Love this opener from ‘The miracle at speedy motors’, one of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.
“The correct address of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s foremost solver of problems – in the sense that this is where she could be found between 8 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon, except when she was not there – was the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, C/o Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Gaborone, Botswana’
That little phrase ‘except when she was not there’ is bursting with the smile-inducing innocence that I find alluring about all of McCall Smith’s characters and through them about Botswana and indeed the whole of Africa (especially given that I have never been to Africa – been to Mauritius, although in my mind that does not really count).
While the romance of Places can arise from the strangest corners, novels have been – for me – a consistent source of imagination of the Far Away.
I have often wondered why tourism marketing has never really tapped well into this phenomenon. In fact, on the same note I have always felt that Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ and its Booker prize was really what put Kerala firmly on the world tourism map, although a few enterprising government babus mangaged to hijack all of the credit on the back of bombast.
Just saw a post on Quartz titled ‘Foreign tourists are seeing a different India than locals‘. Arguably having been the keenest watcher of Indian tourism & particularly Indian domestic tourism over the last 10 years, I can say this with confidence – the article gets its basic premise right but does not go anywhere near enough in exploring the fundamental differences between the two. So let me give it a whirl & explore one big difference in this post.
Indians take vacations to get way from crowded & dirty cities as often as possible. This quest more often that not compels us to take short weekend breaks to nearby destinations. Data of traveller behaviour on HolidayIQ.com (every month almost 5 million Indian travellers plan breaks using travellers reviews shared on HolidayIQ.com) suggests that weekend getaways number more than 10x of long vacations in India. Such weekend getaways, are therefore by definition, not to the great big tourist attractions of the nation but to the small peaceful enclaves near cities with some greenery left. This includes places like Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh where hordes of people from Hyderabad, Vizag and Bhubaneshwar run to on weekends, Tarkarli in the south konkan coast of Maharashra, a favourite of people from Mumbai & Pune, Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh which offers respite to travellers from Nagpur, Bhopal & Indore and Mandarmani, the beach to which people from Kolkata flee regularly. Contrast this with the behavior of foreign (inbound) tourists. There are two dominant categories of foreign tourists to India – (1) the backpackers and (2) the geriatrics. The backpackers are youngsters mostly from Israel & the west who come looking for instant spirituality, undiscovered beaches and great weed, although not necessarily in that order. Most of them end up in Goa, Gokarna, Manali, & Rishikesh. The geriatircs are retired folk, mostly from Europe who come to India as a once-in-a lifetime experience to either do the golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) or over the last decade, Kerala.
So the biggest difference lies in the fact that the core motivation of domestic & inbound tourists are quite different which leads them to drastically different destinations in India. But there is one place in India that both domestic & inbound tourists go to in large numbers – click here to find out :)
Tourism advertising is usually pretty ho-hum. Videos with beautiful pictures of scenic spots, the odd ‘local’ with a wide grin (if you can believe that the pearly set of 32 teeth are not that of a professional model!) and ‘inspiring’ music is pretty much where most reach.
The Tweeting badger breaks this mould in two important ways; but before I get into that, let me tell what the tweeting badger is all about. The smart folks at Johannesburgh zoo have hooked up a light activated gizmo that triggers a pre-written tweet every time the badger moves about in its cave. Which results in a steady stream of sassy (and sometimes surprisingly informative) tweets that I for one absolutely want to Follow.
Now how does this break the mould in tourism advertising? For one, this moves away from video as the standard format of tourism advertising to the emerging area of ‘ambient advertising’. Secondly, it recognises that ‘attractions’ of a destination can go well beyond natural beauty and the odd local and, if led by a sure & adventurous hand, can go into really varied territory.
Now, how about a stream of tweets from ol’ Shah Jahan triggered by the movement of birds above the Taj Mahal?
Here is a list of top pilgrimage spots of India, gleaned from a worldwide list produced by Alliance of Religions & Conservation, an organisation in the UK launched by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The absolute numbers given here can of course be endlessly debated, given India has very poor statistics for such things (eg. Wikipedia says Sabarimala gets 100mn pilgrims every year against the number here of 30mn). However, the larger picture is likely to be correct.
Our new PM has often mentioned in his speeches the idea that Tourism unites while Terrorism divides. All intrepid travellers can easily identify with the notion of tourism uniting people.
How does tourism (and travel in general) really do this? Simple – by exposing us to people different from ourselves.
Enimity is often simply a consequence of prejudice. And prejudice arises from lack of familiarly. Travel, by exposing us to people with different mores from ourselves, sets us up to question our own assumptions & certainties. And, in that questioning lies understanding.
My most vivid experience of this was the 6 month stay I had in Saudi Arabia. On the face, Saudi Arabia is not a country easy to like. In addition to being brutally hot & bereft of any real greenery, it is also infamous for its strictly puritanical approach to women and in fact, to life in general. True to form, I had a bunch of bizarre encounters from the ‘religious police’ to rabid taxi drivers.
But I also did come face to face many other worlds there. On a flight from Dammam to Jeddah, I happened to sit next to a bunch of young Saudi boys, part of a large family, and had one of the most interesting conversations about teenage angst. There was nothing in that conversation that was in any fundamental way different from the preoccupations of my own teenage days – mostly girls, clothes & cars.
I also met people from many parts of the world. An Indian-origin young man from Madagascar who cooked a killer chicken curry with the best of India & Africa blended in. A Somali chartered accountant – I hadn’t ever thought of Somalia as a place which had chartered accountants!
Yes, all real travellers know that Tourism does indeed unite.
The online battle for 2014 has been joined by another active participant. Got this email from Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi party, presumably part of a big outreach to the business community. I like his dedication to the cause of cleansing up what is obviously a creaky system and I certainly admire his personal integrity. What I am troubled by is the sense one gets of a backward-looking socialism in his economic thinking; I believe that is absolutely not the right choice for India.
Dear Hari Nair:
Today, I am writing to a select set of business leaders to seek your support for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
We are living in a time when corruption is uncontrolled, the rupee is in a free fall, and our natural resources are being plundered. Our political system has deteriorated to such a point that we have criminals routinely contesting and winning elections. This all round slide should deeply concerns every citizen of this country especially those in business. After all, public corruption not only undermines the rule of law, it erodes social trust and the integrity of institutions so necessary for a thriving business culture.
I am sure you agree that unless we put an end to it immediately our country’s future could be jeopardized forever. Surely, we can’t let this happen. But we need to act and act NOW!
AAP is committed to ensuring greater transparency, delivering good governance, implementing strong laws to root out corruption and restoring trust in the political system. We will end the practice of crony capitalism and create an environment that encourages and facilitates businesses to start and thrive. We will strive to create a level playing field and unleash the spirit of entrepreneurship that is naturally ingrained in our people. In short, we will provide the political leadership that envisions and creates an India that does justice to the hopes and aspirations of young Indians.
Hari Nair, I firmly believe that we can resurrect the India story on the global stage. To do this and much more, AAP needs your support. Your support could be decisive for the country.
You can support AAP by donating for our cause, voting for our candidates and passing our message to your friends and co-workers.
Given this is the longest running topic on the internet, I will keep my two cents very short. Every time I set up a calendar slot or an alarm on an Apple product, I find it just that bit easier – for the simple reason that Apple offers me only multiples of 5 (for setting minutes) which makes the whole thing much faster. So I can set up an alert for 9.15am or 9.20 am but nor for 9.17 am or 9.21 am. Think about this – how many of us really need to have alarms set up for 9.17 or 9.21?
Having said that, I have also realised how difficult it is to truly listen to users & ignore conventional wisdom – which seems to always be on the side of more bells & whistles.
As I listened to a medley of popular 70s hindi music over the last couple of weeks on Dhingana, the online music app I have recently discovered, a thought struck me. Seventies hindi music seems to have had a huge amount of western influence. Much more than the hindi film music of now and certainly more than that of the 60s, 50s or before. And a couple of days ago, this thought was reinforced by an interview on BBC. They were doing a special on the Glastonbury music festival and were interviewing the Aussie band “Bombay Royale”. The Bombay Royale, in case you have not come across them, is a bunch of white aussies and 2 people of Indian origin who have teamed up together, they say, to produce the ‘epic’ sound of 70s bollywood music. And in the interview, one of their leaders – The Skipper – mentioned that he particularly liked the fact that 70s Indian film music had a very international feel to it.
All of which, on a bit of reflection, starts to sound strange. In the 6 decades of India’s independence, there was no decade more decidedly inward-looking and clearly not international as the 1970s. Remember this was the decade when Indira Gandhi had nationalised everything leading to no need for any foreigner to be in India for business, had proclaimed the emergency which did not leave too many of leaders outside jail for them to go abroad and and had a perversely socialist streak which led to ordinary Indians being allowed a princely sum of $8 dollars for the entire trip for every person going abroad. On the whole most of us sat at home and looked longingly at our lucky cousins who went away to Africa. And to add insult to injury, Richard Nixon (or was it his sidekick Kissinger?) called India, “the largest unimportant country in the world”.
So this was the 70s in which suddenly our film music was all international. How did this happen?
Got this Youtube link from my old colleague, good friend & mega bike-enthusiast Mohit. And since I wholeheartedly approve of the notion of slow travel in its ability to suck out every bit of juice of the world around us, here it is for all you. A reminder that Fast is sometimes the enemy of the Great – especially in travel (actually also in Food, but that is another story).
Mauritius is a country in the Indian Ocean with a population of 1.2 million people. India (the country from which, incidentally, the Indian Ocean gets its very name) has 1.2 billion people – which is exactly 1000 times the population of Mauritius.
This fact struck me as we were driving across Mauritius last month. As we drove past the softly rolling country, I got to see huge expanse of land on both sides of the road with very little sign of human habitation – totally unlike what one sees in India. Clearly this was a country with a small population.
Till I thought a bit more about it and decided to dig further and examine this whole population issue from the density perspective. Population density of a country is the number of people living in a square kilometre and should normally reflect how congested living conditions are likely to be in that country. Here is what I found:
India has a population density of 382 & Mauritius has a population density of 631. Which means that Mauritius has double the number of people of India living in one square kilometre. So, why is it that India feels so crowded and Mauritius so open?
The answer – India’s overcrowded & over populated cities. India is not as crowded a country as seems to us urban folk. Those of us who have spent time travelling in the rural interiors of India (especially in the North) have encountered large tracts of land with very little signs of human habitation. The problem of crowding seems to a uniquely urban phenomenon. So I looked up some more numbers.
Here is the population density of some of India’s top cities:
Last month while in Manhattan I visited the Museum of Modern Art for a few hours. And was captivated by an initiative they have right at the lobby.
Here is what they do. All visitors to MOMA can pick up a piece of paper and write/doodle/whatever they want to on it, ideally about how their MOMA experience went. Then they can scan it in a easy-to-use scanner and up their masterpiece goes on to the MOMA website inside the ‘iwent’ section (incidentally it also gets projected on to a wall in the lobby). You can go later to the MOMA website and ‘claim’ and share your scan using the unique id that each piece of paper has. Essentially, this is a really creative and cool method of giving user feedback, a whole lot more fun that just writing a Review. Exactly mirrors our thoughts on how HolidayIQ’s hiq! should feel. Loved it.
Last weekend I seriously overdosed on Coke Studio Pakistan on Youtube and have not been able to purge it from my system since. Looks like this weekend is set to be a repeat.
As many have pointed out before, Coke Studio Pakistan is better than its Indian avatar. I had never heard of Rohail Hyatt – the producer of CS Pakistan – before ; but the guy shows sheer genius. I have forever been wary of fusion music (as also fusion food) given the difficulty of creating something truly seamless by merging massively disparate cultural contexts. But this man has absolutely done it. Read an excellent interview with him here.
And as another weekend creeps up, I am completely lost between the smoky voice, the aquiline profile and haunting melody of Meesha Shafi crooning Chori Chori..
This is one of the better things to happen for Travellers. As I wait for another delayed flight at Bangalore airport the magic of online music hits me. Switching between Saavn (the online Indian music service funded by Tiger) and TuneIn Radio (a worldwide selection of internet radio stations) I am definitely spoilt for choice.
India has always sold itself well to ‘seekers’, never really to ‘indulgers’. And in this lies our inability (not withstanding the regular self congratulatory blurbs emanating from our tourism ministry) to jump-start our inbound tourism.
‘Indulgers’ look for experience and that means they are looking to do something now – the Today matters to them. ‘Seekers’ on the other hand are looking for answers and are very likely to look for them in the past. And practically no country on earth has so much mind-share of Seekers as India.
The real question I guess is – can India be relevant to both?
I was here at the Mandarin Oriental in NYC exactly a year ago for the last Tiger conference. The last time I was a newbie to the conference, Tiger having just invested. This year, one is a bit of a veteran since there were so many new investee companies.
Sitting at tables or standing with coffee, making bocphet on all matters big and small with a group of almost 200 other founders of internet businesses across the world, I am struck for the first time by this whole new brotherhood. Almost everyone here is from the non-western world and absolutely everyone is a product of the 30 year reign of prosperity in the developing world let loose by the Thatcher+ Reagan regime in western countries. The world view among these 200 people is surprisingly uniform and upbeat, a far cry from the relatively pessimistic view from Larry Lindsay, the ex economic advisor to the previous POTUS, George W.
There is simply no doubt that the internet and mobile are together making fairly significant changes to just about everything human beings do and I am definitely happy to be part of this. Of course, the fact that I do something that is of real interest to my two sons is the real payoff. How many dads can say that :). Certainly keeps me young.
As the Garuda Indonesia flight takes off from Singapore, all I can make out of the announcement by the pretty little stewardess is a single word loudly repeated thrice – evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. My strong instinct to dive under the seat is tempered by the realisation that none of the other passengers have twitched even the smallest muscle. Apparently catastrophe is not imminent. Actually the Garuda fight between Singapore and Jakarta isn’t bad at all. In addition to having lovely stewardesses, Garuda served a rice meal on the flight that had a very interesting dish of dried anchovies and peanuts. The last time I had small dried anchovies in food was when I was around 12 or 13 years – so it was with pleasure that I found that the decidedly acquired taste had not deserted me after all these years.
The first impression of Jakarta to an Indian eye brought up on classical Indian languages is the preponderance of Sanskrit. As you swing out into the highway from the airport you see big signboards that proclaim Soewarna Technology city. It is soon followed by Jalapuspa hotel and Sampoorna Square. Markers of an ancient connect with Hinduism are abundant everywhere; I start to dimly understand how westerners feel as they travel the world finding markers of their culture dominate the landscape in most countries.
Driving in Jakarta is educative. Getting tired of the legendary traffic jams of the city, the good men running the government there came up with what sounded like an eminently reasonable solution. They mandated that cars have to have a minimum of 3 passengers to be allowed to traverse some of the main city thoroughfares during peak hours. The obvious idea was that single or double passengers should not take cars but use public transport so that cars do not take up too much of scarce road space. Unfortunately Indonesians are as adept at Jugaad as Indians and the impact of this rule has been to actually increase the number of people using roads. Since all cars now need to have 3 or more people, there are men hanging around intersections who rent themselves out as a additional passengers for a fee to motorists with lesser number in the car. So a large number of unemployed youth who otherwise would not be using roads or footpaths are all over the place now. Another strike for the law of unintended consequences.
You can’t escape SRK in Indonesia either. Shah Rukh Khan is repeatedly mentioned as the one Indian that everyone, especially the women seem to know about. Most of the time, the only Indian. Along with Korean superstars, SRK is up there in the not-too-hip celebrity scene in Indonesia. All the young hipper-than-hip hipsters are rooting for Justin Bieber. East Asia is definitely the latest theatre of war for pop culture supremacy and it is a three-cornered fight between Hollywood, Bollywood and the Koreans. It will be interesting to see where it ends up.
I return to Jakarta in another fortnight- cannot wait to see what I will uncover next..
The check-in area is not a natural place to have food in the airport; so much better to go past immigration and security. But fate willed otherwise since the check-in was delayed for some reason. Demolished another crab, presumably from somewhere in the south china sea. Fate.