Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hot Hot Heat! India First Impressions

One month! Time to go back in time and describe all the adventures I’ve had since arriving in Hyderabad on April 29th!

After leaving Suz in London I had the long red-eye flight direct to Hyderabad. I’m bad on planes, I can’t sleep. Watching movies is too tempting. As a result I arrived at 5AM without having slept more than a few minutes every few hours. Just a note. I sat next to a 75 year old Indian woman, who didn’t get up for the duration of the 10.5 hour flight. Machine! And she was capable. She just didn't want to. 

My first reaction to India was not surprising, the heat. Even getting off the plane in the dark at 5:30 AM it hit you like a wall. Heat and humidity. Even at that time of day it was already 30*C which coming from Montreal and Wales was dreadfully hot. I was in for a surprise. Hyderabad for the entire month of May saw temperatures in the 30’s maybe once or twice. Every day was 40-46*C. That is a new kind of hot for me. Needless to say, I was a little slow that first day. I got settled in at the guest house where I quickly learned how loud on in India should watch their TV, had a quick nap, then went in to the Indian School of Business where my office is located. 
ISB at Sunset

ISB at sunset

Company on my walk to work

Getting to the school, I have to walk down my lane which is about 4-500 meters to the main road. The street is a bunch of guesthouses (long term hotels) mixed with slum tents (I’m sure this isn’t what you are supposed to call them). As a result you have cars, bikes, motorbikes, buses, autorickshaws, many people, stray dogs, cats, cows and goats along the street at any given time. Makes for an interesting walk. But it does smell bad. The guesthouse is fine, but in the heat, the first couple days my gut was not used to the smell of the open sewers in the road. Crazy enough now a month in, I barely notice. A note on the animals. One of the dogs and also a cat has had a litter recently. So there are tiny puppies and kittens everywhere which is cute. I don’t let them near me since they spend 80% of their day itchng fleas and the other 20% sitting in garbage, but they are still cute to look at. 
Daily walk home

With holidays, and the National election, the office was pretty quiet. But I got to meet the staff that was around that day and after a few short hours of yawning I called it a day and went home. 

My second day in India was the election. For those of you who don’t know. India had a new parliamentary election in April-May which had 815 million eligible voters. This was a very big deal here in India, and you couldn’t have a single conversation without someone bringing up predictions or opinions. It was an exciting time to be around. I’m glad I got to experience it. Coming a little earlier would have been nice since I could have experienced a little bit of the build up. 

My first weekend here was a guys birthday at my guesthouse. Dinner is provided for us at the guesthouse so I often eat dinner with the same guys. Since it was Priyank’s birthday we decided to go out to dinner. Those of you who know me well, know I’m not the most adventuresome eater. That, mixed with all the fears of ingesting some Indian food that will make me sick (I was new here and still paranoid) had me a little tentative. Fortunately/unfortunately that isn't an option here. The restaurant was all you can eat buffet and the guys wanted to introduce me to all of the foods of India at once. There is a very popular snack which is like a fried puff pastry filled with a salty lime salsa type juice and I was quickly fed 3 or 4 of these (they are like golfball size so this wasn’t insignificant). After an hour of consuming all the foods my stomach obviously wasn’t happy with me. I wasn’t so much sick as just really uncomfortable. This made for a night where my stomach grumbled all night and I woke up feeling a little worse for wear but otherwise fine. I went in to the office only to discover that there were a few of the staff members leaving so we were going to an ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET! I hope my enthusiasm for this outing wasn’t too apparent. But the food was good and it was nice to see the team outside of the office. I’ll mention that everyone has been really nice, often eating lunch together and socializing. 

Guys from the guesthouse and their friends at a birthday dinner

Friends along the lane

View from roof of guesthouse down lane

Dinner at the guest house has been good. The food is repetitive though. Every day of the week is the same. Monday has a Monday meal, Tuesday a Tuesday. Wednesdays we get a hard boiled egg! I am pleased to announce I can eat a little bit of spice now. The first week everything was FIRE! But now the dinner isn’t bland exactly, but some meals definitely could use a little more punch. Also, eating out has spoiled me since the meals are so much more flavourful than what we get on a nightly basis. 

Typical Dinner at the guesthouse

My first weeks I was at a little bit of a loss as to how to fill my time. At 45*C it is too hot to go outside even for walks (I tried and learned the hard way). The first week, to fill time I went to the mall which has AC. I wasn’t the first to have this idea. On a random Saturday the mall was PACKED. And I mean December 22nd -23rd busy in Canada. Coming back to the guesthouse I mentioned this and people said I should see it on a Sunday or Holiday. I can only imagine. I've since discovered the gym at ISB and have been filling up a lot of my evening time pumping iron. Getting huge. There is also a pool so I've been doing the varsity warmup workout before calling it quits each day. 

Beautiful ISB Pool. It isn't closed. I am just the only one who goes

That first weekend at the mall, seeing as I knew nobody and it was too hot to do anything, I decided to go see Spiderman alone. People definitely looked at me funny. There is a funny stigma in India about westerners. I think it is because life is very conservative here, they assume that I live like a rockstar in Canada with my liberal promiscuous ways. Everyone asks me if I am married and when I say no, they then as where my girlfriend is. One individual was so taken aback that I was single that they offered to pray for me. Back to Spiderman, movies are funny in India. And I don't meant the dancing stereotype that you see, I mean going to a movie, the experience of it. First: National Anthem was played and everyone stands up. Second, they offered pillows for short people in case the person ahead of you is too tall. And third, there is intermission. I was watching, it was in the middle of a fight scene and the theatre goes dark. After experiencing a power outage or two already I got quite frustrated but then realized it was just a planned 15-20 minute intermission.

Getting to the mall involved one of my least favourite pass times. Haggling over cost of an “auto”. I’ve travelled around this city enough to know how much cabs and auto’s should cost. However, anytime I try and go anywhere, they see a white person and assume I’m foreign and fresh. Even for drives I do almost daily, unless it is my normal driver (there is a group that hang out at the corner) I will always have to argue. I’ve learned now that if I am pretty certain about the amount. I don’t negotiate when I get in, I just give them the amount as I get out and walk away. So far I haven’t had any trouble. My trip isn’t over at this point though, auto drivers don’t drive you all the way to your destination since you are usually sharing one with people. They drop you off on the road en route. This means that daily I need to cross a 6 lane road at rush hour. Crossing the road here isn’t like Vietnam where you slowly walk and the traffic moves like a wave around you. Here, cars and bikes and buses don’t move, they will simply blare their horn and not touch the brakes or turn one bit. So you play this fun human frogger game.

Daily Struggle of crossing the street

Despite the fight to get into one, I actually enjoy riding in the Autos. They are painfully slow going uphill, but then turn into the most hilarious little cart races anytime you are going downhill. I swear the drivers try and beat each other to every corner. Don’t worry mom, they only go like 30kph so it’s not THAT dangerous.
Blurry Photo of how 7 people plus driver fit in an Auto

Since it is so hot here on weekends I haven’t really done much sightseeing. That and Hyderabad isn’t really know for being a cultural hub of India. I did go and see a few mosques (Hyderabad has the largest muslim population in India since Pakistan and Bangladesh are no longer part and Hyderabad used to be ruled by a muslim King) and a museum/palace. They were interesting. India, like Europe is so different than North America. Fairly "modern" historical buildings may be 500 years old. Old buildings are 2500 or more. The scale of everything is just so much grandeur than what I am used to
Charminar from Street level

Mecca Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India

Chandeliers: Chowmahalla Palace Asif Jahi Dynasty

They love chandeliers: Chowmahalla Palace Asif Jahi Dynasty 

The most complete Swiss Army Knife there ever was, Chowmahalla Palace Asif Jahi Dynasty

One thing I noticed while sightseeing is I am amazed at how few foreigners I have seen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that including all my trips and flights and museums etc, I may have seen 30-40 white people since arriving in India. And that includes tourist sites in Mumbai. As a result I find that a lot of the street merchants don’t really know how to deal with me. I get a lot of funny looks, either that or am just ignored completely. 

View from the top of Charminar, This is extremely light traffic

Other than that, not too much. I have gotten myself into a fairly good routine with work, the gym and entertaining myself through trying to learn more about India. I spent a lot of time the first couple weeks trying to figure out where to buy books in India. The mall had little to offer and bookstores are non existent. Fortunately I discovered is SUPER cheap for some items. Pretty much if the book is published in India it will be a few dollars, if it is published in Europe or North America the book will be astronomically expensive. So find a book that is published here, and loads are and you can order them and get free 2 day shipping. I was amazed. I'm currently reading an interesting and very well written book on the history of India's democracy. It is fairly long though so I will be reading it for a while. 

Some light reading on India, my other 4 books for scale

As I’ve alluded to, I have done some travel, I’ve been to Goa and Mumbai, but I will leave those for another post since I feel this one is getting a little long. In my next post I will go into more detail about my specific adventures. 

Questionable sandwich place near my guesthouse

Hope everyone is doing well!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Whirlwind Trip Through Wales

Greetings! For those of you who don’t know, I am spending the Summer in India! As part of my curriculum at McGill, I do a 14 week practicum in the public health field. I was lucky, through some networking to get hooked up with Access Health International who are based in Hyderabad, working at offices at the Indian School of Business. I’ll get to that in more detail in a following post. But first I will describe my trip prior to my arrival in India. 

Since almost all connecting flights to India travel through London, this offered the opportunity for an extended layover. I’ve never been to the UK and the fact that one of my oldest and best friends Suz was living in London, and coincidentally had the same week off work meant that our travel plans were fate!

I arrived in London the morning of the 22nd of April with a 6 night layover at Heathrow. Suz and I were going to leave the next morning to do a whirlwind tour of Wales! She has lived in Edinburgh and London and wanted to experience something new. Having never been anywhere on that island, Wales was exciting and small enough to tackle in a week for me!

Doesn't this apply to all windows?

The only issue is that I had never been to London before, and this only left me with a few hours to take it in. Suz told me that I couldn’t see London in a day. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling too well as a result of the red-eye flight so I took a nap. Now I had a third of a day to take in London. Plenty of time!

I asked Suz what she wanted from Canada. All she replied was KD.

So out I went with a map and a comfy pair of sneakers. I walked down through Piccadilly Circus, to Hyde Park, pulled a 180 and headed back to Buckingham Palace. Made my way to the Parliament Buildings then crossed the bridge and walked the river Thames! Saw the London Eye and a few other sights along the way including the London Bridge and the Tower of London. I’ll mention I was walking somewhat fast and this wasn’t a short walk by any stretch. Finally I made it back to Suz’ place and we went out for dinner to a classic UK meal of Fish and Chips. After dinner there was a little repacking of my stuff then to bed because in the morning, Suz and I were catching the bus and off to Cardiff!

Requisite shot of Big Ben

What does the Dean have against Bikes?

The bus ride to Cardiff was uneventful with the exception of the cleanest, most spacious, yet most disgusting bus bathroom I’ve ever been in. Someone decided it was a good idea to put the toilet over the engine. Engines = hot, which meant that hot steam was coming out of the toilet and filling the room with a lovely heavy humid environment. Needless to say I passed. Arriving in Cardiff, Suz and I unloaded our bags at the hotel and then took a tour of the city. Cardiff has a nice little university with lovely gardens. In addition to an old Castle. We opted not to go into the castle (it was like $30) and instead walked around and through the gardens the city had to offer. 

Probably the best named Beer ever

Cardiff is a nice little place! I wouldn’t give it a full 24 hours next time I visit though. Especially not if I only have 120 hours for the entire country!

Filling up on some Brains!

That evening we went to the Harbour front, or Cardiff Bay if you will, and had a great dinner. Prices were shockingly reasonable considering the UK and all, and the place had a pretty sweet view, Imagine Pint and Barrel for those of you in Vancouver. In Montreal… Sorry I have no restaurant comparison.

Suz and I were pretty tired, I from jetlag, Suz from partying too hard in Copenhagen (such a world traveler that one!) So we slept early and were up early to start the roadtrip!

We rented a car, and since everyone drives standard across the pond, we reserved the only compact automatic in Cardiff. As you would expect, they double booked it and it wasn’t available. Now sitting there with the prospect of learning to drive standard while driving unknown narrow roads on the wrong side of the street with my left hand on the shifter I was pleased to be informed we were getting a free upgrade! We were given a Vauxhall Insignia. Since we were in Wales, we decided to name it. Since Suz and I didn’t know any Welsh names and had no internet, we decided to go with one from the same island and decided this car would be named Elspeth Vauxhall. Elsie V (LCV) for short. This car was amazing by the way. After a week of test driving, I have no idea how much it cost, but if reasonable, I would buy it.
Me Standing with LCV

Once the few hiccups at the rental place were sorted out we were on our way. First stop, Rhossili Beach by way of Swansea and Suz’ favourite town name “The Mumbles”. Getting to Rhossili was a very stressful drive because it was (what we thought at the time) very narrow roads (A2 and B1 for future reference). But we made it and the weather and view were perfect. We also saw our first Sheep which Suz was really excited about. I won’t go into detail, instead I’ll just post photos, but it was beautiful. 

 Blocking the view with my melon
 Despite Suz' Pointing that way, We did not go there
 Wales is DANGEROUS!

Rhossili Beach

We continued driving after lunch, got a little lost along the way to Pembrokeshire and finally made our way through Haverfordwest, taking the scenic route towards Broad Haven and followed the shore to St. David’s Whitesands Bay were we caught the sunset. Again, repeating myself, but the views were amazing. Who knew Wales was so scenic! We had to skip the entire southern Pembrokeshire coast which I hear is spectacular, but c’est la vie.

Thinking of how much I love driving LCV

 On the shore towards St Davids
 Like I said, Wales is Super Dangerous

Suz acting all Photographer like
 Cool Rocks at Whitesands Beach.
 Sunset, Whitesands Beach. St. David's

We decided to make headway after sunset so we could make the most out of day 3 in Wales and headed to Aberystwith, on the way passing through Fishguard. One note for anyone traveling to Wales, outside of Cardiff, everything closes at 8PM. So for dinner we actually had a delicious meal of Indian food at the originally named Taj Mahal. Indian food, sure was a treat, I’m sure I won’t regret using one of my last meals before Hyderabad on Indian food… But jokes aside, if you are looking for food and find yourself in Fishguard, go to this restaurant, Suz and I both agreed it was great!

Unfortunately we had a big day of hiking Snowdonia mountain on day three so we quickly slept and left Aberystwyth which in hindsight was a mistake. As we were driving (at this point we were getting better with directions so could spend more leisure time reading up on where we were going) we kept coming across beautiful sights and picturesque cities. Each time we sadly discovered they were Aberystwyth. I heard that they had a lot of damage over the winter due to storms and selfishly am telling myself that the damage was still there so we didn’t miss anything, although this was unlikely. 

Getting to Snowdonia was almost as much fun as the hike itself. By this point I was an expert at driving narrow streets. For reference, Wales uses A1-2 B1-2 C road system for rating size. Highway A1, 2 clearly marked separate lanes A2 (think beaconsfield blvd or SW marine without the bike lanes and with a brick wall to your side but the speed limit still 100kph. Then there were narrow lanes that require you to slow down (unless you are a local) B1 (80kph), and 1 lane shared by both directions and even then very narrow half paved half dirt B2 (80kph). I don’t know what the C roads would be, thankfully Suz and I never came across any. The drive to Snowdonia was mostly B1 but Suz and I decided to take the even more scenic route which had us racing through B2 roads! Much Fun!
Typical Roadside View

I’ve never been to the Scottish Highlands, but I wanted to see some barren majestic mountains. Snowdonia served this right up! And to Suz’ pleasure more sheep! Unfortunately it rained the whole time we climbed up, but that just added to the Welsh experience. Suz was very concerned because even though we left early, we didn’t reach the mountain before 2pm (thanks to aforementioned B2 road. But I assured her that sunset was at 8:30pm, this was a 6 hour hike (for wimps) and that we had plenty of time. Seeing all the old retirees and families with small children walking back down gave Suz a bit of reassurance, but also stressed her out because everyone we came across was going the wrong way. Surely we wouldn’t make it. Fortunately for my story telling, we did, and have the pictures to prove it!





We didn’t sit and reflect too long, then headed down the mountain and distanced ourselves quickly on route to Holyhead were we watched the sunset at Trearddur Bay (this sure seems like quite the romantic trip with all these seashore sunsets, fortunately I had my paparazzi to photograph these memories of me looking thoughtful in front of the ocean to show off to girls when I get home).

Just thinking deep thoughts

After sunset at 8:45 we hunted for dinner, and you guessed it. Everything was closed. But there was a good Sri Lankan restaurant. We got there and LIES! It was another Indian restaurant that served some Sri Lankan. About to spend 4 month in India, clearly I should make my last 2 meals in Europe Indian food! This Indian was too spicy for my delicate taste buds though. I am curious to see what my thoughts would be now, after spending 10 days burning my mouth on Indian food day in and day out.

Holyhead Island has a very photo friendly lighthouse at the very western tip. South Stack is a birdwatchers dream, Suz and I took a bunch of photos, but didn’t see the fuss in the 1000’s of seagulls shitting on everything. Leaving there we took another coastal road through Anglessey Island to the first of our history lessons for the day. We went to Plas Newydd, an old giant fancy house. It was cool, but for the money I would skip and and see the bigger castles in Beaumaris or Conwy. But bravo on Plas Newydd marketing team, we felt as though this was a place we couldn’t afford to miss.

 South Stack
We get it Wales, you are dangerous

For lunch we went to nearby Red Wharf Bay which has a huge tide. The tide went out kilometers straight to sea.

Neverending Sandbar
 Suz Way off in the distance

 We followed lunch with Beaumaris Castle making it there right before it closed and then were able to circle around Conwy Castle at sunset. 

Beaumaris Castle

Conwy Castle

After driving to Colwyn Bay and knowing that we skipped a bit on the south, not to complain about the northeast of Wales, but there isn’t much to see. We needed the car returned the next day we decided to drive through dinner and grab a quick snack instead and head to Hay on Wye. The book capital of the world! I’m not going to lie, I love bookstores and reading, but this place sounded pretty lame. Unlike Plas Newydd! From the descriptions I read online it sounded like the type of place you would meet Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (giving myself a little pat on the back for remembering that name correctly!) The fact that our hotel was 900 years old (actually) and cost us $170 didn’t enamour me with the town any more. Fortunately the next morning I was pleasantly surprised. Sure the first bookstore we saw was super cluttered and my worst nightmare, but the second was nice, clean, spacious and organized! I didn’t buy any books on account of my traveling light, but if I had more time, I see how that town could grow on me. 

What $170 gets you

Bookstore in Hay on Wye

We left Hay on Wye and took the scenic route once more on a B2 road through the Black Mountains! For those who don’t know, they pass through the Powys and Monmouthshire. Probably my favourite road was one that opened at the top of the mountain and it was this really narrow bike path type thing with sheep grazing on fields on either side. No fence, no barrier just sheep and grass. After this we stopped in at an ancient bar from the 12th century they say, and then headed to the Vale of Glanmorgan to see Llantwit Majors shore! This was the missing piece. I knew that the UK had awesome shorelines, but I wanted to see the rock cliffs that geologist always speak of. Llantwit Major is just that, you can see all the geologic lines (clearly I don’t know enough to describe them). 

Typical B2 Road

Llantwit Major

Llantwit Major

After this last bit of sightseeing we just had to drive back to Cardiff and return the car. This was much more relaxing after having driven for a few days than the first day driving out of the city. We then easily caught our bus back to London.

All in all I am fairly satisfied with the trip. We accomplished in  days what the guide book recommended in 18!

After repacking my bag and having a good night sleep, the next morning I said my goodbyes and was off to India! More on that to come!

Contemplating Life