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.

2015: A Year In Pictures

This year has been one of the best I’ve had. Even though it started off with pain, I decided to let everything go and see the good side of the situation, and many others that I didn’t have control over.

2015 has taught me that there is simply no point in refusing to accept a situation you don’t have control of, as it only amounts to bitterness, hate, and all things negative. If you choose acceptance, it can only result in positive emotions such as forgiveness, hence the ability to move on.

My dreams were big this year, and a lot of them became a reality. Putting ‘the situation’ aside (yes, it was a love thing), I focussed on the other things I really wanted to do. Here’s the result:

1. Getting together with my high school friends

We are in constant contact over Whatsapp, but being able to get all but 3 together with their husbands and children was awesome. The 7 of us make up MR FANTT – Megna, Rita, Fathima, Aradhna, Natasha, Trisha, and Tamika. We are each other’s support group 24/7 and I’ve been through a lot with them. They’re friends I truly treasure. Love you all!

MR FANTT

2. I got promoted

It was something I was working very hard for, and it finally happened. I never thought I’d be good enough to have the title of Senior Developer (at least, not just yet), but getting promoted taught me to stop doubting myself. We’re all capable of much more than we think we are.

Newly appointed senior developer

3. My cousin got married

The second youngest of the cousins on my dad’s side of the family, my cousin Thenushka got married. It had been ages since the last family wedding, so it was awesome seeing everyone together.

4. Two of my three best friends finally met

I’ve known Sophia for about 18.5 years now, 10 years more than the time I’ve known Rowan, but they had never met until a few months ago. Rowan comes to visit me in Johannesburg every year (he lives in Durban), and Sophia, who lives in Cape Town, came for a quick business trip with her parents. I had not seen her for about 7 years, so to have her and Rowan on either side of me filled me with so much happiness that I actually can’t really describe it. Sophia, Rowan, and Trisha (seated to my right in the first picture above) are like 3 of my limbs. My life would be very different without them.

Rowan and Sophia

5. I attended a One Direction concert

Ok, so just to be clear, this is not something I planned on doing at all. However, I must admit, those boys are pretty talented and they churn out some rather good music. Thanks to my friend Tejal, we got some really good seats. It was the band’s first show since Zayn Malik left, and it was quite remarkable seeing people selling their tickets outside the stadium since he was the only one they came to see. The concert started over an hour late, but the music kept the crowd entertained enough for the whole stadium to get up and dance to The Macarena. It was definitely a memorable experience.

One Direction

6. I bought the car I’ve always wanted

I’ve been a fan of BMW since I was about 10 years old. I loved the way they looked and sounded, and I always dreamt of having my own. This year, I was finally able to get myself one – a 320i M Sport.

Drogon

7. I attended my friend’s baby shower

I was very excited about Shaylyn’s baby not only because she’s my colleague-turned-friend, but because she was due in August – my birthday month. The date she was given was the week of my birthday, so I was hoping right up until the very last moment that she would give birth on my birthday. However, due to the doctor’s schedule, Shaylyn (below centre) was forced to have her 3 days prior to my birthday. Nevertheless, I’ve got a very soft spot for the little Poppins (as I call her).

Shaylyn's baby shower

8. I finally attended a craft beer festival

Even though I was going to Oktoberfest in Munich less than 2 months later, my friends and I booked tickets for the Craft Beer, Food, and Wine festival about 4 months in advance. I guess you could look at it as a way to get me used to drinking beer before the big event in Munich.

We spent the entire afternoon there and enjoyed tasting different craft beers and food, and bought some delicious things to take home, too. The one thing I won’t forget is the merchant I bought a bottle of wine from – he opened it before handing it to me. Who does that?!

9. I caught up with Mayuriga

Mayuriga is the first friend I made when I started university way back in 2003. We were 2 of about 10 girls in a class of 60 mechanical engineering students. Coming from an all-girls primary and high school, suddenly being dumped in a class of 50 boys was a huge shock. Over the years, Mayuriga and I met every second year or so, but this year was the first time we could get together in Joburg. After something like 22 attempts (about 15 of which were selfies), we finally got a decent photo together.

With Mayuriga

10. I ticked off over a dozen bucket list items

The biggest thing for me this year, by far, is my recent trip to Europe (which I’m still not done writing about). What was on my bucket list to begin with and which ones did I tick off?

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What did I learn this year? Don’t take life so seriously. Do what your heart tells you; only then will you find real happiness. A friend said to me that Avicii’s The Nights reminds him of me. Because of it’s super relevant lyrics, I’ve named it my theme song.

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

Thanks, 2015.

2013: What a year

Its been a while since I blogged, I know. Thing is, its difficult spending 8 hours on each post I did about my Contiki tour last year; no I am not finished with that! I actually have about 6 days to write about (3 Contiki + 4 in London which I still don’t have all the photos for). But I’ll get to that as soon as I find enough time.

So, back to the point of this post. What has happened this year? Well, there were at least 2 lists that I remember creating this year: my 2013 To-Do List as well as the Places (I want) to Visit and Why list. I set out to do as many of the items on those lists that I possibly could, but travelling was certainly not one of them.

I bought my first house at the end of 2012 and by March this year I had moved in. There are a lot of things I still need to do like decorating etc., but its a long process and I have many things still left to do. The house was quite a set back for me but I managed to not go broke in the coming months. The one thing that was always on my mind though was the pile of things I wanted to do this year. I didn’t know in what order I’d do them but I looked for every opportunity to be able to cross off something from that list.

The year is practically at and end now, so here’s some stuff that I can tick off:

1. I redid some of my kitchen at home. It wasn’t practical for me to strip the whole thing down and redo it from scratch, so I had the counter tops replaced and an extra section added in.

2. I met up with 2 people that I hadn’t seen for 10 years. Both were high school friends – one of which I hadn’t seen for 11 years.

3. Gyming 3 times a week which was an on and off thing, but I’m proud to say that it happened more often than not.

4. I planned on attending a rugby match but that didn’t happen. I did attend a cricket match in its place though.

5. I saw several sunrises this year.

There were several things that I didn’t get to do such as the below:

  • Visit Cape Town
  • Watch a play
  • Feed a dolphin
  • Drive an Aston Martin
  • Finish at least 7 books
  • Do charity work
  • Pet a tiger
  • Fly in a helicopter
  • Ride in a hot air balloon
  • Eat sugarcane
  • Do a canopy tour

I am not disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to do these things. Why? Because I went to Switzerland. It was the quickest trip decision I have ever made all thanks to my relative, Dhamari, who lives just outside of Geneva in the town of Nyon. Within barely 5 minutes of her offering for me to stay at her place, I made up my mind to go. I’d never make such a quick decision for anywhere else. Its the only place I’d drop everything for and that’s exactly what I did.

It doesn’t matter to me that I didn’t get to do the other things that I set out to do this year because

1. I crossed out 2 places from my bucket list – Zurich and the CERN headquarters in Geneva.

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2. I went from never seeing snow in my life to going to the top of Europe: Mont Blanc.

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3. I saw my first glacier, Mer de Glace, a short mountain train trip away from Chamonix, France.

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4. I met my German penpal Melanie for the first time after we first started writing to each other in 1998. 15 years ago!

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5. I went to Heidelberg, the biggest town I’d ever been to in Germany.

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So, the moral of the story is that you should set goals that you know you can achieve comfortably if you put the effort in to it, and who knows, you might surprise yourself by doing something even bigger and better. I did not expect to cross off of any bucket list items this year, let alone two, but I did.

One thing I now know for sure is that dreams do come true. Dream them, and they’ll happen when they’re supposed to.

Is there an age limit to wanting to do everything?

I think I’m getting to that age where I don’t want to remember what my age is. There’s so many things happening at the same time in my life that sometimes its difficult keeping up. Ok I lie, I can keep up.

Most children want to do many things when they grow up. I certainly wasn’t an exception. I went through many career desires as a kid, which included becoming an astronaut, a doctor, a professional tennis player, and a computer geek. I’m glad to say I achieved the last one by becoming a software developer.

However, there’s still so many things that go on in my mind and I often find myself juggling between many things, even while working. Even though my career is to be a software developer, I feel like I don’t want to be stuck doing only that for the rest of my life. I probably will do it for the “set myself up for retirement” part of my life, but I can’t help but feel that there is more in store.

At the Lion Park in Johannesburg

I don’t know if I can call it a bucket list; its more things that I want to do that will play a significant role in my day-to-day life. Some of them include the following:

  • Travelling – this includes seeing the Northern Lights, doing a cruise around Alaska, and hiking in the Alps and Himalayas
  • Writing – something like a column in some big newspaper or news channel like the New York Times or CNN or The Travel Channel
  • Becoming famous – God knows how, but no one can deny how cool acting is (though, I’m sure it will be short lived)
  • Working in a big city like New York or London
  • Working for Google or Amazon. For the record, I already had an interview with Amazon but I turned them down because I received an offer elsewhere, before I could go through their full hiring process. I’m sure I will cross paths with them again in the not too distant future!

All these things make me wonder if I’m the only one who still wants to do all these things at my age, or are they dreams only kids can have? Personally I think all are still doable. Ok, besides the acting part. I know that’s a little far-fetched. Yes, I am aiming high, but the sky is the limit, right?

When you visualize, then you materialize. If you’ve been there in the mind, you’ll go there in the body – Dr Denis Waitley

2013 To-Do List

I know I’m not alone when it comes to making New Year resolutions. I’m also not alone in saying I’m going to do this or change that and then never get round to it. Or, I start, but then don’t persist.

I decided to make my life much easier and come up with a “things I want to achieve this year” list. Its worked for me before so hopefully putting it down on paper will give it some kind of foundation, and of course, motivation.

A couple of plans of mine have had to be shifted/modified because of other commitments I made in the last month or two. There are some things, however, that I want to do and I don’t think there is an excuse for letting other things get in the way of them.

So here goes:

  1. Visit Cape Town
  2. Watch a play
  3. Feed a dolphin
  4. Redo the kitchen at home
  5. Meet up with someone I haven’t seen for 10 years
  6. Drive an Aston Martin
  7. Finish at least 7 books
  8. Do charity work
  9. Pet a tiger
  10. Gym at least 3 times a week
  11. Stay at the Drakensburg Mountains with friends for a weekend
  12. Fly in a helicopter
  13. See a sunrise
  14. Ride in a hot air balloon
  15. Attend a rugby match
  16. Eat sugarcane
  17. Do a canopy tour

Let’s see what the year unfolds. I’m really excited to see what’s in store. I think 2013 is going to be a good year!

Trip to Europe: Day 11 – Rome

14 June 2012. We had a full day in Rome awaiting us. We were to start the day with a tour of the Vatican Museums, something I had done before. It was an optional extra and wasn’t included in the tour, but I loved it so much the last time that I just had to visit it again. Besides, by going with a group, you don’t have to wait hours in a long queue. Also, seeing the Sistine Chapel in person is priceless, so I couldn’t wait to see it again.

According to our day sheet, we were supposed to be at the Vatican museums at 10, so we actually had plenty of time. We were around 20km out of town, at the 4-star Park hotel. It was a great hotel and it was such a beautiful morning. We had to take a short walk outside the main reception area to get to breakfast.  Once we were done, we got onto our bus and driver Steve did some magical maneuvers to get out of the hotel’s driveway. He really is an excellent driver. He dropped us off at the train station, which was very close by, and Steve told us how to get back later that night. He advised us that it would be safer to take a taxi back, though, since that area is very quiet at night.

At the station, La Giustiniana, it was a bit of a mad rush for us all to get our tickets. Some people figured out that you can get a number of tickets at once, so we just gave our money to them and they got about 10 in one go. It made things a lot faster. The platform was rather empty, so most of the noise came from us. When the train arrived, it was quite a squeeze. It was really busy! I suppose we were, after all, using it during peak hour. I don’t think any of us got a seat and filled the aisle as a result. I heard stories about getting mugged in crowded trains, but I wasn’t worried at all about it here since I was near Alli and Paul, and of course the rest of my group. The locals that were seated were mostly elderly people and were more interested in sleeping than us.

The Vatican walls

We had to change trains at Valle Aurelia so that we could get onto the main line to get to the Cipro station, which is one of the closest stations to the Vatican. I never stopped at the Cipro station before, so I thought that Ottaviano was the closest one. Both are actually correct, its just that you end up entering the Vatican from a different direction. Cipro takes you closer to the Vatican Museums while Ottaviano takes you closer to St Peters Square.

After getting off at Cipro, Rome was my oyster. I became like a kid in a candy store again, and more so when I saw the high walls of the Vatican. I had to stop myself from skipping. And I never skip, let alone get the sudden urge to.

We walked around the Vatican walls and eventually came to the entrance of the Vatican Museum. There was already a line, but because we were the “privileged bunch”, we waited separately, a little further away from the actual entrance door. We got there early and had around 45 minutes to kill, so I went to grab some coffee from the Caffe Vaticano across the street, along with a couple other people.

The atmosphere around the Vatican is something else. I don’t know if it was just me, but I was really on a high. It was already quite hot and there wasn’t much shade to stand in, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits. It was much better than rain. The excitement of going into the Vatican Museums again kept me going.

Eventually our guide came, with her blue handkerchief which we had to keep an eye on so that we wouldn’t get lost. Like most places, the tour guides either hold up an umbrella or something similar so that it stands up above the crowd, so that you can always find them. She stood to one side and handed each of us our tickets. The tickets have not changed since my 2009 trip. I know this because I still have my first ticket to the museums. There’s no way I’ll ever get rid of it. It has the image of the centre of the painting The School of Athens by Raphael, which sits in the Vatican Museum itself. The centre of the paining is actually Aristotle walking alongside Plato, although I think there is some debate as to whether it is them or Leonardo Da Vinci alongside Aristotle. Personally I think its Da Vinci on the left. Just cos I idolize him. The man was a legend.

Many people don’t know that Raphael painted himself in this painting too, and only if you actually do research on it or are lucky enough to have a guide to tell you, will you know. Michelangelo is also a prominent figure in the painting because Raphael greatly admired him (for obvious reasons).

With the dome of St Peters

Anyway, we had to have our bags scanned and remove any jackets (I don’t know if there were any mad people who had one on that boiling hot day) before going through the metal detector. The museum was crazily busy and we really had to keep an eye on our group so that no one would be left behind. This was quite a task when we went through the turnstiles which required us to slot out ticket in, just like how the metro turnstiles work where you put the ticket in on one side and it comes out the other.

Once everyone was through, we flooded the escalator which took us up to an open area where we could get our first glimpse of St Peters dome. 8 November 2009 was the first time I saw St Peters, and it was really a “wow, I’m actually here” moment. I had to get a photo of myself standing there then, but it was a crap photo cos it was in winter and it had rained and I was wearing a big, puffy, brown jacket that made me look more than double my size; so I just had to get a decent photo this time. In fact, I planned to correct a number of photos that I had taken upon my first trip, seeing as it was now mid-summer and the weather was beautiful rather than dull and dreary.

I had taken around 180 photos of the Vatican Museums on my first trip, so I didn’t want to waste my phone’s battery by going overboard again, especially taking ones that didn’t have me in it.

Because I had been before, I knew what was in the museums, so I was very disappointed when the tour ended suddenly. It was shocking to me how much was left out. We didn’t even see The School of Athens, nor one of the inner courtyards that has the huge, red marble bath that can fit at least 10 adults. I was very annoyed when before we knew it, we were at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. I thought “what on earth happened to the rest of the museums that we’re already here?”, because the Sistine Chapel is the last thing you see before going into St Peters church.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling

I had to block out my frustration as we went through the short passageway and entered the Sistine Chapel. For those who haven’t been I can tell you one thing: its much bigger than you think. Pictures of it that you see on the internet just don’t do justice. It literally takes your breath away. The scale of it is awe inspiring, and what strikes you is how much work Michelangelo put into it. There are people out there (I have a marvelous word for them: idiots) who are so ignorant and oblivious to the fact that such a great person existed. In that time, people really worked hard. All of us are so lazy now, and I don’t know if there’ll ever be a man as great as Michelangelo. I idolize Da Vinci, but I worship Michelangelo. Greatness personified.

You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, and the Swiss Guard are there to make sure of it. They’re all over the place shouting “No photo! No photo, please!”. I actually think those guards are more part of the Vatican Police because the Swiss Guard are there for the Pope’s protection specifically and there are very few of them, and they do not wear suits. They wear those colourful outfits. Clearly, I snuck in a photo (or 2) of the ceiling. I just had to. Thank God for the second camera on my phone, so I could just hold it out in front of me instead of aim upwards, therefore greatly reducing my chance of getting caught.

We had more time in the Sistine Chapel than the last time I had been there, so I took a few moments to admire the finer details. My favourite fresco is undoubtedly the Touch of Life, but you can’t ignore everything else, especially the Last Judgement which towers above you on the wall behind the altar. That was what surprised me the most in terms of size, because seeing images of it growing up did not prepare me for the enormity of it. Also, my mother had spoken of the fresco looking as if its in 3D, and it was hard to imagine a painting that can do that, but when you really look at it , the figures look more as if they are sculptures coming out of the ceiling. It can be very confusing to the eye, but a feast for them nonetheless.

We all gathered near the door to the exit when we were done absorbing as much as we could, and then left to St Peters church with the guide. The last time I had done that, I got my first glimpse of St Peters Square through the pillars, and became emotional immediately because I had wanted to see it for the longest time. This time however, I was prepared for it, so I concentrated more on the majestic ceilings and pillars that formed the entrance way to the church, as well as the gigantic doors, not to mention the golden door that only gets opened every 25 years.

I was in heaven once again upon entering St Peters church. There is simply nothing like it. Its also much bigger than you think and you only know when you’re actually there.

St Peters church

I didn’t follow the guide too much as I was more interested in admiring the La Pieta more than I could the last time. I separated from the group a number of times, though I maintained my proximity. I was too busy admiring the beauty of the church in the wonderful light that was filtering through the dome and the other little windows all over the roof. The last time I was there, the lighting was terrible for photos because of the dull weather, so I had ended up going back the following day on my own just to take it all in again and to get better photos, since it was a much sunnier day.

St Peters Square

We finished our tour in St Peters Square, where I found the sculpture for the West Wind near the obelisk. Angels and Demons fan, you’ll know what that is. We walked to the end of the square (or rather, the beginning) before going with Steve to the Vatican Museum shop. There were just so many things there that I wanted to buy but I didn’t want go crazy and get them all. If I could have, I definitely would have. I ended up buying myself a beautiful deep red rosarie. It was enough since I had gotten myself Vatican souvenirs before.

When everyone was done, we met Steve again outside the shop and walked with him to the Spanish Steps. We passed many gelato and pizza shops, and our mouths were watering. I couldn’t wait to get my gelato for the day, but it was still early. We were walking along the road that takes you directly to Ottaviano station, so I figured we were going there. Hence I was walking ahead of the whole group because I knew exactly where we were. I ended up crossing the road and leaving the lot of them behind.

The group

Steve and I spotted another suit of armor outside a shop, so he did a quick hop and skip to pose for a photo before someone came out screaming. We tried to do it at another shop the previous day, but I was having spastic moments with my camera and by then someone came to tell him to move away from it. I should have used my phone’s camera from day one. That Sony camera gave me hell at the best of times, even though it takes pretty good photos.

Steve

When we got to the Spanish steps, most of us split up. Some went nearby, around the corner, to a restaurant, while others disappeared altogether. I don’t know where they all ended up going. My 2-minute team from Venice, Alex, Kameron and bald Adam, went loafing around looking for a bite to eat. Adam managed to get something from a shop that seemed to have an endless supply of cheese and bread, so he concocted his own sandwich from there. I can’t remember where Kameron and Alex went or what they got, but I got myself a slice of pizza. I learned from previous experience never to get pizza from a restaurant because you’d miss out totally on the authentic Italian pizzas. At restaurants, you pay for the view, not the taste. We walked around for a bit then went back to the Spanish Steps to see if we could meet up with those who went for lunch nearby.

When we got there, I met the twins outside and we decided to walk around the vicinity rather than stand around waiting. Like me, they wanted to go to the Colosseum, but they knew of a few others who also wanted to and didn’t want to leave them behind. We checked up on them and they still had a way to go, so we took a stroll around. We came across an Indian street vendor who was selling some hats. The twins wanted to get one each since they were cooking in the sun. I was horrified when the vendor asked them for €20 per hat! What a rip off! They were ordinary straw hats, nothing special. I had bargained with Indian street vendors before and I know Hindi, so I thought that if push comes to shove, I’d haggle in Hindi instead. Being American (and therefore used to the not-so-bad exchange rate), the twins didn’t think that €20 was too much, but I chipped in and asked the vendor what his best price was, and he said €15. Even then, I thought it was too much, but I wasn’t the one buying, so I asked the twins if they were fine with that and they agreed.

The vendor tried selling me a hat too, but I wasn’t interested. He was grinning at me like a blithering idiot, and I kept saying no. Eventually he asked “Oh, you like hot?”. I glared at the twins and they laughed because the guy was clearly trying to hit on me. I just thought “pay up now and let’s get the hell out of here!”.

Insanely crowded train in Rome

When we got back to the restaurant, those who were eating there had just asked for the bill and were waiting to pay, so we sat with them for a few minutes discussing our plans for the rest of the day. When they were done, some wanted to go shopping but the rest of us wanted to go to the Colosseum. I actually wanted to go to Villa Borghese, but I thought it better to see the more obvious tourist attraction like the Colosseum first. I can always do Villa Borghese the next time I go to Rome.

About 12 of us walked to the nearby metro station to take the train to the Colosseum, and when we got there it was so insanely busy that we actually had to stay back on the platform because the train was so full. Tina wasn’t feeling so well so we had to look out for her.

We were relieved when we got off the train at the Colosseum, happy to be out of the crowded train. We got separated from most of the people we were with, and I ended up with the twins, Tina, Natalie, Kameron and bald Adam. We walked together, still watching out for Tina (who by then was pale and looked like she was about to fall over) as we went to the entrance where we could get our tickets. Our initial plan was to get a group of 10 so that we’d get a discount, but since we got separated, it didn’t work out.

I had another Indian guy hit on me as we walked there, much to the twins amusement since they had witnessed the first one only an hour earlier. This one was selling some random dumb item and was following tourists around. I kept the “carry on walking and don’t acknowledge” attitude. The twins gave me mischievous grins and I just shook my head, smiling.

We were so relieved to get into the shade at the ticket office. The queue was quite long, but moved at a steady pace. We waited for around 25 minutes which wasn’t too bad. The colour seemed to be coming back into Tina’s face too, and she looked fine.  There was a refreshing, cool breeze because of the stone and it was like a natural air conditioner.

We spent nearly an hour walking around, taking in as much as we could. There was a killer staircase that we had to go up and I thought I was going to die by the time I got to the top of it. After that one, none of us really wanted to go any higher. Its not an extremely pleasant building to look at, on the inside, but it is definitely impressive. Especially the fact that it was built over 2000 years ago and is still standing.

Admiring the Colosseum

By the time we were done, I was really craving for gelato. I had seen many vendors selling it right outside the Colosseum, but rule #1 about buying things in most countries is that you never buy from a busy tourist spot because you pay at least double the price that you’d normally pay. I was prepared to wait.

I walked a little more with my company in the direction of Piazza Venezia, the same road we had trodden on the day before. Hence, we got to the street vendor that owned the fruit jungle. I got myself a delicious nectarine, and had my third bout of being hit upon. What is it with the Indian men in Rome?! Why couldn’t it have been an Italian? Needless to say, the twins were right there in the middle of it once again. The man asked Kameron if I was with him, and Kameron didn’t know how to answer and it was such an awkward situation because I was with him, but not with him. We just walked away, pretending as if nothing happened.

We then decided to lose ourselves a little in the streets, taking some random turns here and there. Eventually, after around 30 minutes of exploring, I chose to head off on my own. I actually wasn’t sure what more I wanted to do, but in my heart I wanted to go back to St Peters Square. I had at least 2.5 hours to kill before I had to get back to Piazza Navona to meet Steve and the group to go to a nearby piazza to play beer pong.

Ponte Sant Angelo

When I was on my own, I had flashbacks of my time alone in Rome 3 years ago. It was the best feeling at the time, and I was reliving it. I headed north towards the Tiber River, and planned to walk along it as I had done previously, waiting for Castel Sant Angelo to peep out at me from between the trees.

I crossed Ponte Sant Angelo again, slower this time, and got lost in the beauty of the sculptures of the angels. I stopped a few times to look at St Peters from there, with the Tiber River in the foreground. If you go to the front of Castel Sant Angelo with St Peters on your left, you need only walk down one straight road to get to St Peters Square. That was my plan.

I took a leisurely walk from Castel Sant Angelo, turning around and seeing it from different angles, while watching other tourists haggling with more street vendors. The walk was much longer than I expected, and my feet were really sore by then. I was also pretty exhausted, but I kept going. I stopped at a shop about 200m away from the Basilica and got the gelato I had been craving all day, as well as some 2013 calendars that were going for a mere €2 each. They were small, sticky-note sized ones that had different themes like the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s works. Obviously, I got both.

Because of the road I had taken, when I got to St Peters Square, where I was standing seemed to be directly in the middle of the arms extending out from St Peters church. Its a sight everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. There’s nothing quite like it opening up in front of you.

I wandered around the square a bit before going inside. I didn’t bother joining the queue, as you can enter by walking alongside the guards by the metal detectors. No one stops you really, unless you look like some crazed villain I guess.

When I got inside the church, I moved in slow motion. I stood in one spot and looked 360°, at least twice. There really is nothing like St Peters church. I went to the back end of the church, passed the main altar, and sat on a section of pillar that was jutting out, for nearly 10 minutes, watching people go by, taking in deep breaths, and praying. It was the best this time because it was in the evening and there were probably only about 100 people in the whole church, so it was practically empty. Even though my feet were killing me, I realized that it was the fourth time I had been to St Peters church, and I had no regrets. I’ll go there every time I go to Rome.

When I was satisfied, I started making my way back to Piazza Navona. I took a different route this time, and crossed over another bridge which is technically right next to Ponte Sant Angelo. I knew that I needed to head south east from St Peters Square. On my way there, however, I got lost. The streets of Rome are very winding and narrow. I knew that I was in the general vicinity of Piazza Navona, but because of the narrowness of the streets, I couldn’t see the landmark that I was looking for – the dome of the church in the piazza itself. I asked a local man, who didn’t understand English, and he pointed me in the right direction, however it still didn’t help because of how twisted the roads are. Time was running out, and I knew I was going to miss meeting Steve. Yes, I had my map with me, but I knew that I wasn’t far off and I trusted my sense of direction, so I never looked at it.

Eventually, I got to Piazza Navona about 10 minutes after we were supposed to have met. I looked around and it was very obvious that the group had left, as we were supposed to meet at the fountain. Just before I could get out my map to find the place where Steve was going to take us (he made us draw a circle around it the day before), I spotted the twins. It was definitely luck. I caught up with them (they had clearly gone back to the hotel cos they had changed into nicer shirts) and we went together to the bar in the piazza where the rest of the group was.

There was a lot of excitement because of the Euro 2012. I think Italy was playing that day, too. When I went to the back, even more of the group was there, as Steve and Jose were playing beer pong against two local guys. I had never seen beer pong before, so it was quite entertaining for me. After the guys were done, two of the American girls, Taylor and Sarah, wanted to have a go. Taylor was epic and kicked those guys’ asses. They also had a game with the thinner guy’s girlfriend, who was, I thought, such a cheater! Before the ball could settle in the beer cup, if she was quick enough, she’d blow it out of the cup so that it didn’t count as a point. It was very impressive, but very unfair! All good fun, I guess.

It got dark, eventually, and we were all pretty tired. Most people left in groups so that we could share the cab fare. I got in the cab with Tiffany, Kelly, and I think Seeta and Chloe. We had a female cab driver who hardly spoke a word of English. Tiffany was trying to talk to her but she would just smile. She couldn’t understand where we wanted to go. Luckily I remembered Barbarano Romano, which I said to her, and she nodded and said “Si, ok”, and we left. It was very funny listening to Tiffany trying to speak to her. The driver was a very friendly lady but whatever she tried to answer with didn’t make sense at all. After some time we told Tiffany to just give it up (which worked, though not 100% cos she still wanted to talk) and we just admired the view on the way back to the hotel.

The cab cost us about €30, which was fine because it worked out about €6 each. Better than the hassle of taking other public transport. Alex had arrived just before us, and Alli, Rachel, Paul and Adam just after. They must have been right behind us, which made sense because we did leave at about the same time. I was glad Alex was back (she probably felt the same way about me) so that I wouldn’t have to open the door for her later. I’m pretty sure I passed out once I got into bed with my slightly swollen feet. I had Florence to look forward to the next day, and all I could think about was “I have to get a pair of leather boots”.