Near three P.M. Friday afternoon I found myself in the office of Theodore James, the laboratory technician at the Communicable Diseases Hospital, pleading with him to share some information I needed to make changes to grant documents and other forms. In typical fashion I was told that I would get the information the next day, my entire purpose for arriving at the hospital early that morning was to attend a meeting that never happened, so I was a bit frustrated. But within an hour and a half I’d be meeting up with Nick to go on our weekend trip to Hyderabad. Mr. James had visited there a short while ago and the conversation drifted from work to travel as we discussed where to pick up the best Hyderabadi Biryani, a mix of basmati rice and spices often served with some type of meat, a famous dish in the city. With the name of his recommendation tucked away I said goodbye, and heaved my bulging backpack, stuffed with everything I’d need for the weekend, over my shoulder and began the walk off the hospital grounds to a good place to catch an auto. A short while later I had arrived at the station a good thirty minutes ahead of time. Because of the early meeting I hadn’t taken the time to eat breakfast and decided to poke around Chennai Central for some things to eat. Seating was hard to come by as waves of people moved throughout the station and I decided to get something that wouldn’t take much time to eat (Chennai Central station has an enormous amount of selection to choose from and I was told by Mr. James it would be better to eat here and perhaps pack something with me than to eat the food sold on the train itself [which seems to be sold by people hopping on and off at each station and not operated by the railways itself, at least in the lowest class seating which I would be utilizing]). A nearby vendor was offering samosa which I hadn’t eaten since my guest house was relocated. I waded through the people toward the counter and placed an order for two samosa and a chai. I handed the owner a ripped hundred rupee bill to which he responded ‘what is this’ in an annoyed tone (I had quite a bit of fun trying to pass off this bill over the weekend, each attempt unsuccessful and causing some outburst from the recipient). The only other bill I had was a 500 rupee note and the owner laughed at me when I tried to cash it for an eight rupee purchase (it can sometimes be hard to get change and all the small bills I have go to autorickshaw drivers). I instead shifted about the station looking for something else to eat where my 500 rupees could be of use. I found a restaurant stall called Hot Breads, a chain store in India serving pastries and sandwiches, and purchased two chicken rolls and a bottle of water as a meal for the train. Some of the change from this purchase went toward buying the treat I craved earlier and I passed the twenty minutes waiting for Nick by sipping on my scalding chai and eating simple, unhealthy, golden fried samosa. The heat of the waiting area in the station was starting to get to me and once the train arrived I made my way there without Nick. I found the sleeper class cabin (sleeper class is the lowest class cabin, aside from sitting room only, and features 3-tiered beds, a fan, and nothing else at all [even the curtain and tiny pillow, which I foolishly didn’t consider a luxury from the AC class three, were absent]). This had the makings of a long trip, but Nick arrived quickly and we made some small talk as the train prepared to depart.
We set off from the station a few minutes behind schedule, and it seemed that the entire train was full. Nick and I were seated on the side compartment and took advantage of the window despite the grime covering the sill. Neither of us had invested much time in planning activities for the weekend, with the exception of several meetings on Monday, and our thoughts shifted from the scenery to our accompanying travel guide. The guide suggested that it was best to book ahead because rooms fill up fast in Hyderabad over the weekend, and I looked through the bargain hotels listed in the guide. ‘Hey, this one says it has clean towels,’ I remarked to Nick and a short phone conversation later we had a reservation for 700 rupees a night (although the gentleman never took any information, perhaps belying the guidebook’s statement of booking ahead.) The train ride began very peacefully. Some time was spent snapping some photos as best we could through the windows of our car. Intermittent showers cooled the dawn’s temperature and the sun quickly set behind villages, fields, and forest between stations. As the dim of evening made taking any more photos impossible I decided to unpack my dinner and start to settle in. Sleeper class is remarkably different from the other tiers I have traveled in not only due to the absence of any sort of superfluous luxury but also because the cabins are constantly frequented by sellers. Each would announce themselves as they entered the car, often in hoarse tones that revealed they had been at this too long. They stated what they were selling ranging from tea, varied food, cold drinks, DVDs or beggars singing a doleful melody or otherwise declaring themselves. This wasn’t such a bad thing while not attempting to rest, but when you are woken up at 4:30 A.M. because someone wants to sell cigarettes it is easy to be unhappy with the circumstances. That night I had a poor rest. Each time I managed to fall asleep some noise or odd person sitting on my bed would rattle me to alertness and when we arrived in Hyderabad early in the morning both Nick and I were quite groggy.
Nick and I woke up to crowds of people exiting the train, and I asked a fellow leaving the car if this was Hyderabad. He affirmed this and we quickly gathered our things and headed to the station entrance. After trying to get a fare from the hordes of rickshaw drivers at the station and getting only outrageous fares one of them told us that it was a very far distance to our location. Incredulous, I showed the driver our map and said it was less than a kilometer to Garden St. The driver informed us we were in Secunderabad, a nearby station named after Hyderabad’s twin city (now for the most part the two are referred to as a single entity.) The two of us raced back to the train hoping that we hadn’t missed it. We arrived barely on time, and moments later the train was moving again to the correct station. After departing the train we had to contend with a gauntlet of autorickshaws and beggars flanking all exits to the station. After declining a ride for nearly the fiftieth time we took out our guide book to get directions for the walk to our hotel. To our surprise it was right across the street, and it was amazing that we missed the yellow and black sign nearly perfectly opposite the station’s exit. A surprise phone call from one of my contacts with SHARE, a non-profit organization focusing on international collaboration, improving affordability, quality of care, and competency for healthcare professionals in India, alerted me to a meeting at 10:30 in the morning, and despite being very groggy I arrived to meet with Dr. Ganesh. Dr. Ganesh runs a organization spearheading many HIV/AIDS interventions in Andra Pradesh as well as operating an advanced reference lab servicing several nearby hospitals. I briefly introduced myself and the project which he was already familiar with thanks to Dr. Dworkin’s contact. Hopefully a future extension of this study will be possible in Hyderabad, but for now I have to focus on actually getting the first step done.
After struggling to get someone to take me back to the station, Nick and I were off to our first two stops Charminar and the Mecca Masjid, two important Islamic landmarks in the city, erected by the ruling Shahs after relocating to what is now Hyderabad from Golconda due to water shortages. Both buildings are large granite structures the first of which was built shortly after relocation and the second 20 some odd years later. That’s all I really have to say about either of these sites because I wasn’t allowed inside due to wearing shorts (also I had a backpack which isn’t allowed for terrorism concerns.) However, Nick and I agreed to come back the following day, and we shuffled through the pages of our guide to decide on a new site to visit. The Chowmahalla Palace was close by so it seemed like a good enough choice. Chowmahalla means ‘Four Palaces’ and it was the seat of the Nizam (rulers of Hyderabad from 1719 until forced into joining the Indian Union). The palace was completed near 1880 and the grounds are still splendid despite being constructed roughly 130 years ago. However, many of the smaller rooms not on tour seem to have been left in disrepair. When we first entered the complex Nick and I thought it would be a quick walk through, but the palace covered an enormous distance. We visited display after display varying from rooms dedicated to displaying armaments to the Nizam’s car collection.
Our next stop would be Hussain Nagar Lake. The lake is man made and was designed to meet the drinking and sanitation needs of the population after relocation from Golconda. However, we were there to see a 19m Buddha statue situated on a small island in the middle of the lake. After eating at a spot recommended to us by another student we set off on a small boat for the statue. Around the base of the statue were reliefs in the granite depicting the four stages of Siddhartha’s life, and ringing the base in the shape of a lotus leaf is a shallow pond. After taking a few photos our group was hurried off the island so that other tourists could feel closer to enlightenment (the statue was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2006 making it official and not just another 19 meter monolith.) The weather near the lake was beautiful, and after spending the day making the rounds at various landmarks Nick and I spent the remainder of the evening enjoying some of the less famous spots ringing Hussain Nagar.