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Not a conventional risk taker, this 21-year old woman decides to go to Africa on her first work trip and this unknown country gives her inexplicable joy and a beautiful relationship to cherish.
I paced up and down the stairs of the office building. Some who noticed me chose to ignore blissfully. Some others stopped by and inquired if I was doing the daily fitness routine. I agreed gladly for I did not know what else to make of it. Even after two hours of frantic thinking, I was unable to decide if I should go ahead with my very first onsite project to Cameroon, Africa. At the age of twenty-one, fresh out of college, I could not comprehend if I had the authority to really choose my projects at work; nevertheless, I had generously nodded during the interview giving my full consent for travel to any country.
“Why did you say yes to Africa? It is your first travel. You should have played it safe and chosen a nearer or safer country.”
“Now that you have no qualms about going to Africa, imagine the case of other women in the team. They have to say yes too. All of you could have boycotted it together if only you had thought about it a bit.”
“What would you do there, anyway? You should have sensed it. If you say yes once, you will invariably be offered the same repeatedly.”
I couldn’t entirely object to what they said for it came from experience and perspectives; at the same time, I was not the one to blindly give in to another person’s opinion. After all, it was not a fact. Only an opinion, I assured myself.
Back home, I went to my mother who is living proof of strength, independence, grit and patience. I had grown up seeing her handle things so well with profound consideration and appropriate analysis. She lovingly sat me down and helped me research about the place and know its climatic conditions, political scenarios, general pros and cons, risks associated and the precautions to be taken, the complexity of the project on hand and what I would learn along.
It took a good few hours for us to come up with all the data; nonetheless throughout she stressed that I should be the one who took the final call and no one else. My mother emphasized that I ought not to be reckless; being a meticulous planner and communicating with all kinds of people surely aids in the decision making. My mother advised that the final choice though should be wholeheartedly mine.
“If I wanted to take a giant leap, it still began with a single baby step. And, if I look for approvals from everybody around, I may never reach the destination. Even if I ended up doing what was universally approved, can I be sure it would be worth it?”
My mother’s moral support lifted the weight off my head.
The next morning I confirmed my travel to Cameroon and began all the preparation.
The en-route journey was Bangalore-Mumbai-Nairobi –Yaounde. Quite unexpectedly, there was a long layover at Mombasa before landing in Nairobi due to technical maintenance work in Nairobi. There were no working ATMs and Wi-Fi at Mombasa airport. All the passengers managed with a handphone passed on by the plane crew to inform families and office people about our whereabouts. This was new and clearly not a part of my plan. During the layover, I immersed myself in insightful conversations with three other women – One, who had just been married and waited to join her husband in Nairobi, another who was on a solo vacation in the beautiful African continent and one more, just like me, who was on a business trip.
This post is one of the top selected entries from the blogathon #NoRegrets around Kaveree Bamzai’s inspiring book No Regrets: The Guilt Free Woman’s Guide to a Good Life.
When I did reach Yaounde, I did so in the middle of the night. I sauntered to reach the police officials to submit my visa and vaccination documents for the visa-on-arrival stamp. I handed over a piece of paper with a local number for the police to call my company driver. As I waited for him to arrive, I felt utterly lonely and madly missed my home, my family, the familiarity.
On the way to the hotel, I noticed the scary silence in the darkness. The city of Yaounde was peacefully asleep. At the entrance of the hotel, a warm person welcomed me. He stood with a big bucket of water. Was it a form of custom? I thought so. Only to realize that the reason was the acute shortage of water in the city. For the second and the third bucket of water, I went with him to fetch it myself and filled the huge tub in the washroom with sufficient water to last a day.
After a couple of days at the hotel, I was permitted to move to new accommodation. At the new residence, there was a catch-well, water was relatively more regular; however, Wi-Fi wasn’t there at all. When any sane person is confronted by water versus Wi-Fi challenge, water would be the obvious choice. I went ahead with it. A digital detox helped me spend hours reading and writing about my every day in Yaoundé.
The initial few weeks were all about following the protocol. If I was asked to have a company coordinator accompany me to the supermarkets, restaurants, client location et all, I complied without a second thought. If I was told to keep the car windows shut especially so at the traffic signal to evade chances of laptop theft, I stuck to the instruction without begging for exceptions. Even if I wished to spend long hours at the workplace for my learning, I had to manage time well and wind up before it was seven. A set pattern penetrated into my lifestyle.
One fine day, at the Mahima restaurant, the chef, Nilesh Bhai introduced me to another woman who lived in Yaoundé for over two years now. Nilesh Bhai excitedly hosted all the fellow Indians who came to the restaurant and treated us to home-like food. Hence, everybody affectionately called him “Bhai.”
When I met Latha in person, I was impressed by her courage and clarity in whatever she picked in her life. Until I had a chance to see her in person, Nilesh Bhai had given me all the articles and stories Latha had written about during her tenure of research and studies in Yaoundé. I spent several evenings reading her work, I painted a certain image of her, the city Yaoundé and when I met her, I loved how she spoke about deciding to move to Yaoundé all alone. Neither did she have contacts nor did she have everything ready like in my case. She did the relocation, pre-search and the onsite searching for a place, basic utility connections and for setting up her base.
Latha had seen rainy and shiny days of her life in Yaoundé. She had been a victim of online theft twice, the only second time she had gotten out of the situation successfully. For a long time, she ate local foods and slowly learned to cook on her own when she found time and means to access Indian groceries. Latha steadily got accustomed to the culture and climate of the place. Through interactions and hands-on, she had listed what to do, what not to do, where not to go and the must-go too. When I met her, she was two years old in the place, she admitted she felt like a local and Yaoundé felt like home.
“When you shed your old skin that is akin to old fears, inhibitions, severe doubts and insecurities, you will eventually find your way out”, Latha signed off after a good five hours of conversations.
Taking a cue from her, I too started to live so, soon after.
When I look back, I still kept the windowpane shut but I could see through the glare a bunch of happy boys playing football like there is no tomorrow; I still left work around six, only to have a short stop at a small house-turned-bar where the locals came together for an evening drink, dancing away to glory. The energy was so infectious that I shook my hips like a little girl. I reminisce the tales narrated by the local friends who were a part of the trip I made to explore Yaoundé and many other neighbouring cities. At the Sunday market and the handicraft Bazaar, I became an integral part of the community in awe of the products on sale. Yaoundé gave me a million memories to cherish and so many wonderful people who turned into friends.
At the end of my many months of living In Yaoundé, I travelled back with a heart full of fondness and an infinite amount of gratitude for the place and the people. The ride was bumpy, yes, but it was surely worthy.
Back home, I had a lot to share. Even today, whenever I address the women in my team, I always point out that as much as we like to challenge gender bias when at the receiving end, we must be equally open and flexible when we accept opportunities too. Limitations, terms and conditions, excuses without a valid existence can only harm our growth; whether they are self-imposed or written by outsiders.
Lastly, but not the least, like Margaret Atwood put it, A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze. A woman should indeed know the true meaning of freedom to unleash all her potential and limits, without regrets whatsoever.
I want to read Kaveree Bamzai’s book No Regrets: The Guilt Free Woman’s Guide to a Good Life to know more about the life altering experiences of accomplished women like Sudha Murthy, Smriti Irani and Naina Lal Kidwai, to name a few. When women rise to a certain stature, we tend to ignore their struggles in their journey. I want to be a part of their journey and understand how they are managing to live a guilt free life.
Image via Stocksy
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