Our First Train Ride

We’ve heard lots of intimidating stories about Indian train travel and seen the trains speeding by with people practically falling out the doors and windows of the second class cars that confirmed those stories. Yet we also knew that an Indian train experience was a must, so we decided to get our feet wet on the relatively short trip to Mysore: just under three hours from downtown Bengaluru on the way, and only two hours on the express train home. While we could have opted for a first class car which would have given us our own little room, that didn’t seem so interesting. We also could have selected second class for an authentic experience, but that seemed a bit scary. We chose the AC Chair Car, which has assigned seats, no standing, and air conditioning (as you might have guessed).

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The bustle of the chair car.

When we got to the station about an hour before our train, we were feeling pretty uncertain of what to do. Our tickets weren’t what we would identify as tickets – they were just printed confirmation of the ticket purchase that didn’t state the type of ticket purchased or provide any other clear guidance. There were lots of people gathering on the platform, and we were concerned that if we didn’t act quickly, we might not get seats together. As the train pulled in to the station, we saw cars that said “Chair Car” on the outside. With nothing else to go on, we hustled ourselves onto the nearest chair car and got ourselves seated on a bench seat with space for three to sit. We noticed fans above us rather than air conditioners, but thought maybe “air conditioner” was a euphemism for “fan”. With Tom by the window, one of the last seats taken was the open space next to Melissa. We suspect that most men were reluctant to sit there, and the car was 2/3 male. Once all of the seats were filled, people just kept pressing on until every bit of space was occupied. At this point, we suspected we were in the wrong place, but we didn’t have time or confidence to do anything about it then. No one ever checked tickets, so there was no one official to ask. Despite the crush of people, the tone of the car was happy and friendly. Young men walked through constantly, hawking delicious-smelling food that people gleefully bought and ate. A woman standing in the aisle with her 8-year-old son asked the man next to Melissa to allow him to sit on his lap to eat his samosa. The man agreed, and the child didn’t get up again until the man was ready to get off. The woman then eased into the newly vacant seat and made small talk, including an invitation to her house, while noticeably encroaching on our space. While a bit annoyed by the crush, we were pleased to have Ranganathaswamy, a huge 10th century temple to Vishnu pointed out as we passed. Finally arriving at the Mysore train station, we were happy to find an easy exit and a short walk to our hotel for the weekend.

On the way home, we wanted to try to find our proper seats. While we were proud of managing and enjoying second class seating, we had paid for something else (260 rupees for the AC Chair Car rather than 75 rupees for Second Class) and wanted to experience that too. The problem was that we still just had these uninformative print-outs and no idea how to find out proper car. Problem solved when we spotted the ticket inspectors office. Melissa wandered in and sheepishly mumbled that we didn’t know how to find our car, and the ticket inspector graciously explained that the random-seeming numbers on our print-out actually indicated our car number and our seat numbers. We had actual seats waiting for us! The trip home was an entirely different experience in comfortable seats with plentiful leg room and powerful air conditioning. It was also different in terms of the human connection (people chatted with the people they knew) and the food (we were given water and mango juice, but no food vendors wandered through our car at all). For that short trip, the difference in price is just $1.15 vs. $3.97. We’d probably opt for the AC Chair Car again for a longer trip, but good to know that the second class option is entirely tolerable, if a little crowded and smelly.

Royal Mysore Walks

Melissa likes tours when an expert can provide information and context. Tom prefers to explore and figure things out for himself, though he’s starting to be sold. In a new city, in the mad crush of a holiday weekend, we agreed that it might be a good idea and were ultimately very glad we did.

It had already been a very full day with our DC Office visit to get our Gold Cards, our bus ride to Chamundi Hill, our walk down the 300 plus steps, a great lunch at Kamat, and the walk all the way back to our hotel so we were glad we got a bit of a rest before heading out for our walking tour.

We decided that it was time for our very first rickshaw ride so that we wouldn’t further wear ourselves out before the walking tour. No one wants to be the cranky person on the tour! Not knowing what it should cost but knowing that we were likely to get ripped off if we didn’t have a price in mind, we stopped off to chat with the men at the concierge stand. They said it should cost 40-60 rupees to get to the town hall. The rickshaw driver thought it should cost 80 until we told him what the concierge had said and he then agreed to 60. Rickshaws are kind of fun. They are  3-wheeled vehicles so very nimble in tight spots and pretty zippy. They also provide a view unobstructed by dirty windows. We wouldn’t want to take one a long distance or sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic breathing fumes, but for a few kilometers of dense-but-moving traffic, it’s great!

We arrived at the Town Hall, a beautiful late 19th century building, and found 20170929_163719-11074996404.jpgour guide for the evening, Kainath. Over the next 20 minutes, the rest of our crew gathered: a man from northern India and woman from southern India who have lived in Bengaluru for 8 years (and are dismayed by the changes they see), two brothers from Assam (one of whom has lived in Bengaluru for a number of years), and a trio from San Francisco on a 3-4 day visit to India for a friend’s wedding.

Kainath was charming and knowledgeable, with tons of stories about the origins of Mysore, the origins of Mysuru Dasara, and details of life in this lovely city. She started out by telling us about the Wodeyars who have been the royal family of Mysore since the 1300’s, briefly interrupted by Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. During our previous tour in Bengaluru, we learned about what a good and respected leader Tipu Sultan was and how prosperous this region became under his leadership. During this tour, we learned about what a tyrant he was and how glad people were when he died and the Wodeyars returned. Interesting how the stories shift with different perspectives – we imagine the truth to be somewhere between.

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Kainath led us on a walk through the central core of city, pointing out significant landmarks as we went, before taking us into the market. The Mysore market is quite a bit less chaotic than the KR market in Bengaluru, and quite rigidly organized. Apparently, the king was very involved in the organization and detailed it very clearly – fruits are in a single aisle with the exception of bananas which get their own aisle, vegetables are in their own aisle, flowers are in their own aisle, coconuts have their own section of an aisle, etc. It would be so much easier to do your shopping here! Plus, it was much less smelly than in Bengaluru.

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Market stall with an assortment of the 47 kinds of bananas

As we walked, she periodically stopped to get us bits of tasty things to eat:

  • The famous Mysore Pak is a dessert made primarily from ghee and sugar, invented for the king and highly prized. We found it to be a bit like biting into a very sweet, gritty piece of soft butter; it wasn’t our favorite.
  • The banapple is one of 47 kinds of bananas grown in India. While we certainly wouldn’t mistake it for an apple as suggested, it was a very tasty little banana with green apple hints.
  • Melissa is weird about yogurt so wasn’t crazy about the lassi, although it was tolerable with its hints of vanilla (the secret ingredient). Tom liked it pretty well.20170929_190734428578884.jpg
  • The masala dosa at Dosa Point was absolutely delicious. We’re developing quite a passion for them.
  • The dessert that consisted of a layer of ghee, a layer of rose jam, a scoop of butterscotch ice cream, and some fruit was good, but somehow a strange combination. It was fun to order it from the stand in the oldest part of town, however.

It was interesting to note that each time Kainath stopped to tell us a story (perhaps about the statute of king that had its head chopped off (the statue, not the king) by the newly widowed queen in a rage about its poor likeness so a new head was crafted in marble that doesn’t quite match; or perhaps about the king who believed that seven was his personal number, requiring that he have seven of everything included Rolls Royces), a crowd of men would gradually assemble, eavesdropping on her story. She was never interrupted and they were never a problem, but it was interesting to just watch it happen every time. This happened on our tour in Bengaluru with Tej, too, but there they did interrupt and tried to either add to her story or correct something she said. Her response was always amusingly dismissive – either that part of the story was coming, or he was the one who got it wrong. Back to Mysore, Kainath was interrupted only once, by a very drunk man who pointed at her and yelled at us all in Kannada to not believe anything she says.

20170929_185926-11063408233.jpgA highlight of the tour occurred while standing on the sidewalk waiting for our dosas, when we spotted elephants walking down the street at the next intersection. We all raced off to ogle these incredible creatures who we assume were practicing for their starring roles in the next day’s procession from the palace to Bannimantap Grounds. We’re pretty much in love with elephants now.

For most of the tour, our group was marveling at the lack of the crowds we’d been warned about. Sure, there were people there, but it didn’t seem so different from downtown Bengaluru on a random Wednesday. And then we approached the palace. Wow. We suddenly confronted the “crush of humanity” as we called it, and the group had a very difficult time staying together across streets of honking horns and plazas of dense people. But it was worth the effort to cover those last few blocks and get there. Mysore Palace was lit up by 97,000 lightbulbs, as it is every Sunday evening and every holiday. It was truly a spectacular sight.

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At that point, we all said our goodbyes, and wandered off to admire the beauty on our own. We thoroughly enjoyed this tour.

Mysuru Dasara

The reason we were able to take a mini, four-day vacation was for Dasara, celebrated in style in Mysore (traditionally and again known as Mysuru, but called Mysore by the Brits who couldn’t seem to pronounce it). Melissa got us set up to experience it fully with Gold Cards, which serve as admission to several events and cultural venues and also allows for a common folks’ version of a VIP experience for the main events. After many warnings that we were going to be facing crowds like we’ve never seen before, Melissa spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to best do this amazing celebration. This post will be different than the others — we’re going to describe what we did, and, in the vain assumption that anyone will care, we’re going to share thoughts on how we think we might have done it even better for other future potential Mysuru Dasara celebrants who google like we did.

First, we had to pick up our Gold Cards on Friday morning. Melissa very cleverly found us a hotel across the street from the District Commissioner’s (DC) Office. While Tom was disappointed that Batman and Wonder Woman were not going to be there, it turned out to be a lovely old Colonial building. We were there early, so we explored the grounds a little, grounds that mostly included a lovely rose and dahlia garden. After finally figuring out where we were supposed to pick up our passes, we were off to Chamundi Hill.

After sorting through the different bits of advice we got on how best to both navigate the crowds and have the best experience with the parades on Saturday, we decided to skip the start of the Jamboo Savari parade in the Palace in favor of making sure we got to Bannimantap Grounds to see the end of the parade and get great seats for the military parades and the Torchlight Parade. As a result, we had a completely free morning for just relaxing. Boy, did we need it. We ended up relaxing by the pool for a good long while. Melissa still couldn’t stop googling for advice on how to make the most of our Gold Cards, though, and finally found a blog post that suggested it was worth it to go to the palace. We quickly shifted gears: We had plenty of time; let’s just head to the palace, and if we aren’t having an incredible time, we can always leave early with plenty of time to still get to Bannimantap as planned. So we mobilized.

On our walk there and outside the gates leading to the Palace grounds, we experienced a couple of instances of what we started just referring to as “the crush of humanity”, when many, many people are all funneling into a very small space, and each one has to be first and is trying to push his/her way to the front of the line. We had found our way behind a single file line of women snaking their way through the crowd, through spaces that didn’t really exist but were simply between people who weren’t crushed up against each other quite as densely as in other spots. By the time we pushed our way out the other side, we were overheated, exhausted, and a little bewildered. This experience of being stuck in the middle of a crowd of people, pressing against you from all sides, while you just barely inch forward through tiny crevices in the crowd is unlike anything we’ve experienced before in the US. It’s a wee bit panic-inducing at times. Thanks to our Gold Cards, when we found the right gate, not only did get through without having to trample anyone to get there, but a couple of very nice fellows were waiting with bags of water, nuts, and mango juice for us. We agreed that our Gold Cards had just paid for themselves.

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We found what looked like great seats in the 4th row of the second tier of the Gold Card section, not far from where the parade would start and with a good view down a plaza underneath the real VIP section where the Maharaja and other super-VIPs would watch the parade, just in case special stuff happened there. And special stuff happened indeed. We had our first sighting (of the day) of the elephants, all painted and jeweled-up and accompanied by some stately camels, as they delivered a man we assumed was the Maharaja to the viewing area. We started to get the sense for the frustration to come as the crowd around us built. Chairs were loosely in rows, but people started grabbing extra chairs and stacking them to sit on, which not only blocked the view of the people behind them, but also took chairs out of circulation for others. More chairs came, and people took them with no regard for the original concept of rows, continuing to stack them on top of each other and filling in the aisles where they found it convenient to do so. Our seats began to seem less wonderful.

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Finally, the beautiful elephants returned. This time their mahouts (handlers) put up their parasols, and the parade was off. It was amazing. There were fabulous dancers, fun bands, and floats that clearly told a story. The only problem was that we didn’t understand the story the floats were telling, and between people standing to take pictures, and other people (including chair stackers) yelling at the standers, and the fact that the view wasn’t so good after all because even in the good moments, Melissa could only see the tops of the dancers’ and bands’ heads, we decided we indeed were not having the “incredible time” that was the bar that would mean we stayed. So, having gloried in the elephants, we decided to leave before the crowd with plenty of time to go back to the hotel, reset, and get a rickshaw to Bannimantap in time to see the whole parade.

We decided we were glad we went to the Palace, even if just to see the elephants those couple of extra times. If we had it to do over again, we’d go a bit earlier. The parade started at 1:30ish. We got there at 12:30ish. If we had gotten there at 11:00 or 11:30, maybe we would have gotten seats in the front row that would have made irrelevant all the chair-stacking and jockeying for position behind us. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have had that incredibly relaxing morning, so we didn’t exactly regret our choices; we just wish we’d done the parade better.

We also could have done our drop-off in Bannimantap better. First, the rickshaw driver basically headed straight for the venue, after telling us we’d have to pay extra because he was going to take the long way around. Hmmm. When the crowd ahead looked like it was getting too dense, we asked him to stop and let us out. Realizing what we were looking at was the parade route, Tom had the brilliant notion that we could get through the crowd and follow the route to the venue for the evening activities and what we thought was the parade’s end. We tried both edges of the crowd, trying to get through. The first was impossibly dense, like the gates earlier. The second was even worse and intensely smelly. Melissa began to panic. Bad idea. Somehow we managed to push our way backwards out of the crowd and got advice from a woman to go down to the next road. Now that we were again overheated and a little agitated, we found our way around the parade route entirely, approaching the Bannimantap Grounds from the backside. We were fixated on getting to our gate and into the grounds in order to get better seats than we had at the Palace. We went where we were told and ended up again on the parade route. This time, though, the crowd wasn’t so dense. We got out on the street and made it a little ways up the road when a phalanx of local police ushered us out of the street and on to a sidewalk with other parade watchers.

That fixation on getting to our gate meant we missed out on fully appreciating what was happening around us. There were very nice folks, including one of the policemen who was trying to convince Tom that Obama loved Modi, and an older gentleman who was quite taken by Melissa, insisting that she reminded him of his mother who was also named Melissa, even though that’s a name we haven’t come across, nor have we come across many Indians outside of the school who can pronounce it. The kids around us fulfilled our growing stereotype of Indian kids as being just wonderful, happy people. But we kept eyeing what we thought was our gate just past that phalanx of police and scheming ways to get to it.

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And then the parade showed up. It turns out they were so militant about keeping the area clear next to us because that was where the elephants turned in to finish their day! So the huge, beautiful beasts passed feet from us. They were incredible. We loved them. A few more dancers danced their way by, and then it stopped. By the time the crowds started rushing the street and closing off the route at the road where we entered the parade route, we realized the rest of the parade wasn’t going to get to us. Rats. Also, it was past the time people kept telling us that the gate for the Gold Card holders was going to open, so we found our way into the street and walked briskly past the police, very intentionally avoiding eye contact. We got to our gate, into the venue, and to our seats. And what seats they were! Because the venue was practically empty. It turned out, we got there an hour earlier than we really needed to.

On further reflection, we should have gotten the rickshaw driver to somehow drop us off on the east side of the parade route and found our way to the hotels on Bannimantap Road, like Hotel Athithi, where we could have seen as much of the parade as we wanted and still had plenty of time to get in to Bannimantap Grounds for great seats.

The event at Bannimantap Grounds was crazy. It started verrrrrry slowly. In fact, a good amount of the crowd, clearly the ones in the know, waited until later to even arrive. It started with a long, drawn out military procession. The band played the national anthem a few times, for which we all stood each time. The governor of Karnataka was there, so he not only was driven past the troops, but the troops then marched by his reviewing stand. Tom admitted later that he might have dozed off at one point.

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Then the fun finally began. An army unit of motorcycle stunt men performed some pretty amazing stunts. There were 20 motorcycles in all, and they would speed toward each other in formation, just barely avoiding collision. We joked that they were just replicating Bangalore traffic, but it really was quite impressive. They also jumped up to stand on the seats of the speeding motorcycles or drove with multiple people balanced on the motorcycles in crazy acrobatic poses. It was great. That was followed by a lavish, incredible dance with about 100 dancers in costumes, moving in sync. The final act was the torchlight parade. We hadn’t known what that meant exactly and were delighted to see that it was precision marching and artful torch wielding we had never imagined. It was incredible and beautiful.

With our spirits buoyed after a frustrating series of choices, we decided to walk along the parade route back toward town and our hotel. It was just simply a lovely evening for a walk, and a pleasure to out amidst the happy people surrounded by tinkly lights on every surface and building. Bannimantap Road is a lovely neighborhood (and at this point we realized the above advice about where best to view the parade). About half way back we decided to take a ride with the next rickshaw driver who asked. One hundred rupees later, we were home in the safety of our comfy hotel room.

We knew the day would be like this. Everyone we told about our trip to Mysore for Dasara all said the same two things: It’s going to be incredible, and it’s going to be more crowded than anything you’ve ever seen. It was both of those things. Maybe we could have had better seats at the Palace. Maybe we could have avoided the four or five instances of soul-sucking crushes of humanity. Maybe we could have done things better at Bannimantap. But in the end, we saw the elephants three times, including once at a distance of about 15 feet. We saw great dancers, fun bands, a torchlight parade we couldn’t have imagined, and experienced one of the most important festivals in Southern India. It was a very good day.

Summary of advice for future gold card attendees:

  1. Make the most of your Gold Card (we learned the next day that it is valid through the holiday, not through the holiday weekend)
  2. Go to the palace for the Jamboo Savari – it’s worth it – but go early and get yourself into the front row of one of the risers. The front row is very long and anywhere in it will be better than any other option further back. The very front section is for white gold cards (invitees) rather than black gold cards that can be purchased – they are on a lower riser so no worries about being behind them.
  3. Go from there directly to the southern edge of the Bannimantap grounds along the parade route. You might just tell your driver to take you to Hotel Athithi or National Residency. You might even consider staying at the National Residency or any other hotel along the parade route if you could get a room with a street-facing view. In this case, a fancy view might trump an otherwise fancy hotel.
  4. No big rush to get yourself to Bannimantap grounds for the evening. The stand is steeply raked, so your view is unlikely to be obstructed anywhere unless you end up in the seats on the ground in front. There is no reason to be there before 7, and 7:30 would be just fine.
  5. You’ll be given water, mango juice, and snacks at the palace and the Bannimantap grounds. No need to carry more unless you’re concerned about dehydration (Melissa prefers a little dehydration to public pit toilets shared by a million people).
  6. Expect the crowds and don’t get freaked out. They’re all there to have the same good time you’re seeking. No matter how much you are expecting the crowds, there will be moments that are beyond your expectations. It might be easier to not freak out if you know all of your belongings are well secured.

Chapter 7: Nandi Hills

After nearly three weeks in Bengaluru, we were ready to do a little exploring out of town. We wanted to breathe some cleaner air, see some beautiful vistas, and maybe be in an area with slightly less human density. We were also eager to check out Grover Zampa Vineyards and see if Indian wine was worth further exploration. Sadly, GZ will have to wait since we learned that the winery is closed until September, but all other things seemed possible.

We put out the call to Tom’s colleagues to see if anyone else wanted to come along on our excursion, and happily we were joined by two families: Colleen and Ethan, originally from Lopez Island, but most recently from Cameroon, with their 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son; and Ben and Christina from Denver, also on their first international placement, with their 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

Since the winery idea fell through, we invited everyone to join us back at our place for snacks and some blind tasting of a few India wines after the day of sightseeing. Planning for this was a bit of a challenge for Melissa. We love entertaining, but realize now that we have some pretty comfortable entertaining ruts that just don’t work here. The cheeses, dips, crackers, etc. that we expect to easily acquire at New Seasons just aren’t easily available. The more complicated things we enjoy serving require fancy, new-fangled kitchen equipment like ovens and food processors or inaccessible ingredients. With stops at two stores and an order placed at Nature’s Basket (the place to find fancy imported foods at a serious premium), we had enough random munchies that people wouldn’t be hungry, and we planned to make our first papadum and onion bajjis.

On Saturday morning, we were picked up by three taxis arranged by Madesh and drove north for the first time since our arrival. We live in the north part of Bengaluru so are usually traveling south to get to anything – shopping, parks, entertainment. But to the north are the Nandi Hills and Tipu Fort, our primary destination for the day. It took about 75 minutes to get there, thankfully a drive with relatively light traffic, passing a lot of really interesting scenery that included green, jungle foliage, neighborhoods of varying levels of affluence, and ruins of Tipu Sultan’s birthplace. Tipu Sultan is often called the Tiger of Mysore and was an 18th century ruler of Southern India, most famous for his determined resistance to English rule in the Anglo-Indian wars.

Tipu Fort is high up on a hill at nearly 5000 ft with commanding views of the whole region. The narrow, shoulderless road up the hill is a series of abrupt switchbacks with a fair amount of traffic going in both directions. It was definitely a moment for trust because we had no control at all. Happily, we were distracted by all the monkeys along the way. Melissa (who had not seen any monkeys) was delighted, but repeatedly admonished by the driver, saying, “Monkeys are dangerous. Caution!” We promised to be careful.

We had read that tickets would cost 15 rupees for Indians and 200 rupees for foreigners, but when we got to the front of the line, we were asked for 10 rupees each and an additional 50 rupees for a camera. That brought the total to just over a dollar for the two of us, which frankly didn’t seem like enough. Near the entrance, a vendor was selling ice cream, and a couple of the kids got some. This triggered the only trauma of the day when 10-year-old Ainsley’s ice cream was stolen out of her hand by a bold monkey. Monkeys were everywhere throughout the day, and it was so fun to see them, especially the babies (although we protected food carefully after that).

 

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After passing through a gate, we headed up a long path with very little idea of where we were going or what we would see. It is strangely difficult to get specific information about Indian sites. We’re used to going on-line and carefully researching the things we want to see. In other countries. we can usually find someone’s carefully curated walking tour with points of interest and historical fact, but not here in India. There will be plenty of guidance about the importance of going to a particular place and maybe a couple specifics (a number of people recommended going to Tipu Fort for sunrise, a suggestion reiterated by our driver), but the majority of details just aren’t written down. 20170819_111635As we walked around the grounds, there were signs in English with clearly stated rules, but all other informational signs were in Kannada, so we were in the dark. There was one big sign that listed the points of interest in both English and Kannada, so we knew some of what we were looking for. From there, we just wandered and took in what we could. It had been suggested by one of Tom’s colleagues that we should hire a guide for the day – we decided not to because we were putting it together at the last minute and it was going to be a bit pricey, but we’d like to go back at some point with a guide so we can get a little more context.

 

At the highest point of the hill is the Yoga Nandeeshwara Swamy Temple. We thought this 20170819_114513would be an old relic that was mostly a tourist destination now, but it really isn’t. Sure, there are tourists (we think – there were a lot of people there and only two other non-Indians), but it is an active temple and place of worship. No photos can be taken inside and it really felt solemn and lovely. There is a priest in just an orange lungi lighting incense which people line up to wave over their faces while walking slowly past the idols. We’re not yet sure what’s appropriate for us. We know it would be inappropriate to visit a Catholic church and take communion when we don’t believe – does it naturally follow that it would be inappropriate to stand in line for incense waving? Or is that more appropriate than standing aside to observe? We’ll find out and be more confident in our actions next time.

 

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After quite a bit more wandering and marveling at the natural beauty, the old ruins, and the adorable monkeys, we headed back to find our drivers who were waiting for us in 20170819_141552-1their cars. From there, we told our driver that we wanted to go to the Bhoga Nandishwara Temple, and he said he’d take us there but insisted on going somewhere else first. We didn’t really understand what he wanted to do or why but decided to just trust him – boy, were we glad we did! He took us to a temple that hadn’t been on 20170819_141458-1our list but was truly magnificent with idols in alcoves and a giant bull statue inside. Worshippers were walking slowly around it, and we joined them. Our driver told us (we think) that it started small 1000 years ago and has slowly been added to over time. So far we haven’t been able to find it on line, but we’ll keep trying because we’d like to be able to take people there in the future.

Then we went to Bhoga Nandishwara Temple, which is really a large walled complex with a beautiful park on one side and a temple on the other. It was built in the 9th century, dedicated to Shiva, and is covered with beautiful carvings and idols. On the park side people picnic and relax on the lawn. On the temple side, they are clearly there to worship. It is truly awe-inspiring.

 

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After about an hour there, we headed back to our drivers and back home, arriving a little before 5. We set out a spread that included imported cheeses (smoked gouda, kerrygold, and brie), dips (unappealingly grainy hummus, tasty peri peri garlic dip, and herb dip), crackers, masala potato puffs, onion potato puffs, veggies, cashews, and our own papadum and onion bajji (which were quite tasty if we do say so ourselves). The grown-ups came over but left the kids to relax at their respective homes with their screens – it had been a big day.

We also put out 4 bottles of wine for tasting and ranked them as a group: the clear winner was Grover Zampa La Reserve, followed by Fratelli Cab Franc/Shiraz. There was some dispute about which came in last, MS Sangiovese/Cab Franc/Syrah or Raya Red Wine, but we all agreed that they were all drinkable even if not all our favorites. Nice to know we can get a good bottle of wine for $15, decent bottle of wine for $11, and a drinkable bottle for less than $7. We’ll do ok 😊

Most significantly, it was really nice to have an evening to hang out and chat with new friends. We look forward to many more such evenings!

Chapter One: Departures and Arrivals

Our journey to India has begun. It didn’t start when we arrived in Bengaluru, or even when we stepped on the plane. It started weeks ago with the loving support of family and friends.

As we started preparing, we decided to avoid setting expectations about where we were going or what it would be like – that seemed essential, given that we truly knew next to nothing and really couldn’t imagine it. Any expectation seemed too likely to become a disappointment. When we were alone, that was easy. When anyone was around, it became much more difficult. People are curious when you tell them you’re moving to India, and questions simply come up.

– What will your apartment be like? I don’t know.
– How will you get around? Will you get a car? I don’t know.
– How will your finances work in India? I don’t know.
– What will your classes be like, Tom? I don’t know.
– What are you going to do, Melissa? I don’t know!

We always knew that the questions came with the best of intentions, but the mountain of “I don’t knows” was really intimidating. We’re delighted to finally have some answers. It turns out that it was also impossible not to set expectations even if we weren’t acknowledging them, but we’ll get to that.

Next came the emotional preparation: soaking up love from our family and friends. In the months before we left, we managed to schedule time with each of our nieces and nephews and goddaughters, visit friends in Seattle, visit friends in LA, be visited by friends from Squamish, and enjoy big and small family gatherings. It was so good to feel that web of support when we were nervous.

At Ellie’s birthday party, we described all of the fun plans we had before taking off. Diane’s brother-in-law Sam was very concerned about how we would get it all done. Logistics started to concern us. While we started some purging in June, we didn’t really accomplish much until after returning from our late June/early July trip. The trip was a delight – taking our nephew Alex to Washington DC and then splitting up for Melissa’s trip to CT, NJ, and NY and Tom’s trip to Hood Canal. When we reconvened on July 8 in Portland, with exactly three weeks until our departure date, a bit of panic set in.

Melissa’s Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue arrived on July 9 and got us on track. By the time they left on July 12, we were feeling so ridiculously confident that we considered bumping up our move date from July 24 to July 21. Luckily, the movers told us they weren’t available. Whew! On July 17, Rachel arrived from Seattle and kept us on track with packing, particularly once Melissa shared her dream of Saturday wine tasting. Even with eight car loads to Goodwill, two big bags to Dress for Success, a truck load to the dump, furniture and random items posted on Next Door, and furniture to Melissa’s brother Jesse and our new friend Tom, there was a lot to pack. And we did it! By Sunday afternoon we were able to announce to Sam at Benny’s birthday party that we were ready for the Monday morning movers.

Expectation challenge 1: Tom thought the movers would be able to load the truck in about an hour. Melissa thought that it would probably take two hours. In fact, after 4 ½ hours, those hard-working young men had to break the news that the truck was full and they’d have to go unload some stuff before they could finish. In total, it took them over 7 hours to load up at our house and unload into storage space in their warehouse. We were delighted by the care they took in protecting everything with both furniture blankets and shrink-wrap but a bit surprised by the time and expense. Still, we got all of the belongings we planned to take to India over to Tom’s mom Elaine’s house and then made

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it to the meet-up point for Tom to sell his car in plenty of time. Mission accomplished! Then we got to enjoy a week of relative relaxation (interrupted by appointments with the dentist, our tax guy, the escrow guy, and various other necessities) before finishing up with a big family dinner the night before we left.

And then the big day came and we headed to the airport!

Expectation challenge 2: We were so nervous about checking seven pieces of luggage all the way through from Portland to Bengaluru, with two airlines involved (Alaska and Emirates) that we wanted to get to the airport really early. We were there before 10:30 am for our 1:50 pm flight, and checking the bags was effortless. We paid exactly what we expected to pay for three of them, and the guy behind the counter never even raised an eyebrow. Apparently, our life-changing event was not such a big deal for him. Not only that, but we got through security in record time and then had nearly three hours post-security. We spent some of it walking to the end of each concourse before settling on a final US meal at the Laurelwood in E concourse: nachos for Melissa and a veggie burger and fries for Tom. After a bit more restless walking, we boarded the plane and began our journey in earnest: first to Seattle, then to Dubai, then to Bengaluru.

In Seattle, we had one moment of adrenalin when Tom realized that he’d left his phone and Kindle on the seat of the plane after briefly setting them down to lift a carry-on from the overhead bin. We were able to race back to the gate, collect them from some amused gate attendants, and take the three trains to our gate in the international terminal with time to spare.

Expectation challenge 3: We are very used to the notion that one carry-on item really means one carry-on item plus another small thing that you can put at your feet and that weight doesn’t matter. On Emirates Air, neither of those assumptions are true. After hearing an announcement that we could only carry on one piece of luggage each and that those items could weigh no more than seven kilos, we went to ask if we needed to check our roller bags and were told that we most certainly did. Happily, those were checked for free while the other excess bags cost $175 each.

The 14 ½ hour flight from Seattle to Dubai was long. There’s no way around that. We each watched three movies in between dozing, eating, and restless walking from row 20 to the back of the plane on water quests.

Expectation challenge 4: We expected more from the top-rated airline in the world: The food was uninspired, the leg room was as lacking as most American airlines, Melissa’s seat charger didn’t work, and our touchscreens were frustratingly finicky. We were not impressed. Clearly their rating comes from their luxurious first class and business class cabins which we eyed longingly while boarding and disembarking. There was one moment of brief but intense turbulence, during which we held hands across the aisle, but it was otherwise uneventful. One happily met expectation: Thanks to Linda and Sue’s insistence on compression socks, our feet did not swell.

The Dubai airport is huge! They warned us while still on plane that it might take 45

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minutes to get to a connecting gate – with 1 ½ hours before boarding, we weren’t worried but didn’t dawdle. It actually took about 15 minutes to get to our empty gate after crossing a cavernous, but largely empty airport. The boarding process was odd – first they announced that the gate was open (first class, business class, and fancy club members to one door and the rest of us to another). As we got to the front of the line, they checked our boarding passes and passports and then sent us into another giant holding area. This room had no restrooms, which was a bit disappointing. After waiting there a while, they began a more usual, structured boarding process for the plane. This time we sat next to each other instead of across the aisle from each other. This flight seemed brief in comparison at only 4 ½ hours , partly because both of us fell sound asleep before takeoff. Emirates redeemed themselves a little on this flight; better food and equipment made for a far nicer experience.

Immigration in Bengaluru was really efficient and we then hustled to baggage claim. The

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wait for each piece of luggage was a bit painful, but all nine pieces eventually arrived! Only one box appeared to have been damaged, but its contents were fine – luckily that one was primarily Melissa’s clothes. Customs took two minutes without anyone speaking to us – maybe we should have brought more wine.

Oh, the relief when we stepped out the door and saw Shane Kells, head of school, smiling and waving from the end of the row! He introduced us to others from CIS and handed us a bag with a couple sandwiches and Diet Cokes and sent us off with Prem (facilities manager) and three other men in CIS shirts who loaded our luggage into a CIS van (no small feat with all of the seats in there) and then loaded us into a car with a quiet young man who drove us to our apartment.

We arrived at our apartment exhausted and overwhelmed, but generally happy to be home.

Next post: Chapter two: The Apartment

Chicago!

Our first post, and our trip to Chicago.

We’re trying new things. In the past year, we learned to cook Indian food, we attempted Thai food, we bought a sailboat, and, oh, yeah, we committed to moving to Bengaluru, India for two years. We are hoping all kinds of new things are coming our way in the next couple years, and we will try to document those things here, for our own sake and to share our adventures.

We thought we’d get our feet wet with this new little writing adventure by describing our somewhat spontaneous, kind of ridiculous trip to Chicago during the first week in June. Melissa had a meeting on Thursday and Friday, so Tom flew out to meet her on Friday afternoon. The only thing we had planned was an architecture tour on Chicago’s First Lady. This is unusual for us. One of the reasons the two of us travel so well together is that we balance each other out: Melissa is generally the planner; Tom is generally the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pantser. Together, we tend to plan a lot of fun outings on our trips, but we’re always open to scrapping our plans for interesting things that come along.

Our first dinner was spent at the famous (at least in our family) Lou Malnati’s for some deep dish. We walked from there down to Grant Park. Tom had fun imagining we were walking through the spirit of Obama’s election night. Ah, those were the days. We walked all the way up the lakefront to Navy Pier and up the river a little ways. By then we were worn out and ready to hop the Blue Line back to our hotel.

Saturday’s adventures  definitely benefited from being a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of day.

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Macy’s beautiful tiled dome, leftover from the old Marshall Field’s days.
Our only plan was the Architecture tour at 1:00. We surrounded that with all kinds of fun things: Gino’s East for more deep dish, Macy’s to see the tiled dome (and get some clothes appropriate for an event coming up), a walk through Millennium Park, drinks at III Forks (not the rooftop bar we wanted, but Cindy’s was closed for a private event), and a quick shot through Chicago Cultural Center for an exhibit on the doors formerly at Malcolm X Community College. We wrapped up the day with an amazing dinner at Trattoria No. 10.

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The Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower from the river.
We were again reminded why it is so important to both plan and roll with things. Our architecture tour was amazing. The Chicago Architecture Foundation puts on a good show. The buildings are amazing, the guides are crazy knowledgeable, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to get tickets if we didn’t plan ahead. We only went to the Cultural Center and Trattoria No. 10 because our tour guide recommended them, and they turned out to be highlights of the weekend. We had a notion that we’d do a deep dish tour of Chicago, but after two very good meals, we figured we’d had enough since we only had a couple more meals left. We hit a good number of things we had hoped to do, though we didn’t have time for all of it — Second City, blues clubs, and Willis Tower, née Sears Tower, will have to wait until next time.

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Hamilton, here we come!
The most important spur of the moment choice was when, on a lark, we remembered that Hamilton was in the middle of a verrrrrrry long run in Chicago, to the point of some people describing it as a second residency. We thought, ‘No way are there tickets. That play never has tickets.’ Lo and behold: there were tickets available! When we realized that we probably wouldn’t see it for years if we didn’t do it now, it kind of felt like a no brainer. The only question was the price. Our Old Pal Dan has a handy metric: the fun-to-money ratio. Let’s just say, it was a bargain! The performances were amazing, and the production lived up to every bit of the hype.

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Our luck included some pretty amazing seats!
We look forward to our adventures ahead — the huge one we have planned and all of the little ones we are going to ad lib. We’ll try our best to keep you all updated while not boring you with minutiae. It might take a while to find the balance, but we’ll try.


Some minutiae:

Deep dish: We did end up at two of the highest rated deep dish joints. Much to brother Michael’s chagrin, we definitely were more impressed with Gino’s East. The toppings were fresher, and the crust was more interesting thanks in large part to the cornmeal. In general, neither of us came into the weekend as tremendous fans of the form, and it doesn’t supplant nice thin, Neapolitan pies as our favorites, but we came away with a whole lot more respect.

The Art Institute of Chicago: This isn’t really minutiae, but it didn’t really fit into whatever flimsy narrative we constructed above. It was amazing. We only had time for a couple of sections — we both spent most of our time in the Impressionists exhibits, Tom went to see the Modernists, and Melissa checked out the photography. Tom once again reaffirmed that his favorites are definitely his favorites, even if they are everyone’s favorites — Paul Klee, Monet, van Gogh, and many, many more. Also, the cafe is delicious.