Friday, 28 May 2010

Transport special #2: expert recommendations

This is the second of my three stories that got spiked by Monocle magazine after being commissioned for its transport special (June issue out now on quality news stands around the world - yes, even here in Delhi at Khan Market). Here, the brief was to find someone involved in the travel/transport industry and have them provide recommendations. I immediately thought of Intrepid Travel, a tour operator based in Melbourne that I profiled for a television story back in my ABC days. It's quite an impressive outfit, famous mostly for running off-the-beaten-track type tours in south east Asia, although now has a portfolio of trips all over the world. They also at one point ran a tour in East Timor, one of the world's great undiscovered and untapped tourism markets, with its pristine and sparkling beaches, excellend snorkelling and diving opportunities and misty, coffee-growing hills, although canned it after a short time because of a lack of interest. Shame, as I really, really wanted to do it.

Geoff Manchester, co-founder, Intrepid Travel

1. Who is leading the way in terms of developing forms of transport that are really taking the world in the right direction?

The travel industry can’t ignore climate change. I admire Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand CEO, as under his control, the airline operated the first test flight of a commercial airline running on jatropha-based biofuel. It gives hope that an environmentally-friendly alternative to fuel is not far away.

2. Favourite airport?

Singapore has the world's best airport. While most airports just push the same overpriced luxury products and uninspired food, Singapore airport has actually put a lot of thought into the facilities travelers actually need, such as free wifi, massage chairs, a swimming pool and a variety of food options.

3.Favourite rail station/ country in which to travel by rail?

I love Thailand’s sleeper trains, which have bunk bends on either side of a corridor. After drinks and a meal, the train crew convert the seats into a bed with sheets and a pillow. It's really quite comfortable, and you can talk with all the other passengers.

Be careful what you wish for

For weeks now I've been suffering in the Delhi extreme heat (40°C and higher every day), wishing desperately that something, anything, would propel me out of the dirty, bone-dry city with swirls of dust blowing through the air. Then on Wednesday, news came that my much-beloved uncle had died suddenly and unexpectedly. So now I'm off to Bangalore, along with the rest of my diasporic extended maternal family who are flying in from various corners of India and the world. Of course, even though I've known about my trip for a day and a half I hadn't been able to bring myself to pack, so now, with 20 minutes to go till the cab gets here to take me to the airport, I'm sitting on the bed in my pyjamas staring at a pile of clothes and wondering what to do. The answer? Update my blog.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Transport special: India's first marina

One of the great joys of my life is that the World's Best Magazine, favoured by cerebral aesthetes (but not wankers) across the globe, sometimes lets me write for it. Less thrillingly, Monocle also spiked all three of the stories I wrote for the transport special that's out in this month's issue, but fear not, I shall turn the negative into a positive and publish them here. Call this a global exclusive, if you will.

Story #1: India's yachting industry sets sail

India is not a country known for its boating culture, but that is soon to change, with the opening of South Asia's first marina in the southern Indian city of Kochi (Cochin).

As the boating market stagnates in the West, players are increasingly looking towards south and southeast Asia. The new marina in Kochi is set to put India firmly on the charts of the international ocean-going community.

Worth around $US3 million, the marina will eventually have 50 slips and a clubhouse and opened in late April.

Ocean Blue, The company building the marina, will also manage it and is hoping to capitalise on knowledge gained during the process to build marinas elsewhere in the country.

"All marinas will have to have some sort of government intervention," says Ocean Blue’s founding director Malav Shroff.

"The first one is the toughest as we don't know the exact government permissions needed. Once we complete it we'll know what regulations exist and what permissions. It's a huge advantage to be doing the first one," says the one-time Olympic sailor.

Ocean Blue is now angling to build 15 more marinas - in Goa, Chennai, near Mumbai, the Andaman Islands and the Lakshadweep islands among others - in the next five years, although no formal agreements have yet been reached.

- India's total coastline is 7,000 kilometres long. Counting inland lakes, there's around 25,000 kilomentre for boats.

- There are approximately 85,000 dollar millionaires in India, according to a 2009 Merrill Lynch/Cap Gemini report. That's a lot of potential boat buyers.

- The boating market is expected to grow to a billion dollars in India over the next five years.

- In some parts, speedboats and jetskis are used as a mode of transport, such as Mumbai-dwellers travelling to holiday homes in Alibaug, a resort town south of the megacity.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Pissing into the wind

I've had toilets on the mind, of late. First, I somehow stumbled across a wikitrail that led to a write-up of Rose George's fascinating book, The Big Necessity, which delves into the "unmentionable world of human waste, and why it matters". Then, coincidentally, I wrote a short story for Monocle earlier this week as a follow-up to last month's UN study, which revealed that India has more cellphone users than people with access to a proper toilet.

Now anyone who's spent more than a few minutes on a city street in India will be familiar with the unassailable stench of ammonia, and men with their backs to the streets, taking a slash up against a wall. As much as I dislike it - although not quite as much as this guy - I can understand and empathise that really, there's often very little other option to relieve oneself. It's not like builders provide portaloos for their migrant labourers. They don't even provide any form of human-standard shelter, or food, or a living wage, but that's a rant for another day.

According to the UN, roughly half of India's population doesn't have access to toilet facilities. Now at least men have the ability to whip it out anywhere, anytime (and there are actually a number of public urinals dotted across the city). But what about women? They're forced to wait till night time, when they can steal away and do the needful under the cover of darkness.

For my story, I interviewed Anita Jha from Sulabh International, a brave NGO intent on tackling the sanitation issues that others are too squeamish to discuss. She pointed out that while the toilet issue is pressing, it's eminently solveable. To wit, Sulabh has come up with an inexpensive solution for both home toilets and public conveniences that effectively turns the human waste into either organic fertiliser, or biofuel. Sulabh has built half a million toilets across India, and has set up possibly the most effective marketing tool ever: the world's only toilet museum, here in Delhi.

Rose George is another one insisting that human "waste" is actually full of nutrients, and is a rich, valuable and inexhaustible material - but the great sanitation minds of today think it's best to mix it with water and pump out into the ocean. "It's green to burn the brown stuff," she pointed out last month in a NYT op-ed piece.

Of course, for this sort of sanitation innovation to get adopted on a large scale there needs to be groundswell of public support, political will, and oh yeah, lots and lots of rupees. Awareness, understanding and proactivity will help eliminate the scourge of public pissing, not, say, an air rifle.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

WTF: Summit edition

Like anything, there was good and bad about the Advance summit. There were two WTF moments in particular, both coming during the session on Global Citizenship in the 21st century.

Moment #1: A panellist, a young, brightly effusive Indian businesswoman, loudly asserted herself to be a Global Citizen: after all, she was educated in the US. In fact, at a university in a town not known to be terribly enlightened. Here, she witnessed her fair share of KKK marches. But she had to be very clear here: they did not intimidate her, nor bother her in the slightest. Why? Because this brown girl is a Global Citizen, who's seen the world, who simply equates these KKK processions as another way of expressing religious fervour, much like processions marking Ganesh Chaturti, or Dussehra.

Yes, I know. Not quite the same thing.

When one of the other panellists quietly called her on it, she whipped into defensive mode and shot him down in flames. But not with a flaming cross, mind you.

Moment #2: The moderator, a former Australian diplomat to India, raised the question of how Indians could be better Global Citizens. "I'll tell you," said one young blonde attractive woman sitting up the end of the table, a volunteer with an Indian NGO. "Do something about how the men are here." She went on to recount her experiences dealing with the unwanted attention of the North Indian Male: staring, catcalling, sometimes trying to catch a grope, despite dressing modestly and locally.

Now to any woman actually living in (particularly north) India, this is a real issue. It's something I face daily (although granted, I don't really make many concessions towards dressing locally) and have encountered two incidents in my life when I've felt particularly threatened: once when I was 16, once last year. I'm not saying all Indian men are slimy, grope-happy greaseballs, far from it, but there is a real thing with many men up here: aggressive, self-important misogyny is a theme.

Unfortunately, the point was lost amongst those people gathered there in Ballroom B at the Oberoi, many of whom had flown in from Australia the previous day and hadn't really seen much of India other than, ooh, the lobby and the restaurant of Delhi's second most expensive hotel. So the moderator took the easiest route: fingers-in-ears-la-la-la denial. Stammering, he said, "That's a valid point but doesn't really fit into the remit we've been given by Advance," and moved on.

That was crap. Yes, it is a valid point and one well worth discussing further; just one that's too controversial for most Westerners to want to touch.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Advance Emerging Leaders Summit

For six months I've taken part in monthly skype conference calls as part of the advisory group to the Australian diaspora group Advance, as it prepared to host its first conference in India, and only its second in Asia. The Emerging Leaders summit was held on Tuesday, and I spent a 14-hour day within the scented confines of the Oberoi doing vox pops for Advance's online videos in between ducking in and out of the roundtable sessions.

The purpose of the group is initially hard to grasp: is it about business? Is it a social networking group for overseas Australians? I'd never heard of it before becoming involved; a friend explained it to me as "for Australians living overseas who aren't backpackers." It's quite big in the US, particularly New York, where it holds regular networking evenings, and also the UK, and is now trying to get a solid foothold in Asia. India is an interesting move: someone on the day told me there's just 1,500 Australians in India.

Nevertheless, Advance got together a solid, albeit small, group of people with interests and/or knowledge in or about the other country. The sessions were well thought out: they were comprised of small-ish groups of people, say ten to fifteen, and mostly those with a special interest in the field, and covered topics, generally on how Australia and India can cooperate and share knowledge: the handling of mega events like the Commonwealth Games, water challenges, urban development, and issues surrounding education. The last item was particularly contentious, given the apparent propensity of Indian students to get beaten up by vicious thugs in Australia. The organisers had been keen to avoid that particular topic, but it ended up dominating the day: given that higher education is Australia's biggest export to India and has taken a massive hit in recent months, many were keen to discuss the impact on their particular industries and what could be done to ameliorate it. I did indeed hear one or two particularly interesting perspectives, which I hadn't come across before. And you shall read about that in due time, hopefully.

The Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf gave the keynote address, and voiced strong support for Australia moving to sell uranium to India. That, again, was another issue that organisers would have preferred to avoid (but knew they couldn't). Later, public affairs group Hawker Britton presented findings of a survey of Australians on attitudes towards India and the relationship, which found three-quarters of those surveyed feel the students issue has negatively affected ties.

I went to the roundtable on water, which was interesting but a bit of a disappointment as there was only one Australian there, so the opportunity to discuss how the two countries could share knowledge and expertise was a bit lost. In the afternoon I joined the session on being a global citizen, where the talk was lively and wide-ranging: how could Australia and India get each other more? How to encourage participation in each other's culture? It was a shame, then, that the two groups who can best bridge the divide were under-represented: the arts, and NGOs. Nevertheless, out of that came ideas, such as how to connect those working in the arts in India, and ideas on how generally to connect Australians across India.

All said, while it was a packed day, it was a great opportunity to meet people doing great things or poised to do great things, in India. I came out with an armful of contacts, a head full of story ideas, and at least one new friend. That, to me, is a day's work well done.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

How I came to know that 'tal' means 'lake'

Nainital, that long-favoured hill station that rated a mentioned in A Suitable Boy, is just as beautiful as they say: a sparkling lake surrounded by the green, gently rolling Kumaon hills. However, serene it is not, with cars, autos and Honda Heroes screeching up and down the upper and lower Mall roads that run alongside the lake. Trying to take a weekend afternoon stroll alongside the lake is like getting stuck in a dodgems pit.

Thankfully, we were only in Nainital proper for a couple of hours, having wisely decided to stay outside town in a little guesthouse, perched on a bluff with valleys stretching out on either side. Called Two Chimneys, I'd stumbled across the place online, fell in love with it and when I rang to book I discovered it was in fact the converted holiday home of renowned Indian writer and journalist Tarun Tejpal. Indeed, his first book, The Alchemy of Desire - which I devoured during the three-day stay - has two predominant themes: the Two Chimneys house, and sex.

The house is everything you'd expect of a writer. There are sprawling lawns, stone steps leading down steep inclines, a library, a dark leather-and-oak style bar, and plenty of spaces in which to read.

I didn't spend the entire weekend reading, there was time spent in or by the pool:

...And a day trip to the surround smaller hill station towns of Sattal, Bhimtal, Naukuchiyatal (try saying that after two Kingfishers), and of course, Nainital.

Bhimtal Lake

The first three are blissfully serene. Each has a lake, dotted with little fishing boats (or paddle boats shaped like either a swan or a dragon), a cluster of shops and jacaranda trees in full purple bloom hanging overhead. Being at around 1200m altitude, there's a cool breeze blowing through and people are strangely placid, there's no one yelling at a rickshaw driver or revving their engines, just standing around staring at the lake while licking ice creams.

Nainital was none of that, it was crowded and hectic. We stopped in a spotlessly clean bakery-cafe for lunch, I ordered a paneer steak sizzler (they're vastly popular, the sense of drama offered by the sizzling plate adds that much-needed dose of drama to the Indian table). Once the thing stopped spitting specks of gravy at me I ventured to eat it; the garnish appeared to be little cherry tomatoes.

Actuallly, they turned out to be maraschino cherries.