Of the 53 countries I’ve traveled to, thus far, I can say without hesitation that India has been the most interesting. It was, from the moment I crossed the border from Nepal by foot, an assault on the senses in both good and bad ways. The food, the running riot of colors, the diversity of cultures and religions, the natural beauty, and the impossible-to-fully- capture magnificence of its ancient architecture were often contrasted by pollution, crowds, extreme poverty and the in-your-face persistence of salesmen who wouldn’t take no, or a 100 nos, for an answer. It was amazing, challenging, inspiring, overwhelming, peaceful, heartbreaking, and rewarding all at the same time.
I traveled there in the summer, which meant much of the southern part of the country was dealing with monsoon season; however, there being warm summer rains in the south meant that parts of the north, which are inaccessible for much of the year, were open. I was able to travel up to Kashmir and Jammu, India’s hotly contested northern most states. In Srinagar I stayed on house boats that could more accurately be described as floating palaces. They dated back to British rule when people built them to avoid paying the taxes that applied to houses on land. I’d often spend my evenings there sitting on the back of the boats, sipping chai tea, while watching one of the world’s most diverse bird populations enjoying the lily filled water ways.
From this lush, Muslim dominated area that was teaming with wildlife (and heavily armed Indian soldiers), I traveled east two days by car over 15,000 foot mountain passes, occasionally stopping for several hours at a time while landslides were cleared away, to Leh. The small city sits 12,000 feet above sea level and felt like the polar opposite of Srinagar. It was high desert and the only green to be seen ran through the oasis river valleys. The blue-gray rushing water was fed by glacial runoffs from the surrounding jagged, barren, snow-capped mountains. Along with the scenery changing, the religion had too. I was now in a Tibetan Buddhist area that had the architecture to match. Daily motorbike rides gave me access to the numerous monasteries, each one of which seemed like it should be world famous for its beauty and surrounding geography. The whole while I was there, I ate like a king and was able to get impressively tipsy on just a beer or two thanks to the elevation.
They say everyone who spends enough time in India will develop a love-hate relationship with it. That turned out to be true for me. After nearly three months there, I was really ready to leave. However, on one of my last nights there, as I sat on the small balcony outside my hotel room in the hill-top, desert fortress in Jaisalmer, and despite the hectic and needlessly-noisy goings on in the streets below me, I knew I’d miss India, and I do. Whether it was the stunning views of the Himalayan Mountains in Kashmir; learning about Hindu cremation ceremonies that have been taking place nonstop on the banks of Ganges river in Varanasi for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; watching the contentious and boisterous, yet oddly humorous border closing ceremony in Punjab with Pakistan—a rival nuclear power; dodging cows and tuk tuks on the streets of Delhi, or riding on a camel train under a moonless, star-filled night sky in the Rajasthan desert, thoughts of India fuel my dreams and cause something in my being to beg to go back and see more of this most interesting country.