Sree Balaji Coffee House is a small, simple shop located in the diverse city of Kochi, India. Here, you will find chai, coffee with milk, as well as Indian pastries like ulli vada, a fried onion snack. The walls are painted egg-shell white and rich, muddy grey. Bananas hang from the ceiling, and various glass jars hold chips and other treats made from these plantains. Circular clocks are mounted above the small wooden tables, showing customers what time it is in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai. Countless maps and globes are scattered about the place.
Looking to the other side of the shop, only a few feet away, there are clustered, framed photos- some sepia with age, others freshly taken — of Vijayan and Mohana, the owners, on their many travels. The couple smiles on mountain tops, on crowded city streets, by famous monuments. They are often surrounded by other people, and it is clear: their fervor has touched many others throughout the years.
This is the story of how Vijayan and Mohana touched me, and inspired me to keep traveling.
“I want to travel again, more. If you ask me how… I have my own willpower. It is possible. Yes, it is possible.”
On a sweltering day in southern India, I sat on the air-conditioned bus next to one of my new friends. There were more than 30 of us traveling together, exploring the different regions of Kerala province. Normally I travel alone, but this time I welcomed the company. I was staring out of the window, watching women walk by in bright, citrus saris as brown dust wafted through the air.
“Hey,” my friend said to me, nudging my arm and handing me his phone.
“What is this?” He’d been showing me popular Keralan movie clips and music videos throughout our journey.
“Just watch it,” he told me, his native Malayalam thickly coating his English.
Looking down at the Samsung screen for the next nine minutes, my eyes filled with tears. I understood why my friend had wanted me to see this short documentary; it was as if my own soul was being reflected back to me. Invisible Wings, which was directed by Hari M. Mohanan, tells the story of an Indian couple in their mid-60s who own a tea shop.
Vijayan and Mohana married several decades past, and they have been traveling the world together ever since. It would seem that an older couple, who earn their rupees solely from their business, would have a difficult time leaving the Indian state of Kerala. Nonetheless, from France to Singapore to Egypt, they have seen 19 countries together. Everything about them seems against the odds. But they have each other and the belief that anything is possible.
“This is me,” I told my friend. He closed his dark eyes halfway and nodded his head from side to side, as if to say, “I know.”
“When these journeys end, our life ends.”
That night, I lied in bed unable to sleep. I stared into the darkness as the fan whirred above me at full speed. Vijayan’s words echoed in my head, and I pondered how much we had in common. Sure, we were born in entirely different eras, on the opposite sides of the world, into disparate worlds and circumstances, but we were the same. We shared the sole desire to travel, to see, to learn, to know. He was of my tribe.
Admittedly, through the years, I’ve thought about giving up travel. I’ve mustered all of my strength and attempted to focus it on the art of stagnation, but it’s a losing battle. As Vijayan said in Invisible Wings, we cease to truly live when we stop exploring. Like he says, many people will think we’re crazy for choosing this path, but to us, life is not worth living without travel.
Here I was in India, a country I’d wanted to visit for ages, almost serendipitously. I couldn’t help but think that the story of this couple came into my life for a purpose.
“I want to see this world. That is my desire, my only desire!”
A few days after first watching Inivisible Wings, our group returned from the mountains of Munnar. We’d spent two days hiking, camping, and getting to know each other better. Now back in Kochi with the night free, I was looking forward to curling up in the hotel room with my journal. But that’s not what would pan out. As it seems to be throughout India, someone who was leading our group had connections, and instead I’d be going to get some tea.
A small group of us — coming from Brazil, Canada, Portugal, and the United States — crammed into a rickshaw, and headed into the dark, dusty, traffic-jammed Kochi night. Our driver swerved between cars, turning down random streets and alleys, and we somehow arrived at the dimly-lit tea shop. Vijayan and Mohana, both dressed in purple, were expecting us.
They came out from behind the kitchen and greeted us individually, softly grasping our hands and humoring us with photos. It didn’t matter that their English was limited; the kindness and humility glimmered in their eyes.
“Thank you for having us,” I told them, to which they nodded enthusiastically. “It’s like we have the same soul!” I exclaimed, and even though I’m not sure they knew exactly what I’d said, a wave of humble embarrassment came over Vijayan’s weathered face. I’m sure it was the most stupid-sounding English sentence they’d ever heard, but that was my truth.
“If money is our only concern, we will not be able to do anything.”
Like Vijayan had said in the documentary, other people think I’m crazy as well. Even my closest friends and family members question my way of life. They don’t understand the depth of my desire to travel; likewise, I don’t understand their pathos or their goals.
What I do understand, however, is that my purpose is to travel and write. The truth is, I’m able to lead this lifestyle because I’ve worked hard, sacrificed, and made it my priority. To date, I’ve visited 42 countries and countless cities. Even though I’m frugal and work as I go, I don’t care to know how much money I’ve spent throughout my 15 years of international exploration. These experiences have informed the person I’ve become, and no price tag can be placed upon that. If I had let finances crowd my mind, I never would have left my hometown.
There have been times when I’ve doubted myself. I’ve questioned why I continue to travel instead of pursuing status quo items like a house or a flourishing IRA account.
As Vijayan and Mohana run their own businesses and have raised two children, I knew that they understood these concerns even more than I. Nevertheless, as the years pass, the desire to move, to see, to learn only grows wilder. It’s something I can’t tame.
“She is the source of my strength. I don’t know how to define it or explain it.”
Vijayan and Mohana welcomed us into Sree Balaji Coffee House as if it were their home. Quickly retreating behind the counter, they continued to serve up long pours of tea and freshly fried bananas. I sat behind one of the tables, a jitter in my chest, and watched them work. I flipped through the words in my brain, trying to describe to myself the emotions I was feeling. It wasn’t just gratitude, or respect, or admiration. It was all of that, but something much more.
Just as I was meant to visit India, I was also destined to meet the adventurous tea shop owners I’d learned about days before. I’d been going through a period of loss in my life, and I needed something to jolt me into remembering my purpose. Somehow, my passion had been culled. Even though India brought me an overwhelming sense of peace and consolation, I sought something more specific. I needed to rediscover my own source of strength, to see the light of myself reflected in others.
As I stood at the counter to pay, I told the couple how beautiful they were. Their love for one another was tangible, thick in the air.
Vijayan turned to Mohana and cupped her face in his hands. “She made for me,” he told me, his smile revealing yellowed teeth and insurmountable gratitude.
“I want self-satisfaction and that is the only concept I hold onto.”
Sometimes, no matter how much we have accomplished, we can lose sight of what’s most important to us. We need the beauty of ourselves in others to remind us how fortunate we are. It doesn’t matter how old we are, where we come from, or how many dollars we have in the bank. Only we can realize our purpose in life and make our dreams reality.
No one has the right to tell us that we’re crazy or going about life the wrong way; it’s not our responsibility to listen. It is our responsibility, however, to become the best human beings possible by following our calling. Through their courage, this Indian couple inspired me to continue what I knew I was meant to do all along: travel.