India Retrospective: Letters home from Bangalore & Delhi

This posting is from our original travel blog about our travel to India, published in 2008, and was mainly a collection of emails to friends and family also published on one of the now defunct personal blog sites. It has been edited for clarity and privacy considerations.

February 2008:

Welcome to Bangalore!

Hi everybody! We made it to Bangalore! It’s about 6 a.m. Tuesday morning and I can’t sleep because of the worst jet lag ever so I’m taking the time to send a rambling message about what it’s been like so far.

We’ve never been anywhere like this before, that’s for sure. Bangkok came close, but this is unreal.

Don’t expect brilliant prose, or even complete sentences, this journey was exhausting and really hard to compensate for on the other side, and the surroundings are surreal.

We’ve been nauseated, tired and having trouble sleeping on anything resembling a normal night the past two nights. I thought I was going to yack at breakfast yesterday I was so nauseated. I haven’t had jet lag anything like this ever.

But after all that, so far this is an amazing place. I don’t know where to begin.

British Airways lost Adam’s suitcase, of course. That’s happened to him a lot, on travel to France, the UK and elsewhere. British Airways has bought him several nice sets of business wear. My suitcase made it, but his had all of our toiletries in it. It finally came late yesterday afternoon. But in the meantime, we needed shampoo, toothpaste, all that stuff.

We found a small grocery and I was looking through the shampoos, there’s “long black” and “nonshedding” here. I thought that was as hoot. I went with the “nonshedding.”

They speak English, but with the stark differences in our accents you’d rarely know we’re speaking a common tongue. It’s often like we’re speaking separate languages. If I write something down, though, they can read it.

The people are lovely. They gather in huddles to ponder and then answer your smallest question.  It’s like everything deserves as much attention as possible.

Men typically work at all the service jobs we’ve come in contact with so far. You’ll see women in the background, but they seem to only take orders from the men. They’ll smile at you if you catch their eye.

They’re really beautiful with their long black hair of course, mostly dressed in traditional Indian clothes.

The men are so-so, but here and there, especially working in the stores, you see some really exceptionally handsome men.

They’re also very charming.  I’m “madame” and they offer green tea with cardamom and cinnamon. It’s really delicious.

The main roads are paved with absolutely random seeming speed bumps, but most of the side roads seem to be dirt.

I couldn’t tell you how many lanes there are because the traffic is insane. I can’t figure the road layout. They’re crossing over each other all the time and the signals are bizarre. There will be arrows on straight-aways and red lights but people are going.

There are cars, auto rickshaws (“tuk-tuks” as they are called in many places), motorcycles with babies steering on their dad’s lap and mom on the back, oxen-led carts and bicyclists and hawkers jammed into the road willy-nilly. They all speak a horn language to each other, meep-meeping constantly as they cut each other off and creep along.

Then a big black cow walks into the road and the traffic stops to let it wander. You see the cows lying along the sides of the roads, in the medians, rooting through the piles of garbage along with various goats. There are women walking alongside with huge piles of wood planks balanced on their heads. Women and children are also here and there sweeping the dirt with makeshift brooms. They seem to try to keep their immediate areas neat, but the funny thing is they sweep the garbage to piles that are all over the place. Women are hanging their laundry on lines in the filthy median.

The sheer filth and poverty is overwhelming, especially with all the big tech names on beautiful modern buildings interspersed among all of it. There’s Cisco and Intel and all kinds of big names.

This is India’s Silicon Valley. You’ll see these big modern buildings and then tent cities. I had a car and driver for several hours yesterday, which cost about $25 for a day. It took me all over the place and the driver would wait for me outside.

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There would be rows and rows of tin-sided shacks with laundry hanging outside, then big beautiful government buildings. There are big stray dogs everywhere.

We were stopped in traffic and a small girl, maybe 5, came up to my window and kept tapping on my window wanting to sell me Q-tips. She was filthy, and she saw I was eating cookies. She would tap quietly and when I’d look she point to the cookies and then to her mouth.

It was heartbreaking, but the driver told me to ignore her. I guess if you help, you risk being suddenly surrounded by a mob expecting the same.

One of the places the driver took me to was a six-level mall so I could get Adam some underwear and shirts.

It was very modern and packed full of Indian teenagers. They all stared at me and my clothes and shoes. When I went into the bathroom, it was full of a bunch of giggling girls brushing their long hair and putting it in pony tails. When I said excuse me, they were so excited to say “hi!” and smile. Then they’d giggle and start chattering to each other in I guess Hindi.

The food is delicious everywhere we’ve gone so far. Lamb and chicken in very spicy sauces on rice and other interesting things. We love it, but it makes your mouth burn so you eat lots of the nan or roti bread, which is also delicious.

At breakfast, they have a spicy tomato-based soup you dip your bread in. Adam says, “They’re not timid with the spices at all.” He’s a very happy boy.

Adam’s boss has offered to have his wife take me around to the more “local” shopping places. I can’t wait to see all of that. The streets are lined with open-front markets selling all kinds of things.

You see men standing outside sidewalk restaurants, scooping food out of tin plates. The colorful silks are everywhere.

I notice there are two guys cleaning the hotel lobby when one would seem to be more than enough, and when you go to a restaurant, there are at least four people waiting on your table.

The customer service is really amazing. You don’t see anyone just sitting around, everyone seems to be going somewhere.

The dollar seems to buy a lot here. Dinner with three courses and beers is about $30 at the hotel where it’s more expensive. But we can eat for $5 at outside places and be stuffed.

I’m definitely a curiosity. I’ve never been stared at so much in my life! I can’t wait to go around with the boss’s wife today. That should be fun. I’ll keep you updated.

Indians do a head shaking/bobbing thing here that means “yes” but would look like “no” back home.

It’s driving me nuts.

Every time I answer no and shake my head, they look at me like they have no idea what I want. It’s terrible with the beggars too. You don’t realize how often you shake your head no!

Happy Valentine’s Day!! The Indians in Bangalore seem to celebrate it like crazy. There are signs advertising romantic nights out all over the place and Adam’s boss’s wife told me the city will sell out of roses today.

She took me all over the city yesterday to all kinds of shops selling hand-crafted Indian stuff like silks, pillows, bed clothes, curtains, brass work, carved sandalwood and all kinds of other stuff.

I got a brass elephant Ganesh god holding a book. She told me he represents new beginnings, and since he was holding a book I’m hoping he’ll bring me luck.

Deepa also took me to lunch at a southern Indian style restaurant. It was delicious.

We had appams, which is this thin rice bread that you use to eat whatever you choose. We chose lamb in a spicy sauce. She said they grind up the rice, ferment it in a pan and then slowly cook it. It’s like a spongy white round flat bread and you use your three fingers on your right hand to tear off a piece and then tweeze up the lamb or whatever you’re eating and push it into your mouth with one finger.

You don’t ever use your left hand because that’s your “dirty” hand.

I got the hang of it. It was easier than chopsticks.

Deepa was really interesting and answered all my questions. She told me that I’m stared at a lot because the Indian men basically think Western women are easy.

She said they’ve all seen Bay Watch and think “why shouldn’t I also get some?”

She was upset because the Indian singers are starting to wear sleazier clothes in the music videos and dance more suggestively. She said that was not only a bad model for young Indian girls, but she was more upset about people from other countries thinking bad things of Indian women.

She also had a great sense of humor.

She wanted to know why British celebrities like Simon Cowell on American Idol are suddenly the authorities on so many American TV shows.

“Since when did the Brits become an authority on anything?” she demanded. “You saved their skins in Europe.”

She watches American shows and movies on her TV network. She likes “The Amazing Race.”

I had another little girl beggar tap on my window as I was going to meet her. I asked her about the beggar children and she got very animated. She said she won’t give money to children or any able-bodied person. She said that’s just perpetuating the lifestyle and not encouraging them to find work. She said the beggar children probably make a lot of money.

But, on the other hand, she said she always gives to people who obviously are unable to care for themselves. She said her father taught her to always see herself in their situation and think that at any moment that could be her.

She was very interested in the plight of the native American Indians. She wanted to know why they’ve allowed themselves to be rounded up and hidden away.

She thinks they should fight to have everything that’s theirs and to be seen. She said when she visited California, she was looking everywhere for them and was disappointed she didn’t see any.

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Taj Mahal travel when visiting India
Taj Mahal travel when visiting India

She, obviously, had watched a lot of cowboy and Indian movies growing up and thought they’d be more apparent.

Wednesday night I got to go on a company “do” with Adam. They had a surprise outing to a bowling alley downtown. It was a hoot.

There was extremely loud pop techno music playing and huge crowds of Indians whooping it up. It was so neat to see them acting just like we do, high-fiving, end zone dancing, but in their saris and head dresses. Then we went down the street to this bar called Couch where there were all these cool seating areas. We all sat around one and they started ordering rounds of shots and dancing and being silly. It was a lot of fun, kind of like being with my friends 🙂

This morning:

Valentine’s Day is unbelievably huge here! The restaurants were all filled with red heart-shaped balloons and the waiter gave you gifts of wrapped chocolates. Everywhere was packed.

Our hotel has this island-like oasis behind it with a huge thatched bar area and stream, pool, sand and palms. It was packed until 11 with Indians eating and then going to the dance club. I was sorry we were too tired to check out the dance club. I thought I had heard one of Adam’s coworkers say dancing had been banned in Bangalore. I don’t know why.

Adam said a coworker told him that some Indians are very upset that celebrating Valentine’s Day has taken root. He said there have been incidents of people throwing rocks through windows of places selling Valentine’s stuff. They think it represents a Western invasion of Indian ideals.

The other day, we saw a crowded child’s birthday party at the hotel’s island back. The crowd gathered really late for a weekday, like 9:30 and talked for a while before eating around 10. Then they had a cake and the child blew out candles.

It’s still surprising to see these common rituals in a place that is so unbelievably foreign.

Well, it’s now Sunday afternoon and we’re on Kingfisher airline on our way to Delhi.

I’ll tell you later about how we almost killed about three dozen people yesterday, but first the airport.

The airport and airline experience here is, like everything else, very unusual. We paid a guy 30 rupees to take our luggage from the car, through baggage screening, then to stand in line all the way to the check-in desk. That’s about 75 cents, but it’s a nice tip for them, 10 rupees a bag.

Then we went inside the domestic airport.  Men and women had separate security checks and I had to go into a canvas tent-like area where I was patted down and wanded by a woman.

Inside the terminal there were a couple of craft stores and a coffee shop. We sat down in a general seating area with our lattes and I saw a big cockroach crawling up the back of the man sitting in front of me.

My instinct was to swat it off, but Adam said to ignore it. He was surprised that it was the first cockroach I saw. Needless to say, I didn’t want to sit down anymore. But we found a restaurant and ordered an Indian breakfast.

I had this thing that looked like a pancake but wasn’t sweet. It had minced onion and other spices in it and came with two sauces, a spicy tomato-based sauce and a white yogurt-based sauce, both very good. Adam had some kind of crepe-looking thing with curry vegetables inside and the same sauces. Actually, they don’t call anything “sauce” here, it’s all “gravy.”

Then, as we were eating, a Kingfisher rep came over and asked when our flight was and said he’d notify us when we’d need to go to our gate. Can you imagine an American airline searching out customers throughout the airport and making sure they were taken care of? Airline workers were approaching everyone and asking their flight numbers and giving them instructions.

The airliner itself is also very comfortable. It’s now just about an hour into a two-hour flight, and we’ve already been served two drinks and lunch (veg or non-veg, at least half the people we meet are vegetarian,) which included a hot entrée, a thai noodle salad, mousse, hot and cold drinks. Can’t see that ever happening again on USAirways.

So you want to know how we almost killed three dozen people? That was on our day trip yesterday to Mysore, about 3 to 5 hours south of Bangalore, depending on the traffic. It was 3 hours to get there, 5 hours back.

We were in an SUV and were like kings of the road. And our driver thought he was top king.

We blasted our horn at anyone who got within a half-inch of us, which meant practically everyone, and kept blasting it if they wouldn’t get out of the way, even when getting out of the way was completely impossible because we were in a cluster FXXK.

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That typically meant that the poor schmucks on motorcycles were being missed by millimeters. I really thought we were about to kill many of them. I think we skimmed a few.

A funny aside about the motorcyclists. The drivers wear helmets, but the passengers, usually women and children, don’t.

As we got outside of Bangalore, the traffic devices got more fun.

There were still the random speed bumps with no notice, but also the gates.

Typically three gates spanning half the roadway were placed back and forth. They’d come out of the blue and cause the driver to slam on his brakes and then shoot through the gates like a horse rider in a barrel race.

If traffic was heavy and a bunch of vehicles and animals hit the gates at the same time, things got very interesting, especially at night.

Anyway, we saw the summer and winter palaces in Mysore, which were both amazing, as well as the bird sanctuary, which was very beautiful. We have lots of pictures.

The Sunday Times of India has a picture today of a cricket captain who was at the sanctuary yesterday taking pictures of birds as well. Let’s just say that I’m very sorry that we missed seeing him.

Speaking of cricket, they’re nuts for it here. It looks kind of like baseball, but much, much more boring. Wherever you go, the TVs have it on and you see workers regularly come out of the kitchens or wherever they are to watch intently.

The cricket stadium in Bangalore was huge. I guess a game can go on all day, or even into multiple days.  I can’t imagine the excitement. 

Speaking of newspapers, they’re absolutely booming here. Everywhere you look someone is reading a paper. They not only put papers in your hotel room, but in the taxis and in the seat backs of the planes.

The Times of India just won a top prize in a nationwide branding contest, indicating it’s as popular as products like Coca-Cola and TaTa. Circulations are growing by leaps and bounds. Adam’s boss’s wife told me that she couldn’t survive a morning without her newspapers.

Want my take on their success? They’re loaded, and I mean loaded with local news. I’ll share some interesting stories later. The Bangalore Times must have 20 pages in the A section devoted to nothing but stories out of Bangalore.

There might be a story of national or international interest on the front, and much deeper inside, but primary focus is on local life. If there’s some bigger trend, stories focus only on what local “celebrities” and ordinary people think. Imagine that, local news. Who would have thought that would be successful? That’s an inside joke to my newspaper friends.

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Curious about TaTas, aren’t you? Well, TaTa is the nation’s big car manufacturer. I feel like Beevis and Butthead or Bart Simpson giggling all the time when I see a TaTa. I keep thinking of the breast cancer association’s slogan, “Save the TaTas!”

When we remarked on it, our driver said, “Yes, we have plenty of TaTas here.” LOL

Adam said TaTa recently bought Jaguar and Landrover.

Back to the traffic for a second, the paper had a story about how traffic conditions could be improved. It listed the following ideas: Create traffic lanes, remove garbage from the left-hand side of the roads, hire police, etc. Novel ideas.

The garbage, especially in the city limits, is horrendous. Sadly, you see whole families commonly picking through it. The rivers are more garbage than water.

You see women who are paid by the government bent over at the waist with a handful of straw sweeping at the roads here and there, completely not making a dent in the filth. Most are barefoot, as are many people. Others wear flipflops or sandals, which our guidebooks told us weren’t practical to wear.

Further outside the cities, the garbage situation gets a little better, but that’s subjective. Southwestern India has unusual mountain/rock outcroppings. The land is flat, then these things stick a couple thousand feet straight up into the sky, round and tall like the American Southwest.

We went through silk city, then sugar city. We saw sugar cane fields and rice paddies with women doing all the work.

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We saw men driving carts with oxen that had their horns painted red and colorful yarn tassels hanging from the tips. The carts are almost comical in how overloaded they are with wood or sugar cane or straw.

Everything is decorated.

If you pass a big truck, the diesel fuel tank underneath has flowers, elephants, cows, and/or squigglys painted on it.

The word “stop” will have a swan painted into the S. The big trucks will have decorative and colorful scrawling all over them.

According to Adam’s boss’s wife, Indians don’t believe there is such a thing as too much.

I asked about what they wear day vs. evening. She said in the evening, women will dress with more detailed clothing, with more sequins, embroidery and beading.

When I pointed out some very heavily decorated and sparkly outfits going by, she said, well basically we wear whatever we want whenever we want. There’s no such thing as too much.

That goes for the home, too. She said you can’t have enough decorations and bright colors.

She took me to a clothing store where I was looking at tunic type tops and I kept picking up my favorite colors in blues and greens. She watched me for a while disapprovingly, then walked away and came back with an outfit in red with gold sequins. “You must have some red,” she said.  I really liked her.

I don’t know why I’m thinking of this, but it’s interesting to note that men have no compunction about peeing anywhere any time. As you’re driving, you see them either standing or squatting for at least partial cover and taking a whiz.

I never imagined seeing so much of the Indians. It’s so strange with how modest the women are.

Bathrooms for the women, by the way are a treat.

There are western toilets for the most part, but you’re lucky if you get toilet paper. And when you get one of their holes in the floor, you definitely won’t get toilet paper. But you always at least get a faucet with a bucket and a smaller pitcher inside. Sometimes you get a hose. The bathroom stalls are typically all wet, and I can’t imagine what these women do with this stuff. The bathrooms are also very stinky.

We’re using a lot of handiwipes.

I wanted to remark on the Bollywood films. Adam’s coworkers said it produced about 800 feature films a year. They range in length typically from 3-5 hours with an intermission.

There are so many that they typically play a week. But there is this one actor who’s very famous – I won’t even try to spell or pronounce his name – and he’s been big for the last 20 years or so. One of his films has been playing for 12 years.

We’ve seen some of the movies on TV. They’re a hoot. There’s a LOT of dancing and singing. Typically one man in the middle, surrounded by dozens of beautiful women in matching saris, all dancing like mad in sync in all kinds of locations. It goes on forever. The movie posters are pasted up all over on every surface.

Well, I’ll quit for now. We’ll see the Taj Mahal tomorrow!

Two weeks and no Delhi Belly!!

Sorry it’s been a few days since we’ve been in contact. We hit Delhi and it’s been total sensory overload since.

 The sights are crazy. There are elephants, camels, cows and horses in the road. There are monkeys swinging from the overhead wires and running along the tops of buildings. There are vehicles of all descriptions and vintages hurtling at breakneck speeds.

There are women squatting in ponds full of feces along the side of roads. They’re washing their laundry in the filthy river. And the contrast of this with the most beautifully detailed, sparkling and colorful saris they wear is striking.

There are incredibly deformed people begging at every stop of your car. One poor young man’s back was twisted like a corkscrew. We have a renewed, profound appreciation for inoculations and sanitation.

We Americans have no idea what real poverty is. But, like where I think the U.S. is heading, the dichotomy between rich and poor is remarkable. 

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We saw numerous people whose apparent homes were mud huts and grass shacks, some measuring only a few feet across.  The women in these families apparently spend their days gathering mud from along the lakes and rivers, packing it into tiles that they dry in the sun, and then carrying the tiles in stacks on their heads, to repair the broken sections of the mud huts.

In the cities, the mud is replaced by sheets of plastic and garbage bags, held down by bricks to form crude tents.

As we tour some of the monuments and forts, we encounter long lines of school children, who stare and wave and want to touch me. For some reason it’s mostly just me, not Adam.

At one point, I almost got carried away in a tidal wave of children. They’re adorable, smiling and saying “hi” and wanting to shake my hand and ask my name.

When Adam takes their picture, they’re thrilled and pose and then crowd around him trying to look at the digital image.

In fact, the people in general are thrilled to have their pictures taken. When they realize we’re doing it, they gather in big groups and smile, then they want to touch our hands and see the picture.

They’re all mesmerized by our light-colored eyes. One woman kept walking in front of me and just staring at my eyes intently.

The markets here are beyond anything we’ve seen anywhere else. I can only show you all pictures when we get back to give you a true idea of the size and crowds.

The forts we’ve toured have been straight out of the medieval movies, remarkably untouched and amazing. The emperor’s palaces and their various wives’ living quarters are spectacular.

It was very, very good to be the king. One had 500 concubines who bathed in rose-petal-strewn water in the fountains surrounding him and then lounged on silk carpets as they were fanned by servants with silver jeweled fans.

One detail about India that is hard to fathom unless you see it …  there are literally people everywhere.  We would be driving by a field that appeared entirely empty.  But we’d look closer, and there would be a crude grass hut hidden among the brush, with a man squatting in it cooking his supper.  In every direction you look, there are people. 

We drove more than 100 miles through countryside and, as far as we could tell, we never hit a spot where there was not at least one person in sight. 

Here’s what we have to say about Agra and the Taj Mahal. Wow. The Baby Taj and the Red Fort. Wow.

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There are not enough words to describe how truly incredible they are. We’d seen pictures of the Taj, of course, and it looked pretty. But now I understand why it’s one of the wonders of the world. Pictures can’t begin to do it justice.

Its incredible detail, inlaid jewel work, perfect symmetry, immense size and majesty, and of course the unforgettably romantic back story, are truly beyond words. When you see it from a distance, rising out of the mist, it’s surreal. See the attached picture for one example of what we saw.

We were completely blown away by it … it alone is worth a trip to India.

This is our last day. I feel guilty that I haven’t written down so many details, but it truly is overwhelming. I could write for weeks and never get it all down.

Here are some small things:

The Kingfisher beer is good, and strong.

The people won’t lie to you. If you ask if something is real silver or a real jewel, they’ll tell you if it isn’t and insist you understand.

They don’t like President Bush. They love Bill Clinton. Everyone will tell you what Bill’s favorite restaurant is in Delhi. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get reservations.

The newspapers’ favorite, over-used lede is “All hell broke loose when” .. the Bollywood actress appeared; the Pakistanis voted; the cricket players were auctioned off. It’s a hoot.

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