Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dakar, Senegal; A West African Introduction

Conakry to Dakar
Travelling in West Africa is complex because West Africa is complex. The last leg of my journey wasGuinea to Dakar. This 450-mile leg is as Dallas to Kansas or San Francisco to San Diego, yet we flew over four international boundaries. Had we been on the ground our language would have passed from French to Portuguese to French to English and finally back to French. It is a mosaic of Victorian Europeans’ ideals overlaying centuries of cultural evolution.
a short one-hour hop from Conakry in

So Dakar really came as no surprise.

Dakar, the capital of Senegal
It is not a city built for tourism. With the exception of Gorée Island, there is really not much to recommend the place. It is hectic, dusty, grasping, chaotic and entirely engrossing; it is a city whose purpose seems to be to part people from their money, and visitors are not exempt from this perpetual game. And, in small and blindingly irritatingly small increments, it is very adept.

It starts at the airport. I always get frustrated at airports’ indifference to their arriving passengers. Surely it would not hurt them to advertise the approximate fares to the town instead of leaving the arriving newbies to fend for themselves? But they
don’t, and the first impression of a country is negotiating a cab fare with no idea of the parameters.

Once in town and wandering around, one never feels alone; a light “Bonjour, how are you?” starts a conversation that inevitably leads to a two hundred metre monologue ending with a plea/demand for money. All day long.

Dakar street scenes - the bus stop and an souvenir shop

However, Dakar is active; each square metre is covered by some activity or other. Folks selling furniture, beads, beating panels and recycling indeterminate objects. Some shops are infernos; some stalls sell charcoal while their neighbours offer an astounding selection of small pieces of mixed hardware. Young boys run between shops, women wander gracefully along the street bearing tall piles of goods on their heads and the cars, yes, the cars …. Everywhere and loud.

Taxis honk at every walker in the hope of stimulating a fare; gridlocked drivers lean on their horns in the hope of their sound creating a magical pathway through the traffic. Elderly, bright buses belch fumes and the Serious International Charity Managers pass by imperiously in their brand new SUVs. Movement is everywhere; piles of mangoes jostle for attention with barrows of spark plugs. Piles and piles of second hand clothes shipped from north America bearing the logos of Mid-Western high schools or offering soppy aphorisms like “Every Tear is a Waterfall”.

And the dust. And the sand. Although we are hundreds of miles from the Sahara, the sand gets in when it can and where it can. Small drifts lie apparently randomly, but the tell tale signs of encroaching desert are all around. The wind brings the sand and with it a sense that one day this city too could be overwhelmed by the relentless desert.

The Dakar Fish Market
The shoreline is punctuated by fishing boats and goats. Litter decorates the trees and fences and the odour of inadequately managed life floats in the breeze. And people move; alert and with purpose, other than those who have given up completely or are taking a short rest who move not a muscle. Dakar runs at either 100mph or at a stop.

It is engrossing. Worthwhile. A city like no other I have visited. It feels like a challenge, and one that I think that I have lost, and would continue to do so. To me it is chaos, but to the millions of Dakarois, in its chaos lies uniformity, comprehension and home.

I am glad I have spent some time here, but I am happy to be moving on.

Friday, June 9, 2017

South African Railways; Premier Classe

Private railway travel evokes some rather splendid images; The Orient Express and The Golden Eagle are but two of the companies offering the most luxurious of travel on board their private railway carriages. And wonderful they are too, to which I can attest.

However, the Premier Classe product offered by South African Railways is in a different league altogether, and it is welcome and a most interesting experience.

The bar car - sadly closed when needed after dinner

The operator is Shosholoza Meyl, a division of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. The product is straightforward; passage between Johannesburg and Cape Town or Durban, with each route operating once or twice per week. The train is elderly; built about eighty 
years ago and the carriages have been refurbished many, many times. With a little imagination, I think, it is possible to catch a hint of the scent of steam trains, unforgettable for those of us who were around in the Days Of Steam. Today they are comfortable, in the way of an older seaside boarding house, and more than serviceable.

The Dining Car - dimly lit for atmosphere
The train is long; seven sleeping carriages each offering accommodation in eight two or four-berth cabins, two dining cars, one bar car and a smoking wagon (at the very back). This seemed a touch over the top for the twenty-one of us that boarded in Johannesburg, but there you are. The train is a set, and all eleven carriages travel together, plus a required and variable number of car-carriers, for a number of passengers use this service instead of driving to the coast.

This operation should not be compared to the Blue Train.

Firstly, the price; passage in/on Premier Classe costs R3,150 (US$250). In comparison, passage on the Blue Train starts at R15,000 ($1,250) in the low season, and R19,000 ($1,500) in the peak. Mind you, the Blue Train starts in Pretoria, thus avoiding the rather dystopian centre of Johannesburg where the Premier Classe originates, and they stop for a glass of sherry at Matjiesfontein on the northbound journey and a quick whizz around the diamond centre at Kimberley on the southbound leg.

The Premier Classe lumbers along.

The Groovy Stools
I rather liked it. My cabin was small but perfectly proportioned, the bed comfortable and the linen fresh. The housecoat, which we were admonished to leave behind, let the side down a bit, but was functional. The room was warm, the lighting good and the electrical supply sufficient to keep my phone in action.

The lounge car was pleasant in a dated way. It felt comfortable and familiar, the familiarity that comes with venues of decades of ribaldry and boozing; slightly awkwardly furnished, and too small if the train were full, it would have been a fine place to while away the evening had it been open.

Curiously, it was open as we boarded and were led into the bar car to be offered champagne and a briefing about the trip. It remained open until just prior to dinner, which was served early for some reason, but when we emerged, sated but in need of a night-cap or two at eight o’ clock, it was oddly shuttered.

The food was plentiful, and again, most certainly not The Blue Train, but more than adequate. Three courses at lunch and five in the evening were generous and ample given the lack of recreational space available. The service, it must be said, was generally cheery, although sometimes slightly off key. The wine list was good, with bottles ranging from R80 ($6), but oddly, non served by the glass. Mind you, at those process one could simply order another bottle.

The journey was lovely. Once past the endless, dreary and emphatically-littered suburbs of Johannesburg, and before the same grim outskirts that heralded our approach to Cape Town, thee scenery was lovely, and the light delightful. The evening rolled along as we passed through endless Savannah, with wispy bushes, the dry ochres of winter and a clear blue sky that gradually melted into sunset. By the next morning we were in hillier country that rose to become snow covered mountains on each flank of the valley through which we rattled along.

Evening and morning views from the train

When we woke, vineyards were everywhere; the wealth of this precious commodity there for all to see. Village life, the unfolding countryside and the evidence of the fierce storm that had hit two days previously punctuated the landscapes, and pretty soon we were running late. It mattered little, as for most travellers who choose the train, we are there for the sense of timelessness that rail travel can still offer in this hectic age.

Paradise, our main man on board, kept things going pretty well inside the train, but alas had no control over signals and the speed of other locomotives. Thus, our affection for timelessness was well placed, for we had three bonus hours and an unexpected lunch, and finally rolled into the CapeTown station at about 3.30pm.

It was a lovely trip. It is a perfect way to travel between the great South African cities; not quite a simple overnight train, and yet not quite the ambiance of a private-train. It was a fine hybrid, and all the more enjoyable for the foibles that can only come with eighty-year-old rolling stock, many times refurbished, a multinational passenger group and the warmth that comes from being in the company of staff who are happy to be there, and more importantly, happy that you are there too.

It is most certainly a trip to be recommended and repeated.

The vineyards of the Western Cape

Aeroplan, Air Canada and Aimia: Part II

The Aimia/Aeroplan saga trundles along as it will for some time to come, with a regular diet of smiles and positivity coming to us all from Aimia. This, of course, is to be expected, but there are certain elements of the future that are far from defined, and far from comforting for those of us with a substantial investment in this particular scrip.

Currently, Aimia are promoting a piece written by the respected and well-informed Jeffrey Kwok from his blog www.loyaltymatter.net. This is an interesting and well-informed blog, and he is well versed in the vagaries of the world of points, but I would like to take him up on a couple of elements in his piece.

Nothing is changing this very moment”, is the fist claim, and while he is correct in fact, in practice this claim is a touch disingenuous. With no clear and beneficial future, those of us sitting with millions of points, and there are many folks who have such numbers, are deciding to stop collecting and start using.

Many of these collectors have operated small businesses via a credit card for years, amassing huge numbers of points. These points, allowing for the inevitable inflation, have been earmarked for people’s retirement travel. I know at least four whose collection is over 10 million, and many others with several million Aeroplan points to their name. Now, they feel that they have two years to burn them, and the allocated award space is going faster than usual. One can expect an acceleration as we near the end of the Star Alliance alliance, and this feeling of urgency is a new phenomenon.

“You can still redeem like you did before” is true, but with diminishing returns. Certainly there are “exciting merchandise opportunities”, but unless you have been collecting points in order to get a new barbeque, this is not a really comforting option.

I would not be surprised if Aeroplan finds some other international alliance partner for which to redeem miles”. This is the crux of the whole problem; while I am sure that Aimia will find some outlets, the question is simply at what rate of exchange.

Remember always, that loyalty points are a massive currency with no central bank to back their value.

They, Aimia, are not an airline. As such they have no ability to trade seats with other carriers or groups of carriers as the airlines do. They will become a completely revenue-based loyalty program, and thus will have to buy seats, as the Avion, Air Miles and other non-airline programs do. This will in turn limit the price that they can pay, and any chance of Business or First Class rewards will disappear. And for this collecting Aeroplan in bulk, this opportunity, the aspirational seats, is the sweet spot.

Few collectors care about a low season ticket to Europe that still carries a $700 “service fee”; no, the aim is value, and in this regard the airline plans excel; they are able to trade Big Seats with each other, and not have to assign a cash price.

There will be other options, but until the exchange rate is confirmed, I do not believe that they will be of any significant interest.

“Will I still be collecting Aeroplan Miles? Yes”, says Jeffrey, and I wish him well. However, for those of us with a million miles or more, many are deciding to switch to a carrier where the attractive Big Seat options are available.

And here lies the rub.

As with every business, the 80/20 rule applies. 80% of Aimia’s revenue is generated by 20% of their clients. As revenue is generated by the sale of points to credit card (and other) companies, if the big-hitters stop collecting and change tack, this will hit Aimia’s cash flow very hard indeed. And at that point, collectors will have to start worrying about the longevity of a business who has already lost 65% of its market value.

I feel sorry for Aimia, although they knew that this was coming, or should have done, but there is no apparent Plan B, and serious collectors are now starting to burn their points in earnest whole there is still the opportunity to do so.

Sorry, Jeffrey, but this time I disagree!