Roadtrip India

After Delhi we took to the road to traverse Rajasthan, India's northern state, known as the land of kings and one of the most vivid parts of the country. All told the journey was 400 kilometers - nearly 250 miles. The roads were relatively new and smoother than I'd expected (Over ten years ago, India's prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, "Our roads don't have a few potholes. Our potholes have a few roads.") No doubt the public works investment was based on the tourists like us zipping around. Sometimes we did take rougher detours, and there was a shiver of excitement when our driver was flagged down by a truck who reported a crowd rioting over results of a local election and advised we take another path. Don't worry, we stayed well away from trouble.All along the way there were few empty highways like you find on road trips in the U.S. Instead the roadside is populated by people walking, often with bushels of wheat balanced on their heads, children, or by camels and their shepherds, cows, pigs, and feral dogs. It's not too much quieter than the city either, since honking your horn is required when passing trucks, other cars, or families of four on a motorcyle as lanes are much more of a suggestion rather than a mandate. (Our tour guide in Agra later schooled us in a principle of driving in Rajasthan, "Rules are for fools!") We had initially laughed at the constantly bleeting horns of Delhi, as though the drivers just liked to honk to participate in the hub-bub. Instead, it's a way of letting the person ahead of you know, "Here I come! Toot! Toot!" Jason made a game of listening for his favorite tune, since there were many horns of distinctive, quacking, hooting or singing melodies.

The honking is a further help when you find other drivers taking a detour by going the wrong way down the highway. More alarming is realizing the other driver is behind the wheel of a gasoline truck! Chicken became another road trip game.

Across the dusty roads and the landscape of muted browns and green scrubby crops, I was delighted to see the colorful streak of a woman wrapped in a bright sari riding side saddle on the back of a motorcyle. Bright saffron and pinks popping off the road.Dipti and I began to wonder if the cover-ups in Muslim states might have just plainly practical origins in keeping dust out of a woman's face. Rather than seeing them as female oppression, I began thinking they're just really a good idea when you're zipping down the highway so exposed.As much as the roadside sites intrigued us, it was me and Jason who drew our own crowd at one point, stopped at a railroad crossing. Getting out to stretch prompted the van in front of us to pour out a family of what seemed like sixteen, eager to take photos with us. I somehow found myself holding a bewildered baby and Jason had a three-year-old on his shoulders. We felt like politicians. It was really sweet and made me wish everyone worldwide had the same eagerness to meet each other and mark the interactions. (Read Travel as a Political Act to embrace this outlook.)Though we wondered what they'd tell others about the photos later, this happened at a number of the places we visited. A sheepish older woman in a sari asking Dipti in Hindi if they could take a photo with me. School girls running up to say "hello" in English and ask my name. I think Jason got a little jealous when my fan club began to outpace his.
After the high jinks of driving, the person we most admired in India quickly became our driver, Kamal. Soft-spoken and steady, he navigated all the city and highway traffic without once scratching our van - which was just two days old when it picked us up at the airport. With two Hindi speakers present (Dipti and Tushar) over the miles we learned that Kamal was actually pretty chatty in his native tongue. He shared the heartbreaking but inspiring story of his life and family - a wife who had a stroke after having their daughter and accompanying medical bills that forced him to sell his farmland. In lighter moments, Kamal offered humorous editorial commentary on the residents of many of the villages we traveled through: the folks in Agra are a rough lot; in the mountain towns near Udaipur the men are lazy and drink. Poor Dipti patiently translated whenever I'd ask, "What did he say now? That sounded funny!"(Kamal at right chats with our guide in Udaipur, while Jason is seen in the rear-view taking in the street scene.)

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