Thursday, 21 April 2011

India 2011: Back to Bangalore...and Beyond


It had taken us about 2 hours to get from Bangalore to Mysore by train, then another couple from Mysore to Bandipur by taxi, so we knew that our taxi ride back to Bangalore would last at least 4 hours. It's strange for Westerners to imagine that it's both possible and affordable to hire a taxi for such a long trip, but it really is the best option--buses would be cramped, hot, and slow, and there is no way that you'd want to rent a car and do the driving yourself. A trip of that length would easily cost several hundred dollars in the US, and the equivalent amount of pounds in the UK, but we only paid about $50. This is an especially good deal when you consider that our driver had to start the day by driving 2 hours from Mysore to Bandipur to pick us up, then end the day with another 2-hour drive back there from Bangalore.

I had to request a toilet stop as we were nearing Mysore, and I did so just in time for us to pull over to what I fondly refer to as a "pay-and-pee." Whatever niceties India may be lacking--reliably clean water, air conditioning, consistent electricity--at least they have public toilets; why is the US the only country I've been in where it's a miracle to find a restroom that doesn't involve a gas station or a McDonald's? Of course, the cleanliness of the facility was a bit lacking, and there was no toilet paper, but that wasn't worse than anything I encountered in Kenya, and, in any case, it only cost 2 rupees, so I got pretty much what I paid for.

Shortly after we left Mysore, our taxi driver pulled down a TV screen and put on a DVD of Bollywood hits for us to watch. Even my husband had to admit that the music was catchy, but it was hard to imagine how anyone could find the goofy Bollywood dancing very cool. We noticed that there were 2 consistent features of nearly all the videos: 1) frequent changes of scenery, often involving unusual locations such as the middle of a 2-lane road through a desert, and 2) frequent changes of clothing, often involving surprisingly revealing clothes for the ladies and surprisingly effeminate (to Western sensibilities) outfits for the men. Once the DVD was over, our driver put in a CD, but when this started skipping we were plunged back into quiet.

This didn't last too long, though, since by that time we were nearing Bangalore. Frustratingly, it took about an hour for us to finally reach the IISC after first entering Bangalore; the city really is huge, plus the roads were packed with traffic. I think our driver was receiving directions on his phone, because he kept pausing, reading text messages, and then making a sudden change in our route. I was pretty impressed that he was able to navigate, without any discernible wrong turns, both Mysore and Bangalore, not to mention all the remote roads between Mysore and Bandipur; I would have been overwhelmed by tackling any one of those locations, let alone all three of them.

Pretty soon we were reinstated in our quarters at the IISC guest house--good old room 37. Luckily, the electricity was back on, but the wi-fi still hadn't been fixed, which was a bummer because we'd been planning to use that in order to coordinate with our hosts. We tried to find an internet cafe when we went into town for lunch, but failed on that account, as well. To add insult to injury, the restaurant we'd chosen was having some technical glitches with their computerized ordering system, so our food took forever to arrive and then it took even longer for them to produce a bill. While my husband returned to our room to coordinate our schedule for the evening,I stopped by Fabindia one last time in order to stock up on a few more gifts.

Later that evening we returned to our hosts' house for a farewell dinner. We met the cousin of the family we'd taken the walk with in Bandipur, and were surprised to discover that he had no idea who we were talking about. However, he told us that his family was quite large; plus, "cousin" might have been used to indicate "second cousin," or even "third cousin" or beyond (many of my husbands' African "cousins" are actually just close friends of the family, so this didn't surprise me too much). Still, for someone who has a family as small as mine, it's amazing to think of having so many relatives that you could actually lose track of them.

We had an early night because our trip the next day started quite early--we had to be at the airport by 7:30, so we needed to leave by 6:30. It was sad to depart the IISC for the last time, even though we were looking forward to swapping out those hard, single beds for our soft, king-sized bed at home. I often find that I'm ready to go home after a week or two of vacation, but even with my sickness I had been happy enough in India that I could easily have stayed longer. However, both my husband and I had to get back to the grindstone at work, so an extended stay was not an option.

It turned out that we'd been overly-cautious in timing our taxi ride, since the roads weren't too busy that early in the morning. We got to the airport with plenty of time to sit and have breakfast; I even had the opportunity to shop around and purchase some snacks--and, more importantly, a new book--for the flight home. Unfortunately, the leisure of the first leg of our journey was pretty much the polar opposite of the frenzy we experienced during the second leg.

Our first flight had been from Bangalore to Mumbai, and our second flight would go from Mumbai to London. Alas, Mumbai's domestic and international airports are not in the same place, so we had a little over an hour to travel between the two airports, check in again, go through immigration, go through security, find our gate, and board the plane. The airline provided a free shuttle service between the two terminals, but the airline staff advised us that the next available shuttle would not get us there in time; instead, we were advised to get our own transportation--very helpful. We dashed outside to find a taxi, but while there appeared to be many dropping travelers off, there appeared to be none taking travelers away. We then ran over to the auto stand, where we were told that an auto could get us to the terminal in 15 minutes. Less than 10 minutes later, we arrived at the destination, only to discover it was the wrong one; the driver thought we wanted the second terminal at the domestic airport, when in fact we wanted the second terminal at the international airport. He then told us he could still get us there, but actually what he had in mind was driving us to a taxi company and switching us over to the form of transportation that was more likely to make our deadline.

(A view of the crowded airport roads, as seen from the back of our auto.)

My husband was feeling extremely tense, because by this time we were looking at 30-45 minutes to accomplish a trip across one of the crowdest cities on the planet, followed by the intricacies of the flight check-in process. However, I have to say that I was feeling pretty "Zen" about the whole situation. We'd either make the flight or we wouldn't, and at that point there wasn't much we could do to affect the situation. I only point out this difference in my husband's and my attitudes because it is pretty much the opposite of our normal states of mind--usually I fret, while he calmly floats along. I was so relaxed that, while we sat at a red light, I even did some nature-watching from the back seat of our auto, from which I saw a mouse hop out of our vehicle, dash under the car next to us, then run back again. It was very peculiar.

At the taxi stand, we were quoted an exorbitant price for our trip to the airport. It was not only more than we'd normally willingly pay, but it was also way more money than we had--we'd used up all our cash because we didn't think we'd need it. To make matters worse, they were demanding that we pay up front. Because we didn't really have the time to argue, we agreed to a ridiculous sum of money (in India, anyway--it was still cheaper than getting a taxi to the airport in the US or the UK), and had the driver take us to the nearest ATM. After waiting in line behind seemingly the slowest customer ever, I arrived at the machine only to find that it was broken. I dashed out to the car and asked the driver to take us to another one, but my husband had the wherewithal to ask if he would accept British pounds instead. After a little convincing, the driver agreed to accept a 10-pound note and our 200 remaining rupees, which not only added up to the asking price but actually exceeded it.

During one of our previous trips through an Indian airport, I'd noticed that they only shut the gates to a flight 20 minutes before its scheduled departure, which is about twice as late as when they shut the gates at Western airports. I remember thinking to myself that that was a pretty generous rule. I never imagined that I would personally benefit from it. At the international airport, we ran over to the Kingfisher Airlines desk, where the customer service person calmly and casually looked over our paperwork, then gave us immigration forms to fill out and directed us to the immigration room. He seemed very unconcerned by the fact that our flight was supposed to leave in the very near future, which was encouraging.

We stopped briefly to fill out the paperwork, then entered the immigration area, where we were waved through even more quickly than we had been on our way into the country. It's amazing that developing countries have such a reputation for tying you up in red tape at the worst possible moments (which they do--we've heard plenty of horror stories from colleagues who work in those places), because it's also true that they can occasionally be way more accommodating and speedy than their colleagues in the West. We next entered the security room, where we had to take the stamped airline security tags off all our carry-ons and replace them with blank tags that could be stamped during the new round of security processing. This is the kind of pointless stuff that is required when passengers have to move between multiple different airports in order to complete a single trip. Of course, just when I least needed it, someone forgot to stamp one of my bags, so I had to go back through the line again before the security woman would let me exit the area and rush to my gate. By that point even I had begun to feel agitated, because we were so close to making it and yet still so close to disaster.

Luckily, after all the rushing and sweating and swearing, we got there. We weren't even the last ones on the plane; about 5 or 10 minutes after we sat down, a half dozen other people (some of whom I recognized from our previous flight) straggled on, and I suspect that they had opted to take the shuttle from the domestic airport. All in all, even though I was channeling Buddha half the time, it was one of the more stressful travel experiences I've had; however, since it turned out well in the end, I can't complain too much. Still, if/when we go back to India, we will definitely avoid the Mumbai airport, unless it is actually our destination--or a new combo airport is developed so that we don't have to drive across the city in between flights. [Oddly enough, just the night before my husband and I were having our travel nightmare in India, my parents had experienced one of their own in Florida.]

During all of our rushing around in Mumbai, I had worked up quite an appetite, so I was happy to be served lunch shortly after our flight took off. Though my husband chose the "continental" meal, I indulged in the Indian option--just for old times' sake. Unfortunately, the flight wasn't even nearly the last leg of our trip. After we arrived at Heathrow (at about 6 PM), we had to take a 30-minute train ride to Paddington Station, followed by a 2-hour train trip to Exeter. At that point my husband had to walk, in the dark, to find where he'd left the car, then navigate around a bunch of closed streets (due to overnight road construction), and finally return to the train station to pick me up. From there, we still had another 2-hour trip back to Falmouth, in the middle of which we encountered yet more late-night road construction, and were routed through a 10-mile stretch of windy Cornish roads.

Living in Cornwall is pleasant most of the time, but fairly annoying when traveling anywhere else. It is such a pain to have to begin and end every trip with a 5-hour journey from lands' end (almost literally) back into "civilization." By the time we got home, it was well past 1 AM, and by the time we got into bed, it was well past 2; we'd been awake for over 24 hours straight. As fun and exciting as it is to travel somewhere as exotic and stimulating as India, there is nothing like a long and inconvenient journey to renew your fondness for the comforts of home.

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