Train Journeys

indian-railways-2_660_090318041827I’ve always loved travelling by train. I love the feel of the wind against my face and seeing the landscape rush past me!

My first memory of travelling by train is to Delhi. I must have been around 3-4 years old and I remember travelling in a kind of a coupe for that journey. We were four of us then (my parents, my sister and me) and it was this closed kind of a room that we were in. That’s all I remember of this journey.

The next journey I really remember was when I was around 6 years old on a trip down south. We were supposed to go first to Mysore (as it was then known), then a trip to Bangalore and then finally Chennai to attend a family wedding. Those days, there was no direct train from Mumbai to Bangalore and Mysore and so we took probably a Chennai train and got down in a station in Andhra Pradesh called Guntakal and then changed from the broad gauge line to a narrow gauge line which took us to Bangalore. Then another change of train, most likely a commuter train from Bangalore to Mysore. The trip must have taken around 30-32 hours from Mumbai to Mysore with two transits. Then we came back to Bangalore and then took the Brindavan Express which used to be a double-decker train those days to Chennai. I remember standing on my seat trying to look out of the window since we were seated on the lower level and the windows were higher up.

280920132461Around the time I turned 9/10 years old, my paternal grandparents moved to Bangalore for their retirement years and we started travelling there every year on a train that was introduced then: Udyan Express. The first few years, the train left Mumbai around 8 pm and reached Bangalore 24 hours later with the return journey leaving Bangalore at 8 am in the morning and reaching Mumbai at 8 am the next day. After that, they switched the train timings with the train leaving Mumbai in the morning and leaving Bangalore in the evening.

Those were the days before the internet and smartphones were probably just a far-fetched idea in someone’s head. What we had for entertainment was the company of our co-passengers. We spoke and became friends with the eight people in the same bay, shared food and sometimes found common acquaintances and even relatives. Some of these friendships went on to become deeper and stood the test of time, while others were as transient as the train journey. We also couldn’t track the train in real time and relied on our own memory and the ever-present railway timetable to figure out if our train was late or not (more often late than not as it turned out). Frequent passengers knew which station the train would or rather should reach for meal times and what is special about that station. I remember drinking and eating special food at various stations on the way to Bangalore and the frequent cries of the tea vendors during the run at night.

But a train journey was not always nice and rosy. You also had instances of passengers molesting young and vulnerable female passengers, especially at night and of frequent cases of luggage being stolen, especially in the middle of the night. We were also exhorted not to eat or drink anything that a stranger gave you since it could be laced with sedatives and they would then strip you of your belongings when you fell unconscious.

Then when Bangalore was sighted and Bangalore East station was near, it used to be a big rush to gather all our belongings and as soon as the train left Bangalore East station to go and station ourselves near the door. We used to get down at Bangalore Cantt station and it used to be a big rush because the train stopped there just for 3-5 minutes. As soon as the train stopped, we would see our grandparents waiting for us. Then quickly get down and get home for a month-long holiday!

I really enjoyed writing this post and it brought back so many memories of our summer holiday trips to Bangalore. This post was actually triggered when I tried using google maps to chart out the Bombay-Bangalore route and couldn’t find the train and the various stations we used to be so familiar with. I haven’t taken a train ride in a very long time and I am sure any experience today will be significantly different from what I used to experience and have written above. I do hope that one day soon when holidays are no longer rushed, I can once again take the train and relive my childhood and teen years.

My Singapore Journey

Happy Birthday, Singapore!

Today Singapore celebrates its 52nd birthday and it’s the first one I celebrate as a Singaporean! It’s quite a surreal feeling when tonight I can recite the pledge and national anthem feeling I belong and not as an outsider looking in as it had been all these years. I’ve been a Singaporean for almost a year now, so this is not new news, but when I started writing this post, it seemed a good time to share this news.

My journey to becoming a Singaporean was a long time in coming. S, as you probably know is a native Singaporean and in the past few years, I had become increasingly aware that Singapore was home and not India. I became a stranger in my land of birth and when I land in Mumbai, the feeling was more of an anticipation of meeting my parents rather than a feeling of coming home. This feeling, however, I started to feel whenever I landed in Changi Airport and seeing the iconic airport control tower would make me feel as if I am now home. That’s when I realised that unconsciously over the years, Singapore had become home! So then I started the process to become a Singaporean not just in the heart, but also legally.

My position as the wife of a Singaporean meant I could have become one more than a decade back, but because I wanted to b sure I decided to wait so long. In the meantime, as they are wont to do, processes changed and the criteria became slightly more stringent.

You apply for citizenship online on the ICA website based on the category you fall under and at the same time book a slot to meet an officer who verifies your documents and also pay the fee. If I remember correctly (since this was a while back), I paid S$100 for this process. There are many people applying for this citizenship at the same time as you and so based on the queue, you get a slot to meet the office anytime from two months to even a year later. I got my slot around six months later and try as much as I could, I could not find an earlier slot.

During the verification process, which was quite fast (less than 30 minutes in my case), they check all documents depending on the category you are applying in. In my case, they not only wanted S’ documentation (including salary slips and a letter from his company confirming he was working there as of a date closest to the appointment date and all his educational transcripts and tax records), they also wanted copies of BB & GG’s birth certificates and passports. We didn’t have copies of the children’s passports, but since this was the same agency which issued them, the officer said they will just look up the records since they should have them. In my case, along with all relevant educational transcripts, they asked for salary and work information and tax statements. They only take photocopies of the documents after verifying the original. Once the officer was satisfied with the documents, he handed us a letter with a case number and told us that it will take around six months for ICA to send us an answer. We could use the case number to see the status of our application in the meantime (which is frankly speaking a waste since it always shows ‘under process’ and until you get the accept/reject letter, it is not changed).

Five months after this appointment, I got the acceptance letter from ICA. To complete all formalities before you renounce your existing citizens, you need to do three things – complete an online course about Singapore’s history. This is a simple course, followed by a short quiz, which can be completed in around 30 minutes. Then you need to go on a Singapore Journey. This Singapore Journey consists of going to multiple places (according to your schedule and what is available then). I chose the National Museum and the Newater Plant. It was a half day tour and educational, but I felt most participants were there because it was simply a requirement they had to tick to complete the process. At the museum, we were divided into groups, by age and in my group were 3-4 gentlemen who, from their accents, seemed to be from a single particular country. After the guide took us through the museum, we had to answer some questions in our groups. The gentlemen in my group I discovered could not speak English and were the least interested in answering the questions which were based on Singapore’s history and extremely easy if you paid slight attention to the guide. I kept wondering why they were not interested in their new country’s history and also how they will survive if they can’t understand or speak English, which is the official language here.

The last part is going to a group discussion meeting at a Community Club in the constituency that you stay in. This was facilitated by an external vendor and also had former new citizens assigned to each group (which was made up of people living near each other). Again interesting discussions, but most people were disinterested and there was a lady in my group (again from the same country mentioned above) who could not speak or understand English and had to have another person translate for her.

After you finish all these items, your attendance is marked in each activity and is passed to ICA. Then a few weeks after all items are checked off, you finally get the coveted letter that you, at this point, have been waiting for from anything between 18 to 24 months telling you that you are a Singapore citizen. They also give you an appointment to go down to ICA to finish the process of your citizenship.

The last thing to do is renounce your original citizenship before your appointment at ICA and for an Indian passport, this means filling up a form, found online and going down to the Indian High Commission’s agent BLS International along with the letter from ICA and after a week or so, going down to the High Commission to get the letter of renunciation.

Next, at your appointment with ICA, you need to scan the application form barcode and you get a queue number. At the first counter, they check documents. Since my application was under spouse of a Singaporean, S had to sign a paper that he is doing this of free will and also pay $80 for the registration and Identity Card (IC) fees.

At the second, your thumbprint from both hands is taken for for the IC. Also, retina scans which were just introduced. Then you sign the form and wait for your number to be called to take the oath of allegiance in front of a Justice of Peace (JP). You fill up your name a page in the application form and then take the oath standing up with your right hand raised and the palm facing outward. To paraphrase the oath, you swear to renounce all rights and privileges from any foreign country and also forsake any loyalty to any foreign country and will be faithful and bear allegiance to the Republic of Singapore and will be a faithful citizen. The JP then gave me a piece of paper which is was temporary IC and told me about the citizenship ceremony which will happen later. As I was leaving her office, the JP welcomed me to Singapore!

Next is to apply for a passport which you can do on level one of the same building. You get a card from them in around a week and have to go down to collect it.

The last step is the Citizenship ceremony which for me took a couple of months more. Here the local MP (it was not in my constituency, but another one in the same Group Representative Constituency (GRC)) will give each new citizen their new pink IC (Singaporeans get a pink identity card and permanent residents (equivalent to green card holders in the US) get a blue identity card) along with their citizenship certificate. Each GRC holds this ceremony every quarter and if you are lucky, you get yours almost immediately and if unlucky, have to wait for a few months to get the IC. Till then you just explain to everyone that you are a new citizen and are waiting for your pink IC!

So that was my Singapore journey. If this has helped anyone who is thinking of becoming a Singaporean or even is in the process, I hope this is something you find useful!

The World in Sixty Seconds

This amazing video which I got from the MSN website is a series of time lapse images taken from the front of the International Space Station at on it’s orbit around the world at night. The video, done by science educator James Drake can also be seen in his website Infinity Imagined. From the website:

A time-lapse taken from the front of the International Space Station as it orbits our planet at night. This movie begins over the Pacific Ocean and continues over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica. Visible cities, countries and landmarks include (in order) Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles. Phoenix. Multiple cities in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Lightning in the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon. Also visible is the Earths ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy.

Would you like to live in a Palace?

Albeit for a fee and for a few days? Who wouldn’t right? Well if you have the moolah, here is Tripadvisor’s top ten Palace hotels. For more details click the tripadvisor report.

  1. Bussaco Palace Hotel, Luso, Portugal – Built in the 19th century for the last Portuguese Kings, the Bussaco Palace Hotel is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. It is located in the lush Bussaco National Forest, which was once the grounds of a Carmelite convent established in 1628.
  2. Palazzo Magnani Feroni, Florence, Italy – Dating back to the 16th Century, the luxurious palace once belonged to the artistocratic Feroni family. With breathtaking views of downtown Florence, the Palazzo Magnani Feroni Hotel is located in the historical San Frediano neighbourhood.
  3. Parador de Lerma, Castilla y Leon – Located high above the town, The Parador de Lerma offers once-secret columned arcades. The first Duke of Lerma ordered the construction of this castle for King Philip III in the early 17th century. It served as a place of enjoyment for the King.
  4. Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, India – The Taj Lake Palace was built as a summer retreat for Maharana Jagat Singh II, the 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewa, between 1743-1746. The extravagant white-marble hotel is located directly on Lake Pichola, and appears to be floating.
  5. Kempinski Hybernska Prague, Prague – Kempinski Hybernska Prague was once a 17th century baroque palace. Now completely reconstructed, the luxury hotel combines modern design with traditional elements, including a private baroque garden and original double entrance doors.
  6. Ciragan Palace Kempinski, Istanbul, Turkey – The Ciragan Palace Kempinski was once an Ottoman palace built by Sultan Abdülaziz between 1863 and 1867. In the early 1900’s, the palace became the meeting place for the parliament, however it suffered a devastating fire in 1910. It has since been restored as this luxury hotel with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus.
  7. Taj Rambagh Palace, Jaipur, India – Today, Taj Rambagh Palace is an exquisite hotel with stunning suites and ornamental gardens. The palace was originally built in 1835 for the queen’s handmaiden, and was eventually turned into a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge. In 1925, the palace became the home of the Maharaja of Jaipur and remained with Jaipur royalty until 1957.
  8. Gritti Palace, Venice, Italy – The opulent palace on the Grand Canal was built in 1525 as the home of the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti. It was later the residence of Vatican Ambassadors. The Gritti Palace became part of the Luxury Collection for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 1994. It still possesses the original ceilings and entrance flooring.
  9. Hotel Du Palais, Biarritz, France – Hotel Du Palais was the summer retreat of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenia. Empress Eugenia was said to have fallen in love with the beaches and landscape of Biarritz as a child, so Napoleon III had the summer residence built for her in 1855. Presently, the elegant hotel still displays the style of the Second Empire.
  10. Hotel de Crillon, Paris, France – One of two identical palaces, King Louis the XV directed the Crillon to be built in 1758. It was once the home to the Duc d’Aumont and the Comte de Crillon. Located in the famous Place de la Concorde, the prestigious Hotel de Crillon is honoured with 18th century classical French decor.

Journeys – Part Deux

In my last post about this topic, I had written that I will write about two plane trips that were most memorable.

The first trip was in January 2009, when I flew Jet airlines from Singapore to New Delhi and back. The onward trip was pretty uneventful and I don’t remember seeing much excep when we were very close to Delhi but the return trip was beautiful. The flight was an early morning one and since it was January it was bitterly cold. The airline was a small one, with a three seat aisle configuration. I think since the plane was a small one, it did not fly very high. So seated in the window seat, with Boone next to me, I was able to see the landscapes below. I could see india’s landscape as we flew past and at the exact same point we left continental india, somewhere between Puri and Bhubaneswar in the state of Orissa in India’s eastern coast, I happened to look out of the window. It was a beautiful sight and I could clearly make out the graduations from the browns of the beach to the turquoise of the shallow waters to the deep blues of the Bay of Bengal with all shades of blue in between. After that I quit watching the in-house entertainment channels and was just watching the scenery below me. I also kept the flight path open to check where we were. This way I knew when we flew over the gorgeous islands of the Andaman and Nicobar and also when we entered land again somewhere off the island of Penang. Mainland West Malaysia was beautiful from the air, and I could actually see the shadow the aircraft made on the buildings and on the ground. All said and done, I was happy to be home back in Singapore.

The other unforgettable trip was the day I flew when my hometown Mumbai was being held hostage by 11 gunmen. I woke up that morning feeling very excited and happy as by nighttime I would be home! But my sister called me soon from the US where she was at that time asking me if I was going to travel after all – this was a real shock for me and I wanted to know the reason why she asked such a question. When she told me about the gunmen, my first reaction was that of it being a big joke. Then I did what I always do when faced by something new – went online and started reading the news. My inlaws also called me to check if I was flying that night. I had to come in to work that day for the morning half, but I was totally unproductive and spent the whole morning calling my parents in Mumbai, calling the airline to check if the flight will take off and going online to read the news and see images and videos. What I saw was chilling, but when my dad said he managed to get someone to come with him to the airport and when the airline said the flight was going on as scheduled, I was determined to go. My inlaws were not too happy, but I didn’t want to waste my ticket and perhaps my entire vaccation. Also this time I was flying alone with D & P and S was coming after two weeks.

At the airport, it was calm, and I also got interviewed by Channel News Asia for the evening news. They wanted to know my reactions on what was happening in my hometown and also if I was feeling safe travelling. The flight was full and uneventful, although everyone was feeling stressed about what would happen once we landed in Mumbai. The airport in Mumbai was eerily empty and everyone was glued to the television screens which was showing the live action at the Taj Hotel and the Trident Hotels – scenes which will stay with us forever I think. I met my parents and the journey home which would take almost an hour due to the traffic took us just under 20-25 minutes, thats how deserted the streets were!

These two plane journeys are something that have been etched in my head. Maybe in the future there will be more such journeys (more of the first and none of the second please!).