Bangalore traffic

Crossing the street in Madurai.
Crossing the street in Madurai, in light traffic.

Having spent time in Mumbai and Madurai on this trip, I can again state that Bangalore has the worst traffic.  Still, it somehow seems better than last year, at least in the places I’ve been.

Bangalore is building a new metro rail system, and the first segment opened this year. I saw the trains gliding above M.G. Road last week. This line only serves a particular area, however, so it will take time before the metro system has a broad impact. People tell me that the Delhi metro has made a big difference since it was fully open a few years ago.

New flyovers are there, as well as subways. A “flyover” is a bridge or elevated roadway; a “subway” is a tunnel. They are both used to ease congestion at an intersection by avoiding the need for stoplights or avoiding cross-traffic.

[I just caught myself writing like an Indian would speak.  We might say “There are new flyovers”; they would say “Flyovers are there.”]

As a pedestrian, I’ve seen some new “skywalks”, that is, pedestrian bridges over particularly busy streets or intersections. Still, in most places, to cross the street is means weaving through moving traffic and hope that the traffic goes around you instead of over you.  But the biggest novelty is the advent of pedestrian crossing signs — those green and red lights that tell you when it’s time to walk. They seem to work whenever there is a traffic cop present – all the traffic stops and the pedestrians can safely cross. But at other times, I’ve noticed that the traffic ignores the walk sign and just proceeds into the intersection!

After three weeks walking the sidewalks of India I notice myself becoming more aggressive. I push my way through crowds, I bat away the touts who want to sell me trinkets, I step out into traffic as if I own the street. That’s just the way it’s done. Maybe it’s a city thing. Maybe it’s an India thing. But if I defer to either courtesy or safety, I’d never get across the street.

Perspective of a Bangalore auto-driver

“So is the US a country or a continent?” the auto-driver asked me as we puttered up Residency Road on our way to IISc.

John sits in traffic, in autorickshaw. Can you see Pam in the mirror?
John sits in traffic, in autorickshaw. Can you see Pam in the mirror?

Normally, I don’t have much of a conversation with the driver of an autorickshaw, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis that ply the streets of Bangalore and most other Indian cities.  The conversation usually is limited to my attempt to describe where I want to go and their attempt to convince me that their meter is broken and that I should therefore pay triple the appropriate price for the trip :-).  One of the things I like about autos, however, is that their open-air construction and the frequent lengthy stalls in traffic encourage chatter between the auto driver and nearby auto drivers.  It’s not uncommon to have one auto driver ask another for directions, or for motorcycle riders to chat with an auto driver, all while stopped for a light.

On this sunny Saturday morning, this particular fellow was very conversational and his English was good; certainly far better than my Kannada. His geography was a little challenged.  “US is a country,” I said. “North America is a continent, with three countries – US, Canada, Mexico.”  This was good enough until he stopped to jam us  into the crowd at the next traffic light.  “Is Washington a city or a country?”  he asked. “Is Obama the president of the US or of the continent?”  “So, Washington is the capital of the US?”  So far, I know the answers.  Then, it gets more complicated: “why is the US dollar the most popular currency?”  I should have taken global economics.  “why is English the most popular language?”

We talked on like this.  He noted that the US had just had elections; Obama had won again? yes, I confirmed.  “Indian democracy is not good,” he said, “ninety percent of politicians are corrupt.” I decided not to pursue the topic of politics too far, so I switched to a safer topic.  I noted that there are many new autos on the road, all green on the bottom instead of black, and labeled “LPG”. He confirmed that all new autos must be LPG, which is cleaner than the stinky diesel units of the past. He lamented that the newer machines were much harder (and more expensive) to service, however.

Nice fellow. I asked him where he was from – was he from Bangalore itself?   “Ninety percent of auto drivers are from Bangalore,” he told me.  Interesting; the city has many migrants from all over the country so I assumed otherwise.  I wished him well and we went our separate ways.

A new year in Bangalore

Every time I arrive in Bangalore it feels like coming home.  Even the kids – who were last here three and a half years ago – said it feels “welcoming” and “comfortable” here, particularly at IISc where we lived. We arrived on December 29; Pam and the kids get four days here before making the long trip home.  I’ve posted some photos.

So far we’ve spent time with friends and families of friends. On Sunday we had a wonderful lunch at MTR with Bhavna’s parents, on Monday we had breakfast with Rima and her parents, and afternoon tea with neighbors at IISc. Today (New Year’s Day) we’re resting and plan a bit of shopping.

MTR waiter brings salad

Lunch at MTR is always an incredible experience. I first ate there in April 2009 and have returned several times. That location, the original, is an old building and you practically walk through the kitchen to get to your table – a bustling kitchen with vats of bubbling curry and sambar. On Sunday we visited a newer MTR location on the top floor of a new hotel building in Jayanagar. We had to wait 45 minutes for a table, because so many families were out for a Sunday meal. The anticipation only makes it tastier! They filled a roomful of tables all at about the same time; this is how they are so efficient. Everyone sits at the same time. Then they lay out the plates. Then a flurry of waiters come around, each carrying a bucket of something — chutney, curry, salad, etc – stopping at each table to slop some onto each plate. If you want more of anything, you just wave down the waiter when he comes around with more. I made the same mistake I’ve made before, that is, to ask for more dosa only to realize that there are several more courses to come. Mara and I counted 20 separate foods they delivered. We were so full, but the food is so wonderfully tasty.

Our first visit to IISc was a real treat for the kids. We went to their favorite candy shop, and we walked through our old neighborhood and along the same route to the school bus stop. This brings back so many memories! one would say “remember when we saw…” or “remember the time when we did…” and they would all laugh about it. We tried to visit our apartment but it is occupied by new residents who did not seem to understand why we were visiting. We did have a nice tea with our downstairs neighbor, talking politics and listening to her visiting daughter tell about her experience living in NYC through Hurricane Sandy.

Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve

We spent New Years Eve at one of our favorite restaurants (The Tandoor) on M.G. Road, and walked back via Brigade Road, which was festooned with colorful lights for the holidays. Hundreds of people were gathering in this popular street, and 16,000 police were patrolling the area [The Hindu]. Back at our hotel, a dance party had thumping loud music until after midnight, and the kids stayed up late watching movies.

Do check out the photos.  Now we’re off to do some more exploring. More later!

Madurai

Before we leave Madurai, I wanted to share a few photos from the streets and villages around the city. It’s an ancient city, perhaps 2,500 years old, and has been the site of a major Hindu temple for (quite literally) millennia. In many ways, though, it feels like a village trying to be a city. The streets are filled with trash, the traffic is chaotic, and livestock wander the streets and empty lots.  Tourists are coming in greater numbers, though the infrastructure is not yet fully developed to support them. A brand-new airport now welcomes international flights, but there appear to be only a small number of tourist-quality hotels and restaurants.  Still, the people are friendly and the Aravind medical facilities world-class, so there is huge potential here.

A woman shares a laugh with banana vendors.

Madurai – Meenakshi temple

The highlight of any tourist visit to Madurai is an exploration of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, an astounding piece of 17th-century architecture and one of the largest Hindu temples in India.

Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai
Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai

Quoting Wikipedia, the temple “is dedicated to Parvati who is known as Meenakshi and her consort, Shiva, named here as Sundareswarar. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500 year old city of Madurai. The complex houses 14 gateway towers called gopurams, ranging from 45-50m in height, the tallest being the southern tower, 51.9 metres (170 ft) high, and two golden sculptured vimana, the shrine over sanctum of the main deities. The temple is a significant symbol for the Tamil people, and has been mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature, though the present structure is built during 1623 to 1655 CE.” The gopurams are astoundingly carved with thousands of figures, mostly gods and goddesses, all freshly painted in 2009.

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Detail on the West tower: at left, Vishnu, Parvati, and Shiva; at right, dancing Shiva.

We toured most of the temple and I took some nice photos, but they really pale in comparison to my collection from my visit three years ago. On that muggy day in May 2009, I happened to visit the temple, totally coincidentally, on the biggest festival day of the year (Chithirai Thiruvizha). That day was truly one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve ever had in India; read the blog and check out the photo album.

Family portrait with one of the gopurams.
Family portrait with one of the gopurams.

We visited on a Friday evening, which happens to be the most auspicious time for prayer, so the temple was very crowded with worshippers, families enjoying an evening out, and tourists. After checking our shoes with the shoe-keepers near the gate, and passing through airport-style security screening (most prominent historic and religious sites now include such screening, because they are attractive sites for terrorist attacks), we strolled through the temple’s many halls and courtyards. A tour guide spotted us (not hard, we’re readily obvious in this crowd) and offered to give us a guided tour. We’ve had mixed results with these sort of fellows, but he waived his government license at us and I engaged him in enough conversation about his services to be sure his English was reasonable. His guidance was helpful in navigating the complex temple grounds, and explaining the history and significance of various idols and sights. He offered to take us to a spot outside where we could get a rooftop view of the temple; I relished this opportunity because there is no other way to capture the grandeur of this immense place. When we arrived at the curio shop (of course!) I realized his true motivation for our visit.  Yes, it had a rooftop observation platform, but to get there you had to climb through three levels of carvings, silk scarves, carpets, and the eager attendants insisting that you “just look” at their handicrafts.  It is a routine we know well – the guide gets a kickback for bringing customers to the store – and we took a pass on the shopping.

Select your style and color, then they make your shirt to order, on-site, within 2 hours.
Select your style and color, then they make your shirt to order, on-site, within 2 hours.

We had actually enjoyed shopping at purthu mandalbam, the “new market” on the other side of the temple. It was built a few hundred years ago by one of the kings, and was packed with tiny stalls selling cheap handicrafts, handmade housewares (like iron tava griddles), and votive materials. Fun place to photograph! There were rows of men sitting at foot-powered treadle-style sewing machines, most of them working busily at sewing garments. Pam found a stall selling silk shirts and kurtas – you select the style and fabric, they take your measurements, and come back two hours later to pick up your finished clothing, all fabricated on-site and on-demand by this army of sewing men. Soon I’ll post more photos from that shopping market and from the streets nearby – many photogenic views there.

We dined at The Taj — a fancy name for a not-fancy place.
We dined at The Taj — a fancy name for a not-fancy place.

At this point we were tired and hungry and dark was falling. I had scoped out some dining options nearby so we walked around the temple and down the street looking for one of the restaurants. The streets were busy, noisy, and dirty – Madurai is not nearly as well developed as Bangalore or Mumbai. Andy has been feeling ill so he was tired and cranky. Finally we found the two places – neither looked particularly clean or inviting, but we ate at The Taj anyway. At least it was cheap.

Aravind – LiveWell Rehabilitation Center

This morning we toured the LiveWell rehabilitation center, an interesting concept developed by Dr. Aravind as a new business that branches out from their core activity of running the Aravind Eye Hospital and associated training (LAICO) and manufacturing (Aurolab) activities. The idea here is to provide a single location for people needing medium-term residential rehabilitation care, e.g., after a stroke or surgery.

LiveWell center

This new facility is located on the outskirts of Madurai, a peaceful setting in an old mango orchard. It includes residential rooms for about 30 patients (each with a companion), dining, and a full range of rehabilitation services. For Rs1500 per day (about $27), all inclusive, the patient and a companion family member are provided room and board and daily rehabilitation (physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy) according to a personalized plan. In a country with a fragmented acute-care system, this holistic model is extremely appealing. We came away very impressed.

More photos in the gallery.

Off to Madurai, visit to Aravind Eye Hospital

Christmas at the Trident
Christmas at the Trident

Although Christmas is just another business day for most of India, including Mumbai, you can’t miss the fact that it is Christmas season.  Every major hotel is decorated for Christmas, including an elaborate artificial tree.  In our hotel, even the elevator music plays a collection of the instrumental seasonal music you might hear in a US shopping center.  On our Jet Airways flights to Madurai, the cabin background music was a collection of instrumental favorites like Jingle Bells and Dashing through the Snow.  Humming these snow-themed tunes, it was somewhat jarring to step off the plane to a humid 80-degree evening in Madurai, city of temples.

We entered the sparkling new Madurai airport and were quickly surrounded by dozens of eager-looking middle-aged men, dressed sharply in their best white dhoti and pressed white shirts. What a welcoming party!  But they were all looking past us, with great excitement and anticipation, held at bay by a dozen stern-looking local police officers. We made our way outside, encountering hundreds more men straining for a view of the VIP. There a row of fancy white cars awaited this man, whose photo we now saw plastered on posters and vehicles.  Clearly a regional politician with many followers here in Madurai.

Now it was well after dark, and a light rain began to fall. We were glad to find the driver (pre-arranged by Aravind Eye Hospital) to take us to the guest house. The ride was a bit harrowing, on dark narrow roads; many pedestrians and bicyclists were barely visible, and oncoming traffic taking great liberties with the center line. I’m sure glad I wasn’t driving.

The guest house is a pleasant homey place, and cheerily tended by two women in pretty saris. The house has about 20 guest rooms, a nice common room, and a dining room where the ladies serve three home-cooked meals a day. The rooms are comfortable and air-conditioned; my only complaint was the road noise (problematic on the rooms at front) and a neighbor who likes to blare loud Bollywood classics starting before 6am.

Common room at Aravind Guest House
Common room at Aravind Guest House

The Aravind Eye Hospital is one block walk down the street. A short walk, but you must dodge the cows and goats that wander around the neighborhood, and cross the street (yikes!) bustling with autorickshaws and two-wheelers that seem unaware of the presence of pedestrians.

A woman at the free-service patient center, waiting checkup after surgery.
A woman at the free-service patient center, waiting checkup after surgery.

We spent our first morning visiting the Aravind Eye Hospital, their training center (LAICO), their research building, and the Aurolab manufacturing facility.  The origin and history of this organization is fascinating and inspiring – I highly recommend watching the video Infinite Vision, which tells the story of Dr. V and his mission to eradicate needless blindness in the world. The Aravind system now conducts thousands of eye surgeries every month, with better outcomes results than in the developing world, and with their services completely free to those who cannot pay. (Indeed, its quality and its teaching are world-renowned: at the guest house we met a medical resident from Johns Hopkins University who was spending a month training on surgical technique here at Aravind.) I’ve posted a few photos on SmugMug, but my blog from my May 2009 visit has a wider variety.

Andy wasn’t feeling well so we took it easy in the afternoon.  Pam and Mara and I went to tour the Gandhi Museum, a nice place with a well-presented history of European involvement in India and the independence movement, of Gandhi’s life, and of a small collection of Gandhi-related relics.

Paneer Masala Dosa at Sri Sabareesh
Paneer Masala Dosa at Sri Sabareesh

We dined at Sri Sabareesh, with excellent South-Indian food like dosa and idly.  We rode in two autos (autorickshaws) there and back – gone are the days when all five of us could fit into one auto! It’s quite a wild ride; our driver moved fast, weaving in and out of traffic and honking at anything in his way. The streets are crowded, dirty, and rough – in many ways Madurai feels like an overgrown village that hasn’t managed its growth into a busy city.

Tomorrow we visit a new Aravind outpost – LiveWell rehabilitation facility – and the biggest and most amazing Hindu temple in south India.