Sunday, February 24, 2008

India: A Magical Journey

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.


dgayernionsin said...

Al: Thanks so much for the India piece. Lorraine and I have "done" India half a dozen or more times; great place! We have been so many places there, from Sri Lanka to Nepal. You are so accurate in your observation that "travel is more than a trip; it is a learning process"—I believe even more so when the destinations are places like India, Africa, Tibet, Egypt, China and, as Vonnegut usd to say, ",,,and on and on." I'm glad the Trib idiots' game didn't force you to cancel and glad you guys enjoyed India as much as we do. Write more if you will. —dixon

Father Luke said...

This may be of interest:


Michele McGee-Yepiz said...

As usual your mastery of words formed a photo-realist picture of your trip. But they didn’t overcome my distaste of poverty, which is unavoidable to witness in overcrowded India.

Paris with wine is more my idea of a vacation.

Gabriela ZabalĂșa-Goddard said...

It is always a magical thing to read about "The Adventures of Al and Cinelli." The dynamic duo!
I think you should write a book about these journeys.
What a treat that would be.


SAMO Calling said...

Al,my pal
Call me inpatient, but I keep checking in on your blog with anticipation and I am often disappointed to see you've posted nothing. It's not that I'm ungrateful for your time, but your infrequent postings are starving my eyes.

BTW, I've enjoyed what you've written so far, but can you keep it coming. You must have a whole vault of material saved up, eh?

Julian said...

Al, Your blog jogged my memory. In
1944-45 I was a callow youth of 22.
At that time I was a pilot in the old Army Air Corps, based in Shanghai. Made numerous flights to/from India hauling supplies. On my only flight to Agra I wanted to visit the Taj Mahal, but the powers that be wouldn't allow us off the airbase. So, on departure,
I proceeded to "buzz" the Taj several times at an altitude of 50 feet; low enuf to see the temple but too high to take in all it's beauty. And now I'm an oldster past
85, but still young enough to still
fly the small plane I bought 44 years ago. Want to go for a ride?

SAMO Calling said...

Oops, I meant impatient. tee hee hee
The Outpatient

Cheryl Janis said...

Hi Al, My name is Cheryl Janis (originally from L.A., living in Portland, OR). Cynthia Michel sent me your link and I'll definitely add you to my blogroll at What a great voice you have. I loved your description of India and traveling in general. It strips us of our "built up" selves and brings us back to experiencing and being in the present moment. It reminds me of a long deep breath.

Kanani said...

Hey Al,
India is the place that really challenged me to think about my own life. I loved it. I loved walking back from the internet cafe in the dark and coming across a mountain --no, it was a cow blocking my path. Anyway, I thought about you today and mentioned you and your writing space over on my blog. I'm glad to have found your blog, as I've linked to it on my article.

Chumplet said...

To travel is to immerse oneself in the culture of the country visited.

When I was a teen, I visited my father in Algeria. At my first sight of the Atlas Mountains, I imagined Bedouins charging over the hill to kidnap me and sell me into slavery.

I rode a Berber mare across stony ground, I heard wild boars creep down from the hills in the middle of the night to get at the gardener's onion patch.

There was no tourism in Algeria in those days. It's far more enriching to walk off the beaten path.

I popped over from Kanani's blog. I'm glad I did.

Duckie said...

My friend, who flew for TWA to the bitter, bitter end, loved Egypt. Her route took her to a layover in Calcutta first. At first she was overwhelmed by the poverty and the people she had to step over to get anywhere at all. Then she rounded a corner where a wedding was in progress. As she paused to enjoy the ritual the bride spied her and invited her to join the party. Needless to say, she fell in love with the people as well as the country for the inner beauty she was privileged to view.

Ms. Cinelli... Please, please take me on as your assistant, gopher, baggage handler, diversionist, anything at all. My travel aspirations have been squelched by my environment bound mate. I've almost given up hope of sailing around the world and seeing anything at all except by Globe-trecker or Bartle Bull. Duckie