Monday, October 14, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- A Scary Metro Ride in New York Metro

It was a cold January evening as I strolled in the Queens district of New York. It was my first trip abroad and I had spent almost four weeks at Long Island where I was undergoing training.

The crowds were thinning as the night fell. I had packages of items just purchased, tucked under my arms when I stepped out of the store. My shoes slipped in the fresh snow as I made my way towards the Queen's metro station. A recent light shower made walking difficult, due to a load of packages. A cold wind blew and swayed the trees making a rustling noise. I reached the station and purchased the ticket to the Grand  Penn station. I was to spend the evening at a friend's place in New York City.

The train arrived and I boarded it quickly. There were just two or three passengers in the compartment. At the next station, Hollis, two of them got down and two tall dark men entered the coach. They were drunk, and I could make out that these guys were not good! They looked like muggers about whom I had heard. They both wore overcoats which one of them unbuttoned. They were probably armed and one stupid move from my end could spell disaster! One of them who had curly hair and big white teeth looked at me and asked... 'where are you from? ' as they both occupied the seats facing mine. I  pretended, that I did not understand what they said. I could feel my hair raise as he spoke in the cold tone which was intimidating. He got a little impatient while his colleague hurled a few waves of abuse. My throat went dry, as I tried to speak. I made sign gestures by waving my hand and nodding my head that I did not understand them. A shroud of darkness and a few distant twinkling lights, which I could see, from the window, were not very comforting. I wished that the train had more crowd as a Mumbai local! I  prayed silently for the ordeal to end, as the train entered Jamaica station and to my good luck, a few more passengers got into the compartment. It was such a relief to find a company!

The two men realized the futility of talking further and I lowered my eyes to avoid eye contact with them. Every passing moment was like ages. In ten more minutes, the train entered the Grand Central( Penn) station. I quickly disembarked and got lost in the crowd. I had never felt more insecure during my visit and thanked God that I came out unharmed.

PS: 1. There were several times I travelled on the New York metro whilst my stay at Long Island and have some lovely memories of the hospitability of the MTA, Metro service in New York City. This includes one when the metro ferried us on a bus to the next station due to a train disruption due to a minor accident on the track one day
2. Will continue with the series of train journeys that are memorable
3. Pictures Kind courtesy Google

Monday, October 7, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Best Unplanned trip

‘What, you want to proceed on leave’? The boss asked, looking at me as if I had asked for a share in his treasure.

‘Yes sir, need a break’ I tried to woo him.

‘But where will you go? Do you think you will get any reservation around this time? He continued, sardonically

‘I will try’, I said in desperation

‘Fine, you may go, if you can manage one’ he remarked in his great act of benevolence

It had been an arduous two weeks. The hectic sailing routine and the constant pressure of handling operational issues had my nerves wracking. I desperately needed a break from this routine!

Later in the day the ship INS Vikrant where I was serving, came alongside berthed on Ballard Pier in Mumbai. I quickly changed my attire and rushed to the Mumbai VT (now CST terminal) for the railway reservation. Internet booking was not available in those days and after standing in a queue, for half an hour, my turn came.

‘Where’? The clerk asked without raising his head.

‘Two tickets to Bangalore on 22 Oct by Udyan Express, I replied’

‘Not available, he replied nonchalantly after referring to a voluminous record.

‘Ok, do you have for Madras (Chennai), for the same date, by the Dadar Madras Express ‘I enquired?

He looked at me a little nonplussed, ‘Are you sure’ he remarked, as he did not come across people to enquire for a ticket for another destination at the spur of the moment.

Having booked onward journey, I had to try my luck with the return ticket.

This time I could get only return ticket from Bangalore and not Chennai. So I had the onward tickets to Madras and return tickets from Bangalore. I felt thrilled at this accomplishment at such a short notice

I returned back to the ship to find my boss still around. I told him about the rail reservation and he granted me leave.

I reached home in the evening to break the news to my wife. She was taken aback but was happy.

Next day we boarded the train from Dadar to Chennai, without a specific itinerary. We flipped through the Railway Timetable, purchased just prior to boarding. After two hours of gleaning a whirlwind tour to Chennai, Madurai, Kodaikanal, Rameshwaram, Coimbatore, Ooty, Bangalore and return, was finalized. I had no bookings in any hotel or guest house for any destination. I managed to get the bookings as I kept landing at a new place. I could get some best places to stay just by flashing my Identity Card, especially at places like Mysore in the PWD Guest House and YWCA at Ooty! It turned out to be one of the best two weeks with no prearranged hotel bookings or onward reservations. It also was one of the craziest trips that I undertook, as far as my memory goes

PS: Images Kind Courtesy Google
2. Will continue with the stories of the incredible train journeys and head for a new destination, next week.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Falling in Love with South

The war with Pakistan had just ended and there was an all-around euphoria for having won the war with the surrender of Pakistan in East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. The fervour and nationalistic spirit were at its peak. One of the best solo trips came my way when I was still at school! I had qualified the written examination for the National Defence Academy and was required to appear at the Services Selection Board at Bangalore(now Bengaluru) in the month of December. I had never travelled that far alone and the journey involved two nights of travel. There was no direct train from Delhi those days, so I had to change at Madras Central ( Chennai now) and take an overnight train to Bangalore Central. The thought of undertaking a long journey was exciting beyond words. The onward reservation was done and on the day of departure, my parents and brothers came to see me off at the New Delhi station from where I boarded the Dakshin Express.

After bidding adieu, I settled down on my 3 tier seat with many passengers hailing from South India region. It was the first exposition to a different culture, though while at school my best friend was a Tamilian. It was an era of diesel engines and the train rumbled along with the familiar sights till we crossed Agra. The terrain was unfamiliar from here onwards so I kept looking out most of the time appreciating the geographical beauty of our country. When the train entered the ravines of Chambal including Bhind, Morena and Gwalior, I could almost feel that any moments the dacoits mounted on their horses would begin a chase of the train as the areas were still infested with dacoits. The train passed along peacefully till my thoughts were interrupted by clanking of steel utensils and the aroma of idlis and curd rice filled the air. The family seated next to me opened their lunch boxes and generously offered me some. It was delicious! We struck a small conversation and I learnt that they were travelling till Vijaywada. By late evening, the train stopped at Bhopal junction which was very vibrant, compared to the smaller stations we had passed by. Once the train left Bhopal, I climbed atop on my berth to settle down for the night. The sleep was elusive as the constant rocking motion made it difficult to get a sound sleep beside the frequent stops like Hoshangabad, Itarsi,  Nagpur and Wardha, with a constant cacophony from the platforms.

When I woke up, the train had reached the Kazipet junction. I climbed down from my berth and found that the other passengers were already awake. The sound of vendors shouting, "Kapi Kapi" ( Coffee, Coffee, was music to ears). I bought a cup of filter coffee which was very refreshing. The aroma of the chana dal vadas prepared in hot frying oil was a temptation difficult to resist. It was a long halt where some bogies were being detached so I leisurely, indulged in these heavenly pleasures with dollops of fresh coconut chutney. After, a while I lost track of how many vadas I had polished off. The train blew the horn and I quickly scampered back into the compartment with a copy of the morning newspaper. It was disappointing to see that most of the news in the local newspaper was the same that I had already read in Delhi!

The contours of the landscape changed dramatically and so did the weather. My woollens had been packed on the previous evening itself and I was sweating in the heat. First-Hand Experience of the vagaries of weather in our huge country where it was bitter cold in Delhi! Almost all people had a shorter build and a chocolate complexion and spoke in an unfamiliar language. After some time I was jolted out of my siesta as there was a huge rattling noise. I looked out of the window and realized that the train was crossing the huge metallic bridge over the River Krishna and entering the Vijaywada station. The gleaming river with ebbing water had a gigantic span and looked overwhelming. My fellow passengers were ready to disembark leaving the cabin a little lonely as the train halted. It was a bustling station and by now the familiar sight of steaming idlis, upma and other southern snacks had a magnetic attraction. These were becoming my favourite. The huge canteen of the station was very enticing, but as the occupants of my cabin had left, so I had to make do with passing vendors. Just before the train was to depart, a newly married couple, entered my cabin. The lady was draped in a golden-red saree and had a huge bunch of jasmine flowers tucked on her braid of hair. Her husband wore a spotless white kurta and a dhoti with a vermilion mark on the forehead. They kept conversing in Tamil all along and I was a mute spectator. In a few hours, the train passed by small towns of Ongole, Nellore and Gudur before reaching the outskirts of Madras. The sight of small twinkle of a never-ending streak of lights from the shanties looked pretty. It was late in the evening when the train arrived at Madras Central,  that was buzzing with activity. It was still more than 3 hours when my next train was to depart. It was dinner time and I spotted a dosa vendor, preparing crisp dosas. On enquiry, he told me that three dosas will cost me 60 p. I thought I heard him wrong! It was one of the best plain dosa with pure coconut chutney, that left me asking for more. I took two more and rounded off the payment of One Rupee! It will make most of the readers appear that I belong to the Victorian era whereas this happened about five decades ago!

After a hearty fill, I waited for the Bangalore Mail patiently at the platform as I slowly assimilated a different culture. As the train came on the platform I managed to scramble in one compartment and hopped on the top berth, as I did not have a reservation. I never got off as there was no place to move in the crowded compartment/. I managed to catch some sleep en route and by the time I woke up the train had reached the Bangalore Cantonment station. Another 20 minutes of run brought me to my destination, Bangalore Central.

I still relish the memories of this train journey that helped me immensely in the following years in boosting my confidence and ability to rough out.  It was also the beginning of a  long love affair with the South which endures to this day!

PS 1.Images kind courtesy Google
2. Stay tuned for another memorable adventure on the train next week

Monday, September 23, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys-A Ride to Lord Krishna's Abode

The Charming train of yesteryears
The train journeys have a charm like none other. No matter how much you travel the hunger for seeing something new and experience the world as a passenger in the trains is insatiable. Every journey by the train is unique. In my forty-odd years of career, the travel in connection with work and my lust for travel took me on some incredible train journeys which are etched in my mind. When  I gleam through the sheaves of pages in my memory, the nostalgia takes better of me. I will now be penning some of these memories in a series of blogs in the coming weeks.
A scene at the  railway station before globalization
The earliest memories go back to my early school days when I along with my younger siblings undertook the train journey from Delhi to Mathura( The birthplace of Lord Krishna). It was our ancestral home, a distance of barely 150 km but looked like a long journey. The train station was bustling with crowds and appeared chaotic. The vendors were busy selling tea, pakoras and pooris. They were surrounded by a small mob of people jostling with each other to seek the attention of the hawker. The din of the announcements blaring, the children crying, and people scampering to board or disembark are still fresh in my mind. The train rolled into the station with a thundering noise and the steam engine belching out smoke like a tireless power plant at work. The sight of the huge furnace aglow with embers of coal appeared like a demon in the fairy tale as it went past before the train came to halt with a screeching sound of the brakes. A scramble followed as people tried to make way into the compartments, as some more enterprising tried to make way through the windows as the IIIrd class compartments did not have any grill in those days.  After a few minutes, the passengers managed to squeeze into the wooden benches devoid of the luxury of cushions. No one really bothered, as finding a place to sit was more important. A beeline of hawkers would soon appear selling a myriad of things ranging from chana masala, fruits, bangles and trinkets, magazines and newspapers, singers, even beggars and ear-cleaners as the train whistled and moved out of the platform, as the guard waved the green flag on the platform.

 As the train moved towards Faridabad, the sight of a few factories changed the landscape. The train stopped at almost every station as people ferried in and out of the bogie. My mom unwrapped the parcel of pooris and aloo and handed out making a small roll of the contents. A bite into the soft pooris and aloo bhaji with a dash of mango pickle seemed heavenly, as I looked out of the window and stared into the miles of green fields with the golden yellow Sarson(mustard) flowers at distance. The reverie was rudely interrupted by amber fly ash from the engine in the eye making me almost scream in pain. With a dab of water in cupped hands and spray on eyes things got better but not before a small blood clot on the white of the eye. It dampened the spirit only for a few minutes till the train reached Kosi Kalan, almost midway to Mathura. The samosa vendor was selling hot samosas along with spicy mint chutney and shouting at the top of his voice to draw attention. I looked at my mother and cajoled her to buy some. I handed out a One rupee note and promptly the hawker wrapped a few samosas in a packet and poured the mint chutney on a cup made of leaves(dona). One bite of samosa and next moment I was speechless as the steaming spicy potato stuck over the wall of my tongue, till a stream of tears came out. The agony was worth every bit except that for the next two days I was unable to swallow anything hot or cold due to a blister in the mouth.

Next, we indulged in the game of cards with a lot of argument and cheating that could possibly be done. A little girl who was sitting next to us kept reading aloud the cards held by my brother who was annoyed to no end. It was innocence at its best till the train reached Mathura in the next one hour. It was time to disembark and help in carrying our luggage to the rickshaw stand to hire a rickshaw. The rickety rickshaw took us home through a series of dangerous maneuvres in the congested lanes.

It was one of the many such journeys I undertook in the subsequent years on this route and treasure the memories of this journey to this date.

PS: 1. Images Kind courtesy Google
2. Next week I will take you on yet another interesting train ride.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Lille Gem

Town Hall Belfry
 Almost a decade back, I took a train ride on Eurostar from London to Paris, just to experience the thrill of going through the English Channel on a train. It was an exhilarating experience to go through the Chunnel( Channel Tunnel) at a speed of 160km/hr and is still fresh on my mind. I vividly remember having seen Calais and Lille where the train stopped briefly, in France. They appeared to be small towns in the middle of nowhere. What a coincidence to arrive in Lille almost a decade later and this time it was for a stay of four days to explore places around. The journey on EU Rail trains passing through Belgium was very eventful as I had two interchanges at Antwerp and Courtrai. It was almost 6.30 PM when I arrived at the sprawling Lille Flanders station right in the middle of the city. As I stepped out of the station, I was taken aback by the number of people and beautiful buildings that surrounded me. The streets were festooned with huge colourful cutouts and images. A sprawling Carrefour store and Shopping Mall was just across the street. With a bit of effort, we managed to locate our accommodation which was just a 15 min walk from the station.
Vieille Bourse

The next day we went to explore Dunkirk. The details can be read on my blog post(  ).

After the return from Dunkirk, the next day was exclusively earmarked for exploring the Lille Gem:) There are several things that make this fourth largest city in France, a special. A world heritage site, the town hall Belfry dominates the skyline. It is a towering 104 m high and was built in 1932. It has an observation tower built atop which offers a splendid view of the city and the Flanders region on a clear day.
Church of St Etienne

A short walk leads us to the Church of St Etienne that was built-in 1732 in Baroque style. The site features 12 medallions representing 12 apostles, an organ, confessionals and a square bell tower. It is a lovely structure.
The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace is the main square of the city and is the birthplace(the Year 1890) of the legendary General De Gaulle an erstwhile president of France. Till 11thcentury it was the corn market and is the hub of the city now. Thee are many well-preserved buildings in the vicinity that includes Vieillei Bourse an Old Stock Exchange built-in 1653. It comprises 24 identical houses surrounding an arched courtyard that now house second-hand book stores and shops of florists. Le Furet Du Nord is the largest bookstore in Europe, just the opposite. Further, three female statues stand crowning the Voix du La Nord newspaper building around the square. Built-in 1932, the statues represent the three northern provinces of Artois, Flanders and Hainault. Next to this is the Grand’Garde, a building that housed soldiers in the 16th century and is currently used as a theatre. At the centre of the square is a statue of 
The Goddess of Lille

The Goddess that commemorates Lille’s victory during the Austrian canon ball siege of 1792. She holds the fuse that fired the canons in her right hand and her left-hand points to the inscription on the pedestal that says “The courageous refusal of Mayor AndrĂ© of Lille to surrender the town.”
Mouthwatering treats- The Meert
The square is now used for various congregations and staging protests. There are a number of cafes around this. A prominent one which has long queues most of the time is Meert. the famous patisserie. It was founded in 1677 and has been serving the mouth-watering sensational pastries and pies to this day. A place highly recommended for satiating the taste buds and ignoring diet advice!
The Lille Cathedral
The Lille Cathedral is the largest Roman Catholic church in the heart of the city. I was constructed in 1854 but could be restored to present shape only in 1999 having faced the destruction in WW1 and WW2. 
The beautiful interior of the Notre Dame de la Trellis
The statue of the Virgin Mary is protected by an iron trellis. Hence the place is also called as Notre Dame de la Trellis. The facade is made out of tall 110 marble sheets and was designed by Peter Rice who had also designed the Sydney Opera.
Palais des Beaux-Arts
We then headed to Palais des Beaux-Arts, a grand museum of fine arts. It was established in 1801 under the helm-manship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Some prized artists whose works are displayed here are Rubens, Van Dyck, Goya, Amaury Duval and Monet.
Birth of Venus by Amaury Duval (1862)at the Museum

Parc Henri Matisse is a public garden spread over an area of 8 hectares. It comprises of four distinct spaces and four different themes. This garden was designed to be in s state of constant evolution with the changes in season.

The interesting culture and the sights are very endearing and leave the footprints in the memory for posteriority. The most amazing thing that I discovered after exploring Lille was the rich variety it has to offer to a casual visitor who went with an expectation of a quiet visit to a place relatively unknown- A true gem indeed.

PS: All pictures in the blog are mine. Will explore a new place in my next blog

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Gare de Dunkerque Railway Station

Never had I ever imagined that one day I would be able to see the place Dunkirk! A couple of years back, Christian Nolans' award-winning film ' Dunkirk', which I had seen, left a lasting impression. The landmark evacuation of British and French armed forces cornered and outnumbered by the advancing German army (from 26 May to 4 June 1940 ) happened on this coastal town of France. It is near the Belgian border, just a few kilometres away. It was a dream come true to stand on the same seashore almost 79 years later.

The journey started from the city of Lille Flanders, where I had landed the previous evening. The train journey from Rotterdam via the pretty towns of Antwerp, Ghent and Courtrai was an amazing experience. The revelation that Anvers is nothing but Antwerp occurred just ten minutes before we were to disembark to change trains at Antwerp. All along while reading the EU Rail timetable, Anvers( French name) was indicated as the station for a change! It is remarkable how the names and spellings change for towns, as we travel from one country to another in Europe.  I wish, I had more time to see the quirky fascinating city of  Ghent which we passed by and had power to the allure with its charm of canals and gothic church spires in silhouette.
The harbour of Dunkirk
On arrival at Lille, I had thought it to be a small town which I had passed by a couple of years back while travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar. I learnt that this city is the fourth largest in France and is on the Northen tip of the country. The city has so much to offer that I will need a separate post to dwell on its history and beautiful experiences.
St Eloi Belfry Tower
The journey to Dunkirk which is about 80 km from Lille Flanders commenced in the morning. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach Dunkirk( spelt as Dunkerque in French) passing through the little towns of Armentieries, Hazebrouck, Cassel and Bergues. Dunkirk rail station has huge plaques that highlight the history of the evacuation that occurred during WW2 in this small town. A pleasant surprise awaited us, as we stepped out of the station that the city provides 'Free Bus Service'  for travel from any part of the town. The strong and icy winds from the North Sea greeted us as we moved towards the city. The imposing tall St Eloi Belfry Tower looked grand from a distance. It is one of the most beautiful buildings.
Church Eglise Saint Eloi

 A 450-year-old Gothic Church Eglise Saint Eloi stands across the road on Belfry in all the glory.
The bullet marks on the walls of the church
It still has the bullet marks that it faced during the WW2, though the structure is restored. A walk around the harbour was pleasant. Little Elisabeth(ship) which was used in the evacuation of soldiers is berthed here, besides the several sail ships moored adds to the beauty of the place. Nearby is a cemetery of graves of the soldiers who lost their lives during the evacuation and gun battle.
Operation Dynamo Museum
We then headed to the War Museum located close to the East Mole and the evacuation beaches in Bastion 32. The War Museum gives an insight into the 'Operation Dynamo', the codename for the evacuation of 338000 British and French soldiers during WW2, biggest in the war history
A replica of a nurse serving during Operation Dynamo
The canons, arms, ammunition, uniforms worn by the soldiers, even the aircraft that were flown and their remains, war maps, and photos are well preserved in the museum. They create the environment to transport the onlooker back to the period
Remains of an aircraft shot down over Dunkirk
It is a moving experience to witness the bygone era where hundreds lost their lives and many managed to survive.
The Bray-Dunes
Another bus ride to the Bray-Dunes (17km from Dunkirk ) was the last destination. A 30-minute drive is full of excitement as the bus traverses through the thick foliage of trees lined along the coastline. The  Bray-Dunes is the site from where most of the evacuation was carried out.
WW2 Memorial at the Bray-Dunes

 A memorial has been erected at the site that overlooks the sprawling blue sea. Hundreds of boats of all kinds had landed along the coastline to execute the "Operation Dynamo' to evacuate the stranded soldiers who literally faced the devil on one end(German forces) and the deep blue sea (the English Channel)at the other. Churchill in his famous speech of 4 June1940 'we shall fight on the beaches' hailed this operation as a 'miracle of deliverance'.
At Dunkerque
It had been an engrossing day. The pride of having visited a historical site of a major  'Naval Operation' for an ex-Navy man like me is difficult to express. The return journey to Lille was uneventful but the lasting memories of Dunkirk will stay forever

PS- All Pictures are mine. Will take you around Lille the birthplace of General De Gaulle in my next blog post.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Building Nation

A day to take pride in,
 as tricolour unfurls everywhere
Hundreds of sacrifices 
  many a life laid threadbare
No easy task it was
 to attain freedom from naysayers
  Yet, today we stand
 At  crossroads between hope and despair

Its time to rise above pettiness,
       Clear overhang, an air of gloom
To build a strong nation
      Work honestly, to see it bloom
We have the right skills, learn more
     Have steely resolve and a strong will
Let's  rededicate sincere efforts
    To conquer many more hills.

PS Image Kind Courtesy Google