Wednesday, 13 April 2011

India 2011: Bangalore


You know how sometimes, when you're feeling dreadful at the end of a long day, all you need is a good night's rest in order to wake up feeling refreshed and positive? I was hoping that would happen to me in Bangalore, but it didn't. Unlike my husband, whose cold only lasted 3 days, I was still wallowing in misery on Day 4, the one full day that we had to explore the city. This caused me to be a bit, shall we say, grumpy--precisely the wrong mood in which to set off, on foot, across an unfamiliar campus and into an unfamiliar city.

When we'd been driven to campus the previous night by our hostess, we'd seen a bunch of shops and restaurants on the nearby main street, and had noticed how close it was to our hotel. Although we hadn't taken note of the exact route between the guest house and the main street, we figured we could wing it, especially if we asked one of the gate guards which way we should start walking. He quickly and emphatically pointed us right, so we set off in that direction thinking it would only be a brief walk before we could sit down for lunch. Boy were we wrong.

Before long, we came upon a construction site that closed off the sidewalk on our side of the road, so we had to dash across 2 busy lanes of developing-country traffic (read: "chaos") in order to use the sidewalk on the other side. As we walked, autorickshaw after autorickshaw slowed down and pulled up next to us to ask if we wanted a ride, but we kept waving them off because we thought we didn't have far to go.

(View of an autorickshaw from inside another autorickshaw. These are more commonly known as "autos." They give you the feeling of being in a very breezy car, but in fact they are not very sturdy and, safety-wise, are more like sitting on a motorcycle that happens to have a roof. Because they are much cheaper than taxis, people ride these all over the city, over fairly long distances and even in incredibly dense traffic. They're extremely handy, but if you are at all safety-conscious, you will feel quite exposed.)

After a while, I began to have some second thoughts about this "adventure." Even though I could barely breathe, I could tell that the thick air around us was really unpleasant--it was filled with the fumes of environmentally unfriendly automobiles running on unregulated fuel sources. It was also getting increasingly hot and, although I'd put sun cream on my arms before leaving the hotel room, I could feel my scalp turning pink. Also, the dust was outrageous--my feet were filthy, my legs were filthy, and I could feel the grit settling on every square inch of my sweaty skin. I was also incredibly irritated to reach a stoplight and discover that we would need to cross back over to our original side of the road, again dodging two busy lanes of traffic. All in all, I was beginning to think that walking hadn't been such a good idea.

To cut a long story short, we ended up trotting around Bangalore for somewhere between 1 and 2 hours before we finally made it to the main street that I recognized from the previous night. We walked down small alleyways, back over to semi-main roads, past homes (and even a few slummy areas) and shops, through a college campus, and even across the grounds of a very large hospital complex before we finally got there. Along the way, we passed feral dogs, cows grazing on small plots of grass in the middle of the city, and a whole lot of people who seemed very surprised to see us there. Throughout this journey, I was getting increasingly irritated at my husband, who I really felt was to be blamed for all of the unpleasantness. After all, he was the one who gave me the cold. He was also the one who thought we should walk to lunch and take the auto back (I thought we should take the auto to lunch, see the path it took, and then walk that back home). More importantly, he seemed to be quite chipper about the whole situation, whereas I was just getting more and more frustrated--and you know there is absolutely nothing worse than someone who is feeling upbeat at a time when you are most definitely not. Of course I know that none of these things was a deliberate assault on my happiness, but I needed a target for my frustration anyway, and if you don't have a fight at least once while traveling with your spouse, it's just not a real family vacation.

I thought that my mood would improve once we reached the main street, but in fact we just realized how out of our depth we were. All we wanted to a nice safe place to eat a meal--somewhere that would have clean facilities, use clean preparation methods, cook everything thoroughly, and not give us food poisoning. But it's not easy to judge that from the sidewalk; some places that look clean might not be, and others that look like dives might actually be your best option. In the end, we used the same rule of thumb that we'd employed in the airport--go American. Thus it was that we ate lunch at Pizza Hut. My husband decided to Indianize his pizza a bit by ordering a local flavor (chicken masala, I think), and although I went with a plain cheese pizza, I at least ordered a local fruity beverage.

After the meal, at which point I was feeling considerably friendlier thanks to no longer having a pizza-shaped hole in my stomach, we caught an auto back home. Imagine our surprise when the ride took less than 5 minutes, and we approached the main gate from the left--the opposite side from which we'd departed. I could have throttled the guard who gave us the faulty directions. (I've since pondered whether he misinterpreted our question, deliberately pointed us in the opposite direction just for a laugh, or directed us that way for some other unknown reason.)

Back in the hotel room, we turned on the TV so we could see what was happening with the World Cup of Cricket--as we'd already seen, it was a good idea to stay abreast of the cricket, since that gave us a nice point of conversation with the locals (for anyone that doesn't know, India went on to win the championship, so the Indians were quite justified in being almost obsessive in their pride and support). Along with the sports, we also got a healthy dose of Indian commercials, which are absolutely ridiculous. If you've seen a Bollywood film or video, then you might be able to picture the level of campiness achieved in television ads, though they manage to be even more over-the-top than regular Bollywood fare. The other interesting thing about Indian commercials is the products they are designed to sell. You wouldn't believe the number of ads for cars, car parts, motor oil, and cement--cement, for Heaven's sake. If you didn't already know that the Indian economy is booming right now, you could figure it by watching a few minutes of television.

Later in the afternoon, our hostess arrived to escort us on a little shopping trip. We were surprised (the emotion of the day) to find ourselves, after a brief drive through campus, at a side gate almost directly across from the Pizza Hut where we'd eaten lunch. *sigh* From there, we went to Fabindia, a popular Indian chain featuring handcrafted items from workers all over the country; it is kind of like a co-op version of Pier 1, but it also sells clothes. My primary concern was stocking up on good gifts to give everyone when I got back home, but of course I also wanted to buy a few items for myself. For once, I turned out not to be the only one shopping--even my husband picked out a few shirts to add to his wardrobe. We'd hoped to also go to a local outdoor flower/food market, which I thought would be a particularly good place to get some colorful photos full of local flavor (sorry for the bad pun). However, rather than keep our hostess away from her dinner-making duties any longer, we decided to go the next day, instead.

My husband and I headed back to the hotel for dinner, some more cricket, and--of all things--the Johnny Depp version of Alice in Wonderland (I was amazed at how many of the movies on TV were Western, rather than Indian). Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a less entertaining performance--one or more feral cats howling in the dark. Like the nightjar calls, that was another sound I hadn't heard for over a decade, but it was not one that I had missed much.

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The next day, my husband was scheduled to take care of his academic obligations. Unfortunately, we woke up to a power outage that lasted, intermittently, most of the day. This also meant that we had no access to the Internet, which was a shame because I'd hoped to spend at least part of the day getting some work done. With little to do indoors, I decided to go outside, instead, and explore the campus. As I mentioned earlier, it was a fairly natural area, with big patches of field and trees that were perfect for birding. I found several new species--including a wagtail that, inexplicably, bobs its tail back and forth instead of up and down, as all other wagtails do. I also observed some humans...

(Women sweeping outside our hotel.)

...and studied the architectural features that are used to make the Indian heat more bearable in places where there is no electric air conditioning...

(In addition to letting in more air, all these windows and grilles make attractive patterns of light and dark.)

At midday it was getting a bit too hot to be out wandering around outdoors, so after lunch I rested in my room for a while before resuming my exploration of the campus. This time, I headed in a direction opposite to the one I'd walked in the morning, mostly because when I was leaving I heard a bunch of kites clamoring up in the trees. I just really couldn't get over how many kites were hanging around, and how they could be found pretty much everywhere you could imagine. I also got lucky and ran into this little guy:

(A blue-capped rock thrush. I briefly saw him do a bit of fly-catching amongst the trees, before he vanished into the shadows. I wasn't 100% sure on my ID because the shade can play tricks on your eyes, but luckily I saw him again the following week on our last evening in town. Thanks to http://www.team-bhp.com for the photograph.)

I also started playing around with all the fancy settings on my new camera, in order to take shots like this:

(Enterprising ants.)

Not all of my photographs were up to my standards, so after a while I went back to my room in order to re-read the instruction manual. I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but one of the reasons I bought the new camera prior to going to India was that I wanted to re-learn photographic techniques that I had not used since I was in photography class in high school. India is a pretty inspiring place to take photographs, given how exotic things look to my eye, and the colorful nature of even the most everyday things and places. It was actually quite fun to adjust to the new camera and produce noticeably better-quality images than those I had generated during my other recent travels.

Late in the afternoon, our hostess met me in the hotel lobby in order to escort me to my husband, who was still busy chatting about science with students and faculty. As evening fell, we enjoyed drinks on the patio at the campus cafe and were told about some of the local fauna we might encounter during our upcoming trip to Bandipur National Park; one of the professors at the IISC studies a population of bonnet macaques in the park and told us some interesting facts about their life history. By the time we all finally dispersed, it was too late for us to go to the flower market, as planned, so instead we just headed back to the guest house. As a consolation prize, while we were walking we enjoyed the sight of fruit bats passing overhead through the darkening sky. When I first saw them, I thought they were some kind of oddly-shaped duck that I wasn't familiar with, but it was up to my tropically-raised husband to make the correct identification. You know you are looking at a big bat when it is comparable in size to a duck. The amazing thing was how many of them we saw--they just kept coming throughout our entire 15-minute walk; we must have seen hundreds, or even thousands. Where they all go to eat, I have no idea, but it must be a place with a lot of fruit.

When we returned to our hotel room, the power was back on, but within a few minutes it had gone out again. We sat in the dark for a couple hours before finally making our way down to the dining room to see if they were serving dinner. The server who met us at the dining room door informed us that "It is dark," which struck me funny because he seemed to be surprised that we hadn't noticed that on our own. We eventually worked out that, although at least some food was ready (tantalizingly, we could smell it just through the doorway!), they didn't want us to eat in the dark, and so they weren't yet serving. We went back up to our room to wait a bit longer, and just when we were ready to give up and go to bed early, the lights struggled to life one more time. Thus it was that we found ourselves eating dinner at 10:30 PM. Shortly after we returned to our room, the lights went out yet again (what timing!), so we decided to follow our very late meal with a very early bedtime--after all, we'd need our energy the next day for our big railway adventure and relocation to Mysore.

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Coming up: Our first luxury resort, Ayurvedic treatments, nighttime photography, and amusing menu typos.

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