The overland trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu brought thousands of idealistic young Americans and Europeans into the Indian subcontinent between around 1965 and 1975. These travelers, who often wandered East on little to no money, sought spiritual enlightenment, a more open and understanding society, or just loads of marijuana and LSD. By the mid-1970s, however, the phenomenon was over as more and people just flew into India, and political changes made the overland route increasingly difficult. In A SEASON IN HEAVEN David Tomory, himself a veteran of the trail, has collected reminisces by 37 others who had wild times in this golden era.
These oral histories touch on many aspects of the India experience. Of course, drug use plays a major part and there's hardly a page without mention of it. But some of the stories treat more substantial themes, and show how within the same milieu people could have vastly different experiences. Take, for example, religion. Stephen Batchelor, a contemporary Buddhist and author of the provocative Buddhism without Beliefs, tells of how he was so enchanted by Eastern spirituality that he decided to stay in India and dedicate himself to constant study. Other writers, on the other hand, found the holy men that they fell in with to be outright charlatans and left India disappointed.
Since the contributors passed along the route at different times over its ten-year span, this collection helps to show how India changed under the onslaught of Western freaks, tourists, and pilgrims. In Tomory's book, Goa and Sri Lanka pass from a beach paradise with no electricity and understanding locals to impersonal thronged resorts.
Though I found Tomory's collection interesting as a frequent wanderer myself, I was unsatisfied with the editing. The focus is almost entirely on India and Nepal, with the bulk of the overland trail getting little attention (Iran almost none), and indeed some of the contributors didn't even take the trail. The sequence of the stories in one part is out of whack, with a history of adventures in Nepal coming long before the Nepal chapter. Finally, I wish the editing of these oral histories had been done to the standards of ethnological research as published by university presses.
Nonetheless, for all its faults, I would highly recommend this book to those who like to travel slowly overland, get in touch with local cultures, and maybe even find themselves.