Monday, December 03, 2007

A visit to Bangalore

I went to Bangalore on business, leaving Monday and returning six days later.

Preparation

A visa is required for US citizens to visit India; this process takes a few weeks. Since this was a business trip, my employer not only paid the fees, but arranged with Peninsula Visa Service to do the necessary.

"They" recommend visiting a travel clinic or something like this, at least two weeks before leaving. It sometimes takes a while to get an appointment. There you may get typhoid, polio, and maybe a tetanus vaccination. For malaria you have a choice of pills.

Travel outbound

It took about 24 hours to get there -- departure 4pm from SFO, arrival about 11am at LHR (Heathrow), a 3-hour layover then another 10-hour flight, arriving after 5am in Bangalore. Bangalore is on Indian Standard Time (IST), 5:30 ahead of GMT and thus 13:30 ahead of PST. That is, 4pm 11/27 in California is 5:30am 11/28 in India. British Airways was pretty nice; there was enough food and the service was fine, particularly on the lighter-loaded first leg of the trip. Both airplanes were Boeing 747-400 aircraft (BA fit them with Rolls-Royce engines so if you have a mechanical issue on a BA engine, there are parts-delivery challenges). Seating is 3-4-3; if you want to stow stuff under the seat in front of you, aisle seats C/H are better than aisle seats D/G; the electronics for the entertainment system take up some space. Reliability of the VOD system leaves something to be desired, but the broadcast stuff is OK. Much of the material is unsuitable for children (sex, drugs, and violence).

Baggage claim in Bangalore took quite a while. The belts (not carousel) cause an interesting flow of bags, with frequent jam-ups. The number of people on a B747-400 may have simply overwhelmed the system, too.

Accommodations

We stayed at the Leela Palace, a 5-star hotel that deserves that rating. I was told that it was a Big Hotel and impersonal, but when I entered the breakfast room I was greeted with a smile and the information that "they're outside" -- "they" being my two colleagues. I guess it was unusual for them to see a short Asian-looking American-accented male in jeans traveling with two more-obviously American women.

Roads

...are astonishing to western eyes. They are still developing. Yes, cows can be seen, particularly in town. I don't recall seeing crosswalks; pedestrians cross anywhere. I saw five vehicles abreast on a nominally two-lane road (alternately, the lane widths are variable depending on the amount and type of traffic); in either case, the painted lane markers are meaningless, except on the highway. Here, for example, is a nominally two-lane road:



The driving style is very cooperative, or if you prefer, Defensive (no, DEFENSIVE!); you have to constantly watch out for the other guy, who may be an auto-rickshaw cutting across 4 lanes of traffic without notice to pick up a fare. Horns are used often. Oh, and in heavy traffic situations, the oncoming lanes are sometimes treated as additional lanes in the forward direction when clear. Yes, I have personally experienced this; no, I was not driving. I couldn't drive there.

On the Hyderabad highway, where the lane markings did seem to mean something (at least when there's not much traffic), I was surprised to see traffic in all lanes suddenly coming to a near-stop. Speed-bumps! Apparently, traffic entering the highway from a side-road was frequently colliding with through traffic, so they slowed down the through traffic with these bumps.

And with all those small gasoline engines, air pollution is quite high also. Speaking of air pollution, at least our office has a backup generator to handle the frequent power outages. One of my colleagues mentioned that it used to rain a lot more than it does now. Can you say "climate change"?

Contrasts

The roads, which were rather in poor condition, are emblematic of the state of infrastructure. Cell-phones are everywhere, and private investment has brought thoroughly modern IT to Bangalore, but power failures are frequent (can you imagine 27 in a single day?) and you can't drink the water.

Work

The time difference makes it feel like Bangalore is truly isolated. It's not just the distance, but the timezone difference, because it takes a lot to get someone on the phone. That's all I'm going to say here about that.

Shopping

I'm not used to bargaining with shopkeepers; I just scowl and hope they'll drop their price. I got carried away when I saw some item that, well, I really wanted Carol to have. It's a surprise. No, I won't tell you what it is.

Team-building activity

We went to Club Cabana -- the analog of Raging Waters (I guess; I've never been there) for a day of team-building stuff. We drove out of the city at about 8:00am, arriving there just before 9:00, and enjoyed an Indian breakfast, some foosball, pool, bowling, games (getting-to-know you stuff, charades), then lunch, then some water play. Good times all around. I ate too much. Our trip back into town took about two hours. We had hired a minivan (driver + 6 passengers), and all the seat belts were functional in this vehicle!

Return trip

For British Airways, you have to check-in online within 24 hours of departure -- either that or take your chances with seat assignments once you arrive at the airport. I definitely recommend the former.

At Bangalore, they look at your passport and your printed itinerary, which you'd best have in hand if you don't have a boarding pass. Then they scan your checked bags. A friendly fellow offers to wrap your bags in shrinkwrap (INR150 apiece, about $4; I passed).

A nice lady in a BA uniform asked if I'd checked in online (yes) and directed me to the "fast bag drop," where my bags were taken. The man behind the counter also printed boarding passes for me. Then up the escalator to security: keep your shoes on and your laptop in its bag. Liquids? Is there a rule about liquids? Someone patted me down and I joined the herd in the (apparently) non-smoking section of the waiting "pen".

We had theoretically a 70-minute connection (arrive 12:15; gate closes at connecting flight 13:25), but because of ATC delays, we were circling east of London for 20-30 minutes. I made my way to the bus for terminals 1 and 2 -- no problem so far -- then through security (they invited me to the fast-track lane in view of the time) and I arrived in the terminal 1 gate area about 1:15pm. Unfortunately I had no idea where my gate was. Eventually I figured it out; I was in one of the terminal1 gate areas; I had taken a wrong turn about 5 minutes back! The map threw me off, too.

When I arrived at gate 52, just past the theoretical closing time, I saw a lineup of maybe 100 people, waiting to get on. Needless to say, departure was delayed.

When we landed at SFIA a little over 10 hours later, I wondered if my bags had made it in view of the tight connection. I freshened up a bit (BA provide a toothbrush/toothpaste kit on these long flights) and went through passport control. Astonishingly enough, my bags were already on carousel#7 when I got to baggage claim.

My overall impression

Traveling to Bangalore is rather inconvenient, but it could certainly be a lot worse! Once you get there, the juxtaposition of high-tech IT, ubiquitous cellphones, five-star hotels along with canvas-sided auto-rickshaws, meaningless lane markings, a general lack of curbs and sidewalks, and undrinkable water is surprising. The tradeoffs they've made on motor vehicle and pedestrian safety are much different than what we have today in the United States, but I can remember a time when seat belts were not standard equipment in cars in the U.S.

Bangalore is a fascinating, dynamic city of astonishing contrasts.

1 comment:

Martin said...

The real estate is one sector that features as one of the most badly hit sectors following the global economic meltdown. Especially in developing countries like India, where real estate was going great guns, so to say, faced a steep downfall following the recession and inflation. Especially in the metros and the developing cities like Bangalore, real estate suffered dearly as the demand for the residential units, though increasing became a pent up demand. The badly hit economy particularly the IT sector that has a strong foothold in Bangalore, and the high rates of interest in home loans made the demand for residential units go down or at best become a pent up demand. It is believed that once the situation stabilizes the demands would start surfacing. Another very problematic issue that the real estate dealers are facing is that patrons of the currently booked flats are not willing to pay the original price that they had agreed on but the current price that is less than the original amount owing to the current economic condition. Not only the residential units but the commercial properties like the hotels in Bangalore have also naturally seen a drop in their occupancy. The ITC hotels in Bangalore that registered the highest occupancy, as high as 83%, have been forced to cut down on their tariffs by almost 20% as the occupancy has also gone down by 20%. On the contrary, the business hotels in Bangalore are surviving the tough times as the number of business travelers has not been affected as hard as the umber of leisure hotels. The budget hotels in Bangalore have seen a hike owing to the obvious reasons.