2017: Filling in more pieces of the puzzle

I think this is going to be a very important year for me. The project I’ve been working on for a 3rd year now is (hopefully) about to come to an end. In less than 2 months we can talk about things other than the project which I know everyone in my company is looking forward to.

It’s been 6 years since I studied and I’m going to change that this year. I’ve spent the last year being not only a Business Analyst, but a Developer, Architect, Team Leader, and Project Manager as well. There were days where I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but somehow I managed to pull it off. Fake it till you make it, they say, although it was more of a do-or-die situation. I’m not planning on doing anything major, but the fact that I’ll be studying (since I’ll finally have the time and mental energy to once this project ends) is a big thing for me. It’s always nice to have a formal certification to prove your abilities.

If you’ve read my blog posts before, you’d know that there is almost nothing more important to me than travelling.  Last year I was so confused where I wanted to go next, and I had pretty much made up my mind that it was going to be Norway. However, after checking what it was actually going to cost me, I immediately switched over to the second option: Canada.

You might be wondering how bad the cost of going to Norway must have been for me to turn it down. Well, I wanted to do a cruise with Hurtigruten, a proper one where I’d have my own decent cabin and bathroom facilities. It turned out that the price I initially thought I was going to pay was for one of the smallest ships on the fleet that had shared bathroom facilities. Call me spoiled if you want, I don’t care, but I refuse to share a bathroom with strangers. In order to get what I wanted, I’d have to pay for one of the proper cruise liners whose price soared to over €3000 for the 12 day round-trip. I was simply not prepared to pay that on top of my flights, visas, and transfers to and from Oslo, not to mention accommodation in Oslo. I’ve spent less than that touring several countries for almost double the time. So sorry, Norway, but you’re going to have to wait.

For decades my relatives in Canada have been nagging my mom and I to visit, and the time has come to do it. Unfortunately my mom isn’t physically able to do the journey comfortably, so I am going alone. Of course, this isn’t going to be my first solo trip.

I’ve never been to North America before, so I’m very excited about it. Canada is somewhere I’m considering relocating to in the not too distant future, so this trip is not only to see family, but to also scout around to see whether or not I like it enough to see myself actually living there. And yes, I know it’s cold, but the only way I’ll know how cold it really is is to go there myself. I’m expecting summer to be like a winter in Johannesburg, so I’m quite looking forward to seeing if that is really the case.

So where exactly am I going? San Francisco, Calgary, and Toronto. In that order. I’m lucky enough to have a good friend in San Francisco with whom I’m going to stay, and God knows what shenanigans we’re going to get up to for a whole week. We’ve only met twice (at my cousin’s wedding) but we literally talk everyday. Even though there’s a 10-hour time difference, we speak just as often (if not more) than the friends I actually see everyday. It’s insane that I found a twin sister across the Atlantic; who would have thought?

Why San Francisco?

Ok so this is definitely going to sound cheesy (and probably really dumb) but here goes: not only did I grow up hearing about Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge, I also spent over a decade of my life watching Charmed and Full House. Several movies that I like to re-watch were also set there. It’s only recently that I joined the dots and realized that all these things I’ve been watching for so many years had one thing in common: San Francisco. It’s also the home of Silicon Valley – every IT person’s ultimate place to work. So it’s an obvious choice, don’t you think?

Golden Gate Bridge

Why Calgary?

One reason: the Banff National Park. I mean, just look at it.

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It’s also a happy coincidence that the Calgary Stampede falls in the week that I will be in Calgary. So I guess it’s fate, right?

Why Toronto?

Family, duh. I can never remember exactly how we’re related, but it’s through my late grandmother on my mom’s side. They’ve lived in Canada for around 30 years. I remember first meeting my niece and nephew (who are actually older than me by about 10 years) at my grandmother’s house when I was 4 or 5 years old. We were playing in her garden. It was so long ago, it feels like a dream. I can’t wait to see them again.

Then there’s also Niagara Falls, of course, and the Great Lakes – yet another piece of my world map puzzle that always piqued my curiosity. Hopefully I can also spend a night or 2 in Montreal, but I’ll see how I can work that out.

Right now I’m going through the visa process before I can book my flights. Had I known I had to get the US visa before booking flights, I would have done it last year. Now I can only hope it processes quick enough so that the flight prices don’t soar too high by the time I have to book. I’m so used to the European visa process that I took it for granted that you book your flights before applying for the visa so that you can prove when you’re entering and leaving the country. Oh well, I guess you learn something everyday.

Throughout my life, every single trip I’ve been on has something to do with that world map puzzle I used to build when I was little. There were particular labels on that map, be it countries, cities, rivers, or even lakes, that made me excited every time I picked up that particular piece to fit it in to where it belonged. Physically going to those places now is like picking up that piece of myself and fitting it in that puzzle.

It’s time for another adventure.

2016 – Career Change and Near Disaster

This year was without a doubt the toughest year of my life so far. I began another post over a month ago which was supposed to be this one, but I couldn’t bring myself to finishing it, and I don’t think I ever will.

If you haven’t already figured it out, my 2016 consisted of 2 big events.

Career Change

The year started off busy as I am involved in a massive transformation project at work which I’ve now been working on for over 2 years. Up until the end of March, I was a developer gearing up one of the systems for the change. I knew for a long time that I did not want to be a developer forever, but that it would be a solid foundation for growing my career in IT, a place I have no intention of leaving any time soon. I could not see myself writing code at 50 years old. Long story short, I became a Business Analyst, for the same company, so I could bridge that ridiculous communication gap between them and developers. Plus, it’s an excellent foundation for becoming a Business Architect, and maybe even an Enterprise Architect later on.

In general, developers have a terrible opinion of BAs: that all they do is write documents and that they don’t ask the right questions to get those documents right. Consequently, BAs think that developers are stubborn robots, and truth be told, most of them are. (Don’t stab me if you’re a developer, or know one that isn’t a stubborn robot, I’m talking general terms here).

In April, my title changed from Senior Developer to Senior Consultant, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. This phase of the project had to be divided into separate streams so that each could be tracked individually. Because of my experience on one particular system as a developer, I was immediately made the lead of that stream. I did find it a little awkward adjusting to the new responsibility because my previous boss and junior colleague were now answerable to me, even though I was technically not their boss. Being the lead basically opened up multiple roles for me because of the daily tasks I had to perform, such as that of Project Manager, BA, and even Developer on some occasions. Funny enough, because we are working with an offshore company, I even served as a translator for the local developers. I’m also the bullshit-smeller for some of the cocky developers who forget that I have several years of past experience as one. It can be both frustrating and amusing, but I guess it is the universal attitude of developers to think they are more intelligent than everyone else!

But you know what, BAs and Developers can get along. Just look at these pics:

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Not that this has anything to do with my career, but this post would also not be complete without another photo of what was the funniest thing to happen to me this year: being photo bombed by a complete stranger while posing with my best friend.

Photo bombed by a stranger at the SA On Tap craft beer festival

Near Disaster

My mother was taken into ICU in the early hours of the morning of the day that the above photo was taken. It was less than 2 weeks into my new job, and the event I had attended with one of my best friends (who is wearing a shirt that I have too) was something we had planned months before. In case you don’t know, I live in Johannesburg, but my parents are in Durban. I’m not going to go into detail about why and how my mother was put into ICU as that is the very reason why I couldn’t bring myself to even read through what I had written in my original draft post of this year. My bosses were gracious enough to allow me to fly down to Durban on the Monday in order to be with her for as long as we needed, but since I had literally just started the new position, I offered to work remotely. 3G was an absolute lifesaver, and since I didn’t have my own card for such a last minute trip, a generous friend and coworker offered me hers.

On Tuesday my dad and I went to see the neurosurgeon and he told us that my mother had had a brain aneurysm. Basically, she had a 1% chance of surviving the procedure that she had to have, and it was a lifesaving one. My dad and I were basically saying goodbye to her, moments before her procedure. I can’t put into words the depth of our fear. In those few visits prior to the procedure, I had to be strong for not only myself, but my dad as well (he isn’t strong at all) because I didn’t want her to know that I was scared and what had actually happened to her (she thought she had had a stroke), but in those moments where I thought I was saying goodbye, I couldn’t hold back my tears and all I said to her was “Just come home”.

She did.

I stayed in Durban for 2 weeks until she finally got out of ICU and into a general ward, and eventually home. It is literally a miracle that she survived, and it was the first time in my life where I realised how much she actually loves me. Her survival of something like this also made me realise that I don’t know anyone stronger than her in the world. It only made me even stronger, even though I had many sleepless nights and anxiety attacks after the ordeal once I got back to Johannesburg. Very few of my friends knew about it and I can’t thank them enough for their support.

As for my mother, all I can say is thank you for coming home.

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With Christmas less than a month away, I can’t wait to get back home to Durban to spend what could very well be my last festive season there, since after our ordeal with my mom, we realised how precious time is. My parents are therefore on the road to selling their house so that they can move up to Johannesburg with me. They worry that I will not meet someone and get married, but I say it’ll happen when it’s meant to. After all, I’ve got time, I just don’t know how much of it will be with them. They’re at a fragile age where anything could happen, and although my dad is built like a mule, there’s no telling what could happen at the blink of an eye.

Time is a valuable thing and the last thing we should take for granted is how much of it we have.

“One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember”.

As for 2016, you’ve been an absolute pain in the ass. “That’s nice!“.

The Next Trip Predicament

In case you haven’t figured it out already, travel is something that is always on my mind. After getting over the the euphoria of one trip (if that is even possible), and sometimes even while on a trip, I am always thinking about the next one.

Last year while in Germany, I decided that I wanted my next trip to be somewhere outside of Europe, since my last 4 trips (including that one) were there and I thought it high time I visited another continent. I don’t know what it is about Europe that draws me to it so much but I just keep wanting to go back. I also decided that whenever I do go back to Europe, that it’d be in winter.

Canada

I’ve got family in Canada who have been asking for years for my mom and I to visit them, and I figured that it would only be right for me to go there next. Canada is one of those places I am considering emigrating to at some point because it has the kind of lifestyle that I want. I love mountains and lakes and open space, and want to be in a place where the quality of living is high and the stress levels are low. I also want to be able to enjoy the outdoors and not have to go very far out to do that. Johannesburg is great for building a career, but in the long term, it is not the kind of life I want.

Moraine Lake, Banff. Photo courtesy @Lewis_Constable, Instagram

Moraine Lake, Banff. Photo courtesy @Lewis_Constable, Instagram

When I go to Canada, I want it to be for at least a month so that I can see as much as I possibly can while also spending some time with my family in Toronto and Montreal. I also want to do hikes and see the national parks like Banff, and visit Whistler for a couple of days too. I even have a friend in Saskatchewan that I’d like to stop over at.

Since I’d be going so far, I thought it would be a good idea to visit friends in New York and San Francisco as well, since I plan to go across the country all the way to Vancouver. A colleague of mine, Elize, told me about a business trip she once did to Vancouver, accompanied by her husband. While she was busy with all the business she had gone for, Elize suggested that her husband take a boat trip to Alaska. He didn’t want to and she still remembers that opportunity that he missed. She told me about it not knowing that I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. A boat trip from Vancouver was one of the ways to do it. I am going to keep that in mind until I actually put the Canada plans into motion.

Norway

From the time I used to build that humongous world map puzzle when my age was in single digits, I was always fascinated with that curved piece of land above Europe; it was one of a couple puzzle pieces that joined the one that said “Baltic Sea”. Norway, Sweden, and Finland were green, yellow, and purple on that puzzle. I remember it like it were yesterday. I not only loved the names of those countries for reasons I still can’t comprehend, but there was something about what appeared to be a hundred rivers cutting up the edge of the westernmost country, Norway. Not only that, there was also this little pointy bit that stuck out towards the top of it.

As I got older, I found out that those ‘hundred rivers’ were actually called Fjords. It was only until much later, after having access to the Internet and social media, did I find out that those pictures that I loved the most were of a place called the Lofoten Archipelago – that ‘pointy bit’ that caught my interest every time I built that puzzle. And I built it many times.

More than 20 years later, I’m at the point in my life where I can actually get myself there. It’s only when writing about it now do I realise how long my obsession with it has existed.

It’s funny, I started writing this post thinking that I was in a predicament about what to do and when, but I just answered my own question 2 paragraphs ago.

Anyway, before I came to the realisation that I just did, let me explain the 2 contradicting reasons I want to go to Norway.

  1. The Northern Lights. Need I say why? There is only one problem with this, however: even though probably the most ultimate bucket list item of mine would be ticked off after seeing it, it means that I’d have to go beyond the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter. Yes, I did want my next trip to Europe to be in winter and I would absolutely die for the experience of going north of the Arctic Circle, but thanks to Norway’s latitude, this means that there would be almost 24 hours of darkness. It’s not the cold that I’m worried about (I prefer cold to heat), it was that. The best time to see the Northern Lights is between late September and late March, and the more north you go closer to December, the fewer the hours of daylight. To make a trip that far to a country I’ve had some kind of spiritual ties to since childhood would just not make sense when my plan is to do a 12 day cruise along the coast. If the Northern Lights was all I’d be able to see (and even that won’t be guaranteed), is it really be worth spending that much money for so many days? Granted, I’d be able to do things like dog sledding and other snow-related activities, but then that means I’d have to go pretty much in December when it is actually snowing. Snow is good, but have you ever heard of a Polar Night? That’s 24 hours of darkness and it happens for pretty much the entire month of December. No.
  2. The Fjords. Norway is known for it’s rugged beauty. As I said before, I love mountains and lakes more than anything else. Fjords are on another level. I would just not be satisfied sitting on a ship all day because of the darkness. This means that I will need to choose between winter and summer. The Northern Lights or the Fjords. As of today, the Fjords are winning. Why? Yes, it’s not like I wouldn’t be able to see them in winter, but in winter, I wouldn’t be able to actually get off the ship and hike them. I’d be able to see them from sea level and that’d be it. Even though I know I’d regret not going for the lights, I’d have traveled so far and not been able to truly see the country. Going in the middle of summer means that I’d experience the total opposite of the Polar Night, namely the Midnight Sun. I’d literally be able to wake up in the middle of the night and hike. Even if the hiking opportunity at night might only be possible once or twice, it’d be a totally unique experience nonetheless.
Trollfjord, Norway. Photo Courtesy www.hurtigruten.com

Trollfjord, Norway. Photo Courtesy http://www.hurtigruten.com

You may be wondering what cruise I’ve been talking about all this time. If you haven’t already heard about them, I am talking about Hurtigruten. They are a company that started by doing Norwegian cruises, but have also now expanded to the Americas, Iceland, and even Antarctica, among others. I’m planning to do what they call the “Classic Round Trip” voyage which starts in Bergen and goes all the way to Kirkenes, a mere 11km or so from the Russian border.

India

So where on earth did India come from? I have my mother to thank for that. I’m not going to say how this suggestion came about or why it is on this list (I’ll save that for another post), but recently I have been thinking a lot about how precious time is. If my mother is able and willing to go to India, then I will put my plans aside and go with her. We don’t value the time we have with our parents or other loved ones enough, so if I have the opportunity to go with her on what could very well be her last trip, how could I miss that? I’m still young and I hopefully still have plenty time left on this earth, but I can never get back the time I have with my mother.

Anyway, sentimental reasons aside, she wants to go to some of the hill stations like Manali, Shimla, and Dehradun. They’ve been places I’ve wanted to see for some time too, so it’s a win-win.

Other Reasons

Okay, just to make myself clear, this isn’t one of the predicaments I am facing, but it is just one of those things that I thought are worth mentioning because I can’t be the only one that is experiencing it.

I am being pressured by my father to find a boyfriend and get married. Yes, I know. I have just 2 things to say about that:

  1. It will happen one day, but I’m in no hurry. I fell in love once and it couldn’t work out, and until I have that kind of connection with someone again (or even the same person, who knows), I don’t see why I should rush into anything. People these days rush into relationships just because they don’t want to be alone, and then they end up being miserable because that person doesn’t actually make them happy. The one thing I will never do is settle for some guy just for the sake of saying I’m married. It’s not worth it.
  2. Yes, I do want to get married and have kids, but until I meet someone, why should I not live my life? I don’t want to wake up old, sick, and fragile one day wondering why I didn’t take that trip when I was young and able and had no ties to keep me down. Many people spend all their time building their careers and trying to set themselves up for an early retirement or whatever, not realising that we actually don’t know if we’ll even be alive long enough to see that happen. By all means, save some money, but don’t just let your life pass you by. Stop taking your time or health for granted. Trust me.

Otherwise, if it wasn’t already clear, it has basically come down to Norway or India, and it all depends on my mother. She isn’t the only factor, but she is the main one. Of course I will be documenting everything once a decision has been made. Till then, do yourself a favour and go plan a trip.

Berlin Part 3: Checkpoint Charlie, Climbing the Dome, and Getting Harassed

6 October 2015. Checkpoint Charlie was one of those places I had to see. It really wasn’t far from my hotel at all – on the side of Friedrichstraße that I hadn’t been to. So of course I took a walk there straight after breakfast. I walked for about 15 minutes and by 10:30, I saw the actual checkpoint about 20m in front of me. There was quite a queue and I couldn’t quite see what it was for. I wasn’t about to go join it just yet, so had a look around the vicinity and noticed that there was a photo gallery on what appeared to be part of the actual Berlin Wall.

There were captioned pictures of what the area looked like during the war, with tanks and a lot of the area totally destroyed and covered in rubble. One of the pictures also showed an aerial view of the exact point where I was standing, and how there was a road there. It was a little difficult to visualize all the buildings around me not being there.

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While I was reading one of the captions, this girl came asking for a donation. She looked Middle Eastern, and the thought of her being a refugee crossed my mind, but something wasn’t right about it. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and when I looked around, it was if my radar switched on because I could suddenly see a whole lot of other similarly dressed girls all over the place bothering both locals and tourists alike. I felt bad for her because she was constantly nagging me, and I tried my best to politely refuse. For me, it was a matter of giving away Euros, not South African Rands. Because the exchange rate was about R16 to the Euro, anything I’d be giving away would actually cost me more than I was willing to give away.

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No matter what I said, she just wouldn’t leave me alone. Suddenly I heard a man’s voice behind me telling her in German to go away. When I turned around, it was an Indian man. She listened to him, and he said to me to not give her anything because “they like to target foreigners”. I thanked him and turned back to the caption I was reading, but I could tell that he wasn’t done talking. He then asked for my name and where I was from, and said that his name was Joy. I immediately thought he was probably a Punjabi Indian because they often have names like Joy. Anyway, I still tried to continue reading the captions, but he would not stop talking. It was like he wasn’t taking the hint that I was really not interested in talking to him, mostly because there was something very creepy about his eyes. They did not look honest at all and I could tell that he was not someone who could be trusted.

He continued talking, and I said as little as possible. It wasn’t long before he asked if I wanted to go get a cup of coffee. My adrenaline started pumping because it was a situation I really wanted to get out of, so my first reaction was to say that I was on a very tight schedule and had no time to do anything right now. It took a few tries of “No really, I can’t” to get him to give up. But then he asked if we can have dinner later at Amrit near Potsdamer Platz, since I said that that where I was staying (not the actual hotel of course). The area in which I was staying was literally the only information I gave him about myself. At least, until he persisted so much that the only way I could think of to get him off my ass (other than swearing him, which is what I actually wanted to do) was to get him to send me a private message on Facebook. Thankfully my privacy settings don’t allow strangers to add me as a friend.

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I had to let him send the message because there was no WiFi in the area for me to search for him, and I also figured that it would buy me some time to not only investigate who he actually was (because I didn’t believe that his name was really Joy), but also to come up with some sort of excuse for not being able to make it for dinner. I figured I could then block him immediately afterwards so that he’d never be able to contact me again. There was no way I was going to give him my number or any other information, and I really just wanted to get rid of him in the most polite way possible, since I was in public and didn’t want to go all ape-shit while telling him to f*** off. Besides, he had the look of a kidnapper or something, so I thought swearing at him might be a bad idea, because the last thing I wanted was to anger him since I had no way of knowing what his reaction might be. He looked like someone who would follow me if I rejected him too, so I had to be careful how I handled the situation.

Fast forward 7 hours later when I was back at my hotel – his message came through and it turned out that his name was something Sheik. I say “something” because it wasn’t Joy, and now when I viewed my Blocked List, it says that his name is Fatima Sheik. I don’t recall it being Fatima when I received that message almost 1 year ago, and it is certainly an easy enough name for me to remember since I have a close friend with that first name. At the time, when I investigated his profile before blocking him, it was evident that he was also married and had children. Had he been honest, his name would have not only remained the same on Facebook, but he would have also told me his real name. He also wouldn’t be trying to ask out a girl who was not his wife. Moral of the story: trust your gut instincts.

When I was finally free, I went into the what appeared to be the entrance of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I wasn’t that interested in actually going inside, but I think it was mostly because I was still trying to calm myself down after just having a very weird encounter with a man whose piercing, creepy eyes I couldn’t get out of my head. It was not a good thing. Anyway, I had read that Checkpoint Charlie was one of those places where you could get your passport stamped, and saw that there were 2 kiosks where it was possible. One of them charged about €6 for it (madness I tell you), while the other would stamp it in exchange for any donation you were willing to give. 3 years prior, I had paid about €2 to get my passport stamped in Liechtenstein, so that is what I decided to pay for this one, and the guy was happy to oblige for that amount. So basically, when abroad, don’t just jump at the first thing you see when you could find the same thing for much less right next door, under your very nose.

Once I was done there, I figured it was time to go take some pictures with the “soldiers” –  the reason behind the queue of people I had seen minutes before. One of them was extremely good looking…so much so that it was difficult not to stare at him. He was clearly a little nutty, too, and loved the attention. I think it was only because of his perfectly chiseled face that people didn’t mind what he said or did. When I joined the quickly moving queue, I noticed that there was another “soldier” collecting €2 from each person. I had no idea what it was for, but it was a small price to pay for a teeny bit of fun. In 60 seconds, that very “soldier” took 60 photos. This was the result, and I think you can tell which of the “soldiers” I was referring to before.

After I got my photos, I had no particular destination in mind. The more I think of it now, the more I want to kick myself. That one place that I really wanted to go to that I could have easily went to was Legoland Berlin. I still can’t believe that I didn’t go.

Berlin street art

Anyway, I had quite a few hours to go before my Third Reich tour at 2pm, so I thought I’d take a walk back to my favourite place: the Dom. I felt as though I hadn’t taken enough photos of it, so I wanted more. Also, I just really liked the area it was in and I wanted to see it again. It was kind of like how I felt about seeing St Peters Church as many times as I possibly could while I was in Rome.

It took about 1.5 hours to walk to the Dom, mostly because I took my time and made a lot of stops to take photos of random things that I found pretty.

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Once I got to the Dom, I realised I’d regret it if I didn’t go inside. For once in my life I remembered to use the Welcome Card, and I got a bit of a discount to enter. It also gave me the opportunity to climb to the top. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should do it, but when I looked at the time and saw that I had at least 1.5 hours to get to Brandenburg Gate for the start of my Third Reich tour, I decided to just do it.20151006_135552

There were signs every so often warning that the climb was physically demanding, since there were around 270 steps (I thought it was about 400, but Google reminded me of the actual number). I must say, the climb wasn’t that bad at all. As I’ve mentioned many times before, my fitness levels go into the negative, but I was able to climb to the top without feeling as though I was going to die. There were plenty of landing spaces and flat areas to walk to break the climb, so it’s not like it’s one long spiral staircase to the top. I expected it to be a little like Neuschwanstein, but that wasn’t the case at all.

Once I got to the top, I was disappointed by only one thing: the fact that it had started to drizzle. I made ‘friends’ with a Chinese girl for a whole 5 minutes as we offered to take photos of each other with the famous Berlin TV Tower in the background.

Berlin TV Tower

After I got photos of the view, I made my way back down. Also, the Chinese girl had totally disappeared. I didn’t really bother looking for her because I needed to get to my Third Reich tour. The drizzle had dampened my spirits a bit, but I was just glad it remained a drizzle and that I was warmly dressed.

Getting to the Third Reich tour was such a rush because I actually spent longer at the Dome than I expected to, and it was quite a walk to the nearest metro station, namely Alexanderplatz. It was so bad, that by the time I got to the station, it was already 2pm. I figured I’d make it just in time because the actual tour was supposed to start at 2:30pm, so the 30 minute grace period before that would be used to check in for it.

I was wrong.

Once I got to the Brandenburg Gate stop, it was already 2:20pm, because I had to change trains at Friedrichstraße. The signs in the Friedrichstraße station are so bad, that finding where I needed to go was absolutely horrendous. I was just glad that I didn’t have a big bag with me. When I eventually figured out where my train was (I actually think I just winged it and hoped for the best), I got on it and reached Brandenburg Gate just after 2:30pm. I knew all that time that I was going to be late for the tour. Once I got out of the train, I literally ran to the meeting point that was Starbucks. I was too late. The tour had already left at about 2:15pm, so I was really annoyed because they clearly didn’t check that everyone was there. Anyway, there were still people with red jackets and umbrellas waiting to do other tours, so when I asked one of them, they said that it would be okay for me to come the following day since the ticket wouldn’t expire any time soon.

Annoyed that I had wasted my energy for a tour I was definitely going to miss, I got myself a grande cafe mocha from Starbucks. It was the perfect fix for my mood, and went perfectly well with the weather. Starbucks may not know how to do all their coffees right, but they certainly know how to do a cafe mocha. At least, the one in Berlin at Brandenburg Gate.

Amrit

Since I hadn’t eaten at all since breakfast, yet again, I wasn’t sure what to do for lunch/supper. I didn’t want to get more currywurst because that would certainly not fill me for 2 meals. The creepazoid from earlier in the day mentioned Amrit, and it so happened that Amrit was a place that I had found while planning my trip as I was looking for popular places around my hotel. I figured that I could still go there and not encounter that weirdo, since it was still early in the day (before 4pm).

When I got there, I was seated in a bright corner next to some locals. It’s funny how people are attracted to food from a different culture. Besides the staff, I was literally the only Indian person in the restaurant. It was rather fancy looking, and had prices to match. I just wanted something like a tandoori chicken, and managed to find it on the menu at a decent price (I can’t remember what exactly).

I didn’t get what I ordered.IMG_2770

I got a chicken dish of some sort, but it was with gravy. I had ordered the tandoori without the gravy. I don’t recall what it was called, but when the waiter brought it to me and told me what it was, it was something else. Anyway, it was still quite tasty. I obviously paid more than I planned to since it was a different meal. Normally I would have said something, but I didn’t feel really comfortable with the staff…they weren’t particularly friendly. Amrit, I’d give you a 3/5.

Since it was my last night in Berlin, I wanted to go out and see the city at night. One thing Berlin is certainly good at is how it dresses itself up at night. Potsdamer Platz is also a buzzing place to be, so I didn’t want to miss seeing it at night.

After relaxing in my hotel room for a little while, I headed out. It was already dark at about 8pm, and the weather was good. It had stopped raining and there was a fresh, gentle breeze. I was keen on using my F1.4 lens to take some photos, because I thought I had finally figured out how to use it effectively. At least, for an amateur.

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I hadn’t walked about much, but it had become cold, so I didn’t want to venture far out. I had to get that view of the back of Brandenburg Gate that I had come to see, and this was the only time to do it. I took a slightly different route to normal, which let me approach it from the back rather than from the metro station in front of it, and it was well worth it.

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Before leaving my hotel, I told my friends that I was going for a walk. They all told me to be careful, but when I was walking, I felt completely safe. My mind was completely empty of worries and all I could think of was that it was my last night in Germany and I didn’t want to leave. I was the happiest I had been in almost a year and it was finally coming to an end. There was no better place to spend my last night in Berlin than at Brandenburg Gate. And, of course, the road had been completely cleared of all barricades from the weekend, just as I hoped they would be. God bless the Germans.

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I spent a little over an hour out before heading back to my hotel. By the time I got to the point where I was satisfied with my view of the gate, it had begun to drizzle again. When I got back to Motel One around 9:30pm, I decided to have a local beer in the breakfast area/bar. It was the final cherry on top on my last night.

Berlin Part 2: Charlottenburg Palace and the Soviet War Memorial

5 October 2015. I had no more plans for the rest of my stay in Berlin, so I had plenty of time to just wing it. The only thing that I desperately wanted to do was a Third Reich tour. I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to do it, so I used the Get Your Guide app to help me. I actually had 3 full days to kill, so I booked it for the next day, 6 October – the day before I was going to leave.

Charlottenburg Palace

With the Third Reich tour all booked, I decided to go see Charlottenburg Palace. I wasn’t sure what the entrance fee would be, but I figured I’d at least be able to see the area around it.

I continued on passed the Friedrichstraße station, roughly 2km up the road from my hotel, so I could take in the beauty around the Spree River.

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After figuring out which train I needed to take, I got on the S-bahn to he Charlottenburg stop. There was a closer station (at least, one for a bus), but I wanted to walk a bit so I could see the area. It was a little out of the CBD, so I expected it to be a little more laid back and spacious. It was exactly that.

I took a really slow walk because it was still early in the day, and had that feeling again…the one where I was going in the wrong direction. It was the first time that happened since Hallstatt. I was using my map to navigate out of the station onto the main street, but I had lost my bearings after getting off the train due to the layout of the station. Instead of turning right, I turned left i.e. south. I lost myself (literally and figuratively) for at least 3o minutes before realising that the sun was supposed to be on my right, not my left. It was still early enough for me to be able to use the sun to navigate, but I was just too busy taking pictures and enjoying the weather to have noticed sooner. Once I figured out which way was north, I had to whip out my phone just to make sure that I was actually standing where I thought I was, and then to determine where the nearest main street was. I was only about 2 blocks off, so once I got onto Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße, it was straight ahead from there.Charlottenburg

About an hour later, I got to the palace. There weren’t many people around, and my next task was to find the entrance. It didn’t seem very obvious as there was some construction going on. I figured I’d walk around the perimeter to find a way in and it wasn’t long before I found one. I had completely forgotten about my Berlin Welcome Card, which could have saved me quite a bit on the €16 entrance fee. It was because of the price that I decided not to do the palace tour. I felt better by reminding myself that a lot of palaces looked the same, and since I had been to Neuschwanstein, the chances of Charlottenburg being better wasn’t that high.

The palace gardens were massive so my backup plan of exploring them kicked in. I felt like I had discovered another Secret Garden. It reminded me a little of the Nymphenburg Palace gardens in Munich, but it was much more manicured and tame. As for the noise? Non-existent.

Charlottenburg Palace Gardens

The thing I remember most about the gardens was the squirrel I made friends with. While walking through one of the lanes, I noticed a tree stump in the foliage, and it had some cut up pieces of carrot on it. It was when I first realised that the squirrels would come to take it. Since it wasn’t too far in, I decided to take some of the carrot sticks and try my luck, since I had seen a squirrel scurrying about nearby. To my delight, it came quite close to me, so I got down on my haunches and put my hand out, waiting for it to come. And it did.

Having gotten the encounter with a squirrel that I always wanted, I went off to admire the rest of the gardens. There was one particular view of the palace that I wanted, so I went as far into the garden as I possibly could until I eventually got it.

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That for me marked the end of my trip to the palace, so I had to now find my way back into the city centre. I actually thought it would be better to go back to my hotel to have a bit of a break, and also call my friend for her birthday (I promised her before leaving SA that I would). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for the rest of the afternoon, but for now, I needed to find a shorter way back to the city. I also was pretty hungry because I had totally walked off what I had eaten for breakfast, but I didn’t worry about it too much because my meal times had generally become so messed up on this trip anyway.

Richard Wagner Platz

I took a walk all the way to the nearest bus stop, whose name amused me a little – Richard-Wagner-Platz. I caught the U7 to Yorckstraße, which was actually a little out of the way, but it was a pain in the ass trying to read the transportation map because sometimes the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations were the same, and sometimes they’d be across the street or a block or 2 away from each other. It’s good to keep that in mind and plan your route properly in advance. Anyway, getting to Yorckstraße then made it extremely easy for me to get back to Potsdamer Platz because I could get straight on the U2 to Bernau which stopped directly in Potsdamer Platz.

I spent about an hour in my hotel freshening up, catching up on social media and letting my friends know where I was, and finally getting hold of my friend to wish her for her birthday. I mean, how often do you get a chance to call a friend from Berlin?

Brandenburg Gate

After I spoke to her, I headed out again and decided to go to Brandenburg Gate and meet up with a guy I had chatted to a little. He was also on holiday for a couple days in Berlin and happened to be leaving that evening, so we literally had about 30 minutes to say hi and walk around the area a bit. Don’t ask about how I was chatting to him, but you can probably guess. I had made it clear that I was on holiday and was not interested in any funny business if you know what I mean. I’m always open to meeting new people so thought one more friend or connection couldn’t hurt.

When I got to Brandenburg Gate, there were, as usual, hundreds of people around. Fortunately though, it didn’t take me too long to find him. I felt like a complete idiot for asking if he could take a photo of me with the gate in the background, but it was only because people I had asked on the previous day were so completely useless, that I just didn’t have a decent photo. Thankfully, he managed to get one after several failed attempts of trying to get the woman behind me to move…one who was completely oblivious to her surroundings. We eventually gave up, and this was the result.

Brandenburg Gate

When I look at the picture now, I’m just glad I’m not the guy in the background who is completely missing the point.

After I said bye to my new acquaintance, I walked behind the gate towards another familiar area that was the Reichstag. There was a wurst stand that I had noticed the day before, and I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t eaten since the morning and it was nearly time for supper. I decided to get a currywurst, since I was a little too tired to go looking for another place. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to sit while I could, because there was too much left of the day for me to just go straight back to the hotel.

After eating, I went by the Reichstag again and suddenly remembered that I actually wanted to get myself a German Tshirt of some sort. There were a number of little shops opposite the Reichstag so I perused through them until I found one that I liked. It was actually a soccer jersey which I thought was awesome, and not a bad price of €15. From there, I wandered off in the direction of the prettiest looking streets, not really caring which way that was or how far I was going. Although, I did keep my general bearings in mind.

The Soviet War Memorial

After walking for a little while, I saw a really large statue peeking out over some hedges. It was obviously a soldier, but I was curious to see what it was for. As it turned out, I had stumbled upon the Tiergarten, and this happened to be the Soviet War Memorial. It was literally down the road from Brandenburg Gate, and I could have actually just walked straight from there to get to it. But just as well that I didn’t, because it was closed off from the road because of the falling of the Berlin Wall celebrations that had happened over the weekend. The road was almost entirely cleared out, so pretty much only the barriers remained.

There were some photographs with lengthy captions nearby which I enjoyed reading, as they were mostly from late 1945. The large statue of the Soviet soldier was actually hoisted on top of the monument – I would have loved to have watched that.

Soviet War Memorial

There was also an artillery on either side of the monument, and a tank. It was a little surreal.

Even though it was still a little early, I was actually pretty exhausted from all the walking. Now that I think of it, I was a complete idiot because there was one thing I wanted to do so badly while I was planning my trip, but I had completely forgotten about it when I actually got to Berlin. I will say what that was in my next post.

There was one other thing too, and that was to get a photo of Brandenburg Gate from the back. Had the barriers not been there, I would have gotten it then and there. All I could hope for was for everything to be cleared out before I left. The following night would be my last in Berlin, and I was pretty confident that the roads would be clear and ready for me by then. After all, Germans are very efficient in everything they do.

Berlin Part 1: Hot Rods and a Favourite Place

There’s something quite magical about waking up in a new city. I didn’t need much help from my alarm that morning, as I had slept like a dead person the night before. I was also really excited because I had 2 things planned for that day – the Hot Rod City Tour at 11 and SeaLife Berlin at around 3pm.

I was up at 7 and took my time getting ready. I was quite hungry since I hadn’t really eaten much at all the previous day, so I was eager to get breakfast. The restaurant/bar was on the 2nd floor (I think), and was actually really cool looking. It was very relaxed, and quite busy already. As I walked in, the entire left side was occupied. I had no idea where to sit because the tables with single seater couches around them were really small, so it would have been awkward sharing one with a couple strangers. My salvation lay towards the back, right next to the second buffet area and coffee machine. It was a long, high table with at least 14 bar stools around it – perfect for people watching.

Motel One Berlin dining area

I put down my bag and removed my jacket then went over to the buffet area closest to me. It was a continental buffet so they had the usual things there. I wanted to eat a proper breakfast because I didn’t know what time I’d be able to get lunch, or where from. The coffee machine made whatever coffee you wanted at the push of a button – of course I was going to get a cafe mocha. Normally I have instant coffee in the morning, or a cappuccino once I get to work, but since I was on holiday, why not get the alternative I usually only turn to once a month at most?

A couple other single women came and sat around me. We didn’t speak to each other but I think we all found a bit of comfort in the fact that we weren’t the only female solo travellers in the hotel.

Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz

Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz

I had a little less than an hour to get to the Hot Rod tour, which was plenty time. My plan was to get the Berlin Welcome Card which basically covers all transport and most attractions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting tickets every time. I took a leisurely stroll to the Potsdamer Platz station down the road and tried getting one there, only to find out that the ticket machine only accepted Mastercard (I had a Visa card). I only had about €22 in cash with me, so I wasn’t sure what to do since time was now a becoming a problem. I tried various other machines in the station but none of them accepted anything other than Mastercard. I knew that if I took a bus to the main station, I’d have no issue acquiring the Welcome Card or getting to my destination.

As I approached the exit of the station, I heard a man shouting and got a little scared because he was clearly angry, so I didn’t know what to expect when I went round the corner. When I saw him, he was shouting at the ticket machine, and I mean really shouting, as if he wanted to kill someone. He banged the machine with his hands and kicked it several times while shouting “AAARRRRGGGH, WORK DAMMIT!!”, not to mention the profanities in between. He was obviously experiencing the same issue I had. Some locals were walking close to me as they had just arrived from their journey, and I heard the guy in front of me tell his girlfriend (I assume) that the man was shouting at the ticket machine. They were visibly amused.

A family of 4 bought some tickets inside the train station but left 2 behind, so I handed it to them as they started walking away. The father thanked me profusely in what sounded like Russian, before exiting the station. I didn’t know where the family was going; I assumed I’d never see them again. After realising that the only thing I could do was take a bus to the main station, the bus stop was where I decided to go. I assumed that all busses went to the main station, but I just had to make sure that I was standing on the right side of the road. When I got to the bus stop, there stood the family yet again. I couldn’t understand them much at all but I tried to somehow figure out where they were going, which sounded like the Hauptbahnhof. There were already less than 30 minutes left before 11, and my tour was nearly 7km away, so there was no way in hell I would have made it there on foot. My gut feeling, not to mention a suspicious looking sign next to the bus stop, told me that the bus was not operating that day. When the bus failed to come after 10 minutes, I made the decision to call for a taxi. There was no way I was going to get to my Hot Rod tour in time otherwise, and €22 should be enough to cover a 6.5km trip. At least, I hoped.

There were many taxis passing the bus stop I was at, so I easily flagged one down (I’d never done that before so I was chuffed). The driver flashed her lights at me to acknowledge that she had seen me. When she pulled over, I asked roughly what it would cost to get me to my destination, and she said it’d be around €15 depending on traffic, give or take a Euro or 2. I told her how much I had so I was praying it wouldn’t come to more than that. She assured me that it shouldn’t, so I got in.

We appeared to be heading into a slightly dodgy part of the city, and I wasn’t so sure I was in the right place. The buildings were dilapidated with tonnes of graffiti on them, and the people were dressed like street thugs. For a moment I questioned what I had just gotten myself into, but I figured I’d find my way out if something got wrong because I knew which general direction to head back to.

The Hot Rod Tour

The driver turned into a quiet street and stopped outside my destination: Revaler Straße 99. I could see the number 99, but there was just a high brick wall on either side of it and the entrance seemed to head down onto an open area covered in sand. There was a guy leaning against the wall, smoking. I felt like I was being dropped off at some kind of drug hole. For those few minutes I was in the car, I trusted the driver, so I knew she hadn’t taken me to the wrong place. When I got out of the car, I went through the entrance and turned left towards what appeared to be a flea market. Only, it was for hipsters and goths (no offence to them). I felt very out of place.

I came across another entrance to my left and saw two cops having a coffee next to their car, so I decided to go up to them and check if I was in the right place. They told me to go back in and carry on walking left, and that I’d eventually see it. Thankfully they were right – there was a big sign painted on the wall that said Hot Rod City Tour, just as I had seen it on their site. There were a couple other people there, and some guys showing them around. The cars were parked just outside.

Hot Rods

I told one of the guys that I was there for the tour at 11, since I was 15 minutes late, and he promptly took me into their office to confirm my booking and to give me a bandana and helmet. He also asked me if I wanted to pay the €250 cover fee for insurance, otherwise €10 that somehow covered some things. There was no way in hell I was going to pay an additional €250 on top of the €55 I had paid for the trip, so I opted for the €10 option, which I was still a bit annoyed to have to pay because the tour charge should have covered it. I didn’t want to complain, however.

Since the other 5 people were already briefed on the basic safety rules by the other guy, myself and 2 guys were given individual talks since they spoke German. After that, we were all told which car to sit in and how to operate them.Revaler Straße parking

They weren’t like usual cars, as you can see, so the brake and accelerator could not be operated by the same foot like we’re used to. They were kind of like go-karts in that way. We were told to always have our foot on the brake to remind ourselves that it was there, in case we felt the urge to accelerate instead of braking. The indicators also had to be manually switched off – something I forgot to do quite often once we got on the road. The rest of it was pretty standard.

Hot rod selfie

We then drove our hot rods into the flea market’s dirt road parking area so what we could practice the formation we’d have to maintain once we took to the streets. We had to stay in a zig-zag formation behind the leader, with me leading, and stay in the same lane since 2 cars could fit within one lane. The back wheel of the car in front had to align with the front wheel of the car behind it, whenever we stopped. Otherwise, the usual traffic rules applied. For everyone else it was fine, but I was stressing out a little because I had never driven on the right side of the road before. Thankfully I had someone to follow, so that gave me some comfort.

Once the guide was happy with the way we were handling ourselves, he lead us out of the car park and onto the streets. The guide mounted the GoPro on the back of his car which was a bonus for me because it meant I would be in the entire video.

The drive was loads of fun. The only downside was the fact that the cars were so low – it meant going over any bumps was a little sore and would make the car shake. The hard steering wheel required the grip of both hands, too.

We drove all the way to the Berliner Dom (at the end of the video) before turning around and heading back. I think it is evident from the video that I was really happy to see the Berliner Dom. The actual street drive lasted about 30 minutes in total. I expected it to last longer so I was slightly disappointed, especially because it was so much fun. Many locals and tourists alike took photos of us, and at one point these 2 guys from India took turns to take pictures with me. It was hilarious!

When we got back to the flea market, we got out of our hot rods and parted ways. I of course wanted a copy of the video, so I went into the office and asked for it. They charge €12 for the flash drive and the video, which I considered a bargain. I was very thirsty by then so bought myself a bottled water and a Red Bull while I waited for the video to copy. Once we were done, I asked the guy where the nearest ATM was, which, thankfully, was down the street towards the train station and away from the dodgy flea market side of the road.

Back to the City

I drew enough cash for the next 2 days then walked to the train station. It didn’t matter what station it was, as it would most certainly be going to the main one and that’s all I cared about.

Until I got to the bridge from which I could see the Warschauer Straße station, I still felt as though I were in a dodgy area. Warschauer Straße station was basically just a platform with a ticket machine and a bridge which I had to cross over to get to the correct side of the platform. The bridge had some street vendors selling random items and snacks. Even though I was hungry, I wanted to get out of there.

One of Berlin’s signature yellow trains arrived and I happily got on. I had about 6 stops to get to the Hauptbahnhof, but I wasn’t really counting because that was the train’s destination. I passed some familiar-sounding stops like Alexanderplatz and Freidrichstrauße. As I passed the Berliner Dom again, considered stopping at Freidrichstrauße so I could go back, but I needed to get that Welcome Card from the central station since I was familiar with where to get it from.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

I felt good when I arrived back at the central station, because I knew where everything was. I went straight to the place where I could buy the Welcome Card and stood in a fast moving line. The office was jam packed with tourists, but there was order in the chaos. I got the 3-Day pass, and the guy told me to validate it on my first train journey and it would start the counter from there.

I had some time to get something to eat, so I went to the food court to check what was popular. There were lots of takeaway places there including Pizza Hut and Burger King, but I didn’t want something I could get at home. There was another place which had a special with currywurst and a 0.5L beer for something like €4.10, so I went for that. After all, currywurst on its own is about €3, so €1.10 for a draught of beer was a bargain.

Sea Life and the Aquadom

I checked my map while I was eating and decided to take the train to Alexanderplatz, since it was one of the closest stops to the Sea Life aquarium. It was a little difficult to find even though I had the address on hand. I expected bolder signs, but I guess I was on the wrong side of the road for a reason – to get another glimpse of the Berliner Dom.

Berliner Dom

Once I crossed the street, the aquarium was right in front of me, not to mention an open WiFi spot. Since I was about 20 minutes early, I lingered outside a bit and caught up with my friends at home before going inside.The AquaDom

It was like any other aquarium so I breezed through it in less than 3o minutes. My main mission was to get to the Aquadom – a 25m high glass aquarium filled with a million litres of water. I was given a separate ticket for it when I entered the aquarium, and had to give it to the lady in front of the Aquadom, who, as it turns out, was the one doing the tour as we went through it via the lift.

Nemo inside the AquaDom

The lift is quite wide and has 2 levels, so you can stand on either one. They only allow around 15 people in at a time, so it’s not too crowded and you can see in all directions. The ride up was quite an experience, and the guide alternated between German and English so that everyone would know what was going on.

The ride up and back down lasted about 20 minutes, so we saw quite a lot. I didn’t expect it to go on for that long so I was pleasantly surprised.

Once the tour was over, there was nothing else to see in the aquarium, so I was literally in and out of it in less than an hour. That was what I found a little disappointing.

My Favourite Place

If you haven’t already guessed it, my favourite place in Berlin (before even leaving South Africa) is the Berliner Dom. Since it was literally a 5 minute walk from the aquarium, it was the most obvious place for me to go to next. I had the entire evening free so I could glare at it for as long as I wanted to, and that’s exactly what I did for over an hour.

Since I had been walking for hours, my legs were pretty sore, so I sat on a bench a couple metres in front of the entrance. This was my view.

My view of the Dom

To my delight, there was open WiFi there too. Let me just say that it was damn fun being able to immediately post that picture on Facebook and check in at the Berliner Dom. Some friends of mine said that they wanted to live my holiday through me, so I should check in wherever I could. That is exactly what I had done on the entire trip. I also used some time to charge my phone – power banks are a lifesaver when you’re on holiday and can’t get enough photos.

While I was sitting taking in the general splendour of the architectural beauty in front of me, a local man suddenly came and sat on the other end of my bench and immediately started chatting. He reminded me of Stephen Hawking not only because of his face, but the nerdiness too. He was very friendly, and I don’t mean in a forward manner. At first I thought he wanted something or was going to try to sell me something, but he actually just wanted to chat to someone that clearly looked like a visitor.

We ended up speaking for over 30 minutes about things ranging from where I’m from to why I came to Berlin, and even about the refugee crisis. His view on the refugees was totally different to the Czech woman I had met on the train the previous day in that he thought that it was a great thing for different cultures to get together and learn from each other. He even encouraged me to come work in Berlin because he felt the city needed people like me to improve its diversity, among other things.

Once again, the awesomeness of Germans was revealed. They really are some of the nicest people in the world.

After we said goodbye to each other (poor guy, I don’t remember his name), I went further back to get better views of the Dom. I simply had to go up the stairs of the museum next to it so that I could see it from the same perspective that The Piano Guys had seen it from when they shot their music video for Berlin.

The Dom from the Altes Museum

I tried asking 3 different people to take photos of me with the Dom in the background, but all of them failed miserably. The photos were either askew, or they’d cut off part of the Dom. You’d think all working-age people would know how to operate a camera phone, but apparently that is not the case.

My Other Favourite Place

I took a stroll to the Freidrichstrauße station and decided to head back towards my hotel. But since it was not quite dusk, I still had time to see more. Instead of going back to Potsdamer Platz, I took the train to Brandenburg Tor (Gate), after doing a lot of running around trying to figure out whether to take the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn, since they have different stations for each, and consequently different directions that they go in. That for me was the biggest pain in the ass in Berlin, and cost me a lot of time in the days to come. I constantly wished it was as easy to navigate as Munich’s train system (not to mention everywhere else I’d been) where there’s just one station per stop and all had ample signage. Anyway…

The Brandenburg Tor station comes out right in front of Brandenburg Gate, and it was only about 1.4km from my hotel, so I could easily walk back. As I mentioned before, it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, so there were tonnes of celebrations going on on the other side of Pariser Platz. I assumed that one would need tickets of some sort to get in, so I didn’t join. I kick myself for not doing it now because I should have went to see what was going on. It’s not everyday that you’re in Berlin for such a historic event.

Brandenburg Gate

Since I wasn’t about to go looking for anything to eat, I decided to get a cup of coffee from the Starbucks at Pariser Platz. €4.70 (basically, an arm and a leg) got me a tall cafe mocha. My Starbucks cafe mochaI didn’t want to waste my time by having their cappuccino again. Their cafe mocha however…that was a different story. It was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was the perfect temperature too. They also spelled my name in a way I’ve never seen it spelled before, and trust me, my name has been spelled in many different ways.Behind Brandenburg Gate

It was dusk at this point, my favourite time of day, and I wanted to stick around the area more. I walked towards Brandenburg Gate to somehow get a glimpse of what was going on behind all the barriers, and little did I realise that the Reichstag lay just around the corner. It really was by chance that I stumbled upon it, as I had not checked the map to see exactly where it was.

There were queues of people outside it, and dozens inside the dome at the top. I enquired about tickets, but was told that I had to have booked in advance and that I could try getting tickets from the offices across the road, but the queues would take hours. It’s such a pity I didn’t look that up when I was planning my trip. I instead did the stupidest thing of assuming I could buy tickets at the door. Tip: Never assume!

Reichstag

I was quite exhausted by then; I had walked nearly 13km that day according to my S Health app. It still wasn’t close to the 18km I had walked in Prague a few days before, but it was a lot. I still wasn’t tired enough to use the train back to my hotel though. Walking isn’t something you get to do much at all in Johannesburg, so I wanted to use that opportunity to the fullest.

I did so by taking a different route back to the hotel, one that passed the Jewish memorial. I didn’t walk through it because it had started to drizzle and I figured I’d be back if I succeeded in booking a Third Reich tour.

Jewish memorial

There were quite a few people hanging out in and around it, something I didn’t expect. I thought it to be a bit disrespectful for people to be sitting on some of the blocks, but it appeared to be acceptable.

I just knew the general direction in which to walk so I kept on going until I reached familiar territory – the Mall of Berlin. It was early, but dark. I was starving because I had walked off whatever coffee and food I had consumed that day, but wasn’t sure where to get something.

I went back to my hotel and eventually decided to take a walk around Potsdamer Platz and the other side of the Mall of Berlin which seemed to have some cool lighting around. After walking around for at least an hour, I gave up looking for something to eat. I didn’t want a big meal so I wasn’t about to go sit in a restaurant. It ended up being one of those days where lunch had to suffice!

I went to bed watching more news of what was going on at Brandenburg Gate, as well as some British news – I had actually missed hearing English. I didn’t have anything planned for the following day; I was free to wander. Not that I was complaining.

Prague to Berlin

Berlin. Just the sound of that name makes me sigh with wonder. It has been a bucket list item for countless years, and even though I have finally ticked it off, there’s still something alluring about it that I just can’t seem to put my finger on.

My desire to make Berlin happen started in 2013 after seeing The Piano Guys’ new music video, aptly named Berlin. It sounds cheesy, I know, but once a song like that gets into your brain, all sorts of things start happening. Even though I had just done a Contiki tour the previous year, it didn’t cover any major German cities, so my need to see Berlin still wasn’t satisfied.

Brooke from World Of Wanderlust is the one who put things in motion for me. She had moved to Berlin for a few months and offered for me to stay with her. So the whole thinking behind this trip was to do whatever I needed to, then save Berlin (the best) for last. Even though circumstances changed and she no longer could keep up residence there, I had made up my mind to do the trip. After all, why should her absence put me off? I’m pretty sure I’m going to bump into her again at some point. I still have to thank her for indirectly influencing me to do this trip.

I woke up very excited on the morning of October 3, 2015. I had already asked for a cab to take me to the main station, so after having my last breakfast on the wonderful Botel Matylda, I gathered my things and checked out so I would be ready to go once the cab arrived at 9:30. My train was going to leave at 10:3o so even though the station was pretty close to the hotel, I wanted to be there early. The cab fare was set at €10, much cheaper than what I had paid the day I arrived in Prague, and considering the hassle it would save me, I didn’t hesitate to arrange for one.

Praha hlavní nádraží

The friendly driver arrived early at 9:25 and loaded my bag into the car. I trusted the hotel receptionist to remind him where to drop me, since I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself by pronouncing “hlavní nádraží” incorrectly. I had become so used to German that I had to consciously remind myself to not say Hauptbahnhof.

There was only one thing I hoped for the morning I woke up to leave Prague: that I’d take one train directly to Berlin. Up until now, getting in between cities was really a mission, especially from Salzburg to Prague. From what I could tell, this was a direct train.

The cab driver didn’t speak much English, but I somehow managed to confirm with him that he was in fact taking me to the main train station. The poor guy sweetly tried to make small talk, so I used as few words as possible to make understanding simple for him. He basically asked where I was from and whether I had enjoyed Prague.

The station was very busy but it was easy to find the schedule, mostly because there were hoards of people standing in front of it. I still had a while to wait – my platform wasn’t listed until after 10.

Train schedule at Prague Central Station

There were tonnes of tourists around me, all of whom rushed as soon as the platform appeared on the screen. I just had to observe them to know which direction to go in, which, conveniently, was around the corner from where I was standing. I heard something fall in front of me, and looked down to find a palm-sized pink plastic suitcase. It obviously belonged to a child, but there was not a single one in sight. There was a young Chinese couple in front of me, and I know it sounds very stereotypical, but I figured that it might have belonged to the girl because it seemed most likely in the absence of children. I asked, but it was not hers. I decided to hang onto it and keep my eyes open for anyone that might come looking. No one came, and I realised that the child who had dropped it was probably hurrying to their platform and had already left.

I could feel that there was something in it, but didn’t want to open it until the last minute. When my platform eventually showed on the screen, I made my way to it, still looking around for someone who might want the tiny suitcase I was holding. Eventually I decided that the owner was indeed gone, so it would be fine if I looked inside. There were 4 Stickeez in it, each of a different colour. I chuckled to myself because I had heard some ridiculous stories about them being evil. It was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.

I thought about what to do with them, then decided that it would be a good way for me to remember that very moment in time, so I kept the Stickeez and threw away the little suitcase. They are now on my desk at work.

I had a few minutes to wait and enjoy the fresh air of my last few moments in Prague. I was very sad to leave, but knew that this trip wouldn’t be my last.

The Aussie and the Czech

I had booked a private compartment reserved for women, but the train was quite full, and I ended up sharing my compartment with not only another woman, but 2 men as well. I didn’t mind though, since it was a 6 seater. There was plenty of space for all of us, and for my bag too, luckily. The woman appeared to be in her mid 50s, and looked quite dignified and established, and somewhat nerdy. Of the 2 men, the older one seemed to be a local as he didn’t have any baggage, greeted only the other woman (in Czech) and went straight to sleep before the train could even leave. The younger man looked to be in his early 20s, and just had a small backpack with him. He didn’t say anything, but his blonde hair and tall, muscular physique indicated that he might be Australian.

The train journey was going to be at least 5 hours long, and I was slightly disappointed that the woman and the older man had gotten to the compartment first, meaning they got the window seats. Thankfully, the man got off the train after 2 stops, but since the younger guy was on the same side as him, he moved up towards the window.

The woman had started talking to the younger guy before he moved to the window, and as soon he opened his mouth, my suspicions of him being an Australian were confirmed. The woman, as it turned out, was a local. She was incredibly friendly and curious about the guy and I. It was certainly the most fun train ride I’ve ever had, as our conversation carried on for nearly 2 hours.

The guy, Chris, was only 24 and had been cycling around Europe for the past 3 months. He works for a company in London that was closed for 6 months in order to do some major renovations (I’d really like to know which company can afford to close for that long and still be in business). With all the free time he had, he was literally living out of a backpack with a sleeping bag and tent, while cycling through every corner of Europe he could possibly reach. He was living a dream. Well, except for the tent. We asked where he’d been and where he planned to go next, and of course, why he was on a train when he’s meant to be cycling. The reason was both amusing and frustrating: he got delayed by more than a day from cycling through the Austrian Alps, which messed up some of his schedule. So in order to make it to his reservations in Prague on time, he had to take a train there from Dresden. The problem was that that particular train he had booked did not allow bicycles on it. He had to either leave his bicycle behind (locked up on the platform), or stay behind with it. Of course, rather than lost his reservation for 5 days, it was better to just leave his bike behind and go back for it. So he was on my train only until we got to Dresden, where he’d fetch his bike and immediately head back to Prague on another train.

His plan was to head further south and end up somewhere around Istanbul. There was a bit of trouble there at the time, so I hope he made it safely. His only deadline was to be back home in Australia to spend Christmas with his family. I’m sure he made it.

The woman, whose name I didn’t really catch, was going to be with us for less time since she was going to the house that her parents left her in order to tend to the rock garden. How often does one hear a story like that? She lives in Prague and is involved in several things, one of which is being the secretary general of some organisation that helped underprivileged children. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it or what it entails exactly, but I remember being fascinated. She was also involved in other things that sent her all over the world to lecture and set up facilities in places from Kenya to Vancouver, and she had also lived in the US for several years while studying her Doctorate. She was certainly someone to look up to, and I regret not asking for her contact information so I could keep in touch.

The Refugee Crisis

Chris, the woman and I spoke about many things including the refugee crisis, and it was very interesting getting her (i.e.: a local European) opinion. As we all know, the Czech Republic was not open to the Syrian refugees, and the media feeds us a lot of stories that we as outsiders tend to believe. She was not speaking on behalf of all Czech people. but her personal opinion was that she did not want the refugees to come into her country as from what she saw happening in some of the other European countries, the refugees were demanding things from the locals.

Even though they were in desperate need, they did not accept food and water from a certain Christian organisation as the items they were distributing had the symbol of a cross on it. According to her, they went as far as emptying the water bottles and throwing the food away. That to me was horrifying, and certainly not what I expected to hear. She said that if you are going to someone for help, you should take what you can get; you should not be fussy about what they offer you. I do agree with that, but it saddens me that in some (I’m sure not all) cases this is not what has been happening. She also felt that by them coming in, cultures and traditions would get lost, and she was too proud of being Czech to want that mixture to happen.

It was a very interesting conversation indeed.

Dresden to Berlin

The woman said goodbye and wished us well as she left the train at the last stop before entering Germany, leaving me with Chris. After she left, I changed seats and moved to the window next to which she had sat. We had about an hour to get to Dresden, so Chris and I decided to have a bite to eat. The woman had given me half of her sandwich, after much persuasion. It was incredibly kind of her, and I was very grateful because I hadn’t bought anything to eat before leaving Prague. The only food I had with me was a pack of Oreos which I decided to keep for later. The sandwich was enough to keep me going till after Dresden, and I figured I’d get something upon my arrival in Berlin.

We passed incredibly beautiful towns (or rather, villages) on the way to Dresden, the majority of which lay alongside a river which I assumed was the Rhine. Turns out it’s actually the Elbe. Chris said it was such a pity he hadn’t had the chance to stop at any of them. He was on a midnight train to Prague the night before and everything was pitch black, so he had no idea what he was going passed.

Dresden HBF

As we approached Dresden, I was surprised at how big it was. I was expecting a town, not a city. How naive I was. I asked Chris about it and he said it was wonderful, and that there was so much to do. I did consider doing a day trip out of Berlin, but figured I didn’t have enough time in Berlin to spend a whole day going back in the direction I had just come from. Ideally, I should have spent a night in Dresden and headed to Berlin from there. Oh well, now I know!

I had the next hour to myself to enjoy the peace and quiet, not to mention the scenic rail route I was on. I took my iPod out again for the first time since the woman had started talking about 30 minutes after leaving Prague. I had a theme song for this trip, and it has now become my motto:

“One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember.”

When I arrived in Berlin, I was shocked at how massive the main station was. I had seen pictures of it from the outside, but I didn’t realise it would resemble a shopping mall on the inside. There were several levels and escalators and lifts all over the place, not to mention shops and restaurants.

Berlin HBF

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Once I left the train, my next step was to get a ticket to Potsdamer Platz, where my hotel was. It wasn’t long before I found a ticket machine, however finding the right platform turned out to be a bit of a mission as I thought all the trains were on the same level, when in fact the local trains ran a few levels up from the level I had arrived on, not to mention perpendicular to them. Luckily there are tonnes of friendly people to ask. It was also a mission to find a map of the network so I’d know which direction to go in. Thankfully the station had WiFi, so I was able to look it up.

Berlin HBF

Motel One

I arrived at Potsdamer Platz within about 10 minutes, and because I had studied the area on Google Maps and Street View, I knew which direction to exit the station from. The station was about 100m from my hotel, and there were escalators going up, so it was very easy for me to reach my hotel from there. I had definitely picked an awesome spot to stay.

Motel One, Berlin

When I arrived at the Motel One, check in was seamless apart from the fact that I had to make my payment. It was one of 2 destinations on this trip that required payment upon arrival. I was then handed my check in confirmation, which included my unique WiFi password. It was the biggest hotel I had stayed in on my trip, and I was excited to be checking into a place that chic. I was on the 7th floor so I thought I’d have brilliant views, but the direction I was facing wasn’t that desirable, although I was directly above the glass ceiling of the Mall of Berlin.

Mall of Berlin

I was completely exhausted that evening, and even though I was starving, I spent the rest of the evening hibernating in my room. I thought of going out to find something to eat, but I just wanted to stay in bed.

The next few days were going to be busy, so I needed all the rest I could get. Since I had a decent tv in my room which automatically turned on when I put my room key card in its slot, I decided to watch some local tv to find out what was going on. Turns out it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and that there were major festivities happening at Brandenburg Gate. I considered taking a walk to see what was going on, but my body was just tired. Brandenburg gate was only about 1.2km away, so I figured I’d just take a walk there the following day.

I had much to look forward to as I crawled into bed, as I would be doing a Hot Rod tour of the city the next morning. I was finally in Berlin.