A year ago today I was in Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet at India's southernmost tip...the furthest I have ever been away from home and family. It was extraordinary for a northerner like me to realise that I was nearer to Australia than to Europe.
The journey there was one of the most memorable parts of my whole memorable sojourn in India. We gathered in the compound of St Mark's Cathedral in Bangalore, - a motley crowd of hard-working clergy of the Church of S India, , and the little band of English visitors, - then boarded 2 "luxury" coaches. The atmosphere had more in common with a junior-school trip than a clergy conference as people jostled for a seat with friends, worried that they might get hungry and rushed off for iron rations just in case. It was late on a Sunday evening, and night fell rapidly as we left the city behind and headed south.
Three weeks into our stay, we thought we had come to terms with the Indian approach to driving, where the only rule of the road is "honk and hope"....but this trip was something else again! Our driver was the most horn-happy man I've ever encountered. He hooted to tell the world he was there, to announce a planned manoeuvre, to celebrate its completion or to lament its failure.
He hooted as other vehicles passed us, and as we passed groups of pedestrians in the country that never seems to sleep.
Come what may, he hooted.
Moreover, remember that my companions were all in parish ministry in CSI - and that means being available 24/7 regardless. No mobile is ever switched off (even during worship) and for the most part clergy ring-tones were set to familiar hymns. Never again will I be able to sing "Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us" or "The Lord's my Shepherd" without a faint electronic resonance somewhere at the back of my mind.
Temperatures plummetted once the sun had gone to bed - by the small hours I was wearing everything I could lay my hands on (including my towel - Douglas Adams would have been proud of me) - even my sun hat in a desperate attempt to retain some heat somewhere...
We stopped every few hours, and a line of clergy stood beside the road, doing what comes naturally with no reserve at all, or crowded around a tea stall, seeming convinced in the face of all the evidence that if they didn't take advantage of this opportunity for food and drink there might never be another one.
It seemed at times as if we'd never get there as the rutted road ran out and for a hundred yards or so the bus lurched over baked earth, jolting as it crossed the pot holes until, suddenly, we were back on tarmac.
When the sun rose, our landscape had changed as we passed the huge paddy fields and flood waters of Tamil Nadu.
Finally, when we were beyond tired, we reached the Peace Centre in Kanyakumari...and understood why we had come.
At the water's edge I was adopted by a beggar woman, who had hoped I might be a source of rich pickings. Even when she realised I was determined to disappoint, she followed us as we explored the tourist sites , posing for a photo that remains one of my definitive faces of India. When we parted, she rumaged beneath her sari and brought out a grubby purse, from which she produced 2 tiny shells. I gave one of them to Hattie Gandhi, her very own piece of the furthest shore. The other remains in my own purse, where I find it whenver I rootle for change. It makes her seem very near, even a year on.
Encounters like that were worth every mile - and as for my first swim in the Indian Ocean, in Kerala 2 days later. With every apology to my native Sussex coast, that was simply an impossible act to follow.