Arun Veembur

I will never meet Arun Veembur – and it is very much my loss. Arun was an intrepid traveller who died earlier this week in a tragic accident while trekking near the remote city of Dali in the Yunan province of China. He was just 28.

Arun started out as a journalist with an english newspaper in Bangalore. On a trip to India’s north-east, he came across the story of the Stilwell road (Ledo road), the tough mountainous road that the british built in the backdrop of WWII. And was hooked. Soon he gave up his job and went to Kuming the chinese outpost where he spent the next few years. He was researching for a book on the Ledo road and in the years that he was there became a bit of an institution.

More on Arun:

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/35518/bangalorean-dies-china.html

http://newshyderabad.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/young-writer-and-intrepid-traveller-dies-in-china/

http://www.dalichina.info/

Accessible Travel

I had never really thought of it before; the needs of the disabled when they travel. While traipsing around India in the last 10 days (I did Bangalore to Chennai to Bangalore to Delhi to Chennai to Tanjore to Chennai to Bangalore, which explains my disappearance from this blog for some time), I came across the group that was in India for a series of conferences on Accessible Travel, which is short-hand for ‘doing all of those things that help disabled travellers travel easier’.

Met a couple of interesting people that evening in Delhi – guys who are opening up a world of easier travel for the disabled.

Scott Rains : Scott is the man who put the disabled on the world agenda. He coined practically all the phrases that are today the cornerstones of all discourse on disability, including Universal Design. In fact, almost all US legislation on disability has the Rains imprimatur. Read Scott’s writings at the Rolling Rains report here.

Craig Grimes : Craig was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that the disabled are a definite ‘market’ in world travel. While living in Barcelona, Craig set up AccessibleBarcelona, a tour operator focused on helping the disabled have a good holiday in Barcelona. And made it into a viable and vibrant business. Craig now lives in Nicaragua and is at it again. Check out his latest venture – AccessibleNicaragua.

I also met Jani Nayar of Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality in NY. They are a Non-profit that works to increase awareness of the needs of the disabled for Travel.

A common theme that ran through all of the conversation was the notion that disabled travellers form a large market. And that it is in the interest of the travel trade to focus on this market and make it easier for the disabled to get around.

Segway across New Zealand, Turkey and soon all over the world

Ok, this is an interesting one. Kevin Hey and a bunch of other guys now offer tours that allow you to explore New Zealand’s cities on a Segway. You remember the Segway Personal Transporter? Those contraptions that allow you to stand on them and move about on wheels.

Looks like Segways are catching on in Tourism. I came across a video that show Beach Resorts in Turkey using them (see the video on top). A friend of mine in the travel business in Goa tells me that a couple of resorts there are thinking of getting a few here too.

On my recent visit to Dubai, I happened to glimpse a chap tearing across a boulevard near my hotel on a segway, a sight which rang all the right bells in me. I would certainly like to have one, although driving one around in any Indian city is asking for serious trouble. In Bangalore, I will most likely disappear down a man-hole never to be heard of again. I can think of at least 3 people who would like that.  :)

Yossi Ghinsberg & HolidayIQ

With almost 150,000 travel maniacs as members, HolidayIQ has been bombarded with the question of organising some kind of a get-together for members. So, finally we decided to take a small step and have a cocktails & dinner evening in Mumbai. We also got Yossi Ghinsberg, one of the better known international motivation speakers to be a focal point of the evening. Not as a motivational speaker, but as a traveller and a nomad which is what Yossi’s true passion is.

So, a couple of Fridays ago, about 50 of us trooped into a room at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai and had a great time.

Yossi spoke of his travels worldwide. About his longstanding love affair with the Bedouins. And how he went to the remotest island in the Pacific. And many more. While each story stuck in my mind, a couple of points he made about travel really resonated with me.

He said he always travels alone, since that is the only way to connect with the place and the people. I find this absolutely true and this is what I do every time I ‘travel’ (ie. when I am not taking a vacation with my family). Incidentally, Paul Theroux mentioned something similar in a recent talk – read related posts here & here.

Yossi also said he uses the Lonely Planet each time he travels – and he uses it in a pretty unique way. He decides on a country to go and then looks up the Lonely Planet and reads it from cover to cover . Then he finds a place on the map of the country that is NOT covered in the Lonely Planet. He goes there. The idea, he said, was to go to places that even backpackers don’t get to. That is when you see the real country.

Yossi lives in Byron Bay in Australia, a place I went to about a year ago. Of course, I didn’t know Yossi then and so didn’t meet him. But I now have an invite from him to visit Byron Bay & since it is one of the more beautiful places I have been to, I just might take him up on it sometime.

Between Baby Sitter and Brain Doctor : A guide to guiding tourists & travellers

Recently I met someone who has the onerous job of helping first-time European tourists ease themselves into India. And who thought the job was ‘somewhere between being a Baby Sitter and a Brain Doctor’. Other than the fact that the phrase has a nice ring to it, it made me think about Tourism (you’d have thought that I have had enough, but obviously not).

I think this neat phrase actually captures the essential difference between the modern Tourist and the intrepid Traveller.

Tourists go to a new place to wonder at how different it all is. The idea is to somehow get to a point where you feel lost, baby-like and in constant need of looking after. And a whole paraphernalia has developed to cosset you in this place. Resorts, guides, concierges, charter flights – the works. The more I think about this, the more I can see its attraction. In a world that demands a lot from each person, a ‘touristy holiday’ is exactly what you need. To leave the cares of existence and move to the cossetting of childhood. In such a situation, I can see how the Baby Sitter idea works.

The Brain Doctor comes in when you meet Travellers. Travellers ‘go away’ for exactly the opposite reason. They go to conquer. Not for them the innocent pleasure of regression. Continue reading

11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India

I was doing one of my usual google searches for HolidayIQ and stumbled upon something that is very gratifying. The sentence was – “One of the best travel sites we’ve seen anywhere on the web”. Apparently, IndiaStreet, the online magazine for new projects & investments in India, did a detailed exercise to identify what they called “11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India” and lo & behold, HolidayIQ is one of them. When one is immersed in work and in creating something new, there is very little time to look up and see how far one has reached. This, for me, is a sure marker of our progress. Obviously, happy about it.

Here is the link>>

Yotel

The biggest luxury in long-distance travel is the possibility of a fully flat bed to sleep on. I have done too many bus & air journeys to now crave for this in quiet desperation, everytime I have an overnight trip. So when flat-beds came along in the business class of long-haul airlines, I was an early adpoter, scrounging around for any loose mileage point to get an upgrade. Later, I found flat-bed configurations in inter-city buses in India. But since most of them are crummy, unkempt buses, I am not too enthusiastic (although the idea is fundamentally appealing).

Yotel is a chain of hotels that combine the virtues of business class flat-beds with those of Japanese capsule hotels.  Dreamt up by Simon Woodroffe, the founder of Yo Sushi!, these hotels promise to give the weary long-haul traveller a decent & inexpensive place to sleep while in transit. The first hotel opened in Gatwick. The next is due to open in Heathrow. Eventually they plan to open these hotels all across London. Will they work away from an airport? I dont know.

Click here for a slickly made promo video.

Or, check out this sneak preview video from Youtube.

Niche, influential, defiant

These 3 words were written recently to describe both Adrian Zecha, the founder of the Aman Resorts chain and Steve Jobs of Apple. If I have benchmarks, they are it. Their businesses revolve around building lifestyle services created out of a wonderful personal aesthetic.

Obviously, neither of them run the biggest businesses in their chosen fields. Apple is so much smaller than Microsoft – but, given the Mac, the ipod & the iphone, can there be any comparison? Similarly, all the rooms of all the resorts owned by the resolutely niche Aman Resorts can probably be fitted ito a large chain hotel in one place. But again, no product in world hospitality can be easily compared to an Aman.

Sorry to gush – but that is the way I would want to make products – as things of beauty.

Gates vs Jobs : check out this cool animation video

Ayurvastra

Earlier this week, I found myself in a small village about 20 kilometres from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. What took me there was the rumour of a small group of people trying out the concept of ayurvedically treated, organic cloth : Ayurvastra. I found its source and the rumour turned out to be true.  

A group of Ayurveds have teamed up with a co.op spinning mill to explore options for creating yarn made from purely organic natural produce and then dyed with various ayurvedic formulations before weaving this yarn into cloth meant for different uses.

I do not know whether these weaves are effective. But one thing I do know – these weavers do spin a great tale. Satish Kumar, one of the members of the Ayurvastra team held us spell-bound with his explanation of why Ayurvastra was an idea whose time has come.

Starting with the political economy of world oil and mixing in the intrigues of “Iraq” & “Iran”, Satish added the public-budget imperatives of the French Healthcare system and the unique composition of Kerala’s air to weave a compelling rationale as to why we must take Ayurvastra seriously.

If you ever find yourself in Trivandrum, I suggest you visit Satish & his team at Ayurvastra. I guarantee you a half-day well spent. Incidentally, while there, ask for the “well-being collection” which is cloth perfumed with traditional herbs. They smell very invigorating : a must-buy. 

Ayurvastra got its share of early prominence in an article in the Time magazine.

(For those of us that could do with a simple introduction to Ayurveda, here is a useful video – although it is meant primarily for a US audience)

Times of India & HolidayIQ

India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman & Company Limited (BCCL), the owners of Times of India has just announced their investment in HolidayIQ. It is indeed satisfying to see one’s creation grow up – an emotion somewhere between that of a movie director and a parent. It has been an interesting journey. To jump into areas one had limited knowledge of (travel industry & media business), try out a new concept – the first asian travel media organisation – and see it validated by the biggest media company in India has been a roller-coaster ride. Now, the stage is set for initiatives across multiple media channels – mobile, books, magazines, TV shows etc. Looking forward to lots of action.

Teppanyaki in India

Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) is a type of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food. The word “teppanyaki” is derived from teppan (鉄板), which means iron plate, and yaki (焼き), which means grilled”, says Wikipedia

Teppanyaki is that point where a lot of my “lifestyle obsessions” come together. This is where my love of east asian cusines mixes with my fascination with the spareness of japanese presentation, melts into the warmth of having a social meal around a fire and rounds off with the theatrical convivality of its chef/presenter. I love the alchemy.

Last night I had a great Teppanyaki meal at the Zen restaurant in Leela Palace hotel in Bangalore. Continue reading

Ram’s native village

ournativevillage.jpg

C B Ramkumar left a cushy job as a big honcho of the revered ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi in the middle east to return to India and indulge in that ultimate of luxuries – pursuing his dream. He now farms a 7 acre patch of fertile land just outside Bangalore and has set up India’s first 100% eco-resort adjacent to his farm. With a menagerie of animals (including Basavaraj the bull, who gives you great Bullock-cart rides and Nihal the turkey who thinks he is a peacock), the chance to share long-forgotten experiences such as kite flying and Gilli Danda with your kids and the amazing sound of silence that you get in wide open spaces, the place has a serene charm that most of us will find enticing. Check out his resort, Our Native Village, for yourself. Here is wishing CB the very best.

Aitken, Dalrymple..what is with these Scots and India?

bill_aitken.jpg william_d.jpg

Just finished re-reading Bill Aitken’s account of his motorbike journeys across the Decccan plateau in central India. While I was keeping the book back on my shelf, I saw the other scotsman’s book on India – The City of Djinns by William Dalrymple.

Both Dalrymple and Aitken have the knack of looking at India from an open, honest and ultimately empathetic perspective. Among the multitude of tomes written on India by foreigners, their writings stand out. Is it a coincidence that both of them are Scots or is there more to it? Continue reading

Cuba’s Castro in The History Channel

(Here is a quick video tour of Cuban cooking)

Saw an interesting program this aftenoon on Fidel Castro on The History Channel. A lot of it was extremely well done narrative that strung together myriad events in Cuba. However, towards the end, this english language program (presumably) made by Americans did something surprising. It took a short look at Castro’s positive legacy for Cuba – notably the high quality of healthcare and education available to almost everyone in Cuba. And then, the commentary made an effective point. Continue reading

Branson’s Virgin Galactic

(here is a cool promo video from Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson has set up a company that plans to extend the frontiers of tourism – literally. Virgin Galactic proposes to give space flights (sub-orbital flights) to tourists from late 2009 onwards. Prices per passenger for this 2.5 hour flight start from about Rs 90 lakhs.

Virgin Galactic is in the process of appointing Travel Agents across the world. To my knowledge, nobody has been appointed so far in India. Seems an interesting opportunity for someone enterprising.