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!