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“And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid anymore.” – John Steinbeck

It is the chai stall’s busiest hour of the day. The chai man is bustling slickly through his well-practiced movements. The cup of tea is a small part of his customers’ day, but to him it is the most important. The care he devotes to his task reflects that. It seems a good strategy for a successful business. Start small, do what you do with enthusiasm and do it very well. Stick to that and growth will come.

He presides proudly over his small stall, dressed in a blue lungi and yellow vest. His slender hands work gracefully, methodically and quickly. He mixes the tea, sugar and boiled milk flamboyantly, pouring it from one jug to another at arms’ length. With a smile he hands a glass of tea to each customer.

I do not linger long. There is a compromise between walking far enough to finish the journey, balanced against slowing down and savouring it all. My natural inclination is always to push out more miles and make things harder on myself. As I thank the owner and the customers who have made me welcome (“nandri, nandri, nandri”), I notice that the sky is already growing lighter behind me. I walk on.

These first hours of the day are my favourite. Coursing through me is the drug that fuels my journeys, the feeling that keeps me coming back for more, despite my long-held feeling that I am not ideal material for this life (too soft, too hasty, too introspective). It’s a fresh morning. I am someplace new on the far side of the planet. I am lean and very fit. The road stretches enticingly ahead of me. My legs ask to be tested and I lengthen my stride, accelerating with the glow of well-being. I’m eager to tackle the miles ahead and intrigued by what the day will offer.

I follow a meandering little road through green sugarcane fields. The broad river, my river, is on the right, flowing slowly in the opposite direction to me. Enormous cotton wool clouds glow pink, lit from beneath the horizon by the sun. Men are already working in the fields, wielding sickles as their grandfathers’ grandfathers would have done. Will their grandchildren do the same, I wonder?

A temple on the far bank looks fabulous in the honeyed light. Its pyramidal gopura stands twenty metres tall, every inch carved with gods and legend. It is a scenic view, very National Geographic, until I look closely and notice people squatting and shitting alongside those brushing their teeth or collecting water. The world is awake now, though the day is still quiet. People who are up early move with a quiet purpose. I love this time of day. Before the crowds swell there is more world to go round, more magic to share amongst those of us who are awake.

On the river a fisherman casts his net from a coracle, as his grandfather’s grandfathers would have done. The net lands gently and the reflections of those extraordinary clouds ripple across the smooth water. It is a mesmerising scene, unchanged in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The fisherman’s mobile phone rings. I hear him jabbering away as he hauls in his net. Will his grandchildren also fish like him?

Though it is early, young boys are already playing in the river. They shout and splash around the washing ghats. When the boys see me, they start showing off, spinning and twisting as they leap into the water. I take some photos then show the boys my shots. Showing people the image on the back of my digital camera causes amazement on this walk. For most, it is a complete surprise. They are wet and noisy as they jostle round me for a better view of the camera.

A man wearing a red lungi and a vest passes as he returns from his morning wash. He is holding a piece of soap and a chewing twig. He invites me, shyly, to photograph the flowers in his garden.

We walk away from the road towards a cluster of small homes set back amongst trees. The orange earth is packed hard and smooth. The homes are painted baby blue. There is a small hayrick outside each one. Many have a buffalo too, tied through the nose and chewing methodically. Fishing nets are draped to dry alongside swathes of colourful saris. A young girl in a blue school uniform is washing shiny metal trays at a water pump. Next to her is a mound of yellow bananas. Her face is smeared all over with green paste and a bright scarlet bindi dot beams from her forehead.

Kids dash forward to see me, curious, excited and a little scared. My new friend (like many in South India his name is a multi-syllabic tongue twister that I do not catch) is the centre of attention with me at his side. He went out to brush his teeth and returned with a pink Englishman. Everyone is calling to him, laughing and questioning. He enjoys the fun and I don’t mind it either. It is good-humoured. But this reaction to me plays out many times every day. It is an aspect I do not miss when I return home and become part of an anonymous majority once again.

The man is proud of his garden. He has planted a couple of rows of flowers, about ten in each row, in front of his home. He waters them from an old plastic bottle and then gestures for me to come, look, enjoy. It is humbling and inspiring to see something planted, purely for pleasure, by someone with little spare time or money.

The sun is rising now. It’s not a spectacular one today, but all sunrises are good to see, if only for the smug feeling of knowing that nearly everyone else is asleep and missing this moment. I think how rarely I watch the sunrise since I settled down to life in England. I resolve to start rising early again when I return home. I make many resolutions when I’m on the road and dreaming of home. I think how I’ll make a better fist of it next time and make plans for a better-lived future, but already I know that I will never stick to this one.

“Here comes the sun, little darling,” I sing loudly, every day, at the moment the sunlight first strikes my face. “It’s alright, it’s alright…”

It’s a road tradition begun thousands of mornings ago, thousands of miles from here, in the cold, oxygen-starved heights of the Andes. There the faintest hit of warmth was welcomed. This morning the sunrise is thick and warm, rich with oxygen and the sweet reeks of India. Of dust and petrol fumes, of curry and cows (of rice and men?), festering drains, flowers and a thousand kerosene cookers. There is no place I’d rather be. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be on the road is very heaven.

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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