A visit to Bangalore
Flight and arrival
Arrived in Bangalore on time, I think, the driver was annoyed because he was told 04h30 not 05h30. My driver wears a uniform and peaked hat and insisted that I sit in the back. I felt very posh, but I just can't get my head round being posh as it just feels wrong when other people have so little, I think I'm basically communist scum. We had to make a detour over Afghanistan because there was a massive high altitude lighting storm over the Zagros mountains, which was very impressive. I didn't get any sleep on the plane because a baby yelled the whole way very loudly above the noise of the engines and through ear plugs, I'm not a parent so I'm not immune to it. The landing was very rough, I commented on it to the chief purser and he said they would call it "firm or positive". The airport is chaos, I don't think they get the idea of those carousels. As soon as the luggage comes out, some "helpers" (I use the term loosely) take all the luggage off and pile it in the middle of the room, then try and get you to give them money. Fortunately I got mine before they got it, ha ha. I think its worse than Lusaka airport, which was my previous worst airport experience.
Getting Rupees was "fun", at London they told me there is a restriction on bringing in Rupees and I should draw from the ATM at the airport in Bangalore. Turns out my cash card doesn't work. Fortunately my credit card did, problem is I couldn't remember what the exchange rate was (1 pound = 81 rupees) so I just drew 500 (6 quid).... ha ha, probably cost more in service charges. Given lunch at the cateen at work costs 37 Rupees for a buffet I might be ok for a while.
The hotel Aspasia is very nice with big room, a kitchen (microwave/fridge/kettle... mint flavoured crisps.. yuck) and nice bathroom, but they won't leave me alone for 5 min. They are always trying to help out, guess I'm not used to that. I went for a walk, which caused lots of panic at the hotel. I think they are worried about loosing an international guest or couldn't understand why anyone with money would want to walk. Ok it was midday and I guess I am "English"! Oh yeah, there are some sacred cows just below my balcony munching on a pile of rotting rubbish. The neighborhood is quite affluent and the houses look like someone has given a lot of architecture students free rein to design the houses which results in some very interesting modern architecture / window shapes etc. Land must be expensive because they completely cover the plot with house, but still manage to put trees and plants everywhere. Guess I can see why its the "Garden City".
Already you can see that the disparity in income is very high. Its seems much worse than Africa but probably not as bad as America (just kidding you yanks... then again...).
The traffic, its mad. They don't bother painting lines on the road or putting up signs because no one would take any notice of them. I think the only reason an Indian hasn't won the F1 championship is they haven't put a horn in the cars, yet. The drivers all take the racing line and have to listen for a beep (among the thousands of other beeps) that signals someone coming up the inside. Its a bit like bats driving, using sound to avoid obstacles. Pavements are for bikes and cows and I guess they don't have any law suits here for tripping on broken pavement stones, most of the time there aren't any.
For Friday night I was going to check out the night life on MG Road and Brigade Road (where apparently all the night life happens). Well my bank put a spanner in those works, after drawing money on Wednesday morning at the airport they decided that my cards were being used fraudulently so I was left with Rs 500 (about 6 pounds) and no way to pay the hotel or car bills. After an hour of calls I managed to get my cards working again, but by then it was too late to go out so it was an early evening with no supper. I was in a horrible mood as I had lost my temper, especially after Lloyds asked me what my overdraft limit was as a means of verification, unlike most Brits I have no idea.
I woke early to go down to the ATM to see if I could get money, the first ATM didn't work but finally the second one did. I drew Rs 3000 thinking this would last me but did not count on the foreign factor (see below).
A scooter for those who shouldn't ride
The view from an auto-rickshaw, note rider with crash helmet and pillion with none
First I went up to MG Road by auto-rickshaw and walked the length, fending off loads of auto-rickshaw drivers who just can't understand why you would want to walk. Then I walked through Cubbon park which was quite nice but could do with a little work and past the Vidhana Soudha (legislative house of Karnataka). I loved the slogan, "Goverment's Work is God's Work", mmm I wonder! Then I tried to walk back to MG Road but got hopelessly lost wondering into what appeared to be a poorer area, I was a bit worried about being mugged but to be honest I haven't felt unsafe at all since I have been here. It turned out I was wondering through the markets, the shoppers all occupy the road together with auto rickshaws, cars, trucks etc and every square inch of all the other space is covered with everything you can possibly think of. The Indian nation is a true nation of entrepreneurs. Also every where you look their is a college or institute of engineering, their focus on education is amazing. I even saw a street hawker who was selling second hand books on engineering and mathematics outside a college.
The Vidhana Soudha, Goverment's Work is God's Work
The I tried to catch an auto-rickshaw to the Tipu Sultan Palace, the agreed price was Rs50 but after driving like Michael Schumaker on crack (including vying with another 20 rickshaws for the top spot ambulance chasing) he dropped me in the wrong place and then asked for Rs80 (forget telling him no, soon a crowd gathers and they join in the argument as well). The advice says always insist on the meter, but as I was about to discover its one rule for locals and one rule for foreigners. I eventually found a small temple, that was very interesting and peaceful. I was concerned about loosing my shoes which you have to check in... always wear cheep shoes in India.. ha ha). Then I discovered Tipu Sultans palace next door, to be honest it was a bit of a disappointment as it was heavy damaged but you could get some idea of what it might have been once. It was also where I first encounted the one price for foreigners (Rs100) and one for Indian citizens (Rs25). I am beginning to think that many of them see westerners as a mobile ATM, just sprout some cr*p and hold out your hand.
After Tipu Sultan's Palace I went to the Bull Temple, having another 5 min "conversation" with an auto-rickshaw driver. This time he insisted that I don't pay him, that he would drive me all day for a "small" price (it got bigger each time he said it). Eventually I just shoved more money than he asked for in his hand and walked off. The Bull Temple is quite amazing as there is a massive statue of a black bull in the temple. I even got a blessing from the priest including the a red dot on my forehead for good fortune! The temple celebrates the offering that was made to appease an angry bull that trampled all the crops in the area, so farmers regularly make offerings at this temple for good fortune. I was disgusted to see some yanks wondering around in their shoes taking pics and yelling to each other. I wonder what they would think if someone wondered into their church and started to blaspheme.
After the temple I went back to MG Road to go and see the Cauvery Arts Center, on the way there I stopped at the museum and Venkapata Gallery. The museam was a big laugh, I think Time Team could learn from their approach to archeology. There was no subjectivity at all in their labeling of exhibits, no building an entire civilization from one shard of a pot for them!!! One exhibit was named "Different pieces of pottery" (it was exactly that), another "Structural tiles?" (note question mark), another "Helmet", another "Man in a dancing attitude". Their descriptions of Hindu gods statues was also completely objective just describing exactly what you can see anyway :-) I laughed the whole way round, it was like Monty Python had been let loose in the British Museam. Venkapata is a renown artist but I found his work a bit naive. I think I am missing something as Indian art is very two dimensional, even when they attempt perspective its just wrong (like those impossible to build structures) and later at the Summer Palace I saw one western painting of the Sultan with a description that exhorted one to "notice the 3D effect of the painting". Since then I have read up on eastern art and it makes sense, 2D are necessary to show more than just visual space! I went to buy some "famous" Chenapatna wood toys at the Cauvery Arts Center, but was very disappointed with them. I guess when you are struggling to feed your family toys come last.
So to get over my disappointment I went to Styx Bar a happening place). Styx was quite good in a tacky sort of way (giant fish tank, under floor mood lighting, steel bar and 70's / 80's heavy metal blaring during "chill" hour). I met four Christian Indians (they kept on emphasizing they were Christians) from NE India. They were not only Christian they were totally plastered at three in the afternoon! "John" kept insisting that when I go back home I must tell all the Britishers (sic) and Americans that outsourcing was a wonderful thing, and that for one unemployed Britisher (sic), twenty Indian's could be employed. I tried to convince him that us Britishers also need a job to pay the bills before telling him that I was being made redundant. He said I should be proud of that before inviting me back to his place for more drinks. I made excuses and left, but not before his girlfriend insisted on having my contact details!
I think not using my driver on Saturday has pissed him off, as he was on standby to respond to my call and he gets paid only if he is called out. I also learnt that he only gets paid Rs3600 (about 40 pounds) a month and has to work overtime all the time to pay his bills. He sure drove like he was pissed off on the way to Mysore, I have never ever been so scared in my life. I really thought that today was my last day! Think of the most aggressive driving you have ever seen (including on the TV) now multiply by 100 and had blaring horns buses, trucks and tractors in the right hand lane; scooters, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians in the left hand lane; add buffalo drawn wagons, rickshaws and cars driving the wrong way down a dual carriage road; finally add fences across the motorway forming chicanes (to "slow" traffic) and you might get close. He drove at 140 km/h inches from cars in front before hooting and undercutting buses and trucks! I wore the carpet out kicking for a non existent brake pedal.
He took me to Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace which was very impressive, much better than the one in Bangalore. You really got an idea of what it must have been like. His next choice was a bit odd though, he took me to a bird sanctuary, after strolling around for about 10min I began to think that they had set up speakers playing bird noises as I could see any birds at all! The first bird I saw was outside the sanctuary, then I eventually spotted one... a bird not a speaker... it was frinkin tiny (about the size of a 50p) and green. How the hell are you meant to see them?
Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace
Then we went to Chamundi Hills to Goddess Chamundeshwari's Temple. This is where I really learnt what it means to be fleeced as a forigner / walking ATM. First I "had" to buy some flowers and a statue of Ganesha for Rs100. Then a "temple helper" showed me how a devotion is made, and how one obtains a blessing from the gods for a safe journey home which was very interesting (it involved putting some paint on each of seven different statues beneath a Bodhi tree then placing an offering, money, in the tree for the priests who will make a blessing for you) then getting a red dot on your forhead. Then he mentioned the starving children, "some without limbs" and asked for Rs500 for the school and Rs100 for him showing me round. Then I went to Chamundeshwari's Temple, there was a huge queue but I discovered that the huge queue was Rs20 and for Rs100 you could go in the speed queue. Inside it was difficult to feel spiritual as there was quite a crush, but you could see the devotion of some of the worshipers (some were much more aggressive, pushing their way through.. almost as if it was a punishment that had to be over quickly). Inside there is a statue of the god and too get a real blessing one has to make a substantial offering (of money) for the priests to take your offering (plate of coconut, flowers) to the god. Someone (who I assumed was a temple priest at first) grabbed my arm, directed me outside showed me around and how to make a offering (another Rs100) to a priest and receive a blessing (orange and white dots on my and Ganesha this time). Then he insisted I pay him Rs500 for the Temple, by now I was beginning to get angry at this continual guilt trip (you are a rich westerner we are not) and I got into a big argument with the guy who looks after the shoes... didn't get anywhere Rs100 for him as well. I hope I am wrong but to a simple foreigner with very little spirituality it looks like the Hindu faith is geared to making money. I know they do good work, helping to feed the poor (I witnessed this in the temple next to Tipu Sultan's Palace), but it seems like even the devout are expected to give before receiving blessings and the more they give it seems the more they are blessed. I know its not a lot of money, and I am trying to look at it as simple payment for a guide to rituals and symbology of which I have no idea but it is difficult. Maybe its justice for a "stupid" foreigner qawping at their temples! My driver was amazed by how much I had paid (see above to understand why) and he was visibly upset about it. My advice, learn "dodo illa" (money no, sp?) and get a guide! Also go to the less well known Temples that are not based in a tourist town like Mysore.
Chamundi Hills Temple
After the temple I decided Mysore Palace and that's it, and the foreigner price hit again (Rs100 for a foreigner and Rs25 for an Indian). Then Rs50 to check in your camera and mobiles (which they insisted on). When I noticed they didn't seem to insist on the locals doing the same I just ignored the screaming / shouting uniform clad officer and walked away. Then Rs50 to check in your shoes before strolling round the palace. In the end it was well worth it despite having to battle through massive crowds. The palace is simply amazing, inside there are sandlewood carved ceilings and doors (the whole palace has this sweet smell) and incredible paintings and murals. It makes Buckingham look like a shack. At least I got to use my new phrase and avoided another fleecing from guides and beggers.
Then it was time to go home, after surviving the trip back. How I don't know, my driver seemed confident we would make it (maybe it was because I was now so blessed) as he drove at 150 km/h with one finger (palm flat on the horn) and no seatbelt. Maybe its more a case of fatalism... if it happens it happens.
I woke up feeling very rough, I have caught a cold. I tried to explain the concept of Man Flu (women get colds, men get flu) to the locals, I don't think they quite got it. There is no such thing as pulling a sickie here, its work or starve for most people.
I went to the Forum for dinner, not a particularly inspired choice, despite Rob (a coworker) suggesting it. Its one of those horrible American style mauls(sic) complete with Food Trough (Hall) where they serve swill to you on plastic plates. I visited the Landmark bookstore, toy shop, card shop and just about everything else shop but didn't last long as 200 dB of Boney M's "By the Rivers of Babylon" is not conducive to browsing through books.
I went to the "English" bar and ended up having a long chat with a Mehul Patel from Bombay. He's an American citizen who married an Indian citizen in Chicago, he had promised his wife that once she graduated (she teaches sign language) they would move back to India. He asked me if I knew how to swear in Afrikaans, and then when I said yes phoned a South African friend of his and told me to start the call by swearing at her in Afrikaans! Then at the last minute he changed his mind and said I should tell her "I love you" in Afrikaans. Fortunately for her (or me) she did not answer the call. I'm not sure what would be worse for her, getting a call from a stranger who swears at you or tells you that they love you! Mehul and his companions were extremely well off property developers (although he seemed to be into mining as well) and he told me they made their money bribing government officials to tell them the route of new roads and then buying the land along the route. He gave me his card and told me to give him a call if I'm in Bombay. One of Mehul's companions, a young guy of about 25, was talking about the Lamborgini he wanted. I tried to undermine the capitalist, by telling him that the millionaires who are admired are the ones who help others (Anita Rodrick, Bill Gates) not the ones who drive flash cars. I know the saying "if you are young and not a socialist you have no heart, if you are old and a socialist you have no head", but it seems that as I get older I'm becoming more of a lefty. Perhaps its the huge gap between rich and poor in India that has me thinking this way.
I woke up feeling even worse than yesterday, I don't know if its the cold or the many pints of Kingfisher from last night! I think its the cold. I decided to try and walk it off with a trip around Lal Baugh Botanical Gardens, thinking I could get some exercise and escape the noise and chaos of Bangalore for a few hours. The park is quite beautiful, or at least has the potential to be given some more funding, and is the home of the Horticultural College of Bangalore (educational institutions are everywhere in BA). It is also the home of a temple (surprise, surprise) and a copy of the Covent Garden glasshouse, and some very bad gnomes. There I was sitting on a bench enjoying the sunshine (20 degrees) and almost quiet (you could only distantly hear the constant beeping of traffic) when all of a sudden it was shattered by a 747 flying over at about 200ft. So much for quiet. I love some of the signs "No Spitting" and "No feeding eatables to dogs".
The grotto, Lal Baugh Botanical Gardens
After a while I decided to go up to Brigade Rd (main shopping area) to see if I could find some Indian toys as presents. Unfortunately it seems that along with the outsourcing, a virus called Disney (variants are also known as McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut) has infected the area. The only toys available are Barbie, Spiderman and other such cr*p. It seems so sad that kids are being sucked into the American "dream", India and other countries should ban these corporations. One day there will be no point in traveling because the world will be one shapeless American inspired grey goo. My poor choice of restaurants continues, this time I went to an Indian resturant but when I noticed the locals didn't even eat there went to a Pizza place, yes I'm a hypocrite but at least it was an Indian chain. It turned out to be very disappointing and when I noticed a sign on the other side of the road that said "Unlimited Beer and a Biriani for Rs250" that made the decision look even worse. If only I didn't have to work on Monday, I would put that word "Unlimited" under some serious threat! I browsed a few more shops, but many of the prices are close to those in the UK for example a pair of business trousers was Rs2500. I did like the Magazines shop where unsold back issues from all of the magazines in the UK and the US were stacked 20 high. I then decided to buy a new wallet, as mine had split. They guy tried to sell me the wallet for Rs250 but I bargained him down to Rs200 which he seemed happy with. The same wallet in the UK is about £20, here's where you tell me I can also by a $5 Rolex and yep about 5 guys tried to sell me one. I think he had his revenge though as when I got back home I noticed one of the pockets was also split... ha ha. I also bought a CD-ROM with 52 MP3 Hindu movie hits for Rs60, should be great in the car! Later I saw a place where I should have eaten, it was off the main beat, completely packed, and very cheap. Everyone was eating chipaties and curry with their hands (some of the guys at the office eat with two spoons) and the food looked good. Just need to have more courage, to hell with work and avoiding Deli Belly.
Brigade Rd, Bangalore
Then I compounded my poor choice of eateries by going to "Le Rock Pub and Cafe", it is listed as a happening nightspot in Bangalore but I should have realized from the name that it was a knock off of "Hard Rock" chain. It was equally sterile and lacking any sort of character at all, so a perfect "Hard Rock" knock off then! They didn't even sell an Indian beer, only Fosters on tap! Styx is much harder, dirtier and edgier and more suitable for scum like me. After that I decided to walk home, and walked through the barracks neighbourhood of the armed forces. I kept my camera firmly in my pocket in case some bored guard decided I was spying. Why is it that government officials and generals live like kings in developing nations?
Le Rock Pub & Cafe, sterile and no character
I woke up feeling equally bad today. That settles it, it was not the Kingfisher! I decided to take it easy today, just traveling to Bannerghatta National Park to look at some smelly animals. I went on the Grand Safari, there was a complete lack of "Grand" involved and a complete lack of riding an elephant wearing a pith helmet taking pot shots at tigers, so not much of a "Safari" either. First of all there was the queue to negotiate, for once there wasn't a special foreigner price just Rs125 for entrance. There was however a tax on cameras, Rs20 for a still camera and Rs110 for a video camera. I was tempted to point out that most still camera's have a video function and most cell phones do to but decided to keep my big mouth shut which is not easy for me. The dot matrix printer died so we got stuck in the queue for a while and it got a bit hot and sweaty, and not in the good way. There is no concept of personal space at all, I guess you can't in a country that's so heavily populated. Then after the ticket being stamped in triplicate, its a government run park after all, and torn once we entered what can best be described as a holding pen before finally being herded onto a bus... you can see where this is going.
The bus held 35 passengers (just) and you had no choice of seating at all. The dirty/opaque windows were covered with 1 inch steel mesh and two horizontal bars that ran the length of the bus, one positioned just at the right height to obscure all view out of the bus. I began to wonder if we were the smelly animals being paraded for the tigers amusement.
Are we the smelly animals being paraded for the tiger's amusement?
It got even funnier when we started roaring through the park at about 30mph bumping over the rough track with the steel mesh clanging away. It must have sounded like a tank approaching. I was beginning to think the chances of seeing anything at all were remote to say the least! At least one of my companions in the bench opposite provided an attractive distraction from the empty bush. But no wait, after some shouting, screech of breaks, and beeping reverse we were told there were some Bison on our left hand side. Now I don't know much but those "bison" looked awfully like the Waterbuffalo we pass in the street every day I travel to work in Bangalore. After some pictures (mostly of wire mesh) we roared off again coming across a dear hiding behind a bush and the backsides of two more nondescript looking dear. Finally I completely cracked up when we slid to a stop, backed up about 100m to look at elephant.... that were about 1/2 mile away. Some of the Indian guys also started to laugh and then it pretty much became a joke, pointing in the distance and yelling elephant. The Sloth Bear cage was more successful, as the bears had congregated in one corner near one of their group that had been separated off. They looked quite distressed at being separated, and I'm sure the yelling and banging from inside the bus didn't help. The Tiger enclosure was also very "successful", the tigers were obviously very domesticated because there is no way they would congregate naturally. India's national animal didn't get much respect from the inmates on our prison bus, there were a lot of meow calls (I don't know why), yelling and bashing of the wire mesh.
Run all animals, its the Grand Safari Bus
When we got back the old walking ATM trick appeared again, everyone else got off the bus without getting hassled for tips but when I got off the "guide" (he didn't) asked for a tip for himself and the driver. Fair enough, but then all the hawkers started saying "give him Rs100 and give the driver Rs100" now considering that 10% of 125 is 12.5 that sounded a bit steep. I was tempted to tell him a) not all westerners, especially unemployed ones, are rich b) a tip is usually given to recognize good service c) your service is cr*p d) go to hell, but just gave him Rs20 and walked off to avoid the crowd that normally gathers when an argument erupts.
Then I went to visit the zoo, but had to leave quickly as the animals were kept in very poor enclosures and social animals like Hyena were kept alone. I think it would have been kinder to shoot the lot. The foreigner trick struck again, I went to the loo which cost Rs1 so I gave him Rs10 and got Rs6 back in change. Obviously foreign piss is far more corrosive than local piss, or maybe they think foreigner's aim is poor!
When I got back to the car, my driver (I love saying that) Sundar said he had just bribed the driver Rs50 to get on the bus. He had done this in order to save me the prime seat up front, but unfortunately he ended up on the bus in front of our one. He really is a really nice bloke, and drives more carefully than my other driver. He finds the "walking ATM" term very funny as well.
So the Grand Safari was very different from my last, Disney's Animal Kingdom sterile ride where they had to spice it up by making the truck artificially rock. However on reflection its very similar to the ones I remember as a child, you travel around for hours in great discomfort missing stuff that's three yards off the road collecting pictures of specs of birds that you will never keep.
I have really enjoyed my trip to Bangalore, India. Its a truly fascinating country and the people are very friendly. It is well worth visiting, but looking at Bangalore India is disappearing rapidly in a sea of western consumerism. It's not as cheap as you might think due to the foreign tax (you pay 4 times as much generally to see the sites) and the expensive hotels. I think it would be better to stay in places that aren't exposed to so many tourists as these will have fewer hawkers that deliberately target you and refuse to leave you alone, Bangalore for example is better than Mysore from that viewpoint. You can then make "raids" on the tourist sites. I would also like to see more rural parts of India as well.
On the other hand it moves at its own pace, usually high speed or a crawl accompanied by lots of hooting. If you are looking for quiet, I don't know if you'll find it! You need to be able to keep calm, to deal with huge crowds and to deal with lack of personal space (not somewhere for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia). At times it reminded me so much of Africa it hurt: the chaos, the squalor, the rubbish in the street, the crazy traffic, the heat, the noise, the smells.
Sundar, my driver (yep still love it) asked me what I thought of "Bannerghatta National Park", I told him there are two measures for something like that: whether you would go again and whether you would recommend it to a friend. I can't say either about "Bannerghatta National Park" but I definitely can say that about India. I will be back!