Category: Travel

Things that remind me I’m in Brazil

Açai

Açai
Açai

The amazing wonder berry out of the amazon, sold into a “healthy” ice bowl that is often served with banana and granola. Of course, there’s a huge heap of sugar in each bowl and I know it’s still a treat. However it’s really hard to find overseas at a reasonable place.

Weigh by the plate restaurants

The concept of paying however much you put on your plate is typical in Brazil. Restaurants offer a buffet where you load as much you like of salad, vegetables, meat dishes on to a plate. Before eating, your plate is weighed and added to your bill. It’s a great way to sample so many Brazilian dishes without ordering a full plate of them. The cost is extremely reasonale and lets you tailor your meal to your diet.

Mate

Mate is the popular hot tea, often served in a traditional drinking cup with metal straws, intended to be passed around and drunk in a communal fashion. I couldn’t help but laugh to see how popular it was, waiting in the security line at São Paulo behind someone who was trying to figure out with the security person how to get both their full cup of mate through the scanning machine without spilling it!

Tropical fruit

It’s always sad to be reminded of how poor the British Isles are when coming to fresh, season produce. You hit another country and everything tastes like they should. I’ve been indulging in plenty of papaya, pineapple, and watermelon during breakfasts. I don’t normally drink juice, but I’m taking the opportunity to enjoy the freshly pressed guava juice too.

Pao de queijo (cheese bread)

Fluffy puffs of cheesy bread. What’s more to say?

Cachaça

Cachaça seems to be the national spirit to drink after, naturally, beer! It’s an essential ingredient to the Caipirinha but this time I’ve already had a taste of a couple of unique brands.

The passion of people

Perhaps it’s the stark contrast to the European winter, but it’s hard to walk a few blocks without seeing couples passionately kissing or warmly hugging each other when they greet each other.

First impressions of South Africa

I wasn’t really sure of what to expect coming to Johannesburg. When I hear of Capetown I remember of stories of how tourist friendly and safe it is. Also about how white it is. Yes – that seems to be okay to say when you’re in South Africa.

Johannesburg is a whole other matter. I think I remember hearing stories about people being held at gunpoint at traffic lights for their car and money and several other devastatingly other traumatic stories. It reminds me of some of the things I heard about Brazil. Fortunately reality doesn’t always play out to these stories but until you find yourself in the situation – it’s really hard to know.

I have to say my experience in Jozi (as they call it) has been rather sheltered. I am staying in a hotel in Rosebank, an obviously affluent part of the city and somewhat protected from probably what the “true” South Africa is like. It’s made even more strange by the fact the hotel I am staying in is physically connected to a shopping centre (mall) which is a completely cut off and definitely unrealistic experience of the city.

Colourful Braamfontein

Our office sits in Braamfontein, a mixed place that during the day is like visiting Hoxton or Dalston during the weekend. Evenings are a whole other matter and is apparently like the rough parts to Dalston. Rejuvenation, hipsters, craft beer, street/weekend markets on one hand and danger, muggings and knife problems on the other. It’s a bit like every big city but probably on the edgier side.

The city is really spread out and the affluent people have their own cars to drive around. There is little public transport and apparently it is quite normal for drink driving (a lot of deaths are caused each year this way). The use of taxis is rather uncommon for the affluent class – as they drive their own cars (sober or not). I have used Uber as a way of getting around and the taxi drivers seem really happy with it after being here for just over a year. It’s definitely easy to use, and has given me a bit more comfort getting into strangers cars that a) I don’t need to give cash, b) there is some electronic trace about where I was/where I am going.

People have been really warm all over and I am definitely adjusting to the local customs. Punctuality isn’t necessarily expected. Despite being neither black nor white, I haven’t had the stares that I might have expected (like the ones I received in India).

Looking back at 2014

I know that I haven’t updated much on this blog, but part of that was because I spent most of 2014 writing on a German blog here where I wrote over 20,000 words in German. Although I could have spent more time writing there, I did spend some effort trying to write decent German instead of just the same German that I was using all the time.

Looking back

In case you didn’t realise, I spent 2014 living in Berlin where I was trying to learn German. Choosing Berlin as a place to learn German may not be the most obvious choice because you can get by far too easily with English but it had a good balance between being a place where I could learn and practice German and being a very interesting city to explore.

My year in numbers

Without counting Berlin, I visited 29 different cities and with a plan to try to travel mostly within Germany, I think I managed that very well although I still managed to visit Spain, Italy, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and England outside of those cities.

I wrote over 20,000 words on my German blog and complete in total 20 weeks of German language lessons in three different German courses. I didn’t keep track of the number of books I read but I would have estimated that I read about 20 different books (in German) and a couple more in English. According to Get Pocket, I saved and read 1.2 million words on saved web page articles which they equate to about 26 books.

In the year, I took just short of 24,000 photos (168GB worth) and watched probably 50 or more DVD films (in German). Being a member of the library in Berlin rocks!

Finally I also published my second book (although it’s been in the works for a couple of years).

A bit more detail

Travel

I tried to see a lot of Germany, particularly the parts which would be hard to see or I wouldn’t fly to from the UK. I was really surprised at how diverse the landscape and how varied the German culture is and I really appreciated the cheap bus lines between cities which meant I only took a few flights back to Berlin. In German I visited the following cities: Trier, Karlsruhe, Baden Baden, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, Stuttgart, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Görlitz, Weimar, Jena, Dessau, Hamburg, München, Nürnberg, Fürth, Regensburg. You’ll notice that it hits most of the south-west and west cities since I had already been to cities like Köln, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt on previous places.

I returned to Barcelona (this time in summer instead of winter) and enjoyed the beaches at Sitges. I spent two visits in Budapest (once for a stag do, and the other before a conference), two visits to London and a few quick trips to Tartu, Tallinn, Rome and Prague. I went sailing for the first time in Croatia (via Split).

Work

Although I had a year off work, I still ended up doing a little bit. Obviously the second book I published is work-related but I also gave a few training courses and talks about work related topics, but I was more than happy to do that. I managed to not check my work email so much, leaving on my “I’ll be back in a year” out of office message to respond to most emails. I really appreciate that most people will never ever get an opportunity to do that.

Self-development

My only big goal in 2014 was to learn German. I had done some self-study before then, and I don’t think that my German was so good. Reading and listening skills were reasonably but with little practice, my writing and reading skills were significantly behind. In the middle of this year, I realised the goal to “be fluent in German” was not very specific simply because there is no strict definition of what “fluent” means. I’m happy to report I’m comfortable interacting with German-speaking people on an every day basis and getting bay in strange situations.

I can trade emails very well and can read (some) novels in German without needing a dictionary by my side.

Final thoughts

I was never sure what it would be like at the end of this year. Coming back to work is similar to the same feeling I had at the start of 2014 and what you might experience as if it was the first day at school. The feeling comes with a mixture of anticipation (for something good), fear (for the unknown) and excitement (for something new).

I’m thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I did as I realise many people do not. There were so many moments this year which were so different.

Washington DC

My sister and I have visited New York so many times that we have done all of the normal tourist attractions. As such, she wanted to take a trip somewhere else in the States. We had both done Philly and Boston, so our next trip was to Washington DC. We took buses down as they were significantly cheaper than the train and approximately the same sort of time.

I forgot how clean Washington DC looks in winter. A lot of the streets are really wide and with many of the museums being free, are pretty popular with a lot of people. Christmas time meant holiday time and the some of the museums had some really long queues.

We did what most people on their first visit would do including a tour of Capitol Hill, The Library of Congress and the Air and Space Museum that houses many historical artefacts like the Wright Brother’s first plane, or Amelia Airhart’s plane. I highly recommend taking tours of these places as they give you a better sense of the historical events that each place shows and brings your experience to life.

With many of the museums being free, we did pay to go to the Spy Museum, which houses the biggest collection of spy goods (fun, gadgety devices) and, naturally also has a James Bond exhibit. I recommend going early as when we left, the queue to enter exited the building.

We didn’t have a huge amount of time to really explore the city as we stuck mostly to the tourist trail, but I think there are a couple of other areas to explore and you could easily spend a week there visiting museums and different neighbourhoods. I’d definitely go back to check out 14th street a bit more – it’s where there seems to be a bit more of a nightlife and smaller cafes and stores to visit.

Christmas in New York

Well 2014 is finally upon us, I’m settling into my new flat in Berlin, but wanted to write up about our trip to the states. My sister wanted to visit some relatives in New York and despite being there so many times that all the tourist attractions have been completed (some twice!) we still bit the bullet and went over there.

Manhattan Skyline

Although in our last trip, we had visited Brooklyn, we spent this time walking around it a bit more. Williamsburg in particular has developed the last time we were there, and playing the “spot the hipster” game stopped being fun when our tallies got too high. We hadn’t been down to the Brooklyn Promenade before so we visited it for the awesome view of Manhattan’s skyline from a different perspective.

Citibikes

Like many other cities in the world, New York has also adopted the rent a bike scheme. I didn’t notice many people using them and perhaps that’s because the streets don’t have any dedicated space to them and the streets are busy enough with both tourists and other road traffic.

Art gnomes in the West Village

We scouted out a few art houses around the West Village. I loved how they had a massive place, only showing a few pieces whilst others couldn’t seem to have enough. I’m guessing that one piece purchased by someone would be enough to pay for the exorbitant rents.

Empire State Building

Our last trips had us visiting post Christmas, so this time it was nice to see the Empire State building all lit up with festive colours, instead of the cycling colours they use to herald in the new year. We were lucky that the weather wasn’t too bad – a couple of days after we left New York had that massive snowstorm that cascaded into a backlog of planes around the country.

Cooper the Cat

Finally we spent Christmas with our extended family (aunts, uncles and cousins) with the newest edition being a photogenic house cat going by the name of Cooper. I was surprised at how friendly the cat was to new people, not being particularly alarmist about us and also very interested in the camera.

We certainly ate a lot, shopped a bit and also took a trip out to Washington that I’ll write up as a separate post.

Moving Abroad

It’s almost the end of the year, and now is a good time to reveal some plans I have for next year. I am taking the whole year off from work, and I’ll be moving to Berlin for the year. The timing works out well. With work, I get a sabbatical and we negotiated that I could take the rest of the time off (without pay!) and return to work in 2015.

What would you do with 3 months off?

Many people say travel, but I do a lot of travel already and while there will always be places to travel to that I am yet to go to, I always feel the need to do something productive. Instead, I want to try living in Berlin for a year, where I will be hopefully becoming fluent in German.

I will probably post even less often here, where I will be focusing on practicing my German on my new blog here. You can follow “derkua” here but be warned it will be in German.

Holidaying in Taiwan

Our family seems to be developing a yearly tradition of meeting somewhere in the middle between the UK and Australia to spend time together. This year our destination was Taiwan.

I didn’t know too much about the country other than it was an island, it’s well known for its food crazes and that it was of those weird territories of China. Unlike China though, I didn’t need to apply in advance for a visa. Like our trip last year, my sister did a lot of the “tour” planning working out a good balance of time with a tour guide and some free time to wander. I’ll write a bit more about the different destinations in a different post. Here I want to focus on what I discovered about the country.

After our nine day adventure I had a very different view of Taiwan. It seemed to be a lot more in touch with nature than the mainland. While China has had its number of major food scandals this year, and they are infamous for the pollution in their cities to the point where people won’t travel there in certain times of the year because it is so bad, the Taiwanese seem more if touch with where their food comes from.

Organic weeks to be a big movement and a lot of their food seems to focus on locally grown and seasonal produce meaning fresher foods, more flavour and just better quality meals.

Although taipei has some level of smog, the rest of the country appears beautifully maintained and cared for.

Vegetarians will have no problems with eating well in Taiwan. Buddhism seems more prevalent here so vegetarian restaurants are easy to find and there always seem to be at one if not more options at a restaurant. Of course there are also many great food options for omnivores because Taiwan is so well known for it.

Other things we ended up doing include the following list:

Cing Jing Farm

This farm is located high up in the mountains, making it ideal for the sheep who graze freely on the green grassy slopes. Consequentially, it’s worth watching where you step as the footpath is littered with droppings! We walked around the grassy knolls before sitting down to watch a performance from Mongolian horseback riders in a small courtyard.

Paper Factory

I wasn’t expecting this part of tour to be very exciting, but it turned out far against my expectations. The paper factory demonstrated the process of how Taiwanese paper is made (particularly by hand), talking about the different materials and what each one is used for. They even had an interactive part where we had a go at printing on some handmade paper and turning it into a fan.

Of course you can buy all sorts of paper craft to take home, but the most fascinating was the paper designed to be eaten. Crafted out of vegetable fibres, and then seasoned with various coatings such as sesame, chocolate and pepper.

Takoro National Park

We did a lot of driving around the island to get around to different parts, and a large part of this was driving through Takoro National Park. This gave us lots of opportunities for appreciating the natural scenery and many photo opportunities!

Shakadang Trail

We stopped in this particularly scenic location as it was well known as a walking trail, providing many more opportunities to connect with, and appreciate the Taiwanese landscapes.

Wood Cutting Museum

Part of Taiwan’s history includes being occupied by the Japanese. We visited a wood cutting museum that demonstrated how the Japanese set up a village dedicated to wood cutting, including the art craft of wood carving resulting in some amazing creations.

Night markets

With Taiwan being so known for its food, there is nothing more synonymous with the Taiwanese than the night markets. This is often where new foods are trialled, and you’ll often see queues of people patiently waiting for particular food stuffs. Some of the more famous items (some we tried, some we didn’t) included:

  • Oyster omelettes – Made by frying some tiny oysters, covering them with a starchy liquid that turns a bit gelatinous, fried with scrambled egg, often some lettuce and then topped with a salty brown sauce.
  • Pan fried buns – Fluffy white buns, filled with a vegetable and pork mixture and then grilled to have a crispy bottom. Beware the hot liquid that often sits waiting to explode in your mouth!
  • Stinky tofu – Not really much more to say!
  • Fried chicken cutlet – The most famous of these is the Hot Star Fried chicken, that feels like it’s almost half a chicken flattened out, breaded and crisp to perfection and then spiced with lots of pepper and some chilli powder. We had to try this one – perfectly crisp and juicy on the inside.
  • Coffin Bread – A french toast creation, deep fried and then hollowed out and filled with any choice of savoury or sweet fillings. It’s supposed to be very crunchy but I didn’t try this one.
  • Grilled corn – You’ll see lots of white and yellow corn stands around. Often BBQ-ed with some sort of sauce
  • Scallion pancake – Typically a breakfast item, this pancake is flaky, salted, and full of umami.
  • Deep fried bread and egg – Definitely not the sort of food you want to have everyday, but a fascinating process to watch made. The person at the cart typically flattens a ball of white dough, throws the pancake into a deep fryer for it to puff up. They lift it up, crack an egg into the oil before cracking the yolk that then “glues” the egg back to the bread as they put the bread back down. Seems like a pretty popular treat, and is often brushed with some sort of salty, brown paste.
  • Ice cream spring roll – A dessert, where a thin spring roll wrapper is laid out, scraped peanut brittle scattered in the middle before being rolled up with scoops of ice cream and coriander. You’ll be surprised by how well this one works!

Of course there are many other market foods worth exploring and trying. I highly recommend trying the fresh fruit stands as they are all often very flavourful, fresh and super sweet!

Even after a short time, we didn’t get to see all of the island and I’d definitely be keen on heading back again one day soon.

How I borrowed an iPhone 5C for a week

For just over a week, I have been the owner of a blue iPhone 5C. Here are a couple of pictures of the phone before I returned it yesterday.

iPhone 5C

iPhone 5C

I wasn’t planning on being an owner of the iPhone but it turned out to be an emergency situation. It sort of started out like this…

I had a physiotherapy appointment in the morning and I happened to be carrying a bag I wanted to donate to a charity bin on my way home. I sat in the surgery waiting for my appointment, and like most other people, sat there checking twitter, email and everything else. I got called in for my appointment, and after finishing went straight away to the place I could donate my bag. The charity bin looked like this:

The Charity Bin

I pushed my bag through the slot, firmly pushing the bag and closing the door with acceleration to ensure the bag found its way deep inside the bin where no one could easily pull it out. I turned, and proceeded home. It was about half way home that I realised my phone was missing. Not in my jacket. Not in my pockets. Panic set in as I slowly realised my phone sat firmly inside the bag I just donated, and that bag sat firmly inside a steel bin where I could not retrieve it.

I ran back to the bin to see if I somehow could pull the bag out with a strap, but it was simply not possible. All I could touch was a big metal scoop and I could only see the deep black void of the bin’s insides.

There was a number on the bin, but then I had no phone to call it with. I had a flight to catch in the afternoon, so time was of the essence. I headed straight to the apple store. I was fortunate everything happened very early. I was in the apple store by 10:30am and with a new iPhone shortly after.

Why an iPhone 5C you ask? I would have bought an iPhone 5S but they were all out. The only options were a 5C, or an 8GB 4S. I went with the blue iPhone 5C you see in the pictures above. The salesperson assured me I could return the phone within 14 days and possibly upgrade to the 5S if I came in on a day they had any in stock. That seemed very reasonable to me.

Phone done, but not yet connected. I made my way to an EE store to get a replacement sim card. I was fortunate they could make a replacement on the spot for £10. So by about 11am I was reconnected to a telephone network. Racing home, a quick sync with my laptop brought the rest of the phone back up to scratch with important things I would need for my travels including apps that stored my travel details and contacts for people I needed to reach.

Not yet done, I headed back to the charity bin to call the number. I also made sure I took a picture of the bin that you see above. I’m thankful the number was on the bin. A guy called Kevin picked up who I explained my situation to. He was very reasonable, and I left all my contact details with him. Kevin explained that they only collect from the charity bins once a week, but they could try to send a person around. I told him that I would be out of the country so he said he would call me if they found anything. I understood his sentiment that there was no guarantee they would find it but I was certainly hopeful.

With nothing left that I could do, I headed home and tried to not worry myself about what just happened. The event was past and there was nothing left I could do. Still, I felt quite badly as I packed for my work trip (and I do feel guilty and definitely ashamed about it even now).

Kevin left a message three days later. I listened to the message, expecting the worst. Fortunately he surprised me and told me they had found my phone and I could come and pick it up when I was back in London. I was so relieved and thankful.

The first day I was back in London, I went to their offices in Beckenham to pick up the phone. I dropped off giant-sized Toblerone to say thanks – my last trip was to Geneva and it felt most appropriate.

After this time, the phone was truly drained. I plugged it into a battery pack I recently bought, and 20 minutes later it was back up to about 20%, enough for me to feel happy to try restoring it. iTunes worked seamlessly, I dropped in the new sim and tested everything worked. Phew! Everything appeared to work.

After resetting my iPhone 5C to its original condition, I headed back to the apple store with everything in hand and I was able to get a refund for my purchase. Yay!