One morning, I stood at the beach, soaking up the warm winter sun after a refreshing swim. Every few moments, a wave would roll in and pull away the sand from under my feet, no matter how tightly I tried to hold on to it. Gradually, I conceded to the waves and stopped resisting.
I think that feeling kind of sums up life during the pandemic. I suppose we each tried to maintain some illusion of control over our lives, travels, work and other plans, but ultimately had no choice but to let go.
As a long term traveller and travel writer, it has been two mentally and financially challenging years. Yet I’m immensely grateful that my family and friends are in good health, and those who did succumb to Covid-19 have recovered. I know not everyone has been so lucky. If you’ve suffered, or lost a loved one, I hope you’ll find the strength to get through this difficult time. My heart is with you.
In the midst of this storm, I’ve been learning to readjust my sails. As I tried to stay afloat, some bittersweet realizations dawned on me. Lessons that I perhaps overlooked during the past decade of a (digitally) nomadic existence:
I’m not really a global citizen
For a long time, I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I’m a world citizen. I might be equipped with a weak passport, but in my mind, I belonged as much in Tbilisi and New York, as say Mumbai. When I dreamt of “home”, I conjured up images of Thai food, Urdu poetry, conversations with Iranian friends and my writing spot overlooking three volcanoes in Guatemala.
But when the pandemic hit, most countries closed their borders to outsiders, shattering my illusion.
Turns out, I’m just who my navy blue Indian passport says I am – the citizen of a developing country with a multitude of challenges that I can’t escape from. Of course, I share that status with 1.3 billion people, and feel very aware of my privilege.
But the stark difference between my freewheeling mind and the constraint of physical borders has still been a sobering realization.
Despite all the sh*t India throws at you, it is one incredible country
In June 2020, when domestic flights finally resumed after a 3-month national lockdown, my partner and I reunited in Goa, the only state that would allow us entry with panchayat permissions, Covid testing and institutional quarantine. I had no idea then, that we’d still be here (on and off) 18 months later – the longest I’ve spent in one place since I embraced a nomadic life in 2013!
But even after all these months – and having visited every monsoon for the past many years – I’m STILL discovering Goa!
This time, in an attempt to avoid being in the vicinity of people, we ended up discovering majestic, nameless, sign-less waterfalls. Hiked in landscapes that could have been plucked out of the African bush. Witnessed majestic sunrises and sunsets. Kayaked in riverine backwaters, spotting fierce-looking crocodiles amidst the mangroves. Connected with local zero waste suppliers, organic farmers and home chefs to complement our (mostly lacking) culinary skills. And serendipitously found fragments of Goa’s past that have mostly been eroded with time.
Living long term in India, with its myriad challenges of erratic water, electricity and internet supply, and hard to comprehend local politics, has not been easy. But that a tiny state like Goa can continue to surprise me after all this time is a testimony to just how incredible India truly is.
Also read: How to Embrace Sustainable Tourism in India
Don’t call me a travel “influencer”, please!
I’ve often heard seasoned photographers and writers complain how the internet and smartphones have bastardized their professions. On the other hand, I’ve long thought of myself as a digital being. My blog helped me carve out my niche in the world and allowed me to make a living on the go, while social media helped me find my wings.
But the exploding Instagram influencer phenomenon has changed that feeling.
Over the past few months, I’ve seen hordes of travel Instagrammers and Youtubers pass through Goa. Once while hiking along the coast, I saw something jarringly colorful in a cave far below. I zoomed in with my camera to spot a woman in a bright red gown and a man in a suit, posing in front of a photography crew capturing this “candid” moment. Stroll along any popular or ‘offbeat’ beach at sunset and you’ll find plenty of Insta-hubbies contorting themselves in strange ways to capture bikini-clad women in rather strange poses. Drive past the infamous Parra road with palm trees and paddies on either side, made popular by the Bollywood movie ’Dear Zindagi’, and you’ll find traffic obstructions caused by dudes with slick hair and clean-shaven chests, posing in the middle of the road!
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against dresses, bikinis or slick hair, but that these staged photographs will circulate on Instagram with deep quotes on Goa’s susegade life or how travelling can change you, ruffles my feathers.
One of my goals for 2022 is to shed the “influencer” label I carry by virtue of having a readership on Instagram, because there’s nothing I now detest more.
Time is one big continuous cloth
I vividly remember the evening India went into its first 21-day lockdown. I was visiting my folks in Dehradun and 3 weeks sounded like an infinite stretch of time, considering I rarely stayed longer than a week on a single visit. But in the panic and chaos that ensued, the traveller in me took over and convinced me: this too shall pass.
This is the mantra I’ve followed many times in the past decade, especially in challenging times – in my early travel days when my bank balance would often hover around triple digits. During painfully long and uncomfortable journeys. When I landed up alone somewhere so remote and daunting that the butterflies in my tummy would just not stop flittering.
In one of my favorite Murakami books, A Wild Sheep Chase, he writes, “Time really is one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.”
As we shuffled from one lockdown to another, and then into a state of semi-unlock limbo, I tried to cut out pieces of time for kayaking, poetry and baking, hoping to make life more palatable. But in reality, it flowed on and on, and here we are, at the start of 2022. What a triumph!
I’m a bit of an outsider everywhere
During the peak of the Hindu–Muslim disharmony before partition, my great grandparents found themselves compelled to pack their belongings overnight, abandon their home in what is now Pakistan, and move to Amritsar. Then at the peak of the Sikh agitation in the late 80s, my parents and grandparents yet again packed up their lives in Punjab and moved to Dehradun. I was in the womb then…
When people ask me where I’m from, Dehradun – where I was born and brought up – is the easy answer. But in reality, I feel like quite an outsider in my home state of Uttarakhand, as I do in Punjab, and as I presumably would in Pakistan – if my passport ever allowed me to travel there.
Punjabi blood flows through my veins. I write and dream in English. I feel an inexplicable connection to Iran. My heart yearns for the idea of India. And I suppose, through all my travels, bits and pieces of me are scattered in many parts of our physical world.
In the words of the poet Nida Fazli, whose work has been a source of immense solace during the pandemic:
Waqt ke saath hai mitti ka safar sadiyon se
Kisko malum, kahan ke hain, kidhar ke hum hain
(The soil has been journeying with time for many centuries
Who knows, where we’re from, or where we belong…)
What’s life been like for you during the pandemic? What would you like to read more about on my blog in 2022?
Welcome to my blog, The Shooting Star. I’ve been called a storyteller, writer, photographer, digital nomad, “sustainability influencer,” social entrepreneur, solo traveller, vegan, sustainable tourism consultant and environmentalist. But in my heart, I’m just a girl who believes that travel – if done right – has the power to change us and the world we live in.