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Independent travel: Does it matter how we do it?

Pujya Mata Lai Devi Temple, IndiaEditorial: A couple of days ago I found myself on a Yucatan bus seated beside a young woman from Denmark. She was also a serious traveller and we shared some stories. I had just been to India and she had travelled there four years earlier. She said she’d like to return but couldn’t bring herself to do so because of bad experiences travelling by bus.

I told her about my trip, how I wanted to visit just three places (Varanasi, Amritsar, and Rishikesh). I didn’t want to travel overland and my solution was to book three return flights (found through with Spice Jet out of Delhi for a total cost of just over US$300. I stayed in each place for three nights, returning to Delhi in the morning and flying to the next destination that afternoon. It was all rather hassle-free (at least for India).

A traveller I met in Amritsar also travelled from there to Rishikesh but he took the long route, starting with a seven-hour bus ride to Dharamsala (to visit Mcleod Ganj, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile), then a  “grueling” 10-hour bus ride to Manali (aka the adventure capital of India), followed by 15 hours over “mostly atrocious roads” to Haridwar (a pilgrimage town), and finally an hour ride to Rishikesh. He stayed in hotels where towels are not provided.

Just because we travel independently doesn’t mean we have to travel the same way. It just means we get to make the arrangements ourselves. It’s okay to ease the way in India for the country demands much from the traveller.

After visiting Varanasi and feeling appalled by its poverty, I listened to an interview of Tarun Teijpal, one of India’s most respected journalists and novelists. He talked about how far India has come in the last 60 years when 90% of the people were illiterate and 90% were abject poor, “at the very edge of human existence”.  The situation is changing, he said, people are protesting, and the sense of entitlement is slowly “seeping down to the last man”. So to have any real appreciation of India we must also be informed.

Experiences differ, of course, even if we follow the same itinerary. For instance, I’m ‘of a certain age’ and no longer have young men groping after me on buses as the young Danish woman had. Local women tend to befriend me, tuk-tuk drivers tell me about their girlfriends, and guides introduce me to their families.

As rewarding as it is, independent travel requires more effort than the package variety and it would be beneficial if we shared our “how we did it” stories more. Not like a travel forum with everyone tossing in suggestions that can end up being a confusing mess. Real life, “how I did it” experiences.

Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2013


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