I had been resigned to having a quiet night. Resigned to the fact that I would not be enjoying the dancing, drugs and girls on the beaches of Goa, ‘After all, I’m sure I still have a few New Years’ left in me,’ I told myself. This resignation lasted until I found myself tucking into bed at 9pm on New Years Eve (!) and it was replaced with a feeling of depressing distance and loneliness. Dhamma Chakka had been worlds apart from Christmas at Clareville and this was definitely not Bondi with the boys. Unfortunately, the same feeling struck me when I awoke at 6am on January 1st (!) to go for a bike ride (!) and playing on the black and white TV in the foyer of my hotel was a special presentation of the previous night’s parties from around the globe. From London to Paris to Tokyo to Sydney – all of the places I could have been had I not been asleep on a rock-hard bed in a dingy, musty room that was filled with the strong scent and thin haze of a burning mosquito coil; my only defense against the little bloodsuckers, who were happy to enter my room through the large gaps between the concrete walls and the ceilings.
‘Alas,’ I told myself, ‘One can not have it all,’ – meaning the totally free independence as well as the dependence on others only when the desire arises – and I rugged up, battled my way out of the city and onto the Grand Trunk Road once again.
The King and I had 520 kilometres between us and Agra – we would very unexpectedly cover it in just five days.
From East to West along the Grand Trunk Road, the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, begins with one of the holiest and oldest cities on earth in Varanasi and finishes with one of the most magnificent buildings ever constructed in Agra. In between, the farmers and townsfolk are poor as buggery, backwards as they come and have an uninhibited inquisitiveness that would test the most seasoned celebrity. The relentless, invasive, overwhelming attention I received caused me to deeply retract, ironically making me feel so much more alone that I would have had I been totally ignored. I could not relate to these Indians – I could not relate those who banged on my door at 11pm when I was obviously asleep just so that they could see me. I could not relate to those who watched the tele outside by bedroom with the volume so loud that the whole thing vibrated and crackled. I could not relate to those who spent entire days sitting by the road just staring out at the nothingness, waiting for something to happen. I could not relate to men who squatted when they peed.
By their sheer numbers and apparent sameness, I could not imagine them as having individual personalities, hopes and dreams. I could not help but think of them as just one in a billion – and think it in the worst possible sense of the phrase. Each afternoon was filled with the dread of having to enter one of the filthy, over-populated towns that the Grand Trunk Road bypasses and go through the torment of finding a hotel while wearing a cloak of bodies.
In addition, Uttar Pradesh at the time, was experiencing a freak cold wave so intense that it was sending old folks on their way prematurely, who had just a fire to keep them warm in their huts. Hitting the road at 9am each morning, it looked as though dawn were just about to break. Glistening streaks of water condensed on my beanie and winter jacket as I carved my way through a thick, wet fog that all but blocked out any sunlight, reducing visibility to twenty metres. Sometimes it would lift in the late afternoon, allowing a touch of yellow to peek through, but usually it would sit unmoved until the world changed from grey to black and back again with nothing in between.
All of these factors made this a very difficult leg for me. There were times when I would stop on the roadside by bare, flat fields, uninspired and drained, and exasperatedly ask myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’
I questioned the nature of my motivations behind being here and struggled to find an answer.
Having cycled 65 kilometres and with another 60 between me and Agra, I arrived in Faizabad, which hustled like Allahabad, bustled like Firozabad and looked as uninviting as every other ‘’abad’ that I had been to. I began to fantasise about waking up the next morning, burying myself deeper in my warm cocoon and opening a good book with the knowledge that I need not face the cold grey all day if I did not want to. I pushed on.
Perhaps it was the race against the sun; perhaps I got caught up in the throng of traffic that was keen to get home after a days work; perhaps it was the slight tailwind helping me along; or perhaps it was the eagerness to fulfill my fantasy, but with thirty kilometres to go, an unknown reserve of adrenaline was released into my body. Flowing and engulfing me with the ease of ink poured into a glass of water, it left no part untouched. My legs turned like freshly lubricated machine parts; my lungs drew in deep, satisfying gulps of air; my heart pumped strongly and steadily; and my mind broke free of all restraint and embraced the flow of endorphins. I was sticking my tongue out like a Maori performing the hakka, holding my hand over my head in the symbol of the horns of the devil, growling and snarling as though riding my steed into battle. Filled with a rarely experienced, surreal carnal energy, I was more beast than man.
‘Ah,’ I realised with immense satisfaction, ‘This is what the fuck I am doing here.’