Indian Journeys: The Auto-rickshaw

I arrived at Bangalore airport at about 6.00 in the morning. There were several hours of baggage handling, airport confusion and a taxi-ride through town, with auto-rickshaw drivers weaving and buzzing round us like angry wasps, before I reached my small family run hotel in a quiet residential quarter of town.

The garden at Terrace Gardens Guest House, Bangalore.

I stepped out of the car to the calls of loud birds yelling and whooping, and shortly after, found myself escorted to a roof terrace, where I gazed at distant huge birds with enormous wingspans (eagles?  vultures?) coasting lazily on the thermals. Attentive staff served me with unending supplies of small soft spongy pancakes – idli – with thin aromatic and spicy dipping sauces and much-needed coffee.  It was 9.00, but my body knew that back in England it was 3.30 a.m.

Unable to rest, I set off to explore the quiet back streets near the hotel.  Dozens of women were out in the back streets, crouching over their handle-less brooms, sweeping and re-sweeping the pavements.  Stallholders on street corners sold bananas, brown and well past their sell-by dates, or coconut juice straight from the shell.  A few bored monkeys sat about on air-conditioning extractor pipes.  At a building site, a bullock stood patiently while two men shovelled rubble into the cart it drew.

Delivery from the Builder’s Yard. This picture was actually taken in Pondicherry a couple of weeks later. But it’s a scene I often saw.

Then I reached the main hub of Bangalore, MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road) with the pavements, such as there were, thronged with pedestrians.   In the road itself, cars, vans, trucks, auto-rickshaws, all constantly blaring their horns raced along, over-taking, under-taking.  However would I find the courage to cross? Answer.  By finding a group of others also wanting to get to the other side and introducing myself into their midst.  There’s safety in numbers.

I hadn’t wandered too far when I was picked up by an auto-rickshaw driver.  He could probably see ‘Arrived from Europe this morning’ tattooed across my forehead.  He offered to show me round for 10 rupees.  I wasn’t green enough to believe that, but I was exhausted, and it wasn’t an unattractive proposition.  It was memorable – and fun.

My first friend in Bangalore: the rickshaw driver who took me on a tour of the city.

He proved an amiable guide whose English, while obviously hugely better than my Kannada, often led to mutual incomprehension.  Still, he hared round a variety of sites introducing me to the city he loved. ‘This is my Parliament building.  This is my national bird.  This is my Rajah’s Palace.’  And he waited while I ‘did’ Bengalaru Palace, one of the homes of the Raja Wodeyar.  As the Lonely Planet says, you are personally shown round by an aged retainer, who is rather keener to show you fly-blown pictures of the Royal Family than the quirky furniture and fittings.  Seedy but fun.  It’s not often you see cattle grazing in royal gardens.

In front of Bangalore’s Parlaiament building. My friendly driver took this shot.

He was in the pay of various shops.  Of course he was.  And he took me to some.  I was quite clear that I was not going to buy anything.  Not on my first day.  This proved to be an effective bargaining tool to bring prices tumbling to the level the shopkeeper planned to sell at in the first place.  Reader, I bought a couple of things, and nor did I regret it.

My new friend urged me to ring him whenever I needed transport in his fifteen year old rickshaw.  I didn’t.  But later that day I wished I had.  A different driver saw me puzzling over my map, and offered to help.  But his help turned out to mean trying to persuade me into shop after shop to buy. When he realised I really wasn’t going to buy anything, he dumped me.

I was in a poor part of town (where? where?) and with a 500 rupee note as my lowest form of currency.  When the average meal costs seven, I knew that offering this note in shops simply wasn’t an option.  I trailed round back streets busy with rickshaw drivers repairing their trucks, vendors splicing huge melons and squash to sell, garland makers fashioning powerfully scented jasmine garlands for Diwali, sheep drinking at doorways, solitary cows chewing at a pile of rubbish, tent villages…. until I finally found a travel agent, where they changed down my note.

And then I took a third rickshaw, asking for an address near ‘home’.  He took me directly there.  Food, an internet cafe, and home to bed, long after dark.  Night falls in a matter of minutes, at 6 o’clock.  My exhausted body knew quite well that the day was over.

 

This is my contribution to today’s Ragtag Challenge: Taxi

Indian Journeys

I began this blog almost ten years ago (What?  Really?).  But it wasn’t my first.  I’d started blogging two years before that, on a different platform, to record my memories of a very special holiday in India. It wasn’t the best of platforms and in fact it no longer exists.  Eventually I took a deep breath and moved to WordPress, so you can’t flick back and read about my Indian adventures here.

These days, I’m in a writing group.  Last week, we fell to talking about travelling, and about how we often overlook the pleasure of the journey in favour of impatiently anticipating our arrival at our destination.  It sent my memory scurrying back to India, and I can feel a series of posts coming on about Journeys in India.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.  Now that dates me……

I’d wanted to go to India for more years than I could remember.  As a London child and then as a student in Manchester, Indian culture had always been at the periphery of my life:  its foods, its smells, its clothing.

When we lived in Sheffield during my thirties there had been ‘The Arts of India’ at the Mappin Art Gallery, when craftsman from all over India came, and every day for about three weeks, made pots, wove, carved, and worked with inks and cloth in the art gallery. By night, since my then husband was the gallery curator, we’d eat together, joined by Indian heritage Sheffield residents who became our friends too. They would cook for us and we for them, and we’d talk into the night.

Some years later my son, by then eighteen and just finished with school, worked as a teacher in a village school in Uttar Pradesh, then travelled for some months following his nose all round India.  His letters – no emails then – tantalised me.

Family and work all pushed the dream of distant travel away. Until my 60th birthday and my retirement,  when my daughter and her husband gave me a very special gift to be spent on travel. India. That was it. I’d go there –  with no Malcolm, no friend, no companion found on Thelma and Louise – though I considered all of these options. This trip was for me.

And I went, choosing south India instead of the more visited north.  I have memories of markets, of quiet temples, in one of which I was blessed by an elephant, of cows and goats in busy city streets, of eagles soaring over rooftops, of eating at workmen’s cafes from banana leaf ‘plates’, of the Imam’s call to prayer every morning at 5.30 and every evening at 5.30.  I had a week in a small group too, in rural locations, discovering the parts of India that work the land.

A temple elephant raises her trunk before lowering it to bless me.

Above all though I remember journeys. It was on these journeys that I often felt closest to being an ordinary citizen doing ordinary things in an extraordinary  country.

  • My first rickshaw ride, on my very first day in India,  which turned into an extempore, personal tour of Bangalore from my driver, who loved his city.
  • The overnight train ride, travelling across India in the company of tea boys, soldier-smart railway officials, giggling girls, serious lecturers, a family groups sharing their carefully prepared three course meal before washing up, then arriving very early in the morning to a busy station community.
  • Or the intercity bus journey along a motorway, where goats carelessly wandered onto the carriageway from the central reservation where they grazed..
  • Or my final journey on a local train which I truly didn’t expect to survive so tightly were we all packed. But that, like all the others, is a story in itself.

Click on any image to see it full size.

Snapshot Sunday: Do you prefer your street names in French … or Tamil?

Almost ten years ago now, I had my Indian Adventure, when I travelled first of all with a small group of like-minded English travellers, and then solo round southern India.  That’s when I started blogging, using TravelBlog, though I later transcribed it onto WordPress which may be more user-friendly.

The culture shock of arriving in Bangalore with its constant traffic noise, its motor horns, its street-cattle, its monkeys, its people, its eagles and vultures wheeling overhead is unforgettable.

A back street in Bangalore, and a few rickshaws.
A back street in Bangalore, and a few rickshaws.

Arriving in Pondicherry some three weeks later was just as much of a jolt. Suddenly I was transported (after a motorway journey which included goats grazing on the central reservation) to colonial era France.  Here were policemen in kepis, elegant public buildings, corner shops selling baguettes and croissants.

Dept of Public Works, Pondicherry

My guesthouse was a charming 19th century throwback which would have been totally at home on the French Riviera.

My verandah at le Rêve Bleu.

Yet I was undoubtedly in India.  There was a spot of building work going on outside my bedroom window.  Here’s the delivery wagon:

A delivery from the builder’s Yard

Here’s a more up-to-date delivery lorry:

They don’t usually need reminding to ‘Sound Horn’

Here’s the school run:

School run, Indian style

And here’s the beach:

The beach at Pondicherry.

Here though is the photo which answers this week’s WordPress photo challenge: ‘Names’. A street sign which represents the many-faceted cultural references of what I thought of as my favourite Indian city.

Cathedral Street, Pondicherry
Cathedral Road, Pondicherry

In a couple of days I plan to re-blog an old post of mine which has something further to contribute to the ‘Names’ theme.