He said he didn’t believe in stereotypical movie-like representations of life – where everything is picture-perfect and therefore, realistically unbelievable. He said he didn’t like fake people.
He was an immodest Ivy-Leaguer, a flirtatious doctor-in-making, a compassionate businessman, a preaching philosopher, a money-making humanitarian, a lonely-by-choice traveler, a show-off dancer, pianist, writer and photographer and an unstoppable conversationalist. And he was a tall, handsome, gallant young man with a cheeky sense of humour.
And he didn’t believe in picture-perfectness.
And he didn’t believe in fake people.
And neither do I.
Because he was too good to be real.
Since then for me you have been that familiar yet untouchable stranger interloping through a dream spanning countless dimensions of chance and fate. And that dream always has the same story: I go one way. You, the other.
But if that dream were to suddenly end one day, 5 years later I receive a letter from you that you are now engaged to be married. leading you to deliver one more message recalling our fateful night together in Hyderabad once more, and fearfully, for the last time.
I still recognize the writing.
Schezwan McDreamy — I wrote that post five years ago when I was in Hyderabad, India- about a stranger who flopped onto a seat beside me in an empty bus, as if sitting next to me was his birthright. His eyes were full of fascination – for new people. He raved about traveling, the power of human connections, the magic of human touch – while the skeptic inside me growled back. He had all these ideologies and opinions and well . . . I had mine.
We locked horns – we dived deep into each other’s minds and followed the moonlight into oblivion. He felt a deep connection instantly, but I was cautious. I deflected his charms and he’d smile knowingly, daring me to disobey myself.
Five years later – I met him in NYC, his home. I thought I’d see him in his overused beige cargos and a ruffled tee . . . but he was wearing a sharp suit with his hair sleekly styled. I told him I hated it – and he immediately ruffled up his hair for me.
There’s something intimate about people you know you won’t meet for a long time . . . maybe never again . . . that makes you bare it all. That breaks all barriers, kills all inhibitions and let’s you be honest. That doesn’t allow for hesitation.
The comfort of a stranger . . . the beauty of ambiguity . . . dark secrets . . . self-exploration . . . and a deep, intense connection that transcends time. You’re biased when it comes to Hyderabad . . . I’ve become biased toward strangers. After I met you.
Since you, I always want to know who’s next to me. Why, how else would I have had a wonderful conversation with a Polish lady next to me in the 4 hours bus ride from Boston to NYC – where I start out stating I’m not a feminist and she proves to me that I am? How would I have known the Bhutanese girl next to me in the flight – who went to a school that made them travel every 3 months to study in a new country?
How can one not want to know? They’re right next to you – always. Your soulmate for an hour, for a day or for a lifetime.
Be candid. Be yourself. Agree, disagree, fight, argue, smile, laugh, flirt, talk – strangers are beautiful. Their magic is infectious. Their fascination and curiosity . . . their passion and affection . . . their infinite warmth – can all become yours in an instant.
I’ll never watch that movie you keep asking if I’ve watched.
You always say we’ll meet again, and I always believe we won’t.
And yet, I’ll always have this.
5 years later
- At time of posting in New York, NY, it was 13 °C -
Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: light rain showers
And in another seven days, I will board a plane for my fourth Monsoon in the last year, this time to Eastern Europe, as a third-time veteran of The Monsoon Diaries’ family–and with newly granted co-blogging privileges.
So Calvin has asked me to introduce myself. I thought I would explain why I am doing this then, with him, for the third time (first time to Guatemala last Thanksgiving; second, to Iran April of this year).
Why do I do this–spontaneously decide to travel? (I booked my flights 2 weeks ago, 3 weeks after the rest of my fellow backpackers did).
Why, once the idea of going someplace takes hold in my head, do I become willing to move heaven and earth to make it happen?
Why is traveling so endlessly enchanting?
Because it can simultaneously break your heart and rebuild it at the same time.
Two brothers at the Angkor Wat Ruins in Cambodia
Because you’ll realize on the third day of your stay in Cambodia that your driver with the perpetual smile on his face spends his nights in his tuk-tuk, parked right outside of your hotel, because he lives in a town that’s too far to return home to. Because you’ll feel guilt-ridden at knowing you can make more money in a month than an entire family here makes in a year–and you’ll wonder whether any of the people you meet know of your “wealth” and your privilege. And if they do, why don’t they resent you for it? Instead, you have wads of American cash on you and you feel safer here than when you’re walking the streets at home.
Makara, who loves Tomb Raider, at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
… Because you’ll find yourself simultaneously heartbroken and blown away by a 9 year old boy who’d been up since god-knows-when offering guided tours to travelers like yourself of his favorite temple amongst the Angkor Wat ruins (his favorite because Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider there).
And you’ll think, if you were to bring him here to the U.S., with his hustle and discipline and charisma and curiosity, how long would it take before he became the CEO of a multimillion dollar company?
A monk by Pangong Lake in the Ladakh mountains, India
And because being in a place where you can’t speak the language will make you forget what you are so you can remember what kind of person you are. So you can decide what kind of person you want to be. Because when someone doesn’t know how prestigious or not your profession is–when you don’t even know how to explain what your profession is–what matters is if you’re kind, if you treat the people you love well, if you’re generous to those who have nothing to offer you.
An architecture student at the Shah Mosque in Esfahan, Iran
If you respect the people in front of you even when the media and your government portray their country as a sponsor of terrorism.
Because being confronted with the effects of war and poverty makes you wondrously, emphatically grateful for being born into circumstances that bless you with having the problem of “needing” to figure out what your passions are so you can build a career out of them.
Anna with a group of students in the Royal Square in Esfahan, Iran
And you really don’t know until you walk the streets of that same country’s biggest cities and its people effuse warmth and welcome you to their home–with a hint of surprise in their voices–and ask with wide-eyed curiosity whether or not you’re enjoying your time there. And when you say it’s been great and they smile sheepishly with pride, you also smile and you think, for the hundredth time that trip, that you’re glad that you decided to come.
Monks in training at The Thiksey Monastery, in Ladakh, India
And because you’ll spend a lot of money throughout your life, and you will not remember where most of it will go. But you will remember forever what that $2000 you spent going to Iran/India/Cambodia/_______________ bought you.
And lastly… because you can. Because you’ll meet someone in India who has never been outside of his country and who can’t even imagine the ways in which his life would have to change to allow him to travel the way you can.
There’s this unfair stereotype that while India is crazy and frenetic, just emerging on the developed world, Sri Lanka always would remain one step behind. I have friends who enjoy (playfully, nothing too serious) stereotyping Sri Lanka’s “tagalong”, “little brother” status when compared to India’s greatness.
However, one hour in Colombo will put that stereotype to shame.
My last few hours in one of my favorite countries has been a riot. It seems fitting that India wouldn’t let me down.
Stephanie and I booked a flight out from Chennai to Sri Lanka at 10am the next morning, while Karen was flying out of Chennai to Kochin around the same time. The hard part was that on the very night before our morning departures, we were still in Pondicherry, 5 hours south of Chennai, which meant we had to take a risky approach in catching a 3am bus so we could make our morning flights on time.
Luckily, buses from Pondicherry to Chennai run 24/7. So we encountered a few challenges:
Step 1: Find a way out of a locked hotel.
Solution? Poke security guard with paper.
Step 2: Find a rickshaw on a deserted street.
Step 3: Find the 3am bus to Chennai.
Step 4: Reach Chennai airport, bleary-eyed and underslept.
Step 5: If you have a lot of Indian rupees and find yourself leaving India from Chennai airport, either leave the airport to exchange it somewhere else or spend the rupees. The ‘Thomas Cook’ exchange counter (the only one at the airport) runs this awful monopoly where they take 12% commission as well posting a horribly unfair exchange rate.
To give you an idea, if you’re carrying around $500 USD worth of Indian rupees (around 24,000-25,000 rupees), be prepared to lose about $100 USD in fees. CRIMINAL.
So we reached the Chennai airport just in time, no sweat. There we said our goodbyes to Karen (wishing her best of luck for the rest of her month alone in India!).
It’s kind of fitting that almost exactly one summer ago I was at the same airport in Chennai, but it was at the very end of my trip. I had just said goodbye to Jean and Jamie, and I was about to run into Nikita on my layover in Singapore before returning home.
Today I would leave India from the same airport again, but this time in the middle of my trip, saying goodbye to Annah, Avanti & Shivani, Karen, Joyce & Anya, and nobody to say hello to in Sri Lanka.
I can’t help but compare the two experiences (after all, I’m back in the same airport almost exactly a year later in under very similar contexts, even wearing the same clothes and backpack), feeling very nostalgic for the overwhelming idea of India being this utopia for making those brief but meaningful and unforgettable human connections.
Anyways, as I leave India, I look back at some very very fond memories in Mumbai (pictures below are from our dinner at Olive Restaurant near Mahalaxmi Racecourse, and Club China House — which is located in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Bandra, close to the domestic airport).
So the following picture is special: It is an example of the random strangers from all over the world coming together at the perfect time and becoming friends. From left to right: Anya, George, Annah, Karen, Sidd, Vikas, Me, Benn, and Joyce.
Back on the road: literally hit the ground running.
Before beginning, we treat ourselves to free access to Amex Platinum's Lounge
Stephanie, having no interest in seeing Madurai, stayed behind Mumbai an extra few hours while Karen and I headed to Madurai in the morning. After a stopover in Bangalore, we arrived at the “Taj Mahal of the South.”
Named so for Madurai’s famously majestic Sri Meenakshi temple, which is actually a complex of 6 huge Dravidian towers that loom up to 52m over the city.
Sri Meenakshi just got served.
Heading inside was just as impressive (and it’s free! the Temple Art Museum costs a little extra to get in though: 50 rupees)
Inside the Temple Art Museum.
We also stumbled upon the Tirumilai Nayak Palace, which I recommend visiting at night for its eerie “blast from the plast” atmosphere, rather than for its cheesy nightly light-and-sound show every night at 6:45pm.
Afterwards we hopped on an overnight bus to Pondicherry (sleeper bus, 8 hours for 600 rupees), where we are right now. Pondicherry is quite pretty. Moreover, it’s unlike any other part of India, given that it was the only region occupied by the French during the British Raj.
So imagine French-speaking Indians, policemen wearing French tophats, ubiquitous croissants and walking down a beautiful vehicle-free promenade along the Bay of Bengal. Yeah, this is trippy.
We then found Stephanie. Pictured below is right before I came up to her and yelled for her to give me all her money.
And what’s even trippier? A visit to Auroville:
an “experimental township”…meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”
In the inauguration ceremony attended by delegates of 124 nations on 28 February 1968, The Mother gave Auroville its 4-point Charter setting forth her vision of Integral living:
Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness
Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.
The Mother repeatedly warned against the danger of Auroville falling under the control of Government of India, which eventually did happen a few years after her death, following a long conflict between Aurovilians and the Sri Aurobindo Society.
The wikipedia entry pretty much repeats everything Auroville’s visitor center says. Auroville is about a 20minute (12km) rickshaw ride from Pondicherry, costing about 500 rupees total for a drop-off, wait and return trip.
It was quite serene and not as unfriendly as the guidebooks make it out to seem (although it’s probably because everyone was ignoring us and I prefer that, coming from NYC and all) and it seems that the town strives to be self-sustainable in its recycling, regrowing forests, making water from microwave energy from the sun, and being powered by solar energy.
The Matrimandir, the soul of Auroville.
The Matrimandir just got served.
Overall, a very interesting, unique experience to have in India.
I also just realized that the closest I would come to death on this trip wouldn’t be a riot in the Middle East, or getting lost in a jungle, or falling off a cliff, but rather waiting in line to watch Harry Potter while under a giant Banyan tree while in Mumbai. I just found out that we got inside the theater at 8:35pm. The tree collapsed in front of the theater at 8:45pm. This could’ve been us.
- At time of posting in Pondicherry, it was 36 °C -
Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
In an attempt to slow down, I decided to skip out on Calvin and Karen’s Madurai adventure. Instead, I took a flight yesterday to Chennai and then a bus to Pondicherry.
Woke up in Pondicherry this morning to a blackout. With no internet and no way to contact Calvin and Karen, I did what anyone else would do in a former french colony… I rented a bicycle, got some croissants and went to the beach!