Postcards From: A writer's journal and photographer's blog of just about anything that interests us.
Tuesday November 29, 2011
Our plane touches down in Hyderabad at 4:35am. The city glitters on the black Deccan plateau, a vast electrified lake I couldn’t see to the other side of as we sailed in for landing. Five main roads snake out from the centre of Hyderabad like the spokes on a wheel, but from the south where the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport sits, only the airport road and the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway are visible as we fly in. The countryside around is also ablaze with light in a thousand tiny pockets, some large, and some small. I have to assume there are roads that lead to each of them too, but as far as I can tell, there are no street lights to guide a night time traveler there.
After passing easily through customs, we collect our baggage and go in search of our drivers. They’re there at the exit, at least 50 of them crammed shoulder to shoulder behind the barrier, holding out hotel signs hopefully, with guest names written in large bold type. I spot my name: Miss Louise Notley Taj Krishna. There are about 8 other drivers there from the Taj, each eagerly searching for his own guest passenger, and my colleague Lori Anne and I smile at the excess … we could have gone together in one car, but she steps ahead of me to a short mustached man waving her name at her “See you there, I guess!”. I nod to my driver and his eyes acknowledge me as his dark brown face splits into a brilliant white smile. Then he rushes –literally runs — to meet me. “My name is Haneef, Mum. I’m being your driver.” We leave the terminal building and cross the street, where he settles me with my luggage, flashes his full-faced grin again, and says “Mum. Wait here is 3 minutes. Excuse me. My car is there.” He points to the parking garage with his white-gloved finger, and quickly runs off to retrieve it.
It is too dark still to see much on the drive, so I concentrate on the traffic, and learn a number of valuable things about driving in India. Cars drive on the left, as in England, and for the most part, drivers do tend to follow that rule, although most of the roads we drove along had concrete medians between the carriageways, so I was unable to test that theory in depth. As far as I can tell, this is just about the only rule that IS followed. One must be confident and extremely alert to drive in India, or have a death wish … I can’t decide which.
The main roads have the usual dotted white lines separating lanes of traffic, but it becomes clear to me that they serve some purely ornamental purpose, like silver threads woven through a length of dupion sari silk. Driving between the lines as we normally do in the western world appears to be strictly optional here. The horn is therefore, an absolute necessity if you would like to pass without getting sideswiped. Haneef demonstrates this very effectively and I shudder as we swing by another car with mere inches to spare. Lights are also optional, especially it seems, on large, heavily burdened, slow moving trucks and tiny three-wheeled tuk-tuks or auto rickshaws, groaning along under precariously packed sack loads of rice or potatoes, bags of cement, or people. This wouldn’t seem so dangerous, if there were posted speed limits, but there aren’t any as far as I can tell and posting one would seem silly given the ornamental status of the lane markings. So vehicles on the same carriageway could be inching along at 30 km/hour or sailing by at 100 km/hour. Nothing is predictable.
You would think that the pedestrians would be very cautious about the roads under these conditions, but they surprise me too. Even at this early hour, the streets are full of people. Groups waiting for buses on the street corners spill off the sidewalks and stand in the road, or sit casually on the curbs with their legs stretched out into traffic. Old men run across without warning, hopping between cars like jack rabbits, as the vehicles horn them and swerve left and right to pass them without bothering to slow down. It is chaos. And Haneef tells me this is nothing. The day hasn’t even started yet.
The road from the airport into town is actually a 12km raised bridge running over top of the city proper. Haneef turns and tells me with a cheerful smile “It’s a bridge … just for airport traffic. Roads like this in Hyderabad, very good!” as I bounce along in the back seat. “Outside city, very bad”. I bounce along in polite silence and wonder what the subtle differences might be. As we come to the end of the bridge, it slopes down to meet the roadway into downtown, and I hear the first sound of the city … my driver pressing the automatic door locks as we turn onto a crowded boulevard. The horns sound everywhere. But it’s still too dark to see much of what passes by my window. On one street corner, a woman sits on the curb wrapped in a dark sari, her knees pulled up to her chest, and her arm wrapped around a large burlap sack of something beside her. In the street, cars jockey for position with a cavalry of bicycle mounted delivery boys, their rear baskets loaded with the morning edition of The Times of India. Haneef navigates through them with expert skill, and “Excuse me Mum” points out the Karachi Bakery to my right – apparently very famous for its fruit biscuits — and the Five Taj on my left, before finally pulling a U-turn around the boulevard median and gracefully arriving at the hotel.
The Taj Krishna Hotel is a 5 star hotel of the old British Raj style. It sits up on a hill and is surrounded by a thick stone wall, and ornate wrought iron gates. As we approach the gate we are stopped by security, who greet me politely, open the trunk for inspection, and run a mirror around the perimeter of the underbody of the car. Looking for explosives. This is my first reminder that Hyderabad is considered a medium risk city, where violence is not uncommon, and where both political and religious interests can occasionally clash without warning. Our vehicle passes inspection and we are allowed through the gate. Haneef drives the car up over the black cobblestones to the front entrance where he gives me a map of the city and his business card, before saying good day and saluting me with another one of his engaging grins. Then the welcome staff take over. My bags are scanned through a magnetic imaging machine, and I am whisked off to room 716 where every one of my needs has been anticipated. Hello India, I’ve arrived.