The perks and perils of traveling (alone)


I have been a globetrotter for quite a while now. Running from one city to another, moving from one area to another, jumping sometimes from even one continent to another, life in the last few years have been quite a ride and I feel eternally thankfully for all the amazing travel opportunities it has thrown at me. However, travel isn’t always all glory and elegance personified. There are perks and there are perils and it is both that you must humbly experience as you embark on a new journey every single time. In either case, it impacts you in ways more than one.

I have been a traveller since a very young age and have developed a somewhat love hate relationship with it. My father always encouraged and planned family trips every vacation so the four of us (my parents, my sister and I) would get to spend some quality time away from our everyday life in a remote location. I have fond memories (and some awkward pictures) of families (with our extended family also joining us) coming together, laughing away and chatting about each others’ lives. And I cherish every single one of them, despite all my mood swings as a teenager, having violent relationships with cousins and being picky and choosy about who I’d tag along with. #Puberty

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Big family get together at Dimna Lake, Jamshedpur Jharkhand (India). Picture dated 2004

Traveling without my family and with friends, obviously, happened much later. Sometimes, these were pre-planned but mostly, they were spontaneous or decided in-the-spur of the moment. The Europe trip that happened in 2013 was one of the most memorable ones that I was lucky enough to be able to afford and be a part of. I have blogged about it before and had an amazing time reliving every single moment as I typed away my experience and all the knowledge that I gained as I embarked on a beautiful journey with some very beautiful people.

I have always viewed travel as something that becomes even more exciting when you are doing it with some good company. In fact, the perils can get overruled if you are with the right company, in my opinion. Almost each of my travel experience has led to a blog post because I learn so much when I travel with people and look at things from a different perspective (You can read all my travel posts here). A journey’s memory has a lot to do with who you share it with (even if it is yourself) and I am thankful to each and every one of the wonderful people with whom I discovered a new road, a new alley, a new shop or a new cuisine.

Travelling alone or on my own has never been a personal choice, despite getting ample of opportunities to act on it.  I have often wondered what stops me from pursuing them but it has been hard to articulate why I shy away from my own company in alien and unexplored places. The first solo travel that I do remember vividly is the one I undertook to go to Prague. It was my first solo and self funded (international) travel and I had butterflies, scorpions and worms in my stomach throughout the journey. I think I don’t trust myself or my instincts when it comes to travelling alone and relying only on my (limited) knowledge to undertake the journey, having no one else around me to put the blame on, if anything goes wrong.

And yes, things do go wrong. The recent trip to Istanbul was a testament to all things that can go wrong when you travel alone, even if you are prepared for the worst. One of the first setbacks came when my baggage didn’t arrive as I landed in Istanbul via Abu Dabhi. Several angry tweets tagging the concerned airline led to a faster response and I received by beloved and trusted old rucksack 24 hours after I landed in an alien city with literally nothing else to wear. I was so eager, energised and determined to discover the city on the day I arrived, I went ahead to explore the Museum of Innocence battling my jet lag, lack of clean clothes and general tiredness. I think I wanted to get it out of my system. Visiting the museum was my biggest priority and I had been planning and living that moment even before I knew that life would give me an opportunity to visit Istanbul in the course of my lifetime. So, taking the tram to an unpronounceable destination, walking from the stop to the museum, using sign language and hand gestures to ask the way to the Müzesi seemed like a really small price to pay for the mesmerising experience that was to follow.

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En route The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul city, Turkey

I also got the lovely privilege and opportunity to ride on the Bosphorus in the company of an equally enthusiastic traveler who I befriended during this trip. And the experience surely was memorable. To chat about our lives, to let the wind remind us of its power and to let the seagulls gape at us in awe. We both agreed that the wind, the sea and the water makes us contemplative and think about things we wouldn’t normally take the time out to be pensive about.

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View from a boat on the Bosphorus strait, a water body that divides the European and Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey

But I did know that I wasn’t done with the city and that I wanted to discover more. I wasn’t sure with whom and hence my own company felt like the next best bet. On a particularly non moody day, I decided to explore Gülhane Park, an urban park known to be one of the oldest and largest public parks in the city of Istanbul. I walked the entire stretch of the park. I observed the lovers around me: some shy, some awkward, some meeting and touching each other for the first time (one could tell). I let the wetness of the grass feel my naked feet. I chose a particularly large tree’s shade to sit under and read a few more pages from Orhan Pamuk’s book. I soaked the smell of the bees, birds and leaves around me some more. And I tried to feel satiated with all of this. But somehow, I didn’t.

I am not a very big selfie fan. I probably get awkward clicking my own pictures, especially in a public place, guilty of elevating myself to that level of importance. But on that particularly unsatisfied day, I figured a selfie would somehow validate this experience. I figured a picture that has me with the park on the backdrop would add value to this “solo” experience. I figured I needed a picture that had me in it too, so people would believe I was not just the onlooker but a part of the look. I wasn’t just gazing; I was the gaze too. And I did end up taking a couple of them (I am too shy to share them publicly).

As I briefed through the pages of Pamuk’s words under that tree in Istanbul, a friendly cat came near me and sniffed my Indian scent. Confused by the difference, he nibbled on the grass around me a bit and left me alone again. Seagulls came (dangerously) close to people in the park, including me. And I feared for my handbag and mobile around them. But they didn’t bother my solitude much either. There were couples, families, photographers and locals all around whose gaze rested on me briefly as they crossed my path. Some seemed to admire my confidence. Some probably found something interesting in the way I looked or dressed. Some simply wondered if they’d do something similar: getting all dressed up and coming to an unexplored territory of an alien city. They could tell. I was an alien. I still will be. Even if I go back. In search of the cats, seagulls, trees and barks.

Of intimacy, closeness and building familiarity


I have been reading a lot about intimacy these days. Mostly, articles about building solidarities in movements, trying to save a failed marriage by building a strong female friendship with a gal pal, understanding the complexities of various kinds of friendships in our life—whether inside or outside of wedlock—regardless of sexual orientations and gender identities. I have also been sitting, for a long while now, on reading Purple Hibiscus, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, that explores familial relationships closely that also has intimacy and closeness at the center of its theme. Much of these readings and writings have propelled me to wonder about intimacy in my own life. How they have changed as I grew up. How they have shaped me as I moved on. How they have made me a presumably wiser person.

I have always been wary of having a “best friend”. I have always found it to be limiting, I think the reason I began thinking like this, right from an early age, is probably because of my upbringing in a joint family where you never have one best person. Your best person changes according to situations, needs and wants. When you want that chocolate bar that your father just won’t buy for you, it’s your uncle who becomes your best buddy. When you need a signature on a test paper that you fared badly in, it’s your sibling who comes to your rescue and emerges as the new buddy. When you know your mother is super mad at you, you seek the comfort of your aunt. My best friends kept changing in my family. And by the time I grew up to understand what “friends” are—you know, the ones we choose and not the ones we are born into—I knew I’d never have a single BFF. And I was right.

My mother recalls the story of one such BFF. She claims that I have never been so clingy and attached to one person my whole life. Apparently, I faked stomach aches on days she was absent in school because those days just felt sad and lonely without her. I also ended up actually feeling sick when she wasn’t around. We ate together, read together, played together. Hell, our moms exchanged recipes too. I was 8. And I have very little memory of all the things we did together, which according to my mother, are aplenty. I don’t remember how we grew apart. She changed schools, perhaps. Or maybe was shifted to another class section. But that was the end of what I would call my first “female friendship.”

Nearly about at that age, I also formed my first male friendship. I was 10 maybe, and attached great value to terms like guy friend and girl friend. I also strongly believed that they are very different primarily because of the genders involved and nothing else. This boy was so dear to me and I to him that we always flaunted the fact that we were people of opposite sex and yet friends. Nothing less, nothing more. Even at that age, having “just a friend” of the opposite sex was seen kinda cool by some and kinda lame by many. But that didn’t bother our friendship. I have the fondest memory of having a blast at each other’s birthday parties. And then, we drifted apart. His family was transferred to another city and that was the end of it. That ended my first “male friendship”.

So many years later, I have a handful of friends who are my “besties” regardless of their age, sex, gender, class, caste, region, religion, country, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. But the reason why I recall those two specifically is because they are the ones that taught me intimacy. They are the ones I remember most vividly (is it possible that I recall it all so well because of the fact that they are no longer in my life and there’s nostalgia to blame?). I remember their faces, their comforting presence around me and the ease with which I shared my personal stories with them, however minuscule or insignificant it may have been at that time. I remember feeling intimate with them at every level of my relationship with them. And it is a feeling I cherish even today, despite time taking its course on them.

So many years later, I have also become wiser, learning to ignore the unimportant, forming my own judgment of what and who are important to me, mastering the art of not-giving-a-damn. Does age do that to you? I am not sure but I look forward to growing older and more (in)tolerant to people. I have lost friends, resumed friendships, gained newer ones and some have simply rusted away with time. But reminiscing about the two strong intimate friendships I have had as a growing child, I have understood what to expect in a relationship when I am getting intimate with someone. And contrary to popular belief and common assumptions, intimacy isn’t about just a physical connection. It’s purely about comfort—in being who you are, in not trying to pretend, in being relaxed as a person and in wanting that comfort some more. An intimate relationship is as rare as it is beautiful. And it’s also something that perhaps comes with an expiry date. If it hasn’t expired yet, it’s worth holding on to! Here’s hoping that the year 2016 is filled with intimacy, closeness and affection for you! Love and peace xoxo

muah!

I end this post by sharing this image that seals a friendship I formed during my Europe travel days. This picture is dated December 2013 and was clicked at a small railway station in South Germany when we were on our way to a mesmerising ride through the Black Forest. 🙂 

 

 

Of life and existence in Madurai


Disclaimer: This is a (long) rant in the true sense of the word. Please read at your own risk.

I have ranted about work before, mostly focusing more about the conditions I had to work in. I stayed at my relatives’ for ten days, I hunted for accommodation for weeks until I could settle down finally. And my experimentation with food. Some of the following may be a tad repetitive for regular followers of my blog. But that is only because it has bothered me enough to appear again.

Before coming here, I was offered three other jobs in different cities with different designations. But those options were so non feasible that I had to “settle” for Madurai. When I joined work, most people asked me the same question: “Why did you choose Madurai?” The truth is I never chose Madurai, I was given Madurai.
In other words, Madurai chose me.

I had been to the proverbial temple town once before and I had vague remembrance of the city’s landscape and people. The day I landed here with my father, my house hunt troubles had given me a fair idea about what to expect of the city. When I finally “settled” (God bless my landlord), I discovered there were other cough ups. My apartment wasn’t particularly near my office. I traveled 13 kilometers everyday, back and forth. To be fair, it would be wrong of me to expect anything less. My office had an isolated location. It is located on the highway, with no visible humanity anywhere around. There is a roadside eatery next to it, where I have seen cats feeding on mice a couple of times.

I have ranted about my office (per se) before. Besides being highly understaffed, it has an uncanny resemblance to a government bank, where one goes with the knowledge that it would take ages for any work to get done. My office did not have an AC. So? Don’t offices sans AC’s function OK? Sure they do, I told myself. And with that thought, I “settled” for my office that did not even boast of a canteen then. This was probably a signal from God to tell me that I better learn cooking fast or I shall die of hunger.

I survived on curd rice (thayir saadam), Maggi and banana for five days, until my mother arrived with her baggage of taunts, advice and tips. She stayed with me for two weeks, teaching me everything–buying vegetables, negotiating with the vendor, cleaning, chopping, cutting, dressing, cooking and garnishing. All of these had been force-fed earlier, too, during my teenage, but I was least bothered to pay any heed then. Since it was a matter of survival now, I decided to be nothing but an obedient learner.

Thus began my experimentation with cooking. I burnt my hand, cut my finger, spilled hot milk on my inner thigh and suffered second degree burns, consumed uncooked food, at times, threw away so much (spoilt) leftover and finally progressed to what they certify as “edible”. At times, I was even more than that. My weekly off gave me the time to indulge in luxuries like salad and desert. I cherished them.

From a Forward mail

My work life may be divided into three significant phases. Phase 1 was when there was hardly any work. My working hours, which shifted drastically during my ten months of work, were from 6 pm to 12.15 am. My first boss was a kind lady, who appreciated my efforts and gave due credit to them. The only hitch was there wasn’t much to do. I was given a couple of stories to edit and I designed less than half of a page. At the end of the month, when my salary was credited, I wondered what I did to earn this much! Little did I know that I was soon to realize the Lilliputian nature of that number.

My kind boss resigned four months after I joined. During that time, I had sharpened my editing skills and was designing almost two pages on my own with minimal mistakes. I was fairly happy with my progress. Then began Phase 2. This lasted for almost two months, when we were without a Head. People from other branches were deputed to take hold on a temporary basis. It was a phase of complete haphazardness. Nothing was fixed. We had different bosses at different intervals of time. When we began getting used to one, another took in-charge. Deadlines were met half an hour before and there were days when we would be stuck till hours. This was the time when I was labeled as “the most underused employee”. In a way, that felt flattering because it identified that I have the potential and I can be “used” for the benefit of the company.

The “usage” that followed changed my work hours. I was now working from 5 pm to 2 am. Sometimes even later, depending on the work load. In a matter of a few days, I changed from the “most underused” to the “most overused” employee. I was editing many more stories and designing more pages. About four every day. Naturally, this affected my health. I had headaches more often than usual. I developed eye infection that lasted for a month. My sleep pattern was badly disturbed. I was tired and sleepy all the time. I rarely had the energy to cook a full fledged meal. I complained, growled and moaned about this to my friends. Usually, the anger was at its peak after my shift got over. By that time, most of them had already slept. This angered me further and did not help those few who were still awake like owls, only to listen to my rants.

Picture courtesy Google Images

Slogging for hours turned me into a highly irritable person. I snapped at anyone and everyone. It was like I was PMS-ing 24*7. At the same time, it felt strangely normal to be engaged. I liked being busy. I dreamt about page designing, I edited sentences mentally when reading anything. It was running in my blood now.
At such testing times, the comforts of my lonely apartment did not help.
I longed for company. I longed for friends. I longed for my family, I longed for anyone who’d be physically present as a witness to my current life. My colleagues may be wonderful people at heart. But it is difficult to find mates in an office whose average age employee is over 40. Experience has taught me never to judge people by their age or gender. But I cannot fake normalcy when it simply doesn’t fit.

By this time, I had decided to quit after the training period would get over. Neither the company nor the city was working for me. I had begun looking at alternatives. The choice was between working elsewhere and studying further. My experience till then had made me very low in confidence. I chose studies. In doing so, perhaps, I chose safety. I informed my family about it who, after several questions, seemed OK with it. More so, because a chunk of the expense was to be borne by me. This was new. One of the things that work life gives you, apart from stress, madness, anger and workload, is salary. That sweet music that you yearn to hear every month. My company was inconsistent in crediting salaries. On one particular month, we got our salary on the 11th (against the usual 6th). But the message that announced that my account has been credited was like the first drop of rain after a long spell of heat. Quite literally!

Picture courtesy Google Images

Money brings a certain amount of power as well as responsibility. That I could now afford a TV, a refrigerator, two semesters worth of tuition fee at a college gave me a never-felt-before high. I have also been quite stingy with my money. When the number is so minuscule, you’re usually left with no other option. I traveled in bus as and when I could. I negotiated till my last breath with groceries, I walked whenever I could. I also looked out for offer packs and discount coupons diligently at the departmental store. On days when I couldn’t board the bus for some reason, I used to take an auto. That’s Rs.200 at one go. It made me feel guilty and simultaneously happy that I could at least afford such an indulgence, once in a blue moon.

After a couple of Head-less months, we finally got a new boss. Thus began Phase 3. My new boss seemed to have recognized that I have great potential. Maybe he also saw that I was one of the few who did the work on time and was, for a change, not lazy—a common disease in my office. I was now editing stories from six districts and designing six full pages. Occasionally, I was also asked to do state pages, which is an additional six pages (for the two editions we do). I was now so lifeless that it had begun to stop affecting me. I went to office with a frown on my face and came back with the same expression. I looked forward to when my friends or family would visit, and that kept me alive. A couple of them did and I had the best time with them. I thank each one of them for letting me be myself, even if temporarily so.

That’s one reason I’m thankful for. My apartment was a major factor in convincing them to visit me. I had all the needed requirements in and around my locality. Since I was living in south and many of my friends and relatives live in the southern part of the country, traveling was never a major issue. More importantly, Madurai boasts of a well connected railway and has a functional airport. I couldn’t have possibly asked for more.

The city also forced me into living on my own. I hadn’t done that before and neither did I believe I could. The load of work I was doing should, I’m sure, help me at some point of my life whenever I decide to get back into this field. Of course, it’s easy to say all this NOW when I no longer have to go to office anymore. But it was good to be engaged. It felt strangely secure to be employed.

I’m soon to embark on a new phase (sans work) in a different city, with a completely different culture. Somehow, it doesn’t scare me anymore. Charles Darwin came up with the “survival of the fittest” theory. If I can survive Madurai, I think I can survive almost anything now. In the meantime, just get me a great cook. 😛