Boxer’s fist

That’s the “disease” that I’ve been diagnosed with, following my rendezvous with a cow last Saturday. Before you begin to get ideas, let me explain. On day six of the Royal Enfield Tour of Rajasthan, I was speeding at about 70-80 kmph on a Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana road between Devikot and Shetrawa in Western Rajasthan on my Royal Enfield Classic 500. I was day-dreaming I think, but when I “woke up”, I realized there was a huge herd of cows ahead on the road. I panicked, and instead of applying the brakes, revved up and tried going around the herd. Unfortunately for me, one of the cows too decided to strafe to the right. I had no choice but to hit her.

The next thing I know, my shoulder has already hit the ground and my helmet is hitting the ground. My camera that was around my neck has been thrown off, and the part that connects the camera to the lens has been broken. I’m dazed, my bike is flat on the ground with petrol oozing out of the tank and I can see major scratch marks on my visor. And my right little finger and left thumb hurt. Manju, who has just overtaken the herd, sees my fall in the rearview mirror and comes to my aid. The Shimoga boys soon materialize and pull up my bike. Then, the Enfield support team arrives and puts both me and my bike back on track in 20 minutes. My hand still hurts, though.

An X-ray the following day reveals a fracture in my fifth metacarpal. The resident at MG Hospital in Jodhpur (a Sarkari institution) wants to put a cast, but I want to ride on and finish the tour and I resist. Anti-inflammatory drugs, a crepe bandage and a promise to get a cast as soon as I return to Bangalore form a compromise solution. I take off the bandage every morning to put on my riding gloves, and ride on. With a minor adjustment in riding style, I completely forget the injury. I get back “into form”, ride the way I used to in the first half of the tour, have another (less serious) accident, complete the trip, go to Indore for Gandhi’s wedding and return to Bangalore.

I go to see my uncle who is an orthopedic surgeon. Taking a look at the X-ray, he asks me if I’ve been punching walls while drunk. I’m suffering from a “boxer’s fist“, he says, and adds that there is little that can be done to “cure” it. My hand will heal on its own in a month, but when it does, my fourth knuckle would have disappeared, he says. “Then you will go to a pub, and hold a mug of beer, and people around you will see that you don’t have a fourth knuckle. And they will assume that on some drunken night you were punching walls, and have thus ended up with a boxer’s fist. Then, you can tell them that you injured yourself thus when you had a riding accident with a cow”.

The injury was due to impact. Because I panicked when I saw that cows, I held on to the bike’s handlebars too tight, and when I hit the cow, the handlebar jammed against the side of my hand, thus breaking my fifth metacarpal. Protective riding gear meant that the actual fall itself left me unscathed despite my head hitting the ground. My helmet needed a new visor (who would’ve thunk that the extra visor I carried in my luggage would come useful?), my riding jacket has been torn at the shoulder and the protective padding on the back of the hand of my riding gloves has been badly dented. When my bike arrives in Bangalore, it’ll be sent to “hospital” to cure a few dents. It still runs well, though.

Metro Notes

One of the advantages of being jobless is that though you’re poor in terms of money, you’re rich in time. So you have all the time you want to do things that give you random kicks, such as riding the new Bangalore metro on the second day of operation. The reason I chose to go today was that I had to anyway go to the MG Road area on some work, but also that the second day is a good time to see things early, while not getting caught in a mad rush.  My decision to go today was reinforced by a report in today’s paper that while there was much clamouring to get on to the first train yesterday, the second train was half-empty.

The supposedly showpiece MG Road station is not yet complete. You still can’t get to the station from the Plaza theater side, which is the “logical” side to get in if you’ve come to MG Road for shopping or generally hanging out, or even if your office is there. You need to cross over to the parade ground side at the Cauvery signal and then make your way through some narrow barricades before you get to the entrance. You get frisked at the entrance (this might end up being a bottleneck) after which you get to buy tickets. There was a queue of about 10 people when I got there.

There is still scope for the ticket staff to become more efficient, and for people to learn to carry exact change (especially given that you have tickets for Rs. 12, Rs. 14, etc). However, I would imagine that in the long term, most people would end up using a travel card, so the pressure on the counters may actually decrease. One disappointing thing was that they didn’t sell return tickets. I would have to stand in queue again at Indiranagar.

You have escalators only for going up, and you have to take the stairs when you exit the station. I don’t know if this is a method to cut costs or lead-time, but it would be a letdown if you had to take the stairs down each time, especially since the stairs were a major bottleneck in exiting the station when I disembarked from MG Road on the return journey. Another bottleneck while exiting at MG Road was the turnstiles. On your way in, the ticket booths are the bottlenecks so the turnstiles are free. Not so on the way out. However, I don’t see much scope for putting more turnstiles there so I don’t know how the metro will cope with increased demand.

The train is quite small (3 bogies long) but I’m told it’ll be increased to 6 soon. Maybe the train wasn’t as full as expected but I found the temperature in the train too cold on the way to Indiranagar (it was ok on the return journey when the train was full).  The indiranagar station was incredibly convenient and not crowded at all. Entry, exit, ticket purchase and turnstiles were all extremely smooth, and the view from the station platform is stunning, especially towards the ulsoor side. Speaking of views from trains, the metro has now given scope for a new set of hoardings for the city. These hoardings can be put up at the “metro level” along the metro line. I’d be surprised if no businessman were to take this opportunity.

The train itself doesn’t move too fast, especially since there are so many curves on the route. On the straight MG Road stretch, however, the train moves well at a faster rate. The announcements on the train still need some work. The grammar of the Kannada announcements is atrocious, and the funniest bit is when they try and explain “mind the gap” in Kannada and Hindi. The hindi announcements also carry a very strong Kannadiga accent.

There are some other measures that the metro corporation has taken in order to get people acquainted with the metro. There is usually an officer standing at the turnstiles who tells you how you should swipe (on entry) or deposit (on exit) your token. Then, there are security guards at the platform itself who make sure passengers are standing back when the trains arrive, and that they are not blocking the doors when it’s closing.

The journey from MG Road to Indiranagar was extremely quick and painless. I believe that the metro has already demonstrated its ability in making the city smaller, and I can now only hope that the full stretch of the metro (including the underground stretch at Majestic) gets completed fast. I can’t wait for the day when I take a short walk to the Jayanagar metro station and do two quick journeys to reach MG Road or Indirangar easily, safely and painlessly.

Travel agents and investment bankers

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that travel agents perform a very similar role to investment bankers. In the olden days, not everyone had access to financial markets. In order to buy or sell stocks, one had to go through a brokerage company, who would be paid a hefty commission for his services. The markets weren’t that liquid, and they were definitely not transparent, so the brokers would make a killing on the spread. With the passage of time, advent of electronic trading and transparency in the markets brokers aren’t able to make the same spreads that they used to. Customers know the exact market price for the instruments they are trading, and this results in brokers not able to make too much out of these trades.

It is a similar case with travel agents. Vacation markets (flights, hotels, etc.) are nowhere as liquid as financial markets, and will never be. Sometimes, when you are booking holidays to a strange place, you know little about it, and hence commission a travel agent to find you a place to stay there. Given that you know little about that place, the agent can charge you hefty commissions, and make a nice spread. Of course, nowadays such opportunities are diminishing for agents, as you have websites such as Agoda which allow you to book hotels directly. Now, at one place you can compare the prices of different hotels, and have better information compared to what the agents traditionally offer you. The spread is on the downswing, I must think.

Then, don’t you think package tours are very similar to structured products? Structured products are nothing but a package of several risks packaged together. By acting as a counterparty on a structured product, a bank (even now ) can afford to charge fairly hefty fees. Structured products are illiquid,  and there is no publicly available “market price”, so it is easy for banks to make themselves good spreads on such products. However, all it takes to defeat this is an intelligent customer. All the customer needs to do is to try and understand the risks himself, and start “unbundling” them. Once he unbundles the risks, he can now trade each of them independently, on more liquid markets, and get a much better price than what bankers will offer him. The catch here is that he’ll need to put in that effort in unbundling.

It’s the same with package tours. Given the bundles, it is easy for the agents to make higher spreads. However, if you as a customer simply unbundle the package (hotels, transport, food, etc.), you can find out the price of each (available on sites like agoda and elsewhere) and find out for yourself the spread that the agent is making. And then you compare the agent’s premium with the “cost” of making all the bookings yourself and make an informed choice.

Apart from communication, among the greatest boons of the internet has to do with dismantling middleman monopolies. It is incredible how much use a little information can be of!

The “Per Person” catch

Every time a travel agent sends you an itinerary for a tour package, look for the units of the cost. Usually it’s quoted in US Dollars per person. The funny thing is that this is how it is quoted even when it is just an accommodation package where two or three of you are going to share a room.

I wonder if this is a way to encourage more spending, since the customer perceives the total cost to be a much smaller number when he sees “per person” than when he sees an all-inclusive number.

Like for a forthcoming trip, the travel agent sends me an email saying “the hotel will send a taxi to pick you up at the airport at a cost of EUR 50 per person”!!

On a similar note, I realize travel agents love to bundle. When costs across several hotels and trains and taxis are bundled together and presented to you as an aggregate (“per person”, again), it is easy for them to pass on overheads to you without you figuring out where exactly that overhead went.

There have been times in the past when I’ve received packages from travel agents, then tried to purchase each component of that package online, and found that the total cost of buying the parts separately is approximately half the bundled cost that travel agents impose!

Agoda + TripAdvisor

Ok here’s a startup idea. Basically a combination of Agoda and Tripadvisor (basically a front-end combining those two backends). I’m looking to book a hotel for a forthcoming holiday. So what I’ve been doing is to search through agoda for hotels available for those days and within my price range, and one by one searching for them on tripadvisor to see their ratings and comments and all that.

Now, the deal is this: Agoda is an excellent and reliable booking engine. However, it’s tripadvisor that has the reviews that I’d trust but it neither does bookings nor has details of availability or lowest price available. Hence I’ve to keep the two windows open which is quite frustrating and time-consuming.

For someone who’s experienced in developing web apps this is quite simple I think (since I have no experience or interest in this I’m just giving the idea away). A front end that queries agoda for available hotels and tripadvisor for ratings of these hotels and then presents both together in a nice frontend. The actual booking can be done through agoda itself (to where there can be a link).

As for revenue, I’m sure hotels will advertise on this site. Problem, though is to get the tripadvisor reviews in a way that can be extracted to this third-party website without actually going to tripadvisor. But why would tripadvisor allow this since the reviews are their intellectual property and the basis on which they make their money? But well worth a try, I think!

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