Sunday, June 28, 2015

Photography in monsoon and camera protection

It is monsoon time and many of us are planning road trips not withstanding heavy rains. It is a completely different experience to drive around during rains- No need for AC- roll down the windows and let the bliss sprinkle in.

Rains are as much joy to travel in, but photography during monsoon is another story. Most of our cameras do not really like rains. Camera electronics can suffer permanent damage if exposed to water.  Add to this, there’ll be much less sunlight and lots of fog during monsoons, compromising clarity of the scene.

In this post I am sharing some of my experiences and tips for photography during monsoon

GoPro has been my best bet: While DSLRs are water shy, GoPro has no such fear. It comes in a waterproof casing and can withstand rain, can be clicked under water and is overall a brilliant choice for rainy day photography. I use it extensively during rain.  Keep cleaning water deposit if any, on the lens before clicking. GoPro gets you a pretty wide angle photo, but doesn’t have too much settings like a DSLR and not good during low light conditions.

Waterproof cover for Cameras: Online stores sell many variants of waterproof covers for DSLRs. You put your camera inside it, seal it and can comfortably take it out in the rain. I have tried few of them- they work, but add lots of inconvenience while operating- such as clicking is not very convenient, can’t use view finder, lens movement could be restricted etc.

Click from inside the vehicle: Take your photo from the inside of the vehicle, eliminating any need for exposing the camera to rain outside. Safest way.

Have a buddy to hold an umbrella for you: This traditional method is best for light rain conditions. Your DSLR can withstand few accidental drops of water. So you can ask your buddy to hold an umbrella and you can click around normally. Wipe the camera clean with dry cloths after returning to the car.

Water resistant mobile phones: Many high end mobile phones these days come with water resistance capability. They can be used without any fear during rains. Panasonic also has a waterproof camera, such as Lumix FT3

Below are some photographs of Goa I clicked in August last year amidst rains.
It is also advisable to seek professional help for Photography in Goa if you’re looking for stunning photographs for commercial use.

Elephant Parade- A brand that works towards Asian elephant conservation!

While we were being given a guided tour of Tang Mall inside Suntec city, Singapore, we were introduced to a unique brand called Elephant Parade. Elephant parade sells elephant idols and souvenirs of various size, shape and colours.

Unlike other brands that bear animal names but run on pure commercial motive, Elephant Parade is one brand that is dedicated to well being and conservation of elephants.

History of elephant parade goes back by 8 years- to Thailand. In 2007, a 9 year old female baby elephant Mosha lost one of her legs in a deadly landmine blast. She was taken to an elephant hospital in Thailand. There Marc and Mike Spits saw Mosha and wanted to help her recover. They designed an artificial leg for Mosha (keep in mind the weight of an elephant- designing an artificial leg is not easy). Besides helping Mosha, father and son duo wanted to pick up the larger cause of elephant conservation, so they started this brand Elephant Parade, which works towards fund raising, awareness building and other essentials related to elephant well being.
A replica of Mosha's artificial leg, on display at Tang mall and the photo of real one being fitted on to Mosha- I downloaded right hand side photo from facebook as it accidentally came on my timeline. Exact photographer name not known. Rest of the photo are mine.
These elephants are made in Chiang Mai, Thailand and hand painted by artists. As these are hand made, each piece is unique. Even then, only limited editions of each design is produced. If you buy one, you also get a certificate of originality, with artist's name and other technical details of the work. Prices start from SGD 65 onwards, depending on size, design etc. Part of the sales goes towards elephant conservation activities. While you get a unique piece of art to showcase, an elephant somewhere gets a better life. You can also order online on Tang's website
Another favorite activity at Elephant parade is to buy a plain white elephant and paint it in various colours and design on your own. This makes an ideal gift and fun activity for kids.
If I happen to go to Chiang Mai, Thailand again, I want to visit that elephant hospital.

Elephant Parade shop is located in the basement of Tang Mall, in Suntec city, Singapore

Similar: Elephant Sanctuary, Sakrebailu * Elephant ride uphill Amer Fort * K Gudi Elephant bathing * Elephant show at Sri Racha zoo, Thailand * Book review- Elephant catchers  * Surviving an elephant attack *

Drive a Ferrari in Singapore. Rs 15000 for 15 mins

ABCDF: Any body can drive Ferrari!

In India, we can drive BMW and Mercedes for hourly/daily rental under self-drive scheme. But Myles/Zoom haven’t added a Ferrari/Lamborghini yet to their fleet. On my Day 1 at Singapore, I went to check out Ace Drive SG, who have a fleet of luxury cars for rental. More about them in a separate post. Subsequently, I spotted that another agency called Ultimate Drive has a Ferrari and Lamborghini on 15/30/60 minute rentals. (Dhananjay Murthy and few other facebook friends also tipped me on this) This post gives more details about renting the Ferrari/Lamborghini from Ultimate Drive and why I resisted my temptation to rent one. Another company called Dream Drive also offers similar supercar rental schemes.

If you have 15000 INR to spare, you can ride a Ferrari or Lamborghini in Singapore for 15 minutes. At various places- such as Marina Bay Sands, Suntech Mall etc there’re counters offering this dream ride for a fee.

Before we go into commercials, let us take a close look at the car- Ferrari F430 F1 Spider

The interiors of Ferrari F430 F1 Spider
4.3 litre V8 engine that generates 480 horses and can push the car to 100kmph in less about 4 seconds, while hitting top speed of 310kmph (assuming not electronically limited to a lower speed)

Notice that registration number has model number in it  430.. but 430 F instead of 430G would have been more apt
We saw these cars on offer- once at Suntec mall and again at Marina Bay Sands. The cost of ride were as follows (below rate is when you book on Ultimate Drive's website. Spot booking costs about 15 dollar more.
If you (and say your friend) book both Ferrari and Lambo for an hour each together, you get to swap the cars halfway and get to experience both cars. But you can't book for an hour and share with four friends for 15 mins each. If you don't want to drive and just want to be driven, it is a bit cheaper, but then which car enthusiast would opt to sit in co-passenger seat when he/she can drive it for a few dollars more. As long as you have a driving license written in English, of any country, you can drive in Singapore. Apart from this, you can also buy t shirts, miniature cars and other merchandise.

It was very tempting and I seriously evaluated giving the topless ferrari a try, but held back because of  following reason:
  • There is no dedicated F1 track in Singapore on which we can drive this cars at their true potential. We need to drive them in regular traffic, which gets a signal every few kms. There're speed limits in Singapore- 50 or 60 kmph in city, 80 or 90 on highways. Essentially we can't even reach one third of car's top speed legally. If caught above this speed limit, there will be a fine ranging from 130 to 200 SGD (Even Singapore grand prix happens on regular roads, which are of F1 standards, by closing them for traffic)
  • If I am spending 15000 Rs for 15 minutes, the best time of the day would be early morning, say 6AM, when traffic is very less. But these guys (Ultimate Drive) open only at 9 AM and close at 10 PM. So I can't take advantage of off peak hours.
  • These cars have only 2 seats. If you sit in one, another seat is taken by the staff. So your friends/family can not enjoy the ride.

There're many super car owners in Singapore who are frustrated at not being able to drive their supercars at high speeds. Unlike Europe where there're umpteen number of highways and autobahns to cruise around, Singapore feels like a confined space. I feel it will be good if city administration can identify say 10km of straight road and declare it as super car lane, at least for some part of the day where high end car owners can enjoy a high speed ride.
This time only pose.. next time I am going to drive this for sure. Clicked by DesiTraveler
It was a tough decision NOT to book on the spot and go for a quick ride. If I could extract full potential of the car, I would have probably booked and driven it. But didn't want to spend knowing above limitations. But may be next time or some other day/some other city, I will be driving the Ferrari for sure.

I appreciate this initiative where everyone car drive their dream car. Try it out next time when you visit Singapore.

Similar: Audi R8 V10 * Nissan GT Academy- RacingDriverWanted *

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nissan GT Academy #RacingDriverWanted- Test your racing skills!

This one is not from Singapore.

You might have spotted Nissan’s ad in print stating #RacingDriverWanted. They are conducting a talent hunt for good racing drivers through GT Academy.

Through this GT Academy, which is Nissan's driver discovery and development program, anyone aged above 18 and having a driving license can participate and prove their race driving skills. 6 winners will be taken to UK to train at Silverstone race camp and one final winner will get to be Nissan's racing driver for a real life job.

 Registration is fully free. Nissan is conducting test camps at various cities for registered users to prove their racing skills in a real world replica of racing cars, using playstation gaming console.

I got an invitation to try this out, so I went to Expensive Avenue sorry Express Avenue today morning. Initially I was in dual mind whether to go all the way or not, then decided to go and check it out anyway. I am totally glad that I tried.
It has been really long time since I tried my hands at racing. Used to play some computer games during college days but after that I haven't played much. When I took my seat, I was given 10 minutes. As you see in the picture, I could improvise after every lap. First lap took 1 min 53 seconds while final lap I took only 1 min 29 seconds. If I had tried another 5 laps I am sure I would have saved another 10 seconds. I heard 1 min 15 second is the best lap of the day so far.

Also the staff asked me to keep one leg on the accelerator and another on the brake. This is odd arrangement for me, as I am used to using same leg for brake or accelerator, while the left leg is unused.
Above: Me at the play station real world racing set up trying my hands on the virtual race track. Photo courtesy- Shruti.
Below: My lap times- notice the improvements 
It is not just acceleration and braking, which is easier to manage. We need to keep in mind the gears also- paddle shift up and down as needed. Going off the track can invalidate the lap and also eat up a lot of time. After few laps I got a sense of turns and bends and optimal speed during turns etc. There is still a lot to learn in the world of race driving.

I might be driving a real life soon to be launched hot hatch with paddleshift next week. Stay tuned.
If racing is in your blood, go register at Nissan GT Academy. It is free and you can enjoy 10 minute race driving and stand a chance to win big. It is ON at Express Avenue today and tomorrow. Spot registration is also allowed. Best wishes.

Similar: Nissan Safety Driving Forum * VW Polo cup * Merc LuxeDrive

Nalan Indian Veg Restaurant near City Hall, Singapore

Nalan was my favourite place for lunch/dinner when I was in Singapore for few weeks in 2012. They serve very affordable vegetarian food- very tasty one at that. During last week’s Singapore trip, on one of the evenings I suggested that we go there for dinner, which other bloggers agreed.

Nalan is located in the basement of Peninsula Excelsior hotel towers, walkable from city Hall MRT. 
Preferable practice in Nalan is to go to the counter and order, which will be served to your table. But for large groups or on demand, they can come to the table and take orders.

They do not have a toilet facility inside.  One should go out into mall for that.

Water is free at Nalan self service.

Nalan opens early in the morning. So if you don't like your hotel breakfast or want to grab some indian breakfast, you can stop by at Nalan for a quick bite.

Btb did you notice Nalan is a palindrome?

Nalan on map

Similar: Banana Leaf Apolo * Real Food

SGD 2.7/MB and My Singtel hi! card customer care experience!

In 2012, I had bought a local Singtel Hicard, which had worked without any kind of problem. So Singtel was my first preference when it came to picking up a local SIM for voice/data usage in Singapore. 

While TigerAir’s inflight magazine advertised a SGD 15 Singtel card which was good enough for my 1 week usage, the one and only counter that was open at 5.30AM at Changi airport as we came out didn’t have stock of SGD 15 card (Rs 720). They only had a SGD 50 (Rs 2400) which I felt is too much for my need, so I didn’t buy.

Singtel Ad in Changi that says for 15$ we get 100GB data and many other benefits, which I didn't get
Later in the day, I bought a SGD 15 Hi Card from a 7Eleven store near Novena MRT. It advertised to have SGD18 worth value and I got a tiny speaker free. Store keeper didn’t bother explaining me the plan and what it includes/excludes. Generally staff at 7Eleven will be very busy as there'll be others customers waiting, so they can't afford to spend lot of time explaining SIM card to customers. They ask customers to refer the leaflet inside. The leaflet that came in the package didn’t specify how many GB data I can use or what are the per MB data charges. I assumed what I had seen in the advertisement will automatically apply and started using the card.

I made one call to India using +91 prefix, must have uploaded 10-15 photos and few updates throughout the day and by night suddenly my data stopped working. Mobile battery also drained, Oasis Hotel had free WiFi, I was tired to worry more about it, so I went to sleep. Next day I realized that I won’t be connected during the outings and I can’t call home. I told about this to our tour guide, Ms Winnie. She offered to buy me a top up card (will be reimbursed by our host, Singapore Tourism Board).

While I was bleeding money on SIngtel’s overprized data charges, fellow bloggers Nivedith and Hrish who had picked up a 32 SGD pack of StarHub had 1000 GB worth data at their disposal and were wondering how to spend that much in 5 days. We went to same 7 Eleven store to buy a topup. From the list of various call and data options available, I realized that SGD 7 top-up which gives 1GB data with 7 day validity is the most suitable one. But store staff told me that there is no 7 $ top up card, she had only SGD 10 one. Store staff didn’t tell me that I need to top up for 10 SGD and then send some SMS and activate the 7 day 1 GB data plan. I wasn’t sure what is the billing in that 10 dollar recharge, so I opted not to recharge. I managed without connectivity till afternoon. Later in the evening, at a small shop in Little India near India Heritage centre we bought a SGD 10 popup., I asked for help, he said I need to recharge for 10 SGD and then activate data plan which will consume 7 SGD and will get me 7day 1GB data plan. I asked him to help me with top up and activation, which he did, we paid and my data started working again.
 Screenshots showing recharge and data plan activation, which didn't work and low balance by end of the day. Last screenshot shows I hardly used about 200 MB in 3 days
But then, again same day night, my balance reached 0.79 SGD and data stopped working, without me making any calls. I had only used a bit of data. This was disturbing, as I lost 25 SGD so far, for using just a few MBs and not lasting even 48 hours. I logged into Singtel website to find out my data usage and billing. There was no provision to check usage and how my balance went down. I could only see remaining balance and had options to top up. I figured out that this can’t be natural and called SingTel customer care, toll free. I spoke to a lady named Flowrence (I am not sure of exact Spelling of her name), explained my concern that despite spending 25 dollars I am not able to use the SIM card. She checked and told me that I am being charged SGD 2.7 per MB as I had no data plans. I told her that I did activate Data plan yesterday. She asked if I sent a message with 1 for confirmation. I said there was no such instruction. She asked me to mail the screenshots of the activation to - which I did. I called again after sometime, someone else picked up and I asked to speak to Flowerence, so that I don’t have to repeat the story again. I was told Flowrence was busy and would call me back. Within sometime she did call me back, I asked for an update. (Didn't have a single instance where Airtel/Vodafone guys in India called me back) She put me on hold stating she’ll check the mail. 4 minutes into hold and nothing happened, so I disconnected. She promptly called  back after sometime, apologized for long hold and confirmed that there was no fault at my side. She offered to restore the balance and data plan. She was sensitive enough to say that till data plan gets enabled, I might still lose 2.7SGD per MB, so offered to deactivate my data for some time. I told her not to worry on that, as I can de-activate mobile data on my phone itself. She said one hour will be needed for this restoration. I checked after one hour and my data and balance was promptly restored.

I should have asked for my initial 15 dollar purchase, but that didn’t strike me at that time. I cross checked the slip that came with SIM card- nowhere it called out the Data charge of SGD 2.7/MB or the need to activate some plans for data offers. I realize that this SIM card doesn't look same as the one shown in Changi advertisement, but the value was same. Singtel should call out things clearly to avoid confusion.

I am happy with the quick and prompt response and action from Singtel customer care. Can’t think of airtel or Vodafone folks calling me back to sort out my problem. Instead Airtel/vodafone are happy to charge by the minute for calling customer care, even when they are totally incompetent to address any issues.

But then, I have some serious feedback to SingTel from above incident, to prevent unsuspecting customers from getting looted.
  • Majority of the customers would be needing lots of data usage. So instead of expecting customers to do some top-up or activation, by default include a few hundred MB worth data in the SIM Card, without needing any activation.
  • If you’re charging 2.7SGD per MB, please call it out clearly on the package/instruction leaflet. Nowhere in my leaflet I was communicated about this billing rate. If I had known earlier I would have either not bought the card or would have activated necessary plans for data usage.
  • Your advertisements in airport and inflight magazines also do not indicate need for an extra activity step to enable data plans. How am I supposed to know that I am signing up to get looted?
  • Educate store staff to warn the user about what needs to be done to avoid high billing.
If a customer feels cheated in his/her first usage, it is unlikely that he will continue with the brand. While I called the customer care to get things sorted, many will find it more convenient to simply pick-up a sim card from a competition brand. Instead of insane data charges (2.7SGD per MB is complete rip off) and complicated processes, it will be nice if card comes with some minimum sensible plan, which customer can consume till he/she gets a sense of how the billing is working.

Similarly, if you dial India using +91 you will be ripped off. For cheaper rates we should use 01991 India number. It will be nice if this conversion is done in the back-end (customer dials +91 as usual and 019 prefixing is done in the back-end by the system. Technology should adapt to user’s needs and conveniences, not the other way round where customer should do lots of circus to get value for his money.

Nonetheless, I appreciate prompt and timely action from Singtel customer care. If they had asked for a day or two, then it would have been useless for me.

During this whole process, we also learnt that in Singapore one person can get max 3 SIM cards per life, due to security reasons. I am done with two cards already!
Singtel mega counter at Mustafa centre- selling cards in hundreds
You can also pickup a Singtel postpaid card in India through CLAY/Matrix like services, but I feel it is more practical and convenient to pickup one live at Singapore only, as CLAY/Matrix schemes have many drawbacks. Read my review here.

Update: Appreciate SingTel team acknowledging my feedback on twitter and promising to act on it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kuang Chee Tng Buddhist Association (Temple) on 125 Moulmein Rd

On day 1 in Singapore, our official trip would start only at 12 noon. I had few hours to spare, so I went out to meet the folks at Ace Drive, a Luxury car rental agency in Singapore. More about that later. While returning from there to hotel Oasia, I spotted this temple.
I removed my shoes, went inside, spent a few minutes, took some photos and went back to hotel. I do not have too much history or text to write about it- it was a small little temple with some photogenic artifacts/structures. So I leave you with its name and some photographs.

Later I learnt that this place is called Kuang Chee Tng Buddhist Association (Temple) and is located on 125 Moulmein Rd


Indian food in Singapore: The Banana Leaf Apolo, Little India

The Banana Leaf Apolo is an Indian restaurant in Singapore, serving both veg and non-veg food. They have 2 outlets, we went to the Race course road one. We went to the one near Little India. We tried Samosa, Mango Lassi, Naan and a host of other items. Taste was good and serving time was reasonable.

Each table gets a set of three buttons to call the staff or ask for check or cancel your order. There was no need to use this, as there were enough staff to attend to us.

Juices were served almost instantly. I enjoyed a lemonade and a mango lassi.

Couple of things to note:
1. Seating can get really cramped inside on a busy day
2. I wanted to have a South Indian meal for dinner, but they said "Not available". I ordered something else and later realized that they are serving rice, rasam and sambar loose. These three constitute main part of a meal, so they could have told me these are available but some side dish offered with meals are not available. I would have been happy to manage with rice, rasam and sambar without those extra stuffs. Unnecessarily I ended up ordering some less preferred item.
3. They do not have any method to identify vegetarian guests (like keeping a green glass), so we should be careful about each item being served to ensure it is not non-vegetarian.
Banana Leaf Apolo's website still seems to be under construction. There're a host of non-veg items on which I am unable to comment.

Lots of foreign nationals could also be seen enjoying Indian food here at Banana Leaf Apolo. Prices are reasonable. Little India, Mustafa centre etc are very close to this restaurant. Do try

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Real Food on Killiney Road: Creative Veg Restaurant, Singapore

Real Food on Killine Road, Singapore is a unique restaurant we visited on day 2 of our Singapore trip for lunch. It is very different from other restaurants because of multiple reasons.
-          There’re lots of quality books you can read here while you enjoy your food
-          You can purchase some grocery also in the restaurant while you wait for your food.
-          There’re different kinds of seating- such as raised stools, low level sofas etc- people can chose whatever is convenient to them
-          It is all vegetarian- lots of organic/unique items are on offer (eggs are used in few items).
-          There is a music station also where you can chose a song of your choice and enjoy music.

They had 4000 sq ft of space using which they could have created a commercial 250 seat restaurant. But they opted to create a unique 80 seater restaurant + grocery shop+ book reading outlet that gives a signature experience to guests. 
Menu is retro style faded papers. We need to go to cash counter and order, food will be served to the table.
Water is not complementary. A glass of water costs I guess 50 cents. They also had on their racks cashew nuts imported from India, 200gms for SGD 10.

They served coffee but didn’t supply sugar. I had to go around, ask for it. No white sugar was there, had to manage with brown sugar.

Real food has very few staff, so expect some delays. Same staff can be seen at cash counter or in the kitchen or serving food.

Though branded vegetarian, eggs might be used in some products. Please be careful. We tried a pack of home made potato chips. It was very nice.

In terms of taste and all, I had ordered a grilled veg sandwich that costs 9.8 SGD, and organic fried rice that cost 7.8 SGD. Tasted fine, had a very different look and feel also. Do check out The Real Food's menu here and website for more details

One of us had ordered Pizza, but it was taking lots of time, hence we asked it to be packed. Meals for five costed around 130 SGD. Sadly we had to leave soon- next time I am going to spend a few hours at Real Food and read some books while I sip a coffee.

110, Killiney Road, Tai Wah Building, Singapore 239549.
The building is very easy to locate with lots of greenery around