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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: "Cut like Wound" by Anita Nair

Cut like Wound is a detective fiction by Anita Nair. I bought this book primarily because the story is about Bangalore (Shivajinagar and nearby areas in particular).

Plot revolves around a psychopath who is on a killing spree but not many in the police department are keen to track him down. While everyone believes the killings were isolated incidents, but one person, Inspector Gowda senses a connection and tries to investigate.

Bengaluru's Shivaji nagar area, crimes that happen around it etc are depicted reasonably well in the book. You will also learn a bit about police department functions.

Inspector Gowda's characterization is the key focus of the book. I got a feeling that author is trying to plan a series of books with Inspector Gowda as hero. I checked if there're any other books by Anita Nair, couldn't find any detective books with Inspector Gowda.

I wouldn't say the book is "Edge of the seat thriller" but it retains the interest through out. Though at some point the temptation to skip a few pages and fast pace the reading will be immense. Inspector Gowda's instincts, his subordinate Santosh's curiosity, red tape within police departments, corporator's association with eunuchs add on to the murderous storyline.

Books price is slightly on the higher side, (Rs 250+ on flipkart after discount) compared to other similar books. Any price between Rs 150-200 would have been great deal. I would suggest add this to wishlist and buy when there's an offer or price drop.

Summary
  • Title: Cut like wound, Introducing Inspector Gowda
  • Author: Anita Nair
  • Publishers: Harper Collins
  • Genre: Fiction
  • ISBN 978-93-5029-380-5
  • Pages: 353
  • MRP:  Rs 299

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

​Country club vacations "free gift" experience!


This is the story of how I walked into Lion's Den and came back without getting eaten. Read further to find out about my experience going through Country Club's presentation in exchange for "lucky draw free gift". Read, because you might also get invited into this free gift offer and might end up spending lakhs.

When I had written review of Club Mahindra years ago, (continues to be one of the most popular posts on my blog till date) many had asked me why I haven’t reviewed country club. Didn’t happen to come across them until recently. When we got a call that we’ve won some freebies for which we need to go to a mall, I knew the trap, still went ahead to understand what exactly they had on offer.

Last Sunday evening we went to Country Vacations office in Pheonix Market City, Velachery. There were a dozen other prospects in various stages of brainwash.

We took our seat. A lady exchanged pleasantries, collected some basic info and told us that we are one of the lucky 500 families to be selected for this offer (4 free gifts) and subsequently, only 116 families will be offered the opportunity to sign up under a great offer that will be explained to us now. She said we need to decide Yes/No now itself and can’t ask for more time. Then she handed over seat to an executive to explain the plan.

The deal was simple: We had to sit through an hour long presentation, at the end of which we could either sign up for the lucrative offer they are giving or decline it, collect our gifts and leave. I asked if I can take a look at the gifts, but I was told that it will be explained during the offer presentation itself.

First he told us about our free gift, which we will get irrespective of our signing up or not. The free gifts were as below:
  • 1 A seven day access to Gym
  • 2 Some kitchen items (proved to be a set of 6 glass tea cups, worth around Rs 99)
  • 3 Entry only (Not stay as we were told) at Jade Resort, one of Country club property on ECR, can be availed on weekdays only and some nominal fee has to be paid.We can use beach, pool, games only, for stay we have to pay Rs 4000+)
  • 4 A one week stay at any of country club resorts, valued at Rs 25000, but some maintenance fee of Rs 4000 needs to be paid to avail this.
For next one hour, he went in detail about the Country Club and their plans. Below are some of the key points (As told by sales rep, not verified or endorsed by me. Please use your discretion)

Sales executive did a very good job. He took us through a well-planned psychological path wherein a desire is first created and then the solution to fulfill those desires were illustrated in a systematical way. He began with analyzing our holiday usage, stating that we need accommodation, food, security, site seeing with guide, privacy, transportation etc whenever we go out on vacation. Then explained about various country club properties and how they cover each of above requirements. We were told that what they are offering us is an Ownership scheme and not regular membership scheme. We can carry forward, pre-pone, sell, rent, gift etc etc and we’ll have full control on the same. We were told an en sign-up fee of Rs 135000 is being waived off for us. Photos of nice properties all over India and abroad were shown to us. We were told we are free to use their club facility all the time, conduct family events at the large party halls they have, make use of various coupons they will be giving to us (for Spa etc, some 32 coupons for which we need to pay only Rs 350) and we will be invited to various events country club keeps hosting all around the year.  We can enjoy upto 14 days of vacation every year, with 30% off on food, 40% off on air ticket and many other benefits.

This is what we were told we’ll get if we sign up on spot
  • Upto 14 days of vacation every year for 2 generations, 3 to 5 star in India, 5 to 7 star abroad (14 days if you book some 30 days in advance for Studio rooms, less if you book 1BR/2BR or book last minute)
  • 30% off on food bill
  • Upto 50% off at the bar
  • Free use of resort facilities like pool, gym etc
  • Upto 40% off on flight booking, if booked via their travel partner
  • Complementary Country club Gold card (this will remain with us even if we sell of membership)
  • Entry to events- we’ll be given 2 passes which can permit 8 people
  • Some 30+ spa coupons
  • Siteseeing with guide (not clearly told if it is free)
We were shown evidence of George Bush sending letter of appreciation and CC getting into Guinness Book of records for lighting lots of lamps simultaneously on occasion of earth day. Lots of member testimonials and other evidence were also shown.

At this point, life appeared so beautiful- all you have to do is sign up for country clubs and forget all pains in life. Access to luxury properties all over the world, as if you own it all for yourself, heavily discounted food, travel, free recreational activities.. what else one would need?

Some tea and coffee was ordered for us

Because I was familiar with Club Mahindra’s scheme of things, I asked how country club is different from Club Mahindra. Below is what I was told


Club Mahindra
Country Club
Week classification
White, Blue, Red, Purple
No classifications
ASF or AMC (annual fee)
Keeps changing based on type, CPI and WPI
Fixed at Rs 7500 per year
Duration of Membership
25 years
For 2 generations
No of properties
Less
More (but the count includes Apartments, hotels, boat houses, resorts all types)
Joining fee
Much higher
Lower

Studio can accommodate 4 people?
I was told Country Club’s Studio accommodation can hold 4 people, 1 BR 6 people and 2BR can accommodate 8 people. When I asked how is this possible, I was told these are big rooms with extra beds etc. Haven’t checked how big.

40% rooms set aside for this select 116 families?
I asked the question what happens if rooms are not available. I was told that such a possibility is rare. As long as you can intimate 30-45 days advance, there will always be rooms.  I stressed further and I was told “40% of our rooms management has decided to reserve for the 116 families that are signing up today via this offer”. At this point I knew this is a lie. For a club with hundreds of properties and lakhs of members, reserving 40% rooms for mere 116 families just doesn’t make sense. No management will do that. If this is true, other existing members will surely revolt.

Finally we came to the financials:
I was told they had over 38 different financial schemes, suiting different customer profiles/needs. I was asked to chose between India scheme and International scheme. I opted for India one. We had to pay Rs 99,999 on the spot, either cash, or card with EMI option. I was asked if I have my card with me, I said "No". We were asked to take some time and decide.

The tea and coffee never came.

I did some mental calculation:
The rosy picture painted in front of me was too tempting. Most of the invitees would feel special being offered with such an opportunity. But I knew for a fact that they invite anyone and everyone who gives their contact details at the mall. There is no lucky draw or anything. Internet is full of such incidents. So obviously they are not doing any charity.

5-star food, even at 30% discount will be costing a bomb. Any money saved in accommodation will be ripped off if 8 people buy lunch at say Rs 300-400 per plate.

Factoring an interest rate of Rs 10000 for the initial payment + Rs 7500 we pay for AMC, it is about 17500 per year for about 7-10 nights of stay. It is possible to get decent accommodation with this money, though not in star resorts. I am not much of a clubbing/party/luxury person. Basic accommodation suits my needs.

The too good to be true marketing offers are often fraud. Success of timeshare membership lies in how a company services its members. If they keep signing up members left, right and centre without proportionate increase in properties, members are bound to be disappointed. Internet is full of such complaints.

Once I pay, I will lose any leverage I have. There is no cancellation option- you can only sell/transfer etc, if you can find a buyer.

It is not like country club will stop signing up members from tomorrow. If it is worth, we can always come back later. It might mean paying little more than current offer, but I would rather pay more for something that I need and is worth, than pay less for something that might not be worth.

I said I don't want to decide spending on such big amount on the spot and I need to check things on internet. "Only bad things you'll find there, no one ever leaves positive feedback there" was the response. It was stressed again that we are the lucky few to have this invite and offer, as other walk-in parties will have to pay another 1.5 lakh more. The lady emphasized that we are capable of deciding for ourselves and we should decide now, instead of asking for more time.

As planned, I said No. This sort of took them by surprise and also displeasure on their face was apparent. They tried to convince me change my decision, but I held my ground. Their reaction was like “Why did you waste our time, if you’d decided already you could have told in the beginning, collect your gift and leave” I kept quiet, they said “fine, we’ll give you your free gift

After sometime, we got our gifts. A set of glass tea cups, probably worth about Rs 99 (that's what the MRP on pack says, sale value could be lower) is the only real thing that we got. The fitness coupon I can't use, as the gym is too far from my home. The other two- one day at Jade Resort and one week at country club resort- let me try using that. If it works out, I will share the details.

Update: called Jade resort: They say only entry is free (one can use pool, beach, games etc), stay is not free. For stay one has to pay Rs 4500+... So this is also bogus.



My time was certainly worth more than Rs 100 tea cup set. But then I got some understanding of Country Club way of timeshare business, managed to control my decisions not to give in to temptations.

The modus operandi is simple- invite everyone as if they are the only one invited. Make them feel special and present them with an irresistible offer, accompanied by well structured talks that creates a desire. Make them sign up on the spot and let customer care deal with them later if they are not happy. Even if 5-10% sign up, then it is great ROI.

Going by the internet, there seem to be lots of complaints on country club, similar to Club Mahindra. If you're tempted to take the membership, find an existing member and take his/her experience regarding availability, customer service etc into account before making purchase decision. Best wishes.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: 7 secrets of the Goddess by Devdutt Pattanaik

"7 secrets of the Goddess" is a kind of unusual book I read recently. This is not a fiction that I usually read. This book is about mythology, the story, reason behind various female gods worshiped or feared by Hindu community largely, with one from Greek mythology..

The textbook sized, 300 page book has lots of pictures, so that readers can correlate or visualize the explanations given.

Following Goddess are covered: Gaia (a Geek Goddess), Kali, Gauri, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Vitthai (A female variant of Lord Krishna, followed in Maharastra).

"Seven secrets of the Goddess" has lots of convincing explanations to various rituals and practices that exist today. Book goes on to explain what could have been the original practice and how things changed once human life shifted from nomadic to agricultural based to trading to current world.

The language is very simple. Use of photos and symbols make it even easier.

You will ask "What is in it for me?" How knowing these 'secrets' help in every day life? Or more blatantly put, "Why should I buy this book?"

The book helps in following way:
1 Understand the reasoning/story behind various practices and rituals that exist today, probably explain the same to your friends/children etc who question these practices
2. Probably change your view point about Women gods in particular and women in general
3. Learn some interesting and informative truth about the goddess.

For example, in the chapter, ‘Saraswati’s secrets’, author explains some interesting stuff:
To maintain symmetry between male triad (Shiva, Vishnu,Brahm) and female triad (Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati), Saraswati is often paired with Brahma. The explanation is that creator needs knowledge, maintainer needs wealth and destroyer needs power.

When Kumbakarna was about to ask a power from Brahma, Saraswati intervenes and makes his tongue twist, making Kumbakarna ask for Nidra-aasana (sleeping power) instead of Indra-aasana (seat of Lord Indra).

Summary
  • Title: 7 secrets of the Goddess
  • Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
  • Publishers: Westland
  • Genre: Mythology
  • ISBN 9789384030582
  • Pages: 300
  • MRP:  Rs 395 (Rs 260 on flipkart as of now)
What kind of existing materials author has studied to arrive at some of the statements, conclusions made in the book. I am sure not everything is not author's own discovery/interpretation and must be supported with some evidence/reference.

About the author: Devdutt Pattanaik is a doctor by training, leadership consultant by profession and mythologist by passion. He has been conducting lots of lecturs about sacred stories, symbols, rituals etc. He has multiple books to his credit, other than the one mentioned here, few other notable ones are "seven secrets of Vishnu", "7 secrets from Hindu calendar art" etc, all published by Westland.

Devdutt was recently invited to participate in the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, which was held from October 30th till 2nd Nov 2014,where Devdutt spoke about how ancient narratives help in dealing with challenges of contemporary India.

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Happy New Year" Movie Review

The best part of going to the theater to watch Happy New Year Movie was the trailers of six other movies that were shown before the main movie.

Of course, Happy New Year has made lots of money in its opening day compared to other recent hits. I feel this is because the producers are getting smart in their business. Why bother searching for a sensible/interesting story and work hard on making a good movie? Instead, follow these simple steps:
Get some story- any story or even no story, get some star  studded cast, make a crappy movie, but do great marketing of the movie, build some hype before the release and recover as much as possible in initial few days.

Public is more alert now and movie reviews and feedback spread superfast. So if pre-movie marketing is good, before people realize that it is not a good movie, some good money could be made in initial few days. These days reviews spread superfast online. Even if twitter world gives a thumbs down to the movie, the first few days collection can be used to call a movie a "Superhit" and suppress any negative feedback.

Anyways, coming back to the SRK, Deepika starer "Happy New Year", it seems to have a patriotic touch and a story of revenge, but for anyone serious about the practicality, the plot feels pathetic. There's lots of bang bang- forcefully induced grandeur .

1. Which Safe vault designer will design a valve that opens directly into a sewage line?

2. If it was possible to exit from the sewage line, why not enter through it? What is all the hungama about Dance competition and Room 9C?

But, there're a few good things:
Some very beautiful scenery of Dubai, Palm islands and Atlantis the Palm.
SRK using a GoPro to capture the building plan of the safe
Some forcefully induced comedy scenes

Few other observations I made:
1. They could have shown Dubai Police Lamborghini Aventador and Bugati in the last few scenes... Only a BMW was shown.
2. Duster shown was regular one, not the AWD. Also once Deepika joined team they couldn't use Duster anymore, as it was 5 seater and team size was now 6
3. Emirates could have bargained more before signing up as Airline Partner. If I was the emirates CMO, I would have bargained to include more scenes showing emirates business class, first class as well as other features, including some A380 stuff
4. Fingerprint is so 1990... Current world biometrics at least involve retina scan. Also often fingerprint + a PIN combination is used.
5. I could make some sense of the "India wale" song. Rest of the songs went above my head.
6. Spelling of Diamond, on back of the dress that Deepika stiched was wrong

In a nutshell:
Does it entertain you: Yes, if you leave your brains behind
Should you watch it? If you have nothing better to do for the weekend
Will you miss something if you don't watch it? No.

Friday, October 24, 2014

India Taxi booking: checkpoints and precautions to take

Top post on IndiBlogger.in, the community of Indian Bloggers
Of late I noticed a few complaints on facebook about non-arrival of taxis causing spoilsport with people’s holiday plans. Two complaints were about Taxi for sure (one by Vishal Srivatsava and another by Srikant Eswaran) and few others on rest of the brands.

Particularly during festive seasons, taxis have high demand, drivers are asked to do multiple back to back trips without rest and often a high profitability demand (say for a long trip) makes operators either re-arrange or at times completely ignore smaller booking (say railway station drop).

If you’re booking tourist taxis in India, here are a list of things that can go wrong and possible preventive/alternate measures.

If you've booked cab for local transport (to reach airport/station) you might be able to manage an alternate transport.But if your entire outstation trip depends on this cab, you should be even more cautious.

#
Checkpoint
Description
1
Assigning Pickup time
20-30 min delay is deemed standard by Indian practice. When you plan your trip, suggest keeping at least 30 min buffer for possible delays and traffic jams. More if you need to cross popular traffic bottlenecks (like Tin Factory, Bangalore) or peak hours. Better reach 30 min early and wait, than miss train/flight by a few mins.

If everything goes as per plan, then you might arrive very early, but that is more manageable situation than scrambling for options last minute. Carry a book to read.
2
Booking Confirmation by SMS/App
Most taxi operators now have a system in place that sends a proper booking confirmation, either by SMS or by app.

If the operator can’t send a confirmation and only orally confirms, then you might have bigger risk. Unless the agency office is closer home or you know the operator in person, avoid such operators.
3
Communication of driver & vehicle details at least 30 min before proposed departure reporting time
Non communication of driver details should be your first sign that something is wrong. If not received in time, check with operator. If no satisfactory answer is given and if you can’t get through to the driver, initiate Plan B (alternate mode of transport)
4
Get the truth out from driver
When you first talk to driver, ask for his current location and assess for yourself if he/she can reach your pickup point within reasonable time from there. Some apps show cab location in real time, which is good.

It is common for drivers to claim they are just 2 kms from pickup point, when in reality they could be 10-15kms away. If you feel the driver is bluffing, tell him that he can wait there only (2km point from your home)- at this time he is likely to communicate real distance.
5
Dealing with customer care
Folks manning customer care are used to angry customers and over time become insensitive to the urgency/frustration of the customer. (We call them only when there’s trouble and after listening to complaints and abuses all day for no personal fault of theirs, they get immune to such situations.

Most of the time they are likely to try get rid of you by giving some standard answers (it will be coming shortly etc). You should be smart enough to decide if you want to trust them or stop relying on them and opt for your own Plan B

Bottom line: Do NOT waste your time and energy on customer care. If you get a feeling that they are not being honest, realistic and helpful, start working on Plan B
6
Having Plan B
What can you do if the cab doesn’t turn up at all?  Below are some options, there could be more. Shortlist whatever is convenient to you and keep your options handy

Option 1: Drive to destination in your own car
Option 2: Hire a call driver to drive your car to destination
Option 3: Hire a self-drive car if available (if you don’t own a car)
Option 4: Check with other cab operators (could be difficult during high demand season)
Option 5: Public transport (helps to pack such that if there’s no cab you can drop one bag and travel light)
Option 6: Friends who might be willing to lend their car
Option 7: Change of destination/travel plans, if cancellation charges (for hotel etc) aren’t too much
Option 8: Re-align your plans to suit cab availability (you may lose a day etc)
Option 9: Can a neighbor/friend drop you off till the station?
Option 10: Is it possible to fly to the destination at reasonable cost instead of taking road?
7
When cab arrives late
Assess if you still have time to make it to station/airport etc. Most of the train, flight status, location etc can be checked real time. If they are running late, you will know.

See if you can change boarding point (refer next point)

Is there an alternate option if you miss your train/flight?
8
Select alternate boarding point
Main railway stations/bus stands in the city are often crowded and involves lots of time to locate your bus/train, walk long distance, sometime climb up and down stairs etc.

Where possible, see if you can go to a boarding point in city outskirts. Such stations will have less platforms,  hence easy to move around and less crowd.

Only disadvantage is that train/bus may not wait for long in these stations and you’ll have to be quick.

It might help sending one person from group to origin station in advance (say using public transport) while others board at next station.
 9
Checking if driver had enough sleep
 At times, drivers are forced to do back to back trips without enough rest. If you're about to start a long trip, check if driver is fresh. If not it might be worth delaying your trip by 2 hours and ask driver to sleep properly. This is in safety interest. Or plan such a way that you visit a nearby attraction on the way, while you visit the attraction, driver gets to sleep.
 10
 Factoring interstate permit fee time
At state borders, tourist vehicles need to stop, pay entry permit fee etc. This process can take few hours if there's huge rush. Provide for this in your tour planning.

​Wayanad Family Trip Travelogue

I had done a Wayand roadtrip in 2008, with friends and in a Hertz Scorpio. (Read travelogue Part 1, Part 2, and an Ergo article). That was a brand new scorpio Vls with its ribbon on the bonnet
This October, after about 6 years, went there again. This time also in a Scorpio, again from Hertz (Carzonrent) and a relatively new one with ribbon on its bonnet. But this time went with family.
 Above: 2014 Scorpio Vlx, Below: 2008 Scorpio Vls, both from Carzonrent

We left from Mysore very early in the morning, stopped at Nanjanagud for sometime, for I thought hotels in Gundlupete may not open before 7AM. While proceeding towards Gundlupete we came across a roadblock, caused by a Kallada Volvo which killed a villager during an overtaking attempt. Locals had gathered and the mother of the victim was seen crying. The driver of the bus had escaped fearing for his life while angry mob was seen throwing petrol on the bus. Not sure if they torched it. A villager advised us on an alternate route, which us and others in the convoy took. Though we learnt that police came and cleared way soon.

We drove through Bandipur and had to spend about 1 hour at Kerala border for permit. During Shabarimala season I am told it might take as much as half a day to get permit, due to very large lineup of tourist vehicles. Few states permit online payment of entry tax, but Kerala Government hasn’t gone tech savvy yet. So waiting in line for hours at a stretch is the only option if you’re arriving in tourist vehicle, including black board self-drive. Kerala Tourism: FYI and A.

To my surprise, for both 5 seater logan with repeat entry and 7 seater scorpio with first time entry, same amount was charged- Rs 200.

We first went to Edakal caves, which was a big mistake and disappointment. Huge traffic jam meant lots and lots of walking and on the top, ticket issue was halted because of crowd. So we had to abandon and come back- loosing few precious hours in the process. If only Kerala tourism can set up some display boards with real time status like “Ticket issue halted” or “Walking distance from closest available car park: 3 kms” or “todays visitors: 10 times the average” then tourists can plan their visit from a distance and probably come back later. It is probably too much to expect, but Kerala being tourism focused state, they should take initiatives like this to make visitor experience more pleasant.

It was afternoon, so we had lunch and went to our homestay to rest for a while. Evening we saw a board called Chethalayam falls and drove about 12 kms only to find it closed for tourists. Why display the boards to places that are closed and waste tourist’s time. But anyway, the road from Sultan Bathery to Chethalayam falls was brilliant- picture perfect trees, nice and empty roads and lots of curves. I enjoyed the drive and stopped a few times to click some photos. So no regrets on the closed waterfalls.
Then we drove to Phantom rock- the first successful visit of the day. Read more about Phantom rock here.

Next I thought of visiting Heart shaped lake or Hridaya Saras, which is on top of Chembra peak. Google maps took us to that place through some narrow and bad set of roads instead of highway and our Verito driver was very upset with this. Again I enjoyed steering the scoprio and as we approached our destination, it was getting dark. Some of us hit upon the idea of returning back. But with nothing else to explore for the day, I went further till the peak. We reached there after sunset and drove all the way back. Once again I managed to put 10 passengers to discomfort while I enjoyed negotiating sharp turns, deep pot holes and narrow roads. We should have planned better- everyone told me.
Drove back to Sultan Bathery via Kalpetta this time and ordered dinner at Udupi hotel. The verito driver offered to Xerox my foot if I had any plans of driving up on another hill next day.

Back to Herbal nest homestay and rest. End of Day 1.

Day 2: We cooked food ourselves in the homestay for breakfast. It was cheaper and convenient option. Not many homestays let you do that. We left at about 8.30, stopped for sometime at the Jain temple in Sultan Bathery. Then we headed to Kanthanpara waterfalls. This lesser known falls was totally worth the visit and compensated for other falls we didn’t/couldn’t visit- such as Meenmutty, Soochipara and Chethalayam.

Next we drove to Lakkidi view point, followed by Pookut lake. I had already seen this lake, hence opted to relax inside the car for a while.  Found a veg restaurant by the roadside and pulled over for lunch. Post lunch we took the same road to Banasura that I’d taken 6 years ago. We did take a diversion to check out Karlad lake.

After visiting Banasura dam, we drove little further to explore a waterfall.

That was the last attraction for the day. No time to visit Kuruva dweep, so we drove towards Karnataka via Mananthawadi. We managed to cross the border before the gates of Nagarahole reserve forest close for the day and reach Mysore by night. The road was much better this time. In 2008, we had some major offroading here because of extremely poor road.

It was good to revisit Wayanad. We could have planned better to manage our timing and visit places at right time to avoid some disappointments. I sort of underestimated the tourist inflow on a long weekend. Besides, we were typical tourists who wanted the car to go till the last step- no time to trek. Rainy weather meant no sunrise/sunset shot and less work for DSLR.

In summary,Kanthanpara falls, Phantom rock, Karnad lake, drive upto Chembra peak and Banasura falls were the new things I could explore this time. Banasura dam, Edakal and; Sultan Batthery were repeat visits

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zoomcar XUV500 video-Blr to Hogenakkal and back

Below is a short video I made out of Zoomcar's XUV500. For some strange reasons, this video has been extremely challenging, both to shoot and to process.

If you're interested to know more about the story behind the video, read further, else you may skip below content.

When I booked XUV500 from Zoom I had some clear ideas in my head as to how the video should appear. I made a huge list of various shots to be taken. But all through the day, ended up making lots of compromises, because of which I lost some possibly good video bytes. The GoPro suction mount from Amazon never came and partially spoiled my plans.

First I wanted to shoot XUV500 in motion from an external vehicle. Got my cousins to come in their two wheeler and made them shoot the video. But it was dark. If we waited for 30 more minutes we would have got more light, but then, we also had planned to visit Hogenakkal, so couldn't wait in city for long.

Professionals who make car videos spend days on it, working as a team and using multiple cameras and accessories. I was trying to multi task- we had to visit Hogenakkal, we had to come back to Blr by night and in between shoot some photos and videos too. I had passengers who had interests other than photo and video. They needed to get back to city asap and didn't fancy my too many stops for photos and videos. (Of course they were kind enough to co-operate).
I came back with loads of videos and had to find time to process them. Before leaving for Mysore-Wayanad early October, I almost finished editing but the project didn't compile as it kept showing one or the other file was corrupt. After several desperate attempts, I discarded the project. Had to start allover again.

GoPro studio at times have an annoying behavior- while I try to edit out a specific bit from a video, it extracts few seconds before/after my selection, probably because of not adequate hardware in my system, spoiling the video. Moviemaker is more precise. But it has its own problems. Half way through the compilation of video, I get a msg that there's not enough space. It won't tell how much space is needed or won't let me point a location which has space. Some other time it is issue with some source file- it won't tell which one... At times it fails after reaching 90% and output is nothing, doesn't even give me the 90% video that is done processing. A very frustrating situation with a limited capacity computer that can't handle heavy duty video editing.

Finally spent another few hours on Deepavali holiday to edit the videos again and here's the 4 min video on XUV500. GoPro alone was not adequate, have used both Nikon and GoPro for this. Srivatsa, Dhanajay and others have helped in making this video. Hope you like it. Will try processing a higher res version this weekend.

 Similar: Landrover Experience XUV500 W6 review * XUv500 w6 vs Fortuner 4x2  * Zoomcar review * My video channel on youtube

Stayzilla.com Booking Experience Update

Ever since I made my first booking with Stayzilla some 6 months ago [review here], I’ve been regularly using this website for my accommodation needs.

I made one booking at Girivihar Lonavala, another at Belgaum which I couldn’t use and one at Herbal Nest Wayanad. In this post I am sharing my recent experience with Stayzilla

Overall their service is satisfactory. No disappointments as such. But they do have scope for improvement.At times inventory on the website is not real time. I'd first booked at Wayanad Gate Hotel, I was later told it is sold out and then I had to rebook.
Feedback Spam:
After my Wayanad booking, I got back to back emails soliciting feedback. It was asking me to write  a review at tripadvisor.  I replied with my blog post as the feedback and also I’d reviewed the homestay on tripadvisor. Still I kept getting email. I had to reply angrily to stayzilla team to stop spamming me. Thankfully it stopped after that. I am hoping this is some bug in their application and they won't spam all their customers for feedback. [Update: I was wrong. Every other day I continue to get spam mails asking for feedback, despite assurances that I won't get any]

Similarly too many offer emails also have begun to annoy me. I can’t travel just because there’s an offer. I need leave, need to plan travel, need to team up friends etc, so I will book a room with or without offer when I want it. I won’t book rooms just because there’s an offer. Probably I should unsubscribe.

Rs 99 hotel rooms: Stayzilla advertised a Rs 99 a night hotel offer- found out that it is some sort of flash sale for some remote location and one specific hotel, for a very short duration. Not really practical. Even if I had got a room for Rs 99, I would have to spend a fortune reaching that place. Not sure how many managed to book rooms at Rs 99.I think they should avoid this kind of sales gimmicks and just focus on giving good service.

Still there’s no provision on the website for user reviews. If they can let their customers write a few lines about the hotel after their stay, it will help future customers a lot.

By and large their customer service has been very efficient. But a few practices sometime irritate me. For example, on the day of check-in, they keep calling to ask what time I will arrive, what time I will check in etc. Their intention is to call the hotel and keep the room ready when we arrive. Their intention is noble but most of the time I will be driving, visiting some places on the way and reach the hotel by evening and I can’t tell exact time of check-in. If I’ve selected check in at 12 noon, hotel should keep the room ready by 12 noon. I may check in at 12 noon or 4 PM that is my choice. Why should I be called again and again to ascertain my check-in time? Each time I get the call, I have to pullover, take the call, provide some estimated time, loose several minutes and few rupees of roaming charges in the process. I would appreciate some more liberty in this- less calls and rooms should be ready any time after pre-specified check-in time.

Getting some useful info from chat executives still continues to be a pain. They only seem to have information available in website, nothing more. During Dasara, all hotels in Wayanad were sold out. I tried to check with their chat representatives if there’re any rooms in Wayanad. Chat rep kept asking me for my name, email, phone number, check in date, number of rooms etc etc. Even after giving my entire bio data, I still didn’t get an answer from the chat rep if there’re any availability. So I’ve adjusted to reduce my expectation from chat representatives (this issue is same for all websites- chat guys are hired with primary objective of collecting some customer information, than answering their queries quickly)

Another thing I noticed that hotel owners/managers do have good respect for stayzilla.

I will continue to use stayzilla, but would appreciate if they can reduce spam, provide for customer feedback and make their chat guys little more well informed and responsive.

Offroad Obstacle3-Negotiating Narrow Bund

This is part 3 of the offroad for beginners series. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.

The 3rd obstacle was to negotiate a narrow tank bund. This challenge seemed very easy from the distance but was very tricky. So tricky that many drivers needed multiple attempts to clear it and in some instances, they had to be pulled out using external force.

Most of us can do one thing at a time- we can either speed up or we can make a turn. Some offroad obstacles demand a skill in which both of these need to be done together, in perfect coordination.

As usual Nischal gave the first demo. See in this picture how the front and rear wheels are in two extreme positions. Front wheel was touching its housing while rear had dropped low as much the suspension would allow.

First step was to climb up the bund and then turning to right. Though it sounds simple, if done wrongly, vehicle will enter a situation known as Cross-Axle. (In cross axle, who diagonally opposite wheels loose traction and spin in air- say front left and rear right wheel. The remaining two wheels, though powered, won't be able to move the vehicle forward)


In this particular instance, I feel it will be better to let the drivers try multiple times and get it right, than instructing to turn left, right, back etc. It is difficult for driver to visualize that the spotter has in mind when he gave that instruction. Instead, drivers can try a few times, fail and learn for themselves the right way of getting across. A driver should have the liberty to test his/her calculations/judgment at times..

Getting on the bund was first part, getting down on the other side was another. Several Thars got stuck and had to be pulled out using other jeeps. Spotters had to be extra cautious as there were risks of jeeps tripping over. Showroom Thars don't rave roller cages- participants were advised to add them.

After 3 obstacles, we hit lunch time. Standby for few more

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Read before buying GoPro Camera!

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In past few months I’ve seen lots of interest in GoPro, with many friends contemplating buying one. Earlier it was available only on Amazon.in or on GoPro.com global website with international courier charges [My Experience and Comparison here]. But of late, GoPro models can be seen listed on Snapdeal and Flipkart as well. If you are also thinking of buying one, you should be aware of below aspects

1 No service centres or sales office for GoPro in India: GoPro has no support centres in India. Should the camera stop working, there aren’t any shops who can fix it. Some elements like lens kit etc can be bought online and you can replace them watching DIY videos on youtube, but beyond that, if it fails it fails. Go get a new one. (Technically you can claim warranty, but with GoPro not having any presence in India, the cost and effort involved in coordinating the warranty replacement with their US office over email might make it unviable. There is a company called Steriovision, who seem to be running a facebookpage called GoPro India, I don't know if they are authorized franchise or how credible they are. Their MRP is similar to what it cost me to get from US- Price in USD+ shipment expense+Customs duty, apparently their distributors take care of shipping it back to US in case of warranty- haven't tried or verified this.)

Below: GoPro India MRP list, taken from a facebook page, GoPro India

2.  Default battery is not enough. You should budget another 6000 Rs to buy a second battery and charger. Else it won’t last even half a day and you’ll be disappointed. With 2 batteries and heavily rationed usage, I manage to use it from morning to evening.

3. You will shoot GBs and GBs of videos, but you will not have time to process all of that. Soon you will run out of space in hard disc to store and run out of patience to process all the videos. Before investing 40k, ensure that you have a decent configuration computer that can handle heavy duty video processing, as well as time and patience to work on video editing.

4 Gopro is NOT a replacement for DSLR. GoPro’s colour compensation is poor, there is a small lag in video capture, doesn’t have any settings that come in a DSLR. Only when there’s enough sunlight, GoPro photo quality is at par with DSLR. In the evening, early morning, indoors, under clouds or in night, the quality of GoPro photo/video is not at its best. So most of the times you will need regular DSLR to take decent pictures. GoPro is useful when your hands are not free for clicking, or when you want to insert camera in water or to get some wide angle photos and videos in addition to what you've shot using DSLR. Check the photo of Mysore palace at night- first one clicked in Nikon 5100, second one with GoPro Hero3 Black edition.


5. Default set of mounts are almost useless. Accessories are equally expensive: I had bought a 3 way mount along with the camera- one of its hinges has broken now, within 3 months of usage. If one more hinge breaks, this mount will be rendered useless. The fate of USD70+shipping+customs 3 way mount now depends on INR 5 FeviKwik. Other accessories like Suction Mount etc are not easily available in India. I've written a mail to GoPro support on this, waiting for a response.

6. One GoPro camera may not be enough: Most of the awesome photos that we see online are often shot with multiple goPros. Shooting everything from just one perspective will be boring, so many use two or more action cameras to get multiple views, which are mixed to create videos from different perspective. At times additional devices like drones are used for aerial shots (drones cost 50k onwards on their own) or a support vehicle/team helps getting additional shots. We ordinary travelers may not be able to afford all of these, so our output will be limited to what we can shoot in one GoPro.

The GoPro craze will die out soon. As of now only few people own it, hence there’s some curiosity and excitement around this. Another year down the line, expect every other person to own an action camera. Then you won’t get any status hike for having a GoPro. Don’t buy it because you feel it is cool. Buy it if you have enough usage for it. You can rent it from agencies like Tapprs for a day and check if it works out for you.
SJ4000 (left) vs GoPro Hero3
As the idea of small action cameras is gaining popularity, you might also wish to wait and watch few more months for more options. Already there’re some cheap rivals like SJ4000 (read comparison here), HTC has tried its version of action camera called RE and as demand increases, expect more manufacturers to try their hands on these kind of cameras.[Read more on Techpp.com]

Deepak Majipatil has suggested another option: Shimano

I am not saying Don't buy a GoPro. I am just advising that you factor the above before making final decision.

Update: Read GoPro warranty claim experience in India

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Feedback: Travelparkz Mysore, Reliable taxi operator

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My uncle used to book most of his taxi needs with TravelParkz Mysore. When I needed a car for rent in Mysore, first thing that came to my mind was Travelparkz. I called them on phone and booking was instantly created and confirmed.

This post shares my personal experience with Travelparkz, should be helpful if you're looking for a taxi operator in Mysore.
Travelparkz mysore reportedly have a fleet of over 200 cars, of different types. For a 5 seater like Verito, charges are Rs 9 per km and for Innova/Xylo, Rs 12/km. This is slightly expensive than lesser known operator, but you may not mind this premium in exchange for prompt, reliable service and relatively new cars.

My experience was pretty smooth. Cab arrived on time, was relatively new and very clean. They are driven at modest speed ("Customers should be able to sleep peacefully" is their Mantra), though it meant they took time to catch up with me.

Driver Jagadeesh was pretty good. I drove the scorpio up the Chembra peak in Wayanad, Jagadeesh caught up with his Verito and reached the top, negotiating few bad stretches skilfully. Though he expressed concern that he doesn't want to climb any more peaks next day.

However, one and only concern/complaint I have about them is the interstate permit. I was told Kerala permit will cost Rs 500. At the Kerala border, I was also in queue with the cab driver (usually RTO officials won't let civilians come near the counter and insist only drivers should come-this is of convenience to both them and the driver as there's no one to witness how much exactly exchanged hands. While at the queue, I was told first time entry of a vehicle will be charged extra, second time less etc. All these gyan was proved false. At the counter, Travelparkz 5 seater verito which has already done few trips to Wayanad was charged Rs 200, and my 7 seater self drive scorpio, its first time entry into the state, was also charged Rs 200. Later while settling the bill, driver tried to count Rs 500 as the permit fee, claiming they charge a standard fee for this because they would have paid more for first time visit etc. I countered that these charges will be paid at actuals and for first time visit also I was charged Rs 200. After some hesitation the driver collected this amount at actual. For other customers they would have simply pocketed Rs 300 extra. [Read more about my earlier post on interstate taxi permit mafia]

Also the bill didn't mention the exact amount. When asked, he wrote on top of it and gave.

After returning from 2 day trip to Wayanad, our driver was immediately asked to leave for another trip from their office it seems, without even giving him one night rest. I think this is bad practice from the company. This is common practice during festive season when demand is high. But such continuous driving can result in accidents. Ask them to send a fresh driver if you're booking for long drive. Check if your driver had enough rest when reports. If he appears tired, delay your departure by a few hours and ask the driver to sleep for sometime, this is in your own safety interest.
Verdict: You can book with them, but be careful about interstate permit and bill aspects.

Offroad Part 2: Mud Bogging-Thars and Jeeps negotiating mud

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Mud blogging... sorry bogging was the second challenge at the Terrariders Offroad Adventure I got to experience last Saturday near Pavanjur. [Read Part 1 here]

After clearing the first obstacle, a rock, our convoy headed to second. This one was to cross a stretch of pit covered with muddy water. It wasn't deep enough to sink the suvs and just appeared superficial. As Arka explained what to do, one of the participant promptly asked- "in this situation, who has better advantage? one who crosses first or one who crosses last?"  There was no clear answer to this. Both first and last car crossing the mud path has advantages as well as disadvantages.

As I understand, one who goes first gets the advantage of undisturbed terrain and if he is skilled enough can sail through easily. However, those who go behind gain some benefits too- by observing the vehicle ahead, they can identify spots which may be deeper or having possibility of wheel digging deeper and try to avoid such spots. Also the bed could get hardened a bit after multiple vehicles crossing over it. But on the other hand, if initial vehicles had lots of wheelspin digging deeper and deeper into the mud, vehicles behind will have tougher time negotiating them.

Swamy was the first to cross the mud in his Thar and he did it successfully. Other vehicles followed suit. Few drove in reverse too. Participants were encouraged to try negotiating it in 2 wheel drive itself and engage 4WD only if required.

Watch the video below to witness second part of the offroad for beginners challenge.


Almost all the drivers did well in this round. Even regular street tyres did just well. I feel it wasn't challenging enough. After driving around in straight lines, drivers drove around in a zig zag manner and had fun.

 Nishchal's Mahindra in a faceoff with a Thar...
Once you see your 4x4 get dirty, you feel a sense of fulfillment. These vehicles are meant for purposes like this and using them for just the city drive won't make them justice. The Thars and other SUVs are capable of negotiating muddy stretches much more serious than what we'd tried. The drivers now got their basics right and will feel confident encountering tougher terrains.

Standby for part 3

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Terratigers Offroad Adventure near Chennai-Part1

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When I learnt from Srini about an offroad event happening near Chennai, I pinged the organizer to check if I can join to observe. Kind person that he was, Mr Arka Dutta facilitated my joining the event.  Vishnu, one of the organizers picked me up in his monster ford endeavor and we headed towards a village 80kms from Chennai. During the journey I got some insights into the Palar challenge and Rain forest challenge. We also picked up Srini on the way. [Some early pictures of the event here]

Vishnu told me that many SUV owners are afraid of trying offroading, fearing the possible damage to their pricy vehicles. By subjecting his SUV to extreme advetures, he is aiming to prove a point that SUVs are extremely capable and can negotiate tough obstacles without damaging themselves. While modifications do help, even stock versions are fairly capable. You can drive out a 4x4 SUV straight from showroom to an offroad adventure. Once you learn the capabilities of your vehicle and how to negotiate it in various terrains, the probability of damage starts to drop.

To all the SUV owners out there- if you've bought a 30 lakh SUV paying 1 lakh in insurance every year and using it only for office commute, get out and get dirty. Explore the true potential of your beasts.

Vishnu also said Mahindra Thar has changed 4x4 scene dramatically. [Mahindra Thar Review & Photoshoot ] It is affordable and can be used for offroad without any modifications. Earlier finding a mechanic who can fix/maintain a 4x4 system in a jeep was a challenge- not many people knew whom to approach for such things. Now it can be maintained by a Mahindra showroom.

Terra tigers, headed by Mr Arka (Arkaprava Datta)  have been conducting offroad events for over 10 years now. They frequently conduct events wherein jeep and SUV owners can register and learn offroading.  We assembled at a farm near Pavanjur (Marg Tapovan is somewhere nearby). We saw this aged military truck, which I am told still works. It had too many gear levers- one of which is to operate the winch, which in this vehicle is powered by the engine, unlike battery operated ones in other cars. Mr Arka is reportedly trying to rebuild it. Best wishes to him.

As suspected, most of the participants arrived in their Mahindra Thar 4x4. For many this was the first offroad experience. Soon Mr Arka arrived and the briefing session started. Apparently few new owners didn't knew much about the 4x4 lever in their Thar. The sales person at the showroom never briefed these customers about the 4x4 system properly. "Put it in this place and it will go forward" is what they were told, after defaulting the lever in 2H mode. Arka gave some briefing about the 4H and 4L positions. Another important aspect before offroading is to have a spare key ready. Particularly in an open jeep and while in the woods, if they key is lost it will be a nightmare. Old jeeps can be jumpstarted, but new Mahindra Thar is not that easy to start without a key.

Terratigers team knows the Palar riverbed extensively and they know their way around in the area. Soon we left the farm and started in a convoy to our first obstacle, which was a rock. Mangalore boy Nischal Salian, who is an experienced offroader did the demonstration for the benefit of the audience, by climbing on the rock and getting off it without a scratch. Spotters took positions to guide the drivers and one by one jeep drivers negotiated the rocks. Many got minor scratch on the rear bumper and leaf-spring while trying to get off the rock. I sat inside a Thar as passenger and shot the experience onboard. I was tempted to ask one of them if I can try the same in their jeep, but held back my temptation. Unlike a rented car, this is someone else's personal car- even if they let me drive it reluctantly, it is a bigger risk if the vehicle suffers any damage while in my command. There were no limits to the number of attempts one could try, which is a good thing with Terratigers. One of the main risk in situations like this is the risk of toppling over. Again the mantra of "be as slow as possible, but retain as much speed as necessary" came into effect. Spotters would advise the driver on the right path and to proceed or not and drivers need to follow the instructions. For few who were driving a bit fast, Arka intervened and either advised them to drive carefully or took the driver's seat and demonstrated the right way of handling the obstacle.

 


Do watch the video below:


Read part 2 here, where the Thars and Jeeps indulge in mud bogging. Standby for Part 3 for rest of the obstacles