Finding the real India with Explore – Part 2

The Basics

Some of the basics first – you will have to apply for a tourist e-visa online (approximately $60) and include details of a contact in India as well as places you are visiting. All this information is provided by Explore so it is easy enough to do. Allow plenty of time, but mine only took two days to come through by email. Make sure you print this and take it with you as the security checks at Indian airports are more time-consuming than USA, including biometric data.

Checking in at Heathrow was fine although we found it odd that Oman Airways check-in asked if we had firearms or skateboard in our hand luggage! We were also advised to wait until we got to India before we changed currency as rupees are restricted and at a very poor exchange rate outside the country. Hyderabad There are ATMs available but at present they have currency shortages so you are restricted to weekly amount of cash you can withdraw. Take sterling in notes to change at the arrival airport.

Remember to check with your local GP what injections you might need, if any, and again allow plenty of time for the after-effects! This tour does not appear as high-risk malaria region so that is a bonus, but you will definitely need to take your high-level mosquito spray.

You soon feel excited when you land and are greeted by our guide Indira. Even the trip from Hyderabad airport is fascinating view of the real India. There is a lot of construction work going on, especially the new Metro system which should certainly make a difference. Indira told us that the buying power of the people is very high here, with a similar proportion of Muslim and Hindu populations.

Sensing the real India

Thali is a typical platter of several meat or vegetable dishes, with small puffy bread common in Southern India, and plain rice plus pickles. All vegetarian, bit doughy and stodgy for me (I can’t eat bread generally) but the others in the group loved them. Food is a crucial element of the tour and we were able to try lots of different foods at every meal to sample different textures, tastes and colours, but every meal is spicy, including breakfast, so you need to enjoy Indian spiced food. There is little choice apart from this. Everything not spicy is sweet. Tea is always boiled with sugar and a form of condensed milk, and coffee is also boiled in the same way. If you ask for black coffee it will still be sweetened already! Every meal includes rice, chapatti, papadums, naan bread, so it does depend on what your normal diet is to how you will cope.

Thali from South India You have to wipe plates and utensils before use, even in restaurants, and stick to boiled water not the tap water they automatically serve in restaurants. The crucial routine is hand-wash gel before and after eating. Even some seasoned travellers in our small group suffered some minor ill-effects over the trip. Toilet facilities are potentially a source of entertainment or dismay – many are the open squat versions rather than the western WC we have grown to love, so you may need to practice your squat position before leaving home. Even more interesting in the tourist sites were ladies’ facilities with open side-by-side squats (requires a guard at the main door then …). Cannot comment on the gents’ facilities.

We covered a lot of miles over the tour, through villages, industrial areas and the vast countryside as well as the cities where we stayed overnight. As we expected, there were cows wandering down the centre of dual carriageways, sitting along the side of the street or exploring. There were lots of goats climbing over walls, hedges or rubbish bins, and lots of dark grey hairy pigs snuffling around. I did see half a dozen monkeys sat on the roof of a little shop in a crowded, busy village street but not any out in the countryside (except at tourist attractions). White egrets are often standing with the cows, neither seeming to bother about the other’s company.

Goats at home Some very Heath-Robinson approaches to building homes, small shacks covered in sheets of fabric or plastic held down with bricks, tyres or lumps of wood. Some of the homes are very close to the massive wind farms, turbines helping to feed the growing demand for power. Families work in the fields together, agriculture based on cereal crops, random bright yellow sunflower heads popping up amongst tall grasses, and long stems left from sugar cane harvest cut and stacked in corners or piled loosely. This is often shredded and used as animal feed supplement or the strongest lengths used as roofing material. The sugar cane itself makes a fantastically refreshing drink when pushed through a mangle with fresh lime, and not as sweet as we expected.

The great thing about being on the tour bus is the opportunity to spot little cameos of local life – a man standing on top of a sack of bright green chillies, freshly picked from the nearby field, packing them tightly into the net to sell by the roadside; fields of white dots, a young woman with two children plucking the soft white puffs of cotton; an impromptu visit to a micro sugar cane factory (health and safety look away now) where they process the cane to produce a sweet fudge-like product.

Sugar cane and lime drink Further along the journey, heading westwards towards the coast, there are palm trees, rice fields, sunflower crops and green dessert grapes protected by nets – not for wine apparently! The soil changes from deep red, a thick layer of red dust covering the area around Gulbarga, a blanket covering strange shapes of houses, bikes, tyres along the roadside, to the richer brown of the agricultural areas on way to Bijapur.

There are checkpoints along the highways as you travel from one Principality to another, sometimes short stretches of road with vehicle permits checked in between (and a fee paid each time). At one point, we were stopped and the guard demanded 200 rupees as he did not accept the tour permit, although it was valid. A few hundred yards up the road, we had to pay again – our driver was not very happy! Roads are very poor, extremely deep potholes and speed bumps every few hundred yards, even on new roads, many of them bunched together as treble rumble strips. Be prepared to bounce around a lot.

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