It was 4:30 a.m. and the cab swerved around yet another cow crossing the road. Fires burned in trash cans, illuminating families huddled in the night. As the car stalled once again, I'd lost all hope that my turbaned driver, hired at the New Delhi airport, would ever find the Delhi main station in time for my train to the Taj Mahal in Agra.
But no matter. By this time tomorrow, I'd be back at 30,000 feet, sipping a cool one on my way to Moscow, and this would all be a distant dream. Such is the life of a mileage maniac.
After all, I held in my pocket the Rolls-Royce of all frequent flier programs: Pan Am's WorldPass 30. Achieved after logging 175,000 miles, it entitles the bearer to 30 days of free first-class air travel practically anywhere the airline flies.
The Eiffel Tower, the safaris of Kenya, the string bikinis of Rio--I was determined to make the most of it.
And so, last spring, I planned an itinerary that would take me 58,610 miles in 136 hours 58 minutes. I would hear the "fasten seat belt" message 31 times, consume 74 bags of peanuts and walk through 45 metal detectors by the time my trip was finished.
While others liken flying to being as torturous as a trip to the dentist, for me it has always been like a magic carpet ride. In grade school my pockets were stuffed with airline schedules. While other kids were swapping baseball cards, I studied the Official Airline Guides with a discipline worthy of pre-med.
By no small coincidence, I chose a career involving a huge amount of air travel. As a photojournalist I spend almost as much time aloft as on the ground, hurling through space in those sleek metal tubes.
I accumulate mileage at an astounding rate. But I find that the more I accumulate, the more I want. Soon I was making stopovers that weren't even close to my destination, just for a couple hundred extra miles.
Then again, as a fellow passenger once said, "A professional frequent flier can't be distracted by only going places he wants to be."
"How much for the Nikes?" asked the Soviet teen-ager in perfect English.
I'd been photographing the changing of the guard at the Kremlin in Red Square when Vladimir introduced himself. After explaining that they were my only pair, the next request was for Marlboros. I'd been warned by a flight attendant that this would happen.
On my way into Moscow (aboard the 727 named "Clipper Daring"), all the Marlboro cigarettes had been sold. "People know that a pack can get them food, shelter or through a line at the airport," said the flight attendant.
The freezing temperature finally brought the photo shoot to a close, and I headed back to the Intourist Hotel. Moscow was one of many overnight stops along the way, and my plane was leaving early in the morning. I set the alarm for 5 a.m., downed my weekly malaria pills (in preparation for the following week's safari) and fell asleep.
All roads lead to Frankfurt. Over the course of the 30 days, I was to land there nearly a dozen times, although I never made it out of the airport once. To fly from Nairobi to Athens, or from Istanbul to Budapest, one must inevitably pass through Frankfurt-Main International Airport.
So many flights from all over the world connect in Frankfurt that the airport has developed into a city unto itself. Just for starters, there's a disco, three porno theaters, a supermarket and a bowling alley. You can also go to the dentist there, serve time in the jail, go to the airport museum or drop your child off at the nursery. Busloads of tourists come from all over Germany just to get a look at the place.
By the time I reached the halfway mark of my trip I was running into flight attendants I had met before, though for the life of me I couldn't remember where.
Gazing out my cabin window, I was often unsure if I was seeing a sunrise or sunset. Once the body clock reaches a certain level of chaos, you give up trying for a good night's sleep, and just catch a catnap whenever you can.
On the ground in Nairobi I was invited into the cockpit of an A-310 Airbus--the jet that "makes other planes all look like Model T's," in the words of the captain. This is the ultimate glass cockpit. Television screens have replaced knobs, a modulated computer voice announces altitudes and other information, and only two pilots are needed instead of the usual three.
"Want to go to the North Pole?" the captain asked. He simply punched in our present coordinates and in split seconds the flight time, fuel needed and best altitudes for favorable winds appeared on the screen.
A fellow pilot stuck his head into the cockpit and said, "I hear you A-310 pilots can't fly for nothing, but you can type 80 words a minute."
Often during the longer flights I'd pace the length of the aircraft for exercise, and I'd stop and chat with the flight attendants.
I once asked how we, as passengers, look to the cabin crew. "When I walk down the aisle I see little chickens looking up with their tongues hanging out, waiting to be fed," a French flight attendant told me. "They eat and, hopefully, they sleep."
I was a willing chicken, consuming such fare in the air as Sevruga caviar, medallions of veal and souffle Grand Marnier. No doubt about it, the meals in first-class were truly first-class. The way I looked at it, eating well in the plane kept me from always having to depend upon unknown eateries on the ground.
I wasn't with the riffraff chickens in coach, but reclining in a very comfortable sleeper seat in first-class. Spending as much time aloft as I did, I had to be very careful to maintain my health. The air inside the cabin is as dry as the Gobi Desert, and it's important to drink as much as eight ounces of water an hour so you don't dehydrate.
The cabin is also pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 feet above sea level, which can play funny tricks on the body. I found that after taking my shoes off at the beginning of a flight, they would swell up considerably by the end.
As I neared the end of my 30 days I was losing track of where I'd been and where I was going. So many different foreign coins were jangling in my pocket (you can only exchange bills) that I listed to one side as I walked. At the market in Istanbul, I simply held out a handful of change and let the shopkeeper pick out the right coins.
It was a strange way to see the world. I'm probably one of the few people who, for 30 days, saw most of it six miles up. The maximum time I spent on the ground in any one destination was two days. More often it was one day, which gave me just about enough time to see some of the major tourist sights and gulp down a cup of coffee at one of the local cafes.
In Kenya I stayed at the Fig Tree Camp in the Masai Mara Game Reserve and went on a daylong safari. In New Orleans, chef Paul Prudhomme gave me a three-minute cooking lesson, and in Istanbul I took a Turkish bath for two relaxing hours before heading to the airport and the flight back to Frankfurt, my unofficial home away from home.
My only real disappointment of the trip was that after logging nearly 60,000 miles, none of it counted toward new frequent flier mileage.
Global Notebook of Trivia
Dollar value of WorldPass 30 flights: $27,727.
Air miles logged: 58,610.
Flight hours logged: 136 hours, 58 minutes.
Average miles flown weekly: 10,522.
Cities toured: 16.
Airports waited at: 21.
Seat belt announcements heard: 66.
In-flight movies watched: 16.
Bags of peanuts consumed: 74.
Times carry-on luggage was X-rayed: 54.
Times watch was reset: 24.
Complimentary soap bars collected: 70.
Number of currencies in pocket simultaneously: 7.
Around the World Flight Itinerary
March 6 London-Hamburg
March 7 Hamburg-Berlin
March 9 New Delhi-Frankfurt
March 10 Moscow-Frankfurt*
March 13 Istanbul-Frankfurt
March 14 Budapest-Frankfurt
March 15 Warsaw-Frankfurt
March 16 Frankfurt-Nairobi
March 19 Nairobi-Frankfurt
March 21 Athens-Frankfurt
(via local airline)*
March 23 Paris-New York City
March 24 New York City-Rio de Janeiro
March 26 Rio de Janeiro-Miami
March 28 San Francisco-Los Angeles
March 29 Honolulu-Los Angeles
March 30 Los Angeles-New York City
March 31 New York City-New Orleans
April 1 New Orleans-New York City
April 2 New York City-Washington
Washington-New York City
April 3 New York City-St. Maarten
April 8 St. Maarten-New York City
* Air fare paid by passenger.