Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Social Absurdities

When someone we know is admitted into a hospital, social norms dictate that we visit them while they are hospitalised. If unable to do so during that window, those of us who are closely related to the patient, are expected to pay a visit to them in their home, after they have been discharged. That’s the norm, isn’t it?

But, what happens if you’ve already paid a visit once, found that the patient was recovering well, and after a few days find out that he/she has taken a turn for the worse? Should you go again?

What happens if, after your visit, the patient has been sent home, only to be rushed back to the hospital after a day’s rest? Are you expected to re-visit?

What happens if the event in question is not an illness, but the birth of a child? As a mother, you may think that the last thing you want with a newborn is to attend to visitors. Should you extend that kindness to the mother currently in the hospital, and spare her your visit? By doing so, will you be remembered for your generosity of spirit, or for the fact that you did not bother to show up, despite being a close friend or relative?

If the event is, in fact, an illness, should the severity of the illness determine how many times you are expected to visit? Should a recurrence qualify in severity as much as the original ailment? How many visits are adequate?

Yes, there are those among us who are genuinely concerned about the patient in recovery, and would like to show up just to let them know that they are not alone, and that help is at hand. But, the bulk of visitors in any given hospital are there as a social formality, is it not?

Like the ‘hospital dilemma’, I find that many of the social norms we religiously follow, border on sheer absurdity!

We all do it, because every one else is doing it, and because every one expects us to.

Like complimenting the host for a yummy meal. If some do it as a social nicety, and others do it only when they really like the food, how does the host know which is which? Of what use is the compliment to you, if you yourself say such things all the time, without meaning it?

Are we becoming a society that almost never means what it says, or says what it means? What will the world look like if more and more of us head down that path? What will Truth mean in such a world?

I wonder.

Freedom!

This post is not about how to recover from a crashed disk. It’s about how not to let a disk crash affect you in the first place…

A few weeks ago, the hard disk of my home computer crashed. Just like that. It wouldn’t turn back on. I ran some diagnostics using a recovery drive to check if there was any chance of salvaging it (the hardware, not the data), but there wasn’t. So I unplugged it, ordered another one, and went about my business on another device.

When the new drive arrived a few days later, it took me less than 30 minutes to have it up and running with every thing I needed. No data files to transfer. No settings to copy down or migrate. No nothing.

This was the goal when I began moving to a device-independent setup a few years ago. Piece by piece, I had successfully moved every thing I ever do on a computer to the cloud, so that if the day came when my hard disk crashed, I would not be affected.

And, it was satisfying to see that it worked! Today, all the mobile and computing devices I use (at home or at work) are irrelevant when it comes to the data they work with. It’s all online. Synced in real time. No fuss. No muss.

Here’s what works for me…

Laptops/PCs:

  • Google Calendar – To manage multiple calendars online; Synced across devices
  • Google Apps / GMail – For my work/personal emails; Synced across devices
  • Google Drive – For all my work documents; Synced across devices
  • iDrive – Backup & Sync for all my personal documents- I use a complex profile for each computing device (excluding phones)
  • Evernote – For long notes; Synced across devices
  • SimpleNote – For short notes; Synced across devices
  • Google Photos – To backup any photos I shoot to my Google account
  • Pocket (Chrome Extension) – To save any bookmarks I want to read/retrieve later
  • ToDoist (Chrome Extension) – To save any To Do items (with/without reminders)

Mobile Devices:

  • An Android device serves as my primary mobile phone
  • All my Contacts are saved on a Google account – nothing on the phone
  • SMS Backup & Restore – To periodically save any SMS messages (say, when migrating from one phone to another)
  • Google Photos – To auto backup any photos shot on my mobile device
  • Apps for SimpleNote, Evernote, ToDoist, Pocket and Drive, as above

(I also use an Android tablet sometimes, which follows all of the above)

Second Level Backups:

  • All documents & pictures from any computers I use are also backed up – once a year – to two external (portable) hard disks… This goes in a folder with the name YYYY
  • I keep one of the two external disks in a remote location as an offsite backup, just in case

That’s it, really! This simple setup now enables me to work from anywhere, with instant access to all my data, as long as I have an Internet connection. Plus, if one device fails, I can literally switch over to another in minutes, without any loss of data.

 

Mumbai-Pune Puncture Scam

If you live in any of the major cities of India, and own a vehicle, you’re more than likely to have heard of many popular cons that happen in and around the city to unsuspecting motorists. Typically, they involve someone flagging your running vehicle down, and pointing out a problem you need to get fixed. Then, another helpful someone shows up out of the blue, and attempts to “fix” the problem, eventually making it worse, and making you shell out thousands before you can be on your way again. One variant of this also includes throwing out sharp nails on your road stretch, causing some punctures, and then going about fixing them.

Since I was aware of many of these, I thought that I would be insulated from such scams. But, I was wrong.

On a recent trip with the family to Pune, just as we entered the Pune city limits on the Mumbai-Pune expressway (near Hinjewadi), a man on a bike signalled that I should get my front-left tyre checked… and rode away without stopping.

Since he didn’t stop to “help” me, I took his warning as genuine, and soon stopped the car by the kerb. The tyre pressure in my tubeless tyre did look a little lower than normal, so I thought I should get it checked as soon as possible. As it turns out, close to where I’d stopped was a roadside tyre repair shack, so I headed there and asked him to check it.

Again, note that there was no way for me to link the biker who rode away without glancing back, and the tyre shack who was supposedly minding his own business when I drove upto him.

Anyway, he jacked up the wheel and starting checking the tyre in question with some soapy liquid for air bubbles. I did ask why they use soap (which would froth and bubble on its own) instead of plain water, but he said they help him spot the puncture leaks better. I wasn’t too worried since I was keeping a sharp eye out for what was a real air bubble from inside the tyre, and what was on the surface.

During the conversation, repeating the process through the entire surface of the tyre, the good man found (and showed me proof of!) 8 different puncture leaks – big and small. The physics seemed sound: Unless the leaks are fixed, they would keep increasing in size. Plus, I was travelling with kids and the trip hadn’t even begin yet. Plus, I was 200 kms from my home city (and trusted garage). So, all things considered, I asked him to go ahead and fix all of them at 150 bucks a pop.

All the way home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. So, when I returned, I went to have a word with my local garage, who I have known for years and has yet to cheat me in any way. Here’s what he told me…

This is a very common scam on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. In all likelihood, while the chap at the tyre shack was “checking” for a puncture, as soon as I glanced away, he probably used his poker to make more tiny holes which later he could prove as punctures, so that he could charge me for each fix. Checking for punctures in tubeless tyres should be done by dismounting the wheel, putting it in a bath of liquid and filling it with high pressure.

Not only did I get conned for a thousand bucks, but I also ended up damaging a good tyre for the long run.

Shockingly, I came home to look this up on the Net and could hardly find any stories of similar experiences. Hence, this post to warn other unsuspecting motorists of what to watch for. If enough of us are armed with the correct information, it will be difficult for the scamsters to do their thing, don’t you think?

Hopefully, this should save you from ruining another good tyre and a few thousand bucks…

 

Startup DNA

What does the DNA of a startup look like? While almost every startup believes that it is building something entirely unique, there are some defining characteristics that dramatically increase the probability of startup success.

Shane Snow – the Chief Creative Officer of Contently – lists some excellent points in his post. Here are a few of my favorites…

  • Rather Than Planning, Doing
  • Looking For 80/20s
  • Split Testing And Iterating

Bias for Action has got to feature among the top of any list you see on this subject, since a startup is essentially about getting started with the idea, and not just making elaborate plans on paper (or on a spreadsheet!).

If you are planning to launch a startup soon, be wary of collaborations with key stakeholders (partners, vendors or even senior staff) that do not exhibit this trait. You will regret it if you don’t, and waste precious time in the bargain.

Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 will definitely apply to your ToDo list, once you start your journey on the road to entrepreneurship.

Yes, the list of things to do will be long, and every item on it will seem important. But, every entrepreneur has limited resources and limited time at his/her disposal. And, in the end, what will matter is that you did the things that mattered most – and ignored the ones that didn’t.

Finally, Testing and Iteration will get you further than most, and also ensure that you get bang for the buck.

Should you advertise on Facebook or Google? Should you use subject line A or B in your introductory email? Should you go with logo option 1 or 2? Very often, we don’t know what will work in a particular context, but can ascertain our course of action based on data, as long as we are willing to learn from the experiment, and iterate as needed.

If budget is a constraint – as it often is – you need to run carefully though-through experiments to see what works better. Discard what doesn’t, and scale up what works by putting more resources behind it. If budgets are generous, run even more experiments!

May the force be with you.