Pune is India´s 7th largest city. It is located in the state of Maharashtra 150 kilometers east of Mumbai. I was in India to attend my friend’s wedding. After the wedding, I had 2 days of sightseeing in the Kochi area, which left me some time to see another part of India. I chose to visit Pune because I wanted to work from my company´s office there. Working from an office in India would give me both a unique professional experience and would save me a vacation day.
June 8, 2022: A Rough Welcome
My flight from Kochi arrived at 01:00 on June 8, 2022. Upon landing, we were told to avoid taking pictures, as Pune´s airport is used by the military. Impressive fighter jets were visible en-route to the gate.
I tried getting a taxi but received ridiculous quotes from the dispatcher and instead ordered an Uber to take me to my hotel. Not only was the Uber cheaper, but there was accountability due to the electronic tracking of the car.
As we approached the hotel, just a 10-minute walk from the office, around 2:00, wild dogs roamed the street and brushed themselves up against the car.
The hotel looked closed, but I soon realized that the staff was simply asleep on the floor in the lobby. After I knocked vigorously, they eventually woke up and opened the door.
I showed them my reservation and was told that my online reservation would not be accepted for a reason I could not understand.
I then asked if I could have a room for the night. They gave me a price of about $10, which I agreed to. They then asked me for my ID. As I handed the man my passport, he looked at it and told me that he could not accept me because I was a foreigner. Did I really look Indian?!
Nevertheless, he refused to rent me a room despite it being 2 in the morning. He then kicked me out onto the street with the wild dogs. Before walking out the door, I spit on the ground in front of him.
Luckily, I had learned to fend off wild dogs from my time in the Marshall Islands. I then called an Uber, which luckily arrived in just 3 minutes. There were a few Western chains in the area that surely would accept a foreigner. I picked the Marriott because the price appeared to be the cheapest.
I got to the Marriott at 2:15 and told the receptionist my predicament. First, she told me that they were all booked up. After saying that I was desperate and would be more than happy to sleep on the floor, she was able to find a room where someone booked a room but did not check in. At $90/night it was expensive by Indian standards and about 10x what I was planning to pay. But if that´s the cost to not get eaten by wild dogs, then so be it!
It took the staff 30 minutes to clean the room – a suite and I fell asleep at 3:00.
I woke up at 10:00 and worked for the day from my company´s office.
After work, I caught an Uber to my hostel in the city center.
My room cost a shockingly low $6 for a dorm bed. However, the room was not air-conditioned. An AC room would cost $3 more. Having survived in India air conditioning free for a month in 2014, I opted for the normal dorm.
Meanwhile, I got dinner at a swanky Southeast Asian restaurant (took a quick break from Indian food). Upon my return, I fell asleep at 22:00 inside the room, which was still very hot. The fans unfortunately did not reach my bunk in the upper corner.
June 9, 2022: Sightseeing in Pune
I woke up at 1:30 in a sweat and dying of thirst. How can the room be so hot at night?! I reached for some bottled water but realized that I had none. I walked over to the bathroom and sprayed myself with water from the sink. The evaporative cooling worked, but only temporarily. By 2:00, I was miserable again.
After 2-3 tries of spraying water, I was so desperate that I ended up drinking a couple handfuls of the Indian sink water. I knew that this was unsafe, but I did not care in the moment. It definitely helped…in the short run as I felt comfortable enough laying in bed attempting to fall asleep.
By 5am, I still hadn’t slept and decided to go out for breakfast, as restaurants were now open. I took an Uber rickshaw to Vohuman Café, a famous Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian) breakfast café. There, I drank a lot of water and ate a sweet bread dish called bun maska.
I then took another rickshaw into the city center. My first stop was the Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati Mandi – a temple dedicated to Ganesh. The temple is very famous and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. The building is covered in swastikas, which is actually an ancient Hindu symbol that represents divinity. The temple is about 130 years old and was founded by a successful sweet shop owner and his wife. The sweet shop, by the way, still exists down the street.
The temple contains a massive Ganesh idol covered in gold. The idol and interior of the temple can actually be viewed from the street, which I did instead of dealing with the massive line to get in. It just so happened to be time for a prayer. I enjoyed watching everyone clap their hands to the beat.
There was still an hour until any other attraction in town opened, so I decided to walk around. I saw another enormous Ganesh sculpture, a few narrow alleys and temples.
I also wandered through a vegetable market.
Eventually, I ended up in an area just east of the Ganesh temple called Budhwar Peth. Here, I noticed lots of middle-aged women hanging out in front of buildings calling me over to talk with them. I soon realized that I was in the city´s red light district. Because it was daytime, the streets were empty, but I am sure that at nighttime it becomes busy.
While most of the women signaled non-verbally to me, one older lady walked up to me and asked if I wanted to have sex with a “small, small girl”. After I refused, she grabbed my arm and said it was only 300 rupees (or around $4.50 USD). Sickened I walked away.
While I generally have no issues with the concept of prostitution (I think it can bring many benefits to society), this is quite different. India is a known center for human trafficking- hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been trafficked into sex slavery. How could these women willingly steal women’s´ freedoms, futures, dignities, and innocence? How could that same person have the courage to approach me with a smile?
Throughout my travels, I have developed and clung to the narrative that people are innately good and that our divisions and fear of others comes from a tiny percentage of people in government and media who are hungry for power. But today, I stared true evil in the face.
I also thought about the $4.50 price tag that I was offered and compared it to the extravagance of the wedding I had just attended.
By this time, the main attractions in town were starting to open. I first visited the Shaniwar Wada, a palace from the 1740´s. The massive gate was large enough to let elephants pass through.
While the entrance is impressive, unfortunately the interior is just a big empty quad with a mediocre garden. The rest of the palace must have been demolished long ago.
Next, I visited the Raja Dinkar Kelkar museum, the collection of a single man. He collected more than 20,000 artifacts. The collection was seriously impressive- far more impressive than the Kerala Folklore Museum I visited in Kochi.
My friends from Pune recommended a lunch place that was a 25-minute walk. While scorching hot, I loved seeing the hectic pace of the city center. Eventually, I reached Hotel Vaishali (many Indian restaurants are called hotels – long story). They serve south Indian food. There was a decent crowd outside and I had to wait about 15 minutes to get seated. Eventually, I was placed at a table with a random middle-aged man. He was a sugar salesman from 5 hours away. We chatted a bit and posed for a picture while eating our dosas. I did not find the food to be special, but admittedly my standards are a bit unfair having just come from South India.
I then took an Uber to the Aga Khan Palace. The drive was 30 minutes and I slept for all of it.
The Aga Khan Palace is named for its builder, the Aga Khan III. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Nizari sect of Ismaeli Islam, a very liberal and tolerant branch of Shia. I actually hung out with Nizaris in remote Eastern Tajikistan and went to their religious center.
The Aga Khan III built the palace to create jobs for the people in this poor part of Pune who were recovering from a famine, but that´s not why this place is famous. The palace is an Indian landmark because it served as the prison for Mahatma Gandhi for 2 years during the fight for Independence. Gandhi´s wife and key members of his inner circle were imprisoned there as well.
Today, the palace is a museum dedicated to the struggle for independence from the British. While I am sure this is taught in India, but I did not realize how vile and vindictive the British were to the Indian people.
I then walked over to a memorial containing some of Gandhi´s ashes. While Gandhi wanted his ashes deposited in the Ganges River, small vials of them were taken all over India and eventually the world by his followers. Most vials were then dumped into bodies of water, but two were not. Strangely, the other known memorial containing Gandhi´s ashes is located just 5 minutes from where I grew up in Pacific Palisades, California, USA.
At this point it was about 15:00. Everything else that I wanted to see in Pune was closed for the day. For timing and logistical reasons, I then decided to take a bus to Mumbai.
Pune has a reputation for being a one of India´s most pleasant city. The weather is not quite as hot as other Indian cities and due to the military and IT, the city has people from all over India making is a more diverse and tolerant place.
That said, I did not have a great time in Pune. A lot of this was due to my own doing: specifically, my decision to be cheap with hotels. I also missed two of the city´s top sights: the Osho Ashram and the Singahad Fort. That said, I don´t think the city has the same quality of attractions compared to other cities in India. The fort is mediocre at best, and the Ganesh temple pales in comparison to those in Tamil Nadu.