Thursday, December 25, 2008

American Airlines Bad, Zurich Good

On our way from JFK to Mumbai Anita and I were stranded in our connecting city Zurich for a day. A winter storm in the Northeast US area including New York had ended the previous night. The weather was clear and flights were departing normally when we boarded our 5:25pm American Airlines flight from JFK (New York) to Zurich.

But then there were an hour of cargo loading delays in which time light snow of about half an inch started falling. That led to need for de-icing our plane which was expected to take about 40 minutes as we were 4th in line. Instead, because of equipment failure and other snarl-ups we were on the ground for almost four hours and missed our connecting flight at Zurich.
To our surprise American Airlines miss-classified the entire cause of delay as weather-related. This way their staff escapes responsibility and enables them to cite their rules to avoid taking care of stranded passengers. Their staff at Zurich rebooked us for the same flight the next day without arranging or helping with any accommodation or paying a cent for stay or incidentals.
This was in stark contrast to our experience the previous year with Continental Airlines in Frankfurt where we were stranded for three days for genuine weather related reasons. Continental had put us up in a decent Frankfurt hotel for three days, paid for meals, and took such good care that I had sent them a letter praising their staff.

Back to Zurich, we made friends with a nice couple (New Jersey based, of Indian origin) in the same situation, along with and their remarkably turned out son (born and raised in the US, yet fluent in Marathi) who is a senior at Northwestern University. They contacted friends in Zurich who picked them up and put them up in their picturesque countryside home.

Anita and I also made the best of our halt by checking into a nearby hotel and taking a local train to see Zurich Downtown. It was a great opportunity for our first visit to a Swiss city. Zurich is a much better and enjoyable city than we had expected, combining modernity with rich historical architecture. Though it was a Sunday, the shops were open and there were crowds of revelers because of Christmas time.

Later at night in downtown we came across a devoted Gujerati son taking his visiting parents out for a walk. For dinner he recommended a well known restaurant called HillTL which served very good vegetarian cuisine with a lot of Indian fare. (By remarkable coincidence the next morning these parents were seated just across from us in our flight from Zurich to Mumbai.)

While entering HillTL we greeted a Sikh gent who was coming out. We started chatting and he became so friendly that he accompanied us back into the restaurant, waited as we ate, then gave us a tour of all 3-4 floors of it with a view of its open glass-walled kitchens. He then showed us other parts of Zurich downtown for the next hour or more, and was an excellent guide, filling us in on the background of various shops and landmarks. His name is Paramjit Bharj, and amazingly he's a devout and fully observant Sikh speaking fluent Panjabi even though he hasn't been to India since his birth. He was raised in Uganda and then came to Zurich over 30 years ago when Idi Amin expelled people of non-African origin. He had interesting views and we enjoyed his company.

Posted here are pictures one of a "singing Christmas tree" with live singers making up its branches, then one of Anita in front of this, one of me with Paramjit, and finally of Anita and I together. All in all it turned out well despite the disruption in our travel.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mumbai Terrorism - It's A Small World

The Mumbai terrorist attacks have caused worldwide outrage that hopefully extends to Islamic countries and societies. Much of Anita's extended family lives in Mumbai. It's a city of 20 million, so despite the large number of victims including 163 killed we hoped that no one we knew was affected.

While people within our innermost circle are safe, we are hearing tragic stories about those very close to our extended family and good friends. Through a dribble of chance conversations we so far know of eight such people killed as well as some harrowing escapes. More connections will almost certainly emerge once we're in Mumbai where we're headed shortly.

For instance two days back I happened to call Anita's cousin Indru whom I've also mentioned in my previous post, about an unrelated matter. She sounded somber, and I learned that two victims whose stories were also carried in The New York Times and other media were a couple who are Indru's and her husband Gul's best friends. They were Ashok Kapur, chairman of Yes Bank and his wife Madhu who hung out with Gul and Indru almost daily and they used to vacation together worldwide. Ashok and Madhu were in an Oberoi Hotel restaurant when they were attacked and pursued by the terrorists. They fled and were separated. Madhu managed to escape after hiding out for several hours, but Ashok was killed - something Madhu and the authorities learned about much later. Now Indru, Gul and other friends and relatives are trying to support the shattered Madhu as much as they can.

Anita's cousin Rita (also mentioned in my last post) had gone from Mumbai to Pune to look up and stay with my in-laws. She left by train from the historic VT train (now called Shivaji Station) just three hours before it was stormed by the terrorists and 54 people killed there. Not wanting to take chances, her husband Dilip sent their car and driver to fetch her back to Mumbai three days later.

Any incidents touching us personally are a microcosm of the general coverage and commentary in the media. A couple of instances I'd like to highlight relate to reactions in Pakistan.

The first is this link to a Pak TV broadcast that my cousin Poppy received and passed on - many similar ones are posted on YouTube. It reflects the state of denial among Pakistanis who refuse to acknowledge or condemn the role played by the terrorists based in Pakistan. The TV show's anchor and two guests talk of how Indians brought this problem upon themselves and are now falsely linking this to some activities in peaceloving Pakistan. This mindset is of course not limited to Pakistanis or Islamists. It's remarkable how people's prejudices and perceptions can distort reality. But I also came across this (hopefully not too rare) clip showing a much more objective assessment on Pak TV by a Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. He is courageous in contradicting some other participants and acknowledging that some rogue elements within Pakistan are responsible and should be firmly curtailed. If there are enough of such people on both sides then there's hope for our countries coming together.

The other item is a (as usual?) beautiful Dec. 2 Op-Ed of Tom Friedman in The New York Times. He calls on Pakistanis to take to the streets and declare, "as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. And they (should at least) do it with the same vehemence with which they denounce Danish cartoons (of the Prophet Muhammed)."

It is heartening to see no backlash (so far) against India's Muslim community, which would have played right into the hands of the terrorists. We should continue doing more to reassure Indian Muslims, and credit goes to political and community leaders who have involved them in condemning these attacks. There are likely home grown elements that have substantially participated in these attacks, but a crazy fringe should never tarnish the broader community. A fifth of the Mumbai casualties are Muslims, and so is the Mumbai police chief. Whatever comes of it there's symbolism in this reported move by some Indian Muslims to deny the slain terrorists burial in Muslim cemetries.