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Day #1: Istanbul

By on Sep 9, 2012 in Travel | 4 comments

I was apprehensive of getting deported or worse the moment I landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. You see, for Indian passport holders who have an existing US, UK, or Schengen visa, Turkey offers a 30-day visa-on-arrival. That’s all the official rules say. Posts from other Indian travellers on Internet forums suggested that they got scrutinised a lot. One personal experience in particular, from author-journalist Sidin Vadukut was that when he tried to get the same visa-on-arrival, the immigration authorities wanted to see hotel bookings for the whole duration of his stay AND scrutinised those thoroughly, making him wait hours before relenting. (In his words, “India’s soft superpower bullshit is not working, bro!”) I didn’t have a plan as to what itinerary I’d be following and I didn’t want to lock down hostel bookings for the duration. So I did something very shady: I booked a hostel for my first night in Istanbul, took the confirmation they sent me, and edited the HTML file of the booking to say the booking was for the duration of my stay. Indians don’t even get their visas in the same counter for Western travellers. I walked to the fag-end of the airport, to reach the counter that said “SOUTH AFRICANS, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICANS, INDIANS, PAKISTANIS, AND BANGLADESHIS JOIN THIS QUEUE FOR VISA”. Sure enough, there were downtrodden-looking African men sleeping on benches nearby and two sleepy police officers at a counter. I went to them, they perfunctorily looked at my documents, and handed me a slip of paper to show to the visa officer. I kinda assumed that my destiny was to wait with the African posse until a special visa officer showed up for us, so I slumped down on the floor and started reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, all the while grumbling about the cruel unjustness of it all. I won’t lie. I was shit scared. Mentally, I was kicking myself in the butt for not taking out the hostel’s phone number in the booking confirmation. What if the visa officer called to check? I’d taken a very risky gamble here. Would I be deported? Cavity searched? Jail time? It was 3am at night and I wouldn’t even be able to get help from my embassy until many hours later if it came to this. THAT would be some story, even if fucked up my trip. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. After a while one of the police officers came over and asked me why I was waiting, because I could just go and show my slip of paper to the visa officer for gora people. Stunned, I did go there, and after mispronouncing the Turkish for “thank you” to three different immigration officers I was on my way out with a visa in less than 10 minutes. I could have saved myself a lot of heartburn in hindsight. *** I used to think that getting accosted by taxi drivers the moment you step out of an airport / train station is purely an Indian thing. No, it happens everywhere else too. Just that taxi drivers in India are way more insistent and have no concept of personal space bounds. The moment you step out of a train station, ten of them surround you and pepper you with questions of where you want to go. My dad did this funny thing that he’d look on dead straight pretending they weren’t there and then finally pick the last one remaining. Anyway, so the staring dead ahead trick works even if there’s a single taxi driver lazily calling out to you. I took the airport bus into downtown Istanbul. It was 5am, and yet, I was surprised to see so many restaurants and cafes open and buzzing with customers! Many places claim it’s a “city that never sleeps” but I think of the places that I have been to so far, only Hong Kong / Macau and perhaps Istanbul can legitimately claim that. After half an hour of customary stumbling around, I found my hostel – a six-floor operation on top of a Domino’s Pizza. The reception was manned by a hostel staff – Malik, a Nigerian lad who studied medicine in Kiev (Ukraine) and has been stuck in Istanbul as a stateless person for eight months working at the hostel after his family village got bombed in northern Nigeria and many of his personal documents got burned down in his house, and it turned out that the passport he had been fake (he didn’t know that) – and Yassin, Turkish guy from Ankara, just back from parting in Istanbul Beygolu nightclub district, who’s lived for years in Germany and is now going to Cairo to study economics with three of his friends from similar backgrounds. Both were knocking back Efes and chatting, and I joined them while my reservation was sorted out. See, that’s the thing I love about hostels. You just meet such an eclectic range of people from the oddest set of personal backgrounds! It’s a very charming and intoxicating atmosphere, any hostel you go to, and thanks to its owners / operators each has its own unique signature. You also end up with the most random conversations. For instance, apparently Kiev is full of Indian students studying medicine. Who woulda thought of that! You never hear about these things in, say, the news you know. I also asked...

Flying

By on Mar 8, 2012 in Travel | 19 comments

I take up to 10-12 flights every year. I absolutely love the experience of flying, even when it is economy class or on a low-cost airline. I was wondering though: how long are we going to have the luxury of cheap international travel? Estimates about how soon crude oil is going to run out vary wildly, although I think pretty much everyone agrees that within the next, say, 30-40 years it is going to get more expensive due to fuel shortages. It already is getting expensive. While surface transportation will probably survive in the form of biofuel or electric-powered cars, what we have absolutely no replacement for is a way to power commercial passenger planes or ships! Think about it. Petroleum fuel-powered engines are the only viable means of powering flight at the moment. Point is, at the moment research and production of alternative means of powering transportation is simply not economically lucrative. Maybe it would need crunch-time pressure as we near the end of oil reserves to make companies sit up and work their research departments towards this. At the moment, battery technology isn’t anywhere close. The only alternative, long-term resource we have is nuclear power, and even those engines are primarily steam engines – good for slow-release engines on ships but not for the intensive take-off / landing cycles of airplanes. Nuclear technology is so strictly controlled and has so much potential for mishaps that I cannot imagine it being used in the commercial sector anyway. So maybe humankind will figure something out in the next few decades. But what if. What if it isn’t realistically possible to make an engine that can give the performance of an internal combustion engine or jet engines? How different the world would rapidly change, back to the days when seafaring nations controlled the balance of power! Back to the days when journeys took weeks and months! Back to the days when it won’t be possible to buy 10 pence bananas flown in from Africa in a supermarket in England, or buy cheap electronic gadgets on eBay from Hong Kong! I don’t reckon producing electricity will be a problem; even if we have to gag and lock up protesting hippies, hydroelectric power could potentially fill in a major part of the shortfall. But perhaps within the next five decades, we may never ever again be able to fly to any part of the globe in less than a...

Visiting Morocco for Indian passport holders

By on Jan 9, 2012 in Travel | 0 comments

I realise I haven’t posted much about my Morocco trip after my first day in Marrakech. All in good time…hopefully. Meanwhile, I wanted to get this quick one out of the way. When I first booked my flights to Morocco in August 2011, one of my biggest concerns was to figure out whether it would be possible for me to get a tourist visa. This turned out to be a major headache for me because I found so many conflicting answers to what visa requirements for Morocco are. I’m making this post in the hopes that it helps any traveller in the future in a similar predicament. I’m an Indian passport holder resident in the UK, so it is possible what I write below is specific to how the embassy here handles procedures or even my specific case. Don’t consider this binding legal advice. Do your own due diligence before applying for a visa; rules change all the time and by the time you come across this, the information below may be out of date. Does Morocco offer visa-free entry / visa-on-arrival? A select list of nationalities do not require to get a visa in advance. Morocco does not offer visa-on-arrival for any nationality, that I know of. What are the requirements for a Morocco visa, according to online sources? The Embassy of Morocco in UK lists the following requirements for filing for a tourist visa: Application form in three pages (downloading) Your original valid passport + copy of the first page with photo+ Copy of your legal status in the UK 02 recent passport size colour photos. Original passport along with copies of the main pages of details and the page of the right of abode in the UK Copy of your detailed provisional flight itinerary. Employment certificate from your employer in the UK. For students, copy of a recent letter confirming that the applicant is attending the school. For business owners, copy of the last Income Tax as substitute of the employment letter, A recommendation letter from your business partner in Morocco for business visa. Hotel provisional reservation or notarized Letter of Invitation from your sponsor in Morocco. For applicants married to Moroccan citizens, a copy of the marriage certificate plus a copy of the Moroccan passport or national ID of the Moroccan spouse can be a substitute for the invitation letter or for the hotel reservation. Proof of travel insurance covering at least the period of trip to Morocco. last three months pay slips or salary attestation (ORIGINALS AND COPIES ) last three months bank statements (ORIGINALS AND COPIES ) Copies of marriage certficate and spouse s pasport . VisaGuru mentions a slightly different set of requirements: Passport (Valid 6 Months on entry) UK residency (Must have been resident in UK for the minimum of 1 year) 3 application forms 4 passport photos Original employer or school/college letter Copy or Original airline tickets Copy or Original hotel confirmation (Hotel confirmation must show paid in full.) Copy or Original itinerary Copy or Original Travel Insurance Copy of the information pages of passport incl. UK residency. Application Fee What is your personal experience applying for a tourist visa for Morocco? What bothered me most was conflicting advice on what supporting evidence was needed for accommodation. Visa HQ said a confirmation was required directly from the hotel, which brings up the question – am I allowed to book via third-party travel booking sites? Does it have to be a ‘hotel’ or will a hostel suffice? VisaGuru (see above) also said it should show hotel booking paid for in full. On the other hand, the Moroccan embassy website mentioned ‘provisional’ confirmation without any clarification on what this ‘provisional’ meant! Contacting the Moroccan embassy in UK was no help as I tried calling them up over a period of a week and yet never once did they answer my call. I ultimately applied for my visa through a visa processing company called CIBT (which has offices in many countries around the world) since they seemed trustworthy. There wasn’t a lot of information forthcoming from ‘official’ sources so I only provided the following documentation, as advised by CIBT: Proof of UK residency: My UK visa. Proof of employment: I am currently on an internship with a UK-based company, but I’m also a registered full-time university student as this internship is part of my degree. I could have asked at either place for this proof (students can substitute ‘proof of employment’ with proof of academic status); I went with my workplace since that would be faster to procure. This is simply a letter on company letterhead according to a template you can download off CIBT’s site. Proof of financial means: Past two bank statements. I had to request paper copies from NatWest specifically since I’ve turned off paper statements. Leave time to obtain this as postal mail can take 4-5 days to deliver. Proof of travel arrangements: Copy of my flight ticket and hostel booking. CIBT advised that booking through a third-party site rather than directly with a hotel was fine, staying at a hostel was fine, and a booking which only showed a downpayment was also fine. Proof of travel insurance: I went for the cheapest travel insurance policy I could find online with the least amount of frills for cheap cost; I went for one from Columbus Direct. I sent these...

Salaam walekum from Marrakech!

By on Dec 27, 2011 in Travel | 3 comments

I almost didn’t catch my flight to Morocco. Christmas Eve was a lonely one for me. My housemates had all gone back home earlier in the week to be with their families. Most friends I know from university were doing the same. Yet, here I was, still having to clock in at work through a week when others I knew didn’t have to. I somehow braved through that feeling of isolation on Friday by going out for Japanese food and cinema – alone, but still kept me occupied. By Saturday, my isolation felt complete. All I had to look forward to was eating a microwave dinner, alone, at home. Fine, I usually eat microwave dinners anyway simply because of their convenience after coming back from work but doing the same on Christmas hurt. I had a meltdown. Or at least I was on the verge of tears. I don’t remember, it’s all a daze. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. All I wanted was to be with people I know and care for. I wanted Maggi noodles. Made by mom. How did I end up in this situation? I keep coming back to this theme time and again – always wondering how different things would be only if I made different choices. Ah…do you see what’s happening here folks? It’s time for the annual “tiny tendrils of guilt” post already! Yayface! Last year, I spent that wondering how different things would be if I hadn’t chosen to go to Singapore. Whether I should have valued some friendships and relationships more than I did. And yet…and yet…if I hadn’t made the choices I did then I wouldn’t have gained from my time in Singapore! Doors close. Doors open. Doors stay slightly-ajar. DO YOU HAVE ANY FUCKING IDEA HOW MUCH PAIN THIS CONFLICT CAUSES??? FUCK!!!! DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE SAY THE WORDS ‘DESTINY’ OR ‘FATE’ TO ME!!! In that daze on Christmas Eve, I looked up flights back to Delhi on Kayak. £600. I’m not hurting for cash this year thanks to my internship and as I fell asleep cold, crying, and hungry (I refused to eat a microwave meal – for the first time – on principle), I vowed to give a serious thought to booking to changing the destination I was flying out to in the morning. You don’t always need a fat Caucasian breaking-and-entering to make a wish come true, I told myself. Sometimes, a NatWest Visa card is enough. And I did. Surprisingly, for some reason, return flights to Delhi leaving on 26th December were cheaper than if I had bought them weeks in advance! I could even use frequent flier points to push down the price even further. I actually started making a booking right down to the payment page. Here I was, about to make a clear choice for one instead of the other. A choice to meet with friends and family I haven’t seen for months, years, eons. I stopped. I’d spent about £250 on my flights and visa for Morocco already. More than that, I went through much hassle to get my visa. Indian passport holders have to go through a lot of shit to get visas issued; I think it’s because of bad karma since getting a visa for India is hard for foreign travellers, Sidin thinks it’s because “our soft power shit is not working“. Whatever. I had to provide a dozen documents to the visa, and even then the visa agency I used for convenience (CIBT, lovely people they are – no seriously, I recommend them!) considered mine would be a touch-and-go case. I felt the Moroccan visa sticker with my fingertips. The grain of paper used for visa stickers differs so much – without being able to lift them off, you can almost gauge the weight of the paper used for each one. Smooth. Matte. Rough. Hologrammed. Watermarked. Signed-upon with a biro. Stamped with UV-reflective ink. Each country’s visa talks, in its own language. On the other hand… Doors close. Doors open. Doors stay slightly-ajar. Screw it, let’s do it! Now if it weren’t for the rest of the blog post that follows – and yeah, the title, perhaps – you’d be left wondering. That line above could swing both ways. *** It’s hard to describe that feeling I get when I land in a new country. It begins with a ritual – The Ritual of packing a backpack that metaphorically contains your whole life. The Ritual is invigorating because it gives you the potential for catharsis. You don’t need to return. You can walk away from it all if you are so inclined, now that you have all you need with you. In that moment you feel naive and empowered enough to flip life itself a middle finger. The Feeling builds when the insides of your stomach jolt from you journey beginning – the kick of a bus engine sparking to life, the recoil of a train starting to move, the landing gear of an airplane losing contact with the ground.  You reach your destination. The Feeling hits you. It’s a pure endorphin rush of your body and mind agreeing this is the place and this is the moment that I want to be in right now. The closest thing I can relate that endorphin rush would be the rush you get after sex. *** The Feeling wasn’t thing the only...

The Backpack

By on Dec 25, 2011 in Travel | 14 comments

A netbook. They are cheap, you don’t lose a lot of money if you lose one or it goes kaput; they are light, which is always a plus; they have a battery life of 7-8 hours. Get one with ‘island’ / chiclet-style keys, they are more comfortable to type on. Get a Dropbox account to backup your most important files. A cheap digital camera. “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer“. All you need to capture memories is a gadget that can record images, the artistic value – if you’re so inclined to be concerned about – doesn’t matter whether you have a DSLR or a point-and-shoot. Get over yourself, unless you’re a professional or amateur-pro photographer a DSLR is going to be worth jackshit and you’ll only be adding bulk to what you have to carry – not to mention a lucrative target for theft. (One of the best photographers I know among my friends takes stunning pictures with a ‘crappy’ Nokia E72, I always wonder how she gets the composition right!) Get one which works with standard AA batteries and you’ll thank yourself for not always having to carry a proprietary charger around. Buy a multi-pack of Duracell / Energizer batteries. A smartphone. Doesn’t matter whether it’s an Android, an iPhone, a Windows Phone, or a BlackBerry. You can load up / access maps offline, which is a heaven-send. (For Android users, there’s the ever-reliable MapDroyd.) If you use Foursquare it also helps you track places you have visited for posterity. Always buy an extra battery and carry it around, you never know when you get to a charging point next. A smartphone with a decent camera helps you capture moments when it’s too hard to quickly reach for a camera…for capturing those elusive ‘spontaneous moments’. That said, enjoy the moment – don’t lose yourself staring into a black mirror. Another advantage of smartphones is that your contact list can be synced and backed up – perfect for guaranteeing of peace-of-mind in case you happen to lose or break it that your vital contact information is still there. An iPod Nano (or any music player). You’ll inevitably face downtime and music players typically have better battery life; you don’t have to worry about your cellphone running out of power. A Kindle (the e-book ones, not the tablets) with 3G capability, not the wifi only models. Amazon provides free wireless connectivity practically in every country in the world, and this an excellent tool to quickly look up something or send a message when you are stranded. The best part is that you don’t get hit by any roaming fees and these are excellent devices to carry something to read to boot. Chargers for all devices. You’ll be surprised how much space these take up or how harrowing it can be to try replace one if you forget to pack it. Also pack a universal power plug adapter – these can be surprisingly hard to find in a new city! A portable hard disk. Together with your netbook and your documents backed up to the cloud, this can store a lot of your memories, a lot of information about your life – bank accounts, important documents…everything can live online in some form these days. A change of clothes. If it’s summer, pack a couple of t-shirts and pair of knee-length cargos. If it’s winter, pack a jumper, a hoody, and a spare pair of jeans. Pack them by rolling them up – they take up less space, remain relatively wrinkle-free, and you don’t need to stuff them in plastic bags; you’ll thank yourself for the space you save. Throw in spare underwear and socks. You don’t need any more clothes than that, period. Clothes can always be laundered or cheap ones bought for throw-away use. A large towel. You can joke about it but a towel is actually one of the most useful things you can keep. Invest in a decent windproof / rainproof jacket, regardless of where you’re going. A jacket can protect you if it gets slightly chilly especially due to wind chill (which many people forget about if simply looking at average temperatures), and it also protects you in case of rain. Nothing too expensive, mind. While some people prefer Gore-Tex products, I’m personally partial towards Nike Activewear sports training jackets. These are slightly cheaper and have a mesh inner lining that don’t make you feel stuffy, have multiple layers which helps trapping air to combat cold, and a good outer waterproof layer that keeps out the rain. Unless you’re going to a really cold place – think snowy conditions – do not buy a jacket with a cloth outer layer as you’ll be miserable if it gets wet. (If it is a snowy or really cold place go for The North Face gear and pair them up with fleece gloves / caps; fleece is warmer yet lighter than wool. Note that in Asia you get way too many fake North Face merchandise – if the deal is too good to believe, it’s probably a fake!) Spare plastic bags. If any of your clothes get wet or it’s raining heavily, you need this to isolate your gadgets / your ‘good’ clothes. Medicines. Band-Aid, condoms, paracetamol, your favourite cure for indigestion. (I swear by Pudin Hara; it’s one item I buy in bulk whenever I’m in India because...