dimanche 28 février 2016

UNSUNG HEROES OF QATAR AIRWAYS DOHA BUSINESS CLASS LOUNGE

UNSUNG HEROES OF QATAR AIRWAYS
DOHA BUSINESS CLASS LOUNGE
When one talks about service aboard a flight on long haul journeys, one is not talking about USA based airlines or European ones. With individual exceptions (young recent recruits such as CLT based AA FAs, Nicole and Isabel or the MIA based Canadian Jamie), USA based airlines are not interested in service. On a recent short flight of 50 minutes on Sri Lankan Airways from Cochin to Colombo, we were served a hot meal in the Economy Class! The Air France FAs are there to look good, God Forbid if you wanted a glass of water! SE Asian Airlines are a cut above and all legacy airlines from the region outshines the USA/Europe based legacy airlines.
I have flown a fair bit on the long haul flights of Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways and I am a little partial to QR.
I have no experience with Emirates Airways, and I will rate my experience of lounges in this particular order:
Doha Qatar Airways
Istanbul Turkish Airways
Abu Dhabi Etihad Airways

On this trip east, BRU to DOH portion was on a 787 and Fay from Manila and Bandana from Sikkim were in charge of the service. Whenever there is a lull in service, I like to chat with them and get their stories. Thank you Fay and Bandana.

When I arrive at DOH, I go into the Lounge and position myself at the Café/Tea Bar. There is a cook to order (from fresh ingredients on display) restaurant, as well as a Buffet restaurant which also has a la carte service.
All these are well and good but the unsung heroes, whom you very seldom hear praised about, are the people who work in these places, always pleasant and polite and all of them with their own stories to tell, if a traveler is willing to listen.
I could have caught an earlier flight to COK from DOH, but I wanted to spend some time in the lounge and relax a little bit, to catch up with the lack of rest of the past week in Belgium and France.

As I sat down, I was greeted by Aksam Abu Tahir from Sri Lanka, the person I have known the longest at the Lounge at DOH. Almost always we have coincided at the Lounge, for which I am grateful. He is one of the managers of the Café/Tea Bar. Always attentive, I wonder at the modern lifestyle that brings two people like him and me, in this strange but welcoming ambiance of the QR Lounge at Doha.
There are many others, all from South Asian countries, and the department of Hygiene seems to be firmly in the hands of Bangladeshi young men. Polite to a fault, these young men are happy to be working, as they had “fled” unemployment, political instability, and general poverty of the country. I noticed that all of them spoke English.
My own thoughts, as an Anthropologist, is to give their individual stories a meaning. I ask about their working conditions, what they hoped to do and whether or not they are happy in Qatar. Uniformly they say, yes we are happy to be here. It is no wonder that Bangladesh and Philippines are two strong economies in the region because the income is depended not on production but the unfailing support of their sons and daughters toiling under the sun of the Gulf Region. (In most cases inside well air conditioned buildings). Both these nationalities are also found where labour is needed such as Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong and Japan.
Would it be better for them to appear at the doors of European Union as refugees or work hard and send money to rebuild their countries? Here they are not migrants, but workers on contracts. Arab societies have always been closed societies, in fact this extends to many other Moslem countries as well (Malays are much more closed than Indonesian Moslems, reflecting their respective colonial pasts and the rigidity of current political systems). This closet nature extends to Bangladesh itself, and you can see it analyzing their treatment of the Rohingya Bangla refugees. Bangladeshis at DOH are cheerful and are glad to be of service

Salmon Suny from Bangladesh welcomed me as I waited to have a long shower before boarding my next flight. He made sure that I had all that was needed for a leisurely shower: Towels, soap, shaving utensils. He would repeatedly ask me, do you need tooth brush? Do you need a shaver? A comb? A nod of the head, and everything appears, all packed nicely and ready for use. The shower room was spic and span clean, so that when I arrived at my destination COK the next morning at 8 am, I did not look bedraggled
Thank you Salman
There were other attendants at the Men’s Toilet, a young tall Bangladeshi with receding hair whom I recognized from a previous visit, and Raju whom I met this time. They were eager in their service and chatted if you showed an interest, otherwise were full of smiles and silence. No other airline outside this region would provide this level of service. Thank you, HE Abu Bakr, the CEO of QR!
These are the unsung heroes of QR that makes the total flight experience more comfortable, human and meaningful.
FAs on the flight from BRU TO DOH Q 196 on 16.2.2016 were charming and lovely to talk to. Fay the lead FA was from Manila, closer to Clark Airport (QR lands there), she has worked 7 years with QR. Bandana (the meaning of the name is the one that binds people together) was from Sikkim and was very sweet.
I have never seen the same FA twice (there are thousands at the employ of QR) but I am always hoping. But our unsung heroes at the Business Class Lounge, including Aksam Abu Tahir I see them almost always when I transit through or I can send my personal greetings to them through their colleagues.
I thank them for making my journey a pleasant one.
PS As I was leaving the restaurant, Aksam appears and escorts me to my gate which happened to be a long ways distant, 20. He engaged a golf cart to take me and some others to the gates at E! The conductor of the vehicle, smartly attired was Mahares from Tunisia. We had a brief chat about the good relations Cuba enjoys with Tunisia (I know the man who was sent there to set up the embassy!)

The QR 516 to COK from DOH was a blur in memory because of the tiredness but did manage to chat a little with Zeny, the FA from Philippines. Just before landing at COK as the sun was coming up, she especially made a Chai to wake up my drowsy body. Selamat, Zeny.

mardi 23 février 2016

FORT COCHIN A SPIRITUAL HOME

FORT COCHIN, A SPIRITUAL HOME
Even though Fort Cochin cannot give me the exhilaration of walking along the streets of my neighbourhood of Vedado, in La Habana, it has given me some unexpected gifts on this visit, the most important of which is a sense of spiritual solace.
Spirituality is not about religion. In Cuba, we have realized what American Indians have known for millennia-it is the connection that you make, a universal connection, with all things.

On this visit, I felt I had been able to make that connection, despite the fact that in the last ten years, I had made innumerable visits to this little town, occasionally with friends from Japan and France.
(a coin from Marrakech, minted possibly in Fez by Jewish merchants. the year is AH 1289, 150 years ago. Thoufeek transcribed the writings on the other side, to whom I gave this coin as a remembrance of our friendship).

On this visit, my first for 2016, I felt something congealed, giving me that spiritual solace. In Fort Cochin, I always looked for a place to stay where I felt comfortable, I am sensitive to the negative or positive feelings a hotel or accommodation gives me, the sense of the air and the earth.
 (entrance to Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel)
(during the evenings, the beach in front of the hotel is full of merry makers usually in family groups)

During my weeklong stay, I was at Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, facing the Arabian Sea, the only one such in Fort Cochin. The ambiance and the attentive staff made history come alive for me: the life and times of Sir Robert Bristow.

This spiritual gift was due to the following 7 people (some with their families)..With whom I was able to spend a little time during my visit, not any particular order, but of some importance to my heart.
 ( a view from his office facing Jew Town Road)
(being an observant syro-malabar christian, he took me to a vegetarian restaurant for lunch)

If I have to name one person whom I look forward to seeing on my visit here to Cochin, is this gentleman, from a distinguished family going back generations, deeply rooted in the land. He bears the name of an illustrious family, which may have been converted from the Jewish population of that time, when St. Thomas visited these shores. He is very kind to me, facilitates connections and always feeds me, food and books, without fail.. Iconsider him my closest colleague in Cochin
After getting to know him, I delved into the illustrious history of ancient Christians of this region, who had been present for nearly the entire length of Christian history, dating back to St Thomas. I am convinced that they are converted Jews from that era. It is interesting to speculate why no one questions the christian presence of nearly 2000 years whereas the Jewish presence is polemic?
 (
(the interior of the Kadavumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam, hopefully the centre of rejuvenation of jewish life in Cochin)
A last Jew bearing an ancient heritage. He has a heavy load on his shoulder, remembering the history of his people, at least written for the past 1100 years but remembered for ever. Was able to spend a fair bit of time with him. A thrilling moment for me was to visit the synagogue of which he is the guardian, now refurbished a little, its magnificence resurrected a little bit, had held a Jewish service first time in 44 years! It is highly unusual for a synagogue given to dust for 4 decades to wake up to the songs and dances of yesteryear.


I had taken a liking to him the very first time I had met him, a history buff who had copied books which had been out of print and we discussed the history of Christian people and the city, a modest man, soft spoken, he revealed his mystic bend and the connections we made on this visit was precious indeed. He had introduced me to the great historian of Fort Cochin and his works, Mr Bernard, and photocopied books which had gone out of print at that time. The afternoon I spent with him, talking about the We are all related concept of the American Indians (Mitakuye Oyasin), was so enriching that walking back to the hotel I felt so ecstatic!

(We will soon see you, in Eretz Israel!)

How can such a small city and the larger city nearby give birth to so many nice people? This couple is just a delight, despite his high civil service position. She exudes warmth and affection, has two delightful young daughters, studious and ambitious. A sheer pleasure to be with them. I consider the young mother to be metaphorically representing the rebirth of the Jewish life and culture in Cochin




As the sun was going down one evening, I ran into this self-taught erudite scholar of Ft Cochin history, especially of the Jews of the Malabar Coast. He is chef by profession and now works in Dubai far away from the land he loves. I encouraged him to delve into the interesting history of the Muslims in this town of such racial harmony. I expect lots of good work from him.

I had met this elderly Jewess, now in her nineties, many moons ago when both her husband, a witty man and a lawyer and her brother who had remained a bachelor were alive. Now frail but kept strong and healthy by the careful attention poured on her by the dutiful Taha and his family. I consider his gestures towards the solitary elderly Jewess worthy of this righteous man.
(I am glad that Thoufeek and Taha are preserving for posterity, the songs and remembrances of a Jewish Past of the Paradesis. you cn watch her reciting morning prayers in this short video,
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcqUVM9Gbj8)

Long last I met a local Foodie, a Christian with interests in Israel and South Africa, a metropolitan with whom one can feel at home. He is well travelled, has an international outlook, and is least “Indian” in his way of thinking.
I am leaving these parts today and I will carry these people in my heart and wait for our next reunion, preferably in Fort Cochin but perhaps in Israel or USA or RSA.
 (remnants of a Buddhist Vihara dredged out of the Cochin Harbour. My friends in Cochin in 2016 display the same kind of universality and religious tolerance of their forefathers: Jews, Christians and Muslims)
 (a moment to reflect the glory of the past and the future to come of this ancient corner of International exchange: Fort Cochin)



I forgive with great charity, the numerous Kashmiri merchants annoying the visitors, the restaurant owners of Ft Cochin who ply their trade in such lower levels so as to tarnish the reputation of Kerala cuisine, the loud and unpleasant Auto Rickshaw drivers trying their best to leech out a few rupees.. Despite all that Fort Cochin remains a charming place and to me, especially after this visit..
(Rafiq the auto rickshaw driver is an exception to the capricious transporters of fort Cochin)
 (a Roystoniea Regia or Cuban Palm in the grounds of the Tripunithura Palace Museum)
 (They have begun to establish a semblance of the Dutch Garden of van Reede, of Hortus Malabaricus fame)
 (while the touristy Fort Cochin has just ordinary food offerings, the non touristy city across the bay, Ernakulam offers the foodie various choices, such as vegetarian Parothas of North India at this busy dive in the city)  Healthy snacks and drinks are available in various locations, I was taken there by a young foodie, humanitarian worker of exceptional promise, Mr P.


A Spiritual Home.. 
Fort Cochin has become that for me..

UBER IN FORT COCHIN; WHAT A BLESSING

This morning I had to get to the airport, from my hotel in Fort Cochin. When I checked the Uber app, no cars were available.
This is yet another disadvantage of tourist oriented Fort Cochin, they can choose to serve the tourists as they please, with bad food, high priced transportation with disagreeable auto rickshaw drivers.
Tourists are almost forced to pay a higher than normal fee for a taxi to take you to the airport. there is a bus service which runs about 8 times per day and when it does, it is convenient.

Fort Cochin local politicians and taxi drivers have managed to block Uber and discourage local people who would otherwise might join Uber. When you do get Uber, it is usually a driver who had come there from across the water in Ernakulam.
This morning, I was resigned to pay 1500 INR for the ride to the airport, but just at the time of check out, I decided to check the Uber app again and it immediately showed a car available and within four minutes the driver was at the front of the hotel.

As you can see, the price was almost halved, the cars are both of the same quality, Uber drivers are much more polite and friendly and try to make conversation as the service is known for shared rides. My driver today was Mr M, from Ernakulam and he pointed out some interesting spots along the way.
The drive is nearly 50 km! it took Mr M just over one hour, and I arrived at the airport in good spirits to begin my journey to Miami via Colombo, Abu Dhabi and New York.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE VISIT TO FORT COCHIN IN FEBRUARY 2016

The above photo says it all. The nonagenarian Jewess, Sarah Jacob Cohen, enjoying the attention she receives on a daily basis, aided and assisted by dutiful Taha on her right. Looking on is the best historian of Fort Cochin and Jews of Malabar, Thoufeek.
Sharing an afternoon with the three of them was a thing of beauty.
I wish them well, as I am about to take off to Colombo on my way west

lundi 22 février 2016

EATING FOR ONE WEEK IN COCHIN IN INDIA

I am unashamedly fond of the little township of Fort Cochin but certainly not for its food. The quality of food in the tourist parts of Fort Cochin is just one notch down the quality ladder. Fort Cochin also does not feel like India. To feel India with its hustle and bustle and its populace you have to cross the waters to the city of Ernakulam, where coincidentally there are very many good restaurants which serve Kerala food. Kerala food is very difficult to obtain outside Kerala, perhaps one could get it occasionally in Singapore or Malaysia.
I was invited out every night during this stay in Fort Cochin and each night I crossed the gulf between my mind and India of Ernakulam. Tonight the last night of my stay I was invited to eat traditional Kerala food by a local foodie and we ended up at Dhe Puttu and I am glad that I will carry its memory as part of my eating experience in Cochin..
Tomorrow I am flying Etihad Airways to JFK via Abu Dhabi and I am certain that certain pleasures to tickle the tonsils await on that trip..
Adieu to Cochin for now
May the spirits bring me back soon enough..

dimanche 21 février 2016

FORT COCHIN A SUMPTUOUS FEAST FOR THE MIND BODY AND THE SOUL

FORT COCHIN   A SUMPTUOUS FEAST FOR THE MIND, BODY AND THE SOUL. ONE DAY IN FEBRUARY
My choices of places to stay at Fort Cochin are the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel which is arguably the best situated hotel in Fort Cochin facing the Arabian sea and the Niyati Boutique Hotel of my friend Joseph C. I have been staying at the Bristow since I arrived from France via Brussels few days ago. The manager Mr. Murugan and the Front desk manager Mr Prince have been more than congenial.
I wake up late, just in time before breakfast ends. There are lots of choices of European breakfast but I am partial to the south Indian specialties. This morning began with a local delicacy Uthappam, with sweet milky coffee, fruit platter. Days here have been long and dinners finishing late in the evening and the long drive back to Ft Cochin from Ernakulum, made convenient by Uber!


Soon after Thoufeek Zakariya, the Chef who now works at Taj Dubai arrives. He is an amateur historian, self-taught, but the best there is in the current climate of “tourist oriented shallow history” by necessity and also foreign fake journalism parading as history. For nearly three hours we discussed various innuendos of historical note of Fort Cochin with an emphasis on Jewish History and fascination with the Portuguese maritime expansion in Asia. Several points were under discussion, the possible Jewish donor of wood to the Chempita Mosque? The site of arrival of Jews after Spanish dispersion? The letter from Moses de Paiva who visited from Amsterdam? The rebirth of the Kadavumbagam synagogue in Ernakulum, the history of the destruction of the Black Jewish presence in Fort Cochin? We also touched upon Jewish connections to Fort Cochin from Yemen, cities of Mesopotamia as well as that of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Tunisian Jew who lived in Mangalore in 1248 CE.  I gave him a coin from Morocco with Star of David on it with 1289 AH written on it. I have to admire this man’s honesty, analysis of the researched facts and refusal to accept heresy and more importantly open mindedness in face of his personal pious conviction in Islam.
It was close to 2 pm when he left, I slowly walked towards the Princess street, crossing Napier street on to the parade ground, skirting St Francis church. Stopped at the IDIOM bookstore and chatted with the genial owner manager.
My destination was Walton’ Homestay, a very popular hostel with foreigners and friends of Mr. Christopher Walton whose family has owned this Dutch era building now housing his namesake homestay, much like a B and B. Fortunately for me, Mr. Walton was in his seat in the office
It is my lucky day, I greeted him, as I entered the office. I would label him a facilitator of knowledge and in the American Indian way, a Hollow Bone through which spiritual messages flow. Today’s conversation more than emphasized this designation of him. After the initial conversation about the history of his city (in a way mine too), our conversation took a deep plunge into spiritual topics. I can say without a doubt that this afternoon that I spent in the company of Mr. Walton was one of the most spiritual experiences for me. It transcended the normal level of communication, to a higher level where dwells feelings in the forms of spirit engaged thoughts and action. With his understanding of spirituality, not related to his adherent religion, Christianity or Hinduism of India, but one of a true universal nature, I was able to enter a world which I had not entered, hallucinatory with deep knowledge, a connection to an eternal future based on an endless past. It was an uplifting conversation, very gratifying and felt light headed at the gravity of the conversation.
Such a conversation took place in Fort Cochin is of special significance for me, as it binds me to this small pocket of land , isolated as it is from rest of Kerala and India but connected to unknown points across the ocean, on which it sits.



I walked back to the hotel, retracing my steps, along the Parade Ground. I kept my gaze on the ground as I was trying to fully comprehend what had happened at the office of Mr. Walton in Princess Street.
Soon afterwards, Mr. M and my Jewish colleague Mr. E arrived from Ernakulum. Earlier in the day, Thoufeek had fed my mind, afternoon saw my soul being filled by Mr. W.
The world of Mr. M completed the circle, made the day whole. He and I share ideas of travel, food, journeys and destinations. We talked about his educational projects in South Africa and he invited me to come with him on one of his monthly visits. I would like to learn more about his projects. He wanted me to taste typical syro-malabar Christian cuisine but none was easily available today. The Christians here are observant of Lent, thus we ended up in a pesco vegetarian restaurant, the Pavilion near Fort Cochin, where I had mahi in a delicious curry, okra in spicy fried coating, fish fingers to pick on. It was nice to see another aspect of the cultural history of this place.


Each night I have been invited out to dinner, last night it was Brindavan, a highly vegetarian restaurant; two consecutive dinners at the two clubs, The Lotus Club and The Yacht Club.
Mr. M promised me a syro-malabar Christian meal before I left. When I got back to the hotel I booked my connecting flight on Sri Lankan airways to Colombo to connect with Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi and then to New York, where I would connect with a flight to Miami. I look forward to my family and some dear friends in Miami before moving on to the American Indians especially the UmonHon.

I AM EXTREMELY GRATEFUL FOR A DAY LIKE TODAY
GRATEFUL FOR THIS WORLD FULL OF PEOPLE LIKE THOSE WHO SHARED THEIR TIME WITH ME TODAY


mercredi 17 février 2016

JOURNEY IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE DESTINATION

Lately, the emphasis has shifted from the journey to destination in the world of Travel. One of the frequently asked questioned in Travel Forums is: How can I get there cheaply. 
That immediately puts a brake on your journey and if you apply the same mentality to your destination, the pleasure would be halved as well.
To me, getting there is an important part of my travels, and that gives me ample opportunities for interactions on the road with every day people who make my journey more pleasant. They are not just faces but names and histories and over the years I have had pleasant times with agents at airport and car rental people, waiters, Flight attendants, and many many good people who serve us.
Here is a short photo summary of my last trip which began yesterday and finished this morning. I thank all the people involved in making the journey from Bruxelles to Cochin a pleasant one.