Catoctin Mountain Park Maryland


While visiting Washington DC earlier this week, we decided to go hiking at one of the nearby national parks. A uniquely American experience, I would strongly recommend taking a hike in any of the national parks. Americans make it a great marketing experience with big support to any visitors – they have a nice visitor centre with all amenities and officers on hand to explain everything about the park.

We chose to visit the Catoctin Mountain Park some 50 miles outside of Washington DC, in Thurmont Maryland, because it was a bit closer than the original selection of the Blue Ridge mountain, and had easier treks for the first time visitors. The drive itself was smooth with much less traffic than we had anticipated, and we reached the Catoctin Mountain Park in about an hour and fifteen minutes. My daughter mentioned that this was a smaller park in terms of area allocated due to its vicinity to Camp David with its high security. You can take a look at the following websites Catoctin Mountain Park and National Park Foundation – Catoctin Mountain Park

The officer at the visitor centre of the park took time to explain the various possibilities for trekking at the park, he also suggested we do the Cunningham Falls trail loop which will be a 2.8 mile round trip, followed by a visit to the Blue Ridge Summit via the Hog Rock. The map provided by him was helpful in understanding the route. We got ready for the trek and went into the dense park of tall trees with cool weather despite the blazing sun outside. It took all of around 2 hours for visiting Cunningham Falls at the end of this trail and return to the visitor centre.

On a scale of 1 to 5, probably this trek would rate at a less than moderate 2 in terms of difficulty. Mostly flat, with some climbing and ground undulations, combined with crossing some fallen trees, made it an interesting though not tough trek. I was wondering if I should have brought my Merrell shoes from Singapore – on this trip I was just wearing the usual walking/running shoes which do not provide good grip while walking on gravel. I have always had problems while coming down from an elevation, as I tend to slip on the gravel; further, going down causes strain on the knees.

The visitor centre brochures covered one dreadful aspect of the trek into this park which is the potential for catching Lyme disease which is an infectious disease caused by ticks. We were a bit scared after reading the printed material, but then chose to proceed anyway. You can read about this disease at Lyme disease .

It was good fun and is a nice bonding time with the family. When I was unstable at some point, my son would stand ready at my back to steady me and make me all right. There were many photo opportunities on the way and at Cunningham Falls. It was a good experience and we all liked the park and its trail that we undertook.

I kept talking to my family about how well the U.S. is organized in terms of infrastructure, provision of assistance (like the visitor centre), the helpful indicators provided while navigating the park, the interest that they create in children and also adults about the importance of such recreational activities (the visitor centre was full of young children when we visited), and the whole approach towards dealing with citizens/visitors which is imbued with a marketing flavour.

I believe that this is what we lack in many other parts of the world, and especially in India. There is rarely such guidance, infrastructure or marketing provided by the governments in many countries which probably have equally beautiful national parks or forests.

In any case, we decided to have such a national park hiking expedition during every visit to the U.S. or Canada in future.

Hopefully, you folks who are reading this post, will also love trekking and take a hike soon!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

30th June 2017

Coda Di Volpe Review


We celebrated my wife’s birthday at Coda Di Volpe Southern Italian Restaurant located in the Lakeview area on Southport Avenue of Chicago last evening.

It was a fabulous choice with a very attentive service staff and fantastic food. Our family always loved Italian food, but we have not experimented that much with Southern Italian food with its distinctive flavours and superb taste. This was probably the first time that we delved deep into that cuisine, I would say.

I did not drink wine during the dinner (is that not very surprising), but my wife and daughter tried a Pinot Noir, the Terre Nere Nerello Mascalese 2015, which they said was excellent.

Our selection of dishes was amazing – for appetizers we selected the Bruschetta di Burrata (the puglian Burrata cheese is rather enticing) and Vegetable Antipasti. The Antipasti comprised of marinated black and green olives, pickled veggies, eggplant and grilled summer squash – a great choice for wine drinkers, I would say.

For the main course, we ordered two pizzas and two kinds of pastas. The pizzas were Quattro Formaggi and Funghi – both vegetarian, and the pastas were Bucatini Pomodoro and Ricotta Gnocchetti, again both vegetarian. All were outstanding – flavourful, tasty, and healthy. I loved the Funghi Pizza which had roasted mushrooms (I have always love mushrooms), cherry tomatoes, mustard greens, garlic, oregano, fior di latte cheese, and pecorino blue cheese. My son went for Chicken Diavola which he said was very good as well.

Since this was a surprise dinner ahead of the actual birthday, my family arranged with the chef for bringing out a nice cake at the end of the dinner with a candle on it, and my wife was very close to guessing it. However, before any further deliberations, the cake arrived, with again a detailed explanation of the constituents of the cake by the senior service staff member who attended to us throughout the dinner. This is a big difference from anywhere else – knowing that most of the clientele are not well versed with the unique characteristics of the exotic food from Southern Italy, the service staff are trained to explain every nuance of all the dishes in great detail. I believe that such explanations go to serve a greater understanding of what we were having for dinner, and develop a keen sense of appreciation for specific food choices. The knowledge of food makes us wiser when suggesting restaurants or food types to our guests – be it in corporate or private setting.

Overall, Coda Di Volpe was an excellent restaurant with great service. If I have to call out one deficiency, it was the portion size for Pastas – too small for one person I should say. This forces people to order the bigger portion, which is probably the right size for one person!

I would strongly recommend this restaurant to all Italian food lovers.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

30th June 2017

Impressions from Washington DC visit


I visited New York and Washington DC (four days each) recently.

I am yet to meet a person who does not like New York, and I am no exception. I loved the buzz of the city, its vigour and life. Life in New York moves on its subway and on Time Square, it appeared to me. I saw several places in New York and will write about it sometime soon.

Washington DC appeared to me as a more relaxed place – may be that was because I was seeing mostly tourists everywhere. The metro subway network had newer trains and was not crowded even at the busiest stations. Traffic was there but not as heavy as it was in New York. I saw a lot more casual bistros in Washington, and the speed of life seemed to be at a slower pace.

However, the places of tourist attractions were overcrowded. For instance, I was at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument yesterday, and there were probably a thousand people crowding around these historic places. It was sometimes difficult to get a photo shoot. One thing for sure, Washington DC has some of the best buildings with architecture that could compete with any old European city, with a modern orientation that blends beautifully with old world charm. The huge buildings and the vast spaces between them characterize a global capital city, and its centre of power. The U.S. is indeed the world’s undisputed super power, and Washington is its capital city. It was easy to be over-awed by its enormity.

The other aspect which impressed me thoroughly was the free access to some of the best museums in the world. I had time only for two of them – the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Both offer fantastic experiences, and I relished every moment of my visit to these world-class museums. There are plenty of other museums to visit, may be for another time!

The White House view did not impress me that much but the U.S. Capitol was fabulous. I took a free tour of the same, and also attended live sessions of the House and the Senate. It was democracy in action at the heart of the U.S. politics and government. This is the place where U.S. laws are enacted and the country makes decisions which could impact the entire world such as going to war.

Though I did not have time, I took a ride to see George Town, and it was fascinating to see the beautiful townhouses and the riverfront. In my opinion, the whole city appeared to be beautifully designed and constructed with utmost care and attention to detail. Architecture has played a big role in determining the beauty of Washington DC and I would surely rate it as one of the best cities in the world, notwithstanding some unseemly comments that one could chance upon on things like crime rates, etc., It is indeed an impressive city with some of the best architecture one can see around in the world. Apart from the same, the enormity of the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House descends on you like it would never happen anywhere else in the world – these are the places in which decisions with global import are made regularly.

While there were lots of foreigner tourists visiting these attractions, I estimated that 6 out of 10 folks in any queue are Americans who are exploring their own capital city and the unique things it has to offer. Not surprising given the fact that the U.S. is a huge country and many people normally would not leave their city or state and even travel to the neighbouring state. But then Washington DC has a special attraction for even those kind of folks. Everyone wants to see Washington DC and New York at least once if not more.

Overall, an excellent visit, and I would love to visit again!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th June 2017

 

Largest and Most Powerful Democracies Meet


Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Washington DC earlier this week, and I happened to be in that city as well, and could witness the impact of his visit at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, wherein he was supposed to address American CEOs over breakfast on Sunday 25th June. I am publishing this blog post after his visit has been completed since I was on the road, but my thoughts obviously emanate from those couple of days 25th – 26th June.

I was meeting one of my mentors at the Willard, and the security checks at the hotel surprised me. They had the Secret Service and dogs to sniff at the patrons (similar to major Indian five star hotels). Usually, there is no security check when you enter any large hotel complex in the U.S. Apart from that check, I also noticed the big black suburban SUVs outside the hotel, and also a number of folks from India around the hotel.

This visit of PM Modi was unlike the one in 2014 when the White House and President Obama were rooting for him all the way, with his huge outreach to the Indian diaspora, etc., It was a more low key affair this time, and my guess is that nobody was sure how the meeting with President Trump will go – no one could guess it the way it turned out to be in the end. I have seen nobody hugging President Trump, and here the Indian PM hugged him not once, not twice, but thrice – counting the third one from the dinner event on Monday. And, from the expression on President Trump’s countenance, it was apparent he was enjoying the hug!

India was obviously a bit perplexed with President Trump, in contrast to the warmth it enjoyed over President Obama’s second term, when India was designated as “Major Defence Partner” of the U.S., the only one country which was a non-NATO ally. With President Trump, it was a mystery how things will go forward, given the fact that he complained about India reaping billions of dollars as a beneficiary of the Paris Climate deal.

The Indian officials must have heaved a sigh of relief after the world witnessed the personal chemistry of “hugging”, smiling and good mouthing that followed during PM Modi’s visit to the White House. Nothing major came out of the visit though. Critical differences on trade, immigration and climate deal were not probably highlighted given the fact that this was the first time the men were meeting. I would guess that given the right wing mentality and pro-business sentiment that pervades on both sides, it was not a surprise that things indeed turned out well for the future of the strategic ties between the world’s most powerful democracy and its largest one.

The one thing which did come out is a lashing of Pakistan’s terror ties, and it is no wonder that Pakistan immediately challenged both the U.S. and India on that count. The U.S. has been increasingly publicly assertive on Pakistan’s major problems centred on the origins of terrorism, especially on the Kashmir side. Just before the arrival of PM Modi, the U.S. State Department designated a Kashmir militant as a global terrorist, which was received rather well by India.

Overall, PM Modi’s visit was good for India, but the U.S. is likely to push for more open trade, and is unlikely to budge on climate issues. However a positive connection has been established, and it should go a long way in cementing strategic ties.

With India buying USD 2B worth of drones and USD 22B of Boeing planes (order from SpiceJet), the U.S. is seeing a strongly positive uptick on the business side, and that should please the White House.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

25th June 2017

 

Eva Air – a game changer


I flew Eva Air from Singapore to Chicago via Taipei earlier this week.

Last month, I flew Emirates via Dubai to the U.S. and have written about my experience on Emirates. See The Emirates Experience

This time around, I wanted to fly through one of the Asian hubs to the U.S. There were only a few options available – Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, ANA via Tokyo Narita, JAL via Tokyo Narita, Korea Air via Seoul or Eva Air via Taipei. You may wonder why I did not consider Singapore Airlines. The answer is simple – I cannot afford it, whether for a business trip or a personal vacation. SIA is overpriced in all sectors going to Europe or the U.S., for almost similar quality of experience with other airlines listed above.

After some serious evaluation which included the dates on which I have to fly, I settled on Eva Air, and this was the very first time I was going to fly with Eva Air. I purchased the Premium Economy ticket, considering the long journey and the need to arrive fresh for some urgent personal work that I had in Chicago. It was around 35% more expensive than the normal Economy Class ticket. Before I decided on Eva Air, I studied the Premium Economy Class comparison of the airlines I had shortlisted, and Eva Air scored at the top of the table due to the comfort offered on this class.

I was not disappointed. Premium Economy seats offered on Eva Air were comfortable with wider seats and much longer leg space. It was almost 75% of the usual business class seat in terms of width of the seat, and the leg space was not cramped – there was good space, and if one is on the first row of this class, it was great – I managed to get one such seat in the long haul from Taipei to Chicago. But even on other rows, the space was very good – I was on one such seat from Singapore to Taipei. Further the Boeing 777 planes were very new, and the flights were smooth sailing for the most part.

However, there were some issues which need to be fixed for the overall flight experience on Eva Air. One was the quality of food, especially for vegetarian selections. Since the point of origin for this flight was Singapore, Eva Air could easily source great vegetarian food, but they did not. It was of average quality (as per my family member). My special meal was better, though it was not as good as that offered on Emirates flights. The other problem was the choice of wines – being in Premium Economy, they should at least offer two white wines and two red wines, but they were offering just one of each type. Not adequate for the ticket price that passengers were paying. The third issue was the quality of service – most of the flight attendants struggled to understand English requests, since they were largely unable to get out of their mother tongue influence. Every one of the flight attendants was a Taiwanese lady, and non-Chinese passengers had to repeat their requests carefully and slowly before they could be understood. The good thing was that the attendants also repeated the passenger’s request so that they could unambiguously understand the same for fulfillment.

Considering the price and quality of Premium Economy offering from Eva Air, I am inclined to state and conclude that it is one of the best around. I was also happy that the 14 hours 20 minutes flight from Taipei to Chicago actually made it to Chicago in 12 hours 40 minutes, though the flight from Singapore to Taipei was delayed by 40 minutes due to rains.

If Eva Air could fix some of the issues, I am sure that it will give a run for the money to the other global Asian airlines on long haul routes. I have to say that I have not experienced the Economy Class on Eva Air, which remains as the Achilles’ heel for most reputed airlines. With its good reputation and mostly on-time performance, and latest range of aircraft, Eva Air has an excellent chance to become one of the top airlines from Asia for long-haul routes. However, the airline needs to look at feedback from global travelers, adopt some of the best practices from other successful airlines such as the Emirates and SQ, and induct a more globalized air crew.

Well, all the best to Eva Air. Keep it up folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th June 2017

 

 

University Town Experience


The last couple of days I have been walking around Evanston town which is some 20 KMs from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The famous Northwestern University is located in Evanston, and one of my family members graduated from the University just yesterday. It gave me an opportunity to spend some serious time around town, see the university, and talk to a number of strangers who were visiting for the graduation commencement ceremony of their wards.

Evanston (which I was visiting for the second time) is a pleasant small and tranquil town, the serenity of which is only broken by student crowds which dominates the Evanston scene at every corner. I would, however, hasten to add that the crowds were subtly tuned with no outward interference to the normal affairs of the society in general. I guess this is mostly due to the exclusive nature of the university, which is private and rather quiet on its own, though it has several world-class departments and famous faculty. Its Kellogg business school is world renowned, and I was thoroughly impressed with its LEED 5 certified state-of-the-art new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. Apparently, this new building which was inaugurated formally only 3 months ago seems to have drawn attention from potential MBA candidates! Almost every other building on the NW campus seems to portray an old-world charm, I was sure many buildings are in fact more than 100 years old. The way modernity merges with that old-world campus can only be discerned when one walks around the campus and witnesses the intermingling of technology in an unobtrusive manner.

The commencement ceremony was held at the Ryan Field football stadium on the campus in a professional, well-organized manner. It was a 2.5 hour function, and graduated 996 graduates of management from the Kellogg school – that was a huge crowd of students, and it was heartening to see the truly global nature of the school with students from many, many countries receiving their degrees. It clearly demonstrated that the U.S. still remains as the education and intellectual capital of the world, and still attracts the best and the brightest from around the world. Hopefully, this trend will continue to the mutual benefit of the global student community and the universities, and continues to produce huge benefit for the American economy. I am sure President Trump has already realized this fact, and that can only be good for the U.S.

Evanston has several interesting restaurants. I tried out the Tapas Barcelona Spanish restaurant, which was pretty good. All portions were a bit small but the paella portion was of good size. The Chianti wine selection was good, though they had mostly Spanish wines. I am in the process of checking out couple of other restaurants.

Lake Michigan is beautiful, and today I took many pictures of it from the first floor of the new Kellogg building as well as from the lake’s shore. It is almost like a sea with waterline disappearing over the horizon, huge and calm, with its enormity only broken by the occasional speed boats and water scooters. It gives a sense of calm to the visitors and the walkers along its long coast line.

One of the things that I like generally in the U.S. is walking into an enormous Wal-Mart or supermarket like Trader’s Joe or Whole Foods, and start shopping for things that I love to eat – like fruits and nuts for example, and pick up excellent wines on the cheap (compared to Singapore). Walking along the long aisles, and reading the labels could take up well over an hour, before I end up collecting the stuff that I would like to buy. It gives pleasure that I could buy a lot more for the same amount of money!

I noticed that the roads were broken in many parts of Evanston, and apparently this is the case in most towns. Infrastructure needs to be fixed and it is no wonder that the President is pushing for a spend of USD 1 Trillion, America needs it as most of its infrastructure is at least 5 to 6 decades old. Even the airports are dated, with modern facilities lacking in many of them.

All in all, I had a great time in Evanston and Northwestern University. I liked what I saw, and came to know a lot more than I did. That’s good news!

Enjoy your weekend folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

16th June 2017

India needs Free Internet


More than any other country on this planet, I would say that India needs free access to the internet to help it leapfrog to the next stage of its already large economy (the Indian GDP just surpassed that of the U.K.). In order to sustain its economic growth, remove system inefficiencies, open up new opportunities for entrepreneurs and alleviate poverty levels, India needs to subsidize access to the internet for citizens earning less than USD 10 per day.

That figure is a mind-boggling 500M people in my estimate, mostly based in rural towns, and villages. Even large cities have huge populations of people with no access to electricity, or even potable water. Given this situation, is it not laughable that I am suggesting internet as a free (or almost free) utility for the people to use ?

No, it is not a matter to be sniffed at. Given that tablets are now available at less than USD 50 (though not great looking), access to the internet utility becomes the major constraint for those masses of people who are at the fringe of the Indian economy which is still slated to grow @ 7.5% or more this year. The key enabler for these people is going to be knowledge and application of knowledge to their vocations and school learning. And, how is India going to deliver knowledge and actionable learning to the masses when its educational infrastructure is so weak ? How is India going to develop its intellectual capabilities beyond the IITs ? There are many questions but it is unquestionable that people provided with opportunities at the right times in their lives make it to a successful life later in their lives. Opportunity is critical and the Indian economy would not be in a position to deliver opportunities to the roughly 10M people coming into its workforce every year, most of them waiting for a job. That is close to 1M people every month!

Facebook and Google are opening up the airwaves in India by offering WiFi access in railway stations and other public places. While their goals are not entirely philanthropic, such initiatives by private corporations have to be commended when the national resources are tight to deploy access throughout the rural areas of India. I believe that India stands to benefit in a huge manner when all its villages and rural population are connected via satellite-based internet. Already 400M Indians are connected to the internet via their mobile phones.

India is not only a huge consumer market which is becoming more knowledgeable about the products the people wish to consume. It is also a melting pot for all kinds of experimentation that companies would like to pursue in the interest of testing their offerings. India is also an entrepreneurial nation of youngsters rushing to launch their new ideas or adaptation of ideas which have worked elsewhere. Given that the government is pushing the idea of a “Digital India”, it is not surprising that the population is warming up quickly towards the concept of all time and real time connectivity to test ideas, consume products, evaluate anything and everything. This is nothing short of a revolution in the making.

The good thing about India is that there is space for everyone. With its English-speaking workforce and modern orientation, India will become the third largest economy of the world by 2030, if not by 2025. It is critical that India offers opportunities to its aspiring people via the concept of free internet. Such an offering can even be positioned as free for 3 years, followed by USD 1 per month thereafter, for segments of the population which has an annual per capita income of USD 2,000 or less. For people earning above this figure upto a cap of USD 5,000 per capita, the rate could be fixed at USD 3 per month. People outside this cap would have to pay the commercial price. Such a subsidy scheme would go a long way in facilitating internet access to the teeming millions of Indians, transforming the country towards a Digital India.

I do hope this happens for the benefit of all Indians.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

11th June 2017