There’s An App For That – My Favorite Apps while Traveling

There are millions of smartphone apps, serving a multitude of purposes, (or none at all) at our disposal. Many of these apps are designed to make life easier. The travel life is no exception. Below (in no particular order) are some of the apps that have made my life easier while on the road.

Google Trips – Free – I didn’t know about this one until a few months ago. Once you sign in and allow the app to read your email, it will pull from any transportation/accommodation/etc messages to compile an outline of your trip. There is an option to map out your trip without the template, as well the option to edit any outlines. The outlines includes attractions, day plans, and food and drink suggestions.

Rome to Rio – Free – When moving about in unfamiliar lands, transportation could present a struggle. How do I get from this place to the next place? How much does it cost? What are my options? This app allows you to enter a beginning and ending location, and gives transport options along with estimated costs and websites with schedules (If available). It has made trip planning much better because of the wealth of information. The app doesn’t feature some of the more local options like khombis aground eSwatini or jeepneys around the Philippines. To incorporate those modes into your travel, it’s best to talk to locals.

Toshl Finance – Free (with premium paid options and features) – This is a budget/expense tracker app. One of the things I love about this is that you can enter expenses in just about any currency and it will convert to whatever you selected as your home currency. When the app is online, it updates exchange rates, so they’re pretty accurate. This is one of my favorites. It keeps me on budget. In the free version of the app, you are limited to how many budgets you can add (maximum of two). These limitations, along with others in the free version, did not affect my ability to keep accurate record of my expenses and budget.

Agoda – Free – Surprise, surprise. When searching for accommodation, different sites may list different prices. While it’s okay to just show up in many places, some places need a bit more planning. When I need to book accommodation in advance, Agoda ifs typically the cheapest. There’s also a very useful option to filter out beds that you can book without credit cards, so you can bypass deposits and spend money on actual accommodation.

Google Translate – Free – While this app is not a substitute for learning a few pleasantries in the local language, it is amazing for more complex things. Some languages are available to download for offline use. If a language is available for download in a place that I’m going, I get it. Communicating needs and wants in Vietnamese, Hindi, etc suddenly aren’t as difficult.

Google Maps – Free – You can download maps of a city (or of a custom area) for offline use. Then you can use that navigate without a data connection. This only works for driving directions, but if you can read a map, you’ll be good. One thing to note is that these maps do expire. So if you’ll be in a place for a longer time (more than a month), it would be worth it to find WiFi to re-download the map.

Whatsapp – Free – SMS can be expensive. This is true of domestic SMS in the land of places without unlimited text messaging. This is true of international SMS just about everywhere. Whatsapp is an internet/data based messaging service. Pictures, videos, and voice notes can be sent using Whatsapp, in addition to voice and video calling features. The app requires that the other user be on Whatsapp as well. for messaging/calling friends and family. While there are many similar services, this one has remained a favorite of the people I talk to most.

Viber – Free – This is an app similar to Whatsapp. Text based messages. Voice and video calls. All over a data connection. The difference here is something called Viber Out, which allows you to make VOIP calls to people who aren’t on Viber. After loading credits onto your account, the service does charge based on where you are calling (lowest rates are for calls to the United States). Viber is not only useful for keeping in touch with those lacking smartphones, but also handling business with a company’s 1-800 number.

Various ride sharing apps – Free – Many countries have some service that you can use to order a taxi/transport. Some of these services even allow you to order food from local eateries. I’ve found it to be not only cheaper, but also much more convenient. It definitely beats extended negotiations with drivers, unless you’re in the mood for that. I’ve found that even if I don’t use a ride service, it’s still helpful to get an idea of how much things should cost. It can also be cost effective to shop around between the services themselves. Of course, you will need some sort of data connection to book the ride. Some of the services available include: Uber (South Africa/India), Taxify (South Africa), Ola (India), Grab (Malaysia/Vietnam/Philippines/Singapore/Indonesia), Passapp (Cambodia), and GoJek (Indonesia).

Maps.Me – Free – For those choosing to eschew Google products, or for those who just want a really well made offline map app, this is it. The app allows you to download detailed maps for where you’re going. The user interface isn’t as attractive as Google Maps (to me), but it works extremely well. I’ve found that the app doesn’t always have everything (businesses, eateries, etc) on the map, but it usually has everything I need. Users can submit updates as well.

Kiwix – Free – If you know anything about me, you know that I’m a huge fan of Kiwix, the offline Wikipedia browser. There’s an Android app, so I keep WikiVoyage downloaded in the app so that I can research where I’m going/where I am when I don’t have internet. This is extremely useful when looking up where I might want to go next. There are a few phrasebooks as well to help you with local language when you’re on the ground.

Couchsurfing – Free – People all over the world offer up their couches, beds, or free space to travelers in the name of friendship and cultural exchange. Even if I don’t end up using Couchsurfing to stay with someone, I always try to check the app when I get to a new city. Almost always, there are people looking to hang out and explore the city. Couchsurfers also organize events to explore or showcase the city, or various aspects of it. You do need take some time to create a complete profile on Couchsurfing, but it’s extremely worth it.

I should note that I carry an Android device. While it’s likely that these apps are available on iOS, I didn’t bother to look so I don’t know. If you have any favorite, must-have apps while traveling, feel free to shout them out in the comments.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Time Has Been Going For a Very Long…Time (alternative name: Kirby visits Hampi)

Months ago after I had decided to begin my close of service (COS) trip in India, several people echoed similar advice. “Don’t drink the water; take it easy on the food; prepare for high stimulation of all senses”. While I have kept those tidbits in mind, another suggestion continued to be mentioned by different people rather sporadically. “Be sure to visit Hampi.” Even after arriving in India, an array of people have suggested that I go to Hampi. Others were excited when I mentioned that I was planning to go. One traveler I met remarked that I had to go to Hampi because it was “like something out of the Flintstones”. I only vaguely understood the reference.

Last week, I made it to Hampi. As others warned me, it’s a stark contrast to the India that many tourists/travelers/backpackers see. It’s not the booming metropolis that it was centuries ago, but it’s known for being an ancient kingdom with numerous temples. It’s also much more quiet than the larger cities around India.

As I went out for a bike ride and hike one morning, I couldn’t help but to think of Petra, the ancient kingdom in Jordan. The ancient architecture. The massiveness. The history. The large rock formations gave me thoughts of the Grand Canyon. I’m not a history buff. Not even close. However, I can appreciate things of historical significance. It also amazes me how the story of these places passes down throughout generations.

If you ever find yourself in close or even close-ish proximity to Hampi, check it out. It’s also less expensive than visiting Petra. Of course, if you find yourself in close or close-ish proximity to Wadi Musa, check out Petra. The feel is different in the cities, as well. This may be because Petra is a massive, self-contained historical site whereas Hampi is a city with a vast array of historical sites spread throughout it. I should note that Hampi is still of importance to Hindus, as Virupaksha Temple still functions as a temple.

In case you missed the photos on the @whatisKirbydoing instagram (due to technical difficulties), they are here!

By contrast, here are some photos from my visit to Petra in 2014.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Dosa

Recently, I’ve been checking out the south Indian state of Karnataka. Originally, I was planning to go directly from Goa to Hampi (in Karnataka). A lack of planning and information on my part led to that not happening. Commence an overnight bus to Bangalore, a day train to Mysore, and an overnight train to Hampi. Of course, I took time to explore each place. When talking to various folks, everyone kept saying that I must try a dosa.

I had no idea what a dosa was. Some explained it as being like a crepe. Others didn’t explain it, and just described it as delicious. I have found both of these things to be true. Dosas are usually eaten as breakfast, or as a late afternoon/evening snack. There are different types of dosas. There’s the plain dosa, which is served without any filling or special seasoning. Then, there’s the masala dosa which is filled with some potato or veggie mixture. It also usually has some kind of seasoning mixture sprinkled on it. There’s also an onion dosa, which has chopped onion added during cooking before the batter has become bread. The onion dosa doesn’t have a filling. In addition to these, I’ve also had a something called a special masala dosa, which had a potato filling with extra seasoning. It was also nicely folded into a triangle. All dosas are served with some kind of saucy puree. I’m sure that there are other types of dosa as well, but I haven’t tried those (yet).

While I’ve had my share of dosas over the past week, I have to say that my favorite was a masala dosa that I had in Mysore at Hotel Mylari. It was fluffy, like a pancake, and they didn’t skimp on the butter. It was simply delicious. I ordered two, one after the other, and was contemplating a third when I realized that I was being gluttonous. The picture above is of a masala dosa I had on V.V. Puram food street in Bangalore.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Some Advice for Finding Delicious Food

I’m always looking for food recommendations when visiting new places. After the recent meditation course, I was speaking with a local woman. Naturally, I started asking her about any good food spots. She gave me a few options. Then, she proceeded to give me some of the best advice I’ve heard in a while. She suggested that if I was ever looking for delicious cuisine in any city, find out where the taxi drivers eat lunch.

I’d never thought about this before. But it makes sense. Taxi drivers crisscross their cities. That’s not only true in terms of geography, but includes culture and socio-economic status. While the lunch spot probably isn’t going to be the fanciest, it typically will be tasty and affordable. That’s pretty much all I need. Usually, I’ve followed the advice to eat wherever I see large crowds of locals. I’ll still do that. I’d just never thought about taxi drivers as resources outside of a city’s geographical stuff.

Special thanks to Shweta for the advice and sharing your Goa.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Vipassana

1st September 2018 – Quick Thoughts Before the Course

I have made it to the meditation centre. It’s located in a village in Goa. Upon arrival, I was directed to a space where lunch was being served. Lunch was a delicious veggie thali, with refills! The more and more I sit here waiting for registration, the more nervous I become. What have I signed myself up for? Why did I sign up? I’ve never done meditation. What even is meditation really? How will I make it these ten days? After lunch, I spoke with a man who introduced himself. He’s done the vipassana course twice already. He’s back for a third time. His only advice: “don’t quit/leave/give up”. This is the advice that I’ve heard echoed in blogs and other online forums about the course.

12th September 2018 – The Aftermath

So I just finished the ten day Vipassana meditation course. I had no prior experience meditating. I learned of ashrams earlier this year, and after talking to folks and reading various material, my interest was piqued. Why not try it? At best, I’m a better, changed person. At worst, I lose ten days of my life and whatever financial investment is involved. After searching the internets looking for places to do silent meditation courses in India, I came across this site.

I had no idea what Vipassana was. I briefly read some material, and started applying to do a course. The base course is ten days (you arrive on day 0, and leave on day 11 for a total of twelve days). I learned that the course was donation based. All I had to do was be accepted and actually show up. A course in Goa accepted me. I reluctantly showed up. Wild thoughts second guessing myself ran rampant. I kept reminding myself that if I can do Peace Corps, I can do anything.

When checking in, I had to submit my passport and other valuables for safe keeping. Everyone is also asked to submit their mobile phones, reading and writing material, religious items and any intoxicant. I everything was locked away for safe keeping and I was given a room number. No key. Just a room number. I go to the room. My roommate is already there. It’s a basic room. Two twin beds with sleeping pads and linen. A ceiling fan. A wash room (sectioned off by a curtain) with a sink, and separated squat toilet and shower.

I greet my roommate. For the next ten days, we won’t allowed to communicate with each other. During the course, participants are asked to maintain complete silence. No talking. No gestures. No glances. This is especially true for other meditation students. You are allowed to talk to the meditation teacher. Students are also asked to observe other guidelines including no lying, no stealing, no physical contact, no intoxicants, and no sexual activity.

After a light dinner, we’re shown an introductory video in English and Hindi (the languages this course will be taught in). Afterwards, we are separated by gender and assigned a cushion in the meditation hall. Using separate entrances, men and women are seated on opposite sides of the hall. We sat in silence for a while before the assistant teacher played chanting over loud speakers. We went to bed around 2100.

The first day (and every day thereafter) started around 0400 with a morning wake up bell. Meditation started promptly in the hall at 0430, and lasted until 0630. Breakfast was served from 0630 until 0715. We were given a “break” until 0800 to rest and bathe. The first official sitting of the day was from 0800-0900. Afterwards we’d get a short break before continuing to practice meditation until 1100. Lunch (usually a delicious veggie thali) was served until 1145. After lunch, we had a break until 1300 when we would resume practice. The next official sitting was from 1430-1530, followed by another short break. Following this break, there was more practice until 1700. This is when a snack (of a popcorn/peanut mixture and fruit) was served until 1730. There was another break until 1800, which was the last official sitting of the day until 1900. At this time, we split into groups (for language purposes) groups for the day’s discourse via video from S.N Goenka. The discourses typically lasted about an hour, after which there was another short break. Lastly, we’d come back together to practice until 2100. I typically went to bed at this point, but lights out wasn’t until 2130 with the teacher staying behind to answer personal questions about meditation and practice.

The first three days of meditation were doing using a technique called Anapana, during which the mediator observes their own natural breath as it is. While it sounded straightforward and simple at first, I often found my mind wandering. Bring it back. It goes off again. This process was, and still is, continuous. On the fourth day, the technique of Vipassana is introduced. The technique asks the mediator to focus on their own body’s sensations experienced as they are.

It’s difficult for me to explain. The purpose of all of this, as explained by Goenka, is to free oneself from the cycle of misery in life. Misery comes from craving and abhortion. Something pleasurable in life, but can’t have it now? Most of us crave it. Something unpalatable in life, but can’t stop it now? Most of us abhor it. The technique is meant to relieve one of their own craving and abhortion, and ultimately their own misery. This is supposed to lead to enlightenment, which is what Bhudda reached after he did Vipassana 2500 years ago.

As honest as I’m willing to be in a public forum within my own integrity, it was extremely hard. My mind wandered to many places. My childhood. College. Younger adulthood. My teenage years. Other places I won’t discuss. I realized some of things leading to my own misery/unhappiness/displeasure/whatever. That craving. Whew! The craving. I’m a meat eater. All meals served were strictly vegetarian. I didn’t crave meat as much as I thought I would. One day, I thought about how nice it would be to have a piece of fried chicken. The thought dissipated rather quickly. During the post lunch break on several days, I laid in my bed and thought about how much better things would be if I just had my cell phone. Then I just wanted to listen to some music. I just wanted to read the newspaper. Mind you, I rarely (almost never) seek out newspapers. I just wanted to shake someone’s hand, pat someone’s back, or hug someone. This doesn’t even get into the physical pain of sitting on the ground cross legged trying to stay still for an hour. There were many times that I had to remind myself: progress, not perfection. I understand the technique. I found benefit in the practice. Even absent of benefit from the actual technique, I found tremendous value in being with myself, in silence for ten days. There were definitely things that had been suppressed. I’m trying, even as I write this, to not intellectualize this as I’ve find myself doing with many things. Intellectual thought and theory is great for some things. It’s totally useless in others. Practical things need practice. The plan is to do that.

If you’re interested in taking the course yourself (or learning more), you can search for centres and courses near you. The courses are donation based, so no financial contribution is required or expected. But there is work to be done.

The picture is of the empty meditation hall. It was about 0415, so I guess it can be considered the calm before the other calms.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Vindaloo

Language. Food. Culture. The first two usually have huge influence on the third. While I haven’t learned Konkani (the language of the state), I have taken the opportunity to experience the cuisine. One of the traditional Goan dishes is vindaloo. It’s a red curry sauce with meat. Historically, that meat has been pork, but vindaloo can be ordered with mutton or chicken as well. Everything that I had read made a point of noting how spicy vindaloo is. People warned me in various conversations. I always responded the same. I appreciate and welcome spice. The picture above is of some mutton vindaloo that I had for lunch one day in Panaji. The dish was extremely tasty and flavorful. It was also extremely hot. The following is my stream of consciousness while I ate the mutton vindaloo:

I like spice. I like spicy. This is another level. There are probably fires that don’t burn this hot. My mouth is still cooling down. This spice was intense as fuck. Why am I sweating so much? Like my eyes are watering and my internal body temperature is probably a few degrees higher now. Why does my stomach feel warm? This is not going to good to the toilet gods.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Where Did My Money Go?

Budgets are important. Time, money and other resources are finite so the absence of an accountability method can lead to a very quick draining of those resources. In the age of technology, mobile apps have made it easier. For my COS trip, I was looking for an app that could handle budgeting and expense tracking using multiple currencies.

After some internet searches, I came across Toshl. It can track income and expenses while handling budgeting tasks. The app allows you to set a home currency, while entering expenses (or income) in other currencies. It will automatically show conversions to the home currency at the last updated rate. For example, I can set my home currency to the US dollar and enter Kenyan expenses in Kenyan shillings after entering Swazi expenses in Swazi emalangeni. In my expense tracker, the expenses will show in their respective currencies with the day’s exchange rate for US dollars. The app has premium, paid features that I have not explored. One such feature is the ability to connect bank accounts for automatic syncing.

Overall, the app has been just what I needed. It has allowed me to keep track of my spending during trip. It even reminds me, via mobile notifications, to ensure that I input all of my expenses. Recently, I even got a notification that I’m on track to be slightly under budget (for my trip). I would recommend it if you’re planning on traveling abroad or dealing in currencies outside your home currency.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Auto Rickshaw

So far in India, I’ve been to two places: Mumbai and Goa. While Mumbai is in the state of Maharashtra, Goa is a state on its own comprised of several small cities and villages. While moving around Goa can be done by bicycle, motor bike, or taxi among other modes, moving around Mumbai presents several options. In addition to trains, buses, and taxis, there’s the auto rickshaw.

I should note that auto rickshaws are present in Goa as well, at least in Mapusa and Panaji. They just aren’t as popular as they are in Mumbai. When I needed to find one in Mumbai, I could (after going to different ones to find one to take me). The auto rickshaws in Mumbai are metered, starting at a base fare of 18 rupees and increase accordingly for distance and time spent waiting in traffic (which there is an abundance of). I was told that there is a night surcharge, which starts at a base fare of 24 rupees. I’m not sure what time the night surcharge starts. I travelled a few nights after 11 PM, and was not charged a night rate. For a ride of five kilometers, I paid around 75 rupees (just over $1 USD). In the south Mumbai region, auto rickshaws are not allowed so options are limited to trains, buses, taxis and walking.

To contrast Mumbai’s auto rickshaws, the same transport in Mapusa and the rest of Goa do not use meters. Prices are “negotiated” before riding. For a ride of ten kilometers, I paid around 220 rupees (which was negotiated down from 300 rupees). The picture above was taken from a bus window while sitting in Mumbai traffic.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Where is Kirby?

As you probably know from the blog, I’m currently in India. As I was preparing to finish my service in eSwatini, I entertained the idea of doing a meditation retreat during my time here. Tomorrow, I’ll be starting a ten day meditation course. During the course, phones, computers, and other things will be stored in a locker. In other words, I’ll be off the grid for a little while. If you haven’t already, now would be a great time to catch up on (or re-read) what Kirby has done, starting here.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Mumbai Street Food

I love food. Especially good food. It’s one of my main reasons for traveling to new places. Street food is an exceptional favorite. Walking around to take in the sights and sounds gets enhanced by the smells. Since I arrived in India, I have learned that most of what the western world eats as Indian food comes from northern India. As a very large country with different cultures, languages, and people, Indian cuisine is more than curries, biryani, and naan. Each of the states have their own culinary traditions.

Since arriving in India a little more than a week ago, I have kept my eyes and nostrils open for potential street food adventures. The collage above features some of the street food I ate during my first week in Mumbai. While roaming the city, I try to notice street food places where many people are congregating. Though not always true, popular can insinuate good taste.

In the top left is a dish that I can’t remember the name of, but it is traditional served as breakfast in Mumbai and surrounding regions. The sauce is soupy and spicy, but the spice is a slowly building, subtle spice. Moving clockwise, this snack is known as vada pav. A roll is spilt to allow a spicy chutney and a dab of other chillies to put on the bread. The roll is then filled with fresh, hot fried potatoes that have been coated in a light batter. This roll was exceptionally delicious. Continuing clockwise, this is a dessert/snack and I’m not sure of its name. It’s some kind of fried dough and it’s extremely sweet. Like biting into concentrated sugar. It reminded me of the South African dessert, koeksister. Lastly, there’s the amul dabeli. It’s a small sandwich that starts with some spicy chutney spread on the bun. There’s a mixture of stuff that goes into the sandwich filling including a spicy potato mixture, pomegranates, and cilantro. It’s a decadent mix of spicy and sweet without being too much of either. So far, this might be my favorite of the street foods that I have experienced.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.