By Aishwarya Guha
Discovering travel in my early 20s was truly a great thing. It allowed me to see beyond the confines of culture, tradition, food, and gender, but after a decade of globetrotting, the places, the people, and the people of the places, all start to feel like carefully curated prototypes of each other.
In the early 2010s a Epicurean travel fantasy emerged – a girl with messy hair, an intense sunburn, and a dirty backpack. The one who has chosen a nomadic life of uncertainty, and sent a giant fuck you in the face of convention. For a whole decade of my life, I was that girl.
The first time I travelled by myself was on my 21st birthday. It was 2008 and #wanderlust hadn’t become a thing yet. That one-day trip to Pondicherry was then, a life-affirming journey. I realised the truth of my life – I wanted to be a traveller. It was perfect. I found #liberation and lots of cheap vodka.
For the following 10 years, all life decisions were guided by what would allow me the most amount of flexibility and travel time, as I decided to seek my destiny while getting wasted on cheap local liquor. Every penny I painstakingly saved was spent buying tickets, meals, and drinks (many a time for fellow destiny-seekers) in obscure bars in obscure towns in obscure parts of India and South-East Asia.
It was early last year when, sitting at the poolside bar of my hostel in Vietnam, watching Western tourists who pretend to be “travellers” frolic around in the pool (instead of the sea which was a 100 metres away), I had another epiphany. I was too old for this shit.
The epiphany came thanks to this white boy, one they called the Vibe Manager – the gentrified, thoughtful term used in most hostels in Asia for the blonde, blue-eyed, lanky white boys, whose job description mandated him to flirt with the guests to get them to buy more drinks at the in-house bar. It was his question about what a pretty Indian girl (eye-roll) was doing on her own (massive eye-roll) that pushed me over the edge. It was post noon, and I was still on a glass of juice (I was recovering from an excessive bout of $2 cocktails from the night before), and a white boy chatting me up on my #Indianness yet again was not what my hangover needed.
Discovering travel in my early 20s was truly a great thing. It allowed me the privilege to see beyond the confines of culture, tradition, food, gender, and lifestyle choices I’d been born into.
Automatically, I started reeling off the answers to the questions I knew were coming. No, I did not want to eat, pray, or love. I didn’t like yoga. I did not eat a lot of vegetables or like soymilk. I did like birds and animals, but had no qualms whatsoever about eating them or their eggs as long as they tasted good. Add to that my inability (read refusal) to say “namaste” accompanied by a warm, heartfelt smile every time someone exclaimed, “Oh, you’re from India!”, was very confusing to them. I was not perennially pleasant or happy, had strong opinions about the politics of my country and theirs, and did not believe that suryanamaskar was the answer to all of life’s problems.
I’d repeated this over 50 times over the span of the last 15 days or so, sometimes more than once to the same person, and often in the exact same order.
From Vibe Manager’s expression I could tell that I clearly did not meet the standards required of a post-modern hippie. For one, I could hold my drink and my opinion. Wishy-washy philosophies no longer cut it for me. I wanted to know what triggered you to adopt eastern spirituality, or why you had “fernweh” tattooed on your feet, when you clearly had nothing to do with the country or the language, and in most cases were not aware that the word was in fact German. I could guzzle down pitchers of whiskey sour, so did not need you to hold my hair down when I upturned the contents of my intestines onto the floor, nor did I need you to drop me back safely to my hotel. In fact, I had often walked boys back to their hostels, because white privilege and a sense of direction in a new country while on gallons of alcohol don’t exactly often go together.
The Vibe Manager was just doing his job I guess, but I was done. I missed having a kitchen and a purpose, both in equal measure. And the purpose could not be to taste a sublime pepper sauce, or watch a traditional (but curated) dance performance. There was no doubting it, my life as a traveling nomad was coming apart. And then I met the Trustafarians.
Remember Marie Antoinette, and how she declared “Let them eat cake!” upon learning that the peasants had no bread? Trustafarians are the millennial rendition of this entitlement. They believe in beer yoga, but would bargain with the poor guide bent under the weight of their luggage. They look down upon the natives, while living in and making money off of their properties. They are free – not of prejudices – but of empathy and general knowledge, and naturally prefer drinking themselves silly to hold a conversation. Unfortunately, they also exude this coolth, sponsored by the superiority of their currency, often without realising how privileged they sounded, all the while avoiding going back home to a real job.
As much as my life was exhausting me, something else was also happening. Slowly and steadily, I was becoming a racist. I started discriminating against white people – indiscriminately. The English were too cocky, the French too rude, the Germans too unpredictable, the Americans, well Americans. I could trust an American to be in Cambodia and have no context to the genocide, I could trust the standard Irishman to be loud and sloppy (both in bars and in bed), and the standard Israeli to have maal on an Annapurna trek. All of this, while I was getting immensely annoyed at anyone who marvelled at the sight of an Indian girl travelling by herself. Irony was dying a slow and painful death.
This is all not to say that there is nothing in this travel thing. It has its moments. Like when you’re walking through the ruins of the 15th Century Khmer civilisation, wondering why you chose to do this on a hot sweaty day, you might meet this girl from Algeria, also travelling by herself. You’d chat her up over a cup of bad tea and good conversation, and you would reassuringly smile at each other for having to continuously fight the system to be on your own. Unfortunately though, these encounters were very few and far in between.
Discovering travel in my early 20s was truly a great thing. It allowed me the privilege to see beyond the confines of culture, tradition, food, gender, and lifestyle choices I’d been born into. It opened me up as a person – I learnt to let go of both plans and prejudices easily, was no longer scared of strange insects and hence could take a shit anywhere. I learned to read physical maps, and most importantly, learned to smile at strangers and talk to practically anyone.
But soon enough, a decade had passed, and I was not learning much more. The places, the people, and the people of the places, all start to feel like carefully curated prototypes of each other. The cultural exposure in them often being inversely proportional to how much you were willing to shell out for the experience. With every additional dollar you spent, the experiences got more suave, the English got less dialectical, and the cultural nuances became more standardised to cater to your needs.
After coming back from Vietnam, I did not travel again for a good year, until I got accepted for a vipassana course in Leh. It was the peak of stoic winter when I did, but at least this time I had a purpose and gave meaningless conversation a miss.
Then again, I fell in love with a man in the course of those ten silent days, was an emotional wreck, and inevitably had the whole thing blow up in my face a few months later, but that, is a whole different story altogether.
Aishwarya Guha is an author at Arre.
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