Monday, February 7, 2011

It's not easy being green

We've been in Bangalore (India) for a day and a half. I'm glad we've had some other challenging travel experiences to prepare us (Bangkok, for example) because travelling around India is a completely different ballgame. It has taken all of the international travel skills we've learned so far and challenged us again. The most important lesson learned has turned out to be - breathe. When you have little frame of reference for the world around you, it is time to take a deep breath, let in the new sights, sounds, smells, people, and let your mind begin to sort out the rhythms of life anew. Part of the reason that Bangalore has been such a challenge for us is that it's not a tourist city. It is the third largest city in India with over 7 million people and it is the center of India's IT industry. In the two days we've spent exploring, I've seen less than 2 dozen white people, including 8 at our hotel. Because there are so few white people, we've noticed that we are somewhat of a spectacle for people, an experience similar to one Ari Wolfe wrote about so eloquently in his blog ( about teaching and travelling in China.
There have been a series of moments over the last two days that when I reflect on them, symbolize this experience in mind. I'm going to share them in this post, with some reflection on the experience, and throw in some of our favorite pictures from the two days.

The first was quite simple and telling perhaps of how the day was going to go. We began the morning by going to a local grocery store to pick up things for the fridge. While there, as we had our heads deep in the veggie aisle, all the lights in the store went out, leaving us in near complete dark. Both Sarah and I jerked our heads around to see what could be wrong, not realizing that this is something that happens from time to time in Bangalore. Three women in beautifully colored saris put there heads together and giggled at our confusion.

The second was a bit more jarring. We visited Tipu Sultan's Palace, a 17th century beauty, and decided to have our picnic lunch on the back steps. Many of the visitors - mainly Indians on vacation, it seemed - glanced quietly over at our food as we ate, they seemed interested in exactly what we white folks were eating. After a little while of this, a much more bold group of middle-aged men came up, filming us on their cell phone. There were perhaps a foot or two away with the camera, asking us where we were from when one of their companions came around behind and began picking up the items from our lunch, showing them to the video camera and commenting on them. I don't mean to make this sound threatening, the men were very nice and seemed genuinely interested in us, but then again, it had an element of invasiveness that was unsettling. After they left, it occurred to me that in some ways, we were performing this type of voyeuristic activity as well by going to visit a variety of different cultures over five months. We try to be a bit more discreet with the camera, but the impulse of learning about other cultures is the same.

The third experience was with different groups of Indian children. We noticed that groups of kids (always boys), perhaps aged 8-12, would examine us as we walked about and in some cases, they would conspire together until one scapegoat was prodded enough to come and make contact with us. The brave one would try out his English phrases, "What is your name?" "Where are you from?", listen with a huge grin on his face and try to reply. With the ice broken so to speak, his comrades would all rush forward, talking over each other to use their English to communicate. We had a number of sessions of - What is your name? and listening the to names of a half dozen eager faces. As Sarah commented later, these experiences were easier than talking to adults who are pushing to talk to you as you know the kids have such simple motives and are generally a joy to talk to.

The fourth and final experience was travelling to the Krishnarajanesh City Market, which is where all of the produce in Bangalore is delivered at 3am every morning and then makes its way into grocery stores, rickshaws, and local markets across the city. There is also perhaps everything else you could ever need including spices, clothes, knick-knacks, snacks, and artwork. Many of the pictures in this post are from this beautiful market. The crowds packed into this market, easily the size of a full city block, and moving through was a real challenge, especially as we were the only white people in sight and created something of a spectacle by our presence.

The constant examination invoked a series of complicated emotions, which I think I'm still trying to work out. Initially, I felt stabs of paranoia at all the eyes watching me, but as I got more used to it, I returned to that notion that I am here to experience this culture so it only seems fair that I be examined in turn. This thought helped me keep my cool and begin to reflect on how I was being perceived. I had terrible flashbacks of some of the inconsiderate American tourists I (and I'm sure everyone else) have encountered over the years. I made an effort to not stare, to keep my voice low, and to be courteous to those walking around me. In some way, I felt the need to be a responsible representation of the culture I came from and I was trying to project the best image I could even as I did my best to subtly capture images of the market.

In the end, the last couple of days have been so intriguing simply because we are not in a tourist destination, we are immersed in an incredibly active Indian city. We stick out like sore thumbs (especially Sarah's red hair, which I've seen many people openly staring at), but we can't feel alienated by this attention, it is part of the experience. All we can do is try to be respectful of the culture we find ourselves guests in, realizing that we are here to observe and of course, be observed as well.


  1. Enjoyed reading your post and must compliment you both on your wonderful attitude-"observe and be observed"!. I am afraid you are not going to escape the being observed part much in India but in most cases it is just friendly curiosity. No harm intended.
    I hope you also plan to visit Kerala, one of the greenest states in India, popularly referred to as "God's own country"! :)
    Looking forward to more posts from India. Safe and happy travels!

  2. Hey JK!

    Glad you enjoyed the post, we've been having some amazing experience at our volunteer position this week, we look forward to sharing more.

    Sadly we wont make it down to Kerala, we decided to spend all of our time in Karnataka (from here to the pilgrimage town of Gokarna, then onto Hampi to see the ruins, then finally onto Mumbai for a couple of days before we fly out). The absolute toughest part of the trip has been knowing we have to miss some amazing places to allow ourselves more time in the places we have chosen.

    Thanks for reading!

    PS - Was trying to puzzle out the JK and can't figure it out, have we met in person before?

  3. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your response to my comment. I can understand it is not possible to cover most of India as it would take up a lot of time...but still looking forward to your travels across Karnataka and Mumbai.

    As to the JK mystery--well it is just the initials of my first and last name. And no, I don't think we have met. I just happened to stumble upon your blog and I love to read anything that involves travel and both you write so well. I am from India by the way, and currently living in the US.

    Have fun!

  4. Hi Jyoti!

    That explains it :) Wonderful to have you as a reader and nice to meet you (digitally that is)!