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First of all, my thanks to the British for instilling the English language. Before I left I didn't have time to brush up on my Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Sanskrit or Hindustani, or any of the 24 languages spoken by more than a million Indians each. It has been 60 years since independence, and the Brits are a debatable subject, but the language is a big help.

How this country combines all its languages, religions, castes, tribes, economic levels, geographical differences, as well as border disputes into a single, viable country is mind-boggling. But there it was, in all its grotty beauty.

It was a wild ride—in auto rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, boats, jeeps, planes, buses and five overnighters on the train...through ear splitting, horn blasting traffic jams, landslides, sporadic dung and masses of people—including liberated cows wandering about or stepping over people on sidewalks you weren't sure were sleeping or dead.

What I brought back with me was the satisfaction of enjoying a month in India as a 64-year-old solo female backpacker. Exhilaration more than compensated for exhaustion from a type of travel I hadn't done in 40 years.

Memories of raucous, sweaty, garbage-strewn cities are countered by the pastoral, lush green calm of the countryside where buffalo slosh through rice paddies and clouds shroud Himalayan hill stations.

Roads are a sometimes-here-sometimes-not kind of thing. A valley-side landslide may take away a third of the asphalt. Landslides from the uphill side deposit rocks, boulders and soil, blocking roads. Drivers blithely weave around these and lake-size potholes, honking at curves you can't see around. They avoid cows, goats, pigs or resident trucks with broken axles. Driving conditions are horrendous. Amazingly, you rarely see accidents.

Friendly, chatty Indians open a conversation with, for starters: How old are you? What happened to your hair? Where's your husband? Do you believe in god? I considered countering with: How long is your penis? What is it like being so poor? but there are better ways of making friends. They were curious about me. I was curious about them. We got along really well.

| HILLSTATIONS Shimla - Gangtok - Darjeeling | TAJ MAHAL | GANGES & GHATS