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Category Archives: singapore to istanbul

Shantaram and travel plans

It took a few weeks, but I finally got through Gregory David Roberts’ 944-page potboiler Shantaram. It’s the quasi-autobiographical story of an Australian armed robber and anarchist who escapes from prison and flees to Bombay, where he leads an action-filled life as a slum medic, petty criminal, junkie, counterfeiter, gangster, and soldier, with long pauses to reflect on life, love and India. The writing is stilted and pretentious, and many of the characters thinly drawn, but I really enjoyed the characters and situations Roberts was able to get a grip on, and, above all, his obvious love for India and her people. The book was a gift from my Australian friend Janelle, who tells me it’s practically a phenomenon down under, and I can see why: to crib from Tyler Cowan, it is one of the best bad books ever written.

The timing of my much-delayed completion couldn’t be better, because this past week I was also finally able to put aside enough money from my job for my planned post-PhD 2010 trip across Asia, which will certainly include several months in India. In fact, after reading this book, I’m thinking that I may well want to spend more time in there. Not that the book makes India seem glamorous, or that it glosses over the bad stuff — in fact, there’s a hint of wallowing in the poverty, disease and crime. But the one thing that comes through is that for Roberts, India is a country that rewards trying to understand and adapt to her. Actually, to hell with spending more time there — this book makes me want to pick up and go there, learn the language, and live in Bombay for a decade or two.

random nuggets of Eric

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been devoting my hours to work at Worio, a Yaletown start-up I’ve been associated with essentially from its inception (though other people have done much more work than me). I enjoy the work, and it’s a nice break from grad school. Not only is the pay better, but pretty much every day I can go home feeling like I’ve accomplished something. The PhD program is not like that.

The only downside is the schedule. I work 10 to 12 hours a day, and that’s not counting the 45-minute commute each way. I go to the gym two or three nights a week, and out for dinner, movies or concerts a couple of other nights. I typically leave the house at 8 AM and get home at 10 or 11 at night. Saturday is usually spent running errands, and Sunday is my day of rest.

And so, other things have to fall by the wayside a bit. I don’t think I’ve looked at YouTube in a month! A month! And I’m lucky is I see more than one movie a week (though my commute means that I’m reading a ton of books, which is pretty cool, though I have an iPod Touch to watch videos on now). This blog is another victim. I just don’t feel like I have the time or energy for full, thought-out posts. Not that what I write is usually more than “Here’s a cool link. BLANK is cool! (Insert joke here.)” Even so, I do have opinions and I know how much you care about them. But maybe for now, I’ll just do a bit of a random thought dumpage. Let’s try it, shall we?

andorra.jpgThe can you buy Gabapentin online new Caribou album, Andorra, is terrific — kind of a wistful sixties psychedelic pop version of Caribou that perfectly fits walking though downtown Vancouver in the fall. I’ve been listening to the entire album pretty much daily. My roommate even liked it so much she blogged about it, too. Actually, 2007 has been a great year for Canadian indie music. Besides Caribou, I’ve been really enjoying the 2007 releases of The New Pornographers, The Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara, Pink Mountaintops, Champion and You Say Party! We Say Die!. And I’m sure there’s plenty of others I haven’t heard yet.

As I mentioned before, somebody used my credit card to commit several thousand dollars worth of fraud. It’s taken a few calls to the bank, but the damage seems to have been undone — at least the damage against me. I wonder how common this kind of thing is. Somebody is out a lot of money — there’s no way the bank has made anything like the money the lost off my past half-decade of credit-card use.

kyrgzhatsnip.jpgI’m still hugely looking forward to my post-PhD trip across Asia in a couple years, but I haven’t had anything particularly insightful to say lately. The part of the route from India to Turkey will be interesting. I will either have to go through Pakistan and Iran, or through the Central Asian republics and Russia. I’ve been reading a bit about both. On the one hand, Iran has better transportation and I culture I’m very interested in. On the other hand, Central Asia has thrilling headgear. But I think the final decision will depend on the state of the region when I get there, c. 2010.

Can you believe 2010 is now the near future? Like, I’m making plans for that year? The mind boggles. I feel all the time like I live in a William Gibson novel.

facebook-snip.jpgI’m still on Facebook, though all I ever do is update my status message every couple of days, which I see as kind of a creative exercise. I don’t even read the updates of people on my network very often. However, I still find it kind of fascinating — I think its genius is that it’s the first web page on the internet that is explicitly targeted toward the extroverted majority of human beings. The people who (unlike, say, me) honestly want to know what all their friends got up to last weekend, and who (also unlike me) typically do something with their free time that’s more sociable than watching DVDs or reading comics and books about statistics and economics.

Speaking of books about statistics and economics, I recently read and enjoyed Tyler Cowan’s Discover Your Inner Economist and Nassim Nicholas Taleb even more interesting Fooled by Randomness. Each of these looks at how the authors’ fields (economics and financial mathematics) informs their worldview in subtle and unintuitive ways, complete with amusing anecdotes. While I’d recommend these books in general, I think I personally got a lot out of them because while I’m neither an economist nor a statistician (a shocking revelation, I know), my own research owes a lot to these fields, and I increasingly find myself looking at the world through a haze of utilities and variances. Also, Taleb’s book provides some evidence that it is possible to work on interesting problems in finance, be well paid, and not turn into (or start off as) a boring, status-obsessed asshole.

Wednesday night I saw Tokyo Police Club at The Plaza. The band didn’t even come on until midnight (on a Wednesday night!), and then the sound was pretty awful. Tired and bored from standing around waiting for the show, and disappointed by the shitty mix and always too-hot Plaza venue, we left after about five songs. Enough people were bolting that there was already a fairly long queue for the coat check at that point. Nice try, boys. I don’t know whether it’s the Plaza or TPC to blame, so I blame both.

Singapore to Istabul 3: routes

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re going to end up someplace else.
— Yogi Berra

My ambition is to travel over land from Singapore to Istanbul. I don’t really mind ending up somewhere else, but I’ve selected that as a reasonable goal — far beyond anything I’ve done before, but doable. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not going to plan things out in any detail ahead of time. I expect to buy a one-way ticket to Singapore, pack a bag, and hit the ground running. Assuming that’s allowed in Singapore — it may well be a caning offence, from what I hear. But you take my point.

Technically, I could just leave it at that: figuring out a route and learning about the region as I do it. There’s certainly a pretty strong appeal to doing it that way — the romantic idea of the vagabond world traveller. But part of the reason for thinking about this trip now is to keep myself motivated for the next two years, so I need to allow myself the luxury of fantasizing about it. And this requires the input and distillation of information. Plus, just in general, I like to read and do research and know about things. Why deny my natural kittenish curiosity?

View Larger Map

This is the main route I’m investigating. I’ve used BookMooch to trade some of my old books for a few slightly-outdated (but still informative) Lonely Planets and Rough Guides, so hopefully I’ll be filling the map up with interesting destinations over the next few months. Right now, the route goes through:

  1. Singapore
  2. Malaysia
  3. Thailand
  4. Cambodia
  5. Laos
  6. China (Yunnan)
  7. China (Tibet)
  8. Nepal
  9. India
  10. Sri Lanka (maybe)
  11. Pakistan
  12. Iran
  13. Turkey

I figure I can easily spend an average of a month in each of these places and hit Istanbul a year after I set out. However, I don’t know a huge amount about anything after China (and even China, I’ve only just started reading about). So I have a fair bit of work ahead of me. And then there are alternate routes and side-trips, depending on the political situation in Myanmar and the Middle East. I doubt Afghanistan will be very tourist-friendly when I set out, but Syria might be. Not to mention, China is a very large and diverse country, and there’re trains from there to to Mongolia and Russia…

Singapore to Istanbul 2: travel planning and philosophy

trip-snip-2.jpg“Not many people got a code to live by anymore.”

— Bud, Repo Man

Okay, I’m obviously not going to be able to do this while saddled with grad-school debts, so this winter (2007-2008), I’ll be going on leave from UBC to work full-time for a start-up I’ve been associated with since I started my PhD. This is not only going to provide me with a not-unwelcome respite from grad school, but they can pay me something approximating a salary. Given that my lifestyle is decidedly studentish, and I’m not planning to develop any habits more expensive than martinis, second-hand clothes and DVD rental, I expect to be able to save a pretty good chunk of money — enough to travel for a year (probably more, if I want or I’m really thrifty).

And for what it’s worth, I do think it’s important to have enough money. And I’m not talking about a lot of money. Just: enough. I have no desire to travel in insulated luxury in a package tour. That’s boring. But at the same time, you see a lot of backpackers in SEA trying to hold to crazy budgets, living off fruit and pancakes, haggling with the locals over the price of a bag of cookies, and bragging about sneaking into attractions without paying. That’s not the life for me.

I figure once I get back to school after working, I’ll be 12-18 months from finishing my thesis, meaning I should be able to head out in the fall of 2009. A long way off from where I’m sitting now (a Vancouver Starbucks, in the historic year 2007), but it’s nice to have something to look forward to other than school and work.

I’ve made a few vague decisions about how I want to travel. I fully intend to break as many of these as I feel like.

  • I’ll be flying into Singapore and out of Istanbul. All other travel is to be over land and water. (My biggest concern here is the political situation in the middle east circa 2010. We’ll just have to see.)
  • I’m not going to plan the route ahead of time, though I’ll be researching the options. If I find myself in some place cool, I want to be able to stick around for an extra week or a month. If I hear about some place cool from other travellers, I want to be able to take a few days to check it out. (This was a big issue on my last trip to SEA: I was with my friend Janelle in Laos and we would have loved to stay longer, but our schedule dictated we had to get to Hanoi or everything would be screwed up.)
  • I’m seriously considering not taking a camera. It’s great to look at pictures later to remind yourself of what you saw, but it really affects the way I travel, and not for the better. It would be nice to just keep a journal of my impressions. Realistically, though, I think I’ll be packing the camera.
  • I really want to travel light. I made that decision on my previous SEA trip and it was so utterly correct I’m just totally smug about it. I’ll be setting out with a carryon-sized backpack and purchasing what I need as I need it, and discarding it when I don’t. A bag twice as big only makes you slightly better prepared, and it’s way more than twice the inconvenience.
  • While I’m kind of looking forward to travelling by myself for a bit, I’m hoping people will accompany me for most of my trip. I’ve been mentioning the possibility to a few folks. We’ll just have to see what happens between now and 2009/2010.

Travel Geek: Singapore to Istanbul

Singapore to Istanbul, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird


I’m not remotely a hard-core traveller. I grew up in Saskatchewan, in a fairly large lower-middle class household (some of my early years were in a trailer in northern Saskatchewan). International travel always seemed like an unattainable, exotic thing. As a family, the Brochus took out-of-province trips to Manitoba and Alberta, and I ventured as far into the States as South Dakota on a high school band trip. I was 24 the first time I boarded a plane, 25 the first time I saw the ocean, and 27 the first time I left North America (to visit Australia).

In the few years since then, of course, things have changed. As a grad student in an area of research that is fairly well-funded, I get to take breaks to travel, sometimes on the department dime. In the past few years, I’ve been to Montreal, Miami, San Diego, Australia (twice), New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Japan.

Visiting Southeast Asia had always been a dream of mine, and I loved it. Even the parts that sucked were awesome. At the same time, since returning, I’ve been finding the PhD to increasingly be a drag. I’ve spent literally months on papers that have been rejected, other months doing work I had to abandon, and even a few months where I know I worked every day, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what I actually did. Worse yet, my research failed to turn the field of Artificial Intelligence on its ear. Discouraging. (Though I did recently win a graphics research award, despite that not being my field.)

And so, to keep myself motivated, I’ve started planning out my post-graduate backpacking trek across Asia. As I alluded to in my last post, I’m currently working so that when I finish my PhD, I can take an extended break to do it. Right now, my goal is to travel, without flying, from Singapore to Istanbul, over a period of maybe a year. I may change the start and end locations, and the duration, but that’s the dream.

I know what you’re saying: “Eric,” you say, “that’s totally awesome, yet totally such a cliché.” To which I can only say, “yes, it is awesome. Thank-you. And what are you, the cliché police? Shut up.”

And so, because I’m a total geek, I’m going to start blogging about my investigations and plans. For now, I’m just going to keep it as part of the main blog (under the tag singapore to istanbul — I will really need a better name than that), posting maybe once or twice a week, depending on how things go, and how busy I am with other things.