Vacation Chronicles

I just returned from an exhausting vacation with my wife and three year old daughter. It was a great time to get away from the heat in Chennai. Below are some random observations from my trip, some economic and some general.

London - yuck: I've been trying to get my hands around why people love London and why so many foreigners have been moving there and calling it home. I've mostly traveled to London on business and have never had the chance to look around or observe things. This was the first time I spent several days in the city on holiday. London is one of the most characterless cities I've visited. London prides itself on being an international city and boasts of more foreigners as residents than British citizens (atleast figuratively speaking). However, this makes London a very transient city. Funnily, London feels more transient than Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. No one belongs to London. The entire workforce in the non-professional areas of the city is Polish, Romanian, Italian or a motely mix from several EU countries.

The only reason, I think, communities like wealthy Russians and wealthy Indians love living in London is because they can retain their own identity and character in London despite living away from their home and country. Since London has no character left, it means nothing to be a Londoner. So for a foreigner calling it home, no change/transformation is expected.
I will take New York over London any day. Time zone and connectivity to the rest of the world be damned.

Disneyworld rocks: That Americans are the best innovators in the world is an irrefutable fact. Disneyworld is a wonder of the world. I've been to Disney many times over the years and have been to theme parks around the world. However, being at the Magic Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom with my three year old was an experience beyond words. Walt Disney did create magic and Bob Iger and his team at Disney have kept it alive. The rest of the world is going to follow the US's lead on leisure and entertainment for decades to come.

A word on cruises: We took a Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas. To take a ship that was not built in the US and to staff it with 3,000 people not one of whom is American and to make it into a seamless product that functions beautifully and efficiently is a true feat of American ingenuity. I don't care if Swiss trains run on time, they cannot run a cruise ship the way Royal Caribbean can, they just don't have the culture and don't have the people skills. The cruise was completely sold out and we didn't feel it.

Value of a $5 tip: As much as we try to under-pack, Indians like Japanese end up carrying a lot of luggage. With my wife taking care of our spirited three year old, I became the designated bell-hop on our trip. I realized that it is impossible to get help with bags in the UK (or for that matter anywhere in Europe). I also realized that it is very easy and cheap to get help with bags in the US. I got help with my bags twice each in Orlando, Port Canaveral and New York and each time I gave the porter a tip of US$5 (the cheapskate that I am). Six out of six times, the porter was happy and left with a smile on his face. I got help twice at Chennai airport and tipped the porter $2 both times and each time I heard him grumble and ask for more.

Save America from tipping: I think Americans have gone nuts with tipping. The king of the heap is my business partner Pratik. He waited tables in college and according to him benefited from the generosity of strangers who tipped him well thereby helping him through college. Now Pratik cannot tip less than 20% no matter how bad the service. It seems like the rest of the US is catching up with him. It used to be that 15% was considered a good tip. Now checks routinely have 18% and 20% suggested tip amounts printed on them. I had a terrific experience on this trip. A restaurant in Orlando charged me 15% on my check so I decided not to tip (thinking it was service included like in Europe), the waiter came back to me and recorded his displeasure and made it known to me that a gratuity was customary and expected and that he did not receive anything from the service charge that the owner charged.

New York the ridiculous: I have deep respect and admiration for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I think he is a rock solid guy. But $13 for the Lincoln tunnel takes the cake. When I was in college in Philadelphia in the late nineties the toll for the tunnel used to be $4. The port authority increased it to $6 and then to $8. And now $13 is just ridiculous. I used to think that cab rides in Europe and London were expensive. From Newark airport to Manhattan, it cost me $61 for the taxi fare, $18 for tolls and ... wait for it ... $12 in expected (and almost demanded at gunpoint) tip that was below the standards of my business partner Pratik. So it cost me $91 (60 pounds and 70 euros) to get from Newark airport to Manhattan in a filthy cab.

The US has the BEST quality of life in the world: I know it doesn't feel that way to most Americans. That is because whatever our situation in life, we start to take it for granted very quickly. The quality of life in America is undisputably the best in the world. One of my measures of the quality of life is a trip to the grocery store. I've done this EVERYWHERE I've traveled in the world. All it takes is one trip to Wegmans ( Food Market to settle the argument.

Overall we had a great trip. The US rocks and I hope India becomes more like the US and less like the basket cases of Europe, the UK, Australia and Japan.