Saturday, July 30, 2005

Travelogue IV (Day out at Paris)

Its rare I get lucky! But it happened. Getting an entire day out at Paris, all that for free, is not just a small luck, its a gift chhappar phaad ke! After landing at the high-tech Paris airport, when I reached the appropriate terminal to get a boarding pass at the Air France counter for my journey back to Mumbai, I was baffled by the reply of the staff - "All seats in this flight are full and you can't travel today. Wait on that side and I would tell you what is to be done." Still unaware of many rules in hawaai yatras, I ranted at her - "How can you give my seat to somebody else? I have a confirmed ticket!" She politely replied - "Sir, do you know what's going on in Mumbai? People are dying in Mumbai!" I thought for a moment, so what's the big deal? People keep on dying in India due to one thing or the other!...but suppressed my urge to say that out aloud. She continued - "There is water all around and our flights are not getting permission to land. Yesterday's flight was cancelled and those passengers are travelling today." Finally, after spending much time on her sleek computer system, she told me that there is no other option and I would have to travel the next day. They arranged for my stay at a nice hotel together with meals and had a free transport available from airport to Ibis Ville.

I only had my hand baggage with me and there was no option of changing my clothes. After having lunch (this was much better than Czech food, atleast the fruits were intact and not spoiled with the application of a ghatiya fruit salad recipe, and on the top of it, there were those familiar french fries!), I decided to set out to have a city visit. With the experiences of a city travel in Prague, I took a map and set out all alone to discover as much of Paris as possible in that single evening I had. Major tourist destinations were marked on the map itself and I covered around 5 of them.

My first stop was, of course, the Eiffel Tower. The familiar picture of the structure embedded in every child's mind in India, courtesy his GK books, was infront of my eyes. You can't really imagine the actual span of this marvellous design unless you see it. I decided not to go on top (partly because I didn't have time, and partly because there was a heavy rush at that 2 Euro elevator and I didn't have enough energy to waste by using the stairs). Paris was expensive, and I was lucky that I had around 5000 Rs in my hand baggage which I got converted at the airport.

From the tower, I decided to walk to my next destination to have a good sightseeing and to enjoy the beautiful Seine river. The river flows centrally through the city and is flanked by huge structures on both sides. It's not very wide, but the approximate 50 to 60 mts. width is enough for the numerous floating restaurants and small tourist boats offering a paradise to the onlooker's eyes. Paris is different from Prague in almost everything - it's modern and high-tech, Prague was a bit ancient and historical.

After a few more site visits until it was around 10 in the night, I decided to move back to my hotel. A sumptuous dinner (again with French fries, French bread, lots of fruits and above all: the red wine) ended my Paris day-out.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Travelogue III (Phoren life & Prague)

Its not a very good practice to start off with a pessimistic note, but I am more than tempted to write this off - If you are a vegetarian, think ten times before travelling abroad without an alternative food arrangement (like your wife to cook!) I have been pissed off with what all you get here in the name of food: tell that to somebody back in India and he would exclaim - sirf ghaans khaate the kya? For vegetarians, they proudly announce the salad on one side of the buffet which was filled up with strange dishes of pork and beef (for which I needed a friend for identification) or some ugly vegetables cooked with ... I don't know what. Yesterday in lunch, they even had the pasta which actually sucked! I have been hungry since last three days, surviving only on the bread-butter and yoghurt of the breakfast and moving only by the little power provided with that 32 Crown Coca-Cola Burn energy drink.

The conference is going on great - though a bit hectic. Today was the closing ceremony in fact. It has been great chatting with people from around the world - each one strange in his own ways. The day before yesterday I talked with a guy called Bill from Hungary. He had been to India for 6 months all alone and was sharing some experiences. He had arrived at Mumbai on a Diwali night and was astonished at the sight of crackers all around. It was funny in a way, I could imagine him jumping and running all along to get away! There is a girl called Louann from Trinidad with this typical accent we seldom hear on televisions and this lad named Achala from Sri Lanka who finds the Indian accent strange! Writing about everybody is not what I intend to do in this space.

I bunked a complete session yesterday afternoon and roamed around the city with a fellow Indian Ashish Gupta from XIMB (Yup! Bunking is something which characterises a typical Indian, and is inevitable when you are an engineer!) This guy was experienced - he had been to London and Japan before and knew the ground rules of travelling in an unknown city. I think I would never have been able to cover all these beautiful places in Prague, had he not been there for my rescue. With a map in hand and a good knowledge about the city owing to his huge pre-preparations about the place on the internet before coming, he was a nice company all around. We went to almost all places he told was worth visiting - Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, Wencelas Square, National Museum etc.

There are a few basics to enjoy a foreign city - have an extreme stamina to walk, a great sense of direction and a lot of common sense! We walked for almost 15 Kms on that very day, and I kept myself moving with frequent Coca-Cola Burns. The city is great - and I have read that it has some historical importance related with the USSR times. Christened the Banaras of the West and the most beautiful city of Europe; we roamed quite until it was 11:30 in the night. Its strange of European summers - the sun comes up around 5 in the morning, but sets only around 11 in the night! The night had actually just started to cover up the Prague skyline when we decided to wrap off to catch the last train to Celakovice.

And ask what I had for dinner - a cheese patties bought outside the TESCO Supermarket. After searching in almost every McDonald's and other restaurants and asking for anything vegetarian, I finally got a patties! Ashish was, though, comfortable with his hot-dogs and burgers (which had pork inside.... Erckle!). I had to buy water (available at a hefty 26 Crowns for half a litre - that's around 50 Rupees!) to quench my thirst just because they don't offer it for free even at restaurants! The coke was cheaper than water, though, available at 15 Crowns for a glass and I had sipped it twice.

On returning back, every other guy in my group was astonished how I bunked a session, and I was astonished why at all do they think its such a big deal anyway! Today evening, there was a scheduled city visit and we utilised it only to do some shopping from the stores we had cautiously set aside in our minds yesterday as providing the best prices - again, a typical Indian!

Today was the closing ceremony and it felt bad to part from everybody else. After all, it was a nice share of time which I had enjoyed with them. Tomorrow, I would be leaving this place to ride on plane which would "Fly me home" (The three words symbolising the Deccan airways which I read on a girl's baggage while looking at her at Paris airport!) Better than here, atleast I would get good food to eat and free water to drink!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Travelogue II (First Impressions)

I think I am not yet finished with my Delhi post. After everything was in place by 22nd, I thought of making a trip to my Mausi's place in Behrod, around 130 Km from Delhi, midway on Delhi-Jaipur highway. So, on 23rd morning, around 6 O' clock, I left to Dhaula Kuan from Noida, and caught a comfortable 2/2. (2/2 buses are a luxury in Jharkhand and Bihar considering the heavy rush and abundance of 3/2 seaters). It was nice to find a scarce headcount, both in that DTC I had boarded and in this Haryana State Transport bus.

After spending around 8 hours in home, both Mausiji and Mausaji came to drop me all the way to Indira Gandhi International airport. There was a traffic jam near Gurgaon and the bus took a different way through the Gurgaon city - I was lucky to get the city view and kept on getting amused by the skyscrapers.

We reached the airport around one and a half hours before the scheduled departure and I was sad to know that visitors were not allowed anywhere inside the security area - I had to go inside all alone and they didn't even get a chance to actually see me off. Unknown of the formalities and wandering inside to get an idea of what all is to be done to fetch a boarding pass, I was wondering how bewildered and dumb must I be looking to others! Its always strange, you can easily identify a 'fresher' in any domain by his activities; not always because he does things incorrectly, but just because he asks for it first and then does that with extra care.

Finally, after much embarrassment, I got a boarding pass, and I decided to make a call back home. By this time, I had started feeling a bit nostalgic and, though, its not the best thing to be done at such times, I made a call atleast to inform everybody that I am ready to depart.

The aircraft finally took off, and I found myself cramped in a small chair with seatbelt tied around and some strange sort of pressure inside my ears. The seats were 2-4-2 in one row and I was in the worst of them, the middle one in the 4 series. Stretching my legs was difficult and sleeping impossible. I remembered all rosy paintings of air-travel which are pasted in your mind throughout your growing-up stages in school life, and wondered how amongst many worthless things taught in school life, such falsified images of comforts-which-money-can-buy are firmly erected inside your mind. I was hungry, but something inside my stomach kept prompting me, fill with anything and I am ready to throw it out! The artificial environment was worse and I was wondering whether I would actually survive for entire 10 hours in that condition. A newly wed Indian girl was sitting besides me and just to feel a bit better, I initiated a conversation.

She was going to US via Paris and was travelling with her father-in-law. For the first time, I tasted some French food and this girl helped me out in identifying the vegetarian items. It was strange, and I couldn't eat anything except some French bread and butter, settling everything in place with some orange juice.

The ordeal finally ended and we landed in Paris. The pilot announced the outside temperature to be 17 degrees. I disembarked at terminal 2A and couldn't find that girl anymore. A bus took the passengers of connecting flights to terminal 2C and in the entire way, I kept getting mused at the mesh of concrete flyovers passing one on top of another like the ones in science fiction movies. I had about 2 hours before my next flight to Prague and I roamed around in the cold terminal clicking a few snaps with my camera. The second flight was a bit comfortable with 3-3 seats in a row and I had got a window seat. The food again was strange and I managed again with good old bread-butter.

Coming out of the Prague airport, I felt for the first time, that I was out in broad daylight at some place which is far away from India. The taxi which took me from the airport to the conference venue in Celakovice was a Volkswagon, and the entire 40 minutes drive, I kept looking outside with that childlike innocence of videsh yatra. Being fascinated by the cruising speeds of 160 Kmph, I was wondering what would happen if a pothole appears in the way! The car accelerated and deccelerated most swiftly than ever imagined, and I was preparing a nice lecture in my mind about the Indian economy vs. the West in my mind which I can give to my friends upon returning back - which was never delivered in full, except a few comparisons now and then.

"Where's everybody?" is what any Indian would immediately ask while looking around at this place. Habituated of a country (somebody told me that the entire Europe lives in India!) with heads all around, it seemed strange. The taxi promptly stopped at every red signal - I don't know for whom, there was nobody around - and re-accelerated to its full pace. A few bikes passed-by from behind, with a 'relative velocity' same as the normal speed of cars in India, and I quickly added a figure of around 60 Kmph with our meter reading of 150 to get a rough idea of the speed with which those guys were cruising!

Its afternoon here, and I am heavily jet-lagged. This hotel is comfortable, and truthfully, the most comfortable place I have ever been to. I have decided to take a nice nap before I check out what's all there in-and-around.

P.S. The toilet is difficult to use, it has only papers!!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Travelogue I (Delhi)

Its seldom that I travel far away from home all alone. I have been to Delhi before many a times, but this time, it was different. Travelling 24 hours in a train alone is a difficult task - and the difficulty increases if people like us start travelling in air-conditioned compartments! We middle-class people constituting the majority of Indian population are much more comfortable in the familiar and 'active' environment of sleeper 3-tier coaches with beggars and vendors visiting frequently.

Anyway, I stepped down at New Delhi Railway station and took an auto-rickshaw straight to Noida. I have been here after almost 3 years, so changes in a metropolis are quite natural. But the pace at which Delhi has changed appears remarkable. With flyovers constructed at almost every crossroad, traffic congestion has been substantially reduced, not to mention the extra beauty added to the city. The pollution scenario has been greatly improved as well - thanks to the CNG changeover. The air here is far better than the streets of Dhanbad.

Its been four days since I am here. I met one of my seniors yesterday who is in Noida itself. He passed out from ISM just 3 months back but it seemed like we were meeting after almost an year. Working hard in his software firm, his incessant schedules gave me a fair idea of how hard life is going to get once I am out of this heavenly abode called ISM.

I have been travelling much in this place since last 3 days ('much' is the only term I can use based on my Dhanbad and Jamshedpur reference frames) to get a visa approval. The DTC buses, all crowded at the peak 9 O' Clock time were the only option and I sincerely wished metros should have existed in South Delhi as well. People here are more friendly than one can expect, everybody including the conductor can strike out nice conversations even while standing in the buses and it didn't feel much bad to me being cramped altogether with my file in hand and my tie around my neck - the ready-for-the-interview posture.

If you lack sufficient walking capabilities, you are going to have a difficult time here. I have a nice habit of long walks and it wasn't much difficult when I got the most common reply of 'paas mein hi hai' to anywhere I asked for, be it a place 4 Km away. The longest one became real tiresome, though, a full circle around the Niti Marg searching for the Czech Embassy during the most hot-and-humid climate imaginable. It felt as if I had travelled across the entire globe (I walked past the embassies of almost anywhere) minus my destination - the Czech Republic. I have always suffered from this peculiar problem in these so-called posh areas - you can never get anything which can be qualified as a public transport, and you have to finally rely only upon your feet. This area didn't even have the ubiquitous water-vendors of Delhi to offer me a quench.

After much difficulty with that guy called Mr. Store (the difficulty was three fold - sitting in that ultracool chamber which felt like a corpse house, probably trying to give a feel of the Czech climate; understanding his entirely different accent; and finally convincing him why this conference was important to me) my visa was approved and its now certain that I would finally set foot on a winged carrier which would take me outside the realm of this country on the 24th.

The difficulties didn't end, though. I had been desperately searching for some woolen garments since yesterday and after much wandering to places like Ansal Plaza and Patel Nagar, I finally resorted to good old Atta of Noida to manage a single piece of a Levis jacket in a single store. A sleek 4.1 Mega pixel Sony cybershot digital camera is the latest substraction from my 'to-have' list, which I also bought from this market.

The stage is finally set, for, tomorrow would be the take-off towards my experience of a lifetime.