This week I've had the chance to go back to India, which - even though the flight takes about 4 and a half days from Boston - has really become one of my favorite places to visit. And this coming from a guy that really hates to travel these days. (Oh sure, I used to think that hopping on a plane bound for Düsseldorf or wherever sounded exotic and posh and fun. Now I know better. Getting on a plane bound for anywhere that's not my couch is just a pain in the ass, and takes time away that I might otherwise be hanging out with the Critter and Squirmy, teaching them Stupid Human Tricks.) But if I've got to travel, then occasional forays to places that keep me interested in the chances I get to venture out of the office go a long way to keeping it interesting.
I had sort of shrugged off the fact that BA was on strike when I got on my plane bound for London, but hey - I had a long layover anyway, so I figured as long as they hadn't cancelled the flight, everything would be alright. And worst case, I got stuck in London. How bad could that be, right?
Sure enough, they ran into problems finding enough crew to staff the plane, and needed a few extra hours to sort things out. No problem. I'm in the lounge at Terminal 5. I'll have an extra bacon buttie, and you come wake me up when you're ready to go.
Every hotel in India that I've been to has security out front. Which is kind of reassuring, and just a bit disturbing, when you think about it for a second. I've never seen or had any problems whatsoever, however, and the staff is always lovely, but every time you walk through the doors, you have to surrender your luggage or laptop bag, your phone, and anything else you might think they'd want to see.
Those of you that know me well have seen my weekend attire. It's the same of my traveling attire. A comfortable t-shirt. Jeans, usually due to be replaced before too long. And a leather belt with a pewter belt buckle slightly smaller than a turkey platter with a cowskull on it.
Don't look at me that way. I bought that belt buckle in Oxford, England. So you know that it's classy.
That belt buckle must weigh ten pounds or so. When I hit airport security, it always has to come off and go through the scanner, and usually causes the bored TSA agent to peek into the container, trying to figure out what that dark oval mass could be, and if it could be part of a shoe bomb or something.
At any rate, I don't know what setting they have these hotel metal detectors on, but the mass of metal on my midsection has yet to set off the slightest buzz when I walk through. I think I could stuff an ICBM into my laptop bag and get it through the scanner. Ah well, I suppose the appearance of security is enough to create a sense of comfort?
The planes always land here sometime in the early morning - this time I landed about 7am local time. To get myself on the right schedule, I try and stay up, get out and about, and do something active - avoid as much jet lag as you can. So I asked for a cab, and told the driver to take me down to the Old City.
On my first trip here, I spent a lot of time wandering around in this part of Hyderabad, and fell in love. The people, the smells, the shopping - it's all so very vibrant and alive. Like when we went to Cairo several years ago, life is all out on the street, in all its colors. It's an amazing feeling.
The driver, on the other hand, took one look at my western, whitey self and said, 'um, Mr. Ken.. are you sure?'
Oh yeah. The Old City is also the poorer section of town, and Hyderabad is a city of two religions - Hindu (mostly the newer part of town) and Muslim (Old City). They've gotten along just fine for the past 500 years or so for the most part, though, so I wasn't too worried. The looking-down-the-nose at the other side is generally more akin to why Georgia Tech alum disdain attendees of UGA. It's not that they're bad people. They're just not quite as blessed as we are.
I had the guy drop me off at Charminar again - a fantastic monument that is the heart of the Old City. It's surrounded by markets and street shopping, and thronged with people on a Sunday. I asked the driver to wait for me for a while while I walked down some of the streets and did a little tourist shopping.
He clucked his teeth and told me not to shop here. He'd take me to his cousin's place across the river where I'd be sure to get a much better deal. Yeah. I'm sure, buddy. Thanks - just wait here for a bit, ok?
These guys were cleaning anything brass and had an awesome display I could have spent an hour looking at.
And I had no idea what this guy was selling. But I wanted to buy it in bunches.
Glass bangles! Already bought some on the last trip, though. Not buying more.
I was getting a bit peckish, and started looking for something to eat by this point. Now, before you get all skeptical - you can safely buy and consume street food, if you aren't too dumb about it. Look for things you see being cooked. Avoid things being pulled up out of a bucket of dubious origins. Etc.
This guy is mashing raw sugar cane into a cup, mixing it with a little tap water, and serving it up for pennies. I like to call this "Death Juice." You should avoid it.
On the other hand, let me introduce you to my new best friend.
I call him Guava Guy. Guava Guy and I didn't speak the same language, but boy was he happy to see me. He was slicing up his fruit, dipping it into that plastic bag full of salt and red chiles mixed together, and selling this delicious manna fresh and ready to eat. I was paying him 10 rupees (~$0.25) per guava, and ate a couple in about 15 seconds flat.
My driver told me later that you could have bought a kilo of guavas for 20 rupees. Hey. Whatever. He was happy. I was happy. Everybody wins.
Last time I visited, I hadn't seen all these flags - they had been strung up the day before, I found out later, in preparation for some upcoming festival. Not really sure what the festival was about, but it really gave the place an amazingly festive air. Green flags with the crescent moon (for Islam) were almost everywhere. On the arch, over the streets, on the shrines. Many made from mylar, and sparkling in the 90 degree sun.
Down the occasional, apparently Hindu street, you'd find a few half-hearted attempts to respond with orange flags. Like boosters at an Away game. You know, just to show the colors.
What I didn't see, and what I didn't know, was that apparently some of the flag-hanging, rambunctious youths were getting out of hand a few streets over. "Green!" "Orange!" "Green!" "Orange!"
OK. I have no idea what they were really saying. But I totally missed this auto-rickshaw burning.
The article makes it sound like half the city was in the street with pitchforks and torches. I can tell you I didn't/haven't seen anything like that. But there was a curfew imposed a few hours after I made my way back from the district. I'm hoping it wasn't because I was way too generous with Guava Guy.
Either way, I would head back down that way in a heartbeat - we all know youths are up to no good. Just avoid the ones with the extra packs of matches and that special gleam in their eyes, and hang out where the locals do, and you'll be fine.
Hyderabad is beautiful.