Account of travels across the world. This blog provides descriptions of travels in different parts of the world. Pictures related to many of the blogs can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7330879@N05/ and for more information I can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Suitcase pile at the Ibis Hotel restaurant before we left for Calcutta
The heat going up the ramp to the plane in Delhi
Dazed and confused look on all faces at the first briefing about the house at Salt Lake
Big hole in Tania’s bedroom
Rachel noting how the globe on the INTECH building had a different orientation with India in the center
Tracy and the dogs
Trying to wake Carrie up on her first morning in Calcutta
Going to the medical shop in Salt Lake with Tania and Will and the shop that sold electrical products having no electricity
Rachel slowly coming alive as she ate her dinner at “Silver Chimney” on the first night in Calcutta
The makeshift classroom in the “girls’ house”
The incredibly smelly fish market that Dr. Mitra took us to
Srijoy generally becoming human in company of all
Checking on the ill ones
Kiki generally sleeping for nearly 17 hours
Cleaning out the water shelf at Big Bazaar
The endless curiosity of all and my attempts to answer all the questions
Driving in Calcutta
Srijoy driving in Calcutta
The Agra guide
Pulling a car with a rope on the highway
Timing belt repair in one hour for the cost of Rs. 700 in a road side shop
Feeling high with the lack of oxygen
Kevin’s geology lesson
The flies and the monkeys at the temple
Will’s conversation with my mother about Hinduism
The endless pictures of the girls on strangers cameras
How anxious I was at Jama Masjid waiting for Kendall and Lisa to come down from the Minaret
Tania, “You are such a worry wart!” when I told them not to hang out the door of a fairly fast moving train
Carrie and the newspapers
Kendall and the matrimonial
Tracy falling ill in Delhi and still wanting to go out
Kevin in the mornings
Will and Srijoy racing up the hill in Leh and me completely worried about them and sending the driver up to carry them back
The constant headache in Leh
The really strange person who we called “party”
The mosquitoes at Red Fort at night
Walking the girls back late in the evenings at Delhi
Epiphany’s box of books
Lisa and her camera
Will and SK exchanging pants standing on the side of one of the busiest streets in Delhi
Rickshaw ride through Old Delhi
Me hanging out the door of the train and feeling that breeze that only can be felt next to the open door of Indian trains
Rain in Jaipur
Translating Aisha for the girls
The dead lizard in Erin’s room, I never got a chance to see this, but did hear about it
Shuttling people around Salt Lake in the small Maruti Zen car
The dinner at Oh! Calcutta and Erin’s birthday cake
Kevin’s morning drink
Running out of tobacco
Movie night in my guest house room
Palika Bazaar and the book and video shopping
Kendall punching in 500000 when she really meant to take out only 5000 at the ATM machine
The number of loans, counter loans, money returns, and accounting
The lost car in Leh and me completely and really losing my temper
Losing my temper at the Jaipur hotel about the lunch bill
The constant anxiety that one of the kids will get lost and trying to keep in touch by text messages
Two lost phones and one lost internet card
Falling asleep at one of the loudest nightclubs I have ever been to
The locked door at Lisa/Kiki/Tania house
Constant sense of panic (that is just me)
Losing a significant amount of weight
Turning several shades darker
Packing in more than a natural number of people in the cars
Trying to convince people that 1 am is late enough and time to go home
How tired we almost always were
Not remembering what it means to be bored (this I am borrowing from a FB update from Kendall)
Often slipping into Bengali when talking to some
Teaching people who seemed genuinely interested in learning
Carrie the Bollywood encyclopedia
Forgetting what my room number was at Ibis Gurgaon and accidentally walking into Kiki and Lisa’s room
Lisa’s ticket cancelled
Tania’s problem with the credit card at the time of check-in
My problem with credit card at the time of check-in
Buying tea with the girls at Market number 2 in CR Park
Beer with Kevin at Hakka at City Center
Baggage logistics throughout the trips
Female porters at Leh
Security at Leh airport
The yogurt at Namgyal Palace
Visit to Mr. Dorjee’s house
Meeting Mr. Dorjee’s mother and speaking to her on the lawn of Namgayal Palace
Driving tour of Delhi and visiting the India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhawan (President’s residence) and the Parliament
Aurobindo Ashram and meditation
Erin’s birthday at Oh! Calcutta at Nehru Place in Delhi
Lunch with Korak, Kingshuk and Chiku, all old IIT friends
Managing money for some of the students
Diarrhea and Metrogyl
Indigestion and Unienzyme
July 2, 2010
This is a very different kind of blog because this time the family that travelled together was not just the three of us, but along the way it grew and we created bonds and friendships that changed the entire nature of the journey. So, to truly appreciate what we experienced you need to also look at some of the other documents I refer to in this journal.
Our trip began with the usual drive to Charlotte to catch the flight to Washington, DC. The difference this year was that Srijoy drove. He did a good job and we reached in good time so that we had a little time to relax at the Starbucks. The flight to DC was eventless and unmemorable. Since we had a rental car Srijoy did not have the option to drive. We got a little lost trying to find an IHOP where Srijoy, evidently, really needed to eat so he could get a lot of meat before going to India. So, I dropped Mikku and Srijoy off at the IHOP, and went and checked in at the hotel (one of the suite hotels by Marriott). That evening we did a take out from a local restaurant and called it a day since Srijoy and I had plans on going to a tour of downtown DC early next morning.
July 3, 2010
Srijoy did not wake up until about 11:30 am. We did not go downtown, I got some work done and then watched a really interesting movie on TV. Everybody were ready to move at about 1:00 pm. We checked out of the hotel and packed the car and drove over to our friend’s house – Suprotik and Piali – had a little time there and then we all went off to Tyson’s Square Mall where we met up with Tito and Laurie and we all ate at the California Pizza Kitchen. It was a pleasant and relaxed meal and eventually we all went our own ways and we headed back to the airport after a brief stop again at Suprotik’s house. We were at the airport in good time and returned the car. The British Airways flight was delayed and so we had some time to sit and relax and by the time we were on the plane we had finished dinner and I was ready to sleep. I put my usual “Do Not Disturb Unless We are Crashing” sign on my blanket and basically slept it through to London. This is a neat trick that I had learnt somewhere in my numerous travels. If you are on a night flight and you intend to sleep then this sign stops the attendants waking you up for a meal that you do not want or bothering you with other service that they might provide. The only time you do not need this sign is when you are travelling long distances on American carriers where the notion of service is non-existent, indeed, now that I think about it, I probably first saw this sign on a flight attendant on United Airlines. It was meant to discourage passengers from disturbing the attendant! You do not need the sign on American carriers because no one would dream of disturbing you to provide you with service.
July 4, 2010
We reached London at about 10:30 in the morning and Kaju Mama was there to receive us at the airport. We went over to his place and met another couple who too were his guests. Ask me about this offline, but I made a strategic decision to invite the couple to come out for a brief London tour with the three of us. Those who know me well, and are faint hearted, do not usually accept these invitations. They know a “tour” with me (and my family who support me in this) involves significant work. Indeed, my close family (including mother and in-laws) are very astute and would politely suggest that I go by myself. The only ones in my family who are able to keep up with me (and perhaps better me) is a cousin of mine, older than me, but he and his wife can keep up with me. So, this unsuspecting couple in London readily agreed to the tour with the three of us. In this tour, which lasted about 6 hours we touched –Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch, walk down Oxford Street, M&S (for a quick coffee), walk down Regent Street, Piccadilly, Soho, and for some bus-related reason, Hammersmith, before returning to Wandsworth, the trip also involved the usual shopping stops that Mikku does, and I “threatened” to take them all to Hamley's but Srijoy resisted, after all he is too old for Hamley’s now. When I got home, I sat down with my single malt (which Kaju Mama very thoughtfully keeps on hand when I come) in the well-manicured little backyard he has and chatted with his friend Lenny. Srijoy was offered the blue drink Kaju Mama keeps for Mikku and him. The couple decided to lie down for a bit before dinner, which was a grand meal prepared by Kaju Mama. Soon after we called it a day.
July 5, 2010
I was up early, and so were Srijoy and Mikku, and the couple too. I politely invited them to a tour that day and suggested we will leave around 10 in the morning and be back about 6 in the evening. A look of panic clouded their face. After all we are related (which we discovered soon after we met them) and it is impossible to say no to an invitation. However, they said they had made separate plans for the day and would not be able to join us. We thus went our own way. We walked to the British Rail station, took the Southwest train to Victoria and then changed to the train for Greenwich. It was a pretty hot day in London, and we walked over the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian. It was a nice morning and then we went back to the station, got a few sandwiches and headed back to Victoria. We ran into a few problems with the Oyster card, but were able to sort it out. The trick with that card is that if you forget to check in and out of the stations then you get charged more, but we soon worked it out. We then headed out to Camden Town and spent most of the afternoon there. Srijoy went around the stores that sell the “scream” and studded stuff and we just kind of hung out there. Eventually got back to Piccadilly and soon headed back to Wandsworth. Kaju mama and a well-rested couple were at home and we all went to see Kaju Mama’s church. It was a really old church and Kaju Mama being one of the main persons at the Church we had a good inside look at the Church and Srijoy had a chance to try out the Church organ. It was a really nice visit and we got back home in time for another really good supper.
July 6, 2010
We were somewhat tired and we took it easy in the morning (the couple had gone out on their own). After a leisurely shower we eventually went down to our staple pub – “The Old Sergeant” for a pub lunch and glass of Guinness. We then took the bus to Covent Garden market. We kind of hung out there for a little bit, had some coffee, watched the street shows, visited Jubilee market and then headed out of there to go on to Tower of London. Here we joined the “Jack the Ripper Tour” with a very knowledgeable guide who walked us around the streets of east London taking us to the places where the Ripper killed his victims. He was asking us to imagine how the place was when the Ripper operated in the light of gas lamps and the mist and the only sound you heard was the laughter from the pubs and tinkling of the policeman’s keys. The only sound we heard was a fair amount of traffic and a lot of Bengali since the area has now been mostly colonized by people from Bangladesh! But, Srijoy had his fill of gory stories and since the Dracula tour was not available we had settled for this. We eventually got back to Kaju Mama’s house and called it a day.
July 7, 2010
Our taxi from Kwik Kab came on time and we headed out to Heathrow. We actually reached earlier than when we could drop our bags and so had a coffee and muffin. Check in and other stuff was smooth. We were supposed to meet with some of the students going to India at the airport. We waited for a little and realized that no one was there yet and so we went on to the gate and the flight to Delhi was long but uneventful. Reasonably good food, and a few drinks before landing and we were in good shape. We arrived mostly on time and as we were waiting for the bags, I started to get a sense of what was in store for the next month. As series of text messages began to come in from Tracy who had landed in Calcutta and none of her bags had arrived. Thankfully Abhijit was there and I was soon texting like a maniac with Abhijit trying to coordinate things in Calcutta while waiting for our bags in Delhi. Such matters would soon become habit (see the document containing the memorable text messages). Anyhow, the bags did arrive and we made our way out of the customs area. Thankfully, the three we were supposed to meet with – Kendall, Epiphany and Will – were actually there, safe and tired. The hotel – Ibis Gurgaon – had sent the vehicles and we loaded up and headed out to the hotel. I think there were about three cars and soon this team travel would be routine. At the hotel we were informed that there was a problem with the rooms and that Will and I would have to share a room with one bed in it. I said I needed a room to myself (Srijoy and Mikku were in one tiny room, as were Epiphany and Kendall). At any rate, in spite of words exchanged, I did not get a room till about 3 am and slept for about 2 hours.
July 8, 2010
I got up and was kind of just high on adrenalin. Rounded up the three cars and headed out to the airport with Will who had an early morning flight to Calcutta. After dropping him at the domestic airport the cars and I headed over to the International arrivals. I was quickly learning Hindi and understanding how to coordinate multiple cars and drivers. The BA flight from London had arrived and soon five of the girls were out – Tania, Rachel, Erin, Lisa and Kiki. We loaded up and headed to the hotel (see the accounts of the travel elsewhere regarding what we all did). The kids were obviously tired and disoriented. India can hit you pretty hard, and I had a sense of what they were going through. But they were really curious and I realized that I have a long month ahead of me, answering the million questions that constantly came up. What I did not realize at that moment, is how much I would love this experience and the bonds that would be made between these human beings many of whom did not even know each other very well. We got to the hotel and we got the additional rooms so the folks could rest a bit and freshen up. We set 11:00 am as the meeting time for all to come down to eat and then head back to the airport. In the meantime I had met up with Kevin and had to take a very expensive car and go to Mahipalpur to check out the hotel where we would be staying when we returned to Delhi. It turned out to be a pretty busy morning and before we knew it the kids were down for lunch. I had to make sure all ate well and then we packed into 3 vehicles with all our bags and headed out to the airport. There was an interesting event here because unknown to us, Lisa’s ticket had been cancelled. I had to buy a ticket at the airport and get her going. There some issues with Tania’s credit card, but eventually we were all checked in and we completed security and headed to the gate. The adventure had begun. We were only missing Carrie who would arrive the next day. The flight to Calcutta was interesting because all the girls and Kevin slept through it. Mikku and I were really excited to be travelling with all of them and even though Mikku was returning for the first time since Tinku’s passing, the fact that the kids were with us changed things. We reached Calcutta eventlessly and after collecting bags, Mikku and Srijoy went off with her parents. Abhijit was there at the airport and we ran out of cars and had to get a taxi. We first stopped at the boy’s house in BL block and dropped off their bags and then went off to the BE block house where all the girls had already arrived. Abhijit crew had nicely assigned the rooms and I let them settle in. They were dazed and confused and tired. I felt a little sorry for them, and left them to their new dwelling place which Tania described best, “I am not used to this.” I then went home and saw Ma for a bit. Thankfully, Abhijit had already arranged a car for me since the Avis car deal fell through but I was mobile. I went over to the BL block house and picked up the boys and we went over to BE block and met up with the girls who seemed a little bit more relaxed and awake (except poor Rachel who was really off). We all went to Silver Chimney and had dinner there and Abhijit joined us as well. Left them at their respective homes and I went off to AC and called it a day.
July 9, 2010
This day started with going to the girls’ house and getting them up and ready to go out to get some of the essentials taken care of. We all went to the City Center and started with orienting them to City Center and giving the opportunity to get to know the place. This was followed by exchanging money and getting to an ATM to take out some money. Some wanted to do a little shopping so I gave them some time while Kevin and I had a beer at Hakka. We all then ate at Hakka and we went on to our next destination which was the Reliance Mobile Shop to meet with Partha and start of the process of setting all up with their phones and Internet connections. This was a long and complex process and it took a while to do that. In the meantime, it got to be time to go to the airport to pick up Carrie who was arriving from Delhi. Kevin and I drove over to the airport, picked her up and we were back right about the time when the rest returned from the phone center with their phones and Internet cards. I did not stay for dinner with all and had them eat on their own.
July 10 to July 21, 2010
This was an interesting period for Mikku, Srijoy and me. We all realized that this trip to India was completely different from any other trip we had ever taken. We have always come to India for a holiday, with some research activities that I would do. This time we were there as teachers of a team of people whose entire lifeline in India depended on the three of us. This realization had sunk into us even before we left, but the enormity of the task we had taken was becoming manifest as the ground reality started to alter from day to day. The three of us did not know the people we had brought over with us, and not many of the students knew each other. All of a sudden we were thrown together where only the three of us had the cultural knowledge to assist our students to navigate the new culture they were in and become, at least temporarily, a part of the culture. The first days in Calcutta demonstrated how adaptive we can all be. Everyone fell into the roles they had to, the students made friends quickly, teams began to take shape around common interests, and a camaraderie developed where I was so drawn in with the group, that at times I too forgot that I was a mere teacher, because in this immersive system one is never a teacher only. Mikku, Srijoy and myself in our own ways played, teacher, friend, guide, accountant, translator, driver, doctor, counselor and most importantly the role of the persons they knew would always be available for them. These 10 days were the ones when the bonds developed, and the connections were made. The three of us were also busy with family. There was Tinku’s annual puja, there were a few family gatherings, there were things that had to be done for the parents, but in all of this I always felt a level of satisfaction and happiness that I have not felt for a long time. The students changed my experience of Calcutta completely as Calcutta began to change each individual in the group and the group itself. I really enjoyed going to the girls’ house sometimes after dinner, or early for breakfast and spend the time with them getting to know them much more and better than I have ever known my “students” in my teaching career. At some point, by the end of these 10 days, I was occasionally calling the students “beta” (an affectionate term for a person in the position of a son or daughter or nephew or niece), and it was happening naturally and automatically. This was the formative period of what would later be labeled as the “India Family.” The details of the days are recorded elsewhere in the other document, but what was going on in this period was pure learning at every moment of our lives during those days. We learnt to know ourselves, each other, the community we had created, the community we were immersed in, and the land we were living in. I learn to look at Calcutta differently, and the company of 11 individuals charmed by Calcutta and Salt Lake reminded me why I have always loved this city (which really became palpable to all after the experience of Delhi which proved to be a different and much less pleasant experience). At the end of the 10 days, all wanted to spend the rest of time in Calcutta and not go anywhere else. The departure from the houses was not teary but pretty close, and that demonstrated to me that the course was a success. Study abroad is not just going to a country, and studying about the country. Study abroad is really becoming a part of the country, its culture and its people. In this we were successful in Calcutta. And in Calcutta, Srijoy transformed from being a detached teenager to someone who was really making connections with the team of students. That transformation was absolutely fascinating to watch and it came to a point where he stuck with the 11 any time we did things together.
July 21, 2010
We left from Calcutta on the morning flight of Indigo and reached Delhi with no issues other than some baggage problems related to real excess baggage. Once that was solved we boarded the flight to Delhi, and had the minor hiccup of Kevin leaving his computer at security, which, however, was retrieved. We reached Delhi and a flotilla of cars were sent by Hotel Saptagiri to get us and our bags to the hotel. After check in we decided to go to Ambience Mall in Gurgaon. I had to run an errand with British Airways so I took a separate car and went there and then joined them a the mall. However, in this process I met our driver, Surjit (the students called him SK) who proved to be a reliable and trustworthy person and played a special role during our stay in Delhi. We all had dinner at the Nirula’s Restaurant at the mall and eventually called it a day since we had an early flight the next day.
July 22, 2010
We had a very early start, and many in the group had left their bags at the hotel for the Leh trip. We all piled into cars and got to the airport in time for the 6 am flight to Leh. The flight was fantastic and view out of the windows was breathtaking as we crossed the Himalayas and left in the south to get to the desert plateau that is Ladakh with Leh being its main city. When we landed in Leh, and the doors of the plane were opened most of us choked because of the lack of oxygen at 11,000 feet. There was some paper work at the airport since we were foreigners and eventually we met up with Mr. Dorjee the owner of Namgayal Palace and we took another multitude of vehicles and got to the hotel/resort. The place looked really nice and the rooms were quite good too. We had breakfast and we all decided that it was important to rest and get accustomed to the altitude before trying to do anything else. Most people slept, and I got some work done. My problem was that I was out of breath all the time, but I did not yet experience the headache that others were feeling. Srijoy claimed he was “high” and just listened to his music. That afternoon, we started our exploration of Leh and details of that are elsewhere.
July 22 to July 25, 2010
The bonds that were built in Calcutta between the students and the three of us matured and took real shape in Leh. Here now we were actually under the same roof. There was no separation between the three of us and the group. We ate together, we travelled together, we shopped together, and we were out of breath together at 18,000 feet at Khandri-La. Srijoy became one of the students and actually participated in the lectures that I had. Swati was there as part of the India Family that had now gelled. Not only were all of us assimilated into the culture, the students were beginning to adopt the culture. This is beyond appreciating the culture, but this is where the cultural comfort is sufficiently high that the inhibitions were disappearing. Carrie and Rachel would spend an hour chatting with a shop keeper, Kendall and Kevin would go have tea with a Tibetan refugee woman, Tania and Will would visit the home and temple of Mr. Dorjee. And I felt completely connected with this group. The connection really manifest itself at the party thrown by Mr. Dorjee where we were all a part of one team – the India Family – exploring new things and experiences. Americans all of us, we were all in a new place (including Mikku, Srijoy and me, because Leh is so different from the rest of India), and we were marveling at how beautiful and unique the place was.
July 26, 2010
Finally, it was time to leave Leh. We had a morning flight back to Delhi and after rather a stringent security we were on the plane and arrived in Delhi without any hassles. There was again a flotilla of cars to receive us and after several hours, we were all settled into our guest houses in Chittaranjan Park (near Market number 2) of Delhi. I was really tired by the time the process was completed. We then all went to Greater Kailash II (GK II) M-block market and had lunch at Swagath after which we took the cars and did a driving tour of Delhi to show all the major political points of interest. We were still tired from the Leh trip and eventually we all gathered at the house where five of the girls were (this too was called the ‘girls’ house’)and we ordered pizza for dinner. Called it a day after that.
July 27, 2010
We got the cars from SK and we did a day trip of Delhi, starting with Humayun’s Tomb in the morning, Ansal Plaza (Mirchi restaurant) for lunch, and then Qutab Minar in the afternoon. Mikku and Srijoy did not go to the Minar but spent the afternoon at Ansal Plaza and we eventually met up at the girls’ house for dinner that they had ordered to say goodbye to Mikku and Srijoy.
July 28, 2010 to August 10, 2010
I dropped Mikku and Srijoy at the airport in the morning and got back to the guest house to teach class at 9:00 am in the girls’ house and the last part of our sojourn in India began. I was missing my family and I realized that the team was missing them too. This was a transformative moment because their departure reminded us all that we too would be leaving soon. I do not think we were considering that possibility until the two of them left. What happened in Delhi, I am able to explain on two premises, first the reality of leaving was brought home by their leaving, and secondly, the extended discussions about how Indians leave India and come back (NRI) prompted an interesting process in some members of the family – we (of course, I always did), started to consider ourselves as NRI. Carrie would be the walking encyclopaedia on Bollywood, Kendall would look at matrimonial in the newspapers, others would spend extended time with young Indian boys that they met, some would venture out on their own and bargain with the auto drivers as if they were local, and one could pass for A Rai and is probably be on numerous home videos and pictures in Agra, Delhi and Jaipur. I realized that this family has gelled to the point where there are conflicts in the family and I was expected to be the mediator. As in all familial groups, conflict is a necessary and important part of building relationships, and if someone asked me, I can identify in this group all the elements that defines what it means to be a family. Even though the culture in Delhi is despicable and as Calcuttans we were very critical and wary of the offensive manner of the young men of Delhi we realized (and I did too) that over the past month we had all become Indians, and as Kendall put it, when we go back not only will I be a NRI but many in the group would feel like NRIs (Non Resident Indian). As we travelled on rickshaws, autos, taxis and as we sat and laughed together in the movie theater, or walked together in Jama Masjid, and ate together in Moti Mahal, or danced to Rajasthani music in Jaipur or sweated together in Agra Fort and had discussions in class while eating Budhha’s Alu Gobi, we were all becoming Indian and India was leaving an indelible trace on each of us, even on me who used to be Indian, and re-discovered the country through the eyes of my Indian Family. That is when I recognized that my goal of complete immersion for the students has been met. Each learnt different things, but if education is about broadening the horizons for the students – then all have been educated in their own ways. The ancient “pathshala” and “ashram” system still works. By the time we were done in Delhi, there was a true sense of parting as we got ready to go back to the United States. Our sense of home (even my sense of home, about which I thought I was so sure) was transformed. I knew that none of these 11 individuals with whom our lives were permanently intertwined will ever be the same again.
Details of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in other files. Also, Will left for ‘merica on August 9 night.
August 10, 2010
It was now time to leave. I told them that they should do what they want to on this day as long as all their bags were ready to be transported by 12:30 pm. Using four taxis from the taxi stand at CR Park Market 2, Kevin I transferred about 30 bags from the guest houses to Hotel International Inn in Mahipalpur. The rest were off on their own exploring Delhi in the midst of the first truly torrential downpour of the monsoon in Delhi. Kevin and I ate lunch at a dive near the hotel. All were back in the hotel by about 6:30 pm (except one) and we all went to dinner to the same dive where Kevin and I had had lunch. After dinner, we came back to the hotel and started to prepare for the 4 who would leave from India that night. We got the cars ready, baggage packed and I finally saw off Epiphany, Tracy and Kendall at the new international terminal of Delhi airport. Rachel went independently to the airport a little later to catch a later flight. Got back and called it a day.
August 11, 2010
The day started early. I had to round up Tania, Carrie, Lisa, Kiki and Erin and get them to the airport. We left at about 6:00 am and after dropping them off I went on to the domestic airport for my flight to Calcutta. Got there in time, and spent most of the day doing bank and other work with my mother. Had lunch with family at Hakka in the City Center. In the evening Dada Bhai came over and it was nice evening with us three cousins.
August 12 and 13, 2010
Hung out in Calcutta. Went to the usual shopping places – City Center, CA Market etc. – and also met with friends and family. The evening out at the Lake Club was fabulous as was the home cooked meals and sharing that with Raja who dropped me at the airport on the afternoon of 8/13.
August 14, 2010
Early morning flight from Delhi to London. Afternoon with Kaju Mama and then evening with family in London. Assisted Kaju mama with some of his computer needs and was really tired by the time I went to bed.
August 15, 2010
Right now, on the flight from London to Washington.
Victoria Memorial (the memorial made for Queen Victoria in Calcutta at the peak of the British Raj)
Botanical garden (this has the largest and oldest living Banyan tree)
Dakhineswar temple (the holiest of the Kali temples in India)
Tipu Sultan Mosque (a mosque right in the center of Calcutta built about 500 years ago)
College Street (the intellectual heart of Calcutta with booksellers lining the street)
Sunderban outskirts (the Ganges delta where all went on a boat ride)
Cognizant (the IT Giant of India where we heard from the one of the VPs - Raja - an old schoolfriend)
St. Paul’s Cathedral (the center of the old British parish in Calcutta)
Presidency College (one of the oldest academic institutions in India)
Anand Restaurant (vegetarian South Indian restaturant where a lunch can be had for under $2)
Peshawari Restaurant (the upscale restaurant at Sonarbangla serving food from Afghanistan)
Silver Chimney Restaurant (the first restaurant by Salt Lake swimming pool where we all ate dinner)
Bira rural home (the place where we all did fishing and the fish that was caught was fried and served)
City Center Mall (the place where we all went regularly for meals and shopping in Calcutta)
Handicrafts Fair (the place selling all the Bengal handicrafts)
Grand Hotel (the old Victorian era hotel where we went for afternoon tea)
Mani Square Mall (another major mall in Calcutta)
Ambience Mall (the largest mall in Delhi where we all ate at the legendary Nirula's restaurant)
Leh palace (the 1,000 year old palace that is the epicenter of Leh)
Japanese shanti stupa (11,000 feet and relatively new Budhist stupa)
Leh town (at 10,000 feet the center of Ladakh District with its numerous shops and restaurants)
Himis monastery (at 10,000 feet that represents one branch of Tibetan Budhism)
Kargil Road (that meanders through the Ladakh range and leads to the 1999 Kargil battleflield)
Indo-China friendship road (that connects Leh to Srinagar)
Shey palace (at 11,000 feet with one of the largest Buddha statue in the World)
Indus river (Ladakh)
Ganges/Hooghly river (Calcutta)
Jamuna river (Agra and Delhi)
Primitive restroom (at the restaurant outside Shey palace, where everyone went neverthless)
Budhist scholar (who came and spoke to us about the basis of Budhist philosophy)
Sunshine café Leh (where we all ate together)
Leh Tibetan refugee shops (these were all over Leh and some students did ethnographic research there)
Alchi monastery (1,000 years old continuously operating monastery where I was rebuked by the monks)
Picnic by mountain stream (a spot that was chosen randomly and provided a peaceful place to eat)
Tibetan kitchen (the restaurant that was always crowded in Leh)
Confluence of Zangstra and Indus river (where one could see the different colors of the water)
Dinner at Namgyal place (with Mr. Dorjee who treated us to a fantastic meal)
Mitra dancing to Swati singing (somewhat emberassing but fun)
Khandri-la highest motorable road at 18,000 feet (the treachosous drive upto a point where it was nearly impossible to breathe)
Delhi guest house (spread out over three houses in CR Park with G1373 becoming the congregation point)
GK 2 market (where we went for the first lunch in Delhi)
Swagath restaurant (the restaurant where we ate the first lunch in Delhi after coming back from Leh)
Falling sick (Erin, Tracy and somewhat Kiki and Tania)
Driving around Delhi (to see the epicenter of Indian politics)
Humayun Tomb (that was the prototype for the Taj Mahal)
Qutab Minar (nearly 600 years old minaret in Delhi)
Pizza delivery (to the guest house in Delhi)
Chinese delivery (to the guest house in Delhi)
Tere Bin Laden (funny movie that some of us watched)
Taj Mahal (enuff said)
Temple in Vrindaban (that some visited while the car was being repaired)
Broken car (one car pulling another on the highway tied by rope)
Agra Fort (one hot day)
Irritating guide (at Taj Mahal that we all hated)
Meeting Rana (Ananda's school friend who helped explain the importance of the TMC political party)
Meeting Raja (Ananda's school friend who helped explain the position of outsourcing)
Meeting Rohit and family (Ananda's school friend who invited us all to dinner at his place)
Meeting Dr. Mitra (Ananda’s cousin) family
Meeting Swati’s parents
Meeting Ananda’s mother
Swati and Srijoy leaving early in the morning
Akshardham (the massive temple complex in Delhi)
Commonwealth village (seeing this from the road to Akhardham)
Jama Masjid (one scary place in the epicenter of Muslim Delhi)
Red Fort (the light and sound show and sodas at the resturant)
Moti Mahal Restaurant (in Daryagung where Indira Gandhi and Kennedy have eaten)
Rickshaw ride through old Delhi
Autorickshaws in Delhi
Kuki (ask the students)
Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (the blocbuster we all went to see together with me doing real-time translation)
Nehru Place restaurant where we all ate the less expensive Baluchi food
Ansal Plaza (the oldest mall in Delhi)
Mirchi restaurant (in Ansal Plaza where we all ate lunch)
Hotel Swagath (in Mahipalpur where we stayed a night and left our bags when we went to Leh)
Free days (when nothing was programmed and all did their own things)
Lotus temple (the Delhi center for the Bhai faith)
Kalkaji market (where we went for luggage shopping)
Naivedam (the South Indian restuarant from which we ordered food and eventually went to also in Kalkaji)
CR Park Market 2 (our home address for the autorickshaws)
Connaught Place in Delhi (where we went for shopping and then lunch at the Chinese place)
The evening gatherings at the central houses
The sleepy streets of Delhi in the early morning
The Ajmer Shatabdi at 6 am from Delhi to Jaipur with breakfast on the train
The traffic jam outside Jaipur station
Umaid Palace (the heritage hotel with the terrace restaurant in Jaipur)
City Palace (this is the center of the Man Singh's dynasty in Jaipur)
Jantar Mantar (the curious astronomical garden of Jaipur)
Indiana Restaurant (the traditional Rajasthani restaurant with music and dance)
Taking the autos back from the restaurant and conversation with auto driver
Bidis (a very traditional tobacco smoking product)
Amber Palace (the large palace on top of the hills which many reached on elephant back)
The restaurant in Jaipur where we ate lunch
The remote temple to Hanuman which is inhabited by hundred of monkeys and millions of flies
Quick shopping in the Pink City
Waiting room in Jaipur station
Ajmer Shatabdi back to Delhi with dinner on the train
Tere Bin Laden (movie with some of the students)
Aisha (movie with students)
Birthday dinner for Erin at Oh! Calcutta restaurant
Lecture at Jamia Milia University
Lunch at the University cafetaria
Dinner at the Delhi girls' house
Hotel International Inn the night before leaving India
The Delhi rains the day before we left India
And then it was over
November 4, 2009
We had Snowy packed off with Will on Monday night and Srijoy did some of his homework the night before and we left from home at about 8:00 am after a quick stop at Starbucks on Robinhood for coffee and rolls. We took 40 and 77 to Charlotte and as usual 77 was backed up right near exit 25. We discovered an alternative route taking exit 25 that actually took us through pastoral Charlotte and we got to the airport in comfortable time. It was beautiful sunny fall day and the check in was eventless and we settled down for our flight to Philadelphia. The flight was on time and we arrived in Philly just in time for lunch which we ate in a relaxed way at the food court of the airport. The Philly airport is basically a shopping mall with an airport attached to it. There are all the major name brands one can think of, and it feels different from the duty free shopping you get at Heathrow or Dubai because the shops operate more as stores and not so much as shops at an airport. We took an unhurried stroll through the mall and eventually boarded the Airbus for Frankfurt. US Air, like most other American carriers, is really awful in terms of service. The food was marginal, the booze cost $7, and the stewards were really rude or extremely rude. Oh, I so miss the old days of air travel when the planes were nicer, the service was actually "service" and not the hurried "get out of my way and finish your food" attitude that the American carriers have. I have realized that it is best to avoid American carriers when travelling overseas because any other carrier is better than the American ones. Anyway, we survived the crossing and reached Frankfurt a little ahead of time because of the tail winds in fall and winter. After a long time Srijoy and I did a night-crossing of the Atlantic (Mikku had done it recently for Stockholm) and it was actually not too bad, and I could see how this could be much better with a better airline.
November 5, 2009
We went through customs and security with little difficulty at Frankfurt. Collected the bags and took the elevator to the walkway and across to the Sheraton that is totally connected to Terminal 1 and checked into the Day Room at the Sheraton. This works well in cases where there is a significant layover between the two flights at Frankfurt. The hotel is nice, and the room can be booked online and they would let you into the room as early in the morning as needed. Provided a place to catch up on some sleep lying on a bed, a shower, and download all the e-mail. We rested there for a few hours and then went back to the terminal. Checking in with Egypt Air was relatively simple and the security at Frankfurt is much more civilized than what we have in the USA. Went through security relatively quickly and sat down at the Goethe Bar and had a breakfast at noon. The airport is not very nice and the terminal and gates we were in was rather sparse with respect to duty free shops. We hung around for a bit and then went off to the gate. The plane boarded mostly on time, and there was a bit of a wait on the tarmac. Egypt Air proved to be quite good. The food was nice and plentiful and the stewards were helpful and polite. There was a hint of racism towards non-whites on the flight, but it could have been a mistaken attribution on my part as well. There was no alcohol served on Egypt Air since Egypt is an officially Islamic country and the airlines is the national carrier of Egypt (we learnt later that Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution declares it as an Islamic country). The landing in Cairo was at night and we did not have window seats so did not get the glimpse from the sky. The airport had the typical odor one connects with developing countries and was immediately reminiscent of going to India or Peru. The airport was quite large and much bigger than Delhi airport which I was expecting it to be like. It was quite a long walk to the immigration area. This is where things get interesting. For people travelling under an American passport one need not have a visa stamped on the passport to board the aircraft from places like Frankfurt, London or New York, especially if you are on Egypt Air. However, on arrival in Cairo the individual must go to one of the three bank counters that come before immigration and purchase a visa for $15 per passenger. It takes only a few minutes to do this. Then, the person must complete a short form and stand in line, as in any other country, for the immigration officer who looks at the form and visa and stamps the passport and you are in. We got our bags after that and exited into the waiting area. It was quite large and we were expecting to see a driver from the hotel (JW Marriott) but there was a bit of a confusion about that, but eventually we got into the bus for the airport. The temperature outside was pleasant and the desert was palpable even at night. The roads were very good and reminiscent of the West and they drive on the same side of the road as in the USA. We arrived at the hotel and check in and service was very similar to what one experiences in India. The room was quite nice and had a balcony attached to it. I went down to arrange for transportation and other stuff while the others had a room service dinner. I finished the sandwich we had bought at Frankfurt. Because of Srijoy's allergies, we always carry some food with us in case the food on the plane appeared doubtful. Anyway, we were tired, and called it a day. I actually slept out on the balcony. We were on the sixth floor and it was quite pleasant.
November 6, 2009
We had a little difficulty getting up, but there was a reservation for the morning free shuttle from the hotel to go to Saqqara the site of the step pyramid. This is one of the older pyramids of the sequence of pyramids and was about 40 km from Cairo. We were also outside of Cairo and we were actually in a new development called Mirage City which is full of really expensive homes and shopping centers and hotels like the totally new JW Marriott. We had to select this hotel because it was one of the few that would allow three people in the same room. We made some coffee in the room and I got some croissants from the little bakery in the lobby. We then got to the van. It was a comfortable air conditioned van and there were a few other co-passengers. There was an older couple from Europe and a young man from Goa. The journey took us from the hotel along the Cairo ring road towards the city. It is not usually understood that the Cairo metropolis is one of the largest in the World and it is made up of three parts. To the east of the Nile is Cairo, to the west of the Nile is Giza and to the north of both these places is the area called Heliopolis which is both the site of the ancient city as well as the modern suburb where Mirage City is located. So we drove along the ring road which is comparable to any highway across the World. The first thing we noticed was the bare desert. Te sand appeared to be coarser and different in hue from the desert we have seen in the outskirts of Dubai. We soon approached the city and was struck by the jungle of incomplete multi-storied homes. They had bare brick outsides and it was explained that many families in Cairo do not complete the homes to keep open the option of adding to the houses. But it creates a bizarre look of a city that is incomplete. It was like driving past a brick jungle. The road was starting to get a little more crowded (8 lane highway) and we were soon at the Nile and we crossed the Nile. This was an exhilarating feeling. Perhaps never in our dreams had Mikku and I felt that we will ever get the opportunity to see this river. When growing up in India these were the esoteric places - the Nile, the Volga, the Danube - and thankfully at least I have seen all three and Mikku has seen two of these. The Nile is huge, the crossing point is similar to the crossing of the Mississippi near northern Illinois where the highway cuts into Iowa. The highway crosses over the river and then we entered the city of Giza. Suddenly we spied the pyramids. That was another moment of simple awe. You can see the pyramids from the highway as the city has grown into the pyramids. It just shows up in the distance and you realize that these are really much larger than what we have seen in the pictures. More importantly, they are plum in the middle of the city. You just drive up to them with a KFC right next to the Sphinx. But we were not going to the pyramids today. We skirted around the pyramids and got on the local road leading to Saqqara. Driving along this road was completely reminiscent of driving in India. Street side shops selling wares, some auto repair shops and things that are completely familiar to us but would be clearly interesting to the Western eye. It was clear that there are similarities in countries like Egypt and India, although Egypt remains a more affluent country. The drive to Saqqara took about an hour and we eventually drove up to the first real pyramid we would see - the step pyramid built as the first experimental pyramid which looks like steps rather the shape that has been popularized as the icon of Egypt. What was really interesting was the fact that we were actually standing in the location of a human-made object that is nearly 5,000 years old. There are not many places in the World where it is possible to be so close to an object that is that old. The place of course was infested with the annoying souvenir sellers one sees all over the World in places like this (except in the USA). These people are annoying but they add a flavor to the place which makes it more real as opposed to the antiseptic feeling one gets in places where these pesky people are missing. We strolled around the compound and was then led to a tomb where we saw 5,000 year old hieroglyphics inscribed on the walls of the tomb. This was a tomb where one could walk in through a door. The next place they took us to was a another pyramid and the tomb was inside the pyramid. Being largely claustrophobic I decided to give it a pass and Srijoy and Mikku did go in there and they spent a few minutes in there. After that visit we got back into the van and drove back to Giza right next to the main pyramids. The tour then ended up in a perfume shop. The Egyptians claim to have perfected the science of perfumery using natural ingredients. Not sure how accurate that is, but this was definitely a tourist trap where they take tourists and attempt to sell extremely high-priced perfumes and perfume accessories. It was, however, interesting to learn about the medicinal claims of the perfumes. We spent about an hour there. In the meantime, there was a little street disturbance outside the store (which was called Siwa) and it was interesting to see the crowds and the people much like Delhi, Lima or Bogota. What was also striking was the auto-rickshaws by Bajaj that have ended up in Cairo as well. Looking exactly like they do in Calcutta, these autos use the "share ride" concept and this really took us directly back to Calcutta. Some of the street corners looked the same as well. After the perfume factory trip the next stop was the papyrus place. This too was a tourist trap and we spent even less time there and took a taxi leaving the tour. The taxi system is also similar to many other cities like Lima or Calcutta. There is no meter, and the price is negotiated before you enter the taxi. Since English is barely used this becomes a bit of a challenge if one does not understand or speak Arabic. The tour-guide driver did the negotiation for us and we went through the infamous Cairo traffic, crossed the Nile and reached downtown Cairo. We got off right near the national museum and strolled around the huge plaza before finding a hole in the wall joint for a quick lunch. For about 30 Egyptian Pounds ($6) we three had a really good meal. We then walked down the main shopping stretch of the city and eventually negotiated with another taxi to take us to the El-Azhar Mosque. Before that we had chatted with a souvenir shop owner to figure out the acceptable cost. The drive was through the labyrinth of Cairo's Islamic Area until we reached the area of the mosque. Like in other Islamic areas (much like Kidderpore in Calcutta) the mosque is surrounded by one of the largest bazaars in the Arabian World. It was huge and we walked around there for some time before going into the mosque. A guide imposed himself on us and insisted on telling us the history of the mosque and explained the different aspects of the mosque. In our times we have seen many cathedrals and churches across the World but this was our first genuine look at a mosque. Mikku had to use the tiny scarf she thankfully had with her to cover her head and shoulders and was reminded about that a few times. This is one of the largest mosques of the Arab World and has a world-renowned madrasa (religious school) attached to it. We saw it all and then left the mosque after me receiving the traditional Islamic kiss from the guide (after he had cajoled us to pay him 60 Egyptian Pounds to show us the mosque). What was interesting was the fact that when we were leaving the mosque and went to retrieve our shoes, the shoe-keeper asked for a Pound each for the shoes, which was OK, but then asked me how much I paid the guide. The guide had prepped me for this question, and told me to say ten pounds only, which I did. So, even in the mosque there is a racket going on, where the guide will give the shoe-keeper half his taking (5 Pounds) and pocket the rest. Interesting. We then walked around the market some more and decided to take a taxi back. We decided to get a slightly higher level "metro cab" that would go on the meter. The hotel had given a direction card written in Arabic which the I showed the driver and was hoping he would know. He seemed to say he knew, but it became clear very soon that he had no idea. So much like in Dubai, some years ago, my trusted phone with Google maps came to the rescue as I was explaining to him in whatever English he knew to get us to the hotel. This resulted in an altercation where I refused to pay the fare shown on the meter because of the way he had screwed up and we had to go around in circles. I was able to prevail and thus did not have to pay the whole amount. We then decided to go down to the Lebanese restaurant for dinner. There was a woman singing live doing a pretty bad job, and I suggested to the DJ that there was a singer from India with us, and told Swati to go and sing, but she refused, although the restaurant was willing to give her a chance. We strolled around the hotel some before finally calling it a day. I again slept on the balcony but was accosted by mosquitoes earlier in the morning.
November 7, 2009
For this day we had arranged for a private car with a guide to go to the main pyramids. This was a little expensive but having the English speaking driver and the guide was a big help. We again took the ring road, and things were much more crowded today, yesterday was a Friday and a holiday but being a working day things were backed up. The pollution also hung heavy on the city displaying the very familiar brown sky of Lima, Calcutta, Delhi and other such places. It took us a little longer to get to the pyramids after a stop on the way to pick up our young guide and to buy some cheap Chinese batteries for my camera which lasted all of 5 minutes. The tickets were pre-purchased and it is possible to drive right up to the main entrance area of the vast pyramid complex which borders the city on one side and open desert on the other side. It was obviously an awesome experience only marred by the pesky guides and the flying polybags that is slowly making the area dirty. The complex includes three major pyramids as seen in the iconic pictures and it is possible to drive from one to the other eventually reaching a "panorama point" from where it is possible to see all the pyramids. The pollution was so heavy that it was really difficult to get a good view but one could sense the awe it must have inspired to people who would see the pyramids rising from the dust and appearing to touch the sky. The panorama point is also the starting point for a one-hour long camel ride that takes one through the desert and right to the sphinx. Although we were hesitant the guide convinced us to pay the money and take the trip. Mikku could not go for her bad back, but Srijoy and I mounted one camel which was led by a young Arabic person on the second camel and we started the trek. Horrifying experience. A camel ride in general is uncomfortable. Sharing a camel is absolutely not recommended. Srijoy was in the front and had something to hang on to, and I was on the back hanging on to Srijoy. He can lean back on me, I have clear air and a drop to the ground, sliding down the camels arse. Not a good thing when the land is undulating and the entire English lexicon of the fellow leading us is limited to "lean back," "hold on" and a quizzical "go faster?" Also to note, unless you are in the habit of stretching your inner thigh regularly (the last time mine were stretched when they pulled me out) across a large saddle, then after you get off the camel you will walk bow-legged and with immense pain for a significant amount of time. By the time we reached the Sphinx I would have been happy to be let off in the middle of nowhere as long I was off the back of the offending animal. The Sphinx was also as impressive as the pyramids. We went around the area and then the guide took us to a "stock" restaurant where we paid through our noses for a really bad meal. I was also somewhat nauseous in the morning from jet lag or indigestion, and although the camel ride stirred me enough to have digested everything in my gut, I was not too keen on the meal. After lunch we went off to a curio store, also a tourist trap, and was led into buying a pair of chartuses (these are oval necklaces that has ones name written in hieroglyphics). The salesperson was really very good and surely charmed Mikku and Srijoy into spending the money. We then took the van and went on to the Egyptian Museum. Although the building and upkeep was not as swanky with museums in the West, this was a place of immense treasure including all the gold discovered in King Tut's tomb. Much of the wealth from the other pyramids were plundered and much went off to Europe, but King Tut's stuff is all in this museum. We also the famous mummified animals featured in the National Geographic magazine. We spent about two hours there and then said our goodbye to our guide and returned to the hotel. I went and got some sandwiches from the Mobil gas station which had the "On the Run" shop. We finally called it a day. I also realized that using the rented cars from the hotel was getting unnecessarily expensive and had finally contacted a person off the Web who was going to send a car at a much less price the next day.
November 8, 2009
The car arrived as promised and we ate our normal breakfast and then headed out on the car towards the Giza pyramids. We decided to do this on our own today to get the freedom of the time to look around. The driver tried to pull a fast one on us by taking us first to the Sphinx and imagining that we would go with a guide. We told him that we were not going to do that and had him drive us to the other end where we bought our tickets and drove into the main pyramid complex. There we spent some time taking pictures and then went on to the Panorama point. Here Srijoy decided to venture out on foot into the desert and he definitely enjoyed the freedom. Being a desert we could see him walk for a long time. We spent some time there and then had lunch at the downtown Marriott. After lunch and the time at the conference we let the driver take us to a restaurant on the Nile and we sat there for some time before heading back to the hotel and waiting for the evening events with the conference. I had paid off the driver and he had left by then. The whole car hire system is exactly similar to the one that exists India and having done that many times the process of paying off and tipping was really simple. It was a good thing we have travelled so much because the process was quite familiar to us. We had a little time before the conference dinner to which the family was also invited. We strolled along the banks of the Nile. Cairo on one side and Giza on the other was coming alive with the night lights as the hotels and offices started to look like any other city in the World. It should be noted that I am writing this after spending a few days in Delhi, and although I speak of the similarities between Cairo and Delhi, it is the fact that Delhi is far more foggy in December and the way one could see the city lights of Cairo and Giza along the Nile, one would not see that in Delhi. Cairo also has a larger number of skyscrapers than Delhi which is more spread out and other than the housing estates of Dwarka there is not that many skyscrapers in Delhi. Anyway, I digress. After the Nile walk we got back to the meeting point for the dinner. We were taken on a luxury coach through the horrendous traffic of Cairo, here Cairo beats Delhi, as I will describe later. The distance was short and we eventually reached the walled city of ancient Islamic Cairo. The treatment of the delegates was nothing short of royal. We were placed on a electric cars so that we did not have to walk too far and escorted to a Mosque and Madrasa which was specially shut down for a private tour of the invited delegates and their families. This was an amazing experience to be treated with incredible amount of importance and shown all the details of the Islamic faith system and the education system. After that we were taken by the electric cars to the largest mansion in Cairo - a huge place with 115 rooms and sprawled out. It was the residence of a former Muslim ruler of Egypt and we were treated to private dinner with live entertainment. The specific entertainment program was called the Tanoura show. This is a show of male musicians and dancers who perform some really interesting and acrobatic dances. This is highly recommended for visitors to Cairo. We watched the show sharing the table with a lady and her husband from Moscow. The lady was well versed in English but the husband had no English at all. She works for the Public Opinion Research group in Moscow and what was interesting was that when Mikku and she went to the bathroom, we just sat quietly at the table since there was no way to communicate until the lady returned. These are priceless moments that really become learning moments for Srijoy who found the incident amusing but telling. The program and the dinner went late into the night and eventually the Director of the Center that had organized the conference offered the three of us a ride back to the hotel. A retired member of the Egyptian Army it was really interesting chatting with him about politics as we slowly made our way through the Cairo traffic that does not ever let up, even at midnight, when the added peril are teenagers on motorbikes who do their biker routines on the roads to add to the chaos. We finally called it a day at the hotel.
November 9, 2009
We had the same driver and the same car and we decided to get out of the city and go towards Saqqara again, but go beyond that to the bent pyramid that we had seen from Saqqara. This was a good hours drive into real Egypt and the similarities with towns in the central part of India was just amazingly striking. Reminded me of places in Bihar and MP where the small towns would have dusty roads, road-side stalls selling all kinds of wares, animals (mostly donkeys in Egypt) meandering around, stray dogs, and the amazing look of freshly slaughtered meat being sold by butchers shops exactly like the markets in the Beckbagan and Park Circus areas of Calcutta. There were the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws and the school kids in uniforms as we made our way out into desert to the area of the bent pyramid. There are two pyramids in this area. One is a standard shape (which was the final shape that they settled upon, first starting with the step pyramid, then going to the bent pyramid shape and then the final one that is familiar to all). The area was right next to an Egyptian military base (Egypt has compulsory military training for all youngsters, and can muster a huge army in case the uneasy peace with Israel was to be disturbed) and we could hear artillery testing going on there. Srijoy entered this pyramid too and then we moved towards the bent pyramid. The road was rough and the car was not very comfortable and so we decided to just pictures from a distance (in the desert there ain't no trees to stop your view!) and then headed back towards Giza from where we took the Fayoum Road to go towards Fayoum the location of one of the largest oasis in Egypt. The traffic was so bad that at one point we almost decided to turn back but my GPS suggested that things would clear out soon and it did. The journey to Fayoum is completely through the Sahara desert. As I mentioned earlier, this is a different kind of desert from the one in Kuwait (which I have seen) and the one in the United Arab Emirates (which too I have seen) and more like the Mojave in USA. The sand appears rougher and there was more undulations in this part of the Sahara. The pollution melted away very soon and we were under the bright sun and the mirages were absolutely admirable (we also discovered that it is very difficult to photograph a mirage) but we really understood how real the water looks in the midst of the sand. The road was quite good and was a four-lane highway and we did lay some toll. We eventually took the right turn off the Fayoum road and headed to the oasis called Lake Tarun. It was a serene blue lake and we sat at a restaurant by the lake and ate fried fish and Egyptian rice. Of course, the fish was caught almost right in front of us from the lake. After a little while there, we headed back to Cairo. The first forty five minutes of the drive was fine, but the last 20 miles took 3 hours. It was absolutely horrendous. The driver and I used GPS to track out alternative routes but nothing was flowing. It seemed as if the whole city was in gridlock for no apparent reason at all. This does not happen in Delhi. Yesterday, I was at Bhikaji Cama place (actually the Lotus Garden Chinese restaurant) for a meeting and my driver was warning me that we needed leave by 7 pm to be at the airport (international) by 8 because of traffic (those who know, think about Bhikaji and basically Mahipalpur, usually does not take more than 30 minutes) and he was right. I got delayed and did not leave until 7:30 and the traffic in Delhi was bad but it was flowing. A short nap in the car later we were at IGI by about 8:15 which was not bad at all, and was within what was predicted. But as the driver in Cairo said, nothing is predictable about traffic there and so by the time we got back to the hotel we were absolutely exhausted doing nothing but sitting in a car. We got food from the Mobil station and called it a day.
November 10, 2009
We checked out of the hotel after our croissant and coffee breakfast and took the shuttle to Cairo airport. There was another couple of Indian origin in the shuttle and we discovered that their son had studied at the Babcock School of Management of Wake Forest. Small world indeed it is. Check in with Egypt Air was smooth and so was security and immigration. The duty free area of Cairo airport is not large but quite comfortable. The flight was on time and we left for Frankfurt. About four hours later we were in Frankfurt which was quite cold and damp. We got our bags and went to the Sheraton connected to the airport. That is when I discovered that when selecting the cheapest room I had accidentally booked a room closer to downtown. The airport room was too expensive, so we left our bags with the concierge at the airport Sheraton and headed out on train to the other one. It was three stops on U7 or U8 and then a small walk to the hotel. We were relaxed and the walk was nice even though it was a little chilly. After resting at the hotel for a bit we took the tram to Old Stadt. Frankfurt is on the river Mein and downtown Frankfurt is basically a concrete jungle much like any other Western city. But it looked beautiful in the twilight and we eventually got off just past the Bahnhoff station and reached the old square. We have been here a few times before, but Srijoy really wanted to see the Cathedral. We spent a little time in the Church, and being cold and dark we decided to get some hot soup at a local bistro. Hung around the area for a while and then strolled over the central shopping area of Frankfurt. Much like Oxford Street of London the place has all the usual name stores and we went into C&A for Srijoy's underwear. Interestingly C&A the old English chain is no longer on Oxford Street but can be seen in Europe. We bought a snack, and it soon started to rain, so we hurried into the subway and after a few false starts we got back to where we needed to be and then to the hotel. Did an India take way from the store next to the hotel (of course as in much of Germany the Indian restaurants are run either by people from Pakistan or Bangladesh, but they brand them as Indian stores!) and called it a day. A curious thing happened at the main railway station in Frankfurt. Mikku and Srijoy had gone into a store and I was outside next to a café which had beer on its menu. When I asked for the beer the lady said that they sell it in cans and she cannot give it to me, but I need to take the can out of the fridge. I did that and paid for the beer and eventually drank it on our way back in the subway in a brown paper bag (oh so big city this behavior is). But can you guess why the store owner was unable to touch the beer can? Tell you when I see you.
November 11 2009
Our flight was at about 11:00 from Frankfurt. We checked out early and took the tram to the train and then the train to the airport. Got our bags and checked in. Later had a cup of coffee before security which was really smooth and civilized and we commented on it and the person reminded us that we were not in the USA and we all agreed that the American system is one of the worst in the World and is really more of "theater" than security. The Europeans do it far more unobtrusively and have far better profiling and surveillance and do not hype it up as we do in the US. It really got comical and really annoying yesterday in Delhi when Continental Airlines put the passengers through their special security checks before boarding the aircraft. I was able to carry though a lighter (oh that is so banned), matchboxes, undeclared small bottles of whisky. So when the fellow in Germany smirked about not being in the USA, having travelled as much as I have, I could not but agree. As I have travelled (if you look on Facebook, you will note that it stands at 35 countries now) I have seen the dismal state of the "image of USA" that has run through globally, and is just recently being repaired. This requiem of "you are not in America" runs through many places from restaurants where the portions are meant for normal human beings, to soda shops where a drink is not defined as ice with a little bit of the drink, to people who would look you straight in the eye and say "Your bombs killed my son" (I had that from an Iraqi school teacher who had fled Iraq and drove taxis in Dubai) or to curious and educated independent book store owners in Calcutta who once asked me if Clinton was bombing Libya to distract from his trouble with Monica. Anyway, I digress into politics. But after the security at the airport, we browsed the stores a little and then boarded the none hour flight to Charlotte. As always the service was dismal but we have gotten used to that with American carriers. Actually, Continental to Delhi from Newark was tolerable mainly because of an efficient attendant who was actually willing to help the passengers as opposed being hostile to passengers (and God forbid if you are an Indian on a flight going to India you can be assured of being treated like dirt by the Continental attendants, it is even worse on the way back as I am on the flight). This lady, who interestingly was on the flight to Delhi last week, is again on the flight back and recognized me (it is a little scary when flight attendants start to recognize you - that means you are travelling a lot) made both the legs much better than what it could have been. We did not have such as person on the US Air flight from Frankfurt to Charlotte so we cowered in the plane (as did all other passengers) hoping that we would not upset the attendants and get singled out for rebuke. Anyway, we eventually got to Charlotte and after getting the bags (which has become really efficient at Charlotte) we were out of the airport and back home.
The Egypt trip was over and it was really good.
Since the Egypt trip, I also spent a week in India. I flew the nonstop from Newark to Delhi, and the trip was mostly work but it was still enjoyable.
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