The Solo Trip
written by: Medha Godbole
Ria Pillai, 23, had just finished her first year of Masters in English Literature from Mumbai University. She had a couple of months for next year to start. One day, late morning, she was lazying around, enjoying her holiday. Settled on the comfortable couch in the living room in her co-rented apartment with one of her classmates, she gave a yawn. She could not believe herself. ‘How the hell can I be so bored?’ She thought to herself, shaking her head vigorously, her optimism knowing no bounds. She had thought that it will make her boredom disappear. But her bubble of optimism lasted exactly twelve seconds as she yawned again. In desperation and frustration, she grabbed the TV remote. One of the umpteen travel channels was on. The show in progress was about backpacking enthusiasts. Ria was instantly drawn in and watched in fascination. The show traced one of the traveller’s evolution from a casual travel enthusiast to a solo travel enthusiast and an influencer. She was so deeply engrossed in watching and absorbing every bit of information shown, that she didn’t realize her classmate unlocked the main door, came in and plonked on the sofa next to her. Startled, she looked at her classmate.
“Mary! Woww! You just scared the hell out of me woman”, Ria exclaimed, hand to her heart and taking a deep breath.
“Well, what’s sooo interesting that you did not realize that someone unlocked the door, entered the house and sat next to you?”
“But it’s just you, right?” Ria quipped, rolling her eyes. Mary shrugged.
“Yes, but what if it had been a burglar, then what would you have done? Ria pretended to slap her and chuckled.
“Haha. Stop watching those thrillers and crime shows on OTTs. Your imagination seems to be at an all-time high these days.”
“Hey, no one says anything to those web series’, okay? They are my lifeline and my boyfriends. Got it?”
“Okay fine now shoo. let me watch. These people are amazing, you know, backpacking solo around the world…”
Ria’s words drifted and faded away as her attention was back on the show. By the time it was over, Ria had been completely taken in by the idea of solo travel. She wanted to experience the thrill of discovering uncharted territories, paths less trodden and to get to know cultures in myriad parts of the globe. But she had made up her mind that she wanted to go for a solo trip. Post dinner, having finished all the chores, she lay on her bed, ruminating about her solo trip. She had no idea how she was going to do it. Although she had travelled a bit within India, it had always been with family or close friends. But never alone. She was in a quandary and her thoughts were all jumbled up. Then like a flash she remembered what she had seen in the show. Destination – Yes! It was a Eureka moment for Ria.
‘How stupid! Why didn’t I think of this before?’ She reprimanded herself. She immediately started searching for top destinations for solo travellers and solo travel groups on her mobile. She drifted off into lala land soon enough.
The next two days entailed some more research. Ultimately, Ria zeroed in on a destination. She was extremely excited as she babbled it all to her classmate, Anisha one evening, over a cup of tea.
“I have decided”, Ria declared, staring at nothing in particular. She had ‘zoned’ out, as they called it. Her classmate looked at her, puzzled.
“What have you decided? Are you eloping with someone? Oh no, wait. You need to have someone to elope with. Are you absconding because the worldly things and mere mortals don’t amuse you anymore? What have you decided? Tell me “, Anisha was cut off mid-sentence.
“Ugh. Shush. Shush Tranquila, senorita. If you stop talking only then I can tell you what’s on my mind.”
Anisha nodded in affirmation and then followed it up by pretending to zip her lips.
“So, I am going for a solo trip”
This big reveal got the expected reaction.
“What? Solo trip? Umm” Then there was a pause.
Anisha continued, but now there was a hint of concern and skepticism in her tone.
“Are you sure? Have you decided on the destination? Because that matters a lot. I hope you have decided to go to a safe place.”
Rhea smiled. “Yes, don’t worry. I am planning to go to Darjeeling. The hills beckon, you see. I have been doing research and have almost figured out the logistics-what to do, how to go, what not to do, where to stay, etc., etc. So, I have got this.”
“But, again, are you sure? Because as far as I know, you haven’t gone on a solo trip ever. And from what I have seen and heard; you seem like a protected child. Have you told your parents about your grand plans?”
Anisha seemed to have gotten an attack of verbal diarrhea.
“I will talk to them as soon as I get some more details sorted. Isn’t it a rule or rather the first step that you have the business proposal ready to the minutest details and then pitch it to the financer?”
“Haha, fair enough”, Anisha smiled and gave her thumbs up. Rhea was going to say something about her plans when her phone rang. She saw mom flash on the screen. Anisha saw that and raised her eyebrows as Ria stuck her tongue out, received the call, and went out to the balcony.
In the days following her ‘big reveal’ Rea did further research and made travel and accommodation bookings. That evening, after the bookings were done, she was enjoying solitude, accompanied only by a glass of red wine and some left over pasta. Anisha had gone for a night out with her other friends. Ria was thoroughly enjoying herself when her phone buzzed. She swallowed an entire piece of pasta as she saw ‘Dad’ flicker on her mobile screen. ‘Get ready for a verbal massacre Ria Pillai’, she thought to herself. Then she took a deep breath, kept her glass on the table next to the couch and received the call.
“Are you going to Darjeeling?” Her father’s baritone boomed. He continued in his thick, Malayalam accent.
“Who is going with you? And you didn’t think of telling us about your plans?”
‘Oh darn’ Ria wasn’t happy with this. She had decided to let her parents know just earlier that day. She was not prepared for this onslaught and KGB-like grilling. She got nervous and started tapping her feet, thinking of a response.
“Appa, calm down. Yes, I am going to Darjeeling. Of course, I was going to tell you once I was done with the reservations.”
Ria then waited with bated breath, anticipating her father’s response.
“Well, thanks dear for informing us before you have actually made that trip and come back.” Mr. Pillai unleashed scathing sarcasm.
Ria didn’t know what to say in response. Just as she was about to give up and blabber some incoherent monosyllable, which would leave a lot to interpretation, her father chuckled.
“Just pulling your leg. When have I ever imposed any restrictions on you? Haven’t I always given you freedom and space? So go, have fun. Just be careful and be safe. Oh, and who is going with you?”
Now, this was the part Ria hadn’t rehearsed for. She was stumped for a few seconds, and she bit her lip. Ultimately, she mustered the courage and almost spilled the words.
“Nobody, I mean, no one is coming with me.” Ria came to an abrupt halt with a stutter.
“Stop, stop, what? Solo? No. Ille. Not happening.”
The daughter squirmed in her spot on the couch as the father continued.
“You are not going. Seri? Do you realize the kind of risks and uncertainties you would be exposing yourself to?”
“But dad, it’s fine. There are so many people….”
Ria was cut off midway by her otherwise pretty chilled out Appa.
“No, once again. Look Ria, our culture is still to come to terms completely with such a thing. You have to be extremely self-assured and confident to do that. Then there’s the safety issue as well. So, considering everything, it is a no.”
Ria’s feeble attempts at protesting were squashed as her “But Appa” was met with the tone of the call being disconnected. She threw her phone lightly on the couch and buried her face in her palms in exasperation. She had known that there would be disagreement but this unilateral, all-encompassing ‘no’ was unprecedented. She was pretty sure that her Amma would have no problem. She sat like that with all these thoughts for a while. She would have lingered around a while longer but for Anisha’s call.
“Hey, pardner. What’s happening? Join me and a couple of my friends for dinner? Please come. I want to set you up with someone.”
“Haha, So kind of you,” Ria exclaimed dryly.
“Oh, come on yaar, please. We hardly step out. Now don’t be too pricey Miss Pillai, okay? Put on a gorgeous dress and get out. We are at this café at the corner of the lane. Waiting. Okay?”
There was a silence as Ria considered the proposition. She had to take her mind off her father’s resounding ‘no’.
“Okay, Okay! Be there in a bit.”
Ria smiled to herself as she hung up.
The stalemate continued for a few days and Ria was miserable. There was no way truce could be declared any time soon. She didn’t know how to convince her father to allow her to go for the trip. The bookings were done too. One day, finally, in utter helplessness and desperation, she called her mother; ‘Amma’ as she called her. She tried to explain to her how important it was for her to go. It would do a world of good to her confidence.
“But beta Appa? He said no, right? How are you going to change his mind even if I give permission?” Amma surmised. Ria lost it this time, her nostrils flaring.
“Why is Appa behaving like this? You guys have always encouraged me and let me make my own decisions. Then why now? Is it because I am a girl?”
There was an awkward silence for a few seconds after her outburst.
Amma broke the silence.
“We will talk later. I will speak to him. Now I have to be the reluctant mediator between you two.”
Click. The call was disconnected. Ria stared at the phone in disbelief and then kept it aside. She was sitting in the balcony, and it was around dusk. She thought about everything she could say to Appa. She saw a flock of birds flying in a perfect symmetrical formation which looked like the letter ‘V’, on the background of a brilliant blue sky.
The following day, she was sitting in front of her Appa in Pune, in the living room of their spacious 3-bedroom apartment. Ria’s lips were drawn in a pout, and she was sulking. She was waiting for him to say something, but he didn’t. Finally, she got up and lightly threw a pillow with handcrafted embroidered cover on the couch.
“What? What are you doing? Are you 15 to be throwing tantrums? Grow up! Throwing stuff around isn’t going to convince me to you go.”
“Appa come on! Why on earth? Because I am a girl? Do you think I won’t be able to take care of myself? What is it?” Ria’s tone went a notch higher than usual.
Her father looked at her in a way that implied, “Whatever, you are not going.”
Ria threw her hands in the air, rolled her eyes, and almost stormed out of the room. Appa sat there, rubbing his head, and tracing his daughter’s footsteps. He felt he couldn’t catch up with her. But he was fine being a villain as far as she was safe. Amma came in just as his brain went into an over drive with all these thoughts. He looked at her, his brow furrowed, a glint of concern in his eyes.
“Let her go, she will handle it. Please.” Amma had ultimately expressed her take on the situation.
Appa’s expression changed from that of concern to determination as he nodded in disapproval and left. The next day, Ria booked a bus ticket back to Bombay for the day after. She had done whatever she could. She had talked to him on the phone and in person. She had given him umpteen examples of people travelling solo all the time, girls taking enough precautions, and so on. But it had been futile. So, she decided to go back to Mumbai. She wasn’t happy about it but had no choice. She lay on her bed, wide awake, the night before she had to go back to Mumbai. Hardly being able to sleep, she finally got up. Her smooth and wavy tresses partially covered her face when she did that. She tucked them up in a neat bun and got ready. She went out and into the kitchen to help her mother for preparing for breakfast. She came out with a couple of plates and a cup of tea for herself. Appa was reading the newspaper as usual with a cup of coffee in front of him. Amma followed soon and sat next to him. Amma started applying butter all too carefully to her toast. Eating in proportion and eating right in tandem with regular yoga and walking was the reason why she was fit and had good stamina at her age. Appa gave Ria a tentative glance as he kept his paper aside for a second to take a sip of coffee. She tried not to look at him and pretended to butter her toast. Halfway, she kept it down and cleared her throat. No one paid attention. Then she did it again.
“Warm water gargles will help soothe your throat. Consider that.” Appa interjected from behind the newspaper.
“Appa!” Ria exclaimed, as irritation exuded from her tone.
“Look, I know you might be worried or whatever, but I need to go. I don’t want to waste your money. Moreover, I want to experience things on my own, learn to navigate through tricky life situations and gain confidence with every such incidence. So please, I am asking you one last time to let me go. Not that I wouldn’t go even if you didn’t. I will, but trust me, I will not be happy. I will have that niggling feeling of regret that I did something you didn’t approve of. So, can I go?”
Appa was speechless for a few seconds. He looked straight in his daughter’s eyes. Then he withdrew. He got up and started walking away.
“I will be late tonight for dinner. Please don’t wait for me” Appa’s voice trailed behind him as he went in. The rest of the breakfast was completed in silence. Rian took the plates and leftovers in the kitchen and washed the dishes. That done, she went to her room, took her backpack, and then went out to the living room. Amma was still sitting at the dining table, forlorn. Her plate was not completely empty. There was still some food left on it. Ria sat down, next to her, on the floor. She gently kept her hand on hers.
“Amma, look at me.”
Her mother turned to look at her. Her eyes were sad.
It’s no big deal. It’s okay. Really”, Ria continued.
“He won’t be like this forever. You know how he is, right? Aaah, he will come around. He is right from his perspective, and I am from mine. So, I am going to go, take that trip.”
“You are right, he is right, but you are in diametrically opposite directions. What am I supposed to do with this impasse? I am crushed in between, indirectly having to make a choice. Is it fair? No! it’s not.”
Amma’s voice trembled a bit. She looked at Ria and then composed herself.
“Anyway, seri. You be safe and take care of yourself.” Amma tapped her cheek lightly. Ria kissed her palm. She got up, took her bag let out a deep sigh as Amma looked at her again and went in. Ria looked at the passage, the living room, and towards the balcony for a moment and then got out of the house, closing the door behind her. Amma heard the faint click of the latch and dabbed a solitary tear lightly with the back of her finger.
The date of departure for Ria’s trip was approaching fast. Initially, she was crystal clear that she would go despite her father’s disapproval. But as the day came close, she got skeptical. Her calls to her parents continued as usual. With Appa the conversation was a bit awkward. And they never discussed travelling or something even remotely close to that. Amma didn’t say much, and she had no stake in it. Days went by and it was just two days before Ria had to leave for Darjeeling. She had gone out in the morning, a little late, to get information about a course. When she came back, she was surprised to see Anisha at home.
“Hey! When did you come back? When I came back from Pune, you were gone. If it wasn’t for your note, I would have filed a missing person!”
“Hahha. I am so sorry. My phone had conked off and when it finally came to life, i was out of my talk time so I couldn’t text you.”
She got up from the couch, all set to go to the kitchen.
“Some tea? I am going to have some.”
Ria looked like those thinking emojis for a second followed by a nod in approval. Anisha gave a thumbs up and darted in while Ria settled on the couch. She was staring at the tv screen, contemplating. She was in her zone and climbed aboard the train of thoughts. ‘Should she cancel and try again some other time? Or should she go ahead with the trip.?’ She didn’t realize how amid this introspection, she dialed Appa’s number. Just then she heard Anisha’s voice.
“There you are”, she extended her arm towards her with a cup of tea. Plonking herself next to Ria, she looked at her thoughtfully.
“What happened? Speaking to your dad proved futile, it seems from your overall mood. I couldn’t respond to your messages because I already told you why. By the time I saw them and would have responded, it was too late.”
Ria looked at her in trance. She nodded in negative and exhaled deeply.
“Nope. Appa wouldn’t budge. It was surprising, you know, his reaction. He has never treated me differently because I am a girl. That was not even in contention. He has always endeavoured to make me strong. And this IS going to do that. I just wish he understood that I can take care of myself. Why drag me to a karate class if he didn’t want me to take care of myself, take decisions on my own, and conquer challenges solely based on my intellect and capability? What was the use?”
Ria took a sip as she took a pause. Anisha listened to her patiently as she poured her heart out. The conversation was punctuated by Anisha smiling wryly intermittently and rubbing Ria’s shoulder affectionately. Ria continued.
“I don’t want to hurt or disobey him. But at some point in our lives should we depend on ourselves and live our lives our way? I mean I am not saying my parents cannot tell me what to do or whatnot. All I want is once they have expressed their opinions and concerns, leave it to us.”
Ria stopped again and took a sip, only to realize that there was no tea left in the cup. She gestured Anisha to give her a cup. She looked helpless as she took the cups and went inside. Later, before going off to bed, Anisha assured Ria that it’s alright and she should just follow her heart and go for the trip. She just gave a weak smile. Ria spent the next day packing. She had sent the details of her trip, right from her flight ticket to accommodation, et all to her parents. She was almost at peace now, having made the decision to embark on her adventure. The day passed quickly. She had an early morning flight the next day and she was all jittery as she tried to get some shut eye. Barely able to sleep the entire night, she woke up half an hour before the time she had set the alarm for. She got ready in leisure, trying not to wake Anisha up. Doing that would have meant a lifetime of being hurled taunts at by her. She shrugged and smiled to herself as she very carefully peeped into her room.
Finally, she checked her documents and luggage. She had decided to carry a small suitcase and a backpack. She sat on the sofa and closed her eyes and mentally made a list of things she needs to carry. That done, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead. It was May and it was hot even though it was early morning. She still had 14 minutes before she had to leave. It was 6 pm. Appa must be awake. Impulsively, she typed a text. ‘Take care Appa, will call you as soon as I reach and get settled.’ She noticed it wasn’t delivered. She scrunched her nose, wondering might the reason be. There could be multiple, she told herself. Shrugging the thought off, she booked a cab to the airport. She scribbled a note for Anisha while waiting for the cab. She was about to finish writing when she got a notification on her mobile that her cab is arriving in two minutes. She hastily tucked the note under the coaster on the coffee table, checked her bags and rushed out of the apartment. Ria took a deep breath as she sat in the cab, she had butterflies in her stomach. She could feel the adrenaline rush as the car was put into gear. Having reached the airport well in time, she checked the flight information board. There was still half an hour for the check in for her flight to commence. She decided to get a cup of coffee at one of the popular cafes outside the terminal. After ordering her coffee, she settled on one of the tables overlooking the numerous entry gates to the terminal. She checked her phone. Her text to Appa was still undelivered. She looked towards the terminal. The constant arrival and departure of passengers, relatives and friends of the passengers scuttling around, tearful welcomes and goodbyes. It was chaotic but there was a rhythm even in all that conundrum.
She was totally engrossed in observing the crowd when she realized her name being called out. She thought it would be her coffee. She got up from her table and craned her neck to see and it was indeed her order which was ready. Trudging to the counter, she got back to her table with her coffee. The first sip and it was just perfect. In the midst of her savouring the coffee, she heard a voice.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”, in a heavy South Indian accent.
Ria looked up to see and was flabbergasted to see that it was her father. Astonished, she cried out,
“Appa! How did you? What happened? Wait. Are you going to drag me home? What is it??”
“Oh God! Take a breather! Breathe.”
Appa smiled and gestured her to relax. Then he continued.
“I have not come to drag you back home. I have come to tell you that you have a safe journey and a fantastic trip. And you better come home as soon as you are back and tell us everything about your adventure. Also, i am sending you one of my friend’s numbers, who’s in Darjeeling. Just call him in case you need anything, okay?”
Ria was overwhelmed and could barely find words to speak. Her eyes sparkled with happiness and relief. She hugged him tightly.
“Thank you!”, but how and why did you change your mind?”, she squeaked, curious.
Appa smiled, he made her sit and did the same as he took a chair for himself.
“Well, it was you. I don’t know what happened but 2-3 days back I got a call from you, and nobody spoke. All I could hear was some ambient noise and muffled conversation. Then, I heard you talking, just as i was about to hang up. You were probably talking to Anisha. I heard what you said, and it made me change my mind. I realized my fear and apprehension is unjustified. We have brought you up to be strong and you are intelligent and are very well capable of standing your ground. Now, shall we proceed towards the terminal, or do you want to cancel?”
Appa winked at Ria playfully. She took her luggage and they proceeded towards the departures. As the automatic doors for the entry gate closed behind her, she looked back at Appa, smiling, and waving at her. Smiling back, she thought, ‘Only fathers like him can do this for their daughters.’
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