Welcome to India!
Phew! As those of you who read my last blog post know, I've been waiting to say those words for a long time now. (I'm actually entering my third week in Bangalore now, but lost several draft blog posts to wi-fi crashes). So I can tell you I've had time to settle in to work in Shell, figure out my housing, and start thinking about the paradox that is my Bangalore.
The one point that I'm trying to get across is my overwhelming initial experience:
Culture shock is not knowing what the difficult things are. It's asking yourself - what will be my biggest issue today? Is it climbing a mountain? Booking a cab? Meeting people? Using the bathroom? Eating breakfast? - and not being able to exclude a single item.
I should probably warn you that there is hiking involved (any surprises there?) ^_^ In the top photo, you can see my mountain - a monolithic slab of granite known as Savandurga - in the distance. It's about 33km outside of Bangalore. It should tell you something about the traffic and the roads that this makes for 2 hours driving each way.
Story 1: Catching a cab
We tried to leave at 6.30am in a pre-booked cab.
At 6.29am the cab company called. 'Are you here?' we asked.
'No ma'am... there is a problem with your booking.'
'What do you mean, is the cab late?'
'Well ma'am you ask for five person car... car is too small for five persons. You want five persons, you need to have a bigger car.'
Why didn't you realize this until now? is not a helpful question. 'And how fast can you send it?'
'Let me check with my supervisor...' click.
Soon the phone rings. This time, it's the driver of the small cab, saying he's nearly here, not even five minutes away. Okay.
beepbedeedee 'Hello ma'am, we don't think we'll be able to send a cab until 1 hour'
'One more hour? If that's the case, we can wait that long.'
'Let me check, let me check again... You are in Whitefield? No sorry ma'am car will take four hour to get to you.'
'Well then, we can take the smaller cab and make it work.'
'Don't worry ma'am bigger car will be on its way'
'Sorry, did you mean on its way now? Or in four hours?'
'Yes on its way.'
The full conversation took a good fifteen minutes or so with multiple inconclusive calls to the supervisor. A little after 7 the small car showed up. It sounded like he'd never heard of the problem. Fortunately, we eventually found a simple solution: for one thousand rupees his car was a five-passenger car. We squeezed four people in the back seat and set off.
In case you're worrying about safety, no need - the seat belts had all been carefully wedged and disabled, so they weren't in the way.
This driver wasn't the type to mess about. This comes on top of the tangled two-to-twelve-lane mire of autorickshaw, motorcycle and occasional handcart that makes up a Bangalore highway. My heart practically jumped out the open window a couple times. We missed one concrete barrier by inches, and twice cruised on the wrong side of the road to avoid inconvenient intersections.
Our car parked on a small dirt road at the base of Savandurga. A small Hindu temple stood on a raised platform. Stalls selling potato chips, mango juice and jackfruits looked out hopefully.
We soon found the trail leading to the monolith, which wound fifty meters or so through the forest. An intense smell of spice blew from an open-air restaurant. At a small house, water splashed while a woman in a blue sari washed her feet. A couple stray dogs ran past. From the bushes came a periodic waft of feces.
When we came out into the open, we met a familiar request. 'Photo please?'
I've decided that the most fun way to deal with this is to ask for a photo for myself to keep too :)
We spent a while getting snapped with every possible configuration of the family.
One of the fantastic things about this hike - and about the Bangalore area in general - has been the overwhelming friendliness of strangers here. Everywhere there were people calling out to their friends, or pointing out the best ways around the steep sections. Everyone seemed to be in groups of friends or family. Hardcore hikers, a common species in the US known for pushing uphill with grim expressions, and exclaiming triumphantly over their stopwatches on the way down, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, women yelled out to each other down the slopes, and when I started climbing up a steep ridge for a fun look, the men nearby all urged me to be careful and pointed out the easiest paths. It was quite clear that the business of the day was camaraderie and fun.
We spent a large fraction of the walk up climbing alongside a pair of IT professionals, one of whom spoke good English and asked us many questions about the US.
In return, we asked him what he was doing in Bangalore.
'I'm working in the IT sector here, and doing work for a Master's degree on the weekends.'
'Wow, that sounds like it would keep you busy!'
'Yes, it is difficult,' he told me, 'There is not much time for family. But it is necessary here because the market is saturated with IT and programming professionals.'
I was floored. Can you imagine walking around MIT and hearing that programmers are unemployable? I told him that US companies never have enough.
'Yes, that's why you send all your computing jobs over here!' He laughed. 'That, and we're cheaper.'
'Hah, well, I can't deny that'
'Ah well, the cost of living is so much better here. I had a cousin who went to New York once, and the prices he told me... Here everyone knows that the salaries are so much higher over there and wants to go, but they don't realize about the cost of living.'
'It's not so bad for me coming this way,' I laughed. 'Do you know I can get a good restaurant meal here for half the cost of a sandwich back home? And all the food is delicious.'
He laughed back. 'You are learning to eat the spice?'
'I like things spicy.'
The women of Savandurga
Now, let's leave food for that other necessity of life - clothing. If you look at my photos, you'll notice me in my hiking pants. If you look a little closer, you'd notice all the worn spots on the knees where I've bumped them climbing hills just like this one.
Incredibly, no one else was dressed similarly. All of the Indian women I saw were wearing the brightly colored silk dresses and embroidered saris that seem to be 'day out' clothes here, the same they'd wear to a restaurant or theatre. It was as if there was nothing else to wear in the world.
Perhaps for them there wasn't.
I can't imagine anything less practical. More than that, there have been many times these last few weeks when the opulence of such clothes seems to burn viciously against the poverty of the background. I've seen elderly women wrapping their saris around their shoulders as they sweep garbage in the streets.
Yet watching these women - a pair in bright green and burgundy dresses dangling their feet in a small pool and grinning; a young woman whose anklets glinted above me as her husband led her up the rocks - this floated away. They made beauty seem inevitable, unquestionable. I'm not sure if I've ever seen such unpretentious grace as I did on Savandurga. In the middle of the small crowd on the summit was a grey-haired woman, barefoot, standing silent as her white and gold silk sari rustled in the wind.
|A group of friends added me as a novelty to their photos.|
|Our happy MIT group (left to write: Kelly K, Kai P, Jayson L, Andrea L, Jade P)|