The Planning Disease

3 Oct

There is no such thing as a perfect man, nor a woman either… I keep telling myself this, because I am often aware of failing myself, failing others, failing the idea I have of perfection, which must be seen as a sort of disease of the mind. In spite of knowing this I often catch myself in a rage at my shortcomings.

My most serious fault, as I see it in my dissonant ramblings, is the wastage of time to which I have subjected my life (that’s an awkward sentence, I know – but I don’t have time to rewrite it). In my twenties I did little more than bum about, while endlessly considering where I should go to do some more bumming about.

Many, many years ago, when I went to India at the age of 22, I spent my days torturing myself about whether to go here, or there, or nowhere. Even on trains, lying in a second class bunk while that continent’s seemingly endless fields, forests, and deserts sped by, I was always fretting about where to go next. There is a simple mathematical equation to it: by going to one place one does not go to another. By not going to another, one changes the direction of one’s whole life. Because every new step we take determines everything that comes after.

While I had been waiting in Athens for my flight, the winter had oppressed us all. I had found myself a cheap hostel, filled with down-at-heel Irish people who were emigrating to Australia and/or had been in Greece for the orange harvest. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember a cracked window by my bed where a very cold blast of wind disturbed my rest. And I remember a lot of weeping, drunken confessions and Irish voices declaring their love for those they had just met, and would never see again. The departures took place on a daily basis.

When it was my turn to board the plane, I had bought a bottle of very good whiskey, after some raffish traveller had explained to me that one could sell whiskey in Bombay at a premium. My neighbour on the Air Egypt flight, a bearded fellow working for an NGO, shunned me after finding out that I was intending to sell my whiskey for profit – quite rightly, he assumed I was just another brainless, hedonistic backpacker looking to cruise India for kicks. I walked around the streets of Bombay that night and sold my bottle and made ten quid for myself and it didn’t seem worth it. Apparently I had been poorly advised. People are usually poorly advised; it is one of the cardinal rules of existence that advice is always useless, unless it is useful. And you will never know the difference until years later, when you are in an old people’s home.

The journey was eventful. We took off from Athens and stopped in Cairo to pick up more passengers. A savage sandstorm erupted and we spent three days at the airport, which began to look like some sort of world party. Tall Ethiopians in colourful head-dresses, bony Englishmen re-living the joys of empire, gangs of Pakistanis complaining about the lack of facilities for their massive families… I managed to get a room in a hotel at the airport, where I stood watching the sand blowing across the runway; I was ecstatic, more or less, absolutely immersed in Henry Miller’s trilogy, “Sexus”, “Nexus”, and “Plexus”. I wanted that sandstorm to keep blowing.

But all good things expire… the sandstorm passed, we took off and flew across the Indian Ocean into the dawn…

No sooner had we landed, than I followed the other hedonistic, brainless backpackers to the Red Shield Salvation Army Hostel very close to the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway to India. They seemed to know exactly where they were going. The very next morning, they set off in a large gaggle to one of the British-built train stations in Bombay (this one looked exactly like King’s Cross in London; it must have been by the same Victorian architect) to buy their tickets to Goa. I accompanied them for a part of the way, listening to their explanations about why Goa was the best place to start, to relax, swim and surf, dance, sink into the “emotion” of India before putting in the necessary “hard travelling”, the dutiful exploration of the interior or the little-known border territories.

I don’t like reluctant, dutiful things. If there is not some genuine reason for doing something, why not just leave it?

I remember how, at one point, we turned a corner and there before us was a whole street filled with water buffalo, all lying down in the shade and chewing the green fodder that had been put out for them. On the other side of the street, a group of lepers came limping across as soon as they saw us. A long thoughtful silence broke out among the new arrivals. “Yes,” someone said. “Goa is more relaxed.”

I was not sorry to see them all boarding the train and heading off.

Then I spent two days trying to buy a train ticket. The queues were enormous and terrifying, and once you got to the ticket window, you had to know the departure times and various code words or they told you to come back later. After queuing for two hours, this was not an attractive option. Eventually I broke down in tears. Until a very helpful Frenchman and his wife, who to this day seems to me the most beautiful woman I ever met, took me by the hand and led me to the Tourist Office and explained that I could go in and buy any ticket I wanted in ten minutes. I did not know this, because I had not informed myself…

Without exception, all the people I had met were clutching the Lonely Planet Guide to India, which was incredibly detailed, specifying exactly which boarding houses to stay in, which restaurants to eat in, how to buy train tickets, and so on. Armed with this book it was possible to spend three or four months in India without ever having any bother or getting further than four feet from the nearest American/Brit/German travellers, heavily laden with helpful advice about selling bottles of whiskey or going to Goa. I had not bought a Lonely Planet Guide; I trusted in a crude map of India, which I spent many hours staring at, trying to work out from the names and locations of the towns where I would most like to go.

So, a few days after arriving in Bombay, I caught a train into Gujarat where I toured a lot of very small towns that rarely had more than a single hostel, mostly with hard beds and dirty bedlinen and pillows decorated with a large hair-oil patch in the middle, smelling nicely of jasmine. In one of these towns I had to leave, after some locals spread a rumour that I was working for the government as an agent to collect information on some recent anti-Muslim riots.

The high point, or low point, depending on whether you were standing upright or hanging upside down, was experienced in the docks of Ahmadabad at five in the morning, when I found myself walking down a long deserted road between warehouses, with no one around except a strange man following me with a murderous look in his eyes. I bid him a good morning and stared at him so intently that I think he eventually drew the conclusion that I was mad, and left me in peace.

Ahmadabad seemed to be the home of Surreal experience. One day I was walking through a street market when suddenly a naked man came running through the crowd, screaming. A few men picked up sticks to beat him, when suddenly their attention was detained by a rabid dog careering along, foam flying from its mouth. I was transfixed, watching as the men proceeded to club the suffering beast until it was no more than a patch of red gore flattened into the dust.

My agonies grew out of this ignorance of mine, the fact that I did not know which towns were cool, which towns had sacred lakes, which towns had ashrams and freaks and bongs and bang lassis. Obstinately I navigated by my silly map. There were advantages, but some of them could have ended up killing me. On Diu, an island in the north, I ended up climbing into a ruined Tower of Silence, and I must be one of the few India travellers to have got inside a Zoroastrian sacred tower where the bones of the dead are picked clean by vultures. I could tell you exactly what it looked like, but I would never reveal a secret like that.

Now, when I tell the stories of my travels, it all seems so pleasant and decorative. At the time, it was an agony of decision-making. Should I go to this dot on the map, or that one? I never knew from one day to the next where I should bring my bag of bones, my sleepless head. In the end I succumbed to the planning disease. I bought a scuffed old Lonely Planet Guide in a second-hand bookshop in Delhi, and from there on, when I think back, there was an element of predictability to my journey. From being a panicked young man who knew nothing, I had a great deal of superb information at my fingertips. I met other travellers, all extremely confident about where they were going next. And, oh, how obvious it all was.

In those early days, while I was blundering through Gujarat, I took a long walk in a forest one day and, in a glade, I came face to face with a whole pride of wild lions. Females, males, cubs: thirty lions lying there, watching me stumbling into their midst through a bush. That moment when I faced an upright, tensile male, his ferocious eyes the size of tennis balls, will never be forgotten.

My advice, then, is: don’t read the book. Turn off the radio, throw away the newspaper. Smell the wind, check the sky and the clouds and the sun. Then set off and make your journey.

My next book The Maggot People is due out in November but it is available for pre-order on Amazon. My short stories Love Doesn’t Work are available on Kindle or as a paperback. 

4 Responses to “The Planning Disease”

  1. Marcus Birkenkrahe October 4, 2013 at 7:11 am #

    nice! you should come to the memoir writing workshop that the kids want to put up. i will go, too, in november. then we can both weite the sad account of our wasted lives… :-). very funny and i am looking fwd to respond! C u soon…when is ecuador?

  2. Marcus Speh (Birkenkrahe) October 4, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Henning, how can I trust you now with that last bit of advice after you’ve told me what a blundering Bunyan you were, what a pilgrim of pleasure, not bound by duty or reason, in those golden Indian days. I’m tempted, after your precious post, to compare your 22-year old self to the first colonialists, the British Raj, stepping on native toes wherever they went in that dark, doom-laden land. Your well-chosen words serve as seed for even more daring sentence constructions and verbiage…aww the youth, I don’t miss it. I’ve never been to India, of course, my path was, and is, dominated by decisions, commitments, obligations… backpacking had no place in my baggage. The element of surprise was always a woman or my weak knees for one of them. I would follow a woman to South America, another one to Italy, a third to England, but an in-built compass kept me heading North, towards the temple of the money lenders, not South, to the flowery gardens of earthly delight. Sword, not sun. But, as you wrote, and I hear you, there is no perfect man or woman, no perfect path or plan. No perfect orgasm either, or job, or even book, or publishing contract, and the cup of coffee In front of me is only
    so-so, but because I made it myself and i’m having it now, it’s good enough. I get the impression you’re still looking for perfection. Perhaps the eye of that last lion has you hypnotized still?

    On another note: looking forward to The Maggot People coming out! Congratulations! [Dzanc rules!]”>Dzanc rules!]

  3. Marcus Speh (Birkenkrahe) October 4, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    That last line was meant to contain a link: — perhaps you can put it in there. Cheers!

    • Henning Koch October 4, 2013 at 11:33 am #

      Marcus, you will have to trust me when I tell you that I still take a blundering Bunyan approach to life in general, and I think this usually works as long one does not starve.
      I didn’t know you had run off to South America as a pilgrim of love.
      Yes, I’d like a bit of perfection, who wouldn’t?
      But it has a tendency not to exist. The smart thing is to turn it round, to enjoy and adore imperfection and disorder. What’s the post-modern metaphor, the one about the gazer on the beach, enjoying his view of a washed-up Coca-Cola bottle? (N.B. the gazer would be less keen on a puddle of radioactive waste).
      All things are a matter of balance, and the crucial thing is that even balance is made up of a huge system of internal imbalances, To find the balance, a legion of imbalances must find agreement. And even when they do, there will probably be a government shut-down because a southern Democrat has to take a pee.
      Thanks for this link on Dzanc Books! (see above)…

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