Consultant . International Affairs. Sciences Po Paris. Engineer. IIT Delhi. Solo Backpacker. Yoga Trainer
Though 2015 had 365 days like any other year, it seemed like a decade to me. Summer of 2015 was physically challenging with a broken foot and tick bite, but the Fall equally exciting – I moved to Paris!
I thoroughly enjoyed every single moment of my stay in Paris. This city is beautiful! I once overheard a conversation between my maternal uncle and my mother. He asked her, “Do you remember we used to study in school that Paris is the most beautiful city on earth? Is it so?” Every time I go out and look around, I feel privileged to be living in this spectacularly beautiful Paris, a city where dreams come true for many.
And it certainly was a dream-come true for me! Every time, I gaze at Arc de Triomphe, every time I stroll along Champs-Élysées, every time I look bewildered at the Eiffel Tower, a chill runs down my spine and I tell myself, yes I am in Paris. In its very own unique way, this city adds life to your life.
As the roller coaster ride of 1st semester finished, I decided as always to hit the road. Andorra, Spain, Portugal and Morocco were on the itinerary.
Passing through the south of France, I travelled 900km by road to get to Andorra, a small landlocked country between France and Spain. Located in the eastern Pyrenees mountains, it offers a ravishing snow clad landscape. Starving for food, I stopped at the first restaurant that came my way and ordered a Falafel (one of the foods my newly turned vegetarian self survives on). Interestingly, I discovered that the restaurant owner was a Pakistani and suddenly, we had so much to talk. After narrating all my stories about being in Lahore, I left my rucksack there to walk through the streets of Andorra la Vella. When I came back and asked for the bill, he said, “Absolutely no! You are a guest. You loved Lahore and Lahore loved you. That gives me much more pleasure than what money can offer.” Yet again, a Pakistani had offered me food with so much love without charging money. Pakistani hospitality is certainly not limited to its geographic boundaries. And I realized the trip had just started. I left for Barcelona in the evening.
Breakfast in France, Lunch in Andorra and Dinner in Spain – I was already loving it. As I began my research on Barcelona, I realized this city had so much to offer. I was sure I would fall short of time. I started with the Antoni Gaudi architecture (one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Barcelona). It is interesting to note how different people have different interpretations of his style. My favourite one being how Gaudi did not have a successful love life and hence infused feminism in his style of work. Look at this –
So if the roof top is the head of dragon, then this dragon certainly had a lavish virgin meal. The balconies are the skeletal remains of the virgin women, and pillars are made from their bones. Isn’t it?
But there is one Gaudi work that my little phone could not capture. And yes, that’s The Sagrada Familia. It took me several minutes to understand where should I start looking it from. It’s a complete master piece and my imagination fails to see what it will look like when the construction is complete in 2026 (100 years to when this world lost Gaudi).
The variety of Tapas (Spanish snacks) and Churros (Chocolate fantasy) got me crazy for the rest of my stay in Barcelona. You cannot be alone in this city. More so as an Indian in Barcelona, never! Every second supermarket is owned by a Gujarati from Pakistan and they continue to give you a warm welcome. Be prepared to be treated with a hot cup of tea and interesting conversation at every other shop. You always feel ‘at home’. Locals will tell you how and why they want Catalonia independent from Spain and you cannot miss ‘We want independence’ slogans in different forms and shapes. I will not be surprised if Catalonia has its own national borders on the world map very soon.
And this is what happens when you are travelling around Europe during Christmas time. Papa Noel (Santa Clause) welcomes you everywhere.
One of my favourites was the Shitting log tradition. The kids in Barcelona feed the shitting log for the month preceding Christmas and then they beat the log (literally, beat the shit out of it) and that’s how the shitting log shits gifts for all the little ones. Poor log!! 🙂
And the list goes on. 4 days in Barcelona went by like a flash. As I boarded the overnight bus to Madrid, I of course watched the movies – Vicky Cristina Barcelona (VCB) and Zindagi na milegi dubara on a fast forward mode. I was elated to recognize places in those movies now, my favourite being 4 cats cafe in VCB.
It was Madrid now and it was time for some serious history lessons. Reading about Spanish Inquisition is definitely easier than listening to a local narrating the story at Plaza Mayor. There is no doubt that it was one of the darkest periods in the history. The restaurants have tiny pork pieces hanging outside just to make it evident that they do not practice a religion which they are not meant to. I always wondered why Spanish use 2 family names – both father’s and mother’s. It all comes from the Inquisition. This was one of the ways to keep a check on people who could be practising Islam. And the tradition continues till date.
After a heavy history session, I checked into a hostel and realized that I had to share my dorm with 2 guys – one from Lebanon and another from Iraq. Sometimes I wonder how I have so many apprehensions about some nationalities and in a matter of hours, I become the best of friends with those very people. For the next 2 days, three of us explored Madrid together – I was generally answering all the questions on Hindu traditions in India, and was continuously seeking a local perspective on fast spreading terrorism in Iraq.
Amidst those long conversations, it was time to leave Madrid and cross over to Portugal. I travelled with a Chinese friend who was car pooling from Madrid to Porto. I had a Chinese language class in the car and before I wanted to finish the lesson, we were already in Portugal. There is something inside me which gets super excited every time I cross a frontier by road.
And here we were in Porto, one of the most beautiful port cities. It was 25th of December and I could not find a single person on the road. Everything was shut. The city was closed. Everybody was enjoying the festival with their friends and family at home. I was starving for food. As I checked into my hostel, the person at the reception said, “Here’s the Wifi code” and I instantly replied, “I don’t want Wifi, I want food please.” The staff got together and fed me with everything they had. A Malaysian volunteer offered me Pasta he had prepared the night before and my Japanese roommate offered his yummy custard tarts. I was completely full and felt so grateful.
Days around Porto were fun. I couldn’t have missed the jumbo Francesinha, one of the top 10 sandwiches of the world. After I fed myself, I went for the Port wine tour with an old Canadian couple who I think were mesmerized listening to my standard story of choosing Paris School of International Affairs over Harvard Kennedy. I told them I choose cities over schools and nothing could beat Paris of course!
For the rest of my stay, I solved the mysteries of Porto-Oporto and the Eiffel like bridge with an amazing tour guide who told me that he knew one word in 35 languages. When I asked him what that was, he replied, “joon.” When I asked him to repeat, he in turn asked me if I understood Hindi. And then I realized he knew how to say ‘Lice’ in 35 languages and ‘Lice’ in Hindi is ‘Joon’.
My favourite was when we were doing the walking tour, two Brazilians in the group stopped every now and then to click selfies. And the guide said, “You see these Brazilians are mad, exactly why we gave them independence.” 🙂
You meet crazy people on the road and I have to admit that I do love these crazy souls.
It was time to go to Lisbon and see Vasco da Gama bridge! When I asked why every other thing is named after Vasco da Gama in Lisbon, a friend remarked, “Not many of us have done great things. So one Portuguese who did, we will cherish him for the rest of our lives.” I learnt why Ronaldo is not Ronaldo but Ronald(u). An O in the end is always pronounced as U in Portuguese. So make sure you are calling your favourite player right!
I went around to get the real taste of Pastel de Nata at Belem, to go up and down the castle in Yellow Tram – my favourite thing in Lisbon. The tram in Lisbon shares the road with the cars and the cars have to wait as people hop on and off the tram. I absolutely love such a system where public transport is prioritized over cars. A fellow passenger and I started discussing how some people do not have one square meal a day and others have 2 cars for a family of 3. My picture of an ideal world is when the rich will have the audacity to let go of some of their resources which are not even required to live a dignified life. Fingers crossed till that day comes! The tram stopped and it was time for me to get down.
My memories of Lisbon are more from the long after dinner conversations I had with the hostel owner from Angola. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of Portuguese invasion of Angola and his own travel experiences to about 100 countries already.
Last day, when I was leaving, a Brazilian friend tied Bahia on my wrist. I was speechless, I didn’t know what to say. We hugged and parted ways!
I decided to stop in Faro in the south for the New Years’ Eve and to relax my legs which had been walking a good 10-12 km every day for the last 2 weeks. I spent the evening with a Portuguese family, enjoying the firework at the Marina.
3 Kings Day was soon approaching and it was time to head back to Spain. It was Andalusia this time with Seville, Cordoba and Granada on the itinerary. Andalusia is a country in itself – a country of flamenco, tapas and bullfights. The unique blend of Arabic and Catholic styles is breathtaking. The Moors ruled over 700 years and the legacy remains till date. The Seville cathedral is the third largest in the world (after Vatican City and Sao Paulo in London) and it’s a mosque converted into a cathedral. The Adhan tower of the Mosque stands with Catholic bells ringing on the top and the gate of the cathedral reads ‘there is only one God and that is Allah’. The Mezquita in Cordoba and similar unique confluences continued to surprise me as I made strides in Andalusia.
I stayed in a family owned hostel in Seville. As I presented my passport for check in, the hostel owner looked at it, ran inside to get his 6 month old daughter.
He pointed to his daughter and said, “this is my reason to smile every day.” For the rest of my trip, every time I looked at my passport, it reminded me of that little girl in Seville whose father was so proud to have her in his life and wanted to become a great parent for her. When he asked me, how do I do all this (I still don’t know what ‘this’ meant) and how his daughter could become the same, what he could do as a parent to raise her daughter like that, I told him very simply, “Give her roots and wings. That’s what my parents gave me.”
If there is one song I have danced the most on, that’s ‘Waka Waka This time for Africa’ and yes, it was actually time for Africa. I was at Tarifa, the southernmost point of Spain and I could see Morocco across the Gibraltar. The song was playing in my head and I was continuously jumping around as our ferry crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with Atlantic Ocean on one side and Mediterranean on the other. In less than 60 minutes, I was in a new continent – I was in Africa – I was finally in Morocco.
I headed towards Tangier Bus Station. Bus conductors were shouting names of different cities, there was chaos all around and there was something about this chaos I really loved. It was so close to what I have back home. For a moment, I felt like I was back in India.
And the adventure started. Every other person wanted to come and speak to this Indian me. They wanted to discuss Taj Mahal and Shah Rukh Khan, Golden Temple and Amitabh Bachhan. I was overwhelmed initially, I felt really welcomed.
After struggling with Spanish and Portuguese for about 20 days, it was a relief to speak to locals in their own language. It was time to practice French. While I was doing that, I realized that I was taking all the public transport by myself – I was slowly reading the signboards in Arabic and making sense of them. My little tiny knowledge of Urdu was doing wonders. I wanted to call my Urdu teacher in India right away. I ran to the conductor and asked if they had Wifi in the bus. And he replied, “You are not in France, this is Africa!” When you are a French speaking foreigner in Morocco, you are automatically French. 🙂
I headed to Chefchaouen – the blue city of Morocco.
It was dinner time and hence, the moment to taste some real Couscous and Tagine with Mint Tea and Haloua. I checked in to a local Riad, the typical Moroccan house in the old Medina. I had put aside some clothes to do laundry the next morning and realized that the cleaning lady finished it even before I got up. Another lady in the kitchen who was deaf and dumb wanted to do everything possible for me. She cooked such great food, her actions expressing so much more love than words could have expressed. I was completely moved!
You ask why Moroccans do this. The answer is always – Don’t worry, this is Moroccan hospitality.
After contemplating for quite some time, I finally decided to go for a Hammam, the typical public bath in Morocco. It was a bath like never before. My dead skin was all on the floor. It was hard, it was painful and it was worth the experience.
I headed south to Fes. A friend of a friend called Fatima was my host in Fes. I had definitely underestimated what staying with a local Moroccan family could mean. The entire family was at the gate waiting for me. I could hardly speak to the family because they spoke Arabic, but had long conversations with Fatima who was fluent in French. I entered to see a huge table with plenty of Moroccan snacks ready. Fatima asked me if I would like to accompany the family to a death ceremony of their relative. I am always ready to discover local traditions of a new place, so I said Yes! We all got into the car and were soon at the venue. I suddenly felt out of place to be the only woman not clad in a Burqa. I asked my friend if I should wear one and she said – Absolutely no! Don’t worry at all. Just wait for minutes, and you will be one among us. You don’t need a Burqa for that.
And it was true! Every person was coming and greeting this only Indian in the room so warmly. I sat through the entire ceremony of Quran recitation. In the end, I was best of friends with 2 little girls – one 5 year old who was sitting in my lap all this while and another 11 year old who was arguing with her dad because she wanted to sleep with me that night.
4 days with Fatima went by so quick. I feel I was eating all the time. Fatima’s mother prepared a 3 course meal 3 times a day and I couldn’t even manage to taste everything. Fatima didn’t go to work and took me around to see the Souks, old medina, and the leather tannery. I felt like I knew the family for ages. Suddenly, it was time to leave. Fatima had got a Tagine souvenir for me, and one of her brothers, knowing my curiosity to learn about Islam and my dedication to practice French, got me French translation of Quran Sharif. Fatima’s mother had prepared at least a kilo dry fruits which I had to leave because extra weight is a strict no-no during backpacking.
Good bye happened with a promise to see each other again very soon. And what I call a ‘Moroccan experience’ continued in Rabat and Marrakech. Anybody and everybody I met was sharing numbers and addresses to organize my stay next time. People on the road wanted to come and talk to me. I was overwhelmed initially but started to feel a little uncomfortable later. I asked a friend in Rabat and he explained me that Moroccans are so used to seeing American, Canadian, European women travelling solo and they don’t just care. But they are not used to seeing Indian women travelling solo. So they want to come and talk (mostly about Bollywood though!).
It was my last day in Marrakech. A part of me was sad for leaving Morocco and another part was dreaming to get back to Paris. I was so glad to spend time with Khadija, one of the staff members at my hostel. We exchanged views about Islam and Hinduism. For my curiosity to try what it feels like, Khadija covered me with Hijab and Abaya and we headed to the mosque in Jamaa el fna square to offer Namaz. I had mixed feelings when I was on the road – suddenly, I felt so comfortable because I was just one among many where I could see the world and the world couldn’t see me. And I realized how often I ruffle my hairs and suddenly my hands had nothing to do. It was a life time experience to be one among many, to experience a culture so different from the one I grew up in.
The trip was coming to an end. I boarded the flight to Paris Beauvais and got seated next to an old Sri Lankan couple based in France. They asked me if I stayed in Paris with my parents to which I replied, “No, I stay by myself. My parents are in India”. We continued to chat. As we reached Paris Beauvais, they kissed me and said, “Next time somebody asks you where your parents are, say – I have parents in France and I have parents in India. We are always there for you.”
With a tear rolling down my eye, I waved goodbye and got on to a bus from Paris Beauvais to Paris city. A fellow passenger and I started talking about our experiences in Morocco. She asked me how I am sure that I am going the right way when I am backpacking solo. And I said, “Because I believe in God and I believe in myself. The wrong decisions give me wisdom and the right ones confidence.”
I reached my room and hugged it!