*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*
I don't know where I am. My feet hurt. My shirt is heavy with sweat. It's been a hard day. I have walked since dawn, about eight hours, down red dusty tracks beside the sliding green waters of the Kaveri River.
I am hiding from the sun in the shade of a chai stall, enjoying a sweet glass of milky tea given to me, free of charge, by the smiling stall owner. As always happens in India a crowd has quickly gathered to quiz this strangely pink, sweaty visitor. Some of the crowd buy glasses of tea. The stall owner's smile grows. He waggles his head in disbelief and amusement as I explain that I am walking across India.
I have followed the Kaveri from its mouth and I will continue walking all the way to Talakaveri, the temple at the source of this holy river.
Everyone thinks that I am mad. "But why are you not taking a train. In India we have a very good train system. Built by the British as a matter of fact!"
They could not understand why I wanted to walk across southern India, across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. And they had a point. It was a long way, and a difficult journey. When I reached the end of my journey -- a deserted palm-lined beach on the Kerala coast -- I jumped on a train to take me back to Chennai for my flight home. Crossing India (or re-crossing it) by train was a magical experience.
I spent the daylight hours sitting in the open doorway of the carriage, my feet dangling down, the wind blowing warm in my face. We raced past countless glimpses of villages and farms and families. At some of the numerous station stops I would treat myself to a drink of chai and a spicy snack. And at night I lay back in the darkness and dozed to the gentle rhythm of rattling rails. The whole thing was a lovely experience.
But the walk was also a fantastic way to experience a slice of India. The physical challenge was important to me so I walked far and fast. But I need not have done. Merely walking for a day through a landscape that is new to you gives real scope for adventure and discovery. Your slow pace helps slow a racing mind and you soon begin to relax. You become observant. You notice each new sight or smell or sound. You talk to people. You ask questions. You learn.
I tried to explain all this to the group of people gathered round me in the hot little village whose name I did not know. I am not sure that they were all convinced, but one man did decide that I was not totally crazy. He invited me to spend the night with his family. I accepted gratefully. Being on an adventure is all about embracing spontaneity. The opportunity to glimpse a very different way of life to my own is one that I am always grateful for. I finished my chai, said goodbye to the crowd, and walked down the street with my new-found friend. We walked towards his house, to meet his family, to share dinner, and whatever other adventures may lie in store.
Walking across India, and traveling back by train, gave a really interesting dual perspective on my travel experiences there. I urge you to try it for yourself. You don't necessarily have to cross an entire country. Even taking your local train to a station 10 or 20 miles away that you do not normally go to, and then walking home would be an interesting, rewarding micro-adventure. Who knows, it may even give you the incentive to take on a bigger adventure!
What do you think? Have you had a similar experience on your travels? Please do share it with us in the comments section.