Welcoming the setbacks
In the land of the Incas
the captain of the ship
The jungle book
The tourist becomes a celebrity
Finally in Bolivia
Planet of salt
Bizarre landscape and lake Titicaca
From the desert to the coast
Overcoming the setbacks
A preview of the upcoming book
Chapter 1: Welcoming the setbacks
“The gates of the plane were closed eight minutes ago”.
I felt like I was slapped on the face as the flight attendant said this to me in a matter of fact way in Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris.
I gasped for air and tried to think over what happened in the last five minutes. I remembered storming into the customer service office in the airport. In the heat of the moment, I forgot all the French that I learned in the last two years. Just plain English came out of my mouth:
“I need to pay for an overweight bag, please, help me!”
I did not have to explain that I was in a hurry. It was clear from my voice and a sense of urgency was written all over my face. The lady at the door, an expert in handling such madly running passengers on a daily basis, took me directly to a counter. I gave a hundred euro bill to pay for the extra weight. I did not care for the money anymore but I resented every second of waiting while the lady behind the counter prepared and printed the bill.
As soon as I was done, I ran to the security check point. I narrowly missed crashing into the trolleys and the people pushing them. I felt irked at the people loitering around like the greatest fools on earth and blocking my way. Luckily, there was no line. I came in like a storm and threw my hand luggage on the belt. An old security man was on duty. As if part of the conspiracy, he followed every step according to the rules, taking his time while doing so:
“Take out your laptop, cameras and other electronic devices.”
“(The hell)! Please hurry up, I don’t want to miss my flight!” – I pleaded while following his instructions.
I emptied my pockets and took out my belt.
After passing through the security check, I grabbed the handle of my bag in one hand, my sweater and my belt on the other hand and ran. I ran to the departing gate, ignoring the risk that my pants could fall off at any moment. I did not have the time to notice the looks the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen gave me as I sprinted through the luxurious sitting area of Air France. When I finally reached the gate I heard this:
“The gates of the plane were closed eight minutes ago”.
Alas! I missed my flight!
I could not believe it. It felt like I was hearing a music in my mind. It was the heart chilling background music in the movie Titanic, when the ship was sinking.
What a setback, at the very beginning of my travel! What shall I do now? Will I lose the huge amount of money I spent to buy the tickets? My residence permit in France is valid for three more days only. Should I count this as a bad sign, give up my idea of travelling to South America and go to India instead? People will laugh at me if I go to India after making all the plans for South America and announcing it to everybody. Hmmm…but this is perhaps the first lesson of getting used to uncertainty, something I set out to achieve at the first place. The beginning of a journey to explore the unknown, to face the odd situations and handle the setbacks. It already seems that my journey is going to be an eventful and challenging one.
To my defense, I went to the airport with plenty of time in my hand, as always. But when I reached there I could not believe my eyes. It seemed that every living creature in Paris decided to fly at the same time, on that same day, from that airport. I was very eager to get in the line but a airport staff stopped me because there was plenty of time for my flight. Only the passengers with immediate departure times were allowed. I decided to wait a bit since arguing with her was useless. She was visibly stressed and was replying rudely.
By the time I got in the line, I had only about ten minutes to make it to the plane. To make things worse, my luggage turned out to be overweight.
I felt an uneasy sensation in my brain as things started to go wrong one after another. I sensed that somehow I played some role in attracting such circumstances. I made the situations worse than they actually were. When I was told that my luggage was overweight, I took a few minutes to try to reduce the weight by discarding some things. But I changed my mind because it was too difficult to decide which ones to throw away and which ones to keep. Paying for the extra weight seemed easier and quicker. But, at that time, I had no idea that I was obliged to go to the customer service office to pay for the extra weight.
Be it my own fault or not, the fact was that I missed my flight. That was the very first time I missed a flight. As I stood at the departing gate, gaping at the plane that I was supposed to sit in, the attendant told me:
“Please go to the customer service office and they will reschedule your flight”
“Okay, but how about my checked in bag?”
“Your bag has been taken out and it will be reassigned according to your new flight schedule”
I took a few seconds to relax and slowly walked back to the customer service office, afraid that they would charge me for another flight.
At the office, I explained my case stressing on the fact that I was not allowed to get in the line on time and that was the main reason I missed the flight. It was not completely my fault. After some clarifications, the airport staff rebooked my ticket for a flight that same night without charging me anything extra.
It was still morning and instead of spending the whole day at the airport, I decided to visit the lab and spend some time with my lab mates.
It felt strange to be back in the city. Everything was the same. The same Luxembourg park metro station, the same Latin Square, the same Pantheon. I felt like I was a ghost gliding through the throng of office goers and tourists on the busy Parisian streets. It felt like a wrong place to be. I was supposed to go away, far far away. The day before, I said goodbye to everybody, thinking that I might or might not see them ever again. It felt strange to enter the same building that I thought I would never see again in my whole life. In my mind, I already closed the Paris chapter and stored the memories away, looking forward to a new phase in life. That day, as I walked through the very familiar corridors that I walked almost every day in the last two years, it felt like I was paying a visit after many years.
My decision of going to South America was not very well received by my family or my girlfriend or my post doctorate advisor. Naturally, I was a bit hesitant to show myself in front of my advisor but then I thought it would be fun, since he had a good sense of humor. When I appeared in front of his office door, he chuckled at me and I could clearly read the message from his face:
“Didn’t I tell you already? See, this is an unmistakable sign that you are doing a mistake by going on this journey”.
But there was a voice inside me that kept telling me something different:
This is exactly the kind of challenge that I need to face. This is a test for me. I must not fail at this point, not at the very beginning, at least.
I knew that I needed to go on with my plan, mistake or no mistake.
It felt surreal, as I came back from my advisor’s office and sat on the chair in front of my desk. It was the same chair and the same desk that I used for the last two years. But unlike those days, there was no rush of the daily work. I had all the time to think, to think about the unknown future in front of me.
For the last two years, I spent my weekdays sitting at that desk. In fact, for the last nine years, I spent all of my weekdays sitting at some desk or other, looking at a computer screen.
One day while I was working on my desk I heard a voice inside me:
What am I doing? Living a routine life, day after day. Is this all? Isn’t there any other meaning of life than working hard, making a career, earning money, spending money, going somewhere on holidays and trying to spend the weekends a little bit differently before the Mondays arrive? I have been doing this for the past nine years. Sure, I always thought of myself as adventurous and different from all my friends. Apparently, I always liked doing different things and doing things differently. So far, I was bold enough to take my own decisions about my career and personal life and I never regretted for anything. So why do I feel unhappy now? Why do I feel stuck? Why do I feel bored?
I did not find the answers, but the questions remained with me. They did not leave me. There were many activities to participate and many places to explore in Paris. My weekends were totally occupied and they went by fast. But then came the weekdays and the questions kept coming back.
Sitting at my desk I thought:
Am I unhappy because I am not free? What is real freedom? Does it even exist? How can I understand freedom? To be free, I need to understand what prevents me to be free?
I pondered this thought carefully.
I am not free, not quite, not completely. Some powerful primitive forces inside me are responsible for this. I don’t take many risks in life because I am afraid of hurting myself, either physically or mentally. I don’t express my feelings openly because I am afraid of people’s judgments. Although, I have ventured into a few relatively unconventional paths I am still afraid of realizing my full potential. Now, why am I afraid? Are these fears rational or irrational?
Deep in my heart, I always knew that I could achieve much more in life than what I did. Something always held me back. I ruminated on this matter many times in the past. Few years ago, I came to realize that I had a low self esteem that was responsible for this. Since then, I read many self help books and worked on improving my self esteem.
This brought some positive changes in me but eventually I started disliking the materialistic and goal oriented approach of these books. Setting goals and achieving them did not necessarily make me happy. The nature of the goals were dependant on the moods I was in when I set those goals. But my desires naturally and continuously shifted as time passed. When I achieved those goals, I did not get the same satisfaction that I dreamed of while setting the goals. The goals seemed rather shallow and unworthy of my efforts.
Moreover, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure trying to achieve those goals. Many of those goals were motivated by self judgment. They involved changing myself in certain ways. They were leading me to depression and self loathing.
Then I came across a very different approach to life while exploring Buddhist philosophy. It suggested “accepting yourself the way you are”. To me, that seemed the right path toward achieving happiness and inner peace, which are much more satisfying and meaningful than achieving some superficial goals. But I also realized:
To be able to accept myself the way I am, first I need to know which way I am. Do I really know myself? What does it mean to know oneself? How can I understand my true nature? To achieve understanding the self, maybe I need to know what prevents me from revealing my true nature.
An answer came to mind:
It is because I am afraid. It has been fear that has preventing me to know myself and to be myself. But what am I afraid of? I know it. I am afraid of not being liked by others. I always want to be the good boy because I strongly desired acceptance from the society. I am afraid of being socially outcast otherwise. And this desire to be the good boy was the reason I did not express myself freely. I was always hiding my true feelings, my true opinions, my true self. I have always been expressing myself according to what I thought other people would like to hear from a good boy.
As I kept thinking, it started to make sense:
Because I am not free to express my true feelings and beliefs, naturally I do not have the courage to act on them. This is why I am unable to realize my own self. I am just playing roles, the role of a good son, a good brother, a good student, a good friend, a good citizen and so on. Good according to what other people consider, or rather what I imagine they consider. I am just following the duties of these roles and fooling myself to think that is my life.
These thoughts kept working on my conscious and unconscious minds for many months. Finally, they culminated in a clear message:
To overcome my fears, I need to face them. I need to do what I am afraid of doing.
However, as I kept self investigating, I discovered many forms of fear in me. Obviously I needed to go step by step, to address them one at a time.
After analyzing many of my fears, I discerned that most of them were rooted in one fear. The fear of surviving without the assistance of others, specially my family members, relatives and friends. Although, I lived alone in the west for almost a decade and felt quite comfortable at it, I was still emotionally dependent on them. The fear of losing their support perpetually lingered in the depth of my unconscious mind. That hidden fear determined my behaviors, actions and interaction with the outside world.
My mind raced on:
So what do I do now? I need to do something that will challenge this fear. I need to isolate myself and live without the help of others. But, unless I go in a forest and live there alone, it is impossible to live without the help of others. Clearly, I do not have the courage to live in a forest all by myself. But maybe I can do something less radical and less difficult. Maybe I can try to live without the help of people I know. If I can continuously put myself among complete strangers, maybe I will not have the tendency to please them as much.
There was something I could do that would ensure continuous interaction with strangers.
I can travel. And I need to travel alone. This is something I have never done before. Whenever I wanted to visit a faraway place, I always pleaded somebody to come along. If I could not find somebody to accompany me, I just abandoned the plan. I have never travelled by myself.
Surely, it was not a new idea for me. Occasionally, I felt the need of travelling by myself. Especially, when I met a solo traveler, I felt the inspiration and need to travel alone. I always wanted to do it but never got the time.
I am never going to get the time for it, unless I make it happen. I am going to take a break and commit myself for a solo journey. I will travel alone and make sure that I do not make any travel buddies, except for a few days at the most. This way, I will continuously face the difficulties of taking care of myself in unknown places, in unknown situations. There is a feeling of security associated with familiarity, familiarity with the place, familiarity with the people. I need to break that comfort zone and go far away from home, preferably to difficult places with different cultures and languages. I have already lived or travelled in the USA and a few countries in Europe. However, it has been rather easy. This time, I am going to choose a difficult place and travel alone. What about somewhere in Africa?
The idea came easily to me but the difficult part was to even contemplate going there all by myself and finding my way around. I knew nothing about Africa and I knew nobody in Africa. What I knew was that it was a more difficult place than the Western world.
I was contemplating this idea for a couple of months. One day I mentioned this to my Moroccan friend Dounia:
“Dounia, I have a crazy idea, I am thinking of taking a break in my career and travel around.”
“Really? That sounds exciting!”
“I know that it is a very common thing to do for a Westerner but I don’t know any of my Indian friends who did this.”
“Hmmm…I know it is not very common outside the Western world. Do you know where you want to travel?”
“I have no concrete idea yet, but I was thinking about somewhere in Africa.”
“You know what? Last year I went to Peru for a couple of months.”
“Really? Peru? Nice! Did you go there for travelling?”
“No, I went there to do an internship. You should go there. I made many friends when I was there. I can help you get in touch with some of them if you want to visit Peru.”
Dounia went on telling me many things about her experiences in Peru.
She made me think:
This seems like a great opportunity. Although I feel the need to travel alone, I simply do not have the courage to do it right away. It is difficult to jump into a solo journey in Africa or South America without knowing anybody. If I can make some connections with the local people, they can help in familiarizing me with the place a little bit. And then I can slowly build up enough confidence to start travelling on my own. Moreover, I always dreamed of seeing Machu Picchu, this seems like a chance to realize that dream.
When I expressed my interest, Dounia gave me the contact of her Peruvian friend, Sonia. After several emails and conversations on Skype, I was assured that she was a reliable person. Over the next few months we became online friends.
I had another Peruvian friend Juancarlos who was my classmate during doctoral studies in the USA. After finishing his degree and a following postdoctorate, he went back and settled in Peru. When I wrote him about my plan to go to Peru, he invited me to visit his home and meet his family. This made me feel even more confident.
So I started to plan for my trip for the next few months. I shortened the period of my postdoctorate work from three years to two years and made all the plans to take a year off. I did not want to travel for the whole year. I also wanted to stay with my family in India, possibly do some volunteer work and give myself a lot of time to relax, read and think.
Sonia provided all the documents needed for my visa application and invited me to stay in an empty room in her apartment. Everything was going according to the plan, or that’s what I thought at that moment.
As I sat ruminating at my desk that day, I felt that something in me was welcoming such setbacks. I was not afraid to put myself in such a comical situation. Missing the flight was not even the first hurdle. About a month ago, I found myself in a similarly helpless situation when I was told:
“With an Indian passport, you can get a tourist visa valid for thirty days.”
I was in a shock when I heard this from the lady in the Peruvian consulate in Paris. I was under the impression that everybody was eligible to get the six month long tourist visa. The information on the website was not clear about it.
I already booked my flights and planned to stay in Peru for a few months.
What would I do now? For the last six months or so I have been dreaming about this trip. I have made all the plans and spent a lot of money to book the tickets. I made many contacts in Peru and even started learning Spanish. Will all these be wasted? Going such a long way for a month does not make much sense. I should have called the consulate and asked for the details about the visa before making any plans, at all. I did not apply for any jobs in the meantime. If I cannot go to South America, I will have to go back to India now.
Going back to India was probably not such a bad option, but I could not believe that my dream of going to South America would come to such a disappointing end.
I was frustrated as well as furious:
This is really unfair to discriminate between the citizens of different countries in this way. I understand that some unscrupulous Indians take wrong advantage of such visas. They enter foreign countries using tourist visas and do not return home. This is surely a problem. But, I have never taken any such advantage. So I should not be the one who should pay the penalty. I had no problems getting a student visa for USA and a work visa for France but I had no clue that this would be the situation for Peru.
I knew that this was a tourist visa and the rules were different for this kind of visa. However, I could not help being jealous of the citizens of the developed countries who had a lot of visa related privileges.
At any other time, I would usually compromise and be satisfied with whatever I got. But this time there was a big dream in question. So I thought I needed to do something. This was a part of my journey, a journey toward overcoming the fear of directly expressing my needs.
At that moment, another Peruvian lady who worked in the consulate, came over to the desk. I tried to explain my case to her:
“I checked on the website. It is written there that I could apply for a tourist visa for six months. So I planned my trip accordingly. Can you please give me a visa for six months?”
“Can you show me your passport please?”
I gave her my passport. She checked it and told me:
“With your passport you are eligible to get a visa for one month.”
“But nothing like that is mentioned on the website. I was under the impression that I could get a visa for six months”
“No, the Indian passport holders can get a visa for one month. What are you going to do there for six months?”
“I want to explore the whole country, there are many things to see in Peru. I also have friends in Peru, I plan to stay with them for some time and explore the culture.”
“I see, I can try to explain your case to our boss. If he allows, we can extend it a bit longer but I must tell you that he is very strict about these things.”
“I will be very grateful if you can do that for me. I have all the documents with me. I can assure you that I am not going to stay there beyond the allowed time period. I am a researcher, I lived in the USA for seven years and I am currently working as a postdoc in CNRS”.
“Ok I will see what I can do. Please give me all your documents and I will show them to our boss”.
I gave her all the documents and waited patiently, hoping. She came back in ten minutes and told me:
“Okay I showed your documents to the boss. He checked everything and said that you could get a visa for two months but not more than that”.
I felt relieved hearing that. Spending two months in Peru would be something significant. But I was not fully satisfied with that:
“Thank you very much. I really appreciate this. But you know, I have made all the plans for a long visit. Is there any way I can get a visa, at least, for three months?”
“The boss said that this is the maximum you can get. It is rather unusual for him to be lenient with the visa. You are lucky that you got two months.”
“Yes, I am happy with this but extending it for just another month will really make the best out of my trip”.
“As I told you, He is very strict about it. Pushing him again can be risky.”
“Ok, I understand.”
“You will have to change the date of your return flight before we can accept the application”.
My mind was racing on my way back from the consulate.
Why does it have to be so difficult? I will be in a rush to cover Peru in two months. I won’t be able to relax and take things slowly as I initially planned. Can’t I extend my visa once I reach Peru?
I did some research on this topic. It was not possible to extend tourist visas in Peru. Since I was not allowed to get a visa at the border, it was also not possible to leave Peru to a neighboring country and reenter with another tourist visa. With my Indian passport none of the tricks and shortcuts used by the Westerners would work.
The whole weekend, I brainstormed for the possibility to get some more travel time but there seemed to be no way out.
So I gave up trying and decided to settle for two months. But at the very last moment I had an idea and I decided to give it a try, just in case. I wrote a long letter containing the full details of my background and an earnest request for the permission of a longer stay. Finally, I submitted the visa application containing all the required documents along with that letter and the photocopies of my degree certificates and resume.
My effort did not go to waste. I was granted a multiple entry visa, valid for three months. My joy was boundless. It gave me flexibility and plenty of time to explore.
The success with the Peruvian visa prompted me to apply for a Brazilian visa. I got a three months multiple entry visa, this time without any trouble.
One week before my flight, I started working for the Bolivian visa application. It required a few days of running around the city doing some paperwork, something I hated doing, especially in Paris. Moreover, I needed to submit my passport for a few days as a requirement for the visa processing. As it was too close to my departure date, I had the risk of not having my passport with me when I needed to fly. So I abandoned the process in the middle.
However, the girl in the consulate told me that I could get a visa on arrival at the border of Bolivia with an Indian passport.
So I thought I would just get the visa at the border to get into Bolivia. I had no idea that some surprise was waiting for me. Nevertheless, I was ready for some adventure.
I got up from the desk and went out for my last lunch in Paris.