January 02, 2007

Bangalore day 5 - BLR - LHR - SFO

Au revoir to Bangalore for now. Our flight is at 6:30 am, so being totally paranoid we asked the Google driver to show up at 3:30. He, being the conscientious sort, shows up early. Oh boy. We stuff all of our things into one bag each. If you are flying through London you are limited to one carry on bag, period. Any briefcase, purse, or any other small personal items must fit in that one bag. Next time I'm wearing a camera vest. We ask the driver to wait till we're ready, finish packing, and check out.

We're off to the airport in the cool dark quiet of the early morning. There's even less traffic than when we arrived, and we make good time to the airport. The airport seems small and somewhat run down from the outside. We hadn't had time really to get an impression when we arrived, but now with more than two hours before our flight we have more time to observe. Bangalore International Airport does not feel like any of the other airports we've gone through to get here. Bangalore is in the midst of constructing a new more modern airport that is scheduled to open in 2008, but for now it's a small, almost tiny place harboring antiquated equipment. The rooms are cavernous, floored with linoleum. The chairs seem sixties vintage stained upholstery under the glare of fluorescent lights. There are few amenities, one overtaxed coffee shop and a book and gift store not much larger than a cubbyhole. The room is filled with tired people waiting for their flights. I find two seats next to each other and we join them.

There is no electronic departure board, instead one of the three televisions periodically changes from sports or a soap opera to show a dozen lines of departure information in cryptic abbreviations. Our flight does not appear on this listing and I start to worry. The listings appear to be almost exclusively domestic Indian flights from what I can tell of the obscure destination codes. I wander back out to the security check where one of the inspectors assures me that this is the right gate. I believe him because as far as I can tell there are only two gates and the other one is closed. I'm not the only one who's nervous. As far as I can tell the waiting room consists of two groups, foreigners hoping to catch the British Airways flight to London, and Muslim pilgrims on their way to some destination that remains opaque to me.

Finally a BA person shows up and makes an announcement over the PA. The good news is that we are indeed in the right place. The bad news is that the flight is delayed for about an hour. We could have spent two more hours relaxing in our luxury hotel room paid for by Google, but instead we're trying to stay awake on uncomfortable seats in a careworn waiting room with no amenities and no internet access. I entertain myself by walking around, and buying overpriced souvenirs in the postage stamp sized gift shop.

Eventually the plane arrives, is unloaded, and we are clear to board. We file on, take our seats and take off. I look out the window at the city that will be our home for the next year. I see houses right up against the airport property, a baffling warren of small streets, and people everywhere. Still I'm looking forward to it.

Ten hours later we arrive in London late due to our late departure, and have less than one half hour to make our connection. We have to get from terminal four to terminal one, and we have to navigate Heathrow's internal security checks. We lose no time getting to the right shuttle to take us to our terminal, after asking we are granted the use of the expedited security line because of our close connection and finally make it to our gate in time to immediately board our next ten hour flight to San Francisco.

After watching four movies that were not on my list of movies I wanted to see, watching the sun set and rise again because of how far north we flew, watching ice floes and snow drifts in the rising sun, noticing Mount Shasta passing by, we eventually arrived back at San Francisco Airport. We quickly and efficiently dealt with all the customs and immigration formalities and boarded BART. We were home - what would be home for just a few more weeks.

January 01, 2007

Bangalore Day 4 - Sahib Sindh Sultan

Even after our afternoon feast at MTR, we had plans for yet one more nice restaurant. Guidebooks had suggested, and friends had concurred that Sahib Sindh Sultan was a place to go. One thing that I like about dining in Bangalore is that the busy part of the evening starts at around 10pm, and restaurants are still going strong at 11pm. We had been eating early due to jet lag and were often the first or only people in a restaurant at 8pm. We asked the front desk at the hotel to make reservations for Sahib Sindh Sultan the day before because the guidebooks and friends had agreed that on weekends it would fill up and prior reservations were needed. Unfortunately the front desk had not read the guidebooks and hadn't actually called on the day we asked. Fortuntately the restaurant put us on the "waiting list" for 9:30-10:00pm and said that if we just showed up we should be seated relatively promptly.

Sahib Sindh Sultan is in The Forum mall, and we arrived early enough to wander around and look at stores. We saw a disturbing "catwalk" contest event with pre-pubescent girls volunteering from the audience then walking down a simulated fashion show catwalk to bad dance music and showing off their "moves." The Forum mall contains big name fashion stores as well as more pedestrian venues, including a McDonalds, a KFC, and a grocery store.

After wandering around for a bit, we went up to the top floor at 9:30 and announced ourselves to the hostess. She said she'd called our hotel to tell us we had a seating but had gotten no answer but that they could still accommodate us. We were seated immediately.

The restaurant is styled after a 19th century train station and train. We were seated in an antique railcar, the owner has gone to great lengths to provide authentic period details including hats, luggage, and antique style lighting. They work hard to recreate the feeling of luxury during the British Raj. The atmosphere could be overwhelmingly tacky and kitchy or simply charming depending on your mood. I was charmed.

I had noticed that some of the menus we'd been seeing had a section for (non-alcoholic) drinks at the beginning, but we had just skipped over them. This time we decided to try a couple of them, "Sahib Ka Panna" charcoal roasted pineapple with cumin and sugar, and "Sultan Sharbat" sandalwood, saffron, and lemon. The Sahib Ka Panna was an opaque bright green and more savory than we had expected. The pineapple flavor was ... subtle, and the cumin was quite prominent. It was billed as a "digestive" on the menu and like most digestives this was not a "sipping" drink it tasted like it was supposed to be good for you as opposed to tasty. The Sharbat on the other hand was delicately sweet, clear and yellow with a mild citrusy flavor. Very refreshing.

For a soup course we chose to share a "Miskin Paya Shorba" a soup made from simmered lamb's trotter. It was as thick and rich as you might expect with all the gelatine, easily cut with the thoughtfully provided slice of lemon. Very tasty, though the chunks of lamb came complete with small foot bones that you needed to discreetly hide under the soup bowl.

Debbie had a craving for cheese, so we ordered char grilled paneer stuffed with cheese "Lady Canning's Reshmi Paneer Tikka", and cheese naan. I am a fanatic for lamb so we tried to order "Leberiyan" lamb soaked in yogurt then grilled but were told they were out. Instead we substituted a pounded lamb formed around a skewer and grilled. I hoped it would be like the ubiquitous ground lamb dish that goes by "kefta," "kofte" or similar names all around the mediterranean but no. It was a mushy paste that was barely cooked and not very tasty. The head waiter, perhaps aware that this dish was not a resounding success brought us a freebie - "Makai Mothia Seekh" a soft vegetable kebab with paneer and sweet corn. This was utterly delicious and convinced us that yes everyone was right and we really should be trying more of the vegetarian dishes.

Finally we had "Gucchi Aur Kumbh" Kashmiri morels in a thick spicy nut flavored sauce. Apparently mushrooms are traditionally seen as a relatively "impure" food, since they grow on decaying tissue, on the same level as preserved meats or alcohol. I say "more for me!" This dish was very tasty with a subtle creaminess that complemented the earthy flavor of the morels. We had been practicing eating with our hands, and we ate this dish with our naan using our fingers. We were so stuffed we had no room for dessert, so after the finger bowl we wandered out to find an autorickshaw and make our way home.

Bangalore Day 4 - Mavalli Tiffin Rooms

The Mavalli Tiffin Rooms are an institution. Not just a Bangalore institution either. People come from all over the world to eat at "MTR" as it's called. At most places in Bangalore, if there's a line (yes, it's called a queue here. I'm from the US, I'm going to use US terms till I get assimilated.) people will just go some place else. At MTR even locals willingly line up and wait for hours. MTR started in 1924 with the restaurant, but now is known even more for their line of prepared foods. So this could be like going to "The Rice-a-Roni restaurant" but I don't think locals would line up for hours to visit some over-the-hill brand-identified over marketed has been tourist trap, would they?

I don't know for certain if they would but I certainly wouldn't, and I will be back to the Mavalli Tiffin Room. We ate at some of the fanciest five-star hotel restaurants, some of the most recommended "name" restaurants in Bangalore while were were there, and the most memorable meal was here.

You start downstairs at the iron barred cashier's cage. After deciding if the chalkboard written menu of the day suits your taste, you pay up front a fixed cost per person and get your receipt. Upstairs is a large waiting room, filled with people sitting on benches and a lone gatekeeper at a podium next to the door to the main dining area. Occasionally he calls out a number or series of numbers, and people file in to be seated on plastic chairs at marble topped tables. We wait in this picturesque waiting area for almost an hour, watching a stream of different people come in and occasionally enter the dining area. It's fascinating people watching, and I only wish I knew more about how to recognize their differences and similarities. Everyone is polite, there is no crowding or complaining (though my friend and co-worker from Bangalore who's our guide for the afternoon informs me that people are cheating. They slip in with other groups even though they have not yet been called. I am amused.)

Finally we are allowed in. As we are led to our table I notice the basins for washing your hands, and the rows of shiny stainless steel buckets holding the food we're about to be served. The three of us are seated at a table for eight, along with a family of three NRI (non-resident Indians) from London who have made the pilgrimage to MTR. The son peppers his father with questions about "is this how it was when you came here?" It's clear that they're as excited as we are to be here. We sit down and a stamped stainless steel plate with various indentations is placed in front of each of us.

The parade of food begins. Servers circulate precisely between the tables, following the same route. Each one carries a bucket, and dishes it up precisely with no nonsense. First a silver tumbler of sweet juice - tangerine? Then a spoonful of potato curry seasoned with black mustard. It reminds me of the potato curry inside masala dosa, but wetter. Then in quick succession a green chutney, a dry vegetable dish (cabbage with coconut and white sesame), anther dry vegetable dish of carrots and dal, and a poori.

Next comes a small side dish with a fried dumpling in a salty yogurt, and a famous local rice dish whose name I've shamefully forgotten that was both tart and pungent, served with a scoop of yogurt with diced red onion over it. A crispy yellow hard fried sweet "pretzel" that had been soaked in sugary syrup was placed on each of our plates by the dhoti clad server, and before we could finish it, a scoop of pristine white rice. This had ghee drizzled on it, and then a scoop of vegetable curry. I thought I was going to burst. To top it off, two more scoops of rice, one we were told to make an indentation for rasam (a soup) and the other for curds (like thick chunky yogurt). Both were delicious and a welcome complement to the other flavors.

Finally to end there was a dish of fruit salad topped with ice cream and a cherry. As we were wondering if there was any more to come, we got our answer. The server placed a cellophane packet with paan at each of our places. Our local friend told us that in the past MTR had let people in the front, but they exited out the rear through the kitchen - something that was unheard of at the time, but MTR had wanted to display the uncharacteristic cleanliness of their kitchens. This was no longer needed - their reputation had been long established by now - but we still exited through the kitchen to take a peek.

I regret not getting a photo of the chalkboard menu, and we still need to experience their breakfast dosa. We also avoided the nearby MTR supermarket, all of which lacks will be repaired on a future visit, because we will be back!

Bangalore Day 4 - Impressions of Roads and Traffic

One of the first impressions I got of Bangalore was the traffic. I had heard from many people that the traffic was going to be bad and I had mentally prepared myself for floods of traffic. On the way in from the airport though, traffic was more of a trickle than a flood. Granted it was something like 6am, but I had expected more!

The next day we got more. Our hotel was on a main road. This road was apparently originally called "Double Road" because it was one of the very few divided multi-lane roads in Bangalore. It's official name at that time was "Residency Road" and that is still what most people call it, though it's official name is now "FM Cariappa Road" due to the great renaming of roads. Apparently roads all over India are being renamed from the colonial names with names that reflect important or famous people in India's history. This means that a road may have three or four different names. We do similar things here in the Bay Area - do you know where Army Street is in San Francisco, or Grove Street is in Berkeley?

Traffic on Residency Road was a flood of trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and scooters (collectively called "two wheelers"), automobiles, busses, even bullock carts and autorickshaws. Lots and lots of autorickshaws. nominally it's a four lane road but in fact there are no lanes. Vehicles go whereever they see an opening tootling their horns merrily as they go. Horn use in Bangalore is different from how horns are used in the US. You use your horn liberally to say "here I am" - to alert people to your presence, to let them know you're planning to pass them, to let people merging to know to check how close they are, to warn pedestrians to watch out. It was rare to hear a horn used in anger, to say "hurry up," "get out of my way," or "you idiot!" Debbie (and I) hate horns in the US, and I was sure she'd hate all the horns in India, but no, they don't feel nearly as upsetting.

If Residency Road was a flood, the smaller streets were rivers and streams, and even the alleys were trickles of traffic. I don't think the traffic itself was all that much heavier than heavy traffic anywhere, but it was unrelenting. There was always traffic. You could never just stroll across a road, even a small one, because someone would be driving on it. Further, not only do pedestrians not have the "right of way" cars expect you to get out of their way, and you damn well better. Even walking on the sidewalk across a driveway, cars do not in general slow down or try to avoid you as they exit or enter. It is up to you, fragile human, to avoid the vehicles.

I've tagged my photos taken in Bangalore to make it easy to see where they were taken, but it was not so easy finding the places we wanted to go to. There aren't really good maps of Bangalore, although Google has recently put a good map online and Microsoft Research has something called "Virtual India" but I've lately had trouble getting Virtual India to work. Paper maps, especially the tourist ones from hotels are useless. Even if you have the exact street address of some place, it's not nearly as helpful as you might think. Because there are no good maps, you can't look up the address on a map. You can ask someone, but unless the street is big and well known, your interlocutor is unlikely to know the actual street - there are a lot of streets in a big city, and Bangalore is a big city. Even those professional street-name-knowers, the taxi drivers (or in this case autorickshaw drivers) are unlikely to be familiar with that specific street. For one thing, the street may have three or four names, and you may be using one of the ones that the driver is not familiar with. For another thing, names are reused from neighborhood to neighborhood, so you may need to qualify the street name with the part of the city. If all you have is a street address, you may not know the neighborhood! This means that directions in Bangalore are generally given in terms of neighborhoods and landmarks. If you don't know the landmarks near your destination, and the neighborhood it's in, it's quite likely you won't be able to get there from here.

For example, Google is at "3 Vittal Mallya Road." None of the autorickshaw drivers seem to have heard of this road. Instead you tell them you want to go to some local landmark, like the St. Mark's Hotel around the corner then direct them when you get close. This scheme is not limited to ignorant foreigners, I'm told by locals that this is how everyone gives directions. Our hotel, The Chancery Pavilion, while big and fancy is relatively new, and often drivers would not have heard about it (or worse, would think we were talking about "The Chancery" a related hotel about a mile away.) Even telling them "Chancery Pavilion" "Residence Road" "Richmond Town" wouldn't help. However telling them "Bangalore Club back gate" would get us close enough to direct them across the street to our hotel.

Let me explain a little about autorickshaws. They are three wheeled contraptions with bright yellow vinyl coated cloth canopies with noisy little two stroke engines. They are controlled like motorcycles and are ubiquitous. Nominally you tell the driver your destination, he drops the meter's flag, drives you there, and you pay the fare on the meter. Currently that's Rs 12 for the first 1.6 km, and Rs 6 for each km after that and 1.5x that between 10pm and 5am. That's the theory. In practice autorickshaw drivers are notorious for overcharging passengers. First they will try to negotiate a fixed rate, which is always higher than the meter rate. They will refuse to take you if you want the meter rate, they will take you by a longer indirect route, they will try to add the 50% premium on top of electronic meters that already have the extra built in. If all that fails they will wheedle. Yet they remain the most popular and common form of transportation in the city.

At first we were scared of them. They're small, open, and fragile looking. Bangaloreans have a deserved reputation of being open, easygoing, and friendly. Not the autorickshaw drivers! They can be cunning, hard, abusive, and impatient. They don't understand our English and we speak no Kannada. Even if we did I doubt my ability to explain where we want to go. So at first we asked the hotel to get their driver to take us where we wanted to go and we either walked back (from Google) or had the driver come pick us up (from Dakshin.) I later discovered that this was costing approximately 10x what an auto [as autorickshaws are called] would have cost. Eventually though, after going to the Garuda Mall for dinner at Sikander we decided to be brave and take an auto home.

It was a blast! We ended up paying a fixed fare that was probably 50% above what we should have paid. Rs 60 instead or Rs 40 - Call it $1.50 instead of $1, for the two of us. But we got an up close view of the street and the people, and got to see streets we would otherwise have never visited. We heard some of the rich invective that is possible in the Kannada language, and felt connected to the street and people in a way you can't feel locked behind the air conditioned glass of a private automobile. Even if we get a car and driver (and we likely will) I can tell that autos will be a big part of our travel plans in Bangalore.