Hyderabad: First Impressions I

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Mornings are the most surreal.  Honking cars fool my half-sleeping brain that I could very well still be in New York City.  But then other sounds enter into my slowly-waking realm of consciousness: children chattering in Telugu; a man singing at the top of his lungs—or is he selling something on the street?; the hammer of construction in an ever-growing city; a bird crowing nearby…Add to this a panoply of unidentifiable sounds—perhaps a drum and then the swoosh of an airplane overhead…Most closely, I hear a muffle of voices through my thin bedroom walls and kitchen commotion in my guesthouse.  I lay awake in bed for a good twenty minutes, taking it all in.  Hyderabad is home now…For the next ten months, anyway.  I consider taping the symphony of strange and exotic morning sounds, but for now my bed is too comfortable. 

A knock at the bedroom door finally gets me out of bed.  It’s Ramo with morning tea, served on a tray from a white ceramic teapot with gold trim.  Certainly not what I had in mind when arriving in India with the Acumen Fund!  But LifeSpring (the maternity hospital where I’ll be working this year) put me up in this guesthouse, and Ramo comes with the package.  Ramo is twenty years old and has been working at the guesthouse for six months.  He has three older sisters and grew up in Hyderabad.  Ramo is an amazing cook and is extremely friendly.  He is joined by Baji, who is also very friendly but knows fewer words in English.  Truth be told, though, I am extremely uncomfortable living with two men whose sole job appears to be making me feel comfortable and welcome.  I’ve invited them to join me at the table to eat, but it appears to make them extremely uncomfortable.  So instead, I sit and eat while Ramo stands next to the table and talks to me, while Baji irons nearby.  It’s really quite uncomfortable, although I do appreciate the hospitality that LifeSpring is giving me with the guesthouse.

A “guesthouse”, I’ve learned, is essentially a really nice apartment…and often comes with quirks-a-plenty.  For instance, there’s the fifty-bazillion switches for the one light, the bedroom patio filled with onions, the large blue refrigerator in the dining room, and the phone whose ringer plays (I kid you not!) “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes!”

The only other thing worth mentioning about my guesthouse is the bathroom.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the mothballs.  They’re EVERYWHERE—in the sink, in the shower drain…They’re meant to keep the cockroaches out, and for that I’m grateful—especially because a number of spiders have already made my bathroom their home.  Yet washing my face and brushing my teeth with the sharp distinct odor of mothballs certainly takes some getting used to.  The shower consists of a shower head on the side bathroom wall.  The lack of a shower curtain means that everything gets soaked each time I bathe.  No matter…there is HOT WATER!…although my excitement soon fades when I realize it only lasts about a minute, if that.  Oh well.  The plastic toilet flushes.  That is enough to satisfy me.

Upon leaving my guesthouse, I pass numerous friendly faces in my apartment complex.  Women in colorful saris, men in button-down shirts and khakis, and tons of children.  Everyone turns to look at me, but it’s not a rude sort-of stare.  Everyone smiles back when I smile at them (another clue that I’m no longer in New York!)  I realize that everyone has taken off their shoes when entering their apartment, while I’ve left mine on.  No one tells me to do anything differently, and I’m wondering how many cultural faux-pas I’ll unconsciously commit, with no one saying anything because I’m a Westerner.

On my first exploration of the city, two children walk past my building hand-in-hand – both barefoot with dirty clothes hanging off their skinny bodies.  It’s my first sign of stark economic contrasts, as I think back to Ramo and Baji in my appropriately-named “Vishnu Elite” building.  Indeed, while India is moving towards double-digit economic growth, 60-65% of the country still lives on under $4 a day.  This is the majority who Western newspapers miss when talking about Indian outsourcing and spectacular technology-driven growth.  Catherine had a similar experience during her first morning in Nairobi, and I realize all the Acumen Fellows will face these “parallel worlds” wherever we are, be it Hyderabad, Mumbai, Nairobi, Karachi, or Lahore.  Fifteen minutes down from me in Hyderabad, John faces an even starker contrast between his modern guesthouse and a large slum/tent city directly across the street.

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