Friday, October 31, 2014

Parking, cash back and why I dispair

Often I despair at the state of life in India. Really, how much has to be done just to bring us up to some standard. On the one hand we have PM Modi speaking about clean drinking water, toilets cleaning the streets and on the other hand we have the fact [or fiction] of going to Mars [at cut price].

When in England this time, I experienced an instance of how different everything is in India. This was to do with something as ordinary and commonplace as airport parking. Also, this time I realised, after having seen it happen so many times in the past, how utterly wrapped up in needless regulation and repression we really are. This was an equally mundane matter, cash back or cash out.

Call me sentimental, call me pessimistic, call me foolish or idealist or accuse me of making a mountain out of a molehill, but, both these instances did leave me more than shaken, they filled me with despair on how we will ever progress. It left me questioning how we approach customers, how negative and unhelpful, arrogant and officious we are as Indians.

Public parking, in malls, airports and so on is becoming more and more common in India. As you enter you take a ticket or token of some sort and find your parking spot. When you finish and leave you insert the ticket into a machine or hand over your token to an attendant, hand out money, you are told to provide change as the attendant has none, you struggle a bit, ask your co-passengers, struggle some more, honk angrily if you are behind someone doing this, and finally, the task is over and you can leave. There is always at least one attendant, if not more, and, often one `security’ man doing the job of parking attendant. Is this not typical? Is this not something you see at every toll both?

Anyway, this is not what I am upset about. My point is have you seen either the fine print on the token or a paper badly scrawled stuck on the booth telling you that if you have lost your token you have to pay maximum charge? That is my problem. Why should I have to pay maximum charge?

Let me tell you how they do this in the UK.

When you enter a public parking zone like an airport [which is when I saw this in operation] or a shopping mall or a supermarket, on entry, you get a token. At the same time the camera records your car number and obviously the entry time. Then, when leaving, you walk to a payment booth before getting into your car, insert your ticket and the machine tells you how much to pay. The machine has change, so you pay the required amount, get your change, collect your ticket recording payment and get into your car. You drive up to the exit gate; insert your paid ticket and leave. No humans, no change hassle, no traffic hold up, no honking, nothing. Now the question is what happens if you have been foolish enough, like our driver was, to lose the paid ticket in the short interval between payment and driving out. Obviously, you cannot exit. Do you have notices like in India – pay maximum charge. No. Of course not. All you do is speak to an operator at the exit thru the machine. They check their computers and match the ticket, car number and paid ticket and let you go. That is it. No aggression, no back chat from the attendants, simple painless and pleasurable. No talking to rude Biharis at the exit absolutely nothing.

Is any of this rocket science? Is any of this technology or electronics horribly expensive? Do we not have Infosys, TCS WIPRO and hundred other companies that have developed this system for the malls in the UK and elsewhere? Why can we not have this? Every new parking facility that comes up can and should have this? Why does it not? Why why why?

Cash back or cash out. We know this as something totally different in India. In India cash back is a facility offered by either, or, a combination of (i) the credit card issuer, say, Citibank (ii) the retail outlet, say, Croma and (iii) the manufacturer, say, Apple. So the way it works is that if you buy an Iphone from Croma using a Citibank Card you will get some money loaded onto your card, which is in effect a discount.

Across Europe this works differently, albeit, I must state here, on only Debit Cards. If you walk into a supermarket, Tesco, Sainsbury etc and buy goods worth say £ 15.95 and hand over your Debit card to pay, the cashier will invariably ask you if you want some cash out/back. If you say yes £ 20 please, your Debit card will be swiped for £ 15.95 + £ 20 = £ 35.95 and you will be handed £ 20 in cash. To put it simply, this works like an ATM without having to go and visit one. It makes no difference to you because it is your money, not credit money. You are saved the bother of trudging to an ATM to get the money out. The retailer is saved the bother of having surplus cash on hand, everybody is happy, all needs are satisfied and there is convenience for all.

Can you even imagine this in India. Big Bazaar or Hypercity giving you cash. Unthinkable my friend. The RBI will have a fucking cardiac arrest, Raghuram Rajan will need a defibrillator. Big Bazaar will say its sales have increased by 95% craftily including the Cash backs/outs it has done. Someone will say FDI rules are being violated. What about a banking license? The Banking Regulation Act will be contravened. There will be a fraud committed by an Indian Mujahedeen operative in conjunction with a cashier! Somewhere along the long line of mishaps will be ICICI Bank who will issue denials! Basically India will implode, the retailer will vaporize, all hell will break loose and the dogs of war will be let lose.

Now do you still believe I am nuts?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Budapest - Castle District, St Steven Basilica, the Central Market and the Jewish District

This is the final part of the visit to Budapest.

As I had written earlier, Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest separated by the Danube. The Castle District is in Buda while our hotel was in Pest. The Castle district is extremely beautiful and we had kept a whole day aside to go and explore it. Like all good self respecting castles, the one in Buda was set up on a hill. You walk across the Danube by the Chain Bridge and reach the foot of a short Funicular that takes you to the top of the hill. You can also walk up, it is not at all difficult, but when you see a Funicular, you have to ride it. So up and away we went.

The Castle district is very pretty too. The streets are charming and it has a totally different feel to Pest. This felt more Alt Stad, streets full of charming shops, some expensive and good restaurants and pretty squares and buildings. Lots of tourists walking about in the sun. Very nice, and most of the buildings are in a remarkable state of preservation.

There is an excellent hotel, the Hilton which is built and integrated into the old castle. It is a wonderful example of how to manage preservation, integrate modern projects and still not make an utter and total mess of this. Have a look at the photos to see what I am saying.

Budapest also has a beautiful covered market called The Great Market or Central Market, or if you must know the Magyar name it is Nagycsarnok. This is as magnificent as the Boqueria in Barcelona, or Borough in London or Tsukiji Market in Tokyo or Pike Place in Seattle or even to some extent the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This is a real market selling food and not focussed on trinkets and tourist tat. The market was heavily damaged during WWII, but like other buildings, it was restored. It is really quite lovely. It covers 3 floors and has all manner of Hungarian food i.e. restaurants and Kiosks, vegetable stalls, meat stalls a small supermarket, fish stalls, meat stalls, spice stalls and even Hungarian textiles. Very clean, not smelly and great fun to walk around in.

The other great sight in Budapest is the St Steven Basilica, named after the first King of Hungary. This is a relatively new building with construction completed in 1905. It took 54 years to build. It is really a magnificent building. It is, as the name suggests, a Roman Catholic Church. You can buy a ticket and go to the dome from where you can get a fairly panoramic view of the city. By law, no building in Budapest can be higher than 96 meters. The Parliament is 96 meters high as is St Stevens Basilica. And, if you have been reading faithfully, you will know that 96 is a number dear to Hungarians.

The Jewish Quarter is significant in Budapest for the simple reason that almost half a million that is 5,00,000 Jews from Hungary were put into concentration camps. The area is pretty decrepit and run down. However, the Synagogue is quite nice. This is a place where hundreds of people visit, all decedents of those killed. There is a significant number of American Jews who turn up too.  

As I have said earlier, Budapest is a wonderful place to visit. Do spend at least 4 nights there. There is a lot to see. If you like you could also take a cruise on the Danube with dinner included. That is not our scene, but, people do like it. You could also take a longer cruise and sail along the Danube all the way from Budapest to Vienna in 6 hours. You could also do it the other way. Now Emirates has a direct flight to Budapest from Dubai. So why not have a super holiday with the shopping, glitz new money showy Dubai and then imbibe some European flair and go to Budapest. A great 10 day [or less] break with two arguably different and enjoyable cities to see and experience.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Budapest - The food

The food in Budapest has dishes that are common with its neighbourhood countries. Thus, Goulash as a hearty soup or a stew, dumplings, lots of great sausage, ham and salami, pork and a liberal use of Paprika in most food, liberal use of sour cream. A lot of pickles – sauerkraut, cucumber onion and chilli – are used too. Hungarians are big on cakes and pastry. Wines are good and well known. Of course this is a generalisation. There are local and regional variations. The food in nearby Austria, parts of Germany and Czechoslovakia is similar. The food is relatively unsophisticated, hearty, and equally heavy on meat and carbohydrates.

We ate 4 `formal’ dinners in Budapest. One was at the formal Borkonyha Wine Kitchen which I wrote about earlier. The other 3 `formal’ dinners were at the very sophisticated and dignified Rezkakas Bistro . Gracious waiters all old and wise, they really are the best, and a bright clean white tablecloth restaurant. They advertise that a Gypsy Band would play live music. I was apprehensive, I did not want a touristy scene where the band comes and serenades you at your table. I particularly dislike this. It is insulting to the band, you feel like a fool, service is disrupted and the worst is if you are halfway thru eating then you don’t know whether to continue or stop. Cold food is a necessary consequence. Luckily the band was a two man outfit static in a corner playing music was anything but Gypsy, the theme to `The Godfather’ is not Gypsy music. The food was more `Nouvelle’ rather than the hearty food I was expecting. Plates artfully presented, smaller portion sizes and more refined food.

Hungarian Farmers Plate - Dried Ham, Sausage, Salami, Duck Liver Pate Mousse

Steak with a Goulash Sauce and Potato 

Duck Confit

Cheesecake with Poppyseed Ice Cream

The next meal was at Hungarikum Bisztro . This was a far cheaper restaurant. More homely and less fine dining. No white tablecloths here. Man playing a Xylophone. The food was good. This was far more rustic food. Just looking at the food photos will tell you that.

To start - Focaccia with Sour Cream & Paprika

Condiments on the side. Paprika!

The Fried Dough with Sour Cream and Cheese as a starter

Goulash Soup

Goulash Stew with Dumplings

Pickled Cucumber with Sour Cream and Paprika

Loin of Pork with Paprika Sauce and Sour Cabbage

The last formal meal was at Aszu. This had an Art Deco feel about it. The place was absolutely full and flying when we got there. The volume of sound was quite high. It was a Friday night, people were enjoying themselves. This was the most mediocre of the restaurants we went to. The food was certainly up to the mark, but, as I have said, it was the most mediocre.

An Amuse Bouche 

Another Goulash Soup

Goose liver pâté with Aszú wine-chamomile jelly and red fruit ragout

Hungarian Mangalica pork tenderloin with pickled sour cherry,
Kohlrabi purée and sliced bread dumplings

Stuffed Cabbage

The last night we decided to eat in at a popular square just behind the hotel we were at. The obvious choice was a sausage stall. Grilled sausage with some potato and grilled vegetables which they call `Ratatouille’ washed down with ice cold beers. Eating out in the cool open air drinking a beer watching the world go by was extremely pleasant. The food was passable. The worst meal we had. But, by the same token we paid very little for all that. I guess the cliché `pay peanuts get monkeys’ rings true.

A favourite snack in Budapest is something like a `Bhatura’ in as much as it is a yeast and `maida’ based flatbread that is deep fried. It looks just like a `Bhatura’. On this they add a variety of toppings. All the topping start with Sour Cream as a base and then something else, Bacon, Sheeps Cheese Paprika or even in some cases Honey. We had this for lunch on day. Delicious. Though it was deep fried, doused with Sour Cream and cheese, it was surprisingly light. I cannot understand why Cream Centre does not sell this. They make `Bhatura’, they have Sour Cream, they have Cheese and they have Chili `Flacks’ as Gujjus say. They would have a winner on their hands.

Oh yes, one lunch we had American style Hot Dogs. Looked good. Did not taste as good as they looked.

All in all, food in Budapest is good. If you are vegetarian [no eggs] then you are in trouble. If you are Jain, carry Thepla.