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Confessions of a Budget Traveler

Richard Drake

Chai Wallah © Richard Drake

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”. Thus sang John Lennon in 1967 with his irreverent yet profound comment on cosmic consciousness. I had some such vague notion when I set out on a journey that was to change my life. But I wasn't aware of that then. In fact, I was not aware of very much other than a strong desire to shed my former life for something new, but as yet unknown.

India had beckoned me with its siren song for as long as I could remember. From my father's interminable war stories of brave men dressed in turbans, to tales of the drug-soaked hippie trail of the 1960s, I was steeped in its mysteries. And so it was that I found myself in Delhi on a sweltering September day in the early part of the 21st century. I had quit my job of 12 years and rented out my house indefinitely. I told anyone who cared to listen in the small town in which I had spent the previous 20 years that I probably would not be coming back. Little did I know that the “I” of whom I spoke indeed would not return.

My spiritual immersion into the mysteries of India started off badly. Enlightenment in my case was indeed the shedding of worldly things; however, it was unintentionally achieved by having my belongings removed the first day I was in Delhi by a nimble-fingered thief. As a naive and rather unsuspecting tourist of the Western variety, I normally am quite a trusting chap. Thoughts of thieves, brigands and other undesirable rogues do not occupy large chunks of my consciousness. So it came as a brutal awakening to find I had become a statistic: yet another sucker who found himself bereft of documents – such as passports, return plane tickets and travelers cheques – so useful when traveling to far flung and exotic countries. “Why me?” was the first selfish and useless question that entered my mind as I came round from an unexpected jetlag-induced nap on the cool, green grass of the Red Fort. This was something that always happened to those less cautious, unprepared and, of course, more stupid than I. Or so I thought. How was it that I had unwittingly become a target for the less scrupulous elements of the Indian population?

Snakewoman © Richard Drake

It was odd being stateless: suspended between worlds and unable to travel, or book a hotel, or cash travelers cheques. I left to join the insane consulate game. I ricocheted from one imposing building to the next – fired like so much cannon fodder to another featureless waiting room where I was usually told a) I didn't have the right papers; b) I was in the wrong place; c) I was a smelly foreigner and they didn't like me (intimated but not spoken). Fortunately, the average traveler never experiences being at the mercy of that grinding impersonal bureaucracy.

This incredible country is like no other; it either gets under your skin, or you are back on the next plane out, recoiling in horror from the unexpected, unplanned, and unorganized. India is not for the faint of heart: this visceral experience transcends the order and predictability that we take for granted in the Western world. Perhaps this challenging environment is the necessary precursor to letting go of many dearly held beliefs in order to achieve inner transformation, the un-glueing of certainty.

I made good the time awaiting the replacement of my oh-so-valuable documentation. While suspended in the twilight zone of statelessness, I made a beeline for the euphemistically named “cyber cafes. ” These dark caverns consisted of dank cubicles, where dozens of Indians and Westerners alike bashed away at keyboards, composing emails or commiting other dubious activities. I recounted my tales of stupidity and woe to my unbelieving friends back home.

During this uninvited interlude, I availed myself of the dubious delights of Delhi. This included many near-death experiences of transportation India-style. My vehicle of choice was the auto rickshaw, a mutant variation of the ubiquitous Asian three-wheeler. I would marvel as my dare-devil driver weaved a serpentine route between buses belching clouds of diesel fumes, which bore down malevolently upon my flimsy carriage; my driver eagerly playing chicken until the last heart-stopping moment.

All this traffic performed a dance of great intricacy. Every driver seemed to know unconsciously his or her part. They instantly calculated how many thousandths of an inch were required as clearance between their vehicles and death.

Boat Boys © Richard Drake

A cacophony of horns surrounded us. Many vehicles post a polite request: “Horn Please. ” This chaos is actually a very sophisticated warning system. Heaven help a deaf driver! The TATA Company makes most of the buses and trucks in the subcontinent, and there is a good chance of being mown down by one of these vehicles. One fellow traveler decided that her epitaph would be inscribed with one word, which would likely be the last that she would see before exiting this world: TATA.

A month later I escaped the Delhi underbelly clutching my new documentation, headed for my next destination, Dharamsala. This trip involved a train and then a bus. Trains crisscross The Great Subcontinent, delivering a stunning 25 million passengers to their destinations daily. After the train, the next adventure in transportation was the bus referred to as the Dharamsala Express. Although buses in India occasionally resemble ones in the West in that they have an engine, seats, four sets of wheels and a driver, the similarities stop there. The Pathankot Bus Station resembled a cross between Beirut on a bad day – craters and all – and some kind of manic construction zone. Buses lurched through massive mud-filled potholes, backing out at full speed, with ticket-collectors-come-carnival-shills shouting at the tops of their voices, exhorting any timid passengers to hop on, if they dared.

Guard © Richard Drake

The Express was alarmingly well named. As soon as we set off, the heavens opened, and torrential rain rendered visibility to near zero. This incidental fact did not deter our driver. Like most Indian drivers, he considered it his mission to overtake anything and everything on the road ahead. Usually I avoided sitting too close to the front, in case I became too aware of impending disaster. However, it was obvious that this road was barely negotiable. As we climbed up into the mountains, great floods swept fresh debris across the road that had now become a river. Occasional glimpses revealed whole portions of the roadbed that were missing, and whatever was left was rapidly disappearing.

As the bus ground up and up, the scenery became more spectacular, accompanied by ever-increasing precipitous drop-offs. I decided to adopt an Eastern attitude: if death was meant to take me here, so be it. Hopefully, it would not be lingering and painful. Once I had this focus, the fact that we might plunge over a ravine any minute seemed, well, a detail. Everyone else seemed to adopt the same attitude, or by rights they would have all been screaming by then.

Wool Seller © Richard Drake

I took a smaller bus the final eight kilometres to Mcleodganj, the upper level of Dharamsala that hangs suspended 5,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas. At first glance, the bus appeared to be full; however, I was mistaken. Although every seat was occupied, further quantities of humanity were not discouraged and continued to squeeze into every last available spot. When I thought that there couldn't possibly be more room, the ticket collector started banging on the side of the bus, yelling for other would-be passengers to join the intimate group grope. The driver's skill in traversing the washed-out sections was breathtaking. At one section, he was literally one coat of paint away from the inside cliff, with the outside wheels just about in space. The whole lot looked like it could give way at any minute. Very few road repairs, if any, seemed to have been done since the last landslide.

Infrastructure appeared almost non-existent in Daramsella. Whoever built the place left and forgot to come back for any maintenance. On the road up, there were quaint signs warning of “Damaged Road Ahead, ” a euphemism for a massive crater left after the last truck-swallowing washout. Equally ineffective warnings against speeding (“Dashing Means Danger”) were ignored by all except hapless pedestrians, who risked being mown down any second by a careening truck hell-bent on finding a few inches of traction on the remnants of the road.

Eventually my journey transformed from the ridiculous to the sublime. I met my destiny, which was to visit His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. To witness the Divine, in the form of a small, smiling, bent man, and the very essence of humility, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My body might have been in an alien-seeming environment, but my soul was at peace. Travel trauma to transcendence in the blink of an eyelid. I was finally home.

Richard Drake grew up in England where his father was a writer and broadcaster. From a young age he was surrounded by words. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. In his teens he discovered travel. A chance encounter led him to the western shores of Canada, which became his new home. He was always destined to travel to India, growing up steeped in its mysteries with his father's tales of his wartime experiences there. A two-year round-the-world trip that was to change his life took him to Delhi, where he had everything stolen on the first day there. That unfortunate experience became the raw material for his book Nirvana by Installments. Currently he documents his travels through writing and photographs for his blog nirvanabyinstallments.com. All his diverse parts can be found at richarddrake.net.