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.
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