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Beyond its tech facade, India's wilderness beckons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BANGALORE, INDIA -- On our visits home to Bangalore when I was a child, my mom toted giant jars of Skippy so my siblings and I could have peanut butter sandwiches. My grandmother bought her vegetables fresh from a cart that a skinny, muscular man pushed through the street, and milk was sold, still warm, by a man who milked the water buffalo in front of her house. When we went touring outside the city, it was only to visit ancient temple after ancient temple. These were some of the sureties of my India.

But during a trip here in March, after an absence of six years, I realized that many of the certainties of childhood were gone - vanished in a tech and outsourcing boom that has proved an economic boon for the city. The people, my family, were all dear and familiar to me, but the city? Almost unrecognizable.

Those water buffaloes had long since vanished from Bangalore's streets. High-rise apartment buildings tower where there were farm fields. In a city that once had no grocery stores, there is now a Food World, with milk and vegetables in refrigerated cases, freezers full of prepared foods and shelves stocked with Skippy.

At the trendy Blue Bar - this in a place where "proper" people didn't drink and foreign brands were hard to find - I sipped an excellent Grey Goose martini, my first in India. I had a cappuccino at Cafe Coffee Day, a Starbucks-like place where patrons are glued to their cell phones. And I got the best haircut of my life at Bounce, a high-end salon that opened last year.

With my shorn locks went my notions of the city I thought I knew, where modernization always seemed several decades behind the United States.

Until now.

Bangalore has become hip, fun and effervescently energetic, riding high on the shoulders of prosperity. But this city of about 6 million is not a tourist magnet. It's the capital of Karnataka state and primarily a business center, and it's hard to spend more than a couple of leisurely days here.

There's not much sightseeing besides a couple of pretty parks and some architecturally interesting government buildings. Unlike Delhi or Rajasthan to the north, it has no romantic rose-tinged palaces and forts, no camel rides in the desert, no villagers wearing mirror-work skirts and tops. Its traffic jams are legendary.

If you are in Bangalore, it's likely you are here on business, or you are like me, a visiting nonresident Indian (or NRI, as the acronym-loving Indians call us). When the nonstop city wears you out, it's time to get away.

There are more vacation spots and activities to try outside the city than ever before. Shravan Gupta, director of Travel Tours, an agency with 10 offices in Bangalore and other southern India cities, credits the improved ease of travel. "With the low-cost carriers and a lot of highway improvements, a lot more places are accessible," Gupta said.

I checked out one resort north of the city. Angsana Bangalore, a Marriott-style resort, opened in 2001. It's affiliated with the Asian luxury chain Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, which has been expanding across Asia and the Pacific since 1995. The 8-acre resort has a spa, a conference center and a meandering, manmade stream, with a pool and waterfall. Room rates start at $178.

Angsana and other such resorts depend on corporate retreats and conferences to fill their rooms during the week. On the Wednesday I visited, I wasn't able to get a room because all 39 had been filled by Philips electronics company employees having an off-site conference, a desk clerk told me.

So I decided to go farther afield.

Shreyas

I traveled 22 miles from Bangalore northwest to Shreyas, a yoga retreat started in 2004. It was a stressful 1 1/2 -hour drive (even though I had borrowed my cousin's driver), during which we had several near-collisions on a garbage-strewn road jammed with people, rickshaws and cars.

Maybe it was the journey that made my arrival at Shreyas feel so welcoming. Inside the gates, coconut trees rustled in the breeze. It was quiet enough to hear bird song.

Two men clad in white kurtas and loose pants greeted me at the entrance. One placed a garland of flowers around my neck; the other handed me a cool, wet washcloth to clean off the road grime.

Shreyas, owned by a widely traveled financier, Pawan Malik, is an artful melding of Indian and international, spiritual and high-tech. Vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown on the 25-acre property, and the cuisine is vegetarian, wholesome (no alcoholic drinks) and innovative. Its dozen rooms and cabin-tents have broadband Internet connections but no TV. (For the desperate, there's a room where you can watch DVDs.)

Shreyas has an almost religious attention to detail in service and decoration. The landscaping on the former coconut farm includes artfully placed statues of Hindu gods. Temple-like granite columns frame passageways at the main building. A library holds volumes by Deepak Chopra and Kahlil Gibran.

Shreyas "is run like an ashram, without delving into religion," said Malik, who used to live in Japan. "I was influenced by Zen retreats we used to go to. We don't have anything like that here."

From his travels abroad, he also developed a more egalitarian outlook toward his staff. Members of the staff joined me in the twice-daily yoga classes and I could have helped them tend the farm, if I'd had the energy.

Kapila

A similar give-back-to-the-community spirit spurred the development of Kapila, a 16-acre wilderness retreat on the edge of Nagarhole National Park, about a five-hour drive southwest of Bangalore.

Its founder, T.G. "Tiger" Ramesh, who made his fortune in the Indian tech industry, said he is "bullish on tourism," explaining that it is one way to solve India's poverty problems and preserve rural areas by raising incomes and creating more employment.

"Tourism is the only way we can help them," he said.

He's also bullish on wildlife preservation and hopes his initiative will deter poaching. He plans to expand his Cicada chain to 15 such resorts in key wilderness areas throughout India.

Kapila, which opened in October, lacks Shreyas' patina, and that's part of its allure, although it could do a few things better.

It's in a sylvan setting on the Kabini River, and its eight rooms are decorated with Indian-made furniture and antiques. Victorian rosewood cabinets and tables occupy open-air hallways. There was no pool, and swimming in the river is prohibited.

Meals - bountiful buffets with Indian and Western selections - were included in the price of my stay, but soft drinks, bottled water and beer were extra. The key activities - safaris, boating and kayaking - carried add-on fees, and signing for the extras became irritating.

But I couldn't complain about the mission of the place or the enthusiasm of its staff. Nearly all its workers are hired from neighboring villages, where Kapila funds education, medical and development projects. Staffers were friendly and eager to please, whether bringing tea or coffee in the early morning before a safari or ridding my room of a marching column of ants.

Adjacent to the resort is the 257-square-mile Nagarhole park, which is home to more than 250 kinds of birds and two of India's big cat species, tigers and leopards. But they don't rule the forest here. Elephants do.

The park is home to more than 800 pachyderms during the hot, rainless months of February through May. I saw other creatures too, thanks to Harsha, the staff naturalist who, like some Indians, goes by only one name. Without him I would have missed the shadowy gaur, a wild ox about to cross the dirt track, the Malabar squirrel jumping on branches and the chattering langur monkeys high in the treetops. He turned me into a full-fledged birder, adding more than two dozen species to my list.

By leaving the big city, I had reconnected with my homeland and found the pieces I had thought were missing.

On my way back to Bangalore, I saw a bullock cart piled high with sugar cane and a man herding water buffaloes along the road. And back in the city outside my aunts' home, I heard the call of the tarkari-wallah, shouting, "Onions, onions, onions."

Vani Rangachar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

IF YOU GO

FLIGHTS

From Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, US Airways, United and Lufthansa offer connecting flights to Bangalore. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $3,147.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (the international dialing code), 91 (country code for India), 80 (Bangalore's area code) and the local number.

LODGING

SHREYAS--Santoshima Farm, Gollahalli, Byrashetty Village, Nelamangala, Bangalore; 2773-7102 or 2773-7103, shreyasretreat. com. India chic; stylish yoga retreat on outskirts of urban Bangalore. A great place to recover from the punishing flight, but beware the train (and its piercing whistle) that runs behind the property. Doubles from $200.

KAPILA WILDERNESS RETREAT--Wilderness Resorts Pvt. Ltd., 1133, First Floor, 100 Feet Road, HAL II Stage, Bangalore; 4115-2200, kapilaretreat.com. The five-hour drive southwest of the city to the retreat takes you through rural India. It's rough around the edges - there's no pool (but one is being built), and you can't swim in the Kabini River - but it's clean and brings you close to nature. The naturalist, Harsha, is knowledgeable and a terrific companion on a safari. Doubles from $120 a night, including meals. Activities such as safaris and kayaking are extra, about $11 each.

ANGSANA OASIS SPA & RESORT--Bangalore, Northwest Country Main, Doddaballapur Road, Rajankunte, Bangalore; 2846-8892, angsana.com/bangalore. Doubles from $178.

INFORMATION

KARNATAKA TOURISM DEVELOPMENT CORP.--No. 49, Second Floor, Khanija Bhavan, West Entrance, Race Course Road, Bangalore; 235-2901 or 235-2902, karnatakatourism.org.

GOVERNMENT OF INDIA TOURIST OFFICE--213-380-8855, incredibleindia.org.

[VANI RANGACHAR]

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