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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bangalore, Day 1

After the somewhat depressing entry about the book "Shantaram" and how it shook my confidence in the genre of travel writing, I was pretty certain that the time of my fauxbo memoirs-in-the-making had passed. I am becoming ever more convinced that most people, most places, and most things people do in those places are more or less the same. They walk around and work and shop and relax and eat and spit and do weird religious things and play music and dance around and get drunk and brawl and whatever else. I'm not entirely confident that my traveling has taught me much beyond this basic fact, though I guess it's fair to say that if you believe that that statement - that people are more or less the same despite differences in circumstance - is true, then maybe you'll also agree with the statement that we don't need half of the things we think we need to be happy. People making 100k dollars a year in the US: happy sometimes, not always. People making half that in Korea: same joys, some problems. People making 1% of that in India: same same.

Thinking that was what I had learned over the past few years, I figured there wasn't much left to write about. Not in the "I've just solved some major issue and now there's nothing left to be said about the subject" sense, but more like I just didn't see the point of noticing anything anymore. Every act I witnessed seemed arbitrary and inconsequential - though it happened in front of my eyes, it could have been anyone, anywhere. It didn't prove or demonstrate or mean anything.

Combine that with the dread I felt in the days and weeks preceding my departure from (what might be the best place in the world [seriously]) Sadhana Forest (ah, yes, announcement: I left Sadhana Forest last night). Oh how I feared returning to a world of white walls on all sides and honking and crumbles and rubbish and selfish selfishness everywhere and toilets that ruin two perfectly good excretions! What to do all day? Eat in restaurants that don't serve organic vegan fare? Walk around looking at things that are just specific instances of general types of things that could happen anywhere? Wonder at the sameness of shopping districts and McDonald'ses and traffic and people trying to be fashionable?

So why bother writing? Also, if the above represents my attitude, then who is going to want to spend 20 minutes a week sifting through my ambivalence?

Thus the feeling that it would probably be better for me to stop the travel-blogging. Maybe I could use the blog to discuss more serious things, like alternative waste management systems, why I feel good being a vegan, and how to prevent my veganism from alienating me from people I like.

Such were my thoughts until...oh...30 minutes ago when a pitiable (in a good way), limping, short, stubby, Steven Segal-faced autorickshaw driver couldn't find my hotel, drove within about a quarter of a mile of it, then got himself lost again, drove up and down some alleys, asked for directions even though I knew where to go, got more lost, pulled off to the side of the road to let a hoard of men with drums leading a flower-covered beaten up tractor pass by, drover around some more, stopped, and asked me if we were close to my hotel. I told him not really, but I gave him the fare (I argued him down to 90 from a starting price of 250) and a little tip (because he was so pitiable and because of another incident I'll mention later), and walked ten minutes to my hotel. At a certain point on that walk, I noticed that it was so dark that I wasn't sure if I was going to step into a gap in the sidewalk or something, so I chose to walk along the road (lit with the headlights from oncoming cars and rickshaws), and then I thought to myself, "hrm, I suppose I could write about that. yeah, why don't I go back to blogging? why all this self-imposed pressure to be didactic and useful all the time? how about this - you had a really, truly, odd, ridiculous sort of day and it might be nice to just write something down about it. Maybe it will help you figure out why the heck you are doing whatever it is you're doing."

So how's about I tell y'all about my first day in Bangalore? Yeah, how 'bout that?

Actually it started last night, when I left Sadhana at about 8:30 in a taxi. All the cuddle-puddle-goodbye-hugging started 30 or so minutes before that, and I held back tears numerous times. I am going to do something unusual here and mention others by name: Aviram and Yorit, Seb, Steph, Tobin, David, Niki, Jack, Hannah, Veena, Ma'at and Jamey are awesome people and I hope you/they are reading this.

I got to the bus stand on time, and, much to my surprise, the sleeper bus actually had beds in it - it was a kind of doubledecker, with beds above the seats on one side and just beds on the other. Also to my surprise, we left on time. This was at 10pm. Sometime around midnight, the bus stopped for greasy and therefore delicious Indian food, but I stayed in the bus for fear of getting left behind. I was sleeping quite pleasantly anyhow, until about 2 when I woke up realizing I had to pee quite badly. What to do? Too embarrassed to stop the bus, too exploding to hold it. Only One Choice: make sure the curtains are closed and nobody is watching, slide open the window, try contorting self this-and-that-a-way, stick head, torso and groin out the window, pray for no bumps, and let 'er rip! Yes, that means what you think: for the first (but certainly not last) time in my life, I peed out of a moving bus. I want to start a club for people who have had the experience of traveling at 50 km/h relative to their own piss, because it's a damn cool feeling. I assume it's kind of what god-realization might feel like.

OK, so I slept the rest of the ride in alternating dream states of extreme pride and deep, nigh-unspeakable shame. Got kicked off of the bus in what I was assured was a good section of town called "Majestic" (really), did some bickering with a rickshaw driver, and was taken to a hotel. They pulled the old "sorry, I know we advertised a single for 299 but all we have available are doubles for 400" trick, but I was too tired and not so bothered about the 100 rupee ($2) difference, so I just made him promise to move me to a single the following night if one opened up. [Note: again, to my surprise, when I came back in tonight after a day of roaming, I asked the guy about singles and he said I could just keep the same double room for the single price tomorrow.]

I snacked on some snacks from an awesome raw vegan organic food shop in Pondicherry (the town closest to Sadhana Forest) and went back to sleep (around 7), got up around 11 or so, and headed out. I wanted to head to this restaurant that the guidebook recommended, but my compass had been stolen while I was at Sadhana, so I didn't know which direction to go in. I knew which road I was on, though, since Indian stores are actually really good about posting their addresses, which almost makes up for the fact that the streets themselves are never labeled. (Disclaimer: I've only been to 3 Indian cities, all here in the south, so I could be very wrong about that). I walked East, though I didn't know that at the time, past a gigantic mosque and all along this beautiful mile-long park filled with lush grass and beautiful palms and flower arrangements and gazebos and surrounded by cast-iron fencing. Not a single person inside the whole thing. Quite upsetting. Anyhow, I made a few false turns, came to a big "Town Hall" built with Roman-style columns, didn't see it on the map, decided I had come the wrong way, crossed the street, and headed back where I came from, except on the other side of the park.

On this other side, I walked past two men standing and urinating on big heaps of trash and plastic. I continued walking and found myself on the outskirts of some market, where the vendors had huge cloth sacks of beans and lentils and I thought how great it would be to be able to buy such natural ingredients with no packaging whatsoever. Also impressive were the precisely-molded mountains of masala, turmeric, chili, and other spice powders. Totally worthy of a picture, except I wasn't carrying my camera today.

So I kept walking this way, under a big underpass, until I noticed a mosque-temple-abandoned fort sequence, which I found on the map. It turned out that I had gone the right way first, then doubled back when I should have turned right, thus forcing myself to walk 3 miles rather than one. Nonetheless, I was happy to have found my bearings - once you have a basic sense of the cardinal directions, you can walk around a city for hours and still more or less know where you are. Particularly if you have a map.

I went back the way I had come and then walked another 45 minutes or so, all the while trying to figure out the road-naming conventions. Sometimes the book abbreviates the names, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes store names abbreviate them, sometimes they don't. Plus the system is odd. Silver Jaipur Park Road is SJP Road. Sensible. Sri Narasiharaja Road is NR Road. Comprehensible. Kempegowda Road is KG Road. Acceptable. Jayachamaraja Wodeyar Road is JM Road. I didn't like that one. Nonetheless, I made it to my restaurant, "Mavalli Tiffin Rooms," and waited in like for 10 minutes in order to find out that there was a 1 hour wait. Not surprising considering what they purportedly serve: "Meals."

If you don't know what Meals/Thali are, here's the lowdown. The waiter slaps a big banana leaf down in front of you on the table. You pour some water on it to rinse it off, then you pour the excess water from the leaf onto the table, rub it around, and set the leaf on top. Then it won't slide around so much. They put a big mound of rice on the leaf, along with 3 or so different sauces or sides - often made of potatoes, beets, chutnies, dhal, buttermilk, curd, or whatever. They also give you little cups of sambar or something similar, which is a thinner sauce you can pour on the rice. Also, some appalam (we call the pappadum) breads, or maybe chapati or dhal cakes if you ask nice. Traditionally, you can ask for all the refills you want, both of sauce or rice, though the breads cost extra each time. What I'm trying to say, though, is that MTR, they give you 12 sides rather than the usual 3-5. Amazing? Most likely. After my 2 mile pre-lunch stroll turned into a 4-mile pre-lunch ordeal, I wasn't in the mood to wait, so I just kept walking in the direction I thought I'd later want to go in, found a pure veg place ("non-veg" serves only meat dishes, "veg" serves meat and non-meat, and "pure veg" doesn't have meat on the menu, though they might have yogurt or something), and ordered a minimeal and some variety of fermented rice pancake I wasn't exactly sure about. Here's what I got for 75 cents: a heap of rice, two thin spicy sauces, one spicy chutney, one potato slop, one sweet potato cake, one appalam, one fried flatbread, one AWESOME onion & cilantro pancake, one onion chutney, and one more potato slop. Holy christ, what a meal.

I'll try to be briefer about the rest of the day. Uhh, I walked away from lunch pretty stuffed, intending to find the tourist info office and join a walking tour of the city. I am pretty sure I walked the right way, but I couldn't find the office and wound up getting moderately lost, and anyway I was tired of walking so I just sat on a bench for about 30 minutes watching a group of kids and adults play cricket on a basketball court. Actually, they didn't play much cricket, they mostly bickered and pointed fingers and told each other what not to do and ran around apparently trying to show off, and then I got that sense I spoke of earlier that everyone everywhere is pretty much the same.

I found my bearings and planned to take an autorickshaw to an art gallery, but the first guy I stopped didn't know where it was and couldn't understand my directions. Some nice Indian gentleman saw that I was having trouble and asked me where I wanted to go. I explained, but he said something like "Don't go there! All of Bangalore is right here to see! Just walk!" Which I thought was pretty nice and is indeed my general sightseeing philosophy. Nonetheless I wanted to have some time at the gallery, so I tried another driver, who also didn't know. I took it as a sign (not that I believe in taking things as signs) and decided to hoof it.

Another 3 miles later, I found the gallery, only to be told that they were closed. I thought that was weird, because the book said that they were open on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. I asked the info desk guy why they were closed, and he informed me that it was Sunday. Whoops. I asked if I could at least use the bathroom, and he said yeah, so I ambled outside and, lo and behold, there was a monkey walking around on all fours in the courtyard just outside the bathroom. A monkey, just chilling at a contemporary art museum in the middle of a city of 6 million people. How cool is that?

I walked on, another mile and a half, around the golf course where people were showing off how many name-brand accessories they could afford, attempting to find a theater that shows classic Indian and European films on the weekends. I found the building, read that the place was on the East side of the 5th floor, took the elevator up, and saw an office on the west side and a bunch of construction on what I thought might have been the east. Nothing cinema-looking though. I took the elevator back down, checked the sign, had a discussion with a stranger, asked an attendant, and was told to go back up. I took the elevator up again, still didn't see it, and asked a construction worker, who took me through the construction zone and to a long hallway with swivel chairs all along the sides. A short Tibetan or Nepalese-looking man informed me that there was to be no screening that night. Drats! Another hastily-made plan foiled.

I rounded the corner and stopped at a tea shop, but it was too expensive so I left. Then I rethought it, reentered, and asked if they'd fill up my water bottle with filtered water for me. (Environmental peeve: I hate bottled water, particularly when it's the only clean water available). Surprisingly, they did so free of charge. I even asked if I could pay or make a donation or something, but he wouldn't take my money and didn't have any donation boxes around, so I vowed to give someone else a little extra money down the road.

My chance came when I crossed a beggar on the street a few minutes later. I usually don't give to beggars, because I don't want to draw attention and I don't want to encourage begging, particularly the aggressive sort), but this guy looked really sick and clearly needed to be begging. I started to take money out of my pocket, but he gestured and grunted that he wanted food, not money. He wouldn't even put out his hand to take the money I was offering. He just kept taking his and and moving it to his mouth. I didn't have any snacks and I didn't really know what to do, so I just set down some money next to him and ran off. I don't even know if he was able grab it or if it just blew away. Fat lot of good I did there.

Having missed the museum, the movie, and the tea, I had way too much time on my hands, so I decided to go walk over to the ritzy section of town, which I had been planning to visit the following day. I passed through a giant bazaar filled with cheap crap that I don't get why people buy, and eventually made it to several streets (one called "commercial street") with shops selling expensive crap that I don't get why people buy. There was supposed to be one shop, though, selling handmade organic cotton clothing and accessories, which I really wanted to check out but couldn't find. Instead, I found a man on the street selling Jackfruit (look it up, it's one of the best fruits I've ever had), for 5 rupees (10 cents) a piece. I ordered a few and walked off, kicking myself for not having ordered more. Just as I finished the last one, though, I found another vendor selling them for 3 rupees each! Hallelujah. Jackfruit jackpot!

The day is almost done. I went to an internet cafe and skyped for about 3.5 hours with friends and family. It was surprisingly nice. I say surprisingly because, truth be told, I quite often worry about how people will react to all the changes I've undergone and my inability to hide my scorn for so much of what passes for normal in the US of A (and the rest of the Western [and even non-Western] world). But anyway everything was nice and I think it's possible that even after this whole India trip is over, I may still be able to interact with people in the First World, which is probably a good thing.

Last thing: Dinner. Just around the corner from the internet cafe was a restaurant supposedly serving "spicy-as-hell" dishes from Andhra Pradesh, one of the Indian provinces. Seeing as how I haven't yet experienced sufficiently spicy food here (not for lack of effort, mind you), I couldn't pass up the opportunity. The food - a nice, creamy dhal dish, a chili and double bean dish, a cold ginger chutney, with rice and bread and sambar sauce - was really nice and only cost 95 rupees, but was a little disappointing in terms of spiciness. It did induce a little nose runnage, but that could also have been an effect of all the burning plastic and unregulated rickshaws in the area.

If you want to know what happened next, go back up to paragraph 6 (it starts with "Such were my thoughts until...oh...30 minutes ago") and recommence reading.


Dave said...

I've never peed out of a bus, but I have been around people doing it (and worse) on Santa Monica buses. Perhaps you should start a Facebook group.

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