When I was a little girl, I loved adventure stories. There was a Marathi magazine named Chandoba, which means “moon,” and in this magazine, I discovered a faraway, magical world. The first time I read about Sindbad, I was mesmerized. The magazine had colorful illustrations and I remember one in which Sindbad had fallen into a well full of human bones.
Later, I discovered Gulliver and the Lilliputians too.
I was a dreamer and what I dreamt of was traveling to faraway places. Why is it that some children dream of leaving their homes, and others want to stay close to the hearth? My own children do not wish to go away. Perhaps because they went camping even before they were out of diapers; they traveled to Canada, India, and Mexico at young ages.
Whatever the reason, I dreamt of leaving home. Later, as an adolescent, I read Somerset Maugham. I remember a novel in which a young man travels to Malaya, Zanzibar, and Singapore. I believe he comes to a sad end. In my mind’s eye, I see him standing on the deck of a ship, watching a tropical sunset. I wanted to be that young man. I wanted to get on a ship and travel across the seven seas. The trouble was, there were no stories of seafaring girls. Sindbad was a man; Gulliver was a man; Robinson Crusoe was a boy; Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were boys too.
So I wished I were a boy. I acted like a boy too. I paid no attention to my looks; I did not put on makeup or jewelry. My brain, my courage, and my competence were what I wanted the world to acknowledge.
When I embarked on my solo travels across France recently, I felt confident, self-assured. When I searched for role models from literature, however, I could not come up with anything inspiring. I read Hemingway’s Movable Feast, a book about his life in Paris as a young writer, but we had little in common.
Today, when people think of women traveling solo, they think of Eat, Pray, Love. Even though I haven’t read the book, judging by the author interviews I have heard on NPR, the message of the bestseller is quite clear, a woman adventuress cannot be complete without a man to round off the happy ending.
That the journey could be an end in itself, that one might find, at the end of a voyage, not love for a man, but love for oneself, is not seen as an appealing idea. This is sad because the truth is, no man or woman can ultimately fulfill us; ultimately we have to find inner peace, inner love, inner happiness.
For me the moment of such self-awakening came in St. Jean de Luz, a picturesque town in the Basque country of France. I had gotten used to the French routine of visiting the Boulangerie in the morning to buy a croissant and sometimes a Chocolatine, and then sitting at the café next door with my Kindle and my small Gateway computer.
As I sat there one morning, watching the locals get a café before work, a strange sensation overcame me. It was happiness. Not the kind of happiness I had experienced when, long ago, my husband had told me that he had fallen in love with me, or when I had gotten word that I had been admitted to grad school at U.C. Berkeley.
Rather, it was a feeling of completeness. All throughout my three week travels, people had been watching me as I took my place at a single table at a bistro or a salon. Occasionally, I had felt a pang. Not because I was lonely, but because people thought that I must be lonely.
At a restaurant near the Invalides in Paris, I was talking to a couple at the next table when I explained that I was visiting a friend of mine in Paris. The woman said, “Oh, good! I thought you were all alone!” I felt she had slapped me in the face. So much so that I did not tell her that, in fact, the next day, I was embarking on a solo journey across the country.
Why do people assume that being alone is a less than desirable state? When in fact, in many cases, it is better to be alone than to be with the wrong person? Do people do so to justify their own marriage or partnership?
I suppose I must have internalized the exchange with that insensitive woman, for, as I rode trains, walked into strange towns with my bag, or checked into a hotel, I imagined that people were wondering who I was and why I was by myself.
It was in St. Jean de Luz that I finally lost that feeling. I just did not care what people thought.
I realized that if they were looking at me at all, which probably they were not, they were simply trying to place my ethnicity. For throughout my travels, no one had identified me as Indian, assuming that I was Spanish or Italian or Iranian. More importantly, I simply did not care about people’s judgments. I felt contented, complete, blissful. For I could write. I could read. I could observe. I could pick up conversations with strangers. At the last moment, I could decide to travel to San Sebastian, Spain. I could stroll up the hill hugging the Bay of Biscay to watch the sunset and wait for the miracle of the Green Flash to occur.
Back in my hotel room, I could write my blog. I could browse the web to decide my next destination, and, thanks to Google Translate, send messages to hotels for last minute reservations. Sometimes I did not even know where I was going to spend the next night or what train I was going to catch.
That was the exciting part. My travels were a far cry from Overseas Adventure Travel, where everything is planned, where the adventure is only in the name. I fulfilled my desires spontaneously, without having to negotiate them with anyone.
I was free. I was in a surrealistic dream. I was floating, unseen, unheard, alone. And because I was alone, the world was my oyster.
And the world embraced me. In my freedom and solitude I was able to love the world in a way that I had never loved it before. And the world came to love me. Never once did I lose my temper or felt despair. For, at every turn, guardian angels showed up to assist me. Every time I needed help, someone came to my aid, whether it was just to talk to me or to show me the way into town.
Why did this happen? Because I had sailed my ship alone across the seven seas. I had become Gulliver and Sindbad. I had fulfilled my childhood dream.
The trouble with being Gulliver or Sindbad of course is that you feel compelled to set off again, no matter how perilous your last journey.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com