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 ?

Dec 9, 2016

Travelogue - Hiroshima

"Till she was about 10 years old, she grew up like just another girl. She was strong & was a  member of athletic team in her school. In 1954, she developed swellings in her neck , ears and upon being admitted to hospital, was diagnosed with Leukemia and was given maximum of one year to live..  It was in hospital that she learned about the legend of folding a thousand origami cranes to have a wish fulfilled.. She completed 1000, but her wish to live further was not fulfilled. She died in 1955, when she was 12"  --  Remarked our guide Nobu (a native of Hiroshima) in an emotional, yet composed tone,  as she detailed the poignant story of Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of Atom bomb who went on to die later due to the effects of radiation she suffered when she was barely two years old

Sadako's Origami Cranes

Hiroshima Atom bomb dome seen through
the peace memorial & flame

Immortalized by a monument dedicated to her next to the Hiroshima memorial peace park and decorated with Origami cranes, this is a place that can tell you in the most impactful way, the effects of nuclear weapons on humanity.   Her story is detailed in a famous book as well

An illustration depicting the immediate state of survivors 

The infamous 'human shadow'. A person standing near a building during bombing apparently melted away leaving a shadow of his body on the building which was otherwise whitened due to bombing

The most famous landmark is the Atomic bomb dome, a building that miraculously survived the bombings.

The peace museum is perhaps at the heart of the pacifist doctrine that has been a part of Japanese Politics after the war.  It details various tales of survivors, people who perished and the tale of destruction & radiation effects that has impacted the city ever since.

I asked Nobu, 'Whats taught in Japanese schools about Japan's role in war' . She told it is taught not in a straightforward way. Japanese attacks are portrayed as attacks on military installations, while the US bombings were taught as attack on civilians.. She also told that in this age of internet, it has become easy for people to access information. But there is no right or wrong answer about these events in Japan. Indeed Obama also stopped short of apologizing for this act on civilians.

Hiroshima , city of seven rivers has come a long way from that fateful day in 1945.  City has hosted Asian games in 1994, hosted a number of world leaders, the latest being Barrack Obama this year.  Hiroshima is the headquarters of Mazda motor corporation as well. Unlike the other major Japanese cities, Hiroshima does not have a subway system. Nobu attributed that to the fact that city is in a river delta & it is not suitable to build subways because of the watery nature of soil.  A few tram coaches which survived the bombing is still being run today as a memorial

After Obama's visit this year, Shenzo Abe, the Japanese PM is set to visit Pearl Harbour later this year. It is indeed a remarkable gesture aimed at reconciling differences over a troubled past.

Hiroshima is a place which can remove even traces of extremism or war mongering from a human soul.. Indeed 6th Aug 1945 was a day when humanity stood still.
Hiroshima trip was my first experience with 'Shinkansen' (Bullet Train ) as well. 330 KM from Osaka to Hiroshima was done in about 80 minutes. Have to say that, it is indeed an engineering marvel.

Nov 12, 2016

Demonetization - The Missing Link

Indian PM made a highly risky political & economic move by removing 500/- & 1000/- rupee notes from circulation. The move aimed at curbing black money & fake currency seems to be getting equal amount of support & criticism from different quarters at the time of writing.

Currency is the lubricating factor on which economy runs. The Indian currency base as of Mar'16 is represented in the table below

Currency Note     Value ( In Rs Billion)    Volume(In Billion)  Value%     Volume% 
   10                            320                               32                            1.95%       40.8%
   20                              98                                 5                            0.6 %          6.2%
   50                            194                                4                             1.2%           4.9%
 100                          1578                              16                             9.6%         20.1%
 500                          7854                              16                            48%             20%  
1000                         6326                               6                            38.6%          8.1% 

This brings an interesting reading .  The volume of 100 & 500 rupee notes in circulation is almost identical . Assuming that demand for various denominations is a key factor behind printing decisions, there is a huge demand for 500/- rupee notes.  As per the classical economic 'equation of exchange'  ( MV = PQ ) , Monetary base ( It could be M0/M1/M2/M3 )   X velocity of money ( equals GDP .  Over the last few years, velocity of money in India has been decreasing in India, inspite of increase in monetary base.  Government doesn't publish stats as to what is the velocity of money for different currency denominations. But the increased demand of 500/- rupee note coupled with overall decreasing velocity of currency is most likely to be due to the hoarding potential of 500/-  ( and similar case with 1000/-  )  . So, Modi has a justified case - 500/-  & 1000/-  are one of the means in which unaccounted money is stashed away.

Now, how is removing 500/- and 1000/-  going to affect economy. This is where I think the planners did not get their act together. If you remove 500/- and 1000/-  , you are going to remove close to 87% of the monetary base by value & 28% by volume.  You are going to supplant that part of economy by 2000/-  and an increased circulation of 100/-  rupee notes.  Now how many 2000/- and extra 100/- rupee notes are you going to need to get back the monetary base to the same level ?

If you assume that all of the present 1000 rupee notes and say one-half of 500/- rupee notes are going to be replaced with 2000/- , the number of 2000/- rupee notes to be printed works out to be about 5.13 billion notes

The case for extra 100/- is a bit more trickier.  If half of the monetary base of 500/- is converted into 100/-  , the replacement print is going to be about 39.3 billion notes (  current circulation of 100/- as you can see from the table is 16 billion )  .  But this is not so straightforward either.  If someone goes to a shop and gives a 2000/- rupee note for an 800/- rupee product, the shopkeeper needs to give 12 hundred rupee notes in balance.  Now, this is going to put a huge demand for 100/- rupee notes. And it won't be easy for banks /Govt / RBI to cope up with the increased demand for 100/- rupee notes.

Imagine the below red-line ( volume ) as an air-pocket ( economic activities ) trapped under a semi flexible structure.  You are going to pinch the 500 & 1000 into zero, but by opening a 2000/- band and an increased band of 100/- .. The trapped air under the 500/-  and 1000/- would manifest as pressures at 2000/- & 100/-  . The increased pressure on those bands could be equated as a need to print more notes.  Unless the circulation of 100/- notes is dramatically improved , economic activity is going to get hampered seriously .

This is where I feel Government should have acted differently- It should have simultaneously come up with denominations of say 250/-  , 400/- , 750/-  along with recalibrating of ATM's.  Otherwise, doesn't matter how much ever 2000/-  they are going to print. it'll just manifest as increased scarcity of 100/- to the common man & small time traders.  Already the impacts are seen in the economy  where inspite of  the availability of 2000/- , business is not smooth as usual.

Hence, I think this is going to put a serious deflationary effect on economy at the grass root level. On the positive side, real estate prices are going to come down,  cash-less ( cards / wallets ) businesses are going to get a boost .


Aug 5, 2016

Money, Credit & Banking in Rural India

Excerpts from a conversation with a person who works as a cleaning staff in Dubai. Actual conversation happened in Hindi. 

Me: So how do you save money in India?
Him: I transfer money to my uncle’s bank account. He takes it and gives it to my father. He keeps it.

Me: So, a person keeps the all the money of earning members in your family?
Him: Yeah, and he lends out money at 2% interest to our immediate & extended family members & friends when someone needs it

Me: (My finance mind starts to work) Well, why don’t you open an NRE account? You get 4% interest tax free on savings account and 7.5% on fixed deposit (Thank God, I didn't advise Stocks & Mutual Funds)
Him: Banking doesn’t work for us Sir. Our financial needs are different

Me: Can you explain?
Him: Sometimes for my daughter’s school fees, I need some money urgently. Maybe for some agricultural expenses, I may have some unanticipated need. If I go to banks, they ask for many paperwork.  Not at all easy.  Not fast.  

Me: So, your family based financing model works for you in these situations?
Him: Mostly yes. The lending is not based on my savings. It is based on need

Me: So, how does your family system ensure that the people whom you lend to, return the money back with interest?
Him: Sometimes people make delays in payments. But, no one defaults. We don’t lend to everyone. It is within a circle of extended family & friends in village.

Me: But does this lending business make profit? Lending at 2% won’t make much money.
Him: Sir, this is not done for profit. This is a system to manage our financial needs of everyone in the family with the little money that we save. If everyone puts money in their individual bank accounts, when need comes, no one in the family can raise a huge sum quickly

Me: So, is this how most of the savings are done in your area?
Him: Yes. Wherever these kind of arrangements are not there, commercial money lenders exploit people.

As I sat bank and thought about that, I felt it made eminent sense. Modern banking works on the basis of “individual”. And all economic theories over that are fundamentally based on the concept of maximizing profit. When the capital available with individual is limited, and the needs are very much basic like health, education & food, you cannot really work on the basis of a person-based banking. A collective usage of capital, even though the returns are limited works best to satisfy the needs of an extended group of people, who otherwise might not be eligible for normal bank credit. The extended group factor is another way of ensuring low probability of default as the defaulter will have much more to lose in an extended family setup.  As profit maximization on lender’s side is not the objective, he doesn’t jack up the lending rates, doesn’t go after new customers and so on. Probably this is the reason why modern banking is yet to take a strong foothold in rural India. Rural India will get financial inclusion when some business model emerges to tap into this kind of credit functioning. I can think of Co-Operative banking prevalent in some parts of India as a close-by model. But that’s a bit higher on the value chain where the needs addressed are for starting a business, setting up a shop, buying a vehicle etc.. This is a problem where needs are much more basic and the time to raise money is quite limited.

Aug 2, 2016

Travelogue - Cyprus

Let me start with a caveat. We could not even cover one-third of Cyprus. The country, even though it looks to be a tiny island in Mediterranean, has a lot to offer for more than a week. We were there just for 4 days including the travel dates.

We landed at Larnaca on a Wednesday morning. Took our rental car and drove straight to our wonderful hotel @ Latchi  .. The cross country drive from South East of Island to the Western side took about 4+ hours ( 170 odd KM ).  Cyprus represents a unique fusion of Greek, Turkish & Continental European cultures. Its cuisine is distinctively Mediterranean. Not just fish & squid, but the European influenced beef & pork as well.  You drive on the left side of the road ( i.e, British system ) .

Cypriot beach areas are of two-three distinct kinds . If you are a party-hopper , would suggest you to look for options near Aiya Napa  . Cities like Larnaca & Limassol offer good beaches, but often crowded as per reviews. If you are looking for a reasonably quiet & calm place, I would suggest Paphos / Latchi / Polis areas ( where we stayed ) .  

Legend says that Aphrodite and Adonis met in the beaches of Cyprus. There is an area which is kept as Baths of Aphrodite. Interesting thing is that there are many nearby areas which has the Geological formations similar to the Aphrodite rocks.  But when you have an interesting story in mythology, why not market it and make a hype  :)

The specialty of many of these beaches is that these are pebble filled beaches.You take a dip and lie down on the shore, there is virtually no sand that sticks on to your body. The salt content of the water is very high. In general, Mediterranean has high rates of evaporation thereby making the water much more saltier. So, when you swim, if you are not wearing goggles, you'll experience a strong burning sensation in your eyes because of the high-saline nature. This feeling is much more than any of the beaches that I've been to.  But doesn't make the experience bad.  Infact, I'd rate Cyprus beaches perhaps as the best that I've been to.
Blue Lagoon @ Latchi - Best place to swim in Cyprus

Donkeys are valued very much in Cyprus. There is a Donkey sanctuary, a soap that the locals produce out of Donkey milk and lot of other handicrafts centered around Donkey.  Cyprus being a mountainous terrain, locals used donkeys to transport the cultivation into different parts of the island. Donkey's importance is highlighted in many of the wineries that you come across. We visited one in the quaint surroundings of a village

Modern day Cyprus is a financial & legal center which gained fame as a base of many investment funds,but which came crashing in the infamous Cyprus financial crisis a few years back. It is a classic case study for anyone interested in Macro-Economics as to what would happen when banks become much more financially large than the country's economy itself.

The scars of the financial crisis still remain. As you exit Larnaca, you see a notice stating that Cypriots are allowed to take out only 1000 Euros when they go out.  But you can see plenty of signs indicating that the economy is picking up. Many Property Ads, Villas under construction, latest BMW models in Limassol, restaurants & hotels filled with tourists even in the blazing July climate and much more.  It is not a cheap place to holiday either .

Cyprus is a divided nation. Those scars still remain. We didn't go to Nicosia. But from what we heard, it is a very different world on the other side of the border.

Cyprus is perhaps one of the few small-islands which has something to offer on history , culture, partying, cuisine. What you have on offer is not a deep historical or profound cultural experience like Rome and Berlin.  You should not expect depth in anything, but those glimpses itself would leave plenty of pleasant memories for a lifetime :)

May 5, 2016

Travelogue - Budapest

Two of the things that I definitely wanted to visit in Budapest were statues. One was of a person whom I googled up couple of weeks before - Imre Nagy. The other one was of Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers ever.

Imre Nagy Statue Overlooking Hungarian Parliament 
Imre Nagy was out of a peculiar novelty. One of the best political satires of all time in Malayalam - Sandesham - has a reference to him amidst a political conversation . Something that highlights the ubiquitous political awareness of a keralite in the early 90's.

Ferenc Puskas who led the invincible Magic Magyars of 1950's is part of football folklore. Someone who failed at perhaps the most important game of his career - World cup final 1954 .  Hungary of today seems to have totally forgotten him. There is a stadium dedicated to him in the city. But other than that, Puskas seems to be totally forgotten. We had quite a bit of difficulty in tracing out the exact location & identifying the correct tram & metro tracks. It was pretty disappointing that the city does not have anything better to celebrate the Magic Magyars
Ferenc Puskas statue at Becsi Ut, Budapest

 The turning point in Puskas & Nagy's lives was the soviet invasion of  1956. Puskas returned to Hungary only in the 90's .  Nagy was incarcerated & executed , and secretly buried , only to be  re-interred in the late 80's after the soviet withdrawal . Nagy was a communist, who fought along with Bolsheviks, but later-on fell out of favor with the Soviets because of his disagreement with the Stalinist policies .

Glittering Hungarian Parliament overlooking Danube
Hungary as a nation suffered under two of the most notorious regimes of 20th century - Nazis & Stalin. Many of the survivors from the concentration camps of Nazis ended up in Gulags of Russia. This history is captured in detail in Terra Haza ,a Nazi & Soviet torture cum prison complex converted into a museum. It is a testimony to the fact that extreme policies on any side of political spectrum can be extremely dangerous to the humanity. It is also a reminder to the society that one should not color a political philosophy as good or bad. In this case, many of the victims were members of the Hungarian Communist party ( Like Nagy ) and perpetrators were also from a section of communist party who agreed with the Soviets.
Beer Bike / Pedal Bar on Budapest Roads

Present day Budapest is a thriving Metropolis .  I could spot offices of many modern technology companies like Flextronics , Microsoft  & Samsung.  Heard from a fellow traveler who came all the way from Durban to attend a tech conference that the Government is grooming up this place as Silicon Valley of the Europe. Public transport is excellent . The oldest subway in continental Europe is an engineering marvel just like Moscow Metro .  Trams criss-cross the city. It is a reminder to modern day city planners that a city need not be very rich to develop public transport infrastructure.
Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

The home town of Harry Houdini, really has a magical charm. Perhaps most evident in the night-time view of the parliament building & Buda Castle from the Danube.

Hungarians has a special way of relaxing. The public baths are a common sight. People from every strata of the society come to places like this for a relaxing day. These are mixed baths . I guess places like this are much needed in Indian society . It removes ones inhibitions . And it promotes a habit between men & women to see each other respectfully, irrespective of what an individual is wearing.

Goulash / Beef & vegetables soup &  Chicken Paprikash  are the speciality dishes in Hungary. Indians would definitely like these.  A bit spicy & really tasty

Budapest is like a phoenix raising from ashes. A city that has been unduly oppressed for long seems to be finally getting its due in the 21st century

Mar 31, 2016

Travelogue - Rome

Roma ? Roma ? - Quipped a long faced gentleman who walked into our waiting area for EK095 at Dubai T3 -  to make sure that he's getting into the same flight.. He reminded me of Paolo Maldini, former Italian captain and one of the finest footballers I've ever seen.

This was a much anticipated trip for me. The cradle of modern civilization, legal systems, urban planning - all could be traced to this city.  Like most other European cities, the city & civilization developed around a river (Tiber) and the seven hills surrounding it.

Raphael's "School of Athens"
Huge crowds throng the Vatican city - the center of Christianity , but more importantly, the place that houses the artworks of Raphael and Michaelangelo.  Incredible Frescos dominate the Vatican Palace. Every picture has a story behind it. Not just the Biblical stories, but images that capture various phases of Roman & Greek times. I remember this particular painting by Raphael where he combined the times of Aristotle, Plato to the younger self of Michaelangelo and numerous other philosophers & scientists. Just after Raphael's Rooms, you get to Sistine Chapel where you can see the full glory of Michaelangelo's skills. No photographs permitted in Sistine Chapel unfortunately though.

Just like Cairo, Vatican City is a place that you should explore by a guide. As you would be lost in this place without someone who can explain the significant places & exhibits with the stories behind it.   The smallest city state or country has only about 400 odd citizens including the cardinals & Swiss guards.
Colosseum - From the top

Colosseum - The scale & enormity of this structure is really imposing. Multiple restoration attempts are going on to repair parts of that which have been damaged. The grandeur of this structure has been truly captured in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. If you visit this place, highly recommended that you take the ticket to see underground chambers or dungeons as they call it .

Roman Forum - Site of Marc Antony's Speech

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears ..."  - The legendary speech by Marc Antony after Caeser's murder happened right in the midst of these historical ruins,
collectively called as Roman Forum.  The ruins are again best explored with a guide. It has numerous monuments touching practically every Roman historical figure that you would have heard of from the time of Romulus & Remus to Constantine & even beyond.

Pantheon - One of the ancient pagan temples

Indeed the influence of Roman culture & systems were so profound that all the following empires adapted many things from them. The word Kaizer & Czar often tagged to the emperors in Germany & Russia comes from the word Caesar.  The Aqueduct systems used by Romans to bring water from distant places to the city is still used in a few places.

Rome will make us think about the humble beginnings of many things that are the bedrock of modern society.. An empire that was more controlled by a Senate ( sort of a Quasi - Parliament ) , the birth place of  Republicanism and much more.

And Italian food that you get in Italy is very different from the servings in most Italian restaurants in India or Middle East.  Pasta, Pizza , Wine, Gelato - Without these, the Italian experience is incomplete !!!