Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Joy of International Travel

I have been off this blog for the past two weeks, because the last two weekends I was on a plane, traveling to and from Ahmedabad in India, where we are building our overseas Engineering group. It was a pretty busy week, but also a lot of fun, since we got to visit London during our stopover there, and because Ahmedabad is also the city where I started my career about 20 years ago. This post falls in the "just fluff, no stuff" category, a genre I guess I am getting more used to writing for nowadays. However, its not everyday one travels across the world on business (this was my first time), and I hope to share my insights with people who are or would be similarly situated.

We flew United Airlines out of San Francisco, arriving at Heathrow at London early the next morning. In general, I detest international flights because I hate having to sit upright for so long. However, compared to the 14 hours or so which is the norm for non-stop flights to Asia, this flight clocked in at about 9 hours, which was slightly better. We also got a seat near the emergency exit, which had a bit more leg room. However, by the time we reached London, I was sore and sleepless as usual.

I remember reading about at least one person who said that he developed a significant piece of software (either a J2EE server or a XML parsing framework, can't remember which) on a trans-Atlantic flight. Not that I had ambitions of this scope, but I wonder how he managed to power his laptop for the full 9 hours. My current laptop does not last for more than 1.5 hours, which I grant you is on the low side, but my old one clocked in at about 3 hours as well. I looked for a power source, just out of curiosity, but could not find one, so I ultimately settled down with a C++ book which I have been meaning to read for a long time. I didn't get far though, being squished between two people in United's cattle class seats is not very conducive to concentration, so my colleague and I ended up talking shop for most of the ride.

We arrived early morning at London the next day. Our flight to Ahmedabad was in the evening, so we had a full day to visit London. The lines at the immigration counter was long, even at 6am in the morning, but once we got to the immigration officer's desk 45 minutes later, we had our passports checked and stamped in less than a minute. We did not have much time to research London before we left, all I had were two schematic maps for walking tours from the London Tourist site. We bought a day pass on the London Underground (aka Tube) and went to the city from the airport. The day pass costs £ 6.70 and can be used both on the train and bus. There are free maps available at the airport information kiosks which we found very helpful.

We had originally planned on a walking tour, but we had overestimated our stamina and underestimated the size of the city, so having walked to the Big Ben from Pimlico station, we decided to eat lunch and rest at a roadside café. London is very expensive, and that is not helped by the relative strength of the British pound against the US dollar (about 2.2 times when I was there). I ended up paying £ 10.00 for a mediocre plate of fish-n-chips and a bottle of water. They also insist on cash at a lot of places here, a fact that I found very annoying, since I prefer to use credit cards for most transactions and generally don't carry that much cash.

So anyway, after lunch, we figured that we were not going to cover much on foot, we decided to take a London Bus Tours, a hop-on hop-off bus ride which set us back £ 22.00 each. However, it gave us an entertaining but whirlwind tour of all the main attractions in London, as well as some of the slightly obscure ones, in the space of about 2 hours. A river cruise on the Thames was also included in the ticket, so we took that too. After this, we rode the train all the way to the terminus on the Picaddily line, and back all the way to the airport, just for kicks. I guess one of the lessons I took back was to do my research the next time I travelled. The Underground is very comprehensive and you can reach almost anywhere in London using a combination of the train and surface buses (the day pass works on these too), so London can be covered a lot cheaper if you know where everything is relative to the train stations.

We took Jet Airways to Ahmedabad. Its a small Indian private carrier, but I was very impressed with both the plane (its new and modern) and the service. Although they did decide not to load our luggage, so we had no luggage for 2 days after we arrived in India. At this point, though, I was without sleep for about 40+ hours, so I pretty much collapsed in this plane, waking up only for dinner and breakfast. We reached Ahmedabad on the afternoon the next day.

Ahmedabad was hot as I remembered it, but a lot has changed in 17 years. When I moved there for my first job, it was a fast growing city, but still relatively small. Today, there are high-rise buildings all over the place. Traffic is chaotic as usual, but there are many more cars on the road now. There are many more nicer (read western-style) shopping complexes, one of which we hit to buy clothes to last the 2 days Jet would take to bring our baggage.

My assignment was to develop and train our Engineering group at Ahmedabad. I took with me a full content project which would touch all the phases of our content generation and rendering subsystems. My objective was to work with the team there and develop in about 5 business days a working prototype of this project. I am happy to report that we were successful, in no small part due to the smart engineers with whom I worked there and their willingness to work long hours.

My only grouse is the quality of the network - it is downright flaky. The ISP is VSNL, the state run one-time monopoly, and all I can say is that they are single-handedly responsible for a lot of office stress, at least in Ahmedabad. I would get dropped off the network multiple times a day, and was not able to send email due to port 25 being blocked by some random firewall. The engineers there use web based email (probably to circumvent the firewall), so I tried Yahoo! web mail as well, but that would time me out (presumably because my session may be hitting a US server). This became quite annoying, especially since I am so used to taking the network for granted here in the US, and ultimately I just gave up trying to read and send mail while I was over there.

One of the things I did at Ahmedabad was to hit the local McDonald's, where I had to try the famous Maharaja Burger. I had heard about it a lot; McDonald's created to suit local tastes, but its not available anywhere other than in India. The patty is made of ground chicken and is slightly spicier (not too much though) than regular burgers here in the US. Thanks very much to the engineer who took me there and bought me the burger. By the way, Ahmedabad is quite aggressively vegetarian, so they also have local chains selling 3-inch tall veggie burgers which look identical to burgers made by the US chains, except the patty is made of potatoes and other vegetables.

If you want to soak up the local culture at Ahmedabad, ask your host to take you to Vishala. The food is not expensive and is quite good, although it may not taste that great to people unfamiliar with the (Kathiawadi) cuisine, but entertainment is included. The atmosphere is like a rustic village, with entertainment consisting of puppet shows and magic tricks performed by people dressed in village garb. Food is served at low tables on disposable plates made of leaves and glasses made of terracotta. I remembered it from having lived there, and both my (American) colleague and I enjoyed it very much.

We flew Air India on the way out. It was a nice flight, and the purser makes a really mean Scotch and Soda. Alcohol is free on flights to and from India, by the way, so feel free to imbibe responsibly. Back at London, we had an overnight stop at London, so this time we took a taxi (since we had luggage) into our hotel opposite Paddington station. Once checked in, we decided to soak up the local culture by hitting the pubs for a Gammon (that's cured pig flank) steak and a spot (more like a lot) of Guinness.

The next morning, I got up bright and early. Having nothing to do till my afternoon flight, I decided to hit Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Baker Street. I reached there about an hour before opening time, so I decided to explore the area. I came across 221B Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Strangely the address is a real one, and its now a small museum/gift shop devoted to Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.

It was still too early, so I had the famous English breakfast for only £ 4.50 at Arizona Café on Baker Street. Madame Tussaud's is quite interesting, her thing was to build really life-like wax replicas of famous people. And there are all kinds of people, from British royalty (of course) from the 17th century to the present day, world leaders, sports celebrities and celebrities from the entertainment industry. There are quite a few people from the Indian sub-continent enshrined in wax here as well, which is something you will probably not find in the Madame Tussaud's museum at New York. Entertainers from the Indian subcontinent include Amitabh Bacchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, three famous Bollywood film stars. Political figures include Indira Gandhi, an Indian ex-prime minister and Benazir Bhutto, a Pakistani ex-president.

Our flight back, again on United Airlines, was tiring as usual, and relatively uneventful. We arrived back at San Francisco via Chicago late on Monday night last week. Looking back, its probably not such a great idea to have long layovers unless you also have a hotel booking. Also its very important to do your research, and carry lots of cash or traveller's checks, especially to countries with currencies stronger than yours.

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