Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Entrepreneurial opportunities in India

We've spoken with several venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in Mumbai over the past few weeks to explore entrepreneurial opportunities in India and have noticed some consistent and interesting themes.

First, most large global VC firms have created India-specific funds over the past five years, which has led to a huge pool of investment capital in the market. All of the people to whom we talked feel that there's far too much capital chasing too few strong entrepreneurs, teams and ideas in India. The other implication though is that this is a great time for entrepreneurs in this market because startup capital is relatively easy to raise if you have a robust idea and at least a basic understanding of the market.

Another common theme from our conversations was the value that VCs place on U.S. work experience and education. We heard that many Indian entrepreneurs still have a "chalta hai, this is the way things are in India" mentality, so people who bring typical American traits of obsessiveness, urgency, and even simply the ability to follow up have a huge advantage in this market. I found this a bit surprising given my experience at McKinsey India where everyone was obsessive and everything was urgent, but this is what we've been hearing. We’ve also heard that there’s a lack of strong product management and business development talent in the market, in contrast to the abundance of strong technical talent.

The final theme we noticed is that many of the top portfolio companies of VC funds here are clearly modeled after successful businesses from the U.S. transplanted to India and sometimes tweaked for cultural differences. One great example we read about in the Economic Times a few days ago: Ink Fruit is India's Threadless, an online t-shirt business driven by “crowd-sourcing.” Definitely time to start combing the U.S. for models that we can bring to India!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

3 Idiots

Just saw 3 Idiots, Aamir Khan's latest blockbuster. Loved it. Best Bollywood movie we've seen in a long time. Hilarious and heartfelt with a wonderful message. Aamir Khan is a genius. I rarely see a movie twice in the theater but this is another movie I'd like to see again.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bombay Christmas with family and friends

Spent Christmas Day with family and friends in Bombay. Visited Ashish in the hospital in the morning, then had lunch with cousins Mahesh and Anuj, Anuj's wife Priti, and their baby girl Anvi at Elco Pani Puri Center, famous for the best pani puri in Bombay. Delicious. We liked it so much that it was our second day in a row eating there.

Spent the evening playing with our baby nephew Somil, then playing some Bingo with the kids, and having dinner at our cousin Ritu's home. There's a great photo of our niece Saumya, who loves donuts so much and even though she's nine years old she gets all messy with chocolate all over her face as if she were three.

Spent the rest of the night with my cousin Tina, Kruti's cousins Manisha and Vinay, and a bunch of friends on a "Christmas pub crawl" organized by our friend Malini. Finished the night eating late night chicken and paneer rolls at the roadside restaurant Bademiya. Great day. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve at Blue Frog

Mumbai's new live music venue, straight out of The Jetsons...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Saved by a helmet

My cousin Ashish was in a motorcycle accident last night on his way home from the movie. We received a call from the hospital at 3am instructing us to get there immediately. It was terrifying. Hate to receive calls like that. When we arrived they were doing a CT scan of his brain. We spent the entire night and all day at the hospital, and 24 hours later the doctor was able to declare with confidence that Ashish was going to be OK. Luckily he was wearing his helmet because the doc said it's unlikely he could have survived otherwise. It was a frightening reminder of how dangerous the roads in India can be, particularly on a motorcycle. Thank God Ashish is OK.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Just saw Avatar in an IMAX 3D theater. Awesome. I want to see it again but perhaps in 2D next time so that I can pay more attention to the story. Can't believe Fox spent US$450 million making and marketing the movie, but looks like the franchise will be worth it. Apparently they flew theater owners across Asia to Singapore a few months ago to see a 20min trailer to build excitement and word of mouth. People here think the movie has many elements of Bollywood (fantasy, action, adventure, and romance all rolled into one long three-hour movie) and will do extremely well in India. Felt good to see our first Hollywood movie since we started traveling in September.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


We went to dinner at Trishna with our friends Reena and Taron last night. Dinner at Trishna is a bit of religious experience for me - I make sure to eat there at least once every time I visit Bombay. Butter pepper garlic king crab, Hyderabadi pomfret tikka, tandoori grilled wild tiger prawns...I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for the entire three hours. I still think it's the best seafood anywhere. If there's one place that has a fighting chance of persuading Kruti to try fish, it's this one. Not this time though.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bombay nightlife

Our first night out in Bombay was a bit mad. Started the evening with coffee with our friend Vikram at Cafe Basilico, then Kruti and I went out to dinner separately with other friends in Bandra; we met up again at a party at Olive where Kruti was star struck over Arjun Rampal, and the night ended at 4am after tequila shots with my cousin Tina and our friend Malini at China House. We both love the energy of the city even though Kruti says I am obviously trying to relive my "glory days" back when I used to live here. We don't go out like this in NYC much anymore but somehow it always seems to happen in Bombay.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lazy Sunday (and Monday & Tuesday)

After a whirlwind four weeks of sightseeing, visiting family, shopping, attending the wedding, and tracking tigers, we’ve finally arrived back in Bombay. We’re staying with Vipin’s Briju Mama and Raj Mami and cousins Akshat and Priyanka in the suburbs, enjoying some serious downtime. Our last three days have been filled sitting on the couch in our pajamas, catching up on Bollywood movies, and eating Mamiji’s delicious cooking. Vipin hasn’t even showered in two days. So far we’ve seen Ghajini, Ek Ajab Prem Ki Gazab Kahani, Namastey London, and the classic DDLJ. Not sure how we’re going to motivate to get up off this couch.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

India by Train

We’ve done quite a bit of train travel around India on this trip, and I found the images of life from (and on) the trains to be captivating – I never tire of looking out the window. My experience traveling by train has been new and exciting as well – boarding trains without confirmed tickets and working out "deals" with the conductors, traveling sleeper class (just below 3rd class AC) with people sleeping in the aisles and between cars, and the constant shouting of food vendors pitching their goods.

Our first train ride was from Beawar to Saharanpur for Shipra’s wedding, then later from Delhi to Agra, Agra to Ranthambhore, Ranthambhore to Kota, Kota to Baroda and finally Surat to Bombay. Here are our favorite images from the train:

Saturday, December 12, 2009


One of my favorite parts of our visit to Gujarat was spending time with Ba (Kruti's grandmother). Ba is 95 years old and she has the most amazing face, full of character and charm. I love to look at her.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rinchol village

We finally left Rajasthan to come to Gujarat, where Kruti's family is from. We arrived in Karamsad and asked Kruti's uncle, Mota Kaka, if he would take us to Rinchol, the village where Kruti's dad was born and his entire family farmed and lived for many years. I had heard so much about Rinchol from Kruti and I really wanted to see it...I loved it. I used to think my mom's hometown of Beawar was small, but Rinchol is a true village - it doesn't even show up on a detailed map of Gujarat. There are no paved roads and few streetlights, and evenings are spent sitting outside and catching up with the neighbors. I was impressed that Kruti and her sisters spent weeks there as kids!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eye of the Tigress

Ranthambhore is a national park in Rajasthan famous for its tiger population. Our good friends Arjun and Manisha who live in Washington, DC had planned a trip to Ranthambhore and Kruti and I piled on because it was an opportunity to see our friends after many months and that too in an exotic new location. Moreover, I had wanted to visit the park since I first heard about it when I was living in Mumbai eight years ago, and the dates worked out perfectly. Our friends Utsav, Sunil, Sunil's mother and Arjun's mother also joined the party!

Kruti and I had seen lions, leopards, and a cheetah in Africa, and we were extremely excited to see a tiger, largest of all the big cats, in India. It was our first wildlife experience in India. Our visit to Ranthambhore National Park was very different from our experiences on African safaris - it was much more chaotic with the drivers and guides all shouting at each other to move out of the way so that their clients could get the best photos. But the disorder was tempered by the anticipation that the tiger park would deliver its ultimate prize.

Tiger tracking is all about reading the cats' pug marks imprinted on the sandy paths and interpreting the nuances of the alarm calls issued by the other jungle animals. But often the predator remains deep within the forest so you never see what the "caller" has spotted particularly because the park doesn't allow any off-roading. My cousins and friends had told us their Ranthambhore stories about many failed attempts to find the tigers they were hoping to see. Upon our arrival at the luxury jungle camp Khem Villas, we even met a couple from the UK who had been in Ranthambhore for four days and had not succeeded in seeing a single tiger. But we remained hopeful. Part of me enjoyed the fact that it wasn't guaranteed, that the drivers and guides didn't know where the tigers were ahead of time, that the animals had right of way and we were reduced to the role of true bystanders. Luckily it all fell into place for us.

On our first game drive we spotted two tigers resting in the undergrowth close to the track. They were taking a post-coital nap so they weren't moving much but still we all fell under the spell of these beautiful creatures. We were assigned the same zone of the park on our second drive so we went back to find the same two tigers resting where we had left them in the morning. Apparently they were waiting for us too because soon after we arrived the male tiger got up and walked within meters of our open jeep. The tigress followed, all feline grace in her elegantly striped, bright gold coat. We held our breath, astounded by their presence. They exuded the strength and power of a lion combined with the stealth and beauty of a leopard. The ultimate big cat. Before we knew it the moment had passed and the tiger show was over, but we did get an awesome shot of the tigress looking directly at us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Taj Travesty

The disparity between entrance fees for Indians versus foreigners at the Taj Mahal is appalling: INR20 for Indians (US$0.40) and INR750 for foreigners (US$15). So of course we purchased the Indian tickets at the ticket counter. One of the most interesting parts of traveling with Vipin’s family over the last few weeks has been the experience of traveling as an Indian tourist vs. as an NRI (non-resident Indian) – we hired Hindi-speaking guides, ate at the local favorite restaurants, and purchased Indian tickets for all the sites we visited. The Taj Mahal was our fist excursion without any family and the lines for men and women were separate, so guess who got busted – yours truly. The ticket collector just looked at the ticket, looked at me, and then started yelling at me to go back and buy a foreigner ticket. I made the mistake of trying to argue in Hindi instead of Gujarati and had no Indian ID. What’s worse is that I had no phone or money on me, so I had to flag Vipin down, who had gotten through with no problem and we both had to buy new tickets. I was totally dejected after the experience and couldn’t stop thinking about all the arguments I should have made... I've never felt so bad about spending $30.80.

On a brighter note though, the Taj Mahal itself was amazing. I had visited last over twenty years ago, so I felt like I was seeing it again for the first time. It’s impossible not to be moved by the depth of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz which inspired the creation of the Taj. The monument is so majestic in its beauty and we could have spent the entire day just looking at it and taking photos of course, but alas, we only had two hours before we had to catch our next train.

Whirlwind trip to the Taj Mahal

It was a whirlwind trip to the Taj Mahal. Neither Kruti nor I had been there since we were nine years old and we wanted to see it again together so we squeezed in a ten-hour trip to Agra on our way to meeting our friends in Ranthambhore. From Rishikesh we drove to Delhi, dropped off Jay & Tonia and my parents at the airport for their flights back to the States, and caught a late train from Delhi that reached Agra at 1am. My uncle, Ashok Mama, had recommended a wonderful hotel called the Taj Khema – basic, government-owned, only INR1,400 (US$30) per night, with an incredible view of the Taj Mahal from the lawn. After checking in we bundled up, sat on the lawn, and spent a half-hour with the Taj (and a chorus of wild dogs) under the moonlight. Our alarm clock woke us up at 5:30am so that we could visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It was stunning. Too beautiful for words. And pictures. But see the photos anyway. We wish we had more time but at 10am we boarded another train to our next destination, Ranthambhore.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

White water rafting on the Ganges

Even though we took a dip in Haridwar my brother Jay, our cousin Ashish and I decided that we probably had some remnant sins that needed to be washed again in the Ganges in Rishikesh, but this time we did it in a bit more style. Rishikesh is the "Adventure Capital of India" so we decided to go white water rafting on the holy Ganges. The class III rapids were exciting but the real adventure was in braving the freezing temperature of the water flowing from the Himalayas in the winter!

Washing Away our Sins

Following the wedding, we visited the holy cities of Haridwar and Risihikesh located near Saharanpur and along the Ganges River.  In the morning, we we took a holy dip in the Ganga with the family -- freezing cold, but so much fun!!

The water of the Ganga is believed to have the power to cleanse the soul of all past sins and Haridwar (literally “Gateway to God”) and Rishikesh have great religious significance because of their importance in the ancient Hindu scriptures. So naturally we visited several famous temples and attended the aarthi held at sunset on the banks of the Ganga in both cities.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Shipra aur Saurabh ki Shaadi

The week-long festivities for Vipin’s cousin Shipra’s wedding were both energizing and exhausting! Weddings in India are generally larger than life, and this wedding was no exception. The fun began in Beawar, at Vipin’s mom’s childhood home in Mangal Market, where the entire family convened for three days of music, mehndi, poojas and a lot of food before taking the party to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh for the sangeet and wedding. The overnight train ride was a new experience for me, most memorable for the craziness of trying to load more than 120 suitcases and bags (of the 60 family members traveling) within the short 3-5 minute window that the train stopped on the platform, and the vendors waking us up early in the morning screaming "chai, garam garam chai." The wedding itself was held in a massive and glittering outdoor venue, with more food and sweets than I’ve ever seen (including popcorn and cotton candy!), and a stage where professional dancers entertained the guests throughout the night. The highlights of the reception were the super high energy, nonstop baraat, and an amazing revolving stage for the Jaimala exchange on which the bride and groom looked like cake toppers. The pictures tell the story best (plus a few videos)…

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The commercialization of religion in Pushkar

We made a pit stop in Pushkar on our drive from Jaipur to my mom's hometown of Beawar. Pushkar is the king of pilgrimage sites in India for Hindus. It is believed that Lord Brahma performed penance here for 60,000 years to have a glimpse of Lord Vishnu, and it's the site of the most famous among the very few temples to Brahma in the world. Pushkar has also become an extremely popular destination for foreign tourists - there's such a huge presence of Israeli tourists that many signs are actually written in Hebrew! Honestly I don't really understand the attraction to foreigners.

Our experience in Pushkar reflected the commercialization of religion much more than any true spirituality. We were accosted from the moment we got out of our car and whisked down to the lakeside for a puja to pray for the long lives of our spouses. My parents, Jay and Tonia, and Kruti and I were split up and were each separately asked to make significant donations to buy food for all of the brahmins in the town in the name of ensuring long lives for each other. We all conceded because none of us wanted to risk the potential karmic effects of a lack of faith. But immediately after we were being coerced to donate more to ensure the peace and happiness of each of our deceased relatives. By the end I was certain these guys were being paid commissions on how much cash they could extract from the poor pilgrims. Anyway, I imagine the universe will sort it out.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


My brother Jay and sister-in-law Tonia made a game-time decision to come to India to attend our cousin Shipra's wedding. They didn't want to miss all the fun so they asked for vacation over the weekend, booked their flights on Sunday, flew to San Francisco to get their visas renewed on Monday (no consular office in Seattle), departed for India on Thursday, and joined us in Jaipur early this morning. Awesome to see them and to have the whole family together!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jaipur, the Pink City

Next up on the tour: Jaipur, the Pink City, and the capital of Rajasthan. The city is incredibly beautiful and incredibly organized, due to the fact that it was the first planned city in India. While in Jaipur, we maximized our time by sightseeing in the morning (until the markets opened) and shopping all afternoon:-) My favorite sights were the Amber Fort, for its gorgeous architecture and grand scale, and the Galtaji Temple, where we got to feed the monkeys!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The culture of food in Jodhpur

I love the culture of food in Jodhpur. Daily life centers on food and meals more than any other place I've been. Everyone loves to eat, and to talk about what to eat next.

People also take great pleasure in feeding others. There’s a custom in Jodhpur called manvar, in which a host essentially force feeds a guest by hand, usually sweets, in large quantities, particularly at weddings and other special occasions. I love the custom, especially when I’m the one feeding others!

I think the most unique aspect of the food culture in Jodhpur is that people start their meals with sweets. I don’t know another place where dessert comes first. I'm not even sure why dessert comes last everywhere else, except perhaps because people like to "save the best for last." When I asked my relatives, they made the point, why save the best for last when you can have it first? I like it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Welcome to Jodhpur, the Blue City

This is our first trip to Rajasthan together since we got married so we have been meeting/visiting a lot of family, particularly in Jodhpur where most of Vipin’s dad’s family lives. They all gave me such a warm welcome, including planning a fabulously fun party on the rooftop of an old fort-turned-hotel, complete with dancing, drinks and fireworks!

We made some time for sightseeing around the city as well. Jodhpur is called the Blue City because of the blue-tinted whitewash used on most of the houses in the old city - the view of it from Mehrangarh Fort is particularly striking. The museum in the Fort is one of the best we’ve seen with a great collection of palanquins, miniatures, and an amazing collection of traditional royal clothing (which I’d love to have if any of it were for sale). We also visited the Chamunda Devi temple within the Fort, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors on Dussehra, and was the site of a tragic stampede in 2008. The other highlight of our time in Jodhpur was our visit to Vipin’s grandfather’s home (and where his father grew up) in the old city. Check out the photos.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jaisalmer, the Golden City

I've been to Rajasthan many times and have always wanted to visit Jaisalmer but had never been. It lies in the heart of the Thar Desert and the entire town is built of yellow sandstone which gives the city a honey-gold color. The town is crowned by Jaisalmer Fort, a "living" fort with palaces, temples, houses and havelis and a quarter of the city's population still living inside the fort. Jaisalmer is surrounded by quintessential desert - remote, desolate, stark, austere beauty. We took two camel safaris over the desert dunes, the first at sunset and the second the next morning at sunrise. Kruti absolutely loved her first camel ride and I enjoyed it too but I will say that riding a camel is not very comfortable. See the photos of Kruti dismounting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Udaipur, City of Lakes

Our first stop on our tour of Rajasthan was Udaipur, “the City of Lakes,” which was ranked the top destination in the world in Travel & Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards 2009!

Ashok Mama and Usha Mami joined us in Udaipur to to show us around. Though we saw many beautiful palaces and temples, the highlights of Udaipur our boatride on Lake Pichola, the traditional Rajasthani puppet show we saw, and a visit to Saheliyon-ki-Bari (Garden of the Maids) where we had pictures taken wearing traditional Rajasthani outfits (and were photographed by a busload of European tourists!).

After two days in Udaipur, we drove to Nathdwara known for its famous temple of Shrinathji, an incarnation of Lord Krishna. The town of Nathdwara revolves around this temple, so all the small shops in the surrounding streets sell everything from glittering artwork of Shrinathji for your home to flowers, sweets, incense and other offerings for the temple, all while playing bhajans (religious songs) on loudspeakers all around. The experience inside the temple was unforgettable -- the palpable fervor of worshippers and the shoving and pushing of the crowds were unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Touring the Land of Kings

Vipin’s parents have organized an amazing itinerary especially for me to see their home state of Rajasthan, “the Land of Kings.” I have actually done very little travel in India since most of my extended family now lives in the US and because when we did visit as children we spent most of our time at my grandparents’ homes in Gujarat.

Our tour will take us from Udaipur to Jodhpur, where Vipin’s father’s family is from, stopping in Nathdwara and Ranakpur along the way. From Jodhpur, we’ll visit the desert in Jaisalmer and then head to Jaipur and Pushkar before reaching Beawar, where Vipin’s mother’s family is from and where his cousin Shipra’s wedding festivities will begin.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Meet the newest member of our extended family

My cousin Ritu’s newborn son is eight days old. He doesn’t have a name yet but his 8-year-old sister Saumya and 5-year-old cousin Advik are fighting over naming rights. After much negotiation, Saumya has decided that his name should start with the letter S, after her, and Advik has decided that the second letter of his name should be A, after Advik. Cute.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Namaste India!

We arrived in Bombay early this morning and we'll be in India for the next seven weeks. Spending the first few weeks with my folks and extended family in Rajasthan, giving Kruti a tour of the "Land of Kings" and attending my cousin's wedding, and we're planning to spend the last few weeks of the year hanging out with our friends in Bombay. Excited to be back in the motherland!

Alcoholics in Dubai

Our visit to Dubai was all about catching up with our good friends (and my business school section-mates) Hiran, who lives in Dubai, and Anand, who flew in from NYC to hang out for four days. We also met Hiran’s wonderful girlfriend Nidhi, who did all of the planning for the weekend (Hiran outsourced in true McKinsey fashion). We had an awesome mini-reunion, partying, driving around, overeating, hanging on the beach, and playing poker. And of course, in section tradition, we took turns pouring vodka shots straight from the bottle into each other’s mouths. Still a good time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Some people look better covered in mud

Truck stop kebabs

The best chicken kebabs I've ever eaten were at this truck stop where we stopped to refuel outside Wadi Rum, Jordan. We had zero luck communicating with the staff so finally we strolled into the kitchen and pointed at what we wanted. Absolutely delicious.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

We loved our trip to Jordan. We only had three days but we packed them chock-full. We started by renting a car at the airport in Amman. I was a bit apprehensive about driving in Jordan just because we’d never been there but the allure of traveling independently and seeing the country on our own terms was too powerful, particularly after our experience in Egypt. The car we rented didn’t shift properly and we had to jam the key into the gearbox to unlock it every time before starting the car. Ominous beginning. But the roads in Jordan are outstanding and the traffic relatively painless. The country is 80% desert and the combination of the beautiful expanse of sand and an empty, open road made us feel like we were in the middle of nowhere. To complete our car rental experience we got pulled over twice during the three days – the first time for what I’m still not sure and the second time for speeding. The police officer asked to see my license, told me I was going 25km/hr over the speed limit, and then demanded, “Give me JD20” (US$28), after which there was an awkward 20-second pause while we were deciding whether to pay the bribe. Suddenly the officer received a call on his radio and abruptly let us go I think because there was another driver speeding more than me. Lucky for us. Nothing like getting pulled over in a foreign country to get the adrenaline flowing a bit.

Our first stop was Petra, the ancient sandstone city built in the third century BC by the Nabataeans, Arabs who controlled the trade routes of the region in pre-Roman times. The abandoned city had escaped the attention of the Western world for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered by accident in 1812 by a Swiss explorer. It also formed the backdrop for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. We spent our first night and the entire next day hiking among the palaces, temples and tombs carved into the sandstone cliffs. Spectacular.

From Petra we drove further south to Wadi Rum, the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. We spent a half-day exploring the sand dunes, sculpted rocks, and Bedouin encampments of Wadi Rum in a 4x4. There’s something about the desert that I love. I think it’s the lack of human life, which always makes me feel like an explorer.

Our last stop was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, and famous because it has such high salinity that it’s pretty much impossible to sink in it (and extremely fun to float in it). We arrived a bit late from Wadi Rum so we woke up at 5:30am the next morning to play in the sea before we had to race back to the airport. We floated, bathed in Dead Sea mud, floated some more, sat on the water, tried doing some yoga positions, and finally it was time to go. Crazy fun.

Wish we had more time in Jordan. We could easily have spent a week there. Also would have loved to go to Israel, Lebanon and Syria. We hadn't planned to travel much in the Middle East (just a week in transit) because we had prioritized Africa and Asia, but we didn't appreciate how much there is to explore here. Definitely have to make a separate Middle East trip!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Egypt photos

The sites of Egypt were awe-inspiring but the highlight of the trip was seeing our friends, Neeta and Amar, and my sister, Priti. We spent a couple of days in Cairo before meeting up with them to see the Pyramids and heading south down the Nile. Check out the photos below!

Egypt: Tourists, Giants, and Dominoes

Egypt’s massive tourism industry makes having a unique travel experience there a bit difficult. We only had ten days so a fully guided tour was the only realistic option to see all of the historic sites scattered across the length of the country, yet guided tours leach much of the charm and serendipity from a trip. I also prefer the trekking, climbing, scuba, cycling, adventure travel more than the type of sightseeing we did in Egypt where a tour guide drove us in a van from temple to temple and tomb to tomb.

That said, Egypt’s history is fascinating and the scale of its monuments is absolutely magnificent. The structures are so enormous that they look like something left behind by a race of giants.

It was also super fun that Kruti’s sister Priti and our friends Neeta & Amar took vacation and joined us for the week. Amar and Neeta taught us how to play dominoes and we quickly became addicted and spent the last couple evenings on our Nile cruise playing dominoes on the deck of the ship. Who would have guessed? Kruti and I even bought our own set at the Aswan market for the rest of the trip!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tracking Gorillas

Hidden among the bamboo and dense jungle of the volcanoes in the northwest of Rwanda are some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. We tracked those gorillas yesterday and it was an absolutely amazing experience. One minute we were walking closely behind our guide, and the next we were face-to-face with an enormous 200kg silverback. It is difficult to describe the exhilaration we felt upon first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla. Really, the photos say it all. They are captivating, contemplative, gentle, magical creatures that are so human-like it's mystical. We got to spend an hour with the gorillas though we could easily have watched them for days. One of the indisputable highlights of our journey. The US$500 per person permit was worth every penny.

Gisenyi photos

After our mountain bike tour we took a short excursion to the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi, on the shore of Lake Kivu. The views were magnificent but my favorite moment was walking to the border of the DRC and peering into the Congo - I have an inexplicable curiosity about the DRC. Next time I'll have to cross the border.

Mountain Bike Adventure!

We went mountain biking (for the first time) around the gorgeous countryside and volcanoes of northwestern Rwanda on Tuesday. Kim, the Director of Project Rwanda, a terrific organization committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through various initiatives based on the bicycle, had pledged to show us the "real" Rwanda. We did a three hour loop, through rural villages not accessible by road, climbing up to an overlook where we could see Lake Ruhondo and a dramatic chain of volcanoes. It was stunning. Kids from the villages would chase us and shamefully they could run faster than I could bike up the mountains. Riding with us was a member of the Rwandan National Cycling Team, their mechanic, and a few friends. It was great fun.

I also acquired a super chic Project Rwanda jersey! And because of it I feel compelled to pick up cycling as a new hobby when I return to the States so that I can flaunt it ;-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Genocide Remembered...

We visited the genocide memorial yesterday and it really brought us face-to-face with the horrors of the past. We learned much about how it was that the world watched as the genocide unfolded, the cold and calculated planning of the genocide and its bloody execution. The memorial is extremely well done and includes video testimony from survivors. Buried in the memorial gardens are the remains of 250,000 victims of the genocide, gathered there as a final resting place. The memorial was both exceptionally disturbing and tremendously moving.

While we were there we kept thinking how astonishing it is that all of this happened just 15 years ago, which means it's likely that almost every person living in Rwanda today (except perhaps for some young children) was affected by the genocide, and yet Rwanda is one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa and there is little evidence today of the horrible violence that occurred in such recent history. How a country recovers psychologically from something like this and is able to progress so much in such a short period is difficult to comprehend.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Camping at Akagera National Park

We went camping this past weekend with Mike and his housemates plus another 50 of their friends at Akagera National Park! The park is located a few hours east of Kigali on the Tanzanian border. Game viewing is not comparable to the Serengeti, but we did see a bunch of hippos in the lake near the campsite as well as several baboons and monkeys on our drive. We had so much fun that I might even consider camping again (I had previously put a moratorium on camping post-Kilimanjaro). I was super impressed with some of the master-campers in the group. Stephanie (one of Mike’s housemates) even whipped up chocolate chip banana pancakes over a campfire for breakfast for everyone – yum! Some photos below.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Project Kivu Fresh Chicken

We're in Rwanda working on our second project. This time our "client" is a friend from primary school named Mike. Mike worked in private equity in Chicago and served as CFO/COO of several ventures in the U.S. over the past 12 years before he decided to come to Rwanda ten months ago to start his own socially-minded entrepreneurial ventures. We've spent a lot of time with Mike discussing the failures of the traditional development model in Rwanda (large sums of donor capital, little accountability for effective deployment and limited resources with private sector business experience, resulting in tremendous wastage and unsustainable initiatives) and Mike fervently believes that building private sector businesses in partnership with local Rwandan entrepreneurs is the best means to have social impact in this country. He has created a fund to invest in this type of commerce and his initial area of focus is a set of businesses that manufacture protein, which is extremely lacking in the diets of most Rwandans and is a serious health issue that doesn't get nearly as much attention as HIV/AIDS or malaria. The first of these businesses is a chicken farm, but eggs and milk are the most inexpensive forms of protein so Mike has detailed plans to build a dairy business as well. Vertical integration is much more important in this market because it's difficult to control the quality of inputs unless you own them yourself so he's also building a feed business and a hatchery. The crazy thing is that prior to the chicken farm Mike had absolutely no experience in agriculture. Shows what can be done by a smart guy with a great deal of conviction.

Our work with Mike is focused on the chicken farm, and this time we're rolling up our sleeves and getting into detailed operations management. We spent a day at the farm with Mike and his General Manager Jean-Felix learning about the business, and since then we've been analyzing throughput, bottlenecks, maximum capacity and optimal configuration for the new buildings being constructed at the farm. Cranberry case, anyone? I actually love this stuff. I love the math and the problem solving. The recommendations are also extremely tangible. Perhaps I should think about abandoning digital media for manufacturing!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Land of a Thousand Hills

We arrived in Kigali a few days ago and love it here! The country is absolutely beautiful with lush, green, rolling hills everywhere and the weather has been wonderful – 80 degrees F and sunny during the day punctuated by short rainstorms (currently in the rainy season) and 65 degrees at night. Kigali is cleaner than most U.S. cities and the quality of the infrastructure is outstanding – without a doubt the best roads we’ve seen across Africa. We’re staying at Vipin’s friend’s house with him and his incredibly warm and welcoming housemates, and they have made our stay in Kigali that much more enjoyable. Rwanda is definitely one of the loveliest places we’ve visited so far.

Some interesting facts we’ve learned about Rwanda:
  • With a population approaching 10 million people in an area the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental Africa (though you would never guess by looking around)
  • 80% of the population engages in subsistence farming
  • GDP growth rate of 7% makes Rwanda a top performer across Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Rwanda has the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world
  • The largest solar farm in Sub-Saharan Africa is in Rwanda
  • The country boasts a zero-tolerance policy on corruption
  • President Kagame’s Advisory Council includes the CEO of Starbucks, the CEO of Google, and the British Prime Minister
  • A third of the world’s mountain gorilla population of around 700 lives in Rwanda
  • All Rwandans are required by law to spend the last Saturday morning of every month working on a development project in their communities

Rwanda has come a long way since the terrible genocide of 1994, when almost one million people were murdered over a period of 100 days. Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, the country has made significant strides in economic development and is now being called the “Singapore of Africa.” Though 20% of the country’s income still comes from foreign aid, the government is focused on promoting direct investment, and private sector reform has decreased Rwanda’s dependence on aid. One of the biggest success stories so far is Gahaya Links, a company that sells Rwandan peace baskets made by women survivors of the genocide. The country’s economic plan, Vision 2020, aims to increase per capita GDP 4x to US$900 and turn the country into a technology hub for Africa. The focus on investment in the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector is particularly interesting to us given our backgrounds in digital media. The government has invested in building out the fiber infrastructure around Kigali and laying cable across the country, and has also purchased rights to the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, which should significantly expand communication capabilities and decrease Internet access costs. The government also has plans to link up schools to the Internet to help drive education quality.

It’s not all roses here, of course. Three-quarters of the population still live below the US poverty line of $1.25 per day, much of the country is still without running water and electricity (daily power and water outages are common in Kigali as well) and physical infrastructure still has a long way to go, but the country is on an amazing path given its history and we’re so glad to have the opportunity to visit on this trip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

From Summit to Sea

Zanzibar was beautiful, relaxing and just what we needed after our travels through Tanzania. I went diving for the first time which was amazing (though a little scary at first). The underwater life was pretty incredible to see -- it felt like we went from an overland safari to an underwater safari. Though we didn't get any photos underwater, but here is a shot of us with our wonderful instructor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tanzania safari photos

After Kilimanjaro, we traveled from Arusha to the Ngorongoro Crater to Olduvai Gorge to Serengeti National Park to the Serengeti Mara Triangle before heading to Zanzibar for a few days of rest. Click here for a map.

We were also lucky enough to see a wildebeest river crossing thanks to our awesome guide, Frank, from Sayari Mara Camp (the most amazing place we've ever stayed)!

Small World, Part III

Walked into a business school classmate and friend from NYC, Nushin, at Kibo Hut on Mount Kilimanjaro. We had just descended from the summit and she was resting in preparation for her ascent the next morning. Hopefully how busted I must have looked didn’t dissuade her from the nightmarish climb awaiting her ;-)

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was truly the most difficult physical challenge I have ever experienced. I feel like Kilimanjaro is “marketed” as a mountain anyone can climb. Frankly, I’m shocked that so many people actually climb this mountain every year. It was extremely difficult. And I consider myself relatively physically fit.

Day 5 of our trek – allow me to set the scene. First, the altitude had been causing headaches, loss of appetite, and seriously irregular digestion; hence we hadn’t eaten much of our last few meals so we didn’t have much energy to start the final ascent. Second, the summit ascent is by torchlight and you leave at midnight and arrive in the midmorning, so add sleep deprivation to the mix. Third, you have to trudge up loose volcanic scree (did I mention in the dark?) which means every step up is also half a step back down. Fourth, the air at the top contains only 50% of the oxygen of air at sea level, so just breathing is challenging. And fifth, it was freezing. At the summit I noticed that the corners of Kruti’s lips and eyes had a bluish tint due to lack of oxygen. That day my pulse had been more than 120 beats per minute for at least 12 straight hours (not sure whether that is good or bad for my health).

But six hours into our final ascent as the sun rose over the jagged peaks of Mawenzi and the bed of clouds below, I started to feel emotional and tear up. It was probably due to the combination of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, but it was also one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. It was uplifting, and it gave me a second wind. At 9:20am we finally made it to Uhuru Peak, 5895 meters/19,345 feet, the highest point in Africa. Adrenaline and determination got us there, but once there I had little motivation and energy to come back down. As we started our descent our guide Mussa asked if I was feeling ok, and I replied, “Yes, why, don’t I look ok?” (I thought, perhaps the color of my face had turned from brown to a smurf-ish blue). Mussa responded, “You’re walking like a drunk man.” I don’t remember ever feeling so extremely tired, weak, and completely used up. Luckily we could ski down the volcanic scree so what took us nine hours up only took three hours down. And then we had to walk another 3-4 hours to our next campsite. Brutal.

We’ve been talking about our climb pretty much everyday since. It was one of those experiences. Kruti and Salil agree with the consensus – happy they did it, but they would never do it again. Me? Perhaps it was because my altitude sickness was milder or because my memory is shorter, but if Jay (my brother) wanted to climb Kilimanjaro and needed a companion, I’d do it again.

Kilimanjaro photos

Climbing Kilimanjaro took me through a full range of emotions over the course of the six day hike -- excitement, love, hate, cold and exhaustion:-)

We climbed the Rongai route, a "relatively easier route" according to the company we booked through, but I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have made it up the mountain on any more difficult route -- let's just say I got a headache on Day 1 of the hike and we were only at 8500 feet above sea level at the first camp. Here is a detailed description of the Rongai route.

I give our guides, Mussa and James, all the credit for our summit. They were the best guides we could have ever imagined, especially since we had heard some horror stories about Kili guides before we left. First, it's worth noting that the African Walking Company runs an incredibly professional and well-organized operation from start to finish. Mussa (pronounced "moose-aa"), our head guide, was the quieter, more serious guide and his 10+ years of experience and focus on safety gave me a lot of comfort that we were in good hands. James, our assistant guide, aka "DJ Bush Baby" was the more gregarious of the team and kept us laughing all the way up the mountain. We had so much fun with them over the course of the hike and couldn't recommend them more highly to anyone considering climbing.

On the day of the summit ascent, Mussa and James brought a third member of the team (Ernest, our favorite porter) along with us so we had 1-to-1 coverage to help us up the mountain. We started at midnight and within a couple of hours Mussa was already carrying my day-pack (clearly he noticed I was having a tough time already). Ernest probably amazed us most though -- he served us tea at 11:30pm before suiting up to climb with us, carried hot tea up the mountain for us to drink at Gillman's Point (18,600 feet), walked me down from the summit to camp, and then served us lunch at base camp, before heading to the next camp at double our speed to prepare dinner before our arrival. Seriously, these are the hardest working guys ever.

It was an incredible week, and one I can appreciate significantly more now that I'm off the mountain, clean and well-rested. We took lots of photos along the way and the slideshow above includes some of the highlights. You can clearly see us getting progressively dirtier and more tired, but we're still smiling the whole way!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Our expedition begins tomorrow

Tomorrow we start climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and the highest peak in Africa. Feeling equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Enough people have told us they’re glad they did it but they would never do it again that we’re slightly dubious about the experience. The trepidation also comes from reading notes like this in our pre-climb briefing: “There is little doubt that taking Diamox will significantly increase your chances of summiting, but it may also marginally increase your chance of dying." Apparently altitude sickness is serious stuff. More than 75% of Kilimanjaro climbers experience at least some form of mild altitude sickness, but more serious conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (water in the lungs) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (swelling in the brain) can be fatal unless the casualty descends immediately. Why are we doing this again? Hopefully we’ll live to tell the story. Inshallah.

Small World, Part II

Saw a guy wearing a Chicago Botanic Gardens hat on our bus from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania. Turned out he lives in Northbrook, IL – my hometown. And twice a week he goes to the Botanic Gardens, where my Dad volunteers his time every week. They’ve probably seen each other. A 20-passenger border-crossing bus and we found another passenger from Northbrook, IL. Small world.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kenya photos

Our time in Nairobi was short (just over 24 hours), but we managed to attend a birthday party, feed giraffes, and eat dinner at the "best" Indian restaurant in town.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hello East Africa

We left West Africa, picked up our friend Salil at London Heathrow (he's spending the next two weeks with us in Kenya and Tanzania), and just arrived in Nairobi. Looking forward to the next segment of our trip. East Africa here we are. First destination - our friend Isis' cousin's birthday party - landed, checked into the hotel, showered, and ready to party - how else would we get over the fatigue from flying for the past 20 hours?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dakar Photos

We had a wonderful few days in Dakar despite the oppressive heat and humidity. We stayed with friends, Elya and Katherine (thanks to Anil for the introduction!), walked around the Medina, visited the beautiful Ile de Goree, known for its role in the Atlantic slave trade, and relaxed at Plage de N'Gor, one of the lovely beaches Dakar is known for.

Art Collectors

Experienced something new Monday night. I passed out, and not due to inebriation. It was hot and humid in Dakar and I had been feeling a bit nauseous most of the afternoon; Kruti and I had just finished dinner and I got up to wash my hands. All of a sudden I felt lightheaded and dizzy, everything started to whirl, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor and Kruti was desperately trying to bring me back to consciousness. It was scary at the time, not so much for me but for Kruti. I imagine how I would have felt had I seen her collapse to the floor and stare blankly at the ceiling like I did. Anyway, 20min under a fan and I was feeling fine, almost back to normal. My brother-in-law Vivek diagnosed that it was likely a vagal response, perhaps triggered by hyperthermia and dehydration. Crazy. Never heard of it before.

The more interesting story was the chain of events that followed. Kruti’s sister Riti suggested we see a doctor just to check blood pressure, EKG, etc., and our host Elya recommended the clinic SOS Medicin because the doctors speak English. There I had a consultation with an outstanding doc (best bedside manner I’ve encountered) who confirmed that all tests were normal and independently diagnosed that it was likely a vagal response. While the doc was trying to shave a few patches of my chest hair to get the EKG sensors to stick, Kruti was admiring the artwork in his office. We saw similar paintings throughout the clinic and later when we asked the receptionist where we could find artwork like that in Dakar, he made a few phone calls and soon we were ushered upstairs to meet the clinic’s proprietor Vasenta.

Vasenta is a South Indian woman (the first Indian person we met in West Africa) who was studying/practicing law in France where she met/married a Senegalese doctor 15 years ago and decided to move to Dakar and start a clinic together. All of the paintings in the clinic were by the same local Senegalese artist named Serimacen, and Vasenta and her husband had another collection at home. They were big fans. And so were we. So Vasenta offered to connect us to Serimacen, and the next day we spent a few hours with him at his atelier, looking at his paintings and listening to his stories and inspirations. Fantastic guy.

Serimacen paints about “the struggles of Africa,” and women are the main subjects of his paintings. The one we liked best was a painting of a woman and her two daughters standing at the sea and contemplating their son/brother who had just left by boat to try to find work in Spain. There’s a sadness in their expressions because they know that most young men don’t make it since they’re turned back at the coast and many die at sea in their small fishing boats. Serimacen asserted that this still remains a huge problem in Africa. We liked the painting so much we bought it, along with the story – our story of meeting Serimacen.