From Hampi we took a rickshaw ride to Hospet (due to the local bus not appearing as scheduled) to take the overnight sleeper bus to Hyderabad. We saw a tow-truck of sorts on the way...a rickshaw driver sticking his leg out of his vehicle to propel a stalled rickshaw in front of him up the hill. After our previous ‘sleeper’ bus experience we were understandably less excited by the prospect of the journey, but we were excited about staying with Monique’s friend Abhijeet in Hyderabad. The bus was much better this time and included air-con, and we actually managed to get a bit of sleep.
Upon arrival in Hyderabad we weren’t entirely sure which bus station we were at; Hyderabad is a huge sprawling city and has more than a few bus stations. We did, however, know where we wanted to go – the university in Gatchibowli where Abhijeet works as a professor – and thought it would be easy to get there. We thought wrong. We spent over an hour at the bus station wandering from one bus stand to another in search of a bus to Gatchibowli (or even in the general direction). Everyone we encountered seemed terribly eager to help us, but only succeeded in making us do circuit laps of the rather large bus station, rucksacks in tow. Eventually we changed tack and, after some hard-core haggling, persuaded a rickshaw driver to take us for a good price.
Abhijeet lives in an extremely palatial apartment on the peaceful university campus (which he describes as "the bubble"), and is one of the most accommodating and generous hosts I have ever met. Both of these things turned out to be extremely fortuitous for us in the wake of the unfortuitius dengue incident. Before Monique’s illness we did get to see some of the city as Abhijeet had arranged for a driver to take us around Old Hyderabad while he was at work (told you he was generous – we’re deliberately not printing his last name as he would inevitably be inundated by requests to stay with him!). This was a real luxury for us as we are used to exploring cities by foot and local transport rather than an air-conditioned car. Our usual method of exploration would have been completely unsuitable for Hyderabad; unlike most cities where the main points of interest are focused in one area, Hyderabad’s are spread out around the city and take a long time to travel in between.
Our first stop was Charminar, a 400+ old columned building in the middle of a hectic intersection which houses the city’s oldest mosque (Hyderabad having a large Muslim populous), and took a look at the Laad Bazaar.
We then sampled some of Old Hyderabad’s famous lassi (tasty, but a bit of an odd texture – a bit more solid than a drink typically is) before heading towards the Chowmahalla Palace. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us at the time, the city’s Muslim landmarks are all closed on a Friday, which meant that we couldn’t go into the Palace, or the Salar Jung Museum which we had intended to visit afterwards. Instead, our resourceful driver took us to the Whacky Car Museum – an attraction which hadn’t made it into the Lonely Planet or onto our wish list, and consists of “whacky” (no idea why the ‘h’ is included – perhaps for added wackiness) vehicles made on-site by the museum owner including the world’s largest tricycle, various miniature versions of ‘normal’ vehicles (including, to my pleasure, a mini double-decker red bus) and cars in the shape of a burger, a football, a three-piece suite, a shoe, a camera and an olde worlde-style computer to name but a few. Not the cultural experience we had planned, but a fun quick stop nonetheless.
We then headed to Golconda Fort, a 16th century fortress built on a granite hill which is now surrounded by the city sprawl. The remains of the large fort are fairly impressive, however our enjoyment mostly came from the views from the higher sections which enable you to look over both the ancient ruins and the surrounding modern city – a really unique view, and one which enabled us to comprehend the size of the city.
We both thought that we would leave our minor-celebrity status behind us in Hampi, and would no longer be subject to regular requests to pose for photos with fellow visitors. Again, we thought wrong. Numerous families and groups of friends approached us to shake hands, talk with us and demand that we pose for photos with them (the tendency is to phrase the demand as if it were a question, but to do so whilst maneuvering us into their desired position and gathering around us so as to give us no real choice). A group of young girls took a particular liking to Monique, who was greeted with calls of “hello sister!” every time we saw them throughout our visit.
An unexpectedly fun part of our visit came as we were descending from the top of the fort along rubberized paths (presumably built for wheelchair accessibility) which became increasingly steep up to the point where no footwear could provide sufficient traction to walk along them. Whilst other visitors turned around and went back up, or slowly traversed the crumbly ground at the side of the paths (presumably the wheelchair users became bobsled racers), Monique and I elected to simply sit down and slide down the 30m path like a giant slide (much to the amusement of the on-looking locals). [Monique edit: Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!!!]
That evening Abhijeet had arranged for us to meet some of his friends to go to the cinema to see Iron Man 3. Apparently going to the cinema is massively popular in Hyderabad, so much so that tickets almost always need to be purchased well in advance. Before the film we went out to eat at a crazy place called The Village which is memorable more for its unique ambience than its food; it’s not that the food was bad, it just very much takes second place to the other goings on there. The restaurant is split into various themed areas including a jail area and a movie area amongst others. First we ate chaat (a yummy sort of street food with multiple variations) whilst watching a traditional puppet show that involved dancing characters whose heads would occasionally become separated from their bodies (a bit like Punch and Judy but without the wife-beating and sausages), and between main courses and dessert Monique and Abhijeet took part in some [bhangra] dancing (having sensibly sat out a dance which involved banging wooden sticks together – a more aggressive variation of morris dancing).
The real drama of the evening was provided by a game of musical chairs. Abhijeet let himself down with an early exit and I was an outside contender until a guy pulled my chair out from under me as I sat down, leaving me sprawled on the floor (he apologized but did not go so far as to give me his place in the remainder of the game). This left Monique as our party’s last woman sitting, having to perform with the added pressure of being the sole representative of the Western World vs. the many Indian representatives. One by one the Indian contenders fell by the wayside as Monique increased her standing by virtue of some excellent sitting, and eventually Monique found herself in a one-on-one contest for the title with an Indian bloke in his early 30’s I would guess (I should mention that there wasn’t a single child involved in this game – the restaurant seems aimed at adults who want to recreate children’s birthday parties). [Monique edit: And it was awesome!] The tension in the restaurant was palpable, and all eyes were on the contest (for it had long ceased being a game). After what seemed like an eternity the music stopped, Monique dashed towards the sole seat with victory within sight, pirouetted gracefully, aimed her backside at the goal for the final few inches only for her victory throne to be whipped from beneath her by her competitor! Cue gasps all round! Monique was helped to her feet by her competitor and other spectators, and after a careful checking of the official international rules a re-sit was arranged. However, despite the audience being very much on Monique’s side, the wind had been knocked out of her sails and second time around, her competitor took the spoils. I had no idea that musical chairs could be so competitive! Early rumours suggest that Amir Khan is set to play the unworthy winner in the film of this epic battle.
Unfortunately it was during that evening that Monique’s illness began to break (I wonder how the musical chairs victor would feel if he knew that the girl he had cheated would spend the next two weeks in bed/hospital), so the film viewing was not the most pleasant. The only note-worthy part of the cinema experience was when the film stopped mid-way through the film, and part-way through an action sequence, leaving us all in darkness. It soon became apparent that this was an intermission. Because Bollywood films are so long they have an intermission half-way through for snack-replenishing, comfort breaks and the like. This norm is also applied to non-Bollywood films, irrespective of length and seemingly without any consideration to whether the break comes at a suitable time in the film. An odd quirk in an otherwise very familiar cinema experience.
Monique has covered the next few days in the previous post, despite the fact that she was mostly unconscious through them in an attempt to sleep off Dengue. While Monique slumbered endlessly, Abhijeet was the consummate host, even by Indian standards of hospitality which, in my experience, are extremely high. He did everything within his power to make Monique feel better (including sourcing various comfort foods from around the city in the hope that it would tempt Monique to eat) and despite not having met him before, I was very quickly made to feel like part of the family in what could have been very awkward circumstances.
Abhijeet and I quickly discovered a mutual love of food, and Abhijeet took it upon himself to give me an education in home-style Indian food (with a little help from his maid and, later on, his mother). Having spent most of my life in Birmingham I considered myself to be very familiar with Indian food before this trip. However, I came to learn that the curry and nan bread that I am familiar with is not a daily diet for many Indian people (more of a weekly occurrence – perhaps a little like us Brits generally have a roast dinner once a week); typical home meals are much lighter and more mildly spiced, usually consisting of a vegetable dish, a daal and chapatis. Abhijeet also introduced me to a number of street foods which, up until then, I had been slightly nervous about trying (including oye and the aforementioned chaat). Absolutely everything was delicious, and I feel much more prepared for eating genuine Indian food on the road from now on.
As part of my food education Abhijeet intorduced me to a couple of important cultural traditions. The first is know as the "one more spoonful" tradition; this occurs at what one believes is the end of a meal when one has eaten a sufficient amount when the host will insist that you must have just one more spoonful of whatever you have been eating and immediately place several spoonfuls on your plate and give you a look that makes it clear that eating it is not optional (I'm not actually sure whether the insistent look is traditional, or just Abhijeet's take on the tradition). The second tradition occurs on the rare occassions that one manages to successfully refuse "one more spoonful", after which the host will give a hurt expression and enquire "you're not going to make me go out and feed it to the cow are you?", and immediately place several spoonfuls on your plate and give you a look that makes it clear that eating it is not optional. Despite never needing one more spoonful, and despite being well aware that Abhijeet does not have a cow out the back of his apartment, both of these traditions resulted in me regularly being stuffed.
Amongst the notable foods that Abhijeet introduced me to is the famous Alphonso Mango, a type of mango grown only in the Mumbai area for a short period each year, and consequently highly sought after. Now I am quite a fan of mangos, and on both of my visits to Asia I have taken advantage of the availability of fresh mangoes. However, having eaten Alphonso mangos I think I’m going to find it difficult to go back to ‘normal’ mangoes; Alphonsos are sweeter and tastier than any mango I’ve eaten before, and is possibly the nicest fruit I have eaten. One unusual, but delicious, way of eating mango that Abhijeet introduced me to is as a puree eaten with chapatis and spiced lentils; it really shouldn’t work but it definitely does.
Contrary to how it might sound like, I didn't just eat during this period; I also watched a lot of tv (having been pleased to discover the large number of english language tv shows available). In my less sedantary moments I took advantage of the campus swimming pool and the “beauty parlour” where I discovered that #2 on Indian hair-clippers is quite a bit shorter than #2 on UK hair-clippers. Luckily Monique was too busy being ill to be alarmed by my new thug-like look.
Following Monique’s partial recovery from her illness (most symptoms had gone, but she remained very tired and weak), we took a trip to the mall, mainly to get out without leaving air-conditioned conditions, where we ate pizza and had fun at Fun City where our combined efforts at various games, including Monique's forte – ski-ball, were rewarded with just enough tickets to claim a novelty pen. I'm still a bit bitter about my whack-a-mole efforts being rewarded with a paltry three tickets!
We also tried to see a bit more of the city before finally letting Abhijeet have his apartment back. We took a trip to the Qutb Shahi Tombs; an area which, despite being known locally as “the 7 tombs” has numerous tombs with bulbous domes dotted around it.
We had a really nice time wandering around the various impressive tombs, but the real pleasure of the afternoon came when we stumbled upon an area of grass/gardens in front of one of the largest tombs where multiple families were relaxing and playing games including cricket, football, badminton and a complex chasing game that was beyond our comprehension, and one child even decided to take a dip in the water feature to cool off.
It seems like there may be a shortage of open areas in Hyderabad (or at least this part of the city), so people treat this part of the tomb site it as a park. The effect of this is that what would otherwise be a somber site is turned into an area of fun and laughter that was really nice to relax in for a while. We again attracted a number of people wanting to talk to us and have photos with us, and one family even invited us to join them to play badminton with them. I’ll put Monique’s badminton performance down to her fragile health and the breeze, and thankfully someone else hit the shuttlecock into a pond before I could embarrass myself.
After an unexpectedly long stay of just over two weeks Monique felt well enough to continue our travels, and I felt able to drag myself available from the home cooked food, so we belatedly headed out to Mysore via Bangalore. Obviously I would have preferred it if Monique had not been sick at all, but given that she did, I am extremely grateful that it happened while we were visiting Abhijeet, because it would really have been a nightmare if we were trying to deal with it on our own. I cannot thank Abhijeet enough for his fantastic hospitality and everything he did to help Monique to get better.