Thursday, September 11, 2008

Trinbagologue - First impressions - Geography and anthropology

To the average Indian, the terms Carribbean or West Indies conjures images of predominantly African people, beaches, hot weather with the odd gale-force winds, coconut and palm trees and everything at-sea-level.

And so, it came as a rude shock to me when I saw that Trinidad is actually full of hills and is rather Kerala-like in the greenery and denseness of its vegetation. The same hilly terrain, narrow winding roads, with brooks and streams aplenty (they call them rivers here though, snigger: in their defence, they do acknowledge that their rivers are no Ganga. Supremacy of Indian rivers established, we move on :P).

Being an Island, there are bound to be quite a few beaches but there are some rather spectacular cliffs and waterfalls too. I am used to both types of geographical features but Trinidad is probably one of the few places where you would see both hilly, and occasionally mountainous, terrain and a huge sea/ocean body nestled so close to each other.

The weather is Mumbai-like hot/warm all through the year and woollenwear sellers are advised to stay away from venturing into the region in the false hope of business development.

The interesting, and totally unique, phenomenon though, is the rain. It comes down hard and literally soaks the entire nation when it does. However, it does so very conveniently on weekends only ! Rain on weekdays is very rare while no-rain on weekends is rarer !

There are delightful little brooks running crazy all over the landscape and being in close proximity to the sea all the time means you have that salty aroma all around you, anywhere you go.

This place is very close to the South American mainland, in fact I even saw what was apparently, a mountain in Venezuela from the western-most point of Trinidad. Yayy !

Coming to the people, the population is divided into three groups, the africans, the Indians (yeah, we are there too!) and the white-skinned folks (of probably Spanish, Venezuelan and English descent). The first two groups appear to be in a majority here but the white people are not insignificant in number either.

At first glance, it seems like the white people are relatively prosperous, going by the total absence of any of them in the rather lower-paid jobs. Neither do I see anyone of them living in shanties or as vagabonds. The African community, on the other hand, have a very diverse mix with representation among the poorest class, the relatively-modest-but-steady income group as well as the rich. The Indian community is fairly broad-based too but seems to have very few people among the poorest. I also hear about a relatively recent influx of Chinese people, most migrant labour, which is beginning to alter the anthropological and cultural landscape of the land, most evident in the sprouting of the ubuquitous chinese food outlets. However, I haven't seen enough of them to form a firm impression about this. I might be totally wrong but this is how it appears to my rather untrained and unsophisticated eye.

All in all, a fairly small country in size, with a very interesting mix of races and cultures. Certainly a place where anybody from anywhere in the world can blend and settle in.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Trinbagologue - First impressions - the civil infrastructure

The country is rather small in size and it reflects in the way the infrastructure is built and modified from global standards. The roads are narrower, bridges are smaller, flyovers are rare and there are no railways.

Personal transport is the preferred and widely preferred mode of travel. Everybody has one car of their own, quite a few have 2 or even 3 cars. Public transport is limited to the rarely-seen buses and the ubiquitous maxi-taxis. There are a few personal car owners operating as taxis on popular routes as well but those are few and do not operate a fixed schedule, thus making them unreliable.

Cars are dirt cheap and there is a huge market for RO-ROs. Literally standing for Roll On Roll Off, these are foreign cars, mostly japanese, that have been put on a ship and brought to Trinidad for selling here. Needless to say, this practice is not beneficial to the local automotive industry and they keep trying to curb this practice. These cars are also relatively cheaper than a similar type of car manufactured and sold locally.

There are hardly any motorcycles, I do not remember seeing even one so far and scooters are simply not existent.

The roads are good in the major city centers but I am told that they are quite bad in far flung and rural areas. In general, the condition of the roads, despite being narrow, is superior to most Indian roads and speeds in excess of 100 kmph are common on the Highway.

The municipal garbage collection and waste management strategy seems to be better than most Indian setups and the country is relatively cleaner too. Please note that while we call Trinidad cleaner, the local residents are totally against that classification and believe that they are way behind truly clean countries in the western world.

Since a large swathe of land is actually reclaimed swampland, instances of flash flooding immediately after rainfall are becoming commonplace and cause havoc with traffic conditions becoming remarkably worse anytime it rains.

The country has witnessed explosive growth in number of cars being put on the road and has not made adequate investment in upgrading the road infrastructure, thus leading to numerous traffic jams across the country and generally irritatingly-slow moving traffic. Most roads are chok-a-blok with cars during the start and end of normal business hours and hence a 4-5 km journey takes a good 45-50 minutes.

Electricity infrastructure is fairly good but there are issues in far-flung areas. We have experienced only one power outage so far which got fixed within 10 minutes.

And there are no footpaths.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Trinbagologue - The Genesis

All right, after that 3 month stint in Manila, I was beginning to itch for something new to land on my plate. Staying in Delhi with nothing much to do is rather painful due to professional as well as some personal reasons.

So it was with a sigh of relief that I recieved the news of my next assignment from my boss. I was to travel to Port of Spain, Trinbago (local slang for the country full name - Trinidad and Tobago) in the lovely Carribbean for a 4 month process improvement project.

The relief at the assignment notwithstanding, I was slightly apprehensive because of the usual challenges for vegetarians outside India and the American right-side-of-the-road driving rules. As is now the norm, I hardly got any time to prepare and the few days between me being assigned to the project and actually flying out were spent in a mad rush to procure visas, transit visas, get Yellow Fever inoculation certificates from the always reliably efficient and customer friendly Municipal Corporation of Delhi, get tickets booked and confirmed and co-ordinating all these for myself apart from two other members of my team.

Hecticalities (self-coined term: all hectic tasks/issues) done, we reached the spiffy new DIAL Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi (actually located in Gurgaon, thus technically the name was incorrect - wrong city, wrong state) shortly before midnight on 3rd September to catch our British Airways (dont they have the most pathetic looking cabin crew and a moronic customer service attitude to match?) flight to London Heathrow from where we were to transfer to London Gatwick for our onward flight to Port of Spain.

The first flight was uneventful and as expected, bland food, indifferent crew and timely departure and arrival. Once we reached Heathrow, oh I love that airport - how people can think its one of the worst big airports in the world is beyond me, the fun and games begun.

The arrangement for BA flight transfers from Heathrow to Gatwick is supposed to be like this. You get off our flight at Heathrow, clear immigration, collect your baggage and head outside the terminal from where you take any London city bus to reach BA's new zany Terminal 5, yup the one with the stainless operations from Day 1, and then hunt for somebody wearing a flourescent yellow National Express jacket to show you the platform where the coaches for Brighton depart from. Having sourced that information, you are supposed to reach the aforementioned platform and wait until a coach destined for Brighton pulls up.

You are then expected to confirm with the driver that he will go via Gatwick, load your baggage in the hold and find some comfortable seats on the bus. It will then depart after some time, read loading enough number of people, and take the M25 and a series of other nondescript roads to finally dump you outside Gatwick at which point you find your way to the departure terminal, queue up to reach a check-in counter, announce your intention to travel to Port of Spain, show your passport and other paperwork, check your baggage in, get your boarding pass and then head for security clearance before boarding the plane.

With a 4 hour difference between the first flight landing at Heathrow and the second flight scheduled to depart from Gatwick, you would think you are well covered. Well, you would be wrong. Because you would not have provisioned for what happened.

After landing at Heathrow, we spent a full hour clearing Immigration, another 10 minutes getting our baggage and a further 5 finding the exit. It is at this point that my colleagues figured that they had been kept away from their beloved sticks of tobacco-tainted death for far too long and they would set matters right at that very moment.

Powerless to object, I watched them spend about 10 minutes enjoying their cigarettes, all this while watching buses to Terminal 5 pass by with reassuring frequency. Cigarettes finished, we prepared and positioned ourself for picking up our baggage quickly and geared ourselves up for boarding the next bus that came along.

It never came. Atleast not until a full 35 minutes had elapsed. The panic-o-meter was flickering between the Amber and Red zones as we boarded the bus and started praying that we werent too late.

15 minutes later, we were at Terminal 5, had found a National Express guy and the platform for the Brighton coach service. The coach was already waiting there so we got our baggage in and the bus moved in another 10 minutes. At which point, we did some quick mental calculations and reckoned that we still had enough time to reach Gatwick and check ourselves in and hence the panic-o-meter in the head adjusted to rest in the green zone.

Upon reaching Gatwick, we had another 75 minutes to go before departure. This seemed like a comfortable situation and my colleagues insisted on being fortified with another shot of smokey lungs to prepare them for the arduous 8 hour flight. Another 15 minutes gone, we headed for the check-in lobby only to find a queue of about 150 people waiting to check-in at the BA counters.

To cut a long story short, we reached the counter 30 minutes later and were told that baggage drop for the flight had been closed and nothing could be done about it. The Panicko was straining to break the sound barrier on the red zone and I was beginning to count the money in my pocket when the BA lady declared that it was not our fault that we were late between transfers and hence they would book us onto an alternative flight. Hallelujah!

But as they say in Allahabad, If it involves Aditya, There's Gotta Be A Twist(tm). There were no direct flights to Port of Spain that day so they had to reroute us to Antigua from where they used the blessing called interline agreements to book us onto a LIAT Airlines flight to Port of Spain via the rather picturesque St Lucia.

Flight bookings and the requisite meaningless and rather-funny-in-the-circumstances apology from the BA staff later, we boarded the Antigua flight and were congratulating ourselves for our good collective fortune when the cabin crew started serving out meals and it dawned upon me.

Being a vegetarian, I always make it a point to pre-order an Indian/Asian vegetarian meal on all flights. This works very well across all airlines and is something they deserve to be proud of. However since we had missed our original flight and had been rerouted to Antigua, there was no vegetarian meal on the plane as per my specifications.

The best they could do was a lasagna which, being full of cheese, was not very feasible either. Needless to say, I didnt get a bite to eat through the flight. I had to console myself with the thought that I can feed myself well at the airport upon landing in Antigua as there was a 4 hour gap between the flights.

Landed at Antigua, cleared immigration, reached the holding area of the airport, only to realise that the airport is about 20% smaller than the Calicut International Airport (also wierdly located in Malapuram, thus rendering the name technically defunct, yet again) and the food options were remarkably limited and included meat variants only.

Another bout of consoling myself started and would have gone on well but for my realization that LIAT would have no idea of my culinary preferances and even if they did, it would not matter much because they do not serve food on their flights anyway. Wonderful !

At this point, we were also challenged by the fact that the driver of the taxi company was waiting for us in Port of Spain for a 5 pm arrival on a BA flight while we were now scheduled to reach there by an 8 pm LIAT flight. We tried contacting the driver by calling them from the payphones because my mobile phone just did not pick up any signal. 800 rupees down from own credit card and no successful call later, I gave up.

After another 15 minutes, I found an internet kiosk, whooped with joy and wrote a quick email to all kinds of people at Port of Spain to let the driver know we will be late. However, in the interim the client's considerate Project Manager had already raised hell at our non-arrival. They had contacted the airport authorities and not finding our names on the flight manifest, they had raised an alert for the airport and customs officials in London to let them know that 3 people on transit visas from India had not taken their connecting flight to take them outside the UK and had gone AWOL.

We had no clue of all this, of course, but our message was indeed read at about 6.30 pm and the driver informed so he was present when we landed and all looked good as we loaded up the rental car with our baggage.

The rest of the night was uneventful, barring the one mini-thrill at a traffic intersection where an oncoming car turning right came too fast and lost control to careene towards us, threatening to slalom into our car with an intensity that would surely have caused some damage to myself since I was riding shotgun. Thankfully, the errant driver regained control and we avoided a collision in the nick of time.

We reached our apartment, it looks brilliant and turned in for the night. Pics of the apartment shall be posted very soon.

Note on the title of the post - Its a concatenation of Trinidad and Tobago travelogue, for those who are confused

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