Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

This was my second trip to Australia. Last time it was Gold Coast, the golden beach. This time it is Canberra, the National Capital of Australia.

This trip was again an official one. Don't know when we (Amit and self) would go around for leisure ! Anyway, this time it was a very short trip. Monday to Monday. Since the time this request came in, there were hurdles to welcome. There was congestion with dates, then official mail loops, then visa, then tickets and oh.. hotel too !! There was not even a single vacant room in the whole of this town !! Forget a starred one even a roof over the head was not available ! Why? Parliament was sitting in Canberra. So everything was booked up. Not sure if this would be the same during parliament sessions in New Delhi. In fact I remember of staying in Hyatt even when Mr. Bush was visiting India !!!

Finally, things fell in place and I flew Qantas from Mumbai to Sydney. The closest international airport to Canberra. Yes.. believe me.. the national capital of a continent country does not fly international flights !! People fly into Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and then connect to Canberra. This is because the business is concentrated around these cities and not Canberra. The Canberra airport is just the size that of Pune's!! I just cannot dream of New Delhi airport of that size !

There is a peculiar thing about Canberra roads. Each road turns almost every 200 meters except for the state highways. Every road is circular. Someone with a poor direction sense like me cannot drive in this city! In fact on our way to the hotel on the first day, we just went around the same road thrice! Having said that there were no hotels available in Canberra, the local team found a room for me at around an hour's drive from office and that too in another state. Never mind, there was at least some place to put the bags and sleep off. Second day we managed to grab one room in a city hotel. This was in the city center. As in most of Australia, most things here close by 5.30-6.00pm except the hotels which close down by 10pm.

When I went around the city, one thing that was not in the air was the soul. Everything is beautiful, but artificial not with a character to the city. Nothing that peculiarly describes the city. Something that can occupy your thoughts. It is crisp as a new shirt not worn ever ! There is not historical stuff like in India, no kings and queens as Bangkok, no ancient harbors and canal of Amsterdam.. everything is new .. not even a century old ! People tell me that this is an artificial city. A city that was built. No no... not because storm destroyed or fire burnt it down. Not even because some one destroyed it in any war. It was built just because they could not decide if their capital should be Sydney or Melbourne. So decided to form a state "Australian Capital Territory" between Sydney and Melbourne and built a Parliament house in Canberra. "Commonwealth Australian Federal Capital Competition" was organized to get the best design for this city. Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Griffin won the contest and the city is much to how they had sketched and water-painted. A lake in the middle of the city (Lake Burley Griffin named after the city's creator), small, self contained residential areas, and circular roads. When we look down from the sky, this city is like small pocket of buildings, then a big dry mountains (rather plateaus) and land and all circular roads.

Today this city has a population of about 320000, 80% of that are government servants (Information Courtesy : my taxi driver !!). You see most of the working class in formals wearing tie and coats. This is a scene not-so-familiar to Indians. An Indian government employee does not go to office this way. One thing that is strikingly different from the rest of the cities in the world is the dwarfness of the city. In this age, when every city dreams of sky-scrappers, Canberra has a restriction on how tall a building can be. There is hardly any building that is six stored high! The highest monument is the mobile tower known as Telstra tower. This tower has a deck to see Canberra from top and a revolving cafe. What fasinated me was that even the flag post on the parliament was built such that it was not tall but noticable. When I talked to locals about this, they told me that Burley Griffin, while constructing this city, had this philosophy in mind that nothing is taller than humans and their well-being. And fortunately the constructors and developers in Canberra honor this philosophy to date. People are opposing the idea of constructing a tall building.

This city has a lot of Kangaroos around and it seems kinda difficult to control them. People say kangaroos move around offices and houses as though it is their habitat. We see a lot (actually a lot) of them lying dead by the highway. This is because, fences by the highway cannot contain the Kangaroos and they jump over those to get on the highway and are hit by the speedy cars. These accidents happen generally during the evenings / nights (since this is the time Kangaroos are active.) My colleague took me to Golf course.. not the play golf but to see Kangaroos !! They are just everywhere in Canberra and come down to the residential areas. That is the place where people have lawns and they get grass for Australia is experiencing worst drought in the century this time. It hasnt rained for quiet sometime here. Government is working on recycling water to supply to the farms and houses.

This is a very good season in Canberra. It is Spring with flowers blooming up, spreading a mild fragrance around. The flowers actually fall out in the parks as we see in the post cards. The trees and roads are much like those captured in the film "Mohabatein" (ya ya .. that same.. with Amitabh, Shahrukh and Aishwarya! .. oh I forgot .. the movie we also call Mount baten!!). It is quite dry though and air has quite high pollen content. So asthma patients keep away from Canberra in these days. The weather is very pleasant for Indian folks with temperature ranging from 8 deg C to 30 deg C. The parks are full with red leaved trees and flowers... but alas.. there is hardly anyone in the park. Friday night I was the lone soul out there. Guess the whole of the Australian continent is alone... standing alone in the sea ...


Monday, October 16, 2006

Thai and I

I had start off for my Bangkok assignment. With the Stewardess and flight attendant giving the instructions about in-flight safety and introduction to Thai culture, I was busy figuring out similarities in the language if any. To my surprise, there were some though not many (rather a few in what I could understand.)

The first one to strike me was 'Suvarnabhoomi ', pronounced a little differently but meaning the same as in Sanskrit / Marathi / Hindi .."the golden land". This is the name Thais have selected for the new airport being built in Bangkok. This was followed by "Rama". All I could figure out at that moment was it related to their king. I was puzzled when I saw 'Rama ' followed by "I", "II",..."IX". My colleague solved this,"Kund Prajakta, this is a family of kings in Thailand. Another one is 'Asoka '. The statue in front of your hotel is that of Rama IV and hence the road is known as RAMA IV Road. The present king is a decendent of this family and is the ninth generation so Rama IX. " Oh! this is quite similar to our very own "Ram" which is in a way synonymous to a king!

Well well well.. so that word did catch your attention... you guessed it right. It is an adjective of respect to anyone and everyone used by Thais.... it is irrespective of the gender / age /caste / creed / Thai / anyone else. Thais speak and write this and it is considered disrespectful to address anyone without being prefixed by 'kund '.

First few hours in Bangkok were enough for me to realise that this is not a place with people knowing a common language to interact with. Most know only Thai.... some understand English... and some can talk English... and a few have fluent English. The same evening was my first test / exam !! My team asked me if it was Ok for me to get back to the hotel without an escort since everyone lived in a different direction. Ahhh !! I had no option but to accept it. To make me more nervous, they told me that the safest mode to get back was the subway train!! I instantly remembered the local train of our own Mumbai. The striking similarity between the local train in Mumbai and the subway / sky train in Bangkok is that train is a very common mode of transport and is crowded at anytime of the day. With the station names written down for me, I came up.. rather down to the station. The ticket vending machine is not difficult to operate as long as you have the station name to reach and the direction. Yes yes... there are not ticket counters... it is a machine. You drop the coins / notes and select the station you want to get off at, the machine gives you the ticket (circular disk for subway and a card for sky train.), and the change, if any. Fortunately, the directions were mentioned in English and I could find the correct direction. Oh yes... I must tell you this. The trains here mostly travel only in two directions. There are stations to change the train to go in a different direction. There is nothing like Western line local / Dadar local / eastern line local... Things are quite simple there (as of now !!) . As I got in the train, I was worried about a new thing now. How will I know if I've reached the hotel? The subway train is the underground one so cant see and locate the place!! Just then I heard a sweet voice saying, " Sathani papay Sathani Lumphini ..... Next Station Lumphini ". Of the train has this announcement system which announces the next station once the train moves on. Fortunately it also translates in English. What surprised me the most was a sentence which I cant really remember.. but it translated to "Interchange station". This sentence was so long that I thought it was some special instruction regarding things on the coming station. All it meant was that the coming station was a joint station for subway and sky train.

A weekend came as a surprise to me... when I saw a gang of women folk in sarees & salwar kameez and kids screaming, " A Aai.. he bagh na... he kasa namaskar kartat. Haat jodun. ani chappal pan baher kadhtat mandirat jatana." or "O Baba.. tya guide la vichara na he sonyacha aahe" or " Aare Avi.. ithe massage changla kartat... Babanna karun ghaycha ka? tyanchya gudhgyala fayda hou shakel nahi?"

O my goodness... marathi people are on the move. It was a pleasant surprise to see so many of them in Bangkok. What astonished me was that our ladies didnot forget to bargain in the shops to get the things at almost half the price !!

Having had all the fun with the communication and of course doing some work, it was time for me to leave back home. After knowing the fact that the common man in Bangkok may not understand English, I requested a colleague of mine to fetch me a taxi. Bidding bye to all in the office, the taxt left and I was on the track to the Airport. In a while, it skipped off my mind that the taxi driver cannot understand English, I asked, "How long does it take to reach the Airport?". He looked back puzzled.
"Can we reach by 4.30 ... i.e. in an hour from now?", I asked again
"No English.... Thai........................You flight.. 4.30 ?.........ok", He said and.................... off rose the speedometer to go beyond 120 km speed!!
God what is this??? He just could not understand my words asking him to slow down! And in another 20 mins I was at the Airport, Terminal One. Oops !!! I've five more hours for the flight !