As I flew from the east to the west , little did I know that in those ten days, I would meet five travel companions that would change my perception forever……..
So when you see all these posts about me travelling here there and everywhere, be honest- You must think – ‘Oh she must be having A Damn Awesome life!’
I can’t say it is all untrue but if you are a forced traveller like me then the prospect of packing bags, living out of a suitcase, navigating airports, immigration, customs, maps can be pretty painful.While some are natural, enthusiastic travellers, few are not. Unfortunately I come under the second category. So even though my profession makes me board an aircraft almost every week, when it comes to taking off on vacation, there are days I rather sit home under my rock and switch off from airports, trains, buses and any other transportation, as ironical as it sounds.
My trip to Alaska in July was one such ‘Shall I go- Shall I not?’ kind of trip. Yes, Alaska the bucket wish of every second soul.
And there I was with a cruise in hand and still contemplating until the last minute… should I or should I not jump over glaciers and befriend dolphins?
Besides the prospect of getting a Canadian visa was so unappealing, having heard nightmares of that taking a month; there was no chance I could give up my passport for so long. I had flights to catch and work to do.
Finally after being smart and getting the visa in under a week (no I am not sharing this information) I got myself mentally prepared for the almost 24 hour journey from Mumbai via London to Vancouver, where Celebrity Infinity inaugurated its weekly route.
Awesome Auntyjee- Antijee
So she sat in front of me, 34 K, on the Mumbai London flight. I originally had the one next to her but other old folks mistakenly sat there and so I automatically slid into the one behind without a fuss. Boredom made me strike up a conversation with the young student next to me on landing and as usual I started about my debut book, ‘blah blah, check it out etc. ‘ As the flight touched down, completely oblivious to Auntyjee in front of me for the past eight hours, I saw a white haired tiny entity clad in a simple yellow sari, stand up and clap in glee. For a minute I thought she had lost it, ‘bechari ni paulee kum che,’ (one penny short )I thought in Gujarati.
Soon I realised the cheering was directed at me, ‘Very good beta.You write books, waah waah you are my Superstar!’
I looked around. Slight panicked. Me? And had this frail sweet smiling woman actually used the word ‘Superstar?’
‘I want to read your book,’ she said with such great gusto that I almost wished I was carrying one in my hand case.
Had my voice been that loud or were Auntyjee’s ears as sharp as an ant’s? Antijee!
‘I will walk with you to immigration,’ she affirmed; ‘It is an honour.’
Ahh vanity couldn’t say no to that. So we started….I wondered if I was in for a monotonous dialogue.
Before I had time to make up my mind, she threw that budding misconception out of the aircraft door as we disembarked. Quoting the number of biopic books she had read, all in English mind you and the music she had heard, Indian ghazals; I felt like a total villager.
We had reached the lengthy immigration queue when she turned around and asked me if I was married. Ah finally, the generation gap was about to emerge. It had been too good to be true, the previous coolness and wisdom of Antijee was just a curtain that draped a conservative mind. I replied in the negative.
‘Very good,’ she said, bowling me over again, ‘don’t get married. You are saved. Otherwise you will have to sit and pamper a man’s ego, feed him, listen to his nonsense and you will have no time for your ambitions and future awards.’
Then she blinked and hugged me, her fondness for me growing by the minute; ‘But, you must have boyfriends haan, don’t become celibate.’
I nodded quietly , hugging her back. Oh I was falling for her- this little ole fan who had already imagined my future love life and prizes.
Promising to buy my novel, ‘Coffee Days Champagne Nights’, we cleared the queue and then she started moving away slowly, waving at me, her eyes filled with child like wonder.
I had learnt that Antijee was widowed, lived with her strange daughter in law in Mumbai, was visiting another in the UK to help out with her second pregnancy, had books for company and was touching 80! I was on my way to one of the most craved -for vacations in the world,cribbing about the endless wait and the weak WiFi signal on my phone.
Her smile reached her eyes, her three front teeth were missing and yet she came across as if she had it all! And maybe she did.
As for me? I didn’t stop scowling all the way to the transit hotel, digging for a lost mint in my handbag and imagining missing my next flight.
LESSON 1 ‘Happiness is definitely within. Here and now. It's not having the best but making the most of what you have, already.It has no age limit. Auntyjee and I were originally supposed to sit together and we didn't. But if you are meant to meet someone, you will! No matter which end of the earth or in this case, the plane you were....'
Celebrity Cruises, the luxury line! I boarded excited along with my family.
It’s all ‘hello lovely to see you’ kind of chat from the hundred odd staff on board the Infinity and I was all pleased with the attention until I realised we had to pre pay a handsome amount for daily bottled water.
After check in, I volunteered to dive in to get some H2O supply for the next few days from one of the bars as the various bars were the only hubs where you could swipe the pre paid card at. Assuming it to be the most buzzing, I handed it to a steward at the poolside deck only to be informed harshly that we allowed only one mini bottle at a time per swipe. This rule sounded completely insane. Firstly the concept of paying for water sucks after you have paid through your pants for a trip and secondly his arrogance called for immediate action…I was now seething like a pressure cooker.
Rattled and clueless about how to handle this angered situation on the very first day of our trip, I went over to the common food court to find a manager to whom I could complain to. I started to climb down the staircase, back to my room on the eighth, cursing under my breath about the miserable place I was going to be stuck in for the next seven days; it wasn’t a hotel that one could swap; we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! The only way to get to land would be to jump or swim .
In great irritation, I dropped my key card between the landing of two floors. A dusky hand reached for it and handed it over; ‘Are you okay?’ Mr Spectacles inquired.
‘No I am not.’ And observing that he was in some kind uniform I started the vent……..
The Cruise Director
Mr Spectacles, ended up being the Cruise director (as if pre scripted) and found my whining endearing. (especially after I threw the 'I am a famous author from Mumbai' card) He lead me down to the coffee shop to calm my nerves with caffeine shots, arranged for unlimited water to be sent to our rooms, volunteered to arrange a book reading and basically made sure I never had an unhappy moment for the next seven days.
Lots of other fancies like champagne, strawberries and chocolates followed in the days to come, all compliments of our new friend and his tribe; the week went by under the spell of a tooth fairy that woke me up on the other side of sunrise with surprises galore that included royal treatment from chefs, casino hosts and room managers.
Lesson 2 The cruise director Bosco teaches me that no matter what happens, any messy situation can be saved by kindness and going out of your way for someone selflessly. And most importantly it confirmed to me the age old quote that every 'not so great thing' happens for a reason - For if it hadn’t been for that insolent barman setting me off into the wrong direction, I would have never bumped into over- generous beings, who took it upon themselves to change the course of our holiday and make it a memorable one....
Tony the silver fox
Ketchikan was the last shore- halt of the ship. Some of us set out in a private boat as part of the shore excursion. I was in a rather bad mood. I had issues over the phone the day before with so and so and now nothing seemed okay. So while the rest of the cruise enthusiasts’ were oohing over whale hooping and seal spotting I was skirting around corners. I didn’t see the point in clapping for sea mammals when my own life appeared to be a sea -full of questions.
That’s when a lanky man whom I had noticed chatting with the rest came toward me. I thought he maybe the boat owner and probably worried about my lack of participation.
When he informed me that he was the man in charge of the coffee, I was taken aback for he had an important air that almost said that he owned the boat.
He laughed ‘I live in Mexico and come to Alaska in summer; I got kicked out of my old job so this is my first day here. I have no clue what I am doing …’
I smiled. I didn’t know what I was doing there either.
Couple of lost peas in a pod we were- Americano Tony and Bhartiya nari Kainaz
He asked me the what, where and how, sensing my willingness to talk…
After being impressed about the author bit we went on to the part of the crew bit. ‘So you travel all around the world as a job? That’s the luckiest thing I have ever heard pretty lady.’
I snapped; ‘I get a bit fed up of holidays; I want to be more grounded. Been there, done that, you know…’
He stared at me for a good ten seconds, the cool Alaskan wind blowing on our faces. For a minute we forgot where we were and who could be over hearing us.
‘No I don’t know. When you get to my age young lass, you will regret that you haven’t made the most of your fantastic life.’
We both took refreshing pristine breaths.
‘With a ticket in your pocket, fire in your heart and legs that can walky- walk ..there is no excuse in the world that should stop you from discovering every inch of the globe. And until you do, I don’t want you calling it quits.’ Aye Aye Captain Tony.
Lots of people have told me the same thing in different ways, mostly family and friends. After all, my job gives me the luxury of super discounted air tickets which sounds like a fantasy to most ears.
But if there was one epic moment that I could say that changed my entire view of my job and my life style, it was that moment.
I returned on board the cruise and booked my next travel destination, online.
LESSON 3 Tony taught me one very crucial thing that day: ‘Make life count. For each day is a gift. And while you're at it, teach your heart to crave adventure once again....'
(And within a month I was travel writing, blogging and even travel -shooting. And even though it may not be my ultimate thing; I think it’s a close second.)
Girl with the nose ring
That same day as we were returning to land, I sat next to a girl on the ferry who looked as if she were travelling on her own. Inspired by Tony’s earlier rebuke I decided to smile and culturally integrate myself. She seemed like a student so I assumed the conversation would be short and inept. As always, I was wrong. ‘I love India. I have been there and volunteered in the slums. It is my dream to go back and teach poor children.’
Really? India? One of the farthest points one could think of…and that’s where she wanted to return? She looked barely 18.
She turned out to be the cute boat guide’s girlfriend and I found out that they both shared the common dream of teaching poorly kids; she was even pursuing a course just for that. It almost seemed unreal.
I wished her the best and gave her my email. ‘If you make it let me know.’
‘Do you also volunteer?’ She asked me, her eyes wide in hope; ‘So many needy people in your country no?’
I muttered a lie, quite ashamed, ‘Sometimes…’
And exited gracefully.
India has billions and some one special from a remote island of Alaska had big plans for our country while most of us don’t!
LESSON 4 'Wake up wake up wake up. ’
May – the Phillipino caretaker
As I took off from Vancouver, I was slightly sad; not only was I was leaving all of nature’s grandeur behind but I didn’t get a business class seat.
But I had met such amazing human beings in my last week that I was now determined to zip my mouth and make positive changes- and that meant accepting a less than ideal travel situation, to kick start my new resolution.
I was squeezed in between a young man and a young lady in the B seat, just ahead of the economy toilets. Every restroom flush through the darned night was ringing in my ears. I tried to not let it affect me.
It would soon be over in ten hours. I would be back in London in my friend’s room where I would take an afternoon nap before my flight home to Mumbai that night and she would spoil me with desserts and goodies in the meanwhile….
Two hours before landing as I opened my eyes, I couldn’t help but smile at the girl next to me; she had slept soundly all night….
She and I made small talk and I learnt that May was originally from the Philippines but had met her British husband on a dating site many years ago.
She had gone to Newyork on a mini break with her cousin via Vancouver. It sounded fancy and I thought to myself maybe her clothes and struggling look were just the result of tiredness…for Manhattan sounded bit much.(Yes I am the queen of false assumptions, shame on me)
She then gave me a watery smile, ‘It was my first holiday in ten years. You see back home in the UK, I have a husband who suffers from this illness. Through the years, one after the other, all his body parts began to give up. I look after him all night and day… he refuses to stay in a hospital or with a nurse.’
I drew in a sharp breath. Sensing that the story was going to get sadder, I patted her hand, lightly.
‘I work in a care home at night, to make ends meet and in the day time I care for him. I don’t even know who I am anymore. I don’t remember my last hair cut or even my last cup of tea I had in peace without him calling out to me to either clean him up or give him a glass of water. I saved every penny for this trip. If I didn’t go on this holiday I would have had a complete break down.’
I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to justify her mini splurge to me, that she deserved a break as much as the next person did but I let her carry on….
‘My family in Philippines are very poor. I can’t walk out as I have nowhere to go. My ten year old daughters are ungrateful and refuse to help in household chores. They rely on me for everything. I am almost forty and have no idea how long he will live…he is my husband but I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t love him like I used to. Is it wrong? Am I a bad person to hate him? Am I a bad woman to wish that ……?’
She looked away. I knew what she was thinking.
I spoke to her gently but firmly, ‘You are only human and still a woman. Sometimes, you have to put yourself first …..’
‘How is that possible? I am just a caretaker; this is my identity. The only thing I have to look forward to when I reach home is washing up strangers and then arguing with him…..I don’t want to.’
‘I wonder if I will ever be happy?’
I didn’t know how to answer that, all I could so was chant good wishes.
I shoved hundred quid in her hand, ‘Please go treat yourself. Not your kids..just you.’
‘Don’t insult me.’ She said though she wasn’t offended; ‘You have done enough. I feel better…it’s off my chest.’
I bid her farewell as we both went our different paths at Heathrow.
I gave my number just in case. I had a feeling she wouldn’t text. I was right.
LESSON 5 'Some forming friendships are just momentary. You take some, you give some, you learn some, you feel some....’
And as I left her with well meaning wishes, she presented me the gift of gratitude.
While only hardships awaited my trapped friend, I was thankful for my own freedom and my friend-colleague Bini who was waiting in her hotel room with my favourite edibles, a welcoming smile and open arms…………
And I was grateful for the several wats app messages that flooded my celly as soon as I switched it on; even silly forwards that usually bugged me. They made me feel alive!