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Friday, 27 September 2013

Colour, Culture and Cows: Chennai

Unexpected business trips go part and parcel with the life of a consultant, particularly in our increasingly global workforce. Admittedly, though, it's more often that Cleveland, or Cincinnati form part of this plan. A short plane ride; a rental car and drive through a nondescript suburb to an equally nondescript hotel. Ho-hum. Another day. Another dollar. So when I received an email from my boss beginning, "Can you go to Chennai next week...?" this was something of a different - and thrilling - proposition.

Shopping Companions on the OMR

And Cleveland it was not. Thirty degrees and humid, at 3:30am, I might have heard crickets or the hum of night time insects, were it not for the hundreds of people thronging outside the airport, apparently unaware that it was the middle of the night, a time I usually reserve for sleeping (or at least for insomnia, if sleep isn't forthcoming). Not here. As if in the middle of the day, huge families awaited their arriving relatives; swathes of white-shirted taxi drivers thrust high their greeting cards to find their target passengers. I had somewhat expected this, and knowing that it would be the middle of the night and I would be in culture shock and shattered by the flight, I was grateful that one of those cards was meant for me, and that soon we drove away from the constant voices and beeping horns into the night.

School Time!

The omnipresence of people in Chennai is not limited to airport arrivals. From what I have seen of India after a very short time there, people are travelling and working when they need to, at any time when their work is required. At every time of day I ventured out, people walked along the streets to school, to eat, to work, to pray, milling about among the stray cows and dogs who were their constant roadside companions.

 The sprawling city of Chennai stretches far beyond the confines of what could be described as the centre. Added to this, the growing technology industry in India has necessitated the growth of buildings in equal measure: offices to house the workers; hotels to house the business travellers. So, on the Chennai OMR IT Expressway, suddenly from the darkness we emerged to towers bearing very familiar names - PayPal, Cognizant and so on. And even past familiar lunch joints, though with a local twist for branding and menu options.

Subway, Chennai Style, in Tamil & English

In my short visit, I met business men and women whose commute took them two hours each way - daily. I balk at a commute longer than 2 hours where I don't stay overnight. These hardy souls travel by public transport in soaring temperatures to their offices each day. I choose the simplest and shortest method of transport possible. These workers travel by bus (for the most part) with hundreds of other passengers. Standing, often, and traversing Indian roads - main roads - where road markings are treated universally as less a guideline, more a coincidence and traffic lights less a system of road safety, more colourful decorations.

Onam Festival Floral Decoration

 It's not hard to believe that might be true in a country filled everywhere with beautiful colours. Even in the poorer areas that I saw in Chennai (and in Mumbai, which I visited at the weekend), there was colour. Where in the western world's hotels or offices would you find a beautiful decoration of floors and coloured sand to mark a local festival? Or a flower of white sand outside the Indian equivalent of The Gap to welcome you? I spent long days working - too long to experience much outside of the hotel and immediate surroundings of the office, but it is impossible to miss the culture and beauty of the honours accorded to faith, gods and festivals wherever you look.

Lunch is on Gandhi

I left for my return trip as I had begun to experience India - in the middle of the night. Away from the IT giants' offices and neighbouring hotels, into darker roads flanked by the great pools of water on either side and the tiny temples unique to south India. Finally we arrived at the airport, a glittering diamond of light and glass breaking through the darkness. But that airport is a product of the west. Its cultural virtues amount to a lump of coal compared to the diverse beauty of the colourful houses surrounding it. Flying out of Chennai just after dawn, the blues, oranges and greens of the houses paint the city's landscape far more, and the verdant hills and countryside beyond are beautiful and still, like a perfect prayer.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

In the (British) Summertime

The beer garden. The sun is out and the British are drinking.

British summertime. Generally speaking, this is an oxymoron. Still, for a few choice days in the summer the lucky, lucky few who haven't fled in desperation to the south of France, the coastal tourist towns of the Greece and Turkey or Ibiza (why, I have no idea) there might be the odd day where the grateful, sun starved Brits can be heard wandering around exclaiming: "It's too hot." "I don't like this heat." "I need to sit down in the shade, I'm too warm, me."

Anyone for tennis? You can't escape it!

Much like the rest of British culture, summertime has grown into its traditions. For the classic British experience, consider heading to south west London for a spot of tennis. That is, if you can get a ticket. For those flash with cash, purchase a ticket or two before the day itself and rest assured that you'll only have to rub shoulders (literally) with the masses while you grope your way out of Wimbledon station with a billion other hopefuls.

Option two. You can't really see the eccentricity in action here, but believe me, it's happening. 

No ticket? No problem. You now have a couple of different choices. Option one: join another great British tradition: the queue. Yes, you lucky daytrippers, not only are you in with a small chance of seeing a great British tennis legend lose in the semi- or final against an eastern European stud; you can also experience the joyful agony of standing in line endlessly with scarce a hope of a ticket behind a six foot 20 stoner from the home counties. Or perhaps you'd prefer option two: Again, you might need to queue. Well, we don't like to disappoint our visitors. If the tennis gods are in your favour, you can then join a menagerie of pale, British eccentrics to sit 50 feet from the actual action and watch the entire thing on a big TV. Woe betide you leave your spot to find the loo. This is every man for himself, and you won't find that seat when you come back.

At least stock up on some or all of these while you stand in your queue of choice.

(Let's not forget to mention that whichever of the two delectable choices you decide upon, you'll also need to be in line around 4am, drenched in sunscreen, balancing your need to quench your dehydrated self against the increasing desperation to find the nearest loo.)

Unappealing ways to spend your British summer #44

Of course, over the past couple of decades other grass-based summer activities have found their niche in the hearts of the British. Forty years ago, a dairy farmer with a taste for the blues decided to host a free music festival on his land. And forty years later, you can pay the price of a small Tuscan villa for a ticket and enjoy all the delights of trudging through mud with your loo roll in hand to queue (yes, we don't like to leave anyone out) with thirty thousand others for the one working portaloo on the site. And showers, well, they're for wimps. Whack on your wellies and get sloshed whilst sliding around a field in your most stylish "I may work in Canary Wharf but I'm a hippy at heart" three thousand quid distressed t-shirt and shorts.
And remember that you have to get there first. Along the never-intended-for-heavy-traffic single file A roads. Good luck to you all.

Too hot? Fear not. We're just days away from this.

If neither of these incredibly expensive forms of self torture float your proverbial boat, perhaps it would be best to spend those precious seconds of British summer closer to home. No, I'm not talking about caravans or camping. A whole other long blog post waxing lyrical on Kenneth Williams and Babs Windsor. I'm talking about those other great British staycation essentials. Marks and Spencer's. And the pub. Or one of them. On  a beautiful sunny day there's really nothing that quite beats a picnic-style banquet of little sandwiches, mini (Scotch) eggs and sausage rolls, washed down with delicious cloudy lemonade and ginger beer. (You'll definitely still need the sunscreen. But lie ins are a possibility, and if you choose somewhere with a toilet nearby, well, what more could you wish for?) And it'll be raining and cold in a couple of days. Now then, time to put the fan on and close the curtains. It really is too hot.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Party in the city where the heat is on

Welcome to Miami

Miami Beach and English roses shouldn't mix, perhaps. But since they invented factor 30 to, well, 80, I felt encouraged to brave the heat for the pool, the beach, the beats and the cabanas.

 Pool Party

 The beach along the east side of Miami Beach is breathtaking. Turquoise waves crash to shore (it's windy here, so better for water sports than west Florida). It's not hard to imagine why New Jersey father and son Henry and Charles Lum were so captivated that they decided to buy much of the island, back in 1870. Yes, I confess, if I had a few quid to spare; if I had won the Power Ball last night...(unlikely since I didn't buy a ticket) I would definitely be thinking of a small pied à plage here.

Hideaways at the W South Beach

 If Gatsby circa 2013 took a trip to Miami Beach, I think he might have taken a suite (or four) at the W South Beach hotel, my Saturday night residence. He could probably still have shown them a thing or two, but this hotel is all about decadence - an adult playground par excellence. Lounge by the pool while the resident DJ plays a series of chilled out (but on the verge of partying) tracks. Dip in the pool or dip your tortilla chips into freshly made guacamole. Sun yourself on one of the loungers or sip more cocktails. (Incidentally, there was a disappointing lack of umbrellas in drinks here, but no doubt the Carlyle can supply those for the camper contingent.)

Miami by Night

Never one to shy away from the local attractions, it was great to try out the resident Bliss Spa for a 75 minute massage. Definitely worth the five days of running that I got in last week! The spa was an interesting experience from the inside of the hotel - a separate elevator takes you to check in (you take the hotel elevator to the fourth floor, then walk to the Bliss elevator...down again to two...then back up (in a different elevator again) to the massage room. Labyrinthine relaxation? So it would seem.

Miami Beach Waking Up

Post massage, I took to the private area of the beach to lounge by the waves. Of course, there's no accounting for your neighbours. A stag party (bachelor party, whatever) on my left, already in the annoying "Dude"--"No, Dude!" phase of the day with their Coors light and tasteless Bermudas. And on my right high powered ladies drinking prosecco and bitching about the CFO. (Lose the prosecco and that could have been just another work chat...)

Sand Bar...Beach Bar

Fortunately or not, these conversations were cut short by the arrival of darkening clouds and thunder, so I headed back to my suite to enjoy views of the lightning and listen to the rain from a dry haven. They certainly know how to organise their rooms at the Ws I've stayed at (Chicago and South Beach so far). Admittedly I had an upgrade this time (I used my hotel points...a lot of them...for this stay) and therefore was greeted by a suite of rooms twice the size of my apartment in New York, and I think, also, bigger than my place in England.

Kitchen to Balcony. Just one of the rooms with a view

The suite has its own amusements. Two toilets, TV & DVD room, that's in addition to the TV in the main lounge and the one in the bedroom; complicated lighting structures; lots of (super expensive) hotel booze and snacks lying around. And two balconies. Thank you, I'll take that.

Sunday morning check out is regimented here at 11am - which didn't quite allow for the lie in merited by the comfy bed listening to the waves. They've thought of that, though, so a hospitality suite is available for the beach-hungry, even after check out. And I took advantage of the complimentary car service to explore other parts of Miami beach with the lovely Pedro. Including the beautiful house outside which Gianni Versace was shot. Colourful, Miami? Indeed. 

Versace's Last Stand - beautiful house

This blog has turned out to be a review of the W South Beach mainly, and that's because there are so many different aspects to talk about. As someone who definitely does not relax well, a place with pretty much everything here is wonderful. I can find seating under the trees for quiet, lounges / day beds by the pool for chilled out music listening and people watching, loungers by the sea for tanning (other people's) and sea sports, and several bars and restaurants. And of course, my own sweet suite. Let's come back here, friends!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Flights, and flights of wine.

There's something about travel that brings time into entirely new dimensions. I stand on the railway platform and a three minute wait becomes a lifetime. I watch the seconds counting down to the point where the train is supposed to pull into the station. The clock reads 8:19:01, 02, 03... It seems to slow time down. Are the people around me sipping their coffee more slowly, flicking the pages of their throw away commuter-rags at stop-motion speed? It seems that way.

 Up with the sun

These days, of course it’s more about airport travel. At around 4.30am on a Monday, or 3pm on a Thursday (in situation normal) I get up and get out to the airport. And then the fun begins. Have you seen Up In The Air? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as slick as George Clooney at getting through security without seamless unloading and reloading of various items. I try my best: laptop out and in a bin by itself. (“Yes, I know!” I scream silently at the security attendants. “I do this every week. I know your name, Jerome, and we’ve been here before!”) Shoes off. Of course in the summer this is extremely pleasant. I love reaching the airport at 5.15am only to realise I’m sharing my foot germs with 3000 other travellers as I walk through the security screening.

 Happiness is an on time PM flight home with a G&T

The time to get to the gate is paramount. To get settled. To eye up the competition for upgrades (no chance of this on a commuter flight at 6am; every chance at 1pm travelling with grandparents, college students and weekenders. If it’s the afternoon I may seek out a glass of wine or a G&T. If it’s the morning I just want to sit down and be quiet, away from the children running around screaming and the non-frequent fliers who don’t appreciate the silence that is the code of the regular business traveller.

 The road home...on a wing (and not) a prayer

Before that comes the security clearance, which is always fun. Firstly, I now really enjoy the contemptuous death stares “How dare you be in a priority lane? You clearly don’t deserve it even if you’ve spent $50,000 on travel this year..” which (being British and a lapsed catholic I so enjoy).
On various days the fact that I wear a Nike fuel band is either: a) something that means I need to be patted down for having, and delays me; b) something that I am told I don’t need to take off or c) something that Mr / Ms. Security feel a burning need to chat about. Which is fine, unless I’m in a TravelRage™ in which case I need to be cheerfully ignored.

Delta Blues. And not even in Economy Comfort 

And then there’s the rest of it. In airports a lot of people are having fun getting paralytic-ally drunk. Depending on the time of day, I might be one of them. However, at 7am I’d be unlikely to be joining in with the guy next to me in first (OK, so I got upgraded) who ordered back-to-back screw drivers. This is not too bad depending on how bad the accompanying behaviour is. It’s not great if the screwdrivers are accompanied by fried eggs and ‘home fries’ (little roasted potatoes, heavy on the grease, for you non-Americans). Grease+Eating Sounds+Alcohol = we might as well be going to Ibiza. Why not take off your shirt into the mix? Why not start singing? Why not take both the arm rests?

Today I find myself in the unusual position of travelling back on a Thursday, which my work commitments haven't permitted for a long while. I have, however, forgotten the Travel Gods' rule number one for Thursday trips home: the weather will be AWFUL. No matter it was 80 degrees (that's upper 20s, Celsius enthusiasts); no matter that there was not a cloud in the sky. That was Wednesday. Today is Thursday, and you're going home, which means rain, snow, freak tornadoes, hail, hurricane strength winds. Fun times for all.

Hooray for flights of wine

So here I find myself. It's 5.20pm. My flight leaves at 5.25. Oh, sorry, I mean is *scheduled* to leave at 5.25. It's currently floating between the 7pm-8pm mark. I'm just hoping not to be re-routed to Philadelphia and left there to fend for myself (thanks to my friend B who kindly let me share his ride to Manhattan).If anyone is in any doubt that consulting is glamorous let this decide you. There's only so long you can be jet set before you have to throw the towel in and check in to yet another hotel because you're so tired of the travel delays that you can't take anymore. And with that, why yes, I'll have another flight of roses. It is the summer after all, even if all evidence is to the contrary in NYC. Cheers.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Shore Thing. Travels with Herodotus

This weekend I finally finished Ryszard Kapuscinski's fascinating book Travels With Herodotus. A journalist from post war Warsaw, Kapuscinski recounts how he had never been on a plane, although his great wish was to cross the border. A rude awakening, then,  that his first posting abroad was not to Czechoslovakia as hoped, but to India. Here began a career of pairing elegant travel writing and well observed political journalism.

Travels with Travels with Herodotus

Mid-travels, Kapuscinski acquired Herodotus's Histories, and in Travels with Herodotus he presents his own journeys alongside excerpts from the great inquiries Herodotus made some 2500 years earlier. One such trip is to Halicarnassus, Herodotus's home town, home to the tomb of Mausolus. By this time it had been renamed Bodrum, a simple fishing village where he enjoyed a simple meal of coffee, goat's cheese and olives.

Herodotus tells us that he knows "that human happiness never remains long in the same place." How true. I visited Bodrum myself aged 18 on an 18-30 holiday. By the time of my visit Bodrum had certainly become the least appropriate place for a tomb heritage site. Mausoleum; no, rather, music, margaritas and amorality. I remember participating in an organised drinking game where we had to sprint up to a point, spin around ten times and then try and run back. Whilst drinking whatever sickly concoction of a cocktail was on offer. Needless to say I was not running in a straight line on the home leg.

Waking the Dead? Two views of Bodrum

Would this kind of human custom have interested the great inquirer? I think so. I remember being woken up by the sounds of the stereo beats at the pool calling us to the bar at 7:30 am; and I remember the sounds of the call to prayer and some boisterous local rooster competing for airspace. As is so often the case, the sacred and the profane like to live side by side.

Life's a Beach

I read the final pages of Travels With Herodotus on Naples beach, south west Florida, where I'm visiting my parents-in-law this weekend. It's a journey I've made several times before, but apart from a variance of 10-15 degrees (Fahrenheit) there's a certain pride from the 'locals' that nothing much changes here. For tennis and golf enthusiasts it's a haven of perfect sporting weather.

Naples Beach, south west Florida

Herodotus never made it to Florida, but I think he'd still be somewhat interested in the customs of the day-to-day here also. In this place where the trees and plants to me seem in constant bloom, Cosmopolitans or cocktails of your choice are mixed at 5 pm. Okay, 3 pm. Then it's on to the nearest restaurant for the early bird special. Get in before 5 or you'll have a rush. Get there by 7 and the place is deserted. Everyone's gone home to play Whist. And maybe have more cocktails. Before driving home to rest before it begins again tomorrow.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Diamond blue baby New York City...

It's (finally) spring time in New York. The blossoms are out and this city is more raucous than ever. Perhaps the winter storms and sometime snowfall muffled the horns, the blaring car-stereo-tunes and the shouting from the streets; I noticed how the sirens cut through the greyness and bitter winds with their hollow bleating even in March's wintry temperatures. But with the arrival of the blossoms and blooms in the park the noises on the streets are louder than ever.

Central Park in the spring

To greet the spring New York hails The Great Gatsby - Luhrman style - in a couple of weeks. I have mixed feelings about good old Baz after the farcical and touching Strictly Come Ballroom and inspired Romeo and Juliet were followed with the Disney-fied "Consumption, the Musical" that was Moulin Rouge.

Fashion Forward: The Great Gatsby

Nevertheless, New York is going to be roaring like the twenties in two weeks. Only today in my local thrift store I overheard two young NYU students debating whether a particular dress would do for a party in its honour. Fear not, young ladies. it won't be a struggle to find a headband, short dress or bob cut among the fashion followers of the world in a month or so after its release. In fact they are probably in store right now. You too can be Daisy (with the added bonus of being pre-unhappy but shockingly wealthy marriage and nondescript child).

Alternatively, there are those others in the Mad Men corner. A period piece for every figure, then. Busty redheads who become partners, short-haired, long-legged gamine girls who marry money. There are entire fashion lines devoted to the series in store now.

Sixties Style on Madison Avenue: Mad Men

So many of the features of both depict the fundamentals of New York City. Opportunity (in all of its beautiful and sordid channels); secrecy and anonymity; wealth and other riches; brevity. Scott Fitzgerald could have been writing about New York itself: "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

The Great Gatsby is whimsical. For me it conjures elements of Oxford particularly, when we all were characters playing out romances and adventures in black tie, in scholars' gowns throughout those dreaming spires. And now that the haze has returned to Manhattan, with the promise of summer on the horizon the whimsy has returned here too. Engagement photographs and fashion photo shoots abound in the park and the tulips and snowdrops vie for space in its lush gardens.

Whimsical Central Park, through the late afternoon sunshine

Winter was long and bleak. Reflected here by the dearth of posts. Now that spring has returned even I have found my voice again and sit here on the Upper East Side with the windows pushed all the way open to let in the sun, the shouting (!) and the starling songs on the trees outside. The tourists never really left, but like the bees buzzing in the gardens once more they are here again. The music is loud again, the New Yorkers are out cursing on the streets, and our dreams are beyond us, not behind us.

Lana Del Rey - Young and Beautiful