Friday, August 29, 2014

Parking your phone number for a few years while you roam the world

When we decided to up and move to France we cancelled our cell phone plans and liberated our phones for use in France. Here's some details on how we did this, as I found it quite complex, not so much in the doing but trying to decide how best to manage this process.

- Google Voice. Rather than just terminate our lines I ported the numbers to Google Voice. This has a big benefit in that I can still get messages that call in to the old number while here using the google voice app. The phone doesn't "ring" of course but at least I can take a message and call people back. The other benefit is that this number stays with me so when I return to the USA I can port it back to whatever phone plan I take out when I return. It'll be as if I never left. 

- The process of porting is done online on the google voice website. Note that doing it will terminate your current phone plan so if you are still paying off your phone under contract you will face early termination fees. Check with the phone company first as to how much this is and you'll get it billed in your final bill once the port is done. The process or porting takes about 24hrs exactly. Your phone will be no signal and you'll need a new SIM card to use it. We did this just before leaving so it died on our last day in the USA. You may need to take an extra step of unlocking the phone by calling the telco but we found this was unnecessary for us and the foreign SIM cards we put in in france worked immediately. 

- When you arrive in France (or wherever) sign up for a new plan. The one I chose in france was with SFR and I went for a 1yr contract, 16GB data, free calls and free roaming in Europe. It was expensive - €129pm - but worth it as I travel a lot for work. This way I can call anywhere in the world for free basically - both calls to and from other countries - although calling mobiles in other countries when in other countries seems to attract per min charges. I can use data in Europe free of charge, and 1GB per month in the USA when I travel there. 

- Note that the data provided per month is generous (8GB, 16GB) - when you actually run out it just slows your connection rate, doesnt charge you more money, which is nice.

- Other plans are around €40 per month and the restriction is you get 8GB of data outside of france for the year.  Once done you have to buy travel packs to cover data charges.

- Buying an iphone with a plan in France seem a lot more expensive than USA. An iPhone 5c was €399 plus the plan rate jumped to €100 per month (from 40) so I decided to buy a used unlocked phone in the USA and bring if back here when upgrading from a 4s. 

- SFR coverage seems good but spotty. Traveling through france I experienced frequent disconnections and flaky signal problems. Flipping it into airline mode and back our would sometimes give me a 3G data connection again but it would often flake out, killing my ability to hold a call and navigate using my map at the same time.  In Paris its excellent though, just an issue in the country.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Saga of the Mirror

Ikea is a wonderful company. They make furniture which is cheap, functional and although somewhat of a pain to put together, stylish in a Swedish kind of way. One of their most popular products is a 5ft tall mirror, stylishly called the STAVE.

We are a big fan of AirBnB. It’s a website that lets you rent properties that the owners typically live in, but want to rent out for some cash while they spend their time in foreign lands, or at their boyfriend/girlfriends place doing unmentionable things that are illegal in Arkansas. Our initial stay in Paris was at one such apartment, of a lovely gentleman that we will never meet called Song - yes Song and STAVE do go together. Song was away in Vietnam at the time, and graciously and in return for many thousands of Euros rented his place to us.

Song was also a fan of the STAVE mirror, and proudly had one in his apartment. However his placement was not to our liking, and we moved it to our bedroom. Unfortunately a gust of wind ripped through the open window, causing the door to slam closed, dislodging the mirror from its place against the wall, and SMASH – no more STAVE.

We thought about acknowledging the incident with Song, but decided the cost of replacement was probably cheaper than the hassle we would get – and besides dealing with a mirror replacement from Vietnam probably was a lot of hassle for our man. We tried to repair it, but like all Ikea products, replacement is cheaper than reparations. While Ikea is great, one of the ways they keep the cost of their products low is to put their stores in the suburbs. So one day I took the train out to Ikea, walked a mile, walked another mile through the maze that is an Ikea store, and located the mirror. I bypassed the Swedish meatballs, walked a mile back to the train station with said mirror, and brought it back to the apartment. Let me tell you, walking through Metro turnstiles with a 5ft tall mirror is not easy. I might have used the F and C words a few times.

So we now have a gleaming replacement mirror in the apartment. I told everyone if they placed it near the door and it broke that I would throw them off the balcony, and proceeded to think about the next step – getting rid of the broken one.

The apartment building has a trash room that smells like Grade A Pig Farmers Ass. Little did we know how proud of their ass smelling garbage room the French are. A team meeting was held and we decided putting the broken mirror in a large bag to ensure no glass would escape, and placing it in the Ass room would be sufficient to have it disposed of. We did this, and relaxed and watched the World Cup confident the mirror episode was behind us. Little did we know the embers of indignity had been lit.

The first sign of trouble was a notice near the entrance to the building. I couldn’t translate the French writing, but the word MIROIR and IMMEDIATMENT and PROBLEME made sense. Apparently ass smelling rooms are not for disposing of broken mirrors. The person who left the mirror was to report to the Guardien immediately – supposedly for an immediate execution by guillotine. Additional signs started appearing – in the elevator. People were bringing out their post it notes and adding on to the dismay. This was turning ugly.

My instinct was to say “F you Im leaving, your problem”, but on the day of departure a feeling of responsibility overtook me. It might also have been the fact that it was 8am on a Sunday, and there was no one around. I took the elevator to the basement to see what carnage we had wrought. The mirror was there – nicely wrapped in bubble wrap. I grabbed it and bolted for the elevator. My accomplice Jenny was there – we maintained radio silence. The door opened, she took the right flank opening the doors to the outside world, I ran for the high ground and we successfully smuggled the mirror out of the building. I had rented a van for the getaway, and put the mirror in there. We high fived as we returned to the building – only to realize in our eagerness at subterfuge we’d forgotten the keys upstairs. The girls were still asleep, so we called Vanessa who meekly answered “hello” with a lower case h as she woke up. 

My plan was to leave the mirror in the van and turn the problem into a rental agency one. Europcar had kept me waiting for 2hrs on pickup because of a ridiculously long line at Gare de Lyon, so I figured payback was fair. We parked the van in the garage (underground) and due to the volume of shit we were taking with us on our trip to Cannes I had to make multiple trips to the van. Eventually it was empty, except for the albatross – the mirror. I took it out and hid it in front of another van. Better it not be traced to us.

So if you see a large mirror, in bubble wrap, carelessly discarded in an underground parking garage in Paris, its not ours.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Italian coffee is better than French coffee

"This is customs. You musta stop" said the Carabinieri guy after I nearly collected him at the Swiss/Italy border post. These border things are a huge pain in the ass. I stated in Cernobbio just outside of Como and was commuting to Lugano this week crossing into and out of Switzerland all week. The border guys are inconsistent. One moment they are smoking and cars are making cursory efforts at stopping, other times it's the 3rd degree. The main topic seems to be money - how much are you transporting. Images of Wolf of Wall Street with millions strapped to their bodies come to mind. 

This really is a beautiful place. The riche are obviously pushing everyone else out but there is a very relaxed vibe in these parts. Lugano was lovely - high mountains diving down into placid lakes. 

Italian coffee is undoubtedly the standard by which all coffee should be judged. Interestingly there is only one type of Italian coffee. No French roast this, Guatemalan that - just plain coffee. I was toying with the idea of cutting back but after this week I'm reevaluating. Oh and a culture tip. Italians think drinking coffee with milk in the afternoon or after dinner is "disgusting". Heavy, not good. Hence a cafe (espresso) in the afternoon but not a latte or cappuccino. Those are morning drinks. 

Riding here was a treat. The Madonna del Ghisallo ride was magical. The Passo del Mortirolo was just a ridiculously steep challenge. My climbing legs are back - the pace is lacking but the strength is there. 

Mist hanging in the valley near the Mortirolo. 


Meat on a big stick. 

The Marco Pantani memorial

A lakeside villa

Lake Como

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ah Paris. Pianos and trains.

It's been many years since I wrote in this blog but time for a new adventure to be documented. Especially the logistics of this one which are daunting. We have moved to Paris and using it as a base for my work in sales. 

There are pianos in Charles de Gaulle airport, Gare du nord, London Pancreas stations and likely numerous other transport hubs. There's nothing more beautiful than listening to someone with skill playing the piano, and having then publicly accessible like this in places where you are trying to get somewhere else is magical. Forgetting for a moment the job if going somewhere and simply enjoying a human pleasure - music. 

There is security on entry to the boarding area that is the equal of airport security. I'm not against it but it's worth noting that if you think the train is quicker your likely wrong. It's more convenient to train into the city rather than have an airport transfer but the mechanism of using it is roughly the same as flying. 

London Underground. 
It's £4.50 for a single paper ticket. That's much more expensive than the Paris metro. It drops to £2 and change with the Oystercard but trying to work that baby out in a station at peak hour is a challenge. 

Paris Metro
There is a "Paris metro" app which is great but why the heck don't they put end points on their routing instructions!  To take the metro place to place you need to map out where you are, which lines you will take, and which station they terminate at. Eg. Line 1 towards La Defense or Chateau de Vincennes. Which direction you go depends which side of the platform you stand on. Important to know the direction so you can navigate to where you want to end up. 

Monday, March 31, 2008

Cairo - Mosques, Pyramids and Sleeping Guards

Giza Pyramids

Egypt is a "tourist trail" for sure, but in very few places in the world can you reach out and touch things that were carved or painted over 3000 years ago. The antiquities here are simply amazing - like nothing else on this planet.

My journey started in Cairo - the Oman Air from Muscat taking us across Saudi and the Sinai to the Gulf of Suez and into the metropolis of some 18 million people. Customs was relatively easy, however you do need to buy a visa/tax stamp on your way in at the visa/tax windows. You then present the stamp to the customs officials who dutifully stamp it and your in. Outside the airport is the usual clamoring of taxi drivers for your business - note that they pay a parking entry fee to get there so clearly negotiate the price to your destination including the parking fee and don't fall for the old trick of trying to get this tacked on when your in transit.

Traffic in Cairo is quite a sight, as is "running the gauntlet" to cross the road. If you watch the locals do it its not too crazy, but Im amazed more people dont get wiped out on the streets of Cairo. Perhaps they do.

First stop for anyone visiting Cairo has to be the Great Pyramids of course. You can take tours, but Id encourage people to get a taxi out there and just do it yourself. The tour guides arent really worth it - your guidebook will probably tell you more. One key thing to try and get is the entry ticket to the burial chamber in the Great Pyramid (Khufu/Cheops). If you want a good glimpse of what this is like watch the "Long Way Down" DVD with Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman - Charlie even lays down into the remnants of the sarcophagus (which seems a little sacrilegious to me, but its been done many many times). The wonder of this is how they managed to make the seams of these huge blocks of granite flawlessly fit together. Standing in the middle of the Great Pyramid in a tomb of marble, utterly silent, is like being transported to another planet (aka. Contact - the movie - remember the scene in the vehicle where it was totally silent with no frame of reference).

The surrounds of the Great Pyramid are full of guys with camels or headscarves or tshirts for sale. If you want to part with some of your coin and sit on a camel or take a ride, go for it, but beware the usual hassles of having to pay more to actually get off the camels, or extra for photographs, etc. When in doubt, or argument, just walk away. There are tourist police everywhere in these antiquity sites (look for the plain clothes ones also - carrying the Egyptian equivalent of Uzis), so your really not in danger. I did have one guy tell me he was a criminal and would cut my throat after I refused his tshirt offer - I laughed it off but if you feel hassled just yell for a tourist police and theyll flee pretty quickly. If you are a smoker, definately offer a cig to the uniformed guys - they sweat it out all day and while they cant take money a cigarette will make them immensely happy.

Camel Boy

The Great Pyramid

The Giza complex also houses the smaller pyramids and the Sphinx, including an iconic spot for photographs. Further out from Giza is the Sakkara complex - although to be honest if youve seen Giza this location will be somewhat disappointing. Relatively close to Sakkara is the Memphis location - including a huge laying down statue of Ramses which is the highlight here. Both are worth seeing if you have the time and the means, but if you cant dont beat yourself up as youll be seeing a lot of these types of things in Luxor or at the Egyptian Museum.

Ramses statue at Memphis with Sleeping Guard

One thing you should absolutely try in Cairo is koshery. Its a pasta dish (like macaroni), with spices, and lentils, onions and rice. Its deliciously simple, and definitely my pick for the best traveler meal in Egypt. You should also try Charwarma - a gyro like pita stuffed with meat and salad available in most Arab countries.

A must see in Cairo central is the Egyptian Museum. This was an easy walk from the Hilton Hotel where I chose to stay (redeeming points is fun) - but if your elsewhere in Cairo just take a taxi. The museum houses the Death Mask of Tutankhamun along with his sarcophagai, along with a massive number of antiquities from the Pharaonic times. A lot of the antiquities from the Valley of the Kings reside here having been removed from the burial chambers there, so it provides you with context before heading south to Luxor. The condition and exquisiteness of these artifacts is breathtaking.

Another must see in Cairo are the Mosques. I visited three of them - Sultan Hassan, Ibn Tulun and Al Azhar. They all all impressive in their own ways, with Ibn Tulun UNESCO World Heritage listed. You can read about what these Mosques look like on the net, but Ill tell you the basic process of entering here. Entering a mosque is like entering a church in the West, albeit you have to remove your shoes (or place a cover over them) - this cover or a place to store your shoes is provided at the entrance and staffed by mosque attendants. Its customary to tip them when you leave - EGY$1 is sufficient. Also customary is for women to cover their heads, so bring a scarf you can use as a head cover with you. Once you are in your free to walk around - and in fact look for mosque attendants who make some money o the side by providing you access to the minarets (you can bargain with them also - they wanted $20 per person for two of us to ascend, we went up for $10 each (Egyptian dollars)). The views from the minarets are worth it - the panorama of the chaos that is Cairo will be on full display for you. Try counting satellite dishes ....

Al Azhar Mosque

View from the Minarets

Al Azhar was my favorite - for the expanses of marble that greeting you in the main courtyard, and the fact that it is within walking distance of the Khan el-Khalili souq. The souq (or bazaar) is a maze of shops selling all sorts of apparel, jewelry, souvenirs, etc. Any visit to a major Arabian town should include a visit to the souq, and its well worth spending time talking to the shop owners and asking them about their business and lives. They will open up to you a lot more if you engage them rather than see them as an annoyance trying to sell you something, and in most cases will show you the things of value that can be had, rather than the cheaper stuff they are trying to flog to tourists. Ive spend many hours in souqs talking with the shopkeepers, telling them about my country and asking them about theirs. Those moments are the ones youll remember as much as the tourist sites you visit.

Khan el-Khalili from the Minaret of Al Azhar

The train to Luxor was next. Details on that to follow in the next posting.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Egypt - Ill Cut YOUR throat

Cairo for 3 days, Luxor for 3, then Aswan for 2. All are amazing places - even Abu Simbel with its 260km convoy ride and 3am start is worth the hassle.

- Getting into a fight over bus seats with Hungarian and French tourists on the bus back from Abu Simbel.
- "Im a criminal - Ill cut your throat" - from a TShirt salesman around the pyramids when I told him what he could do with his tshirts. My response - "No you wont - HAHAHA". In hindsight I wish Id grabbed him and hauled him off to the tourist police (which are everywhere in all 3 cities) for a night in jail for harassing a tourist.
- Lunch at a little cafe in Aswan, surrounded by locals and watching educational TV programs on mathematics.
- Walking from the Valley of the Kings over the hills to the Temple of Hatchupsut
- Eating Koshary from a food stand on the outskirts of Cairo
- Standing on the top of a minaret at Ibn Tolon mosque

Philae Template - this thing was moved in its entirety from one island to another when the Aswan Dam was built.


Abu Simbel

Luxor Temple at Night


Friday, March 28, 2008

Oman - Mustangs and Mountains

Oman was not at all what I expected - not that I had any specific expectations but it really didnt look like anything I had in my mind about the country. Upon leaving however, I think that in some ways this is one of the friendliest places in the Middle East. We arrived from Dubai taking the 7 hr bus overland. The border crossing is relatively straightforward, queue at a dusty truck stop outpost on the UAE side for an exit stamp, then unload your luggage from the bus for a customs inspection on the Oman side. The bus then takes you down the road a few miles to the actual border post where you enter a palatial immigration building for your visa stamp. Entering as Australians we got a visa on the spot - no fee. Then the long haul along the coast to Muscat. I had prearranged a rental car at the Seeb airport - the bus wasnt going there, but the drivers assistant stopped the bus at a local taxi stand on the main road and helped arrange us a taxi with another passenger who was airport bound. Our first exposure to Omani hospitality, it was great of him to do this and not just drop us on the corner to fend for ourselves.


Our hotel was the Corniche Hotel in Mutrah - not a fancy place but we came to really enjoy this hotel and the fishing port we were based in. The nighttime inn keeper wasnt overly friendly, but the daytime guy was a real pleasure to deal with - Moin was his name.

Daytime brought us view of the harbour, and a walk down the corniche brought us to the Souq. The souq in this town is really fantastic - it winds its way through many corridors and back streets, but has a wide promenade which is great to walk through after say the crazy markets in Mali. Oman is known for its daggars - curved thick bladed items with intricate silver work on the scabbard. Its even on the tail of Oman Air planes as the national insignia. We spent many hours perusing these daggars - the number of rings on the scabbard designate the rank in society of the owner, 7 rings being the royal family. The daggars are rights of passage for young men who are presented with one upon coming of age.


- Watching a fisherman cutting off shark's fins in the Muttrah harbour
- Driving in the mountains and at 100plus mph on 4 lane highways with no other cars on them (in a buzz box)
- Breaking into a closed fort
- Walking the souqs and talking to the fascinating people who live here