September 27, 2015

What comes after




Since the first day of my trip, I knew I would end the journey in the mountains. I planned on it being in Nepal, but from the 25th of April, it became challenging. After the 12th of May, it became unthinkable. I was deeply moved by the suffering of the Nepali people, and I wanted to help – but I also understood that as I am neither a professional humanitarian nor a reporter, it would be selfish of me to go and watch, even with the will to help. And so as I left Rajasthan to head north, I decided that instead of going somewhere else than Nepal, I would cut the trip short and go home early. I had dreamt for so long of going to Nepal than to have that plan fall apart felt heartbreaking. Having the last leg of my trip go from six to three weeks was sincerely terrifying. I wasn't ready to go home – but then again, I don't think three more weeks would have helped. It just seemed like such a short time when you compared it to the almost one year I had just spent on the road. I had grown used of saying : I'm traveling for six months, three months, two months... saying « I'm going home in three weeks » just didn't cut it. It didn't make sense. I felt like a different person saying that. As if my itinerary had become part of me and canceling a fragment of it was like some kind of flaying. Without Nepal on the map, the trip was less. I was less.

But I went to Ladakh with an childlike excitement and stars in my eyes. The road was long : one day from Dharamsala to Jammu, another to Srinagar, and two days on a bus to go through the mountains passes and reach the first valleys. It ended up being the perfect conclusion to this crazy year : a few weeks spent with friends, sharing adventures, gazing at the Himalayas.

*

One extremely practical thing with relationships between travelers is the expected amount of commitment. That amount is none. You can sleep with someone one night, and then hop on the bus the next morning and go three hundred miles away, without even saying goodbye. We understand. You might call it selfish and cowardly but we just call it uncomplicated. No expectations. No promises. No labels. The road is the main mistress ; next to it, others can only be temporary flings. But just because these affairs are short lived doesn't mean they don't deserve their story told – and so this is the story of Pi.

I meet Pi in the desert, at the edge of Rajasthan. Upon realizing we both wish to reach Ladakh by road, we make a plan to meet in Dharamsala before starting our long journey up north. Then we go our separate ways. He goes to Amritsar, and I hop on the train to Delhi. I reach Dharamsala before he does, and after a few days without any news, I set my mind on leaving alone. But then one night Pi finds me again, randomly walking into the café I spend most of my days in. And just like that, we're traveling together. Told you : uncomplicated. It's not so simple, though. I am utterly unable to notice when people like me ; he is desperately shy. But then (I'll spare you the details of my thrilling love life) one night, after deciding that one bed is enough for two people, Pi tells me a secret, and so I put my arms around him.

On my very last day in Ladakh, we spend the afternoon on the balcony, watching the snowy mountains tops gleam under the sun. The moment is stupidly beautiful. The wind blows through the lilac and sent whiffs of perfume through the air. I am standing there, soaking it in, my hands grasping the railing trying to find something to hold on to – and I can't fight back the tears that start rolling down my cheeks. Pi rises from his chair and takes me in his arms. He says nothing, he just holds me there, sobbing, his hand stroking my hair. I want to speak, I want to say : « I'm not going home, over there isn't my home. My home is here, now, in this house we made ours, with the mountains and the cold wind and the snow. Please, don't make me go back. » – but I don't say any of these words out loud. I don't need to. He knows, already – even after only two months away from home, he knows that the only home we have is the road. And here I am, at the end of it ; here we are, standing on that balcony under the afternoon sun. I wipe my tears angrily as you release me from your arms – and I am ready to say goodbye.

**

June 8th. The alarm rings at 4:30. I get up, get dressed, hoist my bag on my shoulder – one more time. Pi kisses me goodbye, but I don't really feel it. I walk out, into the street, grey skies overhead, I don't look back. My taxi has let me down, but another one drives by – one last struck of luck. The plane takes off as the sun turns the top of the mountains pink. I catch one last glimpse of the Himalayas, before they disappear under a sea of clouds. I fall asleep, and wake up in Delhi.

In the departure hall, I wait in line to check in my bag. I am trying to look forward, walk forward, fast, so as to not chicken out and run the other way. I am really, really trying not to think. An old man hugs a young woman carrying a child goodbye. After they've gone through, our eyes meet and I smile at him. He asks : where are you going ? I'm going home, to my country, I say – I hate saying these words, it's a lie, but I say it because that's the official line. Your family is going to be so happy to see you, he says with a trembling voice. I want to answer, but my voice fails me and the tears are here again. I can feel them burning in my eyes, betraying me. Come on, get it together. I want to scream at all these travelers passing by, ignoring my tragedy, ignoring that right now I have to be braver than I ever had to be. Goddammit, camping with indonesian militia has nothing on this. And I am still crying in front of that man. Come on, get it together.
… But when I raise my eyes to answer him, I realize that he's crying too.

***

Last year, I celebrated my twenty fourth birthday in Battambang, Cambodia. I had been traveling for five days. I turn twenty five in the air, about an hour before landing. Or maybe I never turn twenty five ; maybe twenty five is lost in translation, sucked in by the time difference. Maybe I'll be like these Peter Pan kids, surrendering aging for freedom. I know, that's a big cliché.

When the plane lands, I walk across the almost empty airport in Paris thinking that nobody can tell where I've been, these past twelve months. Maybe they will wonder who this strange girl is, where she's been, where she's going. I realize that I don't have answers to any of these questions. In fact, I might have even more questions than before. I think that's okay.

And suddenly, it's my brother's laugh and my niece in my arms, the sun rising over Paris, a train running through France – it's my thumb raised one last time on the side of the road to hitch a ride to a certain village in the mountains ; my mother's scream at the door...

and I am home.


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