When I started my journey, one of my biggest challenges was to overcome my difficulty trusting strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers” has its own local and regional flavours in our families, and like most of us, I have grown accustomed to it. In new places, I have been warned of people who will put me in harm’s way and therefore to not drink water or eat anything a stranger would offer. The warnings are endless, and the outcome is a castle of fear, which you spend more time trying to climb over.
The first destination on my solo trip was Aurangabad. As I climbed into the train and found my seat, I made acquaintance with a young researcher, who has a Master’s in law and is currently working for the Justice Department. He was on an assignment to collect data on check bounce cases across India. We connected, talked, and discussed quite a bit. Eventually, they decide to accompany each other and explore Ajanta Caves together.
We took a Shivshakti bus (government bus service) to Aurangabad. The ongoing infrastructure construction made the journey very difficult, both as an experience and for the time taken to reach the destination. As we set out to explore the caves, we noticed that the bus staff was trying to communicate with an elderly East Asian man about the time of our return. Both of them were trying their best to communicate and comprehend, but the attempts were futile. Obviously, I volunteered to help.
Magic of Ni Hao
Having visited China for work many years ago, I had picked up a few words and greetings. “Ni Hao” is the Chinese greeting for “hello”. I had taken a note of his passport before greeting him. “NiHao!” I said. Surprised, he looked at me. His face lit up like a neon bulb. Very greedily, he tried responding to me, and obviously, I had to disappoint him. All my knowledge of the Chinese language ended at “Ni Hao.” I could not converse with him beyond the greeting.
Thanks to my amazing dumb charades skills, with a careful choice of animated actions, I was able to get the message across to him. He knew not a word of English, and we didn’t know any Chinese. Even then, he decided to tag along with Hussain and me for the rest of the journey.
If you visualised the conversation between me and this man, all via actions, it would surely be a cartoon movie.
After a lot of effort, we managed to exchange our basic vitals of name and age. He went by the name of Cheng and was 55. To my surprise, when he shared his travel dates using his phone calendar, I realised he had been in India for a month already.
From that point on, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company, which was an experiment in itself. We explored Ajanta Caves, had dinner together, and also shared all the expenses. On learning the cost of my stay, he very emphatically responded that he was coming with me.
We stayed the night at my hostel and continued to explore Ellora and Daulatabad Fort the following day. He was set to leave for Bombay (Mumbai) that night, and his wallet was empty. He had exhausted all his Indian currency and handed me a hundred dollar bill to exchange. His faith in me, a complete stranger, was an honour in itself. I will cherish that feeling all my life. I negotiated a good deal for him. He left for Bombay after saying a warm goodbye to us.
The learnings learnt from the traveler’s university course on “Transforming from Tourist to Traveler” were immensely helpful.
Here is this alien man who knew no word of English, travelling in India with just a translator app, trying everything non-native to him and placing trust in someone non-native. This was my moment of understanding that the Universe takes care of everyone and everything in it. We just have to trust the Universe and have faith that it is all going to be okay. The roads might not be as smooth as we want, but eventually each curve, each stone, each ditch, and each high will be an experience adding to this journey.
I had many takeaways from the interactions and experiences with Cheng and Hussain. Here is the summary of my learning for anyone who intends to start travelling solo.
- Start with the belief that you can survive.
- Acknowledge other travelers; they are in the same boat as you are, with the same anxieties and excitement.
- Learn the art of small talk with any stranger: Name-Place-Eat-Weather-Clothing-Music-Age. Use your identity card and Google translator wherever necessary.
- Learn the greetings of the land. Google helps here too.
- Smile more often.
- Share and give more to your fellow travelers.
- Be in the interest of others.