Published: May 18th 2011May 18th 2011
India freaks me out. This morning I was sitting in the nice outdoor restaurant at my hotel, eating breakfast and having a deliciously milky sweet South Indian coffee. The restaurant is shaded and cut off and green, because there are large trees just across the road. But it’s India, so it was hot even at 8 am, and already car horns were blaring nonstop on the street below.
I was reading the morning paper, reading the cricket scores from last night, reading the Bollywood gossip. Shriya Siran is a drama queen. Sonakshi Sinha has stopped talking to the press, because of so many spats with other Bollywood starlets.
And there, underneath the Sonakshi Sinha article, was a full-color ad for a flight to Geneva, and a picture of Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps at sunset. I looked at that picture, and I had a sharp, breath-catching, visceral ache to be in Geneva.
I’ve never really thought about Geneva before, never wanted to go to Geneva. I’ve pretty much longed to go everywhere in the world, but never Geneva. But sitting in the chaos and cacophony of India, Geneva felt completely, profoundly perfect. Swiss, efficient, clean, tidy, boring.
I do like India, very much. I’m glad I came, and I look forward to spending another week or so here. But India is overwhelming.
I flew into Bangalore. I took a taxi in to the city from the airport. There was no highway, just a wide road in filled with zig-zagging traffic of all sorts – cars, busses, trucks, tractors, ox-carts, people on bikes, people walking. Horns blaring continuously, every horn, nontstop. All vehicles weaving in and out wildly. People walking through the traffic, part of the traffic, everywhere. Just crazy. I thought, “Look at all those people just walking right through all that insane traffic!”
The next day there I was too, walking along the side of horrendously trafficked roads, crossing through rivers of zig-zagging vehicles, at traffic circles where vehicles are coming together from all directions willy-nilly. There’s no choice. In India, you just dive in. Or stay in your hotel room and hide. Well, I’ve done my share of that too. What I enjoy about India.
Mostly I enjoy the people. I think South Indians are the nicest, most pleasant, smiley-est, most welcoming folks I’ve ever traveled among. People stop
Indians are always beautifully dressed, but this family was particularly decked out.
me on the street and chat with me. Most people speak English well, and they’ll stop and smile and ask where I’m from and how long I’m in Mysore. They’ll make recommendations about what to do.
At the tourist sites, white people are rare. It’s a given that a couple of people will ask to take their picture with me at each tourist site. Sometimes it’s well-dressed, cute-as-a-button kids: “Uncle, what is your name? My name is Anushka. Can I take a photo with you?” I’m always glad to.
Even middle-aged men will come over to me all jolly, just to say hello, and laugh and smile a bit, and introduce me to all their brothers who are here on holiday from Tamil Nadu. I end up shaking hands with seven or eight South Indians and their wives, then standing in the middle of them all for a photo. It’s a hoot.
Also, I get lost a lot, wandering around the city. Anytime I get lost, people are always glad to stop what they’re doing and smile and chat and point me in the right direction. Sometimes they even walk with me a ways, to make sure
Market Colors, Mysore
I think these are used to make the dots on folks' forehead, but I'm not sure.
I’m clear where I’m going.
Even the people trying to hassle me a bit are friendly and funny. They try to sell me little crafts or a ride in their auto (three-wheeled taxi, tuk-tuk), but they smile when the make their pitch. I smile and say no thank you, and they say, “Where are you from? USA? California? Many people from California study yoga in Mysore.” And I say, no, I’m not from California, and I’m not studying yoga. Then they ask me if I want some marijuana, and I say no thank you, no marijuana, but thanks for the offer. And they smile, say “OK, bye-bye,” and wave, and drive off.
I also enjoy the Indianness of India. I can’t put my finger on this, and if I tried to describe it I’d have to go on and on and on. The photos capture some of it. Simply put, India is just different from anywhere else.
Most of the places we’ve traveled in Southeast and East Asia are sort of the same; they’re all part of the same Japanese-Korean-Chinese-European-US culture stream, at some level. I can always understand how I’m supposed to act, what I’m supposed
to do, what’s going on.
India is not that. India is just India. I’m sure the streets and the culture have a clear logic to Indians, but it’s a logic all its own. The “Little Indias” of Malaysia and Singapore (where there are lots of South Indians) are nothing like the real South India. What I don’t so much enjoy about India.
Well, the Indianness. I enjoy that India is so radically different from anywhere else I’ve ever been, but it’s also overwhelming. It’s just too much. I get dazed from the continual assault of differentness when I walk around. One day I had culture shock, and I could really appreciate how Ella and Jordan felt last year. I was totally glazed over. Nothing bad happened; it was all just too much. And there’s nowhere to hide, except for my hotel room. So I get a much nicer hotel room than usual, and I retreat back to my room when I need to.
Also, it’s blisteringly hot here. These are the hottest couple of months of the year, a terrible time to travel in India, but that’s what I had available. It’s supposed to be even hotter,
highs around 105, in Tamil Nadu, the state I visit next.
Anyway, it seems much hotter than Kuala Lumpur, which is at the equator. KL is hot, but India seems much hotter. One difference may be that there is AC everywhere in KL, so if you’re inside, you’re cool. Not so in India. I have paid more to stay in AC hotels, but AC hotel rooms are about all the AC you can find.
So I go out, sweat like I’ve been swimming, and go back to my room and crank up the AC. Yesterday I got overheated and dehydrated. I was out from around 9 am to 4 pm, in the heat of the day. I sweated buckets. I started to feel bad. It was not fun, and a bit scary. I’m going to avoid the middle of the day from now on.
The traffic, as I mentioned above, is horrendous. Just incredible. Partly there are just too many vehicles on the road; the infrastructure can’t keep up with the sheer volume of people, three-wheeled taxis, busses, and cars. Partly too the traffic patterns appear to me to be completely arbitrary – everybody coming together from
all directions at once, zigging and zagging and darting about wildly. Then too people drive rudely. Drivers don’t stop, really, even for the few “walk” signals in Mysore.
So I just weave in and out of the madhouse traffic to cross the street, every time I cross. It’s stressful. At first, it made my underarms sweat every time I crossed. I’m more used to it now, but I still don’t like it at all. What I’m surprised not to experience in India.
There aren’t really many beggars. There are some, but not many – no more than in any big Asian city.
There are no big hassles, either. When May and I traveled in North India 25 years ago, there were constantly people trying to rip us off in various ways. My friend Thomas traveled in India around 10 years ago, and that was his experience too. Nobody has tried to rip me off or scam me in any way. Not once.
Also, I remember India smelling like urine, from all of the folks going to the bathroom right on the streets. That’s not the case anymore, at least not here. And I remember any public
urinals being just utterly horrific when I traveled here before; they’re totally fine now. Finally, there are a few cows wandering the streets, but not nearly as many as I remember.
All in all, it’s a pleasant place to be. It may be that the South is much more pleasant than the North. I don’t know. Bangalore.
I landed in Bangalore, a city of 7 million, and India’s Information Technology capital. The neighborhood I stayed in in Bangalore seemed much like a neighborhood in Bangkok or the non-colonial parts of Mexico City – nondescript emerging megalopolis. It didn’t seem Indian at all, really. I didn’t realize how unlike the rest of India that area was. I realize that now. There’s not much to see in Bangalore. I walked around a lot, but the traffic was particularly fierce there. To me, Bangalore is defined by its traffic. Union Theological College.
My big adventure in Bangalore was visiting Union Theological College, where Bob (my father-in-law) studied for an academic year in 1961. Bob was in Pakistan working at a boys’ school, and he spent a year studying at seminary in South India. Before I left he mentioned that he
This photo gives some sense of the craziness of the traffic, but not really. You can see vehicles headed in every direction at once. There's no way to capture it.
would love to see photos of the campus now. It sounded like a good excuse to me to wander through Bangalore.
I walked to the college, through some of the craziest streets I have ever seen. One area was particularly chaotic; it was a Muslim area, and there were mosques every block or so and Pakistani-looking folks everywhere. I was completely lost, completely. But people would stop and smile and keep pointing me in the right direction. Eventually I found the college.
The college was a lovely green oasis compared to the urban madness I had just walked through. The people at the college were extremely welcoming. An administrator was sitting in the shade, and I told him who I was and we talked about where Bob probably lived (a dorm no longer standing). We went in the current men’s dorm to see the date – 1975. He suggested that I go in the library, and he offered to track down a faculty member. I said I was just strolling around taking photos, and that I didn’t want to bother the faculty. A lady in the library actually knew who I was and why I was there –
Bob and I had both emailed saying I was coming. I took some photos, chatted with some of the staff, and headed back.
This visit was an interesting contrast to when we visited May’s grandmother’s former school in Shanghai, where the Chinese were startled and sort of up-in-arms about us wandering around, and wanted to tightly control our visit. The Indians were totally laid-back and welcoming. Admittedly, the Indian school was a college and the Shanghai one a girls’ school – security should be tighter at a girl’s school. Still, the difference was notable. Mysore.
After a couple of days in Bangalore, I have spent four or so days in Mysore, a two-hour train ride south. Mysore is a famous tourist city, but there aren’t many white tourists here. (I guess they don’t come in the hot season – smart, actually.) Mysore is much smaller and more manageable than Bangalore, but also more Indian, less cosmopolitan.
In Mysore I saw lots of sights. There is a lot of history and heritage in Mysore; it was the maharaja’s royal capital of this large region for 600 or so years. The most interesting things I visited were an Indian
Actually, these theaters show films in Kannada, the local language. Technically these aren't Bollywood films, I think.
maharaja’s palace in Mysore and a Muslim ruler’s fort and palace outside of Mysore.
The maharaja’s palace was built around the same time as Biltmore, and it seems sort of like an Indian version of Biltmore. This family, the Wodeyars, has ruled this state (Karnataka) since the 1500s, with the exception of 50 or so years when the Muslims conquered them. When India gained independence after WW II, the people elected the current maharaja as state governor.
Anyway, on weekend nights they light the palace up like Christmas, and tons of Indians come and wander around and sit in the grass. It’s cool in the evening, and everyone is visiting and chatting and laughing. It’s really fun, very relaxing and happy and chilled.
When the Muslims conquered India, this is about as far south as they got. A guy called Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan ruled this area for a while. The British fought them and eventually defeated them.
I visited Tipu Sultan’s fort and summer palace. It was a monstrous fort, the size of a small town. Interestingly there is a holy South Indian temple that the fort was built around; the temple
preceded the fort and has now outlived it. Most of the Indian tourists were going to the temple, not the ruins of the fort or the palace. North Carolina to Mysore, India to Georgetown, Malaysia.
Here’s an interesting historical connection. I won’t get the facts exactly right, because I don’t have easy access to internet to double check myself, but the story is largely correct.
There was a British guy called Lord Cornwallis. He led the British Army’s Southern Campaign in the US Revolutionary War, the campaign in North and South Carolina. There were major battles in both states, including Guilford Courthouse, which sort of ended the British efforts in the South. They had to retreat, and soon surrender. Lord Cornwallis was beaten by the colonists.
Well, Lord Cornwallis went back to England, and then he was sent to India to fight this guy Tipu Sultan, who had built the fort I went to see. It was Lord Cornwallis who finally took this fort and defeated Tipu Sultan, after three or four previously failed attempts by the British. So after losing in North Carolina, Lord Cornwallis came to India and won a major battle for the British.
He became a major leader in India.
When the British first began to colonize Malaysia, I think Cornwallis may have been the highest-ranking British official in India; for whatever reason, the British named their first fort in Malaysia, at their landing point, Fort Cornwallis. It still stands today. I’ll visit it when I’m in Georgetown at the end of the trip. So this guy led armies in both North Carolina and Mysore. And had a fort named after him in Malaysia. Funny. The streets of India.
The streets in South India are just too much. Sometimes I literally can’t believe what I’m seeing. The photos give you a glimmer of a feel for it. I can’t describe it. One, I don’t have the energy. Two, I’m not that good of a writer. Three, Indian streets make me feel sort of sickish, even though I like walking around in them, so I don’t really want to describe them. I like it all, even though it’s too much and makes me feel sickish. It’s odd. I like it, but it’s too much.
That’s sort of how I feel about India in general so far. I like it, but it’s
too much. I’m glad I’m here. But I have found myself looking at my itinerary several times since I got here, thinking to myself, “Now, how many days till I fly back to Malaysia?...”
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