Travel

How To Book A Place On AirBnB

A few days ago, I’d read about a terrible experience that a dear old friend (and idol), Naren, had with AirBnB. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar, AirBnB is an awesome service that lets you rent Apartments and Private Rooms (or if you don’t care much for privacy, shared rooms) in pretty much any city in the world that you want to holiday in.

I have used AirBnB twice so far – for my trips to Barcelona last year and Paris a few weeks ago, and I have to say, the experience is way superior to the one you would get in a hotel, it is a great deal more convenient than any other living arrangement and most importantly, it’s considerably cheaper than getting a hotel room of an equivalent standard. At the outset AirBnB sounds like awesome doughnut unicorn land, but the truth is that there is a great degree of uncertainty, not to mention the fact that you are at the mercy of your “host”. My experiences with Airbnb have been pleasant because I have massive trust issues. I follow a certain set of rules while booking anything on Airbnb, and these rules have worked quite well for me, so I’m sharing them here and I hope they work for you too. So without further ado, here’s how to book a place on airbnb –

Rule 1: Read the reviews!

I cannot stress on this enough, especially if it’s your first time booking a space on the website. Also keep in mind that a place with a four star rating after 200 reviews is a safer bet than a place with a 5 star rating and 2 reviews. I’m sure the 5 star rating place would be great, but for your first stay you want something tried and tested, with special emphasis on the tried. And tested. I read at least 25 reviews before I zero in on a place. Yes. I know.

Rule 2: Verify your account!

Now, the hosts aren’t the only ones who get reviewed, the users/guests do, too. So it’s only natural that well rated hosts are more likely to give their houses to well rated guests, which can be a problem when it’s your first time figuring out a place to stay on AirBnB. The idea is to be the least shady as possible so ensure that you verify your account with your phone number and email.

Rule 3: Research the area

Where is the apartment located, exactly? What kind of neighbourhood is it in? Is it accessible by Taxi? How close/far away is it from public transport? There are great apartments in shady areas and shady apartments in great areas, so don’t be swayed by the photos of the apartment alone, look up the area that your housing is located in.

Rule 4: Know the apartment and its rules

I almost booked a fifth floor apartment which was in a building without an elevator. Imagine lugging around your baggage for five floors! High rise apartments are cheaper sometimes, but make sure to check if there’s an elevator in the apartment. Alternatively, you can pack light (a skill I’ve never managed to learn because really there’s no such thing as too many pairs of blue jeans)

Rule 5: If it’s too good to be true…

…it probably is. Pass.

Rule 6: Be detailed and polite in your email to the host.

For most spaces, you’ll have to send a message to your host explaining the reason why you want to book their place. Suffice to say “Hai Plz give room” isn’t going to cut it. Introduce yourself, where you’re from, who you’re travelling with to their city, how many days you’re going to be there, and how great it would be if they’d let you have their place for your stay. You don’t need to write an essay, but providing necessary details about your trip (especially about the people you’re travelling with) will make you seem like a more reliable guest.

Rule 7: Other Reviewers

This isn’t an essential issue, but I am conscious about the experiences of people of colour (hello fellow brown people!) in the apartment. The world isn’t the most perfect place, and it is better for the sake of your vacation to be sure that your host is one who doesn’t discriminate.

Rule 8: Respect the property

Congratulations! You’ve got a room using AirBnB. To ensure that future bookings go even smoother, you need a good review, and in order for that to happen, you should respect the other person’s space. This means tidying up the bed, cleaning the kitchenette counter, taking the garbage out and generally not leaving it like your own room back home.
I love AirBnB and ever since I discovered the service last year, I’ve not even considered a hotel for travels. It’s affordable, it’s efficient and gives your holiday a kind of authenticity that staying in a hotel never will.
Have you tried AirBnB? What have your experiences been like so far?
{FYI, This is not a paid post. That I wish it was is a whole different matter altogether.}

Red Eye

Two days ago, I took the last flight out of Ahmedabad back home. It’s scheduled to depart at around nine in the evening, reach Chennai half hour before midnight, and is sometimes delayed but always rickety. Taking the last flight is never the most convenient thing to do, but I am the kind of weirdo homebody who has this permanent urge to get back, even if bone tired, to my room and my bed with too many pillows (mine).

This time on the flight, there was a group of particularly loud men sitting in the two rows in front of me. Gathering from the snippets of their conversation that I (and every other passenger) was forced to hear, it seemed like for a majority of the group, it was their first flight and naturally, they were all visibly excited. The excitement though, after some time, got out a little out of hand – in the midst of the hooting and laughter, they stood up and started posing for pictures during the security brief, making comments about “including the background”.

While I am not one to be bothered by loudness or hooting or any behaviour that is not visibly offensive/involves physical contact, this was the first time that I’d seen picture taking that involved including the background and I got uncomfortable since I was, along with a few other women, part of the background. Thankfully, the steward noticed what was going on and came swiftly to handle the situation. She made the man take his phone out, enter his security code, said a lot of things in shuddh hindi about flight policy, and deleted the pictures off his phone. My discomfort soon became aggravation as I noticed that these men had the widest grin on their faces while they were being chided, and that when she left, they broke into laughter again, like it was all a big joke.

I felt terrible for the flight attendant, and what she had to go through, but she looked unfazed – she proceeded to busy herself about things, ever the picture of calm and even came back to ask them, with a warm smile, if they were interested in purchasing a sandwich or maybe juice, as if these engaging in these skirmishes was routine, as if they already knew something like this was going to happen when they set out to work this morning, as if an incident like this had already happened during the course of the day and it was now getting boring to deal with guys like this, as if it was part of their job.

I don’t think I’d ever been happier, or more grateful to be an accountant.

If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai – A Review, Among Other Things

Travel writing as a genre had never really interested me. I am fairly certain that the numerous English Comprehension tests I wrote in school that featured extraordinarily tiresome pieces on places around the world are to blame. After I passed out, I’d read very little travel writing and whatever I’d read, I found to be too introspective and unnecessarily geographical for my taste, if not boring. Through the years, I managed to maintain the same distance one does with dull, but well meaning uncles with it: far, but somewhat friendly. So I suppose it was slightly out of character that I picked up Srinath Perur’s “If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai” – a collection of ten travel essays, based wholly on conducted/group tours the author has taken. 
It was one of the essays (“Memorial For The Victims Of Repression”), which was published as an excerpt in the Open Magazine that initially piqued my interest in the book. The essay featured his participating in a conducted sex tour to Uzbekistan. Perur, as the self-appointed fly on the wall among a group of repressed Indian men, is a joy to read. What I particularly loved in that essay, and as I would later find out, the entire book, was that he does not pass judgment on any of his travel companions – He merely observes, but his observations bear the kind of extreme sincerity that toes on sarcasm, and delightfully so. 
I laughed with this book in ways I have not laughed with a book in a very long time. There are some paragraphs in his essay on a conducted tour of Rajasthan, “Desert Knowledge, Camel College” that are so hilarious that I read them a couple more times for extra giggles. “The Grace of God”, an essay in which he describes his experience travelling across Tamil Nadu on a temple tour, made me reminisce about my own family’s seemingly never ending temple trips on which I was a very reluctant attendee. In “Saare Jahaan Se Accha”, he takes on Europe with his Desi tour group. Perur makes many earnest (and thoroughly amusing) observations about his group’s uniquely Indian characteristics. However, one stood out for me – that of the the foresight of some of the members who had packed snacks and food from home. The reason it did, was because it brought back a rather stark memory from a trip my family made to Hong Kong in 2010. 
Excuse me while I indulge in a slightly long digression. 
My father’s rationale while picking out a place to go on vacation has always been very simple. Is a Saravana Bhavan there? If yes, then we could go. If no, then we shall go to the next closest city with Saravana Bhavan. This was primarily because Saravana Bhavan, according to my father, gave us the freedom to do away with hectic conducted tours that forced you to wake up at 6 AM on vacation. We could pick what we wanted to see in the city, when we wanted to see it and the moment any of us felt hungry, we could run into the reliable arms of our old friend, Saravana Bhavan. For some inexplicable reason, he had picked Saravana Bhavan deprived Hong Kong that year, and after much debate, we opted for what we thought was the perfect compromise: a “flexi-tour”, where we would join existing conducted tours as extras depending on how we wanted our itinerary to be. 
One of the days involved going to Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s famous water themed amusement park. Two tame rides, one ridiculous roller coaster and a slimy reptile exhibit later, it was lunch time, which, according to our programme, was “At Park”. As we trawled Ocean Park to find a place to eat, we found out that it was the kind of place that thought vegetarian food was fishy. Literally.
(We would also find out upon coming home that there was a pseudo Indian restaurant in another corner of the park, but unfortunately, it had evaded us). 
An hour of aimless wandering in the sultry sun took a toll on our hunger, and us – My sister and I wanted to just eat Ice Cream for lunch. My mother, who had previously suggested that we buy bread and cheese at a convenience store (a suggestion we had ignored because let’s face it we were too cool for that) wouldn’t have that, and started whining about how no one took her advice and as a result, here we were, paying the price for our coolness by being hungry in this strange country with no vegetables. My father wanted to sit down for a while, and that scared us, because he’s a diabetic and extreme sugar level fluctuations aren’t the most pleasant things to handle in a foreign country. Ten minutes later, by what could only be termed as divine coincidence, we found a place to sit next to an Indian family who were part of the tour group we had travelled with to Ocean Park. They smiled at us in recognition, and we managed a weak one in response. “Lunch?” was his next question, and my mother summed it up for us.
“Vegetarian”
The man clucked his tongue in empathy – “Us also. Which is why my wife and I always bring Theplas when we travel abroad”, and proceeded to fish out a fat aluminium foil wrapped parcel from his bag. Some slightly uncomfortable silence later, which was primarily due to my family’s staring at theplas like Dickens Orphans, the nice man gave us the foil packet, which contained around a dozen theplas that were promptly wolfed down. “You must come prepared when you travel abroad.” Uncle said wisely, once we were done.  “We went to Europe last year. One small bottle water only 3 Euros. 150 rupees! Can you imagine food? If it we hadn’t taken Haldirams and Theplas, then I don’t know” 
After thanking him profusely for his kindness and adding his 13 year old daughter on Facebook, we wrapped our half day tour of Ocean Park, and three days later, were back at Chennai. The first thing my mother did when we came back home was locate a Thepla guy. We are, however, yet to make that trip to Europe.   
Coming back to the book – Perur writes about taking a trip to the North East in “According to Their Own Genius”. Reading the essay made me feel quite sad. It seemed I was more familiar with the places and culture discussed in the essay about Europe than I was about places in my own country! “Real India”, “Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai” and “The Same Water Everywhere” were good to read, but “Foreign Culture” seemed a bit like a filler arrangement– something that he wrote because he wanted a nice round number of essays in his book. Incidentally, Foreign Culture might just be the only essay among the ten where it seems the author actually had a holiday, so you can’t help but feel happy for him and his toddy induced stupor.
My absolute favourite essay in the book, was “The Taste Of Sugar”. Perur undertakes a Wari, the traditional walking pilgrimage to Pandarpur. It is not often that you come across a piece of writing which balances being insightful and being side-splittingly funny with as much grace as this essay.

In all, I cannot recommend If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai enough. Read it for the places he’s travelled to, but more importantly, read it for the people he’s travelled with.  
Buy it here.

Lost In Translation

Every
once in a while, I get all Indiana Jones And The Cave Of Horrors and try to
clean my room up. Now what usually happens in my pursuit of organizational
nirvana (you know, the kind that I can take pictures of and post on instagram
and brag about on twitter) is that I bring everything that’s inside shelves
onto the floor and in the process, discover some boxes of chewing gum that
probably dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, Salman Rushdie novels
whose pages one to three are very soiled because I kept reading it again and
again trying to understand what he’s saying, but failed miserably and
eventually gave up on reading, lots of notebooks filled with either
miscellaneous calculations for currency swaps or long winding sentences. Then, just
as I’m about to begin the actual cleaning process, my mother calls me to eat
and I end up forgetting all about my mission to make my room fit for human
habitation. Eventually, our Man Friday who comes in the next morning just puts
everything back in its old place, exactly the way it was before – He has a
special talent when it comes to recreating a mess.
So
yesterday, when I was seriously pursuing my new favourite hobby of time-wasting-on-Pinterest,
I saw a couple of organization blogs which immediately kindled my inner
Organizational Goddess (whose appearance is only more frequent than my inner
Baking Goddess – trust me, you don’t want to ever call her unless you need to
like, burn a kitchen down or something) and keeping in line with protocol, I
started pulling down stuff from shelves when I chanced upon an envelope of
photos that I’d printed and meant to put into an album but like most things I
mean to do, I’d conveniently forgotten about it. So like all people who try to
find excuses to stop cleaning after they make a giant mess, I absolutely had to
go through those pictures and get nostalgic about whatever it was.
It
turned out they were pictures from our family’s vacation to Hong Kong &
Singapore from a couple of years ago, also known as those 12 days I didn’t have
any internet and it turned out internet is overrated when you actually
have a life. AND THEN I REMEMBERED THAT I NEVER WROTE ANYTHING ABOUT THAT
VACATION ON MY BLOG WHICH IS SO SAD, IN FACT, SADDER THAN THOSE
K.BALACHANDAR MOVIES THEY SHOW ON KTV EVERY WEEKDAY AFTERNOON WHERE EVERYONE
DIES.
Anyway.
The
most striking memory from that vacation is when we got to go to one particular
city in China, called Shenzhen, which was apparently the China part of “Made in
China”. It was pretty amazing – apart from all the crazy manufacturing that
they did, it was also the place where they made all the fakes, and not just
designer bags or whatever (That said, the FakeLouisVuitton and FakeGucci bags I
saw were so genuine looking that I’m pretty sure they even made fake FakeLouisVuitton
bags). I mean, they make fake EVERYTHING. They even have this sort of park
where they have fake 7 Wonders of The World. Like Fake Eiffel Tower, Fake
Pyramids, Fake Taj Mahal – it’s faking awesome (See what I did there?).
But
this story is not about those gorgeous but fake Chanel 2.55 bags I saw there.
This is about how, on our way back to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, we were detained
by passport control at the Train Station, who took us into their office for “questioning”.
My father was very confident that we just happened to be part of their
compulsory random check, and asked us to keep cool, but my mother was totally
freaked out, as if the authorities suspected us to be armed and dangerous
Russian Ninja Assassins who were trying to spark a Nuclear War, which is crazy
because we’re not even Russian. My mother got completely paranoid and suddenly
started chanting Hanuman Chalisa and MantharaRajaPadam Sthothram under her
breath in between high pitched whines in Tamil that involved calling the
Chinese Passport Authorities “Shaniyan”. Very cool.  
In
the middle of all this I was sitting and copying a Chinese character from a
flyer that was next to me, on to the back of my wrist with a black ball point pen.
About
fifteen minutes later, the Authorities confirmed that we were neither Russian nor
Ninja and let us leave. Just as he let us out, one of the guys at the door,
pointed to my wrist and smiled, which I thought was awesome – maybe my attempts
at copying Chinese characters was what had actually changed their minds and forged
a new bond of trust. I beamed back, fully convinced that I had done my part as
a Future Ambassador to the Country, when I realized his smile was less smile
and more smirk. Two more guys spotted my ballpoint-inked wrist and started giggling. Some Engrish and lots of dubstep dance moves later, I got to know that the flyer that was next to me was about the symptoms of Bird Flu and the character that I had been so intently drawing on my arm was the Chinese symbol for…Diarrhea. 
On the bright side, at least I didn’t use a permanent marker. 
PS – In case you want to suggest a fun tattoo idea to a friend, here you go: 泻

On Cows

The family made a trip to the ancestral village (and many many temples) last weekend. I jumped at the opportunity, ofcourse. It was my one big chance to write that moving documentary on India’s Rural Landscapes, which would eventually pave it’s way into becoming the inspiration behind the script of the next Bharatiraaja movie, and stand as our family’s greatest achievement, and maybe even overshadow 1970s-IIT athimber’s letter to The Hindu. “Did you hear?” they would say in the next family gathering (I say gathering and not get together/function, because ours gossips at deaths too. But not about the deceased of course. We save that for the next death. Keep it classy, people) “She wrote a moving documentary on the rural landscapes of India which eventually paved it’s way into becoming the inspiration for the next Bharatiraaja movie!” 
“Really? How nice. Did you hear Calcutta Paati’s grand daughter eloped?” 
Because you know, only a true achievement would be discussed before someone eloping. 
Unfortunately, the only landscape I got to investigate the entire weekend was that of my digestive system’s since I had (most predictably) succumbed to travel sickness. But, but. During my  fleeting stay in the village I discovered something that could change my life forever. 
Cows. 
Lots of cows. Managing cows. Mooing cows. Healthy cows. Cheese. Paneer. Milk. Ramaraj. Maybe not Ramaraj, but it was definitely something that could change my life forever. Even if it didn’t, it seemed like a pretty great excuse to sell to my father at that time to avoid the heart burn/attack/pain/brain hemorrhage etc of writing CA Final in case I flunked again, which was a very real possibility.  
“Appa, who takes care of all these cows?”
“In the village, I think every one has their own set of cows. I don’t think one person owns them all.”
“Is there a Dairy Farm close by?”
“No, I don’t think so. But considering the number of cows here, and the space available, there should be.”
“I think I should start one. It would be a great alternate career if results aren’t in my favor.”
“Hahahahahaha! Definitely. If you’d known this was what you wanted to do before, you needn’t have studied so much! But let me ask you something, you’re sure you’ll go around telling people that you’re taking care of a bunch of cows?”
“Ha. I thought about this, so I came up with an excellent name for my organization.  I’ll call it Kamalapuram Pasu Management Group. So if anyone asks anything, I’ll be like Oh, I’m the Director at KPMG!” 
My father laughed uproariously for twenty minutes.

“Hehe.” I offered.

“You’re joking only no?”

“Not really.”

And he laughed for twenty more. 

PS: BY THE BYS! Results did turn out in my favour! I’m a Chartered Accountant now! But I still think the Dairy Farm is a great idea.
PPS: Pasu is tamil for cow.

Bullets

Some people were asking me to write and some other people were asking me if I was too busy to. The thing was, I used to be all My-Blog-Grammatically-Correctest and made a decision that if I ever were to write blogs and all, they had to be like publishable. Then I realized that I don’t really have anything like that the last three years I have been writing here anyway, so yes, I’m afraid all of you all have no choice but to put up with another update of my life you didn’t really ask for.

1. I just realized all the cool people are doing and saying what all the uncool people were/are doing and saying to be cool. I am sure all of you all have noticed the widespread usage of worst spellings and SunMusic I love you Arthy by G.Siva SMS language floating around in all these social networks and being used by cool people. I had always been one uncool only, but one word which I have major issues against, but everyone (cool people also!) seems to be using is Hai. There is something about that spelling which disturbs me. This is the first time I’m saying it out loud, by the way. Had I said it before, I assume my extremely well educated, late grandfather would have made me sit down for a sermon about how I am being unnecessarily elitist and how the French spell and pronounce Anglaish worse than the Indians do, but they’re proud of the fact that they can speak a language apart from French and never poke fun of their countrymen but we’re the ones who do and also that Hi isn’t even a proper word to have a proper spelling and that I should be proud of the fact that we came up with the phonetically superior spelling, much like the Americans who came up with program and color instead of programme and colour.

I am glad we never had that discussion. Also, Hai (Two Ramya Iyengar Bakery sandwiches says you cringed).

2. I am sure all of you all are aware of the fact that the family put one numbers trip to our Ancestral Village, the village where aforementioned grandfather was born. If you weren’t, it’s ok. My family put one numbers trip to our Ancestral village. I had always been of the opinion that Thamizh Movies exaggerated the whole village scene but I got mild metaphorical current shock when I realized that they don’t. The village I went to looked just like the one in that 1980s movie where Ramaraj has all these unnatural feelings for Cows. And Kanaga. We went to the Banks of one of the tributaries (8th standard geography I remember, see) of  Kaveri/Cauvery/Caveri/Kauvery as well. It was very smelly, but it was also very cool. Maybe it was the smell of coolness.

3. Then what. Oh yes. I worked in my father’s office for a couple of weeks on an assignment. I had two other colleagues working with me. One played the mridangam and the other was 7 feet tall. But both of them were petrified of my father so I was very glad to know that we shared common ground.

4. I hope all of you all aren’t of the opinion that I write numbered paragraphs all the time. Because I don’t. Sometimes I put bullets.

The Week in Pictures

Behold, the SENSEX. Our client office (PNB House, PM Road) was a stone’s throw away from the core of Indian Business. The manager was only too happy to take us there and was polite enough to not laugh when we went on a snapping frenzy. It’s not everyday when you see the building which is the main cause of premature balding among Indian men today.

The view from our hotel room’s balcony – The Brabourne Stadium. My room mate was pretty apprehensive though, more so because the view from our senior’s room was fantastic, directly facing Marine Drive. We consoled ourselves saying we would wake up to a place where Tendulkar has hit centuries whereas they had to wake up to mushy couples doing their thing oblvious to the Uncle-jis and Aunty-jis huffing and puffing along Marine Drive.

Marine Drive at Night. We’d come back from office at around 7.45 pm and (actually the staff there would drive us out) get back only at around midnight after dinner. Marine Drive is the best place to waste time. While my colleagues would go on a picture taking spree I’d just sit there and tune out, in an attempt to figure out life, the universe and everything. Ofcourse, knowing me and my course of thoughts, I invariably ended up giggling, which I’m sure would have creeped my colleagues out to no end. But it is definitely the place to be, safe in the late hours and even if you don’t figure out the meaning of life or where your life is heading, it temporarily takes you to a world where there is no hassle, no problems and no complications. Although its not permanent, its nice.

Gateway of India. When we went there, it wasn’t the most impressive of sights, especially because renovation work was going on. We spent close to an hour here, trying to find a Bhelpuri guy who was apparently featured in the Times of India. Our mission was unsuccessful but we were after Bhel with a vengeance. Finally we spotted one Bhel fellow in Colaba. Even though it wasn’t the best, we were strangely happy. Bhel does these things to you.
I loved every single detail in the Taj Mahal hotel. It’s something else. Right from the historical background to the Top designer stores inside it today, it screams Bombay!
No trip to Bombay is complete without the pigeons!
My first trip on the infamous trains of Bombay. Figuring out the Mumbai city railway systemwas quite an ordeal but I’m really glad I did take a ride on them. It was great. And I’m really proud of this picture, I was at my inconspicuous best when I took it. Apart from the aunty staring into my phone as I took it and the kid in the queue who kept pointing at me as though I’m some kind of terrorist, nobody noticed!

Leopold’s! For all the hype about how it’s been around since 1871 and the Shantaram mention, I found the food to be remarkably average. The coke in my coke float was warm. But the grilled sandwich was ok. I managed to go to Leopold’s twice. The first time, my cousin V (Yes Adi, V is for V only) took me there for dinner. The pasta was also decent. Service was kind of lousy though. We totally embarrassed ourselves singing along with the music that was playing. Our rendition of “Hero” was particularly sidesplitting, it was actually intended to be cruel and unusual punishment to the cafe for bringing our garlic bread 45 minutes late.

I love the taxis of Bombay. The rickety Fiat cars were our lifeline there. And they use the meter! At this juncture, isn’t it the same petrol prices prevailing across the country? Then how is it that it’s only in Namma Chennai that meters ‘kattupadiagaadhu’? Go figure!

Home & dry. Nothing quite like the smell of Madras garbage to arouse the senses into embracing your hometown now is there?