September 22, 2008
For dinner last night, I went to a place called Tandoor on MG. It’s kind of a fine dining joint, with fantastic service and more white people than I’ve seen since leaving the Windsor. The food was fantastic: pakhtoon seekh (tandoori chicken, wrapped in minced lamb, mixed with spices), subz dum biryani (veggie biryani), kulcha (like naan, but with yeast), raitha boondi (raita with little crispy bits of deep-fried gram flour – like raita krispies!), papadum masala (papad with a kind of Indian picadillo), a liter of water and a beer (bottle of Foster’s, unfortunately). While I was eating, I realized that I had no idea where the talisman necklace that Shawna gave me was, and I worried that I might have left it at the Windsor. I’d have to make a field trip out there to find out (way easier than trying to figure out how to call them).
Relatively speaking, Tandoor was a pricey meal (about 18 bucks), but it was a ridiculously huge amount of food, and I couldn’t even eat half of it. I felt guilty though (remember how your mom used to tell you there were people starving in India?), so I asked them to wrap it up. I have a fridge in my hotel room, so I knew I could keep it fresh, but I had no way to reheat it. Nonetheless, after enjoying the food and the freezing cold dining room, I took my sack of goodies and headed off down the road. About midway to my point, I encountered one of the countless old lady street beggars this city has to offer. I usually just ignore them – not because I don’t want to give them money, but because I always worry that if I’m seen giving one person money, I’ll be accosted, more than I already am (children are particularly pushy with me, grabbing my arm and refusing to relent) – but this time, I looked the woman in the eye and handed her my impressively hefty doggie bag. She said a lot of things to me in Kannada – I’m assuming the gist of them was, “thank you.” I felt good because I helped her out in a very tangible way, but even more so because I unloaded my guilt-laced leftovers.
I was pretty tired after dinner and planning to get up early in the morning, but I decided I’d go out for one beer, just to socialize with locals and check out another of this area’s famous pubs. In honor of American Music Club, I chose the New Night Watchman (abbreviated as NNW – man, they just love to abbreviate things here – I guess that’s what happens when streets have names like Krishnarajendra Road [known as KR Road]). The place was infinitely cooler than NASA, but still absolutely dominated by men. I think I counted five women in the whole place, and all of them were with men (husbands, I assume, since I don’t think dating is very common). I took a seat at the bar and ordered a small beer. There were two DJs spinning a fascinating variety of music – from AC/DC and Metallica to Indian pop to house music. People seemed particularly animated during the rock set, cheering on tracks by Judas Priest (yep) and the Doors. At one point, two young guys walked in and ordered shots of tequila. Almost in synch with the return of their empty shot glasses to the bar top, the DJ kicked off Rammstein’s “Du Hast Mich.” The guys began to bang their heads and sing along with the German lyrics. Surreal, for sure. I finished my small beer and then ordered another because I really wanted to stay and use the toilet. By the time I finished, it was 11, and they were trying to close the pub in light of the impending curfew.
I got up at 5 this morning, with the plan of going to Mysore. I wish I’d thought that through better. Once I was ready, I headed out on foot until I encountered an auto (I’ve found out that the locals call the autorickshaws “autos” for short – that settles so much of my confusion). The guy took me to the city train station for about a buck.
The train station was insane mass of humanity, all making really no sense to me. There were people sleeping on the floor, in the parking lot, everywhere. There were red-jacketed porters carrying people’s luggage on their heads. There were buses and taxis and dogs and autos and so many people. It took me forever to even figure out how to buy a ticket, which cost me about 50 cents. I then made my way to what I believed to be the correct platform and waited. The train didn’t show at the designated departure time, but I figured that’s probably par for the course. I waited until it was about 20 minutes late before giving up and returning to the station. I found the timetable and discovered that the next train wasn’t for about 3 hours. I also discovered that the trip to Mysore takes a MINIMUM of 3 hours. As I did the math and realized I’d be spending at least 6 hours of my already-short visit riding the rails, the trip started to seem less and less appealing. I decided to head back to the hotel and re-evaluate my plan for the day. I’m disappointed not to be able to go to Mysore, but I’ve since been told that the way to do it is to plan a full-day tour of the areas between here and Mysore, which you can do by bus, and pretty cheaply. So I’ll just have to do that on the next visit.
Back at the hotel, I decided to pack in a mammoth sightseeing day: Tipu’s Palace, the City Market (KR Market), Bengaluru Palace, and Karnataka Chitrikala Parishat (which my guidebook says is a great art gallery. The gallery is also pretty close to the Windsor, so I figured I could drop by there as well. But before I could tackle such a demanding itinerary, I needed a good breakfast.
I strolled up Church Street and found Kaycee’s Prasad Coffee Shop. It’s just below street level and completely open to the elements, and it was packed. There’s a big Wipro office right around the corner, and a bunch of folks with their badges were there, which seemed like a good sign, for some reason. I mean, it’s not as if Wipro employees have a reputation for gourmet tastes. I don’t know. I just went with my gut, and that made my gut happy.
The setup was European style, where you order your food at a cash register and pay, then take your receipt to the folks who are actually preparing your food. I got a masala dosa (seriously, it’s the best breakfast you could have) and a coffee, and it cost me about as much as my now-useless ticket to Mysore. I sat at a table and was joined by another gentleman. We didn’t speak, but at what point, he got up and returned with a tin cup of water for me. Damn, people are nice.
I set out again on foot, in search of an appealing auto. When I found one, I asked him to take me to the Krishnarajendra Market. He looked at me like I was speaking, well, English. I corrected myself to KR Market, not realizing at the time that locals simply call this the City Market. My maps say KR Market, and it looked like it was walking distance to Tipu’s Palace, so I figured I could cover that area on foot. He told me we could use the meter, or we could go for 40 rupees fixed. I told him fixed was fine. Who’s gonna haggle over a dollar? When we finally arrived in the bustling busy-ness of City Market, I told him I didn’t think this was where I wanted to be. I then made the mistake of mentioning Tipu’s palace. I must have had a really good Kannada accent when I said, “Tipu sultan,” because he started speaking to me really rapidly in his native tongue. Judging by his inflection and his hand gestures, I gathered it was somewhat far (of course, folks seem to think that I’m in capable of walking two blocks here, so…). “30 more rupees,” he said. I told him that was fine in my best Hindi (yeah, I know how to say “ok” now – another few days and I’ll be fluent!). He probably felt like he really scammed me – and I felt fine about being scammed out of 70 cents.
So I toured through Tipu’s palace (really beautiful, but kind of a ripoff [relatively] at 100 rupees for foreigners [half that for Indians]. You can see it in the photos, but what you won’t see is the wonderful woman who tried to explain to me all about the palace in a language I didn’t understand at all. It might have been Hindi (not likely) or Kannada (more likely), but whatever it was, she was passionate about the subject matter. She pointed at pictures on the wall, at rooms in the palace, at Tipu’s “rockets” (the guy seriously had munition-propelled swords!) and told me all about them. I felt bad that all I could say was “hello,” “goodbye,” (cheating – they’re the same word), and “thank you.”
Once I left the palace, I decided to wander up KR Road to the market. As it turned out, it was a few blocks, so it was probably worth the extra auto ride. The market was full of fresh produce (you should see how people stack it into pyramids with painstaking care, but when I asked one vendor if I could photograph it, she refused), electronics, housewares, shoes, rat poison (yep) and every imaginable item. I couldn’t get enough of it. I looped through it a few times, intoxicated by the sights, sounds and smells (a fascinating combination of banana, roasting coffee, clove, diesel fumes and cow manure).
Since I’d studied my map, I knew that KR Road turns into Avenue Road and then into Palace Road, the road that leads to Bengaluru Palace, so I just started hoofing it. I wasn’t prepared for the continuing hustle and bustle that is Avenue Road. It’s as much of a market as KR, with stalls and storefronts selling absolutely everything. And every side street that crosses it is filled with more of the same. I decided to turn down one and get lost for a while. This is the old part of the city, so it feels very, very different from the MG/Brigade Road area where I’d been up to then. The roads are so narrow that cars hardly fit. There are tiny little “fast food” joints serving up lunches. And the people looked at me like I was from another planet. I absolutely loved it, and allowed myself to get completely sucked in, sucked up and turned around. Just when the buildings that towered over me and seemed ready to topple into the street started to feel a bit claustrophobic, I found myself back at Avenue Road and kept heading north.
At about the point where Avenue Road becomes Palace Road, an auto pulled over and I asked him to take me to the Windsor. The ride took just a few minutes and it felt a bit weird to be back there, with the obsequious and doting staff. I asked after my necklace at the front desk, and they called the lost-and-found folks, but we came up empty. There’s still a chance that it’s somewhere in my luggage, but I’m pretty sure I left it hanging on the dressing dummy in the room. Alas. I vowed that I’d find something special for Shawna to make up for it.
As I walked out of the Windsor and headed down the road, I encountered an older gentlemen with an auto. Most of the drivers look hardly 20 years old, but this man seemed to be in his mid-sixties. I told him I wanted to go to the Bengaluru Palace. As we headed out, he asked me if I wanted to do any other sightseeing. I was on guard about being taken (again, he didn’t turn on the meter – they almost never do), so I told him I was done with sightseeing. He told me he’d wait for me at the palace anyway and take me back to my hotel when I was done.
While he was driving, my driver told me about the bus tours to Mysore and that I shouldn’t waste my time on a train. He told me I must visit there. Then, as we approached the palace, he started telling me facts about the palace’s history. He also told me that Karnataka Chitrikala Parishat is an art college with an attached gallery and not really worth the trip. Then, he told me all about the various contributions that the architect and engineer Visvesvarya has made to Bengaluru and to India, from starting the first hydroelectric power plant in India to designing public gardens. Yeah, I got the world’s best-informed and most talkative rickshaw driver.
The tour of the palace costs 200 rupees for foreigners, but includes a free calendar (which I completely forgot on my way out) and, most importantly, the services of an English-speaking guide. You have to pay 500 rupees extra if you want to use your camera. This is a pretty common arrangement in museums here that allow photography. The guide showed me from room to room, telling me about the palace, its history, and everything that I was missing in Mysore (that’s the main palace – Bengaluru was the raj’s summer home). He encouraged me to take photos, and even offered to take photos of me. These are the first proof I have that I’m actually here. The tour didn’t take too long, but was far more informative and interesting than Tipu’s joint. When I finally decided I was done, I returned to my auto (my driver was happily chatting with one of the security guards) and we set off.
The driver informed me that he was 56 years old (ok, so I was off by 10 years), that he’s been driving an auto since 1974 (holy crap!), that he has three daughters and is a grandfather. He told me that he generally works 14-hour days and makes about 700 rupees a day and about 14,000 rupees a month (about 300 bucks). He feels that he makes a very comfortable living, but that he is no longer able to save any money the way he did when he started out. He places the turning point at about 1991. In addition to a transformation in the economy, there has also been an enormous change in the area of the city. He has to drive much longer distances now to carry his fare from the new airport, for example, which is on the northwestern edge of the city, to Electronic City, which is quite far to the southeast. He also mentioned that approximately six hours of his days are spent waiting at traffic lights or stuck in unmoving traffic. I wonder about the health effects of breathing all that pollution. Maybe that’s why he looks older than he is.
By this time, I noticed my driver’s name – M. Ravi Kumar – on his taxi license. Ravi asked me if I’d like to do any other sightseeing, or maybe some shopping. I told him I just needed to go home, but he kept pressing, as we drove through the high-end shops in the Commercial Road area.
Now, I’m no dummy. I know that drivers are often paid a commission when they deliver their captive fares to certain shops or hotels, and I also don’t blame anyone for that arrangement. In a dense city like Bengaluru, it’s hard for merchants to distinguish themselves and draw in the right clientele. And as for the drivers, we’ve already determined that the most experienced are pulling down the whopping sum of 300 bucks a month, so who would begrudge them an income augmentation? So, in that spirit – and given the fact that I was ahead of my loosely-crafted schedule due to skipping the art gallery – I decided to let Ravi deliver me to one of his favorite shops.
Once inside the shop (Ravi waited for me outside), I was attended to by a very polite – but not overly solicitous – young gentleman named Ibrahim. He pulled out all the stops in showing me his goods, which were really quite impressive, and made sure to tell me that he would make me a good deal in exchange for referring my friends and colleagues to his shop. I told him that I hoped he compensated Ravi well for bringing me there, and he told me that the shop only donated clothing and other necessities to Ravi’s family, as well as other poor families in the city. He had someone from the back bring me a cup of tea while he paraded his wares before me. I felt like honored, but not like my ass was being kissed, so that was nice. On my way out, Ibrahim handed me a stack of his business cards to share with friends and colleagues (I certainly will), and then showed me a file he keeps of business cards for all his clients. I was amused to see cards from GM, IBM, Accenture, Dell, Microsoft and many more name-brand mega-corporations in his collection, and I was sorry I didn’t have any of my own cards to add.
I won’t go into the things I purchased, but I will say that I spent more than I’d planned to. Still, I’m very happy with the few things I got, and I genuinely believe I was treated quite fairly. Back in the auto, I resumed my conversation with Ravi about how things have changed. He actually grew up in the area near the palace, and still lives there with his wife today. He’s happy with the changes that have taken place in his city, especially because the boom in commerce has meant a boom in education, and he feels that everyone is becoming better educated and that that will help the country as a whole.
As it turns out, Ravi specializes in using his auto (he calls it its other name, tuk-tuk) to show tourists the sights around Bengaluru. His home base is outside Windsor Manor. I’d highly recommend him to anyone visiting the city.
At the end of our ride, I told Ravi that I had no idea what to pay him, and he told me I should pay whatever felt right. I asked him for a little guidance, and he said 70 or 80 rupees. Now, considering that he’d driven me all over town, waited for me while I did sightseeing and shopped, and told me all sorts of interesting things about the city, paying him less than two bucks just didn’t feel right.
“How about 200?” I asked, handing him two hundred-rupee bills.
“That’s too much,” he said, holding up the bills and admiring them.
“It seems right to me,” I said. He finally consented.
“I’ll take it as a gift from you,” he replied. He then handed me a few of his business cards. In all seriousness, let me know if you want his info.
Once I was back in my ‘hood, I popped over to Café Coffee Day (the other big coffee chain) to have a drink and write a bit. Then I took a stroll over to MG, dropped in on Higginbothams book store and picked up an R.K. Narayan novel for 200 rupees. By this time, it was dark and I was trying to decide what to do about dinner. Suddenly, the power went out and the normally floodlit neighborhood was plunged into darkness. Within moments, however, the miracles of uninterruptible power supplies and good old-fashioned gas-powered generators got most shops and merchants into a passable state. As I walked by pubs, the deafening roar of Honda generators made them less appealing, but I imagine it was business as usual on the inside. I decided it was best to keep wandering while the power was out, so I did so for nearly 20 minutes, and everything lit back up again.
During the dark period, I had a slightly paranoid moment, brought on by the fact that all the violence against churches in Karnataka finally found its way here yesterday and caused a little mayhem, of which I was completely oblivious. Anyway, as I wandered through the darkened streets, I wondered if terrorists would cut power to a target area in order to render CCTV cameras useless and make it generally easier to plant their improvised devices. I wondered if I should be hopping in an auto and getting out of this busy, dense, commercial area – maybe high-tailing it back to the Manor. But I didn’t. I just kept wandering.
Once the power came back on, I realized that I was in no mood to eat a proper meal. Though I hadn’t eaten since having a Luna bar around the time of the Windsor Manor visit, my stomach just wasn’t feeling 100%. I wasn’t feeling sick, but just not great. I finally decided to pop into a supermarket here on Brigade Road and just pick up a 7-UP and some snacks.
Man, I’d forgotten how much fun it is to shop for groceries in foreign countries! I had so much fun browsing every aisle, looking at all the unusual snack foods (you can get pretty much anything masala-flavored – potato chips, tapioca chips, dried chick peas, peanuts, etc.), the teas and coffees (didn’t buy any, but this might be something I want to bring home), the ready-made foods (there’s a whole line of pre-packaged Indian delights from ITC, the company that owns and runs the Windsor Manor, among other top-shelf Indian hotels), the frozen treats (actual mutton chops, anyone?) and the European specialties (tons of Swiss dark chocolate and related tasties). In the end, I bought the 7-UP (critical), a pack of Indonesian Tam Tam chocolate-covered wafer cookies (gone), a RiteBite Choco Delite nutrition bar (unopened so far, but gotta love the cadence of that name), a packet of Lay’s “classic salted” chips (I just couldn’t bear the masala tonight) and a Lindt dark chocolate bar with hazelnuts (currently in the fridge). I already feel better.
I should mention why it’s so hard to find things in this town. You see, street signs and street numbers are the exception here in Bengaluru, not the rule. This makes orientation a little tricky, especially if you’re like me. I’ll look at my map, plot a course in my mind, and then set off. “Let’s see, we just walk up Church Street to Rest House Road. Take a left at Rest House and follow the curve until you reach Museum Road. Take a right at Museum Road and the post office is at #10, Museum Road.” Yeah, it doesn’t work like that. Every once in a while, a business will have its address on a sign in front of the building, which is an absolute godsend and gives you some way to assess what street you’re on and where you might be in relation to your goal, if it happens to be on the same street. Some of the major streets have signs at major junctions with other streets, but in some parts of town, these signs are only in Hindi, which doesn’t do a functional illiterate like me much good.
And then there’s the problem of malls. There are little shopping centers everywhere that hide all sorts of treasures. What might look like a small storefront from the street might open up into a whole alley full of shops or a multi-story building of businesses. And you don’t really know what’s in there until you go in because there are rarely signs in front to tell you.
Yesterday, I was walking not far from my hotel, on a street I know pretty well. An Australian woman approached me and said, “Excuse me. Do you know which street this is?” I looked around.
“Well, that’s Brigade Road over th – ”
“Yes, that’s Brigade Road, that’s Church Street and that’s MG Road,” she interrupted. “Everyone seems to know that, but no one can tell me the name of this one.”
“How long have you been in town?” I asked. She glanced at her watch. “Ah, just hours,” I said. “Is there something particular you’re looking for?” I thought that I might be able to point her to a specific hotel or restaurant in the neighborhood.
“I’m looking for this travel agency,” she said, “that’s supposed to be in a mall here on Church Street.”
“Ah,” I said, feeling her pain. “Well, sorry I’m not much help. Good luck!”
The other thing that’s remarkable about this city is the ubiquity of security guards. Nearly every business has at least one security guard. He might be posted in front of the building or shop, or he might be seated just inside the doorway. Sometimes he’s dressed in brown from head to toe (the color of clothing you wear seems to be very significant – almost all the rickshaw drivers wear brown shirts), and other times he’s wearing a very fancy and impressive uniform. No matter where he is or how he looks, however, his purpose is unclear. These guards rarely check people’s credentials, inspect cars going into garages or even interact with people – unless it’s the coffee/tea vendor who happens to be rolling his bicycle by. Then they’ll perk up and a get a tiny, steamy cup from the man’s airpots. There’s something reminiscent of communism in the absolutely purposelessness and waste in these jobs. It’s as if the jobs exist just to have jobs.
Today, I encounted two particularly absurd security guards. The first was at Higginbothams. After I’d chosen my book, I walked to a small, L-shaped desk at the front of the store. The man behind the desk rang me up and took my money, then handed the book to a security guard seated on the other side of the L. The guard (uniformed this time) slipped my book into a bag and waited for a computerized receipt to print out. Everyone present (myself, the cashier, an idle store clerk) watched in silence as he tore off the receipt, stamped it with a little red stamp and handed it to me, with great ceremony, but no apparent purpose. Have you ever been with an obsessive-compulsive and had to stand there quietly and respectfully while he methodically arranged the pencils in a cup or untied and retied his shoes? It was like that.
The second one was at the grocery store. The checkout was remarkably orderly, with familiar cash registers and scanners, and plenty of cashiers to handle the crowds. After I’d paid and received my change, the cashier handed over my bag and my receipt separately. About 10 steps away from that, and by the exit, a uniformed guard reached out for my receipt. I handed it to him and he punched it with a hole puncher, smiled in a friendly and self-satisfied way, and handed it back to me. This isn’t like the checker people at Costco who look at the stuff in your cart, scan your receipt and make sure you paid for everything. This appears to be a more-or-less purposeless activity, designed to keep someone busy. Maybe I’m misreading this completely (and given how naïve I feel on this trip, that’s a distinct possibility), but it fits with other things I’ve seen – like traffic cops who stand on little podiums at busy junctions and never intervene, or regular police who stand in the middle of the street and encourage cars to keep going in the direction they’re already headed.
One thing I really like about the culture here is how openly affectionate straight men are with each other. It’s not uncommon to see two men walking down a busy street with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, wrapped around each other’s waists, or even to see them holding hands. Based on my upbringing and culture, I’m completely uncomfortable with that for myself, but I always smile when I see it here. It’s completely acceptable for men to physically demonstrate their affection for one another. I wonder how different US culture would be if that were the case.
Well, I must go pack now. After all, I have to check out tomorrow at noon, and then in the evening, it’s off to Mumbai.