Tourist attractions quickly define the ‘downtown’ of a city. Just check a tourist map and see the where the largest concentration of Ts are (or whatever mark the city is using to denote a tourist attraction), then you are pretty safe in thinking that that’s the downtown area.
Bangalore is no exception. Mahatma Gandhi Road runs right through this area, which, interestingly, is not too unlike a map of Hungary. The road names are an curious mix of British and local references: Infantry Road, Brigade Road, Residency Road on the one hand and Kasturba Road, Kamaraj Road and Chowdalah Road on the other. Most of the tourists can be found strolling down M-G Road, Commercial Street or Brigade Road.
Mind you, ‘strolling’ suggests a certain nonchalance that just doesn’t exist. It’s hard to be leisurely amidst the sea of vendors and pedestrians, the cacophony of horns and revving engines.
The morning I arrived, there was a taxi ‘stir’ – a strike! Rather than ignore some pre-trip advice to take a ‘prepaid Government taxi’, I queued dutifully and patience was eventually rewarded by a tin can on four wheels. While taxis will also take you around the city, by far the most popular form of public transport is the auto-rickshaw. These three-wheeled vehicles can nip in and out of traffic, up on footpaths and through gaps that you swore didn’t exist. The drivers are fearless, if not reckless, firmly believing that if the nose can fit, the arse can follow. On first look, you think they will take three people at most. One morning I saw seven, 8 to 10-year old girls getting out of one. And these were normal sized children. Each one has a meter but most drivers refuse to use the meter and offer a fixed rate, usually about 25% above what the meter would charge. If they do use the meter, you’re practically guaranteed to get the scenic tour.
Each one has his name and taxi number on the back seat so you know who you’re dealing with. Some will offer an hourly rate for sight-seeing, which really means they kidnap you and take you to shops you don’t want to visit! It took a few days before I figured out something was up and asked the question. If the driver brings you to a shop and you stay 10 minutes, they get a coupon. Three coupons and they can exchange them for clothes. You are at their mercy and can forget about getting anywhere on time.
On the main roads, traffic is unbelievable. There are no lanes. No white lines. And those that are there are ignored. What should be three lanes of traffic is often six or seven. There are few pedestrian lights and fewer still yield signs. Traffic entering from side roads just slots in – very like the scene Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. Everyone has a space. They announce their arrival by honking their horn 200 metres from the junction and then just sit on it until they get a spot. Honestly, if you didn’t run the risk of dying from the exhaust fumes, you could watch this metal choreography for hours!
Crossing the road is an art in itself. The green man literally blinks and he’s gone. The red man stays lit up while the line of traffic revs its engines like a string of racehorses chomping at the bit waiting for the starters orders. Ahead of them, a digital clock counts down the seconds until their light goes green. And that’s when there is a crossing. Most times, people cross when the man is red as that’s when the traffic stops. Sometimes there are two men, one green and one red, both lit up. Stay or go? The dilemma.
You just have to go for it. Forget waiting patiently for someone to let you cross – it’s everyone for herself. And whatever you do, you can’t change your mind half way across.
It’s do or die!
Many of the locals travel by motorbike or scooter. It reminded me very much of Holland, where you see rows and rows of bicycles only in Bangalore, they’re motorised. Whole families travel on one bike – dad at the handles with a toddler up front. Mum behind, riding side-saddle with a baby in her sari and another child hanging between herself and dad. It’s frightening to watch but somehow, they all stay on.
Buses are another popular way of getting around but a million dollars wouldn’t get me on one of them. They’re cheaper than the autos and take a lot longer. Think of a tin of sardines. Now think of putting ten tins’ worth into one tin…it looks so uncomfortable and I can only imagine what such enforced intimacy brings with it. People are literally hanging out of steps. If I lived here, and had to, I would. But I don’t and I didn’t. Women travel up front and men behind. Even if you’re travelling with your husband you still separate.
Interestingly, bus fares are more expensive than train fares but as the trains are booked up quickly, sometimes it’s the only way to travel. And, if your town or village isn’t on the train track, then you’re bussing it. Like so much of India, public transport (apart from the airplanes) doesn’t run to schedule. The 8am to anywhere could depart on time or it might leave at 10am r 11.30am. No reason given, no excuses offered. That’s just the way it is. Interestingly there are separate queues for ladies…and credit cards. Am still wondering at the subliminal link in that pairing! Bicycles seem to be used to transport things rather than people. Maybe I was too preoccupied with dodging the traffic to notice ‘normal’ cyclists!
You never know what you’re going to meet coming down a street. Cows, camels, coconuts… the mystery is enthralling. The cows wander freely – their owners can’t afford to feed them so they scavenge what they can.
Once you get the hang of it though, Bangalore is an easy city to get around. You need to show huge determination with the auto drivers and refuse to get into one unless they use a meter and be prepared to get out of one if he doesn’t promise on his life to take you directly to where you want to go. Mind you, all this takes time. One day, with my new friend Emilie, we tried 11 autos before she found one who would switch on his meter. There’s determination for you. And a lesson in the value of money – watch after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.
That was my impression back in 2008 – and nothing much has changed. It’s still chaotic. Still mad. Still an adrenaline rush. This time I was so far out of the city (yes, there’s a mall close to the hotel – close being 14km) that the auto-rickshaws didn’t travel. There is Uber but I can’t even hack that in Hungary. So I took a hotel driver when I ventured out on my first afternoon. (A good move, though, as the next day, the only free day I had, I spent sick in bed.) And surprise, surprise, he, too, wanted to take me shopping. It’s great to see that there are some constants in life. One thing that has changed, though, is that far more people are wearing helmets – although it’s mainly adults. I wonder what the reasoning is there?
And I’d never noticed the designer trucks before … a little like the old buses used to be in Malta. Signs on the road appealing to drivers to stay in their lane are still ignored. And the hornblowing was finally explained. It’s not supposed to happen in the city – just on the highways. Some trucks have an entreaty painted on their tailgate to ‘sound horn’ if you want to pass as their visibility is limited. But forbidden or not, what other way is there to vent your frustration…