Itinerant in India

The old adage that it is the journey that counts, not only the destination, is certainly true in India.

Text and images, Gillian McLaren.

Washing line on the side of the road. Image Gillian McLaren

Each place I stay, I thoroughly enjoy myself, but perhaps the highlight of my month long sojourn is the road trips. It is Nirvana for photography, of course, with so much happening and in riotous colour, that it is tempting to stop every few kilometers to capture some of the exotic sights.

In each region that I visit, I have a different driver, who escorts me daily to the local tour operators that will guide me through the milling throng, to selected sights. I am also shepherded between cities, so I have ample time to get to know these men and to learn from them.

“To drive in India, you need boldness, brakes and a loud hooter” I am told. Cows are considered sacred in India, so are given right of way and the freedom of the roads.

Expect to see hundreds of cows as you travel. If you are in India during Diwali, the cows are painted in many different colours and styles, with their horns decorated with tinsel, trinkets and bells. A young boy or even an older woman may informally tend a group of cows, but many animals seem to be totally independent and perhaps abandoned.

Water buffalo also roam the streets and byways, seen pulling wooden carts, laden with goods, or as the power to drive an Artesian well.

A decorated donkey. Image: Gillian McLaren

During Diwali, not only cows are decorated. All animals, plus forms of transport workspaces and homes are transformed in celebration. I see tractors, cars, motorbikes and even bicycles with embellishments of colourful cloths, lavish tinsel and sparkling lights.

Pop up shops vending these baubles, knick-knacks and spangles appear everywhere. Homes are freshly repainted, so the villages and towns are ablaze with colour.

During Diwali it’s not only animals that get decorated, trucks, cars and bicycles are brightly adorned too. Image: Gillian McLaren

Whenever we are hungry, or desire a cup of the popular and ubiquitous chai, we stop at a selected spot along the road, for refreshments. My drivers know the chai shops en-route, so choose the best ones for me, where I savour the swirling of milky, sweet tea, as I chat to fellow patrons, usually Indian family travellers.

Also read: Eat your way through India at Kerala’s charming homestays

I favour al fresco dining, so usually sit on a plastic chair – often red – at one of the tables in the sunshine. Indian food is so interesting and varied I could enjoy it every day of my life. Not only the food at the roadside stops is delectable, but each place I lay my head at night seems to provide fulfilling meals, rich with flavour.

Tasty street food is part of the adventure. Image: Gillian McLaren

My trip is curated and organised for me by Beyond the Taj, a tour company that specialises in planning a trip tailored to each person or group’s preferences. I have requested journeys that allow me to meet people from different ethnic groups, to see some interesting architecture and local art, to taste regional Indian food and to observe some Indian game and birds, in the wild.

It is like the proverbial magical mystery tour, as I am whisked into several remote villages, to meet tribespeople; taken to fabulous ancient forts in Rajasthan; to art galleries with top quality ethnic work and I even meet a reputable local artist in her own home. All the stops are pulled out for me and I have an adventure of a lifetime.

Sharing lunch in a tribal village. Image: Gillian McLaren

As I have told Beyond the Taj that nature is my first love, they include safaris in three National Parks – Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve, Satpura National Park and Kanha National Park – for me to view a range of Indian mammals and to spot scores of the birds of the sub-continent.

Even on the road trips, I frequently sight a new bird, so the chauffeur willingly stops for me to identify it, using the bird guide I invest in while shopping in Delhi. In some areas we see antelope, many kinds of monkeys and a few different species of mongoose.

Hanuman monkey in a forested area. Image Gillian McLaren

Spontaneity brings extra vibrancy to my journeys. When I spot a field of gypsies on a field on multicolored makeshift tents, my driver waits for me as I stroll over to meet these interesting people. Before I reach their encampment, scores of chatty children dash up to meet me, seemingly as interested in this foreign traveller, as she is in them.

The girl’s are sassy and made up with charcoal under their eyes and roughly applied lipstick. They have fun posing for photographs for me and dash off to fetch their parents. When I return to the car, my chauffeur tells me that these people are itinerant workers that follow the harvests in different areas, where they set up their simple cloth tents. Many of the children are unschooled, because of this lifestyle, but they are taught labouring skills.

Gypsy girl. Image Gillian McLaren

Do I ever feel unsafe? Never. Do the crowds of people bother me? On the contrary, I find it entertaining. Do I see shocking poverty? Not like my first trip 22 years ago. India is moving on from where one sees maimed and sick in the railway stations. Of course, especially urban environments present challenges to vast numbers of the Indian population.

In the villages I explore, I see farmers that have a simple lifestyle, a rural order, that is unmaterialistic, but not deprived. I am hooked on the energy, dynamic colour combinations, fascination with all the different tribes and communities, the creativity and the variety. Another road trip for me? Yes, please, as soon as possible!

Day trip into the desert from Suryagarh, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Image: Gillian McLaren

To plan your perfect, personalized itinerary:
Contact Beyond the Taj: [email protected]

The fastest flight to India from Oliver Tambo International Airport, Ethiopian Airlines (which recently recieved a Skytrax award for best airline in Africa)  is also comfortable, has an impeccable safety record and gracious cabin crew. With brief stopovers in Addis Ababa daily, you reach Delhi or Mumbai in India with minimum delay.

Day trip into the desert from Suryagarh, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Image: Gillian McLaren