Sunday, January 24, 2016

First Workaway Experience- Pahang, Malaysia

Me: Ankit, can I ask you something?
Ankit: Sure.
Me: What the hell are we doing here?
Ankit: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, why in the name of god are we in Malaysia? Why are we walking in a random (albeit beautiful) garden in Malaysia? What's the reason? The purpose of all this?
Ankit: I have no clue.
Me: (Laughing) Dammed! This is so random. It sounds so romantic to pick up your bags and leave. But what once you reach? What then?
Ankit: I know. But, I guess it's important to move where we feel we should, although we don't know why we are moving.
Me: I was happy in India.
Amkit: Me too.

And we fell silent. This conversation BTW happened a day before we were to leave for our first workaway experience in Pahang, Malaysia. How clueless we were! No, we did not realize the bigger meaning of all this. It hit us only when we were on the plane back home. Only then did we figure out how all this randomness has changed us as people, forever. Nature has it's own way to direct us. We rarely appreciate it's intelligence.

This farm however,  was definitely the first step towards this change. We had left behind the status quo, the known and the comfortable. The present was making us question everything, including our relationship with each other. But most of all, it was making us acutely aware of our relationship with our own selves.

The farm was an unprecedented experience. Surrounded only by farms and hills for miles, the closest town was an hour's drive and no public transportation was available. There were four of us workawayers. A Canadian girl, Vanessa, George from US and the two of us Indians. The farm was a property of Hare Rama Hare Krishna foundation so the food we were served was vegetarian. Vanessa was vegan and George had given up meat years ago.

All of us had a room to ourselves with aircon. We had a common washing machine and a home theater with no cable connection. The Nepali farm hands did lend us some English movies.

It was a quite place. Too quite. The quietness felt like a spear going right through me. This was my first unofficial Vipasana training. The difference being that I didn't know that I was going through one. Day in and day out, I went to the farm, did the same monotonous work, ate the same food and sat with myself. For company, I had three people, going through the same emotional turmoil and an insane amount of space. The kind that brings out all the chaos inside you.

The mood was capricious, to say the least. Sudden happiness turning into wells of tears and the long hours of sleep amalgamating into anxious hours of complete wakefulness. I will never forget sitting on that bale of hay and watching the sun die day after day, with a sense of relief and something close to silence, inside me.

The work on the farm in itself wasn't back breaking. We did four-hour shift, two in the morning, two in the afternoon, where we did everything from packaging guava to taking a big herd of cows for grazing. It was physical and it felt good. There were many farm hands available who ran the show. We were just the extra hands that weren't really expected to work too much or too hard. They rarely asked us to work in fact. It was a sense of duty on our part that made us help them. Also, what else in the name of god were we going to do there!

But those planning to go for workaway projects, do not stress. It's hardly ever the kind of work that will require too much of your time or energy. It's mostly a platform where people meet people and learn how to live with the idiosyncrasies of everyone and with themselves.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Kuala Lumpur...The city of Transit.

In the next couple of days we saw a bit of Kuala Lumpur. It was a very different world. I remember walking on the roads and feeling different. It hit me later during one of my metro rides that the feeling was one of relief. Living in India it has become almost a second nature for me to expect people to stare at me. No, I am not the most beautiful creature that ever walked this earth. It's just that in my country, people stare. And I say people here because it is not just men, but quite literally everyone, including me. The fact that I am a young woman, I think I get stared at a little more than the rest, thanks to the male population of ours. It amazes me that with such a large citizenry, one would think that we would be tired of looking at people everywhere and just generally avoid looking at them. But nope. We stare.

So anyway, in Malaysia people don't. They simply look past you and are on their way. Please note I am not talking about the Indian population staying there. True to their roots they continue our tradition of staring at people. But the general population doesn't. I cannot tell you what a relief it is! It is a kind of freedom I was never aware that I didn't have. 

Now Kuala Lumpur in itself didn't impress me much. It's big, in parts grand, has better infrastructure and obviously less population. But it didn't really make much impact on me. Kuala Lumpur for me was a city in which people came only to go somewhere else. It was a stop over city, and it felt like one. It was nice and safe and oh so helpful, but it very clearly felt like a place that I was only stopping by, to rest for a bit, before I moved on to something more exciting and beautiful.

In fact, most people I met there felt more or less like this. It was a city some came for money, some for work and some to catch the next plane. Everyone though was clear. They didn't want to spend the rest of their lives there. Its also true that Kuala Lumpur sees migration of populous from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan & Syria. Mostly uneducated working class that lives at the edge of the upper echelons of the society. People who have their families and friends oceans apart and are forced to live in a country where they don't understand the language or the culture. Maybe it is that feeling that seeps in the corners of restaurants and subways and reach your heart. Maybe, maybe.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Kuala Lumpur City

In Kuala Lumpur I stayed with a couchsurfer in Taman Bhagia. My first experience living in somebody else’s place for free. The ultimate test for your ego and humility. You cannot demand but accept with gratitude that what you receive. Was I ready for it? In retrospect, yes. However, at that moment, in all honesty I was a bit unsure. While I have been a host many times, I had never been a couchsurfer before. It’s easy to give but difficult to receive. I guess because when you give, you give to whatever capacity you can and hence you are in control. When you receive, you have to be ready for whatever comes your way. I guess that makes receiving quite hard. The lack of control and the need for gratitude and humility involved. 
Anyway, I stayed with a Chinese girl who was running a guest house that she offered to couchsurfers when there were no bookings. Lucky for us, during our stay no new guests were expected. There were four of us in that Japanese style dormitory. A Canadian, a German and we two Indians. A motley group of people with little else in common but a lust for travel. Our host stayed at her apartment a little way from the hostel. We rarely saw her as she worked in the morning and came pretty late at night.
But on our second evening in her hostel, we did have a chat. She was a third generation Chinese living in Malaysia. Her grandparents came during the second world war and settled there. I asked her if there were many like her in Malaysia and she replied with an affirmation. In fact according to her, very few original Malays were left in Malaysia. The population as of now consists mostly of Chinese who married local Malay in their journey through history. We spoke about India a bit and she expressed her wish to come and visit the country. "I don't know but. It feels scary. I don't think I would come without a boyfriend," she said. I could not say anything to assure her that my country is safe. I wasn't really sure if it was or would be for her.
I smiled and went back to my room. I wasn't feeling too good. It was my first time out of the country and I was terribly missing my family and feeling completely out of place. The German came and saw me in tears. He was shocked when he realized why I was so upset. Genuinely shocked. He was 24 and had left his family when he was but 16. He thought he remembered being upset initially but he couldn't be sure about it. He spoke with his divorced parents once in a month and did not wish to go back.
During this conversation, the Canadian came and told me he was the only son of his still married parents. He missed them but wasn't ready to go back as yet. He couldn't connect with his friends and family. He couldn't understand how they can live in the same place and not have the urge to move. They couldn't understand his need to. He disliked the sameness of things. "They still speak about the same things they did 10 years ago. I don't get it," he said. I looked at him and wondered what I wouldn't give at this moment to sit in my home with my childhood friends and talk about our legendary stories from the past, the way we do so many times.
I looked at the Canadian as he moved away. He looked so distant. The German too eager. I picked up my mobile and called my parents. After crying my eyes out and done with feeling so disoriented, I walked to the drawing room. The Canadian planned to watch Gone Girl on the big TV and I didn't have anything better to do. All of us sat down to watch it. Right in the middle of one of the sex scenes, the movie stopped. Sitting in somebody else's house, who wasn't even there, watching a movie that decides to stop at this juncture with strange men from different countries, was an experience I will never forget. All of us stared straight ahead as if the movie was still on and no one moved a muscle. After 5 minutes of complete silence, I decided to break the awkwardness by saying it was too late and maybe we should all just call it a day.
We went back and slept on our comforters, lost in our own thoughts.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The tale of two cities

And we arrive in Kuala Lumpur. For the first couple of days it feels pretty lonely. I have no prior reference to fall back on, no friends who talk or understand my language and no streets that my feet know from years of travelling. It’s amazing how we take the smallest of things for granted in our daily lives and how those small things become jarring and attention worthy in a different land.

For example, back home I never looked twice at the texture or colour of our currency. Suddenly in Malaysia ‘money’ became currency and there were moments today when I was baffled to see this different note in my hand. People here are very quite. They are quiet on the streets, in malls, in trains, even the kids. In Mumbai, forever my wish was to have some peace and quiet. In all honesty, I have had long colourful fantasies of throwing giggling college girls and loud aunties from the train window. Today, the absence of this chaos was more disquieting than anything else. I felt as if I am walking in a land of zombies really. 

I also have no qualms in confessing that never and I mean never had I thought that I shall be feeling all of this. I have lived alone for more than 5 years and anyone closely acquainted with me knows my love for silence and loneliness. And yet, I am feeling all of this and more. I think one of the reason is the fact that prior to this my loneliness was by my own design. I could end it whenever I wished to. Today, that is not the case. There are external factors that are controlling the situation and frankly, I can’t do anything about them. It is sitting here in a beautiful hostel in Malaysia that I realize that control is the most difficult thing to let go.

No, I am not a control freak. Not even close. For the longest time (till last week actually) I prided myself in being the one who can ‘flow with the wind’ and let things come to her. But it was only today that I realized that while I never did seek to actively control things in my life, I knew in the back of my mind very clearly and definitively how things would turn out to be, with the given choices and options. I had people to fall back on, people to blame, people who would take the blame and places where I could confess and move on. There was certainty in life.

When you are travelling, specially outside your country, there is no certainty of anything. Where the bus comes from, where will you get vegetarian food (if at all), is it okay to be out till late, is it okay to crack a joke with the locals. Nothing. And this my friend is the crux of it all. The reason I was on the road.  

In life if you take away certainty then all that is left is you, your core and your senses. It prepares you for the worst while it shows you the best. Travel, I feel is the only good way I know to bring this uncertainty in life. The one that helps me meet me. The one that will show me my truth in all its colours, frustration and calmness. The one that will make me help live with myself day after day, year after year, decade after decade. 

Malaysia Travel Diary

In the past couple of months my life has changed dramatically. For more than 3 months I have been on the move. Travelling to different countries (only 2 actually) . Now, I know it sounds all romantic and adventurous and it surely is. However, it is also true that long term travelling is not for the faint hearts. It is not about eternal optimism either. At least it wasn't for me. And that's it really. It is different things for different people and my experience can never be yours. Actually, what I have lived cannot (and I wouldn't want to in all honesty) be replicated in any form or way by me or anyone else ever. So, what I have lived was only once in a lifetime opportunity that has come and gone. It taught me a lot, opened me a bit more and showed me a different side of reality, unknown to me before this. In the next couple of blogs, I shall be sharing my experience, insights and memories from these wanderings.

My first stop "abroad" was Kuala Lumpur. Okay, before we land in KL, let me clear a couple of important pointers in this story, that might crop up once we are deep inside the recesses of my memory lane. How did I decide about travelling? My husband (who accompanied me on this trip) and I are travel enthusiasts and have been planning to go on long term travels for more than four years now. Did I give up your job? I did. Ankit is extremely lucky. He works for an organization that lets him work from anywhere in the world. He has certain deliveries with deadlines and well, that's about it. I am myself, in the process of creating a model where I can work from where ever I am.

I strongly suggest anyone who plans to travel for a long time (and I mean anywhere between 3 months to 3 years) to have some decent amount of savings in their banks. Ankit and I have worked our assess off for the past 6 years, creating enough savings before we embarked upon this journey. I saw many travelers on this journey to realize the importance of bank balance. Its good to know that you can be out of this if you wish to be and have something to fall back on.

How much did it cost me? Because we did not do complete budget travel and as vegetarians (with a love for good food) we had to spend a little more on our bread, so it wasn't absolutely cheap for us. However, even then, our budget came to 2, 75000 for two people, inclusive of flights, boarding and food. Not bad, I would say. Thanks to platforms like Couchsurfing and Workaway of course. These are not just great platforms to help you budget your trip, but also opportunities to see some real rare gems (places and people both) and shape your travels into insightful, interesting journeys.

I guess, I have answered three major questions (all these have been persistently put before my attention in the last couple of months by friends, family and strangers). Now, back to KL. We flew by Air Asia (from Bangalore as we got the tickets cheap. 26,000 INR for two people, return airfare. Tip: We booked 3 months in advance. One of the most useful tricks taught by the couchsurfers hosted by us).

However, do remember that when Air Asia says they fly you cheap, they mean it quite literally. You will be paying extra for baggage, seats (in case you have a preference), water and everything else. It was my first international trip and I was flying on the wings of my imagination. Air Asia got me on ground and trust me when I say, it wasn't a smooth landing at all. The flight was cramped, the aircon was unbearable and all my hopes of watching a movie in flight seem laughable now. It was a night flight and as we had no inkling about their love for cold nights, we ended up shivering for the four hours we were in there, with nothing to keep us warm.

Not the most ideal or romantic first step in an unknown world. This experience left me with a bad headache and some skepticism for our journey ahead. Once in KL, we got our Malaysian sim cards (from the airport itself). We bought our bus ticket to KL Sentral (as the airport is an hour away from the main city) and were on our way to witness another world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In the year that I turned 26, all we heard about were rapes. Rapes on the streets, in homes, buses, trains, everywhere. There was a man on top of a woman wherever you looked. A struggling, unhappy woman. I am a woman, and I was constantly reading of my younger species being stripped off their clothes, independence and pushed down on the survival pyramid, where laying flat and still is the only way to live. Walking on street that summer, winter and monsoon, I felt like a soldier. Fully covered, walking in a jungle where showing any limb will alert the enemy or animal or maybe both were the same. A constant terror of night and empty streets. I don’t think I was ever alone that year. The only place that I went alone was the bathroom. In public toilets I was always sure I was covered as best as possible. The threat of hidden cameras was never far behind.
That year, walking on the streets, full of varied smells and sweat camouflaging as a mob, I often wondered what it would be like to be raped. To be a victim of a superior force wanting to seal it’s superiority on my being. It felt oddly exciting and terrifying at the same time. Scared and excited, I would look down and walk faster towards my destination. I lived in the city of Mumbai with two friends. The sight of them at times made me sick. My empty house at night depressed me though. I am sure there must be times I depressed them too. Their families were too far away, too old fashioned and not with much money. Same as mine. We shared a one room kitchen, the only space we could afford. None of us spoke much. We didn’t need to. 
I had a boyfriend. He lived in Delhi. A long distance relationship is the most relieving thing really. You don’t worry about being single and hence unattractive, you don’t have to forever juggle between friends and boyfriend, you can eat, sleep, think, read what you wish, no questions asked. I loved him. I really did. He allowed me the freedom to paint his image the way I liked. Of course, we spoke and I saw the cracks in that image, but still. At least he was not near enough to completely destroy my perfect man. I could deal with some cracking’s once in a while. Anyway, most of the times that we spoke, we talked about what each of us had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, about our families, some common friends punctuated by long pauses and love you. It was a tiring conversation most of the times but necessary. We had to keep the connection alive after all. So talk we did.
That year though I was completely obsessed with rape. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

From the dairy of a loner

It is amazing how vulnerable one can be. Without trying that is. Yes, it hurts. Not heart breaking, tear spilling, hair tearing hurt, but a twinge in the heart. It makes me put the glass up just a little more. Retire inside a bit more and feel left out. Its unintentional I know. Or is it? Maybe. Hopefully. God, please let it be so.
Now I have been on this side of the glass panel, well for life. It’s unbelievable that it still makes me cry. Almost. A lot of times I think I am a loner because of it. Or is it vice versa. It becomes increasingly difficult to figure it out in my head these days. As time passes I can’t really differentiate between the cause and the effect. I try desperately to calm down. Understand my behavior. Their behavior. The reasons and the many whys?
Do I scare people? Maybe. I am not sure what it is but I feel that people generally maintain a distance from me. As if they are afraid of something. Me? Could be. Maybe. It has always been like this. Even as a kid. It made me feel like an outsider. Or was it that I knew I was an outsider and hence I made them feel like that? I don’t know. I can’t be sure really. Does all this even really matter? It did matter a great deal at some point of time apparently. Now, I am not sure.
However, it’s not a great feeling to feel like you are being pushed away. No it isn’t for sure. But then I don’t really make an attempt to fit in either. Or don’t I? Sometimes I do. In this case I genuinely did. And in return? Nothing. Feel like a loser? Kind of. Makes me feel why take the effort at all. True. Why? Why do we invest our emotions in the wrong place? Why is it that we end up begging those for attention and favors who don’t give a dime about us? Why not care for those who do so much for us? Why not be happy with what we have? Running after the unachievable seems almost like a second nature. Is it the challenge? Is it to feel more important? More people like you, more secured you are. Is it this theory? Maybe it is all this and more. I don’t know. Hopefully someday I would have solved this mystery. But this much is clear, I am no people magnet. I don’t know whether to thank god for that or no. J