Chuck's travels

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Japan closure and a small trip to the Netherlands

Before I start the blog posts reg. the US trip, I realize there has been no closure for the Japan trip on the blog. The Japan trip today is more than 2 years back and while the memories are still fresh, it must be admitted that was a mighty long time back.

Anyways, if you ask me what I remember vividly about the last few days in Japan, I have to say that between the irritations of a couple of more earthquakes, there were feelings of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness. The trip had ended about 15-20 days earlier than it was planned, due to various project constraints, and all three of us were going back. Japan had provided us loads of entertainment and pleasure for more than 2 months and we had become used to the catching of trains to go from spot A to spot B, going on long walks from our apartment complex on holidays, sometimes even till our office in Shinjuku, buying of groceries and exclaiming over the price …:-)

The excitement part was directly dealing with going home and meeting family again. All said and done, all three of us were married - me for less than a year – and all of us wanted to go back home. Of course, had I brought my wife with me, probably I would not have wanted to go back since life in Japan was so good. Yes, staying in office apartments and having all expenses being re-imbursed by the office is great but I am talking more about the quality of life. No broken roads, no rude auto / taxi guys, no drainage water to circle around when traveling on foot; probably the best part was the brilliant subway connections all through the country, making it easy to go from Tokyo to Shinguku to Akebonobashi to Hiroshima if one wanted. I should have brought my wife with me, I think now, but there were other constraints then which seemed to suggest I shouldn’t. What is the right answer, I don’t know, but hopefully someday I will come back here with her and show her the places I loved to roam around, especially Disneyland. Yep, definitely would love to come back some day even though that “big one” earthquake is still pending on Japan.

Didn’t get to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as I had planned in the very beginning of my trip here but I don’t regret that. If I had done it, then great else next time; history doesn’t do THAT much for me.

The last day when we caught the flight is still fresh in my memory. We would be taking a taxi from our apartment to a hotel complex a little distance away from where we could catch an Airport Limousine (remember … the bus???). All through the Limousine ride to the airport, we were silent, taking in the sights of Japan one last time. And then we were at the airport!

Tokyo Narita to Kuala Lumpur, a small break there, and then the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hyderabad. I don’t remember so much of the flight since I tried to sleep my way through it (not very successfully). I remember there was a lot of bouncing and shaking at times as the plane flew through slight turbulences, which re-inforced my belief that man if meant to fly would have been give wings, but the flight as a total was pretty uneventful. On the way to Japan, I had mentioned that we didn’t have veg meals mentioned against our name and so had to live on biscuits and stuff, but on the return flight we got hot veg meals as had mailed the office travel agent to confirm the same with the airlines before leaving Japan. And finally we were landing in Hyderabad!

My dad and wife had come to the airport to get me, and we took a taxi home. Hyderabad felt good to be back in, even with the lousy traffic we had to face on our way back.

Finally, the Japan trip had ended. For me, at least, though SB went back two more times in the next one year, each time for a couple of months, and once with his wife, lucky chap.

The next year, in 2006, I went to the Netherlands for a short 10 day trip. It was a hastily made trip, and since my company had gotten taken over (again), it wasn’t very sure again till the last couple of days whether I was indeed going there or not. Finally I did, flying KLM with my colleague MB. MB wanted to fly from Delhi since from Delhi, KLM flies a Boeing 777 while from Hyderabad, they fly a MD-11 which he didn’t quite trust. So we flew from Hyderabad to New Delhi by Jet, and our brilliant travel agent had booked us so the time between the Jet flight and the KLM one was real tight. The Jet flight got late for take off itself and we reached Delhi late as a result. Jet’s shuttle bus provided to take the international passengers from the domestic terminal to the International terminal had already left and the idiot at the desk made noises of “the next bus will be here soon” while time got short for us. Finally, at our shouting and also the shouting of some of the other passengers similarly stuck, Jet arranged for a Tata Sumo to take us from the domestic to the international terminal. The guy drove real crazy, and in Delhi, one actually has to come out onto the roads of the city to go from the domestic to International terminals. So the guy broke speed records and gave the Bluelines a run for their money and finally brought us to Indira Gandhi Airport, (International).

Immigration lines were long, as we knew they would be and we were getting mightily close to the flight time which was 12:15 AM (I am a bit hazy about the time). I remember standing at the immigration counter at around 11:30 P.M. Fortunately, we had already gotten our boarding passes at the domestic terminal so the airlines knew we were traveling with them and soon enough there was a guy shouting “RS and MB, KLM passengers flying to the Netherlands”. We were still back in the line at the time and we signaled, and he moved us to a priority line where we got our passports stamped and rushed onto the plane. We both were the last passengers on board and they closed the doors even as we were walking towards our seats. We had made it, just by the skin of our teeth.

An uneventful journey followed where I think I slept the entire time, and we were soon landing at the Schiphol Airport at Amsterdam. Both of us put up at the Hilton at Soestduinen and in fact, there is a funny story behind that.

We had come to have meetings with some of our US folks and they were put up at the Hilton whereas my office here wasn’t really keen on it since the hotel charges are high. Finally the guy who was co-ordinating the meetings, a Peurto Rican born American named MP, brought forward the point that all of us staying at the same hotel would improve in errrrr … bonding. So we also went to the Hilton where I remember my room fare per day was about 136 Euros per night (breakfast included). I don’t know about the bonding part but the hotel was excellent in terms of the luxury it offered; a great gym, swimming pool, sauna and steam bath; oh yes, I did shoot a game of pool with one of the US team guys so I guess the bonding part worked too. BTW, I have never seen him or heard from him again as I moved out two months later to a different product.

I was new to the product for which we had come for discussions and so my part was more to listen than to talk, and that can get boring after a while. Anyways, five days later, the meetings ended and the Americans flew back, and MB and I moved from the Hilton to a smaller hotel called the Legement De Gaaper for another three days, where we had to prepare a demo for a couple of our products. MB had to further travel from the Netherlands to Canada to give those demos to some big shots of the company that was acquiring us, and so we worked from the hotel to get the thing ready. Also roamed around in the evenings as this new hotel was in excellent surroundings to just get out and walk around. At the Hilton, there is nothing like getting around and walking, since it was located in the middle of nowhere, but here one could get to the market center easily by walking. Another thing was the room fare of the De Gaaper, which came to around 90 Euros per night as compared to the Hilton’s 136 Euros or so. While the room size was definitely much smaller than the Hilton room, it was cozy enough for me, and more importantly, free internet which was not there at the Hilton.

It was a very nice hotel and the time of year when we had gone there (July or so) was such that the days were pretty long, and that helps when you just want to walk around and roam the place. Though the shops close at 6:30 PM, the pubs and restaurants still remain open and I got shocked a couple of times when MB suggested we go for dinner because it would be bright daylight outside, and it would only be on looking at my watch that I realize the time was getting onto 9:30 PM and definitely time for dinner.

One day RS (same initials as me...:-)), my erstwhile colleague and ex-classmate from my post-grad days, who is now married and settled in the Netherlands, came to meet me at the De Gaaper. She drove down with her hubby, and they took me out on a ride to their under-construction home (it is complete today and they are living there) and gave me lunch at an Indian restaurant. They also took me to some place where there was a LOT of windmills and sadly, I don’t remember the name of the place either with the windmills or where I went for dinner or where we visited their house.

Finally I flew back to Hyderabad, again via New Delhi by KLM. There was a one hour delay in the take off of the flight after the passengers had boarded, as the captain of the plane told us “Folks, we realized they still haven’t fuelled us”. Way to go, Captain, I am sure glad you realized it before you took off!!!

I guess they don’t fly Boeing 777s all the time to New Delhi as this flight was a rickety old MD-11 but despite taking off 1 hour later than schedule, we were hovering over New Delhi right on time. The hovering part was because there was reportedly no runway free when we reached there (on time, I might add, which makes me feel that they should have a bloody runway free for us, or were they just shocked at someone who had arrived on time?) and so the captain waited for the runway to be free. Kinda reminded me of the times I traveled on train with my family on our annual holidays to Madras, and our train would stop outside the various stations on the way waiting for a platform to be free.

I landed at New Delhi at around midnight and my flight on Jet Airways to Hyderabad was at 5:50 AM. So I caught a taxi and went home (being originally from Delhi, my parents are still there) for a few hours, reserving the same taxi to take me back to the airport at 4.

I was back home in Hyderabad around 9 AM and there ended a short and sweet trip. Probably my first trip to the Netherlands in 2002 was better since I got to go around so much then, but this time the experience at the Hilton was good; it isn’t everyday that you have the facility of a great gym, swimming pool, sauna and steam bath at your disposal and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

So now, I am ready for my latest trip, and that is the United States of America, in November of 2007. But all this writing has taken its toll, and I am off for a small round of roaming around my hotel.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Big quake, fun at disneyland and a digital camera

Somehow I never thought that earthquakes would take up so much time and space on my blog but it is happening that way. When I experienced the first quake, I thought – “ok it happens”. Then it was like – “ok it sometimes happens twice” … and then “thrice does for all … no more”. As of today, in the past month and a half I think we have experienced five earthquakes … or is it six? Today afternoon, there was a small one … I felt it but AB and SB didn’t … they told me later they saw on TV there had been another earthquake someplace … and I was like “guys, I felt it … and I am just a couple of floors below u”.

On Tuesday (August 16), we had the biggest of them all, as of now. We were in office on the 35th floor of the Shinjuku Park Towers building, and getting on with work … I remember I was standing and stretching my arms when SP said “guys … quake”. I couldn’t feel anything and I half wondered if SP was saying this just to scare us … now the entire bloody office knows the Indian guys r worried about quakes but SP is different … SP is Indian … so why should he make fun?

Then AB said “yeah I feel it” and still I couldn’t. “Still going on”, said SP and I concentrated hard on trying to feel what they were feeling. And suddenly, there was no need to try so hard at all. I could feel it without even trying … it was no ordinary tremor; the whole building seemed to be swaying and shaking. Soon, the room was shaking and trembling all over and I am not kidding when I say it wasn’t easy to stand still … it was like being on the deck of a ship in high seas … ok, maybe that was an exaggeration but it was hard to stand and be steady coz the entire building was swaying from one side to the other or that is how it felt. It kept on going for a long long time and I won’t deny that I was worried … earthquakes generally last some seconds and then stop … and I am not kidding when I say that the building kept shaking for about 5 minutes. Every minute or so, someone would say “damn, still not stopped” and then another minute later “still going on …. Yikes” and then again “man, when is this stopping?”. It wasn’t just us … almost everyone in office was exclaiming loudly in fear or astonishment … and with every sway, the building would make creaking noises … of course, it wasn’t the building creaking but all the fittings inside the hall that were creaking coz of the motion … but at that moment, the mind doesn’t work so sharply and it really seemed like the building was creaking. And then it slowed down …. And soon, we were stationary.

What is advised during times of quake is to get under the nearest table and stay there till it is over. One of us was ready to dive underneath and didn’t do so only coz the others were showing no signs of doing so … the human instinct of fear of being laughed at was stronger than the fear of the quake and while he looked longingly towards the underneath of the table and with fear all around the creaking and groaning room we were in, he didn’t dive in … said “lets go under the table” but when we didn’t respond, he didn’t either …. Poor guy! Probably he was the only sane guy among us … at least he had the idea of diving underneath. The rest of us were just frozen in fascination at the violence of the movement. We were on the 35th floor of a very well built building … there is a 5 star hotel (Hyatt, I think) from the 39th to 70th floor of the building … and to realize that we were swaying front and back meant our 70 floor building must be doing so too. Frankly, I was too amazed to be diving anywhere. Also, the fascination of it going on so long was there too … as I said we kept saying “still going on … damn, not stopped yet … man, this one is big; it hasn’t stopped still”.

Once everything was still, we noticed that everyone around us (all Japanese people) were looking mighty relieved … many of them were immediately connecting their browsers to sites where they would get information about the quake. How much was it, we asked a group of people huddled around a monitor … 4.0 was the answer. What the heck … 4.0 was creating all that hungama? Then we went back to our hall and obviously none of us went back to our work … all of us started surfing the net to find out the details … and I hit on it almost instantaneously … there was a small quake in the morning which we didn’t know anything about … and that one was 4.0 … the one we had just experienced hadn’t been updated yet … and within two minutes, we had it. 7.2 on the richter scale … a big one by any standards. In 1995, I think it was a 6.5 one that killed around 5000 people … of course the epicenter of the quake matters and this one was about 200 miles away from Tokyo and not on land … and still our building had shaken like a leaf.

As it happens, I guess this was a big test of the durability of the buildings they make here in Japan … the buildings are supposed to move with the quake … they are supposed to sway from the tremors and thus absorb the shocks with their movement … if they stand still, the tremors may break them. So by design, our 70 floored office building swayed with the quake and absorbed the shock … it wasn’t pleasant but I guess if it hadn’t swayed, there wouldn’t have been too much of the 70 floors remaining. 7.2 is no joke wherever the epicenter might be. That also explained why we felt the quake for so long – almost 5 minutes. The actual quake would probably have lasted much lesser but when the building started swaying to absorb the shock, it took time to get back to being stationary. I guess when we r talking about such a tall building, it can’t move and then become still at a touch of a button. It swayed … and swayed … and swayed a bit slower …and then slower still … and then stopped.

People in office looked pretty shaken up … as one guy put it, never had the office building moved like that before …. “u r very lucky to have experienced this”, one guy told us. Yeah, right … man, I feel lucky. Though admittedly, we were luckier than PR, the guy from Singapore who had arrived the same morning for some meetings related to our project … he was in a lift coming up to the 35th floor and as he put it – “everything was fine when I entered the lift … but as soon as it started to move upward, everything starting shaking and rattling … and I was like ‘let me out of here’”. In that tiny lift, it would have been scarier than it was in our big hall. Luckily for him, the lift continued all the way up and deposited him safely on the 35th floor.

Very surprisingly, there was minimal damage from the quake … in one place, an indoor swimming pool’s roof broke and injured the people swimming in the pool … but from damage point of view, that was it … yeah, trains were stopped and probably some damage here and there … but no loss of life and almost no damage to buildings anywhere. Amazing! Even after we went home and checked out our apartment, expecting things to have fallen here and there … nothing! Everything was as it was left in the morning … the TV didn’t fall off its shelf … neither did the microwave. Remember the last quake described by me in the camera shop … not one camera fell off its shelf … I guess when u live with quakes day in and day out, u learn to do things so unless there is something drastic, nothing happens.

There was a tsunami alert generated and there was a tiny tsunami that reached the shores of Japan … tiny enough not to do any damage.

Somehow I feel that when I leave Japan in around 40 days from now, I would have had enough quakes to last me for this lifetime. 6 odd quakes in the last month and a half and I guess another 3-4 before we leave! Man, this town is rocking.

It hasn’t all been about quakes in Japan … we been having some fun too. Three weeks back, we went to Tokyo Disneyland. I was surprised to know there r two Disney thingies here in Japan – one is Disneyland and the other is DisneySea. I never had heard of DisneySea before. Anyway, we went to Disneyland …. Reached there around 9 AM and stayed till about 7 PM. AB left at around 2 PM itself as he got a bad headache.

On the day of the Disneyland trip, we left our house at around 7:45 AM since the park opens at around 8 AM. We planned to leave early but u know how it happens. We had packed the lunch boxes we take daily to office … and had a couple of bottles of water. The previous day, I had looked up the route on the site (if the page that loads is in Japanese, look for a button saying “English”) and so following the directions given we caught a train from Gyo-Toku to Nishi-Funabashi on the Tozai line and there changed lines to the Musashino line. On the new line, the station for Disneyland is actually called “Maihama” station and it is around 10 minutes from Nishi-Funabashi. Overall from our house, it took less than half hour to reach Disneyland.

A note on the site we used to get the route – Really, these kind of sites are amazing. When I was in the Netherlands, I used the site to get around. These sites give u multiple options for getting from place A to place B and really, u don’t really have to know anything about the country … just take a printout of the directions given about trains and changing points and u r all set to travel. I am waiting for the day something like this is available in India. When I type “Akebonobashi” and “Hiroshima” as origin and destination at the Hyperdia site, it gives me various options for the journey including flight and the Bullet train options. Amazing!

Another note – I just mentioned Bullet trains, something Japan is famous for all over the world. Well, in Japan, they don’t say Bullet train. They say “Shinkansen”. So when u see the travel site and want to specify travel by Bullet train, choose “Shinkansen”.

Anyway … back to Disneyland. Man, the place was packed! It being Sunday, people were really out for a day of enjoyment … people everywhere … mostly families with kids sporting awed looks at seeing Mickey Mouse’s home … lots of couples … and a few stags, ourselves included. Ticket admission was 5500 yen per head and that included all attractions and rides inside Disneyland … so no standing around inside for tickets to this and that … just one ticket at the entrance and after that, the only time the wallet comes out is when u need to eat.

Roaming around Disneyland was like a dream … all these years u read of Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Cindrella and Snow White and suddenly u come to Disneyland where all of these characters are alive. The only complaint I have about this place is that they speak / write everything in Japanese. The first place we went to was called “Cindrella’s mystery castle” or something like that … a guide took us around a castle where everything was pitch dark and he kept on narrating something in Japanese … all round us, there were special effects with lighting and animation and it was all pretty cool. Our Japanese guide was a pleasant kind of a chap too, putting all his effort into his story telling and showing a nice set of expressions as he did so … fear, surprise, happiness etc. At one point of time, he jabbered something in Japanese and everyone laughed loudly … not wanting to be left behind, I laughed so loudly that for a minute, I wondered if I had understood his joke. Seriously, I remember when I was aboard a sightseeing boat on the Siene river in Paris, there was a French guide who was telling stories about the various tourist attractions we could see along the banks of the Siene. She first said everything in French … and then she repeated it in English. Seriously, when u know something like Disneyland is as much as a tourist attraction than a local attraction, there has to be a language factor planned into their calculations.

Anyway, we roamed around a lot that day. There was a boat ride on a huge steamer they called “Mark Twain’s steamboat” … there is a lake / water body going around in a circle somewhere in the heart of Disneyland and the boat takes a small round of that … generally takes around 15-20 mins to complete one round. Also did some canoeing in the same lake but the circle we took was smaller than for the steamboat. We also planned to go on a train ride that took people for a round around the Disney park. Initially, there was a lot of rush for this train ride thing and we took some “FastTrack” passes for the train. FastTrack is a concept by which you take a ticket that gives a certain time slot in the future (generally a couple of hours later) where u can just walk up and go in for a ride without waiting in lines. Else if u don’t want FastTrack, then just keep waiting in line and go when ur turn comes. However if u take the FastTrack pass, it gives u time to go elsewhere and do some other ride but u gotta be back in the time slot given in ur FastTrack pass … else they don’t allow u in. This FastTrack pass thing is a real time saver and doesn’t cost anything extra … but the catch is that u can only take one FastTrack pass at one time. Till the time the time period of ur first FastTrack pass starts, u cannot take a FastTrack pass for a different ride / attraction. We took our train ride FastTrack pass at around 11 AM and it gave us the time slot of 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM … so till that time we roamed around other places and came back later for the train ride. However AB wasn’t there since he left for home at around 2 PM.

The train ride was given as “Big Thunder Mountain” on the FastTrack ticket and I was wondering why they named a slow, old fashioned train ride such. It dawned on us when SB and I were waiting in line to finally go on the train … we had progressed almost more than half way into the line (and for that u have to go “inside” a tunnel) when we saw notices displaying the standard warnings of “This ride may be dangerous for people with high blood pressure … blah blah blah” and then we realized that this was no slow ride for old timers but some kind of roller coaster. SB immediately refused to go any further however much I tried to convince him and turned back to wrestle his way to the place where we had entered the tunnel … people must have been surprised coz everyone else was moving in the opposite direction … and they have barriers on either side of the queue to keep the queue orderly … so traveling back against the flow all the way to the entry point wouldn’t have been easy. Anyway so as it happened, I sat alone in the train (each seat can have two people … stags sit alone) and prayed to the almighty to let my lunch stay in my stomach. It wasn’t bad actually … the train went real fast and took plenty of curves at high speeds but the steepness of the up and down slopes wasn’t that bad … it is coming down the sleep slope part of roller coasters that I hate … and while it was there, it wasn’t bad. My lunch stayed in.

After that we went for the train ride we initially had planned on … the nice slow one aimed at people with grumpy stomachs … the two train rides were originating near each other and we had just taken the FastTrack pass for the wrong one. This time we got it right.

Earlier in the day, AB and I also went on another good ride called “Splash mountain” … u sit on a raft and it keeps moving along a tunnel of water built for the purpose … the motion of the raft is totally controlled by machinery … but at places, u have steep drops into pools of water and there the stomach goes “hupppppp”. The ride finally ended with the steepest drop of them all … which happens in a place visible from the outside as it serves as an advertisement for the ride. We had taken plenty of photos of this last steep drop from the outside but unless u have a pretty strong zoom, u cannot capture the people in the raft … but Disney went one better. They have strategically placed cameras inside the tunnel and at the point where the raft goes for its final steep drop …. And each raft is clicked at its point of drop … where people’s expressions r really worthy of being captured. I didn’t know this since all notices to this effect r written in Japanese and so while coming out, I was shocked to see myself on a photo on one wall, with eyes closed (I didn’t know I had done that … coz I remember seeing the drop before me as we went down … maybe I just closed them for one moment and that was the moment the photo was taken) and shouting away to glory as the raft tipped for the final drop. The cost of that one photograph was 1000 yen (400 rupees approx) but I just couldn’t resist buying it. SB refused to come for this ride either … just half hour earlier we had sat in a kiddie ride where there r many big tea cups placed on a circular rink … u sit in the cups (the three of us sat in one cup) and they start the machinery which make the cups zoom around all over the circular rink … obviously they don’t crash into each other since the machinery is handling it … but the people sitting in the cups have a wheel in front of them that makes the tea cup spin around in circles even as it zooms around the rink … AB and I really freaked out with the spinning and while we didn’t feel any after effects, I think SB’s stomach really took a beating.

We had lunch at around 2 PM … we had forgotten to bring spoons and so had to use hands … no spoons available anywhere as we really tried to search for a couple … as usual our lunch boxes contained rice items and we tried to choose a secluded spot where we could eat without people staring at us … using fingers to eat rice with the type of curries we have is not really a pretty sight … but since something more convenient wasn’t available, we put up in a eating place where the only free table was very much in view of the masses and finished our food “aaraam se”.

There is a show called “Rock around the Mouse” which they do out in the open about 5 times in a day at regular intervals … it goes through certain sections of Disneyland and ends up at a huge stage set near the entrance of Disneyland. It features Mickey and Minnie mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy Pluto and many other Disney characters in a procession of cars and accompanied by a great orchestra and cheerleaders (male and female). I remember they played out a spoof from the movie “Grease” whereby Mickey and Minnie mouse race a greasy haired “Elvis” looking guy and vampish girlfriend and beat them to the finish line … of course the “race” cars r moving at around 5 Kmph but the accompanying music and dancing made it a terrific scene. Also part of the procession are several carriages showing the princes and princesses from Disney stories. Excellent show!

There was a huge treehouse called “Chip and Dale” treehouse (u know … the chipmunks) and I went to the top of that … nice one though I didn’t really find it that interesting. Then there was Goofy’s house and Mickey’s house which we saw from outside as we didn’t have the time to go in.

I don’t know if Disneyland has any “dangerous” roller coasters coz we roamed around a lot and we didn’t really see anything too dangerous. Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain (train ride) were both listed as roller coaster “type” rides but they weren’t really in the big league. Disneyland is a big place and we didn’t really roam around every place coz simply put, there isn’t enough time … but I guess since it is more of a family place than anything else, the don’t want to keep stomach churning rides there.

Towards evening, just before leaving SB and I managed to get a couple of photos clicked with Donald and Daisy duck. SB was mightily thrilled at this event and happily remarked “Sahi hai … Disneyland bhi aa gae … Mickey Mouse ke saath photo bhi khincha liye” (Great … came to Disneyland … got photos clicked with Mickey Mouse too). “Mickey mouse”, I exclaimed … “when did u click photos with Mickey Mouse”. “Wohi abhi kiya na” (just now we did it, right), he said …. And I had the sad task of informing him that he hadn’t got a photo clicked with Mickey mouse but with Daisy duck. This information really didn’t dampen his spirits a lot and as he said “Wohi yaar … Mickey Phickey … sab wohi hai” (yeah, the same … Mickey or Phickey … everything is same).

As SB said, he isn’t really interested in all these cartoon related things … a few days later he asked me “Wo Tom and Jerry kitney ka liya tu” (For how much did u buy that Tom and Jerry thing)? I was like “Tom and Jerry … what … when”? and he said “Wo Disneyland mein liya na Tom and Jerry” (the Tom and Jerry thing u bought in Disneyland … that one). Actually I had bought a nice big Mickey Mouse doll at Disneyland … so I informed him that I had bought the Tom and Jerry thing for 4000 yen. Sighhh!

Anyway, SB and I left Disneyland at around 7:30 PM and we were home by about 8:15. All through the day I had resisted temptation to buy stuff from the various souvenir and shopping places inside Disneyland … coz they r outrageously priced. I was mentally kidding myself for being a cheapo as we left Disneyland and was promising myself that the next chance I got (and I was fairly certain I wouldn’t get it) I would buy something from the souvenir shop. Disneyland has two entrances (exits while going out) in sequence and this thought process was happening when we had crossed the first one for going out and were approaching the second one. And old man Disney had provided for people like me … just before the final exit, there was another souvenir shop … the last one before u exit Disneyland … we had roamed a lot of these shops inside Disneyland but at this one, I made purchases … a Mickey Mouse doll for home (somehow nowadays I always remember it as “wo Tom and Jerry doll”), a mickey hairband for my neice (basically it has two mickey ears on it so when someone wears it, they can be mickey mouse), two tea cups in the shape of Donald Duck and Mickey mouse for the missus. In total, 8000 yen ka jhatka … ;-) … that brought my day’s total to around 15000 yen.

We took a lot of photos from my camera and AB’s. My camera is a film one and I have to wait for its processing and printing but AB has a digital camera and so we were able to see the photos as we took them and send them out to family and friends. Even after he left in the middle of the day coz of a splitting headache, his camera remained with us enabling us to click photos till the “Change the batteries” sign popped up. Good fun! Since then, I have bought myself a Digital Camera too so now I have two cameras.

I bought the digital camera at a place called “Akihabara” which is famous in Japan for its electric and electronic goods … u get good prices there and also plenty of variety … in addition u get to bargain which u generally don’t do elsewhere in Japan. As they say, if it isn’t available at Akihabara, it probably hasn’t been made yet. In addition to the many electronic goods shops there, u have several pavement shops that sell second hand stuff … stuff people say is a pretty good bargain but then I am not an expert in electronic goods so didn’t really feel like trying my luck.

I had read up a lot on digital cameras in the preceding weeks and had shortlisted my options to one of either “Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5” or the “Canon Powershot S2 IS”. Both were good cameras according to all the reviews and notes I picked up from the net but the Canon had a far superior video feature. Ok, so digital cameras aren’t really made for collecting video and with a 1 GB memory card, the Canon takes about 8 minutes of video at highest resolution … but that is the part that leaned me towards the Canon in the end. It is not that I want to take good quality video …just the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could do it.

The reliable suggested that we go from Gyo Toku to Kayabacho and change lines to Akihabara and we did precisely that. Once we got down at Akihabara, we took directions from a car rental shop to the “electronics city” and soon we were there. Actually, it was pretty near the station but we took a circuitous route in our searching.

We separated at Akihabara, each having how own particular likes and interests. So for the next couple of hours, I roamed around the many shops there and looked up the prices of the Canon model I wanted. The price differed from shop to shop and after roaming around for an hour or more, I had a fair idea of what a good price might be. Many of the cameras sold in Japan come with a “in Japan only” tag which basically means that they do not have an international warranty and come with their software / instruction manual etc in Japanese. The price varies for the domestic and international product (the products are the same whether domestic or international model but the international model comes with international warranty and software / instructions manual etc in multiple languages) and the international model costs more. Many of the shops were selling domestic versions of both the Panasonic and Canon while a couple had the international model for the Panasonic … none had the international model for the Canon. I wondered whether to take a chance and then decided to do it … I would be in Japan for another month and a half and that was enough time to make sure the camera worked fine. If I were to go on the basis of price, I had to wait till someone got me the camera from the US coz that is where I would get the best price … no point in getting the same in India for a much higher price … and who knows about the camera got from the US, the warranty might be “US only”. Here I needn’t depend on anyone else and even if the Japanese price was more than the US price, chalta hai …. Better than waiting for someone to do me a favor. Finally I ended up buying the Canon S2 IS at a store called Softmap … I got the standard package containing Camera / strap / batteries / USB cable etc for 48000 yen … and when I convert yen to dollars, I don’t think I got a bad deal at all … the price is comparable to the best price I got through searching the net for the same model in the US. As I said, the warranty is “1 year … Japan only” … but I got the instructions booklet and software CD in English. “Ur lucky day”, as the Japanese salesman who was selling me the product told me … yeah, right! I paid around 435 dollars for the camera (calculating 110 yen per dollar which was the prevailing rate around that time) and he tells me it is my lucky day coz I got a booklet in English. The other day, a Japanese guy in office was telling us we were lucky to have experienced that 7.2 magnitude earthquake. I think these Japanese guys have a weird idea of what luck is.

Anyway, the standard package comes with a 16 MB memory card (SD memory) and alkaline batteries. As one review I read while doing my R&D on digital cameras said – “Buy the camera … take the batteries and use them for ur torch … they aren’t much use for the digital camera”. So now I gotta buy a new memory card and NiMH batteries with charger. A 256 or 512 MB card should put me back by around 5000 yen or so and the battering another 1200 yen or so. These camera companies r crazy … it is not just the Canon model I got … all the digital camera in this segment come with the same specs … 16 MB card and useless batteries.

There are big discount chains in Japan like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera which offer good prices plus a points program. Basically they give u 10-20% value of ur purchase as points which u can use for ur next purchase. So if u buy ur camera at these stores, the points ensure u get ur batteries, memory card and camera case etc for free. But u gotta make them as a separate purchase and not on the same day as the initial purchase. This points concept is very popular here in Japan and I hadn’t factored in the value of the points when I decided to get the camera from Softmap … coz Softmap doesn’t give points. However, in the end when I looked at the price Yodobashi was giving for the Canon S2 IS, I think the deal works out to be the same … coz the price there was around 5000 yen more than I what got at Softmap. Even if u factor in the points which u get at Yodobashi and which I didn’t get at Softmap, things work out almost the same, give or take 1000 yen (around 10 dollars approx).

I haven’t yet bought the new card and batteries … the 16 MB card allows me to take around 10 photos before it says “memory full” and if I try video, it allows me around 10 seconds of video. Yesterday I taped AB sitting on the bed and waving his hands and while not an Oscar winning performance, it was enough to let me know that my camera had a pretty good video feature.

40 days to go before our flight back home and I can almost taste the samosas and chaats I am gonna drown myself in once I reach home. U can have a hundred Danish pastries and a thousand croissants … but they will never replace the “paapdi chaats” and “cutlet ragadas”. Yummyyyyyyyy!

Ok guys, this has been a long one ... as usual, some might say … see u sometime someplace … on this blog.


The Chuckster

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Another discussion on quakes

In the past two weeks or so, we have experienced three earthquakes. One was a decently big one, which I described some days back. This was when we were roaming around Shinjuku camera shops … the one that caused trains to stop. The other two were in the middle of the night and were relatively very small ones. Problem is that now we r in the new location, which is a high rise building with 11 floors. Bhargava is in the 11th floor and Sateesh is in the 10th floor. I am in the 6th floor. One of us is getting more than a bit worried, I think while the other two share a bit of his concern though not yet alarmed. Thing is – this new building has a lift service and a staircase, which is a small one that winds down the building on the outside. i.e. – when we r going down the stairs, we r actually very near to the edge of the building … in ordinary circumstances it is totally safe but still not for the faint hearted or those with vertigo. In times of a quake, personally I don’t think I will even try that staircase. And one is advised not to use lifts in case of an earthquake coz they will most probably go out of order and u will be stuck in the middle till someone frees u. So if there is an earthquake, the only option for us is to sit in our apartments and hope for the best. Not a comforting thought while sitting on the 6th, 10th or 11th floor of a building where we know no one … the area is also not a really residential one, unlike the previous one (Gyo Toku) which was completely residential … not to mention that earlier building was a single storied one … as the worried guy put it – “I could jump out of my window and run if there was any problem … now I need a parachute to jump out”.

It is not as if an earthquake is gonna come tomorrow … but the thing is that Japan is supposed to get a big earthquake anytime in the near future. Scientific studies even say it should have come last year.

Even one safety manual given to us in office says - and I quote – “Why is the Tokai earthquake expected in the near future? Answer – Records show that a big earthquake in the Tokai zone occurred in a cycle of 100 to 150 years; the latest one was back in 1854. It means that, as of 2004, there has been no big earthquake for the past 150 years in this area. Naturally, the tetonic plate is presumed to put its huge energy on hold. Also, some other records show that ground subsidence has been observed in this area. Judging from these data, scientists have concluded that the Tokai earthquake should occur at any moment”.

Another para in the same safety booklet given by office says – and I again quote – “What is an “Earthquake warning”? Answer – It is feared that we might have a big earthquake, the so-called “Tokai” earthquake, with the focus located somewhere in the Suruga Bay, Shizuoka prefecture. When this earthquake is detected, the Prime Minister will make some announcement through radio and television to the effect that a big earthquake is expected to occur very soon (specifically, within a few days or in several hours) and then will go on to call for the nation to prepare for a disaster. This announcement is called an Earthquake warning, or ‘Keikai Sengen’ in Japanese”.

Reading the safety manual has not had a good effect on all of us and more so on one person … I think the worry is slightly more than necessary but then really, it is an individual thing as to how much one worries over something … I don’t blame him at all. Foreigners while coming to apna desh take so many innoculations … we live there and we don’t really take so many precautions. It is the same thing here … for the Japanese, life is normal. For us from outside, it is all a bit strange.

While talking with one immediate boss in India, I think the worried guy has given some indications that we r not safe here etc etc etc. Today evening, there is a call scheduled with some heads in India. Officially, the agenda is supposed to be “progress update” but then from what I can get from the worried guy, the agenda is really to find out how comfortable we r and whether there r any safety concerns etc. Worried guy’s fears have been translated to the people back in India as the fears of all of us. So today we will have this call … let’s see what happens. Personally, I am not concerned too much (though I cannot claim complete unconcern) coz life in Japan is like this only … they have to be careful at all times … and life goes on … till there is a problem, no use worrying about it. Everyone in Japan keeps a safety kit at home, which consists of a fire-resistant coat, helmet, rope, food and water for a couple of days, powerful torch etc. It is a part of their life. In fact, after our concerns in office about earthquakes, we have also been given this kit from the office side. So now I have a fire-resistant coat and torch etc. The kit doesn’t contain a helmet though … ;-) … maybe I will ask why not.

There were some discussions over what to say in the call etc. There were concerns about how it will sound if we say something, considering we have moved here only four days back, that too after personally seeing and approving the building; what the people in India would think; what our bosses in Japan would think etc etc etc. Suggestions were given as to what to say which, in my opinion only, amounted to unnecessary skirting around the issue. Things like – we can see for 10 days or so and if we find necessary, then change apartments AND we can stay here this month since rent has been paid … next month we can move to another place etc etc etc. Chuck’s point is – Earthquakes r not running on some scheduler or pattern. If we can wait 10 days then we can wait 20 … we can wait 30 and we might as well stay the 50 odd days left in this place. We don’t know if the quake that occurs tomorrow or day after is gonna be the big one … or the one that comes 2 years later. So either we say – “we wanna change” or “no concerns … we r fine” … judging by the concerns that r evidently there among us, the only option in my opinion is to say “we wanna change to a single storeyed apartment near office preferably in some decently populated area … right now we have one phone among the three of us … give us one each coz in the middle of a quake, I can’t run to another floor to use the phone in case of emergency” … sure it may sound unnecessary nitpicking to some people, but if we have to say something, lets say something that will end our worries rather than say something that will lead to more discussions and un-fruitful communications. As to what someone would think, I can point out the nearest canal where they can go jump.

I agree we approved the building before we moved in but that was before we got the safety manual for earthquakes given by office admin which says all the scary things … ;-) … and before getting two earthquakes in two days, albeit small ones. To the argument that rent has already been paid etc etc etc … well, I am not really thinking about money right now … just a way for my butt to escape in case of problems. Chuck doesn’t worry unless there is cause for worry … but since this issue has been raised, lets get some action than aimless chatter.

Anyway, I am clear as to what I will say if asked for an opinion. No skirting words for me. This is what I want …. Give it or don’t … that is upto u … my job is to tell u what I want. I think the other guys would prefer that someone somewhere gets our point without our having to actually say it.

Should be fun. I hope it is not really for getting progress update … would be a real let-down of expectations … ;-)



Sunday, August 07, 2005

Earthquakes in Japan

As I stood in the camera shop with everything around me ratting and shaking, I told myself not to make fun of something as serious as an earthquake.

In a previous mail, I had written about earthquakes being a common thing in Japan and my intention to just turn over and go back to sleep if one occurs during night time - Well, that sounded like a good idea before I experienced the one on Saturday (July 23). I doubt if I can sleep through something like that.

The day started out on a gloomy note as there was a bit of drizzling and it didn't look like the sun would be making an appearance. We had planned to go to Disneyland on that day but seeing the weather, we decided to postpone that to another day. No point in going to a fun place on a not-so-fun day. Anyway since we had to do something, we decided to go to Shinjuku ... yep, the same place where my office is located. There r a few shops for electronics goods in Shinjuku and there is the Tokyo Metropolitan building which is a real tall building (makes my 70 storied office building look small).

So we reached Shinjuku ... I sneered at the office building and turned my back on it ... and went to the place where the electronic goods shops were located. Yodobashi, Bic, Softmap etc have electronic goods strewn around their stores like u see strew around the ground in your Saturday bazaars. Laptops, cameras, camcorders, webcams, different types of memory cards and hundreds of other items which frankly, I have no idea what they were.

Floor by floor we walked and browsed ... for the hundreds of items which were un-identifiable, pretended to know what they were. And when I was in the section displaying digital cameras, suddenly I noticed the cameras mounted on the various shelves in front of me were vibrating. Then I realized I was vibrating too. Hey, it was an earthquake.

Having been warned by SP that earthquakes were common in Japan, I wasn't too worried. In fact, I planned to put on a bored look on my face to show everyone around me how not-scared I was. And then I noticed that people around me, many of them Japanese locals who would be used to this kind of thing, were looking nervous ... the shop was pretty much rattling and shaking a lot and judging by people's expressions, it was going on for far longer than they expected. I even heard a loud exclamation of fear from a couple of people. And then everything was still again.

Well guys, as we got to know from news sources, this one was not one of the usual small ones that keep on happening in Japan. This was 5.7 on the richter scale (in Japan, in addition to the richter scale, they have their own way of measuring the intensity of earthquakes ... I don't know what it is caleld but they measure it on a scale of 7) and that doesn't sound too bad at first ... but judge it this way. It caused all trains to stop functioning for two hours as they started extensive checks on all railway lines to ensure the trains could safely run on them. It made Narita International airport to close down take offs and landings for half hour or so while they checked all runways for damage. People were stuck all over the place with no way of getting home. Taxis are the most expensive form of local travel in Japan ... and that day, u couldn't get a taxi even if u wanted ... coz with everything else at a standstill, basically everyone wanted a taxi to reach home.

Not knowing all the drama, we kept browsing the electronics shops (in the shop where I was when the earthquake occured, not one item fell off the shelves though everything rattled alarmingly) and two hours later, made for the Shinjuku subway station to make our way home. And then we realized something wasn't normal. There were about 20 times as many people going through the station as usual and officials with loudspeakers in their hands were directing people here and there ... there were plenty of people sitting around on the ground. Since we couldn't understand what they were saying, we just made our way to our usual platform and from there, called up SP to ask what the heck was going on. He was out shopping with his wife and was stuck up in some place coz the trains weren't running. He was desperately trying to get a taxi to reach home and he told us that we might not reach home for a long time coz most trains were stopped and some were being run in phases ... two stations at a time ... while a test train ran ahead to check out the track. Then we got to know that for the past two hours, the train system in Japan (near Tokyo, mainly) was at a standstill and people were sitting around in stations waiting for the services to re-start. As it happened, the time when we reached the station was about the time the services were returning to normal. We easily got a train from Shinjuku to Kudanshita, which is where we change trains. There we faced a problem since no trains were running. So we sat around on the platform with many other people for an hour or so before a train finally pulled up to the station. Eagerly we got on .... and two stations later, everyone got down. Actually they had been broadcasting a message on the trains that it would only go for two stations further down ... but since we couldn't understand, we were sitting and dreaming of dinner once we got home. It seemed a bit funny that so many people were getting down two stations later ... till we realized that not "so many" but "all" people were getting down. So we also got down ... and waited half hour more. Another train came and we hopped on ... this time we knew the routine and so along with everyone else, trooped off the train 3 stations later and waited again. The third train we caught finally took us all the way home to Gyo Toku. A one hour journey had lasted slightly more than 3 hours and we realized we had been lucky to have got home so easily. Really, I also appreciate the way the Japanese administration went about its business ... running safety trains before actually letting the passenger trains on the track etc.

All said and done, a good experience but not something that I really want to re-visit every now and then. Till the time I thought the earthquake was a usual (normal) one, it was ok. Now I know that there will be a few abnormal ones too ... like this one ... and that is not a nice feeling. Websites in Japan while reporting earthquakes etc always talk about the great Japanese earthquake of 1923 which killed more than one lakh people ... and as recent as 1995, the earthquake in Kobe claimed around 6000 lives. It sounds wierd to me but the sites also talk normally (abnormal it seems to me ... but they mention it as a matter of fact) that Japan is due for a big one ... the only question is when. Based on scientic studies on earthquakes, they judge that Japan is located such that it would get a big earthquake once in around 100 years ... and of course, many smaller ones in between. They judge the 1923 one to be the last big one ... which means that the next big one is due sometime in the next twenty years or so ... could be twenty years later, could be ten ... could be tomorrow. Hmmm, hopefully I would be oughta here when that one comes. Bhaiya ... caught two planes, flew over the Pacific and Indian oceans ... so much trouble to get stuck in an earthquake in Japan. No thanks!!!

Yesterday we shifted to new accomodation at a place called Akebonobashi, which is near to Shinjuku ... the place where our office is located. Earlier in Gyo Toku, our apartment was in a two floor building. The new one is a 12 storied building ... I am on the 6th floor, SB is on 10th floor and AB is on the 11th. In addition to the lift, there is a tiny staircase which winds itself down to the ground floor ... hugging the outside of the building. Get it? When one is on the staircase going up or down, u r basically 4 feet away from the railing of the staircase that prevents u from reaching 11th to 1st floor in three seconds. Seems wierd to me but again, this is supposed to be some good design. These Japanese r crazy. I wouldn't go near that staircase when there is no earthquake ... if things r shaking and shivering all around, forget it. Anyway, we have asked for parachutes.

Day before yesterday in the middle of the night, there was a small earthquake ... yesterday night again there was a small earthquake. U know what ... it is not funny anymore.


The Chuckster

Japan - July 22, 2005

Almost two weeks in Japan now and I am getting used to it. Once u get used to it, it isn’t bad. WHO AM I KIDDING? No food, no cows on the road, no traffic jam … THIS IS ONE MISERABLE PLACE!!!

I read the new Harry Potter on Sunday. On Friday night (Potter was releasing on Saturday) I went to a shop that sells English novels (you would be surprised to see how few of these are here) and asked about the new Potter book, only to be presented with a pre-order coupon that entitled me to buy the book for 2300 yen, which the shop told me was a discounted price for pre-orders. That too, I had to pick up the book the next day between 8 AM and 9 AM to avail of this offer coz the shop closed its doors at 9 AM and when it re-opened its door at its normal opening time of 10 AM, the book would sell at around 3000 yen. Crazy people! Anyway, I decided to look elsewhere for it.

The next day, mentally resigned to not reading the new Potter on its inaugural day (I started reading the previous Potter book – book 5 – half an hour after it released on the first day … this was two years back), I was just having lunch with my colleagues from India, AB and SB, when the phone rang and I picked up to hear SP (the sole Indian employee in the Japanese unit of my company) ask – “u interested in the new Potter for 1800 yen?”. Seems he was roaming around some wholesale store with his wife (he is newly married … one and a half months) and saw the book up for sale for that price. SP knows me only for 10 days or so now but he already knew enough to give me a call when he saw it. So SP bought the book and I picked it up from his house in the evening. His house is in Myoden, one station away from Gyo Toku where I am putting up, and it was a nice evening walk to go over to his place and get the book. So Saturday evening I started the book and Sunday afternoon around 1 PM, I was putting it down highly dis-satisfied with its ending. You can read the review of the book at my Travel Blog Site -

Office work has been pretty routine uptil now. They r busy getting some commitment from the customer (I heard they finally got it yesterday) and so apart from some meetings in the first week, we haven’t really had too much to go on. Now if the news about the customer “go” is correct, then things will get pretty hectic in the coming days. We have a visa till October 1 and when we leave, we better leave something worthwhile to justify our three odd months here.

A couple of days back, an interesting thing happened. As I wrote in a previous mail, our lodgings r pretty far from office; around one and a half hour one way and it involves changing trains in the middle. To look at it in terms of stations, from Gyo Toku (where I stay) to Kudanshita (where I change trains) it is about 14 stations and then from Kudanshita to Shinjuku (where our office is located), it is 5 more stations. On the journey to office and half of the journey back (while coming back, we usually but not always get seats about 15 minutes into the journey), we have to stand in the train amidst a big crowd of people. Pretty tiring stuff so we were generally planning to ask if we could shift someplace closer. Then two days back, a guy came to our room and generally asked about how we were and all that. I had no idea of who he was but we answered the usual routine answers and one of us (unnamed) generally mentioned the tiring journey to and from office everyday. It was said very casually and I didn’t think much of it then but ten minutes later, a Japanese guy comes in and asks us the same questions about how we were etc. He then asked casually if our accommodation was comfortable etc and again one of us (the same unnamed) said the same thing about it being too far. Then this guy also goes away and ten minutes later, the Admin lady at the Japan office comes in and says in a most flustered manner – “I heard you would like to change your accommodation” etc etc etc. As it turned out, the first guy who came was some vice-prez guy here in the Japan office and the second guy was the prez of the Japan office. Unknowingly, we had touched on a sensitive issue, the issue of hospitality as we were guests here in Japan. Seemingly the prez immediately told the Admin Lady to look into the matter and we were immediately offered two options of accommodation, one at a place called Akebonobashi which was two stations away from office, and the second at Shin Okubo, a place even nearer office with the largest Korean immigrant population in Japan. In fact, it is sometimes (unofficially) termed as the Korean town. The Admin lady seemed to think that the Korean town might not be so preferable coz of the noisy atmosphere and the Korean immigrant tag associated with it but for me, that was not an issue. Seriously, if u stood a Japanese and a Korean in front of me and asked me to identify which was which, I would just have to take a wild guess. Sure, the Koreans r foreigners for the Japanese, but for me, both the Koreans and the Japanese are foreigners... ;-) … anyway we visited both places and decided on Akebonobashi as the suitable one. Nopes, not coz of the Korean immigrant thingy but simply coz the other place seemed quieter. So we move into our new digs on August 8. Things move fast when the prez takes an interest in the matter. Though, as explained, the involvement of the prez was completely un-intentional, we became known throughout the office as “the Indian guys who complained to the prez about their accommodation”. A note here – Korean immigrants does not mean labour class, un-educated Koreans trudging off to factories in night shifts … they r as well suited-booted as the Japanese … just that they r Koreans … I read somewhere on the net that during the World War II, the Japanese used to make the Koreans work for them and used to bring them over, mostly from North Korea ... once the war ended, they had the choice of going back but choose to remain for their own economic and personal reasons.

Anyway, all is well that ended well. From August 8, no more 1.5 hours for reaching office in crowded trains.

Here in Japan, there is no mobile phone SMS concept. Sorry for putting it so bluntly and many of u who couldn’t take the shock, do take a couple of minutes to draw your breath … maybe take a sip of water or something stronger. On trains, on the roads, in restaurants and supermarkets, I could see Japanese people working furiously on their cellphones and oblivious to the entire world around them and I assumed SMS was a bigger craze here than in India. Seriously, u SMS addicts at home cannot rival these guys as far as treating your cellphone as God is concerned. Even when they ride bicycles, they ride with one hand while the other is busy working furiously on the cell phone … obviously their gaze is also divided between road and cell phone. Those of u used to riding your motorcycles with ur cellphone tucked between neck and shoulder … this is much harder coz one hand is constantly busy pressing buttons and obviously u gotta use ur eyes to see whether what u r pressing is correct or not. Anyway, as I said, I thought initially SMS was bigger here than in apna desh and was stunned to know from SP (the Indian guy in the Japanese unit of the company) that there was no SMS. So what were these people doing? It seems (from SP’s explanation) that they were either playing games on the cellphone or sending emails. Basically

they do not have SMS but they have email through their mobile phone operators and that is what keeps them so busy. Plus the games of course! Also, the standard Japanese cell phone companies operate on CDMA … no or negligible GSM here.

Get on a train and 90% of people would either be pressing buttons on their cellphones or have their nose buried in a book … initially something that impressed me a lot. The cellphone part has already been explained. The explanation for the second part – nose buried in a book always – was also a bit different from what I expected. Seems that in Japan, comics are very popular, particularly a branch of comics termed as “Hentai” [see here for explanation -]. Hentai seems to be a craze here, irrespective of age or sex of the person and that is the primary reason for all the book-reading. In fact here it is hard to find English books anywhere; only a few stores stock them; but all shops keeping books would have a large amount of comics, Hentai included. Another thing common here is people reading the books standing in the bookshop itself … the shopkeepers don’t seem to care too much about that.

As to the interesting stuff I have seen here, I have to add the Japanese toilet. Before I left for Japan, a friend of mine sent me this link to forewarn me about toilets in Japan - I didn’t really pay it too much attention thinking it to be a spoof and that feeling was enforced when I saw the toilet in our accommodation, which was the normal western-style commode. Then one day in office I tried the office toilet and it was the one described in the article as “High tech Japanese bidets” … u can see the photograph and description in the article. Not usually used to seeing toilet commodes with a remote control, I decided to go back and read that article properly before attempting to use it. Moreover, all the buttons in the remote are labeled in Japanese so really, for me they might not have been labeled at all. Just to make sure, I pressed all the buttons one by one and nothing happened. After reading the article, I knew what the toilet could do but again, all the buttons being labeled in Japanese made things a bit difficult. Finally I took the plunge deciding that toilet paper would be the final last resort (ewwwwwwwww) and you know what … the buttons are programmed to act only when someone is sitting on the seat and hence earlier none of the buttons worked coz I was standing in front of it trying to figure out what it did. Smart guys, these Japanese! Of course had to hit the buttons at random since I couldn’t read Japanese but it worked as I thought it would. So the Japanese toilet is no longer a scary thing to think about … easy to just go in, do ur thing, go out … and hey, Look Ma, no hands. And not to forget, there is one button for warming the seat too. I wonder if I can buy one and take it back to India.

Food is a real problem here since the Japanese don’t seem to understand the concept of “vegetarian”. We took a lot of stuff from India but even then, with AB being the only cook (I can keep rice in the electric rice cooker provided in the apartment … that is it), it is hard. We eat rice everyday and sometimes more than once. Curd and rice is generally the easiest combination though AB and SB have brought along a lot of pickles and powders which when mixed with rice makes for a different taste but in the end, it is still rice. We (rather, AB cooks and we give moral encouragement) cook veggies now and then but it is generally a long process and hence depends on time and confort. I told you in a previous mail about having lunch at an Indian restaurant for 1000 yen and called it lousy. Well, a couple of days back, we went to another Indian restaurant called “Puja” for dinner (since AB was in no mood for cooking) which was operated by a guy from Delhi, and u know what, the first one was better. At least it was a buffet, albeit with limited choices, and one could eat as much as one liked. At “Puja” the bill for three people came to around 3000 yen and the quantity / quality of food was pathetic. I am not joking when I say that I went back home and had some bread to complete my dinner. Other days we have Maggi and today we bought a couple of biscuit packets from the station for breakfast though for lunch we had rice and dal packed from home.

Every now and then the Maggi runs out and we buy it from “Hira Halal shop”, a Bangladeshi run shop. The guy keeps all the stuff u would see in supermarkets in India … the MTR brand of masalas and stuff is present in entirety as is the Haldiram library of junk food. Of course, these are about 5-6 times more expensive than they would be in India … but that is inevitable here in Japan. Everything IS expensive. Sometimes, u just don’t have a choice coz if u don’t have Maggi for breakfast, u might just be tempted to try the fish / pig / crab / whatever available at the nearest food outlet.

Even buying provisions like bread, milk and vegetables is an expensive business. The other day, we bought some vegetables, milk and bread and it cost us 4000 yen, which comes to around 1600-1700 Indian rupees … and it lasted us about a week. MacDonalds is an option whereby one can buy a burger and French fries for 500 odd yen. It is a bigger hassle telling the MacDonalds employee to give the burger without putting in the meat. “Nikku nashi”, u gotta say which basically means “No meat” … initially, in my smartass way I tried “No Nikku … No Nikku” which didn’t seem to make any sense to the guy. Even when I tried “Nikku nashi”, I only get success half of the times, probably coz of the accent. I expected better from MacDonalds, seeing it to be an American chain … at least they should have English speaking staff.

Anyway, moving home for the weekend now … meaning the laptop goes home today. Maybe I go to Tokyo Disneyland this weekend, maybe next weekend … in case I go, u will be sure to hear of it.

The Chuckster

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Japan - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Review

Though this isn't strictly a Japan mail, since I read the book while I am here, this post goes into this blog. Anyway, I don't have a blog for book reviews and toilets (I am thinking of reviewing the Japanese toilet next) ... just make do, ok?

REVIEW - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

The sixth book in the Harry Potter series leaves me with mixed feelings. Though the story is promising and kept me interested till the end, what followed was a sense of being shortchanged. Surely this cannot be it, I said to myself, once the Half Blood prince was revealed and the important character killed. This was too simple, too obvious and not worthy of being in the sixth book out of a series of seven. Was the wise Dumbledore such a simpleton or does this go further in book seven? Personally, I believe the villain of book six would be one of the heroes of book seven else I would just have to change my views of Rowling being a very fine story teller. In that sense, the killing off of the character in book six would be more like a sacrifice towards the bigger good of the wizarding world than a betrayal as it is portrayed in book six. I hope so!

Once the Harry Potter series is completed, Rowling would be advised not to venture into the realm of romance novels for her future writing. Her efforts at introducing romance into the series in terms of the "raging hormones" of the growing-up Potter gang are highly unconvincing. Little Ginny Weasley comes off as a highly sex-charged hussy and Ron Weasley is a complete chump as the boy-toy he tries to be. Lavender Brown is probably the silliest character in this book and if Ron hadn't dumped her before the book ended, I might have "crucio"ed him myself [Crucio, or the Cruciatus Curse, is one of the Unforgivable Curses that witches and wizards must not use. It causes intolerable pain that slowly drives its victim insane. It is punishable by a lifetime sentence in Azkaban, the wizard prison]. Harry himself is terribly confused about the direction of his hormonal act-up and after a few thousand "I can ... no, I can't" feelings from him, his flirtation with Cho Chang in Book 5 starts looking like a masterpiece of romance fiction. Finally on the romance front, doesn't anyone else think his "I can't ... I have things to do" chant at the end of the story is highly influenced by the Spiderman-1 ending?

The story is built up nicely in the book and I enjoyed the interactions between Dumbledore and Harry as they try to piece together the past of Lord Voldemort in the hope it can lead to clues to his destruction in the future. However, I don't know why this was referred in the book as if Dumbledore was giving him private lessons. There was no teaching involved and the interaction was more of brother-in-arms than a master-pupil relationship. Also bringing a glimmer of interest as the term at Hogwarts starts is Snape getting his much coveted "Defense against the Dark Arts" post to teach. I kept waiting for something to develop on this line but at the end of the book, I am still waiting. Snape's interest in the post has been highlighted since book 1 and once he got it, he contributes absolutely nothing to build up that storyline. The feeling I got after the book finished was that Rowling could have delved much more into these aspect which actually contribute to the story, than waste print on "who snogged who". What a terrible word - snog! One more reason for Rowling not to enter the world of romance book-writing else the writers of Mills & Boons might just take to fantasy fiction for gaining revenge.

The star of the book was undoubtedly the Half Blood Prince, who though revealed only in the end pages, gives Harry company for most of the book. In the end, I was surprised at the identity of the Half Blood Prince because he sounded like a very interesting character all through the book. He never sounds dangerous whereas the half blood prince as revealed in the end of the book always struck me as a very dangerous and mysterious character, but never interesting.

Finally, to sump up, I will just term it as a very interesting book which doesn't quite satisfy one when it finishes. Though the Harry Potter books are part of a series, where the hero and villain will undoubtedly face off in book seven, each previous Potter book had its own story which ended reasonably with that book itself. Maybe now Rowling is confused as to what to put in book six and what to put in book seven, as book six leaves too many questions un-answered to give the reader a sense of satisfaction generally gained by reading a good book. Book seven will undoubtedly have to be a very big book if Rowling has to finish off the series as gracefully as she began it. A small book or even one the size of this one might give the impression of an author in haste, confusion or both.


The Chuckster

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Japan - Post 1

It took a long time for me to know whether I would be going to Japan or not. No one ever said I am not going, to be honest … but to make things a bit confusing, no one ever said I am going either. Actually, even till date, no one has said the words “Sriram, you are going to Japan” but then since I am sitting here in Shinjuku, Japan … I guess it is ok … but I still wish someone would …. Hmm, forget it!

Rush for good laptops, money, visa, travel schedule etc made for a busy last couple of days in India … improved my begging / wheedling / cajoling / groveling skills. And finally the big day was there.

Wifey cried buckets … if she had done it a couple of months earlier when the water situation was bad in Hyderabad …. Anyway, she was sad and I was too, to be truthful. But when u gotta go to Japan, u gotta go to Japan. So I went to Japan.

Route was from Hyderabad to Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo with a 6-7 hour stopover at Kuala Lumpur. So there I was at 7 PM standing outside Begumpet airport with suitcase in one hand and hand baggage in the other hand. Wifey had packed plenty of stuff like Rice, Dals, powders (Rasam / Sambhar) etc and the bags were damn heavy. Met my other collegues AB, SB and NS and we all moved into the airport check in zone. According to plan, three of us – AB, SB and I – were going for Project A which could last anywhere between 2-3 months … and NS was going there for Project B … he would come back in a week’s time.

Maybe that wasn’t a good day for me … first the emigration guy quizzed me a lot whereas my collegues passed through without a murmur. Then the security guy frisked my bag and confiscated some batteries (pen cells) I was carrying … seems I could put them inside any electronic gadget and take it … but not carry them outside the gadget even though they were new and not even out of their cover … again my collegues, who also were carrying the same passed through without problems. Then of course the one hour delay in the flight arriving from Kuala Lumpur which I used to call my wife and assured her “arre darling … main abhi gaya .. abhi aaya”.

The flight from Hyderabad to Kuala Lumpur was on an Airbus-330 operated by Malaysia Airlines … and true to form, my seat belt was all tangled up inside the seat … no, I don’t know how it got “inside” the seat but it did. Finally a male flight attendant removed my seat (was pretty easy to remove, actually... though I am sure it is not a regular feature to actually remove the seat from its mooring) and the seatbelt was now un-entangled. However, since it was my seat, so the headphone slot didn’t work. I didn’t particularly care about listening to music but if I couldn’t have it then I wanted it … u know the feeling? Anyway, a flight stewardess suggested I change my seat if I wanted music … since I didn’t want music and I had completed my task of making an issue out of it, I remained where I was and went off to sleep.

The flight to Kuala Lumpur was around 4.5 hours … pretty rough in places with lots of noise and shaking … it was raining in Hyderabad when we took off and I guess the weather all the way through to KL (Kuala Lumpur … when u r cool, u just say KL) wasn’t that great … Ok, so I don’t know what “bad turbulence” is but for me, any turbulence is bad turbulence. The high point of the flight was the food which was really good.

Woke up about ten minutes before we reached Malaysia … I think we landed at around 1:30 AM after going back in time about 2.5 hours or so … the landing was bumpy as the plane bounced a couple of times before hugging the runway … I was glad to get out of that plane. Since we had done a through check in of our luggage all the way to Tokyo and also taken through boarding passes, we didn’t have anything to do before our flight to Tokyo except sleep. I had slept pretty good on the flight to KL but ever ready to sleep again, I put my laptop on a bench and used it as a pillow for another 3-4 hours’ sound sleep. Woke up at around 7 AM and made a round of the airport … plenty of shops to roam around in and plenty of eateries. There was a Burger King and we had breakfast there … I didn’t have anything there but the others had … one guy had a lunch box packed with foodstuff to be eaten on the way and we (including me) polished it off too. I wasn’t particularly hungry and remembering the food on the Malaysia Airlines flight to Malaysia, I was looking forward to stuffing myself on the flight to Tokyo which was also Malaysia Airlines.

Saw plenty of Indians at the KL airport. Went to one toilet to take a leak before going to sleep and the guy who maintained the cleanliness in that toilet was Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi … I didn’t ask) … after waking up in the morning, I went to another and hey, even that was serviced by an Indian. A couple of sweepers were Indian too … felt just like home … ;-)

No offence meant here … just mentioned it coz it wasn’t a nice feeling to be abroad and see fellow Indians cleaning toilets and sweeping floors. But I guess one gotta live. Life goes on.

The Malaysia Airlines crew on the first flight was pretty good … but from this point on, they seemed the opposite. No smiles and hullos … I approached a lady at the counter for my air miles thingy and she wasn’t eager to be of help though she did note down the Id of my card. Once we got onto the plane, it took a long time to get the flight attendents’ attention for anything and even then, there wasn’t even a false smile there (ok I admit there was no frown either) … maybe it was coz we were Indian … maybe they were just badly trained … anyway, I consoled myself by remembering that meal time was approaching. And it came … choice … fish and rice … or beef and some accompanying stuff. Hmmm … asked the flight stewardess for vegetarian food and was told that u have to “pre-order” it before the flight and now they couldn’t do anything about it. So I took the fish based lunch, gave the fish to SB who eats non-veg and tried to have the rice … which was so tasteless (and stank of fish smell) it didn’t go one inch down my throat. So I had an orange juice and then another and then one more. I think a couple more before the flight ended but not sure … I do know that by the time the flight landed in Narita International (Tokyo Airport), I badly wanted to take a leak. AB, who is also vegetarian ate his fish … he says he didn’t realize it but it stank so much I can’t believe he didn’t know … maybe he was just consoling himself by saying that.

Anyway, this aircraft was a Boeing 777 (I think … It wasn’t a huge aircraft but bigger than the Airbus we had come to KL on) and had a TV monitor per seat … and this time the seat belt worked fine and so did the headphone socket. So assured that I wasn’t being shortchanged, I went off to sleep again and woke some hours later at snack time. They gave salmon cake or something like that as snack and when I returned it back to the flight attendant asking without much hope “something vegetarian???”, she offered a pack of biscuits … don’t be mislead by the word “pack” … it contained 2 biscuits. Anyway, two is better than zero and so I had an orange juice and two biscuits and felt ready to take on the world. However since there was still an hour and a half to go for landing, I couldn’t take on the world and so I slept again, waking about 20 minutes before landing.

Time and again during the flight, I would look down and see blue everywhere … or white if there were plenty of clouds … During the first flight I hadn’t realized it but every since we left Hyderabad, we had been traveling over water. Again once we left KL, we were over water till we reached Tokyo. Call me old fashioned but I don’t like this concept of flying over huge oceans and seas. We touched the Indian ocean as we left Hyderabad, sea of China, Sea of Philippines (I think it was called something else but it was right next to the Phillipines), and the Pacific ocean while nearing Japan … and damn it, I don’t like flying over the Pacific Ocean or Indian ocean or any sea for that fact. If God had meant for man to fly, he would have sent a never-get-repaired helicopter with each human when he / she was born. Every now and then the plane would fly into a bit of rough and it just enforced my belief that trains are the best. At least if something goes wrong, u can stop it anywhere u want. I know being on a plane means flying over land or water doesn’t make a difference since if anything goes wrong, it won’t matter what is underneath … but still I don’t like the idea of flying over water. It is not like I am afraid coz I am not … It is not like I pray throughout the flight coz I don’t except to say once in a while “God, take good care of the pilot of this plane till he lands it”. It is just that if I had to fly on a plane, I would … If I didn’t have to and still get where I wanted to go in the same time, that would be ideal.

It was completely foggy over Tokyo as we made our landing... couldn’t see anything below till we were actually very near to the ground. It was the smoothest landing I have experienced (ok I been on a flight only four times before this) and I was doubtful for some time if we had actually touched ground or were flying parallel to it. At least the pilot seemed to be pretty well trained and I guess in the end that is all what matters.

The immigration guy looked me up pretty good … the photo in my passport is around 1996 or so and I am “very” different from what I am now … then, good boy with neatly combed hair and big glasses and clean shaven … now usually with a stubble, no glasses, less hair (nopes, not bald by any stretch of imagination) and no boyishness in my face at all. Then the immigration official saw my photo in the Japanese visa (yep, Japanese visas have ur photo on them … the Netherlands one didn’t …don’t know about US Visas) and got convinced … it had been taken a week back and I haven’t changed much since then.

Picked up the luggage, crossed the Quarantine check zone (I had a bad cold and was unsure what would happen if they noticed coz they r supposed to be pretty strict on health issues in Japan, specially concerning foreigners … but nothing happened … so it’s ok) and came out of the airport. SP, an Indian guy from my company working in Japan since 5 years had come to pick us up and we went home. Nopes, no Rolls Royce taxis as in NL for us … we took a bus home. Sounds dull? Yeah … but the cost of a ticket on the bus was anything but … it was a 1 hour drive by bus and it cost 2400 yen per head. That is around 23 US Dollars per head … and we get 55 US Dollars per day as allowance. So if I travel by bus two and a half times, I spend more than one day’s allowance … isn’t that cool?

Once we reached our destination and were picking up our bags from the bus’s baggage compartment, SB realized that he had left one bag at the airport … it only contained one item... a 10 KG packet of rice which is probably the most valuable item he was carrying. Totally we had 20 KG since we might be there 3 months with the remaining 10 KG split between AB and myself. In one go, our stock was halved. Anyway all is well that ended well and Malaysian Airlines proved helpful in this affair … they couriered the bag to us the next day though they charged 1700 yen for it. Buying 10 KG in Japan would have cost over 5000 yen so in the end, it was money well spent … though obviously, if the bag hadn’t been forgotten, we would have had to spend anything at all.

SP (the Indian guy in Japan, remember) had earlier informed us that we would be staying in a “mansion” which was one hour plus by train from office. In fact, we are staying in three mansions, one for each one of us. A mansion consists of one room (bedroom, living room … whatever .. ur choice of name) which is small by any standards, one bathroom (consisting of wash basin, western toilet and bathtub) one and a half times the size of an airline toilet and one hall leading from the room to the front door … this hall is about as wide as me and I wear a 42 size shirt … I measured today morning and when I stand in the hall, the walls on either side r about 2 inches away from my shoulders … so u can imagine. In this hall, there is a small kitchen and sink for washing dishes. To re-phrase it for better understanding, when you are in the kitchen, you r actually in the hall. It might be better to say – “in this hall, there is a gas stove and sink for washing dishes” and u can call that part of the hall as a kitchen if u want to … these (kitchen and sink) are built into the wall in the hall (nopes, I didn’t actually mean to be poetic). There r a couple of saucepans and one huge knife provided in each kitchen … that knife is so sharp one has to be constantly careful … it would slice through a person with no trouble at all.

The flooring is wooden and the common walls between mansions (there r about 5 mansions per floor) are some kind of cardboard like material … so u cannot knock on the walls when u feel like it or shout loudly … the neighbours might complain to the police. The whole mansion in terms of square feet area would be equal to one room in a spacious two / three bedroom flat in India. Yes, the complete outer structure of the building is made of some solid material which is not wood or cardboard … ;-)

I read what I wrote above and it sounds like a hellhole … and what I want to clarify here is – it isn’t. It is really very comfortable living quarters for one person. The room has a bed, dining table (it is just a small, short legged table but I call it dining table … sounds better), closet without shelves and plenty of hangers for keeping clothes, small cupboard with towels / one plate, bowl and glass, one microwave and one television. In the hall, next to the kitchen and sink, there is a washing machine. The room has an A/C which easily cools the entire house, including room, hall, bathroom etc. There is facility for hot water at the press of a button. No matches in the house … even the gas stove operates on electricity, I guess … or some other source of power.

It is really an example of how space can be utilized … I don’t know why houses have to be so small but I guess there must be some reason to it, money probably … but one can live there as comfortable as one can in a three bedroom flat … as long as one person stays in the house and not two or three or a family. Yes, one cannot do the hula inside the house and neither can u practice ur kickboxing but apart from these, its not a bad deal at all. As for the wooden flooring and cardboard like walls thingy, it was explained to us that the model was great for houses in earthquake zone areas. Japan is very earthquake prone, it seems and it is not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night to hear your entire house rattling and shaking away to glory. This kind of model ensures that nothing would come crashing down (don’t ask me how … I don’t know) so if u do wake up with everything rattling and shaking, just roll over and go back to sleep.

One last point about the mansion … for what I have just described, the rent is ….. 110,000 yen per month. One lakh ten thousand yen …. Makes that piddling bus ticket for 2400 yen seem a trifle, doesn’t it?

Anyway Sunday was a holiday and I spent the entire morning sleeping. Had lunch at 3 PM or so and in the evening had a walk around the neighborhood to get familiar with the stores around. Saw a Bangladeshi shop nearly where we bought 4 double-packets of Maggi for 210 yen each … In India each packet costs 16 rupees or so and 210 yen means around 85 rupees or so. Bought some other stuff too …milk, bread, veggies … etc.

Monday – first day to office and it went pretty smooth, except that it was about ten times more tiring than it would be in India. Going to office means leaving the house by 7:30 AM, walking 15 minutes to the station, catching two trains (no, not together … first u catch one, then u get down and catch another) and traveling one hour plus to a place called Shinjuku, where our office is located. This happens during rush hour so we go standing with people packed like sardines in a can … of course the coaches r air conditioned so it is like sardines packed in an air conditioned can. Then get down at Shinjuku station and walk 15 minutes to reach office, take the elevator to the 35th floor (it is a 70 storeyed building and not the tallest even in the same vicinity) and drop exhausted into our chairs in a conference room that would be home for us for the next couple of months. Of course, carrying laptops is not a joke and though today is only the second day (not yet completed) of lugging the laptops around, I have had enough of it … probably the next time the laptop goes home with me is when I am in the mood for punishment or when it’s very urgent … or it is the weekend.

First day full of meetings in office … two ten minute breaks either side of lunch … lunch was a one hour affair and we went to an Indian restaurant on the ground floor of the same building that took 1000 Yen (around 400-450 rupees) per head to serve us Naan, two curries (veg) and two curries (non-veg). I only took veg and that is the last time I go to that restaurant. Yeah, it was playing Hindi songs but even listening to songs from “Teesri Manzil” isn’t enough compensation for eating a couple of Naans and sabzis for 450 rupees. The Chuckster ain’t cheap … but the Chuckster ain’t dumb either.

Going home again meant a one hour plus journey on the subway … here in Japan if one leaves around six, people look at u strangely … one is expected to stay late … based on that I am assuming 7-7:30 is the minimum I can leave office every day. Which in turn means 9 PM is the earliest I can reach home on weekdays. Eat dinner (usually rice, some dal and curd with veggies if AB can be persuaded to cook) and crash out. Day over.

BTW, yesterday we bought a monthly train ticket between home and office. Here it is not like “monthly train ticket” … it is like “monthly train ticket between station A and station B” … so if station C is not between A and B, u gotta buy a ticket to go there though u have a monthly ticket. The monthly ticket cost me 18,120 Yen (around Rupees 7200) and I still gotta buy a ticket for going to places not between home and office … sounds dumb to me. Another dumb part is – since I change trains to reach office, I had to buy two monthly tickets, one between home and middle station … and the other between middle station and office. To clarify, the total cost was 18,120 Yen and not each individual monthly ticket. So at the ticket turnstile at the middle station, I gotta swipe both tickets, one for going out of one platform and the other to get into the other platform where I catch the other train. Usually what happens is – I swipe one ticket … it makes a sound and refuses to let me through coz it is the wrong one. Then I swipe the other one and it lets me through. All the while there is this Japanese guy manning the turnstiles, who has been forewarned by the beeping of the machine, glaring at me to ensure I don’t somehow pass through without swiping the correct ticket.

It has only been three days in Japan for me yet, not counting the day I landed since it was already night by then … and there is so much to tell. Of course most of it is routine … u might be muttering - “I slept, he says … what is there is write about in this … we all sleep”. But then when I describe something, I want to make sure u understand completely what I want to say. So that is just the way it is.

Yesterday was very tough in terms of meetings etc. Today has given free time since we had to read some documents and also interact with the India team for some collaboration … they haven’t replied so nothing to act upon. Even then, I am waiting for the weekend which will be a long one since Monday is a holiday here.

An important note – Mails describing my stay in Japan will not be often … maybe once a week or even once in two weeks. Even so, if any of u rather not get it in ur mailbox, just reply back to me stating so and I will make sure ur mailbox remains junk-free, except for the diet pills / hair loss prevention advertisements you guys subscribe to.

Signing off,


The Chuckster (also known in some countries as “The King” … ok, I was kidding .. I am known in all countries as the Chuckster)

Netherlands - Post 2 - An evening (or two) in Paris

Hi guys,
Now for my trip to Paris ... some details.

I was always planning to go to Paris this weekend but we were all planning together - akka, myself, SriKrishna and Moinu. I tried to get phone numbers for tours and travels etc but didn't meet with too much success. The others weren't too much help either, all of them asking "are we going to Paris" but not doing anything about it. I got some phone numbers finally but one was boooked full, another was going friday morning while we wanted to go friday evening after work and another yapped a lot in dutch and dind't reply when I spoke in English. I told akka that if something got arranged then I would take her with me else I wouldn;t go with her coz it would be too much of a headache taking care of her. MAybe someone would argue she doens't need taking care of but I kinda don't feel very comfortable thinking of akka roaming paris with me with both os us not knowing what is happening and what to do. Annyway, it finally happend that i told her she comes with me if things get araanged with a travel agent and she doesn't comem with me if something does not get arranged. By Thursday, we still hadn't arranged anything and I was seriously wonderinf whether to go it alone or not. After looking at various options on the net, I had decided that if I had to go it alone, the Thalis was the train to go and come back by ... though expensive, it would be the most convenient one. Someone told me that I would get tickets from the Ede-Waginengen station near my place ... so Thurday evening after coming from office, I went to the station and tried to get tickets only to be told that the tickets could not be reserved there and anyway if I went somewhere else, the counters would be closed by now. So I went back home Thursday night with no plan at all. Only thing was that the lady at the ticket counter at Ede-Waginengen gave me a number of NS international and told me I could book my tickets from this number. Since I had never done anything like that before I was pretty much sure I wasn't going to France this weekend.

Anyway, the next morning I kept my thermals in my bag with an extra sweater just in case I got a plan from somewhere. I also kept my camera in my bag just in case. SOon after coming to office, I made a call to the NS Internation number just to see what happend and to my shock the lady in question said "Oh yes sir, i can book tickets for you tonight. Kindly tell me the details". It was about 10 AM and that was the first time I realized that i might be going to France in the evening. Anyway i told her my name and she guided me through the various schedules and helped me choose the best trains ... anyway when I had been looking up the Thalis timings on the net the day before I had made up my mind, if the chance came, to catch the 7:50 pm Thalis train to Paris, reaching there around 11:05 pm and to get the return ticket for Sunday evening 6:55 pm Thalis. I gave her all the details and in the process she asked me the office address, phone no and fax number ... none of which I knew. This is where a guy named Marcel came to my rescue ... he is a member of the PTG here and he is also testing EES along with akka and myself ... very serious guy, very brainy and very helpful. He ran around while I was talking on the phone since he didn't know the address and fax number either ... and got both for me and gave me his direct number (we share one rooom together in office ... two of us quietly going about our work) for the phone no which I promptly relayed over the phone. This whole phone conversation took about 15 minutes and I was just thinking that id I had this conversation in India, the person on the other end of the phoen would have banged it down after the first couple of minutes, the way I was uncertain about everything I said to the lady at the NS counter ... making her wait for my phone no and my fax number etc. Anyway the conversation ended with the lady telling me my tickets were reserved and I could collect them from Rotterdam statino one hour before departure and pay for them there. The cost of the two way tickets to and fro Paris was a whopping 136 euros but hell, thats ok ... i am not paying for it ... ;-). She then faxed me a confirmation of my reservation and i was impressed - now I know why they say "phoren mein everythign is so efficient and so easy to do" ... without knowing anything i had just booked myself tickets to France for that evening ... cool.

One word about this guy Marcel whose room i sit in .... he has six children and is still a young man .... and he works only 4 days a week coz every monday he is a teacher at a school .... isn't that cool???

Anyway, now I had almost made up my mind that i was going to France that night and I immediately called up SriKrishna and Moinu to ask if they would join me ... I was pretty certain that I wasn;t taking akka on this madcap arrangement. Srikrishna refused saying he would go with akka later and Moinu said he had plans with his group somewhere so it was decided I was going alone.

There is this site on the net where you can look up train schedules .... btw, all trains run exactly on time as do buses... and when I say exactly I mean exactly ... if u reach a bus station or railway station at 10:20 for the 10:18 train/bus then you won't get it ... its that accurate. I looked up the way to Rotterdam and noted it down on paper. That was the first time I was going to travel alone in Holland and I had no idea how to look up trains at the platforms and the different routes the various trains go on etc... I just planned to blindly follow what the website told me.

I took an apple from office and set out from office at 4:45 pm ... went to the barneveld noord station ... caught a train to Uttrecht Centraal ... and from there to Rotterdam Centraal ... I think this is the route I took though I am not sure now ... anyway I changed a couple of trains and I reached Rotterdam centraal at 6:30pm. I collected my tickets from the NS international counter and did the payment. Then I did the first sensible thing since I decided to go alone to PAris and I askd the lady at the counter to change my booking for the return journey to the Thalis leaving Paris at 16:55 instead of 18:55 as I had reserved over the phhone ... I realized that with the buses and trains stopping after a certain time in NL, if I landed here late I could be stuck in Rotterdam without any way to reach home to my apartment in Groenhof, Ede. As it turned out that was the most sensible decision I have taken in my life coz I eventually reached back home on Sunday at 11:15 PM. Anyway, I was now 100% sure I was going to France in a couple of hours. Great.

Spent some time eating a pizza slice and drinking a coke at the station and at 7:54 pm exactly the Thalis moved from the station towards paris ... this train can reach a peak speed of around 300 KMph and takes about 3 hours 10 minutes for the trip to Paris and is the fastest option in trains. It was dark outside so I coudn'y see how fast the train was going but inside though the train swayed now and then u coudln't really make out the train was moving very fast. Anyway exactly on time at 11:06 pm, the train stopped at Paris Noord station and I was out on my own .... with no idea what to do next.

I had the phoen no of some youth hostels in my pocket and I immediately searched a phone to make the calls ... only problem was I coudn't find a phone that took coins and I dind't have a phone card ... I wandered here and there and it was 11:45 at night and I was cussing myself for having come without a phoen card .... that is when I met a Sri Lankan tamil guy and I asked him for help and he gave me his phone card ... u get these budget cards for about 7-10 euros and u can make calls for a fixed amounr of time on each card ... he said not much time was left on the card but I could use whateger was left. So I managed to call one of the youth hostels who told me they were full and gave me another number and told me to call up there. It was about 12:00 at nigth then and I was wondering if I had made a mistake in coming to Paris without a proper plan in mind. Anyway, I got through to this second youth hostel and the guy said - yeah we have acco available for 19 euros per night with breakfast included ... I asked him for directions to get to his place and he said (in a french accent I could hardly understand) - catch metro ABC1 to place X, change to metro ABC2 to place Y, change to another metro ABC3 to place Z and you are there .... I said great, what is the name of your hostel coz I can catch all those metros but what do I do after I get down at that last place ... right at the moment fate played a cruel joke and the line went dead ... the phone card had expired. I was left with directions to the metro station very near the houth hostel but no address or name of the youth hostel itself ... it was like saying "I live in Banjara Hills ... come find me" ... bloody hell. It was about 12:15 and I wondered what to do ... I had a wild idea that if i went to the metro station something would suggest itself ... so asking someone i reached the metro station and found a barrier in front of me which needed tickets to cross ... and I dind't have a ticket and the counters were closed ... and all automatic ticket counters require cards. Annyway, one negro saw me and he had an extra ticket in hand and he punched it in for me ... and I went in .... I had not learned yet that when u get stuck at the turnstile without a ticket, you jump it .... it was my first hour in France and the first time I had been into a Metro station and I had several things to learn about it. Anyway, i reached the platform and then realized it wasn't going to be as easy as I had thought... I didn't know where to get down and how to change metros ... though later I found it was quite easy, at that moment I lost my nerve thinking about the three metros I had to change. So i retraced my steps and came back out of the metro station and back to the Paris Noord station where I had started out from after getting down from the train. It was about 12:40 and I was on the streets without a place to stay ... I always wanted adventure but I wasn't sure I meant France at 12:40 at night without knowing the language (about 10% people in france speak english or acknowledge knowing english ... the other 90% simply wave their hands at u and glare at u when u talk with them in English).

I started hunting around the hotels near the station and came across hotels offering rooms at 55 euros per night, 75 euros per night and 60 euros per night and I was thinking the amount of money I had in my pocket was going to wear very thin very soon indeed. Then I saw a bar with a Hotel sign above it and the barman (who was drunk stiff ... all day he probably had been selling drinks with a "one for u and one for me" policy) said - "Thotty Yurros" when I made a sign with my fingers to indicate money ... he dind't speak English either. 30 euros looked like a godsend and I didn;t argue any more and I was in a room dumping my bag and washing my face at about 1 AM. I then went down and had a beer to relax and the barman grumbled at me coz he was closing up when I had come ... if I had been about 10 minutes late then he would have closed and I would still be out on the streets. Anyway, I slept at about 1:30 AM knowing i was in France and I was surviving .... cool.

Next mornign I awoke at 10 AM .... by the time I left my hotel it was about 10:45 AM ... I had a burger (with beef) at MacDonalds - the girl at the counter gawked stupidly when I said "vegetarian burger??? vegetarian sandwich??? (she dind;t speak English either) - and then started walking around trying to get my bearings so I could easily make my way back on Sunday evening when I came to catch my train back. I saw a shop that was run by a Indian chap and took some directions from him - in Hindi .. heh heh - and he told me to take a bus no 30 to eiffel tower. So I took bus no 30 and about half hour ride later I was somewhere near the Eiffel tower.

After that i walked. Till about 9 at night, I walked. I walked all around the Eiffel tower ... looking at it from different angles and admiring it from different vantage points ... at peace with the world and myself. U can go up the eiffel towers in lifts (u pay money for it) or walk up the stairs to one floor but there was long long lines for all of this and I thought it would be a waste of time to do this right now ... I had plenty of time and Paris was mine for the next many hours. I kept walking and through the various streets in front of me ... reached a museum call "La Amaire" or something ... I don;'t remember its name but it also had a small building beside it that is actually Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb. So I visited both and had a good time knowing I was in Europe looking at Napoleon's tomb ... cool.

Then i walked some more ... to the Louvre .... even from outside it is beautiful .... u can go there and take plenty of photos even without bothering to go inside ... and I did take some photos there. One place, I asked a french guy to take my photo for me and he waved his hand and walked away and this girl comes upto me and asks (thankfully) in English - "u want me to take ur photo"??? She and her friend were from Canada and she took my photo and I took theirs... she was very pretty ... ;-).

Then I was to another place ... like the Eiffel i walked all around the Louvre ennjoying it from different angles and different vantage points. I met this canadian girl again at another vantage point where we again took each other's photo ... ;-) .... I dunno if she was following me but honesty forces me to say it probably was an accident.... ;-(

Then i went into the museum and looked at various stuff .... I saw the Venus De Milo and the Mona Lisa ... hell, I am really very cultured now. Roamed around a lot though I don't have that mind of an artist, I found things to be interesting and generally enjoyed myself.

When I came out of the Louvre, I made for the Cathaderel of Notre Dame but rain delayed me and I lost one hour standing under a shelter near the Louvre ... of course it wasn't a total loss since I got to just look around a lot. There was a lovely English girl also sheltering from the rain and though i didn't speak with her (another guy was trying to pick her up ... telling her he thought she was beautoiful and asking if she wanted to come for a drink .. etc etc etc ... the girl kept refusing ... finally walking away unpicked after the rain stopped).

I walked and walked ... it was about 4:30 pm now and I had been walking since 12 noon and I was walking in the general direction of Notre Dame .... and just near Notre dame I saw a boat cruise sign for a cruise on the Seine river. I had been going to and fro the river on the various bridges all day long during my walkings but I really wanted to go on this boat cruise so I delayed Notre Dame for later and bought a ticket .... the boat cruise was cool .... I sat on the open top of the boat for this one hour cruise and it was very cold with a chilly breeze blowing and I loved every moment of it ... I was really regretting it when the ride ended one hour later.

Now, I decided to forget Notre Dame for today and instead concentrate on finding an acco for the night, the previous night having taught me the importance of concentrating on this important job. Since I had the general directions the previous night I had marked it on my map and made sure that the way I was navigating all day long took me rouhgly in the direction the youth hostel was located though i still dind't know its name or address. Now I went with a total focus on finding the hostel and walked through lots of places asking directions and stuff .... I reached a place called Bastille, very near the place where the youth hostel was .... but still didn't know how exactly to reach the place itself. I had bought a phone card for myself in the day .... the place where I bought it from said I could only use it from inside France and so I bought a real cheap card for 3 euros .... and the bloody thing behaved like a cheap card. You are supposed to call a number and enter the code in the card and then the phone numeber u want to connect to and the bloody thing wouldn't connect at all .... the only advantage I had at that time was it was early in the day ... about 7 pm and shops were open and people all around and this was better than roaming around emoty streets as I had the night earlier. SO I finally entered a shop owned by 2 Sri Lankan tamil guys and they allowed me to make a call from their phone .... in fact one of them took the directions from his place to the hostel and noted it down for me .... the hostel turned out to be very near to the place, about 10 minutes walk and at 8:45 at night I was at the hostel .... Cool. I checked in and washed my face and felt I wasn't doing too bad after all. Heh heh.

After the burger (with beef in it as mentioned earlier) in the morning, I had eaten the apple I had brought fromm Amsterdam in the afternoon and since I had not found anything vegetarian in my travels (I hadn;t searched for food too hard ... i was busy walking and seeing Paris to care about food ,... I had just asked a couple of places here and there), I hadn;t eaten anything else since and just before entering the hostel I found a place nearby that had rice and finger chips which I had ... tasted nice ... ;-) ... it turns out that there are plenty of shops that sell idli and vada and sambhar etc near the eiffel tower but since i didn't know it, i didn't even try to find those shhops ... now i think of it, i don't even regret it coz if i had spent time eating and searching for food then i woudn't have been able to traverse so much on foot .... i walked so much even when i wasn't making exactly for some tourist spot that i saw a lot of paris ... a lot... though i don't remember even 5% of the names of the places.

Anyway after checking into the hostel, i went down to get a drink of water and met a girl who was also staying at the same hostel ... she was Norweigian and was named Benedicta ... she was slim and she was cute and she spoke english very well ... ;-) ... we talked and we talked and we talked ... just randomly ... and it was about 12:30 at night when we parted to sleep (yeah, we slept in our own rooms ... u perverts) .... she said about three times during our conversartion - "you have never been to paris ... first time u r going out of ur country .. u don't know the language here ... and u just walked into paris .... cool ... so awesome". I totally agreed with this coz I thought i was totally awesome and we parted on friendly terms.

Woke up morning at 8:30 AM ... had breakfast at 9 and walked out of the hostel at 9:30 after saying bye to Benedicta who was having breakfast then ... ;-(. This time I had a different plan in mind for the day ... the previous day I had walked a lot and seen a lot of the city and today since I had a train to catch at 4:55 pm, i just wanted to go to select places, spend tiem and reach the station by 4 pm, just to make sure. I didn't have too much money in my pocket and if I missed my train to NL then i was sunk ... dead ... destroyed. Also I had not yet used the Metro and I had heard so much about it .... I thought it would be a pity to go back without experiencing it .... i had a bad experience the first night when i went to the metro station but i realized that was an accident and i should take another shot at it. The map I had been following all day the previous day gave all the required info about the mteros but i hadn' used it but i was going to now .... and now that I tried it, it was the easiest thing possible .... I had bought a weekend ticket for metro/bus the previous day though i hadn;t used it at all the previous day except the first bus i took .... on sunday, i used the metro to go to place X, change over and take a metro to Notre Dame cathaderel ... and I was there in ten minutes. It was sunday mass at the cathaderel and I attended about half hour of the mass ... and took another half hour in roaming around inside the cathederel itself .... and outside of course .... just looking at the cathederel from the outside and decided I was the King ... no two questions about it ... i was the king.

I was about to leave the Notre Dame area when i saw an old man feeding birds by holding grain his palm ... I aksed him if I could do the same and he gave me some bird seed and I stood there with the seed in my palm and the birds simply flew up and sat on my hand and ate the birdseed from my palm ... at one time i had about five sparrows sitting in my palm... some other tourists even took mu photo with the birds sitting on my palm .... heh heh ... people in various parts of the world will know my face even though the birds will be the main focus of the photo.

I then caught another metro and went to Eiffel Tower again .... this time made straight for the line to go up the tower ... took ticket and went up right to the top of the tower ... the bloody very top. Going up, looking around from there and coming back down took about 2 hours and when i finally was ready to leave the Eiffel, it was about 2 pm. It was drizzling again and I again took the metro and went to the Champs de Elysses - I know the spelling is wrong but I give a shit ... people who have been to Paris know whatg place I am talking about. It is a big street with lots of shopping and lots od babes and it was nice roaming there .... in one shop i bought two dolls for my niece .. one a slightly big doll and one a slightly small doll .... Uncle Chuck, thats me. I also saw the Arch de Triumph, which is totally like our India Gate and Gateway of India .... and it was time to make for the station aqain to catch my train back. I caught another two metros and was back at the station at 4:10 for my train that was suposed to start at 4:55 .... something went wrong and the train started at 4:56 .... I wondered whether to sue them but then left it ... I am happy, why to make someone else unhappy by sueing them?

I landed in Rotterdam at 8:10 and then caught a train to Uttrecht centraal and then to Ede Waginengen which is my station ... on the way home, I dind't have a ticket - they had made an announcement on the Thalis itself that the train to Uttrecht cenntraal would leave from platform xyz ten minutes after we reached Rotterdam ... Rashmi anyway had told me I could buy a ticket on the train itseld if the checker came ... though that wasn't the regular thing to do ... people kmew u were buying a ticket on the train coz u didn't buy it on the station like everyone else ... but I really had no choice ... i wasn't taking a chance on missing my last bus home - and the checker came checking and asked me for the ticket. I shocked him by asking for a ticket very coolly and told him I had come from Paris by the Thalis ten minutes back and hadn;t had the time to buy one at the station ... i further told him to give me a ticket to ede-wageningen instead of uttrecht centraal where the train ended so that i wouldn't have to go through this again in my next train ... the guy dind't know what to make of me but he gave me my ticket.

Down at uttrecht centraal ... change train and got down at ede-wageningen ... ran to the bus stop and fond I had missed the bus by 4 minutes ... the next bus was at 10:56 .... about one hour later .. and i stood around for one hour then caught the bus at 10:56 and reached home at 11:15.

So ended my trip to Paris. It was absoutely awesome.

Chuck, the world traveler.