Sunday, May 30, 2010


If you grew up in my house, your impressions of Sicily have been shaped by stories from Sophia of the Golden Girls. 'Back in Sicily…' . But, just as I found in India, there's more to a place than you can learn on television.
A total of 31 of us, representing 23 different nationalities headed to Sicily this weekend. We rented mini-buses…and I had the lucky task of driving. Italian driving lives up to its reputation. By coincidence, I ended up with a vehicle full of girls, which earned our minibus the nickname 'the pussy wagon'. Our stereo didn't work, so we made due with my mini-speaker and an ipod as our source of entertainment. It is on occasions such as this when personal and regional musical preferences can become a source of disagreement. Thank goodness for ABBA.
We kicked off this gastronimical journey with what would be the first of many fabulous feasts on this island. The swordfish, the wine, the fabulous laid back vibe. There's no better setting for fantastic conversation and friends. 
One of our first stops as we headed out of Palermo was a cathedral not too far from the city. We couldn't find a parking spot, so we parked the mini-buses in front of the cathedral. One of the luxuries of having a fleet as we do is that we look like something more official than a bunch of tourists. So, we managed to get a few hours of parking right in front of the cathedral in without (too much) problem. That was our 'Italy for Beginners' lesson. After that, things got a bit more complicated. 
A GPS is an essential tool in europe, particularly in rural areas, and Sicily is no exception. However, here, it can be a bit of a liability, if you follow it too closely. To make things a bit more challenging still, we had fewer GPS's than mini-buses, so we had to rotate who the 'blind' driver would be. On one occasion, we took a detour down what was listed as a highway, but which more closely resembled wide mountain bike trail. It was the sort of place that I wouldn't even take my SUV. Considering that we were driving on it for more than an hour, it's a miracle that we made it out without any damage to the vehicles. We were not so lucky a second time, when the GPS took us down a road that was framed on one side by a thick hedge and on the other by a stone wall. about One kilometre in, the road began to narrow beyond the limits of the vehicle and we made the difficult decision that we would have to back out as this would be a dead end. A side mirror and a window later, we made it out.
Lest I give the impression that driving and eating are my only memories of Sicily so far, I should point out that there is more to this Island. Yes, we have eaten like kings every day and every night - feasting on local delights like swordfish, gelato, wine - everything that the body needs. And we have stretched the bounds of the 9-passenger van. But..We have also visited some ancient ruins,
taken in a delightful hike along the rugged coast line,
done some beaching,
done a wine tasting and stayed at a winery. And, of course, taken advantage of the tremendously laid back, yet flamboyant, vibe that defines this island.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Fabulous Life

One of the challenges of participating in the social scene around Fontainebleau is the lack of taxis. Unlike Singapore, the formal taxi service here is not 24/7 and is not affordable. So, if you want to have a glass (or four) of wine at dinner, you've got to plan ahead (designated driver) or be creative (private driver). In a year defined by spontaneity, planning ahead is the last thing from my mind. Fortunately, one of the guys living at my chateau recently found us a private driver; an entrepreneurial kid in a commune nearby who is looking to make a few extra dollars to support his kick-boxing/modelling career. 
It seems only fitting that the absolute absurdity of living in a castle be matched with being chauffeured to and from parties in an Audi TT by a world class jiu-jitsu competitor and model. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Family Time

I'm so lucky to have parents who love to travel and are willing to cross the ocean to see me - TWICE in less than a year. All of the way from Calgary, my parents made it out to visit me in in Singapore in November. And, now, they have made the trek to visit me in Fontainebleau. 
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for showing me the wonders of travel when I was young. And thank you for sharing them with me now. 

I look forward to many more adventures together. Where to next?

Monday, May 17, 2010

32 is a Magic Number

32 is a magic number. It was the number worn by Magic Johnson. It's the number of degrees fahrenheit at which water changes state between liquid and solid. 32 the number in a full set of human teeth. It's the number of Campbell's soup cans in Andy Warhol's famous painting. It's the number of characteristics of the Buddha. 

There are many things that make 32 special and, this weekend, I found one more. My birthday.

32 isn't typically considered a significant milestone, but you wouldn't know it by the amount of celebrating going on during this particular birthday weekend. More than 2,000 people gathered in the Fontainebleau forest on Saturday night to celebrate. 
Admittedly, some of these people were here for the 50th anniversary ball, which my school hosted on campus. It wasn't your typical school dance; there were circus performers, a carousel, fireworks. We danced till the sun rose and the music wouldn't play anymore. 
And then...we gathered at my chateau for a little champagne brunch. 32 bottles of champagne, 50 baguettes and 100 croissants from the baker down the road, some lovely springtime sun. A great way to bring in the next year of my life. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Welcome Paris-ites

We are officially into the first week of our last semester at school. While some of my friends have headed back to Singapore for this period, another group have just arrived from Singapore (via Brazil, Nepal, India, USA, Germany, Lebanon and Israel, among other places). A mini reunion on the train! 
To welcome our friends and to introduce them to their new surroundings, the Paris-ites (those of us who have been here for a few months) organized a few trips into town this week. 
We kicked off Monday with Disco night at Le Queen, a delightful gay club on the Champs Elysees. I've done more clubbing this year than I did in my 31 years before INSEAD. It's been so much, in fact, that I've learned to somewhat enjoy club music. Still, it was really, really nice to enjoy some cheesy disco music and while exchanging stories. And the club serves drinks with anti-rohypnol lids, so you can dance the night away without people splashing cocktails all over you!

By Thursday, we were ready for some more sophisticated entertainment; cabaret night at Les Trois Mallets. In the tiny basement of a little stone building in the 8th, we stuffed 60 of our closest friends for an intimate dinner and some outstanding live entertainment. 
Possibly the first restaurant that I've been to in which dancing on the table after dinner is encouraged (even if it is a little dangerous on account of the low ceilings). We may not be here for a long time, but we certainly are here for a good time.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pune and Public Transportation!

Although the course that brought me here finished a couple of days ago, I decided to stay for a few more days of 'self study' with a friend, Saanchit, from Nepal and another friend, Lili, from Canada. As the cliche goes, the journey was more important than the destination. 

From the comfort of our western hotel in Bombay, we took the public train to the 'bus station'. Trains are trains, I suppose, but this one was compartmentalized by gender and became so packed that people crowded on the outside of the train. Ours was not as packed as this one, but I was too uncomfortable to take my own picture since Lili and I opted to take the men's train to stay with our friend and I felt that was already drawing enough attention to us. 

The bus station was comprised of a line up on a sidewalk. 40 some degrees out and daylight fading, we waited in line for an hour and a half for an air-conditioned bus, only to learn that it would be sold out for another hour or two. Unlike most lines that I've experienced (admittedly, most have been in North America), people in this queue didn't seem the least bit disturbed by the heat, the wait, or the news that there would be more waiting ahead. The bus station is a strange place to get a window into the way of living of another place but, to me, this spoke volumes. In north america, we value time so much that we carry blackberries in order that we can not 'waste' any spare moment. In india, waiting for hours for a bus ride that will take another few hours is no big deal. We ultimately gave up on waiting for the air-conditioned bus and opted for the 'local bus'. By now it was dark, which meant that the landscapes that I had hoped to observe along the ride would now be masked by darkness. 

Lili fell asleep almost immediately, while I found it difficult to do so while my clothes were still drenched in sweat. I wondered if my shirt had ever been soaking wet for so long. We eventually disembarked at a 'rest stop' at the side of the road. It was dark and felt a bit sketchy. None of us knew where we were and we saw no sign to offer us a clue. But, miraculously, a friend of Saanchit's eventually rolled up in a car and took us the rest of the way to Pune. 

Pune itself is a college town; young and affluent. It is also home to a few religious centres. As if three significant but distinctly different religions weren't enough for a country to deal with, India seems to be a hotbed for the emergence of new belief systems. In our effort to discover more of this, we visited the Osho Ashram. Everyone finds their own path to enlightenment. I will keep looking. 

We opted to pre-book the air-conditioned bus for the way home this time. Unfortunately, bad traffic prevented us from reaching the train station in time. So, Saanchit's friend chased the bus down with his car. It was a high speed chase! He knew all of the shortcuts between stops, but it was difficult to bridge the gap that we had created by our late arrival. We were a good half hour out of the city before we caught the bus.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bombay / Dharavi

With trains, buses and cars already explored, it was time to try the domestic flight network as a means of transportation from Delhi to Bombay. It is a standard journey that stretches to 10 hours as a consequence of the airport delays, traffic and other issues. Bombay is massive and downtown feels like a typical major city in an emerging market, with unmaintained relics of former prosperity alongside more recent efforts at development. We do the standard tourist route through the places in which the 2008 shootings take place. At the leopold cafe, there are still bullet holes in the walls. 
The highlight for me was, unexpectedly, our visit to the Dharavi slum. Made famous in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the slum is essentially a square kilometre community of corrugated aluminum huts that serve both as residential and commercial space. It is situated on some prime real estate in Bombay and is home to close to one million people. Hard to believe that a population close to that of Calgary lives here. The population density is six times that of daytime manhattan - but without all of the luxuries of consistently running water and electricity. 

I had expected to find a community that was destitute and hopeless. Indeed, the conditions are harsh; as an example, there is one toilet per 1,500 people, which means the creek that runs through it has become an open sewer. But Dharavi may be one of the most industrious places that I have seen. It is a thriving economic hub. Plastic recycling, leather tanning, metal work, wood work, printing, garment finishing factories, home made aluminium swelters. Everyone was busy. 

Between the exhaust from the home made aluminum smelters and the open sewers, the air quality was probably the worst that I have experienced (imagine living here). But it was inspiring to see the level of productivity. In other struggling areas that I have visited (particularly in Asia), people have been idle, relying on handouts to survive. I don't know how the quality of life for a worker in Dharavi compares to someone in a less industrious area. Perhaps this is slave labour and I should be mortified by what I see. But instead I am inspired by the ingenuity and perseverance that I see in this community. 
And while a highly productive community should equate to hope for the people here (despite the massive health and education issues that would exist here in its current state), there is a big challenge facing Dharavi. The value of the land that the slum exists upon has been estimated to be worth about $10 billion. There have been extensive discussions regarding what to do with this land, and what to do with the people and industries that reside here. Sitting at my desk in Calgary, I could never have appreciated the complexity of this debate. Probably, I still cannot. But being here in person, seeing things for myself, I have a better appreciation for the possibilities and challenges of places like this.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Delhi / Guragon

Our arrival at the Chamber of Commerce, only 10km from my hotel is delayed by almost an hour due to bad traffic. Apparently this is not unusual, though it hardly seems practical for a place that is looking to make so much progress. Plus, I hate being late. This meeting kicks off a week of discussions with local business operators and entrepreneurs. The presentation about the grown and opportunity in the country is compelling, but its interruption by a 'standard' blackout is sufficiently distracting that I begin to wonder about the challenges this place will face as its modernization accelerates. 

Several more days of meetings provide more food for thought, including the site visit to the Hero Honda factory. Hero Honda is one of the county's most successful motorcycle manufacturers and probably the most advanced. They have some pretty cool bikes, including (my personal favourite) "The Hunk". 
On the walls you can see signs that this, at some point, lived up to western standards for safety; however, a walking tour of the facility in operation revealed that standards can slip, even in the face of facilities that are designed to the highest standard. If this is cutting edge in safety in this part of the world, I dread to see what conditions are like in the more 'regulatory laid back' places like China. 
Meanwhile, our classmate Duane continues to be an endless source of amusement as he attempts to fit in to a world made for a different kind of people.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Discovering Delhi

My arrival in Delhi is first met with the news that the city was on high alert for a terrorist attack. Besides the money that I saved in doing so, I am glad to be staying in a non-'western' hotel. I'm at a small, moderately priced hotel in Guragon, a relatively new and affluent suburb of Delhi. It is one of the symbols of the Indian miracle that I have come to see. I'm told that this part of the city is impressive because it didn't exist a decade ago. I guess impressive is subjective. It is difficult to assess it's impressiveness without knowing the starting point, but it makes the expansion of Calgary's suburbs look good (the scenic intersection of 112 coulee road and highway 1a comes to mind). 

I am here for an INSEAD course about entrepreneurship and building businesses in India. Though I don't plan to build a business or work here in the future, a country that is home to 20% of the planet's population and the topic of countless publications is worthy of a visit. I came to understand what I read about and perhaps get some sense of what it means to world around me, wherever that is. The fact is that some of the stuff that I know about India, I learned from the Simpsons. 

Our journey begins with a field trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra. We take the train because that is, by far, the fastest and most reliable option. Doing so affords me an opportunity to see the crowded train platforms that I've previously only seen in pictures. The train is surprisingly civilized. Despite the crowds on the platform, our train car is filled only to the point at which every seat is filled. Perhaps I am in first class. I have no idea. I'm just following the leader.
Within a few hours, we arrive in Agra. It is so hot out that I would be overdressed if I were nude. Instead, I am wearing jeans and a black tshirt. Smooth move. I'm surprised to see that the Taj has more indian tourists that it does 'western' tourists. And, so, I feel a bit like I stick out. This feeling of oddness is muted by my classmate Duane. At 250 lbs on a muscular 6 foot 5 frame, he is a giant among the much leaner masses. And did I mention that he is black? He attracts so much attention that I feel like I'm part of a travelling circus. Everywhere we go, people are taking pictures of him, or trying to get in a picture with him in the background (picture strangers 'discretely' tiptoeing up behind him while their friend takes a picture). Every now and then, a bold one approaches and says something like 'Seattle Supersonics?' or 'Michael Jordan?'. 

The Taj itself is impressive, as it is meant to be. With all of the hype, I had somehow pictured it to be large and flashy. Instead it is a tasteful and…well…modest certainly isn't the word. But it is clear that the building of the Taj was about achieving perfection rather than achieving a mind blowing scale like Versailles. 

After a few hours, we head back to Delhi. This time by bus. Now I get to experience a 'different side' of indian transportation. The highway is in reasonable condition, but that doesn't make it fast or safe. It is stuffed with other buses, cows, cars, rickshaws, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, tractors and, occasionally, camels. This means a constant alternation between gas and brake, making the group move in unison like a crowd of Metallica fans. The addition of occasional high speed traffic barrelling at high speed down the wrong side of the road adds some more excitement to the ride. No room for sleeping at the wheel; this is no Sunday drive. I swear that there is a constant bead of sweat on the driver's forehead. If this is one of the 'better' highways here, thank goodness for the train system.