I enjoy the holiday season—not because of the bells and whistles, but because it’s the only time of year I spend with my parents for their sake. Christmas Day is my dad’s birthday, and four days ago was my mother’s. And despite all the differences we have, despite our irritating tendencies towards each other, we still come together. Sometimes it’s more out of duty than love, but we’re there for each other nevertheless.
But not everyone’s like that. This is still just another day for countless of people in our world—first, second, third.
While most of us spend our day with friends and family, some spend it with those who have nothing. It’s important to recognise them, but most important—to sustain well beyond this one day.
I don’t know what Christmas is all about, but I sure as hell know that it’s not about being philanthropic one day and impervious for the rest of the year.
I’m not as well-travelled as I’d like to be, but everywhere I’ve been to, I’ve been with other people. Even my three visits to the US were work trips with colleagues close behind me. However, when we weren’t working, and when it was time to explore, I’d leave them to their plans and fly solo.
I’ve always been that way, and I’ve never felt bad about it either. My reasons are simple enough: I don’t want to go to the same places they do, and I don’t want to do the same activities as they. When I’m travelling with colleagues, no matter where we’re at, they will always want to go shopping. Which is fine by me, except they have people to give things to and I don’t. I’ve never been much of a shopaholic or the typical tourist, but my colleagues are. And that’s the reason I head out on my own. Of course, it’s unfair to ask them to spend time with me on activities they’d rather not indulge in.
With such strong reasoning, I discovered the joys of travelling solo. And it taught me a lot of great things too. For the first time, I was responsible for myself. And it wasn’t as scary as my parents had told me it’d be. On the contrary, it was fun. It was, of course, little unnerving at times, when I struggled to figure out the way ahead or how to handle situations, but I got through them fine. And I realised the benefits of solo travel far outweighed its negatives.
The inevitable factor about social living is that we have to compromise. And I did compromise in my work trips, with the flight preferences, hotel reservations, seats and transport modes, and sometimes even food. But as soon as I ventured on my own, I didn’t have to compromise anymore. I could take the bus if I wanted to or save time eating a bagel on the way rather than waiting for my co-travellers to finish a five-course veal meal. I could, most of all, stop where my heard did.
It was the best feeling ever—freedom in every sense of the word. Since I didn’t have to endure their endeavours for souvenirs or their selfie experiments, I got more time to do what I like—whether it’s window shopping at a bakery or hiking up a hill for the breathtaking views, I loved having complete autonomy.
While I was basking in the glory of travelling alone, my teammates planned a team trip. And I was to go along with about ten other people. I had misgivings even before we left. Unused to going along with others, I didn’t know if I’d manage it. I even asked myself if it’s worth going at all, knowing full well I won’t have a good time.
But I went anyway. And I wasn’t all wrong. It wasn’t easy for me to adjust to others’ routines and plans. It wasn’t the best experience squishing seven people in a five-seater car or listening to music I don’t like all the way on a road trip. Although most of us wanted to go on a sunrise drive, I hated waking the reluctant others at 3:00 am. It pained me to be the plant eater in a meat restaurant watching the group order piece after piece.
Regardless of all this, every time we were out together, at a waterfall or a bridge, or a street walk, I enjoyed myself in spite of myself. Sure, I wish we hadn’t taken so many group photos and selfies or spent so much time waiting for the others to get ready, but I also had small moments I cherish to this day.
I didn’t have to be the only responsible one throughout. Or watch behind my shoulders all the time. Or ask for directions or pay for every meal. For once, I was part of something bigger than myself. Yes, I had to check we were heading in the right direction, and stay awake talking to prevent our driver from falling asleep, but at the end of it, it wasn’t only about me, and that didn’t feel so bad.
Go with the flow
I’d visited countless waterfalls before. But for the first time, I showered in a waterfall during the team trip. As I saw my colleagues run into the water, I was happy to join them without worrying who’ll watch my stuff (lucky for me, some of my team-mates are afraid of water).
I learnt to let the inevitable flow of events engulf me, and to my surprise, I had fun. I laughed more than I thought I would, made friends of unexpected people, and even had someone interested in taking my picture. Travelling with a group, I realised, isn’t so bad after all. After all, you get to know for real about people you thought you knew.
Solo travel makes you feel like you own the world, while group travel makes you feel belonged.
Which is better, though, is subjective. I’ll always vote for going alone, but I wouldn’t negate the thrill of travelling with others.
For the first time in my life I was at a live concert. I had no idea what to expect as I treaded my way on the grass that led to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in the Millennium Park—heck I wasn’t even sure I could walk on the grass.
But it was the middle of summer, and every night the city of Chicago lit up as people gathered around the iconic open pavilion to enjoy free concerts. And there I was looking around, a lone traveller, stumbling upon a music extravaganza of a lifetime.
Saying it was the greatest show on earth takes an extraneous effort to lie. However, it was a good concert that showed me a new lifestyle altogether.
We don’t have free city-organised concerts where I’m from. Not only was the music new, but so was the idea of gathering people together for such a social evening.
It was unfamiliar, but unlike most unfamiliar experiences, this one didn’t leave an uncomfortable aftertaste in my mouth. Instead, it left me at peace. I felt so calm and relaxed as I listened to the expert player caressing the strings of her violin.
All around me couples and families had set up picnics. They’d brought dinner, candles and wine, beer and snacks, and desert with kombucha. It was as they’d come for a day at the beach. I sensed a hum of satisfaction hovering in the air—as if everyone there knew they’d spent an entire day on hard work, and so deserved the complementary break time the state offered them. They kicked back, laughing away, sipping a glass of their favourite drink, happy.
It was nice being a part of that atmosphere—where nothing was wrong with the world, where utopia was achievable. Of course, when the concert ended and I exited the ground the entire reality of life came down on me, but the calm during the concert was one to always cherish.
I loved Chicago for that.
Although I later understood a lot of western cities have similar public events, Chicago holds a special place in my heart.
It was an important day. I was flying to the United States again, and I couldn’t be more nervous. It happens every time. A huge believer in Murphy’s Law, I always consider everything that could go wrong and dwell on anything that will go wrong.
This time, it was immigration. What if the officer asked a question and I stumbled because I was too nervous? What if they think I’m lying? Argh, the horror of having to face my friends, after bragging to them about the trip—every little immaterial flashed in my mind as I stood in the lengthy queue outside the Chennai International Airport.
While I struggled to get my head in order, people around me were having the time of their lives. Kids played with bulging baggage as their adults chit-chatted away without so much of a second glance. A couple of women debated in a frantic foreign tongue. Assuring her companion, the first woman made a phone call and after a few rushed moments later, disconnected it and smiled at her friend—all was well.
Except it wasn’t. My stomach was still refusing to digest the butterflies that’d taken to it as home.
Just then a line of professionals appeared—they strode with mild aloofness and sheer confidence. The security gave them precedence, and off they went, smiling, sharing jokes, and even making swooshing gestures with their hands.
It was the flight crew—pilots and stewards making their way to the next city on their schedule. They had not a care in the world, except they had to care for those flying the world.
It was strange. Watching the pilots, I thought how much they’re like any of us—with a job as any of us. They carry the weight of thousands of lives every day, and yet, it’s only a job. Here I was panicking about a simple trip, but in front of me relaxed were those who assumed such massive responsibility. And they took it in their stride. How much experience and gut courage would they have, I wondered. They don’t let the fear of the unknown and the unchallengeable affect their peace of mind. They’ll give their best every time. And that’s how you keep your cool—you be you and take life as it comes.
And with that realisation, I walked a little easier towards security. I only had to be calm and speak the truth. I might stumble and fumble, but it’s what it is—it happens. And when it does, I will move past it. It’s no big deal.
Chicago’s one uncanny aspect excited me as much as the Riverwalk did. It was the Mag Mile. Of course, this excitement came about while I was still at home zooming in on the city’s streets.
However, the idea of an entire stretch of the bustling city street filled with vanity stores made me—the least expectant shopper—wait with bated breath. What was so magnificent about the Mag Mile? I craved to find out.
My spine tingling with unfamiliar curiosity and eagerness, I found myself walking towards the infamous street. The sheer number of people hit my eye right away. Although I’ve lived my entire adult life in a city of 4 million people, that was still a sore sight. All around, buyers flocked to the streets, shuffling in and out of stores, sipping soda, scraping ice cream off a pint tub, biting into a burrito, and chit-chatting all the while.
Overcome by the overwhelming sight, I had to take a few minutes to regain my composure. Once I’d gotten accustomed to the sluggish crowd that wouldn’t go away anytime soon, I began noticing other elements in the street.
Every few feet, for instance, was a five-feet tall a lighthouse. They were aplenty and on both sides of the street. Each had on it a graffiti, a painting, or a remarkable event etched in ink. Passers by passed by without so much as a third glance, while I lingered, going round and round trying to discern their significance. I couldn’t. But I did enjoy spotting the lighthouses amidst the sea of unstopping shoppers.
A little further down the road, I found Ghirardelli. Imagining my teammates’ glares, I entered, only to exit 30 minutes later feeling proud of myself. I’d stuffed a box full of the most chocolates anyone else had done that day. It wasn’t an official record, of course, but I gleaned that from the sales people’s faces. And how thrilled they seemed that I took so many chocolates for only a fraction of its price. Nevertheless, I’d found happiness in the Mag Mile.
As if to dampen my ego-driven joy, before my eyes flashed the not-so-magnificent part of the Magnificent Mile: the people of Chicago who had neither a roof over their head nor medical insurance over their waning health. Within seconds the balloon within me punctured, jerking back to the harsh reality of the world. The Mag Mile wasn’t just for those who could splurge, but it’s also for those who had no choice but to scavenge. While people purchased additional clothing on one side, on the other side people clothed in rags, writing out holdings, too tired to speak. It wasn’t an unfamiliar sight—both in San Francisco and my city, I’d seen thousands of pitiful scenes and people in dire situations. But that didn’t make Chicago seem any better.
I’d been too distracted to expect what I saw. Of course, it’s obvious. In a million-strong metropolitan city of a capitalist nation, it’d be a surprise not to encounter poverty and homelessness. Although that neither justifies it nor makes it less hard to digest.
I walked around more, but everything looked different now. Sure, the magnanimity of Mag Mile remained, and the throng didn’t fade away, but my perspective had. I’d seen the cruel reality of our society, and I cringed at my helplessness. There’s nothing I could do to change the way the world worked, and even if I could, there’s no one right way the world should work. There always will be someone higher and someone lower. That’s the design we are born into. I could stay and complain or I could move on. I decided to move on.
The Mag Mile was magnificent in every sense. My jaw dropped at the grandeur but also, my thoughts popped at the ungraciousness.