2.12.2011

Random Shots

I am definitely not the photographer in the family but I have been doing my share of picture taking along the journey. Just thought I would share a few of my favorite shots as of late that haven't made the blog.

View from the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India



and Ross doing his thing at the Taj Mahal



We are in Nairobi, Kenya now and take off tomorrow for our overland tour of South East Africa.  We will be on the road for 32 days and are really looking forward to it. We aren't sure what the internet access will be like along the way so if the blog isn't updated for awhile that's why, but hopefully when we return it will be with lots of great animal shots from our game drives!

2.10.2011

In Case of Emergency: use cell phone. [update]

This is definitely one of those "it's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it" kind of things.  The last thing we really wanted to deal with was a cell phone, but we decided it made sense to bring one.

We chose to suspend both of our cell phone numbers with AT&T.  They have a Reduced Rate Suspend (RRS) option, which basically means you pay $10 a month to not use your cell phone, but you get to keep your number when you come back.  We also picked up an 'international' SIM card from Telestial.  This is a prepaid SIM card that works just about everywhere.  This way we save the cost of keeping one of our AT&T numbers active and paying ~$40/month.

We purchased their "Passport US Lite SIM Card" which when we bought it was free and included a $5 call credit, you just had to pay $9.90 in shipping (we will have to add some credits to the card or the free credit will expire in a month).  It will allow us the ability to use our cell phone in every county we travel to, the downside is the call rate is about $1-$2 per minute, but still cheaper than what AT&T would charge.

This should provide us with all the benefits of keeping our home numbers when we return, having a cell phone for an emergency, not having to pay the full monthly charges to AT&T to keep service and have slightly reduced per minute charges when traveling.

A few things to keep in mind: in order to use a phone 'around the world' it's best to be a quad-band GSM (850Mhz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 1900MHz) phone.  This allows you to connect to cell networks in just about every country except Japan and South Korea.  AT&T and T-Mobile are the GSM carriers in the US, so if you have either you might not need a new phone. The next thing you need is an unlocked phone, one that isn't tied to a specific carrier.  In the US when you buy a phone it's typically tied to the carrier (AT&T or T-mobile) and you can't switch out the SIM card.  Usually if you have been with the company for a while they'll unlock it for you.  Luckily we had an unlocked, quad-band phone that was purchased a few years ago off E-Bay so we didn't have to worry about either of those.

update:
Purchasing the Telestial international SIM card has basically been a waste of money (albeit only $10 for shipping).  So far we've purchased prepaid SIM cards in India as well as Kenya and have found the process rather straightforward and rates are significantly better than using the Telestial SIM.  We are paying cents vs dollars per minute when using a prepaid SIM vs. the Telestial international.  Plus both prepaid SIMs we have purchased had international roaming and even that was cheaper than Telestial.  In India the process to get a prepaid SIM involved getting a copy of your passport and handing over a visa photo (supposedly to stop terrorists from using the prepaid SIMs).  In Kenya I handed over 200 KES and walked out with a SIM card and 100 KES credit. Going forward we'll be going the prepaid local SIM route and are tossing the international one.

2.08.2011

A Week in Constantinople

Arriving in Istanbul Abby and I weren't really sure what to expect. We'd heard nothing but great things about the city, but had no idea what we'd find. Coming from India the first thing that struck us was the road from the airport. It was the smoothest, quietest blacktop we'd experienced in months. Combine that road with the brand new Fiat we were riding in and we could talk to each other in a whisper. We were definitely in Europe now.

Mehmet Akif Ersoy Park

Istanbul, as people had told us, is a great place to visit. The city is a mixture of so many things. It has a very eastern European feel combined with a strong Muslim influence. The calls to prayer throughout the day give the city a very spiritual aura. At times it would even raise the hairs on my neck, it was quite moving. Along with all of that Istanbul had some amazing sights. Our friend Jesse insisted on a list of must see sights and we visited every one. Starting with the Topkapi Palace which houses many sacred Islamic relics, from Moses's staff (my personal favorite) to pieces of Mohammed's beard. Abby and I don't know a lot about the roots of Christianity, even less about Judaism and next to nothing about Islam so it was as education as it was interesting.

Next on the list was the Basillica Cistern, a massive underground reservoir that was used to store water for Constantinople. The large columns, red lighting and eerie music gave it a very unearthly feel, not to mention a great place to take photos.

Basillica Cistern II

Basillica Cistern III

Once back above ground we visited Hagia Sophia, a beautiful building with a long history: once a cathedral, then a mosque and now a museum it has been rebuilt many times due to earthquakes and deliberate destruction.

Hagia Sophia

Theodosian Church Remains

Hagia Sophia Dome

Colored Arches

One day we devoted to just visiting several of the famous mosques in the area including the S├╝leymaniye Mosque, the New Mosque and the famous Blue Mosque.

New Mosque

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque Pillar

We hit up the Spice Bazar and Grand Bazar and being so close to the water we couldn't help but enjoy the seafood and getting in some runs along the waterfront.

Catch of the Day

Across the Golden Horn

The food in Istanbul is so delicious it is worth its own trip. We feasted on doner kebap, soft pita bread, and Ayran (a very popular plain yogurt drink) almost daily. Some of our favorite snacks included: borek (a cheese filled pastry using phyllo dough that is either steamed or fried), fresh squeezed pomegrante juice, freshly roasted chestnuts and simit (a sesame seed covered bread that is part pretzel part bagel and is sold by tons of street vendors). We went out for meze one night, basically small plates of cold appetizers brought to your table for you to select, and we loved the cheese stuffed hot peppers and dolmas. Along with our meze we also sampled the national drink, Raki, probably the only thing we haven't enjoyed (so much so we gave part of our bottle to Turks sitting next to us) in this city. It is a very strong anise flavored liquor that you add cold water to, giving it a cloudy look as well as it's nickname "lion's milk". We would both take a glass of wine or beer over it any day, but when in Rome, err... The desserts here are also outstanding and we sampled our share of Turkish delight and baklava. The golzeme, or stuffed pancakes, were also super tasty as well as the turkish meatballs, you really can't go wrong eating in Istanbul.

We only got a sample of Turkey, but we really enjoyed it and would love to be able to explore more of the country some day.

2.07.2011

foreign transaction charge madness! [update]

The nice thing about traveling abroad in recent years is the ease of getting cash out. Pulling money out of ATMs and using your debit card seems to be the way to go. You don't have to deal with exchanging money or dealing with travelers checks and from what we've read the exchange rates are typically very good when you use a card. Over the last few years we've had no issues in France, New Zealand or Peru. The downside however is the finance charges that most banks charge, typically around 3% (at least with our current bank and many we've seen).

For our extended trip we figured rather than getting hammered for every purchase we'd see if we could do better than 3%. Well the good news is we did...how's 0% sound? Luckily we found CapitalOne. We started out looking at their credit cards, which currently charge 0% for foreign transaction fees. We thought it would be great for purchasing plane tickets and booking places to stay. However, knowing a lot of the places we would be heading wouldn't take credit cards we still needed to do something about getting cash out. Luckily CapitalOne also has checking accounts which also charge 0% for foreign transaction fees as well as no fees for using other ATMs, they even reimburse up to $10 each month for other banks ATM fees. It sounds like a match made in heaven for travelers.

The checking account is all online and allows you to easily transfer money in an out of another non-CapiltalOne account without having to deal with an ATM. We were approved for the credit card and checking account in minutes so we're ready to go. We'll still have our other cards as backups, but we're hoping CapitalOne proves to be as good as it sounds.

As always, time will tell.

update:
After several months of travel through many countries we've been able to use our CapitalOne credit card and debit card rather extensively (of note: they are both MasterCards). For the most part they've served us well, but they haven't been flawless.

Our CapitalOne debit card was completely useless in Nepal. We were unable to withdrawal money from any of the countless ATMs we tried. We were forced to fall back on our U.S. Bank card, which worked without issue, except for the $2 USD ATM fee and foreign transaction fees, but at least we had access to our money.

We have occasionally run into issues purchasing tickets online with our CapitalOne MasterCard, but after trying hours later transactions typically went through. We also ran into a few issues in India where the debit card wouldn't work with certain ATMs, but worked fine with others (even through the machines claimed to take MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro cards). Usually we were able to find a working ATM, but a time or two we had to use our U.S. Bank card.

In Turkey we had to withdraw a good chunk of change for expenses related to our upcoming African overland trip and ran into issues pulling out more than a few hundred Turkish Lira, thankfully we didn't have any issues with our U.S. Bank card and were able to get the money we needed.

So far we're glad we have the CapitalOne cards as they've saved us from pointless charges and fees, but we couldn't have survived without our U.S. Bank debit card (which is a Visa, if that has any affect on it's success rate). I guess the lesson here is always have a backup.

2.05.2011

Cruising the Backwaters

Ross and I spent our last week in India touring through the Indian state of Kerala. First we headed to Alleppey to see the canals, backwaters, and lagoons that have it described as the "Venice of the East". We signed up for a day long boat trip out to the backwaters. Many people here rent house boats and spend the night out on the water, we opted for a more affordable boat trip and were taken in a small canoe through the small villages and canals by our guide Antony. We were also treated to breakfast and lunch at Antony's house and had a delicious South Indian feast. It was a fun and very relaxing day out on the water.

















In the Backwaters

Alleppey House



After Alleppey we took a bus to Varkala and spent 4 nights on the beach eating fresh seafood and lounging around. It was a very touristy spot but the beautiful beach, lovely sunsets, great fish and daily yoga classes were a treat. The beach got to us and we were pretty lazy there, thus the lack of photos, but we stayed in a great spot right on the water.



From Varkala we headed to Kochi for a quick overnight and then flew back to Mumbai in the morning. We had one more day to pass in Mumbai which we filled with trying to eat all of our favorite Indian foods and then left EARLY in the morning for Istanbul. India was an amazing country to visit and we had an awesome month there but I think we barely scratched the surface, we will definitely be back!