2017 - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Reasons for my Blogging Hibernation: Puppies, Home Garden, Motorcycle Customization, Ayurveda and a Good Long Break

Stunning Hanging Gardens in Bangalore

I am sure a lot of you would be wondering why Sankara is not blogging anymore. Well, I just slowed down everything in my life to focus on the smaller things and give my body and mind a much needed break. Even though I visited and explored many exotic places in the past decade, I hardly got a break as I invariably worked every single day. Add to it the tumultuous past couple of years (2016 and 2017) that I had where I saw my dad fight with stage IV cancer and where I lost him and a few other loved ones, you can say that I was pretty zoned out mentally and physically. Health started going downhill and migraines became a common occurrence. And that is when I decided to slow down. Travel pretty much came to a halt. I started reducing work initially, but pretty soon realized that my body needed a total cut off. So that is why after about 4 months, I decided to take a total break for the last two months. Hence, this blogging hibernation!

Puppy sleeping time

But, unfortunately, people like me aren’t born to hibernate. In fact, I can’t seem to even manage to stay put and quiet for a day. Thankfully, in this long break, I learnt how to stay put and relax in one place while the world went by in its usual dizzying pace. During this break, I cultivated some new hobbies and interests that allowed me to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and which took my mind off the usual. In simple words, I felt like I was leading a normal life. The hobbies and interests that kept me occupied for the last few months are:

1) Puppies

The 2 puppies that I adopted - Alpha and Omega

I have always been fond of dogs, but could never own one as my family was against keeping pets inside the home. Now that I live alone, I thought why not and thus ended up adopting two puppies who were rescued from a drain close to my home. They were the only surviving members from the litter. I named the boys Alpha and Omega. The puppies and I had an absolute blast till, one day, Omega met with an accident and passed away before we reached the hospital. I had brought the pups home to recover from a loss and now I had lost yet another living being I had gotten close to. So, with a heavy heart, I let go of Alpha too. Today, he is happy in a family with two more puppies. In the two months that they were with me, all three of us had a fabulous time. Mostly, I watched the puppies play, spar and throw funny antics and time just flew by. I will miss the boys, but in hindsight, some amazing memories that I will treasure for life.

2) Home Garden

Purple flower blooming in my home garden

I adore greenery and the butterflies, birds and animals that come along with it. One day, I came across a home with an amazing and super inspiring hanging garden and thus began another hobby of creating an interesting garden for my home. I learned about soil, compost, fertilizers, organic pesticides, seeds, plants, what grows in the sun, what grows in the shade, hanging plants, herbs, pots, watering and so much more. Today, I have over a 150 different plant species in my home garden (mostly flowering species) that are growing well and yielding about 8 to 10 flowers every day and that I hope will bloom in many numbers once the temperatures pick up. Nothing beats the joy of sipping your morning coffee while reading the newspaper and being surrounded by many flowering plants basking in the early morning sun. And all this in an urban environment and that's what makes me super excited about it.

3) Customizing my Royal Enfield motorcycle

My custom yellow color Royal Enfield motorcycle

For a long while, I had wanted to customize my old Royal Enfield thunderbird motorcycle and I finally took it apart when I had to replace its engine (which had run 165,000 kms). It took about 2 months and 1.75 lakh rupees to do the customization. The design, the components, the colors and the accessories were custom selected by me and my mechanic. In terms of looks, the newly released Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 X in yellow resembles it closely, but I feel that my motorcycle looks way better. Apart from the engine and the chassis number and casing, everything in my bike is new, including the nuts and bolts. Every part was custom painted. It has a 350 cc engine, a 500 cc carburettor and clutch assembly, racing air and oil filters, a custom racing Yamaha RD 350 handlebar, Harley Davidson like 36 spoke alloy wheels, off-roading tubeless tyres, 4 light BS 4 LED headlamps, a jet yellow glossy tank with a matt black body, a red rooster racing silencer and many more interesting accessory combinations. More on this motorcycle customization will follow in a detailed post with prices, names, et al. in summary, very happy with the way the custom motorcycle rides, feels and looks.

4) Ayurveda

The school kids who became super friends with my puppy

I used this slow down to invest heavily in my body and mind and that’s where I went the Ayurveda way. Under the guidance of my cousin Ayurveda doctor, I started slow cleansing my body through Ayurveda medicines, following the right diet or should I say the right way to eat the right food, nasya therapies to calm my hyperactive mind and now on the path to get myself a full Panchakarma cleanse. The Ayurveda journey has been slow and steady and my various body pain points are slowly getting addressed. Hence, I am super pleased.

Selfie time - me and my puppy Alpha

This long hibernation has worked wonders for me. I feel much more energetic, while at the same time peaceful inside. And am eager to hit the road once again in the new year. In fact, I start traveling right from the second day of the year and hence you can expect a lot of updates, social media posts and blog posts from me going forward.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Maldives: Planning that Beauty of a Winter Beach Destination

How to plan that dream beach holiday in Maldives?

Sun-kissed white sandy beaches, azure or emerald waters, gorgeously warm shallow waters with rich coral reefs and marine life, fresh seafood on offer, a festive atmosphere and a totally relaxed environment is how I would describe the tropical island paradise of Maldives. Add to it over water lagoon suites, beach villas, swaying coconut palms, romantic dinners, some of the best spa centers, umbrella drinks, sensational sunsets and lots of beach and water sports, and you have a beauty of a winter beach destination.

The famous overwater suites of Maldives at Club Med Kani

A lot of people usually associate Maldives with honeymoons. While it is indeed a fabulous honeymoon destination, I think Maldives is also a great destination for a romantic holiday, holiday with family and kids or even for a backpacker. You just have to look in the right direction. And of course you have to like beach holidays.

A classical Maldives photo - gem in the Indian Ocean

To start with, we Indians get visa on arrival at Maldives, which I think is a great perk for the Indian Passport as Maldives is one of those destinations that is close to India and you can fly to for cheap from most destinations across the country. Air India, Jet Airways and the other local airlines offer some fabulous deals from time to time. Which means that, if you plan well, you can reach Male without even making a dent in your pocket.

Foam party by the pool at Club Med Resort - Kani, Maldives

Now, comes the accommodation bit, which is tricky in Maldives. The thing with Maldives is that most islands are privately owned and belong to a hotel group. These could be boutique resorts, four star hotels, five star properties and even uber luxury hotels. These properties can be further split into honeymoon, party, family, etc. The One and Only, Four Seasons, Taj Group of Hotels, the all-inclusive Club Med, Accor hotels and many more hospitality brands have properties here. Each one of them are located away from Male, the capital of Maldives and the city where your international flight lands.

Isn't this an awesome location to play beach volleyball - Club Med Kani, Maldives

Most of these private islands can only be reached by private boat or sea plane charters organized by the hotel that you have booked into. Either the price of this transfer is bundled into your overall price or you have to pay an additional fee. This can be a significant amount and hence it would be good to keep good track of it. Sea plane rides are ideal if you are interested in an aerial view of the islands, the coral reefs and the emerald waters. But, again, they will cost you an additional fee. But, they are totally worth it, especially if you are celebrating something.

White Sands, Emerald Waters and beautiful nature at Club Med Kani Maldives

The islands that are not privately owned by hotel groups, but by the government itself is where locals live. Here, you can find the budget-friendly guest houses and homestays. It is easier to find such places in Male city, but what I have noticed is that if you have some time at hand, you can find yourself a cheap place to stay in Maldives, like a room in a shack on a nice, quiet and small island. There are government run boats that sail from Male at pre-defined times to other smaller islands. The cost of travel in these boats is real low, but seats get filled up really fast. But, this way, you can spend that amazing budget beach holiday in Maldives.

Kayaking and Sailing are great ways to soak in the adventure spirit of the Indian Ocean

Depending on your budget and occasion, you can choose your choice of accommodation – super luxury, middle range or homestays. Most hotel properties run discounts and offers from time to time, especially during the rains, just after the rains and right after the peak year end holiday season. Without doubt, the Christmas-New Year season would be the busiest and you can expect prices to be on the higher side at that time. But, irrespective of time of year, if you can afford to plan in advance, you can land a sweet deal with the hotels. After all, the hotels are the priciest bit when you holiday in Maldives. Do remember to explore the cost-value benefits of all-inclusive versus bed and breakfast as usually drinks and meals at these hotels can be a bit pricey.

Dynamic scenes from the Indian Ocean - Club Med Kani Island, Maldives

As islands of Maldives are located far from each other, a beach holiday in Maldives is typically restricted to that island alone where you are staying. But, usually, you can indulge in all kinds of things at that very island – be it watersports, beach sports, underwater activities, kayaking, scuba diving, fishing, swimming or simply sunbathing on the beach while reading your favorite book. And if you are staying on an island with locals, then you can also experience their local customs and culture.

Sunset at Club Med Kani, Maldives

So, go on and plan that beauty of a beach holiday in Maldives and remember that an amazing destination like Maldives is not necessarily expensive to experience and explore.

Packing Tips – Don’t forget to carry your swim wear, beach wear, sunglasses, sunscreen lotion, flip flops and some nice clothes for those gala evenings.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

6 Simple Blog SEO Tips to Rank Higher on Google

Blog SEO Tips for Bloggers and Writers

Search Engine Optimization or SEO as we all know it is akin to Greek and Latin for most of us bloggers. Understanding its various facets can leave you scratching your head or might even give you nightmares. But, all of us bloggers know that SEO is a necessary evil if we wish that our articles get Google’s blessings and reach a wider audience. I know there are tons of technical guides out on the web that will give you a lot of dope on this subject, but this article of mine is not from a technical standpoint, but it is SEO purely from a writer’s standpoint. These 6 simple techniques if ingrained into our daily writing and blogging habits can help us gradually improve the SEO of our blog. And it has nothing to do with meta tags, plug-ins, webmaster guidelines and all the other complex stuff, which is best left to those who are interested in the technical details (either yourself if you have the aptitude for it or a person/organization you hire explicitly for it). And you do what comes best to you, which is write stories, articles and experiences that connect with your audience.

1) Write as you would search

How to rank high on Google search

How do we typically search on the web?

Some examples could be: ’Iran Visa for Indians’; ‘Top things to do in Singapore’; ‘Best Indian restaurants in Dubai’; ‘How to improve SEO of my blog’; ‘Top Food Walks in Paris’; ‘Cheap Flights from Bangalore to Singapore’ and so on and more. Basically, we already have a need or a question in mind and that’s what we end up searching with these keywords and phrases on the web.

When I write my articles, I write for two kinds of people – one for my audience who love interesting content and the other for Google and other search engines who love content that helps people and with unique keywords in it. So sometimes when I write an article and these days it happens most of the times, I think about how this can rank higher on Google and other search engines. The answer is to think like the person to whom your content might be useful and make sure you plant those keywords either verbatim or in a nice combination in your blog post title, in paragraph headers and in 2 or 3 places in your content. Do keep in mind that you not should go over board with this as Google does not take too kindly to it.

Ideally, I would think about putting these keywords in the blog title, first paragraph of the article, any similar labels or categories that I have on my blog and in the blog’s description on the blogging tool that I use.

2) Always name your images

Name all your images for much better SEO

As a blogger and more so as a travel blogger, we click tons of pictures and in all probability use them in our blog articles. Personally, I use countless number of photographs from my travels and have countless more. Google images loves these photographs and with Google’s latest product Google Lens, it is a no brainer that images and videos are going to rule the roost in the future. But, for some weird reason, I often see that bloggers don’t name their images at all. This is a really bad practice as the title of the image and the description (alt text) that you see when you hover on it are actually indexed by all search engines and this would help a great deal in SEO. Think of this, 10 images in an article with proper titles and descriptions means close to 300 extra words for search engines to index. You can do the math on how this can hep you with your blog SEO. And with so many pictures that we click these days, this shouldn’t be difficult at all.

3) Back links from websites with high DA

As bloggers, we understand the importance of backlinks. If our article is featured on a popular website or brand, it augurs well for our brand and thus provides positive reinforcement about our capabilities. Also, if that website or brand seems to have a solid Domain and Page Authority and we end up getting a link back to our blog, that will really help in improving the SEO ranking of our blog.

A lot of us write articles for others to eke out a living and that surely pays our bills, but if you write articles for websites with high domain authority and don’t get paid for it, you will still end up gaining a lot in the long run. That is how important solid backlinks are when it comes to SEO. To check a website’s DA and PA, you can use tools such as SEO Moz. And remember that high ranking websites will not accept articles from anyone. So, be prepared to blow them away with your long, unique and awesome content. Think of this as a long term investment and there is no hurry here. You can do it as and when the opportunity presents itself.

4) Write long, unique articles

Even though attention spans are dropping by the day and readers preferring shot crisp articles, Google and the other search engines still seem to prefer long articles with original and unique content. Stay away from copying and plagiarism as they will take you swiftly to the dumps. Instead, write original content that is somewhere in the range of 1500 to 2500 words. I know that it takes a lot of effort to create such articles and not all readers would read the entire content, but this really yields great results when it comes to improving your blog’s SEO. As a thumb rule, you can write 4 or 5 such articles every month for Google and the remaining short articles for your audience. And when you write such long articles, make sure you link to a lot of your existing contextual blog posts and other contextual high authority external sites (like National Geographic, wikipedia, etc.). This shows search engines that your articles are well connected in that subject both internally and externally.

5) Make sure your blog is mobile friendly

With more and more people consuming content on mobile devices, it was only a matter of time that Google and other search engines started giving importance to how your website looks and behaves on mobile devices. Do ensure that your mobile template is lightweight and that it is responsive. Ideally, opt for a good responsive template design and try and keep all your media lightweight.

6) Do ensure your blog loads quickly

No user in their right mind would be interested in a website that takes ages to load. Neither does Google. There are a lot of free tools out on the web to see how your blog loads (I use Pingdom) across different form factors (laptops, tablet, mobiles, etc.). A high res image always looks good, but too many such images will make your site sluggish. Hence, optimize all your images for fast web and mobile web browsing. Similarly, ensure that your template is lightweight, leverages browser caching and does not have too many redirects to external sites (I am talking about all those Javascripts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. that we all have on our sites). If you badly need these javascripts, tell your website designer to compress it in the template.

I hope you use these simple techniques in your future day-to-day blogging efforts and reap the benefits of an improving SEO. And following this healthy blogging practice might help you rank higher on Google sooner than later.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Tanzania: The Complete Experience

Adorable Wildlife of East Africa

When you travel to a new location and witness a new culture, you usually get to pick what you're in the mood for - beach, shopping, wildlife, trekking, people, and culture. This is where Tanzania, in East Africa, wins big - you'll never have to truly choose and just jump headlong into whichever of the above would quench your thirst for travel.

Famed for its pristine white sand beaches in the spice islands of Zanzibar and its safari parks in the shadow of the awe-inspiring World Heritage Site Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania offers all sorts of exciting opportunities.

Africa’s Tallest Mountain

Amboseli Wildlife and Mount Kilimanjaro

A complete round of Tanzania would begin with what is called the 'Northern Circuit', beginning in Arusha in northern Tanzania, where it's easy to make your way to Mount Kilimanjaro, which lies 100 kilometres northeast.

The imposing natural structure, the highest free-standing mountain in the world and the tallest mountain in Africa, is an essential trek for those with a passion for adventure. It takes around seven days to reach the summit and witness the glorious sunrise spread across the continent from its snow-capped peak.
Though not exactly among the most difficult treks, it can be a daunting climb, but one that will ultimately be rewarding in unimaginable ways.

Mecca for Wildlife

Lioness getting ready for the chase

To the west of Arusha, is the Serengeti National Park where travellers can witness one of the 'seven wonders of the world': the mass migration of wildebeest, zebras, elephants, antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep and more. Their journey is fraught with danger - there are the famous Serengeti lions, about 3,000 at last count, and leopards, cheetahs, hungry hyenas and monster crocodiles.

A vast, treeless plain; the best time to visit magical Serengeti is between December and June to view the impressive natural event in all its immensity.

Combining the trip to Serengeti with one to Ngorongoro Crater would be the wisest way to go. As it's on the way, it would be a massive shame not to see the stunning views it has to offer. Stretching from the Rift Valley to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans 8,300 square kilometres. The crater is the world’s largest inactive and intact volcanic caldera, and is lush with life, the primary reason for which is the abundance of permanent water.

Sunset in the east African bush

The crater is home to almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, and the rare concentration of wildlife practically warrants sightings of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest herds, as well as the marvellous Big Five. With an estimated 25,000 animals living within the crater, the caldera also boasts around 30 endangered black rhino.

Making the whole experience more majestic is the fact that the crater also has the highest density of predators in all of Africa. This sets the stage for a natural drama to unfold as prey and predators graze and stalk through the open grasslands, woodland and swamps on the crater floor.

Lake Victoria

Sunset at Lake Victoria

While in the northern circuit, try and include Lake Victoria in your itinerary. It is the biggest tropical freshwater lake in the world and the largest lake in Africa, shared between Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It makes for an invigorating break from the wildlife safari circuits and throngs of tourists, offering calm, quietude and relaxation.

Tribal Cultures

A march past like traditional Maasai dance performed by the warriors of the II-Oodokilani

People in the country are also incredibly hospitable. Even though that may relate to the fact that tourism is one of the biggest money makers for Tanzania, you also have the opportunity to meet local tribes such as the Masai, the Barabaig and the Hadza. Also, Tanzanians love to greet, so say hello or 'Hujambo' at every opportunity.

The Maasai are easy enough to find - most have settled near tourist areas and have given up their hunter-gatherer ways and now rear livestock. The Barabaig, a relatively new tribe in the area that look after animals, are much like the Masai in their ways and culture. While the Hadza are a monogamous people, the Masai and Barabaig may have as many as 10 wives.

Visiting their hamlets is an enlightening experience because you learn that no matter how different each tribe may be, most are facing similar problems. It’s a sad truth but many tribal communities now depend on tourism even though it was tourism and development that is the reason for most of their problems.

Sunny White Sandy Beaches and Zanzibar

A Zanzibar Low Tide Moment

Once your heart has had its fill of adventure, it's time to head to Zanzibar to soak up some sun and relax. With its abundant history and white sandy beaches, it is a cultural haven that will give you more than just a small peak into the colourful past of the area.

Stone Town in Zanzibar City is unmissable, an experience unlike much in the world. Also known as Mji Mkongwe (Swahili for "old town"), its vibrant energy will suck you in as you wander the streets soaking the sights and sounds. As it can easily be explored on foot, Stone Town, which was once a flourishing trading hub, gorgeously represents what a melting pot it was for various cultures - African, Arab, Indian and European.

The architecture itself has a story to tell - from large Arab villas with lattice work and Indian homes with ornate doorways. It's also a shopping haven, there are boutiques along Gizenga Street and on Kenyatta Road near the old Post Office and many antique shops near Sokomohogo Square. Tharia Street is the home for some jewellery unlike anything you'll have ever seen before. And don't forget that Tanzanians love to barter!

From museums and refurbished hotels, to fantastic restaurants and the world's last open slave market, it's all there for the soul to feast upon.

Scuba Diving in the Indian Ocean

Dolphin Sighting in Zanzibar, Tanzania

If you're still not satiated by all the adventure, head down to the city of Chake-Chake in Pemba, the northernmost island of the Zanzibar archipelago, which is a popular base for scuba divers. Coral reefs, bright fish, underwater caves and small sandy islands make for some gorgeous, unforgettable sights. More so, kayaks are available for exploring the mangroves.

To wrap up the trip of a lifetime, it's an easy drive to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda so your African adventure needn't come to an abrupt end even though you're bidding farewell to a country of wonderful wildlife, outstanding natural beauty and rich culture!

Note: Some of the pictures in this article (specifically the ones without the ‘Be on the road’ logo) have been borrowed from wikipedia under the Creative Commons License. Each photograph has been linked to its host page on wikipedia.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

WD My Passport Wireless Pro: Simplifying all Post Processing and Storage Workflows

WD My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk simplifies life of photographers

‘Content is Knowledge’. ‘Data is King’. These adages make a lot of sense in this data crazy 21st century where we seem to be creating content at an astonishing pace. With our many technologically superior gadgets, data churn is extremely high. And that is where data backup becomes integral. After all, a lot of this content is our intellectual property and we do not wish to lose sight of it. This especially holds true for people who make their livelihood from this intellectual property. Prime examples are photographers, writers, bloggers and other creative content creators.

In an ideal world, we would all like to keep our data on the cloud, but unfortunately, it is easier said than done, due to poor internet connectivity and expensive storage options. And that is why, we prefer portable hard disks, but they come with their own fair share of challenges, especially transfer speeds, maze of wires and a lot of complicated workflows. So, the key question is what do we do? What should a photographer on the field do? How does he ensure backup of his photographs and then seamlessly check his work, make his edits and share it with his client or on platforms.

I found most of my problems solved in Western Digital’s latest portable hard disk called the ‘My Passport Wireless Pro’ that allows you to travel, shoot and edit anywhere with freedom from laptops and cords. With a SD 3.0 slot, it allows you to wirelessly transfer your photos, videos and data. And then you can stream it on to your mobile, tablet or any device of your choice. And it has a powerful battery backup to last all day. In case I have piqued your interest, here is my detailed review of the WD My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk and why I think it simplifies all post processing and storage workflows for photographer and other content creators.

1) Wireless storage and access whenever and wherever

I have always hated wires and the tangles they create in my travel kit. And that is why I have absolutely fallen in love with the wireless storage and access capabilities of the Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk.

Latest Wireless 802.11ac Technology

If your camera provides you with wireless access and if it is compatible with the hard disk, you can quickly transfer images and videos wirelessly from your camera to your hard disk.

Blazingly Fast SD 3.0 Port

Western Digital Wireless Hard Disk and SD Card slot

If your camera doesn’t have wireless feature, then simply plug in the SD card from the camera into the SD 3.0 port of the hard disk and offload your camera’s SD card in one move. And in case you use a CF (compact flash) card, you can connect SanDisk’s ImageMate device into the USB 3.0 port of the hard disk and transfer the contents of the CF card into the hard disk. Either way, your storage workflow is simplified a great deal.

Wirelessly Access Files with your mobile devices

Now, that you have all your data backed up on the hard disk and say you are either on the field or in travel mode and do not wish to open your laptop to see the content, this is where you will find the wireless access feature of the MyPassport Wireless Pro to be super handy. All you need to do is download the My Cloud mobile app on your Android or iOS device, switch on the wireless button on your hard disk and you can view, organize, edit and share your media files from anywhere with your smartphone or tablet. And did I mention that this app also allows you to view RAW files.

Integrated with Adobe Creative Cloud

And if you have an Adobe Creative Cloud account, the My Cloud mobile app directly allows you to get your images directly into the Creative Cloud ecosystem. Personally, I do not have an Adobe Creative Cloud account, but for those who do, I see this as a huge plus as you can access the Creative Cloud ecosystem right from your mobile device.

2) Powerhouse Battery

With USB 3.0 and SD 3.0 ports, My Passport Wireless Pro totally rocksWhat about its battery capabilities? A device with so many wireless capabilities, it is bound to drain the battery. Right?

All-day Battery Life

Lasting about 10 hours of continuous use, the My Passport Wireless Pro is equipped to last for an all-day photo shoot. Its powerhouse battery allows you to take it on a long field trip and continuously stream videos and images on the road or in flight without worrying about losing charge.

Built-in Power Bank

Another handy feature of the My Passport Wireless Pro is its integrated 6,400 mAh power bank that allows you to charge your smartphone or other USB devices on the go. This feature is very useful considering that smartphones these days invariably run out of juice during a work day.

3) Fast USB Transfers

The My Passport Wireless Pro device comes with 1 USB 3.0 and 1 USB 2.0 ports. Both the USB ports support fast transfers, but it is the USB 3.0 port that allows up to 5 GB/s. This means you can copy those humongous RAW files and 4K and HD videos in a jiffy.

4) Live Streaming to many devices

The New Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro hard diskWestern Digital has tied up with Plex Media Server to help you beautifully organize and stream your content. Through one interface, your entire media collection is visually enhanced through detailed descriptions, plot summaries, posters and so much more. Plex also allows you to wirelessly stream the content stored on your hard disk to all your devices – PC and Mac computers, smartphones, tablets, Smart TVS and more.

One of the perks of this wireless streaming feature is that it allows you to stream up to 8 HD videos simultaneously. So, whether you are looking to share the footage from your latest field trip or you wish to keep your friends entertained during your holiday, this feature will be much appreciated.

I hope you know understand why I am so gung-ho about this new wireless storage device from Western Digital. There is still a bit of photography workflow that has to be done manually, but I like the fact that this My Passport Wireless Pro device has simplified a lot of my photography and storage workflows and completely removed the mess of wires from my photography and travel kit.

To know more about Western Digital’s My Passport Wireless Pro hard disk, its product specifications, full feature set, its price and dealer information, look up the product page on Western Digital site. You can also buy them on Amazon.

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Saturday, October 07, 2017

Reliving Younger Days on India’s Longest Train Journey

Vivek express india's longest train going through the lush forests of Assam

A huge food basket with theplas, chappatis, idlis, namkeen, savouries and a lot of other delicious food, a big Milton jug to store cold water for the entire family, a pack of cards, some Jeffrey Archer, Robert Ludlum, Tinkle, Chandamama and other books, a twinkle in my eye, a joy in my stride and oodles of curiosity…that’s how I remember my childhood train sojourns when my family and I would travel by train from the Eastern part of the country (Jamshedpur) to the Southern part (Kallidaikurichi, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu).

India's longest train Vivek Express chugs on

This journey made in the peak summer months would take somewhere close to 55 hours. Even though, we traveled by the sleeper class, I don’t remember it ever being inconvenient, though I do remember smelling like the train and feeling the rocking of the train in my body for days after the train trip. All I remember is the game of cards with family, the tunes of Antakshari with other train travelers, the umpteen number of books I read, getting down at every station to fill water from the taps at each station, digging into fresh lip smacking savouries at different stations (Puri Bhaji for breakfast at Rourkela, Jhaal Muri and Chanachur on the train especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa, Mango delicacies at Rajahmundry, Bananas at Anakapelle and hot piping Idli Vada Sambar in the South), standing next to the train doors at every major bridge (the highlight was always the Godavari river bridge crossing near Rajahmundry) and so many other delightful childhood train memories.

Jhaal muri vendor inside Vivek Express train

I am sure many of us Indians have similar memories of travel travel in India. I think it was an integral part of my childhood and my passage into adulthood. Unfortunately, now, we don’t travel by trains as much as we prefer air travel. While air travel is very effective, both in terms of cost and time these days, it doesn’t offer the romance that Indian railways does. Which is why I had wanted to go on a long train journey in India for a bloody long while. And what better train journey than India’s longest train journey and one of the best train journeys the world over to feel the romance of train travel once more.

Lush Indian countryside and Vivek Express train

This train, called the Vivek Express, starts at Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India and travels all the way to Dibrugarh in the far North eastern part of India. I had booked myself tickets on this train on four different occasions and ended up cancelling the first three due to various reasons. Thankfully, I somehow managed to board this train the fourth time around and ended up completing the entire journey.

Railway Track Maintenance Staff taking a break, Assam, India

Covering a distance of 4,233 kilometers, this Vivek Express train traverses through eight Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Nagaland and Assam. I spent 4 nights and 5 days in this India’s longest train and if I remember right the journey took close to 90 hours. In terms of absolute numbers, the Vivek Express holds the record for the longest route in the Indian subcontinent, both in terms of distance as well as time.

Railway workers keeping southern railways clean

For me, it wasn’t the record status that egged me on, but the fact that I would get to experience a long Indian train journey after close to 18 years. I traveled on the train in a 2nd AC compartment as I could not garner enough courage to travel by sleeper class in the warm weather. Especially for such a long journey! May be, I should have realized then itself that I had changed, but didn’t and had to actually experience the entire journey to realize that I am the not same person that I was 20 years ago.

Tea Gardens of Assam as seen from Vivek Express, India;s longest train

Well, don’t get me wrong, I was supremely excited to be on board the train and really enjoyed the entire train journey. And didn’t find it tiring too. But, those card games, antakshari sessions and that childlike sparkle for train journeys wasn’t there. I had to experience India’s longest train ride to realize that. May be, somewhere in the past two decades, I had grown older in my head and may be evolved differently in how I perceive travel.

The AC Coach Attendants - Vivek Express train, India

Indian Railways still has the charm, the facilities are definitely better, but, us people, we have changed. The connection with gadgets has robbed us of those interesting train companions. Such companionship still does exist, but only in parts and that too once you cross the Northern stretches of West Bengal coz until that point, India is fairly well developed and people have lots to do and are definitely occupied in their head.

Vivek express - India's longest train ride

Food served on the train is simple and good, but I so wished that they served something aside from potatoes and dal every day. Food served on the train stations is sub standard and so is the water. That is one definite change from my childhood days when both food and water served on the train stations were of good quality. These days, people don’t necessarily travel with huge food baskets and instead live on the offerings of the train’s pantry car and the food stalls at the stations. Today, there is more packaged food and bottled water, which I consider the bane of today’s world. Somewhere in between, there is this vendor from the countryside who prepares lip smacking Jhaal Muri that instantly teleports you to those train journeys of the eighties and the nineties and may be, the juicy mangoes of Andhra Pradesh that haven’t lost their deliciousness. But, apart from that, there wasn’t any food related aspect of the train journey that made my memory jog to my younger days. Even a good ‘ol cup of tea has lost its zing in today’s world and I see that as a huge change in our country over the past 20 years.

Vivek express India's longest train crossing a railway bridge

The highlight of the train journey is the lush greenery, dense forests, tea estates, gorgeous countryside and a true connection with India’s yesteryear roots when the train traverses from New Jalpaiguri (West Bengal) on the 4th day to Dibrugarh (Assam) on the 5th day via Alipur Duar, Guwahati and Dimapur. These two days set a fantastic precedent to a holiday in India’s amazing North East. I am pretty sure that the views would be similar when the train traverses in Kerala, but unfortunately, this travel takes places in the night. Likewise with the iconic Godavari bridge, which again passes by in the late hours of the night. The Mahanadi river, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack come by during the day, but for some reason, the landscapes look bleak. Some parts before and after Malda are also extremely beautiful and this is also the area where the train starts getting delayed.

Vivek Express Train and lush green Indian countryside during the monsoons

Like I mentioned before, some amount of charm and romance is still intact in an Indian train journey, but things are very different otherwise. May be, it is because, we have evolved as different travelers! Or may be, India has vastly changed in the past 20 years. The local food and drinks is definitely a low point. But, some high points still exist and which is why train travel in India will continue to mesmerize one and all. And like me, you will have stories and possibly share those memories with the world! India’s longest train journey was definitely a special experience for me and it certainly help me relive my younger days.

Vivek express train entering Hasimara jungle, Assam, India

About the Train

Vivek express train standing on a railway station in Assam, India

The train that I am talking in this article is called the Vivek Express. It carries the train number 15905 for the one traveling from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh and 15906 for the return journey. It travels only once a week for either direction.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay: Magic on Earth

Sunset colors at Halong Bay, Vietnam

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also often listed as one of the top natural wonders of the world. I simply call it ‘magic on earth’! This magic is formed by the blue waters of the bay coupled with the densely forested limestone islands that rise mysteriously out of the ocean floor at about 1,600 places.

>Vietnam's Halong Bay - one of mother nature's best creations

Immensely popular with backpackers around the world, Ha Long (descending dragon) bay in Northern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province is seriously special as it provides you with the experience of some of the most scenic ocean karst topography in the world. Most visitors soak in these lovely views while living in a local cruise ship on the Halong bay waters for a few days to a few weeks.

Kayaking in misty Halong Bay, Vietnam

They fish, they swim, they relax on its pristine beaches and they make merry. They climb to panoramic viewpoints, they watch different flora and fauna, they go on cave adventures, explore hidden lakes, experience floating villages and a lot of partying during the night.

Gorgeous view of limestone karsts from Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

The adventure enthusiasts have a much different kind of fun. From rock climbing to cliff jumping and from kayaking to caving, Halong bay spoils the ocean adventurer. The many different crags on these limestone mountains excite the rock climbers, who sweat it out while climbing these steep rocks and then finally cool it off by diving into the ocean waters for a relaxing dip. As most of the limestone karsts are closely packed together with shallow waters between them, the cruise ships cannot come close to them. Rather, it is the kayakers who can explore its many hollow caves, shallow waters and the many desolate, white sandy beaches that are teeming with hermit crabs and other exotic marine species.

Beautiful nature at Halong Bay, Vietnam

The land adventure lovers are not to be left far behind as there are the many rich and biodiverse islets that are home to many endemic floral and faunal species that have made this place their home amongst the tropical evergreen oceanic environment. You can simply climb up the small ones for deeper exploration and panoramic views or trek through the dense foliage of the much larger ones to be simply amazed at the variety that this place has to offer. And sometimes you can climb into the hollow confines of some of these islands that are home to enormous cave systems and gape at the wonders of the numerous stalactites and stalagmites.

Sunset view from Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Whatever be your thrill, this natural wonder called Halong Bay is bound to delight you with its magical elements. I am pretty sure that most of you will have it right up there in your Vietnam travel bucket list, but even so, do ensure that you keep some time at hand to experience the magic of Halong bay!

Best Season to Visit

Yellow boathouse at Halong Bay, Vietnam

The summer months are usually the best time of the year to explore Halong Bay as that is the time when the days are bright and sunny and the views are clear. Usually winters are wet, cloudy and gloomy with poor visibility. But, having said that, ocean weather is unpredictable and can change any time. Halong bay is open all year around except for when there are heavy rains and/or storms.

How to get there

Remote white sandy beach in Halong Bay, Vietnam

The nearest airport is Hanoi and it is the nearest large city for all emergency and luxury hotel needs. The nearest road access is Halong city. Usually, visitors opt for tours from Hanoi, but I would also recommend staying at Cat Ba Island and exploring Halong Bay from there, either as day trips or on cruise ships.

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