In early 2012, I left my comfortable job in an American neurotech start-up, got rid of my possessions, switched off my phone, and embarked on a round-the-world adventure. I bid goodbye to my home knowing that I would not have one for at least twelve months. Starting from New York, I had picked Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Beijing, Bangkok, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro as my stops. Other than the airline-mandated 1-year limit to complete my trip, I had no plan. Somehow, I managed to hit 36 countries and come back alive. As we all hunker down due to covid-19, the life lessons I learned during that frantic trip in Israel, Lebanon and Brazil are helping me cope with the anxiety of not knowing when things will be back to normal.
The Middle East was my first leg. As Egypt was gearing up for its first post-revolution presidential elections, riots and deaths of a handful of demonstrators welcomed me to Cairo. The jaded Lebanese describing the routine wars with Israel and the early stages of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria broke my heart. Tides of history that created, destroyed and rebuilt the Jordanian trading outpost Petra were mind-boggling, but my unplanned 36-hour stopover in Israel provided much-needed comic relief.
Since Israel and Lebanon are enemy countries, it is virtually impossible to enter Israel after getting a Lebanese visa stamped on your passport. And I was a young, brown, single, South Asian backpacker who was allegedly jobless and traveling the world. On the other hand, for a broke backpacker, the cheapest flight from the region to Athens – my next destination – was out of Tel Aviv. Resolution of that conflict while getting in and out of Israel was one of the most endearing memories of my trip.
The immigration officer at the King Abdullah Bridge, a lady looking straight into my eyes, interrogated me for hour and a half. Everything was fair game: What is your religion? What are the basics of Hinduism? Why did you quit your job? How much money do you have in your bank? Why did you go to Lebanon when there is nothing to see there? Why are you spending just two days in Israel when there is so much to see here? I thought about telling her that I’m an atheist, but common sense prevailed, and I pretended to be a God-fearing Hindu for the interrogation. I could not find the courage to ask her whether she had any children, but if the Jewish mom stereotype is true, I was standing in front of one.
On my way out, the officer at Ben Gurion airport doubled the duration and, luckily for me, added a lot more humor. He emptied my entire backpack, tested everything chemically with his cotton swabs, and stopped when he noticed my bottle of Chyavanprash, a thick black paste that is a popular traditional herbal supplement in India. He asked me to eat it and, in that distant, pre-covid-19 past, I dipped my finger in it and licked it. I was whisked away and stripped down to my underwear for a full body search, and told that my luggage will be checked in separately. Before we parted ways, when I mentioned that Chyavanprash can help with acid reflux, he asked me to write it down and cheekily asked me where he could buy it in Israel. And when I told him that I was looking forward to visiting Prague, he shared the name of a local bar famous for its heavy metal music, softening the blow of the metal detectors waiting for me.
More than the humor, unplanned detours in life offer important reality checks if you keep your eyes open. On my last day in Beirut, I was debating between Baalbek, a small town with Roman ruins, and the northern Lebanese beaches as I was finishing my free breakfast in a downtown hostel. Along came two do-gooder girls: An American PhD candidate studying Lebanese street art and a Spanish economist embarking on a career in stock trading in Switzerland. They were heading to Burj-al-Barajneh, one of the earliest Palestinian refugee camps in the heart of Beirut, to paint something. The do-gooder in me jumped on the bandwagon thinking that we would be painting homes of poor refugees.
As soon as we reached the camp, I found out that they were helping locals paint three guns across a map of undivided Palestine and their flag, a call to arms for the next intifada. The Gandhian part of me wouldn’t let me partake in it and I became a mute spectator, only to realize that most of the other spectators around us were more interested in the two pretty girls than the mundane, unending conflict. I struck up a conversation with a 20-something guy, finishing his bachelor’s in business, about his career prospects. He told me that his refugee card issued by Lebanon was the only identity card he had, and he was not eligible for any passport. He could not study, work, or own property legally outside the refugee camp. Seven in ten refugees in the camp were unemployed while Hezbollah leaders sped past their shanties in Mercedes or BMWs. He was merely a stateless, faceless, and hopeless statistic with nothing to look forward to.
Most lasting memory from the road, though, is of watching a short film titled ‘The Last Silent Movie’ in the contemporary art museum of a nondescript Brazilian town called Inhotim. The film is a collection of narrations from several dead or dying languages from around the world. Other than the Portuguese subtitles of the narrations, the screen was dark for the entire duration of the film. While it was difficult to follow the subtitles, I could tell that they were talking about their daily lives, their relatives, or just reciting commonly used verbs in languages from a bygone era. It was a powerful reminder of the ephemeral nature of the world humans have created. As we quarantine ourselves for self-preservation, panic-buy toilet paper, juggle unruly kids while working from home, fret about job security, feel bummed out about canceled sports events and vacations, and worry about our economies coming to a screeching halt, my phone-free globetrotting keeps reminding me that even our languages do not escape the vagaries of time.
This excerpt from Mauktik Kulkarni’s Packing Up Without Looking Back is published with his permission. Mauktik is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and a filmmaker. He is also the author of A Ghost of Che. He has co-produced and co-anchored a travel film titled Riding on a Sunbeam with several others in the pipeline.