I've been a grouch since I came back. A bit lethargic, a bit of a recluse. The city makes me claustrophobic and I can't handle the company of more than one or two people at a time. A learned friend put it down to a nature versus city life syndrome. I think it's something he made up to appease me, but it's still accurate.
Because somewhere at the back of my head, I'm yearning to have the open road ahead in front of me again; longing for the expanse of green paddy fields and the majesty of the Himalayas and the surprises that each turn in the road brings.
When we set out on our trip, we had only the roughest idea of where we were going. Despite excellent advice from many quarters, we had not planned what roads we would take and where we would stop every night. We wanted to play it by ear, go where instinct would take us, stay where fancy decided to stop and take a look. All we knew for sure was that in 14 days we had to be in Manali, so we should be travelling roughly 250 km a day, if we took the straightest road. If we wandered, we'd have to make up for it.
We had maps, but they were largely useless. They gave us a sense of direction, but what looked like a biggish town on paper, inevitably turned out to be a significant crossroad or a truckers' stop. The towns that actually had places to stay were often not even mentioned. So, people were our most reliable source of information. And getting that information was my job; because I knew the language best (I'm also the journo, asking questions is my 'thing').
So each morning, while everyone was getting ready to leave, I would sneak out for a bit in search of our next destination. Hotel receptionists, shop owners, truck drivers were all quizzed. Often I had to face a barrage of cross-questioning before I got any information. Was I Indian? Why was I travelling in a red autorickshaw? Did I drive it myself? Does it run on petrol? What is the average? Who had come with me?
In return, I had my own litany of questions...what is the next best place to stop? At 200km? And if we reached there early enough and wanted to go on, then at around 300 km? Any places along the route that were must see? Even if we had to take a diversion? After all, we didn't mind meandering. Driving straight from one point to another seemed ridiculous, I wanted to explore every little lane that caught my fancy, but maybe they could tell us which ones were really worth seeing?
And that's how it was every day. All that was important was the road ahead of us and the sights along the way. Not knowing was liberating. If we reached a town and it was getting dark, we stayed. If we had enough light, we carried on. All we had to do was find a bed at night.
And we always did.
Though the conditions varied. Some times there was air conditioning; sometimes, just a sluggish table fan. Sometimes the flush didn't work; other times there was hot water and we felt like royalty. At Chitwan, there was no one else and we got a big discount. At Attari, a town at a crossroad, the only guesthouse was full and we paid a high price for a dorm with a common (very dirty) loo (no one had a bath that day).
When we had the luxuries, we enjoyed them. But even when we didn't, just having a place to sleep was enough. By night, so full were we of the day's experiences that nothing else really seemed to matter. And we always slept well, knowing that in the morning we would feel the pull of the road again.