Thursday, December 28, 2006

Kerala: first impressions

Flying from Delhi to Trivandrum took about 3 hours, with a short stop in Chennai (Madras).
India is pretty damn big (it is the 7th biggest country, after all), and after a few hours of pretty sad-looking scenery over the Deccan plateau, the plane got to south of India and the scenery changes drastically.
PALM TREES!!!! All you need to describe Kerala: lush and green. Palm trees everywhere. Palm trees as far as the eye can see.
While landing, it seemed that the landing strip was just a clearing among the palm trees - everything else was just a sea of green, melting into the sea of blue where Kerala runs into the Arabian Sea.
Getting out of the plane was magical - I was transported from dusty cold Delhi to magical warm Kerala, with palm trees all around and air that was actually clean and breathable. I like Kerala.

I was later told that because of all the coconut palm trees, there is actually a higher percentage of people in the South who become paraplegic from coconuts falling on them than from traffic accidents. Not sure if it's true or how good of a thing it is, but I'm glad Newton didn't live in Kerala.


Air Deccan Experience

Every country has its discount airlines. US has Southwest, England has Jet2, and India has Air Deccan.
I needed to fly from Delhi to Trivandrum for my friend's wedding, and Air Deccan was the cheapest.
I was sufficiently warned that flying Air Deccan would be adventurous - it's a full-on discount airline, where you even have to pay for the tea on board. But i figured that having flown Southwest and grown up in former Soviet Union I'd be prepared.
The first fun surprise came when I learned that Delhi has a lot of fog in late December, and that a lot of times planes don't take off during the fog, either because the planes or the pilots or the airport are not equipped to fly during the fog. And, of course, Air Deccan is one of the airlines that isn't allowed to take off during the fog, and I would be flying out right in the middle of it.

I decided to take my chances - the night before my flight was reasonably clear, the airline hot line said there were no delays so I went to the airport. And that's where the real fun started.

Just like the US, India takes its airport security seriously. Just like the US, the goal is great, the execution is poor - in order to get into the airport, you have to get past a security guard. However, instead of checking for your ID, he just makes sure you are coming in with an e-ticket printout. Which, as we all know, is easier to fake than a passport. I wonder what the equivalent of "Kip Hawley is an Idiot" is in Hindi?

I knew that Delhi airport was supposed to be disorganized, but the check-in counter for Air Deccan was pure mayhem. It was purely Darwinian - with only two check in counters, and with a good one-and-a-half hour to go, there was a mad rush to check in. As if everyone's life depended on it. Everyone had a trolley laden with suitcases, and everyone was jockeying for a position to ram the cart into someone else to get closer to the counter. Unlike airports everywhere else, there was no organized line - there was just a sea of people, each trying to get to the counter faster than the next guy. Just as I was thinking that it reminded me of getting on a train in Russia, I saw a couple other white people in line who looked distinctly like my former compatriots - and started laughing. I made a joke to them saying that "it was just like getting on a train in Moscow" and they looked at me like I was a caveman - apparently, Russia has progressed to "civilized boarding" in the past decade that I was gone.

Thankfully, I spend the first half of my life training for this day, waiting in various lines in Belarus - so I was ready. Coupled with my vast experience playing basketball, I was able to box out while maintaining pleasant demeanor and eventually made it to the counter with my toes intact and without letting too many people go ahead of me.

Which is where the best part started. I give my ticket to the agent, she asks me to place my bag on scale. There's a guy to my right blocking access to the scale, trying to shove his own ticket into the agent's face. She tells him to let me through, he won't budge and insists that she needs to check him in first before he'll let me through. I laughed. It's a classic situation - everyone's out for themselves, not realizing that if they cooperate things would move a lot faster and smoother. After spending a few minutes to explain that to a guy next to me, he finally decided to give it a try, let me through, I checked in, he did right after me, and I was off to the next round - the security line.

To my amazement, there was no stampede to the security line - after checking in, everybody was very happy to stand in an orderly line to get past security.

Very strange... Why would there be total chaos to check in followed by total order to get through security? Wonder if people with guns standing around had anything to do with it...

The rest of the flight was very uneventful compared to the check-in process. There was no mad rush to get seats, no wheels falling-off during takeoff, nothing. Also, instead of an old-school Russian Tupolev the plane itself was a new Airbus - so the rest of the flight was very civilized. And, of course, landing in Trivandrum was a blast - fields of coconut palms everywhere, everything is green, warm, welcoming. Kerala seemed very promising.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Qutb Minar

My second day in Delhi was a whirlwind sightseeing tour. After seeing Humayun Tomb (think of it as a practice run for the Taj Mahal) and the B'hai Temple I went to see Qutb Minar which is the highest minaret in the world. And since I am easily impressed by tall structures, I had a great day!

Needless to say, it was quite spectacular. You can no longer go up to the top of it, but it's still very majestic.
I managed to catch it around sunset, and it was really pretty. Looks like i'm running out of superlatives to describe it - but really, i think it was my favorite site around Delhi.

The entire time I was walking around the complex I was wishing that I had my rock climbing shoes with me. There were tons of abandoned structures, with beautiful crumbling holds and nicely protruding bricks. Naturally, it'd be beyond disrespectful, but since nobody is actually watching the monuments, it was really tempting. Thankfully, I was wearing sandals, so the temptation didn't get me very far.


National Geographic Pictures

Everybody comes back from "third-world countries" with their set of "national geographic" pictures, full of interesting foods, bright colors and "exotic"-looking people.

For example, everything in the markets is sold in bulk - you walk up to the giant sacks of what you need, and get a baggie of what you choose.

Everywhere you go, there are "dhabas" - street stands with street food sold on them. Looks good, smells good, but to tell you the truth I was afraid to eat it. Did drink a lot of tea at the roadside stands while driving through India through.

Naturally, the funniest moments are when you see something on the street that makes you laugh. I'm glad the English language is getting popular all around the world.


Delhi Subway

I'm a big fan of public transportation, especially of trains and other things that go on rails.
As such, I was completely blown away by the Delhi subway - it's probably one of the more modern underground systems in the world.

Naturally, at least for me, it'll never compare to the beauty of the Moscow Metro or the complexity or awesomeness of the New York subway or London Underground.

The one word that always came to mind when I was in the Delhi subway was "dichotomy", probably the most overused word in my freshman "cultures-ideas-and-values" class. Yet it was perfectly applicable to the Delhi Subway: there may be crumbling buildings, dirt, poverty and destitution above ground, especially in the Chowry Bazaar/Chandni Chowk stations in the center of town, while down below you have perfectly modern trains running on schedule in immaculately clean stations.

Another funny moment was that everyone coming into the station had to go through a metal detector and a bag search to prevent terrorism. I wonder how well that'd scale during rush hour in New York, or even Delhi for that matter.

Riding the subway in Delhi is also incredibly cheap - it's only 8 rupees to go from Rajiv Chowk (center of Connaught Place) to Chandni Chowk (near the Red Fort in the center of Old Delhi). Highly recommend the experience!


Local Hardware Store

After Jama Masjid I walked around the marketplace directly in front of the mosque.
Unlike the tourist trap markets I visited later, this was an actual market for the locals.
The picture on the left is that of a "hardware store" - all the power tools like drills and saws were hanging from the top of the shed, with a vast array of totally random engine parts strewn about nearby.

The market had all kinds of random stuff, including heaps of nuts, fabrics, goats and street food, along with all kinds of random "made in India" jeans/shirts/etc. Reminded me a bit of the local Komarovka market in Minsk.


First Day in Delhi - Jama Masjid

Delhi is enormous. Naturally, the first thing that overwhelms the senses is the noise - traveling on a road is always accompanied by a cacophony of sound, with everyone honking, yelling, beeping, etc. The next is the smell: to paraphrase a famous quote, I love the smell of fresh pollution in the morning. Even though all the buses and auto-rickshaws in Delhi have been converted to CNG - an impressive feat in itself - there's still a lot of pollution around. In fact, the next day I started coughing and haven't stopped since, even after coming back to San Francisco.

My first stop in Delhi was Jama Masjid - an incredibly beautiful mosque, the largest in India, with a capacity to hold around 25,000 people.
Tourists are allowed to climb the minaret on the right, and since I am a sucker for city views I went up. However, w0men are not allowed to go by themselves - when I went up to the entrance, there were two hapless Turkish girls waiting for a "male tourist" to escort them up to the top.

I found that rather ironic - they were wearing scarves, they spoke Arabic and were coming from a Muslim country - yet they needed a Jew to escort them to the top of a mosque. Go figure.
Before making it to the top we had to pass another hurdle - a 5-year old "shoe keeper" girl that was extorting extra money for passage. It's not that I care about the extra 10 rupees (roughly 20 cents), but I really don't like to be the "dumb tourist" that others can take advantage of.
After paying our ransom, we made it to the top to see pretty spectacular views of Delhi in the rain.

You can see more pictures of Delhi at the gallery.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Arrival in Delhi

Lucky for me, my freshman roommate A. from college lives in Delhi, and was gracious enough to let me stay at his house. So my arrival to Delhi was fairly seamless - I didn't have to fight the taxi-wallahs for a cab ride and didn't have to worry about getting scammed the moment i got off the plane.
It's always nice when you can stay with someone you know in a foreign country. I felt like a VIP - A's driver waited for me with a sign outside, and transported me directly to my friend's apartment.

Now, I had been to Nepal before, so I was a little prepared for Delhi. Stepping off the plane and smelling the fresh pollution in the air, I knew I was back to South Asia. Tasty exhaust and burning garbage smell! I, however, was not at all prepared for the roads. Driving home felt like being in a video game - the car weaves in and out, nobody really follows the traffic laws, there are no lanes, and everybody jockeys for position to be the first one to cross the intersection. Now, I'm used to my friends being scared when they are in a car with me, but this time I got to taste my own medicine, so to speak. It was still fun though, especially once i found the seat belts in the back and put all my faith into the driver. Oh, and did I mention the constant honking? I felt like I was back in New York!


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Flight to India

I'm taking the longest non-stop flight of my life to get to Delhi: American flight #292, Chicago O'Hare to Delhi, India. 14.5 hours of non-stop flying goodness.

Luckily, my super-Gold American Airlines status allowed me to get an exit row seat - which was an added bonus, since i sure do like to stretch when i sleep.

Before I left my friends and I had long discussions on whether the flight would be over Pacific or Atlantic ocean - most thought Pacific. The flight route turned out a lot cooler. We keep forgetting that the world is not a flat map, but a round globe - so instead of flying in a "straight line" from Chicago over Atlantic through Mediterranean to India like you'd imagine by looking on a map, we instead flew essentially up-and-0ver Greenland, over the White Sea, Sweden, Estonia, Russia and then end up in India:

Naturally, the shortest distance between 2 points is still a line, but on a globe it's not that straight. I, of course, expected to just fly over the Atlantic, maybe Africa, and on to India. I always forget the world isn't really flat.
Flying over Sweden was awesome - it was dawn, and i could see all the snow-and-ice covered land below jutting out into the ocean. Really majestic. Not sure if these were true fjords, but very pretty.
Then we flew over Baltic Sea and between Riga and Tallinn. I'll admit I almost teared up, since my hometown Minsk was only about 200km south but I didn't get to see it. We then continued over more of my "motherland" by flying over Russia - which looked pretty snowed-in and cold.
Still, it was a little weird to see the names of all the long-forgotten Russian/Central Asian towns light up on the flight map, names I haven't thought about in years.
At some point I fell asleep, and woke up when approaching Delhi. The crazy thing there was that I looked at the flight map on the screen and realized that about an hour prior we flew right over Kabul! Would've been interesting to see that, but oh well.


Going to India

I'm lucky enough to be invited to go to India for my friend's wedding: Akash and Anu from Stanford are getting married in Trivandrum, which is in Kerala in South India.
To forestall the obvious question - no, it's not an arranged marriage, they've known each other since college, they are both American, but they have a lot of family still in India so it's a lot easier to have wedding there than to fly all the relatives to the States.
Why am I going? Well, if anybody ever invites you to an authentic wedding in an authentic India, the answer is always "Yes!".

Naturally, a ton of people from San Francisco are coming, including my roommate, so it should be a blast.

The wedding festivities are supposed to take a few days, after which all the "americans" are going on a 5-day tour of Kerala. After that I'm taking another week to travel to Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Delhi.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Ruminations for the King – flight cancellations in Pokhara

The first weekend in Nepal I went to Kathmandu with my friend N. We were supposed to meet her friend S. there, who came in a day early to paraglide. Pokhara valley is renowned for paragliding, so that was going to be our plan – go up with an instructor and fly. I was looking forward to it very much.

Friday night we hung out in beautiful Pokhara – it’s situated on a lake, watching the sunset from Mike’s Café with the sun illuminating the hills is spectacular, add your other superlatives, and you get the idea. Very cool. The nightlife was rather sad – there weren’t many tourists (see the Maoists note), so the disco at Club Paradiso that we went to was mostly populated by locals. Let’s say we outdanced them on the dance floor. Those of you who’ve seen me dance will draw a parallel to the sad state of night life in that town.

Saturday morning! Paragliding! Giddy Up! We went to the office of “Blue Sky Paragliding”, met our instructor, had a tea (every major business transaction is always accompanied by tea) and waited to see what the wind was doing. After 30 minutes of waiting and watching the mountain skyline, we learned that the wind was doing fine, but the king was not. We knew the king was visiting Pokhara at the time (knowledge reinforced by a literal army of troops everywhere, checking all vehicles and searching all locals), and apparently he was not a fan of paragliders. The reason was that of the gliders landed ‘too close to the palace’ the day before, and as a result there was a unilateral ban on any paragliding flights for the next two weeks.

And that was it. Absolutely no way around it. The news was greeted with minimum of surprise/apprehension from the operators of the business – apparently, the “king’s whims” are fairly common, and manifest themselves differently all the time. Now, I realize kings are allowed a certain degree of eccentrics – they are “absolute rulers” after all. But this is 21st century. I’m not upset because as a result I never got a chance to go paragliding – that’s OK, I can pay the same $70 and do it somewhere else later. But what about the business operators? There are two paragliding businesses in Pokhara, and they are both out of their jobs for the next two weeks. And with the tourist trade in the gutter to begin with (thanks to other actions both by the King and the Maoists), these guys don’t have much in terms of savings or “we’ll make it up next month” to fall back on.

Sure, I understand that “national security” means something – but the “paragliding closure” is very emblematic of the pattern of behaviour of king and other senior officials in Nepal. In the country so dependent on tourism, I think some thought needs to be given to the business needs of the tourist trade first before proclaiming decrees that put citizens already struggling for business further into the whole. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the US, but it seems that what’s bad for business, is bad for Nepal.


Doha: worst airport ever

Short Version:

Doha is probably the worst airport ever. I flew Qatar Airways (a very fine airline once you are inside the plane) toand from Kathmandu and had a 5-6 hour layover each way in Doha. It’s impossibly overcrowded, so couple the delirium of changing time zones, sleepiness, slight apprehension of going to Nepal for the first time and inability to find a place to sit/rest, multiply by 5 hours, and you get the idea.

Longer Version:

For those that don’t know, Doha is in Qatar, on the Arabian Peninsula. I landed and took off in the dark, so I can’t say much about the scenery. At the risk of being close-minded, I’d venture to say that they have a lot of sand and oil pumps.

The airline is pretty cool – the staff is multi-ethnic, they hire from all the countries they fly to, and they boast that they have 55 ethnicities working for them. That translates into a lot of people from South East Asia and, surprisingly, a clearly Russian attendant that I spotted in Doha. How she ended up there, no idea (actually, I have a couple. Probably by plane).

Back to the gripes about the airport – it’s just way too small to support the amount of traffic going through it. First, when you get off the airplane, you stand in a long 30-minute line to go through the security to get into the airport. That was my first sighting of men wearing traditional Arab dress. Pretty cool, and a little surreal.

Once you are past the security check, you have 3 options: go into the giant “duty free” shopping area that takes up most of the airport building, or walk around aimlessly in circles trying to find a place to sit. Alternatively, you can go upstairs, show your transit ticket to the next place, get a meal voucher and wait in line for a fairly mediocre “dinner” in a crowded fast-food type place, followed by jostling for a place to sit in their overcrowded café. And that’s the only dining option.

Once you are done with this so-called dinner, you go back to option #2: cruise the tiny waiting area trying to find a seat. At this point you are fighting against an army of people from the Asian continent who’ve been dealing with overcrowding and lack of personal space their entire life, so you stand no chance. If you try to be clever and pay your way into a first-class lounge (hey, it’s only $25!) you’d be disappointed. Apparently, “paid peasant access” is only available after 11:30pm – which in my case translated into 2 hours of waiting to get in. So no such luck. Only other option is to try and find a place to sit on the floor, as far away from the not-so-hermetically sealed smoking lounge as possible, and read a book.

So what’s the point of this rant? Ah yes, Doha (and Qatar airways) should triple the size of the airport, and put more chairs in. Another point? Don’t fly through Doha. Or get rip-roaring drunk on the first leg of your flight – I think that’s what the Nepalis coming from Kathmdandu on the way back were trying to accomplish


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Going to Nepal in a few hours

Very excited. this will be fun.

Current question: Shave or not shave before flying Qatar "We are Arab" Airways?
Try to blend in (not shave) or look respectable (shave)?
The "Should i wear a giant bling star of david" got answered - the answer is no...

Staying with a friend whose house is right across from the russian embassy. gave a 'very scary oath' not to cross the street and talk to them. apparently, not allowed to cause an international incident.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

I don't speak English

There've been a few times during this trip when I realized that I actually don't speak English. Or at least don't understand English. Or maybe it's just that I don't understand Yorkshire English, aka "northern"

Case in point today: Walking down the "shopping" street, buying some stuff for the trip to Nepal. Walk past a parked white van with a guy and a girl sitting in it. Motions me to come over - I figure he's lost and wants to ask for directions
guy: blah blah chit-chat, where are you from?
me: from the states
guy: mumble mumble want mumble mumble?
me: huh?
guy: would you mumble buy mumble (gun??) mumble camcorder mumble mumble?

The girl in the passenger seat is starting to laugh

me (incredulous): you want me to buy a gun and a camcorder?
guy (very defensive): no mate, I don't sell guns
me: well, dude, I don't buy camcorders....
Meanwhile, the chick is laughing out loud, I say good bye and walk away.

I still don't know what that was all about. Guess I don't really speak English.