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.

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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):

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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:

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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.

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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

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:

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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.