Monday, 1 December 2014

Quiet moments from the fair

These are some of my favourite moments from Kadalekai Parishe 2014. 


Basava in Basavanagudi




The success of previous posts from past years on this event prompted me to push harder to explore more about the event. Without a doubt, people in such events are my heroes. Their enthusiasm, drive to have fun and festive spirit inspire me to freeze those special moments.

So, here are some frozen moments, sometimes of children, sometimes of adults wanting to be children and sometimes of others freezing their own special moments or of others.



Nobody cares for the robotic future?



I see you, You see me, my lens sees you 

This is my best toy

All it takes is a few bubbles to distract me from my wail!



Balloons all mine, atleast till it reaches the kid back home

Want a punch in the face?

Hum do hamare char char

Fun time with corn and horns

The day I chose to be wicked


My turn next



Capture and cherish

Big fair, lakhs of people but I need the detail in the feather too

No blink no miss

Capturing the sight of Dodda Ganapathi before the butter on Him melts

Stillness surrounded by motion


Capture the same scene, together, on 2 cameras



We were here, among the lakhs

Pull ourselves together for a selfie moment


The images of people used here are simply a representation of the spirit of the festival and in no way are intended to cause any trouble or interfere with their privacy. The images are copyrighted and their usage in any form without my permission is prohibited.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Getting candid with Hampi

Presented here are some of my favourite images of Hampi the way I like to see it...sometimes a different angle, sometimes a different colour, an ignored corner, a neglected window....An attempt to view the ruins and present the beauty from my point of view.


Sometimes, places, locations, things, etc. are typecast to be viewed only in a certain way...wide-angle for landscape, zoom lens for wildlife...but when we break the shackles, the results can be astonishing...most of the images here are shot with Nikon D50 body along with Sigma 100-300mm F4 lens, handheld.


While I was packing my camera gear for this trip to Hampi in 2012, I did realise that I had already seen enough of Hampi...through my friends' images...and the excitement to shoot my version of typical Hampi sites was not high...so, to keep it interesting, I carried along my Sigma 100-300mm lens, just in case. But, when I started shooting with it, the view of the Vijayanagara empire through the lens turned out to be an all new breathtaking experience....to the surprise and amusement of a photography group that was touring the location at the same time...


Well, here are the results...one of the images went on to be on the cover of an online photography magazine too...so, maybe, sometimes breaking the stereotype is not all that bad!



the view of the hills ... exactly the same it was 500 years ago

Cut vs uncut - almost diamond

weathered glory 
Heritage behind the stones

Destroyed...not in spirit

A heap of heritage

all the precious stones are bygone history, only the corner stones remain 
A window to the world

PAP, G2SP, RANJIT+.....who else has dreamt of a lover sitting by this window

cutting corners on maintenance

Queen's jacuzzi - open air, with changing rooms and security....hmmm

Imagine walls along the lines...what you get is a sprawling city!

Somebody would have touched this rock.....many hundreds of years ago...to give it this poetic shape

ek phera

Monday, 16 June 2014

Bangalore to Europe Low-on-cost High-on-Comfort

Hello all,

Welcome back to my tiny world…Its always a pleasure to receive attention from friends and family…I’m ever thankful for that!


Further to many queries and interest shown by several of my contacts / acquaintances (and surprises about the total cost of the trip), I decided to enlist my experience of planning a trip to Western Europe from Bangalore. We did spend a lot of time researching the trip, and would like to immediately document it when the experience is fresh in memory, to be able to help everybody reduce their time spent on planning their trip. Even if it reduces by 30-40%, I would consider this effort rewarded. 


So, very clearly this addresses the following audience:

  
- of reluctant travellers wanting to plan a trip on their own but overwhelmed by the absence of any information about those countries and detailed itineraries and are driven to ready packages from tour operators for the convenience it offers.

- For those who wish to be like romans in Rome. Travel in local transport, taste the local flavour, interact with the local people…Be organic!


- This is also mostly targeted at vegetarians who are clueless about the source of food in the foreign lands should they travel on their own and think it’s a hopeless situation 


- For those who are trying to optimise the expenses and  make it a shoe-string budget trip but with all comforts included


To summarize my trip in numbers, here are some facts:

Number of people travelled: 2 adults, 1 child 

Duration: 9 days ( 2 days travel, 3 days Paris, 1 day Brussels, 3 days Amsterdam) in May, 2014
Total Expense: Rs. 4 Lakhs when the euro costed approx. Rs. 84.5/-  (inclusive of flights, hotels, food, sight-seeing, visa processing, local travel, taxis, venue bookings, raileurope trains, visit to super-market  – all of these for 3 people). Shopping excluded from this cost :-).



Following were some of the major expenditures during our trip:


Flights: Rs.1,27,000/- (booked 2 months prior to travel)

Accommodation (preferred comfort here to cost. Larger space to live-in, a kitchenette for some comfort food): Rs.98,000/- Apartment at Paris: 643 euros
   Hotel at Brussels: 139 euros
   Apartment at Amsterdam: 384 euros  
Raileurope (Paris to Brussels, Brussels to Amsterdam): Rs. 25,000/-Sight-seeing: Approx. Rs.85,000/-
Local travel (metro, taxis, trams, buses): Rs.25,000/-
Food: Rs.23,000/- of which eating out on few occasions totally costed Rs.14,000/-. Rest of the food was cooked in-house, and supplies purchased from super-market in the respective cities, or ready-to-eat food from India.


Following are the sources of information you could readily use to gather practical data:

  Google
Wikipedia
Lonely planet guide –specifically look for “Lonely planet guide for Indian traveller”.
Tripadvisor – by far the most popular portal that enlists all the hotels / B&B’s/ apartments / restaurants/ tourist attractions. The travellers give real opinions about the place of interest and ratings. Beware of rigged feedback which is sometimes possible to detect if you see consistency in the kind of feedback.
The respective hotel / apartment website
Every tourist attraction in this part of Europe has a friendly website. Since, these are usually in the local language by default, you might have to choose your convenient language before you start browsing.
Websites of Indian tour operators to gather all the info that can help you
Also, online booking portals  for flight packages (makemytrip, etc)
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Research Process : 


Now, if you want to travel in a group, it is definitely not possible to arrive at consensus about several data points in one sitting. There would always be need for more research. So, if you have 20 parameters to decide on, I suggest that you prioritize the parameters, make groups of these and work on each group separately. 



According to me, this would be the right order (timeline, item): 


 o 3 months, deciding on the group ->

o 3 months, decide on the cities / countries / places to visit ->
o 3 months, Check with visa procedure if there is need for some work on your finances or documents before you apply for appointment ->
o 3 months, take appointment with visa agency ->
o 3 months, book hotels and flights (yes, this happens before visa interview) ->
o 3 months, buy travel insurance (this too happens before visa interview) ->
o 3 months, attend visa interview and get visa ->
o 2 months, book inter-city / inter-country travel ->
o 2 months, book local travel ->
o 2 months, book entrance to places of interest ->
o 2 months, document all your bookings, some of them immediately at the time of booking, because the data vanishes after that and you will be left with no evidence. Sometimes, the online booking facilities offer saving the tickets in pdf format, but sometimes not, and printing immediately would be the only option->
o 1 month, gather items necessary for travel (food, clothes, accessories) ->
o 1 month, read up about the places to be visited ->
o 1 month, locate super-markets and pharmacies close to all your accommodations on google maps ->
o 1 month, collect data required to be carried with you (maps, guides, passport, visa documentation as suggested by the consulate, emergency contact details – medical, passport loss, financial, police, fire, flight service, hotels, etc). Make one copy of emergency data for each of the bags you are travelling with ->
o 15 days, advice hotels with the time of arrival, and any other specific requirements (pool facing room / extra mattress / extra kids travelling / etc), check if any complimentary transfer arrangements (from / to airport / city centre / railway station) available. By the way, if you don’t ask, you don’t get these ->
o 15 days, book taxi from airport to hotel (if necessary, since you would be new to the city. They have shared cabs available in Paris) ->
o 15 days, flight online check-in, seat selection, food selection (if not allowed while booking tickets) ->
o 1 week, arrange for finance (money cards, traveller cheques, currency, update credit cards and debit cards, mostly chip-based cards are prevalent in Europe) ->
o 1 week, arrange for phone and data connection ->
o 1 week, provide contact details and booking itinerary of flights and hotels to folks back home ->
o 1 week, make a necessary shopping list to bring back home, shopping list to purchase items of daily use from a nearby super-market once you reach the destination ->
o actual travel
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Advantages of travelling in groups:

 
Larger the merrier. The fun factor multiplies when you travel with like-minded friends with similar levels of physical fitness.

The outings are much safer while in a group.
Could share accommodations. Be it hostel or B&B or apartment. In case of apartments, it definitely costs lesser to hire a 2 / 3 bedroom apartment compared to many single bedroom accommodations.
Can share or take turns to handle responsibilities like cooking, planning for the day, baby sitting, etc.
Flights are cheaper through agents.
Raileurope has special offers / discounts for groups.
Its more cost effective to share a private vehicle with a larger group.
Unlike the belief that travelling with kids can be taxing, its actually very cheap. Except for the flight charges, most other expenses get halved. The entrance to most museums is free for kids and students. Students / unemployed individuals get very good discounts on producing proof.
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Places in Schengen countries: 

Choose a string of destinations that go well together, mostly a popular set strategically situated close to one another. If the set has been popular, there must be a reason. Also, these circuits are well connected and have discounted prices on transport. This also ensures you spend time and money on the place of interest and not in the air or on the road.

Try choosing places with similar weather so that the clothes could be targeted for just one weather while packing your bags, which is why I would not mix Spain with Amsterdam. And no wonder several Indians (including kids) on package tours of Europe were braving the day temperature of 6 deg. at Brussels with just plane t-shirts.

Give yourself atleast 4 days in each prominent city (like Paris or Amsterdam) with varied options to explore its surroundings well. I’ll tell you later why its even economical to fix the minimum as 4 days.

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Visa which country to apply to: 


The Schengen visa directive very clearly defines that you should approach that country for visa in which you will be spending maximum time during your trip. If however, you plan to spend equal maximum time / days in more than one place, apply to the country of arrival. 


So, while we had selected the countries to visit, we weren’t sure about the country of arrival and from whom to seek Schengen visa. A little looking around helped us learn that visa processing is faster with France than Netherlands. 


Hence, we applied to the embassy of France for visa, got it within 2 days of attending the visa interview and started the trip with Paris.
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Accommodation: 

There are many options for stay in Europe. 
o Typically, hostels are the way to explore Europe. They are usually very clean, well maintained, economical (mostly, except those that are positioned for elite crowd), fun, can choose between dorms and private rooms. While my previous experiences of hostels in Europe were great, exploring them this time for the Paris trip was disappointing. Given the many advantages and disadvantages, its upto the individual’s choice. To start exploring this option, visit https://www.hihostels.com/. 

Check very clearly 
if you will have access to kitchen and supplies. Usually, you use their supplies like milk, rice, eggs, cereals, etc and drop off some money in their drop-off box in-line with your consumption (based on your judgement). You will have to wash the dishes you use.
for shared / private bathrooms and toilets. (hygiene can be an issue here)
If they have specific dorms / rooms for men / women.
Also, look for laundry area where you can wash your used clothes and get ready for the next leg of the trip





o Bed and Breakfast (B&B) is the one provided by tour packages. Check the likes of cox and kings, SOTC, Thomas cook, kesari for the hotels they have enlisted on their website though the same price cannot be expected. For branded 3-star and 4-star accommodations that are totally reliable, convenient, clean with basic comfort, visit 


http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-2122-novotel-brussels-centre-tour-noire/index.shtml. 

This is an amalgamation of many brands and is a valid portal I have used for booking. If your plan is to grab breakfast in the hotel, and keep the day open for lunch and dinner at any place you might come across, then this is the option for you. Its very economical when its not branded. 

Expect a coffee maker in the room. There will not be any more help for food within the room. Ask for king-size bed if it is going to be shared by 2 adults and a kid, else prepare to lose sleep. If your stay in a city is as short as a day, then, its best to keep the option simple with a B&B so that the time available is spent outside. We chose Novotel off grand place, Brussels for a similar need and was most conveniently located, with shops and restaurants in the closest proximity of the hotel. That gave us flexibility to stay out till late night and still be right next to the hotel.
Novotel Brussels_1



Novotel Brussels_2


Novotel Brussels_3
Novotel Brussels_4


o Apartments are very popular with families and 30+ age-groups. Availability of a kitchenette makes life self-sustaining. There would be every conceivable dish / tool required for cooking along with microwave, stove, dishwasher, coffee-maker, refrigerator (make sure this is turned ON…there was once a situation that we kept storing food supplies in it and felt it was turning stale all thanks to our oversight. We had to turn it ON after check-in). Sometimes, the breakfast is given complimentary. These are available in studio, 1-bedroom, 2-bedroom, 3-bedroom options for different group sizes. Adagio and Citadines are two popular brands in the Europe region. 


However, in Amsterdam, we were surprised to find no branded ones but thousands of apartments advertised, and there was no specific safe way to choose one. We finally chanced upon Nova which was advertised by their tourism dept and found it to be a pleasure to live in.
Nova Amsterdam_1

Nova Amsterdam_2

Nova Amsterdam_Kitchenette



While choosing accommodation, look for the following pointers:

A name to rely on (a valid brand)
Adagio almost reduces the price to 60% if the stay is for minimum 4 days
Food being offered by them. Breakfast complimentary? Meal coupons?
Proximity to the city. Many times, the metro tourist cards are covered for within the city and not the suburbs.
Proximity to bus-terminal, tram station, metro stop. Stay as close as possible. Ensure that the metro stop you are relying on is a busy one and does not get deserted by evenings. Also, make sure, the walk to the metro stop is safe and minimal. Use google street walk to checkout the length and look of it. Graffiti on the walls along the street definitely indicate unsafe nights / unsafe to walk alone. Also, check if this metro stop is well connected to other lines you would want to use. Usually selecting a central line is the best bet. This is where reviews help.
Check for availability of super-markets and pharmacies.




A freaking discovery I’ve made is that, many of the touristy accommodations (apartments / B&Bs / hostels) are located in the neighbourhood of graveyards / crematoriums / embalming centres. Imagine the view from the window! I find living in such a locality very stressful and eerie. To check that, use google maps (for green patches around the hotel), and street view to checkout the buildings. This could be the reason for the throw-away prices offered by them, if they are located very well. 

To give you one safe option at Paris that I stayed in after several rounds of elimination is Adagio Access Tour Eiffel Rue Saint Charles. It was the most conveniently located apartment at walking distance from Eiffel Tower, very well maintained, helpful staff, safe residential neighbourhood surrounded by apartments, both metro and bus terminals very close by, Carrefour super-market just 50 metres away.





Adagio Paris_2


Adagio Paris_View from Balcony



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Booking flights:

 
Check the offers available with makemytrip, yatra and cleartrip. Also individually visit the websites of all the airline operators of the region for the best offers. Every country’s national carrier would have the best connections and deals around its capital. So, while we were looking around, we found an offer by KLM airlines in collaboration with Airfrance which resulted in a return airfare of Rs.1.27 Lakhs for the three of us. 
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Raileurope:

Europe is connected fabulously through high-speed train networks. Its an exhilarating experience. If you are going to be travelling extensively, then a “region PASS” from raileurope makes sense. Otherwise, point to point tickets are great. Their Indian portal provides great deals in rupees. 

Visit here: http://www.raileurope.co.in




By the way, the trains arrive just about 12-15 minutes before departure (even from the main station) and leave on time.


Local Travel:

Most cities have excellent options for local travel. It cannot get any better in some places.

In Paris: the city is well wired with metro and buses. We used combination of both to our advantage. Both these options come with day-passes that cost very low. On occasions when we were in crowded locations till late in the night, we used taxis to get back to the apartment. We also bought 2-day Hop-on hop-off bus tickets from L√≥pen bus tours which took care of visits to the attractions as well as our general conveyance since we were staying at the heart of the city. This can be bought even while boarding the bus.






In Brussels: Our 24-hour hop-on hop-off bus tickets took care of our travel inside the city.

In Amsterdam: This city has an excellent network of trams in the centre of the city where we stayed and where most tourist attractions are located. The cost of local travel in trams, buses or metro was covered in our 72-hour “I Amsterdam” card. More about this in the next section.



Local sight-seeing transport / event / entrance bookings:

Many attractions offered discounted prices online. Those we’d carefully chosen beforehand. When the ticket cost was not different from that at the gate, we did not buy online. That gave us flexibility to choose locations on the go.

Some of the interesting visits we’d chosen before hand: 

-The Lido show in Paris (if you ignore the name cabaret, and get over the initial shock of seeing many topless women at once, the quality of the show improves with time). We chose the tickets to the show without meals or champagne, just the right thing.
- Disneyland, Paris (choice based on demand)
- Mini-europe and Atomium, Brussels
- Keukenhof, Amsterdam
- Nemo science museum, Amsterdam

Museums are abundant in all the three cities, and we chose the popular ones, but the visits were kept short to stay interested and not get bored. The entrance to museums is free for kids in most places.

In Amsterdam, choosing the 72-hour “I Amsterdam” card gave us a free hand in local transport for 3 days and free entrance to all the museums.


Look for websites that list “Top 10 things to do in --- for free” for the cities of your interest. Atleast 5 pointers would be useful and doable.
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Food:

We picked ready-to-eat food products from Maiya consisting of baath pudi (many varieties - vangibaath, puliyogare, tomato rice, etc), one dal preparation for each day (surprisingly, each packet made for a perfect serving for the 3 of us), and pongal (for the day of arrival just in case we could not arrange for a meal). The whole purchase weighed 4 kgs.

Similar products are also available with MTR.

On arrival in each city, we would make a trip to the nearest super-market and buy the supplies for 3 days typically consisting of

- cereals for mornings, 
- pre-cut assorted vegetables, 
- fruits, 
- Long rice, 
- snacks, 
- water bottles, 
- milk, 
- bread,
- Rice bran oil (only the first time). This would cost about 20-30 euros. 

Rice: In all these destinations there is a choice of rice called “Long rice” or “Riz” which boils within 10-12 minutes in a vessel with lid. 

Water: With the print on the bottles looking very similar, it can be tricky to spot plane water from sparkling water. The labels are usually not in English.
Still water vs Sparkling water

Milk: Pick one that’s bottled very recently and will expire very soon. That’s an indication of fresh milk. However, there would be bottles of milk that expire after a fortnight too. These smell and taste funny but unfortunately you cannot sniff test them before buying ;-) .

I would not recommend carrying food prepared at home and packed in non-standard unsealed containers. There is all possibility of it getting fed to the trash cans in the airport. 

Carrying a few empty Tupperware boxes helped us pack namma kind of lunch everyday while heading out for the day.

There are many Indian restaurants in all the three cities, but locating them and scheduling your day to reach them in time for meals can be cumbersome.


If you would like to taste local food, and if you are a vegetarian, specify “no meat, no fish, no egg” and in my case “no mushrooms” too! Ignore the look on the attendant’s face. 
Assortment at a bakery Amsterdam
Belgian Waffles Brussels



Queue for Fries, Brussels


Street side mobile cafe
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Technology use: 

google maps – cache the maps for the specific cities to your cellphone for offline use, 

google streetview - to checkout some crucial locations

cellphone app – city specific guides are available for cellphone


Data connection:

Wi-fi is generally provided by hotels, apartments and hostels and these are good quality and fast. There are free wi-fi networks available in airports, railway stations and tourist hotspots for limited time (like 20 mins). Its pay and use beyond that. 

Enabling 3G data on your phone is extremely expensive. My network provider airtel had no good offers for the region.Most hotels and hostels offer data connection over a few desktops installed in their lounge for basic email and browsing.



Phone:

Try matrix. It has cut our phone cost easily by 60% and the overall trip bill came to Rs.7,500/- with an average everyday talktime of 15-20 minutes to India.
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Emergencies:

Following are the data points to collect and retain a copy in each of the bags and handbags you are carrying:

- all emergency services in the respective countries
- the phone numbers of the family and friends for emergency situations
- loss of passport
- loss of credit cards / debit cards / traveller cheques / travel cards
- loss of baggage
- airline service providers
- hotels’ numbers
- contact numbers of any other vendors you have already booked with
-       medical insurance helpline numbers

Also, carry all requisite medicines for common ailments with a prescription for each one of them. Medicines may not be allowed to be carried in numbers without them.


Safety Precautions:

- Serious issues with pick-pocketing and mugging in touristy cities. Beware of metro stations. 

- I saw some tourists who were managing their kids on leashes, have your fool proof plan to manage kids
- Avoid planning outings in late evenings. Sunlight or not, the residential neighbourhood roads look deserted after 7 / 7.30 PM. Donot let the sunset time decide your plan. The city does not stick to that plan. Offices close by 5 / 5.30.
- If you have to visit a very busy location after dark, make sure that place has cabs available for return. The buses stop operating on most lines beyond 9.30.
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International checklist:

You can find the checklist we’ve been using for many years now in the link below. The excel file contains a detailed list of items that can be ticked off. The same list can also be modified for domestic travel, especially while packing for a group:


International Travel Checklist




So, that’s about the information I could knock off my head right now. The pictures are all from cellphones Samsung Galaxy S III and Nokia Lumia 820. If you are seriously planning a trip to a similar location and think I can help you with more info, please donot hesitate to reach me.

Wings to you!

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