Wednesday, August 31, 2016

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

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Friday Travel Tip - Athens - SYNTAGMA SQUARE

Syntagma square has a duo personality; it is both the commercial centre of the city and centre for many of the protest. As a tourist there are many reasons you might want to check it out, tourist sites, shopping, and some of the best hotels in the city are located here. It is also one of the central transportation hubs for the metro, buses and tram. The problem is, all of this stops every time there is a protest. Shopping wise Syntagma square marks the beginning of Ermou Street, a pedestrian mall with many shops both local and international. Syntagma square is also home to one of the fanciest hotels in all of Athens, the Grande Bretagne.

Finally Syntagma is home to the parliament buildings, every hour on the hour the guard change is really worth seeing. The parliament is also the reason Syntagma can occasionally be a no go zone for tourists. If you've watched the news and seen the intense protest in Athens, chances are it took place here. There are regular protests here, and even though most don't get violent, it's a good idea to stay away during a protest, just in case. Check with your hotel if you plan on visiting the square, and if you happen to stumble in, keep an eye open. If you see a protest, turn around and make alternate plans, these protests can be dangerous and not worth a snapshot.

Later

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

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Non-Borders You Can Visit

So you’re looking to invest in a map, probably a good investment since borders are pretty solid these days, right?  A few countries have fallen, or split up over the last 50 years, but the basic lines are solid, or are they.  Around the world there are lines in the sand that are constantly contested and changing.  While more of these borders are being talked away through diplomatic discussion, some are still protected with military force.  Below are a few places that you can visit to see borders that aren’t really there.  In some cases you might want to bring a flak jacket, since there’s still a bit of tension on where these borders lie.
Pakistan/India Border

In 1947 India/Pakistan left the British Empire.  They were no longer going to be run under any British government rule, and would adopt their own constitutions.  Though it wasn't as easy as simply moving one government out and moving a local government in.  One of the biggest problems was that India at the time housed two major religions, Hindu and Muslim.  It was decided that the best way to deal with this would be to separate these two religious groups into two separate countries, India and Pakistan.  So it was decided that the Islamic people, mostly living in the area now known as Pakistan would get their own country.  The rest of the India would go to the Hindu people.

Not everybody was happy with this situation, in particular there was a problem in the state of Kashmir.  Kashmir was being run by a Hindu, Maharaja Hari Singh.  He was undecided about how he wanted to go, and delayed the decision to join Pakistan or India (possibly with the hope of remaining independent from both).  With more and more pressure building up he eventually gave in and in exchange for military help joined India. Needless to say many people were not happy with the decision, particularly since a great deal of the population of Kashmir were Muslim. India legally holds Kashmir, as one of their states, however Pakistan believes that the decision was not fair and that Kashmir is rightfully Pakistani.  To this day whether or not this state should remain part of India is hotly contested.

This would firmly fall under one of those borders your probably shouldn't actually visit as there are still regular attacks and bombings.  It's unfortunate as it's one of the more beautiful regions and used to be a hub for tourism.

The Green Line, Cyprus

Why the Greek Cypriots and the Turks don't get along changes depending on whom you listen to.  The important part of the history of the line dividing this small island nation, sometimes called the Green Line, is that one side is Turkish-Cypriot, and the other side is Greek-Cypriot.  The line itself is actually fairly wide in some areas, and residing in this “line” are the United Nations Peacekeepers.  For the most part this space has remained untouched since the Turks landed on Cyprus in 1974 to support the Turkish-Cypriots.  Within the buffer zone, remnants of this military intervention are airplanes left at the old airport, kitchen tables in homes left untouched, and an abandoned auto dealership with brand new 1974 cars still waiting to be sold.

Unlike many of the other non-borders that were separated by war, this one is not only accessible but also very safe to visit.  Parts of it are a little difficult to see and might be more protected from the public. The best place to see the Green Line is in the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia, since it is divided right down the middle. The division line has turned into a bit of a tourist attraction, and is fairly accessible by just walking down a few small streets.  There are still military installations along the border, so taking pictures in many places is not allowed.  You can even walk across the Green Line and visit either side. The beauty of exploring this part of the city is the fact that you can still peer into the untouched areas and see parts of 1974 Nicosia.

Hans Island, Canada/Denmark

To many people from Denmark and Canada, Hans Island is a regular feature in the press.  It's a 1.3 square kilometre (half a square mile) rock found in the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait that divides Greenland from Canada.  It's best described as a large piece of granite in an icy river with a lot of bird poop on it.  While the occasional news story comes up about this “disputed” land, Denmark and Canada are keeping things low-key, and universities from both countries have conducted joint scientific studies. Canada and Denmark (as Greenland is still technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark) are not at war over this island that lands right in the middle of their maritime boundary, because except for a few scientists, this island has no real value at all. Occasionally news articles are written on the subject, but it appears to be a border dispute that may not be worth resolving.

There are unsubstantiated stories of boats leaving bottles of peach schnapps and Canadian Club whiskey along with their countries’ flags and notes, attempting to claim the land.  While these ideas are fun, they're not really legally binding. Visiting Hans Island is not really a good idea, mostly for the fact that it's very remote, surrounded by ice, and not very interesting.

Mont Blanc France/Italy

One of the real challenges of marking borders is geography.  Land where borders fall is rarely flat (sometimes it's not even really land), so when it comes to drawing lines on bumpy areas it gets tricky.  It gets really tricky when the land is very mountainous, and gets very political when the mountain in question is the tallest mountain in Europe.  Mont Blanc (or as the Italians call it Monte Bianco) is situated between Italy and France. If you side with the French government (and many of the textbooks I've seen) it's within France.  However the Italian government disagrees, and there have been several campaigns to say that Mont Blanc is in fact right down the middle.

Mountaineers from both countries have weighed in on the debate, many with different opinions.  There is even a story of heavy lifting equipment attempting to move the peak towards a particular border. This border is getting easier to get to because both governments not only want to claim it, but also want to turn it into a travel destination.  Cable cars and mountain excursion abound with the hopes of showing you the highest peak in France... or Italy... well Europe for sure.

Hong Kong

This is a pretty complicated situation.  Up until 1997 Hong Kong was a British colony, and pretty much its own country although run by a Governor.  After 1997 Hong Kong became part of China... sort of.  Technically it's part of China, however they've kept their own currency, official languages, and China even still has an embassy in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong also has some civil liberties protections in their own constitution. Things like freedom of speech and the ability to live as capitalists are rights given to the citizens (?) of Hong Kong. The two problems with this are that this constitution expires in 2047, and many argue that the people of Hong Kong had no say in any of these decisions.

As far as a place to visit, it's open to tourists, is fairly safe, and is considered a world-class city.  While technically you are on Chinese soil, there are enough caveats to this that you can also say you're not really in China either.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

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Friday Travel Tip - Athens - TRANSPORTATION AROUND THE CITY

Four forms of transportation, Metro, bus, trams, or taxi cover public transportation in Athens:

The Metro, is fairly clean, fast, and efficient. There is a slight problem with petty theft on the Metro, so keep eye open. The Metro is also the best way to travel from the airport, as well as the ferry port, it also services most of the tourist hotspots.

The buses in Athens are fairly clean, and efficient. The problem with the buses is trying to figure out the system. Google maps is a good source I've found for schedules and routes. Along with the Metro you can pretty much get anywhere in the city with relative ease using the buses.

The tram in Athens is more of a tourist attraction than a good source of transportation. The only reason you would want to take it is if you plan on visiting the beach. Getting from downtown to the sea via tram is a long trip; you’re better to use the Metro to meet up with the tram at the sea.

Taxis in Athens are fairly reasonable price wise, but really that's the only positive thing I have to say about them. I've encountered rampant overcharging, and many cabs reeking of cigarettes. If you do take a taxi from the airport, keep in mind that there is a flat fee from the airport to downtown. If you feel like you're being ripped off, tell the driver to take you to a police station to sort out any discrepancy.

As far as driving in Athens, my only tip is don’t, unless you have to leave the city.

Later

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

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The Best Airport In The World?

The quality of an airport can be subjective, sometimes. It can depend on how long you may be stuck in the airport, the airline you're flying with, and whether or not your luggage has made it with you.   A frequently flying business traveler might have a completely different opinion of an airport over a family of 6 just trying to get to Disney. Because of this trying to pinpoint how good or bad an airport is might be a little difficult.  There is one exception to this rule, and that's Changi airport in Singapore.  In travel websites all over the world, this airport almost always ranks as one of the best, often the best.

While free wifi and clean bathrooms are certainly reasons to call this airport good, Changi goes a few steps further.  Not only is the airport massive, with more shops and restaurants than most airports, it's the little additions that you find in Changi that make this airport almost comically amazing.

Say you have a 2 or 3 hour delay at the airport.  Say your tablet is out of juice as well, not that it would be a problem in Changi as there are a million places to charge your gear.  But say your Netflix account isn't working (probably should have set up that VPN), don't worry though, Changi has you covered. In the airport are 2 theatres, free for everybody.  These aren't just boardrooms with screens, these are full sized theatres with theatre seats playing the same movies you can see on Singapore Airlines flights.  They play constantly with the times marked on the outside of each theatre.

Maybe you have a bit more time on your hands, and maybe you've been thinking of visiting Singapore.  Changi has you covered, throughout the day the airport offers city tours.  You don't have to worry about getting back in time for your flight; they'll check your boarding pass before you go.  The tours are free, yes free, and in some cases allow you to leave the bus and explore a few of the city’s prize attractions.  They require no visas either; technically you haven't left the airport on this tour.  There are both day and night tours available.

Ok, so you don't have enough time to see a movie, or take a tour, but you still have some time to kill.  Maybe after your long flight you just need some fresh air or something to calm your jetlagged nerves.  Why not walk through one of Changi's many flower gardens, including a sunflower garden and a tropical garden.  If that's not enough for you, or if it's raining, you can always visit their indoor butterfly conservatory.  As you might imagine, all of this is free as well.  What about the kids, they may not want to hang out in the garden, they want something fun.  How about a 40-foot twisty slide?

I've actually booked an extended layover at Changi just so I can visit all of the attractions.  The one drawback to this airport is the sheer size, if for some reason you had a really short stop over and your gates were far apart, you might have a hard time.  The good news is, if you miss your flight, you have lots to do while you wait for the next one.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016

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Friday Travel Tip - Athens - VISITING THE ACROPOLIS

The Acropolis is the site that most people consider the "can't miss" site. Because of its popularity it can be very busy, and the hours seem to change constantly. There's also the possibility that the tourist site workers might go on strike, which can mess with your plans as well. The two tips I can give you to visiting this site are simple, get there early, and try to do it on your first day.

Getting there early is important because the crowds during the high seasons of May to September can be huge. Many of the visitors to the Acropolis come in large waves of tourist groups, so get there early, and beat them to avoid long waits. By noon the sun is hot and the line-ups are unbearable.

Going on your first day prevents two major problems that might come up. First of all if the site is closed due to strike or holiday, then you know you have a few more days to give it a try. The trick to finding out if the Acropolis is closed, is to find the large flag on the East end of the Acropolis, you often see people leaning over taking pictures. If there's no one there, it might be closed. The other reason you should visit on your first day is because of the bonuses you get with your ticket. Your ticket for the Acropolis allows you entry into 5 other sites in the area, including the Agora, a site that should not be missed.

Later

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

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Allison Trying To Kill Me Part 3

Thus far we've covered two places where Allison has tried to kill me Australia and Sri Lanka. For this installment we're heading to Africa, Botswana to be exact. You may be wondering why I agree to go to these dangerous places with Allison. The answer is simple, the Internet. The first impressions I get of these countries is what I research on the internet, and you internet people lie.  I read a few articles here and there about food poisoning, and cleanliness, but I don't often see articles about why your life may be at risk.  I don't find out about this sort of thing until we're there, and by then it's too late.  Part 3 of this adventure is the perfect example of this:

Botswana - This trip to Southern Africa was to be a fairly epic one.  One that would involve a lot of driving, and also requires us to camp.  Allison and I have a strange history with camping, some might even say that our first date was a camping trip, we spent a week in New Hampshire Mountains (and yes she tried to kill me there too).  The interesting thing about our relationship with camping is that we both don't really like it.  The thing about camping that appeals to us is that it's often the cheapest method, and it often allows us to make our own food.  Being cheap and cooking are two of our prerequisites for any trip. Almost everything else about camping is pretty horrible.

Africa has many different levels of tent, there's the chalet style tent, that's pretty much a house but with canvas walls, often air conditioned and all of the amenities.  There's the Safari tent experience, this looks more like a tent, has few doors, and often the showers or toilets are outside, yet still part of the same building.  There are the military tents, these are just a large canvas tent, for those that don't have their own.  You can stand up in it, and there's often electricity, but nothing much more.  If you're looking to re-enact your favourite episode of MASH, this is the tent for you.  Finally there's the campsite, which is basically a plot of dirt, often near the parking lot, with nothing to offer.

On this trip we experienced all but the chalet style of tent.  The Safari tent we had was only for one night, and our longest period camping was in a military tent.  We also experienced tents in a descending order of quality.  We started in a Safari tent, full of hope for the future.  Then we went down to a military tent, in a part of the world that is known greatly for malaria.  I can't say for sure if this was another attempt on my life, but I can say that I was counting my mosquito bites, and worrying.  I learned on this portion of the trip that covering yourself in insect repellent before going to the bathroom is a good idea.  Mosquitoes go for the unguarded parts of your body, and hovering them over a bowl of stagnant water doesn't help.

While my fear of malaria lingers to this day (it can take more than a year to actually show symptoms), this was not the part of the trip where Allison truly tried to kill me.  The attempt on my life happened in the town of Maune, where we had a safari adventure booked for our one full day.  We thought since we were going to be out on our adventure most of the day that this would be the perfect place to get a campsite (bring your own tent).  We found a little place outside of the city right next to the local river.  We pulled into the place after crossing a fairly sketchy sand road littered with donkeys.  At first I was fairly happy with the place, it had a huge gate and fences all around it so lions, elephants or donkeys were not getting in.  There was an outdoor restaurant, and lots of people frolicking about.  There was even a beach next to the river, for swimming?.

When we signed into the campsite we were told all about the amenities, and about the safari we were taking the next day.  We were told to conserve the water, about the free wifi at the restaurant, and... oh yeah, don't go near the water because it's infested with man eating crocodiles and hippos.  Suddenly that nice path to the beach turned into easy access for two of the most deadly creatures in Africa (stats say that hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa).  The good news is we didn't have to worry about the crocodiles and hippos climbing up the beach to stomp/eat us because the campsite was at the other end of the grounds.  These animals would have to pass the restaurant, showers, parking lot and safari tents before they could get to us... right?

Nope, for some reason Allison managed to convince me that the best place to set up the tent was under this large tree, a large tree found right next to the lake.  You know the lake, the one infested with crocodiles and hippos.  The entire campsite was surrounded by walls and Safari tents, except for one small part, just big enough for our tent. For some reason, I must have blacked out when we made the decision to set up our tent right next to the water, because there we were right next to the many animals that wanted to kill me.

Allison will claim that there was a fence between us and the water.  I would then argue that the fence was about 1 and a half feet tall and made of random bits of wood.  Allison would also claim that there were much easier targets such as locals hanging around the lake on the other side of the river as well as cows grazing near by. I would then argue that those people and cows went home at night leaving just us.  Somehow I managed to forget about this hippo and crocodile problem until about 1 am on our first night.  I remember hearing a noise, and wondering what it could be.  I thought it might be a bird, or maybe a local teenager heading home after the party that was going on late into the evening.  Then a thought popped in my head, maybe it's one of the two most deadly creatures in all of Africa, you know the ones that are less than 5 feet from my head.

Needless to say it wasn't a restful sleep that night.

Later

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Friday, August 5, 2016

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Friday Travel Tip - Athens - STRIKES NOT PROTESTS

When people are planning a trip to Athens, the first worry that seems to come up is the fear of the protests. I'd be lying if I told you that these protest weren't a little dangerous, but really they're easy to avoid. Many tourist don't even notice them when visiting the popular sites. The protests often stay in pre planed areas (Syntagma Square, Omionia Square, and the areas around the Universities), and even when they get violent, it's often contained to very particular places.

Strikes in Athens can make life very difficult for tourists, particularly if they're un-aware. Many strikes only last for a day or less, but they can force you to change your plans at the last minute. Most notable strikes are:

Metro, bus and taxi strikes, for obvious reasons this can cut off any ground mobility you might have in the city, it also increases the traffic in the downtown area making it loud and crowded on the streets.

If they ferries are on strike and you have plans to visit one of the islands, your plans are sunk.

When tourist sites go on strike that means your visit to the Acropolis isn't happening, museums are also often closed as well.

Because strikes can pop up out of nowhere, the best plan in Athens is to get the sites you really can't miss over with as soon as possible, just in case you can't make it later. Ask at your hotel before you venture anywhere to make sure you wont run into any problems.

Later

Thursday, August 4, 2016