If you ever need to take the train from San Martino Buon Albergo to Verona, or really from any town to a city nearby, double check where you’ll be catching the train. Or maybe just take the bus.
We bought tickets to go from San Martino Buon Albergo to Milan and the day of our trip we sat at the train station waiting a train to Verona, our first point of transfer. We watched the name of our train creep up the arrivals board as it grew closer to departure time. We made friends with a few other tourists who were also waiting for the same train. But the train just never came. The train number passed up and off the board while we eyed the tracks and took turns running out to the parking lot because maybe, just maybe it was actually a bus? None ever came.
Ten minutes after our supposed departure time, I ran back to a nearby café to see if they knew what was up. They confusedly pointed me back to the train station. “It hasn’t arrived,” I told them. They were baffled.
We gave up on the train and caught a bus to Verona, now half an hour late for our train to Milan. We had a train to catch the following day from Milan to Grenoble, France. And that would be an expensive ticket to buy again.
The bus dropped us off at the Verona train station, where we prepared ourselves to argue our case with a Trenitalia attendant. But the guy at the ticket kiosk took one look at our tickets, heard our story, and after punching some numbers into the computer, handed us new tickets. And the phantom train that never came? The attendant shrugged his shoulders and remarked that he didn’t know what happened either.
It’s that time again! The zipper on my left boot has been slipping more often and yesterday, with a final tug, a side of the zipper pull slipped off the teeth. I’ve been able to tie the boot shut with some string, but it won’t last long.
With some help of google and the hotel staff, we look up a local shoe repair shop and get a written description of the repair we want and we’re off. It takes us a while to find the place; sandwiched between a new teahouse and a restaurant, the shoe repair storefront looks more like someone’s house. But a no-nonsense older woman comes out when we knock on the door, followed by her husband. After taking a glance at the shoes and our note, she nods and we talk business. She wants around USD $30 for the repair and won’t take less. We don’t have a lot of power to talk her down, so we try a different tack: could they resole Stoytcho’s flip flops as well for that price? We pantomime this action, putting new rubber onto the bottom of his flip flops. She gets it and agrees–we’ve got a deal. Stoytcho takes off his flip flops and, now barefoot, hands them over to the woman. Meanwhile, the man is turning my boots over in his hands, evaluating, assessing, and thinking of repairs.
Three days pass before we can return to them to pick up the shoes. When we arrive, the woman smiles and retrieves our shoes, perfectly repaired. For my boots, they removed the old zippers and added new ones in for both the left and right shoe so they match. They’ve also done some sewing where the threads between the leather parts were failing, and added glue at some of the weakened seams between leather and rubber sole. Stoytcho’s flip flops are a bit more of a patch job: they found some old black treaded rubber and glued that onto the bottom of each sandal. It’s crude, but works like a dream. They don’t slip on the wet tile and marble in wet bathrooms, nor out on the sidewalk.
We thank the couple and give them an extra tip for their awesome work. Then it’s off to take more steps and continue our trip around the world.
P.S. If you’re looking to repair your shoes in Hanoi, we can definitely recommend these two. You can find them right around here (+/-1 on the address number):
This is day 2 of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo, an ambitious (and overly optimistic) expedition that’s wilted in the relentless tropical heat under the weight 50 kg of gear. Our path is here:
While this hike is do-able, it’s way harder than Google lets on, especially given the near-continuous uphill ascent, the tropical heat, and heavy packs with all of our stuff. Here’s the short summary of the hike verdict:
We sleep through sunrise and wake up around 9 to the sound of people walking around our tent. Then we see a hand slip underneath the rainfly and try to lift it and Stoytcho shouts “HEY!” The hand retreats. We dress for the hot day ahead and emerge from the tent to find a group of guys hanging around our tent, waiting for a ride out to the fields to start work. They’re curious, and stare at us with sheepish smiles on their faces. Our tent, with its slick orange-and-grey rain cover hiding everything, is a UFO – unidentified field object – for them.
We decamp and continue our hike in the increasing thickness of the day’s heat. Though we’re now continuously climbing in elevation, it’s not fast enough to shake the drag of tropical weather that wearies us at every step. When we stop for a break to check our progress and refill our water, we’ve only covered 2 km in an hour. We’re not going to make it today at this rate, so it’s time to change tactics.
Back on the main road, we stick out our thumbs in hopes of catching a ride. It fails spectacularly. At first it’s because the trucks are full of farmers catching rides to their fields, so there’s no room for us. Then comes a string of ojeks, some of which are so low-powered that they already have a former passenger running up a steep hill behind them, only to get back on at the top. But empty trucks also bafflingly pass us, sometimes honking with driver grinning. Are they making fun of us? Finally, a passing ojek driver honks and with a laugh, throws us a thumbs up. Holy crap, they don’t know we’re looking for a ride—they just think we’re giving them a universal sign for “good job”!
When the next empty truck approaches, we change tack and wave our hands frantically. The driver stops and looks out the window, and we point toward the truck and ask “Bromo?” He nods, and we ask “Harganya berapa?” (how much does it cost?) With a shake of his head, the driver motions for us to get into the truck bed. We scramble up and drop into a pile of wood planks and cardboard boxes as the truck lurches forward. In minutes, we we’re flying up hills that would have taken us hours to walk, gazing down sheer cliff drops alongside the narrow road over the two-foot walls of the truck bed.
The truck drops us at the entrance to the national park, where we get a nasty surprise: entrance to the park for foreigners costs 220,000 IDR ($16 USD) per person, which is most of the money we’re carrying. We try to explain that we haven’t got much and it has to take us all the way to Cemoro Lawang, but the park guard isn’t interested. He isn’t paid enough to care. We dig around and find enough to pay the fee for admission to an apologetic girl at the admission booth. She speaks enough English to kind of understand the situation, but can’t do anything beyond offer us our admission tickets and a “sorry.”
We continue the ascent up the hill by foot, trying to flag down another ride for free since we now only have only 200,000 IDR to take us through Cemoro Lawang and down to Surabaya. Most of the trucks that pass us are tour jeeps, so they’re either full of tourists already or they’re not going to be giving out any free rides. We finally flag down a huge construction vehicle the size of a semi, but there’s nowhere for them to pull off to let us on so we’re forced to jump on while it moves slowly beside us. We find ourselves in a mess of bent rebar and cement buckets beside construction workers—these guys are going up to Bromo to build something. They take us a few minutes to a turnoff, then the drivers tops and scrambles up to tell us it’ll be 100,000 rupiah for a ride. We tell him we haven’t got any money and get off. It looks like we’ll be hiking the rest of the way when another black pickup pulls over at our shouting and waving and motion for us to get into the back.
It couldn’t get any luckier. These guys drop us off in Jemplang, the highest point in our hike, and point us in the direction of Bromo in the wide valley below. They’ve been so kind to us that we ask “Harganya berapa?” but the guys in the truck smile and shake their heads. “Terimah Kasi” is all we can offer them.
The Tengger Caldera:
We make our way downhill for the first time in hours, descending to the floor of a miles-wide valley. Steep hills flank us one side, erosion lines snaking down their sides. A towering cliffedge rises to our other side, a near-vertical wall that seems too perfect for mountain erosion. And it’s not. This sheer cliff beside us is the rim of the ancient Tengger caldera, the wall of a hollow more than three miles across made by an explosive volcanic event millions of years ago. We’re merely ants, crawling on its surface.
The west side of the crater is lush green prairie, cut only by the dirt tracks used by humans for travel. It’s beautiful and isolated, silent except for the cooling wind coming off the surrounding mountains and an occasional vehicle engine. Clouds drift over us so slowly, we can see and feel the shift between sunlight and cloud shadow. We hike by families picnicking, couples resting by bikes, and newlyweds doing photoshoots, all lost in an endless sea of waving grass.
We proceed eastward as the sun dips in the sky, signaling the disappearing daylight hours in the moments we can see it. The clouds have become thicker, forming a wall before us. The landscape is also changing: the endless prairie has faded to a few sparse patches of grass huddling together on an increasingly barren landscape. This is the start of the sandsea, the barren desert of brown-black dust and sand between the prairie and Cemoro Lawang. We hike on, breathing in the chilling air, using the wheel tracks of ojeks and trucks to guide us in an otherwise featureless landscape. Occasionally a vehicle materializes from the mist wall before us and passes by, dissolving back into the mist from whence it came.
But the sandsea is not silent. There’s this dull rumble at all times, like a simmering of malcontent just beyond the wall of mist. Finally, there’s a break in the mist wall that reveals the source of both sound and overcast sky: the volcano Bromo, exhaling a continuous miasma into the sky above us.
The last few kilometers of the hike are messy, as the poor visibility ahead and crisscross of tracks left by tourist vehicles and dirtbikes make it hard to find the trail to Cemoro Lawang. We finally find a row of concrete posts leading in the town’s direction and follow it. Though there’s no change in the landscape, each step draws us closer to the town, to putting down our packs, to a room with a bed in a place that hopefully takes credit cards.
Suddenly a form materializes from the mist before us, an oasis of a lone tree surrounded by a wall. Scattered remains of flower and food offerings lay on the altar before it, and we stop for a few minutes to rest. The temperature continues to drop and we can feel the cold through our jackets. A few meters on, we find the east lip of the crater, a steep road zig-zagging up to Cemoro Lawang. It’s our final ascent in the creeping dusk; it can’t have taken more than half an hour, but it feels like an eternity.
Cemoro Lawang, perched on the crater’s edge, is utterly silent. By some miracle we have phone reception (many thanks, T-Mobile) and manage to find a hotel on Hotels.com that we can pay via credit card. After checking in, we walk the streets looking for an ATM, and our fears are confirmed: there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang (as of April 2017). Luckily, the hotel restaurant and a handful of others take credit cards. Freed from our packs, we sit down to a hot meal of stir-fried vegetables, rice, soup, and tea.
In the end, I can’t say that hiking from Tumpang to Cemoro Lawang is something I’d recommend to everyone. But given the chance, I’d do it again. We saw parts of Indonesian life that are otherwise unseen, the streets of villages and families living beyond the bustling cities that make up Java’s economic heart. We were the recipients of endless kindness and curiosity and warmth. And we like to think we gave the folks at Google some good corrective data about their walking estimates—the elevation feature that’s now standard in walking routes was added shortly after.
UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo.
It’s anyone’s worst nightmare on a road trip: getting stranded with an empty gas tank far from help because oops, it turns out that there wasn’t another gas station for a hundred miles. This is the sort of thing we futureproofed back home with a gas canister in the car trunk and a wary eye on the gas gauge during our two road trips across the States. So how did it happen to us in New Zealand?
We were prepared, but not in the right ways
Running out of gas was one of our worries when we first set out into New Zealand’s Northland, which is more sparsely populated than the rest of the North Island. To figure out how likely that was, we used both Google Maps and CamperMate (which was indispensible during our trip) to plot the number of gas stations on our route. To our relief, there were several, so running out of gas because of a lack of stations wasn’t an issue. Because we weren’t sure how extensive ATMs and credit card coverage was in the Northland, we also pulled out $200 NZD and stashed it for emergency. We double checked that our credit card worked here through some grocery purchases, and it looked like we were all ready to go.
The sparsely-populated Northland West Coast was where we hit trouble
The first half of our drive, which took us up the Northland East Coast through large settlements like Whangarei, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri were no problem. All of them had gas stations where we got gas without a hitch and continued on our way–some even had friendly attendants to pump the gas for us and pass the time with small talk. We grew used to this system, and so the first sign of trouble after our visit to Te Paki Sand Dunes didn’t raise alarm bells. We noticed the gas gauge was at a quarter-tank, so we found a G.A.S. station (it’s a brand in NZ) and pulled off. There was no sign of attendant, but we were happy to pump our own gas at the self-service kiosks, which seemed to only take credit cards. I popped my card in and the machine prompted me for a PIN.
For those in the audience wondering whether there’s a typo above, there isn’t. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, meaning that you insert your card into the machine and then enter a series of numbers like you would at an ATM. In contrast, the U.S. credit card work on chip-and-signature, meaning we stick the card in the machine and it spits out a receipt for us to sign. Unsurprisingly, the two systems don’t always play nicely together. Since we in the States don’t have PINs for our credit cards, they don’t always work for purchases abroad.
I’d read beforehand about possible workarounds for the PIN problem, including hitting “Enter” without entering a number or simply typing “0000” and hitting “Enter”. I tried both of these combinations on the machine and both times it rejected my transaction and returned the card. “Huh, how annoying,” I thought to myself. We climbed back into the car and drove to the next station, only a few kilometers away. To our delight, this one had a convenience store attached to it, so when our credit card failed to work again we went in to ask what to do. The convenience store employee stared at us. “I have no idea what to do. I just work for the convenience store, and it’s not related to the gas station…” she told us. Oh dear.
Solving the problem and getting gas
We kept on driving for a couple hours, nervously watching the gas gauge edge down and stopping at every gas station to check if it was manned–none were, and every automated system rejected our credit card. Over debate, we settled on two possibilities: there was a small town coming up that might have a manned station. And if it didn’t, we were going to stop there and wait for someone else to come by and use the station, when we could ask to use their card in return for a cash payment.
The next town, unsurprisingly, also had an automated gas station. Station is a stretch of the word; it was really a single pump next to the town’s tiny harbour. I tried the usual actions with the credit card, it still rejected the payments. No cash accepted, either, so this was it. We settled in for a wait, gazing across the harbor at a few bobbing boats in the black-blue bay. We cleaned up our stuff scattered around the car a bit and made ourselves look as un-disheveled as possible (which is hard when you’ve been camping for four days). And we waited.
Twenty minutes passed before another car rolled up to refuel. As the woman wrapped up her transaction, we approached her and asked if we could pay her cash in return for buying gas on her card. She seemed baffled, but said sure and set the pump up for another transaction. We filled the gas tank to full, then handed her the receipt and cash. SAVED!
Preventing the problem in the first place
We didn’t encounter this problem for the rest of our New Zealand road trip because we rerouted ourselves to pass through a major city every other day and filled up whenever we encountered an attended gas station. But the feeling that we might run out of gas in a rental car hours from any help, coupled with the fear that help would break our travel budget, was pretty stressful. Here are three things you can do to prevent this problem in the first place and take a lot of stress off your shoulders:
Call your credit card company and get a PIN – This one wouldn’t have worked for us, but some U.S. credit card companies will give you a PIN if you explain where you’re travelling and ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to try.
Carry a full gas canister with you – This is what we normally do on road trips, but we didn’t see this as an option with our rental car. Ask about a spare gas canister and rent one if you can, since it’s worth the peace of mind during your road trip.
Plan your route to hit a major city every X kilometers – Since you can estimate mpg and can look up the size of the gas tank, you can easily figure out how far the car will go before it needs a refill. Plan your route so that you’re near a city when you’re running low, since cities will have a plethora of gas options and at least some are manned.
In an ideal world, your credit card works around the world without a hitch because the financial systems all play nicely together. And barring that, in a secondary ideal world, whether a location requires credit cards with PINs or whether it’s manned with an attendant who can help would be neatly spelled out under each establishment’s description. But neither of these things has come to pass (yet), so save yourself the worry and make sure you’re road tripping prepared.
We’ve come so far, through Panama and northern Colombia, with nary a moment to think about the roasted and somewhat ground cocoa beans we’ve been carrying. We needed a coffee grinder to turn our current cocoa product into the final product*, chocolate. Since we finally have a breather in Medellín, we went in search of a coffee grinder to continue our Hostel Chocolate adventure.
Part 1: The search for a coffee grinder
Colombia is one of the top three coffee exporters and is rewnowned for some high-quality brews, but getting a coffee grinder here is nearly impossible. Good coffee gets exported and the people here mostly drink the pre-ground, freeze-dried coffee, so grinding your own coffee just isn’t a thing. We started our search at big-box stores such as Falabella and Exito, big-box stores like Wal-Mart that sell appliances. While they offered coffee-makers, they had no coffee grinders. The next day we tried three independent coffee shops in the Zona Rosa district—two had no coffee grinders, and the last only had a high-end Japanese glass grinder for $100 USD. Eesh. We asked this last coffee shop where we might be able to find an electric coffee grinder, and they suggested a mall in the next district. So we caught a bus there and hunted around until we found a department store. We asked if they had a coffee grinder and indeed they did! But then we asked how much it was, and they said it wasn’t for sale. The grinder was only available as a free gift with the purchase of a KitchenAid mixer for hundreds of dollars. Defeated, we returned to our hostel.
The next day we stopped by a Juan Valdez for a cup of tea, and lo and behold, they had an electric coffee grinder for $25 USD! It was the last one and a bit dented, so I tried to talk them down in price, but the manager said no to my attempts. All the same, WE HAD OUR COFFEE GRINDER! Thinking I could try making milk chocolate without cacao butter, I grabbed some powdered milk on the way home as well. At the time I didn’t notice it says “fortified with iron”. When I realized it I just figured, “the chocolate will be extra healthy?” Hooray!
Part 2: Cacao’s time to grind
That night, I got to grinding the chocolate in hopes of finally completing our chocolate, only to run into the problems of capacity and viscosity. The first problem was capacity—we had roughly 300 g of chocolate, but the machine had capacity for only 50 g at a time.
To get the machine to grind the chocolate effectively, I had to grind it for a couple of minutes, open the lid and mix it around, then grind again. I’d repeat this process 2-3 times, so the first batch took about 10 minutes. Despite this, by the end the chocolate had gone from rough grind, to fine powder, then a dark mud, and finally a dense liquid. We had cacao paste, ready for action!
This is when I encountered the second problem of making cacao in a grinder: the viscosity. Cacao paste has a higher viscosity than ground coffee, so the coffee maker wasn’t designed to handle the extra resistance. The coffee grinder’s motor worked harder, and coupled with the reduced heat dissipation from a paste (instead of the drier ground coffee), the machine soon began to overheat. After the second batch the grinder produced a burning smell, and I had to take breaks within and between the following batches to keep the grinder from dying entirely.
With these setbacks, the cacao grinding took about 3 hours in total, and at the end I had a still-slightly grainy paste. I tried to improve the consistency by heating it a pan to grind it again (above), but this turned into a massive mess. Unhopeful, I mashed it into a clean leftovers container** and set it aside to cool overnight.
Not wanting to admit total defeat, I also took one spoonful and dissolved it in some milk made from our powdered milk and sugar, and had myself some chocolate milk. It felt like the spiritual equivalent of making lemons out of lemonade, since we didn’t have high hopes for the cacao paste.
The next day we took a look at the cacao paste and it didn’t look as bad. It had solidified into a dark mass and seemed less grainy, but some areas had white bloom suggesting the fat had separated from the rest of the cacao mass. We were heading to Guatape that day, so I didn’t have time to move forward with the rest of the recipe. But as you’ll find out soon, this was actually a lucky move.
Stay tuned for our adventures in Guatape, the land of many (artificial) lakes, and the culinary conclusion of Hostel Chocolate!
* A coffee grinder is actually a subpar tool for making chocolate because the ground cacao particles aren’t small enough and result in somewhat grainy chocolate, but it’s the cheap option. Various kinds of ball mills are used to create small-batch and commercial chocolate, running quickly into the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars category. There are cheap ball mills out there for $150-200 that some people swear by for chocolate-making. But I figured our chance of running into one of those in Colombia was pretty much nil.
** When travelling you’re often short on your standard kitchen gear, so saving food containers from restaurants and takeout is insanely useful. It’s basically +1 item for food storage that you can discard or leave behind when you have to move on. We found the Styrofoam boxes don’t keep well, but plastic ones are wonderful. Even the super flimsy plastic ones (like the one in the final photo above) can be reused a few times.
It’s a great injustice to the world that we made it all the way to Cartagena and our first post is about visiting the hospital. But on day 3 of our Cartagena adventure, we got the most wicked food poisoning that either of us have ever had. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the standard symptoms were accompanied by joint pain and rash, which worried us a bit because these symptoms overlap with Chikungaya, Dengue, and Zika, a trio of mosquito-borne viruses in the family Flaviviridae. After consulting a friend who’s a doctor-in-training (HI ADRIAN!), we decided it would be safest to go to the hospital and took a taxi to Hospital Universitario de Cartagena. We learned the following fun facts about Colombian hospitals:
Public ones treat anyone and everyone for free, for 24 hours. If you choose to stay longer you start incurring costs, but that first 24 hours is free no matter who you are.
The facilities in urgent care were shabby. There were almost enough chairs and beds, but some people still lay on the floor or sat on the ground in some places. There was a toilet with no seat, and no running sink water nor drinking water in our waiting room. This likely led to the next revelation, which was…
Their solution to everything is an IV of saline. Yes, it made sense in our case, since we were probably dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea. It probably also made sense for other people who had fevers. But a girl with a broken arm? IV. Or the guy with an open leg wound? IV. Or even the guy who was almost decidedly mentally ill and homeless? IV of saline was what the doctor ordered. Every time.
Once you check in, you’re a patient there until they allow you to leave. We may not have understood this one correctly, but once we checked in and they drew blood for tests, we were told by the guard we couldn’t leave until we were cleared to by the doctor. The doctor was waiting for our test results. Those ended up taking 6 hours.
Despite everything the doctors and nurses were wonderful and listened to us stumble through our symptoms with broken Spanish. After IVs—alright, full disclosure here, they failed to peg me twice with an IV and after that I was done—and waiting for test results, the doctor came by to let us know we were suffering most likely from food poisoning and not some mosquito-borne virus, gave us prescriptions, and sent us on our way. It was exhausting, but we had answers. And even though we have travel medical insurance, it was still a huge relief to know that we wouldn’t have to worry about some kind of medical bill. Thank you, Colombian medical system. You did a great job.
As of yesterday, we’ve officially left the United States. Hello from Mexico City, capital of Mexico! And while there are always hiccups in travel, destroying yout travel computer is definitely a serious oops.
We’ll be posting later about the gear we’re bringing, but we had planned to bring my old laptop, a ThinkPad X220 affectionately known as Ol’ Bricky, for two reasons: it looks old and shabby so it’s less likely to get stolen, and it’s INSANELY durable, having survived being launched off my desk, dropped down a flight of stairs, and daily life thereafter without much of a complaint.
There were a couple of cracks in Ol’ Bricky from the life it had seen, including splitting at the plastic seam around the screen, so we figured we would patch them with epoxy. Stoytcho did this, and managed to use clamps to hold the screen’s plastic together while it cured. I, naturally, couldn’t wait for it to cure and kept working on my email backlog. At some point I shifted the screen a bit too much and knocked one of the clamps off. It fell onto the keyboard, directly over the hard drive area. Ol’ Bricky stuttered and seemed fine for a moment. Then it shut down.
We spent the next three hours figuring out how bad the situation was. I tried booting from the hard drive in the bios, then Stoytcho pulled out the hard drive and tried booting from an external hard drive, with mixed results. When it became clear we couldn’t fix it, I pulled out my backup laptop and started downloading things we would need for the trip onto it.
The new laptop–we’ll call it Spaz–is a ThinkPad Yoga, so it’s a newer and (technically) nicer laptop. I didn’t want to bring Spaz on the trip though because 1) newer means higher likelihood of theft and 2) it’s actually terrible to use and less durable for a whole host of reasons I won’t go into here because it’s not a tech blog. Suffice to say that I’ve had more problems with Spaz in three years than I had with Ol’ Bricky in almost double that time. But maybe Spaz will surprise us. And as for Ol’ Bricky, it’s resting for now, but we’ll bring it back to life with a new hard drive when we return.
That’s all for now, but I pinky promise the next entry will be about actual traveling. And it will have pictures!