Friday, February 23, 2007

The Great Hyderabad Adventure

I have many pictures to share, but they will have to wait for an updated post. Allow your imagination to escort you for now.

So! I had been trapped in the "green zone" at the Novotel Hyderabad for two solid days, and I think I just finally had enough of it. The Novotel is surrounded by about five acres of land, and the edge of that property terminates with a heavy fence (or wall in places) with either barbed wire or razor wire keeping the rabble out...or perhaps keeping the westerners in? I had taken a few strolls on the grounds, and after walking a few hundred meters from one end to the other this morning, I realized I was tired of living in the bubble. It was time to leave.

A number of folks had expressed interest in escorting me into and around Hyderabad, but nothing materialized. Since this was my last chance to see the city, and potentially the last time I'd be in Hyderabad for many years, I had to take matters into my own hands. I asked the front desk for a map, a guidebook, and a few recommendations. Then the transportation desk set up a cab ride to my first destination, Charminar, the square, four-towered heart of the city. It was a perfect if clichéd place to start my day of exploration.

Unfortunately, Charminar is also right in the heart of the "old city", the other half of Hyderabad housing the less privileged portion of the population. Charminar itself was certainly astounding. Even though the minarets were closed, the view from the top main floor was quite impressive. In each of the four directions, thoroughfares stretched off into the distance, revealing a bustling mass of humanity. I could see the swarming rickshaws, the teeming bazaar, and the hoards of Hyderabadi citizens going about their lives. It was humbling really. But it was a bit more personal once I descended back into those masses to find my next destination.

India has truly awakened. Here more than anywhere I have visited the contrast between technology and tradition is grossly apparent. Construction projects involve teams of mean working by hand, like ants assembling a colony. But every ant has a cell phone with text messaging and a camera. In the streets, beggars clutch at you constantly, but often speak extremely capable English and understand the western world. Above, signs advertise BizTalk Server and Oracle Training. Below, people sleep in the streets and beg for pennies in roaring traffic. And in the streets of Hyderabad this paradoxical turmoil boils unabated.

So I climbed back down the stairs of Charminar, a bit concerned for my future. Walking out the secured gate, I was immediately mobbed by beggars, young and old. A few (usually the youngest) spoke surprisingly good English. They asked where I was from, what I needed, where I was going. Some (the older members of the hoard) only knew what they needed to elicit a response from western hearts and minds..."food"..."baby"..."hungry"..."please". Why exactly had I decided to launch into this city alone? Ahh, for adventure, I remember. And what happens at this point in an adventure? When the odds and numbers are stacked against you? A gallant escape, with nary a rupee spared. How noble of me.

No, I did not make a contribution to the Hyderabadi poor. I certainly could have. Is it heartless of me? I don't think so; to have made one contribution would have certainly brought a torrent upon me, and it was already a worrisome situation. Instead, I made for a nest of rickshaws near the monument. One particularly bold youth, Abdul, stepped out of the crowd with a map of monuments, a plan for visiting them, and a welcoming smile. He was a salesman with exactly the product I needed, and for the next six hours he would be my guide. Off we went.

One of the previous would-be escorts had suggested Golkonda Fort as a place I should not miss. So naturally, with a friendly and aware guide at my side, that was the next place to visit.

Golkonda is the ruined former home of the Qutub Shahis, before they moved their home to what is now Hyderabad. It is an extensive maze of towers, walls, tunnels, temples, mosques, and overlooks atop a the highest hill in the area. After climbing several hundred feet to the summit, the sprawl of the city extends in all directions. No other view in Hyderabad gives such a complete picture of its size and extent. The fort itself is also impressive, with four-story defensive walls, a remarkable acoustic communication system, and numerous gardens tucked away behind tunnels and through towering arches. The climb to the top required a few breaks, during which Abdul told me what he knew of the fort's history in broken English and snapped photos of me at the major landmarks.

Eventually, we descended, and headed for the next stop on the tour: the Qutub Shahi Tombs.

There were seven Qutub Shahi kings, and they are all interned here in monumental tombs. Each tomb hosts an enormous dome (complete with perfect acoustics for singing, chanting, or tourists clapping and hooting), multiple entrances and side-tunnels, and inside the center, a symbolic (or perhaps more-than-symbolic?) monument to the hosted monarch. Most of the tombs contain a single such monument, but one had three: mother, father, and child. There are tombs here for the seven kings, many of their wives, and other relations. The writing on the monuments is in Arabic. That on the tour signs, in Telugu. Both Hindi and Muslim visit and pay their respects. And the city surrounds. I would say that the Qutub Shahi Tombs are at least as important a stop as the Golkonda Fort. If you are to visit the height of the kings' success, you should at least say an appropriate goodbye.

The rest of my adventure is somewhat less compelling, but perhaps still interesting. Hyderabad as we know it in the western world is really two cities to the Indians: Hyderabad and Secunderabad. In a peculiar quirk of fate, this pair is known to most Indians as "The Twin Cities", just like my home towns of Minneapolis and St Paul are known to Minnesotans (and many Americans) as "The Twin Cities". The very center of Hyderabad, bridging these two cities, is a large lake called Hussein Sagal. Arriving here, I have come full-circle to the heart of the "Twin Cities" on the other side of the world. Unfortunately, the interesting part of that story ends here. Hussein Sagal now appears to be little more than a tourist trap, firmly ensconced in the "new" part of the city. It is surrounded by miraculous science museums and modern family amusement parks. Put simply, I had no interest in anything more than driving past. Yes, it's a large lake in the middle of the city. Yes, there's a 60-foot-tall Buddha standing in the center. The noise of the traffic surrounding and the lights of the shopping malls and Pepsi signs tends to dampen any beauty or majesty that once was there. We moved on.

One item I had expressed interest in when talking to the front desk was "shopping". Unfortunately, we had different definitions of shopping. To me, shopping was visiting a "bazaar of the people", where I could browse sarees for my wife, hand-made toys for my son, and myriad other handicraft and localities. To the hotel, shopping meant "Macy's".

360s, $1 The final stop on my 8-hour Hyderabad tour was, sadly, the LifeStyle department store. It wasn't a bad store, really, since it did host a few local items and the prices were a little better than those at home. But it was a truly western-style store, with little interest to me as anything other than a landing zone. I wandered up to its second story, where I found discounted XBoxVCDs, and a coffee shop so grossly plastered with Windows Vista branding that they even had a "Windows Logo" menu prouding selling "Windows Vista WOWffee". Naturally, I ordered one due to the sheer absurdity of getting a free "Vista Wristlet", a white rubber bracelet emblazoned with the words "Windows Vista. The "Wow" starts here." To make it even more stomach-turning, it was a latte with orange flavoring. Delicious.

Of course I couldn't let the day end with a "WOWffee" and high-quality merchandise at low, low prices, so I called a fellow Sunny from the hotel to join me for a very satisfactory dinner. And then, after consuming excessive amounts of vegetable biriyani, chicken tikka masala, and garlic naan, I returned to the "green zone".

So what have I learned from my excursion?

  1. Exploring the poor districts of an unknown city alone can be frightening, but it certainly gives one perspective on the meaningless nonsense we labor over in the western world.
  2. Don't wait for someone to show you the world; just go see it yourself.
  3. The world is you better see it soon.
I hope I can return to Hyderabad some day to see more of its hidden treasures. For now, I move on to the next JRuby World Tour Stop: BANGALORE.