Where have I been?!

Hi.

Not a peep from me for about a month. Where have I been? My readers, who usually would like nothing better than for me to shut up for a while, have been increasingly clamouring for an explanation for this most unusual silence from me. Strangers have accosted me on the streets: “Why hasn’t your blog been updated?” Cranks have called me up on my cell phone, my land line; my email inbox is flooded with messages from the same puzzled junta asking the same questions, and National Television is doing an investigative series on why rahulgaitonde.org has been lying untouched for all of April. A conspiracy theory is being constructed which links the silence on my blog to the arrest of the Shankaracharya, the upcoming session of Parliament, and the worsening power crisis in Maharashtra.

Enough said. Today, I shall lift the curtain, finally, on this dark secret.

I have attended an IBM Academy of Technology Conference at the T. J. Watson Research Center in New York. I presented a paper that I and my colleague Pallavi wrote. I am not at liberty to disclose what it was exactly that I did at the Conference, but then you wouldn’t be too interested in that. Nothing much apart from a LOT of techie-talk and techie-techie-hobnobbing, duscussing hypothetical solutions for even hypothetical-er problems. But that’s what happens at all conferences, right?

I did, however, have a fun week in the USA, where my most significant (non-IBM-confidential) activity was exploring the island of Manhattan. Have I got a lot to tell you guys!

Actually, there were some very typical reactions from the people around me when I returned. Surprisingly, more people were disappointed than happy:

The old granny in the next wing was very downcast when she observed that I had not grown taller, thinner and had not become any fairer. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could end up with a pink-and-white schoolgirl complexion after eight days in the U.S.?

Aunty next door insisted that I had found a Girl while I was there. She wanted to know her name, whether she was Indian or not, if she was vegetarian, and when I was going to get married. Talk about getting ahead of oneself! Very disappointed when she realised that my emphatic, then pleading, and finally indifferent NOes were actually true.

Friends wanted to know I had ‘met’ any ‘sexy babes’ in the U.S. Since my answer to that was ‘No’, the painfully obivious, predictable, uncomfortable sequence of follow-up questions were not asked of me. Thankfully. Older Gujju friends wanted to know how much I had earned, in ‘Amreeki dollarz’. Immediately followed up by an inpromptu, totally unasked-for Finance Tips session.

Some friends, already legends for their conspiracy theories, lived up to their reputation by insisting that I had found a job in the U.S. when I was there. The only way these guys will be convinced of the contrary is when they find me at IBM months later, sitll working as diligently as before the U.S. trip.

Then the usual taunts, supposedly richly sarcastic and full of wit (ugh!), about Rupees v/s Dollars, whether I could tolerate drinking water or the weather here anymore, left-hand drive, how my colloquial language has changed (my God, where’d they get that one from?!), and other inane ones I’d rather not waste time and space enumerating here.

Anyways, I have written a lot during my travel and suring my stay there. I’ve edited the documents, cutting out the parts which pertain to Internal IBM Information. For your reading pleasure, dear readers, here is a first-hand account of my first trip to a foreign land. Enjoy!

NYC Trip – Notes from Singapore, Germany and from over the Atlantic Ocean!

7:57PM Singapore Time, Changi Airport.

Touched down about 45 minutes ago. I have spent all of the time till now simply roaming about this airport. If I was impressed with Mumbai’s international airport this morning, I have been blown away by Changi airport… This place is more swanky than the Leela back in Mumbai! And the place is ENORMOUS! Hey – there are plenty of Indians here, come to think of it. Not just at the boarding terminals where flights for India are leaving, but just all over! And there are many employees at the airport who look like they’re of Indian origin – don’t we spread our ilk all over!

One experience I’m never going to forget is take-off. The plane looks rather cumbersome on the ground, feels almost unsteady as the pilot aligns the beast on the runway. But once he revs up the engines for the final sprint down the runway, you can feel raw power coursing its way through every part of the plane. Then, without warning, the plane surges forward, with an acceleration you’d never imagine those tiny wheels and spindly legs were capable of. In no time, your surroundings are but an incoherent blur zipping past. Finally, THE moment arrives! This is a feeling you can only experience, not describe in words. There is a feeling of mild disorientation, and the ground outside you slips below like a stone. Landmarks, massive on the ground, shrink before your eyes into miniatures, then blips, then bare pinpoints, and then, as the plane surges into the clouds, all land disappears from view. At that point, you lean back into your plush, cushioned seat, close your eyes, and marvel at man’s wonderous conquest of the skies. To think that only one hundred years ago was the first awkward, barely successful flight attempted, only able to travel a few feet.

Figures displayed on television screens within the plane are mind-boggling: We are cruising at 936 kmph, at 11887 metres above sea level, and the temperature outside is -55 degrees C. The last bit of information makes you whip your head towards the window, expecting some sort of arctic conditions, but all that greets you is a bright blue azure, sunny, glorious sky, with thick, creamy white clouds *below* you. -55, eh? Wow!

8:53 Singapore Time, Changi Airport.

Have finally found a place where I can connect my TP to an AC power outlet! I was really scared about running out of power before I arrived at Armonk. People around here have amazing machines! I have seen the cutest 12″ Apple Powerbook in the cubicle beside me! There is also a guy right behind me with an even smaller X series ThinkPad! Besides the X series guy is another one doing all his computing from a PDA! How cool is *that*! Of course, typing in as much as I am would be a huge pain with that PDA! But this is gadget heaven! I have only one grouse – why doesn’t Changi offer free wireless Internet access? I mean, they have SO many free internet terminals around, so why not extend that to Wi-fi too? They could probably regulate transfer either by limiting the bandwidth, or the time, or the volume of data transferred.

I just wrote an email to Rohini and Ameya – the two of them are probably just a few miles away! Can I see their home if I look out of these enourmous glass walls? The thought is thrilling! Singapore City is spread out like a vast carpet of dazzling lights in front of me now, stretching right to the horizon, left and right. The sight is simply grand!

Jet lag hasn’t hit me too hard yet – It’s already past 9:00 here, and it’s only 7:30 PM back in Mumbai! Still, not too bad. It’s when I get to Armonk will the whole thing make a big difference, I guess.

I’ve observed that Asians typically travel with more luggage than people from the west. There are fewer Westerners here with trolleys. Some are travelling with little more than a handbag! I’d be one of the lightest travellers here, if it wasn’t for this goddamn poster! Pallavi, I’m NEVER doing a poster again, do you hear me?! There are a few passers-by, and more notably security, giving me startled, even alarmed looks. No wonder – this looks like an oversized bazooka or a rocket launcher!

9:08 Singapore time, Changi Airport.

Just back from a round of this afore-mentioned device-heaven. Some conclusions: TPs are surprisingly popular. Sony and Toshiba need to do some serious design re-think and stop appearing so boxy. And finally, there is no sexier laptop than a Powerbook. Period. That is my next major purchase, however long I have to wait. I have also become instantly unpopular here over the last 2 minutes, since I have been peeking over everyone’s shoulders looking at their laptops. Unfortunately very few people understand what Pallavi calls my “device-prem”! They just think I’m bring a #@%ing nosy-parker.

9:33 PM Singapore Time, Changi Airport.

Sheesh! People are losing things all the time! And misplaced passports seem to be in vogue. Every time there’s an announcement like that, it makes me halt whatever I’m doing and look into my pouch, just to check if I’ve got everything. I wonder how the owner can even tell from the announcements that his/her passport has been lost/found – the accent is so terrible! Additionally, what if the accent of the person at the PA system is fine, but the owner’s is not? What if the name of the passport owner is especially difficult to pronounce? What if it come out all wrong? Just a couple of minutes ago, a Russian passport was found. I’m sure the name that the PA system blared out is NOT the way it’s pronounced. If it is, my sympathies with the Russian.

One issue which keeps bothering me is whether or not my suitcase has been transferred properly from SQ421 to SQ26. While there are posters and airport employees all over Changi assuring me that I do not need to collect my bag, and that it’ll be automatically put into the hold of the connecting flight, I’d like to do it myself, physically, thank you very much. Too much automation leaves me nervous.

There is a greater percentage of obese people among Westerners than Asians. Far more. No doubt about that one.

Hurray! I’ve just touched a Powerbook! Nice Aussie owning it – lucky Aussie, I may add! What fascinates me is that the screen is incredibly thin! I have never seen anything as thin as that before. Not even on the T series TPs. The Powerbook is heavier than a comparable T, but hey – with that size, no one’s complaining! And the wonderful, aqua-enriched splendour of MacOS X!

OK – I’m leaving now: Got to freshen up a bit, go back to gate E4, check out if I can check in (hehehe!) , and maybe see a bit more of Changi. Will probably pen a few more words when I’m bored stiff during the next flight. 23 hours!

7:21 AM German Time, Frankfurt Airport.

Last few minutes at Changi – absolute shock, followed by consternation, then pure rage! My flight to New York is going via Europe after all – via Frankfurt! GRR! Why am I being subjected to this hop-around-the-world routine? I have a thing or two to say to Travel when I return! Well, we *retraced* our steps last afternoon, flying over China, skirting the Himalayas, then over Ukraine, lots of countries from Eastern Europe, before landing at Frankfurt. Singapore airlines did a wonderful job of Indian Vegetarian meals. I won’t feel Foriegn Cuisine Shock until after I arrive at Armonk. Well, only about 14 hours more.

Frankfurt is quintessentially German – everything and everone here works with clockwork precision. The decor is severe, even spartan. The entire airport is painted a dour brown outside. There’s a simple sign that says “Frankfurt Main”. And, in keeping with the Germans’ national obsession with automobiles, there are all sorts of weird, special-purpose vehicles scurrying across the tarmac in front of me, from my vantage point here in the waiting lounge. Changi, in contrast, was Asia in all its vibrancy. Malaysia and Singapore do a wonderful job of portaying themselves as the true face of Asia. On my way back, I’m going to capture as much of Changi as possible on film.

No one seems to mind if you take photographs here. I guess no one did at Changi either, it’s just that I played safe then. Bad choice – there is SO much more to photograph at Changi. Hey – here, after I took a few photos, the shutterbug seems to have bitten everyone here! Well, off to click-work again, then.

Everywhere I go – Changi or Frankfurt, there are Indians working on laptops. Well, at this moment, I’m one too, but then I doubt everyone else is penning down wonderful descriptions of their trips the way I am. Surely not everyone has my enthusiasm, my ebullience, my talent, my imagination, my vocabulary, my persistence, err… my bloated ego.

1:03 PM German Time, Somewhere on the Atlantic ocean.

Good morning/afternoon/evening, ladies and gentlemen! This report from Rahul Gaitonde comes to you from about 12 kilometers above the Atlantic ocean, at 1000kmph. Since the last post, I have taken some marvellous photographs of Frankfurt airport, and stunning shots of the sky from the window of the plane. I just hope I don’t run out of memory before I’ve had a chance to upload these photos.

This second leg of the second part of my flight – from Frankfurt to New York – has been as free as the first part was cramped. I have the entire three seats to myself – as do a lot of people around here. There don’t seem to be too many passengers on this enormous Boeing 747-400. I have had the misfortune of being seated in line with the wing. Also, my window is badly scratched, as if by some irritated, airborne cat. So, to get half-decent shots of the sky, I have to 1.) contort my body into positions I never thought I was capable of, to place the camera just so, and 2.) fiddle about with all sorts of settings to focus as little on the scratches as possible. Of course, to get pure sky, I have to aim through the window behind me. In this process, the poor East Asian couple behind me have been startled a dozen times by the appearance of what must have looked to them like a disembodied pair of hands gripping a camera, busily making its way between the window seat and the aircraft wall, positioning themselves awkwardly, and clicking a photo blind, before disappearing into the seat in front as suddenly as the had appeared. The first time, the woman let out a terrified whimper. Now it’s an annoyed grunt.

I’m adjusting well to the time lag, I think. I’ve had a longish nap for the past 3 hours. If it’s about 1PM in Germay, it’s 5:00 AM in New York. So I’m an early riser there. Outside, it’s been early morning since we took off from Germany. The local time has been more or less stagnant. Logical, but disconcerting nevertheless.

Kids can be so cute. I was waiting in the lounge at Frankfurt; an American family with three young daughters (probably between 3 and 7) in front of me. The youngest was the most active of them all, jumping about, playing, screaming and in general making everyone laugh at her antics. At one point, she declared, grandly, “Mamma, Mamma, I’ve just made a… made a story up!”
“Well, what’s it called?”
“Melody in the Land of the Sea World!!”
:-) Land of the Sea World indeed!

NYC Trip – First 24 hours in NY!

25th April 2005. Letter to friend. Writing from the IBM Learning Center in Armonk.

Hi!

Have reached Armonk safely, it’s 7:00 AM here on a glorious Monday morning! I reached roughly at 2 PM on Sunday (yahaan ka time – EST – which is about 10 hrs 30 mins behind IST).

Immediately upon arrival, I went to a taxi stand, and haggled with the taxi driver for a full 10 mins on the fare (supposed to be pre-decided). I got him down from $162 to $130, and *still* made him give me a bill for $146!! He said to me on the way: “I gonna go home an’ tell ma wife – I met a guy from India, and he brought me down – ah, man – brought me down so hard – I dinna what he did – he just talked and talked!” I guess some of the bargaining skills picked up after years in Mumbai have done me some good! It was the driver’s b’day, and we had a fine time. Actually, everyone had warned me against big blacks, but this guy was just that – Big and Black! Then the lady at the reception (even bigger and blacker) gave a a big bag with 3 apples, one peach, one cheesecake, a bag of salted peanuts, one packet of chips (like apna Lays), and one bottle of water, and one juice can (yes,really) *just* because I looked tired! How about that!! These people here are really good!

I then slept for 14 hours (yup, that’s right – 14 hours) to get used to the time zone here. I have now fully recovered from jet lag. I awoke at 4AM today, so I’m all ready. Am going for a walk in what appears to be the most beautiful place on earth! Seriously, re – this place ROCKS!

NYC Trip – After Day 1 of the Conference

25th April 2005. Letter to Aunt in Ontario, Canada. Writing from Hotel Room in Armonk.

Hey! I’m just back from a wholly unplanned trip to downtown Manhattan! It was SO much fun! First, I rode a train from Armonk to New York’s Grand Central Station. This place is like nothing you’ve seen before! Then I went right to where the Staten Island Ferry leaves for the Status of Liberty tour, so I actually got to see the Status of Liberty from, well, a distance. Not too close, unfortunately, but then I didn’t have a lot of time for the Ferry. Next time, then (if there *is* a next time!). Then down to the financial district, down Broadway Street (or is it Avenue?), up Wall street – and right up to the Bank of New York, the New York Stock Exchange, and a whole lot of other stuff my fevered mind can’t even remember!

However, one thing stood out. This city is more like Mumbai than I can ever imagine! I mean, right down from the way commuters travel – by train and bus, to how busy every one is, to the entire atmosphere of the city – everything keeps moving all the time, – I LOVE this place! This is just like going to Churchgate or something, only cleaner! ;-) And people are generally very helpful. A couple of ladies whom I struck up a conversation with en route to Grand Central, offered me an entire $10 map booklet for NYC – just like that! People everywhere I asked directions, helped me by going out of their way! Finally, an IBMer from Financial Services dropped me to the Learning Center, where I’m staying, even though it was the opposite way for him. Great fun! I have about 40 photos for the day – I don’t know how I’m going to share them all with you, but I so badly want to!

Anyways, thanks for all the advice in your emails – makes me miss Mom a bit less!! Oh, and don’t worry about food – my uncanny sense of bargains led me to this obscure pizzeria on Wall Street where I got a huge, 10′ pizza for $4.45! I almost couldn’t finish it! How’s that for a good deal for a good meal!

NYC Trip – After Day 2 of the Conference.

28th April 2004. Letter to Mom. Conference ended 27th April in the evening. Writing from hotel room.

I’m writing at 3:00 in the afternoon on the 28th; I guess you guys’ll receive this on the morning of the 29th. I’m taking the day off today, not going anywhere. I felt really tired today morning, and I realised why when I just went over all what I had done the last three days!

Anyways, the highlight of today, was the trip down to Corporate Headquarters! HQ isn’t too far from where the Learning Center is, so I caught a shuttle there. Too bad they only have visitor tours on Mondays and Tuesdays. I did have a good enough look around, though. It’s eerie to realise that Sam Palmisano and guys like Steve Mills (the de-facto second-in-command) are only a few tens of feet from you somewhere!! Boy! What an experience! No photographs allowed, though! :-( It’s a very quiet place, nothing too spectacular. Not the towering edifice, the sort of magnificent monument to technology I had expected!

Well, yesterday was an incredibly packed day! Got up at 4:20, as usual, rehearsed my spiel (which I can now do in my sleep, for God’s sake!), and left for breakfast.

< Longish narration of Conference Day Two, and what happened and what I did and who I met. Eliminated from blog entry because my employers would have a blue fit if they saw me making public my honest, straightforward, often critical description of a Conference on an extremely sensitive topic at an extremely sensistive venue – T. J. Watson Research Centre, HQ of IBM Research!>

… we went down to Grand Central *again*, only this time, we headed out the other way, and walked up to the Empire State Building! :-D Surprisingly, you don’t notice it from miles around, because your view of the skyline is severely restricted by all the massive buildings around you! Average building height in that area? 25 stories, at least! Then, at one particular corner, though, one building stands out. It never ends, no matter how far up you gaze. Up, up, higher, until the steeple appears to rise into the clouds themselves.

Welcome to the Empire State Building.

The first impression is that it’s apparently being dangled from the skies! You’ve got to see it to believe how tall it is. Perhaps it won’t even appear all that impressive in my photographs (in part to my nascent, tyro-esque photography skills), but it *is* tall. Period. It has 102 floors, not including the steeple on top, is 443-odd metres tall, and was completed in one year and 45 days, in 1931. Tell that to Mehul V. and his builders, please.

We walked all around the ground floor of the ESB, which houses all lot of office space. In fact, most of the ESB (all of it?) is commercial property. (I wonder what the property rates are within the ESB!!) These guys sure know how to promote their stuff. In spite of all the paranoia these days, there’s a lot of freedom visitors enjoy here. Back home, a visit to any landmark is almost stressful and stifling, given the restrictions we’ve got to face. I wonder why policy-makers in India don’t learn basic stuff like this from all their foreign tours.

After (very reluctantly) leaving ESB, Times Square was next on the agenda. This is the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, and was named for the former New York Times office building. (The building still stands, but apparently it isn’t owned by the NYT, which is still in the neghbourhood. Got to check that fact out). Here is a link to a photograph – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Largeviewtimessquare.jpg.
This is where I stopped at a grocery store for chocolates! Lots of chocolates! Luckily, there was some sort of in-your-dreams-only sale there; ek ke daam mein do. Of course, this being the Meccca of Capitalism, I’m sure they’d racheted up the prices sky-high anyway. Though I’ve got a few kilos for $22.80! The only question is how I’m going to haul it back to Thane. For that, I’m going to pack my bags with mystic techniques only known to the Mumbai Train Commuter, for He can pack Matter into spaces smaller than the laws of physics allow!

But I drift from the narrative. Where were we? Oh, Times Square. Yes. Then we footed it up to the U.N. Headquarters. You know, the last sentence sounds almost disrespectful in terms of how casually I said it! I mean, you don’t just ‘walk up’ to the UN HQ!! But such are the vagaries of touring Manhattan. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and nowhere is it more evident than in a tourist’s description of Manhattan. He/she has seen too many legendary landmarks and sights in too short a time, and irreverence inevitably sets in. Yes, the building is splendid. Magnificent. Bathed in the lights from its immediate surroundings, the 39-storey UN Building appears breathtakingly beautiful. I’m betting that the view at night is better than the daytime one. Tragically, that same fact does not hold true in the world of photography, especially when the photographer in question is an over-excited 22-year-old whose hands quiver harder than a cell phone vibrates in silent mode. No, but seriously, the only way to capture sharp images at night is to increase the exposure time to a few seconds, and hold the camera perfectly still for that period of time. This isn’t possible without a tripod. Which is my next purchase. There don’t seem to be any night-time pictures of the UNHQ on the internet, nor any decent large pictures, but here’s a good one nevertheless : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Nyc-un-building.jpg . Interestingly, the UN HQ property is international territory. It belongs to all of the international community, has its own police and fire forces, and issues its own stamps. If you’re wondering if I had a tour guide along with me all day yesterday, you’re mistaken. Like a good travel writer (I am, aren’t I?), I’m doing a good bit of Google-ing on the side!

OK. That was about the most exciting part of the trip. Unless, of course, you want to hear about us catching the Metro back to the city of White Plains, to the Research Lab guy’s hotel – losing our way there at 10PM in a near-freezing drizzle, then booking a taxi to take us to Armonk, which then lost *it’s* way, fortunately taking a crucial correct turn (I’m sure that was the Hand of God on the steering wheel just then, not the clueless cab driver’s!). That’s how I arrived, half-dead, at 10:45 PM. I only realised I’d skipped dinner yesterday, when my tummy roared louder today morning than Chaphekar’s tempo van does when Vinod revs it up at all ungodly hours in the morning. Today morning, the chef at breakfast insisted I have his ‘espesal’ (Spanish chef, in case you’re wondering) creation of waffles topped by strawberries and blackberries in heavenly syrup. I’ve wolfed up most of the food I got from Thane – except the laadoos – which I’m sure are mating and multiplying there in my luggage – how is it that they’re always the same number, no matter how many I eat? – and one solitary Methi ka thepla, which is wondering why it’s been singled out. Don’t you worry, I’m eating it as I’m typing.

I have no plans to go anywhere this evening; just relax, write about the trip (gosh, I can hear you exclaiming, haven’t you written enough already?!) But I’ve hardly written about *life* in the city. I wonder if I’ll be up to writing my obervations about NYC and the people of this country in general – and whether I can keep my keyboard from phyically falling apart after the pounding it’s just received in the past hour-and-three-quarters. It turns out I shouldn’t have brought over half of my clothes with me here. A lot of them are being brought back unused. OK, one keeps learning.