Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A fortress in the sea - Murud Janjira

Located about 170 kms from Mumbai on the Goa route, is the fortress of Janjira, adjacent to the town of Murud. Considered to be the only impregnable fort on the Maharashtra coastline, the fort lies imposingly about 3 kms into the sea.

We started off on a beautiful clowdy day, early in the morning at around 7 am and headed along the Vashi-Navi Mumbai route. We broke off the Pune route to enter Panvel and headed towards Pen and Alibaug. A few kilometres from Alibaug, a diversion took us towards Murud, a scenic hilly drive with the sea on one side and fields / hills on the other. We crossed the beach of Kashid - one of the better known tourist spots around here and headed further south. As we came close to Murud, the route made a multitude of s-curves, with Keralan palm and coconut trees everywhere.

The first view of the Janjira fort is absolutely beautiful - you see it first as the road jumps over a small hill; the fortress surrounded by waters on all sides, sheltered by hills on so as to be unseen till that time, with fishing boats of all types plying around. Luckily for us, the weather was awesome as well, mildly rainy, but not too much.

Two sailboats ply periodically between the fort and the jetty. The sea was rough and choppy, but it was a great experience to go on a sailboat wedged between some 20 odd people as the sailors (oarsmen?) tried hard to pilot it right into the entrance of the fort.

The entry into the fort is the most exciting part of the expedition. The sea gets really choppy close to the entrance and the boat swings and yaws as it gets near the steps. A group of youth stand at the entrance, helping people get off and onboard. One needs to jump off & on the boat as it swings close with the wave and thats great fun.

The fort itself is pretty dilapidated and could do with a dose or two of refurbishment. Vines and assorted plants grow all over the ruins and clothe the water-bodies in slime. However, the cannons are a pretty impressive sight; supposedly the 3rd biggest cannon in India lies there. In all, it would take at best 20 minutes to make a walkthrough of the fort.

To those following us: The trip can easily be made in a day from Mumbai. The roads are pretty decent (contrary to what I'd heard prior to the trip) and the route is absolutely scenic. Just that first view of the Janjira fort makes the whole trip worthwhile. And it takes about 3-4 hrs to get there from Mumbai. For more, check out murudjanjira.com


Revenge by Gadget from the Wall Street Journal:

"...the field has caught the attention of graduate students at MIT's Media Lab, where it is known as "annoyancetech." Among their recent creations: a "No-Contact Jacket" that, when activated with a controller, delivers a blast of electricity to anyone who touches the person wearing it.

These devices are also a way for people to bridge the gap between the birth of a new form of annoyance (people driving while sending text messages, for instance) and the point at which lawmakers finally organize a response...

According to Dr. Tenner, the technology historian, the first widely marketed "countergadget" may have been the Zenith remote control of 1950, since it was invented in part to help people skip commercials. The trend continued in the 1970s, he says, with the proliferation of radar detectors.

But inventors say the current gadget boom is far more widespread. The chief difference is the falling cost of programmable microcontrollers, the integrated circuit chips that were once too expensive for small-scale production. Doug Freedman, a semiconductor-industry analyst, says these chips are smaller and more complex than just five years ago and cost about $1.50 on average, down from about $5 to $6 in 2002. At high volumes, he says, these chips can be found for as little as 75 cents each."

From O'Reilly Radar: Revenge by Gadget:

"...new on-demand manufacturing networks put not just the workshop but factories in China at the hacker's disposal.

...entrepreneurs are increasingly taking lessons from open source software, building business models that don't depend on proprietary IP, but instead releasing their designs in hope of building revenue in new ways

More and more sensors of various types are becoming available, making it possible to build devices that respond intelligently to more kinds of external stimuli"

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A tale of 3 cities


Florida, the Keys and Miami

The one thing that strikes you most when you land up in the US from India is the sheer size of the country - the spread is so vast that when paired with its population, the country seems almost empty. Of course the cities are as densely populated as they get, but once you head into the countryside down an expressway, its just miles and miles of open land. Which gets me to the other aspect - the infrastructure.

If there's one thing India should emulate from the US, its how they have put in place and maintained their transportation infrastructure. The vast lanes of expressways are a delight to drive in, predictably periodic signposts highlight entrances and exits, potholes and bumps are practically non-existent and the driving lane ethic is laudable. People often debate the last point, highlighting that the causal enforcement has almost driven the US into a police-state. But I would only invite them to Chennai to experience what lane-less and rouge driving feels like. We definitely need a balance between the extremes, but I would argue that effective enforcement of road discipline is the key to developing a good driving ethic.

Florida, due to its location near the tropics, has a sultry and hot climate (at least when I was there) - akin to Chennai's weather. It also has huge expressways, incredibly rich inhabitants and a wonderful beach-lined coastline.

The Florida Keys is an archipelago of islands, interconnected by bridges all the way for some 100 odd miles (a drive of 3 hours one way). The drive is just wonderful, with hours and hours of blue sea spanning both sides of the road. The southernmost point, on the Key West island, is incidentally also the southernmost tip of continental USA - and is said to be just a few miles from Cuba.

Key West has a very colonial feel to it, with 1950 era houses and walkways. The island is a great place for water-sports. We did a bit of snorkeling in the ocean - were taken to a place where the Atlantic ocean meets the waters of the Gulf of Mexico - and found it to be good fun, with beautiful blue and turbulent waters; but the corals were nothing comparable to the those I saw in the Andamans.

On Miami, what can one say - the beaches with white sands and blue waters, the hip crowd, the colonial look, the night skyline, the expressways, the yachts, the cruise ships, the super-cars … . Just a few things I do remember distinctly though: its tough to find one's way across Miami's streets, even with a detailed map - just too many of them criss-crossing about; even 8 lane expressways can get jammed in rush-hour, and particularly so when you are rushing to catch a flight.

I went on the trip thinking that I would find a lot of things to buy, but surprisingly could hardly get anything that’s not available in India except for the chocolates and the electronics. Everything else is made and exported from China/India/South-East Asia; and is available at much cheaper prices in India. Even most of the chocolates varieties are now a common scene, baring the exotics. The electronics only make sense because they are cheaper by 30-40%. Odd.

Heathrow Return

Had an interesting experience on my return trip at London. I was thirty minutes away from catching my connecting flight from Heathrow, when came an announcement asking us to evacuate the terminal building and move into the parking lot. This was the day of the Glasgow bombings and Heathrow had received a bomb threat. Police swarmed the place and covered all entrances and exits, preventing any entry and exit to/fro the terminal. This was 12AM. There is exactly one toilet in the parking lot, where some 1000 of us were huddled - and soon serpentine queues of a 100 people formed.

Somewhere around 6/7PM, with no information being provided till then, came the icy rain. Soon, I guess in order to prevent a mob surge from the crowd, they announced an entry into the terminal for select flights. Most of them were being cancelled. My flight was in limbo - they themselves had no clue on its status! Interesting.

Somewhere down the line came an announcement that my flight might take off within the day. Thanking my stars I rushed into the terminal, only to hear after going through a laborious security check-in that it was being cancelled.

Now this is the great part - British Airways announces that since hotels in London were running full, they wouldn't take responsibility of the booking us up into hotels and that we were to find our own bearings. Second, they were canceling our tickets and that we need to contact our travel agent to rebook ourselves on the next available flight.

So what happens to passengers on inter-continental flights merely making a transit through London ? So what happens to people who do not have a transit visa to get into London? What happens to people who do not have enough currency to make those phone calls? What happens when a thousand people converge on a limited number of phone booths calling the same BA number? What happens to the elderly and those in wheel-chair? What happens to those who speak so little English that they couldn't make the BA call center understand what they wanted to book? What happens when next outgoing flight from London is 2/3 days or a week away and you do not have a place to stay or enough money? Chaos. Pure chaos.

All my admiration for the efficiency of BA vanished into dust. At 12 PM checked-in baggage came out. That night, the crowd slept in Heathrow, on the floor, on benches and seats, huddled in nooks and corners, like in a typical crowded train station at home. Blankets and food packets were handed around. First class, business class and economy slept next to each other.

My next available flight back home was 2 days away. To some locations it was only available the next week. Cafeterias and restaurants ran out of food. I wandered around Heathrow so much that I can map out its every corner and pathway. Days later, I boarded my flight back home. I shall never forget the relief when I took off.

What an experience.

A tale of 3 cities

… and a few other towns, couple of places and some airports

Note: This is a delayed post

I've never left the shores of India before, so it was with some trepidation and loads of excitement that I commenced on my first overseas journey.

My first learning: trans-continental flights are not as fun as they are made out to be. The first few hours are fun indeed - the duty free shops, losing sight of the country's shores for the first time, playing with the AV displays, chatting with an overseas crowd - all great fun; but the long travel duration coupled with the fact that one has but about 200 feet to ambulate around, suck the life force out of you (I'm exaggerating, of course, but it sort of gets there after some time).


London is such a beautiful city, a totally awesome place, and I loved it. It has a melodramatic South Mumbai feel to it - the impressive European architecture, the narrow stone-paved & cemented roads, the verdant gardens, the multi-cultural multi-ethnic people, the beautiful cars, and coming from Chennai - the fact that it rains all the while.

The Heathrow Airport is filled with Indians, from the luggage handlers and airport staff to a lot of the travelers. The Heathrow Connect, which starts beneath the airport whisked me off to Paddington, close to Hyde Park, where I was put up.

London is filled with historical attractions, understandably, given its place in history. Almost every road and street corner has something for a history buff, and the best part is that the most famous ones are concentrated in an area that can be covered by foot - or at least, by foot and a bit of the tube (as they call the underground train system).

The Tower of London, people told me, is a must-visit for any tourist to London. My opinion - it’s a tad costly for a fort whose only "aha!" attractions are the crown jewels and the Kohinoor diamond. The crown jewels, are impressive indeed, but once you've seen a set they're all the same, just a huge set of diamonds and jewels of every type and form. The Kohinoor of course, is a worthy sight - a huge diamond with a bluish transparent tinge. All said and done, I think the Tower is a lot of hype, Hyderabad's Golconda Fort would any day beat the attractions of the Tower by a mile. Ah yeah! its just those 13 pound entrance fees making me crib.

The Tower Bridge, is unarguably, London's most photographed spot. It's a delightful experience to prance about the bridge looking down at the cruises and trawlers plying on the Thames.

The Buckingham Palace has a beautiful motif at its main entrance with imposing facades from all sides. A great experience it is, to walk from the Palace, along the Mall, onto Trafalgar Square and then onto Piccadilly. Piccadilly has a huge electronic advertising billboard that’s certainly a watch at night. The lane that leads from Piccadilly station to Leicester square and beyond is a beautiful market-place, with milling crowds and a great carnival atmosphere.

The Kensington Gardens and the Hyde Park form a huge verdant garden enclave with the Kensington palace, the Andrews amphitheatre, the adjoining embassy residences and the bustling Notting Hill; and is a delight to wander in about.

In sum, I totally fell in love with London, its architecture, its culture and its people. If only it were not that costly a city to live in ...


The Chicago O'Hare Airport is considered to be one of the busiest airports in the United States. I'd never been to a huge football-field-sized airport before (heathrow is large yes, but its much better compartmentalized) and one that has a roller-coaster of a train traversing between terminals; I had a great time ambling about - forgetting the obnoxious immigration and security officials.

Chicago is a beautiful, large city with huge sky-scrapers, beautiful gardens, a great waterfront, awesome museums and an avant-garde culture. It’s a city that seamlessly merges the ultra-modernism of its financial and shopping districts with its cobbled streets that ooze the Al Capone-movie feel.

The Magnificent Mile - the central shopping area - and arguably Chicago's most famous walkway is a delight to walk along both in daylight and at night; the numerous boutiques and shops that line the mile, the awesome cars that whiz by and the buzzing crowds filled with tourists, make it a worthwhile experience. The Central Park Area presents an awesome exhibition of modern art and sculpture is certainly a joy to behold.

The museum district is a must-visit and one needs to take time making a walkthrough - for the wealth of material and the form of presentation is impressive; I went into Field's Museum, thinking it'd be another of the lot I've visited over and over again, only to come out wow-ed by the quality of the presentation and the extent of detail - definitely needs a full day for a justifiable tour.

The boat ride on the lake Michigan is another wonderful experience, and presents a great panorama of Chicago's spread-out coastline and sky-scraper filled skyline. And the Navy Pier, where a lot of these boat-rides commence, presents a perpetually carnival atmosphere.

The only off-aspect, probably not related to the city, is the METRA rail system. We were half way on a 2 hour train journey when the train came to a grinding halt and came a broadcast: "We are sorry but we have a goods carriageway on our track which would take delay us by approximately 15 minutes" - a 15 minutes that became 30, 45, 1 hour and finally 2 hours. So it’s the same ol' Indian Railways blues everywhere...

Continued a little later...