Sunday, 13 December 2015

Opening up our horizons through travelling

Most of us have heard a phrase that ''travelling opens up our horizons.'' I have heard it often enough and believed it to be true. Somehow it always made sense to me. Of course, you travel to different places and cultures, meet people with customs different from those of your own culture and inevitably that has to open you up, it has to increase your level of tolerance for difference. Well, sometimes it is true, and sometimes not. Also, for some people it is true and for some not. What I've realised in the last few days is that until now I've always understood the above phrase to mean a process of external opening, but what became very clear to me while travelling in India is that external opening is only one and maybe even smaller part of the 'horizons opening process.' Another component of this 'horizon opening process' is opening up of our inner horizons. When we travel in cultures that are substantially very different from our own culture we inevitably are faced with a need to travel through uncharted and often hidden territories of our own comfort zones. It is at this point when travelling starts to challenge our comfort zones that we have a chance to go on the inner journey to places in ourselves where we are stuck, where anxiety and fear reside. These are the moments when we have a chance to acknowledge our anxiety and discomfort, to choose “to feel the fear and do it anyway” and if we do, chances are that after initial discomfort we shall open up to experience our own humanity, which inevitably will make us much less stuck up, more able to laugh at ourselves and ultimately more humble.

Let me use a recent example to illustrate what I am trying to convey, above, about opening our horizons through meeting our comfort zones while travelling. Two weeks ago Jerry, my partner, and I were due to travel from Cochin in the coastal area of central Kerala, to Kumily, in the beautiful, hilly, nature protected area of the Western Ghats. We knew that the only way to get there was by road and our guide book informed us that there were regular buses going to Kumily or Thekkady. So off we went to the main bus station to enquire about possibilities. In our minds we were set on a private air-conditioned minibus, which normally cost 3 times more than the state buses, but still we were quite happy to pay for the comfort and what we expected to be a safer option.

Well, we were in for a surprise, there were no private buses going from Cochin to Kumily; only state-ran buses. There were taxis to be hired, but they cost 10 times more than the state buses. Since we decided we were travelling through India on a budget, we were not prepared to pay such a price. So there we were: our only option being a state bus for which you could not buy a reservation; just show up on the day and hope for the best. There were a few different buses parked at the bus station. Some of them were looking relatively new and modern. Hence, with a high dose of positivism, I asked the information officer to point out to me the type of bus that goes to Kumily, hoping he would point to a nice newish looking Volvo-cum-A/C orange bus. Instead, he pointed to what once was a white and blue bus, looking very old and battered, with no windows or, rather, open windows with no glass in them.

Our bus to Thekkady/Kumily

An unorthodox way of securing the door

I looked at Jerry and saw a mixture of what I would describe as a sinking feeling, together with disbelief on his face. Before I could even say anything, he stated with determination in his voice that he was not going to travel on this bus, especially not for 5 hours, which was meant to be the duration of this trip. Trying to stay positive and humorous I pointed out that at least air-conditioning would not be a problem: there would be a full draft blowing through those windows. Jerry saw no humour in my remarks. His comfort zones were challenged and his body language, as well as his feelings, were screaming in resistance Jerry expressed that the poor condition of the buses, not knowing whether we would have a seat or be left standing squeezed by every commuter in the area, as well as the speedy driving of the Indian bus drivers were not contributing to his needs for safety, comfort and ease (He later pointed out to me that it was also a case of “seen it, done it, got the T-shirt and feel no need to do it again”.) I was trying to hear him emphatically while my own imagination was running mad. Realising that it was a village to village commuter kind of bus I was getting very concerned about the duration of the trip. I was not reassured that the bus would be making many break-stops and therefore not leaving enough opportunity for toilet stops. This was a real concern for me because in this climate I need to hydrate a lot, which means regular loo stops. We both felt rather gloomy and decided to look for other options on the internet that might better meet our needs for safety, comfort and ease.

The only other option was to go on the train further south to Kottayam, which would have taken one hour. From there, we would be able to take an A/C bus to Kumily, but there was only one A/C bus leaving at 5 PM, with a journey time of some 4 hours to get there, which meant that the most of our trip would be done in the dark. OK; this was an alternative, but still with all the changes and travelling by different means of transport it was not going to contribute much to our need for ease. At the same time, driving in the night was definitely not giving me confidence and not contributing to my need for safety. So here we were, looking at two options, neither one fully meeting our needs. Of course, there was a third option: succumb to our fears and choose to avoid them by not going to Kumily at all. That strategy would have maybe met our needs for safety, comfort and ease but it would certainly not have contributed to our needs for adventure, playfulness, exploration and very importantly for self-respect. So we sat with all our feelings of discomfort and fear being quite prominent on the one side, and excitement and curiosity on the other, as well as the whole spectrum of our needs. Ultimately we decided to feel the fear and do it anyway.

If our imagined scenarios were not very hopeful, in reality, we experienced something close to the worst case scenario. The first hour went well, only us and a few other passengers on the bus. We were sitting comfortably in a seat that is normally meant for 3 people (3 smaller size Indians mind you, rather than full size Westerners). Then we were reaching suburban Ernakulam and the bus started filling up to the point that all seats were taken and the only free seat, or rather quarter of a seat by our standards, was the one next to Jerry and I. An Indian gentleman took that seat, squeezing Jerry between him and me. By this time, the bus was stuck in a traffic jam in the midday heat and instead of a draft refreshing us, we had the full heat, dust and smells of rush-hour traffic coming in. This situation continued for another two hours during which no toilet stops were made. Then suddenly, almost everybody disappeared off the bus, except for a few of us, die-hards. We transferred into a seat for two people to prevent any future clogging. I was getting uncomfortable, almost starting to be desperate when suddenly the bus stopped in an isolated hamlet with one restaurant, a shop and yes!
The toilet.
I was saved.
After a 10 minute break, we carried on, almost literally, flying. Recovered and fuelled after his lunch the driver started driving with vigour and serious determination to break the record in narrow mountain road curve-cutting driving. The conductor who was walking through the middle of the bus, trying to reach new passengers entering, was thrown from left to right while we were holding on for dear life to the seat in front of us. This was one of those situations that we were worried about yet now that we were in the midst of it we saw the comedy of it all. We could not stop laughing.

I saw a sign saying that Kumily was some 60 km away. By this time we were on the road for 5 hours already, and this meant that we had at least another hour, maybe even two hours to go given the curviness of the mountain road. Suddenly, we reached a small town and almost every school-age child from all the neighbouring villages was getting on the bus. It seemed as if the fuller the bus got the faster the driver was trying to drive. All the seats were full and the standing passengers were squeezing through the middle of the bus, the conductor was trying to move through this density of people while the driver was increasing the speed. In the midst of all this I turned away from the window to tell Jerry about a beautiful plant I just saw, only to witness the conductor falling literally into Jerry's lap. This was the proverbial cherry on the top. I became hysterical with laughter. And as if all this was not enough, a tropical monsoon rain started pouring down - remember no windows on this bus. Luckily there were some black shutters that could be pulled down. Suddenly all the shutters were down, inside, the full bus went pretty dark. Everybody breathing, humidity at its highest, mixed up with various smells of the passengers and the old bus's diesel fumes. All our comfort zones were pushed to the limit and yet we were laughing. There was not much we could do when in the middle of it all. Well, yes we could curse ourselves for ever stepping onto this bus, or we could argue with reality, or we just could take it as it was, laugh it off, and enjoy the ride. We chose this last option.

Six and a half hours later we arrived to Kumily/Thekkady alive, hungry, exhausted and psychologically numb, yet still smiling. Maybe we were smiling because we were still alive and in one piece.

To be fair to the Kerala State Road Transport Company, even though the buses are old, we realised they are still well maintained in terms of safety, and despite the fact that the drivers drive fast even when taking curves, they beep in advance, which is meant to inform other drivers that they are coming. Strange as it may sound, this system works in managing to keep Indian roads quite safe.

In retrospect, we are both glad we did the journey, happy that we dared to challenge some of our comfort zones and even laughed, when facing those challenges. Most importantly, we came out of it being much more acquainted with our own strengths and limits.
Do we have a need to do it again? No. Would we do it again? Maybe yes. It is not important. What is important is that we stay open to travelling and exploring - be it an inner, or outer journey.

This blog has also been posted on A journey to India travel blog written jointly by Jerry Zondervan and myself. I choose to post it again here on this blog because in my opinion it actually examines some universal issues such as anxiety, fear and dealing with it, challenging our comfort zones as well as needs and related strategies.