About Alam Kasenally

Alam Kasenally

Alam Kasenally was born in London and began travel writing at age 5. His first essay, "Why I want to live in America" was written on a jagged scrap of paper and described his enchantment by the World's biggest cars and "buildings that touched the sky". He has since lived in Mauritius, France and Hong Kong and has finally achieved his life-long dream of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His passions include kids, improv, flying, swimming, the quest for the perfect pain au chocolat and writing. In his spare time, he's an entrepreneur, working on bringing technology to education.


Latest Posts by Alam Kasenally

Think Starbucks Has Perfected Coffee? Look Far…

August 30, 2010 by  

Share:

Pledge: to write this post without using words you expect, like “Charming”.

During my trip to Mauritius, I camped extensively in the Paradise Cafe, owned an operated by a former Air Mauritius airline steward, Jeff.

Jeff explained that he’d become tired of flying long stretches standing up and wanted something else in life. As he loved coffee, and knew a thing or two about service, he’d open a cafe. He found a slot on the top floor of the Orchard Center, a small but significant landmark shopping center that sells everything from groceries to saris to Macs. His particular slot was outside a giant South African steakhouse (called the Black Spur – I last went there when I ate meat, approximately 13 years ago).

Bold autumn tones, tall green plants, flat counter, wooden floor, trustworthy Italian espresso machine highly visible in the background… yes this looks about right.

Several promotional articles adorned the wall, and from them I gleaned two simple messages:

1. This was Starbucks tailored to a Mauritian context

2. Jeff had priced his food to be out of the reach of backpack-toting high school kids (having been one of these scruffy kids in the 90s, I could relate to the market he was to split…) As an example, a coffee was Rs 75 ($2.50 – compared to $1.40 at Starbucks San Francisco). Interestingly, espresso-based drinks were a about Rs 80 ($2.60 – cheaper than Starbucks SF).

3. Service was key.

With that in mind, I ordered a coffee and toasted sandwich. I was invited to sit in a sofa that looked like it had been airlifted out of starbucks. Jeff smiled appreciatively from the counter, while his wait staff got busy slicing tomatoes for the sandwich.

The sandwich was crunchy, thin, cheesy and just small enough to get you wanting more but not asking for more. About 200 calories, all told, with lots of lycopene, smidgen of fat and enough umami to make the coffee taste even better.

Here’s why I think it was worth it:

1. Miniature jug of HOT milk (I didn’t even ask for a white coffee)

2. Coffee served in a porcelain mug. Only one size, no such thing as a “venti” here. No to go cups here.

3. Service with a smile (see below!)

4. They took my US Amex card (though I found out later that I paid Amex as much as I did for the coffee in convenience charges!)

I’d call Mauritius a present-oriented society. Life moves a lot slower. Coffee is an experience, not a drug. A smile is part of that experience. A line in front of a counter doesn’t make a comfortable experience. But an ex-air steward with a story to tell, and a  team of three lovely colleagues that want you to sit down on their territory is an experience.

I took my Mom, sister and my friends Jennifer and Emma there too.

I’ll be back in Paradise soon.

Singapore: Fingerprinted Attendance and Fever Sensing

August 4, 2010 by  

Share:

Yesterday, I was privileged to attend a seminar at the Crescent Girls School in Singapore, one of the nation’s “Future Schools”. This is one of five schools on the island that is pioneering the use of technology in education.

A few highlights, in order of amazement:

1. A device in the main corridor takes attendance through fingerprint scanning. It also has an infrared sensor that determines the student’s body temperature, thus screening for fever-based illnesses (such as SARS and H1N1)

2. The virtual reality lab, with 3D models of soil erosion . You have to get your very cool 3D goggles on to see it. 3D is not just for Avatar!

3. The “One to One” program, where every child (1200 of them so far) has a personal computing device. In this case, a Windows-powered Tablet PC.

4. Use of the Wii as an instructional tool. I noticed Wii Sports and the Balance Board in heavy use.

Singapore is leading the World in the use of technology in Education.

I’ll say it again: Singapore is leading the World…

The Coolest Dentist

August 2, 2010 by  

Share:

On the last day of my vacation in Mauritius, I decided to visit the dentist. With my non-existent US health insurance and my previous check up sixteen months behind me, I wondered what to expect. All I can say is, I was pleasantly surprised.

Dr S’s office occupied the garage of a converted house in Quatre Bornes, a bustling, polluted, congested commercial area that’s full of shops and also the seat of the Medisave Clinic (built by my father). Just how his ambulance gets through, I don’t know.

I entered the empty, unfurnished waiting room and noticed a hand-written sign on the door “By appointment only”. Dusty chairs lined the wall, with a single magazine rack bearing 5 year old copies of “Business Magazine”, now defunct,  which was at that time Mauritius’ answer to the Economist. The absence of a receptionist excited me.

I pushed the door ajar and noticed a statuesque man in grey scrubs beckon me in with a friendly smile. “Come on in! You’re right on time!” A small desk, overflowing with paper and a small chair sat on the left, and a large dentist’s chair with console and sink in the middle of the room. An autoclave behind us hissed. No computers, no cabinets, no fluids, no bandages, no dental assistant, nothing.

“Take a seat!” he gestured friendlily.

“I noticed you’re a one-man-band,” I ventured.

“Yes,” He explained. In the next two minutes, he explained his career history. He had qualified as a dentist in Europe, then spent twelve years all over Africa. His longest stint was in the Gambia, Western Africa, where he served on a team of five dentists for a million people. He told me that the religious mission he worked for abandoned the country within a few months of his arrival, but he and his team stayed on, and braved hundreds of patients a day, most of whom had travelled hundreds of miles for treatment.

“Then I came here,” he chuckled. “And I wanted a quiet life, so I started a practice on my own. I don’t have an assistant as I don’t want to grow my business too large. I’m done with that.”

He expertly pulverized the tartar behind my incisors with his ultrasonic probe. The procedure took seven minutes.

“You’re good to go,” he said. “Watch the top gumline, it’s receding. Otherwise, you’ve good very good teeth. No need to come back every six months, for you I’d suggest an annual checkup. No horizontal brushing please!”

“What do I owe you?” I asked

“Nothing,” he said grinning.

Despite my protests, he refused to accept any money, saying he would only charge me if I ever moved to Mauritius myself.

The experience highlighted a common theme I discovered in Mauritian businesses: the pursuit of satisfaction often trumped the pursuit of bigger business.

With that, I left a box of highly garish Fererro Rocher chocolates (sweet irony) and left

.

Where on Earth is Mauritius?

August 2, 2010 by  

Share:

In my nine years in the United States, I’ve only encountered two people who’ve heard of Mauritius (and no, I haven’t been on death row for nine years). One of them is the founder of this blog who, as I write this post,  is green with jealousy as to my whereabouts. The other person, retired from Halliburton, was stationed on Diego Garcia in the 1970s and had witnessed the eviction of the Chagosians to Mauritius at the time.

When I tell people in America I’m from Mauritius, I’m usually asked one of the following questions:

“Malaysia?”

“Where’s that at?”

“Ah… 毛里求斯?”

In Europe, Mauritius was always considered an idyllic honeymoon destination -  cheap enough to save up for, but too expensive to backpack to. Unless you knew a local family. Though that advantage, too, has been eroded by high inflation. I suppose the reason we Americans can’t find Mauritius are:

1. It’s on the other side of the globe, in the middle of the Indian Ocean

2. Hawaii is  a honeymoon destination that’s highly tuned to our vacation requirements and our American dollar

3. Getting to Mauritius takes forever (which is how long it took me via Manila and Singapore this summer)

So, let me mention some fun facts about my country!

Mauritius:

1. Is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, near the African continent. The closest land mass is Madagascar. Madagascar is East of the African continent. More about that in my Geography post!

2. Is an independent country. Was Portuguese, Dutch, French, then British before becoming independent in 1968. More in my History post!

3. Is volcanic. Everyone and every species immigrated here. On a boat, usually. More in my Geography post

4. Is tropical, much like Hawaii. Geography Post!

5. Is about half the size of Rhode Island.

6. Has about 1.3 million people. About 70% of Indian ancestry, 20% African, 5% Chinese and 5% White. More in my people post!

7. Has a coral reef surrounding most of the island. The result is a spectacular turquoise lagoon for about 200 meters, bordered by foaming breakers, with the deep blue sea beyond.

8. Has white, coarse sand

9. Has an extinct volcano

10. Is mountainous

11. Exports a lot of sugar

12. Has nonstop flights from London (11 hours), Singapore (8 hours), Delhi (8 hours), Perth (8 hours), Johannesburg (4 hours). If you’re coming from the US, your best bet is to stop in London.

13. Has English as its official language. But people only speak English in school, in court or with tourists. In their homes, all Mauritians, regardless of ethnicity, speak “Kreol Morisyen”, which is a form of unconjugated French.

14. Boasts a Nobel Laureate in Literature, Jean-Marie Le Clézio