We’re at this lookout point near our hostel, it’s on a ledge overlooking the city and the view is stunning, but we’re not facing the lights sparkling in the night. I’m nose to nose with the most beautiful, incredible man and we’re devouring each other like we’ve been starving and just found ourselves at a feast.
Unbeknownst to each of us, we’ve been quietly drinking each other in from a distance for an entire week. Suddenly here we are, and in each other’s arms all of the things we’d hoped are coming true as we talk and kiss and talk some more. We only have a few hours. Is it too late, or are we lucky to have connected at all?
Regardless, we’re making the most of this moment, and the connection feels like something bigger than can be passed off as a simple romantic night with an exotic stranger in a foreign country. We eventually find our way back to a common room in the hostel, where we talk and touch until we can barely keep our eyes open.
As much as we don’t want morning to come, it inevitably does. He is also leaving Portugal, there’s no discussion of “what if” or “what now,” there are bags to be packed and flights to be caught and real lives waiting thousands of miles away.
We sit in the back of a taxi together, he holds my hand the entire drive, and doesn’t let go as we walk through the airport. At my gate he kisses me, even though his friend is with us, and then I turn and leave without a backward glance.
My journal entry from then is short on details: “Traveling is a bit of a head trip… Lisbon was brilliant. I met someone that I could see myself spending a LOT of time with, except for the fact that about 4 hours after we realized how compatible we are and how into each other we were, we had to part.”
You know what sucks? Wanting to spend time with someone, except they’re 13,155 kilometres away. And I REALLY wanted to spend time with Nick. I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and I messaged him almost immediately after I returned to Canada to tell him as much.
Ten years ago international texting was exorbitantly expensive, so our best option for staying in touch ended up being Facebook messages and live chat. We may not have been able to hang out in person, but we made good use of our virtual hang out options. We messaged almost daily, long, detailed missives where we learned about each other’s lives, jobs, families, likes & dislikes, dreams & goals, and everything in between. When the 16 hour time difference allowed us to be online at the same time we would live chat, sometimes for hours. And every once in a while we would talk on the phone, so we could hear each other’s voice and laugh.
Often when you meet someone while traveling there is a strong immediate connection, but rarely is it lasting. But with Nick and I the spark not only remained, it exploded. The more we talked, the more we wanted to talk. The more we learned about each other, the more connected we became. We would each wake up to our respective morning and immediately check for a new message.
Weeks went by, and months passed. Our communications showed no sign of slowing down. Now we most often chatted about our day to day life, but with a mix of future desires – like my dream of having a lemon tree in the backyard, his goal of running his own business, places we would like to live, and destinations we wanted to travel through.
We often mentioned seeing each other again, but strangely that was one thing we didn’t get into specific detail about.
As time moved forward I became more and more certain that I wanted to find a way to be with Nick, however he was literally on the opposite side of the world, and I still had to live my daily life. I started a new job, I moved to a different house, I hung out with my friends. I felt somewhat stagnant and frustrated: I knew I didn’t want to stay in Calgary, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for work, and I had no answers as to what to do next. I did know that I wanted to move forward, I wanted to make some big life decisions and start feeling like I was accomplishing things in my 30’s. The wanderlust of my 20’s was fading away, I was ready for more – whatever that meant.by McKinnley
Before I left for Spain, I’d written, “I hope I find a reason to not come home…. But I’m also terrified that I’ll find that reason.” It seems I was feeling stagnant, ready for change, wanting something big to show up in my life and blow me away, but also deep down I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to leap into the unknown or to take chances. An interesting dichotomy that I was aware of, and yet unable or unwilling to fully address. Yet.
It’s November 2008, I’m barely a week into my third decade, and I’m alone in a foreign country. More than alone, I’m lonely. Making my way through Spain I’d seen and done some amazing things, but without someone to share those moments and memories with, there was a spark that was lacking and the novelty of travel was wearing off.
I got off the bus in Lisbon, Portugal, too disoriented to be charmed by the cobblestone streets. I didn’t speak a single word of Portuguese, and I didn’t know which direction to head to find my hostel. Also, my last few hostel experiences had been less than ideal – they were cold, both physically and emotionally. I was tired, a little under the weather, and missing human connection. I’d come up with a plan to stay a couple nights at the hostel in Lisbon, then head north to Porto where I was looking forward to staying in a home with a local CouchSurfing host.
I arrived at the hostel, thanks to a kind man who saw I was lost and walked me all the way to the door, and quickly realized that things were going to be different. As I entered the lobby there was someone coming down a stairwell, who took one look at me and disappeared back up the stairs. Odd. I checked in and as I turned around the guy from the stairs handed me a drink – my first caipirinha – and said, “Follow me.” He showed me to a room with an open bunk, “Leave your bag here, come on!”
He took me to the common area, and a dozen other travelers all looked our way: “Hey! What’s your name? Where are you from? Come join us!” This. This was what traveling was meant to look like.
I dipped a cup into the communal vat of sangria, joined the massage train, and a couple hours later found myself laughing in the streets as we explored Lisbon’s night life.
A very young backpacker who’d been staying at the hostel for a while was our unofficial guide through the narrow streets. He was impish and impulsive, too much of an open book to be charming, but still intriguing. I quickly learned that he was the type of guy who didn’t think twice before jumping in with both feet. By the end of the night he’d asked me to marry him, and I had no doubt that if I agreed he would have immediately swept me into his joyous whirlwind, which would have blown us to the nearest chaplain’s office, then off onto some wild adventure.
I was awestruck. I’ve always been overly cautious and yet I’d been yearning to break free, do something wild. I didn’t accept his proposal that night, or the next few nights when he continued to ask. I did spend more time with him, more curious than anything, and he truly lived his life immersed in each moment. It was fascinating, and totally foreign. However, I soon realized this usually meant he was doing what felt best for him, regardless of the people around him. He was open and caring, but totally unfazed by most social norms or potential consequences, and that made me uncomfortable.
I realized that I didn’t, in fact, want to live my life like that. I’m rational, and sensitive to people and situations around me, which I (eventually) decided are strengths, not weaknesses. Sure, I still wanted to learn to open up and embrace opportunities, but in hopes that it would bring more connection and intimacy into my life. Despite this guy’s fascination with me, I felt in no way connected to him. Apparently a willingness to make sweeping split second decisions was not synonymous with commitment. I no longer envied his carefree being. It’s funny how much relief you can feel, when you realize that you actually like yourself the way you are.
There were others in our makeshift group of new friends who were just as interesting: a couple of American girls with hippie names, a sweet Australian girl traveling solo, a Portuguese guy and girl who it was unclear whether they worked at the hostel or just enjoyed the atmosphere, a trio of Aussie guys who were traipsing through Europe, and a handful of other fellow nomads.
I never made it to Porto. My couple of nights in Lisbon stretched to over a week, and I didn’t leave until I was in danger of missing my flight from Barcelona back to Calgary. Even then I didn’t want to go – by that point there was a very specific reason why.by McKinnley
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
I wasn’t supposed to be in Portugal. First of all, I’d never had any desire to travel Europe. Secondly, when my friend invited me to come visit him in Spain, I certainly didn’t plan to end up alone in another country.
It was 2008. In the past decade I’d been a bit of a gypsy, living in four countries, moving to different cities 11 times, traveling, teaching, going to school, following some dreams, letting go of others, running away from who I didn’t want to be, then finding myself again.
I was about to turn 30. 30! I was living in a city I’d sworn I’d never live in again. I was single. I’d just finished college for the third time and still had no idea what I wanted to pursue as a career. I don’t know that I’d ever sat down and envisioned what my life would look like at 30 years old, but I was pretty sure that this wasn’t it. And despite all of that, I was EXCITED to turn 30. For the first time I actually felt comfortable in my own skin, and that was enough reason to be celebrating.
My best friend was in Spain for a semester, and although Europe wasn’t even on my travel list, when he invited me to come visit Barcelona, it seemed the perfect place to spend my birthday. Another friend and I hopped on a plane across the ocean, and so my 30th birthday consisted of Spanish markets, paella and wine for dinner, and an incredible celebration with almost 15 friends! It was perfect.
Then my girl friend flew back to Canada, and the boys were in school, so I decided to get on a train and go explore the Spanish countryside. I walked the halls of a castle. I spent hours photographing incredible graffiti. I met a Catalan gypsy who didn’t speak English, but somehow we connected (he gave me a special stone that I still carry). I shared meals in a cave carved into the mountainside. My Spanish improved in leaps and bounds. I also got sick when it was pouring rain and the hostel didn’t have any spare blankets. And I was crushingly lonely.
I was in the South of Spain, intending to circle back north, but I kept talking to people who said, “Go to Portugal instead, it’s incredible.” And so, I got on a bus to Portugal. As I crossed the border I suddenly realized that this was not in the game plan, nobody knew where I was, and I didn’t speak a single word of Portuguese. What was I doing??
But I arrived in Lisbon, and my life changed forever.by McKinnley
Nothing gets me more excited in a conversation, than talking about Travel. Particularly when the person across from me loves travel adventures as much as I do.
This semi-regular guy was in the bar last night, and he seemed really keen to chat.. Much to my delight he had travel on his mind. We talked about wanting to know other cultures, see exotic sights, experience how other people live – how it builds empathy, and character, how it broadens your mind quicker and wider than anything else.
We talked about eating culturally, delving into the street foods and favourite local fare, how you experience so much through the flavours of a city.
And we agreed that there’s nothing quite like the rush of touching down on foreign soil, excited to explore, with this burning desire to know and feel and taste and experience everything you can in that place, as fully as you can, to soak it into your soul like the desert after a rain.
I once had a friend ask me, after I’d been traveling for a couple of months, what I did all day. I was stunned. What do you MEAN, what do I do all day?! I go hiking, I take cooking classes, I visit tiny villages, I tour the important sites, I find the best smoothie place in town, and the best coffee place, and frequent the corner with the guy who has the best fried chicken stall. I swim, snorkle, read, get massages, create elaborate journal entries, write postcards, eat fresh seafood with my toes in the sand, party, volunteer, learn how to massage, surf, watch dolphins in the bay, tour wineries, enjoy lady boy shows, shop, marvel at ancient ruins, play Crib, zipline over jungles, toboggan down volcanoes, learn new words – particularly “hello” “please” and “thank you.” I converse with locals. I connect with fellow travelers. Sometimes I take lots of pictures, other times I take none. Whenever possible I choose boat as my mode of transportation. And on those long boat rides I play the “Would You Rather….” game with other passengers, because getting to know like-minded people in an unconventional place and unconventional way is always worthwhile.
It would be false of me to state that there’s never a dull moment while traveling, because there are plenty of those, but there’s not a lot of boredom. There’s something so exhilarating about waking up every morning and saying, “What shall I do today?” and then going and doing it, with no inhibitions or constraints.
Oh man, I’m getting seriously itchy feet!!! Sorting out some winter getaway adventures is an absolute necessity..by McKinnley
I wrote this during my second visit to Nepal. I’d finished with the volunteer house in Kathmandu, so I decided to venture out of the city, to the charming tourist town of Pokhara. There were mountains and a lake, and it kind of reminded me of Banff. I originally wanted to do some hiking, but I ended up not feeling so great – physically or mentally. Traveling alone can be both a blessing and a curse. Having the complete freedom to do what you want, when you want, without having to consult or consider someone else, is awesome. And I’ve often found that I actually meet more people when I’m alone. But it sucks when you see something really cool and wish there was someone around to share the moment, or when you just want a buddy to hang out with.
Does anybody around here play Cribbage? I’d love a game right now. A few days to myself, to relax, post photos, and do some writing sounded lovely, in theory… But being alone these days tends to be more lonely than lovely, and three days of free time can be tedious when you don’t know a soul, or the lay of the land, and when Internet connections are few and far between.
I do enjoy my own company, don’t get me wrong, but I’m still working on feeling relaxed and content when wildly out of my element. I’ve been repeating something of a mantra to myself lately, frequently, and it goes, “He always looked like he belonged exactly where he was.” I repeated it in my head this afternoon as I walked down the unfamiliar Lakeside drag in Pokhara. It never fails to calm my nerves, slow my heart, and raise my chin a little.
Interestingly, Mr. Nurse was surprised to learn that I’m 5’8″, he thought I was taller than his 5’10”. He commented that very confident people seem to come across as tall. Do I really seem that confident? I feel very small and awkward these days, so it was startling to hear his perspective. Maybe it explains his nervousness.. I’ll have to pick his brain about it later, but I always feel so self-indulgent asking people how they feel around me.
This afternoon an American girl asked me about my lip ring. Later on I saw her and her friend in a coffee shop, so I plucked up all my nerve and approached them. I had to give myself a serious pep talk before I walked over to their table, you’d think I was 15 and approaching a gorgeous older man…. But my pep talk went a little something like this, “McKinnley, get a grip. You’re alone, a traveler, they’re girls, and they’ve already talked to you, what on earth do you have to be uncomfortable about? Ok, put it this way, if one of them approached you and wanted to chat, how would you react?” I come across as oh so self-possessed, but in fact they had already talked to me, and I’d been guarded and obviously uncomfortable I’m my response. Sigh. I’d kicked myself at the time, and now I had a second chance that I was seriously considering brushing off. But realistically, I much prefer being approached to doing the approaching, as long as I don’t feel intimidated – let’s chalk it up to the shy, introverted, ugly duckling that inhabited my skin for so many years. (For the record, I certainly wasn’t approaching gorgeous, older men when I was 15. It’s hilarious to even try and imagine it…)
I got over myself and said hi to the girls, who immediately invited me to join them. See McKinnley, how hard was that? The best way to not be lonely, is to meet new people. Or call up old friends (but that’s not really an option for a few more days).
How to fill a day: Look at your options. Decide what you’d like to do. Take your time in fulfilling the desired tasks. Give in to whims and sudden desires. Savour as many moments as possible.
And so I’m sitting in a little open air restaurant, drinking a happy hour priced beer (650ml Everest lager, 199 rupees, which is about $2), and munching my way through a couple baskets of complimentary popcorn, while I alternately read and write. It’s delightful, truly. A belly fully of beer makes me feel tired, but when I check the time it’s only 6:30. It’s already dark out, and with limited power in Nepal it’s actually easy and rather satisfying to both go to bed and rise with the sun. But 6:30pm is a bit too early. I’ve been wandering the same street since about noon, so I’m about ready to return to my hotel room. The girls said there’s a popular bar to hang out and meet people, and it’s only a block from my hotel. Maybe I’ll head there..?by McKinnley
I’m in Nepal, a country I’ve mentally salivated over for years now. I paid a lot of money to be here, and spent a lot of time in transit to be here… And now I’m HERE. And I’m not exactly wondering why I’m here, but how I keep finding myself in these same situations. You know the ones – or maybe you don’t – where you’re in some exotic locale, everything is unknown and waiting to be explored, and you somehow decide (or not decide, exactly, it just kind of happens) to spend the afternoon walking aimlessly, wishing someone would suddenly appear and drag you off on an adventure, and then you spend the evening reading in your hotel room, wishing someone was there to drag you out to do something fun, and then with sheer force of will you put on your big girl pants and head out to the Busy Bee Cafe because you heard that’s where everyone goes, and you’re hoping the magic will finally begin to spin and weave around you, except you find yourself sitting in the back garden, alone, drinking a glass of candy-sweet red wine and wondering if everyone who ever described you as Adventurous is totally delusional or if you just fake it way, way too well.
I really really enjoy my alone time, but occasionally it’s more of a curse than a blessing.
How different would it be if I had a longed-for companion right now? We’d probably be sitting in much the same place, except we’d be playing a game of Crib, and I’d be talking instead of typing, and I’d care a little less that I wasn’t Meeting Anyone or Having The Time Of My Life. What exactly constitutes the The Time Of My Life?
For me it’s about connection. Being part of a group, or just sitting across from someone I enjoy. It generally doesn’t matter what we’re doing. So if people and connection is so overwhelmingly important to me, WHY AM I SO BAD AT MEETING PEOPLE AND MAKING FRIENDS?! One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose.
So I’ll just sit here with my strange wine and the statue of Buddha and the little fake waterfall and my iPad… I’ll play it cool and enjoy my time well enough, but secretly I’ll be hoping that someone can’t resist my allure and sits down beside me for a conversation. It’s tough spending so much time in my head.by McKinnley
I have a few more India and Nepal travel thoughts and tales still to post, but last week I took a little break and skipped off to Hawaii, so let’s talk about that.
Hawaii. Amazing. It was exactly what I needed. I love it when that happens.
March 11 I posted to my Facebook:
“Today. I’m so perfectly, blissfully content. I haven’t been this happy in months.”
A friend private messaged me: “Not to be rude, but were you not just traveling a bit ago? How could that be not happy?”
I wasn’t offended, in fact I was glad he’d asked: “Yes I was in India and Nepal a few weeks ago. It was an interesting trip, but sometimes cultural travel is more of an experience than a fun time. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but yesterday was filled with perfect weather, amazing food, a gorgeous hike through the forest and up a mountain to a spectacular view, a really cool fish market, tasty drinks, a fun game, lounging by the pool and some of my very favourite people ever.
I was comfortable and excited and peaceful all at once. I wasn’t lonely. I was doing exactly what I wanted and needed to be doing
The past few months have been stressful and sad and lonely… There have been good moments, but yesterday was ALL good moments, and it was very needed.”
Funny, but I didn’t realize how just OK I’d been, until suddenly I was deliciously, delightfully happy. Not that I’ve been unhappy.. The past 6 months have been tough and stressful, but I was never depressed to the point of not seeing the light, of not being able to laugh or appreciate how very much I have.
Comfortable. Excited. Peaceful. It had been awhile since I’d felt any of those things, let alone all three at the same moment.
I almost didn’t go to Hawaii. I’d only been home from my big travel for three weeks and I was just getting settled back into my cozy home life. I was doing lots of yoga and just getting my vibe (and flexibility) back after 5 weeks off. I was going to miss my drum class and a couple of practices, which really bummed me out. And work was cra-cra-craaaaazy. I didn’t see how I could leave again, nor did I want to. But, my plane ticket was already booked, so on Sunday, March 9, I got home from work at 1:45am, 15 minutes later it was 3am (thank you Daylight Savings), I haphazardly packed my suitcase then fell into bed for less than 2 hours of sleep before heading to the airport. Phew.
And then suddenly I was enveloped with perfect 23 degree sunshine, surrounded by some of my very favourite people, and spending my days doing only things I love: hiking, surfing, walking down the beach, yoga, checking out new places (the North Shore!!), playing games, reading, laying by a pool, having great conversations, cooking.. The time was busy, but completely relaxed. It was EXACTLY what I needed, and I’m so glad I went.
Back home again, the buzz has worn off a bit, but like any good drug, I’m chasing that high. I feel my best when I’m up early, accomplishing a lot, spending time in nature, and connecting with people. I can’t do much about the weather here, or the lack of surf, but I can focus on doing things that make me feel comfortable, excited and peaceful. Like drum circles. Planning dinner parties. Buying new books (E-Squared – Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality). And daydreaming about owning a surfboard, and only brushing my hair once a month.
There are always ups and downs.. It’s nice to hit a solid up though!
What feelings do you want to chase a little more in your own life? Tell me in the comments – I love conversations and connecting!by McKinnley
And thankfully the next day is better. One of the girls I’m with volunteers at an organization in Calgary, which runs a school in Delhi. They’ve asked that she check on the school while she’s here. The four of us are supposed to go visit together, but the other two girls decide they should go to the train station to buy tickets they’ll need in a few days. So it’s just she and I. I actually have no idea what we’re going to see and I’m vaguely annoyed to be running an errand instead of exploring, but there’s no way I’m going out into the streets alone again.
We spend an hour in traffic, then get into a second car with the school director, who drives us to the outskirts of Delhi, past sprawling farm estates that no longer farm, and into one of Delhi’s infamous slums. My interest is definitely piqued.
The director tells us how the slum kids have some opportunity for education, but not enough to make a difference. He also explains that public schools, even outside the slum, are often taught by teachers who can’t actually pass the exams themselves. The quality of education is appalling low, plus girls rarely stay past primary school, with boys generally dropping out around middle school. This organization runs a school in each of Delhi’s eight slums. They are free, but attendance is limited to those who’ve signed up, since space is minimal. The school we visit has three rooms, each about 7 feet square. They have thirty students, age 6-14 officially, but there are a few tiny kids that can’t be more than four. The kids seem shy, but when we pull out our cameras they perk up, and it’s not long before they’re all demanding we take their photo, and then wanting to see the shot from the back of the camera. They are beautiful.
We take a walk through the slum, us two white girls with the school director and another man to lead us. It is what I expected, but it’s still shocking to see it in person: as far as the eye can see is a “tent village” created from scraps of metal, wood, cloth and plastic. Shelters really give the barest hint of actual shelter, and privacy is practically non existent. It is dirty, and barely contains the most basic of human needs. There is a truck that comes by daily with drinking water, that the residents must line up with their own containers to fill, and hope they have enough to get by until the next truck arrives.
And yet as we walk by most people grin and wave at us. In fact, we come upon a group of women who are shaping flour dough into circles, which the men are frying into chapatti (a type of bread), and they wave us over to join their circle for a photo opportunity. There are so many things I want to photograph in the slum, but I feel intrusive snapping pictures of their life, a white girl behind a lens who is excited by the novelty but will sleep soundly in her pristine hotel that night.
The women then indicate “food” and our guide translates that they’re asking us if we want to eat. I don’t hesitate to accept. Apparently they are having a celebration because a home has been built, a more permanent structure of concrete, and it’s ready for people to move into. About 35 people are having lunch and everyone seems excited. They take us inside the house and seat us on a small couch. We four are the only ones inside, everyone else is sitting in the courtyard on the ground. I understand that they are honouring us with the couch, but I’d rather be with the rest of the group in the courtyard. They fill our dishes with a vegetable curry, fresh chapatti, and a rich rice pudding with chunks of fresh coconut. It’s delicious. I clean my plate and when the girl I’m with only has one bite, I finish hers as well. It will turn out to be one of the best meals I have in India. And it was offered to me, a stranger, free of charge, from a bunch of people who will live out their entire life in a slum. It was humbling. And my first experience with the incredible hospitality of Indian people.
As we walk back to the school, I see a bunch of kids playing in the dirt road. One little boy is rolling a scooter tire down the road with a stick, and I try really hard to get a picture of him because the only time I’ve seen such a thing is in old-timey photos from the early 1900’s! He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and I can’t help but reflect on all the kids I see in Canada who are surrounded by piles of toys, games, books and electronics, yet they’re still whiney, demanding, bored and unhappy. How easily we become spoiled and complacent by the bounty, the excess, we Westerners are surrounded with. He’s also wearing a pair of filthy grey sweatpants, clearly his only pair of pants because the seat is completely worn out and I can see his little brown bum peeking through.
It’s so unfair, this world, this life. And I’m so, so grateful that I was born into a happy, healthy family, raised with a roof overhead and more than my base needs being met, in a country where freedom is the norm and opportunity abounds for anyone willing to step up and take it.
This is one of the reasons I love to travel. The perspective it gives. Somehow seeing a photo of a slum in India just isn’t the same as walking through one, and being greeted by the smiling children there.by McKinnley
“India is one of those trips that gets better the further you’re removed from it,” my friend Steve tells me as he’s driving me to the airport, “The stories you’ll tell later on will be totally worth it, so try and keep perspective.” I knew exactly what he was referring to.
I have a painting on my wall that reads, “Travel is Life,” but just because I love traveling doesn’t mean it’s all excitement and ease and pleasure. The actual travel part is exhausting; planes, trains, buses and cabs that are generally crowded and usually desperately uncomfortable. (Boats, however, are awesome. Always choose boats when given the option.)
There other things that are uncomfortable as well: in my opinion water closets are one of the worst offenders. They are small bathrooms which include a shower, but without a curtain or any barrier, so when you shower you have to sidestep the toilet, and everything in the room gets soaked. Your clothes and towel have to be balanced on some tiny surface that you hope stays dry, or left outside the door. Once you’re finished the entire room is wet, so when you re-enter later on – to brush your teeth or look in the mirror or use the toilet – you have to either wear shoes, or strip off your socks and enter barefoot, and either way your wet feet track that soapy shower water all over the floor in the main room. It’s just plain stupid.
The reason I travel is to experience differences, but many MANY times those differences have left me desperately wanting my own home, my own bed, my own bathroom, my own kitchen, my own culture. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, realizing just how much I enjoy my “regular” life, learning to recognize and appreciate the usually mundane details.
More times than I can count, the inside of my head has screamed, “What am I doing here?!” But the moments of enjoyment and wonder far outweigh all the complaints.
And since nobody wants to hear about the parts of travel that suck, those of us who indulge our itchy feet learn to either keep our trials and tribulations silent, or if they’re worthy enough complaints we turn them into glossy tales that somehow sound exciting, even though they weren’t. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what happens in our own brains; given enough time the tough parts tend to fade away, or somehow become exotic and romantic, hence Steve’s sage advice to me.
. . .
Present time, January 16: My first day in India. I’m a relatively seasoned traveler, and I’ve been repeatedly warned about the unique challenges in this country. I’m ready. I arrive at my hotel around noon, not having slept in nearly 48 hours and I can’t sleep now or I’ll be ruined. I’m hungry, a little bored, and anxious to explore, plus, I need to keep moving so I don’t fall asleep. I envision myself checking out the neighbourhood, discovering a cozy coffee shop or a sweet market, having an awesome meal, then telling my friends all about it when they show up around 6pm.
The guy at the front desk points me in the right direction and I head out. Almost immediately a pretty girl of about 12 trots to my side and starts chattering at me, not unpleasantly, but her eyes are pleading. I can’t understand her words, but I know she wants money or food or both. A man appears at my side and warns me in English not to give her anything, because as soon as I do every child in the vicinity will show up for a handout. Hmm. Ok.
The man asks me where I’m from and how I’m doing and what I’m looking for. He’s not pushy, but he’s completely unshakeable, and the Canadian in me is far too polite to speak sternly, or simply *gasp* ignore him. Sigh. The girl, behind the man’s back, catches my eye and shakes her head in a gesture that clearly means I shouldn’t accept any help from him. Right. Ok…
So they are quietly warning me about each other, and it would be comical if I weren’t so overwhelmed. I’ve been “exploring” for about 6 minutes, on a quiet street, and I’m this >-< close to turning and running.
Instead, I forge ahead, other men calling out questions and offering assistance, the first man and girl sticking to my side like glue, a second girl joining my unwanted posse.. I’ve gone about three blocks. I really want some authentic food from a street stall sizzling nearby, but more than that I want to be rid of all the attention. So I duck into a shiny red and black restaurant that has a big glass door, and flop into the first booth. There are seven tables and five staff members, which seems like overkill – I soon discover this is commonplace: even the six by four foot stall selling shoes on the street has four guys who are eager to spend 20 minutes helping you try on 20 different styles – which is kind of awesome customer service, if you can get past the total overwhelm.
I order and eat, painfully aware that I have no idea how to do so properly or politely. There are too many little bowls and plates, there’s only a single utensil, a spoon. I just get on with it and the servers try to keep their staring discreet.
I feel better and step outside to continue my exploration. Immediately the man and two girls pop up and begin trotting along at my elbows. I deflate.
The girls hustle me toward a tiny stall filled with packaged snack food. I’m bewildered and completely unsure what to do. The stall-keeper asks if I’m going to purchase them something. He looks at me with nonchalant disapproval, which seems contradictory but is another thing I soon encounter all over the place. Even if they think it’s a bad idea, Indians are too polite to tell you not to do it, they just look at you with that peculiar expression, which makes you second-guess even your most confident decisions. The guy manning the desk at my hotel did it to me repeatedly during my stay, and it made me want to shake him and demand that he give me some sound and definitive advice, because damn it, that’s his job! Instead, he just kept agreeing to whatever it was that he thought I thought I wanted…
Anyway, the shopkeeper is looking at me, the girls are bouncing in expectation, and there is a gaggle of other spectators waiting to see what the white girl is going to do.
I turn and walk away rapidly, trying not to hyperventilate.
I go straight back to the hotel, trying and failing to fend off any more attention or questions. My outing lasted less than an hour. I’ve been in India for less than three hours, and I’m bordering on panic.
I tell myself I’ll never be able to navigate my way through these streets. That I’ve made a horrible mistake in coming here, wasted my time and money. I replay Steve’s advice and wonder what stories I’ll be able to salvage, or create, for those at home, who expect tales of grand adventures…
I spend the next five or so hours locked in the hotel. My friends finally arrive. The one who’s previously been to India chastises me for going out alone, which increases my anxiety and makes me a little bit angry. We eat. They talk. After 51 hours I finally lay down in bed to sleep, hoping Day 2 is better.by McKinnley