Bengaluru – September 20, 2008

September 20, 2008

I was awakened this morning at 5 a.m. by a very polite wake-up call. I sprung up, showered, had a cup of tea, and was out of the hotel by a little after 6. I needed to get way across town to meet my guide for a historic Bangalore walking tour, highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook. I walked down to the Golf Course Road, which is usually teeming with autorickshaws and found none. I hadn’t thought about the fact that 6:15 a.m. on a weekend might be different from mid-morning on a weekday. I started walking in what I figured was the right direction, assuming I’d encounter an auto at any moment. I walked and walked and walked, following the route I remembered from being in the car. Several autorickshaws passed with passengers. I walked past an empty one near the Nehru planetarium, but the driver was asleep in the back seat and I didn’t have the heart to wake him.

By the time I finally flagged down an available driver, I had been walking for 30 minutes and the start time for the walking tour was drawing near. I hopped in with a sigh of relief and asked the very young driver to take me to the Ramakrishna Ashram. He looked at me blankly. I showed him the map I’d drawn and named some of the nearby streets. Still, the blank response. He leaned out of his cab and flagged down an old man who was passing by, asking him if he knew where the ashram was. All the old man was able to tell him was the district – Basavangudi – but that was enough to get us on our way.

I expected the autorickshaw to be a frightening experience, but it was actually better than being in a normal car. Sure, the horns were louder and the pollution was more, well, in your lungs, but there was something smooth and almost graceful about the way the little vehicle moved through traffic. Even when I realized that my seat wasn’t attached to anything at all, I felt comfortable and confident.

It took forever for my driver to find his way to Basavangudi and when he did, he had no idea where to go next. I told him the ashram was near Gandhi Bazaar, and that turned on a light for him. He took us near there and tried to make me get out, but he still had no idea where we were. I made him look at my map again, and named some more streets. He made another attempt, and then finally pulled over to ask another pedestrian. Finally, I spotted what appeared to be the intersection that I had been instructed to look for, and just asked him to let me out there.

At that point, I realized he’d never turned the cab’s meter on, and I had no idea what kind of charge to expect. I had probably been in the cab for 30 minutes. What’s that worth? I asked him how much and he indicated that he was unable to say in English. I riffled through my money and handed him 70 rupees. He looked at it and was somehow able to find the English word, “Thirty.”

“Thirty more?” I asked. He gave me the sideways head bob that means, “Sure. I guess. Yeah. Maybe.” I reached over the seat, grabbed the 70 rupees out of his hand, and replaced them with a crisp 100 (about $2.25). He gave me another head bob and I hopped out. Did I get ripped off? Should it have been much less? Did he charge me double? Did he just take me for a ride after taking me for a ride? Probably. To be honest, I don’t care.

The tour guide had emailed me very detailed instructions, with landmarks, for finding the starting point for the tour. She had asked me to arrive at 6:50, and I was alarmed to find that it was already 7:15. I hoped they hadn’t left without me. The instructions were perfectly clear and I found the tour guide, Savita, in no time, waiting near the Ramakrishna Ashram with one other tour-taker, Sunalika. They normally start on time, Savita explained, but with only a group of five, she thought we could afford to get a late start.

As we waited for the three other tour-takers, Savita poured white coffee from a Thermos and we chatted. Sunalika is a longtime Basavangudi resident, but wanted to learn more about her neighborhood, so decided to take the tour that focuses on it. I think that’s fantastic. How many of us take the time to learn the history of our own neighborhoods? On the other hand, how many of us (especially in the US) live in neighborhoods that even have any history?

Finally, a third tour-taker showed up, Manas, a photographer from Northern India who has been living in Bangalore for two years. Savita decided this was enough and the tour began – one American, two Bangaloreans and one Bangalorean tour guide. We began by squeezing through the locked gates that lead into a beautiful park. Apparently, they’re locked to keep out cows.

I can’t say enough good things about the walking tour, and can highly recommend Bangalore Walks to anyone visiting this city. As a tourist on my own, I don’t think I would have seen or experienced half the things that Savita facilitated. She has clearly studied the history of the area and was full of exciting stories, interesting facts and genuine passion. We explored the Cave Temple (aka Sri Gavigangadhareshwara Swami Temple), a Hindu temple that began some time before the 15th century – before Bangalore existed as a settlement – as a simple cave. Over the centuries, it has been turned into the kind of temple you might expect, but the insides are still very much a cavern. I went in, walked the circuit around the idol, and came out to watch folks deep in prayer in front of it.

Other tour highlights:
• a discussion of the works of R.K. Narayanan over a breakfast of white coffee, vadas, idlis and chutney, and halwah at Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, a famous local street spot
• a stop at Sri Sringeri Shankara math, a monastery (and some shrines) to honor the man (a saint, of sorts) who is widely credited with reviving non-dualistic Hinduism in India in the 18th century
• snacks at the famous Srinivasa Condiment Store in Gandhi Bazaar
• listening to the bats in the park by the Bull Temple
• circling the gigantic bull at the Bull Temple, and then being blessed and given a small garland of what smells like bergamot on my way out
• seeing women drawing elaborate chalk drawings in front of their homes to keep away bad luck – they used to use a substance that also warded off ants, but now they use a synthetic chalk and have to buy a separate powder for the ants – ah, progress!
• being asked to get down off a holy ledge where I was sitting and told that people were swearing at me for it
• ending the tour with a Cane-O-La (I had chat masala this time)

Amusingly, Savita used to work as a program manager for Sun Microsystems, and has even visited the company’s Broomfield, Colorado, campus, so we had much to discuss. How small can the world possibly be?

Oh, and how much did this whole walking tour experience cost – including breakfast, snacks, postcards, amazing sights, a wealth of information, jumping queues, and having conversations with merchants? 500 rupees. That’s about 11 dollars.

As we all parted ways, Savita asked which way I was headed. I told her and she asked Manas, who had ridden his motorcycle there, if he could give me a lift part of the way. “Otherwise, the drivers will charge him double,” she said. “They usually do that when they see white skin.” Manas graciously agreed, so he and I made our way back to his bike.

Manas has one of the biggest motorcycles I’ve seen in India – a 350 Royal Enfield. Since I arrived, I’ve observed that people driving motorcycles are pretty consistent about wearing helmets, which is good. Unfortunately, no one seems to carry a spare, so passengers are consistently without helmets. On other days, I shook my head in dismay at those unprotected passengers. Today, I was one.

I hopped on the back of Manas’s bike, planted my feet on the pegs, and tightly gripped the support behind me as we sped, weaved, dodged and darted across the city. Given my recent anxiety, you’d think I’d be freaking out. However, paradoxically, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. It all just seemed so funny and unlikely. I mean, I’m a risk taker, but not the take-your-life-in-your-hands, throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of way. Not usually. It seemed absurd. I laughed as we squeezed between Tata Indicas (the economy car of choice here), whizzed past little Honda motorbikes, hopped over rough roads, and passed autorickshaws on the shoulder. It was an exhilarating and intoxicating experience. Sure, I was afraid for my life at many points, but it all just seemed unreal and dreamlike. And everyone knows you can’t get hurt in a dream.

Before I knew what had happened, we arrived at Windsor Manor. Apparently, Manas had decided to drive me all the way to my destination, which I greatly appreciated and preferred to the prospect of flagging down another clueless auto driver. I hopped off the bike, sent Manas on his way with a handshake, and ran into the hotel. It was 12:15, and I was supposed to have checked out 15 minutes before. I dashed up to my room, washed my hands and face, pulled together my belongings, and was back in the lobby by 12:25. While I checked out, one of the bellmen summoned an autorickshaw to pull into the hotel driveway, a place where they’re normally not welcome.

This was an interesting moment. The bellmen at the hotel are used to sending their charges off in fancy cars that cost a week’s wages. Instead, they were having sotto voce conversations with the rickshaw driver, and then telling him to take care, and I felt like a child being sent out into the wild world. It was my passage from spoiled, coddled, protected five-star Western jet-setter (an identity that feels utterly foreign to me) to grungy, budget backpacker (which feels a lot more familiar). And it was marked by various bellmen loading my bags into a crappy autorickshaw. Be careful at college, son. It’s a dangerous world. You know about sex, right?

A brief aside here. I’m sometimes taken aback at how naïve and inexperienced I feel when I travel. It’s as if I’ve lived a completely sheltered life and never ventured outside of what was familiar and comfortable. I know that’s not true, but there’s nothing like travel – especially my first travel to developing country – to humble and awaken. So I beg the indulgence and patience of my well-traveled and more experienced friends as I continue with my wide-eyed wonderment.

My cabbie and I were quickly on our way to the M.G. Road area. We did our best to make small talk as we wound through the weekend traffic. Finally, he pulled his cab into Rest House Road, the end of the line in this part of town for autorickshaws, and asked at another hotel for directions to my hotel. After telling me how to get there, he tried to talk me into staying at the hotel he’d just walked into. I told him I was already booked at the other, and that seemed to close the conversation. He had been running the meter, and it now read 60 rupees. I gave him 100 and he thanked me, then reminded me that a taxi would have cost me 500. I agreed, but didn’t produce any more money, which I think he expected. I then pulled my suitcase through the busy pedestrian road to Brigade Road and found my way to Hotel Curzon Court.

So just how far have we fallen from the five-star hotel to the budget option? Pretty freaken far, actually. This hotel is perfectly safe and I still marvel at the fact that stone (mostly granite and marble) floors and stairs are de rigueur here, but if I walked into a room like this one in the States, I’d walk right back out. The AC keeps blowing a fuse and the furniture (I’m in a “deluxe” room, which means I have a sitting area for entertaining imaginary friends, street urchins and hard-up prostitutes) is stained with what I can only assume our fluids – bodily or otherwise. The beds (two singles) are hard, the lights are dim, and there are mothballs in every drawer. There are also things I care less about, like there’s no bathtub, the TV is a 19-incher, and there’s no internet. Yes, I know. Poor me. And yes, I’ve been spoiled by the five-star lifestyle. But if you could see this joint, you’d know what I mean. Obviously, it’s no “manor,” but it also doesn’t have very good manners. I actually tried to pull the headboards off the wall to check for bedbugs (I saw them do that on “48 Hours” once), but couldn’t do it. On the other hand, I have a mini-fridge for keeping cold all the bottles of water I stole from the Windsor, the reception is very nice, there’s a tasty-looking vegetarian restaurant a floor below me (masala dosas for breakfast tomorrow?), and I’m right smack in the midst of all the action of downtown Bangalore. Plus, nearly anything is tolerable for three nights, right?

Can I get an amen? No? How about an om then?

After getting settled in, I strolled out around the neighborhood, in search of free wifi. I made my way through Brigade Road, Residency Road, Church Street, Museum Road, Rest House Road and M.G. Road, checking out shops and people. The streets are incredibly crowded and filled with hucksters of all sorts – guys keep thrusting mini chess sets into my face and asking if I want a turn – but I’ve drawn on my big city experiences to adopt a friendly-yet-surly, purposeful demeanor for making my way through the crowds. But I don’t rush the way I used to. I’ve learned – from Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen or Simon Lebon – to walk slowly and assuredly. I’ve also taken a cue from the locals, who touch and bump each other in an effort to get where they’re going. I don’t mind the crowds at all, and I feel pretty safe and confident here. I didn’t manage to find free wifi though, so I settled for using connected computers at a Coffee Day (the ubiquitous coffee chain here). They charged me 60 rupees (about a buck-fifty) for 30 minutes, and threw in some free cookies. I hung out there, checked my email, wrote a couple postcards, and enjoyed my cookies, then made my way back to my hotel room. By the time I returned, my clothes were soaked with sweat. I took a shower and then sat down to write.

Tonight, I plan to have dinner at Ulla’s, then check into a couple of the neighborhood pubs or lounge clubs for drinks. Tomorrow, I’ll be sightseeing around Bangalore, so I can afford to stay out a bit late. Of course, the 11:30 curfew in this city prevents things from getting too out of hand. Ah, how far we’ve come since Thursday’s freakout.

Time to get dressed and hit the town!

Well, the trip to Ulla’s was a resounding success. Just minutes from my hotel, I climbed the stairs to the first floor and was immediately seated in a plastic chair at a table on the terrace, overlooking MG. The man who seated me presented me with a menu, then asked if I wanted to order any meat. As far as I know, Ulla’s is a vegetarian restaurant, so I said no. He looked relieved, and opened to the dinner page. Soon, a waiter appeared at my side and pointed to the North Indian thali. I told him that I wanted South Indian food, but he informed me that wasn’t available tonight. In that case, I’ll have the North Indian.

“Do you want the special thali?” he asked. “It comes with ice cream and soup.” Well, ice cream and soup! How could I resist?

“No, I don’t want that much food.”

In less than a minute, a tray was set before me with naan, rice, some kind of paneer gravy dish (like makhani or labadwar or even tikka masala), a saag dish with potatoes (aloo saag?), an unsweetened kheer, and a bowl of cinnamon-y tomato soup with croutons. The tray was trimmed with a slice each of raw onion, cucumber and lime, which I left unmolested. I can’t say it was the freshest food available, but it all tasted great to me, and I devoured it with glee. In fact, I’d have to say I enjoyed it far more than the pricey feast I had last night at Dakshin. How much did this gustatory celebration set me back? Just 55 rupees, plus tip. That’s just over a dollar.

I visited the little handwashing station on the terrace, then made my way back down to MG, determined to find the fabled nightlife. The first place on my list was Taika, a rooftop lounge in the Pavilion. I went into the Pavilion, but was unable to find any signs for it, and there was no one around to ask. I moved on to Barton Center to find the 13th Floor. However, when I got there, there was a bustling Barista (Lavazza’s chain of coffee shops) in front, so I decided to have a coffee. An Americano and a scrumptious slice of chocolate cake set me back 120 rupees ($2.75), almost completely undoing the frugality of my dinner, but I savored both as I sat on the busy ersatz piazza with a bunch of young, urban hipsters.

Once done with coffee and chocolate, I made my way to the Barton Center elevator and pressed lucky number 13. Yes, the building has a 13th floor. When I reached the top, I could see Ebony, an upscale eatery, to my left, and 13th Floor, the hip lounge, to my right. I reached the door of the club just in time to hear the couple in front of me being turned away, with the explanation that the club was completely full. Knowing I had one last stop to make, I opted not to wait like a sucker.

I strolled back toward my hotel and hung a right onto Church Street to check out NASA, which is a stone’s throw from my digs. It’s a funny, spaceship-themed bar, with loud, techno music, but no dancing (I hear it’s no longer allowed in Bangalore – shades of Footloose) and very few women. With all the décor and the loud, bumping music, you’d think it was a nightclub, but it’s just a bar, decorated like the set of a 60s James Bond film. Still, it was packed. The only spot available was at the bar, so I took it and ordered a beer (for draft beer here, there’s pretty much just one choice: Kingfisher). Shortly after I settled in, another pale skinned gentlemen appeared at the door and approached the bar. There aren’t that many white people visible around town (other than at the five-star hotel, natch), so he caught my eye. He ordered a strawberry daiquiri (what?) and then asked me if the beer was any good. It’s neither good nor bad, really. It’s just Kingfisher. A seat opened up next to me and he sat down.

The young man, just out of college, is from a town near Lyons, France. He just moved here a couple weeks ago to work for the Alliance Francaise. He was surprised when I guessed it. We drank and chatted about the interesting blue laws that are cropping up around Bangalore, and their relation to smoking bans in our respective home countries. We drank some more in the ridiculously designed theme bar, and then, at 10:30, all the lights came on. Bars here must be completely closed and empty by 11:30, so NASA has decided to just do last calls an hour ahead to avoid any last minute skirmishes, especially when the cops show up to make sure everyone clears out. My French friend left shortly thereafter, and I settled up with my barman (280 rupees≈$6). He then told me I was welcome to sit inside (vs. at the bar), which feels like the inside of a DC-10. I sat and finished my beer contentedly, then walked the 100 or so steps back to my hotel.

The curfew is remarkably effective, because it is now 11:45, and the streets outside my hotel are nearly empty, and the honking has quieted to an occasional blast instead of the usual incessant roar. It’s a hair’s breadth from martial law, of which I’m not a fan. On the other hand, it will certainly make for better sleep. Good night, Bengaluru.

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