Douwe Osinga's Blog: February 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting Around

One thing that is definitely harder to do in Hyderabad than in Zurich is getting around. It is not just the difference in size (Hyderabad has more than 15 times as many people), it is also the relatively underdeveloped road system and the chaotic traffic. Getting to the other side of town with somewhat bad traffic can easily take two hours. A 15 minute walk was Zurich usually the worst case scenario.

Then there is the choice of vehicle. Walking is tough. The distances are big, the air is bad and there are usually no sidewalks and little respect for pedestrians. Similar reasons rule out bicycling. There is of course the bus, thought I’ve never tried that. Obvious advantages are that they are dirt cheap and relatively safe.

Indian traffic is a complicated game similar to rock-paper-scissors and while pedestrian beats nothing, bus beats anything except cow. Nothing beats cow. But other than that, you get out of the way when a beaten-up bus zooms in on you, either to safe your new car or safe your life. The drawbacks are that the routes are rather unclear to relative strangers and that they are packed in a way that would make a sardine feel claustrophobic.

Then there is the car-with-driver. Comfortable and fast and knows where you want to go (even if you don’t – drivers know where the good restaurants and tourist attractions are). Drawbacks are the price (if you can’t get your company to chip in) and guilt. Having dinner while your driver waits outside until you are done and he can go home and also have dinner is not always easy on the western soul (though surprising small tips seem to make the situation for both parties rather acceptable).

This leaves the default choice for many: the auto-rickshaw or auto for short (which to me is confusing as auto is short for automobile in Dutch, i.e. means car). They are cheap, fast since they can easily move around things and usually know their way. The drawback is the meter or rather their utter reluctance to use them. If the traffic is heavy, they don’t want to use them because of the heavy traffic, if the traffic is light they don’t want to use them because they won’t get a ride back, if it is after 10PM or before 6AM they don’t want to use them since it is night and from the airport or railway station there is the argument of the parking.

If you look like me they always tell you it is 150 rupees no matter where you want to go (or indeed if they haven’t understood where you want to go). Hard bargaining can actually get you a price similar or even lower than what the meter would give, but then you end up arguing in the hot sun at a rate of a few cents a minute.

Last week we arrived at the airport and due to a miscommunication our driver didn’t show. We decided to take an auto. 290, they said. Fixed price by the government, look at the sign over there. There was a sign and a booth. I am guessing 90 is what the meter would show, so we walked on. Outside they went down to 190 and stuck there. I walked threatening in the direction of the road and they broke. One offered 150 and was immediately shouted at by his colleagues when another one offered to go by the meter. This was unheard off, so we jumped in.

When we were half way, the meter broke. It was a digital one and the lights just went off. So we were back to bargaining and we ended up paying 150 anyway. I am wondering whether this was a scheme: you tell the ignorant tourist you go by the meter, you unplug the meter half way and when you arrive at the destination you tell him, well, it would have been a 150. If so, smartness was rewarded.

Monday, February 4, 2008

15 minutes of fame. Daily

One of the weirdest thing of visiting tourist attractions of India must be the fact that people come up to you all the time to take your picture. Two guys pass buy and ask 'take picture' and you say 'sure', thinking they want you to take a picture with their camera of them with the attraction in the background. But no, what they want is two pictures with you and either friend. I've noticed the same thing in Pakistan but nowhere else.

Yesterday we went to Warangal, a city not too far from Hyderabad and a once capital of a mighty kingdom (which seems to be the case with most towns we visit here and that I hadn't heard of before) with an interesting fort and temple. Our driver also dropped us off at a fort that wasn't in the guidebook build on top of a weird rock and overlooking a nice lake. We walked around for a bit until we were spotted by a school class. It was like Beatlemania all over. Everybody wanted to shake my hand (and know my name & country)

The headmaster succeeded in calming the masses of 14 year old girls and boys and asked us to have a little speech about our countries, why we came to India and how much money we make. The usual things you want to know of people you just met. Tonja rose to the occasion quite nicely and I said also some words, keeping the number a secret though. After that there was more handshaking and boys coming up to me with banknotes and the request for me to sign them with the odd group of girls thrown in giggling at me that I looked very smart.

So what's this all about? I used to think that getting a picture of a Western person with an attraction on it could prove to the people back home that the attraction was really famous all over the planet, but our reception by this school class did go a little beyond that. I still don't understand it really, but now I am guessing that you don't really get to see that many Western people in India. Sure in Hyderabad you do see them occasionally (though they tend to be drowned out by the millions of Indians), but a lot of these Indian tourists (I am guessing) do come from smaller towns where a majority of Indians live.

Why it would be so attractive to take a picture of me still is a puzzle. In Africa if you visit a village where Western people never come, mothers hide their children, which given history seems only sensible. One Indian guy said that I looked like Brad Pitt. I really don't. Maybe this is 'oh they all look the same anyway' with a positive spin?