Wonder. One of the better human traits. It is often referred to as a child-like but it is, at its core, a mature expression of humility. Because, a sense of wonder implies that you are able to face the world at its most awe-inspiring and understand that you are less than a speck perching precariously on this mortal coil. And it means you can be comfortable with this unsettling reality. It is the enemy of boredom and cynicism. And indicates an open mind and a realisation that you don’t understand all, or even nearly all that there is to understand about this life.

But wonder is fleeting, by its very nature. It features large in the traveller’s mind-set. Though some can connect to it more than others, we all travel I think to an extent to chase and indulge in wonder. But independent, vulnerable travel, can knock the wonder out of you too.

Occasionally, I realise, I lose my sense of wonder. It’s hard to be filled with wonder when you’re bone weary. And when it goes, with it go those intimately connected facets of humanity: grace, gratitude and generosity of spirit. If I recognise it I can shut up shop for a while, disengage with life and retreat. But if I don’t I may lash out at the world. So it can be during the challenging times.

Staying the course

When I last posted from India, in Alleppey, I hadn’t realised how obvious this loss of wonder would be to others, but I believe that this is what many of you picked up on. I had many messages of concern, and comments suggesting that perhaps it was time to go home.

It’s true that we were in difficult times. We had begun to move around India alone, without the support of the network of friends we’d built there. And we were now having a different experience of the country that had, in the beginning, awed us in its novelty. But even in the difficulty, it struck me that to jump ship just because things had become harder was a little premature.

When I set out to document our travels, I set out to do it honestly. I set out to document the difficult times as well as the wondrous times. Because, above all, I wanted to illustrate, not so much the hard times themselves, but the fact that they pass and the wonder returns. Throughout my life I have had a desire to avoid the pain of the hard times and recently I’ve come to realise that to do so short-changing oneself.

Because anyone can find peace and wonder at the top of a mountain in solitude, or during the good times. To find a measure of acceptance and stay connected to who I am in a bustling Indian street or when things aren’t going to plan? That’s a skill that’s worth something because I will draw on that ability again and again in the madness of life. And I only get to practice that skill by not running away when things get difficult.

Also, hanging tough through the bad times gives you something more. It’s said that in love, the flaws of the loved don’t disappear to the lover but rather they become ignorable, acceptable and worth the price. And so to develop any bond that might run deeper than superficial you must face the flaws of a person or place and ask yourself whether you can stand them.

So it was with us. We’d had a rough transition from Bangalore through Kochin to Alleppey. We’d toyed with the idea of leaving before our time was up and when we arrived in Kovalam to another tourist town we raised the possibility again, but something told me it was too much like running away.

But with nowhere to go we needed a strategy to improve our experience. We had 10 days to assess what had been working for us so far and what hadn’t. We accepted that we would eat westernised Indian food and pay well over the odds for it. We ditched our cynicism about the motives of restaurant- and shop-owners and readily found people keen to chat just for the sake of it. We walked the beach at sunset and I used the time to consume the many books I’d hoped to read whilst travelling. We had chance to replenish our energy and we realised that even in a tourist town, it’s possible to have an authentic experience if you want to. All it took was to not throw the baby out with the bath water. The wonder might have gone, but with work and rest I found I could hang on to the grace and stay open to the possibilities. And with that knowledge, the wonder and connection found its way back in.

Kovalam Beach

At first he was just a face in the sea of shopkeepers that we passed every day in the charming maze of alleyways we walked to breakfast and dinner from our homestay to Kovalam beach. He would ask us to come in. We would say maybe next time and would keep walking. We were still stuck in the closed mind set of weariness.

And then on the third day, we had rested enough to emerge a little from our shells. We had time and something about his smile and the look on his face told me that maybe we should stay a while. Also, it was a chance to speak to someone local and, by this time in this tourist trap, we were missing that a little.
“Why not?” I said, smiling, as he enquired on this day.

His shop was like an Aladdin’s cave, filled with ornate beauty in as many forms as you can name: carved, sculpted, worked, jewelled, painted and embroidered onto and into fabrics, wood, metal, stones, beads and paper. Though at first I didn’t really glance around. He sat us at his counter, switched on the fan and brought us each a cup of tea. A part of me waited for the selling to begin.

He told us his name and asked where we were from and what we were doing here. We told him a little of our story. For some reason, we told a little more than we usually would have straight off the bat. He was that rare combination of listener and talker and we fell easily into topics that we usually wouldn’t broach with a stranger.
He told us stories of another traveller he’d met – John – many years ago who Mickey and his beard put him in mind of. He told us, John had stayed with his brother for a couple of months in the end and after that they had lost contact. At a couple of points he lapsed into silence with a faraway look in misted eyes. There was a deep sense of sadness that twisted my stomach. But I daren’t ask after it, so grave and private it seemed. “In his own time, if he wishes to” I thought. We spoke of life, how fleeting it was and how important it was to focus on the things that gave meaning.

At one point, my eyes moistened threatening to brim over, as I recounted a story. I forget the story now but I remember that I can usually tell it without connecting to the pain beneath it. Something in his manner was resonating with and enhancing the pain of my memory. I remember thinking it strange but I‘ve learnt a measure of acceptance towards my emotions and thought it had gone unnoticed by him.

He discovered that it was Mickey’s birthday and insisted on giving a little something from the shop, first to Mickey and then me. A friendship bracelet each. We still wear them now. He told us a poor woman made them and she came by from time to time. When she did he bought them all from her.

He spoke easily about the development of the coastal town that had taken place in the three decades since he’d moved from Kashmir. I asked which he preferred and he smiled benignly, without bitterness “oh before, of course” he replied. “Now, there are buildings everywhere. And no-one has time, it is all rushing and everyone seems unhappy”. On discovering our preference for underdeveloped, non-touristy areas and our interest in the culture, he told us of places to go if we wanted to see normal life away from the tourist trail.

As the conversation drew to a close I began in earnest to admire the items in his shop. I found a few gifts, beautiful pieces at a reasonable price. We left with a promise to return, not only for more tea and conversation but to bring the money he’d allowed us to owe him on the goods we’d chosen.

That afternoon, a few hours and an ATM visit later, we returned to his shop. We concluded business and again we sat down to drink tea. In conversation this time, we discovered the source of the pain we’d detected. The sudden and devastating loss of his cherished elder brother, only a few weeks before. On the day that this year began afresh he and his family were suddenly left to face it with a piece of them missing.

He invited us to his house for dinner and the following day we fixed a date and spoke by phone to introduce ourselves to his wife and daughter, who was visiting from Kashmir.

We returned to his shop the following day and the day after for more conversation and tea. His shop became not just a welcome haven from the heat and the tourism of Kovalam, but a place for good conversation and friendship. He brought from home some medicinal cream to help Mickey’s back, which was grumbling about the lumpy bed in our homestay.

Our conversations, meandered like the back streets of Kovalam, with no particular goal or direction through topics and areas as wide and diverse as life itself. He bemoaned the fact that too many now had no time for things without explicit aim. I came to realise with a little wonder that perhaps we were all looking for the same thing at that point in time and the world had brought us together.

On Monday evening we got into the auto he’d arranged for us and were taken to his house. We arrived at the gate and stepped through the threshold leaving our shoes outside. His wife and mother each stepped up to take our hands for a moment. As each woman held my hand, first one then the other, they held my eyes with theirs too for a moment and in them I could see genuine welcome. Grace, gratitude and wonder were all very much alive in that moment and all trace of the self-consciousness I usually feel in a stranger’s house evaporated.
We were seated on the floor, in the attractive room, minimally furnished to my western eye but amply furnished still. We sat upon the beautiful north Indian rug which stretched from wall to wall, reclining against prettily upholstered cushions of varying sizes and shapes set against the walls.

We passed the most pleasant evening I can remember filled with easy conversation and delicious food shared. All of his family shared his conversational gift and we chatted freely. His wife had a gentle teasing sense of humour and she asked straight questions without inhibition. She had an unaffected way that spoke of comfort with who she was and her laugh was rich and kind and gave the impression of being well-used. It was apparent that her knees were paining her greatly but she was a formidable force of personality nonetheless. As we left though, the humour subsided temporarily and she became a little grave as she hugged me and asked “when will you come to Kashmir” with a note of urgency I didn’t understand. She teased me about wanting to establish a non-profit. “Why no profit?” she laughed “you can give the profit to me if it’s a trouble”.

His daughter spoke perfect English and exuded a wonderful calming air of kindness. I liked her greatly, feeling a kinship of sisterhood and the usual pull of curiosity that I do when I meet rare souls like this. As we left and we went to kiss the air beside the other’s cheek we both went the same way. This usually awkward event was laughed off easily and not thought of twice, until now.

I noted during the evening how she would come and sit close to her grandmother, almost touching and her father did the same from time to time. It was clear the older woman grieved heavily. And I took further heart to be in the company of these people. Many think words are necessary in the face of grief and understandably find themselves at a loss. For what is there to say about another’s distress or when faced with the inexplicable void of death that is of real use? Quiet, physical closeness is the ultimate comfort and I felt glad to be in the company of people who recognised this.

His mother spoke no English, and for this I was glad. Not because I had no wish to converse with her but because it forced me also to rely on more physical forms of communication, a hand squeezed on seeing tears and later, in thanks. Or eye contact held. We often overlook these modes in our language driven exchanges but they are the simplest and most direct means of communicating sincerity, care and a sense of who we are in our interactions.
We drank deliciously delicate green cardamom tea and shared an exquisite meal. The food was complex, rich and well spiced, with mutton, chicken and fish on offer with salad and a huge mound of rice. I would have happily eaten it all but for my stomach, stretching to capacity. It was a generous spread indeed and we returned to our beds with warmed hearts, full and dozy.

He asked me on the last day of our stay in Kovalam as we sat again in his shop and said our goodbyes, why I’d cried on that first day. He said he had wanted to ask but it hadn’t seemed right. I got the sense he was nervous of asking, but that the question was important to him perhaps in understanding his own pain. I answered him as honestly as I could without really knowing the answer myself: from time to time you feel a connection with another and briefly, you touch their pain and relate. When that happens, it can overwhelm you momentarily.

Once upon a time I would have suppressed the feeling with embarrassment and confusion, or been unable to reach the pain at all. But I wonder then, in that time gone by, would our connection with this man and his family have flourished in the way that it did here and now? Sometimes, with the right kind of person, showing vulnerability is a way of building a bridge and helping people feel comfortable with their own.

Reluctantly, we left that place and those people, with firm intentions to see them again in Kashmir. I took with me a beautiful token, silently placed on my finger on that evening together, by his mother and patted affectionately to affirm its new home, which it hasn’t left since.

I began to protest it wasn’t necessary but stopped, stuck between not wanting to prevail upon the generosity of the family further and not wanting to deny the gift she was giving. A part of me suspected we’d brought hope and distraction that was of value to them in this time, just as I knew the nurturing warmth they’d gifted us with their welcome and friendship. I relented easily, neither wanting to offend now refuse the reminder I now carry that has come to symbolise for me all the people in the world I am connected to. Those to whom I owe something and those I am yet to owe.

For when my heart grows cold and the wonder is lost, as it will be again, and I forget the amazing journey I am on, I now need only glance down at my finger and be reminded of why I’m here and how to keep going.