Thursday, February 01, 2007


Some travelers say Goa is not really India, and in a way it's true; that's why it's a haven for weary, long-termers. In my case, now that I'm back in the midst of "the real India" it looks very different. More often than not, the nature and process of inexplicable actions and delays is amusing or downright mystifying rather than irritating, and the ambiguous sideways head bobble that's the usual response to direct questions requiring yes or no answers, obscuring the clarity of even the least ambiguous replies, now seems friendly rather than evasive. Even though Bangalore was difficult to navigate, and so polluted that I ended each day covered in grime and one evening had a spontaneous nose-bleed, the merry, tolerant mood that I arrived in held.

We stayed four nights, and most of my days were spent either drinking the delicious Americanos served at Barista or typing and uploading at the fastest internet cafe in town, which took 24 hours to locate. Talia and I checked into a hotel in a market area named Mystic. It is near the central train station, and the manifold liquids, solids and clumps of trash covering the street are churned from 9 am to 11 pm by a constant stream of tires and feet. After a sleepless 8 hours on an overnight bus, we weren't so concerned about aesthetics, and when we had the chance to be horizontal at 8 am, we both took if for quite a while. That afternoon, showered and refreshed, I began the hunt, up and down the street, for a computer that would load my page, while Talia began the long process of activating her mobile phone. I didn't find a computer made after 1992, and I ended the day frustrated. When I saw a man on the street with a typewriter perched on an old lectern selling his services, carbon paper and all, I began to have serious doubts about Bangalore's billing as "The Silicon Valley" of India.

A center of power in southern India during British rule, it's now the capital of the state of Karnataka and the IT capital of India. As such, it's a charming city, in certain spots, its center sporting well cared for colonial architecture set apart by spacious (though mostly dust and dead grass) lawns, and clean modern buildings selling all the luxuries new money can buy. Unfortunately, I didn't know all that on my first day. Talia and I sat down for dinner around 8 pm just across the street from our hotel. That's the magic hour when all women disappear into their houses, so we were the only females in a restaurant with at least 15 tables. As a duo, we managed to ignore most stares and advances, but when Talia went to the bathroom, a short, big-bellied, man, well-dressed in a cotton button-down shirt, with terribly rotting teeth and friendly eyes behind gold rimmed glasses planted himself directly in front of me. Taking a gulp of his beer and looking directly at me he said, "From ver have you come?" I said, "the USA," and he answered excitedly, as if he'd just discovered that we have a relative in common, "Oh, I work for AOL!" I wasn't sure my being an American and his working for AOL formed a bond between us, but I thought, "If anybody knows where I can find the tech in this city, it's this guy," so I asked him. He confided snobbishly that he never "goes surfing" in Mystic; he uses the computers on MG Road.

Mystic movie billboards

Mahatma Gandhi Road is between 15 and 30 minutes away from Mystic by rickshaw, depending on traffic, and we went there the very next morning. On one side of the long road was the ritzy section of town, with cafes, foreign chain restaurants, bars, internet cafe's and imported clothing; on the other side lay a spacious but parched park leading, a 20 minute walk away, to several government offices housed in colonial buildings. It was a twice daily battle to get a fair price for the ride, and coming back in the evening, when most of the roads of Bangalore mysteriously become one-way, causing traffic quagmires, or maybe averting even worse jams, black smoke from the unfiltered exhausts of rickshaws hovered in the headlights, engulfing everything. After some coffee and exploration, I found an internet cafe that suited my needs just fine, technology wise, that is; the problem was the lack of privacy, the flux of people, and the noise of online gaming. I knew I wasn't going to do any better, so I settled down to work things up in a distracting atmosphere.

On my last visit to the Reliance internet shop, around 3 pm, a band of khaki uniformed middle school boys poured in and, after standing around talking enthusiastically in English for a while, took seats at available computers around the shop. Judging by the comments they called to each other, "Come on ladies!," or "Help, need backup!," the boys were all playing the same game on different computers, and between levels they'd stop for a break, challenging and boasting next to one computer or another. Eventually, their break coincided with that of a grown man playing a game on his computer, and they began to talk shop. The man wore a black and white pinstriped suit, obviously of a very high quality; he was meticulously groomed and good-looking with gleaming white teeth and oiled black hair. I couldn't stop watching the sudden, easy friendship between the rich man and the boys. Even while he gave the boys animated instructions on how to "defeat a hydra," he radiated wealth and status.

Hundreds of local languages have been identified in India, and there are 23 official languages. This may be why (although it's more common in the south than the north) people often speak English in public. Whatever the reason for using English as the medium of exchange, it makes things interesting for me; I get the chance to hear what people are talking about. In Bangalore, I made a trip to the post office to send a package home. It was an amazingly circuitous process, a practical lesson in patience and good humor that took over an hour by the end of it all. The central post office is an old, stone building with a columned facade looming behind a fountain surrounded by roses. Natural light seeps into the interior through a central skylight and evenly spaced, wire covered, dusty windows, but the ubiquitous fluorescent bulbs give the place a sickly overtone. Clerk's windows form a half-moon, dividing the cavernous interior into public and official space, and supervisory officials' tables are strewn about behind the narrow domain of languid clerks.

In India, if you want to send a package, it must first be sewn up in white fabric, so when I entered the post office and saw a man at a table sewing something up with needle and thread, I asked him how much he'd charge to close up my bundle. He replied that he wasn't in the sewing business; he was making his own package, but he pointed me over to a counter not far away. Slightly embarrassed, I thanked him and went to a glass counter, its shelves full of stamps and cards, manned by a wrinkled little woman in a bright sari. I handed her my bundle of clothes and collapsible paper lampshades and asked her to sew it up. She took them, and then, as if trying to recall a message someone had given her to pass on to me several years ago, she informed me that I needed to have the contents approved. Handing my bundle back to me, she motioned all the way to the other side of the building with a large, vague, half-circular hand gesture. Walking to the other end of the clerk's counters, I eventually found a door that looked like it was probably meant to keep the public out, but having no other idea of where to go, I entered. I offered my bundle to a man at a table, but he pointed me to another door, and I went through it. There I found several more desks, and again I offered my bundle. This man, instead of giving me a yes, a no, or directions, asked me where I'm from. I said America, and he enthusiastically reported that Hillary Clinton is going to run for president and is definitely going to win. He was very excited by the prospect of the first "presidential couple," and said it would be "a great honor" for America and for Hillary. Amused and touched as I was by his excitement, I really did want to get my package mailed that day, and he finally pointed me onward to the desk of his supervisor, a long table located smack-dab (but a little bit askew) in the center of the high-ceilinged space behind the postal clerks' barricade.

As I approached the magnificently rotund woman seated behind the table, her eyes looking placidly out of skin as baggy as an elephant's, someone else was walking away, and when I sat down across from her and held out my bundle, she signaled me, with a languid, bangle bedecked wrist, to wait. She was swathed in a conservative sari, its light beige foundation sprinkled with floral details in maroon and forest green and bordered in gold thread. Three gold rings set with gems twinkled on her fingers as she leafed through the pages of a worn, leather bound, rectangular log. I like to remember her as the postmistress general, and as I sat across from her, it seemed that all the ramshackle tables and desks, covered with papers and packages, as well as the clerks at their counters typing away on dusty machines, and then the rose garden, the parched parks, the mad, honking rickshaws and changing signals mixing with the squalid splendor of the streets of Bangalore, were organized in some infinitely complex pattern around that point where the weak light filtering through the dusty skylight shone on the calm, slow moving woman. As I waited, a married couple sat down with several parcels.

roadside motorcyle maintenency guy's toolbox

Eventually, the postmistress looked up at me and reached out for my little bundle, but after she ran her hand over it, she just asked me about the contents, and I told her. She gave me two forms to fill out, and as I was doing so, she turned her attention to the couple. They were sending some perishable items, four tidy rows of neat, round, golden treats laid out in a brightly wrapped box, and the old postmistress suspected that the sweets had been baked with ghee. She wasn't sure if ghee items were permissible, and they discussed it for a while. Finally, she warned them that the items could be stopped by an unspecified authority, but to go ahead and try it. When I finished my forms, I went back to square two, the packaging lady at the stamp stand, where a young man was asking to see various collector stamps. Of course, I couldn't get my package sewn up until he was done, so I joined in the browsing. The most interesting was a collection of "3D" stamps from Butan featuring Gandhi, J.F.K., and Churchill. Eventually, my parcel was sewn up, and the last step was the postal clerk's window. After 10 minutes of jockeying for position in a line that only existed in my mind, my package was finally taken off my hands and launched into the great stream of objects moving around the world.

"3D" stamps

On my last day in Bangalore, I finally got in touch with the travel agency in Korea where I bought my plane tickets. It was indeed possible to delay my departure further, so I postponed it until the beginning of April. The moment I got confirmation, I had dual sensations, strong on both counts; I was happy to prolong this experiment in anchorlessness, and at the same time longed for the people, animals, and objects that anchor me.

Well, I only bought myself five more weeks, which isn't much when I think about how time goes: Bangalore, five days later, already seems a lifetime away. So, I'll see you guys in about ten lifetimes.


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