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
Greensboro, Philadelphia, New York, London, Prague, Dresden, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Delhi, Calcutta
June 28, 2009, Saturday Greensboro-Philadelphia-New York
We left from home after a brief stop at the Starbucks on Robinhood and headed to the airport. The drive was eventless, and after checking in I parked the car in the long-tem lot (it is not cheap, and comes to about $6.00 per day). Walked back to the airport and security was eventless. The flight was on time and we reached Philadelphia OK as well. Got the bus to the car rental and was on the way in a van very soon. We drove into downtown Philly and stopped by the convention center. Walked around Chinatown and stopped at a really smelly fish store and then walked through the Chinatown gate to a Vietnamese restaurant. These Chinatowns are more or less similar all over the US, with the customary Chinese gate, the street shops selling exotic fruits (not exotic to anyone East of the Atlantic), and the numerous Chinese restaurants. The food at the Vietnamese restaurant was interesting but nothing spectacular. Over the years, if I have leaned one thing about food: Not to ever stray from the trusted food that one is used to. Trying new things is a good thing, but as far and food and self is concerned, would much rather have my fish and chips with a pint than all this exotic stuff with unknown dead animals and fluids whose sources are at best suspect. I am OK with new ideas, technology, inventions, political movements, and places, but keep the food the same!! It was a really hot day and we strolled back to the car since Srijoy was really tired. We had to deal with a really intense storm and some nasty traffic as we headed towards JFK airport. The trip took longer than anticipated because of the traffic. There was also a lot of rain. We often complain about being stuck in traffic jams in Indian cities, but the journey from Philly to New York was quite bad as well. We eventually reached the hotel we were booked at – the Fairfield Inn in Jamaica, not too far from JFK airport. We have stayed at this hotel before and the rooms are not bad for the price (about $180 with taxes), given how expensive hotels have become in New York. After a brief rest, I took the car back to the rental return and took the hotel back. Soon after, Robert, my former student, came over. We sat and chatted for a while, eventually calling it a day for the early start the next day.
June 29, 2008, Sunday New York-London
We were up early to make the 5:30 am bus to the airport. The check in and other formalities were simple because I had completed the online check in and simply had to do the bag drop at the airport. We were in the brand new JFK terminal and everything went relatively smoothly. The seat selection on the plane was a disaster. While Mikku and Bebo had good seats, mine was really cramped. A little smooth talking had me exchange the seat with another fellow and I was comfortable for the rest of the time. The crossing was innocuous, although the food on Virgin was not as good as it used to be. Reached London on time and had a glorious view of the city as we circled over Heathrow. They really need to fix that airport. We arrived in Terminal 3 and immigration took a while as always. The bags arrived OK and we walked down to the Underground station. Bought the tickets to Hammersmith and got on the train. We got a taxi from Hammersmith to Wandsworth (about 20 Sterling) and Kaju Mama (my uncle from my mother’s side) had left the keys to his place (15 Wandsworth Close) with his neighbors. We got in, relaxed, and soon Kaju Mama, Lenny and Tony were back from the church. They had a big do at the Church for St. John the Baptist Day. We sat around chatting for some time before calling it a day. I did a portion of the repacking to prepare for the Europe trip.
June 30, 2008, Monday London-Prague
We had to get an early start since we had a morning flight from Heathrow Terminal 5. I did the online check in at home. We then walked from Kaju’s house on to Arndale Center. It was a nice cool morning and the walk was not too bad with the two suitcases. There is a taxi stand in front of Sainsbury at Arndale and it took a few minutes for the taxi. We took the taxi (6 Sterling) to East Putney Underground and bought the tickets for Heathrow (this is usually a 7.5 Sterling ticket for “two adults and 13 years old”). The journey was eventless and we got to Terminal 5 without any problems. The terminal is brand new and is only meant for British Airways flights. The checking in was eventless and all we had to do was a bag drop and then we went through security which was quite a good technology too. They are starting to use a conveyor belt system that simplifies the process of getting things through the X-ray system. The terminal was quite large and we went to a restaurant and had a nice meal before going on to the gate to board the BA flight to Prague. The two-hour flight was nice and there was a good meal as well. Unfortunately there was a liquid spill on my computer key board that led to a series of events making my computer relatively useless for the rest of the trip. Not a good thing right at the beginning of the trip. Anyway, arrival at Prague airport was quite smooth and we picked up our bag and walked across the street to the Courtyard Marriott hotel. This was a brand new hotel and the room was really nice. I had selected to stay here because we were getting the room for free (thanks to Marriott Rewards) and the airport is well connected to the city center. There was a distinct East-European feel about the place even though the hotel was swanky new. After a brief rest we decided to venture to the city center. There is a shuttle that goes from the airport to the city center and being the first time we decided to use that. The drive from the airport was through a city that bore all the signs of an emerging Capitalist system that had been under a Soviet-style system for years. There was the garish display of the 24-hour McDonalds next to large concrete blocks of houses that once must have housed the CIA safe-houses in the height of the Cold War. It is said that Prague is one of the prettiest cities in Europe. That was not immediately evident as we pulled into the city. The bus dropped us off by the Hilton in the City Center and we strolled along cobbled streets on to the main square which was reminiscent of many other plazas we have seen across Europe. One of the main attractions of the plaza is a clock tower that has a display of the mechanized figures (including a skeleton) that announces the hour. We watched the display and hung out at the square. The restaurants along the square were really expensive and we strolled away from the square and found a less-expensive restaurant that Srijoy had already noticed while we were walking towards the square. The dinner was goulash soup and some salad. We then walked back towards the Hilton, and on the way checked with a store to figure out the best way to get back to the airport. We were also approached by a shady character who said “namaste” and then proceeded to offer to buy dollars from us, very reminiscent of what happens in India. We had decided to take public transport back to the hotel, and I was a little apprehensive because it was starting to get dark and we were in a completely new city. The process of getting back to the airport was to take the underground to the end of the line to a station which had a bus service to the airport. This was a far less expensive option than the shuttle bus. We took the underground which was quite nice and then took the bus. The journey took about 40 minutes and we were back at the hotel without a problem and decided to call it a day. There was a casino connected to the hotel and I went there for a bit. We were planning on a complete day in Prague next day.
July 1, 2008, Tuesday Prague
We took an early start and after coffee and breakfast in the room we walked over to the ticket place in the airport and purchased the all day bus ticket. All together for the 3 of us this was about $15.00 and allowed unlimited use of the bus and underground. We took the bus to the underground station and then took the train for one stop to the jumping off point for the visit to Prague Castle. From the train station we took a tram that took us all the way up to the courtyard of the castle. We stopped for a coffee and cake before entering the castle. It was a regal castle as they usually are in these places and we strolled along the castle grounds before reaching the gardens. This was a really pretty and quite place and after a small entry fee we walked down the slope through the garden before leaving the castle. We arrived at a street that was obviously the area where all the foreign consulates were and we decided to take some pictures at the Indian Embassy, and we could not find the US Embassy. The street led to a large plaza where we took the wrong tram to another plaza. The idea of “taking the wrong tram” and getting lost is quite relative when one has no specific destination. We were just strolling along the streets of Prague, taking in the ambience which continued to display the peculiar historical moment we were in. At the place we had reached, Srijoy spotted a large Starbucks and we went in for some coffee. We then started to stroll towards the famous Charles Bridge of Prague which has been made famous in numerous movies such as “Mission Impossible.” On the way we stopped at a grocery store where we picked up a few sandwiches and like many others, we sat on the pavement and ate the food. It is important to use bottled water in Prague since the regular water could be suspicious. We then slowly strolled along the bridge looking at the sculpture and the numerous street vendors selling their ware. The bridge leads across the Danube into the old quarter of the city; we strolled through that area stopping at souvenir stores and then reached the Jewish Ghetto. This was one of the oldest Jewish quarters in Europe rivaled by the one in Venice (which too we have been to) and we walked around that area. We bought a little souvenir from a street shop who accepted British currency. We then strolled over to a post office to post the picture postcards and stopped for some coffee before heading to the railway station. It took a bit of time to figure out the cost and time for the trains to Vienna and we were also thinking of a day trip to Berlin. The latter was not conceivable as a day trip so we decided to do a trip to Dresden instead. We then all got back to the hotel by the same route using the bus and underground combination. After a supper at the hotel I went back to the station and bought the tickets to Dresden and Vienna. The Dresden ticket did not require a reservation but the Vienna one did. I finally called it a day after returning to the hotel.
July 2, 2008, Wednesday Prague-Dresden
We tried to leave in good time to catch the 10:30 am train to Dresden. We reached the station in good time only to be told that we were at the wrong station. We did a mad rush to get to the other station and still made the train since the train was running about 10 minutes late. This was a good lesson since we would not make the same mistake for the train to Vienna. The train was not bad and the second-class tickets (the total cost was $150.00 for the three of us) put us into a coupe with 6 seats. Our co-passengers got off before we entered Germany. The countryside was not spectacular but was dotted with old factories that were relics of the Soviet days. What was striking was the similarity in the look of these factories and what we see in India. There was a time in the 1960s when India was quite friendly with Russia and there was a good amount of technology transfer between the countries. Many of the factories in India were built around Russian plans which were more geared towards heavy machinery use with scant concern for making a profit. The West is used to manufacturing systems that are geared for maximizing profit. The socialist planned economy was geared towards producing standardized (often inferior) goods that were made in State controlled industries. Being an engineer, I am able to see the difference in the design of factories of the two systems. It was fascinating to see these now-defunct factories as we traveled the two hours from Prague to Dresden. Arrival at Dresden was smooth. We got out of the station and walked into the information area to buy the day pass for buses and underground. Bebo was quite surprised to see me speak workable German to communicate with the ticket clerk. We then strolled towards the city center of Dresden. After a while of strolling in the heat, we decided to get on the tram and took the tram to the city center. Dresden used to be notorious in World War II for receiving the wrath of Allied bombing that completely destroyed the city. After the War, under East German rule, the city was the hotbed of KGB and Statsi (East German Secret Police) operations. As we walked around the city there were many displays of the Soviet times especially with a large wall mural on the side of a city building that displays the classic Communist imagery of the sickle and star along with the images of working class people. From there we walked on to the site of the re-constructed Protestant Church that was completely destroyed in the War. The plaza also had a statue of Martin Luther who started the Protestant movement in Europe. We then walked over to the river side and had a drink at a café (we had eaten lunch in the train) and then took the tram across the river to see the broad plazas of Dresden. We strolled around there and found a post office to mail the postcards, and Bebo and I had ice cream. It was really hot and we took the tram back around the city (going past the huge synagogue) to the Zwinger which is an old Baroque building surrounded by a park and lake. We really took it easy there spending time cooling off there. Eventually we left the Zwinger and took the tram back towards the station. On the way to the station Mikku picked up some Chinese food, and Bebo and I got sandwiches for us. We also stopped at a store in the station to get some more food which we ate on the train. We were back in Prague late in the evening and called it a day. I took a little stroll before going to bed.
July 3, Thursday Prague-Vienna
We started early from the hotel since we had to make it to the station on time. The check out process was smooth and there was a bit of a confusion regarding the bus. Mikku was confused as to where to go to get the bus. We eventually got on the bus and took it out to the transfer point for the subway. Getting the suitcase down was not a big problem and we got on the train. This time we got off at the correct station and it was a bit of a rush at the last moment to push the suitcase through stairs and up ramps to make the train just in time. The train was running a little late, but we were able to get into the correct compartment (the inter-city trains like this require a reservation, and we had assigned seats). Mikku and Bebo found the seats and were able to arrange with a co-passenger so that we remained together. The journey was uneventful (except for irritating co-passengers who could not reading aloud in Spanish from a travel guide), as we left from Prague and pulled on towards the South. There was a lot of evidence of the Soviet-era influence, especially with the way in which the factories were built. The countryside was innocuous, rolling hills and meadows and a few cities. There were a lot of sunflower plantations and it reminded me of the movie from way back called “Sunflower,” which was also set in this part of the World. We had a lunch of sandwiches and goulash soup on the train and the weather remained warm as we pulled into the Sud station of Vienna. The change from Eastern Europe to Western Europe was very visible as soon as we crossed into Austria. I had read about this change on another blog, and it was interesting to observe how the quality of the houses, the roads and the cars changed instantly, even though everything else looked just the same – the same rolling hills, and meadows. We got taken at the station by a Turkish cab driver. We were in line for the cabs, and this fellow pushed forward and offered to take us in his cab. I was tired and not thinking right. The basic rule of taking a cab anywhere in the World is that the passenger should pick the cab driver, and never let the cab driver pick you, because the only reason a cab driver will pick a passenger is because the passenger looks gullible and is easy picking for inflated fares. I had also not done my homework well enough about cab prices and distance of the Marriott from the Sud station. So when the fellow said it would be 20 Euros, I fell for that as well. As it turned out, the actual fare should have only been 10 Euros, so I yelled at the fellow when we got off the cab, did not tip him, and hopefully made him feel miserable enough for duping me. The check in was smooth and the hotel was very nice. After resting a little we decided to venture out. The Medlin subway station was right across from the hotel. There was a Turkish restaurant there selling kebabs. Mikku and Bebo decided to get a bite to eat there and the price was reasonable. They had donner kebab sandwiches. The owner was very friendly. In the meantime, I bought the 3-day transportation pass (also called the Vienna Card) so that we could travel freely on the public transport system. We had decided to stay at a hotel a little away from the central area, so the train was going to be important. Even when we had come to Vienna nearly 15 years ago, we had stayed out of Vienna to avoid the central city crowds. After the snack we took the subway for one stop to get to Schonbrunn Palace. This was a place I well remembered from our previous visit, and it was interesting to get back to a place in Europe (other than London) where we had been before. This is starting to happen as we go back to the same places and there is a strange pleasure in returning (as was the case with Geneva and Paris a few years ago). Since we have traveled so much, this is not unexpected and I anticipate this will happen more as we get older. Who would have thought back when we were growing up in Calcutta, that there will be a time when we would get as familiar with London as we are with Calcutta! The palace grounds were really nice as they always are. It was, however, terribly hot and so we tried to stay in the shade as we walked through the front courtyard and back into the rear of the palace with the well laid out garden and the maze made out of shrubbery. We sat around in the grounds for a bit and then walked back to the bus stop to take the 101 back to Medlin and to the hotel. Srijoy noticed that there were cycles to be rented and we decided we would do that tomorrow. We rested at the hotel and I worked on the conference paper sitting in the hotel bar using the free drink coupons they had offered. Later went out to the Kebab shop to get some dinner. We had decided that we are going to change our food behavior on this trip and completely avoid the “room service.” In stead we scoped out local restaurants and either went out to eat there or I would pick up the food. Later in the night I returned to the Turkish restaurant and started chatting with the owner. Seemed like a really enterprising person, named Shenoy, who was really interested in opening a Turkish restaurant in India. We chatted for a while and we realized that this is a feasible concept. We exchanged e-mails and decided to stay in touch. Then got back to the hotel lobby and was hanging around there watching a group of Indian middle-aged men negotiating with the travel desk for a day trip of Vienna. Could not help over-hearing that they settled for a 700 Euro price for a van. Was really curious to see who would pay nearly $1,000 for a van for a day. My curiosity (eves dropping) was soon noticed and the leader of the group strolled over to chat. Turned out he was the Minister of Irrigation for the state of Andhra in India and was there in Europe on an “official visit” accompanied by business tycoons (who were ostensibly footing the bills) and other government staff. Sat and chatted with them a little, and finally called it a day.
July 4, Friday Vienna
We got a reasonably early start and had a quick breakfast in the room. While Mikku and Bebo were getting ready, I went down to the lobby and hung out. Ran into the Indian MP again, as well as a large brood of Punjabis who were holidaying in Vienna. After Bebo and Mikku were ready we took the underground from Medlin over to Karlzplatz which is considered the central area of Vienna. Our first goal was to retrieve the tickets for the evening concert. After a few wrong turns we located the office and got the tickets. Then we started to walk towards the museum area and spent a bit of time waiting in vain to see the President of Crete who was about to emerge from his hotel. We did, however, see the whole motorcade go by a little later. Vienna is one of the cosmopolitan capitals of the old empires of Europe. The city is dotted with regal palaces and large plazas. We walked over to one of the palaces and then strolled over to the statue of Mozart. Srijoy wanted to sit there for a bit and we took a few pictures there. Then we walked over to the Maria Theresa area, which was under renovation. I have never been very impressed by Vienna and this time there was way too much renovation going on making it a little less appealing. We eventually stopped at a cafe and had a sumptuous snack of true Austrian confectionary and espresso. This is a specialty of Austria and I have always absolutely enjoyed the cakes and pastries of this part of the World. Unfortunately, the slipping dollar has made these little pleasures very expensive and our little foray into the Viennese pastries set us back about $30. We then strolled over to the Roman ruins and I left Mikku and Bebo there to go off to the conference. Things went well there. Later I met up with them at the Standplatz from where we walked over to the theater district, and stopped at a small cafe for sandwiches. Also got a map of Hungary from a roadside kiosk. There is a significant presence of Middle Eastern people in Austria. It is difficult to say if they are legal or not, but many of the kiosks, and restaurants are owned by people of Middle Eastern descent. They stand in stark contrast to the local German-speaking Austrians, and one can feel a certain nervousness in the air given the Austrian history of dealing with people of different races. We then walked back towards the underground station. Srijoy really wanted to do the cycle riding, so we dropped Mikku off at the hotel and Srijoy and I took the train on to Schonbrunn Palace where we knew there would cycles to hire. Now pay attention. The cycle hiring process requires a Visa or MasterCard. Essentially what happens is that each cycle is connected to a numbered parking slot. The central renting kiosk computer knows which parking slot has a cycle available. To rent, it is important to register a credit card with the system. This Srijoy and I did and I put in all kinds of personal details into an unknown computer system in Austria (why, I wonder, my credit cards get compromised about every six months, I am on my way to Bogota in August, and wonder where my CCs will end up!). After learning about me, and ostensibly trusting me, the system asked us to pick a bike. This we had already done, and once we punched in the parking slot number, the bike was released from the slot. Srijoy was happy, the computer was happy and it returned to the home screen. Now, I needed a bike, so I started the process of renting by punching in the appropriate buttons. I also was now the proud possessor of a userid and a password carefully registered with the bike rental system of greater-Vienna. Then the machine hiccupped. It was confused, and its normal system was being called to question why one person would want to rent two bikes. In the extreme wisdom of the rigid Austrian system, it was unthinkable that one person, with a credit card, would want to rent two bikes at the same time, so the system was designed to rent one bike per user (defined by the user id). Now this was a bummer, because our plan was to rent the bikes and ride then back to the hotel and return them at a return point near the hotel. This was not to happen, unless I set up a new userid. Undaunted, Srijoy and I decided to set up a new userid using the solitary credit card that I had just used to rent the first bike. Now, the Austrian system, asks, why would the same credit card be connected to two userids? That must not be allowed. Thus, unless I could conjure up another credit card, I was shit out of luck. Of course, the only other card I had in my “travel wallet” was an Amex, which, naturally, the system does not accept. So, here we have spent 20 minutes of the 60 minute rental (1 Euro per hour) struggling with a ridiculously narrow minded algorithm. Eventually, I allowed Srijoy to ride the bike around for about 30 minutes, unaccompanied by me, around the streets of the capital of Austria. There must be very few thrills in the life of a 13 year old that is more exciting than the freedom of going around some Vienna streets and parks on a bike unencumbered by parents and un-tethered because his cell phone was not with him. I, unfortunately, was worried until he returned. We then returned the cycle, and took the 101 bus back to the hotel, to get ready to leave for the concert. We stopped at Shenoy’s restaurant for a quick bite. Srijoy had a pizza and Mikku had a falafel sandwich. We took the underground back to Karlzplatz and there found our way to the Musichall. The setting of the hall was just marvelous and the concert, which lasted about 2 hours, was astonishing. It was indeed a pleasure to listen to Mozart’s music sitting in the same room where he once sat. Called Ma to wish her happy birthday before the concert. Srijoy absolutely enjoyed this experience. We eventually got back to the hotel about 11:00 pm after an interesting encounter with a group of high school kids from North Carolina. I went to Shenoy’s restaurant for a chat, a beer and donner kebab sandwich. Then called it a day.
July 5, Saturday Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest
We had wanted an early start from the hotel since we had planned on doing many different things that day. Unfortunately, we got out later than we had wanted to. We took the underground from the Medlin station to Landstrasse. There is a train service from this station to the airport where we would be renting the car from Thrifty. We were able to find the correct platform but had neglected to buy the tickets, so even though there was a train we could take, we were unable to do that because we needed to buy additional tickets for the trip to the airport. We had to get back to the station, and I used an automatic ticket dispenser to get the tickets. That was not very wise because we were unable to take advantage of the discount we should have received for possessing the Vienna Pass. The next train was about 40 minutes later, and so we hung out at the station. It is interesting how years of travel have helped to develop an instinct about reading complicated timetables and other charts. The Austrians are particularly good at methodically showing what train comes when and where it goes, the system is almost comparable to Japan. Knowing some German, I was showing Srijoy how to interpret the system. He is actually getting better at this every year and at least for London, I feel confident that he would have no trouble negotiating the Underground on his own. It is also curious how all underground systems follow a similar logic. This is perhaps one of the few global standards that have emerged unwittingly. The way in which land must be used leads to a specific logic of developing these systems. Also, since underground systems are bereft of any landmarks other than station names, there is no distraction or doubt about where to get off for what transfer. It is not a system that is built around being able to identify specific landmarks to offer clues about one’s location, in stead one just needs to be able to read a map and one can move smoothly from one place to another. There ought to be some research about these systems to see how a-cultural these systems are and thus if you understand one system you can follow all the others. Anyway, the train arrived and it took about 30 minutes to get to the airport. Since we had arrived later than anticipated, Thrifty had given away our vehicle, but they quickly arranged with Budget and we soon had the keys to a Ford Fiesta (the renting process was amazingly smooth and not much different from what one experiences in the US) and we were on our way to the rental parking lot. The car was very nice, and it took me a bit to reorient myself to a manual car and once I had that worked out, we headed out of the airport and looked for signs for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The drive was supposed to be about a 40 kilometer distance, and there was some heavy traffic as we left Vienna but once we took the highway to Slovakia the traffic thinned. The countryside was non-descript with two major features we had already seen – the sunflower plantations and the windmill farms. The road was very good, and there was no clearly evident speed limit, so I was able to drive at about 90 to 100 miles per hour without any difficulty. We did not have a very good map, but again years of travel has taught us what to look for when getting into a new European city (I did use my GPS unit as a compass to get a bearing on which direction I was going). We unfortunately missed the exit for “Centrum” and so had to take a detour which was actually very interesting because we drove through old neighborhoods with the traditional Eastern Block Soviet-era high rise and institutional grey and ugly blocks of buildings. Some of the areas were quite run-down and depressed and one could feel that the country was still struggling with coming to grips with a new political and economic World. It was a study in contrast because the Soviet-era buildings were juxtaposed with garish advertisements of the latest consumer products, one not quite fitting with each other. The days of the oppressively planned economy of traditional socialism was jostling with the emergent conscience-free capitalism. It seemed that the city was struggling with this. We eventually made our way back to the center of town and walked over to a plaza that could have been lifted directly from a pastiche of books written by the Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn and Tintin comics. The typical East European plaza with the clanking trams, the web of overhead wires, and the Slavic church in the background. The few eateries did not really offer much in the way of lunch and we strolled along one of the streets radiating from the plaza. We found a place that claimed to have Italian food and sat down and ate. Strangely enough, there was a family from Sri Lanka also eating there; they too had come to see Bratislava. After lunch and interaction with a rather playful waiter, we walked down the street which was lined with different kinds of stores from small boutiques to sex shops and tattoo places. There was not much that was appealing and we strolled back to the car, and decided to head out. It was about 2 pm and we had a 2 hour drive to Budapest. If you are keeping count, we had breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovakia and were heading to Hungary. The drive out of town was eventless. Thankfully, someone at the Vienna hotel had tipped me off that there are some road taxes that need to be paid to use the roads in Hungary. Again some instinct kicked in (because the language was unintelligible) and I noticed cars pulling off the highway into a rest-area kind of place. On a hunch, we too pulled in there and sure enough, there was a road tax to be paid. What was interesting about this experience was the fact that the whole thing happened solely by a combination of instinct, observing other cars, and a general sense that this was the place for the tax. There were no signs that we could understand. In the end, it really is just experience. The combined road tax for the use of the roads in the region was 8 Euros (I never really understood what time period it was for, but I was not worried since I was going to be there for just a day). After that we hit the highway again (M7/A7) towards Hungary and Budapest. We crossed into Hungary in about 40 minutes. These have all become open borders with no check posts at all. But, one should not miss the remnants of watch towers and the steel gates that can be shut at a moment’s notice bringing back the Iron Curtain. It is not as if all the check points are gone, they have only been opened up. We drove steadily at about 85 to 90 miles per hour and were in the outskirts of Budapest by about 4 pm. The hours spent the night before studying the satellite maps of Budapest helped me to negotiate our way towards the center of town. Traffic was light but it was very confusing. We stopped often to get directions, but were unable to communicate. We also did not have any Hungarian money and a place selling maps refused to accept Euros. It was quite disconcerting to be driving around a very large city without a map, not knowing the language, and no local money. The only thing helping us was the map that I had kind of imprinted in my brain, and the GPS showing compass directions. It was also starting to rain lightly. We eventually figured it out and drove over to the Danube and found a parking spot not too far from the main tourist plaza. After that, it was easy, because Budapest was no different from Prague – one tourist stretch and the stores and cafes. We hung around there for some time, and then strolled over to the river’s edge. The sun had come out and we hung around there for a while before coming back to the Plaza. We had already had some food (goulash soup, boiled potato and beer) and we finally headed back to the car at about 8 pm. We did not get to see much of Budapest, but got a feel for the city which was quite similar to other former Eastern block cities that are slowly changing over to the Western system. We headed back along the main stretch and on purpose decided to explore a bit. Got to see the old Budapest railway station which appeared to be in some disrepair before heading back out of town. The drive back was eventless, except we stopped to get some gas. Srijoy had a lot of questions about the history of Communism and the Cold War and we chatted on the way back. It was dark when we got back to Vienna, and we were again lost. However, a combination of GPS Compass, and the general idea of the layout of Vienna allowed us to get back to the hotel without too much trouble. It was about 11:00 pm. Srijoy and Mikku went to bed, and I strolled over to Shenoy’s restaurant for a beer and donner kebab sandwich. Unfortunately, Shenoy was not there, but his cook was. Hung out there for a while before returning to the room and calling it a day.
July 6, Sunday Vienna-London
Being Sunday, the drive to the airport from the hotel was not difficult and the route was quite straight forward. It did not take all that long at all. The car return area is completely different from the place where we picked up the car, and it is a bit of a trek to get to the terminal. We also did not have any Euro coins left to use the carts (these usually need a 2 Euro coin to release the cart, and then you get back 1 Euro when the cart is returned). We walked on to Terminal 2 for the British Airways departure. Checking in was smooth, since I had already checked in over the Internet. We were a little early and spent time chatting with a family from New Jersey who were also in Vienna and were on their way back home. After dropping the bags at the British Airways counter, we went through security and into the duty free area. There was a nice food court there and we hung around there and had some more goulash soups and beer. Then we walked over to the gate area. The departure was smooth and we were back in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. I was very apprehensive about the luggage (as you might know, T5 was a disaster when it first opened in 2008, but things have gotten better, but BA is notorious for mishandled baggage, so it is considered a small miracle if BA actually delivers bags at the correct destination), but it all arrived OK. We took the underground to Hammersmith and had to wait about 5 minutes for the 220 to Wandsworth (the bus usually leaves from the C bay of Hammersmith station). The bus ride takes about 40 minutes from Hammersmith (one terminus) to Wandsworth Arndale Shopping Center (the other terminus). Since it was a pretty day, and we were not too tired, we decided to walk over to Kaju Mama’s house. It is a good 10 minute walk down Garrett Lane and Lenny was at home when we got home. Settled down, and soon Kaju Mama was home. We then all went out for dinner (our treat) to a chain of restaurants called Nando’s. The food was very good. After dinner, Lenny took the bus home, and we drove over to my other uncle’s place. Mantu mama is also a cousin of my mother. We went to his place and spent about an hour chatting. We were all quite tired by then and decided to head back home. A slow London rain was falling as we drove back to Whitehead Close.
July 7, Monday London
We decided to take it easy in the morning since it was a typical London day with a cold drizzle and cloudy skies. I was also still struggling with trying to find ways to dry the clothes I had laundered the night before. The dryer did not seem to work as well as I had hoped. Started to put them next to specific lamps to try and get them dry by the afternoon. We were also a little tired from all the traveling and decided it would be best to just relax at Kaju Mama’s home. He left for work about 8:00 in the morning, and we fixed ourselves some coffee and breakfast. Lenny left a little later, and at about 11:00 we walked over to the pub on Garret Lane called the “Old Sergeant.” Srijoy wanted a pub lunch and this was close by and we had been there before, so we decided to go over there. Had a Guinness and fish and chips. After lunch we strolled over to the Arndale shopping center and spent most of the afternoon there. Finally, after a quick stop at Sainsbury, we walked back home. We had ordered the taxi from Kwik Kars (their office is right on Garret Lane very close to the intersection with the Pizza Hut, their phone numbers are: 88746000 or 88746868) and the driver arrived quite on time. Our plan was to go to Hammersmith (he was going to charge 15 Sterling for that, and then take the train for 7.50 Sterling to Heathrow), but the driver, a person of Pakistani descent, made a good point in saying that for just 5 Sterling more we could be in Heathrow in his cab. Since it was raining, and I did not want to mess with the heavy bags at Hammersmith station, we decided to drive off to Heathrow. The driver was really nice, albeit very loud, and we were in Heathrow in good time. Check in for Virgin Upper Class in Zone A, Terminal 3, was quite smooth. The system has been vastly improved and there is now a dedicated elevator for upper class passengers that is operated by a scanner reading the bar code off the boarding pass (very cool and slick) and leads you off into a special security area which then whisks you into the duty free shopping area of T3. We headed straight for the Virgin Club and settled in there. Both Srijoy and I got haircuts and I also got my shoe shined (as I have done with this shoe, which I only use for the India trip, every year, at the club for the past several years, all of this is complimentary, and I usually just give a small tip). We also tasted the different food and I had some good single malt Scotch. Bebo and I also played some pool and we took a few detours out to the duty free areas. Eventually, we boarded the flight and it left mostly on time. I was sleeping before we reached 10,000 given that the upper class seat converts into a flat bed.
July 8, Tuesday Delhi-Calcutta
Had a fairly relaxing sleep on the plane and got up and brushed and cleaned up. These are some of the advantages of traveling upper class, and had a nice breakfast. We landed in Delhi nearly on time, but had to wait a long time to get our bags. That was a bit of a hassle, since one of the bags was stopped by Delhi customs who mistook the numerous metal cables of the myriad telephone and camera chargers as jewelry when looking through the X-ray machine. Anyway, we had Driver Yadav sent by Jeetendra’s car service (same person I had used for the Simla trip in 2007) with a Toyota Inova. We drove over to the Mahipalpur Radisson and sat in the lobby for a while, freshened up, had a beer, and then headed to the lunch buffet. It was terribly expensive (Rs. 1,100 for adults, with the Rupee converting at about 41 to a dollar), but we indulged. The food, as always, was really good. We sat in the lobby for a bit after finishing lunch and then headed to the domestic airport. Check in there was smooth and we went through security. I had forgotten that Indian airports do not allow you to carry matchbooks on board and so I had to rummage through my carry on bag and give up nearly 40 matchbooks collected from many different places over the last year! The flight was at 6:00 and it left mostly on time. We arrived in Calcutta about 8:30 pm. Babulbaba, Boudima and Tinku (Mikku’s family) were at the airport with a car, and I had also ordered a vehicle. We loaded the two cars and headed to my parent’s place – AC 140 Salt Lake – and I got a little delayed in traffic. The other group had already reached AC 140. My mother, who lives downstairs in the two storey house, was very ill with a throat infection, and she suggested that Mikku and Bebo go over to stay at Mikku’s parent’s house at D 50 Mahavir Vikas, also in Salt Lake. However, we got an opportunity to see Namrata (aka Nimi) who is the newly wed bride of my nephew Babli. He is the son of my cousin Shanker da and his wife Ruma Boudi, who live on the second floor of AC 140. We had missed the wedding in November 2007 and so this was the first time we met Nimi. We were all quite tired, so after chatting a bit we all called it a day.
July 9, Wednesday Calcutta
Got up a little jet lagged in the morning and realized that Ma was not feeling very well. I decided it would be wiser to leave for Delhi today in the evening in stead of trying to catch an early morning flight tomorrow, since that would disrupt her rest in the morning. So started to work with the different airline options to see what might be available for a reasonable price. Also, went to Standard Chartered to withdraw some money and to State Bank to get Ma’s pension account updated. Then off to City Center Mall. This is a mall that has come up in Salt Lake about 4 years ago and provides a very convenient shopping option to get anything from groceries to cell phones. This is modeled after the open malls of the West where the shops are distributed over a large area and there are lots of open spaces where one can stroll around doing window shopping. Since we have been going there for several years, we have come to know some of the people at the stores such as the music store and the money exchanger. This place also has a multiplex called Inox and provides a convenient option to watch movies. The tickets are rather expensive (about Rs. 200 for a new release) but it offers a nice environment to watch movies. I spent a little time there and then went off to D 50 to visit for a bit. Later, went back to City Center to pick up some pizza for Ma since she was not feeling well and wanted something different to eat. Later in the afternoon Mikku and Bebo came over to AC 140 and we spent some time chatting with Shanker da and family upstairs. I finally left about 6:00 pm using Shanker da’s car (and driver) to get to the airport and headed out to Delhi.
July 10, Thursday Delhi
Delhi – the trip to Delhi was very successful.
July 11, Friday Delhi-Calcutta
I was up in reasonable time to have a quick bite at the coffee shop and then got a regular cab to get to the airport. Checking in and other events were smooth and the Jet flight was just about an hour late, which was not too bad at all. Got to Calcutta OK, and checked out the self-drive car rental option. It is certainly doable, but requires that the reservation be done online via Avis, but there is no real cost advantage, and one will have to deal with the hassles of driving. Got a pre-paid taxi and got back to AC 140 at about 1:00. Had lunch and then headed out to D50. Picked up Bebo, Mikku and Tinku and headed off to the City Center to deal with the returning of Bebo’s toy gun. It was quite an incident and remind me to tell the story when we meet. Then Bebo was really interested in going to Central Calcutta to check out the air guns that I had told him about. So, Bebo and I drove down to Esplanade and got dropped off in front of Bata. Bebo and I then walked down Chowringhee towards the famous Metro Gully. This is a narrow lane in Calcutta next to the legendary Metro Cinema Hall where I remember seeing many a movie. This lane is lined with stores of all different kinds, and it is said, that with the correct connections, one can get tiger’s milk here. We went past that place and to the Daw Gun Store which must be as old as when the first Winchester was made. It has the old musty odor that can only come from the mixture of the aroma of hundreds of years of gun oil, paper files, and the dust that has accumulated on top of the gun shelves. We checked out several air guns, and Bebo decided against getting an air gun. So we walked back to Metro Gully and Srijoy got an air soft gun similar to one that he used to have in the past. After that we got into one of the ubiquitous Ambassador Taxi (these are the hallmark of Calcutta which has the largest number of Ambassador cars manufactured by Hindustan Motors, and about 90% of all taxis in Calcutta are Ambassadors. This is also Srijoy’s favorite car and so he never misses a chance to ride in an Ambassador when he gets the chance). We took the taxi to Grand Hotel (another icon of Calcutta, I have described it in other blogs) and we went to the coffee shop and I had a beer and Bebo had fresh coconut water, We left for the City Center after that and picked up Mikku and Tinku and went to AC 140 and D 50. I eventually got back to AC 140 since my friend Raja was supposed to come and visit later in the night. However, that plan did not work out, and I called it a day at about 11:00.
July 12, Saturday Calcutta
We had decided to do some shopping for the ongoing home renovation at Winston and so Mikku and I went off to a specialty mall in Calcutta that only sells home construction stuff. It was quite an impressive place with all kinds of home-related material ranging from handles for kitchen cabinets to some very nice furniture. The place is called Homeland Mall and we spent most of the morning there. Were able to get some ceramic tiles for the kitchen and a few other things for the kitchen. The point was to get some stuff that would be impossible to get in the USA, and thus add a little unique aspect to the construction. The mall was quite different from the other Western-style malls that have mushroomed all over Calcutta and the other metros of India, and we quite enjoyed browsing through the furniture store and other shops. Also, had lunch at the Mall at a small (and only) sandwich shop. We then got back home in time for Mikku and family (including Srijoy) to go watch a new release movie called “Jaane Tu.” I went back to AC 140 and took a nap. Later in the afternoon, at about 5:00 Samrat, my cousin, came over and we spent most of the afternoon just chatting. Mikku and Bebo also came over at about 7:30 to briefly meet with Samrat, and then they returned to D50. I waited at AC 140 and there were several other visitors including my cousin and family and my school friend Debapriya (Raja), who came at about 9:00 pm and we sat and chatted till about 11:00. I was down with a cold and sore throat, and was not operating at my best. Finally called it a day after Raja left.
July 13, Sunday Calcutta
Did not do a whole lot in the morning, but after the car arrived went to D50 and picked up Mikku and went off to the new shopping center called Mani Square next to the Apollo hospital off the bypass. This was yet another of the Western-style shopping malls with the name brand stores. One special draw for this place is the only McDonalds in Calcutta and it seems that the place absolutely fills up on weekends. It was not that crowded in the morning and Mikku had to get a new watch and we went to the Titan store. We looked at a few other stores including the American Dollar Store which was actually selling things that cost much more than Rs. 41 (the going conversion rate for the dollar). I was not terribly impressed by this place at all. We then took the car and went on to another place called the Big Bazaar which is also a new store of the Indian WalMart-like chain of stores. You can get everything, from groceries to underwear, in the same store. We browsed around for a bit and Mikku purchased a few things that were needed for our home in Winston. I also got Ma’s pressure cooker there. Mikku also got a couple of pairs of sandals. This is a relatively inexpensive store and offers discounts just as the discount chains in the West. These are all signs of increasingly expanding economy as more people are getting larger buying power to become consumers of goods that range from very expensive cars to fancy cell phones. We then headed back to D50 and I dropped Mikku off there and got back to AC 140. Had lunch at home and mostly slept in the afternoon given it was a typical monsoon afternoon that one only sees in Calcutta with brooding dark clouds and an incessant rain that threatens to create instant urban flooding. Just the right set up to sleep. Later, at about 4:00 went out again and picked up Mikku and Bebo and went off to Lake Town to visit my aunt. This is my father’s sister, and we had a tragedy in the family with her middle son (i.e., my cousin) passing away from a massive heart failure about 3 weeks ago. It was good that we visited and met up also with my other cousin, Phuchku da and family. We spent about an hour there, and then headed out to Dum Dum Park to my other aunt and cousin’s place. I lived in the house at Dum Dum Park between 4 and 15 and have very fond memories of living with the extended family made up of my widowed grandmother, bachelor uncles, my cousin who was studying medicine, my parents and numerous other people who always seemed to be visiting. The house now is in a state of disrepair, and one of my aunts lives there by herself. Next door, is the house of my cousin, so a visit to Dum Dum Park usually involves a brief stop at the old house to see my aunt, and then on to the newer house of my cousin. We had dinner with my cousin (Buro da) and my other cousin, the one who lives upstairs at AC 140 (Shanker da) was also there. We had dinner together and we also had a particularly good 21 year old aged single malt Scotch which was really excellent. We were there till about 10:30 after which Shanker da drove us all back to D50 and we dropped Mikku and Bebo off there and went back to AC 140.
July 14, Monday Calcutta
Off to D 50 and picked up Mikku and Bebo and we went out for lunch. Ate at a Chinese restaurant (Big Boss) in Calcutta’s Chinatown named Tangra. Although the food was good it was not spectacular and Szechwan Palace in Winston (that is owned by an ex-Tangra person) does a pretty good job too. The food however was quite inexpensive (Rs. 500 for all of us, no drinks) and after that we went off towards New Market. We had a new driver and he was quite good. We got dropped off in front of Grand and we walked into New Market. In spite of all the glitzy American-style malls, there is something absolutely charming about this 150 year old market (used to be called Hogg Market – where all the English used to shop) which is built in a way reminiscent of old English markets. I never miss a visit to New Market when I am in Calcutta. It is oppressively hot inside (there is no air conditioning) and some of the stores are older than time. I think I have never bought undergarments from any store other than Nusker’s Hosiery at New Market who sell this special vest made by Gopal that, I believe, is most authentic when bought from Nusker’s at New Market (Hanes can not hold a candle to this stuff). After Nusker’s went to Modern Toy Store which is about 100 years old and I remember coming here since I remember coming to toy stores. Srijoy will not miss a trip to Modern Toy Store in Calcutta (or for him, he has not missed a trip to Hamleys on Regent Street in London until on this trip for the first time) and we spent some time there, and went on to Symphony to get a few music CDs. Mikku got some stuff too and then we walked to the Bata shoe store and then to Grand hotel’s Coffee Shop (these days it is called La Terrace, or something fancy like that. In our days, the mid-70s, going to the coffee shop was a treat because it was really really expensive and as college students we could hardly afford it, but we did occasionally go in and order a pot of coffee and share it between 5 people after an all-night McLaughlin concert in Calcutta and before taking the early morning train back to IIT to barely make the morning class). After New Market we got back to AC 140 where Mikku and Bebo spent a little time and headed back to D 50. Night at D 50.
July 15, 2008, Tuesday Calcutta
I spent the morning mostly at Standard Chartered Bank dealing with the Fixed Deposit account and then went off to D 50 before lunch and picked up Mikku and Bebo and we went to the City Center. Had lunch there after buying Bebo’s new phone handset (Samsung C170) and then went shopping for a bit. Got a nice outfit for Bebo and we eventually got back to D 50 and I dropped Bebo and Mikku off there and went on to the electrician’s shop (Saltee Electrical next to Bijon Bhawan) to order the face plates for the Indian-style Anchor switches we would be using for our new construction in Winston-Salem. This was Srijoy’s idea to get the switches custom made in Calcutta to give our place a unique touch. I ordered 15 sets of switches for a total of Rs. 480 ($11). Then got back to AC 140 and sent the car back to D 50. Mikku and Bebo arrived in AC 140 around 6 pm and we went and had the special dinner prepared by Shanker da and family for Bebo and us. We had missed Nimi and Babli’s wedding in November of 2007 and so they decided to do a special treat for us. It was a sumptuous meal. My other cousin, Buro da stopped by in the evening as well. Eventually we dropped Mikku back at D 50 and Bebo and I went to sleep at AC 140.
July 16, 2008, Wednesday Calcutta
Bebo and I had to get up early in the morning and Ma fixed us our breakfast. We were ready by 7:30 am and my cousin (Buro da) picked us up soon after. We were on our way to watch the launching of two naval ships that were just built in the ship yard which my cousin managed until a few years ago when he retired. He still continues in the role of an advisor with the Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers (GRSE). He had invited us to this special occasion. The drive took us all the way to the Western edge of the city, by the Hooghly River, and the Calcutta Docks. I had been in this part of the city, perhaps 30 years ago. The area is predominantly Muslim and is the general area of the Calcutta Port. We went to his office and had to wait there for about an hour after which we drove to the launching area. The GRSE is an undertaking of the Government of India and its primary client is the Indian Navy. There was a lot of Navy brass at the launching which was quite a grand affair with the actual launching being done by the wife of a Vice-Admiral. We had front row seats given the official VIP (Very Important Person) position of my cousin. The launching was followed by a reception which we attended as well. Eventually a friend of my cousin dropped us off at Park Street and we took a cab back home and had lunch at home. After lunch, Bebo and I went to D 50. Mikku and all decided to watch a movie and so we left Bebo at D 50 and I took them all to City Center. Mikku, Boudima and Tinku went off to see the movie, and I did some grocery for Ma. I then returned to D 50, picked up Bebo and returned to AC 140 since Bebo was going shopping with Nimi and Babli. I hung out at AC 140 discussing the plans of my cousin’s possible US visit in October. Later in the evening Bebo got back to AC 140 having acquired a Kohlapuri Sandal as a gift from Nimi and Babli, and spending some time at the video arcade in City Center. Mikku also got back to AC 140. Later at night, at about 9:30 my cousins Sanjay and Moushumi came over along with Moushumi’s husband Joy and all five of us went out for dinner at Abcos. This is a nice restaurant chain right in Salt Lake. Had a few beers and a nice meal (it was Joy’s treat) and dropped Mikku back at D 50 and they dropped me off at AC 140 about midnight.
July 17, 2008, Thursday Calcutta
Bebo and I hung out in the morning, not doing too much in particular. I went through Ma’s financial papers to ensure everything was in order. The car arrived around 11:00 and took Bebo with me to D 50. I dropped him off there and then went to Standard Chartered. As planned, I withdrew a significant amount of the cash in a move to close the account. Then went to UCO Bank to ensure that I was a nominee with Ma’s account. There was some work required there. Then went on to D 50 where I picked up Bebo and Mikku and we came back to AC 140 where all of us ate lunch at home. Then I went back to UCO bank to take care of a few more things with the nomination, but the work was successfully completed. Back to AC 140 and picked up Mikku and we went to PC Chandra Jewelers at Ultadanga. The sales person was kind of weird, but we did a little shopping. Then back to City Center where I converted the money, went to Airtel to check on renewing my Calcutta phone number while Mikku did some shopping. We then got back to AC 140, relaxed a bit and went out with Bebo to my uncle’s place (this is my mother’s eldest brother and his family lives in AA block) where we spent about 30 minutes, after which we went to D 50 and picked up Mikku’s suitcase and got back to AC 140. The evening was mostly spent at home upstairs and downstairs, and Bebo had an invitation to have dinner upstairs. Later at night, Mikku and I took a taxi to the newly developed mall called Silver Springs on the bypass where we met up with Alo’s (our friend in Winston-Salem) mother and sister at the Oh Calcutta restaurant and was treated to an excellent evening (BTW, this OC does not have a liquor license yet, and they have a temporary license that only allows them to serve alcohol on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays). We were dropped back home at about 11:00 pm and we called it a day.
July 18, 2008, Friday Calcutta
Got up as usual and kind of hung out at home. Ma made the coffee, tea and toast. Bebo slept in a bit, and we finally got ready at about 10:00. There was a bit of a problem with the car. Our driver thus far (Baapi Pradhan) was not feeling well and we did not want to risk an infection. So we cancelled that car, and then realized that it was not possible to get another car from Sonata. I was a little displeased with Sonata any way, and withdraw my prior (in earlier blogs) recommendation of this rental. But we needed a car, and so Nimi was able to find one for us with a company owned by Pulak Chatterjee (out of BE block in Salt Lake). The car arrived within 10 minutes and Bebo was happy to see a white Ambassador, which still remains his favorite car. In the meantime, I had gone to City Center to get the tickets for the movie that Mikku and all would be watching in the afternoon. After I got back, the three of us went off to Khuku Mashi’s house (this is an aunt of Mikku and lives in Salt Lake at FC 78) where we spent an hour or so and returned home to AC 140. There we gathered up Nimi. Babli and Ma and went over to D 50. It was Mikku and my plan to treat the newly weds to a nice lunch. So, at D 50 we put the elders in the Ambassador along with Mikku and Bebo (so this car could easily hold 5 adults and a kid) and Nimi, Babli and I took a taxi to Silver Springs and went to the Segree restaurant. It was a pretty nice place and we had a sumptuous lunch (pretty reasonable, a meal for 8 adults and 1 kid with a few beers was at Rs. 2,500 along with tips). After that, Nimi, Babli and I visited the BMW dealership that has recently opened at Silver Springs. They wanted to test drive a BMW (the least expensive one is being sold in the Indian market for the equivalent of $60,000, where one can get a very good Indian luxury car for about $8,000). It was a little tricky to make the test drive happen, but years of street smart kicked in and we were soon zipping around in a 300 series BMW, and Nimi and Babli were quite happy (remind me or them to tell you the details when we meet!). We then took a cab and got back to City Center. Mikku, Ma, Boudima and Tinku were watching a movie there at the Inox Theater (Kismet Konnection) and I dropped Nimi and Babli there, and got back to AC 140. The Ambassador was waiting for me there. I took it back to the electrician’s place and then to D 50. I picked up Bebo from there and we drove to my school – Calcutta Boys’ School (CBS). Srijoy had shown an interest in going to my school and the trip was certainly fun for me. There was a little difficulty when they did not want let us in, but a little sweet talking with the security guard got us on the grounds. The buildings looked very good, they seemed to have been renovated, and we walked around the grounds. I showed Bebo the place where we had our daily Chapel service before school. It is interesting that I went to a school that was built around the Methodist Christian tradition, but there was nearly no Evangelizing. That was the experience of growing up in India. Religions do not fight with each other when they have co-existed in a civil manner over hundreds of years, and have not been incited by outsiders to become enemies. There are places in Delhi where a mosque and a temple share a common wall, and people of different religions exist in relative harmony. No doubt there have been moments of violence, but the amount of religious diversity that can be found in a public bus in Calcutta would drive the TV Evangelists nuts, not knowing who to convert first! That was CBS for us where Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians all went to Chapel and listened to Mr. Hicks (a Welsh Missionary) as he taught us about life (and, if we did not learn well, was never to spare the cane) and being human and not necessarily of a specific religion. All these kids, irrespective of faith, class, creed and caste, learned to smoke in the same back alley behind the school and were treated the same way by Mr. D’Souza or Mr. Gangully (who slapped me 20 times in a row for each spelling mistake in a 5 page Bengali essay that I had to write in 6th grade. This teacher had a favorite nail that stuck out on the wall by the blackboard, and he had an interesting habit of fiddling with the nail as he taught us about Tagore’s poetry, so as retribution, after the slapping incident, that involved others, we discreetly removed the nail from the wall, leading to his attempting to find the familiar spot and not being able to. He was perhaps one of the best teachers I have ever had in my life, and to be sure, I am careful about Bengali spellings when I write Bengali). So, Srijoy and I went around the school yard, and I unsuccessfully tried to take a picture next to the plaque declaring the school motto – “Dei Mundos Deo.” We then took the my familiar route back from school to Salt lake – a route that I used to take every day of my life when I was in school. On the way I was able to show Srijoy the house I lived in till I was 4 years old. I have faint memories of the place because we moved to a suburb of Calcutta in 1964. We were eventually back in Salt Lake. Mikku and Ma were still at the movie, so Bebo and I went upstairs in AC 140 and we spent time hanging out with people upstairs. Later in the evening my school friend Rana showed up and spent the evening chatting at home over a few drinks. Called it a day after Rana left. Bebo had dinner upstairs.
July 19, 2008, Saturday Calcutta
We had a relaxed morning just doing some basic packing and getting ready for the day. The car arrived around 10:30 am and I made a quick trip to City Center to get some chocolates and look for the lost umbrella. I was pretty sure I had left it at the City Center Airtel store but the folks there said that they had found nothing. I then strolled around the Center a bit and eventually got back to AC 140 and picked up Mikku and Srijoy to head out to the Calcutta Boys’ School get together. The location was Rajat’s house on the other side of the Universe. Salt Lake is in the north-eastern part of Calcutta whereas Rajat’s place on Moore Avenue is on the southern side of town. It took a good hour to get there because of a traffic snarl near Ruby Hospital on the bypass (they are increasing road space by reducing the size of the traffic circle in front of Ruby, so the road is frequently jammed). We then took the Anwar Shah Road connector from the bypass. This was a hilarious moment because I was following the route on Google Maps on my smart phone using GPS, and Google Maps does not know of the existence of this section of the road. So, on the map it looked like we were driving through open land without any road. So much for the accuracy of these maps, of course, it shows a significant bias because Google Maps is really not interested in updating the map with every new road being built in India. Anyhow, this is not a good road to take (I wonder if Google Map is so smart that it knows that this is a road from Hell and does not show it on the map), because this has become the primary feeder road for the Southside Shopping Mall and it is always clogged up. We eventually got to Rajat’s place. The party there was incredible. Our good friend, Kanjilal (who I had last met in 1979, and could not immediately recognize – duh!) had cooked a kasha mangsha (this is a really spicy stew made of goat meat that is cooked entirely in oil and the fat from the meat, for about 6 to 8 hours after a 24 hour marination) that was absolutely delicious and was accompanied by a biriyani (a special form of fried rice of the Mughal heritage, usually made with goat meat or chicken) and followed by some excellent dessert. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, this gathering is something that has evolved from the efforts of one of 90 kids that graduated high school from CBS in 1979. His name is Debapriya Das Gupta (now some head honcho with the IT consulting group called Cognizant). This fellow started a Yahoo group several years ago with a handful of the graduating class from nearly 30 yeas ago. Using the Internet, this group grew online as the process of networking connected up long-lost friends. At some point, about 4 years ago, it was decided that the online group was large enough to put together offline gatherings, which were also triggered by people visiting Calcutta (where a large portion of the friends still reside). Today, there were 18 of the 90 (actually really 88, because sadly two of our friends have passed away) at Rajat’s house (which was effectively destroyed by the activities of 18 high school buddies getting together with abnormally large amounts of alcohol for an afternoon gathering – I recorded a 750 ml bottle of Scotch completely empty (I think Kanjilal drank most of it) and numerous bottles of beer. Most of the spouses and children were there all of whom have also become friends. Among the 18, there were two from the US, a couple of guys who had specially come down from Bombay for the gathering and the rest from Calcutta. As always it was a fabulous afternoon and we finally left at about 3:40 in the evening. We dropped off one of my friends at Ballygunge Phari and then went to my cousin’s place in Beckbagan to see another newly wed nephew of ours (a February 2008 wedding we missed). It was good to meet up for a bit, we also went to the third floor to see my other cousin. This is the house where my mother her spent part of her years before she got married. I remember this house well as my maternal uncles’ place (Mamar Badi – Bengali). There were three uncles whose families lived in this house that was built by my mother’s father. It is bang in the middle of Calcutta with the city alive around it. When I was a child we used to live in a suburb that was quieter and more bucolic, and visiting my maternal place was quite a challenge for me because I never really liked the noise of the city. The house I grew up in had a huge lawn, a large backyard, a pond in front of the house and one behind it. I could loose myself in the yard and be completely surrounded by nature. The house in Beckbagan was just the opposite. There was a barber, a butcher and a pharmacy as you stepped out on the pavement. There was no yard and the only place where we could play was on the flat terrace. Playing cricket on the terrace of a three storey house is never easy, especially when there was an old Muslim graveyard (with only two graves though) right in front of the house, and the cricket ball would land there whenever anyone hit it hard. It was agreed that if someone dropped the ball in the graveyard he is automatically out. One fun activity that one could do on the terrace was flying kites which we did a lot of. On the day of Vishwkarma Puja (the God of Engineering) the whole of Calcutta took time out to fly kites. Every terrace in the city would have youngsters flying their kites and it was a common practice to entangle the strings of each other’s kites and through a very careful maneuver cut the string of the opponent. This was a sport where we spent many hours preparing the string – we would take the entire length of the string, many yards long, put it between poles on the terrace, and then make a concoction of finely ground glass and glue that would be carefully applied to the string creating a string that would cut through the opponent’s string. This concoction was called “manja” and the kite flyer with the better manja would often win the competition in the sky. There was significant skill involved too in how well the manja was applied – too much would make the string too heavy, and too little would not be sufficient – and there was skill in how the kite flyer maneuvered the string while flying the kite and dueling with another flyer. One of my maternal cousins who was good at this would come out with bloody hands after an evening of kite flying (remember the string is a jagged stretch of ground glass that one must pass through one’s fingers to maneuver the kite). So this was the house we visited, and we left about 5:30 and headed back to Salt Lake. We stopped at D50 for a few minutes, dropped Bebo off there, and then Mikku and I returned to AC 140 and sent the car off to D50 to fetch Bebo and the rest from D50 to AC 140. Being the last evening of the trip we all wanted to be at the same place. Soon, Bunu di came along and we hung around chatting. Mikku’s parents were leaving around 8:00 pm and as we were seeing them off, we noticed that there was significant activity in the Community Center across the street from AC 140 with a TV truck and a TV reporter. Bebo and I went to investigate and discovered that the local Bengali TV channel – Star Ananda – was doing interviews of “common people” to see their reaction to the turmoil in Indian politics surrounding the nuclear deal with USA. We got roped in for the interview and spent about 30 minutes at the Community Center. It was an opportunity to meet some old neighbors like Arup da. Although I was interviewed, that part was edited out (probably because I made a wisecrack about being American and really did not give too much about the deal – you know the typical superpower arrogance perfected by some top leaders in USA), but Bebo enjoyed the process. We finally called it a day since we had an early start the following day. Bebo had dinner upstairs.
July 20, 2008, Sunday Callcutta-Delhi
We had an early start from AC 140 going to the airport. I was up at about 4:30 am, that interesting time on a summer morning when the breeze of the ceiling fan feels just a tad chilly since the outside is at the cool dawn temperature. I lazed a bit but soon realized that it was time to get ready and going. We were all up by about 5:30 and Ma made coffee, tea and toast. Babulbaba, Boudima and Tinku arrived around 6:15 am and the large Tata Sumo SUV was already there. There were 5 largish bags to load and we eventually left around 6:30. The whole household was there except Didibhai who was still suffering from a fall a couple of days ago during her morning walk in the park. The ride to the airport was eventless. As always, I hired two official porters (these are the people who have name tags and the question to ask them is: “Can you go all the way to the check in counter?” If the answer is affirmative then they are good to be hired). This is the beauty of the Indian life-style. I did not have to lift a finger to unload the bags, put them on the buggies, or do anything related to the baggage. We went through the bag X-ray. This is a strange practice in Calcutta, where all checked bags are put through an X-ray scanner before they can be checked in. The process produces more false positives than any other system I have ever seen. I do not think my electronics-laden bags have ever been passed through without a thorough rummaging through my dirty underwear that I purposefully use to pack the electronics. Anyway, check in at Jet followed the same routine as in the past many years. Once the bags are weighed the check in person always says that we have excess baggage, and I have to explain to him that we are actually headed to the USA. This is one moment you feel the power of the “super-power.” Everywhere on this planet, airlines allow 50 pounds of checked luggage per person. You can carry 10 five pound packets (although the logic for that would be hard to support) and the check in clerk will not bat an eye lid, but if you exceed more than 50 pounds, even if you are carrying just a few cubic inches of heavy metals, the check in clerk, anywhere on this planet, will throw a fit – except if you are in inter-planetary travel to America. All is pardoned. You are now allowed up to 2 bags each of 50 pounds since you are going to America (Oh! Hail America!!!) So, once the check in clerk saw that we were indeed crossing the pond, also known as the Atlantic, he was happy to allow 95 kilo grams (yes, that is about 200 pounds) of baggage distributed within 5 bags without even showing any curiosity about the fact that 3 normal people (whose combined body weight is probably under 200 pounds) are traveling with this much baggage. Of course, since we were going to America, it was considered normal. After the check in, we made our way to the book store and purchased another Commando Comics Book set and then to the few stores that are starting to appear at the airport. We made our way to the Executive Lounge, using my Priority Pass membership and relaxed for a bit before going through security and settling into the lounge. The incense sticks I was carrying for my uncle went through eventlessly. Called Didi from the airport and then boarded the Jet flight to Delhi. The food was average (considering it was free, I should say it was good), and the flight marginally on time. After arrival, the baggage claim was a mess. As always, there was a person taking bags off the belt to “help” passengers, while some like me were waiting downstream on the belt and never saw our bags being hijacked as soon as they appeared. Mikku saw this happen and helped to retrieve the bags. So, in Delhi (or mostly any other Indian airport) be sure to stand at the point where the bags first appear on the belt to ensure that stray people are not arbitrarily picking bags off the belt. Our trusted Mr. Yadav, the driver, was there outside with the Toyota Inova and after loading up the van we headed to the Crowne Plaza at Friend’s Colony. In the meantime, I had connected up with Kingshuk, my college buddy, to meet with him and his family (his wife, Ketoki, is also my college buddy; they met at IIT, did some Chemical Engineering for themselves, and have lived happily ever after, now with two adorable kids – one just finishing high school and the other in middle school). We checked in at the hotel and realized that the lunch buffet was incredibly expensive as was the restaurant. So, on Kingshuk’s recommendation went to Lotus Pond (a Chinese restaurant that was really good; you need to take a right out of the hotel exit and you can not miss it, but you will miss it, if you go towards the Friends Colony Market) and had a great Chinese lunch. Then we headed out to Rajghat (the memorial to Gandhi). Srijoy is a great fan of Gandhi and wanted to see Rajghat. We met up with Kingshuk’s family there. It was really, really hot at 3:00 pm in Delhi. The heat index was probably at 120 F and the last part of the walk to see the memorial is barefoot on concrete with no shade. The place is minimalist in architecture – a black marble slab with the words “He Ram” (the last words spoken by Gandhi, when he invoked the Hindu incarnation Ram as he died from the assassin’s bullets) inscribed on the stone and an eternal fire burning at the spot. It was quite a serene and somber place and we walked back to the book store selling Gandhi-related books. Srijoy was very pleased to have been able to make this trip even though the heat was incredible. We decided that the next stop would be the Bahai Temple called the Lotus Temple. It was a good 30 minute drive to the temple and the place was really crowded. It was nearly 4:30 by then and the heat was even worse. Mikku was suffering, and Kingshuk said that it would be un-healthy to stay out in the sun even though I was willing to fight the crowd and go to the temple. So, we headed back to our cool cars and decided to go to the Ansal Plaza Mall where it would be cool. It was definitely cooler inside the Mall but it was quite crowded. There is a certain degree of culture shock for me to walk into these places that look very Western but retain a degree of Indian-ness that makes these truly hybrid spaces. The name brands are all the same, but it is possible to walk into a book store and buy books that would be impossible to find in America. The anchor store – Shoppers Stop – looks like C&A or JCPenny, but the products are all different. Anyway, Mikku and Ketoki were taking way too long, so the kids, Kingshuk and I just hung out and chatted. After the ladies got done, we all headed to the Asean Village where we found a nice eatery called Tonic and Ketoki treated us to some really good kebobs and tandoori (Ketoki, has just been appointed as the Deputy General Manager of Samsung Engineering in India, after she spent several years working with the consulting firm called Engineers India Limited, indeed, she is one of our few class mates from IIT who has stuck to hard-core Chemical Engineering). We hung out there for some time and eventually we said bye to each other. They left for home while went back to the hotel. We have been traveling so much that it is often disconcerting, because both Mikku and I were slipping into Bengali when speaking to the waiters at Tonic, forgetting we were in Delhi, and not in Calcutta. In Delhi the staple language is Hindi, but we kept on using Bengali, which is the staple of Calcutta. Kingshuk really got a kick out of this! After getting back to the hotel I let the car go (total was Rs. 2,500 including a Rs. 50 tip – this included pick up from airport and all the traveling through the day, we had the car for about 10 hours). Later in the evening we thought of getting some more kebabs and biriyani and I went over to the pub in Friend’s Colony market and got a take out (Rs. 1,000 for kebabs, biriyani and raita). We eventually called it a day at about 10:30.
July 21, Monday Delhi-London
We needed an early start from the hotel to get to the airport on time. Mr. Yadav was there in time and we loaded up the car and checked out of the hotel and headed to the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport. It was a busy morning but we reached OK. The airport is being re-done and it looked quite nice. Check in was a little rough since we wanted our bags to be checked in all the way to Washington, even though we were staying a night in London. The check out girl finally did that and we went through immigration and went to the lounge to wait for the flight. The Clipper Lounge at IGI is quite nice and we ate some of the snacks. We eventually cleared security and boarded. Upper Class was quite empty and they treated us really well. The flight was very comfortable. We reached London nearly on time and since we had the “Fast Track” immigration coupon and no bags we were soon on the train going to Southfield. I called Kaju mama from East Putney station and he was there to pick us up at Southfield. As always he had prepared a fantastic dinner for us and we ate and chatted for a while before calling it a day. I had also called Kwik Kars for a pick up the next morning.
July 22, Tuesday London-Washington-Richmond
The taxi arrived on time and we took it to Southfield from where we took the train to Heathrow Terminal 3. Check in was OK and we verified that our bags would indeed get to DC. We then went through security and stuff and since we were back in coach class there was no access to the lounges. However, used my Priority Pass and spent the morning sitting in the Serviceair Lounge in T3 before boarding. The flight to DC was long (about 9 hours) but eventless. All the bags had arrived and immigration and customs was not an issue. I have usually found DC to be the best way to enter the US. I then got the rental van and we started driving out of DC at about 4:30. Traffic was not too bad and we drove till 7:15 in the evening and stopped right South of Richmond at a Holiday Express. Ordered some pizza and Chinese delivery and called it a day.
July 23, Wednesday Richmond-Greensboro
We were up early because of jet lag, so had a really large breakfast and then headed out to Winston. Drove non-stop and arrived in Winston by about 10:30 am.