When I was a child, my mother often visited this Guru in Maharashtra. She told me that he has answers to all our questions. So, I wrote a four paged letter to him. What were the questions of a 10 year old me- to know what I would grow up to be or what am I getting for my b’day? No, I wanted to know who was the first person to live on Earth, how he/she must have felt all alone, what could they have been thinking when they were first created, who created God in the first place- these were my queries. The Guru apparently laughed out loud at my letter and said I have too many questions for a little girl.
Now if I look back at this memory, I realize the greatest gift childhood can give you is inquisitiveness. But of course as I grew up, it all became about who scored the highest marks, future planning, trying to be better than the daughter of that friend of my mother etcetera etcetera ( I am sure the last one, all of us have experienced!). I have always been average, academically. I was running a race I knew I wouldn't come first in. It wasn't until I moved away from home, for college, and thought "What is it i can do that will be solely for me? Something where I don't have to compete, I don't feel oblidged to fulfill my 'social role' and let myself be!"
Till then, I had only read on blogs or magazines about women who travel alone. I remember being in awe of their courage but I never thought I would be doing it myself someday. I was received with various responses when I informed my friends and family about my first solo trip to Rajasthan. They ranged from- “How can u go alone, its unsafe” “what would you do there alone, wont you get bored” to “Wow, so cool. Like Eat Pray Love?”. There were also a lot of warnings about Rajasthan – “the people there are very rowdy” “make sure you are back in your hotel by 10 p.m”. Once i reached though, I did exactly what everyone had asked me not to- I talked to strangers, lost my way once for hours (and found my way back), got on strangers’ bikes for local tours, had great conversations with the shopkeepers, made new friends and stayed out past 10 p.m (hell, past midnight even, on some nights!). Everytime I was doing these, I was testing a theory- that being, how unsafe it actually is for a girl to travel alone and how dicy it is for her to hang out with complete strangers. I realized, while to some extent this world is not completely harmless to women, there are many times when our own mental conditioning becomes responsioble for stopping us from doing things. Once I returned from my first trip, some of my friends were inspired to travel alone. But some of them still thought they could not do it- “it is not safe for girls to travel alone. I guess you got lucky”. Fortunately, one of my friends kept her inhibitions aside and went on her first solo trip to Rajasthan. Later she told me she has never had so much fun and she was able to learn a lot about herself and other people. I also realized how wrong others had been about the people in Rajasthan because I was received with nothing but kindness and generosity there. I guess that’s the thing about presumptions- they are dangerous, because they stop you from doing what you want (and can) or make judgements about a place or someone, but you would never know the reality unless you see it for yourself.
Traveling alone can get bumpy sometimes though- it will give you joy but it will also test your patience and humility. I was almost robbed in Jaipur, I lost my way in the middle of nowhere towards the Udaipur countrysides for hours with no cell reception, almost trampled on by passengers while boarding a train in Kerala and was embarassingly laughed at by the locals when my backpack fell on the rails. There were strangers who outrightly refused to help me and even enjoyed my distressful situation. There were also some awkward moments when I was approached to be a side dancer in a Malayalam movie, or when I had to politely turn down some romantic advances by the locals I hung out with in Udaipur- also some funny times when a fisherman in Kerala asked me for donation (as they ask from all foreigners), simply refusing to believe that I am from India- “if you no donation…go away..but you no lie. I know..you Korea!”. Many times I have been greeted with “konichiwa” “an yase o” or “swadikha” and people refused to believe I am from India untill I spoke in hindi to them. In order to save myself the first ten minutes of introduction, I went equipped with a picture of India map in my phone to Kerala last December. So, on days when I did not feel like talking, I would take out that picture and show it to people. However, I am guilty of sometimes having fun with the locals and lying that I am a japanese, which they conveniently believed. This guilty pleasure did make me realize that as an indian woman traveling alone, I shocked a lot more people than me as a japanese woman traveling alone. Some of them were proud of me, while others, once they realized I am from India, put forth the old question of safety, which I had dismissed long time back after my first trip. I wondered why they did not talk about safety to the female travelers from different countries going solo in india, but only to the indian woman who infact lives in India- isnt she supposed to know her country better than the former?
There were things that I had been compelled to do in my travels- like having to use a map when I was lost in Udaipur or having to stay away from internet because of no cell reception. So, I was forced to hike, walk and sit in a café with nothing to do, numerous times. But I realized I could finally open my eyes to everything going around me, even talk to strangers and make new friends. As a consequence, doing absolutely nothing and people-watching has become one of my hobbies now. The friends I have made- some locals and some travelers themselves- have given me unforgettable memories. Every year I travel somewhere alone, so most of my time is a constant countdown- either counting down the days untill I leave for my next destination or relishing the time I have left with a new place and new friends. It is amazing to feel that you have made your own little families of strangers in different places. Doing things alone has definitely changed me in many ways- everytime I am back from a trip I return a better me- happier and more confident.
Traveling can feel like writing stories. The more you travel and make friends in different places, the more you create stories of your own... (And every time you are back from a trip, there will be new additions either in your phone contacts or your Facebook friend list). While traveling in Kerala, I received some messages from my friends about how they are thinking of going solo as well. I am glad that more women are thinking of setting aside their inhibitions and do what they want to. Yes, there will always be people who tell you how unsafe it is for women to travel alone, to stay away from men- warn you with rumors and presumptions, but I believe if you can change your own perception about yourself, you can do anything.
I went for the local martial arts show when I was in Cochin. One of the performers, Fazlu, had suffered from Polio as a child but practising martial arts healed his leg to some extent. While doing a stunt, he stumbled and almost fell, to which the people at the back started laughing. Fazlu got up again and finished his stunt beauitifully. When he was done, everyone clapped proudly, and the loudest claps were coming from the people at the back, who had laughed at him.
Change is aspired by everyone in society but I believe, change is evolutionary- it is a slow process. Meanwhile, we can do our little bit in this process- by changing ourselves, not just in action but in perception, so it becomes contagious enough to people around us- like a gospel that we can spread to others. Call it an irony but I believe by changing yourself, you can change others...just like Fazlu did.