India tests my tolerance
EITHER I’m developing a higher tolerance threshold, or India has improved substantially in the past few years. For which I was enormously thankful, otherwise I would have owed myself a severe telling off for flagrantly ignoring my own advice.
I’ve been to India twice before, and both times I promised I’d never go back. It wasn’t just the dirt and dust, nor the smell as men routinely used the pavements as a public urinal. It wasn’t just the flies and mosquitoes. It was mainly the way the intense, grinding poverty has been turned into an industry that leaves you without a moment’s solitude.
Beggars tug your sleeves and thrust their hands into your face. You turn away, and they turn with you. Walking through Delhi many years ago I’d realised that each block had its owner. When you think they have finally given up harassing you, it’s simply because you are passing into someone else’s turf.
At the markets you are followed by trinket sellers shoving their goods under your nose, if they can reach you through the entourage of beggars. Thrust them away and they come straight back, merciless and oblivious to your rising frustration.
One peace corps worker in our group had finally lost it, telling the beggars to eff off and leave her alone. A bit of a professional boo-boo, she admitted, but she was speaking for us all. In Agra, even the cyclo peddlers wouldn’t leave me alone. I walked, they followed.
On a train ride I’d seen hangers-on from the hippy age making their obligatory pilgrimage to India. None of them looked like they were enjoying it. This was India through gritted teeth.
The only good reports I’ve heard are from travellers who visit Goa. Which is akin to visiting a posh part of Johannesburg and declaring your love for Africa.
In fact, the only way India seemed tolerable was to stay in five-star hotels and travel behind tinted glass. Since that’s not really doing India, it’s better not do it at all, I figured.
But being a travel addict, my vocabulary struggles with the word “no” when a foreign trip comes up, so while 80% of me screamed “Don’t do this!” the other 20% was recklessly packing.
My misgivings began when the plane touched down in Mumbai. Even before the door was open I was struggling to breathe. It was if the air had become soggier, too heavy to draw in easily. It was 29°C and it was midnight.
But the airport wasn’t the absolute chaos I remembered from the past, as we retrieved our bags and pushed onto the crowded bus for a 15-minute transfer to the domestic terminal.
The final destination was Hyderabad, where monsoon season was coming to an end. Rain spattered down on us once or twice, but the temperatures were balmy and the skies were mostly clear.
My breathing recovered, but as the week went on I developed a snivelly nose and hacking cough as my lungs clogged up with dust- induced yucky stuff. Still, I was getting away quite lightly on the sickness side, with others in my group paying increasingly regular visits to the loo and one ending up confined to his hotel bedroom.
You may not have wanted to know that, but for many people it’s a core part of the Indian experience.
For me the food was the best part of the adventure. The Marriott in Hyderabad is an absolute haven, with a delicious lunchtime buffet that’s the curry fan’s equivalent of being a kid on the run in a chocolate factory. Service in the hotel was exemplary, and its pool was a delicious treat at the end of the working day.
But it’s out on the streets that matters, and that’s where I’m now confused. Is Hyderabad different from the rest of India, or has the whole place moved up several notches?
The beggars are still there, of course, but they don’t act like your conjoined twin. Men still piss in the streets, but some public toilets have sprung up too. I only saw two mosquitoes — unfortunately after they saw me — and stall holders didn’t treat me as their last great hope of making money that day.
It’s hard to believe Hyderabad is different from everywhere else, but maybe its more relaxed atmosphere comes from its lack of tourist attractions.
This is a massive, sprawling, working city, bereft of tourists that have fuelled the grab-it-while-you-can attitude in other places. It will stay that way too. There are a few attractions but not enough to put it on the tourist trail.
One oddity is the world’s tallest statue of Buddha to be carved out of a single piece of stone. It looks more impressive on the postcards than it does when you peer at it across the Hussain Sagar Lake.
The main attraction is Golconda Fort, an ancient compound where a mini-city was enclosed by sturdy 10km walls in the 1500s.
A large proportion of its buildings remain intact, and you can climb 300 or so stone steps that wend their way through its precincts to get a good view over the countryside.
Our visit coincided with a holiday for one of the numerous deities. This chiefly involved playing very loud traditional music through speakers that warped it to such a degree we contemplated hacking some rocks out of the walls and hurling them at the speakers.
Another ancient building is the Mecca Masjid, where you can climb the towers to look down on the lively street markets. We couldn’t climb right to the top, the guide said — too many suicides.
Opposite is the Charminar, a massive mosque built in 1591 with elegant minarets standing in stately contrast to the seething masses below.
Then a couple of hours were spent at Salar Jung Museum, where much of the information is in English, but everything needs a good dusting.
By the end of the trip we were all ready to leave; me convinced that the hacking cough would ease as the plane door closed, my companions longing for familiar food that would stay inside for more than 20 minutes.
So would I go back to India? Eighty percent of me says no …