And with that one simple gesture, she had floored me. It wasn’t love in the slightest sort, neither was it infatuation, nor a warmth brewing from friendship. But I was filled with affection, and I didn’t know what to do.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
I was standing on the side of the road, in Berat. A few cars had passed me already and though I put out my thumb, nobody paid any attention to it. I was trying to hitchhike my way from Berat to Tirana, the capital of Albania. Not that there weren’t any buses, and neither was the ticket expensive, but I wanted to see if I could hitchhike my way across a country. Tirana would just serve as a pit stop, and the goal was to hitchhike till Kosovo – Albania’s neighbour and the second newest country in the world.
I didn’t mind the cars not stopping. One would, eventually, I figured. What was inconvenient though was the searing heat. It was over forty degrees celsius and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I tried to let it not bother me. It was, finally, all part of the experience.
Another traveler joined me. He was from New Zealand, and said he was hitchhiking to Tirana too. He introduced himself as Peter. “Nero”, I replied and we shook hands.
I noticed a man standing on the opposite side of the road, staring at me. I was getting used to it now. None of them had ever met an Indian before. I smiled at him and he walked over to us and asked us where we were from. We spoke for a while and he asked me if I would pose for a photograph with him. So we grinned into his phone, as he took a selfie.
Ten minutes later, a car stopped a few metres ahead and we ran to it, hauling our bags. He wasn’t going to Tirana but he could drop us midway, he said. We hopped in and he started the car’s engine. ‘Falemenderit’, we both told him excitedly, the Albanian word for “thank you”.
The breeze hit my face, and it was making me feel good about myself. About the hitchhiking that I was doing.
Peter and I started talking and when I asked him how long he had been travelling. “It’s been 9-10 months now” he replied casually.
The man had started his journey from Thailand. After spending some time in the islands, he boarded a bus and headed north. Soon, he had crossed over to Myanmar. After spending two weeks there, he hopped across to India via the Manipur-Myanmar border. Unlike a lot of international backpackers who come to India and do Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi and Khajuraho, Peter fell in love with the simplicity and virgin beauty of India’s north eastern states and spent over a month trekking through Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal and Assam. He then moved a little south to West Bengal and flitted through the streets of Kolkata, rode the yellow taxis, and sat at the banks of the Hooghly. Moving westward, he entered into Varanasi and had long smoking sessions with a saadhu. Later, he took the train to New Delhi.
The car suddenly stopped and the owner smiled at us sheepishly and said that he was turning into another town and if we wanted to go to Tirana, it made sense to get down there. He was nice enough to stop at a bus stop. We got down, thanked him and saw him drive away.
Peter told me that he would take the next bus and asked if I’d join him. I shook my head. I was sure I wanted to complete this journey only by hitchhiking. We bid adieu to each other.
Peter’s father was French, and when he had started this trip, Peter had decided to go all the way from Asia to France by land. After travelling in India, he crossed over to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and till a few moments back had been sitting in a car with me in Albania. In a few more weeks, he would be in the land of Napolean, Victor Hugo and Zinedine Zidane and his journey would be complete.
The cars whizzed past me. It was hotter now, and I was quite tempted to join Peter on the bus. I finished the last drops in my water bottle and stared at the road. A bus went by. Maybe he was on it. Safe travels, my friend.
Finally, a car stopped. Two young travellers, a girl and a boy, smiled at me as I got into the back of their car and told me they were from Belgium and were road tripping through Albania.
I was very sleepy and tired when I had gone into the car, but there was something in the way the three of us connected that made me just want to talk to them, and not sleep at all. They were in their early twenties. In love. Soft spoken. Interested in visiting India. They had been to Argentina before. And I was interested in visiting Argentina. They spoke of Shantaram, and I spoke of the Tango. We spoke of how beautiful Albania was, and the need to see places which weren’t swarming with pub crawls, and not swarming with a thousand tourists. I don’t really remember what all we spoke about, but there are days when someone says something and you just smile and nod your head and look out of the window and think about what they said, in your head. I don’t remember what all we spoke about but it’s not every day you say something and someone looks back at you and writes down that line in a brown diary. I don’t remember smiling so much in a conversation in some time.
I don’t remember seeing my destination appear and me wishing that we were driving for some more time.
It was so sudden that we reached Tirana that I didn’t really have time to think of anything except to get out of the car and haul out my bags. I had to still complete my journey to Kosovo, while they were spending the next two days in Tirana.
I looked into the window and wished Noam a pleasant journey ahead. Jasmine had gone down from the car and I turned back and smiled at her. We hugged, and as is regular in Southern and Eastern Europe, I leaned forward and we lightly cheek kissed twice. I was about to withdraw, when she leaned a third time and put her cheek next to mine and said in a soft tone, “In Belgium, we say goodbye by cheek kissing thrice, Nero.”
And with that one simple gesture, she had floored me. It wasn’t love in the slightest sort, neither was it infatuation, nor a warmth brewing from friendship. But I was filled with affection, and I didn’t know what to do. I don’t even know why it felt significant.
I just stood there, looking at the two of them and wondering if the three of us would ever meet again. Somewhere I know they were thinking the same. But we chose to keep silent and after a few moments, Noam started the car and I saw it leave.
I walked to a café, my head still filled with the conversation we had and the two of them. It would be stupid to text that I miss them, I thought to myself. “It’s only been fifteen minutes”, I said to myself. The next moment, I got a message “We miss you. If you haven’t gotten a ride yet to Kosovo, come to our hostel.”
I smiled at the message and finished my sandwich. To go back would be to try and capture the moment again. To go back would be stretching a moment. I picked up my bags and went out of the café.
Eventually, some car would stop. And I would reach Kosovo. What was inconvenient though was the searing heat. It was over forty degrees celsius and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I tried to let it not bother me. It was, finally, all part of the experience.
This post was originally published on My "Experiments" with Truth.