What triathlons taught me about building a career

Let’s gooooo!

I’ve been quiet on here for a while because my entire summer was spent heads down (literally) in preparing for the 3 triathlons I had lined up. First one was in June, the “Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon”, which starts off with a lovely swim through the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay, then takes you over and around several hills on the bike, followed by even more hills on the 8..5 mile run at the end. Second one was on the east coast in the NYC area, third one in Chicago where I got to bike through the “Batman tunnels” where they filmed The Dark Knight. It was an epic summer and I have now completed 6 triathlons. Next year, I have 4 more lined up so you could say that this has become a very serious hobby for me.

As I trained and competed in all these races, I noticed that a lot of age-groupers like myself were type-A competitive individuals who were mostly quite successful in other pursuits in their lives. What is it, I wondered, that causes driven and motivated professionals to partake in such masochism? Is it just the thirst for competition? Is it a desire to validate themselves as more well-rounded than just their careers? Or is it simply a desire to stay fit?

As it turned out, triathlons have a lot in common with how careers are built and those commonalities might explain why people that do well at work tend to be attracted to endurance racing.

Pacing yourself

This was the first parallel I saw between my career and a triathlon. Both are activities in which you are more likely succeed with consistent long-term effort rather than a short, quick sprint. In fact, short sprints might be counterproductive and lead to burn out well before you can achieve even a fraction of your goal. At work, I have been through periods of intense activity where I worked 14 hour days, 7 day weeks. Specifically, when I was working on Facebook Live, the product ended up growing very quickly and we stretched to keep up with its growth. Those were some very intense weeks and I definitely grew a lot just by going through that experience. However, it contributed to a very severe burn out that I had to deal with afterwards. I lost all will to work, and it took 3 months and a team change for me to feel excited about work again. Racing is no different – you can sprint, but you will burn out very soon. Anyone you passed on the sprint will likely pass you once you’ve run out of fuel. Lesson number 1: pace yourself.

Progressive overloading

Progressive overloading is a term I had never heard until I started training for my races seriously. It’s a concept that essentially says that if you want to get stronger/faster, then your workouts need to get progressively harder over time. It sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s less so. Randomized workouts that have no overarching strategy will not help you get far. You will plateau and stop improving as soon as your body adapts to the current difficulty. However, if you move forward with a solid strategy for slowly increasing the difficulty, then your body will be constantly challenged and forced to improve. The same principle applies at work – if you want to grow in your career, you must continue to challenge yourself. By not doing that, you risk a suffocating feeling of ennui that will almost certainly lead you to hate your job. Find challenges that help you grow, and don’t be afraid to take them on.

Recovery is key

In a typical training plan for a triathlon, there are a few hard workouts separated in time by lots of recovery workouts. A recovery workout is essentially something like a long, very easy bike ride that will keep your body moving, but also allow it the time to recover and prepare for the next hard workout. This is the time when muscles repair themselves and really grow from the harder workout that preceded this recovery workout. If you don’t recover enough, you will almost certainly get injured. It’s the same principle at work – balance work time with play time. Too much work with little play will eventually lead to mental injury. You might make more money in the short term (even that’s not guaranteed), but you won’t be in a good place to really enjoy it. Balance work with play, find a hobby. Maybe do triathlons ;).

Looking at the finish line up ahead…

Dealing with discomfort

The last 30-40 minutes of a race are usually the hardest. You’re tired, everything hurts, cramps are starting to appear in the legs, perhaps you are even questioning why you do this to yourself. Despite all this, you know that the finish line is not far away and that you must get to it. Typically I deal with it by not thinking of all the miles of running left but instead thinking of it like “I just need to run till that turn up ahead”. Once I get past that turn then “I just need to run to that next bend over there” and so on. There are two key lessons here that I adopted into my professional life. First is that it’s important to break apart a big problem into smaller ones. You have a hard project ahead of you (10k of running on legs that are already fried from biking), so you break that apart into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time. The second lesson is persevering through discomfort. Yes, it is painful right now, but a little perseverance will get you to your goal.

Plan better to perform better

Carb loading, hydrating before and during the race, eating energy gels at strategic times, organizing all gear to allow for the fastest possible transition, creating a multi-month training plan to improve race fitness — all these are important to being able to hit the goal time. I’m in the middle of planning for training for next year and it’s a project in itself! I will still do it because all this planning will make my season more productive and I’ll be more likely to hit my goal times. It’s the same thing at work – planning for the next 6 months, having a solid sense of all the projects involved, the end goals for this effort. The similarities are obvious.

Next year’s going to be fun – I’m planning to plan my holidays around races. One of them will be in the French Alps where I’ll be biking up the Alpe d’Huez. I’d better start training for that!

Made it!

Morocco – A Story In Pictures

I just got back from an incredible 15-day trip to Morocco. I was initially a bit worried about traveling to Morocco after the disturbing news that came out of there in December. Thankfully, the trip turned out the exceed all my expectations. I never felt unsafe. The Moroccan people were extremely welcoming, and eager to show us their country. Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip, each one with its own story.

Random street corner, Fes

December 22, 2018: Our first stop in Morocco was Casablanca. We had been told that there isn’t too much to see over here, so we had only one evening. Our hotel was just a block away from the Grande Mosquée Hassan II – the largest mosque in Africa. It was around 5pm, and we had to stay awake for a few more hours to get over the jet-lag, so we walked over to check out the mosque. People were there with their kids, just hanging around and enjoying the sunshine. As we got to the mosque, the sun had settled down over the city and was shining directly through the series of arches that surround the mosque:

December 23, 2018: Fes is the cultural capital of Morocco. If you want to buy leather goods, carpets, shoes, the iconic Moroccan “Fes” hat, this is where you should do that. We got into Fes after a three hour train ride from Casablanca. After settling in, we walked into our first medina of this trip. A “medina” is a traditional old, Arab area that is characteristic of cities throughout Northern Africa. A typical medina will have maze-like tiny streets with stores everywhere. Tourists and locals will be squeezing through the tiny streets, often sharing the already restricted space with donkeys, street vendors, carts, and sometimes, even scooters. It’s not something that most westerners have ever seen, and this was the case with my girlfriend, who was instantly on the edge as we walked through the tiny alley ways. After the initial fear went away, she was a bit more relaxed:

December 24, 2018: Fes is known for its tanneries. The interesting mix of colors on display is offset by the horrible stench of decaying organic matter. Often times, the store owners of shops next to the tanneries will offer to let you go upstairs through their shops and view the tanneries next door in exchange for a little money. Make sure you haggle it down to nothing more than 5 dirham (50 US cents). They will likely offer you some mint to help you deal with the smell. Keep that mint close to your nose as much as possible, except for a picture I guess:

December 24, 2018: We stayed at a riad in Fes. A “riad” is a traditional Moroccan house with a central courtyard/garden, often characterized by intricate designs and patterns on the walls and windows. If you ever visit Morocco, I would recommend staying at a riad (you can book them using Expedia, for example). Our room at Riad Andalib in Fes had a very nice window with colored panels, that just happened to look over the courtyard. The skylight over the courtyard shone through the colored panels, illuminating the opposite wall inside our room in multiple colors. Sensing some photographic potential, I asked my girlfriend to stand in front of the window. It took a few attempts before she stopped laughing and posed seriously:

December 25, 2018: After a 3.5 hour taxi ride from Fes, we arrived in Chefchaouen, a quaint little mountain town where everything is painted blue – the houses, stairs, walls, doors, you name it. Shortly after arriving, we walked through the tiny old town alleyways in search for Chez Hicham, a restaurant that we had heard had a nice rooftop. We took our time getting to it, because literally everything around us was begging to be photographed. A few stores had bags of colored powder lined up outside, which stood out even more given all the blue surrounding us:

December 25, 2018: My girlfriend posed for the camera somewhere among the blue alleys of Chefchaouen, and got photobombed by a little kid playing football (soccer, if you’re American):

December 26, 2018: It was our last night in Chefchaouen before heading back down to Fes and catching the train to Marrakech. As we walked to Lala Mesouda for dinner, we discovered a little art gallery close by and learned that there would be live music there later at night. After dinner, we walked back to it and sat down to watch a local band play. With traditional Morrocan tea in our hands, a rather romantic, candle-lit ambience, and good music to listen to, we couldn’t have asked for a better ending to our visit:

December 28, 2018: As a visitor to Morocco, you’re very likely to end up in Marrakech. It has the biggest, and most intense medina that we saw during our entire trip. There was a lot more heckling, lots of unwanted attention, lots of scooters and animals squeezing through the crowds, and just a lot more chaos in general. It is a lot to take in, especially after coming from a quaint little town like Chefchaouen. We had spent all of the previous day traveling down to Marrakech and were eager to explore. Marrakech has an interesting juxtaposition of really upscale restaurants with rooftops sitting right alongside the stores, and people living in poverty. We spent two days walking through the souks, and then popping into one of these restaurants to take a break from the chaos. One of the restaurants recommended to us was Nomad. After losing our way a few times, we got to it and went up to the terrace right around sunset. As we waited for our food, I walked around the terrace, politely asking patrons to let me take photos of the view over their heads. Luckily, no one objected:

December 28, 2018: Shopping in Marrakech is quite the endeavor. Between all the store owners trying to get you to buy from them, and the hecklers trying to help you get to wherever you want (or don’t want) to go, you have to also remember to haggle over the price. Me and my girlfriend walked into a store to buy her some shoes. The owner was a chatty, young Moroccan man. Right after he had haggled and negotiated prices with us, he started giving us advice on how to avoid getting scammed in Morocco. The situation was a tad ironical, but I don’t think he felt that way :). As he was packing up the shoes for us, he noticed that I was taking photos of some shoes. He asked me if I would take a photo of him and his friend, as a memory of our shopping adventure in Marrakech:

December 29th, 2018: The Bahia Palace is one of the main attractions in Marrakech. If you want to see this, I’d highly recommend getting there early, as opposed to rolling in at noon like we did. The line to buy a ticket was 30 minutes long, and local guides would keep cutting it to get their tickets first. Anyway, once you do get inside, the palace is quite nice. Lots of patterned walls, arches, skylights, and windows with colored panels. At one point, I asked my girlfriend to stop for a picture. I leaned back against a wall behind me to take the shot. Suddenly, she raised her phone and took a photo of me taking a photo of her:

December 30, 2018: Our next destination after Marrakech was Dades Valley, which is sort of like the Grand Canyon of Morocco. After a 5AM wakeup, and a 6AM departure, we eventually arrived at the valley around 2PM. The road snaked up and down the cliff face as it made its way through the valley, overlooking the river that cut through it. We stopped at some point on this road, and our guide, Adil, asked us to follow him off the road, and down to the river. We had no idea what to expect and we started hiking down over the rocks. When we got down to the river, we discovered that a nomad and his family were staying there, and had agreed to host us for lunch! Carpets had been laid out for us, and the smell of warm food filled the air. We saw our hosts cooking over a little fire, and sat down on the carpet to wait. While we waited, one of them poured out some traditional Moroccan tea to warm us up:

December 31, 2018: Our next stop, after a good night’s sleep at Dades Valley was the Sahara Desert. After yet another early wake up, we started our drive just as the sky started turning blue, then purple, then pink, and orange. Our shuttle driver pulled into a gas station by the highway just as the sun peeked over the hills in the distance. We got out to stretch our legs. It was really cold, and my body was absolutely not ready to face the near-freezing temperature. At this point, someone had the brilliant idea to do an early morning hip-hop dance session. Someone else suddenly produced a bluetooth speaker and four people started performing a little choreographed routine. I quickly grabbed my camera and sat down on the ground to catch the sunlight shining through their legs. After getting this shot, I promptly put the camera away, and joined the party, along with about 20 other people. It was a great way to beat the cold:

December 31, 2018: After a whole day of driving, we arrived in Mhamid, the last town before paved road ends, and the desert officially begins. To go further, we got into 4x4s, and started making our way over sand and shrubs into the Sahara. After 1.5 hours, we saw what looked like a mountain range, but was actually a bunch of sand dunes. Our camp site was right next to one of the dunes. We arrived just before sunset, and promptly started walking up to the highest sand dune in sight. The last sunset of the year was happening right before us, as we made our way up. It is hard to describe how I felt in that moment, but suffice to say that it was a pretty nice way to close out 2018:

January 1, 2019: After a lovely feast and just after midnight, we walked out of the dinner tent to look at the sky. The Milky Way was clearly visible – a band of stars stretching all the way across the sky. Our campsite was still producing a bit too much ambient light, so we walked over the adjacent sand dune, and then another one for good measure. Just as we stopped walking and looked up, a shooting star went across the sky leading to a collective “Ooooooh” from the entire group. Everyone lay down quietly. No one spoke a word – they simply looked up at the stars. I set up my tripod, and attempted to get a long exposure photo of the sky. After a couple of less-than-satisfying attempts, I moved the camera to point in a different direction, hoping to get something better. As I opened the shutter for another 25-second exposure, someone turned on a red headlamp behind me, pointing in the opposite direction. They quickly turned it back off, but I was worried that it might have ruined the shot. I waited for the shutter to close and looked at my camera screen. The sand in my photo had an eerie red glow that made it look as if it was taken on Mars. There was also a weird orange glow in the distance that turned out to be light from our campsite, reflected off of the clouds above it. It was going to be hard to out-do this one:

January 1, 2019: It was time to head out of the desert, and back into civilization. We made our way back to Mhamid, and got into out shuttles. Our next stop was a little village called Amazraou, just next to Zagora. We walked down a tiny street, past a mosque that was over 500 years old, around the corner and past a synagogue, also 500 years old, down another alley, through an antique store, and out into another alley. Just as we came around a corner, I saw a woman sitting with her child in the doorway of her house. They looked at me, and she smiled, almost anticipating that I would take a photo:

January 1, 2019: Still in Amazraou, we walked into a local jewelry store that sold assorted pieces of silver jewelry. While explaining the meaning of certain symbols on a trinket, the owner offered to show us how it was made. We first walked into a foundry, where two men were making molds that would eventually be used to shape molten silver. Next, we walked over to another room where one man was actually melting silver over a small fire. There was a white-hot container sitting in the fire, presumably containing the silver that would soon be in a liquid state. The owner sat down, and took over. He cranked up the fire a notch. Sparks flew into the air. Everyone looked at the glowing container that turned brighter, and whiter. I sat down, and raised my camera:

January 2, 2019: We got to a Aït Benhaddou, the site of an old fortified village, that also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Right by the village is a hill that overlooks the whole town. We decided to climb this hill right before sunrise. It was pretty dark when we set out and the moon was shining brightly over us. We got to the top of the hill after a quick 20 minute hike, and waited. Slowly, the horizon turned pink. The glow intensified, reflected down from the clouds, then again off of the river down below us. The early morning wake-up was worth it:

January 3, 2019: As we were checking out from our hostel in Aït Benhaddou, I noticed a little courtyard that looked cute. I decided it was time to hand someone the camera and get a photograph for myself. Pity that the fountain wasn’t on:

January 3, 2019: As we drove out towards Agadir to surf for the next two days, we went past (what looked like) an abandoned gas station on the highway. It looked strangely non-Moroccan, perhaps even American. Naturally, we pulled over. Out guide informed us that this was actually a set for the movie “The Hills Have Eyes”, which is a horror movie. Everyone instantly went about taking pictures of all the scary objects and mannequins that were still lying around the gas station. Four of us decided that the middle of the highway would make for a much better photograph, especially if we all were airborne. The tank tops read “You were born to do more than just pay bills and die”:

January 6, 2019: The adventure was over, for the time being. I had a broken phone screen, a cracked camera screen, and a sprained finger from surfing (and falling). On the upside, I got to explore a new country, eat its food, meet its people, learn about its culture, and re-discover my love for traveling that had been overshadowed by work for the last few months. It was time to head back to New York City’s winter, but also to start thinking of travels up ahead:

Photo by @deshoots

Anatomy of a Photoshoot

A few weeks ago, one of girlfriend’s friends asked if I would be willing to do a maternity photoshoot for her. Apparently word of my upcoming photography skills had made its way around New York City. I had never done a serious photoshoot before so I offered to do it for free in exchange for low expectations around the quality of the final product. Fair deal, right?

The Mood Board

The first step in this process, was to put together a mood board. What in the devil, you might ask, is a mood board? The dictionary definition is “an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept”. The practical implication is that a mood board is essentially a powerful tool for an artist to convey what they have in mind, and to understand what someone else has on their mind. Let me give you an example.

Two years ago, I was trying to come up with ideas for a wall art project for my apartment. I spent multiple hours browsing around Pinterest, Instagram, and Google images to look at random pictures of wall art and seeing which ones I liked most. Anything I found interesting, I pinned into a special Pinterest board that  I had set up. Here’s a screenshot of what I had:

This is basically a mood board that is supposed to convey my artistic vision. If you spend even 5 seconds looking at this, you won’t be surprised that I ended up making this:

Pinterest is basically a mood board for millennials. It’s a way to put together a bunch of images that convey artistic ideas. As such, the first step to preparing for this photoshoot was to ask the couple for a mood board that showed what images resonated with them the most. Here’s a sample of what they sent me. Take a look and think of the first few words that come to your mind. I’ll tell you mine once you’ve had a chance to think of yours:

These are the words that came to my mind when I saw this: nature, golden hour, shoes, bokeh, romance. The point though, is that words were not enough to help me understand their vision, but this mood board gave me a pretty good idea of what the photos should look like.

Ideation, location, timing

Next step was to do the same exercise myself, and crawl the internet for images that seemed to match this mood board, but were interesting enough to draw inspiration from. An hour of searching for “maternity photoshoot” on Google, Instagram, and Pinterest was enough to give me some inspiration and ideas to try out.

Next step was to figure out a time and place. Since this was late October in New York City, I naturally gravitated towards Central Park and its fall colors. That would give me the outdoor setting I wanted. Combine that with a golden hour timing and I could see this turning out fairly well!

Equipment

I took my trusty Sony A7Riii camera for the shoot. Given the desire to get a bokeh effect in these photos, it was important to pick a lens that had a low enough f-number to allow that. Noobs – a bokeh effect is simply a photography effect that focusses on one thing and blurs out stuff that is closer or further away from the camera than the thing in focus. Here’s an example:

To get this sort of effect, I would need a lens with a big aperture, which corresponds to a small f-number. Next, since I was going for a composition that needed to show a good amount of background and wasn’t intended to have a tight frame, I would need a low focal length. Something in the range of 24-35mm. Given this criteria, I chose the Sony GM 24-70 f/2.8 lens.

Finally for the camera setting, I usually shoot on aperture priority, with a slightly warmer white balance, spot metering and linking that to the focus point. If you use a Sony, you might be familiar with these terms. If not, basically I set things up so that the exposure is metered to the same spot that I’m focussed on. It’s a setting that has worked out quite well for me, so I tend to stick with it :).

The Photoshoot

We arrived at Central Park with an hour to sunset, and got down to business. The key is to try things out, and err on the side of taking lots of pictures. You’ll likely take a bunch of not-so-great photos, but they will give you instant feedback on how to adjust things to get something better on the next shot. For example, here’s the first shot I took:

I like the background, although it could be less blurry. Lighting looks great. Maybe there’s something here.

Looking good! But – lighting is not the best, shoes are a bit too high, the hand is a little too dominant. Easy fixes – lower the hand, adjust composition, add some exposure compensation, emphasis on the shoes. And voilà, behold the final product:

Post processed using Snapseed to selectively add brightness to the shoes

Lighting came out well, the background is blurred, but you can easily make out the baby bump. The golden light is pretty solid. Success!

At this point, we kept going, and tried a bunch of things. Below is a selection of the best ones. I’ll emphasize once again that each of these took 10-20 attempts with quick micro-adjustments of composition, exposure and focus. I’d recommend following this process. Pick a rough composition and take a few test shots with the subjects in the photo. Then, make micro-adjustments of all kinds and take several more shots. Perhaps even try going vertical (mobile friendly!) with your framing. Taking multiple shots in one composition will also help improve your chances of ending up with images that are properly focussed.

Processed with VSCO with a4 preset
Processed with VSCO with c3 preset
Processed with VSCO with e2 preset

Post-processing

You’ll notice that the photos above are annotated with the presets I applied to them during post processing. If you have a solid camera like the Sony A7Riii, the photos will come out looking pretty amazing right out of the camera. A little post processing helps add that final icing to the cake, so to speak. It helps bring out the lighting, and allows you to add emphasis on certain objects (like the baby-size converse shoes). I usually just do the post processing using VSCO and Snapseed. Some people swear by Lightroom, so feel free to pick your poison!

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed doing my first maternity photoshoot as much as the lucky couple enjoyed seeing these photos. I learned a lot in this process, and hopefully this note will help you navigate your first shoot as well!

A primer on H1B visas for my American friends

Photo Dec 19, 10 46 51 PM.jpg

Let’s face it, the real reason I want a visa is to pose in front of Manhattan

At the moment I started writing this post, I was sitting in my parent’s house somewhere in northern India, waiting for my passport to come back from the US Embassy in New Delhi. If things went well, it would contain a renewed H1B visa which would allow me to head back to New York City (the place I like to call home). While much maligned in American public discourse by both sides of the political divide, no one really seems to understand how the visa actually works, or have any idea about how difficult it is to get. Not to mention any idea about how it affects the lifestyle of people who do manage to get it.

But fear not, my American friends. Today, right here, you are about to get an introduction to the H1B visa from an immigrant who has had the pleasure(?) of receiving it. If you manage to emerge with your sanity from under the pile of laws and regulation I’m about to throw at you, then you’re either an immigration lawyer or you didn’t actually read this post, or you might actually be the right person to affect some change. Alrighty, let’s get started!

What the f*** is a visa?

Ah right, you’re American. Chances are you don’t really know what an actual visa looks like. Wait, what’s that you said? You’ve been to Europe and they put a visa in your passport at the airport? Yeah, that’s just an arrival stamp. Wait, you’ve been to Canada and Mexico as well? Nope, still just an arrival stamp. Woah, woah, woah. You’ve been to China and Brazil? Look at you, globetrotter. In that case, you have seen a real visa and you may safely skip to the next section.

For the ones who are still here, Americans can go to 186 countries with no visa / visa on arrival. That means that for most countries in the world, you can show up at the airport and you’ll be let in. That’s a lot of freedom of movement. An Indian passport holder for example, gets access to only 59 countries without a visa. That means that as an Indian citizen, you can’t just decide to go to Paris for the weekend. You’ll have to decide weeks in advance, and then make a trip to the nearest French Consulate (which might be in another city), and submit your passport with a pile of documents proving that:

  1. You have money to spend in France.
  2. You have a place to stay.
  3. You won’t create any trouble in France.
  4. You will definitely leave after your stay. I’m sure you’re a nice person, but they’d rather you leave after spending your money.

If the French deem you worthy, you will be granted what is known as a Schengen visa. This is what it looks like:

Schengen sample

Not my photo. Credit: The Internet

With this, you can finally visit Paris, and even go to other European countries that are included in the Schengen Area. Notice that the UK isn’t in it. No, they didn’t Brexit from the Schengen agreement. They just never Brought themselves into it in the first place. What that means is that you, Indian citizen, cannot simply pop over across the channel to London. You’ll need a UK visa for that, and this is the sort of madness you are in for. You poor soul. On the other hand, you, American citizen, can easily head over to London for a quick shopping trip during your weekend in Paris. You lucky fuck.

Alright, I think we all understand what a visa is. Yes? Good.

The H1B visa and how to get it

Here is what an H1B visa looks like:

Sample-US-H1B-Visa.png

Credit: The Internet

The H1B is technically a work visa. Notice that it contains the name of the company you work for. This means that if you change jobs, you will need an updated visa which usually means a visit to the US consulate any time you leave the US after changing jobs. If you’re thinking, “well, that sounds like a pain in the ass”, you’re damned well right it is! I’ll get into this more later. Let’s first start from the beginning.

You’re a bright young non-American who has just been offered a killer job at your dream American company. There are of course, multiple types of visa that would allow you to come to the US (depending on your skill set and type of job), but let’s say you are a highly-skilled college graduate in a science/technology field. Most likely, you’ll need an H1B visa, which is designed for “highly skilled workers”. The US government only grants 85,000 H1B visas each year, out of which 20,000 are reserved for people who hold at least a Masters degree. In 2018, however, the US government received 190,000 applications. That’s more than twice the number of visas they will grant. In fact, the number of applications was even higher in the years before.

So how do they decide who gets in and who doesn’t? They organize a lottery on April 1st every year. That’s right – all 190,000 of these people had to submit their application on April 1st 2018. A day later than April 1st, and you’re screwed until next year. To make things even more interesting, you yourself can’t put your name in the lottery. The company that offered you a job will have to do it for you. Let’s assume that you got the job offer around December of your senior year. Since your company is going to have to file your H1B petition on April 1st, they will need to prepare in advance to have all the papers ready. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things they’ll need to do:

  • Fill out an H1B petition (also known as Form I-129). Depending on your circumstances, this could be several tens of pages long.
  • Prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”.
  • Prove that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker.
  • Fees for the petition.
  • More money if they want it to be processed faster IF you clear the lottery.

Alright, it’s April 1st. You’re about to graduate from college and are super optimistic about your future (lol). The company submits your documents and you begin an agonizing wait where you pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion that you get picked by the random number picker algorithm running on some shitty computer in a USCIS office. In the meantime, you try to prepare back up job offers in case you don’t get selected for the lottery. Over the next few weeks, you might receive an acceptance or a rejection based on the effectiveness of your prayers. Let’s say that you got lucky and made it past the lottery.

Now begins the fun part. AFTER making it past the lottery, USCIS will start actually reviewing your entire application to decide whether to approve your petition or not. This could take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, based on whether your company paid more for premium processing or not. Let’s say that things worked out and your petition is approved.

Pop the champagne, and start appreciating the fine sport of Baseball. You’re going to America! Fuck yeah!

Of course, the rules state that you cannot actually go the US without a literal visa in your passport. You don’t really have that yet. In reality, you’ve only made it past stage one of the process. Now comes stage two. The approval of your H1B petition is sent to you by your company. It’s called a “Form I-797A” which will grant you the ability to work in the US for a period of 3 years. Even if you get this form, USCIS does not allow you to actually start working in the US before October 1st. Why? ¯\_()_/¯

Your company has done its job, and it’s time for you to do some work. You’ll take the I-797A, and go to the website of your local US embassy/consulate. There, you will have to fill out another multiple page form called the DS-160. This form will ask you (among other things):

  • Every place you’ve traveled to in the last 5 years.
  • The exact dates of your 5 previous visit to the US, and length of stay in each instance. If you don’t remember the exact dates like most normal people, well, screw you. I personally have a text file where I keep a list of every single date where I’ve entered and exited the US, where I went, and for how long.
  • A 5-page yes/no questionnaire where you get to answer fun questions like “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?”, and “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?”. I’m not making this up – these are actual questions on the form.

Once you’ve filled this form out and submitted it online, you will be asked to schedule an in-person interview at your nearest US embassy/consulate. Depending on where you live, there might not be any available appointment in the next few weeks, or even anywhere close by. Let’s say you get an appointment date and make it over to wherever the US embassy/consulate is. You have to take with you a proof of DS-160 submission, and the I-797A you received from your company. You will be interviewed by an official who will ask about your intentions in the US – Where will you work? Where will you stay? What kind of work will you do? Etc.

At this point, three things can happen:

  • You said something bad, or something in your profile was not right and your visa is denied. Yes, this is possible even with an I-797A approval in your hand.
  • Something in the official’s computer said something to them and they decided to put you in “administrative processing”.
  • You actually get approved for a visa and they take your passport.

If the first outcome befalls you, well, too bad my friend. You almost made it.

It it’s the second one, they will hand you a pink colored paper called a Form 221G, which basically says that they need to do some “administrative processing” and get a “security clearance” before you can get a visa. This process can take anywhere from 3 weeks to over 3 months. In all this time, you pretty much have to sit, wait, and pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion. If things go well, they will finish their stuff faster and grant you an actual visa.

If you get lucky enough to end up with outcome #3, they will take your passport right after the interview and return it within a few days with the visa in it.

From the initial I-129 filing, to the I-797A approval, to the DS-160, the interview, the possible 221G, and finally an actual H1B visa, this process can take multiple months. Of course, there is very little guarantee that you will actually get to the end.

Still with me?

Good!

Notice that the visa is actually valid for 3 years. After that, you can renew it. At that point, you will repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery. Yes, your company will file an I-129 and you will get an I-797A. You can continue working with an I-797A if you’re already in the US before your old H1B visa expired, but if you leave at any point after that (to say, go visit your home country), then you’ll be stuck there until you fill out a DS-160, go in for an interview to the US embassy there, and get a renewed H1B visa stamped in your passport. Of course, if they hand you a 221G on this trip, you’ll be stuck outside the US for an unknown amount of time that could range up to multiple months.

At any point, if you change jobs, or companies, you will (again) repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery.

Getting an H1B is a major pain the butt. I’ve actually left out some intricacies in this post to keep it relatively simple. Things can get significantly more complicated than noted here.

How companies could abuse the H1B

At this point (if you’ve made it this far), I hope you appreciate how difficult the process already is. As a foreigner, you can’t just waltz your way into the US with an H1B in your hand. It takes a lot of work and persistence to make it through this process, and to do it every 3 years, and every time you change jobs.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this process is free of abuse. Notice above that I talked about how a company needs to prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”, and that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker. This is where things get shady. Some companies act as “staffing/outsourcing” agencies where they bring in foreign workers on H1B visas, ostensibly paying them much less than equally qualified American workers. Accusations of this kind are often laid out against outsourcing firms in India. This is the sort of stuff that politicians love to talk about when they make campaign promises. The H1B visa process is incredibly intricate and bureaucratic, but it still doesn’t do enough to meet the needs to American companies while preventing abuse by bad actors. The process needs lots of simplification, but at the same time, it needs a lot more tightening up so that it lives up to its original purpose. It needs to spin a lot of plates, but sadly, no one has figured out how to do that yet.

You might ask – well, what should we do about this then? Maybe you could put a salary minimum on H1B visa workers and keep the minimum high enough to discourage foreign hires that undercut American workers. Perhaps you could create a different type of visa for outsourcing/staffing jobs and make different rules for it. Perhaps both of these are terrible ideas, and we need something completely different. I don’t know, and being non-American, I can’t really do much about this either way.

My hope, American friends, is that at the very least this post helped create empathy around what a typical H1B visa holder has to go through and why it isn’t quite what you might have thought it was like. Perhaps with this new knowledge, you can help affect change in a way that benefits everyone. I hope and pray to my favorite god of my favorite religion _/\_.

Where to run when traveling the world

Running is one of my favorite ways to explore a new city. Running packs a powerful three-punch:

  • You get a great workout that ends with a sweet runner’s high.
  • You can string together a bunch of tourist spots on your route. It’s a great way to explore the city!
  • Lots of potential for Instagram-worthy shots ;).

Without much ado, let’s dive into 7 fantastic running routes around the world.

Central Park, New York City, USA

Being a proud New Yorker, I’ll naturally start off with my favorite place to run – Central Park.

Start at the 59th street side, and run into the park. You will soon see the main central park loop (it’s pretty hard to miss the wide road). Get on that, and run all the way round the park.

Length: Almost a perfect 10 kms. Two rounds of this, and you’ll be ready to do a half marathon.

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What’s cool about the route: Most iconic park, in the most iconic city in the entire world. The route is well paved, wide, and perfect during the mornings when tourist activity is minimal. It gets hilly towards the north side, so be prepared for some climbing. Of course, you can always cut across at any point to make it shorter.

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Central Park – photo taken during one of my runs

Kamo River to Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in Japan. There are so many shrines and temples all around the city that you could do a run to each one separately for weeks. When I was visiting, I ran east from my AirBnB near Karasuma Oike station over to the Kamo River, and then all the way south to Fushimi Inari Taisha (which is probably the most famous shrine in Kyoto).

Length: Approximately 7 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: You run right along the Kamo river, which is pretty nice in the morning. The end of this route is the incredible Fushimi Inari shrine. If you are feeling powerful, I challenge you to run up the stairs at the shrine for as long as you can ;). I’d recommend doing this run early in the morning so you get to see the shrine before tourists show up by the bus-load.

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The finish line

Queenstown, New Zealand

If you ever get the chance to visit New Zealand, make sure to spend at least 4 days in Queenstown, aka, the adventure capital of the southern hemisphere. The town is located right by a lake and surrounded by mountains. I’d recommend spending the day doing one or more of the adventure activities offered (such as rock climbing, luging, bungee jumping, or whatever else gets you going), and then ending the day with a nice run along the lake at sunset.

Start the run up along Lake Esplanade, run in towards the city center, then round the park and then keep going down for as long as you wish before turning back.

Length: Approximately 10 kms round trip.

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What’s cool about the route: The lake to your side at all times, mountains in front of you at all times, the cold beer waiting for you at the end.

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Welcome to Middle Earth

Historic Financial District, London, UK

London is a quick hop across the pond from New York City, and I go there for work some times. I prefer staying in Shoreditch because it has great food, and cool bars that make for a fantastic night out. Of course, it’s also a good place to start your run the morning after a big night!

Start from Old Street station and run south all the way till you get to the London Bridge. Run across, then turn left and run towards Tower Bridge. Stop to take photos, then continue across the bridge, turn back in around the Tower of London, and run back up the way you came down.

Length: Approx. 7 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: This is a very urban route. You’ll run through the main financial district of London, which means weaving through suited bankers on the sidewalk, unless you go early in the morning. London’s architecture is on full display, and you also run across London’s most iconic bridge, which makes for an epic photo in the morning. The Tower of London also falls along the route. The run ends at Shoreditch Grind, where you can treat yourself to a full English breakfast.

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Yes, the sun does shine in London sometimes!

The Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

My idea of a perfect Parisian summer morning: A lovely run past two of the most iconic tourist spots in the world, followed by a nice petit-déjeuner. On my last work trip to Paris, I made sure to organize at least on such morning for myself. Given my obsession with the Eiffel Tower, I had to include it into my route.

Start from the Louvre, turn left in the gardens, and run across the Seine on the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor. Turn right, and then run along the river till you get to the Eiffel Tower. Then, cross the Seine back to the other side, run back towards the Louvre, round the Grand Palais and finally, down the Av. des Champs-Élysées to where you started.

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What’s cool about the route: I guarantee that you’ll want to stop and take a photo every 5 minutes on this route.

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Running up the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor

To the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, USA

Ah California, the land of sunshine, tech companies, and Hollywood. Co-incidentally, also a fantastic place to run all year round! I used to live in San Francisco before moving to New York City, and one of my favorite places to run was at the northern tip of the city.

Start from the entrance to Fort Mason, run up along Marina Blvd, then exit on to Chrissy Field, and run all the way till the Golden Gate Bridge. Take a moment and marvel at the view. Now turn around, and run all the way back!

Length: 10 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: The bridge is awesome at sunset (when not covered in fog). I’d recommend checking the weather, and going for this run on a day that is forecast to be completely clear. The view will be much, much better in the evening. After the run, walk 3 blocks further and treat yourself to freshly made chocolate at Ghirardelli Square.

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Literally could not go further than this

Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach, Sydney, Australia

One of the best sunrise runs I’ve ever done. Sydney faces east, and gets an epic sunrise over the ocean. If you can drag yourself out of bed and head over to Bondi Beach on time, then this run will be the best 6 kms of your life.

Start at Bondi Beach, run south, up and around the hill, around Tamarama Beach, around the next hill, around Bronte Beach, around the next hill and past Waverley Cemetery. Go through Burrows Park, around Clovelly Beach, up the hill and around Gordons Bay, and finally down to Coogee Beach.

Length: Just over 6 kms, with a decent amount of hill climbing.

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What’s cool about the route: The sunrise is epic, and the views are generally great for the entire route. Grab yourself a smoothie at the end, and take a dip in the ocean!

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15 days in Bali – A Travel Guide

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Sunset from Uluwatu. Venus is right above the moon.

Bali occupies a spot in my top 3 favorite places in the world. Why, you may ask? Well, there’s so much to love about Bali – the people, the beaches, the surf, the outdoors, the food, and so much more! I took 2 months off of work last year, and I spent half of that time in Bali. I have lots to tell you, and tons of recommendations for things you should do. Let’s get right into it!

Best time to visit

Bali’s dry season corresponds with the northern hemisphere’s warm months (April-October). If you want a lot more sun and beach time, go during this time. Beware though, this is peak tourist season and it’s winter in Australia which means tons of drunk Aussies. This time of the year is also said to have better waves for surfing. I went in mid-December, till mid-January. This is in the middle of Bali’s rainy season and we did have a fair amount of rainfall while I was there. However, surfing was a lot of fun and we had good conditions to hit the water almost every day. Another plus is that this is not typically the peak tourist season, so things are cheaper and relatively less crowded.

Money

Bali runs mostly on cash, although given the amount of tourism, a lot of places do accept credit cards especially in the major tourist spots like Kuta or Seminyak (both of which you should avoid entirely). I’d recommend finding an ATM as soon as you land in Bali, right at the airport. Withdraw the equivalent of about USD 300 (which, at the time of writing is about 4,200,000 IDR) and you should be good to go. There are a decent number of ATMs in most places that tourists typically go to so you’ll be fine for the most part. Just make sure you have enough loose cash when venturing out of those areas.

Transportation

There is essentially no public transit Bali worth writing home about. I mostly used taxis to go longer distances and then rented a scooter at each place to go around that area. If you’re a westerner visiting Asia for the first time, then beware that traffic is a lot more chaotic than what you’re probably used to. Scooters are everywhere, there are roadside vendors basically right by the road, lanes aren’t really a concept and generally things on the road move much slower. It’ll take you some time to get comfortable driving in such conditions, but once you get past the initial discomfort, it’s actually kind of liberating! If you’re there primarily to surf, you can also rent a scooter with a rack for your board. Taxis are pretty affordable, and a great way to move from one part of the island to another. You could do that on a scooter, but it’ll get pretty uncomfortable if you have to drive over 2 hours in the heat.

Gas stations: Once you leave the main touristy areas, you’ll notice that there isn’t a gas station in sight. You’ll be forgiven for missing them, but gas stations are in fact everywhere. They just look a bit different than your neighborhood Chevron. Behold, a typical gas station in Bali:

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Move over, Chevron

Yes, those are vodka bottles containing gasoline. The way this works is that you pay the person at this gas station, and they will empty one bottle (or as many as you want) of gasoline into your scooter. Not quite the level of safety you’d expect in a western country but hey, welcome to Bali :).

Driving permits: Most tourists drive around without any permit whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean you should too. Get an International Driver’s Permit before coming, or get a temporary Balinese driver’s license once you’re in Bali. I’d recommend the former, since apparently only one police station in Denpasar issues Balinese licenses for tourists.

Safety: Having grown up in Asia, I like to think of traffic as a school of fish. If you stay with the flow, you’ll mostly be safe. Lanes are less of a thing in most south/south-east Asian countries so don’t try to stress out about other drivers not respecting lanes. Always wear a helmet, and make sure to either leave it locked securely under the seat of your scooter, or take it with you. I had a helmet stolen once while I was there.

Etiquette: Honking is cool, and doesn’t have the same aggressive connotation it has in most western countries. It just means “hey, heads up”. I usually give a gentle honk before passing someone in front of me whenever I’m driving in that part of the world.

Culture, Getting Around and Food

Religion: Islam is the primary religion in Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia is the country with the largest muslim population. Bali is one of the many islands that make up this country and interestingly, Hinduism is the primary religion in Bali. If you’re wondering why that is the case, find yourself a couch and read this very thorough Wikipedia article about Hinduism in Indonesia.

Language: Balinese and Indonesian are the two main languages spoken on the island. In most touristy places, locals speak English as well. Unless you know Balinese, you won’t be able to read any signs, so download Google Translate on your phone.

Getting around: Google Maps is usually reliable and worked well for me as I made my way around the island. There are some signs in English, but there aren’t really many signs on the roads to begin with, so I’d recommend getting an international data plan and downloading Google Maps (if you don’t have it already).

Food: I would highly recommend eating as much freshly caught fish as you can. It’s delicious, and tastes even better when paired with Bintang (Bali’s favorite beer). I’ll recommend actual spots in my itinerary below.

Other stuff: If you’re visiting Bali during the rainy season, buy a poncho over there. It’ll cost the equivalent of about 5-10 USD, and is very useful if you’re driving a scooter in the rain. Mosquitoes are a thing, so make sure your bed has a net around it. That said, malaria is not a thing to worry about in that part of the world, according to the CDC.

ALRIGHT! You’re all set with Bali 101. Let’s get to an itinerary!

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Do not attempt to walk this

This itinerary is a bit more biased towards people who want to surf. If that’s not your goal, simply reduce the time in Uluwatu, and increase the time in Ubud and northern parts of Bali. I’ll make a note at the bottom about other places you can visit if you’d like to modify this itinerary.

Uluwatu (Days 1-7)

Where to stay:

  • I stayed at Padang Padang Surf Camp because my goal from the trip was to surf as much as possible. It’s fantastic – they provide equipment, lessons, breakfast, transportation to and from beaches, the whole shebang. They have a nice pool to chill at after a long morning surf session. They will also arrange massages for you to calm those shoulders after all the paddling. If you want to surf on your trip, I would recommend staying here.
  • Anantara Uluwatu Bali Resort: This is more upscale than a surf camp, and accordingly costs more. This is located on the western coastline, which means that you’ll be treated to incredible sunsets every night.
  • Suarga Padang Padang Resort: Just down the beach from Anantara. Same idea. They have a nice bar that looks right over the sea, which is open to everyone (not just people staying there).

Experiences:

  • Surfing, lots of it. If you’re not an expert, I would highly recommended staying with a surf camp. Otherwise, either rent a car with a rack, or a scooter with a rack attached to the side to carry your board. Padang Padang Beach on the west side, Green Bowl beach on the south side, and Nusa Dua beach on the east side are all great. As always, check conditions before heading over. May the waves be with you!

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    Typical sunset moment at Bingin Beach

  • Freshly cooked fish by the sea: Walk down to Bingin Beach and you’ll see a few spots that offer freshly caught fish. The way it works is that you look over their catch, pick a fish that you like, have a seat, crack open a beer, and wait for fish to be served with a side of rice and lemon. Fantastic experience, best done at sunset time.

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    In my belly. Now!

  • Uluwatu Temple: Perched right at the edge of a cliff on the western tip of Uluwatu. Nice half-day excursion.

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Buddha Soul: Best freshly made fish that I have ever had in my life. I ate there more often than acceptable over a one-month period.
  • Bukit Cafe: Next door to Buddha Soul. I’d recommend checking out their desserts.
  • OM Burger: If I could have my way, I’d rename this to OMG Burger, mostly because I absolutely loved eating there. Don’t expect an America style burger with piles of cheese, meat and more meat. Their burgers are a bit more interesting, and healthier.
  • Cashew Tree: For some bizarre reason, this place is most exciting on Thursdays. So, go there on Thursday. Drinks are great, and they usually have live music on that day.
  • Single Fin: Fantastic 3-storied venue right on the edge of a cliff. Their big nights are Wednesdays and Sundays. If you want to splurge a bit, get a table – costs less than half of what you would pay in Manhattan, but the view is pretty rad.

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Single Fin Bar

Canggu (Days 8-9)

Canggu is where Silicon Valley residents head to for a “working remotely” kind of trip. It’s hip, cool and less obnoxiously touristy as compared to areas like Kuta. If you’re going there from Uluwatu, it’s a 2-3 hour journey that is best undertaken in an air-conditioned taxi.

Where to stay:

I would recommend staying at a hostel, anywhere around Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong (that is the name of a street). The easiest way to get around over here is a scooter so get one, but make sure to not drive when drunk :). I stayed at the Canggu Beach Hostel, which was a bit farther from the main streets than I would have liked, but it was still just a 15 minute ride on the scooter at most.

Experiences:

  • Surf at Batu Bolong beach. Although, if you’re coming from Uluwatu, perhaps you’d want to try something different.
  • Beach Clubs: Think pool by the beach, beer in your hand, bar inside the pool. If that sounds like something you’d like (who wouldn’t?!), then head over to Finns Beach Club. It’s a fantastic place to spend the afternoon, and get a tan. Potato Head Beach Club is another great spot just down the beach from Finns. You can’t go wrong with either. Note that beach clubs tend to have a higher level of security, and are clearly designed for tourists willing to spend a little. You likely won’t be able to take water bottles inside – of course you can buy bottles of water once you have entered.
  • Just drive around! There are lots of rice fields around Canggu, and it’s very liberating to just grab a scooter and drive around until you find something cool. Fantastic morning activity, especially after a little breakfast.

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    Best way to get around

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Pretty Poison Bar and Skate Bowl: This is a bar/club with a skate bowl in the back yard. I remember heading over here at 10PM, and watching skateboarders do tricks while sipping on a cold beer. A very interesting experience, but also a strong start to a big night.
  • Old Man’s Restaurant: Located right at Batu Bolong Beach. Great place to grab food and sip a beer after a dip in the sea.
  • Echo Beach Bar: Same deal as Old Man’s, just up the beach. Pick your spot!

Ubud (Days 10-13)

Ubud is right in the middle of Bali. It’s very different from any of the coastal areas in terms of what it has to offer. It’s a good base to stay at while you explore the northern parts of Bali. Again, I would highly recommend renting a scooter here to help you move around.

Where to Stay:

I stayed at the Puji Bungalow hostel, which was great. It has a pool that serves as a great way to meet other guests and socialize. Any hostel/AirBnB in the area around Jl. Raya Ubud (the main street) should be fine.

Experiences:

  • Day trip to Mt. Batur: Mt. Batur is an active volcano that offers absolutely epic views at sunrise. Not only that, the whole area around the mountain has naturally heated hot water springs. I would recommend doing this as a day trip from Ubud. You can do this in two ways – either sign up for a tour to hike up Mt. Batur for the sunrise (your place of stay will very likely offer bookings), or drive yourself up during the day to get to hot springs in the afternoon. Or, do both :).

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    Mt. Batur

  • Day trip to see rice fields and temples: Get yourself a scooter, fill her up, and drive up from Ubud towards the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. Once there, you can park on the road side and hike around. The rice fields go up and down the hills pretty much as far as the eye can see. It’s truly a beautiful sight. Spend a couple of hours here, and then continue driving over to Pura Lahur Batukaru, a Hindu temple that was built in the 11th century. Spend some time exploring it, and then head back down to Ubud. This trip will likely take you about 6-7 hours in total, plus some time for food along the way. I’d recommend packing some food, and also keeping a poncho to keep you dry if it rains. Pro-tip: Make sure your helmet has a visor – it makes a lot of difference when you’re driving through pouring rain.

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    Pura Lahur Batukaru

  • Monkey Forest: Temple complex in Ubud that is crawling with monkeys. Go if you like monkeys and are cool with feeding them.
  • Ubud’s Art Market: Walk through little alleys that offer local art and handicrafts. If you’ve seen “Eat, Pray, Love”, this is the market that Julia Roberts’s character walks through. Pro-tip: Take your camera if you like photographing colorful markets like me, because you won’t be disappointed.

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Umah Pizza: I ate here at least twice. Generally good pizza.
  • Mingle Bar and Cafe: They have a second floor balcony situation that was pretty nice. It overlooks a street that is full of shops and offers nice people-watching while you drink some cold beer.
  • CP Lounge: This place offered an entire line of 12 rainbow-colored shots for a handful of dollars. They have pool tables, nice outdoor seating, a dance floor, and a generally fun vibe. Great spot for a night out.
  • Bamboo Bar and Restaurant: Offers live music, usually featuring a local band, great beer and late night food.

Gili Islands (Days 14-15)

The Gili Islands are a group of 3 islands located a two-hour boat-ride away from Bali. One of these islands (Gili Trawangan) is a bit of a party island. The other two are more laid-back. Unlike Bali, and like most of Indonesia, the Gili Islands are primarily muslim in terms of religion. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of a very religious indigenous population that doesn’t drink alcohol, and a bunch of tourists doing pretty much the opposite, all on the same little island.

Where to stay:

If you’re there to party, stay in a hostel near the east coast of Gili T. All of them are roughly similar, but they fill up well in advance for any big holiday. If you’re looking for something more low-key, stay on the west coast of Gili T, or on the two other islands.

Experiences:

  • Go for a run: Gili Trawangan, also known as Gili T, is the biggest of the 3 islands, but it’s just about 4 miles in circumference. This is a great for running and is especially fun around sunset time. A couple of spots along this route have weights and benches right on the beach. One spot around the south-east side of the island has hammocks that hang just inches above the water. They are very Instagrammable.

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    How’s your Monday?

  • Party on Gili T: The eastern side of this island is where the party is – there is a strip of bars located on this side, along the beach. The way it works is that people float from one bar to another, often carrying drinks outside as they walk along the beach. I was there for New Years at the beginning of 2017, and it was a wild, wild night.
  • Go diving: You’ll find diving schools on all three islands. Pick one, and head down into the water!

Bars:

I’d recommend just walking up and down the eastern strip of bars on Gili T and going into any bar that seems cool on the evening you’re there on. You’ll likely end up rolling from one spot to the other, as opposed to just sitting in one place. I’d say, just grab a drink and roll with the flow!

Closing Thoughts

Bali has so much to offer that it’s hard to summarize it all in one post, or even a whole series of posts. My recommendations are more tailored towards someone traveling on a budget, and wanting to experience the outdoors. If surfing isn’t your top priority, then I’d say reduce your stay in Uluwatu. Go diving in Amed on the east coast of Bali. Tulamben on the North-Eastern coast of Bali is also a fantastic diving spot. If you want to see another beautiful island, carve out a few days to spend on the island of Nusa Lembongan, off the south east coast of Bali. If you prefer more mainstream touristy areas, then stay in Kuta or Seminyak. Just beware of pickpockets, and keep your scooter locked when parking in those areas.

I hope this post helped you find cool things to do during your time in Bali – have a fun and safe trip!

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Wooooo!

A Beginner’s Guide To Photographing The Milky Way

I’m more of a street photographer, because the barrier to entry is lower. I can simply walk out of my apartment, and I’m ready to click. Last week I was out in San Francisco for a work trip, and decided to use the opportunity to try to get a photo of the Milky Way. Now, like most budding photographers I had no idea where to even begin with this. I have a nice camera (Sony A7Riii) and a tripod. I’ve also taken pictures with a tripod before, but the Milky Way presents more challenges. For starters, I had a lot of questions:

  • Where should I go to get enough ambient darkness? It needs to be far from a city, but where exactly?
  • Where in the sky would the Milky Way be on a given night?
  • What would the weather be like on that night at that location? What if it’s cloudy?
  • What camera settings should I use? What lens?

That’s a lot to figure out. But, I did figure it out, and got this photo on Friday night:

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I figured I should write about this to help others who are trying to nail that perfect shot of the sky. I’ll start from the basics, and walk you all the way to the final result.

Camera, lenses and equipment

First of all, you’ll need a camera with a good resolution. “Good” is a relative term here – it really depends on how big you want to blow up the final photo. In my case, I wanted to print it and hang it on a wall in my apartment, so I needed over 4000×3000 pixels. If you have any SLR camera, or generally, any interchangeable lens camera, you’ll likely be fine. I use a Sony A7Riii, and I love it.

Focal Length: You need a lens that has a big field of view, something around 24mm. This is because the Milky Way is huge and stretches across the sky. You’ll likely want to showcase the size in your photograph, so pick a lens that gives you that field of view. You could try to use a wide angle lens here, but I went with my 24-70 Sony GM.

Aperture: The Milky Way is pretty faint compared to brighter objects like the moon. To the naked eye, it appears as a band of stars and haze that stretches across the sky. To photograph it, you need your lens aperture to be as wide open as possible. My 24-70 Sony GM tops out at f/2.8, so that’s what I set it to.

ISO: Again, you’re trying to photograph a very faint object so you need high ISO sensitivity. However, you can’t go too high because then you risk introducing noise. I went with ISO 3200. Anything around 3200-4000 should be fine, but you’ll have to experiment with that on the spot.

Shutter speed: You want a lot of detail and therefore need to give your sensor time to collect more photons. However, if you keep the shutter open too long, stars will move in the sky and your photo will contain streaks instead of dots. A good rule of thumb is to divide 500 by your focal length in mm — so for a 24mm focal length, your exposure time should not be more than 21 seconds. This should make intuitive sense – if your focal length is huge, then your lens is able to track small movements, and therefore should not be kept at a low shutter speed. I ended up using a 20 second exposure, but again, experiment with it!

Tripod: You cannot take a long-exposure shot without a tripod, or at the very least a stable surface. Your hands won’t cut it. Get a tripod, or rent one for the night.

Location, date and time

Photographing nature requires patience, research, and a willingness to accept failure. You might have seen fantastic photos of the Milky Way on the internet, but the chances of you getting something like that on your first try are miniscule. You need to accept that chances of failure are high and adjust expectations accordingly. Think of it as a learning opportunity :).

Location: You need to be somewhere far from city lights. You’ll also want a place that is reasonably accessible and where you’re willing to get yourself to. I did a bit of googling, and decided to go to Davenport Beach, California.

Date and Time: It’s 2018, so the first question you need to ask is – is there an app for it? Turns out, there is! It’s an app called “PhotoPills” – it’s not free, and costs around $10. However, it’s a really great app and comes with tons of features, including one that tells you the position of any stellar object on any date at any time. All this data, on your phone. What a time to be alive. They also have fantastic tutorials on their website. Once you’ve downloaded the app, use their 2D Map-Centric planner to figure out the best date and time. The tutorial for that is here. Ideally, you’d want the moon to be closer to the new-moon phase so that it doesn’t dominate the night sky in terms of brightness.

Weather: This is a big variable. You might have perfect sky in terms of the Milky Way’s position, moon-phase etc, but clouds can ruin everything. I used Accuweather to get an estimate of what the weather would be like on my target date and time. Keep an eye on this, and adjust your plans accordingly. Definitely check the weather before you start moving towards your planned location.

Alright, I have the equipment, I have a location, everything looks good! What now?

Get to the location. You’ll probably have to be outside for an hour or so late at night, so make sure to pack warm clothes, a banana, some water etc. Keep a Swiss knife as well – it’s useful for everything from tightening screws, to uncorking champagne after you’ve taken a winning photograph.

Set up your tripod, and mount the camera. Tighten all the knobs and make sure your tripod is stable. This is important – you don’t want your expensive camera and lenses to get damaged by falling over mid-shoot. That’ll be a downer for sure, so triple check the stability of your setup before anything else.

Now, set your camera to manual mode. I used f/2.8, 24mm focal length, 20s shutter speed, 3200 ISO. I then switched the camera to manual focus. Next, I focused on the people in front of me, so a focus distance of about 5m. Set your focus distance according to the scene in front of you. If you’re trying to photograph just the sky, then set the focus distance to infinity.

Finally, set your camera to a timer-release, press the button and step back. Do not touch the camera or tripod until the shutter has closed. Once you’ve gotten a photo, adjust the tripod, camera angle, composition, and then re-take until you’re satisfied. I’d recommend experimenting with shutter speed, ISO settings etc. until you’re happy with what you have. I even applied an automatic white balance to give the photo a slightly warmer feel.

I have a winner!!

FANTASTIC! Head back indoors, and fire up Photoshop. Adjust brightness, contrast, or whatever else you wish to tweak. Remove any unwanted artifacts/objects. Here’s a great tutorial to help you with that.

You’re all set, my friend. Now sit back, crack open a beer, and celebrate your first foray into night-sky photography. I’ll leave you with another (#noFilter) photo that I took while on the beach:

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