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I came back with truncated nails, tangled hair, a gently singed skin, but with a heart soaring way beyond the bruised horizon of my inner turmoil.
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
A woman must go on a holiday alone, at least once a year. It is important to just be with yourself, and do the things that bring you peace. I say this, because I do.
Aside from some quiet moments and the mandatory recharge, it is my capacity to be a woman in a strange city that I seek, when I travel.
On the 10th Anniversary of my first, “going on a holiday alone” venture, I would like to share my first experience here.
As usual the need to escape begins with an itch that will not let one live in peace. Have you ever felt a deep sense of loss? Not the conventionally defined one that of health, a loved one or money. What I mean is the loss of the self.
Have you ever felt this pesky feeling of being away from your own being? Feeling like a stranger who has lost her way and is standing at the precipice of sanity. That of being in danger of plunging into deep dungeons pushed by the horrible demons dancing on ones head?
I would like to share one such experience of those years with you. It from a time when I lived like a machine, worked like a zombie, and there was something inside me that was slipping away, dangerously. There, in the shrill call bells, endless meetings with difficult people, unrelenting deadlines, constant ringing of phone and perpetual demands on my time and energy, something just felt lost.
I realised I had forgotten the natural rhythm of life. Night is for rest, day is for work, but I was burning the candle at both ends. I was working late at night and spending the day in frenzied activity. And I used to feel guilty about taking even a brief afternoon nap.
A little secret here: I would have easily confessed to having phone sex with a stranger than to sleeping in the afternoon. Such was my guilt trip.
I had ended a five year old relationship that was ironically, a well of loneliness. To add to it, I was standing on the debris of a project closest to my heart. It hadn’t been too long since I attended its funeral. I was done with falling in love. Be it a man or a dream.
My soul was greying, prematurely.
I longed for an aimless stroll in the twilight; to sit upon some quiet creek, and watch the shadows merge into dusk.
I needed to get away from the excruciating pain that was pulling me apart bit by bit.
Basically, I needed to get out of my own mind that was screaming at me to go… to just go!
One impulsive moment found me dropping everything, with a resolve to just go away. Somewhere.
I couldn’t have waited for a companion for my travel, because I knew I would have had to wait for eternity and they would never come.
So I decided to go solo. Despite the bravado that I displayed, deep inside, I was full of apprehensions. You know the usual fears of the unknown, and my family didn’t make it easier for me either.
“Have you gone nuts? A woman travelling alone in India, and that too to a far off remote hill, totally unheard of!”
“Do you have any idea that it would take a couple hours on steep, winding and almost lonely roads to reach your destination, after you get down from the train/plane?”
“Haven’t you heard of those wild stories of women being murdered in a hotel room, raped amidst the eerie hills and their bodies thrown away in the ravine?”
When I put up a vehement reminder that it’s 2009, and women are travelling alone. (I also cited few examples.)
Then the tradition/religion was evoked, “In our family, Muslim women don’t travel alone.”
End of discussion.
In brief, the voices around me were anything but encouraging.
But my mind was made. My resolve was like steel, although my heart was turning slowly into some squishy, pulpy thing with all the fear mongering.
I just kept up a brave facade.
However, when I searched the internet for places to visit, to stay, and when I was booking my tickets—finally— I felt a tiny thrill inside me that slowly began to turn into a secret spring of mirth.
I felt like a teenager who has just stolen her first kiss, under the stairs, on a sultry afternoon.
That morning when I left with the dawn streaking the dark sky, it felt like the beginning of a lifelong romance, with my own self.
As the Shatabdi rushed past the dancing witches of trees, I had this little voice echoing inside that I am looking forward to seven days of absolute peace. And nothing’s gonna change that.
I closed my eyes and smiled to myself. After ages.
As my cab went up the twirling roads between the rocky hills, I already began to feel the tranquillity seeping inside my heart…
Let me stop here, and tell all you weary souls out there, if you ever feel dejected with life and its demands, if you are suffering from a broken spirit, or a broken heart, then head for the mountains. This is the sure cure for all your ailments: physical, mental and spiritual.
Go up to the hills, stand at a point and just gaze at the majestic peaks. The gentle blue haze, the proud bearing, the awed stillness and the purple clouds around it, will smooth out the wrinkles of your soul. It will fill you with a renewed sense of living, as if you were just born.
The hotel lobby was quiet and warm, bathed in the late afternoon sunlight, despite the chill outside. I had already inhaled gulps of the pine scented air and was breathing freely.
Finally, I was able to exhale that apology of breaths, those tiny sobs stuck in the solar plexus.
The bellboy picked up my luggage and led me to the floor above. My room had, as requested, the best views of the hills.
I was walking slowly up the road along the ridge clicking pictures of the serene hills.
There is something about the setting sun. It brings in its wake the promise of peace, when one can find a simulacrum of solace in the approaching night’s oblivion.
And sunsets in the mountains are pure magic.
There wasn’t a soul on the pathway. It was deserted, with a long trail of mist undulating before me, as I walked through the stillness.
I was beginning to love the slow walk around the deserted ridge.
Then I heard a gentle tune behind me.
Someone was singing, ‘Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana…’ (my heart is crazy for love) softly.
I turned around and he stopped singing.
He had a growth of fine hair above his upper lip and chin, the signature of adolescence on the parting childhood. His slanting eyes mirrored the decree of native hills. I noticed his painful thinness, that even the worn out leather jacket could not hide. His long, oily hair fell around his shoulders like the hanging roots of a willow. I stopped and waited for him to pass me by.
He blushed, looking away but stood his ground. I started to walk. He followed. I stopped again and turned.
He dropped his gaze. Suddenly shy.
I asked him. “Shall I click your picture?”
He looked at my camera, and gave me a sudden, quick smile, his broken teeth bringing forth an impish look to his half adult, half child face.
I clicked his picture and let him have a glimpse of his photo in my camera. His face lit up seeing his face encased behind the small rectangle lens.
“Will you give me this picture?” He mumbled shyly, almost incoherently.
“Sure,” I smiled.
He smiled some more, he believed me.
I could see that his inherent innocence was still untouched by the corrupt treachery of city people like us.
He threw at me one last look of adoration, and walked away. Bouncing lithely like a gazelle.
There goes my “Summer of 42”
I sent a smile after him, and a prayer, while he bounded on happily, to his home perhaps.
The sky above the snow capped hill was streaked with a deep red now, but there was still a golden hue above a piece of cloud, like a precious promise.
I aimed my camera, for the parting shots of the sun. The cold mountain air touched me gently. And I shivered, with the rising cold, or perhaps the sheer beauty of the sunset.
The sadness and weariness was being suctioned out slowly.
And I wanted to eat that sun.
When I was walking back to my hotel, the quick twilight had already turned into a Prussian blue haze.
The Deodars were disappearing behind the gently gathering mist.
A slow shift was taking its roots within me. I was discovering the sensuous secret of sights, scents, sounds and taste. All that which had almost lost in the dusty, craziness of my big city life.
I made a promise to the darkening evening. From now onward, I will enjoy the simple and ordinary joys of life.
I will always take out time for myself, watch movies alone, and eat out alone, without waiting for a companion. And I will stop and stare. I will be unafraid to be on my own.
And I will travel alone, at least once a year, no matter what.
I will learn to smile, trustingly, like that young boy who had just galloped away in the misty pathway.
And I will believe in love, despite having been short changed into it several times.
I will love again.
The lights had almost faded and I found my way back to the hotel in the foggy yellow lights lining the ridge.
Before entering the gates of my hotel, I leaned against the iron grills of the ridge. The fog was rising below in the valley, reaching up in grey swirls
I began to laugh- happily- till tears came to my eyes.
Those seven days were spent in my own company. Not a lot of human contact, except the polite waiter who brought me my meals and few walkers whom I met on the quiet pathways, exchanging gentle smiles, and going our own ways.
Beyond my hotel room, just opposite my window there was that majestic mountain peak covered with the first winter snow.
It called on me every evening leaning upon my window. And while I was asleep it watched over me, standing like a sentry until the morning rays kissed my window panes.
Picture credits: Still from movie Highway
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Nazia Mallick is the author of a literary novel, "Meshes of Smoke"- (2011)
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