Wednesday, July 18, 2007

India, Week 3: Sari Grateful

I'm not sure whether India attracts a small number of tourists (those diehard few who view hot water as a superfluity and E. Coli as a seasoning) or if tourists come in swarms and (a) due to the size of the country, they're spread out to a density of roughly 0.1 tourists per square kilometer (that's 0.28 tourists per square mile in non-communist units) or (b) those tourists don't work for my company and therefore congregate in parts of India other than Hyderabad. Whatever the case, every time I've gone sightseeing here—no matter how touristy the sight being seen (as gauged by the availability of pizza)—the other visitors have consisted entirely of locals. In Manhattan, this is unheard of. Tourists outnumber New Yorkers five-to-one and can easily be identified by their tendency to come to a dead halt in the middle of thoroughfares (the majorer the thoroughfare, the deader the halt) or, in my aunts' case, to ride in horse-drawn carriages.

During prior travels, I had viewed tourists as a bad thing. These were the people who crowded the museums, filled the hostels, and made an effort to speak the local language, thus putting my spastic pantomime to shame. I had not realized, however, the valuable role my fellow tourists played: that of buffer. Because there are so few tourists in Hyderabad, the touts, taxi drivers, and would-be scam artists have a minuscule target market, and their efforts to capture it are correspondingly fervent.

Upon entering a popular site (e.g. the Qutub Shahi Tombs, cubic structures capped with huge minarets), the tourist is swarmed by guides-for-hire. These individuals are bound by neither propriety nor truth, and, in the effort to secure your patronage, they'll claim that you aren't allowed to walk unaccompanied or that the visitor's center has burnt down and you, too, will catch fire unless you hire them. Upon exiting a site (e.g. the Salar Jung Museum whose star attraction is a cuckoo clock), the tourist is swarmed by taxi drivers in auto-rickshaws who can't understand why you would want to go from the gate to your driver via any mode of transport other than their vehicle. (An auto-rickshaw is a cross between a motorcycle and a rickshaw without the safety features of either.)

During my first week in Hyderabad, I supped with my roommate's friend Peggy who had been training Hyderabadi accountants for Deloitte-but-not-Touche. (American companies find it amusing to send twenty-something staffers to Hyderabad for prolonged training sessions. I assume this is a form of punishment.) Peggy warned me that tourists were a rare commodity in these parts and, as such, I should expect stares and conversations from random strangers. I ignored this at the time, figuring that stares and conversations would be geared primarily toward women; being male and well-practiced in the New York glower which implies "If you talk to me, I will cut you," I had nothing to worry about. Alas, I was mistaken. Everywhere I go, people come up to me to make conversation—from the armed gentleman outside the Andra Pradesh High Court, who informed me that I found his country beautiful, to the grade-school children who followed me around Nehru Zoological Park insisting that I share their blunt. (I demurred.) The Nehru Zoo, despite those bloodshot children, really disappointed me. Having heard sordid tales about Asian zoos, I expected machines where you deposit two coins and a tiger, and get a furry, orange tote bag in return. But everything was depressingly humane. (However, the architect did place Nocturnal Animal World next to the House of Talking Birds, which contributed to some of the more sleep-deprived raccoons I've seen in my time.)

Eventually, I reverted to being antisocial, with which helpdesk has provided me much practice. In the effort to get through the streets unaccosted, I ratcheted up my glower from "I will cut you" to "I will cut your children," walked quickly, stared at the ground, and hummed Rent. My rare bursts of sociality came when I had to cross the street which, in India, is a team effort. There are no traffic signals, and, if you see a crosswalk, it's probably a road-kill zebra. My general strategy in street-crossing is to wait until I see someone whom cars are unlikely to mow down—children, the elderly, people missing limbs (elderly, limbless children are ideal)—and to shuffle behind them as they cross. The only problem with this method is you have to find someone the drivers are unwilling to hit, and the drivers are none too choosy.

To ensure my continued survival, my driver usually leaves me on the same side of the road as my destination. This Sunday, however, I visited the Charminar, a small, four-towered castle which is located in the middle of an intersection and, as such, affords no form of entry but sprinting across four lanes of traffic. (Some have compared crossing the street in India to the game of Frogger, but that's only if it goes well. Otherwise, it's Pong.) Upon arrival to the Charminar, my driver pointed in the direction of a nearby mosque and mentioned that a bomb had exploded there during the previous month. (For the record, in our three weeks together, this is the most complex message my driver and I have communicated to one other.) Inspired by our newfound knack for conversation, I asked where the bomb had exploded, which my driver interpreted as, "I have to go the bathroom." I shook my head and restated my question, using my hands to indicate a bomb exploding. My driver took this as, "I REALLY have to go the bathroom." After convincing him that, no, I was fine and figuring it would be easier to answer the bomb question myself by looking for a large crater, I crossed the street (behind an old woman, albeit limbed) to the Charminar, which, according to the sign, charges 5 rupees admission or, in my case, 100 rupees. (Many Indian sites have a tourist coefficient by which all prices are multiplied. Fortunately, I, too, have a coefficient to my advantage: the exchange rate.) I scaled the steep, winding stairs to the top of the Charminar and looked down at the mosque. No sign of an explosion. Maybe he was asking me if I needed a bathroom?

Truth be told, I'm never quite sure what's going on here.

Continued >>

The Charminar. According to my driver, a favorite bombing site as of late.

No comments:

Post a Comment