Monday, November 8, 2010

Greetings from Hyderabad!

 I have made it to India and I am loving it. The group and I spent the last week in Mumbai (Bombay) and just moved into our home in Hyderabad a few days ago. Warning: Before you embark on this blog post, I have got a lot to cover so I apologize now for the long-windedness.

First on Mumbai, or as I have been calling it, “Nap Tour Mumbai.” We arrived in the city, after a sleepless five hour flight, at 4am and after a short break, toured the city. We saw the famous Victoria train station (this is where Jamal and Latika meet again in Slumdog Millionaire), a Jain temple, the Hanging Gardens, and Gandhi’s house. Somehow I managed (along with most other members of my group) to fall asleep in everyone of these places along with every car ride that lasted more than 30 seconds. That afternoon we met with Goul, a businessman who is the head of the chamber of commerce for the Indo-Israel Federation. What he really does I am not sure, but the meeting itself was an interesting commentary on Indian culture. He was a very friendly man, brought his wife into the office, served us tea, and referred to us as “the children.” The whole meeting served as a networking tool for everyone involved.  Goul, my program director, and the tour guide spent a majority of the time talking each other up and exchanging names and phone numbers for future business. Goul was so hospitable and friendly that it almost felt insincere. I have been assured though that all hospitality comes from a very genuine place. I think the meeting showed that a lot of Indian business is done this way, with face-to-face connections being vital.

That night our tour guide, Ralphy, invited us to his Rotary Club’s Dewali celebration (the Hindu New Year and celebration of light). Ralphy and his wife Yael served as our guides for our time in Mumbai, they are Indian Jews and some of the most warm, generous people I have ever met. Ralphy owns a software company and both he and Yael run Jewish-themed tours of Mumbai. He is a big guy with an even bigger laugh, and embodies the definition of a “people person.” He treated us as his family for the five days—inviting me to stay at his vacation home in the country, bringing the group to a family wedding (more on this in a bit), even entreating the Lifers with his personal drivers. 

Anways, back to Dewali. The party took place in a banquet hall packed with Rotary members dressed in traditional clothing to celebrate the holiday. We were escorted to our seats and after being presented on stage as guests of honor, we watched a dance/ fashion show that the women of the Rotary Club organized.  I then ate an inordinate amount of food (what was I supposed to do, there was a long wall lined with various vegetarian Indian dishes, in other words, my heaven) and tried to learn some dance moves from some of the women. We talked to one for awhile, who invited the whole group over for lunch later that week.

Day 2 Ralphy took us on a tour of the Jewish Community in Ali Bag, a smaller village an hour outside of Mumbai, reachable by boat. Nap Tour Mumbai continued, just about every one of us fell asleep. Although I am not so religious it was really interesting to see a small Jewish community in a place I would never have expected one. I’m a little cloudy on the story but apparently a boat of Jews ship wrecked and the seven remaining survivors founded the community there, which is currently around 20-30 people. We saw their synagogue and were once again treated like celebrities—the president of the synagogue came to greet us, along with the secretary and his entire family. They brought us this cream-soda-like beverage to drink, made in a Jewish-owned factory (later we walked past the “factory” which was more like a small plaster building resembling a house more so than my notion of a factory). Back to city that afternoon and Nap Tour Mumbai quickly resumed. We went to Friday night services with Ralphy and Yael at an Iraqi-Indian synagogue. It was a beautiful building with bright blue paint and white trim. The services were conducted all in Hebrew with Ralphy’s son leading the prayers as opposed to a rabbi. The girls were forced to sit on the balcony above the ground floor so I admittedly spent a good part of the short service chatting. That night some fellow Lifers and I shared one of those meter high pitchers at the famous Leopold’s Café, which is known for its mention in the book Shantaram as well as the fact that it was a target for the bombings in 2008.

We had Saturday off, toured Sunday morning, and then went to a Jewish Indian wedding Sunday night. The only way I can describe it is absolutely insane. The ceremony itself was very casual, you couldn’t hear anything and people were walking in and out of the synagogue to get tea and snacks outside. The party on the other hand, felt like how I can only imagine the Oscars feel.  The entrance itself was a long runway, lit with different purples and pinks, with purple carpeting below and billowy tents above.  The room was this huge outdoor area packed with tables in the center and surrounded by food along the perimeter (including a falafel AND ice cream stand). There was endless food and drinks (although it was established early on at the bar the we were drinking a lot faster than our Indian counterparts) and music. We heard a lot of American country music in the beginning, which felt a little funny, but is definitely considered a status thing. The more western you appear in terms of culture and language, the wealthier you are. By the end we were dancing wedding-crashers-style with the bride and groom.

Nurit and I enjoying our first Indian meal
Touring with Ralphy and Yael in Mumbai we were able to see a really authentic, unique slice of Indian life and culture. It was nice to gain insight into the lives of the middle/upper middle class living in the city as opposed to learning soley about the vast injustice and poverty, which admittedly, we did not learn enough about. As for first impressions of Mumbai, it is exactly like what people say about it: lots of people, lots of noise, lots of sound, lots of color all at once. The city is very beautiful in a kind of dilapidated way. The street our hostel was on, for example, was lined with old buildings marked by peeling paint and cracks, but still filled with an abundance of color and life. We stayed for the most part in a touristy part of the city called Colaba, so I don’t have a great understanding of the city as a whole, which people say you can only start getting used to after 2 months.

After touring a bit on Monday morning we hopped on an afternoon bus for our 14 hour journey to Hyderabad. The suggested mode of traveling is via plane or train but because of the Dewali holiday, tickets were sold out and so bus it was. Every person we told about the bus, both visitors and natives, were shocked and I now know why. First of all, there was no bathroom on board. I learned quickly to use the restroom during every break we got, and more often than not, that meant squatting behind a tree somewhere (sorry if that’s TMI). Second, the seats on board were allowed to recline so far that I had to sit diagonally on my chair so my knees weren’t pressing too hard into the one in front of me. Third, several Hindi movies with blaring speakers werepoised right over my head. The icing on the cake though was the driving. Not only are the roads not great to begin with but also our driver was absolutely bat crazy. We were darting in and out of traffic, swerving out of the way of cars only to get caught behind another just to haul on the breaks and horn at the same time. I am told this is somewhat typical. Falling in and out of sleep with the lights of incoming traffic flashing before me was, for lack of a better word, trippy.

But to stop being a negative-nancy, time on the bus passed more quickly than I thought. We arrived in Hyderabad before I knew it when Venkatt, out country director, literally had to board the bus to tell us to get off. We were taken to our home in an area of the city called Begamput, thus beginning the portion of the program I like to call “Real World Hyderabad.” Our house is awesome- it is the second floor of a four story building owned by a family of doctors called the Bakshis.  The parents live on the top floor and their children (along with their families) live on the floors below. We have three bedrooms for the seven of us, each with an attached bathroom. The den, living room, and dining room are all very spacious and were pre-furnished with couches and a dining room set. We spent our first night in the house ordering in and celebrating Nurit’s birthday with cake and present. For the first time since we’ve been together on this trip it truly felt like family.

My bedroom that share with Abby

Phil hanging out in the living room

Anyways, I think my hand is starting to cramp now so more on Hyderabad to come!

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