Homeward Bound

Anyone who has ever lived outside of the family home in which they grew up, whether two streets away or on the other side of the world, can say that in the search for the perfect place to live they have been looking for somewhere that recreates the feelings of comfort, familiarity, safety, and contentedness they find in the place they call home.

I was 17 when I first went through this process, in this case when I was travelling from city to city around the UK visiting universities. From Birmingham, to Liverpool, then up to Leeds and Sheffield I went, and while I could appreciate certain aspects of each city and university, I felt cold and detached from all of them – they just didn’t click with me. Finally, I travelled north to Newcastle, where the Angel of the North greeted me like an old friend, and the winding city centre streets emanated a kind of cosiness and familiarity which wrapped me up in a sense of longing to make this place my home, and, less than a year later, it became so.

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Millennium Bridge over the Tyne in Newcastle, UK

The next time I found myself experiencing the instant feeling of being at home in a new yet strangely familiar place was when I went flat hunting at the end of my first year of university. I vividly remember walking into the flat that was to be my home for the following academic year, after a long afternoon of viewing properties with my future flatmates, and grinning from ear to ear as soon as I had taken a good look at the place. I was elated, not only at the prospect of having my own real grown-up place to live for the first time (the dingy freshers’ halls didn’t count), but because I felt instantly that that little flat in Heaton – although not much less dingy than the dormitory-style student halls – was my home.

About 18 months later, I was once again searching for a place to live, this time in Coimbra, Portugal, for the second semester of my Erasmus placement year. After spending the first semester in Murcia, Spain, which I considered to be a rather grimy and gloomy city in the midst of a dry and arid landscape, it was a refreshing change to arrive in the quaint and vibrant city of Coimbra. I remember spending one of my first afternoons trudging around in the pouring rain up and down steep roads, viewing rooms for rent in apartments here, there, and everywhere. As the sky darkened and the rain continued to pour, I walked up one last hill and up to the 4th floor of an apartment building where I was greeted by a beautiful ginger tabby cat and found myself again with that comforting feeling of knowing the unknown. That cat was called Garfield, and that apartment became another one of the places I could call home.

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The view from my tiny little balcony in Coimbra

That was in February 2014. Between that time and the next time I found a home away from home, I lived in yet another student flat in Newcastle, which is memorable only for being so ludicrously cold, followed by a year spent in the rather isolated and very unexciting Catalonian town of Igualada in my first year as an EFL teacher, before relocating to the United Arab Emirates in August 2016 where I have been residing ever since. While the UAE is now the country where I have lived for the longest period time outside of the UK, over 4 years had passed until I was fortunate enough to once again find the comfort of hearth and home in a place in which I had never before set foot.

That place was Kashmir; a destination I chose rather spontaneously for my spring break getaway in March 2018 after other plans fell through and I was left with the option to either third-wheel one of the many couples in my friendship circle, or to travel solo. As I expect any normal, socially proficient member of society would have done, I opted for the latter. As for why I chose to travel to Kashmir, it wasn’t exactly a bucket-list destination at the time, but I had spent a lovely break in South Goa the previous year at a retreat run by people who also had a guest house in Srinagar, Kashmir. The package offered by the retreat took care of everything from meals to transportation, daily itineraries, activities, and in-house yoga sessions, so all I had to take care of was the visa and the plane tickets. It was ideal for a first experience of travelling solo to a completely new place.

Within 24 hours in Kashmir, not only had I met the man who is to become Mr Pardesi (as soon as we can get around the unanticipated legal obstacles), but I once again experienced the déjà vu style sensation of feeling right at home in previously uncharted territories. I will never forget how inexplicably nostalgic I felt as I breathed in the comforting smell of wood smoke in the cool, crisp air while drifting across the magnificent Dal Lake in a wooden boat, sipping chai and gazing up at the Himalayan foothills which envelop the city of Srinagar.

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Floating along in a shikara across Dal Lake, Srinagar

Thanks to the aforementioned Mr Pardesi, who is a Kashmiri native, I had the opportunity to visit Kashmir two more times in a matter of months; an extended weekend getaway in June and a longer two-week trip at the end of August. Although the natural beauty of Kashmir consistently leaves me awestruck, I actually started to feel less at home the further I ventured into remote northern areas. While it was rather thrilling to visit places that literally aren’t even on Google Maps, and imagine that I was possibly the first Brit to set foot in certain villages and valleys for a very long time, if ever, I attracted more attention from the locals the more I went off the beaten track. It might not be a bother for some people, but for me, turning heads and inciting crowds to gather to ogle the white girl made me really quite uncomfortable.

My husband-to-be – who, despite hailing from one of these far-flung northern villages, has spent enough time travelling and working among Westerners to be totally unfazed by a flash of white skin or auburn hair – agreed that, were we to ever spend time living together somewhere in India, Kashmir would not be the ideal place. Don’t get me wrong – it is a place of breath-taking natural wonders, fascinating history, and rich culture, often referred to very accurately as “paradise on Earth”, and it holds a dear place in my heart. But I was yet to find a destination where I felt totally comfortable as well as being excited to be there.

That brings us to the most recent, most powerful and most immediate feeling of being at home in a brand new place. Seasonal tourism business brings Mr Pardesi to the tropical southern state of Goa in the autumn and winter months, and that is where I spent the last long weekend break from work. It is true that it wasn’t my first time in Goa, but that first visit took place under very different circumstances. This second time I had undergone a lot of personal growth (emotionally) and shrinkage (physically), and spent the whole time in North Goa, which is known for being livelier than the tranquil South.

From breakfast on the beach and evening walks around the bustling seaside neighbourhoods, to exploring the area by scooter, and watching the sun set in a burst of colour over the glittering Arabian sea, I had never before experienced such immediate feelings of joy, comfort, and belonging in a place. With sushi, pizza, and fish and chips as easy to come by as fragrant South Indian dishes, and the abundance of foreign tourists making the Goan locals completely desensitised to seeing Westerners, I felt totally at ease in the strangely familiar surroundings, while it was simultaneously thrilling to be somewhere so exotic and tropical. It was as if I had been looking for what I found in Goa my whole life, without even realising it until I found it. By the end of the trip, Mr Pardesi and I had set plans in motion with the ultimate goal of me relocating at the beginning of the next season.

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The dream house… Goa

After seven years and ten apartments across four countries, it’s great to have found a place where I feel so at home. A lot of the time, I struggle to fully embrace spontaneity, but a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel solo to Kashmir turned out to be life-changing and led me to finding everything I didn’t even know I was looking for – including a place to call home, at least for a while, which is both exhilaratingly exotic and comfortably familiar.  Who knows what the future holds, but the path ahead will become more clear once I take the next few steps. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to change and new beginnings – and to having the opportunity to continue exploring India and establishing myself as a local pardesi!

 

Read about more about my Kashmir and Goa experiences in my upcoming blog posts.

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