10-minute-friends and floating thoughts.

I made six new random friends since I boarded the bus in Jaisalmer yesterday evening. Within a few minutes, I’d introduced myself to the guys across the corridor of the sleeper bus, and my plan of having locals handy in case I was confused worked out fabulously. Plus none of us got bored, and I was invited to stay at their desert school at my next visit. Facebook friend request: sent.

In my next bus, from Jaipur to Delhi, I was alone for quite a while, until two men (again, haha) joined me on my bench. I was first annoyed because that didn’t leave me much space, and I’m suspicious of situations in which I’m required to be physically close to men I don’t know. The ones next to me didn’t show any undue interest, though, and we sat in silence for a few hours, until we started talking about marriages. The three of us turned out to have travelled for a wedding, the two of them to their first Rajasthani one and I to my first one at all (although that had already been in Delhi). Anyway, we got along well and spent the afternoon together even after getting off the bus. We were joined by one more of their friends who turned out to like formal logic and had started reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, as well as watching lectures from Erlangen University (in Germany) online… we ceremoniously pledged to hold each other accountable for finishing the book.

What an improvement to sitting in the dust for hours by myself! More facebook friends: check. Plus, obviously, more nice people to visit in Delhi.

When the time came to reach the airport, one of them explained me how to get to the airport by metro, reassuring me that it would be no problem at all. Well, it got late, I got incredibly stressed, and so he took the metro with me all the way to the airport to make sure I’d be alright (I was filled with righteousness: “If you hadn’t reassured me, I’d left an hour earlier!”).

When saying goodbye, I gave him a stormy adrenaline-filled (and therefore probably tight?) hug, which left him visibly perplexed.

Woops, forgot Indian protocol – non-related, non-married men and women usually greet each other by waving/signing “namaste”, or shaking hands, or giving a very chaste hug selon occasion.

[Side note: not even married couples kiss each other in public; not that I’d wanted to try that].

I didn’t consider my potential faux-pas for long, but slid away. On my golden wedding sandals that provided no grip whatsoever on the shining floor; straight to check in, where I was greeted with a grin, considering my generous margin of 13 minutes before check-in closure and my inability of taking corners without looking like an overpacked surfing apprentice.

I grinned back; relief! Relief! The best euphoria. Then, waiting at the passport controls, I started a conversation with someone I suspected might also go to Bangkok. The kind of East Asian face turned out not to be Thai at all, but from eastern Nepal. What a joy! Under normal circumstances, I already get excited when I meet Nepalis, but now, I must have looked like a very happy chicken or something, and completed all the relevant introduction (I worked as a journalist on Durbar Marg! – Really!? I’ve studied journalism in Kathmandu!!) in record speed. We lost each other at security checks, but then I saw him speed past me (he was also late) and lose a jumper. I saved it – film-worthy scene of me running after him, still in sandals – and we’d become friends by the time we’d reached our respective gates.

I felt like just jumping on his plane to Kathmandu; build on the foundations of my Nepali life that still feels strangely real (I still have dreams in which I am back, exhilarated, greeting everyone… and then wake up). For a moment, it was there; I had a cool job, like working for the UN or something, or opened the first real German bakery of Thamel among all the fake ones – and then I rushed on, go, go Thailand.

A conversation I had a few hours before, remotely.

Me: ” The disturbing thing is that I find myself wanting very different kinds of lives depending on what feels good in the moment”

Friend: ” when ‘living in the present’ goes too far ;P “

Will I also want to stay in Thailand? What would happen if I gave myself actual travel time, you know, the kind without return ticket; where you just follow whatever leads you get? Would I get lost? Build a life abroad? Return home? (Also: where’s that?)

I try to be patient with myself. I’ve left the clear path labelled “studies”, and then had some ideas I was pursuing while in Brussels and Berlin. Leaving even that fragile skeleton of a life plan plan behind puts it all up for questioning again.

Why not live on an island and write stories? I could literally do anything. There is some consistency in my wishes, but it’s hard to pin it down. One constant: wanting an environment in which to grow, in a healthy – not stressed – way. Writing and stories have also been a big part of my life for a long time, so much so that it feels like a sacrilege that I haven’t substantially invested in my passion since my two first attempts at writing novels age 8 and 12.

What keeps changing: the wish to “break free” (strong now, as you can tell) versus the one to advance, to get to a position from which to be of the most use to the maximum amount of sentient beings. I am terrified of ending up as a novelist, even a successful one, because I could have, I don’t know, saved a few hundred thousand people’s lives, or made it infinitely less likely that humankind extinguishes itself within the next hundred years instead.

I don’t see an easy answer, and yes, I am taking into account that I could do several things at once. But what to do, like, right now?

Is it even worth applying to jobs that I don’t find totally inspiring?

Thus are my thoughts in the air towards Bangkok, and while they are disorienting, I float above them, so to speak. I am glad that being abroad has this unexpected but understandable effect, and that I’m able to look at life from a different angle. Even just remembering what my core passions are (woops, did I really forget?) is great and will help in the overall decision-making.

For now, let me float, explore, write. Maybe that’s as much as I need. And hopefully, I’ll make some more friends along the way.

Advertisements

The joys of backpacker hostels and other differences between foreign and Indian tourists

I’m really regretting that I spent the last two nights in a hotel. It was affordable, sure enough (just over 10€ per night), but I’d done what an Indian person would have done. Okay, I don’t think an Indian girl would’ve hired a tuk tuk driver at 4.50am to drive into town and help find a hotel. Anyway, I know that the idea of hostels, i.e. renting out a bed in a dormitory, is not a common thought for Indian travellers. I’d gathered this beforehand, but got confirmation for this belief from my Delhi cohort. Which made me, stupidly, not even look. I mean, I wouldn’t have looked by myself before sunrise anyway. And booking the bus ticket in advance drained my planning-zeal, so I didn’t reserve accommodation in advance. But I wish I’d stay some more, getting in sync with whoever has been following in the footsteps of the Beatles since they had their famous retreat here back in whenever-it-was (now on the menu: visit to the “Beatles Ashram”).

Savouring this atmosphere that is similar all over the world, but like a safe haven wherever you go. People to talk to instead of staff who don’t understand English (although I was extremely proud the other day, stating my enquiry about hot water for my hotel shower as “garam pani?” – “hot water?”).

Okay, there’s also shallow always-same conversations with people who are maybe a bit too similar to you, but at least someone to follow so you don’t have to walk alone in the night. No constant suspicious faces about traveling alone, or doing whatever I want to do. I didn’t think it could have such an influence, but entering this little tourist bubble has made me feel safe immediately. Like Thamel, “my” district in Kathmandu, where I didn’t worry about wandering by myself anymore. Like when the receptionist at my current hostel in Rishikesh tells you that there’ll be live music in an hour instead of giving you odd looks that you’re going out at all.

There’s another difference between the Indian and foreign travelers I’ve met in Rishikesh (including lots of Americans on yoga teacher trainings and an overwhelming crowd of Israelis, which, oddly enough, I ended up mingling with yesterday as only one among two non-Israelis). It’s the speed. Rishikesh might not be as peaceful as it used to be, but the people I’ve met are pretty chilled out. Some of the favourite pastimes include writing or reading in cafés or walking up the hills, and of course yoga sessions everywhere.

When my Indian conference-friend helped me plan for this trip, he reacted in what felt like exaggerated shock to my idea of “just hanging around Rishikesh for three days” – “But you’ve seen all of it in half a day! What else do you want to do? Are you into river rafting?”. Indeed, this place, due to its hilly nature, is great for adventure sports… which seem, as a matter of fact, only be exercised by Indian people. As he explained, the idea of a trip to Rishikesh to them is summarised in riding up, renting motor bikes, roaming around, doing half a day of adventure sports, driving back, all in no more than two days. Which sounds crazy to me, given that it takes about 6 hours to even get here from Delhi.

I guess I’m not really getting the idea of doing stressful things even in your spare time, but then, the difference between “stressful” and “thrilling” is just a difference in taste.

Today, I tasted what un-planning means, one more of these things both precious and lost to me. I shouldered my bag, left the hotel with the TV I don’t need, and started following my gut feeling. It took me sampling Nepalese snacks (oh, I missed momos!), buying loose trousers and putting them on immediately (aha! Says the one who ranted about tourist-wear only yesterday), splashing in the holy river, and spending the afternoon in a most beautiful café. It was surrounded only by a small parapet, which I stood on to see the sunset. The evening chants started rising, filling the valley – and before I knew what was happening, I’d left the terrace, jumping from boulder to boulder, first sketchy, then more fluidly. When the chant was reaching a drum-underpinned frenzy, I sat on one of the rocks, watching as about ten monkeys climbed the metal wires of the big bridge spanning the valley, as if to pay tribute to the end of the day.

And now, I’m in said hostel, which I’d spotted on an idle walk. It was full, but I’m all set for sleeping in the common area, which is something they actually allow here, against a small fee. It’s nearly boring, knowing that a place for tonight is organised, but I will see what else happens when I find that live music place and perhaps the Israeli crowd again.

Nothing else is needed. Life here is easy. I pray it will stay that way.

Orange Delhi night

I thought arriving would be more of a relief. Instead, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m wide awake and alone in a shabby dorm (which is either overpriced, or the exchange rate has changed dramatically since 2014, or the rest of the place really is that great to make up for it).

But! I am in India, once more, and unexpected memories and forgotten knowledge populate my mind. Like when I spontaneously want to say “sorry, I don’t have money” or “just a second” and catch myself in surprise because the words are suddenly there in Hindi.

Chatting to my taxi driver, back into the openness and confidence I used to feel. It is good to remember that there is a place where singing out loud is not all that strange, and a bit bewildering to receive all the tourist-reserved attention again. Most of all, however, this time I was less overwhelmed just by the country, and able to notice smaller things. The orange-patterned floor in the airport, the dusty sweet-ish smell that is very hard to describe, but immediately familiar. The orange-coloured night, in which the smog diffuses the light emanating from the lamp posts, the red street lights everyone ignores, magnificent temples in the most ordinary corners, oh, Delhi.

So, yes, I am full of wonder to be passing through this part of the world again, which for me feels like passing through a certain phase of my life again. Well, for now.

And I think I have decided on the theme I want to adopt for the coming days or weeks. It happened on the plane, when it suddenly clicked that I would land and be back, truly. I felt this joy, like vibrating with goodwill for all sentient beings, only better. Because there was this certainty that, at the core, there was nothing to worry about, as if anxiety wasn’t even possible, as if everything was just …good. It’s like having lost your compass and not noticing until you get it back. Which made it utterly obvious that the theme of, well, now will be to follow whatever this sense of direction indicates, just do what feels like the right thing to do, in the safety of a few weeks in which no decision will really matter anyway, and maybe learn to take some of this home. But because I’m starting to overthink stuff again, this is the right time to sleep, to then meet the wonder of the new day with a waking eye.

Noticing confusion: India? Again?

This is what I’m listening to while writing: https://youtu.be/dnxCxHLAqn8

I noticed that I’m confused. Wait? I’ll be in Delhi this Thursday? People had been asking whether I was planning on travelling (“now that you’re not doing anything, really”). I wasn’t.

Now it’s happening anyway.

I was preoccupied installing myself in Berlin, which has worked pretty well so far (“you know that you’re at home in a place when you have people to discuss with”). So I didn’t really notice that there was this mostly family-sponsored trip coming up, enabling me to see a good friend getting married and then join one half of my parents in Thailand. Now that I’m, on a gut-level, starting to realise that I’ll be far away in four days, I’m starting to wonder what the journey will be like. I’m all for tasting the adventure semi-prepared at most, but I also know that being completely aimless can turn into the kind of journey where you end up returning with a stale “what was the point?”. Which doesn’t mean that I want to plan, as such. It’s more like choosing which kind of mindset to adopt during the next month or so.

Option 1: Holiday?

I am very tempted to use the excuse to put all the projects that are ticking away at the back of my head on hold. Existential dread about the future, concerning my personal path as well as roughly the next hundred trillion years of humanity, if all goes well? Nah, I’m on holiday!

On the other hand, I’ve been finding it hard to adopt holiday-mindsets for the last year or so. First, there was no time for a holiday (finals), then, my whole life entered this in-between, where no clearly-cut “work-time” meant that every minute was a moment in which to figure out my life, or “get somewhere”, “get something done” (the vagueness of this “something”not exactly having been helpful either).

I’ve been getting better at this in Berlin, for example by picking up a not-directly-useful occupation like playing the violin again. I’m not all that stressed anymore about the fact that the violin (as played by me) does not make a relevant contribution to the world, nor getting me a job. Ah! I said the evil j-word! If anything, that’s a topic for a later post, since it doesn’t really fit in with this moment’s effort of not being stressed. So it seems like there are all the more good reasons for a holiday! (Counter-reasons, or more like counter-feelings, are that I don’t actually deserve one, that I’m not useful enough to be worth the investment, and that this money could actually have saved lives instead of sending me on a trip. But I might just have to shut out these thoughts for now, and pledge to be better in the future.)

Option 2: An adventure!

Adventures, or “going travelling”, are different from holidays. They are more focused on having experiences, and testing/developing yourself. Sleeping alone under a tin foil in some forest after crossing the whole country in a day’s hitchhike perhaps doesn’t make for a great holiday. But it’s amazing if you’ve always wanted to talk to a fox at night, or just learn how to shrug your shoulders at not knowing where to go, or sleep, next. I had thought that now might not be a great time to bring myself to the edge, because that feels like a place I’ve been occupying constantly for months anyway. But now, I’m starting to, very subtly, feel the thrill again (“I could be walking around the himalayas next week…”). Actually, exposing myself to directly adventurous situations could be a good idea. Swapping the diffuse threat and dread of trying to find a cosy little place in society for the very precise trouble of making sure you stay safe along the way sounds like an excellent plan.

Adventure-journeys can also contain a project, a question you’re trying to answer throughout the journey, a view you detail at the start and whose progress you track. These are nice for the narrative as well, and work to satisfy my need for meaning even while I’m having fun. Maybe I’ll come up with something in the next few days.

Now that I’ve presented this wonderful travel-holiday dichotomy, I’m of course going to tear it down again and announce that I should probably do a bit of both. Mwahaha. In any case, this post has served its purpose well: I’m starting to feel ready.

I hope you’ll accompany me on this journey!

(One way is to subscribe to get email updates, haha.)

Why I won’t tell women to be “extra careful”

Being suspicious of men began when I was twelve and a classmate walked up to me, outright groping my emerging breast.

This story already shows the seeds of a dynamic I still experience and tried to properly put into words only yesterday when a male friend asked me to. There is: the shock and disbelief that someone just invaded my private space, without even hesitating. The perceived helplessness, which is hard to admit for someone like me who thinks of themselves as strong. But apparently, I can be able to articulate what I want in many areas and still feel helpless in other situations. A comparison: the same kid threw snowballs at me on the way to school and I had no problem at all reporting that. In the groping situation, a teacher was even closer, in the same room. Yet, it didn’t even occur to me to say something.

I can’t fully reconstruct what happened in my head nearly ten years ago, but I can try to understand better what is now happening to me and probably many other women on a regular basis.

ronnie-pic-2

Spoiler: Won’t stop doing this and more.

This post is not only about travelling. But we travellers need to talk about it.

The discussion I had with my friend was sparked by internet articles around the theme of “sexsurfing” – couchsurfing being used for hooking up with travellers. I hadn’t heard the term before, but was aware of it happening, at least through my share of creep messages through the platform (“Come to my place. I only have one bed, though. *wink* “).

And, yes, there are actual people writing guidelines on how to find “naughty couchsurfing chicks”.

I had a hard time explaining to my friend all the things that made me angry in there, and how my experience might be different from his.

One reason for this is that it is really hard to talk about moments in which men did things which made me feel helpless and ashamed. I’ll try with a small selection: someone trying to force a kiss, or masturbating while watching me sleep, or following me around the streets. Some of my experiences are more coercive and manipulative than this, some less, but they contribute to the feeling of perpetually having to guard myself. Maybe you should ask a female friend about this if you want to empathise, I assume that many other women spend a lot of time taking precautions for their safety, even in a subconscious, automatic way.

If there are reasons to be afraid, why not tell (other) women to be careful?

When I think about all these moments, I don’t want to talk about them. Because. I have this horrible feeling that it’s kind of my fault. Even after knowing what victim-blaming is and that it’s wrong, I just can’t help but immediately relativise my experience. “This guy did this disgusting thing? Well, yeah, but I did put myself into a bad position there” (insert: I shouldn’t have smiled at him/ I shouldn’t have been out on my own/ I shouldn’t have fallen asleep on his sofa … In my head, I can hear a chorus of relatives: “You shouldn’t have travelled alone!! We told you it was not safe!”).

This is why it makes me sad to hear so much well-meant advice, even from fellow female travellers (“Of course, you have to be extra careful as a woman. Here are ten ways to guard yourself”). Adventurous Kate, for example, writes a post that explains the background of why travel safety is different for women better than me, but her conclusions are just as disheartening.

Summary up to now:

  • Sexual situations are different from others. I might be a self-confident person otherwise, but still less able to assert my limits in front of men (especially if they are hormon-driven, not particularly aware, or don’t care*) and to assert my rights afterwards. The feeling of guilt/shame is part of that, but also some other dynamics I’m finding too hard to explain right now.
  • Perpetually telling me to guard myself against men makes me feel like it’s my fault when men do things to me.

*I have met many many men who are not like this, who are sensitive and kind and able to respect me as a person whatever conflicting interests we might have. (You know. Not all men…) Keep trying everyone.

So. What should we do?

I don’t like fear. The logic that tells me to not go to other countries is the same that would like to keep me inside, confined to what a “decent girl” is supposed to do or be (what even is that nowadays?). This logic takes away my agency, because I only have the choice to react to the world, and to be defensive about it.

That doesn’t mean that I would recommend someone who has just started travelling to put themselves alone next to a road in the night if they have never hitchhiked before. That doesn’t only apply to girls.

For the record, I’d tell anyone who asks me about hitchhiking to try it in daytime with someone who has done it before, or just with another friend, and in situations where they have a chance to chat to the drivers before entering the car, e.g. by asking in service stations. This is mostly because I think you should be able to feel in control (so that you kind of know what you’re doing at least most of the time, in a very broad interpretation), and that this is more likely to be the case if you proceed in small steps. Just like bicycle travellers recommend novices to first try to do a day- or week-long trip before going for around-the-world adventures. Kind of sensible.

I think: women, like anyone else, should get the chance to discover the world and grow doing it, because there is no other way to get equipped dealing with it.

If I were to stay home, I wouldn’t have had as much exposure to these disagreeable situations, but I also wouldn’t have learnt to tell men when they ought to better back off. The balance between exposing yourself to the world, learning step by step, and doing something outright foolish and putting yourself into great danger is delicate. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to be reckless, even though I think I should be able to be foolish if this is a right accorded to men, too.

At some point, I will explain in more detail what we can learn from my namesake Ronja Rövardotter and her philosophy of how to guard against danger and fear.

But for now, I wish you a great new year, with all the adventures to learn from, all the freedom and love…!

How it began II

Well, okay, I’m back already.

My post last week made me remember an article I wrote in Morocco but never published anywhere. Going back a bit further back, this will introduce and expand on one of my big themes: trust. Enjoy and discuss! (Seriously, I’d like your views: do you think I’m being stupid doing what I do?)

Morocco: tales of trust

Sexual assaults and terrorist attacks – these and other fear-laden buzzwords pop up in the minds of many when talk is of anything Arab. This is why I decided to hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Morocco, all alone and female and suchlike. If not a rational way of convincing others, this journey was meant to at least confront and hopefully overcome the creeping fear of the unknown within myself, by countering my own distrust with openness.

Hitchhiking – from the Sahara…

My solo journey began in the Sahara, on a long and unnaturally straight road with view on bright orange dunes. From there, I started hitchhiking all across Morocco, through heat, rain, and snowstorms. On that first day, the director of a youth centre picked me up and gave me something of a guided tour on the way to his destination, including views of the most extensive oasis in the world, wedged into a landscape of red sandstone. A young man, who I was first very weary of, surprisingly did not try to rape me, but instead helped me find a café with an internet connection. That night, I was adopted by a family who shared their enormous plate of couscous with me, bathed me in generosity, laughter, and music, and urged me to stay a little longer and to bring my family the next time.

…into the snow.

The following day saw me stuck in a snowstorm when trying to cross the Atlas mountain range. While still waving my finger Morrocan-style on a spot where road conditions weren’t too bad, I was approached by a man about the age of my father who convinced me in his native-like French to take the bus instead. For the two hours we spent on the bus, we talked about the bombings in Brussels which had happened that same morning, but also about apple trees, painting and life philosophy. He encouraged me with these words: “good things always attract good things, so if you believe in the kindness of others, you will be met with kindness yourself”. One view he held was that to be a proper Muslim, one had to be kind and generous towards others – something I saw implemented throughout my journey, be it with me, the elderly, or beggars on the street.

After the Atlas experience, I spent some days getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways that make the medina, the old city of Fez, the biggest of its kind, to then move on to the sky blue lanes of Chefchaouen. After two whirlwind weeks, I finally left the country on a ferry towards Spain, clutching my last Moroccan oranges as if to keep them as souvenirs of this place and the new friends I was leaving behind.

merzouga-tanger

There also were moments when I did not feel at ease, like when I was spoken to in Arabic while the car seemed to take strange back roads –  moments which always resolved themselves when I safely reached my destination.

Assaults and conclusions.

Only one encounter, on the last of all days, was able to intrude into my picture of a place filled with openness and generosity. Just before leaving his car, a middle-aged men started groping my butt, which didn’t end with me being physically harmed, but left a strange aftertaste. I was baffled about this even more since he was the only person who kept telling me “you know, it’s dangerous to hitchhike!”. I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a link between this distrust and his own behaviour, as if believing in the badness of other people somehow made him feel licensed him to be disrespectful himself.

He left me on a tiny roundabout, and while I watched the cars driving, a question started circulating in my head: Can I still trust? I decided that I could, and that I had to. Risks are real, but fear would ultimately result in me adopting a worldview way too similar to the one of this guy.

If nothing else, the heartfelt generosity I encountered in Morocco convinced me that trust is something we need if we don’t want to drown in a world of fear. I decided that I want to be one of these who trust, and hopefully inspire trust. And so I set off to hitchhike the 2.500km to Strasbourg.

[….which brings us back to last week’s story. I start liking retrospect-storytelling]

Why would I want to travel alone?

About three weeks ago, I co-facilitated (along with the wonderful Anick-Marie and Luca) a workshop at the Alternative Travel Gathering in Amsterdam. Its theme was “solo travel“. We had a great discussion, shared a lot of hitchhiking experiences, our strategies of dealing with lonely moments on the road, and some of the differences between genders when travelling solo. The most commonly cited motivation for travelling solo was “freedom”. This word makes me imagine the lonesome traveller on a Patagonian plain, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, patiently awaiting the next lift while developing a deep philosophy of calm. Freedom: being only responsible for oneself, not worrying about plans since it’s only ourselves who will be screwed up if they fail.

Now that I’m travelling with another person, I’ve had some occasion to refine this view of what I like about being alone. It’s quite simple. I really just miss time for myself.

In our workshop, we stressed that travelling solo is not the best way to move for everyone, that one should be able and willing to be alone and that challenges can be all the more challenging if you have to face them for yourself. Now, I’d like to add the opposite perspective to this. Travelling with other people includes being around people a lot of your time, possibly all of it. In much the same way in which I use certain strategies to meet and socialise with people when travelling on my own, I need to develop ways to deal with people.

I’m not trying to say that I hate people (just look at all my rambles why I travel for people, not places), but I do struggle to secure my personal space, especially since this is sometimes seen as anti-social behaviour. If I didn’t have time on my own, I couldn’t write blog articles, I couldn’t even reflect the journey I’m on, and for me, this would mean only having loads of raw experiences while not learning from them.

Another thing that this short reflection made me realise is that I must have started behaving like a long-term nomad. When I’m on the road, I’m not too fussed about exploring all the sights I could possibly fit into my schedule. By now, it seems more important to me to take that time for myself, read a book, chill, do some boring admin. Since I spend nearly half my time on the move, I shouldn’t be surprised about this.

It’s also no surprise that I found my first strategy for caring for myself. It’s above all realising my own needs, then communicating them. Boring, really. But it helped a lot. And it turned out that my friend was really looking forward to some time on her own, too.