Tara for travel: Consciously mobile

A friend of mine is currently living out my dream of traveling extensively through India, so of course I’ve been following her blog pretty closely, and with no small degree of envy.  She posted this piece, titled “Consciously mobile” yesterday, and I got her permission to steal it outright since her privacy settings don’t allow for the reblog option. I think it touches on a lot of questions and uncertainties I’m struggling with right now, whether to stay in the same place, which risks to take, at what point being comfortable means being complacent. I loved this blog because it reminded me that not only will everything be alright, but there’s a good chance I might just wind up feeling more alive than I have in recent memory. Of course, I highly encourage you to visit her blog as well:

The bike swerves beneath me and my feet scrape against the dusty gravel road as I retain control of my direction, awkwardly managing not to tip over while simultaneously avoiding contact with both a cow and a rickshaw in narrow proximity. Cursing under my breath, I ask the universe to prevent the accelerator from sticking again as I recover from the less-than-smooth beginning of my trip home from the market. I don’t know why I thought 160 apples would fit in the bag I decided to carry with me, but they definitely didn’t, and I wouldn’t have volunteered myself as “prepared” to strap a 50-pound box on the back of the small and somewhat unreliable motorcycle I have been riding around town. But here I am. Come home with your shield, or come home on it.
Learning to ride a motorcycle was on my India bucket list before I left on this trip (sorry mom and dad), but I hadn’t anticipated the enthusiasm with which my boss and president of my NGO offered up one of the organization’s vehicles for me to practice. “Of course, take the small bike!” he said. “Take it all over the place. Take whenever you like. Rakesh will show you how to work, you will learn in no time.” He paused. “You should get one helmet.”
And with that, I began my newest self-betterment project: autonomous mobility.
Most of those who know me understand that the ability to simply pick up and go if I feel the need to do so is a fundamental component of my personality. Some call it wanderlust, some call it independent spirit, some call it moderate emotional instability, but whichever way you slice it I enjoy that spontaneity.
Strange as it may sound, this is something I have been missing in India. Things here are almost as intense as I am: the traffic, the dust, the cows everywhere (yeah, there really are cows everywhere in Varanasi); not to mention that as a white woman with long blonde hair, I get stared at and cat-called all the time. This combination of factors is absolutely exhausting, especially at a walking pace: not only does everything take more time and energy than things at home (avoiding being hit by vehicles, bicycles, and livestock; shouting in slow and broken English/Hindi combinations; not stepping in the cow shit), but everything you do will be noticed by someone. And if it’s interesting they will watch how you progress. Especially if you step in that cow shit. Trust me.
Add to this pressure cooker the fact that it’s over 100 degrees every day and social mandate insists that women wear full pants and a long shirt with sleeves in some capacity, and basically sometimes it just feels better to stay home and soak your scarf in water while lying under the fan wearing a sports bra and no pants, eating dry oats because that’s all you have have left and it’s too damn hot to cook them.
…you know, theoretically speaking.
This is not sustainable.
It’s not that I can’t get around. I can. But the ways in which I have thus far had at my disposal to do so generally either rely on other people, cost money, or both. They also usually involve conversations to negotiate price, time, and distance that require me to have a certain idea about what I am going to do and how long it will take before I leave the house. These are the kinds of things that one must come to anticipate when traveling, and it is best when one enjoys these interactions in one way or another. I know I definitely do. But I also know that I’m not really “traveling” day-to-day anymore: I’m living here. It has taken awhile for this fact to sink in (I still don’t think it fully has), and for me to understand its impact on my existence. But the first time it really started to was also while I was riding the motorcycle.
It was just before 7am on one of the first mornings I was learning, and someone had engaged the reserve tank without filling the bike. I didn’t check the petrol before I left to practice because, let’s face it, I was being a giant noob. So when the engine choked, sputtered, and rolled over dead about five kilometers outside of town next to a wheat field, I pulled over to the side of the road and was frustrated (mostly with myself), but not entirely surprised.
Miraculously, I had remembered to tuck my cell phone into my bra before I took off that morning, but didn’t have Rakesh’s number. I quickly thought about who I could contact with this problem and realized that I had our office manager, Ankit’s, information. I called him but got no answer, so sent a quick SMS, knowing there would be long stretches between our exchanges, and quite awhile until I actually got ahold of Rakesh (the NGO’s groundskeeper/errand boy, who is also my flatmate). I decided that it was probably unnecessary to start walking back to Sarnath with the empty bike, since it was still two hours before I had to be back at the office to prepare for my day, and so commenced waiting.
I counted goats.
I picked all the nail polish off my fingers.
I made friends with a bewildered vegetable seller, who shared with me a cucumber sprinkled with masala and a sour green mango.
Despite the fact that I was sitting on the side of the road in rural India on an unfamiliar vehicle without an immediate solution, the whole situation felt remarkably familiar. It wasn’t far from some of my experiences taking open-road adventures in the United States. These occasionally ended on the same day my classes would start (resulting in my turning up slightly smelly and 3 minutes late after sneaking into an illegal parking place on campus because I didn’t plan quite enough time to go home to shower and change after the last leg of a road trip) or sometimes caused me to have to do some light hitch-hiking (like the time I tried to ride my bicycle from Santa Cruz to San Francisco in the rain with only a package of turkey jerky in my backpack, when a kindly couple took pity on my soggy ass and drove me and my vehicle in the back of their truck to a hostel where I could pick up a bus). I could identify all the variables in play, and despite the fact that they were outside of my control to manipulate, I was confident that there was enough time to reach a solution without impacting the things I needed to accomplish.
And I was right: over the course of the next 90 minutes I got Rakesh’s number, exchanged about 30 text messages to explain the situation, and further employed the communicative skills of my new friend the vegetable seller to help him figure out where I was, exactly. Then I proceeded with my life: went to the Center and worked with the girls, came back to the office, wrote a report about the new graduate student working on research in the facility, and prepared to do it all over the next day (minus the running-out-of-petrol part, which earned me quite a reputation around the office for the following week).
I felt alive.
Within this silly situation, I allowed myself to realize the importance of something I already knew, but have been hesitant to articulate in the past few months: taking calculated risks in the form of just going, not knowing what is going to happen or where I am going to end up, is part of who I am. I also learned the practical importance of checking the fuel in a shared vehicle without a petrol meter, but the broader lesson embodies the understanding of a sense of independence I have struggled with in this part of the world. You see, the very thing that I am coming to realize is integral to my personality is considered something between an enormous luxury and a means-to-an-end amongst the vast majority of people I spend time with, particularly the women. I once had someone proudly tell me that she had traveled 200 kilometers from her village; the greatest journey of her life, she said. This is not an uncommon experience in a place in which most people refer to locations across the city as “very far away.” 200 kilometers is less than the distance between Santa Cruz and Cambria, somewhere I would go when I just felt the need to get away for a couple days in California.
Furthermore, motorcycles here are modes of transit: usually used for purposes of commuting, not for taking adventures, and almost exclusively driven by men. I am beginning to appreciate this as I have started to take the bike to work, but also continue to see this two-wheeled machine as a key to my freedom. It is a way that I can reclaim the independence so commonly overlooked in the women of this country: the same personal quality that brought me to India in the first place. And (as with everything here) other people notice, too.
Being a girl who rides a bike is being a girl who doesn’t need to ask permission to take herself places. Being a girl who rides a bike is being a girl who doesn’t need a man to connect the dots for her (you won’t find any female rickshaw or bus drivers in this part of the world). Being a girl who rides a bike is being a girl who sets an example of the possibilities for women around her, and shows the boys that she is worthy of equal treatment because she can keep up on her own. Being a girl who rides a bike is a way in which I can quietly lead; something small I can do to demonstrate those characteristics I deeply value in myself and my fellow women without forcing a western doctrine or attempting to implement ideas that do not communicate cross-culturally. All I have to do is claim the right to take myself to work every day, and figure out how to buy apples for the girls using the tools I have at my disposal. And of course, this (in and of itself) is an adventure.

Don’t worry. I have a helmet.

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