Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XX (Discovering America-III)

After dropping my bag at Muzaffar's flat, I went straight to the Indian Consulate. The Consul General enquired about the status of the case from the concerned officer but was told that the verification had not come yet.
I informed him that our Deputy Director Tourism in New Delhi had informed that the verification details had already been sent through the diplomatic bag. The Consul General directed me to the concerned officer and asked him to check once again. I was told that all diplomatic mail comes to the Consulate through the Indian Mission in UN. The officer asked the UN Mission to send the latest mail to the Consulate as they usually send it once a week. On receipt of the mail it was revealed that the verification had already come. The Consulate staff was very much surprised for getting such a quick response. According to them, such verifications took months and it was for the first time that they had received a reply within a week! They told me to collect the new passport in the evening after surrendering the Emergency Certificate.
It was a great relief to get a new passport for my sister. Now, there was another problem which seemed to me more difficult than getting a new Indian passport in a foreign country. It was getting all the visas on the new passport. Suddenly I remembered Gurumayi. She was the head of a global trust and had ashrams all over. Her secretary George, a Lebanese, had already invited me to California where she was staying. I had told him that I would do so at the end of the visit. I called George and told him about my predilection. He told me not to worry and informed me that one of their members William would meet me next morning in Manhattan. Late in the evening he called me and we fixed a rendezvous in Manhattan where we would meet around nine in the morning. He met me after parking his car. He suggested it would be better to use taxis than parking the car at every place we had to go. We started with the British consulate. William just went in and met first secretary there. He filled the requisite form and asked me to wait in the waiting room. In just twenty minutes he returned with a multiple entry visa stamped on the new blank passport! I was surprised how he could do it. It was the same story with all the visas and in a matter of three hours or so, we had all the visas except the Canadian one on the new passport of my sister. The Canadians told him that she needed an American I-92 card attached to the passport before she goes to Canada as it will not be possible for her to re-enter USA. William contacted someone in US immigration services for getting the new I-92 card but was told that my sister was not yet on the computer. There was a backlog of two to three weeks. Unless she was on the computer, it would not be possible to issue a duplicate I-92 card. We decided to skip the Canada visit for her. In the evening, I thanked William for his assistance without which it would have been impossible to get all the visas and that too in a single day! I could not imagine this thing happening back home in India! Was this due to the reach of the Gurumayi cult members or due to her spiritual powers? It is difficult to say!
Next morning I left back for Boston on the greyhound bus. We had now a choice, to visit friends in Buffalo or go west to see Gurumayi first. On my arrival in Boston, I got a call from George, the secretary of Gurumayi that they had asked the head of their mission in Boston to contact me. Well, next day I got a call from the head of the Ashram in Boston. He came in the afternoon to take us to show the Ashram. The mission is housed in a huge Victorian style building situated in a beautiful garden. It has many halls for meditation.
Everywhere we could see huge photographs of Gurumayi. The followers of Gurumayi seemed to come from the upper strata of the society. Interestingly, most of the members were top intellectuals, lawyers, scientists, bureaucrats, and judges. It is said that the trust has over 500 ashrams all over the world and the assets run in thousands of crores. Unlike other similar organisations, it appeared quite well organised. They seemed to be more practical and down to earth. The stress is on meditation and the members are like normal people not having any saffron clothes or strange hairdos like the Rama Krishna followers. However, everything seemed to have a price tag! It was pure commercialisation of God. One could attain spiritual bliss and nirvana for a price. This commercialisation somehow created revulsion in me and put me off! The revulsion had an outburst that evening when the head of the mission dropped us home after visiting the ashram. He informed us that George had arranged our return tickets to California for meeting Gurumayi after two days.
While leaving he handed me an envelope full of hundred dollar bills and said it was a gift from Gurumayi to take care of our expenses. I was stunned and in a fit of rage handed him back the envelope and asked him to tell George to cancel the tickets as we were not going to California. On his insistence, I asked him to leave and told him to ask George to call me. Late in the night George called me and tried to convince us to fly to California. I straight away refused and asked him to thank Gurumayi for the assistance William had rendered in getting visas for my sister. We decided to visit our friends in Buffalo and accordingly arranged tickets for flying there next day.

(To be concluded)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XIX (Discovering America-II)

After spending a week in the Boston Hospital, my uncle came back to the country home of Dr. Ashraf for recuperation. He was supposed to stay couple of weeks more in USA before flying back home. As he was feeling much better, he asked us to go for some sight seeing in the meantime. Accordingly, my sister and I decided to start our sight seeing from New York. I spoke to Muzaffar and we took a greyhound bus to New York. He received us at the bus terminal and took us to his two roomed flat.
As he would be busy during the day, he offered to take us to Opera and some other places in the evenings and also gave us a plan for day sight seeing. The first thing we did was to get a Canadian tourist visa. It took us only couple of hours to do so! I was surprised to see the quick disposal in the consular sections of the diplomatic missions in New York. Back home it would have taken at least a couple of days! We started our tour with a visit to the UN Headquarter. It was not far from the place where we were staying. There is a conducted group tour of the entire complex. We were shown all important parts and were taken to the General Assembly Hall and the Security Council chamber. Interestingly, while explaining the working of the Security Council, the guide mentioned about Kashmir which was still on the agenda of the Council. She was quite amused when we told her that we were from Kashmir!
After spending the first half of the day at the UN we decided to go to the Statue of Liberty, the most well known landmark of both New York and America. We decided to take a taxi in Manhattan to take us to the Statue of Liberty ferry port. While we were looking for a taxi, we saw lot of commotion and a couple of police cars with blaring sirens moved over the foot path wildly. We were very much scared and asked a police man whether everything was normal and as we wanted to go to the Statue of Liberty? He smiled and asked us whether we were from outside US? On being told yes, he said there was nothing wrong and this is a usual routine in Manhattan every day. There are many such incidents and we could go and visit the Statue of Liberty without any problem! We took the taxi which dropped us at the ferry port. There are frequent trips of the ferry and we finally reached the Statue of Liberty. It was quite exciting to see the American landmark. We went right to the top of the Statue by a lift. One can have a panoramic view of New York from the top. On the return trip incidentally we got a taxi driven by a person of Indian origin. He was a sardar ji from Punjab. He refused to take $ 15 which we owed him for the trip. He was happy to know that we were from Kashmir. He took my address and said that he may visit Kashmir sometime in future.
In the evening, Muzaffar took us to see the famous Empire State Building which used to be the tallest building for quite some time. The World Trade Centre buildings came up subsequently. We once again had a fantastic evening view of New York from the top of the Empire State Building. Later in the evening we enjoyed some Italian Pizzas in a Pizza Shop near Muzaffar's flat. He told us to visit Central Park next day and in the evening he would take us to Opera. Central Park is huge! We spent almost half day in it going from one spot to other. It is really incredible that such a vast green area could be in the middle of a concrete jungle that Manhattan is with its dozens of sky scrappers. New York is also notorious for crime especially mugging. I remember after visiting Central Park we came back to our side. I wanted to visit an art museum. I asked a lady distributing some advertisement bills on the foot path about the way to the art museum. She told me that it is on the other side of the Central Park. We had gone hardly ten paces when she came running and warned us not to cross the Central Park on foot! She said we may be mugged! She advised that we should take a bus to the other side!
In the evening Muzaffar took us to Opera. It was quite interesting. We took a taxi back home. As soon as we came out of taxi and started going up to our flat, my sister informed that she seemed to have dropped her passport in the Opera. It was a big shock. Without a passport we would not be able to go anywhere. We immediately went back to the Opera Theatre. They were just closing after cleaning the hall. We contacted the manager and informed about the loss of passport which had presumably fallen from the coat pocket of my sister. The staff came with us and we thoroughly searched the place where we were sitting. The staff that had cleaned the area was contacted and they had not found any passport. The next possibility was that it had fallen in the taxi. However, we did not have the number of the taxi. The only solution was to lodge a formal complaint with the police. Accordingly, we went to Manhattan Police Station and filed a complaint about the loss of passport. They gave us a copy of the complaint which was needed for getting a new passport from the Indian Consulate. All the joy which we had felt watching the Opera was gone due to this mishap. We were moving through Manhattan well past mid-night. Finally, after having a Pizza we went back to the flat and slept. Next morning we went to the Indian Consulate.
The Consul general was very kind and helpful. He said that an emergency certificate could be given which would permit my sister to fly back to India directly. She would not be able to visit any other country. We got the certificate issued for emergency purposes but also applied for a new passport. We were told that it can be issued only after verification from New Delhi and the process would take at least a month. The Consul General was kind enough to send an immediate request for verification to New Delhi. They told me to check up after a week or so. I obtained a copy of the verification request and faxed it to our Deputy Director Tourism in New Delhi, Surjit Singh Bhalla and asked him to get the verification expedited. He promised to do it on priority. Next morning we left for Boston by the greyhound bus. I would enquire from the Consulate every day about the clearance but there was no news. Finally, after waiting for a week, I travelled once again to New York to personally ascertain the status of new passport as Bhalla had informed on phone me that he had got the verification completed and the same was being sent through diplomatic mail. This was my third trip to New York and by now I had become familiar with every nook and corner of Manhattan!
(To be continued….)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XVIII (Discovering America-I)

My first trip to America (USA) was a totally private affair. This happened in 1988. My late uncle in Pakistan had developed a serious heart problem. He had to undergo heart bye-pass surgery in Boston, USA. The surgeon was late Mian Ashraf of Kashmir settled in Boston. My sister and I decided to visit Boston for few weeks to give some moral support to my uncle's family. The first thing was to get a reasonably priced ticket. We wanted to visit some other relations in London and also see some part of Europe. I approached my travel agent friend late Avinash Kohli who used to be the General Sales Agent for the PanAm airlines. He worked out a very cheap business class ticket for two of us with the routing Delhi-London-New York-Boston-London-Geneva-Paris-Delhi. The flight to London was quite comfortable in the business class. We stopped in London for a couple of days and stayed with some of our cousins. From London we had a day flight to New York and a connecting flight to Boston. It was very interesting to cross the Atlantic. The day afforded us views of the ships moving below. The food especially the fruit salads were excellent. In fact, there was a marked difference between the in flight service from Delhi to London and the service on the flight from London to New York! We landed at the John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon. I was really excited to visit USA about which I had read so much and had seen hundreds of movies. New York is in a way the heart of America. The statue of liberty and the empire state building have been its land marks etched in the memories of people all over the world!
The immigration and customs was a lengthy affair. As we cleared the immigration and approached customs, we came to know that our connecting flight was taking off shortly. We pleaded with the customs authorities to clear us as we would miss our flight. They did clear us immediately and we ran towards the gate which was meant for boarding the flight. The girl at the gate told us that the flight was already moving out and we would not be able to board it. However, as our luggage had through check in tags up to Boston, the two suit cases had already been loaded on the plane and we would have to collect these on arrival in Boston. There were no seats in the next flight and we had no alternative but to take a shuttle flight from the other airport. Our arrival in America had not been so enjoyable. We faced difficulties from the very start. We were taken in a coach to the other airport (La Guardia) to catch the shuttle to Boston.
Most of the passengers in the bus had missed their flights! Finally, around 10 in the night we landed at the Boston airport. We went straight to the conveyor belts displaying the number of the flight we had missed. I immediately recognized my suit case and lifted it. However, there was no trace of my sister's suit case. I phoned my cousin about my arrival and he asked us to stay at the airport as he was coming to collect us. It took him almost half an hour and in the meantime, I contacted the airport authorities about the missing suit case. They told me to file a missing baggage claim and it would be located and delivered at our place of stay. My sister was very much upset. Not only was she without any clothes but she had lost a couple of very expensive pashmina shawls and some unique Kashmiri dresses.
My uncle and his family were staying with Dr. Mian Ashraf who lived in a suburb of Boston. He had a huge house set in a virtual estate. There were pine trees, a stream, and some small hillocks in his estate. There were many bed rooms, living and dinning rooms.
My uncle was very happy to see me and my sister. It somehow gave him courage. His surgery was scheduled two days after our arrival. Dr. Ashraf was married to an American who was not only very friendly lady but a very good host. We enjoyed our stay in their estate. My sister bought some new clothes as there was no trace or even news about her suit case. We rang the Pan Am office almost half a dozen times in a day! The surgery was very smooth and successful. We were allowed to visit my uncle in the hospital on the third day after the surgery. The hospital itself impressed me a lot. The reception of the hospital was more like a five star hotel. There was a sweet and gift shop. A flower shop and a small café. The patient wards were all upstairs and entry was through a lift where passes were checked. My uncle had just been shifted out of the recovery room and I was surprised to see him walking in the corridor with a nurse with a number of tubes and leads hanging from his body. I was told that the patients are made mobile at the earliest after surgery to allow them to recuperate quickly. It would take few more days of stay in the hospital before my uncle would be allowed to move to a house. He was also expected to stay for a couple of weeks in Boston before being allowed to fly back home!
My sister and I decided to use the time to visit New York and also some Kashmiri friends in Buffalo. We also planned a short visit to Toronto in Canada. In addition, I was keen to meet Gurumayi (Swami Chidvilsananda) whom I had met in Kashmir in December, 1987. However, the first thing was to trace the missing suit case of my sister. I decided to visit New York to contact the headquarter of Pan Am. I telephoned my lawyer friend Muzaffar Chisti who was staying in Manhattan in New York. He asked me to take a greyhound bus which was cheap and quick. It took me only four hours of a smooth and comfortable drive. Muzaffar was waiting at the greyhound terminal in the centre of Manhattan. He introduced me to a number of his friends over lunch. Next morning I took a bus to John Kennedy airport and contacted the Pan Am office. They directed me to their warehouse on the airport. It was a huge affair. There were hundreds of suitcases lined all over. I spent almost half an hour passing lines upon lines of suit cases but could not locate the missing suit case of my sister. The officials told me that I would have to file a compensation claim and would get the money in Delhi only where we had purchased our tickets. The compensation would be about $ 1,000 even though the shawls and clothes inside were worth over four to five thousand dollars! Next day I returned to Boston by greyhound bus after promising Muzaffar that we would come for few days of sight seeing after a week or so!

(To be continued….)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XVII (Spain and Portugal-II)

After my first visit to Gibraltar in 1993, I got another chance to visit the place in 1996. I had gone to Flagstaff in Arizona, USA, to attend an International Conference on mountaineering. On my return to London, I took a weeklong trip to Gibraltar. The British Airways ticket was quite attractive.
When I visited the office of the airline for my booking, the girl asked if my flights were fixed, semi-flexible, or totally open on both sides. I asked her the reason for this question and the reply was quite interesting. She said if I wanted fixed flights, it would cost £150, semi-fixed with possibility of changing return once would cost £200, and open both ways would cost £400! I bought a semi-fixed ticket and flew to Gibraltar. The flight is about two and a half hours. The landing on Gibraltar airport was exciting as the runway extends into sea. However, on this trip I did not move out of Gibraltar. I had caught a chill in Flagstaff which developed into a full-fledged cold. The next trip was in 1998 when I was on study leave. I stayed couple of weeks in Gibraltar and my sister decided to take a holiday with the family in Portugal. They usually get long week ends once in a while and to avail this we decided to drive to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Before proceeding I got onto the internet and surveyed the route and places of stay. The route goes from Gibraltar to Seville, then to Cadiz where from it crosses into Portugal. The first region is Al Garve. The expressway goes straight to Lisbon. I found out some good places of stay in Albufeira and Lisbon. We decided to stay a night in Albufeira in the Al Garve region which is famous for beaches.
As the distance from Gibraltar to Lisbon is well over 600 kilometres, we had to start quite early. The entry into Spain was quick as very early in the morning there is no rush. Immediately after entering Spain we took the route to Seville. We did not take the expressway but went through normal roads. This took longer and we reached Seville around noon. From here we took the road to Cadiz. From Cadiz we took the road going into Portugal.
The road passes along many orange gardens. On the way we saw a number of factories making orange juice. My niece Sara had been very fond of orange juice and for almost 2 years she had been drinking orange juice. At one spot we saw a huge juice factory with a large sign, "Sara's Oranges"! We joked with her that she must own the factory due to her too much juice drinking! After some time we reached a huge bridge which is supposed to be border between Spain and Portugal. I had expected to see the immigration and customs check points on the other side of the bridge. There was nothing. The expressway carried on straight away into Portugal. There was only a huge overhead sign saying "Welcome to Portugal"! The European Union had done away with all the borders. One could travel all over Europe as if it was one country. We travelled on the expressway for some distance till we came to exit for Albufeira where we had planned to spend a night. It is a very nice city next to a lovely beach and is a big attraction for foreign tourists especially the Americans and the British. We stopped at a number of hotels to locate a good one and after just couple of checks we located a very nice hotel.
It was cheap too because of the off season. May is usually the beginning of the off season. Maximum numbers of tourists visit this place in winter for the sunny beaches. We had to pay hardly 15 to 20 pounds per room for one night. One interesting thing I noticed on the hotel notice board was year round tariff for different seasons. The tariff for week ends and week days was also there. One can easily plan a holiday suiting one's budget. Next morning we got up leisurely and had our breakfast around 10 or so. After breakfast we started for Lisbon by taking the expressway. We covered the distance of about 200 kilometres in three hours and reached Lisbon in the afternoon. The first landmark of Lisbon is a huge statue of Jesus in the Lisbon bay. There is a massive bridge across which one has to cross to enter Lisbon. It is a dramatic sight. We drove straight inside the city into the main square. We again started looking for a nice hotel and just next to the square is a huge Intercontinental Hotel. Being a five star hotel we thought it must be quite expensive but were surprised to know the discounted price of only 45 pounds per night. We took two rooms and left our bags in the rooms. The rooms were exceptionally large with huge bath-rooms. In fact, the cupboards too were exceptionally large! One could walk inside the cupboard!
After a cup of refreshing tea with some snacks, we left the hotel on foot to take a walk around. There is a nice park next to the hotel and we enjoyed our walk in the garden. Before dinner we contacted the Hotel Manager for arranging some sight seeing next day. He arranged a Mercedes car with a chauffeur cum guide who would take us around for half a day. We had a round of the famous sights like the museum, the fort, the market and so on. Lisbon is a very interesting heritage city. It appears it is undersold as a good tourist destination. We returned to the hotel and after paying our bills started the return journey around 4 in the afternoon.
After taking the expressway, we stopped for a snack lunch in a road side KFC outlet. It was almost five when we again came on the expressway. We drove slowly and had intended to spend the night in a port city ahead of Albufeira. We reached the place around 9 and it was already dark. We roamed all the streets and lanes of the port city in total darkness but could not locate a hotel. After an hour's search we located a hotel but it was not very attractive and we saw all sorts of strange characters roaming in the hotel. On this we decided to return to Albufeira and almost at mid-night we finally reached the hotel where we had stayed last time. Luckily we got two rooms and being tired straight away went to sleep. Next morning we took it quite leisurely and started the return journey after breakfast around 11 or so. We traced our route backwards but took expressway between Seville and Gibraltar. We reached Gibraltar around 6 in the evening, thereby, bringing our short trip to Portugal to an end. I nostalgically recall that excellent trip especially our stay and sight seeing in Lisbon. Next, I will try to discover America in next few episodes!