This is it, we're in India. Not the cosmopolitan streets of Bengaluru anymore, and with far fewer white people in sight. Food is getting even better, weather is still great, we're integrating closer with local people, literally rubbing shoulders, and arguing over the price of watermelons.
We left from Bengaluru and arrived at our second stop, Mysuru, remaining in the state of Karnataka. One could call it a “town” because it has only a tenth of Bengaluru's population, but with over 800,000 inhabitants that's still a solid city by European standards, comparable to Poland's Kraków.
The three hour drive to get here was the first leg spent with our hired driver, and so far he's proven a very good investment. Compared to other drivers on the road, ours is among the more careful ones. That doesn't mean he'll necessarily follow regulations—he'll make left turns from the rightmost lanes and such—but he's not doing any aggressive maneuvers, nor taking calls while driving.
Getting us to places is one thing, but the other added value is his local knowledge. He helped us negotiate prices for some souvenirs, from the initial bidding price of INR 600 down to a reasonable INR 300. He also took us to places in Mysuru, which we had no idea existed, most notably a small, family-run factory of incense and oils. More on that later.
The funny thing with our driver (and not just ours, we had the same experience with taxi drivers in Bali) is he won't use navigation. We certainly don't expect him to know all the locations by heart, but our own instinct would be to use Google Maps and just follow directions. Instead, he'll reach the city, ask for our hotel's phone number, call them and inquire about driving directions. We tend to navigate via phone now and give him directions, especially when going to landmarks and restaurants.
Mysuru itself feels a lot smaller than Bengaluru. Buildings are lower, considerably older, fewer streets have sidewalks and… free-walking cows are a common sight. I'll probably devote a whole article to India's cows, since I'm sure you'll be curious. This'll do as a teaser for now:
Litter is considerably more visible around here. And rubble. Along streets, in parks, laid out in small piles, as if there was demolition going on nearby, but with no construction in sight. What's the deal with that? It looks like everyone was just dumping rubble from construction sites… somewhere. Wherever everyone else put theirs earlier. No clue, for the moment. Again, I'll write up a whole text about the litter situation later.
We've seen the standard landmarks you'll find listed in any travel guide, starting with the Mysuru Palace—former seat of the Wodeyar maharajas, who for a few centuries and even through British colonial times maintained considerable independence. It's a beautiful building. The Marriage Pavilion and Durbar Hall stunned us and would've made for excellent photos if only we were allowed to take them.
I've no clue why we're generally not allowed to photograph interiors here, neither in palaces nor in temples. It can't be for economic reasons, because they're not selling permits nor photos themselves. And it cannot really be to “preserve” any artwork, because many buildings are in such disrepair that there's hardly any damage that a flash might do on top.
The Mysuru Palace is a prime example of a world-class monument in really bad shape. Dust and dirt, bird poo everywhere, massive insect hives in some of the window heads, paint falling off the walls and pillars. Funny enough, the catholic St Philomena's Cathedral was in much better shape, and undergoing (admittedly cheap) renovation, than the Hindu buildings.
Tuesday evening we spent at the Devaraja Market—one of the few highlighted by Lonely Planet as wort visiting in all India. It's an intense experience. Narrow streets filled with stalls full of goods, people browsing them, and cars, rikshaws and scooters pushing through. Not for the faint of heart. I felt excellent, right in the fabric of the community here. Milena felt overwhelmed by the intensity. We bought some (yummy!) fruits and headed back to the hotel.
There's a distinct style of selling around here. We're not being pressed for anything, but we are being taken good care of. Getting plenty of attention, slowly, steadily poked into a position where the next natural step is closing the transaction. I got into a shoe shop, started looking at sandals. Immediately a clerk appeared, asked for my size, brought a few pairs and urged me to try them on. I wasn't necessarily looking to buy anything (plus the manufacturing quality of those I saw wasn't good), but I do admire the sleek ways of the sellers.
The incense & oil factory was an interesting surprise. While we were visiting the Government Building, our driver met some colleague of his on the road. That colleague greeted us and talked about some “Eco Friendly” place ran by friends of his, that we should visit. We didn't think of it much, but our driver just… took us there.
A unique experience. The son of the family running the place took us in, offered tea (he repeated three times, I think, what its special ingredients were, but I've no way to remember) and walked us through a dozen of oils, explaining their benefits, applying some of them to our hands, wrists, arms, necks and foreheads, sometimes followed by a specialty massage. Girls even got face treatments, that apparently rid of all wrinkles and pimples. Guys were offered the same, but politely declined. We weren't that much trusting in the place nor our host, so we preferred to watch.
It was sleek sales talk all over, but we did like the oils, and our driver assured us they were genuine. The girls were enthusiastic, the two of us guys somewhat skeptic (their wares weren't cheap and I wasn't quite sure we would actually use them). We agreed on an order totaling INR 3,000, that we then slowly negotiated down to INR 2,100.
Price negotiations are tough here. It's natural to expect initial quotes for tourists to be inflated, often times twice or thrice. But then in the course of negotiations one can usually quickly bring the price down to a point where the seller reacts with discomfort to further decreases, which usually means we reached the real, fair price.
It's difficult to find that “fair” spot here. Sellers are slow to lower the price and it's never by large amounts, perhaps 10% at a time.
Other than incense and oils, Mysuru is famous for yoga. There are numerous schools in and around the city, where a lot of foreigners come to practice. The minimum stay for a yoga course is usually a month, sometimes longer. Our hotel (actually an apartment house) is popular with yoga students, so we get to see some of them—locally dressed and perhaps looking a bit absent-minded, serene at times.
Food is still excellent. Perhaps even better than in Bengaluru. From the simple breakfasts, to a massive variety of vegetarian dishes. And really cheap in the local places. One restaurant we visited for lunch charged us a whopping total of approximately INR 1,000—around €14, for four. And I had the best Butter Naan in my life yesterday.
Speaking of food, it's breakfast time! Then off we go, from Mysuru into the woods of Wayanad.