Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Valparai & Athirapalli fals: Weekend RoadTrip from Coimbatore

I had first visited Valparai way back in 2011- with friends. While the trip was great, I had missed two things- One- visiting Athirapally waterfalls and second driving on the curvy roads of Valparai. Thus I was contemplating a second visit to Valparai and fulfilled it this Aug 13-15 weekend.
Thankfully Myles is offering cars for rental from Coimbatore, so I could take a train to Coimbatore and from there pickup the car and drive to Valparai. (Myles Mangaluru location seems to have been closed now) This way instead of driving all night from Chennai and spending a lot on toll and fuel, I could sleep well on the train and start fresh in the morning. While my onward ticket was RAC, return ticket was RLWL (Remote location waitlist, when I booked it 4 months ago on April 17th, for a journey on Aug 15th. Just about a week before travel it shifted to RAC and just a day before travel it even got confirmed, to my relief.

Reached Coimbatore on time, Myles fellows offered a delivery/collection at the railway station for Rs 350 extra, but I wanted to visit their garage, so took Ola and reached there in Rs 190. But the Coimbatore unit of Myles seems to be managed by a local family and was a different experience. Instead of marking existing damages on a sheet I was told to take photos of damage. Eventually I drove out, picked up friends from Railway station and we were on our way to Valparai.

On the way I realized that vehicle documents are not available inside the car-when called I was told "no problem, carry on, no one will ask", but I was skeptical- asked them to email me a copy of documents. After couple of follow-ups, got the document mailed by evening, which I got printed at Valparai. Thankfully no one asked for it, throughout the trip.

We stopped at this Ashram- Vethathri Maharishi Research Foundation on the way, after paying Rs 50 per head entry fee.  
I was interested in checking if their campus has anything interesting worth photographing but the staff who escorted us ate our brains trying to convince me to sign up for their residential spiritual programs. The campus was decently maintained and located below the hill, was calm and beautiful. Apparently next day was the Maharishi's birthday. We were shown a spot where he used to work and sleep, a small museum is also open to visitors after 10.30 but we weren't keen to wait. Campus has restroom facilities and is located opposite the entry to Aliyar Dam, so is probably worth a quick stop.

After spending a few moments we continued. At the forest check post paid Rs 20 per head fee and proceeded. A few viewpoints give good view of the Aliyar dam below.

Monkey falls was the first stop, already overcrowded with tourists. After a photo moved on- there were many smaller falls all along for quick stop. 

Of course monkey menace is prominent in the area, few surrounded our car in an attempt to infiltrate and find some food.

And this person was selling honey directly from the bee- sort of live counter...
Stopped at waterfall estate for tea and the bajjis they were cooking were getting sold superfast. Eventually we reached the statue of C A Caver Marsh. He is believed to have introduced tea in the area and revive the economy of the region.
At an intersection took left and we reached Velankani shrine, next to which was a small stream. Few photos were clicked here while battling light rains.

Reached our accommodation next- River View Homestay for quick fresh up before proceeding to see rest of the places in Valparai. Valparai is full of view-points, rivers, dams and tea estates. On the second half, our first destination was Nallamudi view point. I had seen it on my last visit but wanted to take my friends there. But the road shown by Google maps proved to be too harsh for our Toyota Etios, so after some considerations aborted Nallamudi falls, decided to head to Nirar Dam. The roads were pathetic for most part. Looks like only main roads in Valparai are well maintained (one that connects Pollachi to Cochin) and rest of the roads are left unattended for years. Nirar Dam again was second visit for me, nothing great but without too many things to explore, it will qualify for top 10 places to visit in Valparai I guess.
Shrivatsa spotted this mongoose near Nirar Dam and alerted me. It stayed in this position for long time with its eyes open
Next we drove to upper Nirar dam, reportedly because the sign board said there is a waterfalls and few local kids confirmed the same. However after reaching the Upper Nirar dam we were told that reaching the falls can be done only with help from forest department- who operate a jeep in the area and we need to wait till the jeep arrives. Few villagers reside here and road was no longer paved. It was 6 PM and we didn’t feel like waiting for the department jeep. For me drive was the primary purpose, so destinations didn't matter. Our visit didn’t go waste because I could click this beautiful photograph of stairs with 100s of steps.

Few years ago, Valparai didn’t have many accommodation options or restaurants. Krishna Lodge was the only option or one had to book in few expensive tea bungalows or do day visit from Coimbatore. This time, we could see at least two dozen hotels/homestays around Valparai town. There are more around Sholayar dam. In the evening, we went to Saravana Lodge in the Valparai town for dinner. The name Saravana is usually associated with high quality veg only food. But this Saravana Lodge in Valparai is NOT pure vegetarian and obviously not part of popular Saravana Bhavan group. There was hardly any pure vegetarian restaurants in Valparai, thus we managed with tender coconut, fruits and snacks for the night.

Day 2 we headed to Athirapally, with a quick stop at Sholayar dam. One of the tyres had low pressure but no shops were open at 7 AM, so decided to press on. A road site eatery served good idlies and I also feasted on jackfruit. Drive to Athirapally from Valparai took about 60 kms and couple of hours. The roads are a bit narrow but extremely fun to drive. Middle of monsoon season, occasional rains, road side waterfalls make it lot more enjoyable. Kerala police check post gives a slip with a timing. One should cross the check post on the other side within 2 hours. This is to ensure that people don’t stop for too long inside the reserve forest area.
Athirapalli falls will be covered in a separate post. We reached there by 10.30 but instead of parking at first slot that was available, I drove further hoping to park closer, only to lose 30 minutes in an attempt to find parking spot. After exploring it we took same way back managed to reach Coimbatore by about 8 PM, marking end of Valparai-Athirapalli visit.

Monday, August 22, 2016

International Travel: Customs and Border Protection: Dos and Don'ts

Recently US immigration stopping Shah Rukh Khan made news. Last week, I watched a series of videos on youtube about Customs and Border Protection agencies in UK, Australia and USA. These videos gave lots of insights as to how these agencies work to protect commercial and biological interests of their respective countries and also threw light on various stupid mistakes travelers around the world do, ending up in being denied entry or having to pay a fine or even get detained and prosecuted. Several Indians were also shown in these videos committing various mistakes and being caught by the officials. In this blog post, I am sharing my findings from these videos and some basic tips/precautions every international traveler should be aware of.
Points I noted from the videos
  1. Most of the time, when immigration officer asks you a question, they already know the answer. They are only checking if you are being honest. Being truthful from the beginning is the right and easiest way out.
  2. Carrying extra/irrelevant documents can cause trouble. If you are carrying your resumes, business brochures etc on a holiday trip, officials may believe you are looking for work/business instead of vacation.
  3. Throwing tantrums- being aggressive/crying/citing medical illness/showing bad attitude will not help in any way. Officers are trained to deal with such people and they will neither get scared, nor will it generate sympathy for you. However, on the other hand if you are being truthful, cooperative and calm, it is possible that instead of a fine you may just get a warning or instead of outright deportation, you may get one or two days of temporary stay.
  4. If you are detained and if you need something- water, food, an interpreter, medical attention etc, feel free to ask. Officers will usually provide the same
  5. Several small things usually make a big difference between being allowed into country vs being sent back. Such as
  6. Meeting a friend vs boyfriend/girlfriend: If you are on a visit visa and officials learn that other person is your boyfriend/girlfriend, they think differently- about the possibility of both you marrying, seeking permanent residency or overstaying the visa etc. It gets worse if they call the other person and his/her idea of relationship is conflicting with what you have told the officer. It is important to keep your closed ones informed about your plans so that the story adds up and can be verified quickly.
  7. Helping”, “working without pay”, “assisting” are all considered a form of working and anyone doing these on a visit visa is likely to be considered working illegally on tourist visa. Any activity that can potentially deny employment/revenue generating opportunity to a local citizen/company is treated as work. Even searching for work is not tolerated. Sometimes, your intentions may be genuine, but if your background is not supportive (you don’t have a job back home, not enough cash, criminal records etc) you might be sent back home.
  8. Indians love food, but for various reasons, food items are subject to lots of scrutiny in airports around the world. Mainly because home-made food, milk products, seeds etc can bring in unwanted diseases, bacteria/organisms into the country and has potential to cause diseases (like foot and mouth disease) or cause destruction of fanua/flora in the country. Thus customs officials are very particular about incoming organic materials. What makes it worse is that most Indians do not declare their food items on the customs card and most of the time, they don’t pack it themselves, inviting even more trouble. Factory processed food with clear labels indicating the ingredients is usually ok. Do not carry food items as much as possible and if you have to, then please declare it on the immigration card to save yourself lots of trouble, fine and time.
  9. Though some of us are ad-hoc travelers- we prefer to take things as they come by, without a fixed plan, while visiting an international destination, it always helps if you a rough itinerary on your mind as to how you’re planning to spend your time there.
  10. Criminal record can prove deadly to your travel plans. Even after you've served your jail term, even if conviction was decades ago, almost all countries are vary of letting people with criminal history in
  11. Drug smuggling is a serious offense world-wide and many people get involved in this without their knowledge. Any stranger giving you a bag to be delivered in your destination, anyone offering cash/plane tickets or other benefits in exchange for some cargo to be taken to destination is almost always signs of drug syndicates trying to use you as a mule to carry contrabands across the borders. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you will almost always be caught and will face several years of jail term in most countries and death penalty in a few. Stay clear of such things. Though I didn’t see any Indians getting arrested for drug smuggling in those videos, It was very disturbing that couple of parcels from India- an eye-liner, a piston etc were caught with drugs. In Australia Indian families are regularly caught bringing bag full of food items and not declaring them. In UK, few Indian students were shown being caught violating their student visa conditions.
  12. There was one curious episode in which a gentleman from US arriving in UK had told his wife that he is going to meet a childhood friend, but at the immigration, he said he is meeting a friend whom he knowns only since a few weeks (a woman). Immigration officials recognized that he might be cheating on his wife, but that wasn’t their concern, so they let the man in as they were convinced that he has enough funds to support himself and will return to US as per his return ticket.
There are several scenarios, though not illegal may raise a red flag- such as a student applying for visitor visa soon after his/her studies, someone else packing your bags, traveling to a particular country too frequently or returning to a country just a few days after departure, having recently been to or returning from a country that is identified as high risk for terrorism/smuggling, traveling half way across the world without a clear plan or agenda as to what to see/do etc. Put yourself in the shoes of a customs/immigration officials and ask yourself if there is anything unusual- if yes and legitimate, carry supportive evidence.

Several years ago, in one of the interview rooms, an elderly gentleman from Kerala was applying for a permanent residency in a country. His daughter was in a big post and wanted her dad to come and live with her. But apparently this gentleman was not keen to relocate. When questioned about his intention of travel and if he is looking to move permanently, he said “No No, I want to live and die in my home town- my daughter is forcing me to stay with her, just want to visit her for short time and come back to Kerala”. The officer even got a translator and made him understand the question in Malayali and the gentleman repeated what he had stated. Now the officer had no option but to reject his application as it was under wrong category. Keep your loved ones informed of the type of visa being applied and what that means.

For lots of people, even jail in UK is much better option than living freely in their home countries, because of war, poverty etc. It is very sad to see this great rich-poor divide that makes many people risk their lives and try slip into prosperous countries hoping for a better life. In general I have seen that people manning international borders are usually kind and well mannered, they understand people arrive from all parts of the world with different backgrounds, cultures, languages etc. They do make every possible attempt to verify your story and be considerate, but at the same time, their primary job is to protect their country- from illegal immigrants, contrabands, drugs and all other kinds of anti-national/anti-social elements. Because of this, Customs and Border agencies always strive to be one step ahead of tricksters and smugglers using latest technology, process and human intelligence. Being allowed into a country is not a right, it is a privilege, so it is in best of our interest to understand each country’s applicable rules, comply with them, be honest and cooperate with officials when questioned. Best wishes.

From what I have seen, it seems Afghanistan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people top the list of countries from where people often attempt (and even succeed) to enter UK either illegally or through falsified documents. A good number of Indians and Chinese are also known to be overstaying UK visas or doing things (like work) they are not supposed to as per their visa restrictions. In Australia Chinese and Philippines people seem to top the list of problem makers. (I could be wrong, this is purely based on few episodes I saw. Philippines is cracking down big time on drug mafia at present.)

I will be curious to know how the impact of UK deciding to leave the EU and its impact on EU residents in UK on work. Also what happened when Mr. Vijay Mallya passed through UK immigration earlier this year- was there any red flag/secondary questioning? Hopefully some episodes in the future will reveal these. I also hope Indian Customs and immigration officials get as vigilant, efficient and smart at par with their global peers. (Of course we have seen occasional capture of gold and drugs in India, but I guess there is lot more they can do to protect India better.)

Responsibilities of every traveler:
  • Knowing the purpose of your visit and obtaining right category of Visa that is required for the intended purpose (tourist, work, transit etc) and being able to justify it on demand (such as cash to support yourself, return tickets etc)
  • Knowing full contents of your bag and being responsible for it
  • Researching to understand local rules and regulations of the destination country- what is allowed and what is not allowed
  • Complying with any visible/verbal guidelines and being truthful while signing declarations in immigration/customs forms
  • Cooperating patiently with customs/immigration officials when demanded
Note: The video series appears to be shot in 2008-2009 timeline, which means it is 7 years old. I am sure Customs and Border protection has adopted much more advanced technology and process since then. So don’t even think that you can use your learning from these videos to outsmart them. One such video below if you'd like to view a sample. Search for Border Security on youtube for more such videos. I am not 100% sure if all videos are uploaded with authority/permission.

 Similar: Hong Kong immigration experience for Indian passport holders * Immigration Museum, Melbourne (Coming soon) * USA immigration history * Australia tourist visa for Indians * 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Lovely Pet animals at Suryagarh, Jaisalmer!

If there is one reason that makes Suryagarh special and unique compared to other luxury hotels, it is the presence of various pet animals in the campus. This post aims to introduce you to them.

The Peacocks:
There are two male peacocks that roam freely inside the campus, occasionally fighting among themselves. They are used to human presence and won’t mind us going close, but won’t let us touch them. Below are some photos of these peacocks. They also walk up to restaurant door every morning.

Badal the horse: Badal was reportedly brought in with one eye injured and that is believed as bad luck. However, under Suryagarh’s care he has recovered and doing good. Guests can enjoy a short ride with him in the backyards. He was very friendly as I went close, though made some attempt to chew my hand.
Above photo by again in Sudha Ganapathi

Emus and birds- a few birds are housed in the campus and taken care of
Emu: See the happiness!
 Thakur the tortoise- I have already written an entire post on him

JuJu the cat: Friendly matured cat but hard to locate. Photo by Sudha Ganapathi
Two Golden Retrievers: Because I didn’t have any decent photo of them, I have borrowed below photo from Sudha Ganapathi

Pigeons: Many. In 2014 guests could hold them, but now I guess it is not allowed. Above right- Ankita Sinha and below -Nisha Jha having good time with the birds during our 2014 visit. Read my recent experience at Andamans where we befriended street pigeons.
Indian Bloggers There are also a pair of camels used for welcome ceremony.

River View Homestay Valparai, TN

We – four of us in two rooms- spent a night here at River View Homestay in Valparai during Aug 13-14 weekend. I am not very pleased with the hotel, but keep in mind that Valparai is a hill and space is always at premium. Almost any other budget hotel is likely to have similar problems.

Our concerns
The rooms had strong smoking smell. Previous residents must have been smoking non-stop inside. Staff did spray some deodorant, we tried to keep window open for sometime etc, but the effect was almost zero. Had to spend a night passive smoking, didn’t like it a bit. Management should maintain smoking and non-smoking rooms separate.

Their cheapest room is too small in size- refer photos. Not very comfortable for 2 people.

Hot water is an issue- You can’t have it on demand- staff has to turn on something outside- so you can’t take bath at will, need to wait for several minutes after informing staff to turn on the heater. Even after 15 minutes hot water was not available through the tap, so I had to request them to supply hot water in buckets.

Rooms seem to be having false wooden lining- which absorbs moisture. It gives a sort of wet feeling on the floor- not very comfortable, particularly during rainy season

Parking space is limited to one car. Hotel has about 10-15 rooms, so you might be forced to park the car on the roadside for the night.

No food is available in house, we were asked to go to city. Tea is served, I didn’t avail it. (City is about 1 km away)

No soap, no towel, no drinking water… Don’t expect anything.

Rooms do not have any noise insulation. They have open ventilation between two bathrooms. If your neighbours are making lots of noise, you can’t sleep. On the day of my visit a large group checked in late night, they were making loud noise at mid night disturbing our sleep. Two kids who were designated caretakers couldn’t muster courage to tell these folks to keep their noise level low (actually they offered me an extra blanket instead- meant for their personal use...). I had to get out of the room and tell them that I am unable to sleep.

Few good things- View from Balcony is nice. Since this place is 1 km away from city, the place is more calmer. The larger, 4 bed/2 bed rooms which cost a bit more and decent.

My immediate suggestions for RiverView management are
-Either ban smoking inside the room completely or maintain smoking & non-smoking rooms separately
-Fix the hot water problem
-A carpet on the floor will be nice

Verdict: If you need super luxury you need to spend 4 times more to stay in some of the tea bungalows in Valparai, (we stayed at Woodbriar 5 years ago) otherwise most home converted hotels/homestays are likely to have some of the above problems I mentioned. We spent about Rs 2350 for 2 rooms, 1 night. (Rs 1600 for bigger room, 750 for cheaper tiny room). My suggestion is to try some other place with better reviews first and consider River View Homestay with lesser preference.

Booking was done via and I was asked to pay 100% in advance several months ago, citing high demand long weekend.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Skywatch Friday- Rainbow Special at Kotagiri

This Monday was the first time I managed to photograph a rainbow. I had seen them several times in my life earlier but never had a good camera handy to take some photos worth sharing. This monday, while driving towards Kodanad view point, co passenger Shrivatsa spotted the rainbow. We stopped and took below photos.
 When I tried to zoom too much on the rainbow
Indian Bloggers 
Watch more of my skywatch posts here and skywatch photos around the world from here.