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High Voltage on the Streets of Bangalore

We awoke, for what might easily turn out to be the last time during the entirety of the trip, separately, in our rather sprawling flat at the Diamond District Serviced Apartments. I could hear voices in the hall and walked out the door of my room to find Scott struggling once again to communicate with a group of three fellows who had appeared at our door. Somewhat earlier, it seems, Scott had woken, phoned down for breakfast, and these three men had arrived quite flabbergasted and confused. For you see, dear reader, at some point earlier that morning, while we still slumbered, some fellows from the serviced apartments had crept into our room and deposited two cups of coffee, a loaf of white bread, and a cylindrical Indian schoolchild’s food storage container filled with what later proved to be spiced omelet in the dining room.

Not for the first time, we found the presence of the fellows to be an uncomfortable one. They moped around the room, making strange gestures that were perhaps solicitations for tips, and spent much time looking at our belongings, at us, and at each other sheepishly. Finally one of them worked up the nerve to ask whether we’d like him to make toast. We happily agreed and attempted to emanate positive energy into the icy room while heartily laying into breakfast. We were making what we believed to be a concerted effort, but the fact that they had unlocked and entered our room while we were sleeping, needless to say, was also disconcerting, hampering our ability to connect with these people on a human-to-human basis. I doubt thievery was an appreciable threat, but our privacy certainly felt violated. And now, with the inarticulately justified presence of these fellows, we found it quite hard even to enjoy our now cold and many hours old breakfast. Considering this was the most expensive accommodation of the trip to date, why were we not basking in splendorous joy and luxury?

Though lines of communication were still quite frayed, in the time since the arrival of the service crew, we were able to order two more cups of coffee, which were made in some far away place and delivered in more Indian School children’s lunch equipment, appearing downstairs with all our luggage only some five minutes after the scheduled check out time, which in India is early.

We stowed our belongings in a spare room that seemed to play the role of servants’ quarters at the Diamond District Serviced Apartments, and soon found our man Nikhil wheeling his way across the sprawling interior courtyard of the Diamond District toward us on his Hindustan Hero bicycle. “I trust you have slept well?” he asked. All unauthorized entries aside, we had, and soon the street was whipping comfortably underneath us.

Nikhil needed to eat, so we stopped into a local South Indian coffee shop, and had another couple of cups while Nikhil dug into a huge pile of honeyed grains with dried fruit in them and a big puffy fried poori.

Our first waypoint was a local market district, which jostled and smoked beneath the stern facade of a looming Catholic church. We parked our bikes outside the church, where a large crowd of children soon gathered to ring the bells, shift the gears, and ask us where we were from.

By now we were completely used to this type of behavior and simply let it occur, making a mental note not to pedal too hard right after remounting the cycles. Inside the church, we watched as hordes of Indians walked through the well lit halls, some of them sporting a cross painted over their third eye, stopping occasionally at enclosed glass cases, pressing their hands against the glass, and peering in fiercely at the mannequin icons of saints inside, before closing their eyes and praying a bit.

Back in the market, we wandered around peering in at the various wares; some of the market was conventional shops, but much commerce took place in outdoor, mobile stalls, or laid out on large tarpaulins.

We called a waypoint during the stroll to purchase another bike lock, bringing AsiaWheeling’s grand total to two.  With newly doubled security, we piled back on the bikes toward the corner of Mahatma Ghandi Road and Brigade Road, where we were to meet the lovely Shivani Mistry, whose name, which may have come directly from an Ian Fleming novel, made us all the more intrigued.

She was suffering from some navigational and logistical troubles acquiring a cycle, but promised to be arriving shortly.

We sipped coffee at yet another startlingly posh (and dare I say escapist) recommendation of Nikhil’s, where we quite surprisingly ran into a couple of Brown University graduates, who were living and traveling in South India (escapism pays dividends sometimes). No sooner had we finished our coffee and chatting, than we found ourselves face to face with Ms. Mistry herself, armed with a flashy mountain bike, purportedly the personal cycle of the owner of the bike shop, which he had provided upon finding his rental supply depleted.  Photo below courtesy of Shivani Mistry.

Next order of business was finding a South Indian Coffee Shop to fix the starving problem, and throw a little more caffeine in the system. When cycling in hectic Indian traffic, I’ll take all the lucidity I can get.

We acquainted ourselves with Shivani over the meal, and spent some time showing off the many feats of The WikiReader.

The coffee shop was great. Serving slightly greasier than usual, but extra tasty dosas and vadas, plenty of coconut chutney, and strong sweet coffee. Perhaps even better than the substance was the decor, which featured a number of strange tilted mirrors, lots of hand-painted labeling, waiters in strange white and red traditional suits, with giant belt buckles resembling huge polished seat belts, and plenty of vintage posters from the Indian Coffee Board.

Back on the road, we found that although it was Ms. Mistry’s first time wheeling the Indian roads, she was quite the natural, with lightning fast reflexes, an open mind, and a knack for signaling her intent.

We made our way back across the city toward that flawed Diamond District, which we happily overshot, instead opting to explore the old Bangalore Airport.

We approached it on a semi-closed, palm-tree-lined road, and there we found the old airport itself to be completely closed down. Ms. Mistry happily rode up the handicapped access ramp and down the deserted walkway, while we looped through the parking lots.

Soon we saw our female compatriot re-emerging, somewhat flustered and grinning, followed by an Indian serviceman with a rifle. The armed man wobbled his head in a way that decidedly communicated “not okay for wheeling.” Fair enough.

Cycling back, we saw two eerie images adjacent to one another.  One public service announcement next to a biscuit ad made for quite an unsettling combination.

Traffic sped up, and we continued on.

After a brief stopover at Nikhil’s residence, a delightful apartment on a sleepy street near the old airport, we were back at the Diamond District Serviced Apartments, where we collected our belongings.

They had been moved around a bit, but still seemed to contain all our important or valuable belongings. My ukulele had quite obviously been removed, de-tuned, and replaced in its case, but “no harm no foul,” as they say.

Nikhil began a series of phone calls with his cab company of choice, inquiring as to why the 6:00 pm cab that he had arranged for us was nonexistent, while we collapsed the speed TRs and discussed the finer points of AsiaWheeling and Yoga with Ms. Mistry.

It was not until around 7:00 pm that our cab finally arrived. The driver immediately began to demonstrate negative characteristics, attempting to re-haggle an already more than reasonable fare, showing a total lack of connection to the machine he was piloting (marked initially by an inability to open the trunk), and generally exhibiting glassy eyed dopiness. We were a little worried, but thought back to that old Jerry Seinfeld bit: “after all, the man is a professional,” so we took the keys from him, opened the trunk ourselves, and loaded the cab.

We waved goodbye to both Mr. Kulkarni and Ms. Mistry as the cab eased its way somewhat confusedly around and out of the compound. I must say here that we, for the first time on this trip, must publicly bestow the AsiaWheeling stamp of disapproval on the Diamond District Serviced Apartments. A lack of understanding in the departments of service, communication, and price performance, left us with a resoundingly sour taste in our mouths. A taste made only more sour when we found ourselves having to notify our driver that though it was night on the unlit side streets of Bangalore, he had neglected to activate his headlamps. The taste grew downright acidic when the fellow took a startlingly long time to locate the controls to activate the lamps.  We were now on full alert.

It was no more than 10 minutes into the drive, when our driver pulled into an intersection, while merging, and crunched into a small blue Tata that was driving in the lane to our left. Scott and I thanked God as our dumbfounded driver successfully avoided a concrete barrier in the center of the street, and popped the car over the edge of a walkway, narrowly avoiding a large river-like open sewer, finally navigating to the side of the road, as a hissing of air concurred with the right side of the car lowering a few inches closer to the ground. At the end of this, he turned to us with the same glassy eyes and said “tire puncture.”

“Damn straight it was a tire puncture!,” we voiced in exasperation. And a whole simultaneous harrowing experience to boot! As the driver got out of the car, and began furiously arguing in Kannada with the fellow he had just crunched into, we bust into action. No one appeared to be injured, and the damage to the two cars appeared to be minor enough. You see, dear reader, we had a plane to catch in less than two hours and we were in the middle of the smoky highway during rush hour at night in Bangalore. Scott began to work on flagging a new cab, and I called Nikhil. No answer.

In the meantime, a large cop in a wide brimmed hat, one side of which was pinned to his head by his badge, was pacing and surveying the scene. Finally, I was able to ring Nikhil, and the phone was passed from the cop to our driver to a fellow in a black shirt who had recently joined our small crowd in the middle of the highway, seemingly with the sole intention of stirring the pot. I’ll never be quite sure what they were all talking about, because just then Scott hailed a cab, and we began the hurried process of haggling and moving our luggage out of the wounded and crumpled cab.

Much to our delight and relief, we secured an even better deal with this cabby, who appeared quite alert, drove a registered airport taxi, and was all ready to rejoin traffic and help us make our flight, when the traffic cop came over. Our cabby began to look very worried, and spoke to us in whispered tones… “There was no accident… This police man. Nothing happened. Okay? 100 rupees there will be no accident.”

So there it was: the first bribery solicitation of AsiaWheeling. The total was about $2.50. Scott and I looked at each other, I looked at my watch, and we handed over the rupees.  Talk about innovation in Bangalore…

Back on the road, the intensity of what had just happened began to wash over us. Our new driver darted expertly through the traffic, but we were rattled, and with each move I clenched the ukulele like a long lost friend and babbled, unloading my anxiety in a verbal torrent on Scott.

We reached the airport, and paid our driver, rushing to the counter, and pacing like crazy people, both tortured by a terribly vocal need to urinate. In order to enter the airport and reach the bathroom, though, we needed to get our tickets, which meant waiting in line. What seemed like an eternity later, we were exiting the bathroom. And heading towards the Go Air Counter.

After congratulating the Go Air employees on one of the best attempts to upsell us to business class that we have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, we were given free coupons to get some hot tea from a nearby vendor. As we drank the tea, we finally began to relax.

Security was surprisingly tight, though we were able to stroll through sipping our tea. All our unchecked belongings were thoroughly inspected, detected, and returned to us bearing numerous stamps. We then made our way into the terminal. It seemed so clean and organized, with many little tidy western looking shops, free drinking water, and some delightful and shockingly expensive restaurants. When our flight turned out to be delayed, we decided to indulge in a little of the over-priced food, digging greasily into big plates of parathas and gravy. Beer was being sold at over $10 a can, so we sorrowfully refrained.  That was one culinary escape we couldn’t quite afford to make.

As the night wore on, the flight became increasingly delayed, and with it our fellow passengers restless. By 11:00 pm, though there had been no alert to queue for boarding, many people were crowding around the ticket counter. The stench of anger was beginning to fill the room. Meanwhile we were happily working on correspondence, drawing in the kind of zen approach that business travelers acquire in order to deal with the American air travel system.  About the time that we were taking a break from correspondence to chat with a segment director for Slumdog Millionaire, the crowd became quite angry, necessitating the dispatch of armed guards.

When the equipment finally landed and boarding appeared to be beginning, we were quite flabbergasted to find that the crowd was refusing to board. Their argument, it seems, was that the plane was so delayed, that they were so wronged, that at this point they would rather not board, and fight on. Having been hardened by the American system, and quite used to absurd and offensive delays, we made our way through the crowd of furious Indians, feeling not unlike scabs, and somehow simultaneously chagrined and guilt-ridden, we boarded our flight for Mumbai.

When we landed in Mumbai, we were happy to find our cycles and baggage arrived as well, all in fine shape. We were unhappy to find that the prepaid taxi counter had closed down, necessitating the arrangement of more unregulated transport. As we made our way toward the crowd of taxis and drivers that were lazing in the heat of the Mumbai night, we soon attracted a great crowd of fellows around us, engaging in some truly despicable maneuvers, all designed to induce panic and confusion.

However, we had been through so much that day that we were completely unflappable.  Scott responded to the crowd that encircled him, all speaking at once in frantic tones, by squealing the old playground vocalization “Nananananananana!,” closing his eyes, and pushing the cart forward.   I turned to the fellow next to me who had been screaming, touching my arms and chest, and attempting to whisk my luggage cart away toward his taxi. I put my hand on his shoulder: “Relax,” I said. “Everything is okay.”

We made our way over to the cluster of taxis and began fiercely bargaining. By now it was about 3:00 am. Finally, we found a likely 16-year-old young man who was willing to drive us the 20 minutes to our man Win’s house in Bandra for a price that might be considered merely over-paying, rather than being robbed blind, and we took off.

Not long into the drive, we realized that our man spoke no English, and also had no idea where we were going. But in a shining act of navigational prowess, Scott used some notes he had made from a previous phone call with Win to navigate us close enough to his building that we could ask a fellow who was wandering the streets in a long flowing white robe for the remaining directions.

We were quite thrilled to finally make our way into Win’s luxurious apartment. The journey had taken us to the extremes of experience and back again into the comfortable womb of good fortune. Win had arranged for his staff to leave meals out for us, and we happily dug in. The fates had made a concerted effort to keep us out of Mumbai, but we had foiled them. Here we were. We looked out over one of the biggest cities in the world, re-playing the intensity of our day. Part of us was exhausted, but another part was wired on the madness.

We made it. That was the last thought I had before exhaustion took hold and I collapsed into the clean, sweet smelling sheets.


Comments

  1. Freelance Feminist | March 18th, 2010 | 7:54 pm

    Wow, sorry to hear about the living situation and cab issues. Last time I was there, a whole decade ago, Bangalore had blackouts every evening. (I once accidentally set fire to the living room while fumbling with candles in the dark!) I suppose they no longer have that issue? Would be terrible for the technology business, after all.

    Your posts on India have been very informative and fun to read. Looking forward to the Mumbai edition!

  2. Lloyd Paul | March 19th, 2010 | 3:22 am

    hey its a nice way of seeing india.. but road rage will be the prob most of the time.GUY FROM KANDY SRI LANKA)

  3. Woody | March 19th, 2010 | 4:57 am

    @ Freelance Feminist
    Actually, we were constantly experiencing power outages while we were in Bangalore. So they still struggle with that. Our room at the DDSA has this power source, but it seemed to do little to keep us from being plunged into darkness from time to time. Businesses, I think, just run huge generators to guarantee uninterrupted power.

  4. Rohan | March 20th, 2010 | 12:57 pm

    The extremes of experience, indeed. Was your breakfast served in a tiffin?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiffin_carriers

    These are also the lunchs delivered by Mumbai’s famed dabbawalla system.
    http://www.economist.com/business-finance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11707779

  5. Woody | March 21st, 2010 | 6:16 am

    @ Rohan
    That’s what a tiffin is! Brilliant. We were sort of served in a tiffin, kind of a hybrid between a tiffin and a transformers lunchbox with attached thermos.

    I’ve read that article. Scott actually sent it to me before we first went to India. Unbelievable the accuracy of their operations.

    Thanks for sending these along!

  6. Mark/Dad | March 21st, 2010 | 8:30 pm

    Quite the post! From “big rat poison” to car crashes and 3 am travels on a wing, prayer, and the kindness of translations from passing strangers.

  7. Jackson | March 22nd, 2010 | 8:38 am

    Exciting post!

  8. Jack | March 23rd, 2010 | 12:03 am

    How many passengers boarded the flight in Bangalore? And for those who refused to board, did they give you any trouble?

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