Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rajasthan - beginning of a memorable vaction

It all started with figuring out vacation ideas; considering that we would be travelling in December, colder climes were naturally ruled out.  M had been wanting to do Rajasthan for a while, so we decided that the land of golden sands it would be, since anytime after March and the place would be scorching.

Since the tourist season starts mid-December, we decided to plan our trip in the first week, before the hordes start pouring in.  The days would be pleasant, the nights chill but not freezing and the crowds, few.  We only had about a week on our hands, so the planning had to be meticulous - not crowd the itinerary with too many places to visit, yet not miss out on the must do spots.  The credit again goes to M for a perfectly planned holiday - right from what to see, where to stay, what to eat, which taxiwalla to call etc.,!

For starters, Rajasthan is a state that has endless possibilities: forts, deserts, wildlife parks, luxurious palaces, spread across many must visit places such as Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Ranthambore... Considering my shutter happy nature and the need for a relaxed holiday, we decided on Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.  No more.

For details on the planning bit, do's and don'ts, refer to M's blog.  My blog is not meant to be a travel-diary, but a collection of the impressions gathered during that fabulous one week.

As we landed at Jaipur Airport at 7.30 AM, the captain's welcome message shattered some typical 'tourist myths' about Rajasthan, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Jaipur; the temperature outside is a pleasant 17 degrees..."  Wow!  So Rajasthan, is not really the 'perpetual 50 degrees oven!'

Jaipur is a beautiful city, with broad straight streets, swept clean, shrouded in the morning chill - very welcoming.  It's a fairly green city too - disappointing tourists who assume that all of Rajasthan is only sand!  This is also the city of beautiful palaces - Jal Mahal and City Palace for instance, forts - Amer and Jaigarh, astronomical observatory - Jantar Mantar, lakes, markets.  The people are friendly and affable, willing to guide the lost tourist.

Hawa Mahal, in the soft golden light of the morning sun
Our first stop was the Hawa Mahal - most readily recognised icon of the Pink City - so called because the erstwhile Maharani Gayatri Devi ordered the denizens of the inner city to paint their building in pink, so as to lend the place an exclusivity!  We reached just in time to catch the golden rays of the early morning sun bathe this exquisite structure in an ethereal glow.  Shopkeepers across the street were very willing to let us take shots from their terraces for an access charge of '10 rupee per head only'.  "We charge phoren tourists 100 rupee saab..." the chowkidaar of one of these vantage viewpoints confided.  He was also more than happy to click our pictures.
One of the many exquisite jharokas...
Quick tip for photographers: reach the place before 9.00 AM and use a wide-angle for excellent shots of Hawa Mahal - the early morning rays provide excellent frontal lighting.  Get on the terrace of any of the shops for eye-level shots.  Telephoto zooms are pretty much useless unless you want to take shots of parts of the structure.

Is this the kind of view the veiled queens and princesses
would have had, of the street below?
We were blessed with a bright sun, no clouds and a clear day: really, excellent conditions for photography.  It was interesting to see busloads of foreign tourists - mostly European and Orient, go gaga over the place - surely, a structure so grand constructed just to let the purdah-bound queens and princesses watch royal processions in relative seclusion must be a rarity.

After spending more than an hour gawking at the place, we finally proceeded to breakfast, at the interestingly named Balaji Restaurant, for a snack of hot parathas, dahi and pickle.

 The entire city seemed attuned to tourists - the grandfatherly shopkeeper who starts twirling his generous moustache as soon as two Koreans with cameras slung around their necks approach; the otherwise bored snake charmer who plays his 'been' and wakes up an equally bored cobra to life the moment an excited European couple approach, cameras on the ready; traditionally decked up women who are willing to pose for photographs with you for a payment of '50 rupee only'... The welcome change ofcourse is that none of these tourist friendly people pester you with their wares...

Intricately designed Peacock Gate
The diwan-i-khas, straight out of a
period movie
The next stop was the nearby City Palace, the current residence of the erstwhile rulers, descendants of the Sun and heirs of the Kachawaha dynasty.  Part of the palace has been converted into a museum, with standard exhibits of royal furniture, apparel, weapons and utensils.  Of particular interest was the Peacock Gate, the northeast entrance to the inner courtyard.   Delicately adorned with peacock motifs, the entrance arch is a sight to behold.  The other three gates to the courtyard are stunning too, decorated with motifs of waves, lotus and roses.  The Palace also has on exhibit huge silver urns, 5.2 ft tall, 340 kgs heavy and with a capacity of 4000 litres, meant to carry Gangajal for the king, on his journeys!

Samrat Yantra - largest sundial in existence
Next came the Jantar Mantar, the place that we had been most looking forward to!  Constructed by Maharaja Jai Singh II, this is one of the five observatories that he built, and the best preserved.  We were lucky to get an excellent guide, and spent over an hour understanding the working and purpose of the various instruments here.  The precision with which these instruments have been calibrated is amazing.  The Samrat Yantra, the largest sun dial in the world, gives the local time to a precision of 2 seconds!  The experience of being able to actually see the shadow move across the marked marble counter is exhilarating!
Close up of the dial - the shadow on the white marble
is calibrated to a precision of 2 seconds!
 Our guide explained in great detail how each of these yantra's (instruments) worked.  He was equally thrilled to find tourists that are inquisitive and interested in finding out more about the place.  To his utter surprise, we refused to click any snaps while he was explaining, reserving that for later.  What was surprising though was that as we neared an hour and half of 'guide time', he was keen to leave us and look for fresh catch.  Apparently, most guides in Rajasthan limit time with each tourist batch to not more than 1.5 hours, something we would encounter at the Amer Fort as well!

Our next stop was the Amer Fort, the location from which Jodha Akbar was shot.  En-route, we made a quick stop at the Jal Mahal, now restored to its past glory but sadly, out of bound for tourists.  Managed to get a few shots of birds gliding over the surface of the lake, fishing for... what else.... fish!

Majestic Amer Fort, reflected in the moat below...
The Amer Fort is a magnificent structure, but before that, we made a stop at the Jaigarh Fort, the Amer Fort's twin and constructed to accomodate the growing needs of the main fort.  The primary attraction at Jaigarh was the Jaivan, the largest cannon ever made.  With a barrel 20 ft long and a bore 11 inches large, the cannon has a range of over 40 kms (the Bofors howitzer, by comparison has a 6 inch bore and 35 km range).  The cannon however, has not seen any action, having been fired only once, a test shot at that.  In that sense, I prefer the Mendha tope of Daulatabad Fort, the second largest cannon and the Kalal Bangdi of Murud Janjira.  These cannons are battle scarred, intimidating and have character.  They look you in the eye with a 'dare mess with me?' attitude.  The cannon of Jaigarh was a disappointment.

Lunch was at yet another franchise of the ubiquitous Balaji!  It appears that instead of water, Rajasthani's use ghee and butter to cook their food in.  Our waiter was severely disappointed that we did not consume more than 2 servings of the mildly sweet choorma, that goes with dal-baati-choorma, or multiple servings of the heavy gatte ki sabji.  "Saab, aapne to kuch bhi nahi khaya..." he complained after we had consumed what we thought were elephantine quantities of the 10 course (or was it 14?) meal.  This is a Rajasthan standard - these nice people are disappointed if you don't eat the equivalent of 4 people!

Restoration work in progress at the Sheesh Mahal
 The last stop was the majestic Amer Fort, standing sentinel, aloft on the vast desert plains.  Several popular Bollywood movies, the recent one being Jodha Akbar, were shot here.  Contrasted to our experience at the Jantar Mantar, the guide at Amer was a disappointment, pitching more about gems, astrology and the like that would no doubt draw the attention of the foreign tourist, but not fort-o-holics like us.  The Amer Fort has mostly seen peaceful times, as the rulers, the Kachwahas, were on friendly terms with the Mughals and then with the British.  The striking part of the fort though, is the Sheesh Mahal, the palace of mirrors, embellished with mirrors imported from Belgium, that still retain their sheen.

Tiny mirrors of all shapes and sizes, set in artistic patterns adorn the walls and ceiling, throwing off slivers of light in all directions.  One can only imagine the magic the place would have created, reflecting in thousands, the flame of a single lighted lamp...  This surely must have been the inspiration for the pyaar kiya to darna kya song in the epic Mughal-e-azam.  The ceiling and walls are covered in delicate marble carvings that are translucent to the touch, with elaborate paintings of creepers and flowers, and with tiny mirrors set in delicate patterns.  The courtyard has a beautiful garden, set in octagonal patterns interspersed with fountains.  Cool water was circulated through the walls and lattices, giving a respite from the desert heat.  One can only imagine the splendour of this place at the peak of its glory!

View of Ganesh Pol from the fourth courtyard...
The terrace of the fort has a huge courtyard, to one end of which the Ganesh Pol, leads to the Sheesh Mahal.  The entrance arch here is dedicated to Lord Ganesha, and is therefore adorned with motifs attributed to the Lord.  The courtyard itself is immense and we were lucky to be there at the close of tourist hours, when the place was near deserted and the place afforded terrific photographic opportunities.  Minarets and domes, arches and pillars, set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, and a photographer had to get shutter happy!

Glimpses of Amer Fort...

Majesty of the Amer Fort by night...
It was now time to head to the sound and light show at the ramparts - an hour and half filled with retelling of fort lore.  Very well put together and excellently presented, the show is a must see for those interested.

Photographic tip: Make sure to visit the Amer Fort towards the end of the day, so that you get time at the Sheesh Mahal and Ganesh Pol courtyard devoid of tourists.  Also carry a tripod - the approach road to the fort with the moat and lake below have excellent photographic opportunities to capture the fort reflected in the water below.

Dining at the very exclusive 1135 AD
Apparently, the standard time to tour the fort is 45 minutes, with some curious tourists stretching it to over an hour.  When we met our driver after spending over 4 hours at the fort (not counting the sound and light show), he exclaimed that this has been his most boring outing to the fort!  Imagine his surprise then, when we declared that we wanted to go back into the fort!  Not for sightseeing, but to the restaurant 1135 AD.  The restaurant is inside the fort, at the second courtyard level, passing right in front of the Sila Devi temple.  Strongly recommended for the ambience, excellent food and exceptional service; it was an experience, sitting atop the fort at dusk, with only the sound of the wind blowing over the ramparts for company, enjoying a leisurely dinner.  We certainly felt like royals!  The credit for finding this gem of a place and arranging for us to have a private dinner goes to M!

After an eventful day, it was finally time to pack the cameras and bid goodbye to Jaipur, as we headed to the Golden City of Jaisalmer!  That's for another blog!  Watch this space...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

M for Muse...

Got this excellent shot of M, probably my best portrait shot to date and certainly the slowest shot without tripod that I have taken.  Yes, this is a half second exposure shot with bare hands, no tripod, no monopod, no support of any sort for the camera!  First the shot and then the story behind the shot...

The shot...

Lens: Canon IS 18-55 IS
Aperture: f/4.5
Shutter: 1/2 (yes!)
ISO: 800
Focal length: 35 mm
Flash: No
Tripod: NO!
Post processing: None

Now the story...

The setting
Unlike other years, spent this diwali in Mumbai.  On a whim, decided to head to Nariman Point on the last day of diwali to enjoy what we expected would be a spectacular display of fireworks all over the Queen's Necklace.  We arrived a tad too early and spent the first couple of hours soaking in the cool sea breeze and panoramic views of the Queen's Necklace, lighted up in all its festive finery.  A brightly lit up Saifee Hospital was the shining pendant to the glittering necklace.  Spent time munching on the famous Mumbai sandwiches and clicking shots of Nariman Point and the fireworks around.  The white glow of the sparklers and flower pots provided just the necessary soft lighting with the dark sea as the background for the perfect portrait.  The gentle breeze and randomly streaking rockets threatened to spoil the shot, but then, what's life without a little excitement!

The muse
The ever willing M ofcourse!  Since I didn't want a 'posed' look, just told her not to make any sudden movements, make only slow movements and that too in installments, so that I would get enough window to shoot a slow portrait.  M obliged, though at some discomfort, given how active and restless as she is!  Goofed up the first one by not setting the monochrome mode, but got it right in the second one!

The shot
Though I never expected it to turn out half as good, the result surprised me.  There were several challenges to start with.  The first problem was the light - it was nearing nine in the evening and there was a lot of stray light all over the place: from sparklers, rockets, blazing flower pots, headlights of passing vehicles and even from the streetlights.  Thankfully, managed a moment when all these had taken a break!  Next was the background.  Though we were at the far end of Nariman Point, just across from NCPA, the glittering lights of the curve of the Queen's Necklace threatened to play spoilsport.  Managed to find a spot with M seated on the seawall and me standing on the bench a level below, to get the right angle and have any afterglow of the Queen's Necklace below the range of the lens.  Luck played a large part, in not sending any stray rockets to the background.  The third and the biggest problem was the shutter speed.  Earlier shots in aperture priority resulted in 5 - 10 second exposures, which are impossible without a tripod and certainly a disaster as far as portraits are concerned.  Had to set a relatively high ISO (against my liking), at 800, beyond which I  believe the noise ruins photographs, particularly those with stark contrasts and dark backgrounds.  Set the aperture at 4.5 - alas I don't have a high speed lens and this is the widest I can open up to at even a 35 mm focus and shooting mode to Manual, to prevent the shutter from going off to long exposures.  Set the white balance to auto and shutter speed to 1/2 second.  I thought I was all set, but given the low light, AF failed to lock in and kept hunting.  Had to set the focus to Manual and had trouble getting an exact focus (the 18-55 is not the best of lenses for MF - I'd rather do that with a rangefinder, but the likes of Leica are currently  out of my budget range!).  That explains the soft focus, which actually is good for portraits!  The glow from the sparklers provided sufficient soft lighting and finally hit the shutter release.  Was lucky enough that my hands stayed steady for just the required moments and luckier further that the shot turned out decent enough...

If you liked the result, do post your comments.  If you didn't, I'd like to hear more about how the shot can be improved, so do post comments!

Mumbai road trip

For a change, decided NOT to go on a long road trip on a long weekend. Instead, we decided to explore places in Mumbai. And so, on a wet saturday morning, M and I set off, to look up spots in South Mumbai. The first stop was the Church of St John the Evangelist, popularly known as Afghan Church.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Colaba, close to Navy Nagar, Afghan Church is a Presbyterian Church built to commemorate the dead of the 1838 Afghan War. The imposing spire, rising to a height of 60 mts that was once visible to ships docking in the harbour, is now dwar

fed by high rises all round. Surprisingly, the church itself is in a derelict state, opening only for mass on sunday mornings. Since we went on a saturday, the church was sadly, closed to visitors. There wasn't even a caretaker to be found. The precincts were immacu

lately kept, and the facade was imposing. Since the main entrance was locked, we missed seeing the famed stained glass windows - apparently the largest in India. Will come back on a sunday morning post monsoon and post pics. Pic courtesy here: googlemaps/panoromio
From the Afghan Church, we proceeded to Kala Ghoda, to the Jehangir Art Gallery. There were several solo exhibitions on, mostly abstract paintings. Also on display were sculptures by an artist who works with mixed media: fibreglass, brass and metals, clay etc., I am sure there are people that appreciate modern art, but sadly we were not those. Hence a quick tour and exit, to Samovar Cafe.
Samovar is a quaint cafe attached to the Art Gallery, immortalised in the Basu Chatterjee movie Chhoti si baat, starring Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Ashok Kumar (as the unforgettable Col. Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh) and Asrani. An open corridor running down an entire length of the gallery building is cloistered and converted into a narrow cafe, with rows of chairs on either side of the aisle. Since it was early noon, there wasnt much crowd save for a solitary foreign tourist. Sadly, the menu did not feature chicken-a-la-poos, though it did list kheema paratha and dahi vada. The menu had several delights for the maansaahaari, such as mutton samosa, chicken patty etc., We settled for the spicy cheese-veg roll, veg sandwich and the mango lassi. The staff were extremely courteous, efficient and quick, though on a lazy sunday morning, I'd rather they were slow! The ambience was enhanced by the background music - a collection of fusion music titled Chitra, by Venus. The staff even obliged us by getting us the CD cover when we enquired about the album!
From Cafe Samovar, we headed to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly The Prince of Wales Museum (strangely, an internet search turns up a large number of hits for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sastu Sangrahalaya!) Surprisingly, the museum attracts a large number of visitors, from within and outside Mumbai. The visit began on a high note, munching on slices of kandmool - a juicy tuber supposed to be good for digestion.
The museum authorities permit use of a camera, without flash ofcourse, on payment of a small fee. Unfortunately, we had not carried the camera, hence, no interesting images from the visit. The museum building has an imposing facade: set in the Indo-Saracenic style, the structure draws from Islamic and Deccan styles.  The structure itself would be an object of study for architecture enthusiasts.
The teeming crowds actually surprised us - who would expect Mumbaites to turn up at a museum on a sunday, rather than some mall!  Anyways, it turned out that most of the visitors were tourists from other cities - Chennai, Kerala, AP, Rajasthan, UP etc., The excitement of the crowds was palpable!
Interestingly, a significant part of the collection is donated by Sir Ratan Tata (son of Jamsetji Tata), his wife Lady Navajbai Tata and brother Sir Dorab Tata.  Many artefacts donated by the family are priceless: jade artefacts, antique furniture, jewelry, sculptures - there's something from the family in every section of the museum.  In fact, it is surprising that the museum was originally called The Prince of Wales Museum and not The Sir Ratan Tata Museum!  Yet another example of the Tata family's selflessness in  service of the greater public good.
The audio guides available for Rs 100 give a pretty useful introduction, though we found the explanations for the sculpture section (dominated by mythological themes) fairly basic.  The central hall, formed by the cavernous dome, is awe inspiring.  The dome itself is inspired by the Gol Gumbaz of Bijapur - probably the largest free standing dome in the world.  The ground floor has an eclectic collection of jade figurines, ivory sculptures, jewelry and an entire section devoted to ancient sculptures, that easily took most of our attention and time.

The sculpture section
This houses sculptures from various Indian temple sites as ancient as  200 BC to as recent as 1600 AD.  For the mythologically and historically inclined, like us, this is a treasure trove.  What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up in variety.  Spending more than an hour browsing the collection, we made a few startling observations.  For instance, most of the scupltures of the feminine, be it goddesses or dwarpalikas, upto almost the 15th century, are portrayed with a yagnopaveetam, the sacred thread.  Though it is a known fact that the scriptures nowhere prohibit women from chanting the Gayatri or undergoing the thread ceremony, the recentness of the depiction was surprising.  A couple of artefacts were wrongly labelled and we did have a good mind to speak to the curataor, but by the time were done with the exhibits, exhaustion overtook us and forgot about it.  One of the exhibits that caught our attention was a life size Durga made entirely of dried plantain bark.  The featuring and attention to detail was spell binding.
The central hall houses several smaller artefacts and trinkets, of which the jade collection was the best.  Carved jade cups so delicate that they are translucent, jade jewelry, carved jade boxes and keepsakes... one can spend the rest of the day gazing at these.  There are carvings of ivory and wood, mostly Goan, at this level too, but none can match the breathtaking beauty of the jade word.

The first floor several sections - an extensive collection of Indian miniature paintings, one of the largest collections of Indian coins, and an assortment of arms and armour, various wooden and ivory artefacts.
The collection of miniature paintings is very extensive and showcases the different styles prevalent in various regions of the country.  We quickly moved to the coins section.  The history of coinage is traced with specimen from each phase.  There are coins from the pre-Mauryan period, through the various dynasties across India and right up to the 'Company' issued coins of the 18th and 19th centuries.  We were already running short on time and hence couldn't spend enough time here - probably another visit dedicated just to this section.
Exquisitely carved wooden and ivory furniture are placed all over the first level.  Most of these feature delicate filigree work as well as inlay work in metal and semi-precious stones.  Most are donated by the Sir Ratan Tata family.
The section on European and contemporary art was closed for renovation and was sadly, out of bounds.
It was nearing closing time and we decided to make a dash of the natural history section.  Though it was saddening to see magnificent animals killed and stuffed for display, two specimen caught our attention.  The first was an Indian rhino, in all its magnificent hulk, standing five feet tall toe to shoulder: never imagined that a rhino could be this huge.  The second was a bison that M found immensely handsome and dashing - I had to agree.  Though only a display, the bison had the calm commanding look that women swoon for, helped in no small measure by the huge bulk of atleast six foot tall.
It was now officially closing time and the guards started herding the laggards out.  We made a quick stop at the museum bookstore and picked up a couple of books on the Indus Valley civilization and ancient Indian coinage.

It was almost six in the evening and we were ravenous, the small Samovar lunch long since digested.  Headed to Delhi Durbar for a hearty meal, which turned to be not a great experience.  Un-responsive staff, slow service, dysfunctional AC were only a few of the complaints.  A quick repast later, we headed back home.  Surely, there is more to Mumbai than just her malls and shopping high streets....

Friday, October 28, 2011

Places to eat

This one is not about fine dining - its about fantastic dining, about places that offer fabulous food in an all value no frills package, dug out from the memories of singleton days.

Crystal - Chowpatty
Topping the list is Crystal - an irani style vegetarian only punjabi restaurant on Chowpatty, on the corner after Wilson College, if you are driving towards Nariman Point. A typical blink-and-you-miss joint, the easiest way to find the place is to simply look for the hordes of office goers and college kids waiting their turn outside the door at lunchtime. Its not uncommon to find investment bankers rub shoulders with college students on adjacent tables. This place is for food and food alone - if you are looking for ambience, even traces of it, this place is not for you. The interiors of the place are dimly lit and a makeshift mezzanine floor gives the restaurant a claustrophobic feel. The chairs are tacky plastic and you will find a bottle of Kissan ketchup and mixed fruit jam in a cupboard above the cashier's desk. The waiters here are courteous and will help you with choosing the dishes if you are a newcomer.
Their aam ras - available during the mango season - is to die for. So is the kheer, which should be had chilled. For the main course, choose from the spread of rotis - they are all fabulous, but if you are particular, go for the aloo paratha and butter roti. Black dal and aloo gobi make for excellent accompaniments. Topping the list is rajma, which is a work of art. A courteous request and the waiter will fetch you a nariyal pani from the vendor next door. A sumptuous meal for two for about Rs 200 - it can't get better than that!

Stadium Restaurant
This is another true irani type restaurant near Churchgate, across the road from Gaylord, in the WIAA building, next to the Vodafone outlet. High ceilinged with irani style wooden chairs and tables, the place also boasts of an internet browsing centre, located above the kitchen! A dour faced cashier oversees several waiters scurrying around, taking orders and serving dishes. The place has some of the best biriyanis available - I will vouch for the vegetarian biriyani and the egg biriyani and my non-veg friends from as far away as Bangalore make it a point to visit this place for the mutton biriyani. The curries are finger lickin' good too - have the egg curry or mutton curry with chapatis. The chapatis are large and five should be good for someone with a voracious appetite. Top off the meal with chai - brewed in true Irani style. Be sure to ask for the regular chai, which is served in cracked porcelain cups and not the special chai, which is served in fancy glass cups, but not as good. A meal for two costs about Rs 150.  If you are in the mood, try their 'special dessert' - a serving of custard as well!

This for a change, is not an irani restaurant!  It is a malayali restaurant, tucked in a bylane off DN Road, behind the Citibank building.  A narrow staircase leads to the restaurant on the first floor, with an exclusive 'family' section with A/C as well!  Once you squeeze in behind the tables, the waiters, most of them malayali of course, will toss the menu on the table.  If you do not know what to order, you'd better head there for lunch and ask for the thali.  The thali is veg, but the restaurant serves delectable mallu non-veg dishes too.  The thali, our all time favourite, starts with the pineapple chutney, followed by kachumber, paruppu, vegetables in the south indian style, aviyal, poriyal, red rice (they serve white rice on request, but who'd miss a helping of red rice!), curries, sambhar, rasam, curd, chillies pickled in curd and fried, payasam etc.,  For a truly authentic mallu lunch experience, don't miss this.  And a word of advice - skip breakfast if you want to do justice to the lunch!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

New Toy - Samsung Wave II

The wife always wins!  And so it was this time too.  A feeble defence in favour of extending the retirement life of the trusty Nokia E63 were quickly overcome and the diktat to immediately identify a replacement was issued.
Turns out picking a mobile is no longer an 'I went, I saw, I bought' task.  At the pinnacle of the pecking order rules the very desirable iPhone 4S that sold some 4 mn pieces in the weekend after Steve Jobs' passing away.  Several thousand other models follow down the hierarchy, with a lowly 1000 Rs mobile boasting more features than the one I used not less than a couple of years ago.
Listing out the features that I wanted in a mobile didn't help either: basic features such as ability to make calls, sms, address book and set an alarm and 'advanced' features such as conferencing ability and good speaker phone are available even in ones that are certainly not considered piece de' resistance.
In order to narrow down the choices, decided to add multi-touch screen, robust media player and presence of a qwerty keypad.  With a triumphant smile, I put these requirements to the salesman, expecting him to dish out exactly what I needed.  A few quick questions followed that had me back at square one:
"Android or Symbian or Windows?"
"Looking for great app experience or multi-media experience?"
"LCD or amoLED?"
"Browser preference?"
"Single camera or dual camera?"
That's when I decided to get professional help and do some serious research.  Typed "best smartphone for Rs x" in the Google searchbar and did a recce at an electronics store.  Had to turn to my faithful Samsung again - apparently I am some sort of Samsung loyalist.  Shortlisted Galaxy Ace and Wave II.  Online reviews and the helpful salesman recommended Galaxy Ace for a great app experience and Wave II for a great multimedia experience.  Having rarely used a mobile for much beyond the basic features, opted for the Wave II.
The ongoing festive season with its share of freebies and discounts was an added bonus.  Here's a download on the first few days usage.
What came in the box: the phone, charger, USB cable, headphones, software CD and user manual, pouch.
What didn't come in the box: scratchguard, memory card (added an 8 GB to start with).
The brushed metallic black exterior gives a classy look and feel to the handset.  This also prevents the surface from being a fingerprint magnet.  Though a cm longer than the E63 and almost as broad and thick(er?) (12.4 cm x 6.0 cm x 1.2 cm), it didn't take much time getting used to.
Though tiny, the external buttons (volume jog, camera, screen lock) are well raised and provide excellent tactile feedback.  A lot of thought seems to have gone into the design of this phone: for instance, the combined charging and micro-USB port are protected by a plastic slide-out cover, not the rubber covers that tend to tear soon.  Another one: place the phone face down and it automatically goes into a silent mode!  It's small things like this that make the phone extremely practical.
The phone itself is a nifty package: has a great 'Super Clear LCD' 9.25 cm touchscreen with a brilliant 480 x 800 display.  Colour reproduction is crisp and the contrasts are great.  The multi-touch touchscreen is a joy to use.
Voice quality is clear and crisp.
Text input with the 'trace and type' function is a boon for hardcore physical qwerty users with clunky fingers, like me.  I expect to quickly surpass my qwerty keypad typing speeds on the trace and type.
Internal memory of 2 GB plus expandable card slot of 32 GB can handle any and all stuff that my 2 year old laptop does.  Combine that with great battery life (400 min talk time and 555 hrs standby on 3G), multiple video format support including divx and a great pair of in-ear earphones means those early-morning-late-evening flights no longer have to be spent fidgeting and watching 'Karthik calling Karthik' five times a week.
The 5 megapixel camera was another surprise package.  In addition to auto focus and image stabilisation, it has adjustable ISO settings (50 to 800), white balance, 15 scene modes and 6 shooting modes.  Now that's giving some competition to my point and shoot!
Well, that's about how much I have used the phone the last couple of days - am sure it's gonna be great.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The world of small things - fun with macro photography

After attending the Canon basic photography workshop yesterday, was raring to have a go with the camera today.  A lazy afternoon, with M away and I was looking for things to photograph.  Stepping out was ruled out - didn't want to take that chance on the 10th day of Ganapati, what with visarjan crowds thronging the streets!

It's been four months since I got the camera, though haven't used it much.  The last couple of weeks, have been trying to take as many practice shots as possible.  Did the same today, though being confined within the house limited the options.  That is when I chanced upon a lone apple in the refrigerator.

Photographing it posed several challenges; first, there were different sources of direct and reflected light in the room.  Then there was clutter everywhere.  Third, I didn't have anything to prop the apple on!  Decided to set up a makeshift studio: hung an old dhoti over the window to diffuse the direct sunlight, pulled a black chair and draped another old dhoti to camouflage the black cushion and provide good contrast (red on white).  The white cloth would also reflect the light off the flash, thus reducing the effect of harsh shadows.  Pulled out the tripod for good effect (currently am making do with SLIK, hope to progress to a Manfrotto someday) and I was set.  Got some neat shots of the apple...  Increased saturation in the first snap, but decided to leave the other two untouched, for the natural effect...

Love the angle of this shot... The out of focus front half and out of focus background, with the light shining off the side adds to the effect.  Increased saturation to bring out the colours...
 More experimentation here... have gone against the rule of thirds, splitting the frame into two and dedicating one half each to the subject and the background.  The composition turned out interesting results... No post processing here, not even crop.

Repeated the same half-half composition here, with a side view.  Though not as dramatic as the previous one, this nevertheless gave an interesting shot.

After the shoot, rewarded myself the apple; the fructose and carbs acted on me and I set out finding other things to shoot.  Shot a bottle of coffee powder and honey; the results were not satisfactory - too many reflections from various sources of light - have to get that polarising filter soon.

I was still not done.  Picked up a dismantled CD-ROM player and decided to shoot the interesting electronics and small parts.  Here are the results:
This is a line up of tiny screws from the player.  Notice the one rupee coin on the left side to get an idea of how tiny these are...

Here is a larger blown up view of the first four fellows: the one on the left would not be more than 3 - 4 mm tall.

A couple of views of the circuit board and the mechanism that moves the CD:
The non-cropped view - the CD player in its entirety with the innards exposed.  The whole thing is about 4 - 5 inches across.
 The circuits and IC's blown up (the little green square in the bottom left corner of the previous image).  This bit is only slightly larger than a one rupee coin.
This is the mechanism that moves the 'reader'  back and forth.  The stub on top is a tiny micro motor, no more than a centimeter in length.

Hope to move outdoors soon, once the rains subside and get more pictures...

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Malshej: driving through clouds and rain

On a whim, decided to head out to Malshej, the popular monsoon destination 140 kms from Mumbai.  Knowing that the only place worth staying over is the Flamingoes Resort, run by MTDC that gets booked four months in advance, it had to be a day trip.  Holidays are not for waking up early and here we were, starting from home at 10.45 AM, for a 300 km single day round trip (yeah, we are like that only).

The route is pretty simple: head out of Mumbai via Thane toll naka, take NH-3 (Mumbai-Nasik highway), turn right towards Kalyan at Chokhi Dhani, cross Kalyan, Ulhasnagar, Shahad on NH 222 and head all the way to Malshej.  That's what Google maps said and we religiously followed the route.  NH-3 was a breeze, though the   traffic snarl-up on the other side gave us an idea of what we would encounter on the way back.  Crossed Chokhi Dhani in a flash and then the traffic nightmare started.  A broken down dumpster on the other side reduced the already narrow NH222 to a single-lane road.  'This is only for a short stretch, the road will open up in no time' we convinced ourselves.  Surely, it did, only to lead to an even more congested stretch across the bi-lane Kalyan rail overbridge.  We compounded the delay by taking a wrong turn that landed us smack in the heart of congested Kalyan town, along Agra Road.  Realising the mistake quickly, we asked around for Malshej and were directed to a narrow lane and told to 'strictly' take a turn at Vallabh Tower.  The six storey Vallabh 'Tower' led to the highway NH 222 towards Malshej.  We had spent over an hour and half and barely covered 45 kms - another 100 to go.  The flyover before Shahad was more of a cross country track, making me want to drive a 4x4.  Such thoughts were immediately dismissed as we hit yet another jam in front of Century Colony at Shahad.  We decided to turn back if we hit another bad traffic spot.  Thankfully, the road opened up thereafter and we were finally on the way to Malshej.  Only worrying footnote: 2 hours down and only 51 kms crossed.

The road after Shahad is pretty good, save for the occasional pothole.  Rolled down the windows to the thin drizzle and the cool breeze - we could only imagine how Malshej would be.

Road below: silver ribbon through green tapestry
The ghat road
As they say, the path to heaven is not easy.  So was it with Malshej.  About 27 kms before Malshej Ghat, the road turns really nasty - this is only for those with a stout heart and a stouter suspension.  The alert driver usually manages to navigate the sea of potholes without accident; we saw atleast three broken down cars being towed.  Signboards with phone nos of tow services are pasted in many places, to help the stranded drivers.  At places the potholes are so bad, one has to search for even a square inch of tarmac.  This bad stretch is about 17 kms long and has to be tackled at crawl speeds.  Alas, this only meant more delay.

Can you count the number of waterfalls?
After what seemed an eternity, we finally hit the ghat road (and with that the bad road stretch ended too).  This has to count among the most scenic drives - lush greenery all around, innumerable waterfalls dotting the mountainside...

Mesmerising falls...

In fact there are waterfalls gushing by the roadside - so close that we could reach out and touch them!  The ghat road was full of waterfalls which were in turn full of picknickers frolicking in the water!
One of the many falls by the roadside...
Picknicers at a waterfall
There are even spots where you actually drive through water falls - there was this spot where the water descended in torrents onto the road from an overhanging ledge above, creating a curtain of water to drive through!  Ofcourse, we drove through it windows rolled down!

Driving through the waterfall: it's
actually water on the windscreen!
Waterfall on the road!

Valley bathed in golden glow
The entire drive through the ghats is scenic: there were moments when the clouds parted to bathe the valley below in golden sunshine.  The effect was breathtaking.

After a drive that melted away the stress of driving potholed roads, we reached the Flamingoes Resort, run by MTDC.  As we drove, we had decided to look for a place to stay, so that we could enjoy the place more, but one look at the crowds milling at the Resort and we knew we'd have to return the same day.  Nevertheless, we decided to try.  The grumpy gentleman at the booking desk informed us curtly, 'kamra nai'.  It was past 2.30 and we were starving - headed to the restaurant at the resort for lunch.

For a moment, we thought we were underneath a water fall again - make no mistake, the restaurant is a covered one!  Buckets of water seeping through the concrete roof were the culprit!  The restaurant was crowded with noisy tourists and the lone waiter was struggling to keep pace.  We managed to catch his eye and ordered a simple fare of dal, rice and aloo: food that we consider 'safe' in most places.  When our order arrived, we realised this was going to be an exception: the aloo was stale, dal not properly done and rice doused in cooking soda.  Inspite of being ravenous, we only managed to finish half a portion.  This has to count as the worst restaurant of all our travels.
Driving through the clouds: approach to the MTDC resort!

Glad we didn't have to stay back at a place like this, we decided to explore the place: figured we had about an hour.  The resort sits atop a small plateau, at the edge of a cliff looking into the valley.  The place is mesmerising.  Tall cliffs rise to touch the clouds all around and as we watched a thick cloud engulfed the whole place, including us, reducing visibility to barely a few metres!  We were literally 'walking in the clouds!'  Not to waste the opportunity M and I let loose our cameras - there were several photo-worthy landscapes begging to be shot!
If there is heaven, this will qualify!

The hour that we had slotted to spend here quickly merged into the next and before long, it was time to turn back.  Promising to return soon, we headed back.
Views of the valley

Bypass from Murbad
After negotiating the bad 17 km stretch, we decided to try a different route: cross over to Shahpur on NH 3, instead of driving through what would certainly be a Shahad-Ulhasnagar-Kalyan teeming with the faithful breaking fast on the last day of Ramadan and the mandals bringing home the Ganapati's.  There are two options for this: one is to turn right at Saralgaon junction and the second is to turn right at Murbad.  Helpful locals advised us to take the latter, a route preferable to even the NH 222.  We did that and were welcomed by a relatively smooth stretch of tarmac.  Though the last few kilometers of this road is pretty bad, it was still better than having to weave through Kalyan traffic.
Views of the setting sun
We were even rewarded for our efforts with fantatic views of a small river that we drove over: the sight of the setting sun glistening off the ripples was a fitting finale to the trip.  Driving 300 kms for 10 hours just to spend a couple of magical moments in the Malshej clouds - was it worth it?  You bet!

Here are some photos of this captivating place...
Clouds take over
Breathtaking views
Breathtaking views

Breathtaking views

Shrouded in clouds

Pondering moment...

Walking into the clouds...
Photo credits: Meenal Dutia, Ram Sharaph

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Back to blogspot

After a lull of an year and a half, am back to blogging. Much happened during my absence: Google+ threatens the supremacy of FB, US of A is humbled by a rating agency, Sensex tanked, Team India won many cricket tournaments and lost several, Salman made a resounding comeback with Dabangg and Ready, inflation in office commute cost is > increase in earnings, a friend ran the 250 km 4 Desert Race (Atacama), I swam 250 mts in the pool, graduated from point and shoot to DSLR, moved jobs...
Will be back with more details on all this and more, watch this space!