Perhaps travelling genes were inserted into my genome from an early age. My mother and I flew from Bombay (now Mumbai, but I cannot get used to this name) to London when I was 8 weeks old in August 1955.
When I was 4 years old, I flew from London to Bombay as an unaccompanied minor. I believe that in 1959 it was some sort of record for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (now British Airways).
I don’t remember much about that flight, but later on, after my parents had separated in the early 1960’s, I flew regularly between London and Geneva on my own.
I remember often having a Paddington bear-like sign around my neck, and always receiving good attention from the British European Airways (also British Airways now) hostesses.
Security was non-existent then compared to now, so my father could come right to the aircraft door at Heathrow to say goodbye. In Geneva, my mother would be waiting by the bottom of the aircraft steps – easy!
1. Access Denied!, Dubai
I had applied for and received a second UK passport for business travel, so I keep one for Arabic country travel and one for Israel travel. Getting it involves a special interview process at the passport office, but the UK Home office does permit this.
I travelled to Dubai in 1994 to attend Arab Lab, a large international healthcare show, and queued at the immigration line at the airport.
When I got to the front of the line I showed my UK passport to the Immigration officer and after a while he got out of his booth and went to consult his superior. They both returned and told me I was not welcome into Dubai, but would not exactly say why.
I kept asking “why what have I done, I have a British passport?” (That is my passphrase for any unfortunate situation I find myself in!)
Finally, one of the officers took me aside and showed me that I had a stamp from Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, from the previous trip in my passport and that anyone who had even visited Israel was not allowed into Dubai. This was the unwritten rule at the time.
I had packed the wrong passport when preparing my briefcase!
I was escorted directly to the departure area and had to take a flight back to the UK. I returned to my office about 28 hours after I had left it, much to my colleagues’ surprise!
Moral: Double check all documents for validity! Be aware of geopolitical nuances.
2. Disappearing Act, Seoul, South Korea
I was presenting some new diagnostic tests to the OBGYN in one of the Universities in Seoul, and was attempting to set up a “trial to buy” at this facility.
After we had gone through a long presentation and Q&A session, I came to my close.
After asking “Can we set up a trial later this week, as I am in Seoul until then?”, the assistant professor got up and simply said excuse me and left the office!
We stayed for an hour expecting him back but Ricky, my distributor colleague, advised me that perhaps the customer could not say “no” to performing a trial without losing face, since I would be embarrassed, and he would have been the cause of it. So we left, no trial no sale!
Nowadays in Korea and sometimes Japan, I have to be a bit more subtle with my closing technique, for example I ask if the customer can consider our request for a trial.
Moral: Don’t be a wise ass. Understand cultural etiquette before making closing statements.
3. Longest Layover, New York
Trying to come back to Heathrow on a London flight in February, 2002, we were held up at Newark by a snow storm.
Finally, they cancelled our 11pm flight and told us to go to JFK to catch the Virgin flight to Heathrow that was scheduled to depart at 9am.
Arriving at the terminal was difficult, we had to find a taxi to take us from Newark to JFK arriving at around 2 am. The terminal was closed and we were cold. We found a caretaker to let us in to the check-in area, but of course there was no staff on duty. There were no shops open, as terminal facilities only opened at 4 am.
We were tired and fed up. Some people grabbed the few chairs near the check-in counters and tried to sleep. I went behind the check-in desk, found a piece of carpet, rolled it around me and went to sleep.
I was woken at 5am by someone prodding me with a broom, to check if the rolled up carpet was dangerous or not!
I checked in at 6 am and was first into McDonald’s which opened at that time.
Flight home was uneventful.
Moral: Camping trips may help to train for such unforeseen events.
4. Window Pain, Montreal
Returning from Paris to Ottawa, I had to change planes in Montreal. We boarded our Dash-8 (24 seater) on time, but there was a delay to departure. We were told,
“Sorry everyone, please de-plane as we have a window malfunction in the cockpit.”
This was a euphemism that the window had fallen out!
We got back into the terminal rather contentedly. After all we did not want this to happen during a flight! After a 2 hour delay, Air Canada organized another Dash 8 replacement and we boarded, a little frayed. I am sure it was a different aircraft.
We departed from the gate on time and as we were just about to accelerate for takeoff, when the pilot announced we had to return to the gate due to …yes folks you guessed it!, a “window malfunction”.
We returned to the gate and waited for 40 minutes while they glued it back in and we boarded and took off – third time lucky.
Moral: I have subsequently donated various pots of my own glue to the Air Canada Dash-8 maintenance crew.
5. Luggage Connection, Toronto
I arrived in Toronto in good time (early afternoon), and went through Canada immigration very quickly. Without thinking, and knowing my bag was tagged to Ottawa, I went out of the immigration hall WITHOUT collecting my bag.
I approached the agent at the door to the transfer area and he asked me if I had any luggage, I said yes it was tagged through to Ottawa. He reminded me that all bags have to be cleared at Toronto whatever my onward destination happened to be (this applies to all flights except for some U.S. destinations).
Oh dear. I had to be escorted back around to the luggage collection area after having to go through another security check as if I was departing Toronto.
This took an additional 30 minutes, as we had to queue jump everywhere and caused irritated looks by other passengers, who quite possibly saw me as a terrorist being escorted somewhere for interrogation!
Anyway I managed to get my connecting flight, and without any window malfunctions this time!
Moral: Always listen to the in-flight messages, no matter how long you have been flying!
6. Loaded Lunch, Jinan, China
We were taken to a special lunch after a Saturday morning training session. This involved all 30 members of staff from a distributor who covered Jinan and Xuzhou provinces.
We were invited to a restaurant (actually just a house). The front room/lounge was small, with only 3 tables and there was a small study acting as the VIP eating room. 15 of us sat around a single table in this VIP area.
After our host plied us with strong Chinese wine, the food started to arrive. Having been to China on many occasions, I was ready for most foods and armed with strategic phrases to avoid trying them.
Along came a plate of baby turtle doves, whole, which I avoided on condition that I tried the next dish which were …baby deep fried scorpions. They cost 6 RMB/US$1 each, I was told, a princely sum.
In line with tradition, the host puts 2 fried scorpions into my mouth and he toasts me with some very strong Chinese wine that tastes of tractor fuel.
I swallow, and find that after some of the things I have eaten in China, they actually taste okay. Of course, I have to reciprocate and this goes on until the plate is finished and one is more than tipsy.
The fact that I drank and ate all the following dishes (nothing too outrageous) gave me a lot of brownie points and prompted commitments from the distributor for greater sales than I could imagine.
I went to Beijing on the bullet train afterwards with a full stomach and a hangover!
Moral: You can eat anything if you close your eyes and take strong alcohol shots thereafter! And it might just help you build stronger business relationships.
Got any travel stories as eventful as these ones?