Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Odyssey - El Camino 120 km walk in Northern Spain

"One love
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other"

This song, One by U2 (listen to the full song below), played just when I entered a small tavern in the Galician region of Northern Spain, all cold and soaked up in rain, with nothing more than a backpack and a sleeping bag. It was the Day 2 of my solo 5 day Camino walk of 120 kms from Sarria to Santiago de Compostella. This route is an ancient pilgrimage for the Christians and has been covered in a popular movie called "The Way" starring Martin Sheen, and has also been written about by Paulo Cohelo; but for me, this was going to be an experience, and more importantly, a journey that would etch a memory of a lifetime. Little did I know that I had embarked on what would be one of the best experiences of my life!

On 20th April I landed at midnight in Madrid after an exhausting 7 hour stopover at the Moscow airport (the airport is in desperate need of renovation). It was pouring in Madrid and I had booked an overnight hostel close to the airport to catch the first flight to Santiago de Compostela the next morning. A lady wearing a black leather jacket came to pick me up in a black SUV and easily lifted all my bags. We picked up a few more passengers from other airport terminals and reached the Hostal El Cruce (a guest house) around 2AM. I rearranged all my stuff to create a separate backpack with only the basic and most important things that I would need for my solo travel for the next 7 days. As I got into bed, I put on multiple alarms to avoid oversleeping.

I managed to wake up on time at 6 AM and found the check in manager with soccer style cropped hair waiting for me. My 20 euros (incl. taxes!!) Ryanair flight to Santiago de Compostela was running on time and for the first time I felt nervous about what I was embarking on. I bought a local SIM card just as a backup and was on my way. After a 1.5 hour flight, I descended into the small town of Santiago de Compostela, which was ironically the end point of my journey, my Camino.

To successfully complete my Camino, I would have to demonstrate that I have walked at least 120km starting from a town called Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, collecting all sorts of very interesting and unique stamps from local hostels, churches and restaurants on the way. While waiting for my bus to Sarria, I was tempted by the sole cafe on the airport for a hot cuppa and was surprised by how good the rich hot cocoa was (with an extra treat of churros), which certainly got me pumped up about the journey ahead. The bus arrived exactly at 10am and I was the only person to get on the bus on the otherwise deserted airport. The air was cool and I was reminded that I had come to the temperate forest lands, so different from the tropical climate that I was accustomed to. It was still pouring and I was dreading my 120km walk starting the following day.

My Camino marked on the Google maps

My hot thick cocoa with churros

As the bus drove, I started noticing the Camino signposts and people in colored raincoats and trekking sticks - these were my fellow Caminos. I felt more optimistic watching them walk intently despite the heavy rains. I soon arrived at my stop Lugo, a curious little stop on my way to Sarria. It was here that I had my experience of what a siesta for the Spanish is, literally everything was shut between 1-4pm. I had some free time until my next bus so I put on my heavy backpack for the first time and practiced walking with it. In my two hours of walking, the weather swung from 5 to 15 C, from minutes of strong sun to cold rain. With the temperature varying so much in such a short while I also practiced the concept of layering clothes, an essential skill for any hiker / backpacker.

After a short while, I was on my bus to Sarria, thanks to a local girl who helped me communicate with the driver. I dropped my bags at a hostel in Sarria (called albergues in Spain) and set out to explore the town. What an interesting little town it was! So many shops catering to the Camino pilgrims with messages of goodwill. I came across the main Sarria church where I got my Pilgrims passport or stampbook. This book would be my proof of my Camino and a memoir for life. Happy with the book I continued walking and came across the starting point for my walk the next day. It looked lovely and I was now excited of what lay ahead of me!
A church in Sarria

My room in the albergue

My starting point - the town of Sarria

 The Camino symbol

Day 1 - Sarria to Portomarin  (22kms)

I awoke early the next day only to realize that the other folks from my hostel had already started for the day. Most of the pilgrims, I realized, were quite experienced, having started from the original starting point for the French Camino (there are two more, the English camino and the Portuguese Camino) in a place called St Jean Pied De Port in France, and having walked for at least 30-35 days until Sarria. Being the newbie, I was clearly not used to the routine and hurriedly packed all my things, wore my layers of clothes and left the hostel.

The air was cool but the weather was pleasant. I crossed the bridge and was met with a lot of fellow Caminos wishing me something I didn't quite understand - only realized a few minutes later that they said Buon Camino! I walked through several farmlands and passed by several intriguing cottages for the next 2 hours. Some of these cottages had been converted to albergues or were just places to rest and eat. There were several ascents and descents and muddy patches because of the rain and melting snow. My strategy to cover the 20 odd kms in front of me was to shift the weight of the backpack on different straps after every half an hour and then rest for a few minutes after every 2 hours.

The bridge leading me onward

Farmlands along the Camino

The Camino signposts

Beautiful creeks along the Camino

 After a few hours of walking, I came across a nice resting point by a creek. I sat down and starting stretching my legs which were starting to feel the walk. As I was resting, a lady passed by and we greeted each other. I continued walking after a few minutes and I caught the same lady and we got talking. Gina, I learnt, was on the Camino with her sister Binky, and another couple, Kim and Arlen from Oregon, whom she had just met on the trip to the Camino. Tired from the walk, Gina and I started looking for a place to eat and came across a cutely designed cottage that had some great food (they even had vegetarian for me!). Shortly afterwards, we were joined by Kim, Arlen and Binky.

After the lunch, I walked with my new found friends, sharing stories and appreciating the sights and sounds around us. Gina, a hospitality industry veteran, liked to concentrate and walk fast. Binky, her older sister had lived in Hawaii for several years and would appreciate the plants and the birds we saw on the way. Kim loved beer and tattoos and had the most distinctive haircut, and Arlen, one of the fittest persons I have seen at 60, had just climbed the Mount Kilimanjaro last year. Together we walked through muddy patches and passed by cattle and farmlands. My legs rather my back hurt but the journey was so much fun that my mind just pushed me to keep going. And like that in a few hours, we arrived at our destination for the day - Portomarin, which was a small town across a river. On arriving in Portomarin, we had to climb a fleet of stairs which felt evil after a long tiring day but nevertheless, we reached our destination and I walked to my albergue.

My albergue - Aqua Portomarin

 Day 2 - Portomarin to Portos - 19 kms

On Day 2, I woke up relatively early and got ready to leave. My legs were paining a little and so was my back so I completed a few important yoga stretches to gear me for the day ahead. I had my breakfast, put on my backpack and started walking. The day was dull and cold. The first few minutes of the walk was a steep ascent and I was panting by the time I reached the top. To add to that, it started drizzling. I quickly covered my backpack with a cover and put on my rain jacket. This was exactly what I had been fearing all along- walking in the cold heavy rains. As I kept walking, the rains only grew stronger and after a few minutes, it made no sense to walk further, so I stood under a tree's little shade with the rain pouring. I spotted a few other Caminos in their brightly colored raincoats who had also taken shelter under the trees. It continued raining for about 30 minutes before which I could walk again. The road had become sludgy and I was wet, and cold, and hungry. Surely this was a day to test my patience, I thought. In any case, I continued walking, with no other alternative really. After about an hour of walking through the muddy roads, I was relieved to find a tavern a few meters ahead of me. I walked into the restaurant, cold and soaked up in rain, when the song "One" by U2 started playing. I hummed along the tune and looked around the place, only to find Gina, Binky, Kim and Arlen calling out to me. I was just so happy to see them! I sat down with them and ordered myself a hot Galician broth - a potato and turnip soup. The rain had momentarily stopped and I urged my friends to continue walking while the skies were clear, as my soup was taking some time. After a few minutes, I put on my backpack and continued my solo walk. With the weather on my side now, the uphill journey was a lot better and there came a point where I crossed a plateau of bright yellow flowers. All this while, I was thankful of the regular Camino signposts so I knew I was on the right route.

The yellow thorny flowers lined my walk
Thankful for the regular Camino signposts

The bright yellow flowers cheered me up

After another 4 hours of walking, I managed to reach my destination town of Portos. I was amused to see that Portos was actually a hamlet with less than 4 huts, with one of them being my albergue for the night. The albergue looked so quaint and pretty that I was now excited to stay in there. When I went in, the lady checking me in told me I was the first Indian she had ever seen and took me to this huge world map of travelers that had stayed in the albergue. Can you imagine my excitement when I drew the first line from India to there! There were only 2 other people besides me staying at the albergue and we had good conversations during the dinner which was specially prepared for us by the hosts. I was so in love with this little cottage that wished I could stay longer, but I was also excited to see what the next day would bring.

My albergue for the night - A Paso de Formiga
The world map in the albergue

My albergue from inside

 Day 3 - Portos to Melide (20 kms)

After a restful night, I was up and out with my backpack and all excited for the day ahead. It was a bright and cool day and after walking for about an hour, I ran into Kim and Arlen. They were such a fun couple that I tagged along with them for the whole day. Together, we passed through several small hamlets, creeks, hills and plains, ate at a cute cottage, had beer and lively chatted all the way. I was having such a good time with them that I did not even realize the weight of my bag or feel the stress of walking. Around 3PM when we reached Melide, I had to bid them goodbye as they were staying at the next stop about 6 kms ahead of Melide and would be reaching Santiago a day before me. I was so sad to see them go and kept wondering what I should do about it. As I walked towards my hostel, I remember thinking to myself that this was my Camino and that I could make it the way I want. I had come to this Camino not knowing what I was getting into and here I was, having found some amazing people that made my trip so much fun, that I wanted to finish my Camino with them. And so, by the time I reached my hostel, I had decided that I would catch up with Kim and Arlen the next day. This meant that I was required to walk 34kms the next day and boy that was going to be grueling! But the prospect of finishing the Camino with these new found friends got me so excited about doing this that I couldn't wait for the next day!

That night in my hostel, I found a few folks I had stayed with in my previous albergue. They introduced me to some seasoned Camino walkers, from France, Italy, Bulgaria, US, Australia and more, who had been on the road for the last 30 days having started the walk from the original starting point in France. At dinner, we ordered wine and people ate the famous octopus pulpo, all the while discussing stories from their journey - the saga of broken shoes, the tales of sore feet, the techniques for covering distance despite the snow and frost bites - it was so entertaining to just listen to them.

And just like that, it was the end of Day 3. It's truly amazing how the Camino turns strangers into friends with shared stories and experiences.

Walking with Kim and Arlen

One of my favorite photos of the Camino
Passing by interesting architecture

Day 4 - Melide to O Pedrouzo (34kms)

The next day began literally with a bang with the woman on the bed below me accidentally dropping a big can of Relispray on the floor. Thank god for that else I would have overslept on what was going to be my longest day of the Camino. I packed my stuff, which was now a routine and headed for breakfast. I was preparing myself for the 34kms ahead of me when I thought to myself that I should transport my bag and save myself a few kilos of trouble. Luckily for me, the backpack transport guy had still not left and I paid 3 Euros to transport my bag to my designated hostel. This service was truly fantastic and I could have done this before but then it wouldn't have felt like a true adventure. Nevertheless I took a shortcut on that day by transporting my bag and now I just needed to make sure that I reached my hostel in O Pedrouzo before sunset. And so the day began, as I kept following the yellow arrow signs paved by generations of previous travelers and local authorities.

Keeping my mind set on the target, the kms on the Camino sign kept decreasing slowly. I would take short breaks after every 2 hours, stretch my legs and re-fuel myself with water. It was quite hot that day which was tiring me out even more. By noon,  it was amusing that I had already reached Ribadiso, about 12 kms from Melide, which was going to be my stop for the day as per my previous plan. I stopped there for lunch and had the famous Galician broth again with some cheese and bread. By now, my feet were turning soar and had started peeling. Thankfully I was carrying some band aids and some powder which I applied on my feet and added another layer of thick socks to add the cushion. In hindsight it was a smart thing to do given I still had another 22kms to go! Energized by the lunch and the new arrangement on my feet, I was ready to hit the road which would now turn inwards into a dense cover of pine forest. This was quite a relief on that hot day but I missed the company of my friends who were ahead of me by at least 7-8 kms. I found myself get into a walking rhythm that day and just kept going for the next few hours listening to my Spotify playlist. After what seemed like ages, and having run out of water, I finally came to this small tavern. I sat down heavily on the wooden bench and asked for water. That's when my eyes caught sight of a fresh orange juice squeezer and I asked the lady for some. I cannot fathom how sweet and tasty and relieving that orange juice tasted on that day, as if literally I was drinking some sort of life giving juice!

I couldn't stop there for too long, for I had to reach my destination before sunset, and so I got up and walking again. All this while, Kim and I kept exchanging our coordinates so we would know how far we were. I was still about 3kms behind them and had to cover an extra 2 kms to reach my hostel. So without wasting any more time, I jogged for a few minutes to cover some ground in the damp forest and surprisingly felt good about doing that, however not for long. I had about 7kms to go and dusk had already started kicking in. I got into my rhythm again and even though my legs hurt like crazy, I kept walking for another hour. Just around sun set, I finally reached where my friends were staying but I decided to continue my walking rhythm and just get to my hostel before darkness. Thankfully, I managed to enter the town of O Pedrouzo as the darkness kicked in, and I escaped spending a night in the woods. That night, I was famished and completely exhausted, and walked into the first pizza parlor I saw. Without caring about the calories, I feasted on a full 8 inch pizza which tasted as if it was crafted in heaven. There I sat reflecting on the day and was amazed that I had indeed covered 34kms on foot that day! All I needed now was a good night sleep and I did just that.

My lunch place in Ribadiso

More interesting sights on the Camino

The life savior orange juice and water
Interesting flowers in the forest

Day 5- O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostella (19kms)

It was now the last day of the Camino walk!! I woke up late that day and felt my legs lighter than I would have thought. I had my toast, butter and Cacao milk in a local bar and was off for the day. Kim and I exchanged our coordinates again and after a few minutes, I finally caught up with them! I was so happy that we would now be able to complete our Camino together. And so we started heading towards our final day of walk with more hills, creeks and plains and soon we were on the road to Santiago de Compostella.

As we entered the streets of Santiago, the concrete streets of the town soon merged into the stone cobbled alleys that opened into beautiful structures, churches, piazzos and fountains. After a few minutes of entering this well preserved stone maze, we headed towards the main cathedral and the pilgrims office where we would get our Camino certificates. Our little pilgrims book was now full of funky stamps that we had collected on the way and it was now time to collect our hard earned certificate. When I entered the pilgrims office, they were intrigued to see a person from India and were incredibly nice to me in giving me a personal certificate with my name on it. I was so happy!

That day, the walk was definitely easier than before and the great company made it even more fun. This day was especially memorable for me as Binky and I spoke at length about things deeply personal to us and somehow and somewhere, it was extremely comforting. This Camino had made all of us such great friends that we could share and love, and laugh and cry together, and I was truly thankful about it.

My breakfast bar
Finally made it to Santiago de Compstella with my friends - Arlen, Kim and Binky!

The precious Camino certificate in Latin

A nice Spanish dinner with Gina and Binky - I was sooo tanned with all the sun B-)

Day 6 - Santiago de Compostella

The next day, there was no more walking, and all of us decided to meet around 11AM to witness the holy mass in the main cathedral. As I entered the cathedral, I was enchanted to see the walls, the organ pipes and the fine architecture of the place. I have often wondered how such age old structures can be kept well preserved and as I was lost in my thoughts, I saw my friends who had reserved a seat for me. The mass started and the priests spoke in Spanish. I didn't quite understand everything given this was only my 2nd time at a mass but attending it was a great experience nonetheless. There was such positivity and calm in the air that it felt good.

That afternoon, I joined a group tour with my friends around Santiago de Compostella. Our guide was a 70 year old lady with a good sense of humor. It was nice to stroll through the stone city and get lost in such an old historic place.

As the day ended, I bid goodbye to my friends. Life does surprise you sometimes - what had started as a solo 120km walk, was now ending with ups and downs of a great journey with some great friends and some great stories. I look forward to keeping in touch with these lovely people!

The beautiful stone architecture of Santiago de Compostella
Merry-making for having completed the Camino

These musical pipe organs were so huge!
The main cathedral of Santiago de Compostella

Day 7 - Santiago de Compostella to Finisterra and back

Having got an extra day because of my change in plans, I decided to visit Fisterra or Finisterra, which literally means end of land, as thought of in the ancient times. I took a 2 hour bus from Santiago and arrived at the small coastal town of Fisterra. From the bus stop, I walked for about an hour along the coast of the Atlantic ocean which welcomed me to go further. This was one of the western most point of Continental Europe and I felt great soaking in the sunshine, hearing the crystal blue waves break against the rocks. As I reached the lighthouse at the farthest point, I gave a silent thanks to my sleeping bag and my backpack for having been my companions for the last few days, and collected my last stamp on my passport. This had been such a fantastic journey and as I sat looking at the wide blue ocean in front of me, I was content and happy.

The beautiful waters of the Atlantic ocean
Fisterra or Finisterra - which means end of known world - the western most point of continental Europe

Such lovely sights on the way
A silent thanks to my bags that had been my companions for the last few days
A happy me having completed my Camino!

The Odyssey - Osaka, Japan

"Sometimes even the right is wrong
They are turning my head out
To see what I'm all about
But I have no doubt
One day, the sun will come out"

These words from the song "Lovers in Japan" by Coldplay (listen up from the link below if you don't know this song) aptly capture some of my feelings during my 8 days trip to Osaka.

Being an Anime fan from a very young age, I had been waiting to visit Japan for quite a while now. The shower of cherry blossom on characters (Sakura in Card Captors), the inter-twining of Man and Nature, as heroes and /or demons (Dragonball Z) and the various traditional things such as the ryokans (inns), tatami mats, sitting on the floor on your knees while eating - I really enjoyed seeing and experiencing all of this. I stayed in a hostel in Osaka with traditional Japanese rooms - small but sufficient which I would highly recommend (Hotel Toyo at Shin-Imamiya), and then in an Airbnb at Shin-Osaka. (Airbnb is a still not a completely accepted concept in Japan and hence most owners like mine are new with little info on how to run an Airbnb house. Please do your research before you book)

My mostly solo trip to the land of the rising sun had me "turning my head out" at several occasions not sure what was wrong and what was right- the first one while using a futuristic toilet commode even before I had done my immigration (see image). I am yet to fathom some of the features out there!

The other area which drove me nuts was how complicated the public transportation map looked (see below). I had the option of choosing a day pass, a 2 day pass, a 5 day pass, a wide area pass, a limited area pass, and repeat all these options for more subway companies! Only later would I realize that in Japan you have way too many options, which is a great example of personalization, but well for the uninitiated like me, it's just plain confusing! So to keep things simple, I would just ask the station manager which train to take and hop on it.

Towards my fourth / fifth day I finally figured a few things about the public transport which I am quite proud of :P. I'm sharing these as tips here:
1. Public transport in Japan is not cheap and messing up train stops can be heavy on your pocket. My tip is to take a day pass only if you plan to do more than two stops from your origin else it is not worth it
2. There are over 5 metro / subway operating companies with a separate network of stations and most day passes cannot be used interchangeably. My recommendation is to take the non-JR - Nankai one which in my opinion had the most conveniently located train stations.
3. There are at least 3 different types of trains at each platform - Locals (most frequent stops), Rapids ( stopping at all important stops) and Special Rapids (stopping at only the most major stops). More often than not, you will be fine taking a Rapid or a Special Rapid
4. Before figuring out which train to take (rather the platform number), see the name of the major railway station you are heading towards on the subway map and go towards that one. When in doubt, always ask the station manager

As a preferential vegetarian, I must say that finding food options was not that easy. For seafood lovers, Japan is indeed a paradise, but for me, I discovered something called a vegetable Japanese curry - which was delicious! It tasted like vegetables cooked in Maggi masala as thick gravy and was served with white rice. Having found this, it became my regular meal for most of my stay. The other thing that I was surprised to find is that Japanese chocolate is super yummy so do give it a try! (I'm not exactly sure of the reason, but even the average off the shelf chocolate / chocolate bread / chocolate milk was really good quality stuff!)

The Shinto shrines of Japan are the most extraordinary and mysterious places I have been to. Apart from their architecture (such as the Torii gates), I am amazed by the things such as Omikuji which are pieces of zig zag paper tied on a rope or around sacred trees or rocks. (See here for what each of these function as in a Japanese shrine - Probably the most visited shrine is the Inari shrine in Kyoto. Indeed it is a surreal place with the several thousand Torii gates creating such a wonderful image and the hike to its topmost point is indeed totally worth it. The other place in Kyoto I will recommend (but sadly couldn't go) is the Arashimaya bamboo grove where I hear that you lose yourself a completely different world. I hope to cover this and several other experiences such as the meeting a geisha, taking a sento (hot water public bath) and more in my future visits to this extremely unique and intriguing country.

No story in Japan is complete without mentioning the cherry blossoms, which I am lucky to have seen during their peak season in April (completely by chance!). These tender white and pink flowers look so pretty growing in bunches on brown branches and have a way of cheering you up (cherry blossom viewing is an important part of the Japanese culture and is known as Hanami). Luckily for me, my hostel owner told me about this place that I had not come across on TripAdvisor recommendations called Yoshinoyama -  a place where several small hills were covered in different shades of pink cherry blossom trees. I am still mesmerized by how pretty the actual sight was (see below).

Funnily enough, now that I am back in Mumbai / Pune, I cannot help but appreciate the bright orange colored Gulmohar that grows so quietly in our backyards. It is true that travelling enables you to appreciate the things that you always knew existed back home. Sometimes I wonder how hills of Gulmohar trees would look like in their full blossom- I hope to find such a place someday!

Here's my itinerary in early April (also added a few places I wanted to cover) for those interested:

Day 1 - Arrive in Osaka, orient myself to public transportation and chill at hostel (Hotel Toyo)
Day 2 - Take the train and spend half day in Nara (play with deer and complete the temple hike), followed by the happening Dotonbori / Namba streets in the evening
Day 3 - Take the train to Uji and explore the temples in the area. Don't forget to have the green and black tea ice cream. Cross the bridge of Uji river and hike up the Mount Asahi
Day 4 - Explore Shin Osaka area and Osaka areas including the Osaka Castle and the Umeda Sky building
Day 5 - Visit Kyoto and the Fushimi Inari shrine (hike to the very top and back) and the Arashimaya bamboo grove
Day 6 - Hike up to Yoshinoyama - the pink hills (to the highest 1000 trees called the Oku Senbon)
Day 7 - Head to Mount Koya for an overnight temple stay at a Buddhist monastery
Day 8 - Witness the morning rituals of the monks and then head back to Osaka. Remember to buy chooclates from Royce before boarding your flight back home

The Odyssey

"I owned every second, that this world could give
I saw so many places, the things that I did
With every broken bone, I swear I lived"

The lyrics of this song 'I Lived' by OneRepublic mean a lot to me and have become my guiding principle in life. It has been fairly clear to me for sometime now that I love traveling, to new places and to old ones too. After moving to Singapore, given its convenient location and an excellent airport,  I was able to go to more places that I would have ever imagined. Although most of my trips have been short (and long) weekend getaways, I have always believed that it's better to just go than wait for a longer vacation. However, most recently I was able to take longer trips for at least 10 days or more, and hopefully this trend will continue.

There is just something about this feeling of going somewhere, a feeling of adventure, a feeling of purpose, that is enough to get me day dreaming and then moving. Perhaps I've read too many adventure stories as a kid,  but I love how each trip becomes a story worth being told. Hence as part of this blog series, I will be sharing a few of those stories starting with the most recent trips and then adding the older ones.

In the past 2 months, I have visited Japan (Osaka,  Kyoto, Nara), Hong Kong, Spain (Madrid and Santiago de Compostela),  Norway (Oslo, Bergen, Alesund, and Geirangerfjord)  and  a few places in the USA (Denver, Columbus,  Chicago, San Antonio and Houston). Here as part of my blog posts,  I will be writing about my story in these places, what I did,  where I stayed and ate,  the amazing people that I met and some tips that I wish I had known, all from my lens. I have also associated a song with each place, as music is my second most favorite thing- (you're welcome Spotify premium!)

So come with me, let's ride and sing along!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Communication Part 1: 'KISS principle - Keep It Simple Stupid' on simplifying slides

The 'KISS principle' is a famous design principle which says that we should aim to make everything simple and less complicated if we want others to understand us. But making things simpler is way more difficult and time consuming, as captured in this quote by Mark Twain, "I didn't have the time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead". This is a perfect example of the Newton's second law of energy, that entropy (or disorderliness) of the universe tends to increase when left isolated (Yes I am still an engineer at heart!). Hence it is easier to say the same thing in more words.

This also explains why we take so much longer to create shorter presentations with more pictures and fewer words. Trained as a consultant for the last few years, creating slides and presentations is a key skill I have acquired. I have also learnt that attention to detail and overall feel of the slides (colors, alignment, font etc.) can make a lot of difference to how seriously you are taken. But one thing which I have come to appreciate more recently, is how to use those slides to communicate effectively with my audience.

As a 'Change manager' in Asia Pacific, I have to continuously communicate key messages with my audience which spans over 250 hotels, spread across India to Japan (East-West) and China to Australia (North-South). This audience varies significantly in age, culture, language and interests. Plus, English is not their first language, but for me, English is the only language I am comfortable with. Hence to be able to communicate effectively with such a large and diverse audience, it takes a lot of planning and innovation - it is like 'marketing' to your own colleagues. However, I am only starting on this journey and in my baby steps towards being effective in my communication, the first step is to simplify my slides.

To simply my slides, here are the 8 steps that I take combining my experience at Bain and Starwood (see screenshot below):
1) First, I pick one message per slide and write out these messages briefly in separate bullet points on a word doc
2) Then I re-order these bullet point messages to make the story flow more logically
3) Once convinced of the flow, I write out these messages as titles of each slide in ppt ensuring it doesn't go over 2 lines (font size 32 or more)
4) Then I pick up each slide and take the liberty of writing out complete sentences to explain the message
5) I then run a check to cut down all the unnecessary words in the sentences to leave standalone key words which are then separated into sub-bullet points (font size 16 or more)
6) If these sub-bullet points can be clubbed under separate headings/titles, I add the headings/titles and bold them; else I just bold the words that indicate what the bullet point is about
7) I then try to compress the bullet points to one half of the slide and dedicate the other half to a carefully selected picture (screenshots, quotes, data charts etc.) for almost 80% of all my slides; sometimes, I use the picture(s) on the top covering 80% of the slide and the key learning at the bottom of the page in big font
8) Lastly, I check if everything is aligned, factually correct and pleasing to the eye

How do you make your slides simple? Would love to hear your views!

'Keep talking!' - Introduction to a series of posts on Communication

There is a famous song by Pink Floyd, called 'Keep Talking', which starts with the following lyrics:

"For millions of years, Mankind lived just like the animals,
And then something happened, which unleashed the power of our imagination,
We learned to talk"

In my current role as a 'Change manager' (more on that in later posts) in Starwood Hotels and Resorts, a critical factor for making sure any change happens at all, is to be able to communicate effectively. And as a Communications person in Asia Pacific, my role has the added complexity of transcending multiple languages, varied cultures and beliefs and add to that, the lack of in-person connections. Communication has fascinated me for years and finally as part of this role, I am now able to delve deeper into this topic and plan to share my understandings as part of these blog posts. People interested are welcome to share their views and learning, since communication is all about 'sharing'. Please join me as I embark on this journey to understand how all of us can communicate more effectively!

Monday, August 6, 2012

It’s Tea-time!

The sun hung low in the sky, its mild orange-red rays blanketing the leaves; the trees danced softly to the tunes of the cool breeze while the smell of damp dust rose and settled, a little bit nearer every minute. Staring out of my wide open window, I felt a sense of relaxation sweep over me. I decided to take a break and get myself a hot cup of masala tea and stood gazing far & beyond as I felt the sun’s orange-red lukewarm rays cover my face, blending perfectly with my orange-red tea full of taste. I didn’t want anything or anyone else in that moment, just me and my cup of tea.

Tea is one of the healthiest beverages and is known for its medicinal values. It is the second most widely consumed beverage after water and can be had both in hot and cold forms. In countries like China and Japan, tea acts more as a digestive aid. In Arab countries, a special form of tea called ‘noon chai’, a pink milky tea with dry fruits is common. In India however, the role of tea is more of an everyday beverage. It is one of the first things that both girls and boys learn to cook. One will find tea stalls at every nook and corner of any Indian city and more so in the tourist spots. They are like man-made resting points. Tea can be had with just water (black or green) or with milk to make a simple chai or you can add zing to it by adding flavors of ginger, elaichi, dalchini, lemon, marigold etc. etc. All said and done, I believe tea plays a crucial role in everyone’s life. You could be an addict, a regular or a complete non-drinker, but you cannot escape the influence of tea in your life.

Not only does tea refreshes or energizes but also calms and relaxes ones senses. Whether its black tea or green tea or regular tea, tea time is a taking-a-break time, it is a time to step back. It’s not for nothing that we see TV advertisements where protagonists get a sudden euphoria moment after having their cup of tea. We are indeed most creative when we are relaxed and tea helps us achieve that state. Don’t we wait for those tea-breaks in every conference or meeting or even on regular working days? Drinking tea wakes us up to endure the rest of the monotonous day. I know of many offices that have scheduled tea-breaks at specific intervals of the day for just this reason. And even at home, don’t we wake up to a cup of tea and then get refreshed with another cup in the evening. This tea’s dual effect of refreshing while calming never fails to amaze me.

Tea time also symbolizes a togetherness time. Tea brings people together and gives you company when you’re alone.  Tea time is a time to catch up on the juicy gossips of the day in office; it is a time to network after the presentation or conference, a time to sit with your family and unfold events of your day, a time to read the newspaper or a few pages of that beloved book or simply it is a time to just sit down and reflect on the proceedings of the day. Let’s face it, it is indeed the most interesting time of the day. Even guests will not be let gone without serving them a cup of tea. Tea brings people together and bonds them together. Indeed the aroma of tea transcends just its physical form as it serves a bigger role in one’s life.

In my opinion, no other beverage can take the place of tea. A coffee can only wake you up but it can never calm you at the same time, a soft-drink cannot fulfill the calming and medicinal benefits of tea and alcohol will never be able to keep you sane enough to enjoy the moment. So kudos to tea and hope it continues to fill it’s aroma in our lives forever!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Transitioning into a 'professional life'

It was one of those usual Monday mornings. Waking up at 4 AM to catch a 6 AM flight for a 9 AM client meeting had now become a norm. With a reporting of at least 45 minutes before departure and a minimum of an hour to get into the ‘prim and proper get-up’ expected of any girl from a premier consulting firm, I was now well accustomed to a life of timelines. I woke up to my merciless alarm and sprang out of bed to get dressed. As I stood in front of my wardrobe, I realized that in spite of spending a handsome amount on a complete wardrobe change just 6 months ago, the ‘grays’ and the ‘blacks’ sometimes made me miss the ‘greens’ and the ‘maroons’ that I remember pulling on while heading out to college. But nevertheless, one just had to be stylish even in those ‘grays’ and ‘blacks’ and so jeans were replaced with formal skirts, tees with formal shirts and blazers, sneakers with closed heels and earphones with subtle jewelry. It has now been about 6 months and even before I realized it, I had transitioned into a new phase of my life; this phase called that of a ‘professional life’.

I hurriedly checked in my luggage at the airport and boarded my usual 6 AM flight. As I gazed out of my window, multiple thoughts started pouring in (one doesn’t have the luxury of such musings very often in consulting life, you see). Just 6 months ago, I was still a college girl; but now, life had changed. I had suddenly grown up in the past 6 months. I was already a partial owner of a house (a tenant) and my rent was comfortably taken care of by my sufficient bank balance. I had a chauffeur driven car and I stayed and dined at the most expensive restaurants of the city. Yet, sometimes, I missed my college days. I missed staying in hostel wings with friends you could always talk to without being judged. Friends and colleagues aren’t the same unfortunately. I missed staying up late nights to gossip or to watch ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ over and over again or to just spend some time with myself. I missed admiring sunsets and playing badminton and I definitely missed speaking to more than the same 7 people in a day! The biggest thing, however, that I missed about not being in college anymore was that I just couldn’t call it a day by saying “I’m having a bad day!”

Ah! A lot had changed indeed. There were no imaginary demarcations of years into semesters for improving my scores; I just had to be better every day! Early mornings of traffic now replaced deep slumber during college days, afternoons of client meetings replaced classroom lectures, evenings of gym sessions replaced sports practices and nights of sophisticated dinners or extra work replaced crazy parties. I could now relate to the Dilbert comics easily and drank coffee more often in a day. I now read the Economic times daily and spoke a new language overflowing with consulting jargon. I now flew a particular airline and stayed at a particular hotel to accumulate points and had a new source of money in my account called ‘reimbursements’. Blackberry messenger had become the new way of communication and words like ‘taxes’ and ‘insurance’ actually started mattering! I was now conscious of being politically correct and was comfortable with office games (read office politics), an art unknown to me before. Further, I now had increasing responsibilities of not only managing my work but also my life with the people I love, which is certainly the biggest challenge of any working life.

It’s true that college days are some of the best days of life, but a professional life has its own lessons to offer. With the security of a growing bank balance and the independence of spending it the way I like, I now felt more empowered. I was now more assertive, had a clearer understanding of things around me and had preferences in many things, all traits of a mature person. I was now more responsible and more sensitive to people’s emotions which made me a better person. This whole transition had somehow helped me gain a clearer perspective and given me a sense of direction in life. That’s when it clicked me that I really had moved on in life and moved on for good. Content with myself, I smiled at the sky until I heard the flight captain announce that the plane was now preparing for landing. Coming out of my state of musings, I realized that I hadn’t read at all for the meeting due in about half an hour. I quickly opened my briefcase and started preparing for the day ahead.