Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Best travel companion

I love road trips and traveling of any sort.  I love the idea of going to a new place and walk around aimlessly till the streets and the buildings become your friends.  It is as though the inanimate aspects of the place come alive and become your friends even in just a few days.

My love for road trips started with my father. We would go to Praturu, to visit our home. or we would go to Guntur or Eluru, to visit our relatives. We would take off in the early hours, often 6 of us in our FIAT. Around 7 am, stop for breakfast and then continue on our day journey. Usually, holidays meant visiting relatives. I played with my cousins and neighbors, read incessantly often finishing 2 books a day, watched movies, played cards and sat around for hours telling jokes and stories. These trips were always about people and not about places. I loved staying with our friends and family. Maybe, that’s why, even today, I love staying with people more than staying at hotels. The thought of going to a place where I did not know anyone, primarily to enjoy the beauty of that place was a foreign concept to me.

It was my aunt, Kasturi attayya, who changed all that for me. She loved to travel and she used to organize school trips over long holidays.  We were all from middle class, ordinary families and could not even think of traveling by flights let alone staying in hotels. She would organize about 50 of us in each bus and typically, a 3 bus caravan would go on a 10-15 days roadtrip. We would take a cook and his assistants with us. At meal times, we would pull over close to a large open area next to the freeway.  The cook and his assistants would pull out the stoves and make a simple meal of rice, sambar etc., The kids would all play in the open area while the spicy fragrance of the food being prepared would make us even more hungry.  When the meal was ready, we would all eat in disposable plates made from banana leaves or other leaves.  We would even get special snacks in the evening at another stop by the roadside. At night, we would sleep in the buses or in choultries (dorms made for travelers), where 40-50 of us would occupy a room, once even on a train platform. 

These road trips changed my life for ever.  We went to Goa, Nasik, Aurangabad, Chandigarh and many more places. To this day, I can clearly hear the guide telling us the story of the Daulatabad fort, of how this was one of the most intelligently constructed forts. It was impossible to conquer as there were so many obstacles and traps.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of the world – the brilliance of the fort, the expanse of beaches in Goa, the organized construction of Chandigarh, scenes of the countryside. We did not care where we slept or what we ate, we were excited by the smallest purchases (probably we each had only 200 rupees or so for the whole trip to buy anything). It was as though the secrets of the world opened up to me with each step I took in a strange city -- telling me stories of the feet that walked past and lives that went by.

Today, we have Google maps, GPS, cell phones, roadside fast food places and so many other aspects that make travel easy.  I think of the times gone by when none of these things were there, when my aunt and the teachers had to plan the route, places to stay, everything that we needed for meals like rice, dal, flour, snacks, banana leaves and most importantly, the safety of 150 or so young girls who went on the trip.  We were paired with each other, with teachers watching over us.  We felt carefree and totally safe.  Even when we all slept on a train platform one night because a train was late, we did not worry at all.  In fact, we all felt as though that was one the best adventures of our lives. 

It was in these trips that bonds were formed among teachers and they became a family in more ways than one. It’s no wonder that in my 12 years of being at that school, I did not know of a single teacher who left to take a job at another place. If there was any loss, it was because the teacher’s husband got transferred to a different place or because the teacher passed away. 

I also realize that for all the women of the school, my aunt provided a vacation that was more than seeing the world.  All these women, who were expected to behave a certain way and please everyone, who spent their days juggling their time among children, in-laws, spouses, student demands and school administration - she offered an escape to see the world in a way that was unimaginable for them.  They were free from duties of being a daughter-in-law or a wife or a mother for those few days and they got to experience freedom in a whole new way. She gave everyone the opportunity to discover the world beyond their daily existence, a world where they could discover the child within themselves. That’s why, to the day she took her last breath, she was a mother to every teacher and student who stepped foot in her school. 

Today, I have traveled across every continent except Antarctica, and I still have vivid memories of the night on that train platform under the stars where the mosquitoes did not bother me, where I lay excited to see the next town, the next wonder. In some ways, I never changed. That world that my aunt introduced me to, still beckons me and I have been sharing it with my 10 year old ever since he has been born. 

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