Camping & trekking tips (part 1)

 “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” – Native American saying

Camping & trekking is my way to connect with the nature. I am not a survivalist but I would like to teach the kids how to improvise & appreciate the simple things in life.

Rule no 1:

Check the local temperature, and plan accordingly. Dress up in layers and always carry extra pair of under-shirt, boxers & socks. Weigh your back-pack and evaluate the utility of everything you pack. Trek might be a great exercise for you to realize how much clutter you have surrounded yourself with.

Rule 2:

Unless you are going through extreme treks like Himalayas or deserts go for reliable, lightweight items. Do not buy anything expensive or bulky no matter how bad is the temptation. Even if you have a mule with you, it will be better to limit your payload. Try to carry things that are simple, multi-purpose so that you are able to survive with limited weight. Trekking equipment should be cheap, sturdy, waterproof and divisible. In most cases basic items suffice and more the amount of electronics & complex parts are there in the gear, the higher are your chances of a field failure.

Rule 3:

Most people are obsessed with food & water but they under-estimate the exposure to weather & elements. Leaches, mosquito, & reptiles are often more dangerous than wild animals. Use sun block and mosquito repellent liberally and frequently.

Rule 4:

Camping is not essential for a trek. I would prefer a thatched room in a village to camping alone in the wilderness. Also interacting with the locals if often a more fruitful experience than being alone in the wilderness.

Rule 5:

If you are traveling in a group try to distribute the items among everyone. You do not want one person with all the water, one with all the food and the third with only clothes. So that even if we are temporarily separated every person in the camp is self-sufficient to survive until help comes over.

Rule 6:

You camp for the experiences and the chance to spend time together away from distractions. So do not over plan and prepare for every emergency or situation. Just be yourself and enjoy the nature. The nature has its own music, so try to leave your electronics behind.

Rule 7:

Leave the world a better place. Try to bring back all the non-bio-degradable waste rather than littering it over; it will be great if you can bury some of the waste that others have left carelessly behind. Do not leave your camp-fire unattended or carelessly throw your cigarette butts. Try to spend the weekend without any cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or intoxicants.

Food wastage meter

Human beings have a fascination towards numbers. Factories in 80s used to create a small healthy competition between shifts by publishing the production stats on a simple dashboard. Today TCS is creating a similar competition to prevent food wastage.

 

food-wastage

I guess we all want to be part of a success story. Numbers help us visualize and quantify our contribution.

Idea Vodafone merger may not happen

vodafone-idea-merger

If market rumors are believed, this is a wonderful proposal in the otherwise boring telecom space:

  1. Synergy through consolidation of marketing cost, operations & office space.
  2. Unlocking value through sale of excess of excess spectrum. Giving the new company cash to fight Jio aggressive promotions
  3. Idea is the 3rd largest player and might soon turn 4th before fading away as irrelevant. This deal will give the promoters a chance to exchange their equity for a stake in the largest telecom player.
  4. Reverse listing for Vodafone is attractive. It allows them to unlock the value through listing and share the losses with Indian shareholders till the market is back into viability.

Being contrarian by nature, here is why I think it might not happen:

  1. The deal requires either Birla’s to cut their existing holding 42% of Idea to less than 20% of the new company or infuse cash or exit completely.
    • Option A is risky, thanks to Indian promoters love of micro management. If Infosys, & Tata board squabble throws any light Birla’s might not be OK with back-seat.
    • Option B: requires purchase of additional equity in cash to gain back equal voting rights in the board. This is also unlikely as stock price is almost 70-80% higher than what it was before the news making it more pricey for Birla for additional stake. Secondly as a 3rd If the deal was happening, then they would not have allowed Vodafone to spoil the party.
    • If Vodafone had any interest in buying out Birla, then they would have not shared their intentions and allowed the stock price to zoom up.
  2. Jio could offer 90-180 days of free data because it had zero subscribers to begin with. Also they really limited the number of new connections & portability request last year to limit the cash burn rate. The New entity will have a whopping 40%+ market share with wafer thin margins. So no price reduction that they do will be economically viable & Jio can always match is as their subscriber base is still small (so limited cash impact from the scheme)
  3. By same logic, the war-chest from Birla’s cash infusion & spectrum sale to counter Jio’s promotion may not be useful. Idea could gain more new connections at lesser cost as the 3rd largest player rather than the largest player. Therefore, if Birla’s had to infuse cash, they would have purchased additional equity through rights at pre-news levels and not at present levels.
  4. Unlocking value through sale of excess spectrum is also doubtful. The sale will happen at below market price & will only strengthen the spectrum availability for the competition. No businessman likes to idea of selling precious & limited asset at loss to its competition.
  5. Vodafone’s history with Indian government’s regulatory approval cannot be ignored. They badmouth Indian Income tax department on its tinkering with the fine print to bring the Essar-Vodafone transaction into tax ambit. Now this has two repercussions, firstly Vodafone will be once bitten twice shy and extremely cautious of going back to seek approval for deals. Secondly some babu in Indian government might be holding a grudge and really make them hoops. In any case, the deal will add one more layer of bureaucracy from SEBI which unlisted company like Vodafone India is free from adhering to.
  6. Not only Vodafone is bigger entity but it also in the core business of telecom. So effectively, Birla’s would always fear the risk of relinquishing the mgmt. control to Vodafone even after cash infusion to get equal stakes. Remember a listed company means that either player can make an open market purchase and gain the control.

However, one should not ignore that Idea is a sinking ship. As long as Jio is not able to capture enough market share, they will ensure that the tariffs are subdued and the established players bleed. In addition, Idea risks being the fourth player, a position from which it could never recover. Therefore, it is likely that the mgmt. will trade its current equity position to a minority stake in the larger combined entity.

Disclosure: I have a shorted the Idea shares in the F&O market.

why invest in Bank FD?

On the loan interest income that is charged to a borrower, bank eats up 35%, income tax department 22%, inflation 42% and you get a measly 1.7% share (or 0.15% on the capital invested) Do Indian banks think that people give them money on charity?

fd-breakup

Even mutual funds and venture capital funds do not charge a 20X ratio of mgmt. fee to investor returns ratio. Furthermore, the list of bank charges is are practically endless which further eats into your returns.

Premature withdrawal loss is almost a racket. The loss due to penalties, penal interest rate etc. would lead to returns, which are sometimes lower than the savings interest rate.

fd-closing

Banks are saddled by 6 lakh crore of NPA (as of June 2016). Your low returns on deposits are to recoup these losses and fund the bank’s expansion. I don’t deny that banks provide services, have branches, and handle cash which costs them dearly. Still the NIM (net interest margin) that the banks in India enjoy are highest in the world.

Already many people buy corporate/PSU bonds instead of FD for long term planning. The lower taxation & indexation benefits has led to a rise in FMP (fixed maturity plans) options available. Even for very short-term deposits, the returns provided by liquid funds outstrip those by banks.

In short, banks are flexible, convenient & simple way for saving, but the question is am I ready to pay this steep a price for it?

True value of your reward points: 11 point rule

Reward points like any loyalty program are part of the corporate’s gamification strategy. The goal being to keep you away from the competition, make you spend more and shift your consumption pattern to high margin goods and services without adding much cost to the company. Hence, do not be surprised if you spend more time in comparison between various offers, schemes, fine print, coupons & options by various websites than selection of your best travel destination. The loyalty programs by design to make the price comparisons difficult.

Here are some common sense rules:

  1. Perceived vs actual values: If you cannot use a coupon code/voucher because of the point redemption then the points are coupons in disguise. (eg: dominos)
  2. Action modification: If the points are valid only on certain category of items and not valid on low margin items (eg: big bazaar on sugar, oil, aata etc.) then you know how much your points are worth. Similarly a lot of stores use loyalty programs to shift your consumption to their private labels which are priced much higher than the unbranded good that you would find elsewhere.
  3. If you need to pay a redemption charge when you want to consume the points, then discount them from the value. (most airlines & sbi credit card) Remember this forces you to accumulate the reward points, which is the money that the company can keep interest free and risks some/all the point’s lapse at expiry.
  4. Refunding restrictions: Paytm cashback is like pure money. You can spend it on a zillion things or even wire it back to your account. On the other hand gocash (goibibo) has so much restrictions that you will end up spending 50-100k just to utilize the 3000 odd gocash balance. Naturally, one should value the points based on how useful it is for you.
  5. Tier based rewards: One of the biggest trap and hardest to let go. MakeMyTrip requires you to book 4 times before unlocking the rewards. BigBasket & American express have benefits linked to relationship value. The trap here being that one ends up overspending. Also if you are 80% there, then there is a tendency to frivolously spend to reach the mark.
  6. Expiry: One should be mindful of the expiry date. As a personal rule, I consider anything expiring in the next 90 days as coupons, which if not exercised immediately will turn worthless.
  7. Clubbing: I was wowed by MakeMyTrip’s recent experience where I was able to redeem my icici bankcard reward points (payback) and my Citibank reward points in the same booking. It really allowed me to afford a luxury for Valentine’s Day, which was beyond my budget. Similarly the cashback of the wallets have very few usage restrictions.
  8. Tax invoice value: Often the reward points don’t show up in the final bill, allowing the customers to claim higher reimbursements (income tax or employer) than what they truly borne. The reward points can now be used for personal expenses. Although not unethical, this practice is used by many to unlock the high tier rewards/upgrades that would otherwise be unaffordable.
  9. Time: often ignored, but the most important concept. It is not possible to manage a zillion store programs. One does not buy a car because of the attractive free gift the sales person offer, it is a good product and the gift is icing on the cake. Treat your loyalty programs with the same detachment.
  10. Social cost: If the reward needs you to spend a zillion second clicking/liking various company promotions, send invites/emails to everyone in the contact list, then probably it will only end up wasting your time and ostracizing you as a spammer. Similarly
  11. Enrollment fee: the benefits are elusive and sometime in the future, but this expense hits you on day one and is probably charged annually. So one needs to intelligently to a cost benefit analysis.

Gone are the days when a simple price comparison between two websites could dictate which is the most economical. The goal today is to spend the least time deal hunting and yet not overpay.

Vipassana: 10 day silent meditation

Thoughts prior to entering:

This course demands 10 days (actually 11 days if you count the half day for on boarding and another half for de-briefing) of noble silence (no communication of any form through either speech, gestures, reading/writing, technology or eye contact). Further, the wake up bell strikes at 4am every day and you are in meditation from 4:30m to 9:00pm (11 hours daily excluding breaks/meals time). Forget snacking, there is no dinner for anyone and no meals post 11am. Segregation of sexes and isolated quarters means that homesickness is amplified. There is no exercise routine, also no diary; greens are served, risking a severe readjustment to one’s health and daily minerals/vitamins intake. One rationed piece of fruit hardly compares with the copious quantity and variety that most of us are accustomed to in free life. In addition, this is a Buddhist society catering to primarily Hindus, Christians and people from different faiths, so there is many chances of harm due to ambiguity, confusion and self-doubt.

Clearly, it is no picnic, then why did a narcissist, hyperactive, extrovert did sign up for a white room torture willingly in a course that is centered on sensory deprivation? Isn’t signing up for religious discourses the hobby of the retired & grey?

I interviewed/read the experiences 4-5 individuals who have attended the course earlier. Each one had a unique personal experience. However, the common theme was that everyone wished they had enrolled a few years earlier. Everyone advised me that unless there is full commitment and disciplined following of rules, the 10 days would be a great loss for your time. In addition, I was repeatedly warned not to underestimate the physical and mental challenges that one faces during the course.

First impressions:

  1. There were no idols of Buddha anywhere. You cannot find the large size painting of the founder nor his name plastered all over the place. There were no scriptures on the wall, the leader also did not use any superlative titles like “His divine grace”, “Sri Sri” etc. Nobody was chanting his name or worshiping his picture. The meditation room was a white room free from any colors, symbols or hints of any cult, sect or group.
  2. There was no rate card! For a Hindu, it is hard to experience spirituality without seeing a menu of special services along with their printed prices.
  3. I am used to institutions where your distance from the idol and the time you are allowed to worship it is determined by the magnitude of your donation. Here I was not allowed to buy my extra seconds/minutes with the teacher through a donation. Neither my capacity to donate determined what kind of room/facilities or special treatment I am entitled to.
  4. A migrant laborer working on minimum wages, a foreigner and I shared adjoining rooms and equal treatment. Special focus only for students suffering from addiction/ substance abuse, psychosomatic illness, mental disorders or expectant mothers. It is quite liberating that one’s need rather than status determines the focus one receives.
  5. Out of a batch of 80, only 4 persons opted for Hindi as a medium of instructions and the teacher was more than willing to make special classes for me. Similarly 3 Russian student were being taught in their mother tongue. The school emphasizes on teaching in one’s mother tongue and in very simple language to ease the comprehension and imbibing the philosophy in one’s daily life.

Day 1

The generosity and consideration by the personnel of the institutions simply sweeps you of the ground. The food across the 10 days did not have a trace of potato or similar low cost fillers that are typically associated with Mess food. Simple vegetarian, well-cooked nutritious food was served without any limits of how much quantity one should consume. The whole campus was clean and well maintained. I had an independent room with attached bathroom which was impeccably clean. The meditation seat allotted to me was similarly was very comfortable and there were practically unlimited supply of cushions that I could add to make it more comfortable. For a small batch of 70-80 meditators, at least 10-15 assistant teachers, Dharma workers (management) were dedicated to make your stay more fruitful and everybody was eager to help you in whatever way possible irrespective of the hour of the day and how ridiculous your needs were.

Day 2: body pains

It would have been easier if I was chanting a name/mantra or trying to visualize a concept, but here meditation is though self-observation of breath. The philosophy emphasizes on teaching the core crux on religion/dharma void of any fancy crux, packaging or distractions. However making the mind that is used to multi-tasking focus on a single breadth is not easy.

The shame of being physically worse than a frail fellow meditator in his 60s surfaces. Sitting for 15 minute in one posture is a challenge for me and I have never meditated before so naturally second day the ground reality hits hard. The teacher had a simple advice, “happens to everyone. It is not because what you do is physically challenging, but your mind urging you to find a more exciting stimulus for it to process. Drink copious amounts of water and take brisk walk to maintain circulation and ease into transition.”

Day 3: euphoria

Suddenly all the body pains evaporated. I was smiling so much that my lips were aching. I never had such a feeling before and could not explain it. Was it my mind/body’s push to make the meditation a success? Was it because the dilemma about religious preaching and practices were finally answered?  I wasn’t sure and asked my teacher had some earthly advice. “Nothing lasts forever, if you feel like jumping for joy today, tomorrow it will be opposite. Focus on your meditation and maintain noble silence.”

Day 4-5: withdrawal

Home sickness, the restrictions starts kicking in. The dreams start becoming more vivid and the mind starts drifting to thoughts even when I am awake. Some of the remised memories, thoughts, plans as long as 20 years ago came to light. In the words of the Aacharya, the continuous self-examination allows one to critically examine ones sub-conscious. Vipassana was making you increasingly aware of your thoughts, feelings & bias. Cleansing your mind and thoughts is the only goal of the program.

Day 6-7: realization, self-shame and pity

Our reflection is often confined to one’s action, but here the focus is on the thoughts. This sensory deprivation program gives enough time to analyze them and isolate the vices. Day 7, I was almost near a breakdown when my mind was trying to temp me with ill thoughts and I was fighting it back. Trying to sleep was making it worse and inability to talk or find some occupation was making it hard. So rather than pushing the thoughts deep back in the sub-conscious that one normally does, I had to face them and tackle them one by one. It is not a simple exercise but one of the primary reason why I was here. So I went through the motions with the best effort to maintain the five precepts:

  1. to abstain from killing any being;
  2. to abstain from stealing;
  3. to abstain from all sexual activity;
  4. to abstain from telling lies;
  5. to abstain from all intoxicants.

Day 8: magic

Till now I was at least 2 days behind in my progress with the meditation. However, for the first time, I was successfully able to scan the whole body for the first time. It is an experience that was nothing like I have done ever before and there is no words to describe it. I must say that it made my previous 8 days worthwhile. I think getting rid of the clutter that I had accumulated in my mind allowed me to focus and experience this joy. The teacher’s words were a major bummer. The aim is Vipassana is not to experience this joy of meditation but to be able to develop equanimity and not to react to it. I was feeling eternal joy and my teacher was saying not to develop any craving or aversion to it.

Day 9: countdown

I developed a lot of admiration to the philosophy of Vipassana. Why Dharma is non-sectarian in nature. How it has been commercialized by the leaders, why the focus is on the religious activities rather than praising the good traits, thoughts & actions.

I think I stopped learning after day 8. Only think I was able to think of was getting back home and resume one’s daily routine.

Day 10: confusion

The vow of silence was lifted, but speech became difficult. I guess this day was to help ease back into the physical world. They also, gave people opportunity to donate. Irrespective of how generous/stingy you are there is not gratitude or frown from the authorities. None of the 15 odd teachers and helpers in the program got any remuneration or worldly benefit for their time and services. It’s hard to find a true service devoid of any commercial agenda and this is one such gem. The teacher repeated that the best donation would not be money but practicing the learnings in the daily life.

I did a mistake of opening my laptop and Cell phone on this day. Scanning the mail, messages, WhatsApp took away half the day. There was so much I could have learned from the experiences of fellow meditators but the phone robbed me of that. Then I realized how many meetings, lunches I have attended where one/all the participants found the data streamed on the phone more interesting than real life face to face conversation.

Religion by traditional definition is submitting to higher power. A trip to temple or holy place, a grand gesture, a ritual is all designed to beg the higher power for divine intervention. In vipassana the focus in in self-observation and cleansing ones sub-conscious thoughts/ideas… a whole U turn. Acharya S N Goenka’s freeing us to practice whatever we feel right felt strange. The freedom to mix and match based on one’s own comfort level made me uncomfortable as typically religion to me was based on doctrines with little room for free will.

In short, these 10-11 days was a transformative experience. It has made me more conscious of my thoughts, actions, feelings and its implication. I wish everybody would attend and hope that benefit.

Movie Reivew: Well Done Abba

Often serious messages can be communicated through a light hearted story and this movie is one such attempt. I recently watched a 2009 release movie “well done abba” a satirical comedy by Shyam Benegal and starring Boman Irani, Rajendra Gupta, Ravi Krishan and Rajit Kapur. The story is about Boman Irani’s quest to avail a government subsidy for digging a well in a drought prone village. His each and every interaction with the bureaucracy results in demand for bribery. Each official has coined a humorous lexicon to negotiate the terms of the corruption which makes the first half an interesting watch.

In the second half, Boman Irani realizes that against a 1 Lakh disbursal from the government, only 8,000 actually reaches him. Frustrated he gathers all the fake proof he has obtained to prove that his “Well has been stolen.” Although, he himself is depicted as illiterate, he has taught his daughter well. Also unlike the conservative Muslim family, she does not wear a veil/burqa making her modern and a true asset. She gathers 75 similar families who have fake documentary proof including pictorial evidence on a well sponsored by Government of Andhra Pradesh. Together they launch a peaceful agitation shaming the bureaucracy and forcing them to construct the well.

The movie beautifully depicts that bribery is futile and even counter-productive. It only results in shrinking kitty to do the actual work and needless wasting of time. It also shows the masses how RTI (Right to information) if used properly can keep the government bureaucracy under check.