My name’s Emma, I’m 26 and currently live in Washington DC. I was a senior in high school the first time I used my passport and stepped off a plane in Zambia. We flew through a rainbow right before landing, and walked down the runway in the clouds - I fell so hard for travel right then and there. For me it wasn’t just a travel bug, it was a lifestyle and a mindset I grabbed onto and have yet to let go of.
What interests you most about traveling? Do you normally travel by yourself or with others?
Traveling for me was initially about stepping outside of my comfort zone. And then at some point it actually became my comfort zone. Traveling isn’t just about being in a new and different faraway place – it’s sometimes what it takes to remember the little and most basic things I forget to do when stuck in the complacencies of everyday routine – like watching sunrises and sunsets, or saying hi to the person next to me on the subway instead of texting a friend. It’s a step back to the bigger picture and a step closer to the bare necessities. It’s finding the closest moment to the present. I’m happiest in motion, bare feet, dirty hands, counting coins, carrying my weight, dealing cards and playing charades.
I love traveling by myself, and I love traveling with others – groups of friends and lovers. In the past two years I did a six-month stint with my partner, and then a six-month stint solo. The differences are pretty drastic, but I like them both just the same. I think being able to do both is necessary. Knowing how to really, truly be on your own, and then being able to fully appreciate what it means to have a teammate, a love to lean on and someone else to experience and remember it all with.
The thing about traveling alone is that you never really are. You meet friends in line, mid-song, mid-step, without judgment or reservation. In a week you become as close with these friends as you are with longtime ones – like family – magnetized by global synchronicity.
What sparked your interest to visit India specifically?
People say India is the most intense assault on the senses and an “ultimate test on a relationship.” I didn’t have a specific place or adventure in mind, I just wanted to see where it would lead me knowing I would never find a better sidekick to take it on with than my partner Mike. Flying from Bangkok to Calcutta is the only time I can remember feeling nervous about arriving in a new place.
What were some of your experiences while traveling throughout the country for a month?
Our time in India really felt like a lifetime, a reset button on life, a forever in a month; blending into a moving collage of faces and places, smells and sounds.
We navigated through cities – Darjeeling, Agra, Rishikesh, New Delhi – and swallowed and choked up a fair amount of city dust. We were like ants among people, blissed out cows, scavenging goats, and mischievous monkeys (not necessarily listed in order of importance). On the first day we drove over a bridge overlooking a dry riverbed spanning my entire horizon of sight, with people in reds, greens, yellows and blues sprawled about in clusters, sifting through dunes and craters of bright white sand and stone, enough to make us whisper simultaneous and reflexive ‘wows.’
I was most taken by the importance of family. Family is everything, and family units are not closed off or exclusive. They’re growing, open, fluid networks of connection and kinship. People are eager to pull you into their families, to care for you, to support you, to give you what you need. Be open to receive, be grateful, and be ready to take part in photo shoots. We were often held up by locals eager to take photos of us or pose us with their newborns -- even at the Taj Mahal (it wasn’t peak tourist season, so we stuck out like sore thumbs).
India demands humility, caution and the need to be confident and comfortable all at once – it leaves you feeling equal parts vulnerable and free. Easing into the paradoxes and patterns was a matter of going with the flow and realizing the power of a smile is universal and ‘thank you’ is the best place to start with a new dictionary of words.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers?
-Visit Darjeeling and stay at the Aliment hostel. Say hi to Rocky for me, and try the Pakora. Walk to the Ghoom Monastery. I think it’s Tuesdays that the monks have the day off and play soccer on the roof; they’ll take any and all players.
-Visit Rishikesh and take a yoga class. Walk across the Lakshman Jhula bridge...many times. Heed the cows and monkeys – they always have the right of way. Eat at Oasis or the Little Buddha café – it’s a funky treehouse style restaurant overlooking the Ganges.
-There’s no easier place to be a vegetarian. The samosas and kormas are delicious and there’s no need to add meat. When friends ask where we found the best food, India is the answer every time. Rarely can I answer a question so definitively.
-Drink Chai Masala. Often. Morning, midday and evening.
-Always opt to take the more interesting route. Our transport experiences are the most memorable from our trip – take a long train ride, jump in a jeep, share tuk-tuks with people you don’t yet know.
-Ladies: dress modestly. Conservatively. Always carry a scarf.
What surprised you the most about your experience?
The amount of people that spoke English. While I definitely still had to play many games of charades, the barriers weren’t as steep as I anticipated. The only other thing I can remember feeling a little weird about was the mountains of litter. People drop their trash and leave it no matter where they are – in the river, on a bridge, in the middle of a street. There aren’t trashcans. I can remember holding onto a popsicle stick for twenty minutes, feeling too weird about dropping it to the ground, and finally walked beside a wall and set it down, looking around first to make sure no one was watching.
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
Spending 25 hours on a sleeper train.
After two weeks in Darjeeling, we grabbed the first tickets available to get us on the road. We realized after a few attempts to buy tickets that we didn’t have as much choice in where we were going next as we originally thought -- it was only a matter of what wasn’t booked. On our third attempt to buy tickets the morning of (a process called “tatkal”), miracle struck. My partner Mike came back from the train station with a sly smile on his face. He said he’d been pretty far back in line and odds weren’t in our favor, when the third guy in line walked down and offered to give up his place in exchange for a hug.
“So what’d you do?” I asked, to which he responded: “I gave him a hug! And then we shared some tea.”
So that's how we got our tickets onward. By the time we made it to our train and found our seats, there were already about 12 more people in our cabin than it was intended for. But likely this has been the way for years, which we quickly realized after showing someone in some semblance of uniform that these might be our seats. He confirmed they were in fact our seats but had no authority or desire to move the others or check for their tickets. And so began our quick surrender to a 25-hour train ride through India, complete with a procession of entertainers (my favorite, two ten-year old sisters with drums), water boys, chai men, beggars, samosa vendors, locksmiths, shoe peddlers, and omelet carts. Every time we’d stop, the paraders would hop off and a new crew would hop on
Mike and I kept looking at each other and smiling. We were, as we knew it, the only tourists on board this Northeast express. We were somewhere in a land very far away from central heat and air, plumbing and clean water. A place without the things we call luxuries and rely on as comforts and distractions, a place where people live beyond the river of consumption and have a pretty intimate and raw relationship with life. I was as shocked as I’ve ever been, as fragile and alive as I’ve ever felt. The ride was as hellish as a 25-hour train ride through India can be when there’s a family of five taking up one of your beds. There’s probably no better place to finish reading Shantaram - so I did.
At the end of it all, we finally made it safe and sane to a room of our own. Best cold shower I’ve ever had, with 30 very vivid hours committed to memory.
What advice do you have for individuals that want to start travelling internationally, but don’t know how to start?
Pick a place. Any place. Then sit down and pick the brains of friends that have traveled or people who inspire you. Trust that things will fall into place once you take the leap. There are opportunities out there like WWOOF or work exchange that enable travel on a penny budget. Whatever’s holding you back is always going to be there. Don’t push it off until a year from now, five years from now, or until you retire. In most cases, there will never be an easier time to go than right now.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking for my next passion project. I’ve been home for a few months now and am almost ready to head back to rainbow country – Kauai. I’d also love to make it to New Zealand in the next year. I’m open to the possibilities and new collaborations and would love to hear from likeminded travelers looking for an ear or a partner in mischief.
Images Courtesy of Emma Schwartz, circa 2013