Friday, 29 January 2010

The Fourth Restate

Mangalore, Jan 21st, 2009

The morning of our second day in Mangalore. We're in our hotel lobby waiting for our car to arrive so we can begin our day long road trip. I glance at the glass table beside the sofa I'm on. I notice that all the newspapers on it carry the same front page story.


Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Thirsting for Reusability

                     Contributing to plastic waste in Old Manali

Refilling old plastic water bottles beats buying new ones, especially when travelling. Not all towns and cities that you visit have waste disposal processes similar to the ones that exist in large cities like the one you may come from, and buying and throwing away a lot of plastic bottles could easily ruin a beautiful town. So it makes sense to reuse old bottles to reduce the amount of garbage that you create. Also, you save up on money that you'd normally spend on bottled water, which amounts to a lot if you're backpacking on a budget over a period of time.

I found Leh and McLeod Ganj great as far as drinking water was concerned during my visit there in May & June, 2009. Instead of buying bottled water (Rs 15-20) everyday, I could reuse and refill my 1 litre bottle at refill stations that sold purified or boiled water refills, at Rs. 7 in Leh and Rs. 10 in McLeod Ganj.

In Leh, an environmentally conscious organisation called Dzomsa runs two shops that provide people with boiled water refills, apricot & sea buckthorn juice, dry fruit products, etc. Dzomsa is a good initiative to keep Ladakh clean, and to ensure waste gets reduced and reused where possible, particularly disposable plastic water bottle waste.

Old Manali was a different story however. A day into my stay there after travelling down from Leh, I realised there weren't any refills and that I'd have to keep buying a new bottle of water once or twice a day. So not cool. And after 9 days I had my own little plastic bottle collection (see picture above).

Another thing that struck me when I visited all these towns was the fact that almost none of their restaurants served free drinking water, something I'm not used to in Mumbai, where every single restaurant serves you free but probably unpurified water, which is refilled at many points during your meal, whether you want more water or not.

Not so in the North. They just sell you the bottled stuff. Now I wonder if that's a good or bad thing. Not serving free drinking water does save on water wastage, since people have a tendency to misuse and take for granted what is given for free. But it also means people are buying more water, and probably increasing plastic wastage, so I'm not sure which is the lesser evil.

I suppose the best solution would be for a restaurant to offer only bottled water that you could then refill at a subsidised cost? In which case Leh and McLeod Ganj seem to be on the right track, while Mumbai and Old Manali lie on opposite ends of the extreme wastage spectrum.

Do you have any thoughts on water or plastic wastage that you'd like to add?


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

On South Indian Food And Other Living Memories

                An after-church breakfast in Bangalore, 2009

So my post today is on South Indian food. For the longest time, I believed that Indian food was, outside the Goan/non-veg/hybrid/somewhat-bland concoctions we feasted on at home, entirely made up of South Indian fare and a few outliers like sizzlers.

Now my reason for believing this is because I spent my childhood in Muscat, where everytime we ate out, which incidentally was at least once a week, we would either drive to a fast food outlet like KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Wendy's, etc; or visit one of the numerous Indian restaurants in the city, like Kairali when we were younger, and Venus and Indian Express in later years.

The fast food outlets were what they were - bland - but we didn't have anything to compare them to then. To us they constituted delicious non-Indian food. I wouldn't eat there now. And as for the Indian joints, we'd always eat the same thing - chicken corn soup, or something South Indian like dosas, along with sambar and coconut chutney.

I still remember Indian Express, that typical Udipi like joint that we'd lunch at after church on Fridays, where I'd only have Sada Dosas, sometimes two at a time. I'm sure that most somewhat fancy Indian restaurants had a Chinese section as well, or Indian Chinese rather, and other varieties, but we didn't think of trying those. My family never strayed from the safety zone, what we were comfortable eating, what we were familiar with. Which explains why most of our visits to restaurants ended up with me having the same thing over and over - dosas, chicken corn soup or the occasional sizzler. And that was it. That was the limit of what constituted Indian food to me.

And then I came to Mumbai, and started eating out with friends, and my world changed forever. I discovered Punjabi food, which you could actually eat with something called naan. And different subjis and curries. And Konkan, Mughlai, Gujarati, Hyderabadi, and North Indian cuisine. I don't eat South Indian food any more, except on Sunday mornings maybe, or when I have no other choice.

Have you made any changes in food habits or the way you view food as you've gotten older?


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Job Interview Tips: Questions You Must Ask

I've been to a lot of interviews in my professional career, and in all that time I've learned that there are a few questions that you, as a candidate, simply must ask your interviewer during that first round. I've shared them below.

Skills & Responsibilities

What are the top skills I will need for this position?

What responsibilities will this position entail?

What are the top tasks that I will need to accomplish on a daily basis?

What responsibilities and tasks will take up most of my time?

Is there anything you have seen in other people you have interviewed that you have not seen in me?

The Position

Whom will I be reporting to?

Whom will I be working most closely with?

Is this a new position? If not, why did the previous person leave?

Are there any particular concerns I need to be prepared for in this position?

What will a typical day/week be like?

The Department

How is this dept. structured?

How many people does this dept have?

What are the current challenges in this dept?

The company

What scope is there for personal development at your company?

Are there opportunities for growth, both horizontal and vertical?*

Pointed Questions

What do you like about working here?

Is there anything you would like to change?

When can I expect a response from you?

Do not:

Don't ask general questions about the company's work - you're expected to know this.

Don't ask about work days & timings, overtime & leave policy, travel & relocation requirements, etc. It might give your employers the impression that you're finicky. Just wait for your interviewers to brief you about these details themselves. It's what they usually do. If not, wait until a later round before you bring them up.

Don't discuss your salary under any circumstance during the first interview round. If you are asked for a figure, don't mention a specific sum or range. Wait till the final round and make them put a number down, which you can then use to negotiate over.

*Don't ask too many questions about your career path unless you're a fresher or young executive interviewing at a large firm. Large firms want young people to grow with them (though that growth can be slow and somewhat bureaucratic). If you have experience, or are being interviewed for a specialist or very technical and somewhat senior role, or interviewing at a small firm that probably has a flattish hierarchy, asking too many questions about vertical growth might give your interviewers the jitters, as they're looking for someone to perform a certain role and remain in that role, and not necessarily grow.

Don't ask if your job is going to be fun or if the company is a fun place to work. Everyone wants a fun place to work but asking this question at a company with a serious corporate culture is like committing Seppuku. Instead, observe the company's culture yourself by looking around when you visit their office. If in doubt, or if it's a telephonic interview, ask an open ended question about company culture.

If you're planning to go on leave, wait till you get an offer first before mentioning it.

Please note: 

These questions apply to jobs in general. If you're being interviewed for a sales, business development, strategic planning role, etc. you're probably going to want to ask a lot more pointed questions involving the company's prospects, targets and revenue, etc. And you're questions would automatically take on a more technical bent if you're applying for a technical job.

Do have any good candidate questions that you feel should be included on this list?


Thursday, 14 January 2010

My Quickest Meal at 30,000 Feet

In an earlier post, I described how plane rides can be somewhat enjoyable. However, you don't have to worry about enjoying your ride when it ends pretty soon after it begins. Because that's what happened to a friend and I on an early morning Jet Airways flight from Bangalore to Mangalore last January.

                                   Looks delicious, doesn't it?

Breakfast was served around ten minutes into the flight, and we had just begun unwrapping our food, and I my camera, when the captain announced, to everyone's surprise, that we would be landing in three minutes. The flight attendants hadn't even finished serving all the passengers! I saw one attendant run to the captain's cabin immediately after the announcement, perhaps to ask him to ease off.

It was all I could do to take a couple of pics of the meal and then join my pal in wolfing down the breakfast like our lives depended on it. Which was a pity really since it wasn't a bad meal and would have been worth spending more time over. We did of course finish eating and the air hostesses did clear up about just a minute before landing, but I still don't get why they couldn't have just served everyone sooner, seeing as how they should have known the flight would only be 20 minutes.

As for us, managing to finish breakfast in time actually made us feel somewhat triumphant, like we had overcome a challenge. And we reached Mangalore quickly. A train from Bangalore would have been an overnight affair, and I doubt I'd have gotten much sleep. In fact, had I known the flight would be so short, I might not have bothered with my motion sickness pills.

I hear flights between Mumbai and Pune are even shorter. Have any interesting short flight or airplane food stories of your own that you'd like to share?


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Hitting Reality at Leh Palace

I had arrived in Leh on the evening of May 10th, 2009, and decided to explore Leh palace on the morning of the 11th. My guesthouse being way out of town meant that I had to walk all the way to town first and then somehow find my way to the palace.

Now, my research warned me about avoiding any physical exertion during my first few days in Ladakh, due to oxygen deprivation, but since I had arrived via the Srinagar-Leh highway, which was supposed to help you acclimatise, and I didn't feel any high altitude effects the previous evening and night, I thought I was good to go. Big mistake. I should have rested at least another day or two.

So after breakfast at a restaurant mid-way, I made my way into town, looking for a path to the palace, which I soon found.

                                               Pretty steep eh?

As I climbed up, I realised I was running out of breath quickly. Every 10 steps I took seemed to leave me with the same exhaustion that running a 100 metre dash would at a lower altitude. I had to take numerous breaks just to get enough energy for the next few steps. So climbing up what looked like a short hill ended up taking a really long time. I did utilise my breaks to take lots of pics along the way though.

There was Munshi house about halfway up the hill, in the process of being restored.

There were a lot of divergent paths around here, but I didn't bother exploring too much. I was getting tired, and figured that all the paths could be used to get to the palace as long as you kept heading upwards.

I got an excellent view of the old part of the town from behind a rock wall a little further up.

Did you notice the crowded open ground in the photo above? Here's a closer look at the action.

It must have been a political rally, what with elections being only 2 days away. I can make out political posters near the top left of the photo. My own finger had alreday been inked back in Mumbai on April 30 of course.

Shifting my view right along the panorama that is Leh, the old town gave way to the newer, posher part of town.

Here's a closer look at the burbs. A lot of quiet homestays & guesthouses are situated here. Accommodation is really cheap, at Rs 200-300 a night to begin with.

I was quite high up now and had a clear view of Shanti Stupa, that holy Ladakhi landmark built by the Japanese, lying on the outskirts of Leh, pretty close to my guesthouse. I'd be climbing up there in a week's time.

I won't bore you with descriptions of the hills and mountains surrounding the town; after all, what can I say about sights like these?

I reached the top of the hill soon after, and had to scramble around this little stupa to get to the palace.

I was amazed looking at its sheer walls. This is truly a massive structure, built in the 17th century.

I was at the side of the place, at its west end. I made my way around to the front, walking east, simply content to spend some time here. I noticed these lights set up along the palace front, used to light up the palace at night.

I turned a corner again, coming to the palace's east side, and there was the main entrance, with a separate approach road for vehicles leading right up to it. The palace looked really grand from this end too.

So I went inside after a short rest. There wasn't an entry fee for Indian nationals. Upon entering, I noticed a lot of restoration work happening, some of which made for good photography.

The palace grounds brought up many an interesting sight.

Check out the two types of doors that I saw around the palace, below. The first one is a typical Ladakhi front door also found at people's homes. Note the garnishing above it.

And this is the typical monastery (gompa) door. The palace had its own little gompa or prayer room within its premises. This was the first time I saw one, even though the gompa was closed. I would be visiting many other gompas with similar doors over the next two weeks.

There was an exhibition on the archaeological heritage of Ladakh, and restoration projects across Kashmir, in one the palace's inner rooms, but photography wasn't allowed. I'm lucky I caught the exhibition at all, there being no signs around, and the palace being such a maze.

I left soon after, both thirsty and exhausted. I didn't each much for lunch or dinner that day, and it would be a while before I got my appetite back. An entire account of my first few days in Ladakh can be read here.

Let me leave you with one last really high-up picture of the old town from atop the palace. Striking, isn't it?

Do you have any interesting Ladakh experiences? Share them in the comments section.