India | Bangalore: December 26, 2008-January 3, 2009

December 26th, 2008

We got here early this morning… and what an adventure it was. Our bus was about 45 minutes late, but it did finally arrive. When we got on, some guy came around distributing woolen shawls to everyone. We took them, but Penny found them to be too itchy, and so refused to use it. As the bus left the city, the A/C was turned on super high, and it felt like we were sitting outside in Toronto in December. All the “itchy-ness” no longer mattered…we were grateful for the shawls. We got to Bangalore early this morning. We took an auto, who charged us twice the rate (we could somehow just tell, even though this was only confirmed later during our visit). The morning was freezing cold, and being in an auto rickshaw, going at a speed of 80 klicks, we held our laptop bags tightly against our chests to prevent ourselves from catching a cold.

We had booked a serviced apartment in the Diamond District, known for its serviced apartments. We had high hopes for this up and coming city, which was billing itself as a modern, cosmopolitan, and happening place. We’d at least expect some sort of Western-style comfort here for a reasonable price, we thought. We got to the apartments, and after a long walk through the large complex of buildings, we got to our apartment. After checking it out, we were definitely quite disappointed. The bathrooms were filthy, the sheets were also filthy, and the bedroom walls were breaking down. Nothing like the pictures the manager had sent us after we had specifically requested pictures of the apartment we would be staying at. What tha!?! We called the manager immediately and told him what we thought. In the meantime, since we did have internet access there, we jumped online and started to go through the saved links for other places in Bangalore that Karthik had researched. One of the places was really nice, but was just a little out of our budget. Karthik called them immediately, and asked them to give us a deal. They agreed. They also sent a driver over so that we could go take a look at the place before committing to it.

In the meantime the current filthy apartment’s manager suggested we look at some better apartments they managed in the complex. We did. They weren’t any better. So Karthik went with the driver to check out the other company’s apartment. While Penny waited for him to return she was freaking out again, afraid that we’d have to go through the same nonsense we did in Chennai. She got to take out the frustration when a family friend called up to see what was going on. She started calling all kinds of names to India, and Indian people, and was doing research to get out of this messed up country. But then Karthik returned and came back happy. We immediately took off with the driver to check in. The apartment was nice. Really clean, and private, and clean, and, well clean! We were happy that we didn’t have to go through the hassle of running around for several days to find a place to call home. As well, we didn’t have the hospitality and help that Chitthappa/Chitthi provided while in Chennai in our initial frenzied quest there.

It was the Chalet Citadel Serviced Apartments located in Indira Nagar, a booming district in Greater Bangalore. Karthik doesn’t even remember this place much from he used to live here almost two decades ago. The city has completely mushroomed in growth and boomed out of control. We were still close enough to the ‘heart’ of Bangalore in terms of distance, except the traffic is the main factor in creating delays and Bangalore’s is legendary. However, we didn’t really have to go far for basic things like groceries, phone SIMs, and such. Right next to us was the fairly new TOTAL mall and a bunch of cool restaurants like Papa John’s and the Hyderabadi Biryani House. So for now, we are just happy settling into our apartment. It even has its own living room and free Wi-Fi Internet!

December 29th, 2008

The last couple of days have just been a very chill affair. Apart from getting a new phone chip for Karnataka, we haven’t done much by way of going out or doing stuff. We’ve been sleeping in, downloading our shows thanks to fast speeds, catching up on some of our work, eating Biryani from the nearby restaurant (which is super tasty!), and just chilling. Other than that, we’ve been getting used to the super-loud bhajans (religious songs) that happen like clockwork every evening and run into late at night. There’s a big Shiva temple a stone’s throw away from our place, which we’ll check out one of these days. It’s supposed to have a massive statue of a seated Shiva. So, today, we finally met up with Jayshree (Karthik’s cousin) and her husband, Chinthan. They’ve been living here for some time now, however are just in the process of packing up and moving out, since Chinthan’s accepted a new job in London. Luckily, they’re still here while we happen to be in Bangalore. So, we took an auto to their neck of the woods, which took a while since it was around rush hour. On the way, we (or at least Karthik) noticed how the city had expanded so much beyond its earlier limits and the row of new restaurants, malls, and unrecognizable brands everywhere. Near to where we’d be meeting Jayshree and Chinthan, we noticed a large number of IT buildings. Seems like companies like Google, Oracle, PayPal, and the rest of them, had all made a home for themselves here. Truly India’s Silicon Valley.

We got dropped off and then met up with the couple who were waiting for us. We crossed the ultra-busy road and got in their car. On the way, they told us how they were trying to sell their car as they were leaving Bangalore, but the landlord who’d promised to buy it backed out at the last minute. It was good at least that they could feel comfortable to tell us these things. At their apartment, we had some good coffee and good conversations. Chinthan was telling us how in spite of the families’ hesitations about them leaving for London, they feel it’s a worthwhile risk and an opportunity to live elsewhere, experience life, and make the most of it. We were telling them how raising kids abroad is good at any rate, given what challenges people face here in India. In the meantime, while Jayshree was making Carrot Halwa, Penny joined her and they had a good time talking candidly about the status of the kitchen, the house, packing up, and random stuff.

Jayshree also showed us how she takes care of the Baby Krishna deity in their prayer room. As per Gujarati tradition (which Chinthan’s family upholds), there’s all these clothes and knick-knacks for the baby deity, as if to take care of a real baby. Changing the clothes, feeding him, putting him to sleep… there’s even a bed he sleeps on and a small water jug for when he gets thirsty at night! We were just having a good time hanging out, feeling very much at home and comfortable. We also spent some time reminiscing on the past shared between Karthik and Jayshree as cousins, with Karthik remembering some bits in keeping with his rather poor memory for childhood events.

We hung out for a while, and getting hungry (in spite of how tasty the Halwa was), started to consider our options. Chinthan suggested a nearby restaurant, so we got ready and left. However, when we got there, we discovered it had actually closed shop entirely! So we went further afield looking for a good place to eat. Finally, we arrived at “Yo China!” and being the only ones there and nearing closing time, the waiter was more than eager to take our order. We decided on some soups, noodles, and requested that spiciness not be spared! The food was really good, especially the soups. We spent some more time just grubbing away and chatting about this and that and everything in between. Finally, as it was getting late and the restaurant was shutting down, we decided to call it a night. They drove us home since it wouldn’t be too safe taking an auto at this hour. We had a really good time and are hoping to meet them again this week knowing of course how busy they’d be with packing up and such.

December 30th, 2008

Only a couple more days till the New Year hits! Don’t know our plans; we were initially thinking of just checking out the ‘pub’ scene here in Bangalore. As well, we were hoping that Anu, Sukhpreet, and Manu were going to join us here to ring in the New Year. However, that’s not going to be possible given the availability of time away and prices of tickets etc. As for going out on our own and spending New Year’s Eve at a pub, people (like Penny’s friend, Hemanth who lived here recently) have been advising that it gets really rowdy and possibly even dangerous. For the two of us, who don’t like trouble and have preferred being safe than sorry, we’re thinking we’ll just be staying home, get a DVD and some beers and be chill about it.

Today, we went down Karthik’s memory lane visiting some of the places that were part of his time growing up here in Bangalore. We first took an auto to Karthik’s old school, Baldwin Boys High School. Karthik was eager to see the state of the place, given his still good recollection of times there. We passed through the busy heart of the city and noted the traffic here was indeed quite bad. The city, however, had changed quite a lot since Karthik’s days here, with a whole bunch of new buildings, malls, and other fanciness added to this otherwise “Garden City.” At the entrance of the school, which hadn’t changed much, we were stopped by the guard who asked what our business there was, especially since the school was closed for X-mas holidays. Karthik explained that he’d gone to school and wanted to show Penny around – the guard agreed, smiling. Inside, EVERYTHING had changed. It all seemed so much more crammed, with new buildings everywhere. Aside from a couple of buildings and one of the grounds, it all cropped up in the time since Karthik left. It felt a bit more claustrophobic, but still, it was cool to be here. So we went around taking pics and also learnt that the current principal, Mr. Dinakar Wilson, was actually the mathematics teacher during Karthik’s day. Good for him, as he used to be a nice guy with a good head on his shoulders. We wandered around for a bit and then left, seeing as the school was otherwise completely empty. Karthik made some good friends here and the time here was pleasant enough.

From here, we headed to Jayanagar, the place where Karthik and Amma/Appa used to live, the 7th block to be exact. Karthik didn’t know the exact address, however had a rough idea. But, from our auto, it seemed Jayanagar too hadn’t been spared the burden of progress. Everything had changed here too! It took some time, but we found the street that the house was supposed to be on. The house was near the corner of the street, near the main road. But where was it? The original house was no longer there, except for one that looked very similar. There used to be smaller shacks neighbouring the original house, but they were gone. Now, there were just large houses and a multi-storied apartment building. Karthik thought the original house was re-modeled after some time. We were just hanging around and then the owner of the re-modeled house we ‘thought’ stood where the original one was, came out. After he got into his car, Karthik asked about the house and discovered that this actually wasn’t the one. His was built on the site the shack used to be on. So, it dawned that the multi-storied structure was actually the site of the original house! Crazy! Nothing of the old house stood; instead three families occupied this rather useless-looking building. Karthik felt a bit sad; however was not a big deal. After some time, we just left, walking around the neighbourhood. The only constant was an empty plot behind the old house, which was still left as is.

We then caught an auto to the 4th block, the ‘downtown’ of Jayanagar to see what other changes were underfoot. On the way, all of Jayanagar seemed to have closed in on itself. Things used to be much more open, spacious, and less busy. The shopping complex itself, funnily enough, hadn’t changed one bit. It was just a bit more run-down, but was not replaced by a fancy, schmancy mall. There were still the small shops, vendors, and snack shops. We stopped at one, the Vijaya Bakery, where Karthik and Amma/Appa used to have snacks back in the day. We had some veggie puffs and sweets, our stomachs happy for now. We were getting only hungrier, so walked down one of the streets leading away from the shopping complex. We were actually in search of a Samosa vendor; one who used to make what were possibly the best “Samosa Channa” (samosas in a chickpea sauce) Karthik has tasted in his life. He used to enjoy them every day on the way home after swimming practice at the nearby community pool. Well, we walked and walked in search, but no such luck. He’d probably made enough moola and shifted elsewhere, opening his own restaurant or something. Anyhow, we’d settle for anything at this point. So we checked into a nearby snack shop, ordered some Bhelpuri (a mish-mash of rice flakes, veggies, tamarind sauce, and chutney) and Gol Gappas (small hollowed out puffy thingies where spicy water and potato filling goes in), and dug in. It was both refreshing and filling.

We were right nearby the community centre where they had an athletic field right adjacent to the pool. Karthik spent many an hour back in the day training to become the accomplished athlete he’s today. Well… not really. But still, it was all part of the walk down memory lane. We hung out at the field, where nearby, Karthik had also attempted Gymnastics for a bit before deciding that was just not him. We then trotted over to the pool. It was all still the same, except for some makeshift waterslide they’d added. It was still mostly just the pool. Karthik had done a lot of laps and dives off the diving board at this place, so it was neat being back here after so long. After some time and a few pics, we left the pool and decided to head back home.

We caught an auto, and then along the way, we were thinking, hey, shouldn’t we check out the new Keanu Reeves movie, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ which was playing at only one theatre in Bangalore – the Forum Mall. And lo and behold (it was totally a ‘lo and behold’ moment), there we were passing by the Forum. So we quickly told the auto driver to stop and drop us off here. It was a large (by Indian standards) and fairly new mall, so we were curious what it’d be like inside. The only other mall we’d been to in India was the Spencer Plaza in Chennai, which was getting run-down and not really well planned.

We walked in and immediately saw signs for all sorts of Western restaurants, such as KFC, McDonalds (although no Starbucks), and Pizza Hut. At the entrance was the KFC and on their menu was actually a “Thali!” Can you imagine? A KFC Thali?! Pretty cool! We weren’t all that hungry, wanting to know when the movie starts. So we headed off to the cinema, stopping by for some coffee at a café chain called Café Coffee Day (found all over India). At the cinemas, we were in for some good old Indian-style confusion. We went to what looked like a ticket booth and in the hopes of buying some tix, we were told it’s not playing here. What the…?? This was the “Gold Class” cinemas where for Rs. 500 (around $12) you had a private couch with meal to watch the movie that was playing. We were told to go check out the “General Class” ticket booth. On the way, we also saw the “Silver Class” where presumably you had less-than-spiffy furniture and half a meal. We went to the “General Class” booth, hoping to buy some tickets. But then we learnt something else uniquely Indian. The movie had been “screened out.” Huh, you say? Yeps, apparently the movie was doing so poorly that they got rid of it after just a couple of days. Crazy loons! Ahh… no movie today, then.

So we wandered around aimlessly, exploring the mall and checking out what’s what. But now we were hungry, so we went to their food court. It was pretty cool, actually. It was designed in the form of an airport waiting lounge with gates and everything, and termed simply “Transit.” It had lots of eating options, including Tex-Mex, North and South Indian, and tons of fast food. We were intrigued by this pizza joint selling what are called “Conizzas” – basically pizzas curled into the shape of a cone. Very cool! It tasted great as well, and we washed it down with the quintessential Indian pop drink – Thums Up! Having had our fill of food and Indian malls, we left and headed back home. Tonight, for dinner, it’s Biryani again with movies on our laptop.

January 1st, 2009

Happy New Year, blog readers, one and all! We’re very excited and happy about 2K9 – ‘tis gonna be a great year! So what did we do, for New Years’ Eve? Had a great time, staying home with beers, biryani, and movies. Karthik went out to a local shop to get some pirated movies for dirt cheap, so we got to enjoy some newly released Hindi flix. Today was spent away calling and receiving calls from family and friends to ring in 2009. This would our first New Year spent away in India after a really, really long time. But it didn’t really feel a lot like it, since it was just the two of us and reminiscent of what we’d have done back home.

So today in the evening, we went to spend some time with some good friends of Amma/Appa who live in Bangalore - Lalita Aunty and Sankaran Uncle, and their children, Hamsa and Karthik. Karthik remembers visiting them back in ’97, when ‘Karthik Jr.’ was a lot younger and was into magic tricks and being terribly cute doing them. That was a long time ago and the kids had grown up by now. We hired a cab since it was a good hour away on the other end of Bangalore, on the way to Mysore. It took a bit to find their house, but we eventually found it. We had a really good time enjoying their company and great food Aunty had made. Karthik even barely remembers back to his earliest memories living in Hyderabad in the early 80’s and especially of the really cool-shaped cookies Aunty used to make. The families were really close back then, and have still stayed in touch in spite of time and distance. Karthik Jr. also showed the LEGO set made with Karthik’s help way back then, still preserved for posterity. That was very sweet, indeed. After some time hanging out and having a good time, it was getting late. Our cab was still waiting for us, since it’d be really hard to find one on account of the location. So we bid them farewell and came back home, passing by Brigade Road (one of the main thoroughfares) all brightly lit up. We’ll check it out before we leave Bangalore.

January 3rd, 2009

Yesterday, we just relaxed at home again. We were hoping to meet up again with Jayshree and Chinthan, however neither Penny nor Chinthan were feeling well. To ensure everyone gets better and given how busy they were wrapping up stuff here, we just spoke on the phone and wished them all the best on their exciting journey ahead of them. So, on our last day in Bangalore, we headed off to have some delish food at MTR’s (Mavalli Tiffin Room) original coffee house – where it all began several decades ago. They’re mostly known today by the wicked packaged foods and other goods they make, a whole heap of which we’d bought in Singapore to enjoy at our villa in Bali. That just sounds so good, still – “our villa in Bali.” Anyways, getting sidetracked there! So we took an auto to the Lal Bagh area, where one of the world’s largest urban gardens is located. We didn’t really feel up to exploring Lal Bagh, interested more in the food we’d have at MTR. The auto driver totally passed the place and dropped us off quite far away, then complaining to us how far he’d have to go to get back. Idiot! So we headed back the way we came on foot, passing by the usual treat of uniquely Indian sights – floral flour decorations in front of houses; kids playing with an old rubber tire in front of a temple; cows grazing by idly; and swarms of men just hangin’ out and being up to no good. Ah… crazy India! Finally, we got there and it was divided up into two floors, the ground floor which looked like a large canteen mostly patronized by men. We went upstairs and came up on a waiting room, where the main eating area seemed cleaner and with families enjoying the MTR meals. This place is damn popular in Bangalore, so we expected to wait around for a long time. We added our name and waited.

Finally, we got a table in less than ten minutes! Wicked! We ordered Masala Dosas, Bisebelebath (spicy rice), Kaara Baath (spicy wheat porridge), and coffees. It’s hard to describe in words just how fantabulous the food was! The Masala Dosa, bathed in ghee, was simply out of this world. Just absolutely delicious and possibly the best Dosa we’ve had EVER! The Kaara Baath was also scrumptious and divine. This had to be the best South Indian tiffin meal we’ve had – sorry, Saravana Bhavan! Now we know why MTR is as great as people claim it to be. After this, we savored our coffee, reflecting on just how happy our bellies were. Reluctantly, we left MTR and headed to the centre of Bangalore. We took an auto to the corner of MG Road and Brigade Road, considered the heart of the main commercial, shopping, and entertainment district in Bangalore. Karthik remembers coming here quite often back in the day, but it just looked crazy now.

There were neon signs everywhere and the entire length of Brigade Road was decorated in lights that spanned the width of the road. It was quite nice to see, actually. Right at the intersection was the main handicrafts emporium – Cauvery, which we decided to check out. The wood and metal sculptures were simply beautiful; intricate carvings of gods, goddesses, and other mythical figures. Also mucho dinero! We were surprised just how expensive all of this was. There was one massive and incredibly detailed sculpture that cost around $200,000! Woohaa! We figured we’d check out some stuff in Mysore instead. We then decided to walk down Brigade Road, noticing the litter of brand-name stores, restaurants, cafes, bars and shopping malls. It felt much like walking down any main street back home, were it not for the crowds of Indians! We went into a side street where there were a whole bunch of pubs. It didn’t seem like a ‘cool scene’ – there were all these guys just hangin’ out in throngs and seem to be up to no good. We went into one of the pubs, but it didn’t look all that great so we left. We walked back on Brigade Road where we stopped by for some juice and checked out some cool T-shirts a vendor was selling nearby. We got a cool Ganesh T-shirt and continued on our way. We came up on Residency Road, other major commercial street at the other end of Brigade Road. At this point, we were a bit puckish and Karthik wanted to have food at the Peacock Restaurant, one of the restaurants Appa used to take them back in the day. They made the yummiest Cream of Tomato soup apparently! It wasn’t easy to find, but we finally came up on the location. We learnt from some security guards that the restaurant closed down and shifted elsewhere about a couple of years ago, but they had no idea where to. We weren’t terribly disappointed, already somewhat full from our wicked meal at MTR.

So we headed back home, but before we went to our apartment, we stopped by the Shiva Temple nearby. This was quite a unique temple, in that rather than have any formal building, it was all open concept. The main focus was on the massive statue of a seated Shiva around who was a sort of imagined depiction of his abode on Mount Kailash, replete with fake peaks and lake. Quite cool, really. We said our prayers, took in the ambience for a bit (which was very peaceful), and walked back to our apartment. Tomorrow, we say goodbye to Bangalore and catch a bus to Mysore - we actually booked the bus tickets online!

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