26 November 2014

Leaving and returning

First, this post has taken a while to write for reasons I trust will be obvious if you read it. Apologies for the delay. Second, no need to worry—I'm O.K.; this is how I was, not how I am. Finally, this post confirms the truth of the observation that writing is never finished, only abandoned.

I leave Leh for the last time in the middle of October on the start of a journey that will last several days, cross two time zones, and leave me lost, cast adrift in a sea of confusion. A taxi takes me away from Leh, and as it turns a corner, there, straight ahead, rise the dawn mountains. Fresh snow coats the peaks and dusts their lower slopes, and early light colours the high snowfields with pale orange and pink; the summit of Stok Kangri hides behind thick white cloud but lower on the mountainsides wraiths of cloud linger around dark valleys and shine bright as they wander the dawn-facing slopes. The sun has not yet risen; all the light comes from below the eastern horizon and the land glows as if lit by its own immanence. I sit, silenced by one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, as the taxi carries me away from Leh towards the airport. How can I leave this place? Any possibility of a return lies too far in the future, and I can’t bear that thought.

Now, as I scribble these lines in a café in Palmerston North, I can picture that sublime landscape; I can see it vividly in my mind, and I know I have to go back. So much feels unfinished; so many things I intended to do I've left undone. When I got out of hospital I brought my flights forward; I chose to leave India early because I didn't want to risk another run-in with bad food or poisonous water so soon after a serious gut infection. I wanted to return to a place where I could recover easily, and although India captivated me, it can wear a body down. I  needed time to focus what little energy I had on rebuilding my strength and regaining lost weight so I'd have at least a little in reserve if I had a relapse or suffered some other illness. I tell myself this, but now I'd gladly have run that risk for the sake of an extra three weeks in India. I can't believe I willingly chose to leave early.


But, as I recover in Green Park, I don't have the benefit of hindsight, and I bring the flights forward as far as I can afford. I leave Leh early in the morning and fly to Delhi and later in the day catch up with a friend, too briefly and for the last time. When the time finally comes, though, at least this last journey in India must be the most appropriate of all: sitting in the back seat of an ancient Ambassador that keeps stalling at the worst possible moments in the mad traffic of late night Delhi. But the driver, with his short-cropped, orange tinted hair and confident smile, has the car's temperamental engine under control and I relax, trusting his competence.

He delivers me safely to the terminal. I smile and thank him, then turn and enter the limbo of the airport.


One of the things I've learned to expect about travelling in India is not to expect anything. Expecting a bus to leave on time, for example, is laughable; expecting it to leave late might be more reasonable but still not guaranteed. But the most unreliable expectations, I've learned, are expectations about emotions, and I don't know how I'll feel as I leave India.

So I've prepared myself for  almost anything: loss, relief, grief, any emotion at all — or so I think. What I haven't expected and haven't prepared for is this emptiness, this near-complete lack of emotion. When the Airbus 330 rises into the Delhi night at almost 3 a.m., I feel numb. Perhaps I'm emotionally as well as physically exhausted, or maybe the enormity of leaving has overwhelmed my ability to deal with that knowledge. Maybe both. Maybe this is one of the stages of grief — the stage of disbelief and denial. I look out the window at the orange and yellow lights of Delhi as they shrink into the past, and I think of all the things happening down there, all the people I've met, all those lives carrying on; I think of everything that's happened over these last months, and for an instant the shock of leaving hits me hard, like a blow.

Then the numbness returns and mostly I feel empty, with just those glimpses of all I’m leaving behind — India’s chaotic energy and immediacy and rawness; its sophistication and subtlety, too; its otherness; its ability to delight and appal, sometimes simultaneously, as when I saw from the train to Bharatpur a family apparently living on the railway siding — despite their apparent lack of almost everything we’d consider essential, they sat talking and laughing, able to find at least a few moments of joy in the simple act of being together as a family. So much else, too — the abundance and diversity of birds, so many of which seem so comfortable and at home right in the thick of the human mêlée and noise and filth; the irresistibly cute palm squirrels; the gentleness and kindness that, while by no means universal, was common enough to be distinctly noticeable; above all, my friends, most of whom just a few months ago I’d never even known existed; all these things and more.   These moments, when I truly comprehend, hit me like a punch to the heart.

The A330 flies on, out of the night, through dawn and into late morning, until eventually a long, thin, brown streak appears low down in the sky —the filth of Shanghai’s smog. We fly low over the city and the harbour, where ship after ship lies anchored in water the colour of weak coffee. On land among the buildings that go on forever, a massive chimney spews steam into the sky. I try to appreciate the thought that I’ve almost completed the first leg of the long journey, but the prospect of waiting over nine hours for the next flight puts paid to that. I still can't grasp the true significance of having left India, still feel emotionally drained, still lack the physical and mental energy to do anything except endure the hours.


At Gate 213 I try not to think about the time. Finally, accepting I can’t go nine hours or more without eating and drinking, I check that the small food counter accepts credit cards and order a cheese and egg sandwich and a Tiger beer. This should all be safe, I think, still anxious about my gut, but I’m dismayed to find the cheese and egg sandwich includes a lot of unpeeled cucumber slices and the beer comes with ice cubes. I discard the cucumber and drink the beer anyway, rationalising the risk by reminding myself this is, after all, an international airport and poisoning passengers would have bad repercussions — not just for the passengers. 

While I finish the beer, I chat with a cheerful Australian, originally from Melbourne but now living in London, and with a big, affable maths teacher from the US. The Aussie and his girlfriend leave to board their flight; the maths teacher heads off a little later. A young guy with a physique like a power lifter comes and sits at the counter and orders a sandwich. He’s from Lithuania, has been in China on business (something to do with telecommunications), and about eight years ago spent three days in Wellington. That too, had been on business, so he hadn’t had much chance to look around; nevertheless, he liked the city.
   ‘Very good lamb steaks,’ he says. Clearly, they made a good impression.

The menu lists Tie Guan Yin, a tea I’ve enjoyed back in New Zealand. Curious to know how to pronounce the name, I ask the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t have it right now, she says; it’s off the menu. I try again, but she still doesn’t understand that I just want to hear her pronounce the name. Eventually an elegant woman, 40-ish I guess, intervenes and helps me try out the pronunciation. ‘TEE-uh gwun-een’ is probably close enough to be understood. She smiles and nods when I finally get it right, then rushes off to board her flight.

Afterwards, a passable coffee revives me a little, and that, with the beer and the direct engagement with other human beings, helps me feel more human. But I’ve been travelling for well over a day now, and even when I managed some sleep on the flight from Delhi, that’s been in the same set of clothes. Thank heavens for merino, but I’m still beginning to wonder whether someone with a mask and a long stick will appear and usher me outside to be hosed down. I do the only thing I can and freshen up as best I can with wet paper towels — hardly the shower I long for, but at least I feel cleaner.


The hours creep past. I wander down to the next boarding gate, where just a few people linger, and find a relatively inconspicuous corner where I can lie down on the seats with my bag as a pillow. Someone else with the same idea snoozes quietly on the seats backing up against my row. After a couple of short sleeps of uncertain quality I return to Gate 213 to find most of the passengers gone, so I stretch out again on a row of out-of-the-way seats and sleep for almost an hour. 

Finally, the call to board arrives, and immediately the usual enormous queue forms. I have no interest in standing in a queue, particularly when it means I’d end up sitting even longer in a seat on the plane, so I sit and wait until the line reduces to just a handful of people. Even so, I then have to stand in a packed shuttle bus until several late-comers arrive. 

As usual, the Airbus leaves late. Unusually, the delay isn’t just ten or twenty minutes or even half an hour — it’s an hour and a half. The first passengers to board will have taken their seats a good half an hour before that, so they’ll have been sitting for two hours before we even leave the ground. I’m glad I waited to board, particularly because my seat turns out to be in the first row, crammed up against the bulkhead with even less leg room than usual. The flight’s scheduled to take ten hours and 40 minutes but given the delay in departing, I’m hoping they’ll try to make up time. They do, but only half an hour, so instead of arriving at Sydney at 10 a.m., we arrive an hour late. That’s an hour less I’ll have with my sister, who’s come to meet me.

Back at her place I finally get my longed-for shower, a sourdough baguette filled with avocado and smoked trout, and company that eases the sense of separation from India. Afterwards, we sit on the verandah, looking out at a park that reminds me too much of the Deer Park in South Delhi, where I used to walk each morning as part of my recovery. Magpies instead of crows, rainbow lorikeets instead of rose-ringed parakeets, but similar trees shading a similar slightly dry and dusty ground — I half expect to see a few dogs cooling off in shallow holes they've dug, but the only dogs here trot along on leashes. The differences only emphasise the similarities.  Time flies past too fast, though, and soon we're back in the taxi, returning to the airport. I should have stayed overnight, but when I brought the flights forward I never thought about that.


The Air New Zealand A320 is only the second plane in this entire journey to leave on time. I sit next to a big kiwi guy who's recently trekked to Annapurna Base Camp. We talk until the plane takes off, joking sometimes about the usual things like getting crook, the Kathmandu madhouse, Nepalese buses, and other things that hindsight makes bearable, then he retreats into a movie and I scribble notes. Everywhere I see and hear reminders of New Zealand — the hostess's accent, the scenery on the safety video, the black upholstery, and so on — and I wonder whether I'm returning too fast, whether I'm already beginning to lose some of the feel of what India was like (already, I note, I say 'was'; already I think of India as being in my past). I realise I'm clinging to my memories and think perhaps I should try to resist this ache to hold on to what was. 

But what precisely is wrong with that? As I've said before, I don't know much about buddhism, but a common theme of that philosophy seems to be the overriding importance of the present. The past and the future are illusions, it says; all we have is the present, this moment right now. I used to think this was wonderful and profound, but now I'm less sure. What exactly is this 'present', and in what sense can it be all we have when, after all, nothing is more transitory? Try to think of the present — try it now — and what happens? It's gone; it's passed; now has become the past. The past seems far more substantial, even if our recollections so often deceive us, and the future, even if we can't know it, seems no less illusory than this present; in fact, I find it easier to think of some time in the future than to pin down the present.

I suppose the injunction to live in the present might be intended simply to ease the ache of loss and lessen the worry of what might or might not be. If so, it seems at least useful, but to me the main benefit is clear: when you ponder the past or fret about the future, you're missing what's happening now. To lose yourself in the present can be achieved (seldom deliberately, though) and can be a kind of ecstasy; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it 'Flow'; others call it 'being in the zone'; and one of the essential differences between this state and the conscious act of paying attention to where you are is that when you lose yourself that's precisely what you do — you're no longer aware of yourself. Maybe that's what Eliot meant when he said, 'Love is most nearly itself/When here and now cease to matter'. I, however, am lost in a different sense, for different reasons. I know where my body is located but I don't know where I am.


At Wellington, not long before midnight, my brother waits to collect me. As he drives me home I look out at the night harbour, sodium light rippling on dark water, the quiet, clean city; and as I stand outside his house while he parks the car, I hear a ruru calling — the first New Zealand bird I've heard since early July. The first bird I see in the morning is a riroriro, going about its tiny life completely unaware of me, of India, of anything at all beyond its own small territory and the compulsions of its instincts. Everywhere I go, birds comfort me.


A couple of weeks after returning, I visit friends for dinner. They’ve travelled overseas while I was on my journey, so talking with them lets us compare impressions, lessons, ideas. All evening the conversation centres on travelling and I’m struck by the way we don’t bore each other with this talk. I’m conscious of how travellers’ tales can be not merely uninteresting for one’s friends but can be actively off-putting. A friend whose travels make mine look like a stroll to the gate pointed this out; you visit friends after a significant journey, she said, and they’re not interested in hearing about it.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to agree or not, but this was her experience and her travels have been exceptional. Maybe mine have been more ordinary, or maybe I’ve been blessed with more tolerant friends, but this lack of interest hasn’t been as noticeable for me. Also, I’ve long been aware of the risk of annoying my friends with too much talk about my own travelling and have tried to suppress the urge to talk constantly about it. However, my friends naturally want to hear something about my journey; the difficulty, I find, isn’t avoiding the topic, it’s being aware of when I’ve talked too long and letting the subject drop.

The problem is that these kinds of conversations need some common ground, some shared experience, preferably recent, if they’re not to falter. Talking about marvellous experiences to someone who’s just spent the last four months slogging away at work risks leaving them feeling as if they have nothing to contribute, and can even make them envious. Fortunately for me, my friends not only have a great capacity for putting up with hearing me talk, but have also travelled extensively themselves — some in India — so they do share similar experiences.

My friend also pointed out something else about returning from travels: that your friends expect you to be the same person you were when you left. This is understandable. What's harder is to recognise the changes in yourself, and after three and a half months of travel, mostly in India, I wonder how I’ve changed. Maybe I need to ask my friends, although most haven’t yet seen enough of me to be able to comment accurately.

My guess is that I’m now much less certain of many things; I think I understand much less than I thought when I started the journey. Often I realise I don’t know what to think, and when someone asks me something, particularly about India, I’m unable to answer satisfactorily — I simply don’t know whether I believe my reply. I’m still trying to pin down my intuitions and feelings. Will I ever be able to manage that? I doubt it, but I did realise recently that a lot of people now seem to think I have some kind of intimate knowledge of India, or at least that I’m able to speak with some authority on what life’s like there. In truth, I don’t have that authority or expertise. I can relate what I saw; I can reflect on my short time in India; but those few months and my highly selective, narrow view count for very little. How long would I need to live in India before I began to acquire some authority? I don’t know, but I suspect it would be years, not mere months.

The days pass. Mostly I feel disconnected, not quite emotionless but missing the intensity of feeling I'd thought was an inescapable part of who I am. A pipiwharauroa calls from the trees at the front of the terrace and the sound lifts my spirits, but even that call, which every spring delights me by turning my thoughts towards warmth and longer days, doesn't induce the intensity of feeling I experienced so often in India, and I begin to wonder whether one of India's primary gifts is the way it encourages — and sometimes forces — you to feel things, deeply and intensely. For me, the answer must be yes; emotions so often felt so close to the surface even long before I fell ill, and those feelings, usually wonderful and often evoked by even apparently insignificant encounters with people, animals, and places, seemed to arise from more than mere novelty. Here, though, back in Aotearoa, I feel terribly unmoved by things that should move me. I am numb, unable to respond.

But time, the saying goes, heals all wounds. While I don't consider myself wounded, I do trust time will heal whatever afflicts me.

So I wait for it to pass. I go for walks in the sun and wind and try to distract my thoughts by prowling for pictures, but I’ve lost the ability to see. My photographs stare back at me from the monitor, dull and dead and flawed beyond salvation.

I drive into town to be among other people; I write in cafés, spending too much on coffee, and read in the library, and buy more groceries than I need. None of the waitresses and checkout staff and others who knew me by sight notices I’ve been gone. Everything carries on the way it used to, but no one knows I’ve changed. No one says haven’t seen you in a while. I have not been missed.

I distract myself with work, and I realise my contract starts exactly one month after I left India. This seems significant, but I know it isn’t — it’s just a date. But everything has some kind of significance if I look for it  — everything, that is, except me. I feel as if I no longer matter. I feel forgotten.

This confirms what I've finally realised — that the hardest aspect of returning has been the feeling of being forgotten. Someone returns from a place they loved and they say how much they miss it. I miss India, although it nearly killed me and despite the horrors and the pain of what I couldn't help but see, but I know I can return some day and that knowledge lets me come to terms with missing India.

No, missing India isn't what's hardest — what I struggle with most is the thought I'm not being missed by India.

So I wait for it to pass. Days turn to weeks; a month goes by. The starlings in the paddock carry on with their restless rapid foraging and I wonder how they manage to focus on just one thing, which is the raising of their young who squeal for food whenever I walk past. One day the nest stays silent but the spring wind still roars in the old poplars.

I wait for it to pass, trusting my resilience, and knowing time heals even the unwounded.

1. 'Talking about marvellous experiences...': In a stroke of synchronicity, I'd only been back a few days when I came across a recent paper that confirmed exactly this point. See: Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2014). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614551372 [Paywalled; abstract here]
2. 'Love is most nearly itself...': T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.
3. '...the thought I'm not being missed by India...': Apparently, being forgotten is worse than being ostracised. See: King, L. A., & Geise, A. C. (2011). Being forgotten: Implications for the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Social Psychology, 151(6), 696–709.

1. Main bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi. 
2. The Indus valley from above Leh.
3. Palm squirrel at the Hauz Khas complex in South Delhi.
4. These young guys at the Golden Temple in Amritsar saw me photographing and asked if I might photograph them. I obliged, they thanked me and immediately walked off. 
5. In the old town, Leh.
6. Magpie, Rumbak valley, Ladakh.
7. Evening street, Dharamsala.
8. Dusk in the Pohangina valley, Aotearoa. The view from the back of my place, looking towards the southern Ruahine Range.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor