Sorry, Corrine, Mike, and Adina. My commute to work is so great. Last year, I struck the lottery with my carpool. It was more relaxing, more entertaining, and more interesting than spending an hour or more every day in a car by myself. This year, getting to work is even better. As I started looking at the new life I had just signed up for, I got excited about my new commute. Most days, I get to walk to work. It’s a quick 30 minute walk, but it includes this incredible little cross section of India I didn’t anticipate.
The walk starts with crossing the Doddaballapura Road just outside our apartment complex. We’ve already discussed how intimidating crossing the street is here and how unintimidated the locals are. It turns out, Doddaballapura Road is a piece of cake. In our first three weeks here, we have successfully navigated a few streets that make ours look like our little Cook St. in Portland. The key? Keep moving. Traffic in Bangalore is described as a liquid — it flows around all impediments. If you stop suddenly because you get startled, the drivers who are trying to flow around you are not going to be able to know what to expect and . . . higgledy piggledy.
Then I head down Kenchanahalli Road. This road is interesting for its many transitions. First, on one side of the road, comes an apartment complex far fancier than ours. On my way home, I frequently see monkeys bounding about the fences of the complex. On the other side of the road is a huge construction project that I’m afraid is either an oil refinery or a diesel power plant (or possibly both — did I mention it’s huge?). Around the corner, after the sign that announces that the property has been seized to investigate the owner as a slumlord and another huge construction project that looks like more apartments, comes a little building that looks like the Bangalore version of the classic Portland development — retail first floor, residential above. The retail, though, is more like little stores people set up in their garages.
In the morning, I am walking toward school at the same time there is a flood of walkers in the other direction — groups of men dressed for construction and other types of work, kids in a rainbow of school uniforms, and women dressed in the stunning saris that serve as everyday dress around here. Also, I pass women in a wide variety of Muslim dress — from the niqaab (black robes that cover everything except a slit for the eyes) to the basic hijab, and I can only assume I pass many Muslim women who have chosen not to cover themselves. The men, too, dress in a variety of ways. The key, though, is that I never see anyone being harassed; quite the opposite — groups of kids and adults frequently contain Indians of all walks.
Next, I cross the first of two railroad tracks. Melissa pointed out to me that the crossing gates are operated by a hand crank. On the other side of the tracks is a small neighborhood that looks right out of any Indian movie you’ve ever seen. At first, I wondered if there was indoor plumbing, but it seems like the homes have a wide spectrum of plumbing situations. At first, I thought this was poverty in action, but it seems far more middle class than I first thought. The kids are incredibly cute and happy, welcoming me with either cries of “Uncle!” or “Bye!” (I’m pretty sure they don’t know “Hi”). The adults seem more skeptical, often giving me hard, serious looks or quizzical “look at that carnival freak” looks. Almost invariably, those hard looks turn friendly and happy when I give them a quick nod and greet them with “Namaskaara”, Kannada for “hello.” Mixed in with these very modest homes and shops are a couple of estates that look incredibly lavish across the street from what is clearly the neighborhood dump.
As I leave this neighborhood, my favorite part of my walk, I reach the second railroad crossing. This is notable for two things: first, it’s not a railroad crossing, just the end of the road where people cross over to the second notable, the hole in the fence through which one must climb in order to get to the lake. I was nervous about the climb, until one day we climbed through and were met by park security. They waved us on through and later caught up to us on their bikes to take pictures with us.
One little diversion: Trains. About half of the time, I am held up by a train at one of the two track crossings. Sometimes, it’s full of flatbed cars with huge coils of steel. Other times, it’s passenger trains that fulfill every stereotype of an Indian passenger train — cars labeled air conditioned, sleeper cars to “third class cars” with open windows and packed to the gills with travelers.
A second diversion: White privilege. We have encountered white privilege several times in our three weeks here. I’ve tried to write about it several times, but it always comes off wrong — preachy or culturally ignorant or however else inartful discussions of white privilege go bad. One of the most uncomfortable moments happened at this point of the walk the first time I brought Melissa along. There were about 20 locals who had gotten off the back of a truck who lined up to go through the hole in the fence. We were in the middle of the group when a woman walked up beside the line, saying something loudly in Kannada which inspired all of the folks in front of us to step aside and gesture for us to go ahead of them. We declined and waited our turn. This kind of thing happens way too often for our comfort.
Once through the hole, I walk a small portion of a very large lake. My new friend Sandeep told me that it is a very clean lake by Bangalore standards (the lake near his previous home in the southern parts of Bangalore caught on fire), and the powers-that-be are trying to protect it. The result is a lovely path with a bit of green buffer between the lake and new construction. There are all kinds of birds — some loon-looking birds, hawks of some kind, herons, egrets, pelicans, and a wide variety of small birds I can’t identify. Despite Sandeep’s assurances, let’s just say I never see anyone swimming in it, and no one would recommend eating fish caught there.
The flip side to this part of the story is the part that makes the lakes catch on fire. Huge factories, including a train wheel manufacturer that spews (I’m told) orangish red something-or-other every day, line one part of the lake. Also, I am afraid the creek we walk over to get to the town of Yelahanka that runs black and makes us gag empties into our “clean” lake. One of these days I’m going to write about my hardening belief in strong regulation and the shortsightedness of the people who cry for regulations to be eliminated. Be aware: this will be some of my primary evidence.
Another funny feature of the lake is the nearly constant radio broadcast. We have no idea why.
Adina, my colleague who had Melissa and me over for dinner our second weekend here, lives on the lake on the other side. Just outside of her complex is a whole sports complex with basketball courts and workout equipment. The authorities stopped a construction project that was starting to fill in some wetland between her apartment and the lake, apparently part of the effort to protect the lake. They seem to really be trying to make the lake something that people want to have as a resource.
In a field separated from my path from a very intimidating barbed wire fence, I often come across cows, both individual and in well-controlled herds, or goats, usually being herded. The cows are everywhere, so other than their sacredness they don’t feel notable. The goats, though, super cute. And if you’ve never been with Melissa when she comes across baby goats, well, her reaction is its own category of adorable.
At one of the gazebos that people use for meditation and the eating of lunch, the scary looking fence breaks apart. I scramble down a dirty, or, more often than not, muddy hill to a small field filled with butterflies and ants making crazy little ant hills. The field turns into a small palm tree forest that makes me wonder if this is how Bangalore used to look before 12 million people made it their home.
Next comes the trespassing portion of the walk. I pop through another hole in yet another fence into a beautiful small farm. The people their are kind and welcoming, especially after I greet them with a smile and a “Namaskaara!” The gate to the farm is occasionally locked, and I have to scamper through a gap between the gate and the building. I’m afraid that either that gap or the hole in the fence will soon be closed. The result will be a 15 minute longer walk, but most sadly I will miss this pastoral little stretch of the walk.
Once through the gate, I am at the front gate of Canadian International School of Bangalore, where I am greeted by the extraordinarily friendly security folks, and up into the school that feels like a resort.
I’ll write about my work soon. I’ve spent my entire career trying to avoid putting work stuff on the internet, and that caution is a hard habit to break. Stay tuned.