Life Lessons from Ten Weeks of Travel
by Namita Kulkarni on April 23, 2014
I just returned from a month in Bali and the Gili islands, drawn there by the Bali Spirit Festival and a love of island life. This was preceded by six sunny weeks in Mauritius where I was teaching kids yoga – when I wasn’t hiking or being a beach bum. I know, I’d envy me too. Back home in bustling Bombay, with ten weeks’ worth of hastily scribbled notes and a ton of new memories and impressions, I’ve been trying to assimilate all the experiences and lessons that I ran into during this time. Not easy, but worth the trouble.
As someone who likes being attentive to life, I probably could’ve learnt the same things back home, without ever denting my finances, but it would’ve taken way longer and not been half as fun. A change of backdrop does have a way of making life’s messages stand out a lot clearer. What would’ve passed me by here, in a row of quiet little signposts, showed up as neon-lit billboards in my travelling head, jostling for my attention.
So as I unpacked my mind, I found these life lessons tumbling out:
- Trusting life, myself, and my ability to handle the unexpected – in that order.
With even the best planning, life will always be a few steps ahead of me. Not to outsmart or outrun me, but more like a parent teaching a toddler to walk. Trusting that parent while putting my best foot forward will get me a lot farther than throwing a fit and being averse to the inevitable stumbles and falls. Having had trust issues most of my life, I needed to be compelled into trusting, and travel did just that. And like a muscle, it grows stronger with use, which is why I’m so much better at trusting life now. I finally realize it’s been around way longer than anyone and knows what it’s doing, even with all the evidence to the contrary and despite the occasional snafu or two.
2. A lot can happen when you slow down.
Observations, conversations, inklings, insights, fragrances, friendships, shared laughs, being moved, deja vu’s, great food, falling in love, eye contact, mental notes to yourself, moments of truth, new songs and stories walking into your mind – none of these like to be hurried. They let time wait it out while they happen at their own sweet pace. And like good old-fashioned things made to last, they’re well worth the time.
One deliciously slow afternoon, it floated to my attention that time had stopped being an escaped convict on the run. And I was not the cop assigned to his hot pursuit anymore. What’s more, he seemed to have mended his ways for a quiet life in the hills. And I began to forget my watch home more often. With a sly move when I wasn’t looking, my newfound ‘slowness’ had changed the game.
3. Getting your time’s worth.
With all the sacred importance I accorded to getting my money’s worth (I’m Indian), it hit me that getting my time’s worth is even more important. It is the bigger currency after all – the one that we transact with life in. And one that can’t be recovered once lost, unlike money.
So how do I get my “time’s worth”?
My whole premise for living used to be that my time here is limited, so I better squeeze in as much life as I can into every single day. So far so good, but that premise began to crack under all the pressure that any deadline-oriented view of life brings. The more I grabbed life by the horns each day the more it weighed on me that life would end long before I’d have had the time to live all of it – even if I cut out all my modern day vices and lived to be a hundred. Life is way bigger than the longest human life span after all. The lofty goal of making the most of my life had turned into a messy fight against time. One where it naturally fought me back with its way upper hand, till I didn’t want to keep trying to run up that escalator anymore. And in walked Bali, with its lavishly unhurried sense of time, and a lesson or two for me. Which went something like this:
Make the most of your life, try every untried thing you’re drawn to and relish every experience fully – not because time will run out on you but because there’s something of the timeless inside the experience, which is for you to find and love and thus make a part of you. Doing which calls for nothing less than the timeless in you – something we’ve all met at some point in our lives, when time stood still for us. Every moment will not only last but also stay with you – for as long as you can hark back to its timelessness. And that is when you’ll know you got your time’s worth and more.
4. If you have the appetite, life has the dish.
Or in W.B. Yeats’ way more poetic words, “the world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. Whether I’m home or away, I try to meet life with an appetite more commensurate with its infinite variousness every day. And if that appetite does drop someday for any reason, I’ll recognize the inadequacy as being entirely mine, while holding on to a reverence for life’s infinite array.
5. Make room for the possibility that life might just have a bigger and better plan for you than you and your research/guidebook do.
The best things happen unplanned. So instead of leaving my fingerprints all over every last detail, I remind myself to step back and give life the space to do its thing every now and then. Life loves throwing shocks/surprises/punches my way (if history is any indication), so I might as well be game, roll up my sleeves and go meet it halfway with my chin up. Thus inspired, I gave myself some sage advice on the island. Ditch the plans, take the unmarked turns, go where the wind blows, acquire a totally unnecessary yet charming skill, take a kid’s advice on something big, share an old secret, make new ones, do the silly thing, daydream like you get paid for it, laugh till you cry, return the catcall and whistle while you’re at it. And, in advance, let yourself off the hook for any untoward consequences of the above. Some of them may not be well-received but they will have been their own reward anyway. You will have gone and surprised life instead of waiting for life to surprise you, and your spirit will have stretched itself out wider for it.
6. There’s no limit to the number of times you can fall in love, even simultaneously:
Given the sheer variety of people/places/sights/sounds/foods/moments life lays out for us, it only adds up that we have an endless capacity for being bowled over by life. Each time seeming like the-real-deal, once-in-a-lifetime kind of mad love that the movies sell us (or used to, back in my day), except it happens many times over, packaged in experiences totally distinct from one another. I wouldn’t be able to pick one over the other with a gun to my head.
How do I decide which experience hit home closer, shaped me better and made me feel more alive?
River rafting in Rishikesh while fervently making deals with a god I’d suddenly invented to just keep me from getting thrown off, or the pleasure of sheer stupidity in jumping off the Rochester falls? That magical sunset from a kitchen in Mauritius or the drunken cake fight that broke out soon after in that same spot? The riot of colours and creatures under the Gili waters or the double rainbow above? The absurd hilarity of someone intentionally cracking open an egg on their head at 5.30 am after hiking up a volcano in Bali or the thrill of a cycle chase by a local who thought I was stealing his cycle in Gili Trawangan? In my defence, I’d asked the wrong guy if I could test-ride it before renting it (I’m quite picky), and cycles bring out my need for speed which must have set off his thief radar.
The more I look back, the greater the seduction of all the as-yet-unmade memories, pulling me to some other new place where life can’t wait to bowl me over yet again.
7. Travel shuffles you on the inside like a pack of cards – in a monkey’s hands – perhaps a drunk one who can barely hold them all together. So a strong sense of self definitely comes in handy, if you’re going to be up for and enjoy the shuffle.
Going home, I notice I’m partly my old self and partly a rather different version of me, both getting to know each other. I feel brand new, very old, and somewhere-in-between all at the same time, but a bit of multiple personality need not be a disorder, as I find out. New perspectives, tastes, songs, benchmarks, tweaked attitudes seem to have now found a roof in me, while some of the older ones have quietly let themselves out. Like a rearrangement of furniture with some new lighting thrown in. Like most people, I had my sworn favorites in various categories (music, food, places, people, and so on) which largely defined my personality and presumably dictated my choices. But the more I met of life I saw my loyalties not shifting but dancing all over the place until I had to give up on any notion of my tastes as predictable, fixed things. Which may look fickle, but I have greater loyalties here – to the vastness of life and the openness of my own mind. And that will ensure I always have an ever-growing and ever-changing mix of likes and dislikes. Wandering through a forest in Dehradun one crisp morning, I’d walked off the trail to get a closer look at a strange flower when I saw a ridiculously bright chameleon striking a pose on a branch nearby. Quite uncharacteristically for its species, this little rockstar couldn’t care less about blending into the background. Or about the human nearby. It exuded a coolness of demeanour that must have been contagious because, quite uncharacteristically for me, I wasn’t screaming and fleeing. That non-conformist chameleon had calmly kicked away my city-bred repulsion of all-things-reptilian, which stood me in good stead the month ahead when my dorm ceiling had its nightly lizard congregations.
It’s not all a walk in the park though. The more open and perceptive you are, the more that shuffle is likely to overwhelm. I’ve longed to feel centred again after certain trips. To land on terra firma and meet my “normal” (whatever that is) familiar self again. It’s a spiritual jet lag of sorts, when after your return home your new self has yet to acquaint itself with all the established old anchors, and your old self hasn’t yet worked out how to meet and greet this entourage of assorted new character traits that you seem to have picked up along the way. So it helps hugely to be rooted in your sense of who you are, while swaying with the winds of change. A deep self-awareness gives you that extra gumption to step forward and let life shuffle you up every now and then. Because you know you’ll still be you, only better.
8. You are responsible for your own happiness – Be your own hero.
I saw that tattooed on a free-spirited surfer I met at a hostel, who said it was an idea her mother had drilled into her early on, and one she lived by. As for me, growing up in India as a female was quite an education in being my own hero, one that I stubbornly (and luckily) survived. But new kinds of hurdles await in new places. You’re all the defence you’ve got, and you have to always look out for yourself – while having a great time. With luck and brains, I’ve managed to get myself out of trouble a tad more often than getting into it (hence my living-to-tell-the-tale). Which empowers and humbles in equal measure. Like the evening I lost my way after spending all day on an island (Koh Samed) in Thailand. Where I’d reached, nobody cared about a lost tourist. It was a semi-rural and completely crazy part of Thailand. A cacophony of Thai fishermen lugging their long day’s haul is not exactly tourist-friendly, as I found out. It was getting dark, my phone was long dead and the boats had called it a day. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere all night didn’t sound good. Rifling through my bag out of sheer hope for nothing in particular – I found a tattered picture of the pier I should’ve been at. And that picture, in all its torn black-and-white glory, spoke a thousand words to the twenty-third Thai woman I’d tried speaking to that evening. To my relief, a look of recognition swept over her face. Looking up from it, she threw a few multiple-choice questions at me in Thai, but the even-more-lost-and-clueless-tourist look on my face made her stop mid-question. Pointing to a lone rickety scooter and its not-so-rickety rider who had just then materialized from the ether, she assertively gave him directions to that pier. It was my best bet and I was going to trust my way out of this. No questions asked (not that they’d have understood anyway), I got on that apology of a scooter in my excessively cheerful summer dress, thanking her as we wobbled away defying every law of physics. That night, having somehow caught a ride back into Bangkok, I dozed off seconds after my head hit the bed, highly exhausted yet equally grateful just to be alive. Like a hero.
9. Learn to thank in the local language, and pick up a smattering of random other languages:
The helpful local will appreciate it, with a look of surprise that you will have put on his face. “Thank you” is just one of those indispensable phrases in any language, I think, right after “Where’s the loo?” and “Sorry, I didn’t mean to steal your cycle, but I loved that chase, can we do that more often?” Well, you never know.
Travel makes you befriend people from all over, even if you cover only a tiny fraction of the world. Because the tribe of the traveler keeps criss-crossing and expanding, and there’s more people like you than you might think. A smattering of a random few foreign languages will serve and surprise you. Not just your favourite go-to swear word and its variants, pick up the nicer phrases too. It will give your brain a jog, or as my French friend put it – with her limited yet exceedingly charming English – “fresh air in the mind”. And someday, if the moment finds you, you’ll hear yourself raising a toast or flirting away in some foreign language, over a local beer, with kindred spirits, under stars we all share. May seem unlikely but you’ll want to thank me for it later, in some foreign language no less.
Meanwhile, Terima Kasih and Merci Beaucoup for everything, Bali and Mauritius. I have your sands in tiny glass bottles on my table and your spirits in mine.