Life on the road

Published On: December 22, 2018 12:10 AM NPT By: Shruti Achal

Shruti Achal

Shruti Achal

The contributor for Republica.

I have fallen head over heels in love with places and people, colors and lights, cuisine and tastes and words and worlds

I have lost count of how long I have been left enamored with the idea of insignificance, anonymity and impermanence that travel renders us. To feel that you are nobody, to see your vanity coming out of your shell only to crumble against the imposing mountains and bite the dust, tends to be liberating. To see that where you come from and where you shall return is one and the same can be exhilarating. 

My passionate and unending love affair with the roads commenced in 2004 when I took a bus from Mahendranagar to Kathmandu. The country was still in the throes of Maoist insurgency with the end nowhere in sight. Thanks to the frequent stops for security checks, it used to be a long ride spanning at least about a day and half. So, drenched with a blend of excitement and insurgency-induced anxiety, I boarded the bus. 

What I didn’t know yet was that travelling alone for a woman for the large part also pronounced getting violated and helplessly sitting at the backseat at the middle of the night with the shawls soaked in tears with nobody to turn to, and then, travelling on the same bus the next day. I was barely 16 then. That day, I was going to pay the price for resolutely refusing to be ‘disciplined’. And the night was poised to tell me in no uncertain terms that there are wonders in the world which will remain forbidden fruit for me because I am a woman. 

My first thought was: No, I don’t want to be feeling this again, and so, better not travel on my own henceforth. On a second thought, however, what really horrified me was not being forbidden from exploring these, but the limitation of imagination and horizon that it would engender, the inner fortitude and strength that comes from going out there in the world, stumbling down and rising up again, the perspectives and wisdom that you can build only on the richness of experiences. Simone de Beauvoir writes in the opening of The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” I declined to become one. 

As a child, I would revel so much in getting lost and blazing my own trail in the woods, or climbing trees and dancing on the branches or simply standing ashore alone gazing at the stillness of the lakes. My fondest anticipation would be that of elaborate Poojas and rituals when I could so effortlessly duck my endearing grandma’s eyes to gather my friends and take them for a round or two of the village. My grandma, upon my return, would yell at the top of her voice: You seldom stay at home. You are always roaming about. My grandma is long gone, but my search for home is still on.

Blame it on my fear of domestication or the feminist instinct that runs deep in my blood, but it has always led me for a search for the home away from home.

Home and travel  
Many a times I have found that home in the dusty and bumpy road that leads you from Nanning (China-Vietnam border) to Hanoi on the other side, in the cacophony of the autos and tuk-tuk that surround you with their ‘cheapest’ and ‘fairest’ hotel deals when your one foot is still on the bus. I have found that home in the sun-rise over Angkor-Watt temples, in the inviting beaches of Sihanoukville, cruising in the Healing Bay and Mekong River Delta. At other times in the sea and borders separating and connecting countries of Western Europe. 

Not to say that solo backpacking always makes for a smooth sailing. More often than not, it doesn’t. To wait for the visa at the immigration squeezed for hours is no fun. Struggling to order for vegetarian dish when you have almost lost patience with hunger is no fun. Being cheated with fake currency at the border is no fun. 

Sometimes putting your inner compass on helps a lot. Stress vanishes as you continue on the journey. As it merges with the loudest and wildest night parties in Bangkok that force you to peel off all your layers of monotheistic morality and find it again beyond the hand-me-down comfort zones of good and evil or at the Potala Palace looking beyond its confused destiny or sobering heart-wrenching encounters in Killing Fields in Phnom Penh or Nazi memorials in Berlin. 

As such you sink your tooth into the cities and you see that there are no such cities in the world that were immune to the ravages of war and destruction at one juncture or the other. Yet, like the mythical Phoenix, today they stand tall and glorified in their accomplishments. 

I have always found crossing borders particularly fascinating. To see that the earth is but only a vast stretch of land punctuated by the historical political incidents and how the fate of having born to a few kilometers away could affect our lives so drastically is fascinating. To see how these demarcations then constitute a part of national memory weaved into the narratives to enforce loyalty and submission is enlightening.

Travel in all its consistencies and contradiction is a journey on its own. I have fallen head over heels in love with places and people, colors and lights, cuisine and tastes and words and worlds. And because, like youthful romance, these experiences are bound to be transient, I have desperately wished to cling to it. Not to possess it in any way but to selflessly take care of its pristine beauty once and for all.

I am not sure if Eve was made out of Adam’s ribs. As a feminist, I resent this notion. But I would like to believe that Adam or any of my remote forefathers, as the Biblical myth goes, were made out of soil. That alone explains my longing to be on the road and surrender to where it takes.

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