This journey begins like so many others at the doorstep of our home here in the mountains. I leave today for Spain on a short break for a long walk. I am packing as light as I can to walk over 300 kilometres in thirteen days. To walk with my friend, Rohan, along a part of the Way of St James, the famous Camino de Santiago in the north of Spain. For the walk, Rohan suggested packing some essentials. In rough order of priority: Wagh Bakri instant ginger tea, a flask for coffee, a book or two, pens and a journal, warm clothes, rain gear, binoculars and camera, and an extra pair of shoes, all to fit in a good backpack.
Although his was a small list, it included many of the material possessions I’ve come to value over the years: anything that makes good coffee, books, pens and paper, binoculars, and shoes. Carrying these on a journey attends less to necessity than to comfort. What’s missing on the list, though, are other things like a wooden table to write on (imagine lugging that!), a music system, and flip flops, although I do plan to copy some music on my phone and stash a pair of flip flops in the pack.
In the afternoon, we depart, Divya accompanies me to the airport to send me off, and we drive through sun-blasted tea plantations, still too hot for November, missing as yet the nip of winter. The road through the mountains winds through the Andiparai rainforest, where the sun’s rays slant through the trees, bathing us and the trees together in a warm golden light like a benediction before the journey. Nearby, I stop to pick up a small stone from a little stream that flows under the road: a stone that will join another from our front yard, both of which I will carry to deposit at our final destination, not as an offering as much as a marker of something that will endure.
Why do people walk long distances? I think of the countless long walks Divya and I have taken in the Kalakad mountains and the Anamalais, across the Western Ghats in search of hornbills and other wildlife, to collect data or explore unfamiliar forests, or to just travel together by ourselves to new places. I think about the stories of other people and their long journeys on foot. The pilgrims who walk barefoot every year to the temples of Palani or Sabarimala from across southern India carrying their bags, their faith, their prayers. The people who marched alongside Mahatma Gandhi in March and April 1930 on the Dandi march and salt satyagraha as a campaign of civil disobedience against British colonial rule. The lone, enraptured men who marched across countries or continents, seeking to understand nature or, perhaps, themselves. The politician walking even now across the length of India, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, with crowds of yatris in an attempt to stitch back a country riven by bigotry, misgovernance, and hate. And, above all, the women of my home landscape in the Anamalai Hills, working in the tea estates, who walk uncounted miles starting early in the morning, every single working day, to pluck tea leaves over sprawling tea estates on steep slopes, hauling their loads on large bags till weighment time, walk even more later in the day, to collect twigs and firewood that they will carry back home, on their heads, to cook for their family.
I think again about the reason for my own walk this time. I have no driving need, no exalted purpose, only a position of privilege that enables me to travel, to walk in another country. I’ve only one reason. I am going to walk with a friend, and perhaps that is as good a reason as any.