Mar 23, 2015

The Leg Room Chronicles !

For the past few months I have been travelling so much that I have been literally living out of suitcases. I usually love travel, even if it is related to work. What I do not love is the bit where I have to sit cramped in flights forever !

Only someone who is as tall as me (or taller!) will understand how difficult it is to fit all 5 feet 9 inches of me into a conventional airplane seat. What makes my life even more difficult is that majority of my long distance flights are to Japan. In my humble opinion, when that country was designing airplanes, they did not even consider anyone over the height of five feet four inches. 

You get in the flight, already feeling out of place because you are towering over the rest of the passengers and then you try to pour yourself into the cramped space the seat provides. The seats are so small, the leg space so negligible that after you have squeezed in along with the pillows and blankets and headphones the airline so thoughtfully provides, your derriere is half hanging out of the seat and your feet are so cramped that your chin is almost touching your knees.
Not Pleasant! 

Invariably, once you have managed to squeeze yourself in, the person infront of you decides that this would be an ideal time to get his money’s worth and reclines his chair as far as it would go. I’ve had people recline back their seats so much, it almost felt as if they were napping in my lap !

And so begins the war between the “Recliners” and the “Legroomers”. You can either (depending on your mood ) politely tell the person in front to straighten his seat a bit or gently but consistently keep nudging the back of his seat with your knee till he gets the hint.

Domestic flights within India are equally bad. Increase in number of seats has naturally led to a compromise on comfort and one gets the feeling of travelling like cattle herded into a cramped space.

Over the years you develop a strategy on how to make your hours in that airless hell as least uncomfortable as possible. The first thing is of course to try and get the seats right in front of the plane or the ones near the emergency exit. My flights are often late night ones and usually the web check in ( that also allows you to choose your seat) opens 24 hours before take-off. I have set alarms to wake me up in the middle of the night so that I can be the first to log in the airlines site and book myself the seat with the maximum leg space.

The seats on the emergency exit usually do not have a window view but then I would rather stretch my legs than sit all hunched up gazing at the beautiful panaroma of clouds floating by.

If you can’t manage the front seat, the second best option is to get an aisle seat and try to sit slightly diagonally. This requires you to be very careful about your jutting knees and elbows that the stewardess is sure to bang into with her food Trolley.

But the battle is only half won if you have got that aisle seat. As soon as you make yourself comfortable and stretch your cramped legs the sweet old lady next to you would need to use the washroom in what seems like every couple of minutes. As there is no way she can hop over your long legs you will have to get up every time and of course every time you get up you bang your head on the overhead compartment.

And it’s not just about leg room. What do you with those long arms and pointy elbows that refuse to fit just anywhere. There have been many subtle wars with my neighbor in the next seat over elbow space. Both of us looking resolutely ahead while trying very hard to push the other person’s elbow aside in order to occupy that coveted space on the armrest.

In majority of my flights, I usually end up sitting with my feet clamped together and my arms jammed on my sides, not unlike a trussed hen.

More travel lined up in April. Suddenly video conferences and telephone calls (however long they might stretch) seem like such an infinitely better option than getting on a Jet Plane !

Dec 2, 2014

The Japanese and The Art of Using Chopsticks

Rachna of Rachna Says fame is one of the finest bloggers I know. Her content is thought provoking and responsible and her writing always impeccable. 

Over the years I have come to admire her for not only her writing prowess but also the very principled and ethical manner in which she conducts herself in the blog world. She is also an extremely helpful and generous soul who will go out of her way to share her knowledge about blogging and blogs with her friends and even people she hardly knows. She is a genuine person, straight forward and honest.

So I was in a quandary when she asked me to write a guest post for her. I wanted it to be something special, something that would appeal to her discerning taste. Then I remembered how much Rachna enjoys my posts on Japan and so I decided to do a ‘Japan and I’ post for her.

I do hope my post has done justice to her fine blog!

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners. One of the most interesting and peculiar things about Japan is that while the rest of the world uses spoons and forks, the Japanese insist on eating their food with two pieces of wood!

Please click on the following link to read the rest of the post on Rachna's Blog !

Nov 10, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Splendor that is Yosemite !

And today we go back to my travelogues on the United States to talk about a place that is very very close to my nature loving heart.

Ever since I planned my U.S trip I knew I wanted to go to Yosemite National Park. I had read a lot about it, heard a lot about it and right from its bear infested wilderness and imposing rocks, to its grassy meadows I wanted to see it all! 

But things were not going as I wanted. I couldn’t get reservations, I couldn’t figure out transportation and since the park is huge I was not sure which area I should see in the limited time I had. Just as I was at my wits end, I happened to mention all this to Shachi Thakkar, a very dear friend and fellow travel enthusiast. And like a genie she stepped in, soothed my stressed nerves, took things in her own hands and offered to take me to Yosemite. 

Before we started out from her home in Folsom she asked me if I would prefer to take the freeway or the slightly longer but more scenic rural roads. Naturally I chose the scenic route and what a fantastic drive it turned out to be. Endless stretches of land with long stalks of grass baked brown in the sun, massive farm buildings scattered here and there, horses grazing placidly in pastures. It somehow gave me a feeling of endless space. Even the smallish towns we passed on our way seemed remote and the houses placed really far apart.

We could sense the fall in temperature as we neared Yosemite.Yosemite is known for its wide diversity in vegetation and I could clearly see the change in vegetation every few miles. We were driving through alpine country now and the horizon was dotted with asymmetrical, jagged cliffs.

The biggest advantage of going with a person who not only loves Yosemite but knows it like her own backyard is that you end up getting a local’s perspective of it rather than a tourist’s. Shachi showed me a side of Yosemite that I would have never got to see otherwise. 

 We entered the park from the lesser used Tioga pass and our first stop was Olmstead point. We decided to step off the road and do our own bit of hiking. The trees thinned out after a while till all we could see was granite rocks and cliffs. 
As compared to the more placid and green Yosemite Valley that we would see later, this was hard, unyielding rock. It was all brute strength. It was here that I had my first look of the famed Half Dome. Even from the distance it looked mighty and imposing and very powerful. Like some age old chieftain watching over the park.

The Half Dome as seen from Olmsted Point

 Our next stop was lake Tenaya. Tenaya was totally different from the sheer brutality of the cliffs we had just seen. Ringed by a pine forest, Lake Tenaya was so beautiful, so pristine, so serene that all I wanted to do was sit there and gaze at the splendor around me. The water was crystal clear and a rich dark blue, as if it had pulled in even the blue of the sky reflected in it. 

In a span of few hours I had seen sheer granite cliffs. Walked over hard unyielding ground where not even the sturdiest of trees could take root and followed it up with Lake Tenaya, that was a peaceful sanctuary of crystal clear water and alpine trees and greenery. 

But nothing had prepared me for Tuolumne meadows.

The picturesque Tuolumne meadows is surrounded by a lush pine forest and the ever present cliffs guard it like sentinels. Brownish- green grass, knee high at places waved gently in the wind with a river of crystal clear water meandering through it all. Trees grew here and there, as if to break the monotony of the meadow and I could glimpse the early wildflowers peeping through the grass. We were a month or so early for the wildflowers but I could imagine how utterly beautiful the meadows would be with the wildflowers in bloom.

We drove on. The drive through Yosemite that day was one of the most mesmerizing I have ever taken because never in one place I had seen such diversity of nature. From roaring waterfalls to pristine lakes to scenic meadows and gigantic granite cliffs, Yosemite has it all.

The mighty Bulk of El Capitan looms over us. 

We ended our day with a spectacular sunset over the Half Dome.

I was delighted to see our campsite. According to me this was exactly how a camp should be. Tents, bonfires and even communal baths. What I found a total childish delight in was that we also had to put all our food, trash and even toiletries in ‘Bear Lockers'. These were huge lockers made of metal and this was to prevent the bears from breaking into the tents or vandalizing the cars if they smell food.

This really got my hopes up. I was sure there would be bears roaming about at night and was very hopeful about spotting a few. Exhausted,we fell into our sleeping bags and feel asleep instantly. In my half dream state I thought I did hear fire crackers being fired to scare away the bears to my disappointment none came near our tent.

We did a bit of hiking the next day. Actually ‘bit of hiking’ was how Shachi the super fit adventure enthusiast had put it. But honestly it had me huffing and puffing up an arduous uphill stretch, while Shachi strolled through the same stretchas if it was a plain road !

But the view from the top of the trail was so worth it.

The trip to Yosemite was long yearned for.The two meager days that I spent therer were totally insufficient to take in its grandeur and have just left me thirsting to come back again and again for more.

Sep 29, 2014

Open to Interpretation!

Prime Minister Modi’s Japan visit made me think of a something very close to my heart. Something I have been associated with for over 10 years.

In Today’s Japan and I post, I talk about the Art of Interpretation.

I wonder if any of you noticed a prim bespectacled man sitting behind Prime Minister Modi or following him like a shadow during his japan visit. The man was Modi’s official interpreter and without him most of our PM’s passionate and voluble speeches in Japan would have had little effect!

For a lot of people Interpretation or translation is simply ‘converting’ what the speaker is saying from one language to another.  Frankly 'Converting” is a term that would make all self-respecting language professionals seethe with anger.

Converting is a frivolous word, something what google translate or some other internet tool would do. A human bilingual, if he is true to his profession, not only conveys the meaning of the words but the actual intent and the emotions behind them. Interpretation or translation is simply not conveying sentences; it is conveying understanding in two different cultures. Along with language acumen, it also requires a whole lot of socio- cultural awareness about the country and its people.

Another misconception is that there is not much difference between Translation and Interpretation.  Infact no Interpreter worth his salt will ever be like to be called just a translator. A translator deals with written text. Interpretation is oral. You are verbally communicating what the speaker is saying into another language. Translation of course is infinitely easier than interpretation. When you translate a text you have ample time to think of the appropriate words, to refer to dictionaries or the internet.

Interpretation is immediate and in Real Time. There is no time and no scope for referring to a dictionary or asking someone else. A true worth of a bilingual only comes out when he is interpreting. An Interpreter not only needs to be good in the language, he also needs to be super quick in grasping, managing and conveying information.

My first brush with interpretation was when I was studying Japanese in JNU. We had what was known as ‘Language Lab” classes then.
The classes were held in sound proof rooms lined with a cork like material. Each one of us had a headphone and a separate cubicle and it made us feel all important and special. Our professor, though an eminent name in the Japanese fraternity was a dour faced unsmiling man who rarely saw humour in anything. The only time I have seen him smile was when he ribbed a student mercilessly about not being able to answer his questions as the poor fellow stood there squirming and wishing the earth would swallow him.

 But in all honesty I owe a lot of my Interpretation skills to that professor and his intensive (and almost Boot Camp like) training. He used to play tapes that were usually from the NHK (the BBC of Japan) and a commentary on a current political or economic situation. The tape ran for 10 minutes and during those 10 minutes we all made notes frantically not even daring to breathe too loudly in case we miss what is being said.

It was in these interpretation classes that I learnt how to write in short hand and use key words instead of writing full sentences. If you try writing full sentences while interpreting, the speaker would be miles ahead by the time you finish with one sentence. I also learnt to listen to not only the words but the tone and underlying emotion of the speaker and interpret appropriately. For the interpreter also somehow needs to reflect the emotion of the speaker with his words and intonation while remaining detached enough not to feel the same emotion himself.

A translator deals with text. The worst problem he might face is bad font size in a hard copy or content that is difficult to understand.

An interpreter however deals with human beings and not a piece of paper. Humans unfortunately come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and personality and attitudes.  

Some speakers whisper or mumble making it difficult for the interpreter to understand what they are saying. Some on the other hand will speak faster than a bullet train. Some confused souls will keep contradicting their own statements leaving the interpreter thoroughly bewildered.

The usual norm is to take a logical break after every few minutes and allow the interpreter to do his job. But some speakers go on and on without a break and as a result the interpreter will have almost 15-20 minutes of data to interpret in one go. 
That is what happened during one of Modi’s speeches in Japan. He got carried away while speaking. In a span of 10 minutes he cracked jokes and then turned again to serious matters without giving his interpreter any chance to interpret. As a result the Japanese in the room were totally baffled by the laughter and his Interpreter was faced with the daunting task of not only interpreting a lot of content but also witticisms and serious topics in one go. And jokes when not interpreted immediately lose a lot of their charm!

Some people like to pretend that interpreters are blessed with a photographic memory. I have had speakers change the slide of the ppt before I have finished explaining it or rub off drawings from the board before I could explain them.

And I used to absolutely hate lunch or dinner meetings. Most of them used to be in very good restaurants but since I was busy interpreting all the time, I couldn't taste a morsel unless I wanted to speak with my mouth full of food.

I remember one dinner in a very famous North Indian restaurant where I spent 10 minutes interpreting from English into Japanese what a culinary delight Butter Chicken is without getting to taste even a morsel of the damn bird!

There is no greater woe for an Interpreter than confusing pronunciations and different dialects.  I remember one interpreter who got thoroughly confused between Maruti and Multi – because of the simple reason that the Japanese pronounce ‘Ti’  as “Chi”  and ‘L’ as ‘R’. So Multi when spoken in a sort of anglicized Japanese – becomes Maruchi. Unfortunately Maruti of the Maruti Suzuki fame is also pronounced as Maruchi.

The poor fellow, a novice to the world of Automobile interpretation was totally befuddled between the two terms and used them indiscriminately till the Indians in the meeting thought that Multi companies were making cars like Maruti instead of Maruti making multiple cars. I was torn between an overwhelming desire to laugh and to correct to poor chap !

Of course such incidents are fun as long as you are not in the eye of the storm.  
I have spent some time in a scenic Japanese city called Kobe where a particular dialect of Japanese called Kansai Ben is spoken. The Japanese team members would automatically assume that because I know Japanese I would understand all dialects and slang. They would speak something rapidly in the dialect and then look at me expectantly where I would sit there with a totally confused expression on my face.

One of the worst situations I have faced is when I was required to interpret to a bristling, angry mob of union workers in an automobile Company. The Japanese MD chose to address them in Japanese and I was faced with a daunting task of interpreting in chaste Hindi. The worst was yet to come. The union leaders, all belonging to the dusty badlands of U.P were in no mood to listen to pacifying speeches and their response was richly peppered with the choicest invectives that even I with my extensive Japanese vocabulary found a tad difficult to Interpret!

I haven’t interpreted for years now but honestly if I ever feel a need to check my language acumen, the best thing would be to try another hand at interpreting! 

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.

Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read here.

Sep 4, 2014

U.S Chronicles - A Bite out of the Big Apple

New York City failed to impress me at first. I had my first view of it at night, when it is supposed to be at its dazzling best. We came out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city lay in front of me sparkling and twinkling against the backdrop of a velvety dark night.

I felt as if I was entering into the bowels of an Urban Jungle.

My first day in the city found me sitting on top of an open tourist bus, broiling in the heat as the bus slowly moved through Manhattan and all of its touristy spots. It was hot and it was crowded and the traffic was horrendous. I don’t think I enjoyed the sights too much either. The Empire state Building didn't look as majestic close up as it did from a distance. I refused to climb up.

 The 9/11 memorial had none of the sobriety I associated with it because of the hordes of noisy tourists there.

But the worst was Times Square. I am not fond of big crowds at any given point and Times Square was nothing but a huge over flowing river of humanity. The huge skyscrapers with adverts running on them simply hurt my eye. I found them rather garish. 

The only thing I enjoyed to some extent was the boat ride to the statue of liberty. The imposing statue in front with the Manhattan skyline behind us was rather nice.

New York in summer is perhaps the best and the worst time to visit. The weather is perfect but thanks to the selfsame good weather, tourists descend on the city in droves, forcing even the hardened New Yorkers to hide inside their homes and only venture out to places less crowded.

Fed up of the tourists I encountered everywhere (and conveniently forgetting that I was one myself) I decided to explore the city as a city should really be explored - on foot and with no particular destination or time schedule in mind. I decided to pick a neighborhood a day, any neighborhood, and just wander.

The next couple of days were a revelation, for I realized I was looking at New York all wrong. The city is not about tourist sites or sky scrapers. Frankly, after a while its physical and geographical aspects simply ceased to matter. For New York City is a way of life. It’s an experience. You need to live it, explore it, let the spirit of the place seep into you, feel its pulsating, vibrant heart.

The few days that I spent wandering in the city, left me with a kaleidoscope of impressions, vivid and colorful.

To discover New York you must walk. Walk in the shadow of the great glass and steel skyscrapers, with people rushing, jostling past you in their hurry to get to work. Heels clicking, briefcases dangling, smartly dressed. So much like Tokyo, with even the weather hot and humid one day and incessant rains the next.

New York to me is Guggenheim with its intriguing structure and fabulous paintings. 

New York is the Metropolitan Museum of art where I wandered happily for hours and hours and hours and felt that no amount of time I spend in it is ever going to be enough.

New York is standing in front of Tiffany’s and feeling a little like Audrey Hepburn did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

New York City is also wandering the cobbled streets of SoHo, peering into quaint boutiques. Then walking a few blocks down to encounter rows after rows of glittering shops housing the best brands in the world. 

New York is also the Wall Street. The architecture here is different, old, historic. There is something shiny and brash about high-rises that doesn't appeal to me as much as dignified, staid beauty of old architecture.

New York is the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, with cafes warm and inviting.
Simply sit with a coffee in your hand and watch the world go by, or aimlessly stroll through old, tree shaded neighborhoods, turn a corner and discover that under the shadow of the high rises buildings like this still exist.

It’s about cutting through central park to reach your destination so that you can revel in the peace and greenery that you never thought could exist in the chaos and madness of New York. 

New York is also The Strand - the book shop that is the mecca for every self-respecting Book Lover. 

It’s about sitting on the wide sweeping steps of the New York Public Library, marveling at that magnificent building. This is how a library should be – majestic, solemn and filled with the best books ever. 

New York is Bryant Park, just behind the library with the little French Bakery nearby. I bought some delicious sandwiches there and sat eating them at one of the little tables set under the trees while I watched people battle out chess games at the next table.

New York is jogging along the river, or skating or cycling or simply sitting in a river side café as you watch the sun set over the Hudson River. 

New York is the World’s finest restaurants and the happy knowledge that every conceivable cuisine is available to you within a few miles of where ever you are. Ethiopian to Japanese to Italian.

It is also about eating hot dogs from vendors on the road and eating the very famous New York Cheesecake and Bagels to see if they indeed are the best in the world as the New Yorkers claim. It’s biting into that slice of New York style Pizza bought at a shop that is just a garret like hole in the wall but sells the “Best pizza ever”.

New York is stopping to listen to street musicians. It’s also about Broadway and musicals and summer night Jazz concerts. Nowhere except perhaps London have I ever seen a place so vibrant with art and music and culture.

New York is also about its canary yellow cabs. As I discovered, catching a cab in Manhattan, especially on a rainy day is an art. No cab stops if you stand by the side of the road and wave demurely at it. You have to literally stand in the middle of the road and wave as if your life depends on it. And somehow my fondest memory of NYC is of a cab driver who instead of cursing the horrendous traffic would take out a book and read a page or two while he waited for the light to turn green. 

New York is the police and ambulance sirens that jolted me awake even on the 23rd floor of my cousin’s apartment. Stepping out in the tiny balcony in the dead of the night to look down at a city humming with activity. For this is truly a city that never sleeps. 

New York City is fast and manic and brash and competitive and unabashedly unapologetic about it. There is an undercurrent of energy here that compels you to move faster, think quickly, to be on your toes always.

It’s a perfect place for people who want to do their own thing. This is a place that lets you be. It doesn't question, doesn't meddle and accepts you with all your idiosyncrasies and quirks.

New York is one place where you can dream anything,do anything, become anything, if the city doesn't get to you first!

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