Tourist experiences

The big trend nowadays is to do tourism without doing “touristy stuff”. What counts for social currency is to do “authentic stuff” and to avoid things that are “made for tourists”. So tourists try to not visit places with too many other tourists, and go out of their way to find “authentic experiences”.

However, our recent holiday in Lisbon showed us that not all “touristy things” are the same. There were ¬†tourist experiences we liked, and those that we abhorred. Marginal differences made a huge difference in how we experienced places, and not all “tourist experiences” were bad.

For example, on each of the three days we had breakfast in restaurants that seemed to almost wholly cater to tourists. It was possibly a function of living in a part of town (Alfama) that is now host to a lot of tourists. Each day we would check on google for places to have breakfast at, pick one and go.

All of these places had brunch menus, which were pretty good. All of them seemed overpriced given what I’d heard of Lisbon’s price levels. Waiters all spoke very good English. And people at other tables seemed to be tourists. But the food was generally of a good quality, though coffee was bad.

On the other hand, there were these restaurants where we ended up for lunch at clearly touristy places, where you knew very quickly that the food wasn’t up to the mark. One Asian restaurant we went to (we’d been walking for a while and went in desperation) served Indian Chinese food – not something you’d expect in Europe. The pork belly was cooked excellently, but then slathered with sriracha! The previous day, a restaurant close to the Cathedral had charged a fortune for a bottle of water after denying tap water. The food there was rather ordinary as well.

The contrast in tourist experiences wasn’t just about food. As I mentioned earlier, we were in a touristy part of town called Alfama, but it was a nice touristy part of town. Lines (at the castle, for example) were never too long. No place was that crowded (admittedly we went in the off season, and on weekdays). You never got intimidated. And there was the occasional smile or nod to people you came across.

On the middle day of our trip, though, we headed to Belem (another touristy part of town), to Jeronimo’s Monastery. The tourist experience there was something else. The crowds were massive everywhere. Lines to buy tickets were long. The feeling one got was that if we weren’t careful we might be robbed. There were lots of beggars around. The entire atmosphere was intimidating. It was as if we were longing for “our touristy places”. And in very quick time we had made our way back towards Alfama.

So through the trip I decided that avoiding “touristy places” isn’t a good strategy during holidays – touristy places are touristy for a reason, and the effort to avoid them can be significant. Instead, what we should avoid are tourist traps. We need to do some research and go to places that are well rated. There is nothing wrong in doing touristy stuff. All we need to do is to do the “good touristy stuff”.

How do you control petty crime?

Last Wednesday I saw a chain-snatching live. It was late in the evening and traffic was moving at a snail’s pace on Good Shed Road (formally called TCM Royan Road). I was on my way to the in-laws’ place in Rajajinagar. There was an unusually large number of auto rickshaws on the road (may not be that unusual considering it’s a popular road for getting to the railway station and bus stand). We took about twenty minutes to cover the distance of about a kilometer.

The auto rickshaw in front of my car was close to the kerb. The jam meant it was stationary. There was a boy walking on the pavement, maybe in his early teens. I saw him walk closer to the edge as he approached the auto rickshaw. I saw his hand move swiftly, and then his legs. He was speeding into one of the numerous alleyways that stem off from TCM Royan road. It was clear that he had snatched a gold chain that had been worn by a woman in the auto rickshaw.

One man got off the auto rickshaw and ran after the boy. I don’t think he would’ve made much headway, for the boy had too much of a headstart. Also, the thief had escaped into familiar territory, inhabited by familiar people, some of who might have actually encouraged his crime. The chaser didn’t stand a chance.

Make me wonder how one could control such petty crime. The speed at which it all happened, no one would have been able to “get the face” of the thief. Since it was far from an intersection it is unlikely there would’ve been CCTV cameras. The traffic, the twilight, the crowds on the road and the lack of them on the footpath meant the chances of the crime failing were really low. In the worst case, the owner of the chain would have held on to it and the boy would’ve run away empty handed.

I’m sure the crime would have been reported. A gold chain costs a lot, and the family in the auto rickshaw didn’t look particularly well off. But the case would’ve got buried in the midst of several other similar ones. As long as the thief was careful to not strike too often, which would’ve brought him unnecessary attention, there would be no way he would get caught. And given the geography there was little onlookers could do.

So I wonder once again, how are we supposed to control such petty crime? At this moment, I don’t have an answer.

The City Lacks Bars

Yeah you might think I’m crazy to be cribbing like this about Bangalore, supposed to be India’s pub city and all that jazz. But I stick to my statements. Yeah we might have lots of good pubs and lounges but we don’t have lots of good bars.

I was on my way to dinner at Fava at UB City this evening when I noticed the City Bar, and it struck me as to how few such bars there are in the city. Like places where you just go to the bar, get yourself a drink and literally hang around (around random small darshini-style tables) talking to people. I was reminded of my trips abroad, of places like London or New York which are so full of places like this one – where one just goes, buys a drink and hangs around.

My hypothesis of the shortage of such bars got some weight on our way out of Fava when we noticed how full the city bar was. It was like BTS bus 201 in peak hour – there wasn’t even any standing room!

Which makes me wonder why the culture of mid-to-high end standing bars hasn’t taken off in the city, especially considering our glorious tradition of darshinis and of standing bars at the lower segments (I hope you’ve noticed this – every “wine shop” literally doubles up as a standing bar, where people get stuff from the shop in a dirty glass, stand around and quickly gulp down. I must confess I’ve never drank at this kind of a bar).

Is it because the notion of a quick drink isn’t very well defined at the higher segments of our society? Is it because a “quick drink” is associated with the lower end of the spectrum and so the richer people don’t want to indulge in it? Could it be because of the exorbitant price of liquor licenses that makes it uneconomical to serve liquor cheaply enough to get enough crowds to sustain a standing bar? (most shady standing bars don’t have a bar licence; they run on wine shop licenses)

I must admit I’m a bit of a novice at this one (in terms of total quantity of alcohol consumed during my lifetime) but this really intrigues me. Why hasn’t the concept of higher end standing bars taken off in Bangalore? Has it taken off anywhere else in India at least? Again shady bars don’t count.

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by pothi.com an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the flipkart.com guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.

Temples

I’ve never been the religious type. I seldom go to temples. I seldom go to temples in my own city. I do visit temples when I’m traveling, but that is more as a tourist attraction. I’ve been to Tirupati once (Boxing Day 1991) and to Mantralaya twice and am not keen to visit either place again. After my first visit there in 1990, I would consider the Annapurna temple¬† in Horanadu (near Chickmagalur) as my favourite temple. This was until a year ago when I visited it again and got pissed off by the crowds and formalities.

The amount I contribute to the Hundi in temples is also highly variable, and a direct function of how much I like the temple. I consider my contribution to the Hundi as my contribution for the upkeep and maintenance of the temple, and in support of the temple’s activities (for example, I tend to put in a higher amount in temples which serve free food). If I don’t like a temple, I just make a token contribution of Rs. 2 or Rs. 5 and flee. Also, I usually make my contributions to the Hundi, and not to the plate that comes along with the mangalaarathi. This is to ensure that the priest doesn’t kult my contribution.

Some temples do end up making me feel spiritual. It is hard to describe that feeling but let me tell you that it is the same that I felt when I smoked my first cigarette (and decided that smoking was too addictive to take up as a hobby and abandoned it). It is that feeling of inner calm. It is that feeling of being at complete peace with oneself. Sadly I haven’t felt that way at any temple since I started earning, else that temple might have been blessed with a fat contribution from my wallet.

I find the temples in North India too noisy. I remember literally running away from the ISKCON temple in Delhi six years ago because I thought it looked like a discotheque – loud devotional songs and people dancing. Today I went to a couple of temples near Connaught Place and it was similar – loud bhajans on one side, astrologers sitting all around the temple, and general disorder everywhere else. There was no way that temple could offer any peace or calm or any spiritual benefit. I fought with my mother when she insisted I should contribute at least Rs. 10 to the Hundi.

My contribution to temples is also an inverse function of its popularity – I usually contribute less at more popular temples because I can freeride on the rest of the visitors’ contribution. If it is a smaller temple and if i like it, I feel more responsible to contribute towards its upkeep.

And when I go to a temple, I always get archane done. That way, I definitely get some sugar candy!

And why do I not want to go back to Tirupati? Because I think it is too crowded to offer any kind of spiritual benefit. And Mantralaya? The last time I went there someone got a special pooja done in my name and as “prasad”, the swami there threw a towel on my back, and then threw an orange and asked me to catch it. I find that demeaning and don’t want to go back there again. Oh, and I wasn’t let in to the dining hall since I wasn’t wearing my sacred thread.