We traveled from Mumbai to Pune on June 25, still groggy and with jetlag, the day following the traditional Hindu wedding of Samir Patil and Tulsi Kamath.
I need to go back to Mumbai and do some proper sightseeing. In our very short period of time there, Mumbai didn’t make a positive impression. So many slums, so much trash, so much poverty. Where was the nice section of town? I wondered. I hope that’s where our hotel will be!
I’d read about the notorious slums of Mumbai, most recently in a well-written book by journalist Katherine Boo called “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” But I figured they’d be a bit out of the way, somewhat hidden from view.
Perhaps what we passed wasn’t a slum, per se, but I saw many shanties along the road from the airport to Navi Mumbai, or New Mumbai, where we stayed our first two nights in India. Symbiosis, Brian’s university for this Fulbright sabbatical year, sent a driver to meet us at the airport. Kumar, was a chipper man for 3 a.m., held a cardboard sign that said “Mr. Brian O’Donoghue.” Brian visibly relaxed as soon as he saw him and they shook hands.
On the website, the Yogi Metropolitan Hotel looks quite nice and bills itself as a four-star, businessman’s hotel.
My first sight of it, exhausted after 24 hours of flying and a very long wait for our luggage, didn’t bring to mind a four-star hotel. The hallway had a funny, mildewy smell and our room was tiny, with two twin beds and not enough space to even open our bags.
“This’ll work!” Brian said brightly. “We’ll double up.”
I flopped onto one of the beds and found it surprisingly comfortable. “Whatever,” I said, “I’m pooped!” Within minutes, I came to my senses and realized it wouldn’t do for a family of five (a fairly spoiled one at that) and asked Brian to request either a larger room or two rooms, if available.
We settled into two different rooms and all fell asleep immediately. Our first breakfast the next day featured the most magnificent mango and watermelon juice I’ve ever had in my life, along with spinach corn tiki, medu vada, onion uthappam and sambhar. I’ve long been a fan of Indian food (remember India Rose in Fairbanks?) and found everything delicious. Rachel, our pickiest eater, ate three pieces of white bread and a bowl of corn flakes.
We had a day to adjust, then attended the traditional Hindu wedding of Samir Patil and Tulsi Kamath the next day. The wedding was an amazing experience that I’ll write about separately. For now, though, on to our new home!
Symbiosis arranged to have the same driver who met us at the airport take us to Pune two days later. Pune, a sister city to Fairbanks, is located in the Sahyadri Hills, about 1,837 feet above sea level at the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers. I had heard so much about Pune from our friends at University of Alaska Fairbanks, Shirish and Anjali Patil, that I couldn’t wait to see our new home.
Just taking in the scenery on the Pune-Mumbai expressway overloaded my senses. I’d like to say I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, but to be honest, those thoughts weren’t going through my mind. Instead, I was somewhat horrified at the gigantic billboards that seemed to be everywhere, promoting a luxurious life in some green and pristine place (not with billboards like these everywhere, I thought to myself.) At the bottom of some of these billboards were little encampments, with shanties made out of corrugated metal, laundry hung out to dry, children and perhaps a goat or two wandering about. And trash—seemingly everywhere!
However, the hills were pretty and we enjoyed going through a couple of tunnels that went right through the mountains. It rained a bit, but the big news in India was that the monsoon was delayed, and everyone worried about a drought. Along one part of the road, high atop a mountain along a curve, we saw about six monkeys sitting along a guardrail. Our excitement over the monkeys seemed to tickle Kumar. I thought to myself, we’re like those tourists along Chena Hot Springs Road, all excited about a silly moose.
As we got closer to Pune, my anticipation, and anxiety level, rose.
Pune is supposed to be nicer and much smaller than Mumbai, with only 5 million people. Pune is known as the “Oxford of the East” because of all the universities and centers of higher learning located here. The city has a fair number of ex-pats living here, I’d read and been told. The town is sophisticated and cosmopolitan; a hub for high-tech companies.
More important, to me anyway, is that Pune is the location of the famous yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar, the author of the staple “Light on Yoga” and still practicing, leading classes and traveling the world. My yoga friends in Fairbanks were so excited for me. Who wouldn’t want to go to India, to the home of B.K.S. Iyengar, to live and take yoga classes at his center?
As we came into the town, my first impressions were (I must be honest) dismay at the level of trash everywhere. A colleague at the University of Alaska who had visited India a couple years ago warned me that I’d want to throw away my shoes before returning home. “Don’t even bother bringing them back,” she said. “The roads and sidewalks are disgusting!” I wanted to forget her critical words, but they kept coming back to me. This would be the case going from Alaska to any large urban area. Where there are cities and lots of people, there’s trash!
Kumar had received a call on his cell phone (called mobiles here) and we realized it was our landlord, Vidyadhar Kamath, a former petroleum engineering professor at UAF, friend of fellow engineering professor Shirish Patil and the father of the bride at the wedding we’d attended just the day before. To our astonishment, Kumar told us that Vidyadhar would meet us in Pune and help us get settled. The immense generosity of this act, the day after a large traditional Hindu wedding of his daughter had taken place in Mumbai, was incredibly touching. Vidyadhar is a very kind man, I thought.
We met Vidyadhar at a busy street corner and Kumar followed him to our new home off Baner Road (pronounced BON-air). The lane we turned down also had trash and rubble along each side, but as we crossed the gate into our housing complex (they’re called “societies” here, and they’re all over Pune) we immediately saw a clean and well-kept road, trees, birds, flowers, beautiful green landscaping—it truly seemed to be a paradise amidst the city.
Vidyadhar and I had exchanged many emails, and Shirish and Anjali had shown photos of the complex. But seeing our new home in person was better than I ever could have expected, especially for a developing country such as India. Four spacious bedrooms, four bathrooms with Western-style toilets (and one Indian squat-style traditional toilet), nice furnishings, a filtered drinking water system in the kitchen, air conditioning in the bedrooms—even a nice backyard. The kids were excited to see a lime tree and a gecko—not to mention the swimming pool and playground area.
I knew immediately what Shirish and Anjali had said was true—our home for the next year would be a wonderful retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life in India.
* Update: Since I wrote the above piece, especially those first impressions about the amount of trash, I’ve come to see that there are days when the sidewalks, roads and lanes around Pune look much better than others. They do get cleaned up. The incredible rate of growth in Pune has meant tremendous change for this city, and growing pains are always hard. What a challenge for the local government regarding infrastructure, roads, solid waste, electrical supply and drinking water in a city where the pace of growth, the population surge and accompanying construction, is something we can’t begin to imagine in Alaska. I’ve often thought, during that colorless time between spring breakup and clean up day, that visitors in town must have a horrible first impression. They don’t know that within a few weeks, everything will be green and fresh, the trash will be gone and there’ll be 24-hour sunshine, blooming flowers and gardens bursting with vegetables. Fairbanks transforms into a pleasant and even pretty town. In just the short month we’ve been here, I’m already looking at Pune differently than those first few days.