Thursday, 30 June 2011


I'm supposing one could say that its advantageous that my tours were booked in India by an Indian - at least when it comes to the pricing - my Delhi City tour was very reasonable and II found myself on a busful of Hyderabadians, many of them visiting New Delhi for the first time. Whilst the bus was in AC comfort which is ridiculously cold after 5 minutes its very welcome every time the bus was entered - the tour director luckily spoke in English (perhaps for my benefit because many of those in the bus barely spoke any) although the volume was turned extremely high and even though i've been here for over a week and have pretty decent experience breaking down Indian accents i found him a bit difficult to understand (and I'm presuming the domestic travellers did as well considering what I picked up of their English skills - at least they had the ability to get clarification from him afterwards). As tours go, it was pretty good - not too much mucking around, we were given very specific timings that weren't too long (at this stop you will have 30 minutes ... that is Three ... Zero. Which means you will be back at the bus at Two Forty Five ... That is Two ... Four ... Five!) and there are some tremendous sites in New Delhi - perhaps A Song of Ice and Fire is going to my head right now but the Red Fort would have to be one of the most glorious medieval castles I've ever seen and I'm starting to understand why a lot of westerners get taken in by the Hindu faith (the ceremonies are a lot more FUN than Christianity, even if they are just as invalid when all is said and done).
Interesting for me is that nearly all of the tourists (at least where I've been thus far) have been Indian (from all of the other states) - the government obviously encourages this (the tour director's announcement that there would be an additional 20 rupee charge for two of the sites had me pulling out two battered notes only to be told that I was a foreigner i would be subjected to FIVE HUNDRED rupees - i started to protest - how did he know that I wasn't native born? But sarcasm tends to be lost on these people so i shelled up) - I'm also still getting questioned about the wherabouts of my wife (she's got to be around here somewhere), my country (which seems to prompt pleased statements of 'Ricky Ponting!' followed by a half-hearted discussion of cricket on my part), my qualifications (its easier to advance 6 months on that one), my job and occasionally even my salary. In the entire time that I've been here I don't think I've had a single conversation with a native English speaker - in some way its refreshing, hope i'm coherent on my return.
* * *
Finally, after two days of begging - some toilet paper has been delivered to my room!
* * *
Some more touring today, a much smaller group of AP's (this time with zero English) with me this time and a much quieter guide, the train museum was a nice surprise, and the national museum was also very pleasant (the bureaucracy a foreigner has to go through to get into some of these places is getting to me though) was followed by the major site, the Ashardham temple - the mandir in the middle was absolutely incredible - gigantic and every single bit of its surface was carved with beautiful people, elephants and gods. The security of the place was a bit ridiculous - apparently handled by a private firm, the only thing you were allowed to bring is was cash - everything else had to be left on the bus and i had to remove belt, sunglasses and wallet as i went through the metal detector and was felt up by a burly Gujarati (even the children were being frisked) - i suppose its nice to be in a place where you are free of the mobile phone although i felt a twinge at not being able to wiki the place whilst there.
The lotus garden near the end of the tour was interesting - loads of platitudes from various historical figures (Indian and otherwise) making bold claims as to the existence of God and some very hostile commentary towards atheism (I'm sure it would make Dawkins rage! I can't imagine him ever stepping foot in the place though)

The Sting

Upon arriving in New Delhi fatigue was starting to set in - just a handful of hours with Indian TV blaring in the background for a part of it then the 300km drive from Amoor to Hyderabad where i managed to slip away with neck creaking consequences for an hour or two before the flight. Joyfully, i got an exit row although on a domestic Indigo flight that barely means knee room, but better than the alternative.
The hotel room was sparse but more than adequate - i was in sore need of sustenance after the previous day's expulsions but couldnt stomach the idea of anything Indian (no offence to the fantastic cuisine of this land but i wouldn't go to an Indian restaurant for three meals a day back at home for a week so i shant do it here) - McDonalds was calling with its regional affectations - no red meat available but some old faithfuls were there to remind me of ohm - one thing to note is that this is the ONLY place where I've seen fat children anywhere in the country.
This hotel was far more central than some of the others ive stayed in thus far so it was a good opportunity to do some walking - thus far i've found i've been stuck in cars for a lot of my trip which is not the way i like to explore a city - i was reasonably central and whilst i didnt have a map on my person i felt i could explore enough without getting too hopelessly lost.
There's something about someone who has just arrived in a city, no matter how hardened they may be, that just screams 'first day' so it wasn't long before i was approached, subtle like, by a local, and I don't want to be judgemental but stereotypes are a real time saver, who appeared to have a touch of the Rominy to him, he started off with advice about using the metro rather than the rickshaws and he suggested a touristy area (where i was going to go anyway) so he accompanied me - very chivalrously telling me to walk on the other side of him when we did the leap of faith into the heavy moving traffic, bought me a chai as we babbled about travelling things - he seemed to be edging towards trying to sell me hashish but also directed me into one of the cottage industry shops where i was offered pashminas, traditional shirts and jewellery (the owner there intimated the incredible value of the jewellery, perhaps trying a variant of the Thailand jewellery scam which i bested several years previously). As i had no wife (nor girlfriend) the jewellery pushing was half-hearted at best although they did suggest i purchase the ubiquitous masturbating monkey (he turns up everywhere!). I knew there was a scam coming but was having a hard time working out what it was - i was getting a bit of a free tour and he was interesting enough - he started dropping in hints of a tale of woe (growing up on the streets and living in a tent with his children) and also gave a clue about being illiterate and knowing that if he learned to read he would be on his way to success.
He thought aloud that if he had a dictionary (even a second hand one) he would be able to use it to push himself and his family upwards and as he didn't want to sell me anything (because i was such a nice guy of course) perhaps we could find a bookstore and i could get one. Well, we found the bookshop (run by a Sikh) and lo and behold he had that second hand Hindi-English dictionary right under the counter and he was selling it for 1400 rupees and thats when i saw it. 1400 rupees is not a huge amount of money but its more than a new one would cost in Australia - I laughed when i saw the quote written down - it had been a few hours now and i was getting a little bored and tired and decided to head back hotel ways - he changed his tack and suggested my presence there as a westerner meant that he was overcharging (as Sikhs are won't to do!) and claimed that he could get it for 600 rupees if he went back by himself, then 500 rupees ... it was definitely a bit more creative than some of the scams i've seen or read about.
A lot of the more hardened travelers i've spoken to over the years consider anything more than local prices is a scam for tourists but in the end, our buying power is ridiculously high over here compared to your average local - paying $10 for something that you could potentially get for $2 is not going to break you - i don't like being rorted for nothing but being overcharged is hardly something that I'm going to lose sleep over (especially when i'm paying less for it than i would at ohm) - if somebody tries to do the dance and it's an interesting dance I will dance with them but I'm not going to buy them a dictionary.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Hyderabad Hydraulics

A brief "looseness" early on in the trip gave me some hope that the risks of Indian infections would be very minor but the day after the wedding left those hopes shattered. I found myself having one of those delirious dreams that only happens when your body knows something is wrong - a pounding headache was what awaited me when i came out of it and it was all i could do to crawl over to my bed and scrabble for some Advil - the instant coffee that I hoped might clear my head somewhat was expelled in perfect liquid form 10 minutes later and when breakfast came the only thing i could tolerate was some juice which also came back up perfectly (it doesn't taste as good the second time around) - everything that went in was coming back up minutes (and inevitably the rest of my body's water was finding alternative means of exiting).
The friendly waiters at the resort gave me a few opinions as to what i could be - did you take liquor last night, sir? Well, i had a beer. That must be it then!
The cause could have been anything - over ripe mangos, something from the wedding but most likely to my thoughts was the kalu (I think that's what it was called) drink that i took on the way home from the wedding. In between the thousands of mango stands that line the streets and highways there were occasionally women with earthenware pots selling the national drink, a date palm water. Rahul's wife (and I am shamed that I have forgotten her name ... although she would always address me as Brother [so i guess she forgot my name too but i could call her sister]) called it 'white wine' and would i like to try some.
Thinking it must have been some fermented version of it i thought it would be good to try but it was perfectly natural with no additives and was very delicious. The first time I tried it they made sure i stayed in the car while they went and fetched it. On the second day, i thought i'd go get some myself and it was then that i realised conditions may not have been up to Dr Bhatt's standards - flies and ants everywhere - the earthenware cup that the woman served it to me in was rinsed out from another bucket of water she had next to her (THAT's the most likely culprit i think) - it was delicious and i will definitely have it again I hope but that's the risk one takes when in India.
My driver came to take me to Amoor, Raj's home village, where we would be having the reception - I was a bit delirious with dehydration and the headache - we stopped once to get some tea, i thought i might be able to handle some Sprite but no sooner did it go in than it came straight out again. Not the best condition for the party but i endured.
Upon arriving at Raj's place I had some more foods and drinks pushed upon me but i couldn't even consider taking more than a sip to be polite and after meeting some more of his fambly i was soon picked up by Vamshi, his old school friend, and a different man from Raj you wouldn't find. Vamshi had sorted out the rest of my touring through Delhi way and was adamant that everything would be fine and if anything went wrong I was to call Vamshi and Vamshi would sort it out. He took me to the Premier Lodge where I would be staying the night so i could rest before the reception. Whilst I seemed to get a few too many opportunities to rest this was one that i wanted to take, unfortunately, Vamshi had other ideas and no sooner had i dumped my bag in my room than i was dragged into another room for whiskey and beer and very spicy food - I desperately tried to explain that i just couldn't take anything in - I was throwing up constantly and it wasnt that the food was too spicy, i like spicy food, i can take spicy food, just, right now, it's just not going to happen.
Unfortunately this pleading fell on deaf ears and drinks were poured and put into my hand, food was put into my lap, and i sipped and nibbled to keep them quiet - desperately hoping it wouldn't come straight up. Perhaps the whiskey killed the bug because nothing came up after that - i was extremely wary of drinking considering i'd had no food in my system for about 24 hours and was very dehydrated but i eventually managed to extricate myself and got a few hours sleep before we all headed to the reception.
Vamshi and rest of his crew were roaring drunk by the time i woke and they were still trying to ply me with more booze - I still had a headache but luckily things seeemed to be able to sit in my stomach this time - my instructions for dress was formal (as per the wedding) - I'd worn a suit the previous day and found i was the only one doing that and Raj clarified "formal" as being just jeans and a t-shirt or something (he forgot to put the IN in front of it I think) but this time when I did wear jeans and a t-shirt this was the time everyone was dressing up - i just did what i was told so i felt my Conscience Clea(red). The reception had a few rituals but basically seemed to be Rajveer and Priyanka standing in front of the flowers with every permutation of family and friend member geting photographed - soon afterwards i went to try to get some food and was dragged into the incredible kitchen (photos to come one day) where the spicy meats were piled on to my plate - it must have been the whiskey because it all stayed down - lots of introductions with the main body of questions being variations on Are you married? Why not? What are your qualifications? What do you do?
The less said about the subsequent hotel night the better - suffice to say I did get a few hours of fitful sleep (only due to complete exhaustion) and I understand why Raj offered me the opportunity to stay at another hotel in the next town ... but that's for another post.

The Wedding

Well, the main reason for me being here was today - having been given strict instructions to be at Sai Baba's temple by 11am it was mildly frustrating when my driver arrived at the resort at 11am - perhaps he got it mixed up but there's not much that can be done other than pray that the traffic will be slightly better than what I've gotten accustomed too.
By the time i found myself in the temple the events had already started (i was later informed by Raj's brother that it had only been 15 minutes of chanting although the intro is usually one of the more enjoyable bits) - the 1500 or so friends and family were sitting and chatting, wandering around, far more relaxed than at a western wedding - I was grabbed by one of the brothers when I walked in (I don't know how he knew who I was ... I'd never met him before) and introduced to a few people whose names were not that hard to pronounce but have already slipped my mind - i tried to get a better vantage and was promptly escorted to the stage where I got a great view of the festivities - lots of chanting, lots of colour, lots of noise - and after a few hours of this it was meet the couple and go to lunch. The thing i like most about Indian weddings (and having been to two I can rightly claim a bit of expertise) is that they're so relaxed - no need to keep quiet when the priest is talking, no need to sit in an uncomfortable chair for too long (unless you're the bride or groom I suppose). The food afterwards was all veg (which Priyanka, the bride, explained was necessary for some reason) but very nice - i had some green stuff and some orange stuff and, feeling adventurous, some yellow stuff as well. The ice cream for desert had dried fruits hidden away in it which was less than pleasant and i'd learned my lesson regarding the palm leaves (Priti would approve, I'm sure). I met some of the fambly from both sides (expect that I will meet more at the reception tomorrow - and that will be a different experience I'm sure) and lots of the friends - i found I got hijacked mainly by some of the younger guys (and the wait staff) - all of them curious about my level of education (none at all!) and the bidness I was in and, of course ... the major question, which I'm thinking I will get a few more times on this journey ... Where is YOUR wife?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Songs of Earth

I have to admit there was a slight uneasiness when it came to domestic
flights - after all, Indian flights have had a rash of issues (when it
comes down to crashes per person moved it's probably not that bad at
all) , but no problems with IndiGo's quick jump from Mumbai to
Hyderabad. My driver was not immediately apparent at the other end
and my phone was having trouble finding Airtel but after a little
confusion i was on my way to Songs of Earth - which is to be my
residence for the next few days. It seems as if I am the only person
actually staying here which means the vast host of staff are having
little trouble servicing all of my needs, which are small in any
event. A much more pleasant place to lay my head than the 3-star
comfort (which met all of my expectations and then some it must be
said) - very relaxing is one way I would describe this place as the
"activities" leave a little to be desired - there were quite a few
daytrippers who visit in the waking hours but I'm at a loss to work
out what this place is all about. Its pleasant, yes, but maybe I'm
missing something because there really doesn't seem to be much
happening at all. The grounds are vast and empty, maybe I'm here in
the off season (although the number of staff would say otherwise).
The economics of a developing country continue to baffle me - I've
seen it before - the toll booth is a perfect example - in Australia
where we had one person manning a toll booth the next step is to
replace that person with a machine, its quicker for everyone and yes
somebody loses their job when this happens, but was it really that
great a job anyway? Over here, there's three people per toll booth,
one person to collect the money, one person to write out the ticket
and manage the booth and another person to smile and talk and wander
around. At the hotel I'm spending a little bit but there is no way
that one room, a couple of meals and a beer is going to support the
dozen staff members who are constantly seeing that I have all I need.
One day I may understand it but the explanation that many in this
country are living on less than a dollar a day is the most likely (but
how do they all have phones then???)

It takes more than one sentence to describe Mumbai

Spending 24 hours in airplanes and airports are never the best way to
prepare for anywhere - let alone somewhere like this place.
Accommodation more than adequate - my biggest critique of the hotel
would be the fact that the survey they gave me to fill out afterwards
was not a Likert scale of bad to good but a likert scale of below
expectations to above expectations ... my expectations were not that
high and therefore they met and even exceeded what they were (I do
dream of a day when I can eat 5-star scrambled eggs but it was not
this day).
Despite being somewhat inured to poverty after brief and extended
stays in places like phnom penh or vancouver this place takes a lot to
get used to. The slums are inescapable - they're at the airport, the
new city, the old city, even the national park (though luckily not in
the tiger and lion pens ... at least not now) - a bit of confusion
arose on the first day and Rakesh replaced Remminder as my personal
"driver" (note to self, you do not need a driver to negotiate a city,
even one like mumbai!) his english wasn't great and there's nothing
wrong with that (unless you're going to be a travel guide for an
Australian) - he did the obligatory shuttle towards a carpet salesman
but when sales weren't provided we moved on - saw a couple of the
sites (Gateway to India, that Mumbai hotel, the shopping mall! (which
like any good shopping mall in a developing country had metal
detectors and mirrors under the cars to ensure that the shopping
experience was the least explosive it could be). Like other
developing countries with cities with large populations the traffic is
something that has to be seen to be believed - my head was swimming
just trying to contemplate the Ehrlang calculations required to make
sense of it all, everyone keeps on moving, sometimes obeying the road
rules, often not, sometimes the cops were on hand to give a bit of
forceful direction and red lights were mostly obeyed. A three lane
road could take up to six vehicles, more if you include the bicycles -
and people would continually weave in and out, oblivious to the
honking (which was nowhere near as bad as some other places I've
experienced so that was a welcome relief). Saw Indian bureaucracy in
action - I suppose its good that helmets are compulsory ... for the
rider, they are, of course, forbidden for all of the other passengers
(often just one but I did see up to five although they were very small
passengers). The other rule which I managed to flout with surprising
little difficulty was the law around foreigners not being able to get
a SIM card without going through a mountain of paperwork - I started
the ball rolling with a Chinese phone salesman and even he decided it
was too much trouble and put it under his own name with strict
instructions for me to destroy it once I left the country. I know its
good to get away from the connection when I'm on holiday but
travelling with connectivity has its advantages - maps are much easier
to follow when you know where you are on one and Lonely Planet has no
place in my heart (Google does ... kind of). And once I did have a
phone I found it gave Raj (the only person who knows the number) ample
opportunity to check with me to ensure that everything was okay and
also to ensure he was able to give me constant instructions on how to
minimise the pain of dealing with India (thus far, not too bad).
In between my criss-crossing of the city in air conditioned comfort
(??) there were some interesting sites, and some interesting foods
(cheap restaurants were excellent - even though I was convinced i was
getting dirty looks for eating with my left hand, Indian ice cream was
pretty good, the palm leaves with lots of weird stuff smeared on them
by hand did leave a bit to be desired (everything about them was
against Dr Bhatt's rule book), perhaps it was them that required
infusion of immodium the next day but i wont blame anyone but myself.
The beaches are pretty (although dirty), the National Park was
beautiful (lion and tiger safari less so) and the birthday wishes
being plastered all over town to a very smug looking local politician
were very amusing (... our Dashing and Dynamic Leader). Did I like
this place? I don't know. Is it fascinating? Absolutely.
Depressing? For sure. Will I come back? ... maybe ...

Monday, 20 June 2011

Last Night In Sydney

Last episode of Game of Thrones is coming down way too slowly - looks very likely that I'll be heading to Mumbai with only dreams of the visuals. I'm supposing its a good thing I've caught up (and overtaken) the ups and downs in the lands of the Seven Kingdoms.
I'm not really sure why I feel a slight guilt with leaving work stuffs behind but as only a rationalist can rationalise ... I'm really not that important when all is said and done, life will go on, SIOs will accumulate and marketing campaigns will do whatever the hell that marketing campaigns tend to do (nobody has told me what the fucking call to action is yet).
All i really need to do is work out which t-shirts will truly represent me over the next two and a half weeks and hope that all the antibodies that have been injected into my body can hold off the Solanum which is undoubtedly waiting for me on the other side. Huzzah.