I was born and raised in India, an experience that, as a female, can be both fascinating and intensely challenging. Soon after I turned twelve, I faced the rude shock of eve-teasing (public sexual harassment of women by men), double standards, and enforced notions of “female modesty.” Although my family is quite open-minded, the life of an Indian woman is still starkly different from that of a man, simply owing to the surrounding environment. As a young girl, every time I was teased orgroped by a man on the street or in a bus, I would be riddled with shame. I rebelled against the “rules” established by society; however, it took a toll on my self-esteem, and I started to doubt myself. If an entire society seemed to believe in these ideas, was I then in the wrong?
It was the kind of question that could only be answered by traveling to a land that was strikingly different from my own.
The first step
In August 2010, I arrived in Denver, Colorado, as a wide-eyed 21-year-old all set to embark upon an illustrious graduate school career. Although absolutely certain of my decision to study International Relations, I did not expect to be the youngest person in my class. Everyone seemed to have more experience and knowledge than I did – they had worked with NGOs, traveled to remote corners of the world, and held degrees in Political Science and related subjects. But I made friends quickly, and my passion for the subject and love for writing research papers drove me to a good start in Denver.
It was time to take a chance at something new – a leap of faith, as they call it.
Grad school can be exhausting – mentally, physically, and emotionally. And after a year of staring at my laptop, discussing the problems of the “developing world” while sitting in an air-conditioned classroom, and going out drinking during the weekends, I realized that I was still no closer to finding that elusive, indefinable substance that I was looking for. It was time to take a chance at something new – a leap of faith, as they call it.
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If I was to wait for company, I’d be waiting forever
A constant feature of my life had been the inexplicably strong desire to travel to Spain. One wintry night, in the midst of a gruelling paper-writing session, I wished I could drop everything and simply take off. Then I thought, “Why not?” So I booked a round-trip ticket to Madrid. The concept of traveling alone had never occurred to me until that point. But if I was going to wait for someone to accompany me on this trip, I might just end up waiting forever.
August rolled around, and I stood in the Denver International Airport, still finding it hard to comprehend that I would land in Madrid in just a few hours. I was going to spend the summer in a country where I didn’t know a single soul, a country that I had wanted to set foot in ever since I was a little girl. This time, I left the suitcases behind and carried a backpack stuffed with four T-shirts, a toiletry kit, a hand-towel, a netbook, and a journal to record my experiences.
That evening was the first time that I dined in a restaurant by myself.
I arrived in Madrid, navigated the metro, and – employing the few Spanish words at my disposal and a variety of hand gestures – eventually reached the hostel. That evening was the first time that I dined in a restaurant by myself. It was an outdoor one, in the glorious Plaza Mayor, which was vibrant and buzzing during that time of the day. Lulled by the evening breeze, and ever-so-slightly buzzed on the Sangria, I realized that this was perfect. I was at peace.
The beauty of travel
The next morning, as I was foraging for food in the hostel kitchen, in walked a young girl also looking for food. Julie was from Switzerland, here in Madrid for a course that she would soon start at the university. We decided to meet for dinner at the Plaza Mayor, and I spent the rest of the day visiting a grocery store to buy fruit, bread, and Spanish jam (budget dining), and walking around the city.
Dinner with Julie was fascinating and filled with laughter. Here I was, a girl from India with another random girl from Switzerland. We grew up speaking different languages, leading different lives, yet we spoke easily about the various things that connected us – love and how you know when it’s true, travel, family, and school – all over plates of tortilla española and patatas bravas.
Over the next four weeks, I had lunch in the oldest restaurant in the world, rode buses to Granada, Seville, and Barcelona, learned about the Moors and about Hemingway’s favorite haunts, met incredible human beings, and scribbled away in my travel journal. Any writer looking for inspiration will find it in abundance in Spain.
We grew up speaking different languages, leading different lives, yet we spoke easily about the various things that connected us.
A few of the many people I encountered included Gio, from Equatorial Guinea, whom I met on the bus from Granada to Madrid. I met Diana, from Peru, in Madrid and then ran into her again in Barcelona. Daniel, from the United States, accompanied me to the captivating Museo Nacional del Prado. Seora and Jinny, my new South Korean friends, joined me for a surreal evening of flamenco in Seville. Yanqing, from Boston, I went tapas-hopping with in Granada. And Damien, a sweet Polish guy, went hiking with me in Monachil. These were genuine connections, real conversations, unhindered by the mundaneness of small talk.
That is the beauty of travel – one conversation, one early morning walk on the beach, one night spent walking through alleyways with people I meet is destined to be remembered forever. Suddenly the innumerable barriers that we human beings place between us in our daily lives cease to matter or exist.
Alone but not lonely
I also had plenty of time by myself – alone, but not remotely lonely. I discovered the bizarre magic held within the structures of Antoni Gaudí, lost myself amidst innumerable works of art in museums across the country, and understood the power of the Alhambra to transform a person. I met a Bangladeshi fruit vendor in Madrid – I didn’t speak Bengali, he didn’t speak Hindi or English. So there we were, two people who hailed from a land that used to be one country, conversing in Spanish. I strolled along the Barceloneta beach at midnight and stopped at a roadside stand for waffles. The Indonesian lady behind the stand told me about her day, and then sprayed extra whipped cream on my waffle with a smile.
I was happy, and, most importantly, satisfied. Satisfied with the way the past had turned out, with where I was in life, and with myself as a person.
During my last night in Barcelona, I did something that the old me – for indeed I was no longer the same person – would have been much too self-conscious to attempt. I walked into a restaurant that offered a buffet dinner for 10 Euros, and proceeded to enjoy a full meal – starting with appetizers and wine, followed by a hearty main course, and ending with coffee and ice cream – in the company of myself. I was happy, and, most importantly, satisfied. Satisfied with the way the past had turned out, with where I was in life, and with myself as a person.
This is the kind of transformative power that travel possesses – I returned to Denver, all traces of self-doubt gone. I had also gained an unshakeable sense of independence. When you travel through a foreign land all on your own for an entire month, you realize that you can handle anything. And when you truly connect with people from every imaginable corner of the world, it’s hard not to believe in yourself, for it increases your awareness about the multitude of things that you have to offer. It makes you believe in human beings again.
Without a doubt, I had managed to find the one thing that seemed to evade me all my life – self-acceptance.
When you truly connect with people from every imaginable corner of the world, it’s hard not to believe in yourself, for it increases your awareness about the multitude of things that you have to offer.
Today, I sit with a group of people in an NGO in Jerusalem, clapping along as I watch them sing songs in Hebrew. In the one month that I have been here as a volunteer, I’ve met incredible Israelis and Palestinians, had fascinating conversations, hiked through deserts, relished local desserts, and have been attempting to learn one of the oldest languages of the world. Had it not been for that summer in Spain, I might have found myself in a personally unsatisfying 9-to-5 job, one where most days mimic each other. But now I am brave enough to choose an alternative way of life, and in the process, much happier.
To read more stories about how travel has impacted people’s lives, check out the following articles:
- From Corporate Tool to Nomadic Idealist
- Escape the Rat Race
- Travel in India: A Healing Journey
- Confessions of a Lifestyle Traveler
- Getting Your Boots Dirty: How Volunteering in Africa Changed Me
- Travel Made me Who I Am Today
- How a Dog Walk Changed My Life Forever
- Why You Should Forgo the American Dream and Let Travel Transform Your Life
- Getting Outside The Box: One Family’s Journey to Full Time Travel
Photo credits: NathanF, Carletes, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.