Long Chinese tales

For a long long time China meant Bruce Lee and the Great Wall. My first glimpse of China was through a Ladybird book on Marco Polo. A large part of this illustrated book contained images of the Mongol invaders and the Great Wall. As I grew, I got to learn more from Bruce Lee and later on Jackie Chan. With such stereotypes, I set out with my family on a trip to China in 2015.

My parents and I share an aversion to group tours except when it involves family. In this regard, I do prefer the backpack approach in a group not larger than four, but Mum decided to make things interesting and added her sisters to our China trip. And it turned out to be real fun. So you had Aunt Gemma and Uncle Vivian and Aunt Jovita coming down from the States and the four of us on a 10-day trip.

Via Hong Kong, we reached Chongqing (famous for the Chonqing Express) and got onto the Yangtze River Cruise. The cruise was amazing and we were on board for three nights going through the largest river in the world. So large, that even small ships made their way through its waters. With stops on the way at historical monuments and finally the entry through the Three Gorges Dam gave us an insight into this marvellous engineering feat.

Xi’an and Beijing were equally brilliant and I must say the guides assigned to our group were really fun. They were English students who were moonlighting as guides for foreign tourists. Aunt Jovita took a real shine to our guide Lucy who helped her get a Hello Kitty case for her iPhone. We were really fortunate to have guides who were patient and really warm to us. Having reached Xi’an, a few weeks after PM Narendra Modi, we were privy to the terracotta warrior selection backdrop against which he had posed for shutterbugs. There’s one thing about China, it’s history is meticulously chronicled and maintained. Their monuments are preserved carefully and restored wherever possible.

Beijing meant the Great Wall – that magnificent edifice against the Mongol invaders or dragons? The journey through the cable car gives you a wonderful view of the mountains around Beijing. And then you have the Wall, an exhausting and steep climb to the scenic spots, but definitely worth the effort.

All in all it was a memorable trip and a real fun episode with the gang. From bargaining with vendors, to negotiating the menu in restaurants, this was a real Swiss family Robinson adventure with a few more pleasures and comforts thrown in.


American Odyssey Part 3 – NY and Atlantic City

The final leg of my journey may have ended in Philadelphia but it included three days of early March madness through a windy and cold New York and snowing Atlantic City. We took off from Philly for the 2 hour drive to New York through the mild snow and rain. Heavy traffic through the Lincoln tunnel ensured that we reached a little later than usual as we were in a rush to take the NY Sights and Sounds Tour. We did manage to get on the tour bus close to noon. It was quite a good tour that included visit to the Statue of Liberty, Top of the Rocks, and the usual downtown Manhattan, Broadway, Wall Street et al. In 1984, we didn’t get a chance to get to Liberty Island due to renovation on the statue. This time we got up close though we didn’t get off the ferry due to lack of time. The Statue doesn’t look as big up close and well not too majestic, but well, I saw the Statue of Liberty. As we made our journey downtown on the double-decker buses the snowing began, ever so slightly. We were well behind time and our next stop after passing all the major landmarks like the UN Building was the Top of the Rocks that my cousin had advised me not to miss at all. We got down at 30 Rock and made it past the NBC Studios desk on the ground floor with our Top of the Rock tickets.

The view is breathtaking. You get to see downtown Manhattan and the Liberty Island from far and the view from the Observation Deck in the cold wintry weather was an experience to cherish. I loved Top of the Rock cause it really makes you feel on top of the world with some of the best views of New York. On our way down we did a bit of souvenir shopping and then made it back to Times Square for the ride back with my uncle and aunt to Atlantic City.

Atlantic City was a whole different ball game. I have never gambled save for the local fancy fetes where I went into those hit or miss lotto games (if you call that gambling by any yardstick). We made our way to the Borgata Casino, a place where some scenes of The Sopranos were filmed. Luxurious and enticing are the words I would subscribe to while entering the casino. The suite that was provided to my uncle gave me an idea of how valuable a customer he was. And while my aunt and uncle hit the blackjack tables, (a game I have absolutely no idea about), I hit the penny machines. A generous allowance from my mom and aunt made this possible. I did win big at one of the machines ($141 to be precise, on $20) and then greed got the better of me. In the end it was quits and I watched my aunt play at the blackjack table and still couldn’t figure out what was happening.

The evening was spent at a stand-up comic show that featured three comics, one of whom was on the Jay Leno show. While the first two were hilarious the Jay Leno guy wasn’t too funny and the laughs certainly didn’t enliven the hall. The second stand-up, a lady in her mid-sixties, was hilarious. She was good and really lively. A fun evening that ended two nights at the Borgata. I was told celebrities came around there often from NY, so I did keep my eyes open but didn’t bump into anyone. Maybe it was the snowstorm that had begun raging outside.

American Odyssey Part 2 – Philadelphia

The second leg of my journey (technically the third, but I am not counting the business part of it), began on an early morning in Orlando where I caught the 6 AM flight on a non-stop to Philadelphia. After a peaceful flight I caught my first glimpse of the frozen Philly lake and the docks as the plane landed on an extremely chilly morning. I knew it was cold and braced myself for a really freezing welcome. As soon as I reached the luggage carousel I saw my Aunt Jovita run up to me with a huge bundle in my arms. And there was my jacket. Good ol’ A. Jovita had brought a large and warm jacket for me and I immediately got into it with my sweater beneath. It was great seeing Aunt Jovita (again another of my mom’s sister’s) and Uncle Francis and we began our journey back home to the suburbs.On the way we made a stop at the Rocky steps at the Metropolitan Museum and the Liberty Bell before we had an awesome Japanese lunch at Teikoku. The Rocky steps were particularly memorable as I love that movie and I did try reenacting Sylvester Stallone’s run to the top. With my large jacket I looked like the Michelin Man running up.

Philly is vibrant, crowded in places and cold. Getting back to the suburbs, the picture postcard like setting made it a sight to behold. While my first lunch in Philly was Japanese, the evening included meat puffs, ham and cheese croissants, pork ribs in honey chilli sauce – all prepared by my aunt. And they were amazing. Oh and not to forget, I joined my uncle on a trip to Rosy Kutti’s place – A malayalee lady who prepared chicken stew and appams Mallu style. The trip was made through sleet and snow in the evening, but it was well worth it.

American Odyssey Part 1 – Ormond Beach, Daytona, Orlando

Continuing the chronicling of a short two week trip to the US earlier this year, Ormond Beach turned out to be that quite getaway with the nearby cities of Daytona and Orlando providing a delightful nightlife that was as relaxed as a well fed swamp gator. From John D. Rockfeller’s beautiful winter home in Ormond Beach to the Daytona raceway and Orlando’s PF Chang’s , this was one beautiful, relaxed stopover. I owe my mom’s younger sister and uncle for hosting me here and for taking me around Florida. All my fears about catching a cold or any other weather related illnesses with the fluctuating temperature were laid to rest with the two doctors in the house.

Florida Diary

I am writing this post on a cold Florida morning, sitting on the dock behind my aunt’s place with seagulls flying about and a speedboat on its way in the near distance. From this dock I get a panoramic view of the Peninsula bridge and get engulfed by the mist every half an hour.

By the dock behind the home
By the dock behind the home

I have been down in the US for a little more than a week and from the warm environs of California I am now in cold and not so sunny Florida. The weather has played hide and seek with the warm, sunny Floridian weather nowhere to be found. But don’t get me wrong, the place is stunning. From the Atlantic shores to the beautiful parks and recreation centres and hosted in a lovely Ormond Beach address, my holiday has officially kicked in after the work visit to Anaheim, CA.

Ormond Beach is a quiet exclusive community off Daytona Beach and an hours journey from Orlando. Exclusive – considering the fact I am hardly 300 metres away from the winter home of John Rockefeller. I had last been to Orlando in 1984 and it was a purely Disney visit at that time. This time Orlando meant P.F. Chang‘s and shopping in some exclusive stores – Dillard’s to be precise. And of course a visit to ‘Mary, Queen of the Universe‘ Basilica, a pilgrimage point for many around the area. Florida is laid back, You get the feeling the moment you enter the small plane that gets you from Charlotte to Daytona Beach. The Daytona Beach airport is as small as a mini mall. But the lack of traffic and crowds make this a perfect vacation spot and I am soaking in every bit of it.

Ormond Beach
Ormond Beach

I am not a great fan of shopping, but travelling does present its fair share of shopping experiences. And I learnt about new brands too from my sister. “Get a Coach bag for mum, get a roomba for yourself, J’adore from Dior for me”, these instructions from my sister made me that little bit educated about the finer details in shopping. As I get ready for Philadelphia, the cold winds from Florida would be like warm summer compared to the freezing temperatures up north. I have my woolens ready for the next leg of my journey which I am told would include Casinos, New York and maybe Manoj Night Shyamalan’s haunts from the past.

Mysore Cannonball Run

A road trip was due this year. And I really needed to brush off the grime from a hectic week – hectic but highly productive. And to top it off the weekend had me give a two hour lecture on corporate communications at St. Josephs college PG Studies Department. Fortunately that went off well too and I did heave a sigh of relief that I had somehow managed to keep 50 post-graduate students attentive and got them to ask questions on a Saturday afternoon. That done, it was time for lunch with the staff and then scoot.

So I make my way to Jayanagar to pick up an old grumpy cat of a friend, Sandesh Shenoy (and he does love the grumpy cat memes), and we set off on this impromptu journey to Mysore. This was a long pending journey with him and we just wanted to get out of the city for some ‘peace and quiet’. The NICE road was a perfect setting for the start of this journey. Even though I hate afternoon drives, what with a heavy lunch in your tummy and the sun bearing down on you, one really feels for a snooze. However with Sandesh there’s no snoozing. Judas Priest was blaring loud enough to keep me awake and as we exited onto the state highway we also had our rooms booked. Talk about spur of the moment decisions.

The traffic on the state highway is stupid. There is no lane sense and changing lanes is as dangerous as the tora tora cars in a mad carousel. I had to keep alert and maintain a steady speed to avoid any untoward incident. I had my Thums Up and Sandesh had his Pilsners and it was more than enough to keep us alert – me actually. And we did reach Mysore in one piece. The rumblers did us in as they slowed our progress towards Mysore. Chamarajnagar and Mandya have rumblers sprinkled across that route and they really get on your nerves specially with it being a state highway.

Brothers Grimm

Reaching Mysore at 8 PM, we drove around a bit before we finally managed to get a clear idea of where our hotel was. Mysore is clean, really clean compared to Bangalore and you can see the shops along the main commercial areas are quite conscious of their cleanliness at the end of the day with carefully swept pavements and the garbage neatly piled. The Park Lane hotel is situated near an actual park unlike many other hotels that never reflect what their names say. It was a comfortable accommodation and the air-conditioning was welcome in the slightly dull weather. The slight humidity gave a hint of rain but nothing else. We collapsed on our beds and ended up watching Mr T “Pitying the fools” on World’s Craziest Fools. Boy was it hilarious and we laughed our a***s off this one.

Dinner at Park Lane was so-so, but after a good nights sleep the continental breakfast was quite good. The french toast and cheese masala omelettes did wonders and so did a strong brewed coffee. The coffee was amazing. You could taste the Chicory blended brilliantly in. And so we set out once again in the afternoon – 12 to be precise. We checked out and drove around Mysore a bit. Having seen Mysore in detail earlier, we now headed off to Srirangapatna where Tipu Sultan’s summer palace is located. Well maintained and with manicured gardens it did bring in a few yawns but then we did the touristy thing of standing with the canons and getting someone to shoot us. It was hot and our irritation with the heat did reflect on our faces. Oh and then was the hilarious case of Sandesh being mistaken for an NRI or European. If not for the choicest Kannada gaalis, Sandesh would have had to shell out 100 bucks on a 10 buck ticket.

By this time we were hungry and as we set off to Bangalore, Sandesh got some leads on where we needed to stop for ragi mudde and naati koli curry (that’s ragi balls and wild fowl curry). Through the Bangalore Foodies Guide Facebook page, Sandesh was guided to try Vaishali, a highway hotel between Mandya and Chamarajanagar. No problem, with all the humps we were able to gently make our way here and the food was worth the appreciation it received on the Bangalore Foodies blog.

Sandesh got an SOS from his mom to buy jackfruits on the way as they are much cheaper in this part of the world. So we stop at a point where this guy has some 5-6 jackfruits lined up by the side of the highway. A good haggle later we have 2 huge jackfruits and a half opened one int he back of the vehicle. The smell is tolerable but it starts getting on my nerves as we approach Ramanagaram. And then we stop at Rasta Cafe.

Rasta Cafe is a quaint cafe situated just off the main highway near Ramanagaram. I forget whether it was before or after the town. Anyway I needed a coffee – a cold one that too. And I got it. Rasta has a limited menu. The setting has a Bohemian feel to it, I can’t place my finger on whether it’s put on… there’s so much “Bohemian-themed” stuff going around town that you reach a stage where you  just don’t care. Nice cold coffee though.

And that was that. It was one hell of a “chilled” outing that really unwinded us. I love driving and Mysore was a good place to go to. Next stop – Kodaikanal?

Sore Plums in India from Her Majesty’s Trade Mission

Top Gear Gang
Top Gear Gang ‘It’s all about thrust and power eh’  – L to R – Richard Hammond ‘Hamster’, James May and Jeremy Clarkson ‘Orangutan’

They all want to do business in India and who are we to stop them. The East India Company was here and a fine job they did. Circa 2010-11 – James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson land at India Gate and have a look around. And they are a part of David Cameron‘s finest trade ambassadors. It’s a mission and it’s not impossible.

But hey, can you Jaguar your way with a Rolls and a Mini Cooper for company on India’s busiest streets? And with a motor mouth like they have, you have one of the greatest episodes on TV out there. Top Gear never felt this good. And I am an Indian. You will realise why I resort to such chest thumping.

Pulled up post their India episode by all the liberal cuckolds in London and India, Top Gear was nearly forced to apologise for something that is a classic if there ever was one. Clarkson and gang run with the dabbawallahs with pure British horsepower (the Germans contributed here and there and India owns a major chunk of one), take the leap in a train, break into a sweat in Rajasthan, before heading for the cool climes of the Himalayas. India has never been chartered so wittily.

Wondering what the fuss was about, I got a chance to watch the complete 90 minute episode online. Bing, Bang, Poof… these guys sure know how to entertain and pull a rabbit out of a hat. They did that through and through. First running the dabbas through the streets with Hammond ‘the Hamster’ dumping half the dabbas, curries and all, on the Churchgate street as his Mini Cooper made a Bourne Identity-like car swerve. James May was his usual OCD self but looked like he landed in Sanjay Gandhi National Park trying to deliver his dabbas with the Rolls not doing much when it comes to navigation. Clarkson drove the Jag to the hilt. Pedal to metal and the dabbas on the floor. Sambar boot space he got in the end.

I dunno how they managed it, but the Mumbai-Jaipur train journey was a laugh riot. Not for the three musketeers though. They puffed and painted their way with banners that spke wonders of Her Majesty’s business acumen and what she had to offer and pasted the train cars with the message of a lifetime – “The United Kingdom Promotes British IT for You” and British bakers got a boost with “Eat English Muffins” being promoted with great fanfare.

A minor change in bogies at Jaipur ensured that the message remained on the train cars with a slight realignment of letters. The images below would clearly define this.

Aah… I got IT
How I love doing business with the pommies

“Manual labour and queueing are two things I can’t do,” so says Clarkson. But he sure has a lot of patience putting up an elaborate set up for the “Trade Missions” gala nite at one of Delhi’s poshest suburbs. And boy, what a night it was. Pants off, the best sports car keys in a bucket, boring the arc lights off the glitzy women, feeding McVities biscuits with sour cream on top and passing it off as Gordon Ramsay manna… ha it was a sight to behold and truly exposed Delhi’s shallow underbelly.

This is Brit humour documented with some of the sharpest screwballs in history. The British cars, standing for all that is under Her Majesty’s bonnet, made it up to the Himalayan foothills and boy what a journey it was. Ragged, but definitely worth it, and I would say, India has been cheerfully exposed for all it truly is – beautiful, slimy, crowded, stupid, inventive, breathtaking. Yup, I loved it. Keith Vas and all you sods out there trying to drop your liberal pants whenever Mr Clarkson catches a stinging cold… go ahead, do it. Do it by the Thames, will ensure there are sharks at the river’s edge.

Day 1 – Chikmagalur

Chikmagalur never changes. Landing in Chikmagalur, the cold surprisingly wasn’t there. It was cold… but it did not hit you, the way it did earlier. Four o’clock in the morning and I end up on the phone as I wait for Dad to pick me up at 6:30. Dad arrives at 6:15 and we set off to the famous Town Canteen for breakfast.

Unfortunately, the Town Canteen, famous for its Dosas, is closed. We roam around the town as it slowly wakes up. Dad has some business around town and we want to finish that off rather than make the drive back later. As I mentioned, Chikmagalur is not a nice place to be in.

There are two main roads in Chikmagalur – The Indira Gandhi Road and the Mahatma Gandhi Road. MG Road is where the traders are located. IG Road is slightly ‘upmarket’. However the roads are being widened and along with it a lot of heritage buildings have had to cut off their existing façade. It’s a mess… construction materials scattered along the main road, mud thrown around as drains are being dug… the list goes on.

Chikmagalur Cathedral - Stopped by for a prayer
Altar in Chikmagalur Cathedral
Chikmagalur Cathedral and the Altar - Stopped by for a prayer
The Christmas crib at Chikmagalur Cathedral
The Christmas crib at Chikmagalur Cathedral
Mallandur Post Office
The Mallandur Village Post Office with the Baba Budan Hills in the background

We complete our work along with breakfast at Soundarya Hotel (the safest bet in Chikmagalur as all other hotels have an affinity for bringing you down with some sort of chronic intestinal disorder). We manage to finish our work in time for lunch and buzz off.

Denora Estate here we come. What a day…. Oh and we need to make a stop at the Mallandur post office to collect our post. No door-to-door postmen here.

Reach the estate and immediately take a tour as Dad says we need to make our presence felt as much as possible around the estate. So, up from 4AM and I am trekking through dense shrubbery as the picking goes on. Following this stay around the yard as the coffee is brought in and then get into the pulping room where the coffee is being pumped, suctioned and pulped.

Bath, accounts with the writer (estate ‘manager of sorts’), rosary, dinner of the freshest vegetables and the best dressed chicken in Chikmagalur and I am off to sleep. 10 PM. I am pooped.

(The photographs featured in this post are the sole property of the author of this blog)