Elita, the first Himsagar Fellow gets chatty with us about quitting as a development sector professional from Mumbai, the intoxication of wanderlust and the initial anxiety that comes with surrendering stability. Elaborating on the Fellowship experience that allowed her to travel six states in 5 months and uncertainties regarding solo travel, Elita answers questions plaguing every itchy traveller and how to deal with itchy wanderlust! To know more, do check out her blog!
1. How you describe your experience as a Himsagar Fellow?
What started off as a way to prevent my office paid leaves from lapsing led to my travel bug developing tentacles of its own! Besides the leaves, almost no weekend got spared either. And so I considered quitting my desk job in Mumbai. The Himsagar Fellowship happened at a rather opportune time. I’d applied and was ecstatic to know that I was the first fellow who’d been selected. For me it was a way to continue working while being able to travel to and through parts of the country that I may otherwise have taken longer to get to. Now when I look back I am a little overwhelmed that in a span of five months, I’ve been to six states – each one’s been a first and solo! In turn I’ve met and interacted with close to 200 non-profits, hopped off and on 17 trains and above all experienced places and people in ways no college education can ever provide.
2. How would you say travelling has moulded you?
‘Travel is fatal to prejudice.’ is a very apt Mark Twain quote to describe not just the impressions left on my mind but also the biases that have been erased courtesy my first-hand experience of seeing my own country. I am a lot more mindful and sensitive to people, cultures and places. In turn I’ve become more responsible for myself and the world around me. As a consequence, I’m aware and self-assured. Travel makes you resourceful – whether you dig deep within yourself or reach out to family, friends and even strangers you start seeing things as parts of the whole. But most importantly travel teaches you patience – first by breaking your illusion of control.
3. What inspired you to start travelling solo?
Solo travel was not a bucket-list item (or should I say an itch-list item) for me. It was a function of making the most of my office leaves. We’ve all been through the painful process of coordinating schedules with friends. So while my friends were still contemplating and matching their availability, I found myself booking a return train ticket to an unknown beach along the coast of Karnataka. So it was me, a backpack with my paperbacks and a diary along with a resolve to make this happen. And honestly speaking, back then I didn’t know there existed this concept of solo travel.
4. Solo travel, more so, female solo travel is rare in India. How do you react to anxieties against these?
Anxiety, I have come to realise for myself, is nothing but a state of mind. So it can be tempered with. While solo travel wasn’t a planned phenomenon for me I realised (in retrospect) that things like watching a movie at a multiplex and having a meal by myself in my own city had prepared me to be (relatively) comfortable even in an unknown place. The stares and glares are a little unsettling in the beginning. But you learn in due course (and through repeat experiences) that people more often than not are merely curious. After all, they read the same newspapers you do and wonder why (and how) there’s a solo woman with a backpack trooping about the place! Sometimes a smile or a little icebreaker conversation (initiated by me) works to my advantage. After all while I may be a solo traveller, I am certainly not a misanthrope! That said be aware of your surroundings. And trust your gut.
5. What is hard to quit your 9 to 5 job? What motivated you to do it?
It’s hard quitting certainty. Because growing up that’s what we’re made to aspire for. That’s why we study and acquire our degrees. So that we can have a permanent job along with which comes the assurance of a salary, the bonus (for those of us who are luckier), and the perks! So yeah it was hard unlearning some of that socialization. It was hard trying not to be consumed by self-doubt. Because while I was quitting a 9 to 5, I wasn’t NOT going to work anymore! Travel was as much my motivation as it was the cause for wanting to quit the desk bound life. But it wasn’t a whim. I’d travelled enough while at my job. My leave didn’t lapse anymore – not even a single day’s! That’s when I knew that travel meant much more than seeing places for me. And no I wasn’t running away from life. In fact, I was trying to run into as much of it as I could in all its diversity. Travel’s been my muse and the fuel that keeps me blogging. Every experience from the road is on my blog – and no one’s paying me to do that. I had to come back and put in words what that day trip, weekend trip or that 10 day holiday had meant for me – the wonders I’ve experienced, the people I’ve met have helped dispel the shreds of doubt. That it’s more than striking places off my travel bucket-list is what’s been my motivation. And that I can freelance my way to fund my travels is equally reassuring.
6. You have been travelling for a long stretch of time-what would you say is the best and worst aspect of it?
This was my first at long term travel. The highlight is that I’ve been to places I read about in my history and geography books – from Nalanda to Sundarbans to Konark to Hyderabad. Being in these places was not without indulging in food that’s local to them.
The downside for me was getting used to the repack-and-move-base routine that I was unfamiliar with until now.
7. Of the several memories from your travels, could you highlight the most humbling experience so far?
Bihar was the state I spent my initial five weeks into the fellowship at. For reasons I’m still trying to fathom its repute is perpetually under the scanner. May be it has to do with its location in what’s possibly India’s ‘notorious north’. I was led on by these beliefs too. For a short while though thankfully – and here’s why. I would go meet the senior management at the NGOs in their offices. Google Maps wasn’t always able to help me out. So back on the streets of Patna, where I found myself 80% of the time navigating my way from one NGO to the next, people were not just approachable but extremely helpful. I could walk up to anyone – be it a passer-by, the fellow at the pan shop or the auto-rickshaw driver. It was seldom, if ever, a matter of ‘let me see who looks safe to walk up to’. So what happened when I walked up to a local to seek directions?
a. They’d direct me on exactly how I needed to get there, or
b. They’d smile sheepishly (mostly men) or apologize (mostly women) if they are unable to help out.
I’d also like to add that, whether in or outside Patna, never did I face a single instance of catcalling
8. Any advice for those who are contemplating solo travel?
Here’s a snippet of something I’ve shared through my blogposts:
Wear your no-nonsense game face. It’ll help disguise any trace of anxiety or fear. Keep your family and friends in the loop regarding your whereabouts. Moderate your expectations well within what you’re willing to pay and that safety, security and comfort are critical. Learn to decide for yourself. Most importantly, trust yourself. Opinions (of what’s right or wrong) and advice (of why this is right and that is wrong) have and will continue to flow like a river. Be grown-up enough to chalk your own destination, your route, your days, and your budget — be open to suggestions, but don’t get overwhelmed. But be responsible. No crying buckets, hurtling expletives or flailing hands in the air when things don’t go as per “your” plan (as it is bound to happen anyway).
9. Apart from traveling, what other passions give you an adrenaline rush?
I don’t think anything else I do comes even close! This is also because beyond travel (and of course writing about it) there’s little else that consumes me.
10. What is next for you on your Itch list?
More travel: North East India and the islands – Andaman and Nicobar as well as Lakshadweep. And hopefully some international travel as well.
Thank you, Elita!