A walk around a mountain

When we meet a vastness that we cannot fathom, we are drawn into a different space. This space is inclusive – and we realise – indeed feel – ourselves to be part of something that is larger than us. This is why I believe sitting by the beach and watching the sun set or gazing at the open sky at night make for “larger than life” experiences.

All of this came to me when I had the chance to walk around the much revered “Arunachala” hill at Tiruvanamali, the very, very popular Indian temple town. The hill is believed to be one of the earliest outcrops of earth – so you are looking at a very, very ancient earth form. And the popular mode of worship is to walk around the hill (with the hill always to the right of you) stopping at shrines on the pathway – a distance of around 14 kms.

Now, I didn’t know if I could walk 14 kms, so I thought I would take it an hour at a time. Anytime, I felt fatigued, I could call one of the local autorickshaws and have them ply me back to my resort. And so I started at dusk on a momentous experience.

As you walk on the much shaded pavement on lingam avenue with the the immense mountain on your right, you realise that you are in the presence of a multi-dimensional vastness. For one thing – its ancient – incredibly so. The mountain has indeed perhaps witnessed the very evolutionary process from amoeba to the monkey to our own human sapiens. And you realise you are but a speck of the immense life forms that the mountain has been benevolently watching over 1/2 a million years or so.

And then, there’s the time of day. The recommendation is for one to undertake this holy walk at nighttime – preferably during the full moon (I walked a day after the full moon – the moon had just begun to wane.). If you look to the skies on such a night, you see a rounded, bright moon and the vast, wondrous skies. You get an idea of the immensity of space and the worlds (think milky way!) and you realise you are but a speck in this very wide space.

And then there’s the dimension of size – as you walk alongside the mountain, you realise how big it really is – or rather how small we are in comparison with it.

And finally, there’s this idea of spirituality. The mountain even in the recent past has been home to some incredible sages – starting with Ramana Maharishi, Seshadri swami and many, many more. On the left are centres of wisdom that have cropped up inspired by them (I counted at least 7 spiritual centres and numerous places of worship) – and it gives you goosebumps to realise that you are treading ground that these very special children of god treaded. Indeed, legend has it that perfected beings circumbulate the hill even today. As you walk, you observe numerous modern day sanyasis in their ochre robes, devotees on their path of discovery, tea vendors, 3 wheeler (auto) drivers, and people engaged in all aspects of commerce. Each person is on their own journey and the mountain is exercising its spell and doing its work silently on each and everyone. There’s really no question of who among these is a more spiritual person – the mountain is teaching us to be non-judgemental – and appreciate that everyone is on his or her journey.

At first all these comparisons to immensity look like a negative thing. It certainly does some ego bashing! However, you realise soon that its medicinal – it allows you to drop all pretence of greatness and let you be yourself. When you realise that you are one of a billion people and will be spending a minute fraction of a million years that the World has witnessed – somehow, there’s a sense of lightness. You feel you can allow yourself to be unencumbered by society’s pressures – at least for the duration of the walk. And have some fun – the mountain will anyway do its work!

And then there is the experience of being alone with oneself for the duration of the walk. It’s something thats a bit of a luxury these days – to be by yourself with no distractions for 3-4 hours and just walking on. The mind slows down by itself. The scriptures recommended you walk barefoot so you can sense the earth beneath you (something i should try as well). With the feel of the earth beneath you, swaying trees and an immense hill on your right and a full-moon adorned sky above – its hard not to fall into a wonderfully meditative state walking. Its not a race, so you can let your body do the speed control – take your time to stop, breathe, think. Ideas crop up, solutions to pressing problems flash through your mind, there are periods of no thought. And underlying it all is a sense of gratitude for just being there. Its an incredible feeling. And as you push through your perceived limitations and cover a distance you didn’t believe was possible – there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

I’d like to get into this walking thing more – not for exercise, not for a purpose. Walking for the sake of walking and with the elements in tune, now that’s something to revel in. Would you agree?

A concotion of New year wishes, grandma (& grandpas) and air travel

Its that time of the year when everyone is thinking up of wishes for the new year.

I have a special one – mainly inspired from my recent travel spanning 3 countries, 6 airports and marathon queues and here it is:

“In 2013, air travel should become grandma (and grandpa) friendly”

This is in truth a googly (or if you are reading this in the US a “headfake”) – it’s actually several wishes (and rules) rolled up into one. As a bonus and to please the bean counters however, I shall also talk about the associated saves.

Here goes (beware it’s a bit wicked!):

Wish A: Any airline which globalizes food names will have their licenses revoked immediately. Idli, vada and sambar can no longer be called rice pan cakes, lentil doughnuts and semolina porridge! I shudder to think what they would call haka noodles or sushi (unless ofcourse like the pizza these were named before we become “globally” enlightened!)

So what’s the ROI? –Fewer dictionaries required on board to help the stewardess convince the grandma that the food is indeed vegetarian and never walked once in their lifetime. This time saved by the stewardess can be used to sell more duty free goods – $$$

Wish B: A World-wide realization that Grandpas are not fedex employees. Getting them to remove (and repack) any “large and/or complicated” electronic equipment at every security check point (which in these days would mean everything from watches to mobiles to tablets to laptops) will require the CEO of the concerned airline to come down and personally put in everything that has been removed into the minuscule sized luggage that grandmas pack. The same logic applies for liquids (remember grandmas are not chemists and cant be expected to carry pipettes to measure their concoctions into 100 ml bottles) – they will be allowed to carry any sweets/ treats and such with no checks whatsoever. Exceptions include any home-made medicine they may carry for their grandchildren – these can (actually must) be confiscated -failing which the aforementioned CEO will need to partake of the stuff.

So what’s the ROI? millions of hours saved of course. Also the CEO gets some exercise (and the bitter medicine) which will help him live longer (and understand life is not all roses…)…

Wish C: “Name Pattern based Terrorist identification software” (wow!) must be globalized. A name (or initial) which goes without any challenges in the UK (for example) cannot be detained for questioning in the US (or for that matter across different airports in the same country). An addendum is to acknowledge that Indian parents (and East Europeans too I suspect) consider their job properly done only if their children have a minimum of 21 characters in their names – getting these checked by the poor hassled TSA (or equivalent) agents will result in the CFO of the concerned airline having to take chinese lessons! Continued failure to adopt this law will result in him having to watch this video!

So what’s the ROI? – Saves in the doctors’ fees that will undoubtedly result if the poor security guys continue to be subjected to reading a million passports each with wildly different roots

Wish D: Asking people to checkout their luggage only to give it back to a connecting flight’s counter a hundred yards away will result in the CTO of the airline having to listen to one of grandpa’s long (and very boring) tales. Same fate will befall the airport boss whose terminals are more distant from each other than your destination airport is.

So what’s the ROI? -Saves from the reduced risk of someone’s grandpa checking your luggage (by mistake of course) to a remote destination isn’t enough?

On which irreverent note, I should acknowledge that much as terrorism, technology and scale have made travel that much more complicated, the people on the ground (stewards, security agents, luggage coordinators, information kiosks) more than make up for it by extending their help – and with a smile to boot. It was Christmas time then – and the good cheer, goodwill and kindness of these people was wonderful to behold – thank you all.

And wishes to all my readers for a wonderful year ahead. I know some of you would have come hoping to see a signature “meditation on our times type”  story or perhaps even a technology story – but new year eve I believe deserves something like this –  irreverent and absolutely not-on-point. Agreed?

Thoughtfulness – and flight travel!

You learn a lot of good things doing the most mundane things. I travelled yesterday on Indigo, one of the several so called no-frills airplanes yesterday, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of thoughtfulness and innovation they embraced.

It started off at the check in counter. She looked up my name and asked me if I would like the same seat as I had requested last time (Aisle, front rows). I asked her if she had a window and she said, there’s one – but at the very end – would that be ok? The transaction if you note leveraged analytics (history of my earlier transactions), personalized recommendations (and with a default option – you can choose but if you prefer not too, there’s an informed choice available) and when I had a clarification. she provided some insight into the pros and cons of that decision. Very simple you feel – and I agree – and this was one of the best check in experiences I had had combining efficiency and personalization.

The flight started on time (big deal in India!) and interestingly the airline had bundled complimentary meals for all corporate flyers. Very simple if you think about it – but its a win-win really – and for a commercial traveler hurrying to catch his flight after a long trip and looking to get home at the earlier, these are big plusses indeed.

The surprises didn’t end there – just ahead of the landing, there was the usual communication on please switch off your laptops etc. However there was a simple twist (or maybe it was common, but I noticed it for the first time!) – the hostess reminded all those working on laptops to “remember to save their work” before switching them off. Thoughtful.

And the best part came right after. The last part of every flight ritual is where the hostess comes to collect any bottles/ packages etc. and is preceded by the usual announcement that the flight is about to land and hence this ask. The Indigo folks however told us they wanted their customers to enjoy the experience, and one of the ways they could best do was by “turning the flight around well in time – so could we please hand over any bottles etc. to make this possible?”. Great messaging.

Most business think cheaper, better (as in higher quality, not necessarily quality of experience!) and faster. I’d feel if they added “thoughtfulness” to the list of desired attributes, they’d end up making more of their customers smile in appreciation. You agree?

An ode to the rose

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” – W.Shakesphere

 

Starting with a quote from the Bard is a good thing – it gets us all comfortable. And that’s not a bad thing since today’s rumination is on “the rose” – a topic that kept coming up several times over the week.

Interestingly each instance related to entirely different experiences as you will see, but they all brought out the common theme of enigma – how else can you describe a flower so beautiful yet endowed with a thorny stem that is so very prickly?

Available and yet not quite so…- memories of a walk in a park

I remember a stroll in India’s largest rose garden – the Ooty rose garden. It has hundreds of roses catalogued amidst a stunning landscape. It is painstakingly taken care of by the management who understand that along with “The Botanical garden”, it’s probably the tourist location’s golden goose. The terraced gardens are a pleasure to walk – as you take in the pieces of information displayed and the quaint names (most of them British – but then the rose is England’s national flower if I am not mistaken). Is there a catch – you bet there is. The roses are in full bloom in the summer but the crowds of admirers are so huge that you could scarcely catch a sniff of the rose. And if you were to come back later in the year, the crowds wouldn’t be there – but neither would the roses. So what does the discerning rose admirer do?

Seal’s masterpiece – “Kiss from A Rose”

I happened to listen to the wonderfully haunting song from “Batman” again yesterday. Soulful, dark, melodious, lyrical and even inspiring – the song depicts everything Chris Nolan showed us of his amazingly layered Batman – sample these starting lyrics, add Seal’s mesmerizing voice and really-  you couldn’t do better:

“There used to be a graying tower alone on the sea.
You became the light on the dark side of me.”

The genius’s labyrinth – “The name of the rose”

Umberto Eco’s first novel is the stuff of legend. It’s a murder mystery, a scholarly amble through medieval times – all weaved into one of the most elaborate plots you are like to encounter ever.

Wikipedia describes it best:

The Name of the Rose is the first novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It is a historical murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327, an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. 

Indeed this is not so much a book, but an experience to relish.  It was not my first Umberto eco book – and will certainly not be my last – it’s a book that will leave you willing this author to say more and to give you the appetite (and intelligence) to be able to digest – indeed savour it.

 

That kind of brings us to journey’s end – for today. A forgotten ramble in a park, a haunting song reaching its crescendo as I read through a novel that really is a work of art – sometimes memories and nostalgia can make you very, very happy indeed.

Part 2 – A story of 5 breakfasts and a stroll in the park

And the second day dawned bright and sunny (or so it seemed from the hotel room window). I was ready in a jiffy and skipped down to the hotel restaurant eager to partake of their ”full English breakfast buffet” -advertised very prominently in their brochures.

As I waited to be seated, I looked around – the place was almost full – the hotel’s copy writer had struck gold. The waitress came over, smiled and asked me for my coupons.
”Coupons?”, I asked, not quite sure if I had heard her right.
”Yes, the coupons”, she answered in a Russian accent (or maybe Czechoslovakian or for that matter Ukrainian or..)
”Coupons??” I stammered again, wondering what on earth she was talking about.

She accepted fate had dealt her a flawed customer but she put on a brave face and showed me to my seat – reasoning perhaps that not all days are sunny and nice (I realized later as a hotel customer, these coupons would have entitled me to get a significant discount – but surely the hotel should have an easier way of doing this?!!).

Once seated, the multiple choice quiz started:
Brown or white bread?
Coffee or tea?
Latte or cappuccino?
Milk or cream….sugar? ….
I didn’t ask for my score but must have done OK as she didn’t look too rattled when we were done. And while we took a few moments to recover post this exhaustive round 1 questioning, I asked her about the English breakfast; her face beamed in approval and she launched into round two – this time questions to be answered in short sentences..
How would like your bacon?
How would you like your eggs made?
What garnishing would you prefer for the omelets?
How would you like your sausages?
And on and on until she found I had given up long ago. Being vegetarian, most of these were outside my palate, and I just would have to have a full English breakfast without the English bits today. While I accepted my fate with a shake of the head, she accepted her fate staunchly too. She may have got a coupon-less, low scoring and incapable (of sampling the varied fare) customer on a sunny day – but the waitresses here are made of strong stuff. I could hear her saying ”boy, do these customers flatter only to deceive!” in Russian – or probably Ukrainian or Yugoslavian – as she went to get me what turned out to be an awesome latte.

The rest of the buffet was actually quite good – and to work it out I decided to saunter in the Hyde park across the street. And man, was this a smart decision.

The Hyde park is just that – a park. It does not aim to be a private amusement park (with ticket collectors out front, numerous food courts and very amused owners counting their earnings) nor is it one of those elitist -looking places which require you to treat them as holy ground (or a history book!). It’s a very unassuming park, and most delightful at that. As I walked through its open iron gates, I couldn’t keep reflecting on the fact that iron gates and bars didn’t always mean restricted freedom, sometimes they were gateways to a different life altogether.

The first thing that hit me when I stepped in was the absolute lack of transactional commerce within its boundaries. People jogged, exercised (themselves and their dogs), made friends, read newspapers, observed wildlife and reflected on life (or whatever) – no one was buying or selling anything. Sitting back on one of the abundantly provided benches, I watched life go by and a sense of serenity prevailed.

This was life in a microcosm. Just ahead of me, a toddler was bravely trying to perfect her walking skills using a stroller, while her parents walked behind her – pushed her infant sibling in a pram and admiring her efforts. She stumbled, got back and tried again – and when she took a few yards without stumbling, she was greeted by applause from all – and we had a beaming kid bent on making sure she picked the right skills to go far in the world. There were dogs everywhere. There were those nature gifts with a woolen sweater at birth, the long pudgy ones with very small legs (or should I say the vodafone dog’s cousins?), little ones that looked like they were toys and struggled to keep up with their elderly mistresses and those that looked like ponies (the equivalent of hummers on the road). They dashed about unencumbered by leads, chasing butterflies and generally having a whale of a time. A young couple engrossed in each other’s company were oblivious to the surroundings and the weather (now turning cold fast), bringing back memories of their past golden years to a few of the seniors bundled in a few jumpers and actively sharing stories..all in all, this was life itself – in précis.

Cut to the beautiful fountain and a statue of a very thoughtful young man center stage. This was Jenner – the gentleman who discovered the polio vaccine but decided to let it go unpatented in order to make it more accessible for the poor. I didn’t have a hat on, or I would have doffed it to him – it’s such men that give us hope.

I was very intrigued to note that the benches were dedicated to numerous persons – one was dedicated to an artist, one to a boy who had died in his teens and many such more – all with messages definitely composed by loved ones and bearing heartfelt stories no doubt. This was one park that had character – in troves.

Winter had shorn the trees of their leaves and a part of a large tree trunk lay on the ground weathering away. Amidst the decaying branches, white, purple and yellow flowers were peeping up and blooming – as were new shrubs. Life’s transformation is best seen in our parks and forests and you somehow intuitively understand that death is but a comma for another life to begin. Fittingly, this tree was bang opposite the bench dedicated to the boy who had died young..

A little further, there was a statue of a little boy playing an instrument. He had a lot of strange creatures looking upto him – this seems to be the magical Peter pan. The magic was working, and the crowds were having a very busy time taking photos with him in their frames. And this made me happy – the tourists were here as well! No matter where you go on earth, you are likely to see two types of folks brandishing cameras. The first use point-and-click equipment and their aim is to capture moments that show they have been there. They are there one moment and gone the next leaving only a few bottles of coke behind. The second are the enthusiasts, they bring serious equipment and their attempt to capture pictures is part of wanting to be part of the scenery experience. They are generally well read (mostly very well read and very appreciative of the environment) and just seeing what they are capturing can get you to enjoy the experience a little more. I followed the folks with long lenses (and long hairs) accordingly and saw that they were zoomed in on some very elegant swans in the stream. I walked across to the benches by the water and sat down, watching the birds and ducks. A wonderful captioned board indicated the various species we could hope to spot, highlighting the plumage, eating patterns, migratory tendencies and so on. I sat mesmerized as I watched these waddle away, unmindful of all the people and happenings around; apparently just moving with the flow – almost zennish. A half hour later I walked back enjoying the drizzle from above and nature all around. Now more sensitive to her working, I spotted wondrous creations all around me – little flowers, multi-shaded leaves on the stray shrubs, squirrels squirreling and birds surveying the scenery from little wooden stumps. You can’t help feeling privileged when in such August company – but here’s the thing – you need to spend quality time to become one with her and start admiring nature – these are not like the amusement parks which use noise, loud colors and contraptions to pull you by force in their direction.

The next day, I had another two hours to kill. As I walked down to breakfast, I remembered I had forgotten my coupons once again and decided I would try a local cafe today. A few yards away stood a quaint little cafe – ”Sheila’s cafe”. It proudly advertised that they did not charge more to dine in (very interesting because in India, patrons are charged for takeaways instead. Maybe this reflects the higher cost of land in London (and hence dining in is priced higher) while in India, the rational for higher takeaway cost is simply the additional boxes and packing costs.

I saw a couple of customers coming our of Shiela’s cafe and they seemed contended, so in I went. The cafe was at the corner of a rundown building and had but two tables. I walked upto the hostess and we had the multiple quiz again. I ended up with beans on toast and a latte. Within a blink of an eye more customers turned up – this seemed a very famous jaunt. In 15 minutes I walked out thanking the hostess (maybe she was Sheila, I couldn’t find out as she was so very busy tending to the London population’s hunger) and having paid a very nominal amount (and without coupons!). I also had had some what I now recognized as English breakfast (beans, grilled tomatoes) so I was getting somewhere!

I spent some good time on the park again – this time walking random paths. It’s amazing what a good breakfast can do (without it I’d have probably retired to the room and taken another power nap!). And I agreed with yesterday’s observation – the park is certainly life in précis. You have seasons every day (evenings and mornings are busy – just like summer and spring are) and every week (weekends are more lively than the weekdays). You meet new people, who are fellow travelers on life – and you get the chance to focus on anything you want (you can sit and crib about how life is such a boner these days, grab a sneaker and get some blood pumping into the system or sit back and relax enjoying nature at her game). Either way, the park doesn’t care – but the people do – and if we do something worthy, maybe there will be a bench dedicated to you to inspire the generations to come.

Work took most of the next day – and I had to leave the day after very early. The hotel has an excellent concierge (it really is a very good business hotel) and I ended up in the Lufthansa lounge in the very early hours. Just outside the lounge was one of those massive massage chairs inviting us to partake of its services ( a 3 minute deep massage). 3 minutes? Couldn’t hurt – so I dropped in the required change, not realizing that the chair had been designed by someone like Stephen king (only he can make everyday objects like cars get supernatural). The chair took a few seconds to verify my coins were legal, rubbed it’s metallic hands in glee and got to work. It pounded, it kneaded, it pressed and stopped. Over already? That was but a pause, the kneading, pounding and pressing started again. Three minutes later I entered the lounge again, a fresh and hungry man thanks to the massage monster. I saw that this Lufthansa lounge had no doubts about it being morning (as its Chennai counterpart did) – and I helped myself to a wonderful breakfast of croissants, cereals and what not – and was on my way. That’s when I saw my friend the massage chair again – it seemed to be daring me to have another go – as did the Lufthansa flight which was already boarding. I looked hither and I looked thither – and I decided thither was higher priority. Three minutes later, a happy pounded me walked to the Lufthansa flight wished everyone a very good morning and boarded the flight – in the right mood to enjoy another long flight back home.

A story of 5 breakfasts and a stroll in the park…

Business beckoned again – this time to the United Kingdom. The travel gurus at my company used a very complicated algorithm to find me the least expensive “business class” route which would get me to London in time to attend a critical (or so they said) meeting. And the software declared that the most timely, lowest fare,plushest option from chennai to London was through Frankfurt! I suspect this software was developed/used by sub-prime selling financial Mughals in an earlier life- but I had my ticket and a prospective 5 days of fun, so off I went with a smile on my face (actually a yawn as I had been working long, long hours for a week) and a hastily prepared suitcase.

The chennai airport welcomed me with all it’s bustle and I picked “the best of Ruskin Bond” as my companion for the trip from the wonderful little (higginbothams, one of our oldest bookstore chains) airport shop. I was halfway through the first half of the book before getting my immigration cleared – all countries typically have long ( and often serpentine) queues for those aspiring to get into their shores; are we the only ones who make it very difficult to leave too? Incredible India indeed!

And so I found myself somewhere in the late night/ very early day in a much crowded airport lounge. I also discovered I was hungry – and so began the story of my many broken fasts. As I walked to the buffet table, I wondered if they would serve me dinner (like our roadside dhabbas did to appease the hungers of the trucker population) or breakfast (like the temple towns did to prepare the faithful for meeting with their lord). The answer it turned out was that it was like our Indian team – it had a bit of everything but nothing end-end. There was curd rice (definitely dinner), cornflakes (breakfast) and “all time” snacks (veg rolls and salads). I had a bit of everything and like the Indian team (they are becoming our role models huh!), slept my way through most of the journey. I woke to the aromatic smells of some nice crossients – and to my chagrin, found my spectacles missing! Being very tired the previous night, I had put them in a little sleeve and left them in my shirt (and not in the mag rack like I usually did) – and now the shirt was there, but the spectacles most definitely weren’t. I looked hither and I looked thither – trying to look inconspicuous all the while – I didn’t want guiness to crown me ”the first de-bespectacled person” on an airplane. But hither they were not, nor were they thither. I was worried – how do you organize a “spectacles” hunt on airplane without making a spectacle of yourself? This needed a fresh perspective – so I washed my face and downed a few coffees – no breakthrough resulted though. By this time, I had made a few of my fellow passengers a bit curious I am sure – they must have been wondering what I was doing peeking into the numerous cubicles (and believe me this flight had plenty). Deviously, I picked the flight magazine from the rack ahead of me and tried to appear nonchalant. And blow me down – the first thing I saw was a map of the spectacle holder provided on all seats – which required one to open the hand rest and navigate to the left most end and then feel around until you found it. Could it be there – no reason not to try. And lo, there it was. Grabbing the missing specs and placing them back where they belonged, I studied my neighbour’s face. It was inscrutable.And as far as I knew, my specs did not understand maps nor had locomotive power – so it must have been a kind stewardess – thank you mam..

The Frankfurt airport exuded efficiency as always. There were the 10 odd lcd screens each with 50 odd entries you had to look through to identify your flight from. This makes for excellent eye exercise, even better than searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Flight found, I trudged to the lounge, downed a coffee, read a few more interesting stories from Bond (this Bond unlike his namesake specialises not in gadgetry and vodkas, but in rustic locations and wholesome stories) and in an hour found myself on another flight bound for London. This flight had a business class section, but all the seats across all the aisles were the same (no acrobatic seats with spectacle holders on this one) – and the way they differentiated between classes was deceptively simple – for the business class sections, the middle seat was left empty and therefore the seat was priced 50% more – cool huh?

There was only one little problem – for some reason the flight wasn’t taking off. The captain demystified this for us in German and English shortly – there was some technical issue and we were to be grounded for at least 2 hours while they figured how to expedite things. An hour later, the captain had found a way to ease his wait – the crew had been here very long, so they were going off – a replacement crew was shortly coming in to take their place – while we continued to wait! And he was a nice man, this guy – he wished us a good day ahead!

The new crew came, and they were certainly nicer – for one thing they served us breakfast. I got my Asian vegetarian meal – which consisted of a bread product, some cut fruits and a special vegetarian dish. What this last dish was I could never ascertain – maybe I hadn’t been introduced to the species thus far, or it had vegetated so long, that it had lost its essence (kind of like asing when an apple loses its “appleness” what remains?) or something – but I just couldn’t say what it was. The cut fruits though were awesome – some kiwi fruit, strawberries, mango (yes mango!) -man, this was exotic stuff. You make me happy Lufthansa…

The flight landed at Heathrow a few hours late, but to good weather. I found myself a taxicab and was off to the hotel. These London taxicabs are really cool – they look like the ones Sherlock Holmes rode in, but are powered well, have all the latest gadgetry and tons of space. A perfect blend of tradition and technology these. As we drove through the homely yet strangely aloof streets, one couldn’t help feeling like a school boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar by his mother. A stern mother yes, but a mother all the same.

The taxi dropped me at the Corus Hotel – one of those white large hotels that cater to business travelers. They checked me in quickly and I found myself in one of those lifts which claims it can transport only take 13 people – leaving you to wonder how you could fit in 13 people into its very small interiors in the first place. Ruminating thus I walked to my room on the 9th floor, slipped in the card (electronic cards instead of keys are a giveaway that the hotel is a business hotel) and stood mesmerized. This was the smallest hotel room I had ever seen – but boy was it loaded. In a room that was perhaps a little bigger than the aforementioned lift placed sideways, the room had a bed, a tv, a kettle (and choices of green tea or decaffienated coffee), funky lights (about 10 of them!), a safe, a motorized iron stand and machine, a wardrobe, a full bath, a concave and convex mirror (presumably to help you make faces at yourself and pass the time of the day), two telephones and an excellent free wifi connection (I told you this was a business hotel).The only thing it didn’t have (but should have had) is a placard which said “great things come in the smallest packages,”. So began another précis travel…

To be continued…..

I follow Vadivelu..

…as a visitor to Dubai (not in the political world!). One of the blockbuster movies had him visiting Dubai on employment you will recall – I went for business reasons too – to attend an IT conference. His job duties of course were a nature’s calling (do checkout youtube sensation Wilbur sargunaraj’s hilarious tutorials including one on this speciality!), mine of course were to do with software and testing.

I flew Air India, our maharaja’s airline. A friend of mine often wonders why the crew of this great airline all look a touch old – “were they born this way, or do they work with the other airlines and then join the Maharaja upon retirement?” – he wonders. I don’t know the answer, the crew on my flight were certainly not senile, on the contrary they were pretty courteous, served good food and were very knowledgeable. They forgot to dim the cabin lights and the plane did seem a touch ancient – but I’ll take that over juvenile pilots with fake certificates anyday! AI, you have my vote.

On landing, the first thing that strikes you is the Dubai shopping experience. Where most airports encourage shopping, out here it’s a retail mall which also encourages air porting! Visa on arrival (more on that later), no emigration forms to fill in and more shops and festivals than you can find in an Indian Temple town imply your senses are in overdrive almost from the word go.

I was an outlier here however. My visa (informed a smart guy at Terminal 1 arrivals) was for some reason in Terminal 3 (so I had arrived but my visa hadn’t yet, so much for “visa on arrival”). Said he – “You can await for your sponsor to help out (meaning spend the night in the airport as it was already midnight) or find your way to Terminal 3, pick up the visa and trudge back again”. This I did, and spent a good 1.5 hrs – would have been more if a very helpful airport staff hadn’t helped me with navigation at every corner. Dubai airport – your gold and goods are easy to find – need more help with the airport navigation signposts though – especially for folks like me who are very bad at directions. Finally they gave me a visa, I gave them an eye scan – and walked through the green channel 3 hours after landing and found myself a smart taxicab (they all are).

The drive to the hotel was pleasant, the weather a revelation. It’s pretty windy out here in Dubai and wind cheaters are certainly a good idea. We drove into Media One, a prominent hotel in the Media City. The hotel staff were efficient and super friendly – as seem the norm here. I asked them if I could get some good coffee, and they said “yep, and free wifi and a minibar and an awesome bath tub”. Awesome bathtub?

The hotel is indeed exquisitely designed – reminded me of the designs I had been awed by during a visit to the Nordics (I think it’s called minimalist or something). Beiges were used to great effect, light sensors ensured where I went there light “dawned” (and made me feel like a messiah) and the bath tub (there we go again!) – man did they engineer this one. It has a very soft leather headrest (you can wallow in hot water for hours here reading a good book), the tap is one of those you’ll need to use sleuthing skills to find but does its job wonderfully. Somehow, in the space equivalent of an average city apartment living room, they had fitted in a double bed, full bath, enough wardrobes to accommodate a Bollywood film’s requirements, a flat tv, lots of mirrors, a desk, two lounge chairs, a tea table…and a breath taking view. Not to forget that bathtub…

An mid afternoon stroll through the streets revealed people dining on streetside tables – many enjoying a post lunch smoke (often pulling on colorful hookas). Shaded eat outs, a very cosmopolitan crowd, the many serene and proud Arabian landlords – the city does look contented and prosperous.

The conference was at one of the Jumeriah properties, a property that looked authenticly steeped in the local culture. Treading on the lush carpets, one half expected to be meeting Shah Jahan or Akbar in the lunch room. And when you least expected it, modernity hit you – escalators, state of the art speakers and aesthetic lighting are all weaved in seamlessly – so you can ejoy the ambience with all the comforts of a modern business traveller. A great setting for a great conference meet.

The way back to the airport saw us cruising past skyscrapers and then some more. The ones you’ll see in Dubai will certainly rival any in Manhattan. For those not convinced, please note that Burj Khaleefa is the tallest building in the world (though you can only do calisthenics on it if you happen to be named Tom Cruise). We had a quick peek at a few more biggies – the Dubai Mall (the website states its the world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination) and the largest dancing fountain (the fountain dances to a haunting tune making you philsophically wonder which one was adapted to which – did the music or the dance come first?). One thing that’s sure to leave you dazed is the way modernity and tradition intertwine here – you have a Mughal hotel resting comfortably amdist European looking neighbours, desert winds coexisting with manicured lawns, local costumes with hummers….

And then we drove back to the airport. Rushed through passport control (you will be treated like royalty if you have the right tickets in this country!) and back into the shopping mall that also airports. Good food (thanks Maharaba lounge!) and a few “shopping for dates” sessions later, trudged back to the boarding gate. History followed I had arrived, my plane hadnt – Air India as always was dependably late. There was a saving grace – the flight was running half empty so got some royal treatment (And I mean of the good kind here) and reached home with the dawn – and settled down to some good filter coffee and some soothing south indian political news from our stiff-collared newspaper “The Hindu”. And no, I do not follow anyone (including vadivelu on the political front!….)