Seeing The World

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any thing on this blog pertaining to “Travel”.  From the frequency of posts on that subject, you would think that travelling would not be very high on my priority list. But, it is!  And, this year on, I intend to do something about it.

For starters, this May I’d scheduled time-off from work to address not one but two trips out of town. 

The first was to celebrate our 10th anniversary, the details of which would forever remain between us and the friendly people of the charming resort we’d booked our stay in.  I returned from that holiday, only to depart the following day for a photo-tour in the Lion Sanctuary of Gir! 

A friend and I had been talking about doing a photo-tour for a while, and were able to sync our calendars for this one.  I’d planned the thing weeks in advance by reading up all I could lay my hands on. 

It was to be the baddest, hottest time of the year for Sassan Gir, with temperatures soaring upto 45 deg C… it would also be the best time to spot the lions, as the heat would make them go in search of water more often. 

We’d booked ourselves in a Jungle Lodge (surrounded on all sides by the forest!) after reading about it on travel sites, and it turned out to be even more charming and exciting than the reviews had mentioned.  The food was great, the people were friendly, the safari trips were well-organized, and we were able to shoot quite a bit of wildlife through the lenses of our respective cameras, even picking up some info on wildlife habitats along the way.

This was my first open-jeep safari, and it was an experience unlike any other!  While some of the lion sightings were so far away that you could hardly spot them without a telescopic lens, we also had a few “encounters” merely 10 feet away from our vehicle. 

Words cannot adequately explain the thrill of being in lion-land, a few steps away from the magnificent cat, in an open-jeep, with nothing in your hands except a camera.

Of course, as the safari guides kept reminding us, going to Gir is more than about “spotting lions”.  On our multiple runs through the sanctuary we saw countless deer and peacocks, and a host of other animals and birds, trying to capture as much as possible with our equipment.  On our way back, we also made a brief stop at the town of Junagadh, to shoot the fantastic Indo-Islamic architecture of the city, and were more than rewarded for the hours we spent in the sun.

I was hooked for Life, and will be sure to return to many more wildlife trips in the years to come…

Pictures on my photoblog, here.

The Gorakhpur Experience

If you’ve been following my blog, you already know that these past few weeks have been particularly hectic for me, thanks to all the activities surrounding my new web presence.  But, amidst all the chaos, I missed out on blogging about an important event in the family.

During the first week of October, we also made a trip to Gorakhpur (via New Delhi) for my sister’s wedding !!!

It was an interesting few months leading up to the “big day”, with tension and excitement available in equal measure.  The boy’s family was from Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh).   For various reasons, both parties had agreed, early on, that we would host the engagement and wedding ceremony in Gorakhpur, and try to keep the formalities to a minimum.  Ma’s health has always been unpredictable, and we were not even sure she’d be able to make it to the event!   But, as the day dawned nearer, I became more and more confident that the adrenalin would keep her going…

Given the dubious safety record of train journeys across Bihar and UP, I was keen to avoid that stretch, and planned to route our journey via New Delhi.  Since most of our relatives were joining in from Delhi, we would also benefit from their company.

That said, we were apprehensive about how our little kids would manage.  This would be our longest train journey with both kids, till date.  And, we were scheduled for not one, but three train rides lasting more than 15 hours each, in a span of 6 days!  Yes, we were planning to take the maid with us.  But, there was no guarantee that she would not cancel at the last minute.

As it turned out, things weren’t half as bad as they could’ve been.  Every thing went off smoothly with the engagement and the wedding ceremony.  And, Ma was able to make it to her daugher’s wedding day.  Having the celebrations in Gorakhpur meant access to a lot of resources (for the bridegroom’s family) and none of the problems of Mumbai’s traffic.  I even managed to go with a few temple-goers for a little ride around the Gorakhpur countryside, to see life on the streets in a new town.

The children enjoyed their holiday, and made the most of the attention from all our relatives.  On our way back, we’d planned a one-night stay in Delhi to catch up with some family that we had not seen in a long while.  (I used to visit family in Delhi, every summer, when I was in school).  Now, after all these years, it was really nice to meet up with some cousins and uncles, and have the kids meet with cousins of their own – some of them for the first time!

Yes, I really wish the weather was not as hot and humid as it was, both in New Delhi and in Gorakhpur.  And, I was really looking forward to my journey back by the Rajdhani – a train I have never been in and have wanted to all my life.  (We missed our train ride back on account of a bad traffic jam in New Delhi, and had to spend an exhorbitant sum to return by flight!).

But, in the end, all’s well that ends well.

Bridge over Troubled Waters

The world is talking about it from Mumbai to Minessota.  Folks have travelled long distances to catch the pre-inauguration laser show and test drive on the new sea-link during its first few days of launch.  And, office goers of Mumbai are desperately waiting for its hi-speed lanes to reduce their daily commute downtown.

It’s also (probably) India’s first bridge to have a website of its own, even if its classic brochureware design boasts of more ads than real content on the project!   The sad reality is, for all the effort that went into its construction, it may not achieve the larger objective, thanks to poor planning and myopic politics.

The Economic Times went from calling it a “traveller’s delight” to “hi-tech incompetence“, in a single day!

ET, 30 June — It was quite an exhilarating experience to be able to commute via the Bandra Worli Sea Link for the time. We started off from the MSRDC site office near Bandra Reclamation and halted at Worli, in a matter of less than 8 minutes, using the sea link route as it was gearing up to open to public in less than 48 hours.

ET, 1 July — What was supposed to be a Rs 300-crore project completed in 2004 actually cost Rs 1,600 crore and was completed five years late… Supposedly it will reduce the 40-minute car journey from Bandra to Worli to seven minutes, but in practice it will lead to traffic bunching at both ends of the link, and become a nightmare during rush hour.

In the days leading up to its inauguration, I was wondering what it would be named…  Given that Mumbai happens to be in Maharashtra,  the Shiv Sena would definitely want it named after a ‘son of the soil’.  And, since the Congress was elected back into power earlier this year, the “first family” would probably want it named after one of its own.  In the end, the Congress had its say.  It would be called the Rajiv Gandhi Setu.

As someone who’s lived in Mumbai all my life, I firmly believe that the city’s traffic problems need a hoslitic mass-oriented solution.  Improvement in the Public Transport System will result in far greater benefits per rupee spent, than investing in two-lane flyovers or sea links that begin and end in traffic jams…

I have yet to see the Bandra Worli Sea Link in its finished state, and plan to head there on the weekend to shoot some pics.  But that’s only because the photographer in me can still appreciate its engineering design and beauty. 

As a commuter, I have no doubt that it’s not much more than Rs. 16 billion worth of band-aid  for a problem that requires open-heart surgery!   Is any one listening?

The Big Picture

I must confess, as someone who cares about the environment, when I first read about the concept of Earth Hour, my immediate reaction was not quite positive.  After all, could one hour of switching off non-essential lights really make a difference?!  But, when you think about it, doing so wouldn’t hurt either.  And, if the result of this effort was only a bit more awareness among earthlings, even that would be a step in the right direction.

Whichever way you feel about the event, you won’t be able to deny the beauty in these photographs taken from urban landmarks across the globe, showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects of Earth Hour 2009… 

Here’s how The Boston Globe’s “Earth Hour 2009” page describes its effort:

Started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour quickly grew into a global observance. More than 1,000 cities in over 80 countries observed Earth Hour 2009 on Saturday March 28th, as homes, office towers and landmarks turned off their lights for an hour starting at 8.30 pm local time to raise awareness about climate change and the threat from rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Collected here are a series of before-and-after photographs – which (starting with the second one below) will fade between “on” and “off” when clicked.

Let me state that again, since I know not everyone reads the whole intro here – starting with image #2 below, click on the image to see an animated fade between “on” and “off”. (This effect requires javascript to be enabled.)

Have fun!

Heaven on Earth?

A link from Atanu’s blog led me to some fascinating facts about a place I’d known of for quite a while…

  • World’s first democracy: the first in which all women joined men in having the vote for Government: 1893.
  • Has long since virtually eliminated poverty.
  • One of the world pioneers (since mid-1930s) of the welfare state, along with Sweden and Norway.
  • From about 1938 to early 1970s, 100 per cent full employment. Even now, national unemployment well under 4 per cent.
  • (Has a) robust grassroots democracy. Every school, public and private, is elected by the school’s parents, with minority board-posts elected by teachers, and, in high schools, by students too… General election turnouts for most of the last half century have regularly topped 90 per cent, although have dropped slightly below that in some recent years.
  • In the mid-part of the 20th century, consistently in the world’s top five countries to lead the world in productivity.
  • Among the world’s top-book-buying and reading nations.

What an impressive set of indicators for an outstanding quality of Life, wouldn’t you agree?  No wonder, I’ve been wanting to move to New Zealand, for as long as I’ve known of it!  (Thanks for the reinforcement, Atanu)

Read the complete list here.

Seven Days in Rangpur

More than a decade ago, way back in 1995, I was a graduate student in my final year at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. As a part of our Honours’ project, we embarked upon a 7-day field trip to the interiors of Gujarat, thanks to the good graces of our Professor – Dr. Vlidakar – who had worked extensively in the Amba Dongar region. Soon, five young students (including myself) found ourselves in a location that was 100 kms from the nearest big city, armed with nothing but a map and a compass! It was on that trip that I first encountered Rangpur and the “Ashram”…

2016 Update: It has come to my attention that certain irregularities have been reported regarding “Rangpur Ashram” in the online and print media, including violations of a legal nature.  The author would like to clarify that this post is, in no way, an endorsement of the Ashram or its management. It is merely a first-person account of an experience lived during the author’s college years – a time preceding these controversies…

 

It was way back in 1995, when I was just a graduate student in my final year at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. As a part of our Honours’ project we embarked upon a 7-day field trip to the interiors of Gujarat, thanks to the good graces of our Professor – Dr. Vildakar – who had worked extensively in the Amba Dongar region.  Soon, five young students (including myself) found ourselves in a location that was 100 kms from the nearest big city, armed with nothing but a map and a compass!  It was on that trip that I first encountered Rangpur and the “Ashram”.

The Anand Niketan Ashram was run by Shri Harivallabh Parikh, lovingly referred to as “Bhai Ji” by his followers.  And, I had never seen any thing like it…

The sprawling tree in the middle of the compound under which evening discourses were organized, the buzzing activity of villagers helping out with routine tasks at the ashram, the single telephone instrument on site labelled “Telephone Exchange”!  It was all too quaint and charming to be true… at least for “city boys” like me.

Our job was to map a segment of the Narmada river and collect some rock samples from its river bed.  We also needed to collect a few rock samples from the local hill – Phenai Mata.  The hill was more than a 1000-feet high, as I recall, and was surrounded by a river.  And, we had no means of finding our way to its top.

Not only did the Ashram provide us with a place to stay and meals to eat, but when we mentioned our challenge (of Phenai Mata), just in passing, to Bhai Ji, we found a local “guide” waiting to escort us to the top, the very next morning!  In fact, since there was no public or private transport in the region, in those days, each day, we would walk to a place some kilometeres away from the Ashram, only to return with a bag full of rocks in the evening, and do it all over, the following day.  But, on the day we were to go atop the Phenai Mata hill – a good 7-8 kms away from the Ashram – not only did Bhai Ji arrange for a local guide who knew the quickest way across the river and up the mountain, but also arranged for a jeep to drive us to its foothill!  And, all this, without even asking for it!

Even today, after all these years, images from that week-long-trip come rushing to me, as if it was only yesterday… The little school we passed by where all the children rushed out to greet us, the friendly villagers in the surrounding region that we could hardly communicate with, the hospitality of the Ashram, and the brief but everlasting encounter with Bhai Ji…

Air Worthy

Airports have always fascinated me. They way they buzz with activity all the time. The operations and logistics they deliver on, night and day. The amount of traffic a large airport can manage, in a single shift. And, of course, all the airplanes! Having enjoyed a visit to Thailand several times in the past, I was quite looking forward to touch down on the new Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand…

Airports have always fascinated me.  They way they buzz with activity all the time.  The operations and logistics they deliver on, night and day.  The amount of traffic a large airport can manage, in a single shift.  And, of course, all the airplanes!

Having enjoyed a visit to Thailand several times in the past, I was quite looking forward to touch down on the new Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand.  While I’m thoroughly impressed with the scale of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport of Thailand, I am left quite disappointed with my first visit to the mega aerotropolis.

I’d heard so much about its size and grandeur and its convenient location in between Bangkok and Pattaya.  I’d also heard frequent flyers complain about how it does not live up to the standards expected of it. Frankly, there was a whole lot of curiosity, and not knowing what to expect.  But my experience of a flight in and out of Suvarnabhumi, last month, has been a complete let-down.

Now, I understand that building a modern international airport is no mean task.  Moving operations from one major airport to another, with minimal “down time”, is equally challenging.  But, an international airport, today, is more than a functional transit facility – It is the first impression that a nation has to offer to the entire world!  If managed well, it can be a country’s pride and joy.  (Think, Changi!)  That’s why it was disappointing to see such lacunae in planning and delivery at Suvarnabhumi.

On the morning of my arrival, more than half the immigration counters were unmanned, in spite of a number of international flights arriving in a short span of a few hours.  The signage was inadequate and confusing.  There was no clear indication of where one needs to go for baggage claim, or where the exit was.  The cielings and walls looked unfinished – They wore a look of bare cement, not even paint.  I am not kidding! 

On my departure, there were rows upon rows of immigration counters, separated by partition walls.  While some had serpentine queues, others were virtually empty, with no one to guide unsuspecting passengers to the free counters!  In spite of having a car park that can accomodate 5000 cars, the duty free shops were cubby holed – the size of shops in small, domestic airports… Definitely not the stuff that makes for pride and joy.

Contrast that with my arrival back in Mumbai’s CS international airport, which is presently undergoing rennovation. 

There was a time when the thought of landing back in town from another country would be frightening for frequent travellers.   The queues that would form at the two or three immigration counters would take several hours to clear.  This July, 42 counters were ready to take on all that the international world had to offer.  An extremely well-managed system of a single feeder-line and a manned resource to direct passengers to any available counter, ensured that my immigration process took less than 15 minutes!  Jetsetters I have spoken to subsequently have confirmed that the system is comparable to the best in the world, today.

Surely, there are other things that need to improve in our airports and in our cities.  But that night in Mumbai, it definitely looked like the city was poised for take off!

Universal Magic

The “universe” has always fascinated me… not only as a child, but also as a grown-up. As long as I can remember, I have been in awe of what’s ‘out there’…

I don’t know about you, but I grew up wanting to join NASA as an astrophysicist.

The “universe” has always fascinated me… not only as a child, but also as a grown-up.  As long as I can remember, I have been in awe of what’s ‘out there’.  In school and college, Physics was my favourite subject.  After all, Physics and Mathematics was the language in which the universe was written!

Over the years, I have tried to maintain my interest in this vast and intriguing body of work.  The world wide web only made it easier to access real footage from official sites like those of NASA.  What was once only available to geeks and nerds roaming the corridors of Princeton or JPL, was increasingly accessible to any one with a dial-up connection and Google on their browser.

Yet, over the years, you also lose touch with some of your interests, as you get caught up in the rat race.  That’s why, I am grateful to have come across one of Atanu’s posts reminding me of the wonders Life has to offer… to any one who has a few minutes to spare :

… the Hubble Space Telescope pictures. Check them out and even download them as wallpaper, but don’t stop wondering how magical the universe is and how fortunate we are to be able to observe it.

Thanks, Atanu.  For reminding me that the magic is still alive.

Life in the Slow Lane!

I just spent the last 4 fun-filled days in lazy Goa, and had a ball of a time with the wife and the little one. 

You should try it some time!

When …

  • The ‘Arrival’ and the ‘Departure’ terminals share a common wall…
  • You step off the airplane, and literally “walk” to the exit…
  • It feels like a curfew, every single afternoon…
  • No matter what you do for a living, you wind-up work by sunset…
  • The favourite occupation of its citizens is a toss between a siesta and a fenny…
  • Every turn of (almost) every road, springs up a Church…
  • Every John and Peter owns three bikes, and two are out on rent…
  • You can hail a motorcycle-taxi from most places in the city…
  • Prawn curry rice can be ordered at almost any restaurant, at less than a 100 bucks…

… you  know you’ve arrived in Goa !!!

I just spent the last 4 fun-filled days in lazy Goa, and had a ball of a time with the wife and the little one. 

You should try it some time!

Fly The Good Times

While the rest of the world is moving to low-cost and no-frills airlines, at least one new airline in India – Kingfisher – is shaping some new trends. It is very reasonably priced but claims to offer an above-par experience…

While the rest of the world is moving to low-cost and no-frills airlines, at least one new airline in India – Kingfisher – is shaping some new trends.  It is very reasonably priced but claims to offer an above-par experience :

Wipe your mind clear of terms like Business and Economy and J and Y and the rest. You are now flying Kingfisher Class. So, what can you expect? Simply put, a whole lot more.

A highly trained and skilled team of pilots and cabin crew who operate in completely state-of-the-art paperless environments.

Personalized screens and headphones broadcasting 5 video channels and the exclusive Kingfisher Radio – 10 audio channels to make your journey an entertaining experience.

Indulgently wide seats, plenty of legroom and adjustable headrests.

It’s been a few months since they launched and I’d heard a lot about the Kingfisher "experience".  This weekend, I had the pleasure of giving it a test ride.  And, a wonderful ride it was…

Within 5 minutes of requesting a ticket through my travel desk, I had an email with my flight details and e-ticket which I could print and take with me to the airport.  At the airport, smart attendants in bright red uniforms, helped me load my luggage and saw me through the security check and other procedures.  On board, I was delighted to find a new Airbus plane designed with Kingfisher’s trademark red upholstery, not to mention very ‘presentable’ airhostesses!  The seats did offer ample legroom, and the ground-staff and in-flight service was well above "satisfactory".  Best of all, the inflight entertainment system (lcd screens for every seat) is something that even some of our international carriers don’t offer!

Over the years, Vijay Mallya (Chairman of the UB Group which is the promoter of this airline) has earned quite a reputation for doing things in style.  And, Kingfisher Airlines certainly lives up to the promise.

Flying the good times has just one downside : Only this morning, I was relaxing in a 5-Star Spa Resort in Goa.  And, by evening, I find myself back in polluted Bombay, gearing up to get back to the rat race, tomorrow!