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