Thursday, July 28, 2011


From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Of crickets, silk worms, and temples

Between two short work weeks comes a long weekend. We left “home” on Friday morning to spend a few days in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap Lake. Once the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap today is the place where most tourists land to see the dozens of temple ruins of Angkor.

On this trip we were joined by our host’s wife Neang and their boys Peace and Harmony, and fourteen people comfortably fit into a van very similar to last week’s. The road leading north is paved and in reasonable condition. With heavily loaded vehicles of all types connecting the towns and the occasional cow or pig slowly crossing, allow five to six hours for a trip the distance of Vienna – Salzburg.

The countryside looked greener and better developed agriculturally than the south, maybe due to the increasing rainfall as we finally getting into the rainy season. A pit stop along the way was an opportunity for Khim Chamroeun, our tour guide and driver for this trip, who happens to own the hotel in Siem Reap that we would stay at, to get some yummy snacks, crickets! We had tarantulas when we came here, and the kids seemed to enjoy the crickets (or our strange looks watching them), so let’s try!

They are right, crickets taste like chicken, crispy chicken. I couldn’t think of a really good answer to Natali’s question though why we are not simply having chicken then.

Our next stop was the Santuk Silk Farm, which is run by Bud Gibbons, an American Vietnam war veteran who returned to work on social projects, and when the funding for those programs came to end decided to stay and turn a non-profit organization into a socially responsible business, and his Khmer wife Nevin. Bud took us through the whole process of producing silk, starting with the worms enjoying their mulberry bush leave feast, followed by the cocooning which only lasts for about 72 hours, in which time the silk worm produced over 300 meters of fiber. Next, the cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water before multiple fibers are combined to create one silk thread. The last production step is the coloring of the threads. What remains in the pot is an empty cocoon shell and another culinary delight, a cooked silk worm.

The Cambodian silk produced here is stronger and has a yellowish color, most of the silk processed nowadays is Chinese silk though and the thread production here is mostly done for educational purposes. The actual “factory” is an open house with several wooden hand looms, where workers turn the threads into colorful, pretty scarves.

A production facility of different sorts was next on our route, just a few minutes from the silk farm. On both sides of the road stone cutters work on mostly Buddha and a few other statues, from handy palm size to meters high objects. Just standing there watching in the midday heat was cruel, hard to imagine what working here for many hours must be like.

We reached Siem Reap in the afternoon, dropped our stuff in the very spacious rooms at the very special Angkor Spirit Palace hotel, a charming building that gets visitors into the right mood for temple visits right away, and rushed over to the temples to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu mountain temple ruin on a hill, overlooking Angkor Wat. As the sky darkened with grey clouds, watching the number of tourists climbing up the narrow stairs turned out to be more impressive than the sunset itself, and with my sort of tense relationship with heights I was especially proud that I made it up, and down, the temple hill.

Just as we got back into the van it started pouring with rain; how quickly the weather can change and the amount of water suddenly coming down continues to amaze me. The evening program was a buffet dinner and a colorful Khmer dance performance at Kouley restaurant.

Early Saturday morning (no chance to sleep in on weekends) we started our Angkor tour. In order to understand the temples of Angkor let me share some historic information, shamelessly copied from Wolfgang’s #ibmcsc blog:

From roughly 900–1200 A.D., the Khmer Empire dominated Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos), as well as Thailand and a few other countries down here. It was a highly developed society, with both Buddhist and Hindu roots. Interestingly the religion swapped back and forth as kings came and went, such that one portion of the temples are dominated by Buddha figures, and the others by the Hindu gods. Today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. The two most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is the biggest religious building in the world, and this temple is what every tourist would recognize as the symbol of Cambodia. The walls on all levels feature endless stories carved into the rocks in amazing detail.

After the Khmer empire fell apart, almost all of the temples here were abandoned and swallowed by the jungles. They were re-discovered around 1860, and only de-jungled fairly recently.

The Buddhist temple Angkor Thum was our first stop, and our tour guide Socheat patiently explained the various scenes depicted in the reliefs.

Next was Ta Prohm, which was left in its wild state and is partially covered by huge trees, a truly amazing place where you cannot but take lots of pictures, and so we did.

Angkor Wat, the largest temple of the world, was our last sight for the day, and thanks to Baskar we learned a lot about Hindu gods and their appearances in different forms. Parts of the temple were closed in preparation for a ceremony, but even without getting to the top we got a good idea of the dimensions of this monument.

A description of a day at Angkor would not be complete without mentioning the sellers at each meeting point who offer hats, bags, wristbands, musical instruments, guidebooks, postcards, you name it and will entice visitors with anything from fishing for sympathy to irresistible special offers (“Only one dollar, Sir! Two for one dollar, Sir! Five for one dollar, Sir!”)

The day ended with a fantastic meal and a few beers at our host’s place, and I will save my floating village report for later.

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Friday, July 22, 2011


Kep, Rabbit Island and a short work week in Cambodia

Friday morning it is and the weekend has already started for the Corporate Service Corps team in Cambodia. Our friends at ABV will show us Siem Reap and the famous Angkor temples, and since the road trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap takes some time we ended the week early, and will only be back at work next Tuesday.

But first things first: I have yet to tell about our fabulous trip last weekend. We had decided to spend some time on the beach and rented a van with driver to get us to Kep, 150 km south of Phnom Penh and once a fashionable seaside town for the rich and famous. During the Khmer Rouge regime many buildings were badly damaged, and Kep’s unique architecture was largely destroyed. Nowadays Kep is famous for the crab market, and becoming popular mostly with locals again, but the ruins remain.

We left Phnom Penh early after breakfast and headed south, alongside fields where farmers were planting rice or plowing with oxen teams, through the small villages where the residents were offering their products for sale, gathering on the local markets or sipping coffee at the restaurant. Everyone seems to be selling something, from agricultural products to hardware and construction material to telephones, from dusk till dawn, seven days a week. The small stores usually house the owner’s home in the back of the store, and the garage for the motorcycle too. Many of the housings offer little more than a bed and a television set, so not surprisingly the community life mostly happens on the streets.

One reason for the popularity of mobile phones in the rural areas – even the smallest agglomeration of houses has a phone shop – is a mobile payment service provided by Wing that works over the phone, so rather than transferring money through a “classic” bank people now transfer funds between mobile phones.

By now we are used to seeing complete families on a motorcycle, children squeezed between the parents or hand-held on the side, but we couldn’t have imagined what cargo can go on a motorcycle, or how many people fit in a car. People are quite creative and brave when it comes to transportation.

The Central Market in Kampot offers a variety of goods, from textiles to household articles and all kinds of food. The air is filled with a mix of scents, and the grilled meat and spices smelled quite tempting.

We continued our trip to Kep, where we had lunch with plenty of shrimps and seafood and a skinny chicken before transferring to our hotel for the night. The Raingsey Bungalow had five comfortable bungalows for us and a swimming pool, just what we needed. Later Bertrand, Patricia, Wolfgang and I went for the scenic 8 km trail through the Kep National Park. We saw squirrels, butterflies and a huge millipede of some sort, but no monkeys although there should be some in the park, and other wildlife too. Our dinner was seafood again at one of the restaurants near the crab market, in a very basic setting but close to the sea and with good food at reasonable prices.

Sunday was another beautiful day. Two boats brought us over to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, an uncrowded island with sea, sandy beaches, palm trees and sunbeds, what more could you ask for! We spent the entire day here, swimming, playing frisbee and “organic bocce” with a coconut and fruits we collected, and some folks had massages on the beach also. Much to our surprise, the tiny little restaurant in the area where we had settled not only offered the heavily promoted pancakes with bananas but had a full menu card with beef, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and vegetarian curries, desserts, and cocktails, quite remarkable for a place with one room, with water coming from a tank and with an open fire place in the annex for cooking. The boat ride back was somewhat bumpier than in the morning, and we had to go in one boat this time together with some local passengers, all after walking across the island because the winds had become too heavy on the other side of the island. We made it back to Kep safely and wet and were fortunate that the nice staff at Raingsey Bungalow would let us use their showers and the pool again. We concluded the day with another dinner at the crab market, seafood and fish and pizza in two adjacent restaurants, and returned to Phnom Penh around 10 p.m.

The following week at work was fairly busy: I completed my web security assessment and held two training sessions for the staff, one about web security and one about productivity and getting things done, roughly following the methodology outlined in David Allen’s book by the same name. Working on my community project, I struggled to find an electronic payment service provider which supports merchants, or in this case charities, located in Cambodia. The big ones like PayPal, Amazon Payment Services and Google Checkout are not available for Cambodian organizations, so our list is now narrowed down to SBC Bank, which has a solid and well-documented payment gateway interface but the fees are more suitable for business customers, and Ammado, a payment service targeted at non-profit organizations. At least we have some options to go forward with, and the team agreed with the goals and timelines for the project at the kickoff meeting. Stay tuned!

On Thursday evening the IBM Vietnam General Manager, Mr. Vo Tan Long, invited our team to a dinner meeting at Boddhi Tree’s Umma restaurant. Bertrand and Natali had worked with the restaurant staff and created a fine dinner, and we enjoyed a nice selection of appetizers, main courses and desserts from the buffet and a good glass of wine. Apart from the official dinner, the group of people eating out at night got smaller and smaller. We tried some restaurants on 240 Street this week, including the Sugar Palm, the Tamarind with its nice rooftop terrace, and the stylish corner wine bar. Some folks even explored all the “forbidden places”.

We had no spiders nor any other culinary surprises this week, so let’s see what we can find on our way to Siem Reap!

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Saturday, July 16, 2011


One week in Cambodia. Over and out.

Last Friday the Atlantis space shuttle took off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center for the last time. When the first orbiters launched, the world was watching the takeoffs and listening to the crackling sounds of astronauts describing how beautiful our planet looked from outer space.

The recent conversations with my family often reminded me of conversations with a spaceship. Not that Phnom Pehn wouldn’t have decent connectivity: there are 3G networks everywhere, and even in more remote parts of the city the mobile coverage is great, unlike in rural areas where electricity and communication lines are often poor, if available at all. Calling from mobile phones is fairly expensive though when there is so much to recount, even though a call to Cambodia costs much less than what a national call used to cost two decades ago, when we were used to brief facts only telephone conversations.

Voice over IP to the rescue! The Boddhi Tree hotel not only offers great hospitality and friendly service but also reasonably fast, reliable and free wireless connectivity, so talking over Skype or Y! Voice should be as easy as 1-2-3. Unless the computer refuses to recognize the built-in microphone, that is. Several reboots and desperate attempts to change the audio settings later I found a discussion thread about failing ThinkPad audio drivers on the Lenovo forum, downloaded and installed the simple Conexant driver and had a working microphone again.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, we can have a good chat with clear quality and minimal delays one day, sound like spaceship commanders in orbit the next day or suffer from long delays (“Hallo hallo hallo hallo hallo?”) and bad echo. At some point we even reverted to CB radio voice procedure, passing control and muting the line in-between, much to the fun of the kids, who then limited their conversation to shouting “Over”. They don’t seem to miss me too much but did send kisses over the wire(less) and commented unfavorably about our food.

The first week has been incredibly busy and gone by so quickly. I cannot believe that we have been in Cambodia for a week already. On Monday we had an introductory coffee meeting with our #ibmcsc clients at the hotel. “Coffee meeting” is an understatement, as the coffee was accompanied by a nice buffet of fresh fruit, sweet and spicy snacks, pancakes filled with fruit, more like a brunch.

During my assignment I will work with a local organization that provides HR recruitment, outsourcing and consulting services, training, and IT services, as well as on a social project for the elderly, about which I will write more shortly. Others on our team support socially responsible small businesses in the tourism and IT services industries and a company that created jobs for land mine accident survivors in the food industry and produces delicious dried fruit, of which we get daily samples through Wolfgang and Patricia.

The welcome at our client’s side was fantastic. We were greeted by a big decorated sign on the entrance door, and then introduced to the teams. My week was split between meetings with the managing director and staff to get an understanding of the organization and where I can help, preparing my work plan for the month, putting together workshop materials, running the workshop with an active and enthusiastic group, doing security testing, and preparing more workshop materials for the following week. On Wednesday Marisol and I took the opportunity to visit a small training factory for garment workers and a large school run by the French charity
Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), which provides education, healthcare and three meals every day to the students in Phnom Penh.

Speaking of meals, we had no more spiders this week but explored other culinary delights of the city together in the evenings and tasted Cambodian, French (well, at least before the onion soup was enhanced with spices :-)) and Vietnamese food.

That’s all for this week, and now it’s time for a relaxing weekend in the seaside city of Kep. Over and out!

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Monday, July 11, 2011


Weekend in Cambodia: Of history and spiders

The Boddhi Tree Aram in the heart of historic Phnom Penh should become our home for the next 30 days. The friendly staff welcomed us with home-made bread and rules and a selection of fresh fruit. Almost everyone had made it to the hotel already and we stood a good chance of having the full team together for the first official meeting in the afternoon. Boddhi Tree is more than just a hotel. The goal of the team is to improve the living conditions of people in Cambodia through running a successful social enterprise. The organization has grown to 80 staff members, including some who work part time to allow time for their studies, and supports local and international NGO projects.

A few of us decided to go on a sightseeing tour. Since our first destination, the Royal Palace, was closed until 2 p.m., as we learned many, many times from the Tuk Tuk drivers who insisted that we should go on a tour with them instead, we walked(!) around. Walking is not very common in Phnom Penh, which is understandable given the temperature and the high humidity during the rainy season, but a perfect way to explore an unknown city. After a visit to the temple, a good discussion with a young monk about rituals, monastic life and education, and the history of the country and watching a Buddhist ceremony performed for Marisol we continued to the local market

The Kandal market hall with its narrow corridors, where tailors and artisans create and sell their products, is surrounded by stands selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood, others offering various cooked foods, and the variety of scents and colors dazzles the senses. We weren’t brave enough to try food from the stands, not on day 1, so we settled for the nearby Riverside Bistro, which serves Khmer, Thai and other Asian food as well as international dishes. The Fish Amok was delicious, and so was the coconut drink served in its natural container.

The National Museum was next on our route. Surrounding an inviting courtyard with fish ponds, it houses a collection of Khmer sculptures including a statue of eight-armed Vishnu, and a collection of Buddhas.

We concluded the day with the first official #ibmcsc meeting with a freshly made variation of Caipirinha (cachaça replaced by vodka) and an introduction to Phnom Penh by ABV staff, followed by a delicious buffet dinner at the hotel. Everyone had made it to the hotel by now, and we were relieved to hear that one colleague’s visa problems had been sorted out at the very last moment (the story he told was almost too good to be true).

Sunday started with another scrumptious breakfast, followed by an orientation tour through Phnom Penh. We visited the Psar Thmai central market, which was recently renovated and offered mostly jewelery, garments, household articles, and managed to get back to our van unharmed by the busy traffic.

An exploration of Cambodian history would not be complete without looking at the 1970 revolution, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime that cost millions of lives and left the country devastated. We spent some time together at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where about 17,000 victims were executed and buried in mass graves. Excavations have not been completed, and occasionally bones surface on the walkways. A stupa and a museum commemorate the thousands of deaths and remind people of the cruelties merely 40 years ago.

A visit to the Royal Palace, the pavilions and gardens with the silver pagoda, statues and shrines, in the afternoon concluded our sightseeing tour for the day. We had caught a glimpse of Cambodia’s history in two days.

The only thing that was left for the weekend was a new culinary experience at the Romdeng restaurant, a very nice training restaurant run by former street youth and their teachers and designed to promote Cambodian culture and food, including the infamous fried tarantulas.

Bon appétit!

PS. The staff will also gladly show tarantulas which are alive and happy to walk around on guests’ hands. My favorite quote of the day came from Natali: “Baskar, stop playing with the food!”

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Friday, July 8, 2011


Changing teams

Joining the Corporate Service Corps #ibmcsc means working with a new team for the month. I was ready to leave home and start my journey to Phnom Penh, but I reckoned without my host.

That last team meeting in Vienna was at the usual time on Thursday morning (except that I was late since packing had taken longer than planned and schlepping the suitcase and two bags to the office slowed me down further, but I am digressing). Instead of the usual breakfast rolls and business talk, there was a delicious cake, home-made by Sabine, champagne, and a greeting card from the team wishing me a safe trip and a great experience, what a nice surprise! Thank you team, that was really very nice.

In the evening I left for the airport directly from the office. The flight from Vienna was overbooked, and the compensation which the airlined offered for voluntarily choosing a later flight wasn’t all that attractive, especially since the alternate choice wasn’t even a direct flight, on the other hand I had never been to Mumbai, not that I seriously considered taking an alternate flight, but I am digressing again. Surprisingly, I got a good night’s sleep on the plane, only interrupted by a late dinner and an early breakfast.

The stopover in Bangkok was a great opportunity to watch shopkeepers doing the sompeas greeting, which is also used in Cambodia. Note to self: it would be helpful to not have the hands full with bags, tickets and other stuff for sompeas. I hope a friendly nod as the only response I was capable of wasn’t considered impolite.

At the airport in Bangkok I also met the first members of our team; Natali and Daniela were waiting for the same flight and recognized me from my picture. We had another yummy dinner on the short flight to Phnom Penh, followed by a smooth flow through the visa, immigration and customs checkpoints. Too bad we didn’t get a Tuk Tuk like Bertrand did the other day, just are regular car which safely brought us to our hotel, the Boddhi Tree, where we met Patricia, Renata and Marisol.

After spending three months on weekly calls and exchanging profiles, talking about professional experience, hobbies, and plans for the stay in Cambodia, it was great to finally meet in person, and it felt like we were good friends who had known each other for a long time already.

Tomorrow we will meet the rest of the team and also the folks from Australian Business Volunteers. Time for some rest, one more lychee from the fruit platter and then: រាត្រីសូស្គី!

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Thursday, July 7, 2011


Kim Wilde, Tisabamokkha and tears

Destination: Phnom Penh

Humming Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” song, I am getting ready for a special trip. In a few hours, I will leave for my assignment in Phnom Penh under the umbrella of the IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program. #ibmcsc A team of nine people from around the globe, with diverse professional experience, will come together in the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា in Khmer) for a month and work with local businesses and NGOs on business, technology and society challenges.

More than a 1,000 fellow IBMers have participated in CSC assignments globally. We are the first team to visit Cambodia and hope to lay ground for future engagements. After three months of preparation which flew by faster than you can imagine, we are ready for our journey and looking forward to getting together as a team and meeting our clients and the team from Australian Business Volunteers (ABV), the non-government, not-for-profit international development agency which manages the program locally.


While looking for a fancier name than “Team 1” we came across the folktale of Tisabamokkha, a famous teacher in Takkasila, and a great king, who ruled over a rich kingdom and was looking for ways to protect his kingdom and his people.

The king, the beautiful queen, their four chief ministers, and the royal astrologer learned magic with Tisabamokkha and were taught the art of turning themselves into all kinds of animals and heavenly beings. When they got lost in the forest of Takkasila on their way home and were starving, they decided to use their magic powers to transform their bodies into a royal tiger: The four chief ministers turned into the four legs of the tiger, the astrologer into the tiger's tail and the queen into the tiger's body. The tiger's head was left for the king himself. The tiger was stronger and more powerful than other animals, and he was so happy with the wonderful new life that he never returned to his kingdom.

What we liked about the story is that it emphasizes the idea that people must cooperate for the common good, and remember their responsibilities to give back to the community. Likewise, working on a CSC assignment is also about cooperating and giving back. The CSC program was announced in 2008 by our CEO Sam Palmisano and aims to provide skills, talent, and capabilities to communities in emerging market countries while helping IBMers gain valuable experience and skills for working in a global environment. Participation is completely voluntary, but once you accept the assignment it does require a fairly significant investment in time and resources for preparation and while in country.


One of the hardest parts is leaving the family behind for a month, even more so during vacation season when the kids are home. The boys took it easy and quickly returned to playing with their toys after kissing me goodbye; it was yours truly who had the eyes filled with tears. Thank you to my family for allowing me to explore what previous teams described as one of the best experiences that you would have as an IBMer, and thank you to my colleagues and management for the support and encouragement.

PS. We will also post updates about our month in Cambodia on our team blog.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Wiener Neustadt is half way from Vienna to Jesolo

No, we didn't get the distances wrong. Granted, Wiener Neustadt is about 60 km from Vienna whereas the distance to Jesolo is 600 km.

We left home in the dusk on July 1 with our van fully loaded, expecting to reach our vacation destination Jesolo by noon. Shortly after we had passed Wiener Neustadt, we noticed strange sounds under the hood, and the engine temperature started to rise quickly. “Stop engine. Oil pressure low.” destroyed our hope to reach at least a service station.

The towing service arrived promptly, we squeezed two child seats and ourselves into the tow truck and still hoped for a quick repair. The mechanic who first inspected our car suspected a more serious problem, and an hour later we had the sad certainty: our VW Sharan had suffered from a broken connecting rod and subsequent damage to the engine at less than 7000 km, “a manufacturing defect”. We would certainly not continue our journey with this car.

We weren't ready to give up, though. After all we had made travel arrangements, and the kids were excited about our first vacation trip abroad. Volkswagen offers a Mobility Guarantee, which sounds like you would retain your mobility when your car breaks down. It includes free roadside assistance and towing, which was indeed helpful, and a replacement vehicle of Volkswagen's choice for three days. Subject to availability, that is. Three days wouldn't helped much anyway but the rental car partner mentioned they had no large vans available for the rest of the year (mind you, this was on July 1!) and actually had no cars available at all, not even for an hour to drive to the airport to pick up another car. As good as the mobility guarantee sounds, it was pretty useless when we needed it.

It's summer time and most car rental companies were short on cars. In the end we managed to arrange for a reasonable large Opel Zaphira with the help of a wonderful agent at and I took the train back to Vienna to get the car. Meanwhile Andrea stayed at the dealership with two tired kids, not a good way to start a holiday.

We left Wiener Neustadt in the afternoon and arrived in Jesolo late at night, tired but glad that we made it after all.

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Friday, June 5, 2009


World Environmental Day 2009

Just in time for the World Environmental Day 2009, this morning a colleague shared an amazing animation showing air traffic over a 24 hour period:

Every yellow dot represents a flight with at least 250 passengers.

The animation was developed by the ZHAW Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften in cooperation with the Swiss science center Technorama (Larger version of the Air Traffic Worldwide video from ZHAW).

Watching this it becomes clear how even smallest improvements in fuel efficiency, reduction of emissions and optimization of flight patterns reduce the environmental impact (not that flying or most other forms of transportation will ever become eco-friendly). Smart traffic and transportation is also a theme in IBM's Smarter planet initiative.

So what did I do on World Environmental Day 2009? Nothing special, I used public transport as I do whenever possible, looked for local, organically grown food when doing my grocery shopping at the Naschmarkt (although a recent study suggests that shipping fruits and vegetables from warmer countries like Spain may be better environmentally than growing them in greenhouses locally, so much for trying to do the right thing), separated my waste—and calculated my ecological footprint at and, a great reminder how many of us use an above average share of natural resources.


Thursday, January 1, 2009


Happy New Year 2009

Wish you Happy and Prosperous New Year 2009!

We returned to Vienna tonight from our family tour to Salzburg, Munich, Dornbirn and Salzburg again.

It was good to see our families again, including the first meeting of little Daniel with his great grandmothers. At the same time it feels like we spent most the last 10 days driving (or, getting stuck in traffic jams), so we are glad to be home.

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Monday, October 6, 2008


Our first car

Guys like to talk about cars. Ever so often when travelling and meeting colleagues abroad, I would get asked what car I drive, and then the conversation shifted to quality of life and how great living in city where public transport actually works would be. For more than twenty years, the network of buses, trams and the underground served us well and still does.

“So you don't drive?” would often be the next question. I do drive, and have accumulated thousands of kilometres on the road on business and holiday trips, with more than 70 car rentals over the years. I also signed up for car sharing a few years ago and enjoyed the convenience of having access to a wide range of vehicles within walking distance from my home.

In 1993 I rented my first car in Vienna for the relocation from the dorm to my apartment. Moving the few belongings back then took multiple trips, and we spent all day moving boxes.

Most of my initial driving experience, oddly enough, was on the left side of the road. While consolidating our European Web hosting infrastructure in North Harbour, I travelled to the UK frequently. The first time I was scared to death, but driving on the left side turned out to be less challenging than I had expected, with the notable exception of multilane roundabouts which I still find tricky. Only once on a business trip to Mulhaddart near Dublin I got onto the wrong side of the road after exiting a petrol station. Fortunately traffic was low and I realized the mistake and changed lanes when I saw a car approaching on “my” lane.

Driving in Australia in 1998 added another challenge: Driving on the left side of the road was easy, I had enough practice with that, but Australian cars also have the controls for wipers and indicators exchanged. I don't want to know how many times I switched the wipers on when making a turn, on a perfectly sunny day.

Did I mention guys care about cars? In August 1999, when the weather forecast for the UK left little hope for clear sight of the total solar eclipse, our friend and hobby astronomer Gurbir Singh decided to abandon the camping ground in the UK and instead take a flight to Austria. Now we had a reason to get serious about eclipse watching! We agreed to meet in Pinkafeld, I bought a tele lens for my camera and a tripod, made reservations at the high school dorm, and ordered a car from Hertz.

Fortunately their reservation system didn't check for availability. When I arrived at the counter a slightly grouchy clerk told me they had to pick up the car from another location first but they would have a car for me shortly. The side effect was that we got a free upgrade. Gurbir liked the car too and acknowledged that working at IBM seemed to pay off if we could afford the latest Volvo model. I think that he was mildly shocked when I mentioned we had rented and didn't actually own a car.

We had a great day in Pinkafeld, finding a good watching spot, (not) learning to juggle, waiting for the wonder of nature. The eclipse was fascinating; everything seemed so calm and peaceful, even the birds turned silent.

On our tour through the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, in 2002 something was wrong with our car's theft control, and the car would often refuse to start immediately and require a few tries. No big deal, only once when we were waiting in a long line to board a ferry and the car wouldn't start it was slightly embarrassing. Towards the end of our trip, our vehicle was clamped by the police on Neringa for stopping briefly next to the tourist office(!) Too bad I forgot to take a picture of my first and last clamping so far.

It was on our honeymoon trip to Mauritius in 2005 where we got the smallest car ever, which was fine for day trips without luggage and quite convenient on the narrow roads. We also learned the art of bargaining with car rental staff there. On the first rental, we paid the quoted price minus a “special discount”. The next day, we claimed our customer loyalty bonus and got another discount. On the third rental we appealed to the renter's slogan “We try harder” for an even better deal. The savings weren't substantial, but the bargaining was fun. Of course, for less than the cost of the car alone we could have hired a taxi driver to take us around all day long, but we preferred touring the island on our own.

Fast forward to 2008.

This morning I picked up our new car from the dealer. Our first car. From our renting experiences we pretty much knew what we wanted, a large van, removable extra seats, and reasonable fuel efficiency. We had rented a Seat Alhambra last summer for our trip to Vorarlberg and had been pleased with the vehicle. Our choice fell to the comparable Volkswagen Sharan in the BlueMotion version, which has improved fuel efficiency—6 l/100 km, or 39.2 mpg (US)—and reduced emissions.

What happened to the couple that happily lived for many years without owning a car? Getting suitable cars had become increasingly difficult, especially around public holidays. Car sizes vary, and ordering a full-size wagon doesn't guarantee you can easily accommodate all passengers and luggage; we once even had to uninvite a friend who was planning to hitch a ride with us. More than once the clerk at the rental company was trying to please me with an upgrade to a luxury car and was disappointed when I only cared about the size of the trunk. No matter how nice a Mercedes E class may be (and it has a fairly big trunk), when it comes to fitting two child seats, two strollers and a few suitcases, there's nothing like a van.

Also we will soon move to a residential area with more distant grocery stores, less frequent public transport connections, and no car sharing station nearby. While I plan to use public transport often still, the car will be convenient for occasional tours to the shopping mall, picking up construction material and furniture, and the like.

So next time someone asks me the question, I will have a different answer.

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