Just off the plane at the huge and ultra-modern Bengaluru airport, we shared a taxi with a lieutenant colonel in the Indian army, a test pilot who was returning to his hometown to visit his two young daughters for a few hours.
He persuaded us to hire the taxi driver to take us to Mysore, (a two and a half hour drive) which we did the next day. We checked into Tom’s Hotel and switched rooms for a lower floor at 9pm, there being no elevator in the hotel.
It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the city’s largest mall and a booming thoroughfare called Mahatma Gandi Rd. Right off the bat, we couldn’t help hearing the intensity of the honking cars, tuk tuks and motor scooters, six abreast, honking for no reason we could determine, everyone fighting to crawl ahead a few inches.
Our colonel had advised us not to get in a vehicle between 8 and 10:30am and 4 to 8pm. And he was right! The second morning, we had planned to visit the modern art museum and then the famed Cubbon Park and our hotel receptionist thought an Uber would be a good idea. He called one and the guy came and he took us…. somewhere, and said in his language with gestures… this is it. But it wasn’t it.
It was the middle of nowhere, certainly nowhere near an art gallery. We indicated to our driver on our Lonely Planet map where we needed to go and he responded by From Bengaluru to Mysore and back saying mmmmm…. and proceeded to drive after we repeated National Gallery several times.
He refocused his GPS and we were back in traffic. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the gallery only to meet a French couple who informed us that the gallery was closed. Irwin responded that he demanded to know why, since he is a journalist and came all the way from Canada to see this art.
Unfortunately, his status reaped no benefit and within minutes we were in a tuk tuk headed for the famed Cubban Park. It’s a big park to be sure with a smaller children’s park that we unwittingly bought tickets to for a total of 80 cents. After wandering around in the heat past benches of readers and friends talking, we decided to move on to a more atmospheric location.
I suggested the market. Why not? Markets are always fun. So the tuk tuk took us to City Market, a sprawling, chaotic, crowded scene where we found it difficult to cross roads and at one point went through a fence which is meant to stop people from crossing but the locals opened a tiny opening to slip through. Irwin tucked in his belly and just made it.
We were told the women’s clothing (we had seen only men’s clothing and tons of shoes on the streets) was behind the mosque but when we reached the location, we saw only cows, bathroom and hardware fixture stores.
The traffic on the narrow streets proved impossible. So we decided to have lunch and found a fabulous, clean, Muslim place, called Al Madina Family restaurant, where we dined on sardines, kingfish, chicken masala and veg currie, all for $14.
In this and in all other restos, one person comes over who is conversant in English. We explain that we don’t eat rice or bread and he rolls his head and warns that the curry is sauce and how are we going to eat it, to which we reply: With a spoon. In this and other similar restaurants, there are no knives. Most people eat with their right hand.
We needed relief from the market scene so why not tuk tuk to a mall? So we tuk tukked it to the mall and lo and behold, found all our favourite stores. By the way, when we asked the English-speaking manager of the resto where the ladies’ section of the market was, he answered: “go to the Mall.”
When asked for clarification as to why the market wasn’t good enough, he replied: “Cheap cheap!” I didn’t want to pursue his meaning. It turned out that the mall was near our hotel.
By the way, Bengaluru means Town of Boiled Beans because some old lady gave a prince some beans when he was starving and the rest is history!
The next day, we travelled by private taxi from Bengaluru to Mysore — home of the magnificent, ostentatious, internationally-decorated palace of the Wodeyar Maharajas. The original palace was destroyed by fire in 1897 and this one took 15 years to build and was completed in 1912 by an English architect.
The lavish interior, with its stained glass, mirrors and gaudy colours has carved wooden doors and paintings depicting military gatherings and portraits of the royal family during the 19th century. We hired a senior guide, who charged $7 to take us around the palace pointing out some of the more interesting paintings.
It seems like thousands of Indians and a wee group of foreign tourists were touring with us, along with their screaming babies, and I wasn’t feeling all that great so the tour was a bit of a challenge. Most impressive were the rooms with gilded pillars, one for guests and another more public with a wrestling arena.
It was a sobering experience. I kept thinking about how poor most people in this country are and how poor they were at the time this palace was built, and how the maharaja taxed his people to build this ridiculously lavish palace. At one point, we were told the stone floors with ridges were designed for the comfort of royal elephants.
The rest of the flooring were tiled, some with semi-precious stones. Next we were off to see a Hindu temple and although it was beautiful, what spoke to me most was the beauty of the women of all ages wearing gorgeous sarees. At the third site we visited, a mosque, there were many Hindus as there were Muslims visiting the Hindu site.
We discovered that today is New Year’s Day for Hindus and they were out in full force touring the sites with their children and parents in tow. On the way back, we stopped to take photos of the monkey god, Hanuman, an ardent devotee of Lord Rama.
It’s a bizarre and grandiose statue atop a hodge podge small square temple with kids running around asking for our names and then waving goodbye. This expedition made us aware that people wear their identities, religious and cultural, on their sleeves and on their foreheads.
White, red and yellow smears mark them representing their devotion to various gods in the Hindu faith. Hindu women wear red dots on their foreheads. Widows are not allowed to wear them, according to our guide. From head to toe black to brilliantly-coloured saris, the women dress for the occasion with young girls in glittering gold and red dresses, looking like they’re off to their first proms.
After 2 1/2 hours there and three hours back, through snarling traffic jams on the way back, we made it to our oasis in Bengaluru, Tom’s Hotel. I counted 130 honks in half hour from our driver alone. Irwin feels they were necessary. I do not. Apparently honking is used to signal passing on the right or left or simply to let the cars ahead or behind know you are coming.