In the busy final days before departing to Delhi, friends and colleagues seemed bemused at the idea I could be on the threshold of such an adventure without feeling any genuine excitement or anticipation.
Leaving work on the Friday (with obligatorily messy leaving drinks), helping to chaperone my mom’s 60th birthday garden party on the Saturday, going to a local food festival on Sunday and spending pre-flight Monday cancelling all my UK contracts, policies and memberships – I naively assumed I was just ‘too busy to be excited’.
As we rattled through the night sky in a tin-can, the windows casting a mesmerising green glow along the left and a rich, velvet purple on the right, I remained steadfastly practical.
Breaking into the blasting wall of heat and humidity from the airport, ‘cruising’ (crushing and cursing) through Delhi under a thick crema smog and checking into the hostel – all tempered and calm. The visceral, human smell I’d been told to expect washed over me with little more impact than walking into my messy, stagnant bedroom back home.
I sat and observed, drinking it all in, with the professional jadedness of a reporter and a growing concern that, at some point, I might have actually died inside.
As I plunged into sleep that night I couldn’t help sitting up in panic, the instinct within was fearful the black depths in my waves of tiredness were perhaps too deep to wake up from.
With a theatrical lack of trip preparation came a deserved lack of preparedness, which combined with the weighty veneer of jet-lay made my morning forays into the Delhi suburbs borderline cowardly and certainly intimidating.
The monsoon rains that had come on so quickly and so hard, providing relief from yesterdays swelter, had also turned the small back-roads surrounding the hostel into muddy troughs with standing pools of green-black contaminated water. Thick brown flecks leaped from the heel of my flip-flops all the way to the seat of my jeans as I walked. Within a couple of corners I’d lost my bearings entirely. I ended up skipping lunch as it was too hot and I’d been too unsuccessful finding a street food vendor nearby.
After a couple of hours resting on the balmy roof terrace, a team assembled to head into Delhi for a walking tour. A cool, relaxed atmosphere pervaded, a million miles away from the morning’s solo excursions. We shared rich, spicy local food, visited a Gurdwara (where we were also offered food), took a trip to the Red Fort and headed for Chai and more food. It’s incredible the difference a little food in your belly can make…
With a reconditioned confidence, I held peoples gazes as I walked by, nodded or said “hello”. Instantly their stares back melted into smiles and more often than not passing conversations.
Later, under the cooling (well, comparatively…) cover of night one such encounter turned into a long handshake, a bicep compliment (easy tiger!) and a request for an arm wrestle I don’t think I could have turned down if I’d wanted to. The guy looked like kind of a pushover anyway, so we turned the corner, propped ourselves either side of someone’s scooter seat and wen’t to work. Third retry and third victory later I stood, framed the looser sign on my forehead and cheered, not realising a crowd three or four people deep had surrounded us, all smiling at the spectacle. Vigorously handshaking my way out of the crowd, I was glad when Chloe produced some hand-sanitizer before we stopped at another nice restaurant.
We all grabbed desert, paan and headed home on the metro. Sticky in the night air we were looking forward to the gusty tunnels and air conditioned cabins. It was unbelievably packed on the way back, people basically rugby scrumming in and out of the carriage, and somewhere in the fray Waseem, our tour guide, had his phone lifted from his pocket, never to return. Suffice to say he was sad (we found out a little later that he’d not only lost contacts and pictures but around 40 carefully constructed poems), but remained incredibly composed throughout. Instead he contented himself singing stirring verses of ‘drunken sailor’ and a choice mix of beautiful Kashmiri songs, chatting away until half two in the morning.
Lokkhi (Bangladeshi for Lakshmi), a self professed and entirely wonderful mother of the group, introduced me to Si, an Indian guy who’d been living in New York, with similar plans to recuperate through the medium of motorcycling. We hit it off, talking about our plans – and if we can get coordinated, it looks entirely likely we’ll ride North together, at least as far as Manali.
I talked briefly with Niki on the ethics of progression and promotion of media, in a world that unjustly rewarded those who market themselves aggressively before being dragged back to bed in a lag-haze.
As I lay on my bunk in the dark, capturing a rough draft for this post on my phone, some of the words of Lokkhi floated back into my mind and settled. Having framed my predicament, the absence of excitement, she was entirely unsurprised. Instead, she simply replied:
“Do not worry – when it will be the right time, you will feel it. Then it will take hold of you, and you must go with it”.
With those words, replayed once more, I smiled. Excitement had caught me, once again.
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