Tag Archives: traffic

Poetic Police and Snooty Ooty: Speeding and Chilling in the Hills

I enjoy police ingenuity and avoid traffic incidents, look for tigers and find green tea, cool off at altitude and see men with attitude.

Alongside the hawkers of souvenirs and sunglasses and socks who patrol Brigade Road, the tourists and touts and teens, a flood of vehicles pours down the hill, monitored by traffic police officers.  They sport thick black moustaches (better than mine), chevrons on their shoulders like Boy Scouts, and wide white hats, jauntily turned up on one side.  Their warning signs also have a jaunty twist.  “Speed thrills but kills”, “Follow traffic rules and avoid blood pools”, “Every time you drink & drive, you lose choice to survive”.  I heard of an even better one, “Stay Married!  Divorce Speed!”  (I described more traffic signs in 2007 here.)  The police slogan “Don’t use mobile when mobile” was reinforced in Hyderabad by posters of a phone’s ear plug cords outlining a prostrate body, and a revolver with a cell phone for a grip.

hyderabad-traffic-police-signswww.bangaloretrafficpolice.gov.in lists toll free ambulance numbers.  It has a key to traffic signs, including “Bullock carts prohibited”.  And it highlights Bangalore’s growth: between 1997 and 2010, the number of buses increased from 1921 to 6113, and travel speed has dropped to 15 kmph during peak hours.  70% of Bangalore’s 4 million vehicles are two-wheelers.  If riders aren’t struck by the stats – helmets reduce the risk of brain damage or death by 70% – they might be alarmed by the alliteration: “Hell or helmet – the choice is yours!”  Most riders I’ve seen evidently choose the afterlife.

Urging drivers to give way, the website warns, “If every one is jostling for advantage, the results is a traffic mess out of which no one can get out”.  A most precise description.  A friend aptly described driving here as “slow-paced aggressive osmosis” – weaving and squeezing through any gaps you can find.  On one billboard a straight line of baby swans follows their mother: “No traffic police here.  They drive in one lane – why can’t you?”  On another is a line of marching penguins: “If they can follow lane discipline, why can’t you?”

india-trucksI pondered these conundrums as we sped down an interstate highway at 120 kmph on Friday for a teachers’ weekend getaway three weeks into the course.  Lane discipline fell short of the cygnets, and despite exhortations like “You have only one head – protect it”, many motorcyclists are without helmets.  Wife and offspring often cling on too.  Guys hang out the backs of trucks; painted on the rear bumper of one was “I love you but don’t kiss me”.  The asphalt is not a pool table surface.  Most days papers report road deaths and we saw one motorcyclist spilled, though unhurt.  We were slightly reassured to learn our driver had been 14 years without an accident.  After starting at 7am to avoid traffic, we stopped for a South Indian breakfast of donut-like vadas, balloon-like pooris, pancake-like dosas, and rice cake idlis, dipped in coconut chutney and spicy samba soup.

Back on the road, we passed dramatic rock outcrops before the fertile “green belt” of South India.  We tried to identify the emerald crops: lower is rice, higher is sugar cane.  Golden-olive palms, pelicans on a lake, white water buffalo pulling ploughs, bullocks hauling carts – driver aloft on a pile of grass, a lone donkey, a limping dog.  Abandoned colonial bungalows.  The advertisement “Coromandel King: for super cement” referred to India’s south-eastern Coromandel Coast, but reminded us of NZ’s Coromandel Peninsula.  The road went through Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, where we bumped over many judder bars and saw many signs announcing sloths and tigers.  We looked for the latter among the groves of bamboo and eucalyptus trees, but saw only small monkeys, spotted deer and elephants with bells.   People washed clothes in the river.

ooty-hillsideThen we climbed into the Nilgiri Hills.  Hairpin bends became hair-raising when buses pushed past.  As the temperature fell below 20oC, I opened the window and feasted my eyes on all the green: meadows of horses and sheep and cows, hills forested in pines, ferns that reminded me of home, rolling terraces of coffee or tea, the bushes cropped smooth with narrow channels between them, making a huge mosaic of verdant cobblestones.

Our destination lay 300 km southwest of Bangalore: Udhagamandalam, or Ooty, the “Queen of Hill Stations”.  At 2240 m asl, the temperature can drop to zero in winter, but was simply blissful in April.  Ooty was an escape from summer meltdown for British aristocracy – thus the “Crown Baker, estd 1880”, and the nickname, “Snooty Ooty”.  Houses are stacked up the terraced slopes, their walls painted lime, mauve, lemon, cream, while corrugated iron glinted on roof tops where the red tiles had fallen off.   The valley floors are chequered with crops.

doddabetta-peak-tamil-naduThe highest point is Doddabetta at 2633m. No view at all from the lighthouse-shaped lookout that day, but I loved the mountain mist and wind and joined local teens in their summit victory dance, just before it poured.  At the top, stalls sold woollen hats, scarves and binoculars, while orange splashes of carrots for sale brightened the wet drive down.  Much more populated than NZ wilderness, but I backed into a prickly bush, turned, and saw the familiar yellow flowers of gorse.  The Brits, bless them, must have imported it here too.

ooty-summit-danceOoty has a Christian school for expats that’s named for the Old Testament city of Hebron.  Teacher Barbara’s sister studied there 70 years ago and we tracked down her sister’s records through three successive school sites.  We stayed at another old institution, the Indian Sunday School Union.  “People growers since 1876” read the sign on the gate.  I woke to a dawn chorus of birds from raucous crows to tweeting sparrows, pulled on a light fleece for the first time in India, and stepped out into a brick-edged flower garden that reminded me of my grandmother’s in Christchurch.  Walkers and joggers passed wearing beanies; people carried metal milk canisters clinking down the hill; women emerged onto flat house roofs to hang out their washing.  On Sunday morning I heard church bells in the valley as well as Hindu temple chants.  Ooty seems to combine an Indian town with an off-season ski resort.  While some Indian chaos remains, it’s more relaxed and easier to tolerate in the cool, fresh air.

Like the police, Indian politicians are also more flamboyant.  At Ooty, red and black flags waved for the visit of a local minister – I thought of pinching one for my Canterbury cousins: red and black are their rugby colours.  Posters displayed the man in diverse poses.  Formal in a business suit, casual in short sleeves, indigenous in a wraparound lungi, then brandishing a sceptre in a maharaja’s costume and flashing a huge jewel on his ring.

bangalore-army-postersPoliticians are widely despised as corrupt in India, but the army is more respected.  Full page ads and billboards in Bangalore seek recruits: “Nation’s Pride”, “Be a winner”, “Arms you for life and a career” – “open to all castes and religions”.  Ooty is still the base of the Madras Regiment, formed in 1748 and the oldest in the Indian army.  We passed the Wellington Cantonment, with memorials to the 1960s-70s wars with Pakistan and China, and saw tight rows of soldiers at rifle training on a field below.  In the overgrown cemetery behind the 1829 St Stephen’s church I found headstones for men from Fort St George, the Madras Artillery, the Bombay Cavalry, the Indian Navy, as well as many plaques for wives who died young.

The cemetery is still used and a class from Hebron School was clearing undergrowth from a path.  One headstone read “I have loved thee with an everlasting love”.  Some plots had a small sign “reserved”.  I wondered where in this wide world, and when in the everlasting Love’s embrace, a grave is reserved for me.

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Clowning Beggars, Mapping Scams and Moral Hazards

I navigate nameless Indian streets, bump into pushy opportunists and well-schooled brats, survey a circus of histrionic scams, and contemplate cardiac disease.

Most Delhi streets had big green labels in Hindi and English.  Outside the capital, I’ve found street signs are often in local scripts, if there are signs at all.  To make things worse many roads have been officially renamed since British days to memorialise Indian independence heroes or politicians.  On my Bangalore map, for example, Fort Rd became Rajaram Mohanroy Rd, and Residency Rd is now FM Cariappa Rd (FM = Field Marshal).  Some streets are now called by either name, or abbreviated for a third possibility again.  This makes navigation difficult for hapless foreigners like your humble correspondent, especially when few rickshaw-wallahs speak English.

Crossing the road was also harder in Jaipur, with no underpasses like in Delhi and the most animals I’ve seen.  As well as the usual Indian civic farmyard, camels plodded along pulling carts, while monkeys scampered around refuse and rooftops.  Traffic density is extreme, on both right and wrong sides of the road if not the footpath, so you need to look in all directions at all times.  When a fleeting gap in the flood at last appears, a rickshaw driver swoops in to block your way with a hopeful grin – “No!  Go away!  Move!”

camels-jaipurLacking 360-degree vision, I once stepped from behind a stationary rickshaw and collided with a pedestrian.  I apologised, and got safely across the road with the usual sigh of relief.  Then I felt a tug at my arm: the angry face of the guy I’d hit.  Scruffy-looking and obviously unhurt, seizing the opportunity when he saw I was foreign.  I repeated, “Maaf kijiye, sorry!”  He said “very offended, sorry no”, holding out his hand to demand money.  A shopkeeper told him to get lost, and I scampered while they argued.

It was my most unpleasant encounter so far, though beggars can also be difficult.  Some sit quietly by temple, church or railway entrances.  There are elderly women with wrinkled grandmotherly faces and gentle courteous pleading.  But the kids may follow you with hungry persistence.  Offering food is a recommended approach and beggars often welcomed a slice of bread on my first trip to Bangalore.  Several times up here, however, my bread rolls or bananas have been scornfully rejected with cries of “money money!”  The little brats have been schooled.  With a group clustered around me, I feel quite vulnerable.  Should all those little hands launch a coordinated attack, it’d be hard to defend my pockets, and I’ve been told many beggars work for “mafia”.  Most locals just tell them to scram, sometimes even on my behalf.

jaipur-pepsi-camelIn New Delhi’s Connaught Place, a boy collared me, with agonized face and voice weakened by hunger, miming his need for food by putting his hand in his mouth.  Older than usual, and unusually pushy, he seemed almost melodramatic.  When he finally gave up following, I heard, loud and clear, in perfectly articulated English, “F you F-ing man”.  Two passing women tittered, enjoying the performance.  Not for nothing is the ring road called Connaught Circus: foreign clowns provide good sport.

I’ve yet to witness the shoe-poo scam.  Many a tourist, I’ve read, spots a tidy worm of excrement on their foot just as a shoeshine man providentially shows up to clean it off.  Of course he or his mate has just planted it.  I guess my cracked sneakers or old sandals aren’t polishable enough for them to bother, or I looked too poor.

The Hotel Pearl Palace produced a pink booklet “Jaipur for Aliens” which advises its customers, “The Hotel is not responsible for the persistent auto-rickshaws standing in the street.  They are not contracted with the Hotel” – despite what they may claim.  It goes on to warn against over-friendly strangers: “They might harm you financially by gaining your confidence”.  There are various gem scams, some run by bogus palmists and astrologers who may even give correct predictions, before selling you costly stones at bargain rates to cure your ills.  You’ll get home to find, if they arrive at all, you’ve bought pretty pieces of glass.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn his book of memories, Bangalore: a Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) Peter Colaco recalled “performing artists of the road”.  In the days before heavy motor vehicle traffic, he once found a man unconscious on the street, frothing at the mouth, apparently collapsed from starvation.  Indignant at the lack of neighbourhood charity – passers-by just walked on – Colaco dragged the unfortunate to safety on the footpath, heard his tale of woe, and gave him money for a meal.  A few weeks later he happened upon the same man spread-eagled on another street.  This time he sat on a stone bench and waited for the comedy when someone else took pity:

As soon as the good Samaritan was out of sight, he wriggled back to the middle of the road and re-assumed his carefully arranged pose, of a man who has accidentally collapsed.  For the first time I became aware of Beggary as a Performing Art.

Then, Colaco remembers, there was Cycle Lamp Charlie.  A soft-spoken gent would approach with evident embarrassment.  Could you spare a rupee or two?  Someone had stolen the kerosene from his bicycle lamp and he had to cycle home.  The streets were dark, the police ruthless in prosecuting those without a light.  And there was a charismatic couple of crippled lepers who pushed each other around in a cart and asked for money when it was broken – now one couldn’t walk, now the other.  Colaco concludes:

You know that beggary is a social evil, that you should not give in.  You know you should give to developmental organisations.  Beggars know you have a streak of guilt, they can work on it with the precision of a micro-surgeon.  You know that you are being conned, but you give, often with a smile.

I must be less compassionate than him.  I find it easy to refuse and am disturbed to notice that I have similar psychological reactions to begging street children and stray dogs: dislike, apprehension and avoidance.

Before I came here I heard of experienced India travellers who recommend you never give money to beggars.  I heard of one woman who did and was mobbed by mendicants.  Surrounded and terrified, she was rescued by a policeman.  Some Indian friends say they do give a few coins to the elderly or crippled, those clearly in need.

Maybe locals could judge, but how can I tell who is genuine?  Blanket refusal seemed the safest policy, confirmed by stories of fake or criminal scans like those above, and has been my position until recently.

But I’ve reflected some more.  Hard and fast ethical rules can be a convenient excuse to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions and evade the effort of growing in wisdom yourself, to oversimplify real-life issues so you look at a needy individual face and see only generic cynical statistics.  I’ve decided I will sometimes give a coin or two, when a begger is visibly in need but doesn’t melodramatically market his plight or attack like a slick-talking salesmen, when I’m away from tourist sites that are likely monopolised by professional fraudsters, and the supplicant seems to be safely alone.

Sometimes, maybe often, I’ll get it wrong and my rupees will only fatten the master of a begging gang.  But I’ve come to realise there is a far greater risk if I consistently ignore the misery I see: growing hard of heart.  I don’t want my soul to shrivel and lose compassion out of fear of being deceived, to end up refusing those I could have slightly helped, or to end up rebuffing, for example, the many friendly kids who run up with winning smiles and ask me to take their photo.  A few belligerently demand “photo money”, but most are innocently delighted to see themselves posing on my camera screen and then happily wave goodbye.  They often ask to see coins or stamps and I wish I’d brought such tokens of New Zealand to show them.

On one rickshaw ride home, I passed a woman cooking on a traffic island, her pot over a little fire between bricks.  Then I realized with a start that she wasn’t a hawker selling meals: that was her kitchen, outside a tarpaulin that housed her offspring.  I think it’s important, having witnessed poverty and distress, that we in some way respond with more than a little loose change.  As in 2007, I’ve determined when I return home to donate to groups like Tear Fund and The Leprosy Mission, the sort of developmental organisations that Colaco mentions, who work in places like India and will spend their resources far more wisely than I could.

Tackling Delhi Traffic and Defeat in Connaught Place

A patchwork of first impressions: angry lost drivers and clunky ambassadors, Sikh chants and honking, striving to keep up morale and washing up in McDonald’s.

I arrived in India on Friday 2 March and appreciated Bangalore’s new international airport, all clean glass and trouble-free, unlike the grubby confusion I faced in 2007 at the interim retired air force base which had clearly been in the wars.  I walked outside the terminal at 11:30pm local time, 2am by my body clock, and straight up to a smiling man holding a sign “Dr David Titheridge”.  Less cheering for a dog-fearer was the sight and sound of many strays.  I saw none in KL.  The midnight drive was again surreal, but less of a shock than my first night in India five years ago (read about it here).

I slept in for a couple of days, stowed my suitcase with computer under the college principal’s bed – he’s a Kiwi from my home town – and packed up a cardboard box with mosquito net and forbidden scissors to check in with SpiceJet.  Bangalore airport had the highest security I’ve seen yet – only passengers can enter the building.  From the air, before smog dimmed the view, the landscape resembled the patchwork quilt of NZ’s Canterbury plains, with smaller, less rectangular patches, and very red soil.

I was bracing myself for an assault of touts at New Delhi airport.  Terminal signs warn to only use official providers and to discourage unauthorized individuals.  I was delighted to see a Police Prepaid Taxi booth opposite the luggage claim, where you can book and pay, and the driver can be tracked in case of complaints.  Outside the terminal, no hassles either.  It almost seemed too easy.

My taxi-van driver spoke no English, did not smile, picked up his equally unfriendly mate outside the airport, apparently didn’t know the central street I wanted, and seemed to be quite angry.  Pointing at my map didn’t help: it seems scale maps are a western invention that other cultures don’t relate too.  Several people, mostly from the south, had warned me that northerners were harder, more intense and less helpful, and this seemed to confirm it.  Fortunately it wasn’t representative, and in the end we did arrive.  Since then I’ve encountered many smiling faces, welcoming enquiries of “your country, sir?”, and no more cold indifference than in any big city.

Vendor outside my Delhi hotel
Vendor outside my Delhi hotel

After memories of eye-stinging, throat-choking, nose-clogging Bangalore fumes in 2007, Delhi traffic has been a pleasant surprise.  Some years ago, all public transport was converted to CNG, and the recent underground has reduced congestion.  I’ve seldom found breathing unpleasant, though the nose is still a little sooty by the end of the day and it’s not a good place for a headache.  Road signs may order “Peace: no honking”, but horns are tooted briefly before overtaking and turning, and jammed on at the slightest slowdown or obstruction, producing a continuous cacophony.  Crossing roads reminds me of the classic computer game Frogger.  Pedestrian crossing stripes seem purely cosmetic.

The old city is chock-a-block with cycle rickshaws for eco-friendly, suspenseful but suspensionless juddering rides which are not good after a big meal.  Curvaceous black Ambassador Classics are proudly polished by their drivers.  The same model has been around for half a century or more.  Writer Shashi Tharoor describes Ambassadors as “wasteful of steel and gas, overpriced and overweight, with a steering mechanism like an ox cart’s and a frame like a tank” and says foreigners were amazed they had two-year waiting lists right up to the 1990s.  “What they didn’t realise is that if they had to drive on Indian roads in Indian traffic conditions, they’d have preferred Ambassadors, too.”

Ambassadors seemed most popular in New Delhi’s diplomatic district where I’m staying, with the presidential quarters just a few minutes’ walk away.  The upside: it’s a safe area with high police presence, and very quiet.  All I hear at night is muffled chanting from the adjacent Sikh temple, plus occasional scratching and cooing from pigeons on my air con unit.  The downside: there are few or no shops, internet cafes or restaurants.

On my first evening in Delhi, I headed out in search of food.  Tired and mildly dehydrated, I stumbled around the dimly-lit, broken-up streets, dodging stray dogs, recumbent figures, piles of litter and open drains, asking myself how a country can let the center of its capital be such a mess.  I found my way to Connaught Place, the British-built shopping hub between the old and new cities.  The white walls and columns were stained red with splotches of spit from the spices wrapped in betel leaf that many people chew.  A Japanese health expert once thought half the population had TB.

The curving colonnades of Connaught Place were inspired by Bath’s Royal Crescent, or, said one book, the outside archways of the Colosseum.  I felt like a bewildered barbarian hauled in to be hacked apart in the hostile metropolis.  The concentric arcades spun around me and every direction looked the same in the dark.

I’d hoped for a pukka curry on my first Delhi night, but felt too weary to risk dark local joints up alleys away from the ring of commercial lights, so I ended up in defeat: two combos at McDonald’s.  At least it was a veggie burger and spicy paneer cheese.  Guards wielded metal-detectors at the door.  As those old arcade games would say, my shield energy was dangerously low, my defensive shell more like a cheap Toyota than a diplomatic tank.  I lurched out and down the stairs beneath the nearest Metro sign and fled through the night toward my hotel bed.

Royal Birthdays and Sporty Buddhas: Serenity in Bangkok

Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.

I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep.  Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze.  On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers.  A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog.  (See my Bangkok photos here)

I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways.  Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back.  Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes.  I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes.   First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos.  Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.

My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day.  An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348).  In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.

On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess.  Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink.  India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats.  There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.

The Thai people seem so laid-back.  A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India.   I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck.  Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me.  Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.

Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats.  Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles.  Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s.  They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks.  I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas.  Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.

Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things.  Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.

The Thai are very religious and they love their king.  December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine.  He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases.  He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards.  Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.

His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend.  His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage.  I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus.  But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing.  In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.

The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts.  I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents.  I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.

Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice.  There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings.  Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet.  An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple.  The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere.  Where is he not?”  He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway.  Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.

Mud and Silicon: Growing up in Bangalore

Boiled beans, brave hares and anti-British rockets; pensioners, prangs and Frogger; camera curiosity and wobbling ambiguity, lakeside laughter and David’s departure.

The city of Bangalore has come a long way.  Around 1100 A.D. a king was lost while hunting and sheltered at an old lady’s cottage.  He named a new settlement, so the story goes, for the simple meal she gave him: Bengaluru first meant “Village of Boiled Beans”.  400 years later, a local chief saw his dog chased away by a hare.  He was so impressed by the bunny’s courage that he built a mud fort on the site.  His grandson erected four watchtowers on surrounding hills, dug tanks to harvest water, and a real town was born.

In the 18th century, a powerful Muslim ruler moved in, Tipu Sultan.  I visited his botanical gardens and palace during my last week.  The “Tiger of Mysore” allied himself with France and hated the British.  He built a life-size model of a tiger mauling a British officer, complete with internal pipes to sound the Englishman’s groans.  He invented rockets that shot swords from wheeled launchers and trained his troops to calculate angles for targets up to a kilometre away.  He once forced the Duke of Wellington to retreat (he regained his honour at Waterloo).

The British defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in 1799, and an army cantonment was established at Bangalore, as you can still see on a map.  I caught the train to and from Cantonment Station, stayed at a guest-house on Infantry Road, marched past the Parade Ground and down Brigade Road.  Civilians were also drawn to the elevated town that represented “India without its scorching sun, Europe without its snow”.

At Independence in 1947, Bangalore’s population was only 600,000.  It was called the Garden City, the Pensioners’ Paradise, a tranquil escape from centres like Bombay.  From the 1990s, however, international IT companies moved in.  Bangalore became India’s Silicon Valley and the population has boomed to 6 million or more.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) long-term resident Peter Colaco reminisces about the changes he has seen (see reviews here and here).  In his youth the city was a quiet hill station, “a lazy little place… space and grace personified” where he rode his bike down open roads with no traffic lights.  In 1958 there was only one horse-drawn carriage left.  Now the streets are a nightmare.

I arrived in India with trepidation, fearing theft and sickness, but statistically my greatest danger was traffic.  A Bangalore Traffic Police “Road Accidents Awareness” sign reported 395 fatalities and 2719 injuries from 1 January to 31 May this year.  In three decades I’ve never witnessed an accident in New Zealand, but in two months I have here.  In Bangalore a car pranged an auto-rickshaw.  Surrounding auto drivers leapt out to berate the motorist.  In Hyderabad a motorbike hit a pedestrian.  The latter limped off cursing and the former lay on the ground as my auto-rickshaw pulled away.  And in Chennai, walking down the street because the footpath was fenced off, my shoulder knocked in the wing mirror of a van.  Fortunately it was moving slowly.

I’ve come a long way since I first stumbled in shock down the Whitefield roads, but crossing streets continues to be fun.  It’s a sort of live action Frogger game, except the traffic doesn’t always travel in predictable straight lines.  Intersections are often governed by a muddle of both lights and a policeman directing.  One time I thought a wide road was clear.  Half way across, a wall of motorbikes and rickshaws bore down on me.  I started to slowly back off as they swerved to both sides of me, then just stood still and prayed!

No one has mauled me as Tipu Sultan did the Brits, although hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers have come close.  At first I felt awkward when people asked how much my camera cost.  I mostly say I’m not sure: it was a gift from my parents.  Which is true, but I know it cost several hundred dollars.  And I know a simple meal costs me 60 cents at a CBD café and locals could eat for less.  I estimate the price of my camera might feed a family for a year.

In their shoes, I’d be fuming at the injustice and launching rockets like the Tiger Sultan did, but they show no resentment.  Indians are simply curious about the sort of details we mostly don’t discuss – like how much you earn.  Most people here seem content, grateful for what they do have, unlike Westerners who have so much and envy others who have more.

In fact the camera has been a bridge to friendly encounters.  I’m shy about photographing people (especially women, most especially covered Muslim women) and always ask or gesture for permission.  They mostly wobble their head in reply.  I’ve heard the Indian head-wobble can mean “yes” or can mean “no”, or maybe “don’t know”, or convey other subtleties that leave me unclear, but there is mostly a smile.

A few stall holders object or want money, but many more love being photographed.  Some ask for a click when my camera isn’t even out, or run up to join their neighbour in the frame.  In the flower market, a man gave me tea and a button-hole rose, then begged for a photo, although I said it was too dark.  “Please sir, you’re breaking my heart!”  Going digital is wonderful.  Both children and adults love seeing themselves and their friends cluster around to point out a “brother” in the camera screen as an “Indian monkey”.

As well as sharing their friendship, I’m beginning to taste their frustration.  This country has so much potential and so much is wasted.  On my final day in town, I went to see Ulsoor Lake.  Fountains were playing among the artificial islands, but the shore line was fenced off.  I found a little park with a playground, hedges and shady seats, but the gate was locked.  A few fishermen dangled lines from the concrete area outside.  Pedal boats floated unused, covered with leaves, inside a dilapidated boat shed.  The place could be so nice with so little work.  In another park, where bats hung from trees, I noticed a sign for a laughing club – I’d heard but scarce believed that people gather early mornings just to chuckle!  Maybe it’s the only way to survive.

After being away for three weeks, bouncing down the dirt road of the Ecumenical Christian Centre felt like coming home.  I was even back in my same corner room.  I relaxed among the familiar faces, though missed the Minnesotans, and relished the green grounds.  A new sign had appeared with a challenge for India and the West – a list of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins:

Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice.

The last nights I was invited to two staff homes and found myself eating alone at 7pm – locals don’t eat till 9 or 10pm.  They asked whether it’s the case that in the West we need an invitation to visit someone’s house, you don’t just pop in.  I was sad that it’s often true – we rich are less hospitable – and that they’ll never afford an air ticket to see for themselves.

Bangalore has come a long way in two decades.  So have I in two months.  At the airport check in, I saw a minor squabble over the ambiguous queuing.  I wasn’t surprised – don’t these Indians know this is India: why expect a tidy order?  I was afraid I had packed too much, but the industrial kitchen scale at the ECC must have overestimated my weight.  My luggage wasn’t bursting as much as my brain is after all I’ve experienced here.  I could have bought a few more books.