Tag Archives: Travel

Photo Diaries Series #2: Day out with friends at Vandalur

My first memories of Vandalur Zoo date back almost 20 years ago, when our Class I teacher took us out for a picnic. I’ve been there 3 or 4 times since then. Last time I visited the beautiful place was in August last year with friends from College (Can’t believe it’s already a year, since then).

Remember Sayar Banerji (now a family man) taking 183 pictures of the same tiger to get the perfect shot (the shot worth 182 failed attempts).

The Zoo with an entry fee of Rs. 10 (or 20, I don’t remember), is an underestimated hangout destination among the youth of Chennai, mainly because of its distance from central Chennai. It takes about an hour form road if you’re lucky with the Traffic.

At Vandalur Zoo, with a few animals outside the cage.

At Vandalur Zoo, with a few animals outside the cage.

If you’re new to my Photo Diaries Series, you could start here.

Travel Diaries: Whitewater Rafting at Rishikesh

Memories are strange. At times, you find yourself under the Lockhart Memory Charm, not being able to recollect memories even from the recent past. There are other memories from 10, 15, even 20 years ago which stay crystal clear in your mind, as if it had occurred yesterday.

I have one such memory from 20 years ago, when I was a 5 year old kid. We had gone to Haridwar for the first time then. I remember taking a dip in the mighty Ganges, tightly clinging on to my uncle with one hand and holding on to the steel ropes with the other. The temperature of Haridwar and that of the Ganges was as contrasting as CSK’s and MI’s performances in IPL games. Ma Ganga was freezing cold. I remember my body and teeth shivering even 20 minutes after the ordeal I had with Her. I vaguely remember walking across Ram/Laxman Jhula, feeling accomplished after crossing them, as if I had conquered the mighty Velliangiri hills (Of course, I was a 5 year old then :P). Well, that was 20 years ago.

Last week, I went to Rishikesh again, this time with a set of 6 colleagues-turned-friends, mainly for whitewater rafting.

A lot can happen over lunch. Our two day trip to the adventure capital of India (yes, that’s what Wikipedia calls Rishikesh) materialized during one of our lunch sessions between Office. Over the past one year of my stay here in NCR, I’ve heard a lot of people talk a lot of good things about whitewater rafting in Rishikesh. So when Parkavi Vasan (referred to as “Paaru” going forward) initiated talks about a two day trip to Rishikesh, I was more than game for it.

Nothing about the trip was planned, apart from the onward train from Delhi to Haridwar. I quote my Guru Bhaskar NH, when I say, “If you want to see the real India, travel in a sleeper class train”. We reached Haridwar Junction, early in the morning.

At Haridwar Junstion

At Haridwar Junstion

The roads were deserted and the climate soothing and breezy, with a sense of holiness attached to the Holy city. Tour Managers Adwait and Sumeet found us a makeshift room near the banks of the Ganges.

Streets of Haridwar

Streets of Haridwar

Ganga hadn’t changed much in 20 years; it was as cold and mighty. All of us barring Lijo took a dip in the Holy river.

Ganga, at Haridwar

Ganga, at Haridwar

Manasa Devi Temple was an enjoyable climb of 30-45 minutes, barring the heat, which had set in by then.

View from Manasa Devi

View from Manasa Devi

After munching piping hot Puri with Aloo and Choley for brunch, we left for Rishikesh, which is an hour’s drive from Haridwar.

Hot afternoon at Hardiwar, with Shyam

Hot afternoon at Hardiwar, with Shyam

At Rishikesh, our tour managers started scouting for the tourist agency guys, to book a package for us. We wanted to take a “Camping + Rafting” package which is generally the most sought after package for visiting tourists. There are a lot of other things one could do at Rishikesh – kayaking, rock climbing, flying fox (800m journey on a rope between two cliffs, with Ganges flowing 80 meter below you), among others.

The tourist agency guy took us to a horrible place initially – a nothing place with our tent facing a small hill, with Ganga nowhere to be seen. I was like, “My two colleges (Amrita and IIM Shillong) offered better views than this!” Others were of the same opinion too. So we ditched that guy and started scouting for camps on our own. Deepanshu, Adwait and Sumeet managed to find a beautiful camp, river facing and breezy.

We spent most of the evening playing in the waters and lazing around within the camp premises. It was a great setting. Hundreds of tents on the banks of the river, white sand, cool breeze and a breathtaking view. Remember those “Diu tourism” ads? Something like that. Welcome break from the drudgery of daily life and the noise of the cities. I didn’t want the clock to tick. Sitting there on a chair outside my tent, facing the river, I let my thoughts take over and felt at ease with myself. It was a good feeling.

Outside our tent, Rishikesh

Outside our tent, Rishikesh

Meanwhile, the likes of Lijo, Shyam, Sumeet and Deepanshu were having a ball in the waters, doing some solid stunts. Adwait was showing off his fitness and gymming skills by doing “push-ups” in the water.

At the waters outside our tent

At the waters outside our tent

While the only thing Paaru was doing was shuffling his hair all the time and clicking selfies. Reliable sources reveal he clicked at least 400 selfies of just himself in the tour span of two days.

One of Paaru's 400 selfies of the trip

One of Paaru’s 400 selfies of the trip

There was enough room for all seven of us to sleep in the same tent. The photo session continued in the morning too.

Rishikesh!

Rishikesh!

We had booked for a morning rafting session. We had chosen the 18 km package, which had 9 rapids (part of the river where the waves are high, irregular and fast).

I had to deal with a lot of butterflies in my stomach just before our rafting begun. I had heard stories about the boat capsizing in between a rapid and had visualized that happening to our boat. Our instructor’s introduction didn’t help my cause in any way. He warned us that the waters here were mighty and dangerous and if we didn’t follow his instructions to the word, there were chances our boat would capsize.

At Shivpuri, our starting point

At Shivpuri, our starting point

I kept chanting the “Darr kea age Jeet hai” thing in my mind to ease things up.

Just before the ride!

Just before the ride!

For the first 3-5 minutes when we were riding on still waters, our Instructor trained us to the different commands he would be chanting throughout our journey.

Initial stretch

Initial stretch

There are, I came to know, 4 different grades of rapids. Our first rapid was a Grade I rapid and was supposed to be easy to negotiate. We failed. Our motions were not synchronized and the waters took control of us rather than the other way round. We were pushed to the shore and had to start all over again. This time, we successfully surpassed the Grade I rapid.

Grade I rapid, near our camp

Grade I rapid, near our camp

I was just thinking what Grade IV rapids would have on offer.

When the waters were calm!

When the waters were calm!

The second rapid was Grade III and the most thrilling of them all, I realized later. I can’t quite put down that experience in words. My mind went blank. I closed my eyes out of fear, and realized water splashing onto me from all directions. All of us were shouting our lungs out. Then a lot of other things happened and finally we were out of the rapid, onto the still waters. Our instructor shouted “Ganga maiyya kiiiiiii” and we screamed “Jaiiii” in unison. Somewhere in that rapid, my fears drowned and I felt liberated. We came across a few rapids which were trickier, faster and narrower that that one, but now that my fears were conquered, they were all completely enjoyable. Each of those rapids apparently have names too. Roller Coaster, Hilton, Golf Course, Double Trouble and Club house are few names I can recollect now.

One from the internet

One from the internet

We went to a nearby Gurudwara in the evening. My first. Felt good. They offered free food too. That mess hall reminded me of my Amrita mess and the Amrita culture of respecting food above all else.

“The World is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”.

Cheers to more such trips with awesome set of people.

Bitter experience with Ola Cabs

Dear Ola,
The first time I used your service a few months ago, I immediately became your loyal. The entire concept of booking a cab through a mobile app using your current location was awesome, and a first for me. To top it up, the customer experience was flawless; the ride arrived well on time, the chauffeur was cordial and the fare was very nominal.
The subsequent rides only reinforced my faith in you. I, in fact, deleted all contact details and Apps of other Taxi service providers I had been using before. I was (I still am) one of the thousands of your loyalists who contributed to positive Word of Mouth. I used to tell my friends and family, “Use Ola! They are awesome” or “Ola has a 50% off this week!”. I acted as a marketing channel for you which has infinite ROAS (Return on Ad Spend).
I thought you guys could do no wrong! Perhaps, I was mistaken.
On March 5th, 2015, I had a really really bad experience with your service. The events in chronological order are described below (timings not very accurate).

I booked an Ola Mini at 5 pm, for a ride at 6.15 PM from Sushant Lok, Gurgaon till the Airport. I immediately received a message:

Ola Nitin Srinivas! Your booking with CRN65458017 has been received for 5Mar, 6:15 PM. We look forward to having you onboard.

Being a frequent Ola user, I knew I should be getting a message with Driver details at least 15 minutes before the ride (i.e 6 pm in this case).

Time was 6.10 pm and I hadn’t received any message yet. I got concerned and immediately reached out to your customer care. The executive who attended the call was very cordial. He apologized for the inconvenience and immediately sent a message with driver details.

You’ve got a free upgrade! CRN65458017 – Driver Umesh (8860656268), White Maruti swift dzire HR 55 U 7543 will pick you up @ 5Mar, 6:15 PM. Say Ola to being special!

The time was 6.20 pm and Umesh hadn’t arrived yet. I called him at his number. To my shock, he told me he wasn’t coming to Sushant Lok. He told he was going for another ride near Mehrauli, and asked me to call Customer Care to raise my concern. Now I was beginning to get a bit tense. My flight was at 8.55 pm (AI540 from Delhi to Chennai), and I had to be at the Airport by 7.55 pm at max. Knowing Gurgaon traffic, especially in the evening hours after Office, I knew I was getting late. Still, I called your Customer Care one more time. This time, one other executive picked up the call and he had no idea about what had happened with me, in the last 15 minutes. I had to explain everything to him all over again. He then took some time to look into his system and told me Umesh is on his way to my place. I told him I just had a word with Umesh and he told he was going to Mehrauli to pickup some other customer. He told that was sometime back and that Umesh is now on his way to my place. I immediately cut the call and called Umesh again. “Bhaiya, you are coming to Sushant Lok right?”. “No bhaiya. I am going to Mehrauli to pickup a customer. That’s what my phone is showing”.

I had no idea what was going on! I made a final call to customer support to see if something could be worked out. Time was 6.40 pm (I had to reach airport by 7.55 pm). Again, I had to explain everything from scratch. This time, the customer support executive had no clue about the status of Umesh or me or whoever was going to attend me. He told his system was down and that he wasn’t able to see anything. Completely miffed and gutted, I cut the call. 6.45 pm.

I couldn’t see any private cabs around. Not even an auto. After walking for a while carrying my luggage, I found an auto, which took me till Huda City Center. From Huda, I couldn’t find any cabs to Airport. With my pulse raising, I asked an autowallah if he would go to the Airport. The airport was in Delhi and he told me Haryana autos aren’t allowed beyond Kapashera, which is the Delhi-Haryana border. Having no other choice left, I boarded that auto which dropped me at Kapashera at 7.30 pm.

I had to reach the airport in 20 minutes. Otherwise, I was going to miss my flight back home. Looked like this sense of urgency was very much visible on my face. The lone Taxi wallah there decided he’s got a great opportunity to make a fortune that night. He told he’ll try his best to drop me at the Airport before 8 pm. He charged me 850 rupees, for a journey that would cost 300 rupees at max. I wouldn’t blame him. He just pounced on the great opportunity that was lying in front of him, and made full use of it. I was “cornered and helpless” and ended up paying more than double the normal charges so as to board my flight on time. Thanks to Ola Cabs and my blind faith in you.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not like I’m going to stop using Ola or something. In fact, I have already used it once after this incident, in Coimbatore this week.

However, lesson learnt the hard way. No one is perfect. Not even Ola Cabs. Always have contingency plans in place.

P.S: After I landed in Chennai at 11:30 pm, I got two messages from Ola.

You’ve got a free upgrade! CRN65458017 – Driver SHOKEEN (9560966493), White Toyota etios DL 1 YD 8345 will pick you up @ 5Mar, 6:15 PM. Say Ola to being special!

Ola! We regret to inform the cancellation of your booking CRN65458017 as we are unable to find a cab near your pickup location. We’d have loved to serve you!

Kumbakonam Degree Kaapi & a road trip to Sri Rangam

The Chennai-Trichy highway (NH-45) is a driver’s paradise. Once you cross Chengelpet, it’s almost like NFS-MW Tollbooth challenge – it’s only you, your car, awesome roads and LOTS of tollbooths; all the way to Trichy.

NFW Most Wanted - Toll booth challenge

NFW Most Wanted – Toll booth challenge

Sri Rangam has to be the temple outside Chennai that I have frequented the most. It is one place we (my family) love traveling to. One such trip to Sri Rangam began on Friday when we left Chennai by road at 8 am.

The road stretch from Ulundhurpet to Perambalur is awesome beyond words, considering that it’s in India.

Perambalur bypass

Perambalur bypass

NH-45

NH-45

The number of small shops selling Kumbakonam Degree Coffee on both sides of the highway was surprising to me. Almost every second kilometer, we could find hoardings advertising about the Coffee shop that also sold a lot of other stuff. For example, “Only Coffee”, one such coffee shop, offered snacks, rice mixes, halwas and books in addition to Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.

These small coffee outlets that adorned the sides of NH-45 (GST Road) were not present the last time I travelled through this highway. On googling, I found out that “Only Coffee” stores were recently set up by a gentleman G. Samyraj who wanted to create a means of livelihood to his struggling villagers. Aping his innovation, other Degree Coffee outlets followed suit.

They don’t serve overpriced variants of cold coffee like a Starbucks or CCD. Only frothy, piping hot, filter-coffee served in gleaming pithalai davara tumblers. And it costs Rs. 15/-

Kumbakonam Degree Coffee

Kumbakonam Degree Coffee

Somewhere near Perambalur on the highway, we took a small detour to visit Siruvachur Mathura Kaliamman temple. The shrine here, is open only on Fridays, Mondays and the first day of all Tamil months.

We next went straight to Sri Rangam, an islet formed by rivers Cauvery and Kollidam, located less than 10 km from Trichy. The Ranganathaswamy Temple at Sri Rangam is majestic, huge and divine at the same time. With 7 prakarams (outer walls), 21 gopurams (towers) and an area of 156 acres, it is the second largest Hindu Temple in the world!

Gopurams of Sri Rangam

Gopurams of Sri Rangam

But today, it doesn’t seem as large as it sounds because of the shops and houses that have been set up to as far as within the 4th prakaram. It’s still huge, though. You could spend an entire day inside the temple and still not end up covering even half of what it has to offer.

Sometime ago, Ms. Jayalalithaa had donated two mobile fuel efficient vans to the temple to help the elderly and disabled to travel within the temple premises. Ofcourse, Sri Rangam is her own constituency.

Ubayam: CM

Ubayam: CM

The Puliyodharai (Tamarind rice), Sweet pongal, vadai, athirasam and other snacks offered at the Prasadam Stall within the temple premises can act as more than just a substitute for lunch.

The temple also has lots of interesting legends associated with it. Try googling them (or read them from the walls of the temple if you happen to visit the place).

From personal experience, the people of Trichy and other small/medium towns are sweeter compared to the cities, at least when it comes to telling directions to a stranger. A particular bike man went to the extent of travelling a few hundreds of metres in his bike, along with us to show the road leading to Kumbakonam.

A 100 km from Sri Rangam lies Kumbakonam, popularly called “temple town”. It’s impossible to stand at any part of the town and not have a temple in your vicinity. During British Raj, it was a prominent center of European education, which gave it the name “Cambridge of South India”. The town is also world-renowned for its Degree Coffee.

The Little Flower Higher Secondary School (LFHSS), Kumbakonam has two notable alumni – Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and Mr. R. Aravamudhan, grandfather of Nitin Srinivas. 😀

Outside Thatha's Alma Mater, LFHSS

Outside Thatha’s Alma Mater, LFHSS

M.S. Swaminathan might have forgotten about his Alma Mater but my grandfather hasn’t. He is still very fond of LFHSS and his childhood days in Kumbakonam.

Uppliappan Koil, located about 10 km from Kumbakonam was also a part of our agenda. The temple elephants at both Uppiliappan Koil and Sri Rangam had gone to the yearly elephant camp and were found missing from the temples.

Tender coconut vendor in Uppiliappan Koil

Tender coconut vendor in Uppiliappan Koil

If the road from Chennai-Trichy was awesome beyond words, then the road connecting Kumbakonam-Dindivanam more than compensated for it. We were only too happy to catch the NH-45 at Dindivanam and get back home to end yet another trip that had a lot to offer.