Travel at Ground Level
By Marie Javins
A little girl threw herself in front of our moving truck.
We were in India, on day eleven of a two-month overland trip from Nepal to Syria. Our truck was a comfortable, converted, orange and white Mercedes and like most commercial overland trucks, it was a self-contained movable world with storage containers of bulk foods and treated water, spare parts, camping and cooking supplies, bus-like passenger seats and luggage lockers.
We had all flown into Kathmandu and Dragoman, a British overlanding company, had supplied the seven of us with a two-person staff and this truck that was going to transport us all the way to Damascus.
We had left the Taj Mahal that morning and were headed to the rose-colored city of Jaipur. In our week and a half of driving from Kathmandu to Agra, we had ridden elephants, seen wild baby rhino, rowed down the Ganges, been splattered with psychedelic colors during the Indian festival of Holi, checked out the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho and slept in an old Maharaja’s fort in Orchha. We had also been unofficially arrested, had our vehicle impounded in Nepal, bumped over some of the worst roads on earth in India and narrowly avoided paying numerous unofficial tolls.
But this was the most unusual and unexpected thing of the entire trip thus far. The little girl, a 12-14 year old wearing a knee-length blue dress, ran in front of our truck, stopped directly in our path, crouched down and waited to be run over. Our driver slammed on the brakes and stopped short of the girl, who stood up and ran away.
Presumably, the little girl was hoping to get insurance money for her family. It wasn’t the first scam we’d been subjected to, but it was the most tragic. The others were relatively innocuous — kickbacks, money-changing at fictional rates, overcharging in general, and my favorite, Delhi’s shoeshine boys and “India is another planet,” explained a tour guide. This is overstating the case, but certainly India is one of the few places where a moped is a family automobile, the horn is as essential to driving as the brake pedal, and “persistent” is high praise. India is the penultimate mixed bag; my enjoyment of its diverse and fascinating culture was roughly equivalent to my level of exhaustion.
Pakistan, on the other hand, was simultaneously more familiar and more dangerous. Whereas India is a Hindu country with a complex religion featuring a tremendous cast of gods and goddesses, Pakistan is a Moslem country, with one supreme being. It is unclear if the two religions are a reflection of their corresponding societies or vice versa. Regardless, the one supreme being and relative order of Pakistan was something I could relate to.
I was relieved when we left the Indian border for Lahore. The Pakistani female attendant at the American Express office told me that she planned to “live life first” before marrying. Lahore, with its Pizza Hut and Citibank, didn’t seem THAT different from home. The occasional call to prayer reminded me that I was in another country, a country with a reputation for being dangerous.
24 hours later, we were in the North West Frontier Province, where I didn’t see a single woman and was instructed to never travel alone. We left our truck in Lahore and flew up to Peshawar, the base for visits to the Afghani border and Khyber Pass, surrounded by self-governing tribal lands. The nearby Afghani civil war and rampant smuggling through the Khyber Pass intensified the edgy atmosphere, giving it a feeling of lawlessness. We illegally visited the gun-making town of Darra, where a local policeman happily took our money in exchange for letting us shoot a few rounds on his on his AK-47.
A few days later, we flew back to our Dragoman truck and continued our drive into Southern Pakistan. We visited the architecturally odd Bhong Mosque, the colorful Tomb of Bibi Jalwindi and the ancient ruins of Moenjodaro, sights which few Western visitors ever see. We visited picturesque mosques and shrines all the way to Sukker, where we were invited to participate in a wedding feast taking place in our hotel.
Overland tours aren’t for everyone. You spend days on end with a group of between 5 and 23 people, which has its disadvantages. But, you also have the security of traveling with others and with an expert in the region. Moreover, overlanding is a great way to get off-the-beaten-path in a region if you have a limited amount of time and don’t want to spend a large part of your vacation independently hunting down hotel rooms. And while you are on a fixed schedule, which can be slightly altered, but will stick approximately to the itinerary you receive when you book the trip, you can leave the group for a while and rejoin later if you want to see a place that is not on the itinerary. And of course, there’s always the serendipitous wedding or festival.
Four days later, our big Mercedes truck took us out of Pakistan. We had spent a total of two weeks there and another two weeks in India–overall, not a very long time. But we were traveling at ground level, through the poorest villages and on the smallest roads. We had made meals in village clearings, played cricket with children, and purchased our food in tiny local markets. Certainly, we were on an organized tour. But small group, on a budget, enabled us to see parts of the world that few tourists ever reach.
INFORMATION ON OVERLAND BUS TOURS
Most overland tour companies are British and different agencies specialize in different regions. Most offer camping trips. Two–Dragoman and Guerba—also offer camping/hotel combinations, with the hotels being one or two-star places with lots of character. Guerba also offers upscale, limited-participation camping trips. The other agencies require you to participate in setting up camp and cooking occasional meals.
Adventure Center, the US booking agent for most overland tour companies
Dragoman is one of the most well-known overland companies, and offers both camping and camping/hotel trips
Guerba offers regular camping and upscale camping trips
Encounter Overland offers just regular camping trips