It can be difficult to tell travel stories sometimes, to impress upon listeners the magic and mystery, and this story is but one example. I’ve told it dozens of times, sometimes a little bit drunken, sometimes to other travelers, and sometimes to myself if a day has become frustrating at work and I need an [...]
It can be difficult to tell travel stories sometimes, to impress upon listeners the magic and mystery, and this story is but one example. I’ve told it dozens of times, sometimes a little bit drunken, sometimes to other travelers, and sometimes to myself if a day has become frustrating at work and I need an escape. Rarely does somebody actually listen, and some don’t really believe me.
For at least one day in Rajasthan, India, my partner and I had an entire blue city to ourselves. It’s true..a whole walled-in fortress with blue doors and blue walls…the things that sell thousands of postcards and have tourists queuing up to get a glimpse. We had one of those to ourselves, except on a much smaller scale, but who is nitpicking?
I was 24 at the time and free as a bird. I had a silver and blue Royal Enfield. I was preparing for my second six month stint in India after my first visa ran out. I had spent three weeks in Pakistan and was back for a second tour: Delhi to Kanyakumari by motorcycle.
Around the streets of Delhi we popped into small bookstores, the ones that sell (photocopied) copies of literary classics, as well as newspapers, astrological guides and, oddly, copies of Mein Kampf. The old wooden tables pile out onto the street. We found a blue and red book with OFFICIAL ROAD HIGHWAY MAP TO INDIA written in bright yellow letters. Inside there was, as indicated, an official road map of India with an accompanying booklet with little inserts for famous landmarks and tourists sights for each of the country’s 28 states. My favorite was a plea to visit the hydroelectric dams of Madya Pradesh… “The temples of Modern Progress.”
We looked around for any other guides or maps that could be of use and found little booklets for Rajasthan and various other states, but none had quite the authoritative stamp of the OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA. It would be our gold standard as we traveled south from the capital.
We started our journey around midnight. In the alleyway behind the NEW KING HOTEL (our usual Delhi haunt) I apologized to the sleeping cows as I revved up the engine of the motorbike and we took the opportunity to drive through the deserted streets of Delhi – by day a place teeming with the masses – supercharged on emotions and passionate for invisible intimacies of the spirit world mixed with the all too painful concerns of this temporal one.
At night a different city emerges, a shuttered world of closed shops, parks filled with homeless and huddled masses and the signs of the new world order — gaudy neon lit night clubs and fast food chains opened until the wee hours. We drove around the empty, modern highways, turnoffs and freeways that politicians are so proud of, and turned them into our own private red carpet, a motorcyclist in Asia’s dream.
Leaving Delhi, I was reminded of how much I love the big dirty city, a strange thing to hear from any traveler, but it’s true. The old temples and mosques get me every time and I can think of no place more magical than the labryinth of NizaMuddin. The beggars, hash dealers and touts yelling at me for money are like sweet nothings in my ear.
That being said, there is one thing that I don’t love about Delhi and that is…traffic. Part of the decision to leave so early was to avoid the cows, TATA trucks, and overcrowded buses that clog the main arteries of the city. After considering our options, with our pact in mind, we made a beeline for Rajasthan.
Before leaving we wanted to pay our respects to Delhi and pay a last visit to “one of the chief attractions of this Ancient Capital,” as told to us by the OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA.
After bribing a guard with nothing more than a smile, we drove up to India Gate, the city’s Arch de Triumph, and gazed at the city in the quiet (surprisingly cool) Delhi air and made a pact that night. While we had loved touring the north of India, it could, at times, feel like a giant tourist trap and we wanted to avoid places like this. So our pact was simple and consisted of three chief rules:
#1- No guidebooks, and at all costs to avoid anywhere that smelled even remotely touristic — at least for Western tourists.
#2- Recommendations would be taken from word of mouth sources and routes taken would be based on our OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA.
#3-Fly kites whenever possible.
India has its own unique and particular way of sabotaging even the best made plans, and after departing the city limits, we were scuttled by a busted back tire. We were offered countless cups of tea by friendly villagers while our tire was slowly repaired. What was meant to be a five hour straight drive to Jaipur turned into an all day slog- a- thon on the highways. Never dull though, as I noted that on one stretch of the highway we passed a TATA, a minivan, some dogs, some monkeys, a cow, and a camel.
The next day we bypassed Jodhpur and its famous blue city. Although at the time it felt, temptingly, like something we should see, it was in clear violation of Rule #1. A while later we stopped in a small town and pulled into a dhaba for a normal lunch of thali, and to scout a bed for the the night.
We noticed a giant wall, similar to a fortification, near the outskirts of the town and asked some questions as to what purpose it served. Some boys seemed to indicate that it was a small blue city, similar to Jodhpur.
Incredulous, we asked further questions of others. They seemed to confirm that yes, it was in fact a blue city and that not many tourist buses stopped there. We consulted the OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA and found that it listed the gems Jaipur, the blue walls of Jodhpur, and the serenity of the desert stars, but nothing of this city. Even to the OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA this was uncharted territory.
Some local boys asked us if we would be interested in seeing their blue city…we said of course, and (this is the part that always kills me) the boys went off to find the key to open the gate. They returned with an old man, the keeper of the key, who asked us for a donation to fix his shoes. He opened the gate, and with our local boys in tow, we had a whole city to ourselves.
We wandered around abandoned archways and spires and lookout points and made crazy shadow figures along the castle walls in the setting sun. The name of that town has been lost somewhere in the dustbin of memory (and maybe it’s better that way) but I do know that we had our own city for a day. The OFFICIAL ROAD MAP TO INDIA never failed us.
The rest of the trip was filled with these kind of amazing stories and adventures, and I will forever cherish India as a place I had in my youth, a place of pure adventure and excitement. In my naivety (this was my second major trip) I thought all travel was this much fun and excitement. I was literally stunned when we finally parted with our bike in Goa (short of our stated goal) at the end of our trip, that people found the south of India ‘boring’ and complained that they kept running into the same old tourists in the same old places.
I write these words from a Sri Lankan guesthouse nearly ten years later after just watching (for the first time, and please God for the last time) a themed dance performed for bussed in foreign tour groups, and pondering how all these people could fly half way around the globe and all sit together and see the same boring performances and take the same boring pictures as everybody else.
Ditch the guidebooks, buy a motorbike, learn a language, or find a bus whose destination you can’t read, and get on it.