Chuck's travels

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.

Netherlands - Post 1

Hi guys,
Long time since I wrote a detailed mail. Let me make up for it here. I have had two weekends here including the weekend we reached here. The first weekend, we spent a bit quietly. Saturday was spent going to Ede centrum market (special market on saturdays) and roaming around there. I bought myseld a strip card there - relax, it has nthing to do with stripping but is like a bus ticket that you buy for 10 euros and use it instead of buying tickets everytime you get into a bus. That was my first day in Holland and I was wearing thermals and all and was very warm indeed. BTW, after that first day I have not worn my thermals again. The temperature has been in the positive throughout my stay here. I heard that about one week before we reached here the temperature went down to about -8 degrees C but since I have been here I think the minnimum temperature has been about 2-3 degrees dduring the day so it has not been very cold.

Sunday on the first weekend, we decided to go to Amsterdam. SriKrishna, Moinu, myself, Akka and Rashmi went together. After reaching Amsterdam we split up with myself and Rashmi going around togetgher and the othre three going around together with the idea that we would meet afain at 6 in the evening to go home together. In the morning, we planned to leave our house at about 7 AM and meet at the station at Ede-Wageningen (we are staying in Groenhof, Ede) to catch a train for Amsterdam but when we reached the bus station we realized on sundays the first bus comes only around 9:15 AM .. bloody backward people, these dutch. Anyway we reached Amsterdam around 11 AM and started roaming.

I don't remember what all we saw but I was more interested in only walking around and seeing everything possible ... we walked for about 6 hours that day and in the process visited the Rjikk museum and the Van Gogh museum (bloody hell... I think I am spelling museum incorrectly but for the world of me I cannnot guess what the correct spelling could be). There was a painting by one Alexander De Champs named "The Shepherd" that caught my eye - I really loved that painting. Only problem was that even if I liked it, it was about a couple of hundred thousand dollars over my budget for buying paintings that was around 10 euros... Hmmm, I never realized i was artistic but I really loved that painting. I saw plenty of Van Gogh paintings and I am suddenly feeling like an extremely cultured young man (Britney is young and so am I ... kya Satya???). Also, we wanted to go to Madam Tassaud's but it was closed for renovation. Amsterdam is so beautiful as is the rest of the country itseld ... the houses are very much similar in looks ... u cannot recognize one street from another coz they all look bloody similar ... like I said, the dutch are pretty backward people .. ;-). Amsterdam really was beautiful - so many canals and bridges and stuff all over the place. Finally around 5:30, we had a beer at a pub to warm ourseleves (one of the reasons I went with Rashmi was that I could feel comfortable doing things I wouldn't feel comfortable doing with other people ... like sharing a drink with her ... good fun). Finally we all regrouped near the station and we decided to make our way back - Srikrishna and Moinu decided to stay back and see some "fun" things. I hadn't seen any "fun" things either that day - I was more interested in seeing beautiful amsterdam with the Fun things always possible later before I come back. I too would have stayed back with them but then akka would have to go home alone from the station and I was afraid she would catch the wronf bus freon the railway station and end up in Paris by mistake. So I too went home and that finished off the weekend.

One thing I have seen about people in Holland - very rarely will you see any sick or fat or unfit person ... all the Dutchies are well built and very fit indeed ... they eat a lot of milk products (cheese etc) and meat and drink a lot of milk and juice... the air is too clean here so even the smokers only inhale about half the bad smoke that any person in india would inhale on an ordinary day to office and back. It would not be too much of an exaggeratino to say that I have not seen any fat people here ... even those who are a little fat will be very well built and not fat like people back there (me for example .. ;-( ... i am gonna change my lifestyle after coming back). the taxi person who came to pick us up at amsterdam airport when we landed here was so stout and bulky, she picked up my suitcase like it was empty and I had been struggling to lift it a couple of inches off the ground. These dutchies cycle everywhere possible and exercise a lot too ... I guess ... very fit people.

Anyway that is the end of my first weekend.