2015 in review

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This Is Horribly Awesome

Ida and Saga are big fans of the Christmas holiday, and why wouldn’t they be? Santa’s elf, Nissen, visits every night for the first 24 days of December and leaves little gifts in the girls’ shoes. School’s out (at least when they’re enrolled in school) and the whole family does fun things together. And of course there are gifts.

We’re far from home and wanted Christmas to be a special time. When we  were looking for a place in India that would throw a good Christmas festival, we were drawn to Kerala. The State has a population of about 33m people. Of these, 55% are Hindu,  27% are Muslims and 18% are Christians. Kerala’s 6m Christians make up more than a fifth of India’s Christian population.

One of the first things we saw were the Christmas lights set up all over the city. They make a great show.

Entire streets are lit up.

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The houses look fabulous.

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Even the more modest homes.

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The churches put on a big show too.

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Christmas Eve dinner is typically a lot of fun. We get together with family, eat great food, sing songs, dance around the tree and open gifts. We found a restaurant in Kochi that arranged a special menu for us and let us install a tree on the dinner table. We don’t have a lot of room in our bags (weight and space constraints) so we’ve been careful when it comes to thinking about gifts. Here’s Saga’s wishlist:

  • Earrings,
  • Clothes,
  • Coloring book (small please).

Louise had a brilliant idea of giving each other redeemable cards. See below. This has given us some leeway in terms of balancing satisfaction and space and time.
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By dinner time we were able to fit it all on the table (Ida and Saga’s hair is by Linda).
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We returned home from dinner with full bellies and happy hearts.

There’s no snow here. We traded in water for snow and spent Christmas day at an amusement park: Wonderla is located an hour away by rickshaw from Fort Kochi. Lots of rides and lots of attention (we were the only white tourists).

We were impressed by a couple of things.

The food was excellent. And healthy. At an amusement park.

Here’s a shot of the chai wallah.
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Not a soul wore swimsuits. People went fully dressed into the water rides (you can see it on the link for Wonderla, above). Everyone walked around soaked from the rides, wearing saris, salwar kamise, kurtas, athletic wear. It was hot out and wet clothes were kind of refreshing.

There was a band that toured the site. See the picture below (it captures the whole band). image

And here’s a clip of the music they played. Terrific sound.

Listen to wdrla3 .wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

At 5pm today:

Saga: ‘This is the best Christmas ever’.

Ida: ‘This is horribly awesome’.

 

 

The Rickshaws

One of the first things one encounters upon arriving in India is the auto rickshaw. It’s everywhere.

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in Delhi alone there are an estimated 70,000 rickshaws. One study estimates between 2 and 11 rickshaws per 1,000 inhabitants. In a country with a population of 1.25b that would mean between 2.5m and nearly 14m rickshaws on the road, and an army of rickshaw drivers numbering between 5m and 28m people (drivers operate their vehicles for twelve-hour shifts).

Many riders complain about rickshaw drivers. The most common objections are that drivers refuse passengers and overcharge. Meters are usually broken, tampered with or just never used. This can lead to bad-tempered haggling on the street and when no mutually acceptable resolution is found, drivers simply speed off.

The first auto-rickshaw was introduced to India by Bajaj in 1959. It was inspired  by Piaggio’s Ape C model (Ape models are still very common). Today the five biggest rickshaw makers are Atul Auto, Piaggio, Mahindra and Mahindra, TVS Motors and Bajaj. Bajaj has greatest market share.

With such great numbers on the road and multiple producers, there’s tremendous variety in the rickshaws.

Here is the uncommon blue striped rickshaw:

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This one has a roof rack:

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Here’s one with a blue interior:

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And one with a purple interior:
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There is luxury:
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And style.
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A typical rickshaw driver is a man aged 30 to 50 years. His rickshaw has an 8 liter tank, his mileage is 33km per liter and he typically drives up to 100km per day. Daily revenues are Rs650 (about CAD 13). Drivers that rent their rickshaw pay up to half of their earnings in rent.

Safety and emissions are big issues for rickshaws. Although rickshaws travel at slow speeds (less than 50kph) they’re not particularly crash-resilient and injuries are the common result of collisions. There is a push to improve passenger safety through simple design features such as seat belts and padding on hard surfaces.

Most rickshaws have a two-stroke engine (about 150cc). This type of engine is lighter and cheaper than a four-stroke engine but it pollutes more: rickshaw emissions have particularly adverse health impacts.

Solar- and hydrogen-powered rickshaws are attractive zero emission alternatives. They are costly however, and there is limited infrastructure for refueling and maintenance.

On the streets of Kochi, this ultra compact auto taxi holds some promise.

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But when it comes to alternatives, the most promising prototype we’ve seen is this Amphibious Chinese All-Steel Roadie with built in shopping bags, kickstand and 1hp outboard motor.
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Kochi, Kerala. And Christmas

Yesterday we left south east Asia after an exciting and fascinating stay in the region and flew west to India. We’re three and a half months into our trip; we’ll spend 10 weeks here before going to southern Africa in March.

We are now in Fort Kochi in Kerala. The state of Kerala, known as God’s Own Country, is in south India on the Malabar (west) coast. In all of India, Kerala boasts the highest Human Development Index: 0.790 in 2011; the highest literacy rate: 94%; and the highest life expectancy: 77 years.

Kerala’s economy is boosted by remittances from its large expatriate community (the state experienced significant emigration to the Gulf states during the 1970s and early 1980s). Also important contributors to economic output are agriculture (coconut, tea, coffee, cashew and spices), fisheries and tourism (beaches, backwater tours and ayurvedic medicine are major attractions).

Christmas is coming and we want to make the season festive for the girls. Kochi was occupied by the Portuguese in 1503 and to this day, the Portuguese influence continues to be felt. This means there will be a significant community celebrating Christmas. This church, below, is getting its lights ready for the big day.

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For us, Christmas typically means spending time with family. And since we’re a long way away from home, we decided to find a comfortable homestay arrangement here. This turned out to be a great decision. Our generous hosts, Linda and Thomas, have taken us under their wings. They also seem to know everyone in the community, so their wings are broad and inclusive. From the very beginning, Linda and the girls hit it off (she’s like a fun bossy aunt and the girls do precisely what she tells them to do!).

Yesterday, Linda took us to her sister’s (Minda) place for lunch. Here are the banana leaves that would be our plates for a delicious veg thali. They’re like big green canvases, painted with delicious flavors.
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Minda prepared a feast. Linda even showed us how to eat with our hands.

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After lunch, Minda gave the girls a makeover; hair and nails and a promise that when we come back the next day, she’ll have another hairstyle for them to try.

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The models.

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Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi is located right on the coast. The Chinese fishing nets on the beach make an iconic picture of the city. The structures are 10m high and hold out cantilevered horizontal nets that are 20m wide. Large stones suspended from ropes act as counterweights. Each installation is operated by a team of up to six fishermen. Below, the net has been lowered and two fishermen stand on top of the frame to push the nets further into the water.

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Below, the nets have been lifted. A fisherman scoops the catch into a smaller net.

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We have settled in to a great arrangement in Kochi. There is so much to see and learn. We’ll share more impressions from this rich, spicy and colorful place in further posts.

The New and the Old in Da Nang

We’ve written about Vietnam’s initiative to create the next Silicon Valley in an earlier post. Da Nang buzzes with energy around the new entrepreneurship. According to this Atlantic article, interest in entrepreneurship in Vietnam is “at least as strong as in the [United] States… you hold an event for entrepreneurs here, and you’re going to have a packed house every single time”.

At the same time, more than 2/3 of the population is rural. Agriculture made up 20% of GDP in 2011 and fisheries and aquaculture accounted for 5% of GDP that same year. In 2005 (a little dated, sure, but still a useful benchmark) fully 60 percent of the employed labor force was engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.

While there is a lot of excitement around innovation and technology, a big share of the population is engaged in work that is far removed from the innovation hubs and business accelerators of the cities.

At sunrise every day, fishermen haul in their catch on Da Nang beach. Their boats are like large floating tea cups that bob above the surf.
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It’s hard work. Teams of up to ten men haul in the nets using ropes attached to belts they wear around their waists.
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When I was down on the beach the other morning, I heard the men in the water let out a holler before throwing a fish onto the beach. A fishmonger (wearing the helmet) grabbed it and dropped it into a bucket for people to buy.image

The fish sold almost immediately.

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Another holler came from the water. A log, caught in another net, had torn it apart. The team used the same ropes and belts to pull the log out of the water and they left the offending log on the beach.

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The rest of the catch sold just as quickly.

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Our stay in Da Nang is coming to a close.

On Thursday we’ll fly to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to spend the night before traveling on to Kerala in the south of India. We’ll be in Kerala for a bit more than a month, spending Christmas at a homestay in Forth Kochi. Then we’ll rent a flat in Ernakulam, a few miles to the east. We’re drawn to Kerala for its food, culture, sights and social system. Kerala has the highest literacy rate (94%) and the highest life expectancy (74 years) in India. A survey in 2005 by Transparency International ranked it as the least corrupt state in the country. And it is also the home of Tellicherry peppercorns, grown near the Malabar coast.

We’re excited about our next destination. We’ll have lots to share in future blogposts.

 

Da Nang Soundscape

In earlier posts we’ve highlighted the different sounds that characterise the various soundscapes that we’ve visited.

In Kampot, the soundscape featured the natural world: critters at night and fishing boats in the mornings and early evenings. The hubbub in Luang Prabang seemed to emphasize the spiritual, with the drumming and chanting from the wats.

In Da Nang the noises we hear project the state’s authority and control alongside the city’s aspirations to become a booming metropolis.

Vietnam and China currently have a territorial dispute over an island that is about 200 miles away. The island is located in what most of us know as the South China Sea but that the Vietnamese call simply the East Sea. On a daily basis we hear and see the air force flexing its muscle as it flies combat planes and helicopters over the city. Parenthetically, India is helping Vietnam build capacity for a modern air force. Russia is supplying the planes and parts.

When we first arrived in Da Nang we noticed loudspeakers on the beach. They were blaring muzak in the afternoon.

 

Listen to Muzak 2.wav by User 666885694 #np on #SoundCloud

 

Later in the evenings rock music booms- live bands, karaoke, DJs. And in the mornings at 6am and afternoons at 430pm the government uses the speakers to beam news and information to the public. The public service announcements could broadcast news about helmet laws or narrowcast information about the closure of a local post office.

Whistles are everywhere in Da Nang. Traffic police use them to enforce compliance. Lifeguards use them to make sure swimmers don’t drift outside the designated swim area.

The city beach is the preferred location for newlyweds to get photographed.
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There are doves (and pigeons) that photographers hire as props for the shoots. And the dovekeepers control their beasts with whistles.

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The city is growing like gangbusters. New hotels are popping up everywhere. Hammering, sawing, welding, digging, shouting; it’s all part of the racket.

We have written about traffic. Motorists honk at intersections to partially compensate for the absence of traffic signals. Yesterday the girls rode to the French library with Felix (note the helmets) and their squeals of delight could be heard from blocks away.
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Headstrong

Upon arriving in Vietnam one is struck by how large the government looms in daily life. The national flag is ubiquitous. The Communist Party’s hammer and sickle symbol flies everywhere.
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The Party has been in power with no political opposition for decades and wields tremendous control. There is a massive state surveillance apparatus. One observer of Vietnam’s military estimates that one person in six works for a security force.

The volume of motorbikes on the streets makes an impression too; motorbikes are undoubtedly the country’s principal form of transportation. They flood the roads.
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And everyone here seems to wear a helmet (in contrast to Cambodia where most seem to ride with a bare head). The helmets look stylish!

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Until 2007 Vietnam had no laws requiring motorbike helmets. Everyone found that they were too hot and cumbersome to wear. Women complained that they messed up their hair. But at the time there were 30 motorbike-related deaths per day and annual lost earnings and health-related costs totaled $885m.

In 2007 the government passed new legislation requiring motorbike drivers to wear helmets. But how does the state get 90m people to comply with an unpopular law? The government began with  public sector employees (there’s a lot of them)  and rural areas. Then it moved to the cities, using a combination of co-option, coercion, propaganda and punishment. The legislation only took months to implement and there is near-universal compliance. (As an interesting sidebar, some initial compliance was in name only; a few drivers wore cooking pots on their heads).

And with 90m people looking for helmets, an obvious business opportunity emerged, leading to a thriving industry for stylish motorbike helmets. A year after implementation there was a 10% decrease in accidents; a significant saving in both lives and money. But helmets don’t fix everything and people still ignore traffic rules, speed and drink and drive.

Which brings us to the view from our balcony on the seventh floor in Da nang. Every day, we drink our morning coffee overlooking the street below. There’s a school nearby and as time for class nears, more and more motorbikes speed through the intersection. Like almost all intersections here, there are no stop signs. A common traffic phenomenon here is for drivers turning left to cut into the oncoming lane, then turn left into more oncoming traffic on the inside, and eventually move to the right lane. I understand the urge to do it; I’ve tried it on my bike. It’s simply a bad idea. See below.

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Motorbike on left is (with 2 passengers) on the inside of oncoming motorbike.

 

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Oncoming motorbike (on left) squeezed between both left-turning motorbikes.

It’s enthralling to watch, in the way that seeing a gruesome crash enthralls. Every few minutes brings a close call. But when there is an accident (in the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve only seen one), at least they’ll be wearing helmets.

 

Da Nang Runners and Fire Breathing Dragons

Da Nang is set to host the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in February. It is also the location for the Asian Beach Games next September. Da Nang is the right place for it, with its kilometres of uninterrupted beautiful beach.

Barefoot Running

As a way of promoting the Clipper Race, Beach Games and all-around healthy living, Da Nang hosted its first ever 2km, 5km and 10km barefoot beach race this morning. Louise and Ida were among the competitors for the 2km run. It’s the first time that the city has had a sports event of this sort and it came will all the bells and whistles.

People:
Race organisers expected 8,000 locals and foreigners to attend. While we didn’t see any other foreigners, there were easily 8,000 runners. Here’s a panorama shot that captures most of the crowd.

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Party grandees:
Take a look at the VIP table on the left in front of the stage (you can barely see it, but it’s in front of the dancing Zumba squad). VIPs included the heads of this or that association, network, community, etc. Each had his moment of recognition and applause before the race.

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Drones:
This is the first time I’ve noticed drones at a public event like a race. Take a look at the top of this shot.

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TV crews:
Our athletes stood out not only for their fitness but also due to the fact that they could have been the only foreign competitors. At the end of the race the local TV crew tracked them down for an interview.

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During the race spectators could enjoy the sunrise and the beach.

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And here are our athletes, with their cheering squad, post race.

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Here Be Dragons

If you look at a map of Da Nang you’ll notice that the beach area is separated from the mainland (and the rest of Da Nang) by the Han River. There are four bridges that cross the river, connecting the beach to the city. The Dragon Bridge is one of these, completed in 2013 at a cost of $90m (the picture below is not mine).

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Fortunately for us, the mayor who oversaw the construction project included fire-breathing and water-spouting features in the bridge design. At 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays, the police stop traffic on the bridge while it activates those features. Our family went to take a look last night (on Louise’s birthday). There was a huge crowd- there always is- and it’s mostly locals. It was a great sight, super gimmicky but absolutely worthwhile. Needless to say, the mayor is incredibly popular.

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The Next Silicon Valley? Entrepreneurship in Da Nang

Vietnam is trying to create its own version of Silicon Valley.  In 2013 it launched the ambitious Silicon Valley Project: an initiative aiming to transform the country from a top producer of electronic components to a major player in the global digital economy. The goal of the effort is to launch internationally competitive technology firms while transforming Da Nang, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City into a tech hub. Vietnam is taking a smart, systematic approach to building a startup ecosystem. Training programs to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas abound. There is even a business accelerator modelled on Y combinator.

The initiative is certainly creating a buzz; just before we arrived in Da Nang, Lotus Fund announced the launch of an innovation space for entrepreneurs called the Lotus Hub.

All this got me thinking about the fellows who made me some new eyeglasses this week (mentioned in an earlier post). While eyeglasses aren’t at the forefront of the technology revolution (anymore), these opticians show a real entrepreneurial spirit.

My glasses need an extra strong prism ground into the lens. These opticians had never worked with this kind of prism and apparently there’s only one firm that has these lenses in Vietnam. It’s based in Hanoi, more than 700 km away. While I was getting fitted for glasses, the opticians tracked down the firm in Hanoi and arranged to get the lenses shipped to Da Nang. Two days later I was back at the optician to get my glasses.

I had never seen glasses get built before now. With a marker, the opticians traced the lens shape (from the original plastic lenses that come with the frame) onto the new lenses. They snipped off the glass around the marker line using regular pliers. The result: the lenses you see in the picture below.

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Next the optician shaped the lens using a grinder:

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Twenty minutes later I had my glasses:

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Nobody knows how successful the Silicon Valley project will be. While there are plenty of young people with great ideas, the bench of experienced managers might not be deep enough to handle the growth. As well, the government’s role in the initiative could impede its progress. But I will say this: I have a great pair of new eyeglasses, made by some entrepreneurs that aren’t dissuaded by a weird prescription and the logistics of getting a lens from 700 km away.