“Ideas Mela” – What an Idea Sirji !!! Part – 2

In the last few years, in airports across the world you cannot just miss one thing. The ambience at the airports may be different, the service levels may vary, but one thing which was common was the HSBC branding at the “Aerobridges” whether it was Los Angeles, London, Delhi, Singapore, Honk Kong or Tokyo.  I’m not sure of the year when it started but if my memory serves me right, it could be 2010/11 when HSBC kicked off its global campaign positioning itself as “The World’s Glocal Bank” and the one of the main medium they chose to carry this message across was the “Aerobridge” at most of the international airports across the globe.  In line with the campaign theme of being a “Glocal” bank, while the medium and treatment were unified on a pan world basis, the creative itself was localized and changed from one country to another.

Aerobridge Exterior

Aerobridge Exterior

Aerobridge Interior

Aerobridge Interior

So much so HSBC earned the moniker – “Airport brand”!!! Though there is nothing novel about branding in airports and this would seem as just another OOH  ( Out Of Home) medium this “Glocal” execution of the campaign simultaneously as I understand in some 25 odd countries in may be around 100 airports certainly falls under the “What an Idea Sirji” category.   In my earlier blog post – “Ideas Mela – What an Idea Sirji” ( read here), I had touched upon a few campaigns which used media innovatively to carry their message across. In this post, I am talking of a few more such ideas which I came across and felt worth sharing.  These are not creative ideas perse’ but ideas where the media chosen were different and hence groundbreaking.

  • Continuing with Airports, in the post 9/11 era we live, going through the long security drill seems unavoidable. As part of this drill is the need to remove our laptops/Tablets,.. and put them in trays for screening. These trays have become a novel branding medium. I don’t know which brand hit upon this first. But now I see that many travel websites like makemytrip, expedia, goibibo,.. have likened to this idea and may be sponsoring these trays and branding them. Airports, travel and travel websites are all related and it seems to be a great idea for these brands though I see a trend of all travel companies jumping into the tray b(r)andwagon and hence may not be so distinctive anymore.
makemytrip trays

makemytrip trays

 makemytrip

  • There was a time in India when immigration counters at airports use to be chaotic to say the least.  Particularly when you are returning home after a long trip you rue the thought of spending an hour again in the maddening immigration line upon arrival.  Some people believe it is unruly even now. But I for sure feel that there is a marked improvement on this front in the last 5-6 years. Wait a minute, why I am talking of this here??? Well part of the solution to the problem apart of training of the immigration staff,…,… has been the introduction of a single line at the end of which people are directed to many counters.  As you stand in the line and wonder invariably of the Incredibility of India, you cannot just miss the branding on the rods which are used to form the line. (Sorry no picture due to security reasons!!)  Thomas Cook was a pioneer in this and used this medium quite well which I feel is inventive. Again, immigration lines, airport, travel, Convenience, Thomas Cook all conjure up an association in the minds and I thought it was a great idea for a Travel company.
  • Airports are not the only place where you stumble upon great ideas. You could in Multiplexes too and that too in obscure places like “loos” like I did.  “Dixcy Scott” a men’s innerwear brand found some strategic spots inside the Men’s washrooms for promoting their wares. I was surprised first, amused later and was impressed finally to find posters with captions like “Aim and Shoot”, “Size doesn’t matter” and “Do not give into pressure” placed just above the wall mounted men’s urinals.  These apparently staid copy lines bring another dimension when placed at the right place. So much for “placement”. Surprisingly I saw this campaign only for some time and I don’t see it these days.
  • When you talk of Ideas and Innovation it is seldom that Fevicol and its ilk get left out.  This time it showed up even in the “Online” space.  In April/May when the spot fixing/ match fixing drama in IPL was dominating the headlines in India, this idea from Dr.Fixit – a Fix all adhesive product from Pidilite was kickass. In that period whenever I was googling for any news on match fixing, IPL,.. invariably I tripped on banners for Dr.Fixit routinely on the side. I noticed this casually once and then when I repeated the search, I found the banner appearing in other IPL related sites as well which left me quite impressed on the smart SEO/SEM work.  See for yourself the visuals.

 Dr Fixit,Online Innovation,052013Dr Fixit,Media Innovation,052013,2

  • In recent times, one can say that the film Chennai Express was a case of a clear box office hit made possible by some great marketing. A film with not so great/unique story line and many other fault lines which could have ensured it to be a box office dud (looking at past films of this ilk) turned out to be one of all time big grossers. And certainly the big bang/big buck marketing blitz and PR played a great role in this.  One piece in this marketing spend which caught my attention was the use of “Train” like cut outs (see pic) with branding of the film inside multiplexes couple of weeks before the film release. The windows in trains which you usually see were replaced with LED displays (like TV) and were continuously feeding promos of the movie including song clips, trailers, Making of the movie,.. As people were waiting outside the movie hall this was a good opportunity to grab eyeballs and generate a positive buzz about the movie and it certainly did. The film took to a great opening and as the cliché goes rest is history. History will record Chennai Express as one of the top movies of SRK.

Chennai Exp Media Inno,Mumbai,082013

  • Staying with filmy stuff, watching Mahabharat on TV every week was part of my growing up memories. Sunday morning was the time to roll on the highways and take some sunbath as you will find no traffic when Mahabharat was on air. Some people attempted to re-create Mahabharat on TV this time on 3D. So the 16th Sep edition of the Times of India carried a full-page ad for the serial Mahabharat. Along with the paper a 3D glass was also given away. Again a different dimensional thought to get some TRP going and for sure a great idea.

Now I’m not sure if the TRPs soared or for that matter if the said channel is continuing with Mahabharat as of now.  Similarly I am not privy to the sales revenues after the above so called great ideas were unleashed. Hence the often heard of “What an idea Sirji, but no impact on sales Sirji” remarks in the corridors of corporate houses and facebook walls will continue and keep us busy.  Nevertheless Great Ideas need recognition and celebration. If you have come across some interesting use of medium, please do share here.

Postscript: There is one more media innovation which I missed to cover here. That is of the use of “Modi Masks” during the last Gujarat State Elections. Among other things it certainly contributed in building the “Modi Persona”. It will now be interesting to see if the “ModI Kites” which have been unleashed recently, help in soaring of the BJP/NaMo fortunes in 2014.

modi mask

15 years hence in “Google” of the changes in Sabarimala !!!

It is exactly 15 years since I last visited Sabarimala – a temple housed in the hills in the southern state of Kerala which is supposed to beGod’s own country.  Those days, if I had to provide information on this temple, I would have had to spend time and energy to write a few lines coherently and still may end up not providing the full or proper information. But today, times have changed. Without me prompting, one would just “Google” ‘Sabarimala’ and find for oneself all relevant and even irrelevant information he/ she needs. As “Google” celebrates its 15 year anniversary this week, I realized that 15 years is a long enough period to witness paradigm shifts. We have been fortunate to be a part of many disruptive technologies in our lives – “Google” being certainly one for changing our lives for the good.

As I embarked on the Sabarimala trip last week, I was keen to look out for the changes – good and otherwise that would have happened, for myself. For people who have been regulars it might have missed their attention and may not be so exciting but for me it clearly gave a “Before/After” picture which I thought I will share in this post. And my focus of this post is just on those interesting changes which I managed to capture.

The highway leading to Pamba the base camp from where you start trekking up to the temple is part of the Ghat section and is forest area. One could now see the highway “littered” with signs of “No plastic zone” in line with the increasing concerns around protecting the environment these days. But the irony was not lost on us as soon as we reached Pamba and alighted out of the car. It started raining and you guess what – “plastic” sheets were being hawked for 20 bucks as rain covers to protect you from the rain as you climb!!! In the “Plastic free zone” – plastic was freely made available!!!

You could see the effects of the other “disruptive technology” as soon as you land at Pamba now. At Pamba most of the public utility and services buildings like the post office, police station,.. are all now crowned with “Cell phone” towers which means that we cannot give the excuse of “no connectivity” for not attending to our business! Ofcourse if your operator was for example Airtel you can still get away!!! The once busy STD/ISD/PCO booths now witness in envy the mini stampedes in Mobile recharge shops as people scramble to get their SIM cards topped up.

At the Pamba base camp one cannot the miss now the ATMs of various banks solving the liquidity issues of the pilgrims.  And if you want to do last-minute changes in your travel plans or do some booking, Southern Railway has pitched in with a railway reservation counter.

The hilly steep terrain from Pamba to ‘Sannidhanam’ (Sanctum Sanctorum) which used to be just muddy/rocky path interspersed with logs of wood to provide grip has now been concretized. I am not sure if this is good or bad. Ofcourse it provides more grip while climbing up and coming down but during afternoons the concrete path heats up. Also the not so smooth but rough concrete surface provides for a nice acupressure treatment!!! It is now advised to climb with your slippers on.

Now concreted path

Now concreted path

The concrete surface also means – it is now possible for the vehicles to move up and down which was an unseen sight those days but a common sight now. The Mahindra tractor keeps whizzing past you up and down now carrying loads of material required at the top. But they are well advised to “HORN OK PLEASE”  🙂 🙂 Actually herds of donkeys were doing the material carrying routine those days.  You can also now see huge earth moving equipment at work paving the way for new roads, connectivity,..

Mahindra tractors - A Common sight

Mahindra tractors – A Common sight

Earthmovers @ work

Earthmovers @ work

On the way there are sheds which have come up which provide for places to rest and relax a while on the way. Again on the way one could see very novel ‘urinals’ (sorry no picture) which have been put up to channelize the ‘human leaks’. Not sure hygienically if this is a good idea as the stench in the vicinity was unbearable 😦  Those days pilgrims would just disappear in the forest area to relieve themselves and Nature would take care of the rest.

For many people an annual trip to Sabarimala is an opportunity to test their “cardiological well-being”. The steep climb up for a few kilometers does challenge the strongest of hearts. Therefore one is happy to see the mushrooming of health centres now at the base, on the way and at the top. So you now have a buffet to choose from – Ayurvedha hospital, Homeo dispensary, Cardiology centre and General clinic are all there in case of emergency. And as a sign of “globalization” – you can see warning signs on H1 N1 as well.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the Sannidhanam on top there are ofcourse many new crowd regulating measures at work but still I’m not sure if these measures really work during the peak season time when millions throng the place. You can only now climb up the “Holy 18 steps” and not allowed to use for climbing down.

The Holy 18 Steps

The Holy 18 Steps

The steps are also gold plated now (so is the temple Vimana – Courtesy one Mallya I’m told 🙂 ) and you are not allowed to break coconuts on the steps now.

With mobile phone connectivity till up the top, don’t be surprised to see mobile/ TAB toting pilgrims “checking in” and “checking out” of “Pamba / Sannidhanam’,… and updating status real-time on FB or tweeting about the weather. Also it has made the whole travel experience more convenient. So on your return with a few calls, you are spared of the trouble and time of locating your vehicle and the driver which used to be a nightmare before.

As they say, “the more things change the more they stay the same”.  Ergo there were so many things which remained same in 15 years – some thankfully so and some not so. The ones which remain the same thankfully for example the thick forest cover, very good roads in such an intimidating terrain,.. need mention. The sight of very poor and diseased people seeking alms along the way up the hills is something which you saw those days and you don’t want to see today.  Obviously inclusive growth has been elusive in our country. 15 years is a long enough period for countries to lift people out of poverty as we saw in the case of China. But for our country, our administrators are still “Googling” for the magic formula and unfortunately we have not found one yet.

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School finishes, “Classes” begin!!!

The usually nondescript commercial complex in my neighbourhood in Mumbai is buzzing with activity this morning.  As I get closer to the same, it appears as if yet another school has opened in that vicinity.  Very young boys and girls with infectious enthusiasm are chattering away as if they are catching up after a long while as they are waiting there.  It is 1st day of their coaching classes during the summer vacation. The schools had closed last week for summer vacation. And the “Classes” have begun.

Closer at home, the situation isn’t very different. The school got over for my daughter who is all of 6. When the school re-opens, she gets into Class 1 and that’s after couple of months from now. Its vacation time now which means well, time for few “Classes”.  In this age of what I call as “Competitive parenting”, there is no dearth for options as far as “Classes” go.  In addition to the usual Drawing class, Activity class, Music class, Dance class, Craft lessons,… you are now presented with some more choice. Maths Classes, Veda classes, Vedic Maths classes, Abacus classes, Phonics classes, Reading skill classes,…,…  I’m yet to see the basic basic foundation course for IIT entrance for 6 year olds as yet.  But ofcourse for most parents attending the orientation session for ‘Abacus’ class, I’m sure the visuals of IIT campuses keep appearing amidst those Abacus frames and beads!  So as the vacation begins, my daughter is busier than ever not to mention of we parents doing the drop and pick up routine.

In our time, the drop and pick up routine of our dad was different.  Almost every year during summer holidays which is a clean break of 2 months from school, our native place beckoned. In those days, Kerala was yet to become God’s own country and our town – Kottayam was known more for rubber.  Today Kerala has become a global product and Kottayam as gateway to Kumarakom its main USP. God of Small things did its job I guess!!!

The countdown to the holidays begins with booking of the train tickets. In the pre-IRCTC days, thanks to the quota system every station had, it was easier booking the tickets if you plan.  On the appointed day, the entire family boarded the Island Express from Trichy to Kottayam to spend another vacation. So dad’s job is to drop us there and get back to work and lead a bachelor life for 2 months.  As the Island Express initially with coal engines and later with diesel engines kept chugging along, remembering and reeling off all the station names along the way was a favourite pastime. And indulging in some of the popular eateries of some of the stations was another. So “Idli/Dosa” at Olavakkode (now Palakkad) junction, “Ethakka Pazham Pori”(Fried Banana Bajji) at Ernakulam junction and “Paruppu Vada”( Dal Vada) at Piravam Road station were never missed.  Though as South Indians we keep eating Idli/Dosa 400 days in a year at home, the excitement we showed in eating that stuff from the VLR (Vegetarian Light Refreshment) stall in the station didn’t amuse our mother at all.  During the hour’s drive from Kottayam station to our place – Kidangoor, the excitement reaches a crescendo as we near the quaint  bridge across river Meenachil, cross the Kidangoor Murugan temple and finally reach our house after a 17 hour journey!! 

In the next few days, the cousins and aunts join while the uncles drop and leave.  For 2 months here on in the lap of nature, we indulged ourselves.  Taking bath in the river every day, those swimming lessons in vain, visit to the temple morning and evening and playing the whole day when not eating, NO TV, no mobile phones and no social media – meant Indulgence was bliss.  Talking of eating – our stomachs must be cursing the holidays. Our vacation time is overtime for those poor organs! Jackfruit, Mangoes, Ethapazham (Banana), Aanikka Vala (sorry, unsure of the English name),… and their by-products all vanish before they are served. The vacation routine always included one trip to the fields by our Grandfather – where we were treated with Tender coconut water. But the ultimate delight was in eating the Tender insides of a tender coconut with Vellam (Gur).  Remember in one of those field trips seeing with awe the making of fresh “Coconut oil” from dried coconut. One of my uncles cultivated sugar cane in his land and we were always eager to visit his field for fresh cane juice. There was one more guy who was extremely delighted to see us during hoildays. The paan shop wala right in front of our house whom we frequented very often.  Even today I don’t think anything can beat his fresh  “Goli Soda” lemon juice for its freshness. 

With no TV and newspaper Ignorance was indeed bliss. Newspaper available was of Malayalam only which I couldn’t anyway comprehend.  I must add here that unlike in other states where the local language newspapers lacked quality, in Kerala the Malayalam newspapers – Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi were of high news and literary quality. One of my elder mamas (uncle) made it a point to get The Hindu’ English newspaper even if it was delivered with one day lag and we use to catch up with all the news whenever we go that uncle’s house at Puliyanoor my mom’s place few kilometres from Kidangoor.  On one such catch-up came to know of India’s World cup win in June 1983 by the way!!!.  It was difficult to say if we were indulged more at our Dad’s place or at Mom’s place.

In Kerala, time meanders normally, but as vacation comes to an end one always felt that time flew! As time to pack up comes closer, Dad appears to pick us up again. Grandfather gets busy to pack things up for each of the families.  Individual cartons are filled with fresh homemade Banana Chips, Jack fruit chips, Chakka Varatti (Jack fruit jam), Mango pickles,… Any vacant spaces in those large cartons were finally filled with coconuts!!! Now you know why Dad has to come all the way to pick us up – with all those cartons and luggage pieces to lug, as many extra hands were welcome.  Back to Island Express and back to Trichy – the vacation hangover goes on for a few days till the eateries get over.

I had almost the same vacation routine till my 10th std. when after that the tyranny of “Classes” began. The “Any professional course” obsession consumed my 11th std. vacation and in fact vacations after that. But still the vacation time is etched in my memory as some great time in the growing up years.  A sense of guilt engulfs when you seem to deprive your kid of the same. Don’t know- may be if our daughter were to write a post on her vacations 30 years hence, you never know she may write nostalgically about the Class after Class she attended and enjoyed during her vacation time or so one hopes!!!

vacationclasses-logo

Kabini – where Nature Unwinds!!!

Kabini – heard the name  for the 1st time when the TV commercial for Orange County Resorts was playing again and again a year ago.  The flute bit (check this out)was enchanting and inviting. The next course of action followed naturally – Google ‘Kabini’.  200 odd Kms from Bangalore Bengaluru, amidst forest area, natural serene place and the name of Orange County were reasons enough to lock this for the next holiday. Having missed the opportunity in summer, didn’t want to miss the second opportunity which came last week in the form of “Durga Puja” holiday and there we were off to Bengaluru en route to Kabini.

Signs of “Your kind of Airport – Coming soon” welcome you as you touchdown in Bengaluru.  For an airport which was just thrown open to public I guess 3-4 years ago, going for an expansion so soon means either the traffic has exploded or the planning was woefully shortsighted.  Both are not of surprise in Incredible India! Weather in Bengaluru is one among the many things I love of the city and as expected it was pleasant and just great.  As we navigated out of the airport one hoped that the distance of 208 kms would be covered in 4 hours.  The reality was different. 

A light shower started glazing the Bengaluru – Mysore highway as we drove past the town Ramanagara where folklore has it that “Kitne Admi The?” the most enduring line of Bollywood and many memorable scenes of the iconic film Sholay were shot with the rocky terrain of this town as backdrop!!   As we take a turn from Srirangapatna and on the final stretch towards Kabini, the scenic beauty just enthralls you. Away from the hustle bustle of the city and its smoke, a lazy charm engulfs you as you drive on what is just ‘R’ of a Road!!!  As you keep seeing the signs of Airtel, Sun Direct and Videocon on top of houses, one cannot but feel impressed at the Dish TV penetration in small towns of India. DTH – Direct to Hinterland???

Maddening traffic before hitting the outskirts of the Bengaluru city, a 30 min. lunch break and the last ‘No Road’ stretch of 40 kms leading to the resort means we took in all 6 hours to cover 208 kms.!!! You need more than a normal welcome as you reach the resort after the long drive and we were not disappointed. Within few minutes in the resort, the journey and its tiredness are all forgiven and forgotten. The staff and the Nature start working their charm on you!

The resort is right at the banks of River Kabini and has a breathtaking view. 

View of the River Kabini

The rooms are in individual hut style and meshes completely with the ecosystem.   We are told that they have been styled in the Kadu Kurubastyle which is the local tribe in this part of the world. 

Kuruba Syled Huts

An Activity instructor briefs you of the various activity options for the next 3 days. But he missed one important activity which was on top of our minds – Just lazing around!  There was another activity which seemed missing. The jungle safari and the lake safari which take you to the Nagarhole forest reserve for some wildlife sightings of the ‘natural’ type have been banned by the Supreme Court.  Though the ban has been lifted recently the local government is still skeptical of the ‘wild’ human types creating inconvenience to the actual wild types.  So we had to make do with the captive elephant in the resort for some time pass.  Sunset cruise in the lake, bird watching walks, Ayurveda therapy,…,… are all there to fill your time.  A Coracle ride in the river brings you memories of Maniratnam’s classic ‘Roja’.  One cannot escape thinking of the captivating sequence of Chinna Chinna Aasai (Choti si Aasha)” as the coracle swirls in water aided by the breeze.  Take a row oops bow – Maniratnam, Rahman & Santosh Sivan!! 

Coracle Ride

The resort has a captivating “Reading lounge” with a collection of books centering around wildlife, nature,… I found it an amazing place – tranquil, with a stunning view of Nature and a collection of books.  And free flowing Coffee!!!  Yes, pure coffee from the hills of Coorg of the ‘filter’ type is served hot and you don’t need a better incentive to keep walking up to the lounge again and again!

Invariably there were light showers in the evenings making the coffee tastier. In one of the evening we were shown glimpses of the “Kuruba” tribal culture with some folk songs and dance by the local men. Just realized that it’s a routine they have to go through every now and then for the urban ‘matter of fact’ people like us seeking some peace of mind there.  However their enthusiasm and commitment were infectious.

Food at the resort was great with the chefs paying personal attention to your specific needs.  As the ‘holiday fat’ kept on adding itself to various parts of the body, you realize that it is time to wind up and leave.  A line about the staff. The resort has some great people who were extremely genial, highly motivated with great passion for serving the guests.   They went out of the way in making our stay extremely comfortable and memorable. Many ‘Namaskaras‘ to this tribe’ and may it get bigger! (The staff has been trained to greet you with “Namaskara” whenever they see you)

The way back was more predictable as it always happens. You know what is coming ahead.  Except for a pleasant surprise when we stopped by at the town Maddur for lunch. As I was launching myself into “Maddur Vada” a local snack at “Adigas” – suddenly I could hear the enchanting sounds of “Santoor” instrument in the air. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma the great exponent of Santoor was walking in to have a bite there. The boy who was waiting his table had little clue that he was serving a living legend of our country – well can’t blame him. He is not of the Doordarshan generation and between Balaji’s emotional hatyachaar there is no ‘Bhaje Sargam Har Taraf Se’   fillers these days!  The excitement of having the legend for company compensated for the food at Adigas which was certainly disappointing.

On the Jet airways plane while returning– one couldn’t help think of the days when India had 2 world class domestic airlines. One (Kingfisher’s) future is uncertain and the other (Jet Airways) is living in past glory!

Kabini? Kabhi Nahin! Was the refrain as we endured the 6 hour drive on our onward journey. But the place, the resort, its people, the sights, the serenity, coffee …,… meant it was all worth it. After all you don’t want to miss a place where Nature also unwinds and takes a break!!!

Please take a look at the short video I’ve put together when you have the time :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8Eph2IZIO0&feature=g-upl

Kabini By Night

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from my China visit – Part : 2

The last time I visited China which was incidentally my 1st visit to that country was a trip to Shanghai and Shanghai is what Mumbai is to India – a commercial and financial capital.  This trip from the 9-12th Oct, 2012, however was to Beijing – the capital of the People’s Republic of China – again a very short business trip to the “Delhi” of China.

On top of my mind was to see how the “Olympicsization” of Beijing was holding up 4 years hence.  This week was the 1st week after the “Golden Week” holidays and there was a good chance that I wouldn’t have made this trip at all.  Just managed to get my visa few hours prior to my departure thanks to some intervention of my college mate.

The airport which makes the 1st impression of a city was bit of a disappointment.   On alighting out of the plane after a 6 hour flight had to scramble to find a rest room!!!  The Beijing airport though good, didn’t seem great.  The airport wore a deserted look on my return in the night that too just at 9.00 pm! The Duty free shops had pulled their shutters and finding a food court or a restaurant in that not too late hour of the night turned out to be a nightmare.  Beijing had failed my 1st test.

Beijing has all the trappings of a large global metro city – super highways, bumper to bumper traffic, big cars, ..,.. Surprisingly I could hardly sight small cars!! Unlike Shanghai, which has a lot of skyscrapers, Beijing has more of medium tall, uniform buildings constructed with aesthetics as seemingly last priority.   The whole city resembles a town ship with uniform buildings.  Police presence that too quite aggressively armed is omnipresent.  Time and again we were alerted of the bad traffic scene in Beijing. But I must say that the traffic though very high was quite organised and was moving quite smoothly even during the morning rush hours. I was told that we were lucky on that count. Well we seemed to be lucky all the while we stayed in Beijing.

The Beijing Traffic

I was not so lucky on the food scene though. Being a vegetarian, my gastronomic needs have become frugal over the years while travelling abroad. I’m happy if I get something vegetarian to eat – pandering to the taste buds was really secondary. Beggars can’t be choosers you see!  When I had my local colleagues around during meal times, I had no problems with the food. However couple of times when we had to fend for ourselves, putting it across to the hotel staff on the “Vegetarian” needs turned me to a “Sridevi”.  In fact a short course on “Mandarin-Vandarin” before the trip would have been a great idea.  I was told that for the Olympics, China really went on an “English” overdrive to take care of the visiting guests. Well, one trace of that was not visible during my short stay. Even in a 5 star hotel, the staff struggled to comprehend our “English-Vinglish”!  There are hopes though. I was told that in the schools now, English is a mandatory language for the children. Maybe a trip to China after 10 years would throw up a different experience on the English front.

We were told that we would need more than half a day to cover the “Great Wall of China” which I was quite keen on. Since we didn’t have that kind of time, we had to settle with other tourist spots close by. A drive to Tiananmen Square was made possible.  For the local Chinese Tiananmen Square is a place of great cultural connect.  It houses a war memorial like monument, a mausoleum and one can see 2 gigantic visual displays today.  For the ‘Golden week’ the previous week, the entire square which can house I guess thousands of people, was well decked up and could see the sense of tourist importance.  However for visitors like us Tiananmen Square only brings memories of the 1989 killing of the students by the Chinese military.  There is obviously not one shred of evidence of that event around.  When I asked my local colleague what was the exact number of people killed in that massacre, the answer I got was “Secret”.  Having read that the number could be in thousands, while spending time in that square I couldn’t help spare a thought for the young lives which were taken away by their own protectors.  I also couldn’t resist thanking our stars and our founding fathers for guiding our nation in the path of democracy where we have freedom of expression as a fundamental right.

Tiananmen Square,1

At Tiananmen Square

The Chinese economy is in the news these days.  Well it has been in the news for more than a decade now. But just that this time the news is not good.  The GDP growth rate expected at 7.5 % this year will be lowest in the decade.  The transformation of China since the 90’s has been unbelievable. The government over the years has invested heavily for the growth and has helped lift people from poverty and raise income levels across the board.  About 25 mn. I-Phones are  expected to be sold in 2012!!! And I-phone is not a cheap product. With all this, what about the “General Happiness Index”?  Are people in general happier than before with the overall growth and all that jazz? Well, surprisingly or may be not so surprisingly the answer I got was on the negative.  With the growth tapering, there is a feeling that China must have gone for an overkill in terms of investment which is now not sustainable.  China also is on the cusp of a leadership change sometime in November.  Though it is not expected to bring any paradigm shift, uncertainties do exist I thought.  All these and the raising costs have brought their own insecurities in the minds of people.

The Giant Screens at Tiananmen Square

While in the taxi driving back to the Beijing Airport at the end of the short trip, comparison between India and China was obviously on my mind.  And I concluded that comparisons were odious.  In my formative years I was always of the opinion that in a country with very high population like India, it is almost impossible to solve its basic problems. China proved me wrong. It showed that it is possible to have world-class infrastructure, alleviate poverty in short times even in a populous country if a country shows political will to do so. Having said that, if I’ve to choose between a pot hole free express highway and freedom of expression, my choice will be for the latter.

P.S : A forceful break from social media thanks to the block of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,… in China eventually proved that I was a confirmed “Likeaholic”!!!

You may like to read my earlier post on China : Chinpressions – Part 1.

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from my 1st China visit

It was a country which I was eagerly looking forward to visit for quite some time simply for 3 reasons. One, Seeing is Believing.  Around 1990, the GDP of India and China were almost similar. Today 20 years hence, China’s GDP is 2.5 times bigger than ours!   Was keen to see this miraculous change. Two, my trip to China twice in the past got scuttled and hence that added to the eagerness this time around.  Three, was keen to know how a communist country has successfully “manufactured” Capitalism?

It was a short trip that too on business to Shanghai with little free time to discover the city fully.  Nevertheless that time was enough to feel spell-bound some times, amazed most of the times! The view of the city while landing reminded of Singapore with pretty views of symmetrical roads, tall buildings, and manicured golf courses –in short features of a planned city.  Once out of the airport I could see a sudden rush of the local people to smoke and poor me I was engulfed in a chamber of Carbon Monoxide!  With 350 mn. smokers, China is the smoking capital of the world. Later on I would read that smoking related diseases cost China up to US$47.6 bn. every year! (The Ministry of health was intending to include Anti-smoking drugs and related treatments in the nation’s public insurance system for this reason!) For a city which is supposed to be most populous city in China, what amazed me most was I never felt the city crowded and buzzing with people !!

The weather was absolutely pleasant at 18°C and coming from Mumbai which had already started to scorch with the advent of summer, it was indeed a welcome change !

In Shanghai I could see majority of cars on the road being Volkswagen (including the taxis).  I was told that depending upon where the factory was, companies get tax benefits and so the prices of a particular brand is lower in a region and that brand dominates that region. So Shanghai was VW city. While on the subject of cars, it was interesting to note that China became the world’s biggest market for BMW in April this year overtaking Uncle Sam!  By the way, China is already the largest market for BMW’s premium segment rival Audi.  While on cars, must add that 15th April the day I landed at Shanghai was the day of the “Shanghai Grand Prix”. Nico Rosberg won the race – but I was told that the race itself was boring as he led the race from start to finish !

It’s not uncommon to come into China with one’s own prejudices like – “everything would be cheap”. Well, it was not to be. I was in for surprise when I saw in a Hypermarket like Carrefour things were either more expensive or at similar price points as in India.  Also generally branded things in the malls/stores were expensive than India. Another myth which got busted during my conversations was that labour in China is very cheap. It seems that it is no longer the case. The minimum salary/month for a factory worker is fixed by the Govt. at US$ 200. And this is irrespective of the location within China it seems. What differ from company to company are the benefits like Overtime multipliers, housing,.. I’m sure there are cities in India/Indonesia/Vietnam where the labour costs are around US$80-US$100 /month.  However it is the manufacturing ecosystem which is prevailing in China which makes it the factory for the world.

While on this “low cost ” issue I would like to share this article from “The Economist” which I just stumbled upon which almost reinforces my above finding on ” Low Cost China myth”.

http://www.economist.com/node/21549956?fsrc=nlw|pub|4-25-2012|1503018|73958874|AP

Similarly as I prepared for the trip, I also was mentally preparing myself for the gastronomic ordeal I will have to go through being a Vegetarian. Well, it was not so bad.

Throughout my stay I never encountered the familiar trappings of an emerging economy like fleecing taxi drivers, beggars in the streets, touts in the markets,.. which reminded me of the fact that China is no more an emerging economy but an economy which has arrived. But some old habits die-hard. So you could see drivers honking loudly, cigarette butts all around, aggressive lane cutting while driving,… And interestingly in some of the buildings one could see rods protruding out of the windows and were used for hanging clothes. It is my usual habit on foreign trips to engage in friendly conversations with the cabbies to understand the country behind the headlines/breaking news.  However I couldn’t do this here due to the language barrier Great wall!

Since I couldn’t believe my eyes that things are so very expensive, I enquired at the hotel specifically for the market for cheap goods.  Then they told me the existence of “Official” fake markets where the “Louis Vuittons” and the “Burberrys” of the world get hawked by enterprising Chinese salesmen/girls to hapless ‘Gora’ tourists at sky rocketing prices. These are the epicenters for “IP” violations! The general rule here is to offer 10 % of the quoted price and settle down somewhere between 25 – 30 % of the original quoted price!!!  Shopping here could be a very unique and adventurous experience for many though I suspect not so much for us Indians!

FDI down for 5th month” screamed Shanghai Daily, “Fifth FDI fall amid EU woes” said China daily on the 18th April both leading English newspapers. This showed the importance the Chinese were attaching to FDI as a means for propelling their economy.  So here we are at China the capital of Communism expressing serious concerns of falling FDI while back home our communists and their ilk block FDI of any kind and treat it as a four letter word!

Maglev TrainTime to pack up – I was told not to miss on the Maglev train trip” experience to the airport. The Maglev (originating from Magnetic Levitation) trains have been operational in Shanghai from 2004 and connect the city to the Pudong International airport. A distance of about 29 kms. was covered in 7 mins. and 20 seconds flat!  At 301kmph the loudest noise was not of the ticking clock! Not surprisingly it is a tourist attraction in Shanghai today!

Few years ago the CM of Maharashtra said that they would transform Mumbai into Shanghai in 5 years.  Either he was blind or we the people who keep voting for their party are dumb, I don’t know. But the politicians who are running our country oblivious of the strides the world is making and failing our nation are certainly blind, deaf and dumb.

Pudong Intl AirportAs I was waiting for the boarding call near the gate at the swank Pudong International airport at the end of my visit, I couldn’t resist a key question.  If China has made such giant rapid strides which are visible and the Govt. has been an enabler in this transformation, why should it fear public opinion?  Why should there be such tight controls on freedom of expression? Why should Facebook/Twitter or for that matter WordPress be muzzled???  A three-day trip that too on business was too short to find answers to such intriguing questions.  Do you have any views on this? I would be keen to hear.

Colombo – Making peace with peace

A Google search of the “meaning of Colombo” reveals the ironic twists of life. In Italian the word means “Dove” – a symbol of peace!!! Yet it was this symbol which was missing in this city for 2 decades before peace returned 3 years ago. It was my return to Colombo, a city which is close to my heart, after 11 years! In the Jan of 2001 when I visited last, the tension was palpable. Those were the heady days of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and I still vividly remember the security blanket over the city, 5 rounds of checking at the airport and the locals discussing about the audacity of the Tigers the previous day, almost every day.

This time around, when I visited the last week, the city wore a relaxed look, the weather was great and one can sense optimism all around as the country was making attempts to make peace with peace itself.

Landed early in the morning and the drive from the Bandaranaike International airport to the city reminded me of the drive through God’s Own Country and its coconut palms. Was surprisingly pleased to see “Airtel” signboards lighting up the road all the way and made me wonder if Har Ek friend” was made Zaroori in Sri Lanka as well! The Taj Samudra where I stayed last time as well, gives a good view of the Indian Ocean facing the Galle Face Green and is one of the oldest hotel properties in Colombo. Old it is and I must say that Taj Samudra has lost a bit of its sheen and seemed crying for some renovation investments though the staff more than made up with their gracious smiles.

Sri Lanka by its sheer proximity to our country, closeness of culture and racial origins must be a good market for Indian companies to expand their business. With peace returning to the country I noticed that many Indian companies have been quite quick off the block to sell their wares in Sri Lanka. So it was not surprising that Indian car manufacturers like Maruti, Mahindra and Tata had a good share of the road pie. In fact I could see more “Nano”s firing in the streets of Colombo than in Mumbai, smartly positioned as the “Budget Taxi” ! (I meant Nanos whizzing past – don’t know why this word fire keeps cropping up when talking of Nano!)

Cricket evokes the same passion in Sri Lanka as in India, it appeared. Just a day before, Sri Lanka was bundled out for 43 runs against the South Africa in an ODI (lowest ever score) and in the dinner conversations with my friends, I heard that Srilankan cricket was being ruined by politics! Doesn’t this sound too familiar to us??? At the same dinner, as discussions veered around the World cup my dear friend popped a very uncomfortable question. “Don’t you think that the World cup final was fixed by the BCCI??” My friend went on to add that “20 mn Srilankans were compromised to keep 1.2 bn Indians happy”. Well looking at the way Team India has performed post the World cup one would start giving credence to my friend’s belief!!

Bollywood and its stars are again quite on top. No wonder Sri Lanka is already on the map of IIFA. Most of my friends had already “caught up” with Don 2 and were quite lavish in their praise about the movie and the Don himself. I thought Indians were less charitable!

A quick read of the local newspapers reveal the deliberate attempt by the Government to make peace with peace, about the rehabilitation efforts of the LTTE cadres, the construction projects in the North, the 3 language formula being adopted (In fact 2012 is named as the Trilingual year), .., … I also read with interest the proposed visit of our most popular Ex-President Dr. Kalam to kick off the Trilingual initiative in Jan.

Just at the end of the Galle Sea face – I was told that the sea is being reclaimed to build properties that will Lasvegas-ize Colombo. The country of Buddha was beginning to “bet” on luck or ill luck of tourists to prop up its tourism revenue !!!  It’s my belief that for a country to succeed in tourism, friendliness must be in its DNA. And Sri Lanka has plenty of that. Just on landing at Colombo I found that my pick up from Taj Samudra was not to be found. To my utter disbelief and pleasant surprise, few guys from the competitor hotels sensed my problem and made alternate arrangements for me to reach the hotel safely !

Proximity to India, pristine beaches, natural wildlife trails, Elephants, no language barriers, availability of Indian food,.. all these make Sri Lanka in general and Colombo in particular a very attractive holiday option to Indians. And add to that extremely friendly and warm people. I’m yet to explore all the above – all my previous 4 trips being on business.  At the end of the trip I just promised myself and my Srilankan friends who kept on pushing me to come on a vacation that will soon return for a holiday to a place which is as down to earth as its people as its embraces peace !!