Hear about travel to Hyderabad India as the Amateur Traveler talks to Sean Whiting about the city he has called home for more than 4 years. Sean and his wife work at an NGO in Hyderabad.
Sean says, “I just think that India is worthy of your travel interests because there is so much distinction and so much difference in India. It really is so counterintuitive in many ways. The first time you come to India should probably be to the more traditional spots, the Golden triangle, Dehli and Agra with the Taj Mahal. and maybe if you’re going to be here an extended amount of time come down to southern India with Hyderabad as a jumping-off point. Even if you came back a second time, to experience southern India is so much different. It’s a lot less intense. It’s a lot more welcoming in some ways. If you came to India for the first time to southern India, you wouldn’t necessarily say it was chill, but it is in comparison to the north.”
Sean guides us to some of the traditional tourist spots in Hyderabad like the Golconda Fort, the Charminar, and the Chowmahalla Palace but also encourages us to spent time just exploring the countryside, just meeting the people and just sampling the food of southern India.
Hyderabad is both the home to a lot of high tech and modern Indian and also the home to the Palaces of the Nizam and the history of India.
“Every region of India is almost like its own different country. There are 28 states in India and almost all of them speak their own local language. National Geographic Traveler called Hyderabad one of the 20 best places to see in the year 2015. It’s known for its cuisine. It was never actually conquered or controlled by the British during the Raj.”
Hyderabad Travel Guide
Rajiv Gandhi International Airport
Salar Jung Museum
Paradise Food Court
Where to next?
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Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 477. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about bazaars and forts, cricket and the palaces of the Nizam as we go Hyderabad, India. Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen, and without further ado, let’s talk about India. I’d like to welcome back to the show, Sean Whiting. Sean came on the show in episode 115 to talk about his great love for Sweden and meanwhile he’s been unfaithful to Sweden. Sean is now coming to us from Hyderabad, India, where you’ve been living for what, five years now, Sean?
Sean: I’ve been living here about four years. I really can’t imagine a place more different from Scandinavia than India or South Asia.
Chris: And Sean is working with a local NGO there but he has come to talk to us about being a tourist in Hyderabad. Sean, welcome to the show.
Sean: Thank you, Chris, pleasure to be here. I was wondering if now I win some sort of Amateur Traveler award for longest length of time between shows or something, Chris?
Chris: I don’t know. I’m not sure who that would be. I’ll have to look that one up. And what led you to Hyderabad?
Sean: I would like to say it’s the great culprit of a romantic relationship that actually brought me from Sweden with a short stop in Thailand where my wife was doing some volunteer work for a little while and we got married and we had visited India a couple times and just sort of experienced it and said, “You know, there’s so much need in India. It would be really great to go do some kind of overseas work and service for maybe a year or two before we have kids, and before we come back home and kind of get started with the rest of our lives together.” And sure enough, four years later and two children later we’re still here in India, in southern India, actually, in the city of Hyderabad. So I have to blame it on my wife that took me away from my beloved Scandinavia and down here to South Asia.
Chris: And why should we follow you? Why should we come and visit Hyderabad?
Sean: I just think that for a traveler, and I say “for a traveler,” meaning your first time overseas, I would not recommend India; I would recommend a little bit more of a traditional destination perhaps…
Chris: I know people who did their first trip overseas to India and I think that is jumping in the deep end.
Sean: I would say and I was going to say this a little later but they will either love it or hate it based on that, and so but I just really think that India is worthy of your travel interests because there is so much distinction and so much difference in India. It really is so counterintuitive in many ways. And I would say that the first time that you come to India it should probably be to the more traditional spots, the Golden Triangle, which includes Delhi and Agra with the Taj Mahal and just places up in the North. The Taj Mahal is magnificent for all the reasons that people do go see it and everything. So that should be your first trip. And then maybe if you’re going to be here an extended amount of time, come down to southern India with Hyderabad as kind of a jumping off point. But even if you came back a second time, to experience southern India is so much different than it is in the north of India.
It’s a lot less intense. It’s a lot more, I’d say, welcoming in some ways. It’s a lot more… It’s just kind of more laid back like a lot of southern regions of countries just seem to be a little more laid back, whether it’s Italy or other places, and that’s how you feel in India. Now if you came to India for your first time in southern India, you wouldn’t necessarily say it was chill. That’s not the great description of India. But it is in comparison to the north a lot, a lot different. And every region of India is almost like its own different country. There are actually 28 states in India and almost all of them speak their own local language, and it’s kind of astonishing that India even remains one united country because the south and the north are so different and each state in India is just so different.
But I think you come to Hyderabad for a different kind of city in history all together. National Geographic Traveler actually recently called Hyderabad one of the 20 best places to see in the year 2015. It’s known for its cuisine. It very much is about the inclusion of all people. Most of India is, or when you look at statistics of India, it’s 88% Hindu, 10% Muslim, 2% Christian, and a few other religions even lower than that. Here in Hyderabad, it’s actually about 60% Hindu and 40% Muslim. It’s got a history that is unlike the rest of India in that it was never actually conquered or controlled by the British during the Raj. They always had a British residence, which is a way of saying kind of like an ambassador. And Hyderabad, this area, was one of the areas that was controlled by one of the so-called princely rulers or the Nizam. And everywhere you go in Hyderabad you hear all about the Nizams and the history of the Nizams and that was really just kind of the princely ruler who had a nice, diplomatic relationship with the British but was never really…
Chris: And I would say they were allies with the British, if I remember my history correctly.
Sean: They were allies with the French or British, depending on what century it was, etc. They played their cards well and that’s actually a source of pride amongst Hyderabadi people is that they have a little bit of a different history and a whole lot of the things that you might come to see in this area would be connected to that. There’s also a really a well-known literally history in Hyderabad and it’s now actually the fourth largest city in India.
Chris: And that caught me by surprise, yeah.
Sean: Yeah. Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore all have a greater population, but now most populated city isn’t necessarily a reason to come visit from a tourist’s perspective but it just says that a lot of people are coming to Hyderabad and interested and it’s very much one of your up and coming cities around the world.
Chris: Well, and I have, for here in Silicon Valley, as we were talking about before we started recording, I think of Hyderabad as one of the tech centers, sort of Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad as being three of the important centers in India that we’re interacting with from this point of view.
Sean: Sure. And one of the major areas of Hyderabad that is kind of new is called actually High Tech City here in Hyderabad and that’s a major part of the growing identity of Hyderabad for sure. In fact, the new Microsoft CEO is originally from Hyderabad.
Chris: Oh, right. I do remember that. Satya Nadella?
Sean: Correct. Yeah.
Chris: What kind of Itinerary would you recommend for Hyderabad?
Sean: Well, first I would say fly into Hyderabad and see one of the more recently built airports, I think, in the world. This one opened in 2008. And then I would say… Let’s say you were doing a southern itinerary. I would give it about three or four days in Hyderabad for just a kind of new and very, in some ways, very mysterious city that is of course a little bit different than the rest of India, and then maybe give three or four days for the western coast, whether it be the more reserved town of Goa or three or four days down in the more well-known area of Kerala with its back waters and hill stations. It’s really kind of got a mystique to it. And then I want to recommend something a little bit different for a couple days and that’s to do your best to get out into maybe some of the villages or some of the more non-touristed areas of southern India, which is such an important part of really knowing about and understanding India. We can get into that a little bit.
Chris: I do want to recommend two companion episodes that take place in southern India and they’re both older. One we did on Kerala already and then we did another one that’s an unusual one about the Enduro 1,000, which was a motorcycle tour across rural India. And so that you’re going to have to go way back in the archives to find that one. I think that may have been before you and I talked at episode 115.
Sean: Yeah. Okay.
Chris: Let’s take a break here and hear from our sponsor. Again, this episode is sponsored by me. We do have a new video course that’s coming, which is a course on hosting with Airbnb. And as I mentioned on last week’s show, my wife and I have been hosting on Airbnb now for a number of months, have had so far only good experiences and we have either paid for our mortgage or mostly paid for our mortgage, which either gives us more money to travel or in my case also made it easier, the fact that I’m not working full time right now and I’m trying to make a go of some other things. So if you’ve got a spare room, Airbnb might be a good option for you. You can learn more about it on my upcoming video course. If you’re interested, get on the waiting list at AmateurTraveler.com/Airbnb.
Sean: So flying to Hyderabad and, like I said, discover this region of the Nizams.
Chris: Okay. And how are we going to do…? I’m going to pin you down a little. Be a little more specific. Where do we start on the first day?
Sean: I think as far as the things you should see, there is the Golconda fort, which is up on a hill, still to this day very much isolated and set apart where you can see over the entire city. And of course, it was such a main place for the protection of Hyderabad all through the years. It was built in, I believe, the 1500s and it’s crumbling now, of course, and it’s not restored in the same manner it may have been 300 or 400 years ago but it still is a great example and a real good experience of just kind of hopping around a site and almost feeling like you can do a little bit of a hike to the top and then experiencing and seeing all of Hyderabad in that way. So that’s the Golconda fort.
Chris: And you say a hike to the top. Pardon my interruption. Is that the way you would recommend to get there? I’m not sure how we would get around Hyderabad in the first place.
Sean: I think you would go… From the airport you’d obviously head to, I would say, a mid-range hotel that might be anywhere from $30 to $50 or so.
Chris: And we’d just catch a cab is how we would get around?
Sean: Yes. And you can easily catch… There would be many different options at the airport for getting you into town. If you’ve made reservations ahead of time it would be really good to ask if they have airport shuttle or something. And then you’d get to your location, settle in, and then you’d have any number of whether it be taxis or even airport shuttles. There’s a lot of really good tours that take you around the Hyderabad area if you wanted to do a specific type of tour.
Chris: Well, which ones would you recommend?
Sean: So Detours India is a really good Hyderabad based tour company that depending on what you are interested in and what you might like is going to take you on any number of tours, be it cuisine oriented, or historical city oriented, or even like arts and crafts oriented types of tours. Each tour is in between three and five hours and a fairly reasonable price depending on what it is, and that’s a really good way, I think, to start out and get used to and oriented a little bit with the city because it can be… the word that’s often used for people coming to India… it can be pretty overwhelming, and you can get a little disoriented here and there, and to have somebody kind of come in and help you get acclimated would be really good. So you could do the historical tour and then visit the fort, as well as the area called the Charminar, which is basically like an Arc de Triomphe of Hyderabad, a large structure with, it was formerly a mosque and in parts it still is, but it’s very much like the gate, the gate of Hyderabad, if you will, and the center of the old city area. So you can go up into the Charminar and take a look at the city and see what it is that attracts so many people to Hyderabad, and at the same time you look down at the bazaar that is directly beneath you. It’s just one of the largest bazaars in India and has everything you’d ever imagine, whether it be textiles, or jewelry, or spices.
Chris: and when your friends come to visit you what do they end up buying at the bazaar?
Sean: They usually buy textiles, saris, especially like women who love to be able to dress up much like the Indian women. It’s actually a great way to get to know locals would be to go to these markets and choose from a number of very affordable, of course, different types of clothing. And then just learning to put on a sari for a woman is such a great way to kind of have some fun interaction with local women who understand that putting on a sari is not a natural thing and can take a lot of time, and it can be a very Indian experience in that way. And then of course spices. I think a lot of people love to buy spices to take home. Those are obviously something that southern India, in particular, is famous for and even empires have battled for for centuries.
But other places in the more old city area, there is Chowmahalla Palace, which was restored by the last Nizams a couple hundred years ago, and there’s four different types of architectural styles in this one palace. So that’s a really interesting thing to go through. But what the traveler needs to know about Hyderabad and really anywhere in India is it’s different, of course, than say European travel in that forts are now replacing cathedrals and palaces are replacing museums in that sense. There’s not really any one museum in Hyderabad that I would say the foreigner needs to come and check out and that the traveler needs to see. There’s the Salarjung Museum, which has a lot of artifacts and miniature paintings if you really want to see a museum or something. But really it’s about the forts, and the palaces, and the religious centers, and then experiencing the food and the cuisine and really just putting yourself in position to be able to talk to people. They will really, really be so interested in you choosing India, in you choosing Hyderabad, in why you’ve come, what your country is, and whether you’ve had the biryani, which is one of the famous cuisines that they have.
Chris: One of my favorites. You mentioned interacting with the locals and trying on a sari, for instance, was one way to do it. Do you have practical suggestions that when you want to meet the locals this is a great place to go or this is a great activity to do?
Sean: Yeah, in addition to just kind of spontaneous things, whether it’s learning to make biryani or learning to put on a sari or get some henna put on; I guess, still if you were a woman, you can have henna put on. At any time you can talk about India’s beloved national pastime, cricket, and that will get you in with some people.
Chris: But when you say you could talk about it, is there a place where those conversations happen? So if you’re in Turkey, it’s in the tea house. If you’re in Vienna, it’s in the coffee house.
Sean: Certainly over meals, any restaurant you went into. The unique part too about coming to India, as a traveler, you are going to be standing out, of course, and you’re going to be known as a traveler and there’s no way around that and you shouldn’t avoid that. That’s great and you are welcome. So when you go into a restaurant you’re going to attract people’s attention. And really, Chris, they’re going to come talk to you has been my experience. Of course I have a child and so that opens a door a lot for people to [inaudible 00:16:59]. Anyone that I’ve hosted or had here has had people come up to them and just be so interested. “Can I take your picture?” “Can I take a picture with you?” “What country do you come from?” “What do you think of India?” with a real genuine spirit about them that just brings such a warm feeling about the country. There’s really rarely, as long as you’re smart, there’s just really rarely any threat or any feeling of ever feeling at all insecure or out of place when you’re amongst many, many Indians all at once. And you’ll be in lots of places where there’s just a lot of people all around, whether it’s a market or even a real popular restaurant or street front cafe or whatever it might be.
Chris: And you’ve mentioned popular restaurants or restaurants a couple times. Suggestions? Where would you take people?
Sean: Specifically the place in Hyderabad that’s really well known for this biryani. The biryani is a special kind of rice that is a little bit lengthier. I think I’ve heard it’s even picked in a special way. And the most popular kind of rice that’s used right now is called basmati rice and then you just add nutmeg, and pepper, and cloves, and cardamom, and cinnamon, and even like coriander, and mint, and it can just be such a really wonderful meal with so much flavor. And it really originated, most people point to Hyderabad as the place that this dish originated. A lot of people will say it has some Persian elements that have come in over or that came in many hundreds of years ago, and now it’s been developed a little bit more in Hyderabad. But it’s very much the kind of iconic food for this area. The place you should go, there is a number of restaurants throughout the city called Paradise, and that’s a well known place that a lot of our Indian friends love to go for their biryani. But honestly, most anywhere you go, if someone is serving biryani, it’s going to be their specialty; it’s going to be the dish that they take such pride in. Especially if they are serving it to someone who’s non-Indian they will make sure… There’s even a very, very intricate and delicate way that they prepare it for a few hours at least. You can order the biryani in just about any comfortable restaurant that there might be in town.
Chris: Excellent. You mentioned three to four days in a Hyderabad. I’m not sure I have a picture of how I’m spending those three or four days so far. I’ve got the fort and I went to the palace. Any other…?
Sean: You did the old city.
Chris: I did the old city.
Sean: You did the old city and the one more thing I would…
Chris: And that’s going to take about a day, a day and a half is my take?
Sean: You know what? Whatever it looks like on an agenda, cut that agenda in half. I would say most likely try to do say the Charminar, this gateway to India and the palace, maybe over the course of three to five hours with even a meal in between, plus the bazaar. That would be a whole day in and of itself. And what I’m trying to say, Chris, I guess, is that if you come to India and you have a very full itinerary because you hopefully have done a little bit of research, it’s going to get foiled, and how you manage that will dictate a lot of the kind of experience that you have. And that’s why it’s really a good place for more of a seasoned traveler to come so they can kind of roll with it because it’s going to be important to let yourself adjust as you go.
Chris: And you say it’s going to be foiled. So there’s a couple different ways we can go there. One is it’s going to be foiled by something’s going to really go wrong and you can’t tell me what it is because it’s hard to predict. And two is just getting around the city with the traffic and those sort of things means that I need to allow more time for things. Is it a combination of those, or…?
Sean: I would say, Chris, it’s a combination of those. It really is just kind of a place where… Let’s just say it’s an event oriented culture rather than a time oriented culture. 10:00 am could mean 10:20 or 10:45 even.
Chris: Can you give us an example of how that’s played out in the four years that you’ve been there?
Sean: We tell our driver, and I should say that you, if you’re going around the city and you’re going long distances or in any kind of tour you should definitely hire a driver. No travelers come to India and rent a car themselves. It’s just not worth it. It’s very cheap to be able to have a driver and a car and that’s the way that you should be able get around. So you might tell your driver, “Please pick us up at 9:30 am because we will have had breakfast at 8:30 as we’re getting up to start our day.” And you come down from your hotel and they said that breakfast was going to start around 8:30 in the morning and around 8:55 the first things are being served and so you’ve been sitting there for 20 minutes. And then you have your breakfast and you’re looking at your watch because your driver’s going to be there at 9:30 so you run upstairs to brush your teeth and get ready for your day and you’re downstairs at 9:31 wondering if you’re late, and the driver is not quite there and you’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And around 9:50 or so your driver finally arrives and says, “So sorry, so sorry. There was traffic and things.” And you say, “That’s really nice. That’s okay. No worries.” And then you get in the car and you get going, and you wanted to be at the Charminar by 10:00 because that’s when you’ve maybe heard the bazaar has opened or whatever. You’re actually getting there around 10:30, an hour and a half after it opened because today was a special holiday, and so it opened early. And then you get to the bazaar and you are completely disoriented at the bazaar and you have to kind of gather yourself and you’re not sure exactly where your driver went to park the car or if you have the right phone number for him to call him or whatever. You go up the Charminar, and you take a look, and then all of a sudden you realize, “I am so hungry because I didn’t quite get what I needed at breakfast.” And you need to stop and get some food somewhere along the way. And one thing just kind of leads to another and all the sudden you’ve done two of the five things on your agenda and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon and there’s been a slight downpour of rain that’s holding you up well. And so that’s why I’m saying you have to really experience…
Chris: Thank you. That helped. Okay.
Sean: And not really have some agenda that’s meant more for Vienna or London. You may as well just put your watch away. That might be helpful at times so that you’re not so geared to our western oriented time.
Chris: So you’ve lived there for four years?
Chris: Tell me about the moment that you knew you had adjusted to India.
Sean: One time we were asking, at this time we have a staff member, not so much a driver but a staff member who is a part of our organization who is taking us on a six-hour journey, actually out to see some of the villages where we are working, and something’s happened in his family and so he’s an hour and a half late and our whole day is off because we already have this long journey and it involves things that we’re doing for work and everything, so it’s even a little bit different and just kind of have to look at each other and say, “Okay.” And I like to say that you can have plan A, and plan B, and plan C, and then plan D might be the one that actually comes about. And you just need… If you’re able to embrace that, and roll with that, and be okay with that, then you’re going to have a wonderful experience in India.
Chris: Sean, one of the questions I usually ask is “What’s going to surprise me about Hyderabad?” And I feel like everything so let’s not bother with that question. I’d like you to think of one day that Hyderabad surprised in a great way.
Sean: We were traveling and staying in a hotel. Page was… Again, it was in our first year of being here. Page was trying to put on her sari and was just having a little bit of trouble. She had done it successfully a couple times but it was a new sari and she wasn’t able to do it as well as she knows that it needs to be done. And so what we had to end up doing was calling on one of the attendants in our hotel, one of the females in our hotel, and she came in and she helped Page put it all together, and put it on just so beautifully and so wonderfully, and there was such a pride in her work, in her being able to serve us in that way, and her being able to help us that the hotel gathered their whole staff together and gathered Page and I and took pictures of us, and they called it for hotel morale. But it was so wonderful to be able to let them help us in that way and that’s something I would really encourage people to do. You’re going to be in position to let indigenous culture, Indians here, help you and offer to give you service and direction and join you and say, “Let me come with you and show you how to do this.” And for the most part you really need to be able to embrace that and not have, say, an independent traveler spirit that says, “No, no, no. I can do it. I can do it on my own. Just point me in the right direction.” There is a warmth of desire and wanting to help that should really be accepted and embraced by the traveler coming through India. And if we had put off this woman who wanted to help us with the sari and just put on some western clothes and then gone about our day, we probably would have gone and had a good day but we would have missed such a key cultural and local interaction.
Chris: Here’s a question for you. I want you to think of two times, one when Hyderabad just seems so familiar, just so much like home, I can’t believe how similar it is, and the other the opposite, a day when you thought, “I could easily be on Mars. This is just so foreign.”
Sean: This is the uniqueness of India in many ways. When you are in, say, in a metropolitan city, a certain part of the metropolitan city, so let me say the commercial part of some of the metropolitan cities, say, even in Hyderabad there is big huge malls; there is really nice areas that look very generic, I would say, to a lot of other big cities. Those can be found even here in southern India. That’s a time when I say, “Oh, this is very similar to home.” And obviously, when you’re living here, that can be somewhat refreshing. As a traveler, I would say avoid those places. Don’t go to the big malls, of course. Stay in the areas that are that are more unique towards the travelers. So I would say there is the opportunity, just like in other big metropolitan cities, to have experiences that might be more similar to being home. And then there’s the other extreme that you were talking about, when I know I’m a long, long way from southern California, and I’m going to give you actually two answers. One is going to be, it’s so cliché, but if you are in a car or any method of transport anywhere, it is a pure adventure for the person who is not used to it. I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous, although a lot of people do think they might be closer to a head on collision in India than they’ve ever been other places. But the driver is never flinching and perfectly in control and perfectly in charge. It’s just not efficient or orderly to the foreign perspective.
And then the other one is lines, or queuing, or lack thereof. It just doesn’t happen. So you might be in line at the market or in line, say, picking up some medicine, or just doing anything you might do in your travels, and you’re just watching so amazed and probably even offended because six people have cut in line and these are hospitable, wonderful people? Yes, they are. They just operate on a different mindset about how you go about these things. I would say get aggressive, and you might even have to cut somebody else off and you’ll be surprised to know that they’re actually expecting that because that’s how it works in the sense in the driving, as well as when you’re queuing up or getting in line to purchase something, or ask a question, or doing something that others are doing at the same time. Just cut yourself through. Make your way through. And do what you need to do and everyone else is kind of adjusting to that and expecting that to happen.
Chris: I was just looking up… You were talking about how it’s not like it’s unsafe. And I thought, “Well, how unsafe is it?” So I looked up, by country, traffic related death rates. Talk about going onto a negative place here. The safest place to be in terms of… well, the federated states of Micronesia and Maldives, but there’s just not a lot of roads there. The safest country that I could think of of any size is Norway, apparently with just a little less than three road fatalities per 100,000 people. By comparison, United Kingdom a little more than three, US about three times that, and then India, more than the US but not twice as much, so about six times as much as the United Kingdom.
Sean: A lot of why we say that, Chris, is because so often you just don’t get going very fast because you’ve got traffic or the roads are bumpy. And this is a very interesting take on that. We have an Indian staff member who has been to the United States, and he said he has never been on more dangerous roads than in the United States. We look at him very puzzled and said, “Explain. How come?” He said, “The roads are so smooth and so straight you can get going so fast and you can fall asleep,” and nobody on Indian roads is falling asleep and you can’t get going very fast because of bumps and other things that are just in the road that you have to be aware of. So we thought that to be a good lesson on different perspectives of what driving, in a sense, is all about in different places.
Chris: And to finish that thought, the two countries you least want to be driving or in a car are Dominican Republic, oddly enough, with more than almost four times the amount of traffic fatalities of the US, and Eritrea, which you are not likely to be in.
Sean: Probably not. But I never thought I’d be in India.
Chris: There you go. So I’ve got a few more questions of this sort for you before we go to wrap this up. Is there anything else specific though you can think of that we ought to see, do, or eat?
Sean: Part of the experience of India is the contrasts and the extremes. So on one sense, you’ve got lavish India with the palaces, and the opulence, and kind of that colonial India feel. And then of course on the other end, you’ve got the poverty. So I want to say that you, to really experience India, should get a little bit of both. Here in Hyderabad there is a restored palace that is now a hotel that is upwards of five stars and $500 a night, which in India is just an incredible amount of money. No, I’m not recommending that your listeners actually stay at this hotel, but I am recommending that they go have tea so that they can experience this sort of lavish India in a way that is very authentic and that Indians do take a lot of pride in.
Chris: And the name of the hotel is?
Sean: It is called the Taj Falaknuma, F-A-L-A-K-N-U-M-A, Falaknuma.
Chris: So it’s now owned by the Taj hotel chain?
Sean: Correct. The Taj hotel chain has restored it and this, I believe, was, or I know it was, the last palace that the Nizams had so there is a very historical element to this palace, of course. And it was built, I believe, as late as the early 1800s and then restored just recently to where it is now. And it’s overlooking the whole city as well. So you go up, of course, this hill to the palace. They welcome you like you are a king and a queen and they escort you to your table or your room, whatever you’re there for, and you can just have tea for, say, $10 a person or something like that. And it’s very much an experience, and it’s very much a part of what India is. And then you go down the hill after tea and you head to maybe a store front biryani shop where you see a lot of other locals attending. Much like other countries, if you see a lot of locals there then, you know what, it’s probably fairly healthy and you can trust it. Use your instincts. And then you go have your dinner, which is biryani, for about one fifth the price of what your tea was at the Taj Falaknuma. And that’s just a fun way to experience India and the extremes that it has.
So The Taj Flaknuma. And then I would say that as far as eating, southern India is known for its triumvirate of vegetarian cuisine. I’ve talked a lot about the biryani, which you can also add chicken and mutton, which is like a lamb, and then egg to it if you want. And then for breakfast they have this wonderful crepe-like bread sort of thing. It’s called dosa, D-O-S-A. And inside dosa you can put any number of things, from potatoes to onions, the spices, to even just having it plain and having it with a lot of the famous Indian chutneys. So this is very much a wonderful and beloved breakfast. Here in India people have their dosa. You can get it on the street if you’d like and it’s certainly available in many, many of the hotels.
And then for lunch, perhaps my favorite meal when I’m here in Hyderabad, is called thali, T-H-A-L-I, and it’s one big platter, and on that platter you might have about seven or eight small, different tins. And to us it would look like a classic sampler platter of all that the restaurant has to offer. And in it you’ll have different dahls, which is like the cooked lentils, different curries, be it the potato curry or even pannier curry, which is basically like Indian cheese, and then other different types of vegetarian options to go with rice or flatbreads. Naan. People know of the Indian naan. That’s pretty much a northern flatbread. In the south they have what’s called roti, R-O-T-I, or even in the villages you have chapati, and you can get any number of different kinds of flatbreads with this kind of lunch thali sampler platter.
Chris: And what is chapati? How is it different?
Sean: Chapati is a little bit thicker. It’s a little bit more greasy. Roti is very much like a tortilla. It’s a little bit thinner than that, but it’s likened to that.
Chris: I think of roti being crisper. Am I on the right track?
Sean: It could be. Yeah, definitely more than a tortilla. It’s crisper than a tortilla, yeah. So you’ve got this thali sampler platter with all kinds of different flavorful foods and they just keep on bringing it, as much as you need. So in a sense, thali is an all you can eat specialty, along with something sweet for dessert in one of the little tins, as well as something that can serve as… We haven’t talked anything about the spicy food but a lot of the food here in this part of India is very spicy and you can have something on that platter that helps to dull the spice after a nice, hot Indian meal. So you’ve got dosa for breakfast, thali for lunch, biryani for dinner. That is one fantastic southern Indian Hyderabad day of eating and that’s an important part of any experience in India.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we should make sure we cover before we get to my last four questions?
Sean: I haven’t talked like I thought about the villages. If you want to experience a part of India that is truly unique that guidebooks and companies would not necessarily have any kind of tour for or recommend, I would say get out to some of the villages somehow, some way, obviously doing so in a very safe way. Ask the tourist information centers if they have any kind of connection or relationship with any of the places just outside of a major city, so if you drove like an hour outside the city and were able to somehow partake in a home meal in a village. It really is the experience of a majority of India. You hear about the rise of India and we talked about high tech India, and that really only involves maybe 200 to 300 million people of India, leaving 800 million still in the rural and agricultural areas. I just really emphasize that full experience of India and especially one that you may not and you would have in comparison to others who would never have this kind of experience. To somehow be welcomed into a village home for a meal, one, would be such an honor for that family to host you, and two, would be such a wonderful experience for you.
But you would need to have somebody to kind of be your guide or your help in that. The tourist information center might look at you a little puzzled, and then look at each other and say, “Well, you have an uncle and an aunt who live in such-and-such village, and maybe they would be interested to host you.” And it might be a day’s experience or at least an afternoon and into an evening. Make sure you go with someone that you trust, whether it’s connected to a hotel or connected to a travel agency, or connected to the tourist information center. And then just throw that out there. So if you’re doing a southern Indian itinerary, three or four days in Hyderabad, three or four days in Kerala, maybe set aside a couple days for what can be just kind of described as village India, and you might have an experience that you just never could have planned and never could have expected, but that was one of the biggest impressions of your trip.
Chris: Last four questions. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in all of Hyderabad. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Sean: I would definitely want to take you back to the Charminar. You’ve just hiked up some stairs to get to the top, no elevators at something built in the 1500s, and you’re standing there and you look straight down, and you see the auto rickshaws, the little yellow cars that look like little Tonka cars or something, just going all over the place, and honking, and having their horns going continually, and just giving that rhythm to the Indian city that you will already be familiar with. And then you look around and you see as far as the eye can see one of the biggest markets and bazaars that you’ve ever seen. And it’s full of locals. These are people who live here, that have walked, say, two kilometers from their home to get their fruits and vegetables for the day, or to pick up their spices, and they’re going to the market like we go to the grocery store. You would see very, very few foreigners, even in the middle of an old city in what would be considered one of the most touristed parts of the of the city. You just won’t see that many other foreigners.
And then you look over and you see this Chowmahalla palace, which is restored and open for people to come in and experience what it must have been like a few hundred years ago in this very part of the city, and you’re just thinking, “I am no longer in a European capital, and for that matter, this isn’t Kansas anymore either.” This is definitely travel and experience of other places in this world and cultures that you could never have imagined that you’d be able to experience, and that is what Hyderabad offers the traveler coming through to experience India.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Hyderabad, only in India.”
Sean: I’d like to share, actually, a story I’ve been unable to share yet, just about cricket. At any time you’d be able to go out and find a group of kids maybe who are playing cricket. And if you showed some interest they may very well give you the bat and say, “Good luck.” And they may even say it in English because English is so widely spoken throughout India. And then they’ll throw the ball, and if you have any kind of experience playing American baseball you’ll swing the cricket bat much like a baseball bat because that’s what I did and they looked at me after one swing and said, “You swing like a baseball bat.” And I thought to myself, “Well, yeah, that’s my culture and country.” I didn’t know there was a big difference. I thought with cricket you just sort of swung a little bit more towards the ground like a golf club but still ended up more like a baseball swing. Turns out I was completely wrong and they, of course, went on to show me over the next 20 minutes how I was swinging so poorly and what I should do to improve my swing and how they can do it so much better and that made me chuckle and laugh, because of course, that’s just a very, very native experience and certainly so unique to the Indian culture is cricket, although of course it’s played in many other of the British Commonwealth countries.
Chris: Finish this sentence. “You really know you’re in Hyderabad when…”
Sean: You really know you’re in Hyderabad when you are finishing off a wonderful biryani that you…
Chris: I thought biryani might be involved in this.
Sean: …that you have adjusted to the spice level over the last few days, and you’ve really kind of enjoyed it, and you can just kind of sit back, and you look around, and there’s a few eyes that have wandered towards your table, and you can tell that somebody wants to come up and talk to you and wants to find out what country you’re from and maybe even take a picture, or in the case of my wife and I, they want to hold your baby and take your baby all around the restaurant, showing off your two-year old, or your six-month old, in our case. And you just have this wonderful experience of being in a place completely unfamiliar but you start to feel like maybe it’s becoming a little more familiar, even after just a few days, because of the warmth of the people, because of the uniqueness of the food, and if you’ve spent a little time that day in the old city and are starting to become familiar a little bit with how to adjust to Indian culture, then you can really just kind of sit back and say, “This was a wonderful day in Hyderabad.”
Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize Hyderabad in just three words, what three words would you use?
Sean: Well, first of all exhilarating. It’s just exhilarating to be in this culture, and to be challenged in many ways, and it can be very much a rush. And if you are one who is interested in cultures, and people, and geography, and places, and you’ve come a long, long way, then you’re not going to be disappointed. It’s going to be very exhilarating. Similar to that, I would say that another word that I would use is boundaries. And I say boundaries because your boundaries are probably going to be pushed at different times. And that’s part of the experience. That’s part of coming here is, like I said, adjusting your expectations a little bit, and easing off of the agenda, and just really being able to adjust. But your boundaries and your expectations will get changed around a little bit and that’s really part of travel and part of why a lot of people really promote and encourage travel is because you need to let it change you. And that can be a real positive part of coming to India with the right mentality.
And I think the last word, I may have used this a little bit earlier but we find ourselves using so often, is the word raw. India is just very raw because of those extremes. You’ve got, of course, the rich and poor right next to each other. People are well aware of that. You’ve also got such beauty and even such ugliness, for lack of a better term. Something that might be shoved aside in other countries or pushed away in other countries is sitting right next to something that is beautiful. So you’ve got rich and poor, beauty and ugliness, life and death even that’s just right next to each other and it’s just all a part of life. And there’s no facades and there’s no shiny exteriors in India. Where would they begin to start if they wanted to just create this shining exterior? So you just leave with this impression that India is very raw. It’s life in the raw, for good and for bad. And again, it’s something that really changes you if you let it. It’s important, I think, to kind of press into the poverty in some ways. That can really strike you if you’ve never experienced it or seen it if you come to India, and especially if you do an itinerary similar to what I have talked about. You’ll be exposed to some poverty and there’s really no way to avoid it when you come here, nor should you. And so I would really encourage just to kind of experience it and wrestle with it and be exposed to the rawness of India for good and for challenging at times.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest, again, has been Sean Whiting. Sean, thank you so much for coming back on the Amateur Traveler after so long a hiatus.
Sean: Thank you, Chris, such a pleasure.
Chris: And sharing with us a little bit of your, I want to say, accidental love affair with the Hyderabad, India.
Sean: That is true. Thank you very much for having me on. I’ll see you in another seven years.
In News Of The Community, I have not forgotten about the question, “Where we will go next for Amateur Traveler, for an Amateur Traveler trip.” But we’re a little deadlocked. We could really use your help. Please join the Facebook group at AmateurTraveler.com/trip. You’ll have to apply to join that. We don’t take just anyone, you know. And then give us your vote in terms of where we should go next because we haven’t got a clear winner just yet. I heard from Janet recently who said, “Hi, Chris. I love your podcast and like to use Apple TV to show the pictures in the enhanced version on my big screen TV. The details show up very well; however lately I’ve had trouble seeing the pictures. I hear the video fine. I typically use Downcast as my pod catcher but since I was having trouble with that I decided to try iTunes. I have paid for the enhanced version through iTunes. I can go through your website and watch it there, pictures and all. I do like to download your excellent podcast for times when I don’t have Internet access though. Do you have any ideas for what I need to change to see the pictures? I have watched some of your podcasts two or three times and want you to know how much I enjoy them. Thanks for any help you can provide, Janet.”
I was a little concerned that she has paid for the enhanced versions because the enhanced version is free. So I don’t know who you paid. But there has been problems. Basically, an Apple engineer who used to work for me talked me into doing this enhanced show almost exactly 10 years ago today. But recently they have been having trouble supporting it, and it has broken a few times. Now I find that I use Downcast also and that it is working again in Downcast. So I did suggest to Janet she try that again but if anyone else is having that problem I did want you to know as well. We’ll keep the enhanced version going until Apple just finally breaks it, or we just can’t do it anymore because the tools don’t support it, which is actually becoming a problem. I can’t use the new version of Garage Band because they took out support for this version.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have questions, send an email to host at AmateurTraveler.com or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com or join us in the Facebook group, either the private one for the trips, AmateurTraveler.com/trip, or just the AmateurTraveler Facebook group. You can follow me on Pinterest, Instagram or Twitter @Chrisxx, I may even still have a MySpace profile. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.