Sitting in the airport with a ticket to Brussels filled me with excitement as I ventured on a trip with 11 other people that I didn’t know, to countries that I had only read about. And then the worry struck me, what if no one comes and picks me up at the airport because I’m the first to arrive, what will the other 11 be like? What is the actual itinerary?
They all faded away as the cold hit me at Brussels airport and I started to drink it all in.
I walked out of the airport and heard someone yell my name. It was Luc who stood there waving around a paper with the 41 club logo. “You can always spot a Yapster” he beamed as I walked towards him with my bags. And that’s where it all started!
I saw Belgium through the lens of my camera, stopping every ten steps for the perfect frame to click a picture with the sole intention of making sure the memories of this trip were never lost. Walking through the streets of Brussels I found myself getting drawn to sights and sounds that weren’t on the itinerary and finally I had my chance to go and explore them all on our last day there. I walked along streets brought to life by graffiti and art. Sexuality painted over a century old building added a whole new story to the façade. LGBT pride artistically expressed a lot more than just the need to recognize the rights of a neglected section of society. It was art that made me look within and reflect upon the way I was conditioned to accept and disregard certain ways of life.
Saying that it was a culture shock would be a bit of an understatement. Oddly enough the culture shock I experienced was within the group. Living with people coming from the different corners of our country gave me grater insights into the ‘unity in diversity’ tag line that we use all so loosely without actually knowing how much it holds. The 12 of us learnt so much about the differences and similarities that we didn’t know existed only to learn so much more about who we are as a community and gearing ourselves up to better portray what India has to offer. We took pride in our differences as we told the Europeans just how much India encompassed.
To my surprise, when it came to the Europeans, I found many similarities in terms of thought and outlook that invited the response, “We thought Indians were different and traditional.”
I stayed with some of the most amazing people who opened up their home and hearts in ways that I didn’t think was possible. My first hosts Rene and Michelle in Charleroi brought love alive for us at the age of 65 and boy did I swoon when they looked lovingly at each other as they told us how they set out to build a life together.
We moved from city to city and met people who were just like us. The respect for family, cherishing one’s own history and remembering fondly where you come from and how you got there; these are the things I’ve brought back.
I found life in the art of the dead; I found beauty in the efforts of artists who set out to canonize themselves with a single stroke of a brush. Cathedral after cathedral I saw the bible come to life in so many different ways; through art, tradition, belief and respect. I found myself standing in cathedrals of Aachen and Koln overwhelmed by their grandiosity wondering how I was going to capture all the beauty with a single 18 to 55mm lens.
Walking through the cobbled stoned streets of Passau I found myself in a Woody Allen themed dream taken aback by how comfortable I felt in a tiny city that I had never heard of before. It was there that I put my camera down and decided to breathe it all in, and enjoy it in ways that a wide angle frame wouldn’t let me. It started with a beer and an unbeatable view of this beautiful city marked by the coming together of the three rivers – the Danube, Inn and Ilz. My roommate Neithra and I waited for our host to come pick us up. Sim On a young Tabler was the last to come take us home and he did it without a car. In true Indian style we had all over packed well beyond our need and Neithra and I knew that we were in for trouble.
Nevertheless, with huge suitcases and backpacks we dragged ourselves over the cobble stones of the old city of Passau with apprehension and frustration. Sim On just smiled and helped us one by one – spending six weeks in India before had prepared him for this. He took us to his studio apartment and introduced us to his wife. We huffed and puffed as we exchanged pleasantries and drank all the ‘still’ water we could. We had just made some amazing friends. Over the next three days we spent time with the young couple as they shared a little piece of their life with us – going through wedding albums, introducing them to Indian food as they brought Bavaria to the table, discussing their dreams of opening their own restaurant together, life, religion, politics and walking through the streets of Passau getting a taste of what they considered local street food; we felt like home. If there is one place I’d want to go back to, it’s this underrated city where you can turn right to find yourself looking at Czechoslovakia and turn left to Austria.
Leaving Passau to enter Austria made me tear up as I said goodbye to my new friends and with a promise to return we went on to the last leg of our tour in Austria. I was truly excited about what Austria had to offer. We had an itinerary which looked absolutely fabulous and I just couldn’t wait to see the iconic hills that are alive with the sound of music.
I found myself loving the scenery around me and this time I took it all in with my eyes and heart and kept the lens at bay. We were hosted by some wonderful people in Austria, who were warm, kind and had a skewed view of India. Breaking their stereotypes was lots of fun. I remember thinking I might as well break into the chorus of ‘Saare jahan se acha’ during one of my conversations about our vast land with all its diversities and its rate of growth and development.
That’s my biggest take away from this trip. That even though we’re living here and taking it all in, it takes a 15 hour flight across the seas and a uninformed white man to make us see and appreciate where we’re from, our history, traditions, way of life and where India as a country is heading. It made us introspect and wonder why we don’t just stop and take it in when we’re in the midst of it all.
Being encouraged to do things that I’d never have the opportunity to do and didn’t think could like cycling 11 kilometers over the hills of Austria in the pouring rain, eating a live oyster because it’s a Belgian delicacy or drinking five liters of beer in one sitting to become a true Bavarian made me fall in love with taking chances and trying out things that were out of my comfort zone. This journey was much more fulfilling and went beyond the Baroque, Roman and Medieval architecture. For me it was taking a break from the corporate rat race that I found myself getting complacent with, it was about opening my eyes to the idea of a whole other world that I had shut out in my need to get a job and give my career a head start. It made me fall in love with travel all over again, it made me find myself while being lost in a place unable to understand signs and conversations. And as I called myself a ‘writer in advertising’ to those who asked about my work, the real writer in me was inspired to capture the emotions that made the journey.
A month ago I walked into a hotel in the outskirts of Belgium and I met 11 other people I didn’t know. Some I could instantly get along with, some I was unsure about, and some I was indifferent to. We travelled to 24 cities. Initially we experienced the same things differently and then we started having moments with each other where we shared apprehensions, jokes and stories of our lives as we sat across each other in the S-Bahn. We ended up motivating, encouraging and celebrating each other. A month later I found myself leaving the same 11 with a heavy heart and plans to meet in the future. Today I have 11 friends, shared memories for a lifetime and a very active WhatsApp group called ‘YAP Europe South Tour’ that we just can’t seem to get enough of.