Today’s blog post is by Tasha Cotti, an adventuresome flight attendant and travel writer who has traveled to 96 countries (on six continents!). You can follow her adventures on Instagram and YouTube. She’s also the founder of @single.passport, a community connecting single world travelers.
Since I’ve traveled the globe for 14 years, people always ask me the same three questions:
- Are you married?
- Where are you from?
- What’s your favorite country?
While the first two questions are easy to answer, the last one leaves me scratching my head every time. I’ve left a piece of my heart in all 96 countries I’ve been to. They all offer something unique and extraordinary.
If I must choose only one, it would be a country that brings happiness and human connection to a whole new level. A magical country, full of character, charm, and contradiction. The country that helped me get over my ex-boyfriend. India!
Eleven years ago, I was getting over a breakup with the second love of my life. Together, we had traveled to Machu Picchu (our first date); backpacked Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; and survived a bombing in Jordan. We had ridden camels in the Sahara and swum in the Dead Sea. We had celebrated my 28th birthday in Morocco and his 40th in Argentina. We had made plans to summit Kilimanjaro together. He was the man I thought I would marry and have kids and grow old with.
Well, my friends, we never made it to Kilimanjaro, and Iceland was our last trip together. We broke up shortly after that, and I was devastated. I needed to escape somewhere far, far away while I was struggling to move on. I needed a “spiritual detox” to clear my mind and soul and put the pieces of my shattered heart back together. Volunteering in India was the perfect solution.
As a flight attendant, I’m always rushing from one place to the next, constantly packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase. (Well, that was my life, before COVID-19 grounded me.) Nevertheless, I didn’t want to rush through India, as it’s a beautiful country. Plus I wanted to get my mind off the breakup and help others less fortunate. After many hours of research, I decided to go with Volunteers for Peace. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The moment I arrived in Mumbai, there was never a dull moment. Every day was an adventure or accident waiting to happen. Within five minutes of walking down the street, I saw:
- Chaos in the form of traffic.
- An elephant, cow, camel, monkey, or all of the above.
- Someone sleeping or bathing in the street.
- Someone scamming someone else for money.
- An auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) and other odd forms of transportation.
Who knew walking down the street in India could be so much fun?
Volunteers for Peace partnered with FSL India and SMILE, and with the help of these two local organizations and ten volunteers from Italy, Mexico, China, Japan, New Zealand, and the US, we taught English to about 40 children. Although visiting the Dalai Lama was enlightening, the most interesting part was volunteering with the kids. For a month, I taught English to children aged 3 to 12, and helped renovate two schools in Dharamshala (in North India). We also painted the outside of the building and taught English to Buddhist monks in our free time.
The kids’ enthusiasm to learn the alphabet or say “watermelon” was just as amazing as watching their eyes sparkle when they saw strange new contraptions, like a camera, for the first time in their life. We also taught them my favorite childhood games: Duck, Duck, Goose; I Spy; and the Hokey Pokey — I had no idea how multicultural the phrase “You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around” could be. In the end, creating those special relationships and living in the moment is “what it’s all about.”
The children made the experience worthwhile. We didn’t change the world, but we did change a few children’s frowns upside down. We didn’t alleviate poverty, but we did alleviate some stereotypes about poverty. Not everyone lives in slums, and not everyone is unhappy if they do. You can be happy with very little.
While exploring Calcutta, I stumbled upon “recycled homes,” homes literally made from pieces of cardboard, plastic bottles, scraps of metal, random pieces of food, articles of clothing… and families were living there. While talking with them, they were smiling and laughing and seemed so happy.
After volunteering, I went hiking in the Himalayas with the volunteers. As we camped under the brightest stars and moon I’ve ever seen, I felt whole again. I felt alive. I felt hopeful. The best was yet to come.
I remember talking about the breakup to Clark, one of the volunteers: “If ending the relationship brought me to India and experience all this, it was worth it. The pain and grief… I would do it all over again, because it transformed into so much joy and love. I was able to meet so many children and create lasting friendships in the process. It brought me to you, to this exact moment in time, enjoying the most magical golden sunset over the majestic Himalayan mountains.” For that, I am grateful.
After four days of hiking, laughing and storytelling, it was time to say goodbye. I was solo once again as I continued my backpacking journey around India. While at a hostel in Udaipur, I met a famous Indian actor, Kunal Karan Kapoor. He was also going through a breakup, so we instantly connected. Plus, he was charming, funny, charismatic, and free-spirited! We had such an epic time that we ended up traveling together for two weeks!
We explored the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Rajasthan, Udaipur, Pushkar (famous for camel racing), Agra, and Varanasi. Everywhere we went, fans asked for his autograph and a photo with him. Sometimes they asked for mine too — it was adorable and I gladly accepted. I would tell them, “I’m just a flight attendant, but sure! Stay in school. Follow your dreams.” By the end of my two-month trip, Kunal and I were best friends. I even visited him on the TV set in Mumbai. Eleven years later, we still keep in touch.
In the end, I got over the breakup, met lifelong friends, and created lifelong memories. So if I had to pick a favorite country, it would be India. Volunteering enhanced my travels and made me a better, stronger, and more spiritual person.
I also learned that it’s okay to be single.
It’s okay to start over and reinvent yourself.
When you travel, you realize how small your problems are. You realize that every heartbreak is an opportunity to grow and to bring you closer to your soulmate. The most important thing I learned is: When you help others, you also help yourself. Winston Churchill said it best: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
Volunteers for Peace link: vfp.org (highly recommended for affordable volunteering in India and 90+ countries).
Tasha Cotti is a flight attendant and travel writer. She has traveled to 96 countries on six continents. She’s planning a trip to Kilimanjaro and Antarctica next year and wants you to join her! You can follow her adventures on Instagram: @turbotraveler and YouTube: Turbo Traveler. Tasha is also the founder of @single.passport, which is a community for single world travelers to connect with each other.
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