They say, if you walk the footsteps of a stranger you learn things you never knew before.
While most would prefer to sleep or read a book during a long leg of their journey, I am someone who prefers to keep her eyes open and observe people and occurences happening around me.This is a trait I have possesed since childhood, thanks to which my journeys have never been drab or boring, even if it means long hours of foot-sleeping travel.
Besides, most of my trips are impromptu because that is when they seem to materialise best.
Perhaps it is just a notion that I like to harbour but a vacation to me, has always been a getaway from the mundane humdrum of day to day life.
Hitherto, a trip always provides the much needed respite and space to get away from all reasons of stress and strain...a chance to see new places, to meet new people, to learn about new cultures and traditions, to learn from experiences and create a montage of beautiful memories before you get back to your routine existence feeling rejuvenated and all ready to kick start life.
Booking airline tickets and hotel reservations has always been a breeze because I rely on Expedia for the best deals.Needless to say, being the world's largest travel company, one cannot beat Expedia when it comes to the most economical flights and savings on fees.Their extensive network of travel partners allows them to offer cheap airfare and air tickets to top destinations in India and around the world.One click to http://www.expedia.co.in and I am sorted.
Of course being the travel enthusiast that I am, I always prefer exploring the place on my own and hence comes handy a well prepared itinerary which I undoubtedly plan according to personal convenience.
Coming to think of it, I have had the most memorable experiences and met the most interesting people during such travels.While some of these have gained me wonderful friendships that I hope and intend to keep for life, some have just provided much needed comic relief during long hours of travel by their bizarre behaviour.
I remember this particular family that occupied five rows of seats on the Delhi-Goa flight I was on, some time last year.
Apparently, it was a huge clan of loud free spirited people travelling to Goa for a family function.One could not but help wonder if they had jumped straight from a daily soap. What ensued was three whole hours of action packed family drama which did not miss to catch the eye of all the other passengers around (including yours truly) and included bouts of public display of affection, loud yells from family members in the last row of seats to those in front, constant chatter amongst children and women, people opening up handbags which revealed a food supply that was enough to feed a small starving nation---packets of chips and tetra packs of fruit juice passing them around (much to the disgust of the stewardess-who kept passing them dirty looks from time to time-all in vain ofcourse), guys showing off their muscle power by reclining their seat to the maximum and crushing the passenger seated behind them and so on.
The only thing short of a bollywood flick was some loud music and a few dance steps to go along with it.
As I giggled to myself, my co passenger (who belonged to the same extended family)decided to show her hospitality and offered me an apple.
The forbidden fruit from the forbidden family-I laughed in my head and politely declined.
I am assuming she must have taken it rather personally or perhaps it was because she developed a sudden fancy for me---but she kept insisting I eat something and opened up a huge polythene bag which contained an even greater variety of food stuff.
Sensing me panic, the stewardess came to my rescue and served lunch.Hitherto the big fat Indian family (as I fondly call them) enthusiastically put away their booty and attacked the airline meal with equal gusto.The peace and quiet lasted only until the meal ended.
Since I could no longer concentrate on the book I was reading, I decided to cure my intrigue by casually striking a conversation with the middle aged woman seated next to me.A few minutes into the conversation and she told me that she was attending her nephew's wedding in Goa.She seemed to be genuinely warm and very polite.Apart from the fact that she kept munching all through the flight, she seemed to me a very sensible woman.
After a while into the conversation and much friendly banter later, she told me that she was the groom's maternal aunt.I was then introduced to her sister who was the groom's mother---a short plump woman in her mid fifties who had been against the marriage and so had decided not to attend it, initially.Equally agitated were the girl's parents who belonged to similar orthodox households.
Each coming from a conservative hindu background, the two families had wanted their children to wed within the same sub caste. The couple had almost given up but had been lucky to have an aunt who was not ready to sacrifice their love for petty issues.As she convinced each and every family member for the marriage, the younger generation of the family worked their way into making things possible.
Here, in front of me was a woman in her mid forties with a super huge family along with her who had an equally super huge appetite, but what was more important was that each of them had an even bigger heart that respected feelings and stood out for each other even before themselves and that was all that mattered.
Another stamp ink memory comes rushing to mind when I think about my travels.
It was a simple encounter with an ordinary woman, unique in her own way---a character you do not find commonly in today's day and time...a meeting which leaves a mark in your memory and makes you believe that its not such a bad world afterall.
I remember this like it happened yesterday--it was during one of my trip to Chennai.I had gone there for a P.G program which extended for a period of three days that month.
The seminars usually concluded late in the evening, after which we would go straight to our lodging and call it a day.
Fortunately, during that trip one of the senior doctors who was supposed to conduct a talk got busy and hence we finished off a little early.
With a little spare time on hand, we decided to go see chennai's most talked about beach---Marina beach.
That was where I met Yellama and Shaheen.
As a child, I remember my love for air balloons.I would love to see them blow up into different colours and shapes.I would be fascinated by the way they morphed from small deflated pouches to huge shapes and faces.
I remember thinking that the balloon vendor was a very strong man with iron lungs--one puff and he could inflate the largest balloons in the world, I thought.
My eyes would light up at the sight of any balloon vendor on the beach back then and I would pester my parents into buying me balloons of different shapes and sizes.Just like all other children of my age, I would be pacified with a balloon after which I would run away happily to play with my friends.
That day on Marina beach, I saw for the first time in my life, a five year old not pestering her mother to buy her a balloon but instead helping her to blow up one.
As I watched closely, I noticed how weak the mother looked---pale asif not eaten for days.She seemed poor yet content.Her cotton Saree seemed torn at places but clean.
In one hand, she carried a host of bright colourful balloons of different shapes and sizes.Tired around her waist was a small bag full of deflated baloons that were yet to be blown up.When someone would stop and buy her wares, she would replace them by filling air into the deflated balloons from the pouch.A few passerby's would stop by and fulfill their children's demands.But the woman in the cotton Saree never once coaxed or persuaded someone into buying anything.She stood calmly till someone stopped and asked her for her balloons.
"Rs 4/- per piece" she would say and receive the handed over money with a smile.She would always give back the exact change.If she did not have the money, she would ask him to wait and run to the stalls nearby for change.Even if the buyer would insist that she keep the change, she would refuse and implore him to wait until she got the money.If he was in a hurry, she would not let him go without handing him a few extra balloons worth the change.At a distance, I saw another balloon vendor standing with a bunch of attractive balloons, coaxing people as they passed by into buying them.Unlike him, this woman did not advertise her product.It was this very thing about her that made me go and ask her story.
Yellama was a woman from a very poor background.She had three children, Shaheen (the girl along with her) was the youngest.While Yellama strived hard to make ends meet, she wanted her children to lead a life of self respect and this was her way of teaching them a lesson in integrity and dignity of labour.
She did not want them to beg, borrow or steal.She told me that she wished them to lead a respectful life.While her older children were sent to school, Shaheen would accompany her to sell her wares.
"She will go to school next year" she said with a smile.She did not say why but I guessed that it was because she could not afford it yet.I saw Shaheen's eyes twinkle with joy with the mention of 'school'...the same way they would twinkle every time her mother filled the deflated balloons with air.She knew she could not keep the balloons for herself and sought comfort in looking at them change shape as they were handed over to the children who bought them from her mother.
It was as if by that very action, she could see her dreams ballooning up.Whenever a balloon went up in the air, she would jump in glee---as if that ball of air contained in it her hopes of soaring to the sky someday.
I placed a hundred rupee note in Yellama's palm and told her that I needed fifty balloons.I knew she would not accept the money from me otherwise.She said she did not have as many balloons right then, to which I told her I would come back the next day.
Immediately, she handed me my money and told me to pay the next day upon delivery of the goods.Shaheen was watching her mother with big brown baby eyes.I knew I could not let her down.
Here was standing in front of me, a woman who despite of going hungry for days wanted to teach her children never to beg or accept favours from the world...someone who wanted her children to learn that they had to grow up and earn for themselves and not accept or expect help from people especially strangers.
I convinced Yellama that she could use the money to buy the unblown up balloons since I knew that she would not be able to buy the many that I needed with her earnings, in a single day.
She hesitated but then saw the truth of the matter and accepted my offer.She thanked me and I saw her daughter dance with joy on realising that her mother had done good business.I left Marina beach a happy soul, glad that I was able to help little Shaheen in whatever little way I could.Yellama however thought I would keep my promise and return the following day to receive my money's worth.
When I reached my hotel, I was already feeling home sick.As visions of my childhood flashed infront of my eyes, I reflected on how we take small things for granted.Yellama and shaheen had left an imprint on my mind---an imprint on help offered by a little child to her tired mother...an imprint on values ingrained even in dire circumstances...an imprint on humility learnt even on an empty stomach...an imprint on hopes harboured even when dreams crashed.
The next day was a blur.Time to ponder on life's lessons got left behind as patients and case studies took over.The seminar continued with fellow doctors from all over India flying in and discussing all types of ailments and treatment protocols.
When all discussions concluded late in the evening, some of my colleagues wanted to visit the beach again.I declined the offer since I was very tired but my friend took it up.Having loved the experience the previous day, she was tempted to breathe in the fresh air and rejuvenate her senses after they had been clobbered dead by incessant hours of medical discussions.
It had been a long day and I immediately crashed in my bed upon reaching my hotel room.
I had a flight back home the next morning.I had woken up at 5.00am to finish with my packing.
It was 6.15 by the time I reached the hotel lobby and I was still half sleepy but nevertheless ready to check out.
As I completed the hotel checkout formalities, the concierge informed me that there was something for me.As I stepped aside in the side room of the lobby, I was caught by total surprise as I saw twenty five brightly coloured heart shaped balloons tied together in a neat bow.
When the concierge told me it was a middle aged woman with a young child of about five who had come in to deliver the balloons at five-thirty am in the morning, I was not surprised.Having waited for me the previous day, Yellama had spotted my friend amidst the tourist crowd and asked her where I was staying.
As I looked at the bright play of coloured balloons in front of my eyes, I smiled to myself---nothing could match the colour of Yellama's scrupulous character...the untainted hue of her principles.
In life there are times when we meet people we might never meet again.Strangers who meet across a bend, share notes during the journey and quietly go their separate ways.
Maybe they are there to teach us something.Something that we need to learn...something that we need to believe in.
A brief encounter with a beautiful couple I met during my holiday in London made me think along these lines.
After having had a scrumptious meal at Cafe Rouge, I was waiting for a bus at the stop opposite St Paul's Cathedral, lost in my own little world of unhinged thoughts...when they happened to catch my attention.
The lady was well dressed, had a petite body structure and sharp features.Beautiful brown eyes set in a heart shaped face accentuated her beauty.Her dressing sense was impeccable---with a style that was chic yet not too dandy.
She seemed to be in the mid thirties and had a friendly disposition.The man with her was a robust good looking man and seemed to be in his early forties or so.Together they made a pretty couple.
Our eyes met and the woman smiled at me and asked me if I was new around.When I told her that I had come from India, both of them were very happy.They told me that they had been to India a couple of years back and had loved the place.The lady told me that she thought the Taj Mahel was the most beautiful monument she had ever seen and that it was a beautiful way to immortalise love.I laughed at that and told her that 'love' like that does not exist anymore.She smiled at my comment but said nothing.The look in her eyes made me a little nervous as I somehow sensed she was looking right into my heart and reading my utopian expectations about love, which lay hidden under a thick dusty blanket of dark cynicism.
After a moments pause, we continued to speak about other tourist attractions in the two countries.
All this while, the man with her had been quietly listening---providing us with inputs every now and then.He seemed a warm and friendly person and even though he hardly looked at me in the eye, one could not miss the happiness on his face when he proudly spoke about his lady love and their marriage of ten years.When I complimented what a handsome couple they made, the lady blushed a little and thanked me.
Their bus arrived in a while and it was only then that I noticed that the man who I was speaking to for so long was visually impaired.As his wife helped him step into the bus, she looked back at me and smiled.
"I might not be able to build a Taj Mahel for him but I am never letting go" she whispered and bid goodbye.Stunned, I could only smile and wave back at the moving bus.On that day, right there on that busy street in London I had met this beautiful made-for-each-other couple who knew the secret of true love...the strength, faith and commitment to never let go.
As I travelled through life, I met a lot of other such interesting people along the way and I know I will continue to do so.To think of it, every person has some element of surprise in them---some strength or weakness that acts as a common link.
We learn lessons along the way and then we share these lessons through our encounters.What we learn might be of help to someone somewhere in a way very different.
Journeys are one way of connecting with each other, may it be only for a while.But the time spent is unbiased.
In retrospect, all it takes to create this beautiful mosaic of refreshing 'rewind-pause-play' memories is a strong connection---sometimes on the basis of similarity and ironically at other times, on the basis of difference.
They say, strangers are friends you have yet to meet.
But in my case, strangers have often qualified as not just friends but philosophers and guides too and I owe it all to Expedia without whom my journeys (through life) would not have been half as interesting as they have been!
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Cheers to you, me and the travel bug!!! :)