Taken For Another Ride

Finally, and happily, inside the traffic flow through Bangalore.

Having spent one day simply walking the streets of Bangalore around my hotel attempting to get a sense of how the city works I have decided that pedestrians are not welcome. They are tolerated, and to a surprising extent avoided by larger and heavier vehicles, but when sidewalks are generally used as sites for construction materials and/or debris, ending and beginning without accommodation for foot traffic, it’s clear that I should not be on my feet.

That is what SO MANY of the auto-rickshaw drivers have been trying to tell me. Every 50 feet a driver will pull alongside my acrobatic navigation of the area on the edge of a road and offer to take me somewhere, anywhere other than the stretch of broken bricks, looping power cables, or sand and gravel piles. They *insist* on rescuing me. Please, SIR, they beg of me to abandon my futile scramble and succumb to their world of effortless movement. And, since I am in motion wouldn’t I like to be taken to a handiworks shop with cashmere, silk, and other fine objects. Please, SIR!

After resisting the “siren” call to the backseat of the auto-rickshaw, and with the mission of scoping out how long it would take us to reach the train station when we leave for Melkote on Saturday, I asked our hotel concierge what would be the best way to arrange for an auto-rickshaw ride — simply walk out to the street and pick from among the five or ten within shouting distance? No, sir, he told me — please consider using a very reliable fellow with good English based near the hotel. He could be ready in ten minutes for your journey — would that suffice? Happily, I said.

Ten minutes later my concierge introduced me to Mr. Rafi who parks his auto-rickshaw at the end of a motorbike parking line across the sidewalk from our hotel’s entrance. Mr. Rafi handed me his card and explained that he could take me anywhere I would like. The concierge explained in Hindi my mission: to travel to the train station so that I would know the distance and how I would approach it on Saturday. Mr. Rafi agreed and off we went.

Inside the auto-rickshaw it truly was another world. Although there are no windows and I could reach out and touch the cars/cycles/buses traveling beside us if I wanted to, I felt like I was in a protected little bubble, bobbing along a sometimes fast, sometimes stagnant flow of vehicles on my way across town. It was a totally different feeling than it had been on foot. In addition, once attached to Mr. Rafi I was no longer the target of appeals from other autorickshaw drivers.

Occasionally Mr. Rafi engaged me in conversation. First about his auto-rickshaw (he had owned this one for 14 years! He had converted it to run on Compressed Natural Gas — CNG, per government mandate for lower pollution — himself! He had commissioned the artwork covering the interior ceiling of his cab to be of a powerful snake.) Then he wondered, after we reached the train station where would I like him to take me — perhaps to a handiworks shop? Or the Fort? The Palace? Perhaps the Parliament Building? I explained that I was curious only about the train station, thank you.

“Perhaps a temple? I know some beautiful temples near the vegetable markets…” Mr. Rafi offered hopefully.

“Vegetable market?” I perked up. OK, I was out and “into the flow” and it would obviously be a fight to get him to return to the hotel directly from the train station. “Vegetables! I would like to see the vegetables.” I offered. “Ok, sir!” he replied.

Once we had scoped out the train station — “The Shatabdi Express leaves from Track 4, sir. There is Track 4.” — he continued onto the Vegetable and Fruit Market…sort of.

“Sir, here is our beautiful Parliament Building — the Vidhana Soudha — and across the street is the High Court of Karnataka. Would you like me to stop to take a picture?” “I can take one as we pass…” “No, sir, I will stop and you can get out.”

“Thank you.” I said as I climbed back into my backseat bubble.

“It’s No Problem At All, sir.” And off we went.

A little further on: “Here is the Temple I told you about. It is very beautiful inside. Can I stop to show you?” “No thank you. I would like to see Vegetables!” I insisted. “OK, sir, it’s No Problem At All.”

“Look, sir, do you see the eagles?”

Ahead of us a large group of the dark brown eagles I had seen pinwheeling in the skies around the cities were now circling the roof and dipping down behind a squat brown building. “That is the Beef Market. The eagles like to visit.”

We turned left past the Beef Market facade, then up another street with a few vegetable vendors set up around another brown two story building. “Vegetables, sir!” Mr. Rafi pointed to the entrance, and indicated that he would be waiting for me outside when I was ready to leave.

I ducked into the entrance and walked through the tightly packed stalls piled high with produce of all kind. The salesmen were eager to point out the superior qualities of the products, but I indicated that I was just looking. Eventually they started ignoring me. I am hoping that I get a more serious visit to a produce market later in our trip, hopefully with someone knowledgeable about the different items. I do have a bit of a guide on this courtesy of the Lucky Peach newsletter, but its still much more helpful to walk with someone who knows what we’re looking at.

Having satisfied my initial curiosity of an urban produce market, and gotten a general sense of the items to match up with my guide, I moved back outside to Mr. Rafi’s auto-rickshaw, and away we went.

A few minutes later Mr. Rafi announced: “Sir, I would very much like to take you to MY commercial shop where you can see some of the local items. Bangalore is well-known as the center of Silk and you will see many silk items — scarfs, wraps, saris, and rugs, sir.”

“That’s OK. I’m really not interested in buying any of those items. I’d prefer to head back to the hotel.”

“Please, sir, you do not have to BUY, sir! Only look!”

“I am not really interested in looking, either.”

“What is the harm, sir? You are only looking…”

Mr. Rafi earns a referral fee.

What else can you do but make a scene in this case. So I spent ten minutes in a cool basement shop surrounded by MANY different tourist trinkets including Indian figurines carved into a variety of materials and of a variety of sizes, many scarves and silk fabrics, and a whole room of rugs. I told the clinging salesman that I was only looking, but he insisted that I feel and I smell many items as he explained their superior qualities. I repeatedly said I was only looking and not interested in buying. “Of course, sir!” “But sir, feel this silk scarf. It is hand-loomed and extremely soft. And it is only 200 rupees, sir. That is $3 US dollars sir — it is SO inexpensive. Wouldn’t your wife enjoy this sir? What do you plan to bring her from India, sir?”

I tried to be polite, with Mr. Rafi enjoying a smoke at a table outside the door to the shop, and tried to gauge the minimum amount of time I would need to be “looking” that Mr. Rafi would get his referral baksheesh. I judged five minutes to be adequate, but I had to walk away from the salesman as he demonstrated the “…soothing sound of this prayer bowl. See, you rub the rim with this metal rod and it sings!…”

This time Mr. Rafi did manage to take me back to the hotel, and after he gave me his card and explained that he was available any time at this same spot for any future travel needs, and that I could call his cellphone whereever I was and he would pick me up, I paid him 400 rupees from the meter plus a 100 rupee tip for our 90 minute session: roughly $7.50. And now, after that ride, I wave and smile to him, and he replies in kind, each time I walk out of the hotel and back into the obstacle filled world of the sidewalks…


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