I have never been so happy to survive a vacation as I was my first trip to India.
The roads of this enormous country should be classified as the 8th Wonder of the World—because it is a miracle that anything arrives at its destination in one piece. This is due to the combination of extremely poor road conditions (massive potholes) with the nature of the traffic that clogs every artery in this crazy country. It is no exaggeration when I tell you that all of the following share the same tiny, terrible roads: Indian trucks that make 18-wheelers look diminutive, regular trucks, cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, touk-touks, overloaded animal-drawn carts, overloaded tractor-drawn carts, pedestrians, cows that walk wherever they want/whenever they want, bands of monkeys, wild boar … did I forget anything? To navigate these roads is to play a game of Frogger the entire way, while continually praying not to kill someone or be killed along the way.
When travelers write about their experiences and share their photographs, it all looks and sounds so neat and tidy. But that isn’t real life. In order to get in front of the Taj Mahal and take those perfect photographs, you have to endure danger and discomfort.Traveling in places like India is not for the faint of heart. A visit to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve by the India/Nepal border required a harrowing eight-hour drive. No bathroom stops unless you feel like courting disease or throwing up because the sanitation is subhuman, which means (especially for girls) very little eating or drinking along the way. I prefer to starve thank you very much.
But once at our destination, we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience: We explored lush jungles, a place teeming with wildlife: exotic birds, spotted deer, wild boar, fresh tiger tracks, elephants, and more monkeys. The next day, we got on the back of an elephant for a rhino safari—Miraculously, we saw five rhinos in their natural habitat. The whole experience was out of this world. I kept forgetting whether I was in Africa or Asia—it could have been either one.
Because we hadn’t stared death in the face enough, we endured another hair-raising adventure, a 10-hour drive from Nepal to Agra where we planned to see the Taj Mahal. On the way, we saw funeral pyres carrying the dead and two baraats—wedding processions that stop traffic as they wind through the busy streets. In the midst of the brightest lights, loudest horns, and chaotic but joyful music was a bejeweled groom on a steed riding in the grandest Maharaja style to his beautiful bride. It was like they had jumped off the pages of my National Geographic magazine where the images had not just come to life but exploded all around us.
India is so much more than you expect–from the white sandy beaches of Goa to the inhospitable Thar desert, the foothills of the Himalayas, and pristine national parks. Serving as way-station on the infamous Silk Road, India has all of the delights that sent Europeans in a desperate search for a quicker route to this land: spices, gorgeous fabrics, and semi-precious stones. India also features some of the strangest things in the world, such as the Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan that houses nearly 20,000 rats revered by worshippers as their ancestors incarnate.
The variation of experience in India doesn’t stop when you talk about the population: There is a massive gulf between rich and poor; approximately 50% of India’s population does not have a toilet at home (public defecation is a huge problem), while some of India’s richest families live in their own skyscrapers and wear $230,000 gold-weave shirts.
The contradictions are vast: India is one of the largest democracies in the world. But at the same time, they have a rigid class system that governs all life and keeps people tightly organized within their social groups. On the most unfortunate end of the spectrum are the untouchables (the dalit) who perform the worst jobs you can imagine, including the collection and disposal of dead animals from the streets, the collection of human body parts from train tracks (many destitute farmers commit suicide on train tracks), and the washing of those awful toilets. They are pariahs because they made the mistake of being born into the wrong caste. Furthermore, women are still fighting for better treatment in India where rape, physical abuse, and murder are all too common and perpetrators regularly evade justice. India has come so far economically but has a long way to go in the social and human rights categories. It will take a major, grass-roots movement to change these things.
India is a place that tickles all of your senses and leaves you strangely wanting for more. You manage to experience hope and misery at the same time as you witness the best and the worst that India has to offer. Getting off the well-worn path is what makes the difference. Find ways to dance off the pages of your National Geographic magazine—That kind of travel is life-changing.
Photo: ©Michele Rigby Assad