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1. Emirates Miles Expiring, Extension Not Possible

So, let's use 'em, not lose 'em

sunny 75 °F
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Chapter One; Saturday, August 7, 2021

I am finally back at it. I miss adventure travel terribly. But this trip? It only happened because of a weird and hard to believe set of circumstances.

Early in 2021, Emirates Airlines let me know that my vast amount of award miles would expire at the end of the year, I was certain a mistake had been made. COVID had decimated air travel. Every airline, hotel chain, rental car company, etc., was extending expiration dates because nobody could travel. However, even after calling, Emirates seemed to be the holdout exception. So, I did what any vagabond would do: I looked at their route map to try to figure out a place to go that I had never been.


Sri Lanka! A bit of research showed that Yala National Park boasts the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world. I've been in the wild to photograph big cats before: Lion and cheetah in Africa, tiger in India and jaguar in Brazil. But leopards have been more elusive for me. Maybe I once caught a glimpse of one sleeping in a tree in Kenya but, then again, maybe it was just a clump of leaves.


Now is my time. I find I've got enough soon-to-expire Emirates miles to fly business class, round trip, to Sri Lanka. But, there is a problem. Emirates will fly me to Sri Lanka but, because of COVID, they will not fly me back out of Sri Lanka. It's a complicated story but it appears that many Indians eager to escape COVID were making their way to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to grab a flight to anywhere in the world during the time that they could not fly out of India proper. Emirates was caught in that travel prohibition dodge. So, I was caught up in it as well.

But there is a solution. Fly an Emirates Airlines Airbus A380 one way to Sri Lanka and then buy a ticket on some other airline to get home. There is an added bonus to such a devious strategy. I have enough Emirates miles to fly one way in FIRST CLASS.

To get home, I learned that Qatar Airways will happily accommodate me from Columbo via Doha to Chicago. I book it. But then, 24 hours before I am to begin my trip, Qatar Airways cancels my flight home. There is a paint problem on their fleet of A350-1000 aircraft involving come cracking and their regulatory agency grounded the affected aircraft one of which was to fly me home. I didn't want to fly Air India through Delhii or Mumbai. But then, miraculously, Emirates changed their policy and I was able to book a trip home with them. Never mind that my final connecting flight from Chicago to Kansas City was no longer possible. The main trip could be undertaken.

At noon today, after B4 dropped me at the airport, I flew to La Guardia, took a Lyft to JFK and holed up in the Priority Pass Lounge until the Emirates Lounge opened and then stepped aboard Emirates A380 flight 202 for a stop in Dubai before heading on to Sri Lanka. Why is B4 not coming along? Long ago we came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of trips. One is 5-star, spa-filled, hotel-suite. The other is dusty roads, showers when you can grab one, look-out-for-animals-before-you-open-the-door. This is the latter. Plus, unlike me, she has a company to run.

Check-in was difficult. I had to produce not only my passport but also printed copies of a negative COVID test (taken within 72 hours), a Sri Lankan visa, a Sri Lankan health form, proof of a hotel reservation and proof of a return flight. Forewarned and overly cautious, I had all of that.

Emirates has, arguably, the most amazing first class flying experience in the world. This is particularly true if you fly In one of the only 14 first class suites aboard one of their Airbus A380, double-decker, 517 passenger super amazing aircraft. Beginning in 2007, 254 of these enormous aircraft were built but, in this economy, only 24 are still actively flying; the one I am scheduled to fly aboard is one of the 18 still in use by Emirates. A380wide.jpegA380cu.jpegWhen new, these babies listed for $445 million each (today you can pick up an early model on the used aircraft market for $77 million). This is the aircraft type that has, in the rear of the first class cabin, two gigantic bathrooms with, get ready, showers.

I'm in. The closest I've ever come to a shower at 35,000 feet was when a flight attendant spilled a drink on me. Or I spilled it on myself, I'm not sure. At least that is my plan. I board in about an hour. I'll let you know how the flight went in the next chapter.

Posted by paulej4 05:29 Archived in USA Tagged sri_lanka emirates_airlines a380 Comments (2)

2. Aboard EK202, A380-800 to Dubai

Upstairs, Downstairs

all seasons in one day

Chapter Two, Sunday, August 8, 2021

I am happy to escape the boisterous JFK Emirates Lounge, home to what seemed to be scores of screaming babies and toddlers and loud-talkers speaking Babel-like, multiple languages each struggling to be heard over the other. For this almost thirteen-hour-long overnight flight, up top there are 14 closed first-class suites and 76 flat-bed business class seats. Depending upon the particular aircraft, 399 or 427 standard seats below. large_TwoJetways.jpegOne jetway for this A380-800 behemoth serves the first and business class upper deck and a second jetway is used to board the economy class lower deck. Departure is scheduled for 22:20 (10:20 Saturday night). Arrival in Dubai is 7:05 Sunday morning. Dubai is 9 hours ahead of Kansas City, 8 hours ahead of my departure point in New York City. large_8a9c5470-f7e3-11eb-aca6-e9e68d9e11a8.png

Our Airbus tail number ACEVF pushed at 10:30 and were wheels up over runway 22R after a 13 minute taxi.

First Class Suite 3A is fine accommodation to be sure. See for yourself. There is a massive 32-inch flat screen that dominates the front, an electrically raised and lowered mini-bar at your side, an I-pad type device in a charging cradle to your left and dual electrically closing doors on your right. The bed goes completely flat and, even when fully reclined, leaves room on the floor in front for not only my backpack but my carryon bag as well. 1910F5FB-C50D-4B61-ABBF-F6B649178472.jpeg7C00CE5F-CF5A-4446-95A9-47B1A5FD506F.jpegC6D2D867-1F95-4509-AFBE-9F918D4AC084.jpeg85F663E3-70CB-4BA0-A825-3BCF4328877E.jpeg

Our route took us north northeast over the U.S. coastline before turning slightly east to cross the wide waters of the North Atlantic. After a quick and only so-so dinner, (preceded by caviar which was quite tasty) I request that the flight attendant make up my bed. I slept most of the first half of the flight, awakening to note on the aircraft’s belly camera that we were directly atop Paris. It was eleven in the morning their time. That got me to thinking about seeing aircraft overhead from the ground. The people flying aboard the aircraft we see are probably thinking of themselves as being on the time of the city from which they departed. For me, that would have been 5:00am, not yet breakfast time. But ,in Paris, it was just coming on lunchtime. Aboard EK202, most passengers were still sleeping but the French citizens below would not, if you asked them, think of that. But, then, the things I think about are generally not what others are thinking about; I have gotten used to that.
After finishing our crossing of the North Atlantic, we barely clipped southern Ireland and Great Britain before overflying, as nearly as I could follow our route, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and finally the United Arab Emirates.

When there were but two hours remaining, flight attendant Jose came to my suite to let me know that the appointment time I had made for one of the aircraft’s two shower suites had arrived. These shower suites are amazing, about the same size as my bathroom at the Alameda Tower. There is a gigantic full-length mirror, a bench for seating, an bath sheet sized towel, a fluffy custom shaped bath mat, lots and lots of “stuff” such as soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving and dental supplies and even a hair dryer, plenty of room to hang or fold your clothes as you slip into or out of the provided pajamas, a full-size sink, lighted makeup mirror, toilet (of course), and a shower with a bench that is about the same size or larger that I have experienced on many cruise ships. The water is hot but you only get two minutes of it; there is a pause button and a timer to warn you when to be certain that last bit of soap has been rinsed away. 2A9B90FA-7128-40BA-B3E1-7ED4FC0C1C26.jpegB7CB2275-5BEB-418E-A804-A03F07555EAD.jpeg7358708B-9C68-4493-B3FA-ED5C9F85C360.jpegI believe that I am supposed to be in and out in thirty minutes as there is a demand for showers soon before landing time. Had I wanted to shower mid-flight, I think I could have stayed in there for an hour.

Outside the showers is the snack bar. One little noticed sign reminds passengers of one additional rule as we cruise at 39,000 feet, mach 8.3.
Flight Attendant Maggie, a wonderful young woman from Egypt, tried to do too much with breakfast. I ordered poached eggs on crispy toast but they came out hard-boiled. She was apoplectic to think that I didn’t eat them—until she spotted the hard yolks. “Let me cook you an omelet instead,” she asked. No. I’ve had more than enough to eat being served no less than three fruit plates throughout the flight. I will say that I’ve had better coffee however.

The cabin crew is exemplary. I have been addressed by name each and every time one of them came by to serve or check on me. They invariably smile and know when to engage in banter and when not to. Items arrived promptly and removed quickly. Emirates knows how to deliver first class service that is a cut above any I’ve experienced elsewhere (except for poached eggs).

I raised the electric double shades on my four windows when we were about a half hour from landing to see the waters of the Persian Gulf below us. 13A69E2D-87E5-48EF-B71D-15974F3F67E8.jpegWe are equipped with three video cameras to add to our flight experience. One is at the top of the tail pointed forward which is my favorite for takeoff and landing, one on the nose pointed forward and, my favorite in flight, one on the belly pointed straight below us. We are wheels down at 6:55 in the evening and at the gate ten minutes later: right on schedule.17621746-9294-4B9C-AC26-36035259F40E.jpeg

I am greeted by a VIP greeter who escorts me through the maze, security and upstairs downstairs right turn left turn to the enormous Emirates First Class Lounge which is devoid of customers but full of staff. I ask about that and am told that at this time of the evening the only traffic here is from the U.S. or the U.K. “It will get very busy in a few hours,” I am told.

My flight to Colombo leaves at 2:40am (Monday) about seven hours from now. My plan? First, get Ray, the very attentive lounge attendant, to watch my bags while I walk. I should be able to get a couple of miles in and, I know for a fact, my body will benefit from that. Then, I will write a bit, take another shower (the facilities here are amazing) and dine. For those who don’t wish to dine on the plane, there is a restaurant (free) so you can skip the service and go straight to bed once on board your flight. Given that my next leg leaves in the wee small hours of the morning, I shall try for as much sleep on EK650 as I can manage.

Posted by paulej4 16:56 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged emirates_airlines a380 Comments (0)

3. Yala Limbo

Awaiting a critical on-arrival PCR test

sunny 84 °F
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Chapter Three, Monday, August 9, 2021

As usual, Emirates runs like clockwork. After a l o n g stay at the Emirates First Class Lounge at DBX, the flight was on time departing from a far away gate, C19. I was the only first class or business class passenger to Colombo on this 777-300ER, tail number A6EPM. This plane holds 8 in first class, 42 in business class and 304 more in economy class. I suspect that no more than 100 of the seats in the back were occupied but I cannot say that for certain.

The 2,051 mile flight took four hours to complete and I slept for thee of them, from around 3:00am local Dubai time until 7:25 local Colombo time.

Formalities—since I had heavily researched what paperwork and forms I would need to have printed out in hand—took only minutes and I was soon met by Mr. Kalika who will be my driver and guide for the remainder of my stay in Sri Lanka. Sadly, he greeted me by letting me know I was the first customer he has had in 18 months. There have been, for Mr. Kalika at least, no tourists in Sri Lanka for all that time. This poor man's livelihood was taken from him just as it was for millions and millions of others. I owe it to him to make this the best of journeys for him perhaps more than he owes that same duty to me.

The paperwork deserves mention. I needed to produce my passport, a negative COVID PCR test, a Sri Lankan government Health Declaration Form, an arrival card, proof of my COVID vaccination, proof of my hotel arrangements and proof of my return transportation reservation.

Our drive from CMB to my hotel, Jetwing Lagoon, took just over a half hour during which time Mr. Kalika and I began to get to know one another and become comfortable with what I hope will become informal banter.

Jetwing Lagoon is an upscale if third-world type hotel that would disappoint B4 if she had been along. To check in, I once again needed to produce passport/vaccination form/negative COVID test and had my temperature taken.

Ushered to Room 126, a “family suite” facing the lagoon from which the hotel takes its name, I am informed (again) that, due to “health & tourism guidelines,” I am “not permitted to move outside the hotel neither interact with the local community during [my] stay.” I am also informed, in writing, that “guest movements are limited to the guest room until the on arrival negative PCR result become available.”

My problem now is that the health team isn’t here so what is called my "on arrival" test is not taken "on arrival." I go to my room where I wait and wait and wait until, two hours later, they arrive at 126 and perform the PCR test that I so desperately need. Or, should I say, I need the negative results.

Mr. Kalika is to fetch me at 10:00 tomorrow morning for our four-hour drive to Yala Campsite where my leopard safari truly begins. Without the test result, there can be no pickup and, therefore, no safari.

As I said, the health team arrives two hours late at a time when every minute counts. They take both nasal and saliva swabs both tickling my brain and prompting my gag reflex in the process. The issue becomes more intent when I ask the testing team when I should expect to get my results. “Normally 24 hours,” the man says, “but under the current circumstances, it may be up to 36 hours.” My countenance fell. “Do you have an important meeting?” he asked. “I do.” I replied. If this test takes 36 hours, I will miss the first day of my reason for being here.

And, in the meantime, I am confined to room 126, destined to enjoy room service and the view of the lagoon from my balcony. LagoonFisherman.JPGA fisherman works his net 200 yards from shore. He may as well be not 200 yards but 200 miles away. A club sandwich serves as lunch/dinner. And we wait.

I am, of course, jet lagged. As I write this, I have just awakened from an involuntary nap. It is 9:25pm on Monday at Jetwing Lagoon (10:56am on Monday in Kansas City). I should have stayed awake for the past five hours but simply could not. Communications to both my tour company and, most importantly, Jetwing, have both received honest replies that they are doing their best to get my results back. I am confident that the result will be negative as I have had two tests within the last 72 hours and can prove them both but to no avail. The test taken here, now about ten hours ago, is the only one that matters.

In my ear, the 1965's Kink's hit, "Tired of Waiting for You" endlessly repeats. I silently sing it, over and over, as if the needle on the aging vinyl is skipping and skipping, to the inanimate test:

So Tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you
So tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

I was a lonely soul
I had nobody
'Til I met you
But you keep-a me waiting
All of the time
What can I do?

At my age, after having sold a company which, through the labors of many talented and dedicated people, has delivered me to a place where I can do what I want, well, I cannot.

COVID test, with apologies to The Kinks:

It's my life
and I can do what I want
do what I like
But please don't keep-a me waiting
Please don't keep-a me waiting...

And we wait.

Posted by paulej4 15:48 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

4. Bull Standoff

Now we're getting somewhere

semi-overcast 91 °F
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Chapter Four, August 10, 2021

After a jet-lag impacted (which means often interrupted) sleep, at 8:20am, the room 126 telephone chirped. “Mr. Russell, we have received your PCR report. Shall I send it to your room?” One wonders how many guests have any reply to that inquiry other than mine: “Yes, please.”

The intervening minutes passed with a slower than normal beat. Five minutes, nothing. Ten minutes, nothing. Fifteen minutes, nothing. For the record, Jetwing Lagoon room 126 is 150 yards from the front desk and the pathway between the two is without impediment. Motorized carts abound. There are virtually no other guests on the property.A005A2D4-7FA3-4775-A560-BC7C1E665B45.jpeg

At 8:56 (who’s counting?) a knock. “Here’s your PCR report. You’re good to go,” he said. The “confidential” laboratory report did not say, “Negative.” Instead, it says “Not Detected.” In any event, it appears that I will be fine to meet Mr. Kalika at 10:00. Not to belittle Dr. King’s speech but be it known that I feel “free at last.”

As we drive in his Toyota, (it is cloudy and 82 degrees) the first thing I notice is that all the road signs are in three languages: Singalese on top, Tamil in the middle and English on the bottom. Singalese has 56 unrecognizable letters; Tamil is equally foreign to my eye. We travel on a super-modern expressway built by the Chinese—the same people who sent almost all the vaccines Sri Lanka has deployed to date.

The pandemic has hit Sri Lanka hard; many people have been hired by the government for about $10 a day to trim the roadside and even, with brooms, sweep away the clippings. I see Sri Lankan exports: rubber from rubber trees, cinnamon, coconut and tea. More farms grow rice and bananas which are consumed locally.

There are signs warning of peacock crossings and we see elephant fences. DCED88CA-6236-4215-ACBE-92324AA19CA0.jpegAt 1:40, bid Mr. Kalika goodbye for a few days and transfer to a Toyota pickup outfitted as a safari vehicle for a ten minute drive down a bumpy track to the Yala Campsite. I am greeted by Camp Manager Mr. Mapatuna, my guide Avinka, my driver Nichantha, and Dining Area manager Sagara. Chef Ruan is busy preparing my lunch and will greet me later. There are four other staff here: Pradip, Rajithe, Salin and Chaminda to see to my every need. My needs are the only ones that matter as I am and will continue to be their only guest. The pandemic has clobbered them. 1760C408-CF0E-441D-87F2-EF884E79A950.jpeg

I eat a very light lunch and am ready for my first game drive. Explained by Avinka, the Palu and Tamarind trees are things to watch for as leopards like to climb to the top to see where lunch might be. We drive through Matagamuwa Sanctuary and then into Block One of Yala National Park.

DSC_0066.JPGBuffalo.JPGFishMeal.JPGSightings include lots of buffalo, spotted deer, fresh water crocodiles, peacock, hare, a wild boar, monkey and, at day’s end, elephant. First a cow and her calf and later an encounter with a 30-year-old bull elephant who enters a stand-off with us but then moves on his way.

During our drive we heard spotted deer giving warning yelps but never found the source of their fear: the leopard. Sundown is a bit after six and we are back at camp in time for me to write this before Avinka comes at 7:30 to fetch me for dinner.

It has been a very long day during which I only managed to take 7,800 steps, many fewer than I require. But, steps won’t be easy here. I’ll spend most of my time on my backside, scouting the roadside bush for quarry.

Posted by paulej4 05:41 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (2)

5. "J" Walking and more

Why does a leopard cross the road? To change its spot.

sunny 90 °F
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Chapter Five, August 11, 2021

Meet the dominant male leopard in Yala National Park’s Block One: “J” large_Jwalking1.JPG

Up before 5:00, on the road at 5:30, first in the park when it opened at 6:00, Nichantha drove, quickly, deep into the park. Avinka explained that it was good to be first in. Today, however, there are very few vehicles in the park so, when we encountered “J” at about 7:30, we were alone with him and it stayed that way. But only for a bit as he had places to be which took him stealthily behind the bush and out of our sight. (He is named"J" because of a patch on his forehead but I was unable to see it)large_LeopardFemale.JPGTwenty minutes later, we found this 1.5-year-old-male in some rocks. We later identified him as Mega. Our experience with him was short-lived as well as he soon wound his way between boulders and was gone. Both leopards cared not one whit that we were ogling them; it was as if we weren't there at all. Elephant might take notice and might not. Deer and boar run away quickly. Hare and eagle and crocodile only flee when you come to near.

Just when we thought we were done with the morning drive, at around 9:45, we found a rare tusked Indian elephant. In Africa, all the males have tusks but in Sri Lanka only about 5% of males do. It is considered good fortune to sight one; good fortune that was had by us this morning. It is not good fortune to have tusks, however. Poachers kill to get tusks so if elephants don't have tusks they are less likely to be shot. Plus, elephants don't need tusks as they are mostly ornamental. I have seen some African elephants digging for salt with their tusks but getting that salt is hardly worth getting killed. DeerDrinking2.JPGDeerFood.JPGStorksAboveCrocBelow.JPGCrocHungry.JPGEagleBrown.JPGEagle.JPGBoarsOnTheRun.JPG4a008100-fa65-11eb-8047-f7ceec1ce3ea.JPGElephantTusks.JPGElephantWithTusksDeparting.JPG

Elephants are not the same. Compare African and Asian elephants here and take note that only Indian elephants exist in Sri Lanka.da1bd080-fa6c-11eb-8028-57a5db972b5c.png

Back at camp I was told lunch would be served at 1:00. That leaves me a two-and-a-half hours to relax, write this and sort through photos which I hope convey a sense of what happened this morning. Mission accomplished; more to come in the afternoon.

Leaving at 2:00, we spotted buffalo taking spa treatments, storks walking gingerly, crocodiles on the ready (one ready for a teeth whitener at Dr. Lee's), peacocks strutting and then, more leopard sightings. First Lucas was sleeping in a tree. We could barely see him. Later, he jumped down and took off to the pan for a drink. Then, to wrap up the day, one more unidentified leopard crossed the road near us...to change his spot.BuffaloSpa.JPGStorkCarefullyStepping.JPGCrocodileJaws.JPGCrocodileToothWhitener.JPGPeacock.JPGlarge_LeopardLucasBehindLeaves.JPGlarge_LeopardLucasInTree.JPGlarge_LeopardCrossRoad.JPG

And, I get to do it all over again tomorrow. Oh, what a lucky man I am.

Posted by paulej4 13:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged yala_national_park Comments (1)

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