Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Bombay to Udaipur

In April 2011, we embarked on our first “long drive” from Bombay to Goa. In May 2012, we once again attempted the same trip, this time older and wiser. Then, came some months of back trouble, which reached such a low that I did not think I would drive again. However, having made a full recovery this year, high on the agenda was a drive to Udaipur…

I was told by friends who had done it before that the Bombay to Udaipur journey is longer than Goa (approx. 800 kms each way, instead of about 650 kms), but easier to do. In any case, we decided to make the most of the road trip, and not stress about reaching Udaipur before sun down. So we planned a halt at Vadodara, both ways.

That turned out to be a good decision since Vadodara is a nice, clean city that resides roughly halfway to Udaipur. You also have the option of breaking journey at Ahmedabad, which is roughly an hour’s drive further north from Vadodara.

Here is the log from our trip… Bear in mind that, depending on your starting point, milestones may vary by 3-4 kms. Also, our goal was to enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Therefore, these logs will reflect that attitude in the stops we made.

  • Departure @ 6.10 am from Powai, Odo set to 0 kms
  • Stopped at Kamat’s @ 76kms, 7.45 am for breakfast (30 mins)
  • Other milestones: McDonald’s @ 162 kms, Hotel Tulsi @ 171 kms
  • Sugar and Spice food plaza @ 198 kms with clean loos
  • Other milestones: Sugar and Spice @ 243 kms, McDonald’s @ 262 kms
  • Stopped at Hotel Swagat for lunch @ 276 kms, 1.30 pm (45 mins)
  • Arrived at Vadodara around 3.30 pm, 410 kms
  • Started next morning at 8.15 am, towards Udaipur!
  • Breakfast stop (30 mins), 10.30 am  at the start of Ring Road (Many hotels and loos)
  • Stopped at the Vintage Car Museum (1 hour) @ 519 kms
  • Stopped at Hotel Landmark for lunch at 2pm (Bad loo) @ 175 km before Udaipur i.e. 587 kms from Mumbai
  • Multiple petrol pumps seen soon after crossing the Rajasthan border @ 648 kms
  • Reached Udaipur at 850 kms, 6 pm

On the whole, the roads were smooth and the drive was pleasurable. The journey on the way back was somewhat less eventful…

  • Departure from Udaipur at 6.20 am, Odo set to 0 kms
  • Stopped for breakfast at Hotel Aashirvad, 103 kms, 7.45 am
  • Other milestones: Hotel Ashish @ 122 kms (bigger and better), Hotel Asopalav @ 138 kms (biggest!)
  • At 10 am @ approx. 32 kms before Ahmedabad, we took a detour via Gandhinagar, to visit the Sabarmati Ashram
  • Stopped at the Ashram @ 257 kms
  • Joined the Ahmedabad expressway again @ 270 kms, at 12 pm
  • At 349 kms, 12.50 stopped at a sad food court about 15 kms from Vadodara to fill fuel and reached the city soon after
  • Departed next morning at 7.10 am, 385 kms
  • Breakfast stop (30 min) at 9.05 am at a big food court with nice loos, CCD, etc. @ 507 kms
  • Also, Sugar and Spice @ 560 kms, and a big Kamat’s @ 637 kms
  • Stopped at 12.20 pm at Hotel Ahura (45 mins) for awesome Parsi food @ 691 kms (on opp. side of the road)
  • Reached home (Powai) at 3.10 pm with 810 kms on the odo

The stretch from Udaipur to Vadodara was even better, since the detour via Gandhinagar meant that we bypass the only stretch that has two-way traffic. Driving through Gandhinagar was also an experience worth doing!

A common lament across all my road journeys remains the woefully inadequate facilities we have across the country, when it comes to washrooms and clean water.

A new phenomenon we encountered during our Ahmedabad to Udaipur to Ahmedabad stretch is spotting a number of vehicles that looked clearly ‘lived-in’, and carrying multiple passengers, but without any license plates! So watch out in case you get into an accident with one such dubious vehicle.

City of Joy

It’s been a while since I blogged. Moving to a new job has kept me busy, these past few months. It’s been a particularly demanding, challenging and exciting journey, but it hasn’t left me much time for anything else, including blogging. In August, I also moved my blogs to WordPress.com, and that migration took the good part of a precious weekend, but I digress. Before I joined my new employer, I took the opportunity to go on a trip to a city I’ve longed to see for more than a decade – Kolkata.

Kolkata is a city unlike any other in India, or so I’d heard until I actually saw it for myself. Now, I know it to indeed be so. I chose the last week of June – one of its hottest and most humid – not by choice, but because I was in between jobs and that was the only window I had. Yes, I’d done a fair bit of research online, and also spoken to my “bong” friends who were very generous with their long lists of things that should be ‘must-see’ on my agenda. But, I also wanted to keep it free flowing… experience Kolkata as it happens to me.

And, as it turned out, that was a wonderful idea!

I hailed a non-airconditioned yellow ambassador taxi from the airport, since that was the most classical way to traverse the city of joy. I’d chosen to stay on Sudder Street, since it was very popular with foreigners who backpacked across India, and also close to the famous Park Street. Sudder Street, and its adjoining New Market, were a full-blown sensory experience, giving me the chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city in all its glory. Most places I wanted to see were a short taxi ride away, which was convenient since it saved me a lot of time.

Over the course of the next four days, I did almost everything I wanted to do on my list – circumnavigate the famous Maidan, go to the Indian Museum, visit the Victoria Memorial monument, photograph St. Paul’s Cathedral, go up and down the legendary Park Street several times, ride the Kolkata Metro, spend some hours in the tranquil surroundings of the South Park Street Cemetery, drive over the Howrah and the Vidyasagar bridges, visit the old Howrah town, drive past Eden Gardens, experience the sprawling Science City on the outskirts, saw several street arguments, visit the glamorous and upmarket stretches of Salt Lake City, and of course use every opportunity to take in some Bengali food, including eating at Peter Cat (where my wife had enjoyed several meals as a youngster!).

In the end, the only things left unchecked on my list were a tram ride and a trip to see Mother Teresa’s home – these would have to wait until my next visit. Of course, there would be many more visits to come…

Kolkata touched me in a way that most cities haven’t, and I was glad that I was able to take this opportunity to experience it in a way that most tourists don’t. Kolkata has an uncanny ability to assimilate you into its culture. Once you’ve made it your own, so as to say, it’s almost impossible to see it like an “outsider” does. Most folks I know would have a love/hate relationship with the city – they would either think I’m nuts to think of Kolkata in these terms, or simply “get it”.

Vir Sanghvi described this sentiment beautifully when he wrote: “That’s why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.

Bombay to Goa: Part Two

Please Note: This is an extension of my earlier post on a road trip from Bombay to Goa. Read that to get additional dope on this subject.

This April, we made a second road trip to Goa and back. This time around, however, we were far more experienced about what to expect. (For the record, the Mumbai-Pune-Kolhapur-Nipani-Ajara-Amboli-Sawantwadi-Mapusa route is still the best route to take.) I’m sharing my log file with you since many of you have written in about how helpful you found those pointers…

Bombay to Goa

We decided to get a two hour headstart by starting off from Pune early morning. So we ended up staying over in Pune one day prior to departure. In hindsight, that didn’t help much since the time on road (including breaks) from Pune to Goa also ended up taking 12 hours.

0545, 0 kms – Started from Pune (near Baner) via Katraj bypass
0625, 36 kms – Passed by McDonald’s @ Khedshivpur
0711, 80 kms – End of Khandala (Satara) ghats
0750, 96 kms – Clean loo, Petrol pump n Restaurant
0950, 208 kms – Passed by Sai Food Court
1000, 217 kms – Kini Toll Plaza
1025, 240 kms – Passed by 24-hr McD (Kolhapur) on the opp side
1123, 283 kms – Turn off NH4 towards Goa @ Hotel Kavery (very clean Indian-style loo for ladies)
1245, 325 kms – Hotel Minerva Paradise. Very clean loos + Lunch break 1 hr
1430, 362 kms – Passed by Kamat’s @ Amboli just before the ghats begin
1500, 378 kms – End of Amboli ghats

(Then we took a left for a shortcut to Mapusa, but you should avoid it as it’s an unpaved narrow that bypasses Sawantwadi; Go via Sawantwadi instead)

1545, 395 kms – Turn on to NH 17
1622, 426 kms – Turn right for Mapusa city
1645, 440 kms – Reached Hotel in Baga

Goa to Bombay

On the way back, we decided to split the journey at Kolhapur which is almost midway in terms of time taken.

0835, 0 kms reading – Started from Baga towards Mapusa, then onto NH17 for Sawantwadi
1020, 59 kms – Sawantwadi ends
1045, 72 kms – Amboli ghats begin
1140, 88 kms – Ghats end @ Kamat’s. (Loos not too functional)
1240, 120 kms – Hotel Minerva Paradise about 1 km before Ajara town
1345, 160 kms – Turn onto NH4
1430, 210 kms – Reached our Hotel in Kolhapur

Next day…

0915, 00 kms – Started from Kolhapur
1125, 137 kms – Anewadi Toll Plaza
1150, 166 kms – End of Satara (Khandala) ghats – bypassed through tunnel
1210, 187 kms – Big Kamat’s for lunch stop upto 1 pm
1325, 212 kms – New Katraj tunnel to enter Pune city
1415, 249 kms – Turn onto Pune-Mumbai Expressway
1520, 342 kms – Expressway ends @ Kharghar
1610, 371 kms – Airoli Toll Booth
1645, 382 kms – Home

Special thanks to the missus for logging in all this info on her cellphone throughout the drive. Have a safe one…

Mumbai Local

After some years, I found myself taking one of Mumbai’s local trains to go from one end of the city to another.  I also ended up tweeting about everything I experienced during that journey.  This short poem has evolved from those tweets…

LED displays
Improved ventilation
Faster fans
And cushioned seats
Mobile phones
Seem to be with all of you
Everything looks new in a Mumbai Local

Shoe-shine boys
AH Wheeler
The smell of popcorn
Eunuchs onboard
Pocket radios for some
And a Ray Ban too!
Life sure is interesting on a Mumbai Local

Abusive cop
Scared little kid
Girlfriend-Boyfriend
And an office exec
Vegetable vendors
And a Parsi bawa too
Every one takes the Mumbai Local

Fast train screams past
Marine Lines sea breeze
I arrive at Churchgate
By a window seat
Reached in no time
In 6 rupees too!
Is there anything better than a Mumbai Local?