I first saw them at a waterfall in Yavakapadi, a tiny village in Coorg. They were dressed in bright, roomy nightdresses. Six women, between the ages of 45 and 70, guffawed as the youngest one imitated a yesteryear Hindi film star dancing under a waterfall. I sat on a boulder nearby, trying to be invisible, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on their jokes.
I had come to this part of Coorg for its walking trails, babbling streams, and for much needed solitude. But minutes after I had exchanged polite smiles with these women from Hyderabad, I found myself happy to join them on the walk back to our homestay. Later, when they rejoined the rest of their group of 11, I sat with them, eating homemade murukku and tuning in and out of their conversations.
I ended up spending the next three days with this family, and my impressions and thoughts of Coorg are irrevocably tied to them. My memory of hiking along its trails is entwined with how one of the three sisters, Alaknanda, slid bright yellow blooms in my pierced ears to wear as earrings. As dusk settled over the lush coffee plantations around our homestay, I’d look forward to the family’s evening ritual of singing old Hindi songs. I was invited to their hearty dinner of traditional Coorg chicken curry, during which the three sisters relentlessly chided their diabetic 50-something brother about his diet. Then, one night, they surprised him by celebrating bhai dooj and letting him feast on pheni, a traditional Telangana sweet they had brought with them. The day after, they suggested I join them on a visit to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe. During the bus journey, I laughed uncontrollably at the antics of Shobha Rani, the otherwise gentle matriarch of the group. She transformed into a fierce and formidable opponent during the game of antakshari, and was convinced that every player was cheating.
Later, at the monastery, Shobha’s sister-in-law shared with me her own story. She had been reluctant to come on the trip because of a recent personal loss. But there she was, with a family that wanted to be by her side while she faced her demons.
When we travel, if we are willing to listen, places tell us stories. But I’ve found that my time on the road becomes more meaningful when I open up to the lives of strangers. What makes these accidental bonds even more special is that they don’t happen too often. But when they do, I find my journey enriched in ways I couldn’t have planned or imagined.
In August last year, my guide in Toronto was a sprightly septuagenarian who walked as if she had rollerblades on her feet. I met her as part of a large group, so we barely interacted at first. But, later that afternoon, as our boat left the city and sailed towards the Toronto Islands, Dorothy Khorshed and I bonded over a matter most mundane: our skirts billowing in the breeze.
She told me about how she, a German, landed up in Toronto decades ago. Her husband wanted to come here in search of a better life. He was Egyptian, and they met in Paris at a French language class. Dorothy was late for the course by a week, and flustered to find all the seats in the room taken when she entered. “Suddenly, I saw this tall, young man gesturing to the empty seat beside him, at the back of the room. I rushed towards him and slid into the seat. We sat together for life, he and I,” Dorothy said candidly.
Over two days, she showed us around Toronto’s historic Chinatown and Kensington Market, loved for its vintage shops and hipster cafés. She was adept at telling us stories about the areas’ past and present. My Toronto memories are mixed with little, admirable details of her life: like how she cycles 54 kilometres from Mississauga to Toronto and back every day, wears only neon pink sneakers, and how her preferred parting gift to people she likes is a tiny tube of anti-ageing cream. It now lies in my backpack.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Chance Encounters”.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.