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May 25, 2016

OUR GUIDE TO THE RIO OLYMPICS

In just a few months, all eyes will be on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Having already picked up a Brazil SIM card, you’ll need to know where to go next. There are four regions of the city where events will take place, so here’s a guide to all the things you can do in those places while you’re not cheering on your national team.

Olympics with Brazil SIM Card
Maracanã

In the west of the city, on the coast, is the region known as Maracanã, which is already home to one of the world’s greatest sporting icons. Rebuilt and renovated for the 2014 Football World Cup, the Maracanã Stadium has played host some legendary football, and several footballing legends. These athletes were so adored and recognisable that many of them only need a single name – Pelé, Rivaldo, Zico, Ronaldinho, Zico, Neymar… the list goes on and on. As well as guided tours, there is a museum, where you can relive some amazing goals and check out some exclusive memorabilia. This is a must for any serious football fan. As well as hosting the opening and closing ceremonies, the stadium will also play host to – what else? – the Olympic football tournament.

It is well-known that Rio loves to party, especially during Carnavale season in the period leading up to the Catholic observance of Lent. But where else in the world would they purpose-build a stadium to better show off the skills of competing Samba Schools? The Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí is exactly that, a half-mile runway, flanked on either side by stands for spectators, where the remarkable displays of exotically-costumed dancers can parade to best effect. While the Olympics takes place at the wrong time of year for the Carnavale, you can be sure that the Samba Schools will put on something special for the opening ceremony. Because of its long shape, it’s a perfect venue for the Olympic archery tournament, and will also be the start and finish point of the marathon.

Copacabana

Just a little to the South of Maracanã, is the more famous Copacabana, immortalised in cheesy song (as is the borough of Ipanema). This legendary beach front region will play host to the volleyball competition on the beach, and the coastal road is a perfect venue for road-cycling, the marathon and triathlon events. As well as the white sands of the beach, this has proved to be an ideal venue for concerts, including a 1994 New Year’s concert by Rod Stewart that drew a crowd of 3.5 million and remains the biggest ever. 

Flamengo Park is the unofficial name of Parque Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, a 300 acre area of urban parkland. This is one of the best places to be on a sunny weekend, with Brazilian families flocking to enjoy the green space. There are football pitches, tennis and basketball courts, and even an area for model plane enthusiasts to practice. For those looking for a bit of culture amongst the agriculture, you’ll also find an open-air theatre, the Rio museum of modern art and a sculpture park dedicated to those that died during World War 2. The wonderful backdrop of Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Christo Redentor will make it a perfect venue for the cycling and walking road races.

Barra

You wouldn’t have thought that Barra da Tijuca would be selected to host the majority of the Olympic events taking place in Rio, not when its name translates as ‘swampy sandbank’. Thirty years ago, the area barely existed, then being a huge beach adjoining a series of lakes and swamps. Now, however, the area has been transformed into one of the most metropolitan and luxurious parts of Rio, so it’s no wonder Olympic organisers were happy for most of the attention to be centred on it. Here you’ll find the Olympic Arena, the Velodrome, the official Hockey and Tennis Centres and Riocentro, which at all other times is the largest convention centre in Latin America, but this summer will host the weightlifting and boxing.

Outside the events, there’s plenty to see and do in this neighbourhood, particularly if you fancy a bit of shopping. There are several malls here, including the biggest in Brazil, with a wealth of entertainment and dining options as well as stores. In a region so young, there’s not much history to speak of, with one notable exception – Barra da Tijuca is the birthplace of Gracie Barra Ju-Jitsu. The martial art of Ju-Jitsu has existed since the 17th Century in Japan, but it thrives today not only on its own merits but also as a key component to the sport of MMA, mainly down to the influence of one family – the Gracie dynasty. Now with thousands of schools around the world, Gracie Barra MMA is one of Brazil’s most famous exports.

Deodoro

Deodoro is the Olympic area that is furthest from the city centre, but also hosts the most eclectic mix of events. Surrounded by rolling hills, traditional events such as equestrianism and shooting will be held here; alongside some of the newer, more exciting events such as BMX biking, white-water rafting and, for the first time in Olympic history, rugby sevens. The extreme sports park will remain after the event is over, offering the young people of Rio a lasting legacy.

Here you’ll find the Aerospace Museum, with over 50 planes from various eras to explore and learn about. Part of the National Air Force’s university, and with a couple of real squadrons based at the site, the museum is a great place to tour. It’s also the home of the Smoke Squadron, Brazil’s version of the Red Arrows or Blue Angels, who will no doubt be making an appearance at either the opening or closing ceremony.


May 22, 2016

Is Internet Censorship on the Rise?

Social media is considered an increasing problem by some governments around the world. Its ability to bring people together, to allow them to communicate and organize, can be a real problem for some governments, to the extent that they would rather turn the entire internet off rather than risk people using it. While this is upsetting, inconvenient and expensive for the citizens of these countries, it can be a real surprise for travelers. While the world is becoming more and more connected, it would be a mistake to rely on this when you are abroad. While you can rely on hotel WIFI and messaging apps to communicate with the folks back home, it would be a mistake to do so without a back-up plan that involves calls and texts. In the last week, there have been several instances where the internet, or aspects of social media, have been shut down by government officials. Let’s look at some of these:

Iraq

It’s exam season in Iraq, and in this modern age of smartphones, technology and connectivity, cheating is becoming a serious concern. However, many people have criticized the government’s decision to completely shut down the entire internet for short periods as something of an overreaction. This is something that happened last year, but without much explanation. The outages have been running for three consecutive days so far, and look set to continue until the exams are over.

Vietnam

For many people, particularly in Asia, Facebook may as well be the internet as far as they are concerned. So when Facebook (and Instagram) is blocked, as happened in Vietnam last weekend, it can be a jarring and unnerving experience. It is precisely because the social media giant is such an effective tool for connecting people with similar viewpoints that puts it at risk of closure, as the government can take exception to large groups of people organizing protests. In this case, people are deeply unhappy at about an environmental disaster caused by a Taiwanese plastics corporation and have been using social media to express this.

Uganda

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was sworn into office for a fifth term, after an election that was considered questionable by international observers and human rights groups. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter were blocked for four days while the election took place, only being restored once it was over. Sites were also blocked back in February for similar reasons.

India

Over the last six months, the Indian government has had a somewhat trigger-happy approach to internet shutdowns, with ten events in the last few months. The current outages are happening in the city of Azamgarh, where there are tensions between two community groups. The government has shut the internet down in order to stop the spread of rumours and also to monitor social media postings over the last few days. Among those affected are banks, which have lost up to 33 million dollars’ worth of e-commerce revenue as a result of the shutdowns.

Brazil

While there is currently a good service in Brazil, many citizens have suffered recently due to a court order to shut down WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app used by millions in Brazil. In one of her last acts before being suspended from office, former President Dilma Rousseff passed a decree related to net neutrality which also included an attempt to stave off further attempts to shut down social media. However, the decree is not expected to take effect until next month, and with Rousseff now impeached, it is unclear whether this will become law or not. With the Olympics coming this summer, some clarity on this issue is urgently needed.

Morocco

Back in February, Moroccan telecoms companies blocked all VOIP services throughout the country, including Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It is believed that this has been done to protect telecoms companies’ revenues, but it has not been a popular decision. Today, Maroc Telecom, one of the biggest ISPs in the country, has begun blocking online gaming, in a move that is likely to further infuriate people. Despite an increasing number of people signing petitions against these moves, the government has not stepped in to help.


May 2, 2016

WORLD YOUTH DAY COMES TO POLAND – THINGS TO DO WHILE YOU’RE THERE!

World Youth Day was started in 1985 by Pope John Paul II, and has grown into one of the world’s biggest events. It definitely draws the world’s biggest crowds; the world record for the greatest attendance of a religious festival was won by WYD in 1995 when 5 million gathered in the Philippines for the final mass (a record only surpassed last year, when the current Pope gave another mass, also in the Philippines). Young people from all around the world come to celebrate their faith, share in their diversity and generally have a great time. This year, the event returns to Poland for the first time since 1991. This year, the theme is ‘mercy’, and the event will feature a special tribute to the recently canonized founder, St John Paul II, himself a polish citizen.

If you are headed to Poland this summer for World Youth Day (or for any other reason), there is a vast array of things to do. We’ve made a small list from some of the huge amount of options available to you.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

One of the first things you’ll want to do when you arrive in Poland is grab yourself something to eat. Some Polish foods are famous the world over, such as kielbasa pork sausage or pierogi dumplings, and you should definitely waste no time before sampling these. But there are dozens of other treats, including an amazing array of desserts including makowiec, a traditional poppy-seed and piernik, a version of gingerbread served with a chocolate glaze. However, our favourite food from Poland has to be the amazing oscypek. Served on its own, or grilled with bacon, apple and cranberry sauce, you might have a hard time finding this salted sheep’s cheese. It’s native to the Tatra Mountain region, but the real problem is you might find yourself looking at oscypek and think it’s something else entirely. This is because the cheese is cured for two weeks, giving it a light brown colour on the outside, and also because it is pressed into an intricate spindle that gives it the appearance of carved wood.

Once you’ve filled your belly (or even while you’re doing it), you’ll want to wash your food down with a drink. This being Poland, the most obvious choice is vodka. But unlike some other vodka-drinking nations, it’s not simply enough to knock back shot after shot of the pure stuff – in Poland, they prefer to blend it with other flavours. From the cherry-infused Wi%u015Bniówka to Goldwasser, which combines a plethora of herbs and spices with flakes of real gold, there’s plenty on offer. But the most famous Polish vodka these days is probably Zubrówka, which comes with a blade of bison grass from the Bialowieza Forest. Why bison, you ask? Well…

Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Poland has a huge array of environments and areas to satisfy even the most adventurous traveler, but two areas stand out. First, there is the aforementioned Bialowieza Forest, a last remnant of the vast, primeval forest that once covered the whole of Europe. It is here that you’ll find (if you’re lucky) the European Bison. While most of us think of Bison as an American icon, roaming the great plains of the Midwest, the European Bison is primarily a forest-dwelling beast. And they have a wonderful forest to dwell in. Some of the oak trees are so vast and old that they have individual names, such as Emperor of the North, the Dominator Oak and The Guardian of Zwierzyniec. With some of these great trees being over 400 years old, they are well worth tracking down.

When you think of Poland, you don’t think ‘desert’ – but that’s exactly what you’d be thinking after a visit to Slowinski National Park. On the coast of the Baltic Sea, there are several acres of shifting sand dunes. There are also several large lakes, seven rivers and 87 miles of tourist tracks around the park, giving you ample opportunity to enjoy the beach, the dunes or the wildlife.

Castles and other sights to see

With a long and tumultuous history both internally and with its neighbours, it’s no surprise that there are hundreds of castles in Poland. From the vast edifices of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, to the ruins of Ogrodzieniec, built in the 13th Century to help fend off the invading Mongol Hordes, there are castles of every kind to be found all over the country. One that truly cannot be missed is Malbork, the largest (and most imposing?) Gothic castle in Europe.

The towns are no less charming, including the old town of Krawkow which was one of the few that escaped the devastation of the Second World War. There is also Olsztyn, which has been painstakingly reconstructed. Of course, to truly bring home the awful horror of World War II, one must visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum.

Another of Poland’s great visitor attractions is the Wieliczka Salt Mines. As well as tours of the mines themselves (which have been in operation since the 14th Century), concerts and plays are often held there, and there is a hotel and spa that offers you the opportunity to spend a night 135m below sea level.

Enjoy the Festivities

Poland is host to several key outdoor music festivals this year (including Open’er and Przystanek Woodstock 2016), but sadly none are running during the week of WYD. However, there are a couple of other festivals going on, including the 21st Open Air Jazz Festival in Warsaw’s old town. Running for almost two full months between July and August, this event attracts the biggest name in jazz from all over the world.

Meanwhile, in Gda%u0144sk, another long-running festival will be taking place for three weeks between July and August. St Dominic’s Fair was first established by papal decree in 1260 and was very soon one of the key dates in any European trader’s calendar. It was not long before hundreds of ships were arriving at the port of Gda%u0144sk to trade, make deals and be entertained. Some 750 years later, it is still one of the largest market festivals on the European mainland.

Stay in Touch

With so much going on and so much to see in Poland, you’ll want to have a way to keep in touch with friends and family back home, to make sure they know you’re okay, and to share your experiences. The best way to do this is with our Europe SIM card. Everything is priced at 25c (17p); calls are 25c per minute, texts cost 25c to send, and data is priced at 25c per MB. With $10 free credit, this gives you more than enough to upload photos, check maps and send videos. If you’ve travelled from further afield, calling back home isn’t too expensive either, with calls to the rest of the world priced at 59c per minute.

Whatever your plans, we hope that you have an amazing time at WYD 2016!


April 28, 2016


DON’T FORGET TO PACK THESE – THE BEST TRAVEL APPS

With over 1.5 million apps available on app stores, it can be easy to get lost in all the options. We’ve curated a list of some of the best apps that make life easier for travelers.

FLIGHTTRACK (Android/iOS, $4.99)

With over 100,000 commercial flights taking off around the world per day, you would need to be an air traffic controller to keep track of them all. Alternatively, you can get the Flightrack app and keep tabs on your flight from the comfort of your smartphone. Search for flights by airport, route, flight number or destination, and receive real-time updates of how things are going. You’ll receive push notifications as soon as your flight is allocated a departure gate, and the status of your aircraft is updated with helpful color-codes – green for early, blue for on-time, amber for delayed and red for cancelled. You can even coordinate with groups of friends or family coming into a destination on different flights from different parts of the world; the app will keep you updated about when they left, where they are and when they’re due to arrive.

PACKPOINT (Android/iOS, $2.99)

I’ll never forget the day my family and I were waiting in line at the check-in desk, and my Dad, with a weary sigh, said that he’d wished we’d bought the television with us. My Mom asked him why that was, and he replied: “Because I left our passports on top of it.” Fortunately, Packpoint is here to make things right. Just enter your destination and how long you’ll be staying, and this fully customizable app will prompt you to gather the right number of socks and shoes. Delve deeper into things, and you’ll find suggested lists for various activities, such as business meetings, spending time at the beach or more robust outdoor activities. It will even suggest an umbrella after having checked the forecast to see if one is necessary.

ENTRAIN (Android/iOS, free)

Finding yourself in an unfamiliar country, surrounded by strangers and in a culture very different to your own can be an exciting, but also very disorienting, experience. Jetlag increases this disorientation dramatically and can be a real problem, eating into your vacation time or causing stress because you need to be alert for a business meeting. Developed by the University of Michigan, Entrain is designed to help you manage your sleep patterns between time zones by incrementally changing your sleep schedule until you are in synch with the new time zone. With graphs and user-shared information, it’s a truly crowd-sourced solution to an awkward problem.

WORLDMATE (Android/iOS, free)

Worldmate is a one-stop-shop for travelers on the go. With flight tracking and alerts, hotel recommendations and car reservations, every aspect of your journey can be planned out in advance, right down to a detailed map of directions from the airport to your hotel. It will even inform you if there’s a hotel offering a better deal than the one you are currently considering. This is a must-have for business travelers, 10 million of whom have downloaded and use the app at present.

GOOGLE MAPS (Android/iOS, free)

Having mapped the world from just about every conceivable angle – from the sky, satellite and streets – Google Maps are one of the best-used resources that can be found online. Get up-to-the-minute travel updates, information on businesses (from opening hours to contact numbers), detailed directions and a host of other information. And thanks to a recent update, you can now access Google Maps without a data connection. Just download the map for the region you are visiting, and you’ll have all that information available offline (with the exception of satellite images and traffic reports).

ACCUWEATHER (Android/iOS, free)

The weather used to be a much simpler thing. Someone on the television would display a map of a country or region with half a dozen county-sized icons displaying sunshine, cloud or (worst of all) a mixture of both. And that was all you got for the day. Fortunately, things have changed dramatically since then. Now, not only can you get up-to-the-minute weather reports, you can help create them yourself. This is the work of Accuweather, which provides a huge amount of information, including humidity levels, visibility, wind speed and sunrise/sunset times. It even has a feature that cuts through the sterile facts and figures, cross-checks temperature and wind speeds to tell you what the weather feels like. All this, and the ability to tell someone that the rain will stop in the next two minutes, will make you feel more in control.

GOOGLE TRANSLATE (Android/iOS, free)

Back to Google for another of their excellent innovations. Google Translate will deal with all of your language issues, detecting languages automatically, two-way translated conversations and the ability to recognise pictograms that you draw with a finger. If you take a photo of a sign or notice that you can’t read, the app will superimpose the translated text over the top of it.

XE CURRENCY (Android/iOS, free)

With over 20 million downloads, the XE Currency converter is a must-have tool for anyone abroad. See live rates for every currency on earth, and historic charts of currency movements so you can see how things have moved recently. You can calculate prices in real time and if you’re not online, it will store the latest dates until you are connected again. You can even check the prices of all precious metals around the world, just in case you want to pick up some platinum while you’re buying postcards.

JT TRAVEL APP ( Android/iOS, free)

If you’re using one of our prepaid international SIM cards (and why wouldn’t you?), the JT Travel App is the perfect companion. Access your phone records to see exactly what you’ve been spending and when, use the app to top-up your account and check your phone numbers. You can also find local weather details and a currency converter.


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