Our arrival in Hyderabad involved another epic cycle across a huge city, the traffic, the noise and the heat combine to make urban cycling considerably uncomfortable – the suffocating fumes from bad engines fueled with even worse fuel must be what its like closing your garage door and sticking an exhaust pipe into the window. Apparently Barak Obama ‘lost’ six hours of his life by spending two days in Delhi – a city with one of the highest levels of particulates in the air, we dread to think of the damage cycling in India is doing to our bodies, especially crossing cities during rush hour! Hyderabad is yet another city with a population that dwarfs that of Ireland (about 8 million) all squeezed into an area much smaller than the Isle of Wight. The roads into it are terrible, from at least 30km away the scrum of vehicles is just mind boggling and words are not capable of describing the simultaneous feelings of excitement, fear, anger, vulnerability, shock and humor created while trying to cycle through it all.
Hyderabad is an interesting place with a rich history, but again its size makes it prohibitive to explore – the constant heavy traffic and long distances mean to see anything you have to spend a long time in a taxi or rickshaw. It is now one of the major centres for outsourcing work, pharmaceuticals and software design are major employers so it is relatively wealthy by Indian standards.
The main highlight of Hyderabad was our first and only warm showers host in India, Tom Holloway. We arrived at his apartment in time for breakfast and he welcomed us in with specially acquired baked beans with real Cornish cheddar cheese… the luxury, can you imagine – real Heinz baked beans and proper cheese, Sam was in heaven! Tom has lived on and off in Hyderabad for the last 15 years and has his fingers in many pies, we quickly learned that he was a fascinating person that has lived many lives and was extremely welcoming and interesting to spend time with. His flat was an oasis of calm, order and familiarity, we quickly settled in and realised that it was impossible to resist or turn down Toms offers to stay longer than the one night we had originally planned.
Tom acts as a mentor to a number of local children, specifically the children of servants and workers who clean, cook and launder the people who live in his apartment block. These jobs are done by people of low caste whose children have limited, if any, education prospects. To have any chance of obtaining employment with any kind of future opportunities English and the use of a computer are vital skills, unfortunately the vast majority of low level education available to scheduled castes would not include either. Furthermore, daughters of low cast members are even more unlikely to receive even a basic education, as sons are favoured with more effort put into their education. Females are more likely to not receive any education, or are the first to be withdrawn if economic difficulties are faced by the family. Tom has deliberately targeted the daughters of these low caste members and taught them English and considerable computer skills such as web design.
We could already see the huge impact he has had on peoples lives, two of the girls he first mentored came to visit and both now work for big companies with good well paid jobs. Although we said he house was a calm oasis, this was all relative to what was going on outside, every evening knocks on Tom’s door would signal the arrival of noisy children who used the six computers he had set up in a room and could come and have at least one decent meal per day.
Tom also acts as a patron for a school in Hyderabad, he was particularly keen for us to visit to meet both the students and the staff who work there. The school is in a precarious position as it occupies the building in an abandoned complex that used to house workers of large pharmaceutical complex dating back to the 1950s. The area known as the IDPL ‘colony’ was a purpose built housing area complete with a school, shops, post office and cinema that when in use, must have been a nice area. When the pharmaceutical factories moved to a new location, the workers went with it and the IDPL colony was abandoned. The current school was established by former pupils and is run by a combination of volunteers and charity, although they were paying rent to use the building, it seems this was being taken into some ones back pocket and now its future seems slightly uncertain with various officials demanding large payments or eviction (even though the site is abandoned and has no use). The school is unique as it focuses again on children from the scheduled castes – children from families with minimal status in India’s class system. Tom spends part of his time securing money to help keep the school run (which was much bigger than we thought it would be!), helped establish a well set up computer room, organized online cultural exchanges with other schools and runs additional clubs such as the astronomy club. Our arrival was disruptive at best, riot inducing is probably a more accurate description especially when a glimpse of our camera was seen. We performed a small talk with the staff while they were on their lunch break and were warmly welcomed and were asked lots of questions – why, what happens if we are ill, why, is it ever dangerous, why, why and why. It is a shame that we didn’t take our bikes along, we could have pitched the tent in the school yard and shown everyone what it was like to get into it, showed our bikes and generally made it much more hands on.
We had a train booked from Hyderabad to Agra in the north, we had become sick of cycling in India and we had run out of time, we could have pushed ourselves to do it but even the most basic sanity/benefit analysis suggested it really wasn’t worth our while. I was only given a three month visa and we had to reach Nepal before it ran out. India is firm about not allowing visa extensions and overstaying even by a few hours leads down the wormhole into the darkest corners of Indian bureaucracy. If we made the border and were late then the likely process would have been a journey to Delhi (approximately the distance from London to Edinburgh) to the Foreigner Registration Office where you would have to explain yourself and await your sentence – a fine, prison, nothing, and extension – who knows. Leaving Hyderabad was quite tough, we had to leave Tom’s apartment at 04.30 in order to get our bikes to the station in time to be shifted as freight. Of course being so big this involved a 14km cycle ride through the early morning dark to the station, complete with rickshaw hassle the other strange night urchins that hang around such a place.
From Hyderabad we took a 23 hour train journey to Agra in the north. To keep our costs down we travelled in ‘sleeper class’, the lowest class that offers you a bed (hard bench) to sleep on. The carriage has about fifty beds in a triple bunk type configuration and is the primary way that Indians travel. Thankfully one change from last time I was in India is that they only allow one person per bunk, but it is still always completely full with some beds being home to a whole family with extended relatives. There are only metal bars covering the windows and two toilets, its hot, noisy, smelly and dirty but as mentioned cheap. The experience is interesting but whether it is a good or bad interesting depends on the type of people you have around you… Sheena hates feet (really hates them), unfortunately for her the old family on the bunk opposite her thought nothing wrong with having their bare feet resting on her bed practically in her face. You should have seen the toenails these guys had….
In case you haven’t seem them, these are the photos we took while visiting Tom’s school.