Are we REALLY here? Which is the question I asked myself early Friday morning on February 13 as my bare feet felt the cool marble floor of Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in Hyderabad, India. Constructed in 1976 by a wealthy, industrial family (the Birlas), this white stone temple serves as a sanctuary for all people, whether Hindi or not, with its companion planetarium just down the hill. The Birlas have been constructing combination sites of the spiritual with the scientific over the past 50 years. Thanks to Noel Bonam of Portland’s Boda Travel, this site was our introduction into the complex and contradictory world of India and into the world of where bare feet rule.
Max and I had quickly jotted down this country as one of our ‘must-see’ countries when we became engaged back in December 2000. Fast forward fourteen years later and we had signed onto Noel’s small-group travel thanks to the recommendation of Judy and Doug who had experienced a Boda India adventure with friends Roger and Stephanie Greenwood a few years ago. Because of a visa-on-arrival program becoming operational just in time for our joining the group of four others, Max and I found ourselves part of a magical mystery tour led by our host Noel.
Believe it or not my backpack suitcase had extremely few clothes but enough medicinal, cosmetic and electronic supplies to make it and me feel like a combo bag lady and walking drugstore. I even took lice shampoo on the suggestion of a good friend when she heard we’d be spending our last week at a village school. Heads up, I left it in a hotel towards the end of our trip in hopes someone else could use it.
Being Leaving from a winter climate only to be greeted by summer temperatures meant we had to be a bit creative on immediate travel clothes. The solution was purchasing coats for less than $12 at one of Ipswich’s Charity Shops only to surreptitiously abandon them outside Heathrow’s terminal doors. Mine being a plum-colored, alpaca wraparound would be sorely missed when facing future frigid weather; but, this loss was mitigated because no longer would I appear like a waddling, stuffed eggplant.
Being based in England versus Maine like the rest of our fellow Boda-ists, our travel time was relatively easy: left London for the airport at 4:30 a.m. and arrived less than 20 hours later in Hyderabad. We set our clocks five-and-a-half hours ahead. (Why the half hour? The eastern and western extremes of India are approximately one-and-a-half hours apart, so a compromise was made to create one all-inclusive time zone. This eliminated confusion which is what had occurred when the railway company decided to use one time zone and the government based its clocks on two different zones.)
All seven of us arrived within 30 minutes of one another, and Noel placed spell-binding garlands of jasmine around our necks. The enchantment had begun.
HYDERABAD, City of Pearls
Friday, February 13th to Sunday, February 15th
Noel’s experience of not letting any of us nod off until 8 pm Friday night translated into an ongoing assault of our senses as the day flowed from one eye-popping sight, smell, touch to the next. This rapid-fire introduction also created an instant bond among all of us as tiredness turned to giddiness turned to deer-in-the-headlight looks.
What soon became apparent was not only would this tour under Noel’s guidance be an immersion into the non-touristy side of India but also the meeting of acquaintances who would become friends. The one disappointment was not meeting Anne and Carl who had to cancel due to last-minute illness.
As the day unfolded I experienced the sensory explosion to which other India travellers had alerted me.
Leaving the temple we ventured back to the hotel for desired showers and caffeine intake. Two hours later found us on our way to Pochampally, a weaving village an hour or so outside of Hyderabad. A bonus was having a young Iraqi friend of Noel’s, Ahmed, join us, who was soon treated as a long-lost nephew.
Speeding along the road to the village we saw some red blobs on the side of the road only to discover they were tomatoes, and, even more interesting, they were tomatoes with monkeys. Thankfully we didn’t disturb or distract them from their feast for I don’t think upset monkey with throwing arms would be a good combo.
Reaching the village we realized we were an attraction, enough of one that a local reporter covered our visit in the local paper. Noel had arranged for a visit to the local clinic due to several of our group being in the medical field back home. The doctor’s consulting room became a wee bit crowded due to folk wanting to see the visitors from America. I’d include the article but it’s in the official language Telugu, which, like other local languages, appears like curlyques looping across a page.
(FYI: The shelf above the reporter is a tribute to this individual’s household deity. We found out every Hindu family has a selected god or goddess they worship, and, trust me, there are enough to go around).
As we walked along the warm dusty lanes I saw geometric designs in front of doors, or Hindu kolams, made each day in the hopes of bringing good luck to the household while driving away evil spirits. I later read that historically they were created with rice flour providing meals to ants and other insects in the form of a welcome. Now many use white stone powder because it’s easier to apply while providing a brighter color.
During our stroll down one street and up another we all soon discovered that not only do the Indians not dislike having their photos taken but they actually want to have them snapped; and, if you’re in it, all the better. Layne was the first one to discover this lack of shyness when graciously asking one villager if we could take her photo. From then on, it was no-holds barred resulting in my camera card being jammed pack with portraits of god-knows-whom.
This joyful phenomena was repeated throughout our entire month. Matter-of-fact Noel often had to turn around to herd several of his ‘peeps’ back into his fold as we all became engaged in snapping photos of these warm and gracious folk.
A highlight of our village walk was stopping in at a local school. In a brief interaction we were asked to sing a song followed by their standing and delivering their national anthem. Not sure why one little boy isn’t saluting but everyone else did. Of course, he may still have been reeling from seven, middle-aged Americans trying to carry a tune.
Our last hour in the weaving village entailed the glorious color of silk and cotton saris. It was all I could do not to pull the bolts of luscious fabric out of their prim cabinets and unwind it around the room. I was in heaven. I almost felt drugged by the abundance of brilliant cloth. Here, to me, was a treasure trove.
Returning to Hyderabad the relative tranquility of village life was quickly overtaken by the exuberance of the city’s streets. As we quickly snaked through the Old City’s bazaars we came into contact with the sights and sounds emerging from a cacophony of man, animal, and machine.
Having been forewarned I was prepared somewhat for the sensory overload. But, what caught us off guard were the horns. Constantly long and short beeps would announce a three-wheel tuk-tuk coming up one side or the other while a truck adeptly avoided a collision with one of the god-zillion vehicles, both animal and man, found on the untamed streets of the city. Over the course of our month here our shrieks both internal and external lessened to sighs at not beating out the competition to the next intersection.
Seeing the words “Horn Please” or the more direct plea “Blow Horn” and looking questioning at Noel he explained beeping one’s horn is not considered offensive at all. Rather, it’s like a turn signal, a green/yellow/red light, or, as a last resort, a brake for there are no traffic rules here, it seems… only seemingly impossible, endless streams of moving objects. Amazingly there appear to be very few accidents.
All I can say is hats off to any one who drives in India. The driving test must be based on a scenario of… (a) taking several sacred cows, an ox-drawn cart or two, kids towed by moms, elderly pedestrians lugging food parcels, fifteen helter-skelter tuk-tuks, twenty-something cars and trucks of varying sizes, and two lanes with no median… (b) shaking them up like a snow globe… (c) placing your vehicle in the midst… (d) and going for it. Over and over we experienced the thrill of traveling in India, and, I must admit, one of my proudest achievements was crossing the street on our own without Noel serving as our bodyguard between us and the oncoming vehicles.
Noel didn’t seem to mind shepherding those of us interested in ferreting out bargains. We soon learned the best technique was to pretend we were his harem, which became a well-rehearsed act throughout our time together when shopping.
First, we would approach a stall and collectively descend upon the excited owner before spreading out to other vendors. Each vendor must have felt he’d died and gone to heaven upon having his small space fill with eagle-eyed female shoppers.
Individually we would scrutinize the array of products, at times unsuccessfully trying to veil our keen interest in an item. After some nonchalant gazing we would engage the seller only to hear a price we initially thought ‘man, what a bargain’. This is when the vendors’ hopes were quickly dashed as Noel, our fearless leader, entered the discussion and efficiently lowered the price to something that left our eyes popping and wallets a lot fuller after the final transaction.
We also mastered the art of quickly withdrawing no matter how longingly we backward-glanced at the stall when Noel uttered the command ‘let’s go’. Amazing what power those two words have. For, nine times out of ten, in less than 30 seconds, the vendor called us back in, agreed to Noel’s determined fair price, packaged the items up, and ushered us out of his store. Someone in the group aptly labeled this Noel’s Charm Offensive, quickly abbreviated to Noe’s C.O.
Because we definitely weren’t the first of Noel’s travel groups to engage in hyper-shopping, he knew the best vendors to visit for any and all needs. Our first night he took Layne, Leslie, Diana and me to get some clothes made from fabric we had purchased earlier that day. The cost was stunning for it was less than $5 (currency conversion was roughly 60 rupees to $1) to have a shirt made. And, it would be completed in less than 48 hours. All from a 12’ x 12’ shop that looked like controlled chaos.
It was also while waiting for our turns to be measured, we practiced the art of bobble-heading. I can’t say I ever mastered the technique of wagging one’s head but not for the lack of trying. Furthermore I never really knew whether it indicated ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’. However, in spite of not being an efficient bobble-header, it is difficult not to begin using this contagious head wag.
The next morning we stopped alongside Hyderabad’s river, Musi. Even mottled with garbage you could imagine how beautiful it once was and could be ‘if only’.
It was while gazing at the river that we espied some of the most impressive transporting of merchandise.
How these guys managed to cycle with those loads I have no idea. Furthermore, how they loaded them up and kept them clean are two other miracles yet-to-be-explained.
Arriving in the Old City we parked close to one of the most famous landmarks of Hyderabad: Charminar. Built in the 16th century by the Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, this ceremonial gateway sits at an intersection with four arches opening onto four streets. The buzz of the bazaar swirled around this structure, and it made for an easy locator in the event one became disoriented as seen behind Max.
Close to Charminar is Chomahalla Palace, constructed over 200 years ago and the seat of the Nizams (local rulers). Part of the palatial complex is still used by the royal family. Princess Esra, who married into the family in 1956 and trained as an architect, has managed to save this royal residence by turning it into a money-making venture as a tourist site and wedding venue. An oasis amidst the flurry of humanity located just on the other side of its gates.
The reception room was airy with over-the-top, decorated walls and ceilings.
Outside the grounds were carefully tended. I wish I had gone closer to see if they were weeding with scissors. I wouldn’t have been surprised.
It’s no wonder Chowmahalla is a popular wedding site.
Walking in the streets of the Old City we discovered how odd we looked to locals. Case in point: Noel caught the conversation a young mother was having with her children as they passed these gangly white people. He later told us she answered their question about why we looked so different with explaining we came from across the ocean in a place called the United States where they speak a language called English.
This feeling of being a minority was one of the many benefits of being with Noel. With a few exceptions, such as Agra, we rarely felt we were part of a typical tour of India. And, if we did find ourselves at a site visited by tourists, the tourists were usually Indians. Such as when we were inside the grounds of the palace.
As you can imagine just being on the streets was entertaining, from seeing men pound gold pellets into sheets…
to catching sight of unusual mannequins…
to reading ads stuck on the back of tuk-tuks…
India was a land where it’s best to just relax into its exotic embrace.
We returned to the bazaar at night to be absorbed once again by the strangeness.
Noel also took us to a store for those wanting to purchase pearls. It would be a good investment for any who did for Noel said a friend of his had purchased some for $30 only to have them appraised for $300 when home. I believe if we had done the math, Max and I would have filled our backpacks with strand upon strand; however, we left the buying to others as we watched our colleagues pour over the merchandize. Plus, I’m partial to the designs created by The Island Pearl, a business owned and operated by a family friend Leighton Reeve.
On our way home we noticed neon signs flashing intriguing and inspiring messages:
Later I read that She Teams had been formed in 2014 by Hyderabad Police. Below is a December 24th article form THE TIMES OF INDIA, which explains the concept:
HYDERABAD: The Cyberabad police have formed 60 ‘She’ teams to put an end to eve teasing menace in the IT corridor area and outskirts of the city. The Hyderabad Police had launched the initiative in October by forming 100 teams to crack the whip on eve teasers. Each ‘She’ team would comprise of about four to six police personnel, including an officer of the rank of SI or ASI, members of Special Operations Team (SOT), Task Force and women constables.
All ‘She’ teams would be in mufti. The teams would be provided with spy cameras to gather evidence against offenders and private vehicles were being hired for `She’ teams to travel from place to place.
Police identified 200 ‘hot spots’ in the Cyberabad commissionerate where eve teasing was rampant and the `She’ teams would be specially focusing on these spots.
What’s even better is the crime rate against women has been lowered thanks to these teams. One small, but successful, step in empowering women.
As mentioned earlier, I definitely felt we were experiencing facets of India that aren’t part of a typical tour such as interacting with locals. Not only did we meet locals but also some of Noel’s lovely family and friends. In addition to Ahmed, his friend studying physical fitness at one of the local universities, we were fortunate to share a lunch with Noel’s aunt and uncle as well as two of his nephews. (One of his nephews is involved with a friend’s trek in a solar tuk-tuk. For more info check out http://www.solartuktuk.com). This lunch was followed by a late dinner our last night in Hyderabad where we met a childhood friend of Noel’s, Raj, who’s also a chief consultant in India for Noel’s Global Institute company.
Our opportunity to meet these gracious folk began with a morning walk in Noel’s neighborhood, which featured a Sunday vegetable market.
Pointing out various fruits and vegetables we came to one stand where Leslie inquired about a particular food. The woman’s surprising response said with a kind smile was ‘google it’. The power of the Internet is definitely evident throughout India.
While the fruits and vegetables were making me salivate, and the marigolds were pillowy piles of floral scent,
the non-veggie selections were making me think twice about eating meat. We passed headless chicken torsos and gutted, fly-dotted hanks of fish. Not the most appetizing view along this hot and humid stretch of road.
A surprise appearance of a camel in Noel’s backyard prompted two adventuresome souls, Diana and Leslie, to grace the animal’s back.
The rest of us had experienced the thrill of going up and coming back down on a camel, so we waited with gleeful anticipation for the facial expressions when that occurred to our two fellow travellers. Thankfully Max documented it on video so cheap entertainment is only a click away :)
One individual we wished we had been able to meet was his mother. Unfortunately, she passed away last year, yet, we definitely felt her presence as we sat in her former, and now Noel’s, Indian home.
Just as a side note, the reason we’re all laughing at the photographer is due to Max’s form of ‘say cheese’, which is his grabbing himself in an unusual place (or maybe not so unusual for a guy) before he snaps a shot. NOTE: This grab will come to play later in our trip.
Later that day we visited Qutb Shahi Tombs with the first one built in the 1500s. The mausoleum of Hyderabad’s founder, Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth sultan, was located here. The Shahi Dynasty ruled the region from 1518-1687 until it was absorbed into the Mughal Empire. (The Mughal was the Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin ruling most of northern India from the early 16th century to mid 18th century. Although the Mughals were rulers for another century their power slowly diminished. The greatest of the Mughal emperors was Akbar who ruled from 1556-1605.)
(Notice the different calendar years above: His death 1035 H. converts to 1612 C.E.)
As we were walking towards one of the tombs I said hello to a young woman dressed in a burqa. I was startled when she responded with hardly any accent ‘what part of the States are you from?’. This led to a too-brief of a conversation for I would have liked to exchange more than polite greetings. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her, and, hopefully, she’d reciprocate with questions of me.
Golconda or “Shepherd’s Hill” was a citadel built in the late 10th century and became the seat of the Qutb Shahi dynasty.
Being a Sunday there were lots of people enjoying an outing, and we were often stopped for photo ops.
Fortunately, I think I was the only one who snapped this shot…Max has always had an affinity for monkeys (perhaps the reason he married me is for my vocalization of a howler monkey)
Leslie had brought some smarties to hand out to kids. She allowed us to be the first to taste it.
Along the way we spotted a curious past-time taking place off to our right. Boys were taking squashed plastic bottles and sliding down a tiled ramp way.
Noel explained this was yet another example of India’s spending funds without thinking through the results: the site needed easy access for those unable to climb stairs only to put in a tiled ramp that is so slick it caused fractures of those trying to use it; now it serves as a slide for inventive kids.
Once at the top we caught the setting sun, casting a mellow mood over our surroundings.
A sound-and-light show ended our fort tour, and, boy, did it ever. We had heard they sprayed for mosquitoes. What we didn’t realize was ‘sprayed’ really meant ‘you will be soaked in DDT’.
Some had smartly brought face masks, which only added to hilarity when we tried not to laugh and inhale as we were fumigated… twice… by the energetic sprayer.
With that amount of DDT absorbed through our skins I’m surprised I didn’t wake up the next morning with a third arm poking out of my side.
However, contaminating the air with pesticide only seemed to smoke the mosquitoes out, not kill them, as swarms appeared to feast on exposed, tender flesh. And, like the one Max, Betsy, Carmen and I attended in Giza at the pyramids, this sound-and-light show would be best experienced in the comfort of one’s own home via you-tube and a stiff drink.
Our ride back cemented our bonding even further as we all needed to use the head. Being on a main road in India doesn’t preclude using it as a rest stop (if no bathrooms exist, you just create your own, no questions asked). While Max and Daniel headed off in one direction, Noel escorted us women to the other side of the road and pointed to an empty truck parked on the side. Here we initiated our peeing in a circle rite, one we used at least once more during our time together.
After a full day it was time for dinner, and, just as he had superbly shepherded us in and around sites, Noel managed to navigate us through a barrage of Indian tastes. At each meal he ordered delicious dishes that I’ll never be able to remember the names except for one: Mutton Briyani. It seemed, too, no matter where we were, mutton would appear on the menu then soon on our plates as one of the many dishes. Due to his partiality to this meat, we switched from calling ourselves Noel’s peeps to Noel’s muttonettes. A term that became more and more applicable as our time together lengthened. Frankly, I’m surprised none of us grew mutton hair for it most certainly was a staple in our diet.
With our first three full days drawing to a close, we prepped for our next adventure: Kerala where the Arabic Sea kissed this country’s southern shore.
And, I don’t think I was the only one wondering if they served mutton in Kerala…