Ashwin Gokhale is a maker of still and moving images (a fancier way of saying, filmmaker and photographer), based in Pune. He procrastinates a lot (looks up maps of places worth visiting), eats a ton of food (pun not intended, just an explanation for his belly) and obviously cannot write his own introductions in third person. He believes that his month-long sol..journ..erm..work trip to Thailand was a great mix of his passion and his profession. Read on about Ashwin’s solo travel experience below!
Sometimes clichés are true
There’s an overused and clichéd Bollywood dialogue, where a love-smitten Shahrukh Khan says “Kehte hai, agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho, to poori qaaynaat usse tumhe milane ke koshish mein lag jaati hai”, which essentially is a ripoff of Paulo Coelho’s famous line “When you sincrely desire something, the entire universe conspires to help you to achieve it.” The qaaynaat (universe) in my case was clearly on my side, as I was stamped out of the country by the Immigration Officer at Mumbai airport.
It has always been my dream to live and work in another country by myself. I graduated with a degree in Film in July 2017, and a slew of what seemed like bad decisions and missed chances with respect to jobs followed, but they actually turned out to be dots waiting to be connected, as Steve Jobs put it in his famous Stanford commencement. Sometime in October 2017, after a lot of back and forth over email, I decided to take up an opportunity with Openmind Projects, an NGO based on the Thai Lao border, advocating computer literacy as a fast track to success for the poor, underprivileged in Southeast Asia. Making a film for them was my objective, however, it turned into me participating in their social media promotional campaign. The whole trip, spanning a month, helped me professionally, no doubt, but more importantly, it was quite an enriching experience on the personal front.
Sometime last year, I had heard a TEDtalk by a stand-up comedian who goes by the name Katerina Vrana, and she had a talk “Stereotypes – Funny because they’re true”. We had a great Marathi humorist P.L.Deshpande, and his timeless piece “Mumbaikar, Punekar ani Nagpurkar” still continues to entertain audiences of all ages, ten years after his death. It was humour purely based on stereotypes about people from Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur. I found stereotypes great to make jokes on too, however, the tables turned when a stereotype was dropped on me. Mai Phet is Thai for “not spicy”, and I dropped a Mai Phet casually when the notoriously spicy Papaya Salad or Som Tum was passed on to me.
India is a land of spices, and Indians eat a lot of spicy food and that jazz, but I don’t enjoy spicy food at all. Just the sight of chilli powder makes me shiver from inside, the papaya salad had sliced red chillis! To save my face, I did serve myself some papaya salad. The first bite took me back in time when I took the hot and spicy chicken wings challenge at Plan B in Bangalore, which left me with blisters on my tongue and my hand. This was a little less spicy, but my tolerance for spice wasn’t up to that level. Sure, I was a shade better than my European colleagues at handling spice, but I’m sure the English, the Danish and the Russian were pleasantly surprised that day.
I saw several stereotypes break myself. My Russian roommate was a jolly fellow, making jokes from time to time, the English did not drink as much tea, and the Danish was easily humoured. The stereotypes are still funny, but if you look at them practically, they don’t make any sense anymore. Oh, and this British friend of mine didn’t give a damn when Prince Harry was engaged to Meghan Markle.
Barter Your Skills
I had been exploring volunteering opportunities outside India for about a year and a half. I found Openmind Projects, and then discussed and negotiated the project that they wanted me to do. My dreams had started to take shape when job offers started pouring in. I have always been a proponent of going against the status quo, and the status quo here was the rat race, and I didn’t want myself to get stuck in it (I speak only for the demographic I belong to, here). I passed on all the offers. My dream came true when I landed in Bangkok, groggy-eyed.
My base, the Openmind Projects Training Centre was in Nong Khai. It was an old gym converted into a training centre, where the trainees, youth coming from Thailand, Lao and Myanmar, along with the volunteers coming from a host of other nations, all stayed together. I went there to make a film for them, but it eventually became me participating in their social media promotion, helping with images and videos, which expanded my scope of work to quite an extent. I was a one-man-army filmmaker there, something which I’ve never done in my life, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise after all, since it gave me a huge confidence boost. Sven and Toto, the men in charge of the organisation gave me all the creative freedom I wanted. Experimentation could be afforded since I met all the deadlines I put for myself. In turn, they were happy and so was I. Win-win!
In the time I was there, I met a host of Americans and Europeans. Not a single Indian. I was probably the first young Indian to visit and work for the organization, which has seen volunteers from about forty nations. Agreed, most of them are welfare states, but I reiterate that I speak only for the demographic I belong to. Volunteering in a country is a great way to see the country and experience it firsthand, rather than a washed-down version on a 4Day 3Nights tour with a travel agency, and I was kinda disappointed that Indians don’t travel enough.
It’s giving back to the society, yes, but you also learn a great deal yourself. I would encourage more and more Indians to “travel” and not just be a tourist. The rat race is inevitable. You have to plunge in it sometime or the other, but it’s a great feeling to take a step back from all of it, travel to some remote corner of the world and barter your skills for room and board. There’s space for everyone!
My parents, like any quintessential Indian parents, weren’t so sure about solo travel. It wasn’t just about safety, they seemed to be more concerned about how I’d enjoy my own company. You’re never really alone when you volunteer or stay in a hostel. There are always like-minded people waiting to hang out, like how a conversation in the hostel hallway led a group of us five on a rooftop bar in Bangkok!
It’s fun travelling with a group of friends or family, but there are so many things left unexplored because you tend to stay within your social group. These “boundaries” are broken when you travel alone. I can’t remember the last time I hung out with Europeans, bonded with them over some nice cold Chang beer, and helped a Swedish girl plan her next trip to North India.
There are so many stories to tell. A month of travelling sure felt short when I boarded the Air India flight back home and the instrumental version of Chand Sifarish fell to my ears. It’s a great feeling to be back home but I can’t wait to hit the road again. For us, travellers, bidding farewell to other fellow travellers always infuses optimism of seeing each other again, sometime someday. As the Singaporean volunteer said, “See you on the road!”, I fell in love with the idea of travel all over again that morning.
Recently, I was diagnosed with a viral disease transported by a bug, popularly known as #wanderlust. The symptoms include giving unsolicited travel advice and an abnormal growth in time spent making photos, videos and blog posts of previous trips. Since it’s a viral disease, it can be spread through collaboration with other people in the form of text, images and videos. The details of coming in contact with this can be found on my Dysco profile. The cure is available, but doctors and scientists have concluded that it’s actually a good disease to have after all!
If you’re a travel agency, branding company, production house, or an individual looking to create short films, videos, documentaries or branding images for your company, collaborate with Ashwin via his Dysco Profile and get in touch with this travel bug!