My first week in Bangalore is now behind me, and so far I am surviving in the chaos that is an Indian multi-million people city. India, in many ways, reminds me of what New York seemed to be when I first arrived there: Huge, chaotic, crazy, noisy, polluted, smelly, irrational, scary, fascinating, unique, hectic and confusing. I learned to love New York – I’m not sure whether I will ever love Bangalore in that same way, but I think we will learn to get along just fine after the initial shock has worn off first.
One thing that is fundamentally different about Bangalore compared to New York is the unfriendliness of this city towards pedestrians. Much can be said about crazy New York drivers and traffic, but trust me, walking in New York City is like a stroll on a beach compared to a walk in Bangalore. This city was not made for walking.
It is unfortunate, because that is my favorite way to get to know a new place. In New York I used to walk around for miles every day. In the beginning, it was just to get to know the city and its nooks and corners, parks and plazas, streets and cool little shops, bars and cafés. It was also easy and fast to get from place to place by walking, and there was always so much to see in the city that even a longer walk felt short in the end. In Bangalore, this is not the case.
First of all, there’s the traffic. And by traffic, I do not mean lots of cars sitting in one place with angry drivers tapping their steering wheels, anxious to get to wherever their destination is. By traffic, I mean six cars side-by-side on a two-lane road, motorcycles forcing themselves between trucks and buses to make their way forward, auto-rickshaws making u-turns in the middle of a highway and then continuing to drive against traffic because they missed an exit, cows crossing roads and often just deciding to lay down in the middle for a mid-day nap, stray dogs and cats running around, children selling candy and water in between the vehicles, people riding on the roofs of buses, drivers getting on the curb or so-called “side walk” to pass traffic – and in the middle of all this, there are pedestrians. There’s the Indians, locals who know exactly how to maneuver themselves in between all this mayhem by running, stopping, running, stopping, and eventually getting to the other side. Then there are the foreigners, tourists and visitors like myself, who wait in a big crossing for 15-20 minutes, until they realize that getting across to the other side is faster, and by far safer, by hailing down a rickshaw and having the driver take you across. Two kilometers in a rickshaw has a fixed fee of 20 rupees – so about 36 cents – a decent price to pay for saving a good 20 minutes, and possibly a limb. I virtually spent at least 15 minutes just crossing a road in a place called Trinity Circle, where five big roads all come together, and the traffic is what you could expect from a crossing like that. There are traffic lights – but no lights for pedestrians. I found myself standing on the other side, simultaneously annoyed and amused, pathetically staring at a sign above the crossing that read “Please follow traffic rules” and “Please obey lane discipline”, as I observed a truck pull a u-turn in the middle of the crossing, and four buses power through, side-by-side, on a two-lane road. Man, Bangalore – give a foreigner a break!
So, there’s the traffic. But then there’s also the fact that there really are no side walks in Bangalore. Actually, that is a lie. There are side walks. However, it seems that “side walk” in Bangalore equals “garbage dump”. The side walks are literally covered in piles of garbage, trash, crap, shit, whatever you want to call mountains of smelly, unidentifiable matter, that cows and goats feast on. Where there’s no garbage, there’s a pot hole. And by “pot hole”, I do not mean a small dent in the road. I mean a gaping hole, in the middle of a side walk, leading to Narnia for all I know. Haven’t tried it though, so do not quote me on that if you don’t find a magical land in one of those holes. Walking on Bangalorean sidewalks is basically like taking on an obstacle course, and while it is good physical activity, it’s not very enjoyable. Just to make sure I get my point across, below are a couple of photos to illustrate the sad state of side walks in Bangalore.
So, no walking in Bangalore. Well, there will be some walking. It’s not impossible, and there are areas and neighborhoods where side walks are in better state, or the traffic isn’t quite as bad. But I definitely won’t be doing as much walking here as I did in New York.. or at least not yet. Once I get better at handling the traffic, and feel a bit more confident about not getting myself killed in every corner and crossing, I’ll probably feel better about walking around more. Right now, longer distances are traveled in auto-rickshaws, which are luckily abundantly available and cheap. Riding in them is also an adventure – there’s nothing quite as thrilling as being in a small auto-rickshaw, going 40 miles per hour in between two trucks, while motorcycles are trying to pass you on both sides. I am also quite fond of the cows – they bring a certain charming element of surprise to the traffic here. You never know what they plan to do, where they plan to go, or when they just decide to lie down in the middle of it all. I appreciate that kind of attitude.
Right now, I am enjoying a wonderful cappuccino in Cuppa Café in a neighborhood called Indira Nagar. I hear the honking horns, chatter, construction, street dogs barking, and a man on a bicycle yelling “Paper! Paper!” as he rides by with a basket full of newspapers. Next to me is another fancy western-style coffee shop, some nice boutiques – and a goat. This is India – like a party mix of people, animals, sounds, smells, emotions and experiences, all put in one bag and shaken together. I will need to head out soon, as I am not yet confortable making my way back home alone after dark, though mostly the city has felt very safe so far. Day by day, we get to know each other a bit better, and I grow more secure about my abilities to find my way around the city. We still have a long way to go – but so far, it has been a pretty good start. Maybe I will be a part of this party mix one day too.