City review: A day in Bangalore
August 2nd, 2018
I spent Friday, 9 March 2018 in Bangalore, India, the last of the cities I visited that week. Of the five, Bangalore was the one that pleasantly surprised me the most. I had never been to India before, and I prepared myself for an underdeveloped, hectic urban experience. Its infrastructure was substandard, and it was not a sparkling metropolis like Singapore or a viscerally ambitious culture like Beijing, but it had a dynamism and cosmopolitan optimism that took me by surprise. I was uncomfortable for much of the day, but I could imagine myself making a life there and becoming good friends with the people I spoke with on the street in a way that I frankly didn't expect.
Here's where I'll admit my ignorance: going in the only real thing I new about Bangalore was that it's the tech capital of the country, but I didn't compute much beyond that. I had a hazy stereotype of what Indian cities are like (likely more shaped by Slumdog Millionaire than I'd like to admit...), and while it didn't directly contradict any of that, there was so much more dynamism and sophistication than I imagined.
Accidental Wes Anderson
One of my favorite subreddits is r/AccidentalWesAnderson. Anderson is a film director whose signature style is famous for a flatness of composition, heavy symmetry, and especially dusty pastel palettes, and that subreddit collects images that "accidentally resemble a work" of his.
Bangalore could generate endless submissions to that subreddit. Every landscape, building, and detail fit the aesthetic perfectly.
Prototypical Wes Anderson shots:
A major contributor to this vibe is that Bangalore is hazy, which I assume is due to pollution. Buildings faded into the background like mountains enshrouded in a mist. It gave everything a softness that was actually quite beautiful in a way, though gross to think about. In Beijing the air was not as visibly bad but smelled a little putrid all day long, whereas in Bangalore my breathing felt fine, but my friend said that Bangalore's air was much worse for him than Beijing's and even made him feel a little sick. So 🤷♀️
Colorful facades and white matte stone with colored lining are also a common choices for building materials, which visually fits into the Wes Anderson aesthetic, and the wide diversity of the jungle plants add a splash of color. It's hard to capture exactly the vibe in images, but you can get an idea:
Haze through the car window as we drove in from the airport
A love letter to Bangalore's trees 💌
Bangalore's trees were my favorite part of the city. They were so lush and made the experience of walking in Bangalore quite enjoyable despite the heat and the otherwise crumbling pedestrian infrastructure. I didn't capture as many photos as I would've liked, so here are a few I grabbed from a Google image search:
Fun fact about the diversity of trees in Bangalore:
DIVERSITY Bangalore’s street trees have a healthy diversity, with the most dominant species constituting less than 10% of total population. By contrast in Syracuse, USA, three most common species constitute almost two-thirds of street trees; in Chicago, four most common species comprise two-thirds of the entire population Bangalore compares favourably to highlypopulated cities like Mexico City, where four most common species constitute 49% of trees In highly-populated Asian cities like Bangkok, one species constitutes over 40% of trees.
Moving around the city
I dreaded the infamous Indian heat and humidity, and my heart sank upon checking the weather report that morning: high of 93°F and low of 79°F, with 36% humidity. The heat was oppressive when walking in the sun, no question, but leafy trees protected most places I went.
The streets were hectic, but in a bustling, happy sort of way. Jakarta was similarly busy, but it felt much more anonymous and uncaring, whereas in Bangalore I felt like I was part of a community of people who all somewhat knew each other. A few specific differences may explain this delta. For one, the streets I wandered were much more narrow so the traffic didn't get to such high speeds, and motorcycles did not dominate the roads as much. Also there were more people walking around, whereas in Jakarta the street life felt relegated to just lower class people who couldn't afford to be shuttled around everywhere.
The people watching on the street was really top-notch!
Interesting placement for an ad
I often found myself stuck walking in the street. Sidewalks taken up by motorcycles, trash, and construction materials. Not great, but not terrible because lots of other people were doing the same and it felt like pedestrians were welcome to do that. I'd still prefer good pedestrian infrastructure to begin with of course.
The streets were hectic, and the infrastructure was falling apart or nonexistent in most places.
Bangalore’s trees and human-scale streets made up for some of its shortfalls, though.
I'm bummed that I didn't get a chance to ride the Namma Metro. I did catch a ride on a bus at the beginning of the day, and it was a very pleasant experience. It was efficient, easy to use (despite my not speaking the local language), felt very safe, and was incredibly cheap—only 10 rupees, about 15 cents in USD for a trip across town!
Most of the roads don't have painted lanes, so vehicles just weave all over the place rather than staying in single file. I imagine this must wreck the throughput...
Labor is super cheap in Bangalore, and that is visible at every turn. The guy standing at the door of the bus is a sort of doorman and alerting system. This was true in Jakarta, too.
Bus ticket cost 10 rupees, about 15 cents in USD.
The traffic was quite unbearable, but I prefer to walk anyways so I didn't get stuck in it too much. (A friend said he spent half the day shuttling to-and-from meetings, though!) Everyone honks constantly. It felt like it wasn't out of anger like the way we honk in the States though, more as a way to say "Hellooooo! I'm here!!!". It was kind of charming actually, though extremely noisy and headache-inducing.
Navigating the streets on foot was surprisingly difficult. Many places were unexpectedly blocked off, and it was not clear from the map how to traverse certain parts of the city. I'd planned to walk for 45 minutes and then grab lunch in a particular area, but I kept getting lost and was only about halfway there by the time I'd planned to eat. I decided it was a good chance to try the famous rickshaws that I saw all over the place but then made the mistake of trying to call one via Uber rather than flagging it down directly on the street. The app continually assigned me a driver and then canceled, so in the end I just got a normal car. Here are a few shots of the streets as we drove across town:
In India, all of the license plates for cars registered in a particular state begin with the same two letters. This is a silly design decision, because the first two letters are the ones you’d like to most immediately differentiate based off of! In Bangalore’s case, it’s in Karnataka, so all license plates begin with KA. This means you have to move your eyes to the third character in the string before you can start differentiating. I’m sure locals are used to this, but it just adds unnecessary interpretive burden.
During the day, walking through the streets felt quite safe though frustrating and inefficient. But at the end of the day, I had one of the most stressful walking experiences I've ever had in my life. It was about an hour's walk back to the hotel, and I figured I'd go at dusk so it wouldn't be so hot, plus I'd get to see the city shutting down for the night. This was not a good idea. The first half of the walk was gorgeous as the sun set in the background. It was peaceful to see people returning from work, and the light filtering through the trees was stunning.
But then suddenly it got very dark, and I found myself embroiled in a mess of traffic, garbage, small trash fires, and feral cows, and the path forward took me through really sketchy alleyways filled with what appeared to be illicit activity. I pushed through for a little while, and then I realized not only did I have almost no control over the situation but that it was obvious to everyone around me that I was a bit lost and probably carrying a lot of cash. While I was probably mostly safe, I was just asking for trouble trying to push through these unfamiliar neighborhoods by myself, and it was quite likely I'd get even more lost than earlier that day, so I decided to call another car to just get back to the hotel as quickly as possible.
Bangalore at dus
Feral cows! Cows eating garbage in the middle of a major arterial was one of the biggest shockers of the day for me. Wish I'd gotten more of a close up—they were eating trash and wretched looking, some with gaping wounds in their hides. Visibly sick. They just chilled in the middle of the road and drivers drove around them wherever they got in the way. Quite a sight.
Cosmopolitan and optimistic (and lunch)
I spoke with a few people through the day, and all of them seemed very optimistic, educated people with opportunities ahead of them. Of course there's selection bias because I could only speak to folks who knew English, but nearly everyone I came across to had a strong working proficiency of English, which was surprising to me.
I had a delicious lunch at Hasini Foods, where I met a great guy named Kaviraj who was running the place. Given my escapades (i.e. getting lost) earlier that morning, I arrived at the restaurant very late, so the restaurant was nearly empty. We struck up a conversation, and I told Kaviraj that I was not really familiar with the food so he should pick everything for me. He came out with an amazing platter of food served on a banana leaf and described everything to me. It was delicious! One of my favorite meals I ate on the entire trip. I just wish I better remembered what everything was.
Let's see how much of this I can remember... the white stuff was yogurt with sugar on top (yum!), I don't quite remember what the yellow mush was but it was sweet and reminded me of something else I've eaten, and the fried veggies tasted a bit like the way hip SF restaurants prepare Brussels sprouts but the green stuff was chilies I think because they were a bit spice.
... yeah I don't think I'll cut it with my job as a food critic unfortunately. It was good, and I'll leave it at that!
I pulled out my laptop to get some work done. Kaviraj, who had gone back behind the cash register to do some work, started laughing a little. He said he was extremely impressed by my typing speed and that if I worked at his company I'd be "king of the office".
Kaviraj and I talked for a while, and he explained that this was actually a friend's restaurant and he was only working there for the day because his friend had to go visit family. Full-time he works at a financial software company nearby, and he went to Basaveswar Commerce College Bagalkot.
I noticed he had two phones on the table, one Android and one iPhone, and asked him why. He blushed and told me that the iPhone was "a status symbol for the girls", but the Android is the "reality". He explained that the iPhone doesn't really work, because it doesn't have service outside of the core city, but he still wanted to have it. We then exchanged phone numbers (I guess that iPhone did its job!), and he was very surprised to learn that I also use WhatsApp.
Selfie with Kaviraj!
After lunch, I went to a cafe called Dialogues, whose motto is "dream like a bohemian, work like a boss". It felt like I stepped into a Berlin hipster coworking spot when I finally found the place, though finding the space was surprisingly difficult. It was on the top floor and roof of a mostly unmarked office building, so I wasn't sure I was in the right place walking up an unfamiliar staircase.
Dialogues Cafe had an interesting pricing structure: you only pay for the time you’re there, not for wifi, food, or drinks. They have a little cafe where you can get all you want under that all-included price. I was stuffed from my Andhra Bhojanam lunch so didn’t get anything, but it looked good.
A photo of the spot in Dialogues where I settled down to work for a few hours:
I felt this throughout my time in Bangalore, but Dialogues really hit it home: the city’s residents felt very cosmopolitan, educated, forward-thinking, and friendly, but stuck with crumbling infrastructure. It was like talking to someone with a lot of mental energy who’s stuck in an old persons’ body.
It was especially interesting to compare it to my experience in Jakarta earlier that week. The per capita GDP in Bangalore is $5,051 (as of 2014) while in Jakarta it is $17,374 (as of 2017), so I fully expected it to feel much further behind in most dimensions, but that was not the case at all. It felt very forward-looking and cosmopolitan, and to a much greater extent than Jakarta, despite being much poorer on a GDP basis.
Hectic streets, gorgeous oases
The next day, I spent the morning before my flight back to the States in the courtyard at the hotel. It was one of the most serene places I've ever been.
Birds chirping, water bubbling, and a nice breeze to whisk away the heat... it felt like a scene out of a Rudyard Kipling story. Fantastic way to end a long week of travel :)
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One of the classiest hotels I've ever stayed in!
For a full map of where I went throughout the day:
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