There and back again

    I watched woven bags fall from their shoulders from my hard-backed seat. “Flight Air India 232 to Self Discovery. Departing from gate D2.”

    The legions of Elizabeth Gilbert devotees scanned the departures list in Mumbai Airport, recent divorcees or middle-aged never-marrieds Eat-Pray-Loving their way through India. Compared to the wayward Dutch backpackers — blazed and glazed after their two-week excursions —-— these women looked a bit more desperate.

    If 40-odd years stateside hadn’t been satisfying enough, maybe the answer was buried under a bodhi tree on the other side of the Atlantic. At the very least, it could be hidden between the sheets of a foreigner’s bed. A trip to India was an exercise in self-actualization. Going away was a means to make life better after coming back.

    But perhaps my rolling carry-on held the same lofty hopes. I am a long-suffering victim of wanderlust. After 19 domestic summers, I was tired of stalking my nomadic friends online. I sat and sighed at pictures of friends smiling beside beer steins and sacred shrines in the way that says life reads more exciting in a foreign language. I wanted to be the stalkee. I wanted to realize something, to be a part of those conversations. I’m not sure what else I was expecting. But I know it was a lot.

    For two months, I traveled, interned, wrote and wandered. I talked for hours over Skype of work and temples, my daily diet and the wealth disparity. You just wouldn’t believe, no, yeah, much different than even New York or Chicago, especially in, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I told the story of how my roof had collapsed in the monsoons. I left out my birthday, three days into my trip, when I watched the World Cup and ate Indian ramen noodles alone in my rented room.

    And then I went home. At family dinners, I wore tarnished cuffs and told them they’re from a market in Delhi even though they didn’t ask. When they say, “How was India?” I say “amazing,” with a head nod and extra emphasis on that second syllable. Amazing.

    And it was. I did feel challenged, I did see things I hadn’t seen before and I did spend a lot of time staring out train windows. But now I find myself falling into an ordinary hum. Days are spilled coffee and missed calls. When I notice it fading, whatever it may be, I try to grab it and pin it to the floor. I try to clutch that feeling — that anxious, tumbling gnaw — I had that hot day in that far alley of that one market. Times when discomfort was important.

    Perhaps I can preserve it, keep it in glass as a constant reminder. I follow the study abroad guidelines, it’s only fair: Pictures are posted immediately and frequently. Anecdotes are catalogued for easy selection upon return. Flag those as important that include danger (preferably alone in a dark city street), a religious moment, befriending locals (especially if the friendship is consummated with a shot or general consumption of alcohol) and any “harrowing” experiences in transit including (but not limited to) sketchy hostels, missed flights, long trains and lost luggage. A story including two or more of these elements should be hung above the mantle.

    So do we go to be there, or do we go to say we’ve been once we come back? Do we travel to travel, or for what we get when we return: that elusive New Perspective and a choice retelling?

    I wonder, watching women roam through the Mumbai airport, days before their trip to India is pressed in a scrapbook with novelty paper. Before it becomes a pair of earrings. Proof of a time when we were young and adventurous, read books that meant something and carried battered paper journals just in case. But some day they’ll be tucked away with our Marquez and our batik scarves and we’ll try to remember the words to that song in the market.


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