Make high-speed rail travel more efficient

Last year I wrote that I had stopped using aircraft because of their excessive use of fossil fuels. The consequence was that from then on I would only use other forms of transport to travel for holidays. In fact mostly trains for their speed. Last year we practiced what I preached and used the train to travel to Puglia.

The journey went well. The French TGV and the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed trains can reach speeds of 300 km/h, shortening travel times significantly compared to ordinary trains and buses. On the railroad from The Hague in the Netherlands to Foggia in Italy, you’ll experience these speeds between Paris and Lyon as well as Milan and Bologna for example. It’s awesome to see the surroundings next to the train flash by in the blink of an eye. The problem is that you won’t be travelling so fast for most of the time.

Take the part from Rotterdam to Paris, Lyon and then Milan for example. Coincidentally, according to Google Maps the distance covered by all three legs of this journey is very close at approximately 450 kilometers each. Travel times are also close, at 4:30 hours each. This doesn’t take into account possible congestion, but the route is a worst case scenario which passes through the center of each city. For the train journey with Thalys (from Rotterdam) and TGV (from Paris onwards), the three legs take 2:46, 1:51 and 5:11 (!) hours respectively.

Much of this is to blame on the route through the Alps where the TGV can’t go fast and stops at every provincial backwater. This will be solved with the Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, but that is expected to be finished by 2028 due to the construction of the 57 km long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel. Another big issue is that the Thalys arrives in Paris at Gare du Nord and that the TGV to Milan departs from Gare de Lyon two hours later. There is a good subway connection between both stations, but you lose a lot of time which could have been spent in the train.

Such important tunnels as the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel should already have been constructed in the past if there had been foresight of the future. Paris should have one huge TGV station on the outskirts of the city. Give it a good connection to the center with a subway line so the TGV’s can be focused on serious long distance travel and short transfers between trains (which also means more trains). When that’s done, high-speed trains will be able to compete much better with aircraft.

In other places the story is the same. Milan also has two stations for high speed trains, requiring you to make a transfer. When you travel from Milan to Foggia, there simply is no high speed rail on Italy’s eastern coast. The intercity on that route wasn’t slow, but I’m looking forward to the new high-speed line from Napoli to Bari which is due to finish in 2022. When I explored options for a trip to Spain (which also has a decent high-speed rail network) I noticed that there is still no high-speed railway between Montpellier and Perpignan (in France) and that there is no high-speed railway from Madrid to Lisbon (even the ordinary railway connections to Lisbon are scarce).

I can deal with such limitations by spending the night in a city half way through the journey. But others will just take a flight. If we want to make long distance train travel attractive, we have to do a lot more.

Visited Puglia in September 2016

Apparently I’m failing to catch up with my backlog of blog posts, but here is another belated post on our holiday in Puglia. We traveled there in September 2016.

The schedule was as follows, with times and prices for train (and one bus) tickets mentioned for one person:

  • Thu 08th: Rotterdam Centraal 14:58 → Paris Gare du Nord 17:35 (€ 35)
  • Fri 09th: Paris Gare de Lyon 06:28 → Milano Porta Garibaldi 13:50 (€ 39), Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:18 → Foggia 21:35 (€ 35)
  • Sat 10th: Bari, Grotte di Castellana, Polignano a Mare
  • Sun 11th: Polignano a Mare, Monopoli, Egnazia, Fasano
  • Mon 12th: Alborobello, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica
  • Tue 13th: Ostuni, Cisternino, Ceglie Messapica
  • Wed 14th: Oria, Torre Guaceto (beach), Brindisi, Lecce
  • Thu 15th: Lecce
  • Fri 16th: Acaya, Roca Vecchia, Baia dei Turchi (beach), Galatina, Alezio
  • Sat 17th: Otranto, Castro, Grotta Zinzulusa, Specchia, Corigliano d’Otranto, Alezio
  • Sun 18th: Punta Pizzo (beach), Ugento, Gallipoli, Alezio
  • Mon 19th: Manduria, Punta Prosciutto (beach), Manduria
  • Tue 20th: Taranto, Massafra
  • Wed 21st: Massafra, Matera
  • Thu 22nd: Matera, Altamura
  • Fri 23rd: Altamura, Gravina in Puglia, Bari, Bari Centrale 21:00 → Milano Lampugnano bus station 08:45 (Flixbus € 29)
  • Sat 24th: Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:40 → Paris Gare de Lyon 22:38 (€ 39)
  • Sun 25th: Paris Gare du Nord 12:25 → Rotterdam Centraal 15:02 (€ 49)

The train journey was okay, but it’s frustrating that the journey takes relatively long due to parts with low-speed track and transfers. The railway from Lyon to Turin may pass through gorgeous landscapes in the Alps, but it turns that TGV into a snail. The route from Bologna to Foggia wasn’t fast either but featured a lot of scenic views. At some places it’s track runs at a distances of less than 50 meters from the coast. More about railway efficiency later in a different post.

I decided to focus this trip on the Salento peninsula, the southern part of Puglia. The northern part I saved for another trip. I revisited many places which I had already seen in 2013 but which Stephanie had not. While I did see all the highlights, I still have the feeling I missed a lot of things. In particular, I wish I had seen more of the natural environment, beaches, coasts and sea. In hindsight, I would have reduced the distances traveled and the relative share of city sightseeing a bit more. I wouldn’t have missed some iconic beaches such as Torre dell’Orso and Torre Sant’Andrea.

A big disappointment was the uncooperative weather, which was quite bad on several days with lots of clouds and rain. This is very unusual for September in Puglia. Even more unusual was the large amount of snowfall and freezing temperatures in the winter of 2016 to 2017. Climate change I guess.

But don’t get the wrong idea: we greatly enjoyed our holiday. We visited many beautiful cities, ate delicious food (too bad I didn’t take notes so I could replicate everything at home) and relaxed at some marvelous beaches. Meeting again with one of my former CouchSurfing hosts, Michele, was one of the best moments.

One word of warning to other travelers: beware of opening hours of museums, archeological sites and other places of interest and study them carefully! I knew from experience that opening hours are fishy in southern Italy, but I allowed myself to be unpleasantly surprised during this holiday far too frequently.

Beach of Polignano al Mare
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34208831772/

Now, let’s walk down the schedule and evaluate it. In Bari we hired a car to visit the Castellana Caves. Highly recommended indeed, I don’t remember visiting such a large and beautiful show cave before. Polignano a Mare is a bit touristy, but is a nice village perched on top of a cliff on the coast nevertheless. We didn’t have time to hang out on it’s beach in the first photo here though. Monopoli has a nice historic center, but several places of interest such as the castle were closed. The archeological site of Egnatia and it’s museum show the relatively well preserved remains of an ancient Roman city. Recommended.

Alborobello is busy with tourists who mainly come for the trulli, traditional houses in Puglia’s countryside. It was interesting, but apart from the small museum I felt I missed a tourist guide to understand where to look and what I was seeing. Locorotondo and Martina Franca offer nice historic centers. The same goes for Ostuni and Cisternino, which we visited during the following day.

Oria lures you in with a stimulating view of it’s historic center overlooked by a castle on a hill. When we got there we disappointed to discover that the castle wasn’t open for visitors. The beach of Torre Guaceto easily compensated for this, because of it’s clear waters and remote location near a nature reserve. Brindisi and Lecce are a must for everyone visiting the Salento, especially the latter has the most exquisite historic center of the region with awesome architecture. Do visit the Museo Archeologico Provinciale Francesco Ribezzo in Brindisi and the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano in Lecce if you like archeology.

Castle of Acaya
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34259856271/

Acaya is a small, quiet village with a lovely castle. Unlike Lecce’s castle (also worth a visit) almost all rooms and the roof are accessible. As icing on the cake, it had an exhibition about archeology while we visited there. Roca Vecchia is worth a visit for its archeological site (closed when we were there) and the Grotta della Poesia, a sinkhole near the coast. We continued to Baia dei Turchi, a beach further south sheltered by a forest. We saw Galatina for a few interesting church buildings.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/33580285883/

Otranto has a nicely preserved walled historic center next to a picturesque beach and harbor. We went further south to Castro in the hope to catch a boat and see the coast from the sea, but the weather prevented us from doing so. The Grotta Zinzulusa is a cave nearby which provided an alternative activity. Specchia was supposed to have an interesting historic center, but there wasn’t much to see. Do visit Corigliano d’Otranto to see its castle. We were given a guided visit there by an entertaining older Italian man who spoke surprisingly good English.

Punta Pizzo is a nice beach south of Gallipoli, even though the clouded weather worked against us again. I wanted to see the museum in Ugento, but that was closed in the afternoon. Gallipoli, which has an historic center on an island, took the rest of our time for that day. Unfortunately it was a bit too busy with tourists for my liking.

I had been looking forward to visit the archeological park of Manduria and was disappointed to see it was closed. We entertained ourselves with a wine tasting at the Consorzio Produttori Vini close to the site and then went to beach of Punta Prosciutto (yes, a beach called after a ham…). The weather shoved clouds in our faces, but on a sunny day you will agree that the nickname “Maldives of the Salento” is justified for this lovely beach.

Taranto’s historic center has an extraordinary position on a small island flanked by the sea and an inlet, connected to the mainland by short bridges. It absolutely shouldn’t be missed for it’s magnificent archeological museum. The fact that this museum was actually open (it was under renovation in 2013) compensated all my disappointments with stuff that was unexpectedly closed.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34260231631/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34281278651/

Massafra is worth a visit for its center which curiously split in half by a ravine. It has a castle, but it turned out access is quite restricted there without the ability to go to the roof. Matera is just over the border with Basilicata and has much more to see. It features a lot of rock-cut architecture, visiting it is recommended.

In Altamura I hoped to learn more about how they make their famous Altamura bread, but I didn’t manage to find a cooking course there. The cathedral alone is worth a visit though. Gravina in Puglia has an interesting archeological museum and a scenic view of a ravine to the west of its historic center, but just like Altamura I think we missed some things because we didn’t know where to look. We ended our journey in Bari’s historic center, another must see. We had to take a Flixbus to Milan though, because the TrenItalia train was cancelled. The Flixbus actually had WiFi, something the trains don’t have.

Finally, a word about Puglia’s official tourism website. It’s hard to navigate this website, the quality of its information varies and isn’t always up to date. Most annoyingly, some information isn’t available in English and you frequently find dead links to non-existent pages. It’s an embarrassment. Dutch city marketing websites such as the one of The Hague are miles better. They should get their act together and design a better website.

Why I don’t want to travel with aircraft anymore

To travel to Nepal and the USA from the Netherlands several years ago, I’ve used aircraft. For traveling to closer holiday destinations such as Spain and Italy, I’ve also taken flights to get there. Since I’ve become more conscious of climate change, I decided to investigate the climate change impact of flights. My findings shocked me.

Flights cause much more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than cars, buses and trains. How much more depends on the method you use to calculate it. There are various calculators available on the Internet which can calculate CO2 emissions for a specific route. Because calculation methods and results vary so widely, I’ve compared them in the table below, on the basis of a journey with the train from Rotterdam Centraal railway station (Netherlands) to our next holiday’s destination, Bari Centrale railway station (Italy). For the flight I chose a hypothetical, non-existent flight from Rotterdam The Hague Airport (IATA: RTM) to Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (IATA: BRI).

This is one way to do the comparison. In reality, you would need to travel 200 kilometers with a car (or three hours and a quarter with the train and bus) from Rotterdam to Maastricht Aachen Airport (IATA: MST) to get a flight to Bari. You would also need to take the metro from Bari Airport to Bari Centrale, which takes around twenty minutes. This makes the comparison more favorable for the train. Also consider that the huge advantage of faster air travel can be negated in practice; the flight departs only on Wednesday and Sunday in the second week of September. We depart on Thursday with the train, which departs every day.

Calculator Flight CO2 (kg) Train CO2 (kg)
MyClimate 310
EcoPassenger 269 63
Carbon Footprint 210
Loco2 144 27
ICAO 141

I should mention that the Carbon Footprint calculator has an option to include or exclude radiative forcing. Without radiative forcing, the CO2 emissions will be 110 kilo, but considering the effect of radiative forcing I think it’s fair to include it.

EcoPassenger seems to have to most refined methodology of all the calculators. If I just enter departure station and arrival station it gives me a figure of 70 kilo for the train, but it tends to select a strange route via Switzerland to come to this result. I got to the figure of 63 kilo by calculating every leg of the journey independently, for the exact trains I’ve booked:

  1. Rotterdam to Paris (Thalys) = 6,0
  2. Paris to Milan (TGV) = 16,5
  3. Milan to Bari (FrecciaRossa to Bologna, then FrecciaBianca) = 40,3

The difference between rail transport in France and Italy is explained by the methodology used by EcoPassenger, which is accessible on their website. They take into account which fuel sources were used for electricity production in 2013. It turns out that nuclear power had a share of 75% in French electricity consumption, followed by renewable energy with 18%. Because this gives very limited CO2 emissions the journey through France scores well. Italy doesn’t use nuclear power and had a share of 41% renewable energy in total consumption. I had expected the journey from Rotterdam to Paris to emit more because the Dutch electricity mix is lagging behind. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with a pitiful share of merely 14% renewables in electricity consumption.

Some of the calculators indicate a huge difference in CO2 emissions between aircraft and train. A Dutch environmental organization, Milieu Centraal, calculated the difference at a factor of 7,5 for a journey from the Netherlands to Nice in France. With Loco2, aircraft emit more than five times more CO2 than the train. EcoPassenger shows the smallest difference with a factor of more than four. Their estimate is the most conservative, but their methodology is also appears to be the best and the most transparent.

So how does 269 kilo of CO2 emissions compare? Consider for example that in the Netherlands, cars traveled 12.935 kilometers on average in 2012. They emitted 119 grams of CO2 per kilometer on average in the same year, giving a total of 1.539 kilos of CO2 for the whole year. So a return flight from Rotterdam to Bari equals four months of driving an average car in the Netherlands. This still might not seem much to you. Actually, considering that in the real world you can take a one way flight from Maastricht to Bari with Ryanair for less than € 20, you might not care.

But consider some other things. If you fly long distances, CO2 emissions will equal or exceed the emissions of a car in a year. Commuting to work with your car might be a necessity, but a holiday with a flight is certainly a luxury. With all options for video conferencing today, I think flights for business reasons aren’t essential either. You can also commute to work with electric public transport, an electric car or a more efficient bus. Electric cars and buses are already showing strong growth and are likely to replace their counterparts on fossil fuels in the near future. On the other hand there is no alternative to aircraft which run on kerosene for the foreseeable future.

Because there is no way to make air travel environmentally sustainable at this time, I think we should stop doing it altogether. We have to take action against unchecked climate change. The year 2016 will be another year with a new temperature record, just like the six other years after 2000. If it goes on like this, southwest Asia is predicted to become uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures. More needs to be done to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Why not start with air travel, which was conveniently kept out of that agreement?

The question is, can we do with less? Commercial aviation is still relatively young and became popular no sooner than the 1960’s in the Netherlands. Our parents could enjoy their holiday in the Netherlands itself or elsewhere in Europe without a flight. If they could be content with that, we should be able too. I’d still love to go to Mexcio, Brazil, India and Japan one day, so this is not easy for me either. However, I can live with less and be satisfied with holidays in Europe by train. Given the danger we are in, our climate should take precedence over my and your desires. Don’t fool yourself with arguments like ‘that aircraft will still fly without me’. This assumes you are the only one prepared to act. I’m asking you to assume something different: it might take no more than two hundred people to make one flight unprofitable for an airline.

Now you know what is at stake and you know what you can do about it. What will you choose? The earth or your own desires?

Visited Amsterdam in January 2016

Amsterdam is the city which is most popular with foreign tourists in the Netherlands. As a domestic tourist I’ve visited Amsterdam a few times in the past, but there is much worth seeing there which warrants more trips to our capital city. That’s why Stephanie and I decided to visit Amsterdam on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 January.

On the first day we took a train from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, arriving a little bit later than we had intended, around the start of the afternoon. We first visited the Van Gogh Museum. It’s strange that I hadn’t visited this earlier, considering the treasures of art exposed here. I adore Van Gogh’s work, I consider him the last great Dutch painter. I was so impressed and fascinated with the paintings that I felt overwhelmed, almost in a state of ecstasy. It is for good reason that the museum has some text which describes the Stendhal syndrome.

The Rijksmuseum was next. I had visited it before years ago, but this was the first time I visited the museum after its renovation. I consider the renovation a great improvement, though I don’t remember well how it looked during my last visit. Loved the paintings here too. When the museum closed in the afternoon, we went to Mana Mana for dinner, an Israeli restaurant which we can recommend. Not the best I’ve sampled from Israeli cuisine, but it has a good selection of vegan dishes. We then spent the night at a hotel far to the west of Amsterdam’s center, because that was much cheaper than within the center.

On Sunday we had more time. We walked from our hotel to the center, through the Vondelpark, to visit the Stedelijk Museum. I did not like this museum, it felt like the suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich there ripped me out of the swoon I had entered in the Van Gogh Museum. Next was the Tropenmuseum, which has expositions on various cultures in the tropics. Especially the building it is housed in is remarkable. We finished in the Allard Pierson Museum. I had visited this archeology museum a few years ago already, but Stephanie had never seen it yet. The temporary exposition on Sicily was still interesting for me, and I would like to visit again when the renovation of the museum is finished.

We had dinner in Indonesian restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger. The food here was average, but at least it had enough vegan options. It was after dinner when we saw the best attraction of this day, the Amsterdam Light Festival. This is a boat trip through the canals of Amsterdam, which were decorated with many light art installations. It was a beautiful conclusion to our trip. The boat trip ended close to the Central Station of Amsterdam, from where we took a train back to Rotterdam.

But there is much more to see in Amsterdam. Next year I want to visit again during spring or summer to see those things for which I didn’t have time to visit. I have visited The Amsterdam Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Hermitage Amsterdam in the distant past, but would like to see them again. Attractions which I haven’t visited yet are the Hortus Botanicus, EYE Film Institute Netherlands, FOAM, Rembrandt House Museum, the Royal Palace, the New Church and the Old Church. At Muiden, at a short distance of Amsterdam, I want to see Muiden Castle.

Visited southwestern Turkey in August 2015

From Saturday 15 August to Saturday 29 August we visited southwestern Turkey. We took a flight to İzmir and hired a car there to travel along the coast in the direction of Antalya, were we took our return flight.

Just like for Sicily I made a very ambitious planning, so we could see almost everything on the coastal route from İzmir to Antalya. We did reserve enough time for enjoying beaches, but again we felt the schedule should be more relaxed. On average we spent probably two hours in our car every day. In most hotels we spent only one night, two in some.

If you studied history or you are interested in archeology like me, you will love Turkey. This country probably has to most archeological sites per square kilometer in the world. So much that the Turkish government apparently doesn’t have the budget to design preservation plans for them all, especially the very remote, smaller ruins. I was deeply impressed by some of the highlights such as the Harbor Theater in Miletus and the Temple of Apollo in Didyma. Also be sure to visit the Archeological Museums of Selçuk and Antalya. With the exception of Ephesus, all of the archeological sites I saw are relatively quiet, even in the busy month of August.

Theater of Miletus

Temple of Apollo at Didyma

The beaches in this region of Turkey are nice. Some memorable beaches which come to mind are Ölüdeniz (Fethiye), Patara, Kaputaş (east of Kalkan) and Konyaaltı (western Antalya). However, there wasn’t any beach were the water was sufficiently clear to dive and see what was going on at the seabed. In that regard I like some Italian and Greek beaches more. Also, all beaches were filled with tourists. Probably inevitable in August, but even in the summer there are plenty of Italian, Greek and even Dutch beaches which are more quiet.

Patara Beach, seen from the sea

Kaputaş Plajı (with D5100)

Konyaaltı Beach in Antalya

The food was okay, but not memorable. I get the impression that Turkish cuisine isn’t as creative with vegan dishes as some other Mediterranean cuisines. Of course, my impression might be skewed because southwestern Turkey is so extremely touristic. The rule of thumb is that more tourists means more bad restaurants. We fell victim to this on a few days, but if you search well you can find good places to eat. Maybe I would learn to appreciate Turkish cuisine more if I visited Istanbul or the less touristic regions in Turkey’s hinterland.

In Tekirova we went tandem paragliding from Tahtalı Dağı, a mountain which is 2,366 meters high, landing at the beach of Tekirova. We did so with the company Escape2Olympos.  The first time I went paragliding, in Pokhara in Nepal, I used my camera to take shots while paragliding. This was not allowed here due to safety reasons (on their website they explain that many people apparently dropped their cameras and endangered those on the ground), which I was okay with initially. Not using a camera allows me to concentrate on the flight, which is a good.

During the flight it turned out they had those GoPro cameras on a stick. Secured so it couldn’t fall, but I wasn’t told about it in advance. I told the pilot I wasn’t interested, but I did agree to hold the camera when the pilot needed to perform maneuvers or to get a better view for the camera. The pilot told me it was compulsory for him to use the camera. The near constant use of the camera distracted from the experience. The fact that they charged half the flight’s fee for the video annoyed me further. The flight itself was amazing, especially due to the huge difference in altitude and the view from above. I would recommend them only if you negotiate with them that the camera isn’t going to be used at all. You want to focus on the flight.

My greatest problem with southwestern Turkey is that the tourism industry is so overdeveloped here. This made the region lose its authenticity. This was perhaps best illustrated by a photo I saw in the castle of Bodrum. It showed an aerial photograph of Bodrum in the 1960s, when it was still a quaint small fishing village. Now it’s overflowing with hotels. I prefer regions which still possess that authenticity, such as Southern Italy.

Despite some of these reservations, we enjoyed this holiday. I would strongly recommend others to visit just outside the holiday season (in April, May, September or October) to avoid the large crowds of tourists and hot temperatures. Walking around archeological sites in temperatures above 30 °C can be taxing. We were limited to August because of Stephanie’s inflexible roster due to her work in the hospital.

Below is our schedule:

  • Sat 15th: Amsterdam → İzmir, hotel at airport
  • Sun 16th: Selçuk (Ephesus, Ephesus Archaeological Museum, Basilica of St. John, Ayasuluk Fortress)
  • Mon 17th: Priene, Miletus, Didim
  • Tue 18th: Didim (Temple of Apollo at Didyma), Iasos, Bodrum (Bodrum Castle, Mausoleum)
  • Wed 19th: Dalyan (Kaunos, İztuzu Beach), Fethiye
  • Thu 20th: Fethiye (Ölüdeniz, Kabak)
  • Fri 21st: Tlos, Pinara, Sidyma, Patara.
  • Sat 22nd: Letoon, Xanthos, Delikkemer, Kaputaş Beach, Kaş
  • Sun 23rd: Apollonia (near Sahilkılınçlı), Simena (near Kaleüçağız), Kyaneai, Sura (36.244938, 29.944004), Demre (St. Nicholas Church)
  • Mon 24th: Demre (Andriake, Myra), Arykanda, Limyra, Fineke
  • Tue 25th: Çıralı (Olympos, Olympos Beach, Chimaeara), Tekirova
  • Wed 26th: Çamyuva (paragliding from Tahtalı Dağı, Phaselis, Phaselis Beach)
  • Thu 27th: Termessos, Antalya
  • Fri 28th: Antalya (Antalya Archeological Museum, Antalya Aquarium)
  • Sat 29th: Aspendos, Perge, Antalya → Amsterdam

Heracles Sarcophagus in Antalya Museum

Nazars for sale in Kaş

Visited Rome in September 2014

After my last visit in June 2008, I wished to visit Rome a second time to see more of this city and its surroundings. My first visit lasted merely two days, yet allowed me to see the majority of the most popular attractions. On this second visit, I wanted to use nine days to visit the other highlights in and around the city. Unfortunately Stephanie could not join me because she had already spent her free days. This meant I had to go alone, but I found good company with two hosts from CouchSurfing. I visited these places:

  • Mon 15th: arrival at Rome Ciampino Airport
  • Tue 16th: Cerveteri (National Museum, Banditaccia Necropolis)
  • Wed 17th: Tarquinia (National Archaeological Museum, Monterozzi Necropolis)
  • Thu 18th: Tivoli (Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana)
  • Fri 19th: National Etruscan Museum, Pincian Hill, Piazza del Popolo, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Baths of Caracalla
  • Sat 20th: Via Appia Antica (Catacombs of Callixtus, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Circus of Maxentius, Tomb of Caecilia Metella)
  • Sun 21st: Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, Baths of Trajan, Ostia Antica, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
  • Mon 22nd: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Basilica of Saint Mary in Trastevere, Palazzo Corsini, Botanical Garden, Janiculum
  • Tue 23rd: departure from Rome Ciampino Airport

Cerveteri and Tarquinia had a high priority for me. These small towns northwest of Rome are known for their Etruscan necropolises, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both towns are close to a railway, so you can go there by train and travel the last kilometers by bus from the railway station. From Rome, Cerveteri can also be reached by bus alone, with a transfer to another bus at Ladispoli. The Lonely Planet travel guide for Rome focuses on Cerveteri and mentions Tarquinia only in passing; I concur.

The Banditaccia Necropolis of Cerveteri is one of a kind. The Greek word necropolis means ‘city of the dead’ and is generally used for elaborate ancient cemeteries. The literal meaning of the word applies so aptly to the Banditaccia necropolis. When you walk through it, it bears a great resemblance to a settlement for the living, with all its streets and tombs which look like houses. It is also quite large. I have to commend how the authorities present the site to visitors, with free guided tours through the necropolis and audiovisual presentations inside select tombs. The same goes for the museum of Cerveteri, the audiovisual presentation there engages visitors with the exhibition so well. If you are short on time, prioritize Cerveteri over Tarquinia.

Street in Banditaccia Necropolis

What distinguishes Cerveteri from Tarquinia is that in the former the structures above the ground are intact but the frescoes inside the tombs were lost, while this is the other way around for the latter. At Tarquinia’s Monterozzi Necropolis the structures of the tombs above the ground were lost and the real attractions are the frescoes in the subterranean parts of the tombs. In many cases these have not been very well preserved, but there are some exceptions. In reality you can’t see much of the tomb’s frescoes however: you cannot enter the tombs for reasons of conservation, you can look at the interior through the glass of a thermal door. This also applies to some of the frescoes which have been transferred to Tarquinia’s museum.

While restricting the access to the tombs is understandable, this reduces the appeal of a visit to the site. Fortunately, for an extra fee you can take a guided tour at the site. The tour takes you to some more remote tombs which are only accessible under the supervision of a guide (but still protected by a thermal door). Without the guided tour, you just get access to a smaller part of the necropolis were the majority of the tombs are located. The guided tour compensated my slight disappointment and made it worthwhile for me. I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if they hired some fresco painters to make replicas of the tombs so you could get a better look at the frescoes? Wouldn’t such a thing attract much more tourists to Tarquinia?

Tivoli is another town close to Rome which deserves a day trip for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. The town lies northeast of Rome and can be reached by bus from the Ponte Mammolo subway station. Villa d’Este is a magnificent villa with an even more impressive garden. However, when you take the bus back to Rome and make another stop further south in Tivoli for the Villa Adriana, you will be even more impressed. The name is deceptive, because it’s not a villa, but a full-blown palace complex occupying more than one square kilometer.

Villa d'Este in Tivoli

Great Baths in Hadrian’s Villa

After my visit to the necropolises of Banditaccia and Monterozzi, I visited the National Etruscan Museum in Rome to provide context for what I saw there. Highly recommended museum with a large collection. After spending a lot of time at the museum I walked in a southern direction and ended the day with the Baths of Caracalla. Even though it’s ruined now, most of its huge walls are still standing, suggesting its former grandiosity. It’s hard to picture that such a fortune was spent on the construction of a bathhouse open to every free male citizen. The emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla must have considered this form of propaganda to be very important.

Baths of Caracalla

Together with Cerveteri, Ostia Antica was the high point of my trip. I didn’t know the ruins of this ancient Roman city were in fact on par with Pompeii, which I had seen a year earlier. The level of preservation and the size of both ruins are quite similar. It is as if you take a step into classical antiquity itself. My imagination became overwhelmed as I wondered what this city was like in all its former glory. With a guided tour a visit to this site would be even more enjoyable. On the way back to Rome’s center, make sure to visit the beautiful Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/15595755882/

Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, Rome

On the last day I spent most of my time in art museums. The Galleria Doria-Pamphilij is absolutely recommended with its many famous pieces. So is the Palazzo Corsini, one of the two locations of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. I didn’t have time to visit the other location, the Palazzo Barberini.

Like the Palazzo Barberini, there are still plenty of places and attractions I want to see in a future visit to Rome. I couldn’t make a reservation for the Galleria Borghese in time. The Domus Aurea was closed for restorations. I didn’t have time to see the Villa of the Quintilii, the Museum of Roman Civilization, several locations of the National Roman Museum (except for the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which is close to Termini) and the National Museum of Oriental Art.

Concerning food, I was slightly disappointed with Rome. I specifically selected good restaurants from TripAdvisor, but it wasn’t as memorable as the food from southern Italy. Roman cuisine also seems to have a greater focus on meat dishes and is apparently not so creative with vegetables. Or maybe I just had bad luck in my choice of restaurants.

I had a good CouchSurfing experience on this trip. It took some perseverance to find hosts, I had to send CouchRequests to almost 150 people before I succeeded. One hosted me for the first five days of my stay, the other for the last five days. Even though they couldn’t keep me company during the day because they had to work, I greatly enjoyed their company and am very grateful for their hospitality.

Visited Sicily in April 2014

In April 2014 I visited Sicily again, this time with my girlfriend Stephanie and by car instead of public transport. I showed Stephanie some of the best attractions I had already seen on my previous trip in 2012, but I also managed to see some new things. Our schedule was as follows:

  • Sat 19th: arrive at Trapani Airport late at night.
  • Sun 20th: retrieve rental car, Cave di Cusa, Selinunte.
  • Mon 21st: Heraclea Minoa, Scala dei Turchi, Agrigento (Valle dei Templi).
  • Tue 22nd: Gela (Archeological Museum), Modica.
  • Wed 23rd: Villa Romana del Tellaro, Helorus, Noto, Siracusa (Archeological Park).
  • Thu 24th: Palazzolo Acreide (Akrai), Necropolis of Pantalica, Siracusa (Archeological Museum).
  • Fri 25th: Siracusa (Euryalus Castle), Aidone (Morgantina, Archeological Museum), Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana del Casale).
  • Sat 26th: Cefalú, Palermo.
  • Sun 27th: Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo (Botanical Garden).
  • Mon 28th: Segesta, Erice, Trapani.
  • Tue 29th: Trapani, Nubia (Salt Museum), Marsala (Archeological Museum), Trapani Airport for flight home.

We arrived at the airport of Trapani late at night, so on the morning after we went back to the airport to pick up our car at Avis. We were surprised to hear that we had to pay € 20 per day extra because Stephanie was classified as a young driver under 25 years of age. It was not possible for me to drive, because only Stephanie had a credit card. We grudgingly paid the extra fee. We got screwed by rentalcars.com, through which we found the offer for the car. Their website asked for the age of the driver, but it never incorporated the extra fee for young drivers in the total price presented to us. After our holiday we contacted them, but they were unapologetic, referring to the terms of the rental which mentioned the extra fee and arguing that we should have read it. I wish I had taken the time to fight these frauds through legal means, but in the end I was too occupied with other things after my holiday.

Using a car allowed us to see much more in the time we had available. In hindsight we thought the schedule was a little bit too tight on certain days, if we had to do it again we would have made it more relaxed. Another thing I considered is that we could have restricted ourselves to traveling through either the North, East, South or West of Sicily. What we did was drive around the whole island in a counterclockwise direction from Trapani. Except for the northeast, which we skipped when we went from Siracusa to Central Sicily. This meant we had to drive long distances on some days, something we prefer to avoid. On the other hand, this plan was good for seeing the majority of the highlights in one holiday.

If I would make the same trip again, I probably would make some changes to the plan if I wanted to make the most efficient use of my time. I would scrap the minor archeological sites like Cave di Cusa, Heraclea Minoa, Helorus and Palazzolo Acreide. And possibly the modern cities Gela and Trapani. We were never bored, but there’s a lot more to see on the more famous archeological sites. If you are short on time it’s better to skip these, unless you’re quite interested in archeology and history like me. In the case of Helorus though, we didn’t learn anything at all about the ruins we saw there because there were no information boards on the site. On the other hand, I was curious about the minor archeological sites of Motya, Kamarina, Megara Hyblaea and Thapsos, but these didn’t fit into the schedule. I wish we would have had the time to see Ragusa on the way to Modica. Had we decided to see the northeastern part of Sicily as well, we would have definitely visited Taormina.

Scala dei Turchi is nice with it’s peculiar white marl cliff, but there are better beaches to visit in Sicily. Unfortunately, there was no time for visiting San Vito Lo Capo after Palermo, which is supposed to have a nice beach. More importantly, in April the seawater is still a bit cool. We swam at the beach near Scala dei Turchi for a short time, but we were almost the only ones who did. In fact, a lot of Sicilians were walking around in winter coats. Don’t get me wrong, except for one or two rainy days we never needed a jacket to stay warm. But it would have been more fun if the seawater would have been a bit warmer and if there had been more sunshine. When I visited in October 2012 it was sunny almost all the time and I didn’t see a single raindrop. And at the end of the summer or autumn you get all the great food like ripe peaches, grapes, prickly pears and eggplants.

I want to emphasize that anyone who visits Sicily (and Italy in general) should take the strange opening hours of important attractions and museums into account. The Archeological Museum of Agrigento is closed on Monday in the afternoon, so we were not able to visit it. The greatest disappointment was that the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo was closed on Sunday afternoon, like many other attractions. I had already seen it in 2012, but I was disappointed I couldn’t show it to Stephanie. It’s ridiculous the Archeological Museum of Palermo is still closed for renovation, which it already was when I visited in 2012.

Of the new places I visited, Selinunte, Noto, the Necropolis of Pantalica, Euryalus Castle, Morgantina and Cefalú were definite high points of this holiday. The archeological site of Selinunte is huge with both impressive ruins of the city and well preserved temples. I liked this site more than Agrigento: there you only see the temples and part of a necropolis, but there are almost no visible remains of the city itself there. It’s strange that unlike Agrigento, Selinunte hasn’t been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site yet. Apparently it was submitted as a candidate in 1987, but it has not been accepted yet.

Noto has many beautifully decorated churches, surprising for a relatively small town. The Necropolis of Pantalica lies rather remote, but the rock-cut tombs and the scenic views are worth it. Expect to walk a few kilometers on small paths which are not easy to travel on though. Castle Euryalus speaks to the imagination, what would this impregnable fortress have looked like in its prime? To our surprise the castle had a few tunnels and its complex layout was still preserved somewhat.

Rock cut tomb in the Pantalica Necropolis

Euryalus Castle

Morgantina is another impressive archeological site, it doesn’t feature large temples like Selinunte, but the remains of the ancient city there are quite well preserved as well. Cefalú is an eyecather, a coastal town with a huge rock towering over the settlement. Definitely climb to the top for the great view. Even though we had seen plenty of ancient Greek temples in Selinunte and Agrigento, the lonely temple of Segesta was an interesting sight.

Overview of Morgantina

Temple of Segesta

Finally, some restaurant recommendations, for you and for myself when I might visit Sicily again. Of course Southern Italian and Sicilian food alone is sufficient reason to visit those regions.

  • Marinella di Selinunte: Africa da Bruno.
  • Agrigento: Opera, which was memorable for serving us a delicious plate full of bruschetta al pomodoro for just a few euro’s.
  • Modica: Osteria dei Sapori Perdutti.
  • Siracusa: none, Ortigia is a tourist trap. There may be good restaurants elsewhere in Siracusa, but they’re harder to find.
  • Piazza Armerina: Fluid, where I ate an interesting combination of shrimp in a sauce of oranges.
  • Palermo: Vino e Pomodoro and Il Baro.

Back after three weeks in Southern Italy

I’m back in the Netherlands after a three week journey through Southern Italy. I had plans to travel there already in this year’s spring season, but delayed them because I feared it would interfere with my job applications. Even after the delay It turned out that I missed the opportunity to do an assessment for a traineeship, so I guess that was inevitable.

I finalized my travel plans while I was working full-time at an IT service desk during July, August and September. I booked a return flight with Ryanair to depart from Maastricht to Bari at Sunday 29 September, returning at Sunday 20 October. I paid € 50 for this, it still amazes me they can be so cheap.

Why Southern Italy?

My choice for Southern Italy was motivated the fact that it has a nice climate with comfortable temperatures in October, more so than Northern Italy. Like the rest of Italy it has plenty of cultural heritage and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This especially applies to the area around Naples. And of course Southern Italy is renowned for the quality of its cuisine. Again the pizza from Naples is in the spotlight, but elsewhere in Southern Italy I also ate interesting dishes which was different from the typical Italian food.

Using the public transport

Like my trip through Sicily last year, I decided to use public transport to get around in Southern Italy. You loose flexibility because the buses and trains don’t operate with the same frequency as they do in the Netherlands, but it was much cheaper than hiring a car.

However, I couldn’t go rafting down the Lao River because it was impossible to get to Papasidero with public transport. I did want to hire a car for one day to go to the Pertosa Caves and Grumentum, but that wasn’t possible because the car rental companies apparently only accept payment with credit cards. I don’t have a credit card and I hate the credit card companies, so that complicates things.

I traveled on my own, but if I had two or three travel companions the balance would have tilted in favor of renting a car. Also realize that if you decide on using the public transport, you’ll have to adapt your daily schedule to the infrequent service and that you’ll need a PhD in public transport planning. The TrenItalia website for trains works reasonably well and is available in English, but there are dozens of local bus companies with awful websites that only provide information in Italian.

In the Netherlands we like to complain about our public transport, but when I got back I thought my country is a public transport paradise. We’ve got the OV-chipkaart, the 9292.nl website and even on Sunday I can take a bus to Utrecht from my small village once an hour, practically the whole day. In Southern Italy I saw trains which still ran on diesel and railroad switches which were operated by hand.

Packing lightly

If you use the public transport it pays off to pack lightly. Ryanair also charges you more if you take along more than your hand luggage. Because I had to carry around my luggage all the time when I didn’t have a place to store it I packed only the essential stuff. I used a small backpack for this which I used daily when I went to university and followed the guides which are available on efficient packing techniques.

I packed a few clothes which I washed by hand during my trip, as well as my dSLR camera, electric shaver, my notebook (plus charger), two small books, travel documents, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Don’t forget to take along a converter for using those grounded plugs with the Italian power sockets.

Finally had success with CouchSurfing

In Sicily last year my efforts to find locals who could host me as their guest failed. This time I had more success and was hosted by five CouchSurfers for a total of nine nights. I also met with four others who weren’t able to host me, but could show me around town. All of them were great people to meet. It was thanks to them that I saw many things I would not have seen otherwise. I used to think of myself as introverted and never had much trouble to travel alone, but on some of the days when I had no company I felt bored.

Paradoxically, it was easier to find hosts in smaller towns and villages than it was the largest cities. In Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Napels I did not find any host, in spite of sending about thirty “CouchRequests” to the CouchSurfers in Naples. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t diminish the success of my CouchSurfing experience. It left me desiring for more, so I look forward to being a host myself for other CouchSurfers in the near future. I hope to do more CouchSurfing when I visit Greece or Turkey next.

Blisters almost spoiled it

I want to use my time efficiently on holidays so I can see as much as possible, which means I was walking long distances every day. My old shoes were close to collapse half way during the trip, so I decided to buy new shoes in Reggio di Calabria to prevent discomfort later. It was the most stupid decision I made during my trip. The new shoes seemed like a nice fit in the shoe store, but a few hundred meters later I already got huge blisters. I couldn’t return them to the store anymore, so I had to ditch them and buy slippers. The slippers worked for some time, but were not exactly comfortable, certainly in the downpour of Salerno.

I then decided to buy beautiful Geox shoes for € 152. Normally I buy two pairs of good shoes with that, but hey, you only live once. They fit nicely in the store, but again they turned out to hurt my feet not much later. By then I was at a low point in my holiday and considered going home, but I managed to keep thinking positively. It was possible to exchange the Geox shoes for a slightly less expensive model and went back to the slippers. Soon I bought better sandals and blister bandages. It’s unfortunate that trivial issues like having good shoes can have such a big impact.

The schedule

  • Sun 29 Sep: after my arrival at Bari’s airport at 15:10 I immediately took the train to Lecce where I met my first host at the train station.
  • Mon 30 Sep: I visited the wonderful historical center of Lecce. Be sure not to miss the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano.
  • Tue 01 Oct: from Lecce I made a day trip to Otranto, a seaside town with nice beaches and a small historical center. I tried in vain to take a bus from Lecce, but no one had any idea about timetables or where the bus would stop. I did manage to get there with a train.
  • Wed 02 Oct: I went to visit Brindisi where I was picked up by my second host, who drove me to his home in Ceglie Messapica.
  • Thu 03 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to Ostuni and Gnatia among others.
  • Fri 04 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Taranto only to find out that it was closed for restoration. I said goodbye to my host and went on to Metaponto to see the museum and archaeological site of Metapontum there.
  • Sat 05 Oct: took the train to Policoro to see the ruins of Hereclea and the archeological museum there. I then continued my journey to Trebisacce where I met my third host and visited Timpone della Motta.
  • Sun 06 Oct: from Trebisacce I went to Sibari to visit the museum and archaeological site of Sybaris.
  • Mon 07 Oct: I took the train from Trebisacce to Lamezia Terme, where I met my fourth host.
  • Tue 08 Oct: from Lamezia Terme I took the train to Reggio di Calabria. To my surprise the Museo Nazionale was closed, but it was possible to see a small part of the collection exhibited elsewhere. Met up with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Wed 09 Oct: there is no reason to stay in Reggio di Calabria for more than one day because there is nothing else to see there apart from the Museo Nazionale. Spent this day sending a huge amount of CouchRequests to potential hosts in Salerno and Naples, all in vain.
  • Thu 10 Oct: took the train to Salerno and visited Maratea on the way.
  • Fri 11 Oct: visited Paestum with a bus from Salerno. Again no timetable for the bus, but I got lucky and didn’t need to wait long. Met with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sat 12 Oct: no rental car to visit Grumentem and Pertosa Caves, visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples instead. Met with same CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sun 13 Oct: took the train to Naples and then another train to visit Pompeii and the Villa Poppea.
  • Mon 14 Oct: took the metro from Naples to visit Pozzuoli and then a bus to visit Cumae.
  • Tue 15 Oct: took the train from Naples to take a bus from Pompeii to the Vesuvius and then another train to visit Herculaneum.
  • Wed 16 Oct: took the train from Naples to Caserta, met up with a CouchSurfer to visit Capua and visited the palace of Caserta alone.
  • Thu 17 Oct: took the Napoli Sotterranea tour, visited the Roman market beneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore church, the Museo di Capodimonte and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
  • Fri 18 Oct: visited the botanical gardens in Naples, then met another CouchSurfer to visit the Palazzo Reale, the Castel dell’Ovo, the Castel Sant’Elmo and the Certosa di San Martino.
  • Sat 19 Oct: took the train from Napels to Bari, met my fifth host at the train station.
  • Sun 20 Oct: departed from Bari’s airport to Maastrict at 10:05.

I stayed one more day in Naples than I had planned because I couldn’t find a host in Bari at that time and the hotels in Bari were expensive. As a consequence I was not able to visit the Castel del Monte, the Castellana Caves or Matera. So I’ve got good reasons to visit Southern Italy again in the future.

I find archaeology fascinating, which is why I decided to visit some of the less well-known archaeological sites. I was elated when Dutch archaeologists happened to be around to give me and my host’s family a short tour of the site of Timpone della Motta. However, if you aren’t that interested I’d advise you to stick to the highlights, which include the archaeology museums in Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, Paestum and Naples. You’d better skip places like Metapontum and Sybaris then because there’s not much to see there.

Photos for Wikipedia

Another important reason for me to visit some of the archaeological sites and other locations was to make photos there for improving their respective Wikipedia articles. I’ve already uploaded two photos to the article on the modern town of Maratea and will add some to the Otranto’s article as well, but ancient sites like Gnatia, Metapontum, Timpone della Motta and Cumae have yet to follow. I’m not showing photos in this post yet because I intend to migrate all my photos to Flickr. More on that later.

Couldn’t go to Pune

Last Thursday 3 January I arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and handed over my boarding pass and passport at the bag drop. To my surprise the British Airways employee asked me if I had a visa for India, which I didn’t have. After making some calls, they told me I couldn’t board my flight to Mumbai from London Heathrow without a visa.

Forgot the visa

During my planning it never even occurred to me that I might need a visa. I might have gotten too accustomed to all the visa-free traveling in the Schengen Area. Certainly the fact that Nepal grants tourists a visa on arrival made me assume that India would be no different. Because Deep Griha Society never even mentioned visas in its volunteer handbook I assumed I didn’t need one (the organisation I worked with in Nepal, VSN, did mention it on its website).

Nevertheless, I have myself to blame for this the most. I feel like an idiot for not considering the visa requirement during all the weeks I’ve been preparing for the trip. Nevertheless, it was possible to rearrange the departure and return dates for my flight for an approximate fee of € 380 (bye bye cheap flight). Getting a tourist visa for India would likely take no more than five working days, so I decided to get to it ASAP so I could still go in the second half of January.

Because you need a passport which is valid for at least 180 days to apply for a visa I had to get a new passport first. On Friday I paid double the normal fee of € 50 to have it ready this Monday. Today I picked up my passport, went back home to fill in all the visa application forms. After answering some strange questions about my religion (which should be none of their concern) and if I had Pakistani grandparents I drove to the Hague to submit my visa application.

No volunteer work on a tourist visa

After waiting one and half hour for my turn I handed over the forms and was asked some questions by the VFS Global employee. When she asked for my purpose of stay and I answered I would do volunteer work with Deep Griha Society, I was told this was not possible with a tourist visa. I would need an employment visa, which would ten workings days to process. And I need an invitation letter from Deep Griha Society.

I blame VFS Global for being unclear, on their website they write a tourist visa is suitable for “those visiting India for tourism or other non-business related purposes”. An employee visa is described as being necessary for those employed by a multinational or Indian company in a for-profit context. I would consider volunteer work a non-business related purpose. I don’t have an employment contract with Deep Griha Society, so how should I have known I would need an employment visa?

If an employment visa would be necessary, I assume Deep Griha Society would have known and sent me the required invitation letter in advance. The fact that they didn’t can mean only two things: either they are negligent, or the Indian Embassy in the Netherlands has a visa policy which is different from the one implemented by Indian embassies elsewhere in the world.

That was the limit

Right now I’ve had enough of this turn of events and I’ve canceled the plan. I can’t take it anymore to wait passively at home for another ten working days plus the time it takes to wait for a flight before I get to India. It’s a shame I had to postpone my search for a full time job since my graduation in August until my return from India. All that time has been wasted. I had been looking forward to this so much, but it’s better for me to move on now. Both me and India loose in the end if I’m not able to spend my money there. The only winner here seems to be British Airways.

How India should improve its visa policy

Take a look at the Wikipedia article on India’s visa policy. What bothers me is that if I had a French or German passport they would have given me a visa on arrival. Only tourist visas valid for thirty days, which wouldn’t have helped me, but that’s not the point. The choice of countries for the visa on arrival policy seems rather arbitrary, they include Russia which has an Islamist insurgency going on within its borders but they exclude many member states of the European Union?

France, Germany and Russia were included in the policy only quite recently to increase tourist inflow. If that was the reason there should be no difficulty in including many other developed nations. Even the security conscious USA has a more lenient Visa Waiver Program. India should take an example to Nepal’s visa policy, which grants visas on arrival to tourists of almost every nationality for up to 90 days. And in Nepal doing volunteer work on a tourist visa wasn’t a problem.

When I look at the visa requirements for Dutch citizens I think I’d rather visit South America as an alternative to India. I won’t be going there any time soon after this ordeal.

Update 11 January

It turns out that all volunteers of Deep Griha Society work there on a tourist visa. An employment visa takes a lot more time, so effectively I should have lied at the visa center about my purpose of stay. They did not tell me this before I went to the visa center because they assumed I would know.

Volunteer work in Pune for ten weeks

Almost two years ago I decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal for ten weeks. It was a good experience which left me desiring for more. When I graduated for my master’s program in August the opportunity arrived to arrange for volunteer work a second time. As a consequence I had to postpone my search for a full time job until I would return home, but I think it is worth it.

Where I’m going

This time the choice has fallen on Pune in India. I’ll depart on 3 January and return on 15 March. I decided to go there because Deep Griha Society (DGS) operates in that city. I first learned about this organization from an American volunteer who I met in Nepal, she had worked there as a volunteer herself and was positive about the work done by DGS. After considering the alternatives I decided to work for them.

Actually there weren’t much alternatives because it was surprisingly difficult to find Indian charitable organizations. I was looking for organizations similar to Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN) which I had joined in 2011. They provide good assistance to foreign volunteers, and that’s what I was looking for in other organizations.

I considered Netherlands-based travel agencies offering volunteer work such as Het Andere Reizen and Kilroy, but I prefer to deal with local organizations directly. Finally, the fact that the American volunteer recommended this organization convinced me.

Besides the volunteer work I also intend to travel in India. I might reserve the two weeks of March to do this, so my volunteer work could take eight weeks instead of ten. I’ll make definite plans later. The American volunteer also travelled India, I asked about her experience. Based on her recommendations, I’m tempted to visit the state Rajasthan, but I might also go south to Kerala. And there is plenty to see in Maharashtra, where Pune is located, too.

How I’m going

Pune has its own airport, but for international flights Mumbai’s airport seems to be the best option. I remember my flight to Nepal (with two transfers) which cost me more than € 800, but once you pay € 50 for a flight from Eindhoven to Trapani you don’t take it for granted anymore that tickets cost a fortune.

After some searches on CheapTickets.nl steep fees of € 700 to € 800 were presented to me initially, but after digging through the options for flight on other dates I finally found a cheap flight with British Airways. First I depart from Amsterdam and have a short transfer on London Heathrow for a direct flight to Mumbai. Somehow it was not possible to book this flight for the same price on the website of British Airways itself.

When I proceeded to pay, I didn’t like how CheapTickets.nl started adding administrative fees to the ticket price. I also remember how they screwed up a booking with Ryanair for my father because they e-mailed a wrong check-in code. I decided to search for cheaper alternatives, it turns out that CheapTickets.nl is just one of the websites who use the same ‘engine’ for bookings. Vliegticketszoeken.nl is another one and their fees are € 5 cheaper.

The flight set me back € 545, which is quite a good deal I think. Pune isn’t far away from Mumbai, it should take four hours to get there with a train.

Why I’m going

When I look back at the post I wrote about my plans to work as a volunteer in Nepal, my motivation is still partly the same. I want to experience life in a foreign country with a very different culture. Just travelling in a country as a tourist doesn’t cut it for me. My failure to find hosts for CouchSurfing in Sicily was one reason I didn’t enjoy that trip as much, I want to get to know local people.

If I really wanted to see more of the world I should have probably gone to Africa or South America because I haven’t visited those yet, but the reason I’m attracted to India in specific is because I love its (vegetarian) cuisine so much. I hope to pick up some more culinary skills during my stay there.

The most important reason is that I want to help. I feel that I have a privileged position as a highly educated citizen of the Netherlands. This gives me an obligation to help the less fortunate. Were I born in a slum in Pune, I’d hope for solidarity from those who are better off too. But this time I’m giving more emphasis to this goal than in Nepal.

Since I returned from Nepal I’ve been concerned about voluntourism. This article in The Observer describes it well (and more extensively here). While I’m convinced that VSN had good intentions and I don’t think my presence there has done harm, I question the benefit of my work there.

I was put in front of a class of children alone without being a qualified teacher and having no knowledge of the curriculum. With some improvisation I certainly managed to teach the kids something, but I was in over my head. A qualified Nepali teacher would have been better.

Concerning the orphanages, a stream of volunteers staying for a short time to help the children is not ideal. I don’t think it’s necessarily damaging the children, all orphanages I’ve seen had loving, permanent caretakers. Volunteers can be beneficial for funding, but the sustainability of orphanages being financially dependent on volunteers can be questioned.

I want to avoid falling in the voluntourism trap. I have confidence in DGS in this regard because in their opinion volunteers should support staff and not replace them. I think I will be able to make a meaningful difference with my skills. I intend to help with teaching English and my ICT-skills. No more orphanages. Possibly also other things which might cross my path and where I’m able to contribute.

Finally, I deliberately chose to stay in India in January and February because these are the coldest months in the Netherlands. Of course it never gets really cold in the Netherlands, but I do get tired of the constantly overcast sky. Compared to the Netherlands the climate of Pune is like a paradise with 30 ℃ and sunshine in abundance.