Fun Ways For A Traveller To Learn A Language Like Mandarin for Taiwan

Learn A Language

In India, regional languages have taken second place to English wherever people have the option. This helps us tremendously in work fields and makes our working force internationally viable. But it does put us behind in retaining culture especially in urban areas, compared to a lot of these societies like Taiwan, Japan, China and even many of the European countries like Germany and France.

When I visited Taiwan in Oct, 2016 I looked at the lack of English language as a very good thing, as this allows true global diversity. But it of course creates challenges for us travellers. And I was solo-cycling for a few days, so that led to some specific difficulties too. Here are some fun ideas on how we travellers can learn a language. Continue reading

Should You Buy Or Rent A Cycle For Long Distance Touring?

Buy Or Rent A Cycle

Considering a long distance cycling tour? If it is around your home city then you probably have access to a good cycle. But what if it is somewhere else – maybe a different country or even a different continent! Would you fly your cycle with you or should you buy or rent a cycle once you get to the new place?

When I cycled Berlin to Copenhagen in 2015 I bought a second hand cycle in Berlin. In my second trip to Australia and Taiwan – I flew my cycle from India to these countries. I wrote a blog post on Taking your Cycle via Airplane (Mostly for Indians). There are two points that I forgot to write in this blog post. One is about the costs involved – I will write about that soon. Second I am covering in this post : Why Fly a Cycle at all? Why not just buy or rent a cycle from a city near your long distance route? Here are my thoughts on the same,

Should You Buy or Rent a Cycle ?

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Australian Spring Weather : Travel Planning Tips

Traveling to Aussie land in Spring? You probably need to know more about the Australian Spring weather before planning your itinerary. I was in Australia from 1st September to 15th October, 2016 – a month and half long trip and the idea was to cycle for at least a month. I would be in Melbourne for about 10 days and then take off towards Adelaide. That was the tentative route Melbourne to Adelaide via a more northern route and then come back via the Great Ocean Road. However, I found the weather was just very difficult for me to cope with. And I was not at all prepared for the cold, wet and windy. The Winter in Victoria had been unusually wet and the trend continued into spring. I think in the end it was for the good because I learnt a lot about camping in cold, wet and windy weather. It made me stronger. I also got an idea about Australian weather patterns, so here sharing my thoughts on it, hopefully it may help you plan your Aussie trip better 🙂Continue reading

Australian Visa For Indians (compared to Schengen)

I had my flight from Kochi to Melbourne on 27th Aug, 2016. The Mumbai – Kochi wasn’t booked because I hadn’t gotten my visa yet. It was already 25th Aug. Then on 26th Aug morning I received The Email – with my visa. 🙂

So all is happy and a LOT of last minute packing took place. It was not a good day I must say, because I got stuck in a traffic jam for 3 hours. Yea, the universe has been trying to tell me something.

Now when I relax at my AirBnb home in Melbourne, having delayed my cycling road trip due to cold and flu – I am slowly unraveling the universe’s message or at least trying to piece it together. It seems to be ‘Relax, All iz well’ 😉

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Taking The Cycle via Airplane, Mostly India Related

I am sitting in my Indigo flight enroute to Kochi from hometown Mumbai. Boarding this flight was a total last minute madness mainly because I was transporting my cycle.

I could have planned it better, so jotting down notes here for next time. Ya, I still have appetite for a next time. My parents were probably traumatized by how close I cut it, but that is OK. Next time I will make it easier for them. 😀

In case you are wondering: I ended up dismantling my bike for the first time just an hour before I had to leave for my flight. Everything could have been smooth as I planned it out in my head but well it wasn’t. The pedal got jammed damn bad so much so that finally I cut a hole in the box and that pedal just poked out. No other way.Continue reading

Solo Travel & The Schengen Visa – FAQs, India

“You will never get the schengen visa!”

That’s what 3 well-recommended travel agents said. And then I managed to get a multi-entry (I had asked for single entry) visa for the number of days I had asked.

I applied on my own! And then as usual – I blogged about it 😀

Since then a lot of people have contacted me to clarify doubts because they are in a similar situation. It seems that anyone looking to travel solo, backpack or go long distance cycling trip in Europe gets a negative response from the Indian travel agents.Continue reading

Cycling Berlin – Copenhagen: Santa is in @ Himmelpfort, Germany

Himmelpfort, Germany
One of the most scenic rides on the Berlin Copenhagen route – from Zehdenick to Furstenberg Havel

Ride 3 from Zehdenick to Furstenberg Havel. One of the most scenic routes so far. A little overwhelmed with the beauty and solitude on the road – hunger was a constant companion (because I was keen on an early start so left without eating anything). I pulled in for food at this little town called Himmelpfort. No major reason to stop here but cafes are not so common when I am cycling only 40 or so km daily. So I stopped at this cafe which seemed very popular in this town of Himmelpfort.

Vaguely I remember seeing some Santa Claus banner while entering but didn’t pay much attention – though it was odd to have christmassy stuff in the month of August! Anyway, I proceeded into the cafe – and then the big Q was: what am I going to eat? I told the lady at the counter – Vegeeeetaaarish.

Ehh, what?

I want Vejjjjeeeeetaaarish food. Veeegaaan? Vegetaarish?

*She tells me some dish names in German*

Does it have egg? No egg. Vegetarish with no egg.

ehh, … Yes, egg!

Err…..No egg?

Errr….moment. *shouts something in German into the kitchen*

I am just standing around. Wondering whether I have been dismissed. Usually ‘moment’ means ‘one moment’ So I am waiting. Then thankfully another German lady comes to me and she knows decent English. Phew. She suggested me a potato dish. Apparently it was just potato n cheese.

I ordered it. This culture of eating cheese like a main course item is very unusual for me because in India we consider it fattening and somewhat unhealthy. Paneer (cottage cheese), Ghee, Curd are all considered healthier. However cheese is like a staple in many of these European countries. So here in Himmelpfort, I found a typical German vegetarian dish which I had quite often on the road – Potatos & Cheese!

Vegetarian in Germany
Veggie meal for the day. Potato & Cheese. Delicious but not as filling as I would like.
Himmelpfort, Germany
Ginger Ale – my staple

Finally feeling a bit satiated and guzzling down couple of Ginger Ales I decided to inquire into that Santa Claus postcards & banners I had seen earlier. Now this is an interesting conversation,

“Why do I keep seeing the Santa Claus here? For eg on this postcard?”

“well, you know this is Himmelpfort! This is where Santa Claus lives”

*Feeling like fish floundering without water* “Err what do you mean ‘lives’ here”

“Well you know as the legend goes…. this is where he stays. When kids want to write to the Santa, they all address it to Himmelpfort!”

“Err what about North Pole?”

“What ?”

“Err Nothing…. *stunned*”

“You know Santa lives right behind this cafe. This is where he reads his letters and even replies to them”

*Finally coming around* “Aah that is interesting, I will definitely go and see it 🙂 “

Bought one of the postcards as keep sake from Santa’s town. At least the German Santa’s town 😉

You know often exposed only to the ‘western’ media which originates in US or UK we assume things are a certain way. But when traveling other countries, things are different.

In Germany, Santa is from Himmelpfort and who can say otherwise?!

Himmelpfort, Germany
Santa’s coat hung in his room
Himmelpfort, Germany
Santa’s Veranda

So I went and visited the lovely Santa cottage. A colourful room with a nice big veranda. Surrounded by green wilderness. In the near distance there was a big lake and boats. Families were picnicking there, I could here the sounds of kids laughter and water splashing.

Himmelpfort
Green acres around the Santa cottage with a Lake nearby and

In hindsight I think I should have inquired more into this activity but I found a very interesting article and I am so happy to know that this whole culture has humble routes.

So feel like writing a letter to Santa? 😉

Solo at the Kumbh Mela – Notes for a Wonderful Experience

Planning to be solo at the Kumbh Mela can be a daunting task for many as it conjures up images of huge crowds, religious frenzy and a truly eclectic bunch of people from rural folks to ash smeared sadhus. I was hesitant at first, but I really enjoyed my 3 solo days at the Kumbh Mela 2015, Trimbakeshwar and Nashik.

With a few precautions the Kumbh Mela can be a really enjoyable time to deepen your experience of the religious ethos of India. There are certain places where stories inevitably happen and this is one such place. Here are my quick notes on difficulties you can face especially if you are traveling solo,

  • Accommodation

Especially for women this is always an important question. Where would you stay? Sadly most religious organizations do not allot rooms to single people – guy or girl. These don’t include the newer organizations, just the older religious ones. So while these ashrams tend to be really satvic (positive) and inexpensive they may not be an option. If you have some contact in the organization then definitely try and get a room through them.

Kumbh Mela Camps – there are many such camps which have private rooms or separate male & female dormitories. I stayed at the Prayag Kumbh camp. They have a female dormitory with 10 beds in one room with 2 attached bathrooms. These are makeshift camps so are very basic, but I was impressed by the dedicated staff and safety.

Private accommodations – depending on the city you can explore AirBnB, home stays and hotel options. Typically hotels would be over priced but home stays maybe a good option.

Book Early: This can ensure lower rates and vacancy. Last minute booking on important bathing dates can be very tricky especially if you are single. Having said that however, I have heard from many people that at the Kumbh Mela arrangements happen – you may find a nice family who takes you in or you may end up with some of the babas or maas in their akhada. This is a place where things just happen. So if you feel crazy, just Go.

Stay Area: Try to get your accommodation as centrally located as possible because activities start from crack of dawn to late night. If you are far off from the mela then getting out at 4 in the morning and making your way here may not be feasible. On important days a lot of roads maybe blocked and you may just have to walk a lot so a centrally located accommodation is really worth it.

  • Choose your Days Right: Are you comfortable with the crowds? On main bathing days lakhs of people arrive at the Kumbh for the holy dip. The roads may be blocked to vehicles and everything would be a lot more dirtier. Accommodations would be brimming full and things are just way more chaotic. If this is your first trip, I suggest go on non-important days. The people are lesser and you can take your time to explore.

If you have more days in hand, then keep a few advance days before the important days so that you get an idea of the place.

This is how crowded it got. Quiet manageable & I went to other ghat areas which were quite empty. So would be a lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
This is how crowded it got in the non-important dates. Quite manageable. I went to other ghat areas which were empty. A lovely experience to take a dip in quiet and solitude.
  • Attire: Generally Indian clothes for women are encouraged. This is to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention from rural men and also as some temples may have rules about covering your head and so on. I found the environment in Trimbakeshwar very chilled and I was wearing a cotton full pant and a short kurti – which is completely ok. I carried a dupatta (scarf) for my head but never had to use it. Now most small towns in India have women wearing jeans and t-shirts, so wearing full pants and short kurti tops should be fine as long as you can carry it well. So don’t be too worried about the clothing, just keep the pants full and top with at least half sleeves and a good neck line.

You may want to take a dip in the holy water so remember to carry clothes accordingly.

  • Be Wary & Yet Open: It is a tricky balance but be wary – being alone may make you a more vulnerable target from scamsters but most of the times people are just unusually helpful. I still find it surprising when people go all out to help me. So be wary but be open to people as they help you out. In a place like Kumbh Mela things are so unusual at times, that it maybe tough to gauge how to behave. Just go with the flow and remember to enjoy the craziness. Generally follow your instinct and maintain basic safety precautions – don’t consume stuff from strangers & enter closed / non-public places only with trusted people.
  • Be part of it rather than a photographer: Tourists often have the incessant habit of clicking pictures all the time. This makes it difficult to absorb and experience the event. The people taking dips are indulging in a very personal experience as these places are very powerful energy centres. So be considerate and careful about how you click your pictures. Ask people for permission, they may pose for a photo or they may refuse. It will avoid unpleasant situations where people get offended.
Kumbh Mela 2015
Babas heading towards Nashik. I asked them if I could click a picture and he was really happy. Smiled and chanted Radhe Radhe while I took the pic.

These are really all the precautions you need to take. Ideally book a good accommodation months in advance and then just get ready to enjoy your experience there. Chat with people, share your stories, ask questions and immerse yourself!

When you are solo you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the crowd. You could lose yourself but that can be a wonderful thing.

Buying Camping & Cycling gear in Berlin, Germany

This post can be relevant for anyone who plans to go to a foreign city and buy stuff for the next leg of your travels.

I had 12 days. I had to buy camping & cycling gear in Berlin for my long distance trip from Berlin to Copenhagen – 750 km.

I had spoken to cyclists here in Mumbai, got their tips. Also researched online. It is important to have clarity on what type of gear you need and things to check before buying. (I will be sharing my notes on gear for a long distance cycling trip a bit later)

So here is a summary of the various ways to search out good, recommended shops to actually buy the gear,
1) Thorough online search – “budget cycle in Berlin”, “used cycles in Berlin” and so on

2) Join relevant FB groups n communities – I joined biking Berlin groups, but didn’t get many suggestions there. It is still a good place to have discussions and share your experiences

3) Talk to locals – I contacted the owner of a Facebook Berlin cyclers group, got some of his thoughts. I also spoke to my AirBnB host and got views there as well. It helped.

4) Talk to local shops and get their recommendations – This is another way to get in touch with local enthusiasts, these people know the industry really well and so should be able to help. Sometimes it helps to talk to them to rule out options. For eg: To sell my cycle in Copenhagen I went about asking cycle shops whether they knew anyone who would buy it. Most refused. One person gave a very low offer – so I ruled out selling back to shops.

The place I finally bought my used bike – I didn’t see it mentioned in any group or web search. I got to know of it, as a recommendation from another cycle shop which was selling new bikes only.

So using the above three methods I shortlisted these places for used bikes in Berlin,
Bike Piraten – this is where I got my bike. It would be my first stop next time I go there to get cycling gear

Getting help at Bike Piraten. Just before I left on my trip :) Stefan (in the pic) and Alexie on their team know English - it was good fun working with them to get my bike ready :)
Getting help at Bike Piraten. Just before I left on my trip. Stefan (in the pic) and Alexie know English – it was good fun working with them to get my bike ready 🙂

Bikers park – also had good deals and are reliable
Mauer park flea market – apparently low quality (and possibly stolen) but if you get a good deal then you can really reduce your expense. This flea market takes place only on Sundays, and it was canceled the week I was there due to stormy weather. So you have to keep back up options.

Mauer Park Flea Market
Cycles for Sale at Mauer Park Flea Market, Berlin

Facebook groups where people put up stuff to sell – this is how I sold my stuff – the flip side is that you have to keep waiting to find the right product. For me, I needed a smaller cycle size. This was quite difficult in Europe – so groups like this are not the best option
eBay Berlin – didn’t see much quality stuff here. And overall I find such places a bit shady to be honest. Maybe some good deals… I don’t really know. But I would prefer the above options over eBay. At least on Facebook I can check the persons profile information before meeting them

Cycle gear

Once you explore all the above options, you will start getting ideas and recommendations to get rest of the cycling gear as well. These are some places I would mention in Berlin,
Stadler – huge showroom n has some decent budget stuff as well. Helpful staff and a section where you can repair your cycle yourself

Stadler Berlin. I really enjoyed in this shop. We can take our cycles inside and relaxed-ly find whatever we need. Few of the helping staff know English, but in the typical German way they listen to you and help you out as much as possible
Stadler Berlin. I really enjoyed seeing and buying in this shop. We can take our cycles inside and relaxedly find whatever we need. Few of the helping staff know English, but in the typical German way they listen to you and help you out as much as possible

Supermarkets like Lidl & Woolworth have some really cheap accessories – worth saving few bucks on. For eg: reflectors n vests

Mauer park flea market 🙂 You can get cycle locks at half the price

Apart from these there are also many small bike shops which sometimes have sale… So those can be checked out..

Camping gear

Again followed a similar search process for camping stuff. I managed to find an online blog that had listed down shops that had good camping gear. I checked out all their online websites and figured out the most relevant shops for me.

Camping gear varies a lot depending on your trip details. For eg festival tents are cheaper but they wouldn’t be right for my trip. Other problem I faced is that while I could see many 4-5 people tents on eBay, there were none for 1 person or even 2 persons.

Also since I was a real camping newbie I figured going for cheap, new stuff would be better than buying 2nd hand and not realizing when there is something wrong with the tent or sleeping bag.

So finally I found these shops,
Real.De – is a supermarket with a camping section.

Real Supermarket - Camping rack
Real Supermarket – Camping rack

Camp4.De – has some good options. I didn’t visit them though.
MontK – this is where I bought my tent & sleeping mat n cooking kit. I got a 2 persons Coleman tent which cost me €85 as it was the cheapest decent camping tent. The single person tent was over € 100.

Tent just after some light drizzle
Tent just after some light drizzle

People in many of these shops were very helpful & they have thorough knowledge of what they are selling… In fact Thomas from MontK gave me so many suggestions about my trip – it was like a summary in 30 mins of all the research I had done online over many hours.

If you are a newbie then I think it is good to go to these respectable stores and get the person to give some gyaan (advise) – as they are really experienced people.

All in all my experience in Berlin was great. Through this trip gear-buying I got in touch with many people and came to know a bit about their culture. 🙂

Solo Female Traveler Safety in India – #2 General Tips

So I took the last blog post on women safety to mention how I am paranoid about safety. So you can probably take these tips I have for women (esp solo) travelers with a pinch of salt. Or maybe you are paranoid like me too 😉

Time

Okay to be outside time: 8.30am to 8pm

Depending on the area you can venture out before or after the ‘Okay times’ but these are the timings I usually keep in mind. In urban areas I know well I may push the night limit to 9.30pm but only once in a while. In Rewalsar the place felt (and probably is) safe so after finishing my dinner at 7.30pm I decided to circumambulate the lake once and then return to my room. Half way across the lake I realised that the town has no street lights! All the lights belonged to shops lining the road – these shops closed so I had to cross the next half of the road in pitch dark! So in small cities even 8pm is too late sometimes.

It’s very important to first figure out what is Okay time in the place. For eg: In Bangalore – despite being a metro city the rickshaws become very fussy after 9.30 and they charge 1 n 1/2 times the usual rate. In Delhi I had kept my time limit at 6.30pm in the evening – by the time I reached the hostel it was dark and I felt I should make it 5.30pm for Delhi (told you I was paranoid) :p

If you are like a night time party person then ensure you have good escorts with you. Keep these timings in mind when booking transport as well. I have often taken buses that start at 10.30pm or reach at 5.30am – the chances are that everything would go smoothly, but in case something goes wrong then its a problem worsened many times over due to the timing. So avoid or have backup plans – basically numbers of people you can call to come pick you up in emergency.

Door

I don’t think a lot of guys get this. On one of our traveler meetups – the talk just came up and one guy suggested sleeping on the platform. Both girls, me and (travel friend) Snigdha just went crazy with the idea, because we need a door that is locked and bolted before we consider even relaxing.

An electronic/key lock won’t do because even junior staff have master keys to open these locks for cleaning purposes hence it compromises safety big time. There has to be a padlock, a latch that I can manually close. Ideally two, fat latches. This is something I make a point to note when taking a room.

Exits

I met one uncle once who is a fire expert. As in he consults with buildings to chart out a plan to make the place fire friendly i.e. – detection units, escape routes, alarm systems and so on. So he has a habit that is somewhat similar to mine – he always notes exits, different routes to navigate a building and so on. When I take a room I usually look at alternative routes to exit the place. I also take the elevator, stairs, different routes just to get a lay of the land. No I don’t do it in a paranoid, someone-is-trying-to-kill-me-way, hahah I just like getting the lay of the land. So yea this is something I do.. when walking on roads, avoid v narrow lanes, keep room to run, stay in lighted regions, if in a small subway section then keep an eye on exits someone shouldn’t just block it, if the place is empty where and how far are people in case I have to reach them in hurry and so on…

It may sound silly to notice when the footpath is too narrow or when there are fences on both sides, no quick exit, but I was reading about a urban planner talking about women-safety design in cities and these are the aspects they address. Keeping the walkways spacious, frequent exits, good lighting – these are all basic people safety measures that need to be taken at the design level, but owing to the congestion and overall lack of design sense India very often doesn’t have these things.

Police 

Before you think you want to call the police anytime you are in trouble, keep in mind that there have been too many cases where the police are perpetrators of the crime, or they may make it worse. Good, now you can consider contacting the police as an option when in trouble. I have a very nice and friendly story about a police person who helped me find my missing laundry clothes 🙂

There are specific helpline numbers for women to contact the police when in trouble. You can always find them from a police station and save them on your phone in every new place. Most urban cities you can always call 100. I have tried it in Mumbai couple of times, it works – the police actually came in 5 mins when I called 100 on two separate occasions – a street fight & gas leak  that I had reported.

Contacts

Ideally have the contact number of few locals who you somewhat trust and can call in times of trouble, or to just check up on all the above info – what time is too late? safety in transport options and so on.. You can get these contacts from Couchsurfing, IndiaMike and other travel forums if you simply don’t know anybody. Usually I have always found that at least in all bigger cities I have some far off friends, Twitter contacts, extended family and so on. So usually I have couple of people in back of my mind who I can contact in trouble.

Strangers

Now a large part of travel especially solo travel is to meet new interesting people on the road, make friends and so on. So how does that work when we are also trying to be safe?

Instinct. I have no other answer but to go on with my instinct in these matters. I have made friends with guys and girls. I think its similar when we are in the city and working/studying as well – we make friends with people we don’t know much about – except that they are in the same office/class with us and then hope for the best.

Precautions to take: not be in a compromis-able situation with a new friend – like late out at night with very new friends who you don’t know that well. Be very aware when eating out with them, in case someone slips anything into the food.

Social Updates

This is one important point – I never update my status with real-time location whereabouts. I remember earlier when I used to go for tweetups (meeting twitter folks) and its the norm to tweet “I am ‘here’ with @so n @so” but I simply don’t do such stuff anymore. No one needs know where I am right now, esp if I am going to be there for next sometime. Cause that can allow someone to come to that place and then stalk me. So I usually do updates about a place once I have left or am just about to leave.

Clothing

I usually wear a jeans n tee kind of clothes and its fine except in some places. Like when I was at Kanyakumari somehow people acted quite odd so then I changed into traditional Indian kurta-churidar dress and it was better. So again always better to do a fair bit of research before going. In many religious places they only allow tradition Indian clothes, full length pants and things like that. Though overall I don’t think its such a big deal.

Crowds

This is important cause a lot of foreigners are interested to see festivals and such, but usually I would suggest to avoid going amidst crowds – seeing them from a distance is ok. Whether for a festival or a line at the bus these are often places were sick guys hang around and will grope surreptitiously. So always better to keep away from crowds even if they are only-women.

In fact crowds related to certain events like Holi in Varanasi or Ganesh Utsav in Mumbai are all very circumspect and to be avoided assiduously. Always when you see or you think there would be a crowd at a place be very careful. I usually avoid all festivals but this year I went to see Ganesh Utsav visarjan in Mumbai and Dasara in Mysore – both towns I know well. I had a good experience and overall was impressed by the arrangements so I guess if you be very careful then its a good chance that you would have a much better experience because its not that bad. 🙂

Hope these tips help you prepare for safe travels!