Wednesday, August 28, 2013

[Web Tip] A great resource to learn Hindi

Looking for a resource to teach Hindi to your kids who are growing up away from South Asia? Want to learn the basic conversational skills before your India trip?

Here is a recommended source:

Try it and write a review:-)

Monday, August 26, 2013

[Travelog] [Bolivia Trip - Part II] The Flight, Immigration and Welcome!

The Flight: Miami-La Paz. 

The SFO-MIA flight arrives on time, rather in-time for me to catch the Bolivia plane. No hiccups. I sit next to a Dutch-Bolivian gent (his mother was Bolivian). Quite an impressive character! Larger than life if I can say so. None of his responses were direct - he was talking in phrases. Later I learnt (from him) that 'proper' Dutch makes extensive use of phrases wherever there is one available.  When I asked him if Dutch is close to German in structure, he said "What Germans speak is not German... its the wrong Dutch" and laughed away heartily... :-)

Mr G (name hidden for privacy) works for an American Telecom company. He has a 6000 sq meters yard with a mansion on it somewhere between La Paz and Santa Cruz. Upon a few mutual personal revelations, he started talking very openly and started giving me tips for safety, for which SIM cards to buy, how to pick a cab, how to travel in public transport etc etc.

La Paz - Arrival & Visa
What they say about altitude sickness is true. La Paz is one of the highest airports in the world, and you can feel a dearth of air as you exit the airplane. We landed at about 5:20AM local time, and everyone immediately lined up for immigration checks. A police/military officer was checking if everyone had the documents in order. As soon as he flipped through my Republic of India passport(s) and could not see any visa to Bolivia, he took me aside, saying and gesturing things (I only understood the latter), then took me to an immigration officer's window. The officer looked at my passport, my application, the hotel reservation etc., and asked for 135 Bolivianos as visa fee. I took out US Dollars which is an acceptable way of paying for the visa, but he refused. He said - give me Bolivianos please (I later confirmed from fellow US citizen travelors that they paid in US Dollars for the visa fee at the same airport).

I was instructed to leave my passport, and luggage at the immigration window, and go get the money exchanged at the terminal. The police officer accompanied me all the way through the exits, and showing me the exchange window, he disappeared behind the 'Do No Enter' door where the passengers walk out after the formalities.

"WTH!" - I thought to myself. "So I am standing here - technically on Bolivian land - with a lot a cash - but with NO passport or luggage... there's so many ways God could play this. But perhaps it is not worth speculating.. ", and so I immediately started focusing on the exchange process. After getting a shot at the window, now I was left with only one choice: approach another police officer and explain to him/her why I don't have a passport and why I need to get back in to the airport, the 'wrong' way, so I could collect my luggage, get a visa stamped, and be on my way.

As I was about to embark on this brave mission, a passenger exitted from the door that only opened from inside. I took the liberty of rushing right back in to face a stout officer with a gun whose barrel alone was enough to cause me a heart attack:-)

".............".. he said something in Spanish, slowly. 

I said "Visa, passport inside, visa fees..."

"..................".. he said something else.

"No habla Espanol Senor.", I said.

"... Boarding Pass..", he demanded.
Fortunately I had taken the boarding pass out of the passport, so I showed it to him. And he let me go in....

.. except... there were two more similar checkpoints I had to repeat the trick. I felt like a daredevil marching through the airtight security of a South American nation's most famous airport... I really did.. esp when I made it back to the same window. The officer took the money, non-chalantly stamped my passport, and off I went.

"Welcome to Bolivia!!!" - a road side sign said as I hailed a taxi at 6:30AM in the morning.

And thus began my grossly unplanned journey to Bolivia!:-)

(To be continued ...)

[Travelog] [Bolivia Trip - Part I] The Rush Hour.

Prepping and rushing.

The cab was here, waiting outside. He was this rushy guy who was born in Brooklyn and moved to west coast in his teens. I had 2 and a half hours to the flight as he rushed through the freeway traffic, telling with a zeal how he was once a party limousine owner, had a beach front house in Monterrey, etc etc, until he got divorced and lost it all. Listening to his self realizations and life lessons, I was wondering whether I had all the documents for an upon-entry-visa in La Paz Bolivia.  Soon we were at the airport as he shook my hand while smartly passing on a business card in the same gesture - he also specializes in foreclosure real estate!!!

Uno Airline Agent, Americano. 

I rush to check in at the AA counter, and seeing only carry ons (I packed light) an agent pointed me to the self service kiosk. So after about 10 minutes of text input and screen touches, I land at a screen that asks for an agent's assistance. The AA special agent walks in - and asks for travel documents. 

" don't have a visa for Bolivia...??", he says.

"Well, according to publication number so and so, Indian citizens can be granted visa upon arrival", came my calculated answer.

"Is that so?", I could feel an authority forming in his voice.. "well.. then.. where is your application?"

".. uhm I am going to get one there and fill it out", at this point I was starting to doubt my own research.

"No", he said, "I need to see a filled application to check you in."

If you had not heard of the 'BAM' moment, this would be it. In next 15 seconds, I had made 3 plans of dealing with the situation. and none of them led me to Bolivia!

"Do you have passport pictures at least?", the agent softened a bit it appeared.

"Uh no...", I conceded defeat, planning to pick up the stuff and leave.

"Don't worry. There is an on site travel agency in the international terminal who can get you the pictures and a printed application.."

Then he looked at his watch, and went on.."It is 11:10. You have an hour and a half. Take the Airtran, get the pictures and the application, and come back... Now RUN!!!"

I smiled. Then frowned a bit. Time crunch. Pressure to perform. And a few thousand dollars on the line. Didn't quite seem like the start of a great relaxing vacation - does it? 

The next 17-1/2 minutes had the answer... so I thought as I dragged a backpack and a bag on wheels to the train station 2 levels up.

The rush hour

"Take the blue line... you will get there faster!!".. I remembered the agent's tip just as I was sitting down in the red line train. 

Shites! This is fkn awesome! If I were a project manager, I had just added unwanted delay to the delivery schedule - as if a surprise requirement and an urgent deadline were not enough.

At that precise moment, my worry hormones got flooded by the dopamine family of thugs. I am actually enjoying it - I said to myself - the unknowns, the risks, are pumping me. 

11:16 by the clock, and I was posing for a passport size picture against a white-ish wall outside the "Airport Travel Agency", as the genie (magic agent) was framing my dark silhouettes in his iPhone app.

"Wait a minute. I know Apple did good inventing or copying stuff. but there's an app for THAT??"

"... No smiling. and take the glasses off."

Swear to God it felt like the 'N' word was mumbled too somewhere in there...

But... this wasn't the time to judge. Or react. There was a priority one fire waiting to be put off... shit... what time is it? I need to catch a flight!

I pondered as the genie took his phone with him, and with out proofing, printed 2 pictures with my head cur off!!!!

((" much for the iPhone app, eh SmartAss??")), I mumbled.

11:28. And this genie doesn't want to take another picture.. he is arguing with a female colleague that this app is s'possed to work dammit!

Finally, he agrees and we do the stick-to-the-wall-until-genie-comez-so-close-with-iPhone-I-can-smell-his-armpits trick once again.

This time, he proof reads it, and the pictures come out reasonably OK. I recognized myself - my teeth said hi (this time I ignored his directions and shone my teeth like a kid high on ice cream:-).

11:31. The pictures are drying. The lady genie is pulling a pre-printed-photo-copied visa application to Bolivia, which is $7.

$7?? Cmon if I had internet (which I didn't at the moment) and I had access to a printer (which I didn't) I would GOOGLE for the application and print it for a few cents!!!

But I didn't. 

I paid her $22 dollar for using a public wall, a cheap app, an iPhone, and a copier machine. Reminded me of one of those visa visits to the US Embassy in New Delhi - the 'screening' folks rejected my passport pics and in a panic mode I had an auto rickshaw driver take me to a back alley stall where a slightly more professional genie was waiting to take my pictures in bright day light under a tree, then handed it over to a Photoshop professional who literally scissored out the tree bark manually within minutes, filling it with perfect visa-friendly-white. I remember getting accolades for that picture. nothing a hand+sum of Rs600 (~USD 10) cannot do in the alleys of Delhi:-)

"I AM BACK!!!"


"I AM BACK!!!", I announced like the to the waiting passengers and agents in my panting dogly voice as I approached the self service kiosk again. The same AA agent came over to check. Photo, and application. great! Here's your boarding pass - good luck!"

Nah - this cannot be that easy - I thought to myself. My adrenaline is still pumping - gimme something more boss! This is too boring...

And right then, the agent yelled back: "Are you carrying both these bags??"

"Yes", I said, "A bag on wheels and a backpack.", I replied with confidence.

"Well - that bag on the wheels is too big I am afraid...", he said sizing it up. 

11:55. I am in the passengers line again. And now it is stalled (who carries skiing stuff in Summer??).

11:58. Still folks ahead of me. I decide to take action. I cut out of the line - and decide to rearrange the bags right there. After 5 minutes of fumbling, I challenge the agent again.

"It fits! What did you do???"

"Can I go? My flight will miss me otherwise...", I screamed and ran through the security to the gate.

The flight is on time. As a victorious man, I board the economy class cabin...:-)(... to be continued)