A day of unexpected Adventure

We had plans to see Sunset over Montreal the day we drove to the city from home. However, it being a working day and due to excessive snowfall all along, we reached quite late in the night. Since we had 3 full days to spend in the city, we didn’t worry about it at all.

We checked into our favorite Hampton Inn & Suites in Laval (just a 20-25 minute drive from downtown) and enjoyed the night. The next morning, our first stop was Mount Royal – a large-volcanic related hill and a place known for its fantastic views of downtown Montreal. We parked in the designated parking area, and as soon as we got out the car, we were blasted with strong winds (and it was still snowing). It made no sense to walk for 8-10 minutes to reach the Chalet for views. However, I saw some skiers making their way over to the vast open area. No way I was about to return back when I had company, so Saru stayed in the car while I geared up to join them 🙂snow in montrealbest views of montreal winterI asked a guy around as to where the lookout (just opposite to the chalet) is. He advised me to head further up and that it is just about 500 meters. However, I kept going ahead without realizing there is a small road to the right, which takes you to the lookout in just about 5 minutes. I realized this only after I completed my adventure and was heading back to the car. However, I did enjoy the long trail I had inadvertently taken!skiiing in montrealI breathed a sigh of relief when I finally saw the chalet (structure below) after walking for about half-an-hour. I quickly went inside to explore it – it has restrooms, souvenir shop, food outlet, and a set of chairs to enjoy the outside view. Not many people were inside, but I can imagine it being a hot-spot in summers.mount royal chaletchalet in montrealI didn’t spend much time exploring the inside (remember, Saru was still in the car). The outside was all covered in snow, even the views of downtown!mount royal lookoutbest views of montrealshots of montreal quebecIt was not quite the sights I had expected, but quite unique nonetheless. Since I had to return there for Sunrise/Sunset, I soon returned to the car and saw Saru enjoying reading one of the books she had downloaded onto her iPad with the car heating on. Owing to frigid conditions, we soon decided to call it a day in the morning itself. Well, we still had 2 more days 🙂

Our first cross-border road-trip!

We are just back from a 12-day trip across multiple states in Canada and United States. Though I would cover each place (with some jaw-dropping sights) we visited in detail, this post contains a brief of what we did!

Last year, we spent the Christmas in Las Vegas. This year, we spent the same in French-dominated Montreal, which has some amazing architectural marvels. The city is just about a 5-hour drive from our home, but it was snowing heavily the day we started (22nd Dec) and considering the upcoming long weekend that Canada had, the drive was anything but easy. But, as I mentioned earlier also, I love long drives, in any form 😛

It also snowed for a couple of days while we were there, but that couldn’t deter me from venturing out (it did frighten Saru, though – it was about -25 degree Celsius on all of those days!). I have already written a post on the magnificent 200-year-old Notre Dame Basilica that I visited on Christmas day. I drafted, edited, and published the post same night (as last year). Yay!

On 26th, we left Montreal and entered the US as a tourist in the state of New Hampshire (NH). The immigration was smooth and we felt quite nostalgic as we spent quite a long time in the US until mid last year. This was our 3rd time in NH and we absolutely love the place! We specifically wanted to visit the area of Bretton Woods where I captured this shot last year during fall.sunset-at-bretton-woodsEven though our stay in Franconia city was for only a day, I did make the most of my outing even though it was colder there as compared to Montreal. While Saru was fast asleep, I captured a pretty sunrise in the mountains covered with snow – NH is mostly about mountains, lakes, and picturesque landscapes! Later that day, we were lucky to witness another aspect of White Mountains and capture Sunset next to the Omni Mount Washington Resort (seen in the above shot).

On 28th, we started towards New Jersey, but not before buying my crazy love – iPhone X – from the tax-free state of NH. I am loving it! It took us about 7 hours to reach Jersey City (JC) and meet us my brother-in-law and his wife. We have some fond memories of that place as we used to visit them quite often when we lived close by.

Next few days were reserved for eating at our favorite joints – primarily, California Pizza Kitchen and Dosa Hut. We spent New Year’s Eve checking-out decorations in New York (NY). I was impressed with lighting at the Macy’s flagship store and the light-show at Saks Fifth Avenue. We also had dinner at the highly-rated Korean restaurant named Hangawi. Even though I do not like much of non-Indian stuff, I was thoroughly impressed with the restaurant ambiance and food.

You might know I worked next to Times Square (TS) for a couple of years when I was there, but I never saw the ball-drop on 31st midnight. Keeping up with the tradition, we couldn’t see it this time also (though the intent was there) 😀 There were long queues to get to TS and NY was super chilly! In fact, the entire stretch we covered is under a cyclone, and hence the snow, wind, and the resulting frigid temperatures!

We came back home in Canada on 2nd Jan after driving for about 11.5 hours from JC – we enjoy the journey also, with some quick stops and clicks. With over 2700 kilometers on the odometer (I just drove long on 3 days out of 12), it is the longest road-trip we’ve had. But it was all worth it!alok singhal canada united states

Merry Christmas from Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal

You might remember that I wrote and published a post on Christmas decorations in Bellagio in Las Vegas exactly a year back. It was as if I was covering the event live, much like a reporter. Today, I happened to be at the Notre-Dane Basilica in Montreal, and I was so excited to attend the Mass while admiring the intricate Gothic Revival style architecture that is about 200 years old!The official language of Montréal is French and it was but obvious that even the hour-long prayer was in the language that half of its population speaks (largest-speaking for any city after Paris). Even though I couldn’t get much of it, I paid my respects the best I could. Just so you know, I have deep admiration for the Christian community as my schooling was from the St Paul’s and St Joseph’s.The church is highly decorated in multi-colored settings. The wooden carvings are intricate and there are many religious statues. In spite of being amply spacious and harsh weather outside, the church was jam-packed today. As the melodious voices did their job with finesse, the sounds from Casavant Frères pipe organ dating back to 1891 only added further to the thrilling experience (you can see the instrument in below shot).There is no fee for offering prayer or attending the mass. However, visitors have to pay an entry fees of $6 for adults ($4 for 7-17 years of age; free for below 7) for touring the sanctuary (with or without guide). The access was free today from 1-4pm on account of Christmas Eve.You can also light candles through token donations starting at $1. The collection goes in maintaining the structure.I must say I had a great time enjoying the blessings of God, and I am closing off my 2017 on a high 🙂

*All pictures are from my iPhone 7Plus

Year-End Special: Niagara Falls and Winter Festival of Lights

As we were planning to relocate to Canada in May this year, my only wish was to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side, from where the Horseshoe Bend and the American falls are clearly visible in all their glory! And we did take a trip on the very first weekend.

I had read about how the falls can look like frozen during the winter time (they don’t freeze completely, just that the flow-rate gets reduced), so I had that on my mind as well. Also, with the year-end Festival of Lights (FOL) going on these days, there couldn’t have been a better time than to visit now. So, last Saturday, we made an excitement-filled trip to the attraction known to spellbound anybody. After reaching around 2.30pm, we parked at the paid parking (charge is flat at $20 for a day) right across the street opposite to the Horseshoe falls. Having seen the falls at the peak of Summer, I couldn’t help admire the contrast now. Though it is not yet the peak of winter here, snow has fallen a few times already. And the effect was clearly visible around – apart from the falls, pretty much everything else was frozen.frozen niagara fallswinter in canadahorseshoe falls usaamerican falls canadaIt was so cold even with the layers of clothes we were wearing that Saru had to head indoors (just adjacent to the falls – there are a few shops to grab souvenirs and eat as well). However, if you are adventurous and more inclined towards spending your time outside (like me), you can take a walk along the falls from Horseshoe to American and even further till the Rainbow Bridge (connecting Canada and United States). The route map is here.niagara in winterOnce it was dark (around 5pm), we picked up our car and started driving towards the Dufferin islands, home to Festival’s Canadian Wildlife Displays, including some three-dimensional ones also. Considering that a lot of people are visiting just to see the lights, be ready to encounter traffic, but it is also an opportunity to admire the displays along the road. Since there are 2 lanes each way most of the time, you can stop at non-crowded places (be sure to switch on the parking lights) and click a few shots. Once in dufferin islands, there are designated parking slots for you to get down and go close to the illuminations. wildlife in canadacanada wildlife photographyfestival of lightsdufferin islandsWe spent a couple of hours in the islands before heading back towards the falls. I stopped at a few places on the other side of the road now to take some shots (my favorite is that of the flag – it alternated between Canadian and American one).niagara falls folcanadian american flagNotes:

  1.  The illuminations are on a stretch of 8 kilometers as in map above – it is up to you to make the most of them. One can easily spend a few hours just marveling at the beauty of the falls themselves!
  2. If you are looking to park your car for just a couple of hours to view the falls, check short-term parking slots around – there are many along the main road (they would be cheap). We should have gone with them this time!
  3. This year the FOL is from Nov 18 to Jan 31. There is no fees to view the lights. However, donations are welcome at the exit of the Dufferin Islands.
  4. We didn’t see the fireworks over falls this time, but here is the schedule if you are interested.
  5. Do check the weather conditions if you want to head over. Canada is known for its extreme weather! Consequently, it would be wise to carry all of your winter essentials, even an extra pair of clothes, and an umbrella (the mist off the falls creates showers sometimes).

A hat-trick of sorts: 3 years Blogging | 2 on Instagram

It has been one long journey, and I am not tired yet 🙂

I had never imagined I would ever write, let alone publishing posts consistently for 3 years! I started off with documenting my Travels and, a year later, posting a huge database of pictures I have on Instagram. Fortunately, I got tremendous feedback from my readers and I was also approached by a few firms to write for them. Early this year, I started doing promotions on my Instagram Account, too. All this added to my enthusiasm along the way, and I’ve never looked back. alok singhal instagramI owe Thanks to You, and also to those who are not around anymore for whatever reason. It is because of your comments that I have been able to deliver. I also want to mention about numerous strangers who took time to add their experiences on the places I’ve visited or just motivate me otherwise…some inputs were quite touching. There is nothing more satisfying that getting a thoughtful comment appreciating the hard work you’ve put in.

Last Anniversary I had mentioned I would cut down on my blogging activities. Yes, I did – quite a lot actually, as is evident from the number of comments I now get on a post! In spite of that, today I have 198 published posts, averaging over one every week in the last 3 years – and that too in spite of blogging not being one of my favorite hobbies (which includes Travel & Photography, Stock Trading and related Research). And it is not just the Travel & Photography category that I have written on – the posts are also spread across Personal Experiences, Lessons in Life, Humor, Health, and my speeches from Toastmasters. This all apart from the full-time demanding job that I have.

As I continue to spend more time on my Portfolio Management, I think this is the pace I could keep up with at the most. Moreover, each and every post I publish takes a lot of my time as it goes through multiple iterations of quality checks. A-post-a-week also gives enough time to my readers to enjoy visiting other sites and keeps them motivated to look forward to the next one from me.

With that, let me wish you a very happy year-end and a fabulous 2018. If you are heading on a vacation soon, here’s a high five 🙂

Reasons to Love Donald Trump

*This is my next speech in Toastmasters, from the Advanced Manual “The Entertaining Speaker”Donald-Trump-Quotes alok singhalI am not a fan of Donald Trump, so I really hated myself when I chose to talk about why we should love him! But it is good to take a contrarian view sometimes. So, here are my thoughts on why he needs a bit of sympathy:

  1. Teaches us how to raise kids – I am not sure how many of you pamper your kids every time. But he doesn’t! He makes it a point to not have his kids being given things on a silver platter. This essentially means you are teaching your kids how difficult it is to earn money and have them respect the same.
  2. Shares his feelings openly: By now we know he was not completed fit for the position of the President of Untied States. This is because he doesn’t know what, when, and how to speak. In fact, he mentioned this about his daughter Ivanka Trump, “She has a great figure. Had she not been my daughter, I would have been dating her.” Huh! But I like people who come out clean rather than keeping such thoughts to them.
  3. History with women – It is no secret that Trump was a womanizer. When he ran for the President, a lot of women came out in the open accusing him of sexual misconduct in the past. However, do you know there are contradictory images of him, too? He hired one Barbara Res as his head of construction in the 1980s, when not many women held such positions. She later mentioned him saying, “While men tend to be better than women, a good woman is better than 10 good men.”
  4. An inspiration – My wife always says – if he can become the President of a super-power than America is, any Tom, Dick, and Harry can do anything in life. You just have to think Big! In fact, if you didn’t know, he picked up politics as a hobby a couple of years back and ended up defeating Clinton, who spent her entire career in politics!
  5. A real entertainer – This is my personal favorite. Believe it or not, you won’t ever find a character like him at such a position of authority. I mean who else can fit in his philosophy within just 140 characters on Twitter? And can defend it too! With the twitter text limit now raised, I am sure we are bound to have more laughs 😀
  6. He is a winner, after all – No matter his comments on Hillary during the Presidential debates or numerous women accusing him of wrong doings, a lot of people did go out and vote for him, including many women. So, I would assume he has a bit of charisma that drives people towards him.

And who knows, he might actually make America great again! After all, the US economy has shown considerable progress in the last one year!

**Picture sourced from here

The High Roller at The Linq Promenade

The Linq promenade is an open-air retail, dining, and entertainment district on the Las Vegas Strip. A prominent attraction of district is the 550-tall High Roller that was opened by Caesars Entertainment in 2014. It is the world’s highest observation wheel and gives a fantastic 360-degree view of Vegas.las vegas the linq promenadethe linq at las vegasbest of las vegasLocated adjacent to the Flamingo hotel and casino, The Linq is hard to pass by. We spent a few hours window shopping there. It is also close to Bally’s hotel where we were put up. In fact, our hotel room gave us a good view of the Ferris wheel. We could see the 2,000 LEDs glow late into the night on the wheel! Spellbound by its beauty and statistics, we booked a ride one night to experience its beauty from inside and also of Vegas from high above.las vegas strip the linq ferris wheelNow imagine being in one of the 28 sturdy cabins that adorn the high roller and being taken on a slow ride of 30 minutes – you have enough time to enjoy the interiors (equipped with eight flat-screen televisions and an iPod dock) or just enjoy the nightlife of Vegas through the glass. You could even get lucky with seeing the show of Bellagio Fountains from above (just a couple of blocks from there) if timing is right. I had enough time to even click some pictures. Though there were quite a few reflections from lighting all around (even of the LEDs on the wheel) and even the outer glass was thick, I was able to get a few decent shots.las vegas at nightthe strip las vegasIf you are looking to buy tickets for the high roller, check various options on the Internet as you might get lucky with a deal, else you can directly buy on Caesars official site here.

*Statistics sourced from here

Las Vegas Strip: You won’t get tired of exploring it!

The last leg of our 2016 year-end tour to the West Coast was 3 days in the gorgeous Las Vegas.

We were staying in Bally’s (right in the middle of the world-famous Strip), so most of the hotels and casinos were within walking distance. I was so attracted to the fountains of Bellagio, which were just across the street, that I visited them quite a few times during our stay – don’t miss them!best of las vegasbelloagio fountainsfuntains in the nightLV has many theme-based resort hotels and casinos, and you can cover almost all of them just by walking. Based on where you are put up on the strip (and I strongly suggest staying where most of the action is), some might feel a bit further away (the length of the strip is 6.8 kilometers or 4.2 miles), so you can take a bus to reach them. There are a few free trams also, but they cover only certain hotels on the west side. Our rental car allowed us to explore with ease…we just had to take our car out once and park at the New York Hotel and Casino, that allowed us access to the furthest end of the strip on the south (Mandalay Bay casino). The North end leads to the Fremont Street, which is a spectacle in itself (we visited it one evening – we parked at the roadside paid slots)!

The entire strip looks quite scenic in the night when the multitude of lights show-off their elegance. However, each hotel has its own charm and should be visited both during the day and night. Some are worth multiple visits too depending on your interests. We spent a lot of time in The Venetian (has Gondola rides in the hotel, much like in Venice), Bellagio’s (stunning year-end celebrations and fountains outside are a sheer delight), and Caesars Palace (based on Roman architecture, and even has life-sized Gods in there). There is no fees to explore any of these hotels from inside, you might have to pay for individual attractions though (e.g. Gondola ride).

The Venetian: Visit to enjoy shopping arcade, gondola rides, food, and stunning venice-themed architecture.what to see in las vegasgondola venetian las vegasbest of lvbest hotel in las vegasCaesars Palace: Visit to enjoy tryst with the roman architecture, fall of atlantis show, and luxury shopping.caesars las vegas.jpgnew year in las vegascaesars palaceroman architecture las vegasThough we were in LV for 3 days, I would suggest keeping a week if you want to explore each resort thoroughly and indulge in some serious shopping too – you can spend as much as you want to as all the luxury brands are present there! Even if you just like long walks, your eyes won’t get tired of admiring the hotels from the outside – day or night!new york hotel las vegasbest hotel in las vegas nevadaluxor hotel and casinomgm grand las vegasthe mirage hoteldisney las vegasOne last thing we did in Las Vegas was to take the High Roller ride, currently the world’s tallest ferris wheel. More on that in the next post…

How to clear United States H1, L1, and B2 Visa Interviews

If you have ever applied for a Visa to the United States, you would have surely wondered how to (desperately) clear the same. But because of the ever changing scrutiny requirements that the Officers put us through, the job is hardly a cakewalk! Having been through multiple H1B and one L1B Visa Interviews in New Delhi, and recently issued B2 (Tourist) visa in Toronto, I can say it is not as dreadful as it is made out to be. It does entail a thorough preparation though, unlike Tourist Visa to many other countries (say Canada), which can be obtained without much of an effort.alok singhal us visaI left the United States after completing 6 years in May this year, having entered on L1B in April 2011 and going through multiple H1Bs during my stay there (because of either a job change or stamping required in India when I went on vacation). It sounded a pretty daunting and nerve-racking task during my first 2 interviews, but now I have gotten used to it.

While there is no sure-shot way to clear the US Visa Interviews, here’s how you can do your best:

1. Proper paperwork: Since H1 and L1 Visas are sponsored through your employer, make sure they file all the documents required. Most of it would be either filled-in or provided by you, so do your best. If you work for a renowned firm with a global presence, it makes life all the more easier.

I turned down a high paying job offer through a third party for Bank of America just because it was through that ‘third party.’ I was promised it would be a direct position with the client before interviews, but after clearing 5 rounds, BoA decided to bring me as a Vendor Consultant for a year (they did the same for all other such positions also). Well, I turned down the offer and continued with my current firm for about 50k USD less annually, because I work for a big brand name!

2. Prepare well in advance: Nothing beats preparing well for any interview…that would help you feel easy with any questions thrown at you. Do check experiences of people who have gone to the same embassy where you are appearing, but take insights with a pinch of salt since every case is different. People might say rubbish since they want to let our their frustration if they are declined, just move on to the next case.

If you have never faked any point in your resume (I never did so), you wouldn’t have to make up excuses, and that goes a long way in feeling comfortable. Ascertain that the original documents that you need for the interview are all there in a transparent file and you wouldn’t have to scamper around if asked for a specific paper in the interview.

3. Just before the interview: Dress professionally if you are appearing for a Work Permit based Visa. I have seen people working for top Investment Banks in the US and coming to office in bathroom sandals. How cheap! Nobody is asking you to wear a suit and a tie during peak of summer, but don’t go there in Jeans and a Tee…make sure the shirt and trouser is ironed properly and shoes are polished (search internet for what is a proper attire).

Remember, some interviews are high-profile – they could make or break your career. Don’t take any chances just because you are not well prepared!

4. During the interview: Even if you are standing in the queue, appear confident – don’t slouch. And always wear a smile! I have cleared 80% of my interviews in life just because I was confident, smiled, and relaxed. Many interviewers might reject you just because you look highly nervous (indicating you are hiding something). Again, if you are genuine, you wouldn’t have to worry there.

If you can, make the discussion with the officer a bit humorous. Many of us live stressful lives, so making the moment lively comes in handy. Don’t take it to the extreme though, or appear over-smart. This point is only for people who have mastered the art of balancing the situation.

If you’ve done your bit, most likely you will come out happy. In the event you are rejected for whatever reason, take solace in the fact that you did your best – you might crack it next time!

*Picture sourced from here

4 years with Toastmasters – a journey worth every meeting!

I joined Toastmasters in New York by signing up with Bryant Park club on Oct 1 2013 – I can’t imagine it’s been 4 years already! Though I moved on from there to Warren in New Jersey in Feb 2014, and to Mississauga in Canada in May 2017, I have continued my membership with Citigroup corporate club at each place (luckily, there is/was one). I have written about what Toastmasters is here and here. In fact, I have a news from early last month also – I came in 2nd in the Area 43 contest for Impromptu Speaking (called Table Topics). alok singhalIf you’ve followed me for long, you might know that I won the Area 34 International Speech contest in April this year (in the US), but couldn’t do well at the Division level. Anyway, life is not just about winning, it is more about learning at every step of the way.

It has been my absolute pleasure to be a part of such a fabulous program, which is non-profit by the way! In the 200 or so weekly meetings that have happened in the past 4 years, I must have attended at least 185 of them – such has been my enthusiasm, mostly because of the learnings and fun they provide. I just go to every meeting not thinking about my professional or person life and willing to take in whatever comes. I strong advice you too to find a club nearby by going to https://www.toastmasters.org/ and maybe just walk by to see what happens there for a start. Most likely, you will come back happy and will sign-up!

I can personally lay down the benefits I have seen in myself. I have more confidence in speaking with strangers now, my humor quotient has gone up, and there is that feeling of doing something different than what most of us do on a regular basis. Btw, Toastmasters is not just about Public Speaking as many wrongly understand it to be – the learnings you get while speaking to a group in a friendly environment can be used in everyday life – imagine not slouching while speaking, using proper hand gestures or body language, making eye contact, or just motivating or inspiring people around you. And the price to pay – well, just $45 every 6 months! In fact, many professional speakers around the world rehearse their speech in the club(s) they are associated with before they enthrall their audience at the big stage.

So, what are you waiting for?