Monday, 12 September 2016

Trip out to Lake Tahoe and hiking Mount Tallac

So it was the labor day weekend and I was in California. I'd just seen an Instagram photograph of one of the rock climbers I follow and it had an amazing view of Lake Tahoe from Mount Tallac. Thus the seed was born that I might just give it a shot! I'd originally planned to do it as a day trip. Wake up super early before sunrise and drive direct to the trailhead. On a whim though, I decided that I didn't really want to do a 3 hour drive before a hike and maybe I should just go up the night before and at least I would be able to start early without worrying about waking up on time and the drive to reach before the sun got really hot. So I went over to South Lake Tahoe with the idea of finding cheap accommodation just for the night before the hike. One thing I didn't consider was that on the drive up North, there was a whole hour worth of driving where there was no radio reception. Normally I don't really pay attention to what is playing, but an hour of static can be really tedious! I was continuously pressing the scan button hoping that I was moving into the range of a station! Having made the trip on the spur of the moment without actually bring additional stuff meant all my power banks (4 of them) were not with me and I wanted to conserve my battery life for navigation use rather than playing tunes!

One thing I definitely did not consider was that being the long weekend, EVERYBODY WAS OUT TOO! Looking through told me there wasn't really any hostels I could stay in and the cheapest place was going to be at least 150usd and that was at a neighbouring town instead of near the trailhead!! Well being the epic cheapskate I was, I decided to just sleep in the back of the car. How bad could it be after all. So I went to a Starbucks to charge my devices and searched for a suitable place where I could park overnight. I ended up deciding to just park at the open air carpark of Harrahs casino. It was lighted and there was no parking fee either. I guess to cater to all the gamblers who might not be staying in the hotel but just there to play. Accomodation settled! Sort of anyway. Owards to the next matter, actual information on what I would be hiking.

A quick browse of the different reviews on the trail, one of the things that stood out to me was the number of people talking about having enough water. I frequently saw 3-4 L coming up as the recommended amount. As such I dropped by a supermarket on the way and picked up a gallon(3.8L) jug of water, a quart (950ml) of isotonic drink and some snacks to munch on. Ended up with a pack that weighs about 7 kilos.

Before actually going, I had actually mentioned my upcoming trip to a Bestbuy employee. He had helped me when I was purchasing a camera to replace my stolen one( Lost my canon EOSM with 17-40mm F4 :'( while in Tulum, Mexico). He mentioned that there was a place called Bonsai Rock at the lake which had great photos during sunrise and sunset.  As such I made a brief stop there to as it did not really require any serious hiking, just a short bit of scrambling, though the path down was pretty steep! Shoes and long pants recommended.
Bonsai Rock
Even with the harsh mid day sun, the views were amazing. I should have stayed around to catch the sunset but I figured I'd hang out at South Lake Tahoe instead which was closer to the Mt. Tallac trailhead.

Anyway, at about 11pm, I figured it was a good time to catch some Zzzzs. I wanted to catch the sunrise too before starting my hike. Well 3 hours into my nap at about 3am, I was reminded just how different weather can be in the US compared to Singapore. I hadn't really brought any extra layers, figuring it would be about the same as central California at most dropping to 10-15 degrees Celcius at night. Boy was I wrong! A quick look at google told me it was 3 degrees outside with a "feels like 1 degree celcius" note... No wonder I kept waking up feeling cold. All I'd brought along was a light jacket to block the wind.

It really was cold!!! NBCCB freezing.
By 3.30am, I couldn't take it anymore and decided I'd just hang out in the casino instead. At least it would be warmer inside. Fortunately they also had a restaurant which was serving a late night menu. I guess all that gambling means you get people turning up hungry at all hours of the day or night! They also had a cool breakfast special! Only $4.95 for 2 eggs any style, bacon or sausage and toast. So I had brekkie at 4am in the morning and waited for time to pass.
Beach just beside Boathouse on the Pier on Lake Tahoe

Anyway, after making a short stop by the lake to see the sunrise, it was still freezing so i didn't linger, I headed over to the trailhead to begin my hike!! Everyone seemed to be carrying a lot less than me though. I was beginnig to think i had over prepared as most of them had only a bit more than a litre of water whereas I had a monstrous supply! But I have to say there were very many amazing views throughout the hike to the summit! Many a times I would think I had made it just on the spectacular views only to realise it was still a ways more!

All in, it took me 3.5 hours to reach the peak and another 2.5 hours to descend. I ended up only consuming a 1.5L of water. Turns out all those reviews were for water consumption during the summer months and at the cusp of winter, you really don't need that much especially if you're also starting early before the sun is out. Definitely worth the effort though!

After all of the driving and lack of sleep, I also crashed for 14hrs straight the following night... After a hot shower of course!

Friday, 9 September 2016

Saving costs while travelling.

Well most of you already know these tips but I'll just state some of the tricks I've used to keep going as some people have asked how come i haven't run out of money yet.

1) Night transport.
This is a no brainer be it a night bus train or red eye flight. Especially when the journey to the next location is going to take more than 6-8 hours. You save a nights accomodation, sleep and when you wake up, voila, you're where you wanted to be. This helps much especially when you're on a tight time line as you don't lose a whole day travelling  and can hit the ground running. or even if you're not. It helps if you can sleep through anything though as generally you're in even closer proximity to others than in a hostel. Depending on the country you are travelling in, the costs can also be substantial. An example would be NYC. A night in a hostel would be at least USD50 a night and that is in a pretty crappy place which would be far out. If you spent the day travelling to the next destination, you would effectively have to pay for 2 extra nights as well as meals for that day. So if you were in the united states, you could be saving over a hundred dollars.

Even for night buses, there are generally different classes of buses and you could be paying half the price taking a second class bus versus a first class. Again, this really depends on how much you value your sleep and if you're even affected. I almost never took a first class bus while travelling in the night in Mexico if I had the option. Of course the first class buses had more luxurious seats which could incline further bank and were wider or they might have USB ports for you to charge your electronic devices. So I guess you just have to weigh how much you're willing to sacrifice. I sleep the equally well whether i was in a first class or second class bus so if it took the same time and was half to a third the price, it was a no brainer for me.

2) Looking for other travellers with the same itinerary.
Sharing the same itinerary means you are part of a larger group. Numbers means more bargaining power. For example a short Tuktuk ride could be 30pesos for a single person. If you squeezed in 3 or even 4 pax into the tuk tuk, you could negotiate a lower price for example 50 or 60 pesos. If you had 4 pax, each person saves 15pesos (approximately 1usd). If you get to do this 4-5x a day with the group, that'd be a meal and a half assuming you were in Mexico. If you're only travelling for a week or 2 then the savings aren't really that substantial. However for someone on the road for a substantially longer time, all those small bits can add up to a whole lot more. The 20-30 usd you saved in a week could be used later down the road for a room upgrade or maybe the entrance fee to some major attraction.
In the parts of the US where I had already rented a car, and attended Couchsurfing meetings, I would try to find other travellers who also were planning to visit the same places but had yet to secure their transport. If they were agreeable, I would split the cost of the car rental for the time period we travelled together as well as the gas consumed. Since I had already commited to renting that vehicle, and I would be doing the same drive alone anyway, every little bit contributed helped.

3) Staying in Hostels/ couchsurfing hosts
If you're going to be staying in the Ritz Carlton, you're going to be going through a few thousand every month just on accomodation. Definitely not sustainable if you're talking about travelling for months unless you're already a multimillionaire, then by all means carry on! As a single male traveller, I found that couchsurfing was not as useful to me. In 3.5 months in the USA despite sending out countless requests, I only had one night accepted. I personally found going for the CS meetups more useful as I would be able to meet more travellers and hopefully reduce my costs by travelling in a group. Generally if you're looking for people to see the tourist attractions in a new place, hostel are a great way to meet new people too. Plus the cost of a dorm bed is a fraction of a hotel room. In parts of Latin America and Asia, you'd be looking at less than 10usd a night. I've seen an average of 5-7 usd in many places. whereas a hotel room would normally be at least 60usd a night. Even a private room in a hostel is cheaper than that. For me I am normally out of the accommodation all day, only returning to sleep so I don't really see the need to pay for all the additional facilities. Some hotels don't even provide free WiFi, a most important feature in todays world!

4) Cooking
I've to admit, I haven't been cooking all that much due to the short span of time I spend in many places. Whenever I do extend my stay however, I try to cook or prepare my own meals. It can cut down costs quite a bit and even though you can find really cheap food along the streets, most of the time they aren't very healthy options!

5) Sleeping in your car ( assuming you rented one)
I've done this a couple of times before, mainly in the USA as sometimes it is cheaper to rent a car than to take a tour. In certain places, you could be looking at over a hundred a night especially in some of the more touristy places. So i occasionally just choose to sleep in the car. Definitely do check weather conditions though. I have been in the back of a car when it was 3 degrees celcius outside with nothing more than a light jacket and tropical hiking equipment. Needless to say i did not get very much sleep that night.

Some additional tips in the US. Certain states frown upon one sleeping in the car as it is interpreted as vagrancy. You don't really want someone (cops/security) knocking on your car while you are there. You could consider the parking lots at the big supermarkets like walmart though. I have also slept in the carpark of a casino. You'd want it to be a more secure location with lights and cameras so that there is more security Yet not stand out like a sore thumb.

6) Volunteering
You could also try volunteering in city you're in. I've done so in hostels in Mexico especially when you're staying a long time. True, I did not get any pay but I had no need to pay for accomodation either. One could use Workaway or Wwoofing to source for work too.

Well back to travelling!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Spanish lessons in Mexico City

So on my second week in Mexico, I decided to sign up for Spanish language lessons. This was a 3 week course and I had decided to do it in Mexico City itself with the wish that I would reap the benefits for the rest of my journey through Mexico as well as the rest of Latin American.

I joined the University of Lasalle as the timing was right. It started right as I was returning from my short trip to Guanajuato, and it was only 3 weeks long. The other course I had shortlisted was 6 weeks long with UNAM, the local university. All in for the course with Lasalle, I paid 5200MXN, approximately 130sgd. This included 15 hrs of classes weekly from Monday to Friday in the morning and an additional hour of group conversation on Wednesday afternoons. I have to admit learning spanish has not been quite as easy as I'd anticipated. The grammer is totally different from english which is a pain when you think in english and try to translate directly by simply replacing the words into español. Thats before we even get into the aspect of masculine and feminine terms and the multiple conjugations.

Prior to starting, I was thinking it would be smooth sailing and I would spend half a day in class and the other half exploring the city of México. Lets just say that in the past 3 weeks, between class and homework, going to the supermarket to get groceries I pretty much the most exploring I've done. I keep forgetting words ive learnt and on multiple occasions in the same day, I may have checked a words definition upwards of twenty times only to forget it minutes if not seconds later. I did manage to go for some meetups though. Especially friday nights where I'd join a local language exchange at a cafe in Condesa, one of the districts in Cuidad de México.

Well now that the course is over, I still struggle with Spanish. My ear isnt tha great and I generally can't catch what is being said. I can ask questions,  but even though I may know the words in the reply, I generally can't catch them all! Most likely in a few more stops,  I am going to have to sign up for another course in spanish.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Budget carriers.

One of the problems with travelling on the fly with no set itinerary is that when you choose not to take the long haul buses and decide to fly, plane ticket prices can really jump in price. Generally I've found that once it's under 2 weeks, even the budget carriers can cost more than the full fare ones. For my time in New Orleans, I had chosen to fly by Spirit Air as with only about 3-4 days before I had decided to fly, they were by far the cheapest option. I must say I have been really unlucky with this carrier though. Somewhat disappointed with the service but I guess you get what you pay for. On my flight into New Orleans from California, the first flight was delayed and the counter staff were not aware of the fact that I would not be able to catch my onward flight until I brought it up. This is despite there being another 8 passengers who had been sold the same connection! I was already mentally prepared to miss my flight but prior to landing, the pilot made an announcement to say that they would be holding our connecting flight as there were quite a few of us and we were only 15mins late. All the other passengers were also gracious, letting us disembark from the plane first. So the bunch of us quickly got off once the door was opened and rushed over to the next gate , only to be told they had not held our flight. In terms of reimbursement, Spirit is really good. They will refund you any ticket immediately. But I guess they know that anything else is going to be a few hundred dollars more.  And they dont provide you with any meal vouchers or accommodation. Thus I took up their offer to reroute me through Dallas and then New Orleans. Well the funny thing is all of their other flights were delayed, leaving 2-3hrs after their listed times. Which really makes me wonder why they could not hold a flight for 15mins. The only flight that left on time was the one which left without 9 passengers. Thus a 3hr journey ended up with me seeing 4 different airports and taking a total of 22hrs. 

I am aware that sometimes screw ups happen and thus on my outward leg, I decided to give Spirit Air another shot. Guess what, they cancelled my flight. I had to pay for my own transport back to town, pay for another night and get myself back to the airport 24hrs later. 

Oh. That flight got delayed too. 2.5hrs late.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Long overdue update and my maiden seaplane flight.

It's been a long time since I posted anything and I've actually got a few articles still in draft stage. All on the back burner as currently I've been on the road since last October. 1 Month in Japan followed by North America. It's been awesome so far. Food was great in Japan and there was such a diverse range of sights even in a small country such as Japan. I had the fortune of visiting Kamikochi, Matsumoto, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Okayama and Tokyo in that month. When you consider the arm and leg that we get charged for mediocre Japanese food in Singapore, I just went crazy eating in Japan.

After Japan, I headed to North America, starting in the East coast hoping to avoid winter. Didn't quite work out as it snowed in Niagara. After  the east coast, I flew to San Francisco where I met up with a cousin to do a road trip where we drove down to Big Sur through Carmel, cut up to Las Vegas and the Grand canyon, down to San Diego and finally ended in Los Angeles. My cousin flew back to Singapore whereas I carried on with my trip, Greyhound-ing my way north to Portland, Sacramento and Seattle where I spent Christmas with another cousin and her family. Since I was so close to Vancouver, I took the amtrak over, spending 2 weeks in British Columbia visiting Whistler and Vancouver Island as well. This would also be the first time I tried skiing though it was really expensive at Whistler. In Vancouver Island I stayed in Nanaimo and Victoria but had to skip Tofino as I couldn't quite make my connection work. Transport within the Island is really spotty, you would only have 1 bus crossed the island the whole day. Miss that bus and it's wait for the next day. It kind of worked out in the end as while I was researching alternative transport options, I came across Seaplanes. This option lingered in my mind when I was leaving Victoria for Seattle and I ended up catching a direct flight instead of the Clipper ferry I had. This turned out to be a great choice. The staff, ticking off the namelist of passengers,who I chatted to turned out to be the pilot if the plane. Having heard that it was my first time taking a seaplane, he let me sit up front in the cockpit.  Talk about having the best view! Mount Rainer and the cascades were right in view the entire 45min flight.

Snowboard on Big Bear mountain,  California

Right now I'm on the southern leg of my North America journey. Having some epic fail on my flight on Spirit airlines which is why I have the time to write this so there are always some silver lining. Update more later.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

ESTA applications for those nationalities under the USA Visa Waiver Program

So I was applying for my ESTA again since I was making an impromptu trip after Japan to the States. As what most people do I a just typed in ESTA USA in Google search, took a cursory look at the search feed and saw that first links are actually not to the actual US Government Customs and Border Protection (CBP) site. It should be . The current fee charged is 17USD for Singaporeans if you apply directly on the CBP website and is a very straightforward process. Applying through an agency which appears on the top of the feed however can end up costing an additional 50-80USD in addition to the 17USD.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Iran December 2014

So this is the follow up to the sneak preview post of my trip to Iran in December 2014. This was a country which i had been planning to visit if my company sent me to Dubai again which never occured so after a year of waiting, I decided to just clear my leave and take a trip myself. It helped that my Sister was staying in Dubai as well so I had a (sort of) base of operations to operate out of.

One of the things you would notice is the number of negative news reports you see about Iran. This also translates to a lot of naysayers when they heard about my plans to travel there. All I will say on this matter is that anyone who has travelled there will tell you to go and almost all the people who will tell you not to go will have never been there before. Visa wise, it was very easy for me, with a visa on arrival for 15 days available at 75USD. I had a copy of the lonely planet on my tablet, so while waiting for the visa to be arranged at the airport, I searched for my first accomodation which was Firouzi Hotel. This would turn out to be an excellent choice as the hotel manager, Mr Mousavi, was a wealth of information and a great help during my stay. I called him a number of times during my travel as well when I needed some help even after leaving Tehran but he was always willing to help me. (Hopefully i was not too annoying).

Over this 15 days, I managed to squeeze in quite a number of cities and my journey was like this: Tehran, Tabriz, Ardabil, Rasht, Kashan, Yazd, Shiraz and finally Esfahan. I have to admit that in terms of the sights, there are many other countries with more majestic or better conserved buildings. But the real beauty of Iran is the people. I have never felt safer walking on a dark street at night or been helped as much by strangers on the street. They really made my short jaunt one of the most amazing trips of my life and made memories which I will always hold dear.

Just to give 2 examples, Firstly, this gentleman I struck up a conversation with at the bus terminal in Tehran offered to show me around Shiraz. When i was approaching the town, he picked me up from the terminal despite the early hour and showed me around town including taking me to the nearby Persepolis. He also brought me around to different accommodations until I found one that was within my budget. When I was in Ardabil which was an unplanned stop, two young lads accompanied me the whole day despite me not speaking farsi and they not speaking english. They were also unwilling to leave me alone until they were sure that I was able to link up with my host. This despite me wanting to walk an hour instead of taking a shared taxi.

If you are unsure on whether or not to go, all I can say is go now!!