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If traveling here in India teaches me anything, it’s how easy it is in America to buy basic things.

Yesterday, I got a new appreciation for a commonplace item we take for granted when, tying my running shoes, the right shoelace broke. No big deal, right? Wrong, because most people in Southern India wear sandals, and though running shoes are readily available, the ties that bind them are, I found out, hard to find.

I headed to a department store called Big Bazaar with broken shoelace in tow. Seeing a salesgirl in the shoe department, I held it up to her. “You want lace separate?” she asked. “Not available… look outside store.”

I was in a mall, so I headed to, not one, but two stores that sell name brand running shoes and hit the same brick wall. My shoelace dilemma was going to call for some good old-fashioned American ingenuity. 

thought about using electrical wire, there’s plenty of that lying on sidewalks… but I rejected that idea for lack of wire cutters. I thought about buying a cheap pair of shoes just for the laces, but the cheapest were fifteen dollars—I’d rather buy a pair of wire cutters.

I went back to Big Bazaar and walked the aisles, hoping something would jump out at me… and came across rolls of clothesline. Hmm. They had the same thickness as shoelaces, and they’re made of vinyl so you can cauterize the ends with a match. As an added bonus, it turns out that clotheslines in India are really, really stylish. Bingo!

 I took a roll to my hotel room, cut them to length, cauterized the ends and prepared to celebrate my victory, but I couldn’t shove the flimsy ends through the shoelace holes. Darn it! Frustrated, I just tied the two ends of the broken lace together and made it work. Then I scribbled this entry into my travel journal: “Bring extra shoelaces next year.”

Now that’s good, old-fashioned American ingenuity!

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Every day here in Southern India, I hop on my rented motorcycle and, just like the locals, honk like a madman in the notoriously congested streets. Here’s my guide to the basic honks:

>>One quick honk—This is a perfunctory gesture that means “I’m here” or “Hey pedestrian or dog or goat or cow or water buffalo or chicken… whatever it is you are thinking about doing, do not do it.” 

>>Two quick honks—This is a sort of a hybrid between a warning and a greeting, and it means: “Hey, friend, I’m coming through… and have a good rest of your day.”

>>Three quick honks—This means: “Back off!” or “It’s not my fault I almost ran you over… you need to pay more attention to my two quick honks.” 

>>One long continuous honk—This means: “We are about to collide and I’ll do what I can to avoid the collision and you had better do the same.” So far, my success rate has been stellar, knock on wood.

Some readers may be thinking: “Mike, you seem like a level-headed Midwestern kid at heart, why don’t you just put your ego on the back burner, forget about those honking rules, and drive slowly near the shoulder with the old ladies and those disabled guys who ride the three-wheeled hand-cranked bicycles. That seems like the sensible thing to do.”

“That’s a fair point,” I shoot back. “But, you know, I played some ball at my Midwestern high school and I can handle myself. If Indian guys can survive this boiling cauldron of madness, so can I. In fact, when I’m driving here I feel I’m representing the U.S.A. in an olympic competition of sorts… just, hah, hah, please play the national anthem at my funeral!” 

“Mike, quit making jokes like that or you’ll make it come true,” says my sensible, level-headed Midwestern mom.

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Have you ever gotten into a weird, frustrating conversation with a stranger about a donkey, only to regret ever entering that conversation? If your answer is “No,” then you’ve probably never been to Auroville, India.

I’m vacationing in Auroville, founded in the 1960’s by a French woman known as “The Mother.” It’s an experimental township dedicated to the unity of all humankind. The place has a somewhat new age vibe.

Auroville has a gym with a big grassy lawn all around, and as I walked the path to the building today, I saw something I have never seen in India: a donkey, happily munching on grass. Reaching the entrance, I saw a tattoo-covered Indian man sporting earrings. Here’s a synopsis of our conversation:

Me: Uh, excuse me, sir, can I ask you about that donkey?

Him: (surprised) What do you want to know about the donkey?

Me: (Taken aback that I have to explain my curiosity) Uh, just like… how did it get here? Does it have an owner?

Him: (In a deep tone of voice that has likely chanted many an “Om” in yoga class) Why does it have to have an owner?

Me: (On the defensive) Well, I mean… does anyone take care of it? 

Him: (pausing to allow time for me to realize the full unenlightened nature of my questions) It is a domesticated donkey, if that’s what you are asking.

What I wanted to say next was: “Hey hipster guy, I never said the donkey had to have an owner—you put those words in my mouth. And yes it does need an owner ‘cause it’s just a dumb animal that would die if someone didn’t give it food and water… and while I’m on a roll, I admit I can’t get pierced ears because earrings would get caught on nails in crawlspaces while I’m searching for dead raccoons. Not all of us are cool, man.” 

Yes, folks, that’s what I wanted to say, darn it. 

“Oh, ok, bye,” was all I really said.

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Last week, I wrote about how much I love traveling here in India. But I also said I routinely have some, well, unique experiences. With apologies again to the Indian Ministry of Tourism, here’s more great moments in Indian travel. 

>>Why did I even do that? This covers a lot of ground, including: Giving a beggar some coins only to have him tell all his family within earshot that a tourist is handing out money; handing a treat to a stray dog only to have it follow you for a mile; touching a plant and then getting stuck to its thorns like glue; being friendly to a local and then he pleads with you to marry his sister; avoiding meeting his sister and then he gets offended.

>>What’s that mud on my leg? It’s cow manure. How did it get there? I have no idea. How can I prevent it from happening again? I have no idea.

>>Keep looking forward, keep looking forward. What’s that awful sound coming from that backyard over there? The last time I looked I regretted it, so I’ll just hurry past while humming a tune.

>>Yep, I’m walking in a puddle of pee. Indian men are a spontaneous bunch. They don’t hold in their laughter, nor their irrepressible lust for life. Some Indian men don’t hold in anything, especially when there’s a tree conveniently growing through a sidewalk. Learn from my mistake—don’t text while walking here.

>>Is that a lit M-80 hurtling towards my face? Teenage boys can be quite the characters, too, and when big holidays come around, like the harvest festival Pongal, they light firecrackers and share the fun with unsuspecting tourists walking along the road. I’m sure glad they included me in their celebration—that’s so inclusive. But I’m even gladder I was wearing sunglasses.

So, in conclusion… be sure and book your exciting trip to India today!

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I swear I love India. The people are wonderful, the trees are majestic, and the culture and food are world class. It’s the most interesting place in the world. But there’s some unique aspects to traveling here I feel compelled to write about. So, sorry, Indian Ministry of Tourism, here’s my list of, ahem, interesting moments in Indian travel.

>>Is that dog gonna die? India is home to thousands of street dogs, and occasionally they need to cross a street. Every year I watch in horror as one darts into a busy street without so much as a glance in either direction. But, in fifteen years of Indian travel, I’ve yet to see one get hit. Knock on wood.

>>I wonder if anyone will care if I throw this in the street? Street vendors sell corn on the cob here, but there’s few trash cans and trash everywhere. After polishing off a delicious cob, I get tired of toting it around looking for a trash can. Hmm. What to do? Oh well, I think I’ll just give some extra calories to one of those street dogs. When in Rome.

>>What’s that herd of water buffalo doing running down a busy street? More questions: Does anyone own those animals? What do they do all day long? Where are they going? Do they get angry if a tourist on a motorcycle accidentally bumps into one of the herd? Do they stop for pedestrians? Or do pedestrians just get the hell out of their way?

>>Is that gonna kill me? This covers a wide gamut—power lines dangling at head level, sparking electrical transformers, maniacs driving on the wrong side of the road at night with their lights off, big holes in sidewalks that appear to lead to the seedy side of hell, and mosquitos that carry malaria and dengue. Oh, and food that can transmit typhoid, water that can carry cholera. There’s lots more dangers, but I’d be piling on.

(To be continued… )

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Though I have been in India for a week now, I almost went to Mexico instead, because my Indian visa arrived just one day before my departure date. Mexico would be a good alternative because the two cultures have a lot in common. Both have:

>>Handy, short suffixes that, when added to the end of someone’s name, express affection. In Mexico Juan becomes Juanito. In India, Ghandi becomes Ghandi-ji. (It just shows that they just have lots of lovable people in India and Mexico.)

>>Notoriously hot, spicy food. (That my Midwestern parents think is sheer torture to eat.)

>>Languages with rolled Rs. ( I guess they do that to cool their tongues after eating that hot, spicy food.)

>>Tropical fruits, like papaya and mango, so sweet and delicious they qualify as desserts. (Ah, now I know what makes Mexican and Indian people so sweet and lovable.)

>> Street vendors who sell corn-on-the-cob slathered with lime juice and chili powder. (“You’re welcome,” Mexico says to India, since both corn and chilis originally come from Mexico.)

>>A mustache on every man’s face. (Indian men must get their fashion style from Mexican telenovelas—or vice versa.)

>>Phonetically challenging street names only locals can pronounce. Mexico: Tlaxcala, Tehuantepec, Popocatepetl. India: Melpatti Ponnappan, Vijayaraghavalu, Prasanna Vinayagar Koil. (I feel sorry for the people who make the street signs.)

>>I have to be delicate with this last comment, but, did you know that in Singapore they punish litterers by making them clean streets wearing a bib that reads “I am a litterer.” Well, I’m confident there’s no such law in either Mexico or India. But if you ever read that they’re enacting a bib law, especially here in India, that would be an awesome time to invest in a company that makes “I am a litterer” bibs!

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The first thing I notice, as I step off the plane in Chennai, is the air. It has the musty, humid smell of a jungle, with a dash of car exhaust thrown in. The ground staff are waiting with wheelchairs and walkie talkies, many are smiling, some have their hands clasped in a prayer gesture, a common greeting in India. They are warm and welcoming. Indian folks are notoriously friendly.

I hurry to the passport control line. I’m nervous because every year I make a mistake on the landing form, and one of these days that mistake may get me pulled into an immigration office. I’m a foreigner and everyone knows it.

After passport control, I head to the exit. Even at 2 am, hundreds of locals are leaning against a metal guard rail outside the door, waiting for family and friends. Women wear colorful saris and the men are dressed in white shirts and pants. Freud might have something to say about that, but I’m no psychiatrist.

I get a taxi. The driver is barefoot. Oh well, OSHA’s long arm doesn’t reach this far. Inside the vehicle, I swat at mosquitoes—malaria, anyone?—as the driver laughs dismissively. I ignore him and keep smashing mosquitoes. They bleed red. Is that my blood?

The streets of Chennai are a shocking sight. There’s big tangles of wires dangling from power lines, trash everywhere, potholes galore, and stray dogs searching for dead rats or whatever food they can scrounge. Skinny old men wearing coats and scarves huddle around 55 gallon drum fires. It’s only 75 degrees—chilly by local standards. 

Arriving at my hotel, bundles of incense are burning on the reception counter. Fluorescent lights illuminate colorful pictures of Hindu gods hanging on the walls. After checking in, a barefoot bellboy takes my bag and leads me to my room. I tip him, close the door, flop down on the spartan bed and let out a laugh. 

The long trip is over and I’m back in Mother India. It feels just like home.

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Whenever I think about an upcoming trip to India, I feel like a kid in a movie theater imagining himself on a big sailing ship, heading out to new worlds. “Set the main sail, mateys, adventure waits for no man!”

Every January I vacation in India, and though the excitement of travel is invigorating, I also travel for the catharsis I experience. That process begins before I board the plane. In the weeks before I depart, I go through my home and clean out clutter, then donate the haul to charity.

I go through every room, every drawer, every closet, and decide what stays and what goes. It’s hard to let go of stuff I’ve had for years, but as I pick up an item, I ask, “Do I really need this?” I often hesitate. “Those shoes are perfectly good… maybe I’ll want to wear them next week.” My inner debate persists. “Sure, those shoes are perfectly good, but I haven’t worn them all year.” Then I picture a mother at the thrift store picking up those shoes knowing they will fit her son. That does the trick and I put the shoes in my “to go” box. 

After a week my home is clutter free. And for a few days I feel a sense of loss. All that stuff, even expired oats, had been part of my life; I am acutely aware that another year of my life has passed. How many are left in the tank? You never know.

Soon, though, I’m sitting on the plane and any lingering sense of loss is gone—every adventure must begin with a goodbye. I feel light and ready to travel. It’s a new year and I’m going to breathe fresh air, get new stuff, learn new things. I love it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, and we’re beginning our descent into Chennai, India.”

Ah, I can smell the fresh air now.