Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 18: Getting out of town

My main goal in understanding the Bangalore bus system(s) was to find an easy and cheap way to get out of Bangalore. Between Lal Bagh, Cariappa, and Cubbon Parks, I felt like I had pretty much explored all of the serious birding territory inside the city boundaries. So far, the drainage canal behind the Diamond District was turning out to be my most productive spot – given the distance to cover and the minutes to one had to spend before spotting something that was not a kite, myna, or rock dove (pigeon).

I really wanted to get out of the city. Someone introduced me to another ThoughtWorker who had a reputation for being a big nature fanatic, Chirdeep Shetty. Chirdeep it turns out, is more of a jungle and large animal guy than a birder guy but he knows tons of stuff and is deeply involved in preservation issues. It was great to get to meet him.

He didn’t think much of Bannerghatta except for maybe a short afternoon visit. He suggested we plan a trip out to one of the bigger national parks like Bandipur for a long weekend. But in a weird twist of fate, in June 2009, Bangalore became began to experience an unusually dry early monsoon season, while the rest of Karnataka state became deluged with rain and severe flooding. The road into and through Bandipur was impassable. So a few days after he floated this idea, we could see it was just not going to hold water and we abandoned ship. Maybe another year…

So, there I was, high and dry without a weekend plan except to go to Bannerghatta. Known for its white tigers, this is mainly a zoo and animal rehab place. The famous tigers are in safe enclosures and they all act like it. The same goes for bears and elephants, and so on. As a visitor, where you can go on your own is highly constrained thanks to at least one incident over fifteen years ago when a few people, excited by the opportunity to get close to nature, got too close, suffering the predictable death. And that is the difference between a wildlife preserve and a theme park.

As a consequence, entry into the true parklands is more carefully limited and thus, the idea that there even are wild lands so close to the city (about 25 km) is very vague. Most people will just tell you that Bannerghatta is a zoo, good for an afternoon.

But you can do more than that. There’s a great company called Jungle Lodges which runs secure enclaves within various Indian national parks. You can stay in a cosy hut-like cottage or Spartan but cheery dormitory for a bargain rate (by American standards) that includes meals (plus beer for purchase), relevant evening entertainment (a nature video or lecture, campfire discussions) and guided walking and driving tours. Mind you, this isn't luxury touring, it's comfy touring for people who do a lot of camping in tents.

Domitory shot in passing by MPries on Flickr

(This is me in the mirror, taking a shaky shot of the dormitory I stayed in.)

I made an on-line reservation (another caution, the process expects a minimum of two people for the cottages, so if you are a single tourist, make up a fake second guest and pay double. It's worth it.) Then, armed with the bus schedule, I got to the Kampegowda Bus Station early on a Saturday morning and found the berth for the 365 series buses to Bannerghatta. These are quite nice, modern red Volvo buses. The one-way fare was, I think 25 Rs. A real deal.

Kampegowda has so much traffic, every bus I’ve been on seems to spend about twenty minutes just navigating out of the station. It feels like an exit from a circular maze. The bus is always turning left and left again, for about five or six major intersections before it wobbles off down some zig-zag cow path lane, usually past some very nice homes, and then surprisingly, it finds the road to your destination. At that point everything becomes straight as an arrow (and I’m sure there is some remote connection to a former British military route.)

The cool thing about this bus trip is that I saw so many new scenes.

After we got past the main congestion and started heading out of Bangalore we passed an area that maybe I could say was the Indian equivalent of a Brazilian favela or an 1930’s US Depression-era tent city. For a few second, it felt like I had glimpsed a traditional village displaced in time from pre-colonial days. It was obviously a place where very poor people lived but it's not exactly what you picture as a "slum" if you are from a U. S. city. This area seemed quite unique in its response to circumstance, and, to me, expressed some cooperative spirit of the residents to dig in and make it work. But I’m just guessing based on a few drive-by views and reports in the newspaper.

From the bus, all I saw were small white structures, so closely plotted the roofs nearly touched, almost like an idea of American Navajo pueblos. They appeared to be laid out in neat formations with hard-packed dirt walkways in-between. Colorful bits of laundry gave witness to a bustling, hard-scrabble life yet the smoke from the cook fires made the buildings appear to float inside a cloud - a dream vision gifted to me by the speed of bus's passing. I wish I could have had more time to get a feel for this area, but not as a tourist gawking around. I would like to understand it as a friend of a friend or a journalist telling the story of the residents ... something beyond my current role of software consultant.

(Being in a bus, I couldn't get a good photo and have not succeeded in finding anything on the Internet that comes close to the image that my mind holds, so here's a temple that we passed.)

Meenakshi Temple, Bannerghatta Road by Mpries on Flickr

Then, quickly! A change of thought and scenery. The bus was driving past wetlands! Managed obviously, but wetlands nonetheless. That is, large, blocked off plots of land where natural water flows filled in natural lowlands letting reeds grow and making a home for wetland birds and animals. I love wetlands because I grew up just a short distance, about a half-mile, from one.

It wasn’t likely I would be able to get back there for birdwatching and in passing I could not see any obvious observation points as might happen in the US (in the US, funding support for wetland rehabilitation usually comes from birders and hunters so there are often observation/shooting blinds and hiking trails included in the plans). Here, wetlands in or near Bangalore exist mainly for flood control and to maintain the city water supply; people may love them for the visual relief and sense of freedom they provide but I'm not sure these lands get much official protection as nature preserves.

A blog post from March 2009 gives a good overview of the situation
But a more recent post from October, shows some progress is being made.

After the wetlands were some boring, alarming areas where you could see that land had been sold for housing developments and what was currently free and open greenery was going to be trashed and turned into urban sprawl in the next year, or maybe just trashed and then the development funding would run out. I hate to see this and I have seen this way too many times back home in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Someday, I think we’ll look back and say that we were really stupid or we won’t be here and someone else one hundred years from now will say that about us.

This boringness did not last too long. We started to get into areas that were tantalizingly still small town-y and almost woodsy feeling with some road signs suggesting that we were already in Bannerghatta, but it is easy for me to be confused by the signage so I’m not sure if any of this counted as part of the park.

Gateway village to Bannerghatta by Mpries on Flickr

Finally it appeared we were headed straight into one picture-perfect small town built into the side of a hill and totally dominated by a large gateway decorated with fantastic Hindu iconography. At the last minute, the bus turned left and in about 15 minutes we were at the park.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 17: The BTC and Kampegowde Bus Station

I don't know why it seemed so surprising to find out there was horse-racing in Bangalore, after all, on the Bangalore walk, we learned that the city had been a major center of British operations in India and the Brits do like horses.

Watching the Action Through the Fence by mpries on Flickr

Anyway, in a weird twist of fate, the very next morning after Venu pointed out the track to me on the bus, the newspaper's headline story was all about the racetrack losing its lease and needing to relocate at the end of the season.

Now, this was not a running-out-of-money issue. This was a city-grabbing-land issue. That is, the city of Bangalore owns the land where the racetrack sits and the city now wants to do something different with that land, like put up a big building, so the track was notified that the lease would not be renewed. The city proposed to give the Bangalore Turf Club about 100 acres in Chikkajala outside of Bangalore and while rebuilding, the racing dates for the next few years could move to the racetrack in Mysore. But the Mysore racing community argued that their track was too small to house all of the horses that run in Bangalore.

Clearly, this was a sign that I should spend the day at the races. I decided to go straight there, all by myself. An uncomplicated rickshaw ride put me right outside the gates. There were two entrances, one for members and one for the general public. The general public entrance looked pretty seedy from the outside so I pretended I had not seen the signs and tried going in the members entrance (you have to pay admission there, too.) Nothing doing. The ticketseller waved me back to the general entrance.

The entrance fee was small, 10 Rs maybe. Once I was inside though, I began to think that going alone was not such a great idea. It probably would have been much smarter to ask around the office and get a group together or get some tips on how to get in on the members side (I'm sure the big hotels must be able to make arrangements for any guests who are interested.)

Like any racetrack, the finish line was at the members section. The members section was also the place where the horses entered the track and the place where they located the starting gates. It had better seating too. The members stands were much higher and positioned at an angle so one could really see the horses as they rounded the turn and came down the stretch.

Not a Good Day at the Track by mpries, on Flickr

The general admission stands were low bleachers that faced straight ahead so you only got about 5 seconds of horseflesh pounding past per race. Instead of sitting there, I walked down to an open area between the bleachers and track and watched the action through the fence. Of course, you could always go back behind the stands where the betting windows and food vendors were located and watch the races on closed-circuit television. But that is not my idea of a day at the track. Plus, the ratio of women to men in general admission was something like about 0%, me and I think one other lady. And none of these men looked liked they had a desk job to go to on Monday. Yes, it would have been better to go with friends.

It was interesting to see how things were done. In Chicago, there are several racetracks and they all have automated results boards and groom the track between races with machinery. In Bangalore, it's more important to employ people. The odds and results are posted by hand and men with brooms and rakes tidy up the track.

Posting the Winners by mpries, on Flickr

Because space is limited, the center of the track appears green but it is not some vacant piece of landscaping with duck ponds, ornamental trees and flower beds suggesting a gracious mansion in the country. The center of the Bangalore track is actually a warren of stables below track-level so when you look out to the backstretch, you are looking across stable roofs. This causes the horses to go out of sight when they reach the far end of the backstretch and they stay out of sight (from the general stands) until they turn the corner into the home stretch.

I didn't bet, figuring that could be a translator's nightmare. But I mentally picked a horse to show (come in third or better) as they paraded past and each one that I picked would have paid out. Ahhh, good to know I can still pick horses.

Was That a Good Bet? by mpries, on Flickr

After a few races, I was ready to move on to another adventure. I knew the track was near the big bus terminal, Kempegowda, and I wanted to figure out how that worked. It was on my mind that I could use buses to get around, especially to Bannerghatta National Park.

I could have walked but got a rickshaw ride for 15 Rs, no shopping, and that was fine. There is nothing like this bus station in Chicago. We have a few places where buses connect to a train or subway terminal but even those places only have about six or seven berths for buses and only about that many buses are ever in the station at one time. Kampegowda, on the other hand, seemed to have a hundred buses coming and going at once. It was bedlam.

There are actually about three bus stations or bus lines laid out parallel to one another. An elevated ramp leads to many islands for the city-wide BMTC buses; it was off to my right. To my left, rickety, worn-out buses without any English markings were coming in from the suburbs and villages around Bangalore. Beyond those lanes, through a low building were the state-run KSRTC buses.

Everybody appeared to know where to catch their bus and they were going there pretty fast. That was a surprise since information like timings, prices, and where to find the bus you wanted didn't seem to exist. I walked around the whole place twice to figure it out. Passing under the ramp, near what might have been a ticket vending office, I found a large map of the Bangalore system on a wall. I could see that buses numbered in the 330 range ran parallel to MG Road and then out along Airport Road, and I noted down a few other useful routes and numbers, too. Now I knew how to use the bus to get downtown and back.

I Found My Bus by mpries on Flickr

I found a brown 333 bus, told the driver I was going to the Domlur stop (another passenger re-translated) and he charged me 10 Rs. When the bus got close to my stop, about three passengers let me know. It was so very nice.

Later, looking for a photo of the bus station, I discovered that it used to be a lake. I also discovered that I could never successfully access that transit map on the BMTC site.

At the moment, a Supreme Court court decision has revoked Bangalore's right to give up the land in Chikkajala and the Bangalore Turf Club has no alternative land to rebuild. Click here for details.

Then click here to learn more about the racetrack's history, get the current schedule, and see more pictures.

My Bangalore Adventure, part 16: An Outing to Mascal

Our third weekend outing with the TWU students was a trip to Mascal. At the time, June 2009, nobody could really say what Mascal was, except that it was an outdoor adventure day at a super-secret village that didn't show up on any map. If we googled it, all we got were two links from other TWers blogging about their TWU experience with a few photos. But today, a Google search turns up a little bit more - a guy from another company went on a company outing there in July and wrote about it, and my co-trainer and friend Sharlene also wrote about it and posted photos.

Mascal landscape 20  by mpries, on Flickr

So I will totally spill the beans. The outing was arranged through Cox & Kings, which is an Indian travel and event service founded in 1758 (I think they must have evolved their business model a few times since then). Here is the description straight from the brochure circulated among the TWU organizers:

Mascal is a small village in the lap of Mother Nature having the world famous monolithic Savandurga opposite it with backwaters of Manchinbele Dam built on River Arkawati for fantastic Aqua recreation. It is around 45 kms from Bangalore towards the town of Magadi. The safe water body and terrestrial surroundings make it the best location around Bangalore for a perfect Adventure experience.

According to the preceding TWU lore, we were in for a long day of kayaking, rock-climbing, and team-building games. I was pretty cool with that as I really like outdoorsy stuff. And the views of the farm fields and hills on the hike in were magnificent. But it was also a little disturbing. It's not exactly clear where public and private land begins. We followed a narrow footpath through a carefully plowed and planted field and the farmer, poor man, was quite upset that these casual city people (Indians and foreigners alike) were trampling the new shoots. I was pretty bugged too.

Hiking out 2 by mpries, on Flickr

My relatives were farmers and I have spent a lot of childhood days on farms; walking between, not on or over the rows, is a natural for me but much of our group seemed totally oblivious until I and some others called it out. The tour guides could have handled that better and given us a heads-up before we started. On the other hand, maybe there's a payoff to the farmer included in the deal, in which case, then the farmer was just maximizing his interest.

But again, looking at the plowed fields, the cattle, sheep and goats rambling about the slopes near the village, I wondered about agriculture encroaching into former wilderness and the soil and water degradation that follows. Not to mention the disturbance and loss of native plants and wildlife. These are valid concerns, too. Maybe it is not an issue with this one village but certainly these are issues elsewhere and that farmer's tensions about his crops are echoes of other tensions in India (and everywhere) about rivers and dams, heritage and progress, natural lands and urban space, water, food, pollution.

Mascal landscape 2 by mpries, on Flickr

Anyway, the hiking was great, breakfast and lunch were ported over to the campsite by kayak and we trekked further into the rough to do some paddling, swimming and rappelling off a cliff. Except for me. When I packed for India, I carefully searched online for etiquette and clothing advice and came to the conclusion that I could survive the three-month assignment with one pair of jeans, several pairs of business-casual khakis and no shorts. So when the kayaks paddled up with about six inches of brown water sloshing around inside, there was no way I was going to sit down in that in my only change of clothes.

Instead, while the others swam or kayaked over to the opposite side where the cliff was waiting, I explored deeper into the near-side brush for some David Sibley-style birding. David Allen Sibley is a famous birder and bird illustrator who advocates finding a likely spot and sitting still for about two hours. I discovered this method myself when I was about 11 years old. It really works for high-quality nature experiences of all sorts, not just birds. But I had a great time watching a Pied Cuckoo, a Common Iora and a Little Spiderhunter get their morning meals.

Team shot 7 by mpries, on Flickr

Meanwhile, everyone else spent about as much time sitting around on top of the cliff waiting to get roped up and go over, or sitting around at the bottom of the cliff, waiting for a free kayak to paddle back. Except for the tough guys and gals who decided to swim instead of paddle. I shared my binoculars with them and we watched the cliff action for awhile - someone got their ropes askew and ended up hanging upside down for awhile. Another person turned out to have a fairly serious phobia and never stopped screaming until they were back on their feet at the landing spot. Everyone else who tried it went down the face smoothly and reported it was a great experience.

Later, on the hike back to camp, I was dive-bombed by a red-wattled lapwing guarding its nest. And at the campsite, there were many looks at oriental skylarks, laughing doves, a great gray heron and the lovely purple heron. Venu (TW IS guy) and I watched it through the binoculars for a long time. Venu also was the first to spot the little shrine or marker on the top of Savandurga . With binoculars, we could even see the visitors coming and going up there.

All in all, it was a fun day. After lunch, we hung out at the campsite and played games - frisbee, cricket, and team competitions like trying to guide the most blind-folded teammates through a maze. Team Biju rocked!

And then, the icing on the cake, on the bus ride back to the Diamond District, as we came into Bangalore, Venu pointed out the window to a dark patch in the night-time cityscape. "That is the racetrack," he said. "It's beautiful."

What! There's horse-racing in Bangalore? I had no idea! Now there's an idea for a new adventure!

You can find pictures of all of the birds mentioned here at this Birds of India website.

Click here to read Sharlene's post.

And click here to see what that other guy wrote.

My Bangalore Adventure, part 15: Shopping with the Students

In my last post, I talked about visiting the Bangalore Palace. But actually, before that happened, I did a little Saturday revist of MG Road and Commercial Street with the TWU (ThoughtWorks University) students.

At the time, TWU was heading into its second week. After the first week of classes, we held a retrospective (an essential feature of agile software projects) and the students decided they could really improve their classroom experience by going shopping on the weekend. So they organized a Saturday outing and invited me. It was good to go along. I ended up doing some things I would not have done on my own and made some discoveries that really improved my stay.

For one, I finally got to Total Mall (not Mahal!) on Old Airport Road, which was the shopping center the Royal Orchid clerk had recommended to me before I had my rickshaw adventures. It was a good place to shop, including groceries, beer and wine, and less than a mile from the Diamond District. I also had my first Indian McDonald's meal there. I would never have gone into a McDonald's in India on my own but surprises can happen when you go with the flow in a group decision.

McDonald's at Total Mahal 2

It looked just like an American McDonald's except of course there were no hambugers on the menu. Just chicken sandwiches, filet-o-fish, and veggie items. But the most notable thing about this McDonald's is that, when they saw that we were one big group, they arranged separate seating for us, took our orders at the table, and brought the food out to us. I cannot imagine that EVER happening in the USA (so be prepared, Indians traveling abroad). I also really liked the veggie burger, even though I'm a serious meat eater. It had an tasty balance of mild seasonings (almost but not quite Mexican) and a southern USA "chicken-fried" texture that any meat-eating guy could appreciate without feeling he was eating weirdo veggie food.

As far as I know, this sandwich is not available anywhere in the USA. At least, I've never seen it in Chicago, but if it were available close to the Chicago ThoughtWorks office, I would have one at least once a week (so pay attention McDonald's franchisers and see if you can diversify!)

McDonald's at Total Mahal 3

After lunch, we all got into rickshaws and drove to Bangalore Central which was also another OK place to shop. We had passed it on our "Bangalore Walk" down MG Road but hadn't gone in then. It felt like a shopping mall but was really more like one of those Marks & Spencer's type department stores that has a contiguous flow of floor space (no obvious separate shops) but still may be leasing parts of their operation to other firms. In Chicago, several of the original department stores that dated back to the 1800s - Marshall Field's, and Carson Pirie Scott especially - tried this in the 1980s and '90s as a survival tactic but I don't think it was very effective for them.

Anyway, this was the place where I found the frozen lamb kifta kabobs that I wrote about earlier and a reasonable selection of fairly priced wines in half bottles. Just the thing for dining alone.

After that, more rickshaws and a stop at Commercial Street. I had been in this area before but not to walk up and down the little side streets that intersected and ran parallel to the main road. One minute, you're on a paved, two-lane street with modern, name brand stores and then you turn a corner or two and you are on a tiny mud-filled lane clogged with pushcarts, street vendors, shoppers and merchandise hung out in the open. So many colors, so many patterns, so many textures - silks, sarees, cheap jewelry, leather goods, plastic things. I just run into all sorts of cliches trying to put into words how much of India is a visual frenzy and a visual meditation.

Commercial Street 1by mpries, on Flickr

It's hard to take pictures in these streets, there are too many choices to focus on; especially when you are walking with friends. That's all that we did, just walked and looked. And bought some treats from the fruit vendors. Here was a new thing for me, a hard green mango sliced and dipped in chili salt. Yow! But good. Guavas with chili salt, too. Better yet, Vinkesh bought a bag of guavas for not too many rupees and I took some home. They were small and green, about the size of small peaches and I let them sit on my kitchen counter for several days.

There are five basic tastes the tongue can distinguish: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and something called umami, which means savoryness or meatiness, like the flavor mushrooms add. MSG is one source of this flavor. As these guavas began to yellow up on my kitchen counter, they filled the room with the richest, most unusual aroma - not a bad smell, not a beautiful smell-but something that I can only say was "fruity umami". Probably, these guavas were over-ripe by Indian standards but I thought they were delicious.

You can see and read more about guavas in Bangalore here.

You can learn more about project retrospectives at Agile Retrospectives Resource wiki.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 14: The Bangalore Palace

It just occurred to me that, although it's very comfortable to write one of these posts once a week or so, at this rate I'm still going to be writing about Bangalore at Christmastime (December). There is just so much to say and share about India. So I better start blocking out some writing-time every evening until I finally unload all my best memories.

For example, thinking about Cariappa Park and how quickly it went downhill from its apparently glorious renovation in 1996, reminds me of a spot in Lal Bagh that I didn't write about.

If you go through the main entrance on Lal Bagh Road and head to your right, you will come across something that looks like a fenced-in field of short-cut grass and weeds. In the center of this field appears to be a flat pavilion with some type of marker or memorial. It's actually a pillar and plaque surrounded by fountains (no water here now) dedicated to a major Indian botanist who used to run the operations at Lal Bagh. The date on the plaque? 1954. Hey, I know people who were born before 1954! They're not obsolete - yet. But this part of the park is practically ready for the archeologists.

Dead memorial to a gardener: 1954-Lal Bagh, by mpries, on Flickr

Anyway, the next weekend after Cariappa Park, I decided to try for the Bangalore Palace again. This time, I didn't have to go through the agony of shopping suggestions from the rickshaw driver, but I did have to tell him he had taken the wrong turn. Rickshaw drivers in Bangalore and taxi drivers in Chicago have a lot in common. Many drivers in Chicago are immigrants from Africa; in Bangalore, the drivers are often young men from small villages. Both are trying to make it in a big city and both are likely to be weak on reading and speaking in English. Places or directions that might seem obvious if you live in the area or have studied your guidebook carefully may be totally new and unknown to the random driver. You just have to take a deep breath and be nice about it; whenever I did, I got pretty good service in return (if shopping was not involved).

Eventually, we got to the Bangalore Palace - another interesting place from the colonial attic of discards. The Bangalore Palace used to be a royal residence and it sits on a lot of land. A large part of that land is now used for public events in much the same way that counties in the USA have a public fairgrounds. Temporary circuses, rock concerts, sporting events, flea markets, religious rallies, etc. might lease this space and there is also a horse stable and riding park but these entrances are around the back from where the palace sits.

Bangalore Palace, Inner Courtyard 1 by mpries, on Flickr

The Palace itself is quite a fantastical structure, inspired by Windsor Castle and pre-WWII English country manors. If you like to take architectural photos - interiors and exteriors - then you really want to come here and try your luck. If you are a designer or an interior decorator looking for ideas or laughs, then you really want to come here and look around. If you're a tourist who just likes to take photos that illustrate excessive wealth from days-gone-by, then you'll want to take some shots here. But if you're looking to learn anything useful about the history of Bangalore and India, forget it. The p[a]lace is mostly a major pocket-lining venture.

The first thing I noticed was the difference between Indian and foreigner rates. A lot of tourist attractions charge a higher rate for non-Indian visitors and, given global economics, that seems fair. It's not that they are taking advantage of outsiders but making sure that local citizens who usually earn and have far less, can enjoy their country's heritage at a competitive rate. But at Bangalore Palace, the difference in rates seems huge.

While most places only mark up foreign admissions by ten rupees or so, at most maybe 100 vs. 10 or 20 rupees; at the Bangalore Palace, it was either 500 rupees for foreigners (forangi) plus another 200 for carrying a camera; or it was the opposite. Either way, I paid a total of 700 Rs. to get in and take pictures.

Then, as soon as I got past the admissions desk, a person attached himself to me in the same way the leeches glommed on to Humphrey Bogart while he was pulling the boat through the shallows in the "African Queen".*

I suppose I could have thrown a temper tantrum and chased him off but who wants to cause a scene on a Sunday afternoon in a tourist attraction? India is a country with a bajillion people and something far less than a bajillion formal jobs. Everybody seems to have some kind of angle for survival - an entreprenuerial stewpot far beyond anything you'll see in the USA. It seems to me, the only way to really avoid "tourist guides" is to show up with an Indian friend.

I had no friend with me so off we went. He directed me through the public parts of the Palace - there's really only one route you can take - and I made him stop and wait while I took photos, or adjusted my shutterspeed and backtracked. I got some good photos but not too many I was happy with and I would have preferred to linger longer without him fidgeting behind my back. It probably would not have made much difference in my photos but it would have reduced the self-deceptions and regrets I have about my abilities.

Bangalore Palace, Wedding Hall by mpries, on FlickrP1010085

Meanwhile, my guide's contribution mainly went like this: "Come now," point at the only door out of the room. Point at a painting, "Painting." Point at an elephant head on the wall or an elephant foot used an an umbrella stand, "Elephant." Point at the indoor plumbing (Titanic-era plumbing), "Hot and cold shower."

After I had gotten a look at the hangar-like space used for weddings and what-not; seen the entrance hall, gone up the front flight of steps to the drawing room and down the hall to the first bedroom, had a close look at the inner courtyard from above and below, and examined the building exterior plus garden (on minimal life support), I had had the very best of the tour. The rest was an amazing and amusing peek into somebody's poor taste, especially the very bad nude paintings on the back stairway (or maybe that's why so many pay the admission price).

At the end, I gave my guide 100 Rs. He told me I was cheap. I gave him another 100 Rs. The rickshaw drivers out there are all vultures. There isn't anything else nearby worth walking to, so any forangi is fair game. You don't have to go "shopping" but it's likely they won't have change for anything less than 100 Rs no matter how close your next destination, so be sure to have lots of small bills.**

Someone at Bangalore Palace Liked Golfing, by mpries, on Flic

* Trailer for the movie The AfricanQueen on YouTube.

** A ride to Bangalore Central mall near MG Road should only be about 40-50 Rs.

You can get all the historical information worth having on the Bangalore Palace, plus more illustrations, on wikipedia.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 13: Cariappa Park

As I mentioned in my last post, Cariappa Park turned out to be a little bit different from Lal Bagh or Cubbon Park. The guidebooks list it and you can see it on some maps, too, but it really didn't get my attention until I rode past it in a rickshaw. It looked really wild and green, like a forest not a park. Interesting. I put it in the mental files to investigate.

The next weekend turned out to be the first weekend of ThoughtWorks University. We had 16 students, a few from the Bangalore area but most of them from other parts of India and some from China. They had had a Thursday and Friday of orientation in the office with official TWU starting on Monday after the weekend. The plan was to do a some sort of Bangalore tour with the trainers on Saturday as an icebreaker.

BangaloreWALKS is a walking tour service that offers a variety of public and private outings around different themes. Maybe we should have gone for the Beer Walk, but instead, for a Saturday morning, we arranged a Victorian History tour on MG Road (MG stands for Mahatma Ghandi).

There was a lot of standing around listening to stories but that was OK for me because I really didn't know any of the history of how England came to power in India and the role the French and Sultan Tipu played. I also learned why Bangalore had so much real estate devoted to the Indian Army and Air Force and why Bangalore is a technology center for India today. For a little flavor of this walk, click here.

If you clicked that link, then you would have seen an inviting view of people having brunch on the balcony of a tall building (13th Floor). From here, our guide pointed out a band of greenery that started at one end of the army parade grounds (just visible in the photo). These were Cariappa and Cubbon Parks. I decided to check out Cariappa Park that afternoon.

The park is owned by the Army and only open to the public from 6-9 AM and 4-7 PM. A little bit odd but a lot of places in Bangalore and elsewhere have split hours like this. I figure maybe the Army wants to make sure they get some private time (pun intended) in there.

The guidebooks point out that a major feature of this park is a planned series of exercise stations installed along the paths. But some of the other references mention that this park has pretty much been left alone to grow wild and that is exactly what I found. In fact, it can feel just plain scary in spots.

Spooky Path in Cariappa by mpries, on Flickr

I showed up about 4:30 PM and took the walk to my right, figuring it would circle the park and let me get a feel for whether I wanted to try any of the interior paths. After passing a rusted jungle gym type of structure, the walk became very overgrown and trashy with food leftovers and wrappers. It looked to me like a few homeless people had been making camp there. And a trio of wild dogs were quite assertive about one part of the path; maybe they win more times than lose. Anyway, I told them where to go and they agreed and disappeared.

The only good part about this section was finding an Eurasian Sparrowhawk in a nearby tree. We looked at each other for a minute or two and then it took off towards the Parade Grounds. I was past the spookiest part now and could see the walls that separated the park from more mundane military activities. The landscaping was a little more open here and soon I could see other paths with named markers. I could also see a few ordinary-looking people; middle-aged men taking a brisk walk, lovers sitting in shady spots.

The path looped back toward the entrance in sort of a figure-eight or butterfly pattern and the central lane took me past a very large fountain with, no-surprise, no water in it. Too bad. It looked like it was meant to simulate a large waterfall.

Cariappa former waterfall by mpries, on Flickr

Not far from there was a memorial to Field Marshal Cariappa, a ground-breaking figure in modern-day Indian military history.

The memorial was dated 1996. Continuing on, I began to notice other signs pointing out structures or memorials from the same year, except the structures were either in ruins or, remarkably, in the case of an entire bandstand pavilion, completely gone. For the first time, I noticed that the paths were lined with broken light fixtures. The story was obvious and amazing. Here was a park, designed and laid out by the army in 1996 to honor this military man, and in less than 15 years it was completely neglected and abandoned to the elements.

You can read more about it here.

Cariappa of Karnataka by mpries, on Flickr

My Bangalore Adventure, part 12: Cubbon Park

Before I forget anything about them, there were two other large public parks in Bangalore that I visited. Cubbon Park was a recommendation from my friend Jake, another trainer. Cariappa Park was mentioned in a guidebook but forgotten by me until I passed it on an auto-rickshaw ride to Cubbon Park.

Unlike Lal Bagh, Cubbon Park is not promoted as anything but a public greenspace inside the city. No in-your-face pre-colonial history, geological wonders, or must-see exhibits; just a big green park with a few bordering museums and government buildings, where one can walk around and feel a bit of escape from big city life. A lot about it feels like Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Birds of Cubben Park

The main entrance has a very nice hand-painted sign advertising the birds of Cubbon Park, but since I showed up around 1 PM, the only birds were the usual crows, pigeons, and mynas. If you really want to do birding, you have to get going early in the morning.

At 1 PM, on a Sunday, the main observations were vendors touting snacks or games of chance, children taking pony rides, older kids jumping bikes off rocks, parents standing in line with children at a little amusement park, young couples having serious conversations in very bushy areas, a cow resting in the grass, a smouldering pile of leaves and trash (burning is one of the more effective garbage solutions available here), domestic ducks chasing hand-outs on the obligatory scummy pond, and a nice bit of formal garden leading to the backsides of the Karnataka High Court building and the world's largest cricket stadium.

There is an aquarium there, too. I didn't go inside and I guess it's just as well because later, another friend Biju told me that he had visited the aquarium and there weren't any fish in there. About that same time, I read something in the local paper that renovations were going on to add new exhibits so I guess that explains it. My recommendation, wait until next year to visit the Bangalore Aquarium.

Gazebo and High Court

But otherwise, if you're in Bangalore and fed up with street traffic and mud streets and no sidewalks because food and merchandise vendors are taking up all the paved spots for their stalls, then Cubbon Park is a great place to come for an hour or two of walking around in greenery. Adjacent to Cubbon Park is a long narrow rectangle of a park called Queen's Park. It has a statue of Queen Victoria at one end and King Edward at the other. In between are two long narrow alleys shaded by large trees. The names are English but the atmosphere is French. Bangalore is so cosmopolitan in that way.

Plus, Cubbon Park is at the far end of MG Road. A quick walk or rickshaw ride down MG Road, near a landmark building that used to be the headquarters of the [Bible] Tract and Book Society but is now a Hard Rock Cafe (this is true, for real), puts you at a gourmet food shop where the homesick American or European can find spanish ham, black forest sausage, avocados (called "butter fruit" here), cheddar cheese and other imported goodies, just like home.

Cubbon Park is tame and domestic. Cariappa Park (my next post), turned out to be quite different....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 11: Time out for food and wine

Sunday Lunch by Spo0nman

I was going to continue to write about public parks but that can wait. It's time to talk a little about food. Bangalore has turned out to be like Chicago, a great cosmopolitan melting pot of world cusines at affordabale prices in homey atmospheres. Too bad the demands and lunchtime buffets of TW University have generally kept me off the street at suppertime.

You can get good versions of just about anything here without ever going too far -- all of the Indian regions, Middle Eastern, Italian (especially if it's veggie-style), Mediterranean, Continental, American semi-fast (Chili's, Domino's, TGIF) and fast (MacDonald's, KFC), Chinese, Korean (doesn't a place called Barbecue Nation totally tempt you?) Thai, French bistro. Recently, a Bulgarian resturant opened at a downtown hotel which caused a lot of interest in the newspaper dining columns.

Once upon a time, I swore I would never waste blogspace on cooking tips, but right now, I just cooked one of my favorite Bangalore home meals and it might be useful for forangi (westerners) to know about this if they are into meat and find they don't have time to get to these places, either.

During the day, at the ThoughtWorks office and at the hotel where we conduct Thoughtworks University, there are buffet meals with a lot of carbo opportunities -- rice, bread, beans/peas/lentils, potatoes, cookies, crackers, ice cream, sweet desserts. Thanks to this, I now know why the local dress features so many baggy items -- it's not about the heat, it's the food -- it gets really hard to eat all of this stuff and stay comfortable in your trousers.

But for dinner at home, I discovered a brand of frozen ground lamb kabobs (aka kifta kabob) that is really pretty good. I can get a tiny cabbage, about the size of a grapefruit, from the cart down the street. The little market in the Diamond District parking garage always has shallots, garlic or onion; tomatoes, and peppers - red or green. Frozen peas are easy to find too. So I slice the sausage and the vegetables and saute them all in butter and olive oil.

Excellent fruit stand

Then there's this great dairy product called Set Curd, which sounds awful to Americans, but is really like a cross between labna* and sour cream. Put that on the sausage-cabbage mix and serve with red wine. It makes me happy to eat it.

I found a local (means Karnataka State) wine that pairs very well with this dish. It's very much like the dry, dark red Greek wines Paul and I like, or old-time Zinfandel. The winery is Kinvah and the wine is a blend called Manthan. The label does not name the grapes. It needs to pair with food but that's OK as it makes a good house wine. It goes for about 450 Rs a bottle which is about $9 US here.

The set curd stuff is so good, it makes a great version of lamb stroganoff tossed with hot noodles or pasta and sauteed mushrooms and shallots. You can always add peas, too ...very Indian to add peas, it seems.

Set curd is also a great replacement for milk or cream in scrambled eggs. I have yet to try the lamb sausage in an omelet but my taste buds tell me it should go very well that way if fried up with shallots, red peppers and basil. If it's brunch or later, I'd do a white wine with this -- especially Chenin Blanc or a sparkling wine and a fruit salad. Since Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are doing OK in India, you can generally buy these wines at good prices without encountering too many disasters.

Yes, India has a wine industry. Most of the vineyards are in Maharashtra State, which borders the Arabian Sea and includes the cities of Mumbai and Pune. Only a few vineyards are in Karnataka State, the home of Bangalore. Karnataka is generally high desert so you could expect different wines to do well here, or at least, the same grapes will perform differently.

Of the Maharashtra vineyards, Sula is a consistent performer. They were a wine pioneer so have had more time to mature their vines and perfect their techniques. Their Sauvignon Blanc, when freshly released, is an excellent choice. Just opening a bottle and inhaling the bouquet excites my gourmet radar. It is more expensive though; a half bottle generally runs in that same 400 RS range ($8-9 US).

Since Indian food can be heavy, starchy, and spicy, Sauvignon Blanc is an good match and Chenin Blanc often provides just the right sweetness and bite to pair with tropical fruits and fried breads.

Karnataka is still searching for its wine identity. There are only about 9 wineries here. If anybody asked me, I would look to do here what has been done in Spain and certain parts of Italy and the Rhone. Nobody is growing southern Rhone grapes here that I've seen but a lot of effort is going into Shiraz, perhaps because of the proximity to Australia. I think Zinfandel is a better bet. This is high desert so many places get hot, but not too hot for good Zin, and there is a very interesting minerally red sand soil here (different from US Georgia clay) that can impart a lot of "terroir" (flavor of the land).

My favorite Karnataka winery so far is Grover Vineyards. Their La Reserva is a good attempt to reproduce an afforadable but accurate Bordeaux-style of wine (Cabernet-Merlot blend that matches with steaks). To that end, they've engaged a well-known consultant from France. Their rosé is an excellent buy if you like a dry, southern-France style rosé to pair with all of the spicy chicken and potato dishes available here.

Many restaurants in Bangalore serve Maya wines as their house wine. Maya is a Maharashtra winery and generally I have not been impressed. These wines usually have a plonky, skunky note. The Sauvignon Blanc is their best entry.

Some TW friends recently had a Big Banyan Cabernet at B-Flat, a wonderful jazz and supper club on 100 Ft. Road (try the "hot dog" a martini-style cockail of scotch, sweet vermouth and ginger liqueur). My friends report the wine was very surprising and chocolatey. Since they are ThoughtWorkers from Australia, I trust they have a good wine sense. I haven't had any Big Banyan wines yet but am looking for an opportunity. This is another Karnataka winery but they have an Italian instead of a French expert onboard.

If this post has caught your interest, there is a regular periodical published for the India consumer called Sommelier India.

* Labna is a very thick plain yogurt that has been strained of liquid so much, it is really a spreadable cheese.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 10: More about Lal Bagh

If you come to the east/south gate of Lal Bagh, the Peninsular Gneiss is on your left and an Oriental Garden is on your right. There's a main boulevard in front of you which you can imagine bisects a clockface from 6 to 12. This boulevard is where all the action congregates. On the left, on my first vist, appeared to be a series of green food stalls and lots of people buying snacks. Actually, this turned out to be exhibit space and the annual Mango Festival was going on. silly me! I was totally unaware of it.

Instead, I veered away from the foot traffic and headed right along the edge of the imaginary circle, towards 5 o'clock and an area that looked like a naturalistic landscape with a large bamboo grove. I hoped to spot some good birds here and did succeed in finding a brown-headed barbet, a first for me.

The path in this direction skirted the Oriental Garden which appeared to have locked gates. Further on though, it looked like some people were in there so I thought maybe the gates were just closed but not locked. On a second visit, I learned that the garden really was locked and I had seen an illusion created by an exterior walkway.

Soon I came upon my first clue that Bangalore had a serious water problem. It was a fantastical fountain that represented some mythological or religious event with a seaside setting. Everything about it suggested a rocky cave lashed by ocean waves, except the fountain was bone dry, dusty, and scattered with brown leaves.

Eventually, I counted four fountains and one simulated woodland creek with waterfall, all missing their water. That reminded me of the middle swimming pool, the ladies-only pool, at the Diamond District, which was also empty of water. I had thought that pool was just undergoing seasonal maintenance. But now it occurred to me there wasn't enough fresh water available to Bangalore to justify keeping the public fountains operating.

As I reached about 4 o'clock on my walk, I noticed a large grassy space behind the Oriental Garden where people were playing games, running around, and picnicking....very much like an afternoon in Chicago's Lincoln Park but not what you expect in a place promoted as a botanic garden.

And there was a tree limb, downed by a storm long enough ago that all of the leaves had withered but no groundskeepers had cleared it away yet. Further on, near 3 o'clock, was an elaborate greenhouse filled with lotus pools and large-leaved jungle plants (aroids), but every door to this place was chained shut.

A stray dog, sleeping in the sun. A colorful cottage building of unknown purpose, doors locked with cracked walls and pillars and peeling paint. A broken brick walkway to a terrace with crumbling steps. And unexpectedly, Bambi!

There's a word for things taken out of their context and put in contradictory settings -- like the London Bridge in the Arizona desert -- but I can't think of that word right now. I don't think anything I had seen in Bangalore up to that point made me feel more like I had just gotten off the spaceship than seeing a Disneyana display of Bambi, Thumper the rabbit, and their friends in this formal garden setting.

And there was more. Once I got to about 2 o'clock on the perimeter, I cut in to the center to get back to the main boulevard. Here I found Snow White's dwarves - all seven of them.

They were arranged around a mechanical clock set into a bank of flowers, behind which, on my sightline, was a very Napoleonic formal column and sculpture of some historical person on horseback, and beyond that, a modernistic, 1960-ish fountain without water. All backed by trees and hedges that seemed to say, "This way to the real botanic garden!"

Deliberate or accidental, I felt like I had wandered into an attic of discarded colonialism.

But the boulevard back to 6 o'clock did take me through a beautifully kept circle of topiary followed by a pretty gazebo where concerts might be held on occasion, followed by the Glass House -- an open-air exhibition hall for staging large-scale, seasonal horticultural displays and fairs.

One write-up had mentioned there was a rose garden of 5,000 plants. Now to me, even a single well-kept rosebush in full bloom can be a tremendous work of natural art, so 5,000 of them?? I took the detour, past an ancient huge tree, distressed to see so many people had carved names and initials into it, and found the rose garden. It too had gates chained shut, paths calf-high with grass and weeds, none of the bushes pruned or groomed, and only a few fading flowers.

On a second visit, the grass was cut and the stems pruned, so I guess the blooming season just starts and ends a lot earlier than it does in Chicago, or Oregon.

Time was up, an early monsoon storm was brewing, there was a spotted owlet huddled on a low branch (another first!)

I left with at least a quarter of the garden plus the lake unexplored that first day, but came back and may be back again. It's a weird, wonderful, sad, aggravating, beautiful, thought-provoking place.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 9: Lal Bagh & the Peninsular Gneiss

Wikipedia and the India guidebook I consulted before traveling, describe Lal Bagh as a botanic garden. The mere fact that I am writing this post probably indicates that I beg to disagree with that description. Let me tell you about it.

First, the Wikipedia entry is a good source for history and the current tree-cutting situation. The photos shown and linked there tell a true story, but not all of the story.

Paul and I really like botanical gardens. We are members of the Chicago Botanic Garden and wherever we go, if there is a garden there, we try to make time to visit it. Although most of our travels have been in the US and Canada, we've seen a lot of New World gardens ... Vancouver and Victoria, BC.; Hilo, Hawaii; Catalina Island; San Antonio; San Franciso; even Peoria, Illinois, just to name a few favorites (sorry, states south of the Mason-Dixon, graveyards and Civil War sites trump gardens down there).

So what will I see at Lal Bagh? It was on my mental tourist checklist and when Deepali recommended it in my first week, I moved it to the top of the list. Arriving there was quite impressive. I came by auto-rickshaw and after paying admission, we drove down an alley of giant cypress trees and canna lilies to the parking lot. From there, the first thing I encountered was a spectacular gelogical formation that I didn't really expect (I had read the TW guide, not the current Wikipedia listing.)

It was so vast and subtly extruded from the ground that my initial impression was of a concrete pouring gone wrong; I thought maybe it was a botched attempt at creating a rock garden, or some landscaping in progress. It looked like a gigantic dish of gray ice cream set out in the sun.

I couldn't figure out why a botanic garden would start such a badly-designed venture until I walked on a little farther and realized that the scale was too massive to be a man-made garden feature. It was a natural rock formation... or maybe rather, the worn-down skeleton of a hill older than the hills.

At the top was a little shrine, a monument to the place ... the Peninsular Gneiss which forms the bedrock of all of southern India. Way Cool!

Except there was no end to the bits of trash, plastic bottles, roast corn cobs and paper plates of partially eaten food tossed all around this place. A wonderful place where a person could stand in silence in blind, relentless sunshine and contemplate thousands of years of the earth's rotation.

An aging process invisible yet completely vulnerable to human, and only human existence. A thing far greater than any single one of us, the thing to which we will all return someday when the composite minerals that form our bodies and their containers dissolve back into the earth which gave us our original structure and home.

Roast corn detritus by mpries, on Flickr

So there I am contemplating life, death, and the human equivalent of monkey dung and I am wondering why everybody else seems to have no problem with it. This is the essence of my Bangalore adventure.

to be continued...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 8: Catching Up

I've been in Bangalore for eight weeks now and except for the auto-rickshaw adventures, I've hardly described more than my first weekend. So this post is all about catching up, except, I hardly know where to get started.

First thing though, I know I'm not going to talk about ThoughtWorks India or TW University right now. That can wait. Second, I do know that I want to tie up some loose ends from my first weekend here. If you've read all of these posts, then you may remember my first Bangalore impressions as we drove in from the airport and the fabulous exotic building called the Leela Palace. Second, you may remember some issues I had with the hot water (not having any in the shower) and trying to get an internet connection.

Neighborhood Shrine

To bring all of that up-to-date, here's what I found out....That first weekend, after getting some shopping advice at the Royal Orchid Hotel and before meeting Mr. Murthy, the local rickshaw kingpin, I was surprised to see a lot of firecracker detritus in the street outside the Royal Orchid. It looked like I had walked into the remains of a Chinese New Year. Imgaine that. I was so tired from the trip in, I had missed all of this commotion in the neighborhood.

Well, once I got in the rickshaw and onto Airport Road, I found out that a local religious temple festival had been going on all morning and there had been a parade of floats that represented various gods going down our stretch of Airport Road. I managed to see the last two -- they were decorated in gold and red and ivory, the ivory color coming from live jasmine flowers. Cool! but my camera was back in my room...doh!

And the fabulous Leela Palace that I thought was maybe some restored historical place? We passed that again on the way back from shopping. It turned out to be a luxury hotel with an attached shopping mall. Doh!

Leela Palace 1

Meanwhile, the hot water heater. Well, like I said, after my first cold shower, I noticed there was a wall switch that turned the heater on; I tried that the next morning for about 10 minutes before using the shower. Still cold. I went to work and when I got home that night, I turned the heater on all night. The next morning, still cold.

So I asked my roommate, Deepali, if she had hot water. Of course, she did. She called the maintenance manager and two guys came over that night for about an hour and fixed something or other. One of them showed me that there were two lights on the heater and if the cut-off light came on, it meant no hot water. Well, that was good up to a point, but what makes the cut-off light come on? Once it is on, it stays on forever and you have to call the maintenance crew.

It was coming on pretty much once a week until about two weeks ago. I suspect it has to do with leaving the heater on one minute--or maybe thirty seconds--longer than it wants to be on and it overheats. Anyway, the last time it came on, I called maintenance four days in a row and they never got it fixed. Apparently, if I call in the morning before I go to work and say, "I'm calling from apartment A-77-PH and there's no hot water in bathroom number one, the cut-out light is on," the person on the other end can't understand what I'm saying and nobody is able to figure out the problem since I've gone to work for the day. So I've given up. Cold showers in India can be quite refreshing.

And the internet connection? We fooled around with that for about three days, too, before it came to light that the garbled-up password written on the modem in the apartment was wrong by two characters.

Now I feel all caught up and the next things I want to tell you about are the gardens and parks I've visited in town -- Lal Bagh, Cubbon Park, and Cariappa Park.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 7: The last auto-rickshaw story?

Rickshaws at Commercial Street
By now you must be able to tell that I'm a farly hard-headed person who likes figure out my own way of doing a thing (or throughly tracing every path on my own until I prove to myself I have no clue what I'm doing.)

This must be true because the very next free weekend, I called Arif, the driver who had taken me to Lal Bagh and back without going shopping. This time, I wanted to go to Sankey Tank, which may have been a natural lake years ago but now is more of a planned water reservoir that also serves as a public park. A recent report in the paper said that the early monsoons had brought a lot of bird life to Sankey Tank.

Nearby was the Bangalore Palace, an interesting historical and architectural site, so I figure seeing the two places could make for a pretty good day. Arif says me he'll pick me up at Gate 2. In a few minutes he drives up with a passenger in his rickshaw. He says he has this other fare but he's arranged for someone else to drive me and that person is coming right behind him. A few seconds later, a rickshaw pulls up with two people in it. It's a young driver and Mr. Murthy!

So! These guys are all in cahoots with each other....I tell them I am not interested in anymore of this shopping business. I want to go here and then there and I'm not doing anything but taking photos. Mr. Murthy assures me he understands that and not to worry, this driver knows exactly what to do, etc., etc.

And off we go to Sankey Tank. Here, I learn something interesting, parks in Bangalore may not be open from sunrise to sunset, as they usually are in America. They may be open for only a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the late afternoon; this one happens to be closed right now and won't be open for another hour. Nuts.

Then the guard at the gate suggests he could let me in for 20 minutes for 20 Rs. It must be the photographer's vest that I like to wear when I go birding or photo'ing. Maybe people are thinking I'm scouting faces and places for the next Slumdog Millionaire. Since I'd rather spend money than waste my time, I pay up and take a look around.

It's really a very pretty place. A mix of manicured lawns bordered by a little bit of natural woods with a wide walkway all around the lake. You can rent boats, too when it's open. I mostly see the same birds that hang out at the Diamond District but I'm also happy to identify a darter, a white-browed wagtail and a spotted dove. I start to take some photos. I had checked my batteries before I left the apartment but after a few snaps, the batteries give out anyway.

Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) - photo by David Behrens

I explain to the driver that I have to get more batteries before we go to the Palace. I'm waving the camera around (but I don't think to take the batteries out and show him). He says, "Yes, yes" and seems to know what I'm talking about.

He starts driving. It appears we are passing several open shops that look like places where a person could get battereis. I point to a filling staton that has an attached market and say, "Couldn't we get batteries there?" He says, "Yes," and drives right past it.

He doesn't stop until we get to Bangalore Palace. I tell him I'm not interested in being at Bangalore Palce if I don't have any batteries for my camera and why did he drive me here instead of stopping to buy some? He seems completely confused and right about that time it occurs to me that he probably hasn't understood anything I've been saying all day. He's just going on some general plan he got from Mr. Murthy.

Then a guard comes up and starts talking to us. I can't understand the guard, but the driver manages to say to me that there's a fine for taking photos (I have my camera in my hand). Oh, there is? Then it's not such a big deal. The driver asks if we're going. "No, if I can't take photos here, then it doesn't matter if I have batteries, I'll go inside and see the palace anyway."

You have to go inside the palace bulding to pay the admission. Once I'm inside, at the admission desk, I see a sign that says the price for non-Indians is something like 150 Rs and if you take photos, it's another 200 Rs. Great! It's not a fine, it's a fee. I walk out. The driver is so confused. Are we going or staying or what? "Going! I want to go back." "Eh?" "Diamond District. Go back right now. Nothing is working out." "Go?" "Yes. Go right back."

We start driving and guess what? After a little bit, he suggests I look at a shop.

Just re-run the last two rickshaw rides. No and no and no; I am not looking at a shop. "Just one more, this one is really different. Not like the other ones." He pulls up in front of a place. Before I could even look at it and say, "I'm not getting out," I hear a familiar voice.

"Hello Madame! How good of you to come and see us again. Would you like a cup of tea? Have you thought about that trip to Mysore?" Oh No! It's the jewelry shop again!!

I'm happy to report that by now, I seem to have gotten the hang of insisting on the meter (it's ok if they ask for 10 or 20 Rs on top of the meter fare), and letting the driver know it's strictly a one-way ride (I'm meeting some friends...), and if possible, not getting in or out of a rickshaw in front of the Diamond District (I cross Airport Road and catch one by TGIF's instead), and if they ask, I tell them I've been living in Bangalore for a long time. So far my last half-dozen rides have been shopping-free.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 6: More auto-rickshaw

Having had two successful afternoons using auto-rickshaws, I thought I had it made for transportation in Bangalore. That's like thinking you are having fun in Las Vegas but you've only just arrived in the casino.

I still hadn't gotten the kitchen things I wanted so on my next free afternoon, I called Arif, the driver who had taken me to Lal Bagh. He was out of town for a wedding, so I called Mr. Murthy and told him what I wanted to do. He was busy with another customer but he would send someone else over for me. That driver showed up on time and off we went to shop for kitchen things.

View My Bangalore Adventure in a larger map

We hadn't discussed any names of stores or streets of locations, we just started driving down Airport Road toward MG Road (a main traffic artery through Bangalore). I had the general idea from studying maps that we would end up on Commercial St. which people had said was an amazing place for bargain hunting. Yes, that's where we went and it was amazing!

near commercial street by mattlogelin on Flickr

I felt we had turned the corner into a place left over from the days of Aladdin and the magic lamp (except for the updated merchandise). I didn't have my camera so I can't show how it looked to me but I found a few photos that come close. There was a store filled with all sorts of cookware and I bought plenty of it. When I stepped out the door with a big bag full of pots and utensils I found an empty rickshaw, no driver. I guess he'd gone off to where bored drivers hang out. I waited about 10 minutes and then called Mr. Murthy. OK, the driver is coming. He shows up in a few minutes and I'm ready to go home.

bangalore by mr. gears on Flickr

But we don't go home. We go to some shop he thinks I should look at. No. I'm done shopping. Please, just five minutes, look. No, I'm not getting out. OK, maybe you like this one. I've been there already. Please, this shop is very nice, you take a look and see. Alright, I'll look, five minutes! This goes on for about five shops. And yes, as someone commented on my previous post, it's all about kickbacks, I mean "commissions." I'm from Chicago, home of Rod Blagojevich; we know a lot about that kind of thing. Actually, this is pretty amateur compared to Chicago-style kickbacks. But annoying.

I did go into two shops that looked worthwhile and was satisfied to solve my wall hanging problem for about $6 American and discover a pair of earrings that totally matched an unusual ring of mine that I care quite a bit about. So I still thought that it was an OK day. Except, when we got back, I asked the driver what the charge was and he just says, "Whatever you think." So I figure I did a lot of shopping and give him 100 Rs. He says, "That's cheap M'am." "Oh! Well what it should be?" A little head wag, side-to-side, no speaking. OK, I give him another 100 Rs. (To learn more what that head-wagging might have meant, click here.)

I am done with "shopping" ! Keeping that in mind, the next day I cross Mr. Murthy off my list and try my luck with some other driver parked outside the gate who looked about as old as Methuselah. Did I think senior citizens were naturally more virtuous? I guess so. I ask him what he'd charge to go to Cubben Park and wait for a couple hours while I take photos and then come straight back. He says 300 Rs. OK deal. We do the park and then he suggests I see the Parliament building. Since it's just around the corner, I say OK.

We do that, and I take photos, although it's clear he doesn't get the concept of taking photos to be artistic. He figured I'd do the regular tourist one-shot and get out of there. Instead, I'm prowling up and down (it's a very large, long building), going close, going far, crouching here, kneeling there, trying to find good angles and good light while dodging the obvious tourists. He's discreetly hovering around trying to get me back into the rickshaw. It's actually not very good daylight for photos, so I give up fairly quickly.

Dome of the Vidhana Soudha by mpries, on Flickr

As soon as we're rolling, he starts with the shopping business. No and no and no. I am not getting out. I've already been there. Again, five different shops at least. I decide it's time for a new tactic. I go in a shop; I tell the shopkeeper the rickshaw driver told me to take a look for five minutes so I'm just coming in to make the driver happy. Then I ask for his card, write down either his name or a note about something in the shop and say something like, "Very nice, I'll think about this for later. Good-bye." This speeds things up.

Eventually, the driver hits on the shop where I bought the earrings. I either paid too much or they figure I'm coming back for something bigger. They are so pleased and happy to see me. Come in and have a cup of tea with us. I have a cup of tea in the shop. Over tea, one of them suggests he could personally escort me to Mysore for a day or overnight. (Oh, that's the game!) I get back in the rickshaw. The driver is not happy. "They told me you were already there and they wouldn't give me anything."

"I told you I had already been shopping and didn't want to do any more shopping. What would you have gotten anyway?" I am thinking whatever it is, I would rather pay it than waste my time riding in rickshaws. "It's not for me, it's for my children." "What do your children get?" They get coupons for school." "What are they worth to you, these coupons?" "It's for the children. To get gifts from the school." "How much are these gifts worth?" He stops talking.

We get back to the Diamond District. I give him 300 Rs. He looks at me like he wants to say I'm pretty cheap but I just say, "That was the deal." A little head-wag and maybe almost a smile (or a mental kicking himself moment), "Yes."

And wait, there's more.....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 5: All About Auto-Rickshaws

The auto-rickshaw is an interesting cross between a tricycle, a golf cart, and a horse carriage. It has three wheels, a two or three stroke engine, open sides and a hard seat in the back that can hold two or three adults, and a driver in the front who usually can't speak whatever language you speak, except for the words "shop" and "shopping."

Inside an Auto-Rickshaw

There are thousands of them in India, all with the same black and yellow color scheme, but some also feature advertising or have elaborately decorated leather interiors. They sort of putter and shake as you ride along and you definitely inhale more exhaust than you care too but they are a major feature of the metropolitan transportation scheme. If you google auto-rickshaws + India and scan through the first five or six pages of results, you will find a lot of links explaining how to deal with rickshaw drivers, getting ripped-off by rickshaw drivers or discussing the economics of rickshaw driving and fairer ways of pricing rickshaw rides. Too bad I didn't read any of this in advance.

Once I decided to get out of the Diamond District and pick up some kitchen utensils, I had to find out where to shop. The Royal Orchid Hotel where we'll be doing the ThoughtWorks training sessions is right behind the Diamond District. When you need good advice, a hotel's front desk often has it. The clerk there told me to go to a place called Total Mahal which sounded like a nearby shopping center. OK, easy. I headed back toward the Diamond District and Airport Road.

An auto-rickshaw was parked nearby and the driver started a conversation in pretty good English. He offered to show me the historical sights of Banglore, one hour for 40 rupees (Rs). No, I told him I wanted to go to Total Mahal to shop for some kitchen things. OK fine, he said he could take me for 10 Rs. Deal!

I get in the Rickshaw and after a short drive, which didn't seem to be the direction the desk clerk described, the rickshaw stops in front of a sari shop. "No, I'm not shoping for saris. This looks like a very nice place and maybe some other day I'll go there but I want to shop for kitchen things today." "Oh, Ok," he says, "But this is Sunday. Those places are closed. Let me show you a very nice place nearby. It's right next door around the corner. See the sign. It's a special crafts store, Government-sanctioned. We're here now why not stop in and take a look." "Oh, all right, since we're here."

It's a nice place, has lots of folksy stuff and old-style jewelery, etc. The driver has come inside and is talking to one the shop guys. They're showing me lots of stuff. I see two lacquered ducks that solve my shadow box problem and buy them. 700 Rs (rupees are about 50 to the dollar right now, so about $14.) Done. He asks me if I want to see another shop. No, I really want to solve some other problems, like the kitchenware, and a travel alarm clock, and an extra plug adapter. He drives down a little side street filled with tiny, open-front shops and finds a clock and an adapter. It's not very much money so I'm happy and we go to back where we started from. I pay him the 10 Rs and get his business card. I'm happy, I saw a little more of Bangalore and I think I have a good connection for getting around now.

I start work at TW (will write about that much later) and someone suggests I check out Lal Bagh Gardens if I like nature and birding. The next Sunday, I'm so eager to get there I'm out of the apartment and on Airport Road before I remember Mr. Murthy's card. Too bad. Another friendly rickshaw driver is outside the gate and I tell him I want to go to Lal Bagh. He asks if he should drive me there and back. I tell him I don't know how long I'll be there, it could be two or three hours. He says it's no problem, he'll take me there and wait. Interesting. So we do that.

I'm there for not quite three hours, and it starts raining off and on. Hard. So I give up and he really is there in the parking lot waiting. He asks if I want to go anywhere else and I say no because of the rain. He drives me straight back and when we get to the Diamond District, I ask him how much is it? (Now all these things have meters, but he was not running his meter and niether was Mr. Murthy.) He says it's up to me. Well, I figure Mr. Murthy was going to show me the sights in an hour for 40 Rs, and I've taken up this man's time for three hours so I pay him 200 Rs for being a good sport. He seems fine with that and gives me his name and number, so I figure I have two decent transportation options now.

But not so fast... the next few rides are all downhill....

to be continued....

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, Part 4: the Diamond District up close

Before reading any further, you might want to check out the builder's on-line brochureware for the place.

The Diamond District is like a medieval walled city. It’s an irregular elliptical shape with five guarded gates; thee gates have little guardhouses. Two office buildings anchor one end of the complex and front on Old Airport Road (the road I came in on). Residential buildings make up the rest of the perimeter. Most of these buildings butt against each other with gaps only where there are driveways out to the gates. Service driveways of patterned, molded brick tile either run between the buildings and the external fences or they circle the interior park and play area. The interior driveway is also billed as a jogging track.

The interior and exterior driveways connect at each building through lovely arched passages with dramatic nighttime lighting; these passages give access to the building courtyards among other things. Each building is about seven or eight stories high in a uniform design of cream, peach and ochre stucco.

Inner court, looking down 1

They are built on a general circle-in-square structure, so the central courtyard is round and the north/south or east/west "poles" are the location points for the elevators, stairways, and entrance points. Security guards sit at each entrance.

Seen through bleary 2 AM eyes; or at night from a distance, or from a balcony at sunset, with lights twinkling around the pool and palm trees rustling, the place seems just like the advertisement, exotic and even glamorous. But in the light of day, you also notice that the plaster and tile is cracked and crumbling in places; black dirt streaks the walls, especially within the courtyards; and there are always piles of sweepings or trash not-yet-picked-up and maintenance-in-progress going on somewhere.

Swimming pool at night 1

It's a mini-Bangalore. Something that went up fast when the economy was booming; progressive, convenient, a dream of good times and getting ahead but also stretched for resources to keep up.
Inner Court looking up

I was especially astounded on my first walk when I stepped out onto the service drive behind my building and saw that a drainage canal ran along below the fence. It had serious swamp gas odor, water the color of milk chocolate, and banks littered with paper, plastics and old rags. That was a lot of trash floating downstream or snagged and bobbing in the water, too. Yet, on the other side of the canal was another apartment building and at the far end, buffered by some sort of service yard, was a very nice hotel and private golf course.

Back in the 1970s, the branches of the Chicago River used to be in pretty sad shape, a lot like this, but today, most people in Chicago who live along or near the river think of it as a picturesque feature. This canal was a real shock, like jumping backwards 30 or 40 or 50 years.


The office buildings, had their surprises, too. Especially the one that ThoughtWorks is not in. The ThoughtWorks building seems pretty full up with tenants and is on par with any Chicago class B commercial building but the other building seemed half deserted. It faces Airport Road directly and has the name “Diamond District” painted on the entrance in bold modern lettering. From the road, it looks like a cool place to be. The parking signs indicate that one of the major tenants is Oracle.

The far end of the building contains a medical clinic and a variety of doctor’s offices and seems in good shape. But here at the main entrance, peering into the lobby that first weekend, I saw the ceiling tiles had caved in, there was a pile of trash on the floor with plastic sheeting draped all around and lots of scaffolding.

A lonely guard sat at a desk and I would have tried for a few photos except I think he really didn’t want an Anglo-Euro type person documenting the situation. I came to the conclusion that another major tenant had pulled out or never came in, leaving half the place unfunded for maintenance. But that was three weeks ago and the lobby is repaired now and it seems to be a perfectly ordinary functional building.

Elevator Door & repair opportunity

I found one of the two grocery stores well, market as they call it, in the H block at the end of the complex. It has a lot in common with the small neighborhood stores you see in Chicago's black and Hispanic neighborhoods, except the lighting is dimmer and there's no alcohol. the shelves are packed with basics like bread, milk, cheese, eggs, chips and cookies, rice and pasta, toiletries, but nearly bare of fruits and vegetables. Household items in the back are jumbled up and dusty (they always are). No meat counter, either, hey, this is India. But there are some packages of cut-up chicken in the freezer. And the people are friendly and helpful.

I buy some things and continue to hunt for the other store. It's supposed to be in the N block but I don't see it. How can you hide a store? Oh, the guard tells me it's downstairs in the parking garage. Well, that's different! But it makes delivering the stock easy. This store is the one for fresh fruits and vegetables. It also has more specialty things like peanut butter, Green Giant corn and sweet pickles. There's a row of orders lined up on the floor for delivery to residents. I decide to try to split my shopping rupees as evenly as I can between the two places but I think this one is going to end up getting the bigger share.
The pots and pans in the kitchen are all sized for a family of four or more. I could use some smaller things. And maybe some knickknacks for those empty shadow boxes. Neither of these stores carries those things. Maybe I should get out beyond the walls tomorrow and do some other shopping.

Next: All about auto-rickshaws

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Bangalore Adventure, part 3: Settling in

What a relief, in my apartment and "home" at last! I just crashed and slept until about 2 PM Bangalore time Saturday, that’s about a 12 hour nap. By then, it was too far into the day to feel ambitious so I decided to just unpack, assess the apartment and get a feel for what’s inside the Diamond District, plus figure out what to do about food (I had packed a few emergency rations like tuna and Lipton noodles, just in case.)

The apartment is a service apartment, which means it is always being let out to transient workers like me; nobody has intended it to be a permanent home, so it has the usual chips, cracks, splotches, and quick fix patches. It's spartan, but clean, roomy and bright. It feels a lot like Rogers Park, I’m going to Loyola and just moved out of my dorm and into an apartment with another girl and we got all this furniture at an “antique” shop on Broadway near Wilson Avenue (if you know Chicago, you’ll know what I mean).

Looking toward the kitchen. The colors are nicely coordinated -- dark woods, white leather and white walls, maroon, orange, or lavender accents, white marble tile floors. In a few places, the wood is just bare plywood – like my bed which is a platform bed bigger than the mattress it holds. You can tell there used to be bigger mattress because the platform under the mattress has a border of black paint to match the box sides but the border stops short of the mattress and shows about four inches of raw wood stamped with the manufacturer’s markings. But that's ok because I read in the local newspaper that the majority of Indians still sleep on the floor, certainly many from necessity, but also for some by choice (try googling "sleeping on floor in India").

I decide the place needs some decoration. There are a few small paintings but also two empty shadow boxes on the living room wall, just black rectangles hanging there, and a bare bolt in my bedroom where another wall hanging or mirror used to be. I make a mental note to look for decorative items.

Balcony view of the park by marjorie pries. We have a nice balcony with potted palms and a pretty view, especially at sunrise, sunset and night. It looks into the interior of the Diamond District, which is mostly a park and swimming pool for the residents. Being a pretty serious birdwatcher, I was really excited to step out on the balcony and look for my first Indian bird. Rock dove by Wyojones, Creative Commons.

There it was … a rock dove! AKA, a pigeon, the same thing you see millions of in Chicago and every other city.

Later I did see a different bird with dramatic bands of white on its wings when it flew. Turned out to be a common myna, which is more than just common, it’s like the starling of Bangalore. So, maybe the birding scene is not going to be that exciting here.

common Myna, by Sergey Yeliseev, Creative Commons.

There is a little apartment directory by the telephone. Just like in a hotel. It says there are two restaurants, two groceries, a beauty salon, a fitness center, a dry cleaners, etc. but it could be outdated. I decide to get out and investigate on my own.

But first, how about a shower! It’s a two-bedroom apartment. One of the other trainers, Deepali, will be my roommate but she won't get in until Monday. My room has a separate bath (shower only, no tub) across the hall; Deepali’s room has a private bath. I have a full-size bed, she has twins; bothj bedrooms have room-size air conditioners, lockable cupboards and wardrobes, full-length mirrors and small writing desks; I have a sliding door out to the balcony; she has a TV. So I guess it all evens out.

The bath is equipped with the basics -- towels, soap, shampoo. Inexplicably, there’s a mothball in every sink. I’ve never seen this before. Maybe it’s a trick to keep bugs from crawling out of the pipes. Or it’s a low-cost air freshener substitute. Yes, that’s it. Later in the week Sharlene, another trainer, told me that her apartment on the first floor was subject to intermittent swamp gas odors from the drains. There's a lot of press coverage about water and sewer management issues; Bangalore has had so much growth the past few years, infrastructure is really stretched to keep up.

I get in the shower. No hot water. Great! There’s a small hot water heater attached to the wall above the toilet. Pipes go up into it. I wonder if maybe some valves need to be opened. It’s too high for me to look at closely so I take a cold shower. Later that day, while trying to figure out the light switches, I discover there’s a wall switch outside the bathroom that turns on the water heater. Maybe that is the problem.

I’m freshly dressed and ready to take a walk. The building manager knocks on the door. “Here is today’s paper. Is everything fine in the apartment? Would you like cleaning today” “Yes, it’s fine. No, they can come tomorrow.” “Ok, tomorrow then, madame. Enjoy your stay.” That was nice.

Now, how about that walk? No, wait a minute. Paul hasn’t heard from me in two days. I should send him an email, he’ll be waking up in Chicago soon. The apartment comes equipped with wireless internet so I switch it on. There is some very faint scribbling on the modem, a number that looks like 4567890. Once the computer fires up, I get the prompt to enter the network password. I enter 4567890. The wireless reports that it is connected but I can’t get on to the internet. Great! Another thing to deal with.

Maybe it’s just a temporary outage of some sort. Well, I'm not going to fool around with it now, I just want to get out and walk around.

To be continued: the Diamond District up close.