Notes from plane seats and the odd airport lounge

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June 5th 2018
Published: June 10th 2018
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A spectre is haunting Europe…
I couldn’t help but re-visit the Manifesto of the Communist Party before our travels to Eastern Europe. It’s the first time we have journeyed to any Communist-Bloc country, let alone three. I am looking forward to our adventures through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria over the next three weeks.

But back to Marx and Engels. Rereading the manifesto, I was taken by how little had changed. The opening chapter described the growing divide between bourgeois and proletariat, and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the exponential spread of global capitalism since the fall of communism in the late 1980’s. If capitalism is rampantly out of control after all these years, is it simply human evolution – the need to endlessly consume, and to surround ourselves with more assets than we need. And all this at the expense of those that can barely consume enough to survive, and who will never be able to surround themselves with even the most basic of assets. The central tenet of communism (i.e. state-ownership underpinned by centralisation, nationalisation, collectivisation and industrialisation) should work, but it rarely succeeds. If we believe the view put by Marx and Engels – that the bourgeois are not fit to rule because they cannot assure an appropriate existence for the working class – then who is fit to rule?

A few weeks before we left, my mother sent me a 1991 National Geographic magazine that had an article on the impact of industrialisation in Romania, and it was harrowing reading. I’d read Oliver Twist and other Dickensian stories detailing the hardships of industrial England, but they were written a long time ago. It was confronting to realise that Romanian’s suffered terribly at the hands of industrial progress under communism – and that this had occurred in my own lifetime. Their life was secondary to the progress of their nation. Surely this isn’t what Marx and Engels had intended?

I will never forgot a news story I witnessed in 1989. A group of young Romanians were gathered around a television watching the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. When the two dictators dropped to the ground, the bodies grotesquely contorted from the gun fire, one of the girls smiled and clapped. She didn’t laugh, and her hands didn’t clap furiously – she just smiled and clapped softly in what appeared to be a subdued expression of relief. She looked about my age (I was 23 at the time), and I couldn’t imagine the hardship she had endured at the hands of Ceausescu – but it was certainly enough for her to quietly celebrate his death.

So how have the three countries emerged from the collapse of communism? Possibly not as well as they had hoped, although some are faring better than others. Which again brings me back to the Manifesto of the Communist Party. I have to admit that I’d forgotten the first step in the revolution, which involved ten measures that each country had to apply to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class:
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance (yikes)
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels (double yikes)
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State, cultivation of waste-lands and improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
8. Equal liability of all to work, and the establishment of industrial armies (especially for agriculture)
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries, and a gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
10. Free education for all children in public schools, the abolition of children’s factory labour and a combination of education with industrial production.

I was so enamoured with some of these measures when I first read them (as a young student) that I’d forgotten how divisive others were – especially 3 and 4. It’s easy to see how it all went so wrong, especially in the hands of tyrants such as Pol Pot, Todor Zhivkov and Nicolae Ceausescu. The spectre of communism stills haunts Europe, and it also haunts the rest of the world. Having failed emphatically in so many countries, no-one wants to revisit the inhumanity and brutality of collectivist rule, but there are those among us who continue to seek an alternative to capitalist rule, because it is – as Marx and Engels warned – not fit for purpose for society as a whole.

Anyway, back to the holiday. We are traveling by bus and train through three old Communist-Bloc countries, visiting small rural towns and staying with locals along the way. I am looking forward to experiencing a post-communist culture that I know so little about, and I am really looking forward to the soups, meats, stews, pastries and ubiquitous wines of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Our journey takes us first to Hungary, and the travel from Hobart to Budapest was long – really long. 32 hours in fact, which is a long time sitting in cars, planes, shuttle buses and airports. Our flight from Hobart to Sydney was delayed, but once we were in the air it was smooth and comfortable. On arrival in Sydney we made our way to the international terminal and relaxed for an hour or so before boarding our Qatar Airways flight to Doha. The flight was comfortable, the food was OK and the service was minimal. Things became interesting when an elderly woman took offence at a young guy reclining his chair. She stood and yelled at him, and a cabin crew member had to step in and diffuse the situation. The poor kid was shell-shocked – he didn’t know what had hit him. He genuinely thought that it was OK to recline his seat. To his credit, he wandered around the plane for a while, then sat back down and immediately reclined his chair… the woman immediately stood up and stared at him. There’s nothing like a Mexican standoff to pass the time on a long-haul flight.

Two hours before we landed, the two made up. They had been fuming for the past 12 hours, and then suddenly they were the best of friends. He even showed her how to use her in-flight entertainment screen, which she had been staring at for the entire flight – probably sending imaginary daggers into the back of his head. But now it had all changed – they were chatting and laughing and giving each other the thumbs up. It was great that they didn’t take the anger and nastiness into Doha, never to see each other again.

After our long-haul flight from Sydney, we touched down in Doha in the late evening. We were exhausted, but we only had a few hours wait before our final leg – a five hour flight to Budapest. The wait in Doha was reasonably comfortable and non-eventful – apart from the Arab guy who sat down beside us after buying multiple cartons of duty free cigarettes, and then started emptying them as individual packets into his well-organised suitcase. Why not pack the cartons intact? It looked dodgy, and every now and again he would turn around and eyeball me, so I had to stop looking. And then, of course, there was the young American girl sitting beside us who struck up a conversation with an Iranian guy and told him she was travelling to Nepal. He asked her if she had ever been to the Middle East, and she looked at him quizzically and said: ‘That’s where I’m going – to Nepal’. Maybe Middle East had a different meaning to her.

Anyway, we jumped on a shuttle bus at 2am and drove for what seemed a lifetime until we found our plane on the tarmac. Unfortunately the plane wasn’t ready, so we were held captive in the bus on the tarmac for at least 20 minutes. Everyone was getting a little jittery, because no one wants to be locked in a bus at 2am in the morning. We eventually boarded and took off to Budapest, enjoying some tasty snacks, wine and liqueurs on the way.

I turned on the flight path display on my in-flight entertainment, and I was surprised to discover our flight took us straight over Baghdad, with Syria just off to the left. I wondered if we would even make it to Budapest… which of course we did. We made our way over Iraq, Northern Turkey, the Black Sea, Romania and finally Hungary. After 30 hours of travel, we touched down in Budapest at 6:30am.

Our total flying time over three flights had been estimated at 23 hours 15 minutes… so it’s a good thing that we really love planes! However, even though that's nearly a whole day, we were hoping the time would pass relatively quickly. As most of you who read our blogs (or are related to me) will know, sleep is my travel super power! And I’m very grateful for it on these long haul flights.

As usual, we’d checked our furry ones into their respective holiday abodes the day before. We woke up to a strangely quiet house, ticked off the last few things on our to-do list and left for the Hobart Airport at 8am. It was a frosty 7 degree morning, but thankfully the car wasn't iced over.

The domestic Virgin flight from Hobart to Sydney was delayed about 45 minutes, but not enough to worry us about our connecting flight to Doha. We landed in a very rainy and grey Sydney, but transiting through the Kingsford Smith International Airport was much better than usual. The renovations have made a difference, with more seating and marginally better eateries, but it's still a rabbit warren that defies logic… and that shuttle bus to the International terminal seriously needs an upgrade! Immigration and security were a breeze, as was the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS) process to claim back our GST on a recent camera purchase.

Speaking of cameras, after months of indecision, I’m super happy to have a shiny new camera in my hands. After much research, I decided to keep it in the Sony family to use lenses I already had. I have a propensity to fall in love with things I love using, and as a result tend to keep wanting to use them well beyond their optimal life period. I really should have replaced my old camera before our trip to Sri Lanka last year, but I hung on to it, and only conceded defeat when it started randomly turning itself off and the focussing went soft. The new camera and lens combination is lightning-quick by comparison, but bigger and heavier than my old kit… I’m really hoping I don’t get annoyed with it on long days on the road.😡

We were flying with Qatar Airways for the first time. It was a good flight and the staff were very friendly and obliging, but the plane was tiny, the food was lacklustre (but plentiful) and the temperature kept switching between Arctic and sauna levels. It just wasn't conducive to lulling me into long blocks of three to four hours of sleep which I usually indulge in.😞

The plane seemed to be carrying many groups who weren't all sitting together, so it made for loud chatter that I could hear through my music. At one point while I was just nodding off, I heard raised voices, and assumed it was more of the same group banter. However, as it rose in shrillness, I woke up to find a Nana absolutely losing her head at the young bloke in front of her for reclining his seat. It was as funny as it was embarrassing… is a reclined seat really worth getting that worked up over? The cabin crew got involved, and the dispute resolution continued for a long time. The young bloke was mortified that he'd upset the Nana, but defended his right to recline his seat. I'm not sure how I would react if some stranger yelled at me so viciously. But I rarely recline my seat, and never without checking; and I do judge those types who recline their seat as soon as they can, and keep it reclined for the whole flight.

Despite the less than ideal comfort levels on the flight, the 15 hour flight went by quickly. We disembarked in Doha feeling tired but happy that we only had our third and last flight to Budapest left.

I had been looking forward to exploring Doha’s Hamad International Airport, but with only two hours between flights, we weren’t able to explore as much as I wanted. My immediate impression was that while it was huge, we must have been in a terminal that wasn’t part of the new architectural marvel I had read about. Our terminal was a model of general blandness, and I haven't seen an airport so heavily staffed since the 1990s! This was great if you needed help, but not so great when they were just loitering in large groups. And don’t even get me started on the army of very loud cleaners in the toilets who made it sound like there was a public rally right outside my door… some privacy would have been nice, as would not dying from the clouds of hideous air freshener. A quick scan of cafe prices showed them to be high enough to induce a nose bleed (even by airport standards)!

We made our way to our ground level gate, where we people-watched to pass the time. When we were called through, we realised it was to board a shuttle bus (with no seats) that drove us miles and miles to our plane. I understand that bigger airports need shuttles to move people around. However, when we got to the plane, it wasn't ready for us, and a bus load of people were kept standing on the tarmac for about 20 minutes. By this time we'd been on the road for about 24 hours, and it was nearly 2am local time. I definitely wasn't at all impressed by this airport.

The Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Budapest was far more pleasant. We scored an empty seat between us, and we were able to comfortably eat, drink and sleep for most of the flight. I watched a new day dawn over the Middle East as we flew over Iraq! And I hoped it was a day of peace.

Our travels are taking us to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. And as a result, my brain has been tricking me into saying ‘Hungaria’ instead of Hungary, as it flows so much better with Romania and Bulgaria. So if I slip up and type ‘Hungaria’ (we usually write our blogs late at night!), please excuse me. 😊

Speaking of getting names wrong, does anyone remember that Michael Jackson greeted the audience at his first concert in Bucharest (the capital of Romania), with ‘Hello, Budapest!’? I thought it was quite funny at the time, and it’s been parodied a lot since then… but I’m guessing the Bucharesti locals would have been a bit miffed.

Since we booked our trip, I’ve been voraciously reading everything I could on the East Balkan countries. I was dismayed by my total lack of knowledge of this part of the world. My history classes hadn’t covered topics which would have informed me that the Ottoman Empire extended as far west as Eastern Europe, that Spartacus was Bulgarian (well Thracian back then), and that many more countries other than just Germany and Poland had been complicit in Hitler’s ethnic cleansing! I had been aware of the backlash against Communism in the 1980s, especially in relation to the reunification of Germany etc., but the pervasive powers of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania had largely sailed under my radar. I’m now very much looking forward to adding depth to my new knowledge, by immersing myself in the cultures of these countries!

We are about to land, and I have to wrap things up. To say I’m excited is an understatement. I’ve been chanting ‘Boo-da-pesht, Boo-da-pesht, Boo-da-pesht’ for most of the flight. It’s really fun to slowly sound out each brilliant syllable with relish. 😊

See you in Budapest!


10th June 2018

Blogs from Romania and Bulgaria
We have recently been to both Romania and Bulgaria and published several blog entries from each country. If you are interested take a look at them. Btw we loved both countries /Ake
10th June 2018

Re: Blogs from Romania and Bulgaria
Hi Ake, I'll defintely take a look at those blogs... We are still in Hungary, but we're really looking forward to the small rural places we'll be visiting in Romania and Bulgaria :)
10th June 2018

It's real now.
Love the minute I get on the plane and disconnect- often falling asleep before take off. I love watching movies and reading on airplanes. Serenity now. Sorry to hear the environment was not conducive to hours of sleep. It is always sad to be at home with the furry ones. I think we need to put together a Travel Blog guide critique to all airports. Glad you studied and waiting to hear what you learn about this slice of the world.
10th June 2018

Re: It's real now.
I seriously love that feeling of sinking into my plane seat... and usually, falling asleep before take off! But even though we didn't sleep as much as we normally do on long haul flights, we didn't fare too badly when we got to the new time zone :)
10th June 2018

Communist manifesto and food for thought
I started the blog with my usual interest of travel reading, and soon got absorbed in not-so-travel-related topic of my interest - communism versus capitalism. Since I was a student in my green days, I fiddled with the "Das Kapital" from time to time and a young idealist, I used to think more of a just society where rights are equal. Now that I have been living in a capitalist world for a long time, I still couldn't find a green pasture for the human habitat - both have flaws in my view. While socialism (I am mellowing it down from the communism a bit) although a very interesting idea, but I still remember one of my political guru back in India who told me "You know, there is one fundamental thing that fails the communism is the human yearning of possessing something of his/her own - no matter how small it is". A concept that my entire being belong to the state is in conflict with the human psychology. There comes the conflict of 3rd doctrine of the manifesto that you listed. But more I see the naked truth of capitalism, I feel more disgusted, like I said, I never found a green pasture to live on. Sorry for babbling...enjoy the trip. It's a wonderful start of a blog Ren and Andrew! Loved it!
11th June 2018

Re: Communist manifesto and food for thought
Thanks Tab. We are still looking for that green pasture too...hope someone stumbles upon it soon! :)
11th June 2018

Former Soviet Countries....
We have had some of our most enjoyable and surprising travels in former Soviet countries. Budapest is amazing- you will love it, I'm sure. Brasov in Romania was a great visit and I'm sure you will get there. Enjoy your travels and we will enjoy your stories. Have fun!
11th June 2018

Re: Former Soviet Countries....
Thanks Nanci and David. We've really enjoyed our time in Budapest so far... it's knocked off another favourite to sit in our list of top five citiies :)
13th June 2018

Always difficult when the country uses the Cyrillic alphabet so in Bulgaria a couple of years ago I did try to learn some of the script otherwise how would I know the bus was going to SOfia ! But I loved it there , and if you can do a free walk in the cities of Sofia and Plovdiv. And maybe take a tour to Rilla , a marvellous monastery but you must dress respectfully there . I had to loan a big scarf to an Australian girl who had a strappy top on ! Food was fabulous , and try the grapefruit beer !
1st July 2018

Re: Bulgaria
Hi Lynne, I left it a bit late to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before we left, but I did write down the Cyrillic names of places we wanted to find (especially restaurants) and that proved to be very helpful. Andrew also found the Google translate app very helpful. We looked at the free walking tours in both Plovdiv and Sofia, but found that their content had already been more than covered by the Intrepid orientation walk. Food was indeed seriously fabulous... my clothes noticed too :)

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