Saturday, September 4, 2010

First day in Bangalore: Ice Cubes, Dosas, and More

This is M.G Road in Bangalore. Yeah. Stole the photo from here. Going straight to hell.

I had, thinking I was clever, purchased a direct flight to Bangalore. But this was Air India. Air India does not care about your petty human plans. India Air can cancel your direct flight and route you through Mumbai if it damn well feels like it. Which, it did. Boom.

I made the best of it, I suppose. The Mumbai domestic terminal happens to be lovely and new, and my flight from Singapore - though it left very early - was a pleasurable enough experience. Everyone else on the plane was an under 5 foot tall Indonesian Muslim woman on some sort of religious pilgrimage. They all had headscarfs and identical Reebok bags and giggled whenever they looked at me. I was just pleased to have an entire row to myself.

I devoured a surprisingly good dosa from the outlet in the airport, then went to get a beverage of an adult nature at the bar down the way. Therein I ran into two American businessmen. Wherever I go, I run into friendly American businessmen, friendly American businessmen who are more then happy to buy me adult beverages and keep me company. I suppose it is all thanks to my sparkling personality!


The new Bangalore airport is out in the middle of nowhere. When I was last in Bangalore, back in 2008, the newspapers were vibrating with controversy over this. The old airport was small and old, but it was smack dab in the middle of town, and terribly convenient. Now, the airport is over an hour from the city center, and is often more, considering the horrifying state of Bangalore traffic. Executives fume. I was, at least, not in a hurry. My reservation at the Sumanjay Homestay was not going to vanish. The ability to relax and roll with things is about 99.9% of surviving in India.

I found a pre-paid taxi (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, POTENTIAL INDIA TRAVELERS) and hopped in, just as the skies opened up and I was reminded that,yes, the monsoon season was still in action. We puttered along uneventfully for about 3 KM, until the taxi's windshield wipers gave out. In the middle of Bangalore's evening rush hour in a driving rain storm, you want your windshield wipers functional and your view clear and unobstructed. You want it bad. We didn't have this, of course, so I spent most of the journey plastered against the back of my seat, convinced that death via a giant sparkly Punjabi truck was impending at any second. I was oddly philosophical about this, though. Giant Punjabi trucks wait for no man.

Much to my surprise, the driver (and me) survived and made it to Indiranagar, where I had booked my homestay. I decided to avoid the tender and incredibly dramatic embrace of the Katary Villa, opting instead for an unknown (and cheaper) quantity. This turned out to be the right decision, as I will relate later. The Sumanjay's turned out to be a remarkably charming family. The house itself was entirely basic , but also suited all my needs - there was a couch, a bed, a warmish shower, and an ethernet jack. I was set.

Bangalore (Indiranagar) two years ago. Hasn't changed much.

I walked in through rain, dumped my stuff off, and quite quickly made the acquaintance of one Thomas Oliver, who was staying there as well. "Oh, he's from California!" my land lady said. "Just like you! You should be friends." (This is universal across the world. If you're from the same place, You Should be Friends).

"Where in California?" I asked him, as I unpacked my bags with brutal efficiency.

"Well, you know, Norcal, the unsexy part..." (The same qualifications I always make, vis a vis my hometown. I could see it coming). "Sacramento."

"I'm from Sacramento myself. What part of town?"

"Really? You know, Arden.."

"Yeah, yeah, I live by Jesuit."

Turns out we had attended the same (largeish) high school at the same time, knew many of the same people, and lived less then half a mile away from one another. Naturally, we would only meet at a homestay in Bangalore.

Tom was in town to sell wheelchairs for Intelligent Mobility. Special, inexpensive wheelchairs, which his brother, himself, and some of their friends had thought up at Caltech (and other places). They're designed with mountain-bike wheels so they can be used in rough environments, and are collapsible for easy storage and movement from place to place. The wheelchairs are cheap enough and easy enough to produce that they can be gifted to a far wider segment of the population then old school models - and Tom and his group are attempting to bring their wares to disabled and elderly populations across the world. He was recently selling the chairs in post-earthquake Haiti, and was now looking for a manufacturer and distributor in South India. What a cool project. I am officially feeling inadequate now.

(Tom, feel free to correct me on any details if you're reading this...)

I was aching to go out to M.G Road. M.G Road is Bangalore's Times Square equivalant, and is littered with Levi's stores, Kashmiri junk emporiums, shiny new American fast-food outlets, child-gypsy-beggers, stray dogs, overly fashionable Thai gangsters, and everything else you might want in Bangalore. It's Bangalore Ground Zero, basically. Full of confused looking tourists and businessmen who have been released by their IT handlers for the night. I like Church Street best - that's where all the good restaurants are.

I dragged Tom along with me. The rain had stopped, and we went out to the street. I was even aching with anticipation for the First Sorty with a rickshaw driver. As everyone who has been to India - and especially Bangalore - knows, autorickshaw drivers are actually incarnations of pure malovelent evil. Smell like B.O. and hatred. Always overcharge the snot out of you, are essential to everyday life (the bastards). I grew to love arguing with them over prices on a daily basis, though. I think it's because I'm a natural pain in the ass, and an American lifestyle doesn't offer too many outlets for douchebag behavior on a daily basis. Rickshaw drivers provide that for me. I can sally forth. I can laugh in people's faces (for quoting me a fare about five times what it oughta be). It's good for the soul. Still, I was just back in India, and my mojo wasn't workin'. I wussed out and let Tom handle it.

M.G Road hasn't changed much - in fact, not at all that I could determine. I recognized some of the beggers. I even recognized some of the stray dogs. The same guy was selling depressed looking guavas on the corner. "You have to realize what deja-vu this is for me," I kept on repeating to Tom, almost as a mantra. It's hard to believe you're actually back, some places. M.G Road, like it had been preserved in aspic for the past two years, just for me. A fallacy, but pleasant all the same.

I ended up eating at the Coconut Grove, on Church Street. It's one of my local favorites. Authentic Kerala food, and it's a lovely space - set back from the road with an open dining area and plenty of palms and greenery. I don't know why Kerala cuisine hasn't taken off in the USA yet. I think of it as a beautiful, beautiful hybrid of Thai/Malay food and Indian food. Plenty of fresh tropical ingredients, plenty of spice (but less in-your-face then North Indian food) and plenty of interesting flavors.

I had a spicy fish curry, made with some sort of local mackerel. Quite nice, and not as spicy as the bright red gravy makes it look - it's mostly a tamarind based sauce. They use some interesting spices and mixes in the South that deserve some further coverage on this here blog. Will get on it. Eventually.

So, can't remember what this is. You ever looked at the Keralan spelling for stuff? Jesus! It was a dish of mixed vegetables and lentils, with coconut, curry leaves, and some other spices. Quite a nice comfort-food dish. Could have used a bit more of a spice zap, but I wasn't complaining.

After the Coconut Grove, I kept on walking (almost in a fugue state) and found myself at the Tavern at the Inn, at the end of Church Street. Ah, did I ever remember the Tavern at the Inn. It's located in the Museum Inn, and is among the more civilized spots in Bangalore to get a drink in quasi-English surroundings - mood lighting, muted neon booze signs, floors not covered in miscellaneous goo. They play classic rock, deliver moderately stiff pours, and cater almost exclusively to local Indian professionals and their bored looking ex-pat friends. The air conditioning is extensive. I always liked the Tavern at the Inn.

I ordered a Royal Challenge whiskey. Three ice cubes. Tom regarded me curiously when they handed me the drink. "Whoa, fortune favors the brave."

"Huh?" I said, sipping.

"Ice cubes, man," he said.

Aw, fuck. I had completely forgotten about the ice cube thing. I looked at the bar. Well, the ice cube maker seemed clean and hygienic. (I didn't end up vomiting out my brains that night. Maybe fortune does favor the brave.

I slept like a rock that night - the Sumanjay's lived on a startlingly quiet street for Bangalore, which meant there were only a couple of noisy feral dogs, and the neighbors engaged in a minimal and polite amount of late-night domestic abuse (compared to most).

I love Bangalore.


  1. Hey Faine, you know, there's a very funny narrative about Air India in Russell Peters' (yea I know I am a fan...we have probably already established that) stand up routine where he talks about an Air India flight that keeps circling the airport and just won't land!...after a 20 hour transcontinental flight. When asked why, the pilot replies [Indian accent here] "Sir movie is not over" Passenger: "But we've been flying 20 hours!!!" Pilot: "Sir It is a Hindi movie...only another 2 hours left". LOL.

    An Air India flight is something that, upon its mentioning makes even Indians go "You flew Air India ...ohhh...even we do not do that".-Tanuj

  2. Awesome blog that you have :) A curious thing is that I had a similar experience once, being the odd man out in a plane full of identical Indonesian women. It was on a Mumbai flight to Singapore.

    And BTW, that lentil rice concoction is called Bisi Bele Bath.

  3. I even wrote a blog about that. What are the odds of finding yourself in a plane full of female Indonesian pilgrims !? Quite high, apparently.