A very valid question, now that I think about it. It was Sam, a guy from Bangladesh whom I met at Howrah railway station who asked me this. I laughed out loud and the laughter was spontaneous, genuine. And now I think- “Gosh! Sam was right! There’s so much that could have happened. I should actually learn some form of Martial Arts!”
It’s almost always been a solo show- my many trips. As a student in Shimla and Delhi, there were times when I had moved with girlfriends and the occasional male companion other than my brother. Most of those trips, however, were born of necessity-the long trip to and from home, the budgeting that had to go into every student’s calculations year- round. My ‘grown-up’ (Ahem!) trips have been on my own and there hasn’t been a time when I have missed the company of a travelling companion except the times when a luggage-watcher would have been welcome. I love friends and company but I recharge on my own, with my thoughts, and these trips have proved to be times when I do that. Of late, I have felt the numbers in my age (I keep saying that, much to the chagrin of my ‘older’ friends-) and the thoughts that are my company on trips have been getting more intense and louder.
Getting to see new places and experiencing something different is the very obvious answer. But these travels are not just to places new and experiences novel. People, friends and places grow into you over time. They become special and you look forward to seeing them and doing stuff with them. Some things work just right only with certain people. But yes, meeting new people is a big high too. There are people I’ve shared living space with, even shared beds with, whom I’ll never ever see again in this life. Some people whose Facebook profiles are the only things that remind me they were real. Others who don’t even have virtual existences on the Net but whose hearts have reached out to me and proved that we are indeed of a single human race.
An old Sardarji in Delhi comes to mind. He drove an auto-rickshaw, the number of which I don’t remember, and whose name I can’t recall. His face is a blur but he was wearing a grey shirt and an orange turban the night God sent him to help us. My brother and I, crazy, naïve teenagers lost in the streets of Delhi with no idea how to get back to where we were supposed to be. As it turned out, we were way across the city; a distance he felt was too far for him to cover that late. He took us as far and as convenient as he felt he could, found us an auto, gave the driver very specific instructions on how to get us home and refused to take a penny from our thinly-lined wallets. We had nothing to offer, there must have been a lot he needed and such disparity in demand and supply just don’t work in our commercial world. But he gave; all I can do is remember him with a fond heart. God Bless!
Then there are those whose resilience humbles me. It was in 2004 when farmers in Tamil Nadu were committing suicide and scouring for rats in the face of the famine that struck them unawares that I was taken to one of the most remote and poorest of villages. It was a chance meeting on the bus with a girl studying in Trichy that took me there. I was actually on my way to Rameswaram, doing my tourist bit when we started talking and she told me of how she was going home for a puja. With all the warmth of a giving heart, she invited me along and I was adventurous enough to follow. I’d taken some snacks with me, not knowing how inadequate this would seem once we got there. But the handful of rice that was my portion at lunch that day with a family of 7, and the potato chips (broken into smaller pieces so there would be enough) I shared with them remains one of the best meals I’ve ever had – I cried that day! And I almost did again when a group of migrant workers shared a piece of their home-cooked dinner with me at the railway station in Howrah.
Every day my students come to class, most of them having been fed and clothed and even given ‘pocket money’ for the heart’s desire for the day. In my mind, I see them growing up and learning to feed and clothe themselves and I know it won’t always be pretty. Some will survive, some may not, others might never even know that his parents have aged and that its payback time. It’s when I see old and obviously care-worn people still struggling to pay for their daily bread that frustration and anger play in my head. A man with no legs carves wooden images and sells them, a man wears a coffee machine and serves people at a railway station, a young boy fetches restaurant waste to feed his pigs, another picks old signboards and rags to build his family a shelter. If we all could see, we might be different. For this, one needs no great physical travel, it’s the mind that does the journey.
And its inspiring to see how an entire people can attune themselves to the ‘spirit’ of a place- the people maketh the place, surely! In Rangoon after Nargis, business went on as usual for the star-rated hotels and night life as it existed was still strong. Opulence was clearly there for all to see, if you looked at the right places, that is. Well-dressed waiters served you, even better-dressed hotel staff welcomed you and the glamorously-dressed performers made sure you had a good time. But the ‘spirit’ was that of oppression. When one cared to look closer, there was the unmistakable run in the stockings, the frayed edges of the collar and the almost invisible hole in the sole of well-polished heels. The United States post-recession still appeared laid-back and carefree despite the well-behaved beggar who didn’t push you for money. The streets of New York had beggars sitting down with hats and carton boxes, waiting for your charity, unlike the organized and highly trained ones in India. They did not seem bothered by the obvious affluence of the crowd that shops in Soho because the ‘spirit’ was that of freedom. Those who live under the same sky find their own spaces below. It’s still hard to believe how a man in Washington DC whose phone I’d used came running after me when the number called back, or how a big black woman carried the larger of my bags from the metro station all the way to the hostel because she said I looked so ‘helpless’. Their own worlds are theirs to give, and give is what they did. Not so in Colombo, where I was with great friends and met some really nice people. There it was really all about knowing what you have and selling it. Not oppression, not so much freedom, rather a new peace and the spoils that come with it. “How much can I get off this gullible tourist?” is what I got. But even then, there is the driver who’ll pay for your red banana and the local who’ll take you to a temple opened only two days a year and pay for your entry.
A girl traveling alone survives, because God wills that she be protected and come across people who make a place good, even if she doesn’t know Martial Arts.