Sunday, February 26, 2012

Weekends

The last couple weekends have been fun. Last Friday afternoon I rode my motorcycle to Kweisos House outside Koru, Kenya, which is about an hour east of Kisumu. The ride was great, with views of the hills north of Kisumu, a giant wild sugar-cane fire, and a wrong turn that made me late and made the last half-hour be in the dark in the driving rain and lightning. Kweisos is a big farmhouse on 3,000 acres. There were about 10 of us, organized by a CDC friend in Kisumu. The house has a pool, gorgeous views, and kitchen staff to prepare whatever you bring for them to cook you. The owner's house is a mile away, and you have free access to their tennis courts, table tennis, croquet, darts, snooker, another swimming pool, and giant gang of friendly dogs. You can also pay for horseback riding, which I did for the first time in my life that I've been old enough to remember. (There's photo evidence that I sat on my aunt's horse Indian Summer when I was 4.) Basically, it was a weekend of the US country club or British colonist lifestyle.

This weekend S1 was in town for work meetings, S2 came from Kisumu to hang out Friday night, and my buddy S3 came from Kampala. S3 had a much longer bus ride getting here than I expected, so we only got to hang out for 24 hours, but we had a lot of fun. Vegan black bean burgers and chips (UK), a hike in the Kakamega Forest full of monkeys and big loud birds with S1 and S3 , dinner at the Golf, a good run with George today, <i>24 Hour Party People</i>, <i>Take Shelter</i>, and <i>Nuts in May</i> all projected on an extra bedsheet. For any hiking/environmental friends, I highly recommend <i>Nuts in May</i>. It's a 1976 made-for-BBC-TV movie by Mike Leigh about self-righteous vegetarians who go camping. Basically, me. And it's amazing how all the environmental concerns the vegetarians raise could have been brought up last week. It's slow, but it has definitely moments of brilliance.
http://youtu.be/daEocG2dKCU

Since S3's ride from Kampala is so long, we'll meet in the middle next time: http://hairylemonuganda.com/

Monday, February 20, 2012

Rowing Across the Oceans

Also, jaguars, pirates, madness, and gambling. RIP John Fairfax, my new adventure hero.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Garmin Forerunner Suggestions?

Did I mention that I got into the Wasatch 100? This is the second year in a row I was picked in the lottery, but I didn't run last year because I would have to pay for a ticket home from Kenya in order to do so. This year, I'm luckily already planning to be in the US around that time. I may have to adjust my flight slightly, which, knowing Delta, will probably cost me $1,000, but oh well.

So I started running. Two-a-days! Let's not get ahead of myself. I'm on day two.

I'm in the market for a Garmin Forerunner, as I'd like to be able to know distances and my pace while running. I think that will help me be a little more serious about training. A couple people have suggested using cellphone apps like imapymyrun or cardiotrainer. I don't particularly like carrying my phone on runs, but if I were in an anti-new-gadget-for-environmental-reasons mood, that might be the best solution. I could map my 3-4 most common runs a couple times. Each of them is under an hour, so cellphone battery life wouldn't be a problem. Then I'd just wear my watch like normal and pay attention to PR's on each route. That would reduce the information I had on any new exploration I did. So I'm still leaning towards a Forerunner. The basic 101 model has what I'm really interested (pace/distance), but I might like the ability to race previous versions of yourself on routes, and I think the bigger models like the 305 or 310 have better reception and longer battery life. Even the simple models have 8 hours of battery life, so I'm kidding myself if I think I'll go over that on anything but an organized 50-mile race, and in that case the race would be providing occasional distance measures anyway. I'd love to hear thoughts on accuracy, cost, features, or battery life if you have them.

I'm going here with a mixed bunch of IPA, CDC, and Kisumu folks this weekend. Should be fun. Link opens pdf.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Worms

As we all know, I'm a bit of a cynical bastard. I mean, global warming is going to spiral out of control and end life on earth as we know it, but even if we manage to invent a carbon-eating bacteria that solves it all, the sun's going to blow up in 100 billion years, so really, what's the point? I'm kidding. Sort of.

But occasionally I'm a (small) part of something cool.

Delta is the worst airline in the world.

For whatever reason I lucked myself into three bad customer service experiences in short order. One with Delta, one with Verizon, and one with the New York Times. NYT resolved it immediately to my complete satisfaction, Verizon met me halfway after a little back-and-forth, and Delta is the worst airline in the world. Maybe that's a tough crown to claim, as United is horrible too, but rest assured I'll be doing my best to give my business to someone other than Delta or their partners for the foreseeable future. Too bad, because KLM has always been pretty good for me.

 The condensed version is as follows:
1 . The New York Times is cool. You should read it, and also pay for it. If they accidentally billed you too much, they're likely to fix it.

2. My experiences with suspending service and billing with US cell-phone companies has been horrible both times. Five years ago I suspended service with AT&T, but contrary to what I'd been told, they wouldn't suspend billing (What's the point of suspending service but not billing?! Just turn your phone off!) This time with Verizon, it turns out that they "pro-rate" your monthly minutes and texting allowances if you activate/deactivate your billing in the middle of a billing period. So if you arrive in/depart from the US in the middle of a billing period and use more than half of your minutes/texts, you're screwed. A reasonable thing to do would be charge you the minimum of either the "pro-rated" half-month or what you would have been charged had your phone been active for the whole period. That, or just change your billing period if your phone has been deactivated for a long time and you restart it. Alas, that is not the case. Verizon at least decided to cut my "overages" in half.

It's quite silly that the US has such horrible pre-paid cell-phone service. Still, I'll have to look into it with T-mobile the next time I'm in the US briefly, because I'm pretty sure I can only de-activate with Verizon for 100 days in a year, which I'm certainly going to go over.

3. Delta is the worst airline in the world. The gist of this is that I showed up 48 minutes before my international flight (I admit, through my own stupidity), and my companion and I were charged $389.20 and $676.50 to fly out the next day. This despite previously being told multiple times that any changes would be $300. The cherry-on-top is that my companion's return flight was also changed, without any discussion, warning, desire, notification, etc. So on the way back, we showed up and were told that instead of going to SFO, my companion was headed to LAX. The SFO flight was full by then, so she had to fly to LAX and sit around there all day before Delta flew her to SFO.

Fine, maybe 48 minutes early is late for an international flight out of LAX, and fine, maybe you could charge us a total of $600 total to fly out the next day, since that's what I was previously told multiple times. But not $1065.70.

Did I mention that Delta is the worst airline in the world?I think I'm going to lose this one, so I've disputed it with my credit card.

For anyone who cares, here are the gory details of my interactions with the NYT and Delta. I've put the e-mails in top-to-bottom reading order and taken out identifying information.
-------------------
1.NYT
From: garretXXXX@XXXX.com
Sent: 2/1/2012 02:20:13 AM
To: emediacs
Subject: Look, I'm totally going to subscribe forever, but really, you've got to fix this.
It seems like a pretty poor business decision on their part, but I was given free access to NYT by Lincoln in March, 2011 that was supposed to last for the remainder of 2011. Then in early December I received an e-mail saying that was going to expire, and I could sign on for 8 weeks for $0.99. Obviously, I was quite aware that what you really wanted was my credit card information and an agreement to automatically renew my subscription after that. I'm totally fine with that. What I'm not fine with, however, is that you started my eight weeks on December 8, instead of on January 1, 2012. Lincoln already paid for my subscription for all of 2011, regardless of when I choose to renew my subscription. This also means that this 8 weeks doesn't end until February 26, and that it makes no sense that you billed me another $15 on January 30, 2012, a full four weeks before my 8 weeks are supposed to end. Please refund this bill and re-bill me on or around February 26.
Thank you,Garret Christensen
------------------------------
Dear Garret,
Thank you for contacting NYTimes.com
We apologize for the inconvenience.
The system indeed billed you incorrectly so we have processed a refund in the amount of $15 to your VISA card. Although the transaction has been processed it may take several business days to show in your records. If there is anything else we can do please let us know.
Regards,
G L
NYTimes.com
Customer Care
---------------------
2. Verizon
I won't bother you with this one.
----------------------
3. Delta
Original Message Follows:
Message: On December 26, 2011, my companion AL and I showed up LAX with 48 minutes to spare before our flight to Amsterdam (and then on to Geneva) on KLM flight 602 was scheduled to depart. We were told we were too late, and the check-in attendant was ruthless with regards to her supposed inability to do anything about it. She then charged us an obscene amount of money to rebook us on the same flight the following day, December 27. She said this would cost me $389.20, even though I had repeatedly previously been told by the airline and my travel agent (BCD travel at Emory University) that changes to the itinerary would cost $300. She said this would cost AL $676.50, even though our flights were purchased together. There was no explanation why AL's charge was more than mine, and no explanation why it was more than what I had repeatedly been promised. The desk agent then confused our credit cards, and charged me (credit card ends in XXXX) AL's $676.50, and AL (credit card ends in XXXX) my $389.20.
In addition to costing us a minor fortune (which, again, I had previously been repeatedly told would NOT be the case), the desk agent assured us that our vegetarian meal preferences would be transferred to the flight the next day. This information might have even made it onto our reprinted tickets the next day, but it didn't make it to the airplane, and they didn't have the requested meals for us. We finally got to Switzerland, and we managed to put the whole thing out of our minds.
Then Delta managed to foul up AL's return flight on January 4, 2012 as well. We arrived over two hours before our flight from Geneva to Amsterdam was scheduled to depart (lesson learned). When we tried to check in, AL was told that her ultimate destination was LAX, not SFO as was intended. The original itinerary very clearly had AL flying from Geneva to Amsterdam to San Francisco (I have both hard and soft copies of this itinerary to prove it.) But apparently, the desk agent at LAX had changed AL's return flight without informing us. AL had no desire to return to LAX, and changing the flight had not been discussed at all, in any context, by anyone during our unfortunate experience at LAX. Luckily, my ticket from Geneva to Amsterdam to Nairobi remained unspoiled. To make matters worse, the originally scheduled Amsterdam to SFO flight was completely full, so AL couldn't be switched back. After an interminable length of time on the phone with Delta (which almost made us miss our flight from Geneva to Amsterdam), you managed to book her on a Delta flight from LAX to SFO. We boarded our Geneva to Amsterdam flight, then had to sprint a mile across the airport to get to AL's Amsterdam to LAX flight gate just as it was closing. Then the LAX to SFO flight on which you had booked AL left before she even arrived in LAX, so she sat in LAX for half a day waiting to get on the next available flight.
Finally, after the worst air travel experience in either of our lives, we both arrived where we were originally scheduled to go. Because I was repeatedly told that flight change fees would be significantly less than they turned out to be, because you charged the wrong person's credit card the wrong amount, because you changed the itinerary without asking, without warning, and without any desire on our part for you to do so and as a result cost one of us the better part of a work day, because you goofed our meals, and because 48 minutes early shouldn't be late (whatever happened to voluntary baggage separation, which we more than willing to do?), I think you should refund both of our change fees. $676.50 to my credit card, and $389.20 to AL's. I have frequently flown on KLM (or Northwestern, or Delta) for my travel to and from Nairobi in the past. I will happily switch to United, American, or other airlines for my future travel if any future Delta experiences are as horrible as this past one was.
Thank you,
Garret Christensen +254(0)XXX-XXX-XXX
AL (XXX)XXX-XXX
Submitted: Sat Jan 21 2012 11:38:19 GMT+0300 (EAT)
------------------------------------
From: Contact Delta
Dear Mr. Christensen,
RE: Case Number 5357832
Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding the service provided while you and AL were traveling with KLM from Los Angeles to Geneva. On behalf of everyone at Delta Air Lines and our SkyTeam partner, I sincerely apologize for the difficulties you encountered on your outbound and AL's return trip.
To begin, I am truly sorry for your disappointment with our check-in guidelines for your flight out of Los Angeles. Please allow me to clarify that it is the responsibility of each passenger to arrive at the airport with sufficient time to complete all ticketing, baggage check, security clearance procedures, and arrive at the gate ready to board within our guidelines. If a passenger has not met the guidelines, they risk having their reservation cancelled and may not be able to travel on their confirmed flight. Respectfully, this requirement applies to all customers checking in, with or without baggage.
In the event a flight has departed, our team members should assist passengers in rescheduling their travel on the next available flight. While I understand your disappointment with the fee to change your nonrefundable tickets, in order to be fair to all our customers, it is important to adhere to the terms of the ticket each passenger has purchased. In this case, a fee applies even if the decision to cancel or change planned travel is due to an illness or other circumstance that was unknown at the time the ticket was purchased or is beyond a customer’s control.
Respectfully, I must deny your request to refund the change fees and additional fare collected on your tickets. I realize you were given inaccurate information regarding the amount of potential change fees, and I apologize for any miscommunication and disappointment. For future reference, I encourage you to visit our website at delta.com for the latest information regarding the check-in guidelines for both domestic and international travel.
Additionally, I apologize you did not receive the special vegetarian meals you requested. We certainly understand this causes concern for a person with strict dietary and/or nutritional requirements and you can be assured your comments will be shared with our Onboard Services leadership team.
Finally, I am very sorry our agent in Los Angeles confused your credit cards during the rebooking and did not properly rebook AL's returning flight. I can imagine her dismay when her itinerary had been changed to a flight to Los Angeles, when San Francisco was her original destination. I was pleased to learn we were able to book her on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but regret the flight had departed by the time she arrived. I realize waiting for the next flight was a great inconvenience and I apologize. Feedback like yours will help us improve our airport process and overall customer experience. Please know I will be sharing your comments with our Airport Customer Service leadership team for internal follow up.
As a gesture of apology for the meal discrepancy and reservation error, I have added 7,500 bonus miles to your SkyMiles account and 15,000 bonus miles to AL's account. Please allow three business days for the miles to appear.
Mr. Christensen, as a Silver Medallion member, your business is valued and is of utmost importance to us. Thank you for alerting us to these unfortunate customer service deficiencies. We hope you will continue to choose Delta, Air France, KLM, and our SkyTeam partners for your future air travel needs.
Sincerely,
N H
Coordinator, Corporate Customer Care
Delta Air Lines
-------------------------------------------
This is absolutely not acceptable. DELTA gave my travel agent the incorrect information regarding change fees. DELTA changed AL's return flight without asking us and without informing us. DELTA has given us no explanation as to why AL's fees were different than mine. It was likely because the gate agent "did not properly rebook AL's returning flight." There is absolutely no way we should be responsible for that part of the rebooking fee! At the very least, Delta needs to go reduce the fees we paid to $300 each, down from $389.20 and $676.50
Your airline should really stop saying my "business is valued and is of utmost importance to us" when it clearly is not.
Garret

--------------------------
From: Contact Delta
Dear Mr. Christensen,
RE: Case Number 5357832
Thank you for writing and allowing me the opportunity to further review your concerns. I am sorry you were dissatisfied with my first response. I understand you feel I did not adequately address your concerns. I was happy to review your comments again. As you may be aware, fares calculated are subject to origin, destination, availability and advance purchase requirements. As such, any changes to your itinerary will result in the recalculation of your fare. As a result, if the new fare is more expensive, per our fare rules, the difference in fares along with the administrative fee applies. As your and AL's travel was booked under separate confirmation numbers and differing itineraries, the new fare calculations may have been different. I am sorry to disappoint you, as I understand this is not the answer you were expecting.
Again, I apologize for your disappointment. Your support is important to our airline and I thank you for your additional time and effort. We look forward to the privilege of serving your air travel needs again soon.
Sincerely,
N H
Coordinator, Corporate Customer Care
Delta Air Lines
-------------------------------
OK, I'm going to try this a third time before I look into small claims courts or filing reports with the Better Business Bureau or whatever, as well as complaining vocally and vociferously on the Internet. You have yet to explain this one quite glaring fact: I WAS CHARGED FOR CHANGING BOTH LEGS OF A FLIGHT, EVEN THOUGH I ONLY NEEDED THE FIRST LEG TO BE CHANGED, AND I WAS NEVER TOLD THAT THE SECOND LEG WAS BEING CHANGED. Admit it, this was DELTA's fault. You need to reimburse me for the change to the second leg of the flight. (I'm speaking of AL’s return flight that should have been from Amsterdam to SFO, but was changed without our permission and only due to the Delta gate agent's incompetence, to Amsterdam to LAX.)
Rest assured that I will cut up my Delta/AmEx credit card and NEVER fly on your airline again if you do not rectify this overcharge.
Sincerely,
Garret Christensen
--------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Mr. Christensen,
RE: Case Number 5357832
Thank you for your most recent letter expressing your continued dissatisfaction with my response.
I am genuinely sorry it was necessary for you to write again. Please know, you were not charged for the inadvertent changes made on AL's return flight. As stated earlier, due to your late check-in in Los Angeles, your entire round trip fares had to be recalculated. Your itineraries were not the same and the amount of additional fare for AL's ticket was greater than your ticket. Again, I am sorry to disappoint you and I apologize for any confusion.
Mr. Christensen, I am sorry your travel on our airline was disappointing. I hope in time you will provide us with another opportunity to restore your confidence.
Sincerely,
N H
Coordinator, Corporate Customer Care
Delta Air Lines

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Charles Frazier

I finished listening to Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons. The reading by Will Patton was quite good. I believe this was Frazier's second book, coming after Cold Mountain, which I also listened to and loved. (I can't remember what I later thought of the movie, but I vaguely recall thinking far more highly of Renée Zellweger than I usually do.) I think both were pretty amazing southern gothic. The sarcastic dialogue is brilliant at times, up there with "but I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." Only it's brutal and violent, so the sarcasm goes something like:
 "I'm looking for my horse. He's a grey stallion."
"There's no stallion in my stables that meets that description. There is a gelding, though."
(Because the second dude castrated the first dude's horse because the first dude was sleeping with the second dude's wife.) It was sort of like Cormac McCarthy, only set in Appalachia and dealing with Native Americans. The environmental strains regarding hunting, development, and change were of course well received by this reader. I guess I could have used more of a climax, however; it's basically just one dude's awesome life and eventual decline. Still good stuff though.



Invest in Gold

Finally, a post about adventure and not just me being a bitter lefty atheist.

I just finished a pretty awesome motorcycle trip around Mt. Elgon. I took the route I linked to in my last post. I left Kakamega around 10AM, and was on pavement until Endebess, Kenya. The pavement was only good to Webuye, however. From Endebess to the border the dirt was pretty flat and boring. I could still go in 4th gear (of 5) without much worry.

I hit the border at the Suam River, and it probably took me about an hour to go through customs and immigration on both sides. I had no idea what to expect bring the motorcycle across, but all it required was filling out one extra form for each country. Apparently it's free as long you're bringing the bike back within two weeks. That was a pleasant surprise. The crossing isn't very busy, so I had to wait for the Ugandan immigration officer to show up. She'd gone home and the customs officers had to call her and tell her to come back. After I was all taken care of, they started chewing her out and telling her "this man comes to Uganda and the first thing he sees is you leaving leaving your station to go home. You're an embarrassment to the entire country!" It seemed funnier and less harsh at the time.

In Uganda the riding started getting really tough. The roads are all bone-dry, but that just meant that instead of six inches of mud, they're covered in six inches of dust that's almost as slippery. The roads goes in and out of gullies and steeply up and down to creek crossings. I had to go really slowly on the downhills and gun it on the uphills. I was in 2nd or 3rd gear the whole time, fish-tailed a lot, stalled a bunch of times on technical assents and ate it once (going slowly) on a steep downhill. I was getting pretty tired and the sun was setting, so I was very glad to finally make it back onto tarmac at Kapchorwa, which is only 20km from Sipi Falls, where I spent the night.

I set up my tent at Lacam Lodge pretty much on the precipice of the lowest falls, and had a nice dinner eavesdropping on a balding pontificating windbag saying things to his younger douchebag-in-training traveling partner like "Once the interest rate on German bonds hits seven percent, the system is screwed and the scam that these central banks are running is all over. That's why I invest in gold." and "My whole thing is to play the system against itself. That's why I'm incorporated in Liechtenstein. These days you really have to make your own fortune." No, dear reader--I'm totally not going to be that guy in 10 years.

Today's riding was relatively uneventful fast, flat and hot paved riding. The crossing back into Kenya went smoothly, the line of trucks for export on the Kenyan side was probably 5 miles long, and now I'm home again. Here are a few pictures.
Sipi Falls (lowest)

Suam River Border Crossing

A Northeastern shoulder of Elgon
Mt. Kadam to the north
Mt. Kadam again

Friday, February 03, 2012

Around Mt. Elgon and Back to Where I Was Before

Here's my motorcycle plan for the weekend.
Remember this post about Rory Stewart's book on his walk across Afghanistan from 5 years ago when I was in Kenya the first time? I thought not. But I read a interesting New Yorker article about him today. Surprise, he's now a politician and likes to compare himself to Alexander the Great. Sorry it's gated.