Who teaches you to come back?

Travel—it’s a common theme these days. So many of the inspirational posts doing the rounds these days are about letting go of the vagaries of life and travelling.

Travel to your heart’s content. Travel until your feet can’t move anymore. Travel until your heart expands to fit the whole world in. And then, travel some more, they say.

It’s a beautiful concept. And travel one must.

But who will teach you to come back home?

Home with it’s chores and daily schedules. Who will remind you of their urgencies and the reason why you withstood the painpoints?

Home with it’s shackles and binds, heating your skin up that was, until a split second ago, cold from the breeze blowing against you on the tall cliff.

Home with it’s dull grey skies and polluted city centres, where only the young and foolish think they’re free. Wasn’t it not too long ago until you were one of those?

Home, where the parties have come to an end and the after-parties only rise and ebb in the chorus of the sonorous snores.

Home, where the 5.00 am alarm rings you, and you don’t jump out, excited about chasing the sun rise from the east. No, instead you drag your feet to the bathroom and drape yourself in the anonymity of dreary clothes.

Where all texts you get are from colleagues and a handful of friends left in the drainage pipe, ready to ride away the time train. Not, from friends made a few minutes back, making excited plans to discover a pristine hidden beach or get up close to a tall mountain peak.

No. How do you get back?

When all you’re faced with is the list of compromises you made to stabilize reality. When you have to relive the decisions—the friends cut off, the people you retain; the habits newly formed at the behest of old ones gone. Everything that formed the new skin you sew for yourself over time, shedding bits and pieces of the old one again and again, minutes and hours at a time.

Will you agree with each of those?

Would you take the time to mourn what you left behind long before you travelled? But adhere to what’s left?

Or will you rethink your life, change the compromise that’s no more comfortable, and chase after what you decided to leave behind?

How do you answer all your questions about yourself, the people and the world around you, when all you’re expected to do is be normal…again?

And so, you escape. You relive your travels again and again in your mind, avoiding the realities unfolding before your eyes. You forget the life you’re living, and love the past, holding onto it with a desperate vigour, all the while being painfully aware that those memories are fading.

Going, going…. Gone.

There. Now you’re back to reality.

Or are you?

When hungry, eat fear

Stop two and three of my solo sojourn in Spain have been in the Basque country and the Asturias. And it’s everything that San Sebastian was not.
You see, San Sebastian is a beautiful European city that’s full of arts, history and culture. It’s very friendly, open and relaxing. You walk by yourself all you want. Sit wherever you want. Eat in any place you favour. For a city dweller, living here comes easily.

But the moment you step out of the city, you’re all alone with nature. The Basque country is dotted with charming little towns along the coast. But a hidden treasure is Zumaia and its Flysch. And I’m proud to have found it in my research. The Geoparkea, which runs tours in the area, had a 3-hour hiking and boat tour at 10.30 in the morning. Now the only problem was, the tour was only available for the 26th, which ate into a day in the Picos de Europa–another little gem, this time, a suggestion of a friend.

Had sanity prevailed, I would have given up Zumaia and headed straight to the Picos, which in itself wasn’t a straightforward route. I had to change buses and then catch a cab to cover the remaining 30-40 minutes of the journey.

But, the very fact that I’m writing this should indicate that sanity did not prevail. 

Headstrong I was. My heart was set on the Flysch. And on I went, deciding to reach the Picos late in the night. Fear point 1. Or so I thought.

That morning, I woke a little early by vacation standards—at 8. Quickly packed and left by 9. The train station was only 5-10 minutes away. So I thought, hey, I have enough time to reach by 10.30. It was just about 35 minutes away, after all.

What I didn’t check was the train schedule. I missed the train at 8.50. Instead, I had to catch the one at 9.45! I prayed hard that I don’t miss the tour. Even practically scrambled from the train station through the circular and confusing streets. Gmaps, wrong as often is, suggested taking the highway! But, as you can expect, I ended up missing the tour.

Of course, when you travel, missed connections are often good. Turns out, it was a Spanish tour and my payment did not go through. Plus, the lady at the tourist centre was kind enough to explain the whole tour, and enabled me with three-four maps so I could do the whole thing myself. I explained about my tight schedule and she even helped work a way around it. Yay! Happily, I set off.

First, I armed myself with knowledge at the museum so I don’t look dumb at the actual site. Then I set off to the Flysch. 

Now, this post is not about the Flysch and its geological phenomenon. But here’s a quick look at the site. 

The real story begins on the top of these hills near the small church. Here:

See the ridge that extends towards the ocean? Now, that’s a small hike. It’s fairly flat and easy. 

But, here’s the thing. I realised I am a little bit prone to Vertigo, especially considering how I have two left feet while walking. Plus, it was a narrow ridge, which frankly, made me rethink if I should go. Also, it didn’t help that I wasn’t dressed correctly, and was alone and physically unfit for any hiking excursions. Fear point 2. (Or 1, if you want to follow the correct chronology)

But, as it turns out, this was just a trailer. And the trailer ended here:

This was the easy part.

Again, I realised I overshot my time. Ran back some how to the train station to miss my express bus by 2 minutes. This meant, I would reach just 15 minutes before my first bus to the Picos. Oh boy! Never before have I tried to run so fast carrying my large, heavy haversack! Unfortunately, even though I reached on time, I had to wait in a long queue to book my tickets. Aaannnnnd the bus left. Fear point 2!

Then, I did a little bit of research (yay, internet!) and found that my second bus from Bilbao originated in San Sebastian! And that was about an hour or so later. So quickly, I booked a ticket, got the same seats and lo behold, was on my way there.

Now wasn’t that seamless! 

The tricky part came at the end of that long bus ride, that ended at 21.30—there were no taxis! How do I go from Llanes to the mountain town of Arenas de Cabrales, I wondered. I knew there weren’t any buses too. Fear point 3!

Thankfully, there was a sweet boy at the station who was originally from Mexico. He asked the locals for taxi stands and offered to walk me there. Boy, am I glad to have accepted his offer as the taxi operator was shut. We moved around a bit, asked a few more locals, until finally a lady offered to call a cabbie friend who happened to be going in the same direction. Muchas gracias, senorita!

Finally, at 10.30 in the night, I reached my hotel, tired but very much entertained by Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba music on the way.

The next day, I got ready for the mountains after lazying in the cold bed, warm bathtub, and over a hot coffee. The sweet lady at the hotel helped me narrow my list of hikes/trails that suited my time limits and fitness levels; booked me a taxi to reach the starting point, and bid me Buenos dias. I conveniently chose one that wasn’t too long or too hard. 

Or so I thought. 

The kind cab driver (whom I shall meet again, btw) explained that there’s a view point separate from the trail. And it’s ‘just’ about 1 kilometer. So I decided to start there. 

It seemed easy. It was not. Turns out, I can walk 23,000 steps seamlessly. But I can’t walk even one kilometer if it involved fighting gravity! 

It was beautiful, though. And after yesterday’s scares and consequent victory, I pushed myself to slowly climb the six zig-zag curves. One break at a time. One curve at a time. 

I think I managed about four U-bends before my mind started playing games. “What if you go back? Can you really make it? Your lungs are killing you. Please give up,” it kept whispering to me. 

And then entered my biker knight. He saw me slowly walking on and stopped to offer a lift. I look at his Ducati and my heart soared! How perfect. I really missed biking along mountain slopes and so I gladly hoped on. Within 5 minutes, we reached. 

To be honest, though, it was a little bit of a bummer. There wasn’t much of a view that I didn’t get already. So, we went back. I asked him if I could tag along with him, my heart greedy for more motorcycle ride, and less walking. He was happy with how good a pillion I was (puhlease! I am experienced enough. Pffff) and agreed. 
After a certain point, we reached the start of the trail. 

Let’s now introduce fear point 4!

Let me tell you something. I have never gone trekking. Nor did I think I’m fit enough to go on one. Especially after the climb earlier. I huff and puff even on one flight of stairs. Forget about what looked like a steep hike. It was nowhere close to the easy walk I expected!

Thankfully, J, my biker saviour, decided to go on the same route. I swallowed my fear and told myself, “you can do this!” It helped that he expected more flatter surfaces further ahead.

And finally we set on, with lovely camaraderie and intelligent conversation. What followed is history. I’ll let the pictures tell you the rest of the story. 

And here’s the Ducati I climbed on as well as it’s rider. 

(BTW, can you find the goat in the background? It may not be easy!)  

———– x ———–

When I started writing this piece, I had finished the trail and was grabbing a break at a nearby hotel. I needed sustenance before I began my return journey, safe in the knowledge that I’ll get a cab back home. Guess what happened next? 

Nope, no taxis around! 

I waited for a bit. But there was barely a soul around. So I started walking back to my hotel—about 4-8kms away. 

To be honest, I was more scared of this than any of the previous experiences. Imagine waking on a highway-like road, alone, without a path to walk on! There were a few blind bends. And a car driving past may not have seen me in time to veer away. But I had no choice. 

So I walk on, initially trying to rewire my brain into thinking of it as an adventure. 

And then, I remembered the countless movies where bagpackers point their thumbs backwards, asking for a lift. Hitchhiking! 

Never done it before. Never needed to. Until I had to. 

Few cars went by. One car offered a finger. Two scooters said sorry. Then, one couple was kind enough to stop. It was barely a fifteen minute ride. And then, thankfully, I reached the hotel. Got a cab booked for the bus stop. And met my old cabbie again. This time, he was warmer and stopped at various places to let me click pictures. He also jabbered on a bit about fields and farming. Then, he realised I haven’t seen Llanes and it’s beautiful beach. So, he took me on a mini tour free of charge to the look around in Llanes.

Here’s my now-favourite taxi driver:

In all my life, I’ve seen my parents accept fear a handful of times. And even on those few occasions, I’ve seen them eat their fear, light a fire in their bellies, and move on. Come what may, they’ve not cowered. So all I did was tear a page from their book. 

I realised today, courage is not about a lack of fear. It’s about what you do with it that counts. 

And sometimes, I guess, it also includes asking for help and support. Anything but stop and pull back!

The observer, the observed

Today, I saw a line of Chawls spread along the road. I was in the rickshaw, aloof, at a distance, observing.

All along, I could see one story after another passing me by. Hopes, dreams and insecurities littered the street in great numbers.

A few sat on their doorsteps, staring into nothing. Wonder what they were thinking. A few were occupied by human actions. A few kids played with rubber tires. I saw a well-dressed lady amongst the kids, carrying a purse. A social worker? I turned back to check if my sight was right. I missed it as the rickshaw zipped past, with a single focus on its destination.

And then came a new set of crowd, middle-class men and women going about their business of buying plants and flowers from the roadside. A different set of dreams, aspirations, worries and insecurities altogether.

Only a twist of fate placed them in either class. The same fate could’ve swapped their places. The dreams and insecurities, though, would’ve remained the same.

Why I want to be like the ten-headed Ravana

The book, ‘Asura: The Tale of The Vanquished’, says that Ravana did not really have ten-heads. Instead, it was metaphorical. Each head represents one base emotion in man – Anger, pride, love, jealousy, ambition, intelligence, fear, selfishness, happiness and sadness. He was called Dasamukha or ‘Ten-headed’ for embracing all aspects of humanity and its emotions.

Source: ReviewLeaf.com

I love to know the other side of the coin. Whenever anyone narrates any story, whether real, reel or mythological, I itch to know the point of views of the other characters involved. Sometimes I ask point blank if the other point of view tallies; sometimes though I keep my trap shut and leave things to imagination. After all, there is not just one truth. There are many truths—depending on the perspectives. (Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl, anyone?)

Anyway, the point is I love reading about alternative view-points – especially when it comes to mythology. Currently, I am reading this book called ‘Asura: The Tale of The Vanquished’ by Anand Neelakantan. It tells the tale of Ramayana through Ravana’s point of view. Essentially, it is ‘Ravanayana’.

Almost every child in India knows that Ravana is the ten-headed villain from the Epic. Why he is ten-headed is not a question many thought of asking. I didn’t either. Until, that is, I started reading this book, which has a wonderful explanation.

The book says that Ravana did not really have ten-heads. Instead, it was metaphorical. Each head represents one base emotion in man – Anger, pride, love, jealousy, ambition, intelligence, fear, selfishness, happiness and sadness.

Ravana’s gurus tried to teach him how to shun all these emotions except one – intelligence or logic. They said this will help him achieve greatness. The rest of the emotions, the Gurus said, will only serve to distract him in one way or the other. By suppressing all the other ‘heads’ or ‘emotions’, Ravana will be able to achieve balance in his mind and thus achieve greatness.

“The only thing worth preserving is your mind. Your mind absorbs the knowledge you gain from your Gurus, your books and your life, and refines it to great wisdom. It is what you have to develop. Every living minute, you have to strive to feed your mind with fresh and positive inputs. This will give clarity to your vision and immense power to your action. You will make fewer mistakes and also learn faster from them.”

This is what his Guru taught him.

Ravana, of course, refuses to do so. And then he proceeds to give a beautiful explanation for the need for each and every single emotion, even if it is negative like selfishness. Here’s an excerpt below:

“The amazing speed of progress man has achieved in the past few years would have not been achieved without that small flame of ambition in the minds of a few men, which was fanned to become a huge fire by the other emotions you have urged me to shun. Pride in one’s capability gave men the confidence and ambition to grow; jealousy that someone else would achieve more prodded him to work hard and more efficiently; the quest for happiness resulted in ever-expanding ambition; the fear of sadness kept him awake at night and pushed him further; the fear of failure made him more careful and God-fearing; selfishness glued his family, city, clan, tribe and country together and made him strive even harder. Love for life and the things which made life precious, made him protect his achievements. And I am sure an undying ambition for more will lead mankind to progress. Progress, which we cannot even imagine, can never understand in our short lifetime.”

In the end, he says that he wishes to neither be a God nor achieve Moksha. All he wants is to live a fulfilling life as a human, and exactly as his emotions tell him to do. Otherwise, he would be but an empty skeleton. This is why he is called ‘Ten-headed’ or ‘Dasamukha’, according to the book.

I could not agree more. For years I have contemplated about the need to sacrifice or supress some parts of our persona for the sake of betterment. As a Brahmin, I’ve often been told to not do many things, because it apparently takes me one step closer to the perfection that is God. But over the years I have realised that life is empty without these imperfections. There are so many aspects of life which are harmful. That said, they do add some colour to life. I would rather live a fulfilling life when I am alive than worry about life after death, or worse, how I would be reborn – as an animal or human or Brahmin (believe it or not, these are some legitimate threats I’ve heard)

Agreed it is important to constantly aim to improve over time; the goal should be to do away with your imperfections, but that doesn’t mean you supress it altogether. There will always be times when you will give into your natural instincts like anger or fear.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is moderation that is important, not complete suppression. Everything is better in the right quantities. Even complete suppression could backfire – like a volcano that bursts suddenly after gaining steam for hundreds of years.

At the end of the day, I appreciate and accept my humanity. More so, I want to embrace it whole-heartedly. There will be days when I get angry, afraid, jealous, over-ambitious, proud, happy or sad. Otherwise I would be like the stone which sits in silence and observes the world, wouldn’t I?

I think the key point here is ‘limit’ and ‘objectivity’. It is ‘not getting carried away’. Any of the base emotions, when in excess, can wreak havoc; even love or happiness. The question, then, is – where to draw the line? And most importantly, who decides whether the line is correct or wrong? And that is something I have always struggled with – limiting myself and walking on the thin line that separates the right from the wrong!