Red wine and mirchi

is such an awesome combo. As we just discovered, here in Monastiraki square in Athens. It was this restaurant called Savas. Specializing in one “Sauvlaki”.

So over the last week or so of vacation, the girlfriend has been complaining of not eating spicy enough food. So as we settle down today, and get our can of wine (yeah, you get half a litre of wine in an aluminium can here. Awesome it is), I see this “spicy hot peppers” on the menu.

And given that the girlfriend has been deprived of spicy food, and I like peppers it doesn’t take long for me to order it. And boy was it hot.

I gave up after a couple of bites of the pepper. No amounts of pita bread and Tzatziki (the Greek version of raita – with cucumber and garlic blended into curd) could cure the hotness on my tongue. With there being no water on the table, I went straight for the wine.

I’ve always suspected it when the girlfriend has claimed to have Gult roots. Of course, I’ve seen a lot of Gult being spoken in her family, and had half my pre-wedding dance party inundated with Gult songs, but still find it hard to accept she’s Gult. And did she prove it! She ate four whole peppers, as I struggled to finish half..

A couple of minutes back, we staggered back to the hotel. Absolutely drunk. We’d had 250 ml of red wine each, “house wine” according to the restaurant. And mirchi. Whatta combo. Surprised the “shady bars” of Bangalore haven’t exploited it yet. Maybe no one drinks wine there.

Indian attitudes to vacations

Us Indians aren’t a very vacation-y lot. We don’t like to go on long vacations, unless we are visiting friends or relatives, or going on pilgrimage.

When the wife told her colleagues that we’re going to Italy and Greece starting with the middle of this week, they all responded with “oh, second honeymoon so soon?”. Ok i don’t get this concept of a second honeymoon. Yeah, we thought we needed a break, and we wanted to experience a few places so we’re going. I don’t know why I need to classify it.

If I look back at my childhood, and vacations taken with parents, it broadly fits these patterns – we went somewhere either because we had relatives there, or because there was a temple there that my parents wanted to visit. If I remember right, each year, my parents carried forward most of their quota of vacations.

I think the reason for this vacation-aversion among us Indians is similar to the aversion we traditionally had to eating out. There were lots of intricate (and insane) caste taboos, which prevented people from eating where they wanted to.

You get a flavour of this when relatives start asking you what food you are carrying, given that you are going to “non-veg countries”. You get a flavour of this when most people go to Europe on package tours with “indian vegetarian jain meals included”. You get a flavour of this when they had to take massive barrrels of Gangajal on board the ships that took Indians to work as indentured labour in the West Indies.

There was a taboo on eating food whose source was not known, or known to have had the hand of a person belonging to a different caste. This massively limited mobility, and put limits on the potential places where a person could travel.

So you went to cities where they were relatives, for you could eat at their house. You went on pilgrimages in huge groups of your own caste, and you could cook. Even if you couldn’t the visit to the temple would wash away the sins incurred in eating random food.

So yes, we are going to Italy and Greece, for a week each. And no, we are not going as part of some Patelpackage. We are traveling on our own, without a plan, apart from hotel bookings. And no, we are not carrying any food along with us. And we aren’t going on pilgrimage.

And the kannada word “pravaasa” which translates to “travels” always cracks me up, since the first time I heard it was as part of the phrase “bekkina pravaasa” (the cat’s travels), a hilarious story in my Kannada text book in primary school.

The Problem with Resorts

A part of our honeymoon not so long ago was spent at the Taj Exotica in Bentota, Sri Lanka. We stayed there for a bit over a day and a half, and that was supposed to be the most “honeymoony” part of our honeymoon, with the rest of the time being spent essentially roaming and seeing different things in different parts of Sri Lanka. Before we went, I thought I’d set aside very little time for this “honeymoony place” but in the final analysis it turned out I’d allocated the optimum time for it.

So as we sit down to plan for a mid-year vacation, here are some of the problems that we found with resorts – which make us skeptical about spending an entire vacation in a resort kind of place. All this is based on a single data point – our recent visit to Bentota:

  • Food: We got bored of the food in less than a day. I’m vegetarian, which ruled out the seafood restaurants at the resort. Room service menu was extremely limited and one meal bored us of the buffet. We ended up eating consecutive dinners at the same Chinese restaurant at the resort which shows how bored we were of the food
  • Lack of buzz: We went to the bar to grab a quick drink on the way to dinner, and there were hardly any people there. There was no life there and it was too quiet for our liking. Then, on the way back from dinner we thought we’ll hit the disc, and found we were the only people there. A complete put off
  • On the other hand, when we went to the pool for a swim, it turned out there were way too many people there. There were some large gangs of tourists, and they made quite a noise, which wasn’t all that fun. Yeah, I know I’m cribbing about two contradictory things here, but that’s the way it is.
  • Adding to the contradiction, a private beach and all is  quite fine but again it’s boring to go there when there is little activity there. Yeah there were a few people there but there was something about the place which bored us quickly enough for us to return.
  • General lack of activity: Yeah, I know that the purpose of going to a resort is to just chill but after a while the lack of activity can get a bit disconcerting, and makes you want to get away.

But in general, the biggest problem was the food. If you aren’t really fond of buffets, and there are no good options near the resort, you are likely to tire of the food quite quickly, which can be a big pain. At least if you were to get authentic local food you could manage. But sanitized 5-star buffets for over a day? Thanks

Expense Troubles

Sometimes corporate expense accounts work in strange ways. For example, there is a clause in our policy that for a trip of over a week, you are permitted to get your clothes laundered at the hotel “within reasonable limits”.

Given that this is a long trip and that I ran out of jocks, I got some laundered here, paying six dollars to launder each jock (on company expense, of course).

Noble policy; this is all good. There is only one issue here. The jocks that I spent six dollars for getting laundered cost me about three dollars each. Actually for six dollars, I can get pretty good quality jocks at the Century 21 store nearby.

And if it were my six dollars (rather than the firm’s) I would rather spend it on buying new jocks than getting old depreciated jocks laundered. But alas, company policy doesn’t let me expense the purchase of new jocks.

Sometimes corporate expense accounts work in strange ways.

Union Square Park

So earlier today on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stopped over at Union Square for a bite. I picked up a falafel sandwich from the Maoz Vegetarian outlet nearby and walked over to the Union Square Park to eat it, while sitting on a parkbench and eyeing little girls with bad intent…

So while the park is not large, I really liked the way it’s laid out. Wide pedestrian pathways cutting across it in all directions. One side of the park playing host to artists selling artworks, a farmer’s market (this is on Saturdays I think) and the likes. The north side had a little children’s play area, which had swings and slides and similar stuff. And then in the middle there was a “dog run” area, where people brought their dogs and let them out to play ball. It was wonderful to watch.

The best thing about the park was that it was literally open to the street, and had no gates. While there was a notice there that the park was closed from midnight to 6am (I don’t know how that gets enforced) it was literally open to public, for people to come over and sit down for a bit, look at the kids (maybe with bad intent), the dogs, purchase something on the sidewalk, and all that.

Of course this being winter there were no leaves on the trees around, and little grass (the irony being a “keep off the lawns, they are freshly laid” signboard, while the said lawns were covered deep in snow), so one could look around far and wide.

Anyways I think there is a distinct lack of public places like this in India. The Union Square Park is not large, but it is well laid out and accessible which makes it so popular. The problem with parks in India (specifically in Bangalore) is that they have one objective – to provide good space for morning walkers. That way the effectiveness of the park is vastly reduced.

I hope city authorities develop spaces like this in Bangalore, and elsewhere in India; though not at the cost of playgrounds, of course.

Fixed Price

The problem with a lot of touristy places is that there are no fixed prices. While this means that vendors can practice effective revenue management, it also means that it is easier for them to cartelize and take the tourists for a collective ride.

I realized this during my recent trip to Sri Lanka where you need to find someone you trust to get “access” to some place. But then it is most likely that any possible intermediary is more loyal to the service provider (due to regular contact etc) than to the tourist. So the tourist ends up being screwed no matter what.

Later that night we were to figure that even the bargained prices that we paid at the wood factory were heavily inflated, and things were available for a fourth of that price (!!) at the souvenir shop attached to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Where else in the world do you see prices in hotel souvenir shops being significantly lower than close to the source?

So this agent business continued through the trip. We wanted to go river rafting, so we (once again) trusted our driver to find us a nice service provider. The following day we wanted to go on a boat ride up the Bentota river, and we had the (unenviable) choice of our hotel and the driver (yet again) to serve as intermediary.

What makes matters worse is that if you go without an intermediary prices are likely to be even higher. It’s as illiquid a market as you can find. But whichever intermediary you choose you are likely to end up paying much above market values. It’s not often that you find (supposedly) altruistic intermediaries such as the Gift Shop at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya.

So I wonder what drives a market from this kind of state to one where prices are fixed, and there are menus (interestingly in Sri Lanka you don’t find menus in many places. you are charged an arbitrary sum). It is unlikely to be regulation, since smart players are always a step ahead of the regulators. It has to be some market characteristic that tips the market in favour of transparency and efficiency. I’m trying to figure out what it is.

(this suddenly reminds me of a recent attempt by an investment bank to try create a private market for shares in a private technology company. Clearly the market in shares has “tipped” in favour of transparency, for the attempt hasn’t been as successful as initially imagined)

Temple Towns

Someone (a friend’s friend I guess) had written in the comments of a shared post on Google Reader about how he generally feels safe in tourist places. Locals there have an incentive to be nice to tourists, he said, since they depend upon the latter for livelihood. And so elements that would make the place unsafe for tourists would be weeded out.

While I agree with this hypothesis (in general) I realize that the same need not hold true for temple towns or other similar places where people go for religious reasons. There the locals have no incentive to be nice to tourists, pilgrims rather – the Pilgrims will come no matter what, and the place will continue to Progress.

So if you are evaluating holiday options from a safety perspective you are likely to be better of choosing the secular option.

The Silence

It was amazing, the silence that greeted us when we returned to Leh from Nubra Valley. We had heard from drivers passing the other way that there had been some sort of disaster in Leh the previous night and that a hundred people had died. There was absolutely no traffic coming from the other side, and the heavy rain didn’t help; not least those of our group who were on the bike (I had finished my turn on the bike a while earlier; more on that in another post).

The only sign of activity on the way was the Rimpoche’s procession. Stanzin Nawang Jigmed Wangchuk is 5 years old and is believed to be the reincarnation of former Ladakh MP Bakula Rimpoche  He was at Sumur monastery (in Nubra Valley) and on that day he was on his way to Leh.

The previous day, our driver had informed us to get up early so that we could go to Sumur in time to see the festivities there, in honour of the departing Rimpoche. Unfortunately, late night drinkage meant by the time we reached Sumur the procession had long passed. There was little sign of their having been any celebration by the time we got there.

Coming back, as we descended into Leh valley from Khardung La (supposed to be the highest motorable pass in the world) it looked the same. From on top of the hills, it looked pretty much the same as it did when we left for Nubra the previous day. Except for the lack of traffic in the opposite direction, nothing was different. And the crowd we saw at the Rimpoche’s procession (it was some distance off the main road) only reinforced the sense of normalcy.

Of course, we knew in our heads that things were far from normal. Having gotten back into the Airtel network we had called our families and figured what had happened. Our driver Jugnes had got a call from a relative saying the authorities had requested his village to be evacuated as it was supposed to be in a dangerous low-lying area. We had ourselves been caught in the rain and seen very few army men at Khardung La. All I’m saying is that by the look of things nothing at all looked amiss.

And then when we entered town (and got past another crowd of people waiting for the Rimpoche) it hit us. Not a soul on the streets. Not a single shop open. No one picking up as we called the travel agent’s office. Us not sure if we had a reservation at the hotel where we’d stayed two nights prior before embarking for Nubra (it turned out we did have a reservation; and the kindly hotel staff conjured up some sort of a sandwich for our lunch from whatever supplies they had). It was surreal. And scary. We thought after a couple of hours of rest we should go check out the affected areas to see what has happened. But before that could happen, we realized we ourselves weren’t out of danger.

Fools on the Hill

6th August 2010

We had returned to Leh that afternoon after spending the previous day at Nubra valley, some hundred and fifty kilometres to the north of Leh. On the way back to Leh, we had been informed by the driver of a car passing the other way that there had been a cloudburst in Leh and hundreds of people had died. There were hardly any armymen at Khardung-La; on the way to Nubra the previous day, the place had been teeming with armymen and tourists.

Everything in Leh was closed; we were told everyone had gone to help out with rescue operations. Thankfully we found we had a booking at a hotel and checked in and quickly booked a ticket on the first flight the following morning. The evening was spent playing cards and watching news on some horrible Hindi channels (the hotel didn’t have any English channels). I was on the terrace, talking to Pinky over the phone. And I saw people in the street walking down towards a nearby hill.

Soon there were more people. And even more. All of them carrying some sort of luggage, like they were running away from something. Soon the street was filled with people running towards the hill. It was as if the whole town was running towards the hill. I went in and informed the others, who checked up with the hotel staff who instructed us too to proceed to the hill.

A couple of hours earlier we had found out that our hotel building had been built of mud, like all other buildings in Leh. Leh is earthquake-prone but it hardly rains there so mud houses are the norm. Given the floods of the previous night we had already been apprehensive about spending the night at the hotel. And now when we heard stories that some canal had burst and the street where our hotel was would get flooded we panicked. Picking up our bare essential belongings (basically the “hand luggage”) we followed the town down the road and up the hill, and settled in a reasonably comfortable place there.

I must have spent some three hours on the hill. Some friends spent double the time there, apprehensive of getting back to the hotel. While I was there I got conflicting news. Some people were saying that the floods had not hit our part of Leh. Others said it was only a matter of time and the entire area would be flooded with water. At times we worried if we were high enough on the hill, at other times we contemplated descending. It was crazy.

While on the hill, frantically trying to calm myself down, I thought this was just like the global financial crisis of 2008. The problem in 2008 after Lehman crashed was that nobody trusted anybody any more (coincidence: Lehman’s ticker on NYSE was “LEH”). So if I don’t trust you I don’t trade with you. The lack of trustworthy sources of information meant that nobody knew which financial institutions were in what state of health. So everyone just assumed the worst and refused to trade. It was only after the government (some sort of credible player, essentially) stepped in (TARP, discount window, etc.) that people began trusting each other and the markets calmed down presently.

It was similar on the hill. There were no credible sources of info. Nobody knew what was happening, and given the extreme risks involved (in the worst case we could have  been washed away, either by the rain on the hill (there wasn’t any when I was up there) or by floods on the street). People would go up the hill, and down the hill. Looking at them, others would try glean information (I decided it was safe enough to descend when most of the hill emptied; wisdom of crowds fundaes). But then there was distortion throughout the system. It was like all of us were playing one big game of Chinese Whispers.

It must be mentioned here that following the previous night’s cloudburst and floods there was a sense of panic all over town (just like there was in the financial markets back in 2008) so it was easy to spread rumours. The only way to have controlled damage was to have some credible sources (like say some armymen in uniform) to come and let us know what was happening. But then there were parts of town significantly worse affected compared to us so there was no help coming our way. And we continued to panic. And play chinese whispers.

The three hours I spent on the hill are probably the scariest of my life. Even now, thinking about that gives me the jitters. I’m happy I’m here, sitting at home at my ancient teak-wood desk in front of my laptop, telling you the story.

PS: the title of this post derives its name from a Beatles song of a similar name and has no other connotations