Walking Across India
Entering India after everything that had come before was partially bliss and partially chaotic. Mainly because all I had to do now was continue walking, and chaos because, well… it was India. Within the first two weeks of being there, I had my toes run over by a cycle rickshaw, and a motorbike whilst stationary at traffic lights, accidentally nudge forward into me, forcing my knee to lock, which made walking pretty uncomfortable for the rest of the week. Not to mention the road I was on, the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and largest roads. It was so built up I had trouble finding camping spaces where I could get a whole night’s sleep. I found that the suitable land I did find to sleep on was being watched or patrolled at night and would get told to move on, even if I tried to explain what I was doing. So I found myself walking at night. Not something I would recommend in India. Traffic has a tendency to suddenly skip sideways out at you and in some cases, more often than I’m comfortable with, go down the wrong way on a motorway using the hard shoulder as a relief from the oncoming traffic they found themselves dodging.
So India was a hard slog. Every day is a crazy blend of traffic, curious locals and excruciating heat. Out of Kieran and me, I was the one good with heat, but the heat in India is some other beast. I found myself at times having to stop every couple of kilometres just to get out of the sun, consuming ungodly amounts of liquids to no relief. India is a beautiful but harsh country.
On the road to Delhi, I was able to go through Amritsar, one of the few holy places for Sikhs in India (another being in Pakistan). The Golden Temple (The Harmandir Sahid), I entered and stayed for a few hours, having some food and walking around enjoying the sights and taking a few pictures. The Golden Temple is exactly that, a golden temple placed in the centre of a large man-made lake of holy water, many people come to visit from around the world to bathe in the waters and pray in the temple there. I stayed in Amritsar the night and was back on the road in the morning
The only thing I had to keep my mind busy was the thought that 400kms down this very road, friends, and family would be in Delhi to greet me. The sandals I bought in Lahore had started to eat their way into my feet by now and stops were becoming a frequent burden. Not wanting them, but at the same time, my body screaming for them as the sun took no prisoners and cared not for my painful feet or arms and face burning throughout the day.
Days later, after constantly being moved on night after night from peoples land, I would out of sheer exhaustion and lack of sleep, find myself having to bargain with hoteliers for rooms on the side of the grand truck road, some regal, some squalid. Anything to just be indoors, away from the constant barrage of noise, smog and most of all just to get a few hours asleep.
This would become a trend throughout India. The land everywhere if not owned and being guarded was built upon and impossible to camp on. I would have conversations with people, sit down and have tea with them in the hope that they would allow me to use their land to camp on, but they would look at me like I was crazy, only replying with a “not possible”, usually followed by casual directions to a hotel nearby. I would explain I didn’t have enough money for that and then came the question I would hear a lot whilst in India, “then why are you here?”.
People had told me, and I had looked forward to, the experience of India being one of, ‘coming home’. I’ve never had much connection to India, whilst I am of Indian descent, both my parents were born in Africa and I hadn’t grown up making trips to India like other family members. But they assured me that once I’d got to India I would be ok, people would be nicer and things would become easier. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was completely treated as an outsider, my lack of language, whether Punjabi or Hindi, strangely enough, worked in my favour sometimes. Indians from other parts of the country thinking I was merely a dark-skinned Englishman and congratulating me on the small amount of Hindi I knew. But in other places people scorning me for not knowing a language, I never needed to use, calling me “one of those”.
It was a long hard slog to Delhi but eventually, after what felt like a difficult few weeks I had arrived and a few days after my family would be arriving. The first time I had seen them since Kyrgyzstan. It felt like a lifetime ago, so many things had happened since then. The harsh winter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, more mountains in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Was I glad to be seeing them? Yes, but on the other hand, how would I feel being around them, I didn’t know. I didn’t feel any different but would I have known if I was?
I walked into the elevator of their hotel, on the way up I stared at myself in the mirrors lining the four walls and took in the sight of a long-haired bearded man who definitely didn’t look the same as when he had last seen them. I approached the door and knocked, at once my mum opened the door and screamed, taking a few steps back as if I had snuck up behind her and grabbed her. She immediately started laughing and my dad also made his way to the door, hugs and smiles all around whilst mum told me that I was going to need a shave.