After leaving Cuddapah at the end of our volunteer experience, we were very much looking forward to a break from the heat and a room with climate control. We found both at the office of FCN (Foundation for Children in Need) where we stayed in a spare bedroom kept just for visiting volunteers or donors. And let me tell you, having A/C again was absolutely heavenly. I didn’t want to leave the room for any reason, but Jen said we had to see a few sights while we were there. But first, let me tell you about our trip up to Hyderabad.
We had to take a day train which got us in to Hyderabad around midnight as that was the only option available. We bought a Domino’s pizza to take on the train with us. The American chain restaurant had just opened there so we splurged on the first western food in months. When we got on the train it was even more hectic than normal as there were about 20 people trying to squeeze into our little birth with seats for 9. It turns out they were an extended family traveling together and were all waiting for the patriarch to tell them where to go, and he soon sorted them out.
We had our pizza for lunch and were just going to have bananas and nuts for dinner, but when the grandmother serving everyone saw that we didn’t have food for dinner she insisted that we eat with them. We all had rice and a bit of curry eaten with our hands, which is how everyone eats in most of India. They were all very welcoming, just as everyone seems to be outside of the big cities. After some limited conversation due to the language barrier, I went to my bunk for a nap.
I was awakened from my slumber by a clapping of hands followed by someone shaking my leg. When I looked up, I saw what appeared to be a very manly woman staring intently at me with her hands out. I guessed that she was begging for money and shook my head no, but she persisted in gesturing at me and only left in a huff after I had refused her a few more times.
I looked down from my bunk and the Indian family along with Jen were all smiling at me like they were all in on some private joke. “Between man and woman”, the Indian grandmother said, smiling. Then it dawned on me that I had finally met one of the Indian eunuchs we had heard about a few times.
Eunuchs – castrated males – have been in existence since the 9th Century BC. The word derives from the Greek “keeper of the bed” because castrated men were in popular demand to guard royal harems. The practice is believed to have started in China where, at the end of the Ming dynasty, there were as many as 70,000 eunuchs in the grand palace. India is the only country where the tradition of eunuchs is prevalent today. There are about 1 million of them, though their role in life has changed drastically from that of royal servants, confidantes and friends.
Eunuchs, or hijras as they are called here, have become something to be feared. Nobody wants to be accosted by one of them – be nudged with their elbows, stroked on the cheek, taunted, cursed and flashed.
It’s by taking advantage of this discomfort and embarrassment at their existence, that hijras in 21st Century India are making their living. Begging isn’t their only source of income. It’s an age-old custom in the country to have hijras bless childbirths, weddings, housewarmings and other auspicious occasions. The eunuchs are believed to possess occult powers, and their blessings – and curses – are both considered potent.
I should have known what was happening when I heard the hand claps, twice in close succession, which the hijras use to announce their presence. Jennifer had told me about this practice in the past, but I didn’t put it all together until after the whole uncomfortable experience was over. Everyone had a good laugh at my discomfort, and I decided not to nap again after that.
We arrived in Hyderabad without further incident and were well taken care of by Tom and Geetha, the founders of FCN. They live in an apartment in the same building as the foundation and we had all our meals with them in their home. They couldn’t have been more hospitable and welcoming, and we really enjoyed spending time with them.
They knew by then that we were experienced travelers, so they let us travel around Hyderabad on our own rather than using their driver. Most families that have a car have a driver as well since the labor is so cheap and the experience of driving in India is truly terrifying. There are no rules. None. You really have to see it to believe it.
On our first day we took a local bus to visit the Charminar, Hyderabad’s famous monument. It was built over 400 years ago, but it seems that nobody is entirely sure why. The story we read at the monument was that it was “most likely” constructed to celebrate the elimination of the plague from the city. Some quick internet research on it suggests that it was constructed in the middle of the city after the Sultan moved his capital from Golkonda to Hyderabad in 1591. It takes a country with such an amazingly long and complex history to be able to have so many hugely impressive monuments that they don’t even know the details of all of them. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty impressive to view.
Taking the city bus was its own adventure. There are about a million of them since most people can’t afford cars, and they only stop at the “bus stop” for a few seconds before peeling off again. You have to run to where it stopped (as there is no real bus stop) and jump on before it takes off again. We didn’t know which bus to take so Jen asked a nice looking man who told us he would help us. After about 20 minutes he shouted “that one – the blue one – run! Run!” We made it onboard and even managed to miracle of scoring two seats after a while. We were even complimented by more than one local for having the courage to use such unpredictable transport.
On the second day we heard it was the Holi festival in India. Also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love, it celebrates the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated as a free-for-all festival of colors where people smear each other with brightly colored rice flour all over their hair and faces. We had a good time walking around the city shouting “Happy Holi!” to everyone and getting our faces colored in return. It was good fun until we were refused entry at the movie theater for being covered in the colorful dust, so we didn’t get to sit in the A/C we had been yearning for that hot day. Still, it was worth it for the experience.
The next day Tom and Geetha organized a visit to a local school that is supported by FCN. We thought we’d just be having a look around and getting a feel for the general operations of the place. We should have known better. When we got out of the car we found that the entire school was standing at attention waiting for our arrival. We were each given rose bouquets and led to the front where we sat facing the entire crowd. The school administrators and a number of different students proceeded to give speeches welcoming us and thanking us for our help and support.
That was followed by three separate dance routines by different groups of students. Indians love to dance and take any excuse to incorporate a dance routine into a special after our last experience volunteering. We’ve become quite the dignitaries these days. Why or for what, nobody quite seems to know, including ourselves. But everyone seems to think we are important so they treat us like royalty.
After that we were invited to lunch at the headmaster’s house with his family. Jennifer happened to enquire about the henna on one of the lady’s hands, and before we knew it they had summoned one of the students to come to the house to henna Jen’s hands. It took about an hour and was truly a work of art, I must say. After that we were happy to retreat back to our A/C room, away from all the attention.
Finally it was time to leave Hyderabad to make it up North for some much-anticipated trekking. We decided to fly as the domestic flights are pretty cheap and it saved us about 3 full days on the road if we had gone overland. When we got to the airport, oh how we were amazed. Everything was so clean! There was climate control! They took credit cards! We had forgotten how nice the first world can be sometimes. We were sad to leave it to get on the plane, but that was a pleasure too. A few hours in a comfortable seat beats the hell out of 3 days of filthy trains and buses. So, clean and refreshed, we arrived in Darjeeling.