Scott's Travel Blog

Photos and Stories from around the World

Budapest at Night, Photo Gallery

There’s no better way to see the beauty of Budapest, Hungary, than to see it at night!  All the tourist sites are well lit and the shadows tend to bring out the best in everything.  The amazing building and bridge architecture really stands out in a way that the daylight just doesn’t grab.

For the tourists:  If you’ve never been there, there are actually two cities.  Buda and Pest.  Separated by the Danube river, you’d never know it wasn’t the same city.  They do have different vibes and each has their own charm!  Discover both…

I hope you enjoy Budapest at Night,
Scott

 

Early Morning Hotel Room View – Sydney, Australia

Sydney Hotel Room View

The view from my hotel room in Sydney, Australia.

I’m recently out of the hospital and suddenly have lots of time on my hands.  It’s time to *finally* get caught up on all my photo posts from my trip to Australia & New Zealand.

January and February 2016 were spent ‘down under’.  What a great way to escape the Winter in Europe!

My first few stops were pretty uneventful.  I didn’t even take out my camera while visiting Wollongong, Hobart and Newcastle.  Interesting cities, but not much to write home about.  I did manage a few Instagram pics (you can see them here.)  Sorry Australia!  I’m sure you’ve got some really beautiful places, I just didn’t go to any of them.

The next 2 weeks were spent travelling up and down the West coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  Good news…LOTS of pics from that trip!  They’ll be posted very soon!

 

What a Travel Day!

Today started like many other travel days:  Waking up in a strange hotel room.

This is nothing new.  I do this more than 1/2 the year, on average.  Then I had to find my way to CDG (Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris).  I’d researched a few options the night before.  Taxis were quickly crossed off the list when I was told that 50 euro would be the *cheapest possible* fare.  Then I checked trains.  Certainly doable, but would take a LONG time.  Then I found the “Air France les cars” bus service.  Starting just 3 metro stops from my hotel, DIRECT to terminal 1 at CDG and only 17 euro!  Done deal!!

Aside from having to carry my luggage up and down too many staircases (SIX in one station alone.  Prague, I’m sorry, but you’ve lost the title “Best city if you enjoy carrying your luggage up stairs”.  Paris wins.  No contest.) the trip was pretty painless.  I had accounted for 2 hours of travelling.  As it happened, I was in the airport lounge in 1:10.  Not bad!  Thanks again to my Star Alliance GOLD status, I was able to bypass the check-in lineup by using the First Class que and was allowed through an automated gate to a shortened lineup for security.  I’m really gonna miss that!

Then it hit the fan…

The aircraft for my first flight arrived late.  Something about a runway closure in Frankfurt and early morning fog.  The snowball effect meant that my flight would leave late and then my already too short layover in FRA would all but disappear.  I might make it to the next flight, but my luggage surely would not.

Getting off the plane, I met a gate agent who told me “You’ve missed your flight.  Head to the Service counter for new boarding passes.”  This should have clued me in to what was going to happen.  I was only supposed to take one more flight.  He said flights with an ‘S’.

The agent at the service counter gave me the “good news”.  I had already been booked on a different flight.  I got the boarding passes and headed to the lounge.   I knew I had enough time for some lunch.  At least an hour.

Looking at my passes, I realized that instead of flying  CDG-FRA-LNZ, I was now going to fly through Vienna.  So it became CDG-FRA-VIE-LNZ.  The additional city had been added (so I was told by the agent in the lounge where I picked my new seats) to save me time.  To get me to my final destination as quickly as possible, I’d have to take another short hop.

After a snack and a quick shower (yes, you read that right.  Lounge showers are free and really nice!) I headed off.

Vienna was lovely, even if the Austrian Airlines lounge was not.  Far too many people.  You couldn’t even sit down.  And the toilet was disgusting!!  For a VIP experience, don’t go to Vienna!

The rest of my day went according to plan.  I ended up in Linz about 4 hours later than expected.  The kicker:  When I was retrieving my luggage from the carousel, another flight landed…FROM FRA!!  The added flight had gotten my to Linz exactly EIGHT MINUTES faster than if I had just waited for the later flight from Frankfurt.  Really??  All that hassle for 8 minutes?!?!?

Until the next adventure….

Scott

Espresso tuning, part 2

Espresso tuning, part 2

Several years ago I wrote about “Dialing in your Espresso shot“.  I can’t stress how important espresso tuning is.  For those of you who always drink espresso based coffee (think Latte or Cappuccino) the milk masks part of the flavour.  You won’t truly unlock the best taste until you fine tune the base of each drink, the espresso shot.

I started off this morning by pulling a shot of Honduras Marcala, roasted by the Retro cafe.  The first shot I made no adjustments.  Hugely over-pressure, my machine had a hard time with this one.  I had left the grind amount the same as with the old coffee, which had gone stale.  Of course you need more of it.  But with this fresh coffee, it was waaaayyy too much.

I reset the grinder and pulled another shot.  Close, but too sour.  Added more coffee and VOILA…  a pretty well balanced shot.  Not sweet (which means it wasn’t perfect) but the taste started slightly bitter and then quickly turned slightly bitter.  One more pull with another notch of coffee and it was too much….fully bitter from the first sip.

One notch back down and I made myself what I call a “Latte-cino”.  Two shots of espresso with lots of milk AND lots of foam.  The flavor was really really good!

Try it yourself!!

Église du Béguinage, Church (Brussels, Belgium)

After seeing the exterior of the Église du Béguinage church from my hotel room window (see the original post HERE) I decided to go take a look.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d found something special.

The next day, I woke extremely early and headed out with my tripod and camera gear.  Feeling *extremely* uneasy about photographing the inside of a church, I kept my gear hidden (the wonders of a travel tripod.  It fits completely inside my backpack!)  I walked around and made some mental notes while trying to stay extremely quiet.  From my previous visit, I knew that here were several Afghan refugees living in the church and I didn’t want to wake them or disturb them in any way.  A lady entered the church and walked very near to me.  She seemed to ‘own’ the place.  I silently motioned to her that I’d like to take pictures.  She quickly and excitedly nodded YES, as if to say it was OK to do so.  That’s all I needed!  A few minutes later my camera was setup and I was snapping away.

Most of these pictures (if not all) are HDR compositions.  Only obtained by exposing several frames for the lightest and darkest parts of the photo and them combining them digitally to make one photo.

I hope you like them.

 

Scott

 

 

What’s the World’s best coffee?

Fresh Ground EspressoWhat’s the World’s best coffee?  Here’s my take:

After a few weeks in Belgium, where bistros serve endless coffee (and beer) late into the night, I’m very happy to be back home.

Using a pour over rig that my hotel provided (Thank you Citadines, Brussels!) and some fresh beans from Santos Coffee I was able to get my fix.  Very good quality.  But this morning, after getting back home, I’m able to have the world’s best coffee:  The one I drink on MY couch.

It’s all about the environment.  The atmosphere.  The world’s greatest coffee shops offer a comfortable and relaxing ‘feel’ to try and make you feel like you’re at home.  Because you’ll enjoy their products more if you’re in your comfort zone.  That’s the KEY to the World’s Best Coffee.

 

 

 

Fresh coffee at last!

I’m just now enjoying my first fresh coffee in weeks!  Awesome…

Just a simple pourover cup with some Honduran beans from Santos Coffee here in Brussels.  I’m in heaven.  Love espresso, but fresh is the way to go.  And cafes usually don’t care much about their coffee.  Buy it cheap and sell lots of it.

I’ll make my own.  Thanks.

Church in Brussels

The view out of my hotel window in Brussels (ok, ok.  If you lean out on an extreme angle, this is what you see.)

[Update:  I took my camera INSIDE the church.  Click here to see the gallery!]

church in Brussels

Hiroshima Day Trip

My work in Nagoya concluded last week.  We’re off to Fukuoka for 8 weeks.  The easiest way to get there is by ‘bullet’ train.  A few weeks ago I looked at the route and realized that I’d be passing right through Hiroshima.  I’ve wanted to go there for a long time, so I thought it would be the perfect chance.  Take an early train out there, spend a few hours there and then continue on to Fukuoka.

Not really sure what to expect, I booked myself a “Green Car” ticket (wider seat and less crowded then the normal seats) since Cirque is paying for the normal cost of a ticket.  Instead of the normally crowded 3 x 3 seating arrangement, these seats are 2 x 2 and are rumoured to have a lot less people.  The extra $50 to be comfortable for a few hours sounded great to me.

Empty train carTrain moving at high speed through station

I lucked out.  As you can see in the photo, my car was nearly empty.  Lots of leg room and there’s even a drink service after every stop.  It’s an express train, so that’s really about once per hour.

The photo on the right was  tricky.  The trains accelerate so fast, that they’re nearly at top speed by the time they leave the station.  I was near the nose of this train when the alarms sounded, warning people to stay away while it moved past.  By the time the last of the 16 cars went by, the train was doing well over 100km/h and I lucky enough to get this shot on my camera phone.  You can see the motion blur.  I had to preset the shot and look over my shoulder to guess when the end of the train was coming.  I really didn’t expect it to work!

Arriving at Hiroshima Station, there are a number of options to get to the island where the museum and Atomic Dome (the correct name is Hiroshima Peace Memorial).  Bus, taxi, streetcar or by foot.  Taxis are of course the most expensive.  Busses may be direct, but the routes may not be easy to understand.  Most people take the streetcar.  The routes seem simple enough.  More confusing is the track layout at the terminus, which is the train station.  Multiple lines end here at the same platform.  You’ve got to be sure you’re on the right one.  I didn’t.  I was well off track, right from the start.  By the time I realized my mistake, I was 1/2 way across town headed in the wrong direction.

Jumping off the train, I decided that instead of getting annoyed by my current situation I’d use it to my advantage and see some sights the old fashioned way:  Exploring!  A quick look at a transit map told me I had pretty long walk ahead of me.  I noted the general direction and set off.

Less than 30 minutes later I was back on track.  Hiroshima is NOT a big town.  Walking from the main station would have seemed much more attractive an option if I’d known this at the start.  The maps are deceptive.

The island is home to a huge park, various memorials and a museum devoted to those that perished when the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated over the mostly civilian population of Hiroshima.

My words can’t really describe the sights of the museum, you’ve really got to go yourself.  I chose not to use my camera much inside of the museum.  While camera use without flash IS permitted, I thought it was a bit tasteless to go around clicking pictures.  I did take a few, but only when I was sure not to disturb other visitors.

I hope the World never again sees this level of horror.

 

 

 

 

Biking in Japan, Day 2 – Otsu to Takashima, Lake Biwa

Biking from Osaka to Nagoya, Day 2 

Waking up at my hotel in Otsu, I knew that I was just a couple of city blocks from Lake Biwa.  I was dying to see the lake for the first time and after my mentally and physically grinding on day 1, I really hoped it would be an easy day.

I arrived in the hotel’s lobby for the breakfast that was included in the room price.  I didn’t have high hopes as the traditional Japanese breakfast doesn’t have much that I care to eat.  I really just wanted some toast and maybe a cup of coffee.  Optimistically I’d add yogurt and a well done egg, but I really didn’t expect these.

At 07:00, I expected to have the place to myself.  A quiet snack before hitting the road.  To my surprise, the little cafe was completely packed.  Wall to wall with not a seat to be had.  I then looked at the “food”.  Not a single thing leaped up and said “I’m yummy.  Eat me!”  I turned around and headed back to my room.

My panniers were already packed.  In 5 minutes I was checked out of the hotel and biking downhill to the road that would take me all the way to Takashima.  Finding that road was easy enough.  It was the only large road.

Pre-trip research had told me that there were many bike paths or smaller streets between the main road and the water.  None of these looked longer than a few kilometers long, so I didn’t take much care into noting where there were.  I figured if they were easy to find and I didn’t mind the detour I’d take them.  If I was tired or needed to make up time, I’d stick to the busier road.

Near the edge of Otsu, I stopped for the first time.  Not because I needed a rest.  I just found a very nice spot to take photos.  I didn’t even notice the temple until I stopped to park my bike (also included in the photos, with all my bags still attached.)  I was focused on the beautiful lake!

As I was about to continue my ride, a group of cyclists passed me by.  About 10 guys all geared up for a fast ride.  None of them even looked in my direction.  As I pulled back out onto the road, I looked up and saw that they were all stopped at a red light just ahead.  I pulled behind the last rider and said “oh-hi-oo” (Good morning in Japanese.)  The last guy turned around and gave me a really annoyed look.  Like I was dirt on his shoe or something.

The light turned green and the riders took off.  I felt the need to show these boys that I could ride.  They were moving quick, but not at a race-pace.  I was able to keep up, at the back of the pack.  10 minutes later, another red light halted the pack.  I said again to the guys “oh-hi-oo”.  This time several heads turned and the guy that snarled at me the first time spoke with the other guys and must have told them that I was keeping up with their pace.  A few of them nodded and gave wide-eyed looks at me.

On the green, I again kept pace with the guys.  I could tell they were riding faster than before.  I guess their inner pride told them to push harder and lose the “gaijin” (foreigner).  They had no hope of losing me.  They weren’t pros, just a group of guys out for a ride.  And I would have let my heart jump out of my chest, if it had meant keeping up with them, for the sake of MY pride.  Too bad those guys didn’t have the 20kg I had in my bags.

Another 5 minutes goes by and I’m in still holding my own.  The lead rider signals a left turn.  I intend to continue straight as I have no real turns on this entire day (yippee!)  As we approach the turn, I yell out “si-yo-nar-aaa! (Goodbye!)  At least half the pack turned around and waved goodbye to me, with HUGE smiles on their faces.  Obviously I made a good impression and made some friends today.

With the pressure of team riding now gone, I slowed my pace to a speed more conducive to long distance riding.  At the next opportunity, I pulled over to a drink vending machine to get some refreshment.  My water bottles were full, but I had yet to have my morning coffee!  As you can see by the address of this website, coffee’s pretty darned important to me.

If you haven’t been to Japan, you might be surprised to learn that the average vending machine serves cold and HOT drinks.  The hot drinks tend to get rotated out for iced drinks in the summer (much to my dismay) but the prices are VERY cheap and the machines are everywhere.  I don’t think you can take 100 steps in downtown Tokyo without finding a machine.  I love it!!

Stuffing a couple of small coffee cans in my pocket, I head down the next small street I see in the direction of the water, lake Biwa.  There are a few small houses between the main road and the water.  On my left I see several large gardens with some really delicious looking vegetables.

Watching me closely, two locals appeared, a man and a woman.  Walking down the little road, they seemed quite surprised that a gaijin had found their little homes.   The man approached me and asked ‘what country?”  I told him that I was from Canada.  His mouth fell open.  He hadn’t guessed that one.  He smiled and waved as he walked away.  I guess they don’t get many visitors.

Lunch on the road didn’t present many options.  The only place I found to stop was something resembling an American truck stop.  Gritty, dirty and smokey.  I ordered a rice with curry.  It’s about the only thing I know how to order in Japanese.  I’m lucky they had some!

The afternoon held a few surprises, like the incredible bike path under the tracks for the bullet train.  Probably the best path I’d see on the whole trip.  Perfectly paved with separate crossings at each stop.  The cars stop for YOU, not the other way around.  Awesome!  Too bad the route they picked was more like a snake’s track than a proper path.  3 steps forward, 2 steps back sort of thing.  Not a direct route to anywhere.

One of the stranger things I’d find on the trip I happened upon by complete accident.  I saw something out of the corner of my eye and decided to investigate.  What I found was a bicycle graveyard of sorts.  I guess this is where the old ones go to die.  Their parts are stripped and sorted for recycling here.  I’m not sure why it’s only bikes, but it makes for quite a sight.  In the lower right side of the photo you may be able to see the driver of a truck sitting in his cab.  He refused to come out while I was using the camera.  As soon as I put it away, he jumped out and began unloading a fresh batch of old bikes.  I wonder if these are unclaimed street bicycles from a larger town.  Many of the parts looked new.  I can’t imagine why you’d scrap a new bike otherwise.

Large piles of bicycle parts

 

Lots of beautiful scenery on the rest of the ride.  A very easy day too as it was nearly flat.  Just following along the water.  Didn’t see a single tourist (non-Japanese anyway) the whole day.  I think I turned a few heads in the smaller villages too.  Lots of people did double-takes when they saw me.

About an hour before sunset I arrived at the Grand Park Hotel.  The hotel staff were a bit confused when I asked if I could take my bike into my room.

Bike?

“Yes” I told them.  “I arrived by bicycle.”

“From where?”

“Osaka.” I said, not telling them that I done it in 2 days, not 1 as was implied.

They were now a flurry of whispers and hushed comments to each other.  The manager asked to see my bike.  I took her outside and showed her.  She not only let me take it into my room, but she held the elevator door so that I didn’t have to carry it up the stairs!  Awesome…  My worries about it being stolen dropped to almost zero.  I instantly started to relax.

After a nice hot bath, I headed off for ‘town’.  But I’ll leave that for the next blog post.

 

Or go back to the start of this adventure:

<–   Pre-Trip Planning

<–   Day 1, Osaka through Kyoto to Otsu

 

Day 1, Osaka, through Kyoto to Otsu

This being my first bike tour, I decided to make the first day of the trip the hardest.  Not the longest, but the most difficult in the way of navigating and ride complexity.

I wasn’t wrong.  This day was hard.

Starting out from my hotel in Osaka, I spent the first few km on city streets heading to a bike shop.  I’d had a slow leak in my front wheel since replacing the tube the week before.  I did the job myself and even though I thought I was extremely careful, I must have pinched the tube somehow in the process.  I wanted an expert to replace the tube and mount it for me, just to be SURE it was 100% ready to go.

Arriving at the shop, I found out that I was there an HOUR before they opened.  Damn, valuable daylight wasted.  I found a can of hot coffee from the nearest machine and found a place to sit.  Yes, I did say hot.  It’s delicious, cheap and the machines are everywhere.  On the main street, there’s no place to go.  No benches or seats.  Just around the corner I found a set of stairs to rest on.  An older woman soon passed by me and I nodded my head to say ‘hello’.  She bowed to me and quickly left.  A few minutes later, she returned and held out her hand in my direction.  She had gone to the store and in addition to her shopping, she had bought an orange juice which she was now offering to me.  I quickly thought about this:  I’m wearing very odd clothing, siting in a fairly dirty sidestreet and I don’t appear to be in any hurry to leave.  OH MY, she thinks I’m *homeless!*  I politely decline the juice and give her a big smile, bowing my head quite low to indicate how grateful I am.  What a nice lady!!!

 

There are very few homeless in Japan and even fewer beggars.  At least this is what I thought as long as I stayed in the cities.  On the outskirts I found that there are LOTS of homeless.  Living under bridges isn’t a just a stereotype, it’s the truth.  Leaving Osaka, I saw more than I could count.

The bike shop opened on time and their mechanic quickly had my tire fixed.  He told me that he could not find a leak in the tire itself, but the valve had a slow leak.  Aha!  Maybe it was just defective…  I’ll never know as I left it there and quickly remounted the wheel and got riding.

My route involved some very busy city streets and dedicated bike paths by the river.  Nothing too difficult.  I’d been on all of the route during my little ‘scouting’ trip the week before.  Because of this, the ride pace was quick and easy.  The only change in plan was a quick stop at a restroom because of the coffee earlier.

Within a half hour I was on my way outside of the city.  With a very wide path almost all the way to Kyoto, I knew I could relax a little.  The only real pain were the barriers preventing cars from driving on the bike paths.  They’re designed so that riders can roll right through so long as they lift their feet and go slowly.  The bad news for me:  My panniers are too wide to get through.  I had to dismount and LIFT the bike over the barriers.  Considering how heavy my bags are, this was no easy task.  And they’re frequent.  Every 1 to 2 km.  The good news: It’s an excuse to get off the seat and stretch a little.

Before I know it, I’m turning off this bike path across a large river towards Kyoto.  This is the end of the section that I’ve scouted ahead of time.  It’s all new territory.

On the other side of the bridge, I find the path I’m supposed to take.  It’s heading in the wrong direction.  I pull out my handy phone and look up the map.  Sure enough, it too shows this but also shows a 180 degree loop just out of sight.  I head off again and soon enough find the loop.  At least I’m headed the right way now.

The bike path is quite nice.  Well paved and clean.  I’m riding beside a large river, with steep slope leading to the water.  This part is concrete and a little scary.  I really don’t want to go off the path here!

Several km down the path, I get to a train crossing.  It’s fenced off, presumably because the ‘Shinkansen’ (aka bullet train) comes through here and you’d never get out of it’s way fast enough.  There seems to be no way around it.  On the other side, I see a man on a bike staring at me.  I wave and get his attention.  With a series of hand gestures I ask him how to get around the train line.  He points to the slope, indicating to walk the bike under the bridge.  I start to push the down the slope.  I quickly realize that the bike, myself or both are about to quickly end up in the water.  I decide against this and go back up.  This would turn out to be my first of many route changes on the trip.  Detouring several km’s out of my way, I did manage to find a way around those train tracks.

Several kilometres down the road following the river, I ran into another dead end.  This time when I checked the GPS, it showed a different reason for my troubles.  I’d biked several well past the point where I should have turned away from the river.  This time I had a decision to make:  Turn around and go back or try to find a new route.  I opted for the new route, which meant leaving the bike path.  This was a mistake.  Due to many small streams and railway lines, one way and dead-end streets were quite common in the neighbourhood I was travelling through.  I probably rode 3 times the distance I really needed to go.

Finally back on track, I joined another very nice bike path by yet another river.  This one was wide and well paved.  I quite enjoyed this section as it had some beautiful scenery and there were plenty of other people biking and roller skating on the path.  I was having such a great time on the ride that I again rode past a turn and found myself quite a ways off my intended route.  This time the route I needed to take was clear and one angled road took me where I needed to go.  On the way though, I was stopped by the police at a checkpoint on the bike path.  They were making sure that everyone had working brakes and lights.  I was waved through though.  I suspect that they didn’t speak English and couldn’t be bothered with trying to deal with me.

Navigation continued like this all day.  Getting slightly lost and then finding my way.  I’d chosen a much too difficult path.  This was made worse by the fact that I was starting to climb some small hills.  Evening was approaching fast and although I had lights with me, they were only blinkers, which were only to help me avoid being hit by a car.  I didn’t have a light bright enough to light the way in front of me in complete dark.  If I didn’t get to the hotel soon, I’d have to slow down or perhaps even walk my bike to avoid running into something.

Climbing hills isn’t new to me.  But I I alway prefer to do it at the start of a ride.  Not at the end, when I’m mentally and physically wiped out.  But with no other options, I had to press up the hill as quickly as possible.  The sun was now setting and I guessed that I had at least 10km to go before reaching the hotel.

The path now was right beside a highway.  A straight shot to my goal, but it continued to get harders.  Car headlights were now hitting me in the face and it had turned completely black.  Lucky for me, there were streetlights here and I could keep riding at a reasonable speed.  The uphill turned downhill and I was now coasting down a very long hill into Otsu, a city on the edge of Lake Biwa.

Arriving at my hotel, the Toyoko Inn.  The front didn’t look impressive, but I was so happy to get off the bike and check in that this was quickly forgotten.  A few minutes later I had my room key and was carrying my panniers up to the room.  A hot shower made me forget about all the troubles of the day.  Next thing I knew, I was out the front door and wandering around Otsu looking for a place to eat.  A ramen and a half dozen gyoza later, my belly was full and I was headed for bed.

The next day I would see Lake Biwa for the first time.  The next 2 days I’d be riding around the lake, on what should be a flat scenic ride through rural Japan.

<– Read part 1, Planning the Trip    or move on to   Day 2, Otsu to Takashima – Around Lake Biwa –>

 

Japan Bicycle Tour Trip Planning

The most difficult part of this trip was certainly the prep work I did *before* the trip even started.  There were so many aspects of a multi-day trip that don’t apply to my normal rides.  In addition to making sure the bicycle itself was ready to ride I also had to worry about lots of other things.  The portions written in BOLD  are the notes I’ve written after the trip, so you can learn from what I’ve learnt.

Buying ‘Panniers’ (bike bags) Should they be hard or soft?  How big is too big?  Do they need to be waterproof or will a raincover be good enough?  Is the mounting system compatiable with my bike’s frame?  How do I install them?  How many do I need?  I ended up buying soft bags for the rear of the bike from ‘Ostrich’, a Japanese company.  As far as price goes, I’d say they’re middle of the road.  Not cheap, not expensive.  The Soft bags were really nice to handle going in and out of the hotel.  Even though I checked the weather several times a day I still got caught in the rain.  My water ‘resistant’ bags were FINE.  Mounting and unmounting the bags was only a problem the first day.  With a little practice it was easy.  Front bags may have been nice to spread out the weight of all my stuff, but if I’d had the extra space, I probably would have just loaded them with stuff I didn’t need.  I thought I’d packed pretty light.  Next time, I’d take even less.  Carrying the heavy bags up stairs at the end of the day SUCKED.

-Making a Checklist of what I really NEED versus what I would like to take.  This was essential, as I had wanted to take MUCH more than I really needed.  Even still, the bags were heavier than they should have been.  My laptop will NOT be coming along next time!

-Finding a route.  I’m a big fan of the website MapMyRide.com  Their maps and mapping tools are great.  But on the bike, I didn’t know if I’d have internet or how reliable it would be.  I decided to buy and ‘offline’ map which I could download to my phone and use with it’s built in GPS to guide me without internet. I’d also go “old school” and buy a book of high detail maps.  Keeping my phone in ‘flight mode’ would turn out to really extend battery life.  The map book was not used.  Not even once.

Figuring out my average daily ride distance, by finding the total distance of the ride, dividing by the number of days and leaving some extra to account for bad weather.  I may end up riding in the rain, but I’d like to avoid it if I can!  Then finding suitable places to stay near where I expected to be at the end of each day.  Did a pretty good job of this.  I did learn that effort and distance are not related.  38km through a busy city is a LOT harder than 75km on a flat road in the country.

Booking the hotels for the first few days.  The rest I’ll do as I go.  This also worked well.  I didn’t have any problems booking hotels as I went.

Buying supplies that I normally wouldn’t take on a short ride:  Bike tools, spare parts, emergency food, water and a medical kit.  Hey, you never know when you’re travelling out in the countryside alone!  I did end up eating and drinking some of this as some of the places where I thought I would find supplies didn’t have *anything*.

Calculating cost and withdrawing enough money for the entire trip.  I do NOT recommend this, but since my personal bank card only works at one specific bank in Japan, I didn’t want to take chances.  In the smaller towns they may not have that bank.  I took too much money.  Risking loss or theft, I really shouldn’t have done this.  But…I didn’t have problems…

Making backup plans, like explaining my route and estimated time of arrival for the trip to several of my friends.  Worst case, at least somebody would coming looking in a few days.  I also looked for several alternate options to shorten or lengthen the trip depending on how it all goes.  I arrived exactly on time at the end of the trip and checked in with *someone* every single night as soon as I stopped riding.  No problems.

 

Now that all the work is out of the way, you can read about the ride itself and see some of the pictures I took along the way:

Day 1, Osaka, through Kyoto to Otsu

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4, Arrival in Nagoya

 

 

Biking in Japan, My Trip from Osaka to Nagoya

While working with Cirque du Soleil’s “OVO”, I was presented with a rare opportunity:  6 days off in Japan.  While the “Fuji-dome” is being torn down in Osaka and moved to Nagoya, I could take some time off to do what I pleased.  For me, that means two things:  Photography and biking.  I’ve never gone biking in Japan or touring anywhere.  I had no idea what to expect and nobody to guide me before the journey started.

How did it go?  There were some pitfalls and some triumphs.  But in the end, it was FABULOUS.

Click the link to read each all about my trip:

 

 

An Aborted Takeoff, a really Backwards View and Lost Luggage

I woke up this morning, expecting a relatively easy, but long travel day.  Heading to a destination I’ve visited before, from home should be a pretty easy thing for a well-travelled guy like me.  In the end, I must say it wasn’t that hard.  But I did have a couple of really interesting events that I’d like to share with you.

The airport shuttle picked me up at the scheduled time.  Meaning of course, that the guy was there early.  In my book “If you’re not early, you’re LATE.”  I walked out my front door and there he was, with van that I had requested.  A normal car might not have fit all the gear I’m bringing with me on this trip.  Could be long one.  No return date set.  I suspect several months or maybe even half a year.  Think of everything YOU’D take for a trip that long!

While I struggle through the door, the guy just awkwardly stands there and watches.  I’d expect a little help, if even just to hold the door open.  I then load the first bag by myself into the back of the van.  The driver finally clues in that he should help and grabs the second bag.  Ok, maybe he’s not so bad.  Walking back to the door really slowly to see what he does, I hear a car door open.  He’s gotten in, leaving me to get the third bag.  Not working hard at getting a tip, are you fella?  I load the bag and open the door for myself.  Had he really been trying, he’d have done that too.  Oh well, in Eastern Europe service standards are pretty low.  Not much more can be expected.  But it sure is nice when it happens!

The ride to the airport is pretty uneventful.  I wouldn’t say he was a slow driver, but he wasn’t the ‘normal’ speed maniac that I seem to get from some of the shuttle companies.  His English is pretty bad, but he understands enough.  I can tell he’s really nervous.  Deciding not to push him into a conversation, I sit back to enjoy the ride.  Most of the time is forcing myself not to sleep.  Halfway into the drive I glance at my watch.  It’s barely 8 o’clock.  I’ve been on the move for 2 hours already.  I hate mornings.

Using the Business class check-in lane, because the airport doesn’t have the First class check-in that my Lufthansa Senator’s status allows me, I’m told that I need to put one of my bags into ‘oversized baggage’ at the end of the terminal (not very far aware, luckily!).  The bag contains a bicycle that doesn’t fold for travelling.  It’s pretty huge, but light enough to sling over my shoulder.  After paying a small fee and getting my boarding passes, I head off the VIP lounge.

Right on time we’re boarding the small regional jet that will take us to the airline’s main hub in Frankfurt.  We line up on the runway and I hear the engines go from a gentle idle to a huge ROAR as we begin to speed down the runway.  The nose lifts up and then comes crashing back down with a jolt.  The engine power is cut and I’m being pressed against my seatbelt under heavy braking.

I look out my window and see a few birds at eye level pass by, close to the nose of the aircraft.  Ok, I get it.  We either hit a bird or the pilots aborted to avoid them.

As frightened passengers are looking at each other for answers to what has happened, I tell those near me not to worry as I know what’s going on.  Or do I?

The aircraft is turning now, as we hit the taxiway on our way back to the passenger terminal.  The intercom comes alive and one of the flight attendants is screaming at us in German, then in English “Please remain in your seats with seatbelts fastened.  In a few moments the flight crew will explain what is happening.  Until then, please remain calm.”  30 seconds later we’re coming to stop at the terminal and lots of service vehicles are approaching the aircraft, including a fire truck with lights flashing.  They’re close enough that I can see the confused look in their eyes.  I can see them saying to themselves:  “Why are you back here?”

The pilot makes an announcement telling us that yes indeed, the aborted takeoff was to avoid a flock of birds that crossed the runway at low altitude just ahead of us.  He didn’t explain why it was so dangerous, but if you remember the water landing on the Hudson River a few years ago, that was due to engine failure after striking birds.  (You can read the Wiki article about it HERE.)  The pilot calmly explains that the aircraft must be fully inspected to be SURE that nothing came into contact with the plane.  Then about 30 minutes later he further explained that even though no damage was found, they needed to wait until the plane’s braking system had properly cooled before we could take off again.  All told, we were delayed over an hour.

No further drama here, a normal flight the second time around.  As we approached Frankfurt, they announced that they’d been in contact with the ground staff and informed us of a few gates changes, but also that no flights needed to be rebooked so long as we went directly to our departure gate.  As I exited the aircraft at the most remote parking area I’ve ever seen at Frankfurt, I remember thinking that I’d probably miss my connecting flight.  As I boarded the bus to the main terminal, I glanced at the time.  My second flight had already been boarding for about 10 minutes.  Damn!  I still had to go through Passport Control and possibly another security check before heading to my gate.  With less than half an hour, the odds of me making it were getting lower and lower.

I positioned myself right near the rear door of the bus, opting to stand so I’d be that much closer to where I needed to go when the bus stopped.  We arrive at the terminal and everybody piles out.  But the glass doors to the terminal don’t open.  We’re all trapped for a few minutes between the bus and the building.  The doors open and we all rush in.  I’m at the front of the pack by the time we get to the large monitors where everybody stops and gawks at the information they should already know:  Where to go!  As I walk up the escalator to save even more time, several people sprint by.  I don’t don’t see anyone else from my flight.  They’re far behind.

Approaching the gate, there’s no destination or flight number on the board.  I stand there for several seconds wondering if I had heard wrong or if it had changed again.  I approach the nearest employee behind the desk and ask where the gate to Osaka is.  She says “HERE!  Quickly….boarding pass!!”  I now see that the gate is actually open, but they’re resetting for the next flight.  I board the plane, find my seat, sit down and hear the announcement  “Boarding completed.”  If there was anybody else from my first flight coming, they’ve missed it!

This flight’s aboard an older 747, the -400 model.  I’ve specially picked my seat because of the configuration by the emergency exit door.  There’s 2 seats right by the door.  In the next row, there are 3 seats.  I’ve picked the window seat in this second row, because of the extra legroom in front of you.  Although I’m quite far back, I’m facing the crewmember in the rearward facing ‘jumpseat’ because of the missing seat in the front row.  It’s quite a good seat because you’re not on an aisle, so you don’t have constant traffic brushing up against you and you still have the option of getting up any time you feel like it.  In my opinion, it’s nearly perfect.  (Numbers 33A and 33K, FYI.)

Just before takeoff the head purser of the flight comes over and introduces herself.  Something they always seem to do for their Gold Status members.  It doesn’t cost anything and it really does make you feel like you’re appreciated.  Nice touch Lufthansa (although not as nice as the handwritten birthday card I got from one of your VP’s this year.  That ROCKED!  Seriously, do I make them THAT much money?)  The same purser just happens to be working in my area of the plane.  She sits down in crew seat nearest me for takeoff.

The rest turned out to be a fairly dull flight, but I revel in it after all the excitement of the morning.  A few hours sleep, but for the most part I just watched movies.

As we prepare for landing, the same crewmember again sits facing me and straps herself in.  She gives me a knowing glance, which seems to say “I’m bored, but I know you’ve done this a million times too.”  I lean forward and say “I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Try what?”

“Sitting backwards during a landing, in the jumpseat.”

“Come here!”

“Really?”  I ask.  “I didn’t think it would be allowed!”

“There’s and extra seat and you’ll be out of the way if I need to open the door.”

I could not contain my excitement.  I’m sure my smile was ear to ear as I hop out of my seat and plunk myself down into the folding seat.  She then gave me a quick but thorough briefing on where my life vest was, how to adjust the straps and where the oxygen mask would be should I need it.  I’m a bit overwhelmed, but I follow allow as best I can, asking her to repeat a few bits that I’m unsure about.

I can hear the flaps moving and she explains that the position we’re in is directly over the main landing gear.  On cue, we feel a few large ‘thumps’ as the doors open and the gear come down.

The seat has shoulder straps that the normal ones don’t have.  I’ve over-tightened them and literally cannot move.  I look out the door’s small window.  I can’t see anything other than wing.  There’s no reference to the ground.  Just as I’m thinking that I cannot predict when exactly we’re going to touch down, I feel the aircraft noise coming up.  The ‘flare’ that they do to ensure the rear wheels touch first.  I know we’re VERY close now.

My compliments to the pilot.  I can’t say it was a perfect ’10’, but was a solid ‘9’ for sure!  (to his credit, out of several hundred flights I can only recall one that I’d say was perfect.)  Very smooth.  Nice work!

After saying thanking the crewmember a few million times, I grabbed my gear and headed off the aircraft.  On the jetway, there were a few ANA staff (All Nippon Airways) with a list of names.  Usually if there are connecting flight issues, they’ll wait there with information.  There was a large sign with a list of passenger names that they wanted to talk to.  And there, was my name.  Uh-Oh.  I don’t have a connecting flight, so it must be something else.

Great.  Just great.  I’m informed that none of my luggage has made it onto the plane.  It’s all still sitting in Frankfurt.  There is only 1 flight per day, so I’ve got to wait a full 24hours to get my stuff.  Serves me right for not taking a change of clothes with me (I’ve been burned in the past, so I made a rule to always do this.  I broke the rule.  Damn.)  I’m instructed to file a form at the lost baggage area after immigration.  A young girl make sure that I have a comfortable seat and the squats next to me to take down my information.  I think it’s a little weird, but whatever.  I then see that the other employees here are doing the same.  Sitting the guests down and squatting lower than them to take the information.  Odd, but this IS Japan.  Odd is normal here.

After a few minutes of note-taking with me pointing out what style of bag it is, with colour and style charts, the girl tells me that I should go and look on the luggage belt because 2 of my bags DID make the flight.  I nearly sprint to the carousel.  Right away I spot both of the bags, with their orange “Priority” tags.  I pull them off the belt and then finish up with the paperwork.

An hour later I’m at ANA Crowne Plaza hotel.  My bad luck continues and I’m told at 08:00 that my room will not be ready until 15:00, which is the official check-in time.

All in all, a VERY interesting day.  It could have been worse!!

 

 

Old Town Warsaw, Photo Gallery (Part 2)

<–  Read part 1 of this post HERE

The restoration of Old Town Warsaw is nothing short of remarkable.  Completely destroyed during the war, nothing but the shells of buildings remained, mostly without roofs.

It’s now a UNESCO heritage site, it’s quite an amazing place!  If you’re in the area, you should visit.

For more information on the Katyn memorial, read this Wikipedia article:  Katyn Massacre

Main Square in the Old Town, Warsaw

If you haven’t heard of it, the centre of Warsaw’s Old Town contains a square that has been completely restored since the Germans essentially levelled it during WW2.  This restoration has carried to such detail that it was recognized by UNESCO as a heritage site.  I’ve heard it compared to the town of Cesky Krumlov, although that is mostly Baroque in style.

Having the chance to work on the show “Kooza” in Warsaw, I thought it would be a terrific chance to see the square.  But perhaps I was getting my hopes up too high.  Or maybe I’ve just travelled too much and “seen it all”?  Whatever the cause, my visit to the main square of Warsaw’s Old Town seemed underwhelming.

I should also mention that the weather didn’t exactly co-operate either.  The rain held off while I was walking around, but the skies certainly didn’t want to be photographed.  Dark and gloomy most of the time.  When the sun did peak out, it was usually gone before I could raise my camera to my eye.

A surprising number of tourists were rambling about.  Considering it’s nearly October and in poor weather, there really were a LOT.  I’d hate to visit in the peak of summer.  It must be difficult to walk!

There seemed to be plenty of places to exchange money or buys sweets or Amber jewelry (my wife claims that ALL Amber originates in Poland.  I have yet to confirm this) but not much else.  There were some completely empty restaurants which either were closed for the winter, or should have been.  Nobody paid any attention to them.

Part 2 of this article will contain a larger photo gallery, but for today I’ll just post a panorama containing 3 sides of the square.  Considering it’s made of 32 photos, I’m surprised that I didn’t find anybody in more than one area of the square.  Maybe you can find one?

 

Extreme wide angle panorama of the old town square in Warsaw, Poland

Ugliest Hotel Room View EVER?

Regular visitors to this site have probably noticed by now that I spend a LOT of time in Poland.  When not travelling for Cirque du Soleil, this is my ‘home base’.  Wait a minute, did he just say “Cirque du Soleil”?  Yes, I did.  I’ve been keeping this information private for a very long time, but I see no reason to hide it any longer.

I’ve been employed by the circus for 9 years now.  In that time I’ve been to a long list of cities and countries that I never expected (or in some cases wanted…) to go to.  For example, my travels to Brazil last year were to support the show “Corteo” as it embarked on a South American tour.

This week, I’m working on the show “Kooza” which is now playing in Warsaw, Poland.  This is the first time Cirque has put a ‘bigtop’ show in the country, although several ‘arena’ shows have played in the northern city of Gdansk.

When not travelling, I spend most of my time in the south of Poland, so this visit to Warsaw is a bit of treat for me.  I have visited the city before, but have never stayed for any length of time.  It certainly also makes work easier for me, since I can speak a bit of the language and in my line of work, that almost never happens.

More on this later…

Right now I’d like to present my latest photo, taken from balcony.  It’s probably the ugliest view I’ve had in all my time touring.  But also one of the most interesting ones.  I snapped this one just as the sun was setting.

I hope you like it.

Alley view at sunset, warsaw poland

Kyoto Panorama Photo (Japan, 2014)

<– Part 1 of Kyoto

<– Part 2 of Kyoto

My last day in Kyoto I decided to try and visit one last temple before catching the train back to Osaka.  Just a short distance from my hotel, it would be an easy way to kill a few hours.  I walked to the temple in staggering heat.  When I arrived I was only focused on finding water and a shady spot to sit.  I guess my trip to the temple was wasted.  I didn’t even have the desire to take photos.  Nearing 40c, it was just too hot.

I decided to head underground where it’s cool, even if not air conditioned.  The perfect place would be the train.  I needed to get to the main station to get back to Osaka anyways, so I started heading there.

Catching the metro was easy enough.  I’d passed the station earlier, so I knew exactly where it was.  Buying a ticket was a no-brainer as the pre-paid card I already had was good for this line.  I waited at the platform for a few minutes and hopped on the first train that arrived.  It was then that my jaw hit the floor.  I had stumbled upon a “Limited Express” train.  This train makes very few stops, hence the name.  To make things more comfortable, this car had plush deeply padded seats arranged in a way that you’d expect in business class on an airline.  Only 3 seats per row, and not very many rows.  Lots of space and comfort!

I found a seat and as the train started to move, the joy I had felt quickly turned to panic:  What if this train wasn’t going to stop where I wanted?  Would I be taken past my destination?  Would I end up in the next TOWN?

There were diagrams of the train’s route above every door.  I was able to see in a few seconds that yes, I would be alright.  The train would stop where I wanted to change trains.  What a relief!

In just a couple of minutes, I left my far-too-comfortable seat and got off at my stop.  I knew I had to change train lines, but since I had never been to this station before, I didn’t know where to go.  I started looking for signs.  In short order I was where I needed to be, or at least where I thought that was.

A train soon appeared and quickly passed through the station without stopping.  An exress, I figured.  Then another appeared, but this one didn’t go to Kyoto Station, where I was heading.  The next one and the next too were not heading there.  I guessed that something was wrong.  Did I get off at the wrong stop?

I found an employee at the station entrance and asked as best I could how to get to Kyoto Station.  He told me “JR Line”.  JR is a private company that has a vast rail network in Japan.  He also said “Station that way” and pointed  over his shoulder.  I thanked him and headed off.

Exiting the station, I found myself facing an entrance to the “next station”.  My pre-paid card doesn’t work on the JR line, so I was forced to buy another ticket to take this train.  The trains really are cheap, so I didn’t mind too much.  Entering the JR station, I looked around.  Not only was I 10 feet from where I had started, I was on the *same platform*.  They’ve built a wall down the middle of the platform and given the new “station” it’s own name.  Wow.

Once at the main station, I bought a ticket and asked when the next train to Osaka was.  “In 8 minutes or 1 hour and 8 minutes”.  I asked for the later train.  I was hungry and wanted to find some Ramen or maybe a few dumplings.

Kyoto station is not extremely large in size, but it is a VERY tall glass structure.  I wanted to take a photo of roof from a high vantage point, so I began to look around.  Riding an escalator up one level, I saw a sign pointing to “Skywalk”.  It led me to another escalator and another and another until I was at the very top of the roof.  The entire length of the station has a glassed in catwalk.  It’s not that great for viewing the station itself, but you can find a really nice view of Kyoto from up there.  Before heading down to the 8th floor, where 5 Ramen shops were waiting, I decided to try a panorama shot.

Here it is (and it’s BIG, so it may take some time to load):

 

Kyoto Panorama Photo  from Main train station

Photos from Kyoto, Japan (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my pictures from Kyoto.  As stated previously, they’re a bit random!  I really just wandered around the town and stopped whenever I saw something interesting.

There are over 1,400 temples and shrines in this small town so it’s really not hard to find something to shoot.  And even the tiny houses are often made from a very photogenic wood.  I just wish I’d had more time to explore.  I guess that’s a great excuse to go back one day!

Enjoy the pics, and please write in the comments which one is YOUR favourite:

<–  Read 24 Hours in Kyoto Part 1

Kawa Coffee – Kyoto, Japan

After leaving the Imperial palace grounds in Kyoto, I discovered the “Kawa Coffee” cafe, just across the street from the South East entrance.

 

 

I’m always up for a hot cup of coffee, even on a scorchingly hot day like today, when most would prefer it iced.  The name also intrigued me.  In Polish, “KAWA” (pronounced Ka-Va) means COFFEE.  So I read this as ‘coffee coffee’, which seems quite funny!  I was sure that a Polish person was running the shop.   I had to investigate!!

Once inside, I was greeted by the owner, who I quickly realized was not Polish.  Instead he’s a craftsman of fine leather products.  In addition to running the cafe, he also makes and sells these products.

Kawa Coffee cafe interior

After placing my order for a pourover coffee and some delicious sweet beans on toast, I spent some time with the owner.  His level of English is about on par with my Japanese.  Pretty much ZERO.  With the aid of Google Translate, I told him about the ‘coffee coffee’ Polish/English name.  He laughed and told me that he wasn’t aware of this when he named the store.  He simply wrote the English sound to the word Leather, which in Japanese is Kawa.

It took some time, but it was a slow day with few customers.  We spent half an hour “talking” about various things.  Why I came to Japan, how long he’d been in business, etc. etc.  Quite a good experience, but typical of all the stories I’ve heard from friends spending time in Japan.  Initially a bit shy, the Japanese open up quite quickly and before you know it, you’re having a laugh and sharing stories as if you were long lost friends.  (I’m told that alcohol consumption speeds up this process.)

I’ve got to spend more time in this country!

If you’re in Kyoto, you’ve got to go to the Imperial Palace.  And if you’re going to the Palace, why not stop by and have a coffee at the Kawa Coffee cafe?

<–  Previous article “24 hours in Kyoto”

 

Cloud Time Lapse Video, Osaka, Japan

The weather has been dismal here lately.  The sweltering heat has been replaced by thick clouds, even stronger humidity and rain.  Our close proximity to a recent tropical storm has blessed us with a bit of wind.  Yes, I’m thankful for it as it’s the only relief from the humidity.

The air has been so thick that I even took off my raincoat in the rain because I was soaked anyways.  At least the rain doesn’t leave your clothes smelling bad.

Today we saw the first blue sky in quite some time as the storm has now passed.  I set up my tripod and took this time lapse video while I was away.  The glass didn’t reflect light very much, so the video turned out pretty well.

Be sure to look at the upper right corner of the video near the end.  You’ll see some very high clouds moving a completely different direction than the others.  Messed up weather!!

In a few days time, the Typhoon Halong is due to hit us.  The skies are grey once again.  Let’s hope the storm dies out before it gets here.  I’ve only got a few more days left on this trip to Japan.  I’d really like to get outside and enjoy them.  Wish me luck!

Enjoy the video!

 

24 Hours in Kyoto, Travel Photography

I’m recently back from a quick trip to Kyoto, I’m madly rushing to get the photos ready to show you.

This trip happened really last-minute, so there wasn’t much time for planning and I decided to just “go with the flow”.  Most of my time in Kyoto was spent just wandering around the streets, seeing what I could find.  Several times I went back to revisit sites that I’d found earlier, but with better light.  But Lady Luck was kind and presented me with plenty of good photo opportunities.  Sometimes she’s good that way, sometimes she’s not.

This first group of pictures are all from the area directly around the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.  No tickets were available to tour inside the palace grounds, but the park and surrounding area are quite beautiful.

If you know what type of bird (stork or crane) is in the pictures, please write it in the comments.  I’ve never seen a bird behave so strangely.  It seemed like it was trying to tan the underside of it’s wings.  On a blisteringly hot day, it seemed to be trying to get MORE heat from the sun.  Crazy!  But the turtles below the bird were enjoying the shade…

 

 

Read the next blog post “Kawa Coffee cafe, Kyoto” –>

Osaka Travel Photography

Today was my first day off since returning to Japan.  I tried to make the most of it.  Waking up early to “enjoy” the ANA Crowne Plaza’s free breakfast, then running around the town trying to see as many sites as time would allow.

The heat slowed me down a bit, reaching 34c in the early afternoon.  I ducked underground a few times to enjoy the shade and cooler temps.  With so many metro lines cross-crossing the town, it’s not hard to find a spot to cool off.  And many of them have shops where you can pick up a cool beverage to rehydrate.  Just what you need on a day like this.

My first time using the metro was a breeze.  I found a machine outside the gate that sold me a pre-paid card.  Just put in 1,000/2,000/3,000 yen ($10/$20/$30) and it spits out a paper card with a magnetic stripe.  It’s quite similar to the system in Tokyo, complete with English instructions.

As per my usual routine in a new city, I had mapped out the route ahead of time using Google maps.  I don’t have a printer here, so I took down a few cheat notes.  All the lines and stations that I’d need for the trip today.  The metro signs are almost all in English, so really it’s quite simple.  The number of people using the trains might be a bit overwhelming for tourists here, but if you’ve been on the train daily through Shinjuku Station, the crowding on these trains won’t bother you a bit and perhaps you’ll even find some comfort in all the additional space.

Arriving at the Osaka Aquarium, you’ve got to walk past a small touristy mall to get to the main entrance.  You don’t have to go in, but of course, they want you to.  I bought my ticket and entered.  Upon entering the building, you go up a very tall escalator.  Reaching the top, I started to unpack my camera and set it up to take lots of (hopefully) cute fishy pictures.  Turning the camera on, my heart skipped a beat.  There was no memory card in the camera!  Ohhhhhh.  Blunder of blunders.  Here I am about 45 minutes away from the hotel.  The round trip to get a card and come back would be brutal.  I see a staff member and ask her if they sell cards in the shop downstairs.  It takes a few minutes to make her understand, but she gets it.  She says no, they don’t have any but there must be some for sale in the market that I had passed on the way in.  Perfect.  Then I see a sign that says “750m to exit”.  Yeah…  That’s a bit far.  I politely ask her if there is another way to, instead of walking through the entire maze-like aquarium.  She asks me to wait and starts to call people on the radio.  Next thing I know, I’m being escorted through the staff areas of the building.  In 2 minutes, I’m out the door with a hand-stamp to get me back in once I’ve bought a new card.

At the market, no dice.  I search high and low, finding many very interesting things including a petting zoo and the world’s largest ferris wheel, but no card.

Back at the aquarium I’ve no choice but to simply enjoy my time walking around with just a cellphone to take a few snapshots.  As it turned out, my Blackberry’s camera really surprised me.  I won’t spend a lot of time cleaning up the pictures, but I’ll post some of the better ones later.

Of all the aquariums and ‘oceanariums’ I’ve been to, this one is definitely in the top 5 worldwide.  They probably have the biggest main tank I’ve ever seen.  And their star attraction in that tank is a whale shark!!  Sadly on this day, it was receiving medical care in another part of facility.  But it gives you an idea about how big that tank is.

Leaving the aquarium I head back to the mall to take a closer look at that petting zoo.

In Tokyo there are quite a few ‘cat cafes’, and I even visited one to see what they’re all about.  Basically, if your lease forbids you to have pets in your tiny apartment, you can come to a cafe and pay an hourly fee to lounge around and play with their cats.  The one I visited had about 50 cats and plenty of space in a rather large multi-floor cafe.  And they didn’t make a bad cattuccino either (lol).

This petting zoo is a whole new level.  I didn’t go in, but I saw a half dozen cats and small dogs.  Then there are tortoises, rabbits, hares, several large I-don’t-know-what-that-is’s (look like a super guinea pig, but I really have no clue), an owl, a kangeroo and an iguana.  Wow.  Overload….  The Japanese have a reputation for being crazy and ‘over the top’.  I’d say they’ve earned it!!

I did ride the ferris wheel.  It’s not cheap at 800 yen ($8) a ride, but it did last quite a long time and you can sit in an all-transparent car for no extra charge.  They are only 4 of them, so the waiting can be long.  But they’ve got a transparent floor and seats.  It must be quite the experience.  I opted for the normal car and was able to walk right on.  Some that were waiting in the other line, were still waiting when I got off the ride.  Amazing views, I must say.  Osaka is a very large city, but it lacks the huge numbers of high-rises that Tokyo has.  It feels like a much smaller city than it really is.

[UPDATE:  Here are the pics from my camera phone.]

Back in Japan. Hello OSAKA!

I’ve just arrived at the ANA Crown Plaza hotel in Osaka, Japan.  It’s been about 2 months since I was in Tokyo.  After the trip, I could not stop talking about it.  I’m very excited to be back!!

First off, I’d like to thank LUFTHANSA.  I’m sure that this is going to sound like a paid advert, but it’s not.  Honest!  I am a loyal client because they have the best onboard service, period!  Other airlines may have nicer interior layouts/seating (the OLD tiny video screens do need to go guys.  Let’s speed up the rollout of the seatback upgrades) but what can really make or break your onboard experience is the attitude and service provided by the onboard staff.  Don’t understand what I mean?  Take a flight on TAM sometimes.  Their “attitude” is downright embarrassing.  You’ll feel guilty for asking for anything.  And then you probably won’t get it.  Lufthansa staff are the tops in my book, time after time after time.  Great job guys and gals!!

Having spent just a few hours wandering around Osaka, what do I notice that’s different from Tokyo?  Oddly enough, the way people walk.  In most countries, the flow of pedestrians matches the flow of car travel.  If they drive on the right, people tend to walk on the right side of the sidewalk.  In Tokyo, this follows true.  They drive on the left and people walk on the left.  In Osaka, they walk on the RIGHT.  Wtf?  I’ve found myself constantly bumping into people because I’m on the wrong side.  How did that get started?

Time to head out and find some Ramen.  I can’t wait!!!!!



 

Lufthansa Senator Perks, My Business Trip to Montreal

After a busy couple of weeks, I think things should slow down a bit now.  Of course, that rarely happens.  Just the lull between the storms generally.

I’d like to thank Lufthansa for getting me to Montreal and back in comfort.  Even though I fly more miles than some birds, I’m normally stuffed into economy (‘Cattle-class’).  Fortunately, as a Lufthansa “Senator” they do provide me some perks.  I’d like to highlight some of those today:

  • Free seat reservation
  • Reserved section at the front of economy for Senators
  • Access to the First Class line at Check-In
  • Extra baggage allowance
  • Priority lane at the security check, most airports (This can save HOURS!)
  • Senator/Star Alliance Gold lounge access w/free snacks and drinks
  • Priority boarding, *before* the business class passengers
  • Priority luggage handling

 

They’ve also recently started to greet me on the airplane, by name.  After takeoff, the flight’s purser (boss of the flight attendants) usually comes around and introduces themselves, asking if there is anything they can do, bla bla bla.  It costs them nothing, but it’s a really nice gesture.  Sometimes the flight attendant in my section even remembers my name and uses it during the entire flight.  It really does make you feel like a celebrity.  The people around you definitely pay attention.  Should they know you?  Are you famous?  Hmmm….

On my flight to Montreal, they upped their game one more notch:  They brought me a gift.  A limited edition World Cup travel bag with an assortment of toiletries inside.  Perfect!  As well I had an empty seat beside me.  Sitting in a bulkhead seat, I had quite a bit of space.  Now if only that idiot behind me would stop punching the touchscreen, I might have even slept a bit.

 

Lufthansa World Cup Limited Edition bag

 

 

On my return flight, I was anxious to see if they’d repeat the gift-giving.  The bag is quite nice, but surely can’t cost them very much when they’re buying in bulk.

This flight was crowded.  Completely sold out.  I again had gotten a bulkhead seat (advantages to selecting your seat early).  The gentleman seated beside me though had firmly planted his feet against the wall as soon as he sat down, as well as grabbing the centre armrest.  Naturally, he was asleep before takeoff.  I guessed that this flight I’d be trapped in my seat for the whole flight, with less than the usual ‘personal space’.  Great.  Just great!  But I was wrong.

When the purser arrived for their usual welcome speech, I got two surprises.  One, no gift.  I was a bit bummed that they had arrived empty-handed.  Two, at the end of the little speech, they asked “Would you like to sit in Business Class today?”  Does a duck like water??  Heck yes!!  “Follow me” she said.  To the ends of the Earth, I thought.  Lead the way!!

My seatmate had been woken up by our little conversation, you should have seen the look on his face as I began gathering up my things.  Eyes bulging out, mouth open.  I could have laughed out loud.

The thing I love the most about being a Senator:  You can’t buy your way in.  You have to fly the miles.  To get these benefits, you have to earn them.  And earned them, I have:

In the past 15 months, I’ve flown 196,000 km.  Since all my work will buy is economy class tickets, that means I’ve spent 11 DAYS 3 hrs 50 min stuffed into the ‘back of the bus’.  Given the chance to sit up front and relax with some space, you’d better believe I’m gonna do it.  And no be shy about it.

Oh and what was waiting for me in the business class seat:  Another gift bag. GOOOOOAAAALLLLL.

 

Every Country? But NOT by Airplane? Amazing!!

Someone just sent me an article about a guy that has visited every country (yes, all 201).  And get this… *without* using a plane.  He’s also the Guinness World Record holder for the number of countries visited in a single year (they must mean individual countries with no repeats or I’d have a shot at this one!)

His blog articles about his adventures to every country are a great read:  The Odyssey Expedition

This has got me wondering how many I’ve visited.  I do travel quite a bit, for work and pleasure.  What’s my number?  So I sat down to count.  Here’s my list, by region:

 

Oceania

  1. Australia
  2. New Zealand
  3. Hong Kong
  4. Macau

South America

  1. Colombia
  2. Brazil

The Caribbean

  1. Barbados
  2. Martinique
  3. Dominica
  4. St. Martin/Sint Maarten
  5. British Virgin Islands
  6. US Virgin Islands
  7. Dominican Republic
  8. Jamaica

Central & North America

  1. Mexico
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Panama
  4. Belize
  5. USA
  6. Bahamas
  7. Conch Republic
  8. Cuba
  9. Canada

Middle East & Asia

  1. UAE
  2. China
  3. South Korea
  4. Japan
  5. Thailand
  6. Singapore
  7. Indonesia

Europe

  1. Netherlands
  2. Belgium
  3. France
  4. England
  5. Germany
  6. Sweden
  7. Norway
  8. Finland
  9. Estonia
  10. Russia
  11. Poland
  12. Czech Republic
  13. Slovakia
  14. Hungary
  15. Croatia
  16. Slovenia
  17. Austria
  18. Switzerland
  19. Italy
  20. Andorra
  21. Spain
  22. Portugal

Africa

(Sadly, NONE)

                         

TOTAL  52

 

If you’re looking at this list and shaking your head a bit don’t worry, so am I.  I’ve copied this from the website mentioned above.  Some of these countries are definitely disputable (like the Conch Republic.  Also called Key West, FL.)  and others are grouped strangely (Cuba as part of Central America?) but this is the “official” list, so I’ll play by their rules.

By my count, I’ve been to 52 countries.  Wow.  No wonder I feel tired!  Africa, I’m afraid I need to apologize.  I’ve never visited you.  In order to tick off my ‘bucket list’ to visit every country, we’re going to have to meet and spend some quality time together.

In the comments section, please write how many you’ve been to.  And don’t be shy if your answer is only ONE, we all have to start somewhere and I think it’s motivating as well.  Get out there and explore!!

 

Flixel Experiment, part 2

 

 

Here’s my latest work on the subject of “Flixel” Pictures.  (Click HERE if you missed the first blog post about it.)

I’ve tried a few other shots, but they didn’t quite seem to work out the way I had planned.  This one at least is what I consider to be passable.  Not really what I was going for (as the rafters are blurry), but close enough.

As I was setting up the tripod to get this shot, canoe after canoe, raft after raft passed me by.  Probably 20 in all.  I though to myself ‘oh, this is gonna be easy.’  No such luck.  As soon as I’d set everything up, nothing.  Absolutely no boats on the river at all.  I waited nearly an hour.  The spot I’d chosen was a little precarious as well.  No real danger to me, so long as I was careful not to step into the river.  But while I was waiting, a couple of people decided to go swimming just behind me.  A couple of people and their large DOG, I should say.  At one point he ran right under the tripod.  I had visions of seeing the camera making a nice ‘splash’ as it went in the water.  Luckily, he didn’t even bump it.  Whew….

I also met a nice lady from Vancouver, Canada.  She too wanted to take a picture of the rafts coming down the chute.  While we waited together, she told me all about her organized trip around Europe.  Her first time and she was having a ball.

Anyway, I hope you like the picture!
Flixel cinemagraph

Flixel Experiment

Trying a new form of photography/video that I just found out about.  So new, in fact that people can’t agree on what to call it.  Some are calling it “FLIXEL”, “Living Photography” or “Cinemagraphy”.

You start with a video clip, then select a single still frame from that movie.  Then you select what objects you’d like to ‘freeze’ and what you’d like to move.  Then you export the final product.

It was already dark when I learned about this technique or I’d have been running outside to make a movie of something, anything really, that had some motion in it.  What I ended up doing was taking an old video clip that I’d long ago forgotten about and trying to use that.  The original clip shows a crowded street crossing in Mexico, with tons of people coming and going.  I picked a frame with lots of people in it and made that my ‘base’ image.  Then I selected an area where I would allow things to move.  I picked the countdown timer (which has a very cool running man image) and some papers blowing in the wind on the left side.  With a few mouseclicks, I was able to produce this.  Perhaps when you see the result, you’ll understand better.

Sadly, the video is watermarked because of it’s ‘trial’ nature.  But you should still be able to see what it’s all about.

PLEASE WAIT – The image will take some time to load.  If you don’t see motion, it’s not done!

And then check my Second Flixel Experiment HERE.

 

Flixel of traffic crossing

47 Ronin

In one of my favourite movies ‘Ronin‘, there is a story told about a group of samurai that I’ve always found fascinating.  The story goes like this:

47 samurai were left leaderless (becoming ronin) after their master (Asano Naganori) was compelled to commit suicide (seppuku) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka.  The ronin avenged their master’s honour by killing Kira, after waiting and planning for a year.  In turn, these ronin were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder.  The shogun could have them executed as criminals, but allowed them some mercy.  This would keep honour among their families and restore the Asano clan’s status.  Although 47 ronin were involved with the attack, one of them (who had been sent off to inform others of the attack’s success) was pardoned by the Shogun.  Upon his natural death, he too was buried among the other ronin.

(A longer version of the story can be found on this Wikipedia page.)

The true story of the 47 ronin has been told over and over across many generations of Japanese people.  It has been made popular in their culture as a symbol of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honour that people should preserve in their daily lives.  Although the first account of these events was written some 50 years after the event (due to the censorship laws of the shogunate in the Genroku era, which forbid portrayal of current events, numerous historical records and artifacts about the actual events survive.

I recently found out that the actual burial site of these brave men is located in Tokyo, close to the Shinagawa station.  I felt compelled to pay a visit.  Inside the gates of the compound, which contains a large temple, there are two small museums containing items related to the historical events.

Entrance to the area is free, but you may wish to purchase a map that contains answers to many of your questions.  Incense is also available for  a fee.  Thousands of people come to the shrine to pay their respects each year on December 4th, the anniversary of their deaths.

 

Shiogama Shrine, near the base of Mount Fuji

Several months ago when I found out that I’d be heading to Japan, I started doing some research to see what was in or a short distance from Tokyo.  I was quite surprised to find that Mount Fuji is actually quite close!  I’m told that on a clear day, it can even be seen from town.

Doing a quick Google search for Mount Fuji, in many of the photos I found is a beautiful pagoda, surrounded by cherry blossoms, with Mt. Fuji in the background.  I was amazed by the beauty of these photos.  But where was this Pagoda?  I could not find it’s name on any of the pictures (at least not in English.)  I gave up.

Several weeks later, while doing some research about doing a hike up to the top of the mountain, I found a picture of the same pagoda with the name of a temple in “Fujiyoshida”, a small town at the base of one of the main trails leading up to the top of the mountain.  Jackpot!  I quickly checked a map and found that the temple was within easy walking distance from the “Fujisan” train station.  I decided to go and check it out!

It only takes 2 trains from the Skinjuku (the world’s busiest train station).  If you plan it well, you can do the entire trip in less than 2 hours.  Be prepared for crowds though.  The first train leaves every hour and it’s FULL.  You’ll need a reservation ahead of time, which you can buy from a machine or attendant right on the platform.  I was able to get one for the very next train, but those that came later didn’t get one and had to wait another hour.  I think the machines will let you buy them well in advance, so if you’re passing through Shinjuku (as you often will if you’re exploring Tokyo), stop in and buy one a day or two early.

How to get there:

Take the ‘Chuo’ Line train.  Be SURE to get one of the express trains.  There are several different levels.  Local (all stations), Limited ( and Express. and you’ll pay a supplement to the normal fare.  It’s worth it!  The Express takes about 45 minutes.  The local can be 90 minutes or longer.  You can use your ‘Suica’ card to pay for this portion of the trip.

Transfer in OTSUKI.  A separate ticket must be purchased to take the line to Fujisan.  For this part of the trip, your ‘Suica’ card will NOT be accepted.  You may buy a ticket from the machine or at the ticket office as you change platforms.  No need to stress about this, just follow the crowds.  Everybody will be doing this.  You’ll have some options here too, including multi-trip passes.  Direct, Express and Local trains.  The prices vary a lot, so think about what you need before you buy.

Train at Fujisan station

 

 

The Express train from Otsuki has a cute paint job.  On the day I went, this train was overflowing with tourists.  Standing room only and hardly room to breathe.  Even though I paid the extra money for an Express train, I ended up taking a local train just 15 minutes later.  It took a lot longer, but I nearly had the entire car to myself.

Arriving at the Fujisan station (the end of the line, you can’t miss it) I was disappointed to see that Mt. Fuji was covered by clouds.  But unlike Tokyo, the cherry blossoms were still on the trees.  A small victory!  Now I just had to find the pagoda.  I walked the kilometer and a half through Fujiyoshida, I arrived at the entrance to the Kitaguchihongufujisengen Shrine.  On the board outside the front gate, there was a large map with photos of the attractions of the surrounding area.  The pagoda was listed as #5 on the attractions list, I struggled to find it.  It took me several minutes to locate it.  Not where I thought it was at all!  About 4 kilometers away, on the complete other side of town, actually outside of town, up a hill.  Damn!

The weather was nice, so even though I could have taken a train a couple of stops to save some walking, I decided to ‘leg it’.  Walking completely through the town, I hoped to stop for lunch somewhere on the way.  No such luck.  Despite the huge amounts of tourists arriving in the town daily, I failed to find a single restaurant on the main street.

Arriving at the gates to the “Shiogama Shrine”, I expected to see the pagoda.  Instead I found an endless set of stairs heading UP.  Covered by the cherry blossoms, I soon found a large Torii (arch) over the walkway.  Confident that I was in the right place, I headed up.  Not many people here.  Not empty, but plenty of space.  A very empty and calm feeling came over me.

About 15 minutes of stair climbing later, I finally saw the pagoda.  Quite a bit smaller than I expected, about 10 meters high.  The blossoms were out in full bloom.  The weather was great and I had plenty of time to take pictures.  It only could have been better if Fuji had been visible.  It still took my breath away!  So BEAUTIFUL.

 

Meiji Jingu, Tokyo

Just a short walk from the Harajuku train station in Tokyo is Meigji Jingu, a famous Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.  Originally built after the emperor’s death in 1912, it was destroyed during the second world war and rebuilt in 1958.

As you enter Yoyogi Park, famous for it’s Sunday ‘cosplay‘ (click the look to read more.  You can’t make this stuff up.) the crowds slowly start to slip away.  By the time you cross under the first “Torii”  (arch) you’ll already find there are less and less people.  You may even find the first bit of personal space since you got off the train.  Quite a luxury in Tokyo!  As you walk through the forest, the crowds really thin out and by the time you get to the shrine, you’ll probably have forgotten you’re in one of the largest cities in the world.

The beauty of this place makes it quite popular for weddings.  We were lucky and manage to get a few pictures of a wedding party procession.  What a memorable location!

 

 

Earthquake!

For the 3rd time since arriving in Japan, I’ve been woken up by an earthquake.  The one today was by far the biggest.

Previously, I’ve felt just a little shake that was probably exaggerated by the springs of the bed.  This one was strong enough to wake me up and while I was awake, it got much much stronger!  I jumped out of bed and hid under the desk.  Only about 10 seconds later, it started to get weaker and was completely finished not long after that.  But there was something new to this one:  I heard the walls cracking.  It’s amazing how much power these things have!

According to the USGS, it was a 5.8 about 75km from Tokyo.  A friend tells me that it was really a 6.2, according to Japan’s experts.  I’ll go with them on this one.  They know their earthquakes.

I wonder how many they have per year and does one ever get used to this?  It’s such a foreign concept to me.  It seems about as normal to me as walking on water.

No real harm done though.  Back to bed!

Hiking Mount Takao – Daytrip from Tokyo

For a short “day trip” from Tokyo, hiking Mount Takao would be hard to beat.  Taking the express train from Shinjuku station, you’ll be at the base of the mountain in less than 1 hour.  Once there, you’ll find it very hard to believe that you’re so close to one of the biggest cities in the world.  The beauty of the area is amazing.  The air is clean and it’s incredibly QUIET.

Most of the tourist guides say to take route #1 to the top OR pay to ride the train and/or chairlift.  I think route #6 is the best.  Great views, less people AND it’s not nearly as steep.  There are places to stop with benches to sit on at many places on the way up too.

Once on top, you’ll be treated to some amazing views.  Then take the #1 trail back down the hill.  It’s got a really wide, well paved track, so footing is easier than on #6.  Something to consider if it’s rained recently too.  Be sure to stop at the large temple on the way down.  You may even encounter monks chanting in the main building.  Please don’t take their picture or enter the room while they’re praying.

At the bottom there are a few restaurants, in case you want to fill your belly before heading back to town.  All told, you can do the entire route at a moderate pace in about 4 hours.

 

 

Living Life in Japan

I haven’t been writing here much lately.  I’m too busy trying to enjoy my time in Japan.  I don’t know how long it will last, but I do know one thing:  I WILL BE BACK.

I’m really enjoying it.

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan

Spring has started here in Japan and the cherry blossoms have nearly all fallen.  It’s been a beautiful time to be here.  I’m very happy to be able to share these pictures with those of you that cannot be here.

It’s taken me quite some time to post these photos.  No excuses.  I decided to enjoy myself outside, in the beautiful nature instead of sitting at the computer photoshopping these.  I think I chose wisely.

 

 

A Stroll around Tokyo (photos)

Just a few random pictures from my walk around Tokyo today.  I hope you like them!  Most of them are from the ‘Shinjuku’ part of town.

Tokyo Photos:

 

Be sure to check back soon.  It’s Cherry Blossom season here in Japan and I’ve got a LOT of photos to show you!

 

A Trip to the Tokyo Aquarium, a.k.a.”Sea Life Park”

A few hours spent strolling around the Tokyo Aquarium, (a.k.a. “Sea Life Park”) yielded some decent pictures.  And it put a huge smile on my face!

I would have spent quite a bit more time with the penguins, but it was barely above freezing on the day I was there and the outdoor enclosure didn’t have much to stop the wind.  I was seriously freezing.  They however, seemed quite comfortable.

If you know the name of any of these critters, please feel free to write it in the comments:

 

Life in Japan

After my all-too-tiring work trip to Brazil, I managed to get a night at home in my own bed.  Yes, ONE.  I think that brings the count up to 6 nights for the whole year so far.  I’ve made a promise to myself to make up for that.  Last year I put 1,100km on my bike.  This year I’d like to crush that distance.  But that’s a story for later.

Today’s topic is Life in Japan:

There are many things that vie for your attention when you come to Tokyo and walk around the streets.  The lights, the sounds, the smell of food in the air.  It’s all very exciting.  This town is ALIVE.  But one thing that you cannot fail to notice is the people.  Everywhere you go, there are people.  There’s no empty space.  At any hour of the day, no matter where you are, somebody else is there sharing the experience with you.  Most obviously, on the trains.  The limited space on the trains and the need for everyone to get to work on time, makes every commute a fight.

I’ve had the “pleasure” of taking the train through Shinjuku station nearly every day since I’ve arrived here.  Rumour has it that a train arrives at the station on average every THREE SECONDS.  (I’m not sure that’s true, but it can’t be far off!)  It is the World’s busiest station.  12 different train/metro lines converge on this one point.  Why you’d choose to do that, is debatable.  But I can say honestly that it may not be a fun experience to fight your way through the station at the busy times, but you’ll get where you’re going.  The major lines have trains there every 2 to 3 minutes, so missing your train isn’t a major drama.  You don’t even need to check the schedule.

The ride itself is an experience to be remembered.  I’ve seen videos of people being stuffed inside overcrowded cars, but firsthand I have not seen that.  When the doors won’t close, people will just step out and wait for the next train.  The hardest part of the ride is getting out at your station.  Or surprisingly, *not* getting out when a large crowd all decides to exit at once.  It’s quite common to have to exit the train, wait for the mob to pass and then re-board the car.

Order and respect are still maintained.  Each platform has markings on the ground, indicating where you should stand to wait for the next train.  People calmly line up at each mark.  When the train arrives and the doors open, they wait for the people on the train to exit and then they board the train.

Organized chaos, I call it.  But it works.  Sadly the seats for the elderly and handicapped are usually occupied.  I’ve given up my seat (which you’re lucky to get)  a few times and people just stared at me, like I was doing something wrong.  But the people I’ve helped seemed quite happy, saying ‘thank you’ or giving a small bow.

“Life in Japan”  (To be continued…)

 

Porto Alegre, Brazil

A quick little timelapse video from Rio before I headed off to Porto Allegre.  Too much work and not enough play on this trip.  I barely had time to pull out the camera!

 

Just one picture.  The rest just didn’t work out the way I wanted.  Sometimes, it’s just like that.

Better Days are Coming web

Bali Khama Resort, Bali

After a quick flight from Lombok to Bali, we arrived at the “Bali Khama” resort.  We found an online deal that gave us the normally $250 per night resort, for 1/2 price.  This being the low season, there were deals everywhere.  Why not enjoy a little luxury?

I can sum up the experience easily this way:  The Bali Khama is a 4 star resort that is trying really really hard to a 5 star resort.  The grounds are beautiful and the staff work hard.  But it’s clear that their management is dropping the ball.

[Full disclosure:  After some of these problems happened, I approached management to make a deal.  I’d photograph some of the resort in exchange for a room upgrade.  The resort was mostly empty, and it would have cost them nothing.  Their marketing department seemed excited the idea and quickly gave me approval to take pictures of the resort.  The general manager however, refused my upgrade request.  (One would think they’d at least give us a different room.  But this wan’t offered.)]

It’s my intention to write an unbiased review of the resort.

 

 

THE GOOD

The pictures from the gallery above include many of the things I really liked.  The Bali Khama’s main pool, the landscaping and the style of the interior decor.  All of these get top marks from me.  The staff as well.  They tried extremely hard to provide top level service and most of the time they succeeded.  The litte things really do help.  Like always greeting me when I entered the lobby area and give a nice smile.  This means a lot.  You can tell that the staff that normally interact with the guests have had customer service training at a very high level.  They really do seem to care.

The breakfast staff also impressed me a few times.  On a day when my wife was sick, they not only suggested that I take some food to her, but they also sent a helper to carry it.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  And several days later, once she had recovered, they asked her how she was feeling.  That made us feel really special.

The main pool area is gorgeous!  Other than a shortage of places to sit in the shade, especially to eat, I really can’t complain.  It’s big, clean and very stylish.  There’s even a kiddie pool for those that aren’t quite ready for the deep end.  Pool towels are provided for free and the attendant even remembered and called me by my name all week.

It’s really an impressive resort to walk around.  The site is truly amazing.  At first glance, it took my breath away.  It’s when you look closer that you start to see problems.

THE BAD

The beach area seems really nice at first.  Then you realize that the entire area in the water is very shallow and covered by grass.  The beach itself is cleaned every day, swimming isn’t much fun when you’re dodging seaweed.  There are also some stones in the water.  It looks like it’s all sand in the pictures, but it’s not.  Swimming footwear recommended.  I brought snorkelling gear, expecting to spend at least a little time each day in the water.  After 10 minutes I came out and never went back in.

Both ends of the beach have a pathway that leads to the neighbouring resorts.  For their normal price, I had expected a private beach.  Instead what you get is a non-stop line of people walking by you.  Even though there is a security guard posted there most of the day, they do not stop (or are not allowed to stop) people from other resorts using this beach.  Considering how crowded the other resorts were, I don’t blame the people for trying to find a little peace and quiet, but I found it quite annoying.

In the first photo gallery, there’s a picture of a table set on the beach.  Quite a romantic spot and I’m quite jealous that it wasn’t for me.  I just happened to walk by as it was being setup.  The bad part, which I didn’t show in the photo, is that it was placed less than 2 meters from showers that you’re expected to use before entering the main pool.  The very elegant looking couple having a nice dinner were right up close to people in their speedos and bikinis.  If there had been a breeze I think they might have even gotten wet.

We had to call for a repair crew 3 times during our short stay:  to fix a bathtub fixture that sprayed water on you, instead of into the tub and for an air conditioning unit, twice.  It stopped working several times and leaked water into the ceiling of the room, which eventually ended up on the bathroom floor.  They came promptly and worked fast, but it could have all been prevented.

As a fan of “Hotel Impossible”, it’s easy to see that this resort’s maintenance budget has been stripped to the bone.  They are not really fixing things, they just do a temporary repair and moving on.  Before the air conditioning died the first time, I could see that the access panel in our bathroom had recently been opened.  Instead of replacing the unit with a new one, they patched it up 2 more times while we were there.  If they want to be 5 stars, they’ve got to address this stuff.  Our ceiling had tiny drops of mould where the water had been sitting and the walls really needed to be painted again.

Housekeeping generally did a good job, but I found some stains on the wall behind the bed and on the curtains.  Both easily found and cleaned, if they had looked for them.

Normally the housekeeping and maintenance staff always remove their shoes before entering your room.  In Indonesia, this is quite common.  Slippers or barefeet are acceptable, shoes are not.  But when they think nobody is watching, they don’t bother to use the walkways.  Instead they walk across directly across the grass and (you guessed it) right into the rooms.

THE UGLY

In 6 days, we found bugs in our bathroom 4 times.  It’s quite normal in Indonesia for this to happen.  Rainforests, humidity and nature.  I get that.  But 4 times?  And what the heck is that thing anyway?  All I know is that they are really good swimmers!  When I turned on the water, it only moved faster.  There was an automatic bug spray device installed in the room, not that it did any good.

The out of reach places in the room, like the bathroom fan and ceilings are disgusting.  Same goes for the shower head and the lower parts of the walls.  Anything above or below eye level seems to have been ignored.  Pull back the shower curtain and you see broken stone tiles.  It looks like they’ve been like that for a while.  Management should catch these things, even if the daily maid doesn’t.  Inspections need to be made.

Storing unused beach chairs with a waterproof cover does make sense.  But not at the beach in front of the guests.  Ugly…  Surely there must be a better place than this.

FINAL NOTES on the Bali Khama Resort

With a little effort, I think the resort could be the 5 star vacation destination that it wants to be.  But not the way they’re doing things now.  They’ll have to lower room rates (like the deal we found) which will mean even less money for upkeep and training, which could keep things spiralling downward.  They need to invest in this property to get it back where it needs to be.

At 1/2 the normal price, I think we got what we paid for.  Would I go back at full price?  NO WAY.

 

< See the previous post “Kebun Villas, Lombok

Kebun Villas (Lombok, Indonesia)

 <–Click here to read the Previous Post

Saying goodbye to the ‘Jati Cottages’, we took a short taxi to the ‘Kebun Villas‘ just a few kilometres down the road.  The pictures we saw online showed a beautiful resort and the prices seemed quite low, so why not give it a try?

On arrival, we passed through the security gate at the street and drove up a long path to the front of the hotel.  First impressions are very important and here they make a good one!  Beautiful stone work with Koi ponds welcome you into a spacious lobby with comfortable couches.  The staff smiled and said hello while offering us a welcome drink. Check-in only took a few minutes, but we’d arrive early and our room wasn’t ready.  After about 10 minutes, we were told that we could go to the room.

The porter helping with our luggage led us past the small pool beside the resort’s only restaurant, where the free breakfast is served.  Up another level on the hill and we pass the main pool.  An extremely long pool with various depths.  Kids at one end, adults at the other.  Some room are accessible here.  Just a few steps up to your private terrace.  The upper level rooms are up another long flight of stairs.  The porters earn their money carrying the luggage here.  Be sure to give them a small tip!  The climb is well worth it though.  These rooms all have a view of the pool and an ocean of green green green jungle.   Quite beautiful, especially at sunset.

We ended up spending several nights here and I must say, it was our favourite place on the island.  Is it a 5 star super amazing resort?  No.  Is it right on the beach?  No.  2-star Michelin restaurant?  No.  But the staff are amazing!  They obviously have been extremely well trained and try extremely hard to please, if it’s at all possible.  I even tried an experiment to see how far they’d go to make me happy.  I asked a random employee who happened to walk by me at the upper level pool (not the one beside the restaurant):  “Could I get lunch served here?”  The poor man was just a maintenance worked with limited English skills.  But he said politely:  “Just one moment Sir.”  He quickly ran and got someone whose language skills were a little better.  They repeated back to me “Sir, you’d like to eat by the pool?”  Several minutes after that, a very confused looking waitress came up to the pool level with a menu.  I waved to indicate it was me that wanted food.  She came over, took my order and not long later I was greeted with hot food.

_DSC5415_tonemapped PPW web

To the Kebun staff:  YOU ARE AMAZING!!  You really made my stay enjoyable.  I’ve stayed at many 4 and 5 star hotels that did not have service as good as yours.  You should be proud!

Rooms by the shallow end of the pool will get a lot of noise from the kids.  Even though the resort was nearly empty when we were there (a real plus!) we still had to keep the terrace doors closed to keep the noise down.  I’d pick a room at the other end, if I was to return again.

The restaurant’s breakfast was quite large.  Something for everyone I’d say.  They could do a better job of setting it out and keeping it hot, but I can’t fault the selection of food.  At night they serve a Tex-Mex menu (paid).  Having spent a lot of time in Mexico, I’m pretty tough to please.  The local grocery doesn’t have many of the ingredients you’d need to make authentic food.  But all in all, it was pretty good and the price was reasonable.

During the day, we went in search of a nearby area known as “Coco Beach”.  To our surprise, this place was also deserted.  Not a single person on the entire beach.  All along the beach are grass huts obviously used as some kind of market during busier times.  A few of the merchants were there, in hopes of getting a customer, ANY customer.  But the majority were empty, giving the real feel of a ghost town.  Creepy, but wonderful for the camera!  Amazingly strong surf here.  We waded out into knee deep water and I could feel the undertow trying to suck us in.  Not a place to bring small children.  Great if you’re a surfer!  We saw (and heard) waves several meters high coming in all afternoon.  So calming.

At one end of the beach is the restaurant and spa that uses the same name.  Their local cuisine is served hot or cold under a string of open-walled grass huts.  Keeping out the sun, but letting in the cool breeze, these huts are a great place to spend the day.  Comfortable pillows surround you.  Eat a meal, have a cold beverage (or 12) and laze about.  The prices were quite good, but honestly I remember the experience much more than the cost.  I guess that says it best!

 

Next post, the “Bali Khama Resort”  –>

Villa Jati Mangsit, Sengiggi

<– Previous article “Lombok

After our amazing (but not in a good way) adventure getting to the island of Lombok, we got some amazing views as our minibus hugged the coast and took us up and over the rocky ridges that separate the many beautiful beaches.  Heading South, it took about 30 minutes to reach our destination.  We were dropped off at the side of the road just north of Sengiggi, Indonesia.

We’d booked a few nights at the “Jati Mangsit cottages”, that we’d found on Booking.com  It had rated pretty high in guest satisfaction, but yet offered a good price.  The pictures looked great and some of the reviews were pretty positive.

I’m sad to say that the stay did not live up to those expectations.  Yes, it’s a beautiful and nicely furnished property but the owner who runs it doesn’t seem to understand how to really run the place.  We didn’t have any major problems but things certainly could have been done better.  One example:  We saw a dinner being set up for a couple by the pool and asked if we could do the same.  They told us that in order to do so, we would have had to request it the day before.  Well that’s perfectly acceptable IF they had told us the day before that is was even possible.  They didn’t.  We went hungry and they lost revenue.

First stop, our room to unpack and get changed for the beach.  How to get there?  We’re only 2 blocks away, but finding our way there proved quite difficult and seemed a little dangerous as the long route we found was through an empty lot with quite a bit of trash lying on the ground and lots of locals walking through the area.  Even after we asked about a shortcut or better way to get there, no information was provided.  Surely a little diagram in the hotel’s information book wouldn’t be too hard to do, would it?  Were we the first guests to want to go to the beach?  I think not.  But it certainly seemed that way.

The pool area has lots of nice chairs and the rooms themselves are gorgeous.  The upper levels have a private balcony with a ‘daybed’ that is outdoors and makes for great naps.  The bedrooms have a slotted wooden door, which allows warm outside air to enter, so the aircon needs to run almost all the time.  They’ve put screens on most of the places where bugs could enter but we got bitten plenty of times, mostly at night.  If fresh air is your thing, you are able to open a staggering amount of windows and doors.  The breeze in the early morning and evenings is quite nice.  But the daytime humidity proved too much for us and we decided to keep the rain and bugs out, as much as possible.

The breakfast was quite a disappointment.  Not much food and most of the tables are in direct sunlight.  We did find a place in central Sengiggi (just 5 minute taxi ride away) that had great food and fast wifi, so we ended up there on several occasions.  Also very close is a very large Korean restaurant, that we tried for lunch.  It was so good, I went back the very next day!

From our room, the views were both breathtaking and humbling at the same time.  Vast scenes of greenery and amazing poverty.  Just below our window on the adjacent property was a small dirt compound.  We could see chickens, goats and a cow along with several other cages containing who-knows-what kind of animals.  The people living there obviously don’t have much going for them.  As we’d walk past their property, they seldom looked at us.  I wonder what they really think of tourists that can afford to stay at a resort, when they’ve got to grow their own food to survive.  It really made me think.

On one of our walks, a large tree came crashing down and blocked the road.  We managed to get around it on foot, but all traffic that small road was completely cut off from the main road.  When we came back that way about an hour later, the tree had already been moved to the side of the road and people were cutting it up, presumably to take home for future use.  I’d think differently if they had cut down the tree, but it was dead anyway.   Waste not, want not, I guess.

 

 

Another pet peeve about the hotel, you must pay in cash.  They were quite content to wait for payment until the morning we left, but carrying around a large sum of money past our ‘neighbours’ made me feel quite uncomfortable.  Not a deal breaker, but another thing that could be improved.

All in all, we enjoyed our stay here.  But it was definitely the place, not the people.

 

Next article  “Kebun Villas”  –>

 

Lombok, Indonesia

(Continued from “Goodbye Bali, Hello Gili Air“)

Our departure from Gili Air seemed simple enough.  We booked a ferry directly from our hotel and we already knew where the dock was located, just a few hundred meters down the dirt road.

We gathered our luggage after a nice, but simple breakfast on the beach.  Arriving at the ferry pier, we were overwhelmed with the sheer number of people.  Dozens of confused tourists wandering about, equally matched with locals also mysteriously walking around.  There was a small que to buy tickets, but having our already, we ignored this line.  About the time our ferry was scheduled to leave, we heard a man shouting something that I couldn’t quite understand.  I followed him as he walked away towards a boat about 10 meters down the beach.  People were jumping onto the back of it, and I asked him if he was going to Lombok.  He said YES.  I went back to grab our luggage.  As I did, the boat left.

Another man starting shouting, rhyming off a long list of destinations for another boat that would soon leave.  We were not sure if this was the correct one or not, so again I asked.  The man said yes, we could get to Sengiggi (our destination city) on this boat.  We grabbed our luggage and headed to the boat.  After about 10 people boarded the boat, we gave our ticket to the boat crew who quickly told us “No, no.  You have to exchange this for ticket” and pointed to the ticket office.  Fearing the boat would again leave without me, I ran to the office, walked around the line (I learned a few things during my time in Russia) got the ticket and quickly boarded the boat.  Not long after, we set sail.

The ride was a bit rough, but not too crazy.  There were lots of expats speaking in English, so it was quite entertaining to eavesdrop on others around us as they were making new friends and exchanging stories.  One of the locals was explaining that you NEVER rely on the ferries this time of year because they’re cancelled so often due to rough seas.  But without roads or an airport, what else can you do?  Swim?

As our boat approached the shore of Lombok, there was a lot of confusion about where we were.  Most people blindly got off the boat.  We stayed as we did not hear ‘Sengiggi’ called out when they announced where we were.  We just assumed this was the first of many stops and ours would come later.  One of the crew then said “everybody out, here.”  We jumped out and found our luggage already on the beach.

A long line of people were heading inland and we followed them to a sort of waiting area.  No benches, flat screen TV’s or magazines in the air conditioned room.  Actually, there wasn’t even a room.  It was a fenced off area, with about 200 people just standing in the dirt.  Yes, seriously.

3 or 4 times we were asked where we were going by different people.  None of them offered any instructions on what to do next.  So we waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Other travellers began to ask each other what was going on.  Nobody knew.  A 2nd boat arrived and even more people filled this quite small area.  These people seemed just as confused as the rest of us.

Not long after, a few “buses” (I use the term VERY loosely) showed up.  They lined up along a one lane dirt road and some people were being asked to grab their luggage and climb aboard.  When they did, the scene looked like this:

Lombok Bus Stop

The little vans they use are older than coal.  Ours had a door that was literally falling apart and a floor that we could see the ground through (like the Flintstone!)

Lombok Bus Door

 

They filled the interior with people, so where to put the luggage?  On the roof, silly!!

Lombok Bus

 

I really would have laughed at this, but we figured we were next to do it, so it didn’t seem so funny.  How would you even know if a bag fell off enroute?  And that one lane road had two directions of traffic.  They actually pull off the road to let the other side pass.  There’s plenty of space.  Build a new lane guys!  And if you’re not making enough money to maintain your vehicle, raise the prices!!  Seriously!

After about an hour and a half, our turn came to climb into one of these deathtraps on wheels.  Lucky for us, it wasn’t full.  Taking the scenic road that climbs the cliffs right by the beach, our attention was diverted to the amazing views.  We hardly noticed the time it took to drive.

Next post  –>  “Villa Jati Mangsit, Sengiggi”

<–  Back to Previous post “Goodbye Bali, Hello Gili Air

Bye Bye Brazil

Tomorrow I’m leaving Brazil, with no immediate plans to return.  I’m not saying never, but my work here is done.

Next week I’ll be exploring a place *almost* completely new to me:  JAPAN.  I’m very excited by this.  Standby culture shock!

Big changes coming to some Frequent Flyer Programs

Delta airlines is planning some BIG CHANGES to their Frequent Flyer program.  Will the other airlines respond in kind?

Dropping mile rewards for flying long distances, instead rewarding for the ticket’s total price.  For someone like me who only flies in economy, it could mean a big difference.  Let’s see how this one plays out.

My first “Go-Around” (aborted landing)

On a recent flight from Frankfurt to Rio de Janeiro, my plane did a “Go-Around”.  This term refers to an aborted landing, resulting in a 2nd (or 3rd, 4th…) attempt at landing.

This was a first for me.  I fly enough to have heard the term before, but I hadn’t experienced it.  I’m a Lufthansa Senator (gold level frequent flyer) and I’m quite interested in planes, ATC (air traffic control) and the terms and technology associated with the industry.  I’m that nerd that likes to sit near the back of the wing and watch the flaps raise after takeoff and lower before landing.  I know why and when they’re used.  I can tell you if the ‘thump’ you heard is a normal noise on that particular type of aircraft.  I play air traffic control simulations on my laptop for “fun”.  Yes, I’m THAT guy.

When on this flight, we were at less than 500ft above the ground on our ‘final approach’ and I heard the engines spooling up to full power, felt the nose of the aircraft point back up and heard the ‘thud’ of the landing gear come back up, I knew exactly what was happening.  When people around me started having panicked looks on their face, I was able to reassure them, by explaining what was going on.  What I still don’t know, is why.

Our pilot, being the extremely well trained Lufthansa captain that he is, did not explain what was going on at the time.  His attention was needed to perform all the items on their checklist.  The cockpit crew have a checklist for absolutely everything (you really don’t want to miss a step when there are 350 “souls” onboard, do you?)  Several minutes later, once we were again at a safe altitude above the nearby mountains, the pilot made an announcement explaining that another plane was on the runway, thus necessitating our aborted landing.

The question remains:  Why was another plane on OUR runway?  Surely at this late stage, the pilot would have been given clearance to land.  That is, the ATC had given all the clearances and instructions up to and including the plane’s landing.

[UPDATE:  Check out this video.  Our plane wasn’t this low, but it’s the same basic idea.  CNN:  Aborted landing ]

Was the plane on the runway too slow?  Was it given clearance to takeoff, but was unable to do so?  Or was it “pilot error?”  Did they not realize that had been cleared, but did not receive or understand the instruction?  Was our plane trying to land on a different runway than was instructed?  I doubt it.  But in the end, I’ll probably never know.

Whatever occurred, I’m glad that our flight crew had the skills to make the situation nothing more than a slight flight delay.  Bravo Lufthansa!

 

For further reading, take a look at this CNN article:  ”

“Language of air travel: How traffic control keeps you safe”

 

 

Goodbye Bali, Hello Gili Air

(Continued from “Arrival in Bali“)

After hearing our driver recommend a visit to his hometown ‘Padang Bai’ at *least* 10 times in a 45 minute drive, we arrived at the ferry pickup point.

The friends we met in Ubud had told us that bad weather had cancelled the ferry 3 days in a row, trapping them on the Gili islands. While a minor inconvenience in the middle of your holidays, it could be disastrous if you missed your flight home.  We made sure to check the weather conditions and hoping to leave Ubud as quickly as possible, we took a chance that we’d make it.  We were lucky.  The seas were relatively calm, with only small sea swells.

Few of the ferries offer direct transportation.  They make many stops.  You’ve got to make sure you AND your luggage get off at the correct stop.  Easier said than done!

“Gili” just means “small island”.  There are many Gilis scattered all over Indonesia, but the 3 most famous are off the coast of island of Lombok.  Closest to the coast is Gili Air, the smallest of the 3.  Then Gili Meno.  Furthest out is the largest Gili Trawangan, often referred to as “Gili T”.  This is the one that most people seek out.  It has a reputation for nightlife and readily available drugs.  Since becoming popular in the 1980’s, the crowds coming here have increased nearly every year.  Oddly, there is NO police presence on any of the Gilis.  Somehow it all seems to work.  The islands are very laid back and easy going.

Not being partiers in any sense of the word, we decided well in advance to stay away from the crowds and head straight to Gili Air.  The ferry simply noses into the beach and you jump into the surf.  Your luggage is lowered down to you and with a bit of luck, neither get very wet.  We timed our jumps with the waves and only got wet about 1/2 way up to the knee, with our luggage not getting wet at all!  Others were not so adept at timing.

Our trusty Lonely Planet guide had already let us down twice at this point.  1st the falsehood about Ubud being ‘tranquil’ and ‘relaxing’.  Then the super difficult to navigate walking tour.  We weren’t about to trust it blindly when it came to booking accommodations on ‘Air.  We found a decently rated hotel on Booking.com, at a very good rate.  Booking only for 1 night, we checked in and immediately set off in search of other places to stay.  We wanted to see them with our own eyes before booking a longer stay.

Nearly every place we went to fell into two categories:  Overpriced or Nightmare.

We ended up booking at another budget-minded place, just across the road from the beach.  This turned out to be a deciding factor after returning to our original hotel late at night.  200m from the main road, there aren’t any lights on the path to the hotel.  Even with a good flashlight, we were surprised a few times by people and critters.  Not a pleasant experience.  What a shame too, as the cheap room was actually quite nice.  Recently renovated with a quite clean and well decorated outdoor bathroom (as is the norm there).

The beaches on ‘Air are a bit of a disappointment though.  The pictures show a very wide beach with tons of sand.  These pics are obviously NOT from there.  The real beaches are entirely made of ground coral and sadly, garbage.  Lots and lots of garbage.  The coral is rough enough that you wouldn’t want to walk on it in bare feet.  And certainly not pleasant to lie on.  We did find a couple of beachfront restaurants where the coral was ground fine enough that is resembled sand, but it was still wasn’t great.  I’d also expected to be able to snorkel right from the beach.  Although I was able to do this in a few places, there were few fish.  In one spot there were several hundred, but small and not very colourful.  A few days later I booked a 1/2 day snorkelling trip and found that Gili T and Gili Meno both had better beaches and snorkelling.  But being more crowded and having a lot more ‘hawkers’ constantly trying to sell you something, really put us off.  We decided to spend only a few days on the Gilis and move on.

Previous:  Arrival in Bali                                       Next:  Lombok

Not too many pictures in this gallery.  I decided to focus on living life, instead of just taking pictures of it!  (And I was pretty sure that my camera would be stolen if I turned my back for a few seconds.)

 

 

 

 

Arrival in Bali

(Technically that should read “Arrival ON Bali”, as Bali is an island, not a city.  But some may argue that Bali is a state of mind and therefore, the grammar works.)

After flying Singapore Air aboard one of their new A380 (full length double decker MONSTER) planes, I arrived in Indonesia at the airport in Denpasar, the main airport of Bali.  After checking in and being greeted by an extremely friendly hotel staff, I found my room at the Kuta Airport Hotel.  For just $30 a night they offer a clean room with a free breakfast.  When I entered the room I was surprised to find twin beds.  As my wife was joining me I asked the staff if I could change to a room with a double bed, as I had requested in advance.  They were surprised to hear that we did not travel together.  After explaining that our work and travel schedules often mean we’re apart for long periods of time, they insisted on upgrading me to a “family room”, with a large bed and even a couch.

After dropping off my bags and grabbing a quick shower, I headed out in search of some cheap eats.  The nice girl at the reception desk told me about a restaurant just next door.  I decided to give it a try.  More street food than restaurant, they offered ‘nasi goreng’ (which I later found out means Fried Rice) for only 1,300 rupiahs.  That’s just over $1 US.  I found a cheap plastic table and chair to sit on and dove into my food.  DELICIOUS!  I thought that if this was a poor man’s version of Indonesian food, I was going to be in for a treat on this vacation.  Sadly, this was probably the best flavoured food I’d try of the entire trip.

After lunch I decided to use the free wifi to check my emails.  In the room I had no luck at all getting my macbook to connect to the internet.  I took it downstairs to the lobby to see if the signal in the room was a problem.  It wasn’t.  My phone connected straight away, but in the two days I was there I never got my laptop to work on their network.  For everyone else it seemed to work fine.

Alina’s flight arrived right on time and the hotel provided a free ride to/from the airport even though it would only be a short walk.  After a good night’s sleep and a quick breakfast, we set off to explore a bit of Denpasar.  Traffic seems a bit chaotic when you first arrive here.  We’ve both been to countries where driving on the left is the norm.  But the rules of the road are a little different here.  It is the responsibility of each driver to brake for vehicles entered the roadway from the sides.  There is no right of way as is common in the rest of the world.  Drivers simply honk their horn once to let others know “I’m here” and enter the flow of traffic.  This would cause a panic in most places, but in Bali it seems to work.  As most people use scooters or motorcycles, there is often room on the road for such manoeuvres.  Although the roads themselves are often quite narrow.  There is also an unwritten rule that you must pass every other car on the road.  They all seem to want to get there first.  Many times slow riders were difficult to pass, but I never heard an angry long blast of a car horn, as one would expect in other places.  Here they just go with the flow.

One of the first things we noticed is that there are many, many (many!) temples.  It seems you can’t go 20 meters without seeing some sort of place to pray or leave an offering.  Small temples and shrines are everywhere.

After a short walkabout, we check out and hop into a car headed to Ubud, which we are told is the center of the universe for “chilling out & yoga”.  Sounds perfect to us.  Hopefully they have a few good restaurants and some place that has good coffee.

About an hour later, after driving through non-stop city (seriously, no gaps between “cities”) we arrive in Ubud.  The only trouble is that our driver doesn’t know where our hotel is located.  Never mind that I asked him before we left if he knew and provided him with a map.  After finding our location by way of street signs and hotel names, we point out the required u-turn to get us back on track.  The driver does not seem to understand and stops to asks people for directions.  Once again we’re heading in the wrong direction and I repeatedly show him the map, indicating where we are and where we need to go.  He seems more confused than ever and again stops to ask directions.  While he’s out of the car, I realize that he cannot read and has no clue what the map says.  Upon his return, I point with my hand that we have to go “that way” and he finally gets the message and turns the car around.  We find the proper street and are at our hotel shortly thereafter.

Well off the road and surrounded by the first empty space we’ve seen all day, is the Swasti Eco Cottages.  Our Lonely Planet guidebook recommends this place quite highly (for a budget stay) and we quickly see why.  Set on several acres, the property is beautiful.  A large pool is central, surrounded by gardens and many multi-level cottages.  After a quick welcome drink at the reception, we head to our room.  We’ve lucked out!  Our room is probably the most secluded and has the best view of any of the cottages around us.  It has a large terrace and a HUGE bathtub that is obviously made for two.  For the next 5 nights, this is home!

A quick bite in the restaurant tells us that finding good food won’t be hard.  The satay chicken  melts in your mouth and has just enough spices to really make your mouth water.  YUM.  It’s here that we first hear that mangoes are not ‘in season’.  What a disappointment!  On a previous trip to Thailand, eating ‘mangoes & sticky rice’ for breakfast each day was a highlight of the trip.  Will we not have any on this trip?

Ubud has quickly grown to match the fame associated with the book/movie “Eat, Pray, Love”.  Portions of the film were made in the actual locations written about in the book.  And a few of the locals are actual people that you can meet on the street.  Combined with being named Conde Naste’s “Top city in Asia”, the number of people coming here has recenlty exploded.

Alina has some friends from Poland visiting Bali and we take a quick trip through the “monkey forest” to have dinner with them in town.  (A word to the wise:  If you are staying in a hotel on the south side of Ubud and the forest is between you and your hotel, take a cab after dark!!)  We quickly realize that Ubud is not the heaven-on-Earth we had been expecting.  It’s a very busy little town with very narrow streets.  Constant traffic makes crossing the street difficult and although it’s not New York city, it’s far too noisy for us to find it relaxing.  The largest yoga school in the town actually has to employ valet parking staff, just so they can fit more scooters.  Is that the type of chill we’re looking for?  No.  Luckily for us, our hotel is really far from the city center and we can easily forget that we’re even near a town.  We did find a nice cafe for a morning coffee.  If not for visiting our friends, we probably would have stayed at our hotel or maybe even checked out a few days early and moved on.  The “Eat, Pray, Love” crowd is just that, a crowd.

Lonely Planet’s guidebook gives us a suggested hiking route with “views of ricefields”.  As avid hikers in Europe, we feel well qualified to follow this route, to hopefully escape the town and get some fresh air.  I take my camera, of course.  Many times we have to stop and verify that we are on the right path.  Most of the route is on city streets and the turns are not marked.  We are forced to retrace our steps several times.  We abandon the route and venture off in search of the promised rice paddy views.  Although we did find some, it wasn’t quite what we were looking for.  A stranger even jumped in and starting guiding us along a rarely trodden path.  He quickly disappeared when we told him that he would not be paid.  We ended up inside the grounds of a resort, which leads out to a main road.  There’s a restaurant not far down the road and we treat ourselves to a quick lunch with some liquids to replace what we’ve lost on this very hot day.  We trek on for another few hours, but eventually give up and stop at a gas station to find a taxi back to the hotel.  It’s time to leave Ubud.  It’s just not what we’re looking for.

Next:  Goodbye Bali, Hello Gili Air

 

 

An Afternoon in Singapore

The eruption of Mount Kelud near Java, Indonesia has interrupted my return from holidays in Bali.

The plane for my flight, which was coming from Singapore, had to deviate it’s route to avoid the “ash cloud”.  Because of this, we were about 30 minutes late taking off.  Add that to the additional time it took us to also fly around the volcano and it was just enough to make me miss my next flight.

I’m now sitting in the “Riverview Hotel” in Singapore, where Singapore Air has graciously put me up in a “day room”.  Tonight I’ll fly on to Frankfurt and although about 12 hours later that I had hoped.

Better safe than sorry!

Photos from my Trip to London, England

Here are the photos from my trip to London, England.  Mostly tourist shots, but I’m quite happy with how most of them turned out.

Click on any image to see a larger view.  OR reload the page as the size and order of the photos is random.

[UPDATE:  I’ve received some emails with compliments about the quality and questions about HOW I took these pictures.  Perhaps one day I’ll explain my techniques in a detailed blog article.  But for now I’ll just say this:  Your camera can be cheap, but you’ve got to have a good lens!  I almost always shoot bracketed photos (that’s a series of multiple exposures with a range of under and over exposed photos, -1 EV, 0 EV, +1EV for example) and then combine them together to really get the details to ‘pop’.  Write in the comments if you have questions about a particular photo and I’ll try my best to answer it.)

 

On my way to London

Flying to England today.  It’s my first time, so I’m quite excited.

Thanks to Lufthansa for flying me there Business Class.  No, not a free ticket or promotion on their part.  I’m just using some of those well earned airmiles that I get from my real job.  This will be my first trip in recent memory (about a year actually) that is JUST for fun.

I really look forward to doing all the touristy stuff.  If it’s not raining too much (haha) I’ll post lots of pictures of my adventure!  Stay tuned.

 

[UPDATE:  Just got back!  3 days in the big city and about 1,000 pictures to sort through.  This is going to take awhile!]

 

 

Rob Roy Glacier, New Zealand

I thought I’d do a test today to see how my Photoshop skills have improved over time.  About a year ago, I was in New Zealand doing a hike to the Rob Roy Glacier, about an hour’s drive from Wanaka, on the South island.  When I reached the area below the glacier, I took a series of 33 photos, making up the largest panorama picture I’d ever taken (at that time!)

My computer spent days crunching the pictures into one large file.  When it was ready, I realized that I’d made a horrible mistake:  I forgot to shield the lens from direct sunlight.  Nearly all the pictures had HUGE amounts of lens flare in them.  They looked horrible.  Just horrible.

I spent several long days manually editing out the spots on each individual photo and then re-patching it all together so that looked OK enough.  The colours were washed out and the rocks were quite hazy.  A bit depressed, I felt this was as good as I could do, and moved on with life.

Today, I came across this image again  and realized that I could go back and retouch all the originals with much higher quality than I had done the first time.  I’ve completed a few photoshop courses since then.  I opened the folder that contained the files.  Sadly, all the originals are GONE.  I’m guessing that in my haste to clear hard drive space before my last upgrade, I deleted them, keeping only the altered version of the files.  The good news is that they were not colour corrected.  They’d only had the sun spots removed.  I once again put them through my pano software (which is AutoPano, by Kolor.  Amazing software!) to see what it could do.  Their software is several generations beyond what it was just a year ago also, so I hoped for some small improvements there also.

Once that was stitched together again, I began the colour correction.  To my delight, the result IS much better than the old one.  The grassy areas on the right definitely looks better.  I’m tempted to post a larger version of this, if anybody wants to see it please let me know and I’ll put it up.

So here it is:

The Rob Roy Glacier

Rob Roy Glacier, near Wanaka, New Zealand

Gold card!

Waiting for me in the mail today was a very nice package.  Inside a VERY nicely designed box (think Apple products, hugely over engineered but posh) was a shiny new Lufthansa Senator Status card.  Woo-hoo!

Now I’ll be able to visit any Star Alliance lounge, have an increased baggage allowance and lots of other perks!  Believe me, I’ve earned them…

(Don’t bother trying to use my card number, it’s been photoshopped.)

Star Alliance GOLD card

 

 

 

Also included in the box were a pair of very nice luggage tags.  Each tag has a full sized gold card inside, with a ID number (not my membership number) that can be used to reunite me with my bags.  But I think the tags are quite likely to be ripped off.  Not stolen, actually ripped off the bag when it’s going around the luggage carousel.  Not sure if I’ll actually use them.  Don’t want to damage my bags if they do get torn off.

 

Star Alliance GOLD luggage tags

Last Sunset Photo from Rio

Back home now, but I just wanted to share one last thing from Rio.  An amazing sunset photo.

And even though the thermostat tells me it’s 20c in the flat, I’m FREEZING.  The day before it was 38c in Rio.  No wonder I’m cold!!

[UPDATE:  I just realized that this is really a *sunrise* photo.  Oops!]

sunset photo in Rio, Brazil

 

 

A Free upgrade to Lufthansa Business Class

Just arrived in Frankfurt after an 11 hour flight from Rio.  Lufthansa gave me an upgrade voucher when I got my Gold/Senator status.  Why let it go to waste?  I upgraded myself to business class for this long-haul flight.

For a guy that has earned all his airmiles in the “back of the bus” or “cattle class” as some call it, I have to say that business class is pretty amazing.  Instead of 3/4/3 seating, the biz class section is 2/2/2.  Lots of extra width, which is my primary complaint in economy seating.  The footrest comes up and forward, making a bed.  This means that the row in front of you doesn’t move backwards, so there is no chance of the person in front of you spilling your drink or smacking your laptop when they THROW the seat back (seriously people, if you want to put your seat back, it’s OK.  Just do it s-l-o-w-l-y so the person behind you can get the heck out of the way!)  Each seat slides forward and has many many options for positioning the back/seat/legs exactly where you want them.  It will become a FLAT bed for sleeping, BUT (and this is a big one), it is NOT horziontal.  You’re sleeping on an angle and the bottoms of your feet are pressed against the footrest the entire time.  It was a bit disturbing for me.  But compared to being forced to sleep in between two absolute strangers, it was pure luxury!  Oh, and there’s even a back massager built into the seat.

I’d better not get used to this, or going back to economy is going to SUCK.  And next time I get an upgrade voucher, I think I’ll save it for a daytime flight.  Being able to sleep in peace is nice, but being awake for 10+ hours in economy is just too painful.

[UPDATE:  I’ve flown several economy long-haul flights since this post.  It’s worse than I had remembered.]

Chistmas morning in Brazil

I woke early this morning and as soon as I looked outside, I went running for my camera.  Something about the light looked just right.

Normally I don’t share my photos in their ‘raw’ state, but I thought this might be a good time to show you a before/after shot.  Most of my images are photoshop processed for colour and contrast.  In this case, I’ve done that and added a step to remove the colour for this Black & White final image.

The original pic looked like this:

_DSC4175

Not a very interesting image.  Pretty drab, with little colour.

The Nikon D5100 I use is hardly a professional level camera.  It had some real trouble reading a proper exposure on this scene.  I had to really under expose it to get some shadow detail.  Once I found a good exposure, I shot 3 images with one over and under exposed (on purpose) to create an effect called HDR.  In HDR photography, you use software to combine the 3 (or more) images.  Each one will grab the best exposed parts of the scene and the final result will *usually* be a much better photo than any of the originals.

Once my HDR software was done processing those 3 shots, it spit out a final image.  I then removed the colours in Photoshop.

The final result:

_DSC4175_tonemapped PPW BW

 

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

…well, I don’t know what.  But it certainly isn’t Christmas.  With daytime temps over 30c and not a a snowflake in sight here in Rio, it’s hard to believe that the holiday season is nearly upon us.

Christmas carols seem entirely out of place with beaches and palm trees.  I just can’t get into the ‘spirit’ of things.

In a few days, I’ll be back home where I’m much more likely to see some snow.  But by then, Christmas will have passed.  Will it be a welcome sight, or just an annoyance to my travels.  Time will tell!

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Scott

Hotel Room Views (Part 2)

Sadly, I have not ventured very far from my hotel room during my stay in Rio.  Other than for work, I’ve barely managed to get outside at all.  Just a brief stroll along the beach and a quick trip to the supermarket.  And for certain I did NOT take my camera.

Rio is quite an interesting city, but also probably the most openly dangerous I’ve been to in some time.  The resort hotel I’m staying at is just a few blocks from a Favella (slum), which is on the backside (pardon the pun) of the famous Jesus statue.  They say that even God has turned his back on the inhabitants there (but the favella did not exist when the statue was placed there.)  The locals walking to the beach pass by the hotel, with it’s border fence and armed security guards.  Walking the streets you can’t help but notice that some only have the clothes on their backs.  And others that wear only designer labels.  In a very odd way, they DO seem to mix well together here in Brazil.  While neither are completely comfortable with the other, they co-exist at least in the simplest of terms.

Here are a few more of my ‘Hotel Room’ shots.  The HDR effect really turns the clouds dark.  It wasn’t really as stormy as the pictures suggest.  But the ‘fireball’ of the that sunset IS real.  I can’t imagine that a nuclear explosion could have turned the sky more red.  And they’ve been like that the past 3 nights in a row.  But I only captured one on camera.

Brazilian Hotel Room View (Rio de Janeiro)

I didn’t have to work too hard to get these pictures.  Both were taken from my Brazilian hotel room balcony!

In the background of the of the picture on the right, you can see the blue ‘glow’ from the lights on the “Christ the Redeemer” statue that has made Rio famous.  This is the backside however, that faces a favella.  They say “Even Jesus has turned his back on us.”  This isn’t true however, the favella was built after the statue was erected.

 

Sunset Photo From the Plane

I took this last week, while flying from Shreveport to Miami.  Pretty amazing considering I only had my Blackberry Z10 to shoot with.  Not the world’s greatest camera, but heck…it’s a PHONE.  Not a bad sunset photo, all things considered.

 

Sunset Photo from the PLANE

Photos from Mexico City

Sleep is still precious, so I have not had much time to work on the thousands of pics I took in Mexico city last month.  But before too much time passes and I move on to other projects, I thought I’d better post the images that ARE ready.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comment section of each picture.  I won’t have time to describe each one, but I promise to answer any questions.

I must admit that the majority of them turned out rather well.  I’m pretty fond of the Corona shot.  It really looks like a professional beer ad!

Here they are:

 

Off to Rio in the Summertime.

I’m leaving Curitiba tomorrow, heading to Rio De Janeiro (not even sure I’ve spelt that correctly!)  It’s the middle of summer and temps are expected to hit 30c with high humidity.

American Airlines Fees – One Step Too Far?

Now the airlines have figured out that nobody wants the middle seat, so that is the ONLY one that they’ll give you for free.  Want a window or an aisle?  $150 please…

Have to blame American Airlines for starting this trend.  I hope this policy dies a quick death.

 

[UPDATE:  I ended up taking the flight (as it was provided by my employer.)  Let’s just say that it was a horrible experience and leave it at that.  If I never fly American Airlines again, I’m OK with that.  Oh, but I do like their new livery.)

Photos from Avignon, France

I’m so jet-lagged from crossing the Atlantic TWICE last week, that I can’t remember if I’ve previously posted these photos from Avignon or not.  So please forgive me if it’s a duplicate.

 

 

 

Mexico City

I’ll be spending the next week or so in Mexico City.  I’m excited to be back here.  It’s been several years since my last visit.  Let’s see if I can find some good subjects for the camera.  (and that the internet works well enough to post them!)

Work will most likely get in the way, but I’m going to try and spend as much time as possible going out and seeing the sights and enjoying the great food!  Mexican is my favourite style, but when travelling abroad I rarely seek it out because it’s done so poorly.  Getting avocado from a can just doesn’t work.  Eewwww.   And many places spice up the food to such a level that it no longer has flavour.  Much to many people’s surprise, Mexican food isn’t very spicy.  You can make it spicy by adding some jalapeno or habanero peppers too it, but on it’s own it’s usually pretty bland.

I’m for a ‘Negro Modelo’ (dark Mexican beer).

Busy Week…Lufthansa Senator Status achieved!!! (Star Alliance Gold)

It’s been a crazy week with a quick turnaround from Brazil to Poland and then Mexico within 6 days.  Whew….  That jetlag is bound to hit any time now!

In the process of these travels, I’ve *blown past* my 100k air miles goal.  My mileage balance now stands at 110,300 for the year and it’s not over yet!  I expect that I’ll have at least one more trip to Brazil and back before the year is over.  Even though I’m not at home to receive my new Lufthansa Senator GOLD card, I have been able to enjoy a few of the benefits.  I snuck a quick peak at the Senator Lounge at FRA.  Quite impressive.  My most common complaint with the Business Lounges is that they’re very nice, but tooooo FULL.  I’m happy to report that the Gold level lounge is 4 or 5 times the size, with plenty of empty seats!  Nice one Lufthansa…

Off to bed!!  My body doesn’t know what time zone it’s in, but it does know its TIRED.

On the Road Again

Today’s the day I will pass 100,000 air miles this year.  It’s no longer a goal that I was NOT sure that I could obtain.  Now it seems all but certain.  I’ve got several more long-haul flights booked before the end of the year (actually another in just a few days from now, BACK across the same ocean I fly over today.)  “On the road again”, the theme song to my life.

As of tomorrow, you can call me SENATOR, the name given to Lufthansa’s Gold status members.  I really can’t wait to see what their separate lounges look like.  My only true wish is that they’re less crowded than the Business Class lounges.  I’ve often skipped stopped at them because in Germany you often can’t even find a seat!

Let’s see if Lufthansa finds an interesting way to inform me that I’ve reached my goal.  They sent a pretty cool ‘personalized’ video on my birthday.  I’m curious what their marketing staff have in mind this time!

 

[UPDATE:  It didn’t take long for Lufthansa to respond.  They Tweeted about it!  Check it out:  “Congratulations Mr Senator!”

Photo of Curitiba, Brazil at Night

 

This photo of Curitiba was taken with my little Nikon P300 (point and shoot).  Quite impressive for such a cheap camera!

Curitiba, Brazil

Morning Coffee. Is it Too Much to Ask?

During my lastest flight, yesterday at 8am, I asked for a cup of coffee.  I was told “Sorry, we don’t have that.”  SERIOUSLY?  An early flight and I’m denied my morning coffee?  Thanks for nothing, TAM Airlines.

This brings to light another thing that I’ve noticed:  Despite being the #1 country in the world for producing coffee, Brazilians don’t seem that fond of it.  Yes, you see some people at restaurants having a some with their food.  Or the odd small cafe that serves a stand-up espresso to people walking by.  But as a society, they don’t seem to like the drink.  In Belo Horizonte, at least.  I haven’t seen a single coffee shop anywhere.  Not one.  Growing up in Kitchener, Ontario, that’s hard to imagine.  We had a Tim Horton’s coffee shop (seemingly) on every block.  Hanging out at the coffee shop or even in the parking lot is a whole sub-set of society.

While in Sao Paulo, I had the pleasure to visit The Coffee Lab (read my full review HERE).  So I know that a small percentage of people here do LOVE their coffee.  Perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places?

 

[UPDATE:  TAM airlines has now announced that they’re leaving the Star Alliance.  Good riddance, I say!]

Back in Brazil!

I’ve just arrived from a 20hr+ trip to Brazil.  I’ll be spending the next 2 weeks in Belo Horizonte and Curitba, which is further south than I’ve been before.  I’m quite excited about it!

Some notes for those that have been keeping track of the blog:

-I’ve been writing and posting a LOT less lately.  Sorry about that!  I’ve been on holiday in France and have a backlog of about 2,000 pics to evaluate/edit/post.  The good news is that the first gallery is coming very soon!

-Including my flights here today, my Lufthansa “Miles and More” balance has just topped over 91,000 miles for the year.  I’m just a hair away from my 100k goal!  The trip home should do it!  From then on, you can call me “Senator Scott”, as that is the title given Star Alliance Gold card holders by Lufthansa.  I can’t wait to see what the lounge looks like!  And of course, I’ll try to bring a friend.  Just because I can.

-My current travel plans for the next 2 months:  Poland, Mexico, USA, Brazil

The USA trip is still not confirmed, but all others should be a GO.  Early next year I’m also hoping to vacation in Thailand or Malaysia.  If anybody knows an excellent off-the-beaten-path sort of “chill” place in either country, please let me know.  As always, you can write me here:  Scott@ThatsMyCoffee.com

Safe travels!

Scott

ps:  My flight statistics from 01/01/2012:

Number of flights:  62

Flown distance:  154,446 km/95,968 miles

Flight time:  9d 7h 36min

 

 

 

Sunrise in Provence (yes, FRANCE)

Waking up very early this morning, I was rewarded with a fabulous sunrise in Provence.  I had intended to photograph the sky before the sun actually came over the hill.  While I was adjusting the camera, it popped over the top and I got this shot:

 

Sunrise in Provence, France

Belo Horizonte Photos, Brazil

Not much time to take pictures on this trip.  Most of my photos from Belo Horizonte were taken from my hotel room window…  Sad, but TRUE.

 

 

Mileage Status Update

I’ve just returned home from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The first leg of my trip I flew on TAM airlines (avoid them at all costs, if you can.  [UPDATE:  July 2014 they were tossed out of the Star Alliance.]) the rest I flew on Lufthansa (my all-time favourite airline.)  I have not yet been credited with the mileage from TAM, but the other 2 flights have appeared in my frequent flyer account.  I currently have 82,317 miles for the year.

My last trip to Brazil got me many more miles.  I’m guessing that the ticket class can really make a difference.  Too bad most of my tickets are non-refundable economy class.  If I was flying this much in business class, I’d have a chance to reach the ‘HON Circle’ level of the Miles-and-More program.  This year I’ll probably get to the Gold/Senator level, but flying in the ‘back of the bus’ you’re not going to get above that level, ever.  No how, no way.

I’ve got 5 more long haul flights (not trips) booked for the remainder of the year.  I should still hit my 100,000 goal pretty easily.

My Time in Brazil

After more than 2 weeks in Brazil, it’s nearly time to go home.  I’ve had a really good time here, despite being far too busy with that four-letter word “WORK”.  In the precious little free time I’ve had, I did manage to get out and see a few things.  One evening I even found myself at a show called “Sequence 8” by Le Sept Doigts de la Main, a spectacular new-age circus style troupe.  (Thank you Simon for the ticket!  And a huge BRAVO to the performers!!)

Brazil as a country is huge and they have a lot going for them.  But what I’ve found most spectacular here are the people.  They may not be rich (although some are!).  They may not have property, fancy cars or even shoes in some cases!  But what they do have is a desire to LIVE.  They seem to make friends quickly and are passionate about the things they believe in.  They sing, dance and drink with such enthusiasm that it’s contagious.  You can’t help but be dragged along by their energy.  Every thought is about today, the moment right now, as if nothing else matters.  Planning for the future and thinking about tomorrow isn’t nearly as important as the current time; a lesson that most people would be wise to learn.  Don’t spend your retirement money on living large, but DO get out and live a little!

In October I’ll be visiting Curitiba.  I can’t wait to explore more and meet as many people as possible.  What a wonderful place!  Brazil.

[UPDATE:  Perhaps living each moment like it’s your last has some real meaning here.  I’ve only been in Belo Horizonte about 10 days and I’ve seen 2 serious motorcycle accidents (one fatal) and heard (but fortunately did not see) a dog being hit by a car.  Statistics seem to back that up.  According to Wikipedia, the average life expectancy in Brazil is only 74.  Compared to 82 in Canada, that seems pretty low.  The lowest ranking country:  Sierra Leone, with just 47 years!  The highest:  Japan, with 83 years!)]

 

Independence Day – Brazil

Today is Independence day in Brazil.  Here in the nation’s capital, Brazilia, they are expecting crowds of 200,000 to march in a (hopefully) peaceful protest and a football match between Brazil and Australia at the new national stadium.  6:30am this morning I’m woken up by a column of armoured personnel carriers going down the street.  The camo paint scheme doesn’t scare me, it’s the guys with the big machine guns looking quite pissed off that does the trick.

It’s gonna be an interesting day!

 

[UPDATE: 21:16]  I’ve just returned to my hotel.  Work prevented me from seeing what was really going on.  The only thing that really affected me was the continuous stream of police helicopters overhead.  One passed so low that when we waved to the pilot we could clearly see him waving back.

In the middle of the afternoon we did hear reports that there was a protest near our hotel with tear gas and rubber bullets being used by the police.  By the time I got home, there was little evidence that anything had gone on.  Crews were out cleaning up garbage and taking down traffic barricades, but that was it.

 

Sunrise in Sao Paulo

This morning I woke up on a plane.  (Not such a strange feeling for me!)  After landing (and trying to remember where I was) I stumbled into the airport terminal, found the signs leading to customs & immigration and headed that way.  After waiting in a very long que, I finally passed through and headed into my 3rd security checkpoint of the day.  Jacket off, laptop out, “No there aren’t liquids in my bag.”, etc. etc.  Finally ending up at my gate, I was thinking to myself “What the HECK am I doing in Brazil in the early morning?”  Then I looked up and saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen.  It put a huge smile on my face and made all the pains of airline travel seem worthwhile.  What a shame it is that I was in a secure area and had to shoot it through thick glass.  In any case, I hope you like it!

Scott

ps:  For those keeping track, I now have over 74,000 airlines this year.  Getting very close to my 100k goal!

[UPDATE:  I *DID* reach my goal of 100k miles and am now a Lufthansa ‘Senator’.]

 

 

Brasilia, Brazil

I’m finally back home after nearly a month on the road.  Starting in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil.

Quite an amazing city, Brasilia.  It’s probably the newest of any major city on the entire planet.  Designed and built in just 1950 as the “ideal” city, it serves as the capital of Brazil.  Headquarters of all forms of government are there.  The planners obviously did their homework.  The design clearly allows for maximum traffic flow.  All the major roads go over or under each other where they intersect.  The traffic doesn’t need to slow at all.  Bravo!

The World Cup will be coming to Brazil in 2014 and the new national stadium looks GREAT.  I couldn’t help but focus on it in many of the pictures you’ll find in the gallery below.

 

Sao Paulo Panorama Photo

This Sao Paulo panorama photo pretty much summarized my experiences there:  Cloudy all the time and lots of rain.  Bleak, grey and not much hope.

Sao Paulo from my hotel window

Off to Brasilia

After only a few hectic days here in Sao Paulo, I’m flying tomorrow to Brasilia.  I know very little about this town, except that it is the only town built in the 20th century to receive UNESCO heritage site status as a ‘planned’ city.  You can read more about it on Wikipedia, by clicking HERE.

Again I’ll be flying TAM airlines.  Let’s hope that this experience is better than my last trip with them!  If all else fails, at least I’ll be getting a few more airmiles towards my 100k goal.

[UPDATE:  No, it wasn’t any better.  And the domestic flight did not even credit me with miles.  Double LOSE.]

Road Trip

Sitting here watching the rain fall down, I was just thinking about all the road trips I’ve done in my life.  Too many to be counted, for sure!  But several were quite memorable:

-Driving from Arizona to  Toronto, *without* using any interstate highways.  Two lane roads most of the way.  Having my windshield broken by a slow truck that pulled onto the gravel to let me by.  Thanks, but next time I’d prefer to just go slow.

-Driving across the US, listening only to the radio.  No iPod’s back then!  And limiting myself to only use the ‘seek’ button ONCE to find the next station, when the one you’re listening to fades.  This is a real challenge.  Try it!  You’d be amazed at what you hear on those smaller stations late at night, when even they don’t think anybody is listening.

-Driving across the Northern US states, then looping back through Canada.  In 8 days.

-Driving Southwest all the way to California, up the Pacific coast, then all the way across Canada.  In only 11 days (much MUCH further than the previous route.)   With an average speed of something like 40km/h over the whole trip, including sleep time!  We didn’t spend much time in one place, but we saw a LOT of places…

-Starting in Ontario and driving the looong way around the Great Lakes headed to Alberta.  About 3 hours into the trip, my European girlfriend asks me:  “So how many hours is this going to take?”  Yeah.

-After visiting Alaska & Hawaii (obviously not by car) I pushed myself to see as many states as possible.  It took me about 10 years, but I can now say that I’ve seen all 50 states.  Not bad for a Canadian.  How many Americans (that aren’t truckers) can say they’ve seen the entire country?

 

Thinking about taking your own road trip?  A few tips to keep in mind, before you do:

-Pee EVERY time you stop.

-If you must stop to pee, fill up with fuel.

-Always buy one more drink than you think you’ll need.

-Keep a few healthy snacks on standby.  Items that won’t melt in the sun are recommended.

-Clean the windshield often.  The dirt on the window makes your eyes work harder to stay focused on the road.  Clean glass will help relax you and release tension.

-On long trips, stop at least once a day for a hot, sit down type meal.

 

Needless to say, I love driving long distances.  There’s something about the freedom of driving when you want, where you want.  Quite liberating.

Now it’s your turn.  Get out there and see the world!

 

Tour de France, Hill Classes

If you’re watching the ‘Tour de France’, you’ll probably hear the commentators at one time or another talk about the hill CLASSES or RANKING of each climb.  They are number 1 through 4.  Although I did understand that 1 was the hardest and 4 the easiest, I could never quite figure out how they come up with these ratings.

A quick Google search gave me this answer from a user name “Blip” on CyclingForums.com

 Hill Classes:

“There are loosely 4 Categories of climb. They are classified from ages ago as to the capacity for a Citroen 2CV to climb the hill and if so in which gear. I know this sounds like madness but it is 100% true. A category 3 climb it could climb in 3rd gear ( a small rise ) category 2 2nd gear, cat 1 First gear and Hors Categorie or H.C is where the little old 2CV could not climb it no matter what!

You make think I am making this up but it is true and has stuck to this day. Any new climbs are rated against existing category climbs. It does have an element of slope and gradient etc but has been simplified in a fantastic, old school method.”

 

So there you have it.  And I stand corrected:  There are FIVE hill classes, not four.

You have to laugh at the method they came up with!!

Schooled by My Espresso Machine

[UPDATE, Nov. 2014:  What a fool I was for even trying to use the ‘dual wall’ filter.  If you’re new, skip this step and go straight to the ‘normal’ filter.  You’ll probably make some mistakes, but you’ll learn what NOT to do with your espresso machine *quickly*.]

I’ve just spent the past hour teaching myself how to tune an espresso shot.  What?  An hour!?!

For several months, I’d been using the cheater’s method of a “dual wall” portafilter.  This is basically a normal filter, with many tiny tiny holes, covered by another layer of metal with only ONE tiny hole.

When using a normal filter, the tamping (or pressing) of the ground coffee must be packed evenly and firmly to build enough pressure that the water passes through the coffee equally.  Even the smallest weak spot will allow the water to ‘channel’ through and throw off the flavour of the shot.  The dual wall’s small outlet ensures that a high pressure is reached every time.  It may not be perfect, but for the beginner, it’ll do.

Double Dose Dual Wall and Single Wall Filters

Dual Wall Filter vs. Normal Espresso Portafilter

I read recently that the crema produced by these filters is not “real” and that you can’t achieve top results this way.  I decided it was time to put on my “big boy pants” and try making REAL expresso.

They were RIGHT.  For the first time since getting my Gastroback ‘Pro G’ last year, I saw the pressure needle approach the top of the indicated range.  It had never gotten anywhere close to this in the past.

It took a few tries to really get it tasting right.  First it was too bitter.  Then it as too sour.  Then it was…JUST RIGHT…  Nice thick, beautiful crema.  This also explains why my Latte art attempts with the dual filter were such horrible failures.  Now making a proper crema, this too was easier to do!

One invaluable tip for using this machine, since it has no temperature control:  If you want to brew with a lower temperature, wait a few minutes after the machine is ready.  If you want a higher temperature, run the steam wand for a few seconds before pulling your shot.  This will ensure that the heater is ON and at max output while pulling your shot.

Now go grab a cup, your espresso is ready!

Gastroback Pro G/Breville Barista Express - NEW out of the Box

Brand NEW, out of the box!

 

Gastroback Pro “G” / Breville Barista Express:  Unboxing

Closeup Photos of a NAKED Bicycle!!

Closeup Photos of a NAKED Bicycle!!

The weather here just can’t seem to decide what to do.  It’s been raining mixed with sunshine for the past 2 days.  Several times I’ve gone running outside when I saw the sun, only to get rained on a few minutes later.  And now they’re telling us that we’ll have a low of 4c tonight.  If the wind comes from the Alps, we might just get snow…  You just can’t win!

A few days ago, I was stuck inside when it was pouring.  Desperately wanting to go for a bike ride.  What to do?  Oh look, a camera and a VERY sexy model!

Here’s the result.  What hardcore bikers might call a little “Bike Porn”:

Photos from Florence, Italy

Florence Photo Gallery

Enjoy the pictures!

Remember that while in the ‘gallery’, you can click  on “VIEW FULL SIZE” in the lower right hand corner.  Comments on the photos are encouraged!  Please let us know what you think.  🙂

 

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Giving Something Back, Through Kiva.org

A few months ago I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine had been repaid for a loan.  That’s an odd thing to post on Facebook, I thought!  Why would you want people to know about that.  I did a little follow-up and discovered KIVA.ORG

Kiva is an organization that gives “micro-loans” to people around the world.  For people that are unable to get credit from a bank, a few dollars can mean the world to them.  And because it’s a loan, they get to keep a bit of self-respect by not asking for a handout.  Most of the people they help are entrepreneurs who are starting a new business or expanding it and need just a little cash to get it going.

I chose to loan $25 to a group of 3 women in Nicaragua, who needed help opening a grocery store.  I’ve just received my first of 3 loan payments.  Now I’ve got credit that I can loan out again to someone else.  It’s that easy…

Please take the time to visit the website and see how it all works.  If you like it, please use the link below to give a loan of $25 FOR FREE.  Yes, that’s right, FREE.  If you sign up using the link provided, an anonymous corporate sponsor will credit $25 to you that you can loan out to the borrower *you choose*.  If you wish add additional funds after that, it’s your choice!

Get a FREE $25 credit to loan on KIVA.ORG by clicking HERE

I (and thousands of other Kiva lenders) THANK YOU!

Scott

ps:  Even if you decide not to join Kiva, please share this post so others can help!

 

[UPDATE:  You can read about my latest loan benefactor HERE.]

San Giovanni Valdarno, Italy

 

[UPDATED Apr 14, 2013, with additional text and photos!]

We’re now staying in a town of just a few thousand people, called”San Giovanni Valdarno”.  It’s just a 30 minutes train ride from Firenze (Florence).  It’s almost like moving back in time.  Most people still travel by bicycles and shop at the market every morning for fresh food.

The town’s main square is quite large and crossing through it seems to be one of the town’s few social activities.  It’s nice to see people waving and smiling to each other.  Everybody seems to have plenty of time to stop and talk.  They catch up on their gossip, perhaps take a few steps to the nearest cafe and share an espresso with their friends and then carry on.  Nobody seems rushed or ‘running late’ for work.  It’s life at a snail’s pace.  BUT…most of the people seem happy.  AMAZING!

It rained most of the morning here.  I nearly got soaked running back to the hotel.  I did manage to stop at the “Basilica Di Maria Ss Delle Grazie”.  Hidden away in the upper level of what I had assumed to be their city hall.  I’m pretty sure that the maintenance crew accidentally left the doors open.  Nobody was in there but me!  I took my time and got a pic:

 

Inside the Church, San Giovanni Valdarno, Italy

 

The ‘star’ effect on the on lamps *looks* totally fake and artificial.  It’s not!  The light level in the church was extremely low and I had to do exposures of about 15 seconds per frame to get the necessary light level.  I’m also putting a full colour version in the gallery.  Some great colours there.

Spent the better part of a day walking around the town and trying to find a decent coffee place.  I tried several, but didn’t find anything memorable.

Tomorrow we’re off to Florence (Firenzi in Italian).  It’s going to be hard to get used to the rush rush rush of the big city again.

 

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Bologna, Italy

Bologna, Italy

Alina and I spent the day in Bologna, Italy today.  Quite a unique experience.  A bold mix of old and new:  Graffiti covered walls and beautiful architecture.

Wandering around the old town, we found many treasures not listed in any tourist guide.  You can see that the town is but a shadow of it’s former self.  I spent hours looking around and trying to imagine what everything must have looked like NEW.  Grand building designs and opulent decorations everywhere.  It must have been quite impressive!  What a shame that today it’s all falling apart.  No money to restore or preserve it, I guess.

Starting from the Hotel Atlantic, we headed South towards the “Piazza Maggiore”.  To there we had to pass through the smaller “Piazza Del Neptuno”, where we stopped to look at the famous fountain.  I had read in a guidebook that the statue of Neptune has the “greatest butt in Italy”.  I wouldn’t know, but judging by the look of the women in the square, they’re probably right.

On the far side of the square is the “Basilica Di San Petronio.”  An absolutely amazing church!  You MUST see this if in Bologna.  Sadly, you’re not allowed to take photos there.  I was nearly crying.  The amazing stained glass, beautiful statues, twin pipe organs and the ornate wooden pulpit…all begging to be photographed.  I bet you could spend YEARS in there, and not run out of subjects for the camera.

One of the marvels of the Basilica is the Meridian Line marked into the floor.  In the roof of the Basilica there’s a corresponding glass in the roof that allows the sun to traverse this line.  Each Solstice and sign of the Zodiac were indicated on the floor with a stone.  This design was carried out by the Italian astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini in 1655.  You can read more about it and see pictures of the Basilica HERE.

After wandering around a small shopping district next to the square, we headed off in search of a pair of medieval towers.  These are the most famous landmark of the city and are called “The Two Towers.”  They date from the early 1100’s and both are leaning a bit.  Surprisingly, the shorter one is at a greater angle and I refused to walk near it.  It really looks like it might fall any day!

We found a small restaurant and ducked inside for a quick lunch.  The place was packed and wan’t a single tourist in sight.  Always a sign of good food!  We ordered some delicious panini.  YUM.  And lots of water to re-hydrate.  By the end of the meal we were both starting to close our eyes.  Time for COFFEE.

Alina had done her homework.  She had looked for a good coffee place online, and found the “Cafe Terzi”.  It doesn’t look like much.  Very long and narrow, with a small street front.  I nearly passed on it when I saw how crowded it was.  But we found the tables in the rear section of the place completely empty.  We sat ourselves down and were quickly asked if we were eating, or just there for coffee?  When we said “coffee”, the waiter brought us a menu different from the lunch menu found on the table.  My mouth fell open as I read through the menu.  About a dozen *pages* of coffee to choose from.  We were definitely in the right place!!!

They’ve got many famous coffees (including Kopi Luwak) that I’ve heard of and many that I had not.  The waiter (actually a barista that delivers it to your table) may not have been the most friendly person, but he did help us choose by taking the time to fully explain each of the types of blends they serve.  I ended up with a very tasty Guatemalan medium roast espresso.  YUM!

DSC_2562 small

If in Bologna, I highly recommend this cafe!  You can find their website HERE.

After coffee we were pretty beat.  We did some window shopping on the way back to the hotel.  Didn’t buy anything, but the prices weren’t nearly as high as we expected.  All in all, Bologna was pretty reasonably priced.  Hotel, food and drinks were good values.

Late in the afternoon we hopped on a train to San Giovanni Valdarno.

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