I’ve now been in India for about six weeks, and I’ve come to realize that much of what has happened up to this point—fleeing Pakistan, leaving Reuters, landing in New Delhi—has been mostly prologue for The Big Journey that I’ve decided to undertake.
It probably sounds strange to think of India—a teeming, continent-sized rising global power—as mere prologue, especially for a country so diverse, fascinating and large. (Boy, is it large. My train journeys regularly last 18-24 hours, and they only go about halfway across the country.) But that’s the way it is. It’s taken me two months to get Reuters, Pakistan and journalism out of my head. And India, as a kind of mirror image to Pakistan (but less hostile) has been a tonic for me. I’m not saying one country is better than the other on an objective basis. But for me, India has smoothed out a lot of negative feelings I’d developed for South Asia. Unfair? Yes. But there you go. I’m not perfect.
But now, I’m ending my time in Hyderabad and New Delhi, where I’ve had the benefit of friends’ flats and other support networks to fall back on. I’ve not had to engage with India on any real level. I could skate along the surface, picking at what I liked and retreat back to the comfort of a western, air-conditioned apartment with friends who spoke English, and had enough experience in the various cities to guide me to the good restaurants or whatever. I’ve not really had to do much in terms of discovering these places.
(My hike in the Himalayas was a different matter. I know I’ve not written on that yet, but I will. It’s just a matter of processing it all.)
I’m soon to leave for Goa and Kerala to see more friends and luxuriate in hotels and swank houseboats. Again, not the usual Indian experience, and ones at which a lot of travelers would probably stick up their noses. No matter. This is what I need and it’s what I’m going to do.
The next leg will be much more challenging if I’m going to leave India without flying. India shares more than 14,000 km of land borders with six neighbors, but despite this (or perhaps because of) has poor relations with almost all of them. Myanmar, to the east, doesn’t allow foreigners to enter, except by air. It also blocks all access to Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia. Bhutan doesn’t have good diplomatic relations with China, so going through the land of Gross National Happiness to get to the MIddle Kingdom is an unhappy prospect.
Nepal is doable, but it’s dead end. China has closed Tibet to foreigners at the moment because of fears of unrest, and there’s no word on when it might be re-opened. It’s a bit of a non-starter anyway, because I’d have to go with a special—and expensive—tour group that would probably be more trouble than it’s worth.
Going directly to China is also not possible. All the sections of the border where China and India meet are militarized zones with very little cross-traffic possible.
By sea is even worse. There’s no ferry to Sri Lanka—none! The one ferry that was operating last year had to shut down because of billing disputes with the caterers. Ah, India. So the idea of kayaking over to Colombo to catch a freighter ship to Singapore would mean flying. If I’m going to cheat, I might as well just fly to Bangkok and start the trip there.
That leaves—you guessed it—Pakistan. I’m rather loathe to take that route, for previously stated reasons. So the question is: Where to go and how to get there? I’m open to suggestions.
But—and this is key—wherever I go, I’ll be leaving the warm cocoon of friends and cozy, free flats. The journey will have begun.