comfortable silences?

There we are – guests (as airlines like to call their passengers these days), waiting anxiously for the boarding announcement of the day’s first flight. There’s an uncomfortable silence in the air.

I go back to a childhood memory – to a family evening on the porch. Dad has a book and a comfortable chair, mom and sister are out in the garden tending plants with care, a visiting aunt has her embroidery going and I am happily perched on the floor with a few hundred building blocks in my hand. Silence reigns – but unlike in the first paragraph, a very comfortable silence.

Which brings me to the question on hand, which one would I rather have?

– Some restful music in the background, a drink and a good book in my hands – as I rest in the lounge playing back a hundred times in my head the “escalation meeting” that is on my agenda for tomorrow?

– The ability of the young world traveller travelling economy class to be serenely absorbed in a tome on world culture as she rests on her backpack – unmindful of the cacophony of announcements in a strange language and a foreign land?

What wins – Material abundance and a poverty of peace, or limited means but unlimited freedom?

Pondering over this, I walk to get some more coffee and come across a gentleman pushing sixty years reclining on one of the plusher sofas; eyes closed, a wide smile on his face. He’s dressed in an impeccable sit and on his tummy, lies a book half read – and Eckhart Tolle smiles from its cover.

There’s a lesson here I understand – and while my mind starts its quest for it, my body goes searching for the caffeine.

And then it hits me. This man is the answer. Perspective comes first and blooms into inner stillness.Thats all we ever really need,

First class travels – or for that matter a backpack and torn jeans – have nothing to do with silence whatsoever. From inner stillness comes comfortable silences no matter where you are – in a executive lounge or at the bazaar. Agree?

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!….)

When being good comes naturally….

The last fortnight has seen me travel. The Highway life in India is vastly different from its US counterparts. The roads are certainly getting better and closer to its cousins in quality – but it’s not this aspect that I allude to. You encounter cows, bikes with laden milk cans drifting in the wrong direction, children playing around blind corners and breath-taking “take diversion signs” in the most unexpected places – stuff that is sure to stimulate your sense of humour – if you step a little lightly on the accelerator pedal that is…Don’t expect just hours of cruising speeds, drudgery and highway scenery.

On one of these highways – past the Thoppur ghats to be precise, my tires blew up a surprise and my car came to an unexpected halt with a touch of damage to the under-carriage. Thankfully, there was no adverse affect on me or anyone else – but the experience left me like one of James Bond’s vodka’s (shaken not just stirred!).

And that’s when I saw human kindness come to the fore. A dozen village folks – all sizes, all ages – turned up from nowhere and took charge. A gentleman from a passing car popped out and joined the party. Wheels were changed, tests done to assess any damage to the car and a couple of the more elderly group were sharing soothing messages, noticeably bringing down the tension in the air and discussing about sages we revered and their grace. In about 15 mts, we were all done. Did they expect money – far from it. The gentleman who led the group said, they were happy nothing was amiss – and this was the least they could do – no transactions please. Thanks guys – whoever you are – and may sai baba (the guru you mentioned was your God on earth) grant you all peace, good health and prosperity…

And a few days later while at Coimbatore, having enjoyed my dinner in one of the more popular eateries (Annapoorna Gowrishankar in RS Puram) , I played imbecile once again having returned home sans my wallet. It had a few crisp Rs.500 notes (nope, nowhere near the astronomical sums you see flashed on TV these days!) and one visiting card. In a touch of panic once again (and kind of resigned to the fact that I was just a touch poorer), I called up the restaurant and they told me they would get back. Ten minutes later, the manager called back – verified the contents to make sure the wallet was really mine – and had it transferred to the lodging reception so I could pick it up anytime. Picking it up was hassle-free, there were no advises, no expectations again of any monetary reward for services thus rendered and so on. Excellent service and awesome credibility – any question on where I would dine the next time I visit this great city?

 Two incidents in as many weeks – and I am in no doubt whatsoever that the world and her people are very good at heart. Goodness does not seem to need an educational qualification, age or space – just needs our heart in the right place. Guess it’s time I prayed that the great god or the sages from this holy land help cultivate this very goodness in me so I can help my fellow-man as well.