On the Road in India: 1997

A short drive to India.  Kathmandu to Delhi and Jaipur and back, November 1997

In November 1997, we spent just over two weeks in India. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) Representative in Nepal, I was to attend the annual meeting of the WHO Country Representatives of the South East Asian Region in the WHO Regional Office in New Delhi, India.  Leslie and I decided to drive ourselves there from Kathmandu in our own Landrover Discovery. We took three days for the trip there and an extra three days for the return, so that we could have a day or two in Jaipur and Deeg. What a wonderful trip we had. I would never have believed that driving through the North of India could have been such a colourful and enjoyable adventure.

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It proved to be a veritable feast for the eyes and all the other senses. (which we unashamedly enriched with our own music tapes on the car stereo, Mozart and Vaughn Williams in the morning and Loreena McKennit or Dave Matthews later in the day;  )

We had such wonderful contact with our fellow travellers and those through whose towns and villages we passed. People were so helpful and always willing to give us direction when the signposts we needed were not there.

So many images remain vivid in my mind, none the least of which was Leslie’s comment on our return that it had been a highlight of her life. Wow.  Now that is a privilege, to have been part of that.

  • morning mists cut by shafts of sunlight as we drive through long arcades of trees that meet above the road like the nave of a gothic cathedral, such a nave as reaches for so many kilometres, in fact for days- and takes us in all directions; (He was deemed to be a good king who planted trees along the ancient highways of India, because he gave shade to the travellers, who in those days travelled by foot. …and so the most wonderful tunnels of trees hold the road on which we drive, giving perspective to the passing scene),
  • the sunlight on the yellow of the flowering fields of mustard .. these extend from the plains right to the foothills of the Himalaya.. and are with us for days;
  • the colour and constant variety of the traffic on the roads on which we drive;
  • the amazing array of people that gives colour to the journey, colours as if put together by an artist:
  • a tractor towing a blue trailer full of elderly Sikhs, all in blue, with silvery blue beards;
  • another two Sikhs, red turbaned on a red motor cycle;
  • a bullock cart covered with men and women all dressed in variations of orange;
  • bright eyed and scrubbed clean children on their way to school, filling to overflowing a rickshaw here, a horse drawn tonga or an ox cart there;
  • small boys on top of a load of bricks on a large truck.
  • ladies in their multiplicity of colours, packed into the back of a jeep, men standing across the back of another, confident enough of their hold on life to return our wave.. so many people images and they all acknowledge us with a wave of a gracious hand or a broad teethy smile;
  • images of the glistening bodies of small boys by a pump having been washed, of people fishing or working in the fields; of a small boy languishing on the back of one of the herd of water buffaloes he is watching over;
  • the wonderful colour and grace of the women, particularly in Rajastan and the western part of Nepal; the sunlight making translucent their wonderful scarves or saris; the wind catching them to display more of their colour, their colour contrasting with whatever background is there.\; – the new green of young crops, the brown of ploughed field, the rich collage of colour of the village marketplaces;
  • the grace with which these women carry things on their heads, their bundles or their round clay water pots, sometimes two pots at a time, one on top of the other;

The variety is also in the traffic itself, from hand wound wheel chair to combine-harvester, on roads that on the whole were wide and in very good condition, although very crowded at times. We saw the whole range… people on foot, people with their sheep, their goats or their cattle, the man with a performing bear, a group with their camels; Elephants too, especially on the road between Jaipur and Amber; especially vivid are the images of the fine buck that stood on the road, splendid in the morning light, in Bardia national park in Nepal,  the sunlight on the early morning monkeys in Rajastan and what could only be described as a conference of the monkeys on the road through Sariska National Park near Alwar. There were hundreds of bicycles, often hung with several metal milk cans. We commented how many bicycles are ridden by girls and women these days.

There were motor scooters, motor bikes, often carrying a whole family; little three wheelers stuffed full of people, or even fuller of produce; the bicycle rickshaw loaded with the huge balls of deep red and beige wool in Amber,  a line of bicycle rickshaws piled high with schoolchildren on their way home from school;  the large three wheelers, often at a crazy angle as they list to the left with an overflow of passengers who hang on the outside.. small minibuses that do the same, cars. the small Maruti-Suzuki cars that buzz in and out of the trucks like flies, the three white ones overtaking  each other at the same time; the familiar Ambassadors,  the many buses and the hundreds of Tata trucks, often overloaded, lurching from side to side with the bumps in the road, with the sad scenes of those that fell.. lying on their side or on their backs with all four wheels in the air, like elephants who have done their duty and given up. and amongst all of these the innumerable wagons, drawn by bullocks in the north, camels in Rajastan and all over by horses; loaded with people, with sugar cane  on the way to the mill, with huge canvas enclosures of grain, with high piles of straw, or empty of all but the driver who sleeps in the confidence that his faithful beast knows the way home.   The variety comes also from the fact that not all the traffic is on their left side of their road, even when there is a divided road.

We loved those graceful hand movements that emanate from the cabins of the trucks that bid us pass, or counsel us to remain where we are; such fine and graceful movements, more like those we usually see from the conductor of an orchestra.

We saw vehicles get stuck as enormous loads tried to pass through a space already occupied by another enormous load, like enormous sumo wrestlers locked in a hold; we learned to be Indian and dart to the very the edge of the road to get around such events. When two truck drivers passing from opposite directions stopped for a chat; we learned that the truck is king, and the larger the load the more respect we would give. Not often did we have to almost get off the road to let one pass. We did learn the language of the drivers and found that it does make sense and that on the whole they are most helpful. The main hazard with this language is the interpretation of the flashing right direction indicator of a bus or truck, which can mean that the road ahead is clear to pass, or that another truck is approaching from the opposite direction with its right indicator flashing, or, less often, it seems,  that the truck is actually about to turn right.

We were constantly amused by the workshop that appears around a broken down truck, which sits exactly where it came to a halt, and is repaired where it stands, even if that happens to be in the middle of the road. Driving after dark is the most hazardous, with unlit vehicles or ox carts crawling along the edge of the road, difficult to see when there are lights from oncoming vehicles. So we planned not to be driving at that time.

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And then there are the places. Buildings that delighted us because of their shape or colour, the materials with which they are built or their decorations, or because of their grandeur and beauty. There were columns and shapes, arches that frame: rich tapestries of form and light..  Palaces in Jaipur, Amber and Deeg, and the farms and villages along the way.

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and then there was some shopping.. wonderful things to see and feel, especially the textiles and handicrafts, and each merchant a delight to interact with…  and so on. Travelling in our own car eliminated any barrier to buying heavy or bulky items, so there are wooden bowls from “the Shop” in Connaught Place, Delhi, puppets and Blue Pottery from Jaipur and pieces of fabric from all over. So the Christmas shopping is done. Leslie was able to see the National Museum in Delhi and the Handicraft Museum which they say is one of the best of its kind and with which she was absolutely delighted.

The places in which we stayed will also remain memorable, especially the most elegantly renovated Chomu Haveli, one of the oldest royal residences in Jaipur, for two months now operating as the Raj Palace Hotel. Not like a hotel at all, no bustling lobby filled with shops and tourists, but a cool green lawned forecourt in which we took tea, tastefully decorated bedrooms and a most elegant dining room, with a musician to accompany breakfast as we looked out to the hills and one of the forts that look down on Jaipur.  As well as our two nights in Jaipur, we over-nighted twice in Nepalganj in Nepal, and in Naini Tal and Bareilly in India, and stayed with our good friends the Abeykoons in Delhi.

Our pattern when on the road was to start early, to have with us a thermos of hot water and things with which to make tea or coffee for picnics along the way (our “survival kit now has a small electric jug and the stainless steel thermos that has been part of our travels over the last 20 years), and to finish the days drive early enough for tea in the garden of the overnight stop, which, of course required a hotel with such a facility. So the memories we also have are of some splendid picnic sites, by rivers, or pulled off the road by the edge of a farmer’s field, in the cool depth of a mango orchard, or on a hill overlooking Jaipur. Of course, it was tea on our roof terrace when we reached home at the end of the 2900 km round trip. We found our white Land Rover Discovery to be a most comfortable chariot and the only trouble we had was one puncture. It was useful, but not necessary to have 4 WD while driving through the seven or so rivers in the west of Nepal where the final bridges on the east-west highway are still to be completed.

One special footnote to this trip is that at the same time 25 years previously, Leslie and I toured Greece, Turkey and Italy, also in a white car, a journey which included our marriage at the end of 1972.  In fact, coinciding with our wonderful day of shopping and wandering through rich and ancient palaces in Jaipur on November 15 1997,  we had 25 years earlier, on that very day, been in Istanbul and had gone to the bazaar and bought our wedding rings and the two rugs that we have in our bedroom.

Another interesting footnote is that our route from Kathmandu to Delhi followed the route of that segment of the recent Peking to Paris Veteran Car rally, which passed through here at the end of September. We had gone out on the road that comes in from Tibet to watch these amazing old cars come into Kathmandu, and commented we would love to do something like that. In a way we now were, as we followed their path. However, we were glad we were not driving an MGB or a Morris Minor through those rivers in Western Nepal.

It was a great adventure, and we are pleased we were not put off by all those who doubted the sanity of such a trip. We have shown ourselves that we can still be travelling and enjoying adventure 25 years on and have confirmed that the colour of our world is its people.

 

 

 

 

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