Travelling on a budget

It is not hard to travel on a budget. There is exactly one thing you need to do – leave your credit and debit cards behind. And that’s what I did (almost) during my recently 3-day trip to Florence. I must admit first up that I cheated – that I had in my wallet my India debit card (fairly well funded). However, thanks to currency change charges and all that, I had resolved that I would use the card only in the case of emergencies. And that I would otherwise fund my trip on the cash I was carrying on me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Travelling on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean travelling cheap. All it means is that you define how much you are willing to spend during the trip, and then optimising the decisions during the trip so that your expenses are within that limit.

The way I went about my budget was some kind of a “bang bang control”. For the first two days of the trip, I simply ignored my budget and spent on merit. So each time I had to spend money I would evaluate the expense based on a general understanding of whether it was worth it. So four Euros for a gelato (in one of the touristy places) was deemed unreasonable. Three Euros for a larger gelato across the river was deemed okay and I spent. And so on.

In hindsight this is not a very valid strategy. The value of the money you have is a function of its scarcity, and the fact that I was travelling on a budget (carrying limited cash) meant that money on my was scarce (irrespective of the quantum of money that I had). From that perspective, the rational strategy to have followed was to do an initial budget of how much I would spend on what, and then evaluate each spending decision based on the opportunity cost vis-a-vis this particular budget.

So for example, I would have prepared an estimate of how I would spend each cent that I had initially carried. And then every time an expense came up (say three euros for a gelato) I would evaluate what I would have to give up on on my initial budget in order to eat the gelato. And then I would spend accordingly (FWIW, this is how airlines price cargo, at least if they follow the algo I did back when I was working in that sector in 2007). The problem there, however, is that calculations can be complex and you don’t want to be burdening yourself with that when you’re a tourist. Nevertheless, my strategy on the first couple of days (of spending on merit) was clearly wrong.

On the last day of the trip, I suddenly panicked since I now realised I probably didn’t have enough money to last the trip (I had set up “the game” such that if I had to use my debit card I would have “lost”). So I had to change strategy. First of all, I set aside money for the bus ride to the Florence airport and the taxi ride home from Barcelona airport (when there’s a wife waiting for you, you simply take the quickest means of transport available!).

Next, I looked at other mandatory expenses (I had decided to do a day trip to Siena that day so the bus far to go there was one of them; then I had to eat), and set aside money for those. And finally I was left with what I termed as “discretionary spend”, which is what I had to spend on things I had not already budgeted for.

And in order to make sure that I played within these rules, I “locked in” the moneys for the mandatory spends. I put aside thirty Euros in a separate compartment of my wallet (for the taxi fare home). I bought all the bus tickets for the day in the morning itself (Florence-Siena; Siena-Florence; Florence-Airport). And then I was left with twenty odd Euros, and this became my “discretionary spend” (my meals had to be funded from this one).

And so each expense was evaluated based on what I had in this discretionary expense budget. There were two pricing options at the Siena Cathedral (aka Duomo) – four Euros to see inside, and fifteen Euros to both see inside and climb the dome. My budgetary constraints made it a no-brainer (and I’m glad I saw the inside of the cathedral. The sheer diversity of art that hits you from all sides made it a brilliant experience). There were some chocolate shops all over the main square in Siena. Budget meant that I didn’t indulge in any of them.

Budget dictated where I ate (I was glad to bump into this really nice looking l’Aquila Trattoria and Pizzeria, and had excellent ravioli there) and drank (two Euros house wine, and not anything else). And a little left over allowed me to indulge on a second canoli for the day back when I was in Florence!

Overall it was an interesting experience. How would you do it if you were to travel on a budget?

And the trip ended with a scare. I had EUR 32.40 in my pocket when I got into the taxi at Barcelona airport. My three earlier taxi rides on that route had cost EUR 32, 31 and 27, so I couldn’t be entirely confident that I would manage it with what I had. I decided to get off early if the fare went beyond my budget, but that would be embarrassing. So I asked the wife to come down with some money, in case I needed a bailout.

As it transpired, I didn’t need the bailout. The fare was EUR 29.75.

Barcelona Harbour and Montjuic

Last evening I decided to trek up Montjuic, a hill that is in the middle of Barcelona. I remember reading a long time back (probably on my last visit here) that there was a nice hiking path up Montjuic, and decided to go, without any plan. I conveniently forgot to look up the hiking path, and instead consulted google maps on the phone.

After a while the route got boring (this was after I had passed Placa Espanya). At around the same time I had started climbing the hill, and the combination of the elevation and lack of interesting things around (there were no shops or people or anything of interest on that road) made me want to turn back. I had almost turned back when I hit a bus stop, and bus number 55 came there. And off I climbed and went.

The bus dropped me at the bottom of the Montjuic Funicular, and I thought I’ll take that. But the steep price (EUR 11 for both ways) put me off, and a helpful tourist office nearby told me that the peak was 20 minutes walk away. I did the walk in 10, only to be confronted by another queue – for tickets to go into the castle. I decided to have a look around before I went in.

Going around the castle towards the side that faced the sea, this is what I saw:

barcaport

 

And I sat there, stunned. There were other people sitting or standing in the same area, most of them couples. And most of them seemed like they were looking out at the sea as they sat there. The sea held no interest to me, however, though my object of interest had something to do with the sea. It was the Barcelona harbour!

I had never before seen a container terminal in operation, and here was one, right under where I was standing, in full flow. There were three ships docked, each of a different size. Containers had been stacked up all over the terminal, as if they were lego blocks. You had these machines that were roaming all over the place, which would pick up containers and place them elsewhere. And then you had these forklifts  stackers with orange claws which would place load and unload containers to/from ships.

Just to stand there and watch this operation was mindblowing, and I stood hence for about half an hour. I noticed some nooks in the Montjuic castle where some couples were cuddled up. These nooks gave a great view of the container terminal. So I harboured visions of cosying up in one of these nooks with the wife, watching the operations of the Barcelona container terminal, analysing the operational effectiveness of the place and the algorithms involved. But then the wife was at school, and so I moved on.

On my way back I “got lost” again, as I wandered on some hiking paths past some of the infrastructure that I understand had been built for the 1992 Olympic games. Once again I got “bailed out” by a bus stop, and a bus that dropped me at a point in town that I had been to earlier. “Problem reduced to known problem”, I exclaimed and walked home from there.

For visitors to Barcelona I would highly recommend going up Montjuic. I have no clue what the castle is like, for I didn’t go in. The hiking paths are supposed to be good but I didn’t explore much of that. Yet, it is a fantastic place to go to and watch global commerce in action, as trucks roll in and out of the container terminal, only to be divested of their containers by these machines that place them aside and then transport them on to the ships. It has to be seen to be believed!

Perpetual giving up is the truth of life

That’s my biggest takeaway from my trip to Calcutta, which is where I’m writing this blog post, sitting in back of a car. On my way back to the airport having delivered a lecture on “the role of data and scientific temper in democracy” at the “management centre for human values” at IIM Calcutta.

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Talk went off okay. I’d assumed an audience of mostly MBA students but turned out there were mostly professors and grad students. It’s possible that my lecture was a bit too laddoo.

This was my second time in the city, and I was here after a gap of nine years. Both trips were rushed. Both trips were to IIM. In fact on both trips my point of business was the same hall!

This time I was put up at the campus guest house. It’s a rather ancient building but well maintained. The staff were also extremely nice – like for example when I got there at 10pm last night they had saved dinner for me though the dining hall had closed. And this morning I was woken up by the loud ringing of my room doorbell and presented with a flask of easily the best tea I’ve had in a very very long time.

The city is a bit surreal though. Both on my way to IIM last night and on my way back to the airport today the roads have been funny. You travel on wide roads for a while and then it suddenly gets narrow. The next moment the driver has sneaked into some tiny residential gully!! And at times the road is extremely wide. So wide that the shops are all very far away.

On my way back to the airport now I realised that it helps knowing people from the city you’re visiting. I messaged Manasi asking for places I can get good sweets. She called and spoke to the driver and he takes me to this little sweet shop near the rather hilariously named “mahanayak Uttam kumar” metro station. There was no pace to park so I hurriedly gorged down radhaballabi, jaggery chum chum and jaggery Sandesh. All very good stuff.

I need to make another trip to this city sometime. If only for the sweets and snacks and tea! And for perpetually giving up in life.

Segmenting leisure hotels

The original idea for this pertinent observation comes from the wife. However, since she’s on an extended vacation and hence unlikely to blog this soon, I’m blogging it.

Hotels are traditionally classified into “business” and “leisure” hotels. As the names suggest, the former mostly cater to business travellers and the latter to vacationers. The lines can be a little blur, though, since business and leisure travels have complementary seasonality, thanks to which hotels practice “revenue management” by using their capacity for both business and leisure.

However, as we discovered during our vacation last week, leisure hotels can be further segmented into “couple hotels” and “family hotels”. Let me explain using the example of Vythiri Village Spa Resort where we spent most of last week. Based on our reading of the hotel, it was initially built to be a “couple hotel” but perhaps based on the kind of clientele they were getting, they turned it into a “family hotel”.

Now, the difference between couple hotels and family hotels essentially has to do with how child-friendly the place is. Vythiri, for example, had a “kids play area”, the balconies had been shuttered up with windows (creating greenhouses inside the balconies which made them horrible to hang out it, but making them safer for kids),  had a pantry area (the balcony had been converted into a pantry – so people wiht babies could bring their electric cookers and cook!) and activities such as “guided nature walks” and “artificial waterfalls”. Even at its deepest the swimming pool was not more than three feet deep (no I didn’t test it).

The reason I say that the hotel was built for couples is to do with the large bathroom which also included the walk-in closet. Given that you might want to multiplex between one person showering and another dressing at the same time, this design made it obvious that it only works for couples, but not for people with kids – most parents are shy about letting their kids see them in various stages of undress.

Then this resort advertised itself as a “spa resort”, and a massage was included in our package. This is again a “couple thing” for people with kids are unlikely to be able to take time off from their kids to visit the spa! So everything about this resort told you that it had been designed for couples, but then changed its positioning to become a “family resort”!

I guess you get the drift. And so whenever the manager would accost us and ask if things were good, the wife would quickly nod him a “yes”, and then privately tell me that we were the wrong target segment for the hotel, and so our feedback didn’t really matter to him!

And so we stayed there, for three nights and a bit, looking at screaming kids every time we hit the restaurant (the buffet spreads were nice, so we didn’t order room service); looking in bemusement at people “going on nature walks”, ignoring the “entertainment” at the “gala Christmas dinner” and so forth.

We had a good time, though, eating, sleeping, talking, hanging about – mostly within the confines of the room. The service was great, the staff extremely friendly and pleasant. Only that we were the wrong target segment for the hotel, and we didn’t realise that while booking!

PS: I tried looking for a “marketing” category to put this post under but realised that none such exists. Goes to show what I’ve not been blogging about!

A mistimed trip to Ayutthaya

This day (5th December) last year I went to Ayutthaya, near Bangkok in Thailand. It wasn’t meant to be that way. When we booked a vacation in Bangkok between the 4th and 8th of December, the assumption was that we would go to Ayutthaya, the “Ayodhya of Thailand” on the 6th of December. And for sheer troll value, I would pose in front of one of the temples there giving the RSS salute and upload it on social media. Just for kicks.

But then it didn’t happen that way. On the 5th of December last year, we reached the “victory monument” in Bangkok from where private minibuses are available to nearby locations. Our plan for the day was to go to Kanchanaburi, where we could see the Bridge on the River Kwai and the related museum. But then we reached the Victory Monument at a time when the previous bus to Kanchanaburi had just left and the next one wouldn’t leave for another 45 minutes. The bus to Ayutthaya was going to leave in another 10 minutes and we gladly hopped on!

We got dropped off somewhere in the middle of Ayutthaya town and we seemed to be the only tourists on the minibus. There wasn’t much of a choice for us in terms of tuk-tuks to take us sightseeing, and we tried to strike a bargain with the one tuk-tuk that was there where the bus dropped us. I remember it being a particularly hot day (it was December but Bangkok is close to the tropics). The tuk-tuk driver knew no English. Instead he had a laminated sheet of A4 paper on which pictures of monuments had been printed. He pointed us to some three or four of these and said he would take us there. We settled at THB 150 per hour (if I’m not wrong).

And you read that right – we engaged the tuk-tuk by the hour. In a place like Ayutthaya, where there is little traffic, roads are good and you can go as fast as the tuk-tuk takes you; and where the monuments are all located close enough to each other that distance is not too much, the biggest cost for the driver of the tuk-tuk is his time. Thus, hourly engagement means that tourists are likely to hurry up and not take too much time in seeing the monuments. And this results in faster “turnover” for the driver and he can hope to take around more batches of tourists each day. And considering that he spoke no English, there was little “guide role” that he could play.

As we got on to the back of the tuk-tuk, we saw a woman and baby climb into the front with the driver – he was bringing along his entire family to take us around! So at each monument we would get off and take a look around and they would just hang around the tuk-tuk. As soon as we returned, the three of them would squeeze into the front of the tuktuk and we would get into the back (this tuktuk was like a Piaggio Ape), and off we would go! Each time we reached a monument, the driver’s wife would hold up that printed sheet of A4 paper and point us to a picture which corresponded to the monument!

The monuments were themselves nothing too special to write about – especially since we had spent the earlier three days at Siem Reap. But the overall process itself was interesting. Some monuments were really crowded, though, for it was also King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)’s birthday, and people had got together in all places that seemed marginally religious to celebrate his birthday. Monuments attached to such places were crowded. Others had no people at all.

I remember spending three hours seeing all of Ayutthaya thus. We then went to a restaurant close to the bus stand. I remember the football fan in me facing a dilemma as to what beer to drink. Obviously there was no Carlsberg available there, and Chang was out thanks to it being Everton’s sponsor. I settled for the other Thai beer Singha. It was only later I was to find that Singha was Chelsea’s official beer!

Later that evening we went out for dinner and got caught in a monumental traffic jam thanks to the King’s birthday celebrations. We got off the tuk-tuk and started walking, using the maps on my dying phone to find out the directions. My sense of direction held good, but sense of sight didn’t as I hit myself quite badly against a parked car, badly injuring my shin as I later found out. And later in the night we had trouble finding transport back to the hotel. Now that Uber has started operations in Bangkok, next time it shouldn’t be as hard!

Rossetta Stoning Catalan Names

On my penultimate day in Barcelona, I finally figured out how to identify Catalan names, and the equivalents of popular Catalan names in other languages. I did this by a process that I describe as “Rossetta Stoning”.

As you might already know by now, the way James Prinsep deciphered the hieroglyphic script was finding this stone inscription (now known as the “Rossetta Stone”) which had essentially the same text in both hieroglyphic ancient greek (the latter language was known and understood). By comparing the two texts, Prinsep could develop a one-to-one mapping between them and thus decipher the unknown text.

In Barcelona I lived close to “Avinguda de Josep Taradellas”. Now, it is well known that the Spanish form of “Joseph” is “Jose”, so where did Josep come from? Sid Lowe’s book, which I partly read on my way to Barcelona and finished in Barcelona, mentioned that Taradellas was a Catalan politician who got exiled during and after the Spanish Civil War. Lowe talks about Taradellas’s return in 1976, and compared it with Pep Guardiola holding the European Cup at the same venue as Taradellas’s “return rally” (Placa Sant Jaume) a couple of decades later. So that established that Josep is likely to be the Catalan version of Joseph (Pep Guardiola’s real first name is also Josep). But more mapping was needed.

What was this “Pau” that I saw in several names in Barcelona? And was “Joan” definitely Catalan? All these questions were answered when I visited the Barcelona Cathedral, dedicated to the virgin Saint Eulalia, in the middle of the Gotico district of Barcelona. It is an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking cathedral, built in French Gothic style, and done up really well on the inside. And it is free to enter, as long as you don’t go around a service time (in which case you can’t enter at all).

The Barcelona Cathedral reminded me of Hindu temples, where there is the main deity in the middle of the temple, and then you have a number of “subordinate deities” and statues of other gods and goddesses arranged all round the temple. You are supposed to go around it clockwise, paying your respects to all these “peripheral” (in a physical sense) deities before you come round to worship the main deity in the middle.

The Barcelona Cathedral is somewhat similar – there is the crucifix in the middle (below which is the crypt of St. Eulalia) and then there are statues and paintings of various Christian Saints all round. Some of the paintings are really well done, and well preserved. It was a treat going around the Cathedral (I did it clockwise, like you are supposed to do in Hindu temples, though I found several people doing it anti-clockwise – maybe because they drive on the right side of the road in Barcelona). And accompanying each little “garbhagudi” (can’t find a better word  to describe those) was a little sign board indicating the saint whose pictures or statues were there.

And this was the Rossetta Stone that I was looking for, to map Catalan names to Spanish names. All boards were in both Catalan and Spanish, and some were in English, too. This allowed one to build a complete one-to-one mapping of the names.

And so I found that:

  • Josep = Jose = Joseph
  • Pau = Pablo = Paul
  • Pere = Pedro = Peter
  • Joan = Juan = John

And of course, Jordi = Jorge = George.

(in Catalan, btw, J is pronounced as J, and not as H like it is in Spanish).

I know it is a roundabout way to figure out some basic aspects of a country’s culture, but this is only a trivial instance I’m quoting here. Three and a half years back, touring Greece, I managed to learn to read Greek signboards by “Rossetta Stoning” them with comparable English signboards (it helped, of course, that I was familiar with the Greek alphabet thanks to their extensive use in mathematics).

And so I found out that “tau” is used for the hard T sound (as in Tank) while “theta” is used for the “tHa” (as in Thomas, or ratHa) sound (there are no other related t sounds, so Karthik can’t be written accurately in Greek). I also found out that Eta (H) is used to represent the long i sound (as in cheese) while iota (I) is used to represent the short i sound. And so forth.

But there is one constraint to this process – you need to know the script. It helped immensely that both Spanish and Catalan are written in Roman, and that the Greek script is quite popular. When I went to Thailand or Sri Lanka, for example, I didn’t figure out anything at all from their scripts. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough!

What a vegetarian missed out on

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This is the menu card that I was given on my flight from Paris to Bangalore on Thursday. Lets look at what all a vegetarian would have missed out on:

1. Mashed potatoes with vegetables
2. Camembert cheese
3. Pineapple
4. Chocolate Tartlet

I ate all of the above and can attest that they were all most excellent – even if I were to judge them by standards not normally applied to airline food.

But someone who asked got a vegetarian platter (or had a vegetarian meal pre-booked) would have had none of the above. They would’ve instead had to make do with a sealed cup of yogurt, and a saffron semolina cake with almonds. Sounds rather sad, even if it were part of a special menu created by the oberoi group.

The problem is that the number of travelers who are vegetarian and foodies is quite small – so small that it makes no sense for the airline to career specifically to them.

Serving food on board is expensive business for airlines, and the less the number of choices they offer the better it is for them in terms of slack they have to build into their system. Hence they offer only what they believe are popular choices and hope that people’s preferences are within one of the choices they offer.

There are special meals on offer though for people with special dietary requirements but they are on offer only for those who have specifically pre booked them – this restriction means airlines don’t need to carry slack on this count. But for everyone else it’s a choice between one of the main meals on offer, and for vegetarians who like to eat well it’s a rather sad choice.

If I were offered this menu three years back when I was still vegetarian there’s a high probability I would have asked for the French cuisine. And eaten everything but for the chicken (and perhaps the mashed potatoes since they came in the same container as the chicken).

Or better I might have tried to negotiate with the airline staff to give me everything from the French menu but for the hot stuff – which would come from the vegetarian option. Given its air France I don’t know if I would’ve succeeded but would’ve tried.

I remember this fight in 2011 on Aegean airways from Rome to Athens when we had pre booked vegetarian meals and were given sad looking fruit bowls in lieu of pastries. We has asked the staff if they could give us pastries instead of our fruit. And they ended up giving us both! But then not all airline staff are so empowered!

It’s not easy being a minority, on whatever axis. Markets are too illiquid to cater to you.