“I was in Bangalore, India, the Silicon Valley of India, when I realized that the world was flat.” – Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize winner
Landed at 7:05am. Feeling a slight lethargy in my body due to the early morning flight, I slowly traipsed out of the futuristic-looking airport building with my light blue backpack in tow. Stepping into cool air, I was surprised to see not a single tuk-tuk “Abang” driver coming to harass me.
Maybe it was the early morning.
Or maybe it was my don’t-come-close-to-me-because-I-just-had-an-early-morning-flight face.
Or maybe it was just…
The mecca of startup enthusiasts. Several sources have written that Bangalore houses one of the fastest growing technology startup communities in the world (Ghosh, 2015), even earning the sobriquet, “Silicon Valley of India” (Vaidyanathan, 2012). Established giants such as Wipro and Infosys have already called Bangalore their home decades ago but the ecosystem only thrived in recent years when young and rapidly growing tech upstarts like Flipkart, Myntra, redBus and Karbonn Mobiles came on board. This innovation spine seemed to have transformed the city dramatically as Bangalore felt different from the other cities I’ve been in India (and I guessed inhabitants here have higher propensity to use new technologies, i.e., Ola cab app, and thus, would be less inclined to flag down a tuk-tuk taxi).
Walking to the bus ticket counter, my nose picked up on an aromatic caffeinated scent wafting lyrically though the air and like the children of Hamelin dancing ignorantly to Pied Piper’s alluring music, I made a beeline to its source, a nearby coffee stand, oblivious to the need of getting out of the airport and into the city. By then, a batch of newly arrived working professionals, with their smart-looking tailored suits, had already formed up a queue, so I had to wait patiently before getting my freshly brewed filtered coffee. Nothing like a good cup of coffee to keep out the “zzz” zombie in me. Feeling a little more refreshed than when I stepped out of the plane, I boarded the bus in growing excitement of meeting my first Couchsurfing (CS) host in India.
While I wasn’t new to the CS scene, it had been long since I last surfed. The most recent one was in Taichung near the start of 2015. The more sustained ones, in which I surfed continuously, were during my student exchange days in Europe circa 2011. Those were the days when I strived to travel to as much countries using as little money as possible. CS was and is still arguably the best platform to fulfill both objectives. Since my first CS experience in Salzburg, I had surfed on the kindness and generosity of hosts from all walks of life around the world. Each time seems different – the home, neighbourhood, discussions, personality and even the culinary skills of my hosts.
But, it’s not always a bed of roses, as the thorny issue of making the first contact, i.e., finding the host’s residence or the host herself in populous meeting places, has always bedeviled me. This time, it was no exception, as I was walking in circles around the area for a good half an hour. With ferocious-looking dogs in the vicinity, it made the already arduous task all the more difficult. After a few cul-de-sacs, I was pretty sure I found the place as the words on the gate matched to the appellation sent in a message earlier to me. Yet, with no noticeable human activities in the house, the last thing I want to be mistaken for in my sojourn here is committing daylight burglary.
Splattering of water droplets and shuffling sounds could be heard in the adjacent bungalow. I walked through its unlocked gate and called out. A well coiffured silver-haired lady looking to be in her sixties peeked out from the second floor. I instinctively blurted out my host’s name, in hopes of replacing my unfamiliar face with hopefully, a familiar name. Her eyes lit up and she cried out to the next house, alerting the well concealed occupants to my plight. A voice echoed back. Taking the cue, I hurried back and was welcomed warmly by my first CS host in India, the Bhatt family.
Was treated to a quintessential Indian breakfast and much needed home-made coffee before rushing out of the house to get the data SIM card. The latter was of utmost importance. Not getting one would only prolong my misery at not being able to navigate smoothly to my destinations. My next city, Hampi, is a remote archeological town (Nearest major town, Hospet, is around 13 km far and 30 mins by bus), and travelling around in such hinterlands can be problematic without the use of any navigation tools. Time would be wasted in experimenting with alternative routes, inquiring with random passersby or worse, getting into unnecessary lengthy conversations with loquacious ones.
The day was breezy and slightly cold, unlike that of hot and wet Chennai. I started out at Brigade Road, a shopping precinct teeming with recognizable Western labels, i.e., KFC and Starbucks. The latter provided free WiFi, useful for anyone wanting to save on limited data allowances or for travellers lacking a local SIM card (yours truly). Perhaps, a Chinese guy lounging around on a working day was an unwonted sight, as two youthful-looking baristas approached me like a bolt out of the blue for a free coffee tasting session. A detailed introduction on the coffee beans was soon followed by free chocolates and a cup of brewed coffee. The latter was strikingly bitter, as if to portend the laborious activities lying ahead of me for the rest of the day.
Heading back to the Airtel shop, a customer service staff with conspicuous tattoos on his arm spelled out the requirements to register a data SIM card (costing 399 rupees and came with 1GB of data free).
“What? I don’t bring passport picture when I travel”
“You will also need to pass me a letter from your hotel or a physical verification from your host. Also, your host has to provide a form of identification.” Perhaps, as proof of either being a resident or of age to embark on a liberal activity of housing a foreign stranger or both.
“And, the card can only be activated after two hours”
I tried pleading with him, by complaining about the system and saying that in all my travels so far, I had never encountered such a cumbersome process to get a SIM card (which was true), in hopes of avoiding the need to get the passport photo (which would incur extra money) and my host to come down to the shop to bail me out. But to no avail.
Another instance of the numerous superfluous procedural turnstiles I had encountered in India that caused my travelling to be more inefficient and slower. One other example was the necessity to fill up a hosting form (“Form C”) each time a foreigner were to stay at an Indian home, failing which, a hefty fine could be imposed on the host (First heard of this compulsory requirement during my homestay in Jaipur). That said, unless my host insisted, I usually desisted from filling it.
Whether these procedural constructs served to hamper or pamper is a moot point. Proponents would argue on the grounds of security through the reduction of nefarious activities. On the other hand, opponents would lament that these speed bumps stifle everyday’s life. Taken both the marginal benefit of security with the marginal cost of speed into consideration, do you feel that the present system is efficient?
From my perspective as a traveller, I would say some of the existing bureaucratic processes are needless and avertible (Not too sure why I need to get a passport photo when it’s already on the first page of my passport and there’s the latest invention called photocopier). In fact, when I was in Shenzhen (Jan’16), it took me less than one minute to obtain a SIM card (from China Unicom). All I needed to give were RMB 69 and my choice of a local number. That’s it. No passport, two hour activation or addresses needed (Well, maybe because I wasn’t looking like I was going to piece together an “explosive” clock bomb).
Commencing “The Amazing Race, Bangalore Edition”, I went to the nearest photography shop, which was one street away in an obscured back alley. A bespectacled man greeted me as I entered into a capacious room decorated with framed portraits on ashen white walls.
“How much for a passport size photo?”
“150 rupees for 15 pieces”
“I don’t need 15 pieces. Can I buy only one piece and you charge me a lower price instead?”
Frowning his eyebrows, he seemed perplexed as to why I didn’t understand him.
“Sorry, it’s a package price. 150 rupees for 15 pieces.”
“No. Sorry. I don’t need 15 pieces. I only need one piece. Can I get a price for that piece?”
Sensing an impending verbal carousel, I made a hasty exit, with my ears picking up on a slight grumble as I walked down the steps. I was still determined to get my data SIM card, but now with a stronger dose of urgency coursing through my veins. Two streets and a traffic junction later, I was at another photography shop that charged me 100 rupees for eight pictures.
“No. I don’t need eight photos, I only need one photo,” I replied exasperatedly.
After much bargaining, the package became four photos for 70 rupees. I agreed reluctantly. A protracted negotiation would only incur more opportunity cost given that only three daylight hours were remaining. True to his words, the staff fastidiously put his own mug shots into the other four slots in order to complete the eight piece print template. With four passport photos in hand, I went back to Starbucks to send a Whatapps message to Simran. Thankfully, she was working nearby, else, this saga might be heading towards a nasty ending.
She arrived and appeared amused when asked to provide a form of identification. Finally, after nearly three hours, the Indian data SIM card was in my phone, and I further added another 2 GB of data (455 rupees) just in case of unforeseeable substantial data consumption down the road. Hastily biding my farewell to Simran, I walked briskly along MG road to see the local sights. Bloated overcast clouds hanged precariously above me as the architecturally awe-inspiring Vidhana Soudha, seat of the state legislature of Karnataka, came into view.
Then, the mayhem began as the heavens opened their flood gates. I quickly took a few more shots before dashing back to Brigade Street. Too late. The dam above seemed to be breached as torrential rain came heavy and swift. I quickly took shelter at a nearby jewelry shop, which had a covered storefront to accommodate a few of us miserable individuals. Big water puddles had already formed by then, as the existing drainage system seemed inadequate to contain the heavenly tsunami.
Interestingly, this was the heaviest rainfall in Bangalore for the whole year and it was coincidental with my arrival (I had encountered heavy rain in my previous city of Chennai but no, it didn’t rain when I was at Hampi). To further illustrate how bad the flooding was, my host couldn’t even drive out of her house to fetch me. She suggested Ola cabbing, but looking at the map, the distance to her place was pretty near (1.3 km and 16 mins by foot). So I ran back, stepping into several unavoidable ankle-deep water puddles along the way.
Arriving to concerned faces, I quickly took a hot shower as Uncle Bhatt pointed out that these murky water pools were poisonous due to the overflowed sewage system. Further, he remarked that I was fortuitous not to have dropped into any of the uncovered manholes. Perhaps, there were watchful guardian angels ricocheting me away from these pitfalls.
I tucked into a cozy and traditional dinner with the Bhatt family. Aunty Bhatt’s cooking was amazing! The briyani and chicken were delicious and I even requested to pack the Papadum for my overnight ride to Hampi. We were having some light-hearted conversations when the lights in the house suddenly went off. Due to the intense rain, the power supply was disrupted. Throughout the evening, a few more blackouts occurred intermittently in between mirthful laughter and animated no-holds-barred storytelling (Was sharing about my travel stories in Indonesia, in which I twice had a close brush with death).
It was a good evening indeed and even though I was miles away from Singapore, it almost felt like I was back home. But, the end of the night beckoned. Aunty Bhatt kindly drove me to the bus station, which I then took an overnight bus to Hospet, and after which, another bus to Hampi.
Stay tuned for the adventures in Hampi.
- If you are an entrepreneur, do visit Bangalore. You can start off by joining the “Bangalore Startup Connect” Facebook group.
- If you are sightseeing tourist, there isn’t much to see in Bangalore unfortunately.
- Bring a passport picture, proof of hotel stay and passport when applying for a SIM card
- If you couchsurf in India, there is a need to fill up “Form C”. Do inquire with your host on it.
Any interesting travel experiences in Bangalore, do share them in the comments!
Ghosh, Anirvan. 2015. “Bangalore Is World’s 2nd Fastest Growing Startup Ecosystem, Has Youngest Entrepreneurs, Says Study”. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2015/07/29/bangalore-global-startup-_n_7893924.html on the 4.1.16