Thursday, November 14, 2013

The accidental traveller

Let me be honest. All those times in my early childhood when I would sit in a happy corner of my home flipping through cartoon magazines from Belgium or Russia (Thanks to the over-indulgent father who claims to have encouraged me to getting into the habit of reading and developing a world perspective. I firmly suspect his motives. For all that I know, that could have been his easy way out to tame a kid who talks non-stop whenever she's not bugging him with curious questions), or those times in my early adulthood when I would read adventure books and fall in love with historical fiction, I never really believed that I could see these places for myself.

My father has done quite a bit of traveling during his early days, and my grand father (whom I never got a chance to meet) was a world traveller, thanks to his brief stint in the army during the WWII as a translator. I've grown up hearing many interesting travel stories. I used to enjoy all those happy trips with family, but I wasn't a great fan of road-trips, thanks to my motion sickness. I've always been the most delicate one in the family. With a petite body frame, the frequency with which I swoon or my tendency to throw up within 10 minutes of boarding a long distance bus (unless I fall asleep), the fuss I used to make about food while on the road, I was a nightmare to travel with. But I liked to see places as much as I used to hate covering the distance from point A to point B, whichever mode of travel it might be. I would read up about exotic places, I would watch videos of historic cities, and I'd make plans in my head. I wasn't very sure about the execution part, though. I could think of a 101 reasons why it's not my cup of tea. Horrible stories of adventure-trips-gone-wrong in the news, the thought of thriving on food I have no idea about for days together, what if I get sick? what if I get bored? what if I get mugged? and endless other what-ifs.. and to top it all, I was (/am) a control freak for a good measure. In short, I was all that does not make a natural traveler. Period.

That was until a couple of years back. Things changed since then. I changed since then. Maybe it had to do with some life choices I made, some career decisions I made, and some seemingly unimportant trivia where I took the plunge without counting the possibilities of things going wrong. So the control freak in me did a lot of analysis, but somewhere my reckless alter ego took over the reins. For good. A lot of things went wrong / did not turn out the way I would have liked it to. And when plans fell flat on their pitiful noses, I made a quick plan B or plan C, and got going. Some other times, I just rolled with the punch, like that dreadful boat ride from Chumpohn to Koh Tao during a high tide. I should have known better not to brave it out and eat a spicy Pad Thai loaded with those nasty Thai chillies right before boarding a boat into the rough seas. I kept throwing up non-stop into polythene bags, with those revengeful chillies burning my throat and nostrils while I was being tossed to the floor and hoping to pass out, at the least to save myself from more agony. The trip lasted an hour and a half. The longest hour and a half of my life. I avoided those chillies like the plague for the rest of the trip, but the next day when I woke up to a beautiful morning and a peaceful sea in that lovely little island in the south of Thailand, it all seemed OK. Things got easier when I could laugh at my misadventures, rather than holding myself responsible for bad planning.

And then, about an year back, I opted for a student exchange program in Germany. It had to do more with my urge to get away from my school for a semester, than my interest in visiting Europe. But the closer I got to joining school there, the more keen I was to travel across Europe. This time, the plans in my head had to do more with logistics. Travel passes, hostel bookings, route plans. The works.

I had a bunch of old and new friends there who were keen to go with me. But I soon figured that they weren't as driven about it as I was. All of them where at different levels of 'what if', 'if only' and 'but then', just like I had been. And so, the decision was made. I am going solo. It was a heady thought. It also meant more stress during the planning phase. Many a snowy day was spent nursing a nasty cold and multi-tasking in front of the laptop with a bunch of windows opened. Lecture schedules, Exam schedules, Assignments from the Home University with unreasonable deadlines, Google map of Europe, Travel review websites, Deutsche Bahn website. I have never juggled so much ever. All that while sipping on copious amounts of cough syrup.

As I made my bookings for Amsterdam the day after, it hit me that my Euro-trip was finally taking off. I was excited, and I was also a bundle of nerves as I packed for my trip. Over the course, I have been to 10 countries, and 20 cities/ towns across Europe. Some sleepy, some happy, some like a big party, some fairy tale-ish and some like a scene right out of a horror movie. There were some happy accidents and some creepy ones. As I walked around in my running shoes, carrying my puny little frame around with an over-sized back pack, and a big happy smile on my face, I learnt so much I haven't been lucky enough to experience in my sheltered life. And it seems so silly now to think that all I had to do, was just pack my bags and leave. I had to make a beginning somewhere. A humble one. A practical one, to test the waters. To find out whether I can indeed do it on my own, and to find out what it would mean to me. I plan to get it rolling and to go to places I have never thought I could go to.

I intend to share more about it here, mostly for the benefit of friends who are there where I have been for a very long time. Friends, who could use a bit of encouragement to get started, and more details and reality-checks for the control freaks like me who are just never convinced that they have all the info that they need to book that flight.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Comfort zones

Things change... and no matter how scary it might seem during the switching phase, it soon becomes the new 'comfort zone'.

Sometimes I wonder why people even bother to define their comfort zones. Has anyone ever had a certain comfort zone for their whole lifetime? Really? That must have been one really sad soul stuck in time and space. But then, maybe, just maybe, some people really do. Who am I to judge!

The last time I caught myself whining about being forced to step out of my comfort zone ( an indirect consequence of the choices I made, of course), I couldn't help but wonder when did I actually grow into this state of being that I was clinging on to for dear life. Not very long ago, I figured. And so the old zone gave way to a new zone, the people around me moved away to make place for new people, the landscapes changed, languages changed, dreams changed, aspirations changed and perspectives changed. And before I knew, I find myself in my brand new comfort zone. Again.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

It's a beautiful world

I stuff my whole world into a backpack, and leave a lot of room in it to gather more of the world that's never been mine, but magically becomes mine the moment I set my feet on the land.

You know the stereotypical backpacker, the lone traveler.. the one you see in travel channels? I could never really identify with them. Yet, I've always had that itch for travel. To travel alone. It sounded exciting to me.

And then reality kicks in. If you don't think of it, people remind you of it. The constraints, that is. It starts off with A) You are a woman. B) You are so small and how fit are you physically anyway? C) It's a big bad world out there. D) Do you have any clue how much it costs?

Then of course, there are the practical constraints. Budgets, Information, Research about places, Travel itineraries, Hotel reviews, Reservations, Best deals, Best routes, Bookings, Preparedness for exigencies, Backups, Contingency plans. Stuff your travel channels don't tell you about. If they were to tell you about all this, you wouldn't be tuning into their show to unwind when you are back from work, do you? And there's also this sheer frustration and despair that really hits you on your face during the planning phase.

But as I am out crossing country borders, meeting interesting people, buying my breakfast with one currency and dinner with another, missing trains, silently thanking my back-up plans, making choices every 5 minutes, avoiding trouble, finding fun, questioning the soundness of some of the choices I make on my way and thanking my lucky stars for some others, I realize travel is not just about the places I go to, or the views I see, or even those amazing people I meet. These, unfortunately are the only part of my travel that I can share with others through pictures or stories.

The real fun is in the way I feel when I set out with a map and the very basic things I need (along with the very important things I need in a foreign country)..
The sweet anxiety when I set my feet in a new country unsure of what to expect in spite of all the research..
The way these places make me feel at home..
The way my mind quickly analyses situations and prepares my reflexes..
The 8 hours long walk-sprint-trek routines on most days..
The way I connect with different people..
The goodness of the world that is never acknowledged enough..

Most importantly, the kick I get out of just being alive. It thrills me and humbles me at the same time. And I feel grateful for being a small part of this amazing world. A small block in a huge jigsaw puzzle.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Hearts of Stone

Some days back I met a girl here. A beautiful person. She has that kind of an aura around her. Her smile reaches her eyes and you can see her pure soul through them.

Just the other day, we were walking through the corridors of the university, and she froze midway. Tears welling up her beautiful eyes. Her face, a cruel shade of red. 

Her ex-boyfriend just walked past her. No acknowledgement. No reasons given. As if she is invisible.

'I can't believe he can just ignore me like I don't exist', she says. 'I can't believe that he is too busy to even have a conversation with me. I wonder what makes him leave me like that. I want to be the one who doesn't care. I want to be the one who walks away like it doesn't matter. But I'm so hurt to be able to do that. And he walks away like nothing happened at all, and I never existed.'

As she fights her tears at the crowded campus cafe, I tell her it's okay.. It happens.. It will be alright.

But you know what, it's NOT okay. It SHOULDN'T BE happening, and it's NOT GOING TO BE alright. It is so NOT DONE.

Why do some of our hearts melt like wax and others' stay as hard as stone? So friggin' unfair.

new people, new countries, new perspectives..

I wonder how over-rated the whole Eurotrip thingie is.. The travel part makes sense to me, so does experiencing new cultures, getting to know new people and their cuisines. But what I am totally not in favor of, is this whole 'covering' places business. No one talks about experiencing a place anymore. The only thing that seems to matter is the picture perfect backgrounds on their FB profiles. That's sad.

I've got just a couple of weeks more for my Easter holidays and I'm looking forward to some serious travelling.. not covering. I'm still unclear about the specifics and it's worrying the attention-to-detail control freak in me.

In other news, I made some awesome friends, and I'm amazed at the way they think, the way they understand life and the world, their dreams, hopes and plans for future. They are barely 20 and from countries I've only heard of. This, is what I call an enriching experience.

Also, the coolest Indian I have met here invited me over for a home cooked dinner, which turned out to be a feast! God bless the soul. Someone youtubes to make me the Kerala parotta. Touched.