Reluctant Backpackers

– Ekta Poddar

It had been a few hours since I read the e-mail congratulating us travel fellows on our selection. Fifteen days of discovering India! Combined with writing about it! I could not believe my luck! However, the initial feelings of jubilation and those happy butterflies that impending travel brings were soon replaced with giant-sized bats out of hell. That one verb that denotes a lifestyle that I never thought I would get close to, one that has always whispered fear in my heart, one that I have alternately sneered at and been in awe of, that one word – ‘backpack’- was about to get up close and personal with me.

I called an emergency tea-and-SOS meeting with a friend (the kind of friend who understands why cake is the only solace in such cases) and I ran over to her place. “Oh my god, am so happy for you and envious that I can’t come on this epic trip,’ she exclaimed, as we settled down on her couch.
“All that is okay,” I shuddered, “but there will be H.O.S.T.E.L.S!”

“Well, yeah, hostels sort of go with backpacking you know,” she puzzled, “is that a problem?”
“I have horrendous memories of hostels from my college days, when I had to share the bathroom with hundreds of other girls. I am so scarred by that experience, it spurred me to earn a living that has guaranteed en-suite bathrooms” I said, as a small melodramatic tear rolled down my cheek.
“Just carry your own toilet paper and quit being such a princess,” was the unsympathetic reply, “and besides you should have more pressing worries.”
I raised a disbelieving eyebrow, “More pressing than a full bladder in a dirty bathroom?”
“Pepper spray! You should carry some!” she declared theatrically.
“With my luck and motor skills, I shall spray myself blind if attacked, so thanks but no thanks”.
“I am telling you, it is a jungle out there.”
“I have never travelled solo for pleasure before, but have been to so many places across the world for work alone, that I have inbuilt survival instincts that kick in.”
“Ah, but her royal highness has always had chauffeurs that welcomed her at the arrival with the day’s newspaper and some bottled water?”
“Whose side are you on?” I sniffed, and got momentarily distracted by how comfortable the sofa was. “By the way, is the couch new?”
“Remember the bed bug infestation that we had?! We had to change all our soft furnishings,” she said, nostrils flaring with anger.

Reluctant Backpackers - Ekta Poddar - AAO Hostels

At their mention, I sprang upright, as visions of recent posts I had read on a travel forum about bed bugs in hostels swam in front of my eyes. “What if..?! Oh my god! Oh no! Hostels! I shall have bed bugs waiting for me instead of thoughtful swans made of towels,” the tears start rolling down in earnest.
“You’ll just have to live in the hallway and boil the hell out of your clothes when you return,” she chortled.
Since she seemed a tad too eager to quarantine me, I retired to having Nutella straight from the jar and confided my fears to Google and asked for solutions. Turned out that hostels are not necessarily the dirty and unsafe dens of bed bugs that I had in mind – the trick is to read the reviews and know what you are looking for.
“Oh, I can do that!” I told the husband later in the day, “After all, you get all sorts of hotels as well and I make all our reservations and am pro at research and poring over reviews. I even read that one can have private rooms.”

“But don’t people backpack so that they can meet other travelers ?” he quizzed, “and if you are whining so much, remind me again why did you apply for the opportunity?”
“Hmmm..,” I gave it some thought, “because I am hoping to discover a side of India that is less air-conditioned comfort and rigid itineraries. Some of my best travel experiences have been due to sheer serendipity and this will be my attempt to ‘cast away the bowlines.’ And while I can never entirely let go of planning, there must exist a happy medium that I wish to find.”
“You mean that too much comfort keeps you from stepping out of your comfort zone.”
“Exactly! Perhaps I will also gain a deeper appreciation of savoring the present rather than being overly focused on recording it for posterity. That means more travel journaling and fewer selfies!’ with that happy declaration, I skipped my way back to the Nutella jar and to google ‘how to backpack.’

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ” ― Lin Yutang

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