Monday, February 26, 2007

Chinese New Year of the Pig: Celebrations at Paris...

A literally translated dialogue from a popular Bollywood film goes this way - "My bad luck is simply too bad..." - and apply to me it truly did.

As if all that had happened in the week that was wasn't enough, I was to suffer some more in the weekend. A Chinese friend and I decided on a last minute plan to visit Paris. Hotels were booked, and on Saturday, the 24th morning off we zoomed on our way.

French freeways / autobahns are notorious for their toll. One is at their mercy and a trip to Paris that requires only 300 km of travel inside France requires one to shell out a good 46 €s (~60 USD). To avoid the killing, many take the scenic national roads that are toll-free but also slow as they are winding and travel through little villages and cities alike. However, the French countryside is always worth a watch!

One of these cities is Metz. Being an exception in the sense that it seems to be alive and kicking with a reasonable population (most villages look like relics to be honest), we decided to enter the city and take a lunch break at a French Baker. As we waited on a signal at the bridge over the Mosel, bang - a Renault slams into the rear of my car. The guy came limping out with a walking stick - limp not caused by the accident, blabbering something in French. He could speak neither English nor Deutsch to save his life, and our broken French helped get him show some important documents - the DL and the insurance papers. We called the police, had the area photographed. We got lucky in that the policeman spoke perfect German and helped us out.

I also felt sorry for the guy - while my car suffered a broken rear lamp and scratches on the rear bumper, he suffered a flat tire and a smashed front-left edge - all on a car that had been purchased by him only 9 days back. I guess, he is going through a real bad phase in his life too. The supreme force (if there is any) must have simply decided to bring two such people (him and me) together to optimize on bad luck and keep it from falling on others!

In the meanwhile, we realized that my Chinese friend had forgotten to take his driving license along. This meant that I was supposed to drive the car all the way and back. Initially, given the accident et al - I decided that we return home. A coffee later, the masochist in me urged me to take the way forward and off we went - to Paris.

The Chinese New Year's celebrations scheduled for the next day were only partially witnessed by us - reason being that I the only driver wished to leave by 16:00 that we could do the 8 hour drive in comfort (if we took the freeways, it would cost us about 6 hours instead).

I reached home at 30 past midnight and was more than happy to sleep!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Have you tried Google Pages?

I did. Here and here are two samples.

It is quite an impressive and simple tool for easy web-authoring. A try is recommended!
(You will need to sign up for a new Google Account, if you don't already have one.)

Air India: Oh Maharaja, when will you respect my time? - Part II

Continued from Part I...

Having checked my luggage in for flight AI 131, I now waited patiently for the next 4 hours to pass. I was impressed that we boarded the flight on time! At exactly 12:25, all the passengers were in, and I was impressed! Things seemed to be working out, and I was eagerly awaiting the thrill I experience at takeoff time in every flight I take!

However, the doors of the aircraft didn't close. 30 minutes passed, and soon there were a bunch (about 8) of people at the bottom of the ladder talking loudly into their walky-talkies. An hour passed and we heard some bumping sounds. This is when the captain informed us that our runway had been closed and the other runway that was shorter required the luggage to be offloaded that the aircraft can fly. 90 minutes were up, the bumps were gone, the doors were open and people were pissed. 2 hours up and a woman started screaming - requesting to be offloaded that the aircraft could get lighter (pretty ridiculous, but that is how frustrated people behave) and that she could take the flight on the next day!

Finally, the pilot announced that he was clueless most of the time and that the aircraft had been allowed to use the runway of it's choice! He said that we'd take off shortly - that turned out to be a wait of another 30 minutes. So, my AI flight AI 131 scheduled for takeoff from BOM around 12:25 was finally taxi-ing at 15:00 hours. Now, it was apparent to me that my Lufthansa flight LH 4743 scheduled for departure from London Heathrow at 19:05 was outside my reach. My experience with Lufthansa told me that they are hardly late, and with so much going wrong today, I could only trust them to be on time.

As expected, my flight landed in London a painful 10 minutes after my Lufthansa connection to Frankfurt took off. On disembarking at London, I was asked to visit the Air India customer service center in LHR at "Zone F". It so happened that "Zone F" needed emigration clearance. An Indian needs to have a UK VISA to pass this point. Of course, I was not told of this, and on a lot more walking I reached the Air India counter on the "onward flight" section. Having waited there for about 20 minutes (for the AI representative) to finish processing the fellow traveller from BOM in my situation, when my turn came up, I made clear my preferences to travel to FRA on the next available flight. Instead I was handed a place in the Lufthansa Flight the next morning along with a coupon for overnight accommodation!

It was 21:30 (02:30 IST) hours in Heathrow now, and it did not even occur to them that someone who has been awake for about 22 hours is in no position to catch an early flight the next day! What choice did I have? I had to comply.

I was given a special transit VISA applicable for 1 day. By the time I managed to clear emigration and reach the hotel it was 23:00 hours. I had now been awake for more than 24 hours and was at my wits' end!

The hotel (Ibis) at LHR did not allow me to make international calls. They said bluntly - "Use the pay phone, Sir - Air India does not pay for it's passengers' international calls". Wow, this is supposed to be passenger right on international travel! But, nothing could surprise me now!

I set an alarm on my cell phone, used the morning alarm and slept with a level of alertness just to ensure that I dont miss my morning flight.

Reached Heathrow on time to catch the Lufthansa connection to FRA. The lady at the check-in counter did confirm that my baggage was in LHR and that it would be forwarded to my flight. As is customary of Lufthansa, the flight flew well on time (okay, a 10 minute delay is ignore-worthy given the events of the day). I reached Frankfurt to find that my baggage has not arrived. It was still at Heathrow.

I was not only baggage-less, but also getting late for my day's set of meetings. However, Air India that was responsible for a day's delay refused to provide me with a shuttle / airport-transfer that would take me to my work quickly.

I plan to claim compensation for my day's work lost. For all the hassles and for phone calls that they did not pay for. But, what can I really expect? Time only will tell.

One thing is for sure - this time, the Maharaja treated a frequent-flier with a great amount of disdain! Sad.

Air India: Oh Maharaja, when will you respect my time? - Part I

I like traveling by Air India. The food is usually good. On second thoughts, the first sentence may need a rethink given my experiences in this week!

I was supposed to catch the Air India flight AI 127 leaving Bombay for Frankfurt (direct) scheduled for departure from Bombay at 08:05 am. In spite of the sleepless nights that I had endured, I managed to make it to the airport at the check-in counter on time.

On this counter, I was number 2 in the queue. It seemed strange but the queue wasn't moving. Slowly, it grew as a few more passengers came in - but the queue was obliviously still.

On probing, the staff manning my counter gingerly told me that the system did not take check-in requests and claimed that AI people were working on 'it'! Around 07:30 am, the lady manning my check-in counter happily announced that her shift was done, left the place and us all high and dry.

People were getting impatient and there was no officer of any authority who would come and tell us what the problem was! Around 08:00, 5 minutes before the scheduled departure, some passengers got their boarding passes - but this time not me, for I was flying to Frankfurt. The flight went to Chicago via Frankfurt and passengers bound for Chicago were on a priority!

More than 90 minutes had now passed with me (and another guy) standing in the queue all the while. Finally, around 08:20, I was told that the flight was full and that there was no place for me. Period. I was asked to board the next flight AI 131 bound for London (not direct anymore) at 12:25 and catch an onward Lufthansa Flight from London to Frankfurt that would bring me to FRA by 21:30 (instead of 13:00 hours CET as originally scheduled). A journey that would normally last 8 hours was not only delayed by 4:30 hours, but I was expected to travel a minimum of 14, hours not including the wait!

A voucher that entitled me to 200 €s cash was some compensation (should I count the chickens before the eggs hatch?) for all the fiasco - but actually barely did commiserate with my day of work lost and the meetings canceled.

I still wonder why none of the AI Customer support staff ever asked us to sit down rather than make me wait in the queue for 90 minutes, or offer a tea - for it was all too apparent that they could have never put me on the flight!

Anyways, I kind-of thanked my stars that AI 131 scheduled to leave BOM at 12:25 would still help me reach Germany on that day! Little did I know then that my troubles had just started...

Sleep O' Sleep - Why do you evade me?

The early morning flight from Bangalore did not mean that I could get sleep before my return flight to Frankfurt. We decided to wake up early the days after and on a Sunday visit the Siddhivinayaka Temple in Mumbai.

I must say that the stall-keepers (hawkers, really) who provide flowers and take care of the chappals outside the temple are simply terrible. First off, they almost force the visitors and coerce them into using their services. They also destroy the peace and solitude that one expects in places such as these. I don't know why the Temple Trust does nothing about such events? A cartel - is that it?

Anyways, we got our blessings and I spent the rest of the day with my sister completing my shopping list. It was also our way of spending time with each other discussing all and sundry - after all, on the weekdays she is too busy with travel and work for us to spend time talking. I guess this is how things will be for some years to come, at the least. After all, she is not the little kid that's studying anymore. Okay, I might still dispute the 'kid' part of that sentence!

Returned home, finished packing for my flight - I was destined to get no sleep tonight as well as we had to leave home early around 05:30 am for the AI 127 BOM - FRA flight scheduled at 08:05 am on the 19th Feb.

Hmmm... My stay in India has come to an end... I have already started thinking about when to return...

End of my visit to Bangalore -- Feb 2007

On the 15th, I return home at midnight from the Wedding Party hosted by Swapna and Vijay at Bowring's Club. It was quite nice - food or drinks apart, I like parties when one gets to meet people with an interesting perspective.

A good night's sleep was to be a distant dream. Not only had I to complete packing for my flight to Bombay, but the scheduled departure at 05:55 am meant that I had to leave for the airport by around 04:00 am.

Having resigned myself to thoughts of not getting to sleep that night - I thought it was a good time to reflect on the week spent at Bangalore. Other than the events already discussed, I was happy about having met my childhood friend Vinay who is now happily married to Prajakta. She is quite a cheerful soul and complements Vinay well. Lunch at their home was tasty, and we discussed one interesting issue too many.

I also spent time with Riju and Arathi. We first had a few drinks at the Tavern Pub in Church Street and later managed to order more food than we could consume at the Museum Inn Restaurant. Riju comes to Germany this Sunday, but I'd be in Paris with Adrian for the Chinese New Year's Celebrations. Hope to see him in the week that follows.

In Bangalore, I could also sense the prosperity and buzz in what was once a quaint "pensioner's paradise". 20-somethings now drive big cars and spend big money. Money is everywhere. 3 €s for a beer is quite the norm.

My flight to Bombay was an Air Deccan that left on time. Deccan has pioneered the no-frills airlines business in India, allowing people to travel huge distances in this huge country in little time and on an affordable budget. The flight left and landed on perfect time - something that Air India cannot achieve on this side of the planet!

As I arrive home in Bombay, I get a fleeting feeling that my vacation in India with family is coming to an end. It is an all-too-familiar feeling of knowing that I'd be flying back to Germany soon with little idea of when I'd return.

It is a déja-vu, but the pain nevertheless is just as strong...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cashing in on the bang of Bangalore…

No, I am not the one doing that. But, Pasu certainly is. For all the buzz one senses in the city, Bangalore is an active hub for those getting into new jobs and those that hire. Pasu who is one of the most networked people I know (there must be a legend of him hosting a USB port in his brain) left Software Development / Management for a recruitment company. An ambitious step that seems to be paying off.

We met over a lunch (he had lunch, I didn't – thanks to the 18 course meal! I had coffee…) to talk about everything under the skies – his baby included! It was great to see Pasu in his elements… It felt like he hadn't changed at all!

Swapna weds Vijay - A South Indian Tamil Wedding

I am the last person on this planet (as of today) who likes early morning meetings arranged at places that are a good 1 hour of travel away. But, wedding chants are cited on auspicious times and not those convenient to sleepy geeks. Swapna's Muhurtha was scheduled for around 08:00 at Jaynagar (Bangalore). I am proud to say that I wasthere on time to witness the holy union of husband and wife.

Te breakfast served was tasty, but the piece de resistance was lunch. Served on a Banana leaf, I counted 18 items, including 3 deserts. Having lived in the west for so long now, I wondered if I had forgotten the art of eating from a leaf with my fingers. My concern was more than accentuated by a middle-aged lady who kept looking at me (other opinions state that these ladies are constantly on a match-making spree and a look usually means an evaluation, LOL!), however I finished my meal with my plate (oops, leaf) clean – something I was really proud of!

I left after lunch after sharing a word or two with the Bride, and her mother and the pilot - for I also had to meet a Pasu a while later.

The reception…

The Reception was nice. My friend Swapna Srinivasan looked pretty as usual, but this time stunning too! She probably would have woken up way too early in the morning to get ready for the ceremonies in the day time, and the reception in the evening. She looked stunning too, to say the least.

As it is with receptions, one needs to wait in a long queue to meet the new couple only to get a minute with them! My minute was well spent and it was good exchanging a comment or two with Vijay Belur, the pilot that Swapna has chosen for a life-mate. I handed the gift over, requested a photo (of course, I had to – that's part of the reward for waiting in a long queue!), wished them the best and proceeded to dinner.

Dinner was tasty with salads, puris, vegetables, a preparation of rice, papads, and two sweets.

I end my day bracing myself to wake up early the next morning that I can make it to the wedding ceremonies on time for the Muhurtham scheduled at 08:25 am.

Catching up with old colleagues

This time, I decided to pay a visit to my company's campus (if you noted the average age of people working in that, you'd even agree that the word is an aptly chosen one) in Bangalore. This is a new construction – about 3 years old and one that I have never visited since having left for Germany. My first impression was Wow! This was when I saw the exteriors and the reception. My second impression on seeing the "rain forest" was a choked gasp! India and companies therein have come such a long way. It makes me proud!

Met Arvind and Sultan for lunch. It was nice catching up with old-teammates! Time flies so fast – 4 years in Germany done so soon – yet, we chatted as if I'd been away only for weeks!

Mehendi, the art of decorating…

I met Swapna last evening. She gets married tomorrow, and this is the only time we manage to spend discussing the year that's been, people et al – at her residence, while she sits like a bride-to-be, waiting for the Mehendi to dry.

I also got to meet her brother Kumar. Ditto for her mother who had prepared delicious Avlakki (also known as Poha / Powa in North India). It felt very nice meeting a very hospitable and humble family. Things have been changing for Swapna for the better these days, and I only wish her the best!

In Bangalore, the last leg of my vacations…

I try making it a point to return to the city I started my career with – once upon a time, Bangalore was that fortunate quaint town blessed with great weather and a good life. Today, it is a citizen's nightmare. My flight landed in Bangalore on the 9th Feb 2007 – pretty uneventful save for an airhostess who giggled every time she saw me. She could not complete her safety instructions mime-routine correctly, and finally said it – you are making me laugh. What's my fault in having a puzzled expression on my face while she recommends using the underside of the seat cushion (yes, the foamy cushion) as a life-saver when in water?

Anyways, the drive back from the airport to Malleshwaram that is about 9 kms away took 2 hours. It speaks volumes for what IT has done to this erstwhile quaint city – everyone who is anyone has a car. The city is bursting at its seams.

Like always, spending time with my cousins is high on the agenda – as is attending Swapna's wedding.

Vacations in North India

Only one word to describe them – very fulfilling.

We covered Udaipur, Jaipur, Delhi and the Taj. Do I need to say more?

We also visited the majestic Kumbalgarh Forth and the pretty Amer Fort. We saw the Taj, and we consumed the Shahi Paneers.

Hope to update my photo blog… Whenever that happens... In the meanwhile, let me share a photograph taken by my sister at Udaipur's City Lake...

Fears turn true…

Two things terrible happened a day before I had to catch a flight to India. Strange as it may seem, but these are exactly the two worries that dominated my mind for no sound reason, weeks before my trip. Weirder still is the fact that these two unrelated events happened in a span of 1 hour. It was the last thing I wanted before an internation trip for 5 weeks! I entered my flight tired and sleepless.

Air India however upgraded me to Business Class – almost as if to lend a helping shoulder in cheering me from these depressing events.
Kudos to the Maharaja!

India, here I come…

Winter is a time of the year I always look forward to – this is the time when I make my annual trip to India. It is the time when I get to see loved ones and reach out to friends in the Indian Subcontinent! This winter is even more special… For the first time, I return home to see my sister working full time, fully independent! It is also special because a trip to North India – Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra lies in store for us all – our first vacation as a family.

12 Jan 2007 is when I land in my country… The land of Samosas and Dosas! Amen!

Sylvester (New Year's Eve) 2006 with Henning and Lynne in Heidelberg

Lynne and Henning have returned from vacations a day back and have invited some friends over to New Year's Eve celebrations with them. The deal was that all participants bring something along – the inviting couple also took care of the drinks (that brings to my mind memories of a wonderful cocktail evening that their house-warming party was).

I was busy all day long but managed to take along a traditional preparation of potatoes that are spicy, yet not burning hot. To compensate for the burning hot factor, I took along an Indian Snack that was burning in the true sense of the word! An accompanying couple had brought a preparation of mixed vegetables along, and we had pasta and meat balls to boot. When presented a choice of wines (Red / White), I chose the White, and never regretted it. The wine was wonderful and complemented the dinner very well.

Around midnight we took a stroll over a high-lying road to get a better view of people bursting crackers. The weather played spoil-sport but the fireworks more than made up for it. As the clock struck midnight, we wished each other the best for the year to come and slowly walked our way back. Champagne after all was waiting on us!

Drinks were followed by a game that I didn't know of – each of us picked a trinket made of lead that was to be melted on a candle and the molten form be dropped into water. The form the molten metal took once it froze in water was to be compared against a table that specified the fortunes of the possessor in the year to come! My fortunes were not impressive to be modest, and my rational self quickly took over – it is a game after all.

Christmas dinner with Guido and Family in Stuttgart

A drive to Guido and Nathalie's at Stuttgart followed my visit to Bad Kreuznach. Some people may find it crazy that I did 400 kms of traveling on that day – but, believe me, driving is a stimulant.

This time, I made it a point to reach Stuttgart on time, Guido Standard Time (GST) that is. The last time I reached there precisely on the dot as most Germans would expect me to, I had to see them scamper and get dressed. It was also then that I learned that following GST was not only a practice prevalent in India, but also in Werastraße, Stuttgart. A true Indian like me always feels comfortable following GSTs!

This time, I also got to meet Guido's parents. It was wonderful speaking to them as they had many experiences to recount, and many stories to talk about. In particular, I got to share thoughts with his father on things such as living long durations in foreign cultures, the advantages and problems caused by it – basically, issues that I face today and those that I will face as I continue living away from home.

Guido's mother came across as a very graceful lady who in that short meeting actually improved my knowledge and understanding of the German language. She has been teaching German, and is definitely good! His father spoke about his experiences with the steel industry and also with continuous casting - very familiar talk for me given that my father has a similar background.

Nathalie was cute and pretty as ever. She also played the perfect hostess and had Raclette organized for the evening– toppings et al with wine to match. She has this wonderful quality of making people feel comfortable and at ease. Precious!

Guido makes great company, like ever. This time, I saw him get some drubbing for his habit of working too hard! I can understand both sides of the perspective – a family that wants his time, and a committed professional who sleeps but only when his work allows him to. I seemed to be a paragon of virtues with my talk of sticking to a strict work regime. The next 3 weeks would however prove otherwise – I would be seen work from 09:00 am until 02:00 am towards releasing my product.

I take leave at around 02:00 am, having consumed only a judicious (read: infinitesimal) amount of alcohol that would keep me a safe driver on the autobahn. Reached home in 30 minutes and… Checked mail!

Christmas 2006 Lunch with Fred and Hildegard in Bad Kreuznach

25th December started with a drive (wow, what a way to start any day!) to Bad Kreuznach. This quaint little town used to be at its helm in the days when its saline baths were doing good business, and is now a pleasant, quite place that Hildegard lives in. Her home was very well appointed, and her liking for metal is visible in the choice of most artifacts, decorations and even lighting fixtures.

I reached her home to see Fred and her brother already present. We started with a Sherry and proceeded to lunch that started with a nice soup. Lunch for me was a a thoughtfully prepared vegetarian meal.

After the lunch, Hildegard took us to a walking tour of Bad Kreuznach and explained the history of the town and its associations with the saline baths that had once upon a time drawn people to this place. The baths are not much in business today, and people are allowed a free entry in areas that earlier required one to buy a ticket.

We returned to her residence for a nice projector slide-show of her visit to South India. Wow, what a lovely country I come from. The more I saw of it, the tougher became waiting for my forthcoming trip to India, less than 3 weeks away. However, the tasty Apfelkuchen did make for good accompaniment.

I took their leave at around 17:00 to be home in time before leaving for my visit to Stuttgart, some slices of Apfelkuchen in tow – that probably made me forget the beautiful Christmas gift from her!