HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bangalore in a Blur - Part 1

I was pulled out of a deep sleep around 3am by a knock on my room door from Kevin and Ryan, my friends who had gotten in on a late flight from Frankfurt. Still groggy and barely aware of what was going on, I greeted them and noticed that the fourth person in our group, Jobie, was missing. His absence was soon explained: Kevin had booked the flights for all three of them, and while they were all on the same plane from New Orleans to Houston, he inexplicably booked Jobie on the flight on to Frankfurt and then Bangalore exactly 24 hours after his and Ryan's. Even more bizarrely, no one realized this mistake until the person checking boarding passes at the Houston gate told Jobie that he had an entire day left before he could leave. So that meant he spent 24 hours getting drunk in the airport, while Kevin, Ryan and I would have a full day in Bangalore before figuring out how to get the final member of our group to the hotel.

We were staying at the lovely Villa Pottipati, a colonial-era building located in a relatively quiet neighborhood just outside of the city center. This was good for some peace and quiet, but we soon learned that being away from all of the action may not have been the best idea.

The three of us woke up fairly early so that we could take advantage of the day and after having breakfast at the villa (Western-style unfortunately, since your usual affluent visitor to India from the West balks at eating spicy local food. Boring.) we decided to walk around the area. Kevin's friend Manju, who he had worked with during a three-week assignment in Chennai for Shell Oil last year, would be meeting us at the hotel soon so we didn't want to go far.

This walk ended up being very short, and very revealing. Bangalore is considered India's most modern city, but we quickly discovered that the phrase 'modern' has to be taken in the context of this still being India. We stupidly decided to amble down a major street, and it was noisy, chaotic, and dirty: cars and trucks endlessly honking, animals and people alike using the sidewalk as a toilet, garbage all over. This wasn't anything new to me after last year's trip, but for some reason I was expecting something else. We returned to the hotel pretty quickly and I took a dip in the small pool while we waited for Manju. Two people stared at me from the sidewalk through a hole in the fence.

About an hour later Manju, who is from the Bangalore area, showed up and we hopped into two autos to get lunch. Our destination was the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, a legendary stop known for its thali meals. It wasn't too far from the villa, so we didn't think it would take too long. I should've known from the heavy traffic the previous night, though, that this would be a long drive.

Within minutes we were stuck in monumental traffic. This was by far the biggest Indian city I had been to yet, with a population of over 8 million, and the congestion shocked me. It made Saigon's streets look fluid. The auto driver tried to squeeze through whatever spaces he could, but the huge number of trucks and cars made for absurdly slow going, even at 11:30am on a Tuesday. It took about 40 minutes to go just a few kilometers, and by the time we got to the restaurant we were coughing and hacking from the awful pollution. I thought the air quality in Saigon was bad, but this was just horrible: sitting in an open auto with motorbike exhaust, diesel fumes from trucks, and belches of black smoke from two-stroke auto motors blowing into your face sucked, and filthy air stung the eyes even when we weren't moving. I wondered how the hell people living there do this on a daily basis; it must take serious mental preparation simply to leave for work in the morning.
Fortunately, lunch was amazing. A thali is a set meal in which several curries and sauces are served with parota and rice. Once we sat down a silver tray was placed in front of each of us and servers came around with pails of food, plopping numerous servings into each little section of the plate. Sambar, coconut chutney, rice pudding, bitter melon, and more were all available, and everything was amazing. We ate with our hands (Well, right hand to be specific. Your left hand is considered unclean in India.) and made a royal mess, and we were all stuffed by the end. This was the first of many thali meals on the trip, and it was quite the start.

After gorging we returned to the villa through the same soul-crushing traffic and smog and hung out with Manju for a while. Eventually he left to go to work, and Ryan, Kevin and I were left in a pickle: we wanted to head back into town, but our fear of the traffic completely debilitated us. I've lived in Vietnam for 21 months and Ryan spent 18 in China and Taiwan and neither of us had experienced anything quite like it. We had less than a day left in Bangalore though so we decided to just deal with it and go to the MG Road area, which Lonely Planet said would interest travelers. Weirdly the traffic wasn't bad, even though it was almost 5pm.

Once we arrived at MG we were dismayed to see that it looked just like any other major city: there was KFC and McDonald's, luxury fashion outlets, and a monorail line. We could've been anywhere, although the eye-watering pollution made sure we didn't forget where we were.
We picked our way through crowds of westerners and middle-class locals looking for a decent pub to try out, since we had heard that Bangalore was supposedly India's "pub city". Our guide book claimed that the throngs of young people who work in the city's booming IT industry have created a lively nightlife, which appeared to be true, but not in the way we were expecting: every place had bouncers outside of it, even the bars that sounded like a dive (example: Guzzler Inn), and most charged a cover. All we wanted was a decent bar where you didn't have to pay to get in, but those seemed to be few and far between. Finally, we stopped at Koshy's for a few beers and a snack, and then ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.

By the time we got back to the hotel Kevin was having stomach problems, which was bound to happen but we didn't think it would occur that quickly. With him out of commission it was up to Ryan and I to collect Jobie, who was getting in at 12:30am. We took a taxi all the way back out to the airport and waited. India's diversity was on full display: Muslims in burqas and skullcaps chatted at tables; teenagers in jeans and shirts texted on iPhones; and little kids ran around screaming, just like their counterparts in the west. Jobie finally walked out of the airport around 1:30 and the taxi took us back to the hotel. We would be leaving for Goa the following day, but we still had a full morning left in Bangalore.

1 comment:

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