One in a Billion in India
Story and photos by Jim Johnston

When detailed plans for India's capital go awry, a spontaneous trip to Rajasthan yields unexpected rewards.

Indian woman in her home traveling through Rajasthan

The emails from friends started arriving after that first week. “Have you seen the news?” they asked.

“Delhi struggles with record setting pollution”

“Doctors say spending one day in Delhi is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes”

“Delhi’s Chief Minister calls the city a ‘gas chamber’”

Indian man waving

I’d come to India to write. “I’m going to a writers’ colony,” I told my friends. “But I’ll be the only one there.” I’d envisioned a personal retreat within the confines of this improbable city that I’d fallen in love with on previous visits.

Months of planning, reading volumes on Delhi’s history, and careful choosing of where to stay had preceded my trip. I’d sorted through hundreds of Airbnb listings to find just the right place, with a lovely terrace, where I envisioned spending leisurely afternoons hunched over my computer, unravelling the knots of my morning explorations.

I had connections through various friends to meet people in Delhi—several artists, one architectural historian, an international women’s rights activist. I even had plans to lunch with Mexico’s ambassador to India. I would meet the most fascinating people and have the most marvelous adventures.

But the gods had other ideas for me and decided I must wander according to their plan, not mine.

It was the decision of United Airlines to cancel all its flights to the city that finally got me. Plus my lungs were beginning to expel nasty mucous, my sinuses were clogging up, and my eyes were hot and watery.

I packed my bags, cancelled all my plans, and fled.

Alone in Alwar

One travel rule I’ve made is a limit of three hours on public transportation on any given day. That’s how I chose Alwar, in Rajasthan, as the first stop on my escape route. A busy town of some 300,000 inhabitants with some rambling Rajput palaces (now mostly used as municipal offices) and a lively bazaar, it attracts few tourists—I did not see a single other westerner in my four days there.

Indian women

Within half an hour of my arrival I’d been invited to tea by Sunil, a university student who approached me on the street, obviously thrilled to speak to a foreigner. He was from a small town far from Alwar, now living in a humble home he shared with his two brothers and their aged landlady.

Like visiting royalty, I was shown their home altar, the roof-top terrace where the brothers flew kites in their free time. They served me packaged cookies and sweet milky masala chai—the first of many such cups of shared tea that would become part of my daily routine in India.

The Indians I met were all very conscious of social media, and Sunil became the first of a long list of new Indian Facebook friends. Linking via Facebook or Whatsapp seems the natural extension to their ingrained desire for connectivity. Most people live with extended families, and even on a bus or train ride, total strangers quickly engage in conversation as though they’d known each other all their lives, current and previous. As a solo traveler I was a rare bird; in Alwar I began to ruffle my feathers.

Indian family

I continued to feel plagued, however, by the need to plan my now empty calendar. “Go to Sri Lanka,” one friend suggested. “There are cheap flights to Bangkok,” said another. “What about a yoga retreat in Goa?” I felt overwhelmed with options, and as I wandered the back streets of Alwar I kept poring over the possibilities, thinking I should be somewhere else.

Walking With Holy Cows

holy cow

I moved on to Jaipur, which has an international airport, so at least I’d have more choices. I had been to Jaipur before, and it’s not my favorite place (too many streets at right angles, too much garbage), so after a few days I booked a cheap flight to Jaisalmer, a small city near the Pakistan border, known for its golden sandstone fort, a plethora of intricately carved havelis (private homes of wealthy merchants), and lots of cows ambling along the back streets. And the fact that it had an airport, opened just a few weeks before my arrival, meant I still had a wide range of travel options for the weeks ahead.

Despite the clamor for tourists’ rupees with frequent offers of tours to the fort, camel safaris, and a maharaja’s ransom of silver jewelry, the town felt calm and clean and charming. And it was here that I learned an important lesson from the cows that altered the trajectory of my travels.

Many tour companies around the world offer expensive excursions to go whale watching or to swim with dolphins, but I’ve yet to see one that takes you on a walk with the holy cows of India. Granted, they don’t offer the sinuous choreography of the dolphins or the thrill of a breaching whale, nor would one be tempted to stroke their sleek hides or hop on for a ride. But the message to me, as a solo traveler seeking an itinerary, was this: stay put, ruminate, put one foot in front of the other and eventually you will be in a new place. And try to avoid stepping in your own shit.

It was in Jaisalmer that I was released from my need for a plan, beyond notifying the hotel owner if I’d be spending one more night. I ended up staying seven.

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Read this article online at: One in a Billion in India

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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