A Tale of Travel - 1


A Tale of Travel – part 2


“I really didn't say everything I said


Like all “Yogi-isms”, the above quote is probably true for even the best of us. The originator of this and many other such famous gems is Yogi Berra, one of the superstars of baseball. To most of us outside baseball, he is the quintessencal talker, and what he has supposed to have said, are not only funny, but incorrigibly true. 


In the last column, we had traveled from home base to a far away land called Hungary and while I lay awake in the hotel bed, I watched the horrific story of the mid-air crash over Germany slowly unfold. The jet-lagged night eventually passed and next morning I was on my way to discover the city of Budapest. The first order of business was to replenish the nearly empty wallet. What better way than to stroll up to one of the ATM machines and stick in my card? Only one problem, it did not work.


"He must have made that before he died"


Whoever invented the ATM machine, should have been awarded his or her weight in cash. ATM machines have cropped up in every corner of the world. Not only do the dispense cash on request, they seem to be magically hooked up to each other in some mysterious way. That is, any card works anywhere. As a result, these machines are a good way to bypass three major evils of travel—the need to exchange money, the need to carry cash and the need to deal with moneychangers.


According to yet another great sage, Mr. Murphy, “All that can go wrong, will.” So here I am in a strange land, where no one speaks any semblance of English, and I have a few paltry dollars in my pocket and the machine refuses to replenish the wallet. Oh well, I change the few paltry ones and go about my business (later that day, the ATM worked).


From Pest I walk over a huge bridge over the Danube to the other side, Buda.  Buda is hilly, and under these hills is some sort of fire. Something that makes hot water seep out of the ground. Hence the availability and popularity of hot water springs for bathing. I had to experience this great Hungarian pastime, but in the end did not much care for sitting in a big hot tub with a lot of aged, almost naked men. Medicinal effects? I do not think so.


"I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early."


Next morning, it was time to bid farewell to Budapest and proceed to take the train to Vienna. I had a nervous colleague with me, who was convinced the taxi driver would take us to the wrong station, or we would not get tickets, or some other calamity would cause the sky to fall on us. Hence we left early, very early. Eventually we all climbed aboard the train, even second-class, looked very nice.


Trains are the pride of European transportation. Trains go everywhere, on time, and are a pleasure to ride. The accommodations are nice, the dining is good and everyone is well taken care of by a plethora of conductors who come around ever so often to watch over the few passengers. Europeans think Americans are still in the barbaric ages, since in the U.S. there are almost no trains.


“You can observe a lot just by watching”.


The lovely countryside, dotted with farms whizzed silently past the large glass windows. The ticket was about $20 for the 120-mile ride from Budapest to Vienna, which would last three hours. In my barbaric mind, that was too little, for both too little and too much. Firstly, 120 miles takes about two hours by car, door to door. Once we add travel time to station, waiting time, pushing suitcases up the stairs time and so on, the trip took 5 hours and a lot of sweat. $20 is also incredibly cheap for plush accommodations, sparse occupancy and over-staffing. Obviously the tickets are heavily subsidized. This is good for the traveler like me, but not so good for the poor farmers of Hungary who ended up paying for my pleasure.


Train travel is very nice. Probably the best form of travel. Yet it is almost unheard of in the U.S. It is unheard of, because there are hardly any trains. There are no trains, because if they were, there would not be many people to ride them. For short hops a car is much faster. For long hops, a plane is significantly faster and significantly cheaper. (A train from Los Angeles to New York would take almost 3 days and $400, compared to 5-hours and $150 by air).


“If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.”


Vienna is the city of music, the erstwhile habitat of the inimitable giants such as Beethoven and Mozart. Lovers of music flock there to attend the operas, to sit in the cafes and to imbibe in the aura of music. To a geek like me, the country of Austria was disappointing. It had the highest telephone rates I had run into recently. Connecting to the Internet proved to be unaffordable due to the metered phone rates, compounded by huge hotel mark ups. End result was that I had to stay off the online world, and that was no music to my ears.


“This is like deja vu all over again.”


Vienna is a big city, much like any other big city. It looked faintly familiar because I had been there about 15 years ago. It also looked familiar as it is like most other big cities and they all look similar. Like most European cities, Vienna has its share of old buildings. Old buildings seem to be the major attraction for much of Europe. Yet, most of the old buildings looked rather new. Of course this is due to painstaking and expensive restoration process that have renewed the sometimes-crumbling structures. However it also lends credence to my cooked up theory that the buildings were constructed around 1970 to attract American tourists.


I was attending a conference in Vienna, which left very little time for sightseeing. Soon it was time to head over to the next stop, in the tiny state of Rhode Island, tucked between Massachusetts and Connecticut. At least over there, I rationalized; the Internet access would be less painful.


“Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.”


After a long flight west, I land in Boston-Logan airport. A two-hour drive took me to the scenic hamlet by the sea, called Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is a town populated by mansions and tourists. The mansions belonged to erstwhile affluent people who used them as summer homes. The tourists flock there to spend inordinate amounts of money on buying tickets to tour the mansions, eat in expensive restaurants dotting the coast and live in overpriced but quaint bed-and-breakfasts. As I had expected, the mobs of tourists were swarming as I pulled into Newport.


“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.”


I was at Newport to attend a technical meeting, a meeting designed to bring a lot of people together to exchange ideas and research about a variety of topics in the computer security area. People had traveled far and wide to be here. Travel is time consuming, stressful and expensive. It had been widely predicted that by the year 2000 technology would essentially eliminate the need for business travel.


Teleconferencing was supposed to ring the death knell. Why travel when networking, data communication, video and all that can bring people together even when they are not geographically close? Modern videoconferencing systems do a pretty good job of what can be called “telepresence”. Instead of killing business travel, teleconferencing is pining on its deathbed. People want to meet each other, listen to each other and talk in person. Technology can deliver “close to the real thing”, but only the real thing is the real thing.


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”


After the meeting at Newport I headed home. The first leg was by car, back to Boston, then by air, to Minneapolis. The flight path took us into Canada as we flew along the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The evening sun was casting long shadows and the air was clear. About 50 miles to the south was the shining metropolis of Toronto, the glass buildings glistening in the slanted sun, visible quite clearly. From up there, sometimes the terrain looks like a surreal map.


“It ain't over till it's over.”


By now I am itching to be home, I was tired of living out of a suitcase. The trip is supposed to be “over”, but it’s still not quite over. It was 9:00pm local time when we took off from Minneapolis, but the sun was still not quite gone. Minneapolis is at 45°N (quite up north) and coupled with “daylight savings time” the sun sets late. Flying west at northern latitudes, the aircraft does a good job of chasing the sun. As the sun dips over the horizon, the plane almost keeps up.


On the ground, a sunset lasts 15 minutes. That night, I watched the red glow for about two hours. Since we were headed a little south, the sun managed to outrun us. Flights from London to Boston often arrive before they leave.


From the hot seat of travel, I arrived in the fire of Phoenix. At 10:00pm, the temperature was still 110°. But the good news was, it was finally over.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha