Communication

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the Hotels.com and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Napier – On The East Coast of New Zealand

Welcome to NapierSalutations from another locale in New Zealand- Napier. Today, we made thee short hop out of Rotorua and smack dab on to the west coast of the North Island. We packed up our Spaceship, stopped at the local post office to mail some postcards home to friends & family and began our trek fairly early. Our roads today were marked as the Thermal Explorer Highway which logically would qualify us as documented Thermal Explorers. Hmmm…I better get that on my LinkedIn profile ASAP.

Amazing Views continueAs with other drives we’ve conquered, today was a bit of Adventure Driving. Two lane divided highways through sharp curves and up and down mountains makes for some serious head’s-up motoring. But the stunning views through dramatic changes in topography over the course of just a couple hundred kilometers make up for it. Scenic? Not even close. The sites of mountains, sloping hills and more are the very definition of majestic. We now have had a chance to drive through both the east coast and west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Both are relatively different with the east coast delivering more mountain ranges. However, no matter where you drive, you’re sure to see lots of grazing sheep happily gallivanting and lots of roundabout traffic circles. Yup. Sheep and roundabouts. Just make it the New Zealand motto.

The Criterion HostelBefore long, we were cruising into Napier and stumbling across the western edge of New Zealand. Nothing but ocean in front of us. Napier sits right on the coast and is chic, sunny and warm. The town has a very different vibe than Rotorua and is laced with endless charming cafes downtown. As with each town before it, Napier is already different from each town we have already visited. We quickly found a hostel (with the help of Lonely Planet) that was centrally located and was just what we were looking for. The Criterion Hostel offers a solid deal, free breakfast and oozes a bit of charm in an art deco style building.

Some Prime Art DecoA bit about Napier: The town is best known for a horrific 1931 earthquake that was New Zealand’s worst natural disaster and the corresponding rebuilding that established the town as the Art Deco capital of the world. There are markers and tributes to the earthquake everywhere and the art deco style is universal. What’s truly fascinating is that the earthquake ADDED almost 40 sq km of NEW land to the city that had previously been swamp land. When the city rebuilt, a very deliberate decision was made to create almost everything in the style of the day: Art Deco. In fact, it’s hard to spend an afternoon in Napier without being constantly reminded of the towns two claims to fame. They are touted heavily everywhere. Even more recent construction keeps with the Art Deco theme and while I don’t know I.M. Pei from I.B.M. the buildings really do standout and have a great look to them. The hilly residential section near downtown reminded me a lot of San Francisco. We’re glad to be here, even if its just for a day. It’s been fun to kick around the town for a while.

View from the bluffsAfter arriving, we discovered that the bluff overlooking the shore was the perfect place to munch on a sack lunch while enjoying the view and watch a large container ship ease into the Napier Port. Later, we stumbled across the Art Deco Trust Centre (where we did our best to sit through an only slighlty mind-numbing 24 minute video) and embarked on a self-guided walking tour of the Art Deco buildings throughout town. Good times overall, but Brooke and I struggled a bit with the self-guided tour. In part because the guide was less than stellar with the information and in part because architectural beauty isn’t completely our cup of tea. We became more adept at self guiding when we started wandering into buildings and asking questions. In one top hotel, several old built-in-wall vaults now double as high end liquor storage. It was a quality crash course in the overall building style. Brooke and I can now speak knowledgeably to zigzags, sunbursts, ziggurats, facades and more.

We ended our day with drinks and dinner at the Brazen Head down the street from our hostel after abandoning plans to visit an upscale winery. While watching music videos in the bar, it looked for a minute that Ron Weasley had embarked on a pop career. Turns out, wait, he’s just acting in a somewhat hilarious music video. Well played, Ron Weasley! We even were able to enjoy a new local beer called Rooster Lager. Tomorrow: Windy Welly (that’s Wellington) and checking into our first AirBnB stay!

-Phil

 PS- Note that you can always make photos from the blog bigger/see them in more detail by clicking on the photos. We know that sometimes they appear kind of small and clicking on the photos will give ya the full experience!

Categories: City Visits, Communication, Diversions, Driving Abroad, Exploring, New Zealand, Self Guided Tours, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Communicating While Abroad

Planning a trip the size and scope of what we’re doing has taken some planning, but overall has been relatively manageable. So far, we’ve just needed some time, patience and organization. The more we learn, the luckier we feel to be planning travel like this in 2012 instead of 1972. The world seems to have gotten a bit smaller in the last forty years and in no section is this more apparent than in the area of communication.

Between expected near-universal internet access, e-mail and even this blog, we really don’t anticipate any issue with maintaining a link with everyone back home. The one area that we thought might be tricky is turning out to be a breeze: Phone calls.

First, we should mention that we’re shutting down our IPhones. We’ve placed our accounts on hold with our collective carriers. AT&T is charging me about $12 a month to place my account “on hold” for up to six months. No service, but I can restart with number and plan with one call when I get back. I don’t love it, but it’s cheaper and easier than starting over when I get back. Similarly, Verizon is not charging Brooke anything to place her account on hold, but she actually can’t suspend service until the day before we leave the United States, so that’s developing.

The imLocal Phone Reviewportant thing to note is that we’re both going to be able to use our Iphone as WiFi devices. Enter Local Phone!

Local Phone is a highly reviewed app that allows you to call just about any number in any country for a per-minute charge. One loads credit into your Local Phone account which is managed online or through the app. You can manage contacts, determine rates before you call and it looks like a winner even if you’re NOT traveling internationally. The Iphone app is easy to use on Iphone and you can use from a laptop or tablet as well. Rates can be viewed here, but run from a reasonable fraction-of-a-cent to twenty-five cents a minute depending on where you are calling. Most calls to the United States are half-a-cent a minute. That’s a phenomenal deal! And finally makes good use of all those pennies in my Scrooge McDuck Change jar. Of course, you must have WiFi and we haven’t tested it much to attest to quality, but it should be a great addition to our travel plans.

Nice bonus: I apparently have earned $5 in credit just by signing other people up. It reminds me of the old Vonage days when they would give huge bonuses for both parties when you get others to join. In fact, if you’re interested in the service and want to give us a boost, click here to sign up! Please and thank you.

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Iphone Apps, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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