Thursday, March 09, 2017

Keep Breathing 

Enter Bangalore's stream of unconscious traffic.

Upon arriving home from India after an epic 30 hour trip, I took a little nap. What felt like only a few hours later, I found myself standing in a new office space, unpacking a crate, looking for a power bar. That’s when someone asked me, "What was your impression of Bangalore?"

I meant it when I said Bangalore was like the 16th century smashing up against the 21st century. Imagine for a moment, London in the late 1500s. It’s good place to start because Tudor England around Shakespeare’s time has been pretty well represented in a lot of plays, movies and novels. We can kind of picture it in our minds. You can imagine London as a teeming city of around maybe 500,000 souls crammed into congested blocks of low rise buildings. Think of it, people lived or had shops on the bridges back then. Most people are dirt poor (picture really horrible teeth). There’s no sanitation so everyone throws swill buckets into open gutters. Beasts of burden and livestock are everywhere, and so is their waste. Homes or more accurately, hovels are heated by open fires, everything is cooked or boiled over wood or charcoal fires so the air is ripe with smoke, sewage and probably the rank odour of the nearby river and every one of the Queen’s subjects. Yet a wealthy aristocracy moves throughout the city. They've created a bubble of carriages, fine clothing, and perfumes to isolate themselves from the clatter and chaos of everyone else.

Now imagine everyone in that scene is holding a mobile phone. Every carriage is a car or van swerving in and out amongst the crowd, the food stalls and the open fires. Many of those people holding phones are also careening around on mopeds and motorcycles. A large overpass of concrete has dropped from above, and behind every shanty tin shack, a gleaming stone and glass office building juts upward. Electrical wires droop through tropical trees and are loosely attached to poles standing askew. Every few blocks there is an unfinished building with open floors, surrounded by bamboo scaffolding. Billboards are everywhere and it’s a common sight to see only the skeleton of a billboard with shreds of previous advertising hanging from it. In fact, there are shreds of garbage everywhere, especially plastic bags. Portions of the drive from the airport at 4 AM felt like I was in a 1980s music video (think of the Police’s “Synchronicity" video) with curtains of smoke and shredded paper and plastic blowing across the road. One alarming aspect of that ride was while taking an onramp, the driver had to swerve to avoid a pedestrian who for some reason was walking towards traffic… on the highway. Why? Where was this person coming from? Where were they going? This happened many times.

View of Bangalore from hotel

The first morning I woke, the view out of my window was of a rising sun filtered through hazy air. Plumes of black and white smoke rose from various points on the horizon. I could see a rising metropolis not unlike anywhere else but just beyond the manicured hedges and checkpoint of the hotel (yes, the hotel and the office had guarded checkpoints) was a row of corrugated tin shacks patched together like a collage on an empty building site. One of the shacks, with clothes drying on a line, had a satellite dish and a motorcycle parked beside it. Bangalore, a 16th century city, which looked modernized almost by accident was actually planned as a technology hub. Not unlike other university towns, it basically became a fertile place for technology companies because of the educated talent and sheer number of skilled labourers available. So even if there are a lot of people without much, there are a lot of people doing pretty well. By Indian standards, it’s a pretty affluent place. There are plenty of places you can’t get an Uber, but Bangalore isn’t one of them. In fact, if the Uber model ever gets broken or manipulated, I’m pretty sure it’ll be some Indian who has figured out how to get the best of it. Oh and I don’t think Uber drivers in Bangalore have to worry about self-driving cars taking their jobs. If Google can figure out how to operate a self-driving vehicle in Bangalore, they deserve a Nobel Prize.

One surprising aspect of Bangalore was the temperature. Though the midday sun was very hot, the mornings and evenings were very comfortable. It wasn’t really humid at all. That didn’t really stop every building interior from blasting air conditioning constantly. I’m not sure what the sound of Bangalore is other than honking, roaring traffic and humming air conditioning. One evening the A/C in my hotel room had started to vibrant annoyingly, so I turned it off. Within minutes the room started to smell like someone was smoking or perhaps a tire was burning. It began to irritate my throat so I turned the fan back on.

Candolim Beach

My trip to Goa was a little different. From the airport to the town where I was staying, Saligao, the drive was mostly over darkened single track roads. From the moment I arrived it felt like a different world. It was much more humid for one thing. And though the air was still tinged with smoke, the industrial and chemical smells were gone. Later taxi rides would take me past fields where locals were burning vegetation I assume to renew the soil. Goa was so foreign that a couple of times I had to remind myself I was actually there, experiencing it for real. First there was the vegetation. It almost felt like I was in a Tintin comic set in the tropics. Again, I had to remind myself the palm and coconut trees were real and not the fake plants of a shopping mall. Lying by the pool, I briefly thought the exotic bird calls were a recording, played for the benefit of the European traveller. Not until the power went out did I realize those bird songs, which sounded like they were from some spa recording called “Amazon Forest Sounds” were real. Yes, the power went out regularly and was no cause for alarm. I don’t really know what would cause alarm to the very relaxed locals who seemed to always move at the slowest pace possible. This “relaxed” pace sort of started driving me crazy. I’m sure to Goans my strolls on the beach looked like someone out for a run, “Where is that guy going in such a rush?” This trip did confirm my long held suspicion that I’m not really that interested in long walks on the beach. Yet the skin on my feet is now fantastic with every callus worn down by the sand and salt water.

For all the warnings about drinking bottled water and being very careful about what you consumed, my stomach was the organ I had no trouble with. It was my lungs I had to worry about. As someone with asthma, I’ve become very aware of my breathing, both the ability to do it but more importantly when I can’t do it. It’s been years, maybe a decade since I’d had an asthma attack, but despite doubling my regular asthma medication dosage, I still needed my “emergency” inhaler three or four times. People have asked me when I’ll be going back. In reality, I have no idea. I only went for work, and I don’t know if or when that will come up again. It’s a hell of a distance to go for a few meetings and the whole breathing thing went beyond an inconvenience to a real concern. I’ve realized something that surprised me – I’m not sure I like travelling.

The view from my hotel in Goa was a little different.

Despite having all my paperwork taken care of and my vaccinations taken and being very prepared, my dominant emotion throughout the entire trip was not one of wonder or excitement but of anxiety. At some point, lying in a recliner by a beautiful pool I asked myself, “Am I doing this right?” I must have been doing something wrong because it just didn’t seem that relaxing or even interesting. Oddly, at the same time I was asking myself this, I saw friends on Facebook posting amazing images of holidays from resorts in Belize and Acapulco. These were the kind of images that evoke Jimmy Buffet songs or at the least magazine covers you see at the cash register in grocery stores. Yet there I was, on exactly one of these kinds of trips wondering what to do with myself. I don’t know what kind of holiday I really like or need, but I do know I don’t like worrying about losing my passport, or running out of cash or thinking how much this is costing me or trying to time my trip to the airport so I don’t miss my flight or not knowing when my flight is leaving because the departure board is only listing flights that have already left in Hindi (true story). Certainly, I needed a break. Work has been one chaotic disaster after another and there have been far too many twelve hour days that blend into another twelve hour day. Weekends are destroyed by laundry and “catch-up sleep". My inbox has back log of e-mail with each e-mail having a back log attached to it with conversational threads reading like a Game of Thrones appendix. One thing I do know is that I like holidays where I don’t have to worry about breathing. Breathing is nice.



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