Crazy Weekend

My weekends generally fall into either of the following two categories. 1. Good weekends - where I have lots and lots of fun and not even realizing the time flying by, till its Monday morning and yet I feel more energetic (even with all the lack of sleep) and 2. The bad ones - where I usually sit at home doing nothing and simply feel empty by Sunday evening and hate Monday’s so much that at times I end up taking a day off.
Then there is the third type, the one which happens once in a “Blue Moon” - The Crazy One. Two weeks back, it was a “Blue Moon”.

To make the long story short, one Thursday evening, I was at my apartment in Singapore wondering what I am going to do the next day at work and how boring my weekend’s gonna be. But less than 24 hours later, I was a 1000 miles away from home - Phuket, Thailand - the Vegas of South East Asia, trying to figure out how I ended up there.

Now to the long version as on why I was wondering about the next day’s work and why my weekend had nothing planned. Like in all crazy stories, I have a bunch of crazy friends with whom I usually do a bunch of crazy things. A lot of things were happening during the last couple of months (like one of my friend’s finding his better half) that we all wanted to have some time together and thought of planning a trip. Due to some technical difficulties, Manju and I had to skip it and my friends ended up planning it. Since their flight was on Friday early morning, Manju and I decided to meet them on Thursday evening to wish them a good trip. Generally when we meet, we end up suffering from lack of sleep (and hang over) the next day, which was why I was bothered about the the next day’s work. Since they were flying, we didn't have the “default meetup” planned and my weekend schedule was kind of empty.

Well, I forgot about all my worries once I was among my friends and started partying. I remember how we started the evening. I remember we playing cards, loud music, having nachos, singing songs, lot of laughs and talks (some about me not going for the trip) and like all parties, after some time, everything started to seem like a blur and time started to slow down. Soon, it was time for the last bus to head back home and I remember reaching for my shoes. We wished them happy journey (I thinks I did) and walked towards the bus stop.

I've heard people saying that love and alcohol tend to amplify our emotions. Well, I had both in my system and I remember feeling a void somewhere in my head. I think I started my usual philosophy session and after sometime, that crazy idea stuck my head. (I do not remember whether it was me or Manju who initiated it). “Why can’t we go back, book the tickets right now and go with them?” Immediate, as the afterthought, the following questions also popped into my mind. “But then how about work tomorrow, the weekend plans? I haven’t packed anything, well I don’t even have my passport with me, how am I going to do it?” Then Manju said, “The worst thing that can happen if we go back now is, we will miss our bus and may have to get a cab to go home. But the best case scenario is, we can have a crazy weekend”.

And yeah, we did go back, partied more, arranged for “emergency” leave for next day, booked the (super expensive, last minute) tickets (barely 6 hours before), took a detour to get our bags packed, and made it to the airport just in time to board the flight - extremely hungover and with little sleep the night before.

Now when I think about that night, all I can recall is only some flashes here and there. But it was just the beginning of a crazy weekend. What happened in Phuket, is the subject for yet another post. Sometimes in life, there comes a point when you have to do something, without thinking a lot. That’s when you have to remember about the Nike ad campaign - “Just do it” (I remember thinking about it just before boarding the flight). Because, during most of these situations, you know very clearly what you want deep inside. If you ponder a lot over the decision or try to come up with every possible consequence it will make in your life, it might never happen. You might  cherish the memories forever or might regret it in future. But always remember what the “wise man” said, “Never regret anything you have done in your life, because, that’s what you wanted the most at that point in time”

Canon's Christmas gift

Since I click mostly when I travel and I like to travel light, the only major addition to my gear since I first got my DSLR (EOS 450D + EF-S 18-200mm IS) in 2008, was my macro lens (EF 100mm L Macro USM). I have come a long way since I clicked my first shot and recently the then entry level DSLR started showing signs of aging both from technology and wear & tear due to my excessive clicking (around 50K images) & rough handling. Even though it is a quite capable camera, I have started to outgrow my gear to an extend where I feel limited by it in a lot of situations. After seeing the quality of the images produced by the 100mmL, I don’t feel like shooting with my 18-200mm anymore. All these factors made me think about a complete refresh of my camera and accessories. Since Canon offers an excellent collection of SLR lenses, I was able to easily narrow down my choices on that front. But the biggest concern was about my options for an EOS body. I didn't want to go for 7D due to its crop (APS-C) sensor and 5D Mark II is an old model (60D option was “out the window” in the beginning itself). That’s when Canon announced the 5D Mark III which got me excited a lot. The only problem (as my friend Ajai put it) - If I factor in the cost of the body plus refreshing the rest of my gear, I am looking at a possible bankruptcy.
There, I was back to square one. Even though my eventual goal was the 5D MK3, I had no idea how or when I would get there. I dropped the idea of getting a new body and was considering a refresh of my lenses and other accessories like flash, filters etc. That’s when Canon surprised me with their “out-of-the-blue” announcement of a “cheap” (if you can call US$ 2.1K cheap) full frame camera - the EOS 6D - at Photokina 2012, which promised all the features I was hoping for. (Later I found that the existence of “cheap” full frame in the making was the industry’s “worst kept secret” since there were tons of rumors flying around the Internet, which I never knew) 

As per Manju, I was so excited about this news that all I had to talk about for the rest of the week, was about the 6D (I completely deny it). In the paper, its not as great as the 5D MK3 as its supposed to fit right below the 5DMK3 and above the 7D. However in my opinion, the 6D is a much more streamlined product as compared to the 5DMK3, with the likes of the introduction of GPS, WiFi, the significant weight reduction, removing CF cards etc. I don’t care a lot about the 61 AF points or the 100% viewfinder coverage or the 6fps continuous shooting speed of the MK3. These are all nice-to-have features, but definitely not a shortcoming compared to the existing enhancements and especially the ‘discount’ of US$1500 from the MK3’s hefty price tag.

As compared to the Nikon D600, the 6D might seems not up to the mark in some aspects in paper, especially in terms of the megapixel count (which is a boon for me ‘cos I do not want to upgrade my storage), or the 39 point AF system. But I am more interested in seeing how the 6D performs in actual tests rather than on paper. So far, the only data available is what has been published by Canon. I am eagerly waiting for a 3rd party review.

Now that the 6D is out, I am hoping that Canon will announce some refreshes of its current product line, like a replacement of the Speedlite 403EX II or a couple of new lenses (like an 18-300mm) during Photoplus, New York in October 2012.

What all these means to me is that, if I am going for the 6D, I’ll have to replace my 18-200mm with a 24-105mmL, get a speedlite (possibly a 430EX II refresh), replace all my current filters etc etc, which translates to only one thing, I’ll have to apply for the loan my friend was referring to, ASAP!

Life Underwater

This article has been published in the Onam issue (2012 August) of 'Ithalukal' magazine.

"It feels strange the first time. Your mask. Your awkward gear, a bit heavy. You ease into the water and your face slips below the surface. Inhale; the air comes with a reassuring hiss, and for the first time, you breathe underwater. In moments, you forget your mask. Your equipment transforms to light and agile, and you're free like you've never experienced before. With that first underwater breath, the door opens to a different world. Not a world apart, but different nonetheless." - PADI OPEN WATER DIVER Manual.

Indeed it opened a whole new world when I descended to the depths of the sea for the first time. I was barely able to believe my senses, and for a moment I thought I was dreaming. With that first underwater breath, I realised, my world would never be the same again.

Even though I loved any form of water sports from my childhood and wanted to try scuba diving for a long time, I wasn’t able to, until I moved to Singapore. South-East Asia boasts some of the best warm water dive sites in the world. I had an extra privilege. I worked in a place where there were more divers than non-divers. Also, the nature of our work required us to spend as much time in the sea as that on land. That was my motivation. From the information I gathered from my diver friends, I set out and joined an open water course in 2009. My first dive trip, for Open Water Certification, was to Tioman Islands, Malaysia. I've got to say, I got hooked after that.

Even after 3 years, I vividly remember how I felt when I descended for the first time. Once completed with the initial checks, my instructor gave me a final OK to descent. I deflated my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and began to sink slowly. After dealing with few distractions like equalising, orienting myself, I looked around. It was like the entire world had turned blue. And very quiet. It took around a minute for me to touch down (~ 6-8m). Since it was our first dive, we were descending into a patch of white sand. As soon as I was done with the basic skills, while waiting for others to finish, I began exploring the small reef near me. I found an anemone there inhabited by a school of clown fish (commonly known as Nemo) so beautiful with their orange and white banded bodies and their graceful movements in the corel. It was my first close encounter with any sea creature. From that point onwards, my world was never the same again, the sea never stopped surprising me. For the remaining dives, I swam along a variety of colorful fishes, saw some weird shaped creatures, all of which forged an even stronger bond between me and the nature.

Shy Nemo trying to hide from my camera, a snap I took while diving in Bali.

Me ‘n my buddy under the wreck of USAT Liberty, a World War II transport ship

A scorpion fish trying to blend in with the reef

I have gone diving in some interesting places, met people from different parts of the world and most importantly, seen some really unique creatures in the sea which sometimes were beyond my wildest imaginations. Each and every time I go underwater, I find something intriguing or learn something new. Even then, I know what I have seen so far is only a fraction of what the nature has to offer. Now that my better-half has also joined me in my passion for diving, I know I will be able to discover more and more secrets, the nature has been holding back from me and that the real adventure is only beginning.

For those who are interested in pursuing this amazing activity, here is some useful info.
Even though there are some introductory course which helps you get a feel of what its like without taking a proper certification, I recommend you start with the certification which enables you to dive anywhere in the world. There are many certifying agencies, but PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) is the world's largest recreational diving membership and diver training organization.
It’s relatively easy to find a dive shop/operator in the South East Asia as some of the best dive sites in the world are located here. Either you can join a trip organised by a dive operator in your region who will arrange all the logistics or you can travel to the specific place you want to dive and sign up with a local dive operator there.
The main prerequisite for diving is swimming. You don’t have to be a world class swimmer, but you need to be able to float/hover in the water for 10 minutes and need to be able to swim 200m, non stop. In my opinion, even if you have to enroll for a swimming course, it’s worth it.

Once you take the first level of certification - Open Water Diver - you can dive up to 18m. The next level of certification is Advanced Open Water Diver which lets you to dive up to 30m. It also lets you do some of the fun stuff like night diving, drift diving, underwater navigation etc. If you are only looking for leisure dives, these two certifications are more than necessary. But there will always be a next level like Rescue diver, Dive Master, Instructor etc which takes your diving skills to a professional level. If you want to push your limits and cross the boundaries of recreational diving, technical diving is the one for you.

So, what are you waiting for? Get, set and dive!

People of Bali

Bali did strike a nerve in me. Or else, why would I still find myself thinking about the blue blue beaches of Kuta or the lush green rice terraces near Ubud or the mighty volcano - Mt Agung which we climbed or the Balinese people, even after a month since I am back? I find it very frustrating, my inability to shake of my thoughts about Bali.
Talking about the Balinese, they are one of my most peculiar people I have ever interacted with. Usually, the natural beauty or the potential activities I can undertake in a place are the main things I look for, in my ideal travel destination. Bali (Indonesia in general) is one exception. I am as fond of the Balinese people as I am fond of the place itself. They are a bunch of very polite and spiritual (may or may not be religious) people. I was amazed to see the dedication and discipline they have towards their conventional way of life. 9 out of 10 people you meet in Bali will be named either Wayan, Ketut, Madhe or Koman.
In the modern world, I usually don’t get the 'feel of spirituality' in day to day life. But while exploring Bali, the temple or a shrine within every 500 sq m, the way the Balinese think in terms of ‘karma’ etc, constantly reminded me of the presence of God all around us. Contrary to the Indian way of ‘investing in God’, Bali temples do not have the slightest touch of extravagance in them. It showed me how simple, things can be. Religion and God for Balinese is part of their lifestyle and not something they practice simply out of commitment or for attracting tourists.
No matter where I traveled in Bali, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling that this place really has something spiritual about it. The cultural capital of Bali - Ubud - with the abundance of its old, moss covered temples, made me feel that I was being watched by the Gods. In the village of Tulamben - where I was diving - I could see at least 2 temples and a dozen shrines from where our resort was. I visited a waterfall and right next to it was a small, beautiful shrine; I summit-ed a volcano, (starting from a temple) only to find a bunch of Balinese at the summit, involved in their early morning prayers.
May be this deep influence of spirituality in their life is the reason why Balinese are extremely polite and service minded. Our dive master took care of us like little kids jumping into water for the first time. When I was down with fever, the landlord shared his meal with me and when we were climbing, our guide literally helped Manju during every difficult step, which was most of the climb. Even a total stranger offered to take me to the doctor when I was coughing too much, and when I refused, he insisted that I take his medication. The experiences go on and on.
Sometimes, I was a bit startled by their attitude towards money, may be a byproduct of excessive commercialisation. Some of them can be extremely annoying with their excessive touting or while negotiating prices, be it for an item or for a service. I wonder why they ask exorbitant rates and the moment we raise doubts, they tend to reduce the rates. But this doesn't even remotely affect the way they interact with you. As Manju correctly pointed out, once the negotiations are over, the Balinese people are as friendly and caring as a close friend of yours.
Bali reminded me a lot about home and I think that is one reason I got so emotionally attached to the place. When we were boarding our flight back to Singapore, I found myself telling Manju, “There is definitely a God and that God is Balinese”. I am sure there is something magical about the place and the people or why else would I keep thinking about a way to go back to Bali?

Sunrise from a Summit

“I am stronger than you think I am”, I told Manju pretending that I meant every word, although I had severe doubts about the limits to which I can push myself at that stage. She seemed to calm a bit hearing that.
“Besides, volcanoes are my specialty”, I added on, just in case I didn’t convince her enough with my previous statement. That seemed to do it, but the next moment, she gave me one of her “looks” from which I can’t hide pretty much anything. Even though she didn’t say anything, I knew for sure that she saw right through me. I guess she felt my overwhelming desire to finish what we have started and that caused me to be totally oblivious to my physical condition. Besides, our guide was assuring us that there is only less than an hour to go, to reach the summit of Mt Agung, the highest point in Bali.
“Sunrise from a Summit” was a difficult dream for me due to my knees. A full 2 day trek to the likes of Mt Kinabalu or Mt Rinjani were unthinkable for me. That’s when I heard about this less than a day trek from a friend of mine last year. And before we knew it, we were planning for it. We trained 3-4 days a week to build up our stamina, with a focus on my knees. We arranged our trek with Mr Wayan and climbing Mt Agung was one thing I was looking forward the most during our Bali trip.
Three days through our trip, I got a severe flu & cold and I was pretty sure that I might have to abandon the climb. That’s when Manju told me “You are stronger than you think you are”, (yeah, she was the one who told me that in the first place). While I was pondering the idea of dropping the climb and salvaging the rest of the trip fearing a bad climb will put me down for a long time, she rearranged our itinerary and rescheduled our climb. Lonely planet says the climb is very taxing even for the fit and that gave me second thoughts about my decision to climb. But I decided to push myself and see what happens. After all, the whole point of this climb was to push my limits.
We started from Ubud around 12:30am and by the time we reached our starting point, around 2 am, it was drizzling. Since I didn’t anticipate a ~101 deg fever, the only warm cloth I had was a sweater. We started our climb with the 300 steps to Pura Pasar Agung temple. While our guide Madhe was praying at the gates of the temple, we were panting and discussing about our possible “stop condition”. Thus we started our long and gruelling journey towards the summit of Mt Agung.
By the time we reached the first designated resting point, we had already taken 2 stops. I started the climb with the warm clothes on, due to the slight drizzle, but had to remove them in between due to my body heating up from the climb. When we stopped, my body was burning and i was not able to conclude whether i was having a fever as all my senses were acting a bit funny. Once our guide had finished his prayer at the small spring there, we took some photos and continued to climb.

How Bali looks at night

I could remember reading that, with a normal pace of climb, we should be done with the forest within an hour or so. But even after 2 hours, we were still surrounded with lot of vegetation. We had to hurry up if we were to make in time for the sunrise, but it was impossible to do so as the more we climb, the trail became more and more difficult.
Slowly, I began to understand the phrase “This is a mighty mountain, show some respect”. At some point during my climb, we had to go through light clouds and I felt like the chill of the wind in my bones. Even though every part of my body was begging me to turn back, I was feeling emotionally “high”. Somehow I kept pushing harder.
I’ve got to say, me and manju make a good team as we tend to complement each other, well. We both drew inspiration just by looking into each other’s excited eyes, which screamed “you can do it”.
Finally, there came a point where we both decided that this is it, we are not summit-ing, we will rest here, watch the sunrise from here and begin our climb down. But I guess dropping something we worked so hard, in the last minute, is not in our blood. Manju looked at me and told me to continue, and that she will follow. I didn’t believe her, but then I started alone.
Since it was almost time for sunrise, I raced as fast as I could, and at many places the terrain was so steep that I had to crawl up. I was afraid to look down as it was too steep which made me feel uneasy. I tried not to think about the climb down.
And just when the sun was visible at the horizon, I summit-ted.

Atop the Clouds

Summit of Mt Agung

Along with the breathtaking view of the rising sun against the backdrop of a colourful sky, I was stunned to see a group of Balienese people doing their morning prayers like it was their backyard. My sense of achieving something big vanished. I was humbled. Nature had taught me another lesson.

Ongoing ceremony at the summit of Mt Agung

I missed Manju. After all, what’s a victory without your teammate. So, I began my climb down without waiting for long, only to find Manju already at the other side of the summit. I climbed back and we spent couple of minutes together at the “top of the world”.


By then, the clouds were coming down on us and we began our climb down. As they say, climbing down is the most difficult part and the most stressful on your knees. By the time we made it to where we started from, it was 2pm - way too late than it should be - and I simply do not have enough words to describe our physical conditions except that for the next two days, I couldn’t bend my knees without “feeling” them.
Over the course of the entire 12 hour trek, an entire array of emotions passed through me. I felt awe at the might and raw power of nature, I learned to be humble, I learned the power of determination and teamwork, I learned to respect the mighty nature and the “Gods”, I felt fear, anger, hunger & thirst, I even felt fever and cold on the top of a mountain, but above all that, I rediscovered how it feels to be an adventurer, one who ventures into the unknown realms.

The mighty Mt Agung

Vantage Point

I like getting the big picture of things. Naturally, I spend time looking for a good vantage point to get a feel of a place, during the travel planning phase, especially while visiting a city. What more can I ask than being in the top of a skyscraper during the blue hour and enjoying the view.
The problem with most potential viewing points in a city is that, they are inaccessible. For example, in Singapore, there are a lot of tall buildings in the city center. Most of them are office buildings and so not accessible to a common man unless you know someone there. Couple of others will have restaurants in the top and you can enjoy a view at the cost of (1) most of them will be super costly (2) they will be crowded and most of all (3) hardly any of them have roof access and so you’ll be stuck in an airconditioned room without a 360 deg view. The very few ones with a deck view are the highly commercialised ones like the Marina bay Sands sky deck (S$20 per person and no access to most of the places) or One Raffles place which can be very crowded at times.
Whenever a friend or family visits me, I recommend MBS or the Singapore flyer to get a good view of the city. But recently I made a discovery, a sky deck with a jogging track in the top, connected between all the 5 towers - read extremely spacious - accessible to public (S$5 per person), with 360 deg view right at the city center and not crowded at all. Most people who visited Singapore before might have noticed it atleast once, its the Pinnacle@Duxton , the award winning HDB apartment.
Thanks to Manju’s colleague who told us about this, we really spent some quality time there. I didn’t have my full gear and here are some photos from my phone.
View towards West

The containers you see are from Keppel Port I think

 We relaxed here for a while enjoying the cool winds

The deck

I was under the impression that there are no public roof access to any of the HDB apartments  in Singapore. Now that I found this, I am gonna start searching for similar, not-so-known sky decks. Hopefully I’ll get to go here again soon and click some nice snaps during the blue hour.

'Adrenaline' Journey

I like to be on the safe side of things, especially when I travel. So, when there is a connection journey involved, I book my tickets in such a way that I have enough time between flights,. But when you have to travel on a particular date, you tend to pack things a bit too tight. That’s what happened to me last week when I had to book a connection flight with only 2 hours in between. I knew it was risky, but in my defence, I knew the transit airport very well and also I've never been delayed before by the airlines I was travelling with. And the first reason helped me from missing the connection flight in a matter of minutes.
All of this happened during my weekend trip with friends to Langkawi island in Malaysia. Since all of us had long year end holidays, none wanted to give our boss a reason to scream at us by asking for more leave. So we planned a weekend trip. In order to take full advantage of the weekend, we planned to reach the destination by Friday night itself. As with all Fridays, around one hour after reaching office - after reading newspapers - our clocks started ticking - to get out of the office. We used different methods like using the back door, setting our on-line status to be ‘In a meeting’ etc to slip out of the office early and discreetly. Somehow we all managed to reach the airport just in time before the counters closed.. 
When we reached the gate, I noticed a strange thing. The flight we were supposed to be on, was not there, yet. (Usually by the time we are at the gate, most people would have boarded). We checked at the counter and they said the flight is delayed for 20 minutes. 
Little did we know that when they told us about the 20 minutes delay, they meant that the flight would have to come from somewhere else in the world. That reduced our transit time to around one & a half hours. 
Since our only option to make it in time for the connection flight was for the connection flight to be delayed, one of my friends was suggesting a fake bomb call to the transit airport. But before we attempted any such drastic measures, the flight crew ‘assured’ us that there is a slight chance that we can reach the transit airport in time. 
We boarded in a hurry, got settled in our seats, captain announced that he was waiting for the clearance to take off and started taxi. We were anxiously waiting for the take off for a long time and later realised that we are not going to take off. Instead the flight was taxied to a remote taxiway and made to wait till there is a slot available for take off. 
Finally, by the time we took off, we kissed our weekend plans good bye.If we had any hope of making it, the flight attendants assured us that its not going to happen. It was also the last flight to Langkawi which means we had to resort to our back up plan, which we never had. But one flight attended did some ‘calculations’ based on her experience with the air routes and said there is a chance that the next flight also will be delayed. 
Since we had nothing to loose, we decided to give it a go. We switched on our mobiles and as soon as we got a signal (after touchdown), we called our friends and we heard the words we all were hoping for, “the next flight is late and will take off in 20 minutes”. 
We could easily make it, provided we are able to get to the immigrations from the tarmac (around 1 km away), pass the immigrations (as it our next flight is a domestic one), collect our bags, get out and get back in to the domestic terminal, go through the whole security process, get to the counters/kiosks, and finally go through the gate security again, in less than 10 minutes. 
At that moment, I became a believer of the concept “adrenaline rush”, as I felt my senses super tuned and my muscles stronger. By that time, most passengers knew that we had to catch another flight and cooperated with us when we pushed them aside while exiting (and the rest of them, cursed us with their ‘ colourful’ vocabulary). After exiting the flight, we ran like we’ve never ran before in our whole lives, reached & passed through the immigration in seconds, split up to collect bags and to find the information counter, screamed at the top of our voice to explain the whole situation and then finally ran through the security again. I was sure that the security personnel were going to shoot down at least one of us after all the chaos we caused there. On later thought, they may have realised that a terrorist probably would like to be much more discreet than us. When we reached the gate, it was half closed and we found our friends anxiously waiting for us at the end of the queue. And so, 10 minutes later, we were on our flight to Langkawi. 
Unmistakably this is one of the never-to-be forgotten experiences in my life which I will probably publish as a book titled “How I realised the existence of the adrenal gland in my body”. If it were not for a combination of sheer luck, quick reflexes & wit and a bunch of terrific friends, we would never have been in that second flight. Even though we went through a lot of adventures later - during the course of our trip - this was the one adventure we never planned, one that none of us will never forget and one that I really don’t want to repeat.