The Hong Kong Efficiency


I have been to Hong Kong a number of times over the past over two decades or so, but I have not been there for the past few years.

When I went last week, should I say I was impressed? Yes, nothing much has changed in terms of efficiency and fast movement. By efficiency, I mean that almost everything happens in clockwork fashion. The train from the airport is the most efficient way to transport yourself to the heart of town, and I wonder why people, especially many foreigners, continue to use the expensive taxis. I could purchase a return ticket from airport to Kowloon and back for less than SGD 20, which I thought was a very reasonable fare for a very effective use of one’s time.

By fast movement, I mean the people who are moving through the subway system, malls and everywhere else. I could not see a single slacker anywhere. For Hong Kong people, time is money, and they appear on an everlasting mission to make money all the time. Even more than the Singaporeans. People were on a rush, moving in and out of activities everywhere – I could feel the buzz in the air. The escalators were overloaded. It appeared to me that people did not wish to miss a “trade” – they were all traders in a sense.

With a GDP per capita of over USD 44,000 Hong Kong is one of the most prosperous countries (Sorry! – it is now part of China as a special administrative region) in the world. You can see wealth everywhere, in the malls which are glitzier than those of Singapore, in the cars zooming along the roads, in the real estate prices (the most expensive in the entire world), in the high-end restaurants, and finally in the prices which cabbies charge you! At an average of USD 3,000 per sq foot of condominium space, and still climbing, it is hard to buy anything more than 500 Sq Ft and most Hong Kong folks make do with very small apartments. Cars are expensive but much cheaper than in Singapore. Parking space is priced the worst – there have been reports that car parking spaces have been sold for more than USD 1M.

If you recall, the Eighties saw the emergence of four economic tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. All these countries have been successful due to their early recognition of the fact that people need bread foremost, and nations need free trade. They also recognized the importance of manufacturing in building up their economic bases. The fundamental premise that economics should take precedence over everything else constituted the foundation of these economies. It proved to be prescient and hugely successful.

Hong Kong is also the city with the most skyscrapers in the world. They continue to build very tall buildings, and have not stopped building. The influx of people from China with huge amounts of cash has driven prices up. A decent meal for two in a nice restaurant is likely to set you back by SGD 120 to 150. A more advanced meal in an elegant restaurant with drinks et al, is likely to cost you in the range of SGD 300 to 400. I do not believe Singapore is the most expensive city in all of Asia Pacific, after seeing taxi and restaurant prices in Tokyo and Hong Kong recently.

With a relentless focus on the pursuit of perfection and efficiency, Hong Kong has built one of the most resilient economies in the world which is still growing. Of course, I complained about lack of credit card payment facility in taxis which is highly inconvenient for tourists who are forced to convert their respective currencies to Hong Kong Dollars. Uber is not that prevalent, though I used it and got a Tesla electric car to ride which was fabulous. The famous Didi taxi app from China works in Hong Kong, but there was no English version and the map was portrayed inaccurately so I could not use it. The powerful taxi union of Hong Kong is stopping the Hong Kong Government from introducing modern technologies – that was the only conclusion I could draw. When I used Uber, it was not cheaper than using the normal taxi, leading me to conclude that the taxi union has forced Uber to raise prices (which happened indeed).

British legacy can be witnessed in several areas including trade unionism!

That Hong Kong is very expensive can also be seen when you use a taxi to cross the tunnel under the sea. It can cost upwards of SGD 12 per crossing, which is very high. If everything is added, one can see the reason why Hong Kong is much more expensive than Singapore. Taxis, tolls, restaurants, and real estate are cheaper in Singapore. Only cars are more expensive. So I do not understand how Singapore is the most expensive city in the world (as some reports have stated).

Overall, Hong Kong is a great city with unrivalled business efficiency and fabulous views across the harbour (and almost from any high tower). In the night, it provides an unbeatable view – the glitziest in the world.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th June 2018

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The Leaf Healthy House


We visited this nice little restaurant in the heart of George Town, Penang, yesterday for lunch. Of course, we chose this restaurant based on some recommendations as it suited our preference after some heavy foodie kind of stuff the past couple of days. We wanted something healthy, made of natural ingredients with less or no salt, etc., and my wife found out about this place and we decided to give it a try.

We were not disappointed.

After some 30 minutes of drive from Kek Lok Si Temple, we reached the Little India area of George Town but got lost during the search for The Leaf Healthy House. Finally we found it, hidden somewhat, behind some leaves and shrubs!

It is a nice cosy place with no ostentation. The menu provided lot of details, and each one of us selected different kinds of dishes. I wanted to have some hot tea, so I started with “Rosehip & Hibiscus” Flora/Herbal Tea. It had a nice fragrance but otherwise it was just a hot drink, nothing special though the menu claims it reduces blood pressure and cholesterol. Each food item or drink had a rationale behind it which was fascinating to read, though I am not sure as to the veracity of the claim.

I ordered the following food items for myself:

The Leaf Spaghetti with Basil and Pine Nuts sauce – my rating is “very good” – since I was not feeling full after this small portion of spaghetti, I decided to order another main course which was the “Rainbow Mix Rice” which had brown rice with fibrous burdock root – my rating is “excellent”. I loved this burdock based rice. I also shared some boiled Edamame.

My family members were unanimous in their verdict – this was probably the best vegetarian food that they have had. The ingredients were fresh and natural, the salt content was low or non-existent, the taste was good and the selection of food was fantastic. Even the fruit juice that my wife had was “cold pressed” natural juice which means that no nutrients were lost due to heat, and there was no sugar or the sugar syrup that most other restaurants add to their juice offerings.

I was wondering why such restaurants do not exist in other parts of the world. Given the inclination of younger folks towards health food, this must be a no-brainer. Singapore should be having some place similar, only I haven’t come across it so far.

The food and tea/juice costed approximately SGD 22 for three of us, and we just could not believe it. I should say we briefly bought health for lunch at a throwaway pricing. The food was filling and healthy, and I was not surprised to see the restaurant filling up with office goers and young people at lunch time. We were fortunate to get a place, as were a little early – it is not a big restaurant. They had less than 30 seats.

If you are travelling to Penang, please try to visit this restaurant. You will not regret it.

Enjoy healthy food.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

29th May 2018

Few Days in Batu Ferringhi


I am sure most of my readers are right now googling to find out where is Batu Ferringhi. It is located in the northern part of the Penang island in Malaysia. It was my second trip to Penang but my first trip was many years ago, and Penang has changed substantially over the years. Now it looks modern and well built-out with several large shopping malls and many condominiums all over the island.

Penang has been one of Malaysia’s success stories, which has offered skilled workforce to many of the leading global electronics manufacturers, and one can see a line of factories on both sides of the highway from the airport towards the city. It is well governed by the state administration and the people that I met were generally industrious and helpful, with good level of English communication. I was told that the occupancy rates of the famous hotels in Batu Ferringhi area were low at this point of the year, but I found that the Hard Rock hotel where I stayed was crowded, and it was difficult to get a reservation at their famous Hard Rock Cafe. However, the hotel itself is meant for families with young children, and one cannot complain when disturbed by shrieking noises of tens of kids from the swimming pool. I am not recommending this hotel if you just adults on a sight-seeing trip coming back tired and wanting to just relax. It is rather noisy, and the noise takes on a different colour as the late evening approaches as you get a vivacious DJ and enterprising singers belting out Western songs well into the night, which means only that you cannot get sleep easily as the noise drifts up to your room some couple of floors up! So, look for some other hotel if your requirements are not compatible.

My family wanted to see the Penang Hill with its Funicular train up the hill, and so we went to see that place. The funicular train is a fast one at a steep incline which is somewhat exciting as it climbs a distance of some 700M up the hill at a rapid pace. We enjoyed walking up the hill and reaching the Habitat Walk area from which one can get a complete 360 degree view of entire Penang. It requires some serious step climbing so you should pace it out over a couple of hours as you can combine it with some serious botanical investigation (there is a guided tour as well). Good experience, and good walking, helping me to reach some walking steps target!

Another day we visited the famous Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, located not far from the Penang Hill area. This visit necessitated a full two hours. It is South East Asia’s biggest Buddhist temple. There is an ornate Pagoda and several prayer halls, very similar to what I saw in Bangkok. There is also a small train carriage which pulls up passengers up the hill towards the statue of Kuan Yin or Goddess of Mercy. We walked around and learnt a few things about the temple, and its plans to expand further (they seem to be having plenty of land around). Penang being a largely Chinese society, the temple receives donations from the community for various activities.

We did not see all the tourist destinations due to lack of time. However, our Penang experience has been positive with good feelings about the visit. It is a nice place (though not cheap if you are using one of the big name hotels such as Shangri-La) with nice people; and you would find that taxis are cheap and food is also cheap if you eat in the town area (George Town) which has hundreds of eateries.

Now, let me see if I can post a few pictures from my trip to Penang:

 

All the pictures above are from the Kek Lok Si Temple. It was a great experience just exploring what the temple has to offer in terms of peace and tranquillity to any visitor, whether believer or not. Just silence everywhere, except when busloads of tourists arrive at the entrance of the temple!

The above pictures are from the beautiful Penang Hill.

Make a trip and enjoy the pristine environs of Penang!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

29th May 2018

Chicago O’Hare and Jet Lag


I flew from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Singapore via Taipei last weekend. My Eva Air flight was at 00:30 hours, past Friday midnight and I cleared all formalities by 10:15 PM Friday evening.

I was totally surprised at the level of airport activity – there were passengers, of course, and airport personnel, but O’Hare did not look like a major international airport at all. Almost all the restaurants were closed, except for a lousy coffee shop and a bar with no food. This was Terminal 5, and I am sure there might have been more activity in the other terminals, but we could not leave this terminal and go to the others to check out. My family was hungry and so was I, but the maximum we could get was a brownie and coffee. This was simply unacceptable, and I could not resist comparisons with major Asian flight hubs such as Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok or Hong Kong, which are alive with activities 24×7. You can almost get anything you want in the Singapore Changi International Airport even at midnight.

American airports need to be upgraded with more passenger services and better quality infrastructure. These airports are decades old and appear to have hardly seen a major facelift over the years. I saw one DFS shop open with exorbitant prices for almost everything. But as time went on, the activity levels dropped except around the departure gates. I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation was similar in other major international airports in the U.S.

Well, at least the gate handling was uneventful, and Eva Air departure personnel handled the crowd efficiently, and the flight left on time (except for the short taxiing delay of 10 to 15 minutes). I decided to align my body with the time at Chicago and went to sleep after some food. Many folks were seeing movies. I slept for some 6 to 7 hours and when I got up we were some 70% through with our journey time. It was morning time in Chicago and I again aligned my body with some activities like walking around the cabin, stretching the legs, seeing some movies, etc., keeping awake till the plane landed at Taipei. It was going to be 4 AM in Taipei the next day. And, I felt fresh. It worked for me and I had no jet lag at all even after we landed in Singapore around noon time Sunday.

Of course, I went to sleep pretty early Sunday night and had a good 8 hour sleep, and that brought my body in alignment with the local timing in Singapore. However, my family members were having difficulties with jet lag affecting them for couple of days before they felt all right.

So, the key learning was to ensure sync with the origin location of the flight, rather than the destination. This worked for me. I never felt sleepy during late afternoons upon arrival, and this was different from my previous experiences.

Well, Singapore always looks welcoming when we arrive its beautiful airport, so here we are! It was a wonderful vacation in the U.S. and when I walked around New York and Washington, I felt that I should have worked in these places at least once in my lifetime!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

8th July 2017

 

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

 

Torture the Tourists and Travellers


That’s exactly what happened at Chennai International Airport last evening.

Unbelievable, right?

What I am referring to here is the closure of the three entrance doors of the international airport side, keeping only one door open for ALL travellers, which resulted in long, serpentine queues outside the main doors all the way down along the main corridor wherein travellers disembark from their taxis and cars.

First of all, I saw many irritated folks (that includes me, of course), who could not find a trolley to load their baggages. There is no trolley point at the point(s) at which travellers disembark from their vehicles. All the trolleys are dragged to the points just outside one of the main doors, which forces people to wade through huge crowds in search of trolleys. What a dysfunctional idea is it to park all the trolleys away from points where they are sorely needed? I had to wade through the crowds, first to my right where I could not locate any trolleys and then to my left where I saw trolleys parked some 200 feet away but I could not reach those trolleys as there was a long line of folks trying to get into the only door which was open! However, I did wade through and reached the trolley line, and managed to get two trolleys and then had the unenviable task of climbing over people and cutting across lines to get to my baggages (I luckily had another traveller taking care of my belongings). This was ridiculous, no international airport has such a mess going on at the peak time for international travellers. I was already profusely sweating by the time I managed to bring the trolleys for loading of baggages. Chennai is not for anti-humidity and anti-heat folks.

The most annoying thing however, was the long queue (usually there will be at least 3 doors operating for different airlines) and the quick adaptation of the Indian Q-Theory which I have written about in the past. This theory predicates that if there is one feet of space between two people on a Q, then you can rest assured the gap will quickly covered by a suddenly appearing person who grabs that space, or that space will be used as a “bridge” for people crossing from one side to the other. This theory also advises folks to take care of their nostrils because of the pungent smells which hit one from folks all over in a sweaty weather. This theory then goes on to predicate that people like to rub each other with complete lack of sensitivity in India while existing on a Q, and when it suits them they ignore the presence of people in the front by smashing their trolleys into the inviting legs in front of them as they decide it would be a good resting point for their trolley. And so on, and so forth.

It took me more than 40 minutes to just get through the outside Q, before I reached the only open main door to the airport terminal. Now I was sweating badly, and saw an intruder trying to cut me just at the entry point from nowhere. I threw him away by strong and loud questioning as that is the only way to put some sense into such idiots – they get scared and move away (they must be thinking “what a moron – what is there – I am just one single guy trying to jump into the Q”).

Once inside the terminal, there was a small Q at the airline counter, which I tackled in about 10 minutes. Armed with the boarding pass, I then turned my attention to the immigration Q, and was appalled to see a very, very long Q spilling out of the immigration area by a mile. This was just hugely ridiculous. How do other airports even within India handle crowds? Mumbai and New Delhi stand as prime example on how queues are managed effectively, even with an operating Indian Q Theory. But Chennai International Airport has failed its passengers completely, it is a dysfunctional airport with new buildings which do not make sense. One previous time I saw the new terminal building leaking in pouring rains and puddles of water all over inside the terminal.

Chennai is as close to my home town as any city can be, and it is shameful that the authorities could not manage such an important international airport effectively. Almost everyone I talked to complained or put the blame on one government agency or the other. Unless there is shame which is deeply felt, unless the government ministers and officials are forced to go through the mess like an ordinary passenger, the situation on the ground is not going to change.

What a pity? Why would tourists choose Chennai over the other cities? When is this situation going to change for the better?

No answers yet. Hope is still there.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th September 2016

The Kolkata Experience


I was in Kolkata last week just for 2.5 days.

A city of some 18M (some folks say that the population of Kolkata is over 20M, putting it just next to Mexico City) people, Kolkata had been in the forefront of British India for a long time. It has what I call “cultured” people, who are still steeped in a colonial mindset. The funny thing though is that Kolkata has been a Communist bastion for over 4 decades, till Mamata Banerjee (the current Chief Minister of the West Bengal State, of which Kolkata is the State Capital) came along and usurped the Communist Party from their long-held power and sway over the Bengalis (as the people of West Bengal are called).

So, here you have a gargantuan city of enormous proportions (it is actually a twin city, with the Howrah Bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah, its twin city), which has the distinction of hosting Mother Theresa till she died. It has many accolades from the past, not the least being the Capital of British India which was later taken over by Delhi.

The Bengalis are a passionate people with rather strong opinions on everything which matters. They are what I call as “the intelligentsia” of modern India. They are also the source of some of the most talented actors and actresses of Bollywood. And, who can forget Shri Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Nobel Laureate of India, and who hails from West Bengal ? And so on and so forth………

Surprisingly, the part of Kolkata that I visited (Southern Avenue adjoining the lake), Tollygunge Road, and areas around these locations were not crowded. The traffic was light for the size of Kolkata and when I checked with one of my hosts, he happened to remark that there are no big crowds due to lack of industrial activity. Which may be true, given that the Communists were always against the industrialization of the State, and drove away Capitalists who wanted to invest in the State, leveraging the strong intellectual capital of the Bengalis. But that was not to be, and today West Bengal is one of the least industrialized states of India. This led to Bengalis migrating en masse to other progressive states of India and overseas, and you see them almost everywhere you go.

Still, Kolkata has its charm, and I loved the New Alipore area which I visited to meet up with some old relatives. A rather charming area, with neat roads and large apartments which was strange amidst the chaos in the rest of the city. I also bought some sweets in a famous old sweet shop in that area – Bengalis are very famous for their sweet tooth. Fantastic sweets which you cannot get elsewhere in India are available from the 100 year old Kolkata brands of sweet shops – I bought from one such brand – Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick. Excellent choice, but there are several other brands equally famous.

The strangest part of Kolkata was the Airport. It is a gleaming new international airport. But, there was not much activity in the international side on a late evening/ night time, unlike Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi wherein there are always thousands of passengers and a long list of flights right through the night. When I arrived at 9 PM at the Kolkata International Airport, I could count only 5 or 6 flights, and there were few passengers at the airport. In fact, everything was a breeze – check-in at the Silk Air counter, immigration clearance, security check-up, etc., were surprisingly fast. Of course, this shows the influence of the Communist ideology on the residents of West Bengal and also the lack of tourists.

I took a drive along Howrah Bridge during a rainy day, and it was fabulous. The Victoria Memorial visit was great, with its beautifully maintained gardens and statues, but also reminding one of the British dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries over India. I have always detested their acquisition of India and their politicking with the Kings and Princes of India on a divide-and-rule philosophy. They did leave some good things behind in India when they left in 1947, but overall I think that India would have been better off in a faster manner had it not been for the Briitsh rule. That topic is for another blog post, I guess.

In any case, there are a number of places to be seen in Kolkata (ensure you have a good English-speaking driver), and do not miss these places. And, the traffic is not worse than other metro (large) cities of India.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th July 2016

Agra in Decline


Most readers may not agree with what I am going to write about, especially the foreigners who visit Agra, and definitely most locals.

But it is my wont to state what I feel strongly about and I am not going to desist from uncovering my mind about the dilapidation around the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world and by any definition, an outstanding architectural marvel ever conceived and executed by man.

When I visited Agra last week, I was impressed with the journey from Delhi – I took the Yamuna Expressway, which has been so well executed by Jaypee Infratech, an infrastructure developer. Theoretically, one could cover the distance of 184 KMS between Delhi and Agra in less than 2 hours flat, but it does take more time if there is heavy fog, which was the case when I undertook the travel. The intense fog over much of Northern India, enveloped the expressway, so it became difficult to achieve more than 90 KMPH speed. However, as stupidity would have it, there were a number of speeding drivers with headlights and blinkers on, who were doing well in excess of 100 KMPH, even under dense fog conditions. For Indian drivers on the road, such expressways are a rarity – in most highways around the country, one can be lucky to achieve a speed of 60 KMPH under ordinary driving conditions. So, most drivers freak out on the gleaming new cement roads at speeds which would endanger their lives, but they mostly ignore the danger, so to say.

Our car took some 3 hours with couple of breaks in between, but it was all right, as our driver was quite conscious of the dangers of speeding in foggy conditions, when the visibility drops to some 100 metres.

Once we finished the expressway, the fun started. There is no expressway exit direct into Agra city, and that was not surprising. In other countries, that would have been the case though. But in India, strange things happen for strange reasons, so we have to accommodate as onlookers.

When we exited the expressway, we entered another highway with heavy traffic, on which we took a U-turn (!) to go towards Agra city. The drive which ensues from this point takes some 12 KMS, but in terms of time it took more than 40 minutes due to heavy city traffic. All kinds of vehicles, including bullock carts use the same roads, and there is no choice but to go slow and carefully.

The Agra city has been maintained in such a manner that I am not able to use the word “lousy”. Many visitors have thick skins and ignore the surroundings and the deteriorating conditions in the city as their main aim is to go and visit the Taj Mahal and probably nothing else. But, if you watch carefully, you would witness a place which has deteriorated beyond redemption.

The roads are narrow, there are no pavements, the traffic is unregulated, there is construction going on with encroachments on the road and affecting the traffic, there seem to be many touts roaming the streets and looking for “prey”, there is enormous dust, and in general no civic sense in a radius of some 10 KMS around the Taj Mahal.

A sensible administration would have avoided any construction in a radius not less than 5 KMS from the Taj Mahal, and avoided environmental impact. But in the case of Agra, the distance provided is only 100 Metres, which is nothing short of ridiculous. And some restrictions have been put in place, though belatedly, on industrial activities in Agra.

So, it was no wonder when I saw the Taj Mahal – it was slightly yellowish in colour, or tinted in some manner not explainable easily: it was not the pure 100% white marble that one would expect.

It is not a surprising phenomenon in India, as the government fails to use its powers and enforce regulations actively in all spheres of life. But in this case and in many other heritage monuments, I believe the government should have taken extreme care to avoid the unfavourable impact of humans and greedy folks whose only motivation is profiteering. Many carvings in Taj Mahal with embedded precious stones have been scraped away by visitors as pointed out by our guide !

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
30th December 2012
Mumbai