Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Using Public Transport to Reach Galveston from Houston and Back

I am a fervent believer in public transport (mostly because I don't own a car and Uber/Lyft is untenable over long distances). 

Getting from Houston to Galveston (distance ~ 75 miles) was a challenge that I faced for the first time in June 2017 as I wanted to visit UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch) on the island. 

I looked online for multiple solutions and eventually carved my own path. The biggest challenge at that time was the lack of a direct bus service connecting the two places. There were buses that went from Houston to Bay Area and there were buses that went from near Bay Area to Galveston but you had to traverse the intervening distance yourself. Now, there is a service that promises a direct transfer between the two cities. I want to list the two options that one might take while traveling between Houston and Galveston. 

ROUTE 1: The Direct Route (Island Express)
This service was supposed to start in August 2017 but due to Hurricane Harvey, there was a significant delay in commencing the route. Much like the 'indirect' route, this one involves changing buses, but not stations. This route combines route 249 and 246 (Houston Downtown-Bay Area Park and Ride) with a direct bus from Bay Area Park and Ride to Downtown Galveston. 

The official web page for this route can be accessed here (http://galvestontx.gov/895/Island-Express---HoustonGalveston-Connec). There are three times on which the buses depart the island and three different timings for buses arriving on the island. Despite the relative comfort it provides, there are numerous pitfalls to this plan. It is however, a cheaper plan.

(i) TIME
You have to wait up to 3-3.5 hours to traverse a distance of 70 miles (which takes anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes depending on traffic on a car). So in order to make this journey, you need ample amount of time with zero flexibility, at least on the Bay Area-Galveston route (since 246/249 run almost every hour from Houston). 

(ii) CASH
The buses to/from Galveston only accept Cash so you better have $4.50 in hand. 

One day I wanted to catch a bus to Houston from Downtown Galveston (I had a dinner to attend that night in Houston). I couldn't figure out where the bus is going to depart from and the number given on the brochure wasn't responding. I tried asking two different bus drivers and they gave me opposite directions. I missed that bus but eventually made it to Houston using the indirect route. For future reference, the bus leaves from the Strand bus-stop (which is the main bus stop for all local Galveston buses). 

The Afternoon service from Galveston leaves at 11:04 am (which is technically not 'Afternoon') and there is no service between then and 4:48 pm. 

A screenshot of the timings, just in case. 

I did not come up with this route but I don't know many people who have utilized this so I am sharing this for public benefit.  It involves taking 246/249 from/to Houston from/to Bay Area Park and Ride. That is the easy part. If you are coming from Houston and you reach Bay Area, you have to take an Uber/Lyft to 20738 Gulf Freeway, Webster, 77598. I have marked it on Google Maps as 'Clear Lake Center Pick-up Spot for Bus to Galveston'. In the parking lot of this shopping center, there is a stop sign near Hooters where a bus stops and takes people to Galveston (or drops you off if you are coming from Galveston). The charge is $4 in cash. I believe that despite the inconvenience of taking an Uber, this route offers more flexibility, time-wise. There is even an Afternoon service, which can take you to Galveston from Houston in around 2 hours if you time it well. (I have personally traveled from Hou-Gal using the Morning and Afternoon timings mostly). Following is the bus schedule for the Galveston-Clear Lake Center bus.It can be accessed here http://galvestontx.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/4475
It shows that the first bus leaving from Clear Lake is at 7:09 am. The Afternoon bus leaves Clear Lake Center at 1:34 pm.  
Schedule for 246/249 can be seen here 


I have used the afternoon service multiple times (coming from Houston to Galveston). I used 249 that left Milam & Jefferson or Milam & Dallas around 12:05 pm, reached Bay Area around 1:05-1:10 pm and then took an Uber/Lyft (cost between $6-10) to reach Clear Lake center before 1:34 pm. The afternoon bus from there reaches Galveston around 2:15 pm. On my last trip, I got off at El Dorado Park and Ride because that is closer to the Clear Lake Center than Bay Area but that's my personal tweak.


Friday, 4 November 2016

Where to Get Polio Vaccination in Lahore

During the last few decades, Polio has been eradicated from most countries in the world. Pakistan is a different case altogether and after a successful vaccination drive in the 1990s, we failed to keep up the good work and now we get occasional reports of polio cases in different parts of the country. As a result, WHO has asked every traveler moving out of Pakistan to get the polio vaccination. As a health professional, I get asked this question every once in a while and I was initially unable to mention specific places which provide polio vaccination. The top places to get free polio vaccination in Lahore are

1. Health Department 
2. Special Counters at all Public Hospitals
3. From Private Hospitals 
4. From a kiosk at the Airport (least reliable)

I decided to visit the Health Department's facility the other day and got a polio vaccination certificate without much hassle. It took me all of ten minutes to get it done. I am posting the exact location of the office so that future travelers can get their certificates with ease. Kindly take your passports along when you visit the office. 

Step 1: Locating the Office on a Map
If you go from Canal Road on the Mall Road towards Lower Mall, right after NCA on your right, there is a huge building of Lahore's Town Hall. Between these two places (NCA and Town Hall) is a small road. Take that road. I have attached a Google Maps Screenshot of that place. 

Step 2  
There is a small Ally (Gali in Urdu) on your right, opposite the office of Ombudsman. Here's how it looks like


Step 3  
 Keep moving forward once you are in the alleyway, You'll see a small gate at the end. Here's how it looks like


Step 4
Enter the Gate and Ta-da! you've reached your destination! Get two drops of the polio vaccine and get your certificate.


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Turkish Delight: Grand Bazaar

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Istanbul. This is the Eleventh installment of the series, focusing on a missed opportunity to visit Topkapi Museum and things I learnt about Turkey. I hope you enjoy it.)

Cumartesi, On Ikinci Temmuz
(Saturday, 12th July)

I had planned to visit Topkapi palace but as soon as I exited my hotel after breakfast, I felt intense pain in my upper back, just below the shoulder blade.I ignored it initially and took a morning stroll around the half-empty Isteklal Street. During the walk, I bought one of the only English-language newspapers published in Turkey (Today's Zaman) from a small store. During the walk, I noticed the inability to move my neck sideways. It was probably a strained neck muscle, so I visited the nearest Eczane (Turkey's answer to Walgreens) and got some painkillers. Thankfully, I was able to find the right tablets despite the language-barrier.  
I decided to continue with my plan and boarded the Taksim Tünel followed by a tram to Gülhane. I found Meltem and her fellow volunteers Gülhane station. They were guiding tourists about the Istanbulkart Refill machines. I spent almost 30 minutes assisting the volunteers. I wasn’t able to walk comfortable so I decided to postpone the Topkapi visit and walked towards Blue Mosque. My interest was piqued by a sign pointing to a place that used to be Hurrem Sultan's hamam. Initially I ventured towards the ladies' side of the establishment but I was then guided by a lady towards the entrance for gentlemen. At the entrance, I received a brochure for a ‘Royal Message Service’. It felt like a godsend but a) It was expensive and b) I wasn’t looking forward to jumping in the sauna with a loincloth.  
I continued my journey to to Blue Mosque’s gate A and caught up with Hatice and Bayzanur along with their fellow volunteers. Went inside the mosque and sat with Doğukan and Ahmet in the
Shady courtyard of the mosque. It was there that I learnt about traditional Turkish dishes from Sinem, and took some absurd photographs of different varieties of hair. Discovered that Today's Zaman is published by Gülen party sympathizers and they had started criticizing the Erdoğan government since the 17th December crackdown on Gülen sympathizers (Hizmet Movement) in judiciary and police.

I confessed to my volunteer friends that I had already tried etliekmek, kurimpi, simit, börek, patso, doner, Turkish delights, Turkish coffee and baklava among traditioal Turkish cuisine. They asked me to try Iskander, Mantı and Dolma apart from Turkish Pizza. Sinem and I talked about medical education in Turkey and she mentioned that Istanbul University was probably the best medical university in Turkey We also touched upon the cost of braces for teeth. As a former "sufferer" of braces, I empathized with her and reminisced about the difficulties faced by people in braces after eating any regular meal. She explained the education system of Turkey (8 years primary school, 4 years high school, entry exams and then University). I discovered that possessing a Turkish passport was only slightly better than having a Pakistani passport, as people with Turkish passports could only visit a handful of countries without visa.(Being a third world citizen really sucks!) We scattered on sight of Miss Cansu, the supervisor and landed near German fountain.

It was there that I had a good chat with Ertugrul (his name reminded of Chilean midfield player Arturo Vidal) about religion and politics (I learnt that ISIS was called "Ishit" in Turkey). He confessed about his "virtual relationship" with someone in Torino, Italy. Kaan joined us after a while.
We talked to a Ukranian family that wanted guidance regarding a place that was quite far from Fatih and the patriarch of that family was really funny. They were visiting from Kiev and supported the Euromaidan protests. They were amused by my reference to "the Chocolate King"(nickname of Ukraine's current President, as he owns chocolate factories). Kaan made a cheeky comment about him supporting Yanukovich (the deposed Ukrainian president who fled to Russia) which didn’t amuse them and they branded him a “risky boy”.

I was supposed to get a shoulder bag for my younger sister, so I sought help of Sinem in this venture.We walked to Grand Bazaar (called Kapali çarşı in Turkçe) with Kaan and Ertugral in tow. En Route, We encountered a very animated Turkish girl who knew three languages (Turkçe, Italian and Spanish with some knowledge of English). She was interested in our “group” due to the “Ask Me” shirts worn by volunteers. We did a grand tour of the Bazaar focusing on shop that sold bags but the prices were quite high, due to what Ertugrul called the "Grand Bazaar effect". Sinem informed that she could get bags of similar quality from market near her home.

As a last resort, we visited the nearby flea market and finally found a decent bag. On our way back, a restaurant worker recognized me as a Pakistani and tried to tempt me by offering Biryani with kebabs (I would’ve accepted his offer but I was not hungry and am a vegetarian anyway). On our way back, we had to make two stops as Sinem wanted to get bracelets for herself. During the return journey, we talked to a German couple from Dusseldorf who wanted to know directions to the Galata Bridge.

I wanted to get some balance charged in my account and wanted the volunteers to help me interpret it to the sales person. They took me to the nearest “Avea” franchise. To my surprise, one of the sales people was a former musician and knew Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (one of Pakistan's finest Qawals/sufi musicians).I had to sing a stanza from NFAK’s "Dam Mast Qalandar" to convince him that I knew and revered Nusrat. I later roughly translated "Dam Dam Ali Ali" to the guy, who was pleased to entertain us.

Upon reaching the hippodrome, the group split up and I talked about Ataturk, his dictatorial tendencies and effects of "forced secularization" with Kaan and Ertugrul. We were approached by two boys doing a metropolitan survey regarding political choices in the upcoming Presidential elections. I encountered an ex-volunteer (she volunteered last year) named Rabia. She was studying English Literature at the university, favored socialism over the existing political system and had't read any socialist literature (which did surprise me). It was another day well-spent in Istanbul.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turkish Delight: Cuma Sermon/Football

New Mosque

Taksim Tunel
139 years of Taksim Tunel

Photo by Kaan, caption: "Depressed Turkey"

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Ankara/Istanbul. This is the tenth installment of the series, involving my encounter with some Turkish teenagers working as volunteers and what I learnt from them. I hope you enjoy it)

Cuma, On Bir Temmuz
(Friday, 11th July)

I was back from Ankara. After a terrible scheduling issue and Istanbul’s heavy traffic, I had failed to make my flight to Cappadokia, and I had decided on the fly, to spend another day in my favorite city: Istanbul. I had a rough night on Thursday, half-awake and dizzy throughout. The breakfast was a low-key affair as usual. Having spent my previous week in a lavish hotel in Sultanahmet area, I had settled for a modest place this time in Asmali Mescit area. I started my day with a walk across Isteklal Cadessi towards the Tunel station, from where I boarded the Taksim Tunel to Karakoy.

From Karakoy, I took the tram to my favorite haunt, Sultanahmet. Upon arrival, I roamed around the half-empty hippodrome and ended up chatting with an Ask Me volunteer who was curious about Pakistan, particularly our (supposed) fascination with Tea.I taught her the recipe for milk tea(the variety that is common in Pakistan) and told her differences between Pakistani and Turkish cuisine. She couldn't understand why we used the bread (roti/ekmek) as a spoon to eat the curry/çorba/shorba. She also found it difficult to imagine lives of vegetarians and how they don't apparently have any variety in their food.She asked me if people in Pakistan consume tea more than water, as she had read it in some book. I replied in the negative but later discovered that it was the case in Central Asian Republics.

Afterwards, I met Kaan's friend Mustafa, who wants to write and teach history and Elif who wants to be a diplomat.I was delighted to talk to Elif as she is a wonderful person and her ambitions at such young age are impressive. We talked about some of my favorite topics from Turkish Politics: The main opposition party (CHP), Presidential candidate Mr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, SOMA, usage of religion in politics and “Blasphemy of Ataturk”. We also discussed as to how the Turkish social structure is stacked against older people. Kaan showcased his photography skills with my camera, and I was impressed. It was almost ‘lunch’ time for the volunteers so I accompanied them to their office, where I encountered Mehmet, and did his “photo shoot”.   

While we were sitting outside Sultanahmet Camii (Mosque), the Juma/Cuma sermon started. Elif was kind enough to translate it for me. The Imam (Hatip) talked about marriage and finding a well-educated wife with a job and to beware of apparently "perfect" proposals, that there should age difference between bride and grooms, some spiel on dating and even mentioned 'tourists from pakistan' in some context that was not apparent.I was pleasantly surprised to hear such ‘progressive’ views from the pulpit, having been accustomed to hearing utter drivel during most Juma sermons in Pakistan.  

The pleasantness was short-lived as the Hatip switched to English in the final part of his speech. He railed against many aspects of modernism and how latest technologies are driving people to loneliness. He mentioned refugees from Syria and that they should be helped, ended with "May Allah Help muslims in gaza, east Turkestan, and Myanmar".

I moved near Hagia Sophia after the prayers where I met another Mustafa and my favorite volunteer: Özge. I discovered that Mustafa was also a football fanatic like myself and I learnt a lot from him. We discussed major Turkish football clubs, Turkish football league and its structure, famous players who played for Turkish teams, nicknames of supporters of Istanbul’s big three(Galatasaray=Lions, Fenerbahçe=birds, Beşiktaş=Eagles), Coldplay, English Premier League, Merlin, Turkish wimmens and much more. He was studying to become an interpreter and wanted to move to the UK after studies. Upon his insistence, I tried Simit (a Turkish snack) for the first time. It was a chocolate Simit and was probably a bit dry for my taste. We sat on the steps facing Hagia Sophia, between Million Stone and Basilica Cistern, till the time for departure of volunteers arrived. I spotted Mehmet again and took some more snaps for the “Behlul look-alike album”.

On my way back, I finally gave in to the temptation and indulged myself by getting a new cover of the iPhone (which as I later discovered, was too expensive). During my daily stroll around Isteklal, I decided to try "Kumpir" for dinner, which is basically a baked potato stuffed with different toppings. It was actually quite tasty. While walking back to my hotel, I witnessed that the impromptu musicians that throng Isteklal Street hide their instruments as the police approaches.