Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Prof Shivajirao Bhosale

While in India, I had heard about him, about his oratory skills, his grip on the subjects of history and religion but never had chance to hear him. I think, he even visited Walchand and made audience spellbound but I missed his lecture. Today, when I read about Prof Shivajirao Bhosale's passing away, i tried hard to listen to his speeches on You Tube but on e snip I managed to hear him talk about Vivekanand , Chatrapati Shivaji and Arbindo .

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lessons from the long trip

Three week away from Singapore and I feel like being away for almost over few months. Travel by air, road, power boat, subway train, tram, ferry and even a toy car.
  • Meeting people from different continents and nations. Savouring cuisine from Cuba, Brazil, china to India along with sipping Tequila and her variants every other day.
  • Reaching for glimpse of far away galaxies and witnessing dazzling display of birth and death of stars through Hubble telescope.
  • Meeting lazy Indian lions at Gir Forest in Florida .
  • Being with Disney characters and seeing joy on the face Akshta.
  • Playing three set match TT match with Gautam and realizing that skills learnt at early years stay good.
  • Experiencing staying in the spacious home in America, sipping tea on the green lawn and consoling oneself that Singapore modest apartment is more expensive than American big home.
  • Appreciate the efficiency and safety of Singapore after constant reminder of words like being mugging, cops and downtown scare.
  • What it is like being a customer on Singapore Airlines or even Thai, Malaysia or Emirates can be sensed after one travels through US carriers.
  • Admiring the meticulous and thorough systems of Disney World and the passion every Disney employee exudes no matter what his or her job is.
  • Every socialist country makes their governing place as the centre of universe and her people as a distant object. Moscow or New Delhi, if you stay close to the power, you have a great life ; further away, you are at your mercy.
  • South Americans, you enjoy the life. Indians: worry, worry and one day die under the weight of worry.
  • If Singapore is a city nestled in the greenery, USA is a jungle nestled among cluster of cities.
  • The depth and the reach of McDonalds can be felt only one drives across different states. Free Wi-Fi, clean toilets - M sign made us feel like being our home on every exit.
  • I feel sorry for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama states. You are like our Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and north east. You deserve a better deal.
  • Nothing is free in US. A cloth bag to keep exorbitantly priced souvenirs cost a dollar and half; mobile phone charging at the airport cost US$3 for 30 minutes. What are free are plastic spoons, fork, tissue papers and salt packets.
  • Everything is big in US. A small sized pizza is bigger than our large size one. A medium coffee is enough for one Indian family.
Questions that come to my mind.
  • Why can't we fill up Yamuna river with water and have boat rides overlooking Taj like they have in Moscow ?
  • Why can’t Indian Govt lease out all our tourist places to private companies keeping only security with them ?
  • Why can't we have a subject of crowd management in business schools? It is an essential skill managing country of one billion.
  • Why can't we make every eatery joint mandatory to house a public toilet in their premises?
  • Why can’t Govt provide incentive to the companies who want to run toilet as a commercial enterprise?
  • Why can't we bring back old fashioned ways of serving tea in mud cups, fruits in leaf cones and serving food in banana leaf plates?
  • Why can't any Indian develop vending machine for coins than pleading with shopkeeper for a change?

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

A date with Moscow - an impressive city of grandeur.

Today is a national day holiday. Russia became a separate entity from USSR. No banks are open and we are in fix to get our Roubles. We met yesterday's gal at b'fast. She helped us with the map to locate Bolshoi Theater, Kremlin and Moscow river. Luckily multiple currency dispensing ATM at the hotel lobby solved the problem of getting rouble. B'fast was sumptuous and the day was sunny. Looks like we would have a great day, but we must get out, Room is getting stuffy. This is the problem with hotels equipped with heater but no ac. In peak summer months, there is no ventilation.

We left hotel in search of a nearest metro station ' Leninsky Prospekt. We saw five Indian ladies walking hand in hand . They and another English person directed us to the Metro. Later another Russian woman with a kid little older than Akshta came at our rescue at the ticket counter and took us to Tatranaya and made sure that we take correct exit for Red Square.

Reached out of the metro, we are at sprawling square covering Kremlin, St Basil church, mall and few churches. Today, being the independence day, there seems a public function and main area is cordoned off with barricades. Young policemen in gray and white uniforms were being prepared for the task ahead of them. while string of all black Mercedes, BMW and Audi stood in mute silence. The poster image of Russia with St Basil and Kremlin gives an impression of the enormity of structure and I was hoping to see these by protruding neck upwards. But in reality, they are like any other monuments in Europe. The color and pattern of the domes have same visual appeal as in case of poster. The garden patch along red square had red ribbon marked for no intrusion. However seeing couple of people already on th
e grass, we too crossed the divider and sat on the grass. Would we have done this during USSR days ?

Boat ride @ 800 Roubles per adult is good way to move around inner circle of Moscow. It's ' Hop in and Hop out' deal for whole day. It has an upper deck but not air conditioned but is pleasant when breeze flows in. I wish it had a taped commentary about the history of different landmark buildings along the river. Even after 9pm, throng of crowds immaculately dressed were descending, some carrying Russian flag. Couples either moving around together hand in hand or lazing garden patches along the road. Some like Germans often would get into sudden act of impulsive, passionate kissing.

Visit to two malls - one at Kremlin and second along the river was an experience to feel nuevo rich society of Russia. Both are stunning malls with every global brand present, shops crowded and woman dressed to kill. Moscow in this part matches the spirit of Paris, Milan and Vienna. Just a day before , we were sauntering at Galleria mall and Saks Sixth Avenue stores. in Houston Enchanting products were on display but with hardly any customers. Here in the second mall, in Moscow, ladies vied with each other in the outfit and were devouring goods as if there was no tomorrow. At food court, we settled for Italian but had a choice of a Burger King, TGIF , Kebab, Japanese and host of other brands. All brands are in Russian language except symbols and brand colour.

We decide to head back by 9pm and go towards Kremlin but now the road was closed. We took a detour past the red square. Crowd was gathering for an open concert. Security was omnipresent with young boys and gal policeman standing along the road. It take us almost an hour to reach subway but atmosphere is great and festive and we soak in this festive spirit as we walk back while Akshtawas merrily sleeping in her stroller oblivious if everything around her.

It's now 11 pm and still tinge of orange and yellow at the horizon is evident from the 16th floor of Darbar Indian restaurant of Hotel Sputnik . Food is not so great but Hindi speaking, salwar kameez attired Afghan hostess is charming and also the skyline of Moscow, Soccer stadium, Moscow university and pearls of light across office tall buildings make now Moscow as pretty in the night as it was daunting during the day.

Subway trains in Moscow are impressive. They are the busiest in the world next to Japan. The technology is outdated. Trains are not fully ac and they rattle. But they run deep with just an escalator connecting between road and subway. When this was built, it must have been technical marvel. Very little display technology is now at work, there are no vending machines . Neither is there a space for restaurants nor facility for wheelchair . Most of the space along the platform is used for impressive bronze statues depicting socialist lifestyle. Ceiling covers staccato depicts various labourers or soldiers. sickle and hammer is evident in most of them. One can get a feel an aura of USSR socialism in 60's and 70's through Moscow roads, buildings and metro. The roads are massive. Four lane express ways, with dedicated lane for walking flanked on either side by trees, then a service lane and another one for parking and taxi. Architecture is exquisite, artistic and ornate. Most sites particularly that of Moscow University are difficult to get in one frame. There are many churches along the river and most of them have dome shaped with cross on the top. Dome is often coloured in Gold. Poster image of St Basil though is not as large as I had envisaged and so is the building of Kremlin.

We were in Moscow just 48 hours and this must have been our most expensive sojourn. But it was worth every rubble. We were extremely lucky to have had great sunny day when we spent a day gallivanting Moscow. When we arrived, it was rainy foggy and chilly and so was when we got into the aircraft to head back.

This was my first visit to any country in erstwhile communist block and I am glad that Russia happens to be the first. A visit to any country become joyous with the people you meet and the interaction we have. Most Russian don't smile, don't interact with strangers but we met some great people who went out of the way to help us. Those who sat tight lipped made to smile and cheer by Akshta by her boisterous outgoing personality and uninhibited approach in reaching For Russians. I do not know if I would get a chance to visit Russia again or not but if I do , I know exactly what I want to see. Visit to St Peters berg Inside of Lenin Mausoleum to see his mummified body, watch a dance performance at Bolshoi theater, roam around Moscow university and visit to sleazy bars in the night town and peep into naked hair dressing saloons ! I also do want Know about Vladimir, Ivan, Peter, Nicholas and Stalin. On my return flight, a documentary ' The Art of Russia' has increased my appetite to know more about Russia's art , churches in Kiev( Now Ukraine) and St Peter berg

Till then ' spacibo'( thank you) to Marina - without her this trip wouldn't have been possible, Mahmoud, lady and her sweet daughter in the train and our taxi driver on return - who gave us a Russia flag as a souvenir.

Dusvidaniya Russia with Love.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Arrived in Moscow - Depressive beginning

As the plane descends from the stream of cloud, Moscow looked very European city. Greenery all over, small cars following each other on the winding gray roads flanked by tall trees. Weather even at 3 pm was foggy and cloudy with no sign of sunshine. However, as we touched the Russian soil and pass through customs, immigration and baggage handling, it became evident that Russia would be different in many ways from western Europe.

Almost all planes are Russian make, with engine sitting on the top of aircraft body. Robust males look ashen , have lips protruded inside and cheeks puffed up in a manner that would make them look like KGB detectives. A faint smile though appeared on the face of immigration officer after seeing Akshta's a week old photo on her passport. Airport old, unfriendly. One cubicle that was an exchange counter, another one a gift shop, Building hall had just three baggage belts and fourth belt was on another hall. If all flights were to land, it would just be chaos. Our stroller couldn't be traced and that meant we were the last passenger to come out.

Out in the open , it was like any Indian airport, people jostling up with signboards, a small elevator that barely fitted one trolley. A gate manned by another security person with x Ray machine brings us to car park , all of them in black, gray and silver. A subdued ambiance in contrast to the flashy one from USA.

No one here speaks, understand English No bill boards or sign posts are in English. Our driver is Mahmoud - a pudgy but gentle soul who came right up to the hotel room to help with bags. 'Da' means Yes and that's all we could communicate. Everything else was in gestures.

Airport and the road leading to the city appeared similar to Tehran. As we reach city, two lane turn into four, trams and buses appeared. Mahmoud driving speed no longer could hold to 140 km . Opposite side, traffic is dense. Is everyone running out of Moscow ?

Few high storied buildings now appear. They are white on colour, stacked parallel to each other and look similar to HDB. Few private apartments also appear. Still not much sign of restaurants, cafe and malls. Perhaps it's all around Kremlin.

We arrive at the hotel Sputnik , it's an effort to drag suitcase along the slope. Check- in is swift. I was asked to contact concierge for any travel info. There is no package tour. I get a map and booklet on Moscow. We know where to head for Kremlin but now we need sleep !

It's past 1030pm. Weather is still dusky, cloudy. Booklet scares you being alone at night, about carrying valuables. We stick to hotel restaurant, have safe meal of mushroom soup, rice and vegetables, orange juice and tea with French fries. But we do step outside the main door to feel and breathe crispy cool air and feel like being in Chandigarh during winter.

We finish dinner and another complex problem arises. Restaurant accepts only cash, it's not part of hotel. A young Russian girl with English language skills comes as a rescue. We agree to pay next day, the gal would still be on duty. She works 24 hours at stretch and be here when we have b'fast tomorrow.

At 4 am, sky is still dusky but not well lit. Does it ever become dark in Summer ? change in sleep pattern made me watch TV with channels showing world cup soccer, pornography and tourist places. CNN , BBC were there and so was Sony in Hindi.

Screwed up sleep, cold weather, fear of being robbed, currency problems ! Have we taken a right decision to make a stopover in Moscow?

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reaching Houston airport - in dramatic way.

I would never forget J K Boulevard or whatever the exit that has been named before you head for Bush International Airport, Houston. I may have taken that exit by mistake but sure it made me tense as we struggled to reach the international airport.

The road took me everywhere else except the airport. Green point mall, Green point road, bell vest east, back again to Sam Houston south and go round and round and round. The lady voice on my GPS also stopped talking making me wonder if she was unhappy with her companion of ten days. We crossed every hotel, Sheraton, Ramada and Quinta inn yet airport evaded us. After few rounds, we even spotted George Bush airport sign board but it was besides the road on the opposite side, I took U turn hoping to hit the road but Sam Houston again beckoned us with threat of toll fees. Frustration kept on building as time ticked past 215pm, a deadline to return rent a car. I went back and forth along Kris Kris of various underpass hoping that I don't confront Texas police car that would spot Akshta not being tied in the child seat. By now, Sam Houston was inviting to join him in every direction from west to south and I was desperately praying to meet George Bush. My options were running out fast. Should I stop at Sheraton and seek their help ? Should I ask Vineet to drive down and rescue me ? The only people I saw on the road was orange clad construction workers but I had no space even to stop the car. I went around and around. By now, I had given up on returning the car in time but still had plenty of optimism in catching the flight departing @ 550 pm. I fiddle around knobs and lady returned with a familiar voice. I was relieved now and my hopes of rescue were rekindled with her being with me. Few more tries and I head back on same road that I had been before. Halliburton, GE oil and gas, Ramada but this time I was on the flyover and could see Ramada down. At last, I was heading towards George Bush. A fascinating climax to otherwise uneventful drive from Fort Lauderdale airport to Houston via Key West, Disney Orlando , St Augustine, Lake West, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette to Houston.

Houston, I admire you for your convoluted flyovers and crisscross of roads topping one over the other.I haven't driven so far on LA but I was overwhelmed by enormity of her size and flyovers. City of Houston, you came close in scaring me with your complex, highways. As I reached the airport road, I realized that I took exist at J K Boulevard that was just 0.2 miles earlier. A mistake that would have turned fatal if I had not given enough allowance for our airport arrival. Mr Sam Houston, You tried your best to hold on to me and I am sure you must be the deserving man to have the city names after you and this massive highway.

As I reached Alamao return car place, I learnt the deadline was 250 pm and not 215 pm. All end well, when you reach in time for flight.

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My First in First Class

When SQ staff announced my name on gate D12 at Houston Airport, I thought my wife panicked of my not coming in time from the duty free shop. Instead, I was called to give me a free upgrade from business to first class. What enchanted me was the personal attention that the crew provides. Here they just don't offer you choicest wines and champagnes but interact with you in very charming manner. You do really enjoy the chat and the pampering of being an important guest. With my wife and Akshta travelling in economy, I had two options. Give my seat to the neighbour in the economy or shuttle and swap the places giving Akshta a company and protection in the economy. I chose later. I would travel with the same crew from Moscow - Singapore and I am sure would enjoy that ride too albeit not in First but Business class.

The best soup of my life : it’s elegant, aromatic and tasted yummy. Two medium sized Prawns, rings of white onions sprinkled with dash of green spring onions, strips of roasted garlic in carrot juice base with saffron. Tastes delicious, lovely aroma and lingering pleasure. I was told by crew that as a PPS member I can write to the cook and seek a recipe. I must try first and then use this recourse.

Kairus : A fascinating Marathi recipe combining raw mango and peanuts with dash of chilly. I am not too sure of the gradients but I am trying to guess it remembering the taste that is lingering on my tongue since childhood days. As I was having Indonesian chicken satey with peanut sauce, I thought of Kairus. How would it be to make sautéed prawns dipped into Kairus. Sounds yummy to me. I must try it but before that I must check with my mother about the recipe of Kairus.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

At Kennedy space center, Florida

We arrived a month later after President Obama made a visit to this place. He came by Airforce 1 while we came by Red Impala

We began our a day tour with two IMAX movies , one on Hubble telescope and other on ' walking on moon' followed by visit to a model of ' Explorer' , a walk around the gallery of space exhibits and then a bus tour. Akshta had no interest in any of this. Holding to her 3D glasses was nuisance for her. She was more keen to role her chair back and squeeze her leg inside. Moon, Rocket and Astronaut meant nothing . What excited her most was a jumping sparrow and ice cubes in the cold drinks container. A big box of popcorn kept her quiet but my spilling her Sprite in a bus tour made her very upset !

I remember the day , when Neil Armstrong , Aldrin and Collins visited Mumbai, I stood on the edge western express highway hoping to get glimpse of them as they rode into the city and left. Today, our tour guide told us Aldrin was there at a ceremony to welcome new recruits. What a commitment to the cause and towards fellow professionals. By the the time, we returned from our tour, the function had got over and we couldn't get chance to meet him.

Kennedy space center is not just worth the visit, it is a place to garner knowledge about the space that makes our existence on this earth so small and minuscule. Even a week may not be enough to see, learn and understand every exhibit and it provides. Most interesting was to see , feel and touch the stone from the Moon. This one looked like a piece of glistened black marble and was in complete contrast with the dusty image of black and white shown on IMAX.

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