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
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