Throughout my travels I have been asked many times how I chose the countries to visit. There were two major factors that influenced my itinerary, a desire to go to places that I had not been before and the cost of travel. With the majority of my flights supported by my award miles, I was somewhat dependent on creating circuitous routes within specific award regions. More than once I had someone tell me that it was unfortunate that I had scheduled a certain flight, because a more direct route between the cities existed. Linking so many flights inevitably meant that even after I was able to create a schedule to squeeze 44 countries into 4 weeks and 4 days back in October – the route would need adjustments. Factors such as airlines changing flights, not been able to secure transit visas, and not being able to get approval from the military to travel to certain countries created a domino effect on my country list. For such reasons, Ireland and Belgium were relatively late add-ons, Then at the last minute, both almost were dropped from the list.
As crazy as it sounds, Ireland was actually my replacement for Tunisia. Although a great substitution, it was an unfortunate schedule change. When I began to reach out to Parkinson’s societies in the different countries that I would be visiting, Tunisia was one of the countries that was early to respond. They quickly planned a very ambitious program for my short stay, including invitations to the Ministers of Health and Sport, a press conference, planned a running course, and offered full support during my visit. However, as a member of the US Air Force I have to get approval for all foreign travel from the Department of Defense. Although the political situation in Tunisia seems to have largely stabilized, the country was still on the off-limits list. Despite my best efforts, I could not get clearance . I do want to recognize the Association Tunsie Parkinson for their offer to host my visit in Tunis and invite everyone to read more about their organization by visiting their facebook page:
Ireland, despite not being an obvious geographic fit, was a good substitution for Tunisia because I could easily arrange connections from Sarajevo and to Morocco. However, both connections ended up having challenges. The night before I flew to Dublin, I became aware that I had a tight, 50 minute, connection in Munich AND Munich was hosting what would be the most highly anticipated soccer game of the year to date - a Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. I looked into travel options that would allow me to stay in Munich overnight, but decided it would be best to stick with my original plan to fly to Dublin. However, I had not completely convinced myself and when we were 20 minutes late leaving Sarajevo the next morning, my mind started working again. I was really conflicted. I figured that if I missed my flight due to the fact that my connecting flight arrived late - the airline would likely reroute me without a problem. So now the dilemma was should I - hurry to get off the plane, hurry to get off the airport bus, hurry to the security and passport control lines? The ultimate question came when I heard my name being paged overhead for the final boarding call - should I rush to the gate or slow down? In the end I made the flight. This was probably a good thing. It simplified my travel planning, gave me a quiet night in Dublin (most memorable for a dinner of Guinness and Guinness stew) and since Madrid dominated the game - Munich was probably not a real fun place to be that night after all.
Having made it to Ireland and lowered my level of travel stress, I almost didn’t get out on time – which obviously would have greatly raised that level of stress. I was flying out of Ireland on Ireland’s own RyanAir (although I am not sure the country wants to claim home status for the king of the budget airlines). Anyone looking for a hilarious travel related book, I recommend "RuinAir" by Paul Kilduff. RyanAir has made an art out of creating a madding set of rules that if you don’t follow them correctly, trigger huge penalty fees. I had only paid $28 for my flight from Dublin to Brussels (actually Charleroi – RyanAir’s other strategy is to fly to remote airstrips to lower costs). Given the cost, I was careful to make sure my backpack was proper size, boarding pass was printed before arriving at the airport, and I arrived early at the gate. However, as I was standing in line to board the plane I saw a small box printed on the full page boarding pass. It stated that if I was a non-EU citizen, I needed to get special stamp prior to going through security and boarding the plane. It was too late now, so I decided to play dumb. There were two agents taking the boarding passes. I was in the line with the lady who sternly told me "you don't have stamp!". When struck with the "play dumb" strategy, she looked at me as if she thought I was truly dumb and told me to stand to the side. When the man finish his line of passengers he came to help me. He was Irish and that probably explained his sympathetic, good-natured approach to my plight. He asked if I had read the box on the boarding pass. I of course said, "no" and acted puzzled as to why I was not stopped by any immigration control, but was now be prevented from leaving the country by airline personnel. Actually, that wasn't so much an act - I still don't understand why Ryan Air was prevented people from boarding the plane when they do not need a visa for the destination country. Knowing the company's mantra, this probably is a protest to some government or airport security policy. Whatever the reason the woman appeared ready to stand her ground and the man seemed to be trying to find a loophole for me. The man asked to see my visa - to which I had to reply that I don't need, and therefore don't have, a visa. The woman simply stated, "He cannot board". Fortunately the man took another approach, he waited until the woman was busy with another customer, quickly tore off my part of the boarding pass and said with Irish accent and charm, “Just be sure to do it next time”, and let me through to board the plane.
Landing in Charleroi meant taking a bus to Brussels and then train to Brussels airport. Provided my timing was prefect, I calculated that I would be able to get in a 4 mile run in the city center. However, my calculations included a few errors. First, the line to get bus tickets was about 30 people long when I arrived and that meant I would on the second, rather than the first bus to depart the airport. Second, the stop for the bus was Midi, rather than Central Station. Therefore, I would have to take 2 different trains if I want to run in the city center, before I went to the Brussels airport to catch my flight to Casablanca. With my time constraints and the recent close calls with transportation connections, I decided to play it safe. I ran a quick to 2 miles in Brussels in area of the Midi station and then I caught train to airport. Then I more than made up for this abbreviated run when I logged a bunch of extra miles in the next 2 days - some intentionally, some unintentionally.
I would like to thank our good friends, Tony and Wendy Propst, for their encouragement and generous donation to be the Country Sponsor for my stop in Ireland.