July 2005, around the time a cloud burst. Traveling alone, I could sleep overnight at a station platform, would think nothing of wandering from one state to another in search of a bus headed home, and behave as irrationally as I wanted without being tut-tutted. It was independence – messy, unregulated, and revealing. I imagined traveling with others who insisted on taking regimented tours, and this made me feel glad instantly; it was the satisfaction of avoiding a cliché. Their route would be pre-selected, its rough edges cut, and only the brightest, shiniest, and picturesque things would be seen. They would be led to the token traditional craftsman who had cut a decent deal for himself. Having dished out the money, they would see a performance pass itself off as reality. While they shook hands with Mickey Mouse, my journey would be full of wonderful discoveries. Strangers would become friends for life, we would trade stories, there would be original experiences and old tales and wonderful things that hadn’t been named yet. Life looked after its boys, fortune favours the brave and all that.
Marquez liked to get on a tour bus to see the places he should avoid. Bryson walked into countries just about accidentally. Dalrymple moved in broken trucks, broken buses, through broken countries. There’s a precedent here. But who reads the fine print? That it’s lonely, that staring out windows for hours in strange places is a recipe not for wonder but for an introspection of the most searching kind. A leaky roof becomes symptomatic of life’s misfortunes. Just as the joys while traveling alone are intense, internal events, so is the misery. Of course, everything will be out of proportion. I’d find myself a little disoriented for a while everyday, desperately seeking an anchor in something familiar. That meant sipping a coke, or having Kurkure for that back-home feeling.
Mood swings are common. Between breakfast and lunch you’re doing optimism. Between lunch and supper melancholy is doing you. It’s inexplicable, though I think sitting still for far too long, just thinking, has something to do with it. There’s too much time to kill between venues. The journeys become a blur, distinctive only by the feelings associated with each destination. In buses I smuggle and snatch inches, becoming more frugal on each new ride. And what if an old lady turns up, her destination clearly hours away? There she stands for a few hours, toppling over in this rattling bus, completely unaware that a few feet away someone’s realized something horrible about himself. It adds to the isolation, the sense of being cut away from your moorings. All those moral science books, all those hours spent listening to what’s right and wrong from parents and teachers and friends, all gone.
Then you return home, as I did, relieved, alive, but feeling the urge to run back naked into the wilderness. You made it back once, so surely it can be done again? The misery, the sheer alone-ness, and the self-doubts are nearly forgotten. Sure, it wasn’t all joy, but it was something.