I took a mini-vacation over a long weekend to meet my Eawag friends in Hyderabad, the city in Telangana where my friend Rohit went to college. I’ve been hearing about this city ever since I met Rohit, so expectations were high, but his perfectly planned weekend exceeded everything I had hoped for. We all arrived early Saturday morning and began the first of nine lavishly extravagant meals. Following a buffet of multi-colored chutneys, Rohit, Marius, and I went to the Golkonda Fort. The Golkonda Fort was the capital many of the sultanate dynasties from the 1300s-1600s. It’s the largest fort I’ve ever seen and has an immense amount of structures intact, despite an overall lack of upkeep and restoration. We immediately saw a map of the large fort and the first thing I noticed was camel stables. Any rational human would have known that since the fort has not been in use for hundreds of years, the likelihood of live camels still being kept in the original stables was basically zero. However, I opted for irrational behavior and panicked with excitement, which only served as fuel for mocking and cruel jokes later in our fort exploration.
We took a mid-day biriyani lunch break. Our trip was later christened our “biriyani tour”, since my only memories of the weekend revolve around stuffing myself with yet another excellent Hyderabadi biriyani. Hyderabad is world-famous for its biriyani. Biriyani is a rice dish, full of Indian spices, and best served with chicken or mutton. Hyderabadi biriyani has heavy Muslim and Afghani influences, making it one of the richest, spiciest, and spiceful biriyani varieties. We then headed to the opposite side of the city to the Salar Jung Museum. The museum is full of art and artifacts from the Nizams (reigning monarchs) of Hyderabad. Salar Jung III was one of the richest people in history, so the museum is famed for displaying over a million objects from his personal collections. The museum also draws large crowds on the hour every hour to watch the world-famous clock show. Rohit hurried us into a large room packed with people vying for a good view or optimal photo opportunity for the clock located at the front of the room. Two large TV screens focused on the clock face, in anticipation of the event. Security guards ushered people away from the clock so that no one’s view would be obstructed. We got there early, and waited with bated breath for the show to begin. Right at 4:00 pm, silence fell over the room, and a small figurine emerged from a tiny window on the clock face. The figurine used a mallet to tap the bell four times, and the window promptly slammed shut. The end. I was stunned for nearly one full minute, since all my intellectual capacities were functioning at 1000 percent to make sense of the large build-up and the seconds-long anti-climactic show. The room had literally been filled with hundreds of people and the museum is known for this. Marius and I burst into uncontrollable laughter, definitely embarrassing Rohit. We finally peeled ourselves from our seats and continued our exploration of the museum. Unfortunately, the first room we chose to enter was the king’s personal clock collection, so I basically resigned myself to laughter-induced paralysis for the rest of our time.
In the evening, we went in search of a rooftop terrace and a cold beer, only to have our hopes crushed by learning that the government issued a “dry day” for Holi, starting at 6 pm. Holi is the colorful festival to celebrate a joyous beginning to spring where people throw handfuls of colored dye powders at each other. In Indian custom, the central government declares most major holidays “dry days”, meaning that alcohol cannot be sold until after the festival has finished. Imagine if the U.S. government called the Fourth of July a dry day. For the first time, I was completely convinced that I’d be willing to pay a bribe to have a drink. Thankfully, we didn’t have to bend to this temptation, since we happened upon one bar who was willing to sell us drinks until 9:30 pm, so long as we sat far from the open windows. They claimed to be “the only place in Hyderabad” that was selling alcohol that night, since the manager had a close relationship with the police. Somehow I doubt they were truly “the only place.” Rohit’s college friends joined us, and we drove to the old part of the city to have another overwhelmingly large helping of biriyani. While everyone in the car was succumbing to a food-induced coma, I thankfully was watching the road and was able to alert everyone of the presence of a real live camel walking down the street. Either because I woke them all up suddenly with my squeals of delight, or because my camel excitement from the day was perhaps overstated, no one believed me. So, we made a u-turn and went in search of the camel at 1 in the morning. The camel was found, and we headed to our hotel.
Our next day of adventure began with breakfast at our hotel which was interrupted every couple minutes by old aunties with little plates of Holi dyes or by screams from the children on the street who were chasing each other. We each got a small, tasteful Holi adornment before heading out to meet Rohit for yet another biriyani lunch. From there, we went to Charminar, the center of the old city and a masjid (mosque) build at the height of Hyderabadi monarchy. The most interesting part of this masjid is that a Hindu temple is constructed right beside the temple, even sharing part of the wall. Security is massively high at the masjid, with multiple truckloads of soldiers sitting in the circle below. We went up in the towers, avoided selfies, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the streets filled with colorful silks and sparkling jewelry. For dinner, we again had biriyani, but this time we were invited to Rohit’s aunt’s house where she made the actual best biriyani (and one of the overall best Indian meals) that I’ve ever tasted. Rohit began the trip as a newly decided vegetarian, but within one minute of being in the presence of carnivores (aka, myself), he was unable to resist and spent the entire weekend consuming copious amounts of chicken and mutton.
On our last day in Hyderabad, we wandered around an old handicraft market and garden, before sitting down to our only veg meal of the weekend. Rohit took us to a place called Dialogue in the Dark, a restaurant chain started by a German professor who aims to give people the full sensory experience and empathetic imagination of what life is like for blind people. Nearly all the employees at the restaurant are blind, including the servers. We were taken into a dark hallway, instructed to put our hands on each other’s shoulders, and were lead into another dark room for our meal. I kept expecting my eyes to eventually adjust, but the darkness remained impervious. The benefit of going to an all-dark restaurant in India is that the norm is to eat with your hands, so we already had months of practice and didn’t have to navigate using utensils while blind. Our waiter kept emphasizing how heightened our other senses would be, so that we could determine what food we were eating without seeing. Unfortunately, I rarely know what food I’m eating when I’m in India even when I have the gift of sight, so I wasn’t able to tell much beyond “cauliflower” and “potato.” Overall, a great experience, especially since the experience is created by a company that specifically supports differently abled people in a country where those people are often the most invisible.
I returned to Chennai for a full day of meetings, but spent a few days recovering from an abdomen sore from laughter and biriyani. The moment our NGO interviews were finished in Chennai, my intern and I escaped back down the coast to Pondicherry, which is just as hot, but presents a slightly more appealing town and beach arrangement than Chennai. While trying and failing to gracefully devour fried fish and crab from a street vendor, my intern shared with me the most glorious medical tip that I’ve now accepted as fact: his family has always said that the best thing to clear up a cold or fix the cough that settles near your heart is to eat crab. So, I’ll be blissfully awaiting the next opportunity I have to catch a common cold and kick it with crab.
The time between blog posts and biriyani meals has been spent with full days of data collection. We’ve nearly completed data collection in four of the coastal communities near Pondicherry, and will be heading further south in Tamil Nadu in the coming weeks. The two communities we’ve spent the most time in since my last post are small neighbor communities. One is located near a dilapidated fort that draws many Tamilian tourists (mostly young couples seeking a romantic hideaway) in the evenings and on the weekends. In both communities, the treatment systems have been catastrophic failures. For the community by the fort, not only is their quality of life significantly diminished by constant sewer overflows and unceasing smells, they also must bear the shame of telling the tourists they cannot use the toilets in the community because they are always blocked. In both communities, the story that the government and implementing organizations tell stands in stark contrast to the community’s experience. The government and NGOs present crisp tales of well-executed planning, thorough surveys and awareness programs, and ongoing support. However, when we go to the communities, the caretakers report never receiving their promised salaries, and community members describe incomplete construction and contractors who sought only self-serving profit. Regardless of the story, the reality is that the communities previously had individual septic tanks that caused little problem for the households but were convinced (honestly, forced) by the government to accept a centralized community treatment system and have only experienced horrible discomfort, health problems, and ongoing blockages and overflows ever since. The really difficult outcome of this story is that I have little hope that any future sanitation intervention in these communities can be successful because they are so resistant to allowing anything that can disrupt their lives to the extent that the treatment systems already have.
My favorite photovoice interviews are always the ones where the individual took the initiative to not only document her problems and perspective, but the plight of the rest of her community members as well. This woman went to all of the houses in the community and would go behind back and take pictures of their leaking septic tanks, even if they weren’t home. For the houses she couldn’t access, she snapped blurry pictures through holes in the palm branch fences. This also was my hardest interview yet. Four women sat around me and told me how they are slaves in their own homes because they have no job opportunities and are thus entirely dependent on and controlled by their husbands’ income. The women in the community have no voice and value without their own job opportunities and are stuck at home doing housework. I think this interview might haunt me for a while.
Yesterday when we were waiting for the bus on the main road, we stood at the fringes of India’s own version of a grassroots protest. In this coastal part of Tamil Nadu, small communities have been organizing for months to protest the killings of Tamil fishermen that have happened steadily for the past ten years at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, with no acknowledgement or protection from India. They had posters that displayed the grotesque bodies of fishermen who had been shot by the Sri Lankan coast guard, and men wore small squares of black fabric pinned to their chests in observance of the deaths of two of their own fishermen two days before. One man had a faulty megaphone and lead chants, while the rest blocked the roads and lit a couple of tires on fire. The protest was still peaceful; after making traffic wait for a few minutes, the protestors would part and wave a small stream of busses and motorbikes through before resuming their stand.
I celebrated the end of two long weeks of data collection by rewarding myself with a day of scuba diving off the coast of Pondicherry. I went with Temple Adventures (highly recommend based on the staff and equipment, seeing that they don’t have much control over the dives and conditions) and dove with a Romanian and an American. The rest of the people going on adventures that weekend were brave Indians who took the Discover Scuba Diving course, a controlled intro to scuba diving, and it was hilarious to watch large packs of them fold each other into wetsuits for the first time and take selfies. The most exciting part of the day was when I successfully survived more than three hours on a boat on quite choppy water without vomiting everywhere (which is my usual go-to when I’m on a boat or out scuba diving; just ask my sister). The sea life in this area isn’t spectacular: it’s clear that a lot of the coral reefs and fish have been really negatively affected by the over-fishing and the motor boats that frequent the harbors as well as the somewhat unregulated pollution of coastal waters. The second dive served as a measure of ocean pollution, as we were attacked by jelly fish and sea mites, and saw a couple of motorbikes and a small bus sunken to the bottom of the ocean and now covered in barnacles. Sea mite rash and a wetsuit sunburn are going to be fun things to explain to the old aunties who invasively poke at me and wonder how I’m still surviving.