Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Airports”

To Russia with Mom: Useful Equipment for Elderly Travelers

Here is a checklist of useful equipment and supplies.  Much of this should be in the zippable tote bag you carry on to the plane or train.

  1. A foldable cane.  Not only will this provide extra balance and security on uneven pavement or cobblestones, but it sends a signal to surrounding people that this person may be moving slowly, may not respond quickly to the unexpected, may not be stable, and they will give you wider passage, a helping hand, more consideration.
  2. A head lamp/lantern/flashlight. Lighting in hotel rooms may be inadequate for visually handicapped travelers – a bright LED headlamp is great for late-night reading or early-morning packing.

In one otherwise excellent Russian hotel, we were told that there would be no electricity between 6AM and 10AM the following morning (thus disabling the elevator, the bathroom lights, and the coffee machine in the breakfast room).  We were lucky that we did not need to bring our suitcases down from our second floor room any earlier than 10AM.  Wearing my headlamp I descended the steep, dark stairs and retrieved a cold breakfast and thermos of tea for us.   My head lamp features an attachment that converts it into a lantern;  this was a vital accessory in an electricity-deprived, windowless bathroom.

3. Noise-cancelling headphones.  These are really good on airplanes to enable hearing-impaired to enjoy the audio and movie channels more fully. (Tip:  if you have an old set of Bose earphones, you can trade them in at a Bose store to purchase a new set at a hefty discount.)

4. An ample supply of adult diapers (If there is any possibility of incontinence)

5. A packet of pop-up wipes such as are used for babies – handy for cleaning hands, spills, surfaces as well as any toilet accidents.

6. Energy bars for snacks.

7. A blow-up neck pillow – make sure it is easy to inflate and deflate, and has a comfortable cover.  Older old can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, but also wake up with stiff joints.

8. Travel sox – it is nice to take off shoes if you are on a long flight.

9. A shoe horn in your carry-on – to get those shoes back on after they have swollen in flight.

10. A couple of packets of plastic utensils (very useful in eating that cold breakfast)  Nab a couple of extra packets from the airline meal trolley – these are perfect!

11. Extra batteries for flashlight, hearing aids, noise-cancelling headphones

12. Medications pre-loaded in pillboxes marked for each day of the week.

To Russia with Mom – Tips for traveling with the Oldest Old

Wouldn’t you like to jump this queue at the Frankfurt Airport? Here’s how!

Traveling with the truly aged has both challenges and benefits. The pace will be slow, but there are advantages that come with age.
For example, friends had warned me how difficult it would be to enjoy the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with all the Asian tourists jostling and elbowing to get to the front of the crowd and take their obligatory pictures. But I was traveling with my 91-year-old mother, who had reluctantly agreed to use a wheelchair for the Museum tour. The large group of Japanese tourists who were part of our tour bowed deferentially to this silver-haired lady in a wheelchair, beckoned us to the front of the crowd to see each of the important pictures, made sure Mom could hear the guides commentary, and even insisted we go to the front of the line in the loo for access to the handicapped stall – It is good to be a dowager! (I shared all the privileges as the designated pusher.)

Look at the body language in the Queue at the Hermitage! This is a vacation?

As the trip evolved, there were a number of ideas that worked well to smooth Mom’s journey. Here are some top tips:
First cardinal rule: Take all the help you can get!
Traveling with an elderly companion requires extra alertness, awareness of hazards, and forethought. Tour operators and airline personnel have lots of experience on how to make an older person safe and comfortable – don’t hesitate to ask for help and take advantage of their knowledge.

  • If you are flying, be sure to request wheelchair assistance at every airport.
Mom at secret elevator with the estimable FTA agent in Frankfurt

Mom objected to using a wheelchair at first – “I’m not THAT old!” but when she realized how many lines she could avoid standing in, and how many short cuts between terminals would be opened, she relaxed and played the queen enthroned with gusto.

  • Many airlines reserve easy-access seats on the airplane for handicapped passengers and their escorts. Mom and I had the benefit of this allowance which twice gave us a trio of seats to share between the two of us in the extra-leg-room section of the plane.
  • Shamelessly use any other perk available.  My United Gold card got us into the Star Alliance Lounge in both San  Francisco and Frankfurt.  SFO’s United Club enabled us to get through an  unexpected 3 hour flight delay without too much pain;  in Frankfurt we enjoyed a varied and delicious lunch buffet in the Lufthansa Lounge between flights.

Mom eyeing apple cake at Lufthansa’s dessert buffet

  • Many bus tour companies reserve the front seats of the bus for handicapped passengers.
  • Many bus tour companies offer “kneeling” buses for easier access.
  • Most museums, even in ancient churches and public buildings, have some sort of elevator or ramp access. Don’t shy about asking, as your tour guide may not think of it or may not want to be bothered finding out if the “lift” is currently in operation.
  • If you are part of a tour group, insist that the “sweep” stay with you, even though your pace may be slow. This will prevent your being lost from the group if they make a sudden left turn and you miss it by lagging (as happened to us in Stockholm as we navigated through the labyrinthine City Hall).
  • Schedule some break time for the support team.

Walking at a slower-than-normal pace with an arm crooked to offer support can be as exhausting as power-walking, and being constantly alert for hazards and obstacles is wearing on the brain. Let your older companion take a nap and use the time to stretch and exercise your body, move fast, take in a few extra sights and sounds of the exotic place you are in. You’ll feel great – and grateful for all you are able to do. Trust me, your older fellow traveler will be happy to vicariously share any independent adventures over the dinner table.

To Russia with Mom – Day 2 -Frankfurt -> St. Petersburg

In-flight (10 hours). We are in a new 777 with on-demand movie, TV, audio, and game channels – hundreds of selections! Is this cool or what?

In fact, there is a lot less here than meets the eye – a choice of  12 “current release”  movies is not thrilling if they are all unwatchable.  I took a look at  “Journey 2: the Mysterious Island” –  the Teletubbies have better visual effects than this.  I go back to my 19th century media – back issues of  Science News Digest and the New Yorker.

Mom was excited at first also, but a choice of hundreds of media options is not very useful to a visually impaired nonagenarian if the choices are unreadable –  small light blue type on a medium blue touchscreen just doesn’t cut it.  I try to pick a movie she will like and she settles in with “As Good As It Gets”, struggling to make the audio phones fit over her hearing aids.  Fortunately, she is able to sleep.

In-flight meal – I get lucky – there is an extra vegetarian meal in the galley – a nice spicy curry of corn, peas, and chickpeas over rice.  I set aside the triple brownie for future need. Mom gets the chicken and eats a good bit of the chicken, rice, and salad.  I snag her brownie also.

“Breakfast” is a disgrace” – a “croissant” as fluffy as a baseball bat, six small chunks of unripe melon, half inedible.  I blush for United, imagining the feelings of the passengers used to the amenities on Lufthansa and other state-sponsored airlines.

We land in Frankfut at 12:32 local time.  Our connecting flight leaves at 1:25.  The stewardess  assures me that we can make it.  Despite some nervous moments,  and thanks to the kindness of strangers who yielded prority seats on the bus and offered many helping hands, we do.

A special commendaton to the harried service staff for Lufthansa at Frankfurt, faced with a plane-load of slow-moving seniors and families with tight connections to various vacation places. They maintained patience, order, and control over the anxious horde, several electric carts, and assorted wheelchairs.  A special shout out to Eilika Williams, our personal chair navigator, who wormed us through secret passageways, forbidden gates, and past long security lines, all the while maintaining a cheerful stream of chatter and a wide smile to allay Mom’s anxiety.

Through the Frankfurt maze!

We are aboard the Lufthansa flight to St. Petersburg.  At first we are seated far apart, but the kind gentleman in the aisle seat moves up one row, which allows Mom to move up, and we have a whole row of three seats to ourselves!  They serve a hot meal.  I finish a Smithsonian magazine, play a few rounds of solitaire, think, write a little.


The St. Petersburg Airport –  Arrival.  Chaos.  No wheelchair here, no magic card or helpful genie to speed us through the queue.  Actuall, “queue” is a misnomer, implying some sort of order or sequence.  We simply merge into a tidal wave.

My ex-colleague and now friend Maxas is waiting for us as we exit from customs(after standing in queue for nearly an hour – did I ever miss Japan!). He packs all our stuff into his snazzy red French mini-van, gives us a quick tour of the central city sights (the Bronze Horseman, the Winter Palace, the Nicholas Istatue, the Legislative buildings, the Nevsky Prospect, Dostoevsky’s house) and deposits us at our hotel, together with the baggage which requires two trips in the tiny elevator to convey to our room.

We are unwinding now in a very lovely little hotel room  at the Stony Island Hotel on Lomontoriv Prospect, just around the corner from the Russian Museum.  We change a few clothes, and check on what we have misplaced so far. (My sunglasses disappeared after the first security check… they may yet reappear and I have backups)

Arcade – Gostinyy Dvor

After our R&R we venture out, walking around a huge building which hadsbeen re-purposed into a shopping mall.  (We later discover that this is the famous Gostinyy Dvor, the oldest department store inthe world, now carved up into a series of small bourtique shops.).We make it to Nevsky Prospekt where we see lots of happy looking people in various shades of style walking, chatting, swigging beer, and  watching street performers.  We do not make it to any notable sights as hunger overtakes us.  We are surprised to be told at the little café that they did not serve anything but coffee, tea, and pastries after 10PM – it is still quite bright outside and we had no idea it was that late.  Fortunately the croissants and jam we ended with are delicious, as iss the tea we share.

We find our way back to the hotel, feeling triumphant – we have arrived!  We have explored!  We have eaten!  We are in Russia, the hidden, secret, unknown mystery of my childhood, fantasized as a place of gray, treeless, empty streets , now revealed as a bustling  place full of life and color and exhiliration.  It all seems a bit like the Emerald City of Oz.

A piece of my mind editorialized “This is not Russia – anymore than San Francisco is America!” Most of my thinking was just joyful to find a place so much better than my expectation.  How often does that happen? Can the spell last? We have three days more to spend here…

To Russia with Mom – Day one (In flight SFO->Frankfurt)


Our flight is scheduled to depart at 1:56 PM.  I call Mom at 8:30 AM. She is up and dressed, but there are some things she can’t find.  I go through the hedge  Explanatory [Note: I live next door to my Mom] and find what needs finding, forget about the other items that won’t be needed on the trip. We empty the fridge of everything which won’t last two weeks.  I take milk, meat, cheese, fruit through the hedge to our fridge for my husband’s survival rations.

I call Mom again at 10:30 with a 15 minute warning.  She says “I’m ready to walk out the door.”

We bring the car around at 10:45.  The door is closed and locked.  We ring the bell. No response.  We ring the bell again.  Finally Mom opens the door.  She had fallen asleep.  Well, at least she is relaxed.

We load two incredibly heavy suitcases, a jam-packed rolling tote, and an equally crammed Land’s End Tote into the trunk of the car.  I hand Mom’s passport around her neck in a little ID pouch recycled from a trade show.  I have my passport, cash, airline itinerary in a passport wallet around my neck. We are off!

1PM – At the airport:  I have a Gold card for United thanks to my business excursions in Asia last year, so we get fast processing through check in;  my mother’s silver hair gets us waved into the Priority line at Security,  and we are quickly admitted to the Red Carpet Club, where we are informed of an hour’s delay of our flight.  We have a four hour window at Frankfurt, now cut to three.  No worries.  We settle in with trail mix, raw carrots, cheese and crackers;  Mom snoozes and reads; I read and write.

Two hours later: Our plane is undergoing “aircraft servicing” and the flight time has slipped from 1:55 PM to 3PM to 4PM. We still have a two hour window to make our St Petersburg flight, but  if it slips another hour we may not make our connection.  I talk with assorted other folks using Frankfurt as a connection point to Moscow, Florence, Copenhagen, and other exotic points – many with tighter connections and fewer options.  I’m glad we added a few days in front of our cruise date in St. Petersburg; I’m getting a little worried about the Saturday matinee ballet tickets my friend Maxas secured for us.

I get online and email my husband and Maxas, more to vent than to inform, at this point.

3:30 – Boarding announcement.  We gather our scattered  resources and head for Gate 95.  Again, Mom’s silver hair is even more effective than my gold card in getting us priority seating.

4:55: finally, three hours late, in flight.  Our Frankfurt transfer window is cut to one hour.  Will we and our luggage make it?

On board and ready to fly!

Our Tax Dollars at Work ( Los Altos Town Crier May 1, 2012)

On Tax Day this year I found myself flying into Dulles International Airport.  There was some turbulence, but our landing under the direction of the FAA-trained traffic controller was silken smooth.

As we taxied to the gate, we passed the space shuttle Discovery, still piggy-backed on its 747 shuttle waiting for enshrinement at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near the airport.

The next day we spent several hours in the museum, guided by a volunteer docent brimming with anecdotes and information about the jet planes, rockets, satellites, and space exploration – so many achievements that were only made possible by a wartime or Cold War-time national commitment.

That afternoon we proceeded through the springtime electric green east coast countryside on US routes 15 and 30 to Gettysburg and its marvelously evocative National Battlefield. The landscape is meticulously preserved as it appeared in Matthew Brady’s historic photographs taken only a few days after the battle almost 150 years ago.  Again, park rangers were available at major points to tell an audience of school children, Boy and Girl Scouts, parents, and other tourists about what happened here that formed our national consciousness.

We had previously visited the Park Department’s Visitor’s Center which offers both panoramic and microscopic information about the politics, military strategy, soldier life and every other aspect of the battle that one could imagine. The famous Cyclorama 360 degree painting is there along with a short film about slavery that will bring a tear to the most jaded eye.

The next day we took my centenarian mother-in-law, who raised her family in Gettysburg, to visit her favorite spots on the battlefield.  Thanks to the improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, we were able to wheel her to almost all the most nostalgic spots both on the battle field and on the campus of Gettysburg College where she had worked for many years.

My mother-in-law never held any job title higher than Executive Secretary to the college president, but her contributions through her working career have provided her with competent and caring medical coverage in the thirty-five years (so far) since her retirement.

We stopped off at the post office to mail some Gettysburg history  and other used books that we had picked up; since we were in no hurry to get these the cost was just under $8.00 to ship the 12”x12”x12” box across the country.

Throughout our trip we stayed in close touch with my mother and two children via Internet email (formerly known as ARPANET, developed and still maintained by the US Defense department).

Safe air travel, flight technology, space exploration, highways, postal service, national heritage parks, handicapped access, secure old age, Internet communication….

Folks who complain about your taxes – What part of this heritage, these services would you not want to support? I’m happy to pay my fair share for all these things and many more that I could never accomplish on my own.

Kathmandu – Day 7 – the Kathmandu Domestic Air Terminal – and back

Kathmandu International Airport is modest, particularly in comparison with its glittering neighbor, Suvarnabhumi International Airport  in Bangkok.  It has a small traffic control tower, a simple customs process,  a short walk through the terminal to the taxi queue, a nicely landscaped divided entry highway which leads into town a reasonable distance away. It reminds me of the Oakland CA airport in the 60’s from which charter flights through to Europe through Iceland – competent and manageable.

So my arrival in Kathmandu through this gateway did not prepare me for my attempted departure through the Kathmandu DOMESTIC Airport, which was much more reminiscent  of  Oakland’s Greyhound bus terminal before anti-smoking ordinances were in effect, assuming that tule fogs had shut down all routes south and stranded five busloads of would-be travelers.

There is no such thing as curb-side check-in at the KDA – and if, like our group, you have several weeks worth of baggage, you would do well to tip your taxi driver or one of the unofficial airport porters to assist you to carry your bags.   You will need to pay an airport fee of about 200 Nepalese xxx and be able to show your receipt at the security gate.  You will be responsible yourself for getting your bags into the airport, labeled for your destination, and onto the conveyor belt at the security gate for X-raying. Then you will step through the security portal (Note that “Gents” go through a different portal than “Ladies”, in case you need to be patted down) and must then make sure your bags get into the proper pile to be loaded onto the airplane.

If there is fog, there will likely be several plane-loads of travellers waiting to embark.  Seating is limited and the benches appear also to have been handed down from a Central California bus terminal; their chrome armrests and cracked vinyl reek of authenticity, if not more.

If you are flying from Kathmandu to Pokhara-  the jumping off point for most treks on the Annapurna circuit – there are a few constraints.  The first and most important is that the Pokhara airport has no radar capability, so if the area is fogged in, it is not possible to land an airplane.  Also, it is not possible to land a plane after dark, as Pokhara electric service is limited.   Between October 15 and November 15 there is usually clear weather, so this is the peak season for trekking and for flying.  But if there is fog you will wait for it to lift – as we did.

Many of the waiting travellers will be smoking, as there is no such thing as smoking restriction in public areas in Nepal.  No, wait!  There IS a N0 Smoking sign in one area – and there are seats!  Uh oh!  it is the area next to the two public lavatories.  That’s why there are seats – the reek of the lavatories is perhaps less injurious to your health than the cigarette smoke, but it doesn’t make much difference, as there is nothing except the small sign preventing the smoke from the smoking section to invade the sacrosanct area.

There is a small snack bar offering candy, crackers, chips, soda, water, a limited selecton of souvenirs, and a very limited menu of hot sandwiches or rice bowls.  Since the flight to Pokhara will lasts less than an hour, you may forego these treats. Or if you find yourself waiting through lunchtime, as we did, you may give in.

I would like to be able to tell you about the boarding process, about the state of the Yeti Airlines plane we were to fly on, and about the Pokhara Airport, but unfortunately, you will have to learn about these from another, more fortunate traveler.  After SIX HOURS of waiting,  at 2:50 the nice young thing at the counter confided in DB ” We can’t fly after 4 PM because there are no lights at Pokhara, so the flight will be announced cancelled at 3.  Go quickly and get in line to re-book your flight and reclaim your luggage.”

So the three of us jumped into action – DB managed the baggage, I hit the Airport tax counter for a refund for the three of us, and DM stood in line to rebook.  DM also located the free phone and had a business card for our hotel, so we were able to secure our room again.

So now what?  We were  exhausted – 7 hours of airport noise and announcements and babble bracketed by unbelievable traffic and brown air, and no assurance that we would not have to go through it again the next day.  Stay tuned for Day 8!


Tip for travelers in Nepal – make sure to arm yourself with plenty of baksheesh  in the local currency before embarking – we needed an extra trip to the ATM after our experiences.

Kathmandu – Advice for travellers

1. Bring a reliable alarm clock:  You will need this for the mornings when you are asked to get up at an incredibly early hour to view the sunrise on the Annapurnas.  The Annapurna Range is long and large, and the sun rises every morning, so you will have many opportunities to do this.

2. Bring granola bars:  For those mornings when you get up before the hotel breakfast service is operational in order to see the sunrise on the Annapurnas.

3. Pack warm layers: For those mornings when you get up early to see the sunrise on the Annapurnas and the temperature still hovering in 40s as you drive out to the place with the optimal view.  It will be in the 70s by lunchtime so be prepared to peel like an onion.

4. Be philosophical:  On those mornings when, like us on Day 5, you wake at 4AM, dress in warm clothes, eat your granola bar, drive on empty freeways and one-lane dirt roads to the acclaimed vantage point…and the fog is in.   I saw the sunrise pink the top of the fogbank, but not a sign of the Annapurnas.  Such is life.

5. Study up on the Hindu pantheon:  It helps a lot as you check off the seven World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley if you are up to speed with the various incarnations of Vishnu and his consort, together with their assorted supporters, favorite modes of transport (Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, rides a shrew) and associated holidays.

6. These are active worship sites; don’t be squeamish about local customs: One shrine, beautifully decorated with hand-painted tiles featuring peacocks, was splatttered with blood from a recent sacrifice;  another temple was adorned with unbelievable elaborate wood carvings, and strings of dried buffalo intestines.

7. Bring your camera’s battery charger with an international adapter :  an auxiliary battery will not do the trick.    My fellow travelers and I had almost 2000 pictures to share AFTER we had culled the worst shots.  (But if you forget, everything you need is available in Thamel – for a price.)

8.  No matter where you go, there you are:  On Day 5 at the Holy Himalyan Hotel I  struck up a conversation with the lady at the adjacent free-for-guests computer who had just returned from a trek of the Annapurna circuit.  After a few rounds of “Where are you from? … You’re kidding!” it turned out that she works for my sister.   Later, it happened that  the only other American couple at the guest house in Tadupani lived on the same street as my son in Sacramento, and the only other guests at the teahouse on the way to Ghorepani actually lived on my street 4 short blocks down.  Good thing I wasn’t mis-behaving!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: