I think that many of us would like to read more books. But we struggle to find the time. And yet, if you dedicate a small chunk of time to reading, every day, then you might be surprised how many books you devour. For that reason I’ve decided to serialise my entire India book over the next month.
If you have enough time to read a blog post, you’ll find you’ve had enough time to read the book I am most proud of writing. I hope that you enjoy it.
“Beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes.” – John Steinbeck
“Beep… beepbeepbeepbeep… BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP.”
The alarm clock has just taken me on a journey. A journey that passed in an instant but which took me from one world to another. A journey from the magical world of dreams to a completely different one. A new world. A new day. India.
Why am I in India?
It does not matter that I am in India. This could be anywhere. Anywhere new to me. The story would be the same. What matters to me is why I am here.
As soon as I hear the alarm I know where I am. I did not sleep well. I woke often, wondering if it was nearly morning, nearly time to begin. The coarse mesh of the mosquito net flopped against my skin, disturbing me. Mosquitoes whined and probed for my blood.
I had been living in England, stationary, since my return from four years roaming the globe. I had crossed continents by bicycle and sailed across oceans. Now I had a home and I had a wife. I had settled down. Life was good. But perhaps that was the problem.
It began on the flight to our honeymoon. By the vagaries of the Great Circle, we flew over the colossal white emptiness of the Arctic. Far beneath us were huge sheets of ice, shattered like glass with thin leads of black water between them. I ate my peanuts and stared down. Guiltily I realised that, as much as sharing beaches and piña coladas with little umbrellas and my radiant bride, what I craved was the pain and hardship of a difficulty journey. I wanted insecurity, strife and what others want nothing to do with. This had been missing since I settled down to my lovely life.
Outside is dark. The sky presses black against the window. The street clamour that continued late into the night has now quietened. A brief pause before the melee of India wakes and begins all over again. I lie sweating on top of my sleeping bag liner, spread over the dirty bed. My head rests on a thin pillow. Untold numbers of bus drivers, pilgrims, travelling salesmen and minor bureaucrats have lain their heads here since its last clean. For a few seconds I absorb the last traces of sleep and steel myself for the day to come. Then I reach out and silence the alarm.
I was in thoughtful mood as the plane landed. A friend of mine is a polar explorer. He was planning an expedition to the South Pole. I sent him a text message from the sunshine. I asked whether there might be room for two. (Did this count as marital infidelity, I wondered?)
I untangle myself from the mosquito net and stand on the concrete floor. I feel for the light switch. A pretty burst of blue sparks flash, the light flickers a few times then pings into life. Cockroaches speed to dark corners.
The walls are covered with smears, stains and scuffs. I don’t care. It’s just the usual squalid, cheap room. I slide my feet into flip-flops and shuffle to the toilet. Years of experience mean that instinctively I breathe only through my mouth as a precaution against the stink of Developing World toilets. I pee into a hole in the ground, scoop a jug of water from the bucket on the floor and pour it down the hole.
Ben replied to my text message.
I quit the second sensible job I had held in a year and, happily, abandoned my attempt at Real Life.
I was back doing what I loved and what I was good at. That is a good place to be. Arduous expeditions in the world’s wild places. But now I was going to do it seriously. I was going to attempt to make a career from it. I began to earn enough money to get by, speaking and writing about my experiences.
Ben and I worked hard. We had the capabilities to succeed. But financial meltdown had burst across the world. Unable to secure a sponsor we were forced to postpone the expedition for a year.
With the postponement came a window in the calendar for Ben to scratch an itch: an attempt on the solo North Pole speed record. I didn’t begrudge that. But it meant that work stopped on our joint expedition whilst Ben’s attention turned north.
I decided to do something interesting too.
I dump a scoop of water over my head. Its coolness jolts me. I pour a few more jugfuls, savouring the day’s one moment of fresh cleanliness. I’m bracing myself for the day ahead.
Where should I go? And what should I do once I got there? India was a glaring omission on my Travelling CV. So India it was. For all the reasons vagabonds and wanderers have always gone to India. And because I had never been.
It never occurred to me to do anything other than a tough, cheap journey. Push myself hard. Try to achieve something that surprised me. These fundamental principles of my wanderlust have worn into my psyche since my first travels, like chariot wheels on a cobbled road, until I have come to accept them as permanent features of who I am.
I had enjoyed the freedom of travelling by bike, the minimalism, the outdoor life and the difficulty of it. I liked the way its slowness encouraged me to use all my senses. I loved the spontaneous adventures, opportunities and encounters it threw up. Anything less from this trip would be like looking out at the world through a thick dusty window, a trip round the harbour in a glass-bottomed boat after swimming with dolphins. Having cycled round the world I knew that another bike trip would be a step down, a feeble attempt to recreate a memory. So cycling was out.
I considered some of the things I enjoyed about cycling: the slowness, the simplicity, the physically arduous rhythm of the days. I extrapolated these on to their logical conclusion. How could I do something even slower, simpler and more miserable than cycling? Slow. Simple. Miserable…
I would walk.
The last piece of the jigsaw was where to walk. I liked the simple idea of walking from one coast to the other. I appreciate clear expeditions that can be explained fully in a sentence or two. Better still if they can actually be planned in a sentence or two. I also fancied following a river, preferably a river with history and mystery and colour. Every river is taking a journey, one it has been on day and night for thousands and thousands of years. I find that fascinating. Pick any river on the planet and you will find an interesting journey.
I didn’t have enough time to walk right across the top of India. So I guessed how far I could walk in the time available then worked south on a map until I found the latitude that corresponded with that distance. And then I went and did it. My trip was not far removed from grabbing a map, closing my eyes, jabbing my finger and going wherever it decreed. That’s the way to have an adventure. Better still: grab a globe, spin, point, go!
It mattered little where I went. The important thing was just to go. The downside of this approach was that I did not see the Taj Mahal, nor all the other metaphorical Taj Mahals that India is blessed with. I’d love to see them one day. But on this trip I just wanted to experience normal India. Normal people, doing their normal things in normal landscapes. Normal people with dignity and self-respect. I didn’t want guidebooks telling me what to see, what to think and how many coins to hand down from my air-conditioned tour coach to the grubby hands of cute little poor kids. I wanted to get deeper than that.
I look at my reflection in the small plastic mirror hanging from a nail. I pass my hand across my scalp. A spray of water rises from the cropped stubble. Number 2 all over. It feels strange. I look strange, different.
My wife cut my hair the evening before I flew to India. She did it to humour me, for she thinks I look daft as a skinhead. I agree with her but I still like it. Shaving my head is a tradition at the start of my adventures. She ran the clippers and her soft hands over my head. My hair and ‘Normal Me’ fell to the floor around our feet in our London flat. Cutting my hair is partly pragmatic and partly symbolic. It’s about leaving things behind. It’s a new start. It’s a simple indicator, as the hair begins to grow back, of how long I have been on the road. It’s a reminder that I am going away to simplify things. Going where vanity and fashion are irrelevant and only personal performance is important. And it is a demand to myself to toughen up again and to stop taking myself too seriously.
Some friends had lived in India for years. They invited me for home-cooked Indian food and to discuss ideas for my trip. They also invited a couple who had lived and travelled in India for two decades. I took off my coat and was handed a frothing bottle of Cobra beer.
I felt that this evening would be crucial in determining whether my idea to walk across India had a future.
I walk back into the bedroom, the air cool on my wet body. Goosebumps rise on my arms. From the cold, I presume, though I am also anxious now about the day ahead. It’s the nervousness of stepping out into the unfamiliar with no knowledge of what the day may bring.
It’s time to get a move on.
The early signs were not encouraging. I looked down at the bubbles in my beer. I had just described my plans to the room in their entire detail.
“I want to, er, walk, er, from one coast of India to, er, the other. And maybe follow a river.”
That was it.
This incisive briefing did not catalyse spontaneous applause, tossing of garlands, dabbing of tears or a standing ovation. Instead there was silence. Only a short silence, but one that was mere moments away from becoming embarrassing.
That was why I was staring at my bubbles with such interest. I was considering reaching for the peanuts, a classic manoeuvre for awkward moments. But I resisted showing weakness and decided to tough it out.
It was left to my fellow guest, the India expert, to break the silence. He was sitting in a leather armchair beneath a wall of books. He leaned forward with an uneasy expression on his face.
“I think,” he stammered, “I think it might be a bit hot?”
It was a kind remark. Of all the flaws and follies and ignorance he could have exposed, he had begun mildly.
“Er, I don’t mind the heat.” I padded back.
“Where will you sleep? The decent hotels will be spread too far apart.”
I sensed he was getting into his stride. His wife was looking at me with pity on her face.
Answering that I didn’t really mind where I slept and that I would probably just hide behind some trees somewhere did little to reassure the concerned couple. Thoughts began tumbling from their mouths faster than they could turn them into sentences.
“What route will you take..? There are no decent maps…”
“Ah, I’ve bought a good map.” I countered.
“The Eicher one is it?”
“Yes!” I crowed, relieved at last to have done something right.
“Thought so. Bloody useless.”
By the time the food was ready we were all grateful for a change of conversation. My plan seemed like a disaster. But, unbeknownst to the others, I had been offered hope. It was just a throwaway remark, but I clung to it.
“If you are looking for a river maybe you should look at one of the seven sacred rivers. That could be fascinating…”
Could this be what I was looking for? This was not the time to pursue it. But I knew just the moment.
My movements are swift and precise, reduced over years of practice to a Zen-like minimum. The process of packing my life away and moving it on to the next unknown location down the road. I stuff the mosquito net and silk sleeping bag liner into the bottom of my rucksack. My flip-flops, diary and book go in the top. Toothbrush and toothpaste into a side pouch. Everything has its place. I fill my two water bottles from the bucket. Into each I squeeze three drops of dark brown iodine tincture. The iodine spirals and swirls beautifully, like ink, as it drifts down through the water, making it safe to drink. I screw the tops back on the bottles, shake them and place them in pouches on the rucksack’s waistband.
Finally it is time to get dressed. I always leave this as late as I can, for after this the sweating begins. I sit on the bed. There is no bounce or give. I pull on my trousers, old nostalgic favourites from my bike trip. They are ripped on the right thigh, repaired raggedly, patched with a bruise of purple cloth.
I put on my shirt, the kind that looks smart in city offices. Except that this one is a couple of years past its best and much too big. I bought it in a charity shop last week. I can have the sleeves down to protect me from the sun or, like now, rolled up to the elbows. Same with the collar: it can be up or down and the front buttons can be open or done up. I use the breast pocket for the day’s small change and my sunglasses.
I pull a money belt over my head. It sits round my waist, hidden beneath my shirt. It contains my passport, cash and camera memory cards. I’d hand over my pack to a robber without too much fuss, but I will run and I will fight for those memory cards.
I pull on brand new, clean-smelling socks. They won’t be like this for long. I run my hands over my feet, making sure there are no creased seams that will rub. Finally I slip my feet into a pair of running shoes. I’m dressed. I wear the same outfit every day.
After good food, a few glasses of beer and lively conversation everyone was in good spirits. We helped clear the plates, piling them beside the sink. Then we ate fruit salad, light and refreshing after the curry. This was my moment.
A man I once knew taught me that decisive discussions are best held over dessert. He taught me much else besides. I think of that man often and I think of him again now. My life has changed a great deal since I knew him.
Casually I threw an open question to the table.
“So, you mentioned seven holy rivers..?”
Dinner had eased people’s stance to my idea. Now they spoke more enthusiastically. They told of a river in southern India. A holy river, they said. A goddess. She flowed through temple towns and fertile farmland, a lifeline to millions. Neighbouring states squabbled over her waters. Home to crocodiles and elephants, she rose in the coffee-growing hills close to the west coast of India. The river flowed east, through forests shrill with birdlife, down to the hot lowlands. I tingled at the prospect of turning these tales, these imagined snapshots, into stories and memories of my own.
I was excited as I cycled home through the cold London night. The negativity of the evening had not worried me. I was used to it. I expected it and had long since learned to shrug it off and even feed on it. I was excited because I had found my river. Before I went to bed I quickly scribbled the river’s name on a scrap of paper, in case I should wake in the morning and, like a dream, forget it.
I did not learn much more. I did not want to know about where I was going. I wanted to discover as I went along, about the river, India and myself. I wanted to test my nerve and my ability to survive and thrive anywhere in the world. I did not want the crutch of prior knowledge and the baggage of preconceptions added to all the stuff in my pack.
I booked a flight, the dates based purely on Ben’s North Pole schedule. I made no calculations on how far or fast I would have to walk. I would do that on the way and push myself as hard as necessary to get it done in time. I didn’t know if there would be villages along the way to buy food. But I knew I could carry supplies to last for many days and that water should always be available from the river. I was quite happy to sleep wild. I didn’t need to know more. I did not care one bit where I was going or what I would find. I cared only that I was going. That was enough. Adventures like this require no real planning, no specialist gear or skills, nor even much money. All they demand is a big idea and the boldness to begin.
I am nervous now. I unpeel two of the tiny, sweet local bananas. Munch, munch and they’re gone. I slip two more into my pocket to eat as I walk. It’s time to go. I stand and lift the pack onto my back. It doesn’t feel heavy. I bob up and down, shrugging the straps into place.
I pull back the bolt on the door. There is no more delay. I walk out of the room. The door clicks closed behind me. I’ve left comfortable familiarity behind. It’s time to answer the call, to cross the threshold and to begin another day on the road.