India is the only country on this trip that we have been to before. We like it so much that we are back here a third visit, for six weeks this time, travelling round the south. As our final destination, and as somewhere we're already familiar with, the time here is more about reflecting on the preceding months' experiences and starting to prepare for the return home. Also it's now too hot to do much else.
The drive into Bangalore from the airport reminded us of some of the things we love about this country: we passed the Institute for Research of Agriculturally Important Insects; officious and universally ignored rhyming road safety signs like 'A little care make accident rare'; giant haulage trucks covered in handpainted psychedelic artwork of religious symbols, slogans, deities and animals, and the ubiquitous black and yellow little three-wheeler auto-rickshaws that swarm through the traffic. I don't know why I am happy to see these - clearly I have forgotten what a pestilential menace they are.
We stay with a lovely family for a few days, a retired colonel and his wife and daughter, in their shabby-genteel home in a Bangalore suburb. They are ardent anglophiles who have visited Britain a few times, and rhapsodise about fish and chips, charity shops, Scarborough and our terrible weather. They also provide the most wonderful east-meets-west breakfasts: fresh fruit, a big pot of something South Indian and delicious each morning, accompanied by unlimited toast and proper orange marmalade. (My favourite was what she called her 'masala bread', a hearty and delicious pot of stewed tomatoes, peppers and onions with some sweetish spices, with chunks of bread added at the end and left just long enough to absorb some juice - sets you up for the day perfectly).
Bangalore embodies all that is infuriating about India. It's one of India's biggest, most affluent and most 'westernised' cities, a boom town thanks to the thriving software and IT industry. The street with the big shiny Nike, Levis, Samsung and Apple stores also has cows wandering in the traffic, piles of stinking garbage, old ladies sweeping litter from one place to another with twig brushes, and children going through bins looking for plastic bottles and cans. There is a brand new city metro with ultra hi-tech stations, and ancient hulking buses with wooden seats and people hanging off the back and out of the doors; the streets are filled with smartly dressed young professionals, and there are beggars at every junction. Advertisements for gurus, fortune-tellers, palm-readers, IT consultants, accountants and web designers; ayurvedic medicine, spiritual healers, plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists. Modern India - lots more new rich people and gleaming new buildings and big expensive cars; the same old caste-enforced poverty, hopelessness, illiteracy, superstition and ignorance. And don't get me started on the relentless advertising of skin-lightening products.
Polluted, overcrowded and traffic-choked, Bangalore is inexplicably known as 'The garden city'. It has a large central park, but it's closed to the public. There is also a botanical gardens, an arid dustbowl containing a locked high-fenced compound where some roses are imprisoned, and a dismal Japanese Garden, so devoid of life or beauty the only Japan it brought to mind was Hiroshima post-atom bomb. My favourite part was the topiary. Well not so much topiary as a cry for help.
It's not all this scary. There is a wonderful old market area in the city's muslim quarter, gorgeous crumbling Arabic-style buildings, narrow streets and little alleyways, lots of life and bustle, and shopkeepers leave us alone, most refreshing. The suburb where we are staying also has its quiet charms. In the more affluent parts, houses always have a little plaque by the gate proclaiming the owner's name with all their titles and honorifics - Lt. Col. Jayakrishna (Retd.) in our case, lots of professors and doctors, but mostly former military officers- the leafy suburbs are stuffed with retired majors and wing commanders, to Wodehousian levels. Finally there is the Guzzlers Inn, a pub we were obliged to visit purely for the name of course, but turned out to be quite pleasant, for India - reasonable music (Led Zep, Rammstein, Alan Parsons Project AGAIN) and English football on tv.
We leave Bangalore for the nearby (for India) historical city of Mysore. Caroline manages to cause chaos at the bus station by being in the WC at the moment the bus is due to leave. Indian buses are overcrowded, uncomfortable, deafening, bruising and filthy, but they are punctual. The conductor shouts at me that the bus MUST LEAVE NOW. I tell him my friend will be just a moment, please wait. No no no, we leave now without you, no waiting, he and the driver are yelling. A couple of ticket clerks come over and offer some opinions. Heated debate ensues. Heads are wobbled. The station manager comes over, so I ask him to ask the driver to wait for my friend, she will be along very shortly. More animated exchange and head wobbling. It is ok, he assures me, your friend can finish her business (troubling visions of Caroline rushing across the station concourse to get the bus, her business not quite finished). The bus leaves at 12.01 rather than 12.00 - and then sits in gridlocked traffic at the bus station exit for quarter of an hour. Ah, India.
In Mysore we stay for a few nights in a new age vegan yoga cafe thing, run by two French women. All the vegan dishes involve surprising quantities of cheese, cream and eggs - the French, there. I come out of our room one morning to find a young man doing yoga on the kitchen table, rather unnecessarily. Westerners flock to Mysore for the yoga. We are the only westerners in town not carrying yoga mats and even more conspicuously, the only westerners wearing western clothes. Mysore is also awash with past-life healers, chakra realigners, aura polishers and various Institutes of Advanced Woo-Woo. Caroline decides to go for a drop-in yoga session at the Mystic School (hmm), only to discover, once the class has started, that it's ultra-advanced. The teacher shouts at her for not being able to do the positions, then after further humiliations tells her to get out and no refund. Very spiritual.
A far more enjoyable learning experience is the two tabla lessons we had with a lovely gentle patient teacher. Although we are both used to hitting things in a musical capacity, the tabla was a real challenge - the subtle changes to achieve the different sounds were surprisingly difficult to master. And you have to do different things with both hands at the same time, the drumming equivalent of rubbing your belly and patting your head simultaneously.
Apart from the charlatans and hordes of French women in paisley, Mysore is delightful. The residential suburb where we're staying looks like Dolly Mixtures in architectural form. All the elegantly geometric houses are painted in vivid shades of pink, mauve, orange, yellow, turquoise and green, usually several at once - actually rather classy, and not at all unlike the art deco housing in South Beach, Miami. The city's centrepiece is a huge ornate colonial-gothic palace, covered with several trillion lightbulbs which come at dusk. We go along one Sunday, when lots of Mysorians go for an evening stroll, and the palace suddenly lighting up is actually quite magical. We gasp and ooh, as do the assembled throng; however this being India, where power outages are a frequent daily occurence, most of the lights go off again a few minutes later.
We move to new accommodation, a cosy homestay where our hosts are Steve, an affable Yorkshireman, Manjula, the enigmatic housekeeper/cook, and Lucy, a daft black and white dog. This is a happy and fun time, good conversations, lots of laughs, playing with the dog and visits to some fascinating places around Mysore. We visit the Tibetan settlement at Bylakupee, where there is a huge Buddhist temple and monastery complex and a Tibetan village - I'm not sure why as we are a very long way from Tibet indeed. We stand transfixed outside a prayer hall listening to the monks chanting, accompanied by horns, bells and powerful drums, a hypnotic and spine-tinglingly primal sound. We go in an eerie Vishnu temple, a dark labyrinthine incense-filled structure with numerous little decorated alcoves where swamis sit dispensing potions and blessings. We also see a river burial site, where clay jars of ashes of the deceased are ceremonially broken on rocks in the river to float downstream - also, surprisingly, a popular bathing spot.
From Mysore we have an excellent bus journey to Thrissur, our next destination, which takes us through a national park, a tiger reserve, the dramatic mountain landscape of the Nilgiris and then into verdant Kerala. There are no tigers to be seen in the tiger reserve of course, but the incredibly dull scenery of parched grass and leafless trees suddenly becomes fascinating knowing they are in there somewhere. It's like in The Little Prince - 'what makes the desert beautiful is knowing that it hides a well'. Or if you prefer, Abba's Super Trouper - 'somewhere in the crowd there's you'.