Monthly Archives: June 2010

In South Asia: Sri Lanka and India

Coconut water lady, Chennai. Think of her product as refreshment before Coke arrived.

Above the coral islands

The Heathrow gate for Sri Lankan flight 502 was a mix of Sri Lankans and tourists. A Buddhist monk in a maroon robe sat next to me, smiling at everyone (I saw him 13 hours later in the Customs hall in Colombo, walking out with no checked baggage, but still clutching a round item I gathered to be something religious).

The flight from London was long but pleasant, via Male, capital of the Maldives, a total tourism economy. Descending toward the airport, the land mass was actually a series of low coral islands, some inhabited (meaning small hotels and resorts).
At the airport, I had a nice T-t-S moment with Ali Mohammed, a duty manager for the airline handling company Island Aviation. He gave me the basics: 300,000 people, 1100 islands, 100% Muslim. An interesting contrast with the hedonistic-tending beach package tours that keep the country afloat. It seemed like a bad place to be in a typhoon, or in some years if the predictions of rising seas come to pass, but it certainly was beautiful.

We flew another 400 miles east-northeast, landing in Colombo at 2:45. The formalities were remarkably speedy. I was surprised at how calm the airport seemed, given that the country has just emerged from three decades of a cross between civil war and sustained terrorism from the (Hindu) Tamil minority. Waiting for my driver to pull around, I spotted a well-armed soldier in the bushes that flanked the arrivals driveway. And on the way into town, the Army at least every kilometer. The hotel driver was a friendly fellow, and we showed each other family photos on our mobile phones. He answered some basic questions about the republic, and I felt well grounded when we pulled into the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel right in the center of the capital.

The dark-blue-tiled pool beckoned from room 353. A swim, that’s what I needed, so I trotted down and jumped in. Struck up a conversation with the pool attendants, and admired lots of bird life – pelicans, egrets, and other marine species. About 100 feet beyond the birds, in the tidal Lake Beira, I spotted a crocodile! And back on land, a Lion. Well, a Lion Beer, from Sri Lanka, which was also agreeable. The water was soothing.

Colonial vestige, Colombo

On the flight, I spotted an agreeable dinner venue, the Galle Face Hotel, established 1864, and I spotted it on the map, an easy walk from my place. Changed into khakis and zipped out. Being in a new place is always exhilarating, and all my sensory input valves were open. First thing I spotted was a Buddha enclosed in a glass case, ecumenically flanked with symbols of all the other major religions (mine represented with a simple cross figure and an illustration of Jesus).

Buddha flanked by symbols of other faiths

A hundred meters further, I paused to salute and thank a handful of troops. Then I ambled across the railway, and passed Christ Church of Galle Face, founded 1853. Nearby loudspeakers called Muslims to prayer, and in the opposite direction, Elvis crooned, “And I can’t help falling in love with you.” That contrast summed up first impressions – a diverse and fascinating place.

Things were going so well. I had waved off one fellow, a tout disguised in Sri Lankan friendliness. Then, less than a block from my dinner venue, Michael introduced himself. He claimed he had just gotten off work at the nearby Ramada. The next thing I knew, we were walking five minutes to a “Buddhist ceremony.”

From my ripoff flying tour of a Buddhist temple

Then he said it was faster by tuk tuk (the motorized three wheelers so common in Asia). We looped back around, behind my starting point. We did a quick tour of the temple, so far so good. We paused for several rituals that Michael said would bring good luck and good business. We left the shrine, and in two minutes we’re in a gem store, with profits allegedly going to help victims of the 2005 tsunami. Say what?

Clearly, the encounter had derailed, and I had no clear exit strategy, except to fib that I was already late to meet friends at the Galle Face Hotel. But not before the jeweler proposed to sell me a 2.2 ct. red gem for US$684, then sapphires for a thousand a carat. Make it stop! We exited the shop, rolled along for five minutes, and finally arrived at the hotel. The tuk tuk driver proposed a charge of Rs. 4000, $35. Whoa! The driver helpfully said he paid $10 to get me into the temple. I gave him half the asking price, period, a complete ripoff, and that still left Michael, He got $4.40.

So what did I learn? A couple of things. First, my open, friendly way gets me into these situations. Thinking back, it had been years since I had been in a Third World tourism place – a few minutes later, I racked my brain on the exact date. Apart from a week with the family in Puerto Vallarta in 2000 (and Mexico doesn’t really count), the last time was in the 1970s. Back then, traveling with a backpack, locals knew I was not an ATM! More fundamentally, though, an open-minded person like me couldn’t really blame Michael for trying to cash in on a visitor from a country where the per capita income was many times that of Sri Lanka. Earlier, he told me that his wife, a nurse, had just taken a nine-month temporary assignment at a hospital in Washington, DC, that he lived 40 km. from work, and that he was caring for two young kin whose parents, perished in the tsunami (that story subsequently appeared to be contrived, because I heard it twice more in the coming days).

In any case, I was happily settled in a chair on the breezy verandah of the Galle Face by 7:05, enjoying another Lion Beer. The Galle was my kind of place. Indian Ocean surf pounding 100 feet away, a keyboardist pounding out Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and life was good (he subsequently crooned Willie Nelson and a bunch of other wonderful American exports).

After a celebratory beer, I enjoyed an astonishing buffet for the equivalent of $12.74. Some of the freshest shrimps in years (the iodide flavor says it all), plus chicken tikka, curried lentils, stir-fried greens, tofu, and a killer dessert bar, high point of which was sago pudding and a coconut cake redolent of ginger. Yum. Caught a tuk tuk back to the hotel and clocked out, sleeping the best since leaving home.

Was up before six on Monday the 7th, and after a cup of strong instant coffee but no breakfast, I walked several blocks to the Fort Railway Station, the main depot.

At Fort Railway Station, Colombo

The Transport Geek was in a good place, watching the suburban trains rattle into a decrepit old terminus. The hotel had kindly booked a round-trip to the hill town of Kandy, 75 miles east-northeast, and obtained tickets. Round trip in first class (there was also second and third) was a little more than three bucks. The train was grandly called the Intercity Express. I found it on platform two. Looking closer, I saw that the coaches were made in Romania, 1988. First class, labeled “Observation Saloon,” was at the rear of the train, and the back wall of the coach was glass, for observing. I snapped a few pictures and we were off, bumping through the suburbs, passing morning rush-hour trains headed into the city, packed with people (including folks hanging on railings at the open doors. Out of the city, we passed lots of rice paddies, some being worked. A water buffalo appeared here and there. And lots more birds. At one station, three schoolgirls in white uniforms smiled. For that matter, almost every person with whom I made eye contact smiled – that’s the kind of place it is.

The track was rough. The sideways motion was often a strong, neck-bending lurch. The up-and-down motion was more interesting, all heads bouncing up and down at the same time. “Ride ‘em, cowboy,” I exclaimed, and people smiled. Monday is almost universally wash day, and I spotted clothes drying outside houses and ladies scrubbing in a stream under the rail bridge. About fifty miles on, we started to climb, slowly chugging through tunnels and along ridges. I left my seat to take pictures from an open door. The trainman sat impassively across from me. I spotted some confidence-building, hand-painted signs, in red: “25 MPH. Weak Rails,” and “25 MPH. Insufficient Ballast.” In the distance, you could see mountains the size of the Appalachians, and below, terraced paddies, tunnels. It was way cool.

Detail, Kandy Railway Station

At Kandy, it took 20 minutes to get into my Third World traveling mindset, partly because I was hungry. I finally got some yogurt and two local bananas and was set to go. The first tuk tuk driver was stubborn. The second guy was better; he spoke good English and showed me around. I stayed with him about 90 minutes, and he turned out to be very helpful. I paid him a bit extra. I had read online that a handicrafts center was in a village called Kundasale, four kilometers away, and we headed there.

Statue of a Monk, Malwathu Mahu Viharaya Temple, Kandy

In hindsight, I don’t think we actually got to the “National Design Centre,” marked on a sign at the turnoff from a main road. We stopped at a brass showroom; I told the driver I didn’t want metal, but was looking for masks. He said masks had been moved to the other side of town, so off we went. He was probably steering me, but the woodcarving shop was interesting.

Wood carver, Kandy

A fellow demonstrated how natural stain is made: wood dust plus hot water made one color; lime juice turned it a different shade; chalk made it a third hue. Pretty cool. And the naturally stained masks were nicer than the painted ones. I bought a mask that would bring friendship (others promised prosperity, health, cure for dreadful disease). I do not like bargaining, but I did manage to work the price down 30%. We then rolled along to a batik “factory,” for another interesting demo, and I bought a small piece to frame. Two shops in 30 minutes exceeded my store quota, and I asked the driver to drop me at a hotel or restaurant in town.

Elephant Ginger Beer, EGB for short

He said I would like the Devon, a sort of middle-class restaurant on the main street, and offered directions on how to get back to the railway station by way of the lake and the Temple of the Tooth. The men’s room had neither soap nor towels, and a small bottle of antibacterial gel that my German friend Dr. Susan Beckmann gave me in December came in handy! I had a big plate of veggie fried rice, two EGBs (Elephant Ginger Beer, very spicy and nice), and a bowl of mango ice cream. I was set for an afternoon of touring. Unhappily, it was pouring, so I stayed in the restaurant, watching a Cricket test on the TV, Sri Lanka vs. Zimbabwe.

School classroom, Kandy

It appeared to be letting up, so I headed to the front of the café. Hard rain resumed, then a break, so I opened my umbrella and headed out. Ambled around the lake, briefly through a Buddhist temple, then back to the station in a hard rain. I was very wet when I reached the train, and little cranky, but my mood improved when I began a lovely T-t-S with four Sri Lankans: Chandreen, recently married, his pretty wife, and Chandreen’s parents, all of whom had been on the ride up to Kandy. Chandreen had emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, when he was 22, attended a hotel training college, became a citizen, and now worked as a pastry chef at an upmarket hotel. He would leave Sri Lanka in four days, and his new bride was to join him in a few weeks, when the Australian High Commission granted her papers. I explained why I was in Sri Lanka, how much I liked the country, and showed pictures of my family. It was a lovely, humane experience, made more so when Chandreen asked if he could attend my speech the next day. I felt honored.

The downhill trip was much the same. I dozed as well as I could give the bumps. At the station, we said goodbyes. I was short on time, because the welcoming IFSA reception started in 20 minutes. Hopped in a tuk tuk, took a fast shower, and was at the opening party by 6:15, meeting some new friends and some old ones, including Ken Samarra, an airline food broker in Dallas, Vicky Stennes from jetBlue, and Tim Zandbergen from TFK, a big caterer at Tokyo Narita Airport. Sri Lankan Airlines and their catering subsidiary had been asking to host this event for years, and now that we were assembled, they pulled out all the stops. Traditional dancers appeared several times in the evening, and the party was quite lavish. A small world moment: I met a fellow about to emigrate from South Asia to Minneapolis. His sister moved there 25 years earlier as a Montessori teacher, and she now owns a school in suburban Minnetonka. It took 10 years to get U.S. permission (sibling emigration is a lower priority than parents and other closer ties). I asked him if he knew about the winter! Another nice moment.

Next morning it was time to stand and deliver, and the talk went well. High point of the day was a presentation from Merrill Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea, and his son Dihlan, the firm’s marketing director.

Dilmah tea samples

Sri Lanka has long been a major tea producer, and Mr. Fernando the elder was unhappy that in the 1950s it came under the firm control of a few multinational producers, with very little of the value chain remaining in his native Ceylon. He established Dilmah in Australia in 1988; the vision was “to bring quality, authenticity, and integrity back to tea and in doing so, to make our business a matter of human service . . . we believe that there needs to be an objective beyond the purely commercial and that it is an obligation of every company to give back to its community and to the environment. Accordingly, Dilmah established the MJF Charitable Foundation, with a portion of revenues “to change the lives of the underprivileged in Sri Lanka.” The foundation has a range of projects for children, for aspiring entrepreneurs, for wildlife conservation, and more. They were truly righteous people, and I had a nice chat with the son after the talk. They were the embodiment of doing well by doing good. Remarkable.

Malay Street, Colombo

The sessions continued the following morning. The afternoon was free. Instead of paying the hotel $12 for an hour of Internet access, I walked south on Malay Street (well named, because it appeared to be the historic Muslim quarter) and into an Internet Café I found on an early-morning stroll. An hour online was 56 cents, and the connection was faster. Worked e-mails to zero, took a short nap, and headed out by tuk tuk to see a bit of the city. First stop was Town Hall, a bright white building from 1937. Some people go shopping, some to golf, but I rather like to go to public institutions. In a place teeming with police and security, the city offices were all open, and I wandered around. There were no computers anywhere, but stacks and stacks of paper and binders and such, which I ascribed to the power of the municipal unions, not to lack of funds.

Old Town Hall, Colombo

I walked across the street and into Viharamahadevi Park, formerly Queen Victoria Park, a pleasant and fairly well kept green lung. Paused for an EGB, and shortly thereafter Mr. Rajendra appeared, introducing himself as the chief gardener and proffering identification. He offered to show me around, and his first few observations were compelling, so on we went. He knew a lot about tropical plants and I know almost nothing. I saw 1500-year-old banyans, rubber trees weeping latex, huge ficuses, philodendron, fragrant cinnamon and citronella, flying foxes (batlike creatures), nesting ants, a five-year-old elephant, a Buddha carved in Florence in 1956. At the end, I offered him Rs. 500 (almost $5), which I thought was fair in Sri Lanka. He pushed back, expecting more. It was a bit awkward, but when I closed my wallet he did not anger, but pointed the way. It was a good encounter. I walked on a bit. It was sunny and hot, and when I got back to the hotel, I paid homage to Willis Carrier, inventor of air conditioning.

A few scenes from my garden tour with Mr. Rajendra:

The conference ended with a reception and dinner at the old Galle Face Hotel, where I ate three nights earlier. I met a few new people, including some folks from the airline caterer LSG Sky Chefs, and a wonderful young fellow from a new catering company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The party continued after dinner, but I had to get up about five the next morning, so I walked back to the hotel and clocked out.

Flew to Chennai (formerly Madras), India on Thursday the 10th. Arrived about 9:30, breezed through immigration, and waiting for me in baggage claim was Harish Gambhir, father of a long friend and former mentee at American, Nisha. When I met her 11 years earlier and she learned of my zeal for travel, she said I must visit her parents in Chennai. So there I was in a metro area of 7 million, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, with 70 million.

We collected my suitcase and walked to the parking lot, where his driver and one his longtime employees, Surindra, were waiting. In no time we were in the snarled traffic that so defines large Indian cities. And we were in visual-overload mode, my head spinning in all directions to take in the bustle. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at their house in Thyagaraya Nagar (shortened to T. Nagar), an inner neighborhood of Chennai, where Nisha’s mom, Usha, was waiting to greet me. We sat down to a cup of tea with milk and fresh ginger, a beverage I would enjoy many times in the coming three days. Although I had breakfast on the plane, Harish and Usha insisted I eat another one. I changed into a cooler shirt and tucked into the first of many wonderful meals at their dining table. They are vegetarian, and I greatly enjoyed every repast. Since fingers are more common than silverware, I did need to explain my left-handedness; in that part of the world it’s considered unclean to use that hand, but I told them I washed well and could not really manage with my right paw.

After an hour I went with them to an appliance store.

Ordinary life: at the appliance store

That bit of ordinary life set the tone for the visit: I wanted to see ordinary life in Chennai, and a trip to the Prestige store, filled with stoves, small appliances, and pots and pans was a great kickoff. They were having a variation of America’s “cash for clunkers” program – you brought in any appliance and they gave you credit toward a new one. After about 20 minutes I told Harish it was more fun than Disneyland. Next stop was a sort of Crate and Barrel place called Home Store.

We had lunch with their son Pranay, mostly talking about his very successful business, Narang, which imports upmarket European brands like Red Bull, Evian, Perrier, and Lindt. His wife Khushali came home from her clinic; she is a homeopathic physician. Then came their son Samay, 10, a friendly and outgoing kid, not afraid to hold his own with a Yank with a loud voice!

Colonial-era house, Chennai

At about four, we headed south to Dakshina Chitra, “a nonprofit community service project of the Madras Craft Foundation for the promotion and preservation of the cultures of the diverse people of India, with emphasis on Tamil Nadu.”

Traditional Tamil Nadu house

In short, an open-air museum with demonstrations of traditional crafts and ways. It was living history, and way cool. We got there late, but saw a few demos, including grinding rice into flour and palm-leaf etching, a wonderful and intricate art form. There were lots of interesting artifacts, long traditional and more recent, for example a frame loom brought by Swiss missionaries in the mid-19th century, which greatly sped the process of cloth-making, for which Madras and Tamil Nadu have long been famous (there was even a display on the popularity of plaid Madras clothing in the U.S. and Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s. We toured a traditional Tamil Nadu house, 400 years old, and admired ornate terracotta idols. It was a lot of fun.

Detail, frame loom

The Hindu god Murugan and his peacock

Grinding rice into flour

We drove back via Eliot’s Beach, part of a strand that Harish said was the longest in the world Had a light dinner at a comfortable neighborhood restaurant, drove home, and clocked out. I was worn out from the all the visual and other stimulation. I had my own room with private bath and an efficient Carrier room air conditioner (thanks Willard!). Slept hard.

Harish is an early riser, and we were out the door at 6:15 for a walk around Nisha’s old college, Stella Maris, and a stop at Holy Angels Convent School, where she first studied. Harish and I met nuns at both places, and we had a nice conversation about the value of ecumenism. We were fully aligned. It was also clear that Harish was a very righteous person, always happy to help someone in need, whether someone looking to emigrate to America or a simple service worker at a restaurant or parking lot. After the walk we drove around a bit more, rolling freely before the morning rush (but driving still struck me as a huge challenge). We went through a seaside slum, grim, then, not a half-mile away, a zone of hotels and condos completed and under construction, returning to T. Nagar by way of a very posh neighborhood of business tycoons, senior government officials, and consulates.

The land of contrasts: a homeless person's shelter in front of a middle-class house in T. Nagar.

After breakfast we continued the look at the vernacular and familiar with a drive down to Harish’s shop in Old Chennai, a really eye-popping, traditional place. It was raining and a little muddy, which added to the sense that the 21st century was a long way away.

Bulk food, Bombay General Stores

Harish’s father established the Bombay General Store to sell bulk grains, groceries, soap and other basics in 1953 (using money borrowed from jewelers down the street; I met the grandson of the kind lender later that morning).

In old Chennai

The store looked not much changed, and was doing a steady business, retail and wholesale. I later learned from Pranay that Harish and his two brothers built a small chain of supermarkets, but that Harish decided to separate after surgery a few years earlier, and now only looks after the original store.

After a visit at the store and a cup of tea, we explored. Similar retailers tended to co-locate, so we ambled through one arcade for bangle sellers, an alley of plastics merchants, a lane for costume jewelers (I saw the tendency elsewhere in the city, for example a few blocks of nothing but timber and plywood dealers).

The driver picked us up just as the rain increased, and we drove a couple of miles to the next regular place, Chennai Central railway station. The Transport Geek needed to see it, and Harish understood. It was way cool. We ambled around, then headed to platform 1 for the arrival of the Vasco da Gama Express, arriving from Goa, 900 kilometers west. The contrast with the modernization effort of the Chinese railways was striking – passenger cars and locomotives were old and worn, as was the station. Piles of goods were stacked on the platform. It all worked, but not with much efficiency.

Bottleneck: unsorted cargo on platform 1 at Chennai Central Railway Station; infrastructure is limiting India's development.

One nearly ubiquitous fixture of the Chennai landscape were posters and murals with the image of the longtime Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, an old man in sunglasses, and his deputy chief, who was also his son. Indian democracy is a complicated matter. Enough said!

One of the Chief Minister's ardent supporters

Next stop was Pranay’s office. Harish peeled off, and Pranay gave me a quick introduction to the enterprise. The modernity of all those fancy brands contrasted remarkably with the sacks of lentils at Harish’s store, but Pranay told me, in a very complimentary way, that he learned all the fundamentals from his dad. We repaired to a trendy café, Amethyst, in an old palace and lovely garden, a green lung. We ate a nice lunch outside. Khushali joined us. The driver brought me back to the house and I grabbed a quick nap. Travel in poor countries, even in the comfy manner that I was enjoying, has always been to me intense and thus tiring, and a little siesta was refreshing.

New Chennai: the new megabuilding for the Tamil Nadu government

Last touring for the day was to Ritchie Street, center of the electronics business, shops and street stalls for all manner of new and used digital stuff. Guys were sitting on tables on the sidewalk repairing stuff. I met (and photographed) Mr. A. Akbar Basha, proprietor of Al-Mini Electronics; he and two colleagues were repairing speakers just out of the rain. In a place like India, almost everything has value and does not go in a dumpster, and this “electronics street” was a perfect example.

Ritchie Street repair table

We returned home by way of the seaside, taking a nice walk and at chat just at dusk. We remarked again at my good luck – the overcast skies and rain kept the temperature in the 80s, rather than the more normal upper 90s and even triple digits, with almost 100% humidity. On the way home, Harish called Nisha and I gave her a quick report on my 10X Disney experience in the Real Chennai. We had a nice dinner and chat.

Usha and Harish Gambhir admire grandson Samay's report card; it was a great performance.

We were up early again on the last day of my visit. Just before going to sleep, I checked my e-mail and found good news on a likely consulting assignment. I told Harish the next morning, and that launched a yak about God’s goodness. We prayed to our God in front of their home altar, giving thanks for all that we had. We headed out. Harish wanted to show me some temples in the early morning, all larger places of worship. It was good to see the believers, a range of them. At the second place, I received blessing on my forehead, red and ashes, which caused locals to wonder!

Detail, Hindu Temple

We paused for coconut water. Before returning home, we dropped a small birthday gift in a very poor neighborhood, meeting a young woman who used to work for the store; it was further proof of Harish’s goodness. He was a benevolent go-to guy.

Samay and one of the family's servants; in traditional dress, he was headed to the Hindu equivalent of Sunday School

After breakfast, Harish needed to go out, so I stayed at home and relaxed, then went with Usha to shops in Pondy Bazaar, a few blocks of shops less than a half-mile from their house. We were buying stuff for me to bring in a suitcase to Nisha and her family in Dallas – favorite sweets and salty snacks, dried fruit, some pans, and other stuff. We were back about an hour and I was feeling restless, so I told Usha I wanted to go for a walk, back to the bazaar. She was worried, sure I would get lost. I convinced her that a former geography professor could find his way, but she gave me her mobile phone just in case! All went well, and it was fun to amble around, back past the friendly mango seller (I waved; he waved) and the sweets shop, past stalls largely Muslim-owned. A nice outing. Usha was relieved when I returned at one.

Last outing was with Usha and Khushali to Nalli, a century-old sari shop also close to the house. The array of fabrics was bewildering – four floors of ready-made saris, bolts of cloth, and a limited stock of dresses and other ready-to-wear Western clothes. Khushali offered running commentary on it all. Enormous variety in price (the high end had gold or silver threads along the hems), regional style, color. It was eye-popping.

Gold-threaded sari cloth, Nalli

Bolts of simple cloth, Nalli

We had a late lunch and I grabbed another siesta, then showered, had a last cup of tea. Harish and Usha were busy loading the Nisha-bound suitcase. Harish had a friend at Sri Lankan Airlines who agreed to fly a bit extra, and one of the cooks was dispatched to a nearby grocery to weigh the bag. We had to take out some stuff. I said my goodbyes, took pictures of the family, and we headed out to the airport.

Harish accompanied me to the check-in, which went smoothly. We met the Sri Lankan duty manager, a senior manager for the airport (run by the national government), and a soon-to-retire fellow from Air India. We yakked about the challenges of airport operations and the need for those who work in corporate offices to see what really happens on the frontline. Indeed, I pulled out my laptop and showed them slides from my IFSA speech earlier in the week. It was a nice moment.

I gave Harish a hug, and threaded through immigration and security. In the waiting area, two young guys I met at the check-in desk tracked me down. One had graduated from a flight-dispatch program in the U.S. and asked about working there. I gave him my card and asked him to send his C.V. and I would do what I could. They asked if they could each get a picture with me. I felt honored, and it was a nice last vignette of the friendliness of people in that part of the world.

The homeward journey, 10,500 miles, was via Colombo. The first flight was more than an hour late, and I was among the last to board a Sri Lankan A330 for Frankfurt, but I made it. I slept hard, brought my e-mail and this journal up to date at the Admirals Club in Frankfurt, and flew home. It was nice to be back in Texas.

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From the “New Scandinavia” of Minnesota across to the Original One

The good life in Minnesota. Fishing on Lake Calhoun, less than four miles from downtown Minneapolis.

On Friday the 28th, I flew north to Minneapolis to see Jack in his new quarters – earlier in May he began studying for a M.A. in substance-abuse counseling at Hazelden, a renowned treatment center north of the Twin Cities (and well known to me through my years there). Linda was flying up the next day. Waiting to climb on the Silver Bird, I had a wonderful, 10-minute T-t-S with an older women, a former nun in the order of Bernardine-Franciscan, headed to Reading, Pennsylvania for the 50th reunion of her “class.” She left the sisterhood 26 years earlier; I remarked that it was quite enlightened for them still to invite her, and she agreed. Her vocational role remained, as a teacher and librarian at St. Monica’s parish in Dallas. We yakked a lot about the joy of teaching. It was a splendid moment.

Pleasant public space in a second-loor Skyway in downtown Minneapolis. These bridges crisscross the core, keeping folks warm and dry in winter, and cool in summer.

Jack had complained about the cold temperatures, and looking down on northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, I could see it was a chilly and late spring. The fields were mostly still brown, but holding the promise of abundance. Landed at 12:45, picked up a Hertz car, and drove to see some old friends in downtown Minneapolis who had just launched a business, then ambled over to see longtime friend Mike Davis, now the Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court. I expected him to be in court or deep in work, but he was free, so he showed me around his new, huge chambers, filled with art and mementos. A framed quotation from former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like Mike an African-American jurist, caught my eye:

The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all.

After the tour, and a nice visit with one of his clerks, Mike and I repaired to the garden of the Black Forest Inn for a beer and a good yak.

An hour later I was on the deck of friend Steve Elkins’ house in suburban Bloomington, for a very fast chat – he’s running for state senate, and was headed out door-knocking at 6:15. That’s what they call “retail politics,” and Steve said it was the only way her was going to win the race. He has served on the Bloomington City Council for nine years, and has a keen grasp of local and state issues. It was fascinating to spend a couple hours with two informed, articulate, and committed public service, as a counterbalance to the media bombardment about elected and appointed officials’ corruption and incompetence. Truly the best of Minnesota.

I drove a mile from Steve’s to friend and former boss Chuck Wiser’s townhouse, where I have stayed many times through the years. Chuck was out of town, which was too bad, because I had not seen him in quite a while (he was my boss in my first real job, from 1969 to 1974). I worked my e-mail, and headed out for dinner. I found a strip-mall Indian restaurant online, with good reviews from Indians, so headed over to W. 98th Street for a wonderful vegetarian repast, plenty spicy. Was asleep by ten.

Morning still life

Up before six on Saturday morning, pumped up the tires of Chuck’s unused bike, and headed north, through Edina and southwest Minneapolis, around lakes Harriet and Calhoun, and back, stopping at the wonderful Wuollet Bakery for a Danish and a pint of Land O’Lakes skim milk, an outstanding breakfast. Along the way, I also paused at 5000 Arden Avenue, one of my childhood homes, which, Kerblam blew up in February (natural gas leak). The house was no more. Whoa!

Site of my childhood home, 5000 Arden Ave., Edina.

Before picking up Linda, I stopped at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery for prayers above my dad’s grave. As I have many times before, I cast my eyes across the rows and rows of white markers and gave thanks for all their sacrifices. There I was, a free man, thanks to all their giving. At ten, Linda and I headed to downtown Minneapolis, checked in at the Hyatt, and motored 50 miles northeast to Hazelden and its Graduate School of Addiction Studies, where Jack recently enrolled. First stop was his room on the second floor of a new farmhouse, one of six bedrooms rented to Hazelden students.

Water tower, Lindstrom, Minnesota

Second stop was lunch at the Dairy Queen in Lindstrom. That part of Minnesota, in Chisago County, was the first area settled by Swedes in the first wave of immigration in the 1850s, and there a both genuine and kitschy signs of their long presence – not to mention a lot of pure Swedes.

After lunch we got a shortened tour of the treatment center and school (because of privacy issues, movement was a bit restricted, but we got the flavor of the place, met a couple of Jack’s fellow students, and had a good catch up with our son, who has really liked his first month of school. Just before four, we drove east into Wisconsin, to Edward and Karel Moersfelder’s house. Regular readers know I visit the yellow farmhouse atop Windy Hill every year, but Linda and Jack had never been there. We had a lovely chat and a wonderful dinner (Ed roasted a huge local chicken on the spit). I was not excited about a 65-mile drive back to the hotel, but it worked out fine. Jack needed a dose of city life, so he came along, billeted on a cot in our room.

Sunday morning saw Jack and me motoring around downtown Minneapolis, then a good tour of my University of Minnesota, one of those special places that so improved my life. He snapped a few pictures, we headed back to the hotel to pick up Linda, and drove to Edina (my hometown) for lunch with Linda’s mom and siblings Gordy and Julie. We had not seen them in awhile, and enjoyed the meal and yak. Then it was over to Southdale (the first indoor mall in the U.S.) and another couple of stores, then a tour of neighborhoods south and west of downtown Minneapolis. Back to the hotel to chill.

Then big fun started: we walked a few blocks to Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins. I last saw outdoor baseball in September 1981, the last game in the old Metropolitan Stadium, demolished when the Metrodome opened the following year.

The scene from left field, Target Field

No one liked indoor baseball, and the Twin Cities were really pumped about the new facility. There were a lot of good reasons for not building it with public money, but it has further catalyzed redevelopment downtown, and on a cool, breezy evening there was no better place to be than section 230 in left field, peanuts popping into our mouths, and loud cheers for the hometown team (which bested the Texas Rangers 6-3). Only bummer were the seriously drunk fans next to us; people in Minnesota drink a lot, and these people were out of control. Sigh.

I got up early on Memorial Day and motored around a bit, snapping some pictures, and admiring recent city planning – Minneapolis has done some really smart things, like residential development on former industrial districts adjacent to the center. Picked up Linda, drove to the airport, and flew home. A really swell weekend.

The Mississippi River and Minneapolis

Rinse, repeat. Monday at noon, Linda drove me to the Parker Road DART light-rail station, first leg of a 12-day journey to Umeå, Sweden, Sri Lanka, and Chennai (formerly Madras), India. I was pumped. And with plenty of time, I decided to take public transit to DFW, rather than parking my car for the near-fortnight. The first ride was splendid, reading The New York Times on my iPhone, marveling at how much one can learn in 30 minutes (high point: an interview with a neurobiologist probing music and the mind). I had plenty of time before the Trinity Railway Express train to the station closest DFW, so ambled into the old Dallas Union Station, reading the Amtrak train board and the lure of destinations southwest and northeast – Austin and Tucson, Texarkana, St. Louis and Chicago.

The rides from home to airport took four times longer than the car, and average speed dropped further (to 3.8 mph) after a long flight delay – nine hours after leaving home I was still at DFW. Along the way, a nice T-t-S moment with Neil, a security manager for BP, heading back to Poole, Dorset, after two weeks in the oil-spill crisis center in Mobile, Alabama. An interesting fellow, from the British Marines and Chevron, then the last nine years with BP in Azerbaijan and a home posting. The spill is a true disaster, but there was no need to demonize BP people, like so many U.S. journalists are doing. As I have said many times since the gushing started, every one of us who drives a car, flies on a plane, or turns the thermostat up or down has some responsibility, too.

We arrived London more than four hours late. I missed my SAS flight at 10:35, and was a bit stressed when I approached their check-in desk, because my discount-fare ticket did not allow changes. But never underestimate the power of a smile and effusive courtesy. In no time Yvonne waved her hand and a boarding pass was printed for the 1:50 flight to Stockholm. Hooray! Through security, I walked briskly for the Admirals Club. Connecting to my e-mail, I spotted a reply from a former AA colleague in London. I sent Don a note 11 hours earlier, before leaving DFW, asking if he had any rebooking sway with SAS, given that he worked for AA in Stockholm for years, and found a wife there. I chuckled, reading his short message: “Rob, I am sorry to say that my SAS guy is unable to do anything. Apparently there’s a 600EUR (US$730) difference in the ticket prices and they won’t waive.” God and Scandinavian Airlines were smiling upon me. After takeoff, I celebrated with a Mariestads beer, at $5.11 cheaper than on American.

We arrived Stockholm at 5:15 on a brilliantly clear day. I collected my bag and ambled across the airport to the domestic terminal, where a smile and plea for mercy worked once again. The check-in agent initially said “sorry, you’ll have to see my colleagues in the ticket office,” then relented. “I’ll just check you in.” Big smile, effusive thanks, a little engagement about my many visits to Sweden, marriage to a Swedish-American, the whole shebang. As I walked away, I uttered a loud “woo hoo,” and she laughed. As I walked on, I imagined the hoops and hassle of a similar transaction in the U.S.

I ambled across the terminal to the Radisson Blu Hotel, and sat down in the lobby. Greg Michaels, a fellow member of the International Advisory Board at the Umeå Business School, spotted me, and called my name. It was startling. He and I were on the same flight in a few hours, so we repaired to the dining room. I had a plate of cold salted salmon, potatoes, and a beer, a very Swedish repast, together with a good yak. We landed in Umeå at 10:15 PM, in nearly-full daylight. Greg, Marian Geldner, another board member from the Warsaw School of Economics, and I got a taxi to the hotel. A long day. Happily, I slept hard.

Thursday morning after breakfast, I walked a few blocks east to the Umeå Institute of Design, part of the university.

Earl Pineda

They were having their annual conference and student exhibition, and, serendipitously, the student presentations began at 9:30. I took a seat and soon Earl Pineda, a young American, took the podium. A former scientist at Amgen, he was in the Master’s design program, explaining his project on mobile breast cancer detection in developing countries. The design process has long been fascinating to me, and Earl’s presentation was no exception. Next up was Jaan Selg from Sweden, a Bachelor’s candidate, explaining his design for bulk-food packaging for the U.N.’s World Food Program. Then was Boram Yoo from South Korea, Master’s candidate in transportation studies, explaining her design for a woman-friendly auto – that one was a little subjective and New Age-like. Paola from Mexico explained a new diabetes management tool, and Mikael from Norway discussed his social communication tool for seniors – “why can’t I sent Grandma a facebook message, and get a reply?” I then walked upstairs to see the student exhibits. Impressive stuff: a design for a kid-friendly hypodermic needle, a flipper-like swimming aid for lower-leg amputees, and more. The models and mock-ups showed the best of the Swedish way: functional + aesthetic. Way cool.

Kid-friendly hypodermic needles -- a nice idea

Swimming aid for lower-leg amputees

Hiked up the hill to the university, and into the business school. Not surprisingly, after 15 visits it felt so familiar, more so in all the old friends I met in 20 or 30 minutes, folks like Pelle Nilsson, Helena Renstrom, and Håkan Boter.

Wall decoration immediately above my head, conference room, Umeå Business School

And I was delighted to reconnect with A. a Master’s student from Iran who I met last October (and described in a previous posting). We yakked a bit about his thesis, and I asked if his parents were okay, because eight months earlier he told me his father, a professor, had gotten crosswise with the regime after the June 2009 protests. “Yes, they’re all fine. My dad can’t teach anymore, he’s been suspended,” he said, matter of factly. Aieeeeeeeeee!

At 12:15, I presented a seminar on career and life to about 35 students, hosted by the business school’s new career director, Rickard Lindbergh. Then it was into an all-afternoon meeting of the school’s International Advisory Board. As in previous sessions, we were able to add clarity and direction to some challenges the school faces. We ate an early dinner at school, and I took off down the hill into town on the dean’s bicycle (earlier in the day, before even shaking my hand, he handed me the key to the bike lock!).

I quickly changed into shorts and sneakers, and in no time was pedaling along the Ume River on the Sverigeleden, one of the national bike paths. It was a lovely ride until, 6 miles out, it began to pour. I was sopped by the time I got home. To warm up, I headed to the hotel sauna, but it was broken. Worked my e-mail to zero and ambled over to Lotta’s Krog (pub) for a nice, $8.43 glass of white beer from the Gotland Brewery. Unlike my previous visit to Lotta’s, there were no friendly strangers to talk to at the bar, and as sometimes happens abroad, a brief but steep wave of loneliness washed over me. Fortunately, my family – pictures at least – are on my iPhone, so I scrolled through several dozen and instantly felt closer to home. Without anyone to yak with, I opened the Kindle e-Book app on my phone and began reading chapter two of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and last of the trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. It was cool to read a Swedish novel in situ.

Bike trail on Bölesholmarna, in the Ume River

I was up early the next morning to clear blue sky and a stiff breeze. Rode across the river through the suburb called Teg, and onto my favorite Swedish island (in the river), Bölesholmarna. Circled the island three times (about five miles), and headed back to the hotel. Rode up the hill to the university in time for a 9:00 meeting and another day of deliberation. Finished at 4:30, rode down to the hotel, changed into shorts, and did a quick seven miles along the river, south and east toward the Gulf of Bothnia. Weather was still great, but really windy. We had a group dinner, fun and good discussion, and I clocked out early.

Downtown Umeå, 3:10 a.m.

Early to bed, early to rise . . . Woke again in the middle of the night. At 3:00, the sun had already been up 30 minutes, and I decided to do the morning bike ride early, so I set off along the river, upstream to the Stornorrfors hydroelectric plant, passing beavers, ducks, cattle, sheep, and a very speedy deer. It was chilly, perhaps 42°F. In town, there were quite a few people up and about in the middle of the night-that-was-day, and even a few rural folk out for a walk at 3:30 or 4:00. I rode about 23 miles, and went back to bed.

Splendid riverside condos, 3:15 a.m.

Flew to Stockholm at 11:25. That day’s proof of a truly small world: the mother of a Swedish student friend, Peter Gabrielson (I met him in 2006 at Stockholm School of Economics) was a deadheading flight attendant. Peter had sent me advance notice, so when I sat down in seat 10D Majvor was in 10E. It was not exactly Talking to Strangers, but it was close! Maya, as she is known, was a delightful person, flying for SAS since 1967. We yakked about the airline “disease” (we both had serious cases), about her favorite U.S. city, Chicago, about the upcoming Swedish royal wedding (the heir apparent is marrying Daniel, a regular middle-class fellow), and more. It was wonderful to spend time with another airline veteran. At Stockholm Arlanda I gave her a hug and kiss – she felt like a longtime pal. I ambled across the airport and at security fell into a conversation with strangers, a family of four from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, next door to my hometown of Edina. Wonderful.

I did not quite have enough time to take the speedy (20 minutes) train into Stockholm, so I exchanged kroner for Euros and went to the gate to read for a couple of hours. Flew to London at 3:20, to start some big adventure in Sri Lanka and South India.

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