Before We Forget

The longer we live here in Bengaluru, the more normal it becomes. Things that used to make us stop and stare no longer get a moment’s consideration. Things that baffled us are simply the way things are. So now, while we still remember what it was like to see these things for the first time, we want to capture some of them here in no particular order.

Garbage is everywhere: The ever present garbage is probably the single most shocking thing here. We grew up in an age of litter prevention in the United States, where “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” signs were everywhere and the EPA was newly formed to make the world better. It is shocking here to see every sidewalk lined with wrappers and debris; sometimes big, broken bags of garbage will be sitting there by the sidewalk. Anywhere that there is a break in the sidewalk (and there are many), garbage will be stuffed into the opening below. Any empty lot is heaped with garbage. Nearly every body of water has garbage floating in it, causing a stench that now makes us instinctively hold our breath any time we approach water.

Animals are everywhere: This big, bustling city filled with cars and motorbikes and pedestrians, with IT facilities and shiny hotels, is also filled with what we think of as barnyard animals. Cows are everywhere; they stroll on sidewalks, snack on the weeds of highway medians, and sometimes just casually lie down in the road completely undisturbed by the cars around them. Can you imagine a cow walking down Broadway in Portland or New York? Can you imagine the uproar after it pooped on the sidewalk with no one scurrying behind to clean it up? And it’s not just cows. There are goats, chickens, pigs, and dogs all over the place. Goats, chickens, and pigs generally seem to have nearby owners, but the dogs are very clearly on their own. And there are monkeys, cleverly scavenging not just outdoors, but also inside the homes of people who leave windows or doors unlocked (although their adorable, little old man faces make us forgive them their transgressions).

Traffic is crazy: There are probably many rules for driving in Bengaluru, but the only obvious one has to do with never allowing an empty space to go unfilled. The lane lines on the road are mere decoration, ignored as vehicles swirl like water around any obstacle that appears (cows, bicycles, pedestrians, cars driving the wrong way down the road) despite signs that declare “Observe Lane Discipline”. There is no road rage, or even apparent tension on the faces of the drivers, as they maneuver their vehicles toward their destinations. When we were new here, we held hands and frequently flinched in the back seat of the taxi. Now we calmly chat or look at our phones, as relaxed as our drivers.

Everything goes on a motorbike: Family of five? Load up and head out. Long PVC pipes for a plumbing project? Your passenger can hold on. Several bags of groceries? A couple can go at your feet, your passengers can hold on to one or two each, and strap the rest on however you can. Many people don’t wear helmets, and many who do wear them unstrapped or little plastic cricket helmets, and in the case of the families, the father driving often is helmeted, the mom occasionally, and the kids never.

People carry things on their heads: Everything from bags of groceries to big bundles of sticks to cinder blocks to furniture are carried on people’s heads. Sometimes they use a single hand to steady the load and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they create a pad on their head under the load and sometimes they don’t. We saw a man in the train station, balancing multiple suitcases on his head.

Electrical lines loop through the trees: There are some electrical poles, but more often electrical lines are woven through the branches of trees, with big coils of lines dangling at random intervals, often dangling most of the way to the ground.

Electricity outages are common: Perhaps there’s a relationship with the former, but electricity outages happen multiple times a day. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it – sometimes it cuts out while we’re using the electric kettle to heat water for morning coffee, sometimes it cuts out while trying to heat leftovers in the microwave for lunch, and sometimes it leaves us sitting in the dark in the evening. Luckily, our building has an effective back-up generator that kicks in quickly, usually in 10-60 seconds. It doesn’t, however, power everything. Hardwired things like lights, fans, and elevators (whew!) come back on board quickly, while anything plugged in like refrigerators, ovens, and air conditioners wait until power is fully restored.

Electric outlets have to be tricked: Most outlets have 5 holes, while many plugs have only 2 prongs. The top center hole where the missing ground prong would go has to have something in it before the holes below will open. So we have to stick something in the outlet in order to plug anything in, usually a plastic pencil. At least the outlets also have switches so we can turn off the power to the outlets before sticking anything inside.

TVs, not toilets: In every sector of the city, even the most impoverished, you can see Dish TV in action. Those same homes that have televisions connected to satellites via looping wires may not have indoor plumbing, or actual toilets of any kind. It is normal to see men urinating by the sides of the road, on the sides of buildings. People of all genders and ages just relieve themselves in open fields. Work is being done on this issue, for reasons of hygiene and the safety of women, but there is much work yet to be done.

Women dress like beautiful butterflies: At least 80% of the women in Bengaluru wear some form of traditional dress in beautiful, bright colors. Dupatta (big long scarves) are draped over the fronts of women’s bodies, trailing behind them to their calves. Women who clean our building dress far fancier for work than I do for a special party. Being dressed doesn’t just include clothing – it also means gold earrings, necklaces, bangles halfway up the forearm, and jingling anklets. In contrast, about 80% of the men wear western dress, and look painfully drab in comparison.

Men are casually affectionate: Male friends here commonly walk with entwined fingers or linked elbows or arms flung around each other’s shoulders. Fathers walk holding hands with their adolescent or teen-age sons. Groups of men will sit close together or benches, practically cuddling as they happily chat. It’s really nice to see the ease of physical contact.

There are no clothes dryers here: Clothes are washed in machines on the utility balcony and then hung on the line to dry. It means we do laundry many times each week and have adjusted to crunchy towels and wrinkled everything. The upside? Gorgeous, brightly colored sarees billow from the balconies in the morning.

Our stove is an independent unit: The stove sits on top of the counter with its two burners connected to a gas tank under the counter. When turning on the stove, we have to turn on the gas and then use a hand igniter to light the burner. We’re told the gas tank should last us 6 months.

3 thoughts on “Before We Forget”

  1. I really enjoyed hearing about “real life” in India. Not that your adventures aren’t magnificent and (usually) beautiful, but thanks for letting us in on the every day. Love you both. Happy Thanksgiving. We will miss you!

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  2. Your sharing of the realities of your life in India is a great reminder of how people can adapt to new and totally different environments. It’s interesting to think that twenty years ago very few people in Portland could have imagined a downtown where people are living and sleeping in business doorways and on sidewalks with high pedestrian usage. You guys should have your own travel show with a camera crew following you around. Keep sharing the great stuff and enjoy your Thanksgiving week. Do they celebrate it in India? Take care,

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    1. No Thanksgiving break here, but we can’t complain about a lack of holidays and celebrations. Seems there’s always another one around the corner! And we’ll still celebrate thanksgiving with friends this weekend 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, Anthony!

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