Dosa, or things that make me go hmmmm.

Amar is a Punjabi native who grew up in Delhi.  His family lost their businesses back in 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned.  Nearly fifteen million people were displaced and half a million killed.  The British Empire brought many good things to the world. The Latex condom was not one of those things, neither was figuring out how to peacefully divide populations into nation-states. The scars of partition still run very deep here.  It doesn’t help that the Pakistanis have a tendency of sending suicide bombers deep into India, the Taj attack in Mumbai being the most recent large scale attack.  When I asked what Indians think of Pakistan today, the universal response here was we hate them.  Room for improvement, as my school report cards used to say.

Although Amar’s past is a little more tortured than mine, he shares of a love of food and offered to take me out for breakfast to get way from 4 star dining and eat some proper street food with the students, truck drivers, and call center works ready to start their day.  Of course I would go, I told him.

The breakfast place was a small hole in the wall beside a noisy road where motorbikes and cars sped by, their horns blaring as they jockeyed for inches.  You never see an Indian driver shoulder check or have any obvious regard for the world, the horn does it all.  Perhaps it’s a form of echolocation. Even the pedestrians are equally adapted. They stroll across major highways, seemingly unconcerned by the cars which whiz by with only inches to spare.  It’s a remarkable skill.  Of course, I’ve been in two serious accidents in three days, so maybe they just think it’s a skill.

Amar found us a cramped little table in front of restaurant (I use the word restaurant in its broadest sense), and numerous times he went to the serving window and brought back dishes laden with all manner of South Indian foods.  Once seated, he would identify the new dishes for me, and we were off.  After I’d finished three servings and was feeling rather full, he looked up with obvious disappointment.  We’ve just begun, he said in surprise at my lack of fortitude.  Amar, I should point out, was not a small man.

South Indian food is strongly infused by spice, dal, and rice. This is unlike North India food which is cooler and based on wheat.  Sitting at that busy little truck stop, we had snow white Idli which are soft as clouds, stuffed Dosa, a crepe like dish with potatoes, Vada, a savory donut, Uttapam, a thick rice flour pancake stuffed with red onion, and finished off with Puri and Paratha, both flatbreads dipped into a cilantro chutney.  Having finally exhausted the menu, I told him I drank neither tea nor coffee, but he insisted I try at least the tea, which I did, and it was remarkably good mainly because it tasted nothing like tea. Any tea flavor was well hidden by warm milk and honey. The total price of breakfast was less than five dollars.  There are worse ways to start the morning.

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Handcrafts, Mosques, and Car Accidents

Unless you’re eager to see the inside of an Indian Emergency room, Hyderabad is not a city for walkers. It’s not a city for drivers either, not skilled ones at any rate.  It was on my way to the 16th century mosque called Charminar that I was in my first car crash, the one I mentioned a few days ago. There was also a second a few days later. For the second, I was in a car driving down a typically chaotic multilane road and was startled by a thunk from the rear of the car. I turned about and was surprised to find a rather angry Indian man staring back at me from his position sprawled on the car’s trunk. We were still moving at speed, so this was somewhat concerning. His motorcycle lay crumpled on the road behind and was about to be run over by a truck. I yelled for the car to stop, which we did, only long enough for him to get off before we sped away. No good would come of sticking around, I was told. So that’s India; the journey here is often more exciting than the destination. Which brings me back to Charminar.

I had seen many photos of Charminar and its four towers set proudly amidst a major crossroads. It’s an iconic landmark in Hyderabad and the heart of the mostly Muslim old city. If the photos were anything to go by, up-close it had to be spectacular. Traffic was terrible, but we did manage to eventually snake our way to the site. Charminar, like a woman from an online dating service, looked better in its photos.

Charminar’s granite and marble facade, like much of Hyderabad, is covered by a layer of grime and decay. No doubt being surrounded by never ending traffic doesn’t help. For a small price you can climb the Charminar and stand amidst the jostling crowds that look down from a high parapet, a parapet that has no barrier.  The ghost of Darwin floats nearby I am certain. I chose to explore the streets instead.  They sprawl out in all directions from Charminar’s base. Hawkers sell fresh cut fruit, Muslim women in black Hijab’s go about their shopping, and shop keeps shout out trying to sell you a score of colourful bangles for which you have no need.  I didn’t stay long.

When I was in Mumbai, I was stuck by how everyone had an angle, be it the holy man looking for alms, or the guy on the corner offering to sell business receipts.  Although Hyderabad isn’t as accustomed to tourists, they make an admirable effort for your money.  On the way in from the airport, my driver Abdul had repeatedly asked if I liked handicrafts and purses.  I tend not to carry a purse, I told him.  Abdul, while not killing motorcyclists, seemed a nice enough man, but this was not the answer he was looking for and he was not about to let it go.  On the way back from Charminar, he again mentioned handicrafts and purses, and I again said no, though it seemed we had taken a circuitous route back to the hotel which just happened to pass by a very famous store selling handicrafts and purses.  Despite one accident, he’d kept me alive, so I relented. Aside from a tiny collection of handicrafts and purses, the store mostly sold five thousand dollar rugs.  If Abdul thought I was going to buy one of these, he is apparently not a very good judge of character.  I had no intention of explaining to my wife why I was bringing home a five thousand dollar carpet when our downstairs toilet still didn’t flush properly. I played my part in the charade though, and dutifully walked from floor to floor, before climbing back into the car only to learn that if I like handicrafts and purses, there was another very famous store just ahead… I understand that India is not a universally rich country, and I don’t have a problem with someone making a suggestion for profit, but once I’ve said no, that should end the conversation. Incidentally, on the way to the airport, he asked that question once more.