Saturday, 29 October 2011

Hair here, hair there

That filamentous material - Hair, is one of the key defining characteristics of the mammalian class. So much has been written, researched and practised in the pursuit of hair perfection.

It is also a conundrum, in that I for one, am a bit lost. There are people who will go to any length and depth to ensure hair is one of their outstanding and constantly evolving features. And then there are people who are particularly dedicated in the search and removal of hair. Of course, not to forget many of us, who have our acts set rather firmly on both sides, or should I say above and below the neck line!

From the bald to the bountiful, from the curly to the straight, from the roots to the cutting edges of a hairstylist's blade and everything in between, hair is the cause of much joy and sorrow. Poems have been composed and sung, films have been made and dedicated, even glorious work of many an art has been about the mane on top of your head.

What is it, with this obsession about hair? I recollect watching a rather interesting debate about hair, length, colour, texture, thickness, styles and more on a local Malayalam language TV channel, that I rarely switch to. The debate was heated, would be a understatement. Especially, with the female participants being very vocal in their views.

Trial pack received from Unilever
It is also a fact that hair and it's associated industries are worth billions of dollars today. When Indiblogger put up the contest, on a whim I thought let me try. Ever since, I actually received the 'Dove hair care pack' from Unilever, through a courier firm right at my door step I have been a bit impressed. Usually, courier firms have a problem delivering to my current residence, given that I am not living in a 'proper' city right now. Yet, for the first time ever, this pack was delivered. Nice job.

Unilever's marketing of Dove has been a major high point, apart from the product quality. The positioning using women who could be easily recognised as similar to the audience, talking about and attesting to the quality of the product has been maintained throughout the various ad avatars across media - both conventional and social. As a marketer, I have to give two thumbs up for not deviating from the positioning, packaging and branding over the years.

Back to the reason, why such products exist. We, men and women have at some evolving stage of civilisation realised that below the neck, hair is optional whereas above the neck, attempts to retain, maintain and style the hair is not optional. Not if we want to appear 'normal' and 'appealing', to both genders.

And herein started a tale that really has no end. Bereft of the thick mane by default, many a man has felt compelled to put up a removable piece of hair or go in for expensive hair transplant operations, just so, to feel normal. Yet, equally there are many men who have deemed to remove their beta-carotene based strands from the fields on their heads, altogether by choice. Each sort have made a statement about themselves.

Even today, in his sixth decade on earth, my father carries a comb in his pocket for 'styling and setting' his last remaining tufts and fringes of hair. Says a lot about how much it matters, doesn't it? However, it is the feminine species who have truly been at the cutting edge (pun intended) of the hair styling and caring part of life. Though today's metrosexual men are catching up fast, indeed.

From yoghurt, coconut oil, eggs and even beer to colourants, shampoos, conditioners, gels, masques and sprays - many such ingredients have been touted as the helpers and guardians of these tiny filaments, over time. I do realise that over time, our knowledge on caring and sharing has risen to great heights and that has, had an impact on how much attention we provide to our manes and more importantly to what others possess!   

Yet, sometimes I wonder in the daily grind of our lives, how much of a difference do the dead cells making up our crowning glory, have in the attempts of living a better life.

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This post has been written in response to Indiblogger and Dove sponsored 'Love is a two way street' contest.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The painful IRCTC experience

The world's fourth largest rail network - Indian Railways, moves millions of passengers every day.

Owned and operated by the Government of India, this network developed onwards after the British introduced the system in this country pre-Independence. Today, though it is as a requirement in terms of eco-friendly and cost-effective transportation in a developing country like India, it is sadly a striking symbol of a flailing system that needs severe broad ranging improvements. Be it quality of wagons, furnishings, rolling stock, reservation system or customer service.

About a few decades back, in tandem with the internet era setting through India, the Indian Railways also decided to set up a quasi-governmental body called the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation more familiarly known as IRCTC. Because of the strange laws that do not permit the Government of India to accept money directly from citizens, the IRCTC was formed and tasked with the objective of accepting bookings and payments.

I am usually among the first to take to new technologies. Like millions of my country men and women, I was happy about the new internet based ticketing and payment mechanism that had been introduced. Now, instead of going to a Railway station, standing in queue for hours, subject to the whims and timings of the ticketing operators, I could simply sit on my table, go on line and book as well as pay for the ticket. Complete electronic transactions, that were secure, efficient and painless. I spoke about this system in positive glowing terms to the rest of the world.

Yet, in 2011, my faith has been shaken by this system. This is my experience.

I had booked a 3AC (air conditioned three bunk sleeper coach) ticket from Madgaon, Goa to Kottayam, Kerala for 10 May 2011. Having returned to India in April, it was the last leg of a domestic trip that I was engaged in. And I was looking forward to a train ride instead of the normal flights, as a memorable event. Little was I to know, how memorably it would shape out.

When I had booked the ticket, the waiting list status had been in double digits. As the date of travel approached and my waiting list status changed to single digit, I was further re-assured.

The Dehradun - Kochuveli train scheduled to depart from Madgaon railway station at 2140 hours. As I had been residing at the northern end of Goa, it was not possible for me to spend time till later in the evening and reach the station. So, I arrived at the station by 11.30 AM in the morning. By the previous day, I had already checked and noted satisfactorily that my wait list status had become 3. High chance of getting confirmed. Yay!

On arriving at the station, I found out to my dismay that the 'link' between the computers in Goa and Delhi had developed a technical fault around 10 AM and therefore, status updates were not immediately possible. I was assured by the enquiry personnel that this should be sorted out soon.

So I waited. And waited. And continued to wait. By 8 PM after frantic running around meeting ticket reservation officials, railway station master and other assorted officials, I was informed that the technical fault has not been repaired. They were unable to even generate a chart containing the details of the passengers, including confirmations.

Obviously, it is illegal to board a train without a proper ticket. So I did purchase an ordinary ticket. Finally, on board the train, after a couple of stops a new Ticket Examiner arrived, who actually had a computer printed list with him. It indicated that my waiting list status was 1. He informed me that the list had been 'manually' generated and further assured me that since my ticket status was fully waitlisted, as per rules of the Indian Railways the ticket would be automatically cancelled and money refunded to my account.

Refund Information extracted from the IRCTC issued e-Ticket with PNR 2648159749

A whole night and some part of the morning - over 10 hours, spent standing near the entrance of a second class compartment was painful but stoically borne, given the circumstances. It happens. Next day, after reaching home, I called up the IRCTC customer care personnel, who on the phone informed me that as per normal rules, the refund would take place after 60 days from the date of travel.

65 days later, I wrote to the IRCTC. No response. Called. Finally was informed that there was a process called TDR (Ticket Deposit Receipt) that I should have engaged in within 35 days of the date of travel to claim the refund. I was obviously irritated. This had not been informed to me.

I was asked to re-start the entire mail communication. I did so. I continued to follow up. And repeatedly follow up. Finally fed up with the lack of a proper response, I made it clear that I was going to file under the RTI (Right To Information) Act as well as go to the Consumer Redressal Forum after informing Railway Board members and Railway Ministry officials. This elicited a response saying that they would file the TDR and process the refund.

After a 167 days since the date of travel and 82 days since I was promised a refund, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Only response: concerned department will respond.

What a life!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Gap

There comes a time in life, when a gap happens. Sometimes by choice, sometimes not. This is the harsh truth, unpalatable as it may be. Especially if it involves your career.


The Gap

My last contract involved being the Marketing Manager for the Asian Beach Games, held in December 2010 at Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. Interacting and working with Asian nationals from 45 countries was equally a challenge and a pleasure. I was on board, till February 2011, wrapping up the post-Games reporting. I am happy to recollect that despite, being the 2nd edition only, of the Olympic Council of Asia owned Asian Beach Games, it was an astounding success considering the challenges. I was proudly part of a great team that made it happen.

Took me about a month more in Muscat to wrap up some of the personal and professional matters, ended up reaching India in April 2011. And where else to go, but back to the only place I could call home. So Kerala it was. While leaving my second home Muscat was painful, the initial few months, were heavenly, to say the least. By the month of May, the rains had started and reached a crescendo for the next couple of months. Wet, windy, cool, green - paradise on earth. Bettered only, gastronomically by the fact that my mother creates some amazing Kerala cuisines.

What a life! Relaxed, easy going, wonderful. Took the opportunity to sort out some family concerns which could only be addressed with my physical presence. Also travelled around within India and managed to make it to Hong Kong as well, which I wrote about here.

That broadband internet connectivity existed in this idyllic rural countryside was something I have mentioned in the Kerala post, recently. While, it ensured that I was not isolated from the rest of the world, even more importantly, it has also meant that I have been able to sit here and actually learn, interact, evolve.

Gasp!

Kerala has a rather high level of usually non-resident population. So, by now it has become the local norm that when the non-resident folk visit, first question is "when did you arrive?", immediately followed by a "when do you leave?" and this is where the first stumble happens - if you do not know when you are leaving. I usually try to bat it away by saying, have not decided. But that is not enough. No way. It has to be investigated, drawn, quartered and hung. Irrespective of whether I like it or not. All the way downhill. Throw in a dunking into the icy river, for good measure. No stopping this inquiry garbed in the robes of social civility.

So a full fledged oral third degree inquiry results in the answer of it has been a few months. I dare not say, 6 months for then the earth might as well open up and swallow me! And this leads to the inevitable gasp, immediately followed by a "how come?" question asked in a voice laced with concern or merriment or rather difficultly concealed scorn, depending on how positively / negatively and closely / distantly related, the person is to you.

Now, this is the moment of decision...
  • Flight or fight? 
  • Calm guru reaction or swat the pesky fly mode? 
  • Maybe a sophisticated explanation on the linkage, permutations and challenges of location versus break versus career direction versus choices? 
  • Or should it be a subtle but well aimed ironical attempt at 'it's not really your problem' communication? 
  • What about a full blown verbal shock and awe assault which would in all probability lead to complete and utter rest-of-the-life disengagement with that individual? 
  • How about a more honest reality check explanation combined with a request for help? 
...Gosh, so many angles and choices to make.

I usually take a path which is directly proportional to the relationship and comfort level I have with that questioning individual. If it is a friend, they get the friendly response. With the others, it is more of a 'thank you for asking, am in the process, will let you know when I know' answer that is bland enough to salvage some semblance of mutual respect.

So what next, really?

I am a marketing professional. I have used this break period to learn and engage more with the world through social media. I have managed to spend quality time with the folks. I have been able to help around at home. Individually, this blog has come alive. My posts, tweets and status updates are immortally out there in the ether. Sometimes even liked, enjoyed and shared. I have made new friends and re-established contact with old friends.

Combined with the management and marketing techniques that both Indian and British qualifications have instilled in me as well as skill sets evolved over more than a decade working in different countries and organisations, I am largely confident there is still much that I could contribute to making a difference. Maybe one of you could give me a lead. Maybe one of the discussions I am having will come through.

Meantime, I still do need to ward off my local inquisitors, wanted or not. What a life!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Kerala - an atypical view

Kerala

There are some things quite well known about this southern Indian state.


- God's own country, an ad tag line that has become synonymous with Kerala tourism

- Kera-naadu or the land of coconuts

- Also the land of lungi, referring to the male attire consisting of an unbuttoned, unpinned piece of long cloth, rolled and "double twist" tied around the waist and either left straight on to the ankles or folded halfway at the knees

- Recommended as one of the must see places in your lifetime, by National Geographic.

All of the above is true. It is indeed, really beautiful. Blessed by nature.


While my parents were born and brought up in this state, I was not. I grew up in another state, thanks to my father's work location. I guess, growing up elsewhere combined with the wanderlust in me has ensured that I have travelled a bit and developed rather broad views combined with a healthy curiosity about attempting to understand, experiment and sometimes assimilate cultures, customs and cuisines from all over the world.

During my childhood, my visits to Kerala were largely centred around the two month summer break from school. From the (oh so exciting for a child) 2 nights and 3 days train journey to hanging out with cousins, eating all sorts of raw fruits to generally running around fields and woods while playing kiddish games, was absolute fun minus any responsibilities.

However, all that changed with my work life starting off. With limited visits to Kerala, there was no time to form any real views or bonds. Meantime, the parents had relocated back to 'homeland' after dad retired from work. Finally, after over a decade later, I have taken a real break. Spent months here. Realised quite a few things.


This place is naturally so green and lush, because of the majestic western ghats (mountain range), which ensures that a heavy portion of the monsoon clouds empty themselves on this tiny sliver of land. This practically means that there is rain for nearly half of a calendar year. And when the sun shines, it bakes this place. The heat combined with the humidity in the air, becomes a natural sauna where you will sweat away your fluids faster than you can top up! But it also means that the place remains evergreen. Plants love the combination of moisture and sunlight.

I would not say that Kerala is a microcosmic representative of India. It has its own cultures, customs, cuisines, language and ethos, which are not all in line with the rest of this vast country of 1.2 billion people.

Kerala, with three international airports, over 10 major railway stations and bus stands, and hundreds of smaller stops, is very well connected locally, nationally and internationally. But apart from an odd case or two, do not expect the quality of infrastructure to match international standards. Every attempt at improving infrastructure is strongly fought with by litigation and sometimes public action, yet the very same people will also complain about lack of infrastructure. Twisted!


Tourism is a good revenue earner, as are the monies realised from sale of spices, rubber and coconut based products. But even more money is remitted back into this state from outside the country. An interesting fact about this place is that almost every household is likely to have someone who is working outside Kerala - be it in India or anywhere else in the world. A large portion of these Non Resident Keralites, as the term goes, are labourers. Mostly working in the Middle Eastern countries. This situation has ensured that palatial monstrosities can be found in the midst of verdant foliage and an absolute lack of local labourers. So much so, Kerala is now being revered as the 'Gulf' of India attracting skilled/unskilled labourers from other parts of the country. Economics.

The medical facilities in this place, be it based on conventional treatment, homeopathy or ayurveda, are among the best in the country. With 72 hospital beds per 1000 population, this state is on par with California (United States). The tribe of doctors and nurses practising here are in great demand overseas. After all, why would it not be the case? The people of this state are highly prone to both diabetes and cardiac issues among other ailments major and minor. Not so much to do with genetics as due to unhealthy consumption habits. Many do not even realise how serious the issues are until it is too late. Complexity.

Kerala is one of the few states in India, which is 100% literate. Yes, every person in this rather populous sliver of land is educated at a minimum to read and write at basic fluency level in Malayalam - the local language. English is also fairly practised. Yet, for all the education and intelligence, it has not necessarily translated into common sense. This is also the state where the highest amount of alcohol is consumed in India. Being inebriated at any time during 24 hours is absolutely fine for many! Especially if it is a holiday, then being pickled in alcohol is the norm. Tragedy.

The worm transforming into a beautiful butterfly is a miracle of nature. The Malayali worker transforming from slothful nature within the state, to a dedicated, hard working and entrepreneurial person outside the state is also a miracle. Of the human variety. This state is one of the only two states in India, which have been proudly governed by communist parties since democratic governance was established in India. Even today, strikes happen at the drop of a hat for all sorts of reasons ranging from fuel price hikes to public infrastructural issues and weird scandals. From college to old age, there are people ever so ready to strike i.e. stop work and disrupt the lives of everyone around. Yet, I have personally seen that my brethren are among the hardest working industrious souls in another country. Transformation miraculous.


Having said all this, I must also agree that it is a pleasure to have spent some quality time here. Hearing and watching red crested woodpeckers and blue black drongos right outside the house, while having broadband internet connectivity inside the house tells me there is yet hope and also equally many things to be proud of, in this state. Being an Indian is complex. Being a Non Resident Keralite, even more so. Understanding one, good luck.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Nice - the French Connection [end]

From the previous post: "...It is truly in us, what we make of ourselves..."

Melancholy

There always comes a time, usually towards the end of a trip, when melancholy sets in, for you realise that a wonderful journey is coming to a close. It makes us do things like buy memorabilia, take even more pictures and sometimes for me, I tend to stop at a point for that little bit longer to just try and capture the essences in my head. With two days left in this trip, I was determined to make the most of the time.

The first day started beautifully. It was a bit early, when we left for the beach at Antibes. One of the few beaches that is actually sandy, given pretty much from beyond Antibes it was for more rocky or pebble strewn.

Antibes beach
We had left early, so that it would be good to find a nice spot on the beach to chill out, leave our stuff, go swimming in the calm and cool Mediterranean. I borrowed the snorkelling gear from Bernard and swam around near the pier, trying to have a better look at the various fish swimming around. Then came to more shallower ground, stood around and actually shivered a bit. This got two middle aged ladies near me to start laughing! Turns out they were British and they good naturedly chatted with me and still laughed about my feeling cold, when to them it was ultra pleasant given the lower temperatures they were used to. After some time, got back to the shore, dried off. And the stomach had started growling too.

Breakfast on Antibes beach
We had taken a breakfast set up with us, so sitting by the beach, consuming muesli, croissants and coffee was gobsmackingly delicious. By this time the beach had started to fill up. After playing a bit on the beach, a game using paddles and a rubber ball, I was all hot and flushed. Back to the cool water. By now the sun was warming up and more people had crowded the space. We decided to leave, and returned home. Jia was leaving back to Paris, Bernard had work to do. So I decided to travel to Nice on my own, over the two days.

Nice

The days, were exactly all that I envisioned. It was calm, easy and mildly hot. Getting to Nice was easy, with the excellent train and bus system in place. I wandered around the place, weaving in and out of alleyways, temporary markets and people lounging around the entire place.

Came across a church, that looked interesting. Went in, looked around at the frescoes, paintings and general architecture.


Not too many folks were inside the place, not being a Sunday I guess. It was a small but welcoming space.

Just after this, as I was walking back to the main road, suddenly in front of a me, a lady trying to navigate her bike through the tiny road and the turnstiles in between lost her balance and fell down. Helped her get up. Got a grateful smile and the words merci beaucoup. Lifted my melancholic spirits a bit up.

Palais de Justice, Nice
Still walking around, found some souvenir shops. Picked up some memorabilia. I started developing the habit of purchasing curios with a magnet, so it would be easy to put it up on the fridge or a metalled space back home. Came across the Palace of Justice or city court as we would normally term it, which looked both, a bit ornate and imposing.

Promenade des Anglais, Nice
Still wandering around, reached Colline du Château (castle hill) and gazed down at the beautiful vision of the blue sea, pebbled beach and paved board walk. Interestingly, it is known as Promenade des Anglais or The English Promenade. Originally the Niçois or citizens of Nice had built their houses away from the beach. However, with the influx of English tourists who came across to enjoy the summer led to the development of this walkway and the place eventually came to be named such.

There were many other things that I saw that day, but these were the ones that were more memorable. On reaching back to Antibes, I came across this directional sign and I mused about where all I had been, what I had done, how much I had enjoyed and yet, I was confident that there was still a lot to view, experience and learn about France. Well, another time, was the thought in my head.


Finally, it had reached that time, when I needed to get back to Nice airport, and leave back for Muscat. Bernard, my good friend was once again kind enough to drop me back.


On seeing this sign at the airport, I could not help but wonder how culturally different was Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Shook hands, hugged and said bye. Then it was the charms of flying onward to Dubai and thereon to Muscat. As the plane took off, I made a promise to myself, someday I will return and explore France even more.

Time to say adieu and au revoir, but only for now. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Èze - the French Connection

From the previous post: "It was now evening, time to bid adieu to this lovely little country-state and get back to the charms of France."

It was yet another bright, crisp and beautiful morning in the little town of Antibes in southern France.

Today, I was headed towards a place called Èze-sur-Mer. Only by the end of the day, would I have realised how much this particular day had mattered and the profound effect the place would have made on me.

Eze

This lovely place had seen Romans and Moors in its past and has also had Egyptian influence at some point. It has been held by Turkish and finally French troops. It's also known as 'eagle's nest' due to its location at 1401 feet above sea level, overlooking a high cliff and a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean sea. The most famous person, we could possibly relate to is Walt Disney, who spent a significant amount of time in Èze.

Took the train from Antibes to Eze.

Èze-sur-Mer railway station
It was a quaint little station, with a towering backdrop. The first part of the visit to Eze was to go to the beach. Unlike beaches that I have been on, there was no sand here at all. Only rounded pebbles. In fact, till date as a memory of this trip, I have a rounded marble like stone that I picked up from the beach at Èze.

Èze pebbled beach
The water was crystal clear, calm, cool and felt great swimming in. Interestingly, a section of the beach was a nude beach, the first one that I had ever been on. I could only imagine the 'puritanical hullaboo' that such a place would have caused in a more conservative society, but here it was all normal and the people around were nonchalantly engaged in letting the wind caress and the sun tan their bodies. Whatalife!


Mid-way up the mountain at Èze
Once wind dried the water on the body, it was time to get back together with the rest of our little group and start the climb up the mountain. We were headed towards a medieval village, situated right on top. The climb was steep. Just 1400 feet high, not much of a distance isn't it? Trying climbing up a steep mountain. You curse yourself for not having been fitter! The muscles groan at each step, as the lungs do the best to take in as much oxygen as possible and deliver it to the blood being pumped inside at full speed by your racing heart. Yet, finally I also realised that it is really the case of mind over matter. It is sheer will power that makes a difference in the way in which you overcome any challenge - physical or not. The body is, but a tool.

Picnic lunch at Èze
It was a beautiful day, a gentle sea breeze blowing and the temperature was in the early 20s despite the sun being out in full strength. Mid-way, we stopped to have our picnic lunch, having packed it earlier in Antibes. The tossed vegetable salad accompanied with French baguette and cheese was simple yet delicious, nutritious and mildly filling. Rested for a bit, enjoying the scenery and the view of the Mediterranean, while taking some pictures. Then set off on the climb again.

If I had felt the pressure of climbing till now, it was nothing! Not when compared to what I had to exert my body to do, for the next hour or so of the climb. Mentally, I admit that I ranted and raved at every little vice of mine which may have had a role in the pressure I felt. And I thought I was doing a neat job for a regular guy, until wham! A sight that hit me, rather deeply, leaving me quite red faced, not wholly from physical exertion. A man wearing cycling tracks and a t-shirt, passed by me, quite agilely jogging up the path. I was to see him return as well a bit later. It left deep question marks in my head. About me. Sadly, I was not in a position to laugh at that moment, given my mouth was engaged in trying to remain as widely open as possible, to get more air inside.

It was exhilarating too. The views were indeed, truly gorgeous. Finally, the moment of pleasure. I had made it to the top, with the panting and chanting and all that. Paused a bit to take in the view.

Èze village layout
The medieval village on top, was no longer really inhabited by locals any more. Rather, it had been converted into an artists' village. The beauty and charm of this village attracts a rather large number of tourists. The motto of the village was the phrase: "Isis Moriendo Renascor" meaning In death I am reborn. With the emblem being a Phoenix there was no surprise as to why the motto. Of course, historical reasons do exist.

I walked around the place, observing some really unique and interesting work of art. Wood, metal and many other materials had been used in creating figurines, sculptures, paintings and more. Finally made it to a cute restaurant set up, quite near the top.

View from the top of Èze 
Sitting by a window, gazing out at the distant sea, seeing red clay tiled roof tops and a brass bell with an etching of Mary on it, I distinctly felt as if I had been transported back a few centuries and then some.

Notre Dame de l’Assomption built in 1764
Further exploring, led to this light ochre coloured church. Quite ancient. A visible landmark from quite afar. Cobbled pathways. Iron, mortar and stone walls. I could only imagine how much effort would have been made a few centuries back to create this place on top of such a location.

I stopped to get some caffeine into my system, which by now was showing signs of normalcy. With the endorphins sloshing around in the head and adrenalin still pumping around, I was quite calmly vociferous that we would walk down the same path we came, rather than take the bus back to the railway station. It actually takes more effort to walk down rather than climb up.

Made it. Got on the nice double decked train. Back to home base. In time to freshen up, prepare dinner. After getting off at the Antibes railway station, we went to the local Carrefour supermarket. Having lived in Muscat and visited Dubai, I was no stranger to this French chain of hypermarkets. What I had not realised was the sheer size and scale. Even in a small place like Antibes, it was humongous to say the least. The ones in the Middle East were relatively piddling, compared to the ones in the home country. We were going in for seafood dinner today. Also picked up different types of cheese for dessert.

A large selection of cheese
While, I had known about cheese, given the rather high fat content and my lack of knowledge about types of cheese, I had not engaged in consuming much, earlier. I learnt here in France, thanks to Bernard how many different types of cheese existed, how to consume and relish it, always accompanied with a glass of red wine or rosé. Also realised that it had something to do with the climate as well as amount of normal physical activity, for I did not even once see a French person who had a few extra pounds on. 

Yet another beautiful day had ended. And some profound realisations had dawn on me. Life is full of simple pleasures. We lose sight of it, in our daily grind. Not worth it. It is truly in us, what we make of ourselves.

Still more interesting places to discover. Continued in the next post.


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Monte Carlo - the French Connection

From the previous post: "As I slept off, the next day's agenda brought a smile to my face. I could literally hear the high pitched whines of very powerful engines."

Each day of this trip was so exciting, that even just waking up was enough to get the adrenalin pumping. Today, first we set off for a drive through some of the beautiful coastal areas around this place. With 25 kilometres of coastline surround Juan les Pins and Antibes, this was but a mere glimpse into what attracted humans from the 5th century BC to this resort town.

Sea, Sun, Sand

I have to say that it was a pleasure to be in a place where the sea was calm, cool and simply inviting everyone to enjoy its shimmering wavelets.

Calm waters of Antibes
Also it was a weekend, so more people were out and about, swimming, fishing, yachting or simply soaking in the sun on the clean beaches, though quite a bit of the coast is rocky. After enjoying the fresh cool breeze here, we headed towards Château Grimaldi. It is also home to the Picasso museum.

Château Grimaldi
It was definitely ancient, but very well preserved and in pristine condition. The place was quite laid back and no one seemed to be in a hurry to go anywhere. Which was such a pleasure and contrast to the fast paced lifestyle of a city.

Sea wall at Antibes
I found the history of this place quite enchanting. From the time that the Greek colony was set up 1500 years back, to its fall and rise again. In between, this very sea wall had been part of the town fortifications in which the town people lived a life of safety during the troubled ages.

As I walked through cobbled alleyways and squares it reminded me of an Victorian era gone past. While the mind plugged in a patina of glamour, reality may have been quite different in that period. However, some of the essences continued to linger.

Lively Saturday market, Antibes
As I had mentioned in the previous post about the Friday market, which was temporal in nature, so was the Saturday market that I reached now. It was busy with shoppers looking to buy products ranging from flowers to vegetables to herbs and pastes. There was some fabulous olive pastes that were heavenly to taste. I did pick up some Herbes de Provence - which is a mix of savory, fennel, basil, thyme and rosemary among others. It is quite nice to flavour fish and can be used in vegetable stews as well.

From here we headed to a small cafe. The coffee was delicious. As was the conversation. We then walked towards Gare D'Antibes - the railway station. It was a lovely walk on paved thoroughfares enjoying the sight of small restaurants on one side and the sea on the other.

Cute railway station
While I had heard about the European railways, I had never experienced sitting in any. So this was my first opportunity to see and be in one of these. The railway station was small, cute and efficient.


The train was nothing like what I had seen or been in before. Twin decked, it was an interesting ride. After a point, the novelty of being in the train wore off. But the views kept me extremely interested.


I snapped this picture, just after we passed a small town called Villefranche-sur-Mer. All along the ride, I could see beautiful undulating landscapes, azure waters and people engaged in paying homage to the sun.

Monaco / Monte-Carlo

Again, through sheer serendipity, I had blithely come across the time when the magnificent Grand Prix was to be held at Monaco / Monte-Carlo. This was where I was headed now. Monaco is the smallest (by size) and most densely populated country in the world! And it was as simple as buying a train ticket to get into the place, without any border control hassles.

It was much later though, that I would officially get to meet Albert II, the Prince of Monaco, when he visited Muscat during the Asian Beach Games in which I had been part of. He is an avid sportsman and quite involved in various sports related activities.

Since 1955, the streets of Monaco have witnessed the Monaco Grand Prix - widely considered as one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world. It is also one of the toughest Formula One race tracks, with a tunnel, incredibly narrow and tight turns and elevations.

I got there too late to actually get to the grandstand, as the race had already started. However, I did manage to get quite close to the barricades beyond which these powerful machines were being driven by men with amazing talent.


I soon realised, why many people were walking around with ear mufflers. I happened to be standing right next to the race course barricade when some of the Formula One monsters drove by. All I could hear for the next five minutes were the ringing tones in my ears, as these whining machines can produce sounds with sufficiently high pitch and decibels to permanently damage your eardrum should you choose to keep listening continuously. But the sheer power. Wow. As these machines went roaring by, it was enough to get almost all the muscles in my body quivering. Decadent as the sport may be, now I understood why people get so thrilled about watching it.

Force one truck
As I was walking past the area where the cars were transported to, assembled and then dis-assembled after the race, I noticed the Indian Force One team presence. Now I also understood why Vijay Mallya's UB group jet had been parked at the Nice airport and why his huge yacht was moored at Monaco.



After all this excitement had abated a bit, it was fascinating walking around the place, enjoying the statuesque beauty of the buildings and the place itself. I visited the Prince's Palace of Monaco, which contained many beautiful sculptures, statues and commanding views of the surrounding areas.

François Grimaldi, Monaco Palace
The statue is of François Grimaldi who, as history goes, very cunningly had disguised himself in the attire of a monk, got into the castle, drew his sword and led his army to victoriously capture the castle. As I approached the location, I saw a young child very curiously gazing at this statute, which does look quite real. I found this scene so interesting that I had to grab the chance and shoot a picture.

Interestingly, in all these days in France so far, I had not come across any of my Indian brethren. It felt different. Until now. Right on top of the hill, in that very place comes along one of my fellow countrymen, who was very audibly informing someone back home that he was in Monte Carlo at the Grand Prix. I have always failed to understand, why we have to be so garishly show-offish. And I certainly believe that it is important to respect the culture and customs of the place where we are in. Soothing calmness is something I have come across in various places in and out of India, never in the cities though. And I have grown to love it.

It was now evening, time to bid adieu to this lovely little country-state and get back to the charms of France.

Continued in the next post.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Antibes - the French Connection

From the previous post: "...As I was sinking into sleep, I could feel my heart still beating out the message, "yes, yes, beautiful French Riviera, yes, yes"..."

Antibes

I woke up to a glorious morning with mild sunlight and a nip in the air. It felt good to be in Antibes in summer. I actually had to take a moment to re-assure myself that this was not a dream and I was actually there.

Bernard my friend and the perfect host, had prepared breakfast already. An interesting thing at his house was that all the meals we had there, was while sitting on the patio, overlooking the lawn. In the morning it was beautiful, in the night exotic.


I found it so much more interesting. In India or the Gulf countries, chances are most meals are consumed inside the house. The weather usually does not permit otherwise. However, the nice, clean, crispy weather here makes it an absolute pleasure to be out rather that in the house.

Having had our breakfast, I set off with Bernard, to wander through the Antibes city centre. It was a small city located just perfectly in the middle of the French Riviera.


We first headed to the 'Mediatheque' as Bernard wanted to check his mail. I also took the opportunity to do the same. Additionally, I had a walk around inside the place. It was wonderful to see the attention to detail and impressive efforts put in creating a venue where both information and knowledge were available for all people. I think, it is only education and knowledge especially through reading, that can broaden our views on life and its challenges. Here, I could see from kids to adults of all ages using the facilities to know more.


It was also good to see the care, civic sense and efforts that had gone into beautifying the place, case in point was the random shooting fountain set up exactly in the centre of the town. We had walked here from the Mediatheque, as we were expecting to joined by another 'guest' who also has turned out to be a good friend. Jia, a girl from Beijing, who happens to be studying in Paris and had decided to couch surf with Bernard for that week. Just like me, this was her first visit to the south of France. After having received Jia, all of us went walking around town.


First place we reached was a Friday market. A temporary set up, it was a place and day on which people brought in art collectibles for sale. I saw some exquisite copper and brass artefacts as well as some pencil/charcoal sketches. I could see that people had the freedom to express their creativity and put it up for sale. Some were full time artists, whereas most of the sellers were hobbyists.


As we progressed walking through the small town, we came to a street which consisted of shops like the Charcuterie Lyonnaise and some local bakeries. Stepped into one, to pick up some French style baguette for lunch. The ladies running the bakery were very gracious with the bug eyed bloke busy photographing and eyeing all the goodies on display on the shelves. So nice were they, that I was even given gratis a bunch of rolls.

Having built up a good appetite, eventually we headed back home, where our gracious host prepared a lovely salad which we had with the fresh bread we had picked up at the patisserie.


Having lunch, accompanied with a lovely glass of Rose (pronounced ro-say) by the patio at noon was so out of the ordinary for me, that I was practically in raptures enjoying the moment. Of course to add further merriment, was some lively chatter.

When I had booked the tickets initially to come here, I had inadvertently and luckily picked a time when the famous Cannes Film Festival would be held. Imagine, for an avid cine watcher and advertising background chap like me, how wonderful it felt, when post-lunch we headed to, of course...(drum roll reaching a crescendo)...

Cannes


It sure was filled with crowds, not all of whom had arrived there to partake in the Film Festival. There were a lot of people, where were enjoying the beach scene as well.


Walking on the path that went past the venerable Carlton Hotel, it was absolutely clear that it was indeed film festival time. Watching the Academy award winning creator of movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, etc. - Quentin Tarantino walking just a few feet away felt incredible. Following him were hordes of paparazzi, whom he was adroitly evading.

However, a few metres further I saw a sight that left me stumped, to say the least.


A eye searingly bright yellow mustang, which had clear undertones of Indian influence with the words 'Jodhpur' and what looked like 'Mahabharat' written in Hindi on it. Also printed on was the signature of Buzz Aldrin (the second human being to step foot on the moon), which I couldn't for the life of me, connect to whatever else was on the car.

A bit further, on the beach side I could see an enterprising soul had painstakingly created a sand sculpture and had even etched Merci or thank you for some Euros, hoped to be tossed his way.


I have to say, the sculpture was closely resembling the visual of the squirrel who wouldn't let go of the lone nut from the film Ice Age.

After viewing the huge crowds who had gathered by now to catch a glimpse of the 'stars' attending the festival, it began to feel a bit pressured to walk around in that area. So we decided to turn into a parallel lane and started walking. When it hit me. The one thing that so many of us find so difficult to resist. I think, I not only lost a few kilos in drooling, I probably developed nerves of steel to have been able to walk away from it.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Chocolaterie.


The beauty of this particular shop was the creative ways in which chocolate had been moulded into masks, baskets, etc. All of course, fully consumable. And if by now, you still haven't felt even a bit of chocolate craving, here is something that I had the toughest time resisting.


French macaroons and dark chocolate with hazel nuts stacked so lovingly and waiting to be deliciously consumed! Indeed, after all this excitement I was trying hard to notice the other sights, sounds and smells on the street. Had to work hard. Real hard.

Finally started noticing that there were flowers all over the place. All streets were full of flowers in so many colours. In pots, hanging from posts, sprouting from sills, you name it. Also distinctly noticeable was the fact that people in France love their four legged friends. Dogs of all sizes, shapes, colours, breeds were visible on leashes, in handbags, in car windows. Watching a dog enjoying the breeze as it was being driven in an open top Mercedes Benz CLK convertible, I thought, 'this dog does have an enchanted life'.

By now, it was evening and we headed back home in Bernard's cute little car. Jia and I helped our host in whatever way possible to cook and set up dinner. The result was simply, magnifique!


I realised that cheese and wine were essential components of any dinner in France. I have to admit some of my tastes, especially red wine, are quite influenced by this wonderful French experience.

Having finished the dinner, topped off with a simple but tasty dessert of crushed apple with cinnamon sprinkled on top, we spent some time chatting before retiring for the night. As I slept off, the next day's agenda brought a smile to my face. I could literally hear the high pitched whines of very powerful engines.

Continued in the next post.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The French Connection

As mentioned in my post on Passion and being a passionate traveller among other things, I thought it would be a good idea to publish, some of my travel related adventures. I started with Hong Kong in Asia, moved on to Tanzania in Africa and am now shifting to Europe.

The idea

To me, travelling is an essential part of the journey through life. In my opinion, securing an opportunity to travel, is akin to securing an income every month. Both are required to be able to live a life, fully. Usually.

Some time back, I was introduced by a friend, to a social network called Couch Surfing. The philosophy of this network is quite simple. It is a network that lets you develop an understanding of peoples, places and cultures. In short it promotes inter cultural connections.

When I was based in Muscat, I became an active member of this network. Whether it was meeting up with like minded people who were already residing in the city or hosting people who were aiming to develop a better and more local, rather than 'touristy', understanding of Muscat through me.

My first 'guest', who has eventually turned out to be a good friend goes by the name of Bernard. He is French and an intrepid traveller who has been to many parts of the world. A complete gentleman, he was my first experience of hosting a person through the network.

We had a great time in Muscat, during the week he stayed over. We connected easily and became friends. I was able to learn so much from his various travel experiences as well as the good values by which, he lived life. By the time he was about to leave, we had discussed and agreed that I would visit him in France. In a place called Antibes.

This series is a recollection of the wonderful time I had, thanks to his generosity, in the beautiful French Riviera.

Pre-trip preparations

The old adage is that a journey begins with the first step. Today, it is more likely to be the first click. So with the trusty mouse and laptop in hand, I searched for the best airfares to Europe. Managed to get a good deal with Emirates Airlines. Tickets booked and confirmed.

Now comes the bit about the visa. As I mentioned in my African Safari post, as an India passport holder, one of the key activities in getting ready for international travel, involves getting the visit visa sorted out. Went off to the French consulate. Found out that I was eligible to get a Schengen visa. However, I would pretty much need to provide every possible document demonstrating my ability to reside in France for a week and more importantly, a strong committed reason to actually return back to Muscat.

Many a times, I have thought about this. I understand that the Indian government has not entered into reciprocal arrangements for providing visa on arrival norms. However, the main reason why the Indian passport holder has to prove s/he will return back to place of residence is simply because there have been way too many Indians who have managed to get into a country and vanished without a trace, to eventually surface as a illegal worker and after a point of time becomes the citizen of that country or a neighbouring territory. All in the pursuit of a better life. Understandable, given the systems and great governance of our beautiful country, until a few decades back. It does mean however, that even today for any Indian, who wishes to travel to another country, unless the immigration officials are satisfied that the person is a genuine traveller who intends to only visit and return, getting a visa becomes rather tough.

Thankfully, I received full support from my work colleagues and the management at the advertising agency where I was employed. Though I had all the relevant documents, I still went with some jitters to the embassy. Fortunately, I was approved to travel. Yes! What a sigh of relief.

The journey

Driving to the airport is such a joyful feeling. The joyfully trembling anticipation of getting into an aircraft, flying way above the clouds, the aroma of food and beverages being served, the superb in flight entertainment system called ICE on Emirates Airlines and above all the good service, especially as I was not on any of the UAE-India sectors. Flight was Muscat - Dubai - Nice. Flight from Muscat was good, no hassles other than the standard Dubai processes - remove the shoes, remove the belt, etc. Thankfully there was no iris scan this time.

As the flight from Dubai to Nice was taxing for take off, I could not help but notice how similar the Dubai airport looked to a caterpillar.

Dubai airport
While the infrastructure looked and is really modern in Dubai, the landscape is dry and dusty as behoves a dry desert environment.

Dubai viewed from above
While the Nice airport was not really comparable to Dubai, the difference between the Gulf and European landscape could not be more evident. Sun kissed beaches and a glimmering sea right next to the landing strip.

Nice, France - first view from above
Bernard was kind enough to come pick me up from the airport and drive us back to his beautiful house (more on it later). After putting my baggage in the room, we headed to a place called Juan les Pins which I would get to know well, over the next few days. Perfect, cool, crisp evening and a beautiful start to the trip.


It really was the French Riviera. I was finally here. What a moment. The beach was beautiful. The people were care free and relaxed. It was summer time, so long days and shorter nights. Going from a place in the middle east, where culturally it is not acceptable to show much of your body to a place like the south of France, where culturally it was acceptable to being very lightly dressed, if at all, was like a culture and perspective shake in some ways. Realisation dawns - the world is so different, just a few hours apart.


To me, nothing could be more starkly reminiscent than this beautiful sculpture of a nude lady waiting, by the board walk at Juan les Pins.

Sea Gull, Juan les Pins, France
The only creature gawking at me, while I was in my photographer mode. Nobody else, could care less about being photographed. Everybody appeared relaxed, having a good time, generally happy and carefree.


I was enlightened about a very interesting law about the beach area by Bernard. While private owners could restrict their space to only those people they wanted, everyone had access to the sea shore and a through fare area had to be provided. This meant that we could actually walk all along the sea shore for kilometres, while passing by restaurants and beach beds.


This beautiful mansion and beach resort, captured my eyes as I walked past. Finally, we called it a day. Went back to the house, had some great wine and an excellent dinner prepared by Bernard. We talked for a while, catching up on the time since we last met in Muscat. Then it was time to sleep. As I was sinking into sleep, I could feel my heart still beating out the message, "yes, yes, beautiful French Riviera, yes, yes".

Still more amazing experiences to come. In the next post. 

The Chances We Take. Or Not.

Book under review: Ahmed Faiyaz,  Another Chance Grey Oak Publishers, 2010 ISBN: 978-93-81626-02-3 Rs. 195 We all know...