Castle and bridge
Castle and bridge
The famous Pastéis de Belém – different and better than the 蛋撻 you get at yum cha
SurveyMonkey Lisboa! #surveymonkey
Architecture at Madrid’s Barajas Airport
Off to Lisbon!
A little afternoon pick-me-up courtesy of #ubericecream and #surveymonkey
Somalia barely has a government, but it has what is a de facto national airline, currently running at an impressive 85% passenger load:
“Road insecurity is bad for Somalia, but it’s good for airlines,” says Abirahman Aden Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister. Ibrahim estimated that at least 60 planes owned or leased by Somali carriers are currently flying.
Jubba Airways may be the most ambitious, and fastest-growing, of those carriers. Since its beginnings in 1998, Jubba has served as a lifeline for Somali businessmen with interests abroad, pilgrims on the hajj in Saudi Arabia and — increasingly — returning members of the Somali diaspora. The airline flies to some of the world’s most unstable destinations, including Galkayo, a town that straddles the self-declared independent republics of Puntland and Galmudug, both notorious sanctuaries for pirates. …
Jubba also has a team of Ukrainian and other Russian-speaking pilots who fly its Antonovs on domestic runs inside Somalia. Although the capital has been relatively calm for the past year and a half, Jubba still offers incentives and imposes rules on its pilots. “Whenever we fly to Mogadishu, we give them combat pay,” Warsame said. “And they never stay. They land and leave as fast as they can.” Jubba pays the captain, co-pilot and flight attendants “around $100 extra” for each landing they make in Mogadishu; the bonus goes up after they make the trip several dozen times.
Startup Valley is a collection of articles about the Silicon Valley ecosystem. I’ve been collecting various articles and books about the Valley for a while now, and I decided it might be nice to compile them into one site.
I’ve split the site up into numerous sections that examine various aspects of the Valley – the startup life cycle and various players that make up the whole ecosystem.
I have a lot of articles and book excerpts I still want to add, but it takes a bit of time to reformat the articles for the site, so new content will appear in dribs and drabs. I’ve tried to format the site in a way that makes it easy to take your favorite e-reader and save the pages for offline reading. Hopefully it’ll be interesting material to some, and useful material to others. Feedback welcome.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
There are some things in life I have resigned myself to never experiencing. Except perhaps if one day I am retired and, in a fit of spite, I decide to fritter away my heirs’ inheritance. Among these things are staying in a presidential suite at a five star hotel, going into space, and taking a shower on an aircraft.
The only commercial airline in the world with showers on board is Emirates. Emirates runs a fleet of Airbus 380s which each pack two spacious shower rooms aboard its first class cabin. A one-way, seven hour flight from Dubai to London will set you back around US$5,000. This is a very tough discretionary expense to justify, unless you’re one of those people who works out of desire and not need.
Even the old trick of using frequent flyer miles is difficult with Emirates, if you’re based in America. Emirates is not a member of any airline alliances, nor is it a transfer partner of any credit card points programs. While it has a bilateral partnership with Alaska Airlines, redeeming a one-way flight would cost about 90,000 miles — if you can find availability (Emirates has been rumored to have been clamping down on partner airline redemptions lately).
Nonetheless, a group of people in a corner of the internet have known for some time of a special airfare that existed for the better part of two years. The airfare consists of a first class ticket that permits you to fly a circuitous route of about 25,000 kilometers, make day trips into three different cities, and include two or three first class segments on Emirates. The thing that makes the airfare special is that it is offered at a dramatically discounted price. The catch is that the first flight must depart from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Colombo is not the most accessible place in the world when you live in San Francisco. In fact, it’s literally half-way around the world and it makes little difference whether you travel east or west to get there.
The fare came to be known as the “ex-CMB” fare in the online community, CMB being the IATA code for Colombo International Airport. By using an online tool called Matrix and typing in a particular routing code, “CMB :: CX HKG EK DXB EK LHR AA”, you could retrieve this rather implausible itinerary.
I filed this fact away in the back of mind until I was invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Bangalore in May. Since I was going to be practically in the same neighborhood, I figured it would be worth a booking a short “positioning flight” to Colombo from Bangalore and going on a once in a lifetime flying extravaganza.
The itinerary I pieced together took me from Colombo to Hong Kong via Singapore on a Cathay Pacific flight (in business class, since that route doesn’t have a first class cabin), then from Hong Kong to Dubai and Dubai to London on Emirates, and finally London to San Francisco on British Airways. I would have a 12 hour layover in Hong Kong, a 23 hour layover in Dubai, and an eight hour layover in London. Each flight would be a red-eye, so I didn’t need to book any hotels in those cities. While I had been to each of those cities before, the trip would make for a great opportunity to catch up with some friends.
This itinerary is impossible to book online. I needed to find a travel agent — something which, in this day and age, was difficult to do. Luckily, I found one a couple blocks away from work — a branch of STA Travel, which ironically specializes in budget student travel. My timing was particularly good because that branch closed down several weeks later due to lack of business, and the nearest one was in Davis, a hundred miles away.
I printed out the itinerary and brought it into the travel agency.
“This is a crazy itinerary. I don’t think it’s valid,” the branch manager said immediately. He began to type it into the computer anyway. About ten minutes of typing and muttering to himself, he finally spoke. “Huh. It actually priced.”
The price, including taxes and a $75 booking fee, was almost exactly US$2,500.
No one is quite sure whether the anomalous airfare was a pricing mistake, or some kind of longstanding but misguided effort to boost tourism in Sri Lanka, but the opportunity closed up a couple months after I booked, in March 2013. Today, the same flight itinerary prices at over US$22,000.
For a period afterwards, it was still possible to book a similar itinerary, except that you couldn’t technically book an Emirates flight as part of it. The airfare was offered by American Airlines and required crossing the Atlantic Ocean with an AA flight (or codeshare) as part of its routing.This meant you could have a routing that went from Colombo to Kuala Lumpur, then Kuala Lumpur to London (on Malaysia Airlines), then London to Los Angeles (on American or an American codeshare). Interestingly, it was also still possible to have a segment on an Emirates plane because the DXB-LHR segment codeshares with Qantas. So, if you booked using the Qantas flight number, you could still end up on an Emirates A380 plane. However, this loophole also appeared to close up several months later.
If you really want to try the Emirates shower, there is a “budget” option. Emirates flies a fifth freedom route between Hong Kong and Bangkok. The flight is only three hours long, but it’s flown by an A380. Just enough time for you to take that $800 shower.
Emirates offers business and first class passengers a free chauffeur service as part of their ticket in most major cities, so the experience starts before you get on the plane. You have to call ahead to book, but they offer pickup at your point of origin, and dropoff at your destination, subject to generous distance limitations that vary depending on the city.
Each city has a different fleet of vehicles. In Hong Kong, I was picked up by a Mercedes minivan. He drove strictly by the rules, setting the cruise control at 80 km/h on the highway to the airport, while taxi cabs sped past us like machine gun bullets.
My first Emirates flight was on a Boeing 777. It was almost the same as their flagship Airbus 380, but without showers and a slightly older interior. It was still opulent.
First and business class boarded through the front door and the suites in the first class cabin make an immediate impact. The seats look exactly like the promotional photos. Each is actually an enclosed suite, lined with leather, wood paneling, and slightly gaudy gold trim. A door can be electronically closed to provide some privacy, although the top of the suite is not enclosed so that flight attendants can check up on you by standing tall and peering over the wall.
The seat can recline into a fully horizontal bed, and there is ample legroom, even if you’re seven feet tall. To the side, there is stowage space for blankets and pillows, and a small cabinet for personal effects. A small handheld controller and a small LCD touchscreen which can be detached from its holder provide two ways to control the TV. The touchscreen controller also can be used to control everything else in the suite, including lighting, the three window shades, seat positioning, and the massage rollers in the seat.
Also to the side is a minibar stocked with pineapple juice, Perrier, Voss and a variety of canned soft drinks. Next to the minibar is a release for a large tray table that is used for meals and can be used for work.
To the front is a very large TV screen with a fresh orchid next to it and a small basket of snacks on a ledge in front. A vanity mirror and box of skin care products is built into the ledge, as is a writing kit (all of which can be taken off the plane with you). Carry-on luggage can be stowed in the space underneath the TV.
The first class cabin was almost full. I felt like a complete fraud sitting there, watching the business class passengers stream past, but I was still loving it.
Across the aisle was an Italian man with a thick gold chain and a shirt that had been unbuttoned one button too many. He didn’t speak English, so they borrowed a flight attendant from another cabin to translate. Emirates’ crews are the most multi-cultural that I’ve seen, and when the captain introduced the crew while we were taxiing to the runway, he must have rattled off at least a dozen languages that the crew spoke between themselves.
Before we took off, I asked the flight attendant to take a photo of me in the seat for posterity. She happily obliged, and then asked a question to which the answer was obvious. “First time flying with us in this cabin, Mr. Loh?”
As is customary, the flight attendant also offered me a pre-take off drink, a cup of Arabic coffee, and a date.
Shortly afterwards, the attendant was back, handing out the meal service menu, an amenities kit, some pajamas, and slippers. Meals are ordered à la carte, and can be eaten whenever you want to. You can also order as much food as you want, subject to availability.
The food is decent, but at the end of the day it’s still airplane food and they’re heating up pre-prepared food in a tiny oven. The setting in which the meal occurs is what makes it memorable — from the white tablecloth, to the metal cutlery and other meticulously laid out eating accoutrements.
The amenities kit was manufactured by Bulgari and contained an array of stuff that I thought would surely get confiscated the next time I went through airport security, including a shaving kit with a razor, an aerosol can filled with shaving cream, and a large stick of deodorant. (Strangely enough, it passed through security without any problems.)
I was feeling tired after running around a humid Hong Kong, so I had a snack and went to the lavatory to brush my teeth and change into some shorts. By the time I came out, my bed had been made for me and I fell asleep almost instantly.
After too short a sleep, I was prodded awake for breakfast. I opted for an unorthodox mix of dim sum, pastries, fruit, and a can of coke. The Italian man across the aisle had already finished eating and was now inspecting the skin care products kit with what I can only describe as a look of intense conflict. His face was that of a man unsure about whether the little bottles of lotion and snuff boxes were something he was actually allowed to steal. He put the kit back on the table and took a long sip from his wine glass (it’s never too early for alcohol when you’re flying). He picked it up again and pawed at it some more. And then he surreptitiously shoved the whole thing into his bag. I did the same thing, but was much less surreptitious about it.
We landed in Dubai one hour early, at 4.00am. I stepped off the plane into a deserted terminal, just as the dawn adhan was being piped through the airport PA system.
Dubai has fascinated me for a long time. I had visited twice before,once in 2005 and again in 2007. A lot had changed in the intervening six years, and I was keen to revisit and also catch up with an old friend from uni.
Since 2007, Dubai had endured the financial crisis — almost becoming bankrupt in the process until its big brother, Abu Dhabi, came to bail it out — before rebounding and going back to its old habits of rabidly constructing improbable buildings in the middle of the desert. (In 2010, Dubai opened the world’s tallest building. At over 800 metres high, it was supposed to have been named the Burj Dubai. At the last minute, it was renamed to the Burj Khalifa to honor its benefactor, the Emir of Abu Dhabi, whose deep pockets contributed to the financial bailout.)
The friend I was meeting was with had an eclectic background. A Bangladeshi by heritage, he had grown up in Papua New Guinea, studied in Sydney, worked as a technology consultant in Singapore, and finally ended up in Dubai working in the hospitality industry. He was multilingual but still spoke with a solid Australian accent. After attending the same undergraduate program for four years, we kept in touch periodically until work took him abroad. I had not seen him since he moved to Dubai, which was about six years ago.
We almost missed each other in Dubai. I was going to be there for less than 24 hours, and he was flying out to London that same morning to meet up with his wife, who was attending a course in Cambridge. After exchanging a few messages on Facebook and Whatsapp, we eventually established that we were going to overlap for a few hours in the early morning — just enough time to catch up somewhere in the city.
So it was at 5.00am that he turned up, somewhat bleary eyed, to pick me up from the airport. It turned out that he had decided to pull an all-nighter. At least in that respect, he was exactly as I remembered him from our undergrad days.
As we drove into the city, we caught up with the usual obligatory gossip about classmates and eventually moved on to the topic of Dubai itself.
Things definitely felt a lot better than a few years ago, he remarked. The construction boom was back with a vengeance, and unemployed expatriates had stopped ditching cars they could no longer afford at the airport in a bid to escape debtors’ prison (in exchange for never being able to set foot in the country again).
“The locals really know how to do business,” my friend said. “Any one of them will be involved in two or three businesses at the same time.” He was referring to the local Emratis, who were actually a distinct minority in Dubai. In a city of 2 million, less than 20% were locals. The rest were expats. There were the usual westerners — professional services industry types taking advantage of the zero percent income tax rate and the glitzy expat lifestyle — but the mainstay of the population and, some would say the Dubai economy, were the expats from the subcontinent — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — and Filipinos.
Two local brands have really put Dubai on the world map: Emirates and Jumeirah. Jumeirah runs a chain of luxury hotels, including the famous Burj al Arab — a so-called 7-star hotel whose sail-like structure has become almost synonymous with the image of Dubai.
We arrived at the Emirates Towers (a Jumeirah property, naturally) and ate breakfast there. With technology being not just a tool anymore, but being an enabler of all things, my friend explained that he saw his job not so much as technology consulting, but as hospitality consulting. He used technology to determine things from how to price rooms, how to optimize occupancy rates, where to situate guests from different countries within the building, and how to lay out the floor plans of their restaurants. “I love my job,” he said. “Our company treats its staff well, even though the salaries in Dubai are not what they used to be during the boom times.” He said that without any trace of irony, despite the fact that a few minutes ago he was driving me in what in any part of the world would be considered a very nice car.
“Oh yeah, there are a lot of nice cars in Dubai. When I went to Italy last year for a holiday, I was surprised because it turns out that all the nice cars the Italians make aren’t there. They’re here. My neighbor bought an Enzo last year. And this year he bought a Maserati. Even our police force has an Aventador and an Aston-Martin. I think that’s ridiculous. You’ll see their SLK cruising around our neighborhood on a Friday night.” I guess things are all relative.
My friend was clearly enjoying the expat life, and in general, it was a good one — at least if you were not an expat laborer working on one of the skyscrapers springing up around the place. (While building the Burj Khalifa, the contractors decided it was taking too long to send workers up and down the building at the start and end of each workday, so they built sleeping quarters on one of the upper unfinished floors to shorten workers’ daily “commutes.”)
A lot of expats were still leveraging their credit cards to maintain the expat lifestyle that everyone was outwardly displaying, but there was a bit more restraint than there was four years ago. They worked hard, but also set aside time for leisure, including on weekend nights. From a cultural perspective, neither my friend nor his wife felt that local laws or customs had curtailed any aspect of the lifestyle they had enjoyed in Sydney. Yet, his time in Dubai would be limited. “I’m going to move back to Sydney at some point. I want to retire there.”
Dubai was clearly still a city of excesses. I bid my friend farewell and continued my visit. I visited the Burj Khalifa, which was a beautiful monolith standing head and shoulders above an already bustling skyline. I had a Friday brunch at Spectrum on One, a multi-hour affair with a sumptuous buffet and an all-you-can-drink alcohol offering. I relaxed at the Ritz-Carlton’s private beach, where a friend happened to be staying. I rode the Metro — a new, gleaming transit system that was initially feared to be a white elephant but turned out to be quite well used, even if it was mainly by tourists and expats who looked like they provided household help. I walked through Dubai’s gigantic shopping malls, filled with international brands, restaurants, an ice bar, and an indoor ski slope (complete with chair lifts). The air conditioning bill for the city must have been massive. It was not yet the peak of summer, but already the heat and humidity was stifling as soon as you walked outside.
In fact, it gets so hot during the summer, that most Emratis clear out of the city in July. Some even take their cars with them, so you might see a Veyron being driven around the streets of Mayfair with Dubai license plates.
The affluence was jarring to me. Back home in Silicon Valley, there’s some serious wealth there, but it’s rarely flaunted. It’s hidden behind the high walls of Atherton and secluded in the forested ranches of Woodside. Despite a large number of Porsches and Teslas, you’ll only catch the occasional glimpse of a supercar. I also knew in the back of my mind that the Dubai economy was being powered by the darker side of laborers working under harsh and inhumane conditions, as several journalists have reported upon in the past.
We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant at the Dubai Marina with a Swiss couple, Aliando and Vera. Aliando worked for Emirates. He described how Dubai was building an even bigger airport to replace its current one — which is already better than most international airports in the world. He mentioned how Emirates planned to order and maintain a fleet of over a hundred Airbus 380s. We asked Aliando and Vera whether they thought Dubai was doing too much, too fast, and whether things were just a little too excessive to be sustainable. After an honest moment of contemplation, they just shrugged and said that they didn’t know the answer. I suspect no one really does.
After dinner, an Emirates driver came to give me a ride to the airport.
The first class lounge in Dubai International Airport is unique. It’s not really a lounge as it is the entire fourth level of the terminal.
The lounge is quiet and sparsely populated. It’s almost like having a whole terminal to yourself. When it’s time to board, you don’t need to leave the lounge — you simply board through private gates that let first class passengers board separately. Places to relax, work, eat, and have a drink are liberally distributed throughout the lounge. Workers greet you as you walk past, and offer you a drink or a snack as soon as you sit down. A sleeping room is filled with recliners and beds with pillows and blankets. In one corner there were four different brands of bottled water available. The wifi is quick. You could spend a very long layover there in complete comfort.
There is also a spa that’s attached to the lounge. Passengers get a free 15 minute massage, and I took full advantage of that offering. Despite it being midnight, the spa was staffed, and I got an extraordinary back massage, during which I momentarily fell asleep.
Emirates’ first class experience seemed to be emblematic of the reputation its home city had: ambitiously striving to become world beating by being just a tad outrageous.
My flight to London was delayed by an hour, and by the time we boarded I was dying. I had been awake for over 24 hours, after two consecutive nights where I averaged three hours of sleep. I was running on fumes and wanted nothing more than to sleep, which I would have done but for the fact that the highlight of the trip was still to come.
Not only did I want to try the shower, I desperately needed one. After wandering around in the Dubai sun for a whole day, I’m sure I wasn’t smelling like a rose.
As soon as I boarded, I asked a flight attendant whether I could book the shower. She asked, “When would you like to take it?”
“As soon as possible.”
I fell asleep during the take off roll and was awoken a few minutes later by the flight attendant who nudged me. “Your shower is ready, Mr. Loh.”
Trying to shake off the wooziness, I grabbed my bag and she led me over to the bathroom to give me a tour of the facilities. I knew how it all worked already. I had read about it online and watched the numerous YouTube videos. But now I was physically there and I patiently let her explain away while I soaked it in.
The bathroom is large. On one wall, there is a full length mirror and an amenities cabinet with a hairdryer inside. A TV screen shows where the plane is over the world. Next to the toilet, there’s a large padded bench, on which a box of shampoos, conditioners, and lotions is placed. The sink is large and has two mirrors — a normal one and a magnifying one. And then there’s the shower compartment. It’s large enough to bend over in to wash your toes, and it comes with a bench (in case of turbulence) and a removable shower head. The cubicle door needs to be closed before the water will flow.
I would get exactly five minutes of water. A knob controls the water temperature and a button toggles the water flow. A row of lights shows how much time I had remaining. The water automatically shuts off at the four minute mark as a warning, and I would need to press the button to get the last minute’s worth of water. I would then step out of the shower onto a mat which they’ve placed on the floor, and dry myself off with a towel they supply. By the time I got back to my seat, flight attendants would have made up my bed and provided me with a plate of fruit and a cup of tea. I would grab a few hours of solid sleep, land in Heathrow, and then be whisked off into the city by another Emirates chauffeur in a black Mercedes.
The flight attendant finished her spiel and closed the door behind her. The TV showed we were somewhere over the Persian Gulf, about ten kilometers high. I undressed, entered the cubicle, set the water temperature, and hit the start button. I tested the water with my hand. Perfect temperature. Impressive water pressure. I stepped under.
It was glorious.
4th of July SF Symphony concert with fireworks!