Thursday, June 25, 2009

Incongruous Sight Inspires Worse Doggerel

Last night upon returning home from yet another unpleasant commute (in addition to dampening the spirits of one and all, the rain seems to have slowed down commute times to a snail's pace) I confronted a jarring sight in my front yard.

As most jarring sights do, it inspired me. So I wrote about it.

To imagine, I think, it is hard,
a toilet
In my front yard.

How it got there I know not
This ugly porcelain pot.

It torments me
This toilet
That once was filled with pee.

On a tree stump
It sits
Awaiting another dump.

I pray it soon disappears
This toilet
That once hosted so many rears.

When I get home today
It better be gone
Or sit on it I may.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thoughts on Father's Day

Seven years ago tomorrow I became a father. My daughter was born on Father's Day in 2002. On that auspicious day I wasn't ready to become a father. At the time, I didn't understand how becoming a father would transform my life. As the years have passed I have grown to understand and appreciate the challenges and rewards of fatherhood.

Being the father of a daughter is particularly challenging: Although divorced from my daughter's mother, I nevertheless treat her respectfully. Now remarried, I treat my current wife with love and respect. In all my relationships with the women in my life and those in my daughter's life, I seek to model behavior which my daughter will learn to recognize as the way she should expect to be treated by the men in her life.

Although my daughter may never realize it, her presence in my life has made me a better man, a better husband, and a better son. That's the best Father's Day gift of all.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Singapore Street Not Encouraged for Americans

One Whirlwind Day in Singapore

Here's a recap of my first day of touring in Singapore--a very easy city to navigate, with excellent, safe and reliable public transportation.

Mounting the Singapore Airlines "hop-on, hop-off" bus at Stop #10 (and lamenting yet again that I did not take SIA, as a boarding pass gives you a significantly discounted rate), I took advantage of the air-conditioned bus that conveys tourists all around downtown and allows infinite on and off privileges for the one-day ticket. It has a convenient schedule and hits all the major tourist (and shopping) spots.

My first stop (#14) was the lush and verdant Singapore Botanic Gardens. I toured the Ginger Garden, took in the National Orchid Museum, and walked around the beautifully manicured paths. After an hour or so, I got back on the bus (thankful for the A/C) and took it to Little India (Stop #21). If shopping is your thing, you'll prefer Stop #20, Orchard Street, where Singapore's lavish wealth is prominently on display.

Walking on Little india's crowded, exotically scented streets, I visited several temples, all of which were packed with worshippers who didn't mind the presence of a tourist. I remembered to give token donations at all the temples I visited. All that religion got me hungry, so I adjourned to a local establishment (randomly selected) to eat a authentic and simply delicious Indian meal. I lamented to the owner (whom I thought understood me) that I cannot get Indian food as good as his in the U.S.)

Although by this point the sun was at its apex, beating down mercilessly, I walked down Syed Alawi Street towards the Sultan Mosque. It was a little hard to find, but I asked a local who answered me in "Singlish"--the unique patois of Singaporean and English that I somehow understood.

I walked down and around Arab Street, a pedestrian mall that's a slice of the MIddle East in the Far East. I haggled somewhat lethargically with a few vendors selling beautiful fabrics, scarves and pashminas. By that time I needed a snack, so I (again) randomly selected a cafe and ordered a authentic plate of hummus and pita. After that I picked up the bus at the Golden Landmark hotel and thought about calling it a day.

On a whim, instead I alighted at Stop #2, the Singapore Flyer. It's so new that my guidebook didn't mention it. While the ride is expensive and touristy, it's definitely worth it, and especially on my first day in Singapore--if only to get a sense of the sheer size of the city. It's a half hour--I skipped, of course, the gift shop and the overpriced mall at the base of the Flyer--and got back on the bus to Stop #10, and took it back to my hotel for a well-earned rest.

That's a eight-hour day of touring in Singapore, and I barely scratched the surface, missing Chinatown, the Merlion, the Museum of Asian Civilizations, etc. Well, there's always tomorrow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Yes, It's the Other Side of the World But People are the Same Everywhere

Geographically, Singapore is the other side of the planet. In terms of humanity, however, my travels have taught me that at our cores, people are the same.

By way of a story...

This evening after checking into my hotel--the Furama Riverside--I wanted to go for a walk to find a restaurant but also to get my bearings. In my travels I've always found it helpful to recognize the neighborhood in which I'm temporarily residing.

You don't see many people walking around in Singapore and I understand why. It is brutally hot and humid, even at 7 in the evening. I walked around the block, bypassing the sidewalk restaurants offering various frog-related delicacies (solving the mystery of why the world's supply of frogs is diminishing) and ended up where I started, near my hotel.

Rather than give up and eat at the hotel restaurant, I saw in the distance one of those touristy-type restaurants that are common in Asia--you know, the ones with the buses in front and the goofy shrines to Buddha at the entranceways--so I walked up the stairs and straight into a scene from out of a Chinese version of a Western flick: The movies when the bad guy walks into a bar, the music stops and everyone turns to look at him like he's totally out of place...

The place was full of Chinese tourists (no matter where I go I cannot get away from Chinese tourists but that's because there are so DAMN MANY OF THEM) and they looked at me like, uh-oh, if a gaijin is here it must not be good food. Anyway, I nodded to them all and sat myself down at a table and proceeded to eat the best Chinese food I have had since, well, since I left China. In fact, it was probably better than the food I ate in China.

I recall eating a spicy and sour (not hot and sour) chicken soup with some sort of tofu and vegetables, followed by a fish dish cooked in ginger and onions. I know I saw some squid in there. I was particularly proud when the server handed me a fork and a spoon and I said, "no, I prefer to use chopsticks." I enjoyed my meal while the Chinese tourists snatched curious stares at me.

The whole experience of traveling is great because it really reinforces my belief that at heart, we're all alike. We have to eat; we have errands to run and chores to do; we smile at happy things and scowl at unhappy things; we ride bikes; we drive cars; we're curious. We want to live in peace. We want good Chinese food. We look different but we're all the same at heart.

In light of President Obama's speech the other day--of which I caught snippets--I think that sentiment is particularly apt. Perhaps I'll mull that over in my dreams tonight, as I try to catch up on the sleep I did not get during my 20-hour journey to the other side of the world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thank you, British Airways

Consumers have from the beginning of consumerism chosen every day where to invest our dollars, ducats, or denarii. We ought not overlook the power of that choice.

With that truism in mind, here's the story of how and why I chose British Airways for my imminent trip to Singapore. The story illustrates both the power of an educated consumer as well as the psychological impact of attentive and personalized customer service.

Several airlines fly the Boston-Europe-Singapore route, including U.S. and non-U.S. flag carriers. I chose British Airways because of the following reasons:

1) Convenience: The fight I chose leaves Boston in the morning and arrives at Heathrow shortly after 7 p.m local time. It departs shortly after 9 p.m. and arrives in Singapore Friday evening at 5 p.m local time. This minimizes layover time and the disruption of my normal biorhythms. The schedules of other carriers were simply not as convenient.

2) Price: On such a long trip, it's preferable to fly B-class. But if you can't afford it, BA offers "World Traveler Plus": Premium economy class that gives passengers more leg room, a deeper seat recline, and the privacy of a different section. The price for premium economy isn't that much more than "World Traveler" (economy) class, and on long flights like theses, the extra room and privacy are well worth the investment. No U.S. flag carrier offers premium economy on this particular route, so this was a no-brainer.

3) Customer service: We've come to accept that the customer service of U.S. flag carriers is, well, substandard. When I called BA to select a seat in advance of the flight, they explained that seating assignment opened 24 hours before the flight. Because I am traveling alone, I offered to sit in one of the single seats in premium economy class. It was a ploy, and I'm sure the representative with whom I was speaking (who did NOT have an Indian accent, but rather a crisp British one) recognized it as such. Nevertheless, she graciously accepted my "offer" and assigned me to that seat. What's more, she assigned me preferable seats for each leg of my trip, to and from Singapore. I very much doubt a CSR for a U.S. flag carrier would offer to go that extra mile.

4) Online check-in: While this is standard for all airlines, British Airways adds a few touches that make it seem special. For example: They have a checklist for international travelers (I've traveled internationally a lot but it helps to have a checklist of items you need to ease border crossings); they acknowledged my special meal and asked me if I wanted email confirmation of that special order; they offered "Skymall" products they felt might make the trip a little easier. All unnecessary touches that made me feel valued.

Being a "marketing guy" I generally recognize when I'm being sold or up-sold. I know the language, I know the tactics, I know the tools. Even though British Airways used the language, the tactics and the tools, I didn't feel pressured.

On the contrary, having educated myself and following a positive customer service experience, I felt grateful that they were offering me products/services I might find valuable or useful on my long journey. I was happy to be exposed to those purchasing opportunities...

Who knows? I may buy those customized airline slippers after all.