Thursday, May 19, 2011

Europe & US: Day 11 (May 19, 2011)

Akron, Cleveland & New Jersey

After two quick meetings in Akron, Ohio that finished by lunch, we drove to Cleveland, to catch our flight – the last domestic flight in the US, to New Jersey.

The drive from Akron to Cleveland took about 45 minutes by road. When I thought about Cleveland, I was reminded of a very dear cousin of my Dad – Hariarj, and his wife Sneh. Hariraj to us kids was a very successful business executive with a tire company in Mumbai, India. His wife was a Doctor. Then he got his big break in the US, and came to work for Goodyear. Hariarj and his wife together with their children, settled in Cleveland. Life was good.

One day the family went out shopping for a bicycle for the little son – I think his name was Manu. A few blocks short of their home. Hariraj and his son got down from the car, and asked Sneh to drive back the rest of the way. He wanted to help his son get on to the bike and start peddling. When his son struggled to get on to the bike, Hariraj decided to demonstrate how. He himself got on to try and peddle the little cycle he had bought for Manu.

No one really knows what exactly happened thereafter. In all likelihood, Hariraj lost his balance and fell (from that little bicycle), and his head hit the pavement. He became unconscious and there was blood from his mouth. His son panicked, and knowing only what he thought best. he rushed home, and informed his mother who was just unlocking the house.

When they reached back in all of five minutes, Hariraj had already been taken in an ambulance. For the family, life would never be the same again.

After two or three surgeries in the brain, to remove blood clots, Hariraj remained in a coma. The hospital did the best they could, and after a prolonged period of stay, he was brought home. A few months later, Hariraj lost his job.

Sneh, totally broken down by this adversity, slowly came to terms with reality, and emerged stronger with a renewed resolve. She learnt that to earn a livelihood, she had to begin practising medicine in the US, and to do that, she had to study to pass some exams. Between tending to a comatose husband and managing two ‘pre teen’ children, she also had to put in long hours of study, and also manage the household. Any ordinary person would have not had the courage, or would have lost hope and broken down. Not Sneh. She passed her exams, and became a Doctor and started practising, thereby opening up a new source of earning for the family.

Hariraj remained in coma for 7 years. Every moment of that time, his wife and children eagerly looked for that one small change in his condition – that one sign of hope. It did not come. At the end of seven years, Hariraj passed away, never coming out of the coma for a second.

I recollected this episode while driving to Cleveland. It was humbling to say the least. And it teaches me a lesson. Next time I  get ‘bogged down’ by minor problems in life, I should remember to be grateful and thankful to God for small mercies. For there are people in this World who have had much much more tougher lives to live.

Our flight to New Jersey  was delayed, as a result of which a dinner planned with a key customer had to be cancelled. So one had to remain enclosed within the confines of the Hotel room, with the exception of having dinner with good old Scot, my colleague from the US Office.

The tour to the US will end tomorrow, after two meetings. Work begins at 8.30 am and will finish by lunch time. The flight to Delhi is at 8 pm. One might decide to travel to New York in the afternoon, for some ‘sight seeing’

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Europe & US : Day 10 (May 18, 2011)

This morning we visited the Goodyear factory in Houston. Goodyear is known as a tyre giant, but few know that they have a very large chemicals business.

The huge factory is located by the side of a water channel that flow through Houston all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The first thing that strikes you when you enter the factory is the huge emphasis on security, and safety. Each visitor is required to furnish a photo id, and foreigners in particular are required to show their passports. When you enter the production area, you have to – whether you like it or not, wear, ‘hard hats’ (helmets), ear mufflers – they look like big headphones, and plastic glasses over the eyes. Entry is through a turn spike kind of a gate – only one person can enter at a time.

Our flight to Charlotte from Houston was delayed. When we reached Charlotte to catch the connection to Akron Ohio, there were 15 minutes left for departure, and a long, long way to reach the boarding gate. We ran, and we ran and ran. We reached when the gate was being closed. We just about made it. If we had not, there would have been utter confusion, with bags going away, and we stranded in Charlotte, as the flight was the last one to Akron, for the day.

Which brings me to the subject of airlines in America. Their level of customer orientation can be described in one word - ‘pathetic’. Flights are delayed and cancelled, passengers are made to wait for three, four hours in a queue, for some problem at the airlines’ end. Many a time a passenger lands up at a different destination than the one he started for.

Nothing comes free on any American airline – not even water. In flight service is another story. On a long haul flight from Delhi to New Ark Intl. airport, my Boss described the service level as ‘nest to zero’ meaning little or no in flight service. Once dinner is served, the cabin crew’s job is over. Beverages are placed in one corner of the cabin, and passengers are welcome to help themselves, while the air hostesses bunch up together, and kill time gossiping away. And mind you – this is Business Class. One the one hand Americans are friendly, but on the other hand, they can come across as downright snobbish as if they are superior to the rest of the World, and couldn’t care less. The attitude of the cabin crew is a reflection of this attitude.

A far cry from  the Business Class of say Lufthansa, where every once in a while an air hostess will come and enquire whether you want anything to drink. And I am convinced that our good old domestic carriers like Kingfisher or Jet Airways are miles ahead, as far as the overall quality of their product is concerned.

We reached Akron a small town near Cleveland, Ohio. This town is home for Goodyear.  We checked –in at about 10 pm, by which time, all restaurants are shut, we are told. Door delivery to your Hotel room however is perfectly acceptable.

So after a cheese and pepperoni pizza and a coke from the vending machine in the Hotel corridor, its time to call it a day. Tomorrow we finish the last leg of the domestic travel within US. We head for New Jersey. And on Friday, we are out – of this ‘land of milk and honey’ that always provides me with a mixed bag of experiences – some sweet and some sour..

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Europe & US: Day 9 (May 17, 2011)

Chicago / Houston

From the O’Hare airport area, to downtown Chicago, where we had to commute, for a meeting, there is invariable a bad traffic snarl. Long lines of vehicles moving slowly, but all sticking to their lanes, and maintaining a respectable distance from the car in front. Disciplined driving. Not even on occasion, have I heard a car horn.

Up in the air, one can frequently see a helicopter hovering in the air, and monitoring traffic movements. One cannot make out whether its the police, or even a TV channel. The interesting thing is – this helicopter is not actually moving, but standing stationary, in mid air !  And that too – for extended periods of time – 30 minutes or sometimes more ! Must require amazing flying skills.

The journey into downtown took an hour, whereas the return trip less than half the time. Driving in America is so organized that one is tempted to take over the wheel and drive oneself. On an earlier trip, we learnt that an Indian driving license is valid to rent a car and drive around, for a maximum period of 3 months. One day, one has to garner some courage and take the plunge. Will save a lot of money that is wastefully spent on taxis.

We arrived in Houston, Texas after a long flight from Chicago, at about 6 pm today. Scot, our colleague from the US Office is a bug help because he rents cars in every city and commuting therefore is easy.

DSC04674 The ever efficient Douglas Scot Mace

We checked – in and headed straight for dinner – at the ‘Taste of Texas’ on the of the most popular ‘steak’ houses in Houston. And proceeded to have one of the finest steaks I’ve ever had, in the US.

 DSC04676 The waiter familiarising us with the entire spread offered by the ‘Taste of Texas’

The next three days are hectic. Meeting in the forenoon followed by travel in the afternoon. We move to Akron Ohio tomorrow and then New Jersey on Thursday evening. And then its the flight back to India, on Friday.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Europe & US: Day 8 (May 16, 2011)

Chicago – Day 3

Today, I saw sunlight in Chicago, for the first time since Saturday. Obviously, it became warmer, but not warm enough for one to feel comfortable. The temperature in Chicago continues to be below 10 degrees and that’s very uncomfortable.

We left for a town called Rockford – about one and a half hour’s drive northwest of Chicago, for a meeting at the Cadbury factory. Travelling always becomes easy when we have our colleague Scot, from the US office. This time he rented a “Dodge” SUV. The thing about American cars is they look strong and sturdy, and therefore feel safe.

Driving on highways in the US is so, so smooth that it’s monotonous. Vehicles moving at unchanged speeds, in one straight line, sticking to their lanes. Many times I have wondered, how do drivers keep from falling asleep, when they drive at those constant speeds along a straight road…

The air for miles around the Cadbury factory smells of chewing gum – mint flavour. Funnily, the people inside the premises cannot smell a thing – they have become used to the smell.

By the time we returned from the meeting, it was past 6 pm, but Chicago was bright and sunny. The hectic schedules, air travel, unfamiliar food and jet lag are now getting to the system. There’s still a fair amount of travel to be done. Fortunately no early morning departures or late night arrivals.

Tomorrow we got downtown Chicago for a meeting with Wrigley – the chewing gum giant, in their magnificent corporate Headquarters building on Michigan Avenue. This is a landmark in Chicago, just like the Coca Cola building is, in Atlanta.

In the afternoon we are off to Houston, Texas, where a much warmer weather awaits us. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Europe & US: Day 7 (May 15, 2011)

Chicago : Sunday

I woke up at 5 am. Early one might say. But you know what? I fell asleep at 4 pm yesterday, all with full clothes (jeans and socks) on, and the TV on…

Had decided to get lay down just for a while. The next thing I knew, it was morning ! True effect of jet lag. But what the heck – it was a Sunday.

The weather continued to be cold and wet. So venturing outdoors was not a plan, unless I was convinced by my Boss to accompany him to downtown Chicago…

The much planned meeting with Ronny Bindra, my batch mate from St. Stephen’s College was also now a big challenge, thanks to conflicting commitments, and the inclement weather. But when the Boss’s flight got cancelled and I knew he wasn’t coming in today, meeting Ronny was now a good opportunity.

Ronny was magnanimous in his offer to drop by, pick me up take me to his home, and drop me back later. Considering his home was a good number of miles away, this WAS a generous offer indeed.

We spent two hours at Ronny’s home, chatting about College old friends, and old times in general. Ronny has done well in his career and in life. He has a huge palatial home in one of the most exclusive suburbs of the United States. He is a dog lover, and has one dedicated car – a Toyota SUV only for his dogs. He uses the vehicle to take his dogs to some place called a ‘dog park’. I got to meet the smaller and therefore potentially less harmful of the two dogs – Caesar –a pug. The other guy - ‘Cash’ a German Shepherd was too aggressive and dangerous, I was told. He doesn’t like anyone on this property –period. Stephanian or no Stephanian… 

DSC04670 Ronny’s beautiful house in Lake Forest, Illinois


The backyard of the house – which extends to well beyond the fence in the background. The fence is for the dogs….


Ronny Bindra with his dogs’ car

Ronny dropped me back at the Hotel in the evening. It was very nice meeting him. Considering the fact that we didn’t know each other in College ! The bonding amongst batch mates extends way beyond personal relationships. Slightly hard to understand I guess.

Dinner’s over and tomorrow is the beginning of a work week. Will sleep early to get up fresh on Monday morning.

Europe & US:Day 6 (May 14, 2011)


Woke up at 7 am, surprisingly fresh, considering I finally went to bed at 2 am, after a long but enjoyable meeting with old schoolmate Atul Ahuja.

Atul who was my younger brother’s class mate in School. We also worked together in the School’s rock opera - ‘Joseph and the amazing Technicolor dream coat’ – many years ago. Atul now is a Canadian citizen as well as a ‘green card holder’ in the United States. Years ago, he was the CEO of ‘Cricket Canada’ He was instrumental in bringing Canadian cricket to an international level. He convinced the cricket boards of West Indies, South Africa, Kenya and a few other cricket playing countries, to get their teams to tour Canada and play with the Canadian team. Due to his passionate efforts, and excellent relations with the media and the government in Canada, cricket became a hugely popular sport in the Country.Atul now runs a very successful business in the area of consulting, and employs ten people in Toronto, Atlanta and in London.

We sat a talked about School and the alumni and how to think of ways to give back to an institution where each one of us spent our entire school life. An institution that ‘we live and breathe’ We promised to hook up when he’s in Delhi next, and visit School to meet the Principal.

Atlanta was surprisingly cool this morning, when we left for the airport. The check in formalities were quicker, today being a weekend.

Chicago, true to expectations, was cold and windy. Fortunately, one managed to get to the Hotel from the airport quickly and without any transportations hassles. The room was not going to be ready for another hour, so the time was utilised to have some lunch (soup and salad).

Now that I am in my room, and there’s nothing much to do, I guess I’ll use the time to catch up on the much needed sleep.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Europe & US:Day 5 (May 13, 2011)


It’s Friday the 13th, a date that’s ominous for many Americans. So we crossed our fingers and went for the ‘ever important’ meeting with our largest customer – Wrigley. The meeting went off well, and the discussion auguurs well for the business in future. In short, good news. So much so for ominous dates…

We drove about 60 miles to the Wrigley factory. My colleagues who drove us around, hired a RAV4 this time. Reminded me of a friend who has one. Finally got to sit in one of them..

Gainesville where the factory is located is surrounded by a thick forest with lush green growth all around. The factory premises itself has beautifully manicured lawns. It was a workplace within a forest. I am sure people would love to come to work everyday.

All along the highway, my eyes were fixed  on the variety of passenger cars, SUVs and ‘half trucks’ The number of different models on the road never fails to fascinate me. Specially the Jeeps. Makes me wish I was living in this Country.

The area where we are staying, is downtown Atlanta, but a particularly quiet neighbourhood. The other aspect that struck me was how green the whole locality is. And spotlessly clean roads, pavements and sidewalks.

Abraham – my ex-Boss from Coke and a dear friend, called to tell me about a spectacular laser show organised on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Coca Cola. He picked me up and we went to see the images being projected on the 26th storied building that houses the corporate headquarters of the Coca Cola Company.

A large crowd had gathered to just watch the images changing over and over again. Images of extremely high resolution, projected on a cloth screen that covered the entire building !

  Coke celebrates 125 years this year

Images of bottle crowns (caps)

Coca Cola bottles

Also proud to know that Diet Coke is the second largest carbonated beverages brand in North America. Guess which one is the largest? Brand Coke.

Abraham and I then remembered old times over a glass of beer.

Next – Atul Ahuja of MSM and my brother’s classmate, has just landed from Toronto, and will come straight from the airport to meet me.

Tomorrow – its Chicago.

Europe & US:2011:Day 4 (May 12, 2011)

It was ‘good-bye’ Dublin – early this morning. ‘Always feel a ‘pang’ when I leave this City.

After a change-over at Frankfurt, and a 10 hour flight, I landed in Atlanta at 4 pm. The immigration formalities are always painful because they take so long. The immigration officer however was a friendly type. When I told her that I represent a company that makes a chemical for chewing gum, she seemed quite scandalized. She was chewing gum, and suddenly her jaws stooped moving –she was wondering what kind of hazardous chemical she has been chewing for years ! I assured her that if nothing bad has happened to her after years of chewing gum, it’s almost certain that nothing will.

Post Geromino – KIA, America has probably braced up from some response from the ‘bad guys’. They did not want it to be obvious, but one can feel it – at the airport. There’s additional security, and for the first time, I experienced a security check on arrival ! You had to pick up your bag in the baggage claim area, and drop it at another belt, for another security check. Then there was a personal search, and finally a transfer to another terminal by the ‘sky train’ to pick up your bag in another baggage claim area.

The weather was a welcome change from the cold wet Dublin. Its warm in Atlanta – though not as much as back home. Since I have this evening all to myself, I decided to renew contact with my ex Boss in Coca Cola – Abraham Ninan who continues to work for the Company in their Headquarters in Atlanta. Despite being hard pressed for time, he did manage to drop in for fifteen minutes, to meet me. Its good to meet old friends – and I use the word ‘friends’ deliberately since Abraham was as much a friend to his team, as a hard taskmaster.

Abraham brought along with him a copy of the Coca Cola Company’s Annual Report. A cursory glance at the numbers is mind boggling. The turnover of the Company stands at 35 billion dollars. If you were to distribute this money to the 1200 crore Indian population, each family of four Indians would get a gift of Rs 50,000 !

It was nice to be informed by Abraham that India’s is one of Coke’s fastest growing markets. However, in terms of the per capita consumption of Coca Cola beverages, India is right at the bottom of the list Worldwide. Here’s a sample – India’s per capita consumption stands at 11, (roughly explained – this means an average Indian consumes 11 servings in a year). Whereas our neighbour – Pakistan is ahead of us at 15. And consider this – Kenya is at 40, Turkey at 159, and – hold your breath – Mexico at the top of the list, is at 675. An average Mexican drinks almost two Cokes everyday of the year !

Drink more Coke – for National pride, I say !

Tomorrow we drive to Gainesville, a small town about one hour away, for a meeting at one of Wrigley’s factories. And Saturday morning, I am off to Chicago.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Europe & US 2011 : Day 3 (May 11, 2011)


In my many years of travelling overseas and experiencing different countries, peoples and cultures, the one city that has impressed me the most – is Dublin.

In Europe, that reason that Dublin stands out in start contrast to many other cities, is the familiarity with the language – the fact that everyone speaks English. Everywhere I go – I find people are warm, friendly and helpful. Take the taxi driver who drives you from the airport to the city. As soon as you get into his cab, he wants to strike a conversation. He wants to know about you – ‘where have you come from, where are you going’ kind of stuff. And the Hotel staff, or the shop owner – everyone communicates with you in such a friendly way, that you at once feel you are at home…..

Dublin is also one of the cleanest and the most organised cities I have come across in Europe. It beats Paris, Barcelona Amsterdam or any other large metropolis in the Continent. Maybe because it remains a small town. It has a charm of its own. The charm lies in its simplicity. The city is – well – small and simple. No big distances to travel, small traffic, simple disciplined people.

Dublin is a city full of bars and pubs. Every second shop seems to be a bar.The decor of every single one of them reminding you of ancient inns and taverns of the late 19th and 20th century. One is taken back many years to an entirely different era, and entirely different generation.

We seemed to have brought bad weather along with us from Europe – going by the taxi driver’s opinion – the one who drove us from the airport to the City. Apparently, it rained the whole day, bringing down, not only the temperature, but also the otherwise buoyant mood of the locals. It was the first time in three days, that I actually used the thick jacket I reluctantly carried with me all the way from India.

The other experience and a very valuable one – that I gained on this trip, courtesy my colleague Girish- is that these ready to eat, home made recipies, packed in nice aluminium foil packs are a very very decent deal. Like me, Girish misses terribly, home food, when he is on a tour abroad. So his wife, forever worried about his eating routine while travelling, packs may such ready to eat packets in his bag. This time she packed a couple of extra ones for me – at Grish's behest.

So, for the past two days, all the meals we have had, are in our room – no thanks to room service. Each time, Girish digs into his suitcase, and brings out a packet of ‘daal makhni’ or ‘paneer matar’ or ‘pau bhaji’, He then very ingeniously plugs in the tea making machine, and boils some water. And then dips in these packs – one by one. All it takes is two minutes, for the food to get ‘ready to eat’

And boy ! Are they good ! They are delicious. I wonder why in all these recent years, we haven’t in our own homes, stocked these packs for the inevitable emergency – when the cook fails to turn up, or when the ever loyal maid of many years has to finally go for her ‘once in two years vacation’.

I must not forget to discuss this with my wife – when I get back…..

After a one day rest today, its back to hectic travelling tomorrow. I will get up and be ready at 4.15 am to take a taxi to the airport, for a 6.30 am flight to Frankfurt. And then a connecting flight to Atlanta. This flight is of ten hours duration. A marathon.

This visit will be the sixth one to the US in three years. I intend meeting many old school mates and college mates, and if I do, it will be a worthwhile trip.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Europe & US 2011 : Day 2 (May 10, 2011)

Some days are hectic, and tiring – and today was one such day. Still recovering from the jet lag, I got up at 6 am, and left for a business meeting at 7.30 am. Drove for about an hour to reach the Wrigley chewing gum factory in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in upcountry France….
The meeting lasted three hours, and concluded with lunch. There were other visitors – from the Wrigley Corporate HQ in Chicago, and they were very clear in their mind when they told me, that this factory in France served the best lunch anywhere. We (my colleague and I) had not much option but to take their word.
On the lunch menu, proudly displayed, was ‘rabbit meat’ I must confess I felt sick. Despite the fact that I was aware that the French love rabbit, and that last year, my wife quite unaware of what she was having for dinner, was fed rabbit meat by her most generous host. And she had liked it.
But I felt sick. I mean rabbit are these playful pets one has at home, or like in the animal den that my pre nursery school going son had, in his school. The kids used to visit the animal den, and go play with the rabbits. The rabbits are meant to be pets – who you can go play with…That is why I felt sick..

Later in the day we left for Dublin via Frankfurt. Everything went wrong at Frankfurt airport. First, the flight from Basel arrived late. Second travelling from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 –from where we had to board our flight to Dublin, was – like miles away. When we reached the boarding gate, we saw a huge queue at the security counter. When we cleared security, we had about 10 minutes to board the next flight. And the, the security personnel decided that my camera was indeed a very suspicous looking object...

I made it to the flight. We landed at 9 pm local time, in a very cold and wet Dublin.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Europe & US 2011: Day 1 (May 9 , 2011)

It was just under a year ago, that I created this blog - a 'Travel Log' to put down thoughts and observations as I travel to different parts of the World. Every moment is a learning experience, and some experiences worth sharing. A different Country or City, different climate, different people, and a generally different way of life, provide a new experience every time.

I leave India in less than two hours. First stop is Basel Mulhouse. Twin cities on the French, German, Swiss border. The airport itself is an interesting experience. It's called the 'Euro Airport' You land, pick up your bags and when you head out, you come across three exits. One leads in to Switzerland, the second in to France and the third exit is for entry into Germany. Sounds amazing. You are standing in one hall, and depending upon which door you choose, you enter into a different country. All I can say is "This happens only in Europe..."

I also look forward to my stopover at Dublin, Ireland. This is my third trip there. Dublin is a charming city, and one immediately feels at home. Everyone speaks English, you drive on the left hand side of the road - all too familiar.....And the Irish people are warm and kind.
As in the last two trips, I will make it a point to visit the famous 'Trinity College' - Ireland's equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge..

The trip to the US will be hectic, with the exception of a an extended stopover at Chicago over the weekend. There's Altanta ( must catch up with old friends from the Coca Cola Company who now work at the Coke HQs), Houston, Akron (small sleepy town in Ohio, but HQs of the World renowned Goodyear Tire Company) and New Jersey, on the itinerary.

There's lots to look forward to, but as always, I feel a 'pang' when I know I am going to be away from home for ten days....