Over a farewell cup of coffee the day before my departure, my father posed the question again: "So, tell me exactly why you're going on this trip?"
Evidently, he was dissatisfied with my previous uninspired answers: "Well, why not?" and, "Might as well while I'm young" and, "This is the type of thing my generation does." I couldn't even offer the truisms of an idealistic young traveller. I wasn't on a crusade to find the elusive meaning of life, or escaping an epically painful heart break.
Others were questioning me too. A friend gave me a book about the voyage to self-discovery. I heard tales of so-and-so who left for here-or-there and never returned after making their home in a mud hut and selflessly devoting their lives to saving sick children. No pressure.
I wasn't aiming so high. I couldn't tell my inquirers why I was going, because I didn't know. I was 27, had a stable job in a bad economy, a loving boyfriend and student loans to pay. I felt fulfilled, I was happy and I didn't want to be a changed person with a new life path. But I also had the inexplicable need to go to foreign places I'd never seen, alone and with no plan.
I was flustered, then, to find myself in a teary puddle of self-doubt as I made my way on the long series of flights to India. The liberating confidence I had left home with had dwindled to confusion and skepticism somewhere over the Atlantic.
An embarrassingly emotional goodbye to my boyfriend at the airport had killed my travel buzz, which was then buried upon arrival in Delhi, where the assault of foreign sights and smells and strangers spun me into a paralysis. I was desperate to turn back time to the place where I hadn't decided to spend my life savings being lonely and directionless for months.
Alone in my hotel room, I sat stunned on the bed feeling unsure and uninspired. I wished I had a calling, a purpose, anything to make me feel fated for something more than bedbug bites and Delhi belly.
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Overnight trains and open-air rickshaws took me through my six-week journey of India. I learned about the conflicted modern life of young Hindus in Rajasthan, and witnessed the smiles of first-generation school students in slum settlements of Tamil Nadu. The village women I befriended taught me to bake chapati and affectionately decorated my arms with henna.
I took the spirit of India with me to the edge of the Sahara in Morocco, where I climbed sand dunes at sunrise with local kids who fed their hungry families with donations from foreigners. I was invited to sit with wise old shopkeepers for pots of mint tea and tales of childhood, and was moved by the feats of ancient history as I wandered the wonders of Egypt and Jordan.
Overwhelmed and humbled, I wrote furiously in my journal, hoping to uncover something enlightening about how my experiences were changing me for a life of good. Where was that nugget of purpose I needed to find?
Although the events of each day left me gratefully inspired, I couldn't find the instructions that told me what to do with this inspiration. How disappointing it might be, I feared, to return home the same callow person who couldn't figure out why she'd gone in the first place. Despite my earlier skepticism, I suppose I wanted to be changed.
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Three months later, my blown budget and tired legs sent me home. During catch-up conversations with friends, I was inevitably asked how the journey had altered my life. As I resumed my same old routine, I felt a pang of guilt and disappointment because I didn't yet have the answer.
Then one night, I dreamt that I was floating down a narrow backwater river between fields of rice paddies. The sun had just set. Homemade paper stars lit with candles hung from the trees, signifying the holidays were near.
I looked up to see a luminous dark purple sky, and the sharp black silhouette of an old man. He was standing tall and balanced on the ledge of our dugout boat, paddling with long, slow strokes. Silence broke when he began to sing into the night. It was a love story, and although I didn't understand a word of his native tongue, I was moved.
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Slowly, dark figures came out of their houses to line the river's edge, and one by one I heard hands begin clapping in steady rhythm with the old man and me. As I floated along, I saw women bouncing naked babies on hips, and children holding the hands of little siblings as families listened together. This supernatural experience, one that brought me to tears, was just another peaceful night in their modest lives.
I woke up feeling light, as though my spirit had just flown a million miles away, back to my magical moment in the lagoon. My dream was in fact a memory, and I was reliving one of the many fleeting periods that held me present and in awe, as if the world had hushed just so I could take it in.
Maybe in time I'll recognize the ways travelling has changed me. But was that really the point? Undecided, I'll settle for something I cherish more - the gift of memories that remind me, when I need it most, to never underestimate the power of a simple moment.
Ashley Audrain lives in Toronto.
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