Tuesday, August 19, 2014


           As always, so much has happened since I last posted. In fact, by my calculations, we walked over 22 miles over the last three days! On Friday, we conquered a long day of travel, which brought us from Jaipur, Rajasthan all the way down to Mysore, Karnataka, which is one of south India’s iconic cities. Friday was Independence Day in India, and many cars had Indian flags affixed to their hoods. Other than this token display of nationalism, however, it generally felt like any other day.
To make the voyage, we rose at 5am and first took an early flight from Jaipur to Bangalore by way of Delhi. At the airport, I was overcome by a wave of nausea, which I deeply feared was going to evolve into a wicked case of “Delhi Belly.” However, after an hour or so I was feeling fine again, and perhaps it was just the early rise that threw me off. The plane was filled with middle-class Indians, who primarily wore Western clothing and frequently mixed English phrases and sentences into their conversations.
For the second leg of the trip, we took a 3-hour train ride from Bangalore to Mysore, arriving just before 6pm.

Bangalore City Train Station
To get to the train station in Bangalore, we had to take a taxi from the airport, an experience that thoroughly turned my knuckles white. It was if the driver was attempting to break the local records for “number of inches between cars while tailgating,” “number of cars passed on the highway in any given 30 second period,” and “percentage of trip engaging in activities #1 and #2 with only one hand while speaking on a cellphone with the other.”
            In fact, perhaps this is a good moment to briefly reflect upon the safety habits of India’s motorists. There are none. By all accounts, it is the Wild West out here. There are no lanes. Perhaps less than 1% of intersections are equipped with traffic lights. People transport things on motorbikes that one might struggle to fit into the trunk of a small car, such as a bundle of 12-foot steel poles, a 100-pound bag of grain, or four other human beings (admittedly one was a baby). Determining which vehicle has the right of way, whether a car, motorbike or auto-rickshaw, is resolved by an aggressive dance of honking and acceleration that essentially amounts to a game of chicken. If you want to pass another vehicle, you honk anywhere from 1-7 times, which functions less as a warning and more of a declaration: you are passing them, so they best get out of the way… now. Honking is pandemic. It is a way of life. I don’t think video truly captures the experience, but here are two short videos of us driving around in Agra.   

Anyways, while we were driving in Bangalore from the airport to the train station, in addition to holding on for dear life, I also had a moment to develop a first impression about south India, a place I have never been to before. First, there are palm trees everywhere! Also, the streets are substantially cleaner here. Gone are the random piles of rubble, garbage, and who knows what else. Well, maybe I should just say mostly gone. Still, it has been a great pleasure to discover Mysore on foot by walking, as one can look up and around instead of straight down (which was often necessary in Jaipur to avoid stepping in you know what).
South India is also known for having a more friendly, laid-back populace in comparison to the north. After spending a few days in Mysore, however, I’m not sure I can agree with such a generalization. From my experience, the more apt comparison is not between north and south, but between tourist/hotel areas, and non-tourist/hotel areas. In both north and south, tourist sites are swarming with “touts” and “hawkers” just waiting to give you misinformation (“the palace is closed today, but I can take you to some good sites instead…”), and rickshaw drivers linger around hotels just waiting to get your fare by any means necessary. But once you get away from these areas, people in India are kind, welcoming and honest. For this reason, we ended up spending a good chunk of our time in Mysore meandering through its quiet suburban neighborhoods, and the people we encountered on these serene streets were some of the nicest people to be found anywhere.
Still, I cannot deny that our first 24 hours or so in Mysore were a bit rough. After the long voyage, we wanted nothing more than to settle into a clean hotel room for the evening, develop a plan for the following day, and rest up. Unfortunately, I erred in selecting a suitable place to stay in Mysore, as the hotel we checked into had an aggressive staff that delivered a healthy dose of hassle. On top of that, the room itself was quite filthy, with tattered sheets, stained towels, and a mysterious bug or two. Because of the holiday, the hotels in Mysore were booked solid through the weekend, but luckily I was able to secure a reservation for our last two nights here at a rather wacky (but super clean) place called the Parklane Hotel. I actually really enjoyed staying at the Parklane. The food was some what lackluster, but they had a nice outdoor dining hall and offered live music each night. The quirky décor, which incorporated quasi-tiki hut vibes, was also a nice touch. Most importantly, the room was spotless and the staff was friendly and helpful. I give you Parklane’s most recent message to its patrons:

Parklane Hotel 
             Mysore’s “tourists” sites were nothing to write home about, and I won’t spend too much time describing them. We went to the Royal Palace, which was gaudy to the max, but ultimately rather forgettable. The most enduring memory I will have from visiting the palace is likely to be the quest to purchase our entry tickets, in which I had to elbow my way to the ticket window, insert my hand and arm through a tiny window, and wait until a clerk whom I could not see relieved me of my money. I then had to hold on for dear life so that my hand would remain inside the slot while the clerk retrieved my tickets and change, and to stop my entire body from floating back out to the periphery of the ticket window.
            A much more gratifying experience was visiting a place on the outskirts of town called Chamundi Hills. At the top lies Chamundeshwari Temple, which proved quite popular with locally and was swarming with devotees, although I wasn’t sure if they were Mysoreans or domestic Indian tourists. The line to enter the temple was so long that we decided to skip it entirely and just explore the surrounding grounds. The standard offering appeared to be a basket of flowers and coconuts, and coconut venders lined the perimeter of the temple. There was also a place outside the temple where one could smash the coconuts, an act whose religious significance escaped me.

To get to the temple, you can either take a bus that delivers you straight to the top of the mountain, or you can start at the bottom and walk up “1,000” steps. The vast majority of visitors go for the bus, but we opted for the steps, alongside a few other brave souls. Whether it is actually 1,000 steps I have no idea, but it was physically challenging to say the least. Along the way, we passed several young women who were stopping at each step to adorn it with a single dab of orange and red powder.

            Another highlight was our visit to Mysore’s most famous market, which is called the Devaraja Market. The market was a tad touristy, but managed to maintain its authenticity, as it remains Mysore’s main fruit, flower and vegetable market. We went early in the morning, and it was nice to soak up the vibes when it wasn’t too crowded. The coolest thing there was probably the mounds of flowers which the florists created by stringing the flowers together and then carefully laying them down in a circular pattern. The veggie sellers had some nice displays, but the flowers couldn’t be beat. We also came back later in the day and saw the market in full swing. Unfortunately, this also meant that the touts were out. At one point, a guy followed me around trying to sell me this weird box shaped like a cat. Our conversation went something like this (I am paraphrasing, but this was the basic thrust of the conversation):

Man: I will sell you this cat box for only 700 rupees.
Me: I don’t want it, thanks though.
Man: It is a box that looks like a cat, 700 rupees is a great price.
Me: I don’t want it.
Man: OK, for you, a special price of only 600 rupees.
Me: I don’t want the cat box.
Man: 500.
Me: I don’t know how else to explain this to you, but I’m not interested in purchasing the cat box. I don’t care what the price is. I don’t want it.
Man: This other box looks like an elephant, look!
Me: I don’t want that.
Man: Ok, my final offer is both boxes for only 500!
Me: I don’t want the boxes. Please leave me alone.

Then, as we walked away, he busted out a wooden flute and started playing a stereotypically “Indian” riff. As we increased our distance from him, I could hear him yelling about the flute, but I didn’t hear the price. Anyways, here are some pictures from the market.

            As I briefly mentioned earlier, our best experiences in Mysore by far involved nothing more than meandering away from the city center and exploring the city’s quieter, residential neighborhoods. We did this several times throughout our three days in Mysore, and would just zigzag back and forth down the streets once we found a pleasant neighborhood. We saw some beautifully painted homes, and also met a ton of cute kids, who at times would follow us around and giggle whenever we acknowledged their presence. Many of them would ask for “your country kind please.” It took me a while to figure out that they were asking for U.S. currency. Some children were quite bold in their requests, and after a few days I had run out of quarters to give away.
Another memorable moment involved a little boy named Jahul. As we were walking down a side street, a little boy stood there and stared at us, but refrained from saying hello to us. I decided to say hello, but instead of saying hello back, he ran into his house and disappeared. I thought nothing of it and we kept walking. But a moment later we heard a shout, and he waved for us to come back. It turned out that he had made several little Ganesh sculptures out of clay and had run into his house to get them so he could show us. Here is a picture of him running into his house (which Hallie managed to snap), as well as a picture of him displaying his sculptures (with another boy I presume is his little brother). Below are additional pictures from our time spent wandering around Mysore. And for the record, any picture of me with children was taken at the children's request, not mine! 

Jahul running into his house
Jahul, his brother, and their Ganesha sculptures
Schoolgirl with large backpack
Man hacking coconut with machete

Hallie enjoying the coconut water
Unbelievably cute kid with impeccable fashion sense 

"District Hopcoms"

Me and the boys
Ready to Ride

Bathroom Dos and Don'ts

Cool Blue House
We’ve also had some great food in Mysore. In addition to typical south Indian food such as dosas and idly, the “curries” here are also super good and quite different from the north Indian varieties. In the north, the sauces are on steroids: super thick, super oily, and super salty (but in my opinion also super delicious). In the south, by contrast, the dishes are still spicy, but are otherwise more subdued. Some of them are almost like a spicy minestrone soup, with a thin but powerful broth containing actual chunks of identifiable vegetables such as carrots, peas, potatoes, and even beets. Some of these dishes are known as “Andhra” style, which I assume means they come from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Our favorite place was a joint called “Hotel RRR Restaurant.” The food was served on a big banana leaf and free refills of any of the dishes were available on request. We went there twice, and on both occasions, I left having eaten way too much!

Hotel RRR 
We also had an amazing lunch at a placed called Anu’s Bamboo Hut, which sits way out in the suburb of Gokalum. Gokalum is where many of Mysore’s yoga centers are located, and lots of westerners come here for several weeks to study Ashtanga yoga. The food at Anu’s was simple and fresh, but still retained a distinct Indian flare. We sat next to some middle-aged ladies who came all the way from Connecticut (the first American’s we’ve met on this trip) to study in Gokalum. They were obsessed with not getting sick in India, and they were impressed by our willingness to eat at “local” restaurants. I’ll end this post with two photos from Anu’s. Until next time…

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