Mar 17, 2015

Travelogue - Cairo

Hardly did the aircraft touchdown, people started standing up and pulling down luggage from the overhead lockers, started ringing up their friends & relatives. ..Wow - I'm finally travelling in a sector just like my hometown Calicut where this happens on a regular basis.

Welcome to Africa !!! . Finally I set my foot on the erstwhile dark continent & the  'untapped economic potential' of 21st century.

The one hour taxi drive from Airport to Novotel hotel in central Cairo was so convincing that I don't think I'll ever dare to drive a car here . Driving here needs a different set of skills altogether. You zig-zag, you maneuver, yet you maintain the speed .

The chaos in Cairo just reminded me of Mumbai. A city with an ever increasing influx of people, Everyone struggling to make ends meet .  The drive next morning to Giza was just like driving through a Mumbai suburb.

The imposing pyramids took our breath away. The important thing about Egypt & Cairo is that unless you are without a guide , you'll not enjoy the trip.  Even in places like Moscow, where you can't read or communicate much in their language, you can manage without a guide if you are a bit tech-savvy ( trip-advisor, maps, language apps, etc ) .

But here in Cairo

* You need someone who shows you the monuments by telling the right mix of history
* You need someone to negotiate the rates , get tickets , gets you out of the chaos
* You feel safe with the guide overall

Fortunately we picked an extremely helpful agency ( ) .

The guide took us through the story of pyramids - I have to say that it was a heavy & interesting dose of Egyptology . What Pyramids made me realize is that the boundaries of human endurance are far far higher. In an age without machines, if they had to build it, with the most minutest of the details taken care of, it would have been an incredible effort.

But the best experience in Pyramids was not the sight in itself, it was the sound and light show at night. The history of Pyramids narrated by Antony Hopkins & Omar Sherief was really an awesome experience. A snippet from that embedded here.

If you are in Cairo, this is the experience that you should not miss at any cost.

Next to the pyramids, you have the Sphinx, the largest monolithic statue in world. Near the Sphinx you can see the ruins of a funerary chamber where the mummification used to take place

Visited a perfume factory & papyrus factory nearby the Pyramids. Again these are the places which you will miss unless you go with a guide.

The next major stop was the famous 'Egyptian Museum' in central Cairo. It is said that if you spend one minute seeing each of these artifacts, it'll take nine months to see this museum fully.  King TutanKhamun's artefacts, countless mummies, Rosetta stone ,.. This was a lifetime experience for someone like me who likes history a lot. And, fortunately the guide - Ahmed, knew enough & was passionate about Egyptology. Unfortunately, no photographs permitted here.

To be frank, Cairo is not a place where you would find comfortable roaming around on your own. Street vendors swarm upon you accosting you to visit their shops . Heavy military presence is there in the city throughout - that makes you feel secure, but yet uncomfortable. But the experience of pyramids & museum makes up for it.

It is a sad part that a place that is so rich in history has lost out on tourism front over the last few years because of political troubles.  Since the inflow of tourists have dwindled , it has made the local traders a bit desparate for business. That manifests unfortunately into this over-accosting of visitors.

I wish good times return to this place soon so that my generation don't miss on this wonderful piece of history on our planet.

( Read about Alexandria experience here )

Feb 14, 2015

Travelogue - Alexandria

“You can get a car of any make done here. Half of the city drives a BMW”  - remarked our guide Ahmed, as he wriggled us through the narrow lanes outside Alexandria railway station. It was an exaggeration.. However, for those who wonder where the second-hand / third-hand vehicles of the developed world end-up, the answer is Africa.  An average car-workshop guy here should be much more skilled than a car-mechanic in the West. Here to succeed he needs to mix and match. Body of a Benz, engine of a Chevy, I guess you can find any combination here.

We reached Alexandria after a three-hour train ride from Cairo. Though I did harbor expectations of capturing at-least fleeting images of the Nile Delta, those were quashed quickly. The feeling that you get while the train approaches ‘Misr’ station is exactly the same as that of train approaches to Mumbai or Delhi. Cramped & incomplete houses, people struggling to make ends meet, it is as good as any metro city in developing world in those aspects.

Alexandria - Corniche
Alexandria was ancient world’s gateway to Africa. It does not have the importance that it held in those days. But you can see remnants of the bygone era. Greco-Roman buildings, monuments, Italian influence, Turkish & Mediterranean style cuisine. This would be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. We even came across a movie theatre which was playing Shah Rukh Khan’s “Happy New Year”

As you navigate through the old city, you could see posters of Hosni Mubarak, Morsi & Sisi in various quarters showing how politically charged-up the atmosphere is.
Pompei’s Pillar & Roman Catacombs –  Most tourist guides would cover these two for you.  The historical significance apart, these might not appeal much to an average visitor.

Citadel at the place of 'Light House of Alexandria'

The sight of the Corniche blew away our tiredness.  Yesteryear’s wonder – “The lighthouse of Alexandria” is no longer there. Only a castle stands at its place. That’s from where you can get the best view of the Corniche skirting the Meditteranean.   This is where the legendary Mark Antony & Cleopatra lived once upon a time - a time when Alexandria was perhaps the center of the world.

I was surprised to hear that lot of Indians frequent to this city – And the reason behind that – 100 odd Kilometers to west of Alexandria lies this place – El Alamein, one of the prominent battle grounds of World war II . Thousands of soldiers of various nationalities lay buried there. Their relatives visit those sites even now.  Alexandria has a massive library – Bibliotheca Alexandria – One of the largest libraries in modern world.  We didn’t have enough time to cover that.

Alexandria left an impression of an old wise man in me. Someone who refuses to be taken lightly, yet who is not quite powerful to fight its way into prominence, but quite content with the age-old wisdom & intellect.

Jan 23, 2015

The Economics of Swiss Franc's Float

A Swiss watch or vacation in Zurich is going to cost you much much more.. The more I read, more I feel like I should have taken a Swiss trip before the this float decision
Much has been written about this. For a good introductory read, you can check the Mint article . Most of the literature of this decision has focused on the macro underpinnings. While it is true that the macro factors forced SNB to take this decision, I think it is important to understand the micro-economic implications of currency pegging & its aftermath
Switzerland is a country known for its political stability. It stood insulated from even the world-wars. Such a place , coupled with its banking laws naturally has an appeal for black & white money from risk averse people across the world.
The currency pegging was introduced by SNB to protect the economy from the global financial crisis. For a country, preventing appreciation of currency is quite easy -- Just print more money. The effect of this can be quickly assessed by checking a few numbers in SNB Balance sheet
If you look at period from 2010 - 2014, the total balance sheet size has approximately doubled ( CHF 269 billion to 525 billion ). If you look at where this has gone into, you would notice that bulk of it is  foreign currency investments ( 204 to 475 billion ) .  This is not accompanied by a proportional increase in economic activity or growth irrespective of which indicator you use to assess it ( GDP growth / consumer price / inflation ) .  This is best illustrated another two numbers in the same PDF. Bank notes ( value ) in circulation over the same time period has increased only by about 6%, whereas the deposits in domestic banks have grown about 9 times .  So, where this money has gone into ?  The obvious answer in all such economies is Real Estate
In such a situation, currency pegging ( i.e, capping appreciation ) makes matters worse for the local population.  Since the local economy has not really picked up, an average coffee-shop owner / farmer still sees his inflows largely the same in value ( CHF terms ). And when he goes to buy a home , he's kicked out of market by investors ( or, rather, risk-averse people ) who bring in Euros ( where, economic activity is much higher than CHF ) & convert it at a fixed rate to CHF.
The impact of this is lack of availability of affordable housing .Though the intention of currency peg was to keep the industry competitive, encourage investment, it ends up sidelining the local population.   At a micro-level, this drives huge resentment . Given the fact that ECB was about to take a cue from US Fed, currency peg would have left SNB with a very risky balance sheet - something which looks like a hedge fund betting on property & currency - and a disgruntled local population.   
In an increasingly connected economy, it is never a prudent decision to peg the appreciating exchange rate. Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" or market forces would catch up with you sooner or later.