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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Karni Mata Temple (a.k.a Rat temple) Bikaner, Rajasthan

If you're following me on social media you might have noticed that I had a short trip to Rajasthan recently, on invitation from the newly launched Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner. During this trip we visited several places of interest in and around Bikaner. My next few posts will be on them.

I learnt about this Karni Ma temple, also known as Rat Temple on our first day at Bikaner. The brief history goes as below, as told to us:

Karni Mata used to fulfill wishes of her disciples way back in 14th century, taking care of well being of villagers and particularly the poor, oppressed by others. She is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga and never denied any wish sought by people worshiping her. One day her sister's son drowned in the village lake and died. Hoping that Karni mata would bring him back to life, her sister rushed to Karni Mata with the dead son. Unfortunately Karni Mata couldn't bring the dead back to life, but she assured her sister that her dead son will be born as a rat. This logic extended into belief that every dead person in the village will be born as a rat and every dead rat will be reborn in someone's home as a human. The sum total of no. of rats and no of people in the village would thus remain constant.

On the net there're multiple variations of this story- use your discretion.

Because of this belief, villagers think one of the rat in the temple is indeed their family member who might have died recently. Thus rats are fed well and treated with lots of respect here.

Karni Ma ka Rat temple is located at a town called Deshnok, some 30kms from Bikaner. On the main road, a board invites you to this 'world famous' temple. It was built in 15th century by the Raja of Bikaner.

As we entered, first thing I spotted was this large Kadai
The outer view of Rat Temple below- looks at par with any other temple in the region and doesn't give a clue to the experience you will get once you step inside.


There are lots of intricate carvings on the main door
Notice rats in the carvings. It is said that dogs and cats in the vicinity never harm the rats. However wired protection could be found on the ceiling to prevent the birds from harming rats or taking away all the food meant for rats.
Interior looks like any other temple but the main difference being presence of rats everywhere.

Above left: Garbha gudi of Rat temple, notice lots of rodents on the floor.
Above right: As I kept my camera bag on the ground, one curious and brave rodent came close and sniffed it intensely in search of food.
Below: A walking corridor around the Garbha gudi- notice the rodents in the corner.

Below: A rat escaping into its hole as I moved the camera closer... Not the most hygienic place but in whatever close-up pics I clicked, rats appeared fairly clean enough.
The cooking area for rats





A musician was entertaining the visitors- I could see that he has been singing here for decades- take a close look at the keypads of the harmonium

A brave rat stood still for several minutes while I clicked some closeup pictures...
The lucky white rats:
The campus is believed to have very few - 4-5 white rats and sighting them is deemed auspicious and will make your wishes come true. I said I want India-US return ticket for Rs 10000, but unfortunately didn't spot any white rat for this to happen.

Silver compensation: If you kill or harm a rat, you're required to donate a silver rat of same size and weight.

The Museum:
There is a small museum next to the temple depicting life story of Karni ma. 

Photography inside the Karni ma temple costs Rs 30 per camera, video Rs 100. It was open early in the morning when we visited (like 6.30-7 AM). Toilet facilities are available in the campus and few petty shops sell rat food and other materials needed for temple visitors.

If you have someone in your group who are extremely scared of rats, visiting this temple will change their perception of rats or help reduce fear of rats. The rodents co-exist with humans here without harming each other. Though it might appear dirty and scary at present, you will appreciate yourself for going through the temple and experiencing a temple full of rodents.

With this I end year 2016. See you next year with more stories and photos. Thanks for your support.

Indian Bloggers

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Maruti’s Vitara Brezza wins ICOTY 2017

Vitara Brezza, the compact SUV from Maruti has been a runaway success from day 1, with waiting period piling up to 6 months, when I had visited a Maruti showroom sometime in June 2016. This is now vindicated with Vitara Brezza winning Indian Car of the Year (ICOTY) award for 2017. The ICOTY award has been announced on 20th December, about a week ago by the jury. Vitara Brezza has beaten wide range of new cars launched in 2016, including Skoda Superb, Merc GLC, Ford Endeavor, Readigo, Honda BR-V, Hyundai Elantra, Jaguar XE, Isuzu V Cross, Mahindra Nuvosport, Tata Tiago, Innova Crysta, VW Ameo, Audi A4 and Toyota Fortuner.

ICOTY is a widely respected award in Indian Automobile market. ICOTY started way back in 2005 and since then every year, one car has been winning this most coveted award every year. The jury that grants ICOTY consists of best of the automobile journalists and industry experts and they subject the nominated contenders to harsh scrutiny on several parameters- safety, fuel economy, price, performance, value for money, innovations, exterior and interior styling, comfort, everyday practicality and suitability in Indian road conditions.  Though there’re dozens of car launches every year, only one car makes it through this selection process. Most cars excel in few select areas- the most luxurious and comfortable car may not be value for money or very suitable for Indian driving conditions, an extremely cheap car may not be safe enough and so on. Scoring on all fronts is a tough challenge for any one car. If a car is declared winner, it is indeed special for everyone involved with the car.
In simple words, importance of ICOTY may be related to how an Oscar is for a movie. ICOTY is unique from other car awards, because it is only 1 for an entire year across all categories. Other competition awards sort of ensure that every brand wins a few- like Best Compact SUV of the year, best Sedan of the year, Best small car of the year, Best SUV of the year and so on- in this process they sort of dilute the significance of the award. ICOTY stands different, with only 1 model getting awarded across the spectrum. With this year’s win, Maruti is snatching this title away from its arch rival, Hyundai, who have been winning this for past 3 years consecutively (for Creta, Elite i20 and Grand i10)- this could be good ego boost for India’s largest car maker.

And indeed Vitara Brezza is a good vehicle. It falls in the compact SUV segment, with right combination of power, style, luxury and pricing. Vitara Brezza is a five seater, with an eye catching exterior design. To add to that. Top end variant of Brezza (ZDI+) is available in dual colour options- red and black, blue and white or yellow and white- hardly any competitors offer that in its price range. With its reliable 1.3 litre DDiS diesel engine, good ground clearance and lots of interior features, coupled with Maruti’s legendary reliability and aftersales service, there is no reason why one should turn down Vitara Brezza if they are looking for a compact SUV in 9 to 12 lakhs price range. Over 1.72 lakh cars have been sold since its launch and many more bookings are waiting to be delivered.

Watch a 10 sec video below.
With ICOTY in its kitty, Vitara Brezza will give even more tough time to its competitors in the highly lucrative compact SUV segment, with Ford Ecosport, Mahindra TUV300 and the likes. The award should also encourage the manufacturer to introduce more variants- like petrol engine and automatic transmission options into Brezza. Awards like this will motivate brands and its teams to be more innovative and risk taking in the future, than always playing it safe. Best wishes to Maruti. You can follow Brezza on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for their latest updates.

How to beat the January Car Price Hike ghost!

Almost every car manufacturer ‘secretly’ leaks information that there will be a price hike from January. Dealers work overtime in December to scare prospects about the impending price hike and how a smart decision it will be to conclude all paperwork in December itself at current rates and ‘save’ big time. Many car buyers fall for this trap, end up buying a car in hurry to save a few thousands, usually buying a car that is not best suited for them or feeling regret that they could have waited for another 3-6 months instead of buying in a hurry.
The January price hike is a systematic psychological approach adopted by all car makers to convert those indecisive customers sitting on fense. It is not like from January car sales will plummet because of price hike- within a month or two it is back to business as usual, except that those who bought in a hurry in December will be left to wonder “Why was I taken for a ride in December”! This post explains how you can get around with “January Price Hike ghost” released by almost all carmakers.
Points to note:
While price hikes are usually announced officially or leaked unofficially weeks in advance, price drop is never communicated in advance. Have you ever seen a manufacturer announce “From next month price will drop, don’t buy this month”? No. Price drops are usually immediate. Only for hikes it is other way round, so that it will force lots of prospects to make a decision and close the sale.

December is a month where car sales will be at its lowest. A car registered on 2016 Dec 31st carries much less resale value than car registered on Jan 1st 2017, because of difference in year. Unless the discounts/incentives are great, customers prefer to avoid new car purchase in December, forcing dealers and manufacturers to pull various tricks in the book to meet their monthly target. Jan1st Price hike scare is the most effective of them.

It is not like hiked price in Jan will prevail for whole of next year. By the time March/April comes, festival season begins and car manufacturers start offering various discounts and offers, effectively making the net price at par with previous year December prices. Thus instead of getting scared that cars will be expensive from Jan, delay your decision by a few months, buy during March/April festival offers.

More you delay the car purchase, more you save
Car is a depreciating asset. You need to keep spending on its maintenance, insurance etc. More you postpone the purchase decision, higher will be the savings. Plus, every month new models come to market, giving you more choices. Price of a car may drop if the rival company launches a similar model (Ford Ecosport prices dropped by lakh once Vitara Brezza was launched)

So what to do?
Step 1: Ask yourself- Do I badly need a car right away or can I afford to wait a few months more.
If you badly need a car and can’t afford to wait for few more months, then go ahead and purchase in December.

Step 2: Ask yourself- Is this model I have shortlisted is best suited to my needs and aspirations or I am buying this for lack of a better option?
It is advisable to buy the right car, even if it costs a few k more, than buying a wrong car at lower price. If the car you’ve shortlisted doesn’t meet all your expectations but you’ve thinking of buying it anyway as there’re no other alternative and you don’t want to wait fearing a price hike, then wait. Do some more research, wait for few more months and you are very likely to get a more suitable car. It is fine to pay little more to the right car. If you end up in a situation wherein every morning you sit in driver’s seat you feel guilty – “should have bought the other one” then it spoils the whole car ownership experience.

Step 3: Check the price hike % and compare it with differences in resale value
If the hike is just about 2-3% it doesn’t make huge difference for a small car/sedan. The better resale value will compensate for it when you sell of your car.

Step 4: Check for offers
When there is a price hike scare and customers are rushing to close the purchase in a hurry, dealers may cut back on other offers- such as free accessories, discounts on insurance, interest rate, processing fee etc. Thus your net gain may not be much. In January also they will have targets to meet. With most customers having bought in Dec in hurry, Jan sales will be low- though car price is higher, you might be able to pull some strings and get some free accessories/discounts on insurance/interest rate etc. Don’t lose hope, Don’t buy in a hurry.

Step 5: Check for new launches in Jan-March next year
If there is a new launch expected, price of competition brands might even drop in new-year. Keep your eyes and ears open on the net for upcoming launches of next year.  If not a gain in price, the new model will give you more options to consider from- it may have better design/fuel efficiency/features than the current model you are about to purchase. If nothing else, at least you can demand some extra discounts from your dealer saying else you will wait for this new model.
In summary:
Do not get scared by the price hike news and never buy in a hurry. The value of price difference can be recovered in multiple ways.

Understand that dealer’s interest is to close a sale “NOW”. They will never advise you to wait for few more months, no matter what. You should do your research and decide if you need to buy now or can wait for a few months.

Car is a depreciating asset. Loses money (resale value) every single day, costs money to maintain (insurance, service etc). More you delay its purchase, higher will be your savings.

P.S. Same applies for budget season. Many leave a feeler that more taxes will be imposed post budget and you should hurry and buy at pre-budget rates.  My simple advise is don’t get carried away- if you’re spending 5 to 10 lakhs on a car, be sure that you buy the right car at right time. A price difference of +/- 2 to 5% is perfectly fine if the car is right and you don’t have to regret your purchase made in a hurry.

Do you agree? Do you have a different point of view or additional tips to add? Please do comment.

Related: Buy vs rent a car - Pros and cons * 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Notes from "How to travel the world on budget" Unconference!

A week ago, I attended an unconference in Chennai about “How to travel the world on a budget”. The unconference was conceptualized and run by none other than Kiruba Shankar, who is the pioneer behind the concept of Unconferences. ('Unconferences' are where there’s no designated speakers and stage- every participant gets equal opportunity as a speaker to put his/her thoughts forward, taking away monotony of  a conference and inducing live interactions). This particular unconference on budget world travel received huge response with over 320 people registering whereas the venue (offered by NotionPress) had seating capacity of only 60. This sort of proves there’s lots of scope for Travel industry and related activities/services.
Group photo by Anirudra Boganatham
Though unconference adopts a free flow concept, few individuals with relatively higher expertise/experience are often invited to trigger the conversation and feed in their expert inputs. In this unconference on “How to Travel the world on Budget”, Sanchin Bandari (CEO of Eccentrips), Ansoo Gupta (CMO, Pinstorm), and Chari Vijayaraghavan were key speakers. I was also invited to share my thoughts and tips from the perspective of “traveling the world without quitting your job” perspective.


In this post, I am trying to summarize the tips and ideas that came out of the unconference. Part of it is summary of what I spoke, rest are tips from other speakers/audience, as much as I could recall from my memory + few points borrowed from members of the audience who were quick to note them down and share it online. If you couldn’t attend the session, I am sure these notes will help you motivate yourself and plan your travel better.

Kiruba opened the event with one of his signature ice breaker activity.

My talk at the “How to travel the world on budget” unconference.
I was asked to explain how I manage my office job + travel. Below is the major portion of my talk

Step 1: Prioritizing travel
Most of us talk about willing to travel, but if we introspect deep, travel will be at the bottom of our priorities. We want to spend on party, shopping, gadgets etc and claim we have no money for travel. We expect a dozen things fall in place (leave, cheap tickets, friends/family being free to join us etc etc) for us to travel, else claim we don’t have time to travel.  One simple and key requirement for being able to travel a lot is your ability to put travel above rest of luxuries/activities. Once you prioritize travel and set a target (like I will visit min 2 international cities in 2017 or I will explore at least 5 Indian states I haven’t been to so far) then arranging time and resource and putting a plan becomes easier. If you never prioritize it then it will be in the side-line, like how most of us plan to go to Gym regularly on new-year eve. I gave the example of a drunkard, who somehow manages to get 100 Rs to go to TASMAC bar every evening. His single most priority in life is to get drunk that evening and somehow he will find time and money for it, even if it means beg/borrow/steal or beating his wife. In other words, prioritize travel above other luxuries/activities and let us see why is it that you can’t travel.

Step 2: Making lifestyle changes and saving for your travel
Most of us claim we don’t have the money to travel or wonder how someone is able to travel so much. It is not impossible to save some funds for travel, even with a limited salary. If you notice carefully, those who travel a lot with their own money usually cut down on various other luxuries and unnecessary spends. In my case, I have stayed away from buying a car, I live a very simple everyday life- I use a bike/public transport to go around, I don’t indulge in luxury shopping, gadgets, eating out etc- these activities can easily cost several thousand a day and go unnoticed. Either avoiding or reducing the frequency/amount spent on these can easily free up lots of money for you which can then be spent on travel. For more details read these 2 posts of mine- How I save for my travel- guest post on Payaniga and Skydiving at 30k- is it really expensive? If you can’t compromise on any of the everyday luxuries and still want to travel the world first class, there is no magic formula- either you should have a rich father or father in law.

Step 3: Traveling on budget
Once you’ve prioritized travel and have started saving for travel, next step is to plan and execute that travel. Again there is no one stop solution for traveling cheap- it is a continuous process- you need to keep researching and analysing to know what is cheap and what is not, what is worth and what is not. Below are some broad guidelines

Air Tickets- Look for Airline sales, during which tickets are usually cheapest. Check this post for Air Asia Big Sale hacks. On every flight a few seats are sold for a very cheap fare- if you can grab those ultra-low fare seats, your travel cost is guaranteed to be anywhere between 30 to 60% cheaper than normal airfares. These low cost tickets on low cost airlines come with lots of riders like no refund etc, as risk you need to take.

Taking risks: Many of us want to confirm a dozen things before we book- if I will get leave, if my spouse is free to join, what will be parents say, if any of my friends are likely to join etc etc. If you wait for all those confirmations, the cheap fare will be gone. And even after you take all those confirmation and book, there is no assurance that something will not go wrong 2 days before the trip forcing you to cancel the trip. So my approach is to book when it is cheap and hope that I will be able to travel as per plan. There is a small risk that I might have to cancel and lose 100%, which is a gamble I am willing to try.

Hotels: Websites like Booking.com offer free cancellation, reducing risks. AirBnB like accommodations often give very unique experiences at reasonable prices. Hostels, couch surfing and camping are other cost saving ideas to explore.

Local transport: Use public transport- it will teach you lots of things about local life and take you to your destination dirt cheap. Many people ask me for a cheap and reliable local tour operator, but when I suggest better alternatives, they hesitate. For example, Singapore can be fully explored using MRT network. In Bali, I explored airport to airport 4 days, 820 kms on a Scoopy for a total amount of under 5k INR (rent, insurance, fuel, parking included). If you research more, you will find such cheaper options. But if you need a tour guide to come to your hotel with a taxi/van, take you around and drop you back, then be ready to spend more, as it is never going to be as cheap as public transportation (the tour guide needs to be paid, driver needs to be paid, taxi company needs to make money, toll, parking etc need to be paid, the agencies which coordinate this- one in India, one in destination country- they need to make profit- so you will have to pay for all of these and it is not going to be cheap. On the other side, if you can explore on your own, you will save a lot, might explore lots of things regular tourists miss, meet more people and all in all, make your trip more memorable. Read: City buses around the world * Understanding Copenhagen's Zone system

Managing leave: My trips are usually booked months in advance so that I can plan around it. I do carry office laptop and work a bit on holiday if situation demands. And if my presence is critical at office, I do cancel my trips. Most of my trips are planned around long weekends so that I don’t have to take too many leaves. [Check my 2017 Long weekend calendar here to plan your trips]. I travel mostly on my own, but am fortunate enough to get a few trips on invitation from travel and hospitality brands and occasionally on work.

While my trips are usually short, next to speak was Sachin Bandari, who has travelled for months at a stretch, exploring interiors of Latin America and more. He shared some visa tips and tricks and shared his experience fighting at local festivals, learning Salsa in Argentina and more. His experiences are well documented on his company, Eccentrips. He said he is renting one of the rooms of his house in Mumbai on AirBnB and earns about 30k from it every month.

Ansoo Gupta talked about traveling light, particularly for girls. She says she avoids check-in bag at all costs. She doesn’t carry too many sets of cloths, shampoos and other accessories and managed to travel light. This is great tip to follow- we should all travel light. But sometimes my camera bag and office laptop together exhausts cabin bag weight limit of 7kgs. I try to avoid check-in bag where I can, but sometimes there is no escape from it. Ansoo also said she feels Ixigo, Akbar Travels and Skyscanner are the best spots to get cheapest fares and deals. Ansoo conducts travel workshops on her own and was keen to conduct one in Chennai. Ansoo also promotes responsible travel.

A young girl asked “how to get your parent’s permission to travel”: Short answer was “Not recommended to travel solo unless you’re 18. Prove to them that you can handle yourself well in day to day life and do not need their support, so that parents will have confidence in you. If they are still reluctant, go with a friend instead of solo or go to destinations deemed not risky to begin with”

Kedar Nath, who has biked 13 countries covering 18000 kms was also present at the unconference- he talked about his journey and how his employer (JSW) have been supportive of his initiatives. He managed to get paid leave for his trips and in exchange got lots of publicity for his employer’s brand. He has written a book on his experiences and is currently gearing up for one more cross country bike trip.  Read his interview on YourStory here.

Sangeetha shared her experience traveling solo, seeking direction from strangers and dealing with men trying to get her WhatsApp number while pretending to help. Another girl spoke about how villagers in report areas of Indonesia came together to help her and take her to faraway hospital as she fell sick while trekking.

Kiruba talked about Japanese students volunteering at his farm.

Chari Vijayaraghavan was next to speak. He is associated with The Hindu and has lead the Young World Club initiative. Having travelled to 70+ countries, Chari had lots of experiences to share on volunteering, exploring places ranging from North Pole to Antarctica. He showed his backpacking itineraries, cost comparison when you travel as a volunteer, student or a tourist and so on. Instead of budget travel, Chari proposed value for money travel- some of the trips he suggested cost several thousand dollars, but are totally worth it and are once in a lifetime experiences. Being able to save up for such trips, managing to find a right deal and being able to execute it as per plan will be on the top of every traveller’s wishlist. He said being able to work as a Nanny (caretaker for kids) is a lucrative travel opportunity for people from Asia. If you know good English, have skills like Yoga etc, or willing to work as animal caretaker etc you can take up paid/unpaid volunteering work, earn some cash or at least have your stay and food experiences covered while also getting to explore new countries. He is vegetarian by food habit like me and didn’t find it inconvenient to survive while abroad.

Peshwa Acharya, who heads Sterling Holidays shared his thoughts as someone who travels for work all the time and works on the other side of the mirror- running a luxury holiday business. He said he deals with physical travel agents than booking online- this gives him longer credit periods, better cancellation deals compared to OTA (online travel agents like MMT).

Several members from the audience also spoke their experience and shared their tips and ideas. Unfortunately I am unable to recall the names and details.

Visas: Begin exploring countries that give Visa on Arrival or ETA, to reduce visa costs. Get US Visa- which enables visa free entry to many more countries. Do not assume everything will go smooth. Though Indians are expected to get visa on arrival in some countries, there could be secondary restrictions- like cash, onward tickets, whether entering via US or not etc. Do carry physical evidence of visa on arrival etc. There are some websites that give valid onward tickets for USD 10, valid for 24 hours (after which it will be cancelled automatically)-but trying to trick the immigration with these can cost you dearly if caught, including imprisonment and deportation, so not recommended to mess with Visa rules and guidelines.
It was nice meeting Pravin Shekar and many others at the event. Many aspiring travelers and bloggers connected with me post even seeking tips and advise- I did to the best of my abilities, hope they found it useful.

Below 2 slides made by Arvind Paneerselvam effectively summarize the findings from the session
Were you at the conference? Did I miss any key points? Do let me know.  Overall it was Sunday evening well spent- my phone was in bad shape so didn't take any photos but was good meeting so many likeminded people and exchange ideas. Thanks to Kiruba and volunteers for making this unconference happen and thanks to NotionPress for providing the venue.

Similar posts you may wish to read: Why Indians do not hitchhike much like Europeans? * My year of Travel 2016 * Social beat Instagram CPC
Indian Bloggers

Friday, December 23, 2016

The ethics of sponsored posts and how to deal with them!

This topic has been under discussion in various forums. On one side bloggers look to earn more and more from their blogs, on the other side, a need is felt that bloggers should be more transparent and ethical in their pursuit of money. One particular way of revenue for bloggers is sponsored post and this post tries to share my thoughts on how to bloggers and readers can go about it. Should bloggers not do it at all? Or should there be a disclaimer in every post? How can reader find out if it is a sponsored post and so on…
Fact check 1: You can’t do without sponsored post.
I hope you agree with me on this- else no point reading this post further. For all mediums- be it television, print or online, what end consumers (readers) pay is either zero or pittance. Most of the revenue comes from brands who give advertisements or sponsor the programs. Same for blogs- readers don’t pay and there’re expenses involved in running a blog and getting content for it, hence monetization becomes important. Thus for blogs also revenue from brands usually forms a significant portion. When brands offer to pay, they would want every pound of flesh they can extract. So they need visibility, traffic, ROI etc and can’t be expected NOT to have a say on how the post is drafted and published.

With that set, focus should be on what is the right/ethical way of doing sponsored post.

Many people believe that sponsored post should come with a disclaimer upfront. Few bloggers add a category/tag for such posts for easy identification, while others give subtle hint with lines like “This is done in association with ABC brand” while most bloggers do not give any disclaimer or hint- either because they don’t want to or in most cases, brands insist that there shouldn’t be any such indications.  If you feel that is very bad, consider this- You watch IPL match with several ads within an over- can you ask BCCI “Play your ads before and after the match so that I get an uninterrupted match watching experience?” Newspapers have half their pages filled with ads- can you ask Times of India- put all your news in first 20 pages and the ads in last 20 pages, so that I can throw away the ad portion and read only first 20 pages. The answer would be No. If an ad has to be successful, viewers/readers should view/read it, which is very unlikely to happen voluntarily, so every possible circus needs to be done to force it on them or trick them to read it. Otherwise the whole purpose will fail. Why would brands pay if blogger gives a disclosure in the very beginning because of which 90% of readers will skip right away without even reading first para? This may sound harsh, but this is the truth on every medium, blogging no different.

We are all used to get content for free. There was a Paid Radio station- WorldSpace, which would offer ad-free music. People had to buy a receiver, pay a subscription fee to enjoy ad-free music. But WorldSpace didn’t get much support in India and had to shut shop. We are doing well with free to listen FM stations that play ad between every 2 songs.  Similarly there are magazines which are paid but very few. Trying to convince readers to pay a small amount every month, in exchange for ad-free high quality content is something no blogger seem to have tried so far. As a reader, I am sure most of you would prefer to save those few rupees hence occasional sponsored post shouldn’t bother much.

As a reader, what should you do? How do you protect your time and interests?
I would suggest below guidelines, but feel free to use your discretion and judgment

How to identify sponsored posts? There is no sure shot way if not declared by the blogger, but below indicators usually suggest a very high probability of the topic being a sponsored post.
  • Same topic is being written about my multiple bloggers, with only minor variations within a short span of time (example- during a car launch or phone launch etc brand may pay several bloggers to write about the product)
  •  Posts lacking any personal touch/experience and out of sync with regular topics covered by the blogger
  • Posts that excessively focus on a specific brand and its products/services and attempting hard to push you into buying/registering etc without any mention of possible limitations/drawbacks or comparison with competition etc
  •   Other seemingly commercial contents without any declaration/evidence that blogger has personally tried that product/service/activity
Sponsored posts could be of different types, having different objectives and different kind of impact on readers. Below are the 4 major categorization I could think of.
#
Objective
Details
How to detect
Impact
1
Link building
Brands only need a link or two, usually content doesn’t matter much
Need to scan the article for clickable links, need to check source to see if it is dofollow or nofollow- Usually not worth it, ignore and proceed

Some bloggers allow guest posts (paid/ unpaid) which usually has a hidden agenda of link building.
Google will penalize blogs selling links

No real impact on readers, assuming links are given from an article of same quality/usefulness as rest of the posts
2
Press Release
Standard Press Release issued by brand for publication by media
Usually you will figure out before you finish reading first few paras. Several bloggers writing same/very similar stuff is also a giveaway
Press Releases usually contain only 10% useful information, rest junk data. If blogger is not eliminating useless data and dumping entire PR as is, it is waste of time, nothing else
3
Campaigns
/Contests
To draw more users to sign up for a campaign/ contest etc
Will have a sign up link/widget or participation instructions towards the end
These could be actually good for readers, assuming campaign is interesting and rewards are attractive. Decide if you wish to participate, else ignore.
4
Product/ Service promotions
Will explain why a product/ service is best and more importantly why should you spend your money to buy it.
-Brand and Product names usually appear multiple times throughout

No mention of any drawbacks/ limitations/ possible improvements what so ever
 
Product image/ graphics supplied by brand, not clicked by blogger

Posts usually end with why you should buy one and how
If the product/service is possibly related/useful to you then these are not bad. If totally irrelevant, ignore

If there’re false / misleading info bring it to attention of blogger and see if he/she corrects it.
I am not covering product reviews or FAM trips here- in these scenarios assumption is that blogger gets first-hand experience of the product and then writes his/her fair review. Sponsored posts are usually without much of a personal involvement.

What best to do when you spot a sponsored post as a reader?
  • See if it is possibly relevant/useful to you. In many cases it could be. If not, ignore and move on.
  • See how frequently a blogger is publishing sponsored posts or the % of sponsored posts. If it is low- like say only one or two out of 20-25 posts seem to be sponsored, I suggest you ignore them and move on- just the way you would skip an ad in YouTube or ignore an ad in a newspaper. But if some blogger is doing it repeatedly- say 8 out 10 posts are sponsored and not at all adding value, then it might be best to stop reading such bloggers. While sponsored posts are critical for a blog/blogger’s survival, no sensible blogger would overdo it. If a newspaper is 90% ad, 10% news, no point buying it. But if it has enough good content and some ads, then we learn to live with that, as it is helping newspaper owners to keep the cost of each copy low.
  •  Check if there is any deception in the sponsored posts- if it is only passing some correct information (such as details of a product etc) then it doesn’t do much harm. But if the post is trying to lie or deceive you into doing something you’d never do, then you should be careful (Example: Saying “Here’s a new phone, which has these cool features and seems to be reasonably priced” vs “This is the best phone in the world, better than iPhone, DSLR, music system, X-box and a laptop put together- you should stop whatever you are doing, buy it today itself or else you will lose big time”) While sharing commercial information/promoting a brand is fine, knowingly lying/misleading or tricking the readers is not acceptable.  Bloggers should do some minimum due diligence on the brand/sponsored post to ensure that information is correct to the best of their knowledge.
Of course bloggers need to careful with what kind of sponsored posts they entertain. These days most bloggers and brands/PR agencies take lots of effort to try ensure that sponsored posts are as interesting/useful as possible- but since they always have a commercial motive, there is a limit to how interesting/creative it can be. Anything totally irrelevant to the theme of their blog, anything that misleads/tricks readers, brands/products known to be very unreliable/poor quality etc should be avoided. Include disclaimer where you can/required, if not at least be sure to do some due diligence and ensure you don’t upset your readers beyond recovery. Always give more and more original/interesting/useful content to compensate for occasional commercial content you might be publishing. Never overdo sponsored posts (I guess 10-20% is acceptable, but use your discretion). Also read Prasad's post on how to kill your blog in 10 steps.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic. If you are asking personal questions be sure to use a verifiable identity. I may not respond in public forum to anonymous users asking personal/sensitive questions. Thanks for your understanding.

Disclaimer: Personal opinions only. Not binding on anyone. Please use your discretion.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Surviving a credit card fraud- my experience

In between my various travel activities, my credit card was compromised and someone started using it to make international purchases. Thanks to a super-efficient fraud detection software of ICICI bank and a well-defined process, the issue has been tackled. This post explains my experience going through the same and reading this might help you prevent similar incident occurring to you.

Background
•    I am a careful and sensitive user of credit cards. I seldom let websites store my credit card details and I always key in the details myself, though it is not very convenient.
•    Though my bank keeps sending me SMS stating I am eligible for an increased limit, I have been refusing it, since my current limit is more than enough for me.
•    I am aware of most of the phishing attempts done by tricksters and have been able to avoid them all these years (I am using cards for close to 10 years now)
•    Because of my occasional international travel, I have used my card for international transactions. While RBI mandates a secondary authentication by means of OTP etc, no such mandates apply for international transactions. Once the merchant has your card details, he can keep charging you at will, without your consent or additional authentication like OTP. (I have experienced this with Balibikerental.com and Tiger Air Australia)- This is a very risky proposition as any misuse is hard to dispute and fight back. The international transactions remain to be the biggest vulnerability/loop hole in my credit card usage
The fraud
On an early morning of Oct 2016, when I woke up from my sleep at 4 AM, about half a dozen transaction alert notifications were flooded in my mail box. My sleep went for a toss as I studied the transactions- I had not executed any of them. They were multiple small amount transaction ranging from USD 1 to Euro 20 to USD 79, together totaling up to about INR 10000.  Obviously the thief has been smart enough not to try any big value transactions as such transactions are easily picked up by fraud detection softwares or cards may not have the limit. All transactions happened at about late night time (10.32 to 11 PM)- the time of the day when one is likely to be least attentive- either asleep or may be partying etc.

It was clear that my card has been compromised. I called ICICI customer care right away to block the card. I was told that their fraud detection software has already flagged my card for abuse and has temporarily suspended it, preventing further transactions. Upon my call, staff said that he can get the card permanently suspended and I need to call after 7 AM to speak to disputes team and to request a new credit card.

Today banking softwares have evolved well to pick up suspicious transactions- by amount, location, merchant, frequency etc and take pro-active measures to prevent further damage. Thanks to the software boys and girls. Without this feature, the thief would have continued all night with hundreds of low value transactions.

I called them later in the day, I was offered a replacement card and transferred to disputes team. I confirmed to disputes team that I didn’t perform these transactions, nor did I receive any product or service against these transactions. I was asked to send a letter stating that these transactions are not performed by me, sign, scan and mail it to the disputes team. I agreed to it and asked why transactions are going through without OTP or secondary authentication. I was told that OTP is needed only in India and international transactions go through if merchant provides card no, expiry date and CVV number correctly. Any merchant with whom you have done transaction once will have these details, even if you chose not to save the card details with merchant website, it is big risk doing international transactions with your credit cards. We should stick to reputed companies and hope that card details will not be abused or compromised.

My last international transaction was with BaliBikerental.com, from whom I had booked a Honda Scoopy. I am not sure if I should blame these guys for some how knowingly or unknowingly compromising my card details or the thief got it from somewhere else.
The resolution
Bank registered my complaint and said they will raise a dispute with the merchant. There will be a gap of several weeks before the transaction happens and money is actually credited to the merchant by Visa. Banks and VISA would have agreement with merchants for dispute scenarios like this- if Merchant agrees, transaction will be reversed. If merchant insists that he has already provided a service, then it gets tricky. Usually if a product/service is involved and it is not yet delivered - example a phone or a hotel booking, then merchants won't have any basis to say they won't co-operate. Sometimes when a service might have already been delivered (ex: paid online gaming session or download) merchants may resist. But usually they cooperate- for a few dollars they don't want to be getting bad name.

In my case, bank has credited back all the transaction amount in good faith. However, the dispute process went on for months. Most of the disputed transactions have been fully reversed by now.

The PayPal connection
I did some research on my own on each of the transactions.

One of the transaction was at Paypal-the first one. The thief had used PayPal to validate the card, by making 1 USD transaction. I called Paypal and informed that whoever used this card is a cheat and his/her account needs to be suspended. But PayPal executive on phone was not mature enough to comprehend the severity of situation.  I even logged a written complaint through their website, but didn’t receive any response so far. I think PayPal doesn’t really care if the payment is legitimate.

Other merchants where the transactions were done, they were all outside idea or didn’t really have an online presence to trace them and alert them on the fraudulent usage. For a successful fraud, fraudsters would need help from merchants also-either they will use the stolen card details to buy something quick from genuine merchants or in most cases, set up fake companies and do big transactions, so that once banks pay the merchant, entire money can be pocketed.
I got my replacement card. I am good for now, hope this card stays secure longer.

ICICI Bank’s social media team also helped to the extent they could. But there wasn’t much value add/need for their intervention as the disputes team did the work with good efficiency. Social media folks did some extra coordination/follow-up which was nice. On one of the occasions, my pre-paid balance was running low, so I asked if they can call back- dispute team said "No, they can't call back". I had to recharge, call again and repeat the story. Looks like only social media team has authority to call customers, but their call usually unnecessary if core teams work efficiently.

What Banks can do more
With great push for cashless transactions, there are now dozens of new ways to make payments. We should now be more careful than ever, as not all parties will have genuine intentions and not all apps/systems/networks will be safe all the time to offer protection against online frauds. Read below to find out what all can be done by banks and customers to prevent credit card frauds.

Banking softwares are getting fairly smarter day by day against fraud. They can detect unusual activities and flag a transaction and may temporarily suspend a card if used for questionable transactions repeatedly (like it happened in my case)- I am very happy that ICICI Bank has commissioned best of the technology available for this purpose (I think they use Infosys’s Pinnacle). In many cases, if a card is used in high risk country, banks proactively replace the card, to pre-empt any risk of abuse. There are two more things banks can do, in my opinion.

Banks can offer following security measures to customers for better security
-    Let customers control their limit. For example, I may have 1 lakh credit limit. But if I am not planning any high value transactions, I should be able to set the credit limit to a much lower limit- say 20k. This way, even if my card details are compromised, max anyone can use it will be up to 20k. Much less risk. Whenever I am planning a high value transaction, I can login to internet banking, increase my limit, perform my transaction and then reduce the limit.
-    Make OTP mandatory even for international transactions if customer is fine with it

What can be done by customers to prevent credit card fraud?
  • Do not save card details on merchant websites- you never know which website will be hacked when and your details reach wrong hands. It might be inconvenient, but keying in for each transaction is safer.
  • Ensure that email and SMS alert for your card usage is active and working
  • Avoid international transactions if possible. If not possible, transact only at reputed websites.
  • Avoid making banking transactions over unsecured public wifi, cyber cafe or in open places where the data you enter might get compromised.
  • Never share your card details with anyone through any medium
  • Get a second credit card, with much lesser limit- use this for high risk international transactions.
Pay it safe, Play it safe. 
Similar: When ATM gave Rs 100 note instead of 500 * Fake calls claiming of court cases against you *

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My year of travel 2016

This post summarizes how my 2016 went. I feel it went better than expected. Though I had to cancel a few trips, still managed to embark on a couple of trips every month on an average, small or big.

January:
Visited Singapore on invitation from Changi airport, took part in the Changi Challenge.

February:
Visited Australia for the first time, spent about a week exploring Melbourne and Sydney, using Air Asia’s cheap ticket (booked a year ago). Also had stop over at Malaysia both during onwards and return trip to explore Putrajaya and Maleka…
Attend a Flipkart-Indiblogger outdoor meet in Bengaluru, Drove Audi for the first time (Q3).

March:
Spent a weekend in JLR Bannerghatta campus, went on a biking trip (a day only)- not much to travel otherwise.

April:
A weekend trip each to Madurai and another trip to Cochin, both because I had booked Spicejet tickets on a sale several months ago.

May:
Sri Lanka – second visit. Explored the Southern side this time- Galle, Matara etc. Had a day trip around Bengaluru with Revv’s Ford Aspire

June:
Went to Subramanya in a Nissan Sunny. 2 days well spent in the Western Ghats.

Macau and Hong Kong – two special administrative regions on the China border. Spent a week exploring these two awesome locales.
July:
Jaisalmer – on invitation from Suryagarh. Visited the ancient Kiradu temple ruins. Also spent a day at Jodhpur.

August:
Visited Andaman for the first time- 3 days were not enough- should go there again

Visited Valparai, Conoor with relatives, went to Athirapally waterfalls for the first time.

September
Hampi, on invitation from Orange County.
Vijayawada, because of a cheap ticket on Spicejet sale – went to Dindi, Rajahmundry and Amaravati as well.

October:
Bali trip finally happened. Spent about 4 days there, rented a scooter and rode for about 820 kms exploring length and breadth of Bali. There are still pending items – Indonesia will need few more trips in future. Read all Bali posts here.

Went to Bengaluru and had a day out with Revv Car’s Honda city, courtesy Revv.

A weekend trip to Hyderabad to experience the new Tata Hexa. Onward journey was with Indigo and return with Air India.

Maldives: A 2 day visit to Maldives with Srilankan Airlines.

November:
While October was the most traveled month, November was probably the least traveled month. Except a weekend trip to Bengaluru and Shravana Belagola, didn’t travel anywhere – spent most of the weekends at home. Had a ticket to Australia which I had to cancel.

December:
A visit to home town to attend a wedding, on my return journey got first-hand experience of the cyclone- lived without power at home for a few days. Attended a few events including an Unconference on How to Travel the world on budget. With another 10 days left, I might just have one last trip before the year ends.

Summary:

Vehicles I drove this year- Audi Q3, Nissan Sunny, Ford Aspire, Honda city, Tata Hexa, Honda Scoopy, Activa, Scorpio, Etios. In terms of flights, about 40 take offs in total. Flew most of the Indian airlines this year but yet to try the Vistara – hopefully in 2017.

Events attended- Flipkart Indiblogger meet, Indiblogger Tata Hexa Meet, Unconference on How to travel the world on budget, StoryMirror creative writing workshop, UrbanTree bloggers meet, Social Beat Chai Pe Charcha sessions and few book launches.

Countries visited: Australia, Macau, Hongkong, Indonesia and Maldives for the first time, Singapore, Srilanka, Malaysia repeat visits.

I am certainly not the most traveled person. There are many other bloggers and travelers who have traveled lot more or have done fewer but longer trips. Note that all my travel is in addition to going to office. Only 2 of the above- Australia and Macau-HK ones were done with one week long leave. Everything else are either weekend trips or weekend +1 or 2 days leave. If you notice carefully only 3-4 domestic and 1 international trips were on invitation or sponsored. Rest were all self-funded. Did spent most of my savings on travel this year, let us see how 2017 goes.

How was your 2016?
Indian Bloggers

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Best cars under 10 lakh

We all have dreams. Dream or a wish, when supported by a realistic plan becomes a goal. Because we have only one life, limited resources and time, we should look at achieving our goals in a smarter way, than using traditional paths which may not really efficient or best. Purchasing a car is the goal of every individual in India. As soon as we land a stable job, we look to buy a car, in most cases on a car loan. What most of us don’t realize is that a car is a depreciating asset. If we buy it on a loan, the interest amount paid will be 30% of loan amount over the period of 5 years (10 lakh loan for 5 years at 10% results in about 3 lakh rupees in interest payment alone, while your car will be worth half its original price five years from now)

A more efficient approach to fulfill life goals, such as buying a car, will be to invest smartly in SIPs or Systematic Investment Plans. SIPs enable you to set aside a pre-defined amount every month and have it invested smartly across multiple investment types – such as debt or equity, based on your risk preference and investment objectives. SIP mutual funds are best way to let your money grow with minimal risk and optimum returns. While there are many mutual funds which claim to be the best SIP plans, one plan you should consider is Sabse Important Plan by Birla Sun Life

There are many good cars under INR 10 lakhs that first time car buyers often consider. Some of them are:

1 Maruti Suzuki Baleno: One of the most popular cars in under 10 lakh budget- beautiful design and premium interiors, reliable engine, good specs and wide after sales service network. Maruti Baleno ticks all the boxes and comes in 5 different variants, priced between 7 and 8.5 lakhs ex-showroom Delhi. Only drawback being long waiting period.

2 Maruti Suzuki Ertiga: The MPV to go for, if you have a large family or eyeing weekend trips with your large group of friends.  Ertiga is a great alrounder, priced between 7.7 to 9.7 lakhs ex-showroom.

3. Ford Ecosport: One of the most popular compact SUVs of our times, Ecosport has a great SUV like look, high ground clearance, powerful engine and spacious interiors. Ecosport is a nice lifestyle vehicle for those with adventure in mind

4. Honda Jazz: Honda Jazz is a premium hatchback loaded with features and utilities. Jazz comes with captivating external styling, powerful engine, lots of colour options and automatic transmission. Honda badge commands a premium during resale.
5. Tata Motors Zest: If you are looking for a conventional compact sedan, Zest from Tata Motors is a serious contender. The sub 4 meter compact sedans save on tax but give you a premium feel over hatchbacks. Zest competes fiercely with Maruti Dzire, Hyundai Xcent, Honda Amaze and the recently launched VolksWagen Ameo.

Now that you have a shortlist of cars you would like to buy, let us see how the best SIP plan helps you materialize the same. Visit https://sipnow.birlasunlife.com/ and select Car from “What do you wish to invest for”. The website will guide you step by step, taking input on your budget, risk profile, income, % savings and so on. At the end of this, you will be presented with one or more SIP mutual fund options, which in combination will enable you to save the amount you would need to fulfil your dream- in this case, a new car. This way you can set-aside a small sum every month and within years see this fund build up and grow to reach a level that is adequate to fulfil your dream purchases. This approach is lot cheaper and better than the conventional alternative of buying things on a loan. The loan option puts you in unnecessary debt trap and costs you lot more than what you thought it would.

Watch this nice video to understand more on Birla Sun Life Subse Important Plan