Friday, January 17, 2014

16 January 2014 - To the land of the Armadas

I have been doing a variety of consulting jobs since April of last year, some of them for friends, many gratis and a coupleof them on a regular basis. One of my clients since the past 6 months is Trans Asian Shipping Services based in Cochin. The call from them came quite unexpectedly. When Johnson Mathew, CMD of TASS, outlined opportunities linked to the development of minor ports on the West Coast to develop a coastal business vertical for TASS I evinced interest in studying the prospects as a Consultant with resources allocated by TASS. By December the type of vessels I was looking for seemed available for outright purchase at reasonable prices. A broker, who I found under the most fortuitous of circumstances, started developing a few interesting options. It was decided to inspect a couple of vessels deployed in the West Med services. I wanted to appraise the ships working at port to determine efficiency and economy and to be sure that the operational features were as promised.

In the hope of inspecting the vessels between Christmas and New Year Vinod Dhankar, MD of Quadra Maritime in Mumbai, and I approached the Spanish Consulate in Mumbai for visas. It did not come through in time to undertake the visit at the cusp of the year. The Consulate wanted us to redo the tickets and inform them. We did that and the visas got issued. However, the schedule of the vessels went awry due to a combination of holidays and bad weather. Finally, Vinod and I decided to fly to Madrid on 16th January. Peter, the broker in Mumbai, promised to get confirmed inspection schedules by then. The tickets by Emirates Airline were confirmed but the schedule never arrived. Even by late evening on 15th the trip was in doubt due to the non-availability of a schedule. I even thought of converting the trip into a personal one, worst come to worst, for the company had already lost substantial amounts through cancellations and postponements. I even downloaded places to visit in Madrid and Barcelona, allocating three days to each of the places. When that was settled came the news that two vessels are confirmed for inspection in Alicante and Tarragona. I felt relieved – at least all the preparatory work of the past couple of weeks would see some deserving action.

My bags had been packed over the past week. I like to be ready well in time and not miss out on essentials due to frenetic, last minute packing. The negative effective of early packing is that more stuff goes in than required and of late packing is that less stuff go in than required. I am yet to find a compromise. Even when I backpack I tend to carry more than I require, particularly clothes. The inspection trip was expected to last a week. I had to make sure that warm clothes were not missed out. I promised myself that I would ‘sneak out’ after the inspections to appreciate the Spanish environment. The country consists of 17 regions – I guessed that it signified the diversity of the land. The role played by Spain in explorations and colonization was significant between the 14th and 18th century. Her influence, through language and culture, is seen even today in almost every Continent.

The flight to Dubai was full. It came as no surprise because Dubai has developed as the foremost transshipment hub for passengers all around the world. Emirates Airlines connects the world through its T3 terminal in Dubai. The humongous airport is largely still underutilized for the facilities are developed for at least the next ten years! Emirates Airlines flies to almost all destinations in the world through Dubai’ either by itself or through a code share arrangement. Along with Etihad and Qatar, Emirates Airlines has made the Persian Gulf region the centre of the planet, in a manner of speaking. In the four hours from Cochin to Dubai the huge aircraft had been turned into a battlefield – I pitied the personnel that would emplane to clean the aircraft before it was made airworthy once again.

I had arranged to meet up with Vinod in Dubai. Our flights from Cochin and Mumbai arrived on time into Dubai to connect EK 143 to Madrid. The flight to Madrid was not full, hence passengers freely reoccupied vacant seats; I too opted for a window seat with an empty aisle seat. That way I would not have to disturb anyone to take short walks down the aisle or to use the toilets as often as the bladder demanded. On the EK 531 to Dubai I had downed a couple of single malts along with the lunch served on board, which consisted of rice, beans, pickles and chicken for the main course and three quarters of a hard pitta bread (why three quarters of the helping and not either half or full, I kept wondering through the second peg of Glenfiddich) with butter. Dessert, which I consider the main part of my meal, was kheer (the rice used in it was in purgatory, I thought, since it was neither cooked nor raw). The single malts thoroughly dehydrated me by the time I reached Dubai. Drinking copious quantity of water also meant frequent visits to empty the bladder – I was thankful that I did not have to disturb anyone to indulge in the biological need.

I chose to have a second lunch instead of a light bite on board the Madrid flight. The appetizer consisted of a yummy Tuna salad with sweet corn and vegetables. I next polished off the ‘Box of Gourmet Savories’ that consisted of cracker biscuits, cheese, sweet chilly paste, butter, bread roll and short rusks. I chose the Cajun chicken fillet for the main course. It consisted of a substantial portion of tender chicken breast marinated with Cajun spices and was accompanied by roasted potatoes, seasoned green beans and carrots. I was tempted to ask for a second helping; it was that good. A rich banana cake served with apricot mousse and topped with hazelnuts brought up the rear end of the meal. Oops, I forgot the chocolates and the many glasses of orange juice (instead of alcohol) and coffee that also interspersed the meal.

The window seat gave me the opportunity to observe the glorious skyline changing hues from a mid-afternoon in Dubai to nightfall in Madrid. I captured them digitally with the intention of uploading them on FB. I saw three movies while on the flights – it was ‘Phata Poster, Nikla Hero’ on the Dubai sector and ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Baggage Claim’ on the Madrid sector. Not hot to recommend.

I had expected announcements from the cabin crew about Immigration and Customs formalities. There were none and I became a bit apprehensive. Vinod, a much travelled person, assured me that filling up forms and long queues were not part of the European arrival sessions! The initial aerial night views of Madrid were not impressive. The ‘lighting’ was simple and just functional, I thought. Main roads were not lit nor were many intersections. The Madrid Barrajas is huge, but without any splendour – it was functional, directions vividly given and not crowded. The Duty Free enclosures were few and not showcased; I found very few passengers using them – Dubai had probably preempted Madrid. We had to walk, take a train and walk some more before we emerged at the baggage retrieval carousals. It was a fair distance from the airport and I wondered how long I would have to wait before getting my hands on the checked in suitcase. The flight had landed at 7.40 pm and we reached the baggage carousal at 8.20 pm. The last piece of baggage on the flight was on the carousal at 8.22 pm – efficiency exemplified, particularly considering the waits at Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Advertisements were recently seen in leading dailies about India having 5 ‘International Standard’ airports. Sadly none of them have efficient and prompt baggage retrieval systems.

While we were about to exit the airport I saw a kiosk vending international SIM cards. The decision to approach the lady at the kiosk was momentous, in that close to 45 minutes went by before the connection was enabled. The friendly lady was intent on prolonging the conversation to the point where we had to sternly tell her that we did not have any more time at our disposal. Not even bothering to check if the SIM was activated we ‘ran’ out of her sight and into a taxi to get to the Holiday Inn Express hotel where we were booked to stay.

The check in at the hotel was efficiently handled too. The basic room was neat and reasonably well laid out. For USD 60 it was a good deal, considering its locational advantage. Vinod and I decided on a ‘small bite’ before turning in – it was already 2 am IST when we sat down for the meal; Spain is +1 GMT. I ordered a Ceaser’s Salad and Vinod a Combo meal. What appeared before us were meals larger than what we wanted. I took time getting through the bread crumbs, crunchy cabbage, black olives, small pieces of chicken and lots and lots of parmesan cheese.

When I was at the Cochin International Airport, waiting for the boarding call, I got a mischievous message from an old friend – the friend is old and so is the relationship. It said: “Spanish damsels are gorgeous”. The samples on the flight to Madrid did not support the statement of my old friend. I only hoped that the seven days in Spain would reverse my first opinion.

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