Bangalore, India: Offering More Than Technology

India seems to have becomes a popular destination for many in recent years. In addition to the 5 million visitors each year, there are the corporate executives looking to expand business, spiritual seekers headed to an Ashram, novelists and films crews capturing local stories, nonprofits discovering opportunities to solve some deep rooted problems and cultural enthusiasts who just want to see it all! Not surprisingly, Tourism is the largest service industry in India.

Bangalore (aka Bengaluru) located in southern India is India’s third most populous city and fifth-most populous urban agglomeration. Hit by a strong wave of globalization, Bangalore is now a popular IT hub and is known as the Silicon Valley of India. It is home to many multinational corporations, colleges and research institutions.

While Bangalore doesn’t have a lot to offer as a tourist destination, it is a popular choice to live in India. Also, it is a good halt for business meetings and close to other popular cities. It is a bustling metropolis, full of young people from all over India who like to unwind in the numerous malls, bars, restaurants and lounges after work. The weather is always temperate (80F even in December) and it’s very green (despite the outrageous traffic.)

Whether you have a couple of days or a week to spend here, your visit to Bangalore would not be complete without seeing the LalBagh Botanical Gardens, a 240 acre vast expanse of flowers and plants built in 1760. Come here before sunset to take a stroll, watch people and get some fresh air. The Shiv Mandir depicts an interesting mix of traditional Hindu religion God’s with modernized spiritual teachings. Even if you are not a devout, it’s worth watching the giant statues of Lord Shiva and Ganesh, walking through the array of caves made to look like a tour through some of India’s famous religious sites. Also, there is a small bazaar where you can shop for gifts of statues, jewelry, etc. If you have time left, visit the Palace of Tipu Sultan and the Bull Temple as well.

For dining, the choices are endless. One can find any cuisine of the world here, but being in the South, I highly recommend giving Kerala and Andhra foods a try. A word of warning, spices and chilies are used wholeheartedly in the preparations.  For International flavors, try Medici, 100 Ft, Chamomile, BBQ Nation, Catch Marine, Italia or Sunny’s. Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, Old Airport Road, Indiranagar are streets full of great restaurant options. The Jamavar restaurant at The Leela Palace Kempinski is rated the best restaurant in Bangalore. There is also a Sunday brunch served at the hotel which is the talk of the town.

No trip to India is complete without some good old shopping. Commercial street, although chaotic and crowded, is perhaps the best option for both Indian and Western fare. You can find everything from traditional wear (sari’s, suits, stoles), accessories (bangles, bindis), handicrafts to contemporary wear.  While some stores here are fixed price, many can be haggled at. Bargaining is not considered a negative concept in India. The Mantri Square is the largest mall in India with over 250 outlets, a bowling alley and a multiplex cinema. For higher end brand, head to UB City where you will find Louis Vuitton’s and upscale cafes. Finish the day with a cocktail at one of Bangalore’s hip lounges or clubs Fuga or H2O.

As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in January 2011.

Eat Round the Clock in Montreal

The city of Montreal is just across the border, yet an entire world away. Crowned as City of Festivals and Paris of North America, the French influences are found everywhere from architecture, language, culture to cuisine. While there are a number of great eateries to choose from, here are my personal top choices that you could cover in a day.

Nocochi Pâtisserie Café, Montreal

Start your day off at Olive et Gourmando, a lively bakery located in Old Montreal. There is a good chance there will be a wait to get in, but its well worth it! You can chose from dozens of freshly baked croissants, pastries, muffins or my personal favorite, the banana chocolate brioche. It goes well with a hot cappuccino after which you have enough energy to stroll through the neighboring attractions including Basilique Notre-Dame, district’s riverside edge and Pointe-à-Callière (Museum of Archaeology and History).

fresh pastries at Olive et Gourmando, Montreal

For lunch take a stroll through the neighborhood of petite Italie ( Little Italy) which will transport you to a street in Naples. While there are dozens of restaurants to choose from here, restaurant Casa Napoli offers the best value for money. A family business of over 28 years, the owner offers northern and southern Italian cuisine in an ambience of The Godfather. There is also a dainty sidewalk patio too where you can watch Italian families shopping for traditional items or catching up with friends. There is plenty to choose from the menu. The mozzarella is so fresh that it melts in your mouth. The pizzas live up to the restaurant’s name as well. It is the closest you can come to going to Naples being in Canada.

Take the metro to Sherbrook and a bus ride over to Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts). You could visit this extensive and one of the most famous museum’s firs , and then walk two streets over to Nocochi Pâtisserie Café (2156 Rue Mackay, Montreal, QC H3G 2J2, Canada, (514) 989-7514). This small delectable café is perfect for afternoon tea. Here you will find a variety of petite size melt in your mouth cookies, cakes, chocolates, nut filled dates, nut filled apricots, marzipans and Turkish delights. They are not cheap and you can get by eating a lot. They also have some nicely packed boxes to take back home as gifts.

Vieux-Montréal is home to a considerable number of restaurants catering to most tastes and wallets. However, a must try right off the bustling Place Jacques-Cartier is a French bistro called Le Jardin Nelson for dinner. It gets quite busy on weekend nights and they don’t take reservations. If the weather is nice, ask to be seated in the back patio where you would feel like you have entered a tropical garden paradise. There is live jazz music almost always. It even has raincatchers to protect you in case the weather is uncooperative. While the menu can cater to picky eaters as well, try the traditional crepes that are offered with a variety of fillings from mushrooms, rabbit, and duck to lobsters and shrimps.

Le Jardin Nelson, Montreal

Visit one of the three locations of Juliette e Chocolate for an after dinner treat. They serve traditional or old-fashioned, dark, milk or white chocolate as shots, milk shakes or smoothies, combined with fruit or if you are more adventurous with spices, and even married Liquor for cocktails, hot or shakes. And that’s not all! If you still like a dessert to go with your chocolate, you can order crepes, pastries or fondue. And please don’t forget to take one of the many varieties of brownies they make to have later. “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation!” – Oscar Wilde.

After partying at the numerous bars and clubs that Montreal is famous for, night owls usually end up having La Poutine. It is a fast food invention of Quebec consisting of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. You can find it in surprising combinations (even with foie gras) at pretty much any corner of Montreal. It is not the healthiest snack but a must try in this region.

~ As appeared in Do It While You’re Young in September 2010.

More on where to eat in Montreal

24 hours of adventure..and danger!

I never thought one could have so many adventures in less than 24 hours! For starters, our flight from Atlanta was delayed, which left us with a very tight layover in Paris to get our connection to Casablanca. Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, things slowed down to a “French” pace. The bus took forever to go from one terminal to the next, under freezing tempratures & passengers packed in like sardines. We ran with all our might while it was way past our boarding time, only for me to be held up by the security for my tiny bottle of Purell hand sanitizer! Surely, it would have been a pity if that made us miss our flight but we made it.

Along the way, we also met a lady quite randomly & started talking, only to find out that she had also done a volunteer abroad trip through CCS in Russia couple of years ago. What a small world! In case you didn’t know, I went to Russia summer of 2009 for this same trip.

Once we made in into Casablanca after 13 hours of travel time, the adrenaline kept us going for the rest of
the day. We checked into our modest hotel just outside of the Medina, freshened up & got out into the city. We had only walked a couple of blocks from our hotel to find police barracades, high speed cars & a sea of people gathered on the streets watching. Leslie tried to find out from one of the spectators about what was going on & his only response perhaps due to his lack of English was “danger.” Should we stay & watch danger or continue to walk to the Hasan II Mosque, we thought to ourselves. Then I found out that the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI was due to pass by any minute, on his way to the same mosque we were headed to. We stood there & watched his motorcade & it wasn’t dangerous by any means!

Because the King needed to pray byhimself, we had to postpone our visit to the mosque till after lunch (which is a seperate blog entry in itself). My first glimpse of the city of Casablanca is polluted! I am quite sensitive to dust & smoke, so this is not the ideal city for me. There are tons of cars everywhere.

Most of them are old & release a lot of exhaust. Men smoke in cafes, restaurants, parks, sitting & standing on the streets. A lot of them don’t seem to working it seems. Once the sun set at 6pm, I saw a distant round ball in the sky (the moon), barely visible due to the extent of smog in this city.

On the bright side, people seem to be very friendly & willing to help you no matter how linguistically challenged they are, or we are. I ended up speaking in Spanish to one of the King’s security guards as he couldn’t speak English & I barely understand a few words in French.

Fes Express

Fes or Fez is the oldest imperial city in Morocco and its old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. While it was not in our original itinerary of touring Morocco, Leslie, Cheryl and I made an impromptu decision to make a day trip to Fes, which is about 3 hours each way by train and usually done on a weekend. It was a crazy idea, but doable! At least, we wanted to test it if it was attainable or not.

The same evening we went and purchased three first class tickets for the following afternoon. After working in the morning at our respective sites, we reached the train station at 12:30pm and grabbed some food there. I got a BBQ chicken pizza and a Miranda from Pizza Hut to go. It was actually better than I expected. The train left at 1pm and was quite comfortable. Only later we realized we were sitting in the second class cabins having paid for a first class fare.
The views on the way were spectacular! There were tiny villages, open grasslands, factories, mountains and bare desert. The train made a lot of stops. At times we felt jolted by another train passing by, giving the impression that there is an impending collision.

We also had an interesting incident. While Cheryl was waiting for the toilet by the door, a guy started talking to her about what she was doing, where she was going (normal chit chat), etc. He said that he worked for a tour company and could get us a guide in Fes who would pick us up from the train station, take us to the Medina and the major attractions and drop us back in time for our train in the evening. He stated that he was taking some Australian tourists in the same train and that his guide would be wearing an official batch. It sounded the ideal thing to do since we were short on time and people had warned us that it was easy to get lost in the Medina of Fes which boasts 9000 streets! We analyzed his business card and discussed it over. He made me talk to the guide on his cell phone, who spoke good English and asked for 120 Dirhams ($15) for his services. It was reasonable. We decided to go with it.


But then we contemplated with the idea some more. We never saw the Australian tourists and he was insisting on the batch a bit too much. We thought to ourselves “What is the worst that could happen if we go with this guide and he turns out to be a con?” Well, we had been warned of con artists and fake guides by many tourist books and people who have visited Morocco before. My personal experience from watching a lot of movies said that we could be driven to the desert instead of the Medina and asked to surrender our money, and maybe abandoned in the middle of nowhere. So I suggested to the other girls that we hide our money in our shoes, keep a cell phone securely and tie a whistle around my wrist. If something like that were to happen, at least we would have some money to go back home!
During the next two hours of our ride, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. We would rather get lost, miss our train and spend the night in a hotel if we have to. When we got out of the station 30 minutes late, the guide was there calling “Leslie, Leslie” while she walked right past him nodding her head that she wasn’t Leslie.

We took a taxi from the train station to the north side of the Medina, got off and started walking, absorbing the sights and smells, taking a lot of pictures and following “Sucheta, the unofficial, unpaid guide” reaching all the way to the south end within 45 minutes, without getting lost! We actually had an hour to kill before our departure, so we walked around the neighborhoods. Then we hired a taxi and got an unofficial drive-by tour of the major attractions. The taxi driver did not speak English and we don’t speak Arabic. He was trying to explain to us what we were looking at and I was playing charades, making reasonable sense and translating it back to English. We made it to our 6:50pm train well ahead of time, so we had gelato and crepes for dinner. The ride back was smooth, uneventful and in first class. We got back home around 10:30pm and lived to tell the rest of the group that a visit to Fes can actually be done in half a day!