A boomer finds Nirvana … but it isn’t easy

Lots of baby boomers today have more time to travel than they used to have. Especially the retired ones. The question is, is it worth it? BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs is traveling right now in Asia, and was beginning to wonder.

As a leading edge baby boomer, especially after a career roaming around the world as a journalist, I’ve traveled in luxury and I’ve traveled rough. So I can do both.

Truth be known, I like luxury better.

Especially the older I get.

And I just had a short but sharp reminder why.

I write right now from Bhutan, in the Himalayas.

Greg … A thousand feet up to a 13th Century monastic university.

From where I live in the Colorado Rockies, it took three flights to get here. Twelve hours on United from Denver to Tokyo, six-and-a-half on All Nippon Airways from Tokyo to Bangkok, then a final four on Royal Bhutan Airlines (called Druk, which means “dragon”), from Bangkok to this Himalayan nation’s main airport, Paro. From the moment you look out on Bhutan’s highest peaks, peeking through the clouds off the wing of the aircraft, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

24,730 feet of mountain peeking through clouds.

By the way, the plane made an intermediate stop in easternmost India, before flying on to Bhutan. Evidently sleeping through the onboard announcements, I hadn’t picked up on that. I was in the aisle with my jacket zipped and my backpack over one shoulder and ready to disembark. Thank goodness for the flight attendant who had the good sense to stop me. They don’t talk about Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” for nothing!

Now let me digress, with a question that occurred to me on all three airplanes: how does anyone who doesn’t have strong teeth manage to eat what they’re served in the air? I don’t mean the food is tough (although have you had an airline meal on a U.S. flight lately? They could learn a thing or two from Druk!). I mean the packaging that protects it. From the snack bags to the utensils you need to consume a meal and a few things in-between, you’ve got to tear with your teeth through almost impenetrable foil or plastic to get at what you want.

But like I said, I digress. My teeth are fine, so no complaint. Anyway, this story is about travel, not teeth. And the toll that travel has begun to take on this baby boomer.

I used to move across time zones the way most people move across cities. Overnight flights, sometimes (to get to certain parts of the Middle East, or deep down into the continent of Africa), two overnights in a row. Yet we’d get where we were going, get off the plane, and get right to work. Hardly noticed the time change.

That was then, this is now. Back in July, my wife and I went to Italy — hardly a Third World trip — to bike in the Dolomites. It was an eight-hour time zone change, but I handled it more like it was eighty. My body just doesn’t adjust as it used to.

Sound familiar, boomers?

So what’s the adjustment to Bhutan, from Colorado? Twelve hours. Noon in Denver is midnight in Paro. Noon in Paro is midnight in Denver. Truly the other side of the world.

It can be hard enough to make this trip if all goes smoothly. When it doesn’t, well, it’s harder.

The writing was on the wall from the get-go. The flight to Tokyo left Denver almost four hours late. I was kind of surprised when, instead of the plane getting pushed back, the departure time got pushed back — four different times — and the gate agent kept blaming “a leak.” Eventually it was plural, as in “leaks.” Once we finally did board the aircraft, the pilot stuck with the same shocking story line.

Listen, I’ve landed on foam in a chartered jet at New York’s LaGuardia when some of the landing gear didn’t come out. I’ve semi-crash-landed in a fuel-depleted helicopter. Twice! So fixable flaws don’t scare me; I want the straight scoop. But something tells me that a lot of other air passengers disagree. They’d probably prefer to be told that the flight crew is delayed, or the food service got waylaid. Something other than “leaks.”

In any event, eventually the leaks were plugged or spare parts were screwed in or whatever, and we got off the ground. But by that time, my wife and I and a few others scheduled to transfer in Tokyo with an already tight turnaround to the Bangkok flight knew we would be no less than a couple of hours late. At least we had the good sense to check and see that All Nippon had a later flight out of Tokyo. We booked to get on it.

Thank goodness.

By the time we landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, on the other side of the international dateline (meaning today was already tomorrow), we still barely made it; we had only 20 minutes to get from our incoming flight to the outgoing flight on which we had wisely booked as a backup. But that’s 20 minutes before even deplaning, let alone figuring out where the next gate was, let alone knowing whether we actually had assigned seats. Thank heavens for deodorant.

Already fifteen hours ahead of Colorado time, we got to the gate and were given our seats: the last ones available. 33C and 34C. The last two rows on the plane.

Now another digression: not only do I pity people without good teeth trying to tear into food on an airplane. I also pity people sitting in the last few rows of an airplane, with a constant flow of passengers, snaking their way down from farther front, heading for the restrooms. And the constant sound of flushing.

This time, we were those people.

Six-and-a-half hours later though, we got to Bangkok. With the brief but busy transfer in Tokyo, we’d now been in airplanes for more than 18 hours. Under the original plan, at least we were going to have a full five hours in Bangkok between landing and checking in — at three in the morning — for our final flight to Bhutan.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The Denver delay, then the rebooked Tokyo-Bangkok flight — cut that down to three. Again, that’s three hours before even deplaning, let alone standing in lines and finally passing through Immigration and Customs.

But I’d had a plan that would save the day (or, to be more accurate, what was left of the night). I’d booked at a hotel in the airport itself. A shower and a couple of hours on a bed would be refreshing.

However, there was a fatal flaw. It turns out, this hotel was within the secure part of the airport. Go through Immigration, grab your suitcases and pass through Customs, and you’re not in the secure part of the airport any more.

Instead, you’re officially in Thailand. Which wouldn’t much matter if anyone when we booked the hotel had told us. But no one did.

So try to follow this. It’s about 12:30 in the morning in Bangkok (translation: middle of the night), and we can’t get to our bought-and-paid-for hotel unless we get our boarding passes for the flight to Bhutan and pass again through Immigration as if we’re leaving the country … but the check-in counter for Druk doesn’t open til 3AM.

So we’re stuck. Which, for what it’s worth, sort of rhymes with Druk.

Not that all was lost though.

Bangkok’s airport has beds in the basement to rent by the hour. It’s a trend that’s growing in Asia.

Here’s the one we didn’t take!

Sleeping in a coffin???

And here’s the one we did. A seven-by-seven room, no shower, no toilet, no running water period (that’s all about 50 yards down the hall in a pubic restroom in the airport’s basement and the hotel gives you an envelope with toilet tissues for, well, you know), but a bed with maybe a foot-wide aisle on one side and another foot-wide space at the bottom.

Our rented 2-hour box hotel.

You know what though? Having been traveling at this point for almost 20 hours, the bed and a pillow that my wife and I shared for the 75 minutes we spent there in our little dark box were pure luxury.

Then at 3 a.m. Bangkok time we checked in for the last leg to Bhutan, and just 36 hours after leaving home, got where we were going.

But Day One alone made it all worth doing.

From the first moment, you know it’s not LGA or DFW or LAX!

From the moment we touched ground, we knew we were in a special place. It’s a nation without a morsel of fast food (in fact no chain stores of any kind), without a shipping port or an inch of railroad track, not even a single traffic light. Just uniquely Himalayan architecture, uniquely warm people, Himalayan beauty in every direction.

Buddha beside the road.

And Buddha was all around us, in his many incarnations. And prayer flags, everywhere.

Wobbly chain bridge with prayer flags.

We hadn’t been on the ground for six hours when our guide took us on a little hike, about two miles up a steep path — a thousand feet up from where we started, which already was thousands of feet above sea level — to a monastic university. The place was built in the 13th Century, then spiffed up in the 17th.

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

So the bottom line is, travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. Which makes my advice to baby boomers all the more important: choose your destinations prudently. But at the same time, don’t avoid a place just because it takes a trek to travel there. If it’s worth getting to, it’s worth the trouble to get there.

Check out Greg’s book about his career as a network television correspondent.

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5 Comments

  1. Wow is right! I enjoyed reading about your travel adventure and I applaud you and your wife for your adventurous spirit. However, at this point in my life, I think I’ll stick closer to home. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent piece, Greg. And I might add one more thing about the last row of seats (usually): They don’t recline. Not in coach, anyway.

  3. Oh, come on Greg, the two ex airline employees in our house suggest that if they say it’s a leak, it’s a leak. You really don’t want to end up at the bottom of the ocean. And, yes, travel is getting more difficult with age.

  4. Agree completely, Greg. As travel writers my husband and I just returned from a 2.5 month trip from Tampa to Barcelona, to Florence, Sorrento, Naples, Rome, Malta and London. Much more moving than we usually do. Even with only a carry-on and backpack each, the schlep was agonizing.

    That’s why we try to us a transatlantic crossing on one end of a big trip. At least getting there was pleasant. But coming home was the pits. London trains shut down, so we had to Uber to airport. Arrived (like everyone else) an hour later than planned. But, no, the airline wouldn’t let us go to the gate and marked us “no show” even though the plane was on the ground for more than another hour. Another nightmare rebooking (with no discount) on a much more expensive flight, plus a hotel for the night. Then, on the 9 hour flight home, Norwegian Air didn’t even give us water. Nope. Gotta buy everything, even 5 oz of H2O. Another lesson learned.

    But I wouldn’t trade my world adventures for anything. The places we’ve seen, the wonderful people we’ve met, many who remain friends, the experience of a totally different point of view. That’s worth ALL the trouble.

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