“And again there are mornings when ecstasy bubbles in the blood, and the stomach and chest are tight and electric with joy.” – John Steinbeck
The water in the emerald paddy fields glints as I walk. A confetti of butterflies flutters in the air. The roadside palms are painted in black and white checks. I enter a village with music blaring from speakers rigged on bamboo poles. I always like places that play music out loud (it’s quite common in parts of Eastern Europe, China and Latin America), even in the countries where it’s done with Orwellian undertones.
This feels like a happy town, a happy morning, except, I guess, for the goat who is about to be butchered on the roadside. I stop to watch. The knife is sharp and swift and one elegant slice ends the goat. How fragile, life! So very easy to die. So final. Is this a beautiful, musical morning to die? Or so beautiful and musical that the thought of death feels too sad to bear?
The goat is dead. It lies in the dust. There is very little blood. The butcher works swiftly, turning the animal into joints of meat. His customers wait patiently. I am fascinated by the neat and tidy compartments of organs inside the goat that had, until moments before, been working magically well.
Morning on the road is about the satisfaction of committing to action. Of being in motion and not yet demoralised or tired. The nerves have passed. It’s a positive time of day. Everything is still fresh. It is up to me to fill this day. I picture what I would be doing back home and what my friends might be doing right now. I’m glad to be out here (as opposed to later in the day when I’m longing for home and an easy life).
I am rarely without company. People always want to talk to me, to find out about this strange Englishman walking briefly through their lives. I walk from one identical conversation to the next. Why don’t you take a bus? Do you know Freddy Flintoff? Every day I see children playing cricket in the fields, the pitch scratched out on a patch of flat earth. They are always delighted if I stop to join their game.
“England against India!” I declare as the boys squabble over who will bowl at me first.
I am still cheerful and energetic enough to greet everyone I pass. I always say “good morning” to children in English, as I know they have learned at least this much in school. They might as well put it into practise for the first, and perhaps only, time in their life. A conversation usually follows that is identical across the non-English-speaking world.
Me: “Good morning.”
Child: “Good morning.”
Me: “How are you?”
Child: “I am fine.”
Me: “I am fine too. Goodbye.”
I walk on, followed by giggles and incredulous gasps.
I pause at a water pump and wash my hands and face. I clank the long metal handle and dunk my head beneath the gushing burst of water. The day’s heat is beginning to build and I shiver at the delicious coldness of the water. The water runs down my face and neck, wetting my clothes. The sun will bake them dry again only too soon. I fill my broad-brimmed hat with water and up-end it on my head. I fill my bottles with enough water to get me to the next village and walk on.
Rooks caw and swirl above me. A funeral is taking place. The whole road from the home to the burial site, shaded beneath three gnarled trees, is strewn with yellow, orange and pink flowers.
“Funeral processions clatter
Down streets with drums and rose-petals,
Dancing death into deafness.”
The task now is simple: blast out as many miles as I can manage before it gets too hot. I am earning my lunch break. The river teases me, tempting me to swim. But a combination of crocodiles, pollution and my impatient obsession with ticking off miles dissuades me. I snatch occasional respite in scraps of shade. After a few more hours I am beginning to suffer.
The first negative thoughts creep in. I miss home. I feel a hint of annoyance that every vehicle or moped beeps at me, even on these rural lanes. That every time I pause a cluster gathers to stare and snigger and ask the same questions I’ve been asked a million times before. I ask why I’m putting myself through this, a question I’ve asked myself a million times before.
It feels like a taking up of the strain, a satisfying stiffening of the challenge, like cranking up the treadmill pace a notch or two. The exercise in masochistic suffering has begun.