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Information Overload 2013-12-14

I know, I usually publish the Information Overload on Sundays, but my schedule has become so irregular…

Information Overload 2014-10-05

Information Overload 2014-09-28

Information Overload 2014-09-21

After an almost 2 year hiatus, it’s time to revive this series, although I’m not yet sure if it’s going to be weekly again.

Re-kindling My Love Affair With the Kindle Fire

When I originally bought my Kindle Fire HD 7”, I was madly in love with it. However, after the initial euphoria was over, I got very annoyed with the dumbed down user interface and the limited availability of apps in Amazon’s app store.

So yesterday morning I finally set aside around 2 hours to do the following:

All in all the process went pretty smoothly and I now I have a mostly uncrippled Android tablet. There are some small glitches, but they are certainly less annoying than having a very limited device. At first I couldn’t get the Kindle app to run (it’s a modified version that’s pretty tied to the Fire’s native launcher), but after a bit of fiddling around it’s now working. Some people also opt for not selecting any launcher as default action for the home button, so they can easily switch between the Kindle experience and a more tablet like launcher.

If you own a Kindle Fire that you don’t use much maybe you should give rooting a try, it may re-kindle your interest in the device.

VCR Case Woes

Today I spent quite some time on a rather hard to track down problem. I had some specs using VCR, which worked perfectly locally, but just wouldn’t run on CircleCI. In fact, it seemed like CircleCI didn’t in fact use the VCR cassettes at all, but instead make a real API call, which failed because the necessary credentials weren’t available in the environment (which was kinda the point of using VCR in the first place).

Turns out the problem lay in the combination of using the VCR setting configure_rspec_metadata! and the option core.ignorecase = true, which is standard in newer versions of Git. What happened was that at one point I changed the case of a word in a test description, which changes the auto-generated name of the folder VCR will create the cassette in. But since the folder name wasn’t changed from git’s perspective, I never realized that. So when the code was checked out on CircleCI, VCR encountered the spec with the metadata (vcr: true), but couldn’t find the cassette since the checked out folder had the wrong case. It therefore proceeded to run the spec against the live API which failed.

All in all this cost me about 1.5 hours, and I only managed to find a solution thanks to a helpful colleague and CircleCI’s option of letting you SSH into the machine the tests run on, which is how we discovered the second folder that was created.

TIL that git’s not case-sensitive. I’d rather have found out another way.

2013 Reading List

Same post as every year, here are the book I read last year. However, this time around there are several novelties: first off, my Spanish got good enough to actually read books, so there are 3 languages now (English, German, Spanish). Also my Kindle Fire allowed me to get back into comics, so I (re-)read a lot of the classics and great stuff I missed out on over the years. Last but not least this is also the year where I started listening to audiobooks, mostly because they are really practical on long bus journeys because they keep you occupied but you can still enjoy the landscape.

The links are affiliate links by the way, I have to finance my reading habit somehow ;–)

Books:

Comics:

Audiobooks:

Around Southeast Asia

Still trying to catch up on updates, this one will cover the time from end of August until late October. The countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia.

While we were in Vietnam, we realized we really felt like some beach (that was before we actually got get quite a bit of that in Vietnam itself). WWe also remembered that we really liked Malaysia and would definitely go back there, so we bought a flight to KL with the idea of visiting some places we missed last time and later going to Perhentian or Tioman island. KL was chaotic as usual, but I still kinda like the place. It’s nothing special, but we have a guesthouse where we always stay and some restaurants we really like. Sometimes returning to the familiar feels good when you are on a long trip… But because we also felt like something new we headed down to Melakka, which although rather touristy is a really nice place, with good food, a relaxed atmosphere and lots of pretty old houses in the Straigths Chinese style. Definitely recommended! Next stop: Georgetown. Two years ago we already spent a couple of days on Penang island, but we never really bothered with visiting its main city. Turns out that was a great mistake, because I’m absolutely in love with this place now! There’s the usual mix of cultures typical for Malaysia, although Georgetown’s population is primarily of Indian and Chinese descent and Malays are rather underrepresented. This means that the town is an absolute foodie heaven, even more so than the rest of the country. On top of that there’s a lot of really nice architecture, a vibrant arts community, nice cafes and a generally pleasant atmosphere, so the week we spent there passed really really fast. I think at one point in the future I want to spent several month in Georgetown…

Next on our list was going to an island. As I mentioned before our original plans included some Malaysian islands, but if you are already in Georgetown, Ko Tao is quite close and in fact easier to reach. Normally that is, because when we tried to make our way there, there was a train strike in the south of Thailand, as well as a cancelled ferry due to bad weather and several roadblocks for various reasons. This turned our trip into a 24 hour odysee which in retrospect could be funny. Could, but isn’t. This really was one of the hardest and most frustrating journeys of this trip and if I never have to repeat it, it still would be to soon. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and once we reached the beach, we basically dropped to the activity levels of narcoleptic sloths, put our bodies in basic life support mode and didn’t really bother with questions more complex than “Where should we eat?” for the next ten days. Well almost, because we did sign up for a diving course. I don’t quite know what happened there, but somehow our lazyness (at this point we had been on the road for almost one year already) combined with limited trust in the instructor made us stop after the first day. Maybe I’ll try diving again at a later point, but I’m really not in a hurry when it comes to that.

With our batteries recharged and a couple of days left to spend in Thailand we headed to good old Bangkok, one of my favorite cities in Asia. We stayed at one of our friends’ places, celebrated P.’s birthday with a fantastic dinner, had delicious cakes, saw some of my friends for drinks in the evening and generally had a good time. I always enjoy being in Bangkok, it’s familiar but there’s still always something new to discover.

The next 3.5 weeks we spent in Cambodia, a place I wanted to see for a long time. And it did not disappoint. Sure, Poi Pet is one of the most annoying border crossings in the world and the first impression of Siem Reap is less than favorable, but once you take a deep breath and relax, Cambodia is just wonderful. Or rather, Cambodians are just wonderful. They are open, friendly and funny, often speak good English and enjoy a chat. If you want to know more about the country, there are plenty of opportunities for that! But not only the locals were great, we also met a plethora of nice foreigners, who are really trying to help. But of course it’s no paradise on Earth, so there’s also plenty of shady characters, annoying tuk-tuk drivers, sexpats, opportunists, you name it. Cambodia is a poor country, with a host of problems, and it seems to bring out both the best and worst in people. Don’t let the former blind and the latter deter you and you are bound to have a great time.

Anyway, as mentioned our first stop was Siem Reap, and the Angkor complex (which is way bigger than “just” Angkor Wat) really is as good as you probably believe it is. We got the three day ticket and also explored some of the further away temples, but my personal highlight was returning to Angkor Wat in the early afternoon and having it almost to ourselves for some miraculous reason. We also had a good time exploring the town itself (the “other” side of the river is much more quiet), met some nice expats, went out to party with T. and B. who we met at the border, and had some delicious food. Seriously, Cambodian food is underrated, they have some great stuff! Personally I prefer Thai curries, but a good Amok is almost as good.

Our second stop was sleepy little Battambang, which actually is the second biggest city in the country, but really doesn’t feel like it. Most poeple don’t bother going there at all or just spend a day or so there, but somehow we managed to fill five days without getting overly bored. Of course there’s the standard day trip including the bamboo train, a cool old temple, and an amazing cave where a million bats fly out at sunset, but that wasn’t even that interesting (although we did have a great tuk-tuk driver who explained a lot about Cambodia to us). I really just enjoyed the relaxed vibe of the place, which has a great cafe (Kinyei), an good restaurant if they feel like it (White Rose) and a decent pub (Madison Corner). People are friendly and life has a very slow pace, which I found immensely relaxing.

From there we went to Phnom Penh, a decidely less relaxed place, which nonetheless has its own charms. I don’t like the general backpacker area of town, so I’m glad we decided not to stay there, but instead opted for a guesthouse closer to the BKK1 area before actually moving to another one there. Unfortunately there was a series of attacks on tourists right before we got to PP, but we still walked all over the place to explore it and it felt fine. In fact some areas are really enjoyable and the friendly Cambodians make it even better. We also bumped into two extremely nice Vietnamese guys who were excited to learn that we had just visited their country, and who invited us for some fruit and a chat. Of course we also visited the killing fields and the S21 prison, but I think it’s impossible to truly grasp the horrors that took place in Cambodia. It still was a sombering experience.

Our original plan included exploring the east of the country, but alas heavy rains and floodings prevented us from doing that. So we went straight to lovely little Kampot, a place where we whiled away a week with our new travel buddy, N. from the UK. I’m not sure what it is with me and small towns in Cambodia, but I enjoyed Kampot even more than Battambang. For such a small town there was a surprising lot of good food, they have an excellent and tough pub quiz (which we surprisingly won), and there’s some nice trips you can do from there. We also explored the small town on the other side of the river as well as nearby Kep, and spent quite a bit of time on our guesthouse’s terrace looking at amazing sunsets or at one of the nice cafes reading books. Tough life, I know.

Oops, this got a lot longer than I had originally intended, but I really like all the countries I just wrote about and writing about them brought back some good memories.

The Missing Update

After roughly two months of silence, it’s time for another long overdue update. It covers our stay in Vietnam, or the period from end of July until end of August.

Having spent some time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, we were curious to explore Vietnam, a country that’s supposed to be a bridge between the Chinese world and Southeast Asia. We arrived in Hanoi and I instantly liked what I saw: chaos, street food, old colonial architecture and more street food. Not to forget the bia hoi, delicious (and cheap) beer which is brewed daily. While the traffic is at times insane, Hanoi is a very likable city, featuring some great cafes, excellent food and nice old French houses. Unfortunately a typhoon stopped us from going to Halong Bay, but the Perfume Pagoda made for a nice day trip too.

While many travelers in Vietnam opt for the cheap “Open Bus Ticket” from Hanoi to Saigon with various possible stops in between, we felt like going for a more authentic travel experience and took the night train instead. Alas the sleeper compartments were booked out, so we spent the entire 12 or so hours sitting among Vietnamese families on their way to the beaches further South. Not the best night of my life, but I really enjoyed our destination, the old imperial city of Hue. It’s a lovely town, and while quite touristy, it’s easy enough to get away from it all and enjoy normal Vietnamese life. I also celebrated my birthday there, and the lovely folks of the Moonlight Hotel (yes, we spoiled ourselves there) gave me a super cute Doraemon cake. Thanks guys!

Our next stop was Da Nang, a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists, but apparently not that popular with foreigners. We ended up staying in a suburb close to the beautiful China beach, where English wasn’t really spoken, but people were very curious about us and really helpful. Like many Asians the Vietnamese prefer white skin, so we basically had the beach to ourselves until almost 5pm every day.

We then took the local bus to Hoi An, which is a great little place, that could be so much nicer still if the pretty old houses weren’t all covered in merchandise. It’s still a very nice and likable town though, and we ate some of the best food in all of Vietnam there (check out the Little Menu, it’s a really nice restaurant). For me the best parts where the surroundings though, which we explored on the free bikes our home-stay provided. Cycling through green rice paddies to the beach is among my best memories of our time in the country.

Having made our way back to Da Nang, we embarked on another looong train journey to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular beach destination. We originally had thought about skipping it, but I found a great looking diving school there, and since getting an Open Water license was part of my plans for this trip, we decided to go after all. What can I say, the place is as bad as I imagined, full of obnoxious tourists, construction sites, generic backpacker hangouts and a general air of seediness. Anyway, I got sick, the diving didn’t happen, and while I found that quite annoying, I also was rather relieved to get out of there.

After a relatively short and scenic bus ride we arrived in Da Lat, a pretty little town in a rather picturesque mountain setting. We stayed at Dream Guesthouse, which was a great place and featured one of the nicest breakfasts I ever got in a hostel. They even had Marmite! While the sudden drop in temperature that comes with altitude was slightly annoying at first, the town’s pretty setting and relaxed atmosphere really make up for it. Definitely a place I would go back to!

Since we wanted some more beach time, our next stop was Mui Ne. Getting there was quite a pain in the ass though, as our minibus was filled to the brim with over 30 people and various packages that were dropped off at various destinations on our way, making this dreadful ride even longer. But all is well that ends well, and we had a great time on the beach. We also bumped into some guys we first met in Hoi An and had a fun night out with them and their Austrian (apparently some of us DO travel after all) travel buddies. I also signed up for a kite surfing course, but unfortunately the wind stopped about 30 minutes in and didn’t really make another appearance before we left. Sports just didn’t happen for me in Vietnam… Anyway, Mui Ne was super relaxing, we extended our stay twice and ended up spending almost a week there. I’d almost be tempted to feel silly for that, but we met several other people who did the same.

Our last stop in the country was Saigon, a very different beast from Hanoi. While I seem to prefer the food in Northern Vietnam, I definitely have a thing for the people from the South. They just seem a lot more friendly and open and we had a couple of good random conversations during our stay. We also visited the Cuchi tunnels, but instead of doing it with a boring half-day tour, we did it using public transport, which took about twice as long, but was way more fun (take bus #13 from the terminal and #79 from where it drops you off). I really enjoyed Saigon, it felt a lot more relaxed that Hanoi.

Writing this made me realize just how much I enjoyed Vietnam. Before we went I was curious about the type of experience we’d have, since many people seem to find it a pretty hard country to travel in. However, I found it no harder to deal with than many other places I’ve visited over the years. Sure, some of the sellers are rather pushy, but it doesn’t take too much to get rid of them. And in all fairness, they bother other Vietnamese people even more than they bother tourists. You also often hear that nothing in Vietnam comes at a fixed price and that foreigners often end up paying a premium, but once again I found that they do the same to Vietnamese domestic tourists too. Also I don’t mind paying a couple of cents more every so often, especially when they mean a lot more to the seller than to me. My advice, forget everything you’ve heard about Vietnam before you go there, and approach the country with an open mind and a positive attitude. I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

Oh, in case you wonder, I wrote this in Bagan, Myanmar, but I’m afraid it will take a bit longer before my updates have caught up with my whereabouts…

Great, Greater, Greater China!

By now it’s quite standard that my posts lack behind my travels… This update is no exception, it’s about our travels from end of June to end of July.

The topic: Greater China, or more precisely Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But let’s start from the beginning. In Cali (Colombia) we figured it’s about time to figure out how we’d get from the Americas to Asia. It was pretty clear that we’d have to go through the US, and since A. and V. were not in San Francisco at the dates we were looking at, we decided to visit C. in Los Angeles. After a bit of searching I found a great flight from LAX to Taipei with a 20h layover in Shanghai. P. had never considered going to Taiwan before, but to her credit it didn’t take much convincing and we booked the flight that same evening. Considering that in a past life (or so it seems) I studied Sinology, I did find this quite exciting, after all I studied Taiwan academically but had never set foot in the country. I also dreaded using my rusty Mandarin again.

Not looking forward to spending 20h at the airport, I did a little online search and found out that Beijing and Shanghai now have free 72h transit visas on arrival. Jackpot, especially since I studied in Shanghai and was quite stoked to see the city again. So after a couple of awesome and eventful days in LA (thanks again C., especially for taking us to the Bradbury building of Blade Runner fame!) we boarded our flight and arrived in China 14h later. We were quite jetlagged and tired, but we still bothered to go into the city, where we found a nice little hotel off Nanjing Lu close to the Bund. Before we collapsed we managed to have a nice dinner and a bit of a walk and I remembered why I originally fell in love with this city that I called home for a year. I definitely want to go back for a longer stay at one point…

The next day we arrived in Taipei where we had booked accommodation via AirBnB and a new love affair started almost immediately (yes, I’m a bit of a place whore, deal with it). Over the years I’ve heard many great things about the city, but yet it still somehow managed to exceed my expectations. It’s cool (teenagers have a pretty Japanese style), it’s modern, it’s quirky, and the food is awesome. If you need a break, places like Beitou (very cool public library) or Tamsui are an easy MRT ride away, or you just go to a park and watch old people practice Qi Gong or Tai Chi. Coincidentally one of P.’s friends was in Taipei at the same time as us and we explored the Confucius temple and some other parts together. After a couple of days my friend Ph. arrived from Vienna and kept us company for the next two weeks.

With him we explored more of Taipei, before heading off to Keelong. Which would be transcribed as Jilong in the official Chinese Hanyu Pinyin system, but the Taiwanese seem to use about 5 different systems at the same time, of which at least 2 appear to have been made up solely for the purpose of confusing foreigners. For the rest of this mail I will just go with the transcriptions most commonly found in travel guides, but I digress… Anyway, Keelong was fun. Not the prettiest of towns, but some nice things to see and an awesome night food market. We spent the afternoon with a friendly but slightly insane taxi driver, and at night we found a group of breakdancers to watch. What more can you reasonably expect from a day trip?

The next day we went on to Hualien, where once again we stuffed our faces at a night market. Or several, since we first ended up at the wrong one, where 2 young employees at a food stall were so relieved that they managed to deal with 3 foreigners, that they actually high-fived when we walked away with our food. After we finished our meal they got daring and ventured a “Good food happy?” at us. “my friends, “happy happy!” indeed. The next day was reserved for the famous Taroko Gorge, but a shitty bus service, bad weather and the unfriendliest bus driver of the country made it a rather disappointing experience. You win some, you lose some…

Our next stop was Lukang, where we spent a couple of very pleasant days eating (do you see a pattern here?) and exploring old temples. We then headed down to Tainan, where we basically did the same. More food, more temples. Then maybe a snack. How about another temple? My favorite part of Tainan was Anping, which is definitely worth checking out if you ever make it there.

We now were approaching the end of Ph.’s time with us, and I’m glad he managed to at least get a glimpse of Kaohsiung, one of my favorite new places. I can’t even tell you why exactly, I just really liked it there. Sure, food’s awesome, but that’s basically a given in Taiwan. The people are amazingly friendly, but that’s pretty much standard too. I guess what I like is the overall feel of the place, which is rather relaxed. And artsy. Kaohsiung used to be an industrial town, but most of that industry disappeared. Thanks to a former mayor the old factories and warehouses on the docks now serve as amazingcontemporary art spaces. We came for 3 days, we stayed for a week, andwho knows, without the flight to Vietnam we had already booked at thattime, I might still be there…

Our last stop before returning to Taipei for 3 more awesome days wasTaitung, or rather the countryside around it. Taiwan’s east coast isfar less developed than other parts of the country, but reallybeautiful. Since our hostel had free bikes we managed to explore thearea a bit, alas a second taifun was about to hit (the first onecaught Ph. in Taipei) and so the weather wasn’t exactly great. Atleast we had a great hostel to return to, run by a lovely family,which made us drink way more tea than I thought a human bladder canhold.

If it wasn’t obvious enough yet, Taiwan was one of my favoritedestinations on this trip. The people are just amazingly friendly!Sure, not everybody will speak English, but even then they will stilltry to help you. Or at least smile at you. The food is excellent. Yes,I write about food a lot. Food matters! There’s plenty of old templesaround, actually more than in most parts of China that I visited. Andalongside the old there’s the new. Taiwan has many art and culturespaces, and a vibrant youth culture that borrows liberally from “thewest” as well as from Japan. In a way, our stay there made merediscover my love for the Chinese world, which had died down a bitafter university. I even got back into speaking Mandarin, and while itwas far from perfect, it usually was good enough (or the Taiwanese arejust amazing at reading body language in combination with nonsensicalphrases.) If you are looking for an intro to the Chinese culturalsphere that’s easier than the mainland, I can wholeheartedly recommend Taiwan!

After the weeks of relative tranquillity, Hong Kong (one of myfavorite places ever) was quite the change. It’s louder, busier, andmore stressful. On a superficial look it’s all modern and businesslike, but if you dig deeper, you’ll still find bits and pieces of oldworking-class Hong Kong. And if you want a break, you can always justflee up Hong Kong hill or head out to Lantau to visit the peacefulfishing village of Tai O. We stayed in Chungking Mansions(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chungking_Mansions), which despite therecent renovations is still a rather unique place. After all thisplace had a book written about it, the aptly named “Ghetto at theCenter of the World”. Another nerd dream came true when we visited theonly Studio Ghibli store outside Japan, where we took pictures withTotoro and in the Catbus. Yes, I was inside the Catbus, how cool isthat? Unfortunately the weather was really bad during most of ourstay, so P. didn’t get to fully enjoy HK, which is a bit of a shame.Oh well, guess that means I will have to take her back at one point…

Photos I hear you say? Here you go:
Taiwan
Hong Kong

Confucius say “Be good and travel more!”