Sunday, December 24, 2017

India - Day 2: Christmas Eve in Fort Cochin

Exhausted from the drama of the previous day, we slept until quite late the next morning. Upon waking, we dressed and went downstairs, walking through the lobby at the base of the stairs, which had a small Christmas tree in the front window and a nativity scene on a little table near a doorway to the back garden where the restaurant was located, and sat down at a wooden picnic table under an awning. We seemed to be the only ones eating, but it was the end of the breakfast hours. After the complimentary Western-style breakfast of NescafĂ©, warmed white bread with strawberry jam from plastic packets and scrambled eggs—there were no other options (unless we wanted tea instead of the coffee)—in the hotel restaurant, we went out to explore our neighborhood. I had chosen the hotel, in part, for its proximity to the city center, which would make getting around easier for the few days that we would be here. We turned right after exiting the hotel and walked to Jawaher Park at the end of the block. Overwhelmed with humungous, moss-bearded trees that filled the sky above with leaves and limbs, the park was full of vendors selling a wide variety of food and other cheap gewgaws.

Men raising the giant Chinese fishing net.
On the beach, across the street on the other side of the park, we found the giant Chinese fishing nets, among the main attractions in Cochin. Small wooden boats lined the beach, which was covered with mounds of trash. Birds and cats and people probed around in the rubbish and camera-laden tourists took photos. They nets, suspended by impressively large structures that resembled gigantic claws made of logs of wood and roped together with the large nets in between, were submerged underwater. There were, perhaps six or seven of the large structures, but we could see more across the water. Every so often, the nets were raised out of the water, counterbalanced by a knotted-rope chain of heavy stones. When the time came to do so, men walked out along a great central beam to raise or lower the nets.

It was quite warm and we were thirsty so we stopped for a cool beverage at Hotel Marina. We had our sights on a cold beer, but settled for cardamom tea. Located above a ferry terminal, it wasn't a particularly nice place, but it had a superbly breezy and well-shaded open balcony overlooking the Arabian Sea. Also, we were the only occupants, so we had the place to ourselves to enjoy the view and talk about what we would do for the rest of the day.

Getting ready to enjoy our thali lunch at Dal Roti.
After resting up in the shade, we walked and gawked a bit more. People were out and about and there really seemed to be a festive or holiday spirit in the air. We were close to the Folklore Cultural Theatre and noticed that we could watch a Kathakali show, which is an Indian dramatic dance performance that I had read about and wanted to see, so we purchased tickets for the show that evening and then made our way, on foot, stopping to visit the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, to Dal Roti, a restaurant that was a little off the beaten path, but it knocked our socks off. We had been introduced to thali in Doha many years ago, which is a round platter of rice and bread served with various smaller accompanying dishes, and we loved it, but this was our first chance to try the real thing in India! The version at Dal Roti, pictured here, did not disappoint us. When we were finished with our meal, we hailed a tuk tuk and zipped back to the hotel to rest for a couple hours before returning to the Folklore Cultural Theatre to watch the Kathakali performance.

Watching the Kathakali performance.
Rested and ready, we arrived one hour before the show started to watch the actors apply their makeup. There were only two of them and the principal actor explained that the paints were made from natural ingredients. Just for fun, he applied some paint to Vito's face. Eventually, they finished their preparations while people trickled into the theater and the show started. The performance lasted one hour, beginning with an explanation of the different gestures that the actors performed. The whole affair lasted two hours, and turned us out at dinner time.

Kerala, which is the name of the Indian state that we had planned to explore during this trip, is predominantly Christian, so, aside from the Hindu and Muslim presence, there were many signs of Christian influence in Fort Cochin, such as churches and Christmas decorations. We stopped for a special Christmas dinner at the Old Harbour Hotel. The special set menu was a little pricey and the food was mediocre, but the outdoor dining area, with Christmas decorations and lights hanging from the trees, was quite nice. Even tho we were in the heart of Fort Cochin, within the walls of the hotel garden, we seemed far removed from the hubbub on the streets. Initially, the hotel provided local musical entertainment, but then a large chorus and band arrived to play and sing a number of Christmas songs. After the meal, we returned to our hotel and went to sleep.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

India - Day 1: Arrival at Fort Cochin

Upon waking, we looked for a place in the airport to have lunch before boarding our re-scheduled flight to Kochi, and settled for something akin to Indian fast food in the food court. We were tired, but in relatively OK spirits. It was just a few days before Christmas and we were finally on vacation, and after our documentation debacle and our failed connecting flight, we were so close to our final destination that nothing could bring us down.

We boarded on time and, after approximately two hours in the air, we were back on the ground in Kochi. We disembarked and waited for our luggage with the rest of the people from our flight. The airport was hot and humid and the weather was clearly warmer than it had been in Doha. It was a small airport, but we quickly found our luggage and exited the airport to hail a cab to our hotel, as we would do at any airport, except there weren't any cabs The parking lot was strangely deserted.

The bus was festively decorated.
It was around 4:30PM and we were flabbergasted that there were no cabs outside the airport. A small window and a sign indicated that we could hire a cab there and so we tried to do just that, but the people working on the other side of the window told us that we could only book one from inside. We tried to return, however, absurdly, the security guard would not let us re-enter. I could see people on the other side of the window booking taxis, but they refused to reserve one for us! A nice man waiting for a cab himself offered to call a taxi for us but, after a brief conversation on his phone, he told us that none were available—it was rush hour and we would have to wait. At that moment, a bus pulled up and, asking if it stopped at Fort Cochin, our destination, and understanding that it did go there, the three of us boarded. It would certainly be cheaper than a taxi and there were plenty of seats, at least, which didn't last for long.

Happy to be going somewhere, we tried to enjoy the scenery that was passing by outside. The bus began to swell with people, seemingly stopping at every intersection. Vito kept asking how long it would take, but we really had no idea. We didn't know how far away the hotel was from the airport. Perhaps, some of our problems could have been handled with better planning, although, so far, things had been working out. Anyway, after some time, we asked a woman sitting near us how long it would take to get to Fort Cochin, the end of the line, basically, and she told us that it could take as much as two hours—it was rush hour! We couldn't believe it and another passenger who had overheard us nodded his head and smiled in confirmation when I looked his way. So we just settled into our seats and enjoyed the ride. At least we were in India! It was a good thing that we had eaten before boarding our flight, otherwise, we would have been starving.

We drove over numerous bridges and enjoyed the lush green landscape, a welcome change from the drab desert colors of Doha. Eventually, the bus filled up and it was quite crowded. At one point, two men started arguing loudly on the bus, and it seemed like a fight was imminent, but everything settled down after a bit. Eventually, we made it to the end of the line and stepped off the bus with our luggage. It was dark and we were disoriented and tired. We had no idea which way to go, but I had booked a hotel near the city center. Judging by all the people and traffic around us, we seemed to be there. We inquired at a nearby tour-booking kiosk about the hotel's location, and began walking in the direction that we had been pointed.

The streets were lively—full of tuk tuks (auto rickshaws) and dust and noise and exhaust and people. We passed by Jawaher Park brimming with people and vendors, and decorated with all manner of lights. The hotel wasn't hard to find and we arrived at about 8:30PM. I had booked a couple nights at Hotel Rossitta Wood Castle, an old hotel made of teak wood, which sounds more charming than it was, but it served its purpose. We dropped off our luggage and went to eat at the hotel's restaurant, which was quite crowded so we had to wait. We didn't have the energy to look for anything else. By the time we finished, it was quite late and, having only slept a few hours in the past twenty-four, we went to our room and did the obvious.

India - Day 0: Doha Departure & Mumbai International Airport

We didn't have anything else to do on Friday, so we had a leisurely day of packing. In the evening, our cab arrived on time and we went to Hamad International Airport as we would on any other similar occasion. Everything went well when we checked in to our flight and we received all of our boarding passes so, after landing in Mumbai and re-checking our luggage, we would be able to proceed directly to our next boarding gate. As scheduled, our flight departed from Doha at 11PM. Finally boarding the plane after our week of hurdle after hurdle to make the trip happen, we felt invincible.

The plane landed in Mumbai International Airport the next morning, and even tho we had approximately 90 minutes to make our flight, we missed our connection. Moreover, we were separated almost immediately, which is not a comfortable situation. Because Angela had an e-visa, she had to go to a separate window to clear customs and pass the security checkpoint. We agreed to meet at the boarding gate for our next flight and that, whoever made it through first, would take care of retrieving the luggage, which had to be re-checked before proceeding to our departure gate. It was a tall order with the numbers of people swarming the checkpoint and the time running away from us. We went our separate ways, Vito staying with me. I lost track of Angela in the crowd; there were too many people and her line was far from our line. Things were not happening quickly and our situation was looking dire. It's a real shame that they divide families in that way. at the airport Anyway, the lines were insanely long and moving at a snail's pace. After about 45 minutes, I jumped the queue and explained that we were late for our flight and needed to pass thru if we were going to have any chance of catching our flight. Everyone looked at me like they didn't understand, but no one seemed to object, waving us to the front of the line.

On the other side of the security checkpoint, we found the belt with our luggage, one large suitcase and one small one, and looked for Angela. We didn't see her anywhere so we decided to check the baggage and make for the gate, but there were even more people waiting to exit the terminal! Streams of travelers were lined up at every possible exit. I don't think I have ever been in a more crowded airport and, if we had to wait in any of those lines, we were surely going to miss our flight. I was desperate and stressed out and Vito kept asking me where mommy was. I approached an officer. He appeared to understand me so I explained my situation briefly, and he escorted us to the front of the nearest line. We took our suitcases to the drop-off point and left them without further incident but, when checking the gate information, we could see that boarding for our flight had closed. Vito and I started running. It was quite early in the morning, and we were both tired and frustrated, but I think we traversed almost the entire length of the airport without stopping.

At the gate, the jet bridge was cordoned off and two attendants were thumbing through ticket stubs. We asked if it was too late to board our flight. One attendant picked up the phone and called the pilot, but she said we would not be permitted to board. Everyone had been checked in already and they were preparing to depart. I asked if they could check and see if Angela had boarded and, after checking the flight register, they told me she had not, and it was at that moment, out of breath, that she turned up! We couldn't do anything to persuade them to let us on board, but at least we were all together again. We could see that the plane was still connected to the other end of jet bridge, but there was no use in making a bigger scene without worsening the situation. So the attendants directed us to the rescheduling desk, which was all the way back to where we had started. We just hoped that our luggage was not traveling without us!

We waited about one more hour in line behind one person. By the time we booked our flight, the airport had cleared out and, compared to how it had looked when we had arrived, it almost appeared deserted. I felt like we were the only people who missed a flight. The woman helping us wanted us to pay for the new tickets, but Angela strongly objected, and, after consulting with her manager, we received new tickets for an early afternoon departure.

Pacified, we returned to the boarding area, ordered pastries and hot beverages at a coffee shop and then looked for a quiet place to sleep as it was still quite early in the morning and we were tired. We found a nice secluded corner at the end of a long hallway that was empty and quiet, but, more importantly, had unoccupied couches. While it was quiet without people, it made the Christmas muzak that was raining down from the ceiling speakers seem quite loud. I did a loop around the airport window shopping. A roving band of merry-makers wearing red stocking caps, complete with a band, were roaming the airport singing Christmas carols. After circling the shopping area, I returned to find Angela and Vito asleep and joined them.

Friday, December 22, 2017

India: Last-Minute Heartbreak?

There were many barriers to the successful departure on our winter trip to Kerala, a state of India along its southwestern coast, also known as the Malabar Coast. The main barrier involved the procurement of the necessary documents for travel. I will try to relate the mess to you in its complexity, now.

About a week before departing, Angela applied online, without incident, for the e-visa for travel to India. Unfortunately, when she tried to apply for Vito's, she discovered that his passport did not have the necessary validity required. His passport was only valid for two more months, but, to obtain the e-visa, it should have validity for six months. So, having booked and paid for all of our flights and hotels, we were a little panic-stricken that we would not be able to travel! Would we be able to renew his passport in time? We thought that was the only problem.

I immediately contacted the American Embassy in Doha and made an appointment to renew Vito's passport. The representative at the embassy told us that, cross-your-fingers, we would get it back on the 19th of December, the day after Qatar National Day, three days before our departure. We were still worried, but relieved when we received his new passport on the date predicted. We went home and tried to re-apply for the e-visa, but met with another barrier: to complete the online application, we should have applied four days prior to travel. Unfortunately, we were trying only three days before our departure.

So, imagining again that our travel plans would be shattered, I completed the application for both myself and Vito, printed the forms, and took them, in person, to the Indian Embassy on the following morning, December 20th, only hoping that they would be able to accommodate us. We didn't wait long, submitted the necessary documents, and were then assured that we could return in the evening to collect everything. Miraculous! When we received the passports with the visas for India, we felt like we had won the lottery. Everything was coming together. Soon we would be sunbathing on the golden sands of Kerala.

The next morning, Thursday, December 21st, we made plans to have lunch with one of my colleagues. We met and, over a bowl a ramen, discovered to our dismay that we also needed a new Residence Permit (RP) for Vito. The RP shows that we are residents of Qatar and that we can enter and exit accordingly. Vito's RP was rendered invalid upon acquiring a new passport, the number of which was linked to the RP. We hadn't thought to connect the two. Our hearts sank. Would we be able to overcome this new obstacle in time?

We finished our lunch and hurried home to get Vito's passports, both old and new, to take to the Immigration Department to beg for a last-minute new RP for Vito. It looked bleak as it was quite late in the afternoon on Thursday, the end of the work week here. We would not be able to get any help on the following day, Friday—the Islamic holy day in Qatar—a day on which all government offices would be closed. We were supposed to depart in the evening on Friday, as well, so everything needed to happen on Thursday. We went in and the services that we needed were clearly closed for the day. Angela did the talking as women seem to receive greater deference in such situations, and, after denying us multiple times and then speaking with "the commander" in the kind of broken English that passes here, we were told to wait. After about one hour, Vito had received a new RP.

Incidentally, we had been driving a rental car (my Nissan Juke had been destroyed in a car accident in May and I had never replaced it—which is a story for another time—and Angela had been rear-ended about a week before in our second car, a Honda CR-V, so we were making due with a temporary insurance-provided replacement vehicle) and had planned to return it on the way to the airport on Friday evening. However, while we were waiting for Vito's RP, we called the rental company and discovered that they would not be open on Friday and that we had to return it on Thursday. So, after procuring Vito's RP, we returned the car and took Uber back to our apartment. By the time we got back home, it was around 8:30PM. The last minute change in plans had delayed our dinner and our little family Christmas celebration. As we were going to be away from home on Christmas, and as we didn't want to bring gifts with us, we had planned to open the Christmas presents from each other before leaving. So we ate and opened our Christmas gifts. It was quite late when we were finished., but a welcome reward from the trials of the week. We were exhausted, but everything appeared to be in order for our eventual departure on the following evening. Now, we just had to pack!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

One Fog to Another

The morning started with fog, the thick, white, billowy stuff of dreams, and lingered through the morning. Fog is not unusual here in Doha and not nearly as unusual as rain, but it is certainly not very common. I didn't know if it was a good omen or just another sign of the continued combustion, confusion and obfuscation of this year, but I looked at it positively. What other defense is there?

I can't divulge all of the difficulties of this year, but 2017 was hard on Marcacci & Co. My social media has not revealed much, and much was too sensitive for you run-of-the-mill e-stalkers, but this is about all you're going to get as a summation. Many of you (any of you?) know one part or another of the story anyway, but both Angela and I are glad the year is coming to a close. The one saving grace in this trying year is that Vito has done well at his endeavors despite the difficulties that his parents faced. I hope y'all had better memories. At least, we've all lived through them so far.

At night, the fog returned. It was nice to walk out in it. What's in store for the rest of this year? What's in store for the next one?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

In Some Small Moment

Fanar, Qatar's Islamic Cultural Center
Today was the last day of work before the winter break. I dressed and arrived at the office as usual. The ABP Student Services sponsored a Qatar National Day breakfast for the staff and we assembled at the appointed hour. I ate a chapati (a sort of thick Indian tortilla) breakfast burrito and drank two cups of karak (black tea with cardamom, milk and sugar). There were also National Day souvenirs to gather and I came home with a Fanar magnet. The Emir blockade t-shirts were too small or I would have grabbed one for Vito.

After breaking our fast, we milled about and visited with one another until grades were verified. It was the last day for one of my colleagues, Christine, who will not be returning in January so it wasn't an entirely festive occasion. Then we trickled out, most of us looking toward holiday travel plans. I had my own travel plans in mind, but the three of us will remain in Doha for another week before departing for Kerala, India next Friday.

After leaving the office, I went to get Angela and then we went to Vito's school to help with the National Day / Holiday party that was planned for his classroom. I put napkins on the table and served cake and juice. It was fun and we spoke with Vito's teachers and met a few of the parents of some of his classmates. We felt lucky that we had a chance to get involved with Vito at school.

Our day didn't end there: we ran some errands, picked up Vito when school ended, ran into some friends, spoke with all our parents and watched a double-session of Survivor before retiring to our bedtime rituals and sleep. These may not seem like incredibly memorable experiences, but I am always surprised at how much I forget. The more I write, the more I realize what I am leaving out, what will be forgotten. This is a small way to capture some of those memories. Perhaps you were there is some small moment.