India Holiday – Day 5

After a late night, we had a relatively early start, setting off to the Amber Fort at 8:30, to be there in time to get our planned elephant ride to the fort, up a steep cliff side.

The queue was fast moving and our guide for Jaipur was both friendly and competent, which was nice. The tens of very persistent hawkers were slightly less so, but we just treated them as part of the ambience. After the same hat, guide book, elephant figurine and “excellent gift idea” consisting of cheap pens has been pushed in your face for the umpteenth time, it does get a bit tedious though 🙂

The 30-minute elephant ride itself was great! Elephants have a pleasant slow rythm, that was only interrupted when our elephant – 35-year old Chumpa – stopped to have a 30-second piss that sounded like a sizeable waterfall happening underneath us. There are 123 elephants working here going up to the fort in a constant stream, all female, and they go on doing this until they retire at the age of 50!

The 17th century fort itself is imposing, with ornate carvings, sophisticated plumbing for both heated baths and “air conditioned” rooms, not to mention bedrooms and entertainment spaces for the Raj and his 12 (!!) wives. Imagine the strife, rivalry and competition that would cause; in general, Hindus do not allow multiple wives (only for the Raj), and I think that’s a good idea.

After the fort, we went to the Wind Palace in downtown Jaipur. It is an impressive-looking structure but it is only a facade that is 1 meter deep – designed for the ladies of the palace behind it to sit in privacy to observe city life, processions and such.

Jaipur itself is a mad, Indian style city, but at 3.5M people is much smaller than Delhi and also feels both cleaner and nicer, relatively speaking of course. The air is certainly cleaner, allowing for both nice sunshine and views uninterrupted by thick smog. In the evening, huge numbers of stars are visible, something I have been looking forward to.

On the trip, our guide took us to a jewel maker; Jaipur is known for employing something like 80,000 people in the cutting and polishing business alone. “Just know that it is my duty to take you here, but not for you to buy anything”. Good advice: My kind of guide!

The jewel crafting we saw was interesting but we did not really want jewelry and instead toured the huge selection of other craft items also for sale and ended up buying a lovely bronze Natraj sculpture that will look great at home. It is one of Mamta’s old wishes to get one of those, so mission accomplished 🙂 The sculpture that I really liked was more than a meter tall and cost several thousand dollars, not to mention it being a bit awkward to find a spot for in the house, so we passed on that one…

The Jantar Mantar is an old observatory, Indian Style: it is full of instruments to measure solar positions, time and celestial positions with great accuracy – all mainly in order to develop accurate astrological predictions. Talk about confusing accuracy and precision 🙂 Anyway, the structures are impressive – the huge sun dial that can show the time with 2 second precision is rightfully in the Guinness Book of Records.

At the City Palace we had lunch in the local cafe (and even though there were Western dishes, it was impossible to resist the temptation of the delicious native dishes) and then toured several separate areas of the palace. The Indians make a big deal out of the fact that Prince Albert visited it in 1947 for the Independence, but the highlight for me was definitely the armoury: a couple of rooms full of interesting weapons from the 19th century and earlier, ranging from the ornate to the truly lethal.

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Palace, so I have no pictures – only of the outside, which is beautiful in all its pink/terracotta glory.

Here, we also went to a small arts/crafts place where artists exhibit their goods, and ended up buying a couple of drawings. The artist spun long stories about just how fine the drawings are and how long they take to make (8 days, 6 months, …) but I think that is exaggerated by a few orders of magnitude. Or maybe it’s elapsed time, with lots of other stuff also being done at the same time. Either way, beautiful stuff, and an educational half an hour.

Finally, we went to a place that does “block printing”. It is a technique that is used to print layers of patterns on natural cloth, and we were shown examples of this. They also produce carpets here, and we got a thorough look at just how much work it takes to first hand knot each individual knot, then cut, scrape, clean, wash and burn the product until it’s both smooth and somewhat dirt/spill resistant.

We also looked at several carpets made from wool, silk and even camel hair. Because camel hair is quite thick, it undergoes a lot of different treatments before it can be used in a carpet – and the results are stunning.  My favourites are the silk ones though, but the colours are very delicate, and I’m not sure the several-thousand-pounds-price is worth it over the more boring £50 carpet from IKEA we have. It’s certainly a big investment to make.

For me, the real treat was upstairs, where they sell fabrics as well as custom made garments. I decided to get a custom-made suit and 6 tailored shirts – I hope they will be nice when I pick them up tomorrow!

The tour of the day was long but excellent! And we went back to the hotel to collapse for a few hours, to get energy for the evening. Here, we went to a restaurant with live music and dancers and enjoyed a Rajastani Thali – delicious in its variety, although not very spicy! Iain was completely rapt with the dancing and music and even joined in for a bit; it was lovely to see the gleam in his eyes…

Perhaps the dancers mistook him for a girl, with his smooth face and long hair? Our guide today did the same earlier, repeatedly referring to Iain as “she” and “her”, until Mamta gently pointed out the mistake 🙂

Here in the capital of Rajastan, I can truly say that India is not a relaxing place to be. It’s manic in its intensity of sound, colours, people, noise, tastes and smell – from sewers to fresh mangoes with everything in between. The assault on the senses is intense and interesting, but very tiring.

Tomorrow is a free day: time for a massage, a bit of shopping, and some time in the pool…


India Holiday – Day 4: Jaipur

Today, we checked out of the Metropolitan to make our way south, into the province of Kings: Rajestan. Jaipur is the capital and our destination, just 230km from Delhi, and we started at 8:30am. Our driver, the affable Mr Prakash, assures us it will take 5-6 hours, which means we will average perhaps just 35km/h, or 20mph!

We set off on one of the big modern highways leading past the airport and out of Delhi, and quickly find ourselves in a vast sea of cars weaving in and out and slowly making progress. The road is a toll road that goes all the way to Mumbai (eventually), and Mr Prakash assures us it is a good road all the way. Ha! 🙂

After leaving Delhi, a long stretch of modern India awaits us: rows of gleaming, modern office towers in various designs that would not look out of place in Manhattan or San Francisco stretch for kilometers, competing with construction materials and low huts of more typical Indian provenance. None of this was here 25 years ago on Mamta’s first visit – the highway was a dirt track in places, and there were no offices for IBM and other multi nationals.

Traffic moves constantly, but in fits and starts, and never very fast. Slow moving lorries drive in the “fast” lane next to tractors pulling ridiculously huge loads, leaving other lorries, uses, vans, cars and motorbikes to overtake wherever there is room – on the inside, or often between other vehicles. Many don’t have side mirrors, and custom is to honk the horn before passing someone, meaning that a constant barrage of horns can be heard all the way. It’s never quiet in India!

The roads have lane markings, but using them for target practice seems common; nobody sticks to a single lane. Instead, many drivers constantly weave left and right to slip through temporary gaps in traffic, sometimes to heart-stopping effect as lorries, buses and other cars pass within centimeters of what feels like fairly unauthorised manoeuvres.

It also is common to see someone drive the wrong way – motorbikes do it a lot as a shortcut, but when loaded lorries do it, it’s a bit scary. As with everything else that happens on the road, the drivers take it stoically and just drive around whatever the obstacle is, be it ghost driver, meandering cow, crashed lorry, or whatever. It quickly becomes obvious why the drive will take many hours!

Further along, the highway is abruptly diverted to what looks like an older parallel road, to allow construction on the highway to happen: they are building flyovers to allow roads to pass underneath. This happens not just once, but every few kilometers – I think I saw at least 20 such projects being actively worked on along the way!

Construction abounds next to the road as well; it is several hours before we get our first glimpse of agricultural land as until then it is built up, or being huilt up with houses, offices, shacks, shops, and general enterprises.

When we finally turn off the main highway around 30km short of Jaipur to get to our lunch stop at the Samode Palace, we breathe a sigh of relief. Here, there is actual countryside next to the road, and our eyes feast on the calmer vista of plots of land being tilled, the odd house, a small group of women walking next to the road, and the odd house, sometimes derelict and sometimes in decent repair.

The road gets increasingly narrow, bumpy and windy and we finally arrive at the Palace around 1:30pm. It turns out to be a gorgeous former Raj residence, now converted to a hotel, and we get a lovely relaxed lunch – surprisingly of non-Indian food! The proprietor/chef turns out to be Mrs Flora, a Danish lady who now lives in Mumbai, who has designed the menu to be a mix of cuisines. We liked it a lot!

The rest of the trip to Jaipur was quick, and we arrived at perhaps 4:30pm, but it is surprising how tiring it is to be a passenger on a long drive! 🙂

Our residence in the Pink City of Jaipur is the Samode Haveli, owned by the same people as the Palace, and it’s nothing short of gorgeous. A lovely old, restored building, it has all of the facilities we would want, and they upgraded us to a huge suite that is just fantastic. I am sure our 3 nights here will be super memorable.

Last night, I sent an email to Transindus with feedback on our annoying Delhi guide, and was anxious to see what they would do about it. The answer was quick: they reprimanded him, he apologized, and they not only sent a nice reply back to me but also called us directly as soon as we arrived here. Perhaps the upgrade here is also part of this?

The welcoming lady said we got upgraded because Iain is so sweet, which is of course true so perhaps we’ll just leave it there 🙂

A delicious Rajestani Thali for dinner and then bed. Tomorrow will be a very busy day seeing the sights of Jaipur and going for a elephant ride… Can’t wait to see more India!

India Holiday – Day 3

Today, the alarm went off at 7am, to let us start out sightseeing at 9am – necessary to avoid the crowds. Life in Delhi starts late, and ends late – many shops do not open until 10, 11, or even 12. Except the vegetable markets, which are open from 4-10am. Vegetarians need to start early 🙂

Our annoying, patronizing guide met us at the hotel, and we set off. He has a habit of telling “stories” peppered with fairly useless facts, and then repeating in a slightly different way; the effect is eye-wateringly annoying. For example, telling us the name of some long-forgotten dude and then the names of all his kids is not very relevant, nor interesting, nor memorable.

Anyway, we went to a nice Hindu temple , the Laxminarayan, and apparently the only one that Gandhi himself opened. Of course we had to take our shoes off, and inside saw each of the main gods as well as their wives, which are always to the left. Mamta made an offering to Hanuman, whom her father always prayed to as well.

The swastika, so hatefully used by the Nazis, is everywhere, as Hindus have used the symbol for thousands of years, and of course continue to do so in spire of the brief, intense abuse it was subjected to. The profusion of colours used by Hindus is always interesting, and the heavy use of gold, turquoise and garish pink reminded me of the scene from Outsourced where the main character is asked to describe “tacky” 🙂

Outside the temple, our guide did his best to convince us not to go into the mosque on the itinerary, the Jama Masjid. Here also you have to take shoes off, but “they never clean it, it’s very dirty”. Seems hard to believe, and when we looked inside from the steps it looked ok. On the way to the mosque, we went through parts of Old Delhi that are clearly very poor – drug dealers and addicts throng the streets. Of course, these are all muslims. I don’t think our guide like muslims much.

More understandably, he also is not a big fan of the Delhi municipality, which apparently is super corrupt. One thing I did not know is that most government officials – be they MPs, judges, bureaucrats or railway officials – all get government sponsored housing. If you lose your job, you lose your home too, so it’s worth holding on to it at almost any cost!

After not visiting the (frankly very impressive looking) mosque, we went to the Red Fort, a huge edifice that used to be the King’s residence but which got turned into barracks by the Brits after 1857. After a terrorist attack in 2006, visitors can no longer enter the 2km long fort – bummer, as it looked interesting. Apparently the moat outside the huge walls had crocodiles that were fed with the remains of hanged criminals. Hmm.

From the Red fort, we hired bicycle rickshaws to take us on a roundtrip through the (wholesale) shopping district of Chandni Chowk, featuring incredibly narrow streets  And talk about crowds! Huge numbers of people shopping, squatting, eating, talking, bargaining, walking, jostling, trading, cooking in a vast cacophony of humanity – and the shops may be wholesalers but they still look very small, with perhaps 1-3m of frontage each.

It is like ordered chaos: no square foot is unused, there is activity everywhere. And overhead, along the walls and crisscrossing the skies, is the lifeline for modern life: power, phone and data cables. Imagine all the wires in your house, including the ones behind the TV, in a huge, disorderly jumble: that is what it looks like. And in spite of what it looks like, it works most of the time, even during weather – storm, monsoon rains, etc.  Unbelievable.

Sightseeing for the day ended at noon, with a visit to the Raj Ghat where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, and where leaders since then have been too. Beautiful grasslands sculpted tastefully, it was interesting.

For lunch, we decided to try our luck at a chain Mamta knew about, called Haldiram. Plenty of variety (all vegetarian of course) and cheap, I had a nice Masala Dosa and Mamta had her usual Papdi Chat and Pani Puri, although she still maintains that Moti Mahal in Southall does it best 🙂

When we spotted a Vodafone shop, we decided to get. SIM for the iPad, to get internet on the road. The waiting in mobile phone shops is bad everywhere, but this one took the prize. We got ticket number 102 in the queue and settled down for a long wait as number 87 was being served. Then 88, 99, 100 – then 107 and 105. Huh?? Mamta’s quick reactions and insistent outburst in Hindi got us to the front of the queue at this point, only to discover that getting a 1-month prepaid sim card requires not just money and patience, but also a passport, proof of address (however temporary) and a spare passport photo. All of which we by a stroke of luck had to hand, so after a further patience-stretching period we got the needed sim card. Maybe it will even start working at some point… Fingers crossed.

Lazy afternoon at the hotel, with Mamta getting a massage and Iain going in the pool. I chickened out and did not go in the pool after discovering that not everything in Delhi is warm – I suspect that the only reason the pool was not frozen solid is ample supplies of anti-freeze 🙂

Today I also sent a thought to my mormor Anna, whose 97th birthday it would have been today.  I miss her.

Off to dinner, then on the road to Jaipur tomorrow morning.

India is still awesome 🙂

India Holiday – Day 2

Today, Mamta had curry for breakfast (Parathas) and thoroughly enjoyed it; I tried more traditional fare as I’m not sure I can do 3 curries a day! The Haze is better than Day 1, but I can still taste the burning tires. Visibility is much better too, we can see perhaps 1000m! Nice temperature of 20C in the morning and 25C in the afternoon, it’s hard to believe it’s nearly Christmas. Nevertheless, the locals are wearing sweaters and jackets and are muttering about winter being very cold.  I guess that when it gets up to 45-48C in summer, 15C in the night is cold-ish 🙂

Off to see the sights with our Delhi guide from TransIndus.

Motorbikes are literally everywhere. Helmets are mandatory, but only for men – there was outcry when it became mandatory for women too a few years ago, so now it’s optional for women who prefer neat hair over life. Which seems to be all of them! Or perhaps it’s the men who prefer their wives looking beautiful?

Parliament is a big round building, and the presidential palace was the viceroy’s until independence in 1947 – and he stayed there for 5 years after independence. There is no right of access to this area for the general public, which is a bit weird, but explains the absence of the usual crowds. Old Ambassador cars are still used by VIPs, and the design has been unchanged forever (just motor upgrades every now and then), and it shows. I think they look rubbish.

Went to the oldest part of New Delhi, which is 2-3,000 years old and saw the Qutub Minar  – a huge brick minaret built over a long period of time, started by Hindus and completed by Muslims. Muslims hacked off the faces of all the ornaments when they took over the rule, sadly, marring the beauty of the surrounding structures.

At Humayun’s Tomb, 160 family members from the same generation are interred, very impressive. It’s a big symmetrical structure with gates, fountains, a big lawn cut into 16 “gardens”.  Here we saw at least a million school kids in colourful uniforms. Very cute and happy 🙂  Interestingly, our guide did not want to enter the monument as Hindus apparently do not want to enter a burial site.

Lunch in nice restaurant near India Gate, and the food was ok. Apparently, the Delhi Golf Club is the most expensive in the world. Sounds unbelievable, but then there is a lot of money as well as a lot of poverty here so perhaps it’s true.

Saw the India Gate war memorial, commemorating the 80,000 soldiers India sent to help during WW1 – they all died, not a single one returned. The monument itself did not look terribly interesting and we only stayed for 2 minutes – we were not allowed to linger.

Frankly, our guide is weird; he is annoyingly patronizing and clearly wanted to get rid of us. He seemed unsure of where to take us, and suggested we have two half-days of sightseeing when our programme clearly calls for two whole days.  In the end, we got half a day: from 10am to 2:30pm, including lunch. When Mamta asked if we could spare 2 minutes for Iain to see a snake charmer, he said “no, they are everywhere”. We haven’t seen another one since, but hopefully will…

Returned to the hotel for a nap, then went to Connaught Place for shopping and dinner. It’s a huge, mad place, with designer shops next to… not-designer-holes-in-the-wall.  It seems odd that there is no effort to patch the pavement, wash the walls, and generally clear out the sewage and garbage, even right outside high-prestige shops. It definitely makes for a high-contrast experience.

Had dinner and cocktail at a restaurant until we remembered not to eat ice! It is normally made from unfiltered, potentially dangerous tap water – hopefully there will be no Delhi Belly tomorrow! I had the most awesome Mutton Dosa though, and we then took an autorickshaw back to the hotel. Iain thought that ride was the best part of the day 🙂

When relaxing, Iain is reading Hunger Games, I am reading the gripping Daemon, and Mamta is playing Candy Crush. I like holidays 🙂


India Holiday – Day 1: Delhi

What a day! We checked in early to enjoy the full experience of the Virgin Clubhouse in Heathrow – and had a haircut and pork belly for dinner, all included in the Upper Class experience. What a difference to “normal” air travel, and a great start to our holiday 🙂  I am sure Iain will look with disdain at flying any other way now – the experience with free food, huge comfortable lounges and a seat that turns into an actual bed with duvet and pillow is indeed hard to beat!

One in New Delhi, the first thing we noticed is the fog . Haze. Smog. According to the forecast, it is meant to be sunny, but it is just hazy to perhaps 200m visibility. Brown, smelly soup that tastes of burnt tires is how Iain describes it, and it’s spot on.

On the streets, it is much like the India I know: busy, busy, busy, and loads of garbage everywhere you look. But everyone being so nice and friendly too, it’s definitely not a “hostile” kind of busy.

The Metropolitan is a very nice hotel, but not quite as well organized as hoped. They didn’t know that we needed to sleep 3 people and I hope that is not a sign of things to come – but they quickly sorted that out, thankfully.

After a short nap, dinner in the local Indian restaurant was great; our first curry. I had Tikka Masala, and enjoyed it hugely 🙂

Then off to see the relatives in Old Delhi, where Mamta’s dad Mahavir was born and grew up. Subzi Mandi is a part of town that looks and feels quite different from what we saw in New Delhi: narrow streets, throngs of people, market stalls with fresh produce everywhere, and shops specializing in everything from shoelaces to… Well, you name it. A huge, busy mass of humanity describes it well, I think!

The relatives were lovely; we met about 20 of them I think and there were super friendly, really enjoyed meeting them. We risked having some chawel (rice), and hope it will be ok – it certainly was well tasty! Got to speak to Ricky, who spent 8 months in London until May and really wants to go back – works as a programmer for Tata Consulting on the Lloyds TSB web site. Super nice guy 🙂

A long discussion later and then a trip to the streets – for everyone! – to find a data SIM for the iPhone so we can have Internet. It is possible to get this, even at 9pm on a Sunday, but the cards apparently take 5-6 days to get activated! That is a while and I will try to find a Vodafone shop tomorrow and see if I have more luck. Until then, we cut one of Ricky’s SIM cards to fit the iPhone, so now have a local phone number, yay 🙂

We also got presents – a really nice shirt, tie, cufflinks and handkerchief for me, and lots of stuff for Mamta and Aruna. Iain got a big basket of sweets that I’m sure he’ll enjoy. Oh, and money too! Definitely too much! And finally, we all got a red dot on the forehead, Indian style.

I learned a few Hindi words, which I have now forgotten 🙁 and learned about greetings for elders, kids, etc. Bottom line is that a) it is complicated, b) the family helps out with directions, c) it involves touching of legs, feet and hair in particular ways, and d) everyone ends up having a laugh. Clearly the rituals are important, but everyone is understanding of n00bs too 🙂

Now back at the hotel, relaxing. We decided to get a couple of half bottles of whiskey to both try some new ones and to give a little help to the digestive system, and tonight tried the Balvennie whiskey. Yum, I’m sure it will help.

Oh, and there were at least 5 power cuts just today! That is a bit scary, particularly when you are in the lift, but I suppose we’ll get used to it.  The locals don’t seem to notice 🙂

Big day tomorrow, can’t wait to see more of the city t I have to think of as the Big Stink 🙂

iPad vs Nexus 7 – my experience

I have been an iPhone and iPad owner for a while, and have really liked the slick, simple, pleasant experience of using them. However, I have been concerned with Apple’s proprietary and controlling approach to APIs and apps, and have been waiting for the right time to jump on the Android train.

This week, I took the plunge and got myself a Google Nexus 7. It got great reviews, like “finally, an Android tablet that is nice in its own right, and that I will actually be using”. With a powerful CPU, a good 7″ screen and the latest version of Android called Jelly Bean, it seemed like a steal at just £199 for the maxed out 16GB version.

The bottom line? It’s a nice device, but it’s in many respects sadly not as polished and nice to use as the New iPad. After using it for a few days, I have a list of things that I wish were better:

  • No physical Home button.  The Back/Home buttons at the bottom of the screen are actually a nice idea, but I find that when I am engrossed in a game, I often accidentally press one of them just when I don’t want to.
  • The screen is ok, but lacks the extreme crispness I have gotten used to on the iPad.  It makes both text and graphics seem blurry in comparison.
  • Only 16GB, and no expansion port.  That space is getting filled up very quickly, and means that the device is much less usable as a portable media player than I had thought.  My 64GB iPad has much more oomph in that regard, although it of course cost more too.
  • Occasional jerkiness in operation.  I have clearly become so used to the iPad, which simply never pauses momentarily during a swipe or resize operation that it really jars when the Nexus does it – albeit mostly only briefly.
  • Limited landscape operation – yes, the Nexus allows you to tilt it to operate it in landscape, and as there are no physical buttons this should be perfect for it.  However, the main desktop screens operate in portrait mode only, leading to a somewhat jarring experience if your preference is landscape.

There are of course also some things that are really nice (and that would be very welcome iPad additions):

  • The ability to see which apps or activities consume both battery and network bandwidth is great.  On the iPad, it’s pure guesswork what is happening.
  • The Back/Return button is great; I use it all the time on the Nexus.  The iPad has the four-finger-swipe to switch between apps, but the Back button also works within an app – it just takes you to where you were before, which is a great feature.
  • The “desktop” can have more than just icons that represent an app, but can have widgets that are larger and in some cases are sizeable.  I have a screen with stock tickers, travel plans from TripIt and the top of my email inbox – all visible without opening an app.  Ace!
  • The Android is not a closed system like the iPad, which allows me to have a File Manager app to copy files around on the box, and generally get behind the scenes.  On the iPad, the best I can do is to share a particular file with multiple apps, which then have a copy each. Very inelegant.
  • Also because there is no Overlord Company that decides what is and is not allowed, I can install Adobe Flash and Firefox and use web sites that require Flash.  Nice!
  • The Notifications system is nice and well integrated.  Even with the improvements in iOS 5, it feels a bit lame on the iPad.
  • The security screen allows face recognition (a bit of a gimmick, but cute) but more importantly a pattern-based access code.  I much prefer that to having yet another pin code to remember…

As you can see, there is lots to like – and the list is of course not complete.

So while I do prefer to iPad, I’ll definitely be using my Nexus too.  It’s a nice device, which has its place in my bag 🙂


Pricing done wrong: PowerDVD

Yesterday, I read Don’t just roll the dice, a short book about software pricing that is available as a free eBook and can also be purchased in paper form, much like the great book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. Perhaps there is something about the air in Cambridge that helps these guys to just get it?

As an example of someone that sits at the other end of the scale and certainly doesn’t get it is the company behind the PowerDVD software. Their pricing policy positively scares customers away!

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How to write amazing software

During most of my day, I work at Tideway Systems where we produce software that helps companies get a grip on their IT infrastructure – particularly their servers rather than their desktops.

Over the past few years, we have evolved a process for making the software we write highly valuable to our users and do so in a way that allows us to be flexible about scheduling, keep the creative juices flowing, and deliver it all very quickly.

If you are working in a software development organization and this kind of thing interests you, head over and have a look at my latest blog post which is about how our process allows us to build amazing software.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!