April 1st, 2015


Across the Atlantic to South America

We were going on a big adventure to South America after over a year of planning. In the next three weeks, we would visit four countries; make six flights, two ferry crossings, and two train journeys, while staying in six different residences.

W travels around the world all year visiting clients and amassing airline reward points for her flights. Cashing in these points for personal flying is a competitive business as many frequent fliers compete to snap up the limited reward seats made available by the airlines. British Airways releases its reward seats 355 days before the flight date and, often, they are booked up within hours. We knew that we wanted to visit South America in 2015 so W was poised to grab two first class seats to Buenos Aires when they were made available in April 2014. Except that no first class seats are ever available on that route. We settled for Club World, the best available. Three weeks later she booked first class seats back to London from Rio de Janeiro. We had an open jaw itinerary across the Atlantic but no plans about how to fill the intervening three weeks.

Where might we go? The Amazon, Patagonia, and Peru were all discussed. British Airways flies to and from the continent but not within it. We looked at the flights offered by the other airlines that belong to OneWorld, the operating alliance of which British Airways is part. This opened up enormous possibilities until W commented flippantly on Easter Island. I pounced. Was it feasible in the time available? Could we include it with other places? It was and we could. The frame of our itinerary was set. We would travel from Buenos Aires to Easter Island and from there to Rio. The island is only served by LAN Airlines and the only flights are from Tahiti and Santiago de Chile. We would have to travel via Santiago. Our revised itinerary was London-Buenos Aires-Santiago-Easter Island-Santiago-Rio-London. W booked the flights. Over the next year, three of the six flights would be cancelled and there would be six other changes by the airlines.

Now we knew our constraints we began to research our destinations and plan our activities at each. Santiago de Chile seemed to be richly served with cultural and geographical attractions but the changing flights gradually pared down our stay to just two half-days so we were going to see little of continental Chile. Argentina, on the other hand, offered plenty of day trips from Buenos Aires. One of these was across the River Plate to Uruguay; a new country for both of us. How could we resist? We planned to spend a day in Colonia del Sacramento to see some Uruguayan culture.

W, meanwhile was researching accommodation. AirBnB was filled with attractive options for any stay of more than a couple of nights. We need hotels for our two single nights in Santiago and, when we learned that Polynesian archaeologist Sergio Rapu operated a hotel on Easter Island, we had to stay there. We were particularly taken with the photographs of a ‘tree house’ near Colonia so we decided to stay several nights in Uruguay instead of a week in Buenos Aires. Our itinerary was now complete and, apart from the vagaries of the airlines, it remained unchanged.

It was cool and grey in Ipswich when Christina arrived at our home on Wednesday afternoon to drive us and our baggage to the railway station. All my gear was in one huge rolling bag, which, with all my camera equipment weighed over 30 kg. W had two more manageable bags: a smaller rolling bag and her favourite stripey leather backpack.

Two trains to London came and went as we waited in the cold damp air for the 17:09 departure to Liverpool Street. Our friend Phil was leaving Liverpool Street that evening for his final commute. We passed near Ingatestone, exchanging farewells by SMS text because he would set out on his three-month canal trip to southern France while we were in Uruguay.

At Liverpool Street W bought sushi and we visited Boots to make the demanding decision of which sun protection to purchase. I went to sniff the wonder of the International Cheese shop and was distracted by The Savanna with its heaps of biltong, boerwors, and other South African treats. Reluctantly leaving piled foodstuffs behind, we dragged our vast bags to the tube station, boarded a District Line train, changed at Sloane Square and then at Barons Court to get us to Heathrow Terminal 5 without having to change platforms on the Underground.

I was wearing a new fabric belt with plastic fittings and my shoes contained no metal shank so, for the first time in years, I passed through security without a body search or undressing. W was not so lucky but she was soon wanded and directed twice through the scanner gate.

We walked twice the length of the airside shopping mall to the tune of my grumbling about the airport insisting that passengers take this redundantly long route to the lounges thus ensuring maximum footfall past the retail outlets. I make it a point to buy nothing in this terminal.

The British Airways Galleries First lounge is spacious, well-appointed, and provides tasty meals. I had a rich beef stew with rice and was settling down to a cup of freshly ground decaffeinated coffee when I noticed that I did not have my Withings Pulse tracker. I realised that I must have left it in a security tray. Back I went past all the shops and the full length of the security stations only to find that the day’s lost property had been bagged ready for despatch to the central office. There was no supervisor available at this end of the terminal because a single supervisor now covers both ends as a cost-cutting measure. A very personable security officer went to the far end of the terminal to find a supervisor (without looking in the shops) and came back with consent to open the sealed bag. We went through its contents together. The bag contained a laptop, about eight headphones, a similar number of belts, a lacy cardigan, and over a dozen black pouches of which none were mine. The woman’s equally helpful colleague asked her if she had checked the locked section of the security stations. She hadn’t. It contained two stations including the one that I had used. He found keys, opened the section and found my little pouch with my Pulse and my earbuds. I was back in action but I had no time to finish my coffee or even to return to the lounge (remember that long walk) so I met W at the lifts to the terminal transit shuttle. The delay had stymied my plans to make phone calls to my family before leaving the UK.

Boarding was well underway when we reached our gate and a jolly cabin crew member welcomed us aboard. We turned left and found our seats just inside the entrance. I stowed our bags, donned my slippers, and unpacked my travel accoutrements into the little drawer by my feet. W was by the window facing aft and I was on the aisle facing forward. The little sliding screen between our seats is lowered for takeoff and we kept it down for most of the flight (apart from the many occasions that W felt silly and the few times that I hit the switch accidentally). A pleasant Italian woman settled us into our berths and delivered champagne to W (I was conserving my alcohol intake for wine(s) later). We were soon in the air beginning our 14-hour flight to Buenos Aires. Sheila, the jolly woman at the aircraft door gradually took over from the Italian woman as our attendant. A large woman in her fifties, who had been doing her job for some 29 years, she had been called from stand-by to join this flight less than an hour before its departure. She had arrived on board just minutes before us. Throughout the flight she was cheerful, friendly, efficient, proactive and open with us. W was delighted to award her the ‘golden ticket’ that she gets each year from British Airways to acknowledge superior service.

I read an ebook until the first food service. W started with Kir Royale and I had a Tanqueray gin & tonic with a mental hat tip to my many friends who share my love of this tipple. W had ordered our meals online, which is a new service offered on just a few flights and was the first occasion that Sheila had experienced this. Curiously, one could only preorder the main course but we were happy to make our selections from the menu for our starters and dessert. I started with a smoky salmon served with sour cream, dill and lemon juice — an elegantly simple dish. Our main choice was a chicken salad with several strongly flavoured green leafy vegetables. The chicken had been marinated in anise, which was surprisingly effective. I liked the way that the sliced chicken breast nestled tightly between two banks of greenery but Sheila reported several complaints from other passengers about both the presentation and the flavour and was pleased to hear of our enthusiasm. With the starter I had a white wine from the Spanish Alabariño grape that was new to me (I have since learned that one of the only South American growers of this variety is Bodega Bouza in Montevideo, Uruguay); it had a lovely prunus flavour redolent of my favourite Alsatian wines. I then had a robust Chilean Chardonnay with the chicken and an Argentinian Malbec with my cheese and biscuits. Having polished off the Malbec, I finished the cheese with a Warre port and fell asleep over the second glass that Sheila delivered to me as she cleared my meal. Sheila had been dropping Hotel Chocolat products on us every time she passed and, since I do not eat chocolate often, W got them all. By the end of the flight W had a couple of dozen chocolates and feasted on them for days to come.