Ramzan walking in Jakarta

Ever since I stopped being vegetarian in 2011, I’ve started indulging in the so-called “Ramzan walks”. The concept is as it states – basically a bunch of you go to this Muslim dominated area where special stalls are set up so that people breaking the fast can indulge. Food at such stalls is generally of a very high quality, so you have a large number of non-fasters, which includes a large number of non-Muslims also indulging.

20150624070956

I somehow missed going on one such last year, but have done so in 2011 and 2012 (in Bangalore, in Frazer Town) and 2013 in Mumbai (Mohammed Ali Road), and generally enjoyed them.

And this time was going to be different, and special, since this is the first time ever I’m in a Muslim-majority country during Ramzan. Though I’m basically stuck in this hotel with access to little else but two adjacent malls, I got lucky in that one of these two malls decided to have a food festival to celebrate Ramzan. I wasn’t able to go the last two days since I was meeting people for dinner (one of the said dinner counterparties was vegetarian and the other(s) demanded a more formal setting), but made amends today.

So the open courtyard of this mall called La Piazza (in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta) has a large number of stalls set up. You have these cash counters where you pay up and get a prepaid smart card. Once this is obtained you can walk up to any counter and buy food from there upon swiping the said card. An excellent and efficient system to ensure fast processing, keep track of revenues (from the point of view of the organisers) and offer a hassle-free experience for customers.

The big challenge, of course, was the lack of knowledge of the language. While Bahasa uses the Roman script (because of which you are able to “read” stuff), almost no one here speaks any English, so trying to figure out what was what, and what to eat was a huge challenge.

We started with the safe option of the Chicken Satay (I had figured out through Rosetta stoning over the last few days that Ayam is Chicken), which is something we were already aware of. It was absolutely excellent. Next we decided to get a “rice item”. I saw someone at the adjacent table eating something and decided to hunt for that specific thing. I finally found it – “Nasi Bebek Madura” (Nasi is rice; Bebek is duck and Madura is an island off Java). It was extremely spicy but the leftover Satay sauce tempered matters.

We followed this up with a meat-based “kaDubu” equivalent, which was excellent once again, and rounded things off with a local dessert (a lot of random things poured over crushed ice), which was quite nice, too.

This food festival goes on for another week, so if you’re going to be near Kelapa Gading, you should surely attend. The organisation is top-notch. I already mentioned about the simplified payment dynamics. Apart from this, sufficient tables have been set up (both sitting and standing types) all over the place, and there are people cleaning the tables and floors at regular intervals. The variety in food is astounding and just the atmosphere itself is something worth taking in!

20150624070956-2

Now I’m jealous of the wife since she has an opportunity to continue experiencing this for a few days more!

Jakarta: General Notes

I’ve been in Jakarta for about two days now (not counting the weekend trip to Yogyakarta) and I’m not particularly impressed. My main problem with the city is that it is not walkable – roads are so wide and traffic so fast-moving that they are impossible to cross; there are absolutely no pavements to walk on (forcing you to take shelter from parked cars while walking) and there are no zebra crossings at all in some places!

A side effect of this unwalkable-ness is that it is impossible for you to explore – I haven’t seen any bus stops or buses nearby, too. So if I’ve to go somewhere it has to be by taxi, and with a purpose. This has led to my not going out anywhere at all, save for two malls that are close to my hotel and which can be reached without crossing any major roads (though you need to walk through a shady-looking alley to get there).

In some ways this city is like Gurgaon on steroids – massive roads, massive malls, massive traffic jams and massive freeways. To its credit the city is quite clean (much cleaner than any Indian city I’ve been to) and there is a functioning and efficient taxi system, so you can get around if there’s someplace you want to get around to.

But if you just want to spend some time here, “take in the city”, have a look around and so on, it is surely not the place.

The other day the wife and I were having a conversation on where we want to live, and one thing we agreed upon is that we want to live in a place where the commute doesn’t drive your life. Of course, rather ironically, the only time that has been true for me was in Gurgaon in 2008-09, when I had a commute which took less than 20 minutes at any point of time, because of which I didn’t have to base my schedule on when traffic would be smooth. A later visit to Gurgaon has shown that this is not true of Gurgaon any more (the same 20 minute commute from 2009 took 40 minutes on a rather empty Saturday morning in 2014).

I think I’m too much of a sucker for walking and public transport to be able to survive in a place like Jakarta.

Where Uncertainty is the killer: Jakarta Traffic Edition

So I’m currently in Jakarta. I got here on Friday evening, though we decamped to Yogyakarta for the weekend, and saw Prambanan and Borobudur. The wife is doing her mid-MBA internship at a company here, and since it had been a while since I’d met her, I came to visit her.

And since it had been 73 whole days since the last time we’d met, she decided to surprise me by receiving me at the airport. Except that she waited three and a half hours at the airport for me. An hour and quarter of that can be blamed on my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta being late. The rest of the time she spent waiting can be attributed to Jakarta’s traffic. No, really.

Yesterday evening, as soon as we got back from Yogyakarta, we went to visit a friend. Since this is Jakarta, notorious for its traffic, we landed up at his house straight from the airport. To everyone’s surprise, we took just forty minutes to get there, landing up much earlier than expected in the process.

So I’ve described two situations above which involved getting to one’s destination much ahead of schedule, and attributed both of them to Jakarta’s notorious traffic. And I’m serious about that. I might be extrapolating based on two data points (taking into the prior that Jakarta’s traffic is notorious), but I think I have the diagnosis.

The problem with Jakarta’s traffic is its volatility. Slow-moving and “bad” traffic can be okay if it can be predictable. For example, if it takes between an hour and half to hour and three-quarters most of the time to get to a place, one can easily plan for the uncertainty without the risk of having to wait it out for too long. Jakarta’s problem is that its traffic is extremely volatile, and the amount of time taken to go from one place to the other has a massive variance.

Which leads to massive planning problems. So on Friday evening, the wife’s colleague told her to leave for the airport at 7 pm to receive me (I was scheduled to land at 10:45 pm). The driver said they were being too conservative, and suggested they leave for the airport at 8, expecting to reach by 10:30. As it happened, she reached the airport at 8:45, even before my flight was scheduled to take off from KL! And she had to endure a long wait anyways. And then my flight got further delayed.

That the variance of traffic can be so high means that people stop planning for the worst case (or 95% confidence case), since that results in a lot of time being wasted at the destination (like for my wife on Friday). And so they plan for a more optimistic case (say average case), and they end up being late. And blame the traffic. And the traffic becomes notorious!

So the culprit is not the absolute amount of time it takes (which is anyway high, since Jakarta is a massive sprawling city), but the uncertainty, which plays havoc with people’s planning and messes with their minds. Yet another case of randomness being the culprit!

And with Jakarta being such a massive city and personal automobile (two or four wheeled) being the transport of choice, the traffic network here is rather “complex” (complex as in complex systems), and that automatically leads to wild variability. Not sure what (apart from massive rapid public transport investment) can be done to ease this.

Gloomy weather

For most of today, the weather in Bangalore has been what most people would traditionally classify as “gloomy”. The sun has mostly been invisible, popping out only now after a fairly strong shower. There has been a rather thick cloud cover, with the said clouds being mostly dark. There has been the threat of rain all day, culminating in a rather powerful shower an hour back.

I haven’t minded the weather one bit, though, though it helps that I haven’t had to step out of home all day. I’ve been happy sitting by the window, sipping coffee and tea and green tea, and eating Communist peanuts, and working. In fact, I’ve grown up considering this kind of weather (cool, cloudy, with a hint of drizzle) as being the ideal romantic weather, and when the weather turns this way nowadays, I miss the wife a whole lot more! Till recently, I never understood why such weather was traditionally classified as “gloomy”. Until I went to Europe to visit the wife last month.

March in Europe is traditionally classified as “Spring” (summer doesn’t come until June there, which is hard for someone from Bangalore, where summer ends in May, to understand), but in most places I went to (I visited five different cities during my trip), the weather was basically shit. I had carried along my “winter jacket” (bought at a discount in Woodland at the end of last winter), and didn’t step out even once without it. It was occasionally accompanied by my woollen scarf and earmuffs, with hands thrust into pockets.

For days together the sun refused to come out. In fact, our entire trip to Vienna was a washout because of the weather. Thick dark clouds and no sun might be romantic in tropical Bangalore, but in Vienna, where it is accompanied by chilling winds and occasionally maddening rain (and once snow), it can be devastating. It can cause insane NED – you might argue that if weather was so bad in Vienna we could have used it as an excuse to stay inside museums and see things, but the gloom the weather causes is real, as we frittered and wasted hours in an offhand way, hanging around in coffee shops doing nothing, and just touring the city in trams, again doing nothing (we had got a three-day pass).

The one time the sun peeped out (after a heavy shower like this afternoon’s in Bangalore), we went ecstatic, but our joy was shortlived as it was quickly followed by another downpour which killed our enthu for the rest of the day.

The bad weather followed us all though our 10-day trip across Prague, Vienna and Budapest. The first and last being former Soviet cities didn’t help, as the (really beautiful from inside) apartment we stayed in Prague was in a rather dreary area, with the weather making the locality even more depressing. As a consequence, we hardly hung around in the locality, taking away dinner on each of the three days we were there. Our Budapest apartment was in a more vibrant part of town (most of our meals were within 500m of our apartment) but the general dreariness and chill meant that we didn’t explore as much as we would have otherwise done, perhaps.

We were back in Barcelona (which too had been rather dreary in March) last Saturday night, and when there was bright sunshine on Easter Sunday morning as we went to the nearby bakery for breakfast, we were absolutely ecstatic. We spent time just sitting on the parkbench, soaking in the sunshine. I made a mental note that if I’m going those parts next spring, I should go there AFTER Easter and not before (like this year). I also made a mental note to never again question why weather that is traditionally called “gloomy” is called so.

Queueing up for boarding

I’m writing this from Barcelona airport, waiting for my flight to Doha, as I return to Bangalore today. A pre boarding announcement was made some minutes back but boarding is yet to commence, and this is what the airport looks like now.

image

As you can see it’s a fairly long line. And boarding hasn’t even begun. I used to believe that this phenomenon of queueing up for boarding is a uniquely Indian phenomenon, but over two trips to Europe over the last  months I’ve disabused myself of this notion.

In the last six months I’ve taken seven flights within Europe and for each of them there has been a long boarding queue, mostly before boarding has begun. In a couple of cases I’ve participated, and for good reason. On one occasion I chose not to participate and regretted it. But there have been occasions when I’ve chosen not to participate and haven’t regretted. I have no plans to participate in the queueing today. For an international flight it’s not rational. Let me explain.

Within Europe most low cost carriers charge for any checked in baggage. As a consequence, people carry on large pieces of luggage. As a consequence of this, there is severe shortage of luggage rack space within the flight and so if you don’t board early there’s a good chance that your baggage will have be carried in the hold, resulting in unnecessary delays after landing.

Thus, pricing of low cost carriers where they anally charge for luggage results in suboptimal boarding process, and significant discomfort.

In any case, Europeans are thus used to queueing up for boarding, for that can guarantee them a relatively smooth flight experience. And my theory is that this carries on to international  too.

But why is this irrational for international flights? Because most international flights (Qatar for sure) have reasonably generous check in baggage limits, because of which people don’t carry on massive pieces of luggage. The per capita availability of rack space, from my unscientific observations, also seems higher in wide body flights. Hence it matters less whether you board first or last.

Finally the queue didn’t matter today since Qatar decided to use the rather idiotic zone wise boarding system on the flight today. I’ve boarded. And had to place my bag one seat away. Not that I mind.

See you from the dark side

Lizsting it in an airport warehouse

I had a rather bizarre experience at the Lizst Ferenc Airport in Budapest last evening. I boarded the plane from a warehouse. Really.

When it was announced at 7:25 pm that our 8:15 RyanAir to Barcelona would board from gate A18, we walked expectantly to the A side of the terminal, hoping to find our gate. All we found was this gate that said “A12-A18″, before accessing which there was boarding pass control. It seemed bizarre, but we assumed that we would be taking a bus to another terminal to board, got our passes scanned and walked on.

There was going to be no bus. There was another terminal to board from, however, but it was a warehouse. Literally. Here’s what it looked like (pictures from wife’s iPhone):

IMG_0298 IMG_0299

 

That’s right. We were indeed in a large warehouse-like temporary structure constructed out of tin or asbestos or some such material. A rather ingenious way to extend the airport.

This warehouse had eight marked entrances (A12 to A19) and eight marked exits (respectively). At the entrance of each entrance there was another level of boarding pass checking (along with passport), after which we were let in to the queue to board. And this was where RyanAir separated out its “regular” customers from those that had paid for priority boarding (who were put in another “bin” (no better word for that) ).

Ours was not the only flight boarding at that time (though you can see that one side of the warehouse – A12 to A17 was completely empty). A Hungarian low-cost carrier called WizzAir was boarding its flight to Milan from A19 at the same time. And it again looked like a bus stand. Long snaking lines of passengers who had gone past the boarding pass check waiting to board.

Low cost airlines sometimes try to save on airport costs by using secondary airports in several cities. For example, in London, they use airports such as Stansted and Luton, and in Paris they use Orly. But some cities don’t have a well functioning secondary airport so even low-cost airlines are forced to use the primary airport. This “extension” of the Budapest airport as used by the likes of RyanAir and WizzAir is simply bizarre, though!

Anyway, presently a stewardess appeared and opened the exit door for A18 (this was after A19 had been opened and the Milan passengers sent on their way). We walked out through carefully marked barricades, and saw a RyanAir plane in front of us. And we walked through the barricades until we were stopped a few metres before the plane (the line had been orderly so far, and would remain so).

We remained there for a few minutes as they presumably cleaned up the aircraft in that time. I think the reason we had been moved from the warehouse to this queue was so that more space could be created in the warehouse so that boarding passes of all passengers could be checked in this time. The use of so many “buffers” (or “chambers” if you were to draw a sewerage analogy) was quite interesting in terms of RyanAir’s queue management (the wife has promised a more technical blog post on this). Anyway, here’s what this queue looked like after we had exited the warehouse:

IMG_0301 IMG_0300

Soon the final barricades opened and we were allowed to board the aircraft (both doors of the aircraft were open). There was a bit of inefficiency here since people approaching the wrong door ended up slowing the boarding process (there were some people in rows 31 and 32 who boarded from front creating a massive traffic jam), but the boarding was concluded soon enough (all previous bottlenecks having been removed, and the flight took off on time!

It was a rather bizarre experience, and the first time I had boarded in such a large airport without using either an aerobridge or a bus. And I don’t know if this is a temporary arrangement in Budapest as they either expand the airport or reopen Terminal 1, or if this is how things are supposed to be in the long term. And I’m amazed that this kind of jugaad was first implemented in Europe rather than in India.

 

Missing our laptops

So we made a policy decision to not carry our laptops on our current vacation to central Europe. Basically we just decided that we didn’t really need them. And we’ve been missing them like crazy.

As the more perceptive of you might have figured out the wife has also become a regular blogger nowadays (http://priyankabharadwaj.wordpress.com), with the result that both of us seem to be facing significant blogging withdrawal symptoms.

Every day we see stuff that we find interesting, which we want to share with the world, but no avenues for doing so. I mean we have our phone and our iPad but typing is a bitch on all of them with the result that there exists a pipeline of blog posts in both our heads.

We’ve been discussing this of course, so the ideas are not going completely un-propagated. Yet the fear is that by the time we finally access our laptops tomorrow night, and finally get down to writing the unwritten blogposts, the flow of thoughts will be lost and all the fundaes will go unwritten about.

For this post here is the evening snack I’m having, at this nice cafe opposite St Stephens church in Budapest.

image

Thats potato bhaji with sausages, picked vegetables and beer. The interesting thing about the beer is that I’ve only has a sip so far. There was much head, and with ten minutes if waiting (for the wife’s drink to appear, which finally didn’t and she cancelled her order) all the head disappeared!

This is paulaner hefe Weiss bier btw.

Anyway here are some of the things I’ve wanted to blog about during the trip. This list is in no way exhaustive. And it is unlikely I’ll write about everything here

1. Why coffee is so expensive in Vienna
2. On buying tourist mementoes (like shot glasses, magnets, etc)
3. More on “free” walking tours like Sandeman’s
4. On thinking in other currencies (like Czech krona or Hungarian forint)
5. Seat reservation dynamics in trains
6. Local transport pricing mechanisms
7. On how pilsner urquell has taken over Czech republic
8. On social capital and staying in Airbnb
9. On the use of L and R as consonants in the Czech language, and if it has anything to do with Sanskrit

Etc