When I first told my friends and family I was going on a trip to India, I think they were shocked. Oh, they were well accustomed to my gallivanting. I had been to more than 20 countries and even started a travel blog. But that was before. Before I got cancer.
Just seven months earlier I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Stage 3. Stage 3 is not good. I can’t tell you what the survival rates are, because I decided it was best for me not to look that up. But I can tell you that life-saving measures moved very quickly – an invasive surgery with six weeks of rest and recovery, then cycles of chemotherapy treatments, blood tests and transfusions. My hands got track marks from all the IVs. My hair fell out. Eyelashes, too.
Winter became spring became summer in a blur of hospital visits. As the rest of the world “opened up” after Covid, I cancelled travel plans instead of making them, and learned first-hand the saying that healthy people have many dreams, but sick people have just one – getting better.
The good news is that I did get better. Thanks to medical science, a world-class oncology team and luck, I suppose, by autumn I was free of disease! Which meant it was time for a “f*ck cancer” trip.
A new challenge
“Are you sure you don’t just want to sit on a beach with a book?” That was my massage therapist’s take when I told him I was cleared for travel and going on a two-week expedition around Northern India. He knew as much as anyone what shape my body was in. How I had been walloped by the chemical warfare of chemo, breaking me down at the very cellular level. What he didn’t know is that despite being so, so tired what I didn’t need was rest. What I needed was an adventure.
India would be an adventure.
I did have concerns. Not about travel in India, even though I had never been before. Friends who had visited the country described it as “challenging” and “a culture shock.” But I was going with Intrepid; I had taken their small group tours before and knew I’d be safe and well cared for. As for culture shock, well, that’s what I signed up for!
It was me I was worried about. Before cancer, I enjoyed physical activities, even if I wasn’t always the fittest one in a group. Now? Simply carrying my groceries up the stairs was a tough workout. While I was getting stronger every day, I had regular reminders that I was not yet fully recovered. How would it feel to strap on my old backpack and go-go-go for 12 days in a country known for sensory overload? I was about to find out, because after months of being stuck inside thinking about all the things I couldn’t do, I was more than ready to see what I could do.
A clean slate
One of the best things about being a solo traveller joining a small group tour is that nobody knows you. And so I landed in India for the Women’s Expedition feeling like I had a clean slate. Here, I’m not a patient, I thought. My travel mates don’t know that I was thinner before, that I had long hair before or that psyching myself up for this was just as tough as my last Intrepid trip cycling up mountains. I’m just a traveller, like them. (Maybe one who wants to eat more garlic naan than is recommended for a human, but a normal human nonetheless.)
It actually took about five minutes into introductions to reveal I was on my first big trip after cancer. Because that’s one of the other things I love about Intrepid tours – they truly are a shared experience. In my group were birthday milestones, life-long bucket lists and someone on their first solo trip ever. What we all had in common was that we were all here, now, and about to have a grand adventure together.
India was a grand adventure.
On our tour we visited beautiful historic palaces, temples and the absolute must-see Taj Mahal mausoleum. We had shopping sprees for gorgeous hand-made textiles, basked in the glow of Diwali lights, discovered the pleasures of a ripe mangosteen. I learned so much about the country’s history, culture and religions. Many laughs were had and garlic naans consumed.
I felt awed, daily. Not just by the sights but by my own body and its ability to heal. Maybe I was a little slower climbing in and out of the tuk tuks, but I was doing it. I was travelling again!
Into the desert
Before coming to India, I got the sense that many travellers experience some kind of epiphany here. I’m not a spiritual person, and wasn’t chasing that. But I was waiting for the moment I might feel “different.”
The feeling came in the Thar Desert. Also known as the Great Indian Desert, the Thar is in the northwest, near the border with Pakistan. To get there, we first took a 17-hour train journey from New Delhi to the city of Jaisalmer and then hopped in a jeep for a ride into the hot, dusty desert, passing camels, cows, sheep and inquisitive children. With every bump I wanted to yell out “wheeee!” (Translation: “I’m in the desert! Alive!”)
As promised, our overnight camp was a simple spot in the open air, with cots, warm blankets and never-ending chai. As if by osmosis, the group all dropped our bags and quickly scampered up a sand dune. The sun was about to set.
Finding myself again
Back when I was housebound, it was the sunsets I missed the most. I live near the great Lake Ontario, and in normal times I would plan my days around biking or walking to a spot where I could watch the sun set over the water. Free therapy, I called it. No matter what was going on in my head or my heart, I could watch the sun complete its job for the day and be reminded that tomorrow was a clean slate, another chance. It’s one of the things that cancer took from me.
Not anymore. There it was – a perfect orange sunset in a clear unobstructed sky. I was determined to take it all in, while also taking photos, while also high-fiving my tour mates, while also accepting chai. Because even though this was the same sun I could go watch almost anywhere now, it wasn’t at all. This was the sunset of my first ever night in the Thar Desert. In a new country. A new continent. With women who were quickly becoming my friends. On a trip that I decided to take for myself, no matter the challenges.
I realised then why I had really come here. Not to be amazed, or awed. Before cancer, it’s true that I yearned for awe. Because life was so often ordinary. Then life became extraordinary. What I needed now was to feel normal again. With the cool desert sand between my toes, a warm tin cup between my hands, and the whole world seemingly out in front of me, I felt more like myself than I had in such a long time.
And so when people ask me, “What was your favourite thing you discovered in India?” it’s my turn to surprise them when I say “me.”
Liisa travelled as a guest of Intrepid on the India Women’s Expedition. Our range of Women’s Expeditions create immersive local experiences for women that are ordinarily off limits on our regular group departures.