Saturday, June 28, 2008

GK II

I really like the name GK II. It stands for Greater Kailash 2 and it is an area of Delhi - one that is quite far from Gurgaon. I was here a few weeks ago to spend the afternoon with Manjusha and her husband, pictured here. I ventured to their house on Saturday afternoon for lunch. Manjusha and her husband had cooked amazing food for me. I welcomed this food, because, as you know, I fired my maid at April's end and my cooking isn't that great.

Afterwards, we visited a few sites in GK II. First, we visited the Lotus temple, a non-denominational temple that is shaped like a lotus. The great thing about this temple is that it received visitors from all parts of India and from all religions. This is how temples should be.

Following the Lotus Temple, we visited ISKCON temple, another temple in the area. This temple is famous for its modern design. There are many ISKCON temples in India, just as there are many Birla temples. ISKCON stands for: International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

It was a good day to visit these temples because the weather was nice, breezy, though a bit rainy. I learned a new phrase there: "Aacha howraa" - 'good air / breeze'. We finished off the day by watching the IPL semifinals in which Rajasthan downed the Kings 11 Punjab. It was a great afternoon in Delhi's GK II.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

59°56' N 30°20' E


The city of St. Petersburg has gone through many names in its history. It was Petrograd from 1914 - 1924 and Leningrad from 1924 - 1991. After 1991, it became the St. Petersburg that we know and love today.

At 59°56' N, St. Petersburg was the northernmost city that we visited on this particular trip. This northern latitude dominates the city and is responsible for many of its characteristics: super cold winters, near-24 hour darkness in the Winter and near-24 hour sunlight in the Summer. Also, St. Petersburg's proximity to Scandinavia and continental Europe has played an important role in the city's rich history. St. Petersburg was home to the Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, who successfully battled the Swedes and the Germans in the 1200s. And, in 1703, Russia reclaimed St. Petersburg from the Swedes who occupied the city at the time (as you recall, Sweden once had a large empire covering all of Scandinavia and a little bit of Western Russia). Finally, from 1941 - 1943, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was under Seige by Nazi Germany and millions of citizens perished. Yes, this is indeed a storied city and you can feel its history when you are there.

Our (my, Robin's, and Neilesh's) 4 days in St. Petersburg were very busy. We strolled up and down Nevsky Prospect (the city's main street, named after Russian hero Alexander Nevysky), saw the Winter Palace, saw Peterhof (the Summer palace), the Peter and Paul Fotress, and host of other tourist sites. We also reveled in the sunlit nightlife, staying out until 5 or 6 in the morning. I was fairly impressed with St. Petersburg's nightlife. For one, the city's ratio of females to males is about 60:40 (and it could have been even more than that) and of course that makes for excellent nightlife. And we aren't talking about just any women - we're talking about some of the prettiest women in the world. My theory is that the women are trying to use their good looks to land a better position in life given that Russia's infrastructure needs a lot of work and the country does not offer that much opportunity.
I also felt that Russians, at least in this city, are hustlers, just like Indians. Making deals is a part of life and everything is treated like a business negotiation. Normally, I would have been uncomfortable in this type of environment but my 9.5 months in India have made me a seasoned negotiator. On the day when Russia beat the Netherlands 3-1 to get into the Euro 2008 Semifinals, I bargained with the taxi driver to knock 50 Rubles off the price because, 'hey, Russian won today!' Let's face it. No one out-hustles an Indian. We invented hustling, especially us Delhites.

I think a paragraph needs to be devoted to Russian women. As I stated earlier, Russian women are some of the prettiest in the world. But it's not just the Russians who are pretty. It's the entire group of Eastern Europeans, and I think you have to look at all Slavic people. They are slimemr and have sharper features than the stocky Nordic people who we saw in Denmark and Sweden. But, there is more pressure on them to look beautiful. Women in St. Petersburg are dressed ready to walk on the runway at a fashion show. They all wear high heels, even if they are crossing one of the many bridges in the city. We even saw some women with blood on their heels because of their high heel shoes - yet, they soldier on determined to look good when they are in public. #2, these women just do not eat. The pick at their food for a little while, take a few bites, and then get up. That (and to a smaller extent genetics) results in model-thin bodies which are probably unhealthy but still impressive to look at. I guess in this way, St. Petersburg is the LA of Russia.

I think another paragraph needs to be devoted to Russian men. I would like to write a lot here, but I don't have much to say because there are so few Russian men left in Russia! What happened to them? Well, according to the articles I read: alcoholism, WWII, and a lack of Russian jobs happened to them and now they are largely out of the picture.

This picture is of a bridge rising over the Neva river at 1:35am on White Night, the Summer Solstice (June 21). The day before White Nights was Red Sails day, in which highschools graduates drink and celebrate the night away. So we happened to come to St. Petersburg at the best time of the year. When I asked our boat tour guide if I should come in the Winter also, she said, 'Don't - everything is frozen, including the people'.

My journey out of Russia and back to India was eventful. I ended up going to the wrong airport - I went to the international airport initially since my flight was through Kiev, Ukraine. But I was told that, no, Kiev is at a different airport. So I paid an arm and a leg to go to the other airport to board the plane to Kiev. I wasn't even sure I was on the right airplane until the pilot mentioned 'Kiev'. These are not the friendliest airports in the world. I also flew Aeroflot back to India, which is no Kingfisher, let's just say. Nevertheless, it got me home on time.

But this time, I didn't feel like coming back to India. I had spent too much time in the 1st world (i.e. Denmark and Sweden) and I really enjoyed the liberal attitude of Europeans in social situations - and I did not want to come back to overly conservative India. But, all good things must come to an end.....at least until the next trip. My time in India did serve me well on this trip though - I enjoyed educating the people I met about India, and I was surprised to find that many of them had been to India. This is something that I absolutely could not have done even 1 year ago.
So, in summary, if you're looking for a good time, check out the city at 59°56' N 30°20' E.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Goteborg

Our brief tour of Sweden ended with a day in Goteborg, Swedens 2nd largest city. In Goteborg we toured a fort, strolled around the city, and went to a famous fish market. We wanted to do more but were just too tired to make it happen after so much walking. Nevertheless, the impression I got from Goteborg is that it is a bit more happening than good old Stockholm.

Neilesh just showed up at the airport. Because of his crazy flight scheme, he woke up at 4am today to take a flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen only to come back to Stockholm and fly with me to St. Petersburg.

I am now at the airport patiently waiting for my flight to St. Petersberg. Neilesh and I concluded that our survey tour of Sweden was inconclusive. We need to make another trip to Sweden, probably in the Winter, to get a better sense for this county. If I were to describe Sweden in 1 word, I would say that Sweden is enigmatic. We had very few conversations with Swedes in these 4 days and I think we need to spend more time here, probably in the Winter, before they open up to us.

The one thing I will take away from Sweden is its natural beauty (and its mystery). My favorite parts of the 4 days in Sweden were the train rides between Stockholm, Kalmar, and Goteborg. I dont think I have ever seen as beautiful scenery as I did in Sweden, and I am including Switzerland in this comparison.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kalmar

After Stockholm, we travelled south-west to the quaint Swedish town of Kalmar via the 6:20am SJ train. In Kalmar, we saw the main Slott (castle) which was perched on the coast. It was a very picturesque castle and worth the visit. We also learned about the Kalmar Union in which Sweden ruled over Denmark, Norway, and Finland for a short period of time. Later we visited the Kronan museum. The Kronan was a Swedish Man of War ship that sunk in the 1600s when the Swedes went to battle with the Danes. The Kronan didnt sink because of enemy fire, it sank because it made a sharp turn and because of having either too much or too little sail. The ship sank 26 m and has only recently been excavated by wreck divers (incidentally my goal is to become a wreck diver, but to do that I need to become a rescue diver first). We also saw a Swedish Cathedral in this city before pushing off for Gothenburg, Swedens 2nd largest city. On the train we met a Swedish family and chatted with them and their adventurous 12 year old son for most of the 3 hours.

Today we are in Gothenburg and will tour the city before heading back to Stockholm in the evening. More in depth topics later.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stockholm

My Scandinavian odyssey continues in Stockholm, which is not only the capital of Sweden, but is also, according to the Swedes at least, the capital of Scandinavia.

Let me start by mentioning the obvious. Stockholm is a beautiful city. Though, I think it is not quite as beautiful as Copenhagen which has more of a medieval feel while Stockholm has a very multicultural feel. Sweden has made an obvious effort to include non-native Swedes in their culture. You see this when you deplane at Stockholms Arlanda airport and you see pictures of Swedish heroes, some of whom are ethnically not Swedish. Even when you walk around Stockholm, you see many non blonde / blue eyed people. This is a sign of the mixing that is going on here that is not happening (at least according to my observations) in Copenhagen.

Swedish people are warm (maybe not as much as Indians, but still surprisingly so given where they are in the world) and they love conversation. These two characteristics made me fall instantly in love with Sweden and I think Neilesh felt the same way. We felt welcomed in Stockholm and though we are obviously not blonde / blue-eyed we didnt feel out of place.

So far we have done a bit of strolling around Stockholm and have gotten a general feel for the city. We went to the Ice Bar in our Nordic Sea Hotel and had a great time there. The Ice Bar is a bar that is kept at 23 degrees Fahrenheit or -5 degrees celcius at all times. Before entering, you are given a parka to keep you warm and you get 1 free drink. Neilesh and I each had lingonberry and Vodka juice which is very tasty. The drinks are served in ice glasses which is also very cool.

Later we went to a night club called Burns where we had a great time dancing to Jamaican music, samba, tango, etc. The club itself was very international. Of course, as with Copenhagen, it just does not get dark here. Even when we left the club at 2am, it was still light outside. Unfortunately, it was also cold yesterday so I felt that I was partying in the Winter and not the Summer. I think the cold and the high taxes might deter me from living in Stockholm, though I like it in so many ways.

We have decided against travelling to Northern Sweden because we dont have the time to go to some of the National Parks and since its not Winter we cant see the Northern lights. So, we will instead travel to Kalmar and then to Gothenburg, Swedens 2nd largest city before coming back to Stockholm.

So then, I love the multiculturalism of Stockholm and the open mindedness and the easy going temparment of the Swedes. I guess my love affair with Sweden will continue.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Copenhagen

Well folks, for the next week or so, Ill be trading in my rickety, creaking rickshaw for a sleek, Scandinavian rickshaw. It was time to give India a break and live large in the developed world for some time.

Yesterday I arrived in Copenhagen from Delhi. Copenhagen is a beautiful city and the first thing I noticed was how many bicyclists there are here. Also, everything really is designed well and elegantly. Third, the people here are very blonde and very big (as compared to the rest of the world average). Most people here, even many girls, are twice my size. But people are also very quiet and stoic here. In fact, I think you can say that Scandinavia and India are polar opposites. While India is hot and the people are emotional, Scandinavia is cold and the people are very reserved. I like both but I right now I really like Scandinavia because it gives you time to be alone with your thoughts.

Also, many suburbs of the city here are named haven. And when you travel to the suburbs, you really do feel that you are in heaven. It is extremely peaceful and serene. This has been a pleasant shock coming from India where there is no peace and quiet. Today we visited two castles and these were the most beautiful castles I have seen. I do not like opulent, baroque style castles. I like elegant castles and the Scandinavian castles fit the bill. Its hard to describe so you will have to come here to see it.

It feels good to be so far North in the world. The sun shines until at least 10pm at night. I have wanted to go to Scandinavia ever since I was young simply because it so far from the rest of the world and I had visions of this peaceful, serene place. It is everything I have imagined and I have not even gone to Sweden yet. Unfortunately on this trip, we will not be able to cover Norway or Finland. Norway I have heard is the most beautiful Scandinavian country with mountains and fjords whereas Sweden is quite flat. The Fins may be the most beautiful people because they combine Scandinavian sturdyness with Eastern European soft features.

We are off to Stockholm tomorrow. I will need to buy a sweater because I did not expect it to be so cold. I have heard that the Swedes have softer personalities than the Danes and I am looking forward to meeting them. One thing is for sure - when I went to the castles today, I felt that this is indeed heaven on earth.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Investing Blog

Hi all, my friend Neilesh Patel has started a new blog on investing in the stock market. It's pretty good. Check it out here - who knows, maybe you'll make enough money to be able to come to India to volunteer for 6 months and not worry about your income!

http://siliconvalleykid.blogspot.com/

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Chail

A few weeks ago, the SAP Value Engineering India team (my group) had its annual outbound in the Himachal Pradesh hill station of Chail. We left the office on Thursday night at 9pm and set off for Chail in two chartered Volvo AC buses (like the one I took to Dharamshala a few weeks before this).

The journey took much longer than the Dharamshala trip because of huge traffic jam on the outskirts of Delhi. We literally waited for 1 - 2 hours for the jam to clear. After the jam cleared, at 2:30am, we stopped at one of the most famous Parantha houses in the state. There, we ate Paranthas with generous servings of Makkhan. It didn't seem like the healthiest thing to do, but it was tasty. I had a Parantha stuffed with Gobi.

We then slept the rest of the way to Himachal Pradesh. When we arrived in HP, we switched from our luxurious buses to local HP buses. Unfortunately it was during this bus switch that I lost my trusty Rough Guide to Hindi/ Urdu book that had served me so well during my 9 months in India. We travelled via the local buses for 2 hours to reach our Chail resort. We were all extremely tired so we didn't have any problem with the winding roads.

The resort was beautiful, especially at night when the clouds came sweeping through the resort. Chail is at an altitude of about 8,000 ft. At this time, it became hard to find your way back to your room. I feel that all of Himachal Pradesh's hill stations are better in late night or early morning. Incidentally, Chail is one of HP's newest and least-discovered hill stations. Simla and other hill stations are now overrun by tourists, or so I have heard. I would go back to HP more often but it's just such a long and arduous to get there (especially the last stretch when you have to navigate winding roads).


I had the nicest room at the resort - somehow, I was given the honeymoon suite. This room was shaped like the Expo ball and had a splendid view of the valley (which would have better if the windows were clean). The only other blemish was a tarantula in the room that I had to dispose of. Hey, I guess that's nature for you.

We spent most of the days in training sessions performing psychological team building exercises. Some of the exercises were beneficial - like the enneagram typing (personality typing): http://www.9types.com/. What type are you? 7 is dominant for me, at least right now. However, I was disappointed in the Outbound because I was expecting far more outdoor activities like hiking and white water rafting.

We were supposed to a night hike - but because it had rained, the hotel staff called the hike off. I was vigorously arguing that we should do the hike anyways (I was annoyed that I hadn't done much outdoor activities). Fortunately, I was able to do one hike. On the last day's morning, I and about 9 other friends got up early for a hike. We trekked for about 30 minutes to a Kali temple near our resort. The most interesting thing about this temple was that the priests blew two conchs to signal either the beginning or the end of the ceremony.

During the ride back, many people became nauseous from the winding roads and we had to stop the buses several times. It was also raining pretty hard, but aside from navigating around a few landslides, we didn't have any problems. So, I have now visited 2 HP hill stations. I think I'll give this region a break for a while.



The honeymoon suite.