Pondicherry, Bangalore, and Beyond!

The last week has been really incredible, filled with food, family, friends, and adventures taking me from Bombay to Pondicherry to Mahaballipuram to Chennai to Bangalore and Mysore, and back to Bombay!

Last Wednesday, I had a great time with A Mama, A Mami, and cousin S.  We enjoyed a buffet at the fabbed out Courtyard Marriott in Andheri East and later went to watch Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which I really wanted to like since it was Yash Chopra’s last —  but it sucked. :\ I liked the wig, facial hair, and fingerless gloves on SRK though.  Katrina Kaif should retire, or just be a model for one of those godawful “Fair Look” infomercials.

I spent Thursday morning celebrating my first Bhaubeej at H Mavshi’s, and also got in an evening celebration at A & V’s, where I also got to meet V’s brother and parents.  I’ve now shifted from the hotel to the home of S and brother-in-law D, which looks like a palace! And yet feels like a home.

On Friday, S, A, V, and I met up at the Bombay airport and set off to Chennai, and from there grabbed a prepaid taxi to the lovely Franco-Tamilian city of Pondicherry.  S had booked us a stay at Seaside Guest House, a pleasant spot conveniently located on Goubert Avenue (also known as Beach Street).  The weather was comfortably warm, and it was nice to roam around Beach Street at night, since it is closed off to traffic during some hours.  We enjoyed frequenting the 24-hour Le Cafe overlooking the water, and the food at the nearby Le Club was really tasty, especially the “Creole Prawn Curry.” We were only in Pondicherry for about a day and a half, but we packed in many activities, thanks largely to the full-day bus tour organized by the tourism office. We did the tour on Saturday; it departs the office at 9:45 and ends up at the Aurobindo Ashram at 5pm, and it’s actually rather well-paced, according sufficient time for chilling, browsing, and boating as appropriate at the different stop-offs.  The only weird thing is that the tour guide did not point out or discuss anything whatsoever along the way, even though it seems we passed by several things that should have been of cultural and/or historical significance.  He didn’t even describe the places where we actually stopped and got off other than “Here is [location] — be back in the bus at [time].” But oh well — there’s always Wikipedia!

On Sunday, S, A, and V rented bikes from a local bike shop and urged me to do the same.  I’ve heard that you never forget how to ride a bike once you learn, but here’s the thing: I never learned.  I mean, I tried to when I was 10, but I veered into a bush and quickly gave up, resolving that it would be easier to stay indoors, eat pizza rolls, and read Stardust.  I am fairly open-minded, but some things will never change, and one of them is my conservatism when it comes to anything athletic.  I mean, maybe if I take up this effort again, it will be in an American tree-lined suburb, with a helmet, and maybe an astronaut suit.  Anyway, our plan was to return the bikes at 2pm on Sunday and then immediately leave so we would have time to check out Mahaballipuram before returning to Chennai to catch our respective flights — but the bike shop was closed when we got there. We tried calling the owner, but he was having lunch or something and sent some other guy.  The other guy rushed over but forgot to bring the keys to open the garage where S’s ID was being held as collateral, so his presence was completely useless.  S tried to contain her frustration and quietly muttered something about him being “murkha” (Marathi for foolish), which made me giggle because I had previously only heard my parents use that word, usually to describe me.  Finally the owner came and opened up shop to return the collateral and we did make it to Mahaballipuram, and then to the Chennai airport in record time!

From Chennai, I caught a flight to Bangalore.  This leg of my trip was unique in that I wasn’t meeting up with friends from the Bay, and I don’t have family there. I do have a little online community though, including A and A, whom I had befriended in person when they lived in the Bay Area.  I thought it would be a good spot for a “me” trip since it’s a big city with western-friendly amenities and stuff, and I do have some contacts there. Upon arrival, I got ripped off at the airport by some unnecessarily swanky taxi company which drove me to my hotel for 1400 rupees (the return trip through City Taxi was 700), but I quite liked the hotel, Lemon Tree Ulsoor Lake.  It’s a nice, clean, affordable hotel with good service and a great breakfast buffet.

On Monday morning, I thought that maybe I’d go for a walk to Ulsoor Lake and then go on foot to some tourist traps.  However, as soon as I emerged from the hotel, a friendly rickshaw driver who later introduced himself as Mani insisted on driving me somewhere, anywhere.  I asked if he’d just like to be my tour guide for the day and take me to recommended sites, and he was happy to oblige. It was a fruitful day, with lots of time spent at Lal Bagh and the Bangalore Palace, setting up a day tour for Mysore the following day, and then spending thousands and thousands of rupees on kurtis that are way too tight for me.  At the Bangalore Palace, I succeeded in passing for a local and saving myself a few hundred rupees on the ticket price.  The guy apparently suspected something and asked, “From which country you are?” to which I replied in the worst fake Indian accent ever, “India only! Bombay!”

In the evening, I worked out a spontaneous Tweetup with A, A, S, and M, which was so cool!  I thought that maybe I’d get to meet up with these Tweeps for just a brief time during the trip, but it turns out I got in quite a bit of quality time with them!  S joined me for Mysore the next day, which was fun and really cool because he gave me better historical perspective on the sites we visited and took me to the right spots to snack along the way (including street food: bhel puri with flies swarming around the ingredients that a woman mixed with her hands and served to us from a newspaper — delicious!).  The next day, I had a fancy schmancy breakfast with M and my namesake L at the Oberoi.  Before leaving Bangalore, I saw Mani outside the hotel again, and he asked if I had any currency from back home, since his wife was interested in seeing it, so I went up and dug a dollar from my suitcase.

Yesterday I came back from Bangalore and booked myself a cool cab from the Bombay Airport to cousin V’s place.  The driver was a guy named Pandey whose co-worker cabbie had just been treated very disrespectfully by some rich bald guy.  Pandey before getting in the cab mouthed the guy off with “Arrey ja takley, tere jaise bahut dekhe hain, benchod!” which is such a wonderfully filmi dialogue (roughly “Get out of here, baldie, I’ve seen a lot of sisterfuckers like you”)!  On the ride, we discussed how it is not really that uncommon or surprising for formally well-educated people to be assholes. When I got to V’s place, we had a nice little reunion with the other V’s, U Aatya, and sister-in-law M and her parents with delicious homemade food. As usual, I ate so much!  This afternoon I saw S Aatya and then spent more time with U Aatya and the V’s having homemade heavenly fish and prawns and later chaat, again stuffing myself to exhaustion.  I suppose it is only appropriate for me to do so, though, as it is Thanksgiving back home!

On any day, but this one especially, it behooves me to take a moment to reflect in gratitude on all my blessings, including the lovely peeps that have got my back.  I’ve had so much help from family and friends to prepare for the trip, and I was provided all kinds of support, suggestions, and gifts such as a camera, a book for the plane, a passport holder, a Swiss Army Knife, and a big wad of rupees; while on the trip, I’ve been provided a home, a local cell phone, a custom-made purse, use of cars/drivers, and accompaniment to all sorts of errands. I have a great team of trustworthy people who are handling my work stuff very diligently while I am gone.  All of my family in the UK and in India, as well as friends new and old have really extended themselves and their resources to make me feel taken care of.  I am missing my immediate family a lot, but also really happy to enjoy such a strong sense of belonging from people thousands of miles away whom I seldom get to see.

Oh yeah, and though I have yet to make it to Gold’s for celebrity stalking, I have meanwhile made front page news for occupying Dharma Productions!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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the state of u, i, and us

At the dawn of my thirty-second birthday, I am about to ditch my bachelorette pad and my job as a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area for a month of travel to the UK and India.  This premise could have only been more romantic if I were recently divorced, white, and ascetically inclined (at least within the ambit of the mystical east) — but one thing I do share in common with the author of Eat, Pray, Love is the ability to decode what the modern-day English names of my destinations are obviously aiming to signify.  Whereas Ms. Gilbert traveled to three countries that began with the letter “I,” informing her that hers was a consummate inward journey, I am traveling to the UK, then India, then back to the US.  In other words, I am exploring the state of U, I, and US.

The UK has special theoretical significance to me as it is the land of my colonial forefathers, who spread their seed over both the United States, my country of birth, and India, my country of ancestry, leaving behind a lasting legacy of railways and repression.  I’m quite stoked to visit my cousin and her family in Wales, meet up with another cousin and her hubs in London, and also meet up with two friends who are coming from other locations.  It will be my first time there, and therefore it really will be like getting acquainted with U, a new person.

India is the place from which both of my parents hail, and where most of my relatives live.  I am brown, I love spicy food, and I was a multi-year spelling bee champion, so there is no doubt that India is the land of I.  However, with my limited first-hand exploration of the land, especially as a solo traveler, India in my mind has long been stagnated into a tableau that my parents have painted based on the 1970s India that they left behind.  This will be a time to challenge and expand that notion of I, to have that quintessential “American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD) exploring her roots” experience, where I will discover that India is a land of startling contrasts.  I am excited to reconnect with family members, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, if not decades.  Several wonderful cousin-bonding opportunities and excursions are in the works.  And I’ll finally get to experience a real Indian Diwali!

Oh yeah, while in India, I also plan to stalk the shit out of Bollywood.  During my first week in Mumbai, I have booked a stay at a hotel in Bandra, for obvious reasons.  To spell it out, some ABCD chick not too long ago started working out at Gold’s Gym in Bandra; today, she is John Abraham’s wife.  Apparently, he was attracted to the fact that unlike many women he encountered, she was unfamiliar with his star status.  I plan to work out at Gold’s Gym as well.  While I don’t have the lack of starstruckness to offer as an area of novelty, I do have a body type that will be mindblowingly unique compared to the usual Bollywood offerings.  I plan to leave India betrothed to Prateik Babbar and/or Siddharth Malhotra.

And finally, I will return to the US and try to situate and strengthen myself some more in the space of interconnectedness.  This is where my individual history all began: family, home, friends, school, career, community, and countless blessings.  But try and count them, I always do.