Notes From Malaysia

Greetings. Back from Malaysia just in time for the latest big DC snowstorm. Quite a contrast with the nearly consistent 92 degree temperatures for eleven straight days in Kuala Lumpur. And just like the weather, I went on my first visit to “KL” with a sense that many things would be very different from home only to discover a lot of very interesting similarities. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, people are people and we have a lot more in common with the residents of a Muslim and developing country halfway around the world than most of us ever choose to imagine.

So here are a few impressions from my trip to Malaysia with more ideas (and hopefully a few insights) to follow. And given that I am a geographer by training, I will begin with an old map to give you a bit of context for its location in southeast Asia…

Malaysia Map

KL is a very modern and fast-growing city which means that the roads are great but the traffic is crazy. To give you a sense of the pace of growth, think about this… In 2010 the city had a population of about 4.5 million people. Today the number is roughly 7.5 million. And the projection for 2020 is over 10.0 million. And it seems everyone (or practically everyone) in KL has a car or a motorcycle that they drive really quickly on increasingly congested roads. Their cars of choice are Protons and Peroduas, especially the nearly ubiquitous and modestly adorable Myvi, which are manufactured in Malaysia and not subject to the high taxes imposed on imported vehicles. Not that there aren’t a lot of Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, minivans, and occasional Bentleys and Ferraris on the road, but local cars are everywhere. And for those of us who think that traffic in Washington, L.A., New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is impossible, KL’s complex network of highways, toll roads, and daring motorcyclists all driving on the wrong side of the road is a sight to behold.

Malaysia Myvi 3

Walking is not the most popular way to get around even though it is typically much faster than being in a car. Granted, it is very hot and humid in KL and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a matter of moments. But almost every time I asked someone for walking directions I was quickly asked if I “really wanted to walk there.” “Oh, I think it’s only about a mile away” I would reply. “Exactly. Wouldn’t you prefer to take a taxi?” And when I asked the concierge at my hotel for the best walking directions to the National Museum (a distance of about four miles), he shared that he had never known anyone who had walked there citing the distance, heat, and the danger of crossing several major roads in a place where pedestrians don’t exactly have the right of way. It is also interesting to note that people in KL seem to walk very slowly.

There are about a zillion shopping malls in KL and almost everyone loves going to them. Okay, there aren’t really a “zillion” shopping malls, but there are more shopping malls in KL than any other place I have visited and they are very popular. And they even include pyramids and concert halls. I’m not sure if most of the locals actually go to the malls to buy things, given that the nicest ones are filled with very expensive designer stores, but they certainly enjoy the experience of looking in all of the stores, being in air conditioning, and walking slowly.

The food in Malaysia is absolutely delicious…assuming you enjoy Asian food. Malaysia, and KL in particular, is a real melting pot of many cultures with the three biggest groups being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. As a result it is easy to find great Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian food along with some delightful fusions among them. My favorite dish, recommended by many of the locals, was fish head curry…an addictive blend of fish heads, eggplant, okra, peppers, tamarind, laksa leaves, sugar, mint, and a bunch of other stuff that was awesome on blue rice. But I also enjoyed other wonderful coconut-based curries, chapatis filled with the most amazing cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, chickpeas, beans, and lentils, dim sum, Cantonese specialties, and lots of spicy and not-so spicy noodle dishes. And while I found the local food to be remarkable, I must also share that McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, and especially KFC are super popular with Malaysians who seem to have a real passion for fast food and fried chicken.

Malaysia Fish Head Curry

People are really friendly. Not in a super outgoing way, but I consistently found that people in KL were courteous and eager to be helpful whenever I approached them. And most were quite curious about me, where I came from, and why I was there. Granted, I have almost always found that people are nice when we are nice to them. But that should be obvious to anyone who travels far from home. And while most people in Malaysia speak English, even folks who didn’t speak English were glad to help. On one of my many walks through the city I happened to get lost or should I say very lost…which is something that is difficult for a man, and especially a man trained as a geographer to admit. (If I have an excuse, or rather an explanation, it is that I kept discovering fascinating places that took me farther from my destination and my map). In any event, I found myself in a place that very few tourists have ever found themselves in only to be aided by a very kind shopkeeper who motioned me to his car in a crowded back alley and eagerly drove me several miles across town to my intended destination.

Malaysia Friendly

You can actually get a fish massage. You can also get a blind massage and a “super blind” massage. But I will have to try those on my next visit. Though my 15-minute foot massage, done in a pool filled with overly-enthusiastic fish, was definitely a unique and ticklish experience. I will spare you the pictures here as some readers might already be “grossed out” by the fish head curry, but feel free to email if you would like to see the video.

Malaysia Street Scene

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the privilege of travel. And by the chance to see the similarities and differences in people who live around the corner and around the world. As I have come to understand more clearly all the time, our similarities are the glue that connects us and our differences are the raw materials that allow us to stretch, grow, and innovate together.

Cheers!

On the Road in Sweden

Greetings from Sweden. Those of you who follow this blog or have read “The Necessity of Strangers” know that I regard travel as one of the most remarkable ways to learn new things and stretch our thinking about how to reach our full potential as individuals and organizations. So during the next couple of weeks I will try to share some ideas, insights, and observations from my latest visit to the land of Vikings, Volvo, Skype, Spotify, and marinated fish. But before I get started it is worth noting that not everyone here in Sweden is blonde. Granted there are a lot of blonde Swedes, but many Swedes who have been here for countless generations have dark hair and there are a growing number of immigrants moving here from a wide range of not particularly blonde places. People who are bringing with them new ideas as well as new traditions, languages, religious preferences, music, foods, spices, and ways of doing business. It is simply becoming a more diverse place which poses challenges but also brings many new possibilities.

Swedes are really into technology and are innovators in many areas including IT and the internet, telecommunications, transportation, energy efficiency, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and medical technology, and even defense and aerospace. I use the word “even” in referring to defense and aerospace because Sweden has long prided itself on being a neutral country–a neutral country that creates and provides weapons to lots of non-neutral countries. And the Swedes also have a reputation for being quite concerned with automotive safety. They accomplish this in two ways. One, by engineering cars to be as safe as possible. In fact, for several decades Swedish automakers Volvo and Saab were widely regarded as the safest car brands. And two, by having strict societal pressure and significant penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. As a result, a percentage of party-goers are automatically designated as non-drinking (alcohol that is) drivers who take on responsibility for driving their beverage-consuming family and friends home. And the hosts of parties throughout the country often provide a variety of special non-alcoholic drinks to make their experience a bit more palatable. On the engineering side the list of Swedish automotive safety advances is particularly long and includes three-point seat belts, side impact protection, car crumple zones, integrated child safety seats, and pedestrian detection systems. And I was struck by two interesting features of my 2015 Volvo xc60 rental car. It turns out that the car has a camera specifically designed to read every speed limit sign and to instantly post the speed limit clearly on the car’s speedometer the second that it changes. This helps drivers to stay continuously focused on the speed limit without having to remember the last sign that they passed. It also has self-adjusting high beams that turn themselves on and off when (a) another car is approaching or (b) the lighting environment changes (i.e., when driving into a town or city). This is pretty cool and makes it easier to focus on driving without having to continually be on the alert to turn off the high beams before blinding an oncoming driver. And there are probably a bunch of other things the car can do that I simply haven’t discovered yet. It is also worth noting that the highway department in Sweden has the ability to preempt every car radio to provide information to drivers on accidents or road closings along their way.

road-sign-recognition-keeps-you-aware-of-speed-limits-and-potential-hazards

We win in business and in life when we are continually innovating in ways that matter. And when we are all focused on traveling and driving as safely as possible.

Cheers!

The Genius of Maya Angelou

Greetings. Maya Angelou was a remarkable gift to all of us. A woman whose early life was filled with adversity, she would become not only a renowned and revered poet but a person of rare vision whose words and sense of humanity would inspire people of all backgrounds, ages, and beliefs. At the heart of her writing was a powerful understanding of the importance, meaning, and dignity of everyone. An understanding that is essential to reaching our full potential as individuals, communities, nations, and even companies and organizations.

maya-angelou-dies

Maya Angelou also understood the value and power of connecting with strangers and of being more open to people who are different than us. In writing the closing chapter of The Necessity of Strangers, which is about the “power of travel,” I was inspired by a quote from her 1994 book Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

And we might even become remarkable collaborators and innovators.

As humans we are so similar, yet all too often we decide to focus on our differences as the reason (or excuse) for not connecting, learning, and working together in remarkable ways.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t share one of her poems titled “When a Great Tree Falls.” It is a poem filled with added meaning this week as our family attended memorial services for friends whose lives ended way too soon…

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

We win in life and in business when we see the value of everyone. And when we commit to keeping everyone’s memory and special gifts alive.

Working For Only Tips

Greetings.  Ever imagine that a "free" service could be way more valuable than one you pay for?  If so, you'll love Sandemans New Europe tours–guided walking tours of fourteen of Europe's most remarkable cities that are causing a stir and building quite a following on the international travel circuit.  Because, this unique company charges nothing for its individual tours and lets its customers decide what they are worth in the form of a tip.  That's right.  Tour guides lead customers on three and a half hour tours designed to inform, inspire and entertain.  Then, at the end, the customers decide how satisfied they are with the guide and the tour or how rich and generous they feel.  And the resulting tips are the only compensation for a growing number of leading and independent (as in "independent contractor) "professional" tour guides who are working with Sandemans.  Or should we say professional tour guides, storytellers, amateur historians and entertainers who are determined to connect with their audiences in a compelling way as they bring the magic of their city to life.  And who definitely can't afford to be boring or the least bit disinterested in the things that interest their customers. 

Now that's an interesting business model.  Which might cause you and the geniuses you work with to imagine how your business would operate if you had to work for only tips.  Or for the constant approval of your customers. Approval that must be earned by providing real value from start to finish…focused on the things that matter most to customers.

This company was brought to my attention by our older daughter Sara who has recently returned from three and a half months of backpacking in Europe.  While visiting Prague she took a Sandemans tour with Filip, a journalism student at Charles University, and was immediately hooked on the city and this innovation in walking tours.  And here's a picture of Filip and Prague below…

Sandeman Guide

We win in business and in life when we let the customer decide how valuable our services are.  And when we commit to being as awesome and enlightening as possible.

Cheers! 

Coming Home

Greetings.  After 11 days in India and 26 hours traveling home I've just returned filled with new insights, new perspectives, and a million images of a remarkable journey.  I've also returned with many new friends from the companies, schools, cities, and villages I visited along the way.  And, with a better understanding of how business is done, the history and practice of Hinduism, the simple magic of the annual celebration called Holi, the challenge of educating 1.1 billion people, the importance of cows, the beauty of cricket and the passion that most Indians have for this sport, the art of Indian cooking, the caste system, and the problems of overcrowding and overcoming the intense poverty that is around almost every corner.  

Modern India presents a striking contrast between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, possibilities and despair.  And it will take me a while to figure it all out and see if I can make a difference in some small way.  

But isn't that what travel is all about?  And we only start to make sense of what we've learned when we come home to the place we understand best.  Our north star in a world filled with great potential and great difficulties.

As for the most memorable moments in my trip, I've written about several during my time away and I'll plan to share others in the weeks and months ahead.  But I would be remiss if I didn't share a picture from my celebration of Holi–a very special holiday in which people come out into the streets to cover each other with brightly-colored paint.  And, for a day at least, to come together as equals.  Now if we can only figure out how to make that happen the other 364 days of the year.  It's something I wrote about last year but didn't imagine that I would have the chance to participate just a year later (see "Finding Wisdom in Colors").

IMG_3368

We win in business and in life when we challenge ourselves to visit and learn from other people and places.  And when we return to discover more fully the brilliance of where we've been and the genius of home.

Cheers!