Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas, Christians & Christianity in India

Christmas and Christianity is becoming popular in India. There was once a time, when only a few houses in an entire area, that hang "Christmas stars" outside. Today, there are few houses in every street, with glittering "Christmas stars" hung outside.

Christmas is getting celebrated in a big way, in India. Since it is a government holiday, many party halls and restaurants are filled with people. It isn't just common man who is celebrating Christmas, in India. Even commercial establishments and eateries make Christmas, a big event. They announce a lot of sweet deals and offers around Christmas. News papers are filled with Christmas related advertisements.

Santa Claus is getting popular in schools, these days. My daughter in KG, came home with a small toy car and some candy. She said "Santa Claus came to our school today to give gifts to everyone !!". She was very cheerful on getting a gift from Santa Claus. 

My uncle is a Christian for several decades now. A couple of my relatives converted to Christianity, recently. Though I'm not a strong believer of one particular religion, I'm quite surprised by the conversion rate. I learned that Christian missionaries help folks who are in "need". In fact, one of my
relatives got an aid to set up a petty shop. Needless to say that he became a Christian.Christian missionaries run several schools in Chennai - many of them provide free education to the needy and to the bright students. One of my neighbors died unexpectedly and the Christian school in which his sons studied, took care of the kids' educational expenses.

There is a church in every other street, now. When I say church, don't imagine a Roman style church. Folks have rented out or converted large halls into churches for their regular prayers. Just take a morning walk, you would notice a number of people attending early morning prayers/mass in the churches.

Sundays are very special. You can see a number of Christians, well dressed up and with a bible in their hand, visiting churches. People of different age groups, different gender, different race, different economical status attend the mass on Sundays. It is nice to see people getting disciplined. Christians do organize processions on special days such as Christmas. Of course, when there is crowd, there are beggars. Beggars gather outside the church, eagerly waiting for the mass to be over, to get alms.

I did some Internet search to find numbers to substantiate my observations, on the growth of Christianity. However, I could find none. Christians constitute only 2.34% of the overall Indian population (based on census data published in 2004). The growth rate of Christianity in 2004 was 23% (when compared to 21% in 1991). The numbers don't add-up to justify my observations. I'm very curious to see the results of the census data being gathered now, in India.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Panambur Beach in Mangalore - Extremely beautiful !

I had been to Mangalore a few weeks back to attend a wedding. The wedding happened in TMA Pai Convention Center. My friend & I stayed in Hotel Deepa Comforts, near the convention center. After the wedding, I had a few hours before catching the return flight to Chennai. My friend and I decided to go out and spend a few hours. (Also read: Night stay in Bangalore airport - rethink)

We checked at the hotel reception desk - "What are some good places to see in Mangalore?". The receptionist swiftly said "Sir ! Mangalore is famous for temples. There are lots of them. However, most of them would be closed at this time. You can visit a beach, if you like". "What is the closest beach", I asked. She said "Panambur Beach. That is just 12 kms from here". "Do you know how much auto wallas charge?", I asked. She said "No sir ! But, in Mangalore, autos go by metered fares. So, you don't have to worry about the fare"  (Also read: Chennai Marina Beach - Free recreation for everyone)

My friend and I checked-out of the hotel, came out to the road and stopped an auto rickshaw. He said, "Sir! You've to pay me 1.5 times the meter fare to get to Panambur Beach. I've to return empty - nobody boards from there to here". We didn't want to bargain/argue in a strange land - especially, without knowing the local language. It took about 20 minutes, to get to Panambur beach.

Panambur beach is located in an industrial area, and close to the Mangalore Port. There were a couple of "coal" factories near the beach. The access to the beach was through a polluted road - the area completely soaked in black by the nearby coal factories. However, we were pleasantly surprised when the auto rickshaw dropped us near the beach. The beach was maintained very well. There were play structures for the kids. They had small gardens in the area. The sand was "crystal clear" and "clean" - no trash, and no dust. There were a few eateries nearby. The beach itself was small. However, there were many people even at 3 o'clock, when the sun was shining bright and hot. I thought we were the only jokers to go to a beach at that time. But, there was enough company for us :)

Some folks were riding water scooters. There were people (government appointed?) to monitor the safety of the folks entering the sea. There were small tents providing shade for the people. We spent nearly 2 hours in the beach. On our return journey, we stopped at the nearby auto rickshaw stand. The guys in the stand demanded 1.5 times the meter fare, again. Their rationale was "Sir ! We aren't from the city. We have to come back to this place empty. So, you have to pay 1.5 times the meter fare". We didn't have much choice and ended up paying 1.5 times fare (Rs.150).

Panambur beach is extremely beautiful. If you are in Mangalore and looking for a place to kill couple of hours, Panambur beach is a must-see.  (Also read: Chennai Marina Beach - Free recreation for everyone)

Night stay in Bangalore airport - Rethink

I had been to Mangalore a few weeks ago, to attend a friend's wedding. I had booked my travel in Kingfisher airlines (one of the budget airlines in India). The flight tickets were booked at least 3 months in advance. It is a direct flight from Chennai to Mangalore and I got a good deal - the round trip cost only Rs.8K. But, the actual fun(?) started only 2 days before the trip.

I got a call from Kingfisher airlines, 2 days before the trip. I was told that the direct flight to Mangalore was canceled and they've to put me in a different flight. Since there were no other direct Kingfisher flights to Mangalore, I decided to take a flight to Bangalore, stay there at night and reach Mangalore, the next day morning. (Also read: Panambur Beach in Mangalore - Extremely beautiful)

After reaching Bangalore airport, I went to the Karnataka Tourism Counter to find out if there are any hotels nearby, for an overnight stay. The guy in the counter gave me a brochure from the nearby hotel, which said "Rs.2700 for a room". In a country where people pay "Rs.2700" as monthly rent for their house, "Rs.2700" for an overnight stay sounded too much. I asked him "Are there any other hotels in the vicinity". He said "No Sir ! This is the only hotel that is close to the airport. You have to go to the city which is 30km away, to find a hotel". Since I didn't travel with my family, I decided to stay in the Bangalore domestic airport overnight.

Bangalore domestic airport didn't have a proper lounge for overnight stay. I ended up sleeping on the chair, in sitting posture. The chairs in the airport didn't have any cushion and they aren't comfortable at all. Somehow, I managed to spend an entire night in the airport. In the morning, I got up and took the early morning flight to Mangalore. Thank god, I didn't travel with my family. Otherwise, I would've to take the hotel room for Rs.2700.  (Also read: Traveling near restrooms isn't fun)

The new Bangalore airport is 30 - 40 kms away from the city. Most of the hotels are located at least 20 - 30 kms away from the airport. Since the airport is new and is in a remote place, there are not many hotels around for a "common man" to stay overnight. Of course, "common man" in India doesn't fly :)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

R2I Change of Address - Checklist

One of the key things to do during your move from US to India, is providing "Change of Address". Should I be giving change of address to Post Office, Bank, 401k Provider, Social Security Administration, etc.,? Can I give foreign address to institutions in US? Can I setup mail forwarding from US to India? This post is intended to address some of the commonly asked questions on R2I Address Change.

(Also read: Return to India (R2I) - 25 things to do)

When returning from USA, you should have given the change of address to all the concerned parties, so that they can mail you the income tax statement. Otherwise, you may have to chase each of them to send you soft copies by email. Hopefully, you gave the address of a friend who lives in his/her own house. That way, you don't have to worry about change of address when your friend shifts his/her house. Inform/remind your friend that he/she may receive your income tax statements from different sources. This will help them to keep an eye on it.

Post Office - Giving "Change of Address" to your post office is one of the important things you should do. It is recommended to give the address of a friend who owns a house (A friend who rents a house may move around). Also, the friend has to be very reliable. He/she shouldn't miss important mail communications to you.

(Note: There are services that provide you a local P.O Box address in US and does international mailing of shipment to India. I don't have much details on them and I'm not sure how reliable they are)

Employer - Your employer would have to send your W2 statement at the end of the financial year. You would need that to file your tax returns. You need to give your employer the address to which they've to mail your W2 statement. You can give your India address or ask your employer to ship the W2 statement to your friend's address. Your friend can courier it to you or scan it and send it to you, for filing the tax returns online.

401K Provider - Depending upon the provider, you can give a foreign address. For ex., Vangaurd would allow you to maintain a foreign address for your 401k account. (Also read: R2I - 401(k) closure FAQs)

Bank / Credit Cards - Many banks allow you to provide a foreign address for communication. However, it is recommended to call the banking institution to confirm the same. In todays "hi-tech" world, you can do most of the transactions online and even get your monthly statements online. You can also give your friend's address in the Bank for communication.

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) - You can give a foreign address in some of the DMVs. For example, Oregon DMV allows you to do that. Call & check with your DMV directly.

Jury Duty/Voters List - If you are a US Citizen, you can do the address change on voters list, in your DMV office itself. You're called for Jury Duty based on the records in Secretary of State offices (which they get from DMV) & Voters list. You can call your "State Election Offices" to do the change in Voters list (if DMV doesn't offer that service)

Social Security Administration - No address change required. However, you need to keep IRS informed about your address change. You should fill Form 8822, to notify IRS about your address change. SSA doesn't maintain your address records if you are not getting benefits currently (i.e., until you reach your retirement age). SSA gets the information from IRS (Internal Revenue Service). So, keep the IRS informed about your change of address. You can notify IRS regarding the address change by using Form 8822.

SSA would start tracking your address (on its own) only after you reach your retirement age. You can refer to the following FAQ on SSA website that provides additional information:

(Also read: How can I get my Social Security benefits/money?)

Post R2I - Once you returned to India, there is no "formal" process to notify India government about R2I. If you have a PIO you may need to get it registered, at the FRRO. If you have an OCI, you don't need any registration.

In general, I would recommend you to give a friend's address for all the institutions in US, from whom you would receive correspondences. That way, the mail doesn't get lost/missed during international shipment.

US Citizens - US Citizens should let the consulate or nearest embassy know that they're residing/traveling in a foreign country. They should let the consulate know about the change of address -

The following website provides additional address change instructions for US Citizens.

Note: This blog post provides a list of common places where you have to change your address. This isn't a comprehensive list.

Also read:

R2I Planning Guide
Returning to India - 25 things to do

Raw Vegetarian Diet - Experiment scaled down

I started experimenting "raw vegetarian diet", a few months ago. I liked the idea of eating uncooked vegetables and they really tasted good. However, I couldn't sustain my experiment for more than couple of months. There were several challenges that I faced during the experiment:

(Also read: Why am I a Vegan?)
  • Vegetables that we get in the market/shop aren't "fresh" most of the times
  • It takes lot of time to eat raw vegetables
  • It also takes a lot of time for us to "digest" raw vegetables
  • Raw vegetables generate lot of gas and stomach is always 'heavy'
  • The craving for 'cooked' food is hard to control :-)
To add to all the above issues, I faced a severe indigestion problem for a few days and I decided to scale down my experiment significantly. Instead of trying to become a 100% raw vegetarian, I started to include more raw vegetables/fruits in my diet. Now, I'm getting the best of both the worlds - cooked as well as raw food. For the last several months, I'm able to sustain this diet model without any issues.

Also read:

A journey from non-vegetarian to raw-vegetarian
Why am I a Vegan?
Sunday - a day of mass murders in India

Canon Camera Service Centers in Chennai - Scarce & Costly !

I have been owning a Canon Powershot A630 for nearly 4 years, now. Recently, the camera needed a service. The lens door wasn't closing or opening properly. I started looking for service centers in Chennai. I took the camera for service to a 'mom & pop' service center in Parson Complex (near Gemini Flyover). The shop was called V.V Camera Clinic. It looked very much like a 'watch repair shop' that you see on the road sides. After seeing the camera, he said, he'll charge Rs.950 for the repair. I was completely thrown away when I heard the price. I asked him - "Are you going to replace th entire lens". He said, "No sir! I'm going to just fix the lens door". I asked him "Can you just remove the lens door for me? Technically, I don't need a lens door as I'm keeping the camera away from dust all the times". He said "No sir ! It isn't possible". I was hesitant to leave my costly(!) camera there for service. I decided to check with a proper "Canon Camera Service Center" in Chennai. (Also read: Goods in US market - lots of options & cheaper prices)

One of my friends told that there is a Canon Service Center opposite to HCL Technologies, in Vadapalani. I took the camera there and came to know that the Service Center is taking care of only printer repairs, these days (They used to service cameras before). It looks like they've consolidated all the Canon Camera/Camcorder repair services to one location in Chennai.

The Canon Camera Service Center is located in Mylapore - right opposite to Thirumayilai MRTS/Railway Station. It is a busy area with buses flying left and right. and I had to park my two wheeler on the road near-by. The service center itself is a small shop and had neat interiors. There were atleast 3 people waiting before me. There was a board in the shop displaying the rates for various services. The minimum charge for any service is Rs.827 (Rs.750 + tax). They do a pre-inspection and will tell you "how much it would take to service the Canon camera". They'll give you a ball park estimate. After inspection, they'll tell you the exact amount for the service. If you think, you don't want to do the service, you can get the camera back. However, they charge Rs.200/- for inspection.

One of the service reps did a pre-inspection and told me that it would take Rs.950 for the service :-) [Thats when I realized why the "mom & pop" guy asked for Rs.950]. I asked the service rep "Why does it cost so much to just replace a small lens door?". He said "Sir ! Any time we open a camera for repair, we charge Rs.827. Charges for the parts will be extra". I thought "Hmm ! These guys are getting more than what I get paid for an hour of job". I didn't have much option. I decided to leave the camera there for service. They called me in an hour and asked me to collect the camera back. I couldn't go on the same day and collected the camera on the following day.

It costed me $20 to get a small lens door replaced, in Chennai. Of course, the same job would cost more in US. But, $20 still looked high for Indian standards. Considering the fact that many guys own Canon Camera/Camcorders here, having only one service center for Cameras/Camcorders was still surprising to me. Not sure if there are many mom & pop guys who are stealing "service" business from Canon. Or, the Canon cameras may not be getting faulty often :) Anyways, it was an interesting experience to me. Just thought of sharing the experience with others.

Here is the address for the Canon Authorized Service Center in Chennai. NO. 7 RK MUTT ROAD, 1ST FLOOR, MYLAPORE, CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, Pin : 600028, Tel : 044-42101331/64602423. You can look at Canon India website for the latest details.

Also read:

IP Phone - Magic Jack vs Vonage vs Skype
Goods in US market - lots of options & cheaper prices

How much money do you need to R2I?

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