Kaveri Sinhji's daily schedule is quite unstructured. She may choose to take a group of foreign tourists on an offbeat tour of Bangalore through Bluefoot, her group of cultural ambassadors, embark on a shopping expedition with her clients to pick up designerwear, find an electric toothbrush or raid a local crafts market. Or she may be working with her newly launched online gift registry. A serial entrepreneur, Sinhji lost her parents at an early age. Her father Harish Sinhji was an acclaimed fighter pilot who famously escaped from Rawalpindi in Pakistan. He also served in Saddam Hussein's forces, and she has vivid memories of growing up in Tikrit, Iraq, of the warm people and a comfortable life. Her grand aunt was married to the late Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV, one of Mysore's most celebrated rulers. She is also connected to other royal families in the country.
"I guess fostering cross-cultural understanding runs in my genes," says this Communicative English major, IT geek and linguist, who speaks seven languages. After working on Hospital Information Systems for a few years, Sinhji branched into helping friends in IT with their start-ups, then set up her personalised shopping service. Finally, she set up Bluefoot, because, as an intrepid traveller, Sinhji noticed that for many people, foreign travel was not always the pleasant, enriching experience it could be.
"I began to notice an unfortunate pattern that emerged almost everywhere - a Frenchman in India finding it impossible to communicate, Sri Lankan honeymooners getting ripped-off in Bangkok by a tout, a Pakistani getting mugged in Amsterdam, Indians in the US embarrassed by their 'unusual' table manners. Nobody should have to take home bad memories of a travel experience and miss all the beauty and diversity that lies just beneath the surface," she explains, adding, "My father was a POW in 1971 in Rawalpindi. He chose to make his incarceration a different kind of experience. He befriended his warden and extracted recipes from the cook that went into the family recipe book. We still use them." |
Sinhji believes that communication is key to discovering and appreciating new cultures. She started Bluefoot with just six people and now has 75 specialists on the roster-gemologists to historians, food lovers to architects, spiritualists to fashion designers. "We don't take commissions from anybody. Our tours are not cheap, but they are honest. We believe in giving our guests a true experience. We can arrange almost anything. We have tie-ups with wedding halls and film studios. Guests can be part of an Indian wedding, visit a washerman's village, and fly kites with the kids, step in as extras in a film, serve food at a Sikh gurudwara, dine at Bangalore's iconic restaurants and peek into their kitchens, or take in the nightlife. They can have tea at the Bangalore palace and a private historical tour into parts that are closed to the public," she adds.
Sinhji's tours are filled with anecdotes and 'wow' moments that she loves to recount. Like Susan Ballin, who loved her walk through a Hindu burial ground to a secret black magic temple run by a Kali worshipper, where she participated in rituals involving eggs, hens, lemons and animal sacrifice and watched a group of male dancers break into an energetic dance. She returned a few weeks later with friends from Denmark in tow, to experience it all over again.
"We stopped by a 700-year-old Hindu temple, visited a church lit with pink and purple neon like a Vegas chapel, and ate curry served on banana leaves at the city's most popular dhaba. Sellers at Russell Market sliced exotic fruits I've never seen before, and flower sellers braiding rose garlands, offered pink blooms for my hair," says Shaney Hudson, an Australian travel writer, describing her day with Bluefoot.
When Andre Tchelistcheff, an American, felt awkward about 'crashing' a wedding, Sinhji was quick to reassure him with, "Don't be embarrassed, we're invited!" Even as Tchelistcheff hesitated, the group is swiftly ushered to the dais and photographed with the celebrating families of the bride and groom. Excusing their way out of a high calorie dinner invite, he exclaimed in delight, "This would never happen in the States! This is surreal! Thank you for showing me how open-hearted people are here!"
Niki Doran hired Bluefoot for an eventful two days, "that didn't involve too much walking or spicy food." She returned a couple of months later with her 87-year-old uncle Alan Stonestreet and his wife. Sinhji recalls, "His memories of Bangalore dated back to 1944 as a young army cadet. A sleepy, tree-lined cantonment town in the throes of the Quit India movement. The locals were not friendly at the time. He wanted to see the trees he remembered vividly. We tackled the traffic and pot-holed roads to the two remaining green spaces in the city - Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh. We then went to the Christmas cake mixing ceremony at the ITC Gardenia. The cheery gathering uncorked bottles of fine wine and spirit to pour into the heaped nuts and fruits laid out in anticipation of the coming season of goodwill and cheer. Stonestreet, his wife and the rest of the group, joined in the revelry. As he said, it was time to raise a glass to an Indian present."