In November 2018, National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer and I traveled in Northern India, retracing the path that journalist Paul Salopek had walked in previous months, following the rivers and experiencing life around them.
Jumping from concrete highways to bumpy dirt roads, we crossed the inner countryside of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, discovering villages behind every tree. We encountered families who hosted us in their homes without asking for anything, only giving. We crossed paths with farmers guiding their cows through the wild land.
One day, at the end of the road, an immense valley unfolded before our eyes. Huge columns jutted out of the sand like arms reaching to the sky, melding with the brown leaves of bushes growing inside them. There was something alien about that landscape, almost post-apocalyptic.
But also magical, transformed by the golden sparkles of sunlight glinting off cars, buses, and motorcycles as they kicked up sand on the road.
We continued to the ancient city of Allahabad (renamed Prayagraj in October 2018).
It was early morning.
We were walking on the Shastri Bridge, a wall of fog obscuring what was going on below us and around us.
I felt like a bird suspended in the sky.
When we went down to the riverbank, we were again immersed in the mist. Each step was a leap into the void, and each person encountered, a floating soul. Men were bathing in the cold morning waters or cleaning dishes.
It was eerily silent.
Time to move on.
But first, chai.
Chai stops were perfect synecdoches for the variety of Indian life.
You could hear the folk music playing on the radio and smell the masala aroma emanating from the small clay cups.
You could take in the natural sounds:
the wind whispering through the leaves,
the mooing of cows passing by,
punctuated by a discordant orchestra of vehicle horns on the highway.
Traveling through northern India made me realize that I was searching for familiar things in an unfamiliar world.
But I couldn’t find them.
I had to question my perception of knowledge.
That’s how I realized I was walking on the edge of a bubble of discovery, a bubble so delicate it could pop at any moment.
And so strong, it contained a universe.