A Story of India — Parts 1&2

I remember sitting in front of my computer screen, staring at a map of the world, wondering how I could possibly decide where I wanted to go, and how lucky I was to be handed such a choice. I had been given the opportunity, through my university, to spend 3 months abroad in a university of my choice. Luckily enough, my grades were good enough to give me a pretty broad selection of countries, all across Asia, South America, Canada, and a bunch of different countries in Europe. The question remained however: how do I want to spend the last 3 months of school in my life?

India quickly became a top contender, as I pondered to myself: where could I go where I am going to feel as far away from home as I possibly can? If this is my last adventure as a student, I want this to be one for the books.

I got the admission results in March 2015, and so India it was, I would be spending September through December in Bangalore, Karnataka, in the South of India. The perfect hub to travel, but also, from the sounds of it, a great place to hang out as well.

Now, anyone familiar with Indian paperwork will be able to vouch for me when I say the Visa process isn’t the most fun of experiences, but it does offer an introduction into some of the administrative nightmares you, as a tourist, should expect to experience, especially if you are planning on backpacking it out and fending for yourself.

The Visa registration website feels like something out of the 80s, and asks some bizarre questions. No, I don’t believe any of my ancestors spent time in Pakistan, or did they? Better tick no, I don’t have the courage to fill in the “Justification” box that appears if you tick yes. Work address of my parents? Not quite sure why you’ll need those, but sure. Religion? Why is there no “Atheist” option?

Also, bear in mind that if you make a single mistake after the 30 minutes it takes to fill in the form, there is no turning back, you have to start again. And the whole point of you filling in this tedious online form is for you to then be able to print it out, give it to the closest Indian embassy who will then type it back in online. Let that sink in for a minute.

Fast forward a couple of months, I made it home from New Zealand where I had been working for a year, and have a couple of weeks in France to get the paperwork in order once and for all. My first Visa application, two weeks before departure date, is refused on some strange grounds. The embassy needs some additional documents which none of my friends were asked for. Nothing to do with my Arabic family name I’m sure. In a panic I manage to get all the documents they requested to the embassy, and the waiting game could then begin.

Now, my flight was set to depart on the 1st of September, and we are now the morning of the 31st of August and I have yet to hear back from the Embassy. At this point, I don’t even know if my Visa application was approved or not, let alone if I was going to get my Passport back before the flight. This trip was definitely off to a shaky start.

Thankfully I got a call in the afternoon to say my Passport was available and that my Visa application was approved. A friend of mine who lived near the embassy offered to pick my Passport up for me since we were flying the same day. Things were starting to look better. I quickly prepared my bag, a couple of hours before my flight, and headed to the airport. This is probably the first time I’ve ever arrived at an airport without a Passport, only to be handed one minutes before having to go through check-in.

Now for anyone who knows me, it will come as no surprise that I was the last one on the plane and that I ended up running to my gate at the sounds of “Final boarding call for Mark Hadj Hamou”. Why do I always assume I have heaps of time left?

The flight was fairly uneventful, and I landed safely at Kempegowda International Airport, Bangalore where I made my first steps in India. It wasn’t long before complications started to arise as I made my way through to customs. I was greeted with a 20-minute interrogation with the customs officer and 2 of his superiors, who had numerous questions pertaining to the nature of my visit and demanding that I prove I knew what I was here for. After what felt like forever I was allowed to enter the country and met up with a friend of mine, Ophélie, who landed shortly before I did and was attending the same university.

We proceeded to get ripped off on the taxi fare and got our first ride in India, heading out to our university campus where we would be spending the next 3 months. Now, I had experienced some sketchy roads and questionable driving techniques in my time, but discovering Indian driving was something else. Effectively, a 2-lane road can fit 4, sometimes 5, cars, and if no one is coming in the opposite direction you should always endeavour to drive in the middle of the road. Just because you can, does mean you should. Also, cars don’t have indicators, or wing mirrors for that matter, they rely solely on their horns. You sound the horn when you overtake, when you turn, when you’re behind someone, when you arrive at an intersection, and pretty much in any scenario when you’re doing anything in a car. While this is effective in India, and everyone on the road relies on their ears to navigate, there are 1.25 billion people living in this country at the time of writing this, making roads a particularly noisy affair.

I started questioning what on earth I was doing in India halfway through the taxi ride as we crossed a number of slums and garbage dumps, filling our noses with delight just as our ears were reaching saturation point from the constant sounding of the horns and chaos on the roads. Did I mention taxis don’t have seatbelts? In any case, after about an hour we finally arrived on campus, and what a treat it was.

Picture Central Park in New York, effectively a massive park which looks like it comes out of nowhere and was just dumped on top of a city. Our campus was pretty much the same thing, a huge park and forest, with hostel blocks, faculty blocks, cafeterias and shops, cut off from the chaos and urban jungle that is Bangalore, and surrounded by a rather large wall and barbed wire.

We arrived at around 3am, where we were greeted by guards on campus who showed us to our respective rooms and where we were able to drop our things off. The rooms were pretty basic, with just a bed, a desk, and a wardrobe, but it’s all we were going to need for the next 3 months of adventures: a small room to call our own in between adventures.

Strangely enough, the campus was ever so active for such a late hour. We expected it to be completely quiet, but there were flocks of students wandering all over the place. We would later learn that Indian students prefer working between midnight and 4am, times us Europeans wouldn’t dream of doing anything even remotely productive. We managed to find our way to the Computer Centre on campus where we were granted WiFi access for our phones and laptops, and made our way to bed for our first night in India.

The first few days on campus were spent getting to know some of the 80 exchange students that had all been admitted as part of Bangalore’s Exchange Student Programme, as well as dealing with some of the numerous administrative challenges that India poses to any newcomer. Starting off with getting ID photos for all the papers we needed to fill in. No one seemed to know where this simple task could be achieved so we took it upon ourselves to start an expedition outside the campus. A small team was put together and we decided to brave the danger that is the outside world.

After nearly getting run over half a dozen times and mastered the art of dive rolls and defensive walking, we managed to find a shop that did cheap ID photos in 5 minutes or less, for the equivalent of a euro. A first taste at how cheap India can be. Now the second item on our list was getting a Sim card. The thing you need to know about India is that everything works by phone, may it be reservations, ordering food, buying train tickets, etc., there is always a need for a phone. And it also makes finding lost tourists significantly easier. However, this is India, and one of the main rules is “It’s never easy”.

In most countries in the world you can enter a mobile phone store and buy a prepaid Sim card, no questions asked. In India you need to provide a valid Visa, ID photos, fill in a number of tedious forms, and also provide the number of a local Indian who can vouch for you being an honest person, and who will be called prior to your mobile phone line being activated. Thankfully we were each allocated an Indian buddy upon arriving on campus, making the whole operation significantly easier, but it still seemed like a lot of work for something seemingly so simple.

After a couple of days of debauchery that is expected of a group of 80 foreign exchange students getting to know each other, it was time to start exploring, as well as start planning our travels.

As comfortable as the campus may be, we had all come to India for an adventure, and staying within the walls of this effectively gated community when there was so much to explore was starting to weigh on us. Our first Bangalore expedition took us straight to Bull Temple, where we got our first bindis, or red dots on our foreheads, effectively making us stand out as tourists even more than we already were. We also had to take our shoes off for the first time as it is tradition when entering temples and sacred places in India. The temple itself, although slightly underwhelming, was a great way to get us off campus and into adventure mode. We received a blessing upon entering the temple and got pretty close to the massive bull in the centre of the edifice.

We wandered our way around town and found ourselves at Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, where we were greeted, for the first time, by “tourist fares” for entering public places. It is custom for tourists to pay 15 to 20 times the price the locals pay for entry, which is something that took a little getting used to.

The main attraction at this temple turned out to be us. We soon discovered that the locals were passionate about getting photos with tourists, and after a solid half hour of taking selfies with dozens of locals we eventually managed to escape, nay, flee the palace. Our next target was KR Market, short for Krishna Rajendra Market, one of the main attractions in Bangalore, but not one of the most touristy ones. In order to get there however, we found ourselves having to cross a 4-lane highway, in the heart of Bangalore, with a continuous and uninterrupted flow of oncoming traffic. Numerous dive rolls, perilous jumps, and death-defying stunts later, we made it to the entrance of the market, where we were advised to tidy away all valuables, just in case.

What we didn’t know when we got there however, was that this was the morning of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival in honour of lord Ganesh, one of the best-known and most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. During Ganesh Chaturthi there are celebrations all over India, involving fireworks, music, massive Ganesh statues thrown into rivers, and flowers all over the place. Did I mention KR Market is also a famous flower market where all of Bangalore would be going to purchase their flowers the morning of the festival? I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people concentrated in one place in my entire life. It’s also important to understand that the Indian people don’t have the same notion of personal space and intimacy as we do, and have no problem with physical contact. We were quickly compressed by the crowds of people and were being pushed left, right and centre, in a direction that we had no control over. If we weren’t in India before, we definitely were now.

KR Market itself was a true experience of India, in that all of our senses were on overload: sight, smell, touch, sound… It was chaos like nothing I had experienced before, with flowers of all colours, mountains of spices, merchants negotiating all over the place, all under one echoing roof. As expected in such an uncontrollable environment, we got separated from the other half of the group, and since most of us didn’t have any Sim cards yet, the great game of “Where the hell are my friends?” began.

By some miracle of the Gods, and minutes before calling in Search & Rescue, we managed to find the rest of the group, and proceeded to try and find an exit to the market. The sky had turned a menacing dark grey, and we were anxious to get to cover as we had heard many things about rain in India, not all of them good.

As we ever so slowly made our way towards the exit, compressed from all sides by the thousands of people that crowded the market and were going about their day, I heard an almighty ruckus coming from behind. I just had time to turn my head and noticed the sea parting, and people diving out of the way and into the fruits and vegetable stalls on either side of the passageway. My utter incomprehension only lasted a second as I was shoved out of the way by a wild cow that had decided she also wanted to wander around the market, nearly knocking me onto a poor merchant’s Ganesh statue stall. I just about managed to regain my balance and looked at the rest of my group who was in hysterics at the sheer nonsense of the situation we had just lived. It turns out a half-ton mammal has priority over every other mammal, especially if it’s a Hindu cow.

Having bought nothing, we managed to crawl our way out of the market and back onto the busy streets of Bangalore, which felt much less busy now than a few hours prior. A few drops of rain signalled an impeding storm, and by the time we managed to find cover, all of 12 seconds later, buckets of water were falling from the sky. We managed to get some form of cover by staying close to walls along the streets and tried to wait it out as the water-level was rising in the streets, turning into a steady stream of water making its way down the roads of Bangalore. Realising there was no point in trying to wait it out, as the storm had much more patience than we did, we dived into the closest Rickshaw we could find.

For those unfamiliar with Rickshaws, or Tuktuks (pronounced took-took) as they are also called, they are tiny 2–3 passenger taxis, effectively indestructible, with no windows or doors, and that are powered by scooter engines. They are cheap, tiny, and very manoeuvrable, which comes in handy in the busy streets of Bangalore when you have to squeeze yourself between a car and a bus in an attempt to overtake.

So we quickly devised 3-men teams and dived in any Rickshaw that happened to float its way through the rivers the Bangalore streets had become, and made our way to the designated rallying point: the main Bangalore train station. Now, needless to say, having no doors or windows in an Indian storm, we were drenched by the time we made it to the train station.

Thankfully, the train station happened to be located right nearby Church Street, known for hosting a rather wide selection of pubs where we found warmth and refuge for most of the night. EZ Tiger, you’ll be remembered. We’ll also remember to keep an eye out where we walk, Indian sidewalks tend to have potholes several feet deep, let’s not make that mistake again.

Our first expedition outside of Bangalore was set to take us to Nandi Hills. Several other exchange students had made it out there a few days before and were able to make the trip there and back within a day. This sounded like the perfect first adventure for us, to get a taste for getting around India and fending for ourselves.

It was also the first of a long series of early wake up calls.

The rendezvous was set at 4am at the main gate of the campus as we wanted time to order the cabs and make it to Nandi Hills in time for sunrise. Nandi Hills is effectively an ancient hill fortress, standing high above the rest of the region at 1500m altitude and offering an incredible view over the whole area.

Now what we didn’t know however, was that the area we were trying to reach simply wasn’t available on Uber, or Ola Cabs (the Indian Uber alternative), meaning no cab could go there. We thus devised a ploy whereby we would order an Uber to a different location, within 10km of Nandi Hills, and then offer to pay the driver extra to take us all the way to our destination. All in all, we hadn’t even left the campus yet that we were fully embracing the art of sketchy travels and improvising in India.

It took a few tries, since Ubers in India tend to not pick you up and stay perfectly still, miles from your location, and the Ubers that did come weren’t very fond of our plan.

Eventually however, we managed to get 2 large cabs to agree to take us all the way to the top of Nandi Hills. Did I mention we were 12 people? This was, by no means, a small operation, and the team was starting to stress out at the idea of missing the sunrise as time was running out.

A good hour and a half of cab riding later, we started driving up the actual Nandi Hills mountain. It was still pitch black, and all we could see was the road winding up ahead, until suddenly we entered the cloud. It was the strangest and gloomiest experience, to be driving in pitch black and see small nets of smoke and mist illuminated by our headlights. It felt like something out of a horror movie. We eventually reached the top, or at least as far as our cab driver could go. Wary of time, we quickly paid him and started running up the mountain, only to be greeted by a closed gate. It turns out they only opened half an hour after sunrise anyway.

We waited for the gate to open, and ran up the rest of the hill to reach the viewpoint where we hoped we would catch a glimpse of the end of the sunrise. When we arrived however, everything was completely grey and wet, as the clouds that surrounded the mountain had yet to dissipate.

We took refuge in a café that just so happened to be at the top of this tourist attraction, and spent the following two hours there, wondering why on earth we had gotten up so early. When we decided that it didn’t look too gloomy outside, we left the café to try the viewpoint again, and what a sight that was. We were as high as the clouds in the distance and got to enjoy a view over the entire area. The wild monkeys had also decided it was clear enough to come out to play, and were running around us, with no fear for us whatsoever.

There was a small temple close to the view point, that many monkeys had called their home, which we decided to visit before heading back down the hill to the main gate. The temple itself had been carved into the side of the mountain, and the rock we were standing on barefoot was warm from the sun, what a glorious feeling.

We slowly made our way down the dwindling pathways and forest which had grown much gloomier as the clouds had wrapped themselves around that side of the mountain, and quickly arrived at the main gate. Adding to the list of things we hadn’t planned or thought of was how we were going to get back down from Nandi Hills and back to Bangalore. We had half expected for there to be a bus of sorts or a cab, but there was none of that in the tiny two-shack village that awaited us by the main gate.

Now the “village” itself didn’t have much to offer, there was a small shack, a shop, and what looked like a bus stop, but everything was written in Kannada, the official language of the state of Karnataka. We tried asking the man who was running the small shop, but our attempts were unsuccessful as he laughed when we asked if there were any buses. It turns out all the locals, and the tourists who happen to be organised, have a car, and thus drive up to Nandi Hills, park, visit, and drive back down. Unfortunately, this wasn’t our case.

From the various communication attempts with the locals we could find, we managed to gather there was a bus that went to the bottom of the hill, but that we would have to wait for a good two hours before it arrived. Sod it, we’ll walk. It’s only a 9km walk. Wait, what?

It took us a solid 2 hours, in the blazing heat. As the organised adventurers that we were, none of us had much water at the start, let alone by the time we reached the bottom of the mountain. Thankfully there was a number of small shops at the bottom which we pillaged. There were also some of the infamous red-faced monkeys around, notoriously aggressive, who had developed cunning skills when it came to steeling food from tourists and shop-owners, who were chasing them with slingshots. The whole scene felt surreal.

Now, having reached the bottom of the mountain, the obvious next question was: how on earth do we get home? There happened to be a massive map at the intersection we had reached, but it took us some time to get our bearings, as the top of the map wasn’t North but South-East. Classic design thinking. We were also, yet again, faced with the language barrier. We watched as 3 buses passed us, with no clue as to where they were going, and if we could have gotten into one of them.

Eventually, an executive decision was made to grab a tuktuk to take us to the nearest real bus station, i.e. not an intersection between a forest and a gravel road. The tuktuk driver, however, didn’t deem it necessary for us to take 2 tuktuks, because that would be a waste. So, we squeezed all 12 passengers and driver in the tuktuk, which, for those of you who have forgotten, is effectively a scooter with a metal cage at the back, running on 3 wheels. Comfort really is an option in India, but we embraced the adventure and the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

The problem with being 13 in such a confined space, aside from the discomfort and how slowly we were moving, is also the fact only the people on the sides have any idea where we are going. After a good half an hour in this impromptu cab, the driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere on the side of a road and muttered something which we interpreted it as “Good luck, you’re not my problem anymore”. It just so happened that a bus was coming up beside us, and in a valiant attempt at saving our souls, one of the guys from our group stopped the bus and asked where it was going. Bangalore? Sounds great! Next thing we knew we were all squeezed inside a traditional Indian bus heading, hopefully, towards civilisation.

Now, because the streets are so noisy and all you can hear is the constant chaos and horns from the cars and scooters outside, and because buses in India rarely have windows (or at least the windows haven’t been installed in them), bus drivers have to come up with a solution to keep passengers occupied (or just sane). This involves having massive speaker systems all over the bus which spit pounding bass and screeching high-pitched dialogues from a Bollywood action movie shown on a small television right at the front of the bus.

Buses also have a “first come first serve” seating policy, which means that no matter what age, physical condition, or gender you are, when you enter the bus you are effectively on a seat waiting-list. This means that as soon as someone gets up to leave, the guy who goes back and forth selling the bus tickets and ensuring everyone has paid, sits the person that has been standing the longest. This also means you can’t just sit down when a free seat is available, if not you’re very likely to get kicked out of your seat by the ticket guy who will put someone else in your place. The whole system is pretty well organised, but can quickly become a nuisance as the ticket guy has to manage the whole bus, and, as you can imagine, when the bus is overcrowded it becomes difficult for him to manoeuver himself up and down the aisle without pushing everyone out of the way, which he does.

Thankfully, the Sim card in my phone was working at this point in the adventure, meaning I was able to call air support, or Google Maps, to make sure we were heading in the right direction, and it looked like we were, vaguely. After an hour we decided we had enough and all hopped off the bus in the middle of oncoming traffic, as you do in India.

At this point the group separated itself, as some of us were keen to grab a McDonalds, and the rest just wanted to get home and sleep. I was part of the McDonalds crew, and quickly booked an Uber to take us to the one closest to campus. Now, we knew that McDonalds was different all over the world and tends to have country-specific recipes, but you have to keep in mind that there is very rarely beef in Indian restaurants, and there certainly wasn’t any in the burgers at McDonalds, which greatly reduced the selection of burgers they had to offer. I decided to go for the Maharaja Mac, the Indian equivalent of a Big Mac, but with chicken instead of beef. The first bite was bliss, as I was experiencing a spice-less meal for the first time in a long time and was enjoying the fact I could still feel my face while eating. The second bite however had me sink my teeth straight into a red pepper. The next 15 minutes were pure agony. Why would you do this to me?