“That Harry Kane is utter rubbish! If I were in charge, I’d leave him behind. And that Alli ‘nd all!”
By the time I arrived in Jagtial, John had been walking alone for almost 4 weeks and hadn’t told anyone how much he hated Harry Kane in that time. Poor fella must’ve been about to blow. It was plain to see his opinions on the striker hadn’t changed since the last time I saw him. I had flown to Amsterdam on my own last summer to meet up with some friends but this was my first proper solo travelling experience. Jagtial is 4,858 miles away from Southport and it felt it after my first encounter with a couple of Indian blokes in broken English outside the room.
“You know Liverpool? Yeah near there.”
I gave up and just said I was from London.
Rather awkwardly, I let them take a few pictures with me before they saw a picture on my lockscreen of me and my girlfriend and wanted to take a picture of her much to my amusement. I told them they were cheeky, so they resorted to tempting me with mangoes. Tempted as I was I still said no.
The next day we did it all. I’m still struggling to come to terms with some of the stuff that happened as I write this. Fame for one. We lost count of the number of people we took pictures with on this day but we guestimated it was north of 50. Surreal enough for a white boy from the North West. With one of us being tiny and the other huge, we must’ve looked like the travelling circus to some of these people we met. Especially with these big girly hats on. Later that day we met a brilliant man named Shiva and stayed at ‘The Ritz’, saw the dried up Godavari and watched on as a body was burned in a pyre. We had cheap haircuts and head massages, rode on the back of tractors and saw rice fields a horizon long. We embraced religion and became stars of the local press.
I think Lou Reed said it best in his song Perfect Day.
“Milner’s gotta be on the plane, he’s the best player we’ve got!”
“Milner retired after the last euros, John”
In all fairness I really hope Milner comes out of retirement for the World Cup but I just can’t see it happening.
We were supposed to be stopping off at a place called Thimmapur and then walking some 15km to a larger town called Mancherial in order to get a bus 300km to avoid a terrorist hotspot. John couldn’t pronounce Thimmapur to the bus driver and resorted to calling it a Tombliboo, which made me laugh. His pronunciation of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is even better. We walked for a while and came to a bridge over the river. Shiva had said the day before that the water was plentiful further downstream and that you could go boating there. I’d read a bit about the Godavari before I flew out, but nothing prepares you for it. Standing on that bridge was like looking out over an empire. I’ve been in pure awe a few times in my life and this was one of them. Pictures could never do it justice. For once, it was easy to zone out and ignore the perpetual horns of the road behind me and in that moment, I’ve solemnly seen such an area of natural beauty, so untouched by humanity. Perhaps only the Commando’s Memorial in the Scottish Cairngorms could top it.
All the buses and lorries in India, or middle India at least, are all remnants of colonialism and when Britain ruled the world. It’s easy to forget how recently British rule ended, but when everything is more than 50 years old and with ‘Leyland’ written on the front, it puts things into perspective. After India gained independence, British Leyland Motors joined forces with a recently developed Indian company called Ashok Motors to create the aptly named Ashok Leyland. Because the trucks and buses they made were so reliable, and because they don’t seem to care much for pollution in this country, they’re still in operation today. I went to college in Leyland and they make my old college buses look like private limousines in comparison (context: Runshaw buses are famously terrible).
Regardless, we had to take one of these rickety sweatboxes 300km to meet up with the river further downstream after a terrorist attack the week before claimed 36 people in the area we were about to wander into. A comparatively late start at 5am to get the bus at 6 was welcomed and in all my naivety, I was actually looking forward to the journey. I thought I’d get a window seat (the seats were more like Church pews than seats in hindsight) so I could see as much of the country as I could for the advertised 8 hour journey. It took 10.5 hours and the windows were so dirty you couldn’t see out. Oh and it was 44oC. And it was a full bus. Hey ho, but I’ll remember it forever.
I became an expert on making the walking gesture with my fingers by the end of my time in India. The people we met were very simple types and for the most part could only ever manage to ask the same 3 questions:
‘Where are you from?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Why are you doing it?’
After you tell them what you’re doing, most of them sort of just nod at you as if to say “Oh, I see” or “Walking across the country? Oh, alright yeah, fair enough then.” After that they mostly just shake your hand and walk off to go about their day. Simple types for you. John claims to have been to as many as 80 or so countries in his time and said he’d never been anywhere as rural as some of the villages we went through on yet another lengthy bus journey. Think mud huts, shacks and desperately thin women somehow carrying a baby in each hand and a water barrel on their head.
After one of these villages, we were given a lift to a slightly more civilised village for a water stop by a guy named Raj on a tiny Enfield bike. To our amusement, Raj kept shouting out phrases in what must’ve been the same American accent from whatever Bruce Willis film he was quoting. Once in this village we were totally swarmed and I was left on my own to satisfy some 15 or so villagers whilst John and Raj sped off to get water. We were the first white people to ever pass through their village, nevermind stop for a drink, so I had to make the most of it. I felt like a politician shaking hands, meeting families and taking pictures. I ended up exchanging numbers with a guy called Murali and it was only once he texted me the next day that I realised the impact I’d had on these people’s lives. His whatsapp picture was and still is a picture of me and him. A couple of days afterwards, he added me on Facebook and surprise, surprise, it’s the same picture. I scrolled through the comments and to my intrigue, all his friends were commenting about how jealous they were of him and how ‘great’ a picture it was. All because he got a picture with an English kid. Mental.
I’d ticked just about everything I wanted to tick off and then some during the week I spent walking around. The one thing that eluded me was some proper Indian monsoon rain. We had the beginnings of it at one point but it quickly trailed off into English rain. On my final day we crossed over the Godavari again into a larger town called Rajahmundry.
Rajahmundry was nearing the Godavari’s mouth into the sea at Yanam, so John’s finishing line was within touching distance. The bridge over the Godavari looked like the same one as over the River Kwai and at the point where the bridge was built, it was 5km from bank to bank. Slightly further downstream, it must’ve been some 8km wide. The river was so wide at this point that there were 3 islands separating the river into 3 separate flows. When the rains come, the Godavari will become one single 8km wide empire of water. We’d reached John’s hotel for the night, parted ways and I was headed for the local airport. Airport is a tad rich though because I’ve seen houses bigger. There were 3 gates, 3 flights and about 3 other people in the entire airport. I was due to board in 30 minutes and then the rains came. Obviously I’m used to rain and wind but not like this. I’ve seen videos of hurricanes in America like Sandy and Katrina and those images were all I can compare it too. The wind horrific and the rain redundant. I couldn’t take off in this, surely. Time ticked away and the airport roof felt like it could’ve blown off. My flight had been delayed about 30 minutes now but the flight before mine had boarded and must have been waiting for a gap in the weather so it could take off. The rains hadn’t eased off and were still roaring away and at this point I couldn’t contact anyone as O2 had suspended my account (I’ll just end up ranting if I touch on this topic so I’ll give it a wide bearth as John would say).
I was alone in the middle of monsoon rains in the middle of nowhere. And my propeller powered plane didn’t look like it could handle being blown on let alone monsoon winds. Then, someone turned the rains off. Just like that, the sun came out and the winds totally stopped. The first plane took off and 5 minutes later we were hauled onto our plane. I’d never seen anything like it. Hurricane chasers talk about the eye of the storm being a moment of peace and ultimate tranquillity before shortly being bombarded with the rest of the hurricane again but this was no hurricane. The rains hadn’t moved further inland or gradually calmed down; they had just stopped. Stranded in the middle of a monsoon? Completed it mate.
I will remember my first time in India for the rest of my life. The people, the experiences, the fear, the animals, the space, the bus journeys, the awe, but mostly the absurd, innate desire for drivers to use their horns.