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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Pity-Booking: An Examination of Spinelessness

I am a sucker, and this is likely to cause some devastation along my travels.  It’s a given that many a widely grinning street vendor will call out, “Hello, Madam, special hand-made souvenir, made only here by us only!” and I will pay three times as much for the same item that is located in every souvenir shop around the corner. But, whatever, that sort of thing lasts two minutes and only impacts me financially.  What I’m more wary of is being made to feel emotionally obligated — a feeling that chips away at my soul and makes me question the fortitude my feminism. In the US, I have been swayed to purchase something or pay more than I normally would have because of persistent and/or good customer service — but I feel like Indians take it to the next level by stuffing you with food and chai and asking you about your family and making you feel like you’re part of theirs!!

It has already started; and the pathetic part is that I haven’t even been fed food or chai or asked about my family. What happened is this: a couple of months ago, I had thought about how perhaps I could do an organized South India tour, so I Googled “South India tours” and innocently filled out an inquiry form through one of the websites, mentioning some destinations and accommodations of interest. Within minutes, I received an enthusiastic response from a man named Ashok.  “Dear Miss Leena, Namaskar! and Greetings!!!!” he began, following with a detailed itinerary appropriately customized with the destinations and nature of accommodations I had requested.  Among the perks would be a “Man Friday” who would “walk with [me] along villages in the countryside as well as walk along bazaars of the city and point out fine eating places and shopping areas in different towns – a true friend.”  I had been talking with some cousins about traveling together and I wanted to figure things out with them before locking anything down, but I replied to Ashok to thank him and let him know that I would get back to him when I was more clear on my plans.

What followed was a near-daily email from Ashok with multiple exclamation marks, reminding me that he was eager to book my tour and could customize it in any way.  My cousin then arranged our travels to Chennai and Pondicherry, so the only remaining things I needed were one bus ticket, one hotel booking, and one plane ticket (I decided I could be my own “Man Friday”): all things that I easily could have booked on my own, online, instantly.  But I felt so indebted to Ashok that I contacted him to book these things for me, wanting him to make a decent commission for his time.

Ashok provided a reasonable quote for the items I requested, and asked me  to send a copy of my passport and visa, and make a partial credit card payment.  I thought it was kind of weird that he needed my passport and visa, and I had a mild inkling that he might be trying to steal my identity or overcharge my credit card — but I decided to run with it anyway, and did as requested.  Ashok replied back confirming receipt and said he would send my bookings by the next day.  After days and weeks of follow-up to which I just received “Namaskar Leena!!!! Yes, yes, we have booked it” types of replies with no actual evidence, I finally just today received a PDF of the bus ticket.  I called the hotel, which confirmed a booking under my name, and Ashok in a separate email also copied and pasted my flight details.  But why, oh, why was this process so torturous and long-winded when everything could have easily been attached to me the next day?  Part of me wished I had in fact been scammed, and that Ashok would be unreachable after I sent him my passport, visa, and credit card.  At least then, I would know that my life was possibly in danger, and I could just book everything again from scratch!

The fact of the matter is that things are not always going to be smooth or easy, and I will just have to be patient and accepting with the way things operate in different places. But at least I can do my part and resolve that pity-booking is a thing of my past!