Asia | India | Karnataka | Bangalore – Free Beer and Leeches
I left the ashram right after lunch, while most of the other students were sitting down for discussion. This left me with no long drawn-out good-bye, but then I didn’t have much reason for one. No camera with which to take a group photo, and I’d traded email addresses the previous day.
The bus ride down to Trivandrum was predictably strange, effused with a feeling I’ve had before, after coming out of the mountains or the desert from a week’s hiking. A certainty that the human brain wasn’t meant to absorb so many new inputs so rapidly, and that I had no right to be moving so fast, having kept to walking speed or below for such an extended period. It was a pretty sedate bus ride, as bus rides in India go, but there was still fifty times the stimulation of any complete day at Neyyar Dam, and my consciousness was having trouble keeping up.
Trivandrum is an almost completely uninteresting city, thankfully, so the feeling passed soon enough, until the only lingering effects of the yoga course seemed to be a constant awareness of how fast I was breathing and extremelely good posture. I started referring to ashram as the Church of Good Posture as I reviewed my time there. I ate chicken and drank a beer that night just to see if they’d taste that much better for going without for so long, but they didn’t. The chicken felt heavy in my mouth and the beer foamy and overripe.
Took a train up to Kochi the next day, and spent three nights in an efficient business hotel on the east side of the bay. It took three days to take care of business, making train reservations, checking for a care package at the post office, and finally, blessedly, getting my British Airways ticket replaced. The Air India office told me they still hadn’t received approval, and even now I’m still waiting. The rest of the time I spent taking ferries back and forth across the bay and looking for nice places to walk.
A late night train got me to Kannur, and a four hour bus ride up the Ghats got me to Madikeri, also an uninteresting town, but in a very pleasant sort of way. There’s not a whole lot to do in Madikeri, but there are some nice gardens with lovely views of undistinguished mountains, and I spent two days walking with a guide and a European couple of some sort through these mountains. The mountains did turn out to have an abundance of two things that went a ways to distinguishing them: Tibetans and leeches.
The Tibetans are there because a forested area east of Madikeri called Bylakuppe was offered to Tibetan refugees by the Indian government several decades ago, and they have since established monasteries, towns, schools and a university, and given Bylakuppe the largest Tibetan population outside of Tibet; larger even than around the Dalai Lama’s residence at Dharamsala. I was made aware of this when I got up from my seat at an internet cafe in Madikeri and walked past two shaven-headed, crimson-robed Tibetan monks typing in the cubicle next to me.
The leeches are there because God hates us, I suppose. By the second day of the walk, we’d all learned to pause before entering a forested part of the trail, check our shoes, and then sprint as hard as we could until emerging into leech-free sunlit grass on the other side. Even so, I left Madikeri with at least a dozen fiercely red pencil eraser sized sores on my feet, and one on my wrist, from a leech I didn’t discover until I checked the time and saw blood flowing from under my watch band. The guide, as intimately familiar with leeches as I am with subway cars, didn’t even try to avoid or pick them off. ‘It is my donation, like to the Red Cross…’ he said three or four times of the lost blood.
I got into Mysore in time for the final night of Diwali. I’d been reading in the papers all week about the expected sales of fireworks and sparklers, all the ordinances police were enforcing this year to keep injuries down. Even the night we stayed out in the hills, at a small guesthouse on a quiet coffee plantation, was occasionally punctured by the noise of a firecracker. So as the scenery outside the bus shifted from sunset-lit forests and fields to nighttime suburban sprawl, I started getting anxious, wondering what India would look like when it finally had an excuse to have a party.
It was about 8pm when I finally hopped off the bus, and about ninety seconds later when I heard my first cracker go off. I checked into a cheap hotel near the train station and went off in search of revelry and merry-making, maybe some singing or dancing in the streets. I mostly saw streets full of traffic and precious few pedestrians, with the occasional fountain of blue sparks from some pyrotechnics off down a side street, but even the kids lighting them off did it with a sort of inscrutable reserve. They’d sit there and watch it burn, quietly, like it was a duty perhaps, or a chore to be completed. I kept looking for the center of activity.
I checked down by the palace, and in the central traffic circles, until I finally got tipped off by a string of carts selling masala puri — where there’s street food, there are people having a good time, goes the rule of thumb. And there behind the carts I saw, as I finished my five rupee plateful, a cluster of tents surrounded by clutches of busy excited people. I wandered in and it turned out to be the fireworks market. I ate some more street food and went to bed.
Bangalore was a little more successful. A bit of a warp, I’d first read about Bangalore’s rapid growth and Westernization and growing pub culture amid IT affluence in 1994 in WIRED magazine. The Church Street Buzz, they called it, after the street downtown where all the trendy bars were at the time. It’s obviously a city with more money than average, and has lovely wide boulevards and one of the greatest botanical gardens I’ve ever seen. The Friday I showed up was the last full day of Diwali and a national holiday, so I got to share the garden’s glass houses and floral clock (complete with larger than life garden gnomes) with half the population of Bangalore. Among them were some folks I wouldn’t have expected in any other city: a woman in meticulous sari and a Nike baseball cap, a young hip kid in horizontally-striped sweater and bucket hat who wouldn’t have looked too out of place on the Lower East Side, and no beggars whatsoever. Also endless groups of high school boys who wanted nothing more than to shake my hand one at a time, wish me Happy Diwali and stifle a laugh before getting their picture taken with me.
With only one day to spend in the city and two month’s of pop culture deprivation to catch up on, I hopped an auto-rickshaw (with a meter!) (that worked!) to the Rex cinema and watched “Cats and Dogs” in English, no subtitles, with a packed house of twenty-somethings who applauded when the puppy hero turned out to not be dead, only unconscious. Then down to Pub World, a faux English pub with really nice Indian snacks, draft beer and four times as many bartenders as any bar I’ve seen in England or the US.
I got there during happy hour so beers were like fifty cents a pint. Started writing in my journal but didn’t get more than five minutes in before one of the nine bartenders started in with the standard barrage of questions (Where from how old what job married or not how many siblings etc etc) that quickly turned into a discussion of the economic rise and fall of information technology in India. Enter an Indian-American from Boston to my right, and we were suddenly having a real, honest to god conversation, the sort that didn’t make me feel like I was representing the whole Western World, the sort that I could’ve had in a bar back home, and it felt really good.
Then another American joined in, I’ll call him Dick cause he was one. Dick had lived at least half of the past twenty years overseas, troubleshooting power plants in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and wherever else his Detroit headquarters sent him. Like a lot of perpetual expats, he had a frighteningly garrulous personality that felt two-thirds clueless and one-third psychotic. I knew we were in for it when he told us this was his second time in India, and his first time had been a vacation to Calcutta in the eighties when he’d been working in Bangladesh…he loved India, he said, because the hookers in Calcutta were so pretty. We also got to hear about hookers in Indonesia, how stupid the Saudis are, and that there’s too much freedom in America, except for gun control, which should be completely repealed. 45 minutes into this, and five pints along, neither I nor the nice guy from Boston felt any remorse at accepting his generous offer to pick up our tabs and then politely excusing ourselves from the bar.