Category Archives: Travel

Confessions of a battered suitcase

This is an extract of the privileged communication i had with my faithful VIP suitcase which carried my heavy luggage during our mandatory Winter study tour as a part of our professional training to become able administrators…

I was born in a hot, crowded and happening factory somewhere in the outskirts of Nagpur. Even before I could figure out what was happening, I was transported to a small, sleepy town called Palakkad where I waited with my siblings for someone to come and adopt me. I am a VIP suitcase and I am going to tell you my adventures in the last two months when my owner took me on a journey of a lifetime.

I waited for days and months on end but no one chose me. “This suitcase is too big”, most of them would declare. My long wait ended when this boyish looking guy came with his dad to get a big suitcase. My owner was a new recruit to the Indian Administrative Service named Gokul. Others said. ‘He will take you around the world during his official tours’, my peers said with a tinge of envy. I was happy beyond words. But he had other plans for me. As soon as I landed up in Mussoorie carrying almost 40kg of his things, he locked me up in a corner of his cupboard. He went for treks, village visits and other outings. He took my friends, the black American Tourister bag or the Reebok backpack on these journeys. I lay in one corner, unnoticed. On December 16, I was taken out and once again stuffed with things. I weighed around 30 with that. I thought Gokul was going home. It was when I was taken up to the academic area on that night that I knew that I was going for a two month study tour across the nation.

While there were only 16 Officer Trainees in our group, there were around 50 of my compatriots for the two month adventure. These included the ‘twice born’ laptop bags also. They were never kept on the floor and always enjoyed the coziness of their owners lap. Let me introduce some quirky characters in our group. One is the fake Jaguar bag which Anugraha madam picked up from somewhere in the busy corner of Karol Bagh. Being a fakie, he was mistreated so badly that he can’t even stand properly on his feet now. My peers were the American Tourister and Samsonite bags which belonged to Dr. Vijaykumar and Aravind. We were the biggest in the group and always supported the rest of the group when we were fitted into the luggage compartment during our tours. There was this bag that belonged to Sourabh Raj that was just 3/4th of my size but carried at least 5 kilos extra.  Some of them always ended up on the heads of porters in the railway station but I was always carried around by my owner.

My first adventure came with the army attachment with the Gorkha rifles in the northern part of Sikkim. I was put on a 2.5 tonner truck along with my heavier compatriots. We were escorted by the soldiers of the Madras Regiment on the journey. The full day journey from New Jalpaiguri to Lachung was tiring but the company of the soldiers who kept on telling about their adventures in Kashmir kept all of us entertained. They told us that in case of an emergency this was the same route that would be taken by our soldiers to reach the borders while the Chinese soldiers can reach the border in half the time from Lhasa. Our owners seemed to have forgotten us and sped away in Innovas. So we took our sweet time and stopped to enjoy the beauty of the Teesta valley as we progressed along its banks.

I hate air travel. You will be unattended for a long time and the staff throws you around like anything. On top of all these you will be thrashed for being overweight. Fortunately most of our travel was by train. Gokul would bind me to the rail berth to prevent some unsuspecting souls to explore what secrets I am holding. The few air journeys turned out to be eventful. The first one was the journey between Guwahati and Aizawl.  My owner frantically took out stuff from me and filled it in his Reebok backpack. The Reebok was bloating with things sticking out on all sides and reduced my weight to 20 kg. But on reaching the airport, it was found that the free limit was 15 kg. This prompted more frantic rearrangement and I was looking sleek at 16kg. The aircraft was a sight to behold. It was a small ATR 42-300, a trifle larger than a mini-bus. The cargo cabin was like that of a Volvo bus. It felt more like a chartered flight as the cargo cabin contained just 2-3 bags other than 25 of us. One of the rare occasion in which we were treated good in a flight. I hope our owners in the flight cabin were also treated well. After all, Air India is in serious financial crisis as per newspaper reports and you can’t expect they airhostesses to be pleasing when they have not been paid their salaries for the last 2 months.

Another interesting thing happened during the flight from Port Blair to Chennai. This time the trainees decided to pool in their luggage and do group check in. I tried warning them of the possible free rider problem that may crop up due to this. I overheard this while they were doing combined studies for the FC exam. The final weight tally came to around 40 Kgs in excess of the free limit and they were made to pay Rs.10,000 for that. While people were vey careful in the previous journeys and carried 2-3 hand baggage, many were simply strolling into the aircraft this time carrying just a book. I think they deserve the amount lost for the carelessness.

Getting all us out at railway stations was a major task and let me tell you that within 1-2 stations, the trainees had devised a fool proof and efficient way to do this. The task became more difficult when the stoppage time in the station is 1-2 minutes and we had to give way for passengers to board also. This was put to test in Chandrapur station in Maharashtra where the stop was only for a minute. We were split into two groups and were taken out through the two exits of the compartment. One trainee would hand a bag down to another standing down. He will hand it to the next one who will keep it away from the train. I timed the whole process once and they were able to completely take out around 50 bags and 16 people in 55 seconds. Necessity surely takes efficiency to newer heights.

Uttar Pradesh sprang up a different surprise. There were around 10 policemen to receive us at the railway station, some of them armed. In a land where lawlessness is the law and people get killed in open daylight, I wondered why such a huge contingent was needed just to escort ‘not even confirmed’ trainees holding no independent responsibility to their hotels. We had lesser number of people guarding our backs in the naxal affected Gadchiroli. But of course, IAS officers know their job and U.P is supposedly the best cadre. So I guess I will find out the reason sometime later during my long association with my owner.

I got back to Mussoorie after a short visit home on 19th February, 2012 with just a few minor scratches and discolorations here and there. It was an incredible 2 month journey when I travelled over the mountains and the seas and saw people and places I may never see again. I hope my owner takes me out for more such adventures as he is getting ready to lock up in a similar cupboard two floors above my old room. Till then, Adios…

Andamans : The emerald Islands

The last family tour that we had was to the foot of the breathtaking Himalayas in Manali in the summer of 2008. My preparations for the civil services exams meant that we didn’t get time for planning another after that. We decided to plan for a getaway right after my mains. As it would be December, North India was out of the choice. Finally we decided to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Planning the tour:

We had done all the hotel bookings and had completely planned the tour through Andaman Holidays, a tour agency i found in the internet.  As various ferries have to be booked for the journey to the other islands, it is advisable to book everything in advance through one of the many tour agencies based in Port Blair.

The Islands have a very interesting and an action filled history. A good idea about the island parallel histories, one starting when the first wave of humans moved out of Africa and the other starting with Lt. Blair of the British Navy surveying the island for setting up a penal settlement will enrich the experience of visiting this place. I found this book very helpful and informative in that regard. Our Plan was to base ourselves in Port Blair and visit small islands around it and one other major island for an over night stay. We chose havelock island to be our second destination.

Getting there :

Andaman is connected by sea and air to Chennai and Kolkata only. Both cities are almost equidistant from Port Blair. The sea journey would take around three days. No luxury ships are available and one has to book for cabins in one of the passenger ships catering to the needs of the local population. We had made a similar journey during our trip to Lakshadweep. The cabins were comparable to the coupe in railway coaches and the bathroom was so narrow that it was an ordeal doing your daily routines. Besides, three days would both bore and tire you. So we decided to go by air.

We started on 10th night from palakkad and reached Chennai station on the 11th morning. Forget about freshening up in Chennai central as there is only a small waiting room and a few bathrooms catering to one of the busiest station in India.  You can get volvo buses right at the front of the station. The plight of the bathrooms in the domestic departure terminal in Chennai International airport is also pathetic due to the construction work going on. Hope it will be solved once the construction work ends.

The flight just 2 hours and the Kingfisher flight was both economic and pleasant. As one approaches Port Blair, you can see the beautiful islands as emerald spots on the blue sea. Only a few island are inhabited. Beside, 80% of the land area is under forest cover. So the view is truly breathtaking. Try to get window seats in the flight. We were welcomed by a sudden burst of rain as we stepped out of the flight at the Port Blair airport. Though December is infact the best time to visit the islands and is the peak tourist season, the rains were totally out of schedule this year. The sudden rain did cast a shadow on our plans.

Port Blair

Being volcanic in origin, the topography is more like what you see in a hill station. Its more like you are on the top of a submerged mountain. One can do a few shopping. There are shops run by govt. cooperatives. Try to buy from those. A few museums run by various govt agencies gives you an idea about the marine life and the history of the islands.

The first image that comes to the mind of any Indian when thinking about Andamans is the Cellular jail. The imposing structure, standing on the highest point in the island has become the symbol of the resilience of our national movement. The ASI has done a commendable job in preserving the structure as such. One can still feel the chill of the pain borne by the political internees when walking through the corridors of the jail.

Havelock Island

The next stop for us was the Havelock island which was about 50 kms away from Port Blair. There is a govt operated ferry connecting the two islands. But we chose to go by the private ferry MV Makruzz which was faster and more comfortable.

Havelock is a tourist island and is one of the favourite destination of foreign tourist. Being so, everything from the average biriyani to room rent in hotels is costlier than in Port Blair. The stay in Havelock was undoubtedly the best part of the tour. We stayed at the Barefoot resorts. The rates were quite high we went as the season was beginning, but it gives good value if one goes during off-season.

The location of the resort could not have been better. Its located at the beautiful Radhanagar beach. The beach itself is a very long one and only the tourists come to one end of the beach. The resort is towards the other end. So its essentially like a private beach. You can have the whole beach almost for yourself. The beach is bordered by thick lining of trees. The resort is carefully huddled within these trees. The cottages were built with local wood but was highly luxurious. All parts of the resort was connected by stone payments alone and once darkness falls, you are guided only by the small torch kept inside the rooms. We got up early the next day and made it to the beach to find ourselves to be the only living souls in one of the most beautiful beach i have ever been to. I feel that alone justified the otherwise exorbitant rates charged by the resort.  We were bewildered to find the whole beach dotted by small clusters  of sand balls forming amazing patterns. It was as if the sea goddess had created ‘kolam’ with sand or martians had visited the beach in the night and left their ‘signs’. But the sight of the small crab-lings crawling out of the tiny holes at the middle of each pattern brought me back to reality. The pattern was created by thousands of crabs hatching.

Ross Island

Our next destination was the abandoned British capital of the islands, Ross Island. It is just 40 minutes away from Port Blair in normal ferry. The island was the administrative capital and the military HQ of the islands until the Japanese occupation in 1942. The island and its structures were heavily damaged by allied bombings during Japanese occupation. Although British forces reoccupied the islands after the surrender of Japan in WWII, the Island never regained its lost glory. Following independence, the new Indian administration shifted the capital to Port Blair.

The Ross island is today under the authority of the Indian navy. Navy divers competed with the ferries in crossing the channel. A portion of the island is cordoned off as naval area. The island is well maintained and a winding pavement connected all structures. The british structures have not been restored and is in a highly dilapidated situation. There was very little to be restores after the incessant bombing by the allied forces. Huge trees have grown on the walls and one wonders how long the walls would stand. There is a very small cafeteria in the middle of Ross. That was by far the smallest restaurant that we found offering lobster. So we ordered two for lunch. There is a small beach on side of the island. But it has been rendered unfit for swimming by the 2006 Tsunami.

Andaman lies at around 92 degree longitude but the time followed is IST measured at 82 degrees. Hence the day in the islands in between 5.30 in the morning and 5.30 in the evening. So dont jump out of the bed seeing the suns rays coming in through the windows. It might still be too early in the morning. Also prepare for pitch black by 5.30 pm and plan accordingly. As I noted in the beginning, Andamas is a must visit place both for its beauty and its unique identity and place in our history. The roads and tourist centres were well-kept and the people were nice. I rate the emerald islands as the third most beautiful place i have been to after Lakshadweep and Manali

Delhi metro: a world class engineering feat

The first thing that you notice as you enter the national capital, either from hazrat nizzamudin or from the Indira Gandhi airport is the elevated and electrified tracks of the delhi metro. The former chairman of the konkan railway corporation has worked magic again by completing this infrastructure challenge right in the heart of the capital ahead of schedule. The work of phase 3 and 4 are progressing at steady rates and when the mammoth project is completed in 2011 it will be larger than the London metro in size.

Quite contrary to the Indian stereotype, the whole network is world class and can be considered one of the best. As i was staying in karol bagh one of the busiest markets in delhi a short walk from my place of stay with guidelines by locals took me to the karol bagh station of the metro. It is an elevated portion of the track. Multiple escalators take you to the elevated station. Ticket system is token or card and you have to show it to a card reader which will open an automated gate which gives you access to the platforms. This system virtually eliminates ticket less travel or traveling with expired passes which is so ubiquitous in the mumbai metro. The most striking thing is a customer care center in each station. It was the good mannered person in that office who recommended me to take a ticket to indraprastha, which was five stations away and which would take me through both underground and elevated sections of the track, when i told him that i was a tourist and i just wanted to get the feel of the metro. Al though the ticket reader is a bit of a headache for the novice, the platforms are quite easy to interpret as each of them took you in different directions. The train came smoothly into the station. Contrary to Mumbai metro which has cabs protruding into the platform, there is a small gap between the cab and the platform.

I went in through the automated doors. The doors closed and the train started moving in a few seconds. The cab was completely air conditioned. As it went in a straight route it had no pilot or any other railway staff. The cabins were spacious and quite comfortable. A voice announcement system gave warnings and information regarding the approaching stations. The night view of the city from the elevated track was beautiful. Opposite to this the underground section offered no view but it was a good experience traveling for the first time. With no interesting view outside i looked inside the cabin to see the home going people after a days tiring work. How much better and relieving would it be for them to travel so fast home without the noise and smell of the busy city. In the Indian scenario it is always the journey back home that is the most tiring thanks to our outdated transport network. It would be so better for the city folk to tarvel so comfortably in ac cabs, something that an ordinary citizen would not have dreamt 10 years back. In less than 15 minutes i reached indraprastha. The automated system warned me to take care of the gap between the cab and the platform. As I got out and headed towards the escalator to reach the ticketing counter to get my ticket back to the original station, i looked back at the train which had already started to accelerate back to its original station thinking of the change that was spreading through our cities. The metro is just one of the many edifices of the new, changing India which is riding on the strength of its masses and the hopes of the emerging new generation. We need more projects of similar nature across the nation, cutting across political opposition, government red tape with the people in charge showing character and shrewd will if we have to make an everlasting mark in this competitive world.