Tuesday, March 11, 2014

La-La-Lanka!

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2012. That was the year I had earmarked for a trip to Sri Lanka with a couple of my friends. But fate intervened. My brother met a lovely girl in April that year and decided to get married. That same year. In December! The same month I was to be off to the island nation. A bittersweet feeling ensued with having to abandon travel plans but a celebration in the family was  a very valid reason. Cut to 2014. And Sri Lanka has still not happened. Work and other priorities took over since the last few months. I wasn't even planning any travel even though at the back of my mind, the thought remained.

You know one of my favourite past-times is to browse travel-related websites and blogs. I've always enjoyed reading up about a particular place and dreaming of what it would be like to be there. Of course, that would then mean running searches on some of the trustworthy websites for airline fares, accommodation options and general information regarding any paperwork like visas for international destinations.

Sri Lanka still holds one of the top spots on my wanderlist. Reasons? Well, I give you three obvious ones:

1. The place itself! Duh!
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. Travellers can soak up the sun at a beach or chug through the countryside in a train or be surrounded by lush plantations or even get in touch with their spiritual side. From whatever I've heard and read about the country, there's only been positive feedback. And the food! If those TV shows about Sri Lankan food are anything to go by, the avid foodie in me can't wait to try out native delicacies.

2. "So much to do, so little time."
It's not too far from India so it won't hurt my annual leave quota. I could take 5 days off from work and that effectively means 9 days in all (with the weekends on either side of the 5 days). That means exploring a lot more than if it involved travelling to the other side of the world. Time saved is always valuable. Plus it means I can do one more long trip in the same calendar year (Cambodia? Pondicherry? Now that's a topic for a separate post.)

3. The foreign exchange rate!
At the time of writing this, 1 USD = 130.510 LKR. Which means, 1 INR = 2.14 LKR. Which means MORE money to spend on a worthwhile experience and not have to worry about everything being expensive!

Now, now, now... it's not all good news.

Let's face it! Flight fares are expensive these days. Even heading to a place like Sri Lanka or Thailand will burn a small hole in your pocket. What do you skimp on? Especially when you're a female traveller, staying at a cheap-but-shady accommodation is ruled out because of safety reasons.

BUT here's where a resource like Skyscanner comes handy. I've been using the Skyscanner Flights app on my Android phone for a while now after a friend recommended it to me. The app is fantastic in itself. It tracks air fares across multiple airlines and gives you the best rates. And once you've figured what to pick, it directs you to the airline website or travel agent for the bookings. Simple!

You can filter your search not just by price (even though that's my main reason of using Skyscanner) but also by airline, class of cabin and even landing/take-off time.

One feature of the app which is beneficial to on-the-spur travellers who are not tied down to a 9-to-5 job is to search for any destination for any date from your country. That gives you fares across the calendar and you can then probably grab a bargain. 
Click to view a larger size
 
I just realised the website also offers hotel and car rental options. Wonderful! If you seen the screenshot above, June fares seem a tad better. With a stopover at Chennai, a SpiceJet return ticket could cost just under Rs. 16,000 per head. Not bad.
 
My smart travel checklist for Sri Lanka (or any place) would also include:
- Visa requirements, application and related documents
- Accommodation research
- Outline of an itinerary (which could be flexible)
- Research about the weather and essentials regarding safety
- Talking to people who've travelled there before and/or talking to any locals you may know
- Reading travel blogs/websites
- Setting aside a budget for the trip
 
As for the last point, if you're not born with a silver spoon, you better start saving for a trip anywhere. 
 
For now, I have about two-and-a-half months to research and plan. I'm looking to visit Sri Lanka after mid-June. I know it's the rainy season, but one look at Shivya's posts about her Lankan getaway in June 2013 tempted me a great deal. In particular, I'm hoping to try this train ride to Ella. The photos are just breathtaking. It also helps that my friend is game to join me in June. 
 
Ok, here's what I'm thinking: Take 8-9 days off exploring Colombo-Negombo-Kandy-Ella-Nuwara Eliya and maybe if possible, Galle or the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. The last one because it's a World Heritage Site and also because I know a local who hails from Anuradhapura. Would be nice to visit. Right now, I'm only in the very first phase of my research. So if any of you have travelled to this part of the world, please feel free to share your tips and advice.

Fingers crossed, this trip will happen. It's been almost four years since I took a long vacation and Sri Lanka is definitely a destination I would love to have stamped on my passport.
 
Cheers,
~j~
 
NOTE: This post was originally written as an entry for #TravelSmarterWithSkyscanner contest hosted on IndiBlogger. It's also the first time I'm participating in a contest. But win or not, I'm definitely going to Sri Lanka this year. :)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Kite Runners

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The blinds at my office window were down but I could see a moving shadow behind it. Then it hit me! There was a simple brown paper kite suspended a little away. 

So I tried sliding the window glass. It was jammed. Looks like it hadn't been opened in a while. Nail chipped. Left index finger. Dammit.

And then these three boys standing below looked up and saw I had access to the kite. And they start to scream, "Aunty, aunty, patang nikalo please." (Aunty, aunty, get a hold of the kite please.")
 
The three rascals waiting for the kite
 
"Aunty." Grrr.

They must have been 10-12 years old.

I didn't utter a word the whole time. Mainly because there are others working in the same room as me.
 
I had half a mind to yell back and say I wasn't going to give it to them - my own inner child rearing its head for a few fleeting seconds - but then I just smiled at the whole idea. Using my iktara (a single string musical instrument I picked up in Rajasthan*) like a fishing rod, I pulled the kite to bring it closer to the window grill. Realised the thread (manja) was stuck/entangled onto something above my floor. Kept tugging at it. The boys told me to wait and not throw it yet. I guess they were waiting for an audience to come along and earn bragging rights.
 
Finally, they go: "Abhi pheko!" (Throw it now!). So I tugged as hard as I could and voila! The manja broke loose. I had the kite! Managed to click a quick photo of it and I could feel anxious eyes watching from below... 

The Catch
So, I flung it down hoping it doesn't get stuck on another floor's window. The boys ran between the cars parked below to catch it. 

And then, "Thank you, aunty". :)

Happy Sankranti, folks. तिळगुळ घ्या आणि गोड गोड बोला.
 
~j~
 
*PS: I don't play the iktara or any other musical instrument. It was just a nice souvenir from Jaipur.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Another chance to get it right...

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This 2014, here's my wish for you...

...and me! :)


I have decided to make a conscious effort on one facet of my life: HEALTH! Starting January 1st, I'm giving up aerated drinks. Will add a few more things-to-do in the coming weeks related to this. Tons to do at work, so need to keep myself healthy and fit. And I'm praying healthy habits will last me at least a year.

As Oprah Winfrey's optimistic greeting says: "Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right."

Hope to blog regularly too.

Best,
~j~

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Online discoveries

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I love discovering. A quaint store, an underrated food joint, local markets, a tree-lined lane (increasingly, a rarity in Bombay), second-hand books, quirky merchandise, a cool bargain, picture postcards (finding a nice one in Mumbai is an achievement) and just about anything. It's my curiosity that eggs me on to do these things.

A local market in Goa
While nothing beats an actual shopping trip and stumbling upon the unusual, of late I've been checking out a lot of e-commerce portals. A LOT. And it's interesting, too, to see how the Indian online shopping scene has exploded. 
Flipkart made it fashionable, I guess. And then you had everyone from SnapDeal, Fashion&You, 99Labels and a host of others selling everything and anything. I used to wait eagerly for their newsletters to see what deal(s) I could score, especially watches from fancy brands. I wasn't completely on board though. For most of the time, I was happy being a window shopper of the online variety. Till one Christmas. I ordered a dozen or so books from Flipkart to gift to children of my relatives and friends. Even though I had shopped online before that, it was my 'aha' moment. I could do this. Without worrying. And most importantly, even enjoy it as much as offline shopping. :P

But soon, I also realised there's life beyond Flipkart and the others. And not just heavyweights like Junglee, Jabong, Myntra, etc (how do they come up with such names?).

I'm hardly addicted to social networking sites these days. I am active on them but they don't keep me hooked for too long anymore. Apart from a silly game, Candy Crush, all my online activity seems to centre around any website that sells something of interest. And with Christmas around the corner, my annual Twitter Secret Santa participation was imminent. My Santee's wishlist had a generic mix of things s/he wanted (not gonna reveal the gender yet). And while looking for those, hit upon some sites - old and new. I'm sharing a few in this post. Maybe you'll find something of interest or score a bargain in the process.

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CHUMBAK
This colourful company changed the perception of the India souvenir. For the better. 'Chumbak' means 'magnet' and that's how their product line really began... from a fridge magnet. At least now we can proudly say we have funky fridge magnets for those tourists who want a piece of India to take back home.

Chumbak products are not easily available in Mumbai (or at least I haven't found them easily), so your best bet is to go online and shop directly from the website.
Some of my current favourites are Storage Tins, Magnets, Gift Hampers and Bobble Heads.

"FREE shipping on order value Rs.595 and above". So that could be a factor.


Also, it's a good idea to check the "sale" section on any of these sites. Like here.At the time of writing this, there's this sweet combo of coffee mugs for mom and dad for Rs. 395. And a canvas laptop bag with an autorickshaw print on it at Rs. 495, marked down from Rs. 1550. Awesome, right? 

One thing I'm sad about is that they have discontinued selling (at least online) their square-shaped postcards. I thought they were wonderful.

A selection of Chumbak postcards
I asked them about it and the response was "They were not moving." :( I am not surprised, but it's still disappointing.


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HYSTERIA
I stumbled onto this store on my last trip to Bengaluru in April. It's a haven for original merchandise with a music, film or TV theme. Like bobble heads of your favourite TV characters. The incorrigible Barney Stinson, an annoyingly cute Sheldon Cooper (as also his other fellow characters from The Big Bang Theory) and even some of your favourite superheroes make up a small collection worth checking out. Considering these are genuine pieces, the pricing looks quite reasonable. The website is a welcome relief if you live outside of the Garden City.

Sore points with the online experience? 
(1) The website doesn't load the images properly. Most of the descriptions are hidden. Cluttered feel. CSS/HTML gone haywire perhaps? 
And (2), the other issue I have (and I did make a phone call to confirm this) is they have a shipping cost for each product. So if I'm picking up a set of badges (Rs. 50 shipping) AND the Barney bobblehead (Rs. 100 shipping), they will charge me Rs. 150 for shipping to the same address. Absurd, right? I was informed they are working on that. I hope that's rectified soon.
 
Thankfully, the one time I transacted online, it was a smooth process. Waiting to see how and by when my order gets delivered.

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I don't know anything about this e-commerce venture. It's just another shop for different sellers. Somewhat like an Indian Etsy (of course, Shopo was once that till SnapDeal bought them - a move I don't get).

Coming back to Xarato (How do you pronounce it? "Zarrato"?)... I landed on it because a friend sent me a link to something and then I clicked on something else and was on this Facebook page for "Nobodyelse" - an independent Nagpur-based business for "Clocks, jewellery, hooks, murals, paintings etc." - and the person behind it has a jewellery line called Errors which caught my eye. I'm a sucker for earrings. What can I say? Click here to see some images.
And Xarato enticed me by saying if I signed up via my Facebook account, they'd give me a Rs. 500 discount on my first transaction (minimum spend of Rs. 1500; also the coupon code is only valid for the first day, I think). Not bad, I thought. And what's the harm in trying it out? It's not going to be a massive spend anyway. So now I'm waiting for three pairs of earrings, and because I had to round off the billing to Rs. 1500, I added some kiddie hair accessories. They will be included in my Christmas gift for the loveliest almost-3-year-old girl I know. 

The surfing on that site took me a while. The site is image-heavy (obviously!), so a slow internet connection can really kill the experience. But other than that, no issues with the transaction.

So that's that. I might be shopping at The Elephant Company soon. Waiting for my bank balance to recover a bit before I do that. ;)


Disclaimer: This is a personal opinion piece. None of the sites/brands mentioned here have anything to do with me, except for the fact that I may have snooped around their websites/stores, lusted after their products, and actually purchased some as well. I do not take responsibility if you shop at any or all of them and have an issue.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ooooo-Usha

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It's Thursday and you're longingly looking at that calendar waiting for the weekend to descend upon you. For me though, the weekends have been so hectic that I'm looking for a weekend to get away from my regular week AND weekend. Seriously. In the middle of that thought, I came across this video today and it brought such sunny happy thoughts to my mind that I had to share it.


I've always admired Usha Uthup's versatility and her unique personality. Fabulous singer, woman of substance and funny as hell. A true legend.

Enjoy maadi,
~j~

PS: Who doesn't love her sarees and bindis? Sigh.

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