Buckle In Hyderabad, India

The location of our first stop in India was based on two things: my desire to meet some of my former co-workers (whom I had only "virtually met" prior) and the most cost-effective use of my airline miles. Once we booked the flight, I contacted my friend, Anand. A former co-worker of mine, Anand lives in the states and still manages the team that I worked with in Hyderabad. His family is from Chennai and I very much trust his judgement.

Anand was far more help than I could have ever wished for. I was hoping for a few recommendations of sites to see and decent hotels, but Anand helped with that and much, much more. In addition to recommendations for all of our stay in India, he and my former co-workers arranged EVERYTHING for us in Hyderabad.

When we arrived at the airport, we were a little out of sorts. Chris had been fighting a cold for several days and we'd just traveled for some 30 hours (note: when I mentioned that it was an efficient use of my airline miles, I was referring to money rather than time spent; we definitely took the long route). I will also admit now to the first of many dim-witted shortcuts I took while planning for this trip; this first being niavely never asking for the hotel address when my local friends arranged our accommodations. So, when the India entry form asked for our hotel address, I sleepily suggested we make something up. Reluctantly (after more than one futile protest), Chris agreed (we randomly picked a hotel and wrote its address) and we proceed to (what we hoped was) the line for people who had applied for electronic tourist visas (I say we were hopeful because there was a vague sign, but nobody manning the counter). Fortunately, it turned out to be the right line, but, as luck would have it, the agent requested a copy of our hotel reservation. After a wee bit of struggling and a woeful bit of fabrication (and finally producing an email with the name and number of the driver picking us up from someone at the company I am there to visit), we were on our way. Bags secured, we met driver and loaded up the vehicle.

As soon as we got in the vehicle, Chris asks if my seatbelt works. By works, he means "exists," which it does not. Our driver spoke very few words to us, which was fine as we were (sort of) becoming acclimated to navigating India and not likely able to talk while concealing our unadulterated fear. There truly is nothing to prepare you for the traffic of India. Traffic in Hyderabad makes New York sound like a library, and is certainly the basis for the most difficult levels of Frogger, Mario Kart or some other more insane, surreal video-game driving challenge.

In an attempt to get organized, Chris began searching through his bag for things we would need to check in to the hotel. He says, "Shit!" I reply, "Uh oh, what?" "I can't find my wallet... oh, wait. Whew. Here it is." A few seconds later, "Shit." "Uh oh, what?" "I can't find the laptop." To which, "Oh wait" never followed.

Long story short, we had spotty cell service and security at the London airport (where we surmise the laptop was left) was not open at this hour, so we had to wait to deal with the laptop.

Checked-in to the hotel, we freshened up. We are then taken to the office of my former co-workers. I cannot express the level of generosity that we experienced. We received a tour of the office and I was introduced to the wonderful people with whom I spent so much time with in the "virtual trenches." They arranged for us to exchange currency (after I had expressed concern prior to our visit about ATM limits and currency issues I read about that resulted from India's recent efforts to move to a cashless economy). They brought us a lot of bottled water (as drinking local water is a no-no), flowers, local sweets and some company paraphernalia (including a backpack, which has come in very handy so far).

Just a few of the gifts that we received upon arrival to Hyderabad.

After the office tour, two of my former co-workers took us on a tour of Hyderabad. Jogesh and Kishore drove us all over Hyderabad, suffering through its traffic and sacrificing their valuable evening and weekend time to share its wonderful history. We drove through HITEC City, where many of the Information Technology giants (like Microsoft and Facebook) have massive campuses, and saw the new and old parts of Hyderabad. We were most surprised by the traffic and the seemingly unstructured city design, where modern structures are intermittently placed among shanty-style stores or buildings.

We had our first taste of India at the Taj Deccan. We quickly came to understand why Hyderabad is famous for its Biryani (a mixture of long-grain rice and sauce, covered with a flat bread and/or aluminum foil, then cooked in a clay pot until the sauce and spice permeates the rice). It was tasty with and without vegetables or meat).
We also appreciated the Himalayan water bottle, which highlighted a little human irony and subtly called the locals out on our their feverant horn use.

After a brief nap, we set out again with Jogesh and Kishore to tour the Taj Falaknuma. The name translates to "like the sky," which is epitomized by its 360 degree view of the city. Once the residence of the Prime Minister, then owned by the 6th Nizam, it is now on a 66 year lease to the Taj Group of hotels. The dining room table seats 101 people! (Photos inside were prohibited.)

The entrance to the 32-acre grounds of the Taj Falaknuma is part of its scorpion-shaped layout of buildings, with the main palace being the body and this entrance being the tip of its tail. The Palace includes two wings as stings, and a series of rooms and restaurants forming its tail.

Carriages (and golf carts) transport visitors from the entrance to the main palace.

The main Palace was once home to the world's richest man, his private abode complete with a personal swimming pool.

A beautiful garden and walkway connects the back exit of the palace to the suites and restaurants forming the scorpion's tail.

We enjoyed a delectable meal at the India restaurant. The biryani and lamb were amazing and we enjoyed an incredible sauce unique to Hyderabad (how they've kept dibs on it, we'll never know).

The next day, we ventured back out with Jogesh and Kishore. We had a fabulous time seeing and learning more of Hyderabad.

Our tour included a travel on Tank Bund road, which dams Hussain Sagar - a heart shaped lake in Hyderabad. In the center is a Gautam Buddha statue, one of the largest monoliths in the world.

We saw several statutes, the Pakistan Patton tank, and then drove by the Charminar mosque (not pictured), one of the most recognized icons of India.

The hike to the top of Golconda Fort culminated in a view of the entire city of Hyderabad. "Shepherd's Hill" is the mine that produced the Hope Diamond and the Daria-I-Noor (a whopping 185 carats). It was home to 7 kings and has 7 walls - the outermost enclosing the city (it is 7 kilometers - 4.1 miles).

Jogesh and Kishore were informative and entertaining, cracking jokes throughout our tour.

We ended the fort tour with a light and sound show (pictures were not allowed). A couple of dogs tried to upstage the show, occasionally barking and running through the stage.

Golconda Fort was stunning. If you only get to see one thing in Hyderabad, a tour of this fort will reveal much of the city's history, as well as unparalleled views.

It was at Golconda Fort, also, that we out-of-place white folks were asked to take our first selfie with the locals. We saw fewer than 10 other white people during our two-day stay, so we imagine it's not common for locals to see many tourists from the states or Europe. Nonetheless, we received many inquisitive looks but never felt unwelcome, and found that many locals spoke English and most were very friendly.

During our drive back to the hotel, we noticed that there were many festive "function halls." We learned that because people's homes are most often too small to entertain, these halls are used for events. There were many, and most seemed to be very "happening."

Our last night in Hyderabad was also more "happening" than we would have liked. Chris was still trying to recover from his cold and jet lag, but received no help from the raging party goers at the hotel. The electronica dance music bumped until 4 a.m. We did, however, receive good news before we left - we found out that Chris's brother, Mike, and my mom sold my car. One less stress and expense to contend with.

Admittedly touristy, I was intrigued by rumors before arriving in India about the insane traffic, as well as the remarkable number of people found riding on a single scooter (the record witnessed by my colleagues was 4 people plus a goat). Before leaving Hyderabad, we witnessed 5 people on one scooter and were privy to observing one traffic collision, as well as experiencing our very own fender bender (a Tuk-Tuk hit our taxi on the way to the airport).

During our departure, we also learned a lesson about the locals: do not trust their time estimations. We followed the advice of, not one but, several people when planning our departure to the airport. Security was mind-numbingly slow. Women were pushing to get ahead and arguing with each other in line. When I heard the last call for our flight, I notified an agent that we were still waiting for security to clear our bags. The agent asked if I was traveling alone, to which I replied that I was not and my partner was in the "males" line. The Air India agent took a look, pointed out Chris to confirm (the agent went out on a limb and assumed my partner was the only other white person in the airport) and helped us make our flight. Suffice it to say, we were the last people to board and extremely impressed and grateful for the over-the-top customer service.

All-in-all, we really enjoyed Hyderabad and found it (especially with our customized tour) to be a great way to ease into India. We got our first taste of the history, strong religious influence, extremely generous people, savory food, and chaotic roads (shared by cars, motorbikes, Tuk-Tuks, people and animals alike). We are also very much looking forward to our next stop in the northern part of India, Rishikesh.

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