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Most adventures revolve around beautiful landscapes. But not this trip.

 

“And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.” – John Steinbeck

Most adventures revolve around beautiful landscapes and impressive wildness. But not this trip. This project was about normal-ness. I was not seeking the Top Ten Tourist Views of India. I did not see the Taj Mahal. I was looking for ordinary India (what an oxymoron!). I didn’t want the tourist highlights because I didn’t want the hassle, expense, disappointment and tedium that accompany them. And I wanted to see things I had never seen before, not even in a photograph. I wanted to see what real India was like, in the same way that a visitor to Britain will learn little from taking a photograph of Big Ben.

At walking pace, there are always interesting landscapes. Being outside all day and often all night as well, I tune in to the rhythms of nature. I wake at dawn and sleep at nightfall. I know where and when the moon will rise. I notice if the wind changes direction or if clouds begin to build in the sky. There are places of beauty, such as the beach where I begin the journey. I walk along the hot white sand, followed by dark-skinned children with huge white eyes and smiles. Pulled up to the high tide line is a row of narrow wooden fishing boats, pirogues. It feels wonderfully far from London. Waves roll gently up the sand and the air smells of sea salt. It is a fine place to begin a journey. Unusually for me, I do not stare out at the ocean and want to cross it to see what is on the other side. All my thoughts are inland, along the route of the river I am about to follow.

I run my hands through the warm river water as it mingles with the sea. This is a pilgrimage site for Hindus. A father mutters prayers and dunks his shining, surprised-looking baby several times beneath the water. A dozen men sit cross-legged in prayer round a small fire. Each has a coconut, broken open as an offering, puja. I breathe in the sea air, look forward to the next time I smell it, and begin to walk.

Hundreds of miles later, after walking towards the sunset each day, I have left the hot plains behind. The riverbank is tangled with trees and boulders and the tiny road struggles to hug the river valley. It climbs high and drops down, twisting round the compass, through forested hills. Coffee estates are dotted on hilltops, the coffee planted in amongst the tall forests. Birds screech and cicadas click feverishly. They fall silent until I have passed. I love the aroma of fresh cardamom, the hum of beehives and the creeper-hung trees dripping with moisture. Not a bad landscape to walk through, I think happily. Not bad for a haphazardly chosen strip of India unheralded in the Sunday papers’ Best of India pullouts.

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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