War and other things

Talk of war is everywhere here in Israel.  Front page articles proclaim the military is battling against Bibi and his desire to blow stuff up, Iranian stuff mostly.  Not to be left out, the lifestyles section of Haaretz got into the act yesterday publishing the important piece, Eat, pray, eat some more; How to stomach the impending war.  “With all the talk of warfare, we mustn’t ignore one of the most vital issues we may soon face: What to eat in bomb shelters?”  Important stuff, that. Perhaps this ever present threat of war explains why the beaches here are still full and no one seems much worried about getting skin cancer.   Israelis still honk impatiently in anticipation of the green, cafes are full, and there’s canned tuna on store shelves. Daily life continues without interruption.

Having spent yesterday in the Negev, today I was going north to the Golan and Galilee. The Golan and Galilee aren’t at all the same as the Negev and might as well be in an entirely different country.  These are the breadbasket of Israel and are rich with green fields, forested hills, and a gas station attendant who sat me down with a thick black cup of coffee while we waited for my car’s tank to fill.  I really don’t like coffee, but he was an incredibly friendly man and I couldn’t refuse his offer. Sipping the coffee slowly, and contorting my tongue to avoid the flavor, I couldn’t believe how much gas the car’s tank held.  I should have rented a hybrid.

Before setting out I thought back to just how quiet the Negev desert had been. I’ve never heard such utter silence before.  This wasn’t just the silence that says, listen, I can hear crickets.  It’s as the sort of silence that make you wonder what killed all the crickets. It’s the sort of silence you’d hear after asking if Tom Cruise is gay during Scientology cocktail party.  You see where I’m going with this. The desert is quiet. Early in the morning, when the air was still, without birds, insects, or kids asking for breakfast, I had stood there and listened to the sun rise over the Negev’s Martian landscape.  Pretty amazing actually. I hoped today went as well.

After a cold breakfast, Sabbath you see, I started Saturday morning at Hamat Gader, the ancient Roman spa complex built by members of the Roman 10th Legion and considered one of the finest Baths in the ancient world.  Perhaps there are two Hamat Gaders, and I found the other one.  Modern Hamat Gader abuts Jordon and is only accessible by driving along the heavily fortified border, strung with barbed wire, multilayered fences, and minefields.  Across a steep ravine I could see the Jordanian watch towers looking across at what until the 1960s was part of Syria.  I paid the ridiculously high entrance fee comforted by the knowledge that I was about to see the second biggest Roman bath complex in the world after all. I ignored the signs for the Middle East’s largest alligator farm and got my camera ready.  I should have come for the alligators.  What little of the bath complex has been excavated is furlong and off-limits behind a rusted chain-link fence.  No one comes to see the baths, it seems.  They come to see alligators. Nearby, heavily armed paratroopers patrolled within the modern spa complex, on the watch for any Islamic terrorists who had jumped the nearby border fence and come for a mud and sulfur treatment. I didn’t stay long.

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After the disappointment of Hamat Gadar I headed north along the Golan Height’s DMZ, keeping beside the border as much as possible as I searched for the Valley of Tears.  Caught by surprise during Yom Kippur, it was there that some two hundred Israeli tanks held off five times that number of Syrian tanks which were sweeping westward across the Golan Heights.  Israel tank crews, celebrating Yom Kippur at home, had rushed to their marshaling areas as the front lines began to collapse.  There was no time for a coordinated response; as each tank had enough men, regardless if the crews even knew one another, they were sent east into the fight.  The fight was brutal. Today a few Syrian tanks remain abandoned in the valley, rusting quietly, gaping holes where Israeli shells found their mark.  It’s a rather somber place and certainly offers a more compelling narrative than Canada’s Laura Secord and her cow.

Standing alone on a ridge above the valley, I pressed play on a small speaker box and listened to the recordings of the Israeli tanks crews shouting to one another over their combat radios.  At one point only a handful of Israeli tanks were still operational. The rest were burning along the ridge.  A local named Moshe told me the story of his uncle who’d fought in that battle.  Standing exposed in his tank hatch, he’d yelled down to his driver to fire, but the driver yelled back that the couldn’t see anything to fire at, his portal was blocked.  Fire now, his uncle had yelled again.  The portal wasn’t blocked.  A Syrian tank was so close it filled the entire view.  Regardless of how you feel about Israel, the Palestinians, or the wider Arab word, it’s a somber place worthy of respect. I stood there quietly for some time before moving on.

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The remains of a Syrian tank. Doubtful it’s crew survived the strike.

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An Israel tank left as a reminder of war past in the Golan Heights.

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Israeli trenches looking out over what was once part of Syria.

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Graffiti and war.

Further north I stopped at Nimrod’s fortress which once commanded the ancient road to Damascus.  It’s massive, hot, and looks like someone picked it up and shook it to see what would happen.   Earthquakes are not subtle things.

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Before heading south back to Tel Aviv I stopped for a few hours at Banias, an ancient temple to Pan, tucked away by the side of a cliff, and overlooking a cold mountain spring.  It is everything the Negev wasn’t.  Noisy, wet, and lush.  A path follows the quickly running spring for some distance, finally ending at a rather beautiful waterfall that drops into a dark and moody pool. The air is cool and full of scent.  Along the path I stopped next to the remains of a Roman mill and ate wild figs picked from a nearby tree.  There are worse ways to spend a day.

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Camel Dung and water Bottles

In Tel Aviv the Israel’s have managed something quite remarkable for such a young city.  They’ve made it look old.  It strikes me every time I’m here.  The city itself is alive and full of energy; I can hear the beach parties going on as I type this and they’ll continue into the early morning.  Walking home from dinner at ten-thirty a few nights ago young kids hovered around ice-cream trucks, multi-generational families cooked on portable grills, and a young Hasidic man danced with traditional foot stomps and claps to techno house music coming out of portable CD-player.  A little surreal actually.  But with all that life, there’s an ever present level of decay that reminds me of southern Italy.  No one cares about the exterior, unless it’s wearing a bikini.  Must be the heat.

I have two free days this trip and want to finish exploring the bits of Israel I haven’t gotten to before.  Today that meant heading south into the Negev, a desert region that covers more than half the country’s territory, and the name of which apparently means dry.  In Antiquity, the Negev was known as the final leg of the journey of incense, brought overland by camel caravans from Arabia and then shipped out to the Mediterranean world from the port at Gaza.  What fascinates me is that the route is still visible in the form of ruined way stations and Caravanserai built by the Nabataeans, the folks who gave us Petra.  If you’re so inclined you can even walk the old route, starting at the Jordanian border, nearly dying in the blistering heat as you cross the desert, and finally getting shot at as you finish up by climbing the Gaza security fence.  I rented a car.

I left the hotel at five A.M. with hopes of avoiding the worst of the heat.  I stopped first at Shivta, one of the four major Nabataean towns that housed, cared for, and taxed the hell out of the incense caravans.  When I arrived at seven it was utterly empty, possibly due to its spot wedged between the Egyptian border and an Israel Defense Force live fire range.  It may also have been because it didn’t open until eight.  Either way the site’s staff wasn’t there yet so I missed the sign that said it was closed and wandered the streets that were lit by the golden morning light.  They say the Nabataean’s were masters of collecting and storing water.  They had to be.  It’s hard to imagine building a town in a more desolate location, at least until you visit their other sites deeper in the Negev.

Over the course of the day I stopped at Avdat, En Saharonim, and the curiously named Mamshit.  The pattern with each site was the same; functional, brutally inhospitable, and devoid of any life but that which I brought with me.  It’s a shame really; as with just a bit of imagination you can easily smell the stench of a courtyard full of snorting camels, flee infested drivers, and local prostitutes helping spread disease up and down the route for an obol or two.  But the Negev isn’t only about broken down ruins and Israeli nuclear weapons program. It’s also about the environment.

It started with En Avdat, a stunning oasis set amidst the most barren terrain imaginable.  There water flows from three separate springs and has carved out a deep canyon with horizontal lines of jet black flint breaking up the canyon’s otherwise white walls.  Within the canyon, the year-round flow supports waterfowl, turtles, and a small population of Nubian Ibex.  You’re meant to see them springing across the cliff face with utter disregard for gravity.  Instead I found them sitting under a 350 year old terebinth tree, the sort of plant from which you get turpentine.  I think the heat had gotten to them too.

Following En Avdat was Makhtesh Ramon, a massive 40 kilometer long, 10 kilometer wide hole in the ground, nearly half a kilometer deep.  The thing is immense, and although they call it a crater, it was actually formed by a rather complex series of processes that really amount to an ocean that got lifted up and dumped out.  There’s 200 million years of geology there and everywhere you look there’s something unique, from black mountains, to red rocks, and yellow hills.  And if you listened closely enough on that day you could even hear a Canadian cursing that the caravanserai which Frommer’s said was just 2000 meters off the main road, was really more like ten kilometers down a rocky path that threatened to rip apart the rental car’s suspension.  Next time I rent a 4×4. I do not like Frommer’s. Not one bit.

Amidst all of this wonder are Israel’s remaining Bedouin, the vast majority having fled, or been forcibly removed, during the war in ’48.  Now they cluster around Be’er Sheva where their mad-max like villages cling to the otherwise barren hillsides.  They are neglected, jobless, and unless I’m underestimating the value of second-hand corrugated steel building materials, dirt poor.

Tomorrow I go north.

The Rule that Governs India

It seems at times that some Indians have a remarkably low tolerance for reality if it impedes their desires. We all do it at times, but they simply do it better.  There is no better place to witness this rule than on Indian roads, where every year over 160,000 thousand people will die in traffic accidents. 160,000. That number staggers.

A few of the bigger roads have sturdy medians running down the center to keep the two sides of traffic apart. Logically this should reduce traffic accidents, eliminating head on collisions all together. It doesn’t. It causes them. Here’s why. An Indian driver that comes out of a lane and wants to cut across traffic and go the other way cannot. Instead he should do what happens in the rest of the world. He should join the traffic flow on his side, drive some distance down-road until a break in the median—which likely is there only because other local drivers have removed that part themselves—and then turn around and get into the flow going the other way. Reasonable safe and done. But that would all be terribly inconvenient and is contrary to what the Indian driver really wants to do, which is go the other way immediately, so he does, right into oncoming traffic, honking wildly because in his world, everyone else is now going the wrong way. While driving we’ve nearly hit motorcycles, buses, and auto-rickshaws all coming the wrong way because it was more convenient for drives to ignore reality. If you understand this basic rule, you understand India, or at least why you just got hit head-on by a bus. I pity the Indian urban planner who tries out one-way streets.

Honking is a problem here. Horns are used at every approach, every turn, every instance where one Indian driver is about to put their vehicle into the spot where another already is. The horn absolves the driver of guilt. I honked, why were you still in my spot? Remove the horn, and the drivers would need to be more cautious, a similar theory to remove the protective gear from football, and fewer players would get hurt. The problem is once again Indian drivers don’t allow reality to impede desire. Remove the horn and they will simply do what they do today in queues. When presented with a queue for service, an Indian will simply walk past the queue to the service desk and start explaining the service they need. When confronted about the queue they’ve just jumped, they will ask What queue? Nothing you say will convince them that a queue exists, and in fact at no point will their gaze fall onto the actual queue. It’s the see no evil theory of life. Reality will not impede desire. The rule has been applied.

I read in this morning’s Deccan Times that politicians are considering raising the fine for jumping a red light from the equivalent of 50 cents, to 5 dollars. I don’t think it will have any affect for a number of reasons beyond the application of the rule mentioned above. First, there are no police to enforce it. And second, jumping a red light requires that there are in fact working red lights to jump. The few traffic lights that do exist here seem to be strung together like a cheap set of Chinese Christmas lights. Somewhere there’s a burnt bulb, but until you find it the whole system is down.

This week I had my third driver. It’s unclear to me why they keep changing, but I’ve noticed a progressive decline in both their English and height. This one also has a second thumb, fully formed, but smaller, like a brother, or perhaps twin. It’s on his right hand. I’m finding it hard not to stare as he drives.

Although my trip to Hampi went well, booking the ticket ran into India’s legendary bureaucracy. This is a rough transcript of the conversation I had with India Railways Online site for tourists booking their train tickets.

Where do you live?

I live in Canada.

Good, you live in Canada. You’ve come to the right place. This is the site for foreign tourists booking trains while in India. What’s your phone number?


That’s not a valid phone number.

It is in Canada.

I need your Indian phone number.

I don’t have one. I live in Canada.

Yes, but what’s your Indian Phone number?

I think you’re missing something here, I live in Canada.

Fine, let’s ignore your phone number for a moment. Your postal code is wrong.

It’s Canadian.

It’s wrong.

No it’s not. It’s my Canadian Postal code.

It’s not a proper Indian one.

But I live in Canada. I’ve told you that.  You said this was the site for foreigners.

Yes, you’re right, but you still need a proper Indian postal code.  What Indian city do you live in?

After some time I managed to work through all the various issues and entered my credit card information, only to have the system respond…

    You can’t use that. It’s not an Indian credit card.

I ended up having one of my co-workers book the train for me.

When I last came to Hyderabad there was a sign on the roadside that said Work In Progress. It was still there on my way in from the airport last week, stuck in the ground next to a perennially half-finished highway overpass. All around sprawled makeshift tents built from various scraps found along the road. Inside live families surviving on less than a dollar a day. One man carved stone bowls while cars drove pass only a foot away from what served as his front door. Looking at the squalor it was difficult to spot the progress to which the sign referred, but then you weren’t meant to look too closely. Like the queue, if you chose not to look at what was actually there, then the sign was real. Driving to the airport this evening the Work In progress sign had been removed. They say recognizing the problem is the first step in recovery. Perhaps removing the sign is that very indication of progress after all. That or someone stole it to use as a roof.

Well enough of my preaching. I’ve got 24 hours of flying to do.

Hampi, the Greatest City no one ever visits

Hampi, the ancient city that once dominated Southern India, is a UNESCO world heritage site on par with Petra, but younger, nearly unknown, and where it’s easier to buy weed. Even the backpackers, the ones who missed the invention of deodorant and still know all the words to Kumbaya, rarely venture there.

Deep in the interior of Indian subcontinent, and far from the all night parties of Goa’s beach crowd, there are two main ways to get to Hampi. There’s a day long bus trip from Goa, or an overnight train from Hyderabad, an eleven hour slog through the planes of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s largest states. Having long looked for an excuse to travel across India by train, and known of Hampi’s reputation as one of the world’s great archeological sites, I booked passage from Hyderabad.

That the Indian rail system works at all is remarkable. The statistics are staggering. Indian railways carry 25 million passengers a day, between 7,000 stations, using 9,000 engines, and employee over one and a half million people. And unlike their Chinese neighbors who are pumping in tens of billions of dollars to keep up with growing demand, India has done all of this with the same trains, tracks, and toilets they did forty years ago.

Boarding an overnight train at Hyderabad’s Deccan station dispelled any romantic notion about train travel in India. It was 11 pm on a Friday night and the station looked as though it had just been hit with a Sarin gas attack. Splayed out bodies covered the floor. Flies buzzed about the sleeping, dogs sniffed beneath exposed limbs looking for scraps, and there was an unmistakable stench of sewage wafting through the hall. Outside in the warm air I could still hear the chaos of horns and breaks as auto-rickshaws darted between beat up old cars ladened with luggage. India never sleeps. There’s isn’t room; when one shift returns home to sleep, another wakes to fill the streets.

I stepped over the prostate bodies and out onto the platform. After checking a notice board for my train, I made my way over to Platform 3 where a train of battered brown carriages idled. This was train 17004, the Kolhapur-Hyderabad BiWeekly Express. Between the masses of bodies already shoved into the ancient carriages, I caught glimpses of a few metal railed benches. I looked down at my paper ticket which gave my carriage and birth number. It didn’t look like the people inside were keeping track of that sort of thing. Was that were I was meant to sleep? Eleven hours seemed like it was going to be an awfully long time, certainly longer than it normally did.

I walked along the length of the train, looking for the right carriage. They were all full. Even the entrance staircases were now occupied by families preparing for the long trip. I was growing more concerned that I was going to be sleeping stuck halfway out a train, and if my wife back in Canada didn’t kill me, a telegraph post surely would. Finally, near the front, I found the correct carriage, 2AC, 2-tier sleeper, air conditioned. It was better than the others I had passed, but not by much. With some relief, my name was on the passenger list pasted to the side. I found lower birth 37 where I stuffed myself in amongst the others getting ready for the long night ahead.

I’d like to say the birth was Spartan but clean. It was certainly Spartan. 2nd class coaches carry about 50 passengers, half as many as the standard sleepers I’d been walking past. Births are broken into 2-tier open bays of six with two births against one side, and four vertically against the other. Dingy yellow windows, caked with decades’ old grime, obscure the night. Metal bars beneath the bottom bunks are used to chain down luggage against theft while the bag’s owner sleeps. The only modern convenience was a single wall plug for cell phone charging.

As I settle down onto my little bunk a train worker came through and dropped off freshly laundered blankets and small stiff pillows. Compared to the poor sods in the rest of the train who were going to spend the next eleven hours in various twisted states, this was luxury. I am sure now Yoga with its pretzel like contortions is merely practice for Indian train travel. With a lurch we were moving.

Throughout the night, twenty times in all, train 17004 pulled into dimly lit country stations for only a few minutes, just long enough for a quick exchange of passengers, one weary group shoving off, and another weary group shoving on. We passed through forgettable places like Malkhaid Road, Raichur, and Nawandgi, places so far off the beaten track that even Lonely Planet didn’t make an attempt at description.

The train greeted morning at Guntakal Junction where the routine changed. After a long night passengers were hungry. As the train idled at the station, local hawkers pushed through the crowded isles shouting out omelette, omelette, omelette, or dosa, dosa, chi-tea, chi-tea. Each one had his own goods carried in-hand, and the pace was rapid. The business man across from me called out “babu”, stopping the idli seller
who handed over a package of spongy white rice idli wrapped in old newsprint. Yellow chutney came in a small baggy. As long as you didn’t mind eat something with the mirror image of a recent newspaper headline transferred onto its underside, there was ample selection to go around.

As we pulled out of Guntakal half an hour later, word in the local papers was that a huge bomb has just been defused in a sleeper car in the northern state of Assam. Its five kilos of explosives would have killed hundreds.

The landscape around Hampi is semi-arid. The monsoons had begun, plunging the 40 degree days of India’s hottest months (April/May) into the relative cool 30s of the summer. But this year in the interior only the monsoon winds had come, and very little rain had followed. We crossed dry riverbeds and sunbaked fields. And everywhere there were people, slowly leading cattle in search of scrub, hoeing their small fields with hand tools unchanged for a thousand years, or just standing by the rails watching the trains go by. Each year Indian trains kills over 15,000 people, mostly caught trying to cross tracks at the wrong time. Looking through the grimy window, I wished the ones I was seeing would stand a little further back.

Within the hour we’d arrived at Hospet where I disembarked, having barely slept, but thoroughly enjoying the experience. Hospet is a moderate sized market town where broken down vehicles litter the roadside, children play naked in the streets, and women pound their washing in the thick brown sludge that passes for a stream.   Christ could have walked on water here. Nearly anyone can. Hospet has all the charm of Cholera.  But it also has mango brought in from the local fields. I had breakfast at a stall selling a wonderful array of ripe mango which was laid out on a mat between a man selling second-hand tires, and a pile of smoldering refuse.

From Hospet I needed to catch a ride 14 kilometers north to Hampi, the smaller, dustier village built amidst the five hundred year old ruins of what was then called Kannada, the wealthy Vijayanagara Empire’s former capital.

Like Petra in Jordon, Hampi was a once fabulously rich city. By the 16th century Hampi was reputedly the second most populous city on Earth trailing only Beijing at the time.  A hundred years later Muslim armies swept down from the north leaving a pillaged carcass to rot in the brutal Indian sun.  The city was never occupied again.  What’s left is a landscape of ancient walls snaking about the landscape, ruined temples scattered amongst spectacular rock formations, and an odd little mammal that looks like a hybrid between a chipmunk and an iguana.  It’s called a Palm Squirrel, and according to Hindu legend was instrumental in constructed a bridge for Lord Rama.  Relying on tree squirrels to build bridges might explain an awful lot about India’s train infrastructure.

The ruins of Hampi are divided into two vast areas, and each took a full day to explore.

The first is called Hampi Bazaar. It’s an area of rustic storefronts—focus on the word rustic—youth hostels, and a moped rental shop that also sell warm Orange Fanta from chipped bottles. The main street runs parallel to the Tungabhadra River. The towering Virupasksha Temple dominates one end, and the ancient Bazaar, used now mostly as the local cricket green for village kids, the other.  During the sultry afternoon hours, when movement became oppressive, I lounged along the riverbank and watched villagers pan for silver.  A local MBA student told me the villagers’ ancestors panned for silver, and now they do as well.  It doesn’t matter that the silver is gone. It’s all they know to do.  Nearby people swam beneath a large skull and crossbones which warned against swimming.  I do not believe Hindi has a phrase for “public safety.”

In the temples just past the Bazaar, when I looked closely at the ancient Hindu rock carvings I started to notice the characters doing things they shouldn’t be, at least not in public, and not without a significant supply of penicillin on hand.  Men, women, and various animals were busy doing the sorts of things that end a politician’s career.  Hampi is famous for these pornographic carvings which adorn many of the temple columns. I realized rather quickly that we haven’t invented anything new in this area for a very long time.

The second area is the Royal Enclosure a few kilometers over boulder strewn hills. It is the site of the royal places, baths, and proof that despite a highly educated middle class that does a great number of things well, signage isn’t one of them.  At one point I stood by the side of a road, staring at a rare overview map which had a You Are Here circle in the middle of a giant field in which I was obviously not standing.

Unfortunately I’d started a cold two days earlier, and by the second day my body temperature was rising dangerously. Under the blistering sun I withered.  It was all I could do to trudge one foot in front another as I made my way down dusty paths.  After a time temples and palaces began to blur into one another, but make no mistake, the site is spectacular. World class. From the massive Elephant stables to the underground Temple of Shiva the Destroyer where bats hang from the subterranean ceilings, it’s a shame so few people will ever make the effort to see Hampi, but it’s better for those who do. There’s something rather evocative about standing alone in a vast windswept field of ruins.  Evocative, until you realize you’re parched, near death, and the boy whose shimmering visage is coming over the horizon, the boy whose is going to bring you water, is a young boy who just wants to sell you a postcard.  I bought four.  He tracked me down a little while later and gave me a fifth for free.  I suspect he felt badly.  When he’d started the negotiations at the ridiculously high price of 20 rupees each, I had confused him and said yes.

If I had one complaint, it is the sparsity of facilities at Hampi. There are two lackluster one-room museums, a few local vendors scattered about selling drinks, and a large water tank from which you can fill your own bottle. Otherwise you’re pretty much left to your own devices to wander across the vast site while looking for a bathroom.

By the evening of the second day, even though I’d spent two days hiking through Hampi, I still felt I hadn’t given it the time it deserved. There were still temples I hadn’t visited, and areas I hadn’t set down and contemplated long enough. The Indians I met were friendly to a fault, and I had only begun to scratch the surface of the local history. These were the thoughts I was mulling back at the train station in Hostpet, at least until the monkeys attacked. They were langurs, crafty little creatures that climbed up into the rafters of the station and had a go at stealing passengers’ food while they looked the other way.  I could see the langurs little faces peeking out from between corrugate ceiling paneling as they sought out new victims.  Kids thought it’s great, hooting at the monkeys.  Parents threw boxes at the monkeys and then fell into arguments with other passengers when the boxes bounce off recently vacated perches and landed on people trying to sleep on the floor below.

Visit Hampi. Take plenty of water, sunscreen, and time. But visit.

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.

Things that go Splat

Sunday Morning

The Novotel is exactly the sort of place I really didn’t want to stay, but if you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere, four stars is a good way to go.  I’m out in what’s called Hi-Tech city, an area that only ten years ago was barren scrubland and squatters, and is now an area of barren scrubland and squatters punctuated by massive corporate campuses.  Google and Infosys are just down the road, and ICIC’s building rises like a glass Ayers Rock.  Every morning a stream of busses and little yellow 3-wheeled taxi drop off the thousands of works who populate the cubical farms behind the walled compounds.

After an Indian buffet breakfast, including a coriander chutney that was out of this word good, my driver took me out to Golkonda Fort.  It’s a massive structure, the outer walls of which stretch eleven kilometers in circumference.  Once the seat of power for the Turkic Qutb Shahi kings, during the 16th and 17th centuries it was the heart of the world’s diamond trade.  The Hope diamond came from here, which, when looking around today, is a bit of a surprise.  My driver warned me to be careful of the locals, but the only real issue was running the gauntlet of guides who were quite insistent I wouldn’t understand anything without their help.  I told them this was not an unusual for me, so I’d be fine.  What I didn’t count on was just how off the beaten track Hyderabad is.  Even the intrepid backpackers don’t make it here.  Perhaps they’re scared off by the tech companies.  Either way, it meant that a tall white guy stood out.  It surprised me at first when a group of pretty Indian high school girls all said hello and started giggling, but not long after another group came up and asked for a photo.  At one point I had five different cell phone cameras pointed at me as various friends and family stood with me to get in the picture.  Now I know how a Disney mascot feels.  At one point I started to wonder if I should be checking a mirror.  Perhaps I’d been burnt to a crisp and was glowing.  More likely it was that after six months of Canadian winter, I was whiter than anyone they’d ever seen before.  There friends will think the pictures got overexposed.

The world’s urban planners should come to Hyderabad and study what this city has accomplished in its race to develop.  Sometimes it’s best to see what not to do first.  In Hyderabad, and Indian in general, at some point every construction project it’s simply abandoned.  Sometimes it’s when work has barely begun and it’s not uncommon to see a vast empty hole where once a building was meant to go.  More often though it’s just before work is completed.  If a road is torn up to lay a new pipe, it’s never repaved.  If a building has a marble façade, the last few pieces are left shattered at its base.  Perhaps there’s some superstition around finishing a project. Even on the western style campuses, the further away you get from the main buildings, the more quality control is allowed to slip.  At the fringe of my office’s manicured gardens are abandoned bails of wire cabling, the sort that looks thick enough to be run under the ocean.

Even in the newest areas there’s a remarkable level of decay.  Between the roads and buildings there is a gap, sometimes as little as a foot, though often up to twenty feet.  This gap can only be described as a mini-apocalypse.  Regardless of how long in the past construction was completed, or how much money was spent; piles of construction detritus and garbage fill that gap.  It’s where wild animals live, and not only dogs.  Hyderabad also has wild goats.  I wonder if it has something to do with the Muslim population’s dislike for dogs.

Traffic here remains something out of Dante’s inferno.  I have never experienced anything quite like it.  And if I have, it’s been repressed.  There are no traffic signals, rules, or apparently fear of what happens when metal impacts flesh.  Perhaps it’s a form of population control.  Wives and children hang off motorcycles that weave wildly between the cars, tiny yellow three wheelers jockey for position, and once in a while you’re startled awake when there’s a brief flash of faces in your side window that are much too close, and have in fact just smashed into the car and are now lying unconscious on the road behind you.  You would think an ambulance would be called.  Apparently not.  In our case, people appeared out of nowhere, dragged the two limp men to the side of the road, picked up their motorcycle and waited.  A bit nerve racking actually.  After about five minutes the guys were sitting, a bit dazed, and slowly checking themselves over for new damage.  One was particularly upset by a torn hole in his shirt, the other seemed to have a lose tooth.  And then they were gone.  Done, just like that.

Tomorrow one of my coworkers is taking me out to a local breakfast stall for street food.  I can’t wait.

Hyderabad, a work in progress

Frankfurt 6 AM Saturday

There are two types of airports I like. There’s the dirty old sort with cinderblock walls and disinterested soldiers standing about with machine guns slung low. Everything is stuffed into one room, there’s a woman selling warm drinks, and a dog with an unusual number of legs lies beneath the only functional ceiling fan. The dog might be dead, but no one really cares that much because the plane is five hours late and there’s just been a coup. It’s the sort of place where the previous flight let off an English rugby team whose first three stops after arriving were the presidential palace, radio station, and army barracks. It’s not the sort of place you bring the kids.

Then there’s Frankfurt Airport. Toronto may have the same number of flights, but the two airports are worlds apart. Pearson is clean, modern, and its gates are lined with boring little jets taking you places like Edmonton and Winnipeg. The tarmac in Frankfurt looks like the locker room at a bodybuilding contest. Super Jumbos line up at the gates pumped up and flexed, each one beefier then the next. The planes are from everywhere. Air Namibia, Royal Thai, Qatar Airways, South African. Looking at them all, you can’t help but want to take a year off. And then you spot it. Sitting between two 747s is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the aviation world, a massive white Lufthansa A380 looking like a stuffed goose ready to have its liver ripped out and served on a canapé. It reminded me of an apartment building with wings.

I’m typing this up in the lounge. No peanut butter, but plenty of nutella, and who doesn’t want nutella, cookies, and chilled Vodka at 6 am? (Bit of American imperialism here though…Word doesn’t know how to spell check nutella, but it does know Kraft, Pepsi, McDonald’s and Starbucks.)

Incidentally, the morning flight to Tripoli has been cancelled. Odd, that.

India, 2 AM Sunday

The first thing that strikes me when I leave the plane is the smell. It’s that same smell throughout the tropics; a heady mix of heat, plants, and anti-mosquito pesticides. DDT I imagine. It’s reassuring and I feel instantly at home. Otherwise Rajiv Gandhi airport is just that, an airport; large, modern, and entirely forgettable. My driver with his little placard that’s gotten my name entirely wrong, is waiting and we drive off.

On the way out, there’s a sign on the side of the road that says Work in Progress. That’s a nice way to put it. Immediately upon leaving the airport we pass a go-cart track where young Indian drivers can strap themselves in and drive like devils. It’s a bit redundant, actually. Given how my driver manages to narrowly avoid collision after collision, their cars must have breaking technology well beyond anything we have in the West. There are also sign against drinking and driving. No one in their right mind would drink and drive here, not twice at any rate.

Even in the dark, there are signs of growth and change everywhere, but it’s haphazard. The new highway from the airport is a monster 8 lane affair, complete with proper off ramps, signage and a divided median. The only thing missing are the potholes which seem to breed on Indian roads like rabbits. You’d never know you were in India. But then without warning the highway plunges down to a single dirt road in either direction and you’re instantly reminded as your head nearly collides with the seat in front of you. The dirt road continues for a rough hundred meters before the highway suddenly emerges again. There’s no obvious logic why this one section was left unbuilt, nor any signs this is about to change. Along the sides of the highway we pass half built concrete apartments. Some still have their wooden scaffolding, or a single light deep within casting eerie shadows. Rebar, rusting slowly, hangs limply out the ends of cement columns. There’s often little indication if the workers have gone home for the night, or the places will be forever abandoned.

The area I’m staying is called Hi-Tech city. Its home to US tech giants like Google and Microsoft, and a huge population of wild dogs who stand by the side of the road and watch trucks pass. You can see Darwin at work here. Regardless of the source breed, the dogs are all roughly the same size, about that of a large beagle. I guess that’s the perfect size for scavenging at the edges of society.

Half an hour later we pass through a security barrier, get an under the car bomb check, and arrive at the hotel. It’s Cricket world cup season, and the lobby is full of Indian cricket fans. Canada recently lost by some 200 wickets. Not sure what that means, but it can’t be good, even with the exchange rate at 30 to 1.

Hyderabad has roughly 6 million people, double what it had only ten year ago. Nearly half of those are Muslim, so it should be interesting to see tomorrow how all this mixes together.