I'm a Social Media Entrepreneur, Professor of Digital Marketing, Author of 5 books, Podcaster and an Organic Farmer.

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Most Kashmiri Students are Not Stone Pelters (a.k.a Don’t Believe the National Media)

Think of students from Kashmir and you would think of stone pelters and agitators. Atleast, that’s what the national media wants us to believe. That’s definitely NOT the case and I saw this first hand.

A few days ago, I was invited to give a guest lecture at Central University of Kashmir. It is one of the 13 newly established central universities in different states of India in 2009.

The Dean of Student Affairs and the Head of Placement was among the audience when I delivered a lecture at the Digital Marketing Summit in Srinagar, Kashmir. Over dinner that evening, Dr.Fayaz come over to me and said he would one day like to invite me over to the MBA department for a lecture. I told him that I’m staying over at Srinagar for two more days and would be happy to come over. I was interested to see what this whole media hulla bulla was all about. He fixed a guest lecture the next day and invited the students from the School of Business Studies and the School of Tourism

My first impression?  It was business as usual. The university was bustling with students and it looked at just like any other busy university life.

Over the one hour session, I spoke on one of my favorite topics: Personal Branding using Digital Medium. I’m a life-long learner of this subject. I noticed that the students from this university are quite bright (only meritorious students are selected). However, because of the unrest in the Kashmir valley, private industries, and multi-national companies are almost non-existent. This meant that there are not many job opportunities and many of the youngsters are forced to seek employment outside the state.

My talk focused on using the digital medium to seek global opportunities. The medium lends itself very well to working on international projects without leaving the city. I was pleasantly surprised that almost all the students were active on social media. I reason why I was surprised is because this is in spite of the fact that the State Government has blocked most of the social networking sites in order to curb the unrest. Students are smart and everyone has figured how to circumvent the Internet ban using VPNs.


I expected a very conservative crowd. But I was pleasantly surprised that the students were very interactive and responsive to questions. Also nice to see that the boys and girls were mingling socially, something that’s a welcome change in a Muslim majority state.

Kudos to the women for being very proactive and very participative.

Kashmir Observer, one of the largest English Dailies in Kashmir, did a coverage of the talk. (please scroll to the second half).


The 7C Fine Dine Experience

I wrote a critical post yesterday about my sub-par experience at a Kashmiri restaurant. Emaad Muzaffar, the Director of Centre for Youth Progress and the Chief organizer of the Digital Conference where I spoke at, wanted to make sure I had a better impression of Kashmir.

He took me to 7C’s Cafe Fine Dine restaurant which is considered to be one of the best restaurants in Srinagar. 

We got to meet the owner who was kind enough to reserve a table with a good view. 

Having traveled the World (it helps to run one of India’s largest Pilgrimage travel agencies), he wanted to bring sophisticated dining experience to Srinagar.

We took advantage of the Biriyani and Kebab festival going on and ordered a Lahori lamb biriyani and chicken kebab. Succulent and juicy meat. Delicious taste.

Time and Time again I’ve experienced that the personal interaction with the owner always results in a better over all experience. It applies to all service industry, especially hospitality. 

At the end of the dining experience, I was asked for feedback on how the customer experience can be improved. Here’s two I have for them. This applies to any restaurant, btw. 

Don’t give a printed feedback form. This is old-school. Why waste a precious review? It’s better to have it on Zomato or Facebook rather than have it stuck in a paper.  In an Increasingly connected World, reviews can make a big difference to attract new customers. This realization comes from my experience of consulting for hospitality biggies such as Club Mahindra and Sterling Holidays. 

Second, please give free WiFi. Especially when you are collecting the customer’s contact details. The 10 minute limit is measly. It got worse when it said I had to wait 652 minutes to use Wifi again. At a time when Internet connectivity is getting cheap, don’t skimp on it. 

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. The staff were very friendly and efficient. The best part of the restaurant was the food and got a chance  to pass my appreciation  to the head chef. 

Come here for the ambience and food. And when you are here, you must try out their Lahori biriyani. 


Kashmiri Wazwan and the Clash of the Mughal Durbars

As part of my travel goals, I always savour local cuisine. While there are many Kashmiri dishes, the easiest way am told to experience it is to try ‘Wazwan’. It’s the Kashmiri Thali. 

Now that I nailed the dish, I needed an authentic place to have Wazwan in Srinagar. A few people recommended ‘Mughal Durbar’. And so I went hunting for it. Follow my culinary journey below.

Its easy to find the place when the name itself is a landmark! I looked at the menu and my eyes popped out when I saw the cost. Rs.3600. Apparently its a single place for four people to share. The waiter said he would serve a quarter for me. I can tell you this much. Kashmiris love meat. Especially mutton. It’s clearly evident in Wazwan. It’s an over load of kebabs and curries overlaid over plain rice.

See that look on my face? That’s a look of disappointment. I tasted a few of the dishes and I must say it did not appeal to me. At Rs.900 a plate, that’s not a cheap meal. You expect something special. It just wasn’t.

Only after I finished my meal and stepped out of the restaurant, did I notice this board. Apparently, there are lots of knock offs of Mughal Darbar. And the people who recommended me this place never told me which is the original one.

It’s difficult to find the original one because each of them were claiming to be the real thing. They even went to warn people about the other ones as well.

Anyways, I determinatedly determinedly finished the meal and overdosed on meat. An interesting experience.


The Houseboat Experience in Srinagar, Kashmir

If you are traveling to Kashmir, here’s a tip. Never stay in a hotel on land. Always choose a houseboat. That’s a strong realization I had.

I was invited to speak at a Digital Conference and the organizers had housed the speakers in an upmarket hotel in the city. Once the conference finished, I decided to stay extra two days to explore to city.  As someone who’s hungry for new experiences, I decided to stay in a place where I have never stayed in my life before. A houseboat! That’s been one of the best decisions I’ve taken.

Here are some photos from the houseboat that I stayed in.

There are 1200 houseboats in Srinagar spread across the famous Dal Lake and Nigeen lake. With so much choice, it is easy to get confused about which houseboat to pick. I turned to Booking.com and Tripadvisor and chose one with a high rating. It’s called ‘Lake Palace’ and had a rating of 9.8 / 10.  I trusted the people who left the reviews and they turned out to be absolutely right. A beautiful boat with absolutely wonderful owners. (more on them in the next post)

The boat I stayed in had three rooms with attached baths. The boat costs a whopping Rs.75 lakhs to build. And I paid Rs.1100 a night. Excellent value for money.
 

This is the hall, the first room that you see as you enter the houseboat. Intricately carved walnut wood furniture. Kashmiri carpets. Wood paneled interiors. Thick drapes for the windows. Exquisite chandeliers. The only gaudy thing was the plastic flowers.
 

I would have liked a place with no TV. But last night, I didn’t mind it because it was the finals of the IPL. I’ve never watched a single IPL match this season (thanks to no TV at home) and it felt good to catch a full match. Turned out to be a low-scoring thriller that went all the way to the last ball.
 

The bedroom was quite comfortable. It was spacious enough. The room had an attached bathroom complete with a bathtub with hot water and western closet.
 

This is the view that I woke up to at dawn.  I can easily get used to this. It’s very therapeutic watching the clouds waft across the mountains and the Shikaras rowing peacefully across the lake.

The Lillies added to the beauty of the place.

 


They had a raft connecting the various houseboats in order to cater to large groups who prefer to stay together. All the houseboats are anchored and they float on the same spot for the rest of their life.
 


#BookNotes from ‘Create Your Own Florida Food Forest’

Now, why would a guy in South India read a book titled, ‘Create Your Own Florida Food Forest’?
For starters, the Florida climate is kind of tropical and similar to that of Tamilnadu. Alright, maybe the summers are a lot milder but it still is close enough.

Second, I love to hear from a man who has already set up two full-fledged food forests. Experience trumps everything else. I have always had an inclination to read from people who have actually done things rather than academic information.

Third and the most important is the intention. I had just made up my mind to convert 4 acres of my 13-acre Vaksana farms into a dense tropical edible food forest. The timing was perfect.

I finished the book on my flight from Chennai to Srinagar. Here are some important notes that I had highlighted on my Kindle.

We can create that flowering jungle again – and tailor it to serve us by growing plants and trees that provide food, beauty, wildlife habitat, building materials and fuel.

If you’re in south Florida where it only freezes once in a blue moon, I envy you: the great bounty of the tropics is open for your plunder. Rather than 20-30 fruit trees, you can literally grow a thousand species, along with a plethora of exotic spices and perennial.

What if you created a forest ecosystem piece by piece? But rather than letting birds and squirrels start it – you plant it. The more species you add, the more ecological niches you create. Different plants attract different insects, birds and other friendly creatures.

English horticulturist Robert Hart is probably most responsible for the modern interest in edible landscaping and forest creation. He took a tiny orchard and filled it with edible perennial species, stacking herbs, vegetables and berries into every corner until the system matured into an amazing food-creating machine. His work has since been improved upon and expanded by permaculturists such as Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton (look these guys up… it’ll blow your mind)

Healthy forests are self-feeding, self-mulching, self-watering and self-perpetuating. Ever dig into a forest floor? It’s usually covered, beneath the leaves, in rich compost. That’s compost YOU didn’t have to make. Put in some hard work now… and you’ll reap the benefits.

Along with these seven layers, a “palm layer” for the tropics has also been proposed by Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison, since many palms will happily grow up through a tropical forest canopy without causing too much shade beneath. Others have proposed an “aquatic layer” for pond plants added to the mix.

If you can find trees and shrubs that are nitrogen-fixers, plant those in between your other plants. What is “nitrogen-fixing?” It’s the process by which certain bacteria form relationships with certain plant roots to take atmospheric nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form the host plant – and its neighbors – can use.

Another way to add nutrition to the soil? Let chickens run through your food forest, once it’s established. They’ll find their own food, add manure, and break the breeding cycle of nasty bugs.

Remember: this is a long-term forest you’re making. The first few years are going to require some watering, feeding, trimming and weeding. Some pieces won’t survive. But then, magic happens. The forest begins to take over… and soon you have a garden you can pass onto your children’s children.

When you consider that pomegranate trees sell for $20 apiece… figs in one-gallon pots are often $10.00 each… and other trees and shrubs all bear price tags of their own, you can save a lot of money really fast. It takes an hour to make yourself a couple hundred bucks worth of baby plants. Time well spent. Plus, if you manage to grow more than you need, you can give away the extra or even sell and barter plants here and there. I did this for years and eventually opened my own little plant nursery to sell what I grow. Win!

Yes, when you plant things close together you get less production per tree… yet you may get more production from the space as a whole.

“Too many trees” can be solved in a variety of ways over a weekend or two… but building a dense and productive ecosystem takes time.

The biggest benefit to having bees around is the increase in fruit you’ll get. Pollinators make a huge difference. I’ve heard you’ll get 30-40% more from a fruit tree when bees are present. For that much yield, taking the time to make some nests is a pretty good trade.

I’ve added two birdbaths, a bird feeder, and a bunch of little houses around the yard for various species. Birds will eat some of your fruit, sure, but they also eat a lot of insects through the year. Another benefit is that they bring a lot of fertility into your system by consuming seeds and insects from all over your neighborhood, then dropping the resulting rich manure beneath their perches in your food forest.

Analyze The Native Forest If I were to plant a food forest in North Florida, I’d first take a look at what was already growing wild in the region. Hickories? Oaks? Persimmons? Wild plums? Rhododendrons? Pay attention to where these plants are growing in the forest and which ones are next to each other.

Every time you cut back a nitrogen-fixing tree, nitrogen is released as the root mass declines in response to the loss of canopy. Secondly, you can use the chopped branches as mulch around the base of your fruit tree… which leads me to my next point.

If you add nitrogen-fixers, nutrient accumulators and pollinator-attracting plants around your fruit trees, you can support those trees better than you could with just mulch.

If you have a forest, you have a lot of resources. One mistake I see people making all the time: they cut down trees and shrubs, then burn them to clear the ground. Don’t do that! You’re literally sending your soil fertility up in smoke.

In my yard, I’ve got a great variety of edible berries and fruit, many of which I planted with children in mind. Jamaican cherries, blueberries, mulberries, strawberries, figs, kumquats, Simpson stoppers, beauty berries… the list just keeps going.

When you plant fruit, you’re making an investment in your children’s health. Of course, they won’t know its a nefarious plot to get them nutrition… they’ll just think you’re great for planting those delicious things!

I have seen multiple food forest projects that miss the benefits of density. They’ve made the transition from standard annual gardening to a more permaculture approach.

Sometimes I play seed fairy and throw handfuls of seeds all over the food forest. When I’ve got more time, I make seed balls and chuck those around.

Throwing seeds around lets nature pick and choose what works and what doesn’t. I like a mix of flowers, brassicas, beans, grains and assorted tree seeds.

Strolling through my yard is like taking a botanical tour. Weeds are happy alongside rare perennial vegetables and butterflies drift past in a constant dance shared with bees, dragonflies, beetles, and wasps.

Along one path is a loquat tree next to a fig. Below the fig are edible elephant ears; behind it is a root beer plant at the base of a young queen palm. Beyond that are shampoo gingers, blackberries, native pawpaws, bananas, Singapore daisies, an orange tree, more figs, Jerusalem artichokes, black-eyed Susans, watermelon vines, yacon, a magnolia tree, cassava, Confederate rose, pears, a bottlebrush tree buzzing with bees, dwarf mulberries, a honey locust, Mexican sunflowers, Christmas cassia, sumacs, St. Christopher lilies, a Key limequat, rambling sweet potatoes, turmeric, firespike, African blue basil, apples, wild plums and other species. And that’s only 1/4 of my food forest project… just a slice along a single path.



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