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.

The legendary Charles de Gaulle

After I’d booked my ticket on air France for my trip to Amsterdam and Barcelona people warned me a about switching flights at Paris Charles de Gaulle, notorious for its complicated Connections and missed flights.

When I flew to Amsterdam two weeks back I was wondering what the fuss was all about – i got off the plane, ground staff told me where I should go, there were no lines at either security or passport control and I had reached my onward boarding gate well in time and with zero hassles.

On my return journey today though, things weren’t so smooth. To cut any suspense I made the flight – I’m writing this sitting inside the plane. But it wasa rather complicated journey that got me here.

The earlier flight landed at nine and they made announcements for passengers connecting on 10am flights so I assumed I was very well in time for my 1040 flight. And with that in mind I didn’t particularly hurry up, though I didn’t particularly delay things also. And then I realized things weren’t going to be as comfortable as I thought.

The passport control was extra long – the longest I’ve seen in a European airport (total of four data points). Took at least 20 minutes. Past that I thought I’ll find my gate – but then I dead end where I was told I had to take a bus to go from the L wing of terminal 2E to the M wing of the same terminal! The bus ran once every ten minutes or so.

Anyway I got my bus rather quickly but it was full – almost over packed! It got me to my terminal in about ten minutes which weren’t particularly pleasant! I was there by around 9:45.

After a quick visit to the restroom and some breakfast (the food on the morning flight was hardly sufficient so I grabbed a croissant and hot chocolate at the airport) I got to my gate only to see boarding was already almost complete!!

I guess I was among the last passengers to board! The good thing though is that the flight is largely empty (the only other time I’ve seen an international flight so empty was a dragon air from Hong Kong to Bangalore in 2010) and the seat next to me is empty!

I hope to have a peaceful flight (have got Neal Stephenson’s the baroque cycle for entertainment) and I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon!!

Language

For millions of years
Mankind lived
Just like the animals

And then something happened
That unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

(from Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking from Division Bell)

And then we moved to a place where no one speaks any of the languages you speak. And we became animals again.

This trip to Barcelona is the first time I’ve spent a reasonable length of time I’ve spent in a place where no one speaks any of the languages that I speak. And I’ve been literally feeling like an animal again, absolutely incapable of communicating, pointing at things and using sign language. It seems like my experience here has been significantly diminished given my inability to speak any of the languages spoken here.

I learnt to talk Kannada when I was perhaps one, or max two. I learnt English in a year or two after that. And then my language learning stopped. I had Hindi as my second language in school, and somehow struggled through it despite scoring 90 out of 100 in my board exam (shows how pointless board exams are). I can understand Hindi, and watch Hindi movies, but I still can’t speak fluently. When I have to speak Hindi, I construct a sentence in Kannada and then translate it. And I speak it with a heavy Kannada accent, much to the mirth of people around.

I have a Bihari cook in Bangalore. He claims to know Kannada  but I’ve never tried testing that. And I try speaking to him in Hindi. It is almost like we use sign language. I point to a set of ingredients and tell him the name of what I want to eat. He cooks, and buzzes off. At least talking face to face is fine. There are occasions when I have to call him and give him instructions (“come early tomorrow” or “come late today” or “don’t come today” or some such). It is a nightmare.

It’s not like I’m absolutely bad at languages – I can pick up words  quite easily. Thanks to football watching I’ve learnt a fair bit of European history and geography and culture, and through the process I’ve learnt a fair number of words (they’re of the kind of trequartistaregistatornante, etc but European words nevertheless). I know words in several languages. Just that I have this inability to learn grammar, or how words are put together to form sentences and communicate thoughts (except of course in English and Kannada).

Fourteen years back I went to IIT Madras, and half the people in my class were Gult. That meant I had the opportunity to pick up a fair bit of both Telugu and Tamil. I did neither. I can understand both languages a fair bit, but my understanding of the languages can be described as “assembly language”. I know words and what they mean. I listen for such keywords in what people are saying and interpret based on that. And when I speak these languages, it is based on keywords – I just say out the noun and the root form of the verb and expect the other person to interpret. I’ve never managed to get beyond this!

So there are these bakeries near where I live which might have already marked me off as a weird animal who just walks in and out o them. I go in, survey what they have and if something looks interesting point to that. They pack it for me, and then tell a number. I ask for the bill – so that I can read the number, or just give them a large enough note and trust them to return me the exact change. When nothing looks interesting to me in the display I can’t talk and ask them for what I want. I just look around (perhaps like a bakery dog) and just walk away. I don’t know how to say “Sorry I don’t know what I want”, or “Thank you, but I don’t find anything interesting here”. And I’ve been visiting some of these places multiple times, doing the same thing!

The level of discourse we are reduced to when we are unable to communicate is rather remarkable! It’s like we can simply not unleash the power of imagination, it is like going back to living like animals. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to remedy it – I simply can’t pick up new languages!