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india girl

Timshel. I have a Choice.


“I know that it might be better for you to come out from under your might-have-beens, into the winds of the world.” – John Steinbeck

“Beep… beepbeepbeepbeep… BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP.”

I know instantly where I am. It is a new day. India.

I feel fired with purpose. It is the last day.

I step over the sleeping night watchman and out of the dingy lodge. I start to walk. Really walk. I walk through the hilltop town past all the sweepers. I return the cheery greeting from the chai stall, its light bulb shining on the steam rising from hot drinks in this cold hilltop dawn. But today I decline their invitation. Today I have miles to go before I sleep. I want to walk 50 miles. To see if I can. To show that I can. Because I know I can.

I have already zigzagged down all the hairpins to the valley floor and climbed back up the far side by the time the first rays of sun burst over the horizon.

“Here comes the sun,” I sing, for the last time, and I lengthen my stride right through the morning, through the fierce mid-day hours and on into the afternoon. I am so fit now, lean and hardened to these days on the road. And this is the last day, so I need keep nothing in reserve for tomorrow.

At the start of this walk, the people who lived along the river delta had no idea where their river had come from. Now, hundreds of miles later, high in these green hills, nobody knows where their river is busily rushing to. I have followed their river, my river, all the way, filling in the blanks. And now I am almost at the source.

Big, bright flowers bloom up the sides of the small houses. Forests sweep down the steep valley sides. I gaze at distant blue mountains and want to explore them all. It is a beautiful place.

I climb a sinuous rural road. The sky is darkening with storm clouds. They fill the sky like clods of earth. An angry headwind is brewing. I smell the storm first and then it hits me, its awesome power saturating me in seconds. People dash from the sudden rain under the eaves of buildings. They gesture urgently for me to join them.

“Come in!” they laugh, “We’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

But I am happy out here. I just wave and stride on. Clay-red streams rush down the road. I am as wet as it is possible to be. To thunder and sunshine I add wind and rain on my list of things that make me feel alive. The rain fizzes and bounces. I love it. Right, let’s move!

I leave the road and continue up a small track through long grass and wet bushes. Leeches writhe on my ankles. My legs stream with blood. I don’t care. They don’t hurt. I can’t feel them. And this is all about feeling.

Walking 50 miles in a day is an unimportant act. But it means a lot to me. It is one day that represents much of my adult life. Walking that far is stupid. It hurts. But it is not about the walk. That is only a metaphor for how I want to live. Years ago I began reading books about adventure and endurance. I devoured books of derring-do in far off lands. The books seemed so far beyond my own world that I read them purely as fun, fantasy books. But little by little, something sparked my curiosity. I began questioning myself, wondering whether some day I might be able to do anything like the things I was reading about.

Back then I could never have walked 50 miles in a day. No, that’s not right: when I began this life I would not have believed that I could walk 50 miles in a day. Little by little I have changed until now I believe that it is possible to succeed at almost any big idea. Not much is required except the boldness to begin and the perseverance and initiative to keep moving. I am slowly rising towards the challenge of making the most of my potential. I have already exceeded what I once imagined my limits to be.

So, this is who I am now. I just need to work out who I will become. I think nervously about what lies ahead, about my future. Can blasting 50 miles through a rainstorm really prepare me for real life? For the last fifteen years my answer would have been, “Definitely!”

But now that I am about to put it to the test, I am not so confident. Am I ready? The question does not really matter: my future is racing towards me regardless of whether I am ready or not.

And so I reach the hilltop temple. The start of the river, the end of my walk. My walk and my river are distilled to this one small pool that I have walked so far to reach. Red hibiscus flowers float in the holy well. A priest blesses pilgrims. I am surprised how happy and emotional I feel. It has been a difficult, fascinating adventure. It is no era-defining epic, but it feels satisfying nonetheless. The priest dips a silver chalice into the well and draws a small draught of spring water. He pours it over a pilgrim’s head and murmurs a prayer of gratitude to the river goddess. And so the water begins the journey I have just finished.

I give thanks to the river too, for guiding me through new experiences and for reminding me what I hold dear. I owe it to myself, whatever happens, to cling tight to those things. It is time to return to England. Life is going to be different this time.

Regardless of how my road unrolls in the future, this walk has reminded me what a life of adventure is really about. More than anything else, it is a state of mind. It is an attitude of curiosity, bold enthusiasm, ambition, effort and a rejection of mediocrity. I don’t need to walk across India for that. I can find it anywhere, if I am only willing to chase it. I have the choice.

This is an extract from my book There Are Other Rivers. I’ll post the next chapter here at the same time tomorrow evening. 

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