Tag Archives: cell phone

Cameras in cell phones

My former cell phone was a Palm Centro, reasonable for the time, but with an extremely low resolution camera.  Even though I’ve had my Galaxy S III for two years now, I usually don’t think of the camera as particularly capable, just something that’s on hand.  My usual photos with it have tended on the blurry side.  So, I was surprised when two photos I took of a grasshopper on the garden shed actually turned out as good as I might expect with a “real” camera.20140906_171227


Maybe I just have to use the camera more carefully, and it’ll prove to be better than I thought it was.

Brief observations on travel in Bulgaria

Chin Yi and I recently returned from a vacation to Bulgaria and Romania.  Here are my very brief thoughts and advice to others who plan a similar journey in Bulgaria.

Language: Between us, we have conversational ability in English, French, Japanese, and two dialects of Chinese.  Also some limited capacity in German.  We had no Bulgarian to speak of.  In practice, this meant that we had to try to communicate in English.  In Bulgarian hotels you can usually find somebody who speaks English (though we did end up using German a lot at one hotel, for lack of another common language), but elsewhere, talking to a taxi driver or a bus ticket agent, you may find that English doesn’t get the message across, particularly in the smaller cities.  I loaded the Google Translate app onto my cell phone and installed the Bulgarian language package for offline use, which helped immensely in these situations.  Learn to pronounce the Cyrillic letters used in Bulgaria, it will help you to read signs on buses and addresses.

Cell phone: Before we went, I did some research to find how to get phone and Internet service on our Android phones.  I decided to use the Globul carrier, based on what I could find on their English-language website.  This wasn’t very successful.  While the phone and text-messaging were cheap to set up, I never got Internet going because, as one representative later told me, “the English website is out of date, we no longer offer pre-paid Internet”.  Our phones started with about 3 Bulgarian Lev in air time credit, and we burned that quickly on a couple of phone calls and a dozen text messages.  If I were to plan a return trip to Bulgaria, I wouldn’t be using Globul, but I’d have to do more research to find out what my alternatives might be.

Hotels: As I noted, most hotels had some English-speaking staff, except in the smaller cities.  In those hotels where we stayed more than one night, housekeeping didn’t come.  You might have to request it, or put out a sign.  Breakfast was pretty standard, breads, cheese, meats, eggs and omelets, fruit juice, and tea or coffee.  Sometimes included in the room price, sometimes charged extra.

Laundry: This was a bit of a shock for us.  Coin laundries are rare in Bulgaria, there might be a few in some of the bigger cities, but don’t expect to be able to find one.  Some dry-cleaners will do laundry by the kilogram, we eventually found a place in Varna that would do it for us, 12 Bulgarian Lev for rush service of about 5 days of clothing for two people.  Hotels may have a next-day service to send out to a cleaner for by-the-kilogram laundry, but they may not, and this doesn’t help when you’re only staying one night.

Restaurants: The restaurants are officially non-smoking indoors, though sometimes that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Best to check, if smoke is a problem for you.  Also, while we were there, the restaurants seemed to have about a 50% failure rate on their credit-card equipment, so even if you see a credit card sign on the door, ask when you go in to make sure they can process your payment, or make sure you have enough cash on hand.  The cuisine in Bulgaria is reminiscent of Greece and Turkey.  You’ll find shawarma and shish houses, and lots of offerings of roasted and grilled meat and fish.  One staple of restaurants seems to be the “shopska salad”.  It’s what I would call a Greek salad.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, olives, onions, feta cheese, spices, and oil.  No lettuce.  If you have trouble communicating with your waiter, you can be pretty sure he’ll understand a request for “shopska”, and will be able to bring one to you.  Even in restaurants where we couldn’t communicate the concept of “water”, we were able to get a shopska salad.

Inter-city travel: The geography of Bulgaria is a bit unfriendly to trains.  There is a mountain range that runs West to East from Sofia, effectively preventing North-South rail infrastructure.  We went from city to city by bus.  Buses are non-smoking, may be air-conditioned, and will occasionally have on-board washroom facilities for the more heavily-traveled routes.  Bus travel is very inexpensive.  I would say there’s no reason to buy a Eurail pass for travel within Bulgaria, it’s unlikely to be helpful.  If I were doing the same trip again, I’d be tempted to get an international driver’s license and rent a car.

Things to see: Really, this depends on the traveler, you’ll have to choose those yourself.  We went to Sofia, to Rila Monastery, Plovdiv, the rose festival in Kazanluk, and Golden Sands near Varna.

Getting GSM + Internet while visiting Taiwan

I have a Palm Centro phone, not SIM-locked, so I can obtain local phone numbers when I travel. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to try to sign up for a contract if you’re only in the country for two weeks, so a pre-paid phone card is really the best choice.

I recently made one of my frequent trips to Taiwan to visit family there. While there, I wanted a local phone number so people could reach me, and I also wanted to be able to use my phone’s web browser and Google Earth, meaning I needed Internet access.

This may not be the only way to do that, and may not be the cheapest, it just happens to be the way I did it. I went to a few cell-phone company shop fronts. FarEasTone had not yet opened for the day, so I went to Aurora. The Aurora staff told me they could give me a pre-paid account, but not with Internet access. So the third stop in my quest was Chunghwa Telecom (中華電信). It’s one of the larger companies. Here, I was able to get everything that I was looking for.

You will need:

  1. An unlocked GSM (or G3) cell phone.
  2. Two pieces of photo ID. I used my Canadian passport and my Ontario driver’s license.
  3. A local address in Taiwan. A hotel address is fine.
  4. The ability to communicate with the staff.

I can speak Mandarin, and could carry out the transaction in that language. Don’t assume that the employees can speak English – if you cannot carry on conversations in Mandarin you should bring somebody to interpret for you.

I signed up for a pre-paid G3 card. While my phone is GSM, the G3 cards are backward compatible to the older format. I paid NT$300 (about C$10) up front, and got the full amount in credit on my account, there are no setting-up fees, all the money goes toward pre-paid airtime minutes. The transaction took only a few minutes, and I was able to make test calls from my phone before getting up from my chair. The SIM card comes with a 4-digit unlock code, you have to enter this every time you turn on the cell phone. You can set up voice mail, but I didn’t bother.

I was actually a bit surprised that I could set up a new phone number for only C$10. I would have expected that the administration costs would make it impractical to offer such a low-price entry. In the end, I used only about C$23 in air time charges in the almost three weeks I was there.

Calls are billed by the second. After each outgoing call, a text message is sent to your phone telling you the number you called, the time spent on the call, the amount charged against your account for the call, and the expiry date of your account. The account expiration timer is 180 days, reset every time you add funds to your account. To add funds to your account, you simply walk into any 7-11 and tell them you want to buy a recharge for your Chunghwa Telecom (zhong1 hua2 dian4 xin4) phone. Recharges cost NT$300, and again, all of the money you pay goes into pre-paid airtime minutes, without anything held back for “access fees” etc. To use the recharge, follow the directions printed on the card. Basically, you call 928, go through a couple of menu options, then type in the PIN revealed by scratching the back of the recharge.

The employee who set up my account warned me that Internet use was expensive, but I didn’t find it so. Of course, I wasn’t watching television shows on my cell phone, just visiting a few websites in the morning to read the news from home. The price quoted for GPRS is NT$0.005 per “packet”. A GPRS packet is about 1 kB, so that would make the price about NT$5 per megabyte.

You should probably ask that your service be set for English. If you don’t do it at the counter, you can change your language preference at any time by calling the number 928. While I can read Chinese, my phone, bought in North America, doesn’t have Chinese fonts, so the text messages sent after every outgoing call are unreadable unless you’ve set your language preference to English.

EDIT: returning to Taiwan this year, the same SIM card in the same cell phone couldn’t log onto the Internet.  After a bit of discussion between their customer service staff and their IT support, it was determined that we had to edit the network settings on my cell phone, specifically assigning an APN string of “emome”.