It's a wonder that I ever manage to leave the comforts of home, because if there's one thing that travelling does, it's scare the hell out of me. No matter that I spent six months travelling round India back in 1998; the thought of leaving home and heading out into a totally different culture really gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Presumably, though, this is all part of the attraction; it's like a really scary ride at the amusement park. Deep down I know that flying out to pastures new is no big deal, because I've done it so many times, but that doesn't stop some strangely devious part of my brain from getting paranoid. Peta has been banging on about wanting to visit India as long as I've known her, and now that we've finally got it together to visit my favourite country on the planet, I'm scared. People say, 'Where are you staying?' and I reply, 'I don't know,' because it's true: I've booked a flight, and that's it. There's nothing booked, there's nothing planned, I've only got a vague idea of where we might want to visit, and when you mention this to others, they look at you as if you're mad. 'Ah,' says Peta, 'but it's OK, because Mark is looking after all of that,' and I smile confidently, relying on the fact that ten years ago I would have been fine with this, so perhaps I can still wing it.
Of course, it always turns out OK in the end, particularly in India. We've just flown to Trivandrum in Kerala, right at the southern tip of India, stopping off on the way for a couple of hours in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Muscat International Airport sports a Costa Coffee, a Papa John's pizza joint, a Dairy Queen burger stall, a duty free shop, and practically no exotica to hint that this is the Middle East rather than the Edgware Road. Indeed, the only thrill of the whole journey was following the route of our plane on the screen in the back of the seat in front, as it flew along the western border of Iran towards the Gulf of Arabia, skirting the Iraqi border, just a stone's throw from Baghdad and Basra. I looked out of my south-facing window and figured that as it was a clear night, then technically some of the light from the troubles in Iraq might make it to our plane, but as all I could see was an inky blackness with the odd lone sodium light peppering the dark, even my paranoia couldn't claim to be flying over a war zone.
So we landed at Trivandrum airport at 6.30am on Sunday morning, flew through immigration, picked up our backpacks from the screeching luggage carousel, walked through customs, changed some traveller's cheques at the Thomas Cook counter, booked a fixed-price taxi for the train station at the fixed-price taxi counter, arrived at the station, joined a queue of two people, bought two tickets for the express train to Varkala, wandered through to the platform, bought some water and settled back to wait for the 8.10am train.
And as if this wasn't easy enough, we then got talking to a very friendly young man who was on his way to visit his grandmother, and who was taking the same train as us and would be happy to show us where to go. A 90-year old man also sparked up a conversation with us, though knowing no English he spoke through the young man, saying how excited he was to talk to us, and how he remembered the British and how different things were in this modern world. We smiled and made small talk through the haze of jet lag, and I felt rather stupid at having felt anything other than complete confidence that things would work out in the end.
Because, after all, that's the point of India. The travelling is easy when you don't really have a plan and don't really have an itinerary. We fancied heading to the beach for a few days, just to get over the stress of travelling halfway round the planet, and before we knew it we'd arrived at Varkala train station, taken a taxi to Varkala beach, found a spare room in the Kerala Bamboo house (the first place we tried), and fallen into a deep sleep to the sound of crashing surf.
And how easy was that? Exactly... but it still won't stop me feeling just as nervous the next time I jet off to pastures new, with nothing planned and no idea what I'm doing. Perhaps that's why I keep doing it, in the end.