My Odd Life: Getting My Face Punched On Christmas In Peru

The time on my mobile said one pm. My coletivo (mini-bus) was scheduled for five later that evening.
‘This is it’, I said to myself. ‘If I don’t do this now, I might spend the rest of my life regretting this.’
The crowd cheered and jeered but a louder battle taking place in the dark chambers of my mind. These fights were more brutal than I had expected them to be. Some fighters were bleeding from their nose and others had swollen lips. Blood dripped in a hurry on the moist December earth as they walked away. A cold shiver ran through my spine.
Why was a non-fighter like me even thinking of fighting in an obscure village halfway across the globe?
The answer to that question was ‘The 12 Project‘. I had quit my PR job to travel the world and take challenges. That is when I came across Takanakuy. In Quechua(an indigenous South American language) it means ‘to hit each other’.  This tradition originated in a town called Santo Tomas which is the capital of Chumbivilcas region of Peru.
What is even more bizarre is that these fights take place on Christmas day and then go on for the next few days in other villages and towns across the province.

Men, children, and women get inebriated and fight each other to settle scores, strengthen a friendship or to simply to display strength. My objective though was slightly different. It was to break a mental barrier and to participate in one of the weirdest traditions on the planet.

Santo Tomas lies close to Cuzco, one of South America’s top tourist destinations. But it takes an eight-hour back-breaking coletivo ride to get there. The roads seem better suited to lead you to the end of the world. I reached there on Christmas night to the sight of people bursting crackers.
However, the real madness of Santo Tomas was evident the morning after. I followed the drunk crowd to the town stadium. Loud wayliya music played in an unending loop. Masked men danced flapping their arms and women did half spins causing their skirts to follow.
‘Not bad for a violent festival’, I thought.
Then close to mid-day the actual Takanakuy began. First men and then boys challenged each another to a fight in the centre of the crowd formed a ring. What was drunken revelry a little while earlier turned into serious face-offs? Punches and kicks flew in abandon. Each one of them with the intention of hurting the other. Defending oneself be damned.
I took solace in the fact that the fights began and ended with smiles. Almost no one bled and thirty seconds seemed to be the average duration of the fights.
‘I should be able to endure this’, I convinced myself. But also procrastinated thinking, ‘let me fight tomorrow’.
Next morning I booked my ticket to get back to Cuzco. Some friends were waiting there for me, unsure of when and whether I would return.
I knew Llique was the location for Takanakuy that day. What I did not know was that this version was far more brutal than the one in Santo Tomas. The best fighters from the region congregated in this tiny village. And, mercy was the last thing on their minds.
I realised this only when I sat down on the ground of that Peruvian village high up in the Andes mountains. Thirty minutes had passed since I had arrived.
The time on my mobile phone said one pm. I had to take a decision. Now.
Two young men were fighting. I told myself, ‘right after this fight, I am jumping in. I will announce that I want to fight.’
My Peruvian photographer friend Marco couldn’t believe when I told him.
‘Marco, I want to fight’.
‘What??? Are you fucking sure mate???’
‘Yes man, I am.’
At this point, I had thrown myself into auto-pilot mode. Decision made, no more analysis. Only action.
The officials looked amused, even a tad sympathetic. One of them walked around with me to look for a fighter.
‘Para amistoso!’ he yelled at the crowd meaning that it was a fight for friendship. Not that it meant that I would receive any sympathy from my opponent.
Then a masked face walked out of the crowd in a body hugging white t-shirt. One look and I knew he was much stronger than I. Though shorter than me, his muscles were strong enough to indicate that he probably took this sport seriously.
It was time to get ready and to tie the ceremonial cloth around my palms and waist. It wasn’t just symbolic, the knots were also meant to prevent fatal injuries. Though I did manage to smile, it was easily the most nervous moment of my life.
Then a few seconds later I was in the centre of the ring. The crowd grew louder. I wasn’t sure whether they were cheering for me or were laughing at this idiotic gringo with a death wish.
Without the mask my opponent looked more human and a tad less intimidating. I had made a decision, I wasn’t going to defend myself. If I did, it would have meant that he would beat me to pulp. I was going swing my punches wildly the moment the referees signaled the start.
And then they did.
The next moments seemed like a hazy, slow motion world. I kept my head down and punched wildly. So did he. For a few seconds, it did seem like a match of evens. I distinctly remember landing a few punches on his chest. But he was fast too. Swinging both his hands and legs rapidly, while I used only my hands. The fight went on for a while only because he could not make any contact with my body.
And then… it happened.
Probably after 20 or 30 seconds into the fight(though it seemed like 30 minutes to me), I received a strong blow next to my right eye.
The next moment I was staring at the sky. The referees and my opponent ran towards me. I knew it was over. The punch was so strong that it took me a good ten seconds to even think of getting back on my feet.
The match was over. I had lost.
My opponent lend his hand to help me off the ground. We hugged and smiled. There was no anger, resentment or frustration. I looked at the crowd and realised my performance was over.  Gracias, I thanked and bowed to them.
The applause steadily grew louder. If they weren’t rooting for me before the fight, now they were.
Blood dripped in a hurry on the moist December earth as I walked away. It oozed out of cut next to my right eye.
Now, it was time to leave.
The ride back to Cuzco seemed far more pleasant even with a blood-drenched shirt and a swollen face.
You know, an odd experience can do that to you sometimes.

Why Travel Is NOT The Best Teacher

Hope you are feeling envious, cos that’s what the picture is for.

By now you must have read at least twenty thousand quotes and a couple of hundred articles on why you are not really living if you haven’t traveled. The biggest reason why travel is compulsory because, well, travel is the best teacher.

It is while traveling that you learn about the life, what you really want and who you really are. You learn so much about new cultures, new people and develop so many skills on the road. Travel has the ability to transform you into a new mature person who can do no wrong.

Is this true?

To all you travelers and traveling aspirants out there, let me say something politely. All of this is BULLSHIT.

It has been over a year since I quit my career in public relations to travel the world and to pursue ‘The 12 Project’. I had committed to make observations and share the reality of travel. So here are reasons why the entire ‘travel is the best teacher’ thing is a bit misplaced and extremely exaggerated.

Travel makes you more informed, apparently:

One of the biggest argument in favour of travel is that it makes you better informed. And hey, which girl doesn’t like dating a well-informed dude, right? But the question is what exactly are travelers more informed about?

Hordes of backpackers take flights from home countries and land in exotic locales every day. Are these people really more informed about the countries they visit?

No, I DON’T think so.

About 1.8 million tourists arrived in Sri Lanka in 2015(according to http://www.sltda.lk/statistics). The island is fast becoming a darling both with budget seekers and five star luxury cravers. Thanks to its magnificent beauty and relatively cheap standard of living. But are food, sights and experiences all that there are to a country?

Many backpackers are hardly aware that the country was in the throes of a civil war until as recent as 2009. Others know that ‘there was some problem here’, but that is about it. Very few are aware of the ethnic divide in the country between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamils.

Sri Lanka definitely does not need to be reminded of the war. But as people of this world we at least need to appreciate or acknowledge issues & problems and hopes & dreams of the people we visit.

This is just one example. Most travelers don’t give a damn about political, economic or historical scenarios of countries they visit. Unless, of course, they decide to not visit at all due to media reports of bombings, civil wars, epidemics or protests.

And even then all they know is the headline.

So, should we conclude that being informed means knowing the cheapest pub in town or some local props with which you click pictures? Wasn’t travel meant to take you to places where learning about the place was the only way to survive?

But let’s just forget all that while we sip some chilled Singha beer on the touristy Khao San Road in the Thai capital, shall we? And put up a facebook status ‘Exploring Bangkok. Wohoooo!’.

But duh, doesn’t travel make you a better person?

The other great assumed gift of travel is personal development. Or that’s what travel bloggers say and we believe it. Going from a nervous introvert to a great extrovert and to becoming one of those no-materialism-for-me-type-of-people, yes travel does it all.

Or NOT.

Just like every day life, you can meet pricks even while you travel. People carry their own fears, insecurities and weaknesses while they travel too. And no, almost none of them magically transform into zen like creatures once they step into Angkor Wat.

And the assumption that travel makes people less material is utterly nonsensical. It is easy to meet some of the most ego-centric people while traveling. Don’t believe me? Spend some time in a hostel and you will know. If observant enough, over a few beers you can watch travelers compete with each other. It is generally about who has been to more interesting places and has done crazier things.

‘You know this one time I went to valley of the Moon in Bolivia and it was so cool.’

‘Yaa man. But I think nothing beats trekking in the amazons of Ecuador.’

The worst is when people get into the race of trying to be the ‘best traveler’ on the table because they either spend the least or because have visited more exotic places. Sometimes even because they have banged more local women.

Recently, I was unfortunate enough to travel with a group. This group also consisted of a girl who was a control freak of the worst kind. She wanted everyone to follow her plans. But she would never let others do what they wanted because she was scared as hell to be alone.

All of this is pretty much in contrast to the projected idea of travel right? The simple truth is, its always about people and not the place.

You will find nice people in your office and meet irritating morons even when you travel. Period.

And the worst, the art of reflection is dead.

A long, long time ago travel meant time to reflect. The time when pressures of daily life were taken away and you could build new ideas and improve your life. And of course the beautiful setting always helped.

But not anymore. For a consumption and connection oriented generation, reflection is all but a dead art.

Days are packed with free walking tours or guided treks and evenings are meant to be spent partying till you pass out. What reflection? Come again?

One of the simplest joys while traveling was to just look, admire and absorb. But that was then and this is now. What good are you unless you click a thousand selfies on a 10 day vacation?

To stand and admire? What the heck? There are other beautiful places waiting to be clicked. With you in them.

So you can then transmit them to your 2000 facebook friends who will enviously hit ‘like’ on your ‘Paris vacay’ album. While doing so they will also quietly sigh ‘FML’.

Isn’t that what travel is all about? The new status symbol. A must-have.

No wonder then that most trips seem more hectic than a crazy monday morning in office. And then when you get back home, you need a vacation to rejuvenate from your vacation.

Still think travel is the best teacher? Well, I do not.

What it is, is a great learning opportunity. Much like a university, a job, a book or a community that you are a part of. But how much you learn depends totally on guess who?

YOU.

If we treat travel just like another thing to be acquired, like a new car, a new house, a new job or even a new expensive dress then you are not exactly getting out of it behaving like Mother Teresa. It is about time more people chased their deeper desires and stopped traveling for the sake of instagram likes or to win a bragging contest. It is about time more people asked themselves ‘what and how do I want to learn on this trip?’. About time that more of us became odd travelers focused on learning.

Because you know a teacher now matter how competent, is as good as his or her student. And travel, my friends, is no different.

My Odd Life: Cali And The Corner Of Unfulfilled Dreams

Gustavo, my salsa teacher, teaching me a few steps. Since no girl was ready to dance with me(That’s Gustavo, my salsa teacher, trying to teach me some steps, since no girl would dance with me)

Of all the challenges from The 12 Project, the one that I am about to take is probably the only one that deals with a negative emotion that I felt growing as a teenager. Like most of us, I loved parties and music as an adolescent. I still remember the party in college, the first time that I danced with girls. Despite the foot-tapping music, the best dance move I could come up with was tapping my feet really hard.

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I felt that I owned two left feet and lacked any grace whatsoever. Rather than enjoying the music, all I could think of how I looked while I was dancing. And while the pretty girl in front of me was smiling and probably sending some signals, I couldn’t help but feeling that she was mocking me.

Time went on and I continued to play my role of the guy with two left feet with elan. Dance never became my strong point(unless when I was drunk out of my senses, of course)hen, in 2010, I traveled through South America. And that’s when I first got introduced to poetry on the dance floor. Salsa.

I could not help but be in awe as I watched friends and strangers dance to the beat of the clave. They say a smile is the closest distance between two people. But when the two people are a man and a woman, I think it is salsa. And the dance makes everyone smile anyway.

The sad part was all I could do then was to sit and watch other people dancing. In a Bolivian night club, I vowed to learn salsa someday.

Equipped with this conviction I got back to Mumbai and joined a salsa class. My super strong conviction disappeared sooner than it had appeared. Long Mumbai train commutes and demanding clients ensured that my salsa shoes gathered dust in my house. The part of my house that I like to call the ‘corner of unfulfilled dreams’.But I guess, the desire did not die out. While designing The 12 Project I placed Salsa as one of the top things to learn. But not just that, I wanted to learn Salsa in a city where it pretty much defined the culture. Havana.

However, The 12 project changed, and I decided to learn Salsa in Cali, Colombia.

Cali is the Salsa capital of the world. Like a Colombian friend from Cali says, ‘Salsa rules everything’. Clearly, Salsa rules the nightlife, airwaves and the culture of Cali. This hot tropical city is known for its beautiful women and you guessed it right, Salsa clubs.

I am not the only foreigner to make it to this city to learn Salsa. Actually, the city attracts a lot of travelers who come here with the main purpose of learning or improving their Salsa skills.

Here is the challenge:

1. Can I fast-track Salsa learning and become a pro in one month?

2. Can I deconstruct learning and share some tips with others on accelerated learning?

3. Can I dance with 30 women on my last Salsa night in Cali?

Whatever the results, I will share them in honesty with all of you. And I am sure you can guess which part of the challenge I am looking forward to the most 😉

Stay tuned!