"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."

"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."- Sir Thomas More's Utopia

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Travel tips for the travel-wary.

Image: An inner-city neighborhood typical to Indonesia

After being in Singapore even for the extremely short amount of time I was able to squeeze in, I suddenly find myself in culture shock. Or rather, culture re-shock. Singapore is an extremely disciplined city/country with hot water showers. After months in the Philippines, goddamn did hot showers just fill my soul with glee. Yes, glee. Then, I step onto the soils of Indonesia and I am immediately bombarded by street vendors aggressively hawking their wares, trying to swindle some money out of me. I don't know why, but I didn't equate the fact that 1USD = 9,000IDR with the fact that the country is extremely poor. I guess I expected Indonesia to be just like Singapore but more resort-y...?

Here's the thing about traveling to South East Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Pihilippines - most of the people are poor as fuck. Yes, the landscape is beautiful and the culture is beautiful and all that other UN and Unesco World Heritage love flower children BS. However, if you want to get out in once piece (and still in possession of your wallet) you should never let your guard down. Appreciate your surroundings and find awe in the exotic, but I repeat, never let your guard down.

From experience, I have compiled these Third World Travel Tips:
  • If you cannot speak the language and/or stick out like a sore thumb, travel with a non-native guide. Expats from your respective country are preferable. I have found that most local guides are in on the scams and will help their countrymen hoodwink you out of good chunks of money.
  • Do some research. Look up the scams prevalent in whatever country you are visiting. Google is a good source, but I have also found that getting friendly with the natives at the local bar will also yield some good advice as well as awesome stories. It always helps to bring a cigar to share, even if you don't smoke.
  • Think of your money as well-planned investment portfolios. Meaning, spread your money out. Do not put all of your money into one wallet placed in one pocket. Spread your money out to however many pockets you have. That way, in the event that you do get pick-pocketed, you have reserves lined up.
  • A good money trick that I learned from a travel buddy is putting the larger bills in your sock. Unless the thief can successfully remove your shoe and socks without you noticing, your dinero is el safe-o.
  • Do not make large purchases if you are not an expert, unless you are okay with bold-faced lies siphoning exorbitantly large amounts of money out of your life's savings. IE - don't spend ten's of thousands of dollars on an ancient Ming vase unless you have an inhuman affinity and expertise in the Ming Dynasty.
  • When shopping in the markets, canvass first. You will find that you will get a wide range of prices for the same, or relatively similar, item. Take the lowest price you hear and bid a third of the asking price. Personally, I never pay over half of the original asking price.
  • Another good haggling strategy is to switch currencies as you haggle. This works best for larger ticket items. The concept is simple, confuse the hell out of the vendor. First, of course, ask for the price, they will usually tell it to you in their local currency. Next, ask for the price in your respective currency. Quickly, in your head, decide how much you want to pay (go for something aggressive like 1/4 the asking price). Memorize that number in both the local and your own currency. Then here comes the confusing part - haggle back and forth switching currencies as you exchange bids. This usually leads to a very confused vendor who will practically give you the item. Just don't get confused yourself, because then you just screwed yourself.
  • Always haggle. Unless you are buying food, because, well, that's just kind of a dick move.
  • If you are a smoker, buy your cigarettes at the supermarket. Not only are the prices clearly marked, they tend to be the most economical. Street vendors do not always display their prices because some of them have different prices for tourists and for locals. It's a dirty game they play.
  • As much as possibly, refrain from giving money to beggar children. Most of them are part of larger syndicate rings, which basically "employ" (or better, exploit) the poor children. Think Slumdog Millionaire.
  • I always travel with sunscreen and a handkerchief. The sun mixed in with high humidity and third world pollution is just gross.
  • Constantly check that your belongings are in order. Check your pockets and your bags to make sure nothing is missing.
  • Do not attempt to lie to Immigration Officers. They know many, many things.

In summation, traveling to third world countries can be easy on the budget, but keep in mind why it's cheaper to travel through Indonesia than to travel through France. Semarang is no Provence. Although each has their own beauties, they also have their own dangers. One city can leave you penniless while the other can leave you wreaking of lavender, which can be a bitch if you have allergies.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I "heart" Singapore and vice versa.

Image: Aboard Singapore's MRT. So many languages!

Walking around Singapore and meeting some very interesting people through some not so conventional avenues, I have come to learn a few things about the tiny island nation. Not only is Singapore a massive crossroad where many different cultures, peoples, and languages collide, Singapore is also an intricate conundrum of laws.

  • Gum is banned but you can freely walk around with open containers of alcohol.
  • Pornography is highly illegal but prostitution is legal.
  • Nudity is considered pornography, so you can't walk around in your birthday suit. Even at home.
  • In jail, they monitor the books the inmates read to profile each inmate's preferences. Then they tell the inmates that the books they like are unavailable even though they are. How fucked up is that?
  • It is illegal to be homeless.
  • In public toilets, you get fined if you don't flush. Sucks to be the guy handing out those fines.
  • The national mascot is the Merlion. Yes, half fish, half lion. I know, this is kind of off topic, but come on. How fun is that?

Disclaimer: the preceding information was accumulated solely by word of mouth and has not been confirmed through the rigors of Wikipedia.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Singapore eats. A lot.

Image: Food Center in Singapore's Chinatown.

This was my first meal in Singapore:

  • Otah - Think of it as a sort of Halal Tamale. It's usually filled with seafood like fish and shrimp mixed in with coconut milk and steamed in a banana leaf. They also mix in things such as chillies, fish paste, lemon grass. This should really come stateside. For more info on the "Asian Tamale," here's a Wiki article on Otah.
  • Blended Coffee with soy milk - Yeah, nothing too exciting there, but cut me some slack, I couldn't even pronounce the names of the rest of the weird shit I was eating.
  • Popiah - Very Taiwanese. It's like a fried spring roll but sweeter with a hint of spice. I think there was yam in the ones we had. Another difference from spring rolls, is that not just the wrapping is crispy, but there's also some crisp to the fillings of the popiah, at least the ones we tried. Apparently, people have Popiah Parties, where people bring their favorite ingredients for popiahs. I'm sure they wash it all down with Whiskey Green Tea. How very Asian.
  • Grass Jelly over sweet tofu with a sprinkling of some sort of sweet fruit thing - Can someone please tell me what those little white balls are? They look like macapuno but I don't think they are. When I ordered my blended coffee, the Chinese woman at the stall yelled something at me. I didn't know what was going on, and in fear of offending her I did an awkward little bow. After a bit, she handed me the coffee and the grass jelly concoction. What the hell?