Get Out There

The benefits of facing your fears and pushing yourself to go outside your comfort zone, are exponentially rewarding. Each time you achieve something on your own, you buoy up your confidence and your ego, and that means you can go on to to do even more adventurous things.

Visiting a foreign country on your own seems to be something most people are afraid of, or maybe it’s just women. But as I’ve said before, the advantages, like being adopted by strangers and following your own interests and timetable, outweigh the disadvantages. Once you’ve done it, it gets easier. I’d recommend going somewhere similar to home first then stepping up the ante. I started with domestic travel in Australia, then moved on to Ireland, and now it’s India.

Exploring on your own, day or night, seems scary to some, as well. I know I’ve talked about this before but I want to reinforce that it’s worthwhile. I want to share some examples I experienced in India to convince you.

Catching the train from Mumbai to Goa, nine hours on my own, was far easier than I anticipated. I did need help finding the platform but that wasn’t bad. I brought my packed lunch and mini-thermos of masala chai, and found that tea, snacks and lunch were provided! Mind you, I wouldn’t eat it, but that’s pretty convenient.

Hiring a driver is essential for safe and time-efficient site-seeing in a place like India but it’s not necessary for short trips with a purpose. I could have opted for hotel transport to and from the Jaipur Writers Festival but choosing to take the auto rickshaw was fun and gave me some of my best photos. And a real taste of being a local. Apart from motorbikes, this is one of the key ways for locals to get around. They’re really cheap and give you an authentic experience.

On my first night in Varanasi, I went along the promenade of the Ganga to survey the area before dinner. Being sensibly cautious I first asked the hotel staff if it was safe to do so, since it was dark. Their answer was absolutely. There were so many people going about their business: chatting, bathing in the holy river or sending candles off in little foil trays with a prayer. A young man started walking alongside me asking, where are you from? The usual conversation starter! Did I feel threatened? Not at all. Was I wary? Of course! When he asked if I’d like to see the cremation site, I said yes, but it wasn’t like I was following him up a back alley. I was in plain view of everyone and he offered pieces of information which were helpful. When he offered to guide me the next day, I firmly told him that I already had a guide, gave him 100 rupees (AUS$2) to make him happy, and left. It was a positive start to the trip.

The next night, I attended a religious festival, which happened to coincide with my being there. There was a huge number of people and a lot of noise. As a single, I could climb over people that were seated at the front to perch myself in a tiny spot. I squeezed in to cross my legs next to a dark, sari-clad lady who smiled, made a bit more room, then helped me put red paste on my forehead. She even shared flower petals with me. I was delighted and I think she was too. Returning to the hotel, a kilometre walk along the Ganga bank, I got even closer to the cremation site than the night before. About five pyres burned, flames reaching metres high and smoke billowing, stinging my eyes while my ears and chest vibrated with the loud beating of drums. I finished off the evening with feeding a mother dog and her four puppies, and three cows, my left over dinner of naan bread and vegetable kebabs. (I’d asked the restaurant to pack it in a takeaway bag for my lunch!) This whole experience, which I wouldn’t have had if I’d been too anxious about going out, will always stay with me as a highlight.

Finally, in Kolkata, I left my lovely hotel, a cocoon of peace and safety (but also rather un-thrilling for dinner for one), and discovered a buzzing hive of brightly-lit activity, just outside the gate. Night markets were right there and as I stepped through the crowd of buyers and sellers, I watched as locals examined the clothes, stainless steel pots and embroidered tablecloths. I even bought a couple of things myself. Young people gathered around food stalls and stood eating dishes that I now recognised. The aromas of sweet spices and garlic made me hungry so I pressed on to the rooftop bar and restaurant recommended to me by my guide earlier in the day. I was thrilled that the atmosphere was both vibrant, enhanced by contemporary (Bollywood-style) music, and comfortable, with white cane chairs, orange cushions and marble table tops. And the food was tasty and inexpensive. It was another authentic experience that I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in the hotel.

I want you to understand that these moments not only enhance my travel experience but also help me grow as a strong and curious person. These are the building blocks for developing a joyous and purposeful life and I hope I can encourage you to take the first step towards doing this for yourself. We can all do it if we start with baby steps. It’s taking a leap of faith, even if it’s off the bottom step first.

“Be brave. Without bravery, you will never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, your life will remain small – far smaller than you probably wanted your life to be.”
Elizabeth Gilbert.

PS Adventures don’t always run smoothly. Things do go wrong and they can hurt. But whether they’re negative experiences or learning experiences is how you view it. I’ve had worse but I’ll tell you this tale because I see it as funny!

On my last day in Varanasi, I decided to see an Ayurvedic doctor, as much for the experience as a curiosity about advice he would give me. I followed a hand-drawn map scribbled on a napkin by my guide the previous day. This was challenging and fun, a bit like orienteering. I had to catch a boat first, a ride of 30 minutes, and get off at Assi Ghat. Then I turned left at the steps and right at the chai shop and past the ATM and up to a big house on the right. On the way, I was stopped by a thin woman carrying a toddler and an empty baby bottle. ‘No money,’ she said. ‘Baby formula, milk!’ And she waved the bottle at me. ‘No money, milk for the baby,’ she begged again. Well, what could I do? I asked, ‘Where do I get the formula?’ ‘The shop, follow!’ she said, beckoning me with a wave of her hand. I followed her to a shop twenty metres away and she requested the formula from the shop owner. ‘Two,’ she suddenly appealed, touching my arm and leading my gaze to the toddler. So again what could I do? Okay, two! I was surprised at the cost and exclaimed it. The shop owner showed me the box and the price was printed on the packaging. ‘Okay!’ I nodded, reaching into my purse, mumbling to myself, No wonder she can’t afford it! The baby pinched my arm, a little painfully, in gratitude. He was quite strong!! I took their photo, which was reverse begging really. I love my people photos.

So….I went to the doctor. I stepped past the lazing cows and into his house foyer. He spoke English, was kind and intelligent and basically told me I was going to be fine. Ayurvedic doctors are free so of course I believe him. This was a truly positive experience.

Back to the lady and toddler. I sent a message to my guide saying how helpful he’d been in his recommendation of the doctor and map drawing. I said something brief about the lady and buying milk. He replied that I’d been ripped off, that she would take it back to the shop and get a refund. 600 Rupees (AUS$12) it cost me! I sent the photo and he sent back, ‘Ya, I know dis bloody leady.’ This made me laugh at myself so hard, I may have looked crazy. Really, did it hurt? No! Did I learn something about life in a hard world. Yes. About myself. Yes! So end of story. Another great experience!

Blending In or Standing Out

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Just because I feel like a local in Udaipur, India, doesn’t mean the locals think I’m one!

I’m at ease here, relaxed and bouncy as I walk the alleyways and say Namaste to shopkeepers. I smile and they return the grin. My head wobbles in reply to theirs, a conversation in itself. But I know I stand out. They’re looking, watching to see what I do, hoping I’ll stop to buy or give them a chance to talk about the cricket or tennis. They love us Aussies! They’ve all got a relative or an Australian story.

When I sight-see like a tourist, I mingle with the Indian tourists. They’re having a good time, always: couples, young families, extended families. Their language is soft. They chatter and laugh. We admire each other, for once again, I stand out. Sometimes I ask, may I take your photo? The girls pose, just like in any other part of the world. The men proudly hold their children – and the kids are so cute! But they often approach me first: can we have a selfie? I always oblige and grin at the camera. I’ve even been passed their toddlers for a special photo, as if I’m royalty.

I’ve been to two pujas, Hindu prayer ceremonies. I like to integrate and immerse myself in the culture and I’m rewarded for my efforts. I buy a garland for 50 rupees ($1), a tiny price for such an intricate floral work. I take it up the stairs, leaving earth behind, and barefoot, enter the temple. I sit on the floor, cross legged and try to get comfortable. I return the looks of worshippers and smile. They smile back. I copy their actions and stand when they do. I clap and line up to give my offering and accept the holy rosewater in my hand. I act like I sip it but I don’t. I do pour it over my head and run it through my hair. I enjoy the bells, the chanting, the drum and the finger-cymbals. And the people love that I’m there. I can see it on their curious faces. When I go outside, I get the rock-star treatment. Grown men are the most bold: can we have a selfie? What can I say but, of course!

Cows are sacred here and roam the streets. In some areas, there’s too many and I feel sorry for them. They’re thin and eat rubbish – literally; I saw a calf eating a cardboard box. People throw out food scraps for them but it can’t be enough. Here in Udaipur, though, they look okay. Today I saw a pile of chapatis in a feeding spot. I touch my fingers to my lips and pass the kiss to the cow, as I’ve seen locals do. I wish it well! It doesn’t look too sure!

It’s harder for me to cope with the dogs. There’s so many street dogs and hierarchy is everything. The tough ones, the intimidators, get the little food that there is. Small fights can be heard too often. Last night I was watching a dog from the steps of the temple. He was pressing forward onto the street, clearly terrified, with his tail wrapped firmly under his bottom. He started to bark at nothing in particular, but facing the traffic. I so wanted to comfort him but didn’t dare.

This morning I took the toast from my breakfast in the hope that he’d still be there and I could offer some kindness. He was curled up in the sun on a platform at the temple. I broke the toast and handed him a piece, moving and speaking as gently as I could. He was looking at me dubiously when a beggar-child approached. She looked at the toast and pointed, then touched her mouth. I understood this language and asked, do you want this? She looked back to her mother who was sitting on the steps. The mother nodded at me. I handed it over. A man came over and softly said to her, thank you. She turned to me and said it with a smile. I was glad to give her some coloured pencils and notepaper I carry for this purpose, as well. The vast difference between me and that child’s mother does not escape me.

Fortunately, beggars are greatly reduced in this country. The prime minister, Mr Modi, is doing a fine job. Education, including the removal of false teachers, health, including free care for those on the poverty line, jobs, including bringing in villagers to clean up the roadside rubbish, and free food from vans parked around the hospitals, are all a part of his programme. Let’s hope he gets voted in again, despite the corrupt forces gathering strength to get him out and renew their own power. See, I’m even interested in the politics! I really do feel like a local!

But my time here is temporary. I’m an observer and I’m observed. I’ll never know what effect I might have on someone’s day or path, just by the interaction. And vice versa!

Namaste.