I flew to the other side of the world and built a simple, normal life in a mountain town.
Routines in Chicago swept significance aside, making me groan about the speed at which my life flowed, driving me away from the familiar and up into the Himalayan Mountains. Where I proceeded to reconstruct my life back in the States.
It’s not simply that I lingered for a month, with regular (although volunteer) employment and friends. I organized a solo female traveler’s women’s group, complete with meetings, a contact list, and casual events. Once I started helping one of my charity’s co-founders with networking, community development, and social media, it became quite clear that I had to leave McLeodganj if I was going to do any of this solo work.
But routine can be a gift once you see it form unexpectedly. I could see how significance was built, as I grew to know more and more people after starting with nothing, and saw my friendships deepened. For a brief time, I could feel as if I lived in McLeodganj.
When we follow the routes that have been laid before us without examination or thought, it is harder to see their complexity and importance. To live in Chicago and never go to the top of the Sears tower is normal; and almost every tourist attempts it. I tried to get to the top of the tower before I left, but I was too busy saying goodbye to friends. How beautiful is that?
Once I realized I was nearly halfway through my time in India, I knew I had to go or I would not finish in time. I closed down my life, passed on my responsibilities, and packed. Again.
One particular good-bye was difficult. My friend/co-worker/boss and I had become close friends; I had come to respect how her insight and humor helped me process the challenging side of India. My visions of self-improvement, of yoga and Hindi classes, fell aside as I focused on the café, on her dreams and story.
We hugged goodbye and I promised to return; when I said I would miss her as well, she responded with her classic “Truly??”
Leaving me with the café, off to finish work at the office, she shouted “sange jeyo!” through the open window. In Tibetan, the words for “goodbye” actually mean “see you tomorrow,” making it feel as if I would greet her the next morning like always, and begin to mop the floors while she sets out the baked goods, and we tell each other our stories and ideas for the future.
I will miss her, and my life there. Truly.
My backpack has been packed and repacked, straps adjusted, objects shuffled around or abandoned. I’ve poured over the guidebooks, chosen my gear (it took months to settle on a mosquito net), and made contacts in India. I’ve got a notebook with carefully recorded directions, safety instructions, and advice.
It’s been six months since the seed of this journey was nestled into my brain, an offhand comment that rolled through my mind during one restless night and bore a lengthy email to my family – a declaration of intent-to-travel that has manifested in my small, overbearing pack, ten shots of various unpleasant and/or deadly diseases, and a six-month visa for India.
I’m living the Gap Year Traveler, mixed with some New Age Pilgrimage and Wandering Soul.
Intense preparation was part escape, as I tired of DePaul and being a College Student. It also shaped my understanding of the coming months, taking note of where I felt called to, how the places related to each other, the path found in maps and ideas. But, most of all, it is my liberation. With extra caution and understanding, I can take calculated risks that push myself and my journey farther into adventure and fuller engagement.
While you could argue that a traveler is going out to “find herself,” the experience has been more an education in perspectives. Some self-reflection slides in with the fresh understanding. Several summers ago, in Europe, I noticed that reactions to my eating vegan revealed how people viewed their food – from a plastic-encased, disconnected food product that silently appears in the grocery store to a purchase from a known farmer’s cows that someone passes every day. Even before I cross into a new culture, reactions to my journey expose how others understand their lives and roles in society. Each encounter produces a particular form of lifestyle that otherwise might blend into a generic “normal” somewhere in the world. It all sounds very grand, a journey to India, but it is a matter of perspective. This is tame travel to many people, to others it is nearly unthinkable – “but who are you going with?” I promise, I do not hold any pretense of innovation or uniqueness.
For the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking “but what does it mean?” over and over: an attempt, perhaps, to comprehend this new way of moving through the world as I wait at the precipice, the potential that the next piece of my life could hold. This has been a summer of waiting in the distance, a slow advance in a watery neutral space. Here, sitting in the O’Hare airport with my netbook balanced on my knee and surely-soon-to-be-thinned objects waiting beside me, something has concluded. Yet somehow still here in the liminal space, not quite on the official journey, I have reached a new dimension of anticipation. An inner quietness, a familiar traveling mindset that I feel descend whether I am waiting for a bus or a lift. A space where constancy is in the movement, where the temporality of life is more fully present, where beginnings and endings are pronounced. I am shifting into a different way of moving through the world, as I will shift through many spaces and forms in my life.
So. To India.