Tuesday, February 28, 2017

FlexiroamX Giveaway!

If you have read my previous blog post about traveling with data SIM, you'll know that I was using Flexiroam X, which had been a godsend for me when traveling through multiple countries. Well, they will be updating and launching their new Flexiroam X App tomorrow (1 March 2017), and as part of the launch, they will be giving away two microchips FREE!

The new revamped App comes with new design and features, and the highlights include :

1. Login with one-click via Facebook, Google or Email
  • Link account with Facebook to earn additional 400Mb data!

2. Referral link and Challenge
  • You no longer need to key in referral code when you refer your family and friends to sign up - use a special referral link just for you
  • Refer 5 friends in 24 hours and receive 1Gb of data! 


3. Internet Calls
  • Make local or international calls to any mobile or landline over the internet using your data balance (available on 25 March 2017)


So, how do you win one of the Flexiroam X microchip SIM? And oh, BTW, it comes with 1Gb of data!! :) :)

Just answer the below question and send the answer to my email address by 15 Mar 2017 (SGT). Put the subject as "Flexiroamx contest" so that it's easier for me to administer. Thanks.

Question : Name one new/updated feature of the FlexiroamX App.


Only winners will be notified. Winners will have to provide their shipping address to receive the product.

Good luck!

PS. For those who are getting the microchip SIM and signing up, you can use my referral link to get an extra 100Mb of data free! Thanks!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Starry Starry Winter's Night

The trip is coming to an end.

I would be heading down the mountains and towards Lyon for my flight home, and I know these two nights in the Swiss Alps would be my final chance to have a go at some star trail shots.

I began my 3-month trip with some hope for taking some shots of the stars and even the Milky Way. The Peruvian Andes and Patagonia were prime targets. And I brought along a camera and lens specifically for it! Sadly, it was to be severely under-utilized. I did have a good clear night (on my final night!) during my trek in Peru that I managed to convince my worn-out body to stay up for the shoot.

Alas for Patagonia, the weather was rather unkind. The only night of perfect clear sky was also the supermoon night, which lit up both earth and sky. But at least for that, I have some supermoon shots.

The Galapagos Islands were supposedly great for night skywatching too. But even as I wandered off to the outskirts of town to less light-polluted areas, the showing was disappointing. And of course, throughout the trip, there were plenty of cloudy nights.

But tonight at the village of Gimmelwald, the stars twinkled seductively. Even though the moon was also out, and there were some wispy clouds, the stars were clearly out to entice me! There was just one tiny problem. It was a frosty -12 deg C.

Still, with my tripod and camera, I trudged half an hour out to a higher point, and after quite a few test and trial shots, I began my shoot. As I paced around a one-metre circle trying to keep warm, the cold winter's night silently takes its toll. It seemed like eternity, but actually worked out to be barely 20 minutes, when I finally caved-in. The clouds are coming in, I told myself, and sped-walk back to my guesthouse where I quickly bundled myself to bed.

In the past, taking star trail shots essentially entails opening the shutter until your desired duration. Nowadays though, most people use the image-stacking method, which basically merges a bunch sequentially-shot images. I am also still learning and exploring this, and as I was processing the images, I was cursing myself for not "enduring" longer. Easier said than done :|

So here's a first cut of the short star trail and my last "stars" shot of the trip. Definitely hope there will be opportunities for more in the future!

Star Trails over Gimmelwald and the Swiss Alps



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Looong Flights.....

I finally arrived in Munich - exhausted but happy. I love traveling, but this is getting too literal.

My flight out of South America was with LATAM (a merger of LAN and TAM) airlines, and it was the cheapest flight out with 2 transits. From Buenos Aires (AEP) to Sao Paulo (GRU), to Madrid (MAD), and then to Munich (MUC).

A message came over the PA system just as I was about to get out of the plane in GRU after an almost 3-hr fight from AEP. It was past 10pm at night. All those connecting to MAD were to look for the LATAM ground staff outside. When I got out, a group of 15-20 people were gathered around a uniformed guy, who was talking away in rapid Spanish.

Another uniformed guy saw me and approached.

"You speak English?"

I nodded.

"Your flight is canceled."

I stood dumbfounded.

"The plane have problem. Another plane will fly tomorrow morning 10am. Now will you please collect your baggage and........"

His instructions and words sort of floated around my head while my brain could only process my own uncertainties.

What about my next connecting flight from MAD to MUC? What about my booked room in Munich? Would I lose a day? And other such variations.

I finally calmed myself and was given a formal letter on the flight cancellation/replacement. The group of us were issued a big red card that stated "Reboarding", which apparently allowed us to bypass immigration and went staight to the baggage claim area. I thought it would be some kind of controlled arrangement to a hotel within the airport but after claiming our luggage, we were told to catch an airport hotel shuttle at the public area outside. It appeared to be a "own time own target" operation.

Outside, there were a few bewildered looking persons which I recognized, and we found the right hotel shuttle. After waiting for everyone, the bus brought us to the airport hotel some 15 minutes away.

There were only a few situations in my travels that I am now in a country without having formally "stamped in". My last status in the interconnected airport systems of today, is that my passport got scanned and stamped out in Argentina. I am in a "limbo" state since I am not formally registered/stamped in any country. I could have got kidnapped or took a taxi to join a Sao Paulo mafia gang or something. But of course, all I wanted now was just to get some sleep.

The queue for checking in looked horrendously long. It was past 11pm, and as part of the arrangement, we got free buffet dinner, so I thought I'll have some free hotel food before checking myself in. After a quick dinner, I came out to find the queue twice as long! And then it occurred to me. Of course, when a flight got canceled, almost the entire flight passengers need to be accounted for. And these can come from various other incoming flights! So now it looked like passengers from an entire flight is checking in....

Should have continued queuing before I decided to go for dinner first

There is a first for everything, and it is the first time in my life that queuing to check-in in a hotel took me 2 hours! It was way past 2am when I finally got to lay on my bed.

And 3+ hours of fidgety sleep later, I woke up to catch the 6.30am shuttle back to the airport. More queuing for checking in ensued, and there and then, the LATAM staff managed to put me on the earliest connecting flight from MAD to MUC. My current flight from GRU to MAD takes 10hrs arriving at 12 midnight. The MAD to MUC flight is at 8am. I did not have a good feeling about this....
(Oh, I flashed the all-powerful red 'Reboarding' card, and sauntered through immigration. I am so keeping this card for future Brazil visits ;) :O :D )

Reboarding card ;)

Three movies and more fidgety sleep later, at almost 1am in MAD, it was deja-vu. This time though, I was rightfully stamped into Spain, but it was 3+am before my head hits the pillow :(. So I had only 2+hrs of sleep this time :( :(.

Well, things can't get any worse right? Well, Princess Leia just passed away :(.
But as for my journey, I finally arrived in Munich.

I left Buenos Aires Argentina on 27th Dec afternoon. I arrived in Munich Germany on 29th Dec afternoon. I am so happy to arrive. And New Year is gonna be just round the corner. Less news of deaths in 2017 ok?

Onward go!!

Wonderful morning alpenglow from the air! Last leg from MAD to MUC flight.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Dream Revisited

Sometimes, when you have had an exceptional experience, the bar had been set to that exceptional level. Anything else will bound to fall short. And so it is with my trek to Laguna de los Tres.

Almost six years ago, when I did the trek in El Chalten, it was with 2 friends, and the weather was really quite good. An early morning alpenglow, followed by a pleasant day of trekking, and when it mattered, at the the Laguna itself with Mt Fitz Roy as backdrop, there was times of blue skies and serene reflections on the lake.

I had pretty much trekked the past 3+ hours in super windy and cloudy conditions. Never mind that, but as I reached the final part of the trek, the final 1km of rocky gravelly ascent, it started to drizzle. Things are looking wet and bleak. Somehow though, I was still very much anticipating the view when I would summit the ridge and gaze upon the sight I missed so much.

Perhaps it was age, but I didn't remember it was this exhausting. And the wind! It wasn't this strong back in March then. This is prime summer season, but it didn't looked or felt like it. I trudged on, water droplets drenching my face, and angry wind slapping it at whim.

Grey cloudy skies on the ascent

And drizzling as well!

And when I finally reached the top, it was ..... underwhelming, truth be told. Laguna de los Tres was unsettled, as waves of ripples washed across its surface, dancing in sync with the wind. Dark clouds churned around Mt Fitz Roy, with the sun valiantly trying to shine through. It was a tumultuous scene completely different from my first encounter. But still, memories come flashing back.


Very windy day!
Making the best of the situation

I had wrongly chose to come for sunset. The sun is setting behind the mountains and if it had been a good sunny day, there possibly still would have been phenomenal light. But the day was characterized by grey cloudy skies, and the poor sun had been just a pale shadow (ha!) of its glorious self.

I made my way down to the lagoon, and up to the other crest that will overlook another lagoon, Laguna Sucia, as well as Laguna de los Tres. And it was here at this elevated point that I encountered the windiest experience of my life. I have encountered 3 times in my travels where I was literally blown off-balance by the wind, staggering a few steps by the force. Once in Chilean Patagonia (near Glacier Grey), once in Iceland, and once in Antarctica. It seemed Argentine Patagonia would not be outdone.

I was bracing myself for some photos when it started. Gale force winds that buffeted me in all directions, quite literally. I tried to seek refuge behind a rock half my size, but to no avail. But I must looked a comical figure leaning and circling a rock in a half squatting position. But every position is the same! In the end, I just leaned on the rock for support, and waited.

I withstood more than 5 minutes of pummeling by the wind before there was some reprieve. I thought I would use the chance to try to take some more photos. I "ventured" to a position away from the rock that allowed a good shot of both lagunas, but before I could really compose anything, the wild winds came on again, screaming like a mad banshee. It was so strong and relentless that I was immobile, literally fighting against the wind to stay upright; a mere lifting of a leg to make a step would surely topple my stance. And it would seem I was losing the fight! I resorted to crouching on all fours. For the briefest of moments, I had some horrifying thoughts. But all I had to do was wait, and it was a good 3-4 minutes before it died down. I contemplated going back to my "rock" to review my situation, but decided to go back down. After all, the images I take would be similar to the ones I took during my last trip, and in worse lighting conditions.

It was only 8pm, and "sunset" was supposed to be 10.30pm. There were but 2 persons left on site and looking at the clouds and the insane winds, I didn't think it would be sane nor fruitful to wait. It was mission aborted, but as I descended down the rocky slope, there wasn't any real disappointment. I think I had been lucky on my first visit, and even on this trip, I had a day of glorious weather. Today, I was just being presented with the real and realistic Patagonia.

And I am back in Patagonia after 5 1/2 years! A dream destination revisited. How can one be disappointed?!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Traveling with DATA

Traveling, backpacking, and wandering the world today is markedly different, with the Internet inevitably an integral part. And even travel with the Internet has changed quite abit over the years, from the visits to internet cafes, to the widespread availability of Wifi, and then now the widespread availability (and general affordability) of mobile data SIM cards.

These data SIM cards have eased travel quite abit, with the use of Goggle maps and booking of accommodation and tickets on-the-go etc. More importantly for me, it has eased the communications with couchsurfing/airbnb hosts and hostels/guesthouses etc. However, on long trips through multiple countries, sometimes it may not be practical nor cost-effective to get multiple SIM cards. And the data roaming solutions currently are not exactly cheap.

Recently, I came across something on my preparation for a 3-month trip to Europe and South America. It's a "virtual" SIM data-roaming solution from Flexiroam called FlexiroamX. It is an ultra-thin microchip film that you apply onto your own SIM card, and together with an app which you can download from their website, it will provide data roaming to over 100 countries!

I contacted Flexiroam and received a review set. Indeed, the X Microchip (that's what they call it) is literally a sticker that comes with an applicator that help you to stick it onto your SIM card. It is just 0.08mm thin, and so after sticking it on, my nano-SIM could still slot into my iPhone. It was quite amazing that a chip is made into so thin. It works on all sized SIMs though in their FAQ, they state that it will not work on those nano-SIM that has been "cut" from micro/regular SIM. The whole process is simple and to see how the microchip sticker looks like, you can see it in their tutorial on their website which I embed below. Photos I took were left on my home computer, forgetful me!


I am now one month into my trip and I find their solution perfect and most cost-effective for my uses. For a start, I am not a data-hungry user/traveler. I also don't require myself to be always connected. As it turns out, this is not exactly a "always-on" solution. Basically, to use the virtual SIM, you need to switch to it via the app. Once you switched to the FlexiroamX SIM, your own SIM becomes dormant, so you will not be able to receive SMS etc. You can switch between the SIMs anytime you want. This is different from phones with dual SIM slots where you can use voice/sms on your own SIM and data on the other SIM slot.

For me, I use Wifi in my accommodations or cafes/restaurants whenever I have access to them. The FlexiroamX SIM is switched to only for those times when I need data and there's no wifi. As I'm an avid travel instagrammer, there are times where a scene is screaming to be shared immediately and I'm glad I have roaming data! ;).


This solution was especially useful for iPhone users like me, since (sadly) iPhone do not come with dual SIM slots. So previously, when I do get a local country data SIM, I had to put my home SIM in a spare phone or physically switch SIM when needed!

As mentioned previously, this solution was perfect and cost-effective for me but not just because of the single SIM slot limitation. Generally, the best value data SIM is one from an operator from that country. However, when traveling to multiple countries in a single trip, getting multiple SIM cards is not just a hassle, but probably not cost-effective as well. So when I went from Ireland to Portugal etc, I am "data-covered" without having to look for new SIM cards or physically swapping cards. You need to subscribe to their membership before using the data but the subscription last for a year, so again, perfect for long trippers like me... :p. Well, even if you don't go multiple countries in a trip but frequently travel to many countries, it's still valid. For the past 3+ weeks in Europe, I've only used 200+Mb of data. Even if my trip ends now, my remaining data is still valid for my next trip! If I had gotten local SIM cards, most of them would be wasted.....

So for those who are in similar situation as me, check out FlexiroamX on how to get started.
In summary,
  • download their app (of course both IOS and Android supported) and register an account 
  • get their Starter Pack containing the X Microchip, which is free but you gotta pay for shipping (US$5) but I think you can get it in KL airport
  • stick on the microchip when you receive it
  • activate their membership subscription (US$9.99 for a year)
  • start using (switching to it) when you need it when you are overseas
More importantly, now they have some promotions to earn free data (700Mb worth!). Otherwise, you have to buy their data packs but free is always better :). In summary,
  • when you register an account with them, you get 100Mb data
  • if you use my referral code 3DR23XRY, you (and me) get 100Mb of data 
  • Use this code 'SAVEONROAMING' in the app (valid till end of year) to get 500Mb of data. This is obtained from their blog post here.
You can monitor their blog or Facebook page for more promotions and codes (I've done one for you). You can also earn yourself more data by using your own referral code of course. And remember their membership last a year, so after earning the free data, activate the membership closer to your trip date to maximize the membership!

Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Discount Codes with ShopBack

It's the year end, and as usual, I was scouring the Net looking for cheap airfares and the such. Ok, to be honest, I do that all-year-round :p. One of the most common questions I get asked is, which websites do I use for booking my airfares and accommodations?

My default stop for searching for airfares is at Expedia. Oftentimes, where available, I would book directly with the airlines website itself. For accommodations, I would go to Hostelbookers or Hostelworld for booking hostels, and either Agoda or Booking.com for mostly everything else, though recently, AirBnB seems to be coming on strong.

Recently, I found a rebate website called ShopBack. Basically, you do your online shopping via direct referals from the website and you get cash rebates! The rebates is a small percentage but they have hundreds of merchant site partnerships, so they do accumulate if you do alot of online shopping, and needless to say, you can find travel sales and promotions with ShopBack too! And guess what? The sites that I used are represented!

Not only that, they may do specific partnership with the merchants that provide extra benefits (extra rebates etc), eg. you can find the very best of Expedia promo codes there and you can also use Booking.com discount codes and save. A lot of my friends use Hotels.com, so you can find Hotels.com discount codes now too. Just browse their list of merchants and you'll definitely find something you do use. I mean, ebay, taobao, lazada etc are all there too!!

You can see how ShopBack works in this video if you are still not sure :


Like I say, year-end and Christmas is coming and shopping is fully underway! Strangely, I do not see a Christmas specific promo but you can instead book your travels now at their Boxing Day sales. And if you do think this is useful and want to sign up and try, you can use my referal link here so that I can get some referal benefits ($5). You'll also get $5 for a new signup. Check it out!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Tuscan Escapade

I was really looking forward to Tuscany. Visiting the smaller villages, tasting the Tuscan cuisine, drinking Chianti wine, and of course, photographing the beautiful countryside.

But nobody told me that June 2 is a public holiday in Italy. And the small village I have booked my B&B is so off the main circuit that, well, on a public holiday, there are no buses going to it.

So the day before, I spent half a day in glorious Florence sorting out the logistics. I had to take a bus to a nearby town where my B&B host had arrange a 3rd-party private taxi. At the cost of almost another night stay :(

When I arrived at Fattoria Poggerino though, I was grinning. A beautiful traditional old stone house retrofitted to modern living. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Tuscan countryside laced with vineyards, the setting is just picture prefect. Poggerino is also a family run winery right in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. As a small family run business, they are very passionate about their land and what they do, and have adopted organic farming in their operations. So their wines, olive oils and vegetables are a testament to their beliefs.

My Bed & Breakfast!

First thing first though, I had to pickup my scooter in the village of Radda in Chianti 2km away. Traveling by public transport in Tuscany, while possible, is quite inflexible, as evident from my trouble in getting to Radda. So I had decided to rent a scooter for my 2-day stay in Radda in Chianti (and well, Poggerino is not exactly in the village and I had to somehow get there too). Touring Tuscany in a Vespa, is quite popular it seems. The scooter rental requires only a valid driving license, and I had a brief experience with a scooter in my travels in China some years back, so I thought why not? Unfortunately, the rental agency recommended another scooter model for beginners instead of the Vespa. Slightly disappointed, as the Italian Vespa is almost synonymous with the scooter, I had to make do with a Sym Mio.

It turns out the scooter rental guy is not based in Radda and had left the scooter and the paperwork to his friend, the sweet old lady in the tourist information centre in Radda in Chianti.

"How do I, erm, operate and check the scooter?" I asked somewhat apprehensively.

"I don't know... I am just helping out in the administration."

"Why don't you call Luca?" She replied in the most motherly manner.

So grasping her mobile which she kindly loaned me, I trudged to the parking lot, and went through the checking and operating procedures over the mobile.

"So you hold the brakes, and press the electric switch to turn on the scooter.... yada yada yada..." Luca droned over the phone.

Before long, I was heading back to Poggerino on the scooter.

The setting sun on the Tuscan countryside was fabulous, and I was glad I had the scooter with me. The freedom of exploration was intoxicating.

Chianti region

Chianti region

My scooter in the Tuscan countryside
***

I've been a fan of small family-run bed & breakfasts for a long time. I remember my first bed & breakfast in Canada many years back. Together with some friends, we had a self-drive holiday in the Candadian Rockies, and stayed in this B&B. The host asked if breakfast at 8am was fine with us. It was certainly fine and next morning, as the few of us struggled lazily to go to breakfast, we reached the dining table at 8.25am. To my horror, our hosts and all his guests were waiting at the table, smiling as we make our entrance. I was so embarassed. But it was a super cosy experience, and I was so impressed that the food on the table was grown in the garden. It left a deep impression.

Breakfast at Poggerino was different - buffet style with guests on their own table, but no less warm. Benedetta, owner and resident cook, was on hand to explain the spread, as each group of guests arrive. The homemade yogurt and granola made me sad - I now live with the knowledge that back in Singapore, I will be missing out so much goodness. The cherry tomotoes served with the omelette was flaming red and seemed to be bursting with freshness. The 4 different sweet pies begged to be tasted, but I've had my limits. It was a great breakfast and a fantastic start to the day.

Breakfast spread

My omelette

I am so looking forward to the dinner later that night.

***

The air sweeping past my face felt good as I scootered through the countryside. However, as I leave Radda in Chianti to go further afield, the traffic seemed quite abit heavier. The curvy roads in Chianti didn't help a newbie rider as well.It was beginning to be a little harrowing.

And all it takes is a momentary lapse of concentration.

I turned at the intersection catching a glimpse of a car at the corner of my vision a tad too late. A short screeching, a loud blaring of horn, and I wobbled and slowed to a stop by the side of the road. A car pulled over and I had an earful of French (I think) tirade. I was also somewhat dazed, and all I could say was just "Sorry" repeatedly. They left with something that sounded like "You lucky".

Indeed. I took a moment to compose myself before I moved on.

I decided not to go further, and had an early return. I felt lousy, relieved, stupid, and a whole lot of other feelings all vying to take control, but in the end, I just waited for the dinner.

Dawn from Poggerino, with the Tuscan moon not set yet

Dinner was more proper, with all guests being seated before being served. There was a Taiwanese family of four, me, and the rest were from France, Italy, Germany and Denmark, making a total of 15. Bernadetta was again on hand to explain what was being served. It was a simple 3-course meal, with the antipasto (starter) immediately winning my heart with its different bruschettes and a uniquely presented aubergine. The primo (first course) consists of gnocchi which was good but nothing spectacular. The dessert though, brought things back to "spectacular" levels. A thick aromatic expresso concluded the meal, though Bernadetta later offered us a taste of her homemade grappa as well.

My antipasto and of course, Poggerino's own wine

The French lady have been staying in Poggerino for more than a week, and I asked how many dinners had she had. Surprisingly, this was the first! Apparently, Bernadetta only prepare dinners when there are enough guests, and I counted myself lucky that in my brief two day stay, I got to try more of her cooking. With good food, good wine, and good company, the episode of the day earlier was soon washed away.

Sadly, I had to miss Bernadetta's breakfast the next morning as I had to catch the early morning bus to the next town. All I could get was a cold sandwich pre-made the night before. I also managed to get a lift into town, or rather, my luggage manage to get a lift into town. The staff at Poggerino offered to bring my luggage into town while I rode my scooter to return it. I had been apprehensive about riding the scooter with my luggage behind but thankfully, everything turns out well.

Well, relatively speaking I suppose. The original plan was to get a bus from Florence to Radda; rent a scooter for 2 days; use the scooter to transport myself around Radda, including to Poggerino; return scooter on final day and take bus to next town. Things completely didn't go as planned. But they "turned out well" I guess, considering that I am still in one piece!!