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February 8, 2008

how to use a GSM phone to make and receive calls while travelling internationally around the world

A quick question-and-answer about the best way to roam across the world using multiple local SIM cards -- this question was about europe, but it's applicable for most countries.

Question:

Hey,

I just got a free GSM phone from AT&T (Samsung A437) that is quad band. I unlocked it successfully and now need a SIM to use abroad. I'm researching the best SIM to get in order to allow my wife to call me when I travel and allow me to call her.

Any thoughts on International SIM card vs. ountry pre-paid SIMs? I'll be travelling to Western Europe mostly and also Japan.

Thanks for your thoughts!!!

Answer:

so-called "international" SIM cards are pretty much a ripoff (as is roaming!) :)

the best way to go is to buy a SIM card locally for each country that you're in, then you can buy refills at most tobacco shops or corner markets. to buy the SIM, you can usually buy those at corner markets as well. your passport ID may be required when you buy them.

japan is the one country that (as far as i can tell) doesn't sell sim cards to foreigners. you can roam here using a roaming-enabled european sim card. i recommend using a Vodafone sim card from the UK -- i was able to get on the Japanese GSM network using this. given the high dollar/pound exchange rate, i only recommend using this solution for text messaging (which is like 50p or something per message)

to have your wife reach your new numbers, one easy solution is to register for a Skype account, buy a SkypeIn number in your area code, set the account to auto-refill with PayPal. then whenever you get a new SIM card/number, go to your settings in Skype and tell it to forward all calls to that number.

then when your wife calls the local number, it will forward to your phone number, and then the international rate charged to your account is the Skype rate for that country, which is almost as cheap as it gets. see http://www.skype.com/prices/callrates/ for skype call rates.

this is the solution i did on my trip, and it worked pretty well. you can roam in europe with SIM cards from other european countries, but the hassle is you can't buy recharge cards (for exampel) for the UK when you're in France, even if both countries have a Vodafone company there.

December 20, 2007

the best place to buy a global roaming cellphone: united states, singapore, thailand, or india?

i'm looking at getting a cellphone for my trip, and since the (evidently shady) ebay store that i had bought my quad-band unlocked motorola razr from never ended up actually shipping my phone, i need to make a decision about which country i should buy one in.

my first stop is singapore, which will have gadgets aplenty, but i'm looking for a straightforward quad-band phone with reasonable features for the lowest possible price (a first-generation razr would fit the bill nicely, and i prefer motorola since they have the least problems registering new SIM cards in foreign countries).

given the weak dollar, and the state of used/cheap cellphone sales in each country, which country will i be most likely to find an unlocked razr in at a reasonable price? advice welcomed. :)

December 5, 2007

anti-malarial and mosquito precautions i took when traveling

while preparing for an upcoming return visit to India, i was thinking about my own mosquito/malaria precautions that i take while travelling, and i thought i'd share them with the Gone Living community. note that I AM NOT A DOCTOR, SO DON'T COPY WHAT I'VE DONE, INSTEAD YOU SHOULD ASK YOUR TRAVEL DOCTOR ABOUT WHAT IS RECOMMENDED FOR YOU AND FOLLOW THEIR ADVICE. i am just telling you what *i* did while travelling.

since i was travelling for a year last year, i'm pretty serious about my precautions because they're pretty easy to do beforehand (and it's harder to change your mind about this once you're on the road, and getting sick while travelling sucks). here are my personal antimalarial (and antidysentry) precautions that i take while traveling:

1.) your primary line of defense against malaria (and other mosquito-borne nasties) is mosquito repellent. pack enough for your entire trip. if you don't have a brand you already know works for you, i like Cutter Skinsations repellent. while it has a really goofy name, it didn't smell like the usual horrible mosquito repellent smell, and repelled many more mosquitoes for me than the hardcore Ultrathon repellent (which burned my skin, didn't repel mosquitoes well, and was generally annoying) available at REI.

2.) always use mosquito nets when sleeping at night in malarial areas. know that you should leave the net over the bed knotted until you're ready to sleep, and then carefully open it up. i would carefully tuck the edges of mine under the mattress at night to avoid having mosquitoes slip up the sides at night. permethrin-treated nets are even better, if you don't mind premethrin (see point 3 below). always pack a small roll of duct tape so you can repair small holes in mosquito nets and screens (i ran into this a lot when traveling, and few things suck more than having a mosquito net with a hole in it while a cloud of hungry mosquitoes is looking for a way through the net to feast on you). the WHO recently discussed findings that showed that mosquito nets have a big impact on reducing malaria.

3.) if any of you are spending a lot time in the backcountry, you can also treat your hiking clothes with Permethrin before you leave. this will give your clothes a faintly musty odor, lasts for about 30 washings, and will make all mosquitoes stay far away from your clothes. a good third line of mosquito defense. (note you never apply this stuff to your skin. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permethrin#Uses and http://www.travmed.com/trip_prep/insect_permethrin.htm for details. some people don't like using this stuff on their clothes because it's fairly toxic, albeit us-government approved. it sure kept the mosquitoes away from my hiking clothes, and i lived to tell about it. Your Mileage May Vary.)

4.) when i'm travelling, i go by the CDC Traveler's Health recommendations for each country (this is a great resource -- the main site is at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/). for example, the current CDC recommendations for India as of the date of this blog posting are posted at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/destinationIndia.aspx, and state "Malaria risk area in India: Risk in all areas throughout country except no risk in areas above 2,000 m (>6,561 ft) in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir, and Sikkim. Risk also exists in urban areas below 2000 m, including Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay)."

i know some of the travel doctors are saying that anti-malarial pills aren't needed for Delhi and Bombay right now, but my policy is to always go by the current CDC recommendations, and so i'll be taking antimalarial pills while in India. the standard doesn't-make-you-insane-or-get-sunburn anti-malaria pills are Malarone (i've had no side effects with these pills, and you only have to take one pill per day), and Malarone is not available to purchase in most countries that have Malaria!!, so you have to get buy these pills before you leave home. they're expensive, but your insurance will usually cover at least part of the cost (i got stuck with my crappy insurance at $5/pill for a 30-day supply). again, this is your third line of defense after the mosquito repellent and nets that you should already be using.

5.) in addition, i'm packing some Cipro for self-treating any unexpected cases of severe/long-term dysentery. this is handy to have when travelling (your travel doctor can give you a prescription for this along with self-treatment recommendations), but again, the odds you'll need this is really really low. i think i used mine twice in 400 days of traveling.

and finally, if you're wondering WHY malaria sucks so badly, you can get the medical facts on Malaria from the CDC Malaria FAQ, but i highly recommend reading Tim Cahill's essay titled "Malaria" from his book Pass The Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered. It details his own experience getting Malaria while travelling (after being fairly blase about it beforehand), and it definitely makes you want to not catch this disease.

what should i pack when going to india?

when i traveled around the world last year (including a visit to delhi, mumbai, and goa), i posted a ridiculously detailed packing list on my blog site at http://goneliving.com/packing-list.html. you can obviously remove items you won't need (for example, DIY laundry supplies since we'll be at places that will have laundry services).

for clothing, i tried to pack a series of layers that worked well for hot/humid days, but also could be combined together in case things got really cold. the list goes through the clothing item-by-item.

i'm a HUGE fan of the eagle creek or victorinox packing cubes (see the list for details and the usual buy-me-on-amazon links). these are great for organizing your clothing, and they have the added bonus of compressing things down and making it really easy to load/unload your suitcase. and since they're in standard sizes, they also fill the interior of most suitcases without any wasted space.

and the short list of 5 items from my packing list that i couldn't live without:

1. a pair of flip-flop style sandals that you've tested, know and love. these will probably be your primary footwear. flip-flop style sandals are essential for taking on and off easily when entering and leaving temples, etc... no fussing with teva's velcro (and nobody else will wearing tevas). i recommend reef sandals.

2. sound-isolating in-ear earphones (lots of companies make these nowadays... they're small and block out screaming babies, annoying airport announcements, and all that stuff. i like the Shure headphones) and my trusty ipod.

3. pocket-sized mini tripod for my small digital camera (with velcro attachment to attach it to buildings or scaffolding when needed for that perfect long-exposure shot)

4. beach towel (i've tried using a sarong as a towel, and i much prefer a regular beach towel). note: yes, you can buy a beach towel locally, but beware of getting one with dyes that transfer onto your wet skin while you're lying down on it, as my cheap beach towels did in fiji. i have a long rant about this at http://www.goneliving.com/egypt/backpacker_product_of_the_year_the_microfiber_beach_towel.html (note that billabong appears not to make their awesome microfiber beach towel anymore)

5. everything else: laundry bag, flashlights, swiss army knife, titainum mug (light and good for those homemade cocktails), empty pillow case (handy for filling with clothes when you need an instant extra pillow), wet wipes, playing cards, ziploc bags... see the packing list for details.

i'm looking forward to going back to india this winter!

November 20, 2007

getting to antarctica from ushuaia, argentina, and how much it costs

i just showed up in ushuaia and bought tickets on the spot in Ushuaia for a ship on Quark Expeditions from Turismo Ushuaia for the same price as they normally cost from Quark (i believe it was around $3,000-4,000 USD). Quark doesn't offer discounts, but Turismo Ushuaia offers free winter jacket/pants/boots rental with the cost of a ticket from them (also note info on them at http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Antarctica/Packing_Lists-Antarctica-BR-1.html). note you need to have travel insurance in order to get the ticket -- i recommend buying a policy from Seven Corners before you leave. they are cheap and have great coverage, i used them for my whole trip. but you cant get it after you leave, so plan ahead.

if you speak fluent spanish, some of the other ships might be more young/party oriented, since Quark's crowd tends to be older (read: the average age is close to senior citizen age), but they are top-notch with regards to ship quality, number of landings/day, briefings and lectures. and theres usually enough younger folks as well along to keep it interesting. and they have cool hikes etc. I strongly recommend Quark.

a new tack

dear gone living readers: i've decided to continue updating this site -- not with additional travel narratives, but with answers to various travel questions that friends ask, and my own tips on how to travel in different places. hope you find the added topics to be useful!

March 28, 2007

what's it like to be back?

It's only been a week,
The rush of being home in rapid fading.
Prevailing to recall
What I was missing all that time...
- "Remind Me", Melody A.M., Röyksopp

I've been home now for a week and it's all moving slower and faster than I expected.

i'm still the subtly exotic creature at parties, pointed out by the hosts when i invariably fail to mention what i've been up to the last 13 months, somewhat akin to having people notice a rather ordinary-looking pet cat in the corner, and having one of the hosts point out that "Oh, while he might look a lot like the average tabby, he's actually a bengal cat!" (which by the way, does cost more than the total amount i spent on my around-the-world trip.)

i have to admit, it's been nice to have people ask "and when did you end this trip around the world?", and being able to answer "two days ago." or "wednesday."

i've been busy curating the photos, videos, and sound files i recorded on the trip. even with all the deletions of blurry/bad photos when i was taking them, i still have roughly EIGHT THOUSAND media files from my trip that need to be sorted out. i've managed to at least wrangle them into folders for each country, in addition to making the reduced set that someone might actually be able to sit through seeing. it's simply amazing to remember what i did this past year -- tropical beaches and reefs on fiji, hungarian folk music in budapest, tiny siberian train stations on the trans-mongolian train, and so forth. the video and audio files really add a lot of color to the photos -- i'm glad that digital cameras have all these wonderful extra capabilities.

but it's a hell of a time, actually. being able to start from scratch on a number of frontiers gives me a lot of room to redefine myself. while of course i'm still the same guy as ever, it's great to be able to start with answering questions like "where is my ideal place to live?", "what's my ideal workplace?", and go from there. (plus thinking about a couple of ideas for cool internet products. more on that later.)

plus i replaced the power supply in my homebrew computer, and as a quick sidenote to my geek pals: if your computer is having an inexplicable problem that is hard to replicate, it's probably the power supply that's at fault. go and get a good power supply tester and try connecting the leads of your computer's power supply to it. in my case, it turned out that my +5v lead was oscillating between 4.5v and 5.9v and causing havoc with Windows as a result. Oh, and if you have an Antec power supply (like i did before i replaced it with a more reliable one yesterday), my warnings go double for you. I'll never buy another Antec PSU again -- I purchased an Enermax Liberty for my new power supply, and things are now running swimmingly.

March 20, 2007

the last day of my trip

"Have you thought you might should be in California?"
- Iron & Wine, California

dear readers, today is officially the last day of my trip!

i've been a few weeks behind in my blog posts (when i get home i'll add more detail about my trip to antarctica and the highlights of buenos aires, as well as finally write those Hungary, Jordan, and Oman blog posts), so i'll quickly bring you up to date: since i was feeling ready to return home at last, i updated my itinerary to shave a few weeks off of my previous trip plan, and decided that my last day would be march 20. so tomorrow i'm up at 4am (for the second day this week) to get to the airport and catch my Delta flight to LAX.

i arrived in antigua via a $10 shuttle minivan from the airport at around 9pm, and checked into the Black Cat Hostel, which i'd found after doing a bunch of searching online for a good hostel in antigua (they're too new to be in the current lonely planet). this is definitely one of the best hostels i've stayed at in latin america, and far better than the somewhat run-down lime house hostel in buenos aires (they win the award of worst hostel breakfast in the world! come on guys, at least empty your coffee pot of yesterday's old coffee before making today's coffee in it). after slugging down a few beers at the bar in the light of the jar candles arranged along the wall, i headed out with several other people from the hostel to hit some of the other bars in antigua.

after getting up and enjoying the delicious french toast for breakfast here, the coffee cleared my mind enough to notice that it's a beautiful sunny day here in antigua, guatemala, with only a few white streaks of clouds in the sky. the city itself is a fantastic place, reminding me a lot of the time i spent in cuzco, and i'm looking forward to posting a lot of the photos i've taken today. culturally, it's been really interesting to move from the southernmost city (mas o menos!) in south america up into central america, and then to los angeles to see a little bit of the origin and evolution of the latin american influences in LA.

do i have any regrets about my trip ending tomorrow morning? suprisingly, not many! it's been a fantastic journey over the last 12.5 months, but i really feel ready to move on to the next stage of my life, and i will treasure having my own bedroom to sleep in, and not having to live out of a backpack every day.

in other words, i'm ready for California and home at long last. and this trip has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

March 4, 2007

surviving the drake passage

"It’s unpleasantly like being drunk."
"What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?"
"You ask a glass of water."

- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Drake Passage

Passengers are still stagering through the halls and stairwells as the winds pick up or fall off as conditions change. Luckily we should be out of the Drake Passage tomorrow and should be at Deception Island at last!

I just finished attending a great lecture of early Antarctic history from our ship's historian, John, and while my near-indefeatable Dutch roommate has headed up to the top deck for a Bird ID session, i'm headed downstairs for the first nap of the day at 10:30am. Whether it's the constant rocking of the boat, the anti-seasickness medication i've been taking, or just a desire to avoid having to sit around and feel the constant rocking of the ship, i've been taking a lot of naps lately. Judging from the lackluster attendance in the dining room at mealtimes, i'd say a fair amout of passengers are doing the same thing.

March 2, 2007

leaving for antarctica

Beagle Channel

It's my first evening on board the Orlova. The sea is calm, the evening was beautiful and low-wind when viewed from the bow of the ship, and I watched the land (islands?) roll by as a fellow passengers related the history of Tierra Del Fuego, conjuring up the images of the native Fuegians coated in a glistening layer of seal oil, lighting fires from on top of the mountains when they were first sighted by Magellan.

This morning started in my Ushuaia hostel with a packing panic, as I shrunk my backpack by putting all nonessentials into a large plastic bag and storing it at the hostel for my return. I then went down to the Albatross Hotel to catch the briefing by the Quark staff (where I realized that my ship is Quark's last sailing to Antarctica this season!), and hopped on the bus for the must forgettable tour (at least it was well-organized, but quite sterile) that i've taken on this trip.

After our tour was completed, we had a few hours to "explore Ushuaia" (ie. go to the internet cafe and surf the web for a while), then we headed down to the Antarctic termial for the briefest of customs inspections (since our ship wasn't visiting Chile or any other countries, and Antarctica isn't a country of its own, we were technically staying in Argentina the entire time), and finally hopped on board the Orlova to head out through the Beagle Channel, escorted by a "pilot boat" for some historical and probably-quite-obselete reason until we made it out of the channel.

March 1, 2007

...and we're off!

as i mentioned in my last blog post, i'm starting tomorrow morning on my great antarctic adventure!

the ship doesn't actually leave until the evening, so we meet in the morning to go on a tour of the Tierra del Fuego National Park and have an Argentine-style asado (barbeque) lunch, eventually boarding the vessel around 4-5pm.

and then it's off for 11 days of adventure, lectures, food, drink, hopefully lots of zodiac landings, icebergs, and penguins! once i return, photos and backdated blog entries to follow as quickly as i can get them written and posted! (there is no internet access on the ship)

have a great few weeks, and i'll talk to ya'll when i return! oh, and happy first day of the international polar year!