Hyderabad, India Report of what it's like to live there - 07/15/19

Personal Experiences from Hyderabad, India

Hyderabad, India 07/15/19


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, we've lived in a variety of places overseas - Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Egypt, Israel, and now India.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Two answers: Washington, DC is our base, and that is fairly straightforward on a one-stop flight on British Air passing through London for 4 hours. Getting to where our parents live can take anywhere from 12-48 hours or longer, with multiple connections. We recently stopped trying to do it in one shot and have taken long layovers in London to get through part of the jetlag. The prolonged period of time it took to get home meant my spouse missed his father's funeral.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Department of State

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing with the consulate is adequate. In our case, it was luxurious. We had a 4 BR / 5 Bath apartment in a residential neighborhood close to the Consulate (15 mins). The "neighborhood" was unlike the housing for other members of the community who live further out in houses; they have actual neighborhoods, with neighbors. We lived more "downtown" - if we left our apartment complex (which was very well manicured, but had very little space to hang out outside - lots of the locals hang out in the garage), we were a few steps from a busy intersection with lots of life, construction, chickens, camels, food stalls, etc. But given the short commute time to/from work, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Again, two answers: if you want local food, it's super cheap. If you want international food (i.e. granola, peanut butter, etc.) it costs a lot more because of the cost of importing it here. Better to ship all of that stuff through the pouch. Household supplies are never as good as they are in the US, where the paper products are always of a higher quality - we shipped all of that stuff with our HHE, including laundry pods, toilet paper, paper towels, party cups, and napkins. Very glad we did - one Costco purchase lasted us the entire tour.

Groceries were a let-down, to be honest. The produce was very unpredictable (yay! seasonal!), but to the point where staples were missing for a week or more, like salad greens, cheese, yogurt, bananas - always to be replaced with something unrecognizable. It's a lot of experimentation with lots of mixed results. The produce is JUST NOT TASTY and explains why Indians cook all of their food to death and add lots of spices. We were never impressed with the quality of raw foods in India with the exception of a few items: seasonal mango (6 weeks), strawberries (twice a year), and a few types of rare bananas (minis and red). Cereals, grains, pasta, canned goods - we tried, but ended up shipping all of those items.

Wine is exorbitantly expensive ($30 for the cheapest international bottle of garbage wine) and the local product is terrible.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

What we couldn't find, we could ship. We came armed in our HHE with hundreds of pounds of groceries and supplies, so that helped.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Obviously, southern Indian food is where you should be dining, as it's what tastes best and is what people know how to cook. The local food is like 9 chilis out of 10 on the SPICY scale. Even if you ask for less spicy, it is still fire-level spice. This is WONDERFUL if you like spicy! Lots of people end up avoiding the local cuisine because it's too much, but I thought it was phenomenal.

International cuisine is mostly a miss, though occasionally it's "fine." We never found authentic Thai, for instance, and Chinese food tasted exactly like the Indian cuisine. Hotels often have the best international cuisine, with Westin offering a Western style buffet breakfast and the Park Hyatt offering the best Italian in the city, and I've heard a good pan-Asian cuisine.

Take-out is very common, quite cheap, and usually efficient (~45 minute delivery times), with Swiggy and other apps.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We didn't have problems in our apartment, but mosquitos are certainly a problem. Dengue is a real disease that can affect you for weeks! So if you're prone to mosquito bites, you'll want to take precautions. Otherwise, ants and occasionally termites posed indoor problems, but both are treatable with poison or more organic methods.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Post offers a package facility that operates through Delhi. In practice, this means we have to pay to get our mail first to Delhi before you can send it back to the States. No DPO here! Dropping off letter mail is fine, and you just put a stamp on it. But any Amazon returns will first require a postage fee to get it to Delhi before you can avail the "free return."

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Household help runs in many forms - from nannies, cooks, and cleaners to household "managers" and all of the above. We hired a cleaner for two days a week (~6 hrs) and we paid approximately 8000 rupees/mo. She was willing to cook and we were very satisfied with her service. Many people also use their hired driver to perform lots of other types of functions, including anything to do with the car, but also picking up groceries or dry cleaning and running other errands. We didn't have a car/driver.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Many apartment buildings have very modest gym facilities and sometimes pools. They're perfectly fine if you want one or two kinds of cardio machines and perhaps a few free weights, but little in the city offers more than that. The consulate has a fairly substantial gym with lots of equipment (though free weights don't always match up).

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit cards are such a problem!!! Many places will tell you they accept credit cards only to not accept "international" credit cards, but this is not consistent. Getting a local credit card is practically impossible. Lots of people pulled out cash from the consulate ATM or by cashing checks at the consulate "Bank of America" (same logo, but unaffiliated). We did not risk taking out money at local ATMs unless doing so with a local checking account. That process took 13 visits to local branches to open and 6 visits to close - deposits have to be done in person, but then you have a way to pay if you don't want to carry cash. Few people (taxis, market vendors, etc.) will make change for bills bigger than 200 rupees.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Christian services are available.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is usually sufficient. A little Telugu or Urdu will make you a friend with a taxi driver, but everyone has some level of understanding of English, while many people are fluent. The consulate offers periodic classes in Telugu, Urdu, and/or Hindi.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Absolutely. There are no reliable sidewalks. Many streets and sidewalks are little more than gravel and rubble.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are a big part of a lot of people's lives. Despite what others might think, you can absolutely live in Hyderabad without a car, using only the taxi companies (Uber and Ola, currently; Grab might be trying to make headway, which would be great). Uber works for some; they permanently banned me when I tried to change my credit card. Ola was okay. Customer service for both companies is terrible. The costs per ride are very cheap, but the cars are beyond unreliable. The drivers work 24 hour shifts, split their cars with other drivers, change cars, the cars are usually filthy, the drivers are untrained and unlicensed, often smelly, do not have working seat belts, call you before every pickup, deny you rides, inexplicably travel in the wrong direction, and a myriad of other issues. I hated every moment of it, but without a car I had no other option until I started carpooling.

Despite all of that, I'd still probably choose taxi over buying my own car because it's so much cheaper. The cost of the car, plus repairs, insurance, gas, and a driver is an enormous expense whereas I spent roughly $100 on taxis to/from work each month. That said, riding with my friends who had cars/drivers was a GREAT luxury and I was always so grateful because the personal drivers were always safe and well trained.

Buses do not appear safe (I never took them). The new above-ground metro was a hit with locals and foreigners alike, cutting down a lot of traffic time to the suburbs, though its one line doesn't go very many places yet. Once it goes to Gachibowli and the airport, Hyderabad will be infinitely more navigable. Trains to other parts of the country are slow, dirty, and would take days, so that's not a great option unless you're hunting for an adventure.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Cars are probably the number one cause of complaint for members of the community. The only real option is to buy from another diplomat, unless you're willing to spend money on a new car locally (a whole other series of potential problems there, not to mention expensive). If you do find a car available at the time you arrive, there's a good chance the car is old and will be in constant need of repair. Buying from another post is a huge pain and not at all recommended - it took almost 8 months for my car to arrive, at which point (it being old) it was no longer working, required more $ to fix it than it was worth, and it took another 12 months to get authorization to sell it for a few rupees.

All that said, driving here is atrocious, though some do it (many don't last longer than a few months). Few abide by traffic laws. Streets are a competition of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, taxis, buses, people trying to cross the street, and sometimes livestock.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, very fast internet is available. Most people use ACT if the hookup is available, and we didn't have problems. We did have to pay the entire annual cost up front each year - and in CASH - which was collected at our house by a person from the company who didn't carry ID and spoke little English, but the internet did work and went out very infrequently.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We brought unlocked cell phones and paid pennies for a local plan which included unlimited calls and an enormous amount of data we could never use. The issue here was getting it all set up. Everyone has this problem; Airtel asks for different things from every person who sets up service. They do address checks which can take anywhere from 1 day to 2 weeks before they turn your phone on. ("Make sure you're home all the time!") We did a family plan, and one phone turned on within 48 hours and the other inexplicably took almost 2 weeks. Customer service, as mentioned before, is terrible and did not resolve any issues. Once it's working, though, it works everywhere.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

While there are multiple jobs at the consulate, they are not created equally. Some are part-time, some are boring, some deplete brain cells, and others are a tremendous amount of work and responsibility. Local jobs are usually not possible. (They are NOT possible for same-sex spouses.) Local salaries can be a tenth or less of what you'd make in the US, so most people aren't searching for paid jobs, but rather volunteer opportunities.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

"Business casual" is a fair assessment. Some men wear jackets/ties, but that's not customary in India (though not unexpected when meeting contacts, even if they are under-dressed). Indian formal wear is different from Western formal wear, and Americans can choose to buy/wear Indian wear (which is great fun!) for formal events. Formal dress is required at the national day event, but rarely outside of that.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is one of the safest places I've ever lived. Most of my female colleagues were not bothered by taking taxis alone. It's not a nice city to walk around, but if you did, it's safe, even at night. I never heard of any reports of burglaries or crimes. People are very friendly.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Health concerns include pollution, water, food, and insects. Precautions must be taken to prevent illness for each of those broad categories, and new residents quickly adapt. You hermetically seal your apartment, drink only filtered water, clean all fruits and vegetables (we bleached everything and never once got sick), and take care with bugs (mosquito spray if you need it).

Medical care is pretty poor. Dental care was widely revered as cheap and of good quality, but we each had a really uncomfortable experience with a regular dental cleaning. Several people were hospitalized with conditions that went undiagnosed. Lots of people with health issues get medevac'd.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Many locals refer to bad air quality days as "bad weather." There is a real lack of education about the seriousness of pollution in India in general. Air quality in Hyderabad is better than in Kolkata and Delhi, but on par with Mumbai, and slightly worse than Chennai and Bangalore. It runs above 100 AQI almost every day of the year, and is near or above 200 from Diwali in late October through the summer months (March). Those without lung problems won't notice it, and with lower temperatures may even speak about how lovely the weather is -- this is a big problem. The air is unhealthy and everyone should come prepared with masks and minimize time outdoors during the heavy pollution season. Every year, more and more information comes out about the deleterious effects of pollution, so I don't buy that it's not affecting you if you "don't feel it until it's over 200 AQI."

A good percentage of Hyderabad's pollution comes from construction projects (which are everywhere and all year) while the Dec-Feb period see the highest incidences of burning, including garbage, leaves, and sewage -- the whole city smells bad, the sky is ugly, the rain is gone, and anyone with pulmonary sensitivities won't last more than 15 minutes outdoors.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Pollen allergies are far less frequent here than in other parts of the world, so that's a plus. That said, colds are often a result of pollution or other environmental factors. Germs are everywhere - there are a lot of people! And Indians do not widely conform to Western standards of cleanliness or sanitation, unfortunately.

Nice restaurants with owners who've lived outside of India may come back with concepts of "gluten intolerance" and "peanut allergy" but most regular restaurants won't understand, nor will their menus list ingredients.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

There are four seasons in Hyderabad:
Nov-Feb: Pollution Season: lows in the 60s at night, but days are in the 70-80s.
Mar-May: Extremely Hot (average: 110 degrees), but low humidity
June-Sep: Monsoon Season (doesn't rain all day, but rains almost every day for a short period), warm, high humidity
Oct: The Pleasant Season - 80s-90s, with low humidity

There's no real "winter" and if you don't like heat, this is not the place for you.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is larger than expected given the high number of American and international companies based in Hyderabad (Boeing, Ikea, Microsoft, Google, etc.). There's a whole Latinx community that gets together once a month and there are tons of people! The diplomatic community is tiny: the US consulate is the mega-presence, but there are one or two Brits, Iranians, and Turks here as well.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Those that have kids and live in the Gachibowli area tend to have an easy way of socializing because of the number of events and size of the international schools. There's an elite social club that costs a lot, but they don't take non-traditional families (i.e. gay people or Muslim spouses), from what I understand.

Meeting locals is complicated. Most Indians live at home until they get married, meaning they have responsibilities. There are often cultural barriers for men and women. Lots of people don't drink, though bars are becoming more common.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Singles: not really. Couples: it's okay, though not in terms of entertainment. Living here is easy enough. Families: the school usually receives high marks from students and parents.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It's not great for the LGBT+ "experience" in the same way that Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore are. There are barely bars, let alone gay bars. Pride is held on a secret day in February, ostensibly to prevent unwanted gruff. That said, many of the big Westernized companies have LGBT/ally groups with great attendance, so younger generations are beginning to learn about LGBT+ presence.

For us, we were benefited by the fact that few people in the community knew of our relationship. Our educated neighbors knew and were fine with it. When traveling and staying at hotels, we would sometimes be asked if we wanted two beds, but no one was pushy or assuming. But drivers and tour guides never assumed we were together (we'd regularly get questions like "how many girlfriends?"). We never once felt any animosity towards our sexuality. On the whole, it was much easier than I expected, given that we were in the conservative (and more Muslim) south.

Two more points:

1) Delhi and Mumbai are much better for a more scene-y experience, but are still far from an American understanding of LGBT-friendly.
2) Gay spouses do not get diplomatic visas, immunities, or rights to work on the local market. Several gay spouses (not necessarily affiliated with the consulate) had problems securing long-term resident visas. So gay spouses have to compete for consulate jobs, or work from home after getting local and post approval, which is absurd.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

It's not easy, but working at the consulate makes it a lot easier. Westerners - white, black, and I imagine non-Indian Asian, though I'm not sure - in general are treated respectfully in Hyderabad, and mostly ignored when walking on the street. That said, in any other city or at any tourist attraction (even in Hyderabad), I'm taking at least a dozen selfies with strangers and answering lots of questions. Westerners are celebrities here, which is fun at first, but gets exhausting after a while (poor celebrities!), particularly if you have kids, who are often subjected to the same kind of civilian paparazzi.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

We wanted India for the travel. Hyderabad was never on our radar, but I'm glad we ended up here because the airport was easy to get to (usually a $10 cab ride) and usually efficient. They have a special door for domestic carry-on-only passengers who checked in online - you're through security and at your gate in no more than 10 minutes! We took more than 2 dozen domestic trips and over a dozen international trips in two years. Super cheap and serves as a psuedo-hub for lots of major discount airlines, including Jet, AirAsia, Go, and Vistara, but particularly INDIGO which was always the most affordable, great service, on time, and had a very reasonable food program. We used them a ton.

Best domestic trips: so many... Holi in Mathura, the Ellora and Ajanta caves, the Chola temples in the south, Durga Puja festival in Kolkata, our 10-day tour of Rajasthan, our Golden Triangle tour, visits to the Portuguese towns on the west...

Best international trips: Sri Lanka is a dream, Maldives were a dream, Nepal was a dream, Thailand we went four times, UAE is only 4 hours away, as are Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and those are direct flights overnight. Wake up and start your day!

Also, as a vegetarian, every menu is clearly delineated with vegetarian and meat options, with most having a majority-vegetarian menu. Many places are vegetarian-only. Fast food places even have multiple vegetarian sandwiches - with McDonalds and Subway, for instance, each having 5-6 different sandwich options!

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Hyderabad is surprisingly enjoyable...for two days. Beyond that, it is not old enough to have a well-established arts or cultural scene and is dreadfully dull, honestly. But for a weekend, my friends who visited (and had never heard of it) were beyond pleased with its offerings. There are a few downtown attractions that are must-sees, including the Charminar, the Chowmahalla Palace, Qutub Shahi Tombs, Golkonda Fort, and the Taj Falaknuma Palace. All of those require 1-2 hours of sightseeing time. There's one renowned museum: Salar Jung. Definitely plenty to keep visitors entertained for a long weekend before they go explore other parts of the country.

The food is some of the spiciest on the continent (and planet!). There are a number of great Indian restaurants: Chutney's, BBQ Nation, and Rajdhani were our weekend standards. When you visit other places in India and tell them you're living in Hyderabad, the first question is always: "Have you tried Hyderabadi biryani?" And of course you have, because it's a rite of passage, and eaten everywhere. It's very spicy, cheap, and comes in a couple styles, both vegetarian and meat-eater-friendly.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are lots of things to buy if you have time to look for them. Pearls are weirdly local and dirt cheap. Bangles are popular at the Laad Bazaar by the Charminar. We bought several pieces of wood furniture which are stunning. Lots of people have clothes made, which takes a week or two when considering all of the alterations, but that's a fun and addicting pastime for foreign residents. We had a bunch of things framed - turned out amazing and was 1/4 the price to do the same or less quality in the US. All of the popular Indian clothing brands are available: Indian Terrain for men's clothes, FabIndia for great local dress for men and women, but you can get H&M and all those stores at any of the big malls.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Hyderabad is inexpensive, a good regional hub for travel, with a few very good local restaurants, two days' worth of sites to visit, and friendly people with huge housing. The same can be said of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata (not really Chennai, in my opinion), but I don't think it's expected of Hyderabad. It's not charming, but it's unexpectedly livable.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

We didn't know anything about Hyderabad before moving there. We had never even heard of it until it showed up on the bid list! Most of our friends who visited had never heard of it either (except those who work in tech or with call centers). That said, we kept our expectations low and our expectations were always met or exceeded!

I did not know how hard it would be to get wine. The commissary is 25% more for Hyderabad folks because we pay for shipment from Delhi (absurd), and the wine through commissary is about $10 for the cheapest bottles (when considering the shipping markup, which you pay later) and $12-15 for an average bottle. It's mostly terrible and spoiled, but we got used to it. You can't put any wine in your HHE. Local wine is not recommended. Buying on the local market is the equivalent of $30 for a bottle of Yellow Tail. I know it's bratty and "rich people problems" of me, but that's been the hardest part of the experience. Followed closely by the mostly tasteless produce (I eat 80% produce).

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Career-wise, it was a good move. Plus, I wanted to experience the region. Also, Hyderabad is a two-year post, which was a big sell.

If we had to live in Hyderabad again, versus any other city in India, I would say yes. The pollution in Kolkata and Delhi is so terrible that I can't imagine living in 400+ AQI. Mumbai traffic makes it hard to leave your neighborhood and I'd argue it has fewer cultural attractions than Hyderabad. And many people complain about living in Chennai. So yes, I'd pick Hyderabad of the five U.S. post cities in India.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Car! right-hand-drive only
Wine! it's not allowed for import, which is sad.
Sweater collection: you won't need more than one or two.
Dishwasher detergent: most houses don't have dishwashers, sadly

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4. But don't forget your:

Paper products: toilet paper, paper towels, napkins
Costco essentials: love black olives or protein powder or bulk cereal or your favorite toothpaste or canned tomatoes or italian seasoning or tinned tuna or garibaldi pasta or anything else you can get there? Buy it before you come and put it in your HHE. You will thank yourself later.
All-weather clothes: you'll still need pants and long-sleeves in public, and coats if you ever go up north (Nepal, border region), though it gets hot there too.
Costumes: theme parties are impossible to shop for locally.

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5. Do you have any other comments?

Vegetarians (who like spicy Indian food) will be in heaven here.

We earn our 25% differential, unlike other 25% posts I've been to. Living in Hyderabad is hard - the pollution, the traffic, the availability and quality of food, difficulties connecting with locals, lack of good bars/clubs/social spaces for young folks, the streets, the dirt, the smells, the poverty, the bureaucracy, the bad customer service, the fact nothing can get accomplished on one try... There are certainly ways to make the two years work - and work well - but it's no cake-walk. I spent a lot of time holed up indoors because the thought of dealing with the world was too much that day. And yet I've made wonderful memories and have a lifetime of anecdotes to carry with me forever. It was certainly challenging but ultimately rewarding.

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