Journeys that empower

Travel may not always be fun. Sometimes, it involves warding off danger, and at other times, it leaves you at the mercy of others. Even then, realises Deepa Narayanan, travel has a way of adding to you, leaving in its wake a trail of self-realisation that almost always empowers

I’ll be honest. When I spoke with Dubai-based Sucheta Phule, a German language expert and filmmaker, and then later with Abu Dhabi-based M Asif Saiyed, a risk-management professional and auditor, I wrestled with trying not to judge which of their travel stories fascinated me more.

Thankfully, what ultimately came of those calls was the sense of humility I’d skirted while trying to pick a favourite, merrily ignoring the truth that every human is an explorer—searching and discovering within the strength and wisdom to face challenges not yet confronted, not comparable, but still emerging through with lessons in self-reliance.

What especially gripped me about the stories I was invited to partake in was how exceptionally different the two of them were as individuals. Chalk and cheese, some would say. Sucheta, an avid traveller seeking newness and adventure, willingly dived in for new experiences, be it around places, food, etc., while Asif whose travels restricted to work, was contented in seeking familiarity, be that about places, people, or flavours.

Yet, by the time I sat down to write this piece, they’d started seeming oddly connected through the likeness I found in how they dealt with their individual experiences. While Sucheta found strength in her fitness regimen and the person she’d become to save her from harm’s way, Asif sought lessons from his work trainings to see him through his challenges in unfamiliar situations.

Unexpected beginnings

Asif’s travel tale sets off in March 2019, when he was invited to attend a quarterly training conference in Gatwick, UK, an opportunity he considered wonderful but one that filled him with trepidation. Asif has several health conditions, including restricted vision, high BP, frozen shoulders that restricts him from carrying even three to four kilos, and an inability to bear the cold—a rather inhibiting feature, you’d agree, for the UK, where the weather went from smiling sunny to clammy cold at the drop of a hat.

Keenly aware of his difficulties, Asif decided he’d assess his risks realistically. “While making travel arrangements, I constantly analysed my health conditions against factors such as the weather there, hospitals near the venue, restaurants that served halal meat, etc.,” he says. He’d even join in on well-meaning colleagues’ jokes that with the minus temperatures in the UK, he’d turn into an ice cream once he got there. “There were also others who’d tell me I was heading into something the universe had set up for me,” he adds, smiling.

Asif was not entirely new to travel. As a youngster, Asif had travelled extensively across India for work. After moving to the UAE in 2008, his travel restricted to the UAE–India sector during visits to his parents’ home in Gujarat. So also, the upcoming UK trip would be Asif’s very first outside not only India and the UAE but also his comfort zones.

He began preparations by scouting for warm clothes. Initially, he couldn’t find clothes that fit his small frame in his neighbouring malls. But as his colleagues had said, the universe was leading him. “One day, a security guard at one of the stores I regularly shopped in asked me what I was looking for and then guided me to a store in the neighbourhood, where I could buy warm clothes meant for the UK climate, at one-third the prices in the malls,” says Asif.

More assistance came his way, including his mentor offering to pick him up from the airport and his colleagues at the training helping him at every stage, whether to lug his heavy bags or guide him around. Soon, Asif’s overwhelming trepidations about travelling began giving away, though the uncertainty of whether the conference venue served halal meat etc., forced him to stick to vegetarian pizzas options and salads. “For someone who relished biryanis and rice and lentils, paying ten pounds for a salad broke my heart,” says Asif with a chuckle. “But I consoled myself, saying I was there for the training, not food!”

When the training ended, Asif had three days before heading home. Plans to tour London were made, with his training buddies helping him get to the city by train, even ensuring he safely boarded a cab for his hotel that night. After an unfulfilling but ‘safe’ dinner of chips, wafers and two cups of tea (of which he promptly posted pictures on social media) Asif decided he’d explore the city the next morning after booking himself into another stay.

Asif, first day at Gatwick, with his mentor who picked him up at the airport

One foot up, the other foot down, that’s the way to London town…

Early next morning, after finding an apartment–hotel to move into next, Asif left his luggage in the previous hotel’s cloakroom and stepped out into the streets of London with a small backpack and his passport, phone and some money, trying to remain risk-aware and risk-alert. “Basically, I was constantly looking out for muggers,” he adds with a laugh.

While he wouldn’t experience mugging, he’d accomplish many ‘firsts’. “I hadn’t known about their app-based taxis so I found no cabs and began exploring the city on foot,” he says, walking around from 8 am to 4 pm—a first for him. “Back home, I can hardly walk for more than 10 minutes and certainly cannot carry more than 3–4 kg. Here, my backpack weighed 6 kg!” says Asif in wonder. A subway ride, another first in his life, and some more of the unguided but exciting sightseeing later, Asif decided to return for his luggage at around 8 pm. Despite a steady drizzle and his unbelievable exhaustion, the lack of cabs forced him to walk back.

Back in the hotel, after another dinner of wafers and tea, Asif got his luggage from the cloakroom and as advised by the hotel staff, he headed out for a cab and got one half hour later. “Before getting in, the risk-manager in me counted the five pieces of luggage I carried. The taxi dropped me off right opposite the apartment–hotel I’d booked into. I got off the cab, and still standing outside the apartment–hotel, counted the five pieces of luggage again, and was pleasantly surprised that despite the ten hours of walking around, I felt incredibly light. Then it hit me! In the luggage count, I’d forgotten to include my backpack, which was now travelling with the cabbie!”

For someone who relished biryanis and rice and lentils, paying ten pounds for a salad broke my heart

Through an avalanche of emotions as the realisation hit him, Asif began making a list of valuables he would’ve lost with the backpack—passport, phone, and 800 pounds, he decided. “As I stood there, with my palm over my heart, I felt my passport in my left pocket. I realised my wallet and phone were in my trousers’ back pockets,” he adds. That meant the ‘loss’ was 800 pounds. Rushing into the apartment–hotel, Asif blurted out his situation to the staff. Despite their concerns, they couldn’t help without the cabbie details as he had none.

Standing there, trying to channel the problem-manager in him, Asif noted a movement out of the corner of his eyes. Someone was approaching him. And lo and behold! It was the cabbie with his backpack.

Apparently, ten minutes after he’d dropped off Asif, the cabbie had noticed the bag and turned around to return it. “I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I just stood there profusely thanking the good man, forgetting to even ask his name or anything else. He merely acknowledged my gratitude and left. Everything in the bag was intact,” Asif says.

Clearly richer by the experience and thankful for the people and circumstances that entered his life, he tells me that after the pandemic eases, he plans a Europe trip with his family and several more to Singapore and the US for work, liberated in his realisation that no matter what the limitations, the universe had his back and he’d find a way around it.

Going around San Fransisco

Explorations within 

The foodie ready for a spread in Vietnam

Having started off as German language expert, Sucheta began exploring her storytelling side, following her publisher and filmmaker dad’s path. In 2014, she wrote and directed a feature film based on child-abuse, The Journey to Her Smile. Incidentally, Sucheta’s dad, Bal Phule, was the publisher of Chitravedh, a Marathi film-magazine that reached its zenith in the 1980s and 1990s (which Sucheta is reviving now). Also a filmmaker, he had co-produced Gulzar Sahab’s 1990-fantasy-Bollywood-film Lekin, which won several National Awards in 1991.

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and so it’s with Sucheta. Her feature film won much acclaim across several prestigious film festivals, including the International Film Festival for Women in Jakarta, the 68th Cannes Film Festival, and many across Zimbabwe, the UK, and India.

Her film’s screening went off wonderfully, with almost the entire crew and cast of the film showing up for it, unlike at other festivals where many couldn’t travel to. “Even my mum and mum-in-law attended the event, their first film festival, and were visibly moved by the whole experience,” she tells me. A rather satisfied Sucheta returned to the apartment after seeing her mum off with her relatives in Goregaon, where she’d preferred to stay.

From lights off to insights  

The scream must have scared the 20-something-year-old witless because he dropped the phone and ran out of the room. As she ran behind him, Sucheta remembered her glasses were on the bedside stool and that she was in my sleeping shorts. “I ran back into the bedroom, grabbed my glasses, wore my pyjamas, and ran behind him but he’d managed to hide in one of the rooms in the huge house.” The apartment’s intercom gadgets, which would have helped her reach the security, seemed too fancy for her to comprehend then. “The sliding doors in the apartment wouldn’t shut well, so none of the rooms were safe for me to shut myself in,” Sucheta adds. Finally, she ran into the washroom, which thankfully had ‘normal’ latches, she says.

Once inside and securely locked, she dialled 100 for Mumbai Police. (Later, her cousins would tell her how lucky she was because they hardly ever got mobile range in the house.) The cops were prompt and at her apartment door in less than ten minutes. “Once there, a woman cop with them asked me to let them in. I refused initially because the thief was still in the house. Then, gathering courage, I stepped out to open the front door, running across the long hallway like a madwoman,” says Sucheta, with an infectious laughter.

Against the streetlights that streamed into the bedroom, I could see him in his loose t-shirt and shorts with his arm stretched out toward my phone

Cooking it up

But the ability to look back at the incident and narrate it with the added chuckles took her a while. For starters, by the time the police had entered the apartment, the intruder couldn’t be found and they kept trying to convince Sucheta that she may have just imagined it all. Over the next few days, while staying with kind neighbours until she had another relative stay with her in the house, she got the security and the cops to view the CCTV footage of the day the intruder broke in. They identified the boy as a house-help in a neighbouring, politician’s apartment, who’d climbed into the house through an unlatched window on the common floor. He had also stolen money from her bag the previous day.

Food, the best part of her travels

The matter was finally settled, but the experience left Sucheta shaken. It took her six months to even sleep peacefully. “The first time I slept for a whole night was on 19th June,” she tells me. “Every little noise after switching off the lights still keeps me awake till I can identify it.”

The laughter that accompanies Sucheta as she recounts the six-year-old incident is born from her changed perceptions about herself. “It still amazes me that my instincts were to scream and grab his collar because through my protected life, I’ve never felt the need to be aggressive. So that incident, scary and scarring as it was, remains an inspiration. It reminds me I came through it on my own. And the rigorous fitness regimen I’d started for weight-loss after my daughter was born in 2009, I realise, added to my agility and presence of mind back then,” says Sucheta.

Thus began Sucheta’s hunger for explorations, not only for the world outside but also for that within her. And I’m reminded once again that journeys are inside-out.

With her husband on the Sa Pa mountain trek in Vietnam, through the terrace rice paddy, with a stragetically positioned rainbow

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