Our hosts, Biswajit and Sushila, very generously provided us with a driver for the day. A stoic army veteran who spoke only a little English, Chandrasekar took us out for our first full day in Bangalore.
Even after a good night’s rest Bangalore is noisy, chaotic, and bewildering. I am so unused to being completely turned around and not having a sense of my location. We are far enough south that the mid-day sun is close to straight overhead, so lacking other references, it’s much harder to tell north from south. Bangalore does not appear to be on any sort of grid – streets wind around and meet at every imaginable angle. Street signs are rare and they generally don’t give street names, just arrows to landmarks, signs in English are even rarer. The traffic … indescribable.
We stopped first at a temple somewhere in Bangalore (the south side, I think) that had huge statues of Ganesha and Shiva. Chandrasekar had apparently been instructed to not let us pay for anything. He whipped out cash and paid before I could even figure out what was going on. He then very graciously walked us through the proper motions as we moved through the temple. I was still a little loopy from the travel and the sensory overload of Bangalore’s streets, and felt a little like I was sleepwalking through a dream.
It was at our next stop, the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, that I began to appreciate the buffering effect of staying in Biswajit’s and Sushila’s western-influenced home. At the temple we didn’t notice the stares, but once we got to the gardens it became clear just how much of an oddity we are – especially Al with her pale skin and red-blond hair. It’s almost a ritual, “Hello. What country?” (“United States” seems confusing, though “America” or “USA” works) followed by, “Your good name?” and “Photo?” Everyone seems to want a photo with the pale foreigners. Everyone is exceedingly polite, usually waiting for eye contact and a smile before approaching. Whole extended families crowd around, babies are shoved into our hands (usually to the baby’s great consternation), photographers hand their cell phone or camera to someone else so they can get in a photo, too. Smiles and laughs, a thank you and a handshake, everyone heads off on their own business again. Rinse and repeat. The gardens were nice – there was a lovely view of Bangalore’s skyline from the top of a hill – but the real take-away was that we were one of the most interesting sights.
Chandrasekar had arranged for us to take the guided tour of the gardens on a little electric cart. The guide was friendly and pointed out interesting and historic plantings, but the tour was too quick to take it all in. We hopped off near the end of the tour to take a photo and he left without us. All the better, as we could backtrack to take a longer look at things. We walked around the gardens taking photos (and having our photos taken) for another hour or so and were headed for the entrance when Chandrasekar called wondering where we were. He’d seen the tour cart come back to the entrance without us. Biswajit had mentioned that he’s a very punctual fellow and he seemed genuinely concerned when we met up with him near the entrance. With us back in the safety of his car, all was right in the world again. Off to a very tasty traditional south Indian lunch – eaten with one’s fingers off of a banana leaf – and on to the Nandi Hills, Tipu Sultan’s impregnable fort.
We reached the Nandi Hills near sunset. The altitude brought a refreshing coolness to the air as we wound up the switchbacks to the top of the hill. The views were magnificent. We walked around the top of the hill, enjoying the cool breeze and the views until we reached a 1,200 year old temple. We removed our shoes at the entrance and Chandrasekar guided us through the temple. The stone floors were remarkably smooth. Photos are not allowed inside the shrine, so we only took pictures of the courtyard and exterior. The back side of the temple had another entrance that opened out onto the bare granite of the hilltop and a magnificent sunset view. A few dozen photographs later, we headed back temple to retrieve our shoes. Chandrasekar, ever polite, even offered to go retrieve Al’s shoes for her.
On our way out of the temple to return to the car, we were stopped by a local television news crew. They asked for a sound bite – “Where are you from?” “What do you think of India?” “How long are you visiting?” After we finished, they asked us to do a station ID clip: “Suvarna News 24/7, all the best!” Once again, I am reminded at how much better I am behind the camera than in front of it. Fortunately, we are not likely to ever see our cringe-worthy performance.