There aren’t too many ways to get around in Bangalore.
Sure, you can walk, but that’s only good for up to 2 km or so, and the sidewalks suck. Sometimes there aren’t any sidewalks. Sometimes there are holes in them, or piles of burning garbage, or cows eating piles of (probably not burning) garbage. Sometimes people have set up little carts and are trying to sell things, or buildings have encroached to the point where sidewalks are more of a suggestion – a vague idea, perhaps – than a rule. Suffice it to say, walking is a bit of a sport. Not to mention the exhaust you must breathe, or the streets you must cross. “Frogger,” anyone?
Thankfully, pretty much everything I need is within a not-too-insane walking distance. I cross one street and walk a few blocks to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) campus each morning, and there are two western-ish shopping centers within 2 km. There isn’t much public transit to speak of, unless you count standing-room-only, ancient buses that don’t believe in route maps. But Mike and I have been here for over two weeks now, and decided last weekend that we needed to expand our horizons.
It was time to hire an autorickshaw.
First off, you have to understand that this is how traffic works in India. Really. That video is not unusual, or exaggerated, or even really funny to me anymore. This could have been filmed at the intersection one block away. The honking never stops.
Autorickshaws are the funny little three-wheeled yellow guys you saw in that video. They’re essentially open-air taxis that you hire on demand, only instead of “taxi” think “tricycle with a lawn mower engine and a roof.” They have a seat for the driver in front and a bench for one to two passengers in the back. (Or three or four, if you’re friendly. Keep in mind families of three routinely ride around on motorcycles here. I actually saw two guys on a motorcycle yesterday where the passenger was clutching a desktop computer tower. But I digress.)
The autorickshaw challenge is twofold. First, you have to find a driver who can understand what you’re saying, and agree on where you want to go. Then, you have to agree on a price to get there. Thankfully, rickshaw fares are dirt cheap, even when you’re a pair of clueless white folks being ripped off at double the usual rate. A real ripoff is if you pay, say, 200 rupees to go to the center of Bangalore from where we are (the Koramangala neighborhood). That’s about $4 for a 20-30 minute trip. As for actually understanding one another… that’s trickier. Let’s just say that bringing my iPhone along, equipped with google maps and a pricey international data plan, has already paid off.
Saturday was our first real adventure. Mike and I decided to revisit a restaurant our program coordinator had taken us to shortly after arriving. It’s called Maharaja, and it serves up exactly what you’d think of when I say “delicious Indian food.” Curry, naan, meat and vegetable dishes, paneer galore, and a noteworthy appetizer called “gobi manchurian” (delicious cauliflower that could pass for chicken – says Mike who doesn’t like cauliflower). Oh, and mango lassis to die for. The trip there was simple and cheap, only 30 rupees (less than $1). The food was delicious. The bathroom had a western toilet! Life was good.
Next, we headed to a botanical garden I had read about online, called Lal Bagh. This was a somewhat longer trip, and cost 100 rupees (about $2). The garden has an entry fee of 10 rupees per person (about a quarter). It was very nice to go somewhere where we could walk without fear of being run over, wasn’t honking, and didn’t smell like exhaust! There were some nice plants, too, and a pond, and all manner of trees and birds. The weather here is quite humid, and we were thankful for a light breeze most of the day.
After a nice stroll, we decided to head back to our home base, the IIA’s “Bhaskara” guest house. Finding a rickshaw to take us home was a bit more challenging than before, as demand was higher, but we managed. After discovering our wifi was still down and had been all afternoon (thanks, random power outages), we decided to go out again in the evening to see a movie: Cars 2. The closest movie theater is in the Forum Mall, which is a long walk or a short rickshaw ride away. Since we were autorickshaw pros by now, and it was raining, you can guess which we chose. 30 rupees later we were buying movie tickets and popcorn!
Going to the movies here, we learned, is just enough different from the States to be confusing. (So we’re glad we figured it out before the HP7.2 on July 15, which we can apparently buy tickets for two days in advance.) Buying a ticket is simple enough, but there is assigned seating! We weren’t there very early, so we wound up sitting a bit closer to the front than we would have liked, but were at least in the center. There is a separate security line you must go through to get into the movie theater area. Men are patted down in plain sight after passing through a metal detector, and women are led behind a privacy screen where a female worker waves a metal detector wand over you. Purses and bags are examined for cameras or other contraband (they were intrigued by my roll of travel toilet paper, but I had the foresight to leave my camera at home). Then you have the opportunity to buy snacks and pile up in the vicinity of whichever theater door your movie will be in. They don’t open the doors until the moment before the movie begins, and only a handful of (crazy, Bollywood-style) previews are shown. Our theater had air conditioning – yay! – and was too loud – boo. But the weirdest thing of all? Partway through the movie, it abruptly stopped for a solid 15 minute intermission. Now I’m all for pee breaks, but sitting through a bunch more blaring and nutty Indian trailers was not what I had in mind in the middle of my Pixar movie. Oh well. The movie itself was excellent as expected, and had a lovely international twist that really made me smile.
We had another adventure on Sunday that took us to the center of Bangalore proper. We hired a rickshaw reasonably easily for 150 rupees to St. Mark’s Cathedral for a nice if not odd church service. The liturgy was largely familiar, but the hymnal didn’t have music – only lyrics. The funniest part? Communion, when everyone immediately jumped up into the aisle to head forward. It felt like the useless “let’s all get up!” that occurs when an airplane lands. Usually for communion, you sit until the line gets to your pew or an usher guides you, but then, “usually” traffic lights are obeyed and crosswalks exist. What do I know! After church, we walked over to the Hard Rock Cafe (which may be the only place in Bangalore that serves beef – Mike had a hamburger). We also visited Mahatma Gandhi Park, conveniently located on the main street downtown called Mahatma Gandhi Road (M.G. Road for short). We were accosted by a man shortly after entering and learned that it costs 2 rupees (roughly a nickel) to visit the park. OK. Thoroughly adventured out, we headed home in the afternoon for 120 rupees on a rather circuitous route that required me to give directions from my iPhone. Each time I told the driver to do something, like make a turn, he would check with Mike: “turn left, sir?” I guess men here can’t handle taking directions from a woman!
In all, Mike and I had a really great weekend. It was nice to venture beyond our lack-of-sidewalk-imposed 2 km radius, and we are now dangerously comfortable navigating the realm of wonder and abomination that is autorickshaws.