Shut Up and Write meetups

Of all the exciting events in New York, the one I look forward to every week is the Shut Up and Write Meetup. Every Wednesday, at 7 PM, about 20 writers meet at a cafe near the Columbus Circle. Before the writing session begins, we introduce ourselves and the projects we are working on. Then we write for one hour. And after the hour is up, we hang out for a bit or head home.

We have a plethora of writing projects and genres in the group. We have a TV screenplay writer, historical fiction writer, a memoir writers, a sci-fi writer and so on. Each person comes in with their own project and spends the hour working on some aspect of the project. The skill-set of the writers varies as well. We have the dabblers, who want to write but not sure about the topic. We have people who are working on specific time-bound projects. And then we have writers who have dedicated years to their projects. I once met a writer who is working on her book for the past five years! I am in awe of her dedication to her writing project.

I find the meetup to be inspiring and relieving. The meetup helps me focus on free-writing instead of editing every sentence as I write. I observed that most writers in the group write in their notebooks instead of laptops. I tried it during one writing session and could see why that was an excellent strategy. I spend almost every waking moment in front of a screen: either my laptop or smartphone or Kindle. While writing on a laptop, I always have my internet browser open to research something or check social media. Writing in the notebook helps me disengage from technology and deep-dive into my thoughts. It also helps me play around with the writing project in a manner that a computer doesn’t allow for. And most importantly, it helps me indulge in the joy of writing as I used to as a child – just me and my notebook and my favorite pen, lost in my own little world.

Another wonderful benefit of attending the meetup every week is that it allows me to let myself off the hook for the rest of the week. Once I put in the hour on Wednesday, I can be at peace knowing I put in my writing time for the week. And I can get a surprising amount of writing done in one hour. I write about 7 to 8 pages per writing session, whereas I struggle to write even 3 to 4 pages on my own.

I highly recommend the Shut Up and Write meetups. Give them a try and let me know what you think!

Volunteering with New York Cares: Computer Education program

This is a follow-up to my previous post: Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation.

On Wednesday, June 7th, I volunteered for the Computer Education program for senior citizens in Upper West Side. It was the most productive activity I had participated in since moving to the city. Around 20 senior citizens and four (or five, I think) participated in the program. I had expected to help the participants with basic computer-related tasks, like creating an email account, browsing the web, and so on. After all, those were the kind of tasks I had helped with when I volunteered in India. Little did I know, the session was going to be an eye-opener and a crash course in usability and accessibility.

I was assigned to assist three senior citizens: A 70-year old lady, a Chinese gentleman, and an Indian gentleman. The lady had already created her own fitness video for senior citizens, created her own YouTube Channel, and was now looking to add more tags to the video to increase viewership. After I helped her add the tags, she wanted to know how to send the video link as a message to her followers on Facebook. She had already set up two Facebook pages and was actively managing them both. I was blown away at how enthusiastic she was about learning new technology and most importantly, using the technology to further her fitness and commercial goals.

The Chinese gentleman wanted to learn how to set up his Gmail account on his smartphone. He already had an account, but could not configure it on his phone. After he configured the account on his phone, he asked me to help him install a translation app on his phone so he could work on his English conversational skills.

The Indian gentleman was an amazing poet who was working on his own book of poems and wanted to learn how to use MS Word’s layout functionality to design his own book of poems.

As a technical communicator, I found the event to be a real-world lesson on usability, accessibility, and audience awareness:

  • Audience awareness: I had incorrectly assumed the technological literacy level of my audience. The participants were much more tech-savvy than I had imagined.
  • Usability: When the event started, the lady was trying to add tags to the video. She kept telling me she had done it previously, but could not do it this time, and that frustrated her. She showed me the left-hand menu bar and told me that’s where she had added the tags previously. I clicked on her video’s edit button and scrolled down to locate the tags window. I think YouTube changed their interface since the time she had last attempted to add tags. For me, a digital native, it was very intuitive to click around and look for stuff, but that did not occur to her. I found this to be a very important insight for UX designers: Changing UI interfaces frequently can cause problems for the digital non-natives. One solution I can think of is tiered-versions of the software. Companies can create a basic, tier-one version of the software with critical functionality and leave it untouched or update it less frequently. And a tier-two version of the same software can have all the bells and whistles and can be changed as frequently as desired.
  • Accessibility: The Chinese gentleman faced issues because the size of the keys on the keypad on his  smartphone was smaller than his fingers, so he kept hitting the wrong key. I helped him increase the key size, but again, that is because I knew the functionality existed. There is no point of providing accessibility options if people are not aware of it, let alone know how to use it. Making the accessibility functions more intuitive and educating users about the existence and usage of accessibility functions is important.

I wish I was still teaching at Missouri S&T (I miss it already), so I could share the experience with my students. I would sincerely encourage every technical communicator, UX designer, and developer to volunteer for the Computer Education program at least once.

 

Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation

Lately, I have been feeling really grateful for the wonderful life I am blessed with. I just completed my lifelong dream of earning a Masters degree and having my parents visit me in the United States for my graduation ceremony, thereby giving them a chance to travel abroad for the first time. The contentment and happiness I feel right now urges me to give back to the community and city that I love so much. With that intent, I registered for the non-profit organization, New York Cares, as a volunteer.

Before volunteering with the organization, you first have to attend a mandatory orientation session. I attended the orientation on the morning of Friday, June 02, at the New York Cares office on Wall Street (I think, not sure of all streets yet). The session was led by a New York Cares pro, a 77-year old energetic person who has been volunteering with the organization for over 20 years. The organization itself is 30 years old and still going strong. The session was well-attended with a room full of people from different age, ethnic, and professional groups. We were informed about the purpose of the organization, the types of volunteering opportunities, the expectations from volunteers, and the sign-up process. New York Cares provides volunteering opportunities across the board. You can volunteer for projects that work for children, immigrants, elderly, homeless, or even furry friends. The areas of operation include education, fulfilling immediate needs like food and clothing, and beautifying public spaces. I like that I can volunteer for different projects and figure out where my talents and skills can help the most.

My first impression of New York Cares was that it is very organized and professionally run. Just the fact that they conducted an orientation and hold their volunteers accountable for honoring their commitments is laudable. In my experience volunteering in India, most of the volunteers seemed to consider themselves to be better than the people they were serving and expected some form of social accolades for volunteering their time and efforts. That always bugged me. I consider volunteering as a form of service to our fellow beings (human or animal), and a way to share the abundance of time, energy, skill, and money that I am blessed with. I believe in dignity of the people we serve, and that’s precisely what I noticed at New York Cares. The organization seems to function with the ideology that we are just sharing the gifts we have with each other, and that we gain as much knowledge and experience from the volunteering activities as those we serve. They even call the people being served as “clients”, not “beneficiaries”, which I found to be very telling of their attitude towards those we serve.

Another factor that influenced my decision to volunteer with New York Cares is that it gives me the opportunity to directly interact with people whose lives I may touch. In case of organizations where I make monetary contributions, I am never fully aware of how my contributions affect others. But with New York Cares, I can spend one afternoon teaching a senior citizen how to use the Internet and open up a whole new world for them. Or I can assist an non-native English speaker get better at conversational English, and empower them to live their lives more comfortably in this city. These opportunities to see for myself how my contributions benefit others are reason enough to be excited about my first volunteering experience next week. Can’t wait to get started!

 

Tea With Strangers

6 strangers..one cafe..2 hours..that’s the basic premise of Tea With Strangers. A host announces a time and a venue, 5 other people sign up, meet, and have conversations over a beverage of their choice. I had come across the site a few months ago and was intrigued enough to try out the meetup. And luckily, one was scheduled for the day I had planned my maiden trip to San Francisco. I signed up for the last spot for the meetup, and boy am I glad I did!

I took the Caltrain from Mountain View to San Francisco and Ubered to Another Cafe (that is the actual name of the cafe 🙂 ), where I met the host – a charming, affable Australia-born Indian living in the Bay Area. I also met my fellow attendees – a world traveler, who has traveled to 30 countries and still counting, and also does improv and social dances; a Korean techie; a French entrepreneur who just launched the US version of his startup; and a maths genius who recently moved to SF and is having fun exploring it.

It was an eclectic mix of people who would not have crossed paths in the normal course of life, and definitely would not have had the open, deep conversations that we did. Credit goes to our excellent host, who ensured a comfortable and open space for everyone to voice their views and made sure everyone was included in the conversation. He did not waste time in small talk and asked us to answer a simple question – What are you about? And this deceptively simple question made us self-reflect and find out how we define ourselves, what do we identify with the most? I went through several iterations of the answer in my head – is it my job, my career that defines me? Is it my love for sitcoms? Is it my family and friends? What is it?

Thankfully, my turn came last. By then, I had the privilege to hear the amazingly insightful answers that my tea-mates had given – from experiences to family to doing something good for the world. Their answers led me to mine – being happy. Or rather choosing to be happy everyday. Celebrating and enjoying the smallest of things – like a cup of tea or a good read. This habit that I have consciously developed over the years has now become so ingrained that it is what defines me now. I had never realized that before.

I realized that no matter how diverse our backgrounds are, our aspirations and fears and concerns have a common thread – and so is the need to share them with someone and find answers together. What we offered each other is perspective – a different way of looking at things. In those two hours, we not only got to know each other, but also ourselves. At the end of the two hours, we dispersed and went our own ways, probably never to meet again. But the experience left me feeling satisfied and enriched – two hours well spent indeed. I look forward to the next round of tea with strangers!

 

Founder Institute – Silicon Valley

In my first week in the Silicon Valley, I attended a meetup organized by Founder Institute. It was advertised as a meetup for aspiring entrepreneurs to ask questions about how to launch a startup in the Silicon Valley. I wanted to learn how Silicon Valley works behind the scenes, and this seemed like the perfect segue.

The meetup started with a round of introductions. Around 25-30 people were in attendance – they introduced themselves, their current occupations, and their pet projects that they want to convert into successful startups. It was a mixed group ranging from serial entrepreneurs to corporate professionals looking to break into the startup world. The most interesting attendee was a 15-year old high school student who already has an app in the making.

The speaker at the event was founder of the Founder Institute, Adeo Ressi. The first slide of the presentation was a photo of Elon Musk, with Ressi telling us he was Mr. Musk’s roommate in college and that he had spent the previous weekend in Mr. Musk’s company. It was supposed to impress the audience and establish credibility, but I found the name-dropping to be a bit off-putting.

Having said that, I like the concept of Founder Institute. The institute runs a 3-months course in which individuals work on their startup for 3 months. Not everyone gets in. You submit your application and the admission team reviews the application. If selected, you pay $2200 (early bird) or $3000 (normal fee). The course lasts 3 months and the class meets every Wednesday.

Over the course of 3 months, you work on sales, legal, marketing, perfecting your pitch – basically all things you need to do to get your startup up and running. You also get access to 20-40 mentors – all industry leaders – and get the opportunity to have your idea vetted by them. You may pivot several times during the process to align your product with the market needs.

There is also the Shared liquidity pool: Once you graduate from the program, you enter the shared liquidity pool. As I understand it, you commit certain percentage of your profits to the liquidity pool, and so does every other graduate. When one startup of all the startups in the FI list makes a huge profit, everyone gets a share of the pie. As Ressi put it, that share can be thousands of dollars. Not bad, right! I am not sure what happens if your startup fails – if you are still a part of the liquidity pool or not.

I think the idea is valid. If you are passionate and sure  of your idea, it makes sense to invest $3000 and 3 months to get help from a one-stop source instead of trying to handle all business-related functions, such as legal, registration, sales, visa and so on. A single, systematic, step-by-step process to make your startup functioning seems like a good idea.

The most enticing aspect of the program is the access to the brilliant minds of SV. You can talk to  mentors that normally would be out of your reach. And if you do somehow happen to meet them, might not have enough motivation to spend their precious time and energy on you. With the shared liquidity pool of FI, the mentors also have vested interest in your success – if you succeed, they stand to make a lot of money. It’s a comparatively easy way to gain access to the shared mind-space of these successful entrepreneurs.

Another positive aspect about the program is that you can form your core team during the course. A graduate of the course offered an interesting perspective – You do not form a team at a Hackathon over a weekend. Instead, you form a team by working with them over a period of time, getting to know each other, how you handle pressure as a team, and how well do you get along even when things are not going great. I think spending three months with people is a good amount of time to figure out if they can be part of your team.

Founder Institute doesn’t consider a failed startup as a failure – and I agree with them. It’s better to know that a startup idea is not viable enough in the early stages is much better than investing a lot of time and money into it and figuring it out years down the line. Three months is a pretty decent time period in which to fail. As the startup motto goes: Fail fast, fail often.

The only shortcoming I can think of is that program does not schedule any time for actually building the product. I think they assume that either you have already built the product or will work on the product but will not pay as much attention to the business side of things, and hence they focus on business activities instead of building the product. Also, they focus more on aligning the product with the market rather than just keep on building the product without any validation.

All in all, it was a very informative experience. I wish I could stay back and network with the attendees, but I had to rush to another commitment. Looking forward to interacting with them next time!

 

 

 

Computer History Museum

A stay in the Silicon Valley would be incomplete without a visit to the Computer History Museum. With that in mind, I visited the museum on the Memorial Day weekend, and boy am I glad I visited it!

The museum houses several exhibits that document the origins and advents of computers right from the time of abacus and mechanical calculators. The exhibits then progress to super-computers with thousands of wires manually connected to thousands of components. It then progresses to Eniacs and mainframes to the current-day technology.  As a technical writer, the coolest exhibit was the technical notes dating back to 1959, which captured the logic and rationale of the engineers at Texas Instruments.

The audio-visual commentary explaining each exhibit, the interactive design that lets you can play with the abacus and Napier’s bones and other cool stuff, and the ancient artifacts all come together to create a mesmerizing experience. All the things that you read about in Electronics textbooks come to life when you see them, touch them, and marvel at them. The evolution of the computers from the gigantic mainframes and chaos of thousands of wires to the elegant technology of today is truly mind-blowing.

Equally impressive are the brilliant minds who made it all possible. I couldn’t help but feel a bit useless and dumb when I realized the marvels these folks created when they had absolutely no resources, and the things I waste my time on even with all the resources at my fingertips. But I am also glad to live in an age where I have the marvelous technology at my beck-and-call.

I would urge anyone coming to the Silicon Valley to visit the Computer History Museum at least once, though you might be tempted to go back again just to soak it all in. I am sure I will be visiting it again soon!

 

Silicon Valley Resources

Before moving to the Silicon Valley, I conducted substantial research. I came across some awesome articles that talk about where and how to find accommodation, how to get around, and things to do. I don’t want to rehash the content, so posting the links here for you to explore:

An Intern’s Guide to a Summer in the Bay Area

An excellent starting point to start exploring the Bay Area. Written by Alexey, the article discusses housing and transportation options, as well as things to do and meetups to attend in the Bay Area.

Unofficial Waterloo USA Intern Guide

A comprehensive article consisting of resources ranging from Cell phone plans, banks, credit cards, taxes and much more. A one-stop guide for all the things you need to know if you are moving to the Bay Area from outside the US.

25 Things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco

Some good-to-know information to get an idea of what life in SV looks like. But no actionable resources.

A Visitors Guide to Silicon Valley

Written by Bay Area veteran, Steve Blank, this is the starting point for a guided tour of the historical landmarks in SV. A very interesting read. Also explore the rest of Steve’s blog, as well as the links mentioned in the article.

Startup Ecosystem Canvas

An exhaustive list of resources for a startup newbie in the SV. Has resources about meetups, contacts, organizations – anything you might need to start your startup in SV.

A few closing thoughts:

  • People in SV are mostly in their own world, working on the next big thing, but when they do emerge from their mental worlds, they are very sociable, helpful, and welcoming.
  • The pace of SV, especially Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto and so on is pretty relaxed. When I first arrived here, I had expected sort of a frenzy-like pace. But in reality, the pace of life is luxurious and easy-going.
  • It is as expensive as they tell you it is. Make sure you budget your finances properly and follow the budget you set for yourself.There are tonnes of things to do around here, and it is easy to lose track of the money you spend. One of my friends put it succinctly: If you have the money, SV is an awesome place to be.
  • Public Transit is bad, really bad. Or at least takes a while to explore and get used to. But walking around is a lot of fun – the walkways are well-maintained and you can explore the city at a leisurely pace if you just stroll around it. Google maps are  life-savers, especially if you are directionally-challenged like me.
  • The weather’s tricky. I moved here with the image of sun and warmth and sipping coffees sitting on cafe porches, but was greeted with cold and windy climate – at the end of May! And the nights were so much worse. The first night it got so chilly that I couldn’t even sleep. So bring your warm clothes along – you never know when you might need them.

 

Let’s hear it for New York!

Finally the day arrived…one month ago, I landed in Missouri, US for my Master’s degree, and now I was traveling to “the greatest city on Earth” – New York…to spend the Labor Day weekend with my friends – Pushkar, Gauri, and Bharat.

I landed at the Laguardia airport and Pushkar came to pick me up. We went to his place, where I met Ananya – his housemate – the sweetest, smartest, most patient person I met in NY..and Rishi and Tanmayee – the most gracious and thoughtful hosts I have ever met. Gauri and Bharat arrived soon after and the four of us were finally together after two whole years.

The next day, we started our sightseeing with a visit to Pushkar’s college. On the way, I was confounded by the awesome skyscrapers, the sprawling streets, and fashionable yet indifferent people, each lost in their own worlds. No wonder the song Empire State of the mind was playing in a constant loop in my head all through the day. We took the ferry to Staten Island – and what a ride that was! We were greeted by a cool breeze, with the Statue of Liberty welcoming us against the spellbinding New York skyline. After the ride, we had a delicious falafel for lunch, and then shopped at a street fair, where we got to experience the superb local artistic talent in NY. We would get glimpses of the talent at the subway station and on the roadsides throughout the trip. After a luxurious dinner at Obao, we left for the main attraction of the day – Time Square. And it lived up to the hype. A sea of people amidst blinding lights and dazzling displays – it was indeed a visual treat. We spent an amazing evening snapping photos and indulging in craziness. We followed it up with sumptuous ice-cream at 10 below – a boutique ice cream parlor, that in my opinion is a must-visit for an out-of-towner. To end the night, we went to the Exchange Point, where we admired the NY skyline at night and just spent some time together.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day, we shopped to our heart’s content at Burlington and Forever 21. This was followed by a visit to the outstanding Grand Central Station. I was completely mesmerized by the grandeur and intricate artwork. We spent some time just letting it all sink in, and of course, a photo-op 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The last day of the trip was the pinnacle of awesomeness which started with a tram ride to Roosevelt island. I have no words to describe the experience. I will let the pictures talk for themselves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This was followed by a walk through Central Park – where we saw the bridge that is the location of meet-cute scenes in a number of movies, and the beautiful fountain. And then the perfect end to the trip – the visit to WTC. The whole experience was mindblowing. It starts with the elevator ride which takes you to the 100th floor in 47 seconds flat. Then you enter a standing theatre where a screen plays a movie about the evolution of New York – from its past to the present. It captures the people, the places, the essence and spirit of New York, and the last scene is a shot of the current view of NY from the top..and then the screen parts to reveal the actual view of New York from the 100th floor – I literally had goosebumps when I saw the outstanding view. And to top it all, we had reached just in time for the sunset – so we enjoyed the view in daylight, witnessed the glorious sight of the sun bidding adieu to the city that never sleeps, and then were amazed by the brilliant night view. It was the perfect end to the weekend.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As much as it was beautiful and astounding, this trip was overwhelming as well. The skyscrapers and the sheer number of people were a stark contrast to our charming small town of Rolla with a sparse population. It took me a while to familiarize with the hustle-bustle and slew of activity that characterizes the city. And it was emotionally overpowering too. Since the time I landed in Rolla, things were good – my university, roommates, my house – all is good. I have even made a few friends. But something was amiss. Though I hadn’t realized it before, I was lost and lonely..not homesick, just disoriented. So when I finally saw Pushkar at the airport, I was overwhelmed with relief. Security engulfed me, and I felt at home. Life made sense again. My dearest friend was here – all was finally well with the world. Surprisingly, the feeling has intensified since I came back to Rolla – I had expected to feel better, but somehow this trip made me crave for the love and care I am used to. But knowing that these guys are just a few hours away is extremely comforting.

This trip was also an acknowledgement and celebration of the progress all four of us have made in life. We have made it till here. We have changed, all of us, since we were together the last time. We are no longer the naive undergrads, with trivial problems which seemed like the end-of-the-world at the time. We have evolved, matured, and changed – but changed for good. We have grown, but haven’t grown apart. We still have our own challenges, our own personal Everests. We lead our own separate paths – yet when we finally meet, we can still pick up from where we left off. We can still connect and understand each other. Our friendship has survived and matured over the years. Things have changed, oh yes..but they have never been better 🙂

Indonesia travelog

All Journeys have secret destinations, of which the traveler is unaware

This quote by Martin Buber precisely summarizes my Indonesian vacation. What was supposed to be a lazing-on-the-beach-sipping-coconut-water trip soon turned to be a three-legged  journey of cultural immersion and education.

Jakarta – Modern Indonesia:

We started on 14th August, 2014 from the marvelously renovated Mumbai airport. After 2 flights by Malaysia Airlines, we reached Jakarta safe and sound. Jakarta is the commercial hub of Indonesia, much like Mumbai – the same hustle-bustle, congested traffic, and humid air. After lunch, we visited the UKM Gallery – and thus began my love affair with Indonesian art. It was as if I had entered a completely different world that I didn’t know existed. To paraphrase The Matrix, once you see something, you can’t unsee it. All around were brilliant masterpieces of wood carvings, stone carvings, ceramic art, bamboo artifacts, even recycled paper – every conceivable type of art. Here are a few clicks:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had a brilliant time with the girls at the gallery – just hanging out, learning and appreciating the local arts – in short, an evening well spent 🙂

We also visited Taman Mini – a culture-based recreational area. The park is a synopsis of Indonesian culture, with virtually all aspects of daily life in Indonesia’s 26 provinces encapsulated in separate pavilions with the collections of Indonesian architecture, clothing, dances and traditions are all depicted impeccably. Apart from that, there is a lake with a miniature of the archipelago in the middle of it, complete with cable cars and museums.

Puncak – up in the mountains:

The next day, we left for Puncak. On the way, we visited the beautiful Botanical Garden at Bogor. Then we proceeded to the Puncak Pass Resort –  nestled in the mountains, surrounded by luscious tea plantations, and amazing weather to boot.

In the evening, we set out to roam around in the neighborhood and chanced upon a hiking trail. After an impromptu hike, we were rewarded with the beautiful sights of a cabin nestled in the woods and a gorgeous view. We ended this leg of the trip with a visit to the Flower Garden showcasing the eye-catching color and variety of the plant life from Puncak and beyond.

Bali – Land of Gods

We left for Bali the next day. The flight to Bali was an experience in itself: volcanic mountains jutting out of the clouds, the seas interspersed with tiny, beautiful islands, and the airplane descending amidst the waves lashing the shores.

After a 3 hour flight, we arrived at the Denpasar airport at around 6 in the evening. By then, it was already dark. We flagged down a taxi and started out for Ubud. We passed through Kuta – which seemed like Baga beach in Goa – then the crowds started to disperse and our anxiety started to increase. By the time we reached Ubud, we were sure we had made a mistake by booking a room there – it was in the interiors of Bali and was pretty isolated. The rice plantations seemed eerie and the guest house we had booked looked downright scary. With abated breaths, we opened the door to our room – and our emotions did a 180-degree flip – the room was gorgeous! Right above the bedpost was a big stone carving of Krishna – considering how scared I was, it was natural Krishna would show up as if to say “It’s okay, I am right here” 🙂

We calmed down a bit and decided to sleep. The moment we lied down to sleep, there was a noise – a never-heard-before call of some creature that came directly from our roof. Terrified, we fell in a disturbed slumber and woke up at the crack of dawn, and opened the door to reveal the view outside – and once again, we were completely floored. The view was brilliant – beautiful, green rice terraces with the backdrop of a distant mountain. The guest house itself was authentically Balinese, intricately decorated with wood carvings and stone sculptures that depicted stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. For breakfast, we were treated with the delicious fruits and green pancakes with banana filling. A peaceful, relaxed setting away from the touristy hustle-bustle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Totally happy with our choice, we set out to drive through Ubud – the cultural center of Bali with Norman – our driver. We had a tea-tasting session at Balinese House, and visited Sari Amerta Batik collection and saw how handmade Batik garments are made.  Then we visited Yan Yan Silver ornaments factory, where I bought a delicate silver anklet, an art gallery, and Karya Mas wood carving gallery, where we bought a beautiful Buddha statue. It was an excellent learning experience cum shopping trip 😀

We had lunch in the company of Mount Kintamani – an active volcano. And then, my favorite experience of the trip – a visit to the Gunung Kawi temple. In Balinese culture, Acintya is the Supreme God of Balinese Hinduism, equivalent to the concept of Brahman. Acintya is symbolized by an empty throne on top of the highest pillar. The Balinese offer small offering baskets called ‘canang sari ‘ to their Gods three times a day. It is basically a ritual of giving back what has been given to you by the Gods. It is a sharing that is not based upon fear, but on gratitude to the richness of life. Offering appeases the spirits and brings prosperity and good health to the family. It is a duty and an honor at the same time, and in Balinese perspective a very natural and almost logical thing to maintain a good relationship between people and spirits.

Another thing that intrigued me is how Animism is incorporated in Balinese Hinduism. Balinese depiction of Gods, like Ganesha, are quite demonic. The philosophy is that to maintain balance in the world, the godly and demonic energies need to be in harmony. Even in the Barong dance, the story was about the fight between the good and the evil, but in the end, no one wins. As a result, the artifacts that symbolize the animal spirits are not cute or polished as you would find in India, but have a raw and natural feel to them.

The Gunung Kawi temple was a beautiful spiritual experience – the serene settings, the light rain, the peace and quiet and calm just soothed my soul and I had my Eat Pray Love moment 🙂

We spent the following 2 days doing the touristy stuff – saw the Barong dance, spent some time at the Nusa Dua beach, and shopped to our heart’s content at Kuta. We witnessed the brilliant sunset at Uluwatu and ended the day with beautiful music that our hotel owner played on his Gamelan.

The thing that struck me the most about Bali, especially Ubud, is the steep immersion in culture and religion. The Balinese don’t seem to kowtow to tourists. Instead, they mostly just seem to live their lives in the ways of their ancestors, adapting and making money from tourism, but keeping most of their traditions alive.

Another significant thing about Bali is that the Balinese take delighting in the senses to a degree I had never experienced before. Especially in Ubud, the cultural capital in the middle of the country, every meal, restaurant or guest house, no matter how humble, takes pride in its visual appeal. The tropical vegetation of a volcanic island is on display in every street corner and in the way the world famous rice paddies are arranged and cultivated.

And I am officially in love with the people of Indonesia. I have never met such sweet, ever-smiling, ever-helpful people in my life. They don’t understand English, so communication is a problem, but they put in tremendous efforts to understand what you are saying and then go out of their way to help you. I feel enriched just to have known them for whatever short period of time I did. Meet my favorite people in Indonesia:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Apart from language, food also poses a major problem for us vegetarians. For Indonesians, food = non-vegetarian food. They are simply unaware of the concept of vegetarian food. You have to explicitly specify no meat, no beef, no chicken, no fish before ordering any dish – and then they give you an incredulous expression as if to say ‘really, you are gonna eat ONLY vegetables?’ And then you hope to God they understood what you told them 🙂 We survived on the Khakra packets we had taken with us and the delicious fruits we bought there. I also lost some weight, so that was an added bonus 🙂

Normally at the end of every trip, I feel a sense of completion and have no plans of returning to the same place. This is the first trip that left me craving for more. This was more of a reconnaissance trip, where I identified what I would love to do in Indonesia and now can’t wait to go back and actually do those things. Hope that day comes some time soon 🙂

P.S. –  Some more clicks here

Singapura..O Singapura..

One fine mid-winter morning, an enthusiastic group of 57 people, with ages ranging from 25 (that’s me 🙂 ) to 70,  set out from Pune to travel to Singapore – the melting pot of cultures and ideologies.

After a 5-hour long turbulent flight from Mumbai to Singapore, we started our journey of this futuristic island-state with the City Tour. We saw the majestic Merlion, took a ride in the amazing Singapore Flyer (the tallest Ferris wheel in the world), took in the city landscape, and generally roamed around the city.  My first impression of Singapore is that it is high-tech, disciplined, modern, and extremely safe. The weather is a bit unpredictable – for the time that I was there, it was scorching hot in the morning, followed by heavy rains in the late afternoon.

After lunch, we checked into our hotel. We went for the night safari the same evening, but it was pouring cats and dogs. So the night safari was reduced to a thrilling ride in heavy downpour, through thick rain forests, in pitch black surroundings.

The next day, we went for a cruise, followed by the cable ride to Sentosa Island. At Sentosa, we watched the Dolphin Show, the Underwater aquarium, and then the icing on the cake –  Songs of the Sea program – which was jaw-droppingly brilliant.

The Universal Studios has become my current favorite place on Earth. It is seriously a dreamland, complete with the picturesque castle with a 4-D show, the thrilling rides – the Transformers 3-D ride, Jurassic Park ride, the Ancient Egypt Mummy ride, or the gigantic roller coaster, and amazing performances – Lights Camera Action (hosted by Steven Spielberg – where they demonstrate how a hurricane is shot in a normal room – mind-blowing!), the Monsters Rock show, the street performances. I can go on and on about this place – totally spellbound.

The next day, we visited the Jurong Bird Park and saw the world’s largest artificial waterfall, visited the Gems Garden, and the Chocolate gallery.

The only regret I have is that I got NO time for shopping – zero..zilch..nada. But the experiences were worth the sacrifice 🙂

A shout-out to our tour organizers – Sudhanshu Travels. The entire trip was immaculately organized, with no compromise on comfort and luxury. The tour operators were knowledgeable and approachable. I felt pampered and relaxed throughout the trip. At no point did we face any holdups or glitches. This was affordable luxury travel at its best!

Here’s a Prezi of the highlights of my trip. Just click Start Prezi to view the presentation and use the arrows to move forward. You can view the presentation in full screen mode by clicking the button in the bottom right corner:

Enjoy 😀