Sunday, April 4, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part II

“Excuse me, Madam?”

I turned and smiled at the Indian man behind me, a little flattered or perhaps impressed by this direct form of address, since I`m used to the “uh, uh, sumimasen” (bow a few times and repeat) when people want my attention.

“Yes?” I asked.

“You can not go out by yourself, madam! Too dangerous. Come, come, I will take you where you want to go, low price! Come, come!”

I glanced at the door to the office where he gestured. It read, “Hyderabad Tour Company, English Speaking Driver.” His offer seemed tempting, as I suddenly realized that traveling alone as a single American female in a politically agitated city where I didn`t speak the local language, was not such a wise or appealing idea. So I followed him into the office and listened to his offer. The price was about $25 for driving me the whole day, anywhere I wanted, which was much cheaper than a taxi, so I decided to go with it.

Only when I got into the car did I realize I made a mistake. The driver said something. I couldn`t understand him. He repeated himself. Still no understanding, not a word.

“I`m sorry,” I finally asked. “Are you speaking English?”

He said something else in a slightly agitated voice.

“OK,” I sighed. “Just take me to the zoo.”

He seemed puzzled, but drove all the same. We ended up at the pearl market.

“Er…no, the zoo.”

“Very nice, very nice pearls here,” he said.

“That`s OK. No shopping. Just zoo.”

“Zoo, Madame?” he gibbered something else I couldn`t understand. He sighed and drove me some place else.

In his defense, he probably was speaking English, and I just couldn`t understand his accent. It took me about three days to adjust to the Southern Indian accent, which is much, much thicker than the Northern. This was more than a little embarrassing to me, since I`m an English teacher and pride myself on being able to understand any accent. I often translate accented English to standard for my friends and family whenever they meet foreigners or watch foreign films.

But of all the accents I have encountered, Southern Indian in Andra Pradesh is the most incomprehensible. Add to that the fact that they often alternate between English, Urdu, Telegu, and perhaps even Hindi without warning when they`re on their cell phones or talking with a friend, and they switch between the conversations without warning or even looking at you. (Eye contact is kind of taboo.) So you can never tell whether they`re trying to talk to you in English or not. And of course, there`s the little bobble head thing they do whenever you ask them a yes or no question, which looks like neither answer. It took me a few days to figure out what that means. It can mean “I`m listening,” “I don`t know,” “why are you asking me this question?” “I`m irritated with you” or “please don`t be irritated with me.” It`s kind of like the all purpose Japanese “mmm.” --Insert meaning here.--

But of course, he couldn`t understand me any better than I could understand him. I tried speaking slowly, even with a British accent since I figured that`s who they learned it from, but no luck. Perhaps when they say they speak English, they mean they can understand very basic directions that are written out beforehand. Apparently the man who approached me at first had drawn out a detailed plan of where the driver should take me, either that or the driver got some kind of commission for taking tourists to expensive shops. That`s really annoying.

The next place he took me was the museum. “The zoo,” I repeated. “You know, the world-famous place where there`s a tiger safari and elephant rides.”

“Tiger? No tigers here madam. This museum. Very famous.”

Might as well humor him. But as I got out of the car, he kept repeating something, and finally I figured out he wanted my cell phone number so he could call me, or I could call him when I finished.

“No cell phone,” I tried to explain for the tenth time.

He seemed very upset, pointed to a platform, and drove off. So I stood on the platform, feeling more than a little out of place. I knew I should dress conservative in India, but I thought that meant a skirt that came below the knees and a T-shirt that covered my shoulders like in Africa. I wasn`t expecting women dressed in black burka`s covering every inch of them save their eyes or gun-toting Islamic guards gawking at my immodest ankles and arms. That was a bit of a culture shock for both parties.

I was just beginning to worry that my driver had left me there when he finally came back. After straining to understand him for some minutes, I finally got that he was insisting on coming into the museum with me. “Why can`t you just wait in the air-conditioned car and I`ll come back when I`m done?” I asked.

“No, madam, that won`t do, won`t do at all.”

So everywhere I went, I had to pay for him too. It wasn`t so bad; most places had a discount for Indian citizens since they pay taxes, but a word to the wise: when you exchange money in India, be sure to get small bills and coins, because no one has change. Or maybe they just pretend not to have change, I don`t know. So for most places I ended up having to pay double the normal cost for foreign guest.

I hoped in return the driver would explain a bit of what we were seeing. No such luck. For me, museums are the most boring places in the world when you`re just looking at random images without meaning. Most were of Hindu gods or depicting aspects of Hindu or Muslim culture/history with very few English plaques. I probably should have studied up a little before I came. I`m just annoyed the driver insisted on going there when I was paying him to take me somewhere else. And no photos, sorry. Nearly everywhere we went there was a security check at the beginning with full pat down, and they always took my camera. They gave it back at the end, but I wish they could have just trusted me not to use it. About the only thing interesting in the museum was a famous statue called the “Veiled Rebecca” but there were so many people crowded around it I couldn`t see.

Next, the driver took me again to the pearl market. “No pearls, just the zoo.” He took me to the Charminar. Here`s a picture of the outside:

This was one of the sites I wanted to see if I had time, but I was purposefully saving it for the evening when it would be lit up and you can see the lit city from the top. Plus, I wanted to see the zoo in the morning when it would be cool. No luck trying to explain this to the driver. But this time I got a guide, despite all my driver`s protests, because I wanted to actually know what was going on. “Charminar” means “mosque of four towers.” There are several stories as to why it was built. There was a great plague in the land, and some say the Muslim prince prayed to God that if He stopped it, the prince would build a mosque on the very site he was praying. Others say he built it in commemoration of marrying a beautiful Hindu girl, incorporating Hindu architecture into the structure, very unusual for a mosque. I don`t see why both stories can`t be true.

Here`s me in front of the first story fountain:

Legend has it there was an underground tunnel connecting the Charminar to Golkonda Ft, but if there was, it`s collapsed now. There are four floors. The first three were like schools, each housing a different branch of Muslim learning, and the fourth was the actual mosque. But there was an attack on the worshipers a few years ago, so it`s been closed down.

Here`s the main gate.

Notice the green flags on it and the smaller ones lining the streets? These represent the Muslim areas. Last week there was a big procession celebrating the birth of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The Hindu flags are orange and center around the temples and small surrounding areas. The guide claimed everyone gets along great, but then why is the city sectioned off? Why was there an attack on the mosque a few years ago? I wouldn`t exactly call that “getting along.”

Here`s a picture overlooking the street:

And here`s me in front of the Muslim and Hindu architecture. The guide took all these pictures:

The dome and arch are definitely Muslim, but there`s some debate about the flowers. Another guide at a later monument told me such patterns are common in Muslim art since they`re not allowed to create animals or people. Who invented what, who influenced who? It`s impossible to tell. It`s like how the Indians claim they invented chess. The Chinese say they invented it. Or baklava among the Jews and Greeks and Arabs. Does it really matter? I suppose it`s fun to listen to the debates, though.

As we were coming out of the Charminar, I was beset by several ragged children and mothers holding sick-looking babies. I handed one of the ladies some money, and was immediately surrounded. A word to the wise, when in any third-world or developing country, don`t hand out money to random strangers. Give it to an NGO or village leader you trust. They can disperse it to those who need it most. Otherwise you might be inundated by pulling, pushing pleading people. I had a similar situation in Africa when I was nearly trampled by a mob after giving a young man my extra pair of shoes. I am not exaggerating. The bus driver literally had to pull me up out of the throng into the bus. This time, fortunately, all I had to do was get in the car and drive off. It always leaves me feeling so sick and guilty inside, seeing their desperate faces disappear in the ocean of lean bodies, but what can you do? In a few days I would be in Chuvuru village helping the people with my labor and resources.

Again, the driver took me to the pearl market. “No, the zoooo!” I practically shouted. So finally, around 12:30 in the heat of the day, we ended up at the zoo. Here`s some really pretty vines at the entrance:

Sadly, they had closed the elephant rides, but we took the train around, which was nice, and then had lunch. My driver tried to get me to pay for his lunch too, but that would have required I pay ten times the price, since all I had was a 50 and 500 (of course, the teller had no change), and I was so fed up with him I just ignored him. He`d been following me around the whole day, telling me to hurry up, hurry up, and pushing me to buy this or that trinket and violently shoeing away the cute little uniformed school children who just wanted to practice their English, so finally I just told him to stay at the entrance of the zoo, I was so mad. Then I had a little peace and quite to enjoy the flowers and animals unique to India and some of my classic favorites:

Here`s a giant squirrel:

This is a cheetah, ready to pounce:

And here`s a video of the“dinosaur park.” The eerie music in the background is Muslim afternoon prayer. They have prayer six times a day, dawn, sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening and each service is at least fifteen minutes, usually thirty, sort of like the old Catholic cycle of services still used in some monasteries and nuneries around the world. I thought it added a lot of authentic ambiance to this video. If you can`t view the video, I also included a picture:

When it got really hot I paused for some ice cream at a place that actually had change. Why don`t we have chocolate and butterscotch ice cream cones in America? They`re crazy good.

The butterfly park was probably my favorite part. Contrary to popular opinion, I don`t think that burkas automatically dehumanize women. I saw quite a few couples lying in the grass, the man gazing lovingly into the woman`s eyes as she chattered away in Telegu. It sure beats the scantily clad Western stereotype or the porn magazines lining every drug store shelf in Japan, right next to the children`s comics. And 90% of it animated porn. You can`t even argue that the women are choosing to degrade themselves; it`s just an arbitrary male artist`s degradation. And I`d like to add that in India, women by law can choose what they wear, so they`re not forced to wear all-concealing clothes like many people think, only if they want to.

I wanted to stay longer to see the nocturnal animals exhibit and go on the safari, but when I rendezvoused with my driver he insisted we leave because there wouldn`t be time. That`s so dumb. We ended up waiting at Golkonda Ft. for two hours after the tour.

So about that tour. I hired another guide when I got there, and I`m really glad, because there were a lot of great stories and little hidden structures. At the beginning there was an echo chamber where you could clap and hear the echo in certain places, but not others. Positioned throughout the fort were similar areas where you could clap and if you stood far away in a certain place, you could hear it. It served as a security system. At that point I ran out of batteries, and to his credit, my driver ran and got me more, but he way overcharged me. Another note: cameras with non-rechargeable batteries, though cheaper, end up costing you more in the long run because they tend to eat up regular AA batteries like crazy. Li fixed the problem for me when I got home, but during the trip I had to keep replacing them and buying more.

Within the fort, the only two mostly intact structures were the Hindu temple and a mosque. India used to be made of many smaller kingdoms. One was Qutb Shahi near Hyderabad of which Golkonda was the capital. The kings who began the construction were Hindu, but later kings were Muslim. In general, though, it was a golden age of relative religious tolerance. The granite fort was built in the late 1500s and remained an important center of art and culture until it was conquered by the Mughal invaders in 1687. It held out nine months due to internal food gardens and ingenious water collection and transport system, and probably would have never been defeated if not for a traitor opening the gates.

Here`s a picture of the fort and surrounding city from the top:

Here`s a Western dare-devil couple playing the “trust game” from the highest point. If one lets go or slips, they both fall. Not smart:

After the tour we had two hours to wait for the light and sound show. My driver tried to get me to leave, but the whole reason I had come to Golkonda was to see the show, and he`d been pushing me around and going against my wishes all day, so I wasn`t about to let him do it again. Of course, he made me pay for his show ticket. What a jerk. But the show was good and I got to learn more history. Here`s the first part before they made me turn off my camera:

Afterwards my driver was supposed to take me to a restaurant so I could have dinner, but he just dropped me back at the hotel, two hours before the promised duration of his services. And then he had the audacity to ask for a tip. Well I gave him one, but now you know, if you plan on traveling in India, book your tour or driver beforehand from a reliable company with a good reputation, not the random hole-in the wall office across from your budget hotel. (I should have gone with Holiday Montra, the company I booked to travel with after the work camp. They were really cheap but totally amazing.) And if you hear a voice you don`t recognize or expect say, “Excuse me, Madam,” just ignore them and keep walking.

All in all though, it was a descent day and I was only out a total of maybe $50. And the rest of the week, the actual work camp, was totally amazing. Stay tuned for next time when you get to meet the group members!