Valuing a flexible week

For the last couple of weeks my wife has taken time off from work, and given that I’m freelancing, we as a couple now have a flexible week. Yesterday, we went shopping. We were at the Bangalore Central store in JP Nagar, and for the first time in a really long time, were able to shop without bumping into fellow-shoppers every other moment. My wife didn’t have to wait endless hours in the queue just to get into the trial rooms (yeah, this happens at large format apparel stores on weekends). We shopped at Food Bazaar sub-store, and could take our time in deciding what to buy, without sharing aisles with other shoppers. The checkout counter was empty, ABSOLUTELY EMPTY, and we had an extremely peaceful experience there. It was an awesome day of shopping.

There are certain things that are done so much easier on weekdays than on weekends. Shops are significantly less crowded. If you have to get work done in government offices, you are better off going there on a weekday than on Saturday (when there are more consumers, and the employees are pissed off at the end of a long week). You don’t need to book cinema tickets hours before. Restaurants aren’t crowded. If you go for a day trip, you can expect your destination to not be flooded with other tourists. Of course, there are activities which are so much easily done on weekends rather than on weekdays – this involves anything that involves driving across the city in “peak traffic” hours.

So it’s clear that the “flexible working week” that I have provides some intangible value. Of course, since my wife doesn’t have a flexible week, we as a couple don’t always get to enjoy my flexible week, but leave that aside for now. What I’m trying to understand is the extra value that I”m getting thanks to my having a flexible week, and if I can put a number on it.

One way I can think of valuing my flexible week is in terms of optionality. I’ve listed down some of the advantages of doing certain things on a weekday. Maybe I can quantify the value of each of them? Maybe the value of the time I save by not standing in a queue at a checkout counter? The economic value of buying more and better clothes because I can shop peacefully? The additional value I get by having the picnic spot to myself rather than sharing it with a hundred others. The option value of being able to walk into a movie hall and buy tickets a minute before the show. And so on. And all this multiplied, of course, by the probability of my wanting to do each of these activities. Sounds right?

Of course, I’m talking about a flexible week here, and not about a week where you have weekly holiday on a weekday, like my wife had earlier this year. Thanks to some power supply issues, the local electricity distribution company mandated different weekly holidays for heavy industries in different parts of the city, thanks to which my wife had her weekly off on Wednesdays. And they were among the two most disorienting months I’ve been through. We were unable to do all those things that we would have normally done on weekends (and which are more advantageous to be done on weekends). I couldn’t do a full day of work on Saturday to compensate for not working on Wednesday. And I would try to work on Wednesday but wouldn’t be able to because my wife had her weekly off that day. It was absolutely mindfucking.

So yeah, maybe the next time someone asks me how much I”m making as a freelancer, I must include the “value of a flexible week” in the number I tell them!

The Problem with Resorts

A part of our honeymoon not so long ago was spent at the Taj Exotica in Bentota, Sri Lanka. We stayed there for a bit over a day and a half, and that was supposed to be the most “honeymoony” part of our honeymoon, with the rest of the time being spent essentially roaming and seeing different things in different parts of Sri Lanka. Before we went, I thought I’d set aside very little time for this “honeymoony place” but in the final analysis it turned out I’d allocated the optimum time for it.

So as we sit down to plan for a mid-year vacation, here are some of the problems that we found with resorts – which make us skeptical about spending an entire vacation in a resort kind of place. All this is based on a single data point – our recent visit to Bentota:

  • Food: We got bored of the food in less than a day. I’m vegetarian, which ruled out the seafood restaurants at the resort. Room service menu was extremely limited and one meal bored us of the buffet. We ended up eating consecutive dinners at the same Chinese restaurant at the resort which shows how bored we were of the food
  • Lack of buzz: We went to the bar to grab a quick drink on the way to dinner, and there were hardly any people there. There was no life there and it was too quiet for our liking. Then, on the way back from dinner we thought we’ll hit the disc, and found we were the only people there. A complete put off
  • On the other hand, when we went to the pool for a swim, it turned out there were way too many people there. There were some large gangs of tourists, and they made quite a noise, which wasn’t all that fun. Yeah, I know I’m cribbing about two contradictory things here, but that’s the way it is.
  • Adding to the contradiction, a private beach and all is ¬†quite fine but again it’s boring to go there when there is little activity there. Yeah there were a few people there but there was something about the place which bored us quickly enough for us to return.
  • General lack of activity: Yeah, I know that the purpose of going to a resort is to just chill but after a while the lack of activity can get a bit disconcerting, and makes you want to get away.

But in general, the biggest problem was the food. If you aren’t really fond of buffets, and there are no good options near the resort, you are likely to tire of the food quite quickly, which can be a big pain. At least if you were to get authentic local food you could manage. But sanitized 5-star buffets for over a day? Thanks

Fixed Price

The problem with a lot of touristy places is that there are no fixed prices. While this means that vendors can practice effective revenue management, it also means that it is easier for them to cartelize and take the tourists for a collective ride.

I realized this during my recent trip to Sri Lanka where you need to find someone you trust to get “access” to some place. But then it is most likely that any possible intermediary is more loyal to the service provider (due to regular contact etc) than to the tourist. So the tourist ends up being screwed no matter what.

Later that night we were to figure that even the bargained prices that we paid at the wood factory were heavily inflated, and things were available for a fourth of that price (!!) at the souvenir shop attached to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Where else in the world do you see prices in hotel souvenir shops being significantly lower than close to the source?

So this agent business continued through the trip. We wanted to go river rafting, so we (once again) trusted our driver to find us a nice service provider. The following day we wanted to go on a boat ride up the Bentota river, and we had the (unenviable) choice of our hotel and the driver (yet again) to serve as intermediary.

What makes matters worse is that if you go without an intermediary prices are likely to be even higher. It’s as illiquid a market as you can find. But whichever intermediary you choose you are likely to end up paying much above market values. It’s not often that you find (supposedly) altruistic intermediaries such as the Gift Shop at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya.

So I wonder what drives a market from this kind of state to one where prices are fixed, and there are menus (interestingly in Sri Lanka you don’t find menus in many places. you are charged an arbitrary sum). It is unlikely to be regulation, since smart players are always a step ahead of the regulators. It has to be some market characteristic that tips the market in favour of transparency and efficiency. I’m trying to figure out what it is.

(this suddenly reminds me of a recent attempt by an investment bank to try create a private market for shares in a private technology company. Clearly the market in shares has “tipped” in favour of transparency, for the attempt hasn’t been as successful as initially imagined)

Temple Towns

Someone (a friend’s friend I guess) had written in the comments of a shared post on Google Reader about how he generally feels safe in tourist places. Locals there have an incentive to be nice to tourists, he said, since they depend upon the latter for livelihood. And so elements that would make the place unsafe for tourists would be weeded out.

While I agree with this hypothesis (in general) I realize that the same need not hold true for temple towns or other similar places where people go for religious reasons. There the locals have no incentive to be nice to tourists, pilgrims rather – the Pilgrims will come no matter what, and the place will continue to Progress.

So if you are evaluating holiday options from a safety perspective you are likely to be better of choosing the secular option.

The Sikh Museum

One of the highlights of Amritsar, which is missed by most mango tourists is the Sikh museum. It is situated on the first floor of the front wing of the Golden Temple complex (just as you enter from the main entrance) and provides fascinating insight into the history and lives of the Sikhs. The English on the labeling is bad, some pictures don’t have English labels at all (not even Hindi; only Gurmukhi stuff) and the museum is mostly made up of paintings rather than artefacts, but it is definitely a must-see.

The most fascinating thing about the history of the Sikhs as depicted in this museum is the gore. As you enter the first hall of the museum (it is basically a series of halls laid end-to-end) and turn left (actually you are supposed to turn right and see the thing anti-clockwise but the signage is so bad I turned left) you see a painting of a guy being sawed. Yes, you read that right, a guy is being sawed. Into half. Laterally. The painting shows two guys with a huge saw sawing this guy from head downwards (at the moment the painting has “captured” the guy has been sawed until his chest) while Guru Tegh Bahadur looks on.

Move on to the next painting and it shows you a guy being boiled alive, again with Guru Tegh Bahadur presiding. Apparently the guy’s death wish was that he looks at the Guru while he is being boiled to death. Again fascinating indeed. Then later, there is this guy (one of the Gurus only I think) who is placed on a hot tawa and burnt to death.

Amit, Aadisht and Gaspode will be especially pleased to see the next part of the museum which shows the mutilation of babies. The story goes that while all the Sikh men of a cerrtain town were away the Mughals attack the town. There are only women and children remaining. They take the kids one by one, cut them up into pieces and string their organs together in the form of garlands and put it around their mothers’ necks. Unmitigated gore wonly.

One can say that the underlying theme of the museum, and maybe of Sikh history, is gore, violence, bloodbath, sacrifice, valour, whatever you call it. There are several paintings (most of these paintings are recent, btw) which depict battlefields and the common theme there is the severed heads and limbs that are lying on the ground. Then there is a series of paintings with Mughal soldiers holding up heads of Sikh men in order to claim their reward.

The last couple of halls of the museum are filled with portraits of recent Sikh leaders and I didn’t really bother to check the details there. At least I can confirm that there wasn’t any gore there. Overall it took me about 45 minutes to cover the museum (of course I read the story beside each and every painting – wherever English text was available) so I might have taken more time than a lot of other visitors. And got absolute strength level fundaes on Sikh history.

I strongly urge you to visit this museum the next time you are in Amritsar. I would advise you to visit this before you visit the langar, else you have a good chance of throwing up – there is so much gore in there. Also, if you are the weak hearted type who cries on the sight of blood, skip the museum altogether.