Saturday, 10 February 2018

Mexico City II

an iconic image of Palacio de Bellas Artes
in Mexico City's historic centre
I'd be lying if I said the pickpocketing incident didn't shape my opinion of Mexico City in the days that followed. The very next morning, when I left for the mountain city of Guanajuato, I viewed my fellow metro commuters with suspicion: a thief could be in their midst. Simultaneously, I recognised my unwarranted paranoia. It was absurd: one pickpocket does not make an entire city dodgy. Plus, pickpockets strike in a lot of other major cities as well. Still, Mexico City made me feel a little uncomfortable. One good thing that came out of that episode though, is that it taught me to be extra vigilant (I also stopped carrying my wallet).

the remains of a day at Coyoacan, a district in Mexico City
All the same though, I felt reluctant to leave. I had met some really amazing people, including my couchsurfing hosts. One spent an entire afternoon helping me get a new phone, the other followed me to the tourist police to lodge a report. It was people like them who made it difficult to fly out. But as Sufei (my ex-uni classmate who now lives in Mexico City) pointed out, such feelings would come back to assail me every time I have to end a particular leg. And she was right.

It was then I realized something else about myself. Inasmuch as I had believed I was able to emotionally detach myself from people/situations, I have yet a long way to go.


first written on 31st October 2017


Monday, 5 February 2018

Mexico City I

More than 24 hours after I discovered my left pocket had been emptied on the metro, it was still surreal. I was already trying to make light of the incident, but I couldn't lie to myself. I was lucky though -- the pocket that my hand protected had my wallet. The keys in the other pocket were safe, and so was the phone, except it was in someone else's pocket now.

The someone I couldn't recognize. Someone who could have passed it on to someone else, and then someone else, as part of a syndicate that pickpockets unsuspecting commuters in Mexico City's dense metro network. Who was I to ask anyway? The faces I scanned at helplessly in the train stared back blankly, as if to say, 'You've finally realized what happened'.

Disbelief turned to shock, as I began to palpitate. I had to get away from the metro. Run, I told myself. But what was I running away from? Another hit? Reality? Or run towards some way of recovering what had been lost? But in a city of over 20 million, where does one begin?

By the end of the night, I had a replacement phone. I had re-established contact with people. The shock, considering it was the first time something like that had happened, had ebbed away. But I was still bothered, and I couldn't decide what was causing the unease: the loss of the phone, or my temporary loss in faith in people? What makes someone do something like this? How is stealing OK? I couldn't understand it then, I can't understand it now.

Days before the incident, a friend of mine joked that he would steal my phone, because of its camera. Maybe he should have. 

Grow on me, London

The River Thames

When I met a friend at Piccadilly Circus, one of the first things I told her was that I didn't quite fancy London. She was aghast, to say the least. London buzzes with life and energy, and there's so much to see and do. But I wasn't feeling it, maybe for this exact reason. London felt overwhelming. 
A good day to be at Hyde Park
But it is also undeniably navigable by foot. I walked everywhere, but had yet to step into a particular part of the city which would have set off a spark, that feeling of attraction and/or love for a city I'm in. When I think of Istanbul, it's the Bosphorus and its seagulls. When I think of Delhi, it's Lodhi Gardens, and in Zagreb, the Museum of Broken Relationships. In London, I'd walked through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, been wowed by the British Museum (never mind that there's really nothing British about it) -- but nothing.
the British Museum's ceiling

By the end of the day though, something changed. I was making my way back to the apartment from Piccadilly Circus. And it was there, at the pedestrian crossing during rush hour, when I looked at the darkening sky, the buildings that swallowed the sun, the double-deckered buses, and the crowd of people, that I found my spark.







first written on 30th September 2017

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Traffic-stopping


I watched in disbelief as the oncoming vehicles slowed to a halt in the middle of a road that had no traffic lights/signals anywhere. It did not make sense until we turned to face the other direction, and saw the policeman -- the same one we had met at the ticket office -- in the middle of the road, his palms sticking out to both sides. Then he turned to us, tilted his head, and gave us the signal to walk without fear to the Roman archaeological site at Sbeitla. 

I'm not sure about Matej, but I felt a mix of guilt and self-importance. We did not require such special treatment. We were, after all, regular tourists to this country. But that was probably it: we were two out of a handful of tourists still visiting Tunisia, despite warnings from several countries not to.

Those travel warnings and advisories stemmed from two terror attacks in 2015: one in March, at the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis, and another just three months later in the resort city of Sousse. Scores were gunned down in total. Visitors have since started streaming in through the doors and security checkpoint of the museum, and you'll find a mosaic plague at the foyer listing the names and nationalities of those who died in March 2015. Walking around the museum you find some areas off-limits, no thanks to that attack. But the mosaics, one of the most impressive collection from the Roman and Byzantine eras, make you forget, if even for a moment, the grim episode which took place here.

And it's the same story in Sousse: people have moved on. But while not everyone is convinced, the Russians seem unfazed. The security situation in other Middle East favourites, Turkey and Egypt, has pushed them to Tunisia. And the locals are keen to keep them coming, especially since the country relies heavily on tourism as a source of revenue. There's added security in the main thoroughfare in Tunis. Ironically though, it's become a bit of a catch-22 situation: while it's a measure to assure the public that security forces are on top of things, it scared a Russian couple I stayed with at a B&B.

I suppose they had reason to be fearful. They stood out. My tan and physical features let me blend in seamlessly. I had no problems hopping into louages (inter- and intra-city minivans) for the northern port city of Bizerte for a day trip, or taxis to and from the UNESCO-listed Roman site of Dougga, said to be the largest and most dramatic in all of Africa.

Yet, I can't deny my own apprehensions. What if something happens?, I asked myself. I don't even have an embassy I can turn to (the closest one being in Cairo, Egypt). But stronger than the fear was my conviction that if something is meant to happen, it can happen anywhere: Tunis, Ankara, Paris, Brussels, what's in a name?

Alas, Tunisia may currently be at a disadvantage where worldviews are concerned. And it may take time for opinions to change. But until then, those who dare, will find a people raring to ensure you feel safe, and have entire museums and archaeological sites to themselves. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Trip Report: Tunisia

I visited Tunisia in late September 2016, a country I'd been wanting to go to for some time. I came away with no regrets. Alas, I understand people may have concerns in the wake of 2015's two terror attacks. So here's my list of FAQs, and my itinerary, if you're thinking about travelling to this North African country.

beyond the sea, at Sidi Bou Said
My itinerary:
day 1: arrive in Tunis
day 2: day trip to Dougga (louage and taxi)
day 3: Bardo museum and Sidi Bou Said (by TGM train)
day 4: train to Sousse; walked around a bit
day 5: day trips from Sousse to Kairouan and Sbeitla (louage)
day 6: day trips from Sousse to El Jem and Mahdia (louage)
Downtown Tunis' main thoroughfare
day 7: train back to Tunis
day 8: day trip to Bizerte (louage)
day 9: fly out of Tunis

Is it safe?
Yes. Along the main thoroughfare in Tunis city centre, you'll see security personnel stationed at various points (including outside the French embassy). The only hotel I stayed at during my trip was in Sousse (I did Airbnb otherwise), where security would deny you entry unless you are staying at the establishment.
Should I really go to Tunisia? My government has issued a travel warning/advisory...
a section of the wall at the Sousse fortress
This is something you have to decide for yourself. Given today's security climate, a bomb could easily go off in Paris or Port Said. I have to admit at some point I was apprehensive, but I wanted to find out for myself just how serious a threat it is.
intricate mosaic on display at
the Bardo Museum, Tunis
How are the Tunisians?
Friendly, approachable, and very helpful. A couple of times I had wait staff switch to English when they realised I'm a foreigner struggling with French. My "poulet, oui?" would be met with "yes, it's chicken".
Do I have to watch what I wear?
sunrise in Sousse
Tunisia does not fit neatly into any one box. For every woman you see wearing a hijab, burqa, there's one wearing a dress, or a blouse paired with jeans. So once again, it's pointless assuming that just because it's a Muslim country, women can't dress as they want. In fact, they drive too and I've sat in louages (shared mini-vans) with solo (local) women travellers. Having said all that, if you're going to visit a mosque, wear something that goes beyond your knees, if they can't reach your ankles. In general, men can get away with shorts, but same rule applies as women when going to a mosque. When in doubt, take the cue from locals.
ruins at Dougga, a UNESCO
World Heritage Site
Visa requirement?
I'm from Singapore and didn't require one. Check with your individual government agencies. 
Getting to the city from the airport
the Great Mosque in Kairouan, considered
the fourth holiest city in Islam
There are public buses you can hop onto on the right side, after you exit the arrival hall (you can't miss it, there's a departure point). There's also a taxi stand on the left after you come out of arrivals. It should cost you about 3 euros (which is about 7.50 Tunisian dinars) to get to the traffic circle at "Big Ben" (their version of it). The most you should pay is 5. You could ask for a metered fare but even that runs into its own set of problems (with traffic and all).
Getting around
The louage (a minivan/minibus) became my best friend. Remember I don't speak French or Arabic, so all I would do at the louage point is "excuse me, Tunis/Sousse/Bizerte/etc?" and they'd point me in a general direction where I'd repeat the question. Never had any trouble with getting where I had to, that too in a jiffy. The only downside is that you have to wait for these vehicles to fill up before they push off (my longest wait was 1hr 15mins). That, or the passengers in the vehicle have to decide to pay a little more for the driver to set off sooner.
coasting along in Mahdia
El Jem, Tunisia's own Coliseum
If you don't like the unpredictably of the louage, the bus might be the next best option. But do note that they don't travel everywhere. For example, I went to Dougga by hopping onto a louage and switching to a taxi.
Trains are reliable. My airbnb hosts provided me with a timetable of train services to and from Tunis.
Money matters
the well-maintained ruins of Sbeitla
Tunisia uses its own dinars, which you can change at the airport when you get in. There are several money changers in the arrival and departure halls. If you intend to exchange your dinars for euros/dollars/etc when you're leaving the country, make sure you retain the receipt the money-changer gives you when you buy your dinars. Otherwise, the banks at the airport won't accept them. Do keep in mind too that the airport shops/cafes accept dinars (can't remember now if they'd take euros) so it'd be good to have a few of those on you when you're leaving, in case you get hungry.
entrance to Tunis medina
How expensive is it?
This is what I had for breakfast at a cafe near by airbnb place: a chocolate croissant, an almond one, and a coffee with milk. total cost: 2.85 dinars, or just over 1 euro. A regular chicken sandwich came up to about 2 euros. A cafe au lait set me back about 1.50 dinar (at best).
Tourist sites aren't too expensive either. A visit to El Jem's Roman amphitheatre costs 10 dinars, but it includes admission to an archaeology museum a little south from there (worth a visit).
Bizerte, northern Tunisia's
port city
Staying connected
You should be able to get a wifi connection at some cafes, and hotels.
Read!
The People Want the Fall of the Regime: The Arab Uprisings by Jeremy Bowen




As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
I've also posted photos on instagram.com/kevuzingh if you'd like some inspiration. :)

Monday, 12 December 2016

Declaration

When you enter Uzbekistan at Tashkent airport, you're required to fill up a declaration form, indicating the amounts of all the currencies you have on you. When you leave the country, you fill up another such form, to show how much you're leaving with. Uzbek authorities want to make sure you leave with less than what you bring in, to curb money laundering or some such racketeering. They do this by making you fill up two declaration forms upon your arrival -- one for their records, and one for you to present upon departure.

As I woke up to my first morning in the country, it dawned upon me that I had filled up just one of these forms. A quick search online, and a chat with a fellow tourist staying in the same hotel, confirmed my worst fear: this could become very unpleasant. With this little predicament weighing heavily on my mind, I went to a travel agency, where I was told I'd have to make my way back to the airport to resolve the issue. The only consolation at this point was the fact that the airport's a mere four to five kilometres away from the city centre.

So I repeated my spiel to virtually every airport official and security personnel I met, about how I'd forgotten to fill up the second form, and how the passport control officer said nothing when he stamped my passport and let me through.

I eventually landed up at Customs House, right next to the airport terminal. There I met Javed, and some of his subordinates who took some interest in my peculiar story (which, I found out later, was not unusual -- coming in with just one declaration form was not unheard of). Not that many of them understood what I was saying anyway. Their English was only as good as my Uzbek or Russian.

But everyone knows the universal language of money. I was asked how much cash I'd brought in, and how much I had on me at the time. Very quickly I understood where this was probably going, and I feigned ignorance. Although I have to say, I could have been making a huge assumption.

Eventually Javed agreed to help, but not before enquiring about my love life.
'No girlfriend?'
'No.'
'Ah. Uzbek girl, very nice!'
'Ah yes, I've seen some on the streets.'
'Yes! Very pretty, and very good! You marry Uzbek girl!'
I chuckled. I don't think he necessarily believed what he said though. A scan of his office, and I was greeted by posters of Katrina Kaif (a Hindi film star). But yes, everywhere I went in Uzbekistan, the question about marriage would come up. One 23-year-old student I met in Samarkand found it strange that I was still single at my age. According to him, most Uzbeks marry by their mid-20s and would have had at least one child before 30. He pinned my different perspective to a Western-style upbringing -- something I did not agree with, but I'd decided not to pursue the matter.

But I digress.

My two weeks travelling across the breadth of the country whizzed by and I was back at Customs House to see Javed, hours before my flight out. He'd found the declaration form I'd submitted on my arrival and had a made a copy of it. But instead of giving it to me, he slipped it into the folder he'd taken it out from. I found this peculiar. Instead, he handed me an official-looking document written in Cyrillic script with the numbers denoting the foreign currencies I'd entered the country with, and his signature at the bottom of the page. I was to present this to an officer at a counter before passport control.

The officer was not entirely convinced though. He seeemed hesitant to stamp the letter and my declaration form (the one you fill up before leaving the country). All the knots untangled themselves the moment he waved me on. Thank you Javed!

Or so I thought.

Passport control was next. The counters next to me stamped passports rhythmically, while my officer pored through my pages. Which objectionable stamp was he looking for? Or was it something else altogether? It reminded me of Tashkent's metros, where security staff would check your bags before you enter the station. If you're a foreigner, they ask for your passport. After a while, I'd figured that they were just browsing a document they might not again nose through for a long time.

As the stamps continued to slam at the neighbouring counters, I felt myself relax.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Even stevens

There were at least 4 lines, but owing to the size of the hall, everyone waiting to clear immigration was virtually pressed against one another. I somehow managed to join a queue which was not particularly long, but it was further away from the currency exchange office. I don't remember seeing anyone behind the desk, now that I think about it, but it would have been nice to exchange a few US dollars for the local currency, som. Bearing in mind, of course, that the official rate for Uzbekistan's currency is much lower than that which is available on the black market (at least two times more). Mustafa, my companion during the flight from Beijing to Tashkent, had told me as much. You can get at least 5,000 som on the black market for every 1 US dollar, he declared proudly.

When you exit the terminal building, waiting relatives and taxi drivers come into view some 70 metres away. As I cross the narrow road and cut across a pavement towards them, I can't help but feel like a sheep walking straight into a slaughterhouse.

Three taxi drivers stand before me, making outrageous claims about how much it would cost to ferry me to my hotel in Tashkent (I'd lost Mustafa in the baggage claims area). I know the city centre is a mere four to five kilometres away, and refuse to offer anything more than 2 US dollars (which I found out was excessive as well). One cabbie eventually agrees, perhaps seeing an opportunity to earn something off me.

In the taxi, the conversation leads to the next most pressing issue.
'You want Uzbek som?'
'Yes. How much?'
'1 US dollar, 4,500 som.'
'Oh. Hmm. I was told I could get 5,000.'
'5,000 too much!'
'It's ok then.'
A pause.
'Ok, 4,800 for you.'
That's pretty easy, I think to myself.
I agree to buy 100 US dollars worth of the currency.

After a quick phone call, we zip towards the railway station, turning left into a wide road just after the Holy Assumption Cathedral. I have a gut feeling I was going to be robbed.

We stop behind a car and a man in a leather jacket. My cabbie excuses himself, walks over to talk to the man, and comes back barely a minute later with a plastic bag filled with bundles of notes. It's my Uzbek soms. I don't manage to count the cash. This being an illegal transaction, they are afraid of being caught by the police, which, by the way, are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Tashkent. I do however manage to make sure all my notes are in denominations of 1,000 (apparently a common scam is for the black market dealers to slip in 500 som notes).

What follows is a fifteen minute ride around the city. The cabbie says he's not sure how to get to my hotel. In the meantime, he gives me a quick tour of some sights that I could consider visiting during my time in Tashkent. I politely marvel at the sights.

My hotel is in a residential area. The streets are generally dark save for a couple of lamp posts erected in what appears to be an afterthought. The hotel is on the first floor, while a restaurant takes the ground level. My cabbie gets out to help me with my bag. Thanking him, I pull out two dollars from my wallet.
'No, no. you pay 78 dollars.'
'What? We agreed to 2 dollars!'
'Yes but it's very far from airport, and we drive 26 kilometres. One kilometre 2 dollars.'
'No, I'm only paying 2 dollars because that's what we agreed. Take it or leave it.'
Not wanting to draw too much attention to himself from some diners exiting the restaurant, he quietly accepts. You're not cheating me, I say before walking off. 

I go to bed soon after checking in, exhausted after a long day all over the place, even though I still have a nagging feeling that something isn't quite right.

The next morning I pull the notes out of the plastic bag. They are definitely in denominations of 1,000 soms. But they fall short.

Shorter than what I'd have gotten from the airport.

But as it turns out, this isn't the worst of my problems.
Something more pressing has happened, and it requires an immediate trip to the airport.

(to be continued)