Starting out, I thought I knew what I was doing.
Sitting alone on a bench at 9:30pm at the Grant Avenue train station in Brooklyn with a 25lb backpack strapped on, a stroller, and a four-year old, I wasn’t sure anymore.
I looked around and there was no one else on the platform. There were no monitors to tell me how far away the train was. I held the stroller with one hand, clutched my daughter’s arm tightly with the other, and shook my right foot repeatedly in anticipation.
The train to JFK arrived in a few minutes and I rushed in. I found a seat, took off my backpack, and let out a deep breath. On the ride, this is all I could think about: What was I was trying to prove, and to whom?
Growing up, I always considered myself a traveler. ‘Travel’ always made its way onto my list of interests and things I liked to do. By way of actual travel, I used to go on family vacations with my parents, and summer holidays were spent at my brother’s house in another city.
In my head, this was enough for me. My still-developing brain easily accepted this as validation of the fact that I was indeed a traveler. In a self-congratulatory way, I proclaimed myself to be one. It was a thought I lived with, firmly etched in my mind, right through my 20s.
When I was 23, I moved to New Zealand from India as a trailing spouse. We lived in Christchurch for six years, and while there we moved around. Weekend road trips, long weekends spent in Queenstown, two trips to Auckland. Once, I visited Melbourne and spent a night in Singapore as part of a stopover on my way to India.
When we moved back home after six years of living overseas, my confidence about being the traveler-type had soared. I threw this expression around casually, sometimes in a smug sort of way. Like I knew better. Like I knew more. I had lived overseas, seen (one) other culture, and visited two other countries. This feeling was accentuated by the fact that, for the most part, people around me hadn’t moved around nearly as much as I had.
Two years later, I moved to the States, again following my husband.
As I started my life here, something began to change. It’s hard to point out exactly when it happened. It might have been all those travel blogs I started reading or the stories of all the fellow students I met in the travel writing course I took, but it wasn’t long before I began to realize where I actually stood when it came to travel and traveling. I realized, rather painfully, that I didn’t stand anywhere at all.
Here were all these people traveling the world, living and working their way through countries, spending time on the road. People who had made travel their life and their means of livelihood. People who were on the move constantly. Of the ones who weren’t, they had been at some point, coming home with stories and experiences to share.
More than anything else, these were people for whom travel formed an integral part of their lives. It was something they lived by. Something they lived for. They were travelers, and I fell short, terribly.
I hadn’t ever initiated a trip by myself. While I had lived in two other countries apart from India, I personally had nothing to do with either of those moves. More than that, while living overseas, I had never understood the importance of what I had, never taken a keen interest in appreciating the culture or the environment. I had experienced the places I had been to in a very superficial way.
And then there were other questions — had I missed the boat? I was 32 already. I hadn’t even been on a solo trip yet. How would I do it now? Was it too late? Suddenly, I wanted to go backpacking around the world. But I couldn’t just abandon everything and start traveling. I had a child to take care of.
These were questions that stayed with me. On certain days, I’d argue with myself. I didn’t need to fit into a mold. It didn’t matter what other people were doing. But the truth was, the comparison with others was not so much a literal one as it was a frame of reference for the perspective I was gaining about myself.
I knew I hadn’t been true to myself. I’d been arrogant and unaware. There was no denying the fact that I loved travel but hadn’t done enough to validate that love. Calling myself a traveler just didn’t seem right anymore.
In an attempt to salvage some part of my lost identity, I decided to take a trip alone. Because I couldn’t leave her behind, my daughter came with me. I had a set agenda for the week that I was going to spend in New York. I was going to Couchsurf, I would travel only by subway, eat from the street, walk everywhere…in other words, I would do what I believed a traveler would do. I would “rough it.”
Everything went per plan. On the day I was to leave, sticking to my traveler philosophy, I decided to take the train to the airport. I’d done the same when I’d landed and it was fine. Except this time, I got on the wrong train, it was nighttime, my luggage was heavier, and at one point I found myself on a deserted train platform with no one else in sight.
I was nervous and scared. More than I had ever been in my entire life.
But I made it home safely. After I got back, I thought about that moment often. I’ve wondered whether I was too harsh on myself. Maybe I was just a different type of traveler — one who didn’t travel too much. What was true was that when I did, I loved it. Nothing made me happier.
Life as it stands right now doesn’t give me the liberty to move around a lot. The time and opportunities I’ve missed cannot be brought back. This I have accepted. There are times, however, when it’s hard not to compare. There are times when self-doubt comes easily, to look around and see the things people are doing, the places they are going.
I try and remember that it’s not over. The greatest thing about travel is it doesn’t restrict by age, time, or anything else. For all the people who’ve traveled the world at 25, I know now there are those who’ve done it at 60.
The question of whether I am a traveler or not remains unanswered. However, the realization that this is not the end is liberating.