There is no greater expression of freedom than to cross borders and visit countries, cities and places for the first time. It’s more productive to learn about property rights, court systems, infrastructure, tax authorities and other systems that define modern life around the world as you pass through it. How does a country pay for school, medical care and retirement? I have always approached travel with a sense of adventure and wonderment and these are fun topics to bring up with locals and other travelers during my trips.
As an Army Platoon Leader security and sanitation were pounded into my head. You could not achieve one without the other and they are both critical to a high quality, sustainable existence. That experience taught me that developed countries must have frequent, consistent garbage removal, clean water, and steady electricity. Without any one of those three, other systems fail and the community cannot compete globally.
During trips to Europe, South America and Asia I would ask people about the most unusual places they’ve visited? The most out-of-the-ordinary, different experience? I kept hearing – “Oh – if you’re looking for different, go to India.” So I did. And it exceeded my expectations in every way. I lived in South Korea eight years after the 1988 Olympics. Infrastructure was defined as “pre” or post-Olympics. The entire country was dominated by three things: craggy mountains, concrete high-rises, and rice patties. South Korea advanced rapidly leading up to the Olympics and into the present day. It is a modern country (even with occasional ox-carts, honey-dippers, and other features from Korea’s past). Not so with India.
India isn’t a country so much a collection of States – each with their own identity, languages, customs, traditions, and governments. British Colonial rule established the framework for present-day India, but the British couldn’t conceal India’s identity.
Indians suggest that you spend months in India to experience the real place; as an experienced traveler I concede that it would take weeks to experience the whole place, but few visitors have that much time. My trip was an exploration into the Western desert in the North, to Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the place Steven Spielberg must have used as inspiration for Indiana Jones; you’ll feel like you stepped into a movie as soon as you leave the airport in New Delhi. The ride to my hotel was incredible – what do you get when you cross a traffic jam with a zoo? Camels, elephants, cows, monkeys, rickshaws, and a huge assortment of cars, trucks, tractors and buses merged together without any thought about lane markings or traffic rules.
Delhi is complicated – I was amazed by the care and expense that went into building monuments and government offices, but disappointed by how neglected they were. On my first day I walked past countless embassies and around the government buildings until I reached India Gate. It was a long walk, but I enjoyed taking in details that I would have missed from a car. Everyone I met seemed friendly. I stopped to watch kids playing cricket and even spotted a young girl riding a ten-speed bike that was way too big for her. She rode with her legs straddled between the lower frame bar and held the top bar against her side while she peddled. That was the only picture I regret not taking.
My tired feet forced me to ride the subway from Connaught Circle to Jama Masjid where I was hijacked by more than one unscrupulous rickshaw driver. The cabs weren’t much better, but it beat walking. It’s worth warning that if you’re on foot, watch out for people on scooters and motorcycles who make it a sport to hit you with their handlebars or mirrors – you must be alert; I enjoyed playing along like a clueless pedestrian and would step out of the way a second before they passed me.
In Delhi I recommend visiting the Red Fort and Jama Masjid along with the Delhi spice market. They are very close together and easy to see in two or three hours. In the afternoon I enjoyed seeing the home were Ghandi spent his last days, and Muyaman’s Tomb and the Lotus Temple. There are few places where you can visit multiple World Heritage Sites in one day, but India is full of them. After spending the first two days exploring Delhi – New and Old before I was ready to go West with my driver, Mahendra.
He was equipped with a ubiquitous white Toyota crossover (half station wagon, half mini-suv) with blue pin-stripes that marked it as a tourist car – the paint job acted like a glow-in-the-dark target that attracted offers for every imaginable product. Guests are expected to ride in the back, but I moved to the front seat to improve my view and quickly learned how to snap pictures on the go – there’s so much craziness to see! I was amused to learn that every State requires drivers to pay a road tax once every month in person when they cross into the territory. Since my visit straddled two months I enjoyed people-watching from the highway tax office parking lots at every border. India gives the Griswold’s a run for their money.
Back on the road the next adventure would always appear in the distance. This one caught Mahendra’s attention and he quipped, “so dangerous”. I agreed, but you’ll soon discover that people adapt to their situation and surroundings very well. I caught myself repeating “welcome to India” as a mantra for every unexpected scene…and I said it a lot.
The unvarnished truth – India is a difficult place to visit and more difficult to navigate, but it’s full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and rewards patience, tolerance and mild discomfort. Once I linked-up with my driver many problems were solved. Mahendra drove the car, and coordinated with local, English-speaking guides, who met us at local landmarks, and then give me a guided tour for the day. I had mixed experiences with the guides but developed a rule of thumb that seemed to hold up throughout the trip. Guides belonged in one of two groups – either older men who spent their entire lives as guides and made a good living at it, or younger men, college aged, who used it for fast cash from a summer job. The problem with the later group was their propensity to manufacture history on the fly that contradicted the three guide books I reviewed every evening, but it took a bad one to really appreciate how knowledgeable and professional India’s experienced guides are.
Over the next week we drove more than a thousand miles during twenty-five hours on the road and visited many incredible places and met unforgettable people.