Nothing changes but everything changes…
– Sharon O’Neil, Kids in Our Town (1983)
I turned 29 in India. It was 1992. My girlfriend Linda (now my wife of 27 years) and I were four months into a nine-month journey from Britain back home to New Zealand. On this trip we had already visited Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. We’d celebrated Christmas 1991 at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and New Year in Harare. We had stood on the summit of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and looked down into Afghanistan and spent weeks having some epic adventures in the wintery vastness of the Karakoram Mountains.
Now, we were in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan, the desert state in India’s north-east. For my birthday, we ate at a restaurant overlooking a lake and drank a bhang lassi (a yoghurt drink laced with marijuana). We were young and free and the world was our playground. We would spend another month in India, then cross the border into Nepal. From Kathmandu we would eventually fly to Hong Hong, spend a month in China then travel down the length of Southeast Asia: through Thailand, Malaysia and the long, jewelled necklace of Indonesia, all the way to Timor, across to Darwin and home.
Travel was in our blood. It was what we did best. We got married, worked for a year, and left again. Back to the road. Out in the world. New York, Amsterdam, England, Iran, Pakistan again, and China. By then it was 1994. We went home to Geraldine. Settled down. Bought a house, raised two amazing daughters. Careers, bankruptcy, a secure job. Money. The stuff of life. And then, I was back in India.
I turned 57 in India. I was in the holy city of Allahabad, where the three holiest rivers in India – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati – join their waters together. I’d come to India alone this time, for no other reason than to challenge myself out in the world. But everything was different. India was crowded, filthy, noisy and incomprehensible. As a twenty-nine year old, travelling with Linda, it had been easy. We had slept in bug-infested flop-houses, eaten in the cheapest joints, ridden 3rd class and haggled over every last Rupee. We had leaned on each other and it had made the hardships bearable…even fun.
But now, of course, I was different. The hard-core backpacker lifestyle held no attraction anymore. I had thought that it would: it didn’t. I was too old and too used to comfort to slum it. So I moved up-market. I stayed in nice hotels; I rode 2nd Class Air Conditioned trains; I took Ola and Uber rides whenever I could; I found cafes serving good coffee; and I used technology – Google Maps, a hotel booking app, Wikipedia – for all of my research, planning and logistics. It made travelling easier. It made it bearable.
India is fun. India is chaotic, filthy, bizarre, unknowable. I am a ghost here…a ghost of my younger self. I turned 29 in India. And I turned 57 in India. Nothing changes but everything changes.