To fly from Pune to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), one must go either via Delhi, Mumbai, or Bengaluru (Bangalore). Having already visited Delhi and Mumbai, I chose Bengaluru. Since I was stopping over, I thought, why not stay a couple of nights. As luck would have it, just before leaving home on my seventh trip to India, I met someone from Bengaluru. A quick email: "What should I see in Bengaluru?" received this reply: "Forget Bengaluru; visit Mysore."
Arriving at my hotel at 11pm, I immediately inquired about tours to Mysore. Luckily, I got a booking for 7am the next morning. For the equivalent of $10 I could join a bus of Indian tourists for the 140-kilometer drive south to Mysore, have a comprehensive tour of that city "of palaces" and be returned to my hotel. It confirmed my notion that in India, last minute fancies can almost always be accommodated, and at affordable prices.
Promptly on Sunday morning a taxi arrived at my two-star hotel on Museum Road. Hotel Gautam wasn't fancy, but it was safe, had a clean bed, a kind manager, and the price at $18 was right. I seemed to be the only tourist and the only female guest. The taxi (included in the $10) delivered me to the tour bus.
The first seat in the bus stood by itself on the side opposite the driver. It was the only one left. In India, a curtain is usually drawn behind the driver, (I suspect it is to prevent road fright) but on this particular bus the curtain was only partially drawn, so I enjoyed an almost unobstructed view of the tropical countryside and village scenes as we passed by. It was a relaxing two-hour drive to Mysore on a road that felt very safe, contrary to some perilous roads I'd experienced in other parts of India, and I had the very best seat of the whole bus. Having it allotted to me was a little humbling but, knowing the hospitality of Indians, I knew every single one of them was proud to let me have it. I was the only non-national on the tour. Driving through such peaceful scenery is always a good time to meditate on my good fortune in life.
Shortly, a young woman behind me asked: "Excuse me, Madam, what is your country?"
I was, by then, very used to this question and thankful for all the times it had been used as an overture to conversation.
"And what is your good name, Madam?" That other charming question inevitably follows.
The young woman was part of a group of young people, from all parts of India, spending two months in Bengaluru training in I T. On their invitation, I spent the day surrounded by these six young graduates: Sandeep, Suresh, Aarti, Ambika, Panu, and Lata.
This was not the first time I experienced the friendliness of Indian youngsters. One endearing thing about India is that, in my seven trips there, I have never come across ageism. I am often approached by young people, sometimes male teenagers, who are genuinely interested in finding out what this older woman is doing in their country. I reflect that this would likely never happen in Canada where, in my experience, in the eyes of most teenagers (except my grandchildren), I am pretty much invisible. Of course, I could have simply followed the guide, but it was nicer to exchange comments and cultural viewpoints with this charming bunch of kids.
I had a good laugh when, during a visit to a Catholic church, Suresh, one of the students, dipped his hand in the holy water and instead of crossing himself – it was his first time in a church – he threw the water over his left shoulder in a gesture of evil-chasing.
Across the street, at a sari store, Ambika browsed the selection of saris for her upcoming wedding.
"Will you be choosing your own husband?" I asked her.
"Of course not!" she said, surprised that I should ask. "My parents know much better than me how to choose a husband. They have already chosen. I trust them. They only want what is best for me. He is a boy from a good family. And quite handsome!" Her eyes lit up, and she shook her head from side to side playfully. "I have seen his picture!"
When I tried to pay for the students' lunches, in order to show my appreciation, they flatly refused. "No, no, Auntie, you are a guest in our country." At dinnertime, I managed to sneak payment to the waiter before he actually served us, but when they realized what I had done, they insisted the waiter should refund my money.
Back in Bengaluru around 11pm, the bus driver announced that unfortunately, it was too late for him to drop everyone off at their original departure points as he was supposed to do. The students would not leave until a solution had been found to have me safely delivered to my hotel. Not being familiar at all with Bengaluru, I had not wanted to take a taxi. The bus driver's supervisor instructed him to drop me off at my hotel, and that took care of that potentially negative end to an otherwise great day.
I was genuinely sad to part from my young friends. But I know that thoughts of our time together will remain in a special place tucked in with all the good memories I have of India.
Though there is plenty to see in Mysore, (Hindu temples, gardens, a market where everyone drinks coconut milk from the fruit) it can easily be visited in one day. The piece de resistance, the spreading Maharaja Palace, although only 100 years old, (part of it still occupied by some of the descendants) is built in the grandiose style of Indian palaces. Its exterior is lit up like in a fairy tale for about half an hour at sunset, which comes early.
Information: Destination Mysore
>> From Bhatia Kumar: I live in the US and was born in India. Indians and Pakistanis are wonderful companions on long train, plane, and bus trips though they are strangers starting out. I recommend [readers] try to make friends, you will be pleased by the warmth and welcome. Good instincts by you Danielle Aird.