Setting foot on international soil for the first time for a month long backpacking trip in Europe across Czech and Hungary assured one thing - the trip afforded more new experiences than we could imagine possible. Some were obvious for example new culture, new city and some less obvious like the feeling of being a foreigner for the first time in my life. Yes that’s an experience simply because the word ‘foreigner’ always brought an image of tall Americans with blond hair wearing black sunglasses and holding a bottle of drinking water looking excited upon spotting a cow on the road. I never thought that term could apply to me until when we sat in a metro with our huge luggage and felt people steal curious looks at us. There we were two backpackers on a metro filled with office goers.
Stepping out on the streets for the first time the view that greeted us was awe inspiring. A feeling of sheer joy that we are in Prague set in (after pinching ourselves a few times). The cobbled streets with the tram tracks and being surrounded by amazing looking buildings, enchanting looking castle pretty little cafe's and quaint shops each more inviting than the other and also potentially people from all over the world was fascinating.
Yes. It was fascinating to me because I had never seen tourist from so many different nationalities all in one place before. Some in large groups following a person holding a bright umbrella (the tour guide) listening to him with rapture as he was describing the place in a very animated tone in their local language. A group of senior citizens, a bunch of youngsters on the segway, people with their families- Italian, Arab, Japanese, Chinese, you name it. Couples asking people to take pictures. Lots of very stylish Europeans giving you some serious fashion goals. Solo travelers occasionally peering on a map. A bunch of people trying to figure out the tram ticket machine. It was an eclectic mix of people and it was always very interesting to spot occasionally the familiar Indian faces.
A group of Punjabi men all in great spirits talking boisterously sitting in a cafe making plans and improvising on their itinerary. A cute south Indian family where the lady of the house was sporting a saree whereas her daughters seem to have spent way too much time and money shopping for the latest trends looking chic for the perfect European holiday pictures that will soon flood that Facebook wall. A newly wed couple striking a pose against a beautiful facade capturing memories. The bride beaming because she can finally wear all her trendy holiday cloths without getting the disapproving look from the elders of the family who were now miles away. Or a large Indian family at the Szechenyi bath where the men and his children enjoyed the lukewarm water while auntie decided to sit at a safe distance carefully concealing the cultural shock with an awkward smile. Once we spotted an old college professor strike a pose next to a monument. This occasional spotting brought in a slight sense of warmth much to my surprise probably because although they were complete strangers their demeanor was so familiar.
Sometimes we happened to make eye contact not necessarily on purpose but what transpired was always interesting. It was sort of an unspoken conversation or let’s just say a vibe. One thing that was consistent was that you always always got a vibe from them. Sometime as if to say an unspoken hello to an acquaintance. We were travelling from Prague to Karlovy vary by bus there was this middle aged Indian man who seemed like he was there for work and we just smiled and said HI! Almost as if we knew each other although that was the only thing we said to him. There was a sort of surprise because he did not seem to be expecting any Indian in the bus. There was this other instance where we were travelling from Brno to Budapest on a train and when the train stopped in Bratislava we saw a middle aged Indian couple looking a bit unsure. But the moment they saw the two of us his face broke into a smile and a sense of relief almost as if to say ‘I think I am in the right train’. There was this other instance when we bumped into a young Indian journalist in the Prague castle while we were looking for someone who knew English to give us directions to the golden lane and we had a delightful conversation with her about how it’s great for young Indian girls to travel and the must see places in and around Prague. Some time towards the end of our 22 day trip when we were traveling from Budapest to Prague in an overnight bus journey. We reached the bus terminal in Budapest at 10 and we still had a good one hour before our bus arrived. Upon reaching the bus terminal we learned that our bus stop was 100 meters from there terminal when we went there it was deserted and cold so we decided to wait in the terminal. There we saw a bunch of Indian men who said hello like we were old acquaintance. We grabbed dinner and took a seat and we realized that they were joined by their families who were sitting a few rows ahead of us. We saw the lady nudge her cousin saying - hey! Look they are Indian too. At quarter to 11 the bunch disappeared and we realized that they were going to Prague as well. Travelling with them was a memorable experience because their excited demeanor was a striking contrast to the quiet and reserved Europeans that we were used to seeing in the bus. One man was telling the other how to work the touch screen tv (while saying headphone in a thick Maharastrian accent) and the lady was helping her friend with adjusting the seat. The highlight however was when the engine started and the lady seated in front of us softly cried ’Ganpati Bappa Moria’ it made us for a moment think that we were going to Lonavala. It was both amusing and comforting at the same time.
There were so many times when I was amazed to spot the Indian inside of me. Prior to our trip we had done extensive research of the must try things to eat and cafes to visit and we were successful in checking all the boxes in our list and more. Everything that a vegetarian/eggitarian could try eating in Europe. The delightful chimney cakes with generous amount of Nutella or ice-cream, sinfully cheesy lángos and an even more sinful fried cheese served with generous amounts of fries, The buttery open faced sandwiches hummus bars in Budapest, buttery croissants and hot chocolate with a generous helping of cream, waffles, all you can eat breakfast spread in the hostel, wood fired pizzas, crêpes, pastas of so many types, waffles and countless varieties of ice cream. There was however was a time when we decided to try this Indian restaurant for the fun of it and also because we got a whiff of the familiar food smell as we passed the restaurant. Ordering Dal Soup to the waiter in hindi was very interesting experience. It was the home-style tadka dal and as the first sip entered my mouth the familiar flavors exploded in the mouth and we looked like those commercials where they take the first bite of something and there are explosions of dal all around you. It transported us back home (not that I was homesick or anything). With this experience came a huge revelation to me that even though I love to try cuisine from all over the world Indian food is soul food to me. The feeling was something that I cannot put in words.
There was also this other instance in the Keleti station in Budapest when I literally slipped and went rolling down a flight of stairs, my luggage rolling behind me and this sent my friend into a panic mode and she dropped her luggage which also rolled down and once I recovered and got a grip of my knee which was bleeding we were surprised to find that it was a fairly crowded station and nobody batted an eye. My friend exclaimed that if it was India you would find a small crowd gathered around you an uncle perhaps offering a napkin to tie the wound somebody offering water. There was also another similar instance when my friend slipped on the pavement while waking. Now this is just an observation form and outsiders point of view not that I was upset about that or anything.
Other delightful experiences include walking on the streets and a street vendor greeting us with a Namaste India or the surprise on finding David the chatty restaurant owner in Cesky Krumlov greeting us with Vanakkam upon learning I was from Chennai and a Czech man in Karlovy vary who barely spoke English say ‘oh… Chennai I have a friend there’.
When I landed in Mumbai after that wonderful trip one line in the Mumbai international airport summed up the feeling perfectly. Indian in heart. Global in Spirit.