#36 Learn to Hitchhike

[Note: I wrote this post two years ago during my time as an au pair in Germany, but what I feel about hitchhiking still stands today. More than just reliving the good ol' days of thumbing my way around town, I would like to share again the beauty of this seemingly-outmoded way of travelling for those who are heading to Europe or the Americas, or wherever it's legal and safe to do. Unfortunately where I'm living right now, it is an illegal (and unfashionable) way of getting around - a damn shame really. I hope this post helps my fellow wanderbugs out there. I have also made some updates -- the price of a Happy Weekend Ticket or Schönes-Wochenende Ticket has increased from €37 to €44 now.]

There are mostly two reactions when people talk about hitchhiking. It’s either a lifestyle, or an absolute no-no. More than two weeks ago, I would rather walk or pay for an exorbitant ride than embark on such a supposedly dangerous activity. I mean, we often see on TV and in movies where the guy picking the hitchhiker up is some sort of serial killer who would undoubtedly kidnap the hapless traveller and slice him into pieces, not before torturing him à la the movie Saw.

I have never considered hitchhiking as a viable transport solution. First, I was worried that the driver might turn out to be someone on the wrong side of the tracks. Also, I did not believe that I was brave enough to stop a stranger’s car and ask for a free ride. I know tons of people probably do this everyday, especially seasoned but cash-poor travellers, but when you have already passed the coming-of-age period marked by wilful rebellion and a serious lack of inhibition, you become ‘old and boring’, that is, always fearful and suspicious of the people around you.

I wasn’t about to think of myself as ‘old and boring’! I want to think young, think wild, think freely. Or basically, stop overthinking and start doing. Embrace the situation. Have faith in people.

Finally, it took me a desperate situation to take the plunge. Continue reading

#35 In The Heat Of Mount Papandayan, Indonesia

Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.

Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.

We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.

Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.

Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes! Continue reading

#34 Rome, Hacked

First, see the Sistine Chapel.
Visit Colosseum.
Eat more than one gelato.

Rome, as a travel destination, is haplessly done to death. Yes, it’s gorgeous, spellbinding, romantic. It is. You have to go to Rome, at least twice. You will come home gushing about your Roman adventures. But before that happens, you want answers to your burning questions, to make that first time so smooth you’d head back for seconds.

So, here I will tell you what I know, based on my experience.

The Roma Pass – do I need it?

Simple answer, no. Unless you are the sort to visit at least five museums in a 72-hour period (meaning crazy) on top of seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, you don’t need the Roma Pass. Granted, this pass covers public transportation (buses and trains), you are not likely to take enough rides to justify the cost. Seeing that a one-way ticket sets you back €1.50 and allows only one metro segment within a 100-minute period, you’re better off grabbing a map and walking before you finish figuring out how to connect.

Also, it doesn’t cover to the trip to the airport – so yeah, the Roma Pass is real useless, if you ask me. AND if you are an architecture student, a student in general or a senior citizen, please check for extra discounts not related to the Roma Pass.

Can I walk around Rome? How walkable is the city?

We walked from the Vatican City to Termini after a whole day of traipsing around the Old City. It takes 45 minutes, good shoes and an uncomplaining companion. So, the answer is yes. That said, on a bloody hot summer day, it will also cost you a few gelatos.

I don’t want to walk. Give me a public transport solution that’s simple to remember.

Continue reading

#33 Off Peak Travel and Hiking in Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque fishing villages,
Far away from the world,
by the Mediterranean.

Off peak travelling has its obvious perks – less to pay for accommodation, no jostling at the ‘perfect photo spot’, and best of all, having plenty of beautiful spaces all to yourself. But then it’s also the season for locals to hoof it to their own holidays – meaning shops and restaurants are more likely to close, and it would be just the right time for maintenance works to take place – which could mean unexpected closures and potential disappointment, not to mention disrupting your itinerary (if any) and travel expectations (naturally).

Something’s gotta give, unless you perpetually hunt down the sweet spot of shoulder seasons, you’re bound to bump into either extreme. I used to shun travelling during the off time, because in my mind I would have painted a lovely picture of strolling down a cherry-tree lined promenade in Tokyo (did not happen) or a spectacular sunrise at Yosemite (did not happen either), and I have this immense fear that my experience is not nearly complete if the product didn’t look exactly like what was shown to me on paper. I’m telling you, these are silly preoccupations that the sooner you get over, the better off you are.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but take some time to admire the breathtaking Ligurian coastal scenery found in Cinque Terre.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but how about taking some time to admire this breathtaking Ligurian scenery?

Cinque Terre between Christmas and New Year’s is something I’d consider off peak. People do go away on these dates, but I’d imagine most Europeans would be shredding snow and ice on Alpine slopes or sipping Chang beer on Thai beaches, while travellers from faraway lands would choose to go to places like Vienna or Hamburg, which are still sexy as hell when drowning in ankle-deep snow. I imagine that mainstream hikers would not find joy in bagging Cinque Terre hills in 10°C weather and the chilly winds on the slate-gray beaches would also make damn sure you won’t be frolicking in your bikini or board shorts (unless you are Scandinavian or suicidal), either.

Still, those are my guesses. Proof came in the form of having to drive around for more than an hour looking for somewhere to eat dinner on our first night in the Cinque Terre area. You might say, well we wouldn’t have a problem if we’d chosen to stay in Riomaggiore – but for me that’s considered cheating when you make things too easy. We ended up at a pretty decent pizza place (oh wait, it’s Italy) on the outskirts of Sestri Levante – the kind where everybody just pops in to pick up their takeaway pizzas and the doe-eyed pizzaioli spend a lot of time baking pizzas with just one another. We wolfed down the slices in the car, for fear the pizza guys might want to make conversation (no, not really), then drove back in the pitch-dark, winding mountain roads.

We stayed at the Perla del Levante hostel in a perched little village called Ravecca, still nearby but considered totally off the touristy trail (~42km to drive to Riomaggiore). The hostel has a terrace where you can enjoy a great ocean view and hear the sound waves crashing down below. We could also park our car for free at a nearby roadside.

Continue reading

#32 Reclining Plane Seats Are A Basic Flying Passenger’s Right

I fly a few times a year, and for someone who doesn’t fly for business-related purposes, I represent most leisure travellers with a limited vacation budget, who would try as much as possible to economize my trip. It would be the standard economy class seat on a long-haul flight, or if available, I’d fly budget airlines for short-haul (less than four hours).

It’s pretty ridiculous if I must say, to disrupt a flight because some passengers are not happy with one another, more so about an issue that is really not an issue at all – that is, a long-legged flyer using a plastic device to prevent another passenger seated in front from reclining his/her seat.

So you can’t stretch your legs out – big deal – a hundred over innocent fellow fliers have to waste a couple of hours on an unnecessary detour so you can battle out this non-issue about reclining plane seats?? Seriously, will the cabin crew please duct tape this inconsiderate imbecile to his/her seat until we all reach our destination? (Or throw this jerk out of the airlock! See What Really Happens When You Get Blown Out of an Airlock)

Apparently and very shockingly, to many people, they prefer for airlines not to have reclining plane seats. (See Telegraph Travel’s article on Should Reclining Seats Be Banned?) I’m sure half the people who voted don’t even fly at all.

Have you ever taken a plane before? To have your back settled into an awkward near-90 degree angle for more than 6-7 hours is akin to torture. There’s also a reason why after a certain age, we run away screaming when someone suggests a long, painkiller-popping cross-country bus ride.

Continue reading

#31 I Like Being Cheap – Here’s Why

When it comes to travelling, especially. Being frugal doesn’t have to be painful – in fact if you can look waaay beyond that, it can become a true competitive sport. Not those annoying conversations in a backpacker hostel’s lounge about who-got-the-cheapest-(bedbug-ridden)-bed-in-Lima though, no.

While I haven’t been desperate enough to sleep on a park bench, or to pawn off a Swiss Army knife to subsist on some bread rolls, I relish the conscious choice of going cheap, occasionally. Rest of the time the southern route IS the only realistic choice.

So it’s fun to flip through pillow menus, peruse the never-ending aisles at a Continental breakfast buffet, to train for triathlons you’ll never qualify for in the Olympic-sized hotel lounge pool with its muscle relaxing water-jet Jacuzzi ponds. When I’m just going in to crash on a bed that is almost always too soft on my off-the-trodden-and-smashed-path body, I don’t see why I have to pay premium price just to enjoy the cheap pleasures of swiping 500 bars of soap and calling the chambermaid up to replenish the bathroom supplies. Continue reading

#30 How Travel Opened Up My World to Live Music

Travel: Hey, meet “Music Festival”.
Me: Hello, nice to meet you.
Music Festival: Well, lucky us, because the pleasure is ours.

In these times where many people think vinyl discs are for antique collectors, where most of us hardly buy CDs anymore (if we even ever did, and what the hell are ‘singles’ anyway?), sometimes the only ways to show our love for our favourite band and music are to listen to them religiously and regularly and track their progress on their official social media page, checking out new material as they come onto the scene. And then of course, when they go on tour, we scrimp and save and buy the more-often-than-not exorbitant tickets to watch them in the flesh for a measly 2 hour gig.
While I do listen to my music with gusto and passion, I was never one to “go all out”, attend concerts and buy their t-shirts and stuff. For one, I never budgeted for that sort of thing – I was a poor student, plus I grew up as the Napster generation. My love and my support are what that really count, my cynical side thought: they can make their money from people who can actually afford. Continue reading