Age 22, I wrote a letter to my future self. I’d had a moment of transcendent clarity. I committed my thoughts to paper so I could look back and remember that feeling. It was as if I’d been driving through a dimly lit, noisy tunnel. Coming out of the other side into silence. Sunlight. Sweet relief.
Self-absorbed? Probably. Give me a break. I was 22.
Because of the accident, I’d spent 3 extra years in education, and I was still only at the end of the first year of a degree (a combined Mathematics/Law/Accounting degree). Another 2 years to go. Minimum.
No way José. I was done. I quit.
I’d been brought up to be a rule-follower. No more. Time to throw the deck of cards in the air. See how they land. It felt bloody good. Epiphanous. Yes, that is a word.
My University friends had finished up. Moving on without me. Groundhog Day. Sixth Form all over again. I’d enjoyed studying law. Hated Mathematics and Accounting. That was all irrelevant though. This was about something bigger. I was gagging to get out into the world.
Two good friends, Julie and Graeme, invited me to join them backpacking. A round-the-world trip. I didn’t need asking twice. I was in.
The snag was the trip was to be delayed for a year to save money.
Back in Hull, I got a job at British Aerospace. Loading data for aircraft parts onto a database. It sounds boring. And it was.
I had to learn how technical engineering drawings related to one another. Not easy. I’m sure I made mistakes. Apologies to any Air Force pilots that climbed into the cockpit to find the seat facing the wrong direction. I did my best.
To get to work I car-shared with 2 school acquaintances, E and D. A forgettable experience but for a mid-journey incident. E (driving) asked D (passenger) to change the music. D picked a cassette from the glove compartment then took out the cassette from the cassette player.
E: ‘Whao! Hang on! What are you doing!?’
D (perplexed): ‘Getting another cassette out? You asked me to?’
E: ‘No! You should take the other one out of the cassette player first. Put it away in its box. Then take out the new one.’
D: ‘But I was going to put the other one away?’
E (pained smile masking agitation): ‘No. You should put the other cassette away first. IT’S A GOOD SYSTEM’.
D (complying. brow furrowed. Half smile): ‘O-K’
I realised only on reflection, E’s OCD tendencies probably made him more qualified for my role than I was.
Spending time with family and friends in Hull was was great. But I was itching to go travelling. Pre-internet, we planned our itinerary using a map of the world. First stop India.
As someone with the use of only my left arm, I was worried about one particular aspect of Indian etiquette:
‘Eating can be a quite sensitive point… Rule one is eat with your right hand only. In India, as all across Asia, the left hand is for wiping your bottom, cleaning your feet and other unsavoury functions… while the right hand is for eating, shaking hands and so on.’*
I wondered what happens when this cultural boundary is crossed? Diners are in uproar? Riot Police? Public shaming? ‘That pasty tourist! He’s eating with his bum wiping hand!’ I didn’t want a scene.We were rookies. Our combined travel experience little more than a few Mediterranean package holidays. Plans for our month in India were sketchy. Vague ideas were all we had (visit Taj Mahal?)
We landed in Delhi in the night with no accommodation. Rows of faces stared at us from behind the barrier in the airport arrivals hall. Voices called out. ‘Taxi!?’ ‘tour guide!?’ ‘Change money!?’ Even ‘How are you?!’ Anything in English to catch our attention. We felt like celebrities on an opening night.
I would have paid top rupee for a taxi. Graeme was insistent we behave like frugal backpackers from the outset. The India Lonely Planet guide, which became our lifeline, told us where to find the bus; the cheapest option for travel into Delhi. There were a few empty seats, but not together. We clung to our backpacks trying to embrace the experience. Lesson One: British norms of personal space did not apply here.
I felt a hand in my back pocket. Someone trying to take whatever was in there. I swatted it away. Laughter all around us. Was this a joke everyone on the bus (apart from us) was in on? Or was I really being pick-pocketed? The first of many occasions when we didn’t quite understand what was happening.
The centre of Delhi was eerily, unexpectedly, quiet. Shops, restaurants, hotels, everything was closed. Tuk tuk drivers offered to help us find a hotel. We had no choice but to accept. Backpacks balanced on our knees, we sped along dusty streets. One after another, hotels turned us away. Full. Pavements were lined with the bodies of locals sleeping rough. It was beginning to look like we would be joining them.