Empathic Travel, Impromptu India and the Long Getting-There



We are 8.5 hours around the side of the big world, all of us together. This aisle seat man and his cousin back there behind us somewhere. I try to guess which one is his cousin when I get up for my fifth trip to the bathroom (I warned him I would pee a lot).


I am flying to Hong Kong, where I’ll transfer to another flight to Bangkok, where I’ll transfer to another flight to Bangalore, where I’ll walk out of the airport into the light of an unrecognizable day and get on a bus to Mysore. Where I’ll take a taxi or a rickshaw to a hostel, where I expect I’ll drop the weight of my body onto the bunk of a bed, nearly dead with lack of the things 40+ hours of travel will necessarily deprive me of. Sleep, movement, a sense of time.


From where, after two days in Mysore, a taxi will collect me and my backpacks and carry me to a month-long 300 hour advanced yoga teacher training at a permaculture eco ashram / ayurveda center.

For now I am beginning the first part, a 14 hour flight. There are bodies all around me, the plane almost full, a packed tube of closed windows as we fly over Alaska and simulate night, simulate which time zone I don’t know. I am already wondering What Is Time.


I know in my body it’s 11:30 a.m., but the flight attendant gave me the glass of wine I requested (simulating night) and said “Have a good rest,” so I try to sleep, can’t, turn on my light, scroll through the movies, breathe, think: We are all just sacks of rivers feeling things (not a new thought), feeling the rivers pulsing and changing all directions.


I am in the middle seat because I forgot to be a savvy traveler and did not ask at the counter before bording for an aisle option. I was, however, savvy enough to request a special meal 24+ hours before departure, a thing I had only jealously witnessed the results of in the past (neighbor gets tasty salmon meal, I get dry ravioli en route to Europe circa 2010, repeat other years over the same seas with different neighbors). Today/tonight (yesterday? tomorrow?) I am the one with the salmon, refusing eye contact with my aisle neighbor who sneaks glances as he waits for the Everybody Else cart to come down the aisle with his ravioli.


Window seat woman is a Yugoslavia-born actor who touched my arm when I sat down and said “The universe works in mysterious ways, want to explore Hong Kong with me!? I have an 18 hour layover let’s go explore I looked it up we don’t need visas great ok!” I checked my flight details and showed her proof that mine was only two hours, too bad so sad. We didn’t talk for the rest of the trip except to agree that our hips hurt.


On my part I am thinking about: deciphering this thing I do, this travel. My uneasiness every time I start out to do it, that pushing myself toward discomfort. I want it to be different from tourism and wonder at the sameness of impact, at my ability to fool myself into narratives of You’re Special. I’m still not invited, but by the time I leave I am invited back, does that count? Sacks of feelings-rivers, we. I didn’t bring enough snacks, have eaten all my carrots.


The window seat woman is eating brown gruel from a tupperware. It smells like sesame oil. Salmon not lasting, I am hungry or am I bored, should I just watch another movie. To the aisle man’s credit, he has yet to spread his legs. He lets me have the armrest.


By the time we land in Hong Kong the widow seat woman has forgotten the excitement of exploration, is mumbling about trying to catch an earlier flight. Hong Kong airport: Am I a zombie yet? I feel surprisingly alert, though I haven’t tried speaking more than a few sentences.


They have a separate room for water filters in this airport, buttons for hot or tepid or cold water. I fill up my tea bottle, screw on the top and shove it in the side pocket of my under-stuffed but still heavy 65L hiking backpack. I find a spot on the carpet where I can sleep without waking up to foot traffic. I drop my bag and the tea mug pops open, dumping all but a few sips on the blue green carpet. I sit still beside the wet and watch it steam while I drink the remaining tea. I move my bags to another sleep spot, cover my eyes, put in my ear plugs, set an alarm on my phone, and find some dreamless sleep.


Flight two, Hong Kong to Bangkok: I talk to new window seat neighbor, a Thai woman who lives in LA and is coming back to see her dying aunt. Her family is pleading that she hurry, as if she can. The aunt could leave her body at any moment.


The woman worked as a casino dealer in LA until she tripped over a vacuum cleaner and broke her ankle. She showed me the scar, a red gash on both sides. She tells me about the surgeries, about suing the casino and hoping for a decent settlement. They might move to Florida or Virginia soon, she tells me, her and her husband. He is interviewing for a job right now, she’ll meet him there, in London. I’m too tired and not interested enough to ask questions, like why London. She moves to an empty row and I fall asleep, curled up in both seats.


I have all kinds of new feelings and thoughts about what I am doing in this part of the world, whether or not I am as different as I want to be from all the backpackers I see getting stoked on “authentic” adventure. I am still a white body with a blue passport moving through brown spaces, and moving freely.

I like to think I am coming to learn, to change myself, to liberate some part of my heavy self so I can bring a better version back to a land of deep needs, a lost people thinking they are better for it. What will this traveling let me shake, and what of that will be the muck of a country heavy with too much self-awareness, histories of hate, an obsession with Self that makes connection feel like such a chore.


Writer and teacher and Virgin Islander Tiphanie Yanique says no one should keep from writing (and maybe, in my case, traveling) with deep empathy. This, empathy, is the factor that makes something else of movement, of storytelling. Imagination is empathy and must expand outside of ourselves. Then, when the criticism comes, which it will and should, say thank you. Say I will do better.


Can we refuse the authenticity-obsessed colonialist tourism narrative and practice something else, something rooted in empathy and a self-reflection that isn’t a shutting down? What about circumventing “authenticity” in favor of empathic engagement?


This gets to the heart of it—imagination and empathy and knowing there are blind spots and trying anyway and trying next to be better, to do better. This is your path, love. It is okay if you get heart burn. It is okay if you don’t understand every head wobble. It is okay if you look a fool, as long as you keep trying and move your moves with love and empathy. My journey is one of imagination, I think. That’s where I’ll find my freedom, or the pieces I know deep down in me are missing.


Yanique also urges us to consider how we consume and engage white vs brown/black spaces as travelers and tourists. In the former we spend days at museums, seeking art and culture. The former: beaches, bods, debauchery, outsider looking in at “the people.” Expecting a performance of their identity to satiate our white tourist camera-gaze, usually nothing but a performance, since no people could ever be so static. She suggests seeking art and culture everywhere, seeking what will break tropes and stereotypes instead of reinforce them.


Bangkok to India, now, a 4 hour final leg. Both flight attendants are asleep in the back row, curled up and shoes off. A third, Vinum, is tending to those of us still awake and needing things. He made me black tea and gave me extra fruit. I asked him his name twice before finally reading his name tag. The second time he repeated it while winking dramatically.


“What’s your name?”

“Vinom.”

“Sorry?”

“Vinom! Like, Vinom. *wink*”


Did the Thai woman’s aunt survive long enough for her to say goodbye face to face? Will she be able to live a comfortable life off the settlement she gets from the casino vaccuum incident? Will forced vegetarianism at this yoga program mean I end up a little less angry? What was this plane full of people doing in Bangkok?


I started this trip eating kale and cilantro out of a ziploc bag and giving away my bread to aisle guy who seemed hungry and willing to eat anything, still ravenous after his ravioli. But my discernment has dissolved in direct proportion to my confusion about time and reality. The “vegetable” rolls were soggy pasty tortillas holding canola oiled shreds of brown somethings—I ate most of two, leaving behind the biggest chunks of the white paste wrappings. They served us another meal, maybe dinner, of a dry brick of chicken and some broccoli. This time I ate it all. On the flight from Hong Kong I said yes to the whole plate again and ate everything, white bread, “mashed potatoes,” “dessert tofu,” the butter. I would have kept going.


Thinking again, rolling in the future and feeling a light wave of excitement in my knotted belly at what I am getting myself into. Two months of a big elsewhere, remembering what yoga is to me and learning more about what it can be. Feeling ready for lift of dense heavy cloud of my past Los Angeles year, of the self I am carrying and have not, for its weight and neediness, been able to shake. It is a last ditch effort, a plan I hatched a week ago today: half-globe relocation. A stranger in an old land.

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