Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hubli Diary

* The first indication that all’s not well between Andhra Pradesh and its neighbour, Karnataka, is when I start chatting with the girl seated next to me on the bus. Hailing from Hubli in Karnataka, she studies in an engineering college in Hyderabad which she describes as being located in ‘the back of beyond’. When I tell her I’d missed my bus earlier, she says disdainfully, “They’ll never tell you when the bus is leaving. At least you know the Karnataka State Transport buses will leave on time.” She goes on to say that when she got a chance, especially on the weekend, she hopped on to the first bus – the first Karnataka State Transport bus – and headed home.

* The 12-hour ride in a non-air-conditioned bus passes comfortably enough, although my neck feels like someone twisted it into a knot while I was sleeping. I reach the Hubli airport at 9 a.m. and realize glumly that I have a 3-hour wait before my friend P arrives. There’s nothing to do but wait, read and people-watch.

* I’m reading Pico Iyer’s Sun After Dark, and there’s this chapter titled ‘Nightwalking’ about his experience dealing with jet lag. ‘It’s not quite a dream state and yet it’s certainly not wakefulness, and though it seems another continent that we’re visiting, there are no maps or guidebooks yet to this other world. There are not even any clocks.’ Sitting bleary eyed outside an airport located in the heartland of Nowhere Familiar, I get an idea of what he means.

* The Hubli airport is quite unlike any airport I’ve known. It’s small, cosy and unbelievably quiet. A man stands on tiptoe and peers over the wall to check if the flight has arrived. A Buddhist monk in deep red robes arrives with a small suitcase, takes off his slippers and puts on a pair of shoes before entering the terminal. There are 2-3 security guards with the rakish-looking hats which turn up on one side, and a few more airport personnel. The sky is a gentle blue, and there’s even a mild nip in the air. It’s almost too placid for an airport.

* Two men arrive in a van and disembark with a flat, elongated package which they deposit right next to where I’m sitting. The soporific airport witnesses an unexpected burst of activity. Three airport personnel troop out, followed by three more. Even the security guards leave their stations to investigate the hubbub. “Chidiya aya?” (Has the sparrow arrived?) asks one of the airport staff. When the white wrapping is torn aside, I see a mount board with a picture of a kingfisher and the logo of the Kingfisher airlines. I notice the staff are dressed in the blue and white colours of Air Deccan, an airline that has recently merged with Kingfisher. From the ‘sparrow’ quip, I gather that the staff don’t think much of the merger.

* P finally troops out of the airport just after I’ve looked at my watch for the 5001st time. We head to the Hubli bus depot to catch the bus to Dandeli. Unlike the bustling Hyderabad bus terminus, the Hubli depot resembles a ghost town. There’s no one behind the ticket counters, and the forlorn guard shakes his head sadly when we ask him about the next bus to Dandeli. Maybe in 5 hours’ time, he says. P and I look at each other in dismay. We ask the man at the small snack shop, and he says, 15 minutes. There are two American tourists trying to get information to travel to Gokarna, and ask us if we know how to get there. We express ignorance, and later wonder if they will ever get to their destination.

* The snack shop with its array of food is rather tempting. Against my better judgment, I opt for the veg patty, which turns out to be so good that I order another. There’s a colourful sweetmeat which looks like a cross between a biscuit and a pastry, which I’m tempted to try. It’s called ‘manpasand’ and is a thin-crusted pastry filled with fruit peel and coconut. It’s a bit too sweet for my liking, but the resident canine doesn’t mind it at all.

* A red bus trundles in, and people in different corners of the depot holler out to us with a finger thrust in the direction of the bus. We take it to mean that it’s the bus to Dandeli. We gratefully clamber aboard and get ready for a long, bumpy ride.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hyderabad Diary

* The cell phone beeps at 2.45 a.m. giving me a nervous moment. It’s an sms from the roaming service - ‘Welcome to Hyderabad etc…’ I’d reached around 3.30 in the afternoon, almost 12 hours before the welcoming sms.

* On the way to the hotel, I take in the sights and sounds. On the face of it, it looks like any other city. Like Bomay, perhaps. Populous, busy, colourful. The autos are all-yellow though, not like the Bombay’s yellow-black ones. There are film posters all over the city heralding the newest star son on the blog - Chiranjeevi's son, Ram Charan Teja.

*‘Here’s the famous Punjagutta flyover,’ announces Smiley pointing to the city’s newest attraction. A couple of days earlier, a section of the bridge had collapsed leaving 4 dead and several wounded. I glance at the fallen bridge before a person riding a motorcycle captures my attention. He’s speaking into a cell phone being held to his ear by the person seated behind him. “That’s nothing,” says Smiley, “I’ve seen someone holding a phone to the ear of another guy who was peeing.” Hands-free takes on a whole new meaning!

* I’m not much of a foodie, but I am converted in the short time I spend in Hyderabad. Midnight Biryani at the Park Hotel, steamed dosas at Chutneys served on a banana leaf, and delectable Hyderabadi Haleem from Pista House. Considering, it’s Ramadan, there’s a haleem stall almost every few paces. Mutton haleem’s most popular, I figured, followed by chicken. One place even advertised fish haleem. Even with my newfound passion for food, I’m not sure I would try that in a hurry.

* Hyderabad can rock! The moves on the dance floor at F-Bar in Lumbini Mall leave me breathless. It's a week night, but that doesn't deter the avid party goers, who look most crestfallen when the place shuts at midnight.

* Visiting Golconda Fort isn’t on the itinerary. But considering the Salar Jung Museum is shut on the very day that I am there, we head to the Fort. It turns out to be an awe-inspiring trip. Standing amid the ruins of an 800-year old fort was, one tries to imagine what it was like all those years ago. Even the ruins are spectacular. The sheer scale of the fort is apparent after one has huffed and puffed to the top. Except for a few Japanese tourists and a few Indians, there aren’t too many visitors. The fort lies tucked away in a corner of the ‘old Hyderabad’ - away from the slick IT City and other swanky constructions, indistinguishable from each other - an almost forgotten souvenir of a glorious past.

* If travelling on the interstate buses, you have to read the ticket like you would read your rich uncle’s will. Very, very carefully. The information printed right at the top is the location from where you purchased your ticket, followed by the time of departure. In a less obvious corner, is the actual departure location, which turns out to be at least 15 kms. away in the direction of rush-hour traffic. Now, if you’re the kind to speed read the ticket, you turn up well in time at the wrong location, and then make a mad dash across the city only to arrive at the interstate bus terminal where there are at least a 100 buses arriving and departing and you’ve no clue if your bus is among them.

* I miss the bus, but the resulting adventure turns out to be more fun than imagined. Getting information from the beleaguered information desk, haggling for a teeny refund, watching ticket officials wrestle with unfamiliar computerized systems and finally, getting onto the next available bus an hour later all turns out to be a memorable part of the Hyderabad experience. I am pleasantly surprised to discover there’s a ‘women’s seat’ on the bus, which means I don’t have to fret about my seatmate. It’s been a very long time since I’d done a long bus journey, and I’m glad that I didn’t take the flight.

To be continued: Hubli Diary

Monday, October 08, 2007

Where we ring in another 'ear

"Sex... sex...," said the guard at the airport entrance as I was rolling my trolley in.

My blood ran cold. I could scarcely believe that I was being solicited by a security personnel and that too with so many travellers and airport officials milling around. He had an almost bored expression on his face, and didn't flinch when I looked him straight in the eye. Was this what our much touted 'new' airports were all about, I thought indignantly.

I drew myself to my full height, almost standing on tiptoe, preparing to deliver a scathing rebuke on his unseemly behaviour.

He looked uneasy at my steady gaze and said, almost in a puzzled tone, "Sex 751?"

Was this some code, I wondered? Worse, was he bargaining? My mind ran amok with possibilities. The lascivious brute then started pointing to my hand, and I involuntarily looked down, and spotted my ticket and passport. A familiar number on the ticket caught my eye, and I stared at it for another second before the fog lifted.

I was on Flight CX 751.

P.S. Blame the incessant sniffling for affecting my hearing.

P.P.S. Absolute Lee is now FOUR 'EARS OLD. Thanks all of you for being around.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bombay Diary

* It’s amazing how religious fervour can bring a city to its knees. ‘Don’t even think of stepping out today,’ I was told almost every alternate day of the first week that I was in the city. Mumbai’s preoccupation with the immersion of Ganesha threw my carefully ordained plans into a tizzy. Friends fled home from work and plans for a night out in town had to be postponed. On the 11th day, I headed off early in the evening to a friend’s place in Mahim (or ‘may-hem’ as my aunts used to say). There was not a soul on the street. It almost felt like a ghost town. We stepped out later in the evening, and it was a dramatically different scene. We found it interesting to watch the throngs headed back after they’d immersed the idol. Some seemed to have a glassy-eyed, bewildered expression, and they walked back heads low, almost as if the lights all around were too bright for them. “Like stepping out in the night when a disco shuts,” said Ara. Ah, we said, the expression becoming completely clear to us.

* Riding on potholed roads ought to qualify as a low-intensity aerobic workout. Further, riding the stretch from Hill Road to Mehboob Studio in Bandra can prove to be a better and cheaper option to the physiotherapy one was undergoing in Dubai. Honestly, my back has improved considerably in the last couple of weeks.

* ‘You’ll be surprised by the Western Express Highway,’ says Ana. There are lane markings and it’s a comfortable drive, she convinces me. She’s right. There are lanes marked out quite clearly and for the most part, seems to be a smooth ride. I can’t help noticing that my auto driver seems to drive right on the line, rather than within the lines. Oh well.

* Some things are comfortingly familiar. Like travelling by the local train. I step in and my eyes automatically scan for a seat opposite to the direction of travel – an old habit. If there’s no sitting room, I head to the window where I can stand in relative comfort. The other day I was making my way to the window when I inadvertently stepped on someone’s foot. I was awarded a generous shove which sent me flying to the window. I bit back a retort – another old habit. A dozen stations later, the same lady called out to me and offered me her seat. Are you getting off, I ask her. No, but I’m getting another seat at the next station. You’ve been standing all the way, so you must sit down. Some things are comfortingly familiar.

* My old book haunts bear a haunted look. Crossword at Bandra has a cosy coffee shop, but little else. The one under the Pedder Road flyover is no better. I mean, there are books, but I miss the days when you could spend hours browsing through the expansive sections, and reading the little recommendations hand-written by Sriram. The recommendations these days are printed, and rather yawn-inducing. Most of the books I asked for were out of stock on each of the three occasions I went there. Surprisingly, Strand Book Stall also proved disappointing. There seem to be more management and self-improvement books than quality titles. Ara tells me Landmark is the bookstore to visit. Next trip, perhaps.

* Metal detectors in malls, a swanky domestic airport, the high cost of parking (25 lakhs per year in Nariman Point!!) - it’s taken a bit of getting used to some of the changes in the city. But one new occurrence that still has me gobsmacked is that Alison can read. Two weekends ago, we were in the B.E.S.T bus, when she leaned over and peered under the seat for a few seconds. She then turned to me and waited. What, I asked, unnerved by the steady gaze. Leela, don’t be an idiot. Before I could narrow my eyes, she pointed to the poster above the window of the bus – “You’re not an idiot if you look under your seat.” It was a public service message to warn against explosive devices. Make sure you check next time, she told me before looking out of the window.

The city’s changing too fast for my liking.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Back, but not quite...

Mumbai-Hyderabad-Hubli-Dandeli-Hubli-Mumbai. The last few days have been exhilarating, enervating and also, eye-opening. From a fast-paced metropolis to a small city to a wildlife sanctuary, the rapid transition has been bewildering at times, and there's a curious sensation of being jet-lagged now that I'm back in Bombay. The old seasonal allergies have also begun to rear their stuffy heads, and I'm hoping to get through the last few days without coming down with something dreadful. Updates will follow...