Travel writing: Milan, Italy

Navigating the cobbled street corners into Quadrilatero della moda; the heart of Milan’s fashion district, our neatly coiffed tour guide Francesco exclaims, “Milano da bere” in a fiery Milanese tone. Literally translating to ‘Milan to drink’, this idiom derives from the city’s rise as an international hub for modern fashion and design in the 1980s.

Boutique fashion houses and jewellery stores line the ‘Piazzas’ and ‘Vias’. Shop panes are adorned with the latest chic attire and glazing trinkets, all considerately arranged in a minimalistic yet contemporary manner.

Crossing Via Monte Napoleone, regarded as one of the most famous streets in fashion, you can smell the Italian leather from stylish bags and genteel moccasins. The scent is occasionally disrupted by the warm aroma of coffee or the soft whiff of salmon hanging in the window of a high-end delicatessen. The arms of women are decorated with their purchases, in chic retail bags, as the mystery behind their sunglasses and the tap of their heels on the marble promenade garners the attention of sharply suited males.
Models marketing various brands nonchalantly stroll into the commotion of shoppers outside, trying to entice them into stores with their finely tinged Italian-American accents, “Bonjourno Sir, can I interest you in our finest silk dinner suit, si?” Manikins are ostentatiously dressed in the latest apparel, complemented with accessories. Milan is renowned for its ‘prêt-à-porter’ or ‘ready-to-wear’ garments. “Would you like to try sir?” Soon you are guided to the changing room; enclosed by wall mirrors and surrounded by various attractive individuals, sipping wine and immersed in the latest copy of Grazia. You emerge from the room in a luxury grey Italian dinner jacket, and a top hat, selected by the shop assistant to a chorus of “bellissimo”.
Beyond the glass-vaulted arcades of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan’s famous Duomo opens up in front of you. Here the ancient and modern Italian renaissances begin to meet; a modern materialist passion touches the extravagance of Italy’s historic architectural and artistic prowess. As Francesco prepares to leave us in the cathedral’s shadow, he yells emphatically “il dolce far niente”.

This translates to ‘pleasant idleness,’ and would seem a more fitting caption to the often stereotyped Mediterranean family picking olives from their groves, like in a Bertolli advert. Yet the Milanese sit-back as the quality of their creations sell themselves. Da Vinci famously lamented “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” Milan, the home of his prominent painting, ‘The Last supper’-has manifested his ambitions.


Travel writing: Havana, Cuba

‘Tu casa,’ our suave taxi driver exclaims, as we pull up to the Hotel Lido, in a classic 1956 Ford, known locally as ‘Máquina’. The hotel nestles in a cobbled side-street in La Habana Vieja district, at the heart of the Cuba’s capital, Havana.

The cluck of chickens and the patter of children’s sandals as they play soccer on the pavement detracts from the brightly painted buildings aligning the street. Vibrant clothes dry on balconies, as men sit below playing cards on overturned buckets used as makeshift tables and chairs. The smoke from their famous Cuban cigars fans across the narrow street, and into the neatly marbled reception of the Lido.

‘Chicos’ the suited porter wails, as he ushers us toward the reception desk. The clink of glasses can be heard as three bearded men are served Cuba Libres at the bar. The receptionist hands over the keys to one of the 65 rooms available in the hotel. The air-conditioned en-suite rooms are conservatively decorated and considerately arranged, in contrast to the vim and vigour of the street side. Strolling to the top floor, cooling your feet on the marble staircase, you reach the concrete of the sunburnt flat-top roof.

Encompassed by orange-tinted paving, corroded steel sheltering and satellite dishes from the densely packed building blocks, you feel as if you are peering into a Caribbean shanty-town. As your eyes focus they capture the baroque figures of various edifices, with the occasional neo-classical French inspired architecture. Of which, el Capitolio, or National Capital building, the old seat of the Cuban government, is moments from the Lido’s doorstep. Even the faint beat of conga drums and clatter of maracas can be heard erupting into a complete salsa rhythm at night from various corners.

The cleaning staff engage in regular banter, as the hotel manager’s wife looks on with a wry smile, peeking over a copy Granma, the island’s communist magazine, whilst lightly sipping tea. Breakfast is a typically demure affair, limited to two slices of ham, cheese and an egg, rationed carefully, just as hot water is turned-off on Wednesday mornings. The sound of Spanish novellas, or TV dramas, can be heard echoing through the corridor from various rooms, when the commotion outside ceases temporarily.

The Lido cannot compete with the mod-con amenities offered by some of Havana’s hotels, but for what it offers in simplicity, it delivers in unique character and authenticity.

The Hedonic Treadmill

You have two options A or B? A) You get $50k others get $25k B) You get $100k others get $250k.

How happy are you right now? Can one country be said to be happier than another? How do you measure happiness? These are the questions it seems of a new era in developed economies such as the UK. David Cameron recently commissioned a £2 million yearly survey to try to get to the crux of what makes Britons happy. It turned out, unsurprisingly, to be ‘health, family and relationships’. Yet given recent social unrest, protests and the August riots in the UK, it would seem there are a lot more variables to consider. Could one argue that people in the developing world such as India are happier than UK residents?

It is easy to run into various measurement issues when considering this question. I feel that some statistics fail to capture the broader picture. GDP ultimately measures the total value of output that a country generates, other measure such as the Human Development Index encompasses a wider range of components, including education and health. However does this or can this really measure what actually matters; the happiness of citizens.
It would seem that some UK residents have fallen victim to the country’s own success story. As we grow richer as a society the tendency to compare ourselves to other people acts as a plateau or even a depression, to our happiness. This is backed up by studies including Clark and Oswald’s finding in 1996 of UK finding that a rise in the wage of a co-worker reduces one’s job satisfaction by as much as a rise in one’s own wage raises it. Such a discovery suggests the bulk of people would choose option A, where they are relatively better off, despite perhaps being wealthier in option B and with a wealthier society overall.
Not only does this ‘relativism’ prevent us from being happier, it also works with the effect of habituation. The habituation effect occurs where we become used to a certain level of living; a world in which we move from a Nokia 1100 to Blackberrys (or in my case a Sony Ericsson W595) and Ponchos to Ugg boots. This certainly raises the question of whether a self-sufficient farmer in rural India, oblivious to these mod cons would necessarily be unhappier than a UK resident, despite having little or no income and certainly no Ugg boots.

That said, this farmer may fall victim to Clark and Oswald’s finding also. Essentially he may be unhappy that the farmer next to him has slightly more land than him or has a greater variety of crops. It would seem that at any level of development ‘relativism’ would always be a barrier to how happy we perceive ourselves to be. Could it be that development and progress merely pushes us up to a new boundary of happiness?

From recent interviews of the youth rioters, it seems that anger has built from this disparity of riches. So what can we do to avoid unrest? It would be impossible to forcibly equalise everyone’s incomes, and besides, people will still become unhappy comparing their income, which is now the same, to people who they consider to be lazy. It is an innate characteristic to be envious as human beings and this how we evolved as species to try and survive and be better or, in this case, better off than those around us. Thus it would be impossible to alter how everyone perceives their own level of happiness. All this seems to suggest we’d be happier if we lived in an ignorant bliss, away from knowing what others have and thereby eliminating the problem of ‘relativism’. In such a world everyone would pick option B, but in an interconnected and interdependent world, without these motivations to compare ourselves against each other, innovation and technological progress would suffer.

So which option would you choose A or B?

India: Organised Chaos

For most of its history India has followed a socialist approach to its Economy, with tight government control over the private sector, regulations and red tape, referred to as License Raj. Between 1947 and 1990 India’s Economy stagnated. In 1991, the finance minister, Manmohan Singh, implemented policies that reduced the government’s control over foreign trade and FDI. ‘With an average annual GDP growth rate of 5.7% for the past two decades, the Economy is among the fastest growing in the world’ . It is clear that India’s path to growth has been through opening up its Economy. However it is the spontaneous nature with which India has embraced free-market Economics that characterizes it today.

Chaos theory describes the behaviour of dynamic systems, systems whose states evolve with time, that may exhibit dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions (butterfly effect)’1. Spontaneous order is the unintentional emergence of order out of this chaos as first proposed by the Taoist Zhuangzi . Adam Ferguson a philosopher and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment defines spontaneous order as the ‘result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.’

Such order out of chaos is evident in India. From the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s markets, to the ‘street-entrepreneurs’ of Gujarat and India’s chaotic roads one can begin to see how the innate behavior of Indian people has given birth to the free-market at its purest level. Take India’s roads, in essence the driving rules are; the three Gs: good steering, good horn and good luck. Crash survivor Harman Sidhu Singh describes that driving on Indian roads is ‘like playing a video game’ . It would not be unusual to see cars and lorries drive on the wrong side of the highway. Vehicles share the roads with cows, elephants and camels. Added to this chaos is the often absence of traffic lights. Being witness to Indian cross-roads is truly fascinating. All vehicles (and animals) would cross simultaneously, and on many occasions escape without collision.

When thrown into such a situation on an everyday basis people adapt quickly to the lack of regulation and avoid, what would seem to most people from the UK an inevitable collision. Traffic in some of the most densely populated areas remains flowing as if an ‘invisible hand’ governs through the chaos. This is not to say that India has the safest roads by any means, it has just 1% of the worlds vehicles, but accounts for 10% of the worlds road accidents. Whilst India’s approach to free markets is not perfect, it is evident that one can see the gradual emergence of social order from self-interested individuals. This is why India never seems to stop moving, there is an inbuilt attitude in its citizens which enables them to get things done where and when they want to.

This includes the rise of billionaires in India such as Lakshmi Mittal and Mukesh Ambani, brought about by the 1991 deregulation process. According to Forbes, India is home to the largest number of billionaires in Asia with 36 Indians on the Forbes ‘100 richest people in the world’ list. India’s embrace of free-market Economics have allowed these entrepreneurs to flourish. They have been able to tap into India’s multi-faceted and diverse human resources that are prepared for whatever their working environment may bring.

Over the last decade, India has experienced a boom in its IT sector, which has contributed to the rise in India’s billionaires. It can be said that the Economic growth has instilled a greater need within Indian people to achieve affluence. The need to be successful and rich is rife in Indian culture. It is a subject continually pursued by Bollywood directors and is evident from the way in which Indian’s worship their celebrities from Shahrukh Khan to Sachin Tendulkar. Such pursuits have reinforced the relevance of the free market to India, in that citizens aim for the ‘bright lights’. This has created a competitive streak within the India culture, from education to career path.

Today, in India we see the result of this competitive mentality, culminating in its chaotic and restless cities. Ahmedabad’s C.G. Road is a perfect illustration of this. On-street you are inundated with shoe, clothes and DVD sellers who pursue you with vigour until you pay them to leave. Combined with this is the aroma from food stalls, especially Pani Puri (a round, hollow fried crisp filled with a watery mixture of potato, onion and chickpeas). Further one can see hoards of people rushing into and out of C.G Road’s many malls and restaurants. Added to this, the occasional elephant may emerge on the road. All senses are aroused with the intent to get people to spend money. It is simply chaotic, yet the street merchants seem undeterred and remained focused in the competitive environment. It is this mentality that has given birth to India’s entrepreneurial drive.

Whilst the number of millionaires in India went up from ‘70,000 to 85,000 in 2005’ , the trickledown effect of this wealth has yet to reach the rural Indian living below the poverty line. This brings to the facade, the issue of equity, a key criticism of the free market model. Whilst free market economic may be an ideology of Indian culture, one can see how taming the chaotic nature of the country is necessary to keep it on track. Chaos is far from a long-term strategy for growth. There needs to be more stringent regulation.

Based on current growth, ‘Goldman Sachs predicts that over the next 50 years, India will be the fastest growing economy in the world’3. Further India boasts a young population with 125 million Indians set to join the workforce in about 10 years. They reflect the dynamic attitude of the country and the desire to be successful. In essence, India may appear to be chaotic and lack regulation, but underneath the surface is a growing Economy slowly finding order in its own unique way.

BBC ‘No U-turn on Indian road safety’ 19/04/07

The Guardian: Small is Beautiful

(The Guardian 30/05/2012) Stepping indoors from the searing subcontinental July heat, Kalavathi takes a seat in her office at the end of a long corridor decorated with scientific symbols and multiplication tables. “Today the children will talk about their ‘bhavishya’” she exclaims. ‘Bhavishya’ or future in Kannada, the dialect of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is fervently on the minds of the children. Their voices; “miss, miss I want to become an engineer…miss, miss I want to work in computing,” resonate through the classrooms. With Bangalore’s burgeoning economy growing annually at an estimated 10.3% only a few miles away, these hopes and dreams have every chance for succeeding.

Images of poverty and riches side-by-side are synonymous with the emerging world; Bangalore is a microcosm for this. Connecting the divide does not have to be complex. Small is Beautiful is a collection of essays written by economist E.F Schumacher championing the role of empowering people in the development process. The right education can empower individuals to make the important marginal changes which lead to brighter futures.

Aptly named, the Hope Foundation School provides for around 400 children living in the surrounding slums of Tannery Road, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Driving down MG Road, the bustling commercial heart of the city, you pass billboards adorned with the face of Deepika Padukone, a Bollywood actress. Raised and educated in Bangalore her image serves a reminder to the children of how dreams can be turned into reality. The reality is that education in any form – art, music, science or language – provides the seeds for opportunity. As the head teacher, Kalavathi places an emphasis on creating a positive learning environment, “we now provide free mid-day meals for the children to encourage them to come to class.” The school was established by the Hope Foundation in 1993, and teaching began in a humble building. The success of the school’s smaller projects, including the mid-day meal scheme has attracted sponsorship. As a result a new building complex has been developed adjacent to the original site, allowing the school to expand its student base.
Every morning Mary, the deputy head teacher, completes registration and collects Rupees from the students. They are not paying for their education. They are learning the basics of financial literacy and savings. The school is also their bank. Kalavathi proceeds down the corridor and enters a classroom. The children arise and all but the clucking chickens in the school yard can be heard. “Namaskara” she says, and the children sit down. As an English-medium school children are taught English from an early age, which is vital for their future. English is the language of commerce in India. Despite having over 20 official languages, the 2001 census data showed that the number of Indian English-speakers was more than twice the UK’s population.

Furthermore, the Hope Foundation’s computer training programme in Bangalore has multiplied rapidly to extend to 8 centres in 2007, beginning with just 4 computers in 1998, and the student base has trebled. Those benefitting from this programme belong to the local community. This small classroom learning on the outskirts of Bangalore is reflective of the larger economic processes occurring in the city. Vast swathes of global technology businesses such as IBM, Google and Yahoo are attracted by the city’s English and computer savvy labour force. “The jobs are complex, and they change rapidly, so we need really smart people,” said Roy Gilbert, Google’s operations director in India for Fortune magazine in 2007. Many of the school’s children have a poor home life, torn apart by alcoholic fathers and a lack of regular income. This specialized education in computing and English is a perfect passport for them to obtain employment, and break the poverty cycle.
The second United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goal-to achieve universal primary education underlies the other goals, including combating hunger and gender inequality. Small changes to encourage greater female attendance in school can also reap rewards through female empowerment. Dr Dhondo Keshav Karve, an early 20th century social reformer on women’s welfare in India emphasized the phrase; “when you educate a woman, you educate a whole family.” Half of the students at the Hope Foundation School are girls, and regular parent-teacher meetings have been put in place to ensure their mothers remain keen to keep their daughters in education. Girls in the local area would otherwise be coerced into being house maids or selling incense sticks in the slum. In the Indian state of Kerala, emphasis was placed on integrating women into the education process, such that the literacy rate for women was reported to have risen from 36 to 88 percent between 1951 and 2001. The UN estimates that Kerala now has the highest Human Development Index in India-higher than that of most developed countries. Small changes to what and who is taught can bring about positive changes for the future.
Change comes not from just being educated but by acting on what is taught. Kalavathi walks out of the main school building and onto the dusty school yard, advancing toward the school’s garden plot. This plot is a perfect symbol for how education works. It may appear quite literally ‘grass roots’, but it is in these chutes of knowledge, that the children and surrounding community can learn about food sustainability and develop a cost-effective way for feeding their families.At the 2010 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, Barack Obama spoke of his time as a community organiser in Chicago, “real change comes from the bottom up, the grass roots, starting with the dreams and passions of individuals serving their communities.” By focusing on what is required, rather than implementing ‘one size fits all’ solutions we can improve the core issues.

As the school day draws to a close, Kalavathi gathers the children under the shade of the school’s iconic Flame tree or ‘Gulmohar’ in Hindi. Today the children have planted the small seeds of Hope. Tomorrow they can grow toward success, anchored firmly by their roots.

The ‘West Spring’

As beacons for economic development, our perception of progress amongst the lesser developed world is measured against the ‘west’. Yet, we barely need to use a microscopic lens to see social unrest and xenophobia scratching the surface of the western world. To what extent has the developed world actually progressed in the social sphere?

On 4th August 2011, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham, and what began as a peaceful protest, two days later escalated into rioting, across Britain. The vast majority of violence was merely described by the media as ‘copycat violence’. Interviews with looters live on TV demonstrated a youthful ignorance amongst some communities, claiming to be in relative poverty-and simply taking back what they are owed.  Geographically the riots did take place in relatively ‘underprivileged’ regions of London, the West Midlands and Merseyside. Whilst to many the ensuing carnage was unjustifiable, it clearly paints a picture of unrest. We are used to seeing such scenes in Africa or Asia, but certainly not in the UK. It was at a point where Middle-Eastern countries were advising caution to their citizens travelling to Britain. It clearly demonstrated that social development issues still impact the west, and if anything becomes more challenging as economic development occurs. The London riots demonstrated how development in one sphere, economic, lead to tensions in social development, where it would seem income inequality and possible social dislocation powered the riots.

The open borders of the western world have also fuelled tensions in social development. The European Union currently finds itself on the brink of financial collapse, and as leaders are calling for a closer integration to save the euro, Europe has moved towards nationalism and xenophobia.  Last year, the Danish and French governments challenged the Schengen policy, of essentially a borderless state, by reintroducing limited border controls. Further, many politicians, such as Sarkozy, in the lead up to elections, have strengthened their voter base promoting national identity and attempting to bolster their countries’ borders. The Euro area crisis has left behind the lower middle and working classes; made redundant and disillusioned from the region’s economic woes. This is slowly building into a critical mass of individuals finding themselves able to relate to right-wing nationalist parties-which shun the multiculturalism that has built up in Europe. Are we seeing the rise of a xenophobic society in Europe? What was seen as necessary for economic development, open borders, is slowly becoming an excuse for economic failures.

The everlasting impacts of 9/11 have also strained religion and society in the western hemisphere. The FBI found that the number of hate crime attacks against Muslims increased 1,600% between 2000 and 2011. The huge rise is assumed to be the result of the 9/11 attacks. This wave of ‘islamaphobia’ seems to have snow-balled with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not only limited to those of Muslim faith; slowly racial profiling and racial gang violence is becoming more general, with cases arising across faiths. With income disparities and fortunes unevenly spread in these capitalist societies and especially skewed away from immigrants, we have a breeding ground for those victims of hate crimes to seek solace in extremism and gang culture.

Youth unrest in Britain, rising xenophobic state in Europe and simmering racial tensions are timely reminders that the west’s development is far from complete. Do we need to look inward before we look outward at the social development on the underdeveloped? Are these tensions likely to reach a critical mass and spill over like in the Arab world?