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hard sell

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It’s Saturday afternoon in Bangalore, yet here I am, indoors in front of a computer. What gives?

One thing I’ve learned is that I do not make a very good tourist. In a new city, I’m at my happiest when I can strike out on my own and go where the locals go. Easy in the UK, Ireland and North America, and possible in Europe where I look like a local, as I’ve found in the last couple of years (in Germany, France, Portugal and Denmark). I’m learning Japanese with a view to visiting Japan, so I would at least have a sporting chance at non-tourism, but even that level of integration that is totally out of the question in Bangalore. Even where English is spoken, the colour of my skin is as good as a bullseye on my shirt, so I would need to stay in tourist-friendly areas.

Bangalore is a big sprawling city with almost no street signs. So, can I get to the tourist-friendly areas? On one level, the answer is “yes, of course”, by using taxis, assuming the driver understands what you are asking. I object to using taxis on an everyday basis; even when money is not an issue, as it isn’t here, it’s an admission of defeat in my view, a sign that you are not at home in the city. If I can use public transport, dead reckoning and a map, to get to the right place at the right time, the city passes my Friendly City test.

I learned, long before I arrived, that Bangalore is not a Friendly City. Here the taxis fill the gaps in public transport for the locals, but they expose tourists to additional complications. It’s common knowledge that taxi drivers here get kickbacks if they direct tourists to certain shops; even if I hadn’t read the Wikitravel page on Bangalore, my colleagues warned me that our agency drivers do this too.

This morning my driver took me on a short sightseeing tour around the east and centre of Bangalore: Indiranagar,  Ulsoor Lake, the Vidana Soudha and Vikasa Soudha (government buildings), Cubbon Park. I told him I would not be doing any shopping, because my case was full. Would he try this scam on me? Indeed, he would. He knew a nice place to buy things he said, close to where we happened to be passing. Would I like to take a look? Sure, I said: we can look, but I’m not buying anything. Is the shop owned by a friend of yours? No, no!

They were clearly used to people like me being driven there: a security guard was there to chase away an autorickshaw blocking the parking bay, and a doorman was there to open the car door for me. Big mistake right there: I do not require such special treatment at a shop, it tells me I am being watched and will be “sold at”. (If Tony Blair can open his own door when his Jaguar pulls up at 10 Downing Street, I can do it at a tourist trap.)

The stuff in the shop was OK, but clearly aimed at tourists: wood carvings, cashmere scarves, gemstone jewelery, even rugs – at which point I almost burst out laughing at the tackiness of it all. I thought I was going to spend five minutes in there, out of politeness, but I was out of there in three, fending off salesmen. They weren’t that aggressive as salesmen – having learned a thing or two from previous Westerners, I imagine – so no feathers were ruffled, I think. 

My driver asked “next place?”, but when I said “no more shops”, he offered to drive me back, which I could hardly argue with. I’d had the idea that I could spend some time by myself in the shops on Commercial Street, but I don’t like the idea of having a driver at all, far less one who has to sit around and wait while I wander around aimlessly. I might try to hit the Forum Mall later or tomorrow, which is supposed to be fairly close, but I have to find it on the map. It would help if I could find myself on the map, too, but this apartment complex’s address could be anywhere in a square kilometer radius, that’s how vaguely it’s given.

I’m prepared to invest my time and effort in learning about a city, culture, or country, so that I can spend time there without being a tourist. With less than two weeks in Bangalore, a city that promises a lot of hassle but has little to offer me, I’m simply unable to summon up the motivation, and I don’t see why I should. I could never be at home here, not after the Friendly City experiences I had in London, New York and Toronto before now. The world can come to me, via the Internet, which is good enough until I return to Dubai, a week from today.


Written by brian t

December 16, 2006 at 10:40 am

Posted in culture, india, travel

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