“Look here! This is the world’s first bathtub!”
And that was it for Kory. Her bright-red face exploded all over what I’m sure was the world’s first rug. Tears streaming, she had to leave the room. I turned away and pretended to admire another of the bathroom’s alleged firsts. Sass put her head back and let out a laugh like a geyser in the most polite and discreet way she could.
“Look at it!” our rotund tour guide triumphantly implored the small group. “Look how beautiful it is!” His outstretched arm like a conquistador’s.
I can only imagine he was trying to say that this was maybe the first modern bathtub in India that actually resembled the ones we use today. Of course that doesn’t sound as poetic. But it wasn’t so much his amazing declaratory statements as the supremely confident way he delivered them as indisputable fact. I would have given every rupee in my pockets for instant access to Wikipedia’s entry on bathtub history.
But that bathroom was just the capper on perhaps the most uninformative and full-of-shit tour I’ve ever been on. Before the bathtub, there was the grand foyer on the first floor of the Falaknuma Palace. The ceiling frescoes had plenty of naked angels and mermaids painted on them, as maybe every ceiling should. Our guide with his plump, black mustache and plumper accent had us look up at and admire them like we were looking at the Sistine, which it ain’t. He then told us to turn and look at them from another angle. Our confused group slowly did as we were instructed.
“You see?” proclaimed the guide in his Queen’s English As Seen On TV, “the eyes will follow you around the room, no matter where you look. Brilliant!” The eyes were exactly in the same spot as they were a few seconds prior but there was no time to argue as he quickly ushered us into other rooms of the palace, turned upscale hotel. He continued to unlock the well-hidden magic of every room he led us through. There was the private study where we were supposed to notice something mystifying about the artwork on the wall but ended up just being mystified. As we climbed the enormous grand staircase leading to the even more impressive upper floor, our panting tour guide turned to me.
“Are you enjoying the tour?” he said majestically, his face beaming with pride in between his panting.
“Oh, absolutely!” I said trying to appear respectful without mocking, always a tricky feat for me. He seemed pleased with this. Once upstairs, the farce continued through every room until we made it out to the balcony. The sun was setting on the city in scattered pink hues. Once we got away from the group we got all the laughing out of our system all under the guise of admiring the view. It was the only tour I’ve been on where I knew less at the end than when we started.
Formerly the home of India’s last Muslim and last independent rulers, the Nizam, Falaknuma Palace is an impressive monument to wealth which happens to be the best kind. Our tour de force of the palace, was included in the price of our afternoon tea. I had read that having tea at Falaknuma was a thing to do and so we made a reservation. According to the Taj Group’s site, the upscale hoteliers who run the place, we would be enjoying our traditional English tea and nibbles in one of the historic mansion’s beautiful, well-appointed rooms. Who wouldn’t want to take their tea surrounded by history and beauty?
Our hired car took us to the gates where thin, casually dressed guards asked to see our reservations and then proceeded to examine the car’s underbelly with a bomb-detection device that looked like the Statue of Liberty’s tennis racket. Once we were shuttled through the grounds and up to the palace, we walked to the white stone railing, topped with David-esque lawn statues, and surveyed the Hyderabad we had just ascended from, the Hyderabad we had made our way through for the last day-and-a-half. The foreground was a hilly collection of half-finished structures and in the background the city’s skyscrapers were hidden behind an almost opaque veil of pollution. The palace grounds were so quiet and tranquil. We were literally above it all; rarefied air you could actually breathe.
Down below our lofty perch however, Hyderabad at street level was a loud stew of class and caste. We set out from the Vishnu apartment building late in the afternoon, several hours after we landed. Sass’s immediate neighborhood seemed fairly middle class. Some buildings had terra cotta roofs and iron railings ringed balconies. The streets ranged from being paved to being in urgent need of a repaving. Trees were everywhere and in full blossom or bloom or whatever it is trees do when they’re successful. My two female companions — a travel first for me — covered their heads with scarves and their bodies with modest dress. To no one’s surprise, I wore my most modest polo and the same pair of jeans I was to sport for the rest of the trip.
The quiet of the neighborhood disappeared after a several meter walk to the main road. It was a true boulevard with a tree-topped median and four lanes on each side but it could never be mistaken for the Champs-Élysées. Anything with wheels hurled down the strip in a cloud of dust and engine noise, crisscrossing each other indiscriminately. The curbs were even painted with a checkerboard pattern, confirming that we were really standing on the sidelines of a racetrack. Horse-drawn wagons loaded up with anything that can be sold moved alongside tuk-tuks; three-wheeled auto rickshaws for hire. Bicycles also loaded down with goods swerved around large trucks and taxis and cars. While the lanes were separated with dotted lines they were merely suggestive. A crosswalk would have been a waste of paint because pedestrians don’t have the right of way and barely the right to life.
Cairo’s lack of a traffic pattern had prepared me and Central America’s “roads” had tempered Kory so we weren’t completely surprised by what looked like anarchy. The first crossing was still harrowing and we didn’t cross so much as run like we were being chased. We ran towards an ATM so we could get some cash. The bank was closed but there were two shabby ATMs in the foyer. A thin guy playing security guard dress-up was slouched on a chair out front. He was far from intimidating and, when the machine devoured Sass’s card, was even further from helpful. He didn’t speak English but was fluent in another of the over 400 languages spoken on the subcontinent.
Despite lame attempts by other ATM users to help, Sass was stuck. She called the bank’s main number and Kory and I stood and listened to her deal with the cream of Indian customer service. Sass kept repeating her sentences slower and louder even though they were both speaking the same language. Sass’s understandable frustration got worse the longer she tried to explain what should be a simple equation:
ATM – ATM card = New card
Eventually, and after chapters of dialogue, it was understood that the bank couldn’t send her a new card until the next business day, which was a few days away. Sass borrowed some money from our successful transactions and we continued on.
On either side of the racetrack was a maze of streets and alleys hosting every type of business and dwelling. In piles spread out on the ground, farmers sold gorgeous eggplant and okra the size of lizards. People came in and out from all directions. Kids were running around, laughing and playing or waving down from rooftops. Garbage was all over the place along with the truly free-range goats that prefer it that way. Electrical wires weighed down poles like hanging drops of black molasses. Miniature Hindu shrines in bright colors are placed matter-of-factly between any two buildings or on a street corner. Horns, shouts, whistles and haggling filled the air and stacks of pottery and sundry burst forth from small shops.
The street food was a sight! Something aromatic was stewing in large cauldrons every few steps. Vendors sold dried and salted snacks off wagons. Street stalls slung freshly fried potato chips and roasted nuts. We filmed a young guy swirling liquid sugar into hot oil and then taking the solidified pretzel-shaped sweets and dipping them into a dye that turned them a deep orange.
I had made a personal vow to stay away from street food in India. It pains me to even type out a sentence like that. Even though I was shot through with every imaginable vaccine and came equipped with enough Cipro and Immodium to dam up the Mississippi, the famously unsanitary conditions made me choose safety over curiosity. It also hurts to type out a sentence like that. Two weeks in India was just not enough time to weather the possible effects of Delhi Belly or to find out about the ‘bad’ in Hyderabad.
But just witnessing all of that roadside cuisine still stirred the stomach. We hopped a tuk-tuk and took-took it to Chutneys, a restaurant Sass had touted, that presumably specialized in its namesake. The three of us squeezed into the back and my first tuk-tuk ride was a tactile commentary on the troubled state of the road. Every pothole, divot and swerve was felt and felt often. Yet for short distances, I kind of liked it. Unlike a bus or a train, or even a car, a tuk-tuk kept you moving to your destination but it’s lack of doors kept you in touch with where you were. You could reach out and touch the driver next to you which is kind of what I did. At a red light, a young guy on a motorcycle, holding on to his wife/girlfriend was on our left and to the right, a taxi with music blasting from its speakers. I wanted to take a picture of the scene so I took a quick snap with my Canon digital in the direction of the motorcycle. Just as I brought the camera back down to my lap, the young man looked over at me with a quarter smile and waved his finger at me disapprovingly, yet slow enough to where he couldn’t blame me.
Our driver dropped us at the restaurant and we walked past the guards and through a metal detector, a blunt reminder that we were in South Asia where things have a tendency to not stay unexploded for long. Chutneys, it turned out, specialized in dosas, the thin, crepe-like vehicle for many things but usually curried vegetables and potatoes. Maybe this is an obvious statement but they were the best dosas I’ve ever had. Folded into large, stuffed triangles they were slightly crispy but chewy in that last millisecond before incisors meet. Our table was serviced by a headwaiter in a bright red shirt and about three subordinates, also in red. When any of us asked our main man for something his neck would suddenly loosen and swivel continuously in an ovular motion, smiling all the while. In India, he and most everyone else was saying ‘yes’ but to me, he just looked confused. The head bob thing took me a good week to get used to. I found myself clarifying what I was saying as soon as the head of the listener began to move, as if they weren’t getting me when I asked for another dosa.
We walked off all of that spice and flavor with some shopping. Traveling with these two women I certainly expected to shop exponentially more than I would if I were alone. It was a refreshing travel perspective, actually. Sass was more into clothing and accessories and Kory gravitated toward anything that was cleverly creative. We hit up what I imagine is India’s version of a somewhat pricey, suburban boutique. We all tried on pieces of the latest in hip Hindi (Hipdi?) fashion. I looked particularly striking in a casual, yet stylish urban turban.
We headed down the road to a large, multi-tiered shopping mall, filled with families and teenagers, the makeup of most malls. And just like American malls, the teenagers were flirting and hanging out and the parents were hunting for deals. In the men’s shoe department, I recognized some famous brands at first thinking they were knockoffs. The inside of a Clark’s dress shoe doesn’t say ‘Made in India’ as that’s too vague. The shoe was actually made right down the road and it was priced way less than it would be in the States. I’m assuming the same was true for the other shoe.
Later that night, we traipsed higher up the class ladder to Tansen, a restaurant that had its own canal running down the center of it. The food was a mix of north Indian and the more local Mughlai (or Persian-ish) cusine. They also offered pasta. Part of a huge complex of restaurants and entertainment facilities overlooking one of Hyderabad’s artificial lakes, Tansen is intent on surrounding your meal with a Mughal palace. As we chewed, musicians plucked their sitars and banged their drums on their own island in the canal. We drank water out of copper-colored goblets. Our table was assigned a crack team of waiters who not only brought us food in an almost choreographed performance but made sure to keep our goblets full. Tansen seems the type of place where the well-to-do professionals and business owners and their families have dinner on the weekends.
On our walk back to Sass’s, we were exhausted. We had only been out for four or five hours on our first true day in India but just that little bit had overwhelmed the senses. So we crashed.
The next day, Sass had hired us a car and driver, which didn’t cost much more than an oil change and who was at our beck and call. He dropped us at The Charminar, the iconic 400-year old mosque in the old part of town. At the top, a sign firmly asks visitors not to spit. After ascending the very narrow staircases, we got to see down on the crush of the neighboring Laad Bazaar and the sea of parked tuk-tuks awaiting passengers. There was an entrance fee to the monument and another metal detector. The security guards created a human wall to protect the precious tourist from the legions of beggars and touts.
Perhaps in a nod to India’s rising economic prosperity, we found ourselves sharing the top of the monument with not just a handful of western tourists but several Indian ones as well; whole families, actually. We would continue to share airplanes and hotels with them for the rest of the trip.
Our afternoon tea at the palace, contrary to what the Internet told us, was served on a back balcony overlooking another slice of the city. On the way to the balcony, they led us through a courtyard surrounded by those well-appointed rooms I had seen pictures of online. When I asked one of our waiters why we weren’t enjoying our tea in one of those rooms, he patiently explained that the tea will be served on the balcony. He would make a great tour guide.
I have to admit, the setting didn’t suck especially if you didn’t mind the symphony of barking dogs, the occasional power tools and other strange noises punctuating what was a beautiful afternoon sunset. Our tea came with crust-less finger sandwiches, tiny European cakes and Indian pakoras. They were all served on a multi-tiered tray just as it would be in England. Everything tasted the way they’re supposed to and the tea was poured out at just the right clip. No culinary surprises there. But there was no way Falaknuma was designed to surprise. It was designed to impress, as it was when originally built. Instead of statesmen and diplomats the Falaknuma was in the business of impressing tourists.
In countries like India, where the gap between stupid rich and dirt poor is too wide for a tightrope, we tourists flitter about the native class structure like window shoppers. With little strain, our wallets allow us access to pretty much anything we want, whether high-falutin’ tea or some lowly street meat. In fact, tourists make up their own class hovering outside India’s caste system: the tourist class. We were a different kind of Untouchable and we were constantly reminded of it.
Another team of waiters made sure we didn’t want for anything. While we took our English Breakfast on the tranquil terrace above, down below, most Hyderabadis took their tea wherever they could.
WHAT: neighborhood kids waving down to us Untouchables from above
WHEN: December 16, 2013
WHERE: Somajiguda, Hyderabad, Andrah Pradesh, India