In March of 2011, I made my first trip to India. I was not a backpacking, college aged woman. Rather, I was in my last decade of work before retirement. Adventure is not just for the young. Sometimes you’re better able to appreciate things when you have a few more years of life experience under your belt.
As I nearly always travel alone, I had engaged the services of an Indian based travel agency, which had an itinerary of Rajasthan which covered all the places I wanted to visit plus a few I hadn’t heard of. I was traveling in a private car with a driver, which I thought would be prudent for my first visit. I could stop or change the itinerary as I wished, and my driver would not only keep me out of trouble, but he would be my personal ambassador. I could ask him anything and everything I wanted to know about life in India, the people and the culture.
Having been invited by Shalu to share some of my travel stories here on ShaluSharma.com, here is the first one, an excerpt from my recently published book.
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Traffic out of Delhi was unbelievable. The freeways were crammed with vehicles, including motorcyles bearing three and four passengers, none of which paid any attention whatsoever to lane markings. It was squeeze in anywhere and nudge ahead of anyone you could. Honking was constant but brief. It meant, “look out, I’m coming,” “I’m going to pass you” and possibly a lot of other things. Drivers didn’t drive at breakneck speeds, probably only because they couldn’t, and everyone ceded willingly in order to avoid bumping other vehicles. Right-of-way didn’t seem to exist as a concept.
For four hours it was crawl and go. Knowing it would be congested for some time leaving Delhi, I had skipped breakfast and gone easy on water intake. This was not the place where a sudden urge for a toilet could be easily accommodated, if at all.
As we snailed through the tangle of traffic, Prem began to teach me a little Hindi. He had a Hindi song on the CD player and told me the meaning of a few words. Tata means God, and Prem, his own name, means love. Lal was red, nila was blue.
We finally turned off the main freeway and onto a smaller road. I saw a car stopped at the side of the road on a busy thoroughfare, the driver feeding a holy cow through the window. The rules of holy cows were a mystery to me. Many of them were starving. Although they were holy, no one cared for them, and they walked around with ribs showing. They supposedly didn’t belong to anyone, yet some of them were fed and cared for, yoked and made to work in the fields and pulling wagons.
We saw a lady in a blue salwar kameez washing a black buffalo. A salwar kameez is the traditional Indian woman’s outfit which consists of long, flowing slacks and a loose fitting tunic which reaches the knees, with two long slits on the sides. I asked Prem to pull over and ask her if she minded me photographing her. I thought she might say no, because she was working and not dressed up, but she agreed with a smile. The buffalo wasn’t disturbed in the least as she poured buckets of water over him.
Around 2:00 p.m. we pulled into a restaurant for lunch. Prem had eleven years worth of guiding experience and had taken clients around Rajasthan many times. He knew where the restaurants were that had good quality food and clean, western-style toilets. Also, because the driver’s food was covered under the tour fee, he knew where there were driver discounts.
Prem explained to me that at some restaurants, drivers were expected to eat in the driver designated part of the restaurant. If he ate with me, he would have to pay more. I enjoyed his company and wanted him to join me for lunch. The prices compared to what I’m used to were really inexpensive, so I told him I’d buy lunch. I appreciated his candor. It helped keep misunderstandings to a minimum.
We sat at a table outside on the lawn. Lunch wasn’t anything to write home about. The peas in the mutter paneer were hard. Neither one of us were very happy with it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. The nan was the best part.
As we waited for the check, a pair of green Indian ringneck parakeets landed in the tree behind Prem. I had had parrots as pets years ago, so I was familiar with many of the species and their origins. Ringnecks are twice the size of a cockatiel with red beaks and a distinctive narrow black “necklace.” They’re rather expensive in the U.S. The male and female are identical in appearance. One of them kept sticking its neck in the hole of the tree. I assumed that was the female, feeding babies inside the tree-hole nest.
We got back in the car, and a short way down the road, Prem turned to me.
“I have to pay a tourist tax here. Please lock your door, and do not roll down the window.”
He went across the street, and soon a group of filthy village children gathered on my side of the car, tapping on the window. Not in the least interested in me, they were all asking for money, pens and candy. The aggressive tapping continued. I ignored them and looked straight ahead. They quickly lost interest, ran up to the next car and repeated their insistent begging. I wondered if the Indians in the cars in front of mine would give them something. But no one was paying attention to them or giving them anything.
I never gave anything to the children when I toured Ghana, West Africa. They all approached me out of curiosity and friendliness and never asked for anything. I refuse to encourage the sense of entitlement that is bred by thinking foreigners are bottomless pits of money and goodies. If Indian children were like this, then I would avoid them whenever possible.
The greener landscape near Delhi had now given way to scrubland, with occasional bushes and trees becoming more and more infrequent. Most of Rajasthan is semi-arid, and the western part is desert. We drove for hours, encountering only small villages. The road was down to two lanes now and in many areas in pretty rough condition.
I had begun to observe the cooperative nature of Indian driving and was now much more relaxed about it. Although everyone tailgated, people didn’t drive as fast as we tend to in the U.S. People passed on curves and in other instances where I wouldn’t have thought it prudent, but I finally noticed that the driver in front would put his hand out the window and signal the driver behind when it was safe to pass. Prem was not doing anything unsafe or reckless. In fact, he was by Indian standards an extremely safe driver.
At one point, Prem nudged the car out to the right to pass the truck ahead of us. The road was a bit narrow, so both the oncoming vehicle and the car being passed would move over as much as possible to let the passing car come through. Sometimes, though, there was a hole in the road or rocks piled up on the shoulder, making it unsafe to pass. At this particular place, the road had eroded away, making it an abrupt dropoff from the pavement to the shoulder. It wasn’t a good place for the oncoming driver to pull over to let our vehicle pass. Prem eased the car back behind the truck.
“I don’t like risky overtakings,” he said. I was relieved.
After several more hours of rough and narrow roads, we arrived in Jhunjhunu as the sun was going down. Jhunjhunu is a small town with the usual crazy tangle of crowded streets full of beeping cars, tuk-tuks, camel carts, bicycles, donkey carts, pedestrians, scooters and now with holy cows added to the mix.
There hadn’t been any holy cows roaming loose through the streets in Delhi. In 2003, city officials decided that the cows were too numerous and becoming too dangerous for pedestrians. They were also traffic hazards in the congested streets. There was estimated to be about 36,000 cows roaming the Delhi streets at the time. There had been hundreds of illegal dairies at one point in Delhi, and the owners simply let the cows loose. They were rounded up and moved to holy cow farms outside of the city. Everywhere else, the holy cows come and go as they please.
From Travels in India, © 2012 by Marie McCarthy
Reprinted with permission.