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I have been travelling like never before. Soon after my Mumbai trip on official work, I am on a brief personal visit to Thiruvananthapuram. Right now I am on my way back to Bangalore in Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation’s Airavat bus. I had booked the ticket online at the KSRTC website: http://ksrtc.in

RAINWASHED GREENERY

The lush green landscape is the best indication that you have entered Kerala. The state has been getting good rains. Lakes are full. Fields are waterlogged, and green is greener. So soothing. So refreshing.

TRAIN REACHES EARLY

My friend in Trivandrum, who was to pick me up, asked me to give him a call when the train reaches Kollam. And when I called him he was surprised.

”It’s only 10 and you are already in Kollam? Are you sure? Because you said the train reaches Thiruvananthapuram at 12 noon,” he told me.

I was in 6321 Trivandrum Express, a special weekly train. It had stopped for more than half an hour at Ambalappuzha station for letting Shatabdi Express cross. So I was under the impression that the train was running late.

My friend said it takes only one to one and a half hours from Kollam to Trivandrum so at this rate the train would reach at least half an hour early.

And it did, reaching at 11.15 am. Since I called up my friend at Kollam itself he had ample time to come early to the station. Many other passengers were equally surprised that the train arrived ahead of time. At least some would have had to wait for their friends or relatives to pick them up.

While walking up the staircase in the railway station I wondered: Malls have escalators, but how many railway stations have them?

STATIC CITY

Trivandrum, now Thiruvananthapuram, has hardly changed. Roads are getting widened. Nothing more. Some swanky shops, hotels and hospitals have come up. But on the ground nothing much has changed.

I was told this is the best time to widen roads, because the very people who would raise banners of protest — the communists — are in power! ”A Congress government would not have been able to widen roads like this,” I’m told by my friend. I doubt if it’s wholly true. Anyway an interesting perspective on how we are progressing.

A lot of hopes are resting on Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, who won by a surprisingly huge margin of around a lakh. He is seen as a fresh, uncorrupted, non-politician lawmaker.

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It was a momentous day for us yesterday, when one of the news sections of our newspaper, went live on the new editing and pagemaking software. ‘Went live’ means, the page that people are reading today was made on the new software. This is the first news page of our publication to go live. A day to cherish.

Though we have been bringing out trial versions over the past week, the feeling that ‘live’ brings in is altogether different: a combination of excitement and tension. There was a lot of coordination to be done. And everything had to click. Software transitions, wherever, are always tricky, with the fear of a ‘crash’ always looming overhead. Touchwood, barring minor glitches, all went well.

I was just wondering, how journalism, like of course everything around us, has changed over the years. Twenty years back, I was involved in a similar exercise when the newspaper I worked for then, brought in computers to replace typewriters and teleprinters. The media industry is poised for still more revolutionary changes as technology evolves rapidly.

Last night most of us missed our dinner. At 1.30 am, totally exhausted, we had only one thought in our minds: where can we get something to eat. We were told there is a restaurant called ”Light of Asia” close to the CST. It was 20 min walk away.

The cafe had its shutter down, but there was a tiny door beside it kept ajar, through which we all squeezed in. Wow! So spacious inside. We had our meals, and the big surprise, they offered us complimentary icecreams! Let’s come here everyday, someone screamed. Stay on in Mumbai, don’t go back, added another.

The most odd hour to have dinner, but nothing unusual for journalists. The cab guys were very considerate and stayed on beyond the 2 am cutoff time, and we were back in our rooms, by 3 am.

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Yesterday we took a day off from our training workshop. Decided to spend the day going around Mumbai. Thought we will start with a visit to Elephanta Caves. The plan was to get out of our rooms early, so we save on time. But…

0900: … There’s no water in the guesthouse and most of us are still waiting for Bisleri bottles for the basic necessities.

1130: Finally we are out. On our way to Gateway of India.

1230: In the steamer on way to Elephanta Caves. We paid 10 bucks extra and got on to the upper deck. Breathtaking view of ships and oiltankers.

(No way I can download the pix. They will be uploaded after I return to Bangalore.)

There are three treachers from Chandigarh who are with us on the upper deck. They are quite curious as to who all of us are. On knowing our profession, they are more curious, shoot questions after questions. I found that quite annoying. It’s a very bad Indian habit to ask very personal questions when meeting strangers.

Then one of them asked me, ”Where in Andhra are you from.” I said I was not from Andhra.
”But you said you are from Bangalore…”
”Ya, Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka.”
”O, I see…”

He looked thoroughly confused. The south of Vindhyas is still an unknown entity for many in the north, sadly for even teachers. I enquired what he teaches. Mathematics, he said.

By the way, many south Indians are similarly ignorant about places in the north and, particularly, northeast.

Some 15 minutes later, one of them, came up to me and asked if he could take a photo of all of us. That sounded quite strange, but we obliged.

1320: As we step into the Elephanta Island, we find there is a toy train to ferry tourists, just about 500 m, to the foot of the hill that leads to the caves. We get the tickets, Rs 10 two-way. Kiddish joy as we get into the train.

1330: We are hungry and the sight of a restaurant cheers us.

1445-1730: After food, we begin the climb. Not very steep. Either sides, there are shops selling postcards, curios, t-shirts, guidebooks etc. Bargain hard. A colleague bought a Ganesha idol. Initial price quoted: Rs 200. Offered Rs 100 and walked ahead. The price dropped dramatically and after a bit more of bargaining, got it for Rs 100.

We go around all the 5 caves. Take lots of photos. Good view of the valley and the sea from the top.

This is a Unesco World Heritage centre. The sculptures, carvings and inscriptions take you to a different world. Some of the sculptures are damaged. There is a Shivling. At some portions of the vast cave complex, restoration work is going on. Good crowd.

Interestingly, there is a beer bar at the top of the hill, like one at the foot. A good view of the Arabian Sea. The mat-like design on chairs and tables is particularly striking.

1730-1840: We are back on the boat travelling back. It is much more enjoyable as sun has gone behind clouds, there is good strong breeze.

1900-2015: We get into Cafe Monde (Monde’s) at Colaba. It’s perhaps the most well-known joint for beer. And the food is very tasty. The ambience is addictive. It’s almost always crowded. The large room is abuzz: people trying to make themselves heard above the loud music.

We moved ahead to the ”Innside story”, a less crowded smaller room with gentle music. Though it wasn’t crowded when we came, by the time we were through, it had filled up.

2045: Back in our guesthouse. Quite tired. Though we couldn’t go around the city or do some shopping, the cruise and the visit to the cave were thoroughly enjoyable.

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I am in Mumbai on official work, will return on June 14. Reached here yesterday and the work begins this afternoon. The last time I was here was more than 10 years back. Yesterday’s diary:

31/5
0830: In the Vayu Vajra bus on way to Bangalore airport. Taking 1115 Kingfisher flight to Mumbai. Quite impressed by the promptness of this dedicated BMTC bus service to the airport that is 40 km from my house. The detailed schedule of the bus service is on the BMTC website. The call centre provides you with contact numbers of the bus terminus from where the bus departs. You are also provided the mobile number of the bus conductor.

While I was waiting for the bus, three cab drivers asked me if I needed a pick up. One desperate guy even offered the bus rate. One reason why I refused to take the cab was I thought I must do my little bit to make the bus service a success.

1000: At the waiting lounge after checking in. Struck by a strange board hanging at a cafeteria: ”Live Dosa counter”. Right under it was a guy making dosa. Reminded of roadside eateries (called in Malayalam ‘thattukada’) but this one a posh version. (Check back later for photo.)

1200: I switch on the inflight TV and see breaking news on Zee News: Major tragedy averted in Mumbai airport as two aircraft preparing for takeoff simultaneously come close to collision.

1240: Intense pain above my right eyebrow as the flight descends. Impact of pressure difference on my sinus problem? It has happened once before. Now I must seek medical advice.

1315: Pain gone. In a taxi on way to the guesthouse on Worli Hill Road. Had to bargain with 3 cab drivers. This guy asked for Rs 350, but wanted Rs 150 extra since he said I was being picked up from inside airport premises. This looked far reasonable compared to the most outrageous rate of Rs 900 demanded by the first driver I spoke to.

After I got into the cab, the driver suggested I pay the money and that he would give me a receipt. I was surprised why he wanted the money before he had taken me to the destination. He parked the taxi by the roadside, wrote out the receipt and gave me, implying I must hand him the money. Since the guy had already started, and since I would have had to pay him anyway, I gave him the money.

More surprise was in store. A little after he got on the main road, he stopped by the roadside ahead of another taxi. The driver told me I would have to shift to the other taxi. I was wondering what the hell was happening.

The explanation was that only he had the licence to pick passengers from inside the airport premises and it’s the other taxi that will ferry me to the destination. Before I could ask him why he didn’t tell me before, the driver got out, walked to the other taxi, spoke something to that driver and handed over the cash, probably after keeping some for himself.

Now it dawned on me that this was a major taxi racket, where hapless passengers were being fleeced. The driver took my baggage shifted it to the new cab, and told the driver not to take any more money. And told me also not to give any more money! I just hoped I wouldn’t be shifted to yet another taxi, and that I would be taken to my guesthouse and not to ”an unknown destination”. Journalists can be haunted by news stories they handle.

1400: I reach the guesthouse after going around in circles for some time.

1800: At the seaside in Worli.

2015: At Gateway of India. Place overflowing with Sunday crowd. Oberoi Trident and Taj brought back memories of TV images. Can’t believe this spot was the scene of war, six months back.

2200: Back at the guest house. At the gate my two colleagues and I were greeted by the barks of a dog that was struggling to break free from the control of the gatekeeper. While we were waiting for the lift suddenly the dog came barking towards us. He almost bit my colleague even while the gatekeeper came rushing in and tried to pin the dog down. The dog came very close to me but was chased away and then was caught by the gatekeeper. A brief moment of panic.

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Vandazhi visit

My wife’s sister’s children are here on summer holidays, and we had been planning to go on a short outing. A few days leave from office was obtained, but we were still undecided about the destination.

Friday last, my wife suggested, “Why don’t we all drive down to mom’s place in Kerala?” Her rationale was one, great grand-aunt (my mom’s youngest aunt) hasn’t been keeping well and a visit was due anyway, and two, it would be good long drive and an outing for the kids as well. My only doubt was if my parents, who are old, would be cool to the idea of a long journey. When I checked with them, they were only happy about the idea.

My mom’s place is Vandazhi: a small town, some 10 km off the Palakkad-Thrissur highway near Vadakkancherry (different from the similar-sounding Vadakkaancherry.) There was an option to go via the shorter Mysore, Gudalur, Nilambur, Perunthalmanna route. But on second thoughts we decided to go via Salem, Coimbatore. The reason was the better quality of the road. With parents and kids with us, I didn’t want to take a route that wasn’t familiar.

On Sunday morning, at 6.15 we left. Around 9.30 we were a few kilometres short of Salem. We stopped at a shade for breakfast. Around 1 am we were near Coimbatore and had lunch at a restaurant. And by 4 pm we were home. Some 450 km from Bangalore. 

Fantastic road

Good road is basic to comfortable drive. I was thoroughly impressed by the progress on the upgrading of the highway NH7. This was my third drive on this highway: the earlier ones were in 2006 and 2007. I can thus make out the difference. But for small stretches where work is still on, the rest of the highway is so impeccably done.

Smooth, broad National Highway 7.

Smooth, broad National Highway 7.

Silken smooth 6-lane broad roads and plants on the median providing green relief. There are three toll plazas — Rs 25, Rs 48 and Rs 28. It’s worth paying. There is one more coming up. The structure is up, but not the booths. So, that will make it a total of four between Bangalore and Coimbatore. We need to pay for quality. What we as citizens should ensure is that the money thus collected is well utilized for improving the road connectivity.

I was quite surprised by the attitude of truck drivers. They seemed to be very well-behaved as far as lane discipline was concerned. All of them kept to the middle lane leaving the extreme right free. Even when they were overtaking, the drivers made sure to move left to the inner lane, so that faster moving vehicles could overtake from the right. My earlier experiences have been bad. Truck drivers were known to stick to any lane they fancied. There were very irritating occasions when two trucks going side-by-side would be blocking the road. Any vehicle following them would have to wait for one to slow down or the other to pick up some speed and then overtake either from the left or right. Nothing of that sort this time. It left me wonder whether the good quality highways had also instilled in the drivers some discipline. A chain reaction of sorts!

Green difference

There is no need of any sign board to tell you that you have entered Kerala, at Walayar. The unmistakable indication is the green landscape. When they carved the boundaries of Kerala, I don’t know if someone kept this in mind, or it just happened by chance! Even in the peak of summer there is lot of greenery around unlike most other states, except perhaps the southern coastal areas of Karnataka.

Vandazhi

Paddy field in summer. Ahead of harvest, it's a virtual carpet of green.

Paddy field in summer. Ahead of harvest, it's a virtual green carpet.

My mom’s native place is no longer a village; there has been lots of development, and I would classify it as a small town with a hospital, medical stores and lots of shops. There are still vast stretches of paddy fields left in Vandazhi. Close to the harvest season around August these fields turn into green carpets, such a lovely sight! The place is still a strong communist stronghold. There is in fact a junction called “Moscow Mukku”: a refuge for communists on the run during pre-independence days. 

An old house by the road, untouched by the wave of modernity.

An old house by the road, untouched by the wave of modernity.

Many houses were painted pink. Reason unknown.

Many houses are painted pink. Reason unknown.

 

Another one, presenting a gaudy look.

Another one, presenting a gaudy look.

 

Mangalam Dam

Palakkad district of Kerala has many tourist attractions. Since the primary aim of the visit was to call on our ailing great-grand-aunt, and since we didn’t have much time, we could manage only a visit to the Mangalam Dam, some 10 km from our house. It’s an elevated area, a quiet retreat good for picnics and relaxation in the midst of thick forest.

Drive to Mangalam Dam.

Drive to Mangalam Dam.

Being summer, the weather was hot, and nature wasn’t in its full bloom. Nevertheless it’s a lovely place to spend a day. There is a Kerala government tourism project to develop this area. But like most government projects, nothing seems to be happening.

Inside the dam premises.

Inside the dam premises.

Mangalam dam. In summer it's not operational and engineers are utilizing the time for maintenance.

Mangalam dam. Right now it's shut down for maintenance.

The dam, built in 1956, stands over the Cherukunnapuzha which is a tributary of the Mangalam river. Around 50 km from Palakkad town, the dam was built for irrigation purposes. Right now as there is no water, the dam is undergoing repairs.

Cherukunnapuzha over which the dam is built. During rainy seasons, the river is full bank to bank.

Cherukunnapuzha over which the dam is built. During rainy seasons, the river is full bank to bank.

The dam is situated near a thick forest.

The dam is situated near a thick forest.

Cut off from e-world

For a good three days I was off internet, not out of choice but by compulsion. My GPRS wasn’t connecting. Initially, I felt odd. After a couple of attempts, I gave up; didn’t bother to even find out why; and was enjoying the freedom from ‘outside influences’. This definitely helped me relax. I guess it’s a good idea for internetphiles like me to go off the e-world once in a while.  

Return

We started back on Tuesday around 7.30 am. Had lunch at Salem around 1 am. Stopped at the Nilgiris at Hosur for snacks at 4.30 pm. We were back home around 6.45 pm.

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A pleasant surprise

Today morning I travelled by bus to collect my scooter that I had given for servicing. I was seated in the very last row. Soon all the seats got filled up, and a few were standing.

At one particular stop, an elderly gentlman got in and I saw him making his way to the rear side of the bus which wasn’t crowded. Seeing him, a youthful guy, should be in early 20s, sitting in the seat before me got up, and offered his seat to the senior citizen. After settling down, he looked up at the young man and said, “Thank you. Thank you. I am 79 you know…”

This is one such incident that gives us hope that inspite of such gloom, doom and negativity, there are little islands of goodness.

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Where was I

Perhaps the appropriate title for the blog post, considering that I had gone invisible again, without prior notice. I didn’t inform you all, for a variety of reasons, some of them are silly…

Okay… guess where I was…. in the United States; but more imporant, guess when…. when America was voting in the historic change!

I was damn lucky, that’s what I consider. I don’t know whom to thank, other than the Almighty. It was primarily an official trip to San Francisco to cover a technology conference for the newspaper I work for. That was from November 2 to 4; on the 5th I went to Washington to holiday with my cousin who is in Fairfax, Virginia. That was up to 12th. I was back on Nov 14th. There was so much backlog to be cleared. And, now hopefully I will regularly be on the blog. And I will try my best to warn you before I go invisible.

The Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco, where Dreamforce 2008, the sixth annaual conference of Salesfoce.com on cloud computing was held.

The Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco, where Dreamforce 2008, the sixth annual conference of Salesforce.com on cloud computing was held.

Any way, for all that you all missed, be assured of some overdose of my American Impressions for a while on this blog. Of course there will be photos too. It’s impossible write all, or put up photos all at one go. So, it will come in instalments.

The large hall where some 7,000 of us had our breakfast. Only one side of the hall is seen.

The large hall at the Moscone where some 7,000 of us had our breakfast. Only one side of the hall is seen.

O, when America was voting I was in San Francisco. Taking time off from the conference, I went to see people lining up to cast the historic vote. When McCain made the concession speech I was at a dinner, but we were all looking at the TV, and there was only one subject of discussion.

I don’t have to add my reasons to whatever everyone on the globe has already said. But, what finally went in favour of Barack Obama, I think was his youthful charm. He was very communicative, he radiated a picture of confidence and he managed a good Democratic campaign. All the body language of McCain-Palin Republican campaign sent out wrong signals.

These two elderly gentlemen were selling Obama souvenirs in San Francisco. We chatted with them and they seemed to be quite aware of Indian customs and traditions.

These two elderly gentlemen were selling Obama souvenirs in San Francisco. They were quite knowledgeable about India.

America is amazing. Period. Everything is so huge and mechanised. At times I thought it was a bit overbuilt, much more than it can sustain itself. Well, we Indians tend to compare the US with India, but it has been through what India is going through. Remember America won Independence in 1776. It has seen it all, it has come a long way. The optimist in me says India too will catch up. But, I still can’t resist wondering: how soon.

What impressed me the most were the courteous nature of people, the discipline on the roads, the Americans’ obsession with perfection; and of course the pride in being an American. At shops we are greeted with ‘How are you’, and ‘May I help you’. There are a lot of ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’. Even if one
cynically dismisses them as a formality, the feel-good impact of such gestures can’t be overlooked.

I was also impressed by the amount of investment America has made in intellectual wealth. One example of that is the Smithsonian Institutions in the heart of Washington. It’s the world’s largest museum complex and research organization composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. Guess what, entry to them is free of cost! There is so much to see that even after three full days, from 10 am to 5 pm, I hadn’t finished seeing them all to my heart’s content.

And, here is what I liked the best: the Newseum, a unique 7-floor museum of everything about journalism: from the earliest of print to the latest of digital media. I just didn’t feel like coming out of it.

Even though cars zip at 80 mph, at junctions they slow down and stop a good distance behind the vehicle in front. No one seems to be in a hurry. Unimaginable on Indian roads. And of course, no horn, no pollution, though we take pride in saying the US is the world’s biggest pollutant.

And the pride of being an American is unmatched. One example, if a kid misbehaves, you know how he is rebuked by the parent: “No American does like this…” or “This is not the way an American behaves…”

Even though the US is going through bad days… and we are told the worst is yet to come… I have a feeling the US will surely bounce back… since they don’t have a real competitor… it might take a couple or two years more. Europe, China and India are all there… but my impression is that they aren’t so close to overtake the US so soon. And, it might give the US just enough time to reinvent itself to stay on top.

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