Dec 31, 2017

Travelogue - New York

Immigration Officer : What is Your Name ?
Boy Doesn't answer.
Officer : C'mon son.. What is your Name ?
Boy Doesn't answer.
Translating Officer : Tuo Nome ? ( Italian )
No answer..
Officer looks at the card..
Translating Officer :  Vito Andolini from Corleone
Immigration Officer :  Corleone.. Vito Corleone

Godfather Part - II,  backdrop . - A young boy, Vito , from Corleone arrives as an immigrant at Ellis Island, New York..  To countless immigrants in the earlier part of 20th century, Ellis Island was the gateway to a land of opportunities. It was an age where people immigrated to the United States through this place. While Statue of Liberty was the symbol of hope for an immigrant, Ellis island was the ultimate test.  Immigrants got screened here for a variety of diseases, went through multiple rounds of paperworks and went into the place where capitalism cut its teeth - Manhattan.

Over the last few years, one profession that I've started to admire is that of a tour guide. Thats an area where I've seen people scoring in  8 - 9 on my ten point scale of perfection. From Jess who took us through the world war and cold war ruins in Berlin to Nobu who narrated the poignant stories in Hiroshima,  Adam in New-York was just as good as them. Passionately narrating the stories behind Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty, there was never a dull moment with him.  Few videos embedded here

The modern sky-scrappers that adorn the NewYork skyline is built on the sweat and blood of immigrants who flocked here from around the world.. True to that spirit, the five Uber rides that I took here where manned by drivers from five ethnic origins . -  Sierra Leone, Ecuador, Colombia, Fiji , Jamaica.  As you walk through the iconic places like wall-street , WTC memorial, Times Square , Central Park,  you hear that cacophony of ethnicities and cultures.. You hear about bitcoins being used as ransoms, you hear about the anguish towards new immigration,  at the same time you hear people openly criticising ( or at times, abusing ) the new political order.  Yet, a common thread unites everyone - a free spirit.. A free spirit or freedom to express yourself, a don't care - come what may attitude, a firm belief that you can challenge anything - thats omnipresent.  And thats perhaps what's made NewYork what it is today, the rock-bed of free markets and trade.. Thomas Friedman's 'World is Flat' finds its essence in NewYork.

Downtown Manhattan for a tourist is perhaps one of the most densest populated parts on Earth today.  Crowded subways, sky-high hotel room rates, a series of hop-on-hop-off buses - but none serving the purpose as traffic is too crowded, impossible to get parking places,... As you cut through the bylanes near Times Square & mid-town, you wonder about what is so magnetic about the place. Madamme Tussauds as they say is better in London, Gulliver's Gate meets its match even in a city like Hamburg, Burj Khalifa is higher than Empire States building... The success of New York is its crowds..More crowd bringing in more excitement , and that works as a self reinforcing model.

As we waited in a Panera bread outlet, I saw a young Indian origin man placing his order.  I see his surname on the display board. I hear him introducing himself  (first name ) in a confident manner over the phone to some business contact... Out of curiosity, I searched for him on LinkedIn. And the his profile made me - wow!.. True to the spirit of free markets and trade,  the best of the best flock here. And that'll drive NewYork and America forward for years to come , regardless of the political order.

  Read my Travelogues

Aug 4, 2017

Travelogue - Amsterdam

"Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin"

-- John Green

Amsterdam has quite a few of the things that many parts of the world consider immoral or illegal. But the beauty of this is that,  if you go through the crime statistics you tend to realize that the Dutch have found a way of alternative Governance suited for them. As Rick Steves puts in one of this travel videos (The Value of Travel - A gem of a ted talk that you should watch )  , it is a different way of addressing a common problem. Indeed in Amsterdam, you run a higher risk of being knocked down by a cyclist than being a victim to a crime.  Apparently, about 15000 cycles are retrieved every year from Amsterdam's canals

The 12th century dam on Amstel river that gave rise to this teeming metropolis of modern world is a treat for tourists. It has evolved from a trading outpost to one of the most liberal cities in the world. Just like any other continental European city, the traumas of 19th century wars are evident and preserved.

"I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." 
- remarked Anne Frank in her diaries during her hiding from Nazis.
Anne Frank's Statue in front of house where
she stayed during hiding

Anne Frank's house - perhaps the most visited landmark in this city - is a place that one should not miss.  It tells us the story of a brave little girl who defied great odds to leave an everlasting message to the humanity. It is perhaps the best place in Europe that one should take their teenage son/daughter to instil in them good perspectives for the rest of their lives.. Just like Berlin, Hiroshima and Dachau has taught me, Anne Frank's house reemphasises the message that there there is no glory in war. There is just suffering for the humanity. When you walk around the Jewish quarters, you stumble upon these Brass bricks known as Stolperstein ( Stumbling Stones ) with names of holocaust victims and dates  which serves as a grim reminder of the past.
Our Daughter's remarks @ Anne Frank's house

Reading Anne Frank's story - Back @ Dubai

Stolpersten (Stumbling Stones)

The liberalism which is the hallmark of Amsterdam finds its ethos in multiple places. The Heineken Experience which tells us the story of how a small company grew up to be conglomerate. A can of Heineken in Amsterdam is cheaper than a bottle of still water.  The free spirited and hippie nature of Dutch is also evident in Amsterdam Arena - the home of Ajax - the cradle of total football.  The no-14 jersey of Johan Cruyff who passed away last year is preserved in the stadium.

Vincent Van Gogh - another famous icon of Amsterdam has a large museum dedicated to him. I've to admit that I'm not a great connoisseur of art . So, I wouldn't comment much about this place. However,  judging by the numb
Number - 14 Jersey of Cruyff
@ Amsterdam Arena
er of visitors to this place, if you have some affinity towards art - you should not miss Van Gogh museum as well as the nearby Rijksmuseum

A city where the primary modes of transportation are bicycles , tram, metro and buses ;  the fitness and sports culture is essentially an integral part of youth. A powerhouse in Hockey, Football , Athletics and Swimming,  Netherlands figures quite regularly among the top 20 countries on medals per capita in Olympics

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Netherlands is how they have kept a popular city like Amsterdam not spoiling the beautiful country-side of Netherlands. 20 minutes to one hour drive from Amsterdam, you get to the quaint villages of Marken , Volendam and the famous windmills of Zaanse Schaans.   The journey towards those places cover another engineering marvel - The Dutch Dikes. Many parts of Netherlands are below sea level. The Dikes restrict sea water from flowing in and creates large volume of fresh water reservoirs and it has an interesting history in itself

 Zaanse Schans with its windmills is a UNESCO heritage site. This is actually a reconstructed version of old Dutch wind mills which was done in 1960's and 70's . Being a windy plain, these type of windmills dotted the landscape of Netherlands hundreds of years earlier. You can see one even in Amsterdam city.  Many of these were moved to Zaanse Schans to reconstruct what was once a thriving commercial centre in 18th and 19th century.

As we were not equipped with an age-appropriate , yet truthful explanation for an inquisitive 4 year old kid, we decidedly gave a miss to De Wallen and Coffee Shops :)

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

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

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 )