Friday, March 9, 2012

“You can’t go home again”…but you can visit!

Having been uprooted many times as a kid, I have had many joyful, yet also awkward visits to various old childhood haunts.  It is always wonderful to meet up again with old friends who have grown and aged, but remain in all the best ways unchanged.  I love swinging around on formerly-frequented monkey bars and scrambling up familiar trees.  It’s also great fun to tour an old house (old as in I used to live there, not as in it’s a crumbling, ancient ruin).  But going back to an old home can be sad as well.  There is the sting of realizing that an old teacher clearly does not remember you, or that an old friend has moved on to bigger and better things.  It can feel odd to see other children frequenting your old hideouts, and even more odd to see a new, completely remodeled house standing in place of your old home.  Saddest of all is the stump where your favorite climbing tree once stood.

Generally though, the positive aspects of visiting an old home outweigh the negative ones, so it was with great excitement that I headed off on the last leg of my journey to Hyderabad, where I had spent the second semester of my junior year of college. 

The moment I woke up on the morning I was due to arrive in Hyderabad, I sat bolt upright on my train berth, and looked out the window to see if I recognized anything.  Anticlimactically, I did not, as the train was still in the countryside far outside of Hyderabad.  Soon enough though, I did reach Kacheguda station in Hyderabad.  After a long, long rickshaw ride, I found myself at the main gate of Hyderabad Central University.  It looked exactly the same as it always had, and I felt the old memories flooding back.  So many times I had stumbled out of a rickshaw at this gate, weighed down with luggage, after having taken a weekend trip to some exciting place.  Now I was repeating the experience again, and, even though it had been almost three years, I still felt as though I was coming home.

After alighting from my rickshaw, I began the long journey from the main gate up to Tagore International House, my old dorm and current hotel stand-in.  As I was walking up the hill to South Campus, I heard a familiar voice calling my name as a motor scooter slowed to a halt beside me.  I was delighted to see that the rider was none other than CIEE’s most excellent program coordinator, Madhuri, who had played a critical role in making my study abroad experience so memorable.  I hopped onto the back of her scooter, and together we sped up the hill to South Campus. 

I began noticing changes right away.  For one thing, most signs proclaiming the University to be in the state of Andhra Pradesh had been vandalized, with TELENGANA written in huge letters—evidence of the movement to cut Andhra Pradesh in two and place Hyderabad into the new state of Telengana.  Tagore had undergone huge changes.  Now there was a wall surrounding the dorm (apparently there had been security problems) there was a brand new bike shed, and more decorations, as well as a ping pong table and a flat screen TV, had appeared on the interior.  Once inside I had another joyful reunion, this time with Mr. Das, Tagore’s truly phenomenal dorm manager.  We reminisced about the old days, and also talked about what had happened in our lives since 2009.  Mr. Das detailed all the changes that had gone on in Tagore, and in the Study India Program.  “But I am still the same,” he proclaimed.  A very good thing as far as I’m concerned.

Me and Das-ji!
The Tagore dining hall

Tagore International House

The new wall and gate to Tagore

The new bike shed

After catching up with Mr. Das, I headed off to the (new!) CIEE office where I saw Madhuri again, and also saw Kalyan, CIEE’s program manager, and Kavitha, the program director.  Once again, I was relieved to find that, despite the office’s new location and the many changes in the program, the people I had known remained essentially the same.  Madhuri very kindly lent me her bicycle for the duration of my visit, and I spent the rest of the happily cycling around campus, taking pictures and reminiscing.

The Humanities building

English professors!

What was once the Study India Program building
The yoga center

The Student Shopping Complex

The next day, after a long  sunrise run around campus and a nice breakfast with a few friendly members of the current generation of Tagoreans, I boarded a bus bound for the old city of Hyderabad.  The old city is part of what makes Hyderabad so unique and interesting, particularly for South India.  While most of Hyderabad (and indeed, most of Andhra Pradesh) is staunchly Hindu, the old city is quite decidedly Muslim.  Before Independence, Hyderabad had been ruled by a Muslim Nizam, rather than a Hindu Maharaja, and this is still apparent through Hyderabad’s architecture, cuisine, language (Urdu is widely spoken) and culture.  In fact, the Nizam originally wanted to make Hyderabad a part of Pakistan, but was eventually made to realize the impracticality of this decision. 

As I rode the bus from Medhipatnam bus stand to Old City, I watched as the signs over the storefronts slowly changed from things like “Sri Sai Baba Auto Repair,” to things like “Nazir Ali Khan Sweets.”  Soon enough, I reached the old city, turned the corner from where the bus dropped me off, and found myself face to face with Charminar, Hyderabad’s most iconic structure.  It was as beautiful as I had remembered it.


Naturally, I wanted to go inside and upstairs, so I could look out over the old city.  Though it was my second time doing so, I was not disappointed.  The old city was as vibrant and alive as ever, and I even noticed a few changes (for example, a brand new Café Coffee Day that still looked quite out of place!).  I walked around the upper floor of Charminar many times admiring the architecture of the old city, shaking my head at the graffiti on the walls, and evading several posses of overly friendly young men.

Arches.  And men.

Looking down

A busy old city street

Mecca Masjid

The rules

Shattered rules

After exiting Charminar I had a quick lunch, then walked just south of Charminar to Mecca Masjid, one of the world’s largest Mosques, so named because the clay from several of the foundation bricks had come from Mecca.  I had been here only once before, during my first week in Hyderabad for a CIEE orientation excursion.  That trip had been short and stressful.  We were a group of 28 American college students, jetlagged and confused, with only four knowledgeable Indians accompanying us.  We stumbled around the exterior of the mosque, and walked up to a shrine where a caretaker blessed us by tapping our heads with a palm leaf.  He soon became angry at as though and started shouting at us, and Suresh, one of our leaders pulled us away quickly. 

My second visit however was much nicer.  I wandered about the grounds of the mosque, watching the numerous pigeons and goats, passing by groups of women and children sitting together by the fountain, and even saw a cricket match going on.  No one gave me any trouble, and I was able to pass a peaceful hour just wandering around, and eventually sitting and reading for a while.

One of the side buildings

A goat and many many pigeons

Mecca Masjid

After leaving the Mosque, I continued to explore the narrow streets of the old city.  One particular alley to the west of Charminar is known as Laad Bazaar, and is famous for its bangles.  As I walked down this familiar street, I felt myself being blinded by the sparkling, jewel and glitter encrusted bangles, while my ears were assaulted by the cries of “Madam!  Madam!  Come to my shop!  You want bangles?  I give you good price!”  I have definitely developed something of a bangle addiction since coming to India in July, but I somehow found a way to restrain myself, and left Laad Bazaar empty handed as I headed back towards the bus stand.

Old City Street


Laad Bazaar

I did not expect my bus ride to be particularly entertaining; after all, I would simply be retracing the same route I had taken to reach the old city.  Soon after the bus left old city however, an older couple and a young girl of about eight boarded the bus.  The man told the girl to sit on an empty seat close to the front, then squeezed onto my seat, next to me.  The girl seemed not to be happy with this arrangement though, as she was sitting between two people she did not know.  After she made a beseeching face to the older man (her grandfather, I would later find out), he beckoned her over, and she squeezed in between her grandpa and me.  Soon after getting situated, she turned to me and asked, “In the Salar Jung Museum, there is a girl named Venus.  Why does she have no arms?”  This most excellent of ice breakers inspired a very enjoyable conversation, during which we talked about where I came from (“North America or South America?”) the history of Hyderabad (“Hyderabad was founded on the banks of the Musi River.  It used to be a river.  Now it is a drain.”), and the history of Golconda Fort (“I do not know about the history of the fort.  But if you buy the booklet it will tell you everything!”).  I was truly sad when she and her grandparents reached their destination, and we waved goodbye as her grandfather led her by the hand.  I watched as they slowly vanished into the crowds of the city. 

The next day, I hopped onto the 216 bus once again, this time to go to Hyderabad’s famous Golconda Fort.  Soon after deboarding in Hyderabad’s Towlichowki area and climbing into a rickshaw, I found myself inside the majestic walls of Golconda fort (much of it is still residential).  Soon enough, we reached the entrance to the main fort ruins. After some flip-flopping, I decided against buying the history booklet that my little bus partner had recommended to me, as I felt that the informational sign that I encountered soon upon entering was enough to explain most of the history to me.  I was interested to discover that the fort had originally been built by the Hindu Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal, and that it was only in the 16th Century that the Muslim Qutb Shah kings seized control of the area.  They maintained control of the fort until it fell to Aurangzeb, one of the most infamously ruthless Mughal emperors, in 1687. 

After escaping the hordes of men wanting to be my guide, I began my ascent to the top of the fort.  I made sure to take many pictures along the way.  I was on a bit of a William Dalrymple kick at that point, having just finished City of Djinns and being in the midst of The Age of Kali.  Being on a Dalrymple kick, for me at least, meant also being on an Indo-Islamic architecture kick, so I greatly enjoyed the chance to look upon and photograph the fort’s numerous arches.


Last walls standing

More arches

Even more arches

As I think I might have mentioned in my Jaipur post, one of my favorite things to do in India is to scale forts.  Golconda is one of my favorites, because not only does it involve a steep climb to the top, but it also has many walls and parapets that are possible to scramble up onto, almost like a cliff face.  At one point I was happily scrambling, and a caretaker came up to me and started speaking in Telegu.  I assumed he was asking me to stop, but after listening further, and hearing the words "husband" and "fracture," I realized that he was just concerned for my safety, wondering where my male guardian was (because, of course, it's very strange for a woman to do anything without one), and warning me about the dangers of climbing high walls.  I will never stop climbing things, but it was nice to have someone show concern for my well being.

View from the top of the fort
After eating a fiery Andhra thali at a small restaurant close to the fort, I began walking to my next destination: the tombs of the Qutb Shahi kings.  My guidebook described it is “an easy walk,” but failed to give any real directions.  I chose what I thought was the correct road, and just started putting one foot in front of the other.  After I had been walking for a while, it became clear to me that I had gone the wrong way.  I had entered an incredibly non-touristy, bustling bazaar flanked by residential areas. Before I had a chance to turn around though, a group of giggling school girls, all wearing the Muslim hijab (veil), descended upon me and began chattering in Urdu.  Fortunately, Urdu and Hindi are almost identical when spoken—the real difference is in the written language, as Hindi uses the Devanagiri system while Urdu uses the Persian script.  I soon gathered that my shirt had been riding up, and that I looked silly.  Once I had fixed my clothing, I walked with the girls towards their homes, all the while talking about their school, my reasons for walking alone (I’m still not sure if they understood why I was doing such a strange thing), and what it was like to live within the walls of Golconda Fort.  It was a long walk back to the main fort entrance, as I had wandered quite a long way in the wrong direction.  As soon as I reached the main tourist area I felt a little foolish, and the road to the tombs seemed almost immediately apparent.  Still though, if I had not wandered in the wrong direction I never would have met those girls.  I definitely don’t regret it!

Eventually, I did reach the Qutb Shahi tombs.  Though Dalrymple describes them as having “domes swelling out of all proportion to the base, each like a watermelon attempting to balance on a fig,” they are really very beautiful, and the grounds surrounding them are wonderfully serene.  After walking around and taking a good number of pictures, I settled myself onto a bench on one of the many lawns and began to read.  Soon, a girl carrying a book bag and two roses approached me.  “You will be here for some time, na?  Can you watch my bag for me please?  I am just coming in ten minutes.”  After I agreed to watch her belongings, the girl placed the bag and the two roses on the bench next to me, then ran off behind one of the tombs.  I read contentedly for ten minutes.  Ten minutes turned into twenty.  Twenty turned into twenty five.  I started getting worried.  Would she ever come back?  Irrational thoughts about bombs in abandoned back packs started filling my mind.  Eventually I couldn’t stand waiting anymore, so I picked up the bag and the roses, and set off on search of the girl.  After climbing up the steps to one of the more showy tombs, I was able to spy her from above.  We ran towards each other, both of us apologizing profusely--she for taking so much longer than she had promised, and I for leaving my post.  After this exchange, she handed me one of the roses.  “This is for you,” she said, smiling.

One of the first tombs I saw

A watermelon on a fig?

A well

A sign in English, Telegu, and Urdu, but no Hindi!

My rose.
I carried the rose with me as I continued to wander the tombs.  I held onto it in the rickshaw to Towlichowki, and in the bus back the University Campus.  As I walked towards the rows of bicycles and unlocked my (actually Madhuri’s) bike in preparation for my ride back up to Tagore, I wondered what to do with the rose.  I decided to leave it on the bike standing next to mine.  The rose had brightened my day; why not somebody else’s?

Final destination
The next day, I decided to head to the Andhra Pradesh State Museum.  Interestingly, neither visited it before nor heard of anyone else who had.  Though I feared that this might be due to the fact that the museum was actually not very good, I decided to give it a chance anyway.  I was glad I did!  In addition to having a number of very interesting artifacts, the museum was very appealingly laid out.  There was a set path one followed to go through the museum, which was housed in several different buildings.  Some of the exhibits were outside, which countered one of my usual complaints about museum going, ie, the "indoorsiness" of it.  Usually I don’t take pictures in museums, but the people taking my entrance fees spied my camera, and made me pay the additional camera fee.  And not only the additional camera fee, but the additional foreign camera fee.  Since I had paid all this extra money I decided I had to take at least a few pictures.  I was annoyed at the time, but I hope they enhance the quality of this blog post!

Mini Taj?

Lantern...I think

Wood carving

Dancing Shiva

Urdu inscriptions

Part of the open air exhibit

Relocated temple

Buddhist exhibit


An entire exhibit dedicated to thresholds

After returning to campus, I met up with Madhuri so we could head over to her house for dinner.  She had not brought her scooter to school that day, so we were prepared to hoof it down to the University’s main gate where we would catch a rickshaw to the commuter rail station.  As good luck would have it however, Kalyan had ridden to work on his scooter that day, and he agreed.  And thus began my first motor scooter ride with three people on board!  It was a lot of fun just riding from Tagore down to the main gate of the University; I don’t think I’d attempt the “three on a bike” thing in real traffic though!  Fortune smiled on Madhuri and me once again as Kalyan dropped us off by the main gate.  As Madhuri and I were trying to find ourselves a rickshaw, Kavitha drove up in her car and offered to give us a ride to the train station.  I was especially glad that this had worked out, as Kavitha’s daughter, Happy, was also in the car.  Happy had been a baby and only a few months old the last time I had seen her, so it was a lot of fun to see her as a smiley almost-four-year-old. 

After forcing our way into the extremely crowded train station, then sitting for a while in the very uncrowded train, Madhuri and I reached the Hi-Tech City station, where we boarded a rickshaw bound for Madhuri’s home.  I had been to Madhuri’s home before, as Madhuri’s sister, Mamatha, had been my Hindi tutor during my Hyderabad days.  I was very excited to see her again, as well as their brother Dev and their mother.  But I was particularly looking forward to meeting Mamatha’s two-year-old daughter, who had been born since I had last left Hyderabad.

When we reached Madhuri’s house, Madhuri’s cousin and her three children (between the ages of nine and thirteen) were visiting from Mumbai.  I soon discovered that, though the family had been living in India for several months, the parents had been working in the United States for twenty years, and all of the children had been born in California.  I had a good time talking to them about America and India, about how different schools were, and about how difficult the Hindi language can be (these kids all speak English and Telegu fluently, but Hindi is new to them).  When it was time for them to leave, the youngest daughter told me that she had enjoyed talking to me, and said, a little wistfully, “it was so nice to hear the accent again!”  Madhuri told me later that the kids had been having a little bit of a hard time adjusting to India and missed America a lot.  I know how hard starting a new school in a new country can be, and if hearing my accent made them feel better, then I am glad I could help!

I spent the rest of the evening catching up with Madhuri and her family, and playing with Anjana, who is a typical energetic two-year-old.  I stayed the night with the family, and woke up early the next morning to take a walk with Madhuri.  The weather was beautiful, and we had a very interesting conversation (interesting for me anyway!) about the ways in which the CIEE and SIP programs had changed since my batch.  In some ways things were better, in other ways my time really had been the “good old days.”  Still though, as Madhuri stressed, every semester is different, and working in study abroad always ensures that you will meet interesting people, learn a lot, and have a good time!

Madhuri and Anjana

Mamatha and me

And now with Anjana, who was not at all interested in posing
After returning home, we had a delicious breakfast of utthapams made my Madhuri’s mother.  I think I ate six.  Only a few hours later, Madhuri and I headed to a restaurant called Chutney’s, where we met up with Kalyan and had another fabulous Indian meal.  So much eating!

Descending steps: Kalyan, me, and Madhuri

I spent the rest of the day preparing for my return to Delhi the next day.  I had eaten so much at breakfast and lunch that I wasn’t especially hungry for dinner, but I headed down to the Tagore dining hall anyway.  I was so glad I did!  It was momo (dumpling) night.  Tagore had been the first place in which I had tried momos, and I have to say that its momos are somehow still my favorites out of the many I have tried.  Additionally, for the first time, I found myself sitting with CIEE students.  I had been sitting with a different group of students in the dining hall for every meal: Master’s and PhD. students from Japan and Austria, students from American Institute for Foreign Study, from the Hofstra and Dartmouth University programs, International Student Exchange Program, and several others.  But no CIEE.  This changed on my last night though, and I ended up having a great time talking not only to the newest CIEE students, but also to the new CIEE Hyderabad coordinator of student involvement, Kate.  I had actually met Kate at a dinner at Fulbright House in Delhi several months before, so it was nice to see and talk to her again.  After dinner I played some table tennis on Tagore’s new table, then went to bed so I could wake up in time to make my flight to Delhi the next morning. 

As I drove away from Tagore once again, I felt nostalgia once again, similar to what I had felt three years ago, the last time I had been driven away from Tagore.  I know Tagore and the University of Hyderabad will continue to change, but it is comforting to know that the connections I made there are still strong.  As I said before, “you can’t go home again,” but you can always visit, and more often than not, such visits are fun, meaningful and 100% worth it!


  1. I am an American student, and I've just been placed at the University of Hyderabad through the ISEP program (similar to CIEE) for next fall semester. It was lovely looking through all your pictures and reading what you had to say about the city, and I'm excited to read the rest of your posts about India to find fun places to visit on my free weekends while I'm there! I love how you travel, you have lots of adventures and discover lots of accidental things -- which always end up being the best parts of a journey, in my opinion.

  2. Hi Diana, thanks for reading; I'm sure you'll have a great time in Hyderabad with ISEP! If you're interested, feel free to check out my old blog from 2009 if it would be useful to you; the link is below. We went on a number of interesting weekend trips out of Hyderabad, all of which I'd recommend, and most of which I wrote about.

  3. Thank you! I will definitely check out your blog.

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