Saturday #135: Finding Merrell

I didn’t know what to expect of Bangalore when I boarded a bus in Goa last Saturday evening. Being a fairly large city, I assumed that it would be worth checking out, but would it be worth two days, a week, or more? Well, Saturday #135 has come and gone and I can tell you that Bangalore was much different than Delhi and Mumbai, and it’s light years from Goa, but a week was more than enough.

My trip to Bangalore didn’t get off to a great start, but to be fair I can’t pin that on the good people of Bangalore. I paid a premium to travel the 557 km distance between Goa and Bangalore on a modern sleeper bus. We were to leave Canacona Beach in South Goa at 8:00 on Saturday evening and arrive in Bangalore at 6:00 on Sunday morning. The agent showed me a flashy brochure that promised single and double berths with quality mattresses, crisp linens, plush blankets, velvet privacy curtains, and a reading lamp and AC controls within each berth. And just to add some legitimacy, the words “REAL PHOTO” were plastered over each photo in block letters. What’s not to like about traveling 557 km while you sleep, especially when the fare is about the same as a 15 minute taxi ride in Toronto AND you save the price of a hotel?

First of all, this is India and nothing is exactly as it seems. No doubt the photos in the brochure were “real photos” as opposed to computer generated images, but were they photos of the bus I’d be riding?  Or were they photos of the bus the Prime Minister or the Rolling Stones use when they tour the country?   Who knows?

The first indication that something might be off came shortly after 8:00 PM when I was standing at the designated meeting spot on the shoulder of the road about 3 km outside town (which is exactly 3 km from where any tourist or local would want to be picked up) and not only had I not seen the bus but I was the only person waiting for it. Being India, I figured that it was best to stand and around and wait. That’s what people do. By 9:00 my phone had rung twice but both times I hung up when the caller didn’t speak English. Around 9:30 I recalled the travel agent insisting that I provide a local phone number so I called the number indicated on call my display. Sure enough, it was the bus company and the guy had been speaking english but with such a thick accent that I took it for  Hindi. He was very patient and repeated himself about 10 times until I had picked out the words “break-down” and either “wait” or “late.” 

Around 10:30 a shiny new Volvo bus pulled up and the driver asked if I was Hamilton. A porter took my backpack and showed me to berth 7U (upper) which looked exactly like the photos in brochure. I climbed into bed feeling very secure in my enclosed space, ignoring the fact that it closely resembled a coffin, tufted satin and all! 

An hour later the porter reached through the curtain and shook my ankle.  I think I heard “get off” and “new bus.”  One of the other passengers explained that we had broken down and the bus had been deemed “un-drivable.” I asked what it would take before an Indian bus was deemed “un-drivable” but he didn’t seem to get the joke. I’m sure the driver’s answer would be something like “the transmission fell out about 10 km back” or “we have 3 flat tires and 3 good times, and steering is becoming somewhat difficult.”  

My scam-o-meter went into Code Red when I realized that 26 people had been on the old bus and now more than 50 of us were lined up to board the replacement. Where did these new people come from?  I’m pretty sure they had purchased tickets from that town and the bus company was going to cram us into one bus to save money. This wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t switched from a new Volvo sleeper bus to a 40-year-old inter-city bus with hard seats that reclined a good two, maybe three inches.  

I won’t go into the gory details but you can imagine that with 56 people occupying 42 seats, it was cozy. The aisle was clogged with sleeping kids, a few parents and at least 100 watermelons.  The man in the seat in front of me jammed a screwdriver into the mechanism under his seat allowing him to recline to an almost horizontal position. This was no doubt comfortable for him but it left me with a head in my lap for the next eight hours. And it wasn’t a pretty one! At one point I woke up from a dream where I was being pulled feet first into a rear-loading garbage truck. You don’t have to be Freud to see what triggered that.

When we arrived in Bangalore I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were right on time. Thankfully I’m a sound sleeper because I can only imagine the stunts the driver must have pulled to shave three hours off a 10 hour drive.  

But enough about Saturday #134; today is Saturday #135 and my final full day in Bangalore. After seven days in India’s high-tech hub I still don’t have a strong opinion of the city, either good or bad. My overall impression is “meh.” There are a few highlights, a few things that could be described as mildly interesting, and a whole lot of ordinary. It’s easily the most modern city in India but it’s also severely lacking in character.

I’d classify Bangalore as a city of contradictions. I saw cows blissfully walking down the middle of a main road while  BMWs and Mercedes whizzed past. The sidewalks are lined with chai wallahs, old ladies selling carrots and onions, and vendors cooking all manner of fried and grilled foods. On the other hand there’s no shortage of McDonalds or Starbucks and I found streets named Church, Wood, Richmond and Wellington (just like Toronto). I saw people picking through 20′ tall mounds of garbage and just a block away were chic restaurants, cool bars and the Shangri La and Park Plaza hotels. I’m not sure if Donald Trump realizes it or not, but companies like Google, Dell, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, Motorola, IBM, Nokia, Lenovo, Nvidia, Intel, and Cisco all have a huge presence in the city. Not all are American companies but there’s enough of them that Bangalore is referred to as the Silicon Valley of India.  

While in Bangalore I decided to bypass Sri Lanka and start making my way north and west. I want to be in Seville (southern Spain) to start another camino on April 1 and that leaves me two months to retrace the route of the original Orient Express between Istanbul and Paris.  The only thing I need to buy before starting a camino is a new pair of hiking boots (preferably Merrell brand) and I figured that a modern city with at least six major shopping malls might be my best chance in India. Finding Merrell was the goal for Saturday #135.

A Google search for “Merrell+Bangalore” brought up a Merrell store on 100 Foot Road. I knew that many western businesses were located on that street so I set out to find it. I took the Metro halfway across the city and walked about 2 kilometres to the address indicated in the ad. It wasn’t hard to find. Unfortunately #1200 was occupied by an eyewear store. 

The manager of the store said that he had been at that location for three years and he didn’t know the name Merrell. I got the same answer from a news vendor across the street – and he had been in the area for 30 years. Eventually I found a Starbucks full of millennials working on their MacBooks (prime customers for Merrell) but none of them had heard of the store. I showed the ad to one of these guys and he didn’t hesitate. “Oh, that’s fake,” was his assessment. He used a lot of advertising jargon so I would guess that he’s in the business and if he was sure the site is fake and exists only to generate “clicks” then I tend to believe it. I know that I visited the site at least 10 times as I checked and double-checked the address and showed it to people on the street.  

So that’s Bangalore – the best and worst of India all rolled into one. I was glad to find so many friendly people, some interesting bazaars and markets, good street food, a decent subway system, nice parks and better-than-average infrastructure. Unfortunately India’s scammers aren’t limited to Delhi, Mumbai and the tourist areas in Varansi and Agra, etc. The only difference is that in Bangalore they’ve taken to the internet. You don’t hear “hey, my friend” quite as often but these guys are definitely out to get your money even if it’s just a penny a click.

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