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
July 3, 2009
Milan picked us up from home about 8:30 in the morning and we stopped by at Starbucks for some rolls and coffee and headed to the airport. It is always nice to have someone drop you off when you are leaving home and it makes the trip more personal rather than taking a cab when leaving on a long trip. It was really nice of Milan to do that given it was a holiday with the long weekend and he dragged out of bed to do that. The check in at the airport was eventless, although we were a little concerned with the weight. The person checking us in was a trainee with United and I had walk her through the check in process, and remind her to ask the security questions and check our IDs before accepting our bags and giving us bag tags. There is something bizarre about the passenger telling the airline personnel what to do when checking someone in and accepting the bags. Too many plane trips would do this to you. Anyhow, the security check was OK other than Srijoy having to deal with his studded belt that proved to be a bit of a challenge. We hung out at the gate most of the time and the United flight was actually on time and we reached DC with no problem. The airport shuttle did not take too long and we were soon in the hotel and the room turned out to be really nice with Srijoy getting a separate room altogether. The growth of the budget suite hotels has really made this possible where one can get a “suite” for the price lower than what one would pay at some of the name brand chains. We had already eaten lunch at the airport so I contacted our friend Tito who had just recently moved to DC from Brussels and he came over soon and we drove over to his place in Maryland. His wife Laurie and he have rented a really fantastic place set back by a lake and the drive took about an hour and Tito was kind enough to give us a ride. On the way we stopped at small boutique cafe for some ice cream and then went on to Tito’s place. We hung out the evening and Tito cooked a fabulous Indian dinner which we all enjoyed after Laurie and their daughter got home a little later in the evening. Tito eventually drove us back to the hotel and it was late and Mikku accidentally left her glasses in Tito’s car, which was actually a BMW SUV. We eventually called it a day.
July 4, 2009
We had an early start from the hotel and took the shuttle to Dulles. I had completed the check in and had boarding passes ready so the process was quick at the counter. Security clearance was also eventless and we had reached there early enough that we could relax and catch up on e-mail and phone calls. The United flight was eventless too and the Atlantic crossing was quick. The seats were comfortable but lacked electrical outlets and so could not get much real work done but did watch some TV. The entertainment system was archaic and we were once again reminded that it is always a mistake to travel on American carriers when traveling internationally. The service is pitiful and you have to pay for everything which is really irritating. I really wished that British or Virgin or someone would restart the morning service to London from DC. Anyway, being in cattle class on and American carrier is not a good way to travel. We reached London a little early. Had a good view of London from the plane and immigration at Heathrow was painless. The bags took a while to arrive and we eventually waited about 30 minutes to get the Hotel Hoppa (H5) to go from the Terminal to the Slough Marriott. It was nice to return to the familiar hotel. The rooms have not changed much over the years and the “Chaps” bar is still the same. Settled down in the room and got a little bit of room service and eventually called it a day.
July 5, 2009
We got up in time to go down to the breakfast buffet. The traditional English breakfast is still something that I really enjoy. It is certainly not the best thing for one’s arteries but it tastes darn good, with the blood sausage, the bacon and the heaps of scrambled eggs and fried tomatoes. Almost reminiscent of the Harry Potter breakfast. We did not have too much time to eat it all, but we again took the Hoppa 5 to Terminal 3 for the flight to Milan. The flight was on Lufthansa which actually has now moved to Terminal 2 and that caused a bit of flutter but we checked in OK and again security was smooth. Most of the co-passengers were Italians who are similar to Indians in many ways. At airports, train stations, bus depots, and post office lines, Indians suffer from a chronic anxiety that they will somehow miss whatever they are seeking – getting on a plane or posting a letter – unless they manage to work their way to the beginning of the line. It is not that they are against waiting but it is waiting in vain that causes the anxiety. Perhaps for us Indians this is a genetic left-over of years of British Colonial rule where to be noticed by the “Sahib” one needed to be at the head of the proverbial line. Thus all over India people jostle, push, punch, pinch and pull to get ahead. Interestingly, Italians seem to do that too. This was evident as people started to cluster around the gate, perhaps anxious that the plane would leave without them. We felt really at home with this and before we knew, we were on the aircraft and settled into our seats of a Lufthansa flight which was operated by BMI. The flight was delayed about an hour but after that things were relatively smooth. We reached Milan’s Malpensa airport about 4:30 in the afternoon. This was our second time in the airport and there was some familiarity with the airport that helped. We got the rental car (Fiat Punto with automatic transmission and diesel fuel) and a GPS navigation system and headed out of the airport. Thanks to the GPS system (TomTom) we were not allowed to lose our way because the very stern lady who had been hired to do the voice for the system would chastise me if I went the wrong way, or if I drove too fast, or if I was near a police camera, or if I marginally had any evil thoughts related to the way I drive. It took a little messing with the system to shut her up and restrict her to just giving directions and not passing judgment on my driving, which has been honed on Calcutta streets and thus worked admirably in Milan. We got to the hotel with little difficulty and after checking in and settling down decided to go for a stroll on via Washington. We reached a Metro station and decided to buy the 1 Euro tickets to go Milan’s main plaza – the Duomo Plaza. With Srijoy now older it is simpler to do these things and we reached the plaza as it was starting to get dark. We sat in one of the cafes and looked at the drink menu. Nothing is inexpensive in these cafes of Milan. A glass of wine was billed at 7 Euros (about $10) and a bottle was billed at 20 Euros. Anyone knows that a bottle has more than 3 glasses. So, once the waiter confirmed that we could take the left over wine with us, I ordered the bottle and Mikku and Srijoy each ordered a glass of Coke. Without looking at the Menu. And, each glass of Coke was 7 Euros each. So much for dinner. We had just blown our entire dinner budget on two glasses of Coke and so I drowned by financial woes into the bottle of wine while Mikku and Srijoy (sometimes together, sometimes separately) walked around the plaza where a classical music concert was about to start. So we hung out there for a bit and eventually took the Metro back and walked back to the hotel picking up a sandwich on the way. It was interesting to note that the Duomo has been run over by vendors from Bangladesh who would typically sell roses to the tourists. We too were tourists but the vendors avoided us, knowing full well that we were the “stingy” ones and would not pay 10 Euros for a rose. It was curious also how some of the cafe owners looked at me and not seeing any flowers in my hand were suspicious of what I was doing in the cafe! Most people who looked like me evidently come into the cafe to sell flowers and not to drink 7 Euros Cokes! We finally called it a day.
July 6, 7 and 8 2009
These were the conference day and most of the days were at the conference. The Conference was held a little outside of Milan at a location off the highway that connects Milan with Genoa. The car was essential for that purpose. The conference went very well and made very important and interesting contacts with people in the technology given that this was a hard-core tech conference and they were very interested in the work that was going on in Communication with respect to the new media.
During this period we also did some traveling in and around Milan. One of the places we went to was Cervnia. This place is on the South side of the Matterhorn part of the Alps. If you were to look at the map, it would be evident that the Swiss town of Zermatt was only a few miles from Cervinia and there was some information on the Web that it is possible to take a series of ski lifts and cable cars that would allow one to go from Cervinia to Zermatt. This information on the Web is incorrect. Here is how it really works – there is a series of cable cars and ski lifts that takes you up to an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet (very uncomfortable for the sensitive types that need a good amount of oxygen to live), then if you have time (means you need to get there before about 10 am) you can either ski, snowboard, or walk over Plan Masion – plateau of ice – for about a mile to reach a second set of ski lifts etc. to go to Zermatt, and you can not come back the same day because the lifts close at a stipulated time. The Web sites about Cervinia and Zermatt fail to mention the little detail about having to ski along Alpine glaciers to go from one place to another. It is also very foggy there and that can make the project a touch risky because you could aimlessly be boarding on ice (which Srijoy really wanted to do) to be later discovered by slobbering dogs with bottles of brandy which is supposed to sustain you till the fog clears. We went up to Plan Maison, held our breath for about 30 minutes and then came back to Cervinia. The lunch at Cervinia was nice and eventually came back to Milan. The toll ways in Milan are expensive and you can really travel fast (only after you have been able to shut up the TomTom lady, who was probably having silent paroxysms as I was reached 190 kilometers per hour (about 130 miles per hour) and her internal system was set at 100 kmp).
The other excursion was to a town near Genoa off the Mediterranean coast. The drive there was pretty for the last part where it winds along the coast much like in Big Sur California with the sea to one side and the mountains on the other. We spent a little time at the beach and it was really hot there. As always, beaches in Europe present a completely different affect compared to the USA. The umbrellas are much more closely spaced and the beaches appear much more crowded. We had to rent two chairs and an umbrella while Srijoy was in the water. We then drove into Genoa and allowed ourselves to get lost a little and took in the beauty of the old port town and eventually returned to Milan.
An interesting fact that we discovered about Milan (at least the area on via Washington) is that all eating joints are shut on Wednesday nights. There was a lone pizzeria open which was totally full. After a long wait we got a table. There was a gentleman having dinner by himself in the table next to us. Since we were talking in English he started chatting with us and we had a great conversation with a Delta Airlines pilot who does the JFK-Milan run. It was really nice chatting with him.
Generally, Milan and Italy proved to be really nice and was similar to our past experiences in Italy – very reminiscent of India.
July 9, 2009
We left early from the hotel (Milan Marriott on via Washington) and drove back to the airport. It was really difficult to find the entrance to the rental place and so had to leave the car in the car park and it was getting late for the flight. So we had to scramble a little but made it to the plane. Got into London Heathrow more or less on time and after immigration we got the mini cab that took us over to my uncle’s house in Wandsworth. He had left the key in a safe place and it was nice to get back to our home in London. We had eater on the plane and were not too hungry and decided to go out a bit. There is a nice place on Garret Lane right by the Pizza Hut which is run by a Thai family who serves both traditional English and Thai food. Mikku ate some Thai stuff, and I enjoyed a really artery-thickening bangers and mash while Srijoy ate the traditional English breakfast. It was a nice summer afternoon in London and I strolled the antique store on Garret Lane. Found an old hard-cover Enid Blyton and a Desmond Bagley novel. The fellow was asking two sterling for each and did not buy. We walked over to Earlsfield and took the train to Waterloo. The Southbank street festival was on, and we just strolled around the London Eye and had a cup of coffee, crossed the bridge and walked by Parliament House on to Westminster and sat on the lawn for a bit and then walked through St. James Park and took a London taxi to Piccadilly and walked the back alleys of Soho marginally aimlessly which was a nice thing. Soho has changed so much over the years. With the arrival of Maggie Thatcher the seedy Soho was cleaned up much like New York’s 42nd Street and now it is a maze of alleys with boutiques, and bars. I still remember the peep show places and the general aura of Soho (I am talking mid-1980s) but much of central London is now become just a huge shopping area although you would still see the crowds at Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. Mikku did some window-shopping and we did people watching. Finally took the bus to Vauxhall station where Mikku found a stall selling really good chicken patties, and we took the Southwest train back to Earlsfield and walked back home. It was a nice and relaxed afternoon in London. Kaju mama was already there and we had a couple of drinks, and excellent dinner and then Kaju mama and I went off to see Mantu da and it was a nice evening overall. Srijoy had his first alcohol offered by Kaju mama with dinner – a fruity drink that had 4% alcohol. We eventually called it a day.
July 10, 2009
I was up early and saw off Kaju mama to work. I caught up with some work as well and after Mikku and Srijoy were ready we went back to Earlsfield and went back to Waterloo. This time, Srijoy really wanted to go to Camden Town. I remember the old Camden Town filled with spiky-haired punks and the general counter-culture that you only find in places in Camden Towns, Brixtons and Oaklands. I was not very wrong, and Camden Town has maintained its counterness. It is no longer punks but it is the place for skaters and skater outfits. Srijoy has been into that counter-culture some especially with the clothing and accessories and so he was in Heaven. We walked up and down the area and bought a few things. We then walked over to the canal and sat down at one of the food shops and had fish and chips. After some more time at Camden Town we took the bus back towards Covent Garden and got off on the way to check out some of the music stores. This is when we noticed billowing black smoke in the sky and much of the area was doused in smoke. There was a huge fire in Soho and that had caused the smoke. We went into a Borders Book Store and waited it out eventually taking the bus back to Waterloo station. Mikku wanted to go to Tower Bridge so we used the day pass to its full and went on there and then by the Thames. It was getting a little chilly so we decided to take a bus back towards Piccadilly and then to Waterloo station. Entire central London was messed up because of the fire, so we had to walk some but eventually got to Waterloo and then back to Earlsfield and a the bus back home. Kaju mama and Lenny were there already. After freshening up we all got into his Jaguar and drove to Windsor and had an excellent Chinese dinner on Windsor High Street. It was very pleasant and quite expensive (40 sterling for the three of us with beer) but it was a nice evening out. Got home and called it a day to get ready for the long flight the day after.
July 11, 2009
Kaju mama dropped us off to Terminal 5 Heathrow for the flight to Delhi. We hung out there and had coffee at Starbucks and got some food for the flight. We have generally started to carry Srijoy’s food with us since the airline food often causes trouble for him. The flight boarded on time and we were in Club World Plus which allows a little extra leg-room and an electrical outlet for the computer. The British Airways flight left at about 10:00 am UK time and got a significant amount of work done on the 9 hour flight and reached Delhi late at night. Immigration was smooth but the bags took a while. The hotel shuttle driver was waiting for us and we were soon in the room, somewhat jet lagged but not too bad and called it a day.
July 12, 2009
The jet lag made it a little difficult to get out of bed but the enticement of a breakfast buffet was sufficiently strong. It was a little bit of a let down because much of the stuff was western fare. One flies to India to eat a puri and aloo breakfast or at least a good masala dosa. Neither was easily available and so had to cajole the waiter to arrange for that. It was done and we felt we were really in India because the food really does make all the difference. The heat was intense and even going outside for a smoke was not comfortable. We eventually took the shuttle to the new domestic airport of Delhi and were really impressed by the set up. The announcements were not clear and we accidentally stood in the wrong line with the customary jostling, but eventually found our plane and boarded and left on time. We flew Indigo which is India’s ‘no frills’ airlines and my experience with them has been consistently good. Flight left on time and we reached Calcutta in time as well.
This time, I had arranged for something different in terms of transportation in Calcutta. Typically, we used to get a vehicle along with a “driver” who would bring the car over in the morning and stay for 10 hours. We could use the car to go to places and the “driver” would drive us there and then park the car and sleep in the car. Sometimes the “driver” would also help carry luggage, and on occasions go to the market to get samosas. The role of the “driver” is a unique Indian invention who, for the permanent variety, almost could become a Jeeves-like person who would serve the “driven” in a very faithful way. In its temporary version, the “driver” could be a different person every day, and some could be a Jeeves and another could be Nicholson-like character in The Shining – completely loopy. It is a sort of Russian roulette with the “driver” with the way we did the car hiring. Indeed I made a generic “driver” entry in my call phone and updated the cell phone (usually called “mobile” in India) number each day as a new driver would arrive. The rental agencies were also somewhat shady institutions and one could never be sure what might be in the trunk (boot to some and dicky to others) or who else might have used the car the night before. All of this was getting tiring in the past years, and not to mention the fact that once the “driver” left with the car there was no way to go anywhere except by public transport which no American (even the naturalized variety) refuse to use. On top of all these, there was the fact that I needed to be mobile (not of the cell phone variety, but moving around) to make the different meetings in Calcutta related to the Wake India program. So, I decided to rent a car as one would do anywhere else in the World and got a car from Avis. This was one of the best decisions I made on this trip. The method was simple: go to the Avis Web site, and do the rental as you would do for any global location, then call the Avis Calcutta number (+919748403561 or +919810327660) and reconfirm the reservation 24 hours before the pick up time and give them your mobile number. Thereafter Avis takes over. As soon as I had landed in Calcutta I received a text message on my phone giving me the car number, the name of the “handler” and his mobile number. After collecting my bags I called the handler who brought the car right to me, I signed the paper work and was off in my own personal Ford Fiesta for the same price I was paying for the crappy old junkie cars before. Moreover, I had it for me 24/7. Driving in Calcutta could be a nightmare if you do not understand the psyche of Calcutta. You do not drive in Calcutta to go from one place to another. You actually use your brain to drive in Calcutta, quickly projecting forward every move of other moving object around your car, and then computing very quickly the best path to take. Love to see that MIT or Carnegie Mellow tram do a little bit of robotic driving in Calcutta, probably need a Cray just to predict what the taxi driver and the auto rickshaw will do in the next nano second as they are about to rip out your side mirror. This is what is called driving, not sitting brainlessly in a vehicle staying between white lines drawn on the road. That being my idea of driving I loved my Ford and its responsive stick-shift and actually felt alive again. Now I know the best solution to boredom – drive in Calcutta – never a dull moment. Be interesting if I applied the same principles in Winston.
So, after getting the car, I drove on to AC 140. Mikku, Srijoy, Babulbaba, Boudima and Tinku had also come to AC 140 and we hung out together for a bit and then they went off to D50 and I stayed over in AC140. Dadabhai came to visit that evening and it was really a good evening. This trend of visiting continued for the entire stay in Calcutta. We saw a lot of people in Calcutta and it was the same group as always. There was also a gathering at Stadel where many of the weddings had taken place and the high point of the trip was the visit by Tulda and Bibi Boudi from Raigarh. They arrived the day after we reached and we hung out together quite a bit. I also had to go to Delhi for a couple of days during the stay to work on the Wake Forest India program. The trip to Delhi was very productive and got a lot done in a short time. Also met with my publisher in Delhi and that went very well. After the return from Delhi there was a gathering at AC 140 that was well attended by all family members. After that Tulda and Boudi returned to Raigarh. Mikku and I also saw a couple of movies at the City Center Inox Theater. This theater has a “morning show” usually at about 9:30 am and the ticket prices were half the regular price (which is about Rs. 150, $3) and that was quite nice to watch movies in the morning. In all we saw three movies – Kambakht Ishq, Luck and Ice Age 3. We also had a great gathering of the Calcutta Boys group – there were three visitors this year – self, Papu from USA, and Arijit from Japan and the usual Cal group. We met at Barbecue Nation a new really good restaurant that has opened up in Sector 5 of Salt Lake. We also went to the usual haunts – Mani Square, New Market, Grand Hotel and Abcos where we met with Avijit and his wife Swati. Overall the stay was very productive and quite pleasant.
July 13 to July 28, 2009
This time in Calcutta I also had some dental work done and that was really well done by Dr. Anirban Bhattacharya. Going to his clinic in Motijheel was a trick especially in the Ford and it was equally a trick to drive back home by myself after the surgery. The trip to see Kaju Mama’s family in Tiljala was also fun, I did not venture in there with the Ford, but parked it at Ruby Hospital and took a cab into the by lanes of Tiljala. Calcutta is indeed a city of contrasts and visits to Motijheel and Tilajala shows the contrasts in stark light. There are stores like Home Town (in Rajarhat) and the high rise swank flats in New Town just as there are the inner lanes of Park Circus and Beckbagan. Also met with the EMMRC group in Calcutta who will play a pivotal role in the Wake Forest India program.
We finally left Calcutta on July 27 morning. Drove the car back to the airport and dropped it off there. Went on to Delhi and met up with Kingshuk, Ketoki and Avijit Roy (Caco) and that was the day it rained the most in Delhi this year. It was still a nice evening in Delhi. Then on the 28th of July we left from Delhi heading out to London and then back home.
Everything in our family changed that day when Tinku passed away on the 28th in Calcutta. I can not write about this, or the loss of my dear friend Ross Smith in the blog, but be happy to talk when we meet. Treat life carefully because you never know when it will be lost.
Labels: Summer 2009 Italy and India