‘The farther I travel solo, the more I find something that takes me home’ | Condé Nast Traveller India | India

‘The farther I travel solo, the more I find something that takes me home’ | Condé Nast Traveller India | India

June 8, 2021 0 By admin


Gopal’s aunt hurried over to me with a smile, holding a length of fat, white jasmine buds knit together. “Will she wear flowers in her hair?” I heard her ask him in Tamil. Without waiting for an answer, she sat me down on a chair in her dimly lit living room, and I held still as she expertly wove the flowers into my hair. Her fingers were firm but gentle, and when she was done, she looked down at me, satisfied with a job well done.
“Thank you, Periamma.”

This was the first time I was meeting her, but with that one word, she became my aunt. She reminded me of Amma. The warm yet formidable manner with which she hurried around me, making sure I was well-fed, and her insistence that I adorn my very South Indian hair with jasmine was so characteristic of my own mother that I couldn’t help but smile.

That moment reminded me of home. It reminded me of the fragrance of malli flowers wafting through the house on a Friday morning as Amma lit the lamps. It reminded me of every attempt she’d made to get me to wear flowers in my hair, and of every time I’d refused. Watching Gopal’s aunt gush over me, I felt a pang in my chest, and I told myself the next time Amma tried to put flowers in my hair, I’d just let her.

I do now. And every time she does, I go back to that one day I spent in Thanjavur when my guide, Gopal, took me to his aunt’s place for a glass of rose milk, and I ended up with flowers in my hair, a plateful of vadas, and the kind of gossip session that you’d only have with your mom.

In the six years that I’ve been travelling solo, I’ve found myself being welcomed into strangers’ homes more times than I can count.

There was the family in Srinagar who wrapped me up in a thick blanket with a kangri inside, while the old grandpa prepared a cup of kehwa which he proudly exclaimed would put all commercial kehwa to shame. It did.

Then there was the family in Goa who hosted me as part of a tour, but by the end of it, made sure I was taking enough food back with me. “If you don’t eat, where will you get the strength to travel?”, they said as they packed several boxes of food for me to carry. In Bhutan, Dolma and her cousins saw me slipping and sliding up the hike to Tiger’s Nest on a very rainy day. They immediately took me under their wing, plying me with food and water and relieving me of my backpack so I could climb faster. We’re pen pals now, and I’m waiting for her to come to India so that I can play host.

The farther I travel solo, the more I find something that takes me home. I find a little bit of Amma in every mom who makes sure I’m comfortable and warm. I find a little bit of Appa in every dad who insists on picking me up from the train station and fixes the zippers on my backpack. Sometimes, a fleeting conversation with a fellow backpacker turns into an honest, vulnerable one, egged on by the chance that you’ll never meet them again. But that one moment cements the relationship and turns it into something permanent. The more I travel solo, I realise that I’m never alone.

A few nights ago, I was talking to a friend in Switzerland. Our calls last for hours, and we talk about everything that’s happening in our lives. The first time we met was in Sri Lanka in 2019, the day bomb blasts ripped through Colombo. Cooped up in a hostel crammed with stranded travellers, we found that we shared a similar coping mechanism—deeply dark humour. We turned into each other’s solace and support and spent the next three weeks travelling together. Our lives back home were starkly different, and sitting atop a hill in Sri Lanka, we let each other in. She talked me through my fear of heights and helped me jump off a waterfall. I managed her hospital visits when she injured herself. She’s my home in Switzerland. I was her Indian contact when she applied for her India visa. Somehow, somewhere on the road, we stopped being travel buddies and turned into… sisters.

A ruin bar in Budapest. Photo: Image Reality, Charles O, Cecil/Alamy, Getty Images.

There are times when I go back to the very first time I went solo. I was sitting on a bean bag in my hostel in Budapest, looking at travellers from all over the world greeting each other like old friends. I was the classic introvert and stayed in my corner intimidated and unable to initiate conversation. But my shyness was also my liberation. The idea of being alone in a new place was terrifying, but it was also exactly the thing that made me open up. One of the girls at the hostel casually invited me to join a walking tour that afternoon. It looked so easy, the way she asked me, and I found myself nodding and saying yes.

That one walking tour turned into an escape room, a night cruise and pub-hopping through ruin bars. It was a very noisy bunch of girls who returned to the hostel late that night. No one had known the other for more than a day, but being alone in a new place has a way of opening you up in a way you wouldn’t normally do back home, or while travelling in a group.

One day turned into three, and between going on tours, shopping at flea markets, and downing unnecessary amounts of pálinka (only to live in regret the next day), I found sisterhood. We were a group of girls, tearing up as each one left—solo once again—for the next part of their travels. Although we are from seven different parts of the world, we’ve stayed in touch over the years and continue to cheer each other on.

Curiosity is the predominant emotion while going solo, and that curiosity opens doors for conversations, connections, and relationships. Some pass by, but a lot stays on. When I reflect on everywhere I’ve been, the most vivid memories are the ones I’ve made with people. The ones that now form my family all around the world like a giant, interconnected web.

No one had told me that this is what solo trips could come to mean. Sure, I knew I’d meet people that first time, but I hadn’t expected lifelong friends. Many people warned me that it would be a scary, lonely journey and I would need my friends and family. However, I stood my ground and set out on my first trip. As a safety measure, I bought a book at the Mumbai airport for company and comfort on lonely days. Six years later, that book still lies unopened on my shelf, and for some reason, I keep it that way.