Thursday, 3 March 2011

3. First Leg. London to Bangalore


A less than appealing Travelodge starter

Lufthansa 747 Business Class

Bangalore Palace

Yeshvanth Kumar and Ashok Kumar Shetty

A 'quiet day' on Bangalore roads

All the colours of a silky rainbow

Health and Safety?

Straight after school, off with mum for a snack

The Bangalore Club

The O.Tel

A 'Heritage Room' at the Bangalore Club
I’ve never before used an Oyster Card, but Transport for London (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/) kindly provided me with my very own brand new one to try out. Having done what I thought was the right thing (but not being sure) when I press it against a round yellow panel on a machine at the start of the journey from Stratford, I asked a staff member when I change at Poplar Station if I had got it right. Far from being sympathetic to the holder of what was clearly marked ‘Visitor Card’, he very rudely tells me not to board the train. ‘You have not validated the ticket and if you board, I will fine you £25.’ So I have to miss the connection while I go in search of the proper devices which he tells me are ‘not the yellow pads on the bigger machines’. A great start to my long journey. As well as shockingly poor customer service to someone who has actually owned up to being unsure of their system.
The walk from the Dockland Light Rail station to my nearby hotel is not a problem, even with baggage, but I have not chosen wisely. The Travelodge (www. Travelodge.co.uk) is an understaffed, dirty, tip of a place with dreadful food, long queues for check in, at the bar, and disgracefully expensive internet at £5 an hour. The beds in the minimally equipped rooms are horribly soft and Travelodge don’t even supply shower gel.
When my food eventually arrives on my horribly sticky table, after nearly an hour’s wait, both the starter and the main course are not cooked enough, are on cold plates and thrown onto the dish in an unappetising heap. I discover the reason why. The two staff serving are also doing the cooking, (if throwing packets into a microwave could be called that).
The manager had to be sent for but, unfortunately for the four hard-pressed staff who are trying their best to cope with a busy hotel, no manager is on duty. Well, so they say.
It’s as bad a hotel experience as I think I have ever had in the UK.
After a fairly sleepless night, I head off early to London City Airport (http://www.londoncityairport.com/).
What a great place to catch a plane! There is a delightfully quick and easy check in, a short walk to a very quick, friendly and efficient security and your aircraft very close by. Plus free Wi-Fi and no silly additional airport tax to pay like several others are doing. Hurrah for London City Airport.
Lufthansa’s (www.lufthansa.com) Embraer 190 is a spacious, comfortable aircraft where, in business class, the leather seat next to you is left empty and where a really excellent breakfast is served.
My connection is at Frankfurt International Airport, which is really impressive and well-organised. I am through security as easy as pie and my Lufthansa Star Alliance Gold lounge (one of several at the airport) is very close to the aircraft departure gate. It’s a nicely designed lounge, with plenty of space, a great choice of things to eat and drink and areas in which to work and relax. The only down side (which I find unbelievable) is that they actually charge their premium visitors to access the Internet. A policy which spoils an otherwise great product, Lufthansa!
Business Class in my Lufthansa jumbo jet to Bangalore is packed, but the staff is really friendly and there is one Indian cabin crew member who is just superb. They serve lunch and dinner during the 8 and a half hour flight to Bangalore, both of which are excellent. I watch ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Social Network’, which I enjoy. I do reflect that the only time I ever see new releases is at 37000 feet!
The only negative thing about Lufthansa’s Business Class product is the ‘not nearly lie flat’ seat which is both pretty uncomfortable and gives no privacy from your next door neighbour. I am very glad that it is not a night flight because I would not have found it an easy seat in which to sleep.

Formalities at Bangalore Airport are remarkably quick, helped, I guess, by being among the first off the aircraft. Sadly a lot of the priority luggage didn’t seem to get priority ground handling, which leads to a bit of a scrum at the carousel and a visit by me to the Lufthansa luggage desk to enquire if my two pieces have actually left Frankfurt!

A zealous customs man insists on putting my bag through a scanner but, apart from that, the process of arriving in India is remarkably trouble-free.

Sadly, my pre-ordered taxi hasn’t shown and the man with the placard with my name on it is nowhere to be seen. So I take another cab who, despite getting lost and having to ring my hotel, doesn’t attempt to rip me off, as I had feared.
At the rather cleverly named O.Tel (www.myotel.in), the staff is alert and welcoming (even at 3am), offer me a cold drink and whisk both me and my luggage to my simply furnished but comfortable room.

Five hours later, I am breakfasting (somewhat bleary-eyed) with local Karnataka journalist, Yeshvanth Kumar, who has been an absolute superstar in getting me contacts and opening doors for me. Without his help and wise advice, my trip would have been totally in vain. His wife having been called away to Delhi, his delightful 18-year old daughter has stepped into the breech and produced a splendid variety of breakfast treats.
The hotel has got me some flowers (which cost about a tenth of what we would pay in Europe AND whose delivery includes the hotel receptionist insisting that the ‘boy’ will direct me to my meeting and carry the bouquet!)
The original plan was that a lot of the local assistance would be organised by the Indian State Tourist Office, which markets itself as ‘Incredible India’.
The only incredible thing, in my view, about that organisation is how badly organised, shambolic, totally useless, bordering on incompetent they are!
But Yeshvanth has waved his magic wand. We draft an invitation to a news conference, which I take to a shop to be copied and hand deliver to the Press Club of Bangalore, where I am booked to host a 30 minute press conference the following morning. The 40 copies of the invitation will be hand-delivered by another ‘boy’ to the local media.
On the way, I make a brief visit to Bangalore Palace, where Michael Ludgrove, the curator of the Royal Collections gives me a quick look at some of the splendours inside. He has also been incredibly helpful in finding out information about my grandfather’s work in India pre the First World War, which will be the subject of the news conference.
Lunch is at the Bangalore Club (http://www.bangaloreclub.com/), formed in 1868 and about as colonial a Club as you can get. One of the people that have appeared in my life as if by magic is Ashok Kumar Shetty.
Mr. Shetty has kindly invited Yeshvanth and me to lunch in the Club where my grandfather may well have visited 90 years before.

Ashok is justifiably proud of the enormous complex which includes swimming pools, squash and tennis courts, accommodation and much more besides. He’s been a member since he was an eight-year old pupil at one of Bangalore’s top two schools, Bishop Cotton, whose sprawling grounds are next door to that of the Club.
Despite Mr. Shetty having an important evening engagement he is extremely generous with his time and we enjoy drinks in the mixed bar (Not surprisingly, there is also a men-only bar), then have a wonderful south Indian meal in a restaurant where a portrait of a Maharaja of Mysore (probably known to my grandfather) rules from high up on the wall.
I’ve already discovered that riding in an Auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled two-stroke little vehicle is, both literally and metaphorically, a shaky experience. The madcap drivers weave in and out of the traffic, scattering people, cyclists, an occasional cow, many a dog and much else besides in their wake. They vibrate so much that photography from them is almost impossible. If there is lane discipline in the Indian highway- code, that bit has been cut out of the test. Everybody peeps their horn and then everyone else beeps back. Traffic here is completely and utterly bonkers.
As you weave in and out, you see people sweeping the street and the pavements, everywhere there are people using the same brushes my grandfather painted them using all those years ago. There are shops selling shelf after shelf of wonderfully coloured silk.
There are many more mobile phone shops than places to eat.

I wonder whether the habit of turning off engines when vehicles stop is a law to reduce pollution. No, I am told, it’s because we don’t like to waste petrol!
I’d expected India to be quite an experience. Seeing life from an ‘auto’ during a twenty minute bone-shaking ride (less than £1) just about encapsulates it.
I collapse into bed at 8.30pm and don’t stir for 10 hours.
This morning, I have been invited by Mr. Shetty to have a swim at the Bangalore Club, followed by a south-Indian breakfast.
It’s the perfect start to the day.
The swim really freshens me up and the breakfast is splendid. There are a few spicy surprises, including in some tasty thin omelettes. Mr. Shetty takes me to see the accommodation where I will spend my last evening waiting for my 1am flight to Bangkok after I return by train from Mysore.
I am bowled over by the attendance at the news conference. The hand-delivered invitations (which protocol requires me to sign) have brought a packed house of nearly sixty media folk. I have my photograph taken a hundred times holding pictures of my grandfather and the family that I suspect may have been his  and which were blown up to A3 at the suggestion of Yeshvanth.

‘Just one more Sir’, the photographers say. ‘Here sir’, they cry. (Snappers in the UK have never ever called me Sir).
Slightly bizarrely, there are no questions at all during the formal proceedings, but I then spend another 90 minutes doing little group huddles as everyone tries to get their own angle.
I enjoy another bone-jarring ride in an auto, and then repair to the O.Tel to enjoy an excellent curry lunch (just over £2), sort out two days of photographs, catch up on emails and write my blog.
I’ve allocated far too little time to Bangalore. I’ll be a tourist tomorrow and then I catch the train to Mysore.
I know I’ll have to come back. It’s a captivating place.

You can see more photos at https://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter/RoundTheWorldIn60Days#