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A good time to visit London? Now!

A good time to visit London? Now!

good-time-visit-london-now
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, London

London!

I saw some.

I missed some.

So, London keeps calling me back.

When am going to plan a visit again?

The answer is ‘Right Now!’

Want to know why?

Then, read on!

A good time to visit London? Now!

It was summer of 2012. My elder daughter, who was just 20 then and was doing her graduation with an offshore London School of Economics-affiliate (LSE-affiliate) college, got selected to do her summers in London. It was going to be a 6-week residential programme.

Like most Indian parents, while we were proud, we were also concerned about her first-ever solo stay in an alien town. So, after some intense family deliberations, my wife nominated me to accompany her and see if the stay and other arrangements were satisfactory.

good-time-visit-london-now
Oxford Street in Olympic Finery

Here, let me just remind you that summer of 2012 was Olympics-time in London! Though a popular phrase goes – “All roads lead to Rome”, around that time, the world had replaced ‘Rome’ with ‘London’. This little fact ensured that my trip cost was going to be through the roof.

As a travel photographer and writer, I naturally wanted to make the most of this… er…  opportunity. After all, it was going to be my first-ever visit to London!

All the same, with due consideration to the budget, I decided to keep my stay in London short. So, three nights it was. In this city packed with places of interest of all hues. But then, something is better than no something!

After settling her in, I started my brief sojourn with London. The more I saw, the more I fell in love with it. Besides the usual day-long London city sightseeing trip, I explored the city on my own too. I was truly on the move there!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower Bridge, as viewed from the Tower of London.

So, let’s see what all I managed

The city has 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the site comprising Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and St Margaret’s Church, and the historic settlement of Greenwich where the Royal Observatory marks 0° longitude, the Prime Meridian, and GMT. I managed to visit three of these, but ran out of time and had to skip Kew Gardens. A pity, really!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich

At the Tower of London, I took a Beefeater tour (Yeoman Warder tour) and visited the Crown Jewels vault and saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond. I took a Verger Tour of the Westminster Abbey and clicked a photograph (with Verger’s permission) of the first grave in the Abbey – that of Edward the Confessor. I stood astride the brass (or is it copper?) strip that marks the Prime Meridian.

good-time-visit-london-now
A Beefeater. They are the traditional custodians of the Crown Jewels.

I did a ride on the famed London Eye. I did a short cruise over Thames. I took a walk through Hyde Park and swung past Royal Albert Hall. I admired the artists and their gorgeous art near the National Gallery. I saw a unicyclist perform at the Covent Garden. I also witnessed the ceremonial change of guard at the Buckingham Palace.

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower of London

I spent some time in Trafalgar Square; though, the pigeons I saw Amrish Puri feeding in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (the biggest hit Bollywood has ever produced) had gone missing by then! I had a pint of beer at Sherlock Holmes – a pub on Northumberland Street that was established in 1736! I watched the Spain vs Italy Euro Cup finals at Buckingham Arms in Westminster area.

good-time-visit-london-now
Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire, UK

Heck… I even managed a day trip to Salisbury and checked out Stonehenge – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Well, I did manage a lot, but I have some regrets… regrets of not being able to do many more things.

good-time-visit-london-now
London Eye, South Bank

Let me share some of those

I missed out on visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I also did not have enough time to make it to the Museum of Brands (this one is of special interest to me as I have spent 27 years in Advertising!). Though I am an avid Hard Rock Café T-shirt collector, I could not find time to visit this iconic destination in London.

good-time-visit-london-now
Ceremonial Change of Guard, Buckingham Palace, London.

I did go past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but I could not see a show there. I missed out on seeing the great displays at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Remember that popular TV show – Crystal Maze? I was a big fan of the show. And naturally, I wanted to take on the Crystal Maze in Zone One. But, I couldn’t.

good-time-visit-london-now
A potpourri of traditional and modern at the Westminster Bridge

I also did not manage Ripley’s Believe it or Not at Piccadilly Circus. Or the London Zoo. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Or the Royal Opera House. Or even the Museum of London. Or… well, there is so much more I wanted to do in London that this list can be endless!

good-time-visit-london-now
Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey

Why this post now?

I chanced upon the British Airways (BA) page recently and discovered they had unleashed some bonanzas – exclusively for their customers. BA customers enjoy special shopping discounts at multiple outlets across London (for the whole list, CLICK HERE). They are offering their lowest fares – with hotel stays thrown in! I found a return ticket with a 5-night hotel stay, breakfast included, for just Rs. 54,106!!!

They have also suggested some real cost-saving itineraries under various heads. Check these out HERE.

And, the icing on the cake – British Pound that used to hover around Rs. 100 is now at Rs. 82.

good-time-visit-london-now
Royal Albert Hall

What Next?

I feel this is too good an opportunity to let go. So, I am going to book a trip right now! Those of you who have always wanted to visit this great city but have been deterred by the high costs should also do the same. As they say, opportunity knocks but once!

good-time-visit-london-now
City view from London Eye.

Like I said – A good time to visit London? Now! Happy Travels!

 

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Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

vivo v5 captures pack

Vivo V5 – For Captures After Pack Up

Pack up is a jargon that photographers and filming crews use. It is a bold announcement of ‘end of the work for the day’. It also means that the equipment may now go back to the storeroom, as it won’t be required again till the next work shift starts.

Even as a travel photographer and a solo worker, there is a time of the day when I announce ‘pack up’ to myself. The ‘pack up’ time may vary. If it is a city destination that I am covering, it could be late in the night as my plan may include shooting low-light shots of city life or night cityscapes. But if I am doing a road trip to a nearby attraction, the ‘pack up’ may happen as soon as I finish shooting the attraction and am on my way back.

vivo v5 captures pack

After ‘pack up’, most photographers follow an unwritten rule – No Camera! And, I am no different. Even I follow this rule!

But then, not all photographers are travel photographers. As a travel photographer, there are times after the ‘pack up’, when I wish I were prepared to capture the moment because my trip may present unusual photo-ops! These photo-ops may be a chance meeting with a celebrity, a spontaneous get-together at my hotel, a breathtaking sight that catches my eye as I turn the street corner, or any of a million more eventualities that may throw themselves at me! These are the times that leave me with a regret – the regret of being unprepared.

vivo v5 captures pack

Additionally, being a professional photographer also puts some extra pressure on me – the pressure of capturing even my casual images in acceptable quality. Sub-optimal images won’t do!

So, when Vivo approached me with their V5 (a stylish smartphone with a camera) and requested me to do a field test, they specifically mentioned about its 20mp front camera and its moonlight selfie capability. Have a look at this beauty HERE.

vivo v5 captures pack

Now, what does that capability mean?

For the photographer in me, it spells freedom – freedom of lugging around my gear after ‘pack up’. And still having the option of capturing decent images in those after-hours, even in low-light situations. I readily accepted the offer of doing this field test!

vivo v5 captures pack

Field Test

I shot some low-light shots that would normally turn out to be pathetic. I shot erratically moving subject, some still life, neon lights and other signage and the results were satisfactory. All those worked well for me.

May be you should also give it a shot?

vivo v5 captures pack
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Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
View from our Balcony

Background

We had made a Sea View Club Room booking with The Leela Grand, Kovalam in January 2015. The 4-night stay would have left us poorer by approx. Rs.84,000 (~US$ 1,230 – i.e. US$ 307 per night). Around then, due to its financial mess, SpiceJet was cancelling many of its flights and this news was commonplace knowledge.

Our flights on three out of the four sectors also got cancelled and thankfully, the news came to us at a time when we could cancel our room bookings without losing any monies. We did cancel but there was a regret of missing out on staying with a property with one of the finest locations anywhere.

In September 2016, we had another opportunity to visit Kovalam and we were going to stay in The Leela Grand. We stayed there and this stay prompted me to put forth an honest review for money-paying guests who may plan a stay at this property. I want them know the realities of a stay here to make a considered decision.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Infinity pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

“You’ll come to Kovalam with me?”

My wife was speaking at an IoT-focussed conference in Kovalam. Since the conference organisers were hosting her and they were fine with spouses coming along, she asked me if I would like to accompany her.

Her question was obviously prompted by our earlier cancellation of the Kovalam trip. Also, since Kovalam was just a spitting distance from some of the bucket list destinations, I readily agreed.

We had just returned from a 10-day Lombok-Bali trip. So, the beach was not such a big draw, but when she mentioned that we’d be staying in The Leela Grand, a hotel known for its gorgeous location, that was another ‘plus one’ to look forward to.

 

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Look down from our balcony, and you see this

First impression…

We were driven in an Audi Q3 from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to the hotel. The drive was short, but pleasant. We had a separate lounge for check-in as we were booked in their Sea View Club room (higher category room).

Since this property is on a coastal cliff, we climbed down one level to get to our room. As soon as we entered, wife and I exchanged glances and smiled. In our extensive hotel-trotting streak, we had not come across a better view from our hotel room. Though it was dark already, the waters around the property were illuminated by cool temperature LEDs installed by the hotel. And we could see and hear the waves lashing noisily against the rocks.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Near the pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

I knew this property was the erstwhile ITDC Ashok hotel. And by virtue of this being a government-owned entity established much before perhaps the 300-metre no-construction-zone rule came into being, the property was literally kissing the sea.

Instead of unpacking, we just poured ourselves a drink and sat in the balcony enjoying the view and the ambience. The trance lasted a while!

Reality Check

Once we came back into the room, the challenges of this aging property started to dawn on us. The plug sockets were old and hence unreliable – you plug in a device and hope for the best that it will continue to get charged. These sockets were in sunken ports that had wooden lids. Fair enough, except a typical C, E or F type plug would normally stand upright (as against the D & M types that offer a flat plug). Result? After you plug in a device, the lid won’t close.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The lid won’t close

Interestingly, for some unknown reason, the bedside sockets were Type G! You know, those three flat pin ones? Those! The property happens to be in India, and instead of providing the type D or M, or the more modern type K, they provided type G – useful in China, Malaysia and a few other countries for sure, but rather useless here. (For understanding this weird jargon, please see the infographic).

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Plug types demystified

The bathroom was a sum total of 3 matchboxes – a shower cubicle, a WC cubicle and a washbasin cubicle. The Shower and WC cubicle doors opened outwards, naturally inconveniencing the other occupant – in case he/she happened to be washing hands or brushing teeth.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The wallpaper was peeling off

Are you hygiene conscious?

For the hygiene-conscious, please be warned that washing hands in the washbasin is going to a hairy experience! Try as hard as you may, your hands are going to be brushing against the basin bowl as the faucet has been fixed at an angle that leaves little space for your hands.

The towels and bath mats was another crazy story. Over the next 3 days, the housekeeping would forget to leave either the face towels, or the hand towels, or the bath mat. This routine was followed every day and the entire experience left you in a advanced state of resignation.

While unpacking, my wife realised that the drawer housing the safe would not open. Once we pried it open, it was a challenge to close it. The space provided for the suitcase was barely sufficient for one large suitcase. And, it was a double occupancy room, if you please!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Sullied view from the room – thanks to the permanent scratches and stains on the window pane

Let’s have some food

It had been a long day. Soon, we were hungry and decided to order room service. That’s when a hunt for the in-room dining menu started. After agonising for a while with various visible and concealed drawers, we concluded that they had omitted to place one in our room. We called the in-room dining and got connected to front office instead. Politely, they asked us to call the room service number again. We tried telling them that we couldn’t find the menu, and were politely told again to call room service. Fair enough!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The Leela Grand Beach

We called the in-room dining again and again got connected to the front office. Now, we were losing it. In no uncertain terms we told the front office guys to get their telephone system in order and while at it, to send an in-room dining menu to our room.

There’s more…

Food was ordinary. But, we are used to condoning one bad experience – knowing fully well that the cuisine we ordered may be a challenge for the chef on duty. After dinner, we again stepped out into the balcony and once we came in to call it a day, we realised the balcony door wouldn’t get locked. Naturally, we asked the operator to connect us to maintenance. She politely asked us what did we want. Upon telling her, she promised to have someone fix that soon.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Didn’t I say the view is gorgeous

After a 15-minute wait, we reminded her and soon had a maintenance guy come in. He took his time while we were quietly amusing ourselves by watching some B channel on the limited menu of channels on offer. Once he finished, I checked if the door would close, and realised that he had done whatever best he could since the door was any case in an advanced state of disrepair, and hence was unlikely to close properly. We resignedly asked him to carry on.

Well, I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that what we experienced during our first few hours was not an exception, but was a norm in this property.

Next Morning

In the morning light, we noticed a few more issues. The coastal dampness had led to a peeling wallpaper; the window glass had permanent swathes of damage that definitely didn’t do much good to your view of the nature outside. The window blinds were frayed. Over all, the indifference in maintenance was glaringly evident.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Frayed blinds

Any reason for such indifference towards a gloriously located property?

Upon making enquiries with the staffers, we realised the Leela Group had sold the hotel to some Ravi Group. When I checked on the Internet, it showed that though it sold the property in 2011, it is still being managed by HLVL (Hotel Leela Ventures Ltd.). While HLVL still continues to make money hand over fist milking its superbly unique location, they seem to have little or no interest in ploughing back any of this money into the upkeep since the property does not belong to them anymore.

What further surprises me is that this property won the Best Indian Luxury Hotel in India Award in 2015 – an award by Lonely Planet India.

Sooner, than later, the news of their mismanagement is likely to reach the market. The earlier that happens, the better. If it doesn’t, chances are the property reviews by traveller are going to hurt not just this one property, but also the entire chain. And, it will turn out to be a huge PR nightmare for this classy chain.

Why Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

When you stay with a group property of a renowned chain like the Leela that is known for its impeccable attention to detail, you are naturally paying an arm and a leg as room tariff. We were just plain lucky as we didn’t have to pay it since we were hosted. So, as a money-paying guest, the least you expect is that the property will have basic 5-star amenities and fittings in the room would work. When they don’t, and instead begin to fall apart, you get up with a start and take notice.

And after all, in 2015, we did commit US$1230 for our stay there! We were so glad we didn’t end up paying that amount at that time.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
I saw this facade in an advertisement in the 80’s

Chances are many of my readers would pay a king’s ransom to stay there. It is only fair that they at least are made aware of how things work or NOT work there. As they say, forewarned is forearmed!

In case any of you faced a similar experience here, kindly feel free to share as a comment. I will incorporate your comment as an independent review into this post itself.

Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam

 

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Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The Facade of Ramgarh Heritage

A week back, I received an invitation from a PR agency on behalf of Ramgarh Heritage, a Rajasthani heritage property in Panchkula – they were going to host me for a couple of nights. Though I accepted the invitation, my mind was throwing up a few pertinent questions. On more than one occasion, I have found myself trapped in the so-called pseudo-Rajasthani boutique resorts; will this be another such instance? Or, Chandigarh folks reserve similar disdain for Panchkula that Mumbai townies reserve for the ‘burbs (suburbs); so, should I even consider visiting Panchkula?

All the same, the deed was done. I had accepted their hosting invitation. So, on the scheduled date, I got on to the 5.15 pm evening Chandigarh Shatabdi – a comfortable fast train that sets out from New Delhi station and takes you to Chandigarh in three and a half hours. The folks from Ramgarh Heritage received me at Chandigarh Railway Station.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
A portrait of one of the ancestors of Chandail family

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

A 25-minute drive took us to the resort. Customary check-in formalities followed. The reception was plain-Jane. But as soon as I stepped out of the reception block, an imposing off-white façade with terracotta-red borders and characteristic Rajasthani domes stared me in my face. There was a well-manicured lawn to my left and a huge Bunyan tree to my right!

I was guided past the Bunyan tree to the Dining Area called Diwankhana that also offers an al fresco dining option. Being a smoker, I decided to avail of it. There, two elegant ladies from the PR agency joined me. Over drinks and dinner, they shared some information about the property and the family who had created it with their labour of love.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Authentic Rajasthani flavour – the Ravanhatta player from Rajasthan

While the information sounded fascinating, I chose to reserve my judgement till I had personally seen the property, more particularly, the room. A couple of things I did not reserve my judgement on though was the food and the entertainment. The fare was delicious and truly Rajasthani, and the folksinger hailed from a famous Rajasthani folk singer family. His mastery over Ravanhatta, a traditional Rajasthani instrument, was remarkable!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
My room

Ethnic Modernity or Modern Ethnicity

After the meal, a resort staffer escorted me to my room. As soon as I entered the room, its ambience and aesthetics struck me as both – elegantly ethnic and comfortably modern. The room was spacious, its furnishings, tasteful, and its layout, utilitarian! A quick peep into the bathroom, and my mind was completely at rest!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
A comfortable lounge for use of guests!

The hosts had planned a village visit for me the next morning. But that was changed to a visit to Nada Sahib, a well-revered Sikh shrine close to the resort, as previous day’s unseasonal rain meant that the village roads would be mucky and not fit for a comfortable walk. I was told this village/Sikh shrine visit is an option they offer to all guests who stay with them.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
7 generations of Chandails

Upon our return, a pleasant and humble young man, Jaideep, greeted us. I was told that the Ramgarh Heritage is his home that he’s opened up for discerning travellers and he is the son of Sardar Sahib Jagdeep Singh, the head of a branch of the Chandail family that has a 900-year history as erstwhile rulers of Bilaspur.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The lobby in Ramgarh Heritage, where the guests may relax

A touch of history

Over the next three hours, Jaideep took us around his ‘home’ that now welcomes travellers. Compared to any large hotel, this ‘home’ may not be too large, but the history that lies sprinkled around here sure is. From ancient, to medieval to ‘Raj’ days to modern, it actually is a mirror that reflects the larger picture of the history of our entire country.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Old manuscripts

From the 325-year-old Bunyan tree to a century-old kitchen utensils, from the manuscripts penned over 150 years back to the Viceregal invite to the Coronation Hall when it was resolved that the capital of India would formally move from Calcutta (known as Kolkata today) to Delhi, every artifact that adorns this restored home tells a story steeped in history of not just the Chandail family, but our entire country. When I asked about the Rajasthan connection of the family, Jaideep told me that this connection is through his maternal grandmother.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Deer on the ceiling – one of the many masterpieces created by the skilled Samod artists

A Labour of Love

This conducted visit through the history of this home made me marvel at the time, effort, resources, and love that had gone into its restoration. To create the authentic Rajasthani feel, skilled Samod painters had worked for months to adorn the walls and ceilings of the various rooms and common areas and had created magic with their art. Since words may not do justice to the kind of art conjured up here, have a look at the images I shot of this wizardry.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal

While a panel displays the seven generations of the family, the stained glass work in Lotus and Peacock suites demonstrate the aesthetic bent of these multiple generations. Shikargaah, the bar, is adorned with spent 12 Bore shells from the hunting era, its walls  tastefully decorated with hunting trophies and the bar stools are made with empty gun shells and saddles. The entire place reflects the lifestyle of royalty over the last few centuries. Additionally, a Victorian building built in 1937 (Jagdish Kuti), also boasts a few heritage rooms that offer a further royal feel to the guests.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Jagdish Kuti
spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Shikargaah, the bar

In some earlier times, Chandail family used to own elephants. These elephants used to reside in Gajagraha, an area now converted into a banquets area that houses a cute splash pool. The lawns outside, called Baara, are used for banquets, weddings, and corporate dos. This improvisation makes Ramgarh Heritage a well-suited location for destination weddings as well as for conferences.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The splash pool in Gajagraha
spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Inside Peacock Suite

Grab a surprise

Our lunch and dinner further strengthened my earlier observation that the cuisine was authentic when ‘papad curry’, ‘gatte ki sabzi’ and ‘Lal Maans’ prepared with closely guarded family recipe was served. By the end of my stay in Ramgarh Heritage, I was convinced that it truly is a spot of Rajasthan en route hills of Himachal. Next time, as and when the hills of Himachal call you, do break your journey here and get surprised for yourself and discover this mini-Rajasthan in Haryana, just next to Chandigarh!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
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Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

This post has affiliate links. While these links help me run this site and provide free content to my readers, my views remain completely unbiased.

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

A camera phone for those who don’t dig photography?

By virtue of my being a travel photographer, be it an offline traveller gathering or an online travel forum, I normally face a simple enough question from my traveller friends who do not enjoy struggling with the technical aspects of photography. The question is – “For me, photography is a tedious chore. But, I still need to have images of the destinations I travel to. So, which reasonably priced phone camera may I use during my travels?”

Seemingly a simple question, I would normally find myself at a loss to recommend any one single reasonably priced phone camera. Reason: I am an iPhone user and have not really used even my iPhone camera for capturing images.

When Asus approached me to review their ZenFone 3, I felt I could correct the above situation. I got a ZenFone 3 from Asus on the eve of my departure to Bali and Lombok. I decided to take it for a spin to Indonesia.

Clearly, I only had the above oft-asked question in my mind and I wanted to have an answer. The phone arrived with links to its online literature and a list of features. The camera part of the features mentioned a 16MP rear (primary) camera and an 8MP front (secondary) camera. In theory, such numbers sound great, but as a photographer, I view them with suspicion.

So here I was in a couple of idyllic Indonesian Islands, with an unfamiliar gizmo and a few doubts in my mind. I wanted to test drive this stylish, sleek, shiny, shimmer gold phone for its photography abilities and see for myself if it makes the cut to be recommended.

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Zen Stress

I decided to subject ZenFone 3 to a stress test I normally reserve for hi-end point & shoot cameras or an entry/mid-level DSLR. And, I decided to do it for its capability of capturing stills (I am not a videographer, remember!?). I don’t click ‘selfies’ either, so I skipped that too. For this test, my chosen parameters were as follows:

  1. How does it perform in high dynamic range and low-light conditions
  2. How does it perform in auto mode (since my friends who ask the question are not comfortable about the technical bits like shooting modes, etc.)
  3. If there is any trouble capturing something in auto mode, how does ZenPhone 3 camera handle the shot in a manual mode (it is only fair to assess it even if my friends are not comfortable using various different modes)
  4. Though the camera does NOT have a dedicated sports mode, it boasts a fast processor – Quote-Unquote

    World’s First 14nm Snapdragon processor with 64-Bit Octa-Core CPU @2.0Ghz : S625 is much more powerful than previous generation thanks to new full 8 core @ 2.0Ghz. 2016 S625 is around the same level of performance of 2015 S800 series (For a detailed features list, click here).

    So I wanted to assess its responsiveness to burst shooting.

  5. Since it shoots only JPGs, how would those JPGs react to some editing I consider necessary to bring out the best in an image?

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

So, let’s see how ZenPhone 3 did in this wicked test!

  1. High Dynamic Range Handling: A usual issue when shooting outdoors is a very bright sky that forces most cameras to considerably darken the landscape if it captures the sky well. I shot many landscapes and found that it handles this difficult-to-manage issue pretty well. Full marks here.
    Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust
  2. Auto Mode: I used auto mode for most of my shooting with ZenFone 3. And, the results were crisp, colours good and overall image pleasing! No complaints here.
    Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust
  3. Switching to manual mode: In one indoor shot, I faced the issue of a sub-optimal capture in auto mode. Switching to manual mode got me a result I wanted. So, all in all, you can make it work for you!
  4. Burst mode performance: I shot a test sequence of a rider on a bike. The result was fine and its claim of a fast processor seems sound!
  5. Editing the JPGs: I always edit my images to address excessive highlights, lack of details in dark areas, saturation, etc. (For a detailed step-by-step guide to how I edit my images in Lightroom, please see my Lightroom guide – Using Lightroom – A Simple Workflow). I did the same with the JPGs shot with ZenFone 3 and it handled the edits pretty well (see the result below). So, though it doesn’t shoot raw, its JPGs can withstand a fair bit of editing.

So, what do I feel? – The Verdict

I started with trepidation. But after the photography-related tests I conducted on Asus ZenFone 3, I have the faith that I won’t be wrong in recommending this phone to my camera-phobic friends as their go-to camera, particularly for their outdoor imaging needs during their travels; more so, since this phone-camera costs Rs.~22k as against the other known phone-cameras costing about 2-3 times the price.

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The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!

After TBEXStockholm, VisitSweden had organised a 2-night/3-day fam trip to Luleå for us. In Gammelstad, a restaurant we dined in blew my mind! This is an account of that experience by a non-food blogger!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The Table Setting

Here’s a candid admission (and the food-lovers are welcome to shower me with brickbats) – I normally do not write about food. In fact, for me, food is a necessary evil we have to waste time on during our travels. In my nomadic stints, I make do with whatever takes the least time and provides enough energy to keep moving on.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The humble signage of a not-so-humble restaurant

An exception occurred while I was in Gammelstad! This 500-year old Church Town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, slow-paced our group. We spent a whole day in this one square mile township! While this town was pretty and we learnt a lot about Scandinavian history, we were glad when the dinner was announced!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Johan talks about his inspiration while Evelina creates the first starter

It was 6 pm and we made our way into a nondescript back alley of Gammelstad. There stood Kaptensgården, a fine-dining restaurant run by Johan Thingvall, who got his chef training working with many a fine-dining restaurant in Stockholm! The restaurant seemed like just another gleaming cottage – the likes of which were lining the many streets and lanes of Gammelstad.

Once we entered the restaurant, we quickly became aware of the immaculate attention to detail all around us! And the biggest surprise Johan announced was that theirs was a live cooking kitchen!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Our dinner menu

We settled down in our respective places and were greeted by our own individual 7-course dinner menu comprising 3 starters, 2 entrees and 2 desserts! Since the menu was in Swedish (Greek to me!), I promptly sought help and wrote down the names of the dishes and their ingredients in English.

As such, the ingredients seemed exotic enough. Its true magic started to unfold once the live-cooking started. Johan, assisted by his able deputy Evelina, slowly began casting his spells of wizardry.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Whitefish roe, red onions

The first course, a subtly-lemony creation, was a delicately prepared starter of trout and cucumber. As we were slowly nibbling through this course to savour the taste for longer, we found Johan creating some intricate nests, complete with whitefish-roe-filled quail eggshells!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The skinning of a willow grouse

While pecking at this delicacy, we found him skinning a couple of grouse. The next starter was a ptarmigan (willow grouse) topped with a quail egg yellow, served rare. While he served the starter, he shared an interesting tale from the arctic.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Ptarmigan and dove

He talked about his ptarmigan-hunting expeditions up in the Arctic Circle. Day after day, he would ski for hours and then set up camp for some rest. Some days he was lucky, while the other days would just be a wild goose… er… a wild grouse chase! During the entire hunting expedition, he might land himself a couple of dozen willow grouse, if he was lucky. And here, he had just served almost 10% of his entire season’s hunt!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Whitefish, oats, turnip and herbs
The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The reindeer entrée

Soon, the starters were done and dusted and the entrées followed. Whitefish was steamed to perfection and the reindeer entrée was succulent! Though the portion looked small, we realised how scientifically well-worked out they were as we felt stuffed to the gills trying to wade through these delicious entrées!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Blueberries, egg, vanilla

The dessert listing of blueberries, egg and vanilla hardly did justice to the intricacy of this masterpiece – it was a double whammy of a tart shell and a meringue! The explosion of flavours of the blueberry filling and the creamy sauce together left us all smacking our lips in delight!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Cloudberries and Chocolate

Our last course, another dessert, was rustled up with light, sweet-sour cloudberries and heavy, almost too sugary dark chocolate. The combined taste was amazing! As I licked off the last remnants of this awesome dessert, I casually looked at my watch and realised we had been witnessing a showman for three hours! Yes, our dinner had gone on till 9 pm! This dinner made me recall the oft-heard phrase –

‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The White Guide listing plaques

Given that such prodigious, almost inspirational innovations are a norm for Johan and Kaptensgården, it is little wonder that this distinctive eatery has been making its way into Scandinavia’s premier and authoritative dining guide – The White Guide – year after year!

If you enjoy magical meals and happen to be around Luleå in Sweden, do make your way to Johan’s Kaptensgården in Gammelstad. But do remember to call +46-920-25 70 17 and make a booking first!

Kaptensgården
Häradsvägen 9
954 33 Gammelstad
Sweden
www.restaurangkaptensgarden.se
info@restaurangkaptensgarden.se

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!

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Getting More With Less in Travel Photography

Getting More With Less in Travel Photography

Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
Gum Departmental Store – its facade is 242 metres across!

Canon India had provided me an EOS 5D SR body and an EF11-24mm f/4L USM lens for review during my Moscow visit. This combination added tremendous firepower to my arsenal. Before we see how, let’s take a look at some of the truly useful features/specifications of this camera body and lens (In case you find any of this too technical, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to resolve the tech-query for you).

Canon EOS 5D SR:

While EOS 5D SR is a hugely competent camera with its features and settings manual running into 532 pages, I’ll focus on just a few useful features/specifications of this recent entrant to the Canon stable.

  1. Full frame, with flexibility to become an APS-H (crop factor of 1:1.3 as in Canon EOS 1D Mark IV) or APS-C (crop factor of 1:1.6 as in Canon EOS 7D Mark II) sized sensor
  2. Maximum resolution: 50.3 Mega Pixels or 8688 x 5792 pixels; at APS-H crop – 6768×4512 pixels (30.5 MP); at APS-C crop – 5424×3616 pixels (19.6 MP)
  3. ISO Sensitivity – Auto, 100-6400 (Extended Mode: 50-12800)
  4. Continuous Shooting – up to 5 fps
  5. Besides the usual picture styles (Auto, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome), an additional picture style – Fine Detail – has been added.

Canon EF11-24mm f/4L USM:

  1. The lens’ effective Field of View (FOV) in landscape mode at 11mm is 117.1° (as against 73.7° for 24mm); and in portrait mode, it is 95° at 11mm (as against 53.1° at 24mm)
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    In Portrait orientation, 11mm lens offered an extra 78% FOV

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    In Landscape orientation, 11mm lens offered an extra 58% FOV
  2. 11mm also allows you the leeway to shoot handheld till slow shutter speed of 1/10 secs (inverse of focal length rule)

I went around shooting in Moscow, a city well-known for its large, tall, wide buildings, unique onion domes and startling brickwork and masonry. I will now be delving into the mishmash of advantages this unique combination provided to me.

  1. I did not have to carry my TS-E (Tilt-Shift) 24mm lens as the FOV provided by 11-24mm was 1.58 times the FOV provided by a 24mm lens in landscape orientation. Let’s see what that translates to. Capturing a tall structure like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (103 metres tall) normally would lead me to use the TS-E, as tilting the camera up would lead to an unavoidable distortion of parallels converging towards the top of the building. The 58% increase in the coverage angle helped me keep the camera parallel to the ground and still capture these tall structures without distortion.

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – this 103-metre high cathedral is the tallest Orthodox Christian Church in the world!
  2. I did not have to stitch panoramas of extremely wide structures like Gum Departmental Store or the State Historical Museum in Red Square as it all fitted into the wide FOV provided by the magical 11-24mm lens while retaining textural details. To give you some idea of what fitting Gum Departmental Store in a single frame meant – the facade of this classic structure is 242 metres from left to right and I was shooting it from 60 metres away. It still fitted the frame! Now, that’s one heck of a FOV!
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Gum Departmental Store
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    State Historical Museum at the Red Square

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    State Historical Museum at the Red Square – 100% crop of the above shot. Please note how the textural details are intact.
  3. The small ISO sensitivity range of 100-6400 was deceptively effective. Normally, in my Canon 5D Mark III (ISO Sensitivity: 100-102400), I would play it safe and seldom go beyond ISO 1600 to avoid noise (way below the upper limit of 102400). In 5D SR, I shot hand-held at ISO 1000 and discovered there was no noise. I shot with a shutter speed of 1/30 and since this shutter speed was faster than the usual ‘inverse of focal length’ rule, there was no camera shake either.
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Red Square

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    The above shot at 100% crop
  4. While shooting St Basil’s Cathedral from close quarters, I realised I could only fit it into the frame in a distortion-free manner if I tuck it in top left corner of the frame while keeping the camera parallel to the ground or if I tilted the camera upwards (latter would have led to distortion). I preferred tucking it into the top left corner. This was possible as the lens gave me a 78% extra FOV and the high resolution offered by EOS 5D SR allowed for a fair degree of cropping, while still giving me extremely hi-resolution cropped frame (see St Basil’s Cathedral uncropped and cropped image below).
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    St Basil’s Cathedral – Uncropped

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    St Basil’s Cathedral – Final Shot after cropping
  5. The picture style of Fine Detail helped me get the textural details of Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital, in its full glory (see the image below and its 100% crop)
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital – 100% crop
  6. Its fast fps (frames per second) helped me capture this heart-warming action on the streets of Moscow.

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Russian ISKCON devotees on Arbat Street

For me, what this body-and-lens combination offered was invaluable as it delivered quality results, accorded me the freedom to carry lesser gear and still capture crisp images.

It truly was the case of getting more with less in Travel Photography. So, should one procure this combination? My counter-question to that is – Do I really need to answer this?

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Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad

Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad

 

 

Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad

I use technology despite being from the times when analogue was the only watch and film was the only camera. I am sure there are many of us around who do that. Perhaps how I am different (or so I believe) is that I do so as if it is a second nature. I say that because I have never consciously given it enough thought to ever write about it.

In today’s smartphone era, my iPhone 6 has 101 apps – most seldom used by me (This is not a random number, but an exact count). Some of these mostly-forgotten apps make a prominent appearance during my travels. Today, I’ll talk about 3 such apps!

That is why I call these Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad!

  1. Translate Voice: I was dreading my Moscow visit for a variety of reasons – 1. Most places here have complex, almost unpronounceable names 2. They also have different Russian and English names 3. Most signboards are in Russian 4. Very few Russians know enough English to be able to converse and 5. Even fewer Russians are able to read English. Enter ‘Translate Voice‘, a free app that allowed me to speak in English and translated my speech in Russian and played back to my cab driver, allowed him to respond in Russian, translated his speech to English and played it back to me. All it needed was Wi-Fi (available even in cabs in most developed countries). Use it, talk to anyone in any language and become a truly global citizen!

    Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad
    See the ‘Speaker’ icon (4th from left) in the icons strip? That Activates the speech. To record in English, click the UK flag icon and speak!
  2. Viber: With ‘Location Services’ on, the image I click through Viber (a free app) gives me perfect coordinates of the photographed place and places it on a map. These coordinates are handy when I need to locate the spot and write about it! Besides, Viber also allowed me to talk free through Wi-Fi with people abroad. Do try this doubly useful app!

    Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad
    See the little green circle on the bottom right of the image on the left? That’s the ‘location services on’ icon!
  3. GPSMyCity.Com Maps: These nominally-priced (~$5 per city) walking maps do not need any Wi-Fi connectivity and work on GPS. So, if you have a smartphone with GPSMyCity (click this link for complete list of available maps) map on it, you can explore the city you are visiting without the help of a guide. Not only does it provide you with a description of the landmark, but also provide you with audio directions in the language of your choice. Use these maps to not miss out on any city attraction in future!

    Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad
    You can even create your own ‘Custom Walk’ in these maps!

I am sure you’ll also start referring to these as Indispensable Travel Apps for Travelling Abroad! Please note that the links provided are for iPhone App Store though these apps are also available for Android!

If you also use some interesting apps that may be useful for a frequent traveller like me, please leave a link in the comments section and I’ll consider adding those to this post with a credit to you! 

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Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
Tiger Shroff and Shraddha Kapoor at Fitbit’s India Launch

I am not getting any younger and am travelling a lot. Lately, my travel has been a dilemma for me. While I enjoy it more than ever, I worry about food and exercise – or health in general – during my trips. Furthermore, an average bloke like me has limited, if any, understanding of complexities of calorie intake or outgo, heart rate, adequate rest, etc. More than anything, this lack of understanding always, I repeat, always leaves you worried about your general well-being; even more so, during your travels.

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
One of the India Health Monitor slides at the launch

It was in this backdrop that my wife handed me over a Fitbit Surge (She works with Fitbit). I looked at the box and asked her incredulously – “Why are you giving me a watch? I haven’t worn one in last 8 years or so.” She smiled and said nothing.

I decided to do some reading up and realised it was incidental that it had a watch. So, comparing it to an Apple Watch won’t be right since that’s more of a communication device while this actually is a health tracker. I immediately started wearing it and decided to log in my food with integrity.

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
Fitbit Dashboard

When not travelling, my lifestyle is sedentary if I were to exaggerate (it actually is more like a couch-potato’s). So, the first pleasant surprise this little genie gave me was even when I am not running or walking, I am burning calories. If ever there was a ‘love at first-sight-with-a-dashboard’, it was then!

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five

It has been over a month since I am wearing it now. In this entire duration, I had to charge it about 4-5 times for an hour or so. To be honest, I haven’t yet used its GPS function – yes, it has that too – and that may be a battery hog! What that delivers is the zig-zag map of the jog or walk you undertake in your enthusiasm. For me as a traveller, it also delivers a near-perfect understanding of places I visit (so I have read!). So, when I get around to using it, that is likely to help me not lose track of some of the lesser known spots; and aid in a subsequent hunt for them since it seamlessly syncs with Google Maps. As a travel photographer and a travel writer, that’s important for me.

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
For the ‘Analytical’ YOU!
Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
A medium Pizza – 1500+ calories and ~70 grams of fat (not to mention 3577mg of Sodium – I am guessing this high number can’t surely be good!)

Ok. Let’s move to some of the serious stuff! As I mentioned earlier, I faithfully started logging in my food on the dashboard. Voila, I suddenly discover my favourite food – pizza – is a massive calorie bomb! I must admit it has discouraged me to gorge on it as often as I used to, earlier. Sigh, someone rightly said – “Ignorance is bliss!” In those blissful days, a pizza and a diet coke used to be a balanced diet!

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
This ‘Fried Karela’ was added by me!

While logging in food, I realised there are major gaps vis-a-vis Indian foods in the available menu logs. Our staple includes shallow-fried Arbi (Taro), cooked French beans and potatoes, fried Karela (Bitter Gourd), variety of Raitas, etc. These were missing. Upon looking around, I found ‘add new item’ underneath the log. Suddenly, with the help of Google Uncle, I could add all such foods that were missing there.

Fitbit Surge also tracks steps taken and floors climbed (pretty much like all their other models). Some sensors like altimeters, gyroscopes, etc. help this device track this stuff. Even if you do not go for a walk or a jog, you realise you have walked an average of a mile a day in your house! You get additional peace of mind from the knowledge that it helped burn calories! It also has a habit of giving you medals for your achievements (!).

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five

A few gentle swipes on its touchscreen inform me of my heartbeats per minute, miles walked, calories burnt, besides the floors climbed and step taken. I am not a doctor, but I did study some thumb rules of resting heart rates and anaerobic/aerobic heart rates after getting this device. General calm now prevails in the knowledge that all is well! Touchwood!

Another interesting thing – I now know how long I slept for, how many times I got disturbed during the night & woke up and what my resting heart rate was. This is generally the stuff that most of us are clueless about unless we are in the habit of strapping a heart rate monitor around our body every night. Again, that niggle at the back of mind on how I am doing on these important health parameters is now a thing of past. This, I would say, is a typical case of ‘being at peace as you now KNOW’!

Travel Fitness At Fifty-FiveI travelled for about 10 days during this one month of wearing Fitbit Surge. The food I consumed was different from what I normally have. But, the calorie count has conscientiously been calculated and shared by my tracker.

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
Sad stats, but stats alright!

Let me admit, I am not looking to build a six-pack at my age (I am no Shahrukh, you know!). At the same time, I am surely looking for what Fitbit terms as Everyday Fitness (as against Active and Performance Fitness). This device has surely helped me get a handle on that.

Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five
My Indian mind at peace!

If I were to sum up my experience with Fitbit Surge, it would be this: From the mental state of ‘concern’ of not knowing how I am doing on important health parameters, to getting a dashboard of near-perfect data of those metrics, the journey is that of PEACE. It has also consciously made me consume high-protein stuff when I realised my food did not have enough of it. The medals it gave me also made me smile – that’s an extra smile, you know! All the same, it has done precious little in dissuading me to consume alcohol – a high-calorie, zero protein diet! So, my recommendation would be – “Go for it, for peace and knowledge!”

It sure is my mantra for Travel Fitness At Fifty-Five!

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Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
Central Courtyard, Rambagh Palace

This is NOT a paid review. I spent my own money for this stay.

“There was a time when Elaborate was de rigueur. And a place where it still is.” That is how Rambagh Palace’s awards listing website describes this royal gem.

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
Welcome letter from the hotel General Manager

A sprawling property, spread over 47 acre, Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur, had humble beginnings. It was built as a hunting lodge way back in early 19th Century. Later, in 1920’s, it was expanded into the Royal Palace. Subsequently, the Maharaja of Jaipur converted it into a hotel in late 1950’s. And Taj Group of Hotels took over the management of this magnificent property in early 1970’s.

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
Our room

Here’s a property where while you feel the grandeur at every step, its tariff is truly for the well-heeled – the off-season room rate for its mid-end room is a modest US$500 (approx) per night and a dinner for two with a drink and a glass of wine in its award winning restaurant (Suvarna Mahal) may set you back about US$200.

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
A regal bathroom, if you please!

For a spread-out property, it has very few rooms – just 72. But, the property comes armed with 4 fine-dining restaurants and a large bar called Polo Bar. Since it is a palace property, the décor reflects opulence. The bar has a fountain in the middle. Suvarna Mahal has Murano crystal chandeliers and large Italian alabaster marble lamps, and the Labenese restaurant, Steam, is a steam engine with a full 3-bogey train in tow.

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
The famed food-train, Steam, a Lebanese fine-dining restaurant

The spa area has world-class treatment facility and is flanked by two swimming pools – one outdoors and the other indoors. And the lawns are tended to as a youngster would his hair!

As soon as you check in, the process itself completely relaxes you – a chilled welcome drink, a cold towel, check-in process in a lounge look-alike lobby, if occupancy is not too high a complimentary upgrade thrown in (we got one!), bags in your room before you even miss them, intuitive controls in the room, the welcome-letter from the hotel GM, et al. The room balcony (if your room has one) or the window overlook the vast manicured greens of the property. And those greens are teeming with peacocks who call it home.

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
Our colourful neighbours welcoming the rains

The bar and the restaurants serve delicately crafted and curated fare. The service is attentive, informative, yet unobtrusive. And the ambience is regal. The staff is hospitable, yet visibly proud of its association with this iconic abode, with most of them being old timers (duty house-keeper who tended to our room has been working with Rambagh Palace for 34 years!).

Rambagh Palace by Taj, Jaipur
View of the hotel lawns from Baradari

A casual walk in the lawns here will accord you an opportunity to network with nature – with peacocks and myriad other birds chirping all around you! All this, and more, makes this property a true oasis of calm and relaxation in the chaotic capital of the desert state of India!

If I choose to, I can go on and on, but suffice it to say that this property deserves every accolade conferred upon it by the discerning travellers and juries over the years (you may check out the award listing here). Additionally, the images posted alongside will also speak a few thousand words.

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