Wherever We Go
© Copyright 2022 by Rianna Chhabra
Photo by beast brothers at Pexels.
So, when all of my friends had to cancel the trip we had been planning for months, I decided to go anyway. It was my first time traveling alone in a different state without a single known person to accompany or help me. I was traveling to Khajjiar, a less popular hill station in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh that had once been declared India’s mini-Switzerland by the swiss envoy Willy P Blazer.
On the morning of the journey, I had woken up with anxiety that seemed as if it was engulfing me in its entirety like a python swallowing its prey whole. Would I be able to do this? What if I got lost? What if I got hurt? My parents were equally worried and their persistent concerns about my stay, journey, and the things that I had packed only added to the chaos in my mind. But having already booked the tickets and lodging, I knew I couldn’t back out now. Even though I was worried and a tad scared, I still wanted to take the journey and visit the place I had seen so many pictures of on the internet. I wanted to stand on the grass that looked so green and feel the air that seemed to draw colossal clouds over the mountains and paint serene pictures over the grasslands.
I somehow managed to have breakfast, get ready and put across a face that dared not show any worry or anxiety that I was feeling within. While my mother was still trying to convince me to not go, my father was checking my bags over and over again to see if I had everything I might need on the journey. I tried to smile and make a few jokes about their worries and how I’d be fine but I knew deep within, my thoughts were no different than theirs. I knew I couldn’t listen to their fretting any longer without canceling the trip altogether; I politely declined my father’s offer of dropping me at the bus stop and decided to take the metro instead and that’s how my journey had begun, from the very first step I had taken out of my home and into the world with a new tag of my own: solo traveler.
The metro was just as crowded as any other day. I took a spot at the corner of the coach and stood with my headphones comforting me with their familiar soft grasp on my ears and the buzz of my favorite songs that canceled the noise and chatter of the announcers and the crowd. I was, in an unironically Romantic way, a lone spirit being plunged through the dense railway networks in a metal chamber enclosed on all sides and packed with people, on a journey that was seeming more and more like an escape the longer I stayed in the metro. Would I miss this constantly busy, running city or would the mountains bring promised calm and the chatter of birds to counter its absence instead? At a later time, this forty-minute metro ride would somehow seem longer than the almost fourteen-hour bus ride that would take me through the mountains to my destination but for the time, it was music, my bags, and I.
As soon as I got off at my station and entered the bus terminal, I had to walk past different buses and ask twice to reach the particular bay my bus was stationed at. Once I had found the right one, it didn’t take long to get my ticket and baggage checked in after which I finally got on and sat on my seat right next to the window. Having called my parents to tell them I had reached, I saw that the bus was still relatively empty and people were still coming in. I couldn’t help but wonder what my co-passengers would be like, especially the one who would be sitting next to me. I wondered how old they would be, whether they were also traveling alone or with friends, were they going there as a traveler like me or did they have some work there? Should I talk to them or not? We couldn’t just sit next to each other like perfect strangers for the complete fourteen hours, could we? I sat back, pulled my earphones out and took out the book I had chosen to take with me for this journey. I had only been reading for twenty minutes when there was a sudden commotion and the bus came to life as the driver turned on its engine and maneuvered it out of the parking lot to leave. I looked at the time and realized that we were leaving right on time and yet, the seat next to me remained empty. I felt disappointed as none of the things I had imagined about my co-passenger came true but also glad because now I had both seats to myself so I could sit back a little more comfortably. It was still really sunny outside and after a while, the sunlight was starting to really warm up my seat so I drew the curtains, turned on the reading light, and continued reading my book. I looked through every once in a while only to see the city I had grown to be so dreadfully indifferent to that I didn’t mind having to close the curtains on it.
It took almost four hours to get to Ludhiana, we had crossed the borders from Delhi to Punjab when the bus halted at a stop and a few people got on. This included my co-passenger who put his handbag in the area above our seats. He seemed much older than I and appeared already busy with his work. After a formal greeting, he took his seat and busied himself on his laptop. Then, almost imperceptibly, he glided his finger on the touchpad of the computer and pushed a button. Then another one, and another. Like a busy ant, he seemed on a mission and I chose not to disturb him at all.
Faint at first, then replaced by a thick roar, the bus jerked into motion once again. I sighed and opened the curtains as I looked outside through the vast farmlands sown with mustard that Punjab is famous for. The farms stretched as far as my vision could go, the rows of fertile land stretching on in all directions. I could only spot a few houses but a lot of children, walking along the road in school uniforms with no school in visible sight. How far did they have to travel to go to and come from school?
After my co-passenger got himself comfortable, I didn’t feel much hurry and sat back in my seat with my book now closed, my earphones out of my ears and my eyes glued to the window like a TV screen. This was the journey I had so longed for and I could already feel my lips twist into a smile. The last journey I had taken was about a year ago, via a flight, and it had been a nightmare. I remember the scene from the airport with all the long lines, tired passengers, rudeness of the staff, the non-functional machines, and queue after queue of bare waiting. Everything looked extremely boring and "modern" with no sign of it being representative of its country at all. If anything, it had seemed just like a shopping mall or complex with barren floors and walls lit by LEDs that were almost too bright for my eye.
Yet, here I was, heading to a different destination by a different kind of conveyance, and I couldn't help but notice the vast differences between the two. This somehow felt more authentic, connected to the roads, nature, and the regions I was going past. I was happy.
In the middle of our country's Punjab province, as we headed on to Phillaur, we crossed a narrow bridge that crossed a river and there on both sides, I could see cows sitting on the opposite bank just casually grazing. They appeared to be as calm as we were, which made me question whether they had a reason to be so calm given their natural habitat that was so far away from the busy road.
The bus slowly made its way towards a traffic jam of sorts at a busy intersection. There were so many vehicles and bikes around us that I didn't feel the weight of the bus much, although I guess this was owing to the fact that I was sitting close to the window. Once again, I had to restrain myself from looking out the window while we waited, but I was happily watching the other vehicles around us. To my delight, I could see very few without a conductor, as there were hardly any touts asking for money. The road was almost deserted, and at least the dust hadn't settled on the entire stretch of road yet.
Finally, the conductor showed up and started making his rounds, collecting fares and checking tickets from those who had booked online. My co-passenger simply looked up from his laptop screen briefly to show his ticket on the phone just as I had done back in Delhi and the conductor moved past us without so much as a closer look. So, once again, I sat back and saw trees, shrubs, cars, bicycles, and local pedestrians rush past us to the low chitter-chatter of my co-passenger’s laptop keys. To try and not get so excruciatingly bored, I took out one of the tiffins my mother had packed some snacks in. Out of courtesy, I opened the tiffin and held it towards the busy ant on my left and asked if he wanted some. Although I almost instantly regretted having done so, seeing how he looked up from his laptop with groggy eyes filled with momentary confusion as if I had pulled a fish out of the water. His eyes gradually relaxed and moved down towards the tiffin and the regret just as soon washed out as I saw his eyes light up.
“Bhakarwadi!” He said and took one without hesitation and smiled as he took the first bite. “It’s homemade, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I smiled in return and told him how my mother had forcibly packed them for me.
“Are you from Gujarat?” He asked since Bhakarwadi was a Gujarati dish which made me chuckle and so our conversation took flight over a shared tiffin. I told him that my maternal grandmother had been Gujarati and had taught my mother most of her recipes. He had apparently worked for five years in Gujarat and greatly missed homemade Gujarati snacks that factories and local shops just couldn’t replicate as well. All of a sudden, he had almost forgotten about his work as we talked about food, our cities, where we were headed, and what we did and yet, none of the details mattered. He was traveling for work and would get off at Lahru which came before Khajjiar and when I told him of my plans, he was extremely excited to hear of my journey so far and how the “young ones these days” were getting off. He often stopped me and told me more of his own stories and of the days when he too used to “travel” with the sole purpose of exploring but now only got to go from one place to another for work.
We talked for a long while before the bus took a pause in the journey where all the passengers got off at a local restaurant, called a “dhaba”, for their meals. My co-passenger, Manasvi, and I chose to eat together and he continued to tell me about his life. He was a terrible listener and I barely got a chance to get a word in but he nonetheless had great stories to tell so I didn’t mind. He told me of his schooling and how different it must’ve been from mine since I was educated in a metropolitan city. We were of different backgrounds and had polar opinions about things but one thing both of us agreed and met on was food. It was also what a lot of his conversations were centered around since he was fond of cooking and even showed me his Instagram where he posts pictures of his recipes.
All of the anxieties had now gone past as we got back on the bus once more for the last stretch of our journey. Manasvi busied himself with work again in lieu of an important project he was working on and I sat back again, my earphones long-forgotten in my backpack that I wouldn’t use for the rest of my trip. It wasn’t long before we got on a steep incline and Manasvi’s destination had arrived. Having connected on Instagram, I promised to share photos from my journey and he told me to watch out for the pictures of the food we had had on our journey together. I was alone on our aisle once more but it was no longer a feeling of distress or oddity but instead, I welcomed the quiet solitude like an old friend that waits on the porch of our house for us to get back so it could tell us all about their lives. The air had now gotten cold and the sharp and icy wind pushed back my hair as I opened the bus window and rested my head against the window grill, my body vibrating along with the slight hum of the engine that propelled the wheels forward at the command of our skilful driver. He was a local from a village not too far in the Dhauladhar range of the western Himalayas and knew the sharp turns and tempers of the serpentine roads that scoured these mountains with dense foliage on one side and a thousand feet drop on the other. As I felt the wind sweep across the curvatures of my face with its chilly touch, I wondered about the course of the path it must have taken and all the things it must have gone past before obliging me with its divine touch. Animals, mountain peaks, trees, birds - I felt at once connected with everything around and beyond me that the wind had brought with its soft caress.
I tried to close my eyes to try and listen to what the bus was “saying” but instead of a single humming sound, I was taken aback by a euphony of the gravel under the wheels, the slow chatter of the children seated behind me with their parents, a distant horn of a vehicle coming our way, and the sound of rustling leaves all mixed with the low-growl of the engine which almost sounded like a lion’s purr. The winds seemed to have halted for a second, making me open my eyes and suddenly the vast green mountains filled my vision, their peaks blending with each other and creating a hue of blues and grays as they submerged into the horizon.
I had arrived.
Rianna Chhabra is a passionate 11th-grade student at the Wellington School, United Kingdom who is compassionate and spirited towards the cause of South Asian representation across the globe. She is a member of the Cultural Society at the Wellington School, where Rianna contributes to active discussions of current political issues, as the group fosters and supports diversity of culture within the school. Rianna is also a member of the Mental Health Club. As a part of the group, she explores how we might be able to assist our peers and engage in activities that support mental wellness. She investigates informed approaches to intervene with mental health issues and crises. Additionally, Rianna is a writer and has been penning poetry concerning issues of social justice since the age of thirteen. She is a part of the Creative Writing Society, as well, where she exchanges constructive feedback on creative writing works with the other group members. Rianna is also interested in drama, and has participated in various plays and skits throughout her school years.