Time To Think, Airline Comparisons, Ancient Succession Control, and Our (Mynta’s) First Concert (Dallas Smith from India-Number 2)

Dallas’ second TravelBlogue

January 23, 2008

Blog summary: After a ten-hour United Airlines flight from SF to Frankfort, a three hour layover in Frankfort, a six-hour Lufthansa flight to Delhi, arrival in Delhi, the first day, the first concert.

A Special Feeling

Years ago, when Susan and I were regularly working as entertainers on cruise ships, we had the memorable experience of sailing out of San Francisco under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the most amazing feeling…to watch the Golden Gate recede in the distance…to know that we would be totally out of touch (at least for a few days) with telephones, bills, friends, work, i.e. all the components of day to day life. That’s why cruise ships are such a popular type of vacation setting.

I had a similar feeling when I finally took off from San Francisco yesterday, after my unexpected 16 hour layover there. Settling in for a ten-hour flight, I first caught up on reading some of my backlogged Sunday New York Times Magazines and book review sections. The one from Jan. 6 of this year was devoted to Islam…very interesting. At some point, I slept for three hours or so. When my brain started to reach overload, I switched to reading the Funny Times. Finally, when I couldn’t read any more, I pulled out my IPod and listened to some new music I’d recently loaded that I had not gotten around to ever listening to in its original CD format.

Thoughts on Thinking

Two quotes in the Funny Times struck me, here quoted as I best remember them:

George Bernard Shaw: Most people never stop and think. The more ambitious ones have perhaps one thought a month. I personally have been making a good living for years from having a new thought on the average of once a week.

Leonard Bernstein: Opportunity occasionally knocks. But most people expect it to drag them out of bed and make breakfast for them.

Ultimately, a ten-hour plane flight offers the opportunity to just think. (Whether the resulting thoughts will be original or not is another matter.) I thought about my upcoming tour. I thought about specific pieces that I will be expected to play flawlessly that I haven’t played for a year. (This was like a mental music rehearsal.) I thought about several of the varied responses I’ve already received from the blog I wrote in the SF hotel room. I thought about my wife, family, friends, how lucky I am to be able to make this trip. I thought about the mentalities of different geographical locations. On the one hand, our modern lifestyle of work, schedules, cell phones, etc. is found throughout the industrial world. On the other hand, Germany feels different from the US. India feels even more different. I realize that as a result of my extensive travels, I am something of a cultural chameleon, adapting to wherever I am, just like I regain my Southern accent when I go back to Georgia, and then lose it again when I leave.

Time to think…what a delicious luxury! I don’t know why I get so caught up in life that when I am forced to be still and think, it feels like I haven’t done it for awhile. Susan and I have been going to the health club and exercising regularly for the last three months. It feels good. Maybe we should try to carve out some daily time for reflection, meditation, or just plain old thinking. Other people do it. Why is it so hard to balance everything that one ideally would like to do? Sometimes I feel like life consists of isolated moments of clarity separated by days, weeks, and months of semi-consciousness or worse.

A Small Political Act

In my three hour layover at the Frankfort airport, it was always my intention to purchase some rum at the duty free shop for my Indian host and friend Kirit. My choice was Havana Rum, imported from Cuba. It’s so ridiculous that the US restricts its citizens from traveling to Cuba or buying Cuban exports. And so in my mind, my little purchase was a protest against that policy. I have no idea if the Cuban rum is better or worse than the Jamaican rum for sale on the same shelf. I will hopefully taste it at the party that Kirit is arranging for day after tomorrow, at which Mynta will perform.

Airline Comparisons

Departing Reno was traumatic on several accounts. Besides the flight being late, the United check-in counter was staffed by one single stressed-out agent. The new system is that passengers must first check-in on the video kiosks prior to receiving their luggage tags from the attendant. Since I was flying internationally with a paper ticket, I was unable to use the kiosk. I waited for what seemed like quite awhile, while the agent distributed the luggage tags to the passengers who were using the kiosk check-ins. I tried to get her to check me in, but to no avail. Finally, the lady said to no one in particular, “I’ve been working non-stop for eight hours…I’m now off duty!” With that, she left the thirty or so people waiting stranded at the counter. It was outrageous. Finally, from the back room, two new agents came forward to wait on me and the other frustrated passengers. At that time, I was still thinking that I had the chance of making my original flight connection.

Unfortunately, United Airlines compares very unfavorably to Lufthansa. The two airlines use identical planes, the Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet. The 747 has to be one of the best American products of all time. After reigning as the world’s largest commercial jet for twenty years or more, it is finally being overtaken by the even larger European-made Airbus A-380. The United jet was only half full, while the Lufthansa jet is packed. On United’s ten hour flight, we were served only bags of pretzels and a ridiculous sweet roll (which I refused) at the beginning of the flight, and an ice-cold turkey sandwich for “breakfast” before landing. Beer and wine cost $4 and $5. Meanwhile, on the packed Lufthansa flight, I’ve been given a free beer already (a good German one in the bottle), and a hot meal is forthcoming. How bad does the US airline service have to get before management notices that their flights are half full while their competition is filled to capacity? It’s similar to the American automobile manufacturers resisting fuel economy, and then they’re surprised that Toyota has overtaken GM and Ford as the new world’s largest auto company, years ahead of Detroit in developing and marketing fuel-efficient hybrid technology. It’s sad.

I was just handed a hot hand-wipe in preparation for meal service. In other words, the service is great. The contrast with US air carriers continues to annoy me. Is this another sign of the irreversible decline of American culture?

Arrival in Delhi

After my delay in SF, it was anticipated that I would arrive in Delhi (around 1am) at the same time as the Swedish guys. But in Frankfort, I got a text message from Christian that they were delayed and would not arrive until the next morning. And so, I arrived in the middle of the night, stood in my first crushing Indian line, and thankfully retrieved my luggage.

Like other Indian airports, the New Delhi airport charges an admission fee to anyone wishing to enter the baggage claim hall to meet their incoming passengers. So the first line of greeters consisted of representatives from the Hyatt (and similar ritzy hotels) as well as industry and government greeters. As one leaves the hall, one sees a throng of people waiting outside, looking for their arriving parties. Many are waving signs. There are guards at the entrance to hold back the outsiders. It feels like one is about to dive into a raging river of people. I stepped into the river with trepidation. My uncertainty lasted only a moment until I saw a guy holding a sign with my name on it. He was the driver hired by our local concert organizer. The driver didn’t speak English, and so we drove the half hour stretch to the hotel in silence.

Seeing the streets of Delhi late at night, totally deserted, is a stark contrast to how they look in the daytime. Unlike Calcutta and Bombay, I did not see anyone sleeping right on the sides of the road. We did pass one slum, a “shanty-town” collection of hovels made of cast off building materials, cardboard boxes, and scrap tin. One of them even had electricity, no doubt stolen/hot-wired from a neighboring business line. A few packs of dogs roamed the streets. As we got closer to the hotel, the layout changed to a more orderly spacious grid of wide streets and buildings. This is a legacy of the British presence, and is unique to New Delhi in my Indian experience.

The hotel was a modest, relatively clean, zero-star-rated establishment. I fell into bed around 4am, to be awakened in what felt like an instant later, at 8:30am by the arrival of the Swedes. My intention was to stay awake throughout my first day in order to force my body onto Indian time, a 13&1/2 hour change from Reno. I phoned Kirit, who promptly sent his driver to pick me up, to shift out of the hotel to his house. The Swedes were exhausted and planned to sleep until the afternoon.

It was great to see my friends, Kirit and Kitty, again. Susan and I had stayed with them on two previous trips. It is always great to be able to feel at home with friends in a foreign country. Close to their house, I was able to fulfill one of the main missions of my trip: to shop for Susan and purchase more of the Indian clothing that she has taken to wearing almost exclusively these last few years.

Mynta’s First Concert

For the second year, our Delhi concert was outdoors in a restaurant courtyard with in the grounds of the historic Lodi Gardens. Adjacent to the restaurant is the tomb of the emperor Lodi. His sarcophagus is surrounded by other smaller graves. An Indian fellow standing nearby asked me if I knew the story of the graves. Answering no, he proceeded to explain that in the those early days, it was customary that when the emperor died, his family had to join him in death, which accounted for the smaller sarcophagi. I asked, you mean they killed the relatives? The man answered, no, they were taken alive and forced into the coffins, which were then closed upon them! I have not been able to verify this story, but it’s a good story nonetheless.

Our concert was the opening event for a four-day festival: Jazz, Blues, and Beyond. The promotion for our event was incredible! The band’s picture was in the daily newspaper announcing the concert. Then at the venue, there were at least four television crews and many print journalists lined up to interview us. Christian and I did a live evening news cutaway for a local station. The lady interviewer was very glamorous, asking us questions such as, how do you like India. What did she expect us to say? We heard afterwards that the same station had broadcast three of our pieces in their entirety, interspersed with our interview, with the broadcasted segment totaling 20 minutes in all. Print reviews are bound to follow, but it’s doubtful that we will ever see them.

The concert itself went very well, considering the fact that we had absolutely no rehearsal and had not played together for nine months. The audience of around two hundred was great…very receptive to our Indian-jazz fusion. I had a number of old friends in the audience, several of whom have visited us in years past in Reno. We expect that if we can mount a tour every year, this venue will be a recurring one for us.

Tonight, we will play a private home concert at a mansion inhabited by a cousin of Kirit, whose husband is a government minister. The house is a relic of the British raj period, situated on a huge garden in the midst of the New Delhi diplomatic neighborhood. This home concert will hopefully open up additional contacts to future events on future tours. For the band, it will be a rehearsal, minus Fazal, our tabla player, who had to return to Bombay today.

Tomorrow, we fly to Bangalore for the biggest concert of the tour. We will have a different tabla player (since Fazal is booked elsewhere), as well as an additional Indian percussionist playing the mridangam. But our biggest guest will be vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. He is a former member of Mynta, but has developed into one of India’s biggest pop stars. He can command a personal fee of ten grand for Indian concerts on a regular basis. But he is currently occupied writing Bollywood hit songs and recording on a practically daily basis. The bottom line is that Shankar is an incredible musician. He will appear with us without any rehearsal. We will play some repertoire from the time when he was a Mynta member. But we will also play songs which he has never heard, which he will pick up with one hearing and sing along with the melodies besides scatting in Indian style. This will be an outdoor concert with approximately 3000 in attendance.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *