Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures – those times when, far from what’s familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can’t wait to tell when you get home.
About 100 metres out of Phodong in Northern India, the back wheel of our taxi snapped off. While we screeched to a halt in a shower of sparks, the wheel raced ahead, disappearing over a cliff. But by local standards this was quite okay. After all, we didn’t follow it over, and we were close enough to Phodong to walk the rest of the way. This was the state of Sikkim, where my wife and I had discovered that one of the most high-risk experiences you can have in Asia is to get in a minivan.
Shaken, but determined not to let India get the best of me, I marched into the only hotel on the only road through Phodong, and demanded a room at the back with a view of the valley. We’d just barely gained one extra day of our travelling lives. We deserved a quiet room with a view.
My assertiveness paid off. Entering the room I could see that it did indeed have a view across a deep, green valley toward Darjeeling. But something smelled … barnyard. Stepping up to the window I looked out: a warren of pigsties right under our window. And, because India is always teaching you something new, we would later learn that pigs are very early risers. It was a defining moment of sorts, so I snapped a picture from the window to mark the occasion.
A few days after the pigsty moment, and after too many hours on a surreal bus ride through the heart of Indian darkness, we forced the driver to stop and stumbled toward a cluster of dimly lit buildings. It was long past midnight. One of the buildings looked something like a hotel, but when we tried to walk into the entrance, someone in a uniform loomed out of the darkness brandishing a rifle. Too sick and tired to care, we brushed the guard aside and marched into the building. To minivan veterans, the threat of being shot holds no terror. We took whatever room the grumbling staff gave us and collapsed. Expecting the worst the next morning, I looked out the window. It was one of the most bucolic scenes I’ve ever beheld: a sunny green pasture, a clear mountain stream with lush hills behind, and all the farm animals at a respectable distance.
We never knew what we were going to discover the first time we opened those curtains. Thereafter, every arrival in a new room was acknowledged with a snapshot of the scene directly outside. The ritual had an immediate payoff: If we had arrived at night – and we often did – I had time to get a look at a new locale before it got to look at me. If you’re a first-time visitor in a tourist-driven economy, believe me, that’s a distinct advantage.
Those window pictures have a lasting power. I can vividly recall the place, the time, the sounds, the smells: cows peering at the new people in Room 7 in Jaisalmer; a spectacle of colour and sound in a tiny night market right under our window in Calcutta; and in Darjeeling, a body being borne to cremation through a bustling street shows a Westerner how life and death can share the same civic space.
While our rooms were almost always mere boxes with beds, the framed views they offered were revelations.
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