Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lamba Labs Beirut September 19-24, 2012

Marc picks me up from the airport. We have been tag teaming emails to help setup the into to Interactive Electronics workshop that I will be teaching on thursday evening at the new hackerspace in Beirut.  Marc is working with Bilal on starting this hackerspace, aptly named Lamba Labs. In arabic, Lamba means light bulb... so I guess 'idea labs'.

We pull into a parking lot. A guy pulls out an instrument with a long antenna and scans the car for bombs. It is a sign that the region is still highly volatile and I cringe just slightly. The Radio channel that Marc tunes to in the car is chock full of  western music, from pop to rock to techno and the voices sound like you never left the USA.  

Arduino Light Painting @ Lamba Labs
The Lamba labs new hackerspace is located in Karaj beirut, a coworking space that is started and affliated with Ayah Bedir (little bits founder, TED speaker). It is a really nice old building just to the east of Genmayze, the party central district in downtown beirut.

The first night I arrive, Marc and Maya help me plan out a beginner's Arduino workshop for Lamba Labs, a hackerspace. I only heard about this place a few weeks ago from Bilal who is working on an initiative to start Hackerspaces in the Middle East ( see GEMSI.org)  Since Istanbul is so close, and I've always wanted to see Beirut, I volunteered to help out (as part of my vacation) with the fledgling hackerspace. It was also of good fortune to know the people who were making the initiative which made organizing really easy!  In my week in Beirut, I also helped create some marketing materials and participated in the weekend hackathon where we did had fun making light paintings with arduinos! 

Iraq’s First Hackerspace Will Run on ‘Irrational Optimism’

The Middle East and the Global Hackerspace Movement
In my opinion Beirut can feel a little scary if you don't know anybody. Technically the city is safe, but everywhere you go they scan you for bombs. There are old building riddled with bullet holes and extraordinary graffiti, followed by super high end shopping areas and bars, as well as gigantic new developements.

There are a lot of syrian refugees and they had a miniwar the week before i got there in Tripoli - a hour's drive to the north. Lebanon is a super small country. Its a less than an hour's drive to the Syrian border, and if you've been keeping up with the news, there's been a ton of violence and refugees there in the past few weeks from the explosions in Damascus to Syrian refugees pouring over the border and still fighting amongst themselves in Tripoli. The eastern part of Lebanon is also getting shelled from skirmishes in Syria.

I'm told Beirut is full of contradictions. You have super religious sects here from sunni to shiite and then uber christians.  Apparently, the civil war in 1975 split the city down the middle and then became a religious war. While a lot of the city is rebult in parts, there are old buildings that still show scars, riddled with bullet holes. There are extremist sects of every kind of crazy type. They say the government set up didn't help the situation because in parliament there has to be separate representative from each religious community... i.e. the prime minister is one religious group, and the president is from another religious group... nuts.

I feel tired a lot when I am outside of a non-air conditioned area. Not sure if its because of the air pollution, the heat and the humidity but I am more easily exhausted and cranky here in Beirut than Istanbul or any other hot/humid location. I'm not sure about the reports on cities with the worst in air pollution, because I am sure Beirut takes the cake compared to Istanbul's old city. It only takes about an hour of walking around or standing in the air outside before I start to feel really tired.

All in all, Beirut was a productive, exciting and busy visit. If the opportunity arises again, I certainly hope to contribute to more hackerspaces internationally during my travels. Its nice to get to know locals and also feel like I'm contributing as a traveler, not simply passing through.  I hope that Lamba Labs has a great future. The hospitality and the energy of the people were wonderful as well.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Istanbul From East to West

Istanbul September 11-18, 2012

The Blue Mosque
Alison and I arrive in Istanbul on the 11th September. We take a metered taxi to the W hotel which is located in beyoglu, across the way from the Domabache palace. This is on the newer side of European side of Istanbul. The flight is long but well run - Turkish Airlines definitely deserves a gold star for the quality of service, and I can see why they are winning awards for best airline in Europe.

We move to a smaller B&B the day after in a small road behind the blue mosque in the old town section. We are here for 5 nights.

Activities we did... details to be updated soon, so this is a draft preview

  • Taksim Sq/Beyoglu Day 1 sept 12
  • Galata Tower, walked all the way back to the hotel
  • Food Tour Istanbul Eats Day 2, sept 13 passed by ErBoy hotel
  • Hagia Sophia Day 3  sept 14
  • Sultanahmet Blue Mosque Day 3 sept 14, Post Office Book a hostel 3
  • Alison went to Topkapi Palace, I Spent time with cercer Saturday sept 15 - we went to asian side, then bebek, ortakoy, maiden tower, her university, back to taksim sq
  • Sept 16 Kadikoy - for lunch - asian side to the classical turkish restaurant, then spice market to buy spices and other items from the market
  • Sept 17 - moved to hostel, then to a cafe, sent a bunch of packages home via post office whirling dervishes
  • Sept 18 Grand Bazaar, bought paintings , Cisterns , hammam next door. packed and went to beirut on the 19th

In Istanbul, you will find lots of Turkish Kitties wandering around the streets!

Turkish kitties!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hong Kong for the Backpacker

Having lived briefly here in HK, I get a lot of questions about where a good place to stay might be, and other requests for travel advice.

For many travelers, Hong Kong (HK) is frequently always a stop on major international flights between Asia and Europe/Middle East or the Americas.

HK Island, for the most part, is not a cheap destination. In fact, in many ways it is a super luxury market. The outskirts away from the Island tend to be cheaper but you see less and it can take time to get to where you are going. If you are aiming for Shenzhen or the mainland, then that's great. If you're aiming for the financial center, then probably not.

HK is a place where the westerner can feel comfortable in Asia, where most things are or have a translation readily available in English. The Mass transit system is world class.

Where to stay

Here is Hostel in two locations - Hong Kong Side and Kowloon (Mong Kok) side -  Yesinn - http://www.yesinspace.com/ I have not stayed here but heard it was better than others.

Hotel: 3 stars - Hong Kong Island side - http://www.mingleplace.com/ near Wellington st. This is the Midlevels region and highly recommended if you want to experience the Hong Kong ' Atmosphere' on the Island. Its also near major tourist sites.

In my head at least, Kowloon has always been the more industrial side, Hong Kong island side the manhattan side. Things have changed a lot in the past 25 years or so, with the modernization of Tsim Tsa Tsui (TST) in Kowloon but the gritty manufacturing side is still there on the Kowloon peninsula.

Hong Kong tends to have a very high people density in very close quarters (claustrophobic close), so in general I would avoid staying at a very cheap place. You will see people wearing face masks to prevent transmission of respiratory diseases in public areas. I personally can tolerate staying in hostels all over Africa, but hesitate inHong Kong because of previous SARS and respiratory disease outbreaks. It is better off for your health and safety to stay at least in a 3 star or above hotel.

Also a word of caution: On the Kowloon side avoid any Hostel on Nathan Road in TST. This whole area is a tourist trap. It is worth visiting TST if you have never been before, but please don't stay here if you are looking for a hostel. The Chungking Mansions on Nathan Rd are where most backpackers stay. I have been harrassed at the front of the building even though I'm Chinese and wasn't staying there. The local touts press visitors for cash and it is a maze of shops with slow as molasses odd/even alternating floor elevators.  Great if you have the energy to deal with it, otherwise visit at your own peril.

Do not stay in Chung King Mansions or any place similar on Nathans Road at any cost. It is not worth your trouble and will wreck your HK experience. 

Transit: the MTR subway system is really good. If you can, do get an Octopus card, instead of the single ride tickets because its very useful. The Octopus card is good for Starbucks, 7-11, Mcdonalds, Watson's, and a lot of other convenience stores. Helps you avoid carrying around spare change - the coins in HK are super heavy. 

If you are flying out of the HK airport you can check your baggage in at the Central or Kowloon station instead of hauling it all the way to the airport. Checking in here with your Octopus card automatically gets you ticket to the airport ($90 HKD) Super awesome service.

Wifi: Free wifi can be hard to come by in Hong Kong for the short term visitor. Your best bet is Y5 internet, which gives you free internet for 20 minutes each day. you can get access at McDonalds or Starbucks. HSBC also has free wifi if you enter their building and just hang out.