Rambling on….

about anything under the Sun!

Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Oberoi Wildflower Hall in Shimla

And here is the third and final post on the trip to Shimla, after this and this. Given that we spent the bulk of our time at the Wildflower Hall, it is only fair that I devote an entire post to the place. Technically, the resort is not in Shimla – it is about 19 kms north of Shimla, and on the way to Kufri, near a tiny village called Mashobra. And although the distance seems short, it is almost entirely an uphill stretch, and quite a steep and winding climb, and will easily take you about 45 challenging minutes to get there from Shimla. But it is so totally worth the effort, the Wildflower Hall really is special and delightfully pristine.

The Wildflower Hall resort

If your objective is to just have a completely relaxed break up in the mountains, then this is a delightful location to seek out. Oberoi labels it a luxury resort (you know what that means, right? Yes, it is time to break the bank) and rightly so. From the moment you step into the property, the staff will spare no effort to make you feel like your blood is blue. One tradition that I simply love about the Oberoi – they know you before you actually get there (yes, they call you the day before or that morning to find out when you can be expected), receive you very, very warmly and at the same time with a cold welcome drink…and best of all, they don’t make you wait at the reception to check in. Instead, they take you to your room first and then they come to your room to check you in. After a long journey to get there, that is such a blessing. So simple and yet so brilliant, right? Why can’t more hotels follow their lead? As a customer, they certainly get my vote for how they handle this.

The rooms were great, they have a really spacious bathroom and a nice large bathtub to pamper yourself…and some breathtaking views, especially if you get yourself a room that overlooks the magnificent Himalayas. Really, there are few better reasons to wake up in the morning and open your eyes to that sight, in the company of a loved one.

View of the mountains

The hotel pool is outstanding – its indoor and very, very soothing but the jacuzzi is probably their crown jewel. Its outdoors on the terrace, and faces the mountains. The warm water and the cold mountain air make for a terrific combo, and once you get in, you are probably going to stay there. And the food…it was simply fantastic. Chef Mohan, who runs their kitchen is one of the best in the business, I’m sure and he was very nice about customizing and cooking it just the way we wanted – really, every meal was special and delightfully so. And the staff was great too – were eager and ready to provide anything we needed, and yet left us alone to our privacy when it mattered. We had requested a candle-lit dinner on the outside terrace one night, and they made sure it was an unforgettable experience. Everything, and I mean every single detail, was just perfect and extremely well-handled. Their resident sommerlier even called me a few hours in advance to advise me on the various wine options that will go with the menu I had picked. I wanted the dinner to be special and they made sure it was. The Oberoi is a luxury brand, and they certainly demonstrate that class. It was hospitality at its very best!

As for stuff to do around the place, there are a few nature trails that you could take – they are fairly easy hikes and will last a couple of hours and you could choose to do a picnic lunch if you like. We tried it a couple of times and were pretty happy. Sandwiches do seem to taste better when you eat them out in the wild, especially after you’ve had a good workout! Then there was the supposed white-water rafting expedition – There was very little water, it was anything but white, and we certainly weren’t rafting. In the end, it turned out to a pleasant ride in the dinghy, the only saving grace being some absolutely stunning views of the mountains from the Sutlej river. To be fair, the hotel did the right thing by refunding our charge for the activity when we complained that it was pretty lame. And there’s plenty of other stuff to keep you busy, but we chose to take it easy – our schedule typically revolved around the pool, the jacuzzi and the restaurants. Also, they have a nice projection TV setup in the bar, so watching the soccer World Cup games on the big screen was very cool.

White-water rafting

Of course, not everything was perfect – for one, a trip here costs a fortune. And the Oberoi lives by a simple policy – air and water are free, but we should be able to make money off everything else, and we are talking some serious money. I think about 30-40% of our bill at the end of the day was extras, and we didn’t do nearly as many things as we could have, so that should give you an idea. The spa was alright – it is apparently rated one of Asia’s top spas, and if that is indeed the case, that is very sad for Asia. And for what seemed like a very ordinary message, the price was anything but. It will probably remain the most expensive massage I have had in life. And they invited us to some lecture about the local arts in the region – you would think that’d be offered as a free service, but like I said, it wasn’t water or air, so the Oberoi sees dollar signs where you and I don’t. Their wireless tariff was another such joke – they wanted us to charge more for a day of wireless access than it costs me for an entire month at home. But that was good in a way because we chose not to take it and that kept us away from the computer, which was great. Their front desk could use a serious upgrade, and I don’t mean the actual desk. Not only did they not give us the special view room I had specifically requested, but their front desk staff reasonably incompetent spend hours fixing a billing error which should have taken no more than 30 seconds. The excuse they gave me for the room was that the hotel was full and they couldn’t move us, but that was such a poorly coordinated lie – it was fairly obvious that the hotel occupancy was no more than 30% when we were there. Lastly, the reservations staff will try to sell you some lame package that throws in a bunch of benefits for a nice price tag – simply refuse it. You can always figure out what “benefits” you actually want once you get to the hotel and pay the real price for those.

All that said, the resort was great and we had a fantastic break. I can’t wait to go back there again and lie in the jacuzzi all day 🙂 And I will probably want to go there in the winter this time around – it is hard to imagine the place more beautiful than it was, but we all know that snowfall can indeed work its magic on any canvas.

Jai Hind!

Its the 15th of August – Happy Independence Day, my dear India! 63 years and counting…And all things considered, it has been one impressive journey. Of course, there is so much untapped potential, so much more to be done, and it is easy to be critical of everything that’s wrong with the country. But I choose to be positive today – and in that spirit, it is so worth looking back and appreciating how far we’ve come as a nation. After all, what was a suppressed British colony not long ago is now a democratic nation of a billion plus people, staking claim to be one of the world’s superpowers. Not bad, not bad at all!

Even as late as 10 years ago, the notion of India as a superpower seemed laughable. There was so much wrong with the country, and to a large extent, there still is. Mired in corruption, saddled with the sad legacy of a divisive caste system, a political establishment that is largely self-serving and a growing rich-poor divide all suggest a seemingly hopeless future. To predict a glorious 2020 vision for India at that point either had to be sheer lunacy, or visionary genius. Thankfully for India, it was the latter, and in the form of one of our most loved Presidents, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.

From his humble beginnings in a remote town in Tamil Nadu, Dr Kalam’s ascent to the highest office in the land is a remarkable journey – one that was built on integrity, on merit and on his very stellar accomplishments. It was therefore, only natural that he envisioned a similar path of greatness for the country he so dearly loved. When Dr Kalam, an apostle of peace and love, and an epitome of simplicity, shared that vision, it suddenly seemed very believable. And now, having witnessed the terrific growth and progress over the last decade, it is heartening to see how realistic that vision was, and how India is so wonderfully on course to achieving her true potential – this despite all the challenges and the hurdles that continue to plague this nation. Clearly, the journey has only begun and there is a lot more to be done before that goal is accomplished but now there is hope, there is optimism and there is vigor in the pursuit of that goal. That can only bode well for India, and for the rest of the world. Go India!

I received at least a couple of Independence Day messages this morning that were laced with guilt – talking about how much could be done, and how as individuals, we were doing nothing more than complaining, not really helping the nation’s cause to any degree. Sadly, very true! And the pity is that it is not that hard…it is actually very possible to start making a difference. In fact, the only way we are going to accomplish true greatness as a nation is if each of us does our bit. Sure, we take small steps at first but a lot of small steps add up, and nothing is impossible when those steps start to align in the right direction. So, today, this Independence day, as I read my pledge, I solemnly swear to stop languishing in my guilt of not having done anything and instead start acting – by this time next year, I will have made a difference to this wonderful country. No matter how small, it will still be a difference, and one that I am proud of. Jai Hind!

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The flying Oryx

At a business quiz in Hyderabad a few years ago, the question for us was to name the airline that had an Oryx for its logo. We pleaded ignorance and had to pass the question, and I thought that was the end of that…but I realized last week traveling on Qatar Airways that the airline had never really forgiven me for that miss, it was payback time!

You know when you are planning your trip and you just get this sense that it is going to be a horrible experience? That’s the feeling I had, and sadly, my worst fears came true. It all started right from the get go. I wanted to change my dates a few hours before I had to fly and called Customer Service. Apparently, they can only look up booking details and answer questions about my reservation – they are not authorized to make itinerary changes, only Reservations does that. Why someone would bother staffing a Customer Service department that isn’t empowered to Serve the Customer, I will never understand. And Reservations is only open from 9-5 Mon-Fri, so they had already left for the day when I called. A little antiquated, no? I think I’d get better response from an Indian Government agency than I did with this airline, and that’s saying a lot.

So anyways, the Customer Service rep directs me to head to the airport to make the change there for if I don’t show up at the check in counter, they’d consider me a No Show and simply cancel my ticket, without any refund of course. So I religiously head to the airport and request a reschedule – of course, same answer. The check-in clerk is only authorized to check passengers in, not make changes to your ticket. The ground operations for Qatar Airways in Bangalore are managed by an external agency, which in itself is a bad sign. And to make matters worse, this agency’s staff is indifferent, incompetent, and so focused on getting you to do what they want, not the other way around. Its worth pointing out that the single beacon of hope was the lone Qatar Airways employee at the airport, who put in a sincere effort to reschedule my ticket but wasn’t successful because the flights were so full. So I had little choice but to get on that plane.

If the experience leading to the journey was bad, the travel itself was just horrid. Miserable seats that resembled park benches with a sorry excuse for a cushion set the tone. Personal TV screens on every seat – awesome…now if only they can figure out how to put them to good use by having movies that you’d actually want to watch, they’d be put to some use! The sweet-looking stewardess had seemingly signed a pact that barred her from smiling – I don’t blame her though. If I had her job, I probably wouldn’t want to smile either. The food, you ask? Barely edible! I seriously considered eating plastic instead – and if you requested a special meal like I did, you are guaranteed to be missing something or the other in your meal – happened to me every single time. And oh btw, Asian Vegetarians apparently don’t eat dessert? When I asked, they gave me fruit instead – Nice! Thank you for watching my diet, Oryx, but can I decide what I want for dessert please?

And the airport at Doha – what is with that place? Color schemes ignored for a second, it felt like an IKEA store, only smaller. More a shopping mall than airport, the place has all these weird walkways weaving around one another, and no matter which one you take, you always seem to end up in one of the duty-free shopping aisles. If you have struggled to get out of an IKEA store like I have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Anyways, I walk down to the coffee shop in the food court (again, more IKEA inspiration – the Swedish chain should be proud) and order a tall Americano, and the damn cup of coffee costs me $7! Of course, they served it in a container the size of a drum, but who cares? Seven dollars for a cup of coffee? I am sure it would have been cheaper to buy a barrel of oil. And it would probably have tasted better too. And oh, don’t even get me started on the restrooms. They had 4 for the entire terminal, which only housed about a couple of thousand people during that busy morning hour! And those restrooms make dirty sound like a good thing. I went to every single one of those 4, in the hope that at least one would be remotely usable, but no such luck. It was hard to even enter the place, a grim reminder of how nasty a species mankind is at times. Sad!

So, after such a delightful experience, I don’t think I ever want to fly the Oryx again – if I had to choose between flying Qatar and canceling my trip, I think I’d take the latter. I would recommend you do the same, but if you must travel, at least insist that you won’t use the airport for transit 🙂 I heard somewhere that Qatar was competing with and aspiring to be like Emirates – if my trip was anything to go by, Emirates has nothing to worry about, those aspirations will remain just that.

Facebook to Face-the-Book?

We are proud of our roads in India and of how chaos rules those roads. As an ardent believer in gross generalization of anything and everything, I put Indian road users into three broad categories: Those that honestly don’t know or believe that road rules exist in the country, those that know that rules exist but believe they are meant for the Others and finally the Rest, or as I like to refer to this last group, the Idiots. (And yes, I count myself in that group)

In an ideal world, here is what an Indian driving license test would look like if it were to reflect the skills that one needs to survive here:

Please answer Yes/No to the questions below. Can you:

1. Go hurtling down the wrong side of a one-way street with no hesitation, concern or guilt?

2. Drive right through a traffic light that is clearly blazing red, with scant regard for other vehicles crossing the intersection?

3. Halt for the light in what is quite clearly a Left-only lane and block traffic when you intend to go straight? Of course, you should only do this when you know there is a cop waiting on the other side to catch you jumping the light as in #2 above, right?
(Hint: 2 points if you answer Yes to both questions)

4. Brake suddenly while driving on the left lane in rush-hour traffic, make what looks like a natural right turn right through flowing traffic and deftly execute a U-turn maneuver because you realized you should be heading the other way? And 1 bonus point if you manage to do this while still staying upright.

5. Park your vehicle in the geometric center of a No Parking zone blocking at least one lane of traffic behind you?

6. Honk really, really loudly for no apparent reason, and with no real purpose? The intent should be to simply convey that the light is Red, traffic is stopped and you are not happy.

7. Do your best to block an ambulance with wailing sirens from passing through, thereby helping to contain our country’s growing population?

8. Weave a complex helical pattern within a span of 25 ft on a crowded street with at least 3 completely needless lane changes? Yes, in case you are wondering, this replaces the infamous “Can you weave a number 8?” part of the Driving test. I had always wondered why they make you do that, now after driving in Bangalore, I know better.

9. Insist that you will only drive with the high-beam lights on even on a well-lit highway so you can successfully blind every vehicle that’s coming in the opposite direction?

Every question that you answered with a Yes fetches you 1 point. If you manage to score at least 3 out of 9, you are eligible to appear for the driving test and prove your mettle at the wheel. Score over 5, and the driving test is waived and your license granted. You clearly have far too much skill that is going waste every minute you are not on the road and driving. And if you scored less than 3, please go get yourself a bus pass, you are clearly not qualified to drive your own vehicle.

Yeah, that sadly is the state of affairs – road rules and etiquette have indeed become a joke as we so passionately embrace Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory on the streets of Bangalore. Thankfully, there was always hope – there are folks that religiously follow these rules and try to set an example. Yes, they are very much in the minority and easily look like the fools that don’t know better . And as someone that belongs in that group, I have always been super frustrated. I am at a huge disadvantage simply because I take the high road, pun intended? And it irked me no end that there was seemingly nothing one could do to counter – the only option to fight the battle seemed to be stoop down to those same deplorable levels. Until now that is…Our good friend, Mark Zuckerberg and his pals @ Facebook are giving us a break? New Delhi’s finest might have found us just the weapon we need, taking advantage of Facebook and the explosive growth of camera phones in India to give us a fighting chance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines, whip your cameras out and start shooting! I only ask that you stick to capturing just traffic violations and do so without putting yourself at risk on the street, and without holding up traffic yourself 🙂

Auto upgrade?

So, effective yesterday, the Auto rickshaw fares in Bangalore went up…again. Possibly the first time in history that one was subject to two consecutive days of taxation, albeit in different forms?

I am usually very sympathetic towards the genial auto guy. Yes, they are a rare species and it takes some effort and a lot of luck to find one of those, but they do exist. And for their sake, I support this hike. If you think about it, it is not easy earning one’s livelihood having to spend the entire workday in Bangalore traffic – no one deserves that kinda punishment. So yes, please try and cut them some slack. As salaried folks, we expect the double-digit merit increases that are our birthright, every year. Sometimes, more often than once a year, and we think we are being completely rational and reasonable in our expectations. Of course! I always deserve to be paid more than they pay me! And yet, when these poor guys get their “salary” increases via a fare hike, we are all up in arms against the entire community. You should have seen the number of protest letters to the Editor in today’s newspaper. That doesn’t seem very fair?

It is not like their demand for a fare hike was without basis – there was a substantial increase in the price of fuel by about 20% very recently, and someone’s going to have to pay for that fuel. So it just seems a tad unfair that we label them all sorts of things for wanting better compensation. Yes, there are the bad apples in the lot but more often than not, they are just trying to earn a living like you and me? It is hard to argue that their jobs are at least as stressful as ours, if not more? And the risk element? Surely they deserve some respect (and compensation?) for putting themselves through all of that? So, I don’t care what anyone says, I am happy that they got the increase they deserved, and one that was long pending.

When I first paid the new fare out this morning, I realized the increase was about 30% – now that’s a hike that even an Infosys would be proud of. So maybe this should have been done in phases, but in any case, the government finally woke up and acted. And that got me thinking – would the increase in auto fares over the years be a fair indicator of inflation? When I was in college, the fare per km was Rs 2 – almost one-fifth what it is today. And I know it seems like it, but I am not that old. We are talking less than 15 years here, and that’s quite a change for that short a period of time. However, that change is also very reflective of the “real” inflation we’ve had to negotiate as a country? I mean, there is sufficient reason to believe auto fares would keep pace with inflation – after all, most of the autos in Chennai are owned by the honorable politicians that uphold the law, and their even more respectable cronies? Surely they are going to take advantage of every opportunity they get to make sure the fares keep pace with the rest of the economy? And if I compare what a respectable IT company (which is considered the de facto benchmark for our economy – no clue why) paid a fresh college grad back in 1995 to what they pay today, the ratio seems very comparable to how much auto fares have gone up.

So it just seems like a fair (fare?) distribution from both perspectives. So quit complaining people and pay up! And I hope this increase will at least temporarily encourage my dear, friendly, neighborhood auto dudes to desist from tampering with their meters, asking for a ridiculous “extra” charge for no rational reason, or trying any of the other rotten tricks they typically resort to. Maybe they should try being honest and polite for a change, and they might just pleasantly surprise themselves with how well people respond!