Jul 22, 2017

Travelogue - Brussels

To feel the conflict that Europe is going through, you need to visit Brussels ( Bruxelles ) .. Armed military Police in practically every sensitive location, visitors always mindful about their surroundings even while munching the delicious waffles. Refugees begging in some street corners, yet the humanity helping them - food coupons being distributed in many places, many of them getting employed in local shops. In restaurants, you could hear a plethora of languages - Flemish, French, German, English and much more.

Being the head-quarters of European Union and a multitude of other International organisations, one of the places that a visitor should not miss in Brussels is the European Union HQ building and the associated museum explaining the European history. A continent ravaged by wars from the times of Crusades to the World Wars and cold war moving into a concept of economic & political union permitting free movement of people and ideas.  The humanist ideals are deeply embedded in their educational curriculum - Perhaps the reason as to why the young generation is at the forefront of helping refugees. And perhaps, no nation in Europe will disown them - Because many generations of Europeans have themselves been persecuted in the name of religion and politics

Symbolic Piece of Berlin Wall in front of EU HQ
at Brussels

While the diamond industry is concentrated in Antwerp, Chocolatiers throng the by-lanes near Grand Palace.  My initial thought was that the chocolate industry had
its origins from the Belgian colony of Congo. Apparently thats not the case. Large quantities of cocoa were sourced from Africa. However, Belgium turned into a net exporter of chocolate only after the 1950's. A few family houses - Neuhaus, Godiva , Leonidas etc perfected their own standards and processes. To preserve the authenticity & standards, they have stayed away from outsourcing of manufacturing.. It is actually a case of free markets coupled with long-sightedness that has developed this industry in Belgium. We were fortunate to be taken through various aspects of chocolate making process at Neuhaus which was quite informative.

Manneken Pis

A stark difference of Brussels from other European cities is that this is a car-congested city even though it has got good public transport network. Apparently the tax system encourages you to to buy vehicles by taking mortgage. Brussels was a stark difference in that aspect from Amsterdam where practically everyone uses cycles or public transport. Another reason could be that this is a hilly terrain.

European cities have a nice way of converting interesting stories or themes into tourist attractions..Just like Salzburg uses Mozart's history to bring in tourists, Brussels uses the story of Manneken Pis .. Legend says that when Brussels was under siege, attackers setup explosives charges on city walls. But a boy named Julianske urinated on those explosives to defuse them. In his honour, a bronze statue was setup in the historic center of Brussels. And, the tourist industry has caught on this.. From chocolates to T-shirts to miniature models, Manneken Pis is omnipresent in Brussels

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Jan 27, 2017

Why Trump should build his Mexican Wall ?

In the by-lanes of Prague, next to Charles Bridge is this wonderful relic of cold war - John Lennon wall .   Originally the paintings started appearing following the assassination of John Lennon, known for his liberal views & love for humanity. Gradually, this morphed into a rallying point for opposing the oppressive communist regime. Painted in white by authorities many times, the caricatures on this wall, which includes Beatles lyrics & many other humanity oriented phrases is now like a magnet that pulls travelers in Prague.

John Lennon Wall - Prague
I wish Trump begins constructing this wall. Few years later, caricatures will begin to appear on that, at-least on Mexican side. It'll become a rallying point for tourists to flock into Texas & Chihuahua,
popping up the local economies of those states.

(PS - The wall is estimated to cost anywhere between $15 billion to $25 billion, with the bulk of it going to the man-power required to build this.  And Trump should find abundant number of workers for that on both sides of wall.  I suggest Mexican Government to support this exercise wholeheartedly for its economic & tourism potential. It is quite likely to be the project with highest IRR in the history of Mexico )

Dec 17, 2016

Travelogue - Osaka

"Okini", said the clerk who issued us the tickets & subway card at Kansai airport. I had to google what it meant afterwards. It means 'Thank You' in Osakan dialect , but not so commonly used by the young generation apparently.. They prefer 'Arigatou'  ( Thank You ) and 'Domo Arigatou' ( Thanks a lot ) . Little did we know that we were set to hear these phrases an innumerable number of times  accompanied by bowing as a mark of respect..   That's Japanese society for you. Extremely polite, welcoming & helpful. Couple of days later, a gentleman who was rushing to his office, went extra-mile to help us locate a hotel that we were looking for. He even accompanied us right to the entrance of the hotel.

Okini was perhaps an early indicator for us towards another thing as well. Japanese society is rapidly aging. Due to strong work ethic , career focus & extra-mile loyalty towards the companies that they work for, lesser number of marriages happen and less number of couples have kids. It was conspicuous everywhere. There were very few babies / toddlers everywhere. Ourselves  touring with a three year old kid hence received smiles & attention at many places.

Look whom I found in Japan - Dori & Nemo
Osaka has got a really large aquarium ( called Kaiyukan ) . Being an ancient trading port, marine life & eco system is seeped into Osakan culture. Kaiyukan is a large & well maintained place. Perhaps one of the best I've seen so far. Well documented with elaborate explanations on different parts of marine life.

Japanese Meal - Part of 'Kaiseki' ( An elaborate set of meal )
 We had apprehensions about how would the Japanese food would be. Having tried Sushi once before, I wasn't really a big fan of that.. But have to say that if you are a Non-Vegetarian & likes spicy food, you would find the Japanese food to be quite OK.  They have rice along with all meals. And they have a 'curry' - which is quite similar to the Indian curries, but made out of beef / pork / chicken etc. They have a high proportion of leaf based dishes & less of fruits.  Some researchers say that this kind of healthy meal with the Domo Arigatou bow & lots of walking keep them healthy & fit..  Indeed, even if you a city dweller, transferring from one subway line to another in a major station could involve walking of about a Kilometer .
Artificial Penguin Habitat in Kaiyukan

To feel the pulse of Osaka, you need to take a walk into their shopping streets - Dotonbari & Shinsaibashi - Suji .. You get a feel of Chinatown in various south east asian cities, but more pricey & of remarkable quality.

Yen is a high denomination-based currency. Yet, prices tend to be quoted upto the lowest unit. i.e, it is not uncommon to hear prices like 3281 yen for a T-shirt.  Being from India, prices to be quoted like that is uncommon.. It could be like 3200 rupee or 3300 rupee , but very rarely any random number between 100's.  Perhaps this has got something to do with the deflationary spiral that Japan had gone through. People tend to value even a single yen.  And money is treated with a lot of respect. If you are paying at a shop or hotel, you are expected to place the cash / card into a tray & then the cashier takes it.

Osaka has Universal Studio as well. Though did not cover that.  We used Osaka as a base to cover Hiroshima , Kyoto & Nara . I hope to return here some day to see the Osaka castle area during Cherry Blossom . There is an interesting architectural structure in Nishi Umeda, Osaka - Two skyscrapers connected by an escalator at the top. Constructing this  kind of a building in a seismically active country requires some serious skill.

Osaka ( or in general, Japan  ) is a unique experience for people coming from west. First Asian country to industrialize. Comparable to US & Europe in technology & engineering. Amazing trains & public transport systems. A unique cultural experience with many nuances, Japan has much to offer to a traveler.

Other interesting aspects about Japanese society that I came across in this trip either as part of observation or conversation.
A) Why Japanese tend to wear surgical masks ? Another perspective
B)  Why yen is a safe haven ?
C ) Why Japan lost its electronics crown ?

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