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Nightfall

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch… I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.” – John Steinbeck

This single day on the road is just an ordinary day from any journey like this. Today struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. Tomorrow and tomorrow I will do it all again. Except that I will not do it again. I will do it for the very first time. Because every day on the road is new.

The sun has set across India. How will my day on the road end?

I watch the sun set. The entire sunset. Back home I am often too obsessed with being busy-at-all-times to just sit and stare. I’m so tired that I can’t wait to sleep, even though it is early. I have turned feral, returning to the wild to live by the rhythms of the sun and the moon. I rig my mosquito net beneath the small tree. A gust of wind twitches the tree and my heart jumps. I have slept in hundreds of fields like this, so I am relaxed. But I am still alert for danger. I unroll my sleeping bag liner, plump up my rucksack to serve as a pillow and then lie down to sleep. I am cramped beneath the mosquito net. I am uncomfortable, sweaty and still hungry after my unappetizing pan of rice. But, after today, merely lying down in a field feels like a reward.

And what a reward! Above me are stars. More and more appear as my focus improves. The Milky Way too, and satellites and shooting stars. My wishes already came true. Far from streetlights and with neither my view nor my imagination enclosed by four walls and a roof, I am free to absorb the mind-blowing spectacle of the night sky. A moving, pulsing star that catches my eye turns out to be a firefly, flitting round above my head. You don’t get those in a posh hotel. Walk hot miles with a pack on your back and you will sleep well. Live your day well, with enthusiasm, dedication and curiosity. Do this, and you will sleep well, even if you are lying in a corner of a foreign field far from home. I am so content lying here, having earned my sleep, that I try to force myself to stay awake to savour it. But I closed my eyes and I slept.

*

Nightfall in a dusty town is different again. People are bustling in and out of the temples, meeting friends or buying vegetables for dinner. I find a place to stay beside the bus station. It is cheap, dirty and identical to last night’s. I dump my pack, swap the padlock on the door for my own and head out in search of food.

I walk the busy evening streets, alone amongst the strolling families and couples. I see sweet stalls, piled high and gleaming, sticky beneath hot bulbs. Jewellers are hunched over intricate repairs on their outdoor stalls. I see pots and pans, dusty sacks of dry red chillies, children’s toys and snacks frying in broad cauldrons.

I see all this and know that the same story is playing out, right now, in tens of thousands of little towns all over India. I feel greedy for more. I want to see every town. I want to live every day in every town; every day that has ever been in every town. I want a satellite view from on high and a time machine to take me back and take me forward. And, at the same time, I want to burrow deep into every detail of right here, right now. I want everything. This is the intoxicating cocktail of wanderlust and the freedom to explore.

Take that man over there, the one staring blankly at me. He is sitting at a sewing machine outside a brightly lit shop, colourful with swathes of cloth. He has a moustache and is about 40 years old. That is all that I know about this man. A 40-year-old tailor perspiring in the hot Indian night. That is all you know about him too. But what stories he could tell us: stories unique in the history of mankind! Tales of a life growing up in India, a life so different to mine. His is just one out of a billion small stories here. But still, that is a one-in-a-billion story. Surely that’s a story worth hearing?

*

Butchers are packing away piles of unsold, plucked chickens from the tables they have been lying on all day, covered in flies and out in the sun. They will be put out for sale again tomorrow. They look revolting.

I enter a cheap-looking café. After such a hard day, I feel I have earned a delicious meal.

“What do you have to eat?” I ask, sitting down wearily.

“Chicken.”

*

I arrive back at the lodge down the dark, rutted street. I hammer on the door. A single bulb outside the late night booze shop opposite is the only sign of life. The grumpy night watchman clears his throat and spits on the pavement as he lets me back in. The door to my room clicks closed behind me. 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 am so tired. I undress. I pull off my trousers, the old nostalgic favourites, ripped on the right thigh and repaired with a bruise of purple cloth. I take off my shirt, the kind that looks smart in city offices. It is heavy with sweat and crusty with salt. I pull soggy, sweaty socks off my hot, aching feet.

I walk into the dirty bathroom. I look at my reflection in the small plastic mirror hanging from a nail. I pass my hand across the cropped stubble of my scalp. I look terrible. Almost broken. I grin. Almost.

Then, the day’s reward: I scoop a jugful of water from a bucket on the floor and pour it over my head.

Bliss.

You will have your reward, so long as all you want is a bucket of water.

I set up my mosquito net and climb into bed. Outside, the clamour of India continues. Another day on the road is over. I answered the call. I am so content lying here, having earned my sleep, that I try to force myself to stay awake to savour it. But I closed my eyes and I slept.

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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