India was not an easy, every moment photo-worthy trip to make – it was a long-awaited journey, finally fulfilled. I had put off travelling to India on my own for years, thinking that eventually one day, everything would fall into place; that friends who also wanted to travel to India would also be able to go at the same time and that by travelling together and sticking to a pack, India would be less confronting. I had heard stories of India being unsafe for solo women travellers, but also many stories that countered that narrative. In the end, I decided that if I didn’t go now, I may never go.
In my youth, I met many who were only a few decades older than me who said to me ‘I wish I had travelled more when I was younger’; thus I am only following the hidden advice in the trail of their regretful longings while I still have the energy, time and freedom.
There were two sides of India – the India portrayed on blogs as alluring, exotic, with bold colours… and the India that was dirty, polluted, hot and humid; filled with plastic garbage and dusty air.
Delhi/ Agra / Jaipur / Mumbai
I spent the first five days in Delhi in a haze of sleepiness, still on North American time, waking up at 5 pm and faithfully navigating to Rajiv Chowk every day to take in the crowds, the markets and the night life. I watched young couples sit together after a night out at the cinema, families at leisure, and the peddlers at the market stalls eager for a sale. I ate as many different Indian dishes as I could: paneer curries, tikkas, daals, samosas; enjoying all the bold flavours in a wide-eyed enthusiasm. During this time, I also learned to put up higher walls than usual as I unintentionally picked up unexpected and unwanted companions on the way.
Filled with palm trees and the soft ambience in the brushing of ocean waves in the background, Goa was a welcome break from the rush of city life. The beaches had a laidback, hippie vibe. Dreadlocks, hemp clothing and tie-dye all made an appearance. I felt more space around me than I had the previous three weeks spent in the large cities and I could finally breathe, literally and metaphorically. The air was better near the beaches and there were less crowds. My favourite days were spent on motorcycles, exploring the nearby areas on open roads, looking up to open skies, discovering lakes or hidden beaches – impromptu road trips where I didn’t know where I would end up.
I spent my first night in South Goa at a bar talking to a well-travelled stranger who had been to a few of the same places I had been to. We compared experiences and found that we had a strikingly similar experience while tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. At this point, we had been chatting for over an hour and had moved on to dinner on the beach. It turns out we had met before – I met Liam from England (the stranger) two years ago and we had spent an entire day tubing down a river together. Two years had changed his appearance dramatically and I no longer recognized him – and he did not recognize me as he was inebriated the entire day that we had been tubing. The world is large but small at the same time. It is random and full of wonder.
I arrived by plane in the middle of the night in Colombo. This was two weeks after the terrorism attacks on the country that left the country in a fragile state in morale and finances as many tourists cancelled their trips fearing for their safety.
I have a theory that destinations off of the usual tourist radar attracts the most compelling people and it was in this way I met Marina, a seal trainer (and former Miss California) working in Dubai. She invited me to see elephants with her at the elephant orphanage in Pinawalla and off we went the next day. Our hotel overlooked a bay where the orphanage would take their elephants to bathe twice every day. Watching baby elephants playfully splash themselves in water was not something I thought I would enjoy as much as I did, but it was truthfully one of the highlights of my trip.
After blissful days of elephant watching, Marina and I parted ways in Kandy and I met a traveller who was polite and well-meaning but unfortunately tightly-strung and distressed. He had spent his entire day in the guest house, fearing for his life, not daring to leave. He counted down the days until his flight out of Sri Lanka. He had been on a bus where allegedly, a bomb was found. When he had left his room to finally get dinner that night, he said police had found dynamite in a truck. He had been profoundly affected by his experiences and his hysteria got to me. I spent the remainder of the night editing all my photos quickly so that if something were to happen to me the next day, my work would still live on. It was a terrifying and panic-stricken night.
On the train the next day to Ella, tensions were high, but just in my head. As we waited for the train, every little movement by the other passengers caused alarms in my head – would this be the moment someone would pull out a bomb? But the train arrived and we all boarded without incident. Where the train would have been full or close to full just a few weeks ago, now there was plenty of room to stretch out because of all the missing tourists. As the train rolled forward, little by little, as we passed the peaceful backgrounds of quaint villages, lush forests, tea plantations and mountains, I slowly began to relax. On the train, I met Robin from Switzerland who had travelled through Sri Lanka the last several weeks by himself. His ease in the environment calmed me down. We sat in between the railway cars, our legs dangling out the open doors, our gaze ahead to where the ever-changing scenic landscape appeared and disappeared in seconds as our train passed by. I was looking for a spot to go surfing after Ella and had planned to go to Weligama, when he told me about Arugam Bay, where he had been before and was heading back himself.
And this was how I found myself in surfer’s paradise – a long stretch of sandy beach filled with ramshackle beach huts, restaurants and surf shops. It was a low-key place for an acquired taste. The entire town was like existing in a bit of a dream. Besides the locals, everywhere I looked was filled with young, tanned, toned and beautiful surfers with the goal of catching the best waves. These twenty and thirty-somethings had been travelling back and forth between India and Sri Lanka for months and had devoted weeks to the ocean – a rebellion from the normalcy of western society’s workaholism and structure. At dinner, we exchanged stories of long-term travel, where we were going and where we had been. Stomachs full and satisfied with the night’s festivities, we stumbled off to bed, ready to do it all again the next day. I was sad to finally leave but made a mental note to come back again one day.
At this point of my trip, I had been gone for over a month. I was ready to head back home, but wanted to make a pit stop in Europe first. I had first heard of Georgia from a girl who loved it when I was staying at a hostel in Macedonia. Georgia exceeded my expectations. I had expected a cookie-cutter Eastern-European city with stark brutalist architecture and unmemorable food. I received a fresh, mostly tourist-free city and a delicious smattering of local cuisines. One day, I rented a four-wheel drive and drove to the mountains. Along the way, sheep and cattle and their herders ran across the road and I got out to take some pictures. An older couple saw me and invited me to join their picnic lunch. I took their portrait too. In Kiev, I met up with Marta, a photographer and videographer who I knew from Toronto but had moved to Kiev to reconnect with her roots. After a weekend of beers, chats and folk dancing, it was time to go home.