For my 28th birthday, I took my first solo trip. Nothing too fancy; a nearby locale, a hostel, and one-way airfare paid with miles. I paid next to nothing to go on this fated “solo trip”. Saying it was full paisa vasool would be an understatement.
There was no four-poster bed, air-conditioned hallway, gilded elevator or picturesque pool. No bathtub filled with bubbles, no breakfast buffet, and definitely no flatscreen TV installed in the room. None of it.
It’s not that I am a fan of ‘simple living’ or anything, I’m no Gandhi. I love humongous breakfast spreads and springy-white mattresses, and ask anyone who has ever lived with me, how anal (bordering on control-freakishness) I am about cleanliness. To the point of clinical, hospital-like starchiness!
So, in addition to travelling solo, the fact that I was choosing to live in a backpackers’ hostel, was also a BIG deal for me.
I reached early – 7:30 in the morning, when the hostel was dead AF. They were partying all night, said the host. I nodded, looking around at the minimal arrangements. “Have I made a mistake?”, I asked myself. The pathways were mucky and slushy after a bout of heavy downpour, and the hostel was barely stirring, its inhabitants passed out.
I took my bags to the assigned dorm. Empty. I was the first and only occupant in the girls’ dorm for the day. Relieved, I dumped my bags, and inspected the loo. Not bad, I thought to myself – an attached bathroom was more than what I’d hoped for.
I settled down for a nap, a hundred thoughts racing through my head. My family was panicking – their daughter was travelling alone, that too to a place that’s been in-the-news-for-all-the-wrong-reasons. My friends were curious. And their incessant calls and messages were, to be honest, making me anxious. I decided to ignore all that, and get some sleep – the anticipation (read the pukey, restless feeling in the gut) had not let me sleep a wink the night before. And having a 5:25 a.m. flight hadn’t helped either.
A short nap later, I woke up, attacked by a severe bout of FOMO – I was on vacation, and here I was, holed up alone in a dark, dorm – I needed to go out and explore.
I walked around the hostel premises, inspecting the immediate surroundings, and then stepped out, retracing my steps through the slushy, mucky pathway that had lead me to the hostel that morning. I found my way to the beach, barely 5 minutes away. An old woman tried to sell me cigarettes. An Indian couple on a scooter asked me for directions. A few passerbys’ stared, curious.
It was a bright sunny day, and the sea didn’t disappoint. A friendly bluish-green, it lapped around playfully, laying at least some of my apprehensions to rest.
I attached myself to the Indian couple, and followed them to the only open shack – they were sweet enough to let me tag along. I found myself a separate table there, and pulled out the Murakami book I was reading, and ordered a beer to go with it. It was beautiful. The yellow sun, the noisy sea, the chilled beer, and the book. I looked at the view, calm and happy. Yes, this was worth it.
That afternoon, on my way back from the beach, appropriately lightheaded, I ran into the now awake fellow hostellers. Being the awkward, shy person that I was, obviously it was they who called out to me, introducing themselves enthusiastically.
After exchanging pleasantries, and discovering that at least 3 of us were from Bombay, different parts though – Bandra, Andheri and Borivli (+ cracking Borivli jokes – obviously), I decided to retreat once again to my room for a leisurely afternoon nap.
I woke up refreshed, showered, and wore a long, gathered skirt and a crop top – suitably boho. I stepped out in search of chai (my favourite) – there was none, and then decided to swap it for beer instead – there was plenty – Bira White even (surprisingly). We sat, talking, drinking, and that evening a bunch of us went to Anand for seafood. Which was so delicious that I came straight back and passed out before the clock struck 12.
So, there was no “bringing in my birthday” – 2 cans of beer, tons of rice and pomfret in coconut gravy had made sure of that.
The next morning was spent answering calls and birthday wishes, explaining to my friends that yes, I was in Goa, and yes, I was alone, and no, I was NOT joking, and yeah, it’s been great – if a little slow. And as I talked with all my friends, once again I began to doubt my decision – was being on my own, surrounded with strangers on my birthday a wise decision? I pondered over it in between calls that morning. Plus being low on cash in a card-agnostic place didn’t help. By afternoon, I was food-deprived (no cash), friend-deprived (most others had taken a cab to the beach), and was chanting to myself “What the hell was I thinking?”
However, as luck would have it, around 5 that evening, I heard a hostel-volunteer mention he was going to the supermarket. Wasn’t that where the ATM was?
And so, I sat awkwardly behind him on the scooter, sideways, because I was wearing a long straight skirt that did not let me sit normally (I tried), holding onto his backpack with one hand, clutching a handle-like thing below my seat with the other. I had the ATM cards of two other people in my wallet, who also were low on cash – I wasn’t the only unprepared fool.
The scooter spluttered over speed breakers and narrow roads, the sky drizzled tiny raindrops on us, the hills rolled to one side, the green of the trees made more intense with the intermittent rain, pedestrians turned to look at us, other scooters with other people scuttled past us. It was beautiful.
The trip to the ATM was the defining moment of my trip; everything before was shrouded in doubt, and everything after – pure joy.
I got back to the hostel, a spring in my step, a smile on my face – I never knew a few thousands in cash in my wallet could make such a difference. I got myself a Bira and joined the backpackers’ in the common area.
That night we went Salsa dancing – I didn’t dance, the next morning we went out for breakfast and lunch. That evening I went, once again, to the beach. And that late evening, we simply spent sitting in the common area, chatting till the wee hours of the morning.
The conversations I had in those 3 days, if inspected in itself, were nothing groundbreaking, but together they made me feel painfully aware of how large the world is, and yet how small – we all have similar battles, fears, apprehensions, hopes and dreams. We may be from different countries, but we’re connected by NETFLIX (we all watch NARCOS). We could look different, and talk different, and dress different, but we are connected by our love for CHAI and Cheese Garlic Naan. And, there’s nothing quite as fun as getting together and teasing a young couple on the brink of romance – yeah, you heard me – the methods of pulling somebody’s leg remain same across geographies.
I don’t know, how, from doubting my decision, I went on to have such an enlightening experience. Maybe it was because I had spent the first day and a half adapting and understanding what living in a backpackers’ hostel meant. By the time I left, though, I was ready to take another trip solo.
When I left the hostel, it was with a heavy heart. I was consumed by feelings no words can describe. Let’s just say they were different from happy, sad, romantic or nostalgic. It felt like my heart was being squashed and torn and pulled apart from all sides – travelling solo aroused something in me, something akin to a hunger I didn’t know existed. It felt crazy.
And I? I felt alive.
Have any questions on travelling solo? E-mail me at email@example.com