Traffic Anarchy


I have been in Chennai, India for the past couple of days.

I do not have my laptop with me during this trip, so I am keying this blog post on my iPhone, for the first time ever! Its a bit strange though, however not that inconvenient to type.

The rainy season has started in Tamil Nadu State, with the threat of a cyclone coming during this weekend. While the State Government has issued warnings via a “red alert” for this Sunday 7th October, people don’t seem to be bothering, and everything looks normal on the roads, with occasional drizzles and some good rains during night times. I did not see many folks with umbrellas, which seemed strange, given the potential hazards of getting drenched in heavy rains anytime during the day. I became like the local folks, and decided not to take the umbrella yesterday when my mom proferred one with the warning that rains were coming – I walked out like an absolute local with no cover over my head. And it was drizzling a bit, and I enjoyed it, though I had no intent of getting drenched in the rain!

I got into an auto rickshaw, the affordable three-wheeler still dominating the streets of most cities and towns in India. I had booked the vehicle using the OLA app (similar to UBER or GRAB app), which provides dynamic real-time pricing, and had lot of difficulty in securing one due to the rains. It was annoying to keep getting the same message “no autos are available now – please try again later”, and also keep seeing an ever-increasing price every time. Finally, I had to pay more (like a surge price), and get an auto, it took nearly 30 minutes overall, which was not a pleasant waiting experience. Of course, I am not blaming the OLA app itself, as it cannot do much if even the higher real-time pricing does not elicit a response from the auto drivers who are waiting nearby to my location.

Now, let me come to the traffic part.

Indian cities (except a couple) are notorious for their disorganized and uncontrolled traffic conditions on even the arterial city roads. The road in which my apartment is located is known for its bad traffic all day round, with couple of large shopping malls, many apartment blocks, cinema theatres, a bus terminus, a major hospital and a large IT company building, all located within a stretch of less than 1 KM. I have to almost always make a U-turn just ahead of my apartment to get to the city, and that other side of the road is always super congested.

I suggested to my auto driver that he should take a short cut via some lane instead of joining the bursting traffic on the other side of the road, as I was making a rather short trip to the post office nearby and did not wish to waste a lot of time on the road.

He thought for some 5 seconds and decided to U-turn on my side of the road itself, and started driving against the oncoming traffic to my horror! He asked me not to worry!! The beauty was that the traffic coming against us “slightly” adjusted their traffic curvature to accommodate our vehicle, making a “sincere” attempt to avoid hitting us!!! This “adjustment” is a unique part of the driving culture in India.

After some 30 metres or so, he deftly turned into a side road and proceeded in the “right” side of the traffic, and was able to reach the desired traffic junction undercutting all of the traffic chaos on the other side of my main road by making appropriate quick turns!

Looks like many folks (except cars and heavy vehicles) are doing the same motions to undercut the traffic, with the potential threat of a traffic cop stopping the vehicle anytime, and issuing a traffic violation ticket, or demanding a hefty “contribution”.

Coming to think of it, it is not possible to get control of the city traffic situation in most cities of India without some sort of “ERP” system like that of Singapore – ERP stands for Electronic Road Pricing, and it is a dynamic road pricing system which increases the cost to drivers at peak traffic times. There will be huge protests if such a system is introduced in India, but I believe that there is no alternative due to the lack of proper, well maintained roads and also lack of adequate road space and improper/illegal constructions occupying road corners. Singapore has successfully and effectively used ERP to control traffic congestion for the past two decades.

With the rains hitting Chennai, I could see the very badly maintained roads taking further hits, creating big holes on the roads which are dangerous to all drivers, especially to the smaller vehicles such as autos and two wheelers. Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs?

The traffic situation is bad especially during the rains, but I discovered the joys of listening to music like Abba, Boney M, and Ed Sheeren using Spotify app on my iPhone. Music one likes or loves to hear would reduce the the stress on Indian roads. Now I am downloading more songs via Spotify! Hopefully, other drivers will resort to some such non-distracting driving aids while encountering the chaos and the poor roads.

In any case, there is no escape from going outside the cosy house and doing your job. Millions of people endure this traffic anarchy right through the day, and they must be always wondering “when is someone going to put an end to all this chaos?”.

Have a wonderful, rain-soaked weekend, folks! At least the folks in South India!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

6th October 2018

Hangzhou – an amazing destination


I spent the past few days in Hangzhou, the 4th largest metropolitan area of China, just an hour away from Shanghai by high-speed bullet train.

During my previous visit, I was not able to spend any time to see places of importance in Hangzhou, so I was determined to spend a day of personal time during last week’s trip.

As it has become the normal impact on any visitor, most major cities of China astound you with their modernity, infrastructure, lovely hotels, organized traffic and cleanliness. Hangzhou is no different. It is sleek and modern. It has relatively newer infrastructure with some gleaming new malls (I visited two of them). It is well-industrialized, and has a per-capita GDP of over USD 20K! It has good roads, and apparently well-managed traffic, but then Chinese drivers are as bad as Indian drivers in Indian roads, they cut across others and try to squeeze their way between two lanes, and quite rash in terms of speeding up.

Apart from the above, Hangzhou has a long rich history going back couple of thousand years. It has managed to integrate its historical past with its modern society, but I was not happy about the manner in which they are maintaining their old Buddhist temples. More about that later in this post.

I had time only to visit two important tourist destinations in Hangzhou: one was the West Lake, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site; the other was the stunning Lingyin Buddhist Temple & Monastery, also called “Temple of Soul’s Retreat”. Both places are so huge, it will be an injustice to write about the smallish experiences I had, but then I would like to share what little I did during just half-day of precious time!

First, I went to Lingyin Temple (it costs RMB 45 for an admission ticket or SGD 9). One thing you got to be prepared anywhere of tourist importance in China is the crowd. Even on a weekday, you will find thousands of people streaming in – not unlike India, but more in terms of numbers. Nobody speaks English, including the staff manning ticket counters, so you have to use sign language [I am always even more amazed with the huge growth of China’s economy given that the people struggle with any foreign languages, especially English, and still manage to sell all that they produce to the world!]. The only signs of Westernization are the KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks – which are all ubiquitous across China. But even at these outlets, no one speaks or understands English so use your fingers to point items on the menu!

The Temple and Monastery were established at the present location by an Indian monk in 4th Century AD (a very important contribution by India to China!!). I went around the temple and walked on stone slabs which were probably 1,500 years old. Lingyin Temple is considered as one of the top Buddhist temples in all of China, and so it is no wonder it continues to attract thousands of devotees from around China.

From the Temple, I went to the “Broken Bridge” across the West Lake (around 5 KMs cab ride), which is the Northern part of the West Lake. As I said, it is a beautiful part of Hangzhou, which has inspired monks and artists over many centuries. It was so pleasant to walk across this bridge – I decided to spend more time and walk for a couple of KMs to enjoy the fresh air and see the Lotus flowers floating on the lake along with some pretty swans as well. A nice walk, but it was bit foggy around 5 PM. My guess is that the fog will clear off towards the nightfall, and it would be a beautiful locale with lights all around the lake’s periphery. I should say it was an excellent walk!

It was a great experience, but I quickly became modern by walking into a Starbucks outlet across the street (difficult to cross, like it is in India) located in a nice two-storey house.

I believe I have not even scratched the surface of Hangzhou. To demonstrate how modern is Hangzhou, I thought it would be pertinent to show to you the walls of a modern restaurant in a glitzy mall that I went to for dinner. Make your own conclusions!!!

Let me also say one thing about Hangzhou that would be rather surprising: taxi fares and food are cheaper than Singapore, or even India. Definitely far cheaper than the Western world, for sure. I used the DIDI app for calling cab to the airport (and my friend did it for other locations) and it costed just RMB 100 (or SGD 20) for a distance of nearly 30 KMs in a new comfortable limousine (called “premier taxi” in the DIDI app). The DIDI app is similar to the OLA app in India or the GRAB app in Singapore, very convenient with reasonable fares, and it also has an in-built English to Mandarin translator!!!

Cheers, and Have a Great Weekend, Folks,

Vijay Srinivasan

22nd September 2018

Fauda


“Fauda” in Arabic means “chaos” or “riot”.

I just completed viewing the two Seasons of the Netflix Serial “Fauda”, fascinated by my recent visit to Israel.

Fauda is based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Being an Israeli Serial, it shows mostly the Israeli version of tackling terrorism from the eyes of an elite counter terrorism unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. The creators of the show came from that unit. While there seems to be a sincere attempt to depict the normal lives of Palestinians living on the West Bank, it does not come through effectively. The rationale for why Palestinians would even pursue an armed conflict against the much more well-armed Israeli soldiers beats me when the average Palestinian would want to lead as normal a life as an average Israeli.

But then, I am talking from far away. I do not understand the complex history of the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the countless battles that have harmed both sides since 1948 when Israel was established. My visit to Israel clarified some of my queries, especially when I visited the Yitzhak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv. The story of Israel is indeed fascinating to any foreigner – its emergence from nowhere as a country of around 8.5M today with some world-beating technologies and an incredible intelligence service. In fact, I was more impressed about the Israeli tech startups and the infrastructure they have put in place to nurture these startups at several key locations around this rather small country.

I had mostly positive impressions about Israel all these years, though occasionally I used to be disturbed by the radical statements made by Israeli government ministers and the brutal attacks against unarmed Palestinian civilians. I also did not empathize with the need for Israeli government to build settlements in occupied territories.

However, it is pertinent here to note that Israel has helped countries like India in countless ways – a good example being agriculture. The drip irrigation system developed by Israel has fostered astounding agricultural innovations. Israel has also provided much-needed advanced military equipment to India. Overall, Israel is viewed positively in India, I would say. The government-to-government cooperation is deepening every year.

Given all this background, seeing the Fauda serial on Netflix provided me with the much needed context, though I do not agree with everything that was shown or to be accurate, not shown. I liked the show overall – it was thrilling in many sequences, and weaves almost a real-life kind of story and human emotions into what should strictly be a military operation. I do not know whether it reflects reality – it may not. However, it is good to see the story flow seamlessly in Season I of the Serial which appeared to be more interesting than the Season II. The transformation of the elite unit members to support one special operative in sorting out his personal enmity is not that believable, and I do not think it is feasible to violate orders of the Commander of the unit. The tolerance shown towards the main actor (who is the special operative, Doron) is reflective of the empathy that the hardened special unit members develop over long years of working together.

Israel has had a huge challenge these past 7 decades managing its borders and the security of its citizens. But the cost incurred is prohibitive. Young people are wasted away in tough fighting assignments wherein they are forced to fire at civilians. They develop post traumatic stress syndrome, and find it difficult to lead normal lives. Some of these struggles can be seen in Fauda.

The mutual recriminations between the Israelis and Palestinians are interspersed with harmless banter between senior intelligence officers from both sides. Even when tough action is going to be taken, the Israeli officer meets with the Palestinian officer in his office, and is offered coffee! The culture is almost the same, the ethnicity and the affiliation to the land are the same. It is the armed conflict which is destroying the lives of people on both sides, coupled with unnecessary belligerence on the political side.

Fauda has a very good narrative, and excellent cast of actors, most of them from army background. It “feels” realistic, and shows the struggle in a somewhat oblique manner. It also demonstrates the good intentions of certain good folks on either side. At the end of it, I felt sad at the situation on the ground – I have seen the barricades, the army outposts, the metal detectors, the soldiers, almost everywhere. It appears Israelis are having peaceful coffee in nice cafes, but the insecurity is palpable. I am not surprised that people can get jittery even for the simplest of things. Unfortunate really.

You will enjoy Fauda, if you have not visited Israel; and you will enjoy it much more if you have visited Israel!

Have a good week ahead, folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

26th August 2018

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

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