There is a magical quality to India that floats through memory like a warm breeze.
Without even concentrating very hard, I can see its jungle forests, tall and green in a lowering sunlight, its domed mosques and temples rising above the bustling cities, and the palaces of maharajas that still stand in the enduring landscape of its long history.
I see a wild elephant trotting toward us, head lowered and ears flapping, on a winding road of the James Corbett Tiger Preserve. I feel the gentle rock of waves as we glide past jungles and villages aboard a houseboat on the backwaters of the Arabian Sea.
A dream walk through the Pushkar Camel Fair lingers in my head, silhouettes of ancient animals on the edge of a rolling desert, moonlight illuminating reality with a glow that lights fairy tales. I see campfires twinkling and a Ferris wheel turning through space like time in the dim light of eternity.
It has been two months since Cinelli and I spent 30 days wandering 6,000 miles through the heart of this timeless kingdom. To describe it in simple terms is just not possible in a few hundred words. One absorbs India. It is a part of the physiology that composes scenes beyond memory, when the inward eye shifts to a focus of feeling.
India was not on my agenda. My wife, the adventuresome Cinelli, had lobbied for years to take the 18-hour flight to one of Earth’s most exotic lands. I usually opt for less strenuous journeys, maybe to Paris or Rome or even Prague, but she sees the world in grander terms, so we go to Africa and China and Russia too. It was time for India.
Research led us to Easy Tours of India, an organization operating out of Austin, Texas. I was lured by the adjective. I am beyond the age of mountain biking or alpine skiing so the term “easy” naturally caught my attention. I never dreamed I would be riding camels or elephants, but then in the land of Gandhi, that’s considered easy.
As it turned out, planning an extensive and expensive trip had come at an inconvenient time. In June 2007 I was blindsided into an “accidental” forced buyout, apparently engineered by a graceless little man who headed the section where my column was then appearing. I wrote a goodbye essay. My audience roared its protest and I was hired back with an apology from the editor.
I mention this to grant a look into our thinking process in mid-planning for the India trip. Prudence would dictate that we should cancel the journey and save the money. We pondered it and then said to hell with it. We’d go to India and deal with the future as it unfolded. We’ve never been afraid of tomorrow.
Travel is more than a trip. It’s a learning process, an awakening to the value of cultures rooted in the timelessness that predates our concepts of history. We saw pieces of India in the “dream time” of antiquity, in its colonial period of subjugation, in its reach for independence and its emergence on to a new world stage. We stayed in 5-star hotels and walked along roads where the poor lived in squalor beyond imagination. We ate in world-class restaurants while women with babies tapped on the car windows at traffic stops and begged for food.
Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, Cochin, Jaipur, Udaipur.
If you would ask me what experience has remained the most indelible in my string of memories about India, I guess I would say the elephant incident at the James Corbett Park and Tiger Preserve. Annoyed by the presence of tourists, the big tusker turned from a lunch of tree branches and began trotting toward us, for what purpose one can only imagine. He didn’t look happy. Our jeep driver must have set a record for escaping in reverse on a narrow, winding road because the big bull, impressed by our facility, finally stopped its advance and lumbered off into the jungle.
Was that more important than the beauty of the countryside, the gleaming towers, monkeys on rooftops or streets simultaneously occupied by cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, camels, elephants and oxen? Not really. But it translates into an image of existence on the Asian subcontinent that is both unique, larger than life and occasionally dangerous. It is India, impressive and determined, charging forward uphill while we wonder about its final destination.