In mid-October, after 28 years, I was fortunate to come back to India, the motherland and my birthplace. My mom and sister Savannah came on this journey with me. It was Savannah’s first time visiting India as well. Moreover, India is where my mom was born and grew up. The trip lasted 2 weeks; it went by really fast and our time was jam-packed. Rather than going through the ins and outs of each day, I provide a summary of each city we visit, discuss the culture and accessibility of the country, and also include travel pointers for India. India was definitely the trip of the year and one of the best trips I took in my lifetime.
The main reason we went to India this year was to see another sister of mine, Jennifer. She is studying abroad in India for the semester and has been here since July. The city she was residing in is Hyderabad, the capital and largest city of the recently formed state, Telangana. My mom also spent time in Hyderabad when living in India, so she was very familiar with the city. The main language that is spoken in Hyderabad is Telugu, which is the language my family speaks. This is where we we were for the majority of the trip.
Hyderabad is a bustling historic city of 10 million people, home to the Telugu movie industry (Tollywood) and famous for its high tech industry. A nickname of Hyderabad is “City of Nizams”, because the city was formed by the Nizam ruler Qutb Shahi Ruler Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591. Nizam is the title given to the rulers of Hyderabad and they ruled the capital for 200 years until India gained independence from the British in 1947. While we were in Hyderabad, we took a bus tour and visited famous landmarks during the Nizam rule, such as the Charminar, Golconda Fort, and Chowmahalla Palace.
One of the memorable times in Hyderabad was getting to know Jennifer’s host family. We celebrated Diwali with them, which is the festival of lights and biggest holiday in India. During Diwali, we visited an arts and crafts village called Shilparamam. They had many different vendors selling local items and had representations of various villages in India. We did some shopping here, which is quite an endeavor in India. You get to learn how to haggle with shopkeepers and it’s so tempting to want to buy everything you lay your eyes on.
The first weekend of India was spent in Aurangabad, a city in the western state of Maharashtra. Just 40 minutes outside the city lies the magnificent Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dating back between the 6th and 10th centuries, these are a series of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves. We were able to walk inside the caves and marvel at the intricate carvings, sculptures, and view the rooms that were utilized in ancient times. The biggest attraction of the cave is the Kailasha temple, which is a giant temple that is carved out of a single rock and dedicated to the Lord Shiva, Hindu God of destruction. This was on my mom’s bucket list to visit, and she was really thrilled to see this in person. The temple had so many carvings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and various panels detailing Indian history and Hindu mythology. Truly a sight to see!
Though I loved the Ellora Caves, I was not a fan of Aurangabad. The traffic and congestion was very overwhelming, and there was so much trash lying around.
My favorite part of the trip was Tirupati, my birthplace and my mom’s hometown. A temple town surrounded by the glorious Tirumala Hills, Tirupati holds a special place in my heart. Not only because I was born here but also I really felt God’s presence and got to connect with myself spiritually during my time here. We got to see my mom’s childhood home and visit many temples in and around Tirupati such as the Sri Kalahasti Temple, Kapila Teertham, Japali Hanuman Temple, Kodanda Rama Temple, and Padmavathi Devi Temple.
The most powerful temple of all and in fact one of the most visited and richest temples in the world is the Venkateshwara Swami Temple situated at the top of the Tirumala Hills. Thousands of pilgrims visit the temple each day for a glimpse of Lord Venkateshwara. The act of seeing God is called “Darshan”. Venkateshwara Swami is a representation of the Hindu God Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe. We believe when people visit Tirumala, they are actually visiting Lord Vishnu’s abode. Because it’s so busy here, the temple board and staff have enacted strict policies to maintain the smooth running of the temple. The lines are so crowded and people push and shove each other. Devotees can’t stand in front of God for more than a literal second because the lines have to keep moving so they can get as much people in the temple per day. They organized it to instead of one big line, it’s divided into multiple different lines where people can go at different times of the day. To get to the temple, there are different routes you can take. Two routes you can take by foot and one by driving. My mom and Savannah decided to walk up to the temple. Because the route is very long at least 3000 steps and very vigorous to climb, my mom’s friend came with me and together we drove up the hills.
The original plan for Darshan was for me to get into a special assistance line for senior citizens and people with disabilities. However, I was not eligible because I was not an Indian citizen and because I can walk, they deemed me as able to manage the regular lines. There is a line for non-residential Indians/passport holders but it is still very packed. My mom’s friend has a brother who works at the temple so once my mom and sister came up the hills, he kept us safe and helped us bypass the lines. The temple was adorned in gold and the spiritual energy was so strong. Once we got inside, the brother lifted me up for a glimpse of Venkateshwara Swami. After that, something that never happened in the history of the temple took place for me. I was already stunned by the experience of seeing God but I also got to pray to him longer because we were pulled out of line and were able to see him on the side for 5 minutes! All while the regular lines were still going through quickly. That was an incredible experience and I feel very blessed for it.
Getting Around India & Travel Roadblocks
When coming to India, I anticipated a big culture shock but what surprised me was that because I already feel very deep in the cultural roots and heritage, it was easy for me to be right at home. One thing about India I will not get over though is the crazy traffic! It is very noisy and there is no such thing as obeying road signs or staying in your own lane. Everyone is driving bumper to bumper and every space is filled up by an auto rickshaw or a scooter. I’m telling you, if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. People even casually walk through the traffic and cars won’t stop until they’re so close to hitting them. The chaos really gave us the ride of our lives. Hyderabad has ubers, which we relied on to get to our various destinations. We paid each driver in cash; be prepared to have an uber driver cancel on you if the destination is too far for them or even too close. In Tirupati, my mom’s cousin arranged a cab for us to use the entire time we where there.
Since we were travelling to different cities within India, it felt like most of our time was spent waiting at an airport or on a place. India was 10.5 hours ahead of us and it was easier to adjust to the time change while there. On the other hand, the jet lag hit us harder going back to Chicago. It took me 3 days to get over it. You can’t expect a long trip to be smooth 100% of the time; we definitely had our fair share of obstacles along the way.
The airlines that we took to India and back was Air India. The flight goes straight to India with a stop in Delhi where we change planes to get to Hyderabad. It is the cheapest way to travel to India, but the poorest and slowest customer service I’ve witnessed. We were supposed to leave at 12pm Chicago time on October 16. But the flight was delayed a whole 12 hours later and we didn’t depart until midnight, and didn’t reach Hyderabad until the following morning on October 18. And because we lost some time, we only had a day to get settled in and rest before our 1am flight to Pune the next morning on. The Air India flight was a whopping 15 hours with no stop in between. I had trouble sleeping on the uncomfortable seats and the meals were tasteless. When we were heading home to Chicago, the flight was delayed a couple hours and we were not notified of the change until we got to the airport. Next time we go to India, we will book ahead of time and on a different airline with a layover such as Lufthansa Airlines. No more Air India for me!
TruJet and IndiGo
The only airline that offered direct flights from Hyderabad to Aurangabad was TruJet. This Indian domestic airline also gave us a negative experience. Our flight to Aurangabad was cancelled for no reason so we needed to figure out another way to reach there the same day. We ended up taking a 1am flight to Pune, Maharashtra and booked a bumpy 4 hour cab ride from Pune to Aurangabad. I am still waiting on the refund for the cancelled flight. And in getting back to Hyderabad the next day, the flight was delayed four hours. It never ends! The recommended domestic airline in India to go with is IndiGo. There was one time where we almost missed our flight back to Hyderabad from Tirupati. One of the flight agents was able to help us get through check in and we got there just in time as boarding started.
Accessibility in India
Except for the airports and city malls, India is unfortunately not an accessible and disability friendly country. Unlike the US, there are no established regulations that mandate public places be accessible. A lot of temples and famous historical sites are very old and have not been updated to accommodate people with disabilities. So while most places have stairs, sometimes they could be uneven and hard to climb because of the wide distance between each step. I am able to walk long distances and climb stairs but there were points where I needed extra time to get from one place to another. It was exhausting on the day we did the bus tour in Hyderabad because of all the walking and hiking we did. Getting onto the bus was tricky as well because the first step was too high for me to climb. We brought a portable stool with us for me to use in the airbnbs, and it was beneficial to have my family with me whenever I needed assistance getting around. A couple of the airbnbs had an elevator to get to a higher floor, but it was not big enough for wheelchair/scooter to fit in. There would even be a step up to the bathroom or the main entrance. The roads are not smooth at all and there are no sidewalks; you really have to be alert and careful while finding your way. So if anyone is planning to visit India, I strongly advise not to travel alone and that proper steps are taken for you to ensure that your travel is safe and smooth.
Trip Preparations and Tips
- In order to get to India, you will need your passport and a tourist visa. I include the link here to apply for the visa online.
- As mentioned above, book your flight tickets ahead of time, at least 3-6 months in advance to get the best prices.
- If you’re not staying with family or friends, I recommend booking an accessible airbnb. We stayed at airbnbs in all 3 cities and had a positive experience with each of them.
- Be prepared to wait in line for a very long time while getting through airport immigration. It took us 2 hours to get through immigration in Delhi.
- Do NOT drink the tap water in India. Ask for bottled water or filtered water wherever you go.
- Depending the part of India you’re visiting and how long you’re staying, you may need to get certain vaccinations before you leave. My family and I did not get any vaccinations because our trip was short and we were going to the urban areas.
- Besides the regular toiletries, here are some items you don’t want to forget to pack for India: travel power plug adapter, bug spray, light breezy clothing, international plan/sim card for phone, sunscreen, toilet paper/ flushable wet wipes
- Don’t overpack and leave plenty of space for souvenirs!
- The exchange rate is much less if you exchange dollars to rupees at the airport in India versus the US.
- Comfortable walking shoes are a must!
- Familiarize yourself with common phrases in Hindi and the regional language so you can get what you need and to where you need to go.
- As stated above, light breezy cotton clothing is the way to go in the hot weather. In October, the weather is high 80’s during the day and 70’s at night. There are lots of places in India where people dress conservatively so I don’t recommend wearing shorts. Jeans are common in India, and if you have doubts you can always buy clothing there.
Fun Facts about India
- A dollar goes a long way in India. 1 US Dollar is 70 Indian rupees.
- One observation I had in India is that the people have a very laid back attitude. They don’t seem to be under any pressure or hurry to get somewhere; it’s very easy going unlike the society in the United States.
- Rice and tea is a staple for India. The food can be really spicy and the levels vary depending on what part of India you’re in and who is making the food.
- Biryani is very popular rice dish in Hyderabad
- Common breakfast items: Idly, Dosa, Puri, Upma
- For dinner/Lunch: Rice, Chapati with variety vegetable curries, Dal/Sambar
- Almost every meal is accompanied by yogurt to help cool the spicy food down
- Since India is the 2nd most populous country in the world, be prepared for congestion and LOTS of crowds.
- I did have to deal with lots of people staring. I don’t like to generalize, but Indians tend to stare at everyone who is deemed to be “different.” They can even tell if you’re foreign and not from India. Sometimes it got to the point where I couldn’t ignore it. So I would respond by either greeting them with my hands folded and saying “Namaste” or “Namaskar”, and short phrases like “Kya Chal Raha Hai”, which means “What’s up/what’s going on” in Hindi.
- India has a vast history and is a diversely rich country. Every region and village has their own story to tell. And with its diversity comes a variety of wildlife. You will spot monkeys near temples and lizards crawling up walls.
- Cows are sacred in India; there are plenty of them wandering the streets and people leave them alone.
- Shoes are not allowed inside the temple or on temple grounds. There are designated places to leave them outside.
- Only recently is India is working to better take care of the environment. The sewage and drainage system is not as advanced and so we did experience bad odors from time to time.
- Because the demand of electricity is higher than the supply in India, sometimes there would be power cuts during the day. Hot water is also a commodity; the airbnbs had hot water geysers where you would have to turn the hot water on and wait for some time for it to be ready.
It’s been a month since we went back to India, and I’m still reflecting on the trip and the wonderful experience we had. The next time I visit, I would like to stay for at least 3 weeks to a month. We just scratched the surface of India on this trip, and there is SO much more to cover.
If you have questions or are looking for additional tips, please leave a comment below or contact me directly. Thanks for reading!