I left Amritsar having only spent one night in the city, as time was running out and I wanted to allow myself a few lazy boozy days at the hostel in Delhi to unwind after two months in the craziest country on earth.
The night bus was uncomfortable but it was only seven hours, and when I was juddered awake by speedbumps I looked out of the window and found myself back in the broiling orange smog of Delhi. I got a tuk tuk from the station and checked into Madpackers Hostel; the same spot I started my trip two months ago. I had a few hours to go until check in, so headed up to the rooftop terrace to kill some time.
Up on the roof I found the paint stains from Holi two months earlier were still on the walls. It gave me a monstrous pang of nostalgia that registered somewhere between pleasure and pain. I’d been there that day, stoned out of my mind, smothered head to toe in the brightest colours you’ve ever seen. I remember feeling dizzy and lost, and fucking terrified to have left behind absolutely everything I knew and cared about. Family and friends, career and familiarity and security, all gone. A girl I’ve loved since I can remember. Gone. I was scared, and I didn’t know how I’d go it alone. But oh, so much has happened since that first day.
There was an Arctic Monkey’s song playing in my headphones as I stood there on the rooftop; one of my favourites. It’s called That’s Where You’re Wrong, and it sets my heart on fire. It sounds like a happy ending, and it sounds like a bright future. So I stood there with my heaphones in, and as Alex Turner promised me that everything would be okay, I looked out over the crumbling rooftops and the climbing treetops and the pubic-hair explosion haywire lampposts of New Delhi, and I thought about everything all at once, because well, what else do you do on a rooftop?
My mind swam with faces and names, sounds and smells and all that coalescing horror and beauty that India churns up from underneath you. Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Vagator, Palolem, Hampi, Bengaluru, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Mussoorie, Dharamsala, Amritsar, Delhi. And all of it without a hitch, nary a scratch, still healthy and more. Full of excitement. I gained a couple of pounds, lost a few belongings, and rediscovered my smile.
Man… I just… I can’t believe my luck. I’ve seen elephants and tigers and monkeys and pigs and ten thousand holy cows. I’ve played a corpse in a Bollywood film. I’ve road tripped a thousand miles in two days. I’ve been to a rural Indian wedding where everybody was toting pistols. I’ve ridden motorbikes to blue lagoons and jumped from cliffs into their cool waters. I’ve talked with babas and gurus, I’ve observed Hindu and Buddhist rituals, and I’ve watched the dead burn by the Ganges. I’ve explored the Dalai Lama’s home, and ate at the langar in the Golden Temple.
I’ve straddled burping camels through the desert and slept under the stars; I’ve drunk with mad strangers on the beach and leapt naked into the moonlit sea. I’ve yowled on the back of a motorbike blasting backwards down the motorway; I’ve leapt out of a raft down white water rapids and drank clean water from the infant Ganges. I’ve had good days and bad days, I’ve had astounding days and awful days. I’ve been repulsed and amazed and bewildered, joyous and amused, angry and dumbfounded. It’s a sensory and moral tempest, and in the eye of that storm you’ll find India; everything you imagined and an infinite beyond.
One in five people in existence live in India. 1.3 billion people spend their lives in that infinite diamond. Now, for my whole trip I’ve wrestled with the notion of what India is. I’ve had endless conversations on sunset rooftops with backpackers and local people, and every time a different conclusion is reached – or, often, none at all. Because you can’t draw a line under the lives of a billion people. You can’t summarise or make sweeping statements; you can only accept that India is a land of extremes in every direction, and contraction is a part of daily life.
After two months in this most breathtaking and challenging of countries, all I can truthfully say is that, if you’re looking for true adventure, India is where you’ll find it. I stood in Delhi, and in my ears the song was almost finished – there’s one last blaze of gorgeous optimistic chords to see you home – and I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end as I saw out the final moments of the realisation of a lifelong dream. I feel happy today, and it’s not a fragile serotonin boost. I’m no longer wasting away in the painful shadow of the past, and I’m not shielding my eyes from the brilliance of the future. I’m just present, fully, for the first time in so long. I risked everything I had, and in return India was wonderful to me. Now, at the end of it all, I’ve got a funny sensation in my chest. I suppose it feels a little bit like something blooming.