There’s a story that I’ve caught myself recounting often and that’s one about Aditi and her 99-day solo journey through South America. And with each retelling, I found it unravelling more. Her own stories for Still Steeping painted a colourful picture of a Chilean once, drinking mate from a guampa in Buenos Aires, hints of Neruda… I was inspired for a few reasons, the biggest being that I am an armchair traveller and derive such vicarious pleasure from stories of journeys made. And then I met Aditi in her lovely home one afternoon. There were reminders of adventures across continents and over the years. Her fridge magnets alone traced a fascinating trail.
“I broke the bank,” Aditi said, when I asked her about the South American trip. “It was a gift to myself for my 60th year. I set out three days after my 59th birthday.” What a wonderful idea, I thought then, and many times since. The people I recount this story to are slightly jaded 20-somethings or friends who, like me, feel we are turning a corner at 40.
So while wanderlust has never been a familiar bug, I knew that Aditi had a story I just had to hear. Last week, I asked to meet her again, for tea and conversation. I want to hear about it from the beginning, I’d told Aditi. Strangely enough, the conversation began at the end.
“The day after I came back, I called my travel agent. Guess who, I shouted into the phone, although obviously she knew who was calling. There was silence on the other end. Then I heard some sniffling. Are you okay? I asked. Should I come over? Is everything alright? And she replied, ‘You silly girl! Do you know how scared I’ve been!”
Were you scared? I ask. “Of course, I was scared. I knew 4 people in the entire continent of South America. I was visiting 28 places in 7 countries!”
The names trip off her tongue lightly: Ushuaia, Salta, Mendonza, Punta Arenas, Villarica, Valparaiso, Santiago, La Paz, Titicaca, Lima, Puno, Quito, Rio de Janeiro … it’s like a song, a happy song.
“Our Baba used to play a lot of music for us on his 78 r.p.m. record player. Mozart, Beethoven, of course Rabindra sangeet. And then there was tango music. I must have been 3 or 4, but I remember wondering who these people were who made this music.”
But did you always want to go to South America? I ask, wondering if a dream such as this one has to be nurtured and fed regularly to become real. For Aditi, it was the tango, but it was also Neruda, whose love poems she discovered in her teens. “I also enjoy watching World Cup Football. Brazil has always been the first team I support – the team that plays with such joy!”
Names of people make their way into conversations – Giselle, Fabio, Constanza, Ingeborg… Aditi speaks of them fondly as one does of old friends and her memories are each a little nugget – painted in the colors of the Amazonian rainforest, warmed by the encounters. My questions only rein it in a bit. So, who were these 4 people you knew, I ask.
Numbers 1 and 2 were illustrators who worked on her fantasy-adventure novel for children, The Secret of the Rainbow Phoenix. Constanza and Diego, a Chilean couple, lived in Bangalore for a while when this commission came their way. And of course, Aditi had them over for lunch one afternoon and dessert was homemade tres leches. A cake so popular in South America that Constanza was thrilled to eat it here.
“I made tres leches for every family I stayed with in South America,” says Aditi. She Couchsurfed – economical but also best enjoyed by someone who insists that travel for her is all about meeting people and making friends.
In Chile, she met Constanza and Diego – who had since returned home – and she stayed with their aunt, Ana. The others she knew were a journalist from El Salvador she’d met 15 years earlier in Sweden – who she visited on this trip – and Carol, a children’s writer from Ecuador she’d corresponded with, and whose daughter Cristina she’d met in Bangalore.
But the journey itself boggles my mind – why 99 days and how does one plan a 99-day itinerary?! “I flew out three days after my 59th birthday and returned before my Ma’s 82nd. It was my travel agent who pointed out that it covered 99 days. That was a happy coincidence.”
Of course there were naysayers, who said how will you go so far and alone. But there was also a lot of goodwill, she insists. “My Baba loved to travel. Ma on the other hand didn’t enjoy it that much. I called Ma – she was 81 then – to tell her about the plan. Her response energised me, ‘Go. No one from our family has travelled that far,’ she said. When I went to meet my bank manager for letters to support my visa applications, she was enchanted. Not only did she give me the letters but added her personal number as the emergency contact on the papers.”
It was third time lucky with the travel agent who took one look at the list of countries, pulled out a map and started plotting. There would be 22 flights to take within South America. But that wasn’t the only mode of travel. Aditi would make her way through the continent not just by air but also by road. I was travelling on a budget, says Aditi, and sometimes the cheaper option was necessary. From Ushuaia in Argentina to Punta Arenas in Chile, for instance, it would be a 36 hour bus ride. Constanza and Diego had assured her that buses were safe and reliable.
Next came the visas for each country but with an able travel agent, her passport came back stamped and ready. Aditi’s first stop was Buenos Aires. Over 28 Couchsurfing hosts had responded to her online request. She chose to stay with 32-year-old Magali, her sister, their parents, 4 dogs and 3 cats.
“I arrived at Buenos Aires at 9.30 p.m. and Magali was there to pick me up. I was moved to find that she had given up her room for me. A dinner of roast chicken and salad was waiting for me. In the morning, Analia – Magali’s mother – held out a calabash with a steel straw. Mate? she asked.”
South America, it seems, had been waiting to welcome Aditi too.
“One of the magical things about journeys I make is I often come back with new friends,” she says.
And sure enough, the stories are about the people as much as about seeing places. We don’t talk about Machu Picchu but rather that Aditi met her father’s best friend’s daughter who lived in Atlanta and flew down to catch up. “We spent 9 days together in Peru.”
When we talk about visiting Neruda’s homes, we also talk about her host in Valparaiso – Ingeborg, a textile designer and another Neruda fan – “She had a line from his poem tattooed on her arm.”
And so the connections were made everywhere she went. On the flight from Chile to El Alto airport in Bolivia, which is 4000 metres above sea level, she struck up a conversation with her neighbour, a man with very long legs. “Are you ready for Bolivia?” he asked. On his advice, she bought some Sorochi pills from a local pharmacy in La Paz. “I was already a bit woozy from the altitude. I took the pills and rested that night. I felt fine by the next morning. ” Be friendly with co-passengers, I scribble. But there’s that part of me that’s more suspicious than trusting. Was it all happy and pleasant, I need to know. And Aditi tells me another story – of setting out to see Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side. “A young girl began to shadow me. As I neared the plaza, a guy in what looked like a faux uniform came up and asked for my passport. Months before, I had read in my Lonely Planet guide about a Bolivian scam in which local people teamed up to rob tourists. I started yelling – Chor! Thief! And they bolted. I sat down on the kerb, took deep breaths to calm down. I returned to the youth hostel on wobbly legs, drank some coffee, and felt better.”
Of course, I nod. I have decided that there’s a streak of toughness to this petite woman across the table from me, and a great belief in humanity, so great that a cup of coffee could soothe her after a near mugging. As we pause to eat, she’s already smiling at the kid at the next table and on any other day, they’d have left the cafe as friends, I think as I take in the scene.
I ask if she was homesick on the trip. “No, not homesick. My brother had opened a Facebook account and I would post updates with images on my profile as often as I could. In Patagonia, I called Ma to tell her I had visited the Perito Moreno glacier. And she seemed so excited – ‘I”ve never seen a glacier,’ she said.”
As I write this, I visit her Facebook page and search for old photos. They are there, a few, not too many but I find faces to names I’ve heard over tea. There are messages of “We miss you, Aditi” and her response to one sums it up for me – “You are Buenos Aires for me,” she’s written.
What about the tango? Did you get to check that off, I want to know.
“On my first day in South America, I watched couples tango in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. It’s sensuous, wonderful, sexy.”
And football? “At the end of my trip, I was in Sao Paolo, at the home of Giselle and Fabio. Is it possible to watch Brazilian football on Brazilian soil, I asked. After Sunday lunch at Fabio’s mother’s house, they said, Come with us. We are going to watch a football match. Giselle wasn’t even a football fan, so I was very touched. On one side was the popular Corinthian team, supported by raucous fans in black and white. Their side includes some Brazilian national team players. Fabio’s family can’t stand them (they root for the Palmeiras team), so we supported the underdogs, the Portuguesa, in green, red and white. The energy on and off the field was unbelievable… Our team lost badly.”
Fabio and Giselle were the last of her Couchsurfing hosts. She would fly out to India from their home. “After our last dinner together, I asked if Fabio could help me to book a cab to Sao Paulo airport. But they insisted on dropping me. At 2.30 a.m., we were hugging at the airport. All of us were crying because we had become such good friends.”
We pause as she remembers that moment, and says, “Neruda’s homes were important, but the people I met were even more so.”
Three days before her Ma’s birthday, Aditi landed in Bangalore, at 3.30 in the morning. While her neighbourhood was still asleep, Aditi took a cab home, walked through her front door, threw her hands in the air and greeted her home. And in my mind’s eye, I imagine that her house greeted her right back!
The featured banner shows Aditi at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the world’s largest salt desert, covering over 10,000 sq,km.