Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Starbucks -- By the Numbers

A memo released by Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz has brought to light a growing concern among regular patrons of the coffee chain. Apparently, Mr. Schultz is bringing awareness to the fact that somewhere in the grand scheme of things, the focus of the company began to shift away from quality coffee and more towards meeting growth expectations. According to him, the 'experience' of going to Starbucks is no longer what it once was and because of that, the coffee giant looks to soon become a relic of the past. Although I feel that that revelation may still be a long time in coming, it does make sense to me. I have often mentioned the fact that not to far from my home there are literally dozens of Starbucks, some no more than fifty yards from the previous one. With such saturation, it does indeed seem as if the focus has shifted from the coffee to having a firm market presence.

I have enjoyed Starbucks since college and I have related in past blogs about how I have now enjoyed Starbucks coffee in places as diverse as London and Dubai. In all these places, the core experience was always the same, but things are certainly different from the time I first started going to the stores back at the University of Maryland. At that time, the coffee house trend was just starting to pick up steam and Starbucks was not saturating the market. Part of the appeal of the whole thing was the feeling that you weren't simply getting a cup of coffee but more like a cup of coffee at a fancy restaurant or cafe. I'm sure there are those out there who would scoff at such an insinuation but it was true. The machines were more like the traditional machines found in European style coffee houses and were loud, large and often times complicated. It was part of the experience to see the baristas mixing up your coffee and presenting it to you within a few minutes.

As with anything popular, the more people you have, the faster you are expected to serve. This lead to a lot of the glamour going away and the experience being dumbed down a bit. That's not to imply that the baristas job is any easier. On the contrary, they are often expected to meet the same exact standards while serving the coffee in the least amount of time possible. I have been to several of the Starbucks in my area that are located along major thorofares and at peak times, usually early in the day or late in the afternoon, these places can have upwards of twenty people in line. And of those twenty people, not all of them are in the mood to wait. So what do you do? One obvious solution is to open up multiple locations within a short distance (or within the same building). Another is to simplify the process.

Early days at Starbucks often had the barista measuring each individual order out before preparing the concoction. These days, in an effort to speed up the process, there are measuring cups and the like that are created for specialized tasks and are meant to help reduce the 'brainpower' and individuality of the cup of coffee and standardize it. Little differences are still to come here and there but the overall effect is to get people there java as quickly as possible. This is where the problem lies. People want a great many things, but they aren't prepared to wait for them. I choose to look at it in this light. I like to eat steak and I can go to Sizzlers and have one or I can go to a place like Clyde's and order one.

Both places will essentially serve me meat, but it's the presentation, the ambiance and the assumption that what I'm getting at Clyde's will have just a bit more flavor, care and preparation that what I may get at Sizzlers; I'll probably pay a lot more for it too. Therein lies the rub. You are paying more for something so you would assume that means that it should taste better or be special. By moving away from the true coffee house experience and moving into the realm of fast food, you tend to take away that special experience and make it average, ordinary and regular. I'll continue to go to Starbucks every so often, simply because I enjoy the drinks and the ambiance at my regular locations; but if the company continues in the way of a fast food joint, the days of that experience are likely numbered.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

No Thanks for the Help

There's probably one pet peeve of mine in the winter and that's the fact that weathermen rarely ever admit that they are wrong. They will go on and on about their new computer models and how they have snow tracking machines that will tell you where snow is falling and how much is falling and how much will fall and how they won't be caught flatfooted again. I will admit that predicting the weather is still one of the hardest jobs out there. However, I won't admit to going easy on weathermen because of that fact simply because when they're right, they often play it up as if they have made the prognostication of the millenium. If they turn out to be in correct then they will blame it on 'a sudden burst of low pressure from the south' or a 'delta clipper driving through faster than we expected' or some similar such gobble-doo-guck. As long as it sounds plausible, we are still expected to believe that they are infallible. I give them the benefit of the doubt but if the last two weekends are anything to go by then I'll stick with the prognostications of porchfront weathermen who predict when it will snow by the moss on trees and aches in their bum knees.

Two weeks ago, we here in DC were hit with a snow and ice storm that left many of us stranded, without power or anything for several days. By the time the weekend rolled around the thaw had begun and life was returning to normal. The weathermen cheerfully informed us that the cold air had moved out and that we would have a rather pleasant weekend, so it was with a bit of surprise that I looked out the window late that Sunday afternoon to see periods of heavy snow dusting the area. No one had predicted this stuff so no one was even out clearing the streets. By the time I left my parents place in Maryland to return home, there was a fine coating on the road, not enough to create mounds of snow, but enough to create a slippery coating on the streets. Until I reached the highway there was much compensation and counter turning to prevent spinouts. I felt like an F1 driver attempting to reel in a very loose car.

This weather system was unexpected so we can excuse it; they hadn't predicted the dusting but had thrown in the caveat that 'light snow was possible' so again they covered themselves. However, this past Sunday once again they were put on the spot and their predictions were less than stellar. All week we had been dealing with warmer temperatures so the snow and ice from the previous snowfall was all but melted. For this past Sunday they once again predicted that there was the chance for freezing rain and sleet for the morning with an end by about mid-day. Snow was possible mixed in the farther north and west you went from the District but there wasn't to be anything more than an inch. Lo and behold, after lunch, we were still seeing heavy snow falling and we had already gotten a good six inches. The snow continued to about mid-afternoon before it finally ended. The weathermen in the area were eating crow and finally at least hinting at having made a mistake. It was the kind of help you didn't need.

Another help that I could also do without had to do with the chaps who drive the snow plows. I understand that they drive long hours and have to contend with a lot more than we may realize but still, a bit of common courtesy would be nice. I was again in Maryland this past weekend and so my brother and I (after several years of not being together to shovel snow) cleaned off the driveway, walkways and sidewalks at my parents place. Because the snow was light and falling so rapidly, we decided to go out in stages. We cleared out the snow twice during the day. Both times we also cleared the snow from the street directly in front of the driveway as well. The reason for this being that should the temperatures drop below freezing later that night, at least the street in front of the house would not be icy.

By early evening we had done our duty for the day and the snow had ended. The predicted ice never showed up in our area but that's beside the point. We were all comfortably enjoying an evening drink when we heard the snow plow come through to clean off the street in front of the house. It made several passes and each time it led to large wet and heavy chunks of snow being pushed in front of our driveway. My dad went out to ask the driver if he could move it out of the way after we and our neighbors had already spent time moving it. He said he'd be back and then proceeded to drive off without having cleared the snow caked in front of our driveways. Aggravating as it was, my brother and I quickly went out to move the snow out of the way and managed to clear it within a few minutes, but it's the principle of the thing. If this is the help we are to get then why bother getting it at all.

I have a very low clearance car so with the least bit of snow, it can turn into an interesting drive. With large chunks of snow and ice in the way, it can mean a bumpy ride as well. I took a look at the picture in today's blog and realized that perhaps it is indicative of what I need to do in order to fend for myself. Fortunately the area in which I live isn't all that bad as far as snowfall goes, but it can get pretty messy at times. When you get help like mis-diagnosed precipitation and snow being added to your burdens, it's a wonder any of us seek out any help at all. I mean it brings real meaning behind the statement, 'with friends like these... who needs enemies?'

Friday, February 23, 2007

Sushi the Non-Traditional Way

I have been a fan of sushi for a number of years now. In the summer of 1993 I was working at my first real job when our team decided to go to lunch at a Japanese restaurant. I hadn't been to one before so it was an experience for me. Of course, most everyone was there for the sushi and so naturally, I wanted to try it as well. The concept of eating raw fish didn't seem so unappealing and I tried the sushi and was immediately hooked. Now almost fourteen years later, I'm still enjoying sushi as and when I can. If something interests me enough I try to learn enough about the subject so that at least I am not going in completely ignorant of basic facts. I read up on sushi and traditional practices at sushi restaurants and the like. I have been to a couple in my neighborhood where I kept up the age old tradition of buying the sushi chef a round of sake to thank him for his excellent meal. Little things like that can mean the difference for me between simply eating something and at least trying to get the full experience.

Seeing as how the Japanese are very strict about some traditions, I was a bit surprised when I happened upon an article in the paper this morning that stated that there are increasing numbers of non-Japanese chefs turning up behind the counters at area sushi bars. It seems that at many of the local sushi bars you will find chefs from as diverse places as Laos and the countries of Central America. Suddenly you find yourself munching on sushi that may or may not have an aunthentic touch. Now I'm not saying that I'm such a purist or gastronomist to say I can tell the origins of a person based solely on the taste or preparation of the food but somehow you get the feeling of being.... robbed of the experience.

Some people will say that all that matters is the food, if it's good and tasty then what else matters? I agree; if the food is good then nothing else should matter right? Well, let me put it to you this way. I also like to have steak on occasion and for me, there's nothing like a well prepared steak. Some of the best steaks I've had have come from Texas or at least the preparation was Texas style. Now during a recent trip through London, I happened upon a restaurant that referred to itself as the 'Texas Star Roadhouse'. The interior was a fair amalgamation of all things 'Texas' in the heart of London (we were almost directly opposite Trafalgar Square). Now I have had steak in London before (twelve years and no Mad Cow Disease yet!) and I can very confidently say that the 'Texas' steak at the restaurant would have been good, but nowhere near as good as an actual Texan steak.

There's just something about it that doesn't sit right. You can say I'm being choosy but how many times have you been to a Chinese restaurant and you've seen a Canadian behind the counter preparing your meals eh? Wouldn't seem quite right now would it. This is not to say that no one but the people with ties to the country the food originates from should prepare it, but it might just end up that the person creating the food will have a bit more pride in it since it is represents the country of their roots. I'm sure that any sushi prepared by a non-Japanese chef will be just as good as a Japanese chef. Anyone who loves to cook or takes the time to learn how to prepare a dish like sushi is someone who will take pride in its preparation. Even then, in the back of my mind, there will be that little bit of disappointment that my meal was prepared in a non-traditional way.

Still, I can understand the reasons for it. In the past five years or so, sushi has suddenly become the new 'in thing' and everyone is mad for it. You can't go all that far these days without running into one, even in the most unlikely of places. With so much demand and such growing popularity, it's easy to understand why many sushi bars would be turning to finding chefs where they can get them. And indeed, many of the restaurants are only handing over some of the duties to these non-Japanese chefs after training them and ensuring that they follow the proper procedures. Formal training is something non-Japanese would not be able to get very easily in places like Japan but chefs here are working to ensure that these chefs get as much experience before being put behind the counter. I'm sure this trend will continue for years to come. Or at least until someone points out that fish oil is fattening and despite being low fat, sushi contains inordinate amounts of lead which is bad for anyone and suddenly sushi consumption drops. But let's not look at the downside.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oops... I Did It Again... Do We Care?

As much as I hate it, it's hard to get away from the news story of the week which is that Britney Spears has been to rehab and left, shaved her head, gotten some tatoos and then went to rehab again before leaving again. If you've been following the news since this strange series of events began this past weekend, you probably have been seeing this news story popping up almost as often as stories regarding the fact that Britain is set to withdraw troops systematically from Iraq. One can almost wonder which is the news story that will be making the biggest headlines. For those of us in Washington, we are exposed to quite a bit of political news without having to turn to the cable news channels; it isn't quite so much so in other parts of the country.

I remember a few weeks back when Anna Nicole Smith died; it seemed that the world had stopped for everything else other than her death. While it was a tragic death to be sure, she wasn't the only one to have died that day, nor was she a person of tremendously great importance. She was a celebrity, so is Britney. This leads me to wonder why we are so obsessed with celebrity. When I was in India recently, the big news was that Amitabh Bachchan's son Abhishek was officially engaged to Aishwaryia Rai. For those of you who don't know who that is or why, let's just say it was like the furor that surrounded the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie getting together but in this case, Brad Pitt's father is someone on the scale of Robert DeNiro. It gives you a bit of an idea of just how big a deal this was. However, this news story dominated all the airwaves so much so that news channels carried unending coverage of Amitabh performing poojas and walking here and there.

I admire celebrities as much as the next person but this is all getting a bit out of hand. With people like Britney Spears who became famous even before they were old enough to vote, the sudden change from private life to public citizen can be jarring to be sure. But how the individual deals with it and deals with family can make a huge difference. Obviously people like Britney aren't going to be winning Nobel Prizes anytime soon but still, we probably will know more about her than we ever will about the latest Nobel Prize winner. If people can name even three and give a good description of why they won the Nobel Prize, I'll be mightily impressed. The unfortunate thing in our society is that we look to celebrities and famous personas for everything. They often represent things that many of us can only imagine or dream about. They have worked hard to achieve what they have and so they are definitely worthy of admiration.

But by elevating to them to such high levels of prestige can only result in bad things. A person like Britney can't go to the store without attracting a crowd. If she wants anonymity now it's a bit too late. Had she shaved her head in private as opposed to a public hair salon, it's very likely that she could have gotten away with it without anyone realizing it. Celebrity women have shaved their heads before. Sigourney Weaver, Demi Moore and Natalie Portman to name a few; yet the coverage they received is nowhere near the proportions that people like Britney seem to get. You come to realize then that the reason is because as much as we admire celebrities, we enjoy bringing them down just as much.

I'm not at all and advocate of celebrities like Britney, Christina, Lindsay or Paris. I may not get as much money as they have in this lifetime but that's okay. I won't bring them down either. I have been fortunate to have met some celebrities in my time and I have spent time with them. One thing I realized is that they are, for the most part, very normal people who enjoy being able to do normal things like go out with friends and family. Britney needs help and she's unwilling to take it from sources that are available. She seems as if she's going to continue down this path until perhaps we can leave her alone long enough to get the help she needs. I think it will be healthy for her and for the rest of us too.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Wrong Right of Way

I have been a pedestrian a bit longer than I have been a driver. From the time I was in middle school to until I finished my bachelor's at Maryland, I was a pedestrian. Sure I commuted to campus at College Park, but once there, everyone walked. Walking was a part of my way of life for a long time and for many of us, it continues to be such. I remember walking home from high school I had to cross one major roadway where the cars regularly exceeded the speed limit. It was a very deadly game of chicken we played when we tried to cross the street. Sure there were crossing guards posted along the roads, but they weren't on duty all the time, and they weren't there if you left school after a certain period. So you were forced to develop that second nature where you came to figure out when was a good time to cross, when to run and when to saunter. It was difficult to gauge at times but thankfully I was never hurt during those crossings.

In college it was much the same thing. Being such a large and sprawling campus meant students were often rushing from one part of campus to another. With several thousand students walking around (not all of them with a schedule as tightly packed as your own) it can be very difficult to get to your destination on time. Compound that with the occasional professor suffering from a slightly over-developed 'God' complex and you've got a situation where you're literally running to get to class on time. College Park had one or two main roads running through campus which meant that street crossing was not a big issue. But, if you happened to be that hapless driver who was stuck through a steady stream of pedestrians crossing the road, you could easily end up waiting ten minutes for the crowds to die out. Those were the times I avoided driving through campus.

But when I was in pedestrian mode, I could rarely, if ever, lose that much time. Not all drivers yield to pedestrians in the cross walk at such places, so by necessity or by spite, many pedestrians would cross right in between cars and suddenly dart out from somewhere. It made for very dangerous driving and I can recall a number of incidents where people were struck while crossing. The prevading attitude amongst all pedestrians was that we had the right of way. Some held it like an invisible badge of honor that as a commuter, we were denied the use of a car so we were going to make our way by hook or by crook. I don't think many people realize just how dangerous that attitude can be.

A similar situation is brewing in the District of Columbia where Metro is now raising concerns about bus drivers failing to yield to pedestrians. In one case last week, two women were struck by a bus while crossing the road. This has given much more prominence to the problem and as expected, most of the major news agencies in and around the city have been focussing on this problem. It has become more or less a blame game with pedestrians blaming drivers and drivers blaming pedestrians. Both parties are often on the phone or are looking at blackberries or are talking to friends. Walk down any city street and see the number of times a pedestrian will simply step out onto the street (despite the 'Don't Walk' sign flashing) and begin to cross against the light in an effort to save a few minutes.

All sides seem to blame one another but the fact boils down to that we are all losing patience. It seems to me that we are all losing the ability to wait for a few minutes or leave a bit earlier to compensate for possible delays. Sometimes it works in our favor whereas other times it can lead to disasters (case in point the JetBlue incidents). Drivers are in a hurry to get where they're going, pedestrians are in much the same quandry. This is not to say that everyone is doing the same thing and that being the wrong thing. On the contrary, the vast majority of us are not constantly in a rush, but there is a overwhelming attitude from some to hurry up and get where we're going so that we can move on to this, that and the other thing. We've got so much crammed into our days these days that if we don't rush and stand up for our right of way, we'll always be behind.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hurry Up and Wait

Since December I have flown enough number of times to know the drill. You get to the airport early so that you can get through the check in and security screening and be at the gate well before the departure time so that you don't have to stress. While the majority of people do do that, there are still those select few that prefer to have to run (and I do mean run) from the entrance of the airport to the gate (which will always be the farthest away in such cases) just to be a procrastinator. But we're not talking about the late-comers in this blog, instead, we're talking about having to hurry up and get there on time only to end up waiting for a few more hours. In the case of the JetBlue passengers stuck in the midwest last week, that waiting ended up being anywhere from eight to ten hours in a stuffy airline.

I love to travel by air and I love the whole experience of being on an airplane. I grant you that it's not for everyone, but it can be an enjoyable experience. Up until this past week, JetBlue had been one of the favorite airlines of a lot of travellers. My brother flew JetBlue a number of times on his way to and from California and often spoke of their service with an air of respect. To hear him tell it, he expects airlines to treat him more or less like sheep these days, but even a little bit of nicety means that they are doing a little more than expected. Unfortunately, they never seem to have anticipated snow and ice and the effect it could have on their travel plans.

A large part of the reason behind why the airline suffered so much last week was the fact that despite the deteriorating conditions, the airline continued to proclaim that they would have their departures delayed but not cancelled. Expectations for snow were even higher than they were here in DC but still, JetBlue continued to declare that they would fly as expected. Here in Washington we had delays and eventually cancellations. In fact, some airlines cancelled their flights for the next day as well because they knew that conditions would be bad. People complained about this and their angry faces filled the airwaves, but I'm sure they may have softened just a tad when they saw what happened when an airline decided to fly in the face of falling snow and ice.

To say that it's the fault of the pilot and crew is only assigning half the blame. I'm sure the pilot and crew would rather have been back at home sitting with a hot cup of cocoa rather than sitting in ice and snow, waiting to take a bumpy flight off to some other destination. While we passengers often enjoy a nice comfy hotel, aircrews don't get exactly the same treatment. They will have good accomodations, but it's not always exactly like a vacation. So I think it's safe to say that they didn't want to be flying either. The pressure comes from the airline itself in wanting to meet customer expectations. Prior to this debacle, the service and success of JetBlue was something to be lauded. Now it is mocked.

I'm sure the passengers and even the crew arrived much ahead of time in the hope of getting out of the region quickly but the airport is a big thing. You've got crews clearing the runways and jetways; you've got to de-ice the plane (you won't want to take off with ice caked on your wings an windshield... it's ten times worse than in a car) and you've got to keep up with air traffic control. When you sit on the ground you stil continue to burn fuel because the engines continue to run. If you've pushed back from the gate you can't 'plug in' to the airport power supply so you're basically between a rock and a hard place.

I'm not trying to exonerate the crew and airline from any wrong doing. To be stuck on a plane for ten hours is no joy. But being stuck on one for longer than the actual flight would have taken is an annoyance and point to get angry about. Compound that with the fact that there's no food on these airlines that you can get for free, you can then see why people are getting aggravated and upset. Thankfully no air marshals had to get involved in crowd control and riot control. Air travel was almost like taking the bus a few years ago. These days it's becoming more like the Department of Motor Vehicles.


Monday, February 19, 2007

What's the Time?

I read an interesting article today which stated that the wristwatch and watches in general are slowly becoming a thing of the past and are no longer as popular as they once were. According to the news article, more and more people are turning to their cell phones, blackberries, laptops and the like to get the latest time rather than rotating their wrists. It seems a natural thing since so many of us are either stuck with a cell phone to our ear, or respond to a blackberry page or are almost always found to be tied to a computer. However, I feel that the wristwatch is something that shouldn't go away completely.

I remember getting my first real watch. I was in fourth grade and the watch my parents bought for me was a very very thin digital watch but it didn't have a digital display, rather it was a digital display of an analog watch face. It was a mix of both new technology and old but for me, it was a rite of passage. I looked on it as the fact that I was an adult and that I had responsibilities. Of course being in the fourth grade meant that I would constantly be at the mercy of my parents and teachers setting my schedule, but at least now I had something to help me keep track of the time. I wore that watch constantly and soon it became a part of me. That watch was to be found on my wrist for years to come.

My next watch was another gift from my parents and I was to receive it in the ninth grade as a birthday gift. I am an aviation nut and so, since I was taking ground school at the time, my parents gave me an aviator watch for my birthday. It had timezones for the entire globe, it had a stopwatch and alarms and best of all, the bezel had an actual scaled down version of the E6B flight computer for doing calculations of fuel consumption, flight duration and the like. Now again, as before, that didn't mean that I was busy computing flight trajectories all day, but for me it was another step towards adulthood. I was wearing an expensive watch and like any accesory of clothing, I looked upon it as being something that would always remind me of the continuing journey of life. That and the fact that I at least looked like a pilot.

For me the watch continued to be something I would wear and use. Some people view it as a 'handcuff' to time and deadlines. People often complain that a watch reminds them of appointments they have to keep, deadlines that are closing in and that time is passing by for activities they'd rather be doing. To me, that's the whole point of a watch. For me personally, the cell phone and similar devices are wonderful for keeping in touch with your friends and family, but the people who are living with it constantly at their ear scare me. The phone is a tool that can impose similar deadlines on a person. I suppose it is also a deadline that people can seemingly control and ignore. Your boss calling regarding another deadline? No problem, don't take the call. With a watch, time keeps passing and there's no sense of control. You can unplug the watch by removing the battery or removing the key, but that is just an illusion of control.

I continue to get watches on occasion; that's not to say I buy a new one every week but I do have a nice collection of them now. Each of them has been given to me on a special occasion and each of them reminds me of something significant. I have one that my mom bought for me for when I started my last year in college for my Bachelor's. I have a watch that my parents bought for me upon my graduation from the University of Maryland. I have the watch my brother bought for me at Christmas one year which he presented to me in a box decorated with images of Grand Prix drivers and cars from the 1960's. Each is special to me in it's own way and each one is not so much a crutch or reminder of bad things, but good things that I have experienced, and a reminder of the chances of experiencing many more such occasions. I can't go anywhere without a watch these days. There's one on my wrist at all times. The rare occasions where I've forgotten to wear it, left me feeling.... well... naked.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Being Neighborly and Brotherly

Being snowbound at home can be fun the first day or so, but then you start to get that urge to get out of the house and go do something; at least that's the way I get. I can't be at home all the time, I need to stretch my legs and do something out of the house. After being stuck in the house for two days, and I mean literally stuck, due to the ice and snow that had surrounded my car, and still seeing no sign of the snow plow that usually comes through our complex to clear the streets, I decided to at least dig my car out from the snow. Being so low to the ground, the car tends to get buried pretty easily, but luckily there wasn't all that much snow. The snow was a bad mix of powdery snow and sleet and freezing rain that had left a large glazed coating to everything, and digging through that wasn't all that great.

I managed to clear off the snow and dig out my parking spot at home so I decided that since the plow hadn't shown up yet that I was going to try making my way out to the main roads which are usually cleared up fairly quickly. I got out of the parking spot in fairly short order, but as I started attempting to drive down towards the entrance to the complex, gravity and ice decided to chime in and my car quickly became snow bound. Now the majority of people in DC, Maryland and Virginia panic at the first sign of snow; thankfully I am not part of that crowd. I have driven in snow storms much worse than this and I have at least some idea of what I need to do in order to get out of a situation like this. Unfortunately it isn't a one man operation.

There have been cases where I've been warm inside the house in past winters and seen someone stuck right outside my door, so I have gone out and helped to either dig them out or push them along. There was one winter several years back where after being stuck in the house for a week we had ventured out, and ended up pushing half a dozen cars on our way out of the neighborhood. As is stands, I have a lot of experience in pushing stuck cars and in helping stuck neighbors and drivers. But what amazes is me is that not everyone is inclined to help out a stranger. I had been struggling for about fifteen minutes with several others seeing my situation from afar and quickly disappearing into their homes when a neighbor from an adjacent building came out. I had already broken two shovels in my attempts to extricate myself. My neighbor Jim emerged from his home with another pair in his hand and a smile on his face.

Together we began digging a path for my car back to my parking space, which was a scant fifteen feet away. Soon thereafter, another neighbor from nearby also came out and joined us and soon the three of us had the car back in its spot. I offered these guys a drink or some refreshment for coming out and lending a hand and both were happy for the offer but declined. They were happy to have come out and help and were glad to see that things worked out fine. It made me realize that while there are always going to be people out there who don't care about anyone but themselves, there are still a good number out there who will come out to lend a hand without being asked or seeking anything in return. In similar situations I have tried to act the same way and I hope I continue to act the same way. Being neighborly isn't a difficult thing and it doesn't take up much time (in most cases) and it's a good thing to do.

Finally, after three days of being stuck within the confines of my house, my brother also drove out in my Dad's SUV and the two of us managed to clear out the pile of ice that the snow plow driver had so 'kindly' pushed in front of all our parking spaces. Compounded with the fact that it had now become a block of ice meant we spent another few hours of breaking and shoveling before moving it all out of the way. Being brotherly is also something that not all siblings are good at and it's something that I'm happy I have with my brother. It was good to have him there after so long. It was like before he moved out to California for school and I had moved to Virginia. We went out digging and shoveling; but rather than building a snow fort or igloo, we freed my car.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Careful What You Wish For

Well in my last post I had mentioned that we were expecting snow here in DC. We did indeed get the snow and ice which has made for an interesting few days now. I came home on Monday evening and was ready for a day or two of snow. I stepped out for a bit on Tuesday morning and saw that the snow had begun in earnest and that ice was beginning to fall. Deciding to stay home was probably a good idea since the roads and walkways soon turned icy. I looked to be getting the snow day I had been writing about. It was nice being inside and being able to watch the snow fall and create those beautiful images you see outside. There's something to be said about fresh snowfall. It's wonderful to look outside and see a pristine blanket of white as far as the eye can see. Soon thereafter it becomes the messy mix of slush, salt and mud that coats cars and pant legs to such a degree that things begin to look disgusting.

I figured that by Wednesday evening the roads would be cleared off enough for me to venture out and head to the office. I headed out early in the morning and found that the roads nearby had not been cleared and I hadn't gotten ten feet before my car began to slip and slide. Now I can expect that to happen given my car is rear wheel drive but I am also competent in my driving ability and comfortable in the fact that a lot of the problem was due to the layer of ice that still coated the ground. I wasn't able to get out. After getting stuck in the snow for a few hours, and thanks to the help of two of my neighbors, I was able to return the car to my parking spot. I came back in after a few hours of digging and shoveling and decided to sit it out for another day.

Trying to do work at home is difficult even at the best of times because you don't always have the documents (or references) you need in order to work effectively. Still, I was able to put in a few hours of work each day and at least do some of my work and studies. By Wednesday evening I was determined that Thursday would be my day to get out and head back to the office. I got up quite early this morning in order to make my way out and do any digging that might be necessary. Doing a bit of it and then climbing into the car I was ready for anything, except the slipping and sliding that occured as soon as I tried to even pull out of my parking space. While the road had been plowed a bit, there was still ice on the ground and although it provided some traction, itw asn't enough to get me out of there.

The problem is that snow and ice melted yesterday in the sun but refroze last night when the temperatures and wind dropped everything below freezing. Before coming in I checked out the surrounding roads and found many of them to be ice covered and frozen as well. I guess the saying that 'when it rains it pours' is true. But instead of rain, we're getting lots of ice. I enjoy snow as much as the next person, but ice is something I could do with a bit less of. So as I sit here stuck for another morning I wait to see if the slush can be moved about a bit so that I can get out. Cabin fever is something that can get old pretty quick!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Oh for a Snow Day

The folks up in upstate New York probably don't have to be told that it's winter. Were one to make such a crack in their prescence I'm sure that violence would ensue and not for an unwarranted reason. Over the last few weeks they have received a sum total of nearly 100 inches of snow. That is just shy of 8.5 feet of snow. When you figure that the average houses have eight foot ceilings you get an idea of just how much snow has fallen. There are those who say that people in upstate New York should be used to heavy snows but this is a bit out of the ordinary. As expected, the region has come to a standstill simply because nothing can move until the roads and avenues are cleared. And when you have eight feet of snow on the ground, it's a bit of a chore getting it put aside or out of the way. All this made me nostalgic for the days when I was in school and you would go to bed hoping the next day would be a snow day. I'm sure this is a bit more than most kids were expecting.

There's something special about a snow day. The fact that it's an unexpected holiday makes it something worth enjoying. I remember that my brother and I would enjoy looking at it from the windows as it fell and then going out early the next day to begin clearing the driveway and walkways. Then after all the chores were done it was time to head out with your friends and go sledding, have snowball fights and build snow forts. There was nothing quite like it. These days, had I the time, I would still go out and enjoy the snow the same way. We are supposed to be getting snow in the Washington area over the next day or so although they aren't calling for anything near what has fallen in New York. That's a good thing I guess.

Still, there are people out there who would do anything in order to get a snow day. When I was a student in high school one of the big scandals was the fact that someone had typed up a letter on school letterhead stating that a field trip was to take place on a certain date and that a group of students with the permission slips were to be released on that day. The letter was even signed by the principal using his usual signature image file for the records. Nothing unusual at all in that request other than the fact that all the kids being taken on the field trip were known troublemakers and detention hall regulars.

It turned out that this was a forgery by someone who had access to the computer systems in the school. The culprit was never found, but it should have clued me in to the direction people were starting to go in order to get a day off. Case in point is the case in Trenton, Ohio where two students hacked the school website and put up notices that school was closed due to winter weather. This despite the fact that there wasn't even snow forecast. The students were caught and punished but it just shows to what lengths people are going to get a snow day.

During college, exam time was always a tense time. Everyone cramming to get that last bit of knowledge tucked away before the fateful hour of the exam. Some people get too tense sometimes and realize that they aren't ready. During my first semester at the University of Maryland, in the span of one week, the fire alarm was pulled five separate times during exam periods. Finally the culprit was caught and he sobbed about not being ready for the test. Unfortunately for him it didn't help his case with the state for triggering false alarms. Still, even in college, if one waited long enough, one could get a snow day there as well. The University of Maryland was notorious for never closing. Once the entire state was closed for a Hurricane and the campus was the only place open. Winter weather was a cake walk next to that.

It was again during exam week. Snow had been falling all night long and there was already about 7 inches on the ground and plenty more was expected. Ordinarily I would have stayed home and lazed about in my sweats but this was exam week and I had two exams that day. After slipping and sliding my car to campus and then making the miserable walk to class, I sat and waited and waited and waited for the professor. Just before we all collectively stood up to leave since the professor was still not there, we were dismayed to see him walk in with our exam papers. Still not off the hook, my friend and I headed over to the library to study for our calculus exam later that afternoon. We were huddled in the library when it was announced that the campus was closing due to the snow. After all these years, it was still great to finally get a snow day again! Part of me wished they had decided earlier before the snow got deeper but who was I to argue with a snow day? Even today, while driving in I kept my eye on the clouds, hoping that they will bring snow with them. I guess we'll find out tonight and I'll again go to bed with the hope of seeing a blanket of snow on the world in the morning.

Friday, February 09, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 10

The last few days of any trip to India are usually full of quick visits to friends and family that you were not able to meet earlier. You visit for a few days and in that time you try to maximize your visits with as many people and places as you can. Add to that the shopping and all, and you've got a busy schedule. This trip was particularly hectic because we ended up going to so many places that by the time I got caught up from my jet lag it was time to move to another time zone. Still, being away from home makes you realize just how much you miss it and all the things you associate with home. It makes you appreciate those things all the more.

Just as the journey to India can seem almost interminable with hours long flights followed by hours waiting in airports and security followed by another hours long flight and finally immigration and customs before getting your bags before going home. At the end of vacation you look forward to doing it all again. For me there is a certain giddiness that comes from the prospect of travel. I enjoy road travel but I enjoy air travel just as much. It's not so much fun when you're stuck next to someone who occupies their seat as well as some of yours, but still, those are part of what make the journey so memorable. For every time you have been stuck next to someone bad, you will always end up spending as much time next to someone you'll enjoy being next to. You never know what conversations can be struck up or what commonalities you may have.

Coming home this time was an experience; Dad and I returned alone since Mom and my brother were spending an extra week in India. One thing I have learned from my immediate family is the fine art of punctuality. Planning things mentally so as to depart and arrive as expected with little muss and fuss. On the night we were leaving to come home we enjoyed the third game of the India-West Indies Cricket match. As the game progressed, we got dressed and had dinner and got ready to leave. Bags packed we made for the airport. Night flights in Bombay are particularly crowded because most international flights depart from there at that time. We arrived early enough to account for the forty extra minutes we ended up spending to get our bags scanned and checked in.

One thing I'll say about some of my fellow passengers; they will often pretend ignorance to get bags through on weight restrictions or size restrictions or contents restrictions. For example, I ended up getting detained nearly an extra twenty minutes in London because after having my bags scanned and pulled aside for hand inspection (my CD player looked a bit suspicious). I had already been through the line for forty minutes so I was a bit eager to get through but I try never to annoy the security guards so I waited patiently. Holding me up was a family who was having their hand luggage scanned over and over again before being hand checked over and over again. They were apparently seeing some scissors in the bags which were not permitted (for obvious reasons). Enter in the ignorance; the elderly mother accused the elderly father who in tern accused the middle-aged son who then started the circle again by going after the mother.

They all continually pled ignorance of the scissors until finally they were found in a sealed envelope inside an inside pocket in the hand bag. Then it was on to the laptop bag. For an hour I had heard exhortations by the airport security people to remove all liquids and gels from my bags. The people in front of me were also subjected to the same request. As soon as the laptop bag they carried was put through, they discovered two airplane bottles of wine, juice, yogurt, mineral water and such all stuffed in their. The airport folks were livid but the family again claimed ignorance and said that the airline had given it to them. After twenty minutes they were finally made to pack their bags and then within two minutes I was checked and sent on my merry way. Little things like this make your journey a bit aggravating but I can definitely say that I will remember that particular trip through London.

Coming home is the best part of the trip. I tried to get some sleep on the second leg of the journey to no avail. I listened to some music, read for a little bit and watched some movies. One of the vast improvements these days is that the airlines have almost all incorporated the seatback entertainment systems which make long distance travel a bit more tolerable. Watching the map I felt a wave of happiness pass over me as we entered North American airspace. Coming down from Maine, New York and Pennsylvania before finally passing over my native Maryland into Virginia. The last half hour seemed to fly by and it was back home again. The passage through customs on this side was so much more.... sterile. The whole process reeks of solemnity and seriousness. I guess it's part of the way to scare potential troublemakers. For me it was one of the last parts of the journey before finally getting home.

I have enjoyed every trip I have made to India. Whether to visit the sites and cities or to spend time with family members, it has always been an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But still, a small part of me is always missing home. Having been born and brought up in the United States, I am an American and as such my lifestyle has been American as well. People reading my blogs on my trip to India may think that I am criticizing India or that I am putting down the people, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. I am simply expressing my opinions as an outsider. Whether those opinions are right or wrong is up to you to decide, but they are my opinions and I have expressed them in the way I see fit. The most important opinion and the one that I'm sure most everyone will agree with is that there's no place like home.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 9

As many people have gathered from some of my non-travel related blogs, I am a bit of a fan of driving. That being said, there's nothing I enjoy more than a road trip. In India, travel by road is more or less a necessity and it affords a person quite a bit of enjoyment. In some of my previous blogs I have complained about traffic and the congestion on the roads but that is almost always limited to the highly developed areas where the number of cars has long since surpassed the road capacity. But once you move out of the cities, be it Bombay, Pune, Delhi or wherever, you have open roads that allow you to enjoy the sites and see the parts of India that are among the most beautiful and most 'real'.

One of the improvements in recent years was the advent of the Bombay-Pune Expressway that runs almost the full 170 kms between the two cities. Previously anyone travelling to these cities was limited to taking the old 'highway' which was basically a two lane road in both directions which was full of slow moving vehicles and other hazards that made the trip a bit slower. Still, the pace was slow enough to allow you to enjoy all the local sites and sounds along the path and made the journey an interesting one. You would hit long stretches of country followed by a brief pass through a small town or village. Often times these were the best places to stop for a bite to eat. As in the US, the best places to eat are not always the fanciest of restaurants but rather the small little shops, or dhabas, that serve everyone for not a whole lot of money. You sometimes don't want to know what all went into the preparation of certain dishes, but there's something a bit... nostalgic about stopping along a roadside dhaba and having a quick bite.

I remember touring South India several years back; we were en route to Bangalore after a visit to the southern most tip of India. We had already had lunch, but seeing as how the day was rather hot we decided to get something to drink to help cool us off. Along the road we saw a coconut water stand. If you've never had it then you don't know just how refreshing it can be. All of us had one and as we stood by the road watching the cars pass by, I couldn't help but think how many times this scene had been played out over the years and how many more times it would be played out. Every region or village has some food item or the other that they are known for; be it a sweet dish, snack item or main course. My family and I have always maintained that when you visit a new place, it is best to sample the cuisine of that region. So, when on the road, you have to eat at the roadside dhabas.

When we first made the trip to Pune after many years in 2000, we were still travelling along the old Bombay-Pune Road that took us through all the small towns and villages. I didn't know it was to be one of my last trips along that road. Now the expressway has made travel times much lower but it has also moved us away from all of the small villages and towns. The highway is more or less like the highways we have here and it has cut a path through the countryside. On occasion you will see a town or village in the near distance but the authorities have elminated the old roadside stalls and dhabas. You can get food at the designated rest stops, but no longer will you find dhabas at sporadic intervals. For me personally, it's taken a bit of the fun and uniqueness out of the travel on the roads in India but at least I can say that I was able to experience it.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 8

My brother will tell you that one of my favorite topics is Starbucks. He jokes with me that when I appear hard up for a topic for a blog, I will usually go with my old 'stand-by' topic, Starbucks Coffee. Well, when I asked him to take this accompanying photograph for today's blog, he knew exactly where it would end up. So, without shying away from what I admit to be a truth, here's today's blog with the requisite topic, Starbucks. I started drinking Starbucks Coffee back in my freshman year of college. At that time, Starbucks was not allowed to display corporate logos on campus at the University of Maryland but the entire establishment, from color scheme to menu items was clearly meant to be Starbucks. At the time the coffee house trend was still up and coming and I was pulled in after sampling a Cafe Mocha. Since that time I have been a regular customer.

Throughout college and into my working career Starbucks became a staple part of my week. I won't say that I'm a daily customer, but I will say that there are certain stores that had baristas who got to know me on a first name basis. I have tried most every item on their menu and have sampled so many of their impulse items or food choices that I know where I can go in a clutch situation for a quick bite to eat. As such, drinking at Starbucks has become sort of a tradition of mine everytime I am at the airport. Whether it is to drop someone off, pick someone up, or leave to go on my own trip, one of the last little bits of home I will enjoy is a cup of Starbucks Coffee and with it the fond memories I have of various coffee consuming events. My trip to India was much the same.

We arrived at Dulles for the late night flight and so after checking in and prior to boarding the flight, I enjoyed a cup of Starbucks. Seeing as how it was well past the 'holiday drink' season, the baristas were busily trying to finish off all of the holiday syrups so I was able to enjoy a peppermint mocha. Some say it's like the barista dropped a tube of toothpaste into a Cafe Mocha, but I still like it. To each his own. I enjoy people watching at an airport and trying to figure out where people may be going and why that may be. It may be a weird thing to do but how else will you fill the three hours you have after checking in? So you sit and enjoy the passing scenery and people and sit back with a cup of coffee. I am a bit spoiled and have come to prefer the coffee brewed over here and find that the methods of preparation on other shores can sometimes result in interesting combinations. So off we went to England en route to India.

I had been to England a year before and I was happy to note that there was a Starbucks right next to the hotel I stayed at. As always, I sampled my favorite preparation over there and found to my surprise that it wasn't as good. Again you can chalk it up to the water used, the strength of the coffee or how much sugar was used, but in the end it was comforting to be able to go to a foreign country and enjoy a cup of coffee much as I would at home. Some will call that stupid and say that 'when in Rome...' but if the Romans had been forced to endure bad coffee that can sometimes be produced in England, then they would have changed the phrase.

In India I knew that there weren't any Starbucks because my cousins had told me not to expect it. They have the rough equivalents which serve up similar concoctions but it's like eating at McDowells and wishing for McDonalds. Sure they may look similar and have similar foods, but you long for the real thing a lot of times. Knowing that Starbucks has not yet invaded India, I was readying myself for Indian tea. In lieu of coffee I will always prefer Indian tea. Not the so-called Chai that Starbucks brews but rather the actual authentically done version that tastes infinitely better than chai.

I was readying myself for similar experiences in Dubai when to my utter delite and surprise, I happened to see Starbucks there. And not just one, but just like my neighborhood in Vienna, a Starbucks on almost every other corner. I just had to go in because unlike the Starbucks in England, here the menu was in both English and Arabic. It was fascinating to go to a place like Dubai with it's opulent malls and buildings and order a Cafe Mocha and have it come to you in much the same fashion. There were little taste differences but it was again comforting to find a familiar place in a place so far from home.

It may be a bit jaded to want all the things from home in a new place. You could ask then what the point was in leaving home in the first place. My simple response is that you always need a bit of home with you when you travel. So, content in my Cafe Mocha, I continued to tour the malls of Dubai and take in the sites. It was the opportunity to add another memory while enjoying Starbucks Coffee. It was also another opportunity to kick myself for not having invested in the Starbucks chain much earlier. Oh well, I'm sure another Cafe Mocha will help calm my nerves.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 7

While we did shopping in India, we had heard from everyone that we should hold off on doing major purchasing until we got to Dubai. This was going to be our first trip to Dubai to visit my cousin and his family who have been there for over ten years. Just a four hour flight from Bombay, Dubai is fast becoming one of the major business and entertainment hubs in Asia. What Hong Kong was for decades, Dubai is hoping to become. And if the growth and construction we saw is any benchmark by which to measure that, they are well on their way to reaching that goal. As I said, one of the major draws to Dubai as related to us by everyone who had been there was the shopping. So, keeping our wallets firmly (sort of) in pocket until we got there, we decided to hold off major shopping. It was a good thing we did.

The shopping mall has been part of my life since the very beginning. I can remember going with my family to go for an outing for some minor thing or the other, but we would then wander the mall doing window shopping and occasionally making a purchase. With the spread of suburbia there was a limit to how large a mall could be and so, our walks in some malls wouldn't last all that long. When I was told that Dubai has malls too, I was wondering what the big deal was. After all, I have been to larger malls here as well. For example, malls like Potomac Mills or Arundel Mills are quite large and take some time to cover. At nearly a mile in length, these malls do provide exercise for shoppers. However, they can't hold a candle to the malls I visited in Dubai.

The city of Dubai as it stands today was basically built out of the desert over the last decade or so. Prior to that time there were only miles and miles of arid sandy lands as far as the eye could see. To visit it now, it appears that an oasis has sprung up and in it was the city of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. At this time, my cousin estimated that there were approximately 35,000 cranes in the city constructing new malls, new high rises and new offices. A word of advice to construction workers looking for steady pay for their skilled labor. If the market around here is looking a bit slow, go to Dubai, you'll be utilized for years to come. I can only compare some of the things I saw to a full size version of Sim City. The designs of the buildings and surroundings can only be described as extrordinary and grand. Same can be said of the malls.
We visited several malls during our time there and I can tell you, more than shopping, I had fun in just visiting the malls. We visited one mall called Ibn Battuta which is named for a famous explorer from hundreds of years ago. During his travels he visited several countries in Asia including Egypt, Persia, India and China among others. Therefore, the theme of the mall bearing his name is to showcase each of the countries he visited. Divided into five or six sections, each storefront has the facade of a building from that particular country. It was like taking a trip without taking a trip. The lighting in the building was such as to highlight the time of day outside. With the ceilings painted with sky motifs, the lighting adjusted to cast the proper hue and as our afternoon gave way to evening and night, so did the lighting in the building.

We also visited the Jumerah Mall which is next to the famous Al Burj Dubai hotel. That is the hotel that looks like a large sailboat. The Jumerah mall was done up in the motif of a Moroccon marketplace. With simulated sand and stone buildings, the whole place is like an indoor outdoor market. Indeed it was like numerous trips in one. Not every mall had a motif or theme that was carried out through the building, but each and every visit was one in which there was something new to gawk at. The feeling of being on a trip within a trip within a trip was due to the fact that we were there at the time of the Dubai Shopping Festival as well. This yearly festival lasts for a month and during that time, there are sales and promotions all over Dubai. One of the popular destinations at that time is the World Market.

The World Market is a temporary area built up on the outskirts of the city and there, countries from around the world (though predominantly Asia and the Middle East) are in attendance with a large Pavillion for every country. As such, we 'visited' countries we wouldn't ordinarily visit with a US passport. It was fun not only to browse the pavillions for clothes and gift items, but also to sample the food of the various regions. There's nothing quite like food cooked by an actual person from that region. After having had so much air travel, it was nice to be able to go around the world without having to do anything other than lace up your shoes. It's true what they say, there's nothing quite like the shopping you find in Dubai.


Monday, February 05, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 6

One of the many activities that we participate in on any visit to India is shopping. Sure we visit with family and take in some of the sites but there is fun in shopping in India as well. These days Indian fashion is becoming quite popular across the globe and as such, it's always good to get the latest fashions straight from India rather than anywhere else. Now I'm not much for clothes shopping. To see me shop is to see someone enter the store, see about five different types of shirts and then pick the one that I like. Total time of the operation? Probably no more than fifteen minutes. Some would say that that is still way too much time for a simple shirt. So that being the case, why would I enjoy going shopping for clothes in India and not here? Simple really; India still has the art of the sale down like no other place I've seen.

Most of the stores in India that sell clothes are usually done up in a way to highlight some of the wonderful colors and new styles that are up for sale inside. The windows are meant to entice people but the true sale, I feel, comes from the salesmen inside the store. When you enter the store you are usually greeted by a group who inquire as to what exactly you may be looking for. It is best to go in with at least a vague notion of what you'd like to buy otherwise it can be a difficult proposition for both sides of the table. In my mom's case, it is usually a new sari. And seeing as how I have been along on several such sari trips, I can relate those experiences to you.

So once you've let the salesman know what you're interested (and it almost always is a man doing the sale, even for saris) they sit you down at a table near the wares. First they usually start off by showing you some of the generic saris in the styles that are currently popular. If you don't like a particular type, they will put it to the side and leave it. They will continue to pull out saris and display them to you until you find something you like. They will pull out dozens upon dozens of different types of saris. And believe me, a sari is compact enough that you can fit a tremendous number in a store of modest size. They continue to pull out the the saris until you have a couple in front of you that you like. Once the style is chosen they begin going in on the color combinations. You've not seen a true myriad of colors until you've been inside an Indian sari shop.

By this time, the salesman has a good estimation of how serious a customer is in terms of buying and how much their budget appears to be. Usually when we go shopping, we try not to make it blatantly obvious that we are not Indian citizens otherwise sometimes the pressure mounts to buy something more expensive that even we may want. But by this time, they know whether or not this is going to be a big sale or not, so the make sure that you are not pressured and that you feel relaxed and at home. To that effect they will offer you tea, coffee, cold drinks or water. Whatever your fancy. It's a wonderful experience because on the one hand you feel (at least I do) a bit guilty that these salesmen take out sari after sari after sari even though you don't intend on buying even half of them. But what makes the experience nice is that the salesmen don't insist on you buying anything, nor do they lay a guilt trip on you for having made them take out so many saris. On the contrary, many of them will take pleasure in the simple fact that they are able to show you the types of saris they have and the quality of work that they have done. If nothing else, they know that word of mouth will send more customers their way.

It is nice to go shopping and be pampered a bit. Having grown up here and done the majority of my shopping in this country, it is easy to get into that complacent mode where shopping is more of a solitary experience with little or no help from salespeople who have little or no interest in making the sales. Perhaps it's simply because I don't go to the 'right' stores here in the US that would do that. Or perhaps it is because the owners of the stores in India take pride in what they sell and want to make sure that they send you away happy and satisfied rather than simply with a lighter wallet.


Friday, February 02, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 5

One of the things that every trip to a new place entails is shopping. For places you have been before, you know what there is to find and so you carry enough cash to cover what you assume to be the maximum you will be spending. In cases of foreign exchange purchases, depending upon the value of your own native currency, you could make out quite well in the long run. For as long as I can remember, the value of the dollar versus the rupee (India's currency) has been rather one-sided with the dollar equating to many more rupees. What this means is the value of the dollar goes a lot farther when changed in to rupees. What this also means is that if the cost of goods is not similarly translated, the result to you the consumer is that you can get the same good at a much cheaper price than you would domestically. This is not only true of India but of other nations as well.

During our trip we went to Dubai which is fast becoming one of the the shopping destinations for Europeans. Why? Simply because the exchange rate is currently in the favor of the foreign currency and prices are much lower than in the US or Europe. So what exactly does that mean? For example, this means that you can pick up designer clothes or accessories for nearly a hundred dollars less than you would spend here in the United States. Electronics are much the same and as a result, in addition to the domestic populations of these foreign countries, you'll see hundreds of Europeans (and some Americans) mixed in with arm loads of shopping. In Dubai, this fact, combined with the fact that the shopping is all duty tax free, means that everyone is nuts to shop.

But aside from shopping, this also helps illustrate a point for many which has been in the news in recent years, outsourcing. One doesn't realize how lucrative outsourcing truly is for companies until they see the value of the dollar in places such as India. The standard of living in India is high but even on what would be considered an entry level salary in the US, converted into rupees, it means that the person is earning much much more. For the sake of example let's say that an individual in India is being paid $20,000 per year to do work of an advanced programmer or some such duty. When multiplied by 40 (which is the exchange rate $1:40 rupees) means that that person is actually earning 800,000 rupees per year. Now this is a very simple example but it serves to illustrate why businesses find it appealing.

Combine this exchange factor with the fact that cost of some necessities is lower in India means that you can do quite well on a salary that would be just above minimum wage in this country. Don't believe me? My family and I were out shopping in India one afternoon and decided to grab a bite to eat. We had a pretty decent sized lunch with appetizer, drinks along with our meals and the bill came to a little less than $10 (once converted). If you can feed a family of four on $10 for one meal, imagine what you'll be able to do when you have $20,000. This is not to say that I think all jobs should be outsourced out of the country, but you see why it is so appealing to the larger corporations who are on board with the idea.

For those of us who come there for a few weeks a year to visit family and friends and shop, it is a chance to be a little more extravagant in our expenditures. For those of us in the business world, it is a chance to realize and understand why outsourcing is viable and works. Again, this is not to say that I am completely for the idea of outsourcing but I think it is a good way for corporations or agencies that do outsource, to increase their profits which is good for our economy overall. Amazing what you can figure out on vacation.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

There and Back Again - Part 4

I have been driving for over ten years now and I have had some great commutes in my time and some not so great commutes. Indeed some of them were downright horrendous. I get a little frustrated when I sit in traffic for no apparent reason. I mean isn't it aggravating to be slowed on the highway for miles on end only to get to the jump off point and realize that there is nothing there? I had actually sat in some pretty hefty traffic on my way home before leaving for the airport to go to India so I was rather done with traffic for some time, or so I thought. You see, I had forgotten that I was on my way to one of the most traffic-ridden areas in the world, India.

I have been to Bombay a number of times over the years and in that time, even I have noticed the way traffic has been increasing in density. Part of this is due in part to the fact that there has been such an upturn in the economy that people are doing much better today than they were a decade ago. Due to this increase in spending power and the relative abundance of cars in the market in India (thus creating competition and creating price competition) many families who used to have only one family car or else relied on public transportation now have two, three or even (in some cases) four cars for the family. On the other hand, the infrastructure of roads and highways still supports levels that were okay back in the 60's. As a result, there are a tremendous number of cars vying for small tracts of road space. The result? Instant moving gridlock.

Now you may wonder how it is that gridlock can be moving? Well if you take note of the picture included with this blog, you will see cars seemingly moving in all directions at once. This is not due to a traffic light malfunction or some other reason, this is normal, everyday traffic. The concept of yielding seems to have been left out from the vocabulary of many drivers in India and so, as my dad says, the concept of 'might is right' rules the road. Have to cross an intersection? Begin by nosing your way out into the road. Slowly proceed until you have a good head of steam and then at a stately pace, clear the intersection and continue on your merry way. Traffic lights? Check them but if it's getting close to turning green, you can move, even if it's still red. The amazing thing is that here people would get outraged and complain; there traffic continues moving. There seems to be a need for people to constantly be in motion over there.

The rules on the road, and I use the term very loosely, equate to the rules of the ski slope to me. On a ski slope the general rule is that the person in front of you has the right of way, so if you are behind them, you are responsible to move around them safely or maintain good spacing. Now anyone who has ever driven will tell you that tailgating is dangerous at low speeds and deadly at higher speeds. In India this is often elevated to an art. I have a theory that if some NASCAR team is willing to give it a chance, there are a number of drivers in India who will give some of the best drivers here a run for their money. Give a driver a car and they'll juke and jostle their way to their destination. Give a driver a fast car and he'll do it with speed while leaning on the horn and narrowly avoiding disaster.

Lane discipline is a thing of legend. If the road is a three lane road you can almost always expect to see a line of nearly seven or eight cars across the road. At traffic lights when the traffic does stop, people begin to move up to the front in an effort to get a jump on the race to the next light. Cars usually arrive first, then the taxis, then the three-wheeled rickshaws, then the motorcycles and bicyclists and finally the pedestrians and push-cart people, all vying for the the chance to be 'first off of the line'. In the end, the jump is marginal and due to the mess at the front, very few cars actually make it through the intersection before the light changes again.

Some may think that I'm being overly critical or scathing in what I'm saying but it's a fact that traffic in Bombay is bad. It's even worse in Pune where the driving population at large seems to have moved from the bicycle to car in one step. There the road discipline is even worse than anywhere in Bombay. One can argue that the drivers themselves are to blame but I have seen people from India come here and drive in a safe and sane manner. It's just that competitive edge that comes out when they're on the road in India. I guess it's that feeling that perhaps the other guy is thinking he's better than me when he's not. Some may argue that it is the low-educated rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers causing the mayhem but I have seen owners of fancy Mercedes' (the owners not their hired drivers) pulling off manuevers that would leave James Bond in shock.

I think that the roads can be improved if one day a massive unit comes in and starts laying down the law. I can't count the number of times I saw police pull cars over for 'jumping the light' or 'going through red' only to see them drive of moments later after either slipping the officer a little something or doing smooth talking. Try that here and you're liable to end up in jail. Experts are saying that in coming years India will become one of the top economies in the world. I don't doubt it, in fact I think it could happen sooner rather than later. But, if the infrastructure of the cities and suburbs doesn't improve, it's all for naught. When a good standard of living is implemented in with a strong economy, there is even more motivation to produce. It's not out of the realm of possibility. The people of India just need to give it a chance. I love going to India; I think I and other visitors would love it even more if we didn't spend so much time in traffic.