The unsung heroes of travel

Juneau resident shares gold star picks of the travel world

Posted: Sunday, February 07, 2010

I stretch out with a big yawn before turning on my personal television. After a few flips through a couple channels, I debate between the newest "Fast and the Furious" film, or Eddie Murphy's "Imagine That." I settle on the latter, snuggling down into my comfy seat with my warm blanket pulled up tight. After a few minutes, I'm gently awoken with an inviting question:

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Courtesy Of Philip Dierking
Courtesy Of Philip Dierking

"Your dinner is ready sir, what would you like to drink with that?"

"Is their any charge for the wine?"

"Of course not!" the servers says smiling as she places my steaming hot meal before me.

Am I at a five-star hotel? A personal limousine? An exquisitely expensive restaurant? Nope. I'm simply enjoying the luxuries of an economy class seat on an international flight with Ethiopian Airlines.

Understandably, most travelers prefer to share details about their adventures: sites seen, artifacts purchased and places been. However, I feel that far too commonly the behind-the-scenes logistics to travel are too often and too unjustly ignored.

As travelers, there are things that we know we've all experienced: time spent on planes, buses, taxis, hotels and, of course, asking directions. However, time and time again, these true "heroes of the travel world" go without acclaim. That said, I feel it's due time to recount some of my experiences and who I think really deserves the gold stars.

1) Plane travel: From riches to rags

As per my introduction, you can see clearly that my choice for first place is Ethiopian Air, going surprinsingly above and beyond any expectations. Besides being treating like the President's cousin's best friend while flying, I also was just tickled to find that they provide you with your very own in-flight goodie bag (something I haven't had since fifth-grade birthday parties), complete with a toothbrush and paste, socks for travel, and even a night mask!

You can imagine my shock when, after deboarding their plane in Washington, D.C., to hop onto a six-hour domestic flight to Seattle, Wash., I was greeted with: a beverage. Any food options? Not without $10. Any blankets perhaps? Sorry, we don't carry those. Welcome to the USA.

2) Asking for directions: Everyone's got their style

Let's just say that when it comes to getting pointed in the right direction, there's as much variety as there are errors.

In France, people seem to have no idea where the place was, even if it is as famous as the huge supermarket in the middle of town.

In Ireland, you were always given an intimately detailed route which usually consisted of connecting the dots between the various pubs in town.

In Egypt, they would walk with you until you arrive at your destination (and sometimes pay for your bus ticket too!).

In Djibouti, Africa, whether or not they really new what you are searching for, let alone where it was, they would point you in some direction. And they also tell you with the upmost certainty that it is "absolutely the right way."

The winner in this category? Egypt, for kindness, and Ireland, for convenience. At least you can get a drink along the way.

3) A passing place for a proper price

Ask anyone, and I guarantee you'll discover that accommodation is the make or break factor in the travel experience. Anyone can pay a large sum of money and recieve a nice hotel room. There's no challenge there. The real art, and sign of a quality destination, are those places that can adequately accommodate "budget" travelers like myself.

However, reflecting on my past escapades, I find it difficult to decide a winner. Sleeping in a tent on a beach in Mexico wins points both for price and for location, yet the early morning wake-up by squawking birds was a big deterrent.

Camping in a random stranger's driveway (without said stranger aware of it) during a road trip in California also is cost-effective, but a better location for sleeping in a car was a random parking lot in Whistler, Canada. (At least there I got to ski in the morning.)

Nothing can beat watching the mountains go by while sleeping on the top deck of a ferry sailing up to Alaska, but it also is impossible to match the price of curling up in a corner of the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for the night (D gates, end of the hall, back right, slightly cushy seats).

In the end - in terms of both exotic location and unbeatable price - the top award goes to attempting to spend a night on the airport floor in Addis Abab, Ethiopia, until mercifully rescued by two random Ethiopian sisters. For this, I earned not only a free night at their place, rides to and from the airport and a home-cooked dinner and breakfast, but also a marvelous cultural experience to boot.

4) Getting around in style

As everyone knows, just getting to the location is half the battle. Next is trying to get around. This can easily become both a freeing or confining experience, depending on what types of transport is available, and at what cost.

Train travel around France was by far the most classy, but it can empty your pockets as quickly as it takes to finish the croissant you brought onboard.

I found riding a camel into the Sahara Desert to my campsite to be quite novel, but the rub burns that came along with it were less than desirable.

In Egypt, I appreciated the financial practicality of jumping aboard the local train right after it started moving (off-limits for tourists), but this method lacks reliability.

After further reflection for this category, the winner goes to travel aboard a drug-running motor boat delivering the "legal" drug called khat to various ports in Djibouti, Africa. Not only did they give me a good price, but I got to arrive feeling like a prince, with hoards of people waiting for me at the dock. OK, so it was the khat and not me they were interested in, but don't tell anyone.


In the end, like with anything in travel, it's a mixed bag. You never can truly predict who will take care of you the best in all those little details of your adventure. So the next time you find yourself surprisingly pampered with, let's say, good taxi service, make sure to pass a little affirmation their way. They are, after all, part of the true heros of travel.

• Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.

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