LIA excerpt

Overview

Have you ever experienced real magic? Have you ever been cornered into a life-threatening situation with no conceivable possibility of getting out, only to magically escape the next instant just so you can experience yourself as invincible, indomitable, unsinkable, unstoppable? Have you ever received direct guidance from the Universe, so precise and in such layman’s terms that it takes your own breath away? Magic only happens to those who can make it real in their imaginations! 

Life Is Abracadabra –21 magical stories from my travels to make you look at life with new eyes, upcoming book by author Baisakhi Saha, is an experiential documentation of how to transcend the ordinary into extraordinary outcomes in alignment with our desires. It has received many glowing endorsements from renowned luminaries and world visionaries. For details, visit baisakhisaha.com/life-is-abracadabra.

Life Is Abracadabra

Synopsis

‘I think people are afraid to dream because they don’t want to be disappointed,’ she told the Belgian guy…

But what if there was a way to co-create our dreams with the universe? And what if the universe responded to us in a tangible way? Can you imagine that? This book narrates the magical adventures and marvellous encounters of the author, an ordinary Indian girl who believes in extraordinary possibilities, as she traverses the globe to fulfil her destiny. She provides true anecdotes of hope and faith, of meaningful coincidences and miracles that will make you perceive life from an altogether new dimension.

At the tender age of seventeen, the author left her home to pursue higher studies abroad. Since then, she has dwelled in different continents, studying life through myriad mirrors of reality. From Asia to Europe to Africa to South America to North & Central America, she has lived with local families—eating their food, adopting their lifestyles, contributing to their economy, inhabiting their culture, imitating their costumes, negotiating extreme realities and belief systems, and navigating diverse traditions and religions for several years to answer life’s most pertinent questions. Coming from a conservative family in India, she had to overcome all limitations to fly! I have been disappointed over and over again, hence I ain’t afraid to dream, she mused to herself.

Life Is Abracadabra is about listening to the subtle nudges of our hearts and following our calling. It is about noticing the signs and synchronicities strewn on our paths and acting on them. Because when we do, life will be on our side too.


About the Author

BAISAKHI SAHA is an award-winning international speaker, author, performer, teacher and globetrotter. Born in Kolkata, she grew up in different states of India, each with a distinct culture, custom, costume, creed, colour, cuisine, and courtesy, so it felt as if she was always in a new country. Her childhood was, thus, a preparation for what was to come in adulthood. Multilingual, she speaks six languages.

From Asia to Europe to Africa to South America to North & Central America, the author has traversed on various foreign internships—learning the language of life through myriad mirrors of reality. From a computing graduate to a marketing executive to a German interpreter, English teacher, Spanish translator to now a writer, speaker, and performer, mysterious coincidences have led her from one place to another, contriving her to live her destiny, to leave a legacy. Visit baisakhisaha.com.


Life Is Abracadabra

21 magical stories from my travels to make you look at life with new eyes


“Magic only happens to those who can make it real in their imaginations.”

Baisakhi Saha, author of Life is Abracadabra

Copyright © 2022 Baisakhi Saha. All Rights Reserved.


Contents

Foreword: I had a dream I was flying

  1. The Epic Dance: Healing outside of my comfort zone
  2. Living my Dreams: How failure made my dreams manifest
  3. Meeting my Hero: How I encountered my real model
  4. The Missing Wallet: How I figured where my lost purse was
  5. An Uncommon Traveler: How I became a globetrotter magically
  6. Freedom from Bond: How I escaped years of agony
  7. My Dollars Missing: How I found out who stole my money
  8. Have Faith: How Faith helped me leave Africa
  9. The Priceless Gift: How the Universe met my desires
  10. A Black Forest Wedding: How I was priestess at a German wedding
  11. The Precious Visa: How I evaded the German bureaus
  12. The Magical Catatumbo: How forgetfulness saved our lives
  13. The Street of Nines: How danger became magic for me
  14. La Carcel: How my prison fancy turned into mockery
  15. Der Vulkan: How a volcano became the fruition of my dreams
  16. The Birthday Present: How getting fired was my best gift
  17. The Costa Rica-Panama Escapade: How we found possibility when there was none
  18. The Guidance of Signs: How synchronicities led to my first book
  19. The Infamous Robbery: How divine intervention saved me from armed robbers
  20. The Improper House: How I escaped ending up in the streets
  21. A Borboleta: How my deceased friend guides my path

Afterword: Cultivating authentic confidence and awareness

Appreciation

About the Author

Notes


Foreword

I had a dream I was flying

Those days I kept having a recurring dream. In my sleep I would see myself flying! This dream came to me often, more nights than I can count. I would run to the edge of a cliff or the threshold of a high building’s rooftop, and when I approached the periphery, I would start cycling with my legs in the air and the momentum of the movement coupled with air buoyancy would keep me afloat. I could fly in any direction I wanted, just by tilting my upper body in that direction and continuing the cycling motion with my legs. I could also go up and down in the air by adjusting the velocity in my limbs; I intuitively knew how to do that. This way I dodged many enemies and life-threatening situations where they would not be able to harm me because only I knew how to fly. These dreams felt so real that, even in my first waking moments, I believed I could actually fly. It was surreal. I felt that my dreams were asking me to fly and all I had to do was try.

Still in my teens, I left home in India to pursue higher studies abroad. Since then, I have not just travelled but lived in different countries across the globe, perceiving life through myriad mirrors of reality, trying to understand human suffering, dysfunctional belief systems of diverse societies, the root cause of all diseases, what happens after death, and so on. From Asia to Europe to Africa to South America to North and Central America, I have lived with local families, eating their food, adopting their lifestyles, contributing to their economy, inhabiting their culture, imitating their costumes, negotiating extreme realities and danger, and navigating through varied traditions and religions for several years to answer life’s most pertinent questions. Coming from a conservative family background, where the rules get stricter for a young, unmarried girl, I had to overcome all limitations to fly!

This book narrates 21 magical stories from my travels across the globe that will make you look at life with new eyes. It is about listening to the subtle nudges of our hearts and following our calling. It is about noticing the signs and synchronicities strewn on our paths and acting on them, piloting life from an altogether new dimension of reality. When we do, life will be on our side too. This book is a living proof of how the universe has our back at all times if only we would trust—an experiential documentation of how to transcend the ordinary into out-of-ordinary outcomes—if only we would have the courage to pursue the desires in our hearts, irrespective of what dice are thrown at us. And without the support of life itself, I would have perished long back. But I did not. I lived to tell my tale to anyone that would listen.

Note: Real names of characters in this book have been changed for protection of privacy and only retained where necessary. However, the settings, places, dates, and descriptions of events in the stories have been shared exactly as they occurred in my life, geographically and chronologically.

Enjoy the read, enjoy the ride!


2.

Living my Dreams

How failure made my dreams manifest

Encountering my destiny path in a dream followed by synchronicities

Those days I was studying German at my university in Singapore as a cross-faculty subject. We were allowed to do any number of cross-faculty modules as we desired, depending on availability of the course. I had to bid for German in my first semester and got selected. Then the higher-level German modules were added automatically to my subsequent semesters through the university years.

Why German? Well, during the long vacation we had between junior college and university, I was visiting home in India and had enrolled into a temporary aviation course where they taught us some basic German words and sentences. I found the language fascinating, much like Sanskrit, with three genders, root verbs, and conjugations that could be memorised and recited in a sing-song voice, the way I used to utter Sanskrit verses and verb conjugations at school in India. So, when I returned to Singapore for university education, I wanted to continue learning German even though it was, perhaps, one of the hardest languages to master.

Although I majored in Computer Science, I could be found more in the Arts & Social Sciences faculty than in my own School of Computing faculty. I was studying IT because it was cool and trendy. But I did not really enjoy it. What I enjoyed more was interacting with the exchange students from Germany who had come to our university for a semester or two, who were sometimes guests at our language classes so as to help us ‘immerse’ in their culture to ameliorate our language skills. Our professors were all Germans and they often organised get-togethers with these exchange students, conversations over a table of food called Stamm Tisch, German cake-baking contests, film screenings, and German film festivals. I got to learn quite a bit of German history and culture, its role in the second world war, and of course lifestyle and food. Goodbye Lenin, Der Tunnel, Der Blaue Engel, Faust, Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei—The Edukators, Love in Thoughts, Crossing the Bridge: Sound of Istanbul were some films I watched then that are still etched in my memory.

My Indian friends made fun of me saying I was spending more time with the Germans than with them. But I did not mind. I was smitten by the Germans; they were so independent, autonomous, adventurous, open-minded, free-spirited, daring, and big-time travellers. My own conservative upbringing did not even allow young girls to venture out alone. Every vacation they explored a new territory just with a map or a Lonely Planet travel guide, sometimes in groups and at times even solo. I enjoyed their liberty and boldness, their curiosity to try out Asian culture, cuisine, and customs. I even learned German for three years!

In the second year, at the intermediate level, many students go on an exchange to the country whose language they are learning, and this is how these immersion programmes worked. The same was true for us. I had the option to do a semester or two at a university in Germany, studying a few of my Computing subjects in German language instead of doing them all in English in Singapore. And the equivalent credits for those subjects would be added towards my graduation requirements. Now, all this sounded great in theory, but I was already a foreign student there. The scholarship I had received was good enough to pay my expenses in Singapore, including a monthly allowance of S$500. However, this was nothing compared to what I would require for a semester or two in Europe just as cost of living. And if I wanted to go, then I would have to bear all the expenditure myself as my scholarship would not pay the European rates. Hence, as much as I longed to go to Germany, like my other classmates, I simply could not afford it.

Thus, I satisfied myself by doing small backpacking trips across Asia—Malaysia, Thailand, and nearby islands with some of those exchange students. They travelled during vacations, and I joined in a couple of times. I learned how to travel independently, read maps, navigate unknown terrains, survive in strange lands, negotiate deals, cultivate mutual respect, privacy, and space, be open to other cultures, make do with minimal clothes, and stuff everything into a small backpack for long trips or treks. Coming from a conservative background in India—moreover, being a young, unmarried girl—this kind of travelling was novel for me and felt quite liberating. I got to learn so much about myself and make important decisions of my life without anyone interfering with my freedom or telling me what to do. Still, I yearned to get out of Asia, uncover a new frontier. My deepest desire was to travel to Europe and see the countries of my exchange friends whose culture I was learning about. The longing was so strong that at times I used to take my books and go to Changi airport to study, especially during my exams. I used to sit in the viewing gallery to watch Europe-bound airplanes take off and send out my wishes to them. ‘Say hello to Europe for me,’ I would mutter as the flights went out of sight.

One by one, as my exchange friends started returning to their countries, they all invited me to visit them in Germany. I went to the airport to bid farewell to each of them individually.

‘Tell Germany I’m coming soon,’ I would say to some, ‘ask Europe to prepare for my welcome,’ were my parting words to others as they said auf wiedersehen to me, meaning ‘see you again’! I lived in a magical world of possibilities, but it was all only in my mind. As much as I ached to travel, I neither had the money nor the opportunity.

Finally, it was my last semester at university. All my exchange friends had returned to their respective countries. I had also finished my German course. So, there was no more opportunity to meet them, except for a few foreign students who were staying in my hostel and occasionally bumped into each other at dining hours. Although it was nothing like the great times I had had during my German classes.

Then one night I had a strange dream. It was the night before my Statistics final exam. In the dream, I was stopped from taking this exam. Every time I tried to get up and go for the exam, something stopped me. First, as I was about to leave my room for the exam, it started raining so heavily that it was impossible to step out. And I was notified by the hostel staff that the exam was cancelled due to the rains and would be rescheduled. Then, suddenly, I realised I was still asleep and dreaming! I got up and started preparing to go to the exam venue when I was informed that there was no exam that day, and once again I found myself inside a dream. This theme kept repeating itself in the same dream again and again, in a loop, until I finally woke up with a start and realised it was all just a dream. The exam was still on and I was running late. I quickly changed and rushed to the venue. As I reached there, I realised I had forgotten my cheat sheet. Each student was allowed to carry a single sheet of A4 size paper where we could write down whatever we wanted, formulae, equations, theories, or logs to help us crack the complicated codes faster during the brief exam hour. In despair, I asked a fellow Pakistani student if he would be kind enough to lend me his cheat sheet. He did. I quickly photocopied it from the co-op nearby.

By the time I entered the exam hall, everybody was already seated and the exam was about to begin. I found my seat and settled in nervously. I could not make out much of that guy’s scribbles in the cheat sheet. The exam began and my mind went blank. The question paper popped strange numbers at me that I could make no sense of. I could not solve any problem. I sat there numb, trying harder, bullying myself to perform. But the more I tried, the worse it got until I could not think anymore. I did not even have the common sense to get up and make some excuse, any excuse, tell the examiners I wasn’t feeling well, my back was hurting, or something like that, so there might have been a chance to reschedule the exam for me on another day. I had a medical condition and doing this would have been in my favour. But I just sat there, paralysed, staring at the paper that spoke a language I did not comprehend. When the time was up, they took away my paper. It was not until I left the exam venue that I realised how stupid I was not to have made up an excuse. And now it was too late. When the results were out about a month later, I had failed my Statistics paper. I was a scholar and I had never failed a subject before; it did not show well on my records. It was my final semester and this was a core module, a requirement towards my graduation. So, just to clear this one subject, I had to repeat an entire semester! I requested them to retake the exam for me, to let me write just the Stats paper instead of going through six whole months of lectures and tutorials again, but they declined. Now I had to slog it out for yet another semester before I could graduate.

There must be a reason for this, I mused to myself. It was weird. Especially because of the precognitive dream I had had prior to the exam. Why did I have such a dream? Why did I forget my cheat sheet? Why did I blank out? None of it made any logical sense except for the fact that I had suffered a mental lapse and could not perform under pressure.

Then one fine day I found myself jumping in excitement in my hostel room. I was elated! About three months prior, I had just begun my new ‘extra’ semester at the university when I received an e-mail at my university mailbox. It was an invitation from a university in Switzerland to students from all over the world to write an essay and those selected would win an all-expense-paid trip to Switzerland, the most exquisite and exorbitant country in Europe, bordering Germany!

This must be it; I had thought then. The reason I had that dream and failed my stats exam… so that I could win this trip! I had sent in my entry, a composition on the theme ‘Inspiring Europe’. Europe was losing its motivation and its growth rate was declining as well. So, I had to write an essay on how to motivate Europeans, offering my own unique, creative solution. And then, in front of me, lay the magic e-mail. I could not believe my eyes! I had just won an all-expense-paid trip to Switzerland, an invitation to attend a symposium at The University of St. Gallen. I was over the moon.

I still remember, it was the day of Holi, an Indian festival of colours. I was lunching at a faculty canteen when I got a call from my dad in India asking me when I would return home, and if I would be on time for my birthday so they could celebrate it in India that year. I told him that if I won the symposiums, I would not be able to go home before my birthday because I would be in Europe! He asked me, surprised, if I had heard anything from the organisers. The submissions had happened in January and we were in March already and I had not heard a word from the university in St. Gallen. I told him honestly that I hadn’t and he laughed at my naivety. I finished lunch and returned to my hostel room. And as I switched on my computer, there was an e-mail from The University of St. Gallen… that very day!

I was nervous before opening the e-mail that began with: Dear Baisakhi, We would like to thank you for your contribution to the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award…

Was it a polite rejection letter consoling the applicant? I fretted. It was one of those make-or-break moments in my life. Nonetheless, I clicked it open.

Dear Baisakhi,

We would like to thank you for your contribution to the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award and your interest in the 36th St. Gallen Symposium. It was an extremely rewarding process for the entire 36. ISC-Team to get in touch with the ideas and visions of students from all over the world and we are very thankful that you so openly shared your thoughts on the topic ‘Inspiring Europe’ with us. For the past weeks, the Jury has evaluated approximately a thousand essays, presentations and videos reaching us from more than 50 countries. Finally, it has decided on the best 200 entries whose authors will be invited to take part in the 36th St. Gallen Symposium.

We take great pleasure in…

I did not read any further. I got up and started jumping in my room like a madman the moment my eyes rested on the word ‘pleasure’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Holi had indeed coloured my life!

Were I not still a student, I wouldn’t have had the chance to enter this contest because the symposium was only for students enrolled at a university, my mind was racing. That’s why I failed my Stats paper and had to repeat an entire semester… so I could still have a student status, so I could fulfil my dream of travelling to Europe… it’s destiny! Wow, God works in mysterious ways. I had to fail to win! I continued to mutter in utter amazement.

Those weird, recurring, lucid dreams prior to my exam were trying their best to prevent me from writing the exam; there was a message in them I hadn’t deciphered then. But at that moment it all made perfect sense. I had encountered a new colour of life. Everything had meaning. I could have failed in any previous semester but did not because then I wouldn’t have had the need to do an extra semester and would have graduated in time. But the St. Gallen invitation only came to me during my ‘extra’ semester at the beginning of the year so I could avail of it when I was truly ready. The cosmic timing was perfect.

Nevertheless, going to Germany was no piece of cake. I had won the trip to Switzerland indeed but, in those days, it was not part of the Schengen territories. So, just to cross the border and go to Germany, I needed a second Schengen visa. With an Indian passport, I need a visa to almost every country, even transit countries don’t spare me. The University of St. Gallen only gave me a visa for Switzerland, and we could choose the date of our return. The symposium lasted a whole week but I asked them to give me a ticket for a whole month. The question was what would I do the remaining three weeks if I could not get the German visa? I went to the German embassy asking for the visa requirements, and they handed me a slip of paper on which a single word was written: Verpflichtungserklärung.

Whatever that means, I thought. Later I found out that Verpflichtungserklärung was a document that someone from Germany had to get for me by paying a security deposit of 1,500 euros. At the time all my exchange friends were still students and nobody would have had that kind of money to pay for me, nor did I wish to burden anyone with such an exorbitant request. Not only that, I also needed to buy travel insurance as German embassies did not give visa without proof of insurance. And I did not want to spend money on insurance. I was saving every penny for my first trip outside of Asia.

My heart sank. I was losing hope of going to Germany when someone told me to try French embassy since it was the closest to Germany and part of Schengen as well. I called up the French embassy and they told me, clearly, that if I would stay longer in France, then I should apply from the French embassy, and if I would stay longer in Germany, then I should apply from the German embassy. And I was not even planning to go to France! Besides, I had to show proof of invitation from France, which of course, I couldn’t get since I had no friends there. I had to get insurance as well. I figured it would be the same requirement with any other Schengen country’s embassy. I did not know what else to do. It seemed like going to Germany would be impossible. But I had a ticket to Switzerland for a whole month now and I just had to visit Germany! There had to be a way. I was so close to my dreams.

Then one sleepless night my restless mind popped a thought: What if I were the kind of expert traveller who did not know which countries she would visit on a month-long Europe trip and told the embassies that? Something like an unplanned road trip across Europe and I decided on the spot which countries I wished to visit, nothing pre-planned? The following day I decided to call a bunch of them to see who would give me a Schengen visa. I prepared a list of embassies to call. The very first one I dialled was the Danish embassy. It handled the Nordic countries within the Schengen region. An elderly man who was the consul himself picked up the phone. I told him I did not have my Europe trip planned and did not know how long I would stay in which country, but wanted to travel and if he could give me a Schengen visa.

‘Oh, you students, I know you very well! You never have your trips planned. Well, go to our website and download the visa form, get an invitation letter and come to my office tomorrow. I’ll give you the visa,’ he said to me.

What, wow, that easy? I mused. Fortunately, I knew a guy from Finland who lived in my hostel. Since Finland is a Nordic country, I asked him to send me an invitation e-mail of which I took a print out. Then I took these necessary documents to the Danish embassy the following day. It was far away from my university. The consul did not even ask me to come back another day for an interview. He took all my papers and told me to wait for ten minutes and that he would process my visa then and there so I would not have to return, hence I could save the time and the hassle of going back. He then went into his office, prepared and processed my visa, stamped my passport, and I had a Schengen visa in a jiffy! I did not have to stand in long queues, go through painful interviews, or anything like that. He saved me all that trouble. I was marvelling at how easily I got the visa just by thinking out of the box and wording my query differently. Moreover, I did not need to show any insurance. This embassy was much more liberal than the bureaucratic German systems or even the French for that matter.

A week prior to my trip, the few students from Singapore selected for the symposium were invited to luncheon with the Swiss ambassador, and that day happened to be my birthday, 8 May. So, although I could not go home, there was a celebration after all, a grand one at that! 

__________________

FUN FACTS:

  1. Germany has a transport system called Mitfahrgelegenheit. Many Germans travel in their private cars from one city to another for work purpose on a daily basis. So, there is an opportunity to take other people along in their cars who also want to travel the same route on any particular day. Basically, it allows you to hitch-hike in a more systematic fashion. For example, let’s say you are driving from Heidelberg to Stuttgart on Friday at 3:00 p.m. and have three empty seats in your car. You put up the information on a website and those who need to travel that same route on Friday will contact you. There is a general meet and drop off point, usually the train station. One car may accommodate four other passengers and make some money instead of its owner travelling alone. This system also works in parts of Switzerland and Austria. You travel with absolute strangers in the same car where no two people know each other. Those days there was no concept of Uber or Ola. I used Mitfahrgelegenheit to move from city to city and paid eight euros, travelling in the comfort of a private car, instead of 80 euros one way on the euro rail, thereby saving ten times the transport fare! It benefits both the driver and the passenger; one makes some bucks, the other saves some bucks. Isn’t it cool, this car pool?
  2. As part of our final year project, I had created a German website, where we presented eight interesting infrastructures in Singapore. For example, the Esplanade edifice is in the shape of two durians. Durian is the national fruit of Singapore; it looks and tastes a bit like jackfruit, only that it smells awful and its stink can be perceived even from a distance! We were only four students who completed the entire course up to advanced level. Each of us worked on two exquisite buildings. This website titled ‘Zeichen der Schönheit’, meaning ‘Signs of Beauty’ is still archived at the NUS German language faculty online platform where one can listen to audio recordings in German from us, describing the buildings.

Addendum: Europe was enchanting. Switzerland, breathtaking! And dream destination, Deutschland, paradisiac! Finally, I had reached the coveted country. I visited all my exchange friends in Germany and stayed at their houses or hostel dorms for free. One of them even drove me to see the castles of Strasbourg at the French border, so I did go to France after all! Living my dreams, I smiled from ear to ear. This is what it must mean to live your dreams! I thought to myself. Everything about this trip was magical.

Coincidentally, just when I was in Germany, the soccer 2006 FIFA World Cup was being hosted by the country. I got to watch some of the beginning matches in the open-air biergartens (beer gardens) along with my friends when Germany was winning all the games and the proud citizens loudly cheering, honking on the roads, basically going bonkers. Germany had played really well that year, finishing in third place, rendering my first voyage outside of Asia truly memorable.

When I returned, all I wanted was to go back to Deutschland. I had found a different type of exchange programme at my university that helped students and recent graduates work in foreign countries instead of studying. So, I applied. I want to go back to Germany. Work there. Live there. I love it, I thought to myself. Instead, life took me to Africa. Because it had other plans for me!

Indian food—lentil curry and veggies for my German hosts
German food Knödel prepared by my host

8.

Have Faith

How Faith helped me leave Africa

Leaving the continent was no piece of cake, if not for my encounter with Faith

I was in Africa for almost a year and a half, between April 2007 and September 2008 on two different internships. First, I lived in the capital city of Abuja for a few months working at NigMUNS along with another exchanger from Germany, Mitchel. But we had a violent boss who picked up fights with us and did not treat us well, did not pay us on time, and was basically horrible, with no ethics or etiquettes. One day, he had a physical fight with Mitchel, who started bleeding in his hand. That was when we both decided to quit. While Mitchel went back to Germany, I stayed back in Nigeria to explore further opportunities. As it was my decision to go to Africa, despite objections from my parents, I could not return having failed in my mission. I was determined to make it work. Also, I wanted to know more about life and its perks in the African continent. This is when I travelled to another city, Lagos, that was said to have more opportunities. There, I found a job at a lower salary, US$200 monthly, with Goge Africa, a TV show in Africa and the diaspora about African culture by the celebrity couple Mr and Mrs Moss. As I worked for them, I lived in their house. Since they did not pay me much, food and accommodation were on them.

Life in Africa was difficult. Besides general poverty, civil unrest, crime, extreme corruption, and inflation had made it seemingly tough for even the locals to lead a decent lifestyle. Then there were days when the cities would go dry with no fuel for the Nigerians as oil prices hiked manifold. That is ironic because Nigeria is one of the world’s leading oil producers. Sometimes, when I went on my marketing sprees to get sponsorships for my work from different companies, I would get stuck on the road for hours without even the option to stop by at a restaurant and eat something. The traffic took hours to clear. There were times when I got home, starving, and there was no dinner as my boss had gone out partying, hence did not keep food. There was no electricity in the evenings or during the day and scarcity of water made it impossible for me to cook frequently. Moreover, there were no restaurants near our house. We already lived in the unsafe locality of Surulere, where gang fights were common, distances were long, transport system was poor, and the areas were dangerous to venture out alone at nights, especially for a young foreigner like me. Those days, I went to bed hungry, without any food whatsoever. I used to drink what was called pure water that came in little plastic packets, and once a packet was opened, its entire content needed to be consumed or the remnants thrown away as there was no filter or storage system, and tap water only came for a couple of hours with which food was prepared or stored for toilet and bathing purposes in filthy tanks with frogs swimming in them. The ‘pure water’ and the plastic packet that I had to tear with my teeth stank horribly of chemicals that I can still smell just by thinking about it. Besides, the folks I lived with were not the most caring.

But good times followed too. Eventually, during my stay there, I created many bonds and beautiful friendships through my work. Fast forward, towards the end of my stay in Africa, I met other families that gave me love, invited me to expensive luncheons, dinners, and ironically, the family I lived with always had food for me then, but I was not always there to eat as I had invitations. In the one year that I worked for them, I managed to open new business opportunities and brought some profit to their company. And now that I had made all these wonderful connections, they suddenly became extra nice and affectionate towards me. My boss even called me her own daughter. When it was time for me to leave, she wanted me to stay, or go home and come back to continue working for them. But I was done. They started caring about me because they had seen my value, because I had been useful to their business. But when I was vulnerable and needed their love, they treated me harshly.

At a Goge Africa Foundation event I co-organised
At a Nigerian wedding with locals in Ashwebi

I was ready to leave the continent, after creating for myself what I needed for a comfortable lifestyle there. I was offered jobs at some of the other companies, where I got sponsorships from, with fat salaries. I knew had I stayed longer, I would have an easy, luxurious life. But I did not wish to stay there anymore.

However, leaving Africa was no easy chore. After working for more than a year and saving every month, I still had not managed to accumulate even half the ticket money needed to fly back to India. No matter which travel agency I called up, all quoted me a price more than double of what I had saved. And I could not even ask anyone for money. I did not imagine the ticket prices would be so high. When I flew to Africa from India, I had paid much less. But due to the inflation in Nigeria, buying a ticket from there was more than double the price. What I had with me, including my last month’s salary, was barely 150k nairas, and the ticket prices started from 350k nairas one way. How am I ever gonna leave this place? I wondered in dismay. Surely my boss would not help me financially. It seemed like leaving the continent would be impossible without slogging for another year or so before I could pay for the ticket. And yet I needed to depart within a certain date. I had no idea how I would leave Nigeria with so little money. Only a miracle could take me out of there.

Then one day, while taking my bucket bath, something within told me, ‘Have faith, you will go.’ As I dressed for work, I had a thought, what if I go to the airlines offices directly and ask them to find me a cheap ticket instead of calling up these travel agencies? Usually, airlines charge even more money but I had to try all my options.

I took half the day off work and went to Victoria Island, the posh part of Lagos city. First, I went to Qatar Airways. When I met the official at the desk, I told him the ticket prices were too expensive and I could not afford it but needed to go home. I also told him when I travelled from India to Nigeria, I had paid less than half. The official was sympathetic towards my situation and decided to help me. He searched through his system for several minutes and all prices were over ₦300k. I could see his face, which showed no hope. I urged him to search further. Oh god, one day, one slot, one miracle is all I need, I prayed silently. I did not mind any number of long transits on the way. After searching the system for a while, suddenly, his face lit up. He had found one day, just one slot that matched close to what I could pay! It was almost half the usual price. Every other day the price was more than double. ‘Book that day for me,’ I exclaimed in utter amazement! He booked it and told me to buy the ticket within seven days, after which they could not hold the booking for me at that price. I put the booking slip into my handbag and thanked him profusely.

What a strange stroke of luck! It was indeed a good idea to come here! I mused as I left the airlines office. The price was still more than what I could afford, but at least now I could imagine flying. It was about ₦160k, and I barely had ₦150k, which included any other last-minute expenditure I might incur there. I decided to try my luck further. If Qatar Airways could give me that price, then I could show it to another airline and ask for a cheaper deal! Wow, my mind was running; was I cunning?

I went to Ethiopian and Turkish Airlines next, anticipating they might have further discounts for me. I was more hopeful than before. But unfortunately, I had no luck with either. Their prices were much higher than what Qatar Airways had quoted. They could not even match the QA price. I was disheartened, still hoped against hope. One last try, I told myself. Egyptian Airlines was nearby, so I walked in. It was full of people and there were long queues at all the counters. With that kind of crowd, I did not imagine the officials would have much patience with me. I took a seat at a corner to wait for the crowd to subside. As I watched the dealings with other clients, I observed the officials were quite rude to them. I could not imagine they would be kind to me in any way; I was vulnerable and did not feel like talking to them. Customer service in highly corrupted societies like Nigeria was nil. They didn’t care much to be polite or friendly. But the system was so corrupted, desperation and inflation were so high, that people accepted such behaviour as normal. I thought my share of miracles for the day was over. I got up to leave, but as I went to the exit, it had started raining heavily and I had no umbrella. I came back and sat down again, watching the dealings at the counters. I noticed a particular strange-looking girl with no hair on her head, being shouted at twice as she desperately tried to get some flight deals. She had stood in the long queues and awaited her turn. Then she was yelled at and turned down at the desk. She went back again at another counter, queuing up once more and the same treatment recurred.

Poor thing, I thought and had no wish of repeating that same fate for myself. I got up to leave for the second time, but it was still raining. Inside was mayhem. I stood at the exit, under a shed, watching the rains, contemplating, waiting for the downpour to stop so I could go back to work, when suddenly I realised someone was staring at me. It was that strange-looking girl with no hair on her head who was also standing at the exit. She had an umbrella but did not go out. When our eyes met, she smiled at me.

‘Did you get your travel deals?’ She asked me curiously because she had seen me walking in and out of the office twice. I was the only ‘white’ girl there, so pretty noticeable I suppose. I smiled back, deciding to share my woes with her in the hope that her own misery would lessen. I had witnessed how she was mistreated and, possibly, had not got her flight deal either. I assumed she was another wretched passenger like me, desperately trying to find cheaper tickets. I told her about my booking with Qatar Airways to India for ₦160k but that I wanted something cheaper, within ₦150k, as I did not have any more to pay. She asked to see my booking slip and I showed it to her. She took one look at it and told me that she was a travel agent and could give me a further discount of ₦10k on that ticket, a price I could just pay! I could not believe my ears, what was happening? Wow, another miracle? Double miracle in a single day?

She scribbled her address on a piece of paper: 

Asua Travels,
Williams Street,
Lagos Island

‘Come to my office next week with the money to purchase your ticket,’ she said. I carefully folded the paper and put it into my handbag. ‘You’re my angel,’ I smiled, ‘you have no idea how much I needed this discount; you saved me!’ I still could not believe it; I was overjoyed, like a child who was conferred a much-coveted candy. She laughed when she saw my exuberant face. I thanked her, then took leave of this benevolent stranger.

‘Oh, by the way, what’s your name?’ I asked the girl before parting.

‘Faith,’ said she.

‘You have a beautiful name. I’ve never met anyone with that name before.’ I waved goodbye and quickly turned away as I did not want her to see the tears welled up in my eyes that had already started rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably.

***

Money comes, money goes. Money is an energy that flows. It is not to be held tightly, nor to be misused. It is to be enjoyed and understood for its purpose in our lives. I pondered my experience of meeting Faith and encountering two miracles the same day. Okay, I had faith in life, faith in God, but actually meeting someone with the name Faith who helped me out of this sticky situation was magical. Have faith, you will go, was what that inner voice had told me only a few hours prior. It almost felt like the abracadabra kind of magic, the pie-in-the-sky kind of story. Abracadabra in Hebrew means ‘I shall create as I speak’. Finally, I was ready to leave Africa. It was about time! And the universe knew how to deliver my dreams exactly, a grand synchronicity.

I must have learned what my soul came here to learn, that’s why now the entire universe is helping me leave… successful and accomplished! During the one and a half years that I was in Africa, I had learnt many a thing.

Faith is all you need to hold the hands of destiny.

__________________

FUN FACTS:

  1. In Nigerian weddings, the bride buys in bulk one particular print of what is called Ankara, their local fabric, and all her girl-friends buy a couple of meters of that cloth from her to help with the wedding expenses They then get their own dresses stitched in whatever style each prefers; it is almost like a wedding uniform and is called Ashwebi or Asoebi. These bridesmaids form a trail behind the bride dancing as she walks to the pedestal for the ceremony. I too had a chance to get a couple of Asoebis stitched to attend local weddings. Also like in India there used to be the tradition of ‘dowry’ where the girl’s family had to pay the groom’s family, in Nigeria it is the opposite. There is a ‘bride price’ the man pays to get married, and to prove to the bride’s father that he can provide for her for life!
  2. While working with Goge Africa, I had a chance to travel along the West Coast from Nigeria through Benin Republic and Togo to Ghana on a road trip, and capture their culture. It was fascinating! And although initially I found the West African food strange, eventually I developed quite a taste for their jollof rice, moin moin, suya, akara, amala, pounded yam, garri, ewa, egusi soup, pepper soup, the slimy okro soup, cassava, boli, and fried plantains. 
  3. They want fast and easy money; there is so much fraud culture in Nigeria that people go to extreme lengths in crafting intelligent ways to swindle others. This scam tradition is so rampant they even make music about it. When I was there, the Yahooze song was a popular number that glorified fraudulent activities. As I crossed youngsters on the streets dancing to its tune, I watched all their hip shaking and head nodding with much amusement.
  4. Near the Murtala Muhammed International airport in Lagos, there is a huge signboard that says: The Happiest Place in the World! Yes, the optimistic Nigerians are proud because they are suffering and smiling.

9.

The Priceless Gift

How the Universe met my desires

Leaving Africa posed further hurdles, but life was on my side

Can beggars be choosers? Why not? Well, I guess I was reduced close to a beggar in Africa. I did not have to be poor to live poorly. And perhaps at a higher level, my soul had chosen these circumstances for me to evolve and expand, so I could learn how to survive and be on my own. I now believe it was all ground work for what I was meant to do here on earth.

There was more to my African story. I was actually travelling to India from Nigeria via Germany. This was because one of my very close German friends, whom I had met in Singapore during her exchange tenure, was getting married and she wanted me to attend her wedding so much that she was willing to pay me the priest’s fee! She was having an uncommon wedding, without a priest, so she offered to pay me this money once I was in Germany. The Qatar Airways ticket I had purchased was actually from Nigeria to Germany, then a month later Germany to India. I wanted to spend a month in Germany and revisit some of my other exchange friends as well. And the money she offered would suffice for this stay.

She also offered to pay the deposit of 1,500 euros for the Verpflichtungserklärung this time and buy me a month’s travel insurance, which were necessary documents for a German tourist visa. Without insurance one was not allowed to travel to the country. She was doing all this for me just so I could be at her wedding! Now, I had applied for a German visa in Lagos. Usually, the procedure of acquiring a European visa was lengthy, especially in Nigeria, and it took more than three months to process everything. But I had only one month and no other choice. If I went late, I would miss her wedding. And I had already bought my non-refundable tickets to India via a month’s layover in Germany from Faith. If, by any chance, the embassy delayed in giving me the visa, I would lose all the money I had painstakingly accumulated for the tickets. And selecting the visa interview slot was an online process that could not be done manually. After scouring the dates, the earliest slot I could find was a couple of business days before my flight on 27 August 2008. My interview date with the German embassy was on 22 August, which was a Friday, so the embassy would literally have one business day to process the visa and give it to me before my flight! I just hoped against hope that they would process my visa within a day, when normally it took at least a few weeks. What was I thinking? Surely, I was crazy. But I had no other option. If I did not take the risk, there was no chance I could even travel. I had faith in my dreams. That was all I was banking on, yet again expecting a miracle.

As if this was not enough, I had more obstacles to surmount, even more monstrous than the previous hurdles. A couple of weeks prior to my travel, one night, I was awakened to find my bed floating in water! Outside was thunder. It was raining so hard that my room was flooded and the wooden bed I was sleeping on was floating! All my belongings were submerged. I had a room downstairs while the family lived upstairs. It was pitch-dark. Usually, electricity came at the wee hours of night and there were open sockets, plug points, on the walls near the floor that were all under water. I could not shout or scream in the middle of the night; the rains were loud enough to subdue my voice. My phone was out of reach and uncharged. I was scared of going down my bed because the water was touching the open sockets and I could be electrocuted. So, I stayed put in my bed without any clue whatsoever. I was scared. I thought I was going to die. The incessant rains continued to flood the room with no one by my side to give me solace.

Towards dawn, finally one of the family members came downstairs and called for me. The rains had stopped but there was water everywhere. Everything in the house was floating, including their 4×4 car in the garage. I knew that there was no electricity at dawn. So, I came down my bed and was thinking how to salvage my belongings and documents when, suddenly, the dreaded thought occurred to me—my passport! I had to travel in two weeks! I groped in the darkness through the waters and found it… soaking wet! Everything was under the water—my books, certificates, documents, expensive clothes, sarees, jewelleries, underwear, shoes—everything was damaged. My boss’ family lived upstairs and, knowing the rains, they had never told me that it could flood that bad. Apparently, it happened every year. That area of Surulere, where we lived, got inundated annually because the drainage system was poor and all the trash of the city wafted across every street for the next few days. Had I known this, I could have at least saved my passport and important documents upstairs in one of their rooms.

That morning I rushed to the Indian embassy in Lagos and showed them the damaged passport. They took one look at it and told me I could not use it to travel as all the seals were smudged. They asked me to apply for a new passport, which usually took a long time to issue, but I showed them my tickets to Germany. I could not wait that long. So, they informed me that an emergency passport could be issued within a week, but it would be valid for one year only and asked me to reapply for a new passport once I got back to India. My now damaged passport had been recently issued in Singapore and was valid for ten years. Yet I had no choice but to cancel it and collect the emergency passport, then do the entire process all over again in India for a new passport. Additionally, I had to pay ₦10k to get this emergency passport issued.

Wow, where on earth will I get the money from? I’ve spent all my money on the tickets! I mused in despair. I only had a few bucks left with me to pass the next few days, frugally, before my flight. I felt the family/my boss should contribute part of the money, but I knew they would not give me a dime more than my salary, and they had already paid my last month’s salary in advance. My boss actually wanted me to stay longer and continue to work for them; it was my choice to leave. So, she was definitely not going to dash me any money, she would just tell me to earn it. They were not the nicest people, and I could not ask them for any monetary favours. The least they could have done was to tell me about the floods so I would not have had to face this situation. And without a new passport I could not travel. If I missed my flight, I would lose all the money—my 1.5 years’ savings in Nigeria. Unable to see any solution in front of me whatsoever, I prayed desperately: ‘Dear God, please send me 10,000 nairas from somewhere, anywhere… I want to leave this place in one piece.’

Some of the families I knew in Lagos, who had become my friends, invited me to stay at their house for the next few days, while the place where I lived recuperated from the damage. I accepted their invitations. I had told them the floods had destroyed my belongings and they were sorry about my plight. I did not even have clean, dry underwear. They knew I was travelling out of Lagos in a couple of weeks and lunch and dinner invitations were pouring in anyway. At the same time, I had to run around to fix my passport and other things that I had salvaged after the rains. I informed the exchange organisation about the damage but they could not help at all. Their office was also affected by the rains, and the condition of those students was not any better than mine. Neither could they help me monetarily.

I told my German friend, whose wedding I was to attend, about the floods. She had already invested so much money by buying the travel insurance for me and paying the deposit for the Verpflichtungserklärung. She was sad because she had given up hope of seeing me at her wedding, especially when I told her about my damaged passport and the late visa interview date. Time was scarce. I was fighting impossible circumstances.

Sharing my monetary situation with anyone, absolutely anyone, seemed very odd to me. I did not share it with my German friend either thinking, what would she think? She was doing so much for me already that I did not have the heart to tell her I could be stuck in Africa because of ₦10k. So, I just prayed for help.

Two days later, I visited one of the families I had befriended. Sometimes, I used to go to their house on weekends to eat home-cooked food and help their little daughter with her mathematics as well. I had met them during one of my marketing sprees. They were very nice and often invited me on the weekends to stay over. They knew about the floods. I stayed one night at their place but had to leave the following day. I was working until the last day of my stay there, as I had taken my last month’s salary in advance to pay for the tickets. The father of the little girl slipped something inside my bag while I was playing with her and told me to open it once I got home. I could not even imagine what it might be, so I decided to play along. When I finally got back that evening, I took out the sealed envelope from my bag and opened it carefully. And then my jaw dropped. I started howling. I counted the money again and again and again. Inside was ₦10,000 delivered by the universe at my doorstep. I cried and cried till my tears dried. It was a priceless gift, a synchronicity, a miracle!

How could they know I needed exactly this? I could not believe my eyes! I had not shared my money situation with them. I did not even tell them that I had to pay for my passport. I had just prayed for ₦10k and God took care of it. The entire universe truly conspires to meet your desires.

The following day I went back to the Indian embassy, paid the money, and got an emergency passport issued. I then had about a week left and was waiting for my German visa interview. It was the last hurdle I had to overcome… hopefully.

Before going for the interview, I checked and re-checked all my documents to make sure I had everything. There could no way be an occasion of sending me back for missing documents; I would lose the slot and the chance to go to Germany. Thus, there was no negotiating around it. But when I arrived at the interview venue, something was not right. I think my photo did not meet their requirements. I was already at the embassy when I was told this as I stood at the queue outside, awaiting my turn. It was a hot afternoon and going out into the city to get the photo done would cause delay, and I could not afford any delays. I looked around and luckily a photographer was hovering near the embassy, who offered to make some instant photos for a fee. Pay again? Whatever little pocket money I had left with me, I used it to get the photos. Paying my okada fare in exchange for the photos meant walking at least an hour to get back. But I did not mind. Then I was ready for my interview.

At the interview, we had to stand behind a counter where one could not even see the interviewer’s face properly through the mesh window. He asked me a few questions and I answered them all. Then I asked him how long it would take to process the visa and he said a few weeks minimum. My heart was in my throat. I showed him my ticket date and asked if he could process the visa within a day. He flatly declined as if I had made a ridiculous request, saying they never processed visas so fast. I panicked. I told him I had to go home to India via Germany as this wedding was important for me to attend. The wedding date could not be postponed; it was in the first week of September, and I did not get any earlier interview slot online. That was when he took another look at my passport and said, ‘Oh you’re not a Nigerian! Fine, we will process your application on Monday as we are closing now. Come back on Tuesday to collect your visa.’

What? I was pleasantly surprised. I could not help but marvel at just how lucky I got as my flight was on Wednesday. And so, I did get my German visa processed in a single day! I felt reality was literally bending for me.

I made it to Germany. But before that, one of the connections I had made in Nigeria—a Bengali aunty—had become my good friend. I had casually told her one day that I would be going to Germany for my friend’s wedding, and my brother who lived in England would come for a couple of days to visit me there. I had not seen him in a long time and I wanted to give him a small gift. Those days, he had just finished university and was starting work. He loved wearing double cuff shirts, so I wanted to get him a pair of cufflinks and had asked her for recommendations as in where I could buy them. Later, I had looked for them, but they were expensive so I could not buy as I had no money left. Then after the floods and everything happened, she invited me to her house for dinner. I stayed back the night and as I was taking her leave the following day, she gave me a little box and an envelope. When I opened the box, my jaw dropped. There was a beautiful pair of cufflinks that she had purchased for me, and in the envelope was US$50 that she gave me as a gift, which I could keep with me for any emergency. I had not told her of my financial situation either. I had resigned to flying to Europe via a long overnight transit in Doha, Qatar, with not a dollar in my wallet. But she must have anticipated it, my godsent angel. So, I did not travel to Germany with ‘nothing’; I had 50 USD in my wallet until I met my friend at the Frankfurt International airport who handed me another envelope full of money that was more than enough to last me a whole month in Europe. Can beggars be choosers? Hell yeah, they can be queens if they so choose!

Before leaving Nigeria, my boss threw me a surprise farewell party. They took my phone and invited all my newfound contacts at the farewell. Perhaps they wanted to keep in touch with my business contacts, which included the families that had given me so much love and affection. I did not know when that happened, I mean, when my boss’ daughter took my phone and got all the numbers from there with me unaware. But one day I was visiting a Slovakian friend who had been there on exchange before and was now settled in Nigeria, to say goodbye. I stayed the night at her house and the following day she and her Naija boyfriend told me they would give me a lift back home in their car. Instead, they took me to the farewell venue. It was close to where I worked. When I asked them why they stopped there, they told me they had some work to do on the way, before they could drive me home and asked me to accompany them. When I went upstairs, I got the shock of my life. There were so many people. All of them were familiar faces. Only then it dawned on me that this was my own farewell, a grand surprise at that! They even filmed it; watch this video for my reaction and salsa dancing: youtube.com/watch?v=jiNyPC3DXXs. I was not properly attired for it, but who cares?

My boss’ son gave me a lift to the airport in his car so I saved the cab fare! Finally, they did me a favour!

Addendum: While Mitchel and I worked in Abuja, we travelled to Lagos once for some office work along with our boss at NigMUNS. It was then that one of the locals took us to a mall in Victoria Island where young people were dancing salsa. When I first watched them dancing, I had a deep yearning to be able to dance like that myself. I was mesmerised. It was all so beautiful, the dance steps, the music, the rhythm, the ease with which the couples were flowing, just so romantic and fantastic. Couple dancing was not so common in Asia and I longed to learn to dance like that with a man. He told us there was a local bar where they taught salsa. I wanted to learn and he offered to take me there, but at the time we lived too far away in Abuja. Still those vivid dancing couples stayed in my memory. Then couple of months later, when our Abuja internship failed and I went to Lagos, I asked him to take me to the salsa bar since he was from Lagos. He took me there and I realised Rita Lori, the salsa club, was just behind my new workplace at Goge Africa! And the timing was also perfect because when work ended, salsa dancing began in the evenings. So, three times a week, after work, I went there to learn salsa. I even managed to convince my boss’ son to go with me one day. After a lot of persuasion, he agreed, and then got hooked. So, he too attended the salsa classes and I got a ride back home in his car most nights since Nigeria was dangerous any which way for a lone girl to traverse after dark.

A few months later, I felt like I had learned enough, so I stopped going to the salsa club. I got busy with work but my boss’ son continued. One night, he came home all scratched and bleeding in his limbs. He told me some armed robbers had entered the club and robbed the bar. They even shot some people. He managed to stealthily go to the back of the club from behind the crowd and jump into a sewer to escape. If I were there, I am not sure how I might have escaped. Being a foreigner, a white exotic girl there, I suppose I would have been their first target. I thanked my stars for having left the salsa classes just prior to the robbery.

Before leaving Naija, I was invited to dance at that same shopping mall in Victoria Island where I had first witnessed the salsa dancing. Finally, I had fulfilled my original dream, to dance like them, in that exact same spot. Not only that, I also did another salsa performance at a local event in Lagos; I wish I had a video of it, but those days people rarely made videos.

And yet it was the beginning of my encounter with Latin culture. For little did I know then that my next grand adventure would land me in the heart of Latin America!


12.

The Magical Catatumbo

How forgetfulness saved our lives

Confronting the ruthless Venezuelan military and the Catatumbo

In the wee hours of 18 April 2009, I embarked upon yet another grand voyage of the heart, the farthest I had ever ventured. After flying more than 30 hours over several latitudes and longitudes across the planet, I finally set foot on Venezuelan soil in South America; it was the same date 18 April. Wow, I just time travelled! I mused. I flew nearly 33 hours and reached here the same day I left there, warping time and space. I just left my future and came to the past, my musings lingered. And hey, now I’m a day younger! I laughed to myself.

I was in Venezuela for two years, between April 2009 and March 2011 on yet another internship. I lived in Maracaibo, in the state of Zulia, which also bordered Colombia, and travelled throughout the country with other foreign interns and volunteers there, visiting many tourist spots, including long treks to flat-top mountains called tepuis bordering the Amazonian jungles and the world’s highest waterfall, Angel falls (Spanish: Salto Angel). Tepuis or tepuys, also called mesa, are huge tabletop mountains found only in South America, and we hiked to the highest tepui, Roraima in the Canaima National Park, which extends into the Amazon.

Atop flattop Roraima

I worked as an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher there, having taught English and Business Communication to locals of all age groups at Wall Street Institute (WSI) and Centro Venezolano Americano del Zulia (CEVAZ), and lived with the Contreras family who loved me like their own daughter. I loved them equally, if not more.

This incident happened during that time when I was in between jobs, as I had just finished an exchange year at WSI and was waiting to join CEVAZ. My Venezuelan visa was initially valid for a year only, but as I was going to be there longer, I had to renew it in the capital city of Caracas. The immigration had given me a temporary document that said my visa was under a renewal process, as my earlier visa had already expired.

In Venezuela, we were supposed to carry our identities with us at all times, everywhere we went, because at any point we could be stopped by the police or military to check our documents. And if we did not have the documents on us, they could harass or fine us. Venezuela, being an extremely corrupted and crime-infested country, I had already heard horrible stories from my colleagues, students, and the family I lived with, about incidents of murder, violence, kidnap, rape, robbery, with not much regard for life in this nation. The current political situation in the country would make anyone shiver. And when I was there, it was not much better under the Chavez regime.

During those days a new exchange intern had arrived from Poland at our house. Her name was Beatriz and, like me, she too believed in magic. Having spent over a year in Venezuela, I had already visited many of the renowned tourist spots and was a bit tired of travelling by then. But Beatriz had just arrived in Venezuela and wanted me to travel with her to some places of interest.

I remember it was a long weekend and the following Monday was a public holiday. I had agreed to go see the magical Catatumbo with her, since that was something I had not seen yet and itched to witness the spectacle with my own eyes. Relámpago del Catatumbo (Catatumbo lightning) is a special phenomenon where one can see multicoloured lightning in the sky, with flashes often visible up to ten hours per night. It is an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. The Catatumbo River rises in northern Colombia and flows into Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. The river is approximately 340 km long and forms a part of the international boundary between the two countries.

The lightning initiates from a mass of storm clouds at a height above 1 km. It hovers around Lake Maracaibo, typically over the marshland formed where the Catatumbo River flows into the Maracaibo Lake. It changes frequency throughout the year and is different from year to year. The everlasting electrical storms occur most nights of the year over the same part of the lake. The phenomenon has also been known for centuries as the ‘Lighthouse of Maracaibo’ as it is observable from miles around Lake Maracaibo.

Beatriz and I decided to travel there on Saturday and stay a night to witness this electrifying lightning show of nature. It was exciting because we had to stay in a palafito. Palafitos are lake houses standing on wooden stakes, stilts, pillars, or bamboo sticks, and of course, this one was in the middle of Lake Maracaibo with the mangroves nearby. We each packed a little backpack with some basic essentials and snacks. I took out my passport, the document from the Venezuelan immigration, and kept them on my bedside table to put into my handbag once I was done packing.

Finally, Beatriz and I set out for our trip. While I had picked up bits of Spanish by then and could somehow manage basic conversation, Beatriz knew nothing. And of course, we were both foreigners in the country, both exotic looking girls, therefore attracted much attention from the public in general. Men of all kinds and ages made passes at us all the time as it was a free society.

Since it was a public holiday weekend, transport was scarce that day. Once we reached the bus terminal, we could not find any buses that would take us near the Maracaibo Lake. We looked for alternatives and found these rundown shared cars called carritos that would go only when they had a full load of passengers. So, we had to wait quite a bit for a car bound our destination to be filled with other passengers.

Finally, there were three other passengers who wanted to go the same direction as us and we all boarded the carrito. We had already paid our fares for the trip in advance and our car was supposed to drop us off at a jetty point from where we could take a boat to the palafitos. As the car started, I casually went through the contents of my handbag to check that everything was in place, and was shocked to realise that I had left my passport and the paper from the immigration on my bedside table, and forgotten to put them in!

I panicked. We already had other passengers in the car and this was a public transport. If we let it go, we would not find another transport that day. I told Beatriz about it and she had a dismal face because I could not travel without the documents. I did not want to disappoint her now as it had taken her a lot of persuasion to make me agree to go with her. I asked the driver in broken Spanish if he would be kind enough to drive to our house first so I could quickly pick up the documents, then we would set off for the journey. I offered to pay him some extra cash and he agreed. The other passengers did not seem to mind either. He drove us all to our house; I jumped out of the car, rushed into my room, took the documents, and jumped back into the car in a jiffy. I was happy, everyone was happy, and Beatriz was excited as we set off on our journey to see the magical Catatumbo.

It was a long drive in the Maracaibo heat. Afternoons were the worst and, just by sitting in the car, we got weary and thirsty. After some hours, we had to stop at a military checkpoint for all passengers’ identities to be inspected. It was a lonely place, in the middle of nowhere, and there were some military officers who stopped our car for checking. There were no other vehicles or cars around travelling that direction that day that time.

I took out the passport and the immigration paper from my bag and suddenly noticed that the document had a space for date that was blank. The immigration in Caracas had not filled it and I realised there was no mention of when it was issued. I checked the date my previous Venezuelan visa had expired in my passport, then took out a pen and filled the vacant date field in the document with that date so the military could understand that it was valid from the day my previous visa had expired. That was the biggest error I had committed.

Beatriz, being from Poland was tall, white, blonde with sparkling blue eyes, and Venezuelan men were very attracted to Caucasian girls in general. So, she did draw a lot of attention. Compared to her, I was short, brown with black hair and black eyes, which was another exotic look for the Latinos. We all got off the car and two of the military officials surveyed our documents. When it came to me, they saw my passport and the sheet of paper from the immigration, then took them to their chief for reviewing. Beatriz and I stared at each other. My intuition was already telling me we were in trouble. The chief came out of his little office and as soon as he saw two exotic, foreign girls in the middle of nowhere, he probably started getting crooked ideas in his head. He asked Beatriz and me to take all our belongings from the car and go into his office. Then he told our car driver to leave with the other passengers.

We had no clue he had told the driver to leave because we were in his office. He then opened each of our bags, went through all our stuff, touching our intimate clothes, food, and other belongings. I was vigilant while Beatriz stood there stupefied, not knowing what to say or do. She did not understand a word in Spanish. With my little knowledge of the language, I was trying hard to comprehend what was happening. Then he took Beatriz’s phone and gave a missed call to his own phone from hers so that he could have her number. I watched, horrified, as he did that while Beatriz was looking the other way.

God always helps in dire times, if only we would have faith. What happened next was a miracle that, to this day, Beatriz and I marvel at. Suddenly, the car driver came back to us. He found me and was about to speak when I heard one of the military men reprimanding him, demanding to know why he had returned when they had clearly asked him to leave a while ago. I could understand what he was saying in Spanish. I had thought we were only called into the office for further questioning and then they would release us. We were two innocent girls and it was apparent we were no criminals. But now I was appalled. Why did they ask the driver to leave? There were no other vehicles around that day, it was a public holiday, and how would we both reach our destination? I could not understand the motive behind all this, but I could see the dirty looks the military head was giving Beatriz and sensed what was going on in his mind. I demanded an explanation. That was when I realised my mistake! The blank space for date in that document said vence, which in Spanish meant expiry. So, basically, the date I thought I had put as the ‘Date of Issue’ was actually the ‘Date of Expiry’ of that document. The immigration had left that field vacant so it could be valid indefinitely until my next visa was issued. Since I did not know the meaning of the word ‘vence’, I thought it meant the issue date. Hence, the document had already expired before it even began to take effect!

Oh god, oh god, oh god, my heart skipped several beats. We were surely in grave danger. These ruthless military men would not spare us. How could I explain to them that it was me who had written that date without understanding the word ‘vence’? I shivered. This was when the car driver told the military man that he had come back for some remaining money I owed him. Of course, they could not stop him from claiming his money. When he asked me for the money in front of them deliberately, I knew he had not come back for the small money but his magnanimous heart had led him back to us, to rescue us. He couldn’t just leave us girls alone with those merciless men. And the other passengers also knew the danger Beatriz and I were in. So, they all had endangered their lives, waiting for us in the far distance inside the carrito to save us!

I whispered to the driver not to leave without us and he nodded surreptitiously. I then demanded an explanation for detaining us there and why he had asked our driver to leave without informing us. The military head was surprised by my audacity but said they had to check my documents with the immigration in Caracas and since it was a holiday, they had to wait until they could get a signal to speak with them. I asked him how we would reach our destination, the palafitos, and he said he would drop us in his jeep. That sounded fishy. Why would a military man take two foreign girls in his car? Besides, the next two days were public holidays and chances were that he would not get through to Caracas until the first working day, which was Tuesday. Was he planning to detain us two girls for two days in the middle of nowhere? Moreover, I always carried a letter from the exchange organisation in my bag that clearly stated I was a foreign intern in Venezuela, just like Beatriz, which I had shown them. Hence, there was no reason to doubt us. We had already told them everything about us and it was clear we were innocent and that date thing was just a misunderstanding. I could see he did not have clean intentions. Why did he take Beatriz’s number without her permission?

I do not know what came over me next—was it courage, intuition, or plain feminine instinct, but to my surprise, I found myself shouting at this military official. I scolded him for holding us there without reason. Everyone was shocked that a small girl was yelling at their boss double her size and age perhaps. All he had to do was take out his rifle and shoot me in the head and I would drop dead the next instant. Nobody would question him, nor put him behind bars. It was a country where the military ruled and life had no value, as such crimes happened openly. But as I hollered at him in front of the driver, other passengers, his own staff, something in him must have moved. Instead of getting angry or taking me into custody, he handed us back our bags and belongings, and let us go. He even apologised for troubling us. He looked at Beatriz and said, ‘¡disculpa por la molestia!’ I still remember those words vividly. Of course, Beatriz did not understand until I translated it for her: Sorry for the inconvenience!

Triumphant, we boarded back the car. The other passengers smiled at us as our car took off. They told us how the military could harass and kill anybody in the country and we were lucky to have been able to get free. Beatriz and I were the last passengers to be dropped off and I paid the driver not only the money for the extra trip he had made to our house but doubled the amount in tip for saving our lives. He was, after all, our godsent angel.

Later, as Beatriz and I reflected upon the situation, we figured that if I had not forgotten my passport in our house, that car driver would not have had a solid reason to come back for us since he was already ordered to leave, and the two of us would have been stuck with the ruthless Venezuelan military all weekend. I’ll always thank my stars for the lucky set of circumstances that saved our lives and possible rape by the military there. Indeed, the universe has our back at all times!

Maracaibo Lake view from our palafito

Fast forward, we got off at the jetty point and took a boat to the middle of Lake Maracaibo to witness the magical Catatumbo. We camped at a palafito for the night. Beatriz pointed out the first appearance of the lights. It was purple. We spent the evening in hammocks outside and watched the magical lights throughout the night. I noticed the lightning first appeared on the right. Then, after a few hours, it was behind us. Then it was on our left. I figured they were moving from one part of the sky to another, as if revolving. At what point we fell asleep contemplating the lightning, neither of us remember.

The following day one of the locals was fishing and offered to take Beatriz and me on a ride in his boat, showing us the nearby mangroves and other flora and fauna around the lake, catching crabs at the same time and throwing into his basket.

Over all, the Catatumbo trip was truly magical… all the way!

________________

FUN FACTS

  1. The word ‘tepui’ means ‘House of the Gods’ in the native language of the indigenous people from the Great Savanna (Spanish: Gran Sabana) region. The trek to Roraima tepui spans a period of six days, up and down. The mountain is also the triple border point of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. When we climbed it, we had to carry heavy backpacks with sleeping bags, warm clothes, and other essentials. Besides, there were porters on the trail who carried our tents, stove, and food to be cooked at the camps on our way up. Usually, they were the indigenous inhabitants of the Savanna region, the Guajira tribe. We climbed up all day and as we went higher, negotiating rocky and cavernous terrains, it got colder and cloudier. The rains made the trails slippery and falling could be fatal from such heights. I remember the night before we reached the top, it was raining and we were shivering in our tents. I prayed all night for a sunny day the following morning, and it was! We could enjoy the final climb and the view from top. It took us three days to go up and two days to climb down. We stayed two nights on top. On the way, we filled our bottles at the flowing streams, cracked up to be fresh, pure and drinkable. We couldn’t possibly carry water with us for so many days, which would have made our load even heavier. Up there, it was flat without much vegetation. I caught a black adult frog that could fit on the nail of my index finger! We ran into a few other hikers camping nearby, but other than that, it was pretty much empty. All over Roraima mountaintop, the precious quartz was growing, as small as dots to sizes of big rocks in formation. There was a natural Jacuzzi, a dent on the tepui surface filled with rain water with quartz growing along its sides, supposed to be therapeutic due to the healing properties of the rocks and minerals in there. We dipped in it, but one could not be inside longer than a few minutes without freezing. We were not allowed to carry a single quartz rock back with us; however, we were told, sometimes people landed there in helicopters and stole the precious stones.
  2. Yet another touristic attraction was the trip through the Canaima forest to Salto Angel cascading down the Auyantepui. There was no road going into the vast forest, so we had to take the local planes to enter the forest and camp in there. We had planned to go to the falls on a boat trip through the Orinoco River and camp at the basement of the waterfall at night. However, the river was drying up that season and a boat could get stuck. In the end, we went to see the falls on small planes that could accommodate a maximum of six people including the pilot. I got dizzy and nauseous from the undulating ride, and feared a crash as it was so close to the mountain walls. But nothing of that sort happened and we came down safely. Only I had not enjoyed the ride at all.

21.

A Borboleta

How my deceased friend guides my path

Receiving signs from the afterlife became my most magical extravaganza

A borboleta is Portuguese for butterfly. I have always imagined butterflies to be magical creatures. During all these adventures across the globe, when I felt lost, confused, broken, shattered, scattered, dismayed, desperate, alone, hopeless, helpless, questioning life and its meaning, contemplating my purpose here on earth, whenever a butterfly crossed my path, I envisaged an angel from heaven reassuring me on my journey to destiny. To me, the butterfly signified freedom, which I was seeking…

silent soul

as she tiptoed out o’ her cocoon
unto the curiosity of her existence
into the night sky upon the moon
a thirst for clarity and guidance

reflections of her inner silence
torn in a paradoxical reality
questions beckonin’ infinite patience
traversing thru’ time unto eternity
blanketed in a plethora of desire
darkness illuminating her fears
expressions buried in a quagmire
concealed in melancholy, silent tears

as she battles an inner turmoil
navigating omens on her path
bundled in an intimate coil
clouding a metaphoric truth
myriad forms of explanation
an insight into cosmic conscience
seeking purpose with inner vision
love, joy, freedom, renaissance

in her heart the answers dwell
painting rainbows across the sky
as she tiptoes back to her shell
she dreams of the butterfly

I was walking to the lake near our house with my mom that fateful evening in late November of 2016, when from nowhere, a butterfly came fleeting about and alighted on my right shoulder. I was so surprised; who would not want a butterfly to come sit on her shoulder all by itself? At the same time, I had a foreboding feeling.

I was back in India. My parents had recently shifted from New Delhi to Kolkata, and I was visiting home after several years. I felt Kolkata had not changed at all; I was 12 when I had left the East Indian city as I did part of my schooling in Chennai and Delhi—South and North of India—before I left for Singapore for higher studies. And after all these years, as I returned to my birthplace, I found it frozen in time. The neighbourhood I grew up in was still the same, people hadn’t moved—the man who sold snacks outside our house was still there selling the same food; the plumber in our society was still the same man, only with grey hair now; the slum area outside my primary school that stunk of the fish market was still in that same wretched condition; my relatives were still living in the same place as I had seen them over two decades ago and their mindsets were exactly the same. I felt like I had descended from another planet. By then, I changed countries like people changed clothes. I had changed so much over the years, but this city felt like a museum that preserved everything old, including outdated belief systems. I could not connect with anyone anymore. Extreme patriarchy throttled me. I felt a sense of suffocation, like an intruder in my own city, a stranger in my homeland.

When I was a teacher in South and Central America, at the beginning of every new batch, I always asked my students what their dreams were, if they had a passion. Most of them told me their biggest dream was to travel the world.

‘So, what’s stopping you?’ I would ask. 

‘But teacher I don’t have the money.’ 

‘I will travel after I retire.’ 

‘I am saving money to travel in the future.’ 

‘I am building a house so no money to travel now.’ 

‘Are you building a house or are you building your dreams?’ I queried.

‘I am building my dream house, teeaaacherr!’ they said in that sing-song voice. 

Travelling is never about money but about will, I pondered silently. People usually travel for pleasure; rather travelling should be used to expand one’s horizon of thinking. I spent years on the road, with what money, what savings to bank on? Nil! I never even had enough for the tickets. Nonetheless, those were my best adventures, my fondest memories: eating poorly, sleeping on hammocks, not comprehending local dialects, communicating through gestures and symbols, depending on others for my survival, using currencies that were mere paper to me, befriending strangers, adopting strange traditions, breaking cultural barriers, treading lonely street corners hoping I wouldn’t get mugged, getting robbed, putting my faith to test again and again, and after all of it I have discovered a totally new person within me, metamorphosed by the treasures of the heart I amassed over time and space.

I was looking for a place to run. The congested, cluttered, crowded, contaminated streets of Calcutta, aka Kolkata, were not suitable for me to do so and there were no parks nearby. I needed an open space big enough for my marathon runs that could take me into a meditative trance. And so, my mother decided to take me to a nearby lake to see if I could find such a spot. As we walked, the butterfly remained perched on my shoulder without even flinching. Awestruck, I showed it to my mom. She said it meant I would get married soon. Oh, Indian parents are always trying to get their daughters married off! We walked a long stretch, at one point even running to cross the road full of traffic, but the butterfly was oblivion to my movement. Wow, I thought, that’s odd! It wasn’t until we reached the lake that it finally flew away towards the water. I reminisced over the incident for a few minutes, what it might mean, if the little creature had a message for me, and then as I found the canvas of my mind blank, I dropped the thought.

At times, trying to chase my dreams, I felt like I was chasing butterflies, wondering if I would ever catch them. On my magicNine journey, I often wrote about the butterfly symbolising angels. I was so fond of them that on the book cover I even got a butterfly photoshopped onto one of my shoulders! Well then, when a real butterfly comes of its own accord and lands on your shoulder, that is something, isn’t it?

I also know the butterfly is metaphoric of the transition between life and death, just like the caterpillar metamorphoses into the butterfly, one too sheds the body and transforms into spirit at death; many have written about it. The thought that someone might have died did cross my mind, but I brushed it off. Well then, a couple of days later when I found out about Patrick’s sudden demise, I was shaken. Immediately, I knew it was him who had come to visit me that evening in the form of the tiny winged angel, probably the day he had passed onto another dimension.

Patrick Young was an indigo soul with the same eye colour. An indigo is advanced human consciousness with special capacities like intuition, telepathy, claircognizance, clairsentience, etc. They come here on earth to teach, not to learn because they are masters. Patrick was very sensitive. He had an amazing sense of self. He was extremely intelligent with above average IQ. Yet I had the impression he was not happy. He was a troubled young man with huge business success, a school drop-out and a self-made, stinking-rich dude. He had the craziest thoughts and most brilliant ideas. He helped everyone. He gave a piece of himself to anyone he met and left them transformed, mesmerised by his being. He had Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), hence, was on lifelong drugs that messed up his stability. I often used to feel that I did not belong here on earth, I was not good enough, I was not lovable, I was different, a wandering spirit, a misfit in society. But he was a bigger misfit and he was proud of it. He owned it. Seeing him transcended my own thinking. His style of living was exemplary. How his brain worked fascinated me. He inspired my work greatly and I started talking about ADHD, changing people’s misconceptions about it, shedding light from an entirely new spiritual perspective—a truth I had observed in this angelic guy. Not just me, everyone he touched, he gave the same message: Live life king size, live in the now. He was like a child who never dwelled in the past, nor worried about the future. He was barely 30 when he shed his body; on his two arms tattoos were inscribed in bold: FOREVER YOUNG!

While he was in Miami taking his last breath, I was in Kolkata after what seemed like a lifetime. Once we had been close, working together. I felt like we had some inexplicable soul to soul connection, like I could see through him, pierce the veil of his defences, sense his fears without him voicing them, and he knew that. Nevertheless, he left upon me an inerasable mark. His best present to me was to show me how to snatch life in the present, how to live larger than life.

***

The news of his demise disturbed me much. I had just come to India from New York to attend a family function. I planned to stay a couple of months only, do a dance show at a local theatre, then go back. The day after I found out about his death, I was leaving home for my dance class, when I asked the butterfly to visit me again: ‘Pat, if it was you the other day that sat on my shoulder, then come to me today too as a confirmation,’ I pleaded with him silently.

As I was putting on my dance uniform, black tee and black tights, I noticed a white tee lying on my bed; it had a huge butterfly painted on it with the word ‘freedom’ written below. I had got that t-shirt some years ago in Costa Rica when my parents had come to visit me.

Interestingly, I had also met Patrick in Costa Rica, the land of butterflies, a year prior to his demise. We started a tourism project together as business partners, which never saw the light of the day. As I thought of him then, I quickly changed my black tee for this white butterfly tee and left home. I walked the streets of Kolkata with Mom and took the bus to my dance teacher’s house. I had forgotten all about my little prayer until I walked into the dance class and got the surprise of my life. That same coloured butterfly was sitting on the dance floor, miles away from where it had first appeared to me! Didn’t I just ask Pat to come visit me again today as a confirmation? And there he was! It was a winter evening and they kept all doors and windows shut to stop mosquitoes from entering. Still the butterfly had found its way into the apartment to give me that unmistakable sign. There had never been a butterfly inside the dance classroom before or after that day.

I recognised the synchronicity. After a while, the butterfly started flying around the room, then came and landed on my right shoulder again, for the second time! I wanted proof this time; I asked Mom to take a picture. Her phone was in video mode as she was preparing to take a video of the dance rehearsal; not being very good with technology, she clicked the button twice thinking she took two photos, but actually it was a six-second video.

The butterfly perched on my shoulder; it continues to visit me to this day

The butterfly remained on my shoulder for a while until I squatted to take my dance position when it flew off, but did not leave the room. It was with us throughout that class, watching me rehearse for the show I was planning to do before leaving India. The theme of the show was based on my first book and was titled ‘magicNine—the journey of love’.

That night I asked Patrick to tell me how he died. It was a mystery; nobody seemed to know what had happened. I had noticed he was missing from social media for over a week prior to his demise, which was unlike him. I wondered what could have caused this untimely death, hoping he did not have to suffer. That same night I got seriously sick; I might have taken on the role of a physical empath. I got such severe coughs that I had difficulty breathing; it felt like there was a heavy weight on my chest that just would not lift. I spent several nights sitting on my bed, unable to lie down; afraid if I did, I would suffocate and die. I had never experienced that kind of breathlessness before. Ironically, when I first made acquaintance with Patrick, he was down with a horrible cough as well. I hated going to the doctor, but Mom forced me to visit a local polyclinic after coughing incessantly for a few days, unable to sleep at nights. As I walked into the doctor’s chamber, I saw the same coloured butterfly perched on the light. Later, we went to the nearby pharmacy to get my medicines and the butterfly was in there too. Both times I pointed it out to my mom. Was Pat looking over me? Was he there to reassure me? Did he know I was sick? Did he know I worried about him and missed him so? Was he trying to communicate with me? He always tried to help me while he was alive; he even gifted me a new laptop when mine was robbed, so I could work on our business. ‘I want to help you,’ he had said to me earnestly when I had hesitated accepting such an expensive gift. I asked him to be my spirit guide for the rest of this lifetime here on earth. The following morning when I awoke, the same coloured butterfly was inside my room, atop a four-story building, flying around. I took it as a confirmation to my request.

Butterflies were not a common sight in Kolkata, least of all in winter evenings, and yet the butterfly found a way to find me. Patrick continues to visit me to this day; I know it is him because he comes in a way he knows I’ll recognise him. For example, one day as I was getting into a taxi at a crowded place in the city outskirts, there were hundreds of prepaid taxis and even more people waiting in line, anxious to head to their individual destinations. Suddenly, out of nowhere, this beautiful butterfly came and landed on the taxi door just as I was about to get in. I recognised him immediately. He stayed on my side of the window for a long time, until the vehicle was way into the city and when we came to an empty space on the road, flew away. Got a free ride!

I felt he was trying to contact me from the other side, so I decided to channel him through a medium. I found one online but she did not have any free slot until April the following year. I had to wait four months. I still booked her. Meanwhile, I had the dance show in January, which had already been postponed from December. Despite the sickness, despite the interruptions, despite scarcity of time for rehearsals, despite difficulties in finding a theatre at such short notice, I managed to pull off an hour-long show with nine other dancers at a reputed theatre in Kolkata, Rabindra Tirtha. I was scheduled to go back to New York end of the month, before heading to Costa Rica. But a couple of days after the show, I met a local film director in Kolkata who told me if I wrote a story, he would turn it into a film in less than three months with me acting in it. I told him I did not have any such story in my mind. Besides I had my tickets reserved for NYC end of January. But he insisted, saying, ‘Since you like dance why don’t you weave a story around dance?’

Sitting then and there, I started narrating a story to him; it seemed like I was downloading it from somewhere in the cosmic consciousness. I told him the plot, the protagonist character, and how the story would flow. ‘Fantastic! Now write it down.’ He instructed.

The following day I was admitted to the hospital for severe breathing difficulties. I was rushed to the emergency unit at midnight as I was suffocating and the inhalers that the doctors had prescribed were not working. I was admitted into Apollo Hospital on the night of 21 Jan 2017 in Calcutta; coincidentally, on the same day of Patrick’s benefit in Colorado. I felt, coming to Kolkata after all these years had triggered some past childhood traumas. I had to be administered oxygen and nebulisation. As a child I had bronchitis with incessant coughs and now doctors diagnosed me with asthma—both were lung related. Intense family fights and lots of ancestral unhappiness were attached to the place. The oxygen level in my body was dangerously low. As I battled my life, I thought of the time I nearly died in Venezuela…

I was on a river-rafting expedition in Merida with some other foreign interns and locals. The river was particularly rough that day and our guide had reassured us that it would be fine. We all had a helmet and a life jacket on. We boarded the rubber boat but right from start it was a bumpy ride that really scared me with nothing to hold on for support. Then, at one point, our boat got stuck between two rocks. The jerk of the movement toppled me into the waters. I suddenly found myself under the big boat. I tried to grope my way out by moving on my left. As I did, the boat moved to the left as well. Then I tried to move to the right and the floating boat above me also moved to the right. I was unable to come out. My helmet had blown off and the life jacket did not help at all. I was trapped! It was dark underwater with the boat atop, and no matter which direction I tried to move, I simply could not get out. After trying for a few moments, I was gasping for breath. My nostrils were full and I had swallowed a lot of water. Okay, so this is how my death is destined, I thought, suffocation! It was the worst way to die. My lungs were hurting; I was going frail and had no more strength to fight, feeling faint. I gave up. Then I do not know what happened, but the next instant I floated up, as if by magic. The boat was still in the same spot. I have no clue how I got outside because it did not happen from my own trying. But I did not die from drowning. They picked me up on the boat. I was wheezing and puffing and coughing. Terrified, the rest of the trip I kept chanting the Gayathri Mantra. As I got out of the water alive, only one thing mattered then—what was my higher purpose? My life was spared for a reason.

I recalled that moment I was held at gunpoint in Venezuela, the house robbery in Costa Rica, the floods in Nigeria, my suicidal musings in Singapore, and then that winter night in Kolkata with no air in my lungs… as I choked in the middle of the night, I sensed a strong presence telling me, ‘If you do not go to the hospital tonight, you will meet with the same fate as I did.’ I started crying. My parents heard me from the next room and rushed me to the emergency ward. So many times my life had been spared, for what? I never resisted death. What was it that kept me alive while sailing through these perilous vicissitudes of life? I knew it then.

You will survive this as well, I told myself, because you have to tell your stories to the world. Sitting in the hospital bed I mused alone. I had to live to tell these tales to anyone that would listen, my escapades of hope and faith, of magical coincidences and miracles. And so, I did.

The following morning I asked my doctor to give me a pen and pad and wrote: ‘Nrit—the dream of finding the self’. When I got discharged, I gave the story to the film director. I was still weak, on heavy medication and inhalers, strictly advised not to travel under such conditions. I had to cancel my ticket to NYC. Meanwhile, they got a screenwriter to turn my story into a movie script. But the script he wrote impressed neither the director nor me. We tried to find another screenwriter. A couple of months passed as I recuperated slowly. It was now April and I was scheduled to channel Patrick. I found another medium that same month, from the same state Patrick was, Denver, in Colorado. So, I channelled him through both mediums—one based in Belgium and the other in the USA. Surprisingly, both told me to leave India and travel to California, specifically Los Angeles. I was broke and had no idea how I would ever reach LA. They also told me similar things about Patrick; I got a clue as in how he had passed away. He had internal chest injury from a car accident, and I felt like he might have died from suffocation by excess mucus in his lungs or something like that.

By then the film crew had fallen apart. But I had the Nrit story and did not know what to do with it. Shortly after the channellings, one night I had a dream of Patrick where he held out a book to me. When I awoke, I knew what to do—turn the film story into a book, so more of Patrick could be accommodated in it. I have had several dreams about him since. I felt he was guiding me. Another synchronicity is that both mediums told me things that were elements in the Nrit story. They had no way of knowing what I had written, but I am sure Patrick was showing them signs from the other side.

I could not, however, write the book in Kolkata. I just did not get the right mood or setting in that stressful environment. I had to get distance. I needed alone space without disturbance. But I didn’t know where to go. After Patrick’s death, I started giving public lectures on esoteric topics such as ‘death & dying’ at reputable organisations in Kolkata, and as my speeches got some popularity in the local and social media, I got called to other cities in India to talk on similar topics. So, I travelled from Kolkata to Delhi to Bangalore to Chennai. I met my school best friend in Chennai and expressed to her, casually, if only I could get a secluded spot for a month, I could finish my book. She had the perfect solution for me—a common friend of ours had a newly furnished apartment and no one was living there. I spoke with the friend who generously let me stay there for over three months where I wrote Nrit in isolation. She even paid the electricity and water bills despite my resistance. I could not have found a more perfect place to write. I felt Patrick was helping me throughout the process as I wandered about, and the butterfly continued to visit me even there, including dreams of him. Slowly, the initial movie story I had penned sitting in the hospital bed transformed into a beautiful book on its way…

Since I was five, every night I prayed to God that all diseases should find a cure and that no one should ever die. This used to be my daily prayer before bed. Death and diseases were the two dreaded things that scared me most. I could never imagine not existing. And my whole life has been a quest to find answers to life’s most pertinent questions. Diseases are caused due to emotional factors and if the underlying emotions can be healed then the body heals as well, with medicine or placebo or belief or love or awareness. And death does not exist the way we perceive it. It is simply a transition to a dimension beyond our 3D physical perception of existence. Our consciousness lives on forever and ever more.

All these years that I travelled, since my spontaneous healing from the back injury in Singapore, I never got sick again, never needed to see a doctor, never had insurance, never took any medication or vaccination, not even in Africa where it was required. But coming back to Kolkata brought me face to face with my ancestral shadows. I could no longer run from my past; I come from an extended family of dysfunctional relationships, violent disputes, intense fights, bitter resentments, unresolvable disagreements that I grew up watching among my relatives on both maternal and paternal sides. There was no love, joy, or room for growth in those connections, just an unhealthy sense of loveless attachment that made you sick. And women were in powerless roles, engaging in self-sabotaging, self-abandoning, self-hating behaviours. I never wanted that kind of relationship or lifestyle for myself. I realised my relationship fears were deep-rooted in childhood traumas. And I needed this long voyage across the globe to understand this. I do not believe a successful relationship is how long you have been together, but how much quality time you have spent together. I have not seen that quality among any of my relatives.

After all these years, I still felt a sense of suffocation when I met my relatives in Kolkata, a feeling that life did not support me. I wanted to run from there but I was so sick that I couldn’t even move without getting breathless. I felt vulnerable and powerless. I was sensing the helplessness of my ancestors, my lineage, at a soul level. It has to end with me; I have to heal my family tree. This cannot continue, I determined.

Each generation passes on to the next, all of their dysfunction, and unless we consciously change it, the dysfunctional dynamics continue. It does not matter what age you are, how much experience you have acquired, but emotions are a strange thing. They will show up uninvited, at uncalled for places, in order to heal unresolved issues and past traumas. Our subconscious always tries to protect us; when a particular dysfunction or disease shows up in our lives, it is not to be condemned. It is coming up to heal the underlying cause. Our immune system behaves just like our emotions. If we feel powerless and victimised, we will experience a compromised immune system and vice versa. Cultural and environmental factors are far more powerful than genetic predisposition to an illness. Epigenetics is above genetics.

Culture is colourful. It is what makes the world so beautiful, conferring variety, and variety is the spice of life! But when culture starts to own us, rather than the other way round, it becomes detrimental, dysfunctional, and dangerous. What defines culture? Religions, traditions, family values, societal structures, belief systems, lifestyles, and the likes… And these are different from city to city, country to country, continent to continent. What is right in one culture is wrong in another culture, what is polite in one country is rude in another country, what one thinks is good another thinks bad. Our individual culture is just one culture, one way to look at life, but not the absolute truth or the only way. Even spirituality is cultural, hence western and eastern spiritual practices differ vastly. And so, when it does not serve us, when it does not love us, we must be willing to transcend our beliefs, to evolve in our consciousness. Otherwise, it can be threatening to our children. Foetuses respond to the stress of their parents while in the womb. Those memories are stored in the body of the newborn and show up later as blind spots or illnesses, without conscious knowledge of what is happening.

Hence, to cope, the child may mould itself, develop a conforming personality, unable to express its own desires, needs, or be authentic, which leads to sickness. It is trying to solve the parents’ problems all the time. Because without this attachment to parents, it knows it would not survive. It is a survival mechanism. And when the need for this attachment is not met, the child cries all the time. I was hypersensitive as a kid. I was told I cried too much at infancy. Soon, I developed bronchitis. The emotional cause of bronchitis is family disagreements, violence. Asthma is caused in children whose parents are stressed all the time. You see, how it is all connected? We are literally decoding diseases here. The immune system cannot be separated from emotional, psychological, or social stimuli. This attachment dysfunction also leads to relationship problems in adulthood, where one keeps trying to attach unconsciously instead of being authentic. We are held hostage by our childhood unresolved emotions, until they can be understood, processed, and released consciously.

So, how do they treat asthma? They give you inhalers, like I was given Foracort, Aerocort, Budecort, or bronchodilators in nebulisers laden with steroids, cortisol, and adrenaline to suppress the inflammation and swelling that clog up the airways. Cortisol is a stress hormone, the same stress hormone that is released by our own adrenal glands when stressed. When we are stressed our heart rate goes up and the nervous system fights back as the body goes to a fight or flight mode, excreting adrenaline and cortisol. When I was in the hospital, I kept complaining of palpitations and my doctor was perplexed. In the short term, these hormones help us escape the situation, but in the long run, when the body is high on stress hormones, immune system weakens, causing heart diseases, hypertension, kidney malfunction, bone thinning, etc. Basically, to treat asthma, they are inducing more stress into the body, forcing the immune system to react. Do you think that can ever cure asthma? No, it just makes you more dependent on the inhalers and with time you take higher doses, until they start affecting other organs in the body and make you sicker than you were to start with, just like painkillers stop having effect after a while. Asthma is an autoimmune disease. When we stifle our emotions, we stifle our immune system. The immune system confuses and turns against us, attacking healthy cells in the body.

My asthmatic conditions followed in the other cities as well, because it was not just caused by physical and environmental factors, but deep-seated emotional pains. I had to deal with my past shadows and heal them, then liberate from my consciousness gradually, so I didn’t have to feel the internal suffocation anymore. Writing helped process my traumas greatly. Eventually, I cured my asthma by drinking lots of ginger water, taking in vitamin D via sunshine, and grounding by lying on grass and absorbing the energy of mother earth. During an attack, I would hold off taking inhalers for as long as I could; I tried to distract myself, think of my dreams, and paint my visions rosier, and almost always I succeeded in avoiding taking another puff of the toxic steroids. Soon my body confidence grew and I could get rid of the inhalers completely.

Our traditions, our cultures are beautiful as long as we see them a way of life and are flexible to change if certain aspects are not serving us. But the moment we become our culture, we become cruel not only to ourselves but also to others. We impose, dictate, and snatch away the freedom of our loved ones in the name of conserving culture. We fight, separate, and disconnect. I have seen this in other parts of the world too. By now, I can scan the energy of any place and feel the collective consciousness of that region within some days of living there.

I remember, shortly after I had returned from Africa, I was attending Diwali in India. That time my family lived in Delhi. I had worn a self-designed, cream saree to attend the festival at a Bengali association in our community. One man of about my dad’s age came up to me and said, ‘You look good but if only you had your dad’s fair colour, you would look so much more beautiful!’

I was shocked. I could not imagine how educated, civilised, cultured, respectable people in society would talk or even think like this. I had become quite tanned in the African sun, but I always felt the darker I got, the prettier I became and healthier too, as the sun conferred ample vitamin D to my body. Moreover, my complexion was celebrated all over the world as an exotic skin tone, except in my own country! I never forgot the disgraceful comment from that man. At the time, I was too gullible and did not have the guts to retaliate, but today I do.

Such extreme patriarchal cultures dictate and define everything for a woman—what she should do, what she should wear, how she should behave, what she should or should not say, how she should look, who she should marry, at what age she should marry, how she should worship and serve her husband—irrespective of whether she wants to or not—and so on. But nothing is defined for a man. It is sick and it makes me sick, especially because I am very sensitive to energy and, as an empath, I pick up on other’s garbage programming easily, to the extent that I start living their stories, then suffer unnecessarily.

***

I had been picking up parts of myself everywhere I went, and left a piece of me every place I lived. Each country provided me with the context I needed to step onto the next phase of my life, closing cycles as I trotted from one part of the globe to another, my unresolved emotions coming up to be transmuted, transformed, transcended. And Patrick gave me the final piece of the puzzle I had been looking for, through this whole experience of dreams, sickness and realisations—my purpose here on earth. It is to expand consciousness on the planet and elevate belief systems that do us more disservice than serve our collective expansion as a species.

The mind operates through beliefs. Beliefs sponsor behaviour and cultures sponsor belief. Beliefs are automatic; we do not even think twice before acting on them. Thus, beliefs are also the root of all suffering. The mind is not a garbage bin, unlike what many spiritual gurus may say. The mind is a powerful tool for creation of our realities here on earth. Resisting the mind is not the answer. Rather using it to co-create the life we desire is a creative use of it. Life is an illusion. Death is an illusion. Disease is an illusion. Separation is an illusion. Success is an illusion. Failure is an illusion. Judgement is an illusion. Ego is an illusion. Yet the ego gives us a sense of identity to navigate life from our individual perspectives. We are individuations of divinity, here to experience our physicality. The individual is the indivisible one. In the absolute sense, we are all one, connected. Yet our separateness creates the contextual field in the physical plane for us to experience our oneness and through the contrasts we come to an understanding of this. We are created in the image of God, in God’s image-ination! Imagination is the source code, our soul signature. We imagine awful and beautiful realities into creation.

butterfly, o’ butterfly, where’d you get those colourful wings?
bright red & indigo blue, twisting winding zigzag somethings!
butterfly, o’ butterfly, where’d you get those colourful wings?

Patrick’s death is still a mystery to me. I wonder what his soul agenda was. He always lived life like a king, demanding respect and love in every moment. I would hate to learn he had to compromise on his ways of being in any way that led to his demise. Anyway, these are daft questions because now the ordeal is over. He is on the other side, and wherever he is, I know he is fine. But I will always miss his physical presence here on earth. He has a special place in my heart.

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’

—Rabindranath Tagore

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FUN FACTS:

  1. There is no separation between the mind and the body. When you get anxious, you feel it in your stomach. When you get angry, you feel it in your chest. When you are afraid, you feel fear in every cell. When you are excited, you feel the elation physically. When you get goosebumps or the spirit chills, it is because you perceived something extraordinary or spooky. When you get a cut, the cells around that wound know intuitively how to heal it. How do the cells know, if they don’t have a mind of their own? This is why placebos often work, when a patient believes it to be medicine therefore gets cured.
  2. Doctors do not usually treat the emotional cause of a dis-ease. They don’t ask our family history. They don’t ask about our relationship with parents, spouse, siblings, peers, or work colleagues. They don’t ask if we are hurting within, to share our pain, to express ourselves, which actually alleviates half the symptoms. They separate the mind from the body, the person from the culture one is in. They treat it superficially, prescribing drugs that suppress the symptoms temporarily. But those medicines don’t heal the root cause of a disease. Then either we get sick again as the body manifests the dis-ease in the mind through another physical illness or the side-effects of those lifelong drugs give us more illnesses to deal with. But until emotional healing occurs around the problem, it is never cured completely. We have always tried to solve our problems at every level except at which the problem exists. In those three days I was hospitalised, I did not even see my doctor for three minutes, but I was sent for scores of tests and billed a huge sum; all results were normal except that I was allergic to the very air I was breathing there. And what is the emotional cause of allergies? A feeling of powerlessness in the environment one is in!
  3. Two years and a series of synchronicities later, I did land up in Los Angeles, California. I had announced to the whole world I was going to LA without an iota of a clue how I’d land there, I neither had the money nor the opportunity. But when did money stop me from reaching my dreams? Oh well, that is another story for another day!
  4. Gringo Guides: Interestingly, Patrick and I had started an online tourism project in Costa Rica called Gringo Guides to guide the gringos or North Americanos who visit the country. That project never saw the light of the day but Patrick, being a gringo himself, guides me from the other side, as the term Gringo Guides he had coined then, takes on an altogether new meaning for me now.
  5. Patrick was born on Valentine’s Day and died in Thanksgiving week, at 30 years young! He brought love into the lives of everyone he touched, and when he left this world, all those were thankful he crossed their paths and transformed their thinking through his life lived.
  6. I was in Africa when I wrote ‘silent soul’, as I wrestled with life, trying to grapple its meaning and decipher my purpose here on earth. Strangely, I had several déjà vu experiences as the moments seemed familiar, as if I had lived a parallel life there.