India, the land of contradictions, never seizes to surprise me. Each day in this country is a miniature adventure, and pretty much each day I’ll see something I have never seen before, nor expected to see. Sometimes these things I see are positive and joyful, others.. Well, more on the sad and negative side. And sometimes, the things I see just leave me absolutely speechless. Today has been filled with pretty much all of those things.
Getting back on a horse again – a visit to ECE Bangalore
First, I started this Sunday on a high note. I went riding horses. I used to ride, regularly, and when I was younger I even competed a bit in my native Finland. Around the age of 15, when I started high school, I slowly stopped going to classes regularly, and eventually stopped altogether. For a while when I was in university in Helsinki, I rented a horse that I could then ride several times a week. However, moving to New York killed that hobby once and for all, as the steep prices of NYC riding lessons didn’t really suit my graduate student budget. So, it has been roughly four years since I last got on a horse – until today.
I heard of this place from a woman who posted about it on this Bangalore expat women’s group that I have recently joined. When I saw her post, I thought why not give it a try, and contacted her – this happened yesterday. She immediately replied, told me she was going again today, and that I could join her if I wanted to. I couldn’t come up with a good excuse as to why not, so I went. And I am glad I did – although my legs and butt might disagree with me on that one. Whoever claims horse back riding is not exercise should get on a horse and stay there for a good hour, come down, and then tell me that again. I dare you. It takes some muscle strength to stay on those things, and the muscles I had to use today have apparently been laying happily dormant for a good time now.
The place we went to is called ECE – Equestrian Center for Excellence. It is located in the Palace Grounds of Bangalore, on the Jayamahal Palace Hotel side of the grounds, for those who might venture down there. Whenever I go horse riding in new countries, I am always a tad worried – sometimes my idea of well-treated and healthy horses don’t match with those of the locals. This time, I was pleasantly surprised. The place is not fancy, which I actually prefer. It is pretty rustic and down-to-earth – but the horses I saw looked healthy and happy, and the instructor was good and attentive. The price isn’t too bad either – it’s INR 1,000/one hour class, so around $18. Much less than what I used to pay in Finland, and definitely less than what I would have paid in NYC, if I had ever gone riding there. ECE offers lessons on dressage, jumping, and cross-country riding, so pretty much all you could hope for. I really enjoyed being back on a horse, even though at times I did feel my calfs and thighs cry in agony as I struggled to maintain some level of posture on the galloping horse, but despite the pain I am in now, I will definitely go again, maybe even weekly.
ECE would definitely count as a positive surprise of the many things Bangalore has to offer for an expat looking for a variety of things to do in this city. It’s out-doorsy, good exercise, and budget-friendly, and it offers a way to meet new people, both expats and locals.
Shopping with Gandhi in Phoenix Market City
So, after I had made my way back home with my aching legs and hurting butt, showered off the horse and stable smell, and confirmed that despite the muscle pain I would still be able to do something besides lay still today, me and the hubby decided to venture out to the city. Our first stop was Cuppa Café, which has become my favorite place for sitting, reading, and writing over a nice cappuccino. The food isn’t bad either. I think there are several Cuppas in the city, but the one I have been going to is in Indira Nagar, corner of 100ft road and 3rd Main. It has a bit more character than Cafe Coffee Day, or CCD as the locals refer to it, which is basically India’s version of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. The service is good and fast, and it’s not expensive. So, I am a Cuppa-fan.
After a nice hot beverage in Cuppa, we decided to venture somewhere we hadn’t been before. After a moment of contemplating, we settled on a place called Phoenix Market City – it is basically a huge mall, kind of in the outskirts of Bangalore, in an area called Whitefield. Apparently, less than 20 years ago Whitelfield was still a small, quiet and down-to-earth village in the outskirts of the city, until the IT industry found its way here and decided to make Whitefield the new home base. Now it’s home to one of India’s first information technology parks, International Tech Park Bangalore (ITPB), and as a by-product of the rise of the IT industry, Whitefield also houses several upscale malls, high-end apartment complexes, and department stores that cater to all those who have the wallet for the price level of what Whitefield has to offer. Luxury comes with a hefty price tag.
So, we ventured out to Whitefield. It was my first time in that area, and first time for both of us in Phoenix Market City. I have been to malls in Bangalore before, but not to any that were anything close to this one – Phoenix is, first of all, HUGE. It spans 5 floors and god knows how many (too many, trust me) square feet, and offers every brand imaginable from Gucci t0 Vans to MacStore to Calvin Klein, and of course several upscale Indian stores offering beautiful saris, other local clothing, bedding, furniture, home decorations and more. It has a multiplex with 12 screens, showing both the latest blockbusters from across the ocean as well as the biggest Bollywood hits. According to the website of the “Phoenix Mills Ltd”, the company behind the Bangalore Phoenix Market City as well as similar ventures in Mumbai, Pune and Chennai, the aim of the company is to make Phoenix “a city within a city”. I have to admit, to me it sounds a bit scary – but that’s just me.
So, we walk in, round-eyed, looking around us in this fancy, white-marble-covered, gigantic building, taking it all in – as I suddenly see a familiar looking figure in front of me, right when you walk in through the main doors of the mall. Behind me, on the other side of those clear glass doors that slide open and closed so effortlessly, so silently, the chaos of Bangalore continues. Rickshaw drivers are fighting over passengers and haggling over fares, truck drivers continue honking their horns to each other and to anyone else who gets on their way, street dogs go on fighting and barking, bare footed children play on the sides of the streets, cows lay down in the middle of the street for a nap, vendors cook up delicious dosas, roti, naan, and tikka-this-and-that in their little stands -and while all this is going on, behind those glass doors, I stand in the middle of this marble-covered hall, staring at a figure of – Gandhi.
Yes, Gandhi. Why a plastic-looking statue of Gandhi was placed here, in front of a mock-up of the Red Fort, with sunflowers behind him, is beyond my understanding. But there he was, with his cane, with his glasses, in the lobby of this shopping mall, and next to him sigh with one of his famous quotes: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. As my husband very aptly noted, “it’s the equivalent of having a statue of Marx here”.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to sound too “holier-than-though” here, as I go on with my rant about the curses of capitalism and excessive consumption models – to which, by the way, I myself often am drawn to as well – I don’t think having an upscale mall, per se, is necessarily a problem. As people’s incomes grow, which they have for many in India in the past decade, these people also want to spend more. And they want to spend more on better quality goods and upscale brands.
For me,I guess, it was the combination of it all that was just too much. With the luxuriousness of the mall, the poverty and inequality right outside the fancy glass doors, and then Gandhi in the lobby, it all seemed to form a glaring billboard for some of the gravest challenges faced by economies such as India, and definitely also Brazil, that have experienced rapid and substantial economic growth in a fairly short time period but continue to struggle with how to balance that growth with improvements and developments that benefit all the fractions of society – not just those who have the means to shop in places like Phoenix market City. India is a good example of why economic growth alone is simply not enough to measure development or success, and how the greatest luxury malls and apartment complexes may be rising against the skyline in cities like Bangalore, while hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling in extreme poverty with no aid at sight.
What do I know about poverty and misery, you might ask. I did start this post with writing about horse back riding, which can be seen as a very elitist sport. To be honest, I don’t know much – and nothing from personal experience. I have lived a privileged life. But I do know that unless more resources are spend on improving the lives of those less fortunate, countries like India fail to reach their full potential as huge masses of untapped labor force and intellectual force aren’t utilized, and rampant inequality is left to flourish. Inequality breeds instability, violence, bitterness and anger, out of which, in my opinion, nothing good can grow. And though I did not know Gandhi, I do also think that he would rather not stand in the lobby of a luxury mall as a photo backdrop for shoppers who stop to pose next to him, before diving into the white marble palace of things-none-0f-us-really-need.
We didn’t stay there for very long, and eventually came back out through those glass doors that seem to separate two very different Indias from each other. I might not really belong to either, but while I am here, I’ll do my best to learn how to understand both.
I appreciate the cows of India. They seem to have gotten it right.