and would be reopening the day after. But on the day I needed them their door was shut tight. There were a few brochures outside, but none of them said anything about hiking trails.

I thumbed through the maps at a local newsagency, but no luck. Determined, I asked the attendant at the train station, an elderly gentleman with a trusting face, if he knew of any hiking trails in the area. He apologised, and suggested I take a stroll along the water’s edge. “My wife and I take that walk every weekend.”

I was looking for something a little more challenging than an old timer’s regular route. Luckily, a softly spoken woman in her thirties at the station overheard our conversation, and piped up:

“There’s a hiking trail up in the Nikau Forest. It’s a bit of a walk.”

I volunteered quickly that I enjoyed walking, and pressed her for more details. She drew helpfully on my tourist map, showing roughly where the trail began. It wasn’t the clearest of maps, but it was enough for me. I had plenty of time, plenty of energy, and now I had a vague plan for where my conquering of Middle Earth would begin. I thanked both of my substitute guides, bought a packet of chips, chocolate, and some bottled water, and began my trek.

Oh. Did I mention that the rain was really starting to come down at this stage? I didn’t care. I was an explorer!

Always Cross At The Lights

The next warning bell that I chose to ignore came as I was approaching the edge of town. There weren’t any obvious pedestrian crossings, and I needed to cross the road. I waited for a break in traffic, looked both ways like a good Boy Scout, and legged it.

Around the corner, and moving with considerable momentum, appeared an old truck, rattling along the highway towards me. I picked up the pace, forgetting that the large amounts of rain had made the road kind of slippery. Oh, and the road was on quite an incline – a heady combination.

I was in no danger of being collected by the truck, but I’m sure the driver had a chuckle to himself as he thundered past. Had I been smack bang in the middle of a game of baseball, making a dash for home base, then the two-metre slide that I performed on my backside would have made me a hometown hero.

However I wasn’t playing baseball. I was just crossing the damn road. And my home base wasn’t constructed of soft, made-for-sliding dirt. It was hard bitumen. And it hurt. I still have a bruise and grazing down the side of my leg, four weeks later.

However, always the optimist, I was undeterred. You see, I really just wanted to get to the top of a whopping great hill and gaze out at the view beyond.

I grit my teeth, blocked out the pain that was beginning to creep up the side of my leg, and pressed onwards. Lush, green mountains loomed in the distance. I was determined to climb one of them.

Next issue, Part 2: Not In The Shire Anymore

Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 2 of 6)

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read part one.

Dealing with discomfort and public humiliation

In the first installment of this series we talked about how to pack for a trip and how to get to the airport. Now it is time to quickly talk about the ins and outs of your journey from the entrance of the airport to the plane. And an arduous journey it can be.

Once you come out of your taxi/car/public transport your main task is to check in and get to your gate. Focus on this. Have your papers or emails ready – some airports don’t even let you in without a boarding receipt. There is nothing before security at an airport worth while for you as a traveller. Restaurants, healing shops and other facilities before security are for people who pick up other people who just arrived – you’ll only be in their way. Don’t bother with any of those – instead proceed to the check-in immediately. For there are a few obstacles in your way that might make you miss your plane even if you came in time:

  • Other passengers
  • Check-in
  • Passport Control
  • Security

Hell is other passengers

Probably the biggest obstacle is other passengers. Rocket scientists, asthma brain surgeons and theoretical physicists are prone to turn into total tools as soon as they are faced with an airport check-in process. The simple rules of happiness in check-in are:

  • Carry no liquids
  • Have no metal objects distributed all over your clothing
  • Have all your information on you (passport, flight time, airline, flight number or reservation code)
  • Carry a pen – you will have to fill out a lot of random forms in some places (India being the masters of this feat)

This should be pretty simple but you will find yourself stuck at security behind people who forget keychains that would make a medieval jailer blush with envy, are amazed that the half litre bottle of vodka or machete in their hand luggage is not OK to take through or wonder why a metal belt buckle the size of a baby elephant might register on a metal detector. These are also the same people who stand on horizontal walkways built to accelerate your progress or stand as if struck by lighting at the end of an escalator looking around for divine input on how to read signs with an arrow on them instead of moving out of the way of you who is stuck on an escalator that is actually moving you towards these human statues of ineptitude.

Keeping that in mind the first rule of getting into the airport is to stay clear of people likely to be in your way: huge groups of tourists, people carrying lots of printouts of their flight information and with dozens of little bags and families with lots of children. Business travellers and people with light luggage and clothes are a safer bet but you might get some bad surprises there, too.

Checking in

A lot of airlines have great online check-in systems. You can fill in all the things you need, print your boarding pass and be on your merry way past everybody in the airport straight to the “Bag drop” areas where you put your bag on a conveyor belt, have a nice chat with the clerk and be on your journey towards Mordor (otherwise known as airport security). If you cannot print out your boarding pass, checking in online is pointless as I have yet to encounter a check-in machine that remembered what I did online (this might be a BA thing).

Depending on the airport you have to queue either at a desk to wait for a clerk to check you in or you queue for a check-in terminal to tell you after entering a lot of details that you have to go to a desk to get a clerk to check you in. This can be a good thing though – if your check-in on the terminal fails this could be a sign that you have been upgraded to a better class (it happens!).

This process gets much better when you reach a certain frequent flyer status – you get your own desks and you have a frequent flyer card that has all your data on it to swipe at the terminal. One of the perks to look out for.

Some airports won’t let you get in if you haven’t got a paper printout of your travel details but in most cases this is not needed. Very sophisticated airlines (Lufthansa was the first to do that) give you a message on your phone with a 2D barcode to scan at the gate – I wished this was the norm.

When you drop your luggage you will be asked once more the questions you already answered online and on the terminal you tried or did check-in on: did you pack your bags yourself, have you been asked to carry anything and could somebody have interfered with your luggage. This is no time for attempts of humour – simply say yes, no and no (even if you had your luggage picked up from your room and delivered to the taxi by some random hotel clerk which is the normal and only way hotels do it in Asia). Amazingly enough acetylene torches or firearms should also not be in your luggage unless you are on a peace mission or about to go and weld some oil rig in the North Sea.

Passport control

Once you are checked in and got rid of your luggage hopefully to arrive where you are going (and hopefully at the same time) it is time to brave the passport control. Smile, open your passport at the right page, say a little prayer and nod when the (most of the time moustachioed) official has questions for you – clever things like “is this your passport?” – answer truthfully and quickly. I found smiling and asking “how do you do” helps to disarm them a bit first. I normally also keep the boarding pass on the page of the passport that has the visa for the country I am visiting – that also speeds things up.

Mount Doom – otherwise known as airport security

Being a traveller with the frequency of my trips I can safely say that airport security has become one of the bigger annoyances in my life. I am tempted to go there, strip naked down to my shorts and drop the rest of my belongings in a pile on the conveyor belt.

However, even that will not be the right procedure. There is no common logic or sense in the way different airports handle the issue of making sure that evildoers can not bring dangerous goods on a plane. At some airports you need to take your laptop out of the bag and put it in an own tray, at others you have to keep it in. Sometimes you need to remove belts and shoes, other times you don’t. I’ve had razors, deodorant, toothpaste and even a bottle of water in my hand luggage and got them through at times – at other times I had to give away a bottle of perfume I just bought because I failed to keep the receipt.

There is also no human or clever social interaction in most airport security. The poor people working at the belts spend their day repeating themselves over and over again reminding travelers about no liquids and taking off shoes and taking out laptops whilst this could be very obvious big signs for them to point at and they would be able to only address issues instead of constantly shouting and being annoyed. I find it a terribly stressful and annoying experience to go through airport security – and when it comes to security this is the worst way of making people feel. Social engineering works by making people feel rushed and uneasy – and this is what current security checks do to people on both sides of the scanner belt.

So I keep my sanity by coming up with things one could do to ease the tension but never should do. There is no humour allowed and everything you do that is out of the ordinary will get you into trouble, other people even more delayed or actually allow real security threats to go unnoticed. The theatre in my head goes like this though:

  • When asked if I have any liquids, knives or glass in my hand luggage I could just say “no, I am flying business this time and I will get my bottle of wine and cutlery on the plane – no need to bring my own”.
  • I could speed up the body search when the security guard pats your legs and back by moaning softly and saying “ouhhh, you got really strong hands, did you know that?” whilst winking.
  • Keep a surprise in my hand luggage that throws people off – maybe something related to taxidermy. “Sir, what is this?” “This is my pet duck-beaked platypus Alfred!” “This is a dead animal.” “That is your point of view. I love Alfred, he is a good friend. I preparated him myself. I think he likes you.” “Sir, I am not sure I can let you bring that on board” “Oh, really? There is nothing to the procedure, really. You got lovely skin by the way – worthy of keeping in its current state for future generations…”

Or something like that. As it is, I take off my shoes, take out my belt, feel my trousers slipping and listen to the shouting and the endure the rushing and annoyances of other passengers forgetting what not to bring in their hand luggage as there is no way around it right now. I make it as easy as possible by having a back pack with an extra compartment for my laptop so I can slip it out quickly. I keep my shoes unlaced before I go into security and I put all my mobiles, money and swipe cards into my jacket before putting it in a tray. I leave all my washing utilities and toiletries in the bags I check in so there is no hold-up. This can be annoying as hell when you only have a one day trip as you need to wait for your luggage but its better than having your toiletries taken away from you.

Past mount doom – waiting for the gate to be ready

Once out of security you will realise that people start smiling, you feel a ray of sun shining on you and you start breathing again. Now your job is to locate the gate and plan when you have to leave to arrive there in time. I don’t normally do any shopping at airports – most of the souvenirs or presents you buy for friends are cheaper outside and I wouldn’t know the difference between Kenzo Flower and Boss Bottled (most taste the same, really). I don’t smoke so that benefit of airport shopping is not appealing to me either.

That said, when it comes to electronics you might be able to grab a bargain. At one time Curry’s in Heathrow Airport in London had MacBooks £300 cheaper than the high street.

The next course of action is depending on who you fly with and in what class. If you are planned on a business class flight don’t bother with eating at the airport before the flight. If you are eligible to go to a lounge then there is some food for free, too but in general you are being fed on the plane anyway. That said, the first class lounge at Heathrow Airport in London has really good food. If you want to eat something as you are on a cheap flight without any food spend some money. You will be strapped in a seat for a few hours and the last thing you want is feel uncomfortable or needing the bathroom several times. One very ironic thing is that the vegetarian meal on flights to India in BA is a three bean something – yes that is what I want when my body is cramped in a seat for 10 hours.

I generally don’t drink at airports or on flights but if you’re out for a party it is a cheap way as the thinner air will get you hammered much faster than on the ground. If you are nervous about flying this will also send you sleeping faster (more on the problems with sleeping on planes in the next issue of this series).

An absolutely grand idea is using the bathrooms of the airports before your flight as you will be fighting for the ones on the plane with the other passengers.

If you want to use your laptop, I don’t know any airport that has free wireless outside the lounges other than Hong Kong. Power points are also not that common but if you look around you will find them (cleaning staff have vacuum cleaners). You might have to rough it sitting against a wall rather than in a (comfy) chair though.

The general rule of thumb I have is to arrive 10 minutes after boarding starts. If you have a fast lane access this means you can go in after the elderly and children and before the large mass of passengers. You’ll want to be one of the first in the plane as this ensures you have a storage space above your head and that you can settle in without people bumping into you all the time.

If you are late don’t get too scared. The general rule is as long as it still says final call and nobody calls out your name yet you are still fine. 30 minutes before take-off is the last call normally. If you hear your name over the PA at an airport you know something went really bad.

And that’s the airport tricks, next time we’ll enter the plane.

Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 1 of 6)

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read part two.

“So what did I forget to bring?”

When I was asked to write for this publication the main request was not to write about something technical but about the things that surround the tech world and my experiences in it. Well, remedy my current role as a developer evangelist puts me constantly on the road, read travelling from conference to conference so I agreed to write down a few tricks of the trade that keep me sane (some people would argue describing me as sane but my 12 foot green hippo friend George agrees with me that they are wrong) despite my ridiculous agenda.

If you have seen the movie “Up in the air” with George Clooney you can get a feeling of how my life is – except that I travel internationally rather than only in the US. There are more inaccuracies in the movie which I will cover later – for now let’s just say that George did a good job trying to be like me but didn’t manage to be as sexy.

What I will write about now and in the future

This series of articles will cover the different stages of travelling for IT conferences:

  • Part 1: “So what did I forget to bring?” (this part) tells you about how to pack, sovaldi sale what to take with you and how to get to the airport
  • Part 2: “Dealing with discomfort and public humiliation” covers your experiences at airports
  • Part 3: “God I wished I had packed tranquilliser blow darts” covers the journey in the air
  • Part 4: “Parlez-vous Anglais?” – travel from the airport to the hotel
  • Part 5: “Checkout at 11” – going to the conference and back to the hotel
  • Part 6: “Here’s my business card” – travel back and conference follow-up

Before we begin, I think I have to point out a few things that may skew the usefulness of these tips and tricks for you:

  • I am a male geek which means that the breadth of my fashion sense and need to accessorise is rather limited. Sometimes I go wild and iron my t-shirts but it is not a very common happenstance.
  • I live in London, England (North of the river) and this is normally my home port for my travels. It being very much an international air-travel hub makes it a bit easier for me than coming from rural areas to the next airport. This also means that my modes of transport might not apply to you.

So without further ado, let’s get into it.

How to not look like your mom packed your bags

So you’re the go-to-guy in the company when it comes to the web, sale the young hotshot who’s being sent all across the country, treatment racking up as many air miles as Ryan Bingham in the process. The life of the jetset takes an inevitable toll on your luggage, ascariasis and while you’re going to be needing something tough and rugged, the notion of actually looking good when you’re walking up to the check-in counter is extremely important.

Buying your luggage at a shopping mall is the first sign that something is irrevocably wrong. The following is a list of sure bets when it comes to traveling in style…

Head Porter Tanker Garment Bag

Head Porter

The Tanker lineup has been Japan-based Head Porter’s staple series since the 80’s and to this day shows no signs of letting up. Not only is the design brilliant, but they’re continuously innovating their products to include models that meet the modern man’s needs. The 100% Nylon Satin is exclusively made for Porter, and the bag features everything from double handles, shoulder straps and heavy duty zippers. The good folks at Head Porter even thought about durability by making it low-maintenance and abrasion resistant. The best feature by far (for me), is the bonus shoe bag, not only for the practicality of separating your white shirts and dirty soled shoes, but the well deserved credit for thinking of such a detail.

Filson Passage Garment Bag

Filson

Filson’s Tin Cloth Luggage Collection features pieces fit for hauling shooting and field gear, they easily double as everyday bags. Made from sturdy, fast-drying Nylon, they are half the weight and roughly half the cost of their oil finish 2 ply by 3 ply, rugged cotton twill counterparts (tote aside), while keeping the same high quality U.S. manufacturing process. If this collection is a little too casual for you, check out their new Passage Luggage Collection.

 

Visvim Ballistic 20 Backpack

Visvim

The ultimate in backpacks, ask anyone who knows anything and they’ll tell you Visvim is miles ahead of everyone else. Their Ballistic backpacks are heralded not only for their audacious style, but for their extreme use of high quality materials and exclusiveness in the North American market.

So now you have no excuse for looking like a traveling train wreck. Invest in your travel gear and the next time you’re standing in that long line at customs, you’ll at least be comforted by the thought that you look sharp.

For more insight into how a seasoned pro travels, see Christian Heilmann’s series “Confessions of an IT conference traveller

Beer: Also Magical and Revolutionary

One side-benefit of traveling for work is that I’ve been able to broaden my horizons in many areas, psychiatrist but a hobby that I’ve chosen to focus on is beer sampling. Visiting foreign cities has helped me escape the beer desert of my home in Montreal, and has allowed me to taste many delicious brews that I would otherwise never have had the pleasure of imbibing.

As web professionals, we’re often called upon to attend—or speak at—conferences. The events that surround the main schedule are as important as the conferences, themselves. This is where communities are formed, and where ideas are refined. These after-hours social sessions are often coincidentally held at establishments that serve beer.

If you have functioning taste buds, this coincidence is a huge opportunity for your mouth.

In the past couple years, I’ve been able to attend some of North America’s best beer bars, and sample some of the world’s best brews, all without incurring huge personal travel costs.

Uniting friends through deliciousness is an art, and one that I take seriously. We’ve shared bottles at the Map Room in Chicago, tasted the incredible menu at Russian River near San Francisco, put a dent in Taco Mac‘s bottle list in Atlanta, drank on Microsoft’s dime at the Taphouse Grill near Seattle, exhausted the Lost Abbey supply at The Brickskeller in Washington D.C., and completely took over Beer Table in Brooklyn for an evening (just to name a few).

Next time you’re gathering a group, post-conference, to hack on a project or hone your newest web ideas, leave the overpriced hotel bar behind, find an interesting tap list, and venture into the wonderful world of tasty malt and hops (or sour beers if you’re feeling particular adventurous).