Saturday, February 13, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

There are so many things you promise yourself as a kid or adolescent. Many of them are very transient, laughable even. I, for example, wanted to go for a dig in Mohen-jo-daro (Dil Bole Harappa!), which emerged as a combination of a history lesson and the lead male character of If Tomorrow Comes (a con-man who wanted to be an archaeologist). Of course, the element of fantasy is so strong in these dreams that you are almost sure that they will never happen. You feel a little relieved even!
Another fantasy involved Tintin, Prisoners of the Sun to be precise. Somehow, the llamas of South America looked even more alluring than the horses of the Wild West. But of course, no one could go there, right?
Well, when I heard that an ex-colleague is actually quitting her job and going off to Lat Am, my first thought was a very chauvinistic one - "Her husband must have got transferred". Apparently not.

Aparna Shekhar Roy was your friendly neighbourhood marketing executive - selling oil, hanging around in Bandra and attending Capoeira classes. One fine May morning, she put in her papers, served out her notice period and took off. Just like that.
These streaks of insanity intrigue me a lot. So when she was back and I met her professionally, I promised to ask her a lot of questions on why she did what she did. I mean, here I have my sister getting badgered by my mother to have a baby and there you have another woman zipping off to Brazil? Without her husband? Gasp!
This post is a result of a virtual interview with her to figure out why this Tam girl (married to a Bong) did what she did.
Writing about a South Indian girl in South America, I briefly toyed with the idea of calling this post 'Idli and Samba'. Hyuk Hyuk. Not only would it have been inaccurate, it would have scared my serious readers away as well. But, ho ho, what a title, hee hee!

When you are making the 50th Monthly Operations Review presentation and the slides start looking exactly like the 49th's, that is as good a reason as any to spend 211 days in South America. Aparna did just that.
When she realised that her Capoeira classes every evening was what she was most looking forward to - almost like a mini visit to Brazil, she took the plunge, encashed her Provident Fund and left.
Well, it wasn't that easy. She had to scout for the cheapest air tickets, apply for visas (7 countries!), hunt for sponsorships (which yielded a laptop to blog from) and make friends on internet communities to shack up with in Lat Am. But those were the boring parts!
The funny part was how her pantheon of South Indian maamis advised her to carry tamarind paste, coconut chutney (slurp - good idea!), asked her to wear little diamond earrings (bad idea), enquired about her child-bearing plans (while on a back-packing trip? Well, why not? She could've named him Che!) and even offered to pack a coffee filter and some gunpowder.
Her husband assured that he would still be in the same house when she returned (another Maami fear allayed!) and her mom felt it was a neat idea as well. She herself needed a whole lot of convincing since leaving a comfortable job wasn't easy. But once she coined a cool acronym for herself (NINJA - No Income No Job Aparna), she was good to go.
Incidentally, her blog is called Backpacking Ninja.

The trip - in itself - could be a book or two.
Flights. Trains. Buses. Trains. Jeeps. Boats. And even a piggyback ride. Literally.
Some of it was partially planned. Like meeting a Capoeira maestro and trekking upto Machu Picchu. Some of it was meant to have a streak of madness - again literally, when she ran naked on the salt deserts of Bolivia feeling insignificant in the vast expanse of whiteness all around her.
Here was a girl who was going to South America all alone. And her biggest fear was not if she could get mugged or if guys would hit on her. Her biggest fear was that she may end up disliking travelling, having to do it for such a long time!
Armed with her Latina looks and martial arts training, she did the rounds of 7 countries and came back. And no, she did not miss India at all except for occasional bouts Butter Chicken craving. (Moti Mahal zindabaad!) It probably helped that her husband joined her for a short while but Aparna is not admitting any of that!

What I found completely mindblowing about the trip that it managed to put a million socio-cultural nuggets in one big hold-all experience. So many things I had only read in geography books, seen in the movies and wondered if they really existed suddenly started appearing in Aparna's Facebook albums (93 of them, at last count)!
A football match in Brazil. Lake Titicaca. Che Guevera's birthplace. Atacama Desert. Easter Island. The Rio Carnaval. Bolivian salt deserts. Copacabana beach. A sunrise at Machu Picchu.
When she mailed me her itinerary, I was most tickled to find names that I had only seen in Professor Shonku novels earlier!

168 cities in 23 countries and I would've curled up with my grandchildren to tell them stories to last a lifetime. Actually, with my 56 months of sales experience, I am ready even now.
But not Aparna. She seems to be planning a few more trails already. One through the Middle East covering Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran. And maybe going back to the two extremes of South America (which she missed this time) covering the Amazonian and Patagonian regions. Whew!
Tintin fans will remember Captain Haddock calling the Inca costume a 'Patagonian Petticoat'!

One of the surest signs of middle age is when you stop dreaming for yourself. Watching 21 on HBO the other day, I was no longer interested in robbing a Vegas casino. I just hoped my son would do it some day.
If I had a few less greys in my hair, I would have toyed with the idea of doing a backpacking trip like Aparna. But I have taken too many cholesterol tests and paid too many insurance premiums to even dream of becoming like her when I grow up.
But I do hope my son becomes something like that.

Aparna returned from this trip 9 months back. I mailed her the questions some 6 months after that and she responded about a month ago. But this delayed piece seems to have coincided beautifully with a more public acknowledgment of her exploits.
Titan (as a part of their campaign called 'Be More Everyday') has identified Aparna and 5 other people, who have gone beyond their daily lives to do something 'more'. If you liked this post, do hop over to the Titan website and vote for her. It might just kindle her desire to see the Amazon.
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