“Would you like to have a coffee?” asked my host at a company that I was visiting.
We were standing beside a small table that had a coffee machine and a box that contained several small foil packages that came in different colours, each denoting a different taste variant.
He then took one of these, popped it into a small receptacle in the machine, pressed a switch and a few seconds later, I saw steaming hot coffee dispensed into a cup.
I have heard of, seen and tasted various barista style coffees, but this was something new.
It was a capsule or pod system of coffee making. The concept appears simple enough. The aluminium foil capsule contains a precise amount of ground coffee. When this is inserted into a compatible capsule system machines, the top is pierced to allow water to flow through. Hot water is forced through the capsule at high pressure, and the final beverage is extracted to the cup.
Specialty coffee shops such as Starbucks popularized and standardized coffee house culture, and offered gourmet-style variants to clientele across the world. It was Nestle, through its brand Nespresso that brought premium coffee into the workplace and into homes. With huge margins for themselves, needless to say.
The whole idea of bringing gourmet coffee into the home is based on aspiration – buy the product, taste the lifestyle (George Clooney is the brand spokesman), and with global sales in excess of US$ 3 billion, Nestle haven’t done too badly with this.
Nestle is not a monopoly – there are others such Sara Lee with their Senso brand who are selling large numbers in the U.S. What differentiates Nestle, however, is that the Nespresso pods can only be used on Nespresso machines unlike many other brands that work on “universal” machines.
There are several varieties to choose from and they carry exotic names such as Ristretto, Arpeggio, Livanto, Capriccio, Volluto and Vivalto Lungo, amongst others. Caters to individual taste, and comes handy when guests who drop in have different preferences, since all one has to do is drop in a different variety of pod into the machine.
The pod comes with a hefty price tag, though. The machine itself costs upwards of US$ 150 for the basic model, going up to US$ 600+. And, each pod costs approx. 55 cents, which is steep.
However, if one does not wish to stand in line at a barista, and wants to have different varieties of one’s choices at call, within the convenience of the home, the coffee pod is a must-have.
As for my first experience with this concept? Well, the coffee tasted good.
And, I asked for a second cup.
I read recently that a 46 year old Brazilian-born lady got married to a 60 year old, balding, retired civil servant in Edinburgh. Nothing unusual about the alliance except that Elaine Davidson holds the Guinness record of being the world’s most pierced woman with 6,925 piercings (with 192 on her face alone).
Speaking of which, one has read about the various records that are certified by Guinness. There are records for the tallest, shortest, fastest, slowest, fattest, thinnest, and what have you.
For instance, a huge pumpkin, all of approx. 822 kg, grown in Wisconsin, U.S.A., weighed in as the world’s heaviest. Fair enough. What’s next? The largest melon (current record – approx 122 kg)?
There is the record for the family with the largest number of living generations (7). And a dog with the longest ears (left ear – 31 cm, right ear – 34 cm)
However, some of the “records” defy logic, and makes me wonder why they should appear at all, and if people do things just to gain their moment of fame.
A Japanese man, Kenichi Ito, holds the record for the fastest 100 metres race, running on all fours (a man is supposed to run on two legs, by the way). An American named Ashrita Furman holds the record for the fastest mile running in swimming fins (why would anyone want to do that on terra firma?).
Krunoslav Budiseli, a Croatian, holds the record for wearing 245 T-shirts at the same time – the T-shirts weighed 68 kg (why didn’t anyone offer him a sweater if he was feeling so cold?). Italy’s Vittorio Innocente set a world record in underwater cycling, pedaling to a depth of 66.5 meters (maybe the cycling tracks in his home town were too choked).
Setting records and breaking them are all fine. But, some of them surely test one’s reasoning. And, verge on the absurd, to put it mildly.
As for the happy 60 year old groom on his wedding day, he said, “Elaine looked astonishing. People see the piercings but I see the amazing personality underneath.”
Indeed. That’s what love is all about, I suppose.
Is that a record, too?
The powerful Mercedes I was travelling in was going at 190 kmph and my toes curled when I glanced at the speedometer. We were overtaking most cars on the road, and it was an entirely different feeling altogether.
Taking a deep breath, I said to myself, “Relax, this the Autobahn,” and sat back to enjoy the drive.
There is a mystique about the German autobahns (Bundesautobahn) that is based on the impression that these are some of the only roads in the world that have no speed limits whatsoever.
That’s not entirely true since about half of the road system passes through areas that are subjected to local as well as conditional limits.
The autobahn network has a total length of about 12,800 km, which makes it the fourth largest in the world behind the Interstate Highway System of theUnited States (approx. 75,400 km), the National Trunk Highway System of the People’s Republic of China (approx. 74,000 km) and the National Highwayof India (approx. 71,000 km).
Germany builds powerful cars, and there are many who believe that these cars need to be driven to their potential. Hence, speeds in excess of 200 kmph are commonplace. Having said that, even their not-so-powerful rival vehicles routinely travel at speeds in excess of 160 kmph.
There have been calls to impose speed limits, with those in favour stating that an increase in a car’s speed leads to greater fuel consumption, leading to greater air pollution. Safety has been another concern, even though Germany has one of the lowest accident fatality rates in the world.
Driving on the autobahn is a pleasure. The roads are excellent, the drivers are very disciplined, and the countryside is scenic.
What struck me was the disciplined driving habits of the motorists. There was no overtaking from the wrong side, no tailgating, no flashing of lights to overtake, no maniacal aggression. They drove fast, yes, but there was respect for the road rules and other motorists.
There were many BMWs and Audis that were travelling much faster than we were – at least 250 kmph according to the business associate I was travelling with – and they whizzed past us seemingly with no effort.
When our car exited from the autobahn to one of the smaller, country roads, it seemed as if we were driving very slowly – if you consider 100 kmph to be slow, that is.
One regret, though – I did not get to drive on the autobahn. Not sure if I trusted myself to drive at 200 kmph.
I came across a very interesting concept at Frankfurt, Munich and Hannover airports – a Quick Boarding gate for Lufthansa flights. It looks like any other gate, with a small difference.
The gate staff does not take your boarding card. Instead, one has to hold the boarding card with the face down on a scanner, and on hearing a beep, walk through. The whole process is very quick, and saves time for the passengers as well as the staff.
A small twist that I observed – one passenger had a printed copy of an online check-in, and his seat number had changed since then – when he scanned the boarding he was carrying with him, the machine printed out another boarding card with the changed seat – all this in a few seconds.
I read that Continental Airlines has launched a self-boarding trial at Houston Airport, while Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, one hears, also has this in operation.
I could hear loud conversations and boisterous laughter last night, and on looking out of the window of my Munich hotel room, the source became clear. These were youngsters who were returning after a long session of serious drinking at one of the tents in the Theresienwiese area of the city.
“Must go there and see for myself,” I decided.
The Oktoberfest is an annual event in Munich – while the name suggests that it is held in October, it actually commences in the second half of September. Over seven million people visit the city for this 200-year old event, including from outside of Munich and even Germany.
Having taken a S-Bahn train to the Hauptbahnhof station with the view to connect by the U-Bahn to Theresienwiese, I was staggered by the sheer numbers of people headed in the same direction. Young and old, families, children in strollers, they were all there, and one could tell that the beer drinking had begun prior to getting to the venue.
And, once in Theresienwiese itself, it was a different world. The streets were packed with people, there were the traditional rides and other attractions normally associated with fairs, and, finally, there were the huge beer tents set up all over the place.
I was informed that a table for 12 at one of the beer tents can cost as much as a thousand Euros, and bookings have to be made as much as a year in advance. Walk-in visitors might find room to walk, but forget about sitting down.
Beer brewed within the city limits of Munich is the only variety permitted to be sold at this festival, and the beverage does not come cheap. A one-litre tankard costs approximately 9 Euros, but that does nothing to dampen the “spirits” of the revelers. This beer has an alcohol content of 5.8 to 6.3% compared to the normal 5.2% in German beer.
The consumption numbers are staggering – 7 million litres of beer were consumed in the 2010 Oktoberfest. This was apart from 125,000 litres of wines. As compared to this, 245,000 litres of coffee and 1 million litres of water & lemonade were consumed.
It was interesting to see people dressed in the traditional Bavarian clothes, too.
Amazing event, and it was with some regret that I walked away to catch a train back to the airport.
So, the dead NASA satellite has finally reached earth, though, when I last checked, no one knows where it came down, though there is speculation that it splashed down into the Pacific..
Well, the sky did not fall on our heads, something that Asterix’s Gauls always feared.
It was interesting to read, during recent days, about this coming down, and there was the usual speculation about its likely destination, and the potential risk of damage and injury. Of course, there was always the reassurance, if one can term it such, that chances of it hitting oneself was infinitesimal.
At least 26 pieces, the largest at about 130 kg, had been expected to survive the plunge and land along a path 500 miles long. NASA had forecast a 1-in-3,200 risk that debris from the satellite could injure someone, and the risk for any individual was one in several trillion.
People love the hype, though, and I recall what happened when the Skylab space station crashed into earth in 1979 – the buzz then was even greater. Of course, Skylab was much larger, and people threw parties, and bought Skylab helmets that had antennas that would warn you about a piece of the station landing on your head a few microseconds before it happened. All in good fun.
And, then, when a piece of the debris fell in Western Australia, local authorities fined NASA $ 400 for littering.
This time, of course, it was not same, though some, particularly in North America were concerned. The chances of a piece of the satellite falling on you were greater than winning the lottery, they reasoned.
Viewed that way, it makes sense. But, nothing noteworthy finally happened.
Anticlimactic? Perhaps, so. But, it gave the media something to speculate about, and viewers and readers something to chat about.
Now that it has all ended as a damp (literally, in all probability) squib, life returns to normal.
For, there are other more pressing matters to attend to.
There is something about history that is fascinating. When one mentions this word, though, the thoughts that come to mind are about cultures, architecture, language and traditions.
There are certain other aspects that are interesting, too, though not as well documented.
A ride by a three-wheeler autorickshaw in India is commonplace and would usually not attract any attention. However, there is a particular breed of three wheeler that had left an indelible imprint in the minds of people who were fortunate to have experienced it. This was the “phatphatis” or “phatphats” of Delhi.
When you speak of three wheeler, one visualizes a light weight vehicle that, at times, feels extremely unstable.
The “phatpati” on the other hand was quite something else.
Legend has it that British troops had left behind several Harley Davidson motorbikes when they departed from India. Some enterprising Indians purchased these bikes, added on a gear box (probably from a Willys jeep), welded on a passenger compartment that was good for four passengers, and put the highly unusual and unconventional vehicle onto the roads of Delhi as a “taxi” of sorts.
Travelling in one of these “phatphatis” was a delight. Driven (ridden?) often by a burly Sardarji or a Haryanvi Jat, these vehicles would emit a deep staccato bellow that gave it the name “phatphati” or “phatphat”.
The driver straddled the vehicle as one would a motor cycle. The passengers in front faced forward, while those at the rear faced the rear. The vehicle had a roof made of tarpaulin covered in plastic and the sides had no windows – just an opening.
And, they would travel at a fair nick, navigating from Connaught Place through the crowded streets of Karol Bagh or Green Park. Through Daryaganj to Chandni Chowk, too.
As time went by, a fifth seat was added on and, later, a sixth. Economics, pure and simple, coupled with the increased cost of maintenance. Over time, the original Harley was unrecognizable, but the ingenuity of the owners ensured that these contraptions stayed on the roads.
A law, in 1998, requiring polluting vehicles to get off the roads rang the death knell for these vehicles that were the preferred mode of transport for thousands of daily office goers.
The “phatphati” is gone, it is history. The story of its existence for close on fifty years may never get documented in detail. There might be a few of these still in existence in the hands of collectors.
As someone who has travelled several times by this mode, I will remember it fondly.
The fact is that if you have not ridden in a “phatphati”, you have not travelled.
The taxi driver informed me that we had almost reached the hotel, and on looking out of the window, I saw what looked like a cruise ship. “Must be near the beach now,” I thought till it struck me that this was Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which is 400 kms away from the sea.
The Mercure Value Hotel is shaped like a ship and the windows are shaped like portholes. Interesting, one should say.
It is a nice and comfortable hotel, the rooms are large, and the air conditioning is good. Was there anything nautical about the interiors? Sadly not.
Out of curiosity, I looked on the net to find any other hotels that were shaped like ships, and I found a few.
The Titanic De Luxe Beach & Resort Hotel in Antalya, Turkey is on the beachfront.
The Hotel Cruise is located up on the River Mtkvari, in the western part of Tbilisi, Georgia.
And perched atop a set of buildings of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore is a structure shaped like a ship.
Very interesting structures.
Wonder what the fascination was that made people design them this way.
And, no, I was not seasick.
The flight was full and it took quite a while for the cabin crew to get the passengers sorted out – no mean feat considering that several had oversize cabin baggage, refused to let other travelers pass by, and some even wanted to have their seats changed.
One particular passenger, seated three rows ahead of me across the aisle, caught my attention. There was a deliberate swagger in his gait as he walked in, he grumbled about the co-travelers who blocked his way, and loudly demanded that the cabin crew bring him some water.
I heard him announce loudly to the person seated beside him that he was a senior manager with a large multinational and was traveling economy only because someone in the travel desk had goofed.
The loud-voiced diatribe went on well past take-off, and I could sense that other passengers were getting a bit sick of it. No one said anything though.
Twenty minutes prior to landing when the aircraft had begun its descent and the seatbelt sign was on, the inevitable happened. A member of the crew, laden with used trays, walked past this person and accidentally dropped a partially full glass of juice onto his lap.
The guy leapt out of his seat like a scalded cat, berated the hapless air hostess for messing up his trousers, and bolted for the lavatory. It didn’t end there. When the purser, who observed the man disappear into the loo, waited outside and enquired about what happened when he finally emerged, the gent let fly yet again about the carelessness of the crew, the apparent lack of service, and more.
The purser, perhaps a veteran of many such episodes, put on a patently fake smile, placed a friendly but firm hand on the guy’s shoulder, spoke a few words of apology, directed him back to his seat, and told him to stay put.
Did the story end there? No, not quite.
Our flight arrived late, and this guy missed his connection. The next flight was eighteen hours later and he would have to cool his heels in the airport.
I think most observers rejoiced at this. And the traveler beside him who had endured patiently for close on two hours told him, “My friend, make as much noise as you want, but no one here cares who you are. Enjoy your walk around the airport for the next few hours, it will do you some good.”
The guy exited the aircraft with the look of a deflated balloon, and those who had watched his pantomime couldn’t hide the grin on their faces.
It takes all types, I suppose.
Most people expect a bit of solitude when entering a cab and settling in for the ride. It could be a ride within the city, or a drive from/to the airport. The last thing they want is a garrulous cabbie, and if the ride is completed in silence then well and good.
That’s the ideal scenario. The reality can be quite different.
Ask the cabbie one question, and it can, often, open the floodgates. The longer the drive, the chattier they get.
It can be quite interesting, though, and I occasionally engage them in conversation – more to pass the time in a longish drive than anything else. And, often, as I have discovered, it needs little prompting.
In many ways, cabbies are similar, whichever country you travel to.
There is one category of cab drivers who are BBC, CNN, and all other major news networks rolled into one. They grandly inform you about what’s happening, and this is often garnished with their own expert interpretation and analysis of events.
There is another that falls into the social reformer category, and their views on the ills of the country and society are described in elaborate detail.
The third spends time talking about family, kids, etc.
And yet another wants to know where you are from and what it is like in the place you live in.
There is also a category of cabbie that keeps chatting, lets you lower your guard, and then fleeces you at the end of the trip – the logic being that you think he is a nice guy and will be straight and honest.
Chatting with a cabbie often gives you a unique insight into the place you are in, things that you will never garner from a travel guide. Useful tips that often come handy. It also presents a different perspective on life, and how others handle events and happenings – can be an eye opener, sometimes.
One aspect that I have observed in many cabbies is their take on family and education. There have been many who have spoken about their kids being in college and the dreams for a future that’s different from sitting behind the wheel of a taxi.
Theirs is a hard life, with many working 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. They have to reckon with grumpy, unreasonable passengers, crazy traffic, pressures to earn enough to pay their rentals, and deal with traffic violations.
Chatting with their passengers who are willing to listen is one way for them to relieve stress, a social interaction that they otherwise lack. It is a way to kill the boredom that is so much a part of their profession.
Yes, there are occasions when I would prefer that the cabbie keeps his mouth shut. But, more often, than not, it is an interesting diversion, particularly in a new country.