Stories about “Getting Old”

One of the most exceptional or aberrational (whatever you want to call it) aspects of my life is how each birthday of mine has been spent with a different set of people. No two birthdays have been the same since I moved out of my home in Kolkata in 2008. Each year the experience has been different – sometimes with new people around me, sometimes a new environment, and sometimes the dynamics of my interaction with these people and the environment.

Over the last twelve years, I have moved five cities which makes an average of a little more than two years in a place – a pretty fluid way of living I would like to think, though speckled with its own sense of instability, uncertainty, and rootlessness. Considering that I had no intention to leave my home city when I was growing up (not even by a figment of imagination), this is definitely coming of age for a person like me.

Among all the places where I have tried to build a life, I have been most successful with Mumbai – where I lived for 5 years, the longest of all my tenures. Mumbai fanned my inner spirit and catalyzed my flexible, adaptable, and energetic nature – the traditional characteristics of what we think is ‘youth’. When I moved out, I let go of a strong network of friends and a firm sense of comfort and familiarity only to start from scratch again in a new city and a foreign country. Learning to let go was the most difficult lesson to learn and I learned it, though slowly and reluctantly, through the continuous series of changes that were pelted on me.

Truly, the only constant so far has been ‘change’ and with time I have not only lived with it but also embraced it. Through every such change, I have gained friendships and I have also lost an equal number of friendships. These changes have made me appreciate some people beyond geographical boundaries because these relationships persisted and were nurtured not due to geographical proximity but in spite of it.

Living the “vagabond life” has its own pro and cons, but it has been for me, my journey towards self-actualization. Yes, it’s a blessing to be able to come across so many people and so many new experiences every year but it’s also a curse not to be able to preserve or continue with most of them. Today I do not know where I will be when I turn old again next year. The subconscious fear of being alone with no one to “celebrate” my special day with keeps me practical and grounded, but the same uncertainty also evokes thoughts of innumerable possibilities which makes me look forward to the future with more excitement. Whatever comes my way, I believe it will be worth it.

P.S.: Are you counting the number of candles on the cake? Well, that is irrelevant when the spirit is beyond ‘getting old’! ️

Mumbai – Why I owe a lot to you

Dear Mumbai,

Five years with you and here I am, reflecting on what got us this far. From getting introduced to you and being smitten by you to vilifying you and finally adapting to grow with you – it has been a truly remarkable journey.

When I ran into you back in 2014, I was running away from a lot of things. Little did I know at that time that you will give me the closure that I needed – the closure that will expel my self-doubts, resurrect my self-belief and put to rest my fears of the past and apprehensions of the future.

Mumbai, I owe a lot to you.

Growing up in an orthodox middle-class family in Kolkata, I had inadvertently learnt to believe that a woman’s life journey is about marriage and  motherhood.  The journey you put me through made me unlearn that. While I am still going through the process of unlearning, I find myself evolving into someone who is oblivious of societal judgments, secured from within and courageous enough to fight for what she believes in. While I still respect the institution of marriage and the miracle of birth, I have realized that a woman’s identity is not defined by any of these.  Rather, a woman’s identity is defined by her humanity, her personality, her values and a gamut of choices that puts her on a path of self-discovery.

This is not to devalue or disregard the city I grew up in and my modest upbringing in any way. My soul belongs to Kolkata and forever will. But you, Mumbai, touched my life in unprecedented ways and made me what I stand for today!  While Kolkata taught me to accept, you taught me to question. While Kolkata made me kind, you made me strong. While Kolkata made me emotional, you made me independent. While Kolkata gave me roots, you gave me wings.

In gist, Kolkata has my soul, but you will always have my heart.

Remember, the first time I stood at Dadar station in June 2014 dazed by the sea of heads towering over me?  At that time I had felt that I will not be able to pull it through. There, in the middle of the hustle and jostle, stood a person who was emotionally weak, couldn’t imagine living alone and sought support at the drop of a hat.

Remember, the first time I walked into a fine dining restaurant at Bandra all by myself? While my eyes hovered on the people watching me out of curiosity, by the time I got done, I was no longer uncomfortable. I had learnt to eat my food without any company.

Remember, the decision to move out alone and the good six months I spent looking for a decent shelter for myself…? By the time the solo house hunting was over and I managed to shift my home successfully without any help, I had known that there’s nothing that I can’t accomplish on my own.

Remember, how I walked confidently into PVR Lower Parel movie theater with a tub of popcorn  not bogged down by the lack of company? Ya, I was changing for the better.

Remember, how taking a solitary walk by the ocean at Worli meant a great start to a Sunday for me? Yes, I had started to find bliss in solitude.

Remember, attending the music conferences at NCPA with you,  running my first half marathon at the Tata Mumbai Marathon and many thereafter, enrolling in dance classes to fulfill my childhood dreams, embracing travel and hiking like a panacea, starting to travel on my own and learning to enjoy it thoroughly…remember?

When I look back, I feel amazed at how you gradually negated my need for external validation of the life I was choosing.

Mumbai, you helped me move from weakness to strength and  from strength to firepower through the people you brought into my life, the events you made me a part of, the situations you pushed me into and the hurdles you put in my path.

Mumbai, you taught me so much.

You taught me that,

the more independent I become, the more I will appreciate myself;  

the more I let go, the more I will set myself free;

the more I fight the odds, the stronger I will become;

the more I love myself, the more love I will give to the world;

the more self-belief I have, the wider I spread my wings;

and last but not the least, the less I care about people’s judgments, the more I rise.

No matter how “unsuccessful” I am considering the societal benchmarks set for an average woman, I have truly accepted time as a decision-maker and patience as an infallible virtue. While I have learnt to “give time some time”, I have started to enjoy the process of waiting too which, I believe, is as gratifying as the “reaching” is going to be. 

The inner strength and peace that you have helped me build with time will only proliferate wherever I am, even when am not with you.

Thank you for motivating me to choose a life for myself and not live one chosen by others. 

Mumbai, I will forever owe a lot to you.

Looking back at 2019

If I have to describe 2019 in one word, it would be “turbulent”. An unprecedented array of events happened in my life this year and I could barely grasp or internalize their impact. Just when I thought I have traveled enough, I landed in a new country. Just when I thought I have established a career, I went back to being a student. Just when I thought I am not fit enough, I finished the world’s highest marathon. Just when I thought I was strong and impenetrable, I found myself vulnerable. Just when I thought I needed people around me, I found myself alone.

I learnt quite a few lessons this year – I learnt that success is transient and that failure, well, is not bigger than my efforts. I discovered the grey side of mine and learnt to make peace with it. I became an emotional wreck but I learnt to heal too (still in progress!). I discovered that I suffer from anxiety to an extent that it can be called a “disorder”. I bit the dust many times but, most importantly, I did not give up. 

I could strengthen some relationships including the one with my family and let go the ones which were doing me more harm than good. I took help from a solid ecosystem of friends and mentors to fight my battles – both internal and external. Luckily and thankfully, they stood by me.

Keeping the trying times aside, I pursued my travel and personal goals this year with all my heart and I was much rewarded by the Universe. Scrolling through my Google Photos of 2019 was quite a revelation and here is a summary of the note-worthy memories among them:

  • January – Solo travel to Barcelona & Madrid (Spain), Lisbon (Portugal). Kolkata
  • February – Travel to Gurugram
  • March – Exploration of an unknown lake in Maharashtra (the name doesn’t exist on map!). First Half Marathon  of the year – India Unity 21.1 Km finisher.
  • May – Solo trek to Kedarnath (Uttarakahand) – a last-minute decision and a reckless adventure (glad i survived!)
  • June–  Trek to Kanheri Caves, Maharashtra to celebrate the first monsoon rains
  • July – Chitrakote and Tirathgarh Waterfalls, Chattisgarh.  Palgarh, Maharashtra
  • August – Bangalore. Khajuaraho, Jhansi, Bhopal, Orccha (Madhya Pradesh). Second Half Marathon of the year – Mumbai Half Marathon 21.1 Km Finisher. Manali, Bashisht, Spiti Valley (Himachal Pradesh)
  • September – Lahaul Valley (Himachal Pradesh), Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir). Third Half Marathon of the year – Ladakh 2019 finisher. Kolkata. Nagpur. Panchmarhi & Patalkot (Madhya Pradesh)
  • October – Salzburg, Austria. Jochberg Hike, Bavaria, Germany. Lengerries & Bad Tolz, Germany
  • December – Nuremberg, Germany. Vienna, Austria. Bratislava, Slovakia. Budapest, Hungary 

Statistics saysa dozen strangers-turned-friends, six new countries (really?), three half marathons, two new states of India, one Himalayan trek, one Alps trek, infinite memories and zero regrets! 

Can I be anything but grateful?

Not sure if I am prepared for the challenges of 2020… But I will tackle them as they come- one day at a time, one thing at a time, one breath at a time.

 

30th Sep 2019 : The day I arrived in Munich

It’s not everyday that you move to a new country but when it happens it’s an elaborate affair. You think of packing all your favorite things and carrying them with you; probably to make a foreign land appear less foreign! We, humans, have a propensity to cling on to everything familiar – people, places and things!

To gratify my yearning for familiarity, I had packed a total of 52.5 Kilograms (two trolleys of 28 Kilograms and 7 Kilograms , one backpack of 5 Kilograms and one rucksack of 12.5 Kilograms ) with me. The humongous task was to carry these all by myself in a public transport from the airport to my temporary home in the Munich city. The S-Bahn (the transit rail system in Munich – very much like the local train of Mumbai) is connected to the Munich Airport. Therefore I could carry all the luggage in a trolley and use the elevator to board the train. It was all good till then. On reaching Rosenheimer Platz (the S-Bahn Station where I was supposed to alight) things got a little distressing. I had to cross two escalators (with Kilos of luggage equal to my weight) and then drag everything till I reached my host’s home. To make things worse, I misjudged and got into the escalator in the opposite direction and went up the other side. Soon the realization struck! I had to go back to the platform to take the escalator in the right direction and the bags had to be now moved by the stairs. While I stood there flummoxed debating with myself about what to do, one burly man, uttering a quick “may I help you?” picked up my 28 Kilograms bag and moved down the stairs even before I could react to his suggestion. Stumbling and fumbling, when I reached downstairs with the other three luggage, he was already gone…not even waiting for a note of gratitude from me!

Now was the turn to get onto another escalator. While I was waiting for everyone to pass so that I can move at my own pace, another elderly man, with a quick smiling “let me help you” , took the biggest bag from my hand and moved up the escalator. Later I struck a hearty conversation with him and thanked him for this humane gesture.

Once I got out of the station, a lady came to me and asked if I knew where I had to go! While I was trying to speak to her, I saw my host walking towards us (she had calculated my time of arrival and had started from home to receive me at the S-Bahn entrance). From then onward it was smooth sailing.

This describes my first encounter with the city of Munich – three citizens offering help to a stranger even before she requested for help! I was overwhelmed by this kindness shown towards me on the very first day of a new chapter of my life. Can a foreigner in a new country ask for a more warm welcome and a better acceptance than this? My story stands as a testimony to the generosity and hospitality of Münchners and I would like to believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg. With a start so beautiful, I am more than excited to let the rest unfold.

P.S.: For all those who are thinking that I could have just taken a taxi from the airport – well, it was too expensive! 😛 And after this experience of mine, I am happy that I could take the risk of not hiring a taxi! Look how it paid off!

Kedarnath Trek – Acting on an impulse

As I sit down to gather my thoughts around the last three and a half days of my life and what my mind and body went through during this period, I cannot but be at a loss for words. Embarking on the Kedarnath trek all alone was a completely impulsive decision taken at a time of my life when I badly needed a spiritual revival. The idea was suggested by a friend to which I agreed instantly (in spite of all the odds like no pre-booking, peak season etc), just because it felt right . After all, there is no bigger reason to do something than when your gut feeling tells you to do it.

Kedarnath at 3,583 m (11,755 ft) is the most remote of the Chardhams which requires a 16 Kms steep climb to reach the shrine starting from Gaurikund (6000 ft) with several sensitive landslide-prone areas along the route. Following the tragedy that befell Kedarnath in 2013 when the old route was washed away by a catastrophic flood, a new route was built and civilisation was restored with time. The new longer and steeper route combined with unpredictable weather and geographical conditions discourages pilgrims to walk up to the temple, opting for Pitthus, Palkis, Ponies or Choppers instead.

I was strongly advised by the locals to not try walking up and climbing down on the same day. However, everything did work out for me magically. I started the climb at 4 am reaching the top at 10:30 am and descended on the same day reaching the base at 7:30 pm. These 16 hours were interspersed with thrill, anxiety, pain, resurrection, coincidences, adventures and a few misadventures.

Starting from how I got a bus to Sonprayag, how I found an accomodation to how I got inside the temple and returned to Mumbai in four days flat are all stories which need to be written about. Throughout, I was at the mercy of the Universe and the way things panned out makes me believe in “divine interventions” like never before. While pilgrims would do anything to get a glimpse of the deity, for me it was more about losing myself amidst the sacrosanct Himalayas, getting engulfed in the divine energy and finding peace in the holy surroundings. Thankfully, I could.

All I can say is that I have been extremely lucky and extremely privileged to have made it to the precincts of Lord Kedar; He, who fills up my heart, soul and mind at this moment.

Har Har Mahadev!

A Month of Wanderings – designing and enacting a “Dream”

In the first go, it seemed too ambitious a travel plan – exploring Europe (Italy and Slovenia) over eleven days; then returning to India to embark on the Stok Kangri expedition over eight days; thereafter wandering in the unearthly barrenness of Ladakh over six days and finishing off by visiting the lush greenness of “God’s Own Country” over a week — overall, a month of solo wanderings through a period of “joblessness”. This was August 2018 for me – a mere script then, a precious reality now. When I started on 6th August for Europe, it was intimidating to think of the preposterousness of executing such an elaborate travel plan. Now that I am back to a 9-to-6 routine life having lived the ‘audacious plan’ last month, I feel glad about my decision and blessed to have undergone experiences that are worth writing about in the pages of a book.

Elaborating on each of these travel episodes – Italy, Slovenia, Stok Kangri Expedition, Ladakh and Kerala will be long and slow. So here is a rundown first.

 

In all of these unknown places, I came across several peoples – of various nationalities and ethnicities, speaking different languages and having their own perspective of ‘a good life’. With some I built a great rapport(enough to last a lifetime I believe) and some, let’s just say, I had to do away with! Most of these strangers helped me create special moments or enriched my life perceptions in some way. Almost every day, I slept on a different bed – someday I was couchsurfing, someday I slept in a hostel, hotel or home-stay and someday in a tent! Sometimes I commuted for ten hours in a local bus to see a remote Ladakhi lake and sometimes I walked 10 Kilometers to explore a foreign city. On one instance I hitchhiked too – that too in a car full of monks! Crazy but so memorable! Google Offline Maps and free Wi-Fi became my best friends. On one day, I touched a Ladakhi summit at 20,180 feet and on another I meandered 4 Kms down a Kerala river in a Kayak. Many a time I stared silently at the star-studded sky absorbing the imperceptibility of the Universe while at a later instance, I  chattered unabashedly with whoever I bumped into. Sometimes I gorged on local delicacies like Pasta, Wine, Burek, Momo, Thukpa, Appam, Toddy and at times I filled my stomach with some cold dull sandwiches from a Supermarket or Maggi. It was like experiencing the polar ends of a travel spectrum. All along, I knew I was only adding more colors to my otherwise mundane life.

Of course, there were moments of despair too – after all, solo travelling isn’t always picture-postcard romantic and fun, as it is made out to be. Dealing with uncertainty happens to be a big element of solo explorations and I was learning to embrace it throughout this period – each day at a time.

There were moments when I craved for familiarity – my own soft bed, my regular food and acquainted faces! There were instances when I felt lonely and craved for company. However, this feeling of isolation was not of the kind which robbed me of my virtues but of the kind that made me have deep conversations with myself- the ones laced with inner fears and insecurities – the ones which are always carefully brushed under the carpet.

 

Often, I felt detached from everything I had left behind and a huge sense of inner freedom dawned on me – as if I have never had more control over my actions and as a consequence, on my life. The motley bunch of all the intimate experiences was potent enough to enliven my core and transform it at the same time. I lost track of time repeatedly, in a way that it did not matter where I was and who I was meant to be; again and again, becoming an on-looker to my own situation, absorbing the events as they occurred to me. The inconsequentiality of my existence in the bigger scheme of the Universe played out in front of my eyes daily and that put all my struggles with the inner demons to rest. My heart expanded and my ability to give and accept increased by leaps and bounds. Throughout the period, I was living in the moment; I was living for the moment; I was living, freely.

 

Honestly speaking, getting back to “reality” has been a struggle after experiencing a month of unrestraint and inner accord. But no matter what, I will cope with it; that’s one lection I have gathered from my month under the sun! I would like to believe “reality” as the “dream” that I designed and executed for myself in August 2018.

My Second Solo Euro Trip – Afterthoughts

My second Euro trip ended yesterday. The last one was exactly a year back when I traveled to France, Belgium, Netherlands and Czech Republic. This time, I chose Italy and Slovenia. As I sit down to look back at the last 11 days of solo exploration, I cannot help but pen down a few thoughts arising out of introspection and retrospection over the days gone by.

Like life, a long travel has its own share of ups n downs and isn’t about having fun all the time. This writing attempts to make you aware of the experiential dichotomy that is a characteristics of long journeys. It isn’t a travelogue but merely my reflections after completing a much-awaited Euro trip from India.

Let’s get into the details now.

Countries visited : Italy and Slovenia

Places visited : Milan, Florence, Siena, Venice, Ljubljana, Bled and Vintgar

Mode of stay: Couchsurfing in Milan, Ljubljana and Florence. Airbnb in Venice. Hotel in Venice. Hostel in Ljubljana and Milan. Well, this time I did a full circle when it comes to types of accommodation.

Mode of movement: Flixbus services for inter-city movements and local transportation (buses, water buses, subways, tram, cycle) for intra-city movements.

What I ate: Local food as much as possible – Burek, Kremsnita, Gibanica in Slovenia; Pizza, pasta, spaghetti, Gelato, wine, bread etc. in Italy.

Since my last Euro trip was a success, I had a benchmark to compare to this time. Not everything went hunky-dory this year. To start with, I felt somewhat uncomfortable in Florence during couchsurfing. Then, I had several tiffs with my travel-companion in Venice and had to part ways soon. My hostel in Milan wasn’t well-chosen in terms of location and was not conducive to my return journey. I had set off to Postojna to see the Caves without doing research and had to return empty-handed owing to the serpentine queues for tickets. To summarize, some things definitely could have been planned better by me. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everything can go as desired over a long travel period. A traveller should be as much prepared to handle the unpredictable circumstances as he/she is to embrace the beautiful ones. In introspect, I believe that the not-so-good experiences made me appreciate the good experiences even more. 🙂

What went well? Well, everything other than that.

The things I got to experience – cathedrals, bell towers, Renaissance buildings and statues, palaces, museums, cobblestone pathways, lakes, gorges, countryside and mountains were undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life so far. My trip was an eclectic mix of natural and man-made wonders. Could I have asked for more? Nah! And, how did it make me feel? In one word, carefree! I would roam around by myself in the streets of Italy and Slovenia till late in the night without being concerned about safety. It was a liberating feeling. It bestowed upon me a huge sense of freedom and empowerment.

The things I got to eat and the way I lived and commuted over these days made me aware of the local lifestyle and choices.

Small compliments here and there from Italian and Slovenian men were flattering, to say the least.

I met some really interesting and kind people in Milan, Florence, Siena and Ljubljana who made my trip unforgettable. The people I struck conversation with were from all corners of the world – Canada to Bangladesh, Europe to Australia. The most common reaction from them when they would hear I am from India was an astounding “wow”. They would go gaga over how much they love the colors of India, its cuisine, its diversity and most importantly, how much they wanted to visit the Taj Mahal! These reactions made me feel more proud and blessed about being born in a country which is admired across the world. However, they had one pertinent question for me – “Is it safe for women out there?” I upheld my travels as an example to make my answer credible. I explained to them how I travel alone in my country and how all tourist areas are safe and the people very welcoming. I shared my contact details with some of them to help them plan when they decide to visit my country.

To conclude, this was definitely one of those life-events which gave me powerful lessons and beautiful memories to cherish at the same time. I look forward to what life has to offer next.

Cheers.

How I travel alone but I am never lonely during my travels

Every solo traveller, invariably, gets asked one or more of the following questions – Why are you alone? Haven’t you got any friends? Don’t you get bored while travelling alone? Don’t you feel lonely? I wouldn’t criticize this stereotypical thinking. Rather, I would have echoed the same thoughts a few years back when I had not discovered the joy of travelling alone which, as you will discover soon, is as sociable and convivial as travelling with friends or family can be.

Therefore, even though the title of the article might sound paradoxical at this moment, by the time you finish reading this article, I believe that you will be convinced of its plausibility.

Let’s go back to the start.

It was April 2016 when I first took up solo travelling. Orissa, a less popular tourist destination and an even lesser solo-travel-friendly state was my haunt for a 4 days-3 nights sojourn covering Bhubaneshwar, Puri, Konark and Chilka with the base being YHAI hostel in Bhubaneshwar. I had planned this trip with my parents but when they decided to drop out, I resolved not to abandon the plan for the mere lack of company. It would be presumptuous to say that I was not apprehensive about travelling alone. I was, very much. However, the irrational side of the brain quashed the rational side (as always!) and I found myself giving in to the temptation of taking the road less travelled.

As a lone woman wanderer, I went through a few unfortunate episodes during the trip. Let’s not discuss those over here. However, the hospitality, kindness and support extended towards me by the locals surpassed the negative experiences by a big margin. During the entire trip, I did not have the privilege of meeting another traveller (blame it on the lack of solo travellers in Orissa). However, I met a whole bunch of local people – some amused, some shocked , some happy-to-help, some incredulous, some concerned – in trains, buses, autos, hostel etc. and struck some delightful conversations with them. I never felt lonely during the trip. When I was back, I realised I would want to do this again and again. My first solo trip had satiated my zeal of experiencing the unknown in unforeseen ways.

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Konark Temple, Orissa, April 2016

Then came August 2016 and I found myself planning a full-fledged solo vacation covering Amritsar, Dalhousie, Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, Chadrataal Lake in Spiti Valley and Kasol . In Amritsar, I met Tarun and we hung around Wagah border and dined together at the famous Brother’s Dhaba. Next day I was off to Dalhousie where I met up with a friend called Alex who was staying nearby. Two days later I packed up to board a bus to Dharamshala, when I chanced upon Shalini, an inhabitant of Himachal and she introduced me to Sahaj Yoga – a powerful meditation technique practised by the local people. She urged me to visit the secluded Sahaja Yoga Ashram in McLo. I eventually did that and there I was taught the meditation technique by a Guru. While I was put up in a hotel in Dharamshala, the hotel manager who had been interacting with me, took me out one night to help me buy dinner and dropped me back to the hotel in his scooter. I was unlearning some of my childhood lessons. I was learning that trusting strangers can augment life perspective in remarkable ways.

During my trek to Chandrataal Lake in Spiti, I befriended Bru (that’s what I named him), a four-legged brown ball of fur, who accompanied me through the entire trek showing me the way and protecting me from other mountain dogs (No kidding here). I met a whole lot of shop-keepers, hotel attendants and pedestrians over the ten days of my trip who made me feel “special” through their encouragement and sometimes, subtle flirtations (harmless though), after knowing that I have ventured out on my own.

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At Golden Temple, Amritsar, August 2016

In October 2016, I joined a group of strangers to hike to Buran Ghati Pass at 15,000 feet in Himachal. After the trek was done, I had two days to roam in the region by myself and I made the most of it. I went to Kinnaur District and Sangla Valley of Himachal Pradesh till Chitkul, the last inhabited village near the Indo-China border. I came across Borun Da, the manager in Deblok Hotel in Chitkul who showed me around the pristine village. He also took me to the waterfall area coaxing me to climb a one-feet wide, rickety, stone bridge to click a picture telling me, “ If you are not afraid to travel alone to the most remote village, you shouldn’t be afraid to climb that bridge.”(nice ploy there, huh!) I am grateful to him for making me feel at home with a delicious Bengali spread comprising of Rice, Lentil Soup, Fish Curry, Chicken at a time when it was Durga Puja back home. On the way back, I spent a day in Chandigarh where I bumped into an uber-friendly Uber partner who showed me the best Durga Pandals of Chandigarh and drove me to the best eateries of Chandigarh as well. I felt blessed or what! 🙂

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At Chitkul, Kinnaur, Himachal – Oct 2016

In December 2016, I packed my bags again to travel alone in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur, Bikaner and Jodhpur. During my stay in Zostel, Jaipur, I stumbled upon Carolene, a Canadian, Alejandro, a Mexican and Ling Ling, a Chinese, all travelling on their own like me. We grouped up and went around Jaipur for sightseeing and local food-tasting. I had booked a guest house in Bikaner where Mr. Rakesh Kumar, a professional photographer was put up. I found company in him for the entire Bikaner tour. Here goes the entertaining part – while I was roaming around in Bikaner with him, I was asked plenty of times by the locals if he was my husband. Pretty embarrassed at the beginning, I later realised that a young lady hanging out with a middle-aged man is not a common occurrence in that part of the country. Making peace with this kind of curiosity was my only option. Nevertheless, I had a lovely time in Bikaner, thanks to the hospitality of my guest house folks. In Jodhpur, while I was appreciating Mehrangarh Fort from the terrace of my hotel, I was greeted by Darian, a backpacker from New Zealand with whom I hit it off instantly. I roamed around Jodhpur with Darian for two straight days. He took me to the least touristy and most beautiful areas of Jodhpur. We watched the sunrise, navigated the congested bylanes of Jodhpur, had deep long conversations about life and even attracted undue attention for looking like a “Firangi-Indian couple” (Oh, I had seen this coming.).

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At Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur – Dec 2016

Since I make all Augusts of my life augustus (just playing with words here :P), I executed a grand plan of travelling to Paris, Brussels, Ghent, Amsterdam and Prague over 13 days on my own in August 2017. This time I discovered Couchsurfing – a community for travellers around the world which connects members to a global population. Through Couchsurfing, I made requests to hosts in my visiting cities to accommodate me for the duration of my stay. The spirit of Couchsurfing lies in the cultural exchange between the visiting traveller and the hosting member and does not involve a monetary transaction. Thus travellers can mingle with the natives of different countries and save money at the same time. During my entire Euro trip I couchsurfed, meeting some delightful French, Belgians, Dutch and Czechs. Most of them were intrigued by an Indian woman daring to travel alone in a foreign country and I became an implicit representation of how women in India have come a long way. They were more than happy to become my travel partners, showing me their city and making sure that I experience what only the lucky few can in terms of cuisine, places and other regional typicalities. As a mark of gratitude, I did some Indian-style cooking for some of my hosts. I am grateful to the Couchsurfing community for making me feel Europe through the eyes, ears and tongue of locals viz. Charles, Remi, Tom V., Jonathan, David, Jan, Tom, Michael, Pierre C. and Pierre who gifted me the most beautiful memories of my life and taught me the true meaning of kindness through their actions.

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With my hosts and the people I hung out with in Europe – Aug 2017

Varanasi was always in my list and I fulfilled this travel wish in October 2017 by visiting the city over 3 days and 2 nights. Leah, an American, Michael, a German and Liron, an Israeli became my travel companions in Varanasi. Together they made my Varanasi trip one of the most memorable one of my life till date. We walked down the Ghats at dawn, took a morning ride on the Ganges, went on a food trail, explored the impassable alleys of the archaic city and visited Buddha haven Sarnath. Everything about this trip was perfect to the tee.

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During the morning boatride in Ganga – Oct 2017

I celebrated the anniversary of my solo travel in Rajasthan with a solo travel in Rajasthan in December 2017. This time I explored Udaipur and Jaisalmer. In both Udaipur and Jaisalmer I found companions again, at times in some foreigners and at times, in some desi people. The most notable among my adhoc travel companions was a family I met in Jaisalmer during my stay in Sam Sand Dunes. Together, we drove till the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan to witness the unexploded bombs, which were dropped by Pakistan on India in the war of 1965, at Tanot Mata Temple.

In 2018 so far I have made two solo trips – one in Bir-Billing and the other in Jibhi-Tirthan valley of Himachal Pradesh in March and May respectively. If you have got the drift, you would have guessed by now that I met a whole lot of people both the times and created some unforgettable moments with them.

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At Chaini Hill Fort, Himachal – May 2018

Now, let’s set the expectations correct..

Do I invariably find company every time I travel alone? No, I do not. I do not travel alone with an expectation that every time I will be lucky enough to meet people and have a fantastic time with them. In fact, there have been times when I have met people and I had to bid goodbye to them instantly because of the gross difference in thinking and outlook. That’s why to travel alone, you have to be extremely comfortable in your own skin so that even when you are sitting, eating or roaming alone, you are not carrying a longing for external company in your heart. After moving to Mumbai in 2014, I had joined several groups (like Indiahikes, Trek Mates etc.) for trekking in the Himalayas and the Sahyadris, with no known person to accompany. The friends that I made during these treks went on to become a part of my closest circle with time. Looking back, I would say that trekking with strangers gives you a chance to forge meaningful friendships as you get to know people through the most challenging situations. Having said that, I would not urge any of you to undertake solo explorations (hiking, touring etc.) unless you are sure that you love your own company.

Do I become best friends with all the people I connect with during my solo trips ? No, I do not. Encounters of this kind are mostly transient. You meet and connect with numerous people because of one obvious common interest – travel. But this doesn’t engender deep or long term associations. That requires much more discipline and nurturing over time.

What about safety, especially because I am a woman? I am cautious about my actions when I am out on my own. For example, I would not venture out to a secluded area for the sake of adventure or I would not indulge in alcohol/substance when I am on my own in an unknown place. My life is my responsibility and I know that imprudence can cost a lot. Having said that, my experience tells that most tourist places in India are safe and friendly towards solo women travellers. This question becomes less obvious for places in Europe.

Let’s conclude..

Whether you take up solo travelling or not is a different question but you now know that this isn’t a lonely, unsocial, friendless affair at all. People who travel alone are as sociable as any other person who travel in groups. Insularity isn’t even a desired state as humans are, by default, social creatures. However, the desire to be social in solo travellers manifests itself through the cross-over of the defined boundaries of the usual and the familiar. They are not the outlaws but the ones who push themselves out of their comfort zones because they know that the biggest life rewards lie there.

The greatest opportunity you can give to yourself to know strangers, their culture and their way of living is through solo travelling. You will be surprised at how easily you will expand your network and world-view in the process. Perhaps, the biggest impact will be on your personal growth and mental well-being. So, if you are committed to self-improvement, commit to self-travelling. 🙂

Travel Records: Bir Billing

The second travel and my first solo trip of the year – Bir Billing, was a as-good-as-it-can-get encounter with nature, people and adventure. Here’s recounting the memorable four days through this blog.

Dates: 2nd March to 5th March 2018.

2nd March being a holiday on account of the festival of colours, I just required a day off to plan my escape to the Himachal. Himachal Pradesh, or Devbhoomi, remains my most favourite geographical state in India to travel alone for the sense of safety, friendliness of people and the ease of commute in the region. This time my plan was to paraglide at Bir-Billing, the paragliding capital of India which is also a home of meditation and spiritualism.

Day 0: I had an Air India flight to catch in the evening and a HRTC bus from ISBT Kashmiri Gate on the same day after landing. After a host of exciting occurrences like flight delay, long queues at the Delhi metro, panic attack on not being able to find the right bus, I finally managed to locate the bus I had booked till Mandi at the nick of time. I usually find it difficult to sleep in these AC Volvo buses but the “exciting occurrences” throughout the day had made me tired enough to doze off for the night.

Day 1, 2nd March: The bus reached Mandi at 6:30 am and one of my co-passenger showed me where to catch a local bus to Bir Road. I was in for good luck as I got a bus within no time and thus started my journey to Bir. The weather was playing spoilsport as dark clouds loomed large threatening the activities planned for the day. Nevertheless, the sight of the mountains against the grey clouds, the deep valleys and greenery lining it made the journey worth losing thought of the destination.

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The first mesmerising view at Bir village! Do you wish that house was yours? 😉

I was going to put up in Zostel Bir for the next two nights. Zostel Bir was welcoming with its friendly staff and a host of travellers all of whom were ready for conversations. I came across a group of three friends – Sid, Ani and Nik. (Get comfortable with me using short forms of names as I rarely call people by their full names.) Sid suggested that I join them for exploring the place and we teamed up for our first monastery visit – Nyingma Monastery near to the Zostel.

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Inside Nyingma Monastery

After the monastery visit, we took a long walk in the area and satiated our voracious hunger at just around 200 bucks. Food was cheap and tasty. It was time to take some rest (I had spent the night in the bus from Delhi to Mandi, remember!). I returned to Zostel with the promise of joining them back for dinner. During dinner at a roadside hotel, I met Jatin, a friend of my new friends who, coincidentally, was in Bir to practise solo flying, which is his passion. He suggested that we hike the next day from Bir to Billing through the forest trail. I was totally sold on the idea and after some coaxing my three new friends agreed on the proposal as well.

Day 2, 3rd March: The day commenced early as we were supposed to start the hike at 9 am. Ignoring the dark clouds that loomed over us, we started our steep uphill climb moving slowly through the thick jungle of Rhododendrons (I tasted the flower and it was delicious :D) with intermittent rests. No exaggeration, but this was one of the difficult ascends I have done in the last three years of my Himalayan trekking experience. It tested our stamina to the fullest. Nevertheless, none of us gave up and we reach the top of Billing at 1 pm.

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During the trek from Bir to Billing. From left to right clockwise: Manik, Siddharth, Jatin, Aniket and me 😀

Weather had gone worse and freezing cold winds hit us with vengeance. The first sight of a host of tourists with colourful gliders ready to embrace “flying” was fascinating and it filled me with an unbridled anticipation about my own impending experience. We had a quick round of Masala Maggi and Chai which tested delectable after the hard climb. The weather deteriorated sharply in the next few minutes and the authorities shut down the tandem rides impairing my wish of tandem paragliding for the day. With nothing left to do, the four of us climbed further up to get a better view of the Billing valley and on reaching there discussed and exchanged views on life, aspirations, travel, marriage and so on. It was beginning to rain and therefore we decided to go down quickly by asking for lift from the tourist vehicles. The late evening was spent chitchatting over plates of Pakora, Chilli Paneer, Sandwiches etc. and literally rolling on the floor laughing over Sid’s hilarious anecdotes.

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The place at the top of Billing valley where we discussed so much!

Day 3, 4th March : Today was my final day at Billing and therefore my last chance at tandem paragliding. Sun peeped from beneath the clouds to my relief. Ani and I took a vehicle to reach Billing before the weather could spoil our intentions for the day. While seated at the back of the open jeep, we were tossed from one end to the other like sticks muddled in a matchbox. With each big jerk, any light-weight could have been easily thrown into the adjoining valley. Later I realised the jeep ride was more adventurous (read dangerous) than the actual paragliding. Thankfully I survived that ride to tell this story!

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Mountains capped with fresh snow from previous night’s snowfall at the beginning of Day 3

After a brief introduction session with my pilot, I was strapped with the gliding gear and was instructed by him to run till I was off the cliff. I obeyed without questions and guess what, I flew! Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful experience of my life was those 15 minutes when I was 2400 metres above the ground looking with awe at the miniature stretches of jungles, villages, fields harnessed to just a man-made wing and surrounded by mountains. It felt like the sky was within hand’s reach. A sense of great calm descended on me. Nothing worried me anymore. And in that moment of carefreeness, I experienced unparalleled joy. I laughed and giggled to the amusement of my instructor and refused to be brought down.

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My moment of ecstasy when I flew.

The 15 minutes of exhilaration were over in what seemed like seconds and I joined the group at Silver Linings Cafe to plan the rest of the day. This cafe is run by a guy who returned from US to settle in Bir and opened a picturesque cafe in the middle of nowhere with no one to accompany. Not to forget, the appetising food it served and the relaxation it offered to travellers who hoarded Bir-Billing! This made me ponder over the unconventional ways in which people choose to live their lives (discounting the conventional wisdom of career-money-marriage-kids-property etc.), some of which still remains implausible for people like us.

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Silver Linings Cafe

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My sumptuous brunch at the cafe

Tripling on a scoot, Nik, Ani and I (Sid wanted to go back) headed for Palpung-Sherabling Monastery which is one of the largest and most beautiful monastery in the region. Apart from having an impressive design on the exterior, Sherabling Monastery houses the most eye-soothing idol of Buddha which left me agape with wonder. We spent quite some time inside the premises as Nik wanted to know about the meditation courses there.

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One of the pillars at Sherabling. Photography is not allowed inside the monastery.

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This was one beautiful spot near to the monastery – an abode of peace and serenity

Later Nik took Ani and me to a spot near to the monastery which was lined with prayer flags, prayer wheels and a series of Stupas. The environment felt beautifully surreal. I utilised the opportunity to do a quick photo-shoot. 😛 (Cut me some slack please..the trip was about to end..) Gratitude towards my travel mates inundated me as, I felt, without them I might not have been able to make it to this remote monastery.

It was time to return as I had a bus to catch from Joginder Nagar and had to reach there from Bir on time. Nik, Sid and Ani headed to Dharamshala to catch their return bus. The return to Delhi was minus any hiccups. In the bus, I came across a co-passenger who kept me engaged with his life stories and also promised to undertake solo travelling soon. (No, I did not push him to! :P)

The trip was over. I had a day to spend in Delhi and I utilised it fully meeting up with my Delhi friends. Looking back, I could not have asked for a more fulfilling travel experience and a more wonderful start to the year. Cheers to more such solo explorations!

P.S.: While I was buying snacks at Joginder Nagar bus stand, a shopkeeper who was watching me for a long time popped the most predictable question “Akeli ghum rahi ho?” I simply smiled. 😉

Travel Records: Aurangabad-Ajanta-Ellora

I have resolved to document all my travels of 2018. Therefore, here I am, talking about my first trip of 2018:  Aurangabad-Ajanta-Ellora done on 24 and 25th February.

This was my third time in the City of Gates – Aurangabad, India. However, I was up for it as my Amsterdam friend David was visiting Mumbai (I had couchsurfed at his place in Amsterdam) and he wanted to travel with me within India over the weekend. So I quickly cooked up this plan, booked to and fro AC sleeper tickets, a place to stay in the city centre and we were ready to hit the road. Thus my first trip of 2018 was kind of an unplanned and unanticipated tryst with the rich history of India.

Day 1: The bus reached several hours late which sapped all our energy. For the rest of the day we hired an auto-rickshaw which took us around Aurangabad and Ellora caves.  I was seeing Bibi ka Maqbara and Ellora caves for the second time but they were as awe-inspiring as the first time I had seen them in 2009.

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Bibi Ka Maqbara

 

Ellora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a monolithic rock-cut temple cave featuring Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monuments and artwork. I am not a big fan of history but these monuments make you ponder about the enormity of execution in an age minus computer technology or machinery. In one word, incredulous!

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Ellora Caves

The day ended with dinner at Sagar Restaurant gorging on the local cuisine – Naan Khaliya and Biriyani, which, frankly,  did not suit my taste buds much. I blame it on the preparation.

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Naan Khaliya and Biriyani

Day 2: This day was dedicated to exploring the Ajanta Caves locally called “Ajanta Leni”, situated around 2.5 hours away from Aurangabad. The Ajanta Caves are around 29 rock-cut Buddhist caves dating back to the 2nd century BC. The caves have paintings and rock cut sculptures standing as a testimony to the finest form of ancient Indian art.

We caught the local bus at 7 40 am from the City Bus Station to Ajanta Caves and returned back to Aurangabad by 6 30 pm.  An accident on the road had delayed our schedule and the heat of the noon made the exploration difficult. However, we managed to take a glimpse of the most notable caves before bidding adieu to Ajanta.

 

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Ajanta: Cave No. 26

The return journey was non-eventful and we reached Mumbai in the early hours of Monday, 26th February.

P.S: During the trip, I was questioned by several locals if I am a guide to the accompanying foreigner, to the extent that it actually made me contemplate if I can be a guide to foreigners! 😛