Hyderabad, City of Signs

In the tourist brochures Hyderabad is the “city of pearls,” justly renowned for its centuries-old traditions of fine jewelry.  In my not-so-touristy personal travel log, it’s the “city of signs.” Pretentious signs.  Ambivalent signs.  Misspelled signs.  Silly signs.  And many more.  Here’s a sampling from my travels around the city over the last few days.

Where to get a good (private) education: Genius College, Academic Heights, Brilliant School.  Or at the institution whose billboards show students flying in super-hero costumes--Success, the School.

Most desirable business addresses: Fantasy Square, Trendset Towers, Splendid Towers.

Best IT addresses: in northwest part of the city, especially in the districts of Hitec City, Hitex and Cyberbad.

Least attractive organizational names: All India Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Railway Employees Association, National Council for Cement and Building Materials.

Where to get married: at the Hyderabad International Convention Centre “for the biggest thematic weddings that reflect sheer grandeur.”  A vast convention floor and many rooms for you to display how much you’re spending on the three-day event.

Stretching the fashion metaphor: “Asymmetricals are back to even out the style quotient.”  The style quotient?  “A symphony of designer wear clothes for children.”

Messages for crazy drivers:  Hyderabad Traffic Police Welcomes You, Don’t Mix Drink & Drive, Speed Thrills but Kills, Don’t be Rash, Lest you Crash.  According to recent statistics, about 400 people a day are killed on road accidents in India, or about one every 3 ½ minutes.

Where to eat: Definitely the Sodacanopenerwallah restaurant.   

Desperately Seeking SIM Card

 “Where’s the nearest mall?” I asked the duty manager at the Taj Deccan hotel in Hyderabad. “I need to buy a SIM card.”
“Sir, the City Centre Mall is close by, but I deeply regret to inform you that you will not be able to buy a SIM card there.  You must go to the mobile provider shop.”
I didn’t bother asking about the marketing logic of restricting SIM card sales to specific outlets, presumably with limited opening hours.  This is my sixth visit to India since 2003 and I’m used to regulations and bureaucracy for which the rationale is often elusive.
“OK, please give me the addresses,” I said.  The travel assistant wrote down three.  “You could walk but in this heat, I’d advise taking a tuk-tuk [the three wheel motorized auto rickshaw that is common throughout India].”  I selected Airtel, whose address was listed as Road No. 12, Banjara Hills.  It seemed a bit imprecise, but I assumed the driver would know where to go.
The duty manager approached me again.  “Do you have a copy of your passport face page and visa, also a passport picture?” he asked.  “I really need all that?” I answered, but with almost rhetorical resignation.  “Yes, and you will need a letter from the hotel stating that this is your local address.  I’ll be pleased to write it.” 
After assembling all the paperwork, I set off in a tuk-tuk.  We turned off the main road onto Road No. 12, the driver dodging and weaving between the buses and trucks as we went up a hill.  After a few minutes, I remembered the travel assistant’s remark that I could have walked to the store if the weather had not been so hot.  I would not have walked this far, even if the temperature had been 20 degrees lower.  We were now moving out of the commercial area, passing a hospital, villas and the gardens of the Income Tax Department guest house (where I’d like to say that weekly rates are negotiable).
“I don’t think it’s this far,” I told the driver. 
“Where is it you want sir?  This is Road No. 12.”
“The Airtel mobile shop.”
“You can buy recharge at many places.”
“No, I need a SIM card, not a recharge.  Please turn around.”
Eventually we did, and then sat in a traffic jam for 15 minutes as we edged slowly towards the main road.  The Airtel store was near the junction and the detour had cost me almost 30 minutes.  I joined a line of customers.  The sales assistant carefully studied my passport and visa page copies.  I was half expecting him to ask for a certified copy, but he didn’t.  His only comment was on the passport picture, which was too large for the box allocated on the registration form.  “Feel free to cut it down,” I told him.
I asked when my SIM card would be activated.  “Sir, tomorrow is a holiday.  It will take three days.” He could sense my displeasure.  “But of course you can go to the Airtel head office and they can activate by this evening.”  I asked for the address.  It was, at least, reasonably precise: Splendid Towers, near Begumpet police station.
“Yes, sir, I know it well,” said my new tuk-tuk driver.  It turned out that he didn’t.  We stopped several times on our way across the city so that he could ask for directions, and once so he could buy a coconut milk.  But we got there eventually.  “I wait for you, sir?” he asked.  I said no.  I had no idea how long the transaction would take.
The application form for a SIM card is a page long with many boxes to complete.  The sales assistant said he could fill out most of the questions from the information on my passport and visa, but needed additional data.  “What is the name of your father?” he asked.  I wondered briefly about questioning the relevance of this item, considering that my father died 30 years ago, but thought better of it.  The assistant was just following instructions.  
“I also need the names, addresses and mobile numbers for two people in Hyderabad.”  I listed the numbers of two colleagues from the University of Hyderabad, but this time felt justified in asking why their mobile numbers were needed.  What if I didn’t know anyone in the city?
“So we can notify them by text when your SIM card is activated.”
“Why can’t you text me on my number?”
“No, sir, we are not allowed to do this.  Please inform them they will receive a text.”
I was about to ask how I was supposed to do this if I did not have a working mobile phone, but decided to just go with the flow.
“Now you must sign,” said the assistant.  I signed in three places on the application form, and also on the copies of the passport and visa.   
“I’d like to buy some time while I’m here,” I added.
“We cannot sell you time until your phone is activated,” the assistant replied.
He did not see the irony.  “You will go online to Airtel.  There you will find most attractive data packages,” he said.
Half an hour later, I was back at the hotel.  The expedition had taken more than two hours, and all I had to show for it was a 25 rupee (40 cent) SIM card with no credit.  I had spent almost 700 rupees ($10) on circuitous tuk-tuk rides, but at least collected a few travel notes along the way.
Airtel would not accept my credit card.  Over dinner, one of my university colleagues said he would add credit and I could pay him back.  I received a text later saying that 500 rupees had been added, followed by another text saying my credit was under 5 rupees and I could not make any calls or send texts.  I gave up and went to bed.  This morning, the credit had been activated.  I felt newly empowered.


Camel hitch?

How do you get around the city of Hyderabad in India when your SUV is missing a back wheel? In a city where a monorail system is under construction and you can book a tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) using Uber, more traditional forms of transportation are still available. This camel was hitched outside an apartment block in a low-income area just a few blocks from the major cross town elevated highway. Or maybe the camel was a sign of entrepreneurship. I’m told camel rides are popular at middle class children’s birthday parties. 

On the road in western Bangladesh

In Bangla, they call it a “van,” one of the many imported English words for which the Sanskrit-based language has no equivalent. Somewhere in the linguistic transfer, the word lost its original reference to a sturdy vehicle of transportation with a cab and enclosed cargo area, powered by an engine. It also lost a lot of RPM. The Bangladesh “van” is a tricycle with a seat for the driver and a short flat bed. It’s the low-cost and definitely low-emission utility transport found everywhere from country roads to crowded urban highways.  And you can carry almost anything on it—stacks of cattle fodder and sugar cane, sacks of rice and vegetables, a basket full of live chickens or a couple of goats, household furniture, metal pipes, firewood, bamboo scaffolding poles or your whole family. The “van” has no gears (and maybe no brakes) so it’s tough pedaling with a heavy load on the back. Fortunately, most of Bangladesh is as flat as a pancake so the main challenges are the potholes, speed bumps, and the trucks and buses that careen wildly across the road, pushing the van chalaks (drivers) onto the dirt berms.  There’s an upscale motorized version with a longer bed, where the driver perches above a motorcycle engine. These are used for transporting bricks, lumber and building materials.  You can fit two cows, a stack of tires and mattresses, or a couple of beds and tables on the motor-van.  Or a larger group of passengers. 

Any road trip in Bangladesh is a study in the social hierarchy of transportation. My first was a journey on the main north-south route in western Bangladesh, from the regional capital Khulna to Kushtia, a large city on the banks of the Pabna River, one of the last tributaries to flow into the Ganges before it meets the other great river of South Asia, the Brahmaputra, on its way to the Bay of Bengal. By road, it’s a tad under 100 miles, but the trip took us almost four hours.  And we were not on a van but in the air-conditioned comfort of an aristocrat of the road—a gleaming white UNICEF Toyota Land Cruiser.  The single-lane highway is straight most of the way, but it’s clogged with traffic—trucks, buses and auto rickshaws as well as the vans. Our driver who had done this trip many times expertly weaved in and out of the traffic, missing collisions by important inches. The right of way, such as it is, definitely belongs to the largest and heaviest vehicles. The buses, with passengers sitting on the roofs, relentlessly pushed ahead, their horns blaring and the driver’s assistant hanging out of the door, waving at slower and smaller vehicles to move aside. The brightly painted Tata and Leyland trucks joined the chorus of horns. With almost every vehicle using its horn, it’s difficult to figure out who’s getting in the way of who, but that’s the way they drive here. You have to wonder if the bus and truck drivers use a jumper wire to bypass the steering wheel so that the horn is permanently active. If you’re busy dodging and weaving and riding the bumps, you don’t want to add the tiresome task of actually having to push the horn. 

Many studies have shown that Bangladesh’s road system is totally inadequate for the traffic it carries, but shortage of funds and corruption have left many major highways, especially in rural regions, in a state of disrepair.  In monsoon season, roads and bridges are washed away, and traffic faces long detours. The Khulna-Kushtia highway takes a heavy pounding from overloaded trucks. I don’t know if there’s a law on the books about weight limits, but if there is it’s almost never enforced.  There are definitely no weigh stations on the Khulna-Kushtia road, and if there were, a few hundred taka ($1 = 80 taka) would likely ensure the right of passage. Trucks are piled high with bricks, building materials and agricultural produce, lashed down with ropes; often the tailgate is left down, so that the load hangs a foot or so off the back of the bed.  Because they are loaded so high, the center of gravity shifts upward, making the truck liable to keel over if the driver turns sharply to avoid oncoming traffic.  We saw a couple of trucks lying on their sides on the road bank and another jacked up with its cargo precariously leaning to the left. We saw no accidents but the statistics are horrible, with an average of 17 deaths a day on the country’s roads.

This highway is particularly crowded because at the city of Jessore, about midway between Khulna and Kushtia, it joins the east-west road from the border with India at Petrapol. Bangladesh imports coal, petroleum and other goods, including cars, from India, and exports textiles and agricultural goods. The coal, from the mines of Bihar and West Bengal, is off-loaded at rail junctions where laborers transfer it to railroad cars that transport it to power stations and manufacturing plants. Some goes to fire the large brick kilns that line the southern section of the highway from Jessore to Khulna. Khulna Division is still primarily an agricultural region where the rich alluvial soil deposited from the rivers provides good arable land.  With ample water supply, it’s a major rice-growing region with paddies stretching far into the distance; fruit, vegetables and peanuts are also grown. Its most important cash crop is shrimp, raised in fresh and saltwater ponds; along the road we saw blue nets stretched across the ponds and small fields of red—harvested shrimp drying in the sun.  

Every few miles, the agricultural landscape gives way to industry, with the tall chimneys of the brick kilns, cement plants and vast factories with rows and rows of workers’ bicycles parked outside. The small-scale industry consists of sawmills with stacks of logs on the roadside ready to be cut and planed by hand. The finished products—wooden beds, tables and chairs—are displayed outside.  Most of the lumber, I was told, comes from private plantations, but some is illegally logged in the Sundarbans, the delta area that has the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world (two thirds in Bangladesh, one third in India) and is home to deer, wild boar, otter, saltwater crocodiles, river dolphins and the last surviving Bengal tigers. Officially, it’s a protected area, but its vastness and lack of roads make it difficult to police.

Khulna, where we stayed overnight after a visit to the university, is an old river port and industrial city.  It used to be a center of the jute industry, but today shrimp is its major export. With a population of just over one million, it’s the third largest city in Bangladesh, but it’s a distant third; Dhaka has a population of 17.5 million and Chittagong, the major port on the Bay of Bengal, 4.5 million.  But it’s still a noisy bustling place, crowded with trucks, buses, auto rickshaws and cars, and the usual traffic congestion. I was happy that the windows at the City Inn closed tightly.      

From UNICEF’s perspective, there’s a lot to do in western Bangladesh.  Poverty rates are high, and many children suffer from poor nutrition. Overall, the country has improved its maternal and childhood mortality rates, but some districts in Khulna Division lag behind. Many children work in agriculture and small industry, so child labor is an issue. On the other hand, why would parents send their children to school when the quality of primary education is poor and the poorly-paid teachers sometimes don’t show up? The government’s failures to provide education, health and social services have created needs which are partly filled by development agencies and by the mosques which operate madrassas. As in other Muslim-majority regions, girls are often married off in their teens.  It’s a social norm that’s hard to break (although UNICEF is trying) but it’s also driven by economics; marrying your daughters early reduces dowry amounts and the number of mouths to feed.  I’ve been told there are also training camps in the region where young Muslim men are radicalized and then sent to Iraq or Syria. At the Islamic University of Kushtia, which has a large department of religious studies, I tried to tread carefully in my discussions with faculty members.  But I need not have worried—they were typical academics, contemptuous of all authority. I would have likely faced more hostility from the motorcycle gang we passed on the road near Jessore, waving red flags. The region, like its Indian neighbor West Bengal, is a stronghold of the Communist Party.  I thought they all looked rather revolutionary chic—sooooo Che Guevara—with their red bandanas embossed with the hammer and sickle.  But I was not about to stop and commend them on their sense of fashion.