Deserted roads, labyrinthine stadiums, and Pacific delights
Wait at Mumbai's soon-to-be-old international terminal turns longer. Early check-in. Delayed flight. How auspicious.
The east coast of India finally falls behind. Realise just how far the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are from the mainland, as it takes hours to reach them. More delay arriving in Singapore. Aircraft provides 360-degree view of the many islets. Boarding has already started for the Sydney connection. Airline people rush passengers onto a golf cart and we zoom across the vast maze that is Changi.
Night falls. A while later, flight path shows we're already over Australia. Won't be landing till early in the morning. What a gigantic land. Breakfast is served just before the horizon starts to lighten. It is just past dinner time back home. Same meal, different name.
Plenty of time for Auckland connection. Enough to step out of Sydney airport and take the metro to Circular Quay. Return ticket costs as much as my three-month Mumbai commuter train pass. First-class pass.
The waters are calm. Some people are jogging, some are hurrying to work. The Harbour Bridge is even more magnificent than it looks in photographs. But even at 7.30am, the sun is scorching. And there's a third flight to catch.
New Zealand. At last. Not expecting such a long queue at immigration in Auckland, but very few counters open. After nearly 18 hours on a plane, have to dash to the domestic terminal for the final connection, to Napier. End up walking the wrong way. No one around to help. Will have to adjust to the scarcity of people. A girl finally shouts and corrects from the distance.
"We'll call you for boarding." No security patdowns? No baggage screening? Go twice to the airline counter to make sure. Yep. Just walk across the tarmac to the aircraft. Receivers outnumber passengers easily in the arrival shed in the tiny Napier airport. Motel is across the road from the Pacific. Sun is still out at 8.30pm and the view is fantastic, but sleep is the only thing on the mind.
The Pacific is so blue and so radiant it stops you in your tracks. "Straight ocean view, all the way to South America!" says a sign in a restaurant. Lose way once more on way to city centre. Go around in circles for a while. No one in sight to ask directions. For five to ten minutes. Unbelievable.
Head to Nelson Park, where cricket teams have their nets. There is still time to lose my way a third time. Ridiculous. It seems so easy on Google Maps. A man helpfully guesses, "Headed to the cricket?" and points to the right path.
Dr Baba, the India media manager, regularly chases down balls hit outside the nets. "Good for burning the remaining fat," the already trim doctor says.
MS Dhoni warns a journalist about jet-lag. "It kicks in after two-three days," says the widely travelled captain. Damn right. Start having trouble sleeping before 4am and getting up before 10.
Napier city centre looks straight out of the early 1930s. That is because it has been rebuilt in the same style it stood in before it was razed in an earthquake in 1931.
Dinner at Indian restaurant. Moved to order samosas, a deep-fried snack. They don't quite taste like the ones in India, but just sighting a samosa in Napier feels good. Try some homemade pavlova, the famed meringue-based dessert. Melt-in-the-mouth stuff, topped with kiwi fruit.
They follow traffic signals dutifully here. The cars and the pedestrians. Quite a pleasant shock. No vehicle in sight in Napier city centre. But a girl stands motionless, waiting for the light to turn green. Have to suddenly halt, partly out of solidarity.
Drive down Napier past its twin city Hastings and through the town of Havelock North to Te Mata Peak. Take a few seconds to recover after soaking in the incredible view of Hawke's Bay - rounded, rolling hills, carpeted with green.
Maori legend says the peak is the body of a warrior who died trying to chew his way through the terrain. When viewed from afar, it does seem as if a giant is lying prostrate.
"Which one is the media entry?" I ask security. "Not sure. Go in whichever way you want to." They aren't used to distrusting people in these parts. McLean Park has two stands, one bigger than the other, rectangular and parallel to each other. It also throws in a grass bank at one end, but somehow the experience feels neither here nor there. Stand too imposing, grass bank too meagre. Nice atmosphere for cricket, of course. But press conference room is full of rugby t-shirts and other memorabilia. Makes it clear which sport is the boss here.
Housekeeping lady at motel works seven days a week. Gets only Sunday evenings off. She's never been out of Hawke's Bay. She has her dreams, and is saving money to buy a house. "Things are expensive around here," she shrugs. They are indeed.
Bright and warm have given way to overcast and cool. The Pacific has turned darker and heavier. Time to leave the coast and travel inland by bus to Hamilton, past Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest. Journey is through farmland, dotted with numerous sheep.
Motel is beside the Waikato rugby stadium in Hamilton. Sprawling park in front. Not a bad location at all, but how can anything beat waking up, drawing the curtains and being overwhelmed by the Pacific? Napier will be missed.
A walk by the Waikato river. So much greenery on both banks. So much quiet. Right in the middle of the city. Liberating. At 8pm, the sunlight is glaring enough for the hands to reflexively go up in front of the eyes.
At last, the jet-lag is wearing off. Manage to sleep just after midnight. Early start tomorrow, if Waikato Museum is to be visited. Needling from motel owner about my late rising hours also helps.
On the way to the museum, walk past Tim Southee and Trent Boult having breakfast in a café. Their table is right on the pavement on one of Hamilton's main streets, but no one stops. National cricketer? Need your space? Here's a pavementful.
Waikato Museum has a venerated Maori war canoe. Learn about the conflict between the Maoris and the British in the 19th century. And also about the emergence of Hamilton from the time the first European settlers came in. Apparently, Hamilton East and West were squabbling towns but they agreed to merge so they could get government funding to build a bridge across Waikato river.
Seddon Park is a lovely little place to watch cricket. One small stand and a few grass banks. Curator says he packs in nine pitches on the square. Who says New Zealand does not have proper cricket grounds?
Take bus from Hamilton, alight next to Auckland's Sky Tower. Now this is a major city. People everywhere in the main district, looking down, hurrying about their business. Local bus stops right outside motel entrance. Motel right across the lane from massive Eden Park.
The ground where the 2011 Rugby World Cup final was held. Try to find a way into the fortress. Finally see an opening. Guard manning entrance between the main ground and the outer oval. Peers closely at media pass. Opens the grilled door. Shuts it immediately. Wander over to the outer oval. Another guard checks pass. Make way towards main ground. Stopped by a third guard. "Can't go in there," he says and points towards where the Indian team is doing fielding drills. Don't do this, don't do that. Security everywhere. This feels like India.
First sighting of a drop-in. Strange to see a thick cricket pitch loaded on wheels by the side of the ground. Strange to see a concrete cavity in the middle of the ground.
Have grown to like New Zealand's peace but it is not bad for once to hear the din of tens of thousands of fans during the ODI at Eden Park.
No clue where food is being served for the media. This is a damn labyrinth. The second innings has started by the time I locate the food. The press conference room is situated so far down the bowels of the stadium, it is almost like you are underground. Why can't every city have a Seddon Park of its own?
Back to Hamilton. In a way, feels like a homecoming. Motel owner Brian is walking his dogs. "You've come back and I see you still haven't managed to win any games," he chortles. "Just you wait. It's going to be 4-0," I tell him, predicting the future. The rain pours down that night.
"Please stop. Don't walk away. At least let us take a picture," an Indian woman implores Suresh Raina as he comes out of the Seddon Park nets, which open onto the pavement. People have been told by security not to stop the cricketers, but Raina obliges a few.
At night, walk along the superbly maintained path by the Waikato river. A man is trying to fish. Run into Ajinkya Rahane. Pleasantries exchanged in Marathi.
Rediscover Subway. Comforting to be able to order the same stuff in the same manner like at home. Multinational chains: making people feel at home across nations.
Endearing security guard at Seddon Park. "Hiya matey," he says every time you take the stairs leading to the press box. No matter how many times you exit and re-enter during the day. "Hiya matey."
The series is lost. Dhoni tears into his fast bowlers at the press conference. "We will always love you, Mahi," some fans shout as the players board the team bus.
Leaving Hamilton a second and final time. Tinge of sadness. How soon one gets attached to places and people. Check out. Go sit under a tree in the park. Shuttle to airport arrives. Supposed to seat ten. Am the only one on it. Oh New Zealand.
Have seen Youtube videos of planes landing dangerously in windy Wellington. But this is a very smooth landing. And a beautiful one. Almost feels like skimming over the clear, blue sea as the plane approaches the runway. The sea then curves inside to provide Wellington a huge, lake-like waterfront.
Capital city? She looks a bit like the Indian hill town of Manali, though much more modern, much less crowded. But there's a first traffic jam to be stuck in. A bus has hit a man, and one of the narrow main streets is clogged.
Iraqi cab driver. Came to New Zealand after the first Gulf War. Never went back home. How must it feel to have to leave your motherland behind forever? Immediately have visions of the inverted triangular island that is Mumbai.
The Basin Reserve. Busy roundabout. Public walkway and cycle path. And the home of New Zealand cricket. History lurks in every corner.
View from apartment window. A sliver of water, and the offices of PwC, Deloitte, Grant Thornton. Thank you, fellow Chartered Accountants, for another glimpse of familiarity.
WestPac Stadium is on the waterfront. Press box seems far inland. Square-leg view. Quite an effort to get to it. Go through metal structures and walkways that won't seem out of place on a spaceship.
The series ends 4-0, although India take the tosses 5-0. Brendon McCullum beams and beams at the press conference. "You didn't win tosses against West Indies either," Ross Taylor mocks him. Captain and former captain. The transition was shambolic, but this makes for a heartwarming picture.
Over to Whangarei. Bring out the whites.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo