independence

I was born with a fierce independent streak. Every summer growing up, my family would take vacations to New Hampshire. These trips were a kid’s dream, filled with picnics and swimming holes and cliff jumping and days ending with simple meals while our hair dried in the fresh air. My dad likes to tell a story that happened on one of the first of these trips, when I was about four. Over the years, my dad had mastered the art of making friends with locals and finding out about all of the best natural swimming spots. We were at one of these spots, getting ready to swim across a river. My dad strapped me into my tiny Disney-themed life jacket, and he turned to strap my two-year-old sister into her Snoopy jacket. After he got her all ready to go, he turned back to me. But I was gone. He realized that I was halfway across the river already, tiny little four-year-old in the middle of this river, dog-paddling my little heart out, oblivious to the idea that maybe I would have ever needed help or that it would have made any sense to wait for an adult to go with me.

Fast forward to about twenty years later, when I had lost the life jacket, but not one bit of the independence. I was setting out by myself on a trip to India, Thailand, and China for about three months. I would be staying with friends at various points throughout the trip, but I would spend much of it traveling alone. For the most part, I didn’t book rooms ahead of time, because unless you were staying in luxury hotels (which I definitely wasn’t), it was difficult to find hostel rooms in advance. So, I would arrive in each new city, and I would put on my brave, independent-woman face and would wander around until I found a place to stay. Somehow, true to form, it hadn’t really crossed my mind that maybe I would have ever needed help or maybe wouldn’t want to do parts of this trip alone.

One city I visited was Rishikesh, a city famous for yoga and the Ganges River and because the Beatles went there once. I arrived in Rishikesh and got off the train…in the middle of nowhere. Literally, it was a dirt road. So I looked at the signs I could barely read, made my best guess as to the direction to go, and started walking. Two miles later, I was exhausted and hot, not sure if I was even going in the right direction, when I saw the city open up ahead of me. I had made it- I would not be wandering in the middle-of-nowhere, India forever.

So then I started looking for a hostel where I could stay. And the first one was full. Then the next one was full. And then I had spent over an hour going from place to place to place, and they were all full. I started to panic. I had one last place to try, and thankfully, they had a room. I didn’t even bother checking the room before I paid, because anything was better than sleeping on the street. Well, almost anything. As I started down the hallway to my room, I heard a scraping sound behind me, and I turned just in time to see them closing a giant gate behind me. And locking it. Locking me into the building. I told myself I was overreacting, and that I didn’t have exactly have my pick of lodging options, and I kept on going toward my room. When I got to my room, I set my stuff down, and I started noticing other things that struck me as odd. Like the bars on the windows. And the locks on the outside of the doors. The previous month of stressful, solo travel caught up to me, and I finally snapped. I said out loud, in my room, to nobody in particular, “Oh hell no. I am not getting trafficked today.” I picked up my backpack, ran down the hallway, and started banging on the gate. As soon as someone who worked there came out, I shouted, “ I am not staying here. You lock me in here? Do you think I’m crazy?” To which the answer was most definitely yes. Because to be honest, I was probably completely misinterpreting the situation and overreacting. But in that moment, all I could think of was getting the hell out. So they unlocked the gate (but not before letting me know that there were no refunds, but small price to pay for my freedom, right?), and I ran back outside, narrowly escaping the disaster that was most likely completely in my head.

Except that I still had nowhere to stay. And I had no more places to try. So I walked back into the first hostel that I had tried, and I asked again. Still, no room. And finally, I completely lost it. Total breakdown, right in the middle of their hostel lobby. I could just get out the words, “But I’m going to be homeless!” And at that moment, I would have given anything to have someone there with me, someone else to help solve this problem, someone who would stick with me so that I didn’t have to be in a place I didn’t know, with nowhere to go, completely alone. It was at that embarrassing moment that one of the hotel staff miraculously remembered that there was a room that might be opening a day early. They went to check, and when they came back, I had a room. Which was great. But also, for the first time in my life, I had terrible homesickness.

Independence is good. My independent streak has carried me all over the country and the world, seeing new places, experiencing new things, and collecting fantastic stories. But that experience was one of many during that trip to India that taught me the importance of interdependence. It’s good to not always go it alone. Whether it’s someone to be by your side and pick up the slack when you’re losing it in a hostel lobby, or whether it’s having a wonderful little community that makes you equally excited to come home as you were to set out, living life with other people is good. Because sometimes, a tiny Disney life jacket and your own strength might not be quite enough to get you across that river. Sometimes, good company and an extra set of hands can help an awful lot along the way.

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