Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nannu Hyderabadki velundi vachanu – pt.1

Which means, I think, I went to Hyderabad and came back. See, I am grasping Telugu.

Adivarumu Somavarum (Sunday and Monday)

We left for the capital of Andhra Pradesh Sunday night. It is a 12 hour ride by train, and I got to experience my first sleeper car. One of the girls with us kept singing “Snow! Snow! Snow! Snow!” from the scene in White Christmas where they’re riding in the train toward New Hampshire. Indians turn in early so we were forced to also make an early night of it – a good thing it turned out considering our activities the next few days. At about 10:00 we curled up under our blankets (Blankets! We had a justifiable excuse to use blankets for the first time in 2 months!) and were gently lulled to sleep by the rocking of the moving train.

Oh wait – that’s what should have happened. As it turns out, the part of the train where my friend John and I had our berths was also occupied by the wettest of wet snorers. He managed to fall asleep before us and we were stuck listening to the unrhythmic guttural exhalations of a very large Indian man. The headphones quickly came out. We got some slight respite when he listed portside. I have no idea how that man was getting enough oxygen.

After disembarking, we split up – the girls to go check into our hotel and John and Dan to go to the church to wait for their ride as they were staying with an RM that John served with. After we checked in and availed ourselves of the free (delicious, Indian) continental breakfast, we headed down to the Old City to have a look around, anxious to start our adventure in earnest.

Now a little history of Hyderabad is in order. It is the largest city in AP, and as the name suggests, it’s largely Muslim in a largely Hindu state. It was ruled by Moguls, Shahs, and Nizams for hundreds of years and was one of the richest princely states in all of the subcontinent right up to independence in 1949. Because of this, it is a place unlike any other in Andhra Pradesh. The culture, the architecture, and the food are all completely distinct and renowned.

The Old City is the Muslim-est Muslim part of the city and is full of mosques, megalithic structures, and little nook-and-cranny shops selling pearls, pearls, perfume, rugs, pearls, and copies of the sayings of the prophet Mohammed.

However, Monday was Eid – the end of Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is called here) and so the vast majority of shops were closed and Charminar square was packed with Muslim men in white caps and white qurtas. And reporters who wanted us to go do a meet and greet with the people on their way to the mosque – the perfect photo op. We said no and dived into one of the pearl shops that actually was open.

This is the square after the crowds mysteriously died down.

As our luck would have it, the owner of this shop was the most fantastic bear of a man with a perfectly manicured beard, a twinkle in his eye, and eloquent honeyed words dripping from his lips in 5 different languages as he plied us with ornate necklaces and earrings. I was entranced. With the eye out for profit and the kingly benevolence of a desert sheik, he let us ooh and awe and whispered sotto voce to each and every one of us that we were getting the deal of a century. And he made us feel that we really were receiving special treatment. We watched in admiration as he deftly created our necklaces out of loose strands of pearls in front of our eyes, put the chosen clasps at the ends, signed certificates of authenticity, and carefully nestled our treasures in cloth zip-up bags. It was the most inspiring shopping experiences I have ever had. Until then, I didn’t even know shopping could be inspirational.

We wandered around a little more and then squished into an auto (we really are becoming expert at that) and headed back for lunch and to meet up with John, Dan, and their host at Lumbini Park. The park is connected to the natural lake in the middle of the city, and in the middle of the lake is a massive stone statue of the Buddha. The Indian Buddha is thin, as compared to the Chinese happy, rotund figure, and is at times depicted as standing up straight versus the well-known lotus meditative position. Some of our group headed chartered a boat to take them out to the island for a closer view while the rest of us relaxed in the shade and enjoyed the breeze coming in off the water.

Hyderabad is a good 10 degrees cooler than Vizag and about 50 million times less humid. We actually could wander around in the middle of the afternoon without sweating­. And we had hot water and real toast in our hotel. Which has nothing to do with not sweating, but is linked in my mind to the overall pleasant-ness that blanketed the entire experience. We almost didn’t know what to do with the hot water.

After that we walked up to Billa temple set on a hill near to the park. This Hindu temple is made completely out of white marble, is something like a thousand years old, and overlooks the entire city. It is one of the most beautiful ones I have been to.

When we came down from the temple, John and his friend left to go see some members in the area while the rest of us hit up an Indian bookstore in the middle of town that had beautiful handmade paper and journals and a nice collection of Oscar Wilde plays. All of us on the trip are overzealous bibliophiles and spent way too long in there pouring over books.

Dinner consisted of vegetarian biryani, chicken kababs, and romali roti to go from the Paradise Restaurant. More on all of this later. We ate in our hotel room, skipped over to Baskin Robbins right next door for dessert, admired our purchases, planned the next day, and fell asleep amidst the decadence of sheets, blankets, real pillows, A/C, and sleeping 4 people to a bed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Indian-American Deep Dish

Last night I taught a wonderfully sweet middle-age Indian man how to make pizza. He is the dearest of dear souls, may be a mob boss, and clucks over us like a mother hen. His name is Viirazu and definitely deserves his own post here in the next few days.

On an unrelated note, tomorrow evening 9 of us are boarding a train (3rd class A/C sleeper car) and traveling 12 hours to Hyderabad for a few days of excitement and adventure. We are leaving our handlers/tour guides/caretakers behind in Vizag and hoofing it with our guidebook in tow. We are staying in a horribly touristy hotel, but refuse to look or act like tourists. We are the Corps of Discovery. Hyderbad is a beautiful, old, rich city full of Muslims and pearls. And they are known for their silver, perfume, and cuisine unlike any in Andhra Pradesh. Yes, please.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Feeling Alive

Tonight we went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant and ate wonderful naan and spinach curry. And I ate flan.

But that is not why I am feeling so alive. Before and after dinner I rode on Mohan's motorbike while everyone else took the bus or auto. I love riding on motorbikes. Especially when they go fast. Driving in India is enough to make you very aware of how alive you are - because you come so close to dying so many times. I love it. On the way home, sated on flan, I was grinning and enjoying the cool air, the night lights in the city, the good conversation with and extravagent compliments from Mohan, and couldn't fully express my feelings by sitting normally.

So, flying through the dark city and along Beach Road I pulled a City of Angels - my head tilted back, my arms raised high over my head, eyes closed. At one point I grabbed my scarf around my neck, held it in both hands, and felt like the Winged Victory of Triumph. Soaring through the night, I rejoiced once again in being in India and being alive. What a blessing! What a miracle! What an adventure!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A toast!

This post is dedicated to just a few things that have made living here in India a dream. I apologize in advance for the stock photos.
1. Boost

Taken hot or cold, this vanilla malt "energy" drink is wonderful. We often drink it in the mornings, in the late afternoon, while playing gin on Sunday nights...anytime we can get our cooks to whip us up some since they won't let us do it ourselves. Durga makes the best Boost. We sip it it in diminutive tea cups.

2. Limca

This lime 'n lemon soda is incredibly refreshing. Citrus-y enough to quench any thirst, we buy it at little road side stalls or Baba Bazaar's.

3. Maaza

First of all, I have no idea why there is a 'z' in the word since there is no 'z' in Telugu. Hence why my name is "Sujaan" here. But once you get past that discrepency, the creamy mango drink will ship you right off to moksha (nirvana). Also incredible after it has been frozen in the freezer and converted into a mango slushy. A.Ma.Zing.

4. Parle-G's
I am completely obsessed. These biscuits of wafer-y goodness remind me of Nilla Wafers but ten times better. They come in three sizes: "small snack", "car ride munchy", and "the best idea you've ever had". Or at least that is what I think of them as. The last is a massive package that requires at least 3 other people to eat them since they tend to go soft in the humidity in about an hour. Let's just say it's a good thing the mid-size pack is only Rs. 10.
Oh, and speaking of which, one of the things I do miss is toast. And scrambled eggs.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pussycat, pussycat where have you been?

I've been to Bobbili to see the king.
Pussycat, pussycat what did you there?
Almost fell asleep upon my chair.

This last weekend the group traveled by air conditioned car (hooray!) to Vizianagaram and Bobbili - two cities that used to be the capitals of ancient kingdoms before independence and nationalism happened. We had been invited to meet with both maharajas and quickly accepted the offer.
Maharaja means "great king" and these men's ancestors fully lived up to their titles. For a great many political reasons, the maharaja of Vizianagaram is still allowed to fly his flag along with the Indian national flag. His father was the last crowned king, and his family gave up all of their massive landholdings at independence. His fort has been converted into a college and he sits on the board of several universities that his family founded. He himself lives in a modest, for a maharaja, manor home and keeps a small staff. We wore saris in honor of the occasion and had an informal talk with him, lunch, and were invited back sometime. This is the maharaja who got us into the Samachalam temple and his chief physician and astrologer has been a great help on a few of the projects we're working on.

The king himself was an older man, probably in his sixties, but I have never met a more regal, genteel man in all my life. Taller and broader than your average Indian, he is definitely descended from a line of warriors. One girl compared his voice to James Earl Jones's. Though sitting comfortably in his lounge chair in button-up shirt and slacks, I could easily envision him in turban, jewels, silk, and sword presiding over a court or riding an elephant.

We met the next maharaja on Saturday. This man was a younger and still resided in his ancestral fort in the middle of the city. He has a retinue. And two life-size full body portraits of himself on the wall. There were also tiger skins, antelope, boar, and leapard heads mounted on the walls, and a museum-worthy collection of spears, swords, and rifles. Wandering among the battlements in Indian dress, I felt very regal and politely waved to the commoners peddling their wares on the street below.

But I am more than slightly embarrassed by the fact that while we were meeting with this man I was nodding off! I was falling asleep in the company of a maharaja! Who does that?! He was interesting, I had slept well the night before, the couch was confortable but not overly so...I have no idea what was wrong with me. Maybe I'm just that comfortable around royalty?

I love my sari! And i am completely incapable of draping it myself. My cook and friend, Durga, helps me.

The first fort at Vizianagaram.

Visiting an old Hindu Temple - the building of which is associated with the story of the Mahabharata.

At the 2nd century A.D. Buddhist ruins we visited.

We also stopped by a village completely dedicated to weaving cloth. It was incredible to see them start from goat and sheep wool and produce beautiful, elaborate cloth. I just wish they made more money doing it.