Life Was Calling, And I Had To Go

Ankita Bagri

© Copyright 2021 by 
Ankita Bagri

Photo by the author.
                             Photo by the author.

How we prepared for the Big Bang

In her usual disillusioned style, my friend, Prerna, used to say, “Europe would be the high point of our lives, nothing after this will ever come close.” Looking back, the 36 days Euro-trip, was so chock full of memories that every word spoken then, every thought from those times, became unforgettable.

Let me rewind to the inception of the big bang. My college was rife with stories of the foreign-exchange students upon their return: their dating, mating, sky diving experiences, and other tales were so obnoxious that I wanted to experience them myself. I hadn’t applied to this student exchange program because I was stressed about my finances and getting a job at that time.

In another part of the college, Prerna was quietly getting inspired by all of this and laboring under the misapprehension that I would be accompanying her for a post-MBA Europe trip. In her defense, I had often expressed a great desire for travelling myself. I said a cheerful yes to all her plans, but never seriously, and more in a manner of stalling her.

Meanwhile, after a lot of interviews, I managed to land a decent job. To indulge Prerna and working on the philosophy of ‘if you’ll never try, you’ll never know’, I decided to ask for my father’s permission to go for the trip.

Having lived an extremely sheltered and orthodox middle-class Indian female lifestyle till then, I wasn't expecting his response: “Fine, you can go. The expense will make me lose my remaining hair too.” The last bit of humor made me feel like my life had its own background music. I felt like Simran from the movie Dil Wale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge who was about to go and finally live her life!

Prerna and I spent the next two months circling constantly around the campus lake, figuring out the best ways to minimize trip costs, following facebook groups, and talking to every experienced person. This ballyhoo redirected my attention from stressing too much about my passing youth, and impending future as a chained-to-her-desk corporate employee.

The earth was flat, wasn’t it?

It’s important to pause here and give you a perspective of what I thought would be enjoyable about the travelling experience:

(1) I would see all the famous sights, (2) do some crazy adventure sports, (3) and would get bragging rights for life.

But as I soon found out, these thoughts were wrong on so many levels that you would probably need an elevator to go through them all.

Take our first day as an example where we visited a Belfry bell tower in Bruges, Belgium. There was a nice view of the city and a large bell, both lovely but not worth €12 and climbing 366 steps to my practical mind. Or how Prerna and I had discussed about skydiving but backed out of a mutual fear of heights. We weren't enjoying ourselves by following to-do lists because we had little interest in historical art and architecture and after a while every cathedral and monument blurred into the other. If I didn’t go around historical sights and art galleries in India where I knew more of the history, was it fair to expect that Europe would fairy godmother these activities into something I could enjoy?

To top it off, Prerna and I often fought. Most of our fights centered around directional challenges. Sometimes, in the way we interpreted Google maps, it would ask us to walk on lakes and water bodies or suggest us to Super-Mario our way through areas which had stairs. We felt vulnerable and kept checking whether our passports and cards were in place every hour because we had heard disturbing tales of robbery from other travelers.

There was also the issue of our accommodation. We were getting hosted by locals at every city through an application and often had to work our plans around their schedules. It felt like we were missing out on important sights and experiences because of using this application. Booking hostels may have costed more but could it have been a better experience?

The truth slowly made my world go round

Eventually, the second-guessing stopped. Like extra clay falls off as a sculptor works to refine his art, these thoughts and notions fell away as I proceeded through the days, to leave me with a lovely pot of ideas of what travelling is about. I'll get to this in a minute.

Something else apart from the disappointing bell tower incidence had happened in Belgium. We were hosted by an amazing 70-year-old woman called Greta in her city. We enjoyed listening to her tales of life in Belgium, the economies of her pension and the tax rate, why she never married but had a son, her plans to exchange her house for a summer, and her thoughts about India. She was extremely fit, she swam for her back 4 days a week, drove her car like a maven, and went for medical checkups regularly. I was surprised by her independence and way of life. My grandmother back home was nowhere near as active or freethinking.

Greta liked talking to us too. One day she cooked a hearty breakfast with 6 different kinds of breads, and lighted some candles while jazz music played in the background. She was grating chocolate on the porridge for us, and we thought, she really knows how to enjoy the finer things in life. Right then, the bell rang, and her neighbor came to hand us fresh eggs he had got from him farm. Could life get better!

On our last day, Greta drove us to the bus station because it was raining heavily. She insisted that we take one jumbo umbrella from her for the rest of our trip. We sat in the car as we waited for our bus to arrive while Greta took out two extra umbrellas from the hood and handed them to other people on the road who were getting wet while waiting. It was a beautiful lesson in kindness.

Elsewhere, in Vienna, we were hosted by Martin, an English teacher in middle school. He talked about how he takes his students through different music composers and why art is important. I had never seen an English teacher who used story-telling as a medium to ignite student’s interest in art before. One memorable instance with Martin was when he showed us a Japanese cooker which cooked rice in 40 minutes. Prerna took out our cooker from the backpack and said, “Look at this Martin, this is an Indian cooker which prepares rice in 10 minutes.” Martin, an eternal collector of productivity tools from all his travels, was so impressed that he opened Amazon’s website and asked for our help to order one right then. Another lovely occasion was when he taught us to waltz. Oh, how swoon-worthy and dream-like it all felt!

Let me also mention why these people accommodated us at their homes because the application for getting hosted was a free cultural exchange. Sometimes it was because the hosts wanted to know more about India, they thought it was very exotic. Sometimes it was because they had space, the time, and were staying alone. Here, I don't want to miss out on Prague where we were hosted by a Czech waitress who wanted dating advice to improve her relationship with her Indian boyfriend. We couldn’t be much help on the heartache-front, but we did teach her how to make a perfect cup of ginger tea to reduce the headache!

There are other such countless tales of the wonderful people I met, the ideas I got, and the lessons I learnt.

If the truth is here, can social media be far behind?

Along the way, the anxiety of choosing one travel activity over the other turned into such a joke that we decided to put fake facebook/whatsapp statuses which highlighted things we were supposedly doing (but would never actually do) like watching an Opera at the StaadtHouse in Vienna, or even skydiving over the Vatican. Maybe the joke was a lesson on social media and what aspects of our life it highlights. Our statuses have become more and more absurd off late (there was one on getting a hitchhike to our destination by a famous Turkish actor) and we plan to continue this till someone calls us out on the nonsense, and maybe, even after.

The importance of travelling earnestly

There are a lot of ancillary benefits of travelling which hadn’t been immediately apparent to me. There is an entire ecosystem of skills around traveling in this style. It teaches you to talk comfortably with strangers who have a different context on life than you, compels you to learn new skills like cooking and taking better pictures, and gives you new ideas about living your own life. When you are at the heart of something, like going to a job daily, you feel like you are moving and progressing, but when you travel, you get the off time to think about whether the movement is in the right direction.

The experience also brought about some serious introspection. I realized how balled up with fear I was because of certain experiences in my home country- why I was so skeptical of everyone, had a habit of overthinking, and didn’t have an intuition for mathematics. I feared men, stray dogs, and was directionally challenged. Having dipped in travelling, I found myself as altered as a saffron-clad seer who had plunged herself in the Holy Ganges. I could see my starting point in life a little differently than before.

At this point, you can bet which side I would swing on in the nature verses nurture debate. I have read that globally, boys tend to outperform girls in mathematics (on average girls score 10.5 points lower than boys) but in more "gender equal societies" such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway, girls scored as well as boys or better.

Had I acquired my fears and nervous tendencies because I had to fight hard for my education, and resist innumerable social pressures which would have seen me getting married at the tender age of 18? Could there be a way to live life with a little less fear and a little more trust? Time to thank my mother who told me that a girl should dream big and be financially independent. Time to thank the nightmares I had as a teenager of becoming a stereotypical housewife with a side-hobby of rehabilitating her bungled husband whose sole merit in life was being born with the right gender in a patriarchal society. Time to thank Prerna for teaching me to always keep my wits about myself and for making sure her husband has no problems with her taking all her trips with me instead of him!

While it is said that one learns more about life by observing it than reading books, Ankita can't seem to cross bookstores without first entering them. What can she say, like hundreds before her, she fell under Harry Potter's spell, never to recover. She was born in Kolkata, brought up in Delhi, and works in Mumbai.

She is an enthusiastic (...amateur) reader/writer on health, neuroscience, and decision making. She has a new appreciation for poetry and its ability to be internalized.  It's sensible though tough to avoid these clichés. Well, she did spare you the horror stories. And for the record, has never dreamt of owning a restaurant business. Just a small farm would do. Organic, of course.

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