Porcupyn's Blog

August 9, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Sixteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:13 pm

the most uncertain portion of our trip was the part from Sofia to Oslo. The first tickets I had purchased was the open jaw MCO-JNB-SOF. Thanks to Baab’s research work, we’d purchased of the required tickets to complete the full circle with bus and flight tickets from Sofia back to MCO. However, each of these legs were a bit hairy for us, because missing one would put the entire set of remaining tickets in jeopardy as each segment (SOF-BUD, BUD-OSL, OSL-MCO) was independent, i.e., they were not interlinked. The only buffer we had – the overnights at Sofia and Budapest – were now done with. We had to keep our fingers crossed that Air Baltic – quite reliable per Baab’s research efforts – would put us in Oslo with enough time to get out, grab our bags and check back in. Given that we had about four hours in Oslo, should everything go as planned, we were hopeful that we wouldn’t have any issues.

Our cab came to the airbnb at 5:30 as scheduled and so, sleepy, hungry yet all in one piece, we made it to the airport at about 6:16 or so. It was a nice ride and because the sun was just about coming up, we didn’t feel the heat as much. Needless to say, I paid him in HUFs 🙂 We then had some pastries and beverages at the landside portion of the airport as things were yet to really get underway. Thankfully our Air Baltic flight to Riga was on time and we were glad. Finally, we were able to check in and go through the security. It was a big change from the landside to the airside (maybe like Indian airports a decade or two ago – now those airports have become quite posh at the landside as well).


A “naked” plane at Budapest airport

Our flight took off more or less on time, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t see any of Budapest’s familiar landmarks below. Recently, I reviewed the maps and realized that our flight would have flown north/north-east and with the airport being southeast of Budapest, that now makes sense why I should not have been hoping for much.


On the runway


I forget if this flight was taking off or had just landed


And we were in the air


This was some airport maybe more than half the distance out. Can anyone figure out which airport this is?


A river snaking toward the horizon (again, I have no clue which river this was)


I love taking photos of traffic interchanges like this one


Over Riga now


Zoomed in on one of the bridges


Compared to the sparsely populated area all along the route, Riga appears quite dense indeed!


Love the blue Baltic Sea (Gulf of Riga, to be precise, as I recently learned)


Another cityscape


For a Floridian, these beaches are likely to be awfully cold year round!!


On the ground in Riga


We were absolutely on time, though we had just about an hour before the next flight – this one to Oslo now, also on Air Baltic

– three flights back to Orlando
– spending time in Budapest, Riga, and Oslo airports

August 8, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Fifteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:11 pm

After a rather fitful sleep, I woke up again as light started trickling into the bus – it was dawn!


Day break in Serbia

As the Sun changed from Red to Orange to White, most of the passengers in the bus were awake and ready to get into Budapest. After all, we were supposed to be there by 8:30 or so, and we were almost at the border. Looking around, I had an amused comparison. Just a few days ago, we were on a bus from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. No A/C open windows (open air toilet when bus stopped). We were the only non-black passengers on the bus, thought there were a lot of families with kids, standing, sitting on mom’s lap, or even sitting by themselves. Cost < $15 per person. And here we were now, on a bus from Sofia to Budapest. With A/C and closed windows (bus had toilet but not really good. Toilets available at the rest stop, though there was only one of those last night and none today). And we were the only non-white passengers on the bus. No kids other than ours. It appeared to be a mostly backpackers’ (and senior citizens’) bus. Cost, again < $15 per person (Flexbus).

And just like that, we were at the border. Once again, there were hordes of cars to our left, in many lines to go through customs and immigration. As for us, we were in a bus (and truck) queue as well. As it was a merge into the two lanes leading through immigration control, buses and trucks were jockeying for position. We waited … and waited …. and waited. We could see the familiar scene of folks getting down from the bus that was three-four buses ahead of us but the bus didn’t show any signs of moving.


Border crossing into Hungary from Serbia

Finally after about at least 30-45 minutes, that bus went through (remember, first all the passengers clear the immigration point, and then the bus is waved through). All buses behind moved one bus length ahead. And it continued for the next couple of buses, though they took much less time. In the meantime, a truck to our right, trying to get ahead of us (either in our lane or the one to our right) grazed our bus’s rear view mirror. Here we go, I thought. Thankfully, the situation did not escalate as the issue was minor (I believe the glass was intact).

At last, we were at immigration and filed out of the bus – this time, we were prepared and exited the bus with our respective rows (unlike last night when we had been way behind). I was first among the family, followed by kids then Mrs. Porcupyn bringing up the rear. No problems for me and kids but Mrs. Porcupyn had some issue. Dude told her to step aside while he took care of the next passenger. [I had not seen this as I had already exited the booth]

But once kids told me (or somehow I learned that Mrs. Porcupyn was having issues – I don’t recall exactly how), I went back to see if there is anything I could do to bolster Mrs. Porcupyn’s case, After all, we were on US passports and there shouldn’t be an issue (it did remind me of Sydney a couple of years back where the officials had been unable to read my passport because my long name scrolled off the passport – they had to bring me to an office and then do some extra verification before they let me through). But Mrs. Porcupyn shouldn’t have had any such issue. Anyway, bottom line was there was nothing I could do except stand there physically in her support. In the meantime, the girl who was in the seat behind me came up … and got the same treatment. Oh ok, their machine is probably not working properly, I thought.

Now that there were two of them waiting, I got some courage and went back out to hang out with kids and the rest of the passengers. Slowly but surely, more passengers exited the booth, but the two ladies were still in there. Finally, after about 15-20 minutes, Mrs. Porcupyn came out – in all the language issue, she never figured out what it was that resulted in her being held up … but she did say that the girl from the seat behind me was still in there.

Finally, all of the passengers – but the girl – were processed and they even let the bus cross. We all boarded the bus – but there was no sign of the bus or the conductor. Discussions with passengers – in their broken English – revealed that they were now at the immigration control. OK, I assumed there is something to be reviewed of the bus’s papers.

And we sat … and sat, I was really sleepy and dozed off. But presently, I awoke – the bus had not been started and the air was starting to get stuffy what with the sun being up (remember, this was during the time when Europe was burning in the summer). I asked Mrs. Porcupyn what was going on. Apparently, she had pieced together that there was some issue with the girl and the immigration folks had seized the bus’s papers.

Lots of grumbling all around – I could figure that much! The bus was not moving, everyone was feeling hot and bothered, and we were all getting late. I was thanking our lucky stars that our flight out of Budapest was tomorrow morning and so we would only be losing any planned sightseeing for the day. And I was especially not too upset because I had a plan to return to Budapest within a month for a Reunion with old hostelmates (dorm mates for those in the US) from undergrad days.

Then, here comes an official with the now teary-eyed girl. He made her sit on her seat (behind me) and took her photo as seated. I thought – oh, good, he’s finishing up with some formalities and will finally let her go. But NOOO!! Then, he had her take all of her few belongings from the seat – a duffle bag along with some other stuff – and they both exited the bus. And we didn’t yet have permission to leave … without papers.

As I was wondering why don’t they just let us go if they were after that girl – who probably had overstayed her Schengen visa or something – or if we could get a replacement bus as other passengers might be severely inconvenienced as compared to us, the driver finally came back and started the bus. Everyone on the bus heaved a sigh of relief though there were probably a few thoughts on what would happen to the girl.

And we were off.

Soon, we lumbered into Szeged and a few passengers got down and a few others got on. As we drove through fields of greenery, I felt drowsy and slept a bit; soon, we ran into traffic – we had arrived at the outskirts of Budapest. And at about 1 pm or so, we pulled into Budapest Nepliget bus station.


Bags being offloaded from Flixbus at Budapest Nepliget bus stand


View of bus platform


Bus Terminal

We got down and collected our bags. It was quite hot at the bus stand. I looked around and spied the train station across a busy intersection. Poor Baab got to lug our one check-in bag around. Somewhere during our adventures, it had rid itself of one of its wheels and so was no longer dragable. When we finally reached the train station, it appeared that there were trains were underground and what we saw above ground was actually the tram station. Baab and I went downstairs to investigate, leaving Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya in charge of the bags.

We found out that we needed to make one change to get to our destination, which was near Deak Ferenc station (if I recall correctly). After about 30 minutes, we were out of the underground, but completely lost. The GPS appeared to want us to go in one direction, but our recollection of where the destination should’ve been was different (and we didn’t have internet at that point). Following discussions with a couple of passersby and local businesses, we finally figured out the route and were soon in the airbnb, tired and sweaty. Did I say it was HOT?


Back on the surface after being underground for almost half an hour

Our tentative morning outing was already out the window. Fortunately, Baab had reserved us for an afternoon walking tour of the area and we had to assemble near the statue of a lion, so we set out looking for it. We had only had junk food so were a bit hungry.

By the time we were refreshed and set out from the airbnb, it was already past 3 pm. And our walking tour was supposed to start at about 6 pm. So, though we were a bit hungry, we just had some snacks and decided to check out the local eateries at night – we planned to turn in early anyway as our flight out was at 8:30 am. Our airbnb host had called a reliable cab to come pick us up the next morning at 5:30 am for the 30-45 minute ride to the airport.

So, we were out and about in the main pedestrian area – you could call it the downtown I guess – of east Budapest, i.e., Pest. Family espied an ice cream place; but it didn’t accept payment in credit card. So, I went hunting for an ATM machine and soon found one. After punching in the password, I was confronted with a screen that asked me to choose the amount of money to be dispensed (in Hungarian Forints aka HUFs). I don’t recall the exact configuration but it went somewhat like this …

10.00
50.00
100.00
500.00
1000.00

The fact that 1000.00 was the last number (and the rate of exchange was about 3/10ths of a penny to a HUF), and so might be a significant amount did not really register in my jet-lagged sleep-deprived brain (excuses, excuses, I tell you!!).

I punched in 1000.00 and watched – flabbergasted – as currency bill after currency bill started popping out of the ATM the lowest in the 5000 HUF denomination (if I recall correctly). “Had I won the Hungarian ATM lotto?”, I wondered! Once I collared all the cash and saw the receipt, I was stunned beyond disbelief. I had withdrawn a hundred thousand friggin’ Forints! My mind was too numb to translate to USD and figure out if our checking account even had that much cash in there.

Anyway, soon the rest of the family was enjoying their ice cream, and I was contemplating how I could put back 90,000 HUFs back into my account without incurring a huge round-trip exchange rate hit!

Some photos that are representative of the walking we did after the ice cream and before the formal walking tour.


Ferris Wheel in action


The area near where the walking tour was to start … and also where I almost made myself a HUFing millionaire


General streetscapes of pedestrians – you don’t typically see as many pedestrians in most US cities, except in downtown


An ornate bench by the tram tracks which in turn run along the river in that part of town


A statue along the same sidewalk next to a tram (in service)


It is always fun to take photos of brightly colourded double decker buses


A lion guarding one of the bridges across the Danube – this one is right across from the palatial area in the Buda part of town (and close to the Hungarian Parliament building in Pest)


We walked across the river bridge


In Buda but only for a few minutes before starting our trek back across the river, to make our walking tour


Tram tracks in Buda (also parallel to Danube)


Don’t recall who this gentleman is, or where exactly I took this photo – but he looks very stern and regal

We enjoyed our walking tour and the quaint accent of our hostess. She appeared very knowledgeable of the local area though we knew, unfortunately for us, we would be unable to follow her tips for – fun dining experience, shopping from a nice and budget priced marketplace, climbing the one bridge that pedestrians were permitted to climb on and the Gellert Spa which she highly recommended (note that I was scheduled to visit Budapest a few weeks after this trip – but with my old undergrad buddies, so not the same experience!).

Without giving the game away (I think folks should patronize the walking tour, which is free, though tips are recommended and highly appreciated), here are some photos I took during and after the tour:


Statue of priest who was thrown down this mountain (assuming I recall the story correctly)


Souvenirs for sale – there were plenty of these along a pedestrian plaza


I loved these multi-coloured balloon lamps


Posh stores also lined the street we walked along


… as well as buildings that had ornate facades, dating back to the Communist era


A tram trundles past a marketplace (which was closed at this hour), a location close to which our walking tour ended


… as the sun was setting …


… by the bridge that folks can climb on and get photos (I ended up doing this – on my trip with my buddies a few weeks later)


The spa in Buda


… and another bridge over the Danube


We opted for a sit down dining experience at this place – Mexican cuisine in Europe 🙂


Vegetarian food!!


The food was very tasty and filling

It was close to 9 pm or so by the time we returned to our airbnb. It being the height of summer (almost), there was still enough light out for me to take some photos of the street from our perch on the fourth or fifth floor (cannot recall exactly which it was).

– big issue at Hungarian border control
– reach Budapest five hours late
– withdraw HUF 100,000
– free Budapest walking tour
– sleep early to get on flight early next morning

August 7, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Fourteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:09 pm

The next morning, we walked a couple of blocks to near that obelisk that Baab and I had walked to soon after we arrived at our lodging. From here, our host had informed us, we needed to take one tram that would take us to the foot of Mt Vitosha. The plan was to get there by 10 am, hike for a couple of hours then take a tram back to here. Then walk to the closest train station and take a train to what we understood as the downtown, so we could join the free food sampler walking tour slated to start at 2 pm.

On the above three photos, unless you are a native, your guess is as good as – or maybe even better than – mine. One thing that was a real turn off all around Sofia was the ubiquitous graffiti 😦

The woods were lovely, but family was too tired and hot. So, once we got out of the tram at the last stop and we climbed a few steps right behind a very excitable group of school kids – they decided to stay put and gave me two hours to go wherever I wanted to hike up to and come back.

The hiking path was well defined and moderately maintained. Within about 25 minutes of walking, I got a very nice glimpse of Sofia from the mountain. I had wanted to go up as far as I could to get a good clearing to take photos from. Under the given time constraints, I didn’t really get a spot that was much better than this one.

This is how far I got to. Our host had said that after a couple of hours we would be able to reach the top of the mountain. Either there had been a misunderstanding or we had not really gone in the right direction or … whatever. I did ask a few folks I met along the way who could speak English and the answers were nearly unanimous – it would take much more than that to get to the top. Either way, I got to this point, and noticed that cars were driving up to this point. So, my assumption now is that maybe perhaps there is a higher starting point on the mountain that can be reached by other means of transport (not trams) from where it might be feasible to reach the top in two hours. But it had taken me nearly an hour to get to this point. The heat and the climb – and previous tiredness – took their toll. I had had to stop ever so often to either take a breath or take in the scenery or ask someone my questions.

The hiking pathway – well defined. However, there were a few of them and I was unable to really tell one from the other. Fortunately, while coming down the mountain, I managed to stick to the one I had taken on the way up and didn’t get lost!

Grouchy dude on Mt Vitosha a few flights of steps above the tram station

Trams ran along (by the side of) or on surface streets. In some places, like this one, there was a fence separating the tram lines from the road. At other places, there was not as much of separation. And yet other places – like the photo in the previous post, the tram line was on the road for cars and other automobiles!

One of the tram stations. This is on the trip back from Mt Vitosha. I was able to stand/sit at the rear of the tram and take photos and videos 🙂

Trams passing each other. I even noticed trams belonging to different lines sharing the same route, one a couple of minutes behind the other!

Back at the original park we visited, I wanted to take a photo of this lion statue that I had taken a fancy to!

It was Baab who noticed this, and informed us – all of the underground metro stations have a distinctive unique design

After doing a great job throughout the trip with directions and being on top of all the research, Baab finally dropped the ball this time. We were supposed to be going for a 2 pm food sample walking tour. He had researched where the meeting point was, and that we needed to be there by 1:55 pm. As we were at the park, we quickly got to the station and were ready to board a train in the general direction we needed to get to – in plenty of time. However, the train frequency was not that good, so we got out of our destination stop right around 1:52 pm. We walked fast though, and got to the meeting place right at 2:00 pm … to find construction work going on and no one there at that location. We frantically walked back and forth trying to see if we could find the group. Nothing doing,

So, we decided to wait at the first stop on the tour (we had the map and the locations). When we enquired within, we were informed that the guide had not yet called – typically, the guide apparently called ahead informing how many folks were in the party so the restaurant could prepare that many samples. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the tour folks finally showed up. But the host reluctantly informed us that she could no longer take us on as they had already got substitutes; besides, she had called ahead to the restaurants. Also, apparently, they had sent us an update on a different meeting place (which we either never got or got missed by Baab) and that we needed to be there at least 15 minutes before the meeting time. We were, like, surely they could’ve accommodated us – she could still call ahead to the remaining restaurants. But anyway, I did realize that we should probably have come at least 25-30 minutes in advance – we got spoiled yesterday because that tour had taken on folks who had come in even after the tour starting time.

Oh well… now we had two hours that we had not planned anything for. We decided to walk around the central area that we had walked through yesterday. But as we had not been really looking at the GPS maps, we were unable to exactly figure out where we were and which place we wished to visit. There was one synagogue that Katya wanted to visit, but we decided we wouldn’t have enough time to do it justice, as we had also planned to go up to the bus station to check it out in preparation for our evening departure to Budapest. We had read some unflattering reviews of the FlixBus that said that some drivers don’t wait for passengers to show – if the passenger is not in the designated location, the bus just leaves them there. So we wanted to be absolutely sure of where the bus would depart from.


Beautiful fountain


I had to take a photo of this lovely flower arrangement


Lovely sculpture and nice fountains around it


Another beautiful sculpture


Opera House I believe


This is what I was referring to when I wrote in the previous post about trams sharing right of way with the roads


Ugly graffiti defacing some nice photos on the wall


More graffiti


Serdika bus stand for out of town buses

So anyway, after finding the Serdika bus stop area and talking to the Flixbus agents as to where exactly the bus would be available later that evening, we decided to spend some time at Sofia railway station. When I say “we” I really mean Baab and myself. Katya and Mrs. Porcupyn were captive audience at this point, and did not really express any interest to do anything there as they were tired. So, we let them take rest inside the station atrium while we went out to the platforms.

One thing I am unhappy about European train stations is that there are no overhead crossings for the most part – instead, one needs to take the subway to get to your destination platform. In our case, as we didn’t really have a destination platform and were trainfanning, we had to depend on the signboards to figure out which platform would have the next train arriving on it (or departing from it). And any mistake in reading it – or if the train wasn’t on time – resulting in us staring as a train arrived or left from a platform far away from where we were – in India, for instance, with the overbridges, we could have hung around there, then headed straight for the appropriate platform if we saw a train arriving. We ended up checking out a few mostly commuter trains.

When it was about 4 pm, we headed back to our digs to freshen up and come right back. This time, our host was nice enough, for a small fee, to drop us back at the station in his car. Once again, Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya were not keen to participate in the trainfanning – besides, we had the luggage that we wouldn’t have wanted to move around. So, they stayed with the luggage at the bus stop inside the shopping complex (which was closed now) with a few other motley passengers waiting for their buses.

Again, we didn’t see a whole lot of long distance trains – the train I was interested in seeing was the one arriving from Belgrade (remember, I had originally wanted to go on this train’s twin). As it turned out, this train was delayed and though it was slated to come in before we left on the bus, we were not too keen to hang around there when Katya and Mrs. Porcupyn were at the bus stand. However, we did manage to see quite a few graffiti laced trains most of which appeared to be local commuter trains. There was only one train that appeared to be a long-distance overnight train. I managed to use sign language and learn that it was headed to what I heard as Sinistra. The only similar sounding town is in northeast Bulgaria (and I am still unsure if that train was destined for that town). By now the shadows were lengthening and we decided that it was time for us to get back and wait for the bus. So, we went back to the bus stop area – but not before getting some munchies at the local grocery store “Billa”. I did get tricked twice during our stay in Sofia – getting buttermilk instead of milk. There was no way for me to figure out what was plain milk and what was buttermilk. The writing on the packaging was not helpful; the pictures even less so #facepalm

Here are some more photos …


A statue in front of the station – we couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to signify


The facade of Sophia Central Station


Local commuter train the likes of which we saw quite a few


Talk about graffiti!!


You can say that again – graffiti, that is!


No comments


A little engine to shunt around the coaches


OK here is a much more neat and clean looking rake


Almost deserted platform


The sun set at about nine pm IIRC


Waiting area at Sofia’s Central Bus Station, Serdika

It was about past 8 pm when Baab and I decided to head back to the bus stop. By this time, the activity had increased in the area. A few more passengers had shown up and there were a couple of buses that came and departed (not ours). We were secure in the knowledge that we were in the right spot, especially after a couple of other passengers also showed up who were headed to Budapest.

Finally, right on time (maybe 15 minutes before departure, I think), our bus came in and there was a quick formation of a queue and folks started boarding the bus. In the meantime, the driver and conductor had opened the luggage hold underneath the bus and folks were stowing their luggage away. I took our stuff and added them to the baggage as well. By this time, my family had boarded the bus and I joined them.

Baab realized that folks had boarded and occupied seats arbitrarily (just like on Southwest flights); however – and I had been slightly unaware about this – he had taken the trouble to get three window seats between the four of us and though the windows were huge and it was going to be a mainly overnight journey (we were expected to get unloaded in Budapest at about 8:30 am), he wanted us to take full advantage of the reservation. So, as best as we could given the language barrier, we informed the driver and conductor of the situation – ours were the rare tickets that actually had the seat numbers printed on them as everyone else had purchased random seating.

While the conductor and driver were considering their course of action, I realized that I was missing my camera bag! I looked all around, jumped off the bus and looked at our waiting area seats – the bag was nowhere to be found. At my wits end, I realized that there was only one place that was left to be searched. So, again I had the pleasure of trying to explain to the driver and conductor that I needed attention #facepalm

Fortunately, the conductor was an amicable pliable individual, and he opened the luggage hold. Sure enough, squarely on top of our luggage was my camera bag looking snug and comfy. It must have fallen off my shoulders as I was shoving our bags in – or maybe I might have removed it and placed it there for more freedom of movement. Either way, I was delighted at having gotten my camera back.

In the meantime, my family had their seating sorted out (2A was occupied by Baab and 3A/B by Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya) but a couple of guys were in my seat and the one next to it (4 A and B). They refused to move from there. I was sitting in 5B with a girl in 5A and they were suggesting that they wanted to be together and the girl should move to somewhere back and let me have 5A. Somehow they managed to convince the conductor; however, when he requested her to move, the girl refused to do so (and I absolutely saw her point). Finally, the conductor managed to convince the folks to move on back and they did so.

Shortly thereafter, we were underway and not really delayed. The bus picked up speed and in no time, we had left Sofia behind and were approaching the Serbian border. Now, I had not really been worried about border crossings thinking that they were just a matter of formality. I was rudely jolted during the trip!

My office buddy is from Serbia and – I think I wrote this before – if I had had my way, we would have travelled by train and overnighted in Belgrade instead of Sofia. With that in mind, I had planned to stay up as long as I could so I could at least be awake when we passed Belgrade (again, I didn’t know much about how border crossings worked – for some reason, I thought they would be seamless), the smooth roads and the late hour made me drowsy. But shortly, the bus started slowing down and halted. That woke me up – looking out, I saw a lot of cars and buses stopped around me. Why, I wondered!

The answer was quite evident once I looked ahead – border crossing. I hadn’t realized that Serbia is not part of the Schengen countries; ergo, we would require to go through customs and immigration inbound and outbound of Serbia.


Welcome to Serbia!

Gullible me failed to realize what needed to happen – only when the passengers started filing out of the bus did I realize that we would have to take our passports and each one be individually – kids too – interviewed by the border authority. We formed a queue at the entrance of immigration and – after each person was processed – formed a group outside on the other side (as the bus was yet to be authorized to cross). Fortunately for us, everyone on the bus passed with flying colours and the bus was permitted to cross as well, and we were enroute once again within half an hour. A short rest stop ensued for those who needed to use the restrooms or purchase something or – more importantly, it being Europe where practically everyone smokes – light up!

There was a small toilet in the bus that was just about adequate for males – I have no clue how any female would be able to use it without throwing up (or maybe I am one of the too squeamish, fastidious, OCD travellers, who knows?). So I used it a couple of times on the trip – didn’t wait for stops.

– trip to Mount Vitosha
– missed the Free Food Tour
– visit the bus stop and eat baklava
– take the Flixbus to Budapest

August 6, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Thirteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:07 pm

After a quick glimpse of the sunrise, we landed in the desert that’s Doha! This time there were no miscues in taking the people mover shuttle inside the terminal to get to our gate 🙂


I remember reading about this sculpture in the Qatar magazine. Apparently it took quite some effort to get it installed.

A short turnaround later, we were airborne once more now bound for Sofia. Only in the Middle East will you see such opulence manifested in earthscapes that you would rarely sight anywhere else.

Unlike the trip down to Africa, this time our flight took the most direct route (no need to fly over the UAE anyway!) and we flew directly from the Persian Gulf into Iran

It was too bad that we were not that hungry on this Doha-Sofia flight because a) the plane was pretty empty and b) the flight attendants were very friendly and kept pampering us with food and juice. I did help myself to three cups of mango (my favourite) juice, only one of which is pictured here!

The rest of this post will feature various land forms that we passed over enroute to Sofia.

There appeared to be many areas with nice deep canyons but not much greenery around them. Wonder what they look like at the ground level!

A dam … looks lovely from the air

A view of the downstream canyons – I bet there are white water rafting opportunities to be had down there!

More canyons in the distance … and an almost dry riverbed

Water!!

We were getting close to the Black Sea now

Some clouds for a change

Black Sea

Interesting incident that happened at our host’s a couple of days later. In conversation, he mentioned something about folks going to “our sea” for summer holidays. I wondered aloud “which sea?” to which he replied “Black Sea, of course!” Funnily enough, I have never thought of the Black Sea as a big sea in its own right, probably because I’ve not seen it at the ground level. But also maybe because it is not broadly connected (if you neglect the small canal that connects it to the Mediterranean) with the rest of the Earth’s oceans like all of the other “Sea”s are! Black Sea, to me, is more like a mega huge lake.


After a short while, we were in Bulgarian air space.

The countryside looked a lush green with some mountainous areas as well. And soon, we started a smooth approach into Sofia and landed.


Happy Bulgaria!!


It was a clear, beautiful, sunny day!

Out host had informed us that for a small fee, he would be happy to pick us up from the airport to his boutique hotel. Though the proposed fee was slightly more than the available public transportation options, we had opted to go with him especially as that meant that we did not have to go around looking for the place (though we were slated to land right around lunch). It was a very good decision, as he was waiting for us right outside baggage claim and customs.


Our first view of Sofia was quite refreshing indeed. I had wanted to spend a day in Belgrade, but had been overruled. So, I had been a bit miffed about Sofia. But Sofia turned out to be great. In fact, we all wished that we had spent more time there – folks were quite friendly in spite of the obvious language barrier especially for the older folks.

Our host was really great. He had obviously prepared and practiced a nice speech about his country and his city and it was really entertaining to hear and also educational to learn (I had not done any homework on Sofia). I felt bad a couple times when I stopped him to ask questions … and he had to refresh back to the point where I had interrupted him 🙂


Driving through Sofia … from the airport to the CBD


One thing that is an eyesore in many places in Europe is graffiti. But the side of the host’s lodge didn’t have any graffiti. I asked if folks didn’t put graffiti there – he said that they did, and each time they did, he used to clean it up. Apparently, after that repeated a few times, they gave up!!


Other than the graffiti, Sofia was a really neat and clean place! This square was close to where we were staying and Baab and I went towards the local metro train station for a short walk immediately after we freshened up.


An obelisk in the square


I have no clue what the ad is saying. Do you?


On the tram lines 🙂


Underground metro station


We stopped by Lidl on the way back


Sample prices – one Euro equals two Bulgarian Lev

By about 3 pm, everyone was ready to venture boldly out into a city where we didn’t speak the local language for sure, and hoped to get by with our English!


We walked over to this park that was close by. But before we got there, we had taken advice from our host. Originally, the plan was to go for two free guided walking tours of downtown Sofia – one was to be a basic walk and the other one a food sampler walk. Baab had already figured out the times and which walks to take when.

But our host advised us to do the basic walking tour in the evening and the food sampler one tomorrow. The reason being that if we liked a specific location that we visited in the evening tour, we could plan to revisit it tomorrow. Similarly, if we scheduled the food sampler tour for the afternoon, we could probably eat out at the specific place where we liked the food samples. Besides, he said that it might be a good idea to take a tram to the base of the Mount Vitosha and hike up to see Sofia from a height.

So, we first walked over to the nearby park which was on the way to downtown Sofia. Along the way, we managed to purchase something to eat from a roadside pastry shop as we were very hungry. It was a bit difficult to communicate as we needed to verify that the item was vegetarian and also figure out how much it cost and whether the lady accepted credit cards or would need to be paid in cash (Baab and I had withdrawn cash from an ATM at the train station we visited earlier, so we were ready either way). For some reason that I don’t recall anymore, rather than eating the cheese bread that the rest of the family got, I got myself some heavenly baklava (Turkish influence was very evident here and elsewhere in Sofia).

Finally, we got to the park that had a mall with restaurants in it. In the park were were a lot of families with kids of all ages and sizes. In addition, there were teens doing the same thing I’ve seen teens do here in the USA – jumping stairs on their skateboards! But it was very hot (I wonder what the scenery is like right now over there – I bet all these areas will be under snow!) and humid indeed. We were sweating freely. Thankfully, we had some – not a lot of – water with us and managed to share it and stay hydrated.


These fountains and surrounding picnic areas in the park appeared to me to be from the Cold War vintage. They didn’t look too much older than a few decades and didn’t look like they were constructed recently either.


Near the mall were these tables and chairs – likely for folks to get their food from the restaurants in the mall and eat here (as you can see, not too many folks were braving the hot sun to sit and eat here – they were sitting in the shade of the trees around the park, not necessarily eating either as it was just about 3 pm or so)


One level lower was this fountain that was part of the mall structure


Looking back at the fountains and the park from the mall


It would not be right for me to not include a photo of the beautiful flowers that were nicely planted along the fountains

I had not really researched Sofia a lot, and not knowing the local language we were at a disadvantage, so my descriptions and mentions of places and locations might or might not be accurate. So, please take those with a pinch of salt 😉 However, photos are exactly what we saw, no alterations there (except I might not be accurate when I say where a specific photo was taken!)!!


After spending some time at the park described in the previous post, we walked along what appeared to be the main drag through town (which I might be wrong in describing). What we did see were mountains way ahead and way behind us as we walked on the road. On both sides of the road were restaurants, souvenir shops and, if I recollect correctly, department stores as well. And every so often there was a little place in the wall – a mom and pop store seamlessly fitting into the picture. Though it was just about four pm, folks were all over the place having coffee, dinner, or just conversing with one another. It didn’t give the feel of a regular workday, but then maybe folks get out of work early over there.


Folks out and about with the backdrop of the mountain


Our goal after strolling around, was to get to the place where the walking tour was supposed to start from. The time we needed to be there was six pm, as I recall. Before getting there though, we wanted to get something hot to drink. Kids went with hot chocolate, somehow conveying their order to the slightly older lady who didn’t do English. When my turn came, I wanted tea – hot tea. The tea they had came with lemon and honey she said. Without thinking through i, I asked her to add milk to mine. Guess what? The milk curdled … and I was at a point where I did not want to go through the hassle of describing what I wanted yet another time – and I thought we were getting delayed anyway to get to our destination – so I somehow managed to finish that “tea”!!

If you know one word – Serdika – you will know half of Sofia’s downtown! And I’m only half kidding. It appeared like there was a Serdika local train station, a Serdika long distance train station and a Serdika long distance bus station. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We managed to find the walking tour meeting point without much ado, especially because there were like almost fifty folks loitering around in the designated location. We got a very enthusiastic guide who spoke very good English. We walked through a couple of places that were public baths, the above photo location which was the local Serdika close to the statue of Sophia and contained ruins from the time of the Roman Empire, there was a place of worship of a saint where you could have your wishes come true, a yellow brick road that had huge buildings of the Eastern Bloc vintage from the Cold War times and a church dedicated to a Russian named IIRC Nicholas. The next few photos are from the walking tour, and I apologize if I am unable to describe each location that well (my bad – it’s been six months almost since when we were there!)


Ruins at Serdika


One of the mom and pop stores


I loved the public transportation in Sofia for sure. We only rode a few underground trains and surface trams (and especially no buses, as we were a bit afraid we’d get lost – transportation on rails is a bit tougher to get lost on), but along all our walks, we found folks at tram stops and bus stops patiently waiting for their mode of transportation to appear (that said, the folks in this photo are waiting to cross the street)

Talking of crossing the street, Sofia conditioned us to a specific behaviour that almost got us grief in Budapest the next day. Specifically, all pedestrian signals in Sofia – that we encountered – emit warning beeps at regular intervals when the pedestrian green is about to end. When the main traffic lane signal turns to yellow, the frequency of the beep increases to signify the urgency and then stops when the pedestrian signal turns to red. In Budapest, we leisurely crossed a road not realizing that the pedestrian signal had turned to red already – there had been no beeps at all! Another interesting thing I noticed was that (and I hope I am correct when I say I saw it in Sofia, as it could’ve been in Budapest as well) in certain places the pedestrian signal showed a green walking pedestrian. When the faster warning beeps start to sound, the figure transforms to a green running pedestrian! 🙂


One thing that happened was that during the walking tour, we didn’t really get time to get inside any of the buildings shown to us. As advised by our guide, we were supposed to come back the next day if we wished to spend more time at a specific building or location. We had planned to do so; however a few things went against us – a) we didn’t really have a good idea of where all we went, as we were not following along closely with our phones, b) we didn’t end up with a lot of free time the next day and c) we were too pooped to go around as much as we could have either.


I bet there will be much more ice on the ground right now and folks wearing outfits like this would freeze! But back then, we were sweating freely. Europe was under a heat wave. Temperatures were regularly in the 90 degree F range.


This was something ubiquitous – some sort of national guards in their ceremonial position. I saw similar folks in Budapest as well as in Prague. These folks have a really tough job. It is not easy to stand still as a statue as these folks do. I believe they can move only after fifteen minute intervals or so.


More ruins. Our guide was especially happy to show us the church in the background as it is secreted away behind huge buildings all around it.


This I believe was near a National Museum or Opera House or some such. I distinctly remember the guide mentioning that folks (friends, dates, etc) typically come here to meet up in the afternoon/evening in this area.

I don’t remember where this photo is from. It could be either at the place we stayed overnight or at the restaurant we went for dinner the one night we stayed in Sofia. It was a nice place, though the service was very slow. It was the first of three times in Sofia that we got buttermilk when we wanted milk (poor Baab!). The other two times were when I purchased buttermilk thinking it was milk (I still don’t know how one distinguishes milk from butter milk at a Sofia supermarket! facepalm). We got pizza and some sort of spinach lasagna in the restaurant. Both were very tasty and we were full once we were done.


Mt Vitosha

– land in and take off from Doha
– land in Sofia
– picked up by Ludmil and given brief history of Sofia
– walking tour of Sofia in the evening

August 5, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Twelve (Vic Falls to Johannesburg and Bye-Bye South Africa)

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:06 pm

And just like that, it was time to leave Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and then South Africa in that order. We had an early morning flight from Vic Falls to Jo’burg. This would reach Jo’burg at about 10:30 am, and we would have the whole day to twiddle our thumbs before boarding the Qatar Airways flight out of JNB to Qatar at 7:40 pm.

We had arranged with the taxi driver who’d dropped us off to come pick us up at 6:30 am. And after a couple of whatsapp messages back and forth, he showed up on time. The charge was $30 to the airport which we reached without much ado. And here we had our scare of the day, as the check-in agent was unable to find Baab in the reservation chart. What’s so weird is that it was one ticket booked for all of us together. I had the printout and we could see everything online at the airline’s website; but the agent’s window didn’t show him in the system. So, she directed us to the airlines booking office located at the other end of the building. After a few tense minutes, the agent there was able to find everything and notate this (by hand) on our ticket printout which we then took back to the check-in area, where we were finally officially checked in.

Once that was behind us, the rest was a mere formality … oh yes, except for when we waited too long at the souvenir shop. There were other folks from the USA as well, making last minute purchases. We finally settled on what I still think was an expensive $28 T-shirt for Mrs. Porcupyn. Even in Australia (Sydney to be precise), we’d managed to get T-shirts for $14 at the airport as souvenirs. But now, we knew we wouldn’t have any better luck in Jo’burg as we had already made the rounds there the night we overnighted at the airport. Nothing decent was to be had for less there either. By the time we ran down the circular ramp to the gate, we were the penultimate family to board. But we made it 🙂


Vic Falls airport – landside


Another view


What all can we buy?


Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe


Souvenirs galore


Vic Falls airport – airside


Our fastJet plane – zoomed in view


Long range shot

I was hoping to get a glimpse of the falls from the air, as I’d read trip report after trip report of folks getting one. We were not so lucky. There was a lot of haze in the air and soon we could barely see the ground below us properly. Less than two hours later, we were in Jo’burg. We had to go through immigration and customs and – once again – display the birth certificates before we were able to get back to the airport’s landside.

I might have mentioned this before, but now I think it was at this time that we found out that the Gautrain and/or other trains (I forget which anyway) were on strike. Anyway, the bottom line is that for all the time we spent at JNB, we were unable to catch a glimpse of either the local trains or of a Gautrain.


This is the area of the JNB airport from where, four days earlier, we had taken the flight to Bulawayo


This curio store had an excellent collection of souvenirs; however, they were pretty expensive. Besides, we didn’t have much space in our luggage anyway. So, I contented myself with some photos


I asked the shopkeeper for permission to take the photos; he said it was OK if I took a few 🙂

We spent time walking around the airport, getting coffee and snacks, uploading the photos from the SD cards onto Baab’s laptop and viewing them. I then walked over to the bookstore and thumbed though some South Africa centric books. One that I really liked was 101 Kruger Tales, but I didn’t get it as – like I said – we were pretty full with our luggage (plus I hoped that maybe it was available in our library system). [upon returning, I didn’t find it, but I did read the Elephant Whisperer whose sequel – written by the author’s wife – I had looked through at JNB]

By about 4 pm, finally the check-in counter opened. Baab noticed that there was a separate – and shorter – line for folks who’d checked in online. He quickly fired up his laptop, checked us in and voila, we were in the shorter line 🙂 This time, there were no surprises at check in. An hour later, we passed through immigration and customs – yes, we showed those birth certificates yet again – and were at the gates. Our flight took off on time, and soon, we were out of South Africa!


Sunset from the air

– fly from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg
– fly out from Johannesburg to Doha

August 4, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Eleven (Ziplining and Zambezi River Cruise, Vic Falls)

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:05 pm

And just like that, we were on our final day in Africa. The plan for the morning was for Mrs. Porcupyn and the kids to do a canopy zip lining tour. This kind of thing is just too much for chicken me, so I abstained. I decided to take photos of the scenery and them ziplining. For the afternoon, we had purchased tickets for a Zambezi River cruise. For both of these excursions, we would be picked up right outside our accommodation.

At about 8:30 in the morning, a van came over to pick all of us up from our lodge. We drove for about ten minutes to the Lookout Cafe, which was quite close to the entrance to the Victoria Falls National park.


Lookout Cafe overlooking the Zambezi River Gorge


The layout of the place was quite interesting. We soon had a guide show up who took the rest of the family under his wing and fitted them out with belts and harnesses, as well as helmets. I got to play photographer 🙂


Shop with souvenirs and curios


After they were suitably attired, the guides (one more member of the staff showed up) took us on a short walk from where the ziplining would commence. I had already been informed that I could only come up to the first stop, from where all of them would zipline from station to station, nine ziplines in all, then walk back to the first stop. The entire thing, they told us, would probably take around an hour and a half. I was willing to wait – this is a zoomed in photo of the group in front of ours


As I watched my family, I caught sight of this dude also pensively staring into the gorge. Though I had been warned of monkeys, I didn’t realize I would be able to see one so close by.


Little did I realize that there was a whole family (or more) of monkeys right by me. They were so quiet that I hadn’t even noticed them. It was only after I saw the monkey in the previous photo that I looked around and spotted them!


Once everyone came back from the ziplining (everyone had high praises for the guides who were very friendly and even took photos with Baab’s camera), we hung around the area watching folks participating in bungee jumping and other activities.


This specific activity – the Flying Fox!


Some local signboards …


We then had tea at the Lookout Cafe, enjoying the nice weather and taking in the scenery

It was about noon or so when we finally informed the local staff that we were ready for our ride back. We could’ve walked, I guess, but it was hot and, we thought that others would be riding the minibus with us. In any event, we were the only ones on the bus. I requested the driver to drop me off on the way, as I had seen a post office near the railway station. I figured I would purchase a few local stamps. But when I got to the post office, I was disappointed – it was Saturday and they had closed just about half an hour before I got there. I then trudged back to our lodge all alone. In a couple of hours, we would be back out for our final excursion in Africa on this trip.

Right around the quoted time (it was either 3:00 pm or 3:30 pm), a minivan came by to pick us up for the Zambezi River cruise. At this point, we were happy that we had done everything we had planned to do – for the most part – on the African segment of the trip. Mrs. Porcupyn and the kids had really enjoyed the ziplining activity of the morning. So, the Zambezi river cruise was just a bonus, the way we looked at it.

I don’t know what made me think that the cruise was going to be happening downstream of Victoria Falls. Probably because I thought it was going to be closer to Lake Kariba which was – per my understanding – a quiet lake? I was disabused of that notion as soon as the ride got underway. Our driver informed us that downstream of the falls are a series of rapids and there is no way you could cruise through that (and I guess Kariba was not really that close anyway). She also told us that at night, there are regular sightings of elephants on the road that we were driving along to get to the cast off point on the river.

It seemed to us that the Africans (Zimbabweans to be precise) were learning from the Disneys of the world. As we got out of the minivan and about to step on the little cruise boat, there was a local dude (un)dressed in tribal garb singing some ditty. Some of the folks on the minivan gave him a tip; others didn’t! The captain of the boat launched into his spiel on what there was to see and what the plan was. The boat we were on had a limited dinner (as opposed to the buffet option), but it came with unlimited drinks/beverages. We had read about vegetarians having had issues with dinner cruises, so had tried to get the no food option; however, the sales lady attached to our lodge managed to convince us to go with the food option, lowering the fare a tad bit to keep our business! This is one where I don’t have a clue if we got a good deal or not. Mr. Porcupyn was trying to negotiate with the lady that she had read the fare as being two thirds of what was being quoted. In the end, we got about a 15% reduction – I never bothered to go back and do any post research on it 🙂

We had a great cruise – Mrs. Porcupyn was the only one in our group who did justice to the drink option (and even she got just one drink). The three (others) of us got a Fanta apiece. As for the wildlife, we saw a few hippopotamuses (or hippopotami, however you want to dice it), a crocodile, a few ducks, and – just as we were returning – two elephants out for a drink, very close to where we were about to dock. Unfortunately for us, by the time we docked, they had decamped. We did have a really nice sunset. Without further ado, here are the photos:


Getting started on the cruise


Two HippopotAmi!


Trigger happy paparazi


A zoomed in view


Per our unofficial guide aka fellow passenger (a Serbian who has relocated to Zambia), these are hippopotamus tracks


Competitors to our boat came in all shapes, sizes, colours and decors. And yes, some of these had the on-board barbecue, all-you-would-want-to-stuff-yourself buffets etc


He was lying there like a log, but we all knew who he was!!


Thirsty elephants

– ziplining in the morning
– afternoon River Zambezi cruise

August 3, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Ten (Victoria Falls National Park, Vic Falls)

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:04 pm

Aaah, Victoria Falls! It was a short walk from where we were staying to get to the Victoria Falls. But we had to negotiate a band of monkeys who had taken over the footpath. I was walking a few steps ahead of the rest of the family, but here I stopped. Mrs. Porcupyn was, like, are you scared of monkeys? I had to sheepishly admit that I was – ever since one had chased me around the roof of our home back in India when I was ten years (or less) old!

Anyway, when we were all four together – and folks behind us and coming from the other direction – I managed to gather up some courage and walk right through those monkeys. And they dispersed a bit as well. Soon, we were purchasing our tickets and entering the park.

As I had read previous trip reports, I knew there were a certain number of numbered view points. We started at #1 – Livingstone’s statue – and saw the Falls for the first time at #3 I believe. That’s the Devil’s Cataract. And immediately, I saw a rainbow. I was very excited and spent 15 minutes or so taking all kinds of photos there. If only I had known (don’t know if that was a unique day or not) … there were hundreds of rainbow photos to be had all along the path to the last numbered view point. In fact, if it were up to me, I would not hesitate to rename the falls Rainbow Falls (notwithstanding the fact that Her Majesty might not be happy with me, or that there is another Rainbow Falls located elsewhere on Earth!).

Without further ado or comments, let me share the photos. They are all self-explanatory (and are worth more than a thousand words apiece!). One thing I’ve got to say though. I had been a bit apprehensive of there not being enough water at the Falls – peak season is supposedly earlier in the summer (for us!), i.e., April through June. This year apparently there was a lot of water (because of precipitation) upstream and so, the water at the falls was more than enough. In fact, even when we were there, the mist was obscuring the falls half the time (so, the falls probably would’ve been as good to view for at least the next couple of weeks if not more).


Apparently someone had done that 😉


Do you see the lone dude at the top left of the photo?


Misty … when it really got misty, the entire opposite side was obscured. This happened quite often once we got to the main falls area all the way to the end. So, we had to stop and wait for the opportune moment when the winds shifted to get a good photo. Of course, on some of those wind shifts, the water would just rain down on us and we got royally drenched. I had smartly worn a polo that was self-wicking. I (intentionally) got drenched and sun-dried thrice during the walk. That was really a fun experience.


These rocks were slippery and warnings were posted, so we stayed relatively far away. There were some who chanced going closer to the edge. Fortunately for us (and for them), none of them went over the edge!!


Another perspective


The area had deer …


… and monkeys

Towards the end of the walking trail is a spot from where you can spot the road and railway line across to Zambia. We waited there for a while, eating our sandwiches for lunch and watching folks bungee jumping off the bridge over the Zambezi. We saw cars, trucks and other vehicles cross the bridge, but didn’t spot any trains. We then headed back to spend more time along the falls and get more of those great rainbow photos.

We had scarcely gone five minutes from that spot when we heard the distinct sound of a train whistle. I didn’t feel like going back as I thought it would be too late by the time we got back, but Baab dashed back to try to spot the train. He returned after a few minutes; apparently it was a freight train, but he had managed to catch sight only of its tail end. The photos that he took were not too clear. Bummer!

After hanging around the area until about five pm, we left the park and decided to walk towards the bridge. Someone had told us that we could get an exit permit to walk across the bridge and then walk right back (even though we didn’t possess a multi-entry visa into Zimbabwe). So we decided to enquire at the border for a bridge pass. The border official asked, “How many of you are in your group and what are you planning to do?” When we said that all we were planning to do was to cross the bridge then return, he pointed to the window where the officer would write out a pass for us. The officer wrote out a pass without asking for our passports or any other identification.


By this time, the sun was almost about to set

As we approached the bridge, we saw this steam engine that had hauled the tourist train to just across the bridge from Vic Falls station. This is a daily dinner train – the distance is hardly a couple of km, but the passengers get to leave Zimbabwe and spend time in Zambia right past the bridge. While the coaches are across the bridge, the engine drivers were doing their own thing in the engine. They invited Baab to get in the engine; in a couple of minutes, I saw that Mrs. Porcupyn had gotten on as well. Later, Mrs. Porcupyn told me that she thought maybe they were expecting to be tipped; unfortunately, she didn’t have loose cash handy and felt a bit embarrassed by it all. Anyway, Baab got to spend some time in the engine and was happy! The drivers didn’t appear too miffed about it all though, which was good to see.

We then walked across the bridge to the border signboard and just across it for some souvenir photos to proclaim that we set foot in Zambia as well 😉 At this point, we were approached by more folks selling their statues. I felt a little bad here as well, but we didn’t have loose cash and I didn’t want to get in any kind of trouble if it appeared at the border that we had made a transaction supposedly in Zambian soil or something like that. Right around this time, I also realized that none of us was carrying a passport, and all we had to be “legal” in Zimbabwe was the piece of paper that the border official had given us.

So, it got imperative that we get back into Zimbabwe quickly and become “legal” once more 🙂 When we were passing through the border this time, the lady asked for our passports, but when we explained that we had just gone for a stroll across the bridge and all we had was the bridge pass, she didn’t pursue the matter too much and let us proceed into Zimbabwe.

The following photos are from Baab’s camera.

– visited Victoria Falls
– walked across the bridge into Zambia
– take sunset photos

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