Thursday, May 30, 2013

The start

The start was hard and rainy. Ilona came to the rendez-vous which was still kind of unexpected. Of course I would have been really dissapointed had she not come but I saw it more as a pleasant surprise than an obvious fact.
I finished some preparations at her place and at the same time and met the roommates at the same time. Vojta, I think his name was, told me that there already is a guy who plans to demolish me should Ilona not return home in one piece.
To be completly honest I had expected such information, I just thought I would hear this from her father first.

Brno was horrible, we didn't get a single lift. We tried the direction towards Vienna in late afternoon without any luck. Ilona takes the hitchhiking art very seriously. I mean she even has a hitchhiking face. I wouldn't get that far to say it works but some late results make me doubt that it was only a coincidence.
Another difference with my cousin is that we don't split our hitchhiking time in half, she does most of the thumbing. But that may change in the days to come, when we reach the muslim countries.

We slept at the gas station in Brno in a trio of high trees, a river flowing nearby. Also, I think we were on a lawn. There is no harder psychological test for a hitchhiking pair than starting with a fail hitch. Plus Brno is Ilona's home town so, double fail. So why didn't we sleep at her place? Or at my great uncle's (also in Brno)?
You have to understand the social pressure on us. Ilona's the "lady who goes to Kamchatka" and I... well I told so many people I am going east that there is just no turning back. Don't you feel sorry for us for this pressure was voluntary. We knew it would come to such moments, to hard moments we would want to back down, to backtrack the path. And I for one do know that I want to keep going.

After our night in Brno we decided to forget that day and start over. Our first lift was to Bratislava, first change of currency... from Czech Crown to Euro... how exotic!
The guy driving us was kind of cool, he was all about alternative ways of life while working in a big company but you should not only judge people by what they do but also what they want and what they dream about. One day, it might just come true.

At Bratislava we got stuck in the rain. Did I mention the rain? I didn't mention the rain. I have to mention the rain because it's the second most common entity on our path, just after breathable air. Hitchhiking works badly in the rain. And we were in a pretty bad gas station in Bratislava. All the people were going inside the city. Some guy told us to pay him 4 euros which theoretically is our 2 day budget and he would take us to a better gas station.

From there we continued towards Budapest with three hungarian girls all pretty as a 

picture. They were really nice and one of them spoke french. We promised we'll send a postcard from Japan or somewhere exotic. I'll have to remember that.
From Budapest it all went pretty fast. We hitched a few rides until the croatian border including a romanian guy who spoke spanish and I couldn't understand a word. Thank god Ilona saved us with her portugese otherwise he would have taken us all the way to Italy through Slovenia.

My friend Petar is leaving the next day and we are still about 30 kilometers from Cakovec. The hungarian border guards spent an unecessary amout of time checking our backpacks. Petar saw our GPS beacon and wanted to drive us because he thinks that we will never survive in the wilderness of his country. Hopefully, we caught a ride which saved him the unnecessary price of the highway toll.

Petar welcomed us to his home in Cakovec. It was the kind of warm welcome you experience in the east and which makes me kind of sad when I look at our cultures at home. But I am part of these cultures so I shouldn't throw blames just to look good should I?
Petar's mom is a neurologist whatever that is but it's really fancy and his dad's an engineer who works with stuff in Sarajevo which is also cool.
We met Petar's friends who showed us around Cakovec. That's when I realized that I've aready been there. Ages ago, on a random hitchhiking trip. I regret not to have seen the underground tunnel they told me about.
I think Petar is lucky to have such good friends. Some people are blessed with good friends and I am one of them. It's an important thing.

We explored Cakovac with him and Neda, a kind girl with a melancholic face or maybe it was the rain. We were joined by his brother Fica and his artist girlfriend. When I say artist girlfriend I don't mean a normal girlfriend with a talent. I mean like a real artist who draws misunderstood stuff, wanders out of reality and back. Of course I cannot say that, I saw her for a few hours but she reminds me of that artist character in season two of Dexter. Without the killing part I dare to hope. Let's say, to put it simple, she strikes me as the popular artist cliché. And she exposes too. I mean really, in places where random people go see her work. Not just on her mothers fridge. That's cool I guess.
At least to me, I'm way more receptive to visual art than for example, music.

While Petar packed and the artistic couple went to another bar, I tried to fix my site. There was something wrong with the connection between the GPS beacon and the receptor task. We finally fixed and tested it with Petar. All is well.

The next day we drove with Petar and his parents to the airport. This was an emotional sequence, especially for his parents. Three of his friends burst into the airport to say goodbye, a guy followed by two Ninas. One of the Ninas was Nina Gojic, I must've seen her on facebook. Afterwards Petar's parents dropped us in Zagreb with additional food so we don't starve to death between now and the time we meet Ante. Who knows what can happen in Zagreb. Anyway they were really nice.

Now we're in a church, the orgue just stopped playing. If you wonder what kind of asshole I am to write my blog in a church, Ilona's opinion says that's OK and she's more of a christian than you are.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My apps, my tablet

China's full of geeks, right? Every single of them has a smartphone, even the tribesmen of the least known tribe of the desert in Xinjiang. But not only do they have smartphones they have rooted them. What's rooting a device you might ask unless you're one of my dearly missed geeky friends.
Rooting a device, phone or tablet is getting full access to it. You can do things a normal user can't do. Like running certain more applications or running linux for example.
And as Nabila would say:
I think you can only understand the joke if you're french, sorry
I have one quite important reason for rooting my tablet but I'll keep that a secret until we pass the deadly trinity.
Among other reasons, I needed to root my tablet to put Linux on it. Rooting a tablet is a process in which you trick the system into giving you full access. There are several steps when you unlock different parts of the tablet until you finally can do whatever you want with it. It's a risky proces for some tablets, especially mine but if I succeed I'll suely earn the respect of all of the People's Republic of China so I guess that's worth it!
Unfortunately the internet went down before I had the chance to start the process. I was in the south-east of France at the time. In that reagion, public transportation is scarce and my distance-wise closest friend was 10km away so I spent afternoons and nights going there and away.
Even though we have our differences I am thankful to him for letting me there.
Once the tablet rooted, I spent days looking for useful applications. Applications are not as important as real gear but they can be really handy. Here's what I found useful:
  • Maps: MapsWihMe is a great application that enables you to download very detailed maps into your device. You download the countries you want (you can download regions for Russia) and you can access them offline afterwards. It will even localize you on the map using the tablet's GPS chip. Finally, it includes a very nice function: it stores the maps on an external SD card if you wish. This is extremely welcome since the maps are 100Mo/country and my tablet doesn't have that much memory.
  • Languages: Google Translate. Better than any dictionary. You can download languages offline just like the maps. Afterwards, you can translate things offline and even translate whole sentences, it has some knowledge of the language grammar. The only two downsides is that are that it doesn't translate from and into pinyin in chinese (and go figure the correct pronounciation from the sinograms!) and it cannot store languages on SD card.
  • Wifi crackers: Free wifi is good, hacking into secure wifi is good too. So just in case I downloaded Penetrate Pro which is supposed to work pretty easily but unfortunately it only works on a small nomber of routers. In the real world you'll be able to crack one secure wifi out of about 100, at least here in europe. I am also taking Backtrack which only works on rooted tablets. I haven't tried it but I hope for a better performance than Penetrate.
  • Facebook, google talk, twitter, gmail: for obvious reasons
  • Weibo, the chinese twitter
  • Communication in remote places: Spot Connect enables me to use my GPS beacon to write text messages on my tablet and send them via satellite even when there is absolutly no phone coverage.
  • Hitchhiking spots: Hitchwiki is an application which lets you access all of online It's not a very mature app but it has all the info. Offline browser is better. You can store web pages and whole websites to access them offline later. It's great for storing useful countries from hitchwiki and later use them to find the good hitchhiking spots.
  • A photo processing program: Not some lame quick software with a few fancy looking filters applied to the whole image. Something closer to photoshop with layers, text insertion, brushes. I haven't been able to find a suitable one yet, if someone has any ideas.

Monday, May 6, 2013

16 kg snail

One day left until the end of Ilona's exams.
Ten days until I leave france
Two weeks until we leave home.
Not too long after that before we leave europe.
Facing these facts I had to face one more: shit I have no equipement. On most of the blogs I read this kind of preparations happen at least 5 months before departure. 5 months ago I wasn't even sure to have a partner, buying new gear would seem like paying for prayers.
For a long time I had trouble believing it would work out. Fate is fragile and capricious and you sure as hell cannot buy it with money. Luck is much more controllable but way less reliable. Don't worry, I'm not the superstitious type.
I saw quite a number of people lately among witch I was glad to see Alex. Alex is a special person to me in some ways  but I am not going into that now, I must stay on topic. You might hear from her in the future though, especially during the sea crossings.
But enough with the introductions, let's get the gear! The gear has to be extremly useful, each element has at least two different ways to be used in order to be accepted in the very selective bag. The weigh is important as so is a volume. It shouldn't be more than 14kg and 15 liters.
This is way less than what we brought with my cousin on our waaaay shorter trips. Usually I had a 20kg bag, food and water included and a 70L bag. My cousin had less than that but easily 15kg. Why pack smaller? Because I'll have to carry it... for a long time. Of course I'll miss things, I'll miss them a lot but I'll miss my body parts more if they collapse because of too much weight.
Alex found me a first aid kit but from the looks of it it's almost a mobile hospital. It's the kit they use in sailing boats therefore, everything isn't useful but I'll take all I can and sort it with Ilona.
Great thing to have but I'll take about 10% of it. Which 10% will be up to my random picking and Ilona's knowledge of medical stuff. After my first selection, I managed to get all the really important medical stuff in a 10cmx15cmx5cm bag, weight close to none.
For now, it includes some bandages, a lotion for dry lips, anti-malaria tablets, steril-strips, anti-diarhea tablets and some stuff for headaches.
Next thing we need is a tent. Ilona didn't have one so yeah, additional expense. The upside is that I can choose a green one. I don't know what is it with all the travel gear but everything is flashy as hell. Most living creatures on earth spend billions of years developping discrete colors to hide themselves from  predators and they design tents in bright orange. How are we supposed to hide that in your backyard??
And here it is! All green and light:
It's a two person tent, not the biggest 2 people tent I saw in my life but big enough. It's very easy to deploy, I mean really easy. The interior fabric is loosely coupeled with the exterior so you just have to insert the sticks into the the openings on the outer layer of the tent.
It weights merely 1.8kgs, I've checked which is a whole kilogram less than the tent we used to carry with my cousin. That's a really pleasant surprise. In a general sense, my heart pounds which joy each time I throw a kilo out.
I've left my sleeping bag in Czech Republic so I take a replacement one from my parents just to test the weight and volume. Mine is a bit smaller and lighter so I'll have a pessimistic estimation.
A lot of travellers would be content at this point but not me; I need my electronic stuff. This time I won't spend countless hours looking for internet cafés only to find they have merely become free wifi spots. No more crying next to wifi spots wishing you had a computer. This time, I'll take one. Not a laptop though, it's too heavy and doesn't have enough battery. 4 hours most of the time. Some say you might get 8 hours but that's just bullshit.
First off, what exactly do I need a computer for? Lots of things, here is a list:
  • Internet. Access the wifi spots. Don't have to bother the people who invite us in to let us on their computers.
  • The blog updates. If I have a computer, I can write offline and publish instantly when I find a wifi spot.
  • Maps! How do you expect to carry around maps of whole asia? Even if we restrict to the countries we cross the size and weight of maps would be enourmous. With a computer, I can store the maps electronically, it'll take no more than an sd card. Feather-like.
  • Hitchwiki. How many times have I got stranded in a city without a clue or where and how to hitchhike out. I can store all the hitchhiking places in a digital memory and use it at will. At the battery's will not mine of course.
  • Dictionary. It'll still be fun learning new languages but we might be able to limit the frustration.
  • GPS beacon control. I might be able to send text messages via satelite using a computer connected to my SPOT device. Sounds geeky and it is but it might work.
For a long time now I've faced this technological dilemma:
  • I could take a netbook. It's small enough to carry and robust because the screen is protected by the keyboard. It's not very easy use while standing because the keyboard gets in the way unlinke a tablet. It's a PC though, therefore I can install a Linux on it. It my seem to be a detail but I really need my Linux. Cut out my Linux and you might as well do me a lobotomy because it performs half of the intellectual functions of my brain.
    The computing power will be reasonably big so that's a good point too.
    A big downside will be the battery. I can't have that much autonomy on a netbook. I might get the 8 hours if I'm extra nice to it but I know I won't be. And the weight. With the keyboard, screen and don't forget the power cable and transformer I'll be lucky to get under 2 kilograms.
  • A kindle or generally speaking a digital reader. It's tiny, feather-light and has huuuge battery life. And yes, when you really need Internet, it can connect. I also heard some kindles had GPS chips and it's the only screen you'll see on a sunny day. You must have hawk eyes to something on the over-reflective netbook or tablet screen. Kindles however have the look and feel of paper. Are there any downsides? I suppose the performance sucks. It's designed to read books I'd be surprised if you could easily write blog posts with it. It doesn't have a keyboard and that alone is a a big slow-down. Some people would say you can't put maps on kindle but actually you can. You just have to root the device and hope you don't brick it whilst doing that. By rooting it I suppose you can flash an android ROM on it but I would be surprised if you could somewhat put a Linux on it.
  • A tablet. A tablet will have more battery than a netbook but way less than a digital reader. The weight also will be in-between. I can expect 600 or 700g which is very reasonable. Power-wise it's not that slow, a good tablet can compete with the netbook actually. It runs android which makes it easy to search and install useful applications quickly.
    It doesn't have a keyboard which makes writing blog posts slower. It's also more fragile. It can connect with a spot sattellite beacon and transmot messages over satellite, there is an app for that. It has apps for maps, dictionaries. Putting linux on a tablet is not easy but possible. You have to root it and launch it in a superuser terminal.
So what did I choose? None but a compromize between a tablet and a netbook: a hybrid tablet.
Precisely this one, the asus TF300T:

It's a tablet allright but it has a tiny attachable keyboard for quick typing. It also has a mouse pad in case the touchscreen stops working. Spares are welcome on a trip like this as long as they don't take any additional space. The sun resistant screen will be dearly missed.
What about the battery life? It says 15 hours so I might expect 10 which is unexpected but still not enough I'm afraid. This amazing battery life is due to an additional battery inside the keyboard which recharges the second battery in the screen. However, even counting all the people who we'll meet, who'll share with us their electricity, all the public chargers, it'll not be enough to have electrical power wherever we want.
And no, I'll not carry a dead tablet in my backpack. Each thing I carry has to earn it's usefullness multiple times over. We will leave in late spring and I intend to use the sun for more than good mood and sunburns. I'll carry this solar panel:

I won't carry all the stuff on the picture but I'll carry the solar panel and the accumulator. It doesn't accumulate much and it's not very effective either. But with the electronics constantly plugged in and the panel outside the bag exposed to the shining equatorial sun I can expect the stuff to be reasonably charged throughout the journey. I can charge the tablet, I couldn't do the same with most netbooks because the requested tension (in Volts) required is more than my solar charger can output.
You would think that electronics are now setteled but far from it: still the phone and the camera left.
The tablet looks fancy enough, better not draw extra attention with a smartphone. I don't need a fancy phone, I need it to last. I need it to be operational in case of emergency. I need the battery lif; I've already my tablet to charge all the time and probably my camera too. I might be able to protect my dear tablet from the wild but my phone will take its toll of mud water.
I ended up choosing a Samsung Solid B2710.

It looks like your old Nokia and like your old Nokia you can probably break a wall with it. But unlike your old nokia it almost has all the features of a real smartphone. It has no wifi but it has bluetooth, gps, google maps with navigation, a browser, video streaming ability on youtube, facebook, twitter, all the classic stuff. But it doesn't look it and that's a good thing. It also has a flashlight which can really be used as a flashlight.
The last piece of electronic equipment is the camera. I've hesitated a long time before choosing that one. But let's face it. I used to capture my magic moments with my cheap 30 euro camera I got in Singapore. I got it for about 35 euros and I continued using it even after the lens had scratch marks all over. Even though I took it through mud and water and threw it from 6 meter heights, got its mechanisms infested by sand, it continues to work even now. But the last few trips left me frustrated with the quality of pictures. Unless the light was so bright my eyes hurt, the photograph did not match the beauty of reality and got me frustrated with the result. I could not convince my friends home how beautiful Finnish landscapes were, they just looked like dim forests. Do I need convincing others? Maybe a little. Do I need the memories? Definitly yes.
It'll be the biggest journey of my lifetime, the most exciting one. One I will want to capture and remember. I would be a fool to save money on a camera. So I'll take the Sony RX-100.

It's very expensive but fortunately, I got it second-hand from some brave fellow from Marseille. The pictures it takes are just mind-blowing. Maybe not to a real photographer who understands something about photography, but to me, naive user of a cheap compact which pale colors... it's something I've never seen. It might even compete with the cheap reflex cameras, at least some people say that. I've considered taking such a huge machine with me but the weight and size of the thing is just not an option.
I need to draw my camera quickly, I need to strike fast and true before the moment flees. I'd have to keep my giant reflex camera in my bag as opposed to in my pocket. I'd never have time for spontaneity. And spontaneity is what I like in my picture. I don't like set-ups. I think that if you have to organize your scene then most of the time, the photo isn't worth the take. You can do a proper set-up at home with a green screen and special effects.
That's about it for the electronics.
When I put all this in the bag, I am still at 18kg with all the food and water. But more importantly I struggle with keeping the volume down to 50L. There are two volume-geedy things in a travellers bag: a tent and a mattress. With the tent I have, I reduced volume to a reasonable minimum but the mattress still takes a lot of space.
I could have taken a very small mattress, the thing is even with a normal one, I kind of feel the hardness of the ground a little too much. I wanted to take a thicker one but with this weight and volume optimising, I just can't afford it. Of course I could throw out my electronics but let me make something very clear for the rest of this journey:
I'd rather do this trip naked and sleep on frozen ground than throw out my electronics.
For the mattress, I'll try a bold move: I'll take an inflatable one. It's lighter and softer than the normal ones. It takes more time to deploy but I guess that's the compromise I'll make. I'll just hope it doesn't burst.
Now the clothes. I really don't have much. A small towel, socks (5x), long pants (1x), shorts which also serve as bathing shorts (1x), shirts & t- shirts (3x, two with short sleeves, one with long), a jacket. Not even a sweater nor a raincoat, the jacket does that. That's it. Bare essentials. And a hat, I forgot about the hat.
And last thing of all, the backpack. By taking a smaller bag, I am able to save loads of volume and a whole kilogram of weight!
After browsing the internet and trying some backpacks in shops I ended up choosing a swedish brand, Haglöfs. It's a simple yet reliable design. For example it doesn't have many pockets, just the bare minimum. I wass a little confused when I recieved it, I wanted to put some stuff in a side pocket on the belt but there was nothing. Nothing that you absolutly need. Not even a rain cover for the bag because it's supposed to be reasonably waterproof.
One nice feature it has though is the bottle holders. Most backpacks have side compression straps. And in most cases, when you attach a 1.5L bottle to the side you put the bottom into the bottle holder and you attach the top with the top compression strap. The bottom compression strap usually goes over your bottle so unless you carry a really small bottle it'll be strapped to the side so tightly that I'll be hard to remove.
Try attaching a tall bottle to the side of your packpack if you have one, you'll see what I mean.
The reason for this design in most backpacks is that tourists don't use large amounts of water and therefore can do with 1L bottles whith they'll refill when arriving in a hotel or some kind of tourist spot made for that matter.
In this case though, both straps go under the bottle and there is an extra thingy to attach the top of your bottle so it doesn't fall. I chose this packpack for this reason alone.
Besides, it's very easy to carry. My weight now went down to 16kg and will drop to 15.5 with the much lighter sleeping bag I keep in Prague (the one I tested it with is way heavier).
Here is the sum of all preparations:
Maybe you wonder why for god's sake do I hold this stupid umbrella. Because I plan to take one with me. What? After all the talking about essential stuff I plan to pack something so tightly linked to civilisation as an umbrella and seemingly useless. Quite the contrary.
An umbrella is a walking stick. It provides protection against rain but also against the sun. It may be a fighting weapon and an effective defensive weapon against a baseball bat. I mean defensive beacause it can absorb the shock instead of your bones which makes quite the difference. And I'm sure I'll find countless clever uses for it on the way!
You thought I have now lised all the travel gear a traveller could have? Yeah but you forget the purpose of this journey! Remember the one ring? We're doing it!