A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

A Few Good Things

Month: October 2012

2nd Leg – Pondicherry & the Dunes Eco Resort

We left Thiruvanamalai at 9.30 AM and headed towards Pondicherry. the roads are good (One Track with no divider) but you can zip at close to 90 Km/ Hr . Vast open green fields and lovely tamarind trees line the roads. On the way you will cross the famous fort of Gingee (Which was called the Troy of the East by the British and virtually impregnable). As you cross Tindivanam you need to ask for some help to guide you thru the bypass. We reached our hotel – The Dunes Eco Resort by 1130 AM – so it was an easy drive.

I was disappointed with Pondicherry. Maybe I was expecting the Goa of the South – the two cities have some similarities , both are on the coast , have nice beaches, one was ruled by the Portuguese & the other by the French – but you can spend days at Goa and not get bored , while you can cover Pondicherry in 1 day.

There are 3 Things to see in Pondicherry – they are all located very close by ( Walking distance) – The Aurobindo Ashram, The Museum and the French Colony. All 3 can be covered in less than 3 hours. That leaves you time to walk around the few streets of the French colony and stroll along the promenade adjacent to the sea. The Governors residence is the only impressive French Building. Calve , Le Club or the Promenade a few large hotels and restaurants in that area ( We tried the Promenade and the food was just about OK). Close by on Mission Street Hidedesign has a large store ( the company is HQ’D in Pondicherry) – they have a flagship Red Store and a Outlet both close by. You will not spot any McDonald, Pizza Hut , Dominos etc – but will see many mom & pop shop wood fire Pizza Joints. We tried one and it was a disaster. Best bet is a lovely S Indian veg place called Surguru.

This is a chain of 4 Restaurants – and can aptly be called the Saravana Bhawan of Pondicherry . (Most localites call it Satguru).

The next place to visit in Pondicherry is Auroville. Its actually located in TN – and its about 14 Km off the ECR Highway. Its an International Community that is fully self sufficient.  Spread across 40 Sq Kms – the place has been transformed from a virtual desert into a well planned , organized centre.

At the heart of Auroville is the Matri Mandir – a centre of meditation. Access is restricted. You need to first watch a Video and then meet one of the representatives. Tickets are issued between 10 – 11 & 2 – 3 – and if you are lucky you get tickets for the next day. During weekends you need to come 3 days in advance. Kids below 10 not allowed. If it rains the entry may be cancelled as there are chances of making the place dirty. The message is clear – this is not a tourist spot and chances of someone visiting Pondicherry for a few days to get access to see the Mantri Mandir from inside is limited. From the Video it does look like a fabulous design – and the entire structure has taken over 35 years to build. You can get a visitors pass to see the architectural beauty from outside – its a 1 Km walk from the visitors centre. The other parts of Auroville inside a green cover are far away to walk and see. You leave Auroville a little disappointed – but the the reality is the community wants to be left alone.

So if you start your day at 9AM , complete the City activity by lunch and Auroville by 3PM  – you have covered all that needs to be seen in Pondicherry – which is why you need to stay in a lovely hotel. We stayed at the Dunes Resort – a fabulous place.

Its over 40 acres of greenery , 40 Villas & Cottages – right on the ocean front. The price varies depends on the type of Villa and its location – ranges from 7K  – 20 K / Night. we had booked 4 months in advance so managed to get one of the best rooms – a huge room with a massive Jacuzzi inside. Called the Artist Studio this villa has two penthouses , we were on the 1st floor and the room below us was equally big with a private pool.

There are cycles located outside every room and its very convenient to drive around on the bikes. The beach is beautiful – almost empty and is very very very clean. Its less than a 5 minute walk from the room.

Its rare to find in India a beach that is as private as this one – we walked for nearly an hr in the morning and did not spot a single human being. Water can get rough so swimming is not advised.  the resort also has a lovely farm that grows their daily vegetables. Milk is supplied from the cows in the farm – whatever they lack in their farm comes from their other property at Kodaikanal ( Elephant Valley – and we are heading there in Dec). What we liked about the place is the peace & quiet , hearing birds in the morning , chasing some lovely butterflies , the sound of waves lapping on the beach, cows mooing in the farm.

We felt if only real estate companies developed properties like these – there would be a rush of buyers. I even ventured to ask the manager if they were planning a retirement home on similar concept.

The service in the hotel is decent. The staff are  friendly. There are some activities for the kids – they can watch the cows being milked and even try their hand

at it, a pottery centre where they can make their own pots. A lovely swimming pool and a play area for smaller kids. Whats missing is some water sports and some events in the evening. Its a nice place if you plan a holiday with 2 – 3 families and you can easily spend a few days here enjoying every minute of it.

The manager Mr Umapathi is very helpful and goes out of the way to help you , and the staff is friendly and nice.  The only grouse we had was on the Breakfast Buffet – our experience with food at most resorts Vythri, Destiny Farms , Cicada etc has been fabulous. At The Dunes the food lacked in taste & presentation. The breakfast buffet was sad. When you charge 20K for a night you better have standards that you get in an ITC or Hyatt – the ambience, cutlery , service were all lacking . The Gym & the Spa exist – but nothing great to write about them

So when in Pondicherry The Dunes is a good option ( We heard that Le Pondy is also a good place) .  A 2 night stay is sufficient – if you want to take a day trip to Chidambaram maybe a 3 night trip. Avoid Pondy in summer – it can be very very hot , again Oct to Feb is the best time to travel, but Nov / Dec is NE Monsoon !!

The Dunes is located on the ECR Road – 14 Km away from Pondicherry city – so when you head to Chennai its one straight road. Again a single track road with no dividers – but you can easily do 100+ Km/Hr and reach Mahabalipuram in less than an hr. On our way to Chennai we stopped by at Dakshinachitra (We have been to Mahabs before hence skipped it – but if you haven’t  don’t miss it , its a UNESCO world heritage site)

Dakshinchitra is located 21 Km from Chennai. It is a museum of traditional S India houses from T Nadu , Kerala, Andhra & Karnataka . Kids will love to see how our grandparents lived – they also have some activities and stores in the complex. You can easily spend a few hrs here , have lunch at the restaurant inside and then head to Chennai.  We had only a day at Chennai and between visiting some relatives – we ensured that we managed to drop by Rathna Stores, Saravana Bhawan and the lovely jewelry & silk sari stores in and around Pannagal Park (Warning – These stores can cause serious damage to your purse).

We left Chennai at 12 Noon and were at home  in Bangalore at 545 PM –  with a 30 min stop at Vellore.

A good compact trip – where the journey was not tiring. From temples, Ashrams , Beaches , Global Community, Shopping – we had a lot of variety packed in the 4 night 5 Day trip.

In the busy schedule at Bangalore we live from holiday to holiday , so we are eagerly looking forward to our next one at the Park Hyatt – Goa around Diwali

Till then Goodbye !

Thiruvanamalai – Enroute to Pondicherry

Bangalore is surrounded with amazing weekend getaways. Most people would take the Mysore road towards Coorg, Ooty, Bandipur , Kabini or the Chickamangalur Route . This time we decided to head to Pondicherry – but packed in a nice round trip over 4 Nights that covered Blr – Thiruvanamalai – Pondicherry – Chennai – Blr ( If you have time you can actually extend this to a 7 night trip & cover Chidambaram, Mahabalipuram & Kancheepuram)

Thiruvanamalai is 220 Km from Bangalore and a 6 Hr drive. The 1st 100 Km is on the road to Chennai and then at Krishnagiri you take a detour off the highway. ( NH7 , NH 46 & NH66) The 1st 100 Km takes 2 hrs (Including a breakfast stop) and the remaining 120 takes an additional 2.5Hr hrs – so if you leave Blr at 7 AM you can reach by 1130AM – in time for check in & lunch . Best place for breakfast stop is Shri Krishna Inn ( about 60 Min from Silk Board) – other Options are Kamat , McDonalds & Cafe Coffee Day.

Thiruvanamalai is famous for two things

1. The ancient Shiva Temple of Arunachalam (Sanctum  is said to be nearly 2000 + years old) – and the 14 Km walk around the temple along the scenic hills helps you redeem you of your sins.

The temple is massive and majestic & surrounded by hills covered with clouds. The 14 Km walk around the Temple called Girivalam is famous and is announced by the temple authorities on certain days of the year. The walk area is neat and clean with excellent footpaths and is designed to cater to the massive crowds that flood  the temple town  on auspicious days.

2. The second thing that makes Thiruvanamalai famous is the Ramana Maharishi  Ashram. This is where a young boy of 16 undertook penance in a small cave and reached sainthood. 

The Ashram is well maintained and has many visitors from across the world who come to understand the simple approach to life and to answer the questions ” Who am I ?  What is  my purpose in life ? ”  – its a small Ashram and can be covered in less than an hr. Do visit the bookstore which has an excellent collection.  If you plan to trek to the cave where he meditated that could take you an additional hr.

You can cover Thiruvanamalai in less than 1/2 a day, the Ashram and the temple are closed after 12 Noon , so even if you start at 3 PM you can cover both by 6 PM. They are both located close by.

The best place to stay is the Sparsa Hotel. This is an excellent property managed by the Aloft Group. (Its part of the SPG Group so carry your card for points)

It has 38 tastefully designed rooms in an ambience of lush greenery. Its a wonderful place   – peaceful & quiet .

Rooms come with all modern amenities, the bathrooms are big & spacious , they have 24 hr room service and an excellent pure Veg restaurant. (No Liquor , No Smoking)

A lovely swimming pool & Yoga Huts for soothing early morning sessions

They also have a lot of activities for Kids, unfortunately we did not have the time to stay back and enjoy most of them

Thiruvanamalai can get very hot in Summers ( 45+ Deg C) so plan your trip sometime between Oct & Feb.

We left after a wonderful breakfast and headed towards Pondicherry (126 Km – 2 Hrs).  Thiruvanamalai & Sparsa is a great break point in your journey to Pondicherry – it breaks the monotony of a day long drive and helps you catch up on some wonderful sights.

We thoroughly loved this break and were fully energetic as we headed to Pondicherry for the next phase of our holiday. Details on Pondy , the amazing Dunes Resort Hotel and how best to spend a few days at Pondy in the next Blog entry

Bandipur – Jungle Retreat

If you are in Bangalore you must visit Bandipur during a long weekend. Its just 91 Kms from Mysore. So if you leave Bangalore at 7 AM , stop for breakfast enroute you should reach Bandipur around lunch. (Bangalore Mysore on a good day is 3.5 Hrs and Mysore to Bandipur is another 2 hrs).

Bandipur is on the Mysore – Ooty road and on the way you cross the historical Nanjangud Shiva Temple. (If you are religious drop by , its a small detour and worth it to visit a 1000 + year old temple)

An hr from Mysore you start entering forest area, and vast stretches of greenery that expand. These are foothills of the W Ghat’s and probably one of the finest eco reserves across the world. Bandipur, Waynad , Nagerhole , Madumalai are all one continuos forest  stretch and probably have the best Tiger Conservation in practice.

As you drive past there is a high probability that you will spot many deers and sometimes even elephants crossing the road. We were lucky to see one which got the kids really excited. The jumbo was in no hurry to move and posed for some excellent close up shots.

We stayed at the Cicada.(Now called Serai) A property owned by the Cafe Coffee Day Group. The property is located right at the edge of the forest.

Its a quiet serene place, the architecture blends with the ambience. They have limited rooms, which are clean and efficient. Nice beds, good wooden flooring, modern bathrooms, classy but not soaked in luxury. The rooms have no TV.

Every room has a small portico with chairs where you can relax and listen to the birds chirping and maybe late at night a tiger roar.

In terms of activity there is limited stuff to do. The property runs into a few acres and you can explore it well within an hr. They serve excellent food – breakfast , lunch , dinner , tea. But there are no multiple restaurants. In the evening they play some movies in a small club room which also has some indoor games. DJ & Campfire are prohibited since its next to the forest.

The activity that you look around for is the trek to the forest. This happens in jeeps once in the morning and once in the evening. Its about an hr and the hosts really try hard to spot wild animals. Most of the time the Tigers, Elephants , Bisons are elusive and all you will see are Deers , Peacocks and Wild Fowl. We took 3 treks and finally on the last day were rewarded with a close up view of the Royal Tiger.

If you can get one view of the Royal Tiger the trip to Bandipur is worth it. And the Trek organizers claim that you do spot one every 3rd trip they take (The recent supreme court order on tourism to jungles may have impacted the jeep drives into the jungle , so please check with the hotel before you leave)

These tours are priced separately and when you travel do keep some warm clothing with you.

Other than the jeep tours there are small walking treks that you can take – again organized every morning & evening. But thats about it in terms of activity.

The Cicada is not cheap and we visited during the New Year Eve – a 3 night package in Dec 2010 was 25K, inclusive of food.  ideal trip to Bandipur would be a stopover enroute to Ooty. And if you are going to Ooty do visit Destiny Farms.( http://vak1969.com/2010/06/07/destiny-farms/)

There are quite a few more hotels near Cicada/Serai , check out Windflower Resort also. Jungle Lodges also has a property close by.

Sale Sale everywhere but not a drop of Service

In one of their bestsellers C.K.Prahlad & Gary Hamel had talked about a framework where every successful company created their core competency from a set of 3 parameters. You need to be good at all 3 but to be truly world-class be the best in at least one of these 3 parameters.

1. Innovation 

2. Operational Efficiency

3. Customer Service 

Being Innovative is hard and in the recent past Apple stands out as the best example of a company that has Innovation as its Core Competency. ( Apple excels in all 3 areas which is probably why it is at a high that no company has previously achieved) DELL did well for many years with its strong Operational Efficiency and Singapore Airlines continues to lead with its focus on Customer Service.

Lets now shift gears to India – and companies operating here. We don’t see too much of Innovation and its more of a Copy culture , Commitments don’t matter so there is limited focus on operational efficiency – the only hope we had was to excel in Customer Service. But sadly that has not happened.

Every company  has hordes of sales people – Insurance , Phones , Cars , Houses, Credit Cards … we are deluged with mails and calls. You walk into a bank and someone rushes out trying to sell a scheme or a Bank loan. 99% of these guys are half baked , don’t know the products they sell and cannot answer the basic questions you have for them. When it comes to after sales the problem is even worse.Let me share with you some experiences from leading brands in India – 4 disasters and 1 Wow.

The HP Printer Debacle 

HP is the worlds leading printer brand. I would assume controlling > 50% market share. We changed our printer 14 months back and got a HP Photo-smart. A month back it stopped working . Reliance Digital the store we bought it from asked us to contact a HP service centre. We checked their website and landed up at Redington – Cunningham Road the authorised service centre.  The hassled busy girl at the counter took an advance of 2000 Rs and said it would be fixed in a week. We called after a week , and she said one more week. After the second week when we called – she said she would revert. The third week when we called she said it would be ready by Fri. On Fri morning she said the spare was yet to come. I was traveling to Redington Chennai on Mon and met the CEO and shared with him details about the incident. Our meeting was at 930 AM , by 3 PM the printer was delivered at my home. The print head had to be changed – and it took nearly a month and almost the cost of the printer to get fixed – and if the escalation had not happened to Redington CEO I wonder how much more time it would have taken.

Cancellation after 6 weeks @ Tanishq  Koramangla 

I spotted Asin wearing a wonderful necklace at Riteish Deshmukh’s marriage  and wanted to get a similar one made. We visited the Tanishq store at Koramangla. Service was great – coffee was served and well dressed men and women sashayed by. They looked up their design brochures and found a design that was almost 90% in line with our request. An order was placed and a sum of Rs 77,000/- paid as advance. Delivery time was 2 weeks.

Two weeks later when I called the salesman, he said work was going on and it would take another week. A week later when I called he said they needed one more week. This went on for nearly a month and finally I did get a call saying that I could come to the store. It was a Saturday nearly 6 weeks from the date of my ordering . The sales man who had taken the order was not there and the manager came up and informed me that they were not able to make the necklace and hence would refund the money. It took some calls to the Regional head and in a week the chk was sent to my house.

TATA AIG – How your Nett Worth can go down ! 

Some years back I fell prey to a smart sales girl from HSBC Bank who sold me a TATA AIG Insurance policy. It was linked to markets and I was assured of great returns. My annual premium was 1 Lac & the lock in was 3 years.  Post the 3 years I needed some liquidity and since the markets had performed exceedingly well decided to encash. By then the lady from HSBC had moved 3 companies and HSBC was no longer servicing TATA AIG policies so I had to meet the TATA AIG folks. After 2 long hrs and trying to convince me not to encash they finally came with a  calculation that the amount due to me was 2.5 Lacs.  Only now did I find out that deep within the 20 page document they made me sign was a clause that stated that the 1st year processing & administration fee was 60K , second Year 30 K & 3 year 10 K – so of the Rs 3 Lacs paid , 1 Lac had gone away in service charges and on the balance with the gains the net worth of my policy was 2.5 Lacs.  I could not argue , took the money – but with the learning that if you need a Insurance policy stick to LIC . Since then I have taken 5 more policies and referred many friends – but none for TATA AIG.

Axis Bank Home Loan 

Axis Bank is a good bank. I have had excellent service from their Privy & Wealth management section. I recently took a home loan. All home loans are serviced by DSA agents (Agencies who work on commission). Having taken a few loans in the past I was wary about 2 things and specifically asked him two Questions

1. Is there any insurance linked to the home loan ? 2.  Is there a limit on how much I can prepay in the course of a year and whats the prepayemnt penalty if any? 

He was emphatic that Axis Bank had no insurance mandate and there was no prepayment penalty. With this assurance we moved fast and within 10 days had the approval letter. The letter clearly mentioned that loan would be sanctioned subject to my taking a 50 Lac Insurance Policy against the property. The DSA tried all reasoning and explanations – but it was a clear case of wrong commitments in a desire to close a deal. I had to speak to some Sr folks at Axis bank and fortunately the matter was resolved – but this was one more example of a good brand delivering poorly on customer service.

All of us have experienced similar incidents and I could go on and on – and its baffling at the scant respect for customer service and meeting commitments from some large corporations which position themselves as great trustworthy brands. Sometimes the smaller mom & pop shops go the extra mile at ensuring customer satisfaction.

The Flipkart Experience 

At the other end of the spectrum is the small online startup Flipkart. It is sheer pleasure to interact with Flipkart. the website is smooth easy to navigate  , payment gateways always work , the choice of products is a wow and most importantly the quality of customer service and response is outstanding. Most people buy from online sites because its cheap – I would buy from Flipkart even if it was at a premium. They exceed expectations at every step and honor all the commitments they make – no questions asked. Flipkart is the gold standard on Customer Service in India. Its setting the standards for online business and lets hope these standards become the norm in the long run.

How is it that in the same country a startup with young CEO’s in their 30’s deliver CSAT experience which some of our largest Corporations are unable to even comprehend. Is it lack of vision , lack of investment , or just the culture of ” Chalte Hai” ?

Whatever it is Young India is going to get more demanding and if Indian Companies don’t fix their service orientation  we will see many big names going down the drain in the coming years. This is both an opportunity & a threat

The Grass is Green…. the other side

They say that the grass is always green….. on the other side. A very old adage that is very very true. This is a tale of two smart, young men around 30 years old. I have interacted with both  and there is great similiarity between them. Both are  logical, data oriented, great at analysis & number crunching. Trustworthy & reliable. Not prone to job hopping, have spent long stints in the same company. Rare qualities to see in todays middle management workforce. For the sake of convenience lets call them Ram & Shyam.

Both were born in simple middle class families – Ram in small town Kottayam in the midst of God’s own country. Surrounded by serene backwaters and the swaying coconut palms. A land where every second house has an NRI.

and Shyam from Indias fastest growing state,  the land of  thepla, Garba & Dandia – the land of diamond merchants and stock brokers – Rajkot.

Both did well in school and completed their graduation in Commerce. The similiarity ends here.

Ram decided to move to Bangalore and joined a MNC in the finance function . After 5 years he changed his job and moved to a second large MNC . He did well and decided to change track from Finance to Business Intelligence & Product Management – which is what he currently excels in. In the interim he also completed his CA.

Shyam took a slightly different route. He decided to do an MBA from Paris. Took an internship at a large MNC in Paris and went on to become an employee of the same company in London. He has been at the same company since then and is responsible for  Business Intelligence for the entire region . He is on top of his work, and an asset to the organization.

Both have done well in their careers , are respected & valued for their contributions and would be among the top 10% when compared to their industry peers.

Both have bought a house at a young age and have a bright future ahead.

Now comes the dilemma. Given a choice Ram would like to move from Bangalore to London or Singapore or Dubai while Shyam is equally desperate to come back to India. I spoke at length to each of them and was able to empathize with them since I had to take a similar decision in 2002 , when we came back to India from Dallas. Lets look at the reasoning of Ram & Shyam.

 Top Reasons for Ram to move out from Bangalore 

1. Tired of the clutter , chaos & cacophony of Bangalore – Power Cuts , Garbage , Q’s . Not just Bangalore every large city is a mess. Would love to go back to small town in Kerala but there is no scope for livelihood there.

2. Financially I think I may be better of working for a few years abroad. My saving potential will be better.

3. My brother is in Singapore and my wife & me would like the experience of going abroad for a few years. Kids are small so there is no challenge at this stage.

4. The exposure to the work culture & professionalism in UK & Singapore would be a great learning.

 Top Reasons for Shyam to come back to India (Bangalore)

1.  Have done the same job for too long – monotonous, difficult to get a change. People here are expected to do the same job for eternity

2. Professionally feel a little aloof at times, cultural integration is an issue even in 2012 in the global world

3. We have to do everything by ourselves  – no Maids.

4. We miss the family and when we have kids we would love for them to be surrounded by relatives.

But somewhere deep down he does not want to sell his house in London suburbs.He still wants to keep some of his investments in GBP – and he did wait till he got his citizenship before evaluating coming back. In other words a safety net … just in case things did not work out in India.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if there were no Visa Restrictions for Indians. Would there be mass exodus ? Would Punjab , Harayana , Andhra , Kerala become ghost states ? Would 100 M or 200 M or even 500 M people rush out of the country ?

But for every youngster who wants to go there are many people coming back. Yes the folks coming back have established financial security and will probably come back to a world of fancy villas, multiple maids, drivers & International Schools.

What would my advice be to these two people? Tough one since they have compelling arguments to justify the change the seek.

It also makes me wonder which is the ideal place to settle down for the future  – what does one want  – Fresh Air, Clean water, Non Stop electricity, Good roads, Good Efficient Public Transport,  Public Health systems that function, Low Inflation , Affordability , Peace , Good schools, safety and security  – and I ask myself do we have this in India or Bangalore or any other city ? Do we have hope that we will have this in the next 10 – 20 years. Going by precedence things if any have gone worse, there was a time when as kids we could drink water from the railway station tap and cycle down the  road to buy vegetables & biscuits. Our kids today cant even step out of the road to the shop outside. We are lucky to live in a bubble . Education system is messed up and if you don’t have MONEY or POWER life is a struggle.

We need to ask ourselves why would millions of India rush out if there was a Visa free regimen ? So my answer to my young friends is quiet apparent. Think rationally , think of the future of your kids and take the right decision.

These are all Rational thoughts and if  you start bringing in the emotional quotient of family then the thought process does take a different turn. But each person has to do what is right for him.

So whats my recommendation – The final analogy is a harsh one – but truth is bitter. So here I go. You have two choices – Do you  want to live like a slightly underfed, slightly undernourished street pup that has the freedom to roam round in the city  or do you want to be a well fed, well groomed Alsatian on a LEASH. You decide 

All the best Guys !

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