Thursday, December 18, 2014

Canada Travelogue 7 - Military museum

Another section in the Glenbow museum had letters written by Canadians who were held prisoner of wars in various countries - even in such circumstances a few soldiers had a sense of humour; felt sad though to think of their position - captivity in a foreign land, no idea if they would see another day, no idea whether their letter would reach their loved ones and only memories to cling to. One solider had written how lovely it was lying on a hospital bed after having spend so many nights in trenches! He joked about the jaundice he had - "you should see how yellow I am; a lovely mess".

Military museum

From home, I took the bus to the centre of the city (also known as 'downtown'). Bus charge is a flat $3. You have to tender exact change when you step into the bus; there is a big plastic box near the driver where you drop the money. The driver then gives you a small rectangular slip of paper that looks and feels like a newspaper clipping with the date, timing and some info on the back. This ticket is valid for 90 minutes. From downtown I had to switch to another bus and when boarding that bus I showed the driver this ticket; I didn't have to pay $3 again. There are no conductors on buses. The bus will only stop in bus stops in case there is someone waiting there or if someone inside the bus requests for a stop - you do that by pulling the yellow cord that runs above the window (you can see it on the left in the picture). I realised this when the bus never stopped in the location that Google indicated was a bus stop. I ended up getting off 2 stops later and had to walk quite a bit. The good thing is that the city is pedestrian friendly; every road has a footpath beside it. After walking for 25 minutes I reached the military museum at about 11:30 am where there were a lot of kids running around. 

Life in the trenches

The mural
The elderly staff gave me a map and told me where what was. He added, "You don't want to start down here because there are 150 kids below - it's like chickens on steroids out there." The entrance fee was $10. There was a huge mural in the main hall - hundreds of small images, each representing some piece of Canada's military history.

I entered the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) section - this regiment was deployed in the First World War in Europe; there were simulations of war trenches - cramped places infested with rats where soldiers had to stay for weeks with limited supplies. Trenches are occupied by troops even when there is no enemy attack; they try to hold the lines. Trench life did have a schedule when there was no attack - breakfast (brought to them from the kitchen), cleaning weapons, attending to personal matters etc. There was a guy who wrote poems for his daughter from the trenches (appropriately titled 'Wisdom from Nonsenseland'). Typical schedule involved spending 2 weeks in the front line, 1 week in support, 2 weeks in reserve and 1 week at rest. There was disease and stinking smells in the trenches. There was always a chance of death - taking a peek by stretching out of the trench could result in getting shot by an enemy sniper.

The PPCLI were part of the Second Battle of Ypres which involved a German gas attack. In 1915, of the 1000 soldiers that initially arrived (known as the Originals), only about 150 remained. On 10 Nov 1918 the PPCLI were in Belgium. When the German leader abdicated, the war stopped suddenly and there were celebrations in Belgium; it was a pleasant surprise but there was bittersweet feelings in the regiment - so many lives had been lost. Dying for what people would say is a larger cause; but one wonders why we should have people killed for the sake of a conflict that is generated by a few minds.

The other areas in this section were about involvement in the Cold War, Balkans, Korean conflict, Cyprus, Afghan conflict etc. 

The other section I found interesting in this museum was the Founder's Gallery where there was an art exhibition by a photo journalist on the Ukraine crisis - a few poignant photos and a video taken from the protestors side during the night showing bottle grenades being thrown to the police side. They burnt tyres to keep themselves warm in the winter.

For the first World War, there were around 48,000 Albertans who enlisted; the country was just coming out of the recession and there was unemployment - out of them 6,000 died and 24,000 were wounded.

Life for prisoners of war was also hard - the Germans had severe punishments. Blowing your nose in an undisciplined manner meant 5 days of closed confinement. 5 days for not standing during a parade; 8 days for trying to take German potatoes; 8 days for laughing at a German officer.

There were some articles about the relationship between the King's Own Cavalry Regiment and the Maratha Light Infantry (an Indian unit); they fought together in Italy between 1943 and 1946.

The air force section had a section about the decorative art that crews painted just below the cockpit; it was a type of graffiti also called as 'nose art'. Air crew members wanted to personalize their aircraft; they felt it was special. There were paintings of women and even disney characters. I had my packed lunch in the pantry - there was no one else around; by 2pm the place was getting empty; the school kids had all left. There was also a Navy section where the guy in charge joked, "As you see I am quite busy right now."

Overall it is a nice museum - for those interested in history, wars and military this is a worthwhile place to spend some time. If you do keep reading everything that is there in the museum it will surely take you the whole day.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Canada Travelogue 6 - History lessons

The third floor of the Glenbow museum had the 'Mavericks' collection - details about people who had made an impact in Alberta; people who did things differently. There were stories about people from the oil industry - Alberta advanced greatly due to the discovery of oil and gas and there were pioneers in this area. Jack Gallaher said, "You  only go through life once," and took risks. When he founded his oil company, for the first two years he was the only employee. He believed the oil business was 90% luck - you had to be lucky to strike oil. He had the vision of searching for oil in the Arctic and his company was the first to undertake this venture.

First Nations

Art on display in Glenbox museum
More interesting exhibits on this floor was about the original residents of Alberta - they were the 'Indians', now called First Nations. They lived in peace and joy. The bison was the most important animal in this period. There were primarily 3 groups of First Nations and the exhibits on display focussed on their lives and how it changed slowly with the landing of immigrants in other parts of Canada. In the 1800s, the buffalos/bisons started disappearing. This was a problem for the First Nations in Alberta since they didn't do much farming. This was the ideal time for the Government formed by the British to take over - they had been present in few parts of Canada prior to this. Treaties were established between the government and the First Nations - the government taking over the lands and promising to teach the First Nations farming, providing them with education and medicine. Medicine was required because the First Nations lost a number of people to diseases which they believe came from the Europeans. The First Nations really didn't have any choice but to sign the treaties. 

The treaties were abused - First Nations people claim that residential schools destroyed their family structures and identity; children were sent to schools far away from their parents so that they would forget all ties to their community and culture. Physical abuse was common - one of their comments says, "We learned how to bully the weak; we learned to treat each other with contempt and violence; institutional behaviour replaced traditional values."

Interesting but sad comment if you reflect at what is happening in India as well; instead of absorbing the goodness of another culture we end up replacing what existed; and we destroy the goodness that existed.

Betrayal repeatedly

The First Nations people were heavily regulated; rations provided to them by the Government were sub-standard; the government which promised to take care of them while signing the treaties, later cut down on food supplies saying it was costly to feed them. The people were used to traditional foods; the commercial foods supplied to them made them sick - diet changes wrecked their health. The First Nations leaders say they never agreed to transfer land to the government in the treaty; they agreed to live peacefully with the immigrants in return for adjusting to a new way of life since the buffalo disappeared. An Indian Act was passed which the First Nations were not even aware of - this gave more control to the government over the Indians. 

Before this event, the US government wanted to ensure safe passage of US migrants from their lands to the First Nations; they signed treaties with the First Nations for this - to provide protection to First Nations from others in return for safety of US migrants. But soon the US themselves started encroaching into the First Nations area - they started mining for their benefit.

Along with this there was trading that was happening with another tribe; they gave whiskey in return for buffalo hides. People who never knew about alcohol began drinking; they fought with one another and beat their wives. The alcohol was a combination of rum, gunpowder and other toxic ingredients - it slowly killed or blinded the First Nations people but it was addictive.

It is sad to read how the First Nations were taken advantage of - the powerful taking advantage of the weak. There are numerous stories in history of such events; and it's not just at the macro level -  we see such things even in our day to day lives, be it in school, college or office.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Canada Travelogue 5 - Spiritualism in a strange place

First place I visited in Calgary was the Glenbow museum. Entrance fee is CAD $15. There weren't many people around but there was a gang of school kids inside an auditorium on the ground floor.

The section I stepped into on the first floor had paintings based on the history about the First Nations (the original people who lived in Canada were earlier called 'Indians') - how they were dependent on the bison (buffalo) for everything in life, the extinction of the buffalo, the First Nations' Treaties with the British and the search for occupying more land (trying to reach the borders along the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans). There were some good scenic paintings in this lot.


I then landed in the Art of Asia exhibition hall which had a dimmed light at the entrance. Inside it was filled with sculptures and statues; first was the Buddha with the mudra that we are used to seeing often - mudras are hand gestures and the abhaya mudra is the one people use for blessing someone (palm outward, fingers straight up); it signifies freedom from fear. 

Going further down, there was a statue of goddess Kali standing on top of god Shiva (the destroyer) from whom she gets her energy - she has four arms and a garland of human heads around her neck - symbolising that the human body is temporary and can be destroyed. She stands for victory over ego. The description beside each of the artifacts was very informative.

A few exhibits were on the rivers and goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. Water is used for cleansing and that's why many temples have a water tank/pond in front of them.

Buddha's enlightenment

There was an emaciated Buddha statue whose ribs and bones could be seen; Buddha went on the path of austerity by starving for six years in the hope of finding truth/enlightenment. But even then he didn't and so realized that this wasn't the right path. The statue depicted the moment he decided to give up austerity. It was after this that he had the encounter with Mara; nearby was the statue of Mara - a demon who tried to tempt Buddha during his meditation. He took the form of a beautiful lady to tempt Buddha. It didn't work and he tried to create fear in Buddha by using his army to shoot arrows at him but the Buddha responded with the 'bhumisparsha mudra' (touching the earth) - a sign of resistance and telling the Earth to witness his deed. Temptation and fear, two very powerful emotions in us. Buddha was now enlightened.

Explanations of the mudras here:

In one corner of the hall, the sight of a large life size Buddha statue was comforting and reassuring. Ideally placed was a bench right in front of that statue. The lighting in this section was great - not too bright and not too dark; created that perfect meditative and introspective atmosphere. Since there were not many people and even the few that came passed by quickly, you could just sit in a trance as long as you wanted. There were some security guards moving around but they were unobtrusive to visitors.

Other displays and explanations

There were some exhibits about Amida Buddha - one branch of Buddhism that believes in the concept of a 'Pure Land'. One statue was of Tirthankara - this is part of Jainism; looked very similar to the Buddha sculptures except that they have a diamond shape object on their chest. There was a display of the Palden Lhamo - a wrathful deity from Tibet to symbolize strength over negative emotions like jealousy, hatred, desire and ego.

There were write-ups about the use of deities and images for prayers - many people think hinduism is about worshiping idols alone; but the reason for having idols is that during prayers/rituals it is believed that the Gods would actually be present in the idols. There are also reasons why there are so many gods in Hinduism - the idea being to represent all materialistic things as God so that when man goes in pursuit of any of these, man thinks of the respective God. Unfortunately nowadays we get lost in focussing so much on the material part of life that we forget everything else that matters.

Fighting inside and outside

All the displays within the Asian section had some commonalities (be it from Japan or Cambodia or Thailand or India) - freedom from fear/desire, going above the ego/self and realizing the fragility/temporary nature of the human body. Just witnessing the exhibits gave me calmness within and even goosebumps - wonderfully displayed and good descriptions.

The fourth floor had a section about West Africa that included a few exhibits on Yoruba cosmology - Yoruba are people from the Nigerian area; their beliefs are interesting - they believe in destiny, cycle of life and death, they believe everything in death merges to one, they believe thoughts/actions of each person interact with others including the Earth. Kind of similar to the Asian beliefs.

There was another section in the museum that described wars - pages, squires, knights, war strategies (like forming a square against a cavalry attack), guns, cannons, mustard gas for blindness, archers and death. After seeing the section on religion, one will wonder why we lose lives in war when there are so many other things to overcome in life. Why are we fighting outside when there is so much unexplored inside?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Canada Travelogue 4 - Edmonton

Seems like film shooting in Alberta was quite common; I read that Leonardo DiCaprio was recently in Alberta for his next movie. I don't think Indian film-makers have explored this area yet - possibly because it is more expensive; need to travel longer distances and need to pick the months to avoid getting caught in heavy snow.

A temple in Canada

The temple in Edmonton
On Sunday morning we drove to Edmonton - the capital city of Alberta province (Canada has 10 provinces and 3 territories). On the way we stopped at Tim Horton for coffee and donuts; this is a very popular restaurant chain like Dunkin Donuts in the US. Our first stop in Edmonton was the West Edmonton Mall; it is among the top 10 largest malls in the world in terms of area. On arriving there I realized that it is due to the fact that it has an indoor theme park (2nd largest one) and an indoor water park (again 2nd largest). We gave the two parks a skip; after going to a few theme parks you tend to keep them low on your list of things to see. I didn't feel the mall was that huge - Dubai Mall felt more massive; you get tired simply walking by all the stores over there! Most of the shops here were for women's clothes; very very few sport outlets compared to other malls I've seen in other countries.

We got a wheelchair for my mom from the guest services counter - this is something very good in Canada; all shopping malls, tourist attractions and even large supermarkets provide wheelchairs for customers - most of the time it is free with a refundable deposit or with a minimal fee. The battery powered wheelchairs do cost money. The country is wheelchair friendly; ramps and elevators everywhere. It is common to see some elderly people whizz by in electric wheelchairs. Even on our way to Edmonton, we saw a physically affected person (a paraplegic like Stephen Hawking) on a motorised wheelchair along with a caretaker lady crossing the main road.

We had lunch in the food court from an Indian outlet; most Canadian malls tend to have at least one Indian outlet - so vegetarians will find something suitable. We enquired about rates for the hotel within the mall but that was 3 times the normal price; being a weekend they were charging more.

We headed next to the Ganapathy temple in Edmonton. After struggling with Apple Maps that led us to dead ends we switched to Google Maps that proved to be an effective guide. This is an indoor temple - similar to others in the US. There was a staircase leading to the basement where we removed our shoes and left our jackets. Nice white marble flooring; clean and quiet with some deities around the rectangular hall. There was ample space to sit inside the temple and there were a couple of priests inside. Though very much different from what we have in India, the place still evokes a spiritual feeling.

Legislature building

Alberta's legislature building
We got a room reservation in a hotel run by Sheraton (major hotel chains like Sheraton and Hilton operate less luxurious hotels in different brand names all over the world). A room for a family of 4 cost about $120 which is very reasonable; but even if you are a single traveller you'd end up having to shell about $80 since all rooms are for a minimum of 2 people. Breakfast wasn't included but they did have a gym, jacuzzi and small swimming pool.

In the morning we were off to the legislature/assembly building. We were happy to step indoors since it was very windy outside.  The strong wind makes it feel colder than it really is. The assembly building is where elected members meet to discuss, debate and vote on issues. Canada follows the British electoral system so it is very similar to what we have in India. The Canadian lady inside the main hall said there is a guided tour in 15 minutes and we opted for it. When given a choice for tours, always opt for them.

Our guide was a very friendly person who would very often bring both his eyebrows closer as if he were in distress. The first time he did it I thought he was in pain but then realised that it was a habit. The guide told us about how the name Alberta came to be used and the history behind the construction of the building - it had a dome like structure with huge pillars. There was a fountain in the centre and a grand staircase that led us to the first floor. There were many flags on our way up the stairs - each of them belonged to one of Canada's regiments. In this legislative structure within the house there existed a speaker for the house, a sergeant-at-arms (who was responsible for the safety and order of everything happening here), the ruling party elected members and the opposing party. The sergeant-at-arms also carried a mace as part of a ceremonial process everyday. We were told about how the very first mace was created out of household items - like shaving equipment, toilet items etc. Sounds funny to think that you had an object made from toilet items being brought in to the assembly every day in a grand ceremony! On the walls in the upper floors there were paintings of the various Governors of Alberta and also of the Premiers of Alberta (kind of like our Chief Ministers in India). One of them painted a part of the portrait himself. We got to see the main hall where the members meet. There is a balcony where the public can sit and watch proceedings that happen, a section for the press and a section for VIPs like visitors to the state.
The house; main chair is that of the speaker

The tour lasted for about 45 minutes; quite informative and it was free as well. I wonder if we have such informational tours to our assembly halls in India - maybe we do but I hadn't heard of it. On our return to Calgary we stopped at Boston Pizza for lunch; strange that I see so many Boston Pizza outlets in Canada but don't remember seeing even one in Boston! By signing up on their website we got a extra starter for free - but that starter was very typical junk food - large slices of potato deep fried so much that it was crispy.

Just like in the US, there is respect and priority for pedestrians - even a speeding car will slow down the minute they see that you are going to cross the road. Also the road conditions were really good; despite the harsh weather that all of Canada is subject to (heavy snow and rains), it is still smooth without many pits and bumps. Standard of living was as good as that in the US.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Canada Travelogue 3 - Odd jobs...

The next morning I had a feel of how baby sitting goes! There are a few options for women at home to earn some handy income in Canada - baby sitting is one and paper delivery is another.

If you were to do baby sitting full time for 8 hours a day and with 6 to 8 kids then you could possibly even live out of your earnings - about Canadian $4000 a month. You do need to have a home with space for the kids though. Otherwise you could baby sit for maybe an hour or two in a day and earn about $10 for an hour. Just need to keep watch of the baby; see if you can keep the baby quiet when it cries; feed it if it's hungry (the baby's parents will provide you suitable food for feeding the baby). The parent will drop and pick up the baby from the babysitter's residence.

Dinner get together

Common to see such pretty side roads
Saturday night we had a get together type of dinner with a couple of Indian families in one of their homes. Their home was spacious; a 3 bedroom home with a furnished basement. The basement was carpeted, had some children's books in one area and toys in another area - this was used for babysitting. Pretty neat setup for the wife who was doing baby sitting full time.

When we regrouped in the main hall, with the men it was politics that they started discussing. Once that was exhausted, the topic that always comes up when you have a working single person in the group is marriage. We discussed about horoscopes, matches and pros of marriages. Sometimes one wonders why we are so obsessed on this topic; ah well, I guess nothing else interesting to talk about! The married folks in these discussions talk as if marriage is the solution to all world problems! Naturally the topic shifted to love marriages; if the 'arranged' mode doesn't work due to horoscope mismatches and what not then find your own partner; people make it sound as if it is the easiest thing in the world! They mentioned about a peculiar case of a couple of Indians who were raised in Canada who knew each other very well for 2 years (or who assumed they knew each other very well) - they got married with blessings of both families and on the 2nd day after marriage they filed for divorce.

In between one of the men mentioned about his bad experience at someone's home; then he mentioned a similar incident that happened elsewhere; and since the people involved in both were from the same region of India, he concluded that all people from that region are of the same type. And I wondered how often I do the same - we see a couple of cases and we stereotype everyone as being like that; what a dangerous bias.

Finally we moved out of the topic of marriage. Just like in the neighbouring country people talked of the American dream, here you could make your Canadian dream. They mentioned how all jobs are treated with respect here - they told a case about a young educated single mom from Vietnam who migrated to Canada, did odd part time jobs and worked as a cleaner in some company, who signed up for studying about architecture and then landed a job in that field. There was the story about a Punjabi taxi driver who had been driving in Canada for 20 years, who bought a house long back for 100,000  dollars which was now valued at more than a million. But the taxi driver didn't really know what to do with the money now - I guess he had reached the stage where he outgrew money; after a point it doesn't really matter, does it?

Paper deliveries

In Canada, there are many free advertising booklets/papers that are circulated frequently. This trend is slowly catching on in India as well. In the neighbourhood we were in, these  advertising pamphlets are distributed twice a week. Distributing requires delivery boys or girls. For this, there is a middle man who takes the contract to cover a few neighbourhoods. The middle man will employ freelance workers from each neighbourhood and ask them to deliver the packages to a few homes (a package is a loose collection of many booklets; for each house it would be around 15 to 20 booklets with 4 or 5 pages in each). Depending on the amount of packages delivered (earnings calculated by weight), you get paid by the middle man. It does fetch some handy pocket money - roughly you might get paid about $300 a month for say delivering to 300 houses; each house you would have to deliver 8 packages a month. It's not as easy as just throwing the paper you receive on the doorstep; you might have to roll it to put a rubber band around each so that you can fling it - else the papers will fly in the breeze (which happens to be there almost always in this part of the world). The rubber banding does take time and is quite boring.

The middle man doesn't force the area of coverage on you - you can pick the houses you will deliver to. I've heard some people make around $1000 doing this. The delivering itself doesn't take much time - you put the packages in a bag, walk around (or cycle), throw one on the doorstep of a house and move to the next. Problem is you might only be able to carry about 50 at a time because sometimes the package can be really big and heavy.

Delivering itself can get scary when it's dark because streets over here are usually deserted unlike India. Sometimes when you toss the paper, you might hear a dog barking ferociously from inside the house. Sometimes you get a sense of which homes have been unoccupied for long by seeing the number of papers lying on their doorstep. Sometimes you get to chat with someone from the home in case they are standing outside their home. Over time you will definitely develop a good accurate throwing arm!

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Canada Travelogue 2 - Arrival in Calgary

I split with my colleague since our gates for the next connecting flight was different. The weather was very pleasant - about 14 degrees. Not many Indians in the Frankfurt airport. First stop was security check-in; the scanner beeped even though I didn't have any metallic object on me. The guy took me aside and waved his wand from top to bottom. No beeps. "Lift your shoe," and he waved again - still no luck but he told me to move ahead.

Frankfurt airport
The airport was colourful; lot of people bustling around and lot of shops and cafeterias. Many people were having breakfast with a large glass of beer! Beer surely was popular in Germany - I could think of a couple of friends who would love this. There was a closed smoking room sponsored by some cigarette company along with the statutory warning posters about smoking damaging health. The room was full with people and clouds of smoke.

Small trolleys were available for carrying hand luggage; something that you don't find in many airports. It made it easier for people to move around the terminal for shopping. I was soon at the Air Canada boarding gate. To my dismay, my seat was a window seat with 2 people to my left. I had stressed for an aisle seat during check-in at Chennai and the staff nodded his head in agreement over there - this was going to be a pain; an 8 hour journey where I couldn't step out at will. The guy next to me was a middle age person in his early 40s while the lady next to him was an elderly lady in her 50s. The guy was from Libya; he was going to Edmonton for studying for a year. The food was more limited than Lufthansa - only one lunch and a snack an hour before landing. The lunch was surprisingly good; the in-flight entertainment system wasn't that great.

Anti ageing!

From the customs form it was clear that Canada didn't want people to bring any milk products or even nuts into the country. I dumped a packet of almonds in the garbage before going to the immigration counter. The queue for foreigners was very small and there were only a couple of questions for me. After this came the baggage collection area - the staff in Chennai told me I didn't have to pick my luggage in Toronto; but when I entered the baggage area there was an announcement that said everyone on connecting flights had to take their luggage before proceeding to the next flight. Unsure, I waited near the conveyor belts for 10 minutes - no signs of my bags; maybe it would go to the final destination. I found an Air Canada helpdesk and the guy immediately said that I have to take my baggage and check it in again on my connecting flight - it wasn't a through check-in. That's the 2nd thing the Chennai staff had messed up - I wonder how many travellers that guy must have misled with his confident wrong replies.

After another 10 minutes my two suitcases arrived. Since the bag was tagged for the final destination, the next check-in was simple - just drop the suitcases on another conveyor belt. They could easily have done this themselves instead of asking passengers to go through the trouble. But maybe it was due to the fact that we had immigration in Toronto (first point of entry to Canada). In case someone was stopped by immigration then their suitcases will also remain in Toronto rather than going forward.

After that was the security check. I was hungry but didn't have time to pick any food; ended up buying a Snickers chocolate bar near the boarding gate for my flight. Again no aisle seat; this time it was a window seat on the left side of the plane. Four hours later we touched down in Calgary.

They obviously had tried to do a lot of designing in this airport - some artistic items on display, some informative posters, usage of different colours rather than plain white etc. A little bit like Singapore airport but at a much smaller scale. Temperature was surprisingly good - about 12 degrees. It was 5:30pm; I had travelled for 24 hours but time zones are a wonder - I started on Friday 2am and reached Canada Friday evening! So if we keep travelling westward non-stop we can slow down aging; and if we went faster we could even reverse it!

First glimpse of Canada

Homes in Calgary
We had a smooth ride to my sister's home. Calm, clean neighbourhood and very silent; no sounds of vehicles, horns or people shouting on the streets. All houses in this complex were independent ones and looked very similar - everything was two floored with a hut like appearance on top.

I ate idlis and typical Indian lunch at home and then went for a walk in the neighbourhood with my bro-in-law. Everyone was enjoying the unexpected pleasant weather - usually at this time of the year it is snowing. Dogs were walking or jogging along with owners, kids were playing on slides and swings in the park and a couple of Canadian kids were flying kites. Some dogs even had a sweater! Most houses had a small backyard and many of them had trampolines over there.

The colours of leaves was beautiful - a variety of them: green, yellow, red, orange and brown. And there were shades of each; a very pretty sight.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Canada Travelogue 1 - The journey begins...

I'll be attempting to blog as I travel this time - let's see how far we get!


The journey began on a wrong note; I wanted to sleep for at least a couple of hours before starting but once I was in office I wasn't able to leave early; happens all the time, doesn't it? You somehow get caught with work; even bunking a meeting didn't help!

The flight was at 2am; I reached the airport by 10pm. And on the cab ride to the airport I remembered about a couple of work related tasks that I hadn't completed; uh - too many thoughts about work.

Chennai airport had a surprise visit by some minister two weeks earlier and he gave a list of suggestions for improving the airport; but judging by the plight of the toilets it didn't seem like much had been accomplished.

Wake up call

I was pleasantly surprised to see a senior colleague in the airport - he was heading on an official trip to the US and was in my same flight for the first leg of travel till Germany. We chatted about programming in the good old days when programming was considered a geeky thing, talked about startups that tried to get venture capital funding from a firm he was working for, appraisals and the special skills needed for having associates reporting to you.

The gate number said 14 but we saw only directions to gate H14 and followed it. As we waited, I dozed off hoping to catch my 2 hours of sleep - I kept the boarding pass in my shirt pocket and I was confident that the Lufthansa staff would wake me when it was time for boarding. It wasn't long before I opened my eyes to the sound of a lady repeating 'Sir'; I checked the time - it was only a 20 minutes nap.
'Sir, the gate is on the top floor on the right. This is H14. You have to go to 14.'

Gate number 14 was not even mentioned in the initial signpost and that's what misled us; oh well, Chennai airport still has a long way to go! The seating area near gate 14 was extremely cold; the AC was in full blast and didn't seem like there was any temperature regulation. They surely were giving me a feel of the Canadian winter!

As people boarded the flight, there was a guy sitting 3 rows in front who was talking in a very loud voice. He was conversing with the German air-hostess.
"Chennai is the worst international airport," he said in a European voice.
The air hostess laughed and replied, "Delhi used to be bad but now it's really good."
I learnt more things about them; he didn't like the way Indians manufactured hardware parts - he said they were never fully tested and quality was bad; always have to keep a close watch on labourers. The air hostess had a schedule of 1 day work and 2 days leave - would have an international flight and then stay in a hotel for 2 days in that city before going on her next trip. She knew places in India where one could meet pretty Russian students who came to India for academics. She also liked the Sheraton in India where she was often given accommodation. Once the flight engines started, it was hard to overhear their conversation.

My first Lufthansa flight

I slept off when the flight took off; after 30 minutes when I woke up I had a severe headache. The air hostess were serving food - with headache I ate and felt a bit better. I went to sleep again. My schedule was as follows: sleep, wake up, take a walk to the back of the flight, have a glass of water or apple or orange juice, stretch my legs and return to my seat to sleep or watch a movie till I fell asleep.

The in-flight entertainment system was a lot better than what I had seen in British Airways a few months earlier. No remote; it was all a touch screen. I searched for movies with subtitles; Edge of Darkness was interesting - a movie that went in loops; but somehow you didn't get entirely involved because you knew that the hero can always reset to a initial state and start all over again when he felt that things weren't going his way.

British Airways would feed us plenty but Lufthansa was a bit limited in that sense; food was good. The snacks that were kept in the pantry (near the air hostess area) were also limited - just 2 items but both were really good - 'Prince' chocolate biscuits and cashew packets. 

There were many Indians on our flight - many having onward journeys while some like my neighbour were going to Germany for higher studies. He told me about the low tuition fees, accommodation rates, the visa process and possibility of doing a PhD there. There was another elderly Indian who was going to Norway alone to visit his son.

We arrived in Frankfurt well within time to a bright Friday morning and my next flight was in 90 minutes. We stepped out from the flight on the tarmac, took a connecting bus that weaved around the airport for a long time before reaching the terminal.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Thai travelogue: Our trip ends...

Veggie friend and I were up early; we knocked lightly on our neighbour's door but didn't get any response. They ventured even beyond us last night and we didn't know when they returned. There were a couple of things that we wanted to try out.

We took the metro (BTS) to Lumpini Park - this was our first ride in the metro; you kind of get used to metros if you have used them anywhere in the world. Slight differences would apply in the way fares are calculated but otherwise they are pretty similar. The minimum fare here was 15 Baht for a single journey - depending on the destination station, fares varied. The single journey tickets were plastic cards with magnetic strips that you could get from the vending machine. Fare information was easy to figure from the diagrams and we didn't have any language trouble in using the BTS. Within the train there was a led route display indicating the stations we arrived at. And just like in other places were there are multiple metro lines like the blue line, green line etc. here also they had 2 lines. In Bangkok it is called a sky train and not a metro because these lines are all above the ground unlike Washington where the metro runs underground.

Lumpini park was in the middle of the city just like you have large parks in the middle of New York. It was well maintained. The park had fitness equipment as well that could be used by anyone for free - the instruments were very sturdy; even if you tried hard it would be nearly impossible to damage them - such was their quality. In different spots of the park there were different equipments - no electronic or electrical machines; only manual ones. In the centre of the park was a large pond that gave a soothing effect. The place felt so good that it would tempt you to jog and exercise. It wasn't crowded but maybe since it was nearly 10am there was hardly anyone in the park.

We walked some distance to peek at the Queen Sirkit park; this was also huge with a huge pond in the centre surrounded by walking and bicycling tracks around it. This didn't have any of the fitness equipment. We went half the distance around the pond before returning to our hotel. The maintenance of both parks was top class.

The last 3 hours in the city I spent shopping for souvenirs in the MBK mall while the other 3 went to purchase their TVs. You will sometimes see freebies being given in shopping malls for tourists - MBK was giving away free T-shirts - you had to take the advertisement from their booklet and show it along with your passport to collect the gift. They also had an entire section with plenty of small shops selling mementos like the Emerald Buddha, elephants etc. Keep looking around and enquire for prices before you purchase anything; sometimes you'll find the same item selling for different prices! And in many of these shops you can bargain - I made one shopkeeper happy since i bought most of my items from her shop; before me I don't think she was having a good sales day!

You also find a lot of Ferrari style t-shirts and caps; duplicate items that you get cheap but look good.

Do buy things from the city because in the airport the mementos were quite pricey.

For most of the flight trip the three of us spent time chatting at the back of the flight - our expert friend was off to the dream world. We brought some food from the airport since in budget airlines everything is charged and even if you are willing to pay you might not find something that you like.

And with that we end our Thai adventure! Will be back with another one soon...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thai travelogue: Things we can learn...

The ATMs felt odd for us in Thailand; we are very used to having ATMs within small closed rooms but here the ATMs were lined up on the footpath - anyone walking on the street could see you and there was no security for each ATM. We felt insecure in operating them! We had a forex card to withdraw money - the forex card is loaded in dollars so you can withdraw from any country; it would get converted at the current conversion rate and you will also incur a transaction charge. If you are making large purchases like a TV then you can use the card directly in those shops and avoid the transaction charge. Also if you are converting cash then $50 and $100 notes will get you the best exchange rate compared to using lower denominations. I've noticed the same in a couple of other countries as well.

(Pic is of the BTS metro station at night)

Healthy dinner

For today's dinner we tried out a few dishes from the hotel itself. And strange as it might sound, we ordered chicken conjee! Conjee or Kanji is a rice porridge; we do consider it as being healthy but definitely not something that we order in restaurants. The Thai version of the conjee was quite tasty. After dinner, our expert friend and me decided to visit an ex-colleague who had settled in Bangkok with her family.

Armed with the address we asked the hotel receptionist to get us a cab. While we waited, we saw a few cars in formation pass by. It seems it was the Queen travelling - I wonder how the situation would have been had there been traffic on the road; would they stop all traffic to let the Queen through?

The receptionist stopped a taxi and told us that we'd need to only pay the meter fare. After some confusion about the location it was again the mobile phone's GPS that came to our rescue. We spent about 30 minutes in the residence and learnt a few more things about the Thai way of life. There is a minimum percentage of local workforce that companies have to maintain in Thailand - so if they take more foreign workers they'll have to increase the local workforce to maintain the percentage. Our friend also said that generally Thai people are not aggressive in terms of wanting designation changes and fighting to go up the corporate ladder; they like to keep a good work life balance. Wouldn't it be nice if we had the same in India? If a person doesn't want to go up the corporate ladder, let him be where he is - but in India we have office pressure, peer pressure and society's pressure - "Is something wrong? By now you should be leading a team. See your classmate, he is a manager and is in US". The comparisons from childhood continue to office.

A stroll late night

Being our 2nd last day in Bangkok, the four of us decided to roam around the city at night. We didn't have any plans on things to cover - it was just a walking night. A few local guys surrounded us - they asked us if we wanted to go for massage etc. They also had pamphlets which they kept waving. The good thing is that they don't pester you beyond a point and so you don't feel threatened.

Even after midnight, the streets felt safe to walk in. Many places were dark but you didn't feel like you would get mugged. The streets were clean and I felt that even women would feel safe walking alone here. Wouldn't it be nice if we could say the same back home? The restaurant where we had oyster bhel puri for dinner yesterday was winding up at 2am. They were not only cleaning their area but even a portion of the road near their restaurant. Everyone did their part to keep the city clean.

It was early in the morning at about 3am that we hit bed. Our veggie friend and I planned to visit a couple of things in the morning. Can't believe that our short trip had almost come to an end! Today morning we did have discussions about extending our trip but it was a little too late since we'd lose money on our flight tickets - and i don't think any of our managers back home would have liked a sudden change in plan! The one thing we had missed on the trip was Phuket.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thai travelogue: Red Fanta offering...

In the morning, from our hotel we had arranged for a trip to Safari World which is within Bangkok. Again it is better to go through an operator since you will get a better deal than buying tickets directly. And almost every hotel can help you with making the arrangement. Breakfast was sumptuous and it had some typical Thai cuisine items - like the Tom Yum soup with a coconut flavour and Pad Thai (stir fried noodles).

Safari World is pretty much like a zoo with a few animal shows. There was a lot of crowd when we reached in the morning at around 9am - lot of school kids as well as Asian tourist groups. Our driver purchased the tickets for us and also stuck a sticker on all our shirts - seems like every tour operator uses a sticker of their own with a number to help identify which group you belong to.

There was one thing that stuck to my mind and I guess it will influence me whenever I see animals in future. The first show was an Orangutan (they are animals like chimpanzees) boxing show. The chimps looked pretty old and were clothed in shorts and t-shirt and women's dress as well. And they had to perform a set of routines that were obviously not part of their nature. I wondered how we would feel if we were made to perform such things with an audience watching us and laughing at us? Looking at the chimps I felt sorry for them and I felt bad that I was in my own way contributing to this. There have been news stories about chimps being smuggled for use in this zoo.

The giraffe area was different in the sense that the giraffes were free to roam within a large enclosure and visitors were permitted to feed them. There was a standard seal and dolphin show. And there were animals and birds in cages. There was a bird show and there was a explosive stunt show (pic on left). And as usual, in shows involving water, the first few rows would definitely get wet. To beat the heat, I thought it would be good to sit in the front. The zoo was charging money in case you wanted to feed baby tigers - we saw a small girl feeding a tiger with a baby bottle! In the evening at about 4pm, the driver took us on a mini-safari; you can drive your own vehicle through this open area which has entrance like a smaller version of the Jurassic park gate - it opens and closes automatically. Once inside there are wild animals roaming freely; not entirely freely since there are some nets and fences but the area available for the animals is large - must be better than being enclosed in a cage; you can see rhinos, tigers, lions, deers, pigs, peacocks etc.

Buzzing street by the malls

For the night while our expert and veggie friend went to check out TV shops (TVs are a lot cheaper here than in India but be careful from where you get them), our photographer friend and me took a stroll towards the malls. On the pavement were many small handmade craft shops - not really shops but people who put their stuff for sale on display. There were plenty of items and I guess it was a way to make some pocket money - create some stuff and sell it on the weekend in the evening over here. The whole street was buzzing with activity and in a way it reminded me of Times Square.

Our photographer observed an interesting trend - we would see red fanta bottles (filled with Fanta) kept near statues and shrines; and it wasn't just in one or two places but in many. Some sort of offering? On Googling I read that it is offered for appeasing the spirits - and red probably because it is the colour of blood meaning vitality or maybe because it is for luck -

The pavement shops (left) and the red Fanta offering (right)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thai travelogue: Oyster bhel puri!

It was late in the evening when we reached Bangkok city; from the GPS I knew that we were fairly close to our hotel. It was near a BTS (Bangkok Transit System) skytrain station. But since we had baggage we didn't want to try the train. There were some tuk-tuks that passed by (they are like auto rickshaws) - you have to negotiate with them. The problem was that we were four people with baggage; it was a struggle saying "Petchburi soi" to the drivers but one tuk-tuk guy understood us. GPS comes in handy but you need to have a SIM card in your phone for it to work; mobile phones use the GPS via cellular towers. Fortunately our expert had a Thai SIM in his phone. The driver was surprised when the four of us crammed ourselves into his tuk-tuk - we paid more than the normal fare but we were overloading his tuk-tuk!

(The pic is of a longer tuk-tuk; the one we had was a 3-seater)

The Bangkok City Hotel was the best of the lot during our trip since this was a full fledged hotel and not a B&B (bread and breakfast) - search online and you get offers sometimes on decent hotels that make the price range comparable to B&B inns. Please read reviews since they help you pick good places - the three places we stayed in were all nice ones. This hotel was located near some shopping malls - one of the reasons we picked this. We had a shower, took a nap and then strolled in the city. Malls close early on weekdays so you’ll have to plan accordingly. We just got to spend a short time in the MBK mall during which time one of our group members got lost inside a closed shop! There were a few nice t-shirts souvenirs available for cheap prices but the shops had closed. Pantip mall (this is an exclusive electronics mall) was also closing down; you can find iPads with Android on them! There are many cheap tablets and phones - they even give a 1-year warranty which is good if you are staying in Thailand because for that price it is ok to change phones every year.

For dinner we wanted to have something authentic; between MBK and our hotel we had seen a few restaurants - these are neither full road-side restaurants nor the normal type; they are a hybrid version - there is not much room inside and most people eat on tables on the footpath. We picked the restaurant that had the largest crowd assuming that it was the most popular one. There were just 2 or 3 tables free - we took the one that was very close to the edge of the footpath. 

Beer is quite common in Thailand; one person in our group had beer while another had strawberry milk - which is also quite common in Thailand! We were given the menu and we had one heck of a time trying to place our order. The waitress, a middle aged lady, was very polite and tried hard to understand what we were saying. But it was obvious that this hotel wasn’t a place where foreigners stopped - everyone dining were locals. The pictures on the menu were a big help for us - we pointed out each item; we tried to tell her to substitute beef for chicken in one dish; I tried to say it the Thai way - Gor gai - but you got to get the accent right; our expert tried mimicking a chicken voice! The waitress tried bringing someone else to help but even they didn’t know English. “No beef. Only chicken. Only ghor ghai,” we kept repeating in different accents. In the end we pointed out some other dish on the menu that seemed like chicken. We also ordered for oyster — recommended by our photographer. Our veggie friend stayed out of this whole thing - he just had a glass of coke since there was no way to confirm if any of the dishes were pure vegetarian. In Pattaya, the hotel owner told us that even the sauces supplied with dishes would have some meat!

The special dish that came to our table was the oyster - it was served in a plate along with 6 cups and green stems. Each cup had some side dish like grated onions, sauce etc. We had no idea how to eat it and tried to ask our waitress. She took an oyster, placed it on a plate, added one spoon from each cup on top of the oyster and presented us with the plate. When you eat that it tastes like bhel puri! The oyster on its own doesn’t have any taste - it is served raw; the toppings are what give the flavour - oyster bhel puri! I must say we did enjoy our light meal. People kept coming to this restaurant even after 10 in the night.

(The pic is of the special dish!)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Thai travelogue: Coral Island

When we returned to the top (they will push you up when the time is up), we found only three of us there – our photographer friend was missing! We waited and waited and realized that our whole group of co-passengers was out of the water except him – he couldn’t have got lost since there is no land nearby; you can only get lost underwater but the oxygen tubes won’t let you go too far outside the limit either. After a very long wait of more than 15 minutes he appeared from the water with a big smile on his face.

There was a point in the underwater walk where our photographer friend was behind me and the leader took us dangerously close to the ladder which we had used to step into the water. At this point he thought he had to go up and took the ladder on his own. The guys on top happily pulled him on deck – when he realized no one had returned and he had hardly spent 10 minutes underwater, he checked with the organizers and they sent him back into the water again; this time he joined anther group and in effect he kind of did underwater walking twice; just like he did parasailing twice! One lucky day for him.

The adventurous fun ends with this event; you are then taken to a beach on an island called ‘coral island’ where you are left free for an hour. You can relax on the beach chairs or go on some jet skiing for extra money or play in the water near the beach. The beach and water were relatively clean compared to Chennai even though we had read reviews that this place was polluted a lot by tourists. The tour ends with a speed boat drive back to mainland Pattaya where you are taken for an Indian buffet lunch in a very spacious dining hall. They transport you by a van to the hall but I happened to have a chance to be a pillion rider on our organizing lady’s bike since the van was full; our ‘expert’ friend also tried to join but was unsuccessful. Strap on the half helmet (just protects your brain) and off you go on the moped (a light motorcycle) – the good part is that they always carry the extra helmet for the passenger; the bad part is that the helmet won't cover your face - only your head.

If you are craving for Indian food, then the lunch will feel heavenly – our veggie friend obviously relished it! Finally you are dropped off at the hotel – but again they might try to take you to the gem palace; I was tempted to go again just to see the peacock but no one else was. We were joined in the van by a gang of 3 North Indians who were on a fun travel trip across Asia – they had just been through Hong Kong and told us stories from there. Another location for added to our bucket list!
When we reached our hotel, the Indian owner gave us the contents of our safety locker –I was suspicious and wondered if we might have lost something in the apparently ‘accidental’ malfunctioning of our electronic safety box. But at a high level it seemed like our things were intact – we did a quick money check and that seemed ok. Thankfully we left the place in the evening. We took a van which operates on a sharing basis – like a share-auto in India; this costs just 100 Bahts per person whereas a cab will cost you 1500 Bahts per cab.