I think back to that sunny Sunday morning in July, all those months ago, when I first set off on this mad adventure of riding a bicycle half-way around the world, to India. Everything thing that I needed (or thought I needed – much of it turned out to be superfluous) was strapped to my shiny red bicycle. As it groaned under the weight, I made those first few, decisive pedal strokes down the driveway, and out onto the road. Among my meager belongings were three pairs of underpants. Surely, I thought, the best things come in threes. They were freshly washed and smelled faintly of lemons and wildflowers (as did I, I like to think).
This pleasant state of affairs was not to last, however. I don’t want to sicken my readers with too much detail, but the freshness and the scent of wildflowers soon deteriorated, the lemons turned rather sour, and they soon became rather effective deterrents to thieves (though I did occasionally treat them to a wash). The first pair bought it in southern Germany, being washed away (somewhat ironically) by a huge and unexpected bow-wave from a boat skimming down the Danube as they were innocently drying on a rock. The second pair lasted all the way to Pakistan, when they went the way of all the great world empires, and eventually fell apart into their constituent pieces. Tears were certainly shed. Fortunately, the final pair have made it with me all the way to India, to Calcutta, my final destination. I rolled over the great iron bridge across the Hooghly River, and into the former capital of British colonial India, and the old adopted home of Mother Teresa, and my journey came to an end. My last pair of underpants are, like me, completely worn out. I’m not sure the great fashion houses of Europe have yet tried pushing fashion-conscious youngsters into ‘distressed’ underwear, as was once the fashion for jeans, but if anyone wants to know how they look, I possess a perfect prototype. Like my last pair of underpants, I’ve weathered the storm. I’ve come a long way, and have taken a lot of punishment over the last few months (though this was of course balanced by some extraordinary experiences, though I’m not sure to what extent I share this with my underpants). Like them, I’m just about hanging together, despite the frayed edges and the worn patches. To possibly coin a timeless sentiment, to go down in history with the wise words of all the great men of the greater world, when your last pair of underpants have worn through, it’s probably time to go home.
India has certainly been a test. Road safety is, if it exists at all, a rather unfunny joke; I’ve had two minor collisions in the last week, from which I was lucky to escape without any damage to either me or my bike. Wild camping, as I have done most of the time on my journey, is practically impossible here. Every time I stop, however briefly, and however quiet and remote a spot may seem, I cause quite a sensation. People crowd around me, often staring with blank, but awed expressions, sometimes laughing at the silly foreign man who apparently hasn’t heard of the internal combustion engine. Camping, then, would be a futile gesture. Peace, and sleep, can only be found in roadside hotels. I’ve shared rooms with many a mosquito, a rat on a couple of occasions, and the presence of mouse-droppings on the bedsheets one night drove me to pitch my tent on some grass outside. India is constantly moving, and there is an almost constant noise, which deafened me until I grew used to it. But despite all this, I feel incredibly privileged to be here.
A much wiser man than me once said that when you’re old and grey, and the best of your life is behind you, you’re much more likely to regret the things you didn’t do, than the things you did. I certainly do not regret cycling to India. But I’m glad it has come to it’s natural and fitting conclusion, here in Calcutta. I’ve accomplished my dream, my mission, whatever you might call it. Now I need to dream up another one – I’m just going to need a fresh pair of underpants.