Monday, December 27, 2010

Merry Christmas, Hyderabad Style...

Amy Suzanne and I were thinking about getting out of town and heading down to Kerala for the holidays.  We decided to stay "AT HOME IN HYDERABAD" instead.  I think it was one of the best decisions of the year!!  Hyderabad really does feel like home now...well, mainly because it is!!  Being far away from our Pasadena home feels a little funny...maybe a little sad...but we talked to friends and family both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on our Magic Jack

I wouldn't say that we were getting "homesick" - - but it certainly has been a different kind of Christmas.  For the record...Amy says that Christmas in Hyderabad is "kind of cheesy".  That's not really a bad's just that there are not enough people here that really GET Christmas. The population is mostly Hindu and Muslim....with a scattering of Christians of different denominations.  But - there's not nearly the amount of hoopla and decorations in the stores and around town as in the States.  The "Five Star" local hotels put up some nice trees and decorations....and we did a nice brunch for Christmas Day with the Deloitte "Strays".  There are a lot of ex-pats who are "out of station" (Deloitte term for "out of the office having fun"!) - in South Africa, Thailand, the U.S. - - even Beirut, Lebanon!  Those of us who stayed in Hyderabad are now planning a New Year's Eve party out at our landlords' farmhouse out by Gandipet Lake.  Should be a blast!!

I actually broke my long-standing rule about driving a car in India earlier this week!!  Here is that can probably file this under "you had to be there" - but we think it was pretty funny.  It all started when we gave Krishna the morning off to help a friend get to work on his first day on the job....

We woke up early and were both hungry. the interest of keeping this blog perfectly honest, I woke up and was pretty fussy.  I actually woke Amy up (no big surprise, there!).  As usual, she was a really good sport!  I was pretty bored and really wanted to get out of the house.  I was so bored that I was ready to risk my life and take an auto-rickshaw (see above in case you don't know what one of these death-trap contraptions is all about!) over to Jubilee Hills and Beyond Coffee.

In a moment of probable insanity, Amy suggested that we take the Skoda.  Now...this wasn't completely an off-the-wall comment.  Just the day before, Amy had gotten in the car and driven us around the corner and down to Stone Valley apartments.  Not a very far drive, but - when we came upon a little traffic, she pulled over to the RIGHT!!  Typical American reaction, of course...but - totally wrong for India!!!

I liked the idea!!  I immediately ran downstairs and grabbed the extra car-key from the "secret" hiding drawer under the statue of Ganesha that Neeraj gave Suzanne for her birthday...and we headed out front to the car.  Now...again to be perfectly honest...when she went to open the gate....I tried to get in the car on the riders' side!!  This still happens to me after over six months!!

With the gate open, I started the car...which caused Jyothi, (our Caretaker Krishna's wife, who was sweeping the upstairs outdoor patio when we were about to leave) to look down in time to see Suzanne wave up at her and say goodbye! 

In less than a split-second, Jyothi was on the mobile phone calling Krishna.  Of course, the conversation was in Telugu, but Krishna told us later that it went something like this:

Jyothi: "Krishna!!  Where are you??"
Krishna: "I am on my way home on the motorcycle.  Why??"
Jyothi: "Sir and Madame are moving the car!!"
Krishna: "Oh my God!!  What??"
Jyothi: "Yes...they drove down the street!!  You have to stop them!!" we went.  It's a very strange feeling with the steering-wheel on the "wrong side" of the car...and with the gear-shift to your left.  I negotiated the quarter-mile or so of Road Number 3 until my first left-hand turn.  Again...left-hand turns are akin to our "right-hand turns" at home in the States.  It's "safe", relatively speaking, but you still have to be aware of oncoming traffic...and the fact that there is an open-air fruit-and-vegetable stand right around the corner.  There are two-wheelers and three-wheelers and other cars going both ways on a very narrow road!  Thank God it was early in the morning and there was very little traffic.

I made another left-hand turn onto the main-drag (Road Number 2) - doing the same thing I have seen Krishna do a hundred times.  The method:  You barely slow just pull out.  People in other vehicles are supposed to watch out for you!!  As long as you are even centimeters in front of them with your front-bumper.... YOU have the right-of-way!!

"Very good job, Sweetie!" said Amy, patting my left-leg in approval.  We were now fully "out in traffic"....driving toward KBR Park and then to Road Number 36. need to know that there are different ways of marking road hazards here in Hyderabad.  Sometimes, it's as simple as a few stones placed in front of the hazard...sometimes it's tree-branches.  If the work (on a pot-hole or sewer-pipe) lasts for more than a few days...the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) will put up a sign.  There are no warning cones or flares...just a sign over the "hole".  This has been the case for some work going on in Banjara Hills for a few weeks now.  I have passed this particular sign with Krishna driving dozens of times!!

I saw the sign as I approached it.  Amy said: "Do you see it?" ...I said "Yep..."

As I slammed the riders-side mirror right into the rusty metal frame of the sign!!  BAM!!!

I was watching my front-bumper...but not the left mirror!! 

"Didn't you see that sign??"  Amy asked, in horror!

"Yeah, I did.  All the way until I hit it!"

My mobile phone rang in my pocket.  "Oh, man.  I know that it's gotta be Krishna calling!!"  I pulled the buzzing Nokia out of my pocket and handed it to Amy... "Don't tell Krishna about me hitting the sign!"

"Hi, Krishna.  Yeah.  We're fine.  No problem!!  We took the car.  We're going to Beyond Coffee.  Don't worry!  No...we are fine.  O.K.  O.K...."


"Uh oh.  He's coming to Beyond Coffee to get us!"

And that's exactly what he did.  Rode his motorbike all the way over and waited for us to come out.  He left the bike there and drove us home.  He had Sangamesh, our security man, take him to get it back later that night!!

When we saw him...he was shaking his head.

"Sorry, Krishna.  Sorry, "Dad"... we're sorry we stole the car!!"

Here endeth my driving career in India!!

Our Christmas was wonderful...the best way to show you how wonderful it was is to show you the photos from Christmas Day.  Here is a link to my Facebook Photo Album which I uploaded earlier today.

There is much more blogging for me to do.  I still have not written about our trips to New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Amritsar and Bangalore!!

In the meantime...Amy Suzanne and I (and Beloved, too!) wish all of you a Merry Christmas and the happiest and healthiest 2011 possible!!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Our Official Six Month Report from India...

On some days, it honestly feels like I've lived in India my entire life (this is usually the case when I am stuck behind some overturned auto-rickshaw... or even a large herd of goats in Hyderabad, Delhi or Bombay traffic!!)  On other days, when I see something so new and so different from the norm that it takes my breath feels like we just arrived - FROM ANOTHER PLANET!!  The truth of the matter is....we have now been here for six whole months!! As unbelievable as it sounds: 25% of the time we "signed-up for" is now in the rear-view mirror!!  Personally, I told Amy Suzanne that if she wanted to re-apply for a third year, I'm with her 100%. 

Jokingly (but maybe not all THAT jokingly!) - I told her that if she wanted to stay for TEN years, I'd be O.K. with that!!

Say what???  What on earth would make a Southern California born-and-bred boy like me make such a bold pronouncement??  LIVE in India for the next TEN years?  Somebody quick!!  Call Dr. Will Caplan!!  Has Scott "Cheeseburger" (yes, dear reader...there are many more people that call me "Cheese" than call me "Father" !!) Kingsbury lost his bloody mind at last??  No "Goose Creek Golf Club"?  No "38-Degrees" or "Lucky Baldwin's"??  No Servite High football games???  No "Highland Tinkers Triathlon", no "Huck Finn Bluegrass Festival"??  No Sigma Chi Alumni meetings?  No horses for Amy???  No St. Mary of the Angels????  Maybe someone needs to stage an intervention....or, better yet - an intervention along with an air-lift!! 

As Samuel L. Jackson said so famously in "Pulp Fiction": "Well...allow me to retort."

I love India.  We love India!  There is nothing over-stated in the well-worn advertising jingle: "Incredible India!!"

Now, before I launch into my "Ten Points" defending my position on the proposition of a possible "Ten Years" - let me quickly admit that there are indeed some strange things that happen here on a daily basis - things that take a certain getting used-to....some are not so pleasant, some are  just-plain weird!

Here are just a few:

1) It is still very strange to have to close the elevator door(s) by hand before it will go up or down.  Usually a "see through metal collapsing door" - plus another one that keeps you from pulling an Isaac M. Jordan (only fellow Sigma Chis will get that one!)  Also...they are not "elevators" at all...we call them "lifts" here.  Not all lifts are this way...the nicer hotels have regular doors that actually close.

2) Traffic being held up by wandering water buffalo, cows or goats....all within 100-yards of the Deloitte Buildings in HiTec City!

3) A serious lack of understanding of the American/Western idea of having "personal space" in any situation.  For the most part, there is no such concept in Indian culture, and it can get a little annoying (and claustrophobic) sometimes.

4) Another "traffic" comment: Plain and simple... I will never get used to it...period.  And I most-likely will never drive in any of it as long as I am in India (although, our caretaker, Krishna, let me fire-up his Hero Honda motorcycle just yesterday...please...nobody tell Amy Suzanne!!)

5) People being late for appointments.  "I.S.T." is supposed to mean "Indian Standard Time".  Here you quickly begin to understand the concept of "Indian Stretchable Time".

6)  "Getting stared-at".  And I don't mean the occasional head-turning, over-the-shoulder "glance", either.  I mean the full-on stare!!  A problem that is much worse for Amy Suzanne than it is for me, because she's a woman... with very pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes.  Even though Hyderabad is a mostly cosmopolitan city, you need to remember that here in Andhra Pradesh... many men, women (and most-of-all, children) - especially if they're in-town from one of the many surrounding villages), have never seen foreigners....and they just stare at us like they've seen somebody from the moon!!  We have even come up with a joke between ourselves....when people stare or eve stop to take photos of us, we introduce ourselves to them by saying, "Hi, how're you doing?  We're from the Moon, what part of the galaxy are you from??"  In an upcoming addition for my Facebook Page Photo Albums, you will see a bunch of photos taken in Amritsar where we were literally surrounded by over twenty school-kids with their cameras...all snapping pics and wanting to pose with us!!  Amy said "This must be what Paris Hilton has to deal with every day!"  I've lost count of the number of times that Amy has had mothers bring their toddlers up to get a closer-look.  That part is actually quite sweet, especially when they put out their hand (at "mom's" insistence!) to shake!

7) Did I mention the traffic?

8) Painfully slow greens at Boulder Hills Golf Course.  I can guarantee that when Amy and I come home for a visit in May of next year, I will blow my first putt on American greens 40-feet past the hole!!

9) The concept of "decent beer" is totally lost here.  Come on, people!  It's called "India Pale Ale" for a reason!!  Ask for one at a bar here and you will see a look on your bartenders' face that looks like you just ordered dylithium-crystals for your warp-drive.  When "Carlsberg" or "Heineken" become your favorite beers, it's time to get on the next plane home to head to The Blue Palms in Hollywood for a pint of Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA!

10) Last but not least:  There is no decent traditional Catholic liturgy to be found in Hyderabad.  For my Catholic friends - let me warn you that I now firmly and truly believe that one of the levels of Dante's Inferno must include a non-stop Indian Novus Ordo Mass!!  The man who wrote "Why Catholics Can't Sing" needs to write an addendum chapter, specifically on the modern Indian "Liturgy".  It's almost painful to see/hear.

So....we've been here for six months and that's about all I can think of for the "negative column"??  That's not too bad, I have to say!!

Now....let me list the GOOD THINGS!!  I will try to limit these comments to the "top ten" - (don't worry - a four-part blog re: our vacation to the "Golden Triangle" is "in the works"... I know, I know...I have some serious blogging to catch up on...but I'll give this one "excuse":  I got off the airplane from Delhi and almost literally went right into the dentist's chair for two-and-a-half hours of root-canal surgery - - then - yesterday - I went back and got fitted for a temp and a permanent crown (that process is disgusting!!!)  It was a crazy time right after the best vacation ever!!


1) Reconnecting with my wife!!  This one stands as #1 for a good reason....without Amy Suzanne and Deloitte, none of this would be possible.  I think that we have a good marriage (by all accounts! Twelve years now, and going strong) and we still love each other very much.  But there's something about being alone together, 8700-miles from our home, family and friends.... and on the complete opposite side of the globe... to bring a married couple together.  It's funny....we've heard that there are two different of things that can happen to expatriate married couples when they leave to take-on an international assignment.  They can either succumb to the "pressure" and grow apart...or they can take the entire process as a challenge, one-day-at-a-time, and grow closer together, forming an even tighter bond.  We've definitely been blessed.  It's been the latter situation for both us from the moment we began the process to come to Hyderabad.  This does not mean there have not been pressures and stresses unique to the situation we find ourselves in - but I have to believe that we have weathered the storm well!!  Oh...well, also....Beloved the Lhasa Apso makes it all worthwhile...she's always the best part of every day!!

2) The Indian People.  A country is only as good as its people.  And, while every country has its share of @$$#@!&$ - a wide majority of the Indian people we have met could not be more gracious and kind.  Now, we can hardly deny that being expatriate Americans has certain advantages.  No doubt, we are truly catered-to and - many times, treated like royalty.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming - but - I must say, overall - it's pretty easy to get used to!  Amy said once - "When we go back home, get yourself prepared to be just one of the common crowd again!"  As an unfortunate side-note (I always said that this blog would be the unaltered, unvarnished truth!) - while we certainly feel special and spoiled because of the way most Indians treat us - sometimes it's painfully obvious that often they treat each other like $#!+ !!!  Now, one learns pretty quickly that there are certain class differences that come out in day-to-day dealings with each other - - the caste-system is by no means dead and buried.  But...I did not come here to change India - I was told before I left by a fellow Priest to "let India change you!"  I hope and pray that our experiences and observations here will make us better persons by the time we return home, whenever that may be!!

3) Our House.  And, allow me to add - our wonderful landlords!!  On the night (make that "early morning") when we arrived, our landlords, Hari and Sumeeta, were here in the house waiting for us with a warm greeting...and - more importantly...a cold beer for me!!  It was so hot ... and so bloody humid when we got here...I actually wondered if I was going to be able to survive living here!!  I've probably sweat 100-gallons since we arrived...but the weather now (it's officially "Winter" in was actually "brisk" up in Amritsar last week when we were there!) is quite is actually one of the nicest days since we got here...not quite 80-degrees F. and blue skies from here to Pakistan!  If you have not had the pleasure to "see" our house - here is a link to the Facebook Photo Album - "Our House in Hyderabad".  This house is beyond cool.  It's probably nicer than our Pasadena home...and it certainly has more amenities.  We have a full-sized projection movie theater in our "basement" - a semi-indoor pool right outside of our Master Bathroom, more bedrooms than we need (please save your frequent-flyer miles and come and visit us!!)  Great satellite TV service (no Golf Channel and no American Football - - but we were able to watch the NBA Finals and the World Series - albeit at 5:00 in the morning!!!) and high-speed Internet as well.  A fellow ex-pat brought us back a Magic Jack so we can make unlimited phone calls home.  We have a local Pasadena phone number - if you want the number - leave a message in the comments section of this blog along with your e-mail address - and we will sent it to you.  It has voice-mail as well.  Anyway...we love this house and it make living here just that much more wonderful!!  Thank you, Hari and Sumeeta!!

4) The FOOD.  It's almost unbelievable how good it is!!  Before we came to India, Amy and I got take-out (here it's called "take-away" - you get used to differing terminology!) from a well-known Tandoori eatery in Pasadena.  I think we spent almost $70.00 on dinner that night.  For goodness sake, you could feed a bloody ARMY with excellent Indian cuisine here for $70.00 - - that's over 3,200 rupees!!  Hyderabad is such a boom-town right seems like a new restaurant opens every week or so.  The variety of cuisine here is better than home, I swear.  Anything you desire can be found here...we have a few favorites...but - you could eat at a new place every week for a year and never hit the same restaurant twice!!  Tonight it's probably N Grill and tomorrow maybe it will be Little Italy.  Such great choices!!

5) Radha Krishna Pamba.  Who is Radha Krishna?  Well, besides being named after probably the most famous lovers that ever graced the planet... Krishna is our driver.  That title does not come close to describing who Krishna is and what he does for us.  He is certainly our driver.  And a most competent one at that!  He is also our servant (his description, not ours!), Man Friday, house caretaker, Beloved the Lhasa Apso's babysitter, first-rate fix-it man, laundry-guy, light-bulb changer, shopper and name it - Krishna can get it done.  I honestly cannot speak highly-enough about the man.  Krishna is decent, kind, honest, funny, sweet and a hard, hard worker.  We are paying for an English instructor to come to the house every day for lessons...and his English skills are improving daily (thank you, Kevin Potter, for getting the ball rolling with him during the two wonderful years you got to spend with Krishna - - your advice to us is well-taken - we intend to enjoy the blessings of having this man, his wife and two lovely children, living under the same roof as us...  Radha Krishna is (obviously, from the name) a Hindu.  Based on his actions daily, I'd also say he acts like the most "Christian" man that I know!!  And that includes some noteable Bishops I know!  He truly understands the Gospel admonition to be each others' servants... "For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." St. Mark 10:45.

6) Yoga.  What???  Father Cheeseburger does "yoga" ??  Yep.  And Amy does, too.  It seems so long ago...but - when we first started...I could do none of it!!  Our yoga instructor (yet another thing we would never do at home - - we are definitely living a lifestyle that we could NEVER afford in Southern California!!) gave me a book: "Yoga for Women Over Fifty" !!  I could barely do the poses (called asanas...) from a kneeling position...  Now I crank out the Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) with the best of 'em - but - one knee is still a little dodgy - the beauty of yoga is that nobody judges your's not a competition!!  I am doing stuff that I never dreamed possible.  I even made sure to stay current with my yoga while we were on our recent vacation!!  Even I find that hard to believe!!!  One evening, when Suzanne and I were side-by-side on our yoga mats, finishing a particularly tough pose on our stomachs - she turns to me, sweating from the hairline like Bridal Veil Falls - and says to me, breathless: "What has happened to our lives??"  Only good things, Sweetie...and the best is yet to come!!

7) "Beyond Coffee".  Beyond Coffee is our local hang-out.  One or both of us goes in there probably 4-5 times a week.  It's airy, comfortable, has a variety of art exhibits going on, has terrific coffee (I guess you can figure out that it's a coffee house by the name!!) and really, really good food!!  The salads are fresh, the sandwiches are incredible - - we had them cater our Diwali party...and we'll have them do our New Year's Eve party as well!!   The owners are our friends Vivek and Art - Art is an ex-pat husband (like me!) of a woman who works at Deloitte with Suzanne...they are usually always there for some good times and conversation.  I bouught a new guitar here in Madhapur...and - just about every Thursday I go into B.C. to play (I'm still pretty bad!) - - sometimes we have a few other guitars and voices... and our friend Dan, who works for the U.S. Consulate, he brings his banjo for a little Bluegrass "pickin' session".  Beyond Coffee has really become one of the high-points of living here in Hyderabad!!

8) Boulder Hills Country Club.  O.K. - so it's not Augusta National.  It's not even Goose Creek or Oak Quarry.  But it's our club!  Again....file this under "things we could never afford to do back in the U.S."!!  I'm not sure exactly what we paid for a one-year golf membership at Boulder Hills - but I'm pretty sure the monthly bar-tab requirement at Lakeside or Riviera CC would cost more than our whole package!!  The course is in pretty good shape, overall - the fairways can be a little thin at times, but for the most part, the ball sits up nicely on most of the holes....the greens can be painfully slow at times...and - the inconsistency of the cut is the biggest problem - - it will drive you batty!! It's a tricky course.  I came here as an 11.9 handicap index - - now - at BHCC - I'm a legitimate 18!!  Yeah, yeah....I know - my golfing buddies in the U.S. would (and have!) said that they will not recognize "third world handicaps" - - but I challenge any of them to come to Hyderabad and play this course for a month - - and see if it doesn't add 5-6 strokes to their handicaps!!  The course is sneaky-tough and tight.  Not too can actually be as long as you want it to be...from the tips it's about 7,200 yards!!  And - - if your ball goes off the fairway.... leave it there!!  There are definitely cobras and vipers in the rocks and scrub-brush - - and - even the mongooses (mongeese??) that live on the front-nine can't control all of them!!  Losing 3-4 balls per round is common...I know some people who have lost a dozen or more during an 18-hole match!!  Breaking 90 for me is a real treat!!  My best score is an 85 from the white tees...I've had an 86 from the "gold" tee-boxes...and - my last two rounds were 89's.  I'm still trying to figure the place out!!

9) KBR Park.  Living in Pasadena, we always had many hiking and walking options.  The hills near JPL, Eaton Canyon...and of course, the venerable Griffith Park and Mt. Hollywood trail.  In Hyderabad, we have Kasu Brahmananda Reddy National Park - sometimes described as a jungle amidst the concrete jungle.  KBR Park covers an area of 156.30 hectares. The park established in 1994 to safeguard the biodiversity and richness of the area, is named after late Kasu Brahmananda Reddy, the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. This picturesque park is unique in its own way. It houses the stately Chiran palace of the former Nizam of Hyderabad and also the other historic structures.

It is meant to safeguard the greenbelt and the existing variety of flora and fauna. It is expected to prevent pollution, replenish fresh oxygen and recharge ground water. It is also envisaged to be the centre stage for spreading environmental awareness among the citizens. Regular nature camps are conducted for school children and a full-fledged environment education centre is in the planning stages.

There is a well-marked (and extremely busy - - my God - you should see the place in the mornings and after work!!!!) trail that circles the inside of the park....exactly 4 km. around (I've done three laps once...that's 12K and plenty of walking for one day!!) - - mostly flat with a couple of hills - - but the real beauty is the plant life!!  The flora is typically representative of southern tropical deciduous forests and the last vestige representative of the indigenous flora of Hyderabad region. According to a website: "...the park has nearly 600 species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, grasses, besides several pteridophytes, bryophytes and xerophytes."  I just say "it's really green and pretty"!!

It is also a home to nearby 113 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles, 15 species of butterflies, 20 species of mammals and numerous invertebrates. It serves as an urban refuge for Jungle Cats, Palm Civets, Wild Boars, Hares, Mongooses, Monitor Lizards, Pythons, Cobras and other snakes. There are uncountable peacocks!!  No large mammals are present in the national park. At least none that I have seen!  Yet!!
And finally....

10)  The Lifestyle Change.  For me, this yatra to India has been a real second chance.  The change in diet, the daily walks, five-times-a-week yoga, working out at Latitudes gym...all of these have been a blessing beyond belief!!  Since we arrived here...I have managed to lose 31 kilograms.  For the metrically challenged (that includes me, by the way!!) - that's 68 pounds in six months!  I still have a ways to go - - I'd like to lose another 25 kgs and get down to 200 pounds (for the first time since 9th grade!!!) - and leave India in the best shape of my life.  It's been hard work, no doubt....this is something that I cannot forget.  I need to focus and keep it up.  I am through with "dieting" - - for me - this must be a lifestyle change.  Both my mom and dad (and - if I remember correctly, my paternal grandfather) died at the age of 66.  That's simply not long enough.  God did not bring me this far along the path to drop dead so young!  I love my life, I love my wife....those are some pretty good reasons to stick around!! 

There are many other things that could have made the list...the road trip with Krishna to Srisailam - (click for my Facebook Photo album of this epic trip!!) - the travel opportunities, writing this blog, our last vacation (see this blog soon for the three-part tale of that trip!!), keeping up with my friends on Facebook, finding St. Mary's Church in Secunderabad, Indian weddings, Hindu temples, the Ganesha Festival (more fun photos there!), the road trip to Warangal - just the day-to-day living in such an amazing place!! 

Here's to the hope that the next year-and-a-half (at least!!) is as wonderful as this first six months!!!