Tuesday 9 July 2013

North-East India Trip - The Beginnings

I cannot assure you that this piece will be as entertaining as this one here, by Chinmay Deshpande.
For one thing, we had no ravages of nature to deal with. For another, ours was not a group of strangers but a collection of guys so thoroughly knowledgeable about each other that we are beginning to run out of things to bicker about!

The conception of this trip can be traced to the first weeks of January, 2013. I was revising my primary school mathematics and I figured that 5 times 5000 gives me enough money to plan a trip, which could be, simultaneously, exotic and cheap. Of course, this was pre Rupee superannuation days. And the search for someplace exotic led me to, via Sri Lanka, Oman and wildly, even the USA (in a Saudi Air flight with a 16 hour stop over in Jeddah, with only a meager borrowing of 30% of the above amount from the most gracious parents), to North-East India.

The challenge was, of course, to rope in the people. Some dude in Bangalore was more interested in going to a place which he could describe as 'snarled or stalled in complete confusion'. But four others did sign-up and we decided to make the plans.

Historically, we, as a group of friends, have a poor track record in planning trips. The most common roadblock we have always had in our plans, when we were in Goa, would be that we would often have no vehicle to do the damned trip until about 5 minutes before it would be too late to set off. Naturally, when embarking for a trip as ambitious sounding as this one, the odds were against us.

Under constraints of a tight schedule, we chalked up a rough list of places we might want to see. We peppered each other with place names and ideas and struck some down, praised some and unanimously approved others. We planned an ambitious trek in Nagaland, fully aware that it might have to be scrapped if we didn't get the Inner Line Permit. We planned to go to some awesome caves in Meghalaya only to discover that its entrance is a pool and we have to swim to get in (which is a problem because some of us cannot swim). We booked train tickets but changed to flight after the trip was reduced to 10 days from 2 weeks.
But, surprisingly, something with a semblance to a plan did materialise. We did fix up 3 days in Arunachal Pradesh and 3 days in Meghalaya. We hoped that Nagaland would happen and we would get our permits from Shillong.

With that hope in mind, I boarded the flight in Pune at 5:50 in the morning. The rather long route to Guwahati from Pune via Chennai and Kolkata allowed me to check the progress of the monsoon (as I say to myself, often with a chuckle).

As I changed aircrafts in Kolkata amidst heavy rain and saw heavy clouds for hundreds of miles in every direction enroute to Guwahati, I wasn't exactly buoyed. But I was happy that, finally, after nearly 6 months of planning, amidst nothingness, I was going to someplace exciting.

Friday 21 December 2012

Plenty of Match-Experience Under the Belt Now

Disregard the fact that the stadium would take nearly as much time to reach from Navi Mumbai as from some of the pretty common areas of Pune and that it takes 20+ minutes to walk from the parking to the gates.
Ignore the fact that stands, with a capacity of over 3600 each, had only one toilet with 5 urinals.

Then your experience at the Subrata Roy Sahara stadium will be damn near perfect.

The stadiums first T20 international, was between India and England. I discovered Pune would be hosting this match quite by chance. I was checking out the ESPNCricinfo App and I scrolled down a bit too much on the fixtures screen than I'd intended to. The word 'Pune' caught my eye. More importantly the date, 20th December, exploded little balloons of confetti inside my heart. I'd be returning from my final semester in college to this. Brilliant.

So people were gathered, tickets were booked and anticipation was allowed to be built.

 New Stadium? What? Where?

The stadium, quite a new addition to the city of Pune, lies in the village of Gahunje. You don't need to know this bit of trivia but it makes for a handy opening sentence. The old Nehru Stadium, which was a common name for almost every public place before Rajiv Gandhi took that honour, was no longer good enough for matches. The last match there, in 2006, was one of the 3 1/2 million matches we played with Sri Lanka in the 2000s. The stadium was now, too much
inside the city, too close to crowded areas and with far too narrow roads around it. It became a logistical, spectatorial and almost everything-ical nightmare.

So the new one, built with the patronage of Subrata Roy Sahara, the eternal sponsor of the Indian cricket team, and the owner of the Pune franchise of the IPL, was supposed to be built for the 2011 World Cup. And living up to the expectations of all, the stadium was not completed on time. Surprisingly, or not, it was ready for the IPL this year.

With a capacity of over 50000, full bucket seating for all, wide staircases, wide aisles, ample spacing between rows and a completely unhindered view of the ground - the stadium checked out on all the good things.

But as with any event in India, security and traffic posed two huge questions.

1. When do we actually need to leave to get there?
2. Can we carry mobile phones?

The answer to the first question, as suggested by the Pune police, is a healthy 3 hours before the match. I'd say 3 hours is more than safe. If you can get into the parking lot about 1 hour before the match then you will be seated in your seat about 40 minutes later. And it doesn't take more than 30 minutes to get to your parking spot once you come near the expressway. So I'd say 2 hours is about the minimum time before the match you should leave from home (I live on the opposite end of the city, so you get the idea).

The long walk to the stadium takes you past the main gate. Our timing was damn perfect as we saw the Indian team bus pull in to the stadium. We could see the Yuvraj Singh in the front, a pair of huge headphones on. The crowd roared and waved their flags as the bus pulled past us.

The answer to the second question, as suggested by the Pune police in the newspapers, is NO. As you will see below, that is not quite true. We were quite perplexed by this question, actually. A few blogs helped me out. They all said they were allowed to carry one with them during the IPL matches. Camera's were a strict no but phone were OK. And what about phones with cameras?
So we decided to take a shot and carried our phones to the gates anyway. To our relief, the security didn't give a second look at our phones. So the answer to that question is a Yes.

 What You are Not Allowed to Carry

What we were not allowed to carry with us was water bottles, cameras (as per the rules, it makes no sense though, I know) and any bags. Small bags were allowed with women. They pulled the sticks out of our flags. There were two friskings separated by a long walk to our stand. The queues at the entrances to the stands moved quickly enough. In fact, no where was there any blockage or hold-ups of any sorts. There were okay-ishly long queues but they moved with rapidity. This was due to the fact that entry was granted by a bar code read of your tickets.

 What You Get Inside

Once inside, there was a decent amount of food being sold and the rates were not too bad. Water was free. Burgers, Two Samosas, Two Wada-Pavs each sold at Rs. 50. Dominos pizza was available. Coke, chips, Biryanis and plenty other things were also being sold. You have vendors doing the rounds with all these so you don't need to ever leave your seats.

 The Ground

Now what strikes you first, as you climb the short flight of stairs and the ground first comes into view, is that this ground is very very pretty. The bowl shaped stands, the towering grand-stand on one side, the lush green field drenched in the floodlights, the beautiful Western Ghats in the distance and a glorious red sun setting into it. From our seats in the North-East stand, it was a picture a worth a million.

It's a smallish ground. About 70 meters on all sides. Good for T20 cricket I suppose. Also good for viewing as even from the highest seats you get an excellent view of the action. The pillar-less construction means you don't have any obstructions. The floodlights are built for HD television, so the lighting is bright.

We saw the two squads warm up on the field. The English team certainly looked more athletic and sprightly. They did some sprints, a few sessions on the practice wickets and a bunch of running exercises. The Indians did some exercises lying down, a bit of jogging on the field and some catching practice.

The seats were a mixed-bag. They're comfortable, wide and sturdy. But a little too high from the concrete below them. Most people had their feet hanging and over three hours, that does get a bit difficult. There were some arguments over people being on each other's seats but the atmosphere was friendly and exciting.

 Pee-Pee time, Not a good time

The urinals, as I said before, were woefully inadequate. 5 stalls to service 3000+ people is quite an absurd thought. There was such a rush towards the end that people resorted to peeing on the walls inside the urinals. The women's washrooms were probably cleaner and neater because they were empty. My guess is there were not more than 300 women in that stand.

 The Match

The match was a good one. I guess that was because we won. But also because it was quite entertaining. Alex Hales ran away to a fifty before I could upload a picture on Facebook. Now my GPRS connectivity was weak. But at a strike-rate of 160, which is the highest for an English batsman against India for 50+ scores, it was a great knock. Along with Luke Wright, they were at 81/1 after 9 overs, looking set for a 175+ score. Then came Dhoni's 7th bowling change, the man with the golden arm, the pie-chucker (who also eats a fair share of those pies, judging by his size) Yuvraj Singh. Quite nonchalantly he bowled 4 overs for 19 runs and picked three wickets. Suddenly, the innings went from top gear to hand-brake. England added 68 runs in the last 10 overs. Final score - 157/6.

As I discussed with the turbaned Englishman behind me in the long queue at the urinals, 157 is the kind of score which makes it difficult to call a match. It only takes a spell of 8-10 good balls to change the course of the innings. It happened in the first one, a Yuvraj over was the spell that did it. It could very well happen in the second.

For a brief moment in the Indian innings, it looked as though that might happen. In the 5th over, Bresnan got both Rahane and Gambhir to hole out. The Indian run-rate went from 10+ to about 7.5 in two overs. But once again, Yuvraj was there to set things right. 18 runs of a Danny Briggs over restored the balance towards India. By the time he holed out in the 10th over, the asking rate was just over 6. With Raina, Dhoni and Jadeja still to bat, that wasn't going to be much of a challenge. India cantered home with 13 balls to spare.

The Experience

Brilliant. On a scale from 0-10, I would rate it 8.5. I have been to matches in the Wankhede and I have been to the MCG. The Wankhede barely offers you space to swing an arm. The MCG intimidates you with its sheer size. The Pune stadium does the role of a comfortable stadium for a small city with style.

The tickets for the this match were expensive. Our stands, which happened to lie in the deep mid-wicket/third-man/cover/fine-leg region, depending on the batsman's dominant hand and the end he was on, were priced at Rs. 2000 per ticket. All other expenses included, this trip cost us each about Rs. 2500. I guess there will be more cheaper tickets for the IPL matches which would certainly drive the expenses down significantly.

So when the IPL comes along in a few months time, do go for a match.
It makes for a very good weekend activity.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

How to have fun in Goa for less than Rs. 200

If there is one thing you do not want to do as a college kid then it must be spending money, atleast too much of it. It hurts to take out those little blue and green things with a smiling picture of the father of our nation. Having your college located in a touristy place makes this act all the more painful.

But we are in college. And we need to have fun.
And the most fun you can have while not wondering about your financials has to be a trip to the Dudhsagar waterfalls.

I have been there twice. Each time, we spent less than two blue Mohandas Gandhis.

The 10 kilometer trek does two things.

1. It drains the energy out of you and makes you feel parts of your feet you never realized existed.
2. It draws you towards the pool below the falls like a child to an ice-cream truck.

The Water:

The Pool - it makes you wonder
Such is the appeal of the cold waters of the pool, that you lose all your inhibitions, don't give a thought about the shape of your body, the bits of flab hanging about, and strip down to your lowest level of comfort to get into it.
As you dip your toe into the chilly water, you feel a shiver up your spine. Your feet, still aching from the walk, tingles. As you lower yourself into the pool and find yourself a rock to stand upon, you let out a groan of relief. The buoyancy feels great.
Then, as you go further in, your testicles freeze. For a brief moment, time is suspended and you stand there, half inside, letting the chilly water swamp you. Then the moment passes and you get comfortable.
Now, you take deep breaths and go further into the pool - inch by inch - feeling daggers tear into your skin - by this time realizing that 007's fight in those icy waters in Skyfall would have been impossible.
Finally you are neck-deep in the water. You float lightly, your toes propping your head just above the surface.
To complete the occasion, you take a deep breath and submerge yourself. You come out feeling fresher and your thoughts seem clearer than before. Suddenly, all the tiredness and pain are gone.

The Trek:

The Trail - Gets rockier and steeper as you approach the fall
The trek itself is a lot of fun. The only not too good part of the trek is the fact that the trail is also the route taken by the Jeeps. There are small stretches where you have to stand on the very edge of the trail, over a considerable drop behind you, to let the huge vehicles pass. They are noisy, raise a lot of dust and are full of tourists taking pics of almost everything, including the trekkers. Fortunately, they are just punctuation in an otherwise epic and rewarding journey. And as a plus point, they are often full of very good looking (read hot) Russian females. :D

The route goes right through the thick forest. The trees around the track provide a comfortable shade which makes the walking easier in the climate of Goa. The sounds of the forest are very pleasant. Birds chirping, leaves cracking underneath your feet, the slight breeze stirring the leaves and occasionally, something slithering behind the thick bushes.
The views from the trail are captivating

Then there are the small streams which you cannot avoid getting wet in. Varying from ankle to knee deep, when you come along one towards the latter part of the trek you welcome the cold waters. The pebbles and small stones massage your feet too, making the next few hundred meters easier to walk.

The Food:

Our Lunch Spot
More specifically lunch, which was a modest affair. But the long walk whets your appetite to the point of gluttony. So even the simple meal we had carried with us - two large loaves of bread, a bottle of jam, a jar of cheese spread and a pouch of ketchup - was done in a matter of minutes. We pampered ourselves with paper plates and disposable spoons and set about to make the tastiest lunch ever. We lavished the sweet and citrusy jam and the creamy cheese on the bread. I even mixed up the two. It was brilliant. We happily munched on it, while enjoying the music of the waterfall and the view of the pool and those aforementioned Russians in it. :D

The Return Journey:

The return trek is the toughest part of the day. Obviously, after having walked so much and having had such a great dip in the pool and having eaten one of the best meals of your life, you don't want to ever leave the place. But you are on a deadline. So you haul yourself and tear your eyes away from the falls and start trotting back. This time, the pain kicks in faster and you realize about 15 minutes into the journey that the next 9 kilometers are going to be your toughest.

As always, on the return journey, we take a detour, about one-third into the way, onto the railway tracks. Oh wait, I forgot to mention this. The tracks go right above the fall. It's another exciting thing to watch, a train chug by way above over the falls. So yes, we get on to the track. Now, the tracks are a tougher thing to walk on. Firstly, the adjacent sleepers are placed too close to each other while the alternate ones are too far to pace yourself. Secondly, the sides of the tracks are filled with stones for. Walking on them is no easy task either. But the track route is about 500 meters shorter than the trail. And since we are on a deadline, we decide to take it. Besides, it's fun to walk beside a train. You suddenly admire an engine's immense power and see a kind of beauty in its simplicity.

The first time, we had a good vendor show us a shortcut to a point where we can join the tracks, saving us atleast 20 minutes. This time, we had no such luck and when we got to the tracks we were pretty much in a fix. We had to walk the fastest 7000 meters of our lives on this terrain to catch our train from the next station.

Or we could flag down a train and board it to the next stop.
Which was what happened. Well, atleast four of managed to do so.

Our ride back - read on for the story behind it.
A goods train pulled by and stopped at the signal we were waiting under. Eight young guys with backpacks, looking ragged and slightly unruly, politely asked the driver of the train if they could board it. I'm not too surprised that he said no. So we stood aside and let the train go, literally 1 feet away from our noses, and as the rear guard cabin pulled up, we once again asked the guard. He said yes, but only to two of us. But another guy, already on board, also hitching a ride in the back told us to board anyway. About this time, the train gained speed again. Two of us ran and caught it. The guard seemed perturbed. But the stranger pulled those two on. By the time we realized that we can catch it, we were nearly 100 meters behind. Two more of us ran. And did catch it. As I held on to the handle, feeling it pull away from me, I put my faith in my legs and jumped. And managed to slip my foot into the step. The stranger held out a hand and pulled me over.
We sat there on the floor, watching the forest rush by, feeling the wind and marveling at what we had just done. We thanked the stranger and got off at the station twenty minutes later.

On the train we learnt, by overhearing his conversations, that the stranger was a poacher returning from a kill.

Eventually, the rest of the guys made it back just in time to catch the train back to Vasco.

Not many people trek to the place. Both times, we were the only ones doing it. But I'd say you should do it atleast once. At the end of the day, you will be exhausted. Especially if you are a bunch of lazy, unfit engineers like we are. When you get back, you hit your bed hard and sleep one of the soundest sleeps of your life. The next day your body hurts - your shoulders feel rusty and your feet seem heavy. But you feel happy. You have loads of pictures to see, relive and share. And the best part, you have a story to tell to everyone.

The rail bridge - The falls can be seen from any south bound train from Madgaon.
The falls become visible only towards the very end of the trail.
It is a thing of beauty.

The Expenses:

As promised, this trip is low on investment and high on returns. A measly Rs. 20 is the cost of the train tickets. Tickets to the fall cost Rs. 20 per person. Camera tickets extra. Carry rations like we did. It's the best thing to do. What we had was for a grand total of Rs. 300, split 8 ways. Add to it one or two bottles of coke or water (Rs. 50 for two cokes) purchased before the trek and the cost of the dinner (Rs. 60 per person) we had back in Vasco (at Kashi Dairy - cheap food, good food, fast service and loads of butter on and in everything, perfect way to end the day) made it probably the most rewarding experience we have ever had Goa.

For a total of Rs. 190 per person. Talk about inexpensive now.

How to get there:

The Vasco-Kulem passenger train, which leaves from Vasco at 7:30 in the morning and leaves back from Kulem at 5:15 in the evening is the beast way to get there. The ticket costs Rs. 10 one-way, and the route from Vasco to Madgaon is very scenic, over the beaches of Majorda and Cansaulim. And on holidays, it is not at all crowded. The 10 kilometer trail begins a short way from Kulem station. The locals will tell you that the trail is closed to walkers. Ignore them. Jeeps are available at the beginning of the trail. We never bothered to enquire the rates.

Dudhsagar is best visited from about October to May. The falls are dangerous and travel is a strict no during the monsoon season. The pool has whirlpools sometimes and it is dangerous to go too deep into it, even if you are a good swimmer. Wear a pair of sturdy and comfortable shoes, with a good grip, that doesn't bite you even the slightest. You might want to remove and carry them across the streams to prevent them from getting wet. Or you can simply walk across wearing them and not mind your feet squirming and squishing inside. The trek can also be done in floaters if you are comfortable walking over uneven surfaces in them.

Friday 16 November 2012

A Small Donation

I donated Rs. 100 to Wikipedia.

This time there is no personal appeal from its founder, Jimmy Wales. Nor can you see the face of one of the several authors or editors peering down from the top of your browser window. This time the message is directly stated in bold letters across a green banner at the top.

"Wikipedia is non-profit, but it's the #5 website in the world. With 450 million monthly users, we have costs like any top site: servers, power, rent, programs, staff and legal help.
To protect our independence, we'll never run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations: 100 rupees is the most common, the world average is about 1500 rupees.
If everyone reading this gave 100 rupees, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. Please help us forget fundraising and get back to Wikipedia."

I certainly would have donated more, if I could have.
Amongst some other things, Wikipedia has probably had one of the greatest impact on mankind.
It has become the go to source for billions of information seekers world-wide on any topic under, on and above the sun. And we all use it, several times a day. To gather facts, to get the news, to see the pictures, to know history, to settle arguments and to learn something new.

The concept of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam", one of the integral parts of Hindu philosophy, suggests that the whole world is a family. You would imagine in a family that one seeks the wisdom of the elders. Not unlike that, on earth today, we seek Wikipedia for knowledge. It gives a new meaning to the words, "pass on your teachings". And the people who write and read Wikipedia  and edit it for accuracy, who are essentially millions of people across the world, are the ones that truly make it a global family.

My donation is disproportionate to my usage of the site. But I feel proud and happy to have contributed in a small way to one of the most wonderful inventions of mankind.