About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

17 March 2012

Perceptions of South Africa

It was always argued that the biggest benefit of the world cup, was the advertisement of South Africa as a tourism (and business) destination. Over the course of the past 4 weeks, I have come across numerous people who have either been to South Africa or want to go to South Africa. Of those people who want to go to South Africa, almost all of them learnt of it via the 2010 World Cup and/or Invictus.

In San Francisco, many of the business meetings started with a short discussion on the world cup. This was with Americans; people who are not fanatical about football (played with a round ball). In fact, I am not sure they watched the games; but they sure seen to have watched the associated tourism videos to ask whether surfing was better in Durban on in PE; or whether it was really not that great to visit Cape Town in June/July. The other influencing factor seems to have been Invictus; a movie where I think SA actors would just not have got the same level of name recognition even though the movie should have been watched due to the story and not who represents the players.

In Europe, most of the commenters had not only been to SA, but at least two, including another tourist (from Korea) went to the World Cup itself.and they also talked a bit about the football :)

The common thread across all of these conversations; was overwhelmingly positive. Those that have been commented that they felt the negative portrayals as over the top; that they really enjoyed South Africa and would go back (and recommend others to go). Those that haven't (and are wanting to go) commented that most of their acquaintances who have been felt that the negativity was unfounded; and asked whether I would concur.

Yet at the same time, news articles from SA websites and comments therein talked only about the negativities. It is not that negativity Is not warranted; but I think we have forgotten the good stuff. I think we have forgotten to enjoy some of our own attractions. And most of all, by not looking at any of the good news; we keep staying in the past.

One of my company's executives commented on a difficult project I was (intimately) involved in; that we often looked at the hard work or negativity of the project and didn't celebrate the successes, regardless how small, enough. I think the same applies to South Africa in general - we are mired in the depressive news and just don't celebrate the good things. Perhaps that is what we need to do more.

Random Stats and Facts from my Trip

Number of flights: 10
Approximate total time on planes: 60 hours
Number of different airports traversed: 9
Approximate total time in airports: 20 hours
Best legroom in economy class: United
Best Airline in terms of service: Virgin America
Worst Airline in terms of service: FinnAir
Best Airline Food & Drinks: SAA1
Number of delayed2 flights: 0
Best Airline Website: Air Berlin
Best Airport Traversed Through: Munich
Worst Airport Traversed Through: Tie between Berlin Tegel and Brussels
Number of cities (and surrounding towns) visited for more than 4 hours: 7
Number of cities visited for under 4 hours: 2
Number of transit cities (ie didn't set foot outside airport): 2

Number of intercity trains: 4
Number of ferry trips: 3
Number of bicycle trips: 1
Number of metropolitan transport systems used: 9

Most expensive single purchase: Bose QuietComfort headphones
Number of persons identified as South Africans (not traveling from same flight out of SA or known before hand): 3
Number of persons identifying me as a South African: 1 (Chinese tourist, supplier to K-Way)

1 SAA was the only airline to include a full bar service for free. It was also the only airline that gives bottles of water, cans of drinks and cartons of juice instead of pouring half into a glass in Economy class.
2 I am only counting in terms of arrival time. United flight out of San Francisco was delayed in departure by 45 minutes, but arrived almost on time in Chicago due o strong tail winds.

16 March 2012

Long live the SLR?

I bought an iPhone (4S) before this trip, mostly for two reasons - the iPod functionality on my iPad (1) wasn't great, and I wanted to use some of the travel apps (more on that on another future post).

What I used it for, more than anything else however, was the camera. In fact, I took more photos with my iPhone than with my SLR. All the photos on the blog from this trip, are taken with my iPhone. In the latter parts of the trip, I started seriously thinking on whether I should carry my SLR at all.

The SLR takes great photos, and has a few advantages that I doubt the iPhone will ever have. There is the obvious - a variety of lenses, for different conditions and/or effects. Associated with that is the control on the field of depth - optical zoom for consumer cameras. Even the versatility I have with my modest set of two lenses will be hard to replicate. It is also easier to use in some respects; easier to hold, has a neck strap (ie I don't have to hold on to it or dig it out of my pocket all the time), and can be used with gloves (and not freeze my fingers off).

But the iPhone does have its advantages. It is far lighter, it is an easy platform to blog from (the blogger app resizes automatically), email, tweet etc and backs up photos to Photo Stream seamlessly. It is also easy to take it to venues where cameras aren't allowed - like inside opera halls and concert venues.

So ultimately, I find that the SLR is not useful for the normal day to day city sightseeing. But going on a hike, or taking a photo of a scenic object from afar; it will remain the better tool. As for the photos of the detailed sculptures or frescos ... The SLR is better, but when you have a throng of people wanting the same shot, perhaps just a poorer shot with a phone will suffice.

"Es ist das neue iPad"

The launch of the new iPad in Munich (at the Apple store by Marienplatz) was obviously an event: people queueing up from the night before outside the store, bouncers at the door, ribbons to manage the queues and the store lit up brightly. It was well organised; the queuers had brought along camping chairs, there was security marshals and even water seemed to have been provided. Every now and then, a passerby would stop and ask, what's the fuss. A guard would state, that it is the new iPad, the passerby, young or old, would nod their head (as if it made complete sense) and perhaps even consider joining the queue. Even this afternoon, almost 6 hours after the launch, the queue and the queries remained the same.

No, I did not get the new iPad, not yet.

Wagner's Die Walküre

The Bayerische Staatsoper is one of the top opera companies in the world; and their theater, the National Theater, is in the heart of Munich's Altstadt. While walking around earlier this afternoon, I discovered that Wagner's famous Ring Cycle is being performed in the first half of 2012; and they had just started with Die Walküre, probably the most famous of the lot.

I took a chance and decided to see if there were any tickets left. There were; some of the best seats - center seats in the balcony, and damn expensive too. Ignoring the impact on my credit card bills; I took the plunge - the combination was hard to resist (and this is where Die Walküre had its debut performance to boot). It was close - the opera was scheduled to start in 75 minutes.

The National Theatre is beautifully ornate, but then it is the theater of kings. It is smaller than I thought it would be (given how big it is on the outside); but it still holds a lot of people. The audience was mostly older, and very formally dressed - almost every man had a tie, and they were all fully suited up. Ladies were very much dressed in their evening finery. I was very much out of place!

This production has a very modern feel, and is quite minimalistic in set design. That is not to say that the sets themselves were not interesting with a lot of moving parts to simulate the passage between scenes. The orchestra was conducted by the Japanese-American maestro Kent Nagano, who is also the music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper.

The modern bent did seem to split the audience, especially a little "gumboot" dance at the beginning of Act 3 (before the famous Ride of the Valkyrie music starts) which got both boos and applause. Notable for me, was the vast gulf in the depiction of Wagner's gothic/medieval world in Neuschwanstein and the modern costumes used in the opera. For example, Wotan, the king of the gods, wears a coat of tails and not a full blown Norse god costume.

Although I was aware of the basic outline of the story, I didn't know the details. Being a German opera in Germany, there was no translation either. The action does help in deciphering the story, but the minimalist approach does detract in conveying certain parts. I took the opportunity in one of the two breaks (the total performance is over 5 hours long) to go to the nearby Starbucks and load up on information! The Wikipedia article was particularly useful.

At the end of the opera, there is an interesting fire animation projection on the opera house. It is quite cool to watch as it takes form on the building facade.

I am glad that I did go to see the opera, it was an amazing performance at an amazing venue. Click on photos for a slight enlargement.

Munich Altstadt

Being a fairly old and powerful city, Munich's old city is fairly large. Due to the World War 2 bombing raids, there was significant destruction but many of the buildings have been rebuilt.

Although there are a lot of tourist places within the old city, it is also used by the locals; and is filled with commercial, residential and off course the leisure areas.

Marienplatz, is the centre of the old city and indeed Munich. The plaza is dominated by the "New Town Hall", with its famous Glockenspiel. Besides the churches, of which there are many, there are open air markets, there is the "royal" area with the palaces, the gardens and the opera hall. There is a significant amount of construction underway, regardless it is still a great place to walk around; especially at this time of the year.

Click on photos for a slight enlargement.

15 March 2012

Munich Altstadt's Churches

Though one of the smallest, the 1746 baroque church Asamkirche has to be the artistic gem of the city. It is amazingly decorated by its creators, two brothers, who are also responsible for the frescos at other churches in Munich. Most of the other churches are also well decorated, and although their paintings are rather drab their frescos usually make up for it.

The best view of the city, that was open at least, was St. Peterskirche (which is also the oldest church), whose 90 odd meter tower provides for wonderful views; at a cost of 1.50 Euros and a lot of effort in climbing a single file staircase.

14 March 2012


It is one of Germany's biggest tourist attractions, was the inspiration behind Disney's signature castle and when it was being built, one of the most advanced construction projects of its time. Built by Bavarian King Ludwig II, it was designed to be a "modern" medieval castle with recreation of Germanic mythology inspired by Wagner's masterpieces.

The castle is only accessible via a guided tour, which are run with the expected German efficiency. Tickets are bought from a centralised ticket office at the nearby Hohenschangau, Ludwig's ancestral home, which have a designated time and tour number. Tours start every 5 minutes, with a strict control of the ticketed flow. It is a fairly steep hike up from the ticket office, though it is possible to take a bus or horse drawn carriage partially up the hill.

Unfortunately, photography of the interior is not allowed, though you are allowed to take photos of the outside view from the castle windows. The completed parts of the castle (it was not completed by Ludwig's death and construction was halted thereafter) are lavishly decorated, with amazing paintings (of mostly Wagner opera scenes) and furnishings. Some of the advanced technology installed in the castle, such as a telephone and bathrooms with running water are also on display.

It is certainly worth the visit, and the trip; though beware of the steep walk up and the stairs that need to be climbed. Click on photos for a slight enlargement.


A very small town (or is it a village?) that seems to only exist to service the tourist traffic to Neuschwanstein and also King Ludwig's ancestral home of Schloss Hohenschangau. Surprisingly the cost of food and souvenirs were very reasonable.

Click on photos for a slight enlargement.


In the southern end of Germany, at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, it was once a key Roman town. Nowadays, it's the gateway to Neuschwanstein, and the last stop (or beginning) of the "Romantic Road". Thus it is now a town fueled by tourism, and has been since Neuschanstein was opened to the public in the late 1800's.

Remarkably, the town was mostly untouched by both World Wars, and thus the old town is well preserved, with wonderfully decorated facades. The information centre heavily punted a waterfall just outside the old town, which was fairly unremarkable; but the views of the, still, snow capped Alps made up for it. And of the buildings that were open after 4pm, the small but lavishly decorated Holy Ghost Hospital Church (built 1748) is well worth a visit.

I had also intended to visit Tegelberg, with its Roman excavations and reputedly the best views over whole area. Unfortunately, by the time I got back from Neuschwanstein, the last viable bus had already departed.

Click on photos for a slight enlargement.

Spring Transformation

Even last week when I returned from the US, there was ice and snow around Munich. 3 weeks ago, it was completely blanketed. Now spring has arrived, and as the grass and plants have sprouted, it is green everywhere. The Alps are however still snowbound, and this the countryside with the mixture of greenery and snow capped mountains is beautiful.

13 March 2012

Security controls at concerts

I have been surprised at the relative unsophistication of the concert security at both concerts. In most large concerts (and for that matter events of any kind) in South Africa, specific ticket categories get an associated coloured wristband. This wristband is given in exchange for the ticket at entry; thus there is a positive verification of the ticket (through the barcode and/or physical hologram) and the seat classification. The exchange also ensures that replay attacks (using the same ticket more than once) are minimized if not removed all together.

In both concerts, it would be easy to forge the tickets if you had knowledge of the ticket format. An original ticket is still required to enter the venue (as this is checked via a 2D barcode, on an online system it seems). However, once inside, there is only a visual check on the ticket type (eg standing or the seating zone). Thus, it would be quite easy to fake entry to a wrong zone or for that matter cause clashes in seating. Additionally, while the ticket check at entry was online, I think it was limited to the integrity of the ticket itself (ie whether this was a true ticket) and not whether the ticket details (eg seat 293) matched. Thus, this could be easily extended to alter PDF tickets if desired. I draw this inference from the validity check on the machine at the entrance which just stated OK, instead of showing the seat number or zones. Replay attacks on the entrance itself should also be possible, since tickets are not taken away; and a person can claim to have gone out for a smoke etc. At both concerts, there didn't seem to be any controls for people wishing to leave the venue completely, though I did not investigate this.

Another attack, which is much simpler is a replay attack for the standing zone. This would require a friend with a standing ticket who then passes it over to a person in the seating zone (there is a little wall as separation) though jumping is easier to detect and control via the sporadic marshals.

I think it would be easy to create the fake tickets, as tickets are sold online in PDF form (thus easy to manipulate) and also sold resold on eBay (thus easy to get more samples).

I am not sure to what extent this is exploited. What got me thinking about it, was the number of empty seats in Nightwish, given that it was a sold out concert. Since the ticket price is the same, the only concern is for the fire safety; which given the pyrotechnics is a real concern. There is otherwise no commercial incentive to enforce tickets, something that is true for concerts in South Africa.

Walking on (frozen) water

Near the Sebelius Monument, there is a small sheltered bay which is used by canoeists and other water sports enthusiasts. The water was frozen over, so people could (and were) walking through the bay instead of walking around.

Menu Innovation

Last night, I decided to use the Finnish Restaurant guide (eat.fi) to find a place to eat. I went to a Malaysian place, New Bamboo Center, with great reviews and cheap food - the best combination I think. The food was great, but their innovations on the menu design really impressed me. First thing, all their ingredients have pictorial icons, which are then showed under the menu item. Thus, instead of simply stating the various ingredients that go into the description, in three plus languages, they had a pictorial guide. So much simpler, I wonder why other restaurants don't do this!

The second one was the set menu, which has some inspiration from Indian "Thali" dishes. Instead of a set menu where you have one started, one main and one desert, this one had two starters, two mains and one desert. The starters and mains were simply half portions ... A great way to explore the menu!

12 March 2012


Helsinki is rated as one of the top places to live. I can understand some of the attractions: a city with wide open spaces, excellent public transport and facilities, multi cultural and multi-lingual and a great social services infrastructure. But there are also detractions - it is one of the most expensive places I have visited, it has really crappy weather in winter and there is a lack of sunlight (also in winter). What I find interesting is aside from the Australian cities; all the cities that are featured regularly in these lists are from "cold" regions - Zurich, Toronto, Stockholm etc. I am not sure what makes these places so attractive even after going to a number of these cities.

That said, Helsinki is a fairly small city; with a busy downtown and lots of suburbia. The older areas have some stunning architecture, but most are not outlandish. I did a lot of walkabout today, and was disappointed that most places, museums, churches, theatres and even some shops and restaurants were closed.

Click on photos for a small enlargement.

Temppeliaukio Church

On this trip, I seem to have visited a lot of churches. In Europe at least they are great due to the architecture and their art collections (especially old cathedrals). This church is unique for its architecture - it is carved in to take rocky hill close to downtown Helsinki. It looks awesome, and apparently features regular concerts that take advantage of the acoustics.

Click on photos for a small enlargement.


An immigrant's tale

I was drawn to Ibrahim's stall at the market, because the items looked familiar and very different to everyone else. He was selling sculptures made from iron, commonly seen in southern Africa but not many other places.

Although I didn't buy anything, I ended up chatting to him for a while. When he found out that I was from South Adria, he state without prompting that he got inspiration from similar crafts in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and that he was himself from Egypt.

He decided to leave Egypt about 20 years ago, and applied for visitors visas to a number of countries - Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Netherlands. All except Finland approved.

When he eventually got here, he had three weeks. Since he couldn't get a job, his strategy was the same as many others in his position, find a wife and get residency/citizenship. He married an old woman, an has been in Finland ever since, and working with metal sculptures for a number of years.

He has evidently had quite a lot of success in the past; he showed me numerous newspaper clippings featuring him with his sculptures, awards etc. But times aren't good - he claims that the Finnish economy is effectively in recession, and his artwork is more often bought by the rich and not normal tourists. The weather has also meant that there aren't that many tourists to sell to. Finally, with the coat of metal and coal going up, helped with additional taxes, his costs are also going up; negatively impacting his sales.

His tale was not different to another one in San Francisco. Manuel, from Venezuela, decided to leave for the US just as the politics in Venezuela wee changing. Like Ibrahim, he entered on a tourist visa (except he had an easier time due to his middle class background and friends already in the US); and once he got there got married to get his papers sorted. He subsequently got divorced, once the paperwork was completed. Manuel's comment was, that this process is so easy, he finds it difficult to understand why anyone would come in as an illegal; though did concede his background helped.

Both Manuel and Ibrahim have no intention of leaving. They consider themselves American and Finnish respectively; speak the languages, know the culture and fit in.

Ibrahim commented very positively on South Africa, that it is seen as the beacon of Africa; the combination of Africa and the west. He was surprised to hear that we have high employment; he was under the impression that jobs were plentiful! But one thing that I find interesting as a difference is how well immigrants integrate in certain countries; from the language to the culture. Maybe this is based on the skill type (most immigrants I have encountered are after all employed in IT or service industries). In SA this does not seem to happen well; especially with regards to language. Or perhaps it has something to do with the tightening up of immigration laws; citizenship in SA is not dependent on any language or cultural test (as in the case of Germany for example).

That said it is not necessarily bad; SA position allows for very quick processing and it makes it far more attractive as a means to attract skills. I know off many South Africans who want to leave, but there are so many from various parts of the world (not only from Africa) who want to come and stay. I am all for open immigration policies across the world, but having a combination of unequal policies, in my opinion, helps to exaggerate the problem.

Ibrahim's website: http://seppaibrahim.fi/.

11 March 2012

Helsinki to Tallinn (and back)

From Helsinki, there are a number of services; but in winter it seems that Tallink Shuttle is the most convenient. There is a discount for a same day return trip of approximately 15%, which led to a return price of 48 Euros.

On the Helsinki side, the checkin closes 20 minutes before departure. It was a good thing; with a late night yesterday, I made it to the terminal at 07:05 for a 07:30 departure, and I could still buy tickets. The Tallinn side has a 30 minute checkin deadline, so it's useful to note the difference.

There is still a lot of ice in the water by Helsinki (about 45 minutes of the 2 hour journey); but the views in the early morning were stunning. It was amazing however to see how much ice had melted away in the course of a few hours on the return trip, especially around Helsinki harbour. Other than a few birds, I didn't spot any wildlife but those probably keep clear of the ships.

The ferry's sitting arrangements were definitely not what I was expecting. There are no designated seating areas, but rather a set of lounges, usually next to restaurants or shops (no need to buy anything). I suppose that's not a bad idea in generating more revenue! I decided to have a breakfast buffet, which at 11 euros is very cheap for Helsinki, though it was not the most comfortable seats. Apart from the restaurants and shops, the ferry also has free WiFi and other facilities like kids playrooms etc.

While Tallinn's old town is the welcoming sight, Helsinki is all industry and factories; not very pretty. There are a few snowed in islands that are passed by, but gliding through the ice has its own charm. The ferry ride is incredible smooth, though the seas were also quite smooth.


I first heard of Estonia when I started doing research relating to digital identity schemes (in about 2003); and Estonia was at the forefront of implementing such schemes at scale. In fact, it is probably the first country to have mass migrated to the digital age, holistically. This is also supported how the entire coty seems to be bathed in (mostly free) wi-fi hotspots. I have been keen to visit the capital Tallinn for a while; especially when I discovered regular ferry routes from both Stockholm and Helsinki; and heard good things from a friend who was based there.

The main tourist attraction is the old town, parts of it dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. It is recognized as a world heritage site and considerable effort has gone in to restoration of the buildings. It's not to say that there are no modern buildings or that there are no dilapidated building; but they are the exception while people still live here, the area is filled with restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.

Tallinn is very tourist friendly; at least in the old town and from the port. There are regular maps and directions and there is quite a bit of information posted around the old town. I found those very fascinating as the history of Estonia is effective recounted; through the various wars and eras. Interestingly information is displayed in only Estonian and English despite the sizable legacy of Russian influence (and occupation) or the sizable trade relations with Finland and Sweden.

I thought I would have more time; but in the end I only managed to walk through the old town and go up the tower wall; although I did see a bit of the churches. I did not go inside the museums nor did I get round to seeing things outside the old town. The Russian orthodox churches are particularly beautiful.

Tallinn is quite a bit cheaper than Finland and Sweden, and perhaps in future itineraries (if there are any) it would be better to stay in Tallinn and do day visits to Helsinki instead of the other way around.