A Staff Postcard: Riding the Rails in India
India travel notes from Tom Lastick, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Travel Specialist
Travel is my life and livelihood and my most recent trip to India was an adventure of a lifetime. I traveled on the maiden voyage of a new luxury train called the Maharajah’s Express. This is India’s first truly five-star train product and is comparable to rivals elsewhere such as the Eastern and Orient Express. They have a classic program linking Delhi and Bombay with stops at Agra for the Taj Mahal, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and famous forts and outposts of Rajasthan like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Their other program is a first-of-its-kind journey through the plains of central and eastern India linking Delhi and Calcutta with stops at Gwailor, Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and ancient Varanasi.
I was impressed with the train and the overall experience provided. There is also a romantic and nostalgic quality to India travel by rail. That said, I still prefer travel at a more leisurely pace and with more time to enjoy the destinations visited and the unique hotels and accommodation choices that abound in India. I feel the train is an excellent option for train buffs of course and also those that desire to cover a lot of ground and see a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. Both journeys on the Maharajah’s Express are one-week programs.
While in India I also had the chance to explore “off the rails” and search for the kind of new experiences we continually seek out as part of our mantra to provide “Journeys Beyond the Ordinary”. One such experience was an opportunity to wander the Dharavi Slum of Bombay, one of the largest slums in the world. This area was made famous as a filming site in the critically acclaimed “Slumdog Millionaire” and was also recently chronicled in National Geographic magazine. Wandering a slum might not sound so appealing, however the experience was one I will remember for a lifetime. In the company of my eager and friendly student guide who grew up in Dharavi, a new world was opened up to me. Looking in from outside at this sprawling shanty town, one may be off-put by the disheveled appearance and potential fear of venturing within. Inside is another world of thriving industry and sustainability. Everything imaginable is recycled and resold in these hidden alleys; cardboard, plastic, cable and wiring, basically anything that is disposed of and can possibly be salvaged for profit. Talk about eco-tourism! Another section of the slum is a thriving pottery production center while another handles wrapping and packaging foodstuffs that are re-labeled and sold in India’s most up-market shops and department stores. Dharavi is a world of industry and opportunity with a diverse makeup of residents from all over India.
One of the more difficult aspects of any trip to India is the sometimes intense poverty, and particularly the beggars that are so commonly found at sites affluent tourists are likely to frequent. In spite of perceptions and appearance, this is not the case in Dharavi where everyone works hard, has a purpose, and where they are not yet accustomed to seeing visitors from the outside world. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went in the company of my resident guide and what was supposed to be a short one-hour visit quickly turned into five as I was absolutely enthralled and not ready to leave. When finally it was time to go I came away knowing this was something special and something to be shared.
It is unfortunately inevitable that this experience will not be possible for much longer. Bombay is a city of 20 million and India’s financial capital. Real estate is at a premium and already apartment blocks and office high-rises blot out the sun in every direction you look. The land occupied by Dharavi is under the eye of developers and sadly this true economic heart of the city will eventually be lost. India generally is poised on the brink of an economic explosion, much like China has already seen and I urge any of you that have been considering travel to India, or maybe have already been and yearn to return for more, do so before the landscape irrevocably changes for good. I am blessed I was still able experience the unique chaos, color and panorama that is India today and the India I know and love.
Did you capture that one-in-a-million shot on your recent trip to India? Do your friends and family ooh and aah when you show them your best India travel photos? Then enter your photos in our “Share Your Experience – India Travel Photo Contest” and you could win an Apple iPad! (16 GB with Wi-Fi).