Leaving Asia- 1987
Updated: Jan 20
Asian Reflections after 6 months
Flying from Calcutta over the Arabian Sea, brown desert sands below like a scorched lunar painting, we pondered our just completed Asian journey. It should’ve been easy to leave the continent behind; we’d prepared ourselves psychologically for the journey.
Suddenly, we’d been a big hurry to get to Europe, but we realize we we'd become weather-worn “off-the-beaten track” warriors. Despite our meager budget, we could have easily stayed on that trail for another year. Such is the traveller’s dilemma- should I stay or should I go?
Maybe we’d begun to feel a tad guilty about traveling around the world, our carefree existence far from the rigours of the rat race back home, and the pursuit of the legal tender. I’d finished Paul Fussell’s excellent The Norton Book of Travel, who’d hit the nail on the head when he noted
“the sensitive traveller will also feel a degree of guilt at his alienation from ordinary people, at the unearned good fortune that has given him freedom while others labor at their unexciting daily existence.”
Somewhere over the Arabian Sea, I felt our priorities shifting. We'd been re-examining what we’d do for a money (“I’m growing older, but not up," according to Jimmy Buffet). We’d become locals in a sense by virtue of our frugal ways, our budget dictating local transport on “express” buses. We'd learned to bargain for everything, and we often walked away from deals involving exquisite hand-made artifacts, over of a couple dollars; after all, there was a principle at stake.
In the west, it was tough to negotiate the price of a room, the cost of transport or a piece of jewellery. We’d readjust our sails and become blasé about clean toilets and streets, 24 hour a day electricity, drinking water out of a tap, a modern transportation system, a telecommunication system that worked, all the marvels of the modern world, so sadly lacking in most of Asia.
When we showed at the Air India office in New Delhi to catch the airport bus, we were sick up and fed with the incessant gawking and harassment by Indian locals and shopkeepers. Many travellers turn it on and off, and remain largely unfazed. But we were over-exhausted from an endless series of bad trips, and should've taken a month or two off to rest by a placid lake in Pokhara or the beaches of Sri Lanka, Goa or Kerala.
Of course, hindsight provides 20/20, and the heat of pre-monsoon India (40 plus celcius) often made it difficult to engage in rational thinking.
Numerous other destinations beckoned before we kipped out of Asia. In Nepal, we had the opportunity to ride the bus up to Tibet, the rooftop of the world, only recently re-opened to western travellers. But we couldn’t contemplate the thought of another banger bus, even one that would take us up to the magical kingdown known as Shangri-La.
I yearned for enough cash to catch a flight to Tibet, to land in the mystical city of Lhasa, to hang with the last remaining monks who stayed despite the Chinese atrocities. This would also have opened up the great China-USSR train route, the arduous Trans-Siberian Express to Hungary.
The entire sub-continent of India, spread out before u. So many enchanting places: Madras, Jaipur, Udaipur, camel treks in the desert, houseboats on Lake Srinigar, hill station at Simla, and much more. Sooner or later, bad timing overtakes the traveller, and our arrival during the hottest of the hot seasons was our proverbial Waterloo. Our situation was the opposite of a tourist, because they could show up at the right time, unlike the traveller, who, according to Fuller:
“…often arrives at the wrong moment: too hot, too cold, the opera, theatre, museum, is closed for the day, the season, or indefinitely for repairs, or else there is a strike, or an epidemic, or tanks are taking part in a political coup.”
The heat and the throngs had led us to this bus that was our way out of Asia. Would that we could fly to Italy for a month, as our friends Brad and Emily had done when they’d hit the wall in China, to indulge in an excess of fine wine, sampling delicacies more familiar to a sophisticated western palate, convalesce and only then return to Asia, refreshed and ready to tackle it one more time.
We were impressed when meeting overlanders who’d been touring Asia without a break. Some departed for Hong Kong or Singapore as their “refueling station,” or camped out on the beach at Samui or Kuta for months on end. Only then to contemplate a debilitating yet exciting tour of India or China. The possibilities were endless- the longer one stayed, the more doors that opened.
Delhi airport was our first link back to “western civilization,” with gleaming floors and modern facilities (clean bathrooms, running water!). If it wasn’t for the crowds standing outside, with their faces pressed to the glass gazing longingly at us, we would’ve thought we were already in Europe.
Our flight was scheduled to depart at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am, and as security was extremely tight (pre 9/11; we had to present our tickets just to enter the terminal, the only time in any airport thsi trip); check in time was 3 am. We were better off staying at the airport to catch a few winks before boarding the 11 hour flight to Rome than to rush from our hotel at 2:30 am.
We sat on the floor updating our diaries; I noticed what appeared to be KGB agents, replete in their c.1975 grey suits, haircuts and ties, awaiting an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. They sported sunglasses in the airport lounge a bit cliché. I wondered if John LaCarre was around the corner scheming another story about the red menace. As Donald Fagen put it: “With his stupid set of glasses and a gun.”
We managed to catch a few winks by rolling our mats out on the floor (we could sleep anywhere after five months of hard Asia beds). My trusty travel alarm woke us up at 3:30 am; two irritable, bleary-eyed travellers joined the queue for the Air India flight to Rome.
Naturally, our flight was delayed by several hours. We eventually rose over a sweltering Delhi (the heat had returned with a vengeance) over four hours late; ain’t travel glamourous.
Instead of flying directly to Rome, we had to disembark at Bombay, switching planes (surprise!). We were treated like so many cattle by extremely rude and insensitive Air India officials, oblivious to the fact we’d been waiting all night, only to be stuck in a hallway queuing for a jet that should’ve been somewhere over Saudi Arabia.
We were forced through security again (as if anyone could’ve constructed a bomb on the plane, Elaine said). Finally, the jet roared down the runway, passed shanties hard against the airport, and we left India with a tinge of sadness and a healthy dose of anticipation of the Mediterranean journey ahead.
Next Stop: Italy and Greece