Flickers of lightning are faint but always to the left of my aim toward the horizon. They provide an additional layer of drama to my nighttime ride home from the city of Hyderabad. I booked a taxi with the help of a Hindi-speaking friend, someone whom I quickly and liberally offered my trust purely on the grounds of intuition. Hair still wrapped from a previous motorbike ride, I hope it helps me evade any potential disturbance I've been warned about, regardless of how secure I feel with being in a taxi at 8pm in the countryside. My iPhone low in my lap, I text my new friend to say that my limited Hindi and our common ground of "right, left, and straight" have brought me back to where I'm living for the next four months.
The wheels of my plane hit a rainy runway on August 12th, but it was only on the first of September that I felt the sensation of travel. It coincided with when I fully accepted being completely out of my comfort zone; I was 95% vulnerable and guarded just enough to remain strong.
Three weeks of work on a remote boarding school campus have been fruitful in different ways but not for a sense of discovery. Discovery is necessary for all, and I think we often mistake it for travel as is. Discovery needs to be regularly pursued, especially when you're merely displaced.
As I sit in the back of this taxi, I replay the events of my afternoon and attempt to identify the causes of my current emotional cocktail: gratitude, awe, and mild anxiety.
It did not take long to make a friend in the city. The mall is quite the meeting point. At the mention of a motorbike ride, I immediately recognized the downfalls of my chosen weekend wardrobe of skirts. In order to not fly through the city lookin' like a hussy, we met another day at a store to purchase something fitting for the experience. I looked down, stared at fabrics, and draped potential purchases over my exposed shoulders with the hope that I didn't attract unwanted stares and judgement.
My shopping companion noted I was overwhelmed with the available prints, the swarm of bodies surrounding me, and the weird-factor of perusing salwar kameezes with a new acquaintance in India. His recruitment of a salesman made the decision easy; big flowy pants with a matching top of a beautiful mulberry hue. He also anticipated that my American credit card would not register as functional in this setting, and that's how a dude I barely knew bought me an Indian outfit (and subsequently wouldn't accept reimbursement).
After changing out of my hussy attire in the mall washrooms, we went on a quest for real coffee beans, a new cutting board (thanks to my roommate's recent cockroach massacre), and special crackers from the state of Gujarat. A standard grocery run. Placing all of this into my little drawstring bag was an interesting game of squishy Tetris, but I certainly didn't want to have another bag on a motorbike.
When we emerged from the parking garage, we hit watercolor skies and the relatively serene close of a day. We coasted on the crust of the sprawling, open landscape of Hitec City, never lost or drowning in the sea of wheels and walls. The ancient rocks of the terrain were matte finished, radiating with warm light from a blazing cloud. The "scooty" calmly merged directly into traffic, while its second passenger froze and squealed. I had nothing between me and India but the air on which travel can be found, ready to weave between the hairs on your head.
Once again, I used my gut instinct to judge whether I should put my life in someone else's hands, and it was worth it–to experience a road I've traversed before but in a whole new way.
The sun was low, and lightning was visible in the distance. We stopped for me to wrap my head with my new matching scarf but only after shooting down some real, street-side chai. Parked behind a semi-truck at the edge of the city, I finally stopped to consider the possibility that I was too vulnerable. Sure, I told this new friend I knew martial arts in a joke, but that quick mention of physical insurance didn't aim to be convincing nor was it. I wasn't threatened. But as a regular over-thinker, I let self-doubt tell me this non-threatening scenario needed to be feared. I let that feeling sit just below the surface as we rode to get something spicy before my taxi arrived.
Careful not to get cab too late by yourself.
An SMS delivering old advice from my roommate hit me like new information. I was just getting ready to pile in some spicy vegetables with my right hand and chat about Indian culture. Am I vulnerable? Darkness almost demands that realization. Do I know the way home? Do I trust the taxi driver to get me there? These worries were subtle and almost overshadowed by good conversation and veggie chomping.
Travel starts in the mind.
Over these nomadic years, I've grown to trust my internal compass. Staring out the window upon arrival and always feeling north, I claim to sniff my way around the world. That's how I made it home tonight with a cab driver who had never been on these roads before.
What I have less hope of intuitively knowing are cultural nuances that identify the line between appropriate and inappropriate, safety and danger, good and malicious. Was I wrong not to force him to accept my reimbursement of the salwar kameez? Was I crazy for riding in India on the back of a motorbike with noggin unprotected? Do I put too much trust in my gut instinct?
I felt this mix of emotions as a result of embracing a sense of discovery, not comfort. Travel is movement, which could encompass every moment. But I feel that the exhilarating "sense of travel" we all seek cannot be considered a given when moving; it starts in the mind as a shift to embracing discovery, the conscious act of unearthing a thing or feeling previously undiscovered.
And at this school whose air fills with bold statements about travel, I find myself contemplating my own balance of these two mental engagements daily, though rarely achieving that balance even when I'm technically traveling. I hope I continue to harness that sense of discovery as often as possible, identify the emotions and experiences that result, and allocate the proper amount of time and effort to translate this act to my students and beyond.
Or maybe I should leave that task to the writing professionals who inspire us all to go somewhere, anywhere, for that enviable exhilaration.
Songs of the open road by Walt Whitman, poem 3
You air that serves me with breath to speak! You objects that call from diffusion my meanings, and give them shape! You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers! You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides! I think you are latent with unseen existences—you are so dear to me.