Friday, April 27, 2007

The Belgium Trip - 1

Two countries. Three major cities. Four days of semi-backpacking. And memories to last a lifetime. A tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Most travelogues begin at Day One, but since we wanted to start fresh, and took a flight on the previous night, this will start from Day Zero. On Day Zero, a Thursday evening, we drove from Milton Keynes to London Heathrow, to catch a Brussels Airlines late evening flight into Brussels. We left London at around half past eight, but as we were flying East (and Belgium is an hour ahead), it was already half-ten in Brussels when we landed.

Zaventem, as Brussels' international airport is called, is well connected to the city. In fact, there is a train station directly below the airport. Trains run at regular intervals from Zaventem to Brussels North, Central and South stations. We picked up a free city map, and took the escalators to the underground station. (BTW, an escalator takes you up. What do you call an automated step machine which takes you down?). There was an automated kiosk selling tickets, and also a normal counter. However, the counter was closed. Surprisingly enough, the kiosk selling tickets would not accept credit cards. And we had been stupid enough not to carry cash of lesser denominations than 10 Euros. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because only the coin-slots were working and not the note-slots.

This is a map we clicked, because it was more detailed than the free leaflets.

Back in the airport, we learnt that the counter in the underground station closes at 21.50 (it was nearing 11 now) and that we could purchase the ticket on the train as well. So we sat on a cold bench in the dark underground station and ate parathas rolled in aluminium foils. The underground station seemed very primitive when compared to the London tube stations, but I noticed one thing special - the escalators had a step sensor at the boarding point, which would bring the elevator to rest if it did not detect a step for a reasonable amount of time. I'm sure given the number of commuters, the escalators in London would not rest even if they had the sensor, but still.

Presently, the train comes, and out comes a guard in a grey uniform and a funny cap. He issues the ticket, and goes back into his cabin. Somehow, he strikes me as a cartoon, and the train itself is like a toy train. We sit back, take photos and try tracing the route on the map, using the passing stations as a yardstick. And one station before Brussels North, we figure out from the map that our accommodation is closer to Brussels North than Brussels Central - even though the directions on the booking confirmation seemed otherwise. I go and ask the guard, and he says we are right. Fine, I say to the boys, we get off at Brussels North then. The conductor unfortunately did not understand a lot of English - so, unable to direct us to our hostel, he went to the driver, and asked him to translate the directions for us.

Those directions, though correct, did not stand us in good stead, because the area outside Brussels North Station is very shady - and I'm not talking about the trees. A few steps, and we found a pub offering "peep shows". There was no one around. And so ... we had no one to direct us to our hostel. (Ah, you dirty minds, I know what you thought ;) hah!!). The directions on the booking confirmation were descriptive enough, and we found ourselves slowly trudging along the streets of north Brussels at midnight. Presently, we came across the Sheraton, and the multi-lingual receptionist confirmed that we were on the right track, and to top it, he also gave me a more informative and localised map of the city.

The Sheraton. Sorry for the sad quality. We were dead tired.

The Vincent van Gogh hostel is one of the best in Belgium - what with a rating of 92% on hostelworld. It is quite near to the main tourist district - Belgium Central - and scores well on all other counts. The rooms had no keys - only access cards, and we got new bedsheets for the duration of our stay. They could not accommodate all six of us together, but we got a double room having two bunk beds, and one other room with two normal beds.


I know, it looks like the hospital in Dear Heart, but then, what do you expect when, after a day of travel, all you want is something warm and soft to tuck into?

The facilities were excellent too - there was a bar just beside the reception, which stocked the best of all Belgian beer, there was a pool table nearby, and the toilets were clean. Showers had hot water flowing, with automated stoppers to regulate the flow of water if you just forgot and walked away. The staff was quite helpful, and provided us with information and leaflets on what to see, and how to get around. And after a game of pool, and a discussion of how to spend the two days in Belgium, we hit the sack. Tomorrow, we take a guided tour to Ghent and Bruges. Till then, these pics ...

The view of the entrance from my room window.


The main road leading out of the hostel


Another road - it is left-hand drive in Belgium, so you drive on the right side.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bliss

Last Sunday was a treat in itself.

If you discount the sole exception of Khushi, Mungaru maLe was the first KannaDa movie I watched in a theatre, after say 15 years. NanjunDi KalyaNa, starring Malasri and Raghavendra Rajkumar, was the last. I am quite critical when it comes to KannaDa cinema - chiefly because there is a lack of originality - most of the so-called hits in KannaDa cine world are usually remakes of other hits in Tamil and Telugu film industries. Agreed that there is no dearth of classic films like Nammoora Mandara Hoove, Amruthavarshini and America America, but a great majority of Kannada films are just chaff, with below par stories, loose direction and poor acting. Anyway, debates will never cease if I choose to dwell on that.

All I have to say is that I enjoyed Mungaru MaLe immensely. And the 45 minutes travel from Milton Keynes to Southall, London, having spent almost three times the ticket money on the travel, was redeemed in full. It was the first time in 4-5 months that I encountered so many people speaking KannaDa. So much so, that we had to consciously make an effort not to spring up any expletives, because otherwise, the kannaDa we speak at our bachelor pad is the one mothers tell their young children to avoid.

Apart from the movie, the other high point of Sunday was the food. I enjoyed an unlimited breakfast at Chennai Dosa. For three pounds and a half, you get unlimited helpings of idlis, uppittu, and pongal, followed by a dosa item of your choice AND a poori item. All of this packed in and followed up by a cup of rich filter coffee. Burp!!! And of course, pani-puri, and rasmalai at a Punjabi do at Southall. It is because of this reason, and this alone, that I am content, and not swearing abuses at her for time and again rambling about delectable Indian food. :-)

And unless something more interesting happens, the next few posts will be of the holiday in Belgium and Netherlands. The 2300 odd photos from all the four cameras are sorted and ready. Anyone offering free prints, please???

Update: The screening was courtesy the Europe Kannada Sangha. Its still a fledgling, but shows a lot of promise, judging by the Ugadi celebrations and the movie screening. Last heard, there was still a waiting list of 100-150 kannaDigas, eager to see the movie, but lacking a screen. The sangha has an orkut community here and a new blog here.

Update 2: The movie screening was carried by a kannaDa newspaper. :)


And here is a video of the most famous dialogue of the movie.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

100...

... could not have come at a better time.

This Friday brings an end to an eventful week of living out of backpacks. The long weekend was well-spent in a semi-backpacking holiday in Belgium and the Netherlands, while the rest of the week was (well, let’s say it just was) at Ipswich.

Sitting in the lounge at the Ipswich office, for the first time, I felt that joblessness is frustrating too. Soon after coming back from holiday, I went to Ipswich on a “company assignment”. By hearsay, I knew that Ipswich was a sleepy little town with a lot of local caf├ęs, and it certainly looked so at first sight. But somehow, all the stars and planets connived to deny me the pleasure of enjoying its laid-back laziness. My stay at Ipswich was a comedy of logistical errors.

First up, the guys there did not know I was coming so I did not have a desk to sit at or a computer to work on. Added to it, there was no information of what I would do, and who would oversee it. Hovering around friends’ desks was not a viable option as they were all busy in their own work. So all day long, I just sat in the lounge, fiddled with the stylus and browsed the net on my PDA-phone over a GPRS connection (appearing to be someone doing something important), and finished the issues of Wired and OK! in the lounge.

Upon that, the budget bed-and-breakfast I checked into was very moderate. Well, I can’t blame it for the low rate and the short notice I got it at, but then, it could have been a little cleaner. It was managed by a brown-turning-silver haired old man, probably in his sixties, who obviously was struggling to maintain it by himself. Half the house was painted, while the other half was smudged with strokes, and had paint buckets and brushes on the floor. The room had a creaky floor, and floorboards stacked nearby, so he was evidently doing some repair work.

The room I got was dank and mildly emanated a wild unidentifiable aroma. In the room below, his daughter maintained a solitary existence. She had a cat which roamed all over the place. My room floor had visible hair which the cat had moulted. The room had windows which couldn’t be opened and there was a note asking to keep the curtain closed at all times. The kitchen was lacking utensils and food items, and had a note to keep the door closed when cooking to prevent the tadka from choking them.

However, the man himself was good to talk to – he took me for a “round” in his car and showed me the nearest bus-stop and over a cup of heavenly Portuguese coffee at the local coffee shop, he told me that his son had been to university in America, and was now in the Metropolitan Police in London, and that his house had been let to Indian tenants too. He asked me if I had been to Brazil, an obvious reference to the “Universidad Sao Paulo” on my T-shirt, and said his son had been there as part of a Met Police exercise.

Once I was back in the BnB, I looked at my task-list –
1. Clear mailbox (company has a limit on the mailbox size :( )
2. Transfer money
3. Pay credit card bills
4. Market going up – make some money
5. Leave feedback for ebay sellers
And I was stuck there, stuck without internet!!!! Though I managed most with the GPRS connection, a few things spilled over to today (which was better, because the market scaled a considerable height today). Yesterday afternoon I told them they could request my services when they had the logistics ready, and took the next train back to MK – and had a good night’s sleep.

Weekend drama shall unfold in a few days. :)