The biking chronicles – at the shop…

I seem to remember that sleeping beautyslumbered for a hundred years before her prince arrived and woke her up. And then – says the story – they lived happily ever after.I suspect though that they left out a little bit on that fairy tale. I am sure our beauty would also have been startled to see her baby-nephew (as she knew him before she went a sleeping) walking in with a bent back, aged hair and a walking stick. She must have been amazed to see the horse carriage of her pre-slumber somehow transformed into a gleaming jaguar. And so on….

Now I bring this up because I felt just like sleeping beauty must have after that wonderous,long sleep (of course I didn’t feel half so beautiful, but certainly twice as rattled) when I walked into the bike shop the other day.

For starters, get this straight – today’s bikes are way more complicated than your cars. Your car could have 5,6 or 7 gears (any more and the engineers simplify and make it an automatic which would mean just one gear to contend with); your bike on the other hand is likely to have 21 or more. Your car can be only one of 4 types:

– a big bad guzzler (read suv),

– a sleek toy to win the admirers over (sports car),

– a hatch (now what does it hatch by the way?)

or the one one with a tail (sedan).

The bikes though have many, many categories. You can choose yours based on
– size (small, medium or large – maybe they even have an extra large like you’d prefer your coffee – and the beers)

– usage (mountain – never mind there’s none within a 100 radius, road or hybrid),

– metals used (titanium, carbon, alloy and many such more you can make sense of only if you still remember the periodic tablethey taught you back at school),

– foldable (yes you read that right – there are bikes you can fold and carry on your backpack, try that with your car)…..

“Sir, would you prefer a carbon fork?” asks the sales guy cutting into my reverie…

I am confused. Do they now serve cutlery on bikes too – “Truth be told, I’d prefer steel or plastic better” I haltingly reply.

Now he looks a little surprised and then sizes me up.

“You new to b-i-k-e world?” he queries spelling each letter like you would to a toddler (and one not quite as smart as the honesttoddler at that!). When I answer in the affirmative, I seem to notice a gleam in his eye while he excuses himself to meet with his comrades and plan on how to make this deal count (I suspect he also called his wife and promised her some jewellery as he sees some fat commissions come his way…).

Here’s the third bomb. Bikes follow the “management by subtraction” logic unlike cars. So while you’d pay more for a car that has more features, you pay most for a bike that has less (except for the gears of course, still wondering why they need 21 of those..).

I soon end up with a bike sans a bell (and that too in India – even the circus mono-cycles have bells here!), a stand (do I have to carry it always?), mud guards (maybe they’ll also sell me a washing machine considering its monsoon time here?), suspensions and a lot of other stuff – and a hefty price which confirms my bike is mmiddle upper class!

My mind boggles. The friend’s too – and he goes out and smokes 20 cigarettes on the trot. The sales guy comes over and pats me consolingly on the shoulder.

“Never mind, I will give you a bell, a stand, a guard, a water bottle…just don’t tell the manager”. And to make me happy he demoes a feature – the wheels on my bike are removable it appears – a feature I think I will use once every 10 years or so…

And so I exit the shop with an expensive bike, a bag consisting an even more expensive set of accessories (essentially they take everything out of the bike, put it in a bag so you can carry it on your back and then charge you twice the amount – don’t ask me why!). But there’s a silver lining – my bike comes equipped with an Indian flag (just about everything else is from Taiwan or maybe Congo for all I know).

As the wise man said, something learned (me), something earned (he) – what more can you ask on a sunny day?

Biking – The journey begins

There comes a time in everyone’s life when one wonders if one is exercising enough.

Generally (and if you are like me), the answer comes back pronto – NO!!!

I amble thoughtfully and watch some tv, thrash (metaphorically speaking) a politician or two, read a book – but the thought doesn’t go away.

So I call a few friends and confide in them – only to have them echo the same thought – they too feel they aren’t exercising enough. My glance now goes to the book shelf – where a coach is urging you to “ACT and ACT NOW!” from behind an attractive cover. Besides, from the expression on his face and the cut of his suit, you feel he knows what he’s talking about – and has the bank balance to prove it too.

I look around – the advice appeals to all of us – but what’s the best exercise for us?

“Yoga? The last time I tried that a doctor had to help me untangle my legs from my head” says friend 1

“Basketball? At your height the basket (and the ball) are always going to be out of reach” says friend 2

“Horse racing? All the horses have accompanied the punters to Srilanka for the T20 worldcup, so no dice!”says Friend1

“Soccer (or un-american football!)? If you cant swear in spanish, you’re a dead man!” says friend2(or should it noe be ex-friend2 after that last comment of his!)

So what do we have left? BIKING we say unanimously. We’ve all done it before – me in my distant school days, another during his early worklife and a third when he was a baby. We huddle and agree – cycling its going to be.
Now that we have an agreement, I pull out a Lance Armstrong poster and replace the self help guru’s book with Lance’s “Every second counts”. Is it just me or is our man in the smart suit and the attractive cover scowling now?

“But didn’t he (Lance not the self help guru) dope?” asks a concerned neightbour.

“Nope its not proved yet” I answer. “Besides if something can help you beat cancer, help you cycle a thousand mountain and snow miles year after year and provide you with enough energy to run a foundation as well – I don’t think it should be called a drug, it should be called a miracle tonic!”. On which smart repartee, I proceed to the bicycle shop to see whats on offer.

Part 2 – adventures in the bicycle shop would follow shortly….stay tuned (please!)

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…..