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India Travel Stories

Exploring Maharashtra with Reality Tours

Hello readers,

Just before summer heat kicked in here in Mumbai, we were busy creating a new experience for you. After a few enquiries and subsequent research, we found out that magnificent ancient cave temples existed not too far from Mumbai. And so, we hopped on a train to Aurangabad to see the sights and stories waiting to be discovered.

Early on a Saturday afternoon, we convened at Dadar Train Station for the Janshatabdi Express train to Aurangabad. We sank into our comfortable seats and armed ourselves with snacks, water, music, and books for the 6 hour train journey. The lull of “chai-chai-chai- kopi-kopi-kopi” came through the aisles as we slept and intermittently woke up to enjoy the scenery.

We arrived at night and were eager to settle into our beds at Zostel. Upon arrival at the hostel, conveniently located close to the train station, we were delighted by not only the design and but also the cleanliness of it. Zostel is the oldest and largest chain of hostels all around India. If you’re looking for a reasonable price for a clean bed and shower, (and to meet like-minded people) Zostel is a good and trusted option.

We quickly got ready for bed as we had an early start the next morning to begin our Maharashtra Trail adventure.

Day one: Ajanta Caves

To fuel our 3.5 hour road trip from Aurangabad to the caves, we stopped by a dhaba (roadside restaurant) for breakfast. Our energy levels shot up after we filled ourselves with poha (flattened rice) and jaggery-sweetened chai. Then we hopped back into our car for a bumpy ride towards Ajanta.

When we arrived, the sun was shining brilliantly above us and we hopped on a tourist bus to get into the complex.

A short ride and a few steps later, we were greeted by a spectacular sweeping view of Ajanta caves. It inspired jaw-dropping, “ooo-ing” and “ahhh-ing” all around us. What stood before us was a vast gorge encircled caves housing Buddhist Art dating back to 2nd century BC. In fact, the Ajanta is far older than its  Ellora Caves.

I’m almost certain we took 15,000 steps or more that day, walking in and out of each cave, up and down the Ajanta Cave complex. We took in the ancient art remaining in the caves and learned about the symbolism in the artwork and sculptures. What a memorable experience! (Tip: ensure you bring plenty of water, as there are no shops in your immediate surroundings)

Day 2:  Ellora Complex, Devgiri Fort, and Bibi Ka Maqbara

First thing in the morning, we hopped into a rickshaw to get us to Ellora Caves. Feeling the crisp morning breeze as our rickshaw cruised through the city roads and outskirts was a treat. Our ride was smooth and before we knew it, we arrived and walked into a whole other world.

Ellora Complex was nothing short of astounding: a fascinating mix of 34 structures from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. We were filled rapture and wonder staring at some of world’s largest monolithic structures. The detailed structures have been chipped and carved over the course of 500 years. The sheer scale and diversity of the complex reflected how various religions had lived in harmony in India’s past.

After exploring an array of remarkably intricate rock-cut caves, temples, and chapels, we took a break and enjoyed a hearty meal. The Ellora Complex could have easily taken a full day of exploration. However, we had a few more stops to make in Aurangabad to ensure we made the most of our time.

To burn off some calories from our lunch, we paid a visit to Devgiri Fort–a glorious 16th century fort overlooking the city. In the spur of a moment, we decided to take an hour to hike up to the top; though we panted and heaved all along the way, the journey was well worth it. At the end, we were rewarded with a stunning view of Auranagabad. The hike up and around its ruins was a sweaty and fun activity. It was the highlight of our day, as we bonded over the burn in our legs and feeling of accomplishment.

Our last stop on our tour around Aurangabad was the famous Baby Taj–also known as BiBi Ka Maqbara. Wandering into the tomb was surreal; we felt like we were in Agra entering the renowned Taj Mahal complex.  The structure was indeed a replica of the Taj! We learned about the details of its creation along with some stories associated with it. (And we posed for a few photos and selfies while we were at it, of course!)

Needless to say, after hours of walking through historic monuments, taking in ancient religious art, and clicking photos galore, we called it a wrap.

Our recce to Aurangabad was what led to the creation of our Maharashtra Trail. We experienced first-hand all the sites, the food, the history of Aurangabad–one of Maharashtra’s best kept secrets. Here we have put together the best itinerary and plan for a weekend trip from Mumbai: perfect for anyone looking for an interesting and action-packed weekend getaway!

Keep your eyes peeled for another blog post about our travels to come.

Much love,

AK

Who run Reality? Girls!

Dear readers and fellow travellers,

Today marks International Women’s Day! (Though in Reality, every day is Women’s Day.) We asked our girls who run the Reality Tours Mumbai office what the day means to them.

Here’s what our formidable ladies have to say:

Evelyn, Reservations Manager

Every day is Women’s Day! I don’t think this day should be only for a day. I believe in gender equality. It is no doubt that women have contributed to our society and we have proved time and time again that we are no less. I’m proud to be a woman!

Simran, Tour Guide

I think Women’s Day is particularly important because we need to celebrate togetherness. Together we must remember our moments and achievements together. We–both women and men–need to support one another to achieve our goals to become successful, to live our dreams.

Think of Mahatma Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule who started the first school for girls in Pune in 1848. We are celebrating all people who have helped the plight of women. We are celebrating our sisterhood. Happy Women’s Day!

Laxmi, Tour Guide

Women represent strength, courage, love. Today we celebrate women’s day, but really, it’s not just a single day!

Priya, Tour Guide

We celebrate women’s day to give importance to the women in our world. It’s a reminder to treat each and every woman respectfully every day, not only on this particular day. As I came from a Hindu medium school, it was difficult for me to speak English at first. But with the help of Reality I learned to speak English and day by day, I’m getting better. So thank you to Reality for empowering women like me!

Divya, Tour Guide

It’s important to celebrate our achievements, to remember how we demanded for our right to vote, to hold public office and much more. Every day is Women’s Day! We should be recognised for our achievements without regard to divisions–be it national, economic, cultural, political. We should be able to express ourselves no matter how we look or where we come from. We should never be ashamed of our true selves. We deserve to have the freedom to make our own choices and be respected for them. Happy International Women’s Day!

Swathi, Tour Guide

Every day is Women’s Day. It’s not just one day for us to talk about. We need to constantly strive towards a better world, a more balanced world where women and men are treated equal. I’m a proud woman and tour guide, having the independence to go where I want to go and be who I want to be. Today I stand with my sisters, my girls, as well as the boys and men around me. We all need to work towards achieving equality. Let’s not forget that! Happy Women’s Day to all.

 

 

Mumbai – A Visit to the City Which Never Sleeps

Dear readers,

Mumbai is one of the leading metros in India if not the leading one already. It was earlier referred to as Bombay. It happens to be the biggest city in India and is also the capital of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. To begin with, Mumbai was a collection of 7 islands on the Konkan coastline. They were joined together to form the city that we see today. The island was later joined with Salsette, a neighboring island, to form what is known as Greater Bombay. In 2005 it was estimated that the city had a population of 21 million people.

This makes it one of the most populated cities in the world.

The enigma that is Mumbai

Mumbai is, without a shadow of a doubt, the commercial capital of India. It also has one of the biggest ports in the country as well. By virtue of being a metro city, it has an eclectic population that gives it its cosmopolitan nature in the first place. This is further borne out by the presence of Bollywood. Bollywood is basically the Hindi film industry that wields a global influence of sorts. This is because of the presence of the Indian Diaspora in all parts of the world.

At the same time, Dharavi in Mumbai also has the biggest slum population of the whole country. Incidentally, both these contrasting entities form an integral part of a Mumbai city tour.

What to see here in Mumbai?

There are plenty of things to see while you are on a Mumbai tour. The tourist attractions can be categorized into the following and examples may be mentioned as below:

  • Rock cut caves – Elephanta, Kanheri, Mahakali
  • colonial buildings – Fort St. George, Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya, Taj Mahal hotel, Mumbai University, High Court
  • museums and galleries – National Gallery of Modern Art, Jehangir Art Gallery, Nehru Centre Art Gallery, Nehru Science Centre
  • beaches – Girgaon Chowpatty, Juhu beach, Aksa beach
  • zoos, parks, and gardens – Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Bhavans Nature Adventure Centre, Veermata Jijabai Udyan, Hanging Gardens, Kamla Nehru Park, Mumbai Port Trust Garden, Five Gardens

religious places – Portuguese church at Dadar, Haji Ali Dargah, Global Vipassana Pagoda, Siddhivinayak temple, ISKCON temples at Juhu beach and Chowpatty beach

What to eat here in Mumbai?

You can be sure that no matter which part of the world you are from you would get something to eat in this city.

However, there are some dishes that you should definitely have when you are here in Mumbai. They may be enumerated as below:

  • Gujarati Thali
  • Kebab rolls, Keema, and Pattis
  • Maharashtrian Thali
  • Indian sweets such as Kulfi Falooda
  • Kerala Thali
  • Vada Pav
  • Indian Chinese
  • South Indian food at a Udupi restaurant
  • Goan seafood
  • Bread Maska
  • Chaats such as Bhelpuri and Paani Puri
  • Alfonso mangoes at the summer time
  • Pav Bhaji

Visiting Mumbai is an experience of a lifetime – one that you would always cherish.

Golden Triangle Tour – See The Beauty of Northern India

Northern India has some of the most beautiful sites you can imagine and the ideal way to see them will be by going on a Golden Triangle tour. You will visit Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai. There are a number of tours to choose from and to get the most out of the area you could take up a 4-day or 7-day tour. The main places that will be seen will be:

  • Sanjay Colony
  • India Gate
  • Qutab Minar
  • Humayun’s Tomb

Sanjay Colony 

Here you will be walking through the slum area of Delhi and could be surprised by what you find. It will be the same as any other area in many ways, as you walk along the intricate lanes, all aspects of life will be seen, and it is a perfect way to understand Indian social issues.

India Gate

The imposing war memorial is 42 meters tall and holds the names of more than 13,000 soldiers who were killed in the Wars at the early part of the 20th Century. It however commemorates more than 70,000 Indians who were killed and if you can visit during the evening you will see it lit up.

Qutub Minar

This tower is a celebration of the new Muslim rulers who have fought to replace the Hindu rulers. Built in the 12th century, the tower reaches 73meters into the sky and is still one of the tallest in India.

Humayun’s Tomb

Built in 1570, this is a forerunner for many constructions in India. It is a great example of Mughul architecture and is seen as the forerunner of the Taj Mahal.Jaipur will be the next part of the Golden Triangle tour and it is clear while it is called the Pink City.

Other interesting places include the following:

Amber Fort

Dating back to the 16th Century, the Fort is actually red sandstone and was built by Raja Man Singh. It is a combination of palace and temples, and visits can be made by elephant.

Hawa Mahal

Since 1799, the “Palace of Winds” consists of 5 stories that resemble a honeycomb. It will be seen at its best early in the morning as it will be lit by the sun. The 953 windows once allowed women to watch the world go by at a time when they were not allowed to roam freely outside.
The 7 day Indian Golden Triangle tour includes a number of other sights including The Fort at Agra and of course the Taj Mahal.

Krishna’s Birthplace: Mathura

A few of the 5000 temples can be visited and all will be worth the visit. Visiting the complex of temples will allow you to see a number of buildings – Keshavdeva temple, the GarbhaGriha shrine and Bhagavata Bhavan but be warned that this is a very popular site for visitors.
Along with all the amazing places to visit, there will be quite a lot of travelling where you will see a vast expanse of the Indian countryside and also the chance to try a wide range of Indian cuisine. With an Indian Golden Triangle Tour you will get a good taste of life in India in the 21st Century.

Planning your trip to India?

Happy New Year everyone! A new year means more opportunities to explore, new destinations to visit. And of course, India should be on your list!

To make your trip to India easier, we’ve put together a few helpful resources to aid you in choosing transportation, finding accommodation, and more nitty-gritty elements needed to build the perfect itinerary.

1) This is not a secret but we love Lonely Planet. Use this as a guide to learn about different cities, the must-see attractions, the best restaurants and more:
https://www.lonelyplanet.com/india

2) What’s our favourite, affordable way of interstate travel in India? Travelling by train! Train travel in India is organized, reliable and fairly simple to navigate. This is a great way to experience typical local means of transportation as well. Avoid paying extra to booking agents and book your train tickets directly here: https://irctc.co.in

3) Looking for the lowest flight rates within India? Make My Trip is our search engine of choice here in India. They always have promo codes you can take advantage of at any time of year: https://www.makemytrip.com/

4) Don’t feel confident in haggling with auto-rickshaw drivers? Have no idea what is a reasonable rate? Ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Ola are your best friend. Simply download the applications on your phone and you can book a ride in any major city to take your straight to your desired destination:
https://www.uber.com/in/en/ride/
https://www.olacabs.com/mobile

4) Looking for authentic, locally guided tours in Mumbai, Delhi, all over India? We have you covered. Not only does your money go to fund our educational programmes via Reality Gives, but also your guides are trained to provide you with the best experience, showing you the real India: www.realitytoursandtravel.com

Should you go North, South, East or West? Have no idea where to even begin? We’re happy to do all the planning, organizing, booking, and more for you. Simply fill out this form–http://realitytoursandtravel.com/plan-your-trip/
We’ll put together your dream itinerary, catering to your tastes, needs, and budget. Let us make your trip to India memorable.

A practical packing list for your trip to India

Hello travellers,

We’ve curated a shortlist of things that may not necessarily be on the top of your list of things to have on hand while travelling. We are certain that these items shall prove useful—whether you’re in accessible or remote areas, travelling in a group or solo, irrespective of your situation.

Charcoal tablets:
We swear by these pills that have, many a time, been life-savers for inopportune/ unfortunate stomach bugs caught on the road. Just take one or two and within a few hours, you’ll be feeling just fine. The charcoal binds to toxins and pathogens so that they get flushed out of your system quickly. They are also affordable and widely available.

Mosquito repellent:
These buggers are everywhere, whether you’re travelling during monsoon season or dry season, up in the hills or in the bustle of cities. Ensure to apply repellent generously, to prevent yourself from catching Dengue fever or from scratching yourself silly. From our experience, the strong kind (not the natural oil-based repellents aka citronella oil) work the best.

Hand sanitizer:
Sometimes you’re in a hurry, sometimes you’re somewhere without full toilet facilities. Especially if you’re eating with your hands, it’s essential to carry some form of hand sanitizer. Maintaining hygiene shouldn’t fall on the back-burner while you’re travelling.

Toilet paper:
If you’re planning on taking public transport, long bus rides, train rides etc, carrying a roll of toilet paper will enhance your sense of comfort. You’ll be hard-pressed to find toilet paper in public washrooms; if you don’t fancy using a bucket of water to cleanse yourself, then just do it! (Wet wipes are also a practical option.)

Appropriate attire:
This may seem like a no-brainer but we’re giving you a gentle reminder about dress code in India. India is home to temples, mosques and religious sites galore. Hence, we recommend travellers to err on the side of caution and dress modestly, to ensure you can visit places without hassle. Ensure to bring scarves, shawls, long sleeved tops, and long pants to cover up when needed (also to fend off mosquitos!)

We know this is not the most enticing of packing lists, however, it is a valuable checklist for those “you-never-know” or “did-not-think-this-would-happen” moments. So without further adieu, happy packing!

What is it like travelling solo as a female in India?

“Wait, you’re all alone? I could NEVER travel all by myself.”

I can’t relay the number of times I’ve heard people say this to me, a solo female traveller. And every time, I return their question with a smug smile and respond: “but of course you CAN!”

India can be a daunting country to visit: the disorienting traffic and number of people, the (at times) overwhelming smells, the astounding beauty, the hospitality and warmth, the sheer diversity. It is nothing short of an exhilarating and rewarding hodgepodge of experiences.

But is it truly safe? Yes it is—partially because there will always be people around. You’ll find that you’re actually hardly ever alone.


SURPRISES AND KINDNESS

As a lone female traveller, I’ve found that time and time again people go out of their way to point me in the right direction. Several strangers have taken me or dropped me off exactly where I needed to be, out of kindness and concern. Strangers will offer you food and snacks on trains and public waiting areas. Meandering about the streets of different towns, you’ll likely get invited by families to join them for chai and a snack, even homemade mealswhich are always authentic.

I remember while I was travelling solo around North India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I stopped by a popular neighbourhood chai stall. Only locals were milling about, shouting their orders from all corners of the space. I was staring up at the menu painted on a board and could not read a thing.

A kind man with his family noticed me and quickly stepped in, taking me under his wing. Before I could protest he had ordered tea along with a plate of buttered bread for me. Standing in front of his family, I sheepishly obliged. When we had finished off our chai and bun-maska (a buttery, creamy centre enveloped by a warm soft bun), I thanked him profusely, and he scoffed at melooking almost insulted that I had even thanked him. “Enjoy the rest of your trip around India,” he replied.  Then he walked off with his kids in a hurry. This is just one of several examples of benevolence I encountered.

SELFIES AND STARES

Yes, you’ll be stared at and approached by all sorts of people. Staring can be responded in two ways: smile or ignore. I find that smiling opens a window of opportunity for conversation and connection. Ignoring is effective if don’t want to engage. Do draw attention if their stares make you uncomfortable. Making a scene is always effective at warding off unwanted action.

This also means that you shouldn’t be surprised when asked to take selfies with groups and strangers. I find that most people who do approach, do so out of curiosity towards foreigners. Some have rarely if ever seen a lone female travellerlet alone a foreigner.

Again, two things can happen: you can accept their request and share a few laughs. However, if you’re uncomfortable or tired of it, don’t be afraid of refusing with a polite “nay.” People will respect your wishes.

As in any other country, any other city, any other community, take note of behavioural norms and safety precautions. General safety precautions include being wary of how you’re dressed (cover up or dress according to where you are), avoiding being out alone at odd hours in an unknown neighbourhood (common sense, no?), letting people know where you are (always).

For example: in a city like New Delhi, unfortunately reputed to be an unsafe city, make a point to dress conservatively and avoid venturing out past a certain hour alone. Even if you do, be sure that you have safe and reliable means of travel, that people know where you are going and can reach you.

Do your research, know your options:

On that note, these days ride-sharing apps like Uber and Ola make travelling around cities simple: just book a ride and you’re on your way. No need to haggle, no need to worry about safety, a straightforward solution to ensuring you get to where you want to go.

I know, you’re thinking “I can just take Uber everywhere?” The answer is a resounding, “yes!” I find that cities in India are at times more technologically savvy than other places in the world. You can order anything to be delivered to where you are. Everything is now at your fingertips: you’d likely have connectivity in all cities and even in remote areas up in the mountains.

But don’t shy away from taking trains and public transportation! In New Delhi, the metro system is an absolute life-saver. Air-conditioned, cheap, reliable, it makes travel easy (especially if you want to avoid traffic). There’s also a women’s only compartment, which is heavily enforcedby women within the compartment and officers alike.

In Mumbai, riding the local trains is an experience every visitor needs to partake in. This way, you circumvent the city’s notorious traffic, making getting around faster. Moreover, auto rickshaws in Mumbai run by the meter, at any time of day (note that you can’t take an auto down South).

Lastly, hiring a local guide is an amazing way to navigate and explore a city. You’ll get insider information and the security of being guided by someone from the area: all the contextual details to enhance your adventures and exploration.

What are you afraid of?

Sureyou may get caught, as in any other part of the world, in an uncomfortable situation. In these cases, don’t be afraid to reach out to security or policemen. But trust that people in India will treat you as a guest, always ready to lend a helping hand.

Follow your “gut” feeling and err on the side of caution. Be wary of scams, be wary of your surroundings, but ultimately be open to new experiences. Take an auto-rickshaw, learn to haggle prices, fend off shop vendors. Be open, but be firm.

Travelling alone will teach you to learn the art of balancing being kind and open, to being assertive and brave. It’s an artful dance between adventure and sensibility, a life skill that travelling alone as a woman in India will also impart.

So come ready to be taken spontaneously through the streets by a well-intentioned stranger, come ready to be treated to copious amounts of food, come ready be asked to take selfies.

Come ready to be swept away by the nation: teeming with love, with historical and natural beauty, full of contrasts and contradictions, but consistent cups of sweet masala chai.

Further Reading – Six Books To Help You Understand Slums

Salman Rushdie once wrote that “to understand just one life you have to swallow the world“. In Dharavi there’s an estimated one million lives. In Sanjay Colony, there’s a not inconsiderable 50,000.

As we try to convey on our educational tours, these communities are incredibly complex. Whilst the word ‘slum’ evokes a negative view (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition runs to ‘an area of a city where poor people live and the buildings are in bad condition‘) the reality is not so cut and dry. Yes, the challenging conditions show a lack of fairness in our societies and a failure of government  but there are also positive aspects; a strong sense of community, rents which make a rural urban migration possible and the potential for residence to play a part in shaping and moulding their environment.

Slums do not conform to a simplistic Dickensian definition of dirt, squalor and crime; neither should we assuage our sense of guilt at all that we have by romanticising the lives being played out there. The reality is it’s far more nuanced. To that end, here’s a few books straight from the Reality bookshelf which might help shape your understanding of what is an incredibly complex topic.

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What The Dabbawallahs Of Mumbai Can Teach The World About Sustainable Business

Freshly cooked dalokra, rice and roti are packed safely into a metal tiffin when the doorbell rings. A white capped dabbawallah is anxiously waiting for the lunchbox but he is sure to flash a smile before he speeds away on his bicycle.  At the local train station, he adds six more lunch boxes to a wooden plank that is hoisted onto his colleague’s head. It weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds). Fighting the remainder of rush hour commuter traffic, the second dabbawallah steps into the luggage compartment of a Mumbai local, sets his cargo on the ground with the help of two colleagues and chats idly as the train pulls out of the station.
(more…)

Five TED Talks We Love, And Why We Love Them

Since 1984 ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’ (more commonly known the world over as ‘TED’) have been sharing ‘ideas worth spreading’ relating to all things, from education to business, science to development. In the last 30 years, they’ve shared over 2,400 talks in more than 100 languages which have been viewed 500 million times.

These talks are a regular source of ideas, information and inspiration here in the Reality Group office – here are a few we love, and why we love them. (more…)

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