Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Trial of the Tusker - Part 3 - The Timeshare Nightmares

See Part 1 here
See Part 2 here

This post should have been the second part in the series and if you are a stickler for "logical sequences" I've placed a link on the top of the post!

What is it with timeshare holidays that I always come back with some unpleasant memories? I have been a timeshare member since 1998 but I've taken only 5 holidays at my resorts in the last 14 years. It is because I always have had some unpleasant experiences during these holidays. My last holiday was in Ooty and I thought after nearly a decade things would have changed but I guess timeshares and I are destined to rub each other the wrong way always. Read on.....

14th July, 2012. We had stopped in Gudalur, some 12 kilometers from Kumily, to fill up the fuel tank. The petroleum dealers in Kerala were supposed to be on a two day strike from the next day and I didn't want to be stranded in some lonely place. It was around 2.00 PM and I thought lunch at the resort would be a good option rather than stopping in some wayside eaterie. So I called.....

The voice at the other end told me that she'd been trying to call me "desperately". I was surprised. There were no "missed calls" on my phone and I had not been driving through any area where there was a network problem. So I was wondering if they really called so desperately. Anyway, I asked her what was the desperate situation that they were so desperately trying to get me. At the back of my head I knew what was coming but I wanted it from this lady.

"Sir, your booking is for a 1 bedroom apartment but there is none vacant. We have four 1BRs in the resort but they are occupied. Can we.....". I cut her short before she could complete what she was going to say.

"No", I said, "I will not stay in anything smaller than the 1BR I booked. I know you might have some VIPs or non-member guests (who pay exorbitant amounts) who have been alloted the apartment but you better clear them out before I reach there". I'm not recording a few other things I said since my aim here is to just highlight how timeshare companies take advantage of gullible members.

If you try booking through their executive, their stock reply is "Not available on those days, in that resort (which is usually their best). You can have a confirmed booking in so-and-so resort instead (usually one of the unpopular destinations)".  Mercifully I did my booking online a month before and had a confirnation voucher for it. If they really had a problem they could have called me much in advance.

For those who don't have experience with timeshare holidays here are a few hard facts that you should consider before sinking your money in this " investment".

  • You pay a hefty amount in EMIs to "own" an apartment for 1 week in a year. 
  • Depending on the company you can utilize this 7 days of holiday in a particular resort or in a specific week of the year. In that case you can "deposit" your week so you can exchange it with someone else that wants to take a holiday in another resort or week. Some companies, like the one I'm a member of, gives you an option on the resorts but the weeks are classified according to holiday seasons. The cost of membership during peak holiday seasons is the highest. 
  • You have to pay an annual fee, the ASF, for 'maintainance' irrespective of whether you utilize your holiday or not, and it is not refundable. This has an inbuilt escalation factor so the amount goes up every year.
  • Food is not free. You pay for what you eat and dearly. 
  • Earlier you could accumulate your weeks but now it is restricted to three weeks, the current year and the weeks of the year before & after.
  • This is most likely because these companies have sold more timeshares than they have rooms or apartments!
  • Timeshares companies prefer to rent out the rooms & apartments to regular tourists who pay at the counter, rather than members. Regular tourist will pay for both accommodation & food but members might only pay for food. Even that might not happen because the apartments have fully equipped  kitchenettes which regular members use to cook their food rather than pay  and eat in the restaurant.
In my case, it was most likely the last factor that came into play because I saw a couple of disgruntled tourists arguing with the receptionist. In any case, when I walked in at 2.20PM my apartment wasn't ready. Apparently they were doing some routine maintenance which was why I was told that there was no 1BR apartment available. It beats me, why anyone would select a weekend for maintenance work and that too when they have a confirmed guest arriving!

Anyway, we were promptly escorted for lunch till they readied our rooms. I was offered the option of picking up food coupons, which were euphemistically called "Fun Dining", and what fun I had. This must be the only place where they expect you to drink your soup with a table spoon! There was no soup spoons at the table or near the soup bowls. 

As I went around inspecting the fare the tomatoes on the salad counter begged for my attention. I walked towards them with the intention of sinking my teeth into those inviting juicy orange slices. When I reached for one, I saw something black descend on the slice I had targeted. Fruit flies; they were feasting on the tomatoes! I backed off quietly, my appetite ruined. The rest of the lunch was a series of tasteless mouthfuls. You see, I did not know what I'd be sinking my teeth into!

It was well past 3 PM by the time we finished lunch. The boat trip at Thekkady had to be shelved because you had to be at the ticket counter an hour earlier. (More about that in the next post). We finally got our "under maintenance" apartment a little after half past three.

There was this little safe in the corner of the wardrobe with an electronic locking mechanism, in which, our escort told us we could keep our valuables. My son promptly decided to set the code and he succeeded in it. He then kept his valuables; a camera, my card holder, his phone and some other things; inside and locked it. 

With nothing better to do I decided to catch up on my sleep. The phone rang around 5 PM. It was someone from the reception asking us if we'd be interested in watching Kalari Payattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala. Since there seemed no other form of entertainment for the evening we said we'd go. The tickets were delivered to our room and we went to get our valuables from our locker. My son pressed the right buttons and tugged the door handle. Nothing happened. The door refused to budge! The lock was well and truly stuck with my purse, crdit cards and a camera inside it. Someone from housekeeping came to our aid, with a master key to the locker and effortlessly opened the stubborn lock. It left me wondering how safe the safe was! Besides, even his expertise would not make the locker work properly again. We decided to give up because we barely had time to reach the Kalari Payattu show.

The lady at the reception told us it was a 10 minute walk so with nothing else to do we decided to go, on foot. Needless to say, we found ourselves on the wrong track and in no position to reach the venue by 6 PM. Fortunately for us, Satish the auto driver appeared as our rescuer. Three minutes and 30 rupees later we were outside the Kalari. 

It was an absorbing one hour, in the middle of which heavy rain set up a crescendo on the roof. Since there was no let up of the rain after the show our plan for window shopping had to be shelved. We waved down the first auto that passed us and decided to return to the resort. The only difference was that this gentleman auto driver dropped us back for 20 rupees! 

Dinner was good. There is no denying that the resort had a good chef. He even made the veggies taste like chicken that my son ate it without protest. No mean feat, considering that there were more that a few different vegetables in that dish! 

We slept well that night. After all, good food is the best sedative!

The next day began slowly since we planned to take the 9.30 AM boat trip. We had to reach the ticket counter only by 8.30 AM. I was up at my usual time and 'brewed' an instant coffee. There were sachets  of dairy whiteners, sugar, coffee and tea in the nice little kitchentte but where was the dustbin?

I found it sitting near the bathroom door and I picked it up to place it under the kitchen sink. Under the dustbin, this is what I found. 

It certainly wasn't from my bald head or my son's, and my wife has short hair. So much for maintenance and housekeeping. 

 Scheduled breakfast time in the resort is 7.30 AM onward but when we reached at 8.00 AM half the menu was still not on the table! I suppose the cook got up a little later than usual on a cold Sunday morning! I'm not going into the details but I discovered how dumb I can be. I picked up banana pancakes thinking they were oothappams. It was the crisp vadas next to them that tricked me. Of course, the oothappams did come; after I finished my breakfast! I'm not complaining. Honest.

After the boat trip (about which I'll post shortly) we went spice shopping. I must confess, the spices on the shelves in Kumily are the best I've seen anywhere. Worth every paisa you pay. It was almost 1.30 PM and our tummies were reminding us that they were being ignored. Back at the resort lunch was excellent, enough to make up for all the unpleasant experiences so far. 

With a heavy lunch inside us, a siesta was in order so, we waddled our way to the apartment feeling like well fed hippos. At the apartment door my son inserted the key card into its slot and waited for the green light to come on. Nothing happened. I tried to do it thinking he had inserted it wrong. Still no green light. I walked back to the reception because I had no access to the intercom. The friendly receptionist told me I might have kept it with  my cell phone or some such device and the card would have discharged itself! This was new information to me. I've stayed in many hotels and have kept the key card in my pocket, with & without a cell phone. None of them have "discharged" themselves till today. Strange stuff they had here?!

Anyway, I got it "recharged" and we got into the apartment for our much delayed siesta. Since we missed window shopping the previous day we thought we'd step out early. After a drive to Chellarkoil view point we were back in town before dark. Kumily has the usual "Kashmiri handicraft" shops besides the spice shops. Then you have the many hotels and resorts that offer open-jeep rides, elephant safaris in the plantations (though I fail to see why it is called a safari), Ayurvedic massage & Kalari payttu demonstration.

Back at the resort, a little early for dinner I left the family playing shuttle badmintion and went to the apartment to keep the stuff I was carrying. I inserted the key card and waited for the green light. A feeble red light came on and the door refused to open. I felt the blood rushing up to my head but I took a few deep breaths, comforted myself that I would still have had to walk back for dinner anyway. I had ensured  that the key card was kept as far away from our cell phones so the issue was something else. I returned, kept the stuff back inside my car and marched up to the reception. 

The person the other side of the counter was different! I explained me problem and asked him to "recharge" my key again. Then I asked him why it happened twice in half a day. He had a more bizzare explanation. He said that housekeeping would have cleaned the room and they'd have used a different key so mine would have to be "updated". My head swam. I knew housekeeping had come in the morning but they had not been near the room in the afternoon or evening. I decided that arguing with him would only affect my health so I told him "politely" to inform all guests on arrival that the key cards in this particular resort would need regular "recharge & updating" so whenever they passed the reception they should check in for it! After all it's not fun walking on slippery concrete in wet weather, especially when you are fuming. You are liable to have an accident!

The dinner that day was the best meal we ate but then trust our guys to goof it up again. I had ordered a couple of rotis as I walked in because it was crowded. We took our table and my son and wife ran through their entire meal but my rotis were still nowhere to be seen. People who came after us finished eating and retired for the night and my family was in the second round of dessert when my rotis finally appeared. I had lost my appetite. 

I walked for my customary curd rice that I like to round of a good meal with. The card that said "curd rice" was there but there was no bowl! I crocked a finger at a passing waiter and raised my eyebrow at the card. "Sir", he said. "It must have gone for a refill". I pointed at the very clean serving spoon below the card and raised my other eyebrow. After all if someone had polished off the curd rice, the evidence would have been on the spoon! The poor chap scurried off and appeared a few minutes later with my curd rice. If he was blushing, I did not see it. It was too dark anyway!

This was getting too much now. I went to the man at the counter and asked him if I could have breakfast packed the next morning since we had that long drive ahead of us. (See the second link on top). I did not want to eat another banana pancake again. He assured us that he'd have our idli, vada, dosa on order ready for us at 7.30 AM. I believed him. He knew that if one more thing went wrong he'd have a nightmare to handle!

7.30 AM on 16th July 2012.

Hot idlis and vadas were ready. My son's ghee dosa came on time and then he sees this.......

We decided our fingers were cleaner. Who'd want to eat last night's dinner again in the morning!

Now you know why I hate timeshare vacations.

 If you still want to buy a timeshare? Look no further. Mine is up for sale!!

Sometimes I wonder if I should follow in my friend Anjaly's footsteps

Backpacking might come with inbuilt terrors. You learn to take them in your stride because that is what backpacking is all about. 

It's only when you go to these "high end" places that expectations run high!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Trial of the Tusker - Periyar Part 2

See previous post here

This post should actually come at the end of this series but since I returned through a completely different  route (which I regretted partially) I thought for the this is the logical sequence.

I had thought in my mind that I would do the return trip through a different route for two reasons. One was that a trip to Idukki district would be incomplete without visiting the Idukki arch dam and the other reason was that we were returning home so time was not an issue. The problem was that I had two choices.

After Idukki I could go to Kothamangalm and thereon to Angamaly where I could get onto the NH-47 to Palakkad. This I wanted to avoid because the NH-47 is a nightmare for people who enjoy driving. The other option was to go to Adimali from Idukki, get on the NH-49 to reach Munnar. I could then drive through the Chinnar WLS to Udumalapet and Pollachi.

The evening before we left we had some spare time in our hands and decided to explore around Kumily. This took us to Chellarkoil view point, where there was nothing much to view in cloudy weather except beer bottles and cigarette butts thrown by careless picnickers. There was this gentleman there who knew the area well and he suggested that we take the Kumily - Munnar road which according to him was very picturesque. It was then that I realized two days was too less to explore Idukki. Here kilometers were mere numbers. We had to ask distances in time! 

16th July, 2012. We were out of the resort at 8.20 after an early breakfast. Kumily was just waking up to a languid Monday morning. Off season, according to the Kashmiri merchant we met on our walk down the streets. 

The Munnar road is the one going off up a slope after the bus stand and immediately after the post office (or before these places if you are coming from the Thekkady side of town.

This part of the world is famous for its spices and every other shop in town has a spice counter! The demand for spices is so much that all along the Kumily - Munnar road you have spice shops attached to houses along the road side.

Some 13 kms out of Kumily is Anakara. The Chellarkoil view point is a 5 kms deviation to the right, which I personally didn't find worth a detour. You pass through Vandanmedu (23 kms) to reach Puliyanmala (29 kms). This is where the road to Kattapana splits off to the left. The road is now more narrow and winding as you pass through acres of cardamom that slows the pace considerably.

Kattapana (35kms) is a busy town with many narrow twisting lanes that can confuse. Ask the friendly policeman or auto driver for directions as there are many one ways here. The road widens a bit after Kattapana since it is the highway connecting this town to Kothamangalam. You cross the Idukki arch dam before reaching Cheruthoni. There is a tourist information center & dam view point under construction. It is expected to be ready by the 5th of August. The view of the dam is not really the best from there. 

To compensate for the poor view you get some excellent, freshly brewed lemon tea from Khadeeja's little shop opposite this visitors center. She also gives you information about the place as well as divulges her secret of making lemon tea. If the jack-fruit chips are still there, don't forget to try it. It is home made!

Cheruthoni (61 kms) is just a turn on the road. The main highway appears to turn right after the bridge but in realty you have to keep driving up the slope in front of you past long line of autorickshaws.

After about 5 kms you will reach a junction where the highway turns to the right. Bang in the center opposite the divider on the road is a blue signboard that says "Hill View Park" (68kms). The arrow points left but is so faded that it might be missed. 

You have to take the left from here to reach the above mentioned park from where you have a view of the reservoir and the two dams. Here also there is a lot of construction work going on for this spot to be readied before the Onam vacation, the time when the dam is accessible to the public. .

The Cheruthoni dam is barely visible but we did not climb all the way to the top of the view point because of all the construction material lying around and the inclement weather.

A better view of the arch dam is from a low bridge just before Kadeeja's tea shop (when you come from Kattapana) but the best view would be from a hairpin bend at the level of the dam, near one of its approach roads. Unfortunately that bend has a number of tea & refreshment shops perched on the edge. If you park your vehicle, you'll be held responsible for causing a traffic jam. Maybe a trip that way early in the morning will be good option.

 As I looked through the view finder I was struck by the resemblance of the 'unstained' part of the dam to something familiar. My son took one look and said. "Papa, it looks like my underpants!" I thought it looked like string bikini though. 
If you take your eyes off the dam and look around you will see it straddles two hillocks, the Kuravanmala & Kurathimala. The height of the dam is a little over 550 feet making it one of Asias tallest arch dams. Legend has it that Lord Rama got angry with the tribal couple because they were watching Sita bathing. He cursed them to be turned to stone but when they pleaded with him that they had never be separated in their lives he took pity on them and said they would be united forever. The dam, it appears is the result of Sree Rama's blessing! 

We were getting late so we decided to move. I had to reach Puliyanmala again before getting onto the Kumily-Munnar Highway. We were back on the highway at Puliyanmala but this detour to the dam was 73 kms and took nearly three hours including stoppage time.

The progress over the next one and a half hours was fast. Nedumkandam (46 kms), Udumbanchola (49 kms), Santhanpara (64 kms)&  Poopara (77 kms) come in quick succession.  (The distances mentioned hereon are from Kumily, excluding the 73 kms detour to the dam site). It is more of plantations all the way. The only interesting thing is this beautiful church to Velankanni matha (Mary & Infant Jesus) where you can stop for a blessing like I did. Don't forget to make a contribution if you stop by. There are a lot of sign boards that point to 'view point' but those were not the standard DTPC boards and looked like they were put up by private home stay owners to attarct interest. I wasn't too keen on going off roading in my little Punto.

The highway to Bodinayakannur and Theni turns right at Poopara and you can easily get misled. The road to Munnar goes straight up but it narrows considerably as tea plantations start making their appearance.

Munnar is only 32 kilometers from Poopara but the narrow twisting road makes driving a slow affair. Enjoy the scenery as you pass by. Look at the cardamom plants, see their roots and learn where this exotic spice comes from.

The other obstacle as you reach Munnar is the fog, which I hadn't accounted for during my research on the route! Once you cross Periakanal, about 20 kms before Munnar the fog rolls in, irrespective of the season. It was nearly 2.00 PM and our tummies were growling. I was getting a bit snappy since the last edible thing I had was Khadeeja's home made jack fruit chips almost 4 hours before. Munnar was still a 45 minute drive away and the fog wasn't making things easy. I was worried that lunch would be closed by the time I got there. Then, through the lifting mist I saw a sight across the valley. Nestled on the side of a rocky outcrop was the Club Mahindra's Lake View resort. 
Snappiness was replaced by joy as we reached Chinnkanal, the location of the resort. What a buffet it was? I even managed to smile at the chap who was ringing a bell and walking around with a sign that read "Buffet will close in 10 minutes". He probably wanted us to pack up and leave and we were glad to. 

It was a lucky lunch stop because the rest of the 18 kilometers to Munnar was a hide and seek game in the fog. The road would disappear into the fog..........

...............only to appear around the next corner.

Then it would disappear again till you get completely disoriented!

In times like that it is nice to just park your car, get out,close your eyes and enjoy the ghostly veil surrounding you. 
After all, there is no fixed agenda. Getting home can wait when you are in bliss!

Munnar (111 kms) is always busy and we had nothing to stop for so we just drove through. After that it is a series of endless neat acres of tea estates shrouded in mist.

Marayoor  (152 kms) is the last major stop in the high ranges and famous for its sandal wood forests. It is not unusual to see some friendly gaur cropping grass within the fencing.

5.30 PM we bid goodbye to the beautiful Idukki district as we started our final descent through the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. 

The Thoovanam falls were in full flow despite a bad monsoon. I have long overdue trek to its base still pending. 

 It is one scene that never fails to enthrall. Darkness fell as we crossed Udumalpet and Pollachi.
Our long day ended at home in Palakkad (276 kms) at 9.30PM. This route was actually some 20 kilometers shorter than the route I had taken to reach Thekkady, but I had been on the road six hours longer!

Ask me if I was tired, I'll answer with an emphatic 'NO'. I enjoy my driving and I hope to keep at it for many more years to come. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Trial of the Tusker - Periyar Part 1

As I had mentioned in my last post the trip to Periyar tiger reserve, better known as Thekkady was long overdue. I had been trying to find the the easiest (but not necessarily the shortest) route from Palakkad. The route through Tamilnadu was the best option in front of me but I was determined to return through a different route if time permitted, and that was what I did.

14th July, 2012. Starting fifteen minutes later than planned was not worrisome as most of the route was over flat terrain. The road from Palakkad to Pollachi is excellent till the border at Gopalapuram. The entry point into Tamilnadu makes you think that you are going to shift from a two lane highway to a four lane one but that thought lasts only for a few 100 meters. The road then breaks up into potholes all the way till you reach Pollachi. I guess that is a deliberate ploy to slow down drivers trying to evade taxes!

The first stop was for breakfast at Pollachi (48kms). There are a few good hotels in the town and on the Udumalapet road that serve good South Indian menu so there is no need to take a packed breafast and eat it cold. From Pollachi the road (NH 209) is good for cruising, passing through Udumalapet (78kms), Palani (119kms) and Ottanchtram (145kms).

About 6 kilometers outside Ottanchatram at the Puduchatram junction (151kms) the road to Theni peels off to the right. It is a fairly straight road that I was told, was under repair. The repairs were probably over and the only reason to slow down were the rather frequent speed breakers on either side of every little village (nearly 20 in the 25 kilometers!), most of which had a name ending with "...patti". This road meets the NH 183 at Sembatti (176kms) where you have to turn right for Theni.

After you get on the highway it becomes an almost arrow straight road except in the towns or large villages. The only problem is that this stretch is undergoing widening works all the way up to the Kerala border and that makes driving an effort. To my credit I managed to cover the entire 125 kilometers without once scraping the nose of my Punto, a habit the car has due to it's rather long overhanging snout! 

The next major town on the route is Vattalakundu (195kms). This is place where the travelers to Kodaikanal take the deviation to this scenic hill station. For those coming from the Palani side there is a direct route from that town. It can be a bit confusing here but just keep going straight (and don't hesitate to ask for directions) till you cross a small bridge to reach this junction. The temple is the landmark for the right turn to Theni through a rather congested  main street.

Once you cross Vattalakundu the road broadens out and you can make up for lost time.

Occasionally you get reminded that the work isn't complete when you get caught in a traffic jam caused by road building equipment trying to squeeze through bottle necks!

The next town is Periyakulam (221kms) where you need to take a right turn followed by a left immediately afterwards. It's all very straight forward if you can read Tamil otherwise, stop & ask!!

Theni follows (235kms), not long afterwards, and it is a straight drive through the town unless you want to stop for food. You get onto the NH 220 from here so road signs are more 'readable'.

The rest of the journey is though the fertile Cumbum valley and you pass through plantations of banana & coconut, with an occasional Ganesha benignly guarding them.  Cumbum (276kms) is also a straight drive through.

The last major town on the Tamilnadu side is Gudalur (not the town in Nilgiris by the same name!). The road till the border is still being worked on.

Lower Camp marks the Kerala-Tamilnadu border. Kumliy is separated by 6 kilometers of ghats. Midway up the ghats you can see the 4 Penstock pipes carriying the water from the Periyar reservoir to the Lower Camp Power House.

As Kumily nears you are greeted by the familiar sight of bonnet macaques waiting to be fed, a bad habit, but one that refuses to go away.
 2.20PM as we reached the resort in Kumily (299kms) for a well late lunch and a long wait for our room to be readied.

Watch this space....