Friday, October 26, 2012

Battery Park, New York

Battery park, New York (May 2012)

I reached battery park looking to visit Statue of Liberty. Battery park located at southern tip of New York city and is more famous because tourists board ferry to Statue of Liberty here. This park was an attraction on its own. A memorial for all those who made supreme sacrifice (in 17th century wars)
 A view of World trade centre tower under construction
A statue depicting a sinking soldier being rescued

Bicycle rentals- nice way to explore New York. I couldn’t opt for this due to shortage of time. I will try next time. In India cyclists become pedestrians at signals and cross the signal with their cycles as if they’re walking. I guess that won’t work in US. Another good things is that one can cycle inside various parks.
Street Signs
A squirrel- I was standing in line to get into ferry when we spotted this. I told the lady behind me that I’ll be back in a minute and went out to click the squirrel.
There were still some areas of the park which I didn’t explore fully as the queue for statue of liberty was long and if I didn’t get in line, my turn would have taken ages. The part is 25 acres vast and certainly worth spending some time in.

October 30 Update: Hurricane Sandy is striking New York, destroying beautiful places I visited earlier this year and blogged about. They won't be same if I happen to visit next time.

Nearby places: Times Square NY* Ellis Island * Statue of Liberty9/11 Memorial * Empire State Building *

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fulvous Forest Skimmer male & female

Happened to click photos of these insects- I didn't know their names until Vivek Yadav identified them on facebook.

These are Fulvous Forest Skimmers. The Pinkish one is male and orange coloured one is female

These two were sitting comfortably on a wire in a forest like are at our native place. Above two closeup shots were taken using 300mm lens. I could have moved couple of steps further for a better shot, but risked alerting the skimmers. With 55mm, below was the maximum zoom possible, which obviously is not enough and not interesting.

Also see: Birds of Karanji Kere *  Birds at our village- set 1set 2 * 

Hulivesha-Coastal Karnatka Navarathri Special

Hulivesha is one of the attractions during Navarathri. A group of young men with tiger faces painted on them hop from shop to shop, home to home, entertaining people and collecting their tips. This trend is unique to coastal region of Karnataka (Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Uttara kannada districts and few neighboring districts)

I happened to encounter one such team and managed to click a few pictures of colourful men in huli vesha (tiger dress)

More about Hulivesha on wikipedia. Also check on youtube if you're interested in seeing videos of their dance.

Festival wishes to all my readers and well wishers

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Birds at our village- set 2

Here're some more birds clicked at our village. View the first set here
En even closer pic of Pariah Kite
A field full of egrets... Paddy harvesting was in progress and these birds were hopping for some food- worms included
 This one looked like Golden Oriole.. Not sure though
Birds in formation...
 A green bee eater in flight

Also found a peacock, but didn't get a clear shot
Another bird- don't know the name
Do you like them? Do comment

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thailand Digest-Pattaya-Bangkok-Kanchanburi

I'm not done with Thailand posts yet, but due to other topics, Thailand related posts are getting scattered all around. This post is just a consolidated list of all Thailand related posts

Basic Information

Tourist Attractions

We didn't visit floating market and few other attractions.

Also see:
Chile Posts Digest * Malaysian Posts Digest Srilanka Posts Digest* Singapore posts digest 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book review- Johny Gone down by Karan Bajaj

Just finished reading this book- Johny Gone Down by Karan Bajaj. Before I write about the book, couple of questions to you.

What's your idea of adventure? A trek to nearby hills? Bungee jumping? Karting?
What's your idea of success? A good job with nice pay? being able to retire as CEO/chairman of some company? An expensive car?

Have you tried any of these?
  • Have you tried surviving in a remote jungle all alone for couple of days?
  • Have you ever fired at someone with a gun? Have you ever been in the line of fire?
  • Have you imagined how it will if one day you'll have to shed all your money, identity and live in a different country under a totally new identity?
Most of us wouldn't have done any of the above and only thing we complain is about delayed promotions, not enough pay, traffic problems and so on.

If you agree, you should read "Johny Gone Down"
Johny Gone Down is the story of an MIT Graduate, who's seemingly well settled life with a NASA job in hand gets destroyed after an impromptu trip to Cambodia. Just as they reach there, the civilian govt is overpowered by a coup and law & order goes for a toss. As they run for cover, our hero hands over his US passport to a friend Sam (since Sam didn't have a US passport and couldn't enter US embassy for safety). As our hero, Nikhil flees, he's captured, tortured and his existence wiped out. He survives the captivity, escapes to Thailand, becomes a monk. After 8 years or so, goes to Brazil (Rio De Jenerio) to setup a monastery. One fine day he decides to leave the monastery, happens to meet a drug dealer, saves his life from a gun shot and befriends him. He works as accountant for the drug don, helps him set up some legitimate business. As their business empire grows, other drug dealers get jealous of this outsider and launch an attack on him. To survive, our hero flees to US with a new identity of an uneducated plumber.

He comes in contact with a MIT graduate who's trying to invent something big. He learns computers there and designs Anotherlife (same as Second life) . Another turn of events and he's sent to Delhi for a game of death (shooting self with a revolver). Survives there, escapes and happens to meet Sam, who along with other MIT alumni are very rich people now. Our hero, who was always regretting the turn of events in his life and was feeling sad that he couldn't make it big. But eventually he realizes that he's lived a most fruitful life- facing so many challenges, surviving worst situations and achieving what very few would have managed.

Some comments on the book:
Well narrated, very realistic story line, different from regular novels involving romance, politics, crime etc

It is impossible for one individual to build a second life kind of website in an year's time. It takes a large team to rollover such a thing. To believe that our hero learnt everything from scratch (programming basics, graphics, access control, animations, online payments, 3D and so on) and built a in an year's time is unrealistic. But this is a novel, so we'll leave it at that.

Why would an airline fly civilians into Cambodia 2 days after Riot- Our hero didn't check with MIT's international affairs section about political situation in Cambodia, but Airline crew and airport authorities would have warned passengers about this.

Book has no unnecessary text. Editing has been precise and book is confined to 300 odd pages despite a vast subject spanning across several countries. Because of this, reading it is also easy, as there's no extra text thrown in to fill pages. I started reading it during my train journey- started at 5 PM, I was done by 7 AM next day, about 6-7 hours of sleep.

This novel also got me interested in Cambodian history. I'm doing some reading on that now

It also indicates how dangerous it can be, to travel to unknown countries without doing some research

Do read this book, its priced at INR 99, so very affordable.

Image sourced from internet 

Birds at our village

Went for birding near our village and below are some nice snaps I managed to click.

Wire tailed swallow duo.. one has a long tail, other doesn't. One with long tail is the Male. (Thanks to Ram for identification)

Green bee eater twins... They're as colourful as Kingfisher

Black kite (Pariah Kite) in flight.. (Naming assistance- Sabhyasachi Patra) This was the max I could zoom on
A Drongo... Looks like common crow from a distance, but its tails are the key differentiation
 A bat hanging on to electric cables
An open billed stork in action, I couldn't take such precise and clear pics with my sony, as it would take more time to focus. Also in the frame is black ibis. (Again, naming assistance-  Sabhyasachi Patra)
 Birds on a tree
Some more photos in another post...

Also see: Birds on a powerline * birds near Bheemshwari *  Birds at our village- Set 2

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Matrix SIMCards review-not always your best bet

Matrix has been advertising a lot about their Multi country sim cards. But is it really worth going for Matrix Multi country sim card?

When travelling abroad, being able to call home or make local calls will be a critical requirement. Its well known that carrying our own local sim cards with international roaming will be very expensive. Because of  this, companies like MATRIX have come into existence, offering pre-activated sim card of destination country, for which you pay a rental. Matrix executives claim that you’ll save a huge amount by purchasing their sim cards. This post acts as a fact finder.

Points to note before buying Matrix sim card:

Buying a local sim card at destination country could be cheaper:
Yes, international roaming will be very expensive. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t buy a sim card at your destination country. Matrix Representatives cleverly hide this aspect. Almost all countries allow visitors to buy a local sim card, usually pre-paid at airport or other places. When we went to Thailand, we picked up a preactivated sim card from our tour guide for 100 baht (INR 190). It came with some 45 baht talk time and we could manage our 5 day stay within this amount- couple of calls to India (at 1 baht per minute by prefixing 0060091) and few local calls.

if we'd opted for Matrix sim card, we would have paid minimum INR 1000 (Rs 500 rental, plus call charges as explained below + airport charge + taxes and service charges and so on. Call to India would have costed Rs 40 per minute (15THB+5THB) as against INR 2 in our local sim card. Why Matrix cards are 20 times expensive and still they claim to be cheap?

Similarly, when in Singapore, I picked up a SingTel sim card for 50 SGD. It came with some 42SGD worth talk time, 6 months validity and also I got a SingTel bag free. I could call India at very low rate by prefixing 001991

Local sim cards will have validity of several months 9which will extend after a recharge) and we can use same number in each trip. With matrix, number changes every time. Local sim card will also serve as Sovereign.

Related: Read all Singapore related posts

Airport charges apply on top of regular rentals
When we went to Srilanka in 2011, my first international travel, I did the mistake of buying Matrix sim card. It was just a 2 day trip and we could have managed without a sim card, but I was tempted to have a phone so that we could communicate with rest of the team. Picked up a Matrix issued Dialog SIM Card at Chennai airport. If you buy a Matrix sim card at airports, an additional amount of INR 150 + tax will be charged. Matrix representative at airport will not disclose this fact, but it will be written in small letters at bottom of the sheet.

The sim card kept looting me of my money all through the dialog-mobile-robberyjourney, through their unsolicited schemes, forcing me to literally switch off the phone. There was No option to SAY NO to these schemes and I would get an alert stating the amount charged. No proof (like SMS) was available, hence I clicked screenshot using camera.  My friend Praveen Kumar bought a local sim card in Colombo airport and he got a cheaper and trouble free deal. May be this is an isolated case and we shouldn't conclude all matrix issued sim cards will be same. But my first experience with Matrix wasn't pleasant. After this, I decided to avoid using Matrix Sim card again.

Related: Read Srilankan posts

There're a few positives using Matrix SIM

Their USA package seems cheaper than buying a local sim card. When in US, I had the option of buying a prepaid SIM for 65$ or 35$. I didn't feel the need to spend that much and managed with a US$ 10 prepaid calling card. I had to look for a payphone to use this card and it wasn't so convenient. My hotel and places in NJ didn't have a pay phone on which I could use this card. For another type of card (Cost US$ 2) I had to register first with a phone number, which again wasn't viable for me.

May be there were some other options I wasn't aware of, but Matrix US offer at $1 per day looks good. Similarly, there could be some other countries where buying a prepaid card is not cheap or not easy and matrix might be better solution.

If your office reimburses your telephone expense, matrix will work out fine, as they'll send a detailed bill.  Difficult to claim otherwise.

matrix guys will come to your home/office and will give you a sim card- this is a better option than buying at airports. So next time you plan your international trip, study about availability of local sim card at your destination. If available at decent amount, it would be a better bet than matrix sim card. 

Matrix also supplies data cards and ipad sims. These are not as easy to find as a regular sim card. 

Also read: Using Opera browser may save your data bill

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hellfire Pass (Death Railways), Thailand

After exploring Bridge across river Kwai, we headed to Hellfire pass. This place is further ahead on the Kwai river and is known for the complexities of its construction and casualties during the same.

Due to tough terrain, building a railway line here was a challenging task. Several prisoners of war and other forced labours were employed by Japanese troupes to construct the railway track here. The track would connect Thailand and Burma, enabling Japanese invasion into east asian countries. Many of them died during landslides, starvation, diseases and other calamities. Its also known as Death Railways.

As we got out of the van and headed towards the track, this image greeted us- we were told that a bomb exploded in this very place during world war 2. Many of us have seen bombs only in television and have no idea how it feels to live in the threat of war.
 There's a cave and a Buddha temple at the beginning of Hellfire pass. We were told not to go into the cave beyond Buddha statue. Not sure what lies beyond it.

 Here're some upclose pics of railway track at hellfire pass. Notice the wooden support to the bridges
Being rainy season, River Kwai was at reasonable fury.

Cottages are available on the other side if you wish to stay here. A toy train operates on this track currently, ferrying mostly tourists.

Our next destination was the famous Tiger Temple.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chennai- Munnar Roadtrip: Day 2

Read about Day 1 writeup here

Day 2 began in a lazy mode. If we’d got up early, we could have driven towards Idukki and explore dams and falls around Idukki. But no one was interested, hence this plan was abandoned. By 8.30 we went for a quick walk inside the spice plantation run by our home stay (The shade) owner. We saw cardamom, pepper and many other spices. A  small stream at the end of his plantation allowed us to have a quick refresh. Breakfast took some more time and we were out by about 10.30AM

We had thoughts of visiting Hydel Park. Previous day I’d noticed that this place appeared to be empty with no tourist activity at all. Due to rain and lack of interest, we skipped this place. Passing through Munnar town, we headed to Tea Museum. Tea Museum is a minuscule tea factory, where machines are operated purely for tourist demo purposes. We were shown a video on how tea industry grew over the decades in the high lands, we saw some age old equipments  type writers, telephone exchange, calculator etc. Then we were told how the tea leaves are dried, how to make a good tea, different varieties of the tea etc. Next, we saw the processing of tea leaves- how they are dried, separated and eventually packed. Factory had a shopping area selling varieties of teas and related products.

Entry fee was Rs 75 per head and camera fees extra. We were entitled for a cup of tea as a part of this ticket, but the tea given to us was a machine tea taken from a vending machine, which was totally taste less. There’s also a counter which sells t shirts and mugs with custom photos printed on them. Price ranges from 200 Rs to 400 Rs.
It was close to noon and we commenced our return journey. A 600 kms of long drive was ahead of us. We took the Devikulam, Bodi- Theni route for the return journey. This route was in excellent condition and had only 2 check posts, wherein we weren’t asked for any money. This route is highly recommended to reach Munnar from TN. The Udumalaipettai-Chinnar-Marayur route is best avoided, unless you’re particular about exploring different routes.

We stopped at few places for photographs and roadside snacks. My original plan had Kurusu Malai in it, but the homestay owner advised us against it. According to him, Kurusu Malai will be a half day program and we’ve to rent 4x4 jeeps to go up. Since we didn’t have that much time, we had to skip this place. Devikulam has lots of scenic views-Weather was very cold. We took few stops for photos and snacks- hot butta in a chilling atmosphere is really refreshing. We passed through the some beautiful waterfalls- this one, close to Club Mahindra resort was beautiful. We stopped for some pics.Light rains deterred me from taking too many pics. Also enjoyed Masala Kaju- Cashew nut soaked in masala- Rs 40 for 100 grams- fresh and tasty. A 100 gms cashew nut costs Rs 100+ in a city supermarket and most of the times it won’t be fresh. My mouth gets watery each time I think of that Masala cashew.
It was lunch time. I thought of exploring the few resorts nearby. We drove into Club Mahindra resort and enquired about lunch. Buffet lunch at Club Mahindra was priced at Rs 600+ taxes per person. We didn’t have enough justifications to spend that much and hence left the place. Sterlings Munnar resort was nearby, we drove in. Here the buffet lunch was Rs 360 nett. A quick poll and we decided to give it a miss. (we eventually had lunch at Saravana Bhavan in Theni for Rs 50 per person). These resorts are some 18kms from town and those who stay here will have to spend extra money on cab rides to explore places around.  
Anayirankall Dam was on the way to Bodi. But somewhere we missed a turn and google maps showed us that we’re moving away from the dam. We could have gone back, but no one was keen on seeing another dam, so we moved on. As we crossed Kerala border, we were on the edge of the hill and we could feel the high power cold wind trying to push us off the cliff.
Several hairpin bends later, we were down at the plains and cruised towards Theni. We couldn’t find any decent budget vegetarian hotels between Munnar and Theni.  (Apart from Club Mahindra and Sterling Munnar, we crossed another small resort by the roadside between Bodi and Theni, but as I was cruising at high speed, noticed it late and chose not to stop and go back) Saravana Bhavan in Theni came to our rescue. We emptied their last few plate of meals at 3.30 PM.

Rest of the trip was highway cruising towards Salem. Road was good all the way, except for minor stretches where four laning was in progress. With one break, we reached Salem by about 8 PM, 4 hours ahead of 11.50 PM bus the Bangalore team was scheduled to take. With nothing much to do, we killed time having an elaborate dinner. We could have explored that dam or visited some other place. (Or you could have driven little slower- someone added)

At about 11.30 PM we left for Chennai- with no maps and no people on the streets, had some trouble finding our way out of Salem town. Took couple of power naps to mitigate sleeplessness and reached Chennai by 7AM. That marked the end of 1500 km/2 days/3 nights Chennai-Munnar road trip.

Indian Gaur at Valparai * Moon at Valparai *