Up in the Swiss Alps

On this beautiful Saturday morning, a colleague and I headed to one of the nearby mountains in the Swiss Alps. With the warm weather just starting to kick in, it turned out to be the perfect day for a hike up the picturesque mountain.

Flumserberg, which serves as a popular ski resort during the winter, is preparing for the Summer season. Snow is still visible across the mountain, but with the weather warming up, much of it is melting, setting small streams of clear, fresh water flowing down all over the mountainside. In some places, the water rushes under thick layers of snow and ice, giving us reason to tread cautiously as we hiked up the mountain.

It took us about an hour to get to the top, and it was quite the workout! But the view from the top was well worth it.

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Searching for the “Ultimate” Swiss Chocolate

In my quest to find the “ultimate” Swiss chocolate, learning that there was a Lindt factory less than 15 minutes away from where I’m staying was like the moment Charlie finds the golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Of course, another aspect of Switzerland that captivates our imagination is Swiss chocolate. Sure, we’ve all had Swiss chocolate before, but how much awesomer would it be to have Swiss chocolate in Switzerland?!  To go right to the source and drink straight from the maw of the gushing rivers of chocolate that flow through these lands?! So that’s what I decided to do. But which chocolate to choose? Go to the local Migros (Swiss grocery store), and there are shelves full of various Swiss brands. After trying a couple — all quite delicious — I still felt I needed to find the “one.” And so began by quest to track down the “ultimate” Swiss chocolate.

The first place I started was with my colleagues. Being Swiss or having lived here for a number of years, they, I was sure, would quickly resolve my predicament. So at lunch one day, I popped the question: Which Swiss chocolate is best? Their answer? Lindt. Seriously…? Lindt?! The very same balls of chocolate (the more technical term would be “Lindor truffles”) I can grab at a Ross discount store checkout aisle back home? Surely, they didn’t mean that Lindt? But they did. I didn’t travel halfway around the world on this quest only to go down on the first punch. I pressed on.

I turned next to Google. Surely this all-knowing, omnipotent algorithm would pierce through the “alternative facts” and “posers” and tell me who the real ultimate Swiss chocolate is?

Lo and behold, Google’s answer turned out be Lindt as well!

The Best Swiss Chocolates (as Googled)

Source: Ranker

Fair enough. It may not be the exotic answer I was hoping for, but let’s be honest, Lindt chocolates are pretty darn good. To sweeten the deal, I learned that there’s actually a Lindt factory less than 15 minutes away from where I’m staying! So, feeling the way Charlie felt when he came across the golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I went to see for myself.

It turned out that the factory itself was not open for visitors, but that didn’t stop me from having a blast in the factory chocolate shop.

He turned and reached behind him for the chocolate bar, then he turned back again and handed it to Charlie. Charlie grabbed it and quickly tore off the wrapper and took an enormous bite. Then he took another…and another…and oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid into one’s mouth! The sheer blissful joy of being able to fill one’s mouth with rich solid food!
‘You look like you wanted that one, sonny,’ the shopkeeper said pleasantly.
Charlie nodded, his mouth bulging with chocolate.

― Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Trouble in Paradise?

I heard from colleagues that on the May 1st Labor Day holiday in Switzerland there would be protests in Zürich, which had turned violent in the past. So, of course, I had to go see for myself.

Today, May 1st, is the Labor Day holiday in Switzerland — well, not ALL of Switzerland, but certain parts of the country (yes, it seems odd that a national holiday isn’t exactly “national,” but Switzerland, I’m learning, is a complex country). The city of Zürich is in an area that DOES celebrate the holiday, and as the site of the largest Labor Day celebrations in Switzerland, it is also a key site for demonstrations and protests on this day. What?! Protests in Switzerland?! Who can possibly protest against the “world’s best country”??! What do people find to complain about in a country with low unemployment, a skilled labor force and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world?? Not to mention an abundance of well-preserved natural resources accessible to all??? Yup, my thoughts exactly.

So it turns out that Labor Day is also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, a day that is celebrated across many countries in honor of workers. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know this. In my defense though, in America we don’t officially recognize May 1st as Labor Day.  Our Labor Day is on the first Monday in September, and the essence of the holiday is a day off and great discounts at your favorite retailer.  Now that I’ve Googled and Wikipedia-ed up some knowledge, I’ve learned that May Day — ironically enough — has its roots in the US, and when the US government did finally decide to designate a holiday in honor of workers, it purposely chose not to celebrate it on May 1st. You can read more about it here.

So yes, like pretty much people in all countries, even people in Switzerland have something to protest about. The primary issue this year appears to be equal pay, with Swiss unions marching under the slogan “Equal pay. Period,” demanding equal salaries for men and women (a topic we are quite familiar with in America).

Interestingly though, the demonstrations aren’t limited to Swiss issues. I heard from several folks that foreigners also tend to congregate here on May Day and demonstrate for/against specific issues. The following video from Zürich this afternoon is an example of that with the demonstrators marching in support of Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria.

It appears that these demonstrators were also the reason for the stepped up police presence.

Besides this and a random assortment of dirty diapers strewn in front of a storefront (and some plastered against its shutter), I saw little else out of the ordinary.

Dirty Diapers
Dirty diapers strewn on the sidewalk and plastered on the storefront shutter.

Most shops and restaurants were closed, but many in the vicinity of the train station — which itself was running on a holiday schedule — were open for business. People milled about and enjoyed the balmy weather. As for me, I had a nice bike ride around town on a free bike rental courtesy of Zürirollt. Later, I got myself a nice mug of hot chocolate and had a great conversation with a lovely Swiss couple, Claudia and Corrado, while the police vans raced past.

Across the English Countryside

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the beautiful English countryside and hear a number of different perspectives on life in the UK.

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the English countryside. I flew into Manchester on a Saturday, took a train to Nottingham (of Robin Hood fame), and after the weekend, took another train down to London. Then after some customer meetings I drove back up to the Manchester / Yorkshire area with two of my British colleagues.

Previously, the only part of the UK I had visited was London, and that was almost 10 years ago! So it was nice to not only revisit London but to also see a much broader swathe of the country.

The English countryside is truly beautiful. One of my favorite sights is of the sheep and cows grazing in the vast, green fields. Since it’s “lambing” season right now, there are multitudes of frisky lambs meandering around with their mothers. It reminds me of my childhood growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. It also reminds me of Shaun the Sheep, the British animated series.

Along my journey, I had the chance to connect with various people. One was a guy named Marcus, a diehard United of Manchester football (soccer) fan, who was on his way to support his team in their match in Alfreton. Another was an Australian named Dan who was backpacking across England. I also met up with my cousin, Kamran, and spent some time with his beautiful family. Additionally, a Kellogg classmate, Nene, contacted me on Facebook, and we got together for dinner at fish! in London. These meetings gave me an opportunity to hear various perspectives on life in the UK. There were some common themes. The ongoing Champions League tournament is a hot topic, especially because an English team, Liverpool – starring the global, Egyptian phenomenon Mohamed “Mo” Salah – is in the running. I even caught the Liverpool-Roma match, and wow, what a game! Liverpool decimated Roma with a 5-2 win. Mo Salah, who led the goal scoring, is truly an extraordinary player. And it’s remarkable how his success has had such a positive spillover effect for Muslims worldwide, who are enduring a period of intense Islamophobia.

The birth of the third child, a son, to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) is another hot topic. As I write this, the public still does not know the name of the young prince. Bookies are taking bets, apparently, and last I heard, “Alexander” might be in the running.

It is also a time of great uncertainty and anxiety in Britain (not unlike the US). Political scandals are splashing across the headlines and screens everyday (e.g., Windrush, charges of anti-Semitism against the Labour Party, etc.). Preparations for Brexit are underway. It’s fascinating to hear the different sides of the debate on this deeply controversial topic. There are many who are fiercely opposed to separating from the EU. They believe Brexit will be a huge mistake, and as proof, they point out that the value of the British pound dropped to a 31-year low following the Brexit vote. This severely impacted the buying power of Britons. Property prices in London have also dropped, as investor confidence has deflated. Many in this camp believe that the referendum that decided Brexit was fundamentally flawed. They believe that it was more a vote against David Cameron, the unpopular Prime Minister at the time, than an actual vote on whether to stay in the EU or not. Of course, there are those who support it as well. In this latter camp, many believe that the UK gave up too much as a member of the EU and can do far better on its own.

There’s also an element of anti-immigration involved, something that we are confronting in the US as well. Interestingly, this latter camp includes some immigrant groups as well. These are generally non-EU immigrants (i.e., immigrants from countries other than the European Union) who feel that their economic opportunities have been compromised due to an institutional preference for EU immigrants. They worry that this has affected not only their own futures but their children’s as well who will not enjoy the same access and benefits as their EU counterparts.

Lots of questions remain unanswered. Will Brexit actually happen? If so, will it be a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit? The former would mean little to no changes whereas the latter could upend everything. What will happen to EU citizens living in the UK? What will happen to British citizens living in the EU countries? Will Scotland use Brexit as an opportunity to secede from the UK? Will Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have to create a customs border (a very sensitive topic, given Ireland’s violent past)? Can the UK separate from the EU but still remain within a “Customs Union?” Many more questions abound, contributing to the prevailing uncertainty.

Guten Tag from Switzerland!

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but wow, is Switzerland beautiful! Granted, I’ve only seen a limited area, mainly the Zurich canton area on this trip, but so far, Switzerland is living up to the hype.

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but wow, is Switzerland beautiful! Granted, I’ve only seen a limited area, mainly the Zurich canton area on this trip, but so far, Switzerland is living up to the hype. What continues to strike me is how clean the place is. Prior to coming here, a colleague of mine had remarked that when you’re in Switzerland it feels like that every night, while you’re asleep, somebody goes through all the streets and vacuums up all the tidbits of trash. By the time you wake up in the morning, everything is astoundingly clean. I can see what he meant, and I’m half-expecting to catch some elves scurrying around at night tidying things up (yes, that’s a reference to the Harry Potter books, which, in my defense, we’re reading to the kids these days).

Another striking feature of this area are the snowcapped mountains ever present on the horizon. It is a breathtaking site, truly postcard-perfect (more photos below). While I think most people, whether they’ve actually been to Switzerland or not, have an appreciation for the fairy tail-like beauty of Switzerland, I don’t think anyone can match the fascination that “desis” (people of South Asian origin including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) have with the place. The credit for this, I believe, goes largely to Bollywood, which has been operating practically as an unofficial marketing agency for Switzerland for as long as I can remember. Of course, Hollywood has also contributed to marketing the Swiss brand, but I doubt it has matched Bollywood. An 80s’ or even 90’s kid of desi origin who’s watched even a handful of Bollywood movies can attest to this: Bollywood loves frolicking on the Swiss mountains. Be it a snowcapped mountain (where a heroine performs some seriously remarkable dance moves, considering she’s wrapped in a sari) or a lush green slope (down which the heroine inevitably rolls to her waiting love interest), it certainly seems like at least one musical interlude (of the many) had to be shot in the Swiss mountains. This has resulted in fantastic images of Switzerland being imprinted in many a desi mind. Who, after all, can forget the visual of Sri Devi (RIP) dancing on these very mountains with Rishi Kapoor in the cult classic, Chandni?

From the Bollywood hit, Chandni

As a child of the 80s who watched more than his fair share of Indian movies despite growing up in America, I can’t help but feel a certain giddiness in being here. These are the iconic images I saw in the movies growing up, and now, I’m actually here! I’m half-tempted to go running around these hills singing at the top of my lungs 😉

Not actually me. Shown for illustration purposes only.

A Long Hiatus

Many of you may remember that about eleven years ago I set off on a solo backpacking trip abroad, starting with London, that led across Europe, North Africa, and Asia over the course of seven months. It turned out to be a pivotal time in my life, one that culminated with me meeting my future wife and settling abroad in Dubai for several years. One of the most gratifying aspects of that journey was the time and motivation it gave me to write. I started this blog, Wandering I, and in it I wrote about my observations, adventures, and discoveries. However, the obligations of gainful re-employment followed by marriage and fatherhood changed my priorities, leading to a nearly decade-long hiatus in my blog-writing. Yes, I have written some pieces here and there, but many have never actually made it onto this site.

I have long wanted to restart my writing. Writing is something I have loved since I was a child. Now, in fact, I feel it has become a personal calling. So I’ve decided to dust off the digital cobwebs on Wandering I and get it back up and running.

As I pick up my pen again – so to speak – I can’t help but marvel how things have changed since I started this blog a decade ago. One of the biggest changes is the technology we have access to. When I embarked on my solo backpacking journey, the first, original iPhone had just launched. I remember seeing it at my neighbor’s house, but I didn’t fancy it much. I personally preferred a physical keyboard and owned a Palm Treo. This was the heyday of the Blackberry and nobody (besides perhaps Steve Jobs) heard the death knell the launch of the iPhone rang, not only for the Blackberry but Nokia, too. And not only phones, but eventually digital cameras, personal audio players, and other consumer products as well. It was in that “pre-iPhone” era, before the wildfire of modern smartphones upended our world as we knew it, that I set out on my journey. Without access to essentially a computer at my fingertips, I had to find Internet cafes and paper maps to navigate around. I even had to actually talk to real people!

Now, in this post-iPhone launch era or the “iPhone epoch,” I find it much easier and convenient to find my way around. However, I do wonder whether I’m missing out on the human touch. It’s far too common now to find people with their necks bent over their smartphones, more interested in random minutiae half the world away than engaging with those around them. I am guilty of this, too, but being aware of it, I try to make a conscious effort to connect with people as I visit different places.

At its core, Wandering I, is about exploration and discovery, and that’s what continues to motivate me.  I invite you to “come see the world with me” and show me your own. I hope you will join me 🙂

To read more about the origin of Wandering I, please check out the About page.

On Philly

From Chinatown in the North to (almost) the Italian Market in the South, the banks of the Schuylkill in the West to Penn’s Landing in the East, today has been a double-down, no holds barred dose of Philadelphia. Our quest for an apartment was defined largely by disappointment, frustration, and as the day wore on, by our two little toddlers-turned-demons’ wailing refrain, “I wanna go Phuppo (auntie’s) home!”  But unbeknownst to us, in between stumbling through former habitats of erudition-seeking wild animals (a.k.a. college students) and engaging in unexpectedly friendly and insightful conversations with pedestrians we accosted for the “inside scoop” on the neighborhoods, this scrappy, rough-around-the-edges city of brotherly love, started casting its spell over us, and we’ve fallen prey to its unassuming charm.

A Year to Remember

Yesterday, July 12, 2008, marked exactly a year since I left New York and embarked on my backpacking tour. My journey led me to some of the most storied cities of Europe, from London to Istanbul. I continued East and explored the colorful, cacophonous, and awe-inspiring India. I then traveled to Karachi, Pakistan and found myself in the midst of the tumultuous aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Even as the city roiled in fear and violence, I met Leena, the girl who would soon become my fiance. Finally, after seven months abroad, I returned to New York in early February. I had just enough time see some of you and pay a visit to my family in Florida before I got an offer from my old company’s Dubai office. In mid-March I left New York again and relocated to Dubai.

It’s been almost four months since I moved here to Dubai, and I’m happy to say that things are going well. It was a bit of a rough start — opening a bank account, renting an apartment, and other mundane activities we take for granted in the US can all be quite challenging here — but I’m starting to get the hang of things. Dubai is a remarkable place, and surprisingly, in many ways, it is very similar to the US. Of course, in many ways it is quite different and takes some getting used to. I plan to write in greater detail about my Dubai experience in my blog. For those of you keeping up with my blog, I apologize for falling so far behind. Now that I’ve finally settled into my new apartment though, I plan to start writing again soon.

Work is going well. My team is great, and though the hours can be long, I’m getting the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects. I’ve also had the chance to travel around the region a bit. The social scene, however, is still under construction. One of the benefits of living in New York was that many of my college friends still lived in the area, and the social scene was largely an extension of the college one. Here I have yet to find my groove. However, in yet another one of those strange coincidences I’ve come to relish during my travels, my Moroccan friend, Faical, whom I met on the train in France (Next Stop: Basel), moved to Dubai around the same time as I did. We ended up renting apartments in the same area, and now we hang out regularly.

In other news, the wedding dates have been finalized. The week-long (as per Pakistani custom) fiesta will begin December 17th, 2008. The proverbial tying-of-the-knot will take place on the 19th. All of the festivities will be held in Karachi, Pakistan.

It’s certainly been quite a year, a truly life-changing one. I’ve visited some fascinating places, met some amazing people, and learned a great deal more about our multifaceted world. Moreover, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the possibilities that exist at the fringes of our comfort circles. Life can take some pleasantly surprising twists and turns if only we open ourselves up to those possibilities. I expect much more change ahead, and I’m looking forward to the new experiences.

I would love to hear from you, so please drop me an email when you get a chance. And if you decide to visit Dubai, please know that you have a place to crash.

Next Stop: Dubai

Dear Friends and Family,

The last time you heard from me was a little over a month ago. Let me assure you, I’ve spared you. I do not think you would have much enjoyed my reports from the swamplands of Florida where I went to visit my mother (for the record, she’s doing well and sends her regards). The weather may be nice down there, but the pace of life is a bit too slow for me.

Now, however, I have some exciting news. You may have heard already, but I’m rejoining the Pepsi company. The opportunity I was seeking with Pepsi Dubai came through, and I’m shipping out this Saturday night. I’m very excited about what this means for my professional growth. There’s a lot going on in that region, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. Of course, the fact that my fiance is only a 2-hour flight away from Dubai only sweetens the deal 😉

Thank you for your help, support, and kind emails throughout my “epic world tour.” It has been an incredible experience. I’ve seen some amazing places and made many lasting friendships. And the most gratifying part is knowing that I’ve changed for the better because of it. I plan to continue traveling and writing whenever I can make the time. Thank you so much for your encouragement, which has been the single most important motivation for me to keep up my writing. In case you’re wondering, I still intend to update my blog with my experiences from the rest of my travels, but it may take longer than expected. In the meantime, I plan to start a new segment with the Dubai move.

If you decide to drop by Dubai, please look me up.

And by the way, if you happen to be listening to Marketplace on NPR next Tuesday, don’t be surprised if you hear my voice… 😉

The Adventure Continues

Dear Friends and Family,

Remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we read as kids?  There would come a point in the story where we would have a choice: Does Tim investigate the strange scratching sound coming from the closet or does he scramble down through the trapdoor?  It seems that such twists in the plot have become ever more frequent in my life story, but the difference, of course, is that these choices and decisions are real with real ramifications.  And alas, I can’t cheat like I used to with those books and flip back through the pages to choose the other option.

So here I am still in Karachi.  Things, thankfully, have been calm for the past week or so.  However, the next adventure has already begun unfolding.  As I mentioned in an email some time ago, a friend I referred to as the “Oracle” in Istanbul prophesied that I would encounter significant changes in my life in my 26th year.  I’ve surmised that she may have been on to something due to two major developments: 1) I’m intent on settling abroad for at least a few years and 2) I’m engaged.

I’ve been pursuing an opportunity with my former company’s Dubai office for some time now.  I met with the folks there on my way to Pakistan, and it looks promising.  We were supposed to have something finalized by now, but unfortunately, the process has been slowed down due to major business restructuring in the region.  It is my hope that we can finalize something within the next two weeks.

And I’m engaged.  Surprised?  Me, too 😉  I set out on my trip open to possibility, and I am happy to say that I’ve met the one I plan to spend my life with.  Her name is Leena.  She lives in Saudi Arabia and was visiting family in Pakistan over the winter holidays.  We were engaged in a small, traditional ceremony here in Karachi, and the wedding is tentatively planned for later this year.

I am returning to New York this Friday, February 1st.  I will stay a few days before heading to Florida for another few days.  By then I expect to know where I will head to next.

Thank you for your continued support and thoughtful emails.  I hope all is well with you, and I look forward to seeing you soon!

With warm regards,
Khalid