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I want to do this on my own…

Sometimes I just don’t want to know. I don’t want to know the history. I don’t want to know when it was built or why it was built or by whom it was built. Sometimes I just want to wander around and imagine stuff, zone out, get lost in the beauty. And then later, when I write it up, I can read about it.

Hospitality in India knows no bounds. Everyone wants to help. Especially at tourist sites. Guides – some licensed by the government, some chancing their arm, some even wearing jackets emblazoned with the words ‘tourism police’ – offer to take you around and tell you things that will give you a better understanding of the place. Things that need to be explained. And it takes either a cold heart or sheer desperation to say No. No thanks. I want to do this on my own…

I’ve been drowned in facts and figures and dates and names that are both unrecognisable and unpronounceable,  all delivered at a rapid-fire pace in that lovely sing-song lilt that is Indian English. But only once. And since my first experience, I’ve stood my ground and said No. No thanks. I want to do this on my own… I simply don’t have the bandwidth to listen. Yes, you are lovely. Yes, it is an amazing place. Yes, the price is reasonable. But no, please, no. Let me do it on my own.

IMG_1567 (800x600)But at the Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, I was still acclimatising. It was my first day in India and I hadn’t yet built up my resilience. So I agreed to a tour from a chap who didn’t have a badge or a card or seem in any way official. But he was persistent. and he mentioned his wife and kids and that this was his only job, his only means of supporting them. It was just easier to say yes.

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Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace

224-year-old vegetabe dye

I caught some highlights: The palace is made of wood, teak. One hundred sixty pillars, each one a whole tree trunk, hold it up. It took ten years to build and it’s built in the Indo-Islamic style. It’s 224 years old  and the paint (vegetable dye) on the ceiling of one landing is apparently original. There are two balconies: one facing front where the Sultan would sit to hear his people’s entreaties; the other at the back for private audiences. It has 14 rooms all told and it was to here that Tipu would come from Mysore in the summer as Bangalore sits 950 m above sea level and is far cooler. This was as much as I needed to know. But if you want to know more, check out Sahil Ahuja’s blog post – it has all the details.

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The man himself seemed quite the character. He is said to have forced 10 million (yes, 10 million) Hindus and Christians to convert to Islam. He imprisoned them. He made them eat beef. He forced them to marry Muslim women. And if they didn’t convert, he hanged them. Nice man.

My guide, in fairness to him, was lovely. Enthusiastic, eager, and full of names and dates and facts and history that didn’t enrich my life at all. But his enthusiasm did. As did his eagerness to make sure that I understood what I was looking at, that I fully appreciated the beauty of it all. The pride he took in the place was obvious.  Little did he know that had I just wandered around by myself, I’d have been just as awestruck. The palace was the second of my must-sees in Bangalore this time around. And I’m glad I went. Truly stunning.

 

 

 

Barefoot and blessed

Is there a difference between a traveller and a tourist? I think so. I was a tourist once – up at the crack of dawn so that I could tick all the sights off my list. Running myself ragged and needing a holiday to recover from my holiday when I came home. I think it was in Amsterdam once upon a time that I realised that I could always come back. That I didn’t have to see every single thing there was to see in one visit. And what a relief that was.

IMG_1597 (800x600)On my third visit to Bangalore, sorry Bengaluru, I had two places I wanted to visit. And if I had the chance, I wanted to drive by the Vidhana Soudha, seat of the state Legislature, to check if it really did have the words ‘Government work is God’s work’ carved over the door. Was I remembering correctly or was it a dream? And yes, it does. Considering some of the governments I’ve lived under, that one’s a difficult sell.

IMG_1579 (600x800)IMG_1585 (600x800)Anyway, the first stop on my itinerary was the Bull Temple, where Nandi Bull, a vehicle used by Lord Shiva, sits in all his glory. Carved out of one giant rock, he’s 4.5 m tall and 6.5 m long. It’s one of the oldest temples in the city, built originally by Kempe Gowda, the man who founded Bangalore.

Apparently, back in the day, there was a bull in the neighbourhood who would eat or destroy all the groundnuts and peanuts grown by the locals. The temple was built to appease him and, of course, once it was built, he stopped his pillaging and left the crops alone. This event is still celebrated with an annual Kadalekai Parase (Groundnut Fair). Another excuse to come back, as if I needed one.

IMG_1586 (800x600)We parked on the street. My driver told me that I had to go barefoot. Shoes were not allowed. I asked if I could take them off just oustide the temple door but he said no. I had to take them off before I entered the grounds. Bearing in mind that footpaths in India are nothing like footpaths in Hungary or Ireland, walking barefoot through the dirt and picking my way through the garbage wasn’t all that appealing. But I wanted to see the bull. So off I went. Barefoot. Over the road, into the grounds, up the steps, all the while noticing that other people were wearing shoes and wondering if I’d been just a little too gullible?  And sure enough, when I got to the top, I was met by a carpet of shoes and sandals. So I’ve done an urban version of Croagh Patrick, barefoot.

I made my donation, did my invocation, and got the red mark on my forehead. Which I promptly forgot all about. I spent the rest of the day and evening walking around like a marked woman. It looked like I had gashed myself – and explained why I was getting some unusual looks.

IMG_1543 (2) (800x675)IMG_1552 (600x800)I’ve been in my fair share of churches  in my time. I must have seen a statue of just about every saint who was every cannonised. I’ve marvelled at the niches on the streetcorners in Malta. I’ve wondered at the various calvaries dotted around Hungary. But there’s something about these temples that enthralls the mind. They’re everywhere. Hundreds of them throughout the city.  And they’re still being built. I haven’t quite figured out the differences between them all or which religion lays claim to the various designs, but even so, I find them fascinating. Perhaps temples could be my new cemeteries?

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On yer bike!

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!

IMG_1527 (800x594)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.

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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?

IMG_1593 (800x600)IMG_1538 (800x600)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…

Real cutlery, personal pillows, and stray dogs

Emirates1Real cutlery. A real, stainless steel, knife, fork and spoon. And flying economy, too. I hadn’t realised how budget airlines have become my norm. RyanAir, Wizz Air, EasyJet – they’re my standard. So any airline that goes above and beyond is impressive. And Emirates is certainly that. The food was excellent – all of it. And I love the way they refer to the overhead bin as a hatrack – harking back to times gone by. Reminds me of a photo I saw on FB recently but didn’t save: one of a couple in the 1950s on a flight will full crockery and cutlery service, wondering how luxurious flights would be in the future… man, did they ever get that wrong. Oh, it’s still luxurious, if you can afford it… but I ain’t in that financial bracket. Still, it was nice to get real cutlery for a change…

Fast forward through Dubai to Bangalore and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Electronic City. A far cry from IBIS or the Mercure (not that there’s anything wrong with either of them). I could get used to being called Miss Mary. Everyone is so incredibly nice and friendly and helpful. And everyone smiles. What a concept! Even if it’s something that has been drummed into them during their customer service training (which I doubt), they’ve long since owned it and it’s become their own.

I like having my own iron and ironing board. I like the complimentary shoe shine and the daily papers. I like the bath (big enough for two) and the shower (big enough for four) and the bed (big enough for a small army). I like having a bathroom scales, a coffee dock, and a recliner. But most of all I like that I can have choice of five different pillows.

pillow

It’s been about seven years since I was last in Bangalore. It’s now called Bengaluru and has been since this time last year. Other cities have also changed their names: Bombay became Mumbai in 1995; Madras changed to Chennai in 1996; Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001; Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991; Pondicherry to Puducherry in 2006; Poona to Pune in 2008; and Orissa to Odisha in 2011. I’ve asked a number of people why and no one seems to know the answer. It’s just the way it is. Like so much in this part of the world.

Time goes slower here. People work on a different rhythm and cycle. No one is any great hurry. I was delighted to see that the traffic is still chaotic, that lanes are but wishful thinking – and that the old Banglo saying still holds: all is fair in love and war … and traffic.

When I was here last, I completely missed Electronics City. And I wonder how? It’s hard to get my head around the numbers. This one city is home to nearly three times the population of Ireland – just one city! When I turfed up for work this morning, I was just one of 40 000 clocking in to that one company. It takes up acres and acres of room and has no fewer than 16 different access gates, fully landscaped gardens, and its own amphitheatre.

Electronics City itself is home to some 200 IT companies housed in 1.3 sq. km (332 acres). It was first envisaged in the 1970s as the Silicon Valley of India. And it’s impressive. Very impressive. In the software industry  here (when it comes to developers and designers) there are more women entering the industry than men. Not quite the same picture as in Europe. This imbalance  is reversed as their careers progress, with just 10% of women in the boardroom. A shame.

But the numbers… the numbers…

The city is the third largest in India and one of the first to have electricity back in 1905/6. The ratio of stray dogs to humans is 1:37 = a lot of stray dogs with some 12 people bite by one every hour (who counts I wonder?)  It’s home to the highest number of cigarette smokers in India, the highest percentage of engineers in the world, and the highest number of suicides in the country. I’m drawing no correlations here.  Everything about it is massive. A Banglo friend tell me that it’s lost its heart – it’s not what it used to be. While it’s certainly bigger, is it better?

It’s my third visit and I’m mesmerised by it all.