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!

Metric

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This picture was taken at a restaurant called metric, where we went for dinner tonight. It’s located on the diagonal, an arterial road in Barcelona.

So we were walking, trying to find a place to have dinner. Pinky had a few options in her head but wouldn’t tell me. We passed a number of restaurants, all of which looked decent but not particularly spectacular, and I would wonder if she would take me into one of those. She didn’t.

And then we passed in front of metric. Even before she had indicated that this was part of her shortlist, i was walking inside. I couldn’t do much more though, since I don’t speak the language here

Some restaurants beckon to you just by the way they look. This one was brightly lit, done up in quirky furniture (we sat at an ordinary table but there were others where you has swings instead of chairs!!), with a great looking bar and the place was full. I didn’t care what kind of food they served, all the Tyler Cowen-esque economic reasoning I’ve been invoking before every single meal on this trip went out of the window, and I just walked in.

When traveling abroad, especially when in a country where they don’t normally speak English, it really helps to have someone around who speaks the local language and who can help you get around. Most times when I’ve been out by myself, apart from the time when I’ve been around touristy areas , I’ve been rather lost. I have no clue of Spanish, except for the odd word, and I’ve struggled.

I once had to go to the post office and get my mobile sim registered ( someone told me that was the procedure). I get there, approach the counter gingerly and before I know the lady assumes I’m there to receive a package from lycamobile!! After a few more minutes of futile attempt at conversation I moved on, defeated.

Given how awful I am at getting languages – I’m usually not bad with words but can never get grammar (and even today get confused between Telugu and Tamil because I learnt to understand the two languages simultaneously) – it’s a marvel how Pinky has picked up enough Spanish to get around, and even get complimented (by the waitress at metric) as to how good her Spanish is. She negotiated with the waitress about the menu, got the drinks menu “orally delivered” and translated it to enable me to make my choice (the passion fruit mojito was wonderful, btw) and even carried out some gossip with the waitress, as I looked on clueless, wondering how one can even learn a new language (I haven’t learnt one fluently ever since I was three).

Coming back to the restaurant, there’s something about places that have a very limited menu. It is generally an indicator that there are a few things they are good at, and that they like to stick to their area of core competency rather than experimenting around. A limited menu also means easier inventory management and the restaurant is likely to have fresh ingredients. While a large menu night be useful in terms of offering variety it more often than not comes at the cost is quality and reliability.

What you see in the front of the picture above us my burger. That’s how it arrived, and delicious though it was, I had no clue as to how to eat it. The lack of a covering bun meant I couldn’t pick it up and bite it. The side of bread at the bottom meant I couldn’t cut it with my knife! After a few minutes of fumbling (which included dropping a part of the patty on my jeans), I gave up and just separated the patty from the bread, eating the former with knife and fork and latter with my hands! It’s anyway not like I’m the types who cares what people think about me!!

Though I can’t rule out a stray thought in Pinky’s head on how she’s getting herself an international MBA and learning Spanish and becoming pseud and I’m still the same guy living in Bangalore!!

Tail piece: these Europeans take the metric system when beyond where Indians use. Nutritional information on food packages is in kilo joules, for example!!

Simple arbitrages

Yesterday I visited the Sagrada Familia, the still work-in-progress grand basilica in Barcelona. As I got off the metro station, I saw a long line, perhaps longer than Hanuman’s tail at its longest. It was wrapped all round the massive basilica, on two sides. And to consider that it was a weekday morning at a time of year that is not peak tourist season!

Undeterred, I walked on. Walked on beyond the back of the line and round the other side of the basilica. There was a much smaller line here. This was for people who had already booked their tickets – online or elsewhere. I stood at this line for two minutes and then decided to check at the gate. There were multiple gates and this line (the shorter one I stood at briefly) led into only one of them. There was hardly a line at any other gate. I showed my ticket on my mobile at one such gate and was let in!

A few pertinent observations:

  • It is fairly well known that lines at the Sagrada Familia can be really long and every online forum recommends you to book tickets online. Why, then, do so many people still turn up there to just stand in line for tickets? I thought a lot of people read online fora nowadays!
  • The whole myth of their being no shortest line at supermarkets? It is a myth only at supermarkets where most shoppers are regular customers and know how many counters there are and what the queue structure of each is. When you go to visit the Sagrada Familia, which unless you are extremely religious or interested in architecture you will do only once in your lifetime, you don’t know how many counters there are for entry. So you just take your place in whatever line you find first. And that leads to queues of unequal length!
  • I’m surprised at the number of people who had printed out their tickets. I was among the few who showed it on my phone and faced no problems whatsoever – my ticket had a QR code and the reader just read it off my phone! It was a similar experience at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last week.

    As a tourist, printing is not an easy job – you will need to find places where you can get printouts and they usually charge exorbitant rates. Yet, I see so many other tourists actually printing out their tickets!

  • My ticket was for entry between 9:15 and 9:30 (the Sagrada Familia asks you to intimate when you’re going to land up, so that they can distribute the crowd). I landed at 9:05 and was let in without any eyebrows raised. I’m happy it wasn’t 100% rule based
  • I took one of the lifts up one of the towers of the basilica, an experience which I think is overrated. I had to deposit my bag in a locker as I went up. It was funny that I had to drop a 20 cent (or 1 Euro) coin into the lock of the locker to complete the circuit and be allowed to lock! I picked up my 20 cent coin later on when I retrieved my bag. I have no clue what the intended use of this money dropping is!

Overall it was a very satisfying visit. I’ve written another essay on it which I hope to publish elsewhere. Will let you know when I do.