I spent last week in Bangalore on a visit to an IT firm we use at Kaplan UK, where I work. The firm was started by one of our ex-employees who relocated back to India and although technically they’re a private company for day-to-day purposes they just behave as a remote development team. This posts documents some of what I saw and my thoughts on the trip and India in general.
It’s a long flight from London, even direct with British Airways it was over nine hours which, with the predictable faffing at the airport meant a journey time over fifteen hours starting from Queen’s Park. (Why is it that, however much information you provide to airlines in advance, and even do the online check-in, they still spend ages tapping away on the keyboard – even copying passport data – when you drop your bag off?)
We were met at Bangalore airport and driven to our hotel, The Paul. This was our first introduction to the phenomenon of Indian driving and, being as I’m a nervous passenger, was scary to say the least. There’s no lane discipline, no room left between vehicles and you must sound your horn if you’re about to overtake to warn the person ahead not to veer to either side.
We also had the chance to see the rather dishevelled nature of Bangalore, poor quality roads, virtually no street lighting and generally grotty shops and businesses. Apparently India prioritises spending on education over infrastructure if a choice has to be made; remember this is one of the larger cities with a population comparable to London, so I’d expected it to be a bit more up market for India. There is however signs of improvement, a new rail service has opened recently to aid intra-city travel and there are plenty of new roads and buildings under construction. The big technology parks, Bangalore is an IT hub, also provide well-appointed office facilities for many Indian and international businesses. In fact the office where we’d be was just outside one of these and was very pleasant to work in.
The Paul hotel is officially five stars, the service is great, although again, like the airports, check-in took ages for no discernible reason. It wouldn’t get five stars in England though, despite its well-appointed decor it turns off the hot water at night so I couldn’t have a proper shave before eight thirty in the morning.
Manual labour is cheap in India which explains why you get the sorts of staffing levels at places like airports and stations that you only see in England whilst watching Brief Encounter. As an example I had my boarding pass checked seven times, three times within thirty feet and in areas that you’d already had to go through dozens of checks to enter. The office we worked in, which had fewer than a dozen technical staff also had two full-time office administrators, that’s two more than my London one has with its staff of about fifty.
I had intended to be circumspect about what I ate whilst away. I wasn’t going to go completely vegetarian, although that was advised by many, but my cautious plans went out the window at the first opportunity. The first night we were taken to dine in one of the Paul’s restaurants, which specialised in sea food. Given that Bangalore is about ten hours drive from the sea in all directions this seemed a risky proposition but it felt like to refuse would have been a great insult to our hosts. So I tucked into a very good meal of fish curry, a Keralan speciality, and hoped for the best. I wasn’t disappointed and had no problems the whole trip. My only concession was to limit food on the go to vegetarian options such as samosas, although I was told that only tourists order these. beware though of the water, even our hosts stuck to bottled or filtered water, apparently tap water is only drunk by those who can’t afford better. I took the conservative view that beer was the safest bet.
The picture here shows a typically baffling site, I encountered the musician with his decorated cow on the way to work one morning. He was calling at houses asking for money, if none was received he kept playing. Needless to say he also wanted money from me when I took his photo.
Even though I often pick up a smattering of languages quite quickly I struggled in India. Hindi is the official language and English is widely spoken but each state has its own language. This continues to smaller regions, there are estimates of some 500 to 1000 active languages throughout the country. Most signs in Bangalore are in the language of its state, Karnataka, which is Kannada, this is also what locals use to communicate. Both Hindi and Kannada and written in a script which really needs serious study to pick up and unfortunately I hadn’t had time to do so before I left. So other than odd words like thank you I left with no knowledge of either Hindi or Kannada.
After the best part of four solid days working, and trips to three more restaurants and a shopping spree, we set off late Friday afternoon for a trip to Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The passenger foot brake was tested to its limits in the five plus hours it took to get there, I had become more immune to the general driving madness but the overtaking, especially at night when at least half the vehicles had no lights (or worse cars with only one headlamp so it looked like a bike), was still a time of prayer to any gods that might be listening.
We arrived safely though and this was my first introduction to India’s tourist pricing system, foreigners pay at least ten times what the locals pay. I can see the pros and cons of this but at the end of the day you pay less than what you would in England anyway. The reserve never lived up to its promise of an actual tiger but we did see other wildlife and it was a pleasant early morning safari through forest that could have been in the UK. We returned to Bangalore via Mysore, which houses an old palace, in very large grounds, and it was a fascinating history lesson as well as an example of the grandeur that was prevalent when the rajas ruled the land.
To sum up my thoughts on the whole experience:
- A fascinating culture, I don’t think I could ever hope to understand
- A very religious place, although I’m not sure how much is actually belief and how much just ritualistic; you can say that about most religions though
- Terrible pervasive poverty leading to many beggars and persistently being asked to buy rubbish from street vendors; there is a large middle class and some very wealthy people though
- A wonderful history although I’m still ashamed by some of the things that the British were responsible for
- I’d never want to live there, however another visit is definitely on the cards, preferably for a longer time, one week is too short giving the travelling time there and back and it is a very big place
I would look on any trip there as an education rather than a holiday, it really is a whole new world.