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Friday, May 29, 2015

Cholamandalam Artist's village on ECR Chennai

Cholamandalam Artist's village is a small campus on ECR, near VGP, Chennai. It could be a nice 1 hour stop while exploring places on ECR.

On the outside, there's a giant Banyan tree, couple of art works and a canteen. Photography is allowed here. On the inside, there're lots of paintings and artworks. Photography is not allowed inside, for the fear that people may copy the creative work. So unable to share interior pics.

Building has two floors and can be explored in a hour's time. Few books and materials related to art are also on sale.

There's an entry fee of Rs 20 per person.

There're a few pet cats in the campus. Add Cholamandalam art village to your plan if you have 30-60 min to spare on ECR





Nearby: ISKCON Chennai * Sadras Dutch fort *  Jagannath Temple off ECR * Polaris Offroad near Mahabs

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The best way to get a Dubai Tourist Visa

Dubai as a tourist destination is on my radar since a long time. I am scouting for an affordable deal and as soon as I spot one, I will go ahead with the booking. Flydubai is a new budget carrier that is offering economic tickets to Dubai, but the budget fare includes only 7kg baggage - everything else is chargeable.

Dubai doesn’t provide visa on arrival. It is required that everyone visiting this place must arrange their Dubai Visa well in advance. It is a fairly simple process. Below are the documents required:

Dubai Visa requirements
Passport should have minimum validity of 6 months from the date of entry
Passport should have minimum one empty page
For minors, birth certificate/age proof is required
UAE Embassy works from Sunday till Thursday. Friday and Saturday are off.
Dubai tourist visa typically takes 4-5 working days under normal mode, 48 hours in case of emergency

One good thing about Dubai visa is that there is no need to visit Embassy or any office in person. One can apply online by uploading scanned copies of the passports and a photo.

For 90 days visa additional documents are required - such as invite from friend/relative, local residence proof etc. 

Also note that females below 30 years and males under 22 years are recommended to apply along with their father or husband to minimise chances of rejection. Some Middle East countries have this suspicion that visitors may stay back permanently or try to marry someone locally, so they take extra caution in case of single women, young adults etc. One of the fellow female blogger recently told me that she was asked to provide NOC from their parents for a tourist visa to Turkey and a range of other proofs.

Another luck based way to visit Dubai is to book your international flight that transits through Dubai, hope that you miss your connecting flight and the airline gives you a night's stay and a temporary visa. But that approach can't be planned. Let me see when I will be able to visit Dubai.

While there’re many agencies that provide visa assistance, one agency that specialises in Dubai Visa services is Musafir - a Mumbai based travel services company.  Musafir processes over 25,000 visa applications every month and its Dubai Visa fee includes ‘Ok to Board’ clearance service. (Ok to Board is a status tagged to your flight ticket PNR  after the airline checks the accuracy of your Visa, this is a security measure incorporated due to high rate of fake Visa in operation and Indians migrating to Gulf without proper work permits). Once visa is granted by UAE authorities, Musafir team will send a copy of your visa to the airline that issued the tickets, so that your status can be updated to ‘Ok to Board’. Some Indian airlines charge extra for this service - with Musafir, you get Ok to Board without extra cost irrespective of the airline you’re flying. I've recently booked economic tickets to Indonesia and Australia. As and when I spot a tempting ticket fare to Dubai, I am going to grab it and  approach Musafir for Visa service.

Musafir charges a nominal fee of Rs 4999 for Dubai 30 day tourist visa processing. I did some random checks and compared to what few other agencies charge, this is quite a nominal fee. There’re other types of visa such as Emergency Visa, Transit Visa, 90 day visa etc, the fee may vary accordingly. Do check Musafir's website for complete Dubai Visa details.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Fort Aguada, Goa in Pictures

Will be publishing some posts from my previous trips. This post will share some photos clicked at Fort Aguada, arguably the most popular tourist spot in Goa (other than beaches). This fort was made popular by the movie Dil Chahta Hain and hence gets several times more visitors that Reis Magos fort.



We went there last August and as expected the fort was crowded. Managed to get a few clean photos

 

There is a watchtower + lighthouse at the centre of fort, but no entry for tourists. Though sun was hot, cool breeze and greenery all around was refreshing.

Fort Aguada is a 17th century fort built on Mandovi river. Wikipedia has more history if you're interested.


There was no entry fee, no car parking fee and other expenses. Roads leading to Fort Aguada are also nice. Overall a must visit place in Goa.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

SaiVishram Camping Trailer holiday experience!

Holidaying with caravans was on my wish list since long. Had seen them in Europe, where it is very common to see motor homes being pulled by cars heading in and out of town. People drive them to campsites, sleep, cook in them and come back.

The idea of caravan or motor homes is non-existent in India. Hardly anyone owns any and they are not available for rent. There was a caravan exhibition in Bengaluru in April, but I learnt from the organizers that they are only for sale. Caravans in India are used primarily my movie units and film stars to have some private zone near shooting site. General public in India are not exposed to this idea of camping or caravan holidays. Swadesh movie had shown usage of Caravan but it didn’t really trigger commercial demand for caravans much.

That said, recently I was invited by Sai Vishram to stay in one of their properties and share my experience. Out of couple of resorts in Coastal Karnataka and the mobile home parked near Coorg, the selection was very simple. I opted to try the mobile home. This post shares my experience staying in the same.

After an overnight bus journey to Mysuru and another local bus to Kushal Nagar and a 13km taxi ride from there, we reached the motor home at about 10.30AM on Saturday. Indrani had gone there a week earlier, so from her post I had an idea what to expect. Seeing it in flesh was much more exciting than seeing it in pictures. We were briefed by Umesh about its utilities- the bedroom, toilets, bunker bed, bedroom etc. Apart from master bed room, there is a bunker bed for kids, a secondary living room and toilet. All in all, a family of 2 adults and 2 kids can stay comfortably inside. In the living room there is television with DTH, a fully functional refrigerator, a microwave oven and a wash basin, besides sitting arrangements.

Dutchmen is a popular brand selling trailer homes and Denali is one of their very popular offerings. It is available in different configurations, one of which was purchased in US and brought to India by the promoters of Sai Vishram. It is imported as is without any customization and appears that Dutchmen doesn't have any after sales support in India- so the maintenance is done by local people. 


Mobile home, unfortunately doesn’t have a driving unit. So you can’t drive it as per your desire. It is pulled around by a truck, so moved only when really needed. But on the positive side, because there is no engine and driver seats, this Mobile Home has more space. Denali motor home is a complete functional home with bed room, kitchen, toilet and other essentials. The unit has moving parts, using which space can be increased.

Everything inside is made for US and not customized for India. Power is 110V, switches behave opposite to what we are used to in India, power sockets are US style and so are the toilets. My laptop charger wouldn’t fit in easily and I had to do some jugaad, but after sometime the crew got an extension box, fixed it to caravan’s power supply from generator and now I had couple of power sockets available to me, India style and 220 V. I also asked for a bucket and a bug, as well as two plastic chairs, which Umesh promptly supplied.

Window shades can be opened for more natural light, it can be tilted a bit to let fresh air in. There's a fine net on the windows to prevent insects or other things come in. 

The pure veg meals
We freshened up, relaxed for a while and it was lunch time. Naranana, who hails from Mangaluru and currently based in Sai Vishram’s Bengaluru properly was brought in to cook for us. He cooked multi-course pure vegetarian meal for us. It consisted multiple items and in large quantities, we could only consume a part of it. We requested him to reduce the quantity for subsequent meals. Some fruits were left in the refrigerator that we can much on when we felt like.
I had plans to try some adventure with coorgskyadventures, but when I called I was told due to rains they have stopped the flying for this season. Their website's index also had ‘under maintenance’ message. I do not know if microlight crash and death accident that occurred one week ago had any influence on this.

Denali motorhome has lots of drawers and utility spaces. Useful for those who stay long term but not needed for short term visitors. The kitchen unit runs on propane, but is not used-probably for lack of compatible gas supply (not sure if it can take LPG and the holder doesn’t fit regular domestic cylinder) or due to safety reasons. The arrangement of cooking outside and supplying works beautifully well, because you don’t want the cook to take all the space in the living room preparing food for you. The idea of letting customers cook their own food would have been probably more fun, but then the arrangement of utensils, ingredients and so on will add another dimension of complexity.

Above: Gas cylinder holder is not suitable for 14 kg LPG cylinder and is designed for propane cylinders.

In the evening we went for a 2 hour long walk by the backwaters. Was hoping for good sunset but clouds ruled the evening. Watch some of my skywatch pictures here. Few locals and tourists who are aware of this spot came in their vehicles, nearby resorts sent their guests for boating, cows grazed on the vast grasslands and it was a sight to behold. One could simply sleep there watching the sky. If only our tourism department had some motive to promote camping and motor home holidays...

Once we came back it was again dinner time. Another round of full meals later we went to bed.

The Denali RV motorhome doesn’t have provision to supply hot water, though there were twin taps one for hot and another for cold (I guess because there's no gas unit installed, heating water is also not possible). Umesh got us hot water from the resort. In case customers prefer a more spacious/traditional bath facilities, they can walk to the resort and use one of the rooms there.

Above: Wheels of the RV- I find its leaf-spring suspension a bit delicate for Indian roads. Even Tata Ace comes with more sturdy suspension.
Below: A sofa is folded to create a bed that can be used by kids
Day 2 my original plan was to take a taxi and go around to nearby places like Dubare, Golden temple etc, but eventually I decided to stay put in the RV. It was a cloudy day and very pleasant weather. I spent time reading books- Murder in Amaravathi and Elephant catchers. Usually my road trips involve lots of driving, site seeing and a quest to see the most in limited time. For a change, it was nice to be doing nothing and relaxing.

There were couple of instances where total strangers knocked door out of curiosity and wanted to know what this thing is. Allowed them to take a quick look, without letting them in too much. 

Overall, it is a unique experience, not available elsewhere in India easily. It is not the most spacious, luxurious resort experience, but for those who haven't had a holiday in a mobile home or camping trailer or caravan, this is the closest and most affordable experience to try. Another great part of the bargain is that staff of Sai Vishram are always on standby to help you, to provide whatever you ask for and make your stay more comfortable.
Above: Master bedrom
Below: Bunker bed for kids


Above: Secondary living room
Below: Kitchen section in living room

 Living Room views

There’re a few things you should keep in mind while staying at Sai Vishram’s Camping trailer:
-       1) Do not compare the space and facilities with that of a star resort. While resorts can offer space and facilities in abundance, motorhome is here to give you a different kind of holidaying experience. RVs have their limitations in terms of space and other things. So approach with a mind to enjoy a unique experience and NOT to find shortfalls and keep complaining.

-        2)Unit’s air conditioning capabilities are a bit limited on a super hot day and not all areas give you same level of cooling. You can optimize cooling effect by closing doors, lowering window shades and other acts that help in faster cooling.
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         3)The RV is powered by a generator, as power supply is not very reliable in the area. Though the generator can run 24x7, it helps if it can get some short breaks to cool down a bit.  When you’re going for a walk or something, tell the staff, so that they can switch off the genset.

       4) Handle the unit with care. It is not designed to handle the kind of abuse Indian customers throw at it. Be gentle to the system, so that it lasts longer. if broken, some of the spare may not even be available in India.
       
       5) Do carry some games or other stuff to have fun. There's acres and acres of open space in front of you which you can make maximum use of.  Dubare, Golden temple, Kaveri Nisargadhama are some of the attractions within 10-15kms range. 
6     
       6) Keep doors closed in the evening to prevent flies and mosquites from coming in. Once they come it, it is very difficult to make them go out.   

Monday morning with heavy heart we vacated the motorhome. Thanks to Sai Vishram for hosting us, thanks to Santhosh, Umesh, Narayan and others for providing high quality service.
Check more photos of the camping trailer on my facebook page. Check more FAQs here

Watch a 3 min video here of the camping trailer that I made... 

Permaculture: Innovative agriculture at AOL Bengaluru

Unknown to many, Art of Living's Global HQ in Bengaluru also has a dedicated area growing useful vegetables and fruits using creative farming techniques.

Next to the Goshala, AOL has a small area dedicated to agriculture. Innovative-ly named Permaculture (derived from Permanent agriculture), this is a live example how useful agriculture products can be grown in an otherwise barren land.

The terrain here is hilly- with lots of incline. Rain water doesn’t hold. It slides away. So to counter this, area is converted into a sort of step irrigation. Drenches are carved out at regular intervals, which hold and sink water, increasing ground water level. The land in between two such micro canals is leveled, fertile and used for growing vegetables.

Because of above specified technique that enriches ground water, the need to water the plants is bare minimum. This saves cost and effort. Naveen explained us that few other plants, which we might remove as weeds is also allowed to grow around the main plant, as they can be later chopped and serve as manure. Food for cows in Goshala also comes from AOL's agriculture campus mainly.

Kitchen waste from Ashram’s main kitchen lands here at the farm, which is used as compost and manure. AOL’s farmland is currently in its early stages. Couple of years down the line, the farm is likely to have lots of trees and greenery.
Naveen showed us lots of Papaya trees in the campus. Their roots are unable to go downward due to hard rocks, so they grow parallel to ground. Lots of trees have been planted at the far end boundaries of the farm- they should be gaining size in few years time.
At the centre of AOL’s Permaculture is its headquarters- a circular hut made of mud and other natural materials. Visitors to Ashram get to sit in here and listen to Mr Naveen explaining the importance of agriculture and how today’s urban population is totally unware of the importance of agriculture and challenges faced by farmers.
Corporate Employees occasionally visit the farm as part of their CSR initiatives. Still the farmland needs many more hands to tend to the plants as well as the land. Machines are used bare minimum in the farm and most of the work is done with hand.

As we were about complete the tour of AOL's farmland, we spotted some fire in neighboring farm- set purposefully to burn some waste, but the fire was too close to the border and there was a risk that it may spread. So we had to pour mud on it and douse it off.

In summary, serious farmers should visit AOL's Permaculture campus once- there're several innovative practices and practical tips and one can take home. If everyone can grow at least just a little food, their cash outgo (spent on purchases of vegetables) is saved a bit and they can have healthy home made vegetables.

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