Thanks to a slight change in my role at work, I have had the opportunity to visit our office in Bangalore. It was my first time in a developing country, and I admit the first few days were a bit of culture shock.
I flew via Virgin Airlines from London to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and caught a connecting flight via Jet Airways to Bangalore. Jet Airways provides some of the best service I have ever seen on an airline, particularly on short domestic flights. Before we took off, they walked down the aisles with bottles of water for everyone followed by a very refreshing lemony damp face cloth. After take-off, we received a bottle of fresh bottled lime water followed by a full meal with proper metal utensils and lovely cloth napkins wrapped in a matching silk cord.
In Bangalore, the taxis are for the most part in the form of auto-rickshaws. These are open-air one or two person rickshaws attached to what appears to be the front end of a scooter. Our hotel had arranged a taxi for us, which was particularly nice because it was a proper car (sub-compact) with tinted windows. When we departed the airport, there were about forty taxi drivers, all dressed in white, crowding around the exit trying to solicit fares. In the taxi on the way to the hotel, I experienced what can only be described as absolutely terrifying chaos. There are no lanes painted in he road and very little traffic control. The cars and lorries (trucks) and auto-rickshaws are not driving in straight lines, nor are they allowing more than a few inches between them and other cars. The drivers honk constantly so that there is a cacophony of noise that takes a few days to get used to. Pedestrians do not have crosswalks or signals, so they wait for traffic to come to a stop, or at least slow down, before they squeeze between the masses of vehicles to reach the center median. Here they wait, balancing on the four inch wide median between speeding traffic, until the traffic in the other direction slows down enough for the pedestrian to attempt the remainder of the crossing.
My coworker and I checked into our rooms at the Grand Magrath hotel, which was very inexpensive compared to the hotels Westerners usually stay in (Â£40 a night) and the room was large with marble floors, air conditioning, dark furniture, and very nice decor. One thing that was difficult to get used to was the toilets. In India they do not use loo paper the way Westerners do. Instead they have a little hand-held shower head next to each toilet. This was probably the most difficult thing to get used to. Also, this hotel had a bit of a hot water shortage that affected my coworker more then me, but it is something to keep in mind. And with the beautiful marble floors, sounds tended to echo from the hallway and from the room directly above, so there were occasional problems with noise.
For the first three days, I remained in my hotel room and ordered room service for every meal, often not knowing what I was ordering. While the hotel was very helpful in providing the option of eggs and toast for breakfast, I soon became brave enough to try Indian breakfasts. It is surprisingly nice to have spicy curry in the morning. And the Idly was a very pleasant flour-based dish. Indians tend to eat with their right hand (never the left), using the bread (naan, roti, or similar breads) to scoop up the food. Many restaurants will provide a bowl of warm scented water at the end of the meal for washing the right hand. I found that the vegetarian meals were the most interesting. Particularly Dal Tadka, a flavourful and occasionally spicy dish made of yellow lentils and cumin, and Mutter Paneer, a dish made with what they call cottage cheese, but is not even remotely like westerners’ idea of cottage cheese; it is more similar in consistency to tofu and is a major source of protein in this predominantly vegetarian diet.
There came a point suring my trip that I began to believe Indians are born salespeople. I have never seen more effective or more adamant salespeople. When I walked into a shop, the salespeople would quickly get a general idea of what I was looking for, and even when I insisted I was only looking or didn’t want help, they would start pulling items out of the shelves and spread them out for my perusal. I admit, the colours and fabrics can be almost intoxicating, but not to the point that I forgot to negotiate. After hearing horror stories of westerners spending an absolute fortune on items, I was determined to never pay the asking price for an item. Fortunately, Srini and Divya from the office were kind enough to take me to Commercial Street and helped me judge which prices were fair. I ended up buying incredible silk saris for 800 rupees (Â£10 or $18) and a beautiful Salwar for 720 rupees.
One of the factors that will keep me returning time and again to India is the people. I have never been in a group of people as genuine and kind as the Indians. The people in the office were so willing to take my coworker and I out to restaurants after work, giving up their own free time to help us enjoy Bangalore. There were many smiles that helped me feel very welcome.
Bangalore is neither third-world nor first world. There are high-tech buildings surrounded by abject poverty such as I have never seen. Walking from the hotel to work, I spent most of the journey walking on dirt pavement with piles of rubbish and the open sewer, passing men openly urinating in front of me, passing ox carts and five lanes of traffic honking their horns and spewing exhaust that made Los Angeles look clean. There were communities of people living between buildings, doing their cooking and cleaning without a second thought. The tea stands with ten year old boys working every day with no time off foonlyly 900 rupees per year contrasting with the expensive technology offices was a bit difficult to grasp intellectually.