Three days ago I arrived in Hyderabad, India! I’m here to complete the second stage of my research into social businesses providing health services in developing countries.
India is colourful, frenetic, friendly, full-on, and full of surprises! Here are my top nine surprises from my first three days:
1) Driving the wrong way down a motorway in a tuk-tuk taxi. Seriously. The driver couldn’t find the tourist office (which he’d merrily assured me that he would take me to straight away, no problems), so he pulled into the hard shoulder to consult with a colleague, and realising he was going the wrong way, promptly pulled a U turn into the oncoming traffic and sailed back the way we had come, dodging the oncoming cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles. Eeeeek! Suffice it to say that I have now invested in a street map and am walking to all the places I need to go…!
2) Discovering that it is possible for three fluent English speakers to have a perfectly nonsensical conversation. Despite checking with two different people, I still managed to get on the wrong city sight-seeing tour bus! Turns out no-one here understands my English accent (!), and I’m equally bamboozled by their Indian-pronounced English; people would much rather assent to an incorrect statement (“this is the city sight-seeing tour bus, isn’t it?”) than disagree with me; and that enigmatic head-wobble can mean “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, and “I haven’t a clue what you’re saying”…!
3) Arriving at the Salar Jung museum, Hyderabad, all a-quiver with excitement to see the cultural heritage of India, and being ushered into a large hushed auditorium to witness the highlight of the museum: the 19th century English musical clock, complete with a figurine who dutifully strikes the hour against a little gong, accompanied by chanting and cheering from several hundred Indian spectators. (Better still, it turns out this clock now has competition: another British made antique musical clock has been uncovered and refurbished during the rennovation of Hyderabad’s Chowmahalla Palace and will soon be on public display!)
4) Being rescued by a charming, beautifully dressed, elegant, regal elderly Indian lady on the bus, who gently and tactfully asked me if I wanted her to dispose of the prasadam (food that is offered first to God in the temple, and then is eaten by devotees after) which I was struggling to eat (everything here is super-spicy, argh!), only for her to lean forward and cheerfully toss the unwanted food straight out of the bus window at high speed!
5) Being filmed by a young lad on his iphone, unbeknownst to me, while I stood attentively listening to the tour guide at Golconda Fort. Apparently the presence of an unaccompanied British lady was much more exciting than a 16th century well preserved giant fort with battlements, ruins, royal quarters, ancient water pipe systems, tombs, canons and drawbridges. I’m not quite clear why me, given I was hardly the only European woman about, and unlike most I was rigorously adhering to the appropriate dress code of fully covered shoulders and legs!
6) Learning that pavements aren’t for pedestrians, silly. Why walk along the pavement, when there’s a perfectly serviceable road to walk on. What are you fretting about, you daft thing – just because it’s a dual carriageway congested with free-for-all traffic moving in every direction (including the wrong way down the road, which appears to be standard operating procedure) – it’s perfectly safe! Besides, pavements are for sleeping on. Every evening, Hyderabad’s estimated 20,000 homeless can be seen sweeping down their few slabs of paving stone (important to be house proud, after all), rolling out their mats or bits of cardboard box, and hunkering down for a night’s kip. If they’re really lucky, they might have a bit of polythene sheet to drape over the top and form an impromptu tent.
7) Loo roll is non-existent. True fact. I was surprised to find there was none in my hotel bathroom, and (being rather stereotypically British and too embarrassed to ask) went on a quest round the city to find a shop that would sell me some. I was greeted by expressions of surprise, confusion, bafflement, stern dismissal, belly-laughter, scorn. In a moment of inspiration, I found a pharmacy and requested tissues, and oh happy days! am now equipped with a box of facial tissues which is providing a perfect substitute. I was mildly put out by all this, until visiting the executive offices of a prestigious organisation, I discovered there was none in the loo there either. Clearly there simply isn’t any in India to be had. No worries – improvisation is half the art of genius.
8) Finding that everything to eat is an order of magnitude more spicy than its equivalent in England. Argh! I ordered a tikka masala the first day, thinking I was onto a safe bet. Mistake. That was no tikka masala I’d ever have recognised! Even idli, the typical breakfast food, can arrive spiced up with ginger and green chilli mixed in. Green chilli! Who would do that to a poor unsuspecting girl at 7 in the morning? Why?! What sort of cruel, sadistic country is this?! Luckily salvation was near at hand. Last night, after observing my misery ordering yet another no doubt death-tremor inducing set of misguided menu choices, a nice young Indian chap came over to my table. “I couldn’t help overhear your order,” he said politely. “I wouldn’t order that if I were you. You’ll be ill. Try this instead…” and he set sail into a long and convoluted discussion with the waiter, following which an array of mild (oh happy, happy days!) and delicious items appeared upon my table. Gratitude has no words….
9) The sheer scale of the issues. There are over a billion people in India, and although it is achieving a fantastic 9% annual economic growth, the bounty is concentrated amongst a relatively small segment of the population, with huge poverty continuing side by side. One third of the people in the world living on less than 80p a day live in India, where:
- There are 15 million blind people and another 52 million who are visually impaired – most of which cases are either preventable or treatable. Diabetes is the fifth most common cause of visual impairment worldwide and the problem is accelerating exponentially in India: it has the fastest growing rate in the world with over 85 million diabetics projected by 2020.
- Maternal mortality and morbidity levels remain among the highest in the world. Only 43% of Indian women are cared for by a skilled attendant during birth and more than 100,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related causes.
- 12 million deaths a year are associated with chronic diseases. “Low-income families are disproportionately affected due to the lack of affordable treatment and preventive care. Treating chronic disease drains away resources and affects the ability to earn livelihoods, creating a downward spiral of disease and poverty.”
- Ambulances and emergency medical services are unavailable in many cities. “To get to the hospital, people use auto rickshaws, private cars or van “ambulances” that have no medical equipment or trained technicians. More often than not these ambulances function as hearses.”
(Statistics from Acumen Fund and UK Department for International Development). I’m looking forward to visiting four impressive social enterprises here in India that are impacting on these problems. The challenges are huge – and the people who lead the way in finding innovative ways of addressing them are some of the most inspirational leaders of our time.