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Archive for the ‘Travelogue’ Category

Finding Leo

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 4, 2009

It was a hot Monday afternoon. I got off the crowded Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminus away from the busy life of the maximum city. The city greeted me with a cool breeze coming in from the Arabian Sea, giving some respite from the sweat drenched train ride.

It was my first time in Mumbai. A sea of people quickly engulfed me and I had to move before I was vanquished into oblivion. Millions travel on the local trains everyday as Mumbaikars head for their offices and homes. Some, like me though, would be hopping trains from one suburb to another searching for jobs in the city.


I had decided to take some time off my “busy” schedule in Mumbai to visit few of the places hit in the dastardly attack. Taj and Oberoi were a bit beyond my means (or so I presume) and the Chabad House was too non-descript. So, I settled for the hopefully cheaper Café Leopold.

I had a faint recollection from the omnipresent news media on the scene that the café was close to one of the main places that was attacked – CST, Taj, Oberoi and the Chabad house. Assuming it was CST, I took a train there expecting to get directions from there.

An elderly shopkeeper was busy tending his shop across the street. He greeted me with a smile when I approached him, thinking me as a new customer. The smile turned into a frown when I asked him I was looking for Café Leopold.

99% of the time I’ve seen people willing to help strangers looking for directions to their destination. But 1% of the time the people may not be able to help you since they themselves don’t know the place (Usually happens when people asks me for direction). Sadly for me this was one such occasion.

The shopkeeper frowned with disappointment as he informed me he had not heard of the place. He enquired if I had an address, which I hadn’t. Disappointed, I moved onto the nearest bus stop. In this era Google Maps and Nokia Navigator, it is difficult for people to not find a well-renowned place, but I had access to neither.

A long haired wannabe at the bus stop told me it was near Coloba, but I didn’t know where Coloba was. I called up a friend familiar with the area who recommended I take a cab and said it was near the Taj. Unwilling to spend on a cab, I asked around for directions to the Taj. Though not as famous as its namegiver in Agra, the Taja Mahal Hotel was a piece of the city heritage. A suit told me it was half an hour down the road and so off I went, on with my journey to find Leo.

A cool evening had replaced the unpleasantly hot afternoon. With the wind in my face, it was a pleasant walk down the road, sipping an overpriced half litre Pepsi bottle (Note to self: Mumbaikars charge two bucks extra for cooling) towards the Arabian Sea on whose shore stood the Taj Mahal Hotel.


Soon, I came upon the illustrious Gateway of India and what I presumed to be the Taj Mahal hotel next to it. Tourists went around taking photographs, while affluent school kids enjoyed the sea breeze with a glass of water melon juice.


The kids confirmed me I was looking at the Taj, but they also had no idea to the whereabouts of Café Leopold. I was starting to wonder whether there actually was a Café Leopold, when the pushcart vendor selling the water melon juice to the kids told me to go down the road, take a right, left and a right. Thanking him, I took the road he pointed towards, while he gave further detailed instructions.

The problem with lengthy directions is that you will easily forget them or end up being confused about them. Thirty meters down the road the pushcart vendor pointed out, my mind drew a blank on his detailed instructions. Hastily I enquired a car driver parked next to the Taj, who informed me to continue on and ask later.

4% of the time I’ve seen people give the wrong direction unintentionally because they were not sure of it themselves.

As I reached down the road and asked again, I got the impression Café Leopold was near Hotel Oberoi and not near the Taj. Since people still were not familiar with the Café, I chose to ask for directions to Oberoi, rather than the Café. Soon, I was gazing at the tall Trident hotel overlooking the Arabian Sea and a distant Mumbai skyline.


One of the many patrons walking on the Marine Drive along the sea showed me workers rebuilding damages on Hotel Oberoi from the 26/11 attacks, though I felt the Trident Hotel next door seemed more like the terror victim on the news than the smaller Hotel Oberoi. He also drew a blank when it came to Café Leopold as he went back to his evening business papers.

Next I approached one of guards at Trident who informed me he was new and was not familiar with the surroundings. Disenchanted by the general lack of awareness of Mumbaikars over Café Leopold, I closed my camera and packed my bags to get back to CST. Seeing my disappointment, the guard directed me to a more experienced employee of the hotel, looked like a baggage handler, who was glad to give the directions. He told me it was near the Taj and when I mentioned I was coming from there, he told me to take the road next to the Trident and look for Regal Cinemas.

Finally with some proper direction and landmark in mind, I set out in the direction the baggage handler showed. I encountered a government worker who told me to keep going when I asked him for the Cinema. I was going in the right direction. For the first time in the day, I had to add. Curiously, he was the only person so far to have connected Café Leopold with 26/11, though he erroneously mentioned it to be the place where there was a bomb blast.

Regal Cinema soon came into view and it was playing Luck By Chance, Slumdog Millionaire and (No, not Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye) The Stoneman Murders. There was a book shop nearby when my spending frenzy took over me to buy a copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.


Café Leopold was not far off and soon I was placing an order for a beef burger (Time to be a non-conformist. I prefer chicken) and an iced lemon tea (I had already finished three bottles of Pepsi, Coke and Thumps Up by the time I reached my destination).


The place was filled with foreigners or at least Caucasians (could be Anglo Indians as well) and everyone was seemed to be having their 6 o clock beer (or other assorted alcohol) except for a mother daughter combine who had Pepsi (Diet, that too) and left.


There were few Indians in the next table as well digging into the clichéd North Indian dishes which got me wondering why they would come here for having generic food. Maybe the fact that there was one girl and four guys at the table could be the reason.


The place was expensive, but the burger was scrumptious and heavy. I settled the bill on cash and left an 8% tip before I left for the Churchgate railway station, which turned out to be much closer than CST (And happen to have a Wimpy serving Pepsi in a Coke bottle, but that’s another story).


Note : Location of Cafe Leopold and the road taken from CST maybe slightly incorrect. (Map courtesy : Google Maps)


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… And a Flight to Forget

Posted by RB Kollannur on February 12, 2009

Author’s Note: You can read the first part here.

HONK. HONK. The Volvo at the APTDC office announced itself ready for its ride to the airport. Not that it meant much. There were only four passengers and we were all deep into the complimentary copy of The Hindu they provided. The day before, one of my good MBA buddies (Thanks, Bugs) had recommended this bus service when I had mentioned I was planning to take a cab back to the airport.

As we passed through the Hyderabad city, I was astounded by the progress in the city in the last four years. I had felt Hyderabad had the better road network among the Southern Cities. But that was four years ago. The longest flyover then, at least to my knowledge, was the one in Begumpet. But that has changed completely. A long flyover connecting Begumpet to Panjagutta had surpassed it by a distance (Though I got stuck under it for over half an hour, because of some VIPs). Even more incredible is the new Begumpet flyover that now dwarves the old one by landing on old one. Then there is the 13 odd kilometer long freeway they are building connecting the city with the airport. The city is being build in an anticipation of a continuing economic upswing, unlike Bangalore were people have had to satisfice and wait for the infrastructure to be put in place later.

The airport is well designed. The lounge and the restaurants for the non travelers were open air and little birds were chirping in delight away from the hot sun. I had reached exceedingly early at the airport owing to the extra security expected. With not much to do, I checked out the airport.

There were two McDonalds and a Café Coffee Day for the fast food enthusiasts. Unfortunately, there was a power cut at McD and I had to settle for a sandwich from CCD for lunch. There were apparently five store Landmarks as well, though I only saw two. The recently (at that time) released “Imagining India” by the Infosys Chairman hogged the stands. 699 bucks! Instinctively put it down. Imagine an India where people can buy books worth 700 bucks. I finally settled down for KA Nilakanta Sastri’s “A History of South India”, though I have no clue how good the book is. The second history book in my library after Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In The Name of Rome” (An absolutely delightful and informative read).

Saina Nehwal was at the airport. She was headed for Vijayawada. This was the time when she still had a valid passport. I would have asked for an autograph, but I wasn’t sure where to ask for a signature. It was not like I would carry an autograph book around expecting to meet celebrities at the airport.

3:30 PM. The people for the 4:30 flight were called for. I got my luggage checked in and went onto the boarding area and waited for the airplane to arrive. The trip had gone well so far, though the result of the interview was still awaited. There were three more rounds, the last with their European parent, which happened after the close of work at the Hyderabad office. It was a bit awkward when I left the interview at 6:30 in the evening to see an empty, almost unlit office and a security guard waiting at the door to let me out. I met up with a couple of my MBA friends as well, one for dinner and the other for breakfast (He has a night shift job).

Things turned awry soon though. At four, the airplane was delayed by half an hour. Later airplanes were being called in to board. Every five minutes from then on, the airline added another ten minutes to the scheduled departure. I was a bit perplexed about the cause, since I was traveling by the same airliner (and I had assumed the same plane) to and fro. The later it got the more difficult it got for me to get back home, since I had to travel interstate.

6:30 PM. Finally the sign for boarding appeared and the relieved passengers were led to the airplane. Even while boarding, there was an unnecessary delay as some of the passengers were instructed to wait for the baggage trolley to arrive. Something about balancing the weight of the plane and preventing it from falling. WTF. The thought of the mechanical delay started weighing on me. The airplane was of a different make than my earlier trip, taken from its sister company’s roster.

Nervously, I waited for the flight to take off. The flutters in the stomach that had been comfortably vanquished the previous flight returned. The takeoff was not pretty, but I was glad to know we were up in the air. The lights took a long time to come back on.

Hang on, why are the windows slanted?

Then I realized the airplane was flying slanted. Do planes fly slanted, as though they were struggling to stay up in the sky? I recalled the statement while boarding about balancing the weight and prevent it from ….

Oh My God!

Everybody else seemed to be behaving normally, though. But then most of them were already asleep. Am I the only one who’s thinking the airplane may not reach back safe?

The airplane seems to finally evened out. A small sigh of relief. But not for long, as airplane continued on its slanted course. I tried to ease my mind with some music. But the first song was Sweet Home Alabama, as Steve Buscemi put it well in ConAir a song about a plane crash sung by a band who died in a plane crash. That eased my nerves, all right.

The air hostesses went on with their normal routines – Appetizers were served, trash taken away, flyers distributed. One of the air hostesses was cute, while the other looked average. Not much worth mentioning there. I was still tense as the airplane announced it was landing.

I gripped the seat belt strongly worried the plane is about to crash. The air hostess sitting in the front, the cute one, looked calm. Practically no emotion at all. The plane landed on the runway with an uncomfortable jerk. But it landed safely. I ran out of the plane and out off the airport to get some fresh air. Curiously, nobody got in my way as I hurried out of the airport. No security. Nothing.

The exit of the Coimbatore airport had an eerie feeling to it. It was desolate like a grave in the midnight. No autos, cabs and their like. No street light either (If there were, it was not well-lit). I had to walk on for ten more minutes through a dark road to spot any sign of life; near the highway to the city.

With some help from the people around, I managed to get a bus to the city. I got off the bus to a maze of bus depots. There was a depot for inter city buses, one for intra state buses and a flurry of tourist buses going around. In the midst of this muddle lay the inter-state depot which I was looking for.

I had got off at the inter-city depot where I was told I’ll get inter-state buses across the street. There I was informed to go to the other end of the depot, where I had to deal with the marauding tourist bus operators. Reluctant to shell out extra bucks for the tourist buses, I searched around for the inter-state depot.

One of the bus operators informed he had a ticket for a 9:15 bus. Fifteen more minutes. With no luck in finding the inter-state and only bus operators and clueless travelers to ask around, I finally took the ticket, partly relieved to be heading home soon. As he took the cash, he mentioned the bus was at 9:45 and not 9:15. Drained of every ounce of strength to protest, I reluctantly took the ticket and waited for the bus at the operator’s office.

9:40 PM. No sign of the bus. Annoyed at yet another delay, I asked the operator where the bus was. He kindly informed me the bus was at 10:45. The chap who sold me the ticket was an agent and had outright lied to me about the bus timings. Tired and angry, I waited for the bus to arrive, while trying to think if undue stress caused can be reasons to justify murder on grounds of temporary insanity or self protection.

While waiting for the bus to arrive, I found where the inter-state terminus was. The bus agents had carefully hidden it, by crowding in front of it. There weren’t many buses there either and I had mistaken it for just another shopping or office building.

The bus finally came at 11:00 PM and I somehow had all my senses functioning when I reached home at 3:30 in the morning. Another 90 minutes delay en route. Exhausted from the entire journey, I was finally relieved to just reach home.

As for the interview, I was later informed I didn’t clear it. The company, after going through my CV for over month, decided I lacked the experience for the role. At least, I got my travel expenses reimbursed, after waiting for two months, though three weeks were courtesy of the banks.

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A Flight To Remember …

Posted by RB Kollannur on February 6, 2009

Author’s Note : Written in early December 2008. It is mentioned in line,  just in case u missed it.

Have you ever waved at an airplane as it whizzed past above you from a nearby airport? Ever followed the jet stream of a distant plane in the sky? Traveling the skies can always capture the fantasy of any one who haven’t traveled by air. I’ve never been on an airplane since returning from UAE when I was four. Never needed to, to be honest. Air travel is often left as the travel of the last resort and that too only in case you need to travel immediately or reach the destination quickly (Of course, I mean domestic travel). But the freedom to fly into the skies, away from the stress ridden lithosphere tends to give you a sense of completion.

So there I was, waiting to board an airplane for Hyderabad at the Coimbatore Airport in early December. My dad had just dropped me off at the airport, three hours away from home. I had a copy of Neal Stephenson’s QuickSilver for company, though I hardly managed to read the book, brimming with excitement about the flight.

I had a job interview in Hyderabad, which I was pretty confident I’ll clear. They had already grilled me for couple of interviews, on top of three online tests to test logical thinking and character. And they were glad to take care of my travel expenses as well (Which was a factor while choosing air travel).

I was also planning to catch up with few of my friends there, if time permitted. I had worked in Hyderabad earlier, though I have kind of lost touch with them. There were few from my MBA batch as well.

The plane was on time and we were called on to the boarding area. The heightened security post 26/11 was visible. I had the standard carry on luggage only and had no hassles at the check-in, though there was a delay for a chap carrying six small bags. He finally managed to pack them all into a single large one. Is that what they mean by a six pack?

With no further delay, we were ushered in comfortably to our seats on the plane. I had a window seat. Not that it meant much. The sun had nearly set and barely anything was visible outside. The plane was not fully occupied and I wondered whether it was normal for airplanes to run under-booked.

There were two air hostesses – one was pretty and the other sexy. As I took the seat, the pretty air hostess approached and asked me if I could shift to the front seat opposite to hers. Okay. Wow. I was about to respond, when she continued to say, they needed someone to operate the emergency exit at the window in case of, well, an emergency and since nobody had occupied the seat, I was next in line.

Crestfallen, I proceeded to the front left window seat. Not exactly the most welcome greeting though, for a first time flier to hear that he will be responsible in an emergency, but then again she said it with a comforting tone as to say that the chances of an emergency are so remote that you have nothing to worry about. Relaxed, I put on the seat belts and looked out into to the dark night as the airplane sped to the runway.

I was worried the take-off would be strenuous, but it was to be of no concern. Though they were some flutters in the stomach when I felt the airplane accelerate, there was nothing jittery about the takeoff as we took off smoothly. I looked out of the window and the lights of the Coimbatore night were fast becoming distant like a reassuring wave saying everything was fine.

The “Seat Belts On” sign soon came off and the air hostess sitting in front informed me I can switch on my MP3 (She had earlier asked me to switch it off during take off). As I got back to my book, the MP3 was chiming to the dulcet voice of Chantal Kreviazuk singing “I am leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again” from the Armageddon soundtrack. Talk about timing.

I couldn’t read the book much. It was based in 1650-1750 Europe and America. Though the historic references were deep and interesting, I was not looking for a thoughtful book for the travel. I looked around to see how other passengers were doing. Some of the passengers, first timers like me, were eager to take photos of (No, not the air hostesses) the city lights far below as we passed over Bangalore and other cities. But mostly it was a peaceful crowd of techies and their like headed for their cubicles at work.

The city lights were a beautiful sight to watch. Lines of light escaping the shadowy darkness of the night. An explosion of activity in the middle of an eerie shroud of inactivity.

There was no in-flight movie and just a slight appetizer, by my standards, for nourishment. (No, I haven’t taken any photos like Richard Branson’s customers). But the good thing was that they had very good chocolate ice cream cooled to perfection. There were also flyers for the airline’s frequent flyer scheme (WTF, flyer for a flyer?) which the air hostesses tried to sell. Too bad, they didn’t ask me if I would be interested.

The airport soon reached the Shamshabad airport in the outskirts of the Hyderabad city. No flutters in the stomach this time. I was looking forward to a nice cold shower in the hotel once the plane landed. Not a slightest concern over the landing. The flight had gone without incident and took away any possible anxiety over the landing. And it went picture perfect as well.

I called up my dad to tell him I had reached. He was still on his way back home. Two points for air travel. It used to take me an entire day to travel on an oddly timed noon to noon Sabari Express to travel from Hyderabad to my home. The flight took around two hours only.

As I exited of the airport, I was expecting a furor like the one shown in the movie Rang de Basanti where the passengers are hounded by vendors trying to sell maps and stuff. Nothing like that here, though. The travelers were greeted by formally dressed good looking women, placed there by cab companies to get customers (No burly cab drivers trying to take away your luggage either). Since the city was an hour or so from the airport, I decided to take a cab (1250 bucks, btw). No, the good looking women had nothing to do with that decision. Besides, I could claim it later. The expenses, I mean.

The cab soon exited the airport, with “Leaving on a Jet Plane” still ringing in my ears. I still had an interview to attend …

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au revoir, Chennai

Posted by RB Kollannur on January 27, 2009

Author’s note : The post was written on January 2, 2009.

I start off late in the evening bidding a final farewell to my roomates as they help me get an auto to the railway station. I have been in Chennai for the past 21 months and time has finally come for me to depart.

The auto slowly wades through the heavy traffic on the LB Road.

The first two months were not easy either. I didn’t have a place to stay for a while hopping from one place to another. But everything else went fine. The job was good and the weather was fine, but most of all I had good friends, both at work and in the city, who helped me out. Soon I found a place, the seventh in three months, where I would stay for the rest of my tenure in the city.

The traffic has now eased up as we approach the Santhome High Road running alongside the Marina Beach. It’s pretty windy out here, with the cool sea breeze coming in.

The first year went on smoothly. Few of my MBA batchmates joined later on and a social circle developed. New opportunities came up at work every now and then as I added onto my job profile. The first year was mostly positive, except one or two sad notes.

Looks like there is a road block up ahead. The auto may need to take a diversion. Good thing I had started early and have some time in hand.

Second year, though, was a complete contrast. Leaving my job wasn’t easy, but it had to be done. It was bit of a paradox. Normally, it is the company which dismisses employees for not meeting their standards. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that hunting for new job didn’t go as per plan, not that I could have done any better. Blaming recession or the Satyam debacle is just a meek excuse, since I’ve searching well before that (And was surprised by neither events). Perhaps….

Finally reached the station. The auto guy asks for an extra 10. Sigh. They’ll never change. The coolies queue up, but I ignore them as usual. Bought a bottle of water and sipped a few drops as I watched the display of train timing refreshing before my eyes, the old ones fading from the view.

Memories of Chennai slip by. I’ll miss my friends in Chennai, since they’ve reached out to me and tried to help out the last year (Some have already left Chennai, though). I’ll also miss the Landmark and Sathyam. Both were part of my weekend routine starting with browsing with books and at times buying a few at the Landmark, couple of movies at Sathyam and a long walk back to my apartment in Thiruvanmiyur.

The train has reached the station. I climb on and it departs. Time to go home, grinding the hours away.

Life moves on…..

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