Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hyderabad Nights

This past weekend, due to inadvertant flight mishaps, we spent much of the weekend in Hyderabad. On Friday night I organized a night out to a local pub called Escape that is known to host the Cricket World Cup on big-screen. An email chain, drivers, and and a rampage stop at the local Nike store for last-minute India team gear later, we arrived en masse at Escape in time to watch the boys in blue take to the pitch.

With an embarrassing loss to Bangladesh behind them, and up against Sri Lanka, it was a must-win situation in intro play. To advance to the Super-Eights, they had to defeat the Lankans. Wearing an Indian flag wrist band, armed with Kingfisher and dutch courage, and sporting the Indian jersey, we excitedly began our night of cricket. India was bowling first. Having held the Lankan team to around 180 runs after 42 overs, a reversion to pace bowlers coupled with aggressive batsmen left the target at a solid, but doable, 255. Having conceded more runs in the final 8 overs than in early powerplays, the last of the bowling was dubious, but didn't set the stage for impossible.

While the pub closed after the first inning, at the end of Indian bowling, we returned home to a couch and cokes for a bit of into-the-night cricketing that left us missing our SpiceJet flight to Jaipur (read post below). After a bit of duck hunting by the Lankan bowlers, Malinga and company, Sachin and other Indian stars had fallen. Indian dreams of an '83 repeat died with each wicket, and the swan song for Sachin was a duck, or getting bowled for a wicket after having scored no runs, a pitiful parallel to Zidane's football World Cup exit, albeit sans tete.

Well, and so you have the Indian World Cup story, as told from the frontlines of a Hyderabad pub. Saturday night was an local expat melange that ended with paparazzi and the girls making the 'Hyderabad Times' above the fold. Us lads weren't so lucky as to make the newspaper, but lucky enough to share the table.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Despise Spice

This morning we made our way to Hyderabad's domestic airport at 5:30AM. After a night out watching India's unfortunate Cricket World Cup loss to Sri Lanka, we were running a bit late, and asked our driver to speed a bit. Asking one to speed in the States means adventure; in India it's nearly asking for an accident. At 100 kph, we sped over curving roads, darting through red lights with a flicker of brights and a smatter of honks, braking only slightly to allow careening buses to rage past us. At 5:45 AM we arrived at the airport. With no bags to check, a guarantee from Spice authorities on the phone, and tickets in hand, we were sure we'd make the 6:10AM flight. Flights are notoriously late, lines are short, and without bags, we could, and literally were expecting, to do this in our sleep.

When we arrived at Hyderabad airport, we were met with the staunchest intransigence I've ever faced. Not only were SpiceJet employees unhelpful, their strict interpretation of rules and policy became entirely unreasonable. While we attempted to reason with them for minutes, as our flight time approached even nearer, we grew impatient with their meek rationale for why their 'closed system' would not issue us a boarding pass. The SpiceJet employees, a quibbling, mumbling cadre of red-clad, brain-dead automatons who were hired only for their desired ability to mindlessly repeat policy tag-lines, were perhaps most frustrating to encounter at 5:45AM. When reason fails to make an impression, braun may prove equally ineffective, but far more enjoyable a method to vent frustration. At one point I shredded a paper, widened my eyes, slammed my hand down on the counter yelling through the still falling confetti of SpiceJet paraphanelia at a camel-eyed supervisor who stared back with indifference.

After forcibly missing our flight, exiting the airport in a frustrated 6AM huff, our only consolation was that SpiceJet would offer us a ticket on the next available flight, tomorrow morning, same time, same place, same automatons. So tomorrow we embark on a 10-hour stint to Jaipur. Faced with sunk cost, the allure of a day in Rajasthan only slightly outweighs the unenjoyment I've come to expect from SpiceJet that's sure to again be our morning rooster.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paradise Found

Paradise exists in a cluster of coral atolls a few hundred miles west of Sri Lanka. In the equatorial archipelago of the Maldives, marine life abounds just off the white sand beaches and palm fringed coast line of nearly 2000 islands.

My direct flight from Bangalore on Indian Airways landed me in the capital city of Malé, a densely populated muslim city housing around 300,000 sardine-packed into small alleyways and streets. The fifth ward, not New Orleans but Malé, is actually a separate island accessible only by ferry across the turquoise water.

According to the Economist, Malé is the most densely populated city on the planet, and is riddled with poverty, squalor, and saddness. What I found in the capital city was quite the contrary. Friendly, relaxed individuals ambled through streets that, by comparison with India, seemed empty, clean, and tranquil. Those with whom we spoke had a calm ease, and did not seem worried by over-population or global warming. Our travel agent spoke about 'consulting the Google God for answers,' the latest NBA scores, where Madonna stays when she frequents the Maldives, and why he admires Steve Jobs for creating beautiful machines. Abbu, introduced himself in jest as 'having the same name as the monkey in Aladdin,' a '90s Disney movie.

The people we met in Malé were traditional in dress, relaxed in spirit, and cosmopolitan in view. They had exposure to composite culture through their resort status, and seemed to make the most of such adoption in an admirable global perspective. Abbu works in a travel agency, but owns two power macs, an ipod, does web-consulting, and is building his own home. He frequents coffee shops alongside the coastal football pitches in the evenings, measures distance in the number of cigarettes it takes, and explained that an island taxi operates on a flat rate. Abbu was not exactly what I expected from the Economist article, but he's demonstrative of another side to Malé in the Maldives.

Outside Malé, we stayed at a resort called Lohifushi, now renamed Hudhuran Fushi. About 40 minutes North of Malé by speed boat, aside Club Med and Four Seasons islands, the all-inclusive resort is stunning. Turquoise and blue water laps at white sand on all sides, and palms nestle with thatch-roofed beach bungalos. The island hosts beautiful house reef and thousands of butterfly, sun, and parrot fish. Snorkeling, we saw two black-tip reef sharks about 3-feet in length, with fins and shape to make you think twice about following them around. On two scuba dives, we dove to 12m off an open-ocean coral shelf, and were able to see inside a small cave.

We also endeavored on a surfing expedition to Sultans and Honkeys, a beautiful point break hosting both a left and right, just outside Lohifushi. We surfed the 4-6 footers, bantered with a group of local sea-plane pilots, and confronted one of our ship-mates on her surfing ability only to find out she was the European Champion. After getting caught inside, battling through the chop to re-board the dhoni, I gnawed on a bit of coconut and enjoyed the placid waters that are truly host to paradise. With salty skin, board upright aside, coconut milk on my hands, I gazed into the green and watched a large Moray Eel slithered its way through a glittering rainbow of fish just below the surface.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


My second trip to Karnataka was on the famed 1 Rupee Spice Jet flight from Hyderabad to Bangalore. This was my first trip to the capital to the south of Andhra Pradesh, and I was pretty stoked to arrive in the IT hub about which I'd heard and read so much. I was impressed with Bangalore. While the IT mecca is undoubtedly still India, and Indian in its frenetic energy, traffic, polution, smells, character, and feel, its tree-lined streets with large banks and corporate giants were perhaps even reminiscent of the Bay Area, California.

I spent my Wednesday stint in Bangalore with two friends with whom I'd traveled to Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttaranchal a month or so back. We had a wonderful evening near Bangalore's MG Road (Mahatma Ghandi Roads are in every city in India). Flanked by international chains such as Lacoste and TGI Fridays, we ate atop a building at a lounge called the 13th Floor. With Australian cricket on the tele, a cold Kingfisher in hand, and a vista over the skyscape of Bangalore and its Ministry building, we could have been anywhere. It was a glamorous setting fit for New York or any cosmopolitan setting, with the prices a good bit lower than our vista.

After riding motorcycles into the night, slowing only gradually to cross major intersections, I was struck as we pulled into the parking lot of an HSBC. Nine months ago I stood at the base of the HSBC tower in Hong Kong. Tonight I was sitting on the back of a speeding bike through the balmy Bangalore night, pulling out midnight Indian Rupees at a local HSBC, en route to surf in the Maldives. Life is fast, and the opportunities afforded are both fleeting and enriching, and those simple moments of contrast, reflection, and appreciation really bring to life the exceptional.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Ode to Frankies

First off, this blog post is long overdue. Never did I imagine that I would wait so long to recount the delicious wonders of Indian street frankies, the delectable 32 rupee morsals bought at steaming Tibb's Frankie stand in Begumpet, Hyderabad near the Lifestyle Building... ah yes, these are the days. Frankies are not of the Ballpark. They are not squeezed from a tube, nor are they endorsed by Michael Jordan. A veritable Indian taquito, the Tibb's Frankie adds an egg, chicken tikka and onions in a sub-continental slam dunk to what I've otherwise found south of the border.

In California we have a place called In-and-Out, a place where a 4x4 is more than a truck, and more of a dream. It is a venue for which mere thought inspires salivation and longing, a place where cows and potatos meet their maker, or at least their eater, and a cleanly joint where a dreary day can turn, at times, even magical.

Tibb's Frankies is this, and so much more, because in its greatness are layered the surprise and wonder borne from the fact that such a tastey, joyous thing can be created out of so dubious a location. From the sullied parking lot of the Lifestyle building, from the dreary street corner aside perpetual construction, a small glowing red sign beckons one to stop, to question, to order, and to taste greatness in all its Mumbai, franchised glory. An unlikely turn landed us at the sign that was to be our siren song, and though we have tried to blind our eyes to its ebullient glow, to wax our ears and to bind our hands like Odysseus to the mast, it is of no use... we eat Frankies at least twice a week.

I know not what Frankies will do to me, but what I will do for Frankies...

Friday, March 9, 2007

ISB Balling & Liquid

While we're still missing out on the Indian 'national sport,' hockey, by Wikipedia's definition, we have played a bit of local basketball pick-up at the Indian School of Business (ISB). ISB is an enclave of slience and peace in the midst of an otherwise hectic but vibrant Hyderabad. It's, to my knowledge, a one-year MBA program that's expensive and taught by American faculty from Wharton and Kellog. This week we took to ISB, and introduced the Iverson cross-over to the sub-continent. After about three hours of pick-up basketball on a slippery concrete floor, we left the manicured lawns of ISB's idyllic setting.

Although the week was incredibly hecitc, with conference calls at 7AM and 1AM on the same day, Champions League games to watch, dinners to attend, trips to plan, etc, we made due. Tonight we topped it off to a trip out to dinner at Fusion 9, and a night at the club with Liquid. Convinced that we'd seen Tollywood stars, we ordered a hookah and kicked back for the evening, looking out over a glassy skyline filled with half-constructed edifices and cranes. Actually, the term Tollywood star is a bit of an oxymoron, so we sat ponderously gazing into the reflective glass, slightly jaded at the fact that we'd been moved from our table to make room for those more C-list spenders than ourselves. While not the skyline of Barcelona or Istanbul, not the scene of Dancatoria or Leb-i-Derya, the atmosphere was a contrasting alternate-side to the faces we see on Hyderabadi streets daily. India continues to strike and enchant me as a nation of extremes.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Holi Hyderabad

After a momentus but hectic 10-day trip throughout Northern India and Nepal, we were in good need of rest this week, and so decided to remain in Hyderabad. It only eased the decision that our company cover band was playing at a pub on Friday evening, that we could play cricket on Saturday, and that I'd be able to fully recharge with some downtime and good old-fashioned reading about pirates, namely, 'Cup of Gold' by John Steinbeck. I'm usually a proponent of reading where you are, but after a tepid experience with Rushdie I figure the read where you're from logic with Steinbeck applies as well.

After a fitting at the tailor, we spent Friday evening raging away at a local hotel club. The band, which is comprised of our friends and coworkers, does ecclectic covers from the Cranberries to Metalica to Bon Jovi. The turn-out was great, and we closed the place down, staying out near to midnight!

On Saturday it was rise-and-shine, a 7am wake up and drive to the cricket grounds for our match. A 12-over match, we were up to bat first. I was happy, as I didn't get bowled for a duck, and I did eat a mean Frankie on the bench (veg or non-veg taquitos a la Indian). I was, however, bowled out on the second toss, but with one ball wide I'd scored a run (inadvertantly). After setting the target at nearly 170 runs, we took to the field. I managed to field a few balls without error, and would have had an ESPN highlight-reel catch if the short concrete wall had not jumped out to undercut me mid-stride. Luckily my complaint about no warning track and subsequent wipe-out was after I'd already bowled out my buddy Greg!

Sunday was officially 'Holi,' a strange but playful Hindu holiday that consists of 'throwing color' at other people. Colored flour and tastey chemical dies create a rainbow of colors at street-side stands and shops. A few rupees buys a whole array of fun to throw at your friend, and ruin his morning if he's bound for a five-star brunch. Well, we didn't 'play Holi,' but 'Holi played us.' We were attacked by a pack of hot-pink youth on our morning 5k run, and were again targeted by our own managers in the parking lot. Our ride to the Taj Krishna hotel, and lavish bruch thereafter, was tainted, literally in color, by the Holi flour that covered us from head to waste.

An afternoon clean-up, Bob Marley at our complex pool, and a dinner at the Mariott topped off a rather lavish day of hotel brunches and relaxation. All and all, it was what we needed post-trip, laying the groundwork for more inevitable adventures to come.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Ubiquitous Cafe

Cafe options in India are limited, but seem to be a growing trend. The cafe life in India is a different scene than the drop-in European style, or on-the-go American style. Indian cafes, Barista and Cafe Coffee Day, are more up-market eating establishments than local bohemian cafes. Whereas Italian cafes offer the receipt first, the espresso shot at the bar, the ever-hasty euro coin and 'Ciao,' Indian cafes are full-on couples affairs with attire and style. Whereas Parisien cafes are host to musing writers and artists, and Japanese Starbucks are a refuge from luxury consumerism for Omotesando youth, Indian Baristas seem more weekend date than the spontaneous caffine fix.

My few trips to Barista have been met with quick service, prompt attention by the various staffers, delicious cappuccinos and espresso, all for around a buck. The courtyard features subtle tunes and a gurgling fountain, valet parking, and a comprehensive menu with coffees from as far as the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. Compared with the ubiquitous Starbucks 4-dollar latte, the dapper style of Barista is proof of American mark-up. While labor is undoubtedly cheaper here, the fact that you can get an espresso from Kenya, Jamaica, or Indonesia for a mere 50 rupees is impressive. In the opposite extreme, the swank Bosphorous 'Gloria Jeans Cafes' in Istanbul tried to charge $7 for an insipid cup of joe. In two burgeoning economies with arguably cheap labor supply in both, it's interesting that a comparable Turkish joint can charge 700 percent more for the same cup of coffee. Although Gloria Jeans golden logo haunts the Bebek and Ortokoy districts of Istanbul, beautifully positioned on to overlook a continental spread, I think I'll stick to my Banjara Hills Barista for the time being.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Eklavya... A trip to Bollywood

Tonight we took a trip to Bollywood, though not your typical song-and-dance number. The movie is called Eklavya, and is a modern day rendition and extrapolation of an ancient fable from the Mahabarata, to the best of my knowledge, the Homeric work of Indian folklore (Maha=great).

Eklavya was a gifted archer of low-caste beginning who studied archery in only the presence of a clay image of Arjuna's great guru. Arjuna, the archer hero of the Mahabarata, feared that his preeminence in archery would soon be surpassed by the low-caste Eklavya, and asked his guru to remedy the situation. Drona, his guru, demanded Eklavya's right thumb as payment. When asked to recuse himself from a future in archery, in deference to duty, Eklavya obliged and had his thumb cut off to make way for the great Arjuna.

Although complicated, and in HINDI (thanks Ruksha for the translation!), the movie Eklavya overturns and makes amends to the ancient fable of duty. I found my first Bollywood experience to be wonderful. Driven by powerful images, vivid colors, emotive physiognomy and expressive eyes -- perhaps more impactful because I understand little Hindi -- my first trip to the theater, seeing the Big B (Amitabh Bachchan) on the big screen, was a cultural couple hours in great company.