Wednesday, December 24, 2008

True Blue...Bosphorus

I thought that I must write a year end post on the awesome holiday we had this year at Turkey. I know it lasted just ten days and it did mop up quite a bit of our savings but it has left us behind with the most amazing of memories.

Write since my childhood I had coloured the sky as light blue and the sea as a darker blue in painting class. As I grew up I saw that the sky could still be blue. Except the older I grew the more I spent 'blue sky' hours indoors in offices. And the blue sea? That largely remained a myth. The sea in Mumbai is grey. The one at Goa borders on grey. The river in Kolkata? grey again.

Then I went to Istanbul, the city of the Bosphorus and the Marmara. We could see a glimpse of the sea from our room at the Marmara Palace hotel. Electric blue.

We of course did the customary Bosphorus cruise. This was a dream like experience. I am yet to see the 'Blue Danube' but here the waters were blue enough to make me compose symphonies. We passed by lovely villas, the super expensive Kempinski hotel which is a converted palace, castles, the Blue Mosque and other monuments, the military school where General Musharaf of Pakistan had studied. These were some of the most beautiful sites that one had ever seen. And the breeze? Pure unadulterated Ozone. One felt so far removed from the grime of one's daily grind. It did to my spirit what rounds of botox couldn't do to a rich dowager.

It was definitely one of the most memorable moments of a holiday filled with memorable moments.
Traveller's notes:
  • You do get night cruises but they defeat the purpose because you will be unable to see much
  • The Bosphorus cruise ends at a place called Eminonu which is the tram stop for the Spice Market. You can leave the tour here and spend time here as you get much better deals here than at the more popular Grand Bazar.
  • A Bosphorus cruise is a visual delight. The quality of the guide doesn't really matter. Ours occasionally droned out something perfunctorily while reading the newspaper, speaking on the mobile, snapping at passengers and scratching his head at the captain's deck

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Goodbye Gurgaon, Ruby Tuesday

I was quite happy to leave the Smart Villa the heartbreak motel of Gurgaon.

The client presentations went off like a dream. In fact the board applauded after I finished. I could barely hear it though as I was deaf from the air cabin pressure drops. Still it was a relief as I had flown in with a bad throat and blocked nose and was keeping my fingers about lasting the presentation. And then I had to spend the night at the sleazy dump where I was kept. Few things at work give me a bigger high than a good presentation.

We went for lunch at Ruby Tuesday after the first presentation. This is opposite TGIF. This time I had couple of colleagues with me.

We started with a broccoli and cheese soup which was quite nice. The broccoli was finely shredded so you didn't mind it and the cheese was nice and solid. I enjoyed this and it was good for my throat.

I had a half rack of pork spare ribs. As the menu promised the meat was extremely pliant and tender. 'Fork removable' was the term they used and they were right. The barbecue sauce was on the sweeter side. It reminded me of a teriyaki sauce. It came with a baked potato and sour cream which I didn't care much for.

My colleagues had batter fried shrimp and spaghetti bolougnaise. The dishes looked good and they said that they enjoyed it.

The food was pretty good. Prices (Rs 400 - 600, 10 -15 USD a dish) were similar to TGIF. But the service was less attentive and informed than TGIF and the place was even deader with just two tables occupied on Monday afternoon.

The good food at TGIF and Ruby Tuesday helped reduce the pain of spending the night, Smart Villa and wannabe Gurgaon.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

TG for TGIF: down and out in Gurgaon

Gurgaon is a satellite city of New Delhi.

It is located in the state of Haryana. It is a 20-30 minute drive from the airport thanks to the swanky new flyover. It has developed at very fast pace over the recent years with swanky malls, BPOs and MNCs shifting base here to steel and chrome office towers. Frankly, it looks a bit like Vegas to me. Amazing buildings interspersed in fairly desolate, dusty and arid patches of land.

I have made a number of work trips here recently where I fly in the morning and return by evening. This Sunday was different. I had two presentations to make on Monday. So I came in the previous evening as the winter fogs at Delhi have turned the schedules of flights topsy turvy.

So here I am on Sunday night at Gurgaon. 'Gaon' means village and Gurgaon seems like that. What adds to the feeling is the guesthouse that the client has put me in. Its neat and clean but is fairly sleazy. Red blankets, plastic pink roses, waiter knocks and walks before you can open the door, stained toilet seats, no hat water in the basin, you get the gist. No way comparable to the hotels one stays in at New Delhi. One of the barest places I have stayed in at Delhi while travelling on work. Apparently Gurgaon rates are fairly expensive. I should have probably stayed at my company's guest house in New Delhi. It is supposed to be good and New Delhi is at least a town.

This place is a freaking ghost town. There is no life on the roads. Everyone's either in the malls or at the offices. So you can imagine how depressing the can be on a Sunday night. To top it I left Bombay with a throat and nose infection. And now I am deaf after the flight thanks to the pressure drops. I hope the block opens before I present. i can barely hear myself speak!

And then I came to this maudlin guest house. I took one look at the tattered room service menu and said that's it... fog and cold be damned. I called for a cab and went over to TGIF at the Metropolitan Mall. I remembered going there with my boss earlier and enjoying it.

I had some piping hot mushroom soup for my throat. Then the waiter strongly recommended a roast turkey platter. This came with a glass of house wine. The Turkey piece was nice and springy. It tasted like chicken but had a nicer feel to it. I enjoyed every bite. It came with a nice, creamy, mildly tangy sauce, buttered vegetables, a fair bit of nice mash and a fresh garlic toast. The combo was finished off with a slab of Christmas cake, which was hard and a bit frozen, but was also sweet an comforting. Just about three to four tables were occupied which further bolsters my village theory. You wouldn't fine a prime restaurant so empty at Bombay on a Sunday night.

I rarely go out alone to restaurants when I am travelling in India. But room service was not really an option in the guest house I am staying at. At least the great dinner helped to restore my spirits and to help me tide over a wasted Sunday night in this glorified motel (Smart Villa) in this wannabe one hick town.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Follow the yellow brick road: Mumbai Pune Expressway

I still remember the excitement which was there when the expressway opened between Mumbai and Pune. We had rarely seen a road like that in India. And it cut down the distance by almost two hours from what it used to be.

It still is about a 2 hr drive and another 1.5 hrs to get in and out of the cities.

I have travelled the route over the years and have seen the highway grow. As have the food courts!

I did the route yesterday and I saw that the food courts have really grown in number and variety. There is something for everyone. I was telling my colleagues that I felt like I was seeing a baby grow. And it felt good!

Here were some of the pleasant discoveries on the way to Pune from Mumbai:

- The Mc Donalds at Panvel, which is actually before the highway while coming from Bombay – now opens at 6 AM and serves breakfast. I remember stopping there earlier at 9 and 10 AM in the morning and being turned back as they opened at 11 AM. This time we had some very nice sausage muffins (the bread was light and slightly crisp compared to the burgers), excellent pancakes with coffee and maple syrup, Georgia Coffee (very nice), Minute Maid orange Juice. A colleague had has brown potatoes which looked tasty. Most dishes cost Rs 50 (1 USD). I wished they served this at Bombay too. They had done up the toilets too and they looked nicer than before

- The side of the lane facing Pune has a largish stop in the middle with a number of restaurants which sell local Maharashtrian fare (upma, bata vad, etc), South Indian Stuff, juices and sandwiches. This is one of the first courts but has grown with time. The average dish costs Rs 20 – 40 (50 – 60 cents) here
- Now there is a stop at the end of the highway towards Pune. This is the second stop after it ends and you have a Coffee Day there if you don’t like the local coffee in the earlier stops. Good to buck you before a meeting or before entering Pune.

There are quite a few stops on the way back to Mumbai from Pune

- There is a stop before Lonavla which has a Coffee Day, a US pizza shop and local stuff as well
- Then there is a largish stop after Lonavla which has at least 6-7 options: Ramakant's vada pao (they used to serve local fare such as vada pao in a van on the highway before the food court), a Café Coffee Day, some other local stores AND a 24 hr Mc Donalds

My excitement would sound strange to people from the West or even from countries like Thailand. But these are big improvements in India.

I was travelling with a couple of colleagues yesterday who shared my love for food. We kept talking about food through the journey. Which was good as our meeting at Pune seemed a bit pointless.

Traveler’s Notes:
- These stops have ample parking
- Now there are signs directing them to you on the road so you are warned well in avance in case you want to turn in
- There is quite a variety of options, most places are reasonably clean and hardly any have dishes which cost more than Rs 50 (or 1 USD)
- Most of these places have washrooms which are ‘fairly’ clean

- There are gas stations/ petrol pumps at all these stops

- Most also have shops where you can buy local favourites such as chiki (nuts in hard boiled jaggery), chocolate fudge, jelly sweets, jams and juices which you can take as gifts

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The many wonders of India... our amazing politicians

You would have probably heard of the Taj Mahal, the forts of Rajasthan, the beaches of Goa, the backwaters of Kerala, the tigers of the Sunderbans ... but have you heard of the world's most amazing collection of political leaders.
Well the latest terror attack at Mumbai threw up quite a few. Consider the facts and then think whether it is worth coming to India to see these unique specimens:
  • A geriatric, soft spoken, Prime Minister who waited till the nation was brought to its knees, till the killing spree was close to 24 hours, till a city's back was broken before coming on television, reading from a tele prompter and threatening to rap the knuckles of the bad boys who were out there killing people. Who is his role model? Chamberlain, Britain's prime minister who had tried to negotiate with Hitler!
  • A Home Minister of the country (in charge of internal security) who has taken multiple terror attacks in the last three months - Delhi, Jaipur, Guwahati, Bombay - calmly in his stride without blinking an eyelid. Just another day in office for him. A day too many for us though
  • A state Chief Minister who went to inspect the damages and destruction done to his state's capital with his son (who apparently acts in films) with a guy who used to make films
  • A state Home Minister who in reference to the carnage in his state said, 'such small incidents happen in large cities. The terrorists were planning to kill 5500 people'. Unquote. Well, yes it is not as important as shutting bars where girls danced to entertain patrons is it?
  • A leader of the national opposition who tried to score brownie points while terrorists were killing people in Bombay by saying that blasts when his government ruled killed fewer people than when the current government took over. This is the same gentleman who had overseen the destruction of the mosque which led to terrible religious riots in our country. The same gentleman, who as home minister, had handed over the man who is considered to be the master mind of the recent terror attacks to hijackers
  • A Chief Minister of another state, Kerala, who went to visit the house of an army major slained by the killers to get political mileage. Who was thrown out of the house by the indignant father of the slain major... himself a retired scientist of ISRO, India's equivalent of Nasa. A Chief Minister who hit back at the family of the martyred soldier by saying that even a dog (sic!) wouldn't have looked at house if it wasn't for their son. I was tempted to write that a dog did visit them because of their son. BUT I love dogs and I would never run down these noble creatures by equating them with politicians
  • An opposition party member who responds to citizen candle light protests by saying 'that a few women who wear lipstick and apply powder on their face are criticising politicians without knowing what they are speaking about'. Well let me assure him that we all know what our politicians are worth
  • Self appointed guardians of a city, who beat up people have come to work in the city from other parts of the country, who do not speak the language of these leaders and who refer to the city by a name which these leaders refer to. Not a squeak was heard from them as the citizens of the city they claim to own were being mowed down. As a friend of mine pointed out, they finally seemed to have paid heed to the gag order put on them by the courts. Or perhaps they have fled the city

The list goes on. These are the people we have elected. Or, worse still, the people we have not elected because we did not vote.

So go out and vote the next time. Many have asked who do we vote to? Even I ask the same question. But someone made a telling point on TV recently. Our politicians cater to vote banks. If go out and vote we will become a vote bank. Then they would have to listen to us.

And here's a sobering thought. The chances of the next prime minister of India being less than seventy five years old is much much less than the US getting a coloured president.

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