It was back in 1997 that I hitchhiked from England to India with no money and when I occasionally flick through the pages of the book I wrote about it, Hand to Mouth to India, it’s like reading the words of a different person: an idealistic and angry young man full of dreamy-eyed mysticism on one hand and unresolved teenage angst on the other. I made it to India thanks to the kindness of the people I met on the way who fed and housed me and in many ways it was a rite of passage that defined much of my life to come.
Now that I’m almost twice the age as I was when I set out, I’m often unsure how to respond to the dozen emails I get each year from young guys who have read Hand to Mouth to India and are now determined to hit the road with no money and never go home again.
The curse of the writer is that people read your words years after you wrote them and imagine you’re still the same person. But whereas 15 years ago I would have recommended an aspiring traveller to throw themselves into the hands of Fate, take a large dose of LSD alone on a moonlit beach and never write home, now I’m a little more conservative. Instead I tell all these young would-be vagabonds to not burn their boats with their families, get health insurance and find some way that they can be of service in this world rather than just living for free.
Have I grown up or just become a bore?
Part of being young is about taking risks and I can’t imagine the agony of being a parent and watching your teenage child throwing themselves recklessly into the world, frying their brains with psychedelics, hanging out with the Wrong Crowd and bouncing around the planet as if it were their own personal playground. Often I look back at my life in the my 20’s and wonder how many guardian angels it must have taken to stop me ending up in jail, going insane or dying in a truck accident on a Pakistani highway.
A mantra of the hippies in the 60’s was that you should never trust anyone over the age of 30 and it’s only when you read that age that you see why. Suddenly it occurs to you that your health and good looks may not last forever and you start to feel out of place hanging around with university students. You also begin to realise that unless you’re lucky enough to inherit, no one is going to just give you financial independence and it gets tedious to be staring at an empty bank balance all the time (and yes, by the age of 30 most people have a bank account).
But as foolish as many of the things I said and did when I was 20 now seem to me, it’s also clear to me that my naivete served me; if I had had a better idea of all the things that could have gone wrong I never would have hitchhiked to India. A clearer knowledge of all the parasites waiting for me in the water I drank, the conflict zones that I passed through, the rate of traffic fatalities on roads in South Asia…I might have gone to get a bachelor’s diploma in anthropology instead of the practical crash course on which I enlisted myself on the road.
So I’m glad when I get a letter every now and then telling me how Hand to Mouth to India got someone on the road in the first place. At the very least it reminds me that though I’m still a lazy vagabond, the work I did years ago is still bearing fruit.
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