Last week, I had the marvelous opportunity to visit India - something that had been on my list of things to do for years.
It was a work related trip, so a good part of the time there was spent looking at the inside of meeting rooms (which looked remarkably similar to the meeting rooms in Massachusetts, or Liverpool, or any other drably soul-crushing business locale), but fortunately, we timed the arrivals of our various parties so that we could take pretty much a full day and get out to see some of the sights. Part of the purpose of this trip was to gain a better understanding of the people and culture, in order to create more productive and sustainable working relationships with partners; the best way to do this we could figure out was to hit the streets and be tourists!
We were in Hyderabad, which is sort of the Atlanta of India (wait... go with me on this one): it's vaguely in the South East of the country, with a booming investment in infrastructure and high-tech. The people are nicer than you expect to find in a city that large, and it's more multi-cultural than you'd think before you got there, but you still want to be a little skeptical of their Chinese food. It's a mix of northern pace and southern tradition, with a pride in their heritage and their tradition of hospitality.
And you can buy boiled peanuts from a guy on the side of the road.
He served the peanuts in a paper cone made from a page torn out of a high school chemistry text book, and drenched in fresh lime juice and chili sauce. Holy crap, that's good eats.
Two of the colleagues we had traveled with were actually local to the area, either native to Hyderabad, or having spent a significant portion of their youth in the city. One of them (our chief guide) was very protective of our western, white-boy sensibilities and stomachs, and bodily threw himself in front of me when I tried to buy an unidentifiable but deep-fried chili pepper from a street vendor. I wanted to be irritated, but then he pointed out the large rat running across the table, and I grudgingly moved on.
I broke almost every rule I was given regarding what to eat while I was there - street food, pre-cut fruit, local versions of Coca-cola. I did avoid the tap water, and despite my efforts, I didn't get to try "Chicken 65", a local bar-snack/post-hangover food with pant-loads of chilis, but there's always next time. Fortunately, over the years, I have created a such an insulating component of Diet Coke in my intestinal track, that nothing disturbed my digestion during the trip, despite my adventurousness.
Besides seeing some of the special attractions like museums and the Nizam's palace, or the ancient fortress at Golkonda, we hopped into some of the little mini-kart "auto rickshaws" and scooted over into the Old City for some street shopping.
Riding on the streets of Hyderabad at first felt like we were taking our lives into our own hands. There are few rules other than "he who is bigger gets the right of way" and "honk until you annoy the guy in front of you into moving over". The honking was incredible - it was constant. You honk when you're irritated. You honk when you're happy. You honk to say hello. You honk because your wife just called, and asked you to pick up some Chicken 65 on the way home. It's how the city communicates, and between that and the periodic calls to prayer ringing out over the Muslim Old City throughout the day, the city is never really quiet.
But the traffic had its own pace, and a rhythm that kept it flowing, without a single accident in all the time I was there. In part because no one ever moves really fast, and in part, I suppose, because if you grew up with it, the understanding is intuitive. Which is good, because seeing a family of 4 or 5 tootling down the road with few helmets, sidesaddle on a motorcycle, with a sleeping infant in the mother's lap, was something to make my western eyes look twice.
Certainly there were elements of the drastic contrasts between rich and poor that I had heard about. And there were the occasional packs of stray dogs and some of the pressing heat during the peak of the day, but just as when we visited Cairo the incredible vibrancy of the street life was enchanting.
The 22 hour plane ride(s) home, and the crushing sense of jet lag for days afterwards: not so enchanting.
But overall - worth it.