Priya is only seven but she’s the toughest hustler I know. She sells flower-candles on the bank of Ganges river in the 3,000-years-old city of Varanasi, and never takes no for an answer. “How many you buy? Two, three? Good price for you! ” While I take too long to decide, she is scanning the crowd with her huge brown eyes, scowling to prevent other flower kids from getting anywhere near me. “Listen”, she commands before I even agree, “You buy from me only!»

They say it’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in a dog. Which may explain how does this tiny body contain such domineering personality. And she will push her candles onto you in English, German, Japanese, or Italian, whatever it takes to close the deal. It’s an ancient Hindu tradition to float the candle-lit flowers upon the holy Ganges to make a wish. I tell Priya I got nothing to wish for, as I already have everything I ever wanted. It takes her a split second to come up with the solution: “No problem. You make good wish for Priya!”

The only concession I achieve in this ruthless negotiation is that we limit business to one candle a day. She agrees to it only in exchange for the exclusive supplier contract. The deal is immediately announced to the dozen of other flower boys lurking nearby. They are visibly disappointed – a foreign woman is an optimal target in this cutthroat business – but keep respectful distance. Only once in her absence one of the boys sheepishly approaches me, the others stepping closer to watch, when out of nowhere Priya descends on them like Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Wrath and Retaliation, her whole body vibrating with anger. The boys retreat, tails between their legs, but my honor is intact: I haven’t betrayed her even for a second.

For the rest of my month-long stay I am buying her flower-candles every time she spots me at the river. She politely allows me to sit and watch it in peace for a few moments, fidgeting in my peripheral vision, before she grabs my hand and leads me to water to float the purchased candle together. She’s way better floater between the two of us: when I do it, the candle sometimes lingers nearby caught in the current; with her push, it always heads out right away as if propelled by an invisible engine.

After a candle launch, I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She says a teacher. Because everybody has to obey the teacher. Family, kids? Oh, no, no. No husband and kids till she’s 50, Priya says resolutely, she’s got stuff to do. Priya’s mom is a street fruit seller, dad – a boatman. There are four other siblings at home, living hand to mouth, her candle sales paying for their school supplies. She started working at the age of five, cruising the river bank every night, and it was her idea. “So, are you buying two candles tomorrow or what? I can’t sit here all night.”

As lost as I sometimes feel in life, I never suffer from lack of direction in Priya’s universe. Here, my role is clear and well-defined. So every night I buy a candle or two from her, watch them float away into the dark waters, and every night at this oldest wishing spot in the world I ask Mother Ganga the same one thing:
Please guard her from harm
Please let all her plans succeed
Take away from me anything you want, but please give her the destiny she deserves.

Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India, 2010


priya and me

Church of Wanderlust

For decades I thought I wasn’t religious. Until I realized: my religion is Wanderlust.

The temples of my faith are scattered all over the world. They are Babylonian airports and abandoned landing strips overgrown with weeds; bustling city squares and sleepy fishing villages; mountain-top castles and back-alley dive bars, awash in neon lights, lingering smoke and that tingling feeling of déjà vu.

The scriptures of my religion come with blank pages. You fill them up yourself, with all the secret words you find along the way. Passwords you earn by showing up and taking it all in. Like the Japanese «kikubari», the Spanish «duende», the Tibetan «lungta» and the Finnish «kalsarikännit».

There are millions of us Believers, and we have our own sacred rituals: swapping road stories (that time you crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border on foot), travel tips (never join a Great Wall of China tour) and anecdotes picked up around the world, like the one about popular Austrian T-shirts with «No kangaroos here» – because of how many foreigners allegedly confuse it with Australia.

Our altars are invisible and intangible, built of memories and scars: the first time you inhaled the air of India, that time your flight landed safely – but not the one right behind yours, that time you drank with a real Viking, that day you got to ride an untamed Mongolian horse and almost got killed in the process, that beautiful stranger on the opposite side of the planet who became the lover you’ll always carry in your heart – but will never see again.

Our priests are grandmas the world over who feed every stray soul that comes through their door before they even ask your name or where you’re from. Our angels are people finding creative ways to give you directions when you don’t share a single language in common. Our prophets are those who have traded security for discovery; achievement for contentment; retirement money for frequent flyer miles.

We are everywhere, and eventually, we will take over the world. We won’t need bombs or economic schemes. We’ll just blend the borders by blending our families. We’ll spreading our ideology through irresistible street foods. We’ll quietly convert everyone by making others fall in love with people in our stories – until each and everyone on the planet becomes us, the Wanderlusters.

And that’s the only thing I religiously believe in.