How To Spend A Short Trip To Vilnius, Lithuania

October 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Advice, Culture, Security, Travel

cathedral square vilnius lithuania

The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, is the ideal size for active travel feet who want a city that can be wandered around with nothing more than leg power. Like 2 to four minutes in Dubai, Vilnius is small enough to be thoroughly explored on a short day or two trip but leaves enough behind for a subsequent visit or longer stay. Here’s how to best introduce yourself to this Baltic city of 540,000 people.

Get To Your Hotel First, Not The Airport

Vilnius is really refined almost to its edges, except where taxi drivers meet Vilnius International Airport. The majority will gleefully try to charge you triple the normal rate to get into town and while there are airport shuttles available, an honest cab is too inexpensive plus convenient to pass up. One quiet way to beat those shady taxi drivers is to call ahead to your hotel or hostel to have them send a cab for you.

vilnius city tour

Speaking of hostels, I can highly recommend Jimmy Jumps House which is comfortable, clean, and close to town. Here’s my full review of Jimmy Jumps House with more details.

Most of you who’re familiar with eastern Europe know this is standard practice to avoiding getting ripped off (in India as well) so be sure to have your unlocked mobile phone and hostel digits handy. (In case you don’t, the departures terminal upstairs has free wireless for a Skype Out call.)

From Art To Old Then Back Again

When walking around generally one wants to see unique – and brick buildings with straight edges in Europe just isn’t it. You’re better off starting with Uzupis, literally “across the river” in Lithuanian. It’s the hippie-ish we-might-be-smoking-weed-before-painting-things neighborhood of Vilnius.

uzupis bridge vilnius

Visually, it’s interesting, whether you happen to be intoxicated or not. (Keep in mind marijuana is illegal in Lithuania.) Although they don’t look inviting, many of the alleyways are colored with extraordinary talent next to pawn shops that accept Uzupis’ own currency. Yes, Uzupis is a lot like Copenhagen’s autonomous neighborhood Christiania, aesthetically and ideologically.

vilnius uzupis alleyway

Hike, Don’t Walk To The Three Crosses

You can almost miss the Three Crosses monument, which overlooks Vilnius and offers the best views of the city. Just north of Uzupis, don’t just walk straight up, come around and stroll through Hill (Kalnai) Park first. Then, make use of the hiking trail (not the paved asphalt path) going around to the right – where you’ll be able to see the remains of the original monument destroyed by the Soviets in 1950 – the current crosses were placed in 1989.

three crosses vilnius

Hiking down the paved path this time leads you around Gedimina’s Tower, remains of a 13th century fort that most travelers without a specific interest can skip. You’ll end up in front of the Vilnius Cathedral whose side rooms filled with passionate praying reminiscent of Metekhi in Tbilisi, Georgia give a glimpse into Lithuanian faith.

vilnius cathedral

Depending on the season, there’s often a jollier atmosphere right outside in Cathedral Square next to Bell Tower; where I witnessed a student dance group practicing their moves for a large crowd.

15 Minutes On To The Old Town

Meandering slowly south you can recharge with a snack and coffee at a place like Saskaita on Pilies Street, a part of town that captures hungry tourists and locals alike. Granted you might be thirstier for a stronger drink – like a local beer at Snekutis (the one across town toward the bus station.) Whether you’re leaving town on to nearby Latvia or staying for a few more days, much of Vilnius is accessible within a half hour’s walk of calorie burning sightseeing.

Misconceptions About Singapore’s Clean Utopia

September 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Health and Fitness, Money, Security

singapore bugis junction

Singapore is one of the world’s most centrally organized nations whose legal system imposes fines in the thousands of dollars, jail time, plus canings in an effort to keep streets clean of trash and crime. There are at least 5 laws travelers to Singapore should be aware of that might have you thinking the city-state has achieved sanitized harmony.

Cracks In Perfection

Singapore has certainly attained what many countries around the world can only dream about – the third lowest homicide rate in the world. To put serious crimes rates in perspective, Sweden, Scandinavia’s safest country, has 56 times the number of assaults per capita. Many locals attribute the absence of killings to Singapore’s liberal use of the death penalty. There may be something to that (Saudi Arabia has a low number of murders per capita as well) but the correlation doesn’t extend much beyond serious crime.

singapore food cart

Charts for low population density combined with economic development tend to line up closely with those for violent crime. In other words, rich countries like Singapore who have low relative populations (around 5.1 million) usually don’t have high rates of serious crime – irrespective of how liberal their governments are.

It’s Only Fined If You Get Caught

People in Singapore, where the average annual household income is about $100,000, are willing to take bigger chances with their wallets. The country has had some struggle with curbing litter, despite imposing fines starting at $300. Particularly around outdoor markets like Newton Food Centre you’ll notice litter around trash cans. Closer to Newton metro stop the green lawns (you shouldn’t be walking on either) occasionally have wrappers and napkins gentle floating along warm breezes, lazily noticed by people snacking in the park, another no-no.

singapore metro mrt subway

Locals seem to know when they can get away with rule-breaking, such as tossing cigarette butts out highrise windows and why you’ll never see anyone eating on a subway train – there are cameras everywhere. Given the effectiveness of video surveillance, Singapore is looking to extend closed-circuit television (CCTV) coverage to all public spaces.

Death Or Drugs

Using a number of recreational drugs has severe penalties in Singapore and being caught with amounts above certain limits automatically subjects you to the death penalty as a trafficker. Not surprisingly, Singapore officially has some of the lowest levels of drug use in the world. (Although it’s legal, they don’t booze much either. That award goes to Moldova.)

Before one is walked to the gallows (literally) the country has made several attempts of prevention, beginning with public awareness campaign in Singapore’s school system, the third best in the world. Two chances for rehabilitation are also given, although it’s recorded by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) – a permanent mark on one’s background.

Despite all of this, there are alleys near industrial centers where one can find discarded needles used for heroin. Considering the penalties and island geography of Singapore, one is shocked at the amount of drugs there, let alone that they’re being used. If you’re not in jail though, according to government statistics, you’re not a drug user. Rates are low for sure, but it’s a regional phenomena – on the whole southeast Asians don’t roll joints, pop pills, or shoot up.

The Invisible Trade

Comparatively, Japan has similarly low crime rates but with much less severe punishments for serious offenses. Drug rates are higher across Europe than Singapore, but there aren’t many people getting high on drugs not called weed overall. Singapore does pensively rank high in another category – it’s one of the least happy countries in the world.

singapore arab street

Singapore is a clean country, but Luxembourg and Australia rank higher with lower fines for littering. You can chew gum in Switzerland yet the trains still run on time. The laws in all of these countries outline similar rules – with vastly differing punishments. Stability, safety, and sanitation doesn’t have to come at the expense of liberty and when it doesn’t, the citizens of those nations top out global lists for happiness.

A number of studies from the University of Connecticut and Oxford on criminal behavior show that the threat of getting caught is a bigger deterrent than the severity of punishment. Once the decision has been made to break a rule – you’re not worried about the consequences while in the act – but not having to face them at all. So, the next time you see someone jaywalk in Singapore or discard a plastic fork it’s not because they don’t fear being fined, it’s because they don’t think they will.

5 Laws In Singapore Decent Travelers Should Know Prior To Arrival

September 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Advice, Culture, Food, Green, Money, Security

Singapore recycle bins

Singapore is a city-state that’s known for its low crime rates as well as strong penalties for what are usually considered minor offenses in other developed nations. Sure, vandalism carries the possibility of caning as a punishment but if you have any sense, you won’t be spray painting cars in foreign countries anyway.

Putting aside things you know not to do no matter the penalties, the following offenses in Singapore have punishments you might not be expecting. It’s best to brush up first, as fines are hefty at best and jail is, well, jail.

1. Don’t Bring More Than Two Packets Of Gum

Until 2004, gum was completely outlawed in Singapore – a law that came into effect after an incident where some was stuck on a door sensor, disrupting commuter train service. After some intense lobbying by Wrigley, the ban was eased allowing the sale of gum for ‘medical purposes'; essentially whitening or nicotine-gums. To save yourself the hassle of getting a prescription to buy a packet, simply bring two with you. Two packets of gum is the legal limit, although it’s up to customs officials if they want to confiscate any amount.

katy perry chewing gum

And please, don’t chew where you’re not supposed to. On public transportation fines begin at $500 USD.

2. Use The Waste Bin

The only place you should spit out your gum is directly into the garbage. (Speaking of spitting, don’t do that either unless your saliva is worth $200.) Littering of any kind (smokers: cigarette butts are trash) carries a $1,000 USD fine, in additional to potential community service. So, if you don’t want to be picking up trash publicly during your visit, discard your junk properly.

arab street singapore

3. Get Low After You Get High

Having any amount of a controlled substance (pretty much any recreational drug not alcohol) on you is serious business in Singapore. At the lowest amounts, you can be caned plus fined for drug possession while being in the presence of larger amounts has mandatory death sentences. Not traveling with drugs is pretty generic common sense, even if you have dreads, but be aware that showing up high at the airport is considered possession in Singapore. Yo, like dude, how would they find out you’re wondering? Random drug screenings at Changi Airport. Like, for real man.

4. Flush Your Crap

Literally. Although it’s probably one of Singapore’s least enforceable laws, public toilets must be flushed. The $500 fine might also help relieve you of your bathroom OCD, or you can simply learn to kick flush.

toilet flushing

5. Cross Where You’re Supposed To

Jaywalking laws are however well enforced in Singapore. Police often (covertly) monitor random crossings and hand out $15 fines for first time offenders. Once you see a ‘no jaywalking sign’ and repeat penalties listed in the thousands staring back at you from across the street, you’ll be convinced to walk a few extra steps to cross in designated places.

singapore haji lane

There are a number of other laws (or to be fair, their punishments) many tourists have found unusual or absurd in Singapore. Remember, you’re subject to a country’s laws when you’re there, whether or not you know or agree with them. Besides, you shouldn’t be littering anyway, most of us have little sympathy for people who can’t clean up their own mess.

Ask My Mom: How To Cook Your Favorites From Turkish Cuisine

August 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Discussion, Food

turkish food tableTurkish food is disproportionately represented by doner and other kebab varieties in the minds of many. Although it’s not immediately evident eating out around Istanbul’s bright Istiklal Caddesi, most dishes served in Turkish homes are vegetable-based. You might not remember the name of that spicy pepper paste or know how to work magic with lentils but my live chat guest has the answers to your kitchen questions.

Hulya Polat is an award-winning international broadcaster who managed to feed me growing up while working the demanding schedule of a journalist. A lot of Turkish dishes that seem complex (stuffed grape leaves; zeytinyağlı dolma) or excessively time consuming (lentil balls; mercimek köftesi) have tricks she’ll teach you so they’re easier to prepare.

The chat is open today, August 28th from 7:30pm-9:30pm US EST (11:30pm-1:30am GMT). Thanks everyone for participating!

You can eat around the world but often nothing we find on the road replaces our favorite meals we ate as children. My mom will be here for two hours today to help you with recipes, options for vegan-vegetarians, plus what dishes to look for to eat healthy in Turkey (yes, it’s possible!) I’ll also be joining – mostly to make sure there aren’t any embarrassing stories about me. Everything takes place in the comments below so don’t be shy, we look forward to hearing from you.

« Previous PageNext Page »