Monday, August 14, 2017

Travelling Cattle Class

I remember as a child, I travelled to most of the destinations in ordinary second class in trains or buses whenever we went to our native place or for a holiday. The joy of meeting new people while travelling, sharing food with them, jokes and even playing cards on the way, never let monotony creep in. As I grew up and joined the Navy, I got a taste of being upgraded to Ist class and AC sleeper class. The change was definitely welcome, but the co passengers were more snooty and the discussions were hardly meaningful. Most people purchased the food from the railway catering except for some die hard lovers of home food who still carried their tiffins but seldom shared with anyone!

During the years in the Navy, I had been bitten by the travel bug so everytime it was impossible to travel by first class, so I fell back to my old ways to remain rooted as well as economical. I heard of the 'cattle class' and had a taste of it too! This was in no way in a disparaging manner, but at times in the literal sense. I remember I boarded a local bus for travel from Pithoragarh to Dharchula. The bus was very rickety, and every time the driver changed the gears it seemed that the engine will fall off! The scenic beauty that I was enjoying was interrupted by a frantic wave of a shepherd.The bus braked to a stop and lo and behold... about a dozen sheep also boarded the bus! This was unbelievable as I had never travelled with cattle.May be the learned Dr Shashi Tharoor who many years later infamously tweeted about ' Indians travelling cattle class' never would have realized that this was for real! He has perhaps only seen people being stuffed in the buses and trains like a pack of sardines or the trains bound to Bihar and East UP having more passengers sitting on the roof of the train than inside a compartment. I have seen many such sights where people prefer to get on the bus or train from a window than using the gate!I have travelled within UP and even in southern parts of the country where there is a literal mayhem to board a bus! Too many people and too few buses or trains are the only reason, and the situation seems to aggravate with each passing year.

There are however a few gems of people who live by personal example. The learned Mrs Sudha Murthy wife of Mr Narayan Murthy is an epitome of simplicity. Once she was travelling from Heathrow in London to Bengaluru and was dressed in a simple cotton sari and waiting in the business class queue, chatting with an elderly couple in Kannada! Two smartly attired women walked up to her and informed her that she was in a wrong place and should go to the economy class and wait there. On enquiring why she should leave, the women continued that the business class was three times more expensive and other privileges which economy class was not entitled to! The conversation was interrupted by a boarding announcement and Ms Murthy started walking towards the flight. A stewardess recognised her and paid compliments for seeing her again in a matter of one week and ushered her to the business class. She turned back and saw that the two smarty pants had now a glum look on their faces and looked crest fallen! Ms Murthy told them that ' they had no business to tell her to leave as they did not have any authority'!

Warren Buffet, the wealthy owner of Berkshire Hathway drives his own car, lives in his 3 bedroom flat bought more than 50 years ago, and never flies on a private jet.Among other celebrities who prefer travelling economy class include Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, and Jessica Alba! We, unfortunately, associate a lot of false pride in showing off what little we possess in comparison to those who can well afford but do not like exhibitionism. I learnt the lesson early when I joined the corporate world. I was flying for a business meeting from Tel-Aviv to Eilat in Israel. My co-passenger was the CEO of my company who had a short chat with me on the way! He told me that many engineers who had spent just two years in the company often would travel by business class as they accumulated more miles than him to be upgraded! Of course, I knew he was being humble but then rarely one gets to see people living life with a personal example worth emulation.

PS- Images were taken while I was in Patna

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Unique Challenges & Opportunities in Education in Rural India

A country as big as the European continent with more languages spoken than all their dialects, a population which is one seventh of the entire global population and has the largest number of people under thirty-five years of age, pretty much defines India. This summary is also a reflection of the complexities and dynamics of a young nation which is aspiring to be a global power. India takes pride in having one of the best educational institutions, the biggest democracy, among a few nations capable of launching satellites and ICBMs in the space, a military power of more than a million and combat power few can match.

If we look at the other side of the coin the picture is far from encouraging. More than the 70% of the population lives in the villages where the basic level of sanitation and hygiene, clean drinking water and electricity is not available. The purchasing power is below USD100 for the vast millions thus the survival of many is at stake. India is still an agrarian economy and the farmers are dependent on the vagaries of weather. One year there is a flood and in the following year, there is a severe drought thus leaving the tillers of the land at the mercy of weather gods. Despite having attained independence almost seven decades ago, the efficient network of canals, linking the rivers is almost non-existent.

The other socio economic factors, existing levels of literacy, a preference of a male child over female one, prevailing patriarchal system, dowry and many more social evils take a toll on the growth and educational system.

With this back drop of unique challenges, the education in rural India takes almost a back seat when it comes to serving the nation. With low levels of income, the parents can ill afford to spend on the education of children. The mid day free meal is hardly an incentive to spur any interest in the young children. The teachers are generally ill equipped and rarely able to evoke an intelligent discussion. The conditions in class rooms is hardly an encouraging one and the absenteeism is fairly high. In most of the rural and government schools, the children are promoted till the class X almost automatically, thus leaving huge gaps of knowledge which reflect when these children have to compete with their peers in the latter part of the college and professional education. As most of the rural families have more than three children at home and very constrained financial means, the parents are keen that the moment children grow strong enough, they could serve as earning hands to augment the family income,

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg and many which have a profound impact like open defecation, security of girl child, archaic laws that need imminent change need to be discussed at length to bring about a meaningful change.

There is an old adage that 'when going gets tough, the tough get going'. Thus taking these challenges 'head on' is the only alternative. A few credible steps that have been taken can change the situation dramatically compared to the lethargy with which the reforms happened earlier. The pace of technological advances like the entry of internet in every village, mobile internet and smart phones, tablets, availability of vernacular software user interfaces can bring in a revolution. The linking of scholarships to the deserving children using 'Aadhar cards' is also a step in the right direction. There is a crying need to focus on 'skill development' rather than an emphasis on conventional education. The burden on educational institutions will be reduced to an extent to dole out degrees that have little value to the industry.This will also help in improving the quality of education for those who sincerely want to pursue higher education. Building sanitary conditions and toilets in every school and villages, providing safety to girl child and incentives to raise the girls is a slow process but will surely yield a positive result. If we are able to sincerely devote resources in this direction the results would be visible in the near future.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Serendipity

It was a hot afternoon as the sun shone mercilessly. My wife and I stood in the shade of a tree and awaited the arrival of her sister's family who had rendezvous with us at the adjacent religious site. She had flown in from Kolkata with her husband in the morning and had an appointment with the management of the temple. After about fifteen minutes we spotted them heading toward the temple and joined them.

We had spent about two hours at the complex and then it was time to go back.So, we bid them adieu as they were scheduled to take the return flight later in the evening. While we exchanged the pleasantries my sister in law suddenly realized that her mobile phone was missing. All the joy of meeting thinned, as we all looked in different places.It was misplaced in just a matter of few minutes as she was talking to her friends, a while ago. It was an expensive latest I-phone and the loss had dampened the spirits. After about half an hour of futile search, they went and lodged a complaint with the temple trust and took the cab for a return ride to the airport.

On our way back my wife and I too discussed the sudden loss and tried to reconstruct the events.
Next day when they had reached Kolkata I spoke to my sister in law who sounded depressed due to the loss. I tried to pacify her mentioning that such things happen with most of us some time or other.I even recounted how I had lost a mobile phone on arriving at Geneva airport a couple of years back. Fortunately, before leaving the train terminal, I quickly rushed to the airport where the train by which we had arrived, had terminated. The dame luck smiled at me when the 'Lost Property Officer' at the airport terminal magically waved the phone at me after due identification process.

Coming back to the main event, after almost fifteen days, my wife suddenly got a call from an unidentified mobile number and the caller told her that he had the mobile phone lost by her sister. On enquiry, he revealed that he had learnt the mobile number of her sister who lived in Kolkata and also my wife's number from some recently dialled number list. After a brief conversation, my wife said that I (her husband ) would call him back. Soon enough, I did get in touch with the guy who mentioned that his parents were wild when they learnt that he had contacted my wife and told him that he could be in trouble with the law agencies. A little calm headed discussion helped in coercing him to meet me the next day at a nearby metro station.

Next morning when I reached the metro station the stranger did not show up and after a few minutes of frantic calling, I managed to speak to him. He spun a long yarn as to why he would be in trouble if I handed him over to the police in a worst case situation. No amount of convincing helped and he hung up. I informed my brother in law of the new twist and asked him to pursue, if possible. For next two days, intense discussions and debates ensued.On the third day, the caller called up again.I spoke to him and he agreed to hand over the mobile phone to me at the Kashmere Gate Metro station, which was perhaps nearer to his residence. He told me that he had not been able to sleep for last few days.

I rushed to the metro station and as I stepped out of the train my mobile was ringing. I met him at the designated spot. A hefty spectacled boy about twenty years old spotted me and handed over the pink I phone which had been missing for days! I thanked him and tapped his shoulder acknowledging the good deed and without saying anything beyond 'Thank You' saw him slowly melting in the crowd.

In a country of billion plus where a vast majority of the population earns about just 150 USD a month, and struggle to make two ends meet, there was an individual with a conscience who parted with a mobile phone costing over 1200 USD without a blink! So the incident makes it significant that those who are struggling in daily lives have moral standards that are higher than many who are better placed than them.

In another week from now I will meet my sister in law in Kolkata where I plan to travel with the recovered I phone and to see the 'joy on her face'. My belief in serendipity and the goodness that exists all around me has only strengthened further. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Yougraphy- New Trends in Digital Printing

Yougraphy- Exposition at Hyatt Regency

The rapid pace with which the technological innovations have swept the world oft leaves one with a feeling of amazement. Just a few years back most of the pictures were taken on a film roll and were printed to be kept for posterity. With the advent of digital cameras with high resolution all this changed for ever and the Moore's Law continues to be defy the sensibilities at a pace never before to pack more power and punch in every domain including the world of photography.

With a surge in the number of smart phones across the country, clicking high quality digital images has become the most favorite pastime. Cutting the barriers of age, from clicking of selfies, promoted by none less than Prime Minister Modi , the trend of digital photography and videography continues to be a rage. The company specializes in many product ranges from different formats of prints, wall hangings, coffee books, magnetic frames and much more.
MD Canvera and Marketing Director HP launching Yougraphy

The exposition of Canvera held at The Hyatt Regency on 6th July was a perfect example to showcase the power of digital photo printing .According to Mr Ranjit Yadav, the dynamic Managing Director of Canvera, ' The idea to launch this range is to help people transform their great pictures into beautiful memories, instead of keeping these photos in their hard disks or leaving them on their phone's memory card.With a quirky collection of offerings the company aims to beautify the workplaces and homes.'

Canvera has partnered with the giant, HP  which strive for consumer satisfaction with printing solutions,evolved to meet the needs of modern day printing environment with their Indigo Digital Press.
The lovely calendars and pictures from Canvera
Following a brief address by the team of Canvera and HP leadership, the audience comprising of media and bloggers were introduced to experience the products and an opportunity to order the products of their choice using the ' Online Ordering Tool' on internet. The interactive tool was found to be very user friendly as with a little assistance from the team I was able to order desktop calendar and blown up pictures from my collections at the site itself! The options of online editing, enhancing the picture quality, rearranging them, choosing size, square,portrait or landscape, selection of paper quality for printing viz matt, glossy or velvet finishes makes it a very versatile and powerful tool.

The prices are very affordable starting from as low as Rs 10/- per print to all the way up to Rs 7000/- including accessories.  As I write this post my Online order that was taken from the venue of the meeting, the courier service has delivered my lovely pictures and calendars ordered on them.

The high level of customer satisfaction with excellent product and timely delivery will  make Canvera an ideal choice for those looking forward to preserve their memories of happy events in a stylish yet affordable manner .

PS A grateful thanks to Canvera for the beautiful Calendars and Pictures designed by self.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Travel Souvenirs

Old Indian Railway tickets

Every travel is unique and so is every place. Even if two places are in the vicinity of each other there is always a contrast. I have met people who will tell, if you have visited the hills or mountains they are all same. I am sure some may agree but anyone who has seen a couple of places will vouch that there is a world of difference eg.between Mussoorie and Nainital though both happen to be in the UP. To keep the memories of the travel alive in our minds, we pick up souvenirs from the places we go to for the uniqueness associated with the place.These also come in handy as gifts to friends and relatives who we meet on return.

When visiting places of pilgrimage like Haridwar, or Varanasi or even the Char -Dham( Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri) the most common souvenir is the ' Ganga Jal'( water from the sacred River Ganges) carried in small urns or plastic bottles. Other item is the prasad ( offerings to god) in the temples that have a long shelf life. Now a days people get key chains, magnets displaying images for the fridges etc. I once remember having bought a small decorative stool made of marble from Jabalpur , near BhedaGhat, and when I unwrapped, it was in pieces, leaving me heart broken.
Sometimes the souvenirs turn out to be a steal in shopping deals and over a period of time what had been purchased at the spur of a moment turns out to be a real value for money. Many years ago, while strolling on the Mall in Shimla in autumn, I spotted a sale at Gandhi Ashram during the October festivities. I spotted a pure wool jacket costing around Rs 600/-( just about US $12)! It was very comfortable and I have continued to use it over the years and it is a perfect shield for the winters in Delhi!
Tickets from various journeys and museum visits
Some other souvenirs that I like to collect are the local tickets, passes etc issued by the rail , road networks, museums etc. I still have some train tickets which once were issued manually on the card board type hard paper a a short stub and used to be franked by the Indian Railways using manual stamping by a small iron press!Among the many other I have collected are the Brit Rail passes, RER tickets and carnets issued by French rail, Oyster card issued by HK Travel authority, SMRT pass by Singapore Metro Rail Authority, Ferry tickets issued between travel from Picton to Wellington in New Zealand, and many others! The nostalgia of each trip comes to life when I pull these out from the collection.

Whatever, one fancies while traveling, does  shopping accordingly. I am yet to come across someone who does no kind of shopping no matter how small when traveling. I am sure you all too must have bought souvenirs or gifts , while traveling Do mention what kind of gifts you like to buy when traveling.

PS - Image of old Indian railway ticket kind courtesy

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Pleasure of Hiking

A hiking trail in Moneglia
Hiking on well established trails is an engaging activity and requires little except fitness level , and a bit of will power. On the contrary, trekking is a  more rigorous and challenging activity, mostly on an uncharted route. Most of us love to engage in this except for the lazy bones and 'couch potatoes' who like to sit back and relax or maybe prefer watching the TV instead. 

I remember the times when as a child I would wander off to explore the city and later after joining the Navy, it became an obsession. When I was posted in  Mumbai, every evening I would head for Marine Drive and take a walk for about 10 km in the evening which not only helped in keeping fit, but also, was an engaging pastime to see the life flow in the busy metropolis. Later in Jamnagar and Goa, it helped in exploring places like far off salt pans, bird watching spots, and some lesser frequented beaches. There were times I walked more than 10 km just to return home via a route I had not seen especially in Goa! I almost got lost climbing the wrong hill on a trek to Chandanwadi from Pahalgam, just after my marriage! Fortunately, my wife and I found a shepherd who guided us in the right direction.The trek through Kangra valley, tough terrain of Kinnaur and watching mountain lizards in their natural habitat are some of the most endearing memories. 
Old fortress ruins atop hill overlooking sea
In subsequent years during travels to many places, I hiked on the Alps in Switzerland for more than 15 km through the meadows beyond Zurich, went hunting for the Orange groves in Jaffa along the coastline in Tel Aviv and most recently in Moneglia in Italy.Moneglia, is a small village well connected by TrenItalia which is sparsely populated. The natural beauty of the place locked between the hills and Mediterranean sea offers the most spellbinding views. There are trails that lead to nearby places like Deiva Marina, and Bonassola along the coastline to some arduous ones through Riva Trogoso to Sestri Levante.  Unfortunately, as the time was the most precious resource, I did not want to go beyond 10 km a day so I did take 2 or three trails but more to enjoy the journey than reaching the destination.
Cherries on the way 
The trips were never more than 3 hours at a stretch. This gave me an opportunity to see the huge expanses of Olive groves, pluck the cherries, apples and plums from the trees and enjoy their flavor which is a rare treat. The exotic plants and blooming flowers were a captivating sight.
The garden of a beautiful house on way
Of and on, around the bends the views of the sea, the church spires and small houses perched atop the hill  were fascinating. I came across some houses of the local villagers where I wished I could stay forever.
The juicy lemons!
The Fresh produce market in Moneglia
Thankfully, my family supports me in these silly endeavors and join me too! I find  hiking extremely rewarding in terms of experiences and building stamina and resilience. It also offers a first hand knowledge of the locals, their culture, ways of working, and their friendly ways.The fresh produce markets are always a delight to see

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Dream called Cinque Terre

The train left the La Spezia station and within ten minutes entered a tunnel which was fairly long. As it sped out in daylight, at the other end what I saw left me agape. The crystal blue sea and sky met the mountain in a never before spectacle. The small boats moored alongside added to the picture postcard setting. I had waited for months ever since the trip had been planned for such sights and more! Within a couple of minutes the train once again vanished into a long tunnel. In the entire journey lasting almost an hour till I reached Moneglia, a small sleepy village, the train crossed more than a dozen such tunnels and each time emerged with a more spectacular setting.

The quiet village of Moneglia
The Italian Riviera, or the Cinque Terre region is not just a jagged coastline on the Ligurian  region of Italy, but the most endearing set of five villages adorning the pearl like formation on a necklace, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. These five fishing villages were once isolated hamlets, but are now well connected by a narrow highway and an excellent train connection. The region has maintained its authenticity and beauty of small houses clinging to the hillsides with trails which are extremely rich in flora and fauna.

After reaching Moneglia, our hostess Silvia and her daughter picked us up from the small station to take us to our temporary abode. The tiny village with a huge expanse of beach was as inviting as the tall trees that swayed when we checked in.The fresh mowed grass and the green shrubs with locks of lavenders elevated the spirits after a long journey.

A view of Riomaggiore
Next morning we left for Levanto by train from Moneglia.Here we bought tickets for two days of unlimited rides by trains, that connect the five villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia,Vernazza, Monterosso)  buses to national parks, free wifi etc. The first stop was Riomaggiore, the first village of the 5terre region, where via Colombo is the scene of action where most of the major cafes, sea food restaurants, gelateria and fruit shops are located.The entry to the small village is through a long well lit tunnel, where the locals play music. A steep climb brings close to an old church, an ancient castle and a lovely view point perched atop a hill. There is a small jetty by the harbor side where the fishing boats are parked. At night these fishermen explore the sea for anchovy that are very popular in this region.

Pesto Pizza and Focaccia
In the afternoon, we headed for La Spezia a small town by another train and had a lovely lunch at a local pastisseria of pesto pizza, focaccia and farinata.

The pretty Manarola perched atop a hill
Our next destination was Manarola , a sleepy village lined with many colorful boats.The place has several places to swim, explore the caves and lovely trails leading to other smaller villages. There is a long flight of stairs from almost atop the hill all the way to sea level, lined with small restaurants overlooking the sea where people throng to have a lunch.We explored the place for a while and then headed to Vernazza to spend the rest of the day.

Vernazza , beach and clock tower
Vernazza has a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead to the main street.It has a boisterous street that becomes very lively as the sun sets and there is a small beach and two clock towers here.A bigger beach is a little distant called Guvano, a haven for nude swimmers!

As the day was ending we boarded the train to Moneglia and witnessed a first amphibian plane landing on the sea and taking off from water , truly  a James Bond movie style,while we enjoyed the train ride.

A narrow street in Corniglia
Next day,once again we left Moneglia and headed directly to Corniglia which lies midway between the five villages.A short bus ride on the steep climb on a road lined with lemon trees and their sweet fragrance, brought us to the centre of this very quiet and quaint village.One can have a spectacular view of the five villages from a view point facing the glittering blue Mediterranean Sea.

The beach at Levanto
We then headed to Levanto by a train for lunch.It was a very rewarding trip as we discovered a  very cute eating place brimming with people and amazing food. A short walk from place was a huge beach full of people , where I  succumbed to the temptation to swim as I was carrying my swimming gear! This was an unscheduled stop but very enjoyable.

Mesmerizing beauty of Monterosso beach
We then headed to the last stop Monterroso which has miles of beach divided between the old and new township.The new township has a lovely sandy beach and modern apartments where as the old township has an old church of St John and an old castle. The streets are lined with places to  eat and selling antiques. The beach was full of people so yet another trip to sea was inevitable!

The lively beach of Bonassola
After an action packed day, I took a long train ride to Riomaggiore one more time before a final stop at Bonassola, a small town wedged between the mountains and the sea.The place is close to Levanto and has one of the finest beaches in the Ligurian region.

The view with a setting sun was a grand finale to a dream like holiday in Cinque Terre. The long walks in Moneglia exploring olive groves, having a bite of freshly plucked cherries and plums and amazing views of the sea , visiting  Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, and Sestri Levante would need another post!

PS- Image of the map kind courtesy Google but rest of the pictures are taken by self