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 ananda@wfu.edu

Monday, July 23, 2007

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.

Big mistake.

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.

So there.

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.

posted by Ananda  # 5:35 AM


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