In India, there’s a car accident every minute. Not the most comforting statistic to be bouncing around the brain as your tiny taxi careens along a highway in the Himalayan foothills. But it’s dark, there are no functioning seatbelts and the decrepit vehicle’s misaligned left headlight cranks just enough wattage to illuminate the edge of the crumbling road, which drops directly into an abyss below the front passenger seat.
Then there’s the large truck directly ahead with broken tailights and a sun-bleached bumper-sticker only readable because of its proximity to my face: Keep Distance.
It’s a relative term in a country with more than a billion people.
We’re passing the truck.
Here, that’s done in three stages: honk incessantly to let its driver know you’re travelling at unreasonably high speed only inches from his vehicle (he has no mirrors); pass on whichever side has more room, blasting horn entire way; veer in front of truck, narrowly missing post-monsoon sinkhole, head-on collision with speeding bus and herd of [insert animal here] meandering along middle of highway.
Repeat until arrival at destination.
This particular pass had me shoulder-checking my girlfriend in the backseat, who doesn’t travel well in anything piloted by a maniac. Shockingly, she was asleep, bolstered by one of those ridiculous neck pillows. She’ll look even sillier, I thought, when they discover our remains at the bottom of a ravine.
Morbid, sure, but it was my neck pillow. And we still had six hours to go until we reached the hill-town of Palampur.
My son, however, was upset. But it had nothing to do with the inherent risks of driving recklessly on India’s vast network of shabby roads.
He was hungry.
Travelling through India with a four year old isn’t easy; flights get delayed, trains cancelled, plans changed.
And it’s big. We covered an admirable chunk in 30 days: 13 cities, four provinces, countless roadside towns – spending almost a full week in transit (more than 150 hours in planes, trains and long-distance taxis).
Are we there yet? No.
How many minutes? About 720.
My neck hurts. Try the neck pillow.
This can be draining.
But then you see the Taj Mahal for the first time. And in that surreal moment, everything else just disappears.
Including your child.
This can be stressful.
Indians love kids. And they’re especially enamored with the blond, blue-eyed variety. Consequently, we were often approached by curious onlookers determined to snap a photo of mine. Occasionally, these ad hoc photo-ops intensified into friendly-but-frenzied, paparazzi-like swarms.
So he was easy to find.
It turns out four year olds don’t care much for the world’s most-wondrous mausoleum. Or most temples, mosques and palaces.
At least mine doesn’t. He did, however, seem to enjoy the country’s assortment of spicy potato chips.
Our first monkey was a winner. “Look at him, Daddy! He’s crossing the road!”
The next 1000 didn’t even warrant a glance.
Varanasi was of interest, but not because it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It’s got boats. Lots of them. And we were floating down the Ganges when my son, who’d been observing the burning-ghats in the distance, suddenly and definitively stated: “I don’t want them to burn my body, Daddy. I’d be too hot.”
Curiously, the heat didn’t stop him from falling asleep on the back of a camel in the Thar Desert. But not before telling everyone on the safari to check out its camel toe.
Traversing a challenging country with a young child is a lot like riding a camel: unpredictable, daunting and more than a fair share of ups, downs, moans and groans. Fleas, too; and even some projectile vomiting.
Eventually, though, you hit stride. Man, that warm desert breeze sure feels great – suddenly, you’re Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
But every film has to end. And this one’s going to leave you tired, sunburned and sore. In fact, you may not walk right for a week. And that’s when you realize you might not ever want to do it again.
Until next time, that is. For us, that’s a vision of over-landing southern Africa [updain 2014. For as Robert Louis Stevenson put it: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”
So always pack a sense of humor.
Beat down on a brutally long train ride towards the end of our trip, I asked my son what he liked best about India.
He didn’t even have to think about it. “Ice cream,” he said.
An edited version of this essay originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.