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India, as portrayed in slick travel magazines is a microcosm of a much larger, much more diverse culture. Yes, there are five-star hotels, restaurants, and world-class resorts there but is it really necessary to travel half way around the world for something you probably have at home?

 

 A trip to India, officially known as the Republic of India, is not a vacation. It is an experience and should not be viewed by the gentle traveler as a picture post card event. It is nothing like a trip to Europe. It’s too vast, too ancient and too complicated. India is sensory overload. The motivation for your visit is critical to what you get out of it.

 

This is one of the oldest cultures in the world. Trying to get an in-depth understanding of its ancient religions, culture, and people in just a few weeks is almost impossible. It was an ancient culture when the Europeans were still wearing animal skins. In modern times India has been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English.

 

The Taj Mahal is everything you have been told to expect and more. The Ganges is an experience you won’t soon forget and of course there are the endless numbers of ancient temples. But unless you have some inkling of what India is really like, be ready for culture shock.

 

To get to the famous venues of India, a traveler must pass through cities jammed with unbelievable traffic, noise, smog, dirt, poverty, slums, street vendors, beggars, homeless people and more. Even if your stay is at a upscale property, leaving the hotel or resort for a stroll in the neighborhood can be uncomfortable for some because of the previously mentioned conditions.   

Homeless shelter on street

 

  India is vast. The official population is about 1.25 billion people, making it the most populous democracy in the world. According to Wikipedia there are 122 major languages spoken in the country plus 1,600 other languages, more or less, in use. English is used in higher education and in some areas of government.  However, once you leave the metropolitan areas for the countryside an interpreter might be needed.

 Normal city traffic

 

Other things to consider when traveling there, something most of our travel group encountered, was heartburn. Pepto Bismol was the numberr one mint of choice until we got used to the curry which is in almost everything one eats.

 

Trying to describe the different regions and cities of India is impossible in this brief space. It is no wonder that the guide books on India are among the thickest travel volumes in book stores. But one thing we can all relate to is traffic. I have been to six continents and an endless list of foreign cities and have never experienced anything like India’s roads.  

Honk...Honk

 

 Driving in Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Varanasi, and other major cities is something no Westerner, nor anyone not born to the rhythm of Indian traffic, could or should attempt. It makes rush hour traffic on I-5 on the West Coast and I-95 on the East Coast and everything in between look like child’s play.

 

Honk, honk, honk, that’s the prevalent sound of Indian highways. Most commercial vehicles have artistically painted messages on the rear that say, “Please Honk, Use Horn or Horn Please.” No self respecting driver would even think of taking his or her vehicle out on the road without a loud working horn.

 
Rural road traffic

 

It’s understandable when you are sharing the road with pedestrians, pushcarts, bicycles, motorbikes (carrying up to five family members), bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, scooters, cars, busses jammed with humanity (sometimes riding on top) and trucks.

 

The big semis are prohibited from entering the cities until after 11 p.m. They line the roads outside the cities by the thousands waiting the witching hour.

 

Added to the mix on the roads outside of of the major cities are ox carts, camel drawn wagons, donkeys, cows, goats, pigs, dogs, the occasional elephant, and finally monkeys. Herds of cattle and sheep being moved to grazing lands also share the roadways.

Holy city of Varansai on Ganges River

 

On city streets or highways, the right of way belongs to whoever gets there first. No quarter is given. Drivers will more or less jokingly tell you that keeping your distance means two inches for vehicles and one inch for pedestrians. Leave any daylight between your vehicle and whatever is in front of you and someone will squeeze in.

 

Vehicles regularly straddle two lanes. Passing, either right or left, is an art. That’s where the incessant horn blowing comes in. Another little joke drivers tell foreigners is, “One has to know the thickness of paint on their vehicle when passing another vehicle.”

What keeps everything moving, when it does move, is that everyone knows the rules of the road. If your lane is blocked, just switch over to the opposing lane of traffic. Oncoming traffic will make way for you. The most dangerous thing you can do is stop, disrupting the flow and rhythm. It can get you injured or killed.

Funeral pyres on Ganges River
 

 

Millions of Indians travel the roads on bicycles waiting for the day when they too can afford a scooter or car. With the growing economy of the country, it is bound to happen in the not too distant future. Where they will find room on the already overcrowded road ways boggles the imagination.

 

 The one sight that almost every first time visitor heads to when touring India is the Taj Mahal.  You will discover for yourself that nothing you have ever heard about it nor pictures you might have seen can do it justice.  In the early morning light and late afternoon sun it is pure magic.

Overhead electrical power and telephone grid Old Delhi

 

The Holy City of Varansai on the banks of the Ganges River teems with humanity day and night.  Locals purify themselves in its waters which visitors are warned to avoid at all costs. At night the funeral pyres, which burn 24 hours a day, reminded me of a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

         

“Old Delhi” has the street markets and stalls so familiar in third world areas.  Look up from the street and you will see an electrical and telephone distribution system whose ability to work is simply unbelievable. Cables, so dense that they almost darken the noonday sun, are twisted around each other and on poles so haphazardly that it is easier to run a new wire than to try to trace a problem in existing service.

Sharing the road

 

The old city’s progeny, New Delhi, is where your calls were routed when you needed technical assistance with your computer. Much of this service which was outsourced to India  is now being outsourced to other countries where costs are lower. 

 

Heading south, the traffic in the countryside is significantly diminished but other sights greeted us.  Camel drawn carts and herds of livestock sharing the road were common sights.  One unique thing was a large flatbed truck passing us with an elephant as a passenger in back.   

 

Stopping at small towns we met warm, friendly people in restaurants and local homes along the way which included a wedding ceremony on a farm where we were invited to join the celebration.  What we found were people not unlike those we have met throughout the world. They are just people with the same wants and need as everyone else but just dressed a little more colorfully.

Rural wedding celebration with American guests

 

Arriving in the south western part of India and the area of Kerala on the Arabian Sea brought a stark contrast to the sights iwe experienced in the northern cities.

 

Homeless people living on the streets were nonexistent. Streets were generally clean and citizens appeared more affluent.  Wandering cows were nowhere to be seen.  This is a mainly a Christian area and any free roaming animals would likely wind up on someone’s dinner table.

 

Also unique to the area are the extensive series of canals built long ago by an Indian nobleman and today featured as the Backwaters of Kerela.  Visitors can book passage on replicas of what used to be called cargo carrying “rice boats.”  They have all the modern conveniences including private suites and en suite bathrooms,    and on-board dining facilities. While touring the waterways,   boats make frequent stops at local villages.   

Kerala rice boat

 

On this trip we did not get the opportunity to visit the area of India’s Himalayan Mountains where maps list exotic place names like Kashmir, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and others.  Many more weeks would have been added to the trip to say nothing of the expense.

 

At the beginning of this article I stated that the motivation for your visit is critical to what you expect to get out of a trip to India. Do you want to do the normal tourist thing or do you want to go on a spiritual journey? These are totally different experiences and something the visitor must decide on before leaving for the Indian subcontinent half a world away.  

 

NAMASTE

 

If you do visit India you will discover a country that is a riot of color, a cacophony sounds, exotic aromas, and ancient cultures.

 

                                     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

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