Saturday, August 19, 2017

Bangalore: Not Quite Sights Galore but Enjoyable Nonetheless

My reasons for being in Bangalore right now have almost nothing to do with specific sightseeing attractions I wanted to explore.

As I discussed in some detail a couple posts ago, I have a couple friends who live in the southern India city of 8.5 million people, who I met when we lived in Los Angeles in 1990.

Both Yashu and Harish grew up elsewhere in India and have friends & family in various Indian locales, but whatever their variety of rationales for settling in Bangalore, it seems like a good choice from my much more limited purview.

Evidenced by the 2-hour traffic jam we were caught in this afternoon, the vast metropolis can be quite congested and chaotic. And as elsewhere in India, dogs, cows and other animals roam the streets freely.

But compared to Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Agra, Bangalore feels considerably more modern, organized and clean. (Even the more homespun shopping strips are fully paved here, unlike the prevalent mud and dirt elsewhere.)

Known as the Silicon Valley of India, the country's third largest city has grown by more than 500% since 1971, with population doubling just within the 21st century.

So while there are several new high rise complexes--such as the one in which Yashu and Harish reside--some of the surrounding infrastructure lags. (We tried to order from Pizza Hut last night but they wouldn't deliver to here.)

And while there is considerable history to be explored and attractive temples throughout the city, from a sightseeing and photographic perspective, Bengalore (aka Bengaluru) lags behind the other cities I visited.

This isn't a complaint, as sightseeing here wasn't my reason for tacking 5 days onto my trip, and seeing--and just hanging out with--my friends has been wonderful.

I've also been beset with a minor ear infection, something of a cold and some muscle soreness, so I'm happy to take it a bit easier.

And it's not like I haven't seen some amazing sights.

Thursday Yashu and I went to the vast ISKCON (Hari Krishna) temple, yesterday was a private driver tour to Mysore and today another driver took Yashu, Harish and me around Bangalore.

At some sites I was happy just to snap a few photos--such as of the Vidhana Soudha government building--but we toured the Bangalore Palace, Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace, strolled the Lalbagh botanic garden and quickly visited a few temples.

So my camera--and legs--still got a decent workout. Pix are up on Facebook for those who have access.

No big plans for tomorrow, my last in Bangalore...and India.

But especially if it helps me rest up and feel better before a 3-hour flight followed by a nearly 15-hour one, I think that will suit me quite fine.

Sometimes on vacation one needn't run around all the time, snapping the shutter like a madman.

Heck, some actually champion the idea of rest and relaxation.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Mysore: My Sore Ear, My Sore Caves, but My What Beauty

I traditionally exert myself more on vacation than I do at home.

And I rarely make it through a trip without at least some soreness and weariness, if not outright illness.

But though I can readily identify with a tourmate earlier on this trip referring to India as a country that will "chew you up and spit you out," I have largely felt pretty good throughout the past fortnight.

Sure, there were times my stomach begged me not to overtax my tolerance for Indian curry, days when I was glad I packed Immodium and some moments of travel fatigue or even exhaustion, but--knock on wood--I haven't been truly sick or injured or inconvenienced.

In flying to Bangalore from Mumbai I developed what I perceived as an infection in my right ear. Fortunately my primary care physician had prescribed a travel dosage of "just in case of whatever" antibiotics and though his team fumbled the online communication process while he too is away, a friend with a doctor in the family was able to corroborate my sense that 5 days of Levoflaxocin should remedy the ear pain. (It seems to be, though not completely.)

I felt good enough to carry through with my Friday plan to have a private driver recommended by Yashu take me from Bangalore to Mysore (traditionally: Mysuru) and take me around to various sights.

Though it was a 3-hour drive departing at 7:00am, and I was glad not to have eaten a heavy breakfast, the ride with Rakash went smoothly (though he, like everyone in India, honks way too much for my tolerance).

But almost as soon as I got out of the car at the Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace--about 15km from Mysore--I started to feel sharp pain in both my calves.

I'm writing this nearly 9 hours later on the ride back to Bangalore so I think it's just muscle stiffness/soreness and not blood clots. 

And--in part because Rakash doesn't speak English well enough to discuss possible alternatives--I pushed through the full day of sightseeing, albeit with a bit of a grimace.

Rakash seems like a fine man and good driver, but not gregarious or fluent enough in my only language to make for much of an enjoyably conversant or enlightening drive.

But I'll happily settle for not being stranded anywhere.

And the sights--most notably the Mysore Palace, where an on-site guide proved rather amiable and informative--were phenomenal.

The Palace is the most popular tourist attraction in India, more so than the Taj Mahal.

It was about the 12th site on this trip where custom required me to walk around barefoot or in socks--perhaps not ideal for health concerns--but hell, you only live once.

I also entered the Chamundi Temple, way up in the hills, saw some Indian art in the Jaganmohan Palace, went to a large Catholic church (St. Philomena's) and enjoyed visiting a sand sculpture museum.

I had a good lunch of crispy fried lamb, got some sweets at a notable shop in Mysore and photographed & strolled--gingerly--the Lalitha Mahal Palace, which is now a posh hotel.

So it's been a bit of a struggle but worthwhile nonetheless. Truth is, I'll do almost anything for good photographs.

As I write this as Rakash approaches Bangalore, I'm glad to have some Springsteen to blot out all the honking (earbuds perhaps aren't ideal, but I can only try to solve one problem at a time).

And I can't wait to get back to Yashu's place to apply some Aspercreme to my aching calves.

Perhaps I'll take it a bit easier tomorrow.

Or not.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bangalore: Yashu and Harish

In March 1990, I was 21 and had moved from Skokie to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley just a couple weeks prior.

Other than a cousin who had kindly picked me up from LAX airport but lived about an hour from the apartment I rented in Encino, I knew nobody else in California.

My best pal Jordan and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Erin drove out a car I had bought from another friend--an '81 Chevy Malibu--and due to having worked as a bank teller for 6 months in Evanston I was able to land the same job at Union Bank on Ventura Blvd. in Encino.

We had an interesting mix of employees, with both transplants and native Los Angelenos. I was friendly with several, a couple of with whom I still remain in touch.

One of the other tellers was an East Indian woman named Yashu, who commuted about 15 minutes by bus from Northridge, where she lived with her husband Harish.

They had no kids and were likely old enough to be my parents. Yashu was, and is, much more a friend than a surrogate mother, but we developed a relationship based on me occasionally giving her a ride home from the bank and in return I would enjoy a home cooked dinner with her and Harish.

If this wasn't the first time I had Indian food, it was certainly the first I ate it with any regularity--and homemade to boot.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to trace my fondness for Indian food and a desire to one day visit India to Yashu's cooking and her & Harish's friendship.

Though Yashu and I both left Union Bank within a year, we maintained our friendship--and dinners--until I left LA for a return to Skokie at the end of 1992.

Whenever I would travel back to LA--in 1996, '99, '01 (on my way to Australia), '03, '05--Yashu and Harish would always provide a convenient place to stay and warm hospitality.

In 2003, Yashu came to Chicago and enjoyed dinner on Devon Avenue with me, my mom and sister Allison. Work precluded me from spending much time with her, but Allison accompanied Yashu to the Art Institute and a performance of the musical Chicago.

I haven't had occasion to return to California, but knew that Yashu & Harish planned to retire to India, which they did in 2013.

They settled in Bangalore and my dreams of seeing India always included meeting up with them again.

I am writing this from Bangalore, 5 feet away from Yashu, with Harish in the other room.

They both seem to be doing and well and appear to be as happy hosting me as I am again to be in their company.

In flying to Bangalore from Mumbai, I developed some ear soreness, with the right ear remaining clogged until I slept.

A bit of medication seems to be helping, and it couldn't have happened at a more opportunistic part of me trip.

I know Yashu and Harish will take good care of me.

As they always have.

Mumbai: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Elephanta Caves and a Walk Through Colaba

I've traveled far and wide, and have availed myself of a wide array of lodging at many different levels.

My days of shared rooms in youth hostels are long past and I don't frequent bed & breakfasts, but I'm usually content with motels & hotels that best combine acceptable quality and desirable location at the lowest price.

Given that a decent bed, clean toilet and working shower are all I really require, on road trips Motel 6 has long been my brand of choice. I've probably stayed in well more than 50 M6 locations and rarely have been displeased.

When I went to Kansas City in April by train, I stayed in a Motel 6 even though it required cabbing & Ubering to & from city sights. This was still cheaper than staying in a downtown hotel.

But often when going to cities where I won't be driving, I try to find a reasonably priced hotel--ideally less than $160/night, pre-tax--that allows easy access to the sights I want to see. (Booking.com has proven quite beneficial in this regard.)

I've found some rather stellar hotels at relative bargains--the Hyatt Regency near the Capitol in Washington, DC comes to mind--but was rather shocked that I could book a night at Mumbai's venerated Taj Mahal Palace Hotel for $163/night with no prepayment (via Booking.com).

As my Delhi/Jaipur/Agra tour package included 7 hotel nights for less than $50 per--assuming the bus rides, tour guide, admission fees and several provided meals comprise about half the total cost--I decided to treat myself for a night in Mumbai.

It worked out phenomenally well.

To begin with, I think it was the nicest hotel I've stayed in, by far. In Manhattan, a room like mine at the Palace probably fetch a grand, easy.

Though I had booked the cheapest room type--in the newer tower, not facing the water (an inlet of the Arabian Sea, I believe )--upon check-in I was provided a free upgrade to an "Ocean View" room in the Palace Wing dating to 1923.

If I had chosen such a room through Booking.com, it would have cost twice as much.

My room was beautifully appointed and I was taken to it by a lovely hotel hostess--Deepika--who I asked to join me for dinner. She seemed to politely consider it (perhaps that's part of her job) but despite saying she'd check her schedule, seemingly ran for the hills.

In addition to overlooking the water, my room looked out upon the Gateway of India monument, which at night was adorned by colored lights as part of an India 70th Independence Day celebration.

My seat at dinner in the Sea Lounge had a similar perspective and the food--a special prix fixe menu for the holiday--was fantastic.

I also enjoyed the restaurant's pianist, singer and sax player playing mostly American music, such as "Summertime," "Blue Moon" and "Come Away with Me," the last by Norah Jones, who happens to be Ravi Shankar's daughter.

I didn't avail myself of the pool or spa, but took a tour of the hotel, had a soda in the Palace Lounge and enjoyed warm hospitality at every turn.

And the hotel was ideally situated for what I wanted to do, especially with only about 8 total hours of touring time. My flight out to Bangalore Wednesday was moved from 8pm to 4:45p, so I basically had Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Almost as soon as I'd gotten into my room, I was heading out to the Gateway of India to buy a ferry ticket to Elephanta Island, home of caves with carvings dating back 1500 years or so. 

Buying the ticket and queueing up for the ferry was a bit chaotic, the boat ride took an hour and once on the island, it required about an hour walk and a grueling (for me) 130 steps in stifling humidity. I was quite happy not to have a heart attack.

But the caves themselves were, rather amazingly, worth the effort. That such artwork could have been carved out of mountainous rock somewhere between the 5th & 8th century AD is rather staggering to consider.

This trip has had a number of once in a lifetime sights, but the Elephanta Caves were definitely one of them.

This excursion was followed by hotel tour and then dinner, so I was glad to put my plush bed to use rather early.

Wednesday morning was devoted to a walk around the Colaba area of South Mumbai, close to the hotel.

I saw the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue and even went inside, a splendid clock tower, the Bombay High Court and several other grand buildings likely dating back to the days of British rule in India.

The grandest of these is the Chhatrapati Shivagi Terminus, a railway station formerly known as Victoria Terminus and one of the world's busiest.

As I had on the ride from the airport, in the cab back I made a point of taking pictures out the world and getting a better sense of the Mumbai I did not see up close, including abundant skyscrapers and slums.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Agra: The Transfixing Wonder of the Taj Mahal...and Other Amazing Sights

I've been fortunate to have visited some of the world's most amazing sights--of the man-made and natural variety.

Some of my favorites prior to this trip to India can be seen on this Seth Saith blog post (sorry that I don't have means to throw in a contextual hyperlink):


Yesterday and again today I saw a sight that would undoubtedly find a place in such a list, perhaps even in the top slot:

The Taj Mahal

I can't recall how early in my childhood I first became aware of the spectacular marble mausoleum in the Indian city of Agra, but my hope to someday see--and photograph--it obviously dates back decades.

And in person, the Taj Mahal was everything I ever dreamed it would be.

Although the inside--where photography is prohibited--was rather dark, quite warm and not nearly as mind-blowing as the exterior, the Taj was truly magnificent from all angles.

Since March, when--as I was about to book my trip to India--I learned that in 2017 the Taj Mahal is undergoing cleaning that had parts sheathed in scaffolding, I was concerned that I might not see it in pristine form.

I decided this wasn't worth postoning my trip indefinitely, but just a couple weeks ago, NBA star Kevin Durant had tweeted pictures of him at the Taj that showed the structure's front and one minaret scaffolded.

This didn't look to terrible, but I was thrilled to arrive at the Taj Mahal with my tour group Sunday morning to find no metal upon it anywhere.

Needless to say, I took TONS of pictures from every angle, and even had a few taken of me with one of the world's greatest backdrops.

I don't have means to share any in this post, but hopefully you'll be able to see some somehow. (I put several on Facebook and plan to create an online gallery after I return home.)

This morning, with a few hours in Agra outside organized tour activities, I asked the hotel to hire me a driver to take me to Mehtab Bagh, a prime viewing spot--with an admission fee--from which to see & photograph the Taj from across the Yamuna River.

Between a friendly driver and a quite knowledgeable local man whose solicitation to show me prime locations within the Mehtab Bagh garden I accepted and greatly benefited, this too was a phenomenal excursion.

And the Taj Mahal isn't the only wonder to be seen in Agra.

The Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah--aka the Baby Taj and built before it--and the Red Fort are both stunning in their own right.

Though seeing both yesterday afternoon made for a wearying day--we were up at 4:30am to see the Taj at sunrise--but were magnificent.

A group dinner last night at an Agra restaurant featuring an attractive Bollywood style dancer made for a nice end to a pretty staggering day.

After my private riverside Taj experience this morning, we rode from Agra to a hotel near the Delhi airport.

I am writing this lying next to a beautiful outdoor pool, with a final group dinner about an hour away.

In the morning I will catch a flight to Mumbai and head to the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where I'm booked for a single night before heading on to Bangalore.

Unbeknownst to me beforehand tomorrow is India Independence Day, and the 70th anniversary at that. And Paolo, who went to Mumbai for a couple days before the tour started, reported that that city is just as chaotic as Delhi.

So perhaps I won't be able to do all that much, but I'm excited to go there anyway.

Though this trip has been terrific for many sights, experiences and interactions, seeing the Taj Mahal is clearly an experience I'll never forget.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Abhaneri: Some Surprisingly Astonishing Travel Experiences

Sometimes the greatest travel experiences are ones that come as a surprise.

On Gate 1's 9-Day Golden Triangle of India tour from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra, a stop in the village of Abhaneri--between the latter two cities--was only highlighted in the Day 6 itinerary details.

I think it's safe to assume it didn't much factor into anyone's reasons for taking this tour; certainly not a primary one.

As I am writing this, we are back on the bus heading from Abhaneri to Agra, and if not tonight, by early tomorrow morning I shall see the Taj Mahal.

More than any other specific sightseeing location, the Taj is the foremost reason for my traveling to India.

But as some may recall, in the days before booking my trip, I learned that the Taj Mahal is undergoing cleaning and conservation, and part of it will be covered by scaffolding.

I initially expected more of Taj--including its dome--to be obscured than it appears will be the case, but I truly wondered if I should postpone the trip until pristine pictures of this great wonder could be had.

I decided that aside from complete closure of the Taj, any other worst case scenario didn't justify delaying the trip to who knows when.

Much of my reasoning is that it would be silly to put off two weeks of phenomenal sights and experiences for a couple hours of seeing some metal, even if upon the sublime Taj Mahal.

And while seeing Delhi and highlights of Jaipur were fantastic, the past 3-1/2 hours alone have validated my thinking.

There could be thunderstorms tomorrow and I still won't rue having taken this trip.

And though the Chand Baori step well in Abhaneri is one of the coolest sights I've ever seen, remnants of a nearby temple date back a millennium and our tour group just had a delicious and unique lunch at an eco-resort in Abhaneri, even more phenomenal was seeing the smiles of relatively impoverished village schoolchildren.

The school is actually underwritten by Gate 1, whose founder grew up nearby,  so it's assumed the kids were long indoctrinated to American tourists stopping by and photographing them.

But I really loved interacting with the kids, and I can't help but believe the feeling was mutual.

Using a trick I hit on years back, likely in photographing my niece and nephews, whenever I would take pictures of the kids I would then show them the photo on the screen or my camera or iPhone.

This made them giggle exuberantly and clamor for me to take more pictures. Several kids also asked me--and other group members as well--to write my name in their notebooks.

At one point it felt like I was a Broadway star being being beseeched for autographs at the Stage Door.

Truly heartwarming.

I can't wait to see the Taj Mahal, and take photos I will likely treasure for the rest of my life.

But quite remarkably I doubt they'll wind up my favorites from this trip.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Jaipur: On an Elephant (and a Rickshaw), Atop a Mountain Fort and in the Pink (City)

Those who perceive a vacation as a chance to sleep in (past 6:30am) and relax a bit each day might find themselves chagrined by the trip I'm on, at least as facilitated by Gate 1 Travel.

Don't get me wrong. My typical idea of a great vacay is one in which I visit three museums in a day followed by a concert, ballgame or some form of theater at night.

I don't go on beach vacations or to resorts in part because I don't enjoy laying out or just sitting around.

So I certainly don't mind a whirlwind of activity and I respect Gate 1's efforts to fit in a lot of sightseeing in a limited number of days in order to keep lodging costs low--and the entire tour package surprisingly reasonable.

Our tour leader Sameer has been terrific in coordinating daily agendas, so I am not seriously kvetching, but even though Thursday was essentially dedicated to the bus ride from Delhi to Jaipur, we had a 6:00am wakeup call ahead of a 7:30 departure (sandwiched around complimentary breakfast). 

Our ride was broken up by a potty break at McDonalds--always interesting in terms of global variances; i.e. no beef in India--and lunch at a homey place midway to Jaipur.

After we got to Jaipur and checked in, 40 minutes later we were back on the bus to hit a local bazaar.

I don't mean to be disparaging to people having to make money any way they can, but the vendors swarmed like bumblebees, and though not dangerous,  their aggressiveness was aggravating.

Paolo and I bought merchandise mainly from a shop where an older, calmer gentleman didn't haggle and was never insistent. 

Depending on the exact environs being counted, Jaipur is a city of 3-5 million people.

To Westerners, it still seems rather ramshackle and chaotic--with cows, camels, elephants, monkeys, goats, sheep, dogs--wandering the streets amid cars, trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and tourist coaches.

But compared to Delhi, Jaipur seemed relatively organized, modern and calm.

And Friday was rather stuffed--yes, perhaps overstuffed--with superb and unique travel experiences.

Including, before 8:30am, riding an elephant up to the huge Amber Fort.

From a horde of elephants lined up like taxis at the airport, ours was named Mala. And he (or perhaps she) got us where we needed to go.

With a huge complex of building ornately painted or otherwise lavishly adorned, Amber Fort made for some incredible sightseeing and snapshots.

Later we took a rickshaw ride around the part of Jaipur with structures whose pigmentation gave rise to its Pink City moniker.

Especially as the bike peddler charged with lugging Paolo and me around continuously avoided impending collisions, the Hawa Mahal didn't seem quite as luminous as it had in photos.

The afternoon touring continued at Jantar Mantar--a centuries old collection of huge astronomy/astrology apparatus--and ended with a visit to the City Palace complex, which had some attractive buildings without being all that astonishing.

We did get 2 hours of downtime back at our hotel but then were back on the bus for a group dinner excursion. 

This was at a restaurant within an ornate hotel in a posh part of Jaipur, it was a cool choice, it was fun hanging out with our tour mates and we were treated to a woman dancing while balancing 5 bowls on her head.

But a glass of wine made me even more tired and tour weary than I already was, and I felt it best not to indulge too heavily  in the Indian buffet.

That basically covers the last two days. It could probably use some editing or even more writing but it's nearly 11 and of course I have to be up at 6 AM for the ride to Agra.