The Eurotrip countdown

This post happens to be unique as it is the first I am writing outside India! I have been backpacking alone for a month in Western Europe- a long vacation (not so long in non-Indian SI units, of course) that has been full of many new experiences. While a detailed post and/or photo album will follow, let me first talk about how I ended up planning this trip, the challenges I faced, etc.

A difficult decision:

To be honest, I was intimidated, right from the beginning till I checked into my first hostel. I had my reasons. First, I had never stepped out of India before, and suddenly I was thinking of traveling alone for a month. Most Indians at my age have had been to foreign places because of their job, an internship or with their family. These are much ‘safer’ or ‘easier’ ways of traveling abroad as compared to what I had in mind. Second, I had no idea of how to best manage/get foreign currency, travel inter/intra countries, etc. Third, security concerns. For example, I was somewhat scared to visit Amsterdam, given its reputation.

Why Europe?

Last November, I begun toying with the idea of traveling abroad. The initial inclination was to do a trek, such as Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountains in Africa and Europe respectively. But when estimated the costs, I realized that I could go much higher in India itself, such as to Stok Kangri, in less than one-fifth the cost. It was then that the idea of a Eurotrip stuck me. I got excited, and here I am!

Moreover, I was pretty sure I would travel alone. When you go with folks, you end up discussing the pros and cons before doing anything. Everyone has an opinion, and what you end up doing is a sum vector of what everyone wants. No judging, but that is how things are. On the other hand, traveling alone gives you complete freedom, something I wanted to have while spending so much money.

Visa formalities:

Oh, the things I had to go through to get the visas! In spite of no prior experience in these matters, I thought I could manage it on my own and didn’t consult a travel agent. What it eventually lead to were six (yes, six!) trips to VFS, the firm that acts as a middleman between you and an embassy, for two visas: Schengen and UK transit! It was incredible.

I initially thought that I would first get the Schengen visa and then chart out details of the trip. I applied to Portugal, as it was my port of entry, without any accommodation proofs. But when they asked me to visit their embassy in Delhi for an interview, which was mandatory as I never had a US, UK or Schengen visa, I decided to wait and see if I could leverage some other option to save at least 15k for a visit to Delhi. I found out that Germany and France have their consulates in Bangalore. I ended up applying to Germany as it turned out, on actually planning the trip, that I was spending most days in Germany. Last, I applied to UK for a transit visa.

Currency:

Arranging currency turned out easier than I expected. I stumbled on a website, BookMyForex, that promised better rates than HDFC or Axis bank. I gave a shot at using their services. The process wasn’t smooth, but they eventually got everything in order before I caught my flight. I took little currency and an Axis prepaid travel card. I mostly used the card because there was no additional charge on swiping it, that in turn meant I could roam around with less cash in my wallet.

Phone calls to India:

There were majorly three options: Viber, Skype and Nymgo. I eventually went with Nymgo for two reasons: it was cheaper than the others and I had heard good reviews about their call quality from a friend who had widely used it while he was in Ukraine. During the trip, Nymgo betrayed me for two days in Bruges- otherwise it has worked great.

Inter/intra-country travel:

I purchased a EURail Global pass with a validity of 24 days of continuous travel. It cost me about 500 EUR, a price that well worth it given the exorbitant prices for train tickets in Europe.

The trip has turned out well till now. Photos, with detailed captions, coming soon!

The old age symptom

This post was written sometime last year, but didn’t publish it until now.

When I joined my first job out of college, I was one of the youngest members of my team. I then had a gala time teasing my seniors about their “old age” even though none of them had crossed thirty. That, however, was a long time ago and three years since, I can offer more meaningful insights for this discussion.

When do you become old? Age certainly can not be a criteria for this as examples abound about people who achieved something substantial at an age of 50 which many couldn’t even muster the courage to think about at 25. Consequently, you shouldn’t be called old simply if your face starts showing wrinkles or hairs starts turning white. Do you turn old when you start assuming bigger responsibilities in life? I suppose not.

On one of my Himalayan treks earlier this year, our trek guide surprised me when he said he preferred guiding first-time trekkers because they are more open. The first-timers are not weighed down by their prior experiences and hence are willing to learn anything new that the guide has to offer and they do not keep saying “this is not how we used to do things in my previous treks”. When I think about it, one becomes old when one becomes resistant to change. You are either too comfortable in your comfort zone or are unwilling to try something new because “that is not how you used to do this thing previously” or you are not willing to take risks.

It is imperative that we try something new every once in a while. From what I have seen, doing this is not straightforward. Still, this is all that can give any meaning to what we do with our lives.

A hobbyist’s backlog

In the closed meeting rooms of offices, we solemnly discuss sprint backlogs and technological debts. Why not talk similarly about a hobby that you pursue a little more seriously? With the tune of Misty Mountains playing in the back of my head, I search for words to illustrate the kind of debt that I, a serious movie-watcher, owe to myself!

This is majorly about The Lord Of The Rings. I first saw the movie and then read the book but I still felt I had just skimmed the surface of an epic which has enthralled so many. I always wanted to revise the trilogy but only got around to start doing it during my current Diwali visit to Ahmedabad. I don’t intend to finish it, something that is no small task given the humongous variety of characters, events and perspectives that constitute the LOTR. Rather, I intend to watch the movies again, paying more attention to details, and also go through the book as time permits.

Apart from the trilogy, there are other movies as well which I have to revisit to understand them better, or just to find more reasons to call them great. Some of these titles include No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time In The West and Lost Highway, among others. This Watch Again list is different from My Watchlist which is simply a list of movies to help me quickly choose a new film to watch next.

One other thing that goes on, along with the usual movie-watching, is an attempt to get the benchmarking of my IMDb ratings right. There was a time, in the beginning, when I’d rate most of the movies as seven or eight, and only occasionally rate a title five. For example, there was a time when I gave Torque a full seven stars out of ten! I am still learning how to get my ratings right.

The big man’s story!

An avid reader during childhood, I have seen a huge shift in my reading habits since long. The detective novels and random non-fiction books have largely been replaced by posts from Facebook, Twitter, Quora and other random places on the internet. So when I began reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, a gift from a close friend who said the book might help me make sense of my entrepreneurial thoughts, I wasn’t too excited. However, now that I have read the entire thing, I have begun to appreciate what the world lost when Jobs died a couple of years ago.

Being a well-researched project, with inputs from the man himself, the book is an authentic account of Jobs’ life. The two aspects of the latter, that impacted me the most, follow:

  • A tremendous drive to get things done and an obsession with perfection: Some of the most iconic products that Jobs created were, in fact, already there in the market before. They, however, distinguished themselves from the competition because of their innate simplicity and user-friendliness. Jobs introduced features which, though pushed engineering to its limit, eventually gave a beautiful experience to the end user.
    For example, Mac copied the GUI from a Xerox machine, but it implemented it in a much better way. Sony was already in the digital music player business before the iPod, but the latter swept the music industry off its feet with a sleek look and a much simpler user interface. Jobs introduced a touch phone, and later a tablet, without a stylus at a time when every smartphone carried one. Moreover, the swipe-controls so common in smartphones today were actually a very cool thing back when Jobs introduced them in iPhone: if you don’t believe me, just search for the first iPhone launch video on YouTube and hear the crowd erupt in amazement when he first swipes through a list of music!
  •  A rebellious nature and a don’t-care attitude towards insecurity and dogma: When ousted from Apple, Jobs said he wanted to start another company because he was thirty and he had nothing better to do in life. For someone raised in a society which insists on having a job for financial security, this story was thought-provoking.

Grab a copy if you can. And maybe you’ll like it as much as I did!

P.S.- If you’ve already read about Steve Jobs, you’ll definitely love, and more importantly, understand, this!

Why choose WordPress over Blogger

If you blog, you too might have faced the question of what blogging platform to use to put up your thoughts in front of the world. In this post, I offer my two cents on the topic, especially for those who are either about to start blogging or looking for alternatives on being fed up with their current blog-hosting website.

When I wrote my first blog post, I put it up on Blogger. For a long time, I cared little to promote my blog or get more subscribers. When I later felt that I’d rather connect with the outside world through my blog than via Facebook (which I think is for the people who love showing off) or Twitter (where the 140 character-limit was too restraining sometimes), I decided to first improve the aesthetics of my blog. And thus began my urge to jump ship to some other blogging platform!

First, I wanted to enhance the look and feel of my blog, and the options Blogger provided made me feel handicapped! The number of built-in themes are few. You can download a theme from third-party websites, but then you’d have to configure every such theme to make it work. For example, you have n number of widgets currently on your blog. Now, when you upload a new theme, all your widgets would be gone and you’ll have to manually bring them back. Every time you try a new theme!

Apart from that, Google does a country-specific url-redirection of a blog (meaning that a .blogspot.com part of your blog url would change to .blogspot.in if you are viewing the blog in India) which, though can be prevented, looked ugly. Another important thing that Blogger lacked was some sort of a community where I could connect with fellow bloggers.

In search of an alternative, I turned to Tumblr. But I, then, read somewhere that Tumblr is more suited to folks looking to write short Twitter-like posts or ones containing visuals and not for serious writers.

I turned to WordPress and suddenly, I found everything that Blogger lacked. It has so many built-in themes that you probably would never want to go searching for one somewhere else. And these themes just work out of the box! There is a default follow button on the top of every WordPress blog. Moreover, when I tried to import my Blogger blog to WordPress, everything happened seamlessly keeping the dates, tags, comments etc. intact!

I’ve been on WordPress for about a month now and I think I’ll stay here for long.

My experiments with the social network. So far..

I would like to point out, in the very beginning itself, that this post is not an attempt to demystify the big maze of social networking or to deplore about how much time mankind (literally) wastes on that! Almost everyone has his views about the topic, as you’d expect one to have about what all is wrong with our country, and so much has already been said about it and every angle explored in such detail that another post doing the same makes little sense! Rather, I’d like to recollect my experiences with social networking.

To begin with, I wasn’t much exposed to the online world as late as my first year in college, in 2006, but it wasn’t generally so for my batchmates, especially the ones who belonged to Delhi itself. They knew what Yahoo! messenger was and I didn’t. Nevertheless, I catched up fast by spending copious hours at the college’s computer centre! Things weren’t as easy as walking on a bed of roses, though. Many websites were blocked or the necessary plugins missing. Computers were programmed to format on every restart (seriously!) which, in turn, meant that you probably had to install the messenger, a time-consuming task itself, on your every visit (I later got around the problem when I found out about Meebo). Then there were the seniors who didn’t care one bit that you had bunked your class to be there as the commanded you to leave!

Things have changed rapidly since then. We are now in a world where cheeky status updates (for example, one announcing that you just bought a new toothpaste) with a smiley :-) in the end or some Facebook fan page asking you to like, comment on or share an image to give one, five or ten salutes respectively to a cause are not uncommon!

Allow me to give you a tour of all that I’ve experienced.

Orkut: During my first year in college, I vividly remember how excited a friend was as he once came rushing to make sure I had created an account on Orkut, how we found out at least a dozen proxy links (for example, kproxy, anonymouse, etc.) to access Orkut from the computer centre or how desperate some of my friends were to increase their scrap-count: we were addicted/obsessed with Orkut!

Even though Orkut had many users, especially in India, it was crappy. For example, if you uploaded new photos, there was no way your friends would know about it. So now, you would have to change your name to something like “XYZ ~ uPloAdEd NeW pHoToS tO ma aCCoUnT!” (yes, typing this way was cool back then, as it still is) and then visit your friends’ profile so that your name appeared in their recent visitors list. You couldn’t comment on photos and your scrapbook was publicly visible. In short, what a mess! People kept using it, until they found a better solution (read, Facebook) after which, they never returned.

Facebook: The main purpose of Facebook is to help me connect with my friends and it is failing big time with that. It tells me that some obscure guy in my friend list (whom I added just because we had fifty mutual friends in the first place) forgot to take his wallet to a restaurant but doesn’t help me find out when a close friend quits his job without another offer in his pocket. I have unsubscribed from more than half of my friend-list and I know I can further customize what and how much I see of the rest, but don’t I have other things to do in life?

The only Facebook feature that is still of some interest to me is the chat, but I have begun to realize that Whatsapp is a better alternative to that. I now try to keep my Facebook account deactivated for as long as I can; deactivated, because deleting it (if there even is an option to) is rather difficult for obvious reasons.

Twitter: I turned to Twitter, a microblogging platform, when I realized that I wasn’t able to find enough time to write for my blog. I initially fell in love with Twitter, would open it on my phone first thing in the morning, but the charm faded away soon, mainly because I didn’t have many real-life friends there. A guy, back in college, used to say that Twitter would become the primary way we’d stay connected after college- that, however, didn’t even begin to happen! My Twitter account mostly stays dormant, except for an occasional tweet.

Instagram: I created an account on Instagram while looking for a website to share photos that I would click from my newly-purchased camera. But then I realized that Instagram was mainly created to help iPhone and Android users quickly share their phone-photos after, maybe, applying some basic filters and not for people looking to share their DSLR photos. Moreover, in the latter, the pain of transferring your photos to your phone every now and then was asking too much. I don’t use Instagram anymore.

500px: was another place that I thought I could use to build my portfolio of photographs. But I was quickly intimidated by the sheer professionalism of the pictures uploaded there. I’d like to directly upload the photos my camera has clicked, unlike the professional photographers who do a lot of post-processing to raw images, and 500px clearly wasn’t the place for that.

Google+: My profile here is simply one that people come to from the comments I leave here and there on the web. I have no use for it otherwise, again, because none of my friends are active here.

LinkedIn: Even though it is touted as the biggest professional networking website in the world, I haven’t seen a single example of LinkedIn actually getting someone a job he couldn’t have otherwise. Sure, many recruiting HRs have gotten in touch with me via LinkedIn but none of these connections have ever helped me get an interview invite with a firm I’d like to get into. LinkedIn is pretty successful abroad because people work hard to build contacts in their industry, whereas in India, things hardly work this way.

When I first thought I would write on the current topic, I thought I’d write down a couple of sentences for every website and be done in a medium-size post. I was clearly wrong!

Triund: a weekend trekking delight near Delhi!

The complete photo story available here on Picasa.

It is a good thing to be bitten by the trekking bug, because it sometimes takes you to places which make you wonder if you are still in India! Let me talk about one such experience I had at Triund in Himachal Pradesh.

Ever since I returned from Chadar, I found it difficult to get the prospect of yet another trek out of my mind. I longed to go back. But I was a little apprehensive. While the Chadar trek was on a completely flat terrain, I knew other treks wouldn’t be so. I am not an athlete, even by the most lenient standards, and I wasn’t sure if I would be okay while climbing mountains. And so I decided to do the Triund trek because I was told by Gaurav, a fellow trekker at Chadar, that Triund has all the elements to test one’s perseverance for Himalayan trekking.

Having said that, and that Gaurav was mighty right with his suggestion, let me also add that I found much more there! Triund is an ideal place for someone new to trekking or one looking for a quick weekend adventure out of Delhi. With its snow-covered hilltop, the mighty Dhauladhar range in the backdrop, the chilly night and a warm, cozy and electricity-deprived guest-house room, Triund was incredibly beautiful and inviting!

Triund, however, is gradually becoming popular among pseudo-travelers and first-timers and so becomes crowded and expensive during summers (and by the way, I’ve heard the camping scene at Triund is something to look forward to in the summer season!). It wasn’t so for us, because we went there in the first week of March when the summers were still not fully upon us. But if you happen to visit Triund in peak summers, you’d better go further up to Lahesh Caves, or even to Indrahar Pass, if you are looking for some peace!

I’ve also heard some really good things about the cuisines of McLeodGanj. I missed out on exploring them, but there’s always a next time around the corner!

P.S.- I found this website very useful while planning my trip.

A half-remembered narrative

I met him only once, and that too a long time ago. I don’t remember his name anymore and even the details of his tale are now fuzzy in my head. But I distinctly remember how fascinated I was with what he shared. We have all heard stories about how corrupt the government bodies that run our nation are, but it was the first time I heard an insider’s account of what he’d seen. He was down a couple of beers and I have little reason to believe that his story might’ve been fabricated or exaggerated!

He was an Inspector of FCI, the Food Corporation of India, in some town of Punjab. I think it was FCI, but it may well have been a differently named, albeit a similar function, company- that doesn’t really matter. This is what he had to say. He was part of a huge hierarchy where every under-the-table money that went through the organization was equally and fairly divided at every level. Whatever be the size of the bribe-pie, the portion you’d get was predetermined (which meant you won’t have to go out in the field to haggle with someone) and would come to your desk at the start of each month: it was simple as that! The amount that he got every month was somewhere between 40k to one lac but what was more interesting was that, according to him, he was part of a vicious circle wherein he had to accept the bribe money, whether he liked it or not, else get conveniently kicked out of the system!

Apart from all this, let me tell you a little about yet another interesting part of his personal life. He had come to Delhi to enroll into one of the many IAS coaching centres here, He had no plans to quit his job back home and so would keep receiving his legitimate monthly paycheck. His absence in office would be managed by a couple of colleagues who would now share his bribe money among themselves and in return would buzz him in case of any trouble!

As one might expect, corruption and neglect was highly rampant in the warehousing of the grains too. It wasn’t unusual for the officials to let monsoon water seep into the godowns, because the soaked water would drastically increase the weight of the grain sacks in the near future, or to let them rot in the presence of thousands of mice in some other season. The common man, be it the consumers or the farmers, would, of course, pay the price in both the cases. He also used some math to bring home his point, but I hardly remember any of it now.

Can we even imagine how many thousands of companies, as big as or maybe even bigger than FCI, exist in our country, in both the private and the public sector?

It wasn’t easy to buy a camera!

Moments of self-realization are rare! You might go blank for a few seconds when a social networking website prompts you to write an About Me, but apart from few such occasions, you are generally confident that you know yourself well. And then something comes up that shows you an entirely new facet of your personality. I can tell this because something similar happened with me recently.

I decided to purchase a camera after my Chadar trek. I had a Canon Powershot SX30 there and the pictures it captured came out so good that it made the question of what brand to purchase simple. I could either purchase an advanced point and shoot or a DSLR. I realized that I am good at doing my research: from more than a couple of dozen models on Flipkart and Amazon and given my constraints and preferences, I could come up with the best cameras in both categories in just three or four days.

But then, the question of an advanced P&S vs. a DSLR haunted me for days after that. I remember having read somewhere that men are, in general, not good at multitasking; I, for one, realized this in a rather difficult way! I was so focused on this one thing for those couple of weeks or so that nothing else seemed to matter, and every sane advice to go to the market and just purchase one of the two cameras was stubbornly ignored. The torment, of course, eventually ended when I bought a DSLR last week.

These two traits were also clearly visible to me when I was deciding, some time back, on what mutual funds to invest in. Not many people spend time trying to discover and understand themselves better, but for others like me who do, experiences like the ones mentioned above offer a fresh perspective on a rather lesser known territory..

Chadar Frozen River Trek

Once the trek is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.
You won’t even be sure, whether the trek is really over.
But one thing is certain. When you come out of the trek, you won’t be the same person who walked in.
That’s what the trek is all about.

Just a few days ago, I returned from an unforgettable journey. It was a trek on a frozen river near Ladakh, at a time when the temperature dips to -25 (or maybe, -30) degree C! My Picasa album of more than a hundred photos fairly tell my story of the Chadar trek; I’ll be more general in this blog post.

Last year, few folks I know from college went on a breathtakingly beautiful Kashmir Great Lakes trek. It was their second, after one to Chandratal, and the photos they brought back were such I had seen only in movies before. Moreover, a close friend of mine from that group talked passionately about how different an experience it was to trek in the mighty Himalayas, not only because they are beautiful, but also because you feel so small and helpless in front of the mountains that have been there for thousands of years- just standing and doing nothing!

I too longed to experience all this for myself (look at an old tweet, for example!) and an opportunity presented itself one day while randomly surfing the Indiahikes website. I read that the Chadar trek was difficult, but it was also one that was happening most recently- I wasn’t really in a mood to plan a trip for as late as May or June. I decided, more so on an impulse, to at least pay one visit to the Himalayas- I could always decide on whether to go on more later.

It being my first trek, I didn’t know what all to expect, the most important points to keep in mind while making the preparations and the do’s and don’ts. I didn’t even know that Chadar was one of the most extreme treks in the Himalayas, something that I later found out from a woman who was there on her fourteenth (yes, fourteenth!) Himalayan trek! My carry bag was wrong, so were a few other things which eventually made me shorten my stay on Chadar for four days instead of six.

Still, it was a trek that I won’t easily forget! I met a 43 year old woman, who was on her 8th Himalayan trek and also completed it! She had a hard time negotiating her way through bedside rocks (when needed), usually stooped over her trekking pole and was almost always the last one to finish the trek- but she still completed it, which was an inspiring sight for me! Moreover, I had never seen snow before in my life and the trek showed me so much ice and snow that at one point, I feared that the views would soon become monotonous!

Apart from the trek, I was happy that I finally visited Leh city- I instantly fell in love with it. The residents are warm and inviting: they like to talk to tourists about their city, religion & culture, are soft-spoken and have a helping nature. I was also told that Leh becomes more beautiful in summers (with greenery, a better weather etc.), and I promised myself that I would try to visit Ladakh at least once every year. I missed out some great spots such as Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, but I’ll go back to visit them pretty soon! While talking to the people of Leh and seeing a glimpse of their religion, I have also developed a curiosity about Zen Buddhism- will learn more about that sometime in leisure.

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