Archive for the 'Travel' Category

New York Trip – September 2014

I was avoiding going to America as a travel destination for quite some time yet I was always truly intrigued by it. A part of me thought that it is too similar to Europe, too far and expensive to make it a worthwhile tourism trip. On the other hand a part of me dreamt one day of finally going to the world’s largest power and see its big cities. I had heard so much about New York from friends and so in September last year I decided to go!

Atul Rana New York

A bike, shades and Brooklyn Bridge against the New York Manhattan skyline.

Multicultural 24 Hour City
I was staying in Manhattan and spent most of my time there, so in all fairness my experience is mostly of that part of New York. I was in Brooklyn for a little part so I missed out on Harlem and the Bronx. To make sense of New York, London was a natural reference at all times; both very big cities, multiethnic and with a similar business and social structure. The energy and pace of Manhattan is however way more than that of London. The buildings are bigger and there’s plenty of them too overpowering the view of the sky. There are more people packed per square mile there and they are moving fast.

Freedom Tower - New York

Freedom Tower – New York

New York is a very expensive place to live in, rents and property prices are more than that of London. A lot of people have no choice but to work two jobs, and there are far fewer holidays. New York really does not sleep. Even the vibe in Leicester Square London slows and comes to a halt in the middle of the night somewhat but Manhattan is still buzzing with activity any time of night. You could go to a restaurant, bar or wherever any time of the night.

This is helped in part by the 24 hours subway system, which makes travelling very convenient. I did find the subway system one of the dirtiest though (I’ve seen around 20 different subway systems in the world), trains were infrequent and the signs on where the lines were going were very confusing. I found New York dirtier than I expected. Not as dirty as some developing countries I’ve been too but for a developed city it should be cleaner.

So Familiar, you have seen it all on TV already!
Walking around in New York you feel this amazing amount for familiarity with it all, at times I felt I was walking around on a live movie set. The type of buildings, the yellow taxis, the accents and the feel of it has been so well and thoroughly documented that the whole city seems like you’ve already seen and lived it! I remember walking around and seeing a fire engine get out of its station, I thought I was in Ghostbusters! And then at times I felt I was on the set of Police Academy or Friends.

Online to real life friends and the pain of 9/11
I went to most of the major landmarks in New York. Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, High Line and I lived next to Union Square so I saw that regularly. I did miss out on the Statue of Liberty and Central Park however.

9/11 Memorial Sign

A sign by the 9/11 memorial.

I met up with friends old and new, including someone who I last saw when I was a teenager and saw him after 18 years. I met some other people who I’ve never seen before but befriended on social media from the music community and through my band DonkeyBox, this was really cool. Highlights included jamming with Carla in a guitar shop in Times Square and been shown around by Lauren on the Freedom Tower memorial.

It was September and there is still construction work going on in the area after the terrible 9/11 tragedy. While the memory of that event fades for the rest of the world, it was humbling to be at the site where the scars felt very fresh. The place is still silent around the memorial and construction work reminds us that a lot was taken away and is still being rebuilt.

I performed live music in New York!
Talking about music, it was my dream to one day perform in New York as a musician. On my last night there I turned up to an open mic night in East Village and at 1:30am I got to play on stage. I borrowed someone’s guitar and felt energised and alive for performing. I had done it! The open mic scene in New York is something else and I’ll write more about it later in a specific post.

New Yorkers
I found New Yorkers to be chatty and expressive and they will generally speak their minds especially in traffic (Western Europeans are quieter in that respect), I’ve grown up in places like India, Kenya, Libya etc., so I’m no stranger to varying cultures. At times there was a bluntness and directness that you usually hear in India. At other times there was politeness and reserve that you see in Europe. The whole variety is there. People in America are proud of where they come from (State/Region) and it is part of their identity more so than regional identity is here in the UK. It felt similar to state type identity in India. In Brooklyn I found myself walking in the Jewish quarter which was like a city in itself, it was pretty cool to learn about Jewish culture through that immersed walk. In London we also have areas in which eg a lot of Indian people live but the areas tend to be small pockets.

Food errrr
The food was dissapointing, it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. A lot of it lacked natural flavour. Mexican and Chinese food is available in vast abundance, which was my favourite types of food there. My friend who works in the dairy industry told me that it was rare to find any cheese there with more than 20% cheese content! The rest is filler and cheap additive material. This is the only way it can be done to keep good cost low and feed a massive population. But the free market nature of processed food meant that most things there were tasteless and lifeless in a way you can’t explain, even for a fairly well priced restaurant. The portions were big that’s for sure and you would definitely not go hungry there! My favourite meals were from China Town.

All in all it was a cool thing to finally visit New York, I wouldn’t go back for tourism again but if I had to work there or go for business or music reasons I think I’d fit in very easily and I’d feel comfortable. New York has an open and welcoming energy.


India 2011 – Education of Women

So my stay in Delhi this year ends and I have seen a lot of things and heard a lot of people. I love meeting people and hearing their point of view, and the perspective of people is quite different here compared to the West. And so my last blog post from this year’s trip to India was inspired by a visit to one of my cousins and how she has educated her daughter.

According to Statistics today women in India account for almost 50 per cent of enrolment in higher education. 20 years ago, this enrolment was less than 25 per cent.

And my story demonstrates this nicely. My father’s family are still quite poor and live in rural India. They are farmers just about managing ends. My mother’s family are better off, they live in the suburbs of Delhi so now they have access to better facilities and education. The uncle on my mother’s side got a very basic education and worked as a mechanic for the Delhi buses. He had a son and a daughter. Partly due to cultural reasons and partly due to poverty, 19 years ago she was married off at the age of 16. She was two years off from her GCSEs still but was now married as a housewife and could not finish her studies.

My cousin and her two children

My cousin and her two children

At the age of 17 she had her first child, a daughter. I visited my cousin this time and she regretted not being educated further and she remembered her last few days at school fondly. She didn’t like maths apparently (obviously not tutored by me then!). 18 years have passed and her daughter has now started at University and is a fluent English speaker. Her mother is really happy in the investment she made in her daughter’s education and to complete what she was never able to do herself.

A similar story resonates with the rest of my mother’s family in Delhi and the current generation of girls are not only more educated than the previous one, but they are not being married off as teenage brides! So this has been really heartening to see and I am proud of my nieces and cousins.

However, the situation is not so good in rural India (Gonda, Uttar Pradesh) where my father came from. But they do have a local school next to them so hopefully the same success can be repeated there too as I have seen girls and boys in equal numbers there starting off at primary level. Hopefully I can report on that when I delve into rural India next year. Something I missed out this year.

India 2011 – Dogs

Man’s best friend has a very special place in the UK, no doubt about it. They make a great pet and a dog is for life, not just Christmas. And having tutored and lived at so many families I have gotten to be friends with a few dogs myself, taking them on walks and throwing sticks for them to catch. I’ve met quite a different types of breed too.

The story in India is different. Pet dogs are not that common here and dogs are mostly visible as stray dogs. These dogs quietly live their lives in the daytime scavenging whatever food they can get while roaming about from street to street. At night when things are quieter stray dogs come to life on their own. You can hear some barking and howling sounds at night as the rest of the sounds quieten. On the whole stray dogs are pretty harmless and not much of a nuisance. I’ve heard some nightmare stories about Bucharest though!

Stray dogs in Delhi

Go on boy, fetch!

Getting too close to a dog is feared and the prospect of a bite means you don’t see the same level of affection for dogs here as you would see it in the UK. Stray dogs are seen as one of the pests that are out and about. They may be stoned and shooed away if they are straying too close.

One of the main reasons for this general dislike of dogs could be that in Hindu stories such as the Ramayna, Mahabharata etc,. dogs are seen as dark creatures that are related to the god of death, rather than say the monkey god who has a very special place indeed.

I’ve seen dogs here in the past in some pretty sorry states with their scrawny look and sometimes quite literally on their last legs. But more recently the dogs I have seen seem to be fairly healthy. And dogs are of course used as guards and by the police here as well. So man’s best friend lives on and co-exists with the rest of us in the urban jungle.

India 2011 – Eid Holiday

India is a secular state and as Islam is the second most practised religion in India Eid is an official Bank Holiday. And today is that holiday.

Around 13% of India’s population is Muslim and 13% of 1.2 billion equates to it being the third largest Muslim nation in the world. This may come as a surprising fact but if you think about India’s most famous monument the Taj Mahal, it will be obvious that this is an Islamic design.

The Taj Mahal

My sister's photo of the Taj Mahal last year. Taken from the side.

Islam arrived in India in the 12th century and it’s mark in Delhi is very visible. A lot of Old Delhi has a strong Islamic feel to it and there are some of the world’s large mosques in India including the famous Jama Masjid. My mother grew up in an Islamic area of Delhi called Turkman gate. And later on as a family we also lived in Yemen and Libya.

Happy Eid from me, or Eid Mubarak!

India 2011 – A Load of Cobblers

So a week since I first landed in Delhi I have settled into life here well and it almost feels like I never left last year. And I am beginning to take this daily sunshine as granted! As I get into the swing of life here I can elaborate on day to day life and the little things that make it so interesting and different.

A load of cobblers.

This is a cockney expression from East London. Given that I now live in East London and I have just got some precious shoes fixed by a street cobbler, I felt it was time to give the humble Indian street cobbler some cyberspace coverage!

Although shoes, sandals and flip flops (also known as chappals in Hindi) have become cheaper and cheaper the role of the street cobbler is still pretty relevant and visible in India. You can find him sitting at most street corners and he will repair shoes while you wait or within a matter of hours on the same day. He is hard working and does his work in the daylight hours. If anyone has to bear the Indian Summer heat the most then it has to be this humble and hardworking cobbler! He literally spends hours in temperatures of 40 Celsius and higher in the summer months.

Street cobbler in Dwarka, Delhi

Delhi street cobbler fixing some shoes while his client waits

My precious right shoe had a slight tear, it’s a great fit, versatile, stylish and comfortable. I wanted to keep this pair of shoes so I took them to a shoe and key repair shop in London.  I was told that the tear was not exactly along the sewing lines so they could not fix it. The Delhi cobbler didn’t see any problem with this and gave it some strong stitches. After almost a year my shoes are back in action and it feels good 🙂

And he charged a very reasonable Rupees 20 for it. That equates to 25 pence in British money. Respect to the cobbler dude, he is self employed, he earns his money in the hot sun and he deserves fair praise for his under rated craft.

India 2011 – Arrived in Delhi

Amazing what a 9 hour flight can do, truly amazing! While the clocks were set to change and we hit winter time in the UK, a 9 hour flight to the East has got me back into Summer again 🙂 It’s about 30 C max here. Fairly pleasant, though quite a dry type of heat. It is sunny here and the colours in India are bright and vivid so it really is like a shot of tequila to the visual senses!

I arrived in Delhi last weekend and it was the inaugural Formula 1 race. There was also an entertainment double whammy with Metallica and Lady Ga Ga performing (not together, though that could be pretty cool). Not much of a get away from Western civilization!

I wasn’t planning on attending any of these events although a friend managed to find a spare Metallica ticket 🙂 However that concert got cancelled. F1 and Lady Ga Ga were a success and it’s good to see India now hosting the F1 regularly. It’s been intersting to see the local reaction to the events though. There was a lot of debate on the F1 thing, particularly on what the point of it is and how it might actually be useful to the country? A huge amount of money has been invested and the track was built in just 2 years, yet the vast majority of the poor are only slowly getting better off.

New Delhi Buradio  Gaon

The sun sets amongst the dusty haze at a suburb in New Delhi

None of my cousins and nephews knew or cared about the race. It’s still seen as one of those rich kids things. But I did explain to them that the races will bring awareness and tourism to India and a portion of the money coming in can indeed be invested back in to the people who need it most.

One of the first things I do each year is to go and visit the uncles from my mother’s family who live in the suburbs of Delhi. As I walking from one place to another along a dusty road, the sun was setting amongst the dusty haze. I stopped for a moment, absorbed this moment and took a photo with my phone camera, which is what you see here 🙂

Each year’s trip to India is different and this year I am pretty sure that will be the case too. Hopefully on this occasion I can write a bit more about the social and cultural aspects as I experience it first hand.

Sweet Summer Off 2011

“Aha you and your rock festivals Atul”

Was the funny response to when I answered what I am up to during the summer break. That’s because I have now done the rock festival thing 3 summers in a row, they do get better every year and so does my summer off 🙂

Tutoring work has been a lot more intense this academic year too with record time away from London and spells when I tutored all 7 days a week away from home. But it was intense and really satisfying. My common entrance students have already done very well which is such a great feeling. And I also said goodbye to some students I had been teaching for a while who will move on to the next stages of their lives.

Hellfest 2011 in France

My first rock festival trip this year was to a festival in Clisson near Nantes in France. It was the first time I have actually been to France despite actually living closer to it than to Yorkshire (where I travel up to maybe 15 times a year!). The festival was for 3 days and I flew quite conveniently from City Airport in London which is a nice small airport really close to me. The festival had some good moments, and I saw some sweet new bands that I hadn’t heard before. I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Big who I used to listen to loads as a teenager. Although metal is a sort of country in itself and metalheads seemingly look and act the same (long hair, moshpits, devil sign etc., etc.,) I did get a sense of the French culture and uniqueness with a little trip to the tiny town of Clisson. The locals were well into the festival and it was cool to see metal bands in the town streets in the open. Something unthinkable in the UK! The organisation of the festival wasn’t as good as UK ones and it rained for some of it but it was pretty cool overall.

Wimbledon 2011/Bon Jovi in Bristol

I went to Wimbledon in its first week. Luckily this time there were no big names on the and as I went reasonably early the queue was only an hour long. This is truly a record! I didn’t see as many big names up close as last year but it was cool to see Sania Mirza, India’s tennis star up close playing in one of the small courts.

I also went to Bristol for the first time in over a decade and saw Bon Jovi there at Ashton Gate Stadium. Later on by chance I bumped into an old uni friend who I hadn’t seen for 7 years so it was pretty sweet to catch up so I extended my stay in Bristol. Hanging out in Bristol town on a sunny day and evening was pretty relaxing and holiday like 🙂

Sonisphere 2011 and the Big 4

It is safe to say that this year’s Sonisphere was my best festival experience ever. The line-up of old and new bands was awesome. The Big 4 are the big bands of the thrash metal world from the 80s; Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica. Not much into Anthrax and I had already seen Slayer and Metallica 3 times before so the main thing I was looking forward to was Megadeth. But no way man! Megadeth were cool but Slayer gave out one hell of a performance, it was the best one by far and I got caught smack bang in the middle of a mosh pit…hell yeah! And the headliners Metallica delivered an incredible set with some unusual songs that were a nice surprise. They are amazing performers and it was sweet to see them again.

Other bands that I liked later were Spider Black, Weezer, Sum 41, Motorhead and loads of other ones I can’t remember now. The atmosphere this year there was even better with lots of friendly peeps who’d happily start chatting about music to anyone, give the metal sign randomly and lots of other random moments 🙂

And the summer continues..

But we’re still only in July here and the summer continues..other things I would like to check out are the India V England cricket series, some museums in London and continuing my exploration of the outdoors world of London town. I have already been on the Thames Clipper ride for the first time and I am sure there’s more new things to come 🙂

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