It’s been said that you can travel all around the world but you can’t truly call yourself a traveler until you’ve been to India. Well, at 1:30am this morning, as I stepped out into the heavy air of pre-monsoon Delhi, I finally felt I could take on that title.
This won’t be a typical trip to India, however. Charles, my travel companion, and I are heading up to Ladakh, the mountainous and remote northern most part of India, sandwiched between Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. But first we have to make it through the multiple layers of security guarding the domestic terminal to catch our connecting flight. Security dumps out my entire backpack looking for a miniature lighter just to discover that it’s sitting inside one of the outside pockets. I barely remember throwing it in there at the last minute, along with the camp stove.
Yet another check-point awaits us just before the stairs descending to our gate and the queue is packed with people jostling to get in first. Knowing we have lots of time, we stop at the food court to compare prices of KFC and Starbucks to back home. We spot an elevator hidden in the back and think, hey, let’s see where it goes (this is the kind of trouble Charles and I get into when we travel). Much to our surprise, it pops us out at our gate on the other side of security.
As our flight departs the sun breaks over the horizon and the sight of distant Himalayan giants is breathtaking. Charles has reserved me a window seat with unobstructed views. He’s the best.
In some ways, I feel that I can’t really say we’re in India. Ladakh, the focus of our trip, was an independent kingdom for nine centuries and only became part of India after the end of British rule. Its people are largely Buddhist unlike the Hindu majority elsewhere in India. The dominant language here isn’t Hindi but a descendent of Tibetan and now, with so many Tibetan refugees, Tibetan itself is common.
As the plane touches down I’m grateful to have escaped the heat of Delhi and it strikes me how un-India it is to be in a region that’s home to the second coldest inhabited place on the earth (with record temperatures of -56°C!). Exiting the airport, we haggle over a taxi and as our driver swerves through traffic we’re bombarded by the cacophony of honking horns as cows and stray dogs eat garbage in the street. Our nostrils fill with the acrid smell of burning trash and open sewage drains. Perhaps, yes, this is India after all.