Today, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself and my life for a whole day, thanks to Veronica Marquez. Should I be a famous film star, traveling alone to escape the exhaustion of a high-flying Hollywood life? A princess fleeing the responsibilities of a little-known island kingdom? A tech entrepreneur exploring new ventures? I was unconvinced, and figured I would wing it as I went through my day.
“What is your occupation?” Asked a jeweler, who ran a hidden local shop in the basement of his family’s haveli.
“I’m a travel writer… And I’m writing and researching a book on India.” I blurted out.
“Ahh,” he responded with a knowing look. “Come have a seat and let me explain to you all about Indian jewelry.” We sat and talked on large white pillows, and we talked for a long time about the different styles and designs, how and why a bride chooses her head to toe accessories, how he designs necklaces for the Royal family and the way in which the craft has been passed down from generations within his family.
That evening, at dinner, I received the same question from a proprietor of a local restaurant and hotel. “I’m a travel writer,” I said this time with more confidence. “And I’m starting to research a book on how women come of age in different cultures. Ideally, I want to live with them and their families for an extended period of time.”
“That’s wonderful. So, you have a blog now?” he asked. I nodded, relieved that an inkling of my sparkling, new occupation was based in fact (and let’s be honest, I would kill to live with ladies in developing countries and remote villages and write about their lives, as Blair knows well.) I began to relax into the possibility of my identity. Wearing this persona, I was unafraid to ask the questions I’d always been curious about, as I now had a purpose and a product. I wasn’t a gaping, awkward tourist anymore, but a curious creator, looking for inspiration and insight.
This led to a fascinating and wonderful conversation (and an invitation to spend time with the next bride who gets married in his family), and a new friend, who, over the next day, continued to explain Hindu customs and cultural nuances. (More to be revealed in my upcoming book!) He also kindly motor-biked me to great little shops, including a hidden government-run workshop that produces beautiful textiles and supports local villages.
By embodying my inner travel writer, not only did I have long chats with restaurant and hotel proprietors, jewelers and teenaged girls, but the way I experienced Jaislamer changed. A haveli wasn’t just for photographing, but for sitting and imagining the families that lived there and the workers who carved the unfathomable detail; a shawl wasn’t just a negotiation won, but a glimpse into the creative process, through which two generous, moustached elders shepherded me… and a chappatti boy wasn’t just the person who consistently kept my thali plate full, but a guide into local dishes and food stalls that weren’t in any guide book.
What I learned is that I didn’t end up being “someone I was not.” Rather, I tapped into a part of myself that I want to explore (which I get the luxury of pursuing on my sabbatical and in my work as an inventor and ethnographer back in New York.) We all embody pieces of those identities we imagine creating for ourselves; while I may not be recovering from Lohan-like “exhaustion,” escaping royal duties or amassing Pulitzers (yet), within each aspiration, there are deeper human principles that apply to how I feel and who I want to become, though the externals may differ.
Thanks for the great challenge, Veronica. I’m going to keep playing with my new identity (perhaps a bit less overtly, as the two French psychiatrists I met this afternoon at a roadside eatery questioned my wordly ways)… and this blog is a great sandbox.
So… who do you want to be today?