04/21/2012 08:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Northern Indian Road Trip Becomes A Cultural Buffet

One of my favorite aspects of travel is observing the day to day life of people all over the world. Seeing a country's monuments and palaces is a pleasure, but I prefer getting a taste of the culture. As I drove through Jodhpur, Jaipur and Ranthambhore, I was constantly astounded at the scenes outside my window.


As soon as we left the city life of Udaipur behind, the dusty desert roads stretched endlessly before me. Fields full of the seasonal wheat crops were peppered with grazing cows, goats, and a few mischievous dogs. The landscape was dry and brown, as we were heading into the peak of the summer season, and the only color came from the saris of the local women, dotting the fields with their bright blues, oranges, and reds. The women in India work just as hard, if not harder than the men, and I was amazed at the sight of young girls carrying cement bricks on their head with no sign of distress.


Every fifteen minutes or so, the farmland would give way to a small village, and there the real show began. Men sat in circles, their heads wrapped in swaths of bright fabric, and clothed in loose airy shifts, while small children gathered round the water pumps, cooling off from the morning heat. The streets were clogged with traffic, brightly painted trucks, rickshaws and regal looking camels pulling wagons full of grain. While the cows wandered as they pleased, revered by the Indian communities, bulls were put to work, pulling carts and transporting heavy loads. The air was filled with a cacophony of sounds, from the shrill piercing of car horns and the soft mooing of the cows, to the happy squeals of playing children. Then without warning, we returned to the quiet fields, with the long stretch of desert road ahead.


As we drove, my driver, a man named appropriately named Menu, who gave us some insight into the local customs of these villagers. He explained that the color of the men's turbans signified their place in the caste system, still in use today. A red turban was a symbol of the shepherding caste, while a multicolored turban meant a warrior lineage.

After Jodhpur, I drove down Highway eight, the road that connects New Delhi to Mumbai, and continued gasp at the scenes just outside my window. Families rode on the roof of trucks with ease, large bundles of grain spilled over from the back of their transport carriers, threatening to explode on the cars behind, and camels, elephants, and cows were a common roadside spotting. As the horns around me exploded with sound, Rajesh explained that cars in India have two types of horns: regular horns emitting a standard beep, and pressure horns with over 11 song options.

Cars were only permitted to use the pressure horns on the highways, as a signal that they wanted to pass you. Otherwise, a standard beep was used to alert other cars to your presence.


Driving in India is a very unique experience, one that I've heard likened to a racecar video game. Nothing is enforced on the roads, from the speed limit, to the lane lines, to even driving on the proper side of the road. It is quite common to drive straight towards oncoming traffic, only to switch lanes at the last minute, weaving in and out of the vehicles around you.

Finally, as I headed for the last leg of my road trip, driving the three hours from Jaipur to Ranthambhore, I noticed how the landscape changed once again. Tiger country was noticeably drier than the previous cities, and the women tended to favor bright orange saris, perhaps as a nod to their beloved mascot, and also to scare away any predators from their fields.

I ate it up.