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Indian Odyssey on the Road to Nowhere

“Just get up and go” was one of the best pieces of travel advice ever given to me. So I got up and went. I ended up lost on an Indian street, surrounded by the paraphernalia, customs and values of another place.

As a child in the 1960s the penetrating wail of the rag and bone man was a common occurrence. The what? you may ask. Well he was the local collector of junk and used to walk the streets pushing a cart, crying “any old iron”. I haven’t heard his call on the streets of Britain since the early 1970s. He used to be part of an industrial landscape where terraced houses were neatly packed into narrow streets and smoke stack chimneys dominated townscapes across the country. A lot of those streets have gone the way of the bulldozer, and I guess along with them went the era of the rag and bone man.

It’s a long way from the UK of the 1960s to the India of 2005. As a child I could never have imagined a land such as this. The sights, sounds and smells of the place would have been as unimaginable to me as perhaps the rag and bone man would be to anyone under the age of 35 in Britain today. I have become a regular visitor to India and it now hangs heavy on my mind. Images of temple elephants, cyber cafes, road-side vendors, film music, power cuts and generators are always but a thought away. I frequently think of foamy mouthed bullocks pulling carts, sky-high kites being flown from rooftops in blue walled Jodphur, and puja being offered on the banks of the Ganges. All of these memories have their own unique resonance, some obvious and abrasive, others more subtle and lilting.

Mention “India” and my thoughts readily drift toward the gleaming Taj Mahal, the intricately carved Sun Temple at Konark, the Vijayanagar ruins at Hampi, Bodhgaya were Buddha achieved enlightenment, and the Kailasa temple at Ellora, carved out of the very mountain where it sits. The great sites embody the full weight of history and are echoes from the past; the products of labourers and rulers now long gone. Those places will always be with me and their echoes grow louder with time. They now appear more significant and meaningful than they ever did before. The reverberations from the past have become louder, making my appreciation of the present greater. Maybe, I have just learnt to listen harder. India has become deeply engrained.

Travel should have a deep impact. Today however, the leisure industry presents travel as a commodity to be consumed in neat packages and increasingly encourages people to see the sites and tick them off some list, all of which is to be accomplished within a short and fixed time scale. This form of travel may offer a convenient break for those with limited time and it serves a purpose, but arguably it is by definition, consumer tourism. It is the type of travel that has a short-term and quite superficial affect upon the traveller. People now “do” this or that country by cramming in the handful of guidebook designated must see sights in a period of weeks.

We now live in a world of lowest common denominator travel, easily digestible routes and tours contrived by the travel industry. What better way is there than to dull the travel experience by adhering to a highly rigid and preset itinerary? It is the safe way to “travel”; a kind of second hand sanitised version where a true sense of exploration is lost.

Travel is not necessarily about getting from one physical point to another to see the so-called hotspots, but about embarking on a road to nowhere – a future shrouded in mystery and adventure and not one that shows unbending allegiance to the itinerary of a package tour. Tours and guidebooks take you to what has already been mapped out and what is already known. I always believed that the essence of travel was to immerse oneself in the “unknown”, to map out things for oneself and to be changed by the experience. Package tours are becoming viewed as the definitive take on travel. You should never leave home without one.

“Just get up and go” was one of the best pieces of travel advice ever given to me. So I got up and went. I ended up lost on an Indian street, surrounded by the paraphernalia, customs and values of another place. These days the sing-song wail of “chai, chai, chai” on Indian trains is more familiar to me than the long lost cries of the rag and bone man. My Indian odyssey has had a lasting effect, more than any preplanned package tour could ever have had. The best type of travel always takes place on a long and winding road.

Colin Todhunter

Colin Todhunter is an English travel writer whose book Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, was a bestseller in India. He followed up the book with a series of articles for the travel section of the New Sunday Express (the weekend edition of the New Indian Express). His travel articles have also been published in the US based socio-political magazine Newtopia, the Chennai based women’s magazine Eve’s Touch, Fitness First Magazine in the UK, and in the New Indian Express. Before branching into travel writing he wrote on a range of social issues, including disability rights, community development, healthcare and ageism. He has been published in the academic journals Disability and Society, Social Research Update, the Qualitative European Drug Research Journal, and in Clinical Medicine and Health Research. Colin is also a contributing author of the textbook The A to Z of Social Research.