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
This is the latter part of the India trip of 2007, read on below for the first part of the trip was was more interesting!
July 7, 2007
The stay in Calcutta was extremely busy. There was a lot to do and many people to catch up with.
Every single day was basically divided into three parts – the mornings were busy with errands, the afternoons and evenings would be lunches and dinners with different people.
On Saturday, July 7 we got up a little late in the morning after the troubles of the night before. I had ordered a car and went off to the City Center in the morning and bought the toaster that my mother needed and also topped up the mobile phones. The City Center is an American style Mall that is about a 10 minute drive from my mother's place.
Then Mikku and I left from home around 12:30 pm for the Calcutta Boys’ School luncheon. There was no more water logging on the streets, but the roads were in pretty bad shape. There was a mild drizzle falling and Calcutta was the same. The number 4 bridge that connects the by pass highway to the city was crowded as ever. We were able to get to the restaurant in good time. A steady rain was falling and my friend Kunal was waiting outside the restaurant. The good thing in India is the availability of chauffer driven cars. Typically a small air conditioned car with chauffer and gas costs about $20 per day. All drivers have mobile phones. So, as soon as you are in the car, you need to get that phone number. The driver would drop us off in front of the place we needed to be and when we were ready we could call him and he would pick us up. I typically give Rs. 100 as tip (about $2.00) at the end of the day and they are happy. The cars are always pretty good and some of the drivers know the city well too. Parking is a nightmare in downtown Calcutta. So we had our driver drop us off in front of Tung Fung and we went in.
We had a smaller group this year – Babui, Raja, Rajat, Tuklu and a couple of others. Most had family with them. Srijoy had chosen to stay home with my mother and my cousin’s family. We drank a significant amount of Kingfisher beer and all made a note that the next time we come back to this restaurant it is important to remind them to really chill the beer. It was lukewarm at best. But the chin-wagging was fun. We ate a nice Chinese lunch for an incredibly low price. Hung out. Caught up with the old stories. All realized that age was catching up with us. This is a group of people who have known each other since before first grade. We have stayed in touch over many years and have now created a cyber community that has members all over the World. I call the group members “sleepers” – an old Cold War term. As we travel across the World all we need to do is send one message out to the group and someone, who we might not have communicated with for a decade, will say “I am here” and we connect up. When combined with the strongly knit community of the former students of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur (give or take 3 years from my year of graduation) there are very few places left in the World where we do not have sleepers. One e-mail is all it takes. Most of these guys are also doing extremely well in their careers. Some are VPs of major global IT companies, one is the lead editor of one of the largest dailies in the World, another is a renowned violinist trained in Russia, one set up one of the best hospitals in Calcutta, and the list goes on. Access to this group changes how things are done. The doctors can be relied on to provide the best care be it in the US, UK, India, or Australia, the others can provide logistic support wherever they are. This is an important part of the trip to India, to catch up with the old crowd.
After the lunch we came back home. We did make a short trip to see Swati’s parents that afternoon but spent most of the evening at my parent’s place chatting with my cousin. There was a lot of catching up to do and it was fun. Thankfully it was a relatively quiet evening and we finally called it a day.
The next day, July 8, we also had a late start. We were home for most of the morning, with a quick visit to City Center to get a few things we needed for the stay. There was the need for bottled water as well as the need for some supplies for my mother. I had already set up the phones to operate as life long phone numbers in India which means that anyone in India can call us without having to make an international call (my number is +919831775562 and Swati’s is +919831775523).
We got back home for lunch and soon after Mikku left with my cousins to partake in a traditional Indian activity – go to see a probable bride for our nephew. This is a part of the traditional “arranged marriage” in India. The custom for the Bengalis is that the parents of the boy/girl would meet the other parents and the boy/girl to evaluate the “fit” between their child and the other person. These visits are done by the parents and other family members. Since Mikku was in town, and being the aunt of the boy, she was ideally suited to do this task. Bebo and I stayed at home with my mother. We did go to CA Market and City Center to get some stuff for Ma, but we returned just as Mikku and all were back and the verdict was that the girl was not suitable. Swati was quite clear about this as were my cousins. These are awkward situations and it was an interesting experience for Swati, although she was somewhat reluctant to partake in this evaluation process. Later that evening my other cousin and his wife showed up and we whiled away the evening.
I left for Delhi early on July 9 morning. I flew Kingfisher Airlines. The service was quite good and really enjoyed the flight. Met up with Mr. Rajesh and Mr. Bhargav there and the meetings went really well. I was back in the hotel by about 7:30. Got out the Hindustan Times and had a fairly nice evening. I was in Delhi on July 10 as well with two day meetings. Nothing spectacular but got the data I needed. Got back to the hotel about 4:30 pm (stayed at the Ashoka, it is not bad and very friendly). I had meetings all evening on July 9 and most of the day on July 10 and was in bed late on July 10. Took the morning flight on Kingfisher to Calcutta and was home by taxi by about 11:00 am. Stayed at home for most of the morning. In the afternoon Mikku and I went off to City Center for some shopping. Got back to my parent’s place at AC 140. When I had left for Delhi, Mikku and Srijoy had also moved to her parents’ house.
We spent a little bit of the afternoon at both homes and left for a wedding reception at about 6:30 in the evening. This was the wedding reception for the son of one of my mother’s old friends. My mother wanted us to come to the reception. It was way out on the bypass all the way past Ruby Hospital. This gave us a chance to check out the new residential developments along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass of Calcutta including the Highland Park high rise apartment development where many people we know had bought homes. The journey was excruciatingly slow with traffic backed up quite a bit.
Once we got to the reception, I was not terribly impressed by the arrangements. It was in the apartment of my mother’s friend and it was hot and full of people I did not know. Mikku and I excused ourselves and left my mother there since we had to get to the Outram Club on Theater Road to order the meal for the family gathering that we were organizing. Those who know Calcutta would know that the easier way to do to do this trek is to take the bypass back to Science City and then hang a left towards Park Circus and get to Theater Road from that direction. The brilliant chauffer we had did something else. He took the Gariahat Connector and then got on to Broad Street and Palm Avenue to get to Amir Ali Avenue to eventually get to Theater Road.
These are narrow serpentine lanes and the little gain in shorter driving distance is well made up by the traffic jams. Nevertheless we were at Outram Club about 8:15 and my eldest cousin, Dadabhai, was nursing a Bacardi and Coke. I ordered a Scotch on the rocks and we all quickly ordered the meal for the gathering. Outram Club is an old British Private Club that is now populated mostly by the arts and theater elite of Calcutta. It is not unusual to run into contemporary theater and TV stars at this club. We finished the ordering and rushed back to the car.
It took us about 45 minutes to get back to the place where we had left my mother. She was ready to go and we did not want to eat at the reception. We then made our way back to my mother’s place. It was about 11:00 pm and Swati and I had spent most of the evening shuttling around Calcutta. I was mildly irritated. Swati and I dropped my mother off and we went off to the Hyatt for a quiet late evening supper. We went to the coffee shop and their dinner buffet was still on and we ate there. Eventually we went back to Swati’s parent’s house and we called it a day.
On July 12 I had ordered the car to pick me up from Swati’s parents place at 8:30 am. I first went off to the airport to exchange the tickets. Cancelled out the Jet Airways tickets and bought the Kingfisher tickets for our return from Calcutta to Delhi. I then went off to the City Center and got the movie tickets for everyone (the five ladies – Swati, her mother, her sister, my mother and my sister-in-law all watched and enjoyed the new Bengali release called “Anuranan”). Then off to Dalhousie (downtown Calcutta) and picked up my American Express card which had eventually arrived (to know more about this, read about the first seven days of the trip). Then got back to my mother’s place. Had lunch with her and then she and the others went off to see the movie.
Srijoy and I stayed at home. The rains had stopped for the past four days and it was really hot. We have one room with a window air conditioner at my mother’s place and we sat in that room whenever we would be home. The outside was muggy, hot and humid. We called the a/c room the "cold room." By hot we mean about 98F with 95% humidity and the temperature never went below 85F.
That afternoon, my cousin and his wife arrived in Calcutta. They live in the Central Indian state of Chatrishgarh in the town of Raigarh. It was a pleasure to see them after a few years. They arrived in the afternoon and we sat at home and chatted. Later in the evening we basically just stayed at home. Since Swati and Srijoy were at her parent’s place my cousin, his wife and I decided to bunk down in the cold room and we spent most of the night chatting and catching up.
It was really like the old times. My cousin, who is about 11 years older than me, had his first job as an engineer in the paper mill in Brajrajnagar – a small industrial town in the hot and dusty central part of India. This was soon after he had gotten married. I had spent my summer after high school with the my cousin and sister-in-law in their bungalow studying for my IIT entrance exams. I do believe that the retreat to their place to study was instrumental in my cracking that exam and entering IIT. It was really nice to see them and catch up.
The next day, on the 13th, I had ordered a car for all of us to go out. I had gotten a larger vehicle (the Toyota Qualis). My cousin, his wife and myself left from home at about 9:30 in the morning. I had set up Internet access for my Indian mobile phone and was able to use the GPS system with my phone. It was interesting to track our progress through Calcutta. We went on to meet my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law at the Command Hospital. This lady was going through chemotherapy for lymphoma and we spent some of the morning with her. After the hospital visit we went on to New Market.
Although it is called New Market (which it was about 100 years ago) it is one of the oldest markets in India. It is possible to buy anything there (the legend is that you can tiger's milk there if you were willing to pay the price). I have been going there since I have been a child. Each store is a little haven of curious things. I think I have never bought underwear anywhere else in the World. The good old Nusker store has been where I have been going for the past 30 years. So has been my cousin. The old Symphony music store guy knows me so well that I am obliged to bring him a little tobacco every time I visit. The Modern Book Store always remembers me as the author of the books they have sold. New Market is like an island of the old forgotten Calcutta that existed before the American multinational invasion. Before going to the Market we stopped by at the old colonial Grand Hotel for a cup of coffee. Did our shopping at the market and then got back to the Grand, got back to the car and drove over to the Forum Mall on Elgin Road.
This is like any other mall one sees all over the World. The characterless set of name brand shops selling the same stuff from Singapore to Sydney. Anyhow, it does have a nice restaurant and we planned on eating at Oh! Calcutta located on the top (6th) floor of the Forum. I ordered a beer (Kingfisher – yes made by the same United Breweries group that owns the airline by the same name), and we chatted. Soon my friend, Rana, joined us. The appetizers came and we were whiling away the time. It was not until Swati called that we realized that our food order had not arrived and we were sitting there for about 2 hours. We all were upset at that time. There was quite an altercation in the restaurant. They profusely apologized and we left in a huff. Unfortunately there was no more time to sit in the restaurant since Swati needed the car at 4:00. We got back to Salt Lake at about 4:00.
Picked up Swati from her parent’s place and we got to my mom’s. We had about a couple of hours before going for the evening party at the Club. This party was arranged by Swati and me and we were using my cousin’s membership to gain access to the club. We were at the club by about 6:45 and people started to arrive soon. It was a nice evening with a lot of food and fair amount of booze (Dadabhai, Phuchku da, Indira boudi, Tulda, Shanker da, and parents). We finally called it a day about 10:30 and all went back to respective homes. Again spent the evening chatting with my family.
On Saturday July 14 I had again rented the larger Qualis car. I had some work at the bank and other stuff in the morning and then about 11:30 all of us went to visit some of the elderly family members. We first went to Mandeville Gardens to see someone (mam da) who had recently survived a stroke. We then went to my aunt’s place for a bit. This aunt of mine had lost her husband, my uncle, 45 years ago and had never remarried. I try and make it a point to visit with her whenever I am in India, even if briefly. We then tracked back to Fort William to order the food and make arrangements for the party on July 16. The Fort is the old military area of Calcutta and since Swati’s father is a former Indian Army person he has access to their clubhouse. We got there about 1:30. I had a beer as Swati and her dad made the arrangements. We then headed back to the City Center. I had some foreign exchange business to take care of there and I went off on my own while Swati took the rest for lunch to the food court of City Center. I had a quick bite at the Kookie Jar restaurant. I met up with them later and after dropping people off at various places, I went off to Abcos to meet with my friend Abhijit. He has been really helpful in making a lot of arrangements for things I need to take care of in India. We had a beer together and I headed over to Swati’s parents place by 5:30.
She had already packed her stuff and so we loaded the car and got back to my mother’s place. If you are keeping count, you would see I have been on the move since the morning and was quite tired. Anyway, we got back to my mom’s, unloaded the car, freshened up and headed out to my cousin’s place for a high tea.
It was incredibly hot and Swati was not feeling too well. The air conditioning at my cousin’s place was not working too well. Anyway a few drinks later it did not matter as much. We hung out there till about 9:30 at night and got back home to my mother’s place. We were quite worn out by then and called it a day.
The Sunday morning of July 15 was relatively quite. I ran a few errands in the morning while Swati was getting ready. After she was ready we went to the City Center for some time and then on to ITC Sonar Kolkata (yes, the name has changed from Sonar Bangla to Sonar Kolkata since the Sheraton group has pulled out of the hotel and it is run only by ITC now) to meet up with my friend Rana. Swati and I had a lunch by ourselves at the Pan Asian buffet (it was really good) and then met up with Rana. We chatted with him for sometime. In the meantime, I had sent the car off to pick up my cousin sister from her place in Sunny Park. After she joined us we said bye to Rana and came back to my mom’s. Swati and my sister (Moushumi) spent the afternoon in the cold room while I caught up with my nephew (Babli) who had just arrived in Calcutta.
It was a busy evening.
Soon Swati’s parents came over, followed by our old friend (Bunu di) and her family. It was finally pouring with rain which helped to bring the temperature down some. Swati and my mother fixed some snacks for us and it was nice evening over all. We all called it a day at about 11:30 after everyone had left.
On Monday July 16 we spent the morning in packing. I had to do some last minute shopping which I did in the morning.
We then went and visited my aunt in Lake Town and then my uncle in Salt Lake.
I had some foreign exchange work at the City Center so I went off there and Swati did some last minute shopping there. We were home by about 1:45.
Had a quick lunch and then had to work out a problem with Virgin changing our booking reference numbers for the Delhi-London flight. I put on the “Guru” movie for Srijoy and my mother. Swati packed and rested and I went off to meet with Abhijit and recharge the phones. I had also gotten a mobile phone for my mother and so had spent some time in the morning training her with it.
Finally at about 5:30 pm we headed out for the last party of the trip. We picked up Swati’s family and headed out to Fort William. The arrangement there was really nice. The party went off very well and we returned home about 11:30. I was up late making CDs out of the pictures we had taken during the trip. Finished up the last minute packing and went to bed at about 1:00.
The morning of Tuesday started early as we got ready to leave. Mikku’s family arrived to see us off. My cousin’s family from upstairs was also there. We got ready, loaded up the car and left from home at about 7:15 am. We were in the Qualis car that we had used throughout the trip. The familiar driver from Sonata dropped us off at the domestic terminal. Checking in was smooth. I had an official porter help me with the bags and after check in we got the lounge club from Kingfisher Airlines and went on to the Clipper Lounge. We had a little time and I prepared my presentation for the afternoon. The flight was just a little delayed and we left from Calcutta at about 9:40 am. The flight was eventless. We watched some TV and relaxed. The arrival at Delhi was OK. All the bags had arrived. There was one helper from Kingfisher airlines who helped us with the bags. We had to wait outside for the complimentary hotel shuttle but we were soon at the hotel. We were staying at the Radisson.
I had to leave for the lecture soon after we had checked in. I had an invitation from Jamia Millia University to deliver a lecture on my research. They had sent in a car to take me to the location. I connected up with some of my former professional contacts. The lecture went very well and it was chaired by a well-known Indian journalist called Saeed Naqvi. There was a little tea party after the lecture. I was dropped back at the hotel at about 5:30. I had another meeting at 6:00 pm with the Delhi research group I was working with.
That evening the plan was to have Kinshuk (my friend from IIT) come over to the hotel so we could eat dinner together. I had called his wife, Ketoki (also a person from my graduating class at IIT) and told her we were at the Radisson. At about 8:15 they called and said that they were stuck in traffic and would be there soon. This meeting has been a tradition with us for many years. We could not do the meeting on the way to India because of the snafu with the missing airlines. So we were all looking forward to getting together. About 15 minutes later they called and said that they were knocking on our door and we were evidently not responding. They had ended up going to the wrong hotel – they were at the Marriott which is where we sometimes stay as well. It was about 9:00 pm and as with many other things on this trip, we realized that this was not to happen and we decided to wait another year to get together.
Mikku, Bebo and I went downstairs and ate at the I’Ching Chinese restaurant and got back to the room to call it a day.
We got up about 8:30 am on July 18. We went down for our complimentary breakfast. It was a good meal and we finished up around 10:30. Got back to the room and finished up the packing and eventually left the hotel about 11:00 am. The ride to the airport was eventless except that I had accidentally caught my fingers in the car window. It hurt a bit. Checking into upper class was smooth.
Delhi airport is actually quite an efficient airport compared to many other airports I have seen. The sequence is somewhat sane. After checking in we did immigration and were in the duty free shopping area. We went to the Clipper lounge and relaxed there. Mikku browsed the stores a bit. We were then ready for boarding and the security check is done at the time of boarding. It is a very thorough check but it is done quite efficiently. Having been used to terrorism for much longer than the USA, India has a very elaborate checking system. It can get irritating but they check everyone unlike the “profiling” of non-Whites that is done in the Western airports. We finally boarded and had a very pleasant flight.
Virgin really looks after its upper class clients. I think the main thing about upper class is the privacy. One does not have the feeling of being on a “bus” as is the case with Virgin cattle class which we would be traveling on to get from London to New York. In upper class there are fewer people and it is possible to relax without having to look at people around you. The part I have enjoyed the most is sitting at the bar, sipping a drink and reading a magazine! There was a long delay in London in getting a set of moving stairs and sufficient buses.
The London airport is really in need for some changes. It is unable to cope with the traffic that is passing through it. We finally went through the fast track immigration, picked up our bags and headed to the left luggage place. Dropped our bags there and then took the tube to Southfields station.
I had called my uncle from Earl’s Court and he was there to pick us up. We went on to his place, relaxed the evening, had a Scotch followed by a really nice dinner. We eventually called it a day about 10:30 pm. It was a nice an cool day in London and it felt good after the heat in India. I sat outside in the backyard for a bit before going to bed.
We got up really early on Thursday July 19. We had our booking for the 7:42 am Eurostar train from Waterloo station to go to Brussels. We got ready fast and were out of the house by about 6:15. Took the 270 bus to Earlsfield station. Got the tickets for the train from the kiosk. These machines can be a little confusing but the tickets finally came out. We took the Southwest train to Waterloo. There was a little time left and we had a cup of coffee and some rolls. Then went through immigration and security to enter the Eurostar lounge. The immigration was done by French police since we would be going through France. The train boarded right in time.
The train looked much like the bullet train of Japan. The inside was not as clean and nice as the bullet trains but more like the normal European trains. It was relatively empty and we found a nice set of seats that were not our assigned seats. Train left on time and we wound our way out of Waterloo and headed south towards Dover. The train soon picked up to its cruising speed of nearly 180 miles per hour. There was an announcement soon before we entered the chunnel – tunnel that runs under the English Channel – and it took us 20 minutes to cross from UK into the Continent. This was the first time we have traveled the chunnel. This really beats the nearly 2 hours long really choppy crossing by hovercraft which we have done in the past. We emerged out of the chunnel into France right outside of Calais. The train then went non-stop through France and entered into Belgium finally reaching Brussels right on time at about 11:00 am (it is a two hour journey, but Brussels is GMT plus 1).
My friend Tito and his wife Laurie were waiting to receive us at the station. I had completely lost touch with Tito for many years and it was really interesting that we got in contact just a few months ago and then in a short while had the opportunity to see them again. We took the Brussels metro to the Grand Plaza. This is the main plaza in Brussels and similar to many other European Plazas. On one side stood the really elaborately done city hall. We walked down the side streets dotted with souvenir stores to see the Manichen Piss statue that is the symbol of Brussels. The streets were similar to numerous other streets and lanes we have walked in Europe. We got back to the plaza and sat down at one of the many cafeterias that were in the square. Had a lunch of ham sandwich and beer. Chatted and caught up. We then decided to get on to the hop and go tour bus from the Central Station area. This cost about Euro 16 per adult and it allowed us a good view of the main sites in Brussels. The bus finally took us to a place close to Tito and Laurie’s home. We got off the bus and went on to their place. It was a nice apartment and Laurie made tea and we sat around chatted for a bit. Eventually we took the tube back to the Grand Plaza stopping to take some pictures by the statue of Montgomery close to Tito’s house and also stopping at his office for a bit. We all ate the Belgian waffles at a street side store. Srijoy liked it but not as much as he thought he would. We walked back to the plaza.
Laurie, Swati and Srijoy went off to the stores while Tito and I sat at a cafe in the plaza and chatted. We all eventually left the area about 5:30 pm and made our way back to the Brussels Midi station. Tito and Laurie left and we boarded the Eurostar back to Waterloo.
Srijoy got on my case about smoking all through the trip back. We got a train back to Earlsfield and then the bus back to Kaju Mama’s house. It was a little after 9 pm when we got back home. As usual he had prepared an amazingly great dinner of roast lamb. Dinner was followed by some more chatting, dish washing and we called it a day about 11:30. It was a nice single day visit to Brussels that capped off the trip for the year.
Among other notable events was that the flight from London to New York was delayed 3 hours because of bad weather in London, and the flight from New York to Greensboro was delayed about 3 hours because of a faulty aircraft. By this point, we simply expected it! Finally, it was really good to see Viren who had come to pick us up at the airport.
Below is the description of the first part of the trip.
June 28, 2007
It was a hot day and we were ready with the bags in good time for Ajay to give us a ride to the airport. It is always very nice when someone drops off at the airport. It makes the trip much more personal. We got to the airport in good time. Ajay went off to work after dropping us off. We went to the cafeteria. Caught up with some phone calls. Srijoy played on the DS and we finally went through security and to the gate.
There was a large number of kids come from a camp to see the airport. We were stuck behind them at security and that took a while. The flight went out about an hour late. Got some sandwiches from the solitary store on the “sad” side of the Greensboro airport and ate on the plane. This has become so routine for me that it can be boring. Srijoy, however, enjoys the flights. He got a window seat, somewhat on the wing, but he was happy.
Got to Newark.
The bus from the hotel took a bit of time, but we were soon in the hotel in a really nice room at the Springhill Suites. The pool was not working and so we could not do much with that. Hung around, watched some TV, Mikku caught up with work, ordered a very nice Indian delivery (somewhat pricey at about $50.00) and finally called it quits.
June 29 to July 6, 2007
It is easy to write of this period simply by stating that Murphy’s Law works. Everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong. The few days also shows what experience does. The years of traveling allowed us to overcome each one of the obstacles thrown at us.
July 29th started somewhat innocuously. It was a warm summer day in New York and we were supposed to catch the 8:20 am flight on Virgin Atlantic going to London Heathrow. Simple enough. I had simplified the process further by doing an online check in and we decided that leaving the hotel at 6:00 in the morning was sufficiently early. It was only a 15 minute ride to the airport on the hotel’s shuttle. Many, many other guests had planned similarly! The 6:00 am shuttle was too small and it could not accommodate all the guests, particularly since it arrived somewhat full. We were a little perturbed but the hotel folks said that another shuttle was on the way. Naturally, shuttles run every 30 minutes and there was indeed another shuttle that arrived. Thirty minutes later. Thankfully, it was a larger bus and the driver was kind enough to drop us at the departure area (Skip This If You Do Not Want Details (STIYDNWD): The Newark airport is weird. Most of the hotel and other shuttle buses drop off and pick up passengers from the P4 parking lot area. You need to take a train to this place to get into a bus. If you are leaving from EWR the bus will drop you off at P4 and then you have to make your way to the appropriate terminal for the check in and departure. This means you need extra time when traveling out of EWR). The check in was amazingly smooth. We dropped the bags with the bag drop counter and went on to security. This was a bit of a hassle.
It was the day on which the car bomb was discovered in London. We did not know this yet. We had not watched news in the morning as we had left from the hotel. So, passengers traveling to London were examined with extra personal attention (body cavities excluded). We made it to the waiting area with just a few minutes to spare and watched the news of the car bomb attempt. Groan. London would be a mess. If only we knew what a mess!!
The flight boarded on time. I have been traveling Virgin Atlantic since 1985 and they have consistently kept their coach class to meet the standards of “cattle class.” Smaller seats would probably be illegal. They should have those little things they have at County Fairs where a child must be a certain height to get into a ride. Virgin should seriously consider installing such a system – if you are taller than a midget do not fly Virgin cattle class. You can tell that this is the airlines of a class-divided ex-colonial society which treats the “upper class” quite differently from the peasants. The service was marginal. The food was awful. What passed for the “full English breakfast” was soggy eggs, sausages of unknown origin, and rather curious thing that was probably made from potato. See the fun about taking the day flight to UK is that it is nearly 2 pm UK time by the time the plane is airborne. Within three hours it is time for a cocktail!! Except Virgin believes in watered-down crap and thus the crossing was sober! We reached London on time at 8 pm.
I like Heathrow airport. It is the British version of Peak Fitness. “Ahoy,” they would say, “mates been sitting and flying for the last 9 hours, so,” they figured, “make them walk.” The walk from the gate to immigration was long. The line moved fast through immigration. Inane questions about my profession were asked. I responded disdainfully, as all self-respecting people should to immigration clerks! The baggage at Heathrow arrived surprisingly quickly and we did not have to wait more than 20 minutes (not including the 45 minutes for the walk and immigration!).
Got out of the airport and went to left-luggage (STIYDNWD: the facility in Terminal 3 has moved, and is next to the smoking area, the cost is now 6 Sterling per bag per 24 hours). Then took another 30 minute stroll to the Underground station and got the tickets for the station closest to my uncle’s house (STIYDNWD: Piccadilly line to Earl’s Gate to change to the District line towards Wimbledon to Southfields 7.5 Sterling single for three). It was about an hour before we got to the station. It was really nice to see him. He took us back to his place. Had bought a bottle of Scotch on the plane. We had a few drinks with his friend Lenny. My uncle has a really nice detached home in Wandsworth. It is an old Victorian 2 storey with the quintessential little patch of the “back yard” which he has done up nicely. We eventually called it a day after dining on French pastry that had prepared for us. By the way, we saw an amazing moon rise as we took the train from Heathrow to my uncle’s house.
The next day, June 30 2007, we were up around 9:00 in the morning. Did not feel too jet lagged at all. After a simple breakfast of English cookies and coffee we decided to go to central London for the day. The plan was to spend the day there and come back to my uncle’s house to take a ride with him to Heathrow. This would prove to be a very bad decision. It was a rainy day when we left from his home. With two “brollies” we were well prepared for the London rain. Walked down to Garret Lane and I bought the day pass for bus and underground (STIYDNWD: For two adults, and a 12 year old on a weekend it came to about 15 Sterling). Took the number 270 from the bus stop opposite the Pizza Hut on Garret Lane towards Earlsgrave British Rail Station. The London buses are always fun. You see people of all nationalities, faces that tell stories of land left behind, languages that are spoken in London and perhaps one other remote part of the World. It was a short ride on the bus. It was still pouring so the brollies came in handy.
The train ride from Earlsgrave to Waterloo station was very pleasant. The Southwest British rail system winds its way through the outskirts of London. We got a good view of the Eye of London, the London Egg and the Parliament House. The Waterloo Station is very reminiscent of Howrah Station in Calcutta, India. The Howrah station was built to resemble the British counterpart. In my life I have traveled through Howrah Station hundreds of times and as the train pulls into Waterloo one can just imagine that you have just reached Calcutta. The winding meshwork of train tracks, the 14 platforms spread out in parallel with each other, the semi-oval covering of the platforms and the long walk to reach the station all work the same way. We then walked into the labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath Waterloo to find our way to the underground to Leicester Square – the theater district of London (STIYDNWD: BTW, if you are wondering how we used the day pass on British Rail, be warned that the ONLY place you can use the day pass on British Rail is for travel between Earls field and Waterloo, if you go beyond Earlsfield then you get a fine, of course you can not go beyond Waterloo because the train terminates there). That area of London is really crowded with people milling around.
Because of the bomb issue in Piccadilly we had decided to avoid eating at our regular Garfunkel’s in Soho but decided to go to our “alternative” one across the street from the Leicester Square tube station. The meal was the same we have had for lunch at Garfunkel’s every time we go to London. I had the bangers and mash, while the others ate the English breakfast (STIYDNWD: This is not cheap, because of the way the dollar has plummeted with $1.00 buying 0.50 Sterling, the meal with one beer was expensive at 30 Sterling). It was nice to see the crowds walking around Leicester Square, the cheap theater ticket stalls, the eateries and the constant London drizzle.
After lunch we took the tube to Bond Street station. Bhasker Bhowal, my friend from 3rd grade was supposed to come visit with us. He is a distinguished doctor and the Director of the Medical Training system for the University of Leicester. He was taking the train down from Leicester to spend the afternoon with us. We had decided to meet in front of Selfridges on Oxford Street. As always, I love Oxford Street. The little stalls selling all kinds of London souvenirs, the imposing store fronts – Debenheims, Marks and Spencers and Selfrideges. The street itself is narrow but has huge sidewalks that are always chock full of people. There was significant police presence with the terrorist threat being that high. On this afternoon there was also a procession of the Gay and Lesbian Society of the Metropolitan Police of London. We watched the parade some, stuck our heads into some of the stores and eventually met up with Bhasker at about 2:30 in the afternoon. The problem with London is that it is very difficult to find a place to have a pint if you have a 12 year old with you. The regular restaurants (e.g., the numerous eateries along Oxford Street) will require you to order food if you want to have a drink, whereas the numerous pubs would not allow Srijoy inside. It turned out that Bhasker was less familiar with Oxford Street than I was. So, what we did is go to one of the pubs I was familiar with where there was a seating area outside the pub. There are few like that in the Oxford Street area, but I knew of this one which was off Oxford Street. Although it was a little damp and chilly we sat outside the pub and had a pint or two. It was nice to meet up with Bhasker after about two years. Catching up on stories and all that good stuff. We eventually called it a day at about 5:00 and took the tube back to Waterloo and the train back to Earlsfield. We got a London cab from the station and got back to my uncle’s house at about 6:00 pm.
We left from his place for Heathrow at about 6:15. He drives a 2 year old Jaguar and it is a really nice vehicle. This is the quintessential “rich uncle” who can casually say that he is tired of the two year old Jag and wants to get a new one soon.
The drive from his place to Heathrow usually takes 45 minutes. Being a Saturday we were expecting it to be a 30 minute ride. The next part will make most sense for those who know London some. So, we took off towards Putney, went over Putney Bridge, and decided to hit M4 soon after crossing through Putney. M4 was flowing well and I was looking forward to an early check in and some time at the Lounge. I noticed that the traffic was getting thicker when we were about 4 miles from the Terminal 4 interchange off M4. I remarked about it but did not make much of it. The next interchange (this is what is called an ‘exit’ in USA) was for Terminals 1, 2, 3. Traffic was backed up. M4 was moving smoothly towards Slough but the Terminal interchange was backed up. It was 6:45. We were about 2 miles from the Terminal. It was pouring with rain. We were all kind of relaxed since we had made it in good time. I was a little surprised about how slowly the traffic was moving. We saw some emergency vehicles up ahead. We surmised that as soon as the accident was cleared we would be on our way.
Thirty minutes later, at 7:15, we had moved a few feet only. I was starting to get a little uneasy. There were some folks who were getting off the cars and walking in the rain towards the Terminal. Clearly they had earlier flights than ours which was at 10:00 so we just needed to be at check in at 8:30. By 8:00 we had moved about 100 more feet. We realized that there was a problem beyond an accident. People had been sitting in their cars for nearly two hours now, some were getting out to take a leak by the road side.
At this point, e called Lenny, my uncle’s friend, and we learnt that there was a bomb blast at Glasgow Airport and the entire UK airport systems were messed up! It was time to panic. At 8:30 we had moved another 200 feet. There was no way we were going to make the flight. We were totally confused about what was going on. The radio was not giving any information other than the new PM of UK asking all to stay calm. Not many people were following his advice. We finally pulled into the parking lot for Terminal 3 and walked over the Virgin check in. It was 9:15 and we were told that the 10:00 pm flight to Delhi was closed, meaning no one could check in any further. In the meantime, I had sent Srijoy, Swati and my uncle to fetch the luggage from the car, hoping that there might be a faint chance that we would actually get on the plane. No such luck.
I joined the excessively long re-ticketing line and after a long wait the ticker counter person said that all flights to Delhi were booked for the next several days. This was not good, since our family was arriving in Delhi the next day to join up with us to take the trip to the Himalayas.
Many years of travel has taught me to not trust what ticket agents say. Before using my “scream at the top of your voice” technique to get a ticket, I politely asked her whether she could fly us anywhere in the vicinity of Delhi – say Singapore, Dubai, Bombay – anywhere nearby. No. Scream at the top your voice right about now. Suddenly tickets came available for the next night. It never fails. So we were now booked to arrive into India, albeit in Bombay, a day after we were supposed to arrive in Delhi. In the meantime, my mother, Swati’s parents and her sister would arrive before us in Delhi. All of us were supposed to take a road trip to the Himalayas starting about the same time when we would now be flying over Afghanistan on our way to Bombay (which is a good 1,000 miles from Delhi). You need a map and a good understanding of air corridors and time zones to appreciate what I was calculating as I was ticketing.
Anyway, we left the airport about 10:30 at night and drove back to my uncle’s house. Mikku and my uncle cooked a fabulous quick meal. I got on the Internet which meant I was sitting in a “Harry Potter’s first room” under the stairs kind of a nook where my uncle has his high speed cable connection. Trolling the ticket sites finally brought forth a one-way ticket from Bombay to Delhi which I quickly purchased for an inordinately large amount of money. Then I called the hotels and re-aligned everything. Finally I called my father-in-law and let him know that we are arriving a day late! Went to bed about 3 am UK time.
The next day was a Sunday, July 1 2007. While we had slept in London, the monsoons had decided to come in with real force in Bombay. I was woken by a call from a friend in India who was in the loop via text messages I was sending him, and I was informed that the city of Bombay was shut down because of rains. I was assured that there was no way I was going to be able to make it from Bombay to Delhi. Aaah, I said, “this is nothing (remember Wag the Dog).” This was followed by several phone calls from India warning us of dire consequences of flying into Bombay. These were well wishers who were missing a major point.
I was already trolling the Net and quickly discovered that airplanes were flying in and out of Bombay airport. The flooding had cut off the airport from the city. That was not a problem we had. We would fly into the airport and fly out of it, so I knew I would make it.
Of course, in the mix up I had forgotten that we fly into the International airport of Bombay, and fly out of the Domestic airport – a good 3 miles away which requires driving through the city. The city, of course, is supposed to be flooded.
Now, one needs to understand the term “flooded” in the Indian context. There is one kind of flood where the water basically wipes out entire swaths of land and Malthusian population control kicks in. This is fine because you know you are screwed and you can do nothing. The other kind of flooding is where the water simply becomes an irritant with streets being water-logged making vehicular traffic a mess. Bombay was experiencing the latter. So a good vehicle would do the trick. I was going to Bombay after about 15 years and I had about 10 hours, sitting in London, within which I had to organize a vehicle that would take us the 3 miles from one airport to another.
Wag the Dog – “this is nothing.”
Trolling again on the Net I identified several taxi company phone numbers. Skype! Started calling the numbers. But of course, these were land-line phone numbers, and it was a Sunday, and the city was flooded, so no one was answering. Either the phone lines were down or they were not at work. So, now I needed to find a mobile phone number for a taxi operator in Bombay while sitting in London. It was getting late in Bombay. Not good. Moment of inspiration – why not call my taxi operator in Delhi and see if he has a mobile number of a taxi operator in Bombay. Bingo!
Mr. Jeetendra in Delhi said that I should call Mr. Harish in Bombay. I had a mobile phone number of a taxi operator in Bombay. It was getting to be noon in London. I told the brood (Swati, Srijoy, my uncle, and his friend Lenny) that they should all get ready because I wanted to go out have Sunday pub lunch. Hey, I was in London, it was a Sunday, it would be stupid to not take advantage of this.
While they got ready I got a hold of Mr. Harish in Bombay and he said that he had a 4X4 that he will send to the airport for the airport transfer. So all the pieces were now in place.
Note that this is coordination between two time zones. It was about noon in UK which meant it was about 4:30 pm in India. My family was in the air flying to Delhi, we were supposed to have received them at the airport in Delhi. Unfortunately, we were in London. I had to arrange a car to pick them up from the airport and bring them to the Radisson Airport Hotel in Delhi. Not only that, I had to cancel the room I had booked for Swati, Srijoy and me before 6 pm hotel time, and I had to book 3 new rooms at the hotel for the following night.
I sent the fax to the hotel letting them know that the airport transfer was needed for the elderly travelers, and I cancelled my room. Of course, the hotel was sold out for the following night.
I now had to find 3 hotel rooms of reasonable price in the capital of India at about 24 hours notice while sitting in London.
How did we survive before the Net?
In about 20 minutes we were booked into a Holiday Inn. Of course, now the issue was to send instructions to my father-in-law. Fax to the Radisson with clear instructions. We were getting hungry. Eventually by about 1:00 pm UK time, I was satisfied that all the pieces were in place.
We went off to the local pub.
A Guinness (for breakfast, because I realized all I had eaten till then was a cup of coffee) followed by a roast chicken, Yorkshire pudding and potatoes set things straight. After lunch my uncle drove us to Hammersmith Underground station and we took the subway to Heathrow. We were at Heathrow at 4 pm for the 10 pm flight to Bombay. If we had done this yesterday we might not have faced all these hassles.
We picked up our bags from the left luggage and went to the Virgin check in counter. I decided to do the “shout at the top of you voice” technique and told the check in person that I do not want to go to Bombay. After some shouting she said that we could be put on standby to Delhi. However, we will only know if the standby cleared at 9 pm.
So we put ourselves on the standby list and it was about 5:00 pm and decided to go to a restaurant for a drink. After settling down at a table I went to the bar to order the drinks. The guy handed me two drinks and I signed my Amex card receipt. At that moment, there was an announcement on the Heathrow public address system that the Mitra party was needed at the check in counter. We were thrilled, it must mean that we were actually cleared on the stand by and would actually not have to go to Bombay.
We rushed down to the check in pushing extremely unwieldy Heathrow luggage carts to be told that the Delhi upper class had checked in full and we will have to go to Bombay. So we better check in for the Bombay flight. Check in was smooth. We had 3 hand bags and two small strollers that the check in clerk said would be fine as carry ons.
Heightened security at Heathrow meant that all passengers were allowed only one bag as carry on. If you know Heathrow Terminal 3 you would realize that this meant that we had to go all the way down to check in zone A for Virgin with these two bags which we not had to check in and rejoin the security line. Naturally security checking was thorough and we eventually got past passport control and the duty free mall of Terminal 3.
I decided that we deserved a lounge break after all this, and we went to the Virgin lounge and finally sat down to have a Scotch and to organize all the stuff we had to hurriedly put into our bags at the Security snafu.
Something was missing.
My Amex card.
Think, I said to myself, when did you last use it. Of course, at the bar before check in. I had left the card at the bar. So we had now cleared security, cleared immigration, left UK, sitting in a secure lounge and my Amex card was in the insecure part of Heathrow. There was no way I could go back there to get my card. But someone from there could come in and bring it to me.
So, I walked up to the lounge customer service lady and said what had happened. She smiled. “Heathrow has been evacuated because of a bomb scare, that bar is now empty.” So, what had happened is that while we were doing security and immigration and entering the sanitized part of Heathrow there was another security issue at the airport and the in-secure part of the airport had been cleared. Those in the sanitized part, i.e., us, were OK and would be able to leave but others in the un-sanitized part were screwed.
Got to a phone and cancelled my Amex. An arrangement was made that I would pick up a new card in the Calcutta American Express office 10 days later. Essentially, we were now going to be without our primary charge card for the next 10 days of the trip.
Swati then noticed that there was a very familiar looking very old man in the lounge. She came up to me and said, “You know Dev Anand is sitting there.” So, to put this statement in perspective think of your one of the most favorite film star from when you were in your teens. And your wife comes up to you and says that film star is sitting next to you in the lounge. At that moment I realized that fate had arranged for me to meet Dev Anand and thus we were going to Bombay. I went up to him, unfortunately he was going to the bathroom, so I followed him into the bathroom and he was little alarmed I think. But, for all other Dev Anand fans, I shook hands with him (It is $5.00 to shake hands with me from now on if you are a Dev Anand fan)! I was now happy. We boarded the plane and he was almost literally next to me on the plane. The Scotch allowed me to fall asleep quickly as we headed on our way to Bombay. We were now 24 hours delayed and not going to our destination.
“This is nothing.”
It was Monday July 2 2007, at about noon that we landed at Bombay. It was somewhat wet and dreary. The flight was comfortable and the breakfast was nice. Virgin does a very good job in upper class where they treat you as royalty. It is quite easy to use frequent flyer points to upgrade a cattle ticket to upper class. We usually do that for the night flights. The upper class seat becomes a flat bed and one can actually sleep. They also give a nice sleeping suit. I think Srijoy has a dozen of these and we have not bought pajamas for him for a long time.
Clearing customs and immigration in Bombay was a breeze. We were about to leave the airport when I remembered that I needed to get some rupees to pay the car driver who was coming to transfer us from one airport to the other. So I asked Swati and Srijoy to wait while I was at the foreign exchange counter changing money. My back was turned to what went on behind me. After the exchange I looked up towards Swati and Srijoy and they had the largest smile on their faces I had seen in a long time. Wow, why were they so happy to see me exchange Sterling to Rupees?
So I walked the 150 feet or so to them. They still had the silly smile on their faces. Swati said that they had just seen Abhisek Bachchan and Aishwariya Rai walk past them and Aishwariya smiled at them. My back was turned when these two absolute contemporary super stars of Bollywood had walked past me. I was exchanging money.
Completely devastated I ran to get a glimpse. Did see the guy. I was interested in seeing the gal in real life. So a very satisfied wife and child kept on telling me how the actress was wearing boots matching the color of her eyes. My back was turned. Anyway, got to the car. The road was clear and dry and the transfer to the other airport was event free.
We checked in and the flight left almost on time. Thankfully the flooding did not affect the process. We were in and out of Bombay without any more hassles. The aircraft was quite nice. The Jet Airways plane was one of the newer planes with the seat back video screen with a good selection of shows.
We eventually landed in Delhi at about 5:00 pm, about 30 hours after we were originally supposed to reach Delhi. Luggage was smooth and the family was there to receive us. We had rented two vehicles – one Toyota Inova and an Ambassador. The latter is Srijoy’s most favorite car and he was thrilled to have access to an Amby for the next few days. The chauffeurs put the bags in the luggage hold on top of the Toyota.
The drivers were hard-core Jats. They had no English, some Hindi and mostly Punjabi. So all through the trip communicating with them was a challenge. Being Jats they had the typical jat streak in them which meant that they had their mind set on what they wanted to do and did not much care about what the passengers wanted. Of course, other than Mikku’s father who has some Punjabi, we were also having difficulty talking to them. I have some Hindi so I could tell our driver – Balvinder Singh, a Sikh – a few things but I was not always able to understand his responses in Punjabi.
Srijoy and I rode in the Amby and we reached the Holiday Inn about 6:30 pm. Check-in was OK, there was a little confusion about the rate. The “shout at the top of your voice” technique took care of the problem. We settled into our rooms and the family went off to the adjoining McDonalds for dinner. I had a business meeting that evening and took care of the research project that will bring me back to Delhi in a few days. After concluding all that eventually called it a day. Told the drivers that we would be leaving around 7 am the following day for our trip to the Himalayas.
The temperature in Delhi that day was about 110 F in the day time and it had significantly cooled down to 95 by the evening.
The next day, July 3 2007, started as a hot day in Delhi. We made some coffee in the room, and breakfasted on the complimentary fresh fruits in the rooms. Srijoy and I walked out to a nearby ATM machine to get some cash. We all gathered at the lobby about 7:30. The bags were loaded back on the cars and we were ready to go.
The place we were going to was Kasauli which was about 150 miles north of Delhi. We left Delhi taking National Highway 1 and went past the Red Fort, the Shrine to Mahatma Gandhi, the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and we slowly moved outside of metropolitan area of Delhi. The highway was good. Being in a tourist taxi the speed limit was maxed out at 65 kilometers per hour. There was sufficient police presence to encourage the drivers to go slow. The Indian highways are dotted with eating places called “dhabas” which offer a basic meal, a dirty toilet and resting area. The mercury was inching to about 100 and I fired up my GPS system, and the computer as we tracked our path using Google earth (STIYDNWD: If you ever want to do this you need three pieces of equipment and some preparation. First you need a GPS receiver with Bluetooth. These are tiny units about half the size of a cigarette pack. This connects with the satellites in the sky. Next you need some hardware/software combination that would connect with the receiver and report the Lat/Long for your location. Finally, you need a computer with Google earth installed on the computer. Since you can not assume that you will have an Internet connection on the road, it is safest to have “flown” over the area in Google earth and saved it in cache. Now it is possible to punch in the lat/long info to fly to the exact location on Google earth). I had a mini tracking office set up in the front seat of the Amby as we drove out of Delhi, into the Indian state of Haryana.
We stopped at a dhaba for the drivers to get their breakfast. The family ate some “alu parathas” which are basically like a potato pancake. I decided to avoid this since I was not about to take any chances of getting ill. Srijoy and I ate some potato chips and canned coke (STIYDNWD: Never, ever drink “fountain” soda in India, make sure you get a can, not a bottle, and drink from the can, obviously this applies to bodies that are unfamiliar with the Indian system).
We then hit the road again and went through historical places such as Panipat – the location of numerous battles between the different invaders that have attacked India; Kurushkehtra – the location of the ultimate battle between good and evil as depicted in the Geeta; and finally to Ambala – the site of one of the largest military establishments in India (we are now fairly close to the Pakistan border).
Since Swati’s father is a former military officer, he has friends in many places. He had contacted one of his former colleague/friend who lived in Ambala. We drove through the Ambala Cantonment and Srijoy was thrilled to see all the tanks and armored vehicles and we met up with Babul-baba’s friend. We spent a little time at his home enjoying a beer and then went on to eat at a local restaurant. It was hot in Ambala.
After lunch we left Ambala at about 3:30 pm and proceeded roughly north-east towards the Himalayas. This is a mountain range unlike any other in the World. It is huge. It stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. I have had the opportunity to see the Alps, the Rockies and the Andes. Those are essentially hills compared to the Himalayas. One has to see this to understand what this mountain range is. Once can begin to see the 6,000 to 8,000 feet foothills miles before the climb begins. We took NH 73 through Pinjore stopping once on the way to cover up the bags with tarp since it looked like it would rain. The drivers did that work. We then reached Panchkula where the road bifurcates, one going towards Chandigarh the capital of the Indian state of Punjab and the other going towards Kalka the entry point to Indian mountain state Himachal Pradesh (“Him” means snow and ice, “achal” refers to place, and “Pradesh” means state). We reached Kalka and had to stop to pay an entry tax for the state (STIYDNWD: This is true every time one crosses a state line in India).
The Amby refused to start up after that. The engine would not crank. The drivers opened up the hood and the cause was diagnosed as eroded and dirty battery connections. A wrench, some water, some grease and about 40 minutes later we were ready to begin the climb into the mountains.
The road is windy and narrow. Every turn is a game of chicken. Will the truck give way or not? The landscape was lush green with tropical plants covering the mountain sides. Feral monkeys sat by the roadside awaiting bits of food thrown at them. Srijoy was absolutely enthralled. This is a mountain unlike any other in the World. It was starting to get to be twilight as we ascended. After about 2 hours of climbing we reached the fork near the mountain village of Dharampur where we took the left hand turn to climb to Kasauli our destination. The next 15 kilometers was more climbing and it had gotten dark. We finally reached Baikunth Resort at about 8:30 pm.
The place was at an elevation of 5,600 feet and a cool mountain breeze soothed us. In the distance one could see the lights of Chandigarh in the valley. After settling down into our three rooms we sat down in the lawn and had a drink. Srijoy quickly made friends with the resident mongrel of the resort and named him “wantee” because it was clear the dog seemed to want something all the time. The resort had a nice restaurant and we finally had dinner together. The meal was very good and we called it a day at about 11:00 at night.
The next day, July 4 2007, was my mother’s birthday. It began to rain early in the morning but it let up about 5:30 or so. The mist started to clear about then too. I got ready and took a stroll around the resort. It was really pretty. As the others got ready I got a breakfast basket packed.
The drivers had disappeared and it took a bit of time to locate them. Eventually, we all were assembled. Meanwhile we had a little celebration of giving my mother her birthday gift and instead of cake, we cut some fruits. We headed out of the resort at about 8:00 am.
We were heading north east further into the mountains. Our destination was the town of Kufri which is a ski resort in winters. The drive took us through Solan a fairly good sized mountain town, we skirted by Shimla – the old summer capital of the colonial rulers, and the four hour drive took us to the elevation of about 8,600 feet where we got a good view of the Himalayas that stretched into the horizon darkened by the monsoon clouds.
One irritation was that my Indian mobile phone had quit working that morning. It was unclear what the problem was. That comes later in the blog. So it was difficult to locate the drivers who kept disappearing at importune moments. After a brief stop in Kufri we started to roll back down to Shimla. Swati’s dad also had someone he has set up a meeting with in Shimla. Unfortunately, that connection did not happen in spite of trying to find the obscure address in Shimla. It was also the case that the house in which Swati and her family lived in at Shimla in the early 60s had been torn down to be replaced by a new development. We then went to the central part of Shimla. The city is laid out in a way where the upper locations are “car free.” We had the drivers drop us off at the base of the elevator that takes people up to upper Shimla. We rode the elevators and found a restaurant that seemed nice. We had lunch there followed by a little hassle about the people accepting credit cards. A fire in Chandigarh had brought down all network connectivity making it difficult for stores to accept credit cards.
After lunch we strolled down the street lined with shops selling all kinds of ware to find the school that Swati attended as a child. Indeed we found the school. We took some pictures in the school area. After a little shopping we took the lift back to the base where the cars were. We then started the climb down from Shimla back to Kasauli. It was an uneventful drive although the scenery was stunning. We stopped for a bit in Solan and then reached the resort back at about 6 pm. It was a little warm but we still sat outside in the lawn and had a few drinks. The dinner was again at the resort restaurant and it went well. Called it a day about 10:30 pm.
The next day, July 5 2007, everyone was a little tired. The decision was made the night before that we would not go out of the resort too early in the morning. I was still up at about 5:00. I took my camera and did a complete stroll of the resort. This was a nice resort and had some useful facilities such as a very reasonably priced laundry service. So we were getting our clothes laundered each day. After my stroll had a cup of coffee in the lawn.
Around 9:00 everyone was up and ready to eat breakfast. The breakfast was included with the price of the room and it was a really nice meal. Unlike the buffets one sees in some places, this breakfast was from a menu that contained traditional Indian fare such puri (puffed bread) and bhaji (vegetable curry) as well the other standard fare such egg to order and stuff. I had a puri-bhaji.
I realized that the group was quite worn out and they would not budge from the resort. I decided to take one of the cars and went on to the village of Kasauli. It is a military base and security is quite tight. Once in the village most of the area is pedestrian only. I strolled through the market and found the Internet cafe I was looking for. Spent some time catching up with work and correspondence. Then drove over to Kasauli Club (a private club in Kasauli) and tried to see if we could a day’s membership to eat lunch. No go. Went to an ATM, got some money out and drove back to the resort. People were ready for lunch.
Since the dining room was being washed, we had lunch in the room. The rooms all had verandahs and so it was nice to sit outside and eat. It was quite warm at that time.
At about 2:30 pm Srijoy and I realized that no one wanted to leave the resort. The two of us went back to Kasauli in the Amby and had the driver take us to place called Manki Point. This is the site of a high security Indian Air Force base. Within the base is a very old Hindu temple. Since Srijoy had never really seen a Hindu Temple we had decided to do the hike. It was a climb of about 1,500 feet along a 30 degree gradient.
We walked up the security gate of the base. The place was crowded with children coming out of the local school and so was quite festive. It was cool and cloudy. Being a military establishment we were not allowed to carry any electronic devices with us. We knew about that and so all we had was an umbrella and bottled water.
The security guy asked for a picture id. I pulled out my North Carolina drivers’ license.
He wanted to see a picture Id issued by an Indian government organization with an Indian address on it. Aaah, hm! “Sorry sir, I do not have that.” Then he asked the question I was dreading, “Are you an Indian?” Now, as a communication professional, I saw that he had asked the wrong question (the correct question should have been “Are you an Indian citizen?”). To his question, I could truthfully say “yes.” There is surely some Indian in me. So I said “yes.” Then he asked “What is your address?” Again the wrong question. Let’s see, he is holding my NC DL in his hand with the Linbrook Drive address on it. This guy is no Bozo, he seems to know what he is doing, so I truthfully give him my parents’ home address in Calcutta. Then he goes, “but you live in America.” I answer affirmatively. Then came the really bad question, “Are you American?” Now, I could write a book to answer that question. But that did not seem a wise strategy when trying to enter a secure military base. I simply said, “Yes.” And he said, “Sorry you can not enter the base.” Note that in these kinds of situations the “shout at the top of your voice” is not a good technique. “Grovel” works better. I pointed at Srijoy and in the best Hindi I could muster basically told the man that we have traveled 10,000 miles, and then climbed all the way till here to pay our homage to Lord Hanuman whose foot touched this particular mountain where you have now built a base. Can you deny us this opportunity? Something clicked with him. He took down my name, kept my DL, and gave us the pass to enter the base. Once in, we walked past the base area and began the arduous climb to the temple. The place was full of monkeys and Srijoy had a ball.
Eventually we reached the temple. We spent a little time up in the clouds and began the climb down. We then took the car and drove back to the village. Met up with Swati and her mother who had come to the village in the other car. The remainder of the group was resting in the resort. Srijoy and I were really tired and we returned to the resort by about 5:30. I completed some of the packing and we sat in the lawn to spend our last evening in Kasauli. That night we got some of the suitcases in the cars, had a nice dinner at the resort and Srijoy spent some time playing with Wantee. We eventually went to bed about 10:30 knowing that a long day was ahead of us.
The next day, July 6 2007, we took a very early start from the resort. We had got the packed breakfast the night before and we were able to hit the road about 7:30 am. We winded down the mountain road back to the plains. Then we joined up with the highway and were on our way to Delhi. We stopped for lunch and finally arrived in Delhi about 4 pm. We first went to the rental car place and paid off for the car. We then drove to the Radisson near the airport. We rested in the lobby over a drink for about an hour, finally leaving for the airport.
The 8:40 pm flight to Calcutta left on time. The arrival in Calcutta was eventless. The city had experienced torrential rain for the past four days. There were two cars waiting for us. One was an Amby that Swati’s family with fewer bags took to go back to their house. We had a Tata Sumo (an Indian SUV) so that we could fit all the bags in it. My mother, Swati, Srijoy and I were in this one going to my parent’s house.
The road from the airport to the city was incredibly gridlocked due to water logging. There was water all over and it was drizzling. We were moving at a snail’s pace when the driver declared he was out of gas.
Yes, the idiot had come to do an airport pick up with an empty tank hoping to swing it.
It was about 11:30 at night. The place was a mess. Years of street smart kicked in. I hailed down an empty Amby cab, put the three of them in it and one suitcase and sent them off. It was raining hard at that time, the temperature was 95 and the humidity was 100%. I do not know what got me drenched, my own sweat or the rain. I started to hail down other vehicles. Some stopped but none could fit all the suitcases. Eventually another Sumo stopped. I transferred all the bags while profusely cursing the driver of our dead Sumo and hitched a ride home. I reached my mother’s house at about 12:30 at night. Finally, about 1:30 we were all in bed.
What a trip!
Labels: India 2007