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It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.

 

“It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.” – John Steinbeck

People looking at me walking through India might envisage my daily routine to be something like,

Get up, walk.

Lunch, walk.

Eat, sleep.

There is more to it than that. Every day on the road includes many more tiny routines:

Pack away everything I own each morning. There is a place for everything and everything goes in its place (unlike the messy chaos I live in at home).

Find someone who seems intelligent to ask for directions. Check with someone else to make sure.

Work out, across language barriers, from people who never walk, how far it is to the next source of drinking water.

Establish, with no menus and no common language, what food is available.

Eat food completely unlike what I was expecting.

Study my map and calculate how far I have to go. Repeat at every rest break.

Ask people if they will fill my water bottles.

Think of new songs to sing.

Wave/swear at beeping trucks and buses.

Daydream about home or future trips.

Answer the same questions for everyone I meet. “What is your good name? What is your native place? How many children do you have? What is your profession? How much do you earn? Why are you walking? Do you want a lift?”

Dream of what I will eat when I get home (clue: it will not be curry).

*

Routine is comforting and reassuring. It is the backbone of any long journey or expedition. There is a point to everything I do. Do things well and the day and the journey improve. Do things shoddily and I pay the price.

Routine can be a curse as well as a crutch. After all, boring routine is what I ran from in the first place. And the grinding repetitiveness of the road’s routine does wear me down on a long journey. I often ask myself how I managed four years of it on my bike. Chapeau, my young friend, chapeau.

At times then I need something different, a break from the routine. Something that makes all the grunt work worthwhile.

I crest a hill and across the rain-freshened plain see a gleaming pavilion of shining gold. It is a monastery for exiled Tibetan monks. I stare in astonishment, having had no idea I would find this. My wild surmise is my reward for choosing to learn nothing about what lay along my route.

The Tibetans are mesmerising, dressed in their distinctive scarlet robes. They feel like fellow foreigners after hundreds of miles of Indians. A gong sounds and young monks scuttle past, like schoolboys late for class, splashing through puddles. An elderly monk smiles at me from the broad double doors of the spectacular temple and beckons me inside. I leave my gigantic shoes amongst piles of small ones and walk barefoot into the temple.

Instantly I have to recompose my list of the highlights of this walk. The interior is a vast space. The walls are painted with myths and legend. Thick red pillars support the roof. Two birds fly through the cavernous space, their smallness helping me grasp how mighty the temple is. The crowning glories are three colossal, golden Buddhas that tower above us all. They shine even on this drab morning. Many hundreds of novice monks sit cross-legged on the floor, facing a huge central gong. Rows of candles burn and incense sweetens the air.

Not all the young monks are as awestruck as me. Some chat to their friends or fiddle with their long, rectangular boxes of holy texts. If they had mobile phones they wd hv bn txting.

After about ten minutes a tall monk crashes the gong. Hundreds of voices begin to chant. The sound is low and ragged at first. But the chorus grows stronger and stronger until it reverberates round the temple. I tingle with the power of simultaneous prayer from so many. I sit back and close my eyes. I try to imprint the sound deep into my brain so that I never forget this journey. I give thanks for the never-ending surprises of travel, the rewards earned by persistently climbing the grinding ladder of routine.

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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