Category: Lucknow

Lucknow Part 7 – A night in the station

Next stop was Connaught Place – the metro station is Rajiv Chowk; I kept calling it Palace but it’s actually ‘Place’! As soon as you step out of the metro you’ll land in a circle around which there are many buildings with shops. Rohan had been talking about momos many days before the trip and when he saw the first guy on the street selling momos he rushed ahead of the pack; the vendor (operating on a bicycle) had veg and chicken momos and we hogged on both – the chicken momos were really good.

After a mini discussion we decided to have dinner in Connaught and head to the railway station – couldn’t cover any more spots in the remaining time since it was already 9pm. Our leader and Swami had pre planned one thing that they wanted to do before leaving Delhi and they were in the right place for it; they found a bar and broke away from the rest of us who tried to find a restaurant. Aided by Google to find good restaurants we landed up in a place where the menu was 95% non-veg! The four veggies in the group told us to go ahead but we found another restaurant a couple of streets away that had a more balanced menu.

Eating fire

One of the must do’s on our list was having paan in Connaught Place; we found 3 paan shops one beside the other in a circular layout where people had gathered. I had a couple of sweet paans; the guy would take a couple of betel leaves, add a few colourful items from the various small cups that he add, fold the leaves and literally stuff the huge paan preparation in your mouth! You’ll end up munching on that mouthful for 5 minutes!
There are plenty of flavours and types of paans available in the shop: chocolate, strawberry, butterscotch etc. The most unique one is called the flaming paan – the guy would light a small fire on the paan and stuff that into your mouth (with the fire); no one from our group dared to try it but we witnessed a couple of people having it.
It was 11pm when we took a couple of Uber SUVs to get to Hazrat Nizamudin railway station.
From a distance we could see the top part of India Gate which was one of the other places we had on the list the bridegroom had given which we had to skip due to time. The railway station is close to another tourist attraction – Humayun’s Tomb. Couldn’t see much of this on our way except for the board. Following the Uber map, the driver ended up on the backside road to the station which was barricaded for vehicles; we hopped off and walked our way to the entrance.

Our train heading to Agra was already there in the station. The intent of taking such a late night train was to maximize our time in Delhi. We had searched for private cab operators who could have taken us to Agra but didn’t find any that were cheap when we enquired through trusted contacts; there were buses but none of them were available for later in the night – this train was the only option to delay departure from Delhi and arrive for the sunrise in Agra. It’s strange the way the booking system works for our trains – this train starts from Meerut City (one stop before Delhi); when we searched for tickets from Delhi to Agra we didn’t find any but when we searched for tickets from Meerut to Agra there was availability – the ticket price was the same from both stations. The train departs from Delhi at 00:15 after a 1 hour halt in the station. So by the time we reached the station, it was already there. Our host had advised us to book berths in the AC coaches since the temperatures in the non-AC coaches would be a lot lower due to the temperatures outside.

The train left 5 minutes past the scheduled departure time; we were hoping it would get delayed by half an hour or more so that it would delay our arrival in Agra. The scheduled arrival time in Agra Cantt station was 2:40am – the more it was delayed the more we could sleep in the train and less time we would have to spend sitting in Agra’s railway station. I doubt there was anyone else in that train praying for a delay!

Undiscovered secrets

I was awake before our alarms went off one after the other; short of sleep but at least caught a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. It wasn’t long before the train halted at Agra; only a delay by a few minutes. This was an odd time; we had 3 hours to kill but getting to a hotel wasn’t of much use since we’d have to pay for a full day. But we were also short of sleep. One good thing about railway stations in India is that at least in the ones in major cities, even during the odd hour or 3am you will still find a few people around; same with this station – thankfully it wasn’t completely deserted – a few people walking around, some sleeping on the platform in self made sleeping bags using bedsheets and some passengers like us sitting on benches.

Our plan (the half baked plan) was we’d find a place to sit (which shouldn’t be hard in a railway station) and while away the 3 hours; but with all of us half sleepy and tired, 3 hours now appeared to be an eternity. We went around the station to find comfortable places; I had read online that there were lounge rooms in the station and that you could even book them online – but when I had tried online for this particular station I was unsuccessful and it made me wonder whether this station had a lounge.

As we wandered through the station we discovered the lounge room and took a peek inside – there was a small reception and then another door that led to a medium sized non-AC hall with many single seater cushioned chairs. Another door in here led to the AC room which had sleeper type seats that looked extremely comfortable and could recline to an almost horizontal state. Unfortunately they didn’t have 12 sleeper seats and a few people had already occupied a couple of them – so we took 5 inside and 7 outside for a couple of hours. The place is better than the usual retiring rooms that you find in railway stations and seems like many of the main railway stations have these sort of lounges – reasonably priced and ideal for backpackers and budget travelers.

< Part 6

Lucknow part 6 – Akshardham

Inside Akshardham, I was struck by the vast area and designs on the walls. We went through the visitors area where Sankar picked a couple of small booklets. There were a few exhibition halls, some events like a boat ride and water show and the main mandir (temple). Sankar was visibly excited – he wanted to visit everything but time was a constraint and we had to buy tickets if we wanted to go to the exhibition halls; in the end he decided, “Let’s watch the water show.”
I knew it had good reviews and readily agreed.
Our leader wasn’t too keen; this wasn’t his type of place and boat rides and water shows were definitely not his thing. But having come here and the time being past 6pm we decided that we’d stay here for the water show.
Sankar didn’t even wait for the group’s consensus; since he didn’t see any voice of dissent, he rushed off to get into the queue for buying tickets; he was eager like a little kid bubbling with excitement to get an ice cream. While we waited for him, our leader sat on one of the parapets and covered himself as much as he could with his arms – he was finally showing signs of feeling the chill as the temperature dipped in the evening.

The main part in Akshardham is the mandir and that was quite a sight from the outside; the mandir will appear as if it is being supported by many elephants and other animals – that’s the first layer of carvings. Above this layer were pillars and walls which had more carvings like those of goddesses.

And inside the mandir it was even more grand – the marble flooring, the statues, carvings on pillars, intricate designs on the ceilings, the unusual lighting setup with light focussed upwards to illuminate the place. At the centre is a large golden figure of Swaminarayanan seated making the abhayamudra (gesture of fearlessness); Akshardham is a tribute to him. The large figure does have a calming effect on the mind. There walls in the temple had illustrations about his life.
This is one of those man made places that you could just look at in awe and forget the passage of time. But we were crunch on time and we had just enough time to see everything inside before moving on to the area for the water show.

Augmented reality

There was one food cart in the arena that sold coffee, soup and some snacks. Our gang tried every item available but didn’t really like anything. To add to the misery our leader was made to wait for ages as the guy at the counter didn’t give preference to the people standing in queue. At the centre of the open air arena was a large pool which had a lotus styled layout in the middle; around this pool were large steps where people could sit to watch the show; and bordering this were lengthy and tall compound walls – everything was constructed with the same material, reddish coloured bricks, and so even the compound walls blended with the arena. This place is called the Yagnapurush Kund – Kund is a reservoir of water; yagna means a ritual or offering.

We sat in 3 groups in different spots around the pool.
“I think we’ll get wet,” our Delhiite said since we were in the second row from the pool. Despite that thought we still sat in the same place; I guess we were just lazy to get up and find a new spot.
Suddenly we heard the Aarti song playing; there was nothing happening on the water pool but after a minute I noticed that there were a couple of people performing aarti in front of the large building that was facing one end of the pool; the other 3 sides were covered by the compound walls. At the end of the song the water came alive; a few kids appeared and danced around the edge of the pool as the water fountains came into play. Water splayed in different directions and colorful lights added to the visual effect. It was pretty good and reminded me of the musical water show in Dubai mall which was quite a spectacle. But the best here was yet to come. There was a narrator (audio recording being played) telling a story and we had visuals appear on the face of the large building. The images which were projected on the building blended uniformly with the building such that the background looked realistic and not like a projection. Characters appeared on the screen but what i found most impressive was when they depicted the forces of nature descend down from the building into the pool – it felt as if there was a really furious waterfall pouring down the building; the edges of the building added to the illusion. This was augmented reality!

The story involving the kids had an opening segment, a few segments with the gods appearing on the building and then the finale. The middle part felt repetitive after the 3rd time; each time a different god would appear and the plot was the same – but the visuals were different; for the fire god it was fire from the building, for the water god it was water gushing down and so on. Also the water fountains reacted differently to the different forces of nature. Just when you think the plot is dragging, the story moves to the final segment.
The real actor kids in the performance would sing a song in each of the middle segments (it gets repeated often with a slight change in few words).
Nahi jala… nahi jala
hamara phool nahi jala

By the end the song and tune will get etched in your head! Narration is in Hindi; but even for those who don’t understand the language while witnessing the middle segment they’d probably grasp the story. Kids of course would love the visuals.

A short clip of the performance is available online: https://akshardham.com/explore/water-show/

You can also view snaps of the place in the above link

The story I later found is adapted from the Kena Upanisad (part of ancient Vedic text); there are a lot of symbolic meanings in the story – one of which is the question “Who am I”.
During the remainder of the trip Arpit and our Delhiite would often start singing “Nahi jala, nahi jala” making the rest of us plead with them to stop!

The mandir looked even more brilliant at night with the lighting outside. As soon as we reached the luggage room, our leader rummaged through his bag to pull out his jacket! Quite daring that he was able to manage in a thin single layer so far.

Once outside the complex, after taking a snap as proof that we visited Akshardham, we returned to the metro where we ate a few delicious cream rolls. I consciously gulped half a litre of water; we barely sweat during the day and with the temperature dropping you didn’t really feel thirsty.

< Part 5Part 7 >

Lucknow Part 5 – Bullseye on the street

Next we had to find our way out of the lanes to the main road; and our Delhiite led us confidently with the help of Google. Strangely, even though he was a Delhiite he was the one carrying the most luggage – a small suitcase in addition to the backpack. Dragging his trolley suitcase he religiously listened to Google which brought us to a dead end after 10 minutes of weaving through lanes!
“There should be a way here,” he said while double checking the map.
With so many people and shops around we could easily have asked someone for directions! And that’s what we eventually did.

After a couple of lanes we could see the Red Fort, our next destination, at a distance. To get there we had to cross the construction area; we walked in a single line so that there was space for people to walk in the opposite direction. I noticed a man chewing something opening and closing his mouth and walking towards me; when he was an arms length away from he, he made a funny noise and fired a blob of colored spit that went splat on the construction board to my left; the projectile missed me by a few inches. This is the habit of chewing paan (the betel nut – this is different from the betel leaf); this nut has a place in traditional medicine but anything consumed in excess is harmful for the body. The habit of chewing paan is more often seen in North India; people typically chew it for a long while and then spit it out; this creates red stains on pavements, roads and walls. I stood frozen for a moment – it was disgusting the way he spit in public without any second thoughts and didn’t bother that there were people around him; was it practice or just coincidence that it missed me?

Crowd outside Red Fort

The pedestrian signal to get to the Red Fort was stuck on red for a while; it was an irony to see a few foreigners wade through the traffic by raising their hands to cross the road while we were initially hesitant to do so! The Red Fort had hoards of people standing inside the complex and outside. We didn’t know if it was open and the Fort itself was deep inside the complex; going inside would have wiped out our entire evening.
“Let’s take a photo for proof.”
We took a group snap as proof that we had visited the Red Fort and then debated on our next destination. Plan was to get to Rashtrapathi Bhavan (area where the president resides) by night and so we did have at least an hour to squeeze in another place. Sankar and I had a place in mind that we definitely wanted to cover but didn’t include in our final list – we weren’t sure if others would enjoy the place and didn’t push for its inclusion. But now with an hour to spare and no one having any other suggestions, we pushed our agenda!

Red Fort

Beware autos

“Let’s take an auto we can reach quicker.” Our leader stopped a couple of autos to enquire the rate for Akshardham. It was about 8kms away and they quoted a ridiculous amount; seeing our shocked faces, a couple of the auto drivers said they can drop us at the Chandni Chowk metro for us to take a train – that was the station from where we had walked through all the lanes to get here. Some of the autos could accommodate 4 people at the back and a couple of people sitting with the driver while others were a little more spacious and could easily accommodate 6 people at the back without disturbing the driver. We needed 2 autos and we were used to the rate of Rs.10 per head but these drivers demanded Rs.20 per head. Autos are convenient for short rides and you find plenty of them in Delhi. While negotiating the rate, someone in the group shouted, “Hey, there’s a metro station here.”
Turning around we could see the symbol for the metro station on a small board. We abandoned the auto plan and walked to the metro – it was the Lal Quila metro station – we had forgotten to check what was the closest metro and the auto drivers were ready to take us to another metro station even though there was one just a few feet away! Definitely check your destinations before getting into autos.

Footsteps to follow in the metro!

Delhi is pretty well connected by metro – at least all the tourist attractions are; so you might be able to avoid doing any autos if you are ok to walk a little to get to the stations. We got on the violet line and then switched to the blue line. Swami got stuck again because the turnstiles didn’t like his card; and again he had to be helped by the metro staff – no pretty lady for assistance this time though! The Akshardham metro station had bicycles for rent but since it was getting dark and the place was just a kilometer away we didn’t take them. There were a good number of sign boards showing directions to the Akshardham.

Uncomfortable screening

The complex was huge; we could see large parking lots and there was a fair bit to walk to get to the main entrance itself. A few metres past the entrance there was an open cabin staffed by a lady; while she was checking the bags of visitors, a bunch of boys went ahead of us skipping her. She called out, “Heeeyyyy” and the boys returned with a sheepish grin to have their bags checked. Though the place was obviously designed to handle 1000s of visitors, the baggage checking counter was definitely short staffed; it was easy for people to walk past the lady.

Since we were 12 we were considered a group and groups had separate areas for depositing bags – helped us avoid a queue! While counting the mobile phones we discovered that Aaron and Aprit were missing; they were busy taking photos and we asked them to hurry along. Even though we were still not inside the main area of Akshardham one thing that struck us was the cleanliness.
It was nearly 5:30pm and the last entry to the Mandir was 6:30pm. No photography in the Mandir.
“Only two people inside,” the baggage staff shouted.
Two of us took turns to stack our bags in a shelf. Our Delhiite bought a couple of juices from the snack counter near the luggage room; Sankar and I hurried the folks to finish it soon since we wanted to maximize the time spent inside rather than outside. We rushed to the security queue.

In the queue for gents, the frisking done here was more thorough than what was done in the airport – this one is bound to make people uncomfortable! Even if you had a coin in your pocket these guys would feel it. Entry was free and we had 50 minutes to cover this place.

Akshardham from far outside near the main entrance
< Part 4Part 6 >

Lucknow Part 4 – Parathas galore

We were soon navigating through the gullies of Chandni Chowk being led by our Delhiite; Chandni Chowk is very similar to the gullies in Sowcarpet (Chennai). The gullies were packed with small shops and most over here targeted women – clothes, cosmetics etc. There were also many small eateries along the way. Arpit and I were tempted by a Dahi Bhalla (curd vada) shop – they had a large plate where the vadas were soaked in curd. We stopped and looked at each other for a few seconds wondering whether to indulge or not – in the end it was too tempting to resist; add to it the fact that we were hungry – we shared a plate. And since the rest of the gang was well ahead of us we didn’t call them either.

The lane from the dahi bhalla shop led us to an open area with a lot of ruble and barricades due to construction activity; it seemed like at some point of time this might have been a main road. Because of our unannounced pit stop we didn’t know where our gang was. After a couple of minutes we found them on the other side of the rubble; they were wondering why we both were so slow! Past the rubble we ventured deeper into the maze; the gullies became narrower and dirtier; one of them had stagnant water that was probably from yesterday’s rain – to get across the puddle there were two bricks positioned such that you had to hop from one to the other to escape the puddle. Some waited for their turn while some were happy to step into the puddle and wet their feet to get across quickly instead of waiting in queue. Since i was in shoes I tried tip-toeing across quickly and hoped that the adjacent gully would be dry; but that was even worse since there was running water on both sides of the lane! I noticed a guy crouched on the left side, below an eatery washing vessels; was he washing it off the water from the street or was there another stream of water coming from one of the pipes out of the eatery? I didn’t want to take a second look and just raced ahead. I couldn’t believe people were eating in this street. By now our group had split and three of us were the ones in front.

When we found a place to stand, the Delhiite announced, “That was the parathe wali galli”. Literal translation means the street with parathas (Wiki says paratha is a type of flatbread). Our host, the bridegroom, had given us a food itinerary of places to eat at and this was one of the places on the list!
“No way in that street.”
“We won’t eat there,” the three of us agreed.
We finally got to a dry lane and waited for the others to catch up.
While we waited with people and vehicles bustling past us, we spotted a couple of roadside chaat shops where we satisfied our hunger a little. The kulchas with butter were amazing.
When after finishing 2 dishes we still didn’t see any signs of our gang, we gave them a call.
“They want to eat there?”
“In the galli?”
“Yes. They’re calling.”
This didn’t sound like a good idea but with the majority of the group over there we didn’t have a choice. We stood at the end of the street to confirm that our gang was really there – they were and they were vigorously signaling to us to join them. We stepped into a small restaurant opposite the one where I saw the guy washing vessels.

We occupied 3 out of the 5 tables in the shop; fortunately the place was a couple of steps higher than the street and so there was no water flowing into the restaurant.
The place was meant for parathas and the menu was plastered on the walls – very convenient compared to passing around menus! We ordered as much of the variety available as we could – the sides were a potato and peas kurma and sweet chutney (the one used in chaats). There were so many parathas – any veg item you could think of, you’d find that paratha here – from peas to radish to bitter gourd to almonds and cashews and bananas and what not. But the one we loved the most was the khoa paratha (sweet khoa stuffing).
We dug into the food conveniently ignoring the fact that just a few minutes earlier we were worried about hygienic cooking conditions!
“They could have had a place upstairs with few beds. What more does one need – good food and good sleep.”
We ended the roughly Rs.200 per head lunch with a sweet lassi; a sumptuous meal for the price. It was nearly 4pm when we left; people were still entering the shop – parathas are available throughout the day!

Side dish for parathas
Lassi
< Part 3Part 5 >

Lucknow Part 3 – Qutub Minar

After our leader arrived in the next train, we stepped outside the station and were mobbed by auto drivers. The Qutub Minar was a 15 minute walk from the station but since we were short of time we decided to take a share auto.
“Go to market first and then Qutub Minar,” the first driver said.
“No market. Only Qutub Minar,” we insisted.
“Market Rs. 10 else Rs. 20”
After all of us insisting that we didn’t want to go to the market the guy conceded. We fit ourselves into 3 autos – 3 people sitting in the back and 1 sitting along with the driver.
The drivers mentioning ‘market’ reminded me of our trip to Thailand where drivers would want to take us to the market – the shopkeepers paid the drivers to bring customers and I guess it was a similar setup here as well.

All of us had experienced rash auto driving but this was at a different level; the auto just got off the starting block and hadn’t picked up speed – there was barely any space on the right side of the auto in front but the driver made a sharp right, managed to get it somehow at a tilted angle so that he could go beside the other auto and then cut back wildly to the left to complete the overtaking maneuver; and all that effort to get ahead even when he knew that after overtaking he would come to a standstill due to the traffic on the main road! We witnessed a few occasions where you thought there would definitely be some impact – but they never even scraped another vehicle; was it skill or was it just pure luck multiple times?

The queues at the Qutub Minar for getting the entry ticket moved really slow; the card machines didn’t work; people were trying multiple cards and finally had to pay in cash. And the staff at the counter went through this process with every person even though the card machine didn’t work for anyone!
“That’s cashless India!”
After ages we got the ticket and dropped our bags in the luggage room.
I usually like audio tours and at the entrance there was a board saying a mobile app audio tour was available for free; we downloaded it on Rohan’s mobile but he was put off when the app asked for access to contacts, videos and files.
“Why does it want all that? I’m uninstalling it.”
In the end we just went around the place unassisted.

Greenery around the ruins
The Qutub complex

The minar (tower) was quite a sight but the entire complex that comprised of ruins was also a sight to behold; the complex we later found is classified as a World Heritage site. We stood for a few minutes in awe near the tower as we strained our necks to see its top – from a distance you don’t appreciate the magnitude of the effort that must have gone into building this tower in the 12th century. There have been a few tragedies in the tower (the last incident being a stampede that claimed lives) and that’s led to closure of the pathway leading to the top. But viewing it from below is still quite a sight.

There are plenty of photography spots within the Qutub complex and Aaron (our photographer) was making the best use of his newly bought smartphone; aiding him was Arpit who recommended angles and positions – they both would have spent the whole day in this place while our leader, Rijesh, and a couple of others were ready to leave after 10 minutes in the complex. The rest of us spent a little while longer walking around the ruins before joining our leader. Sometimes you can apply pressure on people without saying a word!

We had to do some bargaining to get our return ride on the share autos; once again they wanted to take us to the market! Perhaps if we had the luxury of time we might have checked out the market. It was 1:45pm and we were quite hungry; but we wanted to do lunch in Chandni Chowk and so we took the long metro ride to the heart of the city. Swami’s metro card didn’t work in the Qutub minar metro station – he tried it on multiple turnstiles but they wouldn’t budge. To his rescue came the same metro lady who had fined a person earlier. She was also puzzled, tried a couple of times, looked up the system and then escorted him past the turnstile. It was enough material for us to keeping puling his leg through the entire return journey!

The Qutub Minar
< Part 2Part 4 >

Lucknow Part 2 – Delhi

There was a specific reason for our choice of flights – our host, the bridegroom, had told us to pick flights that arrive in the T3 terminal which he said is really awesome, huge and like a shopping mall. The airport was definitely huge – plenty of gates one after the other, long moving walkways between gates and a clean environment. We’ve heard a lot about air pollution in Delhi and I was expecting to see black clouds; but i couldn’t spot anything through the windows. Maybe I’d see it in the city.

We went past numerous gates in T3 (no shops or anything around these) and reached the baggage collection area – there was a Hamleys toy shop but beyond this was the path to the exit! Just before the exit there was a perpendicular corridor with a few shops and a couple of eateries (one was a Subway).
“This has become an anti-climax”
We thought we will spend a couple of hours in this “mall”!
“Why don’t they have anything here?”
We reasoned, “This is the arrivals section of the airport. People who arrive will want to get to their home or hotel or the city; who will want to spend time in the airport shopping?”
Good point that we had not thought about earlier.

It didn’t feel all that chill outside; one of our gang members was in shorts and another, Rijesh, was in a thin t-shirt. I on the other hand was in 5 layers including the sports rain jacket since i wanted to reduce the weight of my backpack!
“Shall we go to the city and eat or have something here?”
Outside the airport there was a small building that had a food court with 5 restaurants.
“Let’s have it here while the others arrive.”
The poori and curry tasted pretty good though it was expensive – everything always is in airports. But Krispy Kreme donuts in Delhi airport were priced lower than Chennai airport.

Where are the black clouds?

One person in the gang flew in from Bangalore while 10 came from Chennai. We headed to the metro station connected to T3; there were a couple of queues occupying the 2 counters. The ticket options weren’t listed on the boards; since we were a large group we had a lot of opinions – we had a mini-discussion on what ticket to buy – a day pass or a single trip token or a card.
2 people from our group stood in the queue.
“Why are you also waiting?”
“In case there is a limit on number of tickets one person is allowed to buy.”
The rest of us were chatting on the side while our guy reached the counter.
“Ask him if we can get a pass.”
Our guy spoke in Hindi to the staff and relayed the response to us, “This pass cannot be used in the city. We can only get tokens for the trip here.”
“Ok.”
New Delhi station was our stop. The metro line can be confusing because the airport line (orange line) is separate from the other metro lines in the city; so things like 1-day passes cannot be used across the two.
“How many tokens?”
“11”
“12”
“How many?”
“12,” someone shouted out and he made the payment for 12.
We started counting heads and found there were only 11; the 12th person is the Delhiite who hadn’t yet joined us! Being in a group this big you definitely have lots of such moments and our trip had just started!

The station was clean and so was the train. Once the train started we realized why; there was a lady who sweeping the floor across compartments. Food and drink were prohibited within the train. When the train first went above ground, i was searching for the pollution that Delhi was infamous for – but not a sign of black smoke as we neared the heart of the city.
We got down at the last stop and enquired with a staff on how to switch to the yellow line.
“Follow the yellow steps.”
The way the lady dismissively replied made us reluctant to ask her what she was talking about? Did she says steps? Whose steps?
We looked around and thought of asking someone else when we noticed cartoony yellow footstep stickers on the floor. We followed it but it suddenly disappeared when we reached a staircase that was descending.

Lo behold – it was like a fish market below; a cacophony of noises and people packed in clusters around various counters. Each counter had something different written on top of it in Hindi; seemed like tickets for different prices; there was a central counter as well around which there were stickers about a tourist card and a travel card. A couple of folks went to the counters, a couple went looking at the map to see how much the ticket to Qutub Minar station cost and a couple of us hoped to get assistance from some staff – we found a guy in a black suit but he acted as if we didn’t even exist! We had a mini-debate regarding whether to buy the 1-day tourist pass (unlimited rides) or buy the travel pass and top up based on how many trips we would take. The person from our gang waiting in the queue had reached the counter but we were still debating which one to take by calculating the amount of top up we would need with the travel card and whether that would be more than the tourist pass. There was a huge queue and the guy at the counter was also impatient; at crunch times it is the leader who takes over and our leader, Rijesh, said, “Tourist pass” and 11 tourist passes it was!

People didn’t wait for passengers to step out when the doors opened; everyone rushed in while some people were trying to get out – we managed to get in and we could see Krishna and our leader run in opposite directions to get into the neighbouring compartments. Krishna was lucky to avoid being caught between the closing doors as he jumped into the train; the doors did catch his shirt but he pulled through. We gathered together inside the train and only after a couple of minutes did we discover that our leader was missing! “He is having some other plans.”
“A secret meeting with someone.”
“Sent us off first and then makes it seem as if he missed the train.”
“A good leader ensures the safety of his team and puts his team first!”
We were having fun at the expense of our leader. This was a really long ride.

When we got off the train, a smartly dressed young lady in a blazer accompanied by a couple of men in suits came hurrying towards us. We joked, “They’re going to miss the train like our leader”.
The trio went past us towards the next compartment. But instead of stepping in, they stopped a passenger who had just stepped out. What ensued seemed like an argument.
“Oh. That guy was sitting on the floor in the train.”
And there was a sign in the train that said no sitting on the floor. It was not a sign that you usually see elsewhere and I wondered if everyone would understand what it meant; in a country where public transportation runs packed to the brim and people tend to sit wherever they could find space.
“They must have been monitoring the train. They knew exactly which compartment he is coming out from.”

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Lucknow Part 1 – The flight

While packing at 10pm on Thursday, there were a flurry of messages on the Whatsapp group created for our trip. We were just hours away from our Friday morning flights on a trip for which we had barely planned anything beyond the dates we’d be in each of the 3 cities. The week in office was hectic for most of us and Vijay, one of our gang members, was still in office at this hour of the night.

Should we carry a check-in bag or just a backpack? If it’s only a backpack how will we roam around Delhi with so much weight? If we take a check-in bag, where will we leave it in Delhi? Can we take a hotel? Can we leave it at the railway station?
Hotel meant extra cost and we’d not even get to be in the hotel for long. Everyone had opinions but before we arrived at any conclusion, the next question diverted us to a different discussion!

“Is our flight starting from Chennai International Terminal” since that’s what it said on the Vistara flight tickets. Even my Jet Airways ticket mentioned the same; surely it wasn’t going to be departing from the international terminal? Our host (who was the bridegroom in Lucknow and the reason for this trip) joined the conversation, “Check with the airlines.”
The seasoned domestic flyer in our group replied that flights to Kerala would sometimes take off from the international terminal. After some googling we found that it was the domestic terminal; just that the naming convention of the terminals in Chennai are confusing.

The questions didn’t stop. “Will our flights get cancelled?”, someone asked saying flights were cancelled on Thursday due to the weather. Another person said it was raining hailstones in Delhi. Google said light showers expected over the next couple of days. Our friend in Delhi (a temporary Delhiite) had warned us about the cold a couple of days earlier. I had planned for layers of clothing including a thermal top and an old sweater; now i added a thin jacket as well to the pile of clothes stuffed in my backpack. I rued the fact that i didn’t have jeans since that is perfect for cold.

With the rise of Uber and Ola, we’ve lost good old taxi companies where you could make advance bookings (Uber/Ola also have scheduled bookings but I’ve never had success with them). I used to rely on FastTrack for such situations but off late they’d become erratic. I still made a booking with them for a 4am pickup; backup plan was to try Uber. And secondary backup to that was to take my car to the airport and leave it there.

It’s been a while since I went on a non-official trip; you end up having to pack things that you never used to bother about – towels, toothpaste, brush, soap, converters for chargers and what not. And with me it’s always been a case of packing more items than what I end up using.

Why air hostess?

FastTrack surprised me – the driver came on time. The 5 of us who were starting by the 6am flights (Jet and Air India) met at the airport. Vijay hadn’t slept – he reached home around midnight and then stayed up till 3am when he took the cab to the airport. He was going to have a super long day thanks to our crazy travel plan.

We saw the usual quirks at the airport: people trying to get ahead of others in the security screening area to drop their bags on the conveyor belt but then getting held up in the queue for physical security screening; people rushing to form a lengthy queue at the boarding counter as if they’d get a better seat. The boarding of the Jet flight was delayed but they still managed to get everyone in the flight well within time. We were surprised by our seat locations because for none of us it matched what we had selected online – i had picked an aisle but got a middle seat and that too in a different row! The flight had an in-flight entertainment system (hook into the flight wi-fi and watch movies/serials on your own mobile); but the system would be turned on only after departure.

Flight delays are a pain; it’s worse if you are at the airport when you learn of the delay but it’s even more worse when it happens while sitting inside the flight. And we sat on the tarmac for a good 30 minutes; thankfully after 30 minutes the captain made an announcement – the weather had impacted some other flights which were carrying the crew who had to be on our flight! Before takeoff Vijay told about a video he saw recently regarding stress levels of pilots during a flight; not a topic to discuss before take-off! And then he discussed about how much savings the airline has by having female flight attendants instead of men – it’s all about the weight which translates to fuel savings!

Vijay was flipping through the flight menu.
“Just 2 weeks ago they gave sandwiches on the Bangalore Chennai flight – that’s just 1 hour duration. But this one is 3 hours and they give nothing!”
In the menu I noticed a picture of the same sandwich for Rs.200.
“And that same sandwich is the free sandwich they gave on the other flight! Earlier they used to give a really good brownie with the sandwich; then they changed it to a Kitkat; and then made it a small 5-star bar and now it’s just the sandwich. And this flight doesn’t even have the sandwich!”
Thankfully water is not charged though it’s probably a matter of time before that also changes.
“Let’s eat in Delhi.”

Vijay caught a 30 minute nap during the flight when he dozed off watching the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ on the in-flight entertainment system (a nice movie based on a true story that also shows early mainframe programming at NASA).

Part 2 >