Travel Journal: Alexandra Wong’s Solo Adventure In India (Part 1)
For many female travellers, being able to travel solo is a luxury just because of the safety factor. Then, compound that with a solo female traveller going to India – a country often reported as a destination that’s not safe for females, whether locals or tourists – and it can seem like a pipe dream.
This wasn’t the case for Alexandra Wong, intrepid adventurer, writer and author of the best-seller Made In Malaysia: Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems. With much planning and consideration, Alex – as she is fondly known, decided to go for that much-longed trip to India, even if it means going by herself.
Here, Alex shares with Gadabout a peek into her travel diary, recounting her travels in Bangalore, Goa and Mysore in 2009, in this first part out of two:
In Alex’s Own Words: Exploring Bangalore
“I’m a tangle of knots when I step off the plane.
This trip is the culmination of 18 years of dreaming and planning. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been obsessed with India. Maybe it was watching Bollywood tear-jerkers with my mum, while emptying Kleenex boxes. Maybe it was living next-door to Indian neighbours, who plied us with halwa, chicken varuval and chappatis. Maybe it was studying in a school where many of my closest friends were Indian. I used to joke that I knew what chicken varuval was before Buddha jumped over the wall, thanks to all the Deepavali open houses I attended.
Because of the bad press about India’s safety, particularly for women travellers, I had always thought that my first trip to India would be a packaged tour with another fellow India-phile, my buddy Wendy. But my job at an American multinational corporation kept me too busy for any long holidays, until I quit my job after seven years in the corporate world to do some soul searching.
That’s when it hit me, now was my perfect opportunity. My last boss was an Indian expatriate, who had gone back to Bangalore after his Penang posting. Having a local guide me around would the best AND safest option. Plus, Bangalore frequently came up in Google search as one of the safest cities in India.
“Welcome to India.” The sign brings me back to the present.
Bangalore Airport somehow reminded me Penang International Airport, except that it had local coffee chain Café Coffee Day at the frontage instead of Starbucks.
There he is, long legs and lanky frame encased in that familiar orange-check work shirt he loved to wear when working in Penang.
As we stride towards each other on the driveway outside the airport and clasp each other in a warm hug, I can’t help thinking this is so appropriately (ahem) Bollywood.
“I can’t believe I’m here!” I shriek like a little girl.
I continue gabbing at top speed as he puts my luggage into the taxi and we take off. Craning my neck out of the backseat window, I gawk eagerly at billboards proclaiming the best telephone services. The roads are mystifyingly empty. Where are the human swarms I’d read about?
“Oh you’ll see the real India soon. The airport is on the outskirts,” he says cheerfully.
(Ed’s note: These days, though, Alex might be surprised to find that the real India starts right at the airport, with cultural events often happening at Kempegowda Airport’s The Quad by BLR, right outside the Arrivals area. See video below for a sample of the excitement!)
First things first – we go over the programme for the next two days, as Boss has back-to-back meetings and will only be able to join me for dinner tomorrow. Thankfully, he has booked me a place in the heart of town where there are plenty of places I can visit by foot.
I hand him the sheaf of papers, the product of my R & D for the last couple of weeks.
“Wow!” he shakes his head in amazement as he scans my list of to-visit places. “I’m impressed Alex. You’ve got all the right places covered. I see you have included Nagarjuna, it’s one of my favourite places to eat. You must try the chilli chicken. And it’s just a short walk from Ballal Residency.”
For the uninitiated, my boss has booked me into a “residency” – that’s their jargon for service apartments.
I startle at a loud honk. Looking up, I nearly jump out of my skin at the sight of a cow inches away from my taxi window.
“People here honk as a friendly way to tell you that “I’m coming” or “Get out of my way!” You’ll get used to it,” he says cheerfully.
The way locals take tight corners and squeeze between vehicles would put the fear of God in even the staunchest atheist (and pray for their sorry lives). Imagine six vehicles huddled together in a lane meant for three. I close my eyes several times during our short drive to my residency.
I feel a momentary flutter of panic after Boss gets off the taxi halfway. It hits me. I’m all alone in a foreign country with all my worldly possessions on my body. What if the taxi driver decides to spirit me off somewhere, rape and murder me and dump my wasted body in the river? I recall a friend’s dire warnings. Then again, this could happen anywhere in the world.
You will be fine Alex, I give myself a motivational pep talk. Start your trip with a positive mindset!
The traffic picks up noticeably as we get into the heart of town. Cubbon Park. Viddhana Soudha. Brigade Road. Names that were once only words on travel guidebooks leap out at me from these colonial remnants.
As we’re waiting at the traffic lights, a small boy knocks on the window of my taxi door, brandishing toy aeroplanes for sale. A young mother precariously balancing a baby in a cloth sling. Barefoot men in dhoti. Entire herds of cows troop languidly as though the street belongs to their grandfather, never mind it’s peak hour. The traffic policeman presides from a circular-shaped kiosk in the hive of traffic, unlike in Malaysia, where the poor chap is exposed and just have to pray for dear life. Pedestrians are mostly in sarees and Punjabi suits, unlike back home, where working girls and men parade the latest in Western fashion.
All around the city, the walls are adorned with colourful murals. They are so ubiquitous that wherever you see a wall, you see murals. Some sport drawings of wildlife. Others bear vivid interpretations of Lord Siva, Ganesh and Vishnu. There are also depictions of India’s most prominent monuments – forts, temples, public buildings. Rich in detail and beautifully rendered, the street art is a stunning introduction to Bangalore.
Ballal Residency is situated at the end of a side lane off the main road. Run by the Ballal family for the last three generations, the property is just meters away from MG Road, Brigade Road and Garuda Mall but set off the back of the road so the noise is minimal.
A tall middle-aged chap leads me to my room. He shows me how to operate the tv, the heater light, the kettle. When I ask him if the internet café is nearby, he walks out to the balcony and bids me to go over. After a series of complicated instructions, it suddenly dawns on me why he’s in no hurry to leave.
“Thank you for your advice.” I make a big show of fishing out my wallet and hand out a RS20.
Manners, Alex, manners.
After I’ve unpacked, I flip through the room service menu. I’m particularly drawn to the Chinese section: to my amusement, the dishes have ravishing names like hakka vegetarian noodles, lung fung soup, and chilly mushroom. I’m almost tempted to skip Nagarjuna to order Chinese food on my first day in India.
But that would be travesty. A quick shower to refresh and I set out for dinner. I dress in a nondescript T-shirt and jeans.
Adventures and Travels In Bangalore: Alex Eats Some Gunpowder
“A walk out the lane, turn right and walk on until you see the sign on your left. You can’t miss it.”
With such specific instructions from the residency’s concierge, I find Nagarjuna with little trouble. The restaurant, a revered culinary institution apparently, occupies an entire building. Getting IN to the place will require some nimbleness – I trip over open potholes and broken bricks etc. While I was there, the papers made a hue and cry about a girl who fell into a pothole that was covered with newspapers and ended up missing some major exam.
You will notice this about India in general – not just Bangalore, I’m told: there’s always some form of construction going on. To put it very generally, India is too big for truly efficient logistics. Case in point: In a row of shops, one owner may decide to fix his drain, but the next door isn’t obliged to. Parking is haphazard. There are no designated parking lots in public areas, except for malls. “You just park where there is no “no parking” sign.”
I don’t envy the Prime Minister; organising an amorphous country of this size and complexity must be a helluva job. Just now, my taxi driver had gasped in disbelief when I told him we have only 28 million people (this is circa 2009). For comparison’s sake, Malaysia is the size of Karnataka – where Bangalore is – and one of India’s 28 states.
I climb up two flights of stairs to the restaurant. It isn’t crowded yet. At slightly 7.30, it’s half an hour before the dinner crowd trickles in.
The lighting is dim, with air-conditioning, partitions made of lacquer wood, decorative mirrorworks and separate booths with green leather seats to give patrons privacy. It feels like a set out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. All that’s missing is a mysterious stranger in a trench coat and cigar. A battalion of waiters dressed in wine-red waist coats and bow tie stand stoically next to the pillars like palace guards, as if waiting to spring to attention.
I order chilli chicken and nasi briyani, as recommended by Shivanee and my boss, with some trepidation. Back in Malaysia, I avoid nasi briyani like the plague – can’t stand the soggy rice and all.
The deceptively bland-coloured, cone-shaped mountain of rice that arrives shortly is nothing but soggy. Beautifully individually separated, chewy, bursting with flavor. Each granule is an umami bomb.
“What rice do you use?” I wave the waiter over.
The signature chilli chicken – simply chicken pieces in a gravy with sliced whole
green chillies – has the colour of dishwater in the dim light. But don’t let its looks fool you; the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and so well-marinated that the flavours penetrate right down to the bone. You don’t even have to spoon the gravy onto your Basmathi rice.
Just one caveat – this dish is not for wimps.
The fire is slow-burn. It spreads slowly through your mouth, to your throat, and by the time it reaches your gullet, it’s a full-blown inferno baby. Think swinging between heaven and hell (translation: alternate masochistic bites out of the chicken followed by copious gulps of Coca-cola).
On my table are four containers of sauces/chutney. I scoop a spoon of some yellow-orange powder on my plate. I can’t even begin to describe this marvel: like eating curry powder, only much better?
“Try this mam.”
A waiter scoops some oily liquid over the powder before I can stop him.
Holy cow. If just now was orgasmic, now it must have hit tantric levels.
“What is this?” I flag the waiter yet again.
“It’s gunpowder, mam.”
Is he for real? I stare at him for several seconds, not comprehending. Yes, it does produce an explosion of sensations but …
“Yes, it’s called gunpowder,” my boss confirms when I call him to check. “It’s an Indian spice mix made from ghee and rice powder, and spices.”
Amazing, the power of Indian cooking! I decide to stop questioning, and just enjoy India for being the enigma it has been so far.
Following dinner, I stroll over to Bangalore Mall just down the road.
I walk past a bunch of working class men who are literally standing and eating at a darshan. This must be what Shivanee meant when she said, “In India, when you say roadside stall, you literally mean roadside. It’s different from Malaysia where even in a warung, you have proper chairs and tables.”
A Study In Contrasts
Diving into the heart of its street life, I get what people mean by India being a study in contrasts. On one street, you have a swanky eatery ostentatiously named The Deli (Colonial snobbery). Next to this, a bunch of men crowd around a pushcart, seemingly oblivious – or is it immune – to the dirt-streaked vagabond lying prostate on a bus-stand. A woman occupies an open, doorless stall nearby. She is wearing a saree that is dirty yet delicate (at least to my unschooled Malaysian eyes), a stark contrast with the harshness of her living conditions. Where does she change clothes, I catch myself thinking? Stupid me. Does she even have clothes to change into?
I turn my eyes away and head towards the bright, reassuring lights of the mall, hoping that it will numb the cornucopia of feelings engulfing me: nervousness, shock and unmistakable euphoria.
Yes, I’m really, truly, finally in enigmatic India.
Day Two in Bangalore: Ladies In Sarees In The Lake!
My boss has kindly arranged a taxi-driver to ferry me around town on Day 2, despite my protestations that I’ll be fine wandering on my own.
“I’ll send you the cab details half an hour before he arrives,” Boss tells me in a voice that brooks no objection.
I’m about to find out that India is a paradox of inscrutable, in-your-face chaos and robotic efficiency. True to his promise, this SMS trickles in eventually: “Thank you for choosing MERU. Cab: KAO3D4222. Subscriber: Rajaguru. MN. Cell: ….will reach you. Conditions apply. Visit www.merucabs.com.”
Very impressive. Makes Malaysia look positively primitive. (Writer’s note: this is 2009, before the age of Grab/Uber).
Mr Ramesh is a stout gentleman in a cream-coloured khaki uniform that comprises a bush-jacket-like top and pants.
“Sorry mam, I can listen but my English speaking is not very good,” he apprises me.
As soon as I’m settled in the back seat, he asks me a baffling question, “Do you like natural or artificial?”
A flurry of half-sentences and hand gestures later, I figure out that he is asking me whether I like natural sceneries or buildings. I opt for the former. This statement lands me, past mural walls, roadside helmet stalls and the omnipresent
roadworks, at Sankey Tank, a manmade lake. Although it wasn’t on my list, I am reluctant to hurt his feelings.
I alight dutifully and stroll inside the compound. There doesn’t seem to be many people around other than a few joggers. Then an unusual sight freezes me in my tracks. I’ve just found where the bulk of the “visitors” are – submerged knee-deep in a huge artificial lake, include ladies in sarees. They seem to be fishing something out of the lake.
Puzzled but intrigued, I click my camera shutter furtively. Then I get bolder when the folks look up and see me – and make friendly waving gestures at me. Is that a greenlight to take more photos?
My boss tells me later: “Indians are usually happy to pose for photographs, don’t worry about it.”
Turns out the folk are washing figurines of Lord Ganesha in the lake waters after the just-transpired Ganesha festival, which is celebrated annually to mark the birth of Lord Ganesh, the god of new beginnings and a fresh start.
From Sankey Tank, we proceed to the next landmark in my list of must-sees. Viddhana Soudha. It’s nice and picturesque and architecturally impressive as any government building is like Kuala Lumpur’s Dayabumi is supposed to be some bulwark of modernist architecture but …
My travel goal has deviated somewhat from the past. Blame it on age or cynicism, to me travelling is about seeing where people eat. Where they shop. Where they pray. Where they work. Yes, the big-ticket attractions like Viddhana Soudha, Iskhon Temple, Muntri Mall are must-sees, but I also want to see how the man in the street goes about his daily life.
After chanting a verse 100 times at the oasis of tranquility that’s Iskcon Temple, I ask Mr Ramesh if we could make a trip to the Bull Temple.
He is happy to oblige. Half an hour later, we end up at Bull Temple at the other end of town.
I survey the flight of steps leading up to the hilltop temple eagerly.
“Madam, you go in first. I am going for snack.”
“What is that?”
Mr Ramesh points to a roadside stall located diagonally across the road from where we are. Exactly the kind of place I have been looking for!
“Can I go with you?” I ask eagerly.
He looks surprised but agrees.
“Thindi” is the local term for a corner stall selling Indian snacks prepared on the spot. The air is pungent with the aromas of freshly prepared coffee and bread. Dozens are crammed into that tiny space; working men, ladies, housewives, waiting impatiently for their orders cooking in an open kitchen no bigger than 2 x 5ft, at most. Two chaps are flipping breads on a hot griddle, two others ladling them on deep metal trays on a counter which imprisons them in, and another one preparing coffee from a machine. Motorcycles, autorickshaws and cars roar past, flavouring the food with a generous sprinkle of dust and dirt. The patrons continue munching on, impervious and unperturbed. Standing – because there are no chairs or stools.
Everybody seems to sip from a tiny thumb-height tumbler of hot liquid. “Is that bru coffee?” Served at most nasi kandar shops or banana leaf restaurants in Malaysia, this strong milky coffee is my favourite caffeinated beverage.
“No, this is filter coffee.”
“Very good.” He punctuates this with an enthusiastic head waggle.
After an extended sequence of interrogation, something clicks in his brain. “You try. I’ll get one for you.”
I gape aghast as my driver – whom I had not even paid a cent – goes off and orders a coffee for his eccentric foreign charge.
Ignoring the barrage of advice from well meaning friends not to eat streetside food, I take a tentative sip. It was rich, lusciously milky, amazingly aromatic, and finished too soon. Filter coffee, huh? What an absolutely sterile, clinical name for liquid manna.
As loath as I am of tourist clichés, Tipu Palace is in the vicinity. To my outrage, I find out the entrance fees for foreigners is RS100 as opposed to RS10 for locals. NO MORE TOURIST TRAPS, I make up my mind.
But since Mr Ramesh has parked the car and we braved a busy street to cross over here, I’m loathe to waste the opportunity. On impulse, I ask Mr Ramesh to take a photo of me next to the signboard. As he gamely struggles to figure out how to use my Lumix F35, my guilty conscience flares up. When he accepted this charter – 80km or 8 hours – he probably hadn’t bargained for a hyperactive traveller who eschewed the usual touristy activities and made him go on a long drive, stopping every now and then to take photos of mundane stuff (to him anyway) – except they were anything but mundane to me.
Everywhere I turn, something reminds me of the over-the-topness that defines Bollywood. Laundromats whose signboards sing gaily, “Fresh as a flower in just an hour”. Gotta love Indian copywriting.
This sense of melodrama pervades even my conversation with Mr Ramesh. For example, he keeps telling me to leave my bag in the taxi and I steadfastly refuse.
“In Malaysia, somebody will break your window and steal your bag.”
He gasps audibly and shakes his head with emphatic certainty. “This is not possible in India. One hundred percent.”
My last stop is Muntri Mall, where I have a nice set meal of thosai and filter coffee AND tea.
My boss is taking me out to a restaurant called Samarkand for dinner. I have a feeling that it’s a classy place. True enough, there are plenty of luxurious touches: high ceilings, ornate décor that includes huge paintings of desert scenes, waiters wearing regal turbans standing like Buckingham sentries, bread sticks that come with FIVE dips served in little pots perched on “branches” in a tree-like contraption. High-brow.
We have countless rounds of breads and naans to accompany the chicken and lamb shank … oh god, my mouth is watering even as I recall the sumptuous spread. We are positively stuffed after that meal fit for kings, but the night is still young.
“Ice-cream?” I appeal to the boss’ sweet tooth.
Turns out that frozen ice institution Sidewalk Ice-Cream Parlour is just outside my residency.
It must be our lucky day, because there’s an empty space – India has very few actual designated parking lots – next to the ice-cream parlour.
I know I am in India because a prominent framed painting of Lord Ganesha hangs above the cashier. Otherwise, Sidewalk resembles some highway diner, with no air-conditioning, very utilitarian chairs, and a dour-looking man minding the ice-cream station. I order their signature Death by Chocolate, earning an approving glance from my boss.
“What else should I try here?” I ask.
“You must try chaat.” At my quizzical expression, he continues, “It’s hard to describe. It has ingredients that you might not be so familiar with, like puffed rice… you must try it.”
“Is it sweet, savoury, spicy …?”
“It’s everything. An explosion of flavours on your tongue. Talking about it is making my mouth water actually …”
“Oh and you must try the Chinese food here.”
“Why would I want to come all the way here and try Chinese food?”
He laughs. “The food here is nothing like what you have back in Malaysia ya. It’s so Indianised you won’t believe it!”
Oh… maybe. Since India has been nothing and everything I expected, maybe I should experiment, just for the heck of it?”
Alex later told us that she didn’t try the Chinese food there after all, preferring to reserve stomach space for authentic South Indian food, which was one of the main points of the journey in the first place.
Where To Stay In Bangalore
As Alex mentioned, Ballal Residency is a great base for exploring Bangalore city centre as it is close to major roads yet set back away from the hustle and bustle of traffic. A night’s stay here starts at USD29 or MYR124, so it’s great for those on a budget but still want comfortable lodgings. Reviewers of this hotel also share how the vegetarian meals at the restaurant here are really good even though quite basic, so that’s a big plus!
Another option is Welcomhotel Bengaluru by ITC Hotels. It’s clean and modern and centrally located, and easy on the wallet starting at only USD38 or MYR157 per night!
If 5-star modern creature comforts is more your style and don’t mind paying more for it, you might want to check into the Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway. It’s right next to Orion Mall, where you might find deals just as good as those at the fabric shops on Commercial Street or Chickpet. Rooms at Sheraton Grand Bangalore start at USD100 or MYR417 per night.
However, if you want something classic and more luxurious, stay at The Oberoi Bengaluru located smack in the middle of town on Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road. You can’t go wrong with the price, either, starting at just USD100 or MYR420 per night!
Getting To Bangalore
There are many airlines that fly into Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru. These include Air India, AirAsia, Air Arabia, Air France, British Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways, KLM, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.
If you’re coming from another city in India, trains services you can take include the Karnatakan Express that runs from New Delhi, the Chennai Shatabdi Express that comes in from Chennai, and the Tippu Express that brings you in from Mysore in 2.5 hours. This is a great way to explore more than once city in India.
In fact, Alex used Bangalore as a base to visit Mysore and Goa, which she will share with us in Part 2 of her solo adventure, so stay tuned!
From an avid magazine reader in her teens to a writer and editor today, Zurien honed her skills at various publications including CLEO, K-Zone, Prestige, The Malaysian Women’s Weekly, LISA Malaysia, MSN.com.my, GLAM Junior, Going Places, kayak.com, HerInspirasi.com, Harper’s Bazaar Malaysia, Tropicana Magazine and Convergence by Malaysia Airports. Zurien hopes to inspire readers to enjoy the best of travel and lifestyle experiences at Gadabout.