In January 2016, I woke up on a bitterly cold Sunday morning in a beautiful country – Belgium, thousands of miles away from home. I was spending three weeks there serving a scholarship. Loth to get out of bed, I snuggled deeper into my quilt and prepared to go back into slumber. Till my conscience reminded me with force that this day would never visit me again. It had all the ingredients needed to go out and make a memorable day out of a cold and potentially lonely one, were I to spend it in bed because I was alone. Then I reminded myself – I was not alone, I just had solitude – it makes a difference, being alone, or being in solitude. The former makes you sad, the latter is enjoyable.
An hour later, I was on a train with no particular destination in mind. I had told the lady clerk at the ticket window at the Antwerp railway station to just give me a return ticket that would take me from anywhere to anywhere. And then I boarded a train that was going to Namur, because a friend had told me it was easy to go to the mountains from there and I had this juvenile wish to see snow-clad mountains from a moving train.
Ten minutes into my journey, a scary thought struck me. No one who knew me knew where I was at that moment. I hadn’t told family or people at the Institute where I was going. I didn’t have a working phone. What if something happened to me? What if the train had an accident? How would people find me? How would they even know I was on a train from nowhere to nowhere?
Now, I realised I was alone, not in solitude. And I was scared. The train was speeding along, blissfully unaware of the scary storm brewing inside of me. Maybe I should get down at the next station and just go back, I thought for a panic-stricken moment. But then, snow-clad mountains were beckoning and I persevered. My face was probably playing out all the emotions in me, because a young, beautiful girl sitting opposite me began to chat me up. She too was going to Namur! When I told her why I was going there, she found it hard to keep a straight face. These funny Indians, she probably thought. I didn’t even have a copy of Lonely Planet with me she discovered! She adopted me in a sense thereon, and patiently told me I was doing it all the wrong way.We had reached Namur by now and holding me by the hand, she took me to the ticket counter. Speaking in Dutch, she patiently explained to the clerk that I wanted to see snow from a moving train. I saw her gulping back good-natured mirth while saying this.
Five minutes later, armed with a ticket and precise instruction on how to reach Libramont, a teeny-weeny town nestled in the Ardennes and wrapped in snow, I wondered what to do next, because there was still an hour to go before I boarded the train. My guardian angel disguised as my train companion wasn’t taking chances. She led me out of the station to a restaurant just outside and got me a sumptuous hot meal. And then, ensured I went back to the station in time for my train and made me store her number in my phone in case I needed to call her for help. It was at this time she told me she had just half a day to spend with her parents who lived in Namur, before she returned back to Brussels where she studied. And two hours of that had already gone, helping me. How had I thought I was alone? The world was so connected! I finally got around to asking her her name. She floored me with her reply. She said her name was Mira!!
After returning to India, I messaged her to thank her and got no reply. Maybe she was someone I imagined? But how can that be? I still remember every feature of her beautiful face, and her soft voice, guiding me…
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