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Heading home

Started: 2012-07-24 20:49:22

Submitted: 2012-07-24 23:13:16

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator sets foot on American soil after nine days in India

I spent my week in Hyderabad in an expensive business hotel, the Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, conveniently located around the corner from the office park where I went to work. By Indian standards, it was fantastically expensive; converted into US dollars, it almost seemed like a bargain. My room featured a glass wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom; it took me a couple of days to figure out the secret to the motorized privacy shade that would block the view if I were sharing the room. The best feature was a lighting control panel above the bedstand from which I could turn on or off any light in the room -- though I found the blue lights a bit bright, and one night as I fumbled for the light I hit the phone by mistake and somehow managed to dial reception on speakerphone speed-dial.

Hotel room in Hyderabad
Hotel room in Hyderabad
Hotel room in Hyderabad
Hotel room in Hyderabad

My room was on the sixteenth floor, but after a day in the hotel I noticed the first guest floor -- immediately above the lobby -- was the tenth, in a bit of floor-numbering slight-of-hand. The center of the hotel featured a vertigo-inducing atrium running all the way up to the top of the building.

Hotel core in Hyderabad
Hotel core in Hyderabad

From my window, I could see office buildings and residential towers, in various stages of construction, sprawling off into the distance. When I looked closer I could see empty lots gathering trash among the large rounded granite boulders that littered the landscape.

View out hotel window in Hyderabad
View out hotel window in Hyderabad

The restaurant in the lobby of my hotel was populated by a sample of business-people from across the world, and had the food to match. The buffet served Indian (in the local Andhran style), European, and a small selection of east Asian, including (if I recall correctly) miso for breakfast. I tended to eat muesli for breakfast (on the theory that the rolled oats would provide the fiber the rest of my diet lacked) and Indian for supper, but on my last day I augmented breakfast with some idli (steamed rice cakes).

When I saw someone with pale skin at breakfast or dinner, odds were he (or, occasionally, she) was actually European. Americans were rare; while eating breakfast on my last morning, I overheard two young women at a nearby table talking animatedly about Star Alliance Gold status and airport lounges. I hadn't heard an American accent for a week, but I couldn't help but wish their conversation was a bit less vapid. (They struck me as business process consultants of some description; one appeared to have been in-country for a while and was briefing her newly-arrived companion on the lay of the land.)

I had one more thing I wanted to see before leaving Hyderabad: the Qutb Shahi Tombs, just north of Golconda, where the Muslim rulers of Golconda, and an assortment of other notable people from their reign, were buried in a series of magnificent (if crumbling) domed mausoleums. I checked out of my hotel at 11:00 and met my driver in front of the hotel to go to the tombs. After an expedition to find the nearest ATM (down a narrow street, past a shack selling dosas for Rs. 10, next to a man washing his bowl on the sidewalk while children played in the gutter), we entered the complex, found a guide, and began to look around.

One of the Qutb Shahi tombs
One of the Qutb Shahi tombs

I tried to pay attention to my guide as he explained the distinctions between the tombs, but they all ran together in my mind as we walked around the complex. Each was a little different, but they showed remarkable continuity in design styles, despite spanning the entire dynasty, from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. All employed a large dome over a fake tomb, with the real tomb in a catacomb under the raised base. In some of the domes Muslim men sang something unrecognizable, resembling the call to prayers, which echoed and resonated inside the dome.

Inside the dome in one of the Qutb Shahi tombs
Inside the dome in one of the Qutb Shahi tombs
Jaeger and driver at the Qutb Shahi tombs
Jaeger and driver at the Qutb Shahi tombs
Banyan tree at the Qutb Shahi tombs
Banyan tree at the Qutb Shahi tombs

As we were leaving I spotted the American women from the hotel breakfast -- the first westerners I'd seen outside the hotel for a week -- who had hired a hotel car and driver to take them around the sights of the city.

I had time before I needed to head to the airport, so my driver took me to a roadside cafe for a snack of chai and cookies before we headed down the outer ring road to the airport. After one more trip to the ATM (I'd misjudged the tab for my day and a half of sightseeing at my earlier visit), I paid (and tipped) my driver, bid him farewell, and headed into Rajiv Gandhi International Airport to begin my trip home.

At the airport, they were playing Yanni on the PA, which seemed almost like sacrilege to me: why play cliched western new age music, when they have an entire subcontinent of local music to play? (I also recognized at least one song from Robert Miles' album Dreamland.)

My flight to Mumbai was delayed an hour. I eventually boarded the packed 737 and bid Hyderabad farewell as we took off into the gathering clouds. (It had been mostly-cloudy all day; from my contacts in Hyderabad I learned the monsoon finally arrived -- a week or two late -- about the time I left.) We flew into the monsoon and ended up in a holding pattern waiting to land in Mumbai. I couldn't see much, stuffed in a middle seat on an exit row (which, on Jet Airways, apparently meant I couldn't have any hand luggage at my feet, so I ran out of reading material halfway through the flight), but I could see massive clouds out the window as we waited for a landing slot.

We landed in Mumbai in the midst of a monsoon rainstorm. The domestic terminal featured shuttle busses that picked us passengers up at the plane, parked out in the middle of the tarmac, and shuttled us to the terminal itself. (The rain shields I'd seen on the baggage-handling equipment in Hyderabad made far more sense when I saw the ferocity of the actual monsoon -- and multiplied that by the several months it'd last.) I picked up my bag on the baggage claim, queued for the transfer bus to the international terminal (located conveniently on the other side of the airport), and squinted out the windows of the bus as I tried to make out the layout of the airport as I passed, and of the massive flyovers and viaducts being built out of reinforced concrete in front of the international terminal.

Despite being delayed the better part of two hours, I still had several hours to wait in Mumbai before I could even check into my flight. I walked slowly up and down the narrow strip of terminal in front of the check-in lanes, ate an uninspiring supper, had some chai, and eventually checked into my flight. I changed my handful of remaining rupees back into dollars and queued to officially leave the country by passing through passport control, then airport security, and found myself in a massive duty-free mall.

As a business-class passenger on a Star Alliance airline, I had access to the Lufthansa lounge, which turned out to have complimentary food, drink, and wi-fi. The lounge was just the way airport waiting rooms ought to be: comfortable chairs, power, and reasonably quiet. I settled in to wait, but neglected to take the opportunity to charge my electronics, which would come back to haunt me later.

After several hours in the lounge, my flight was called, which turned out to be the flight most of the passengers in the lounge were waiting for. I found my gate, behind another security screening, just in case we were trying to smuggle water on board the flight (American-style, where I actually had to take my shoes off), waited briefly in the crush of people in front of the gate, pushed my way through the crowd when my seating group was called, and found my seat near the front of the Business/First cabin at the front of the plane.

Our departure was delayed for about half an hour to meet crew-rest requirements. We took off shortly after midnight, local time, and I looked out the window to bid farewell to India, under low-hanging monsoon clouds and scattered rain showers, after nine days on the subcontinent.

I settled in for the fourteen-hour flight back to Newark and noticed the in-flight map was disabled or inoperable: it never showed our actual position through the entire flight. I could rely on dead-reckoning for the first few hundred miles (after taking off, we flew roughly north-west, along the great circle route, over the Arabian Sea, then made landfall over Gujarat ... and that's as far as I got), but other than a vague idea where the great circle route ought to take us, I had no idea where we were. I tried to split the difference between my origin and destination time zones by staying up as late as I could, then setting my watch to eastern daylight time and sleeping for eight hours. I slept somewhat more fitfully than on my outbound flight, but I was grateful for the lay-flat bed and pillow.

When I awoke, on a time zone that was neither Indian nor American, but somewhere in between, we were still four hours out from Newark. I watched John Carter on the in-flight entertainment system, which proved to be a perfect airplane movie: enough action to keep me entertained, without too much plot to get in the way of my jet-lag-addled brain at thirty thousand feet.

I couldn't see much out my window for the duration of the flight, but when the movie finished, as the cabin crew prepared to serve breakfast, I spotted land far below us and knew we were somewhere above North America.

We landed in Newark around 05:00 EDT, arriving at the same terminal I'd departed from more than a week ago. I passed immigration and customs without incident (interrupted by an interminable wait for my checked bag, punctuated by a border patrol agent pulling a bag off the carousel that her dog indicated), rechecked my bag, and joined another interminable queue for airport security. Most of the other passengers in the priority queue were studying their mobile phones, but mine was inoperable, and I didn't want to take the time to figure out what was wrong with it; I had a connecting flight to Denver to catch. I deftly avoided the full-body scanners by picking the right lane, and stopped by Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast on my way to my gate, vaguely remembering the same food court from my first international arrival at Newark after visiting Cambridge seven years ago. I caught my flight without further incident and settled in for another four hours in an aluminum can (a 757-200, this time) 30,000 feet above mean sea level.

We landed in Denver without incident, and the hour I had to wait to catch my SuperShuttle ride back home gave me enough time to plug my phone in and figure out why it wouldn't work; it turned out to be low on battery, so I found a quiet chair with a power outlet next to an abandoned baggage claim carousel and checked in with the world for the first time since landing on American soil early in the morning.

I was the last person on the SuperShuttle route, after a leisurely tour through Boulder. ("So where did you start this morning?" asked the driver, and I laughed, since it'd been thirty-six hours since I left my hotel in Hyderabad the previous morning.) I saw the smoke plume from the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins for the first time; it'd started the weekend after I left for India. I was dismayed to see that Colorado felt compelled to compete with India for my favor by breaking out a heat wave in the high nineties, with smoke from the nearby forest fire pushing air quality down to third-world levels, and no monsoon in sight, but I was glad to be home after a great trip to India.

(I arrived home before noon, Mountain time, with eight hours left before Kiesa and Calvin would return from a week with Kiesa's mother, and a plausible early bedtime to sate my jet-lag while still trying to adjust to my new time zone. I cranked up the air conditioner, took a shower, unpacked, did laundry, and distributed my souvenirs around the house. That left plenty of empty time, so in the afternoon I drove to Boulder Public Library (with a bit of reverse-culture-shock at the sane adherence to regular driving rules and the complete lack of autorickshaws and bullock carts on the road) and picked up a few books on China, already contemplating my next big international expedition.)

like a lot of geeks, I can run risky meatspace things
through my head until a faulty value comes out that
suggests there's no need to actually do them.
- Caleb John Clark, "Linux and the Lady", Salon.com 27 September 2000