When I began my AAO fellowship travel, alone on the train, I realised that the last time I had felt so sick to my stomach was when I had jumped out a plane with nothing but a prayer, several swear words, and of course, sensibly, a parachute. I asked myself the same questions as I had then – why on Earth was I subjecting myself to this? Two weeks of budget living, traveling by public transport, being alone – why do all of this when I could be home on my couch, watching TV?
Fast forward fifteen days... At the end of the trip I had the same feelings which I had when I touched down and kissed the ground.
Exhilaration, gratitude, adrenaline, a soul screaming, life affirming 'I can!' Oh! The places I had been to, the people I had met, the absolutely delicious local food I had eaten, and the whale of a time I had had.
I expected, or rather, I had hoped for all the above outcomes. What caught me by surprise, was the sense of liberation that I felt. My phobia of heights had held me back and so had the fear of sexual violence. After being sexually assaulted as a teenager, I have gone to great lengths to avoid risking my safety. I have previously travelled the length and breadth of India and to several cities overseas, alone for work, but all of it in all-expenses paid air-conditioned safety. Between discovering the convenience of the ferries and the bus system in Kerala, in swapping tales with my dorm-mates in hostels, in learning to trust the strangers who I metaphorically walked with, in madly waving my cap to the conductor who ensured I caught the onward bus, I learnt to be more balanced about my fears. I wouldn’t trivialise the very real risks that a female solo traveller faces, but the people who are good far outnumber the other kind.
Those familiar with the details of the AAO hostels fellowship, would know that I was, literally, not alone. There were seven other fellows, much younger than me, who travelled through various parts of India. At the start of the fellowship, I was intimidated by the resilience of these youthful digital natives, of the natural backpacking and photography tips that the other fellows casually dispensed. A first-time backpacker, I kept waiting for the AAO team to call my fraud and tell me that it was too late for me to learn new tricks. As the trip progressed and we virtually shared goose-bumps at an early sunrise, exhilarated over a mountain trek completed, posted pictures of street food and roasted corn on the cob from every corner of India. I found that while each of us was on our own expedition, our destinations were the same; and that each of us, irrespective of our ages and experiences (or perhaps, because of them) brought something unique to the shared journey.
It is said that a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step. I would add that it is never to too late to take that first step, to make that beginning.
Building further on the theme of people I shared the road with, I was caught pleasantly off-guard by the unconditional support that people back home and friends and family in the remotest corners of earth, provided me with. While solo travel has its advantages, it can get lonesome. From practical advice like sleeping bags and laundry to messages and phone-calls encouraged me to soldier on. I had the overwhelming love of an entire army of people who kept step with me. It is ironic that it took solo travel to help me work out how much relationships mean to me and that I need to hold up my end of the balance. I, am hoping, with all my heart that I become a more empathetic co-traveller, in all kinds of journeys.
One of the disadvantages of traveling with someone is that, they can sort of hold you back. Many a time I have left a place in the past, knowing that if I had been ‘unencumbered’, I would have made more of it – seen more, done more, experienced more. My FOMO or fear of missing out has left me with deep regrets. The fellowship helped me understand the futility of chasing tick boxes.
While I will continue to chart out careful itineraries that make the most of my time in a new place, I can see myself loosening up a bit and allowing more room for serendipity, and rather than hankering after what-could-have-been, being more grateful for what I am experiencing.
Lest I lead you to believe that, it was all a rose garden under romantic Monsoon clouds, let me confess that there were hardships and a number of them. Unlike my skydiving experience, which was over in a few minutes and left me with little time to think, there was many a moment in the fifteen days when I questioned the wisdom of my choices. Up in the foggy hills, one dreary evening, the entire area experienced a blackout. In the pitch dark, sitting on a musty hotel bed, as my electronics and I ran out of charge, all my sense of adventure also drained away. Exhausted, hungry, lonely, scared, it wasn’t the first or the last time on the trip that I missed my people, my couch, and the space to make myself a good cup of tea. I would dearly like to tell you about the intensely motivating pep talk I delivered, but the truth is that, all I did was laid my head down, shed some heartfelt tears, and told myself that ‘this too shall pass.’
Continuing with my sky diving analogy, five seconds after I jumped, extremely surprised that my heart had not exploded with the shock, I discovered a ‘whole new world’, complete with imagined soundtrack. A few days into the travel, after I learnt to manage my fears of shared loos, of bed bugs, and of lecherous men, and after I came to like my own company a bit more, I came to appreciate the world more fully. In analysing the entire zoo’s worth of noises that my bus to Munnar made, in working out the exact angle of the sun rays as they filtered through the clouds over Vembanad Lake, in the peace that the Shiuli flowers filled my heart with in a Banavasi dawn, I found myself living through all my senses. While it wasn’t the gazillion megawatt adrenaline rush that free falling gave me, it was no less powerful, no less shouting-out-aloud joy.
You wonderful person who is reading this, I wish for you the courage to take the risks you fear.
Be it packing the bags, making the move, having that dreaded conversation, or taking that decision. You alone know what it is that you want, what holds you back and how to free yourself. That said, you are not alone. We – strangers, friends, family - are all right beside you. I sincerely hope that you pack all your fears in and make that jump.
This travel post is a part of Aao hostels fellowship travel series.