Travelogue: India

Thursday, March 6, 2008
Outside the Ella Compass Suites

I spent the last week of February in Hyderabad, India. This was my first trip to India, and I thought I'd share some experiences.

The Flight

I flew from Washington D.C. to Hyderabad on Qatar Airlines. The longest leg, between D.C. and Doha, was on a Boeing 777-300ER – a long range jet with the largest engines in aviation history. The business class configuration on the plane made the time pass with relatively little agony. The lay-flat seats gave me 12 hours of sleep, and I used the on-demand entertainment system to pass the time with some new movies (mostly on the way home):

I highly recommend Qatar Airlines. The business lounge in Doha is comfortable, and I had time to grab a shower in the marbled and well-stocked washrooms. Service is second none, and the food is the best I've ever had in the air – smoked salmon, brie, champagne, filet mignon, prawns, and Godiva chocolates. The endless stream of food and drink was served by a team of young models – all smiling and very easy on the eye.

The downside to this experience is that my next domestic flight will feel worse than ever. Satan himself recruits airline executives from the United States to mange the first circle of hell.

The Airport

Golcanda Fort

I just have to tell you about the Hyderabad airport experience. My flight, like most International flights to India, arrived in the middle of the night. You'd think an airport would be empty at 3 in the morning, but you'd be wrong. There was a 30 minute wait to get through immigration, which isn't too bad, but it was amusing. Lines would close and open arbitrarily, forcing people to shuffle and maneuver into new lines. There were things that happened in this shuffle that would have resulted in bloodshed had they happened in, say, Newark, N.J. But this was India, and personal space can't afford to exist.

At one point a new line opened, but the man behind the counter shouted "women only!" So I stayed in the long line of forlorn looking men and together we stared at this long line of women. For a brief moment I was hoping this would turn into one of the scenes I've watched in Bollywood movies. You know – the line of women start singing and dancing, and then the line of men start singing and dancing, and before you know it, the entire cast is embracing and gyrating out the door to freedom. I did some light stretching to warm up in case the music started, but nothing materialized.

The arrivals area outside was a sea of humanity. People were stacked 7 deep waiting for loved ones to arrive, or perhaps they were there just to watch the spectacle. I found my driver quickly, and waited just a few minutes for him to bring up the car. I listened to the jangle of excited voices. Watched the flashing and weaving of motorbikes. Felt a tug from a young lady begging. Smelled diesel fumes from rickshaw motors. Tasted dirt in the air.

India welcomed me with an assault on all senses.

Hyderabad

Fruit stand outside Hyderabad

Most of my time was spent in HITECH city, slightly northwest of Hyderabad proper. The Microsoft campus there is eerily similar to the campus in Redmond, right down to the color of the glass and signage. The only major difference is the unrelenting source of heat and light that hangs in the sky over the Hyderabad campus. Redmondites might have heard of it – it's called the sun. I was on campus everyday teaching for Pluralsight

I did get a chance to venture into the city, and also to the nearby Golconda fort. The fort is built on a hill of granite and dates back to 1143. The outer wall has a circumference of 7km. Inside are iron studded gates, mosques, temples, ornate stonework, and a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture. The gates also featured an impressive acoustical effect. A person can stand under the carefully designed dome and clap. That clap can be heard at the top of the mountain over one kilometer away! Hundreds of years ago, the claps would signal the king's arrival, or an enemy's encroachment.

Riding in the streets of Hyderabad I witnessed only a glimpse of the diversity that is in India. A women wrapped in a brightly colored sari stands alongside a Muslim women covered in a plain black jilbab. An old farmer with a handful of vegetables stands alongside a young businessman with his cell phone. It's a dizzying mix of life in the swarming streets of an old city. And yes, the driving in India is everything you've ever heard it is – and quite possibly worse than you ever imagined.

The road is lawless, but the people are polite. I'd say hospitality in India is second to none. Everyone I talked to was warm, inviting, and eager to share a story. It was entertaining to sit down at a meal and listen to conversations. Some talks would begin in English then suddenly veer into a local tongue. Another blink of the eye - and it's English again. Fortunately, someone was always willing to translate for me.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you about the food. I've developed a passion for Indian food over the last 5 years, and was delighted to find a mix of both northern and southern cuisines in this centrally located city. I had vadas, idlis and somber during breakfasts. Dosas and biryanis ruled for lunch, while paneer dishes (including my favorites palek paneer and mutter paneer), and a variety of curries and tandoori dishes were fair game for dinner. I was as close to achieving a gastronomic orgasm as one can get (although I'll be honest – by the end of the week I had this undeniable craving for a New York style pizza).

Suddenly, I Was Gone

Downtown Hyderabad

One week isn't a great deal of time to spend somewhere so far from home. I was just getting over the jetlag when I stayed up to catch a 5 a.m. flight home. In the airport, I was reading the local newspaper when I came across some funny ads:

Increase your bust line with a new herbal mix developed by scientists in the United States! Start looking more attractive with a bigger bust line in 3 months! Call now!

And:

Increase your height using a new lotion developed in the United States! Don't be short any longer – just apply this lotion to the soles of your feet once a day for six months! Order now!

Funny, because I think I've seen the same rip-offs advertised in U.S. newspapers, only the lotions are developed by wise monks who live in the misty mountains of India.

I guess it's true the world over – countries far away from your own carry an aura of mystique and magic. Anything is possible over there!

I was fortunate enough to see the mystique of India up close.


Comments
Tajeshwar Thursday, March 6, 2008
Interesting entry, next time we will make sure to make you see more diverse indian culture. Just come on a longer visit :-)
Anshu Thursday, March 6, 2008
Beautiful article, very nice :)
~Anshu from India.
Karthik Thursday, March 6, 2008
Glad you enjoyed your trip! I just got back from a two week excursion in Chennai, Hyderabad, and Jaipur.

I highly recommend taking some time to check out Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan next time you go. Lots of cool forts and palaces there from the 14-16th century. And Jaipur is VERY tourist friendly.
Cyril Gupta Thursday, March 6, 2008
Allen, I hope to be no less intrigued when I come for a trip to America.

The world is a beautiful place. All of it!
Vivek Thakur Thursday, March 6, 2008
ha ha..nice one Scott!

one typo though: its sambar (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambar_(dish)) and not "somber"!

hope that you visit India once again for a vacation this time!

Cheers,
Vivek
Anil Friday, March 7, 2008
Being a Hyderabadi, foodie [i wasn't aware of a "gastronomic orgasm" though :-)] & a keen reader of your blog, I enjoyed reading your witty & incisive essay!

Thanks for taking the time to write.

Not to nit-pick, but I think a better away of spelling "somber" that you had with vadas & idlis is Sambar or sambhar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambar_(dish)

scott Friday, March 7, 2008
Thanks for the correction!
partha Friday, March 7, 2008
Next time you should visit Bangalore - the garden city
It's also a very high-tech city with lots of software companies

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangalore
yaip Friday, March 7, 2008
I live in USA now but travel to India every other year or so. My daughter (who was born here) always complains of not having enough "personal space". My answer to that is there may not be a physical personal space...but there is lots of space in people's hearts.
Sahil Malik Saturday, March 8, 2008
LOL, loved reading this :)
SimonTeW Wednesday, March 26, 2008
A couple of years ago I attended a boot-camp in Delhi for a couple of months (I chose the slow course as I actually wanted to learn something, rather than pass exams). Anyone thinking of boot camps should consider it, much cheaper than anything in the UK, US or Australasia (cost GBP2500 all up, including air fares from UK, accomodation and food, for 2 months).

It is a fascinating place, you could probably spend years there and still find new and interesting things to see. It's an amalgam of contrasts - rich and poor, beauty and squalour.

A word of caution: There are very many people who seem to make a living preying off tourists. I'm not talking about robbery or violence, I felt extremely safe even when I got lost in some of Delhi's slums. I just mean the irritation of the (extremely) hard sell. It gets very tiring. In my personal experience Jaipur was the worst for this. Of everyone I met there, only one person wasn't trying to separate me from my money.

Having said that, there were many, many others who were genuinely friendly, nice and helpful. I left with very fond memories of the country.
scott Wednesday, March 26, 2008
SimonTeW:

Agreed! Some of the hard sellers wait outside the airport :)
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