Article: Leven Life, March 2013

The final leg: India

The final leg: India

I wrote the following article for the Leven village magazine, Leven Life, which was recently published in the March edition of the notable journal (with a possible circulation of over 2000!), about the end of my journey and life since my return to England:

It seems like a lifetime ago, now, that I first climbed onto my bicycle on that warm and sunny Sunday in July, destined for many months of riding. When I crossed the heavily guarded border between Pakistan and India in late November, the sun was still shining, but I was not quite the same person I had been. My face had become darker and thinner, weather-beaten, and my hair had been bleached an almost peroxide blonde in the fierce sun. My body, I rather thought, had been transformed into a single, cycling muscle, with ridiculous tan-lines on my arms and legs where my clothes started and finished. More than this, though, my very outlook had changed. When I reached India I had already spent several months alone on the road, facing both physical and mental challenges on a daily basis. I had laughed in the face of danger, and dropped ice cubes down the vest of adversity, and I had come out of the other side singing and dancing with triumph. Dancing in a metaphorical sense, you understand.

As tempting as it was to merely dip my big toe into the cultural pool that is India, and call my journey to an end as soon as I crossed the border, before flying home for tea and medals, I still wanted to have experienced the sub-continent in all its resplendent glory, to explore its verdant valleys and bustling cities: one final hurrah before I returned to relative normality. So I quickly formed a plan to continue to ride across northern India, heading for Calcutta, on the east coast. There seemed something magical to me in the idea of the former colonial capital, the old jewel in the British colonial crown of an erstwhile era, being the jewel at the end of my trans-continental journey.

It is perhaps testament to my changed outlook that I did not consider a further thousand miles or so to be a particularly irksome exercise, having come so far already. But it proved not to be without incident. For almost a month, I found myself bouncing over badly maintained roads, and getting thoroughly lost. Every time a truck raced past me I would be covered in a cloud of dust, which subsequently attached itself to my damp brow. Coated in a film of filth, I was quite literally wearing the road on my face.

I had been a novelty in many of the countries I had passed through, but nowhere was I treated with such curiosity as I was in India. A brief pause on the road, even in the more remote areas, would quickly see a crowd of people coming over to see what the crazy Englishman was doing. I could not have drawn more looks of confused disbelief had I been green, had four heads, and was called Zog. The traffic in India, too, was something to marvel at it. As long as your marvelling doesn’t distract you from seeing the rickshaw coming head-on down the wrong side of the road, horn blaring frantically.

But there were also moments of incredible beauty, and people of the most sincere and selfless generosity and hospitality. I sat peacefully by the Golden Temple in Amritsar, I wandered the gardens of the Taj Mahal, and I watched the sun rise over the holy river Ganges at Varanasi. I was spontaneously invited by locals to lunch in roadside restaurants, or taken back to people’s homes for food and a toast of whisky. When I finally crossed the Hooghly River into Calcutta a week before Christmas, though, my feeling of satisfaction was tainted with a strong sense of relief. I was relieved that my bike – which had begun to feel, at times, as though it was on its last legs – had hung together for long enough. I was relieved, too, that I had hung together for long enough. But most of all I was relieved that my time on the road, as much as I enjoyed it, was coming to its natural and fitting conclusion, and I was able to return home to the simple comforts that I had been so long without. I had followed my lengthening shadow eastwards for over five months, covering 6,587 miles. I was fitter than I have ever been before (and probably fitter than I’ll be ever again). I had thrown my preconceptions and fear of the world out of the window, and was repaid with beauty, kindness, and a dawning realisation that the world is not as threatening as the newspapers would have you believe. In parallel, I had managed to use my journey to promote two charities, raising £1,817 to be split evenly between the World Cancer Research Fund and the Teenage Cancer Trust.

But for all that, I was ready to return to my own world. I felt I had thrown caution to the wind and lived my dream. I had done what I had set out to do, and had earned the right to enjoy the simple pleasures that I had once taken for granted. I realised that the jewel I was searching for wasn’t Calcutta after all, but was back home waiting for me. It was my friends and family. It was a cup of tea, a bacon sandwich. Christmas dinner. What I had really gained in cycling to India was an appreciation that these apparently simple things should not be taken for granted. But I felt that, in some small way, I had earned my Christmas dinner.

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