Indian Odyssey: A Personal Journey of Discovery on the Asian Subcontinent


Tim Lehmann: During my trip a friend remarked ‘Good grief! The world is your home!’ to which I replied, ‘The world is welcoming and wonderful.’

Rick Steves, a travel writer and TV host whom I greatly admire, says, “Travel connects people with people.” I heartily agree. It helps us understand the world — and ourselves — more fully. I especially love journeying by public buses and trains — where I can mix with local folks, with families and students of all ages.

Travel has become my never-ending education. As Gandhi said, “Learn as if you were going to live forever; live as if you were going to die tomorrow.” I am incredibly fortunate to have health and the resources to follow my passion. And our world is simply amazing.

My latest journey took me to the Asian subcontinent. From October 2017 to April 2018, I traveled through Sri Lanka, the Maldives, India and Bhutan, combining well-known tourist spots, off-the-beaten-path destinations, and personal pilgrimages into a customized journey of discovery.

I started with three weeks in the island nation of Sri Lanka (nicknamed “India Light” by Western travelers because of its manageable size), beginning in the capital city of Colombo.

I first visited the home of the late sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. Along with his awards and mementos, I found his favorite Star Trek videos and toy dinosaurs on his bookshelves!

A few days later I stood in awe of the 1,000-year-old giant Buddha of Buduruwagala.

Journey through the clouds: The train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya had spectacular views of Sri Lanka’s hill country, but the fun factor was seeing the local kids enjoying the ride

I next took a railway “journey through the clouds,” in Sri Lanka’s hill country through tea plantations and eucalyptus forests…

Hiking to the End: The six-mile trek to the “World’s End” at Horton Plains National Park is just an hour’s drive by shared taxi from Nuwara Eliya, a popular hosteler hangout. The gorgeous scenery is just one example of Sri Lanka’s amazing diversity

…and made a morning trek a day later with four fellow hostelers to the “World’s End,” in Horton Plains National Park.

The Orphanage: The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, established in 1975 to care for infant elephants found in the wild, has the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. As expected, bath time at the river was the most fun

I witnessed small moments of devotion in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, visited an elephant orphanage, and explored the haunting Dambulla cave shrines with their shadowy, mysterious Buddhas.

And I experienced the magic of Polonnaruwa, bicycling through 800-year-old ruined palaces & temples in the central plains.

Maldivian Getaway: A nation of over 1,192 islands 211 miles southwest of India and lying at the crossroads of ancient sea routes, the Maldives are a fascinating blend of cultures. Known for countless atoll resorts, the inhabited islands now feature family-run guesthouses where you can mix (and dine!) with the locals

After Sri Lanka, I had a 4-day getaway to the Maldives, staying in a family-run guesthouse where my hosts one evening offered up a dinner from their spear-fishing expedition.

Then it was on to India, the heart and soul of my trip, where I would spend the next 5 months. With India’s 10,000-year history, my journey was an odyssey through time as well as space.

A few highlights:

Grooming the Groom: My first night in Chennai I was invited to help bless the groom of an upcoming Tamil wedding (and stay for a meal afterwards). This was just the first of many instances of hospitality I experienced in India during my next five months

*  In Chennai, I was invited to join a wedding celebration and banquet by a gracious Tamil family who were as curious about me (the strange-looking American) as I was about their festivities preparing the soon-to-be groom. It was an evening I won’t ever forget.

* In Kochi, I watched a Kathakali performance, a form of classical Indian dance theater combining mime, drumming and chanting that was mesmerizing.

* In Maharashtra, I was astounded by the Kailasa Temple, carved out of a single stone by 7,000 laborers over 150 years!

The Mad Rush: At Sevagram Ashram, where Gandhi lived throughout the Indian freedom struggle, his quotes are posted everywhere. One of my favorites is titled “The Mad Rush” in which he describes the world’s endless pursuit of possessions and pleasures … which only results in more desire. The day I was there, however, the mad rush was of school groups and other pilgrims who continually visit the site as a place of reflection and inspiration

* I met idealistic school kids at Gandhi’s ashram at Sevagram (one of my lifetime favorite moments), and got up close and personal with an Asiatic lion in Gir National Park, a thrilling experience.

* The beauty of the Taj Mahal at dawn was unforgettable, and on the streets of Puri I was showered with colored powder during Holi, which is total, divine madness!

Headhunters Without Borders: The Naga village of Longwa straddles the India-Myanmar border and crossing it (and crossing back) is ridiculously easy. The Nagaland headhunters were never conquered by any invader … until the British started them on opium. American missionaries converted them to Christianity and they’re all good Baptists now, but they have artifacts and festivals that celebrate their fearful history

* Toward the end of my time in India, I came face-to-face with an ex-headhunter in Nagaland, on the Myanmar border. Now addicted to opium, he was a ghost from the savage past.

Into the Dragon Kingdom: My first day in Bhutan I attended the Paro Festival, where the Mask Dance was held in the courtyard of the old temple. Kind of “Whirling Dervishes meet Day of the Dead,” the performance of monks in magnificent costumes is not just staged for the benefit of visitors — it’s an event unchanged for centuries that we are privileged to witness

Finally, during eight days in Bhutan, I witnessed a Mask Dance — a religious and cultural performance unchanged for centuries — and fulfilled a 13-year-old personal dream of visiting the spectacular cliff-hugging Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

During my trip a friend remarked “Good grief! The world is your home!” to which I replied, “The world is welcoming and wonderful.” In our age of easy internet access to practically everywhere on earth, there’s no excuse for YOU not to go have your own adventure! Getting a bit out of your comfort zone is something you’ll never regret … and it just might change your life.

Words and photos: Tim Lehmann


About the author: Tim Lehmann is a retired graphics journalist. He lives in Michigan, USA. He has indulged his lifelong wanderlust by traveling to 82 countries … so far. He’s working on a book about his most recent trip to India and hopes to ride the Trans-Mongolian Railway in 2020. He can be reached at leman_mu@yahoo.com

All text and photos in this article are copyright Timothy R. Lehmann

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