It's only February, but the heat is on here in central India. Before India, I enjoyed an afternoon sojourn in Singapore an acquaintance whom I'd originally encountered in northern Laos. I can also recommend against Indian airlines. They changed my flight time, added an additional stop, were generally running late, and condensation on the windows leaked into the cabin (unsettling). Once in India, my first reaction was to the driving. Vehicles of all sizes co-exist in apparent chaos, each one managing to maximize the limited space on the road. Horns of all timbres and resonances fill the air to signal approach, passing, etc... I felt uneasy at first, but then I realized that the drivers are quite skillful and no vehicle travels much more than 20 mph because with all the auto rickshaws clogging the lanes and disobeying traffic rules (for example, sometimes travelling short distances the wrong way), it is impossible.
I spent most of my first four days and today (nearly a week later) with Sheela, her parents, and relatives (who have been truly wonderful hosts). Several afternoons I played street cricket and lagori (an interesting form of dodge ball) with my host family's youngest son, Ajay. We only broke one car headlight with a tennis ball (oops!!) and had to escape one dog that was walking it's drunk owner. The food has really been the highlight here...from home-made masala dosas to curries, idlys, biryanis, and golab jammon, just to mention a few. I didn't see all that much in Bangalore, but we did a bit of shopping and generally relaxed.
One day, I accompanied one of my father's friends' relatives to Mysore, a town known for its beautiful architecture. I was quite impressed by the Royal Palace (lots of gold, ornate ivory and wood door carvings, etc). While I was there, I also visited a temple on a commanding hill and made friends with some locals before attending a light show involving fountains and set to Indian popular music. The show itself was not really that impressive, but the crowd was into it, so that made it fun.
My streak of connections in India continued in Hyderabad, where Reddy's family (and Vineela's too) planned several wonderful days for me. Hyderabad is known for its Islamic influence; Charminar Palace is emblematic of the Islamic architecture. Once I ascended the structure, I got a taste of the lack of personal space afforded in India. Everybody is standing centimeters from one another. Around the structure, a swarm of rickshaws, people, vendors, beggars, and bicycles extends in all directions. The Salar Jung museum has an amazing collection of Indian and Eastern art, plus a famous Italian statue of a woman veiled in delicate drapery and a wall clock with a blacksmith hammering seconds and a surprise personage appearing at the end of the hour. I had to rush through this exhibit, so I actually returned several days later. The evening's visit to Birla Mandir was delightful. This all-marble temple is my favorite that I've seen so far in India. It's a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of Hyderabad. In the evening, I had the famous Hyderabadi Biriani at the Paradise Hotel. The spicy mutton just flaked off the bone! My second day, I toured Golkonda Fort which featured accoustic enhancements designed for communication and the first water system (pumped and piped) in Asia. The King's office afforded a magnificent view and underground passageways connected it to very large burial tombs of the kings (several kms distant) and the huge mosque near Charminar Palace. The Queens' chambers were impressive as many queens resided there simultaneously. Reddy and Vineela have told me that they are envious that I'm getting to eat this food, so I'll spare them the description of the Samosa Regalas at Gokul Chaat. Let's just say that samosas have been re-defined for me. They are no longer a bland dish that readies the palette for more innovative cuisine. Later that afternoon, I went to a local arts and crafts village and enjoyed seeing some of the objects made locally. On my final day in Hyderabad, I toured to a temple recommended by Vineela near the Ramoji film city (a Bollywood vestige/tourist site).
The overnight bus to Hampi placed me in a small town, 10 km from the archaeological site at the unfortunate hour of 4:45AM. I was immediately accosted for a ride/tour/boat etc. I told this individual that I just needed some space, which he refused to provide me. Fortunately, I encountered another traveler in the same predicamment and we took a cheap ride to his hotel in Hampi where we crashed for some more hours before exploring the archaeological sites. Hampi is one of the most interesting places I've been because it is very laid back, but the local people are very religious, so it is nearly impossible to get meat or alcohol in any restaurant. People wash, brush teeth, and do laundry at the river side in large numbers, and the town elephant gets a royal bath treatment twice daily. When I witnessed this, the elephant was happily moving it's trunk as it lay on its side. Apparently it sometimes makes a joyful whistling sound as well. Elephants have been given royal treatment around Hampi for ceinturies. The finest architecture that I saw in Hampi was the royal elephant stables (12 very large stone-carved stables adjacent to one another, with amazing Islamic domes on top). The neat thing about the sites around here is that one can just explore. The terrain features boulders everywhere and some of the finest low-land rock climbing in India. One overland adventure put me in a cave formed by these weathered granite boulders. We made it through the cave, but decided that negotiating miles of boulders the size of tanks would waste the entire day.
I came back to Bangaluru to enjoy one more day with Sheela and her niece. The latter amused us with her opinions on such matters as dating white boys, a subject which arose because we weren't sure whether her parents would oppose an eventual "love marriage." The large dowry that the bride pays would really be the issue, she explained. I suggested that if she married a non-Indian, her family wouldn't have to pay a dowry and they might be satisfied. This is when the subject of dating white boys arose. Although she hasn't tried such, she is convinced that all white boys cheat on their girlfriends. Sheela and I tried to paint a more multi-hued picture for her, probably to limited success. Teenagers are difficult in India, as well. The evening featured a family gathering (many relatives) and a presentation of white gold ear-rings in commemoration of Sheela's return after many years without seeing her. Sheela's uncle explained to me that the Hindu religion is rapidly declining among Indian youth in India, but that the culture is still quite strong amongst Indian youth in the U.S. This is quite paradoxical and I'd be interested to know why this is the case. During the potluck, I was beginning to come down with a food poisoning that I must have gotten from some street food earlier that day or in Hampi. This placed me squarely in bed for a good solid 24 hours. Now, I'm back to 99% and ready to move on to Tamil Nadu.