Suitcases and shopping carts
She’s been counting down to her flight home since the beginning of the month. It’s been an agonizing few days of submitting papers and clocking in last-minute work obligations, and she can’t wait one more second. Her suitcases are lying open on the floor – half packed – with over a week to go. Not because she’s such a great planner, but because the sight of open suitcases makes the upcoming trip so much more exciting.
Some part of her slightly regrets broadcasting her excitement so hard. She is now burdened with fifty people’s shopping lists. Halfway through her fifth Target run, she wonders why she loves them. Why can’t they ask for Cheetos and Hershey’s like normal people? Apparently “outside India” is a magical fairyland where everything you can think of just lands in your lap.
To be fair, it’s hard to argue with that logic. She has now been to a store that looks and
smells like a bakery but sells t-shirts, eaten at a restaurant that literally markets its “rude
waiters,” and seen two shops (side-by-side) dedicated to selling coloured paper. Maybe it is normal to expect your wildest childhood fantasies to be on a Walmart shelf at half-price.
Midnight coffees and neck pillows
The checklists are getting shorter and the bags have just about made the weight limit. Very soon, she can trade in her snow boots for chappals. Living in a cold country is all fun and games when you’re taking the first set of dreamy Instagram pictures but halfway through December, you can no longer remember what it was like to wear just one pair of pants at a time.
The ride to the airport feels so long; waiting to board takes even longer. But the flight itself is a party. It’s a night flight. Night flights are relaxed. Night flights are a reminder that a long day of work is over. Night flights are a little more magical. Her phone is playing less of the Christmas classics you’d hear in an American mall and more of the Bollywood anthems she played on her drives to college so many years ago. Texts fly out, WhatsApp groups are buzzing.
She is finally at the end of the torturous immigration queue, her bags have been picked up, and she is stepping out of the airport – only to be instantly greeted by the smell of coffee, the sounds of three taxi drivers offering to carry her luggage to their car, and the general excitement of people reuniting with their families. The air around her is buzzing with a Bangalorean accent after so many months. It’s all a blur until she finds what she’s really looking for: amma in a trademark red shawl, appa in a thick brown sweater, and her sister in an unmistakably stolen outfit. Their smiles are wide enough to light up a small town.
The vacation has officially begun.
Living abroad gives her a free pass to push the boundaries of what constitutes good behaviour at home. She’s surprised by how much she can get away with now – waking up late, eating at least six full meals a day, lounging on the couch while the world around her does the work.
Slightly buzzing from jet lag and with the troubles of her other life many oceans away, she sits back and relaxes. There are few things more familiar or comforting than doing nothing on the couch while amma yells at the gardener in the background.
There is at least one surprise visit to a friend who lives here, multiple trips to old hangouts, rifling through souvenirs from back in the day. Settling back into an old routine takes no effort at all: it’s like jumping off a bicycle. Soon enough, everyone starts feeling like she never left and the spotlight is no longer on her. It sounds like a complaint but in reality, a part of her wishes it could be this way a little longer. Because the next part of the trip is right around the corner.
Heavy suitcases, heavy hearts
Just like that, her suitcases are back on the floor and her checklists are out in full swing. Only this time it no longer feels like an exciting holiday is round the corner. A new semester is waiting for her and it bears gifts: hundreds of unopened emails, hours of reading material, winter wear for an even more aggressive cold spell that no longer comes with holiday music to soften its blow. Her suitcase is filling up with the essentials: a lifetime supply of Maggi packets so she doesn’t have to trek through ice to go to the Indian store, amma’s upma mixes and chutney podi, the Lays she grew up with – the one that sets her mouth on fire like any decent snack food is supposed to, Kurkure for her poor roommate who couldn’t take this trip home.
There’s nothing she can do to slow down the time that passes between the first agonizing flight and the second. There’s nothing that can prepare her for the dull sadness of leaving Bangalore’s beautiful weather and perfectly understandable traffic jams. (What isn’t forgivable when you’re wearing Gulmohar-coloured glasses?)
The flight back home is not a party. It’s a day flight, which automatically removes all the excitement that comes with a dark sky. Day flights are practical. Day flights remind you that you have things to do.
Welcome (back) home
Remember the first time you set foot in a new country, in a sea of unfamiliar faces that looked nothing like yours? The first time you stepped into a bare flat that you would decide was yours? The first time you shook hands with your roommate and wondered what this new life would be like? Who would have thought that in just a few months you would embrace this terrifying new country as yours?
She barely realized it too – until she landed in a sea of Red Sox merch, Dunkin Donuts, and the unmistakable sounds of a local Boston accent. She never thought she would be able to identify these things, let alone smile a little when they came back to greet her.
And who would have imagined that the empty shell of an apartment she first stepped into would become a warm and welcoming home, with friends that knew her a little too well, with things she left behind on this holiday and actually missed?
They sit on the floor at 3 am, wide awake and rummaging through her suitcase and it hits her – she hasn’t come back to a dreary routine and freezing cold workdays. She has come back to a family that’s been waiting for her.
She couldn’t have asked for a better start to the semester.