October 2009 by Klara Glowczewska, Editor in Chief

Between the Lines

The best travel moments happen when you’re busy making other plans

WE HAVE ADHERENTS OF TWO TRAVEL PHILOSOPHIES here in the editorial offices of CONDE NAST TRAVELER: on the one hand, the proponents of laissez-faire, what-will-be-will-be serendipity (“travel should be an adventure and a surprise!”), and on the other, the believers in the pre-planned and predictable (“if it’s Tuesday, this must be the Tomb of King Tut”).

While I can understand the appeal of both approaches, I was wary of leaving anything to happenstance in my 13-day summer trip through North India. The journey was too complicated, I thought-so much to see, so little time-to risk surprises. India Beat, on the magazine’s annual list of the world’s top travel specialists (August 2009), organized it all -sightseeing itineraries, hotels, guides, drivers, transfers, even downtime (“spend the afternoon by the pool”) – flawlessly, I might add. Did I get the trip I expected? Yes. But I also got a trip beyond anything I could have imagined.

Did I foresee that I might drink an opium brew, sitting on the floor of a village home in Rajasthan? No, but I did just that (not to have done so would have given offense). I fell madly in love with the Taj Mahal, which so far exceeded expectations that I went three times. I had been prepared for Hinduism’s holiest city, Varanasi, to be extreme – the Ganges, cremations, cows, crowds-but not for the old wooden boat I sat in as darkness fell; the giant water bugs skittering over my shoes; the monsoon downpour; the corpses laid out on the burning ghats, in plain view mere yards away, awaiting their turn in the fires that the rain did nothing to extinguish; the saffron robes of the pilgrims on the narrow streets awash in excrement (of cows, monkeys, and the gods only know what else); and, in the midst of it all-people joyfully swimming. It was filthy and fantastic and unforgettable: great beauty along-side the squalor, life and death entwined in a macabre yet natural embrace-as they always are, but it took that night on the Ganges for me to really feel it. I don’t recall seeing that revelation on the agenda. “Dinner at the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel in Jodhpur,” informed the itinerary for another day. Well. What I got was an experience hallucinatory in its opulence: a white marble pavilion only for us, rose petals strewn about, fireworks with dessert-that’s right, fireworks. ” You can ride horses at Rohet Garh” (a hotel in the Rajasthani countryside), proposed Bertie Dyer of India Beat. It was not the tame little trot I’d envisioned. What I got was a nearly two-hours sunset canter and mostly gallop, just me and a guide, on strong Marwari horses over empty fields and lands at the edge of India’s great Thar Desert. (Madonna, I found out, had been there 18 months earlier, on a four-day ride with camping-and she knows her horses.) The ordinary wake-up call was – how shall I say it? – beautifully plumed:  “The peacocks will wake you up, ma’am,” the Rohet Garh manager told me.

“You might be interested in seeing some jewelry at the Gem Palace in Jaipur,” my itinerary proposed. Sure. Seeing some jewelry? I was given to wear-briefly, alas, but still-several multimillion-dollar diamond necklaces (Elizabeth Taylor would have gone nuts). Let me tell you, they do wonders for jeans and a T-shirt. Then there were the conversations. About arranged marriages, for instance. I am now definitely open to the pros of that. And those eunuchs (as in castrati)-so irritating, I was told, and the way they extract money from you….But that’s a whole other story. I’ve barely begun and I’m out of space, so I’ll continue online (cntraveler.com).

I discovered  in India what I suspected all along: that the two approaches to travel – free-form and formatted – in reality have much in common. No amount of scripting can suppress the world’s surprises or keep its wonder and strangeness from seeping through, altering in unimaginable ways our best-laid plans. Okay, so I won’t drink opium tea to that, but a Kingfisher will do nicely.

Condé Nast Traveler: Editor’s Letter

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