Scotland, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Goa, Madurai, Uttarkashi and even Kolhapur. After covering most of Europe and parts of India, this couple returned to the US, armed with calmer minds, better yoga postures and a final draft of a novel, published this June
At some point, all of us have thought of pressing the pause button and taking off on a sabbatical to escape the frenzied pace of our lives. A forsaken dream for many, New York-based engineer-MBA and novelist Karan Bajaj actually took a year-long sabbatical along with his wife, Kerry in 2012-2013.
Writer Karan Bajaj (first from right) exploring the terrain at Dhanakosa Buddhist Retreat Centre, Scotland
He recalls, "I'd always been interested in Eastern mysticism but my mother's young, untimely death from cancer forced me to question the predictable rhythms of birth, suffering, ageing and death in a more urgent way.
I'd also been toying with the idea of writing a novel about a man's spiritual quest but knew the single-minded concentration would not be possible with a corporate job in a fast-paced city.
So, Kerry and I left home in September 2012 — leaving behind our jobs, apartment, friends, iPhones, dogs, security, predictability and convenience. We each carried a small backpack with all of our belongings for the year."
Karan Bajaj (right) with his wife Kerry
Until late 2013, the couple was on the road — from living like nomads in European hostels to meditating near Ganges in the Himalayas and even signing up for a month-long yoga-training course at an ashram in Madurai.
Armed with memorable experiences and life lessons, Bajaj also penned his novel, The Seeker (published by Penguin Random House), during this journey. We map the route of their sabbatical:
1. Breathe in, breathe out
Where: Dhanakosa Buddhist Retreat Centre, Scotland
For: Two weeks
Overlooking a shimmering lake, the charming retreat is located in the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park in the southern part of Scottish Highlands. Its serene environs proved to be a good start for the couple's sabbatical. "It helped us decompress from our fast-paced life in New York and settle into the slower and more contemplative pace of our sabbatical. We spent days in silence, in nature and in meditation. We met more like-minded folks, all fellow spiritual seekers and travellers than we'd known in a lifetime of living back home," says Bajaj.
2. A backpacker's dream
Where: From Scotland to Turkey
For: Eight weeks
Without any particular destination in mind, the couple hopped onto buses, trains, and ferries and hiked their way across Europe. They drove across Scotland, took a bus to the UK, a train to Italy and a ferry to Greece. "Our general goal was to take the cheapest mode of transport available and stay in hostel dorms with bare accommodations," he says. From Greece, they crossed over to Bulgaria. "As I was crossing the border from Greece to Bulgaria in a bus, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about Bulgaria, be it the geography, history, language or economy. We arrived late at night with no currency, and a woman from our bus insisted that her son would drop us off to a hostel. She couldn't understand how we would manage without money, a map or any language skills," recalls Bajaj. Over the next few weeks, the couple made themselves at home in this foreign land. "We stayed much longer than planned. The concept of oneness, that we're all alike beneath the surface differences, came to life organically for us in this small, quiet country," adds Bajaj.
3. A silent stop over
Where: Dhamma Atala, Italy
For: 10 days
Post the nomadic adventures and en-route Turkey, the duo landed at this Vipassana centre in rural Italy for a 10-day silent meditation session conducted by SN Goenka. "I had a number of insights during those days of silence about the novel. It was the early brainstorming stage," informs Bajaj.
4. From Turkey to Tamil Nadu
Where: Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai
For: One month
Post the Eurotrip, the couple signed up for a month-long Yoga Teacher's Training Course (TTC) at this ashram nestled in the wilderness to the north of Madurai. Staying in the traditional gurukul system with rigorous routines starting from 5.30 am, they received a thorough grounding in yoga including asanas, pranayam as well as a study of the Bhagwad Gita.
5. Pen on the pulse
Where: Aranya Artist's Retreat, Goa
For: Three months
The beautiful yet isolated private hilltop forest estate located in North Goa proved to be the perfect setting for Bajaj to write the first draft of
6. Kolhapur calling
Where: Dhammalaya Vipassana Centre, Kolhapur
For: Two weeks
Post the Goan susegad, the couple signed up for their second 14-day silent meditation retreat at this bare but well-organised centre, four hours from Goa. "It was even more intense than the first one since we were more committed to our meditation practice," says Bajaj.
7. Take a hike
Where: The Himalayas
For: One month
Setting their base at Monal, a pretty guesthouse in Uttarkashi, the couple explored the high Himalayas for a month. "We practised yoga and meditation, synthesising our learnings and reading books on ancient Buddhist and yoga philosophy," he adds.
8. The birth of a book
Where: Foundation Obras, Artist Residency, Portugal
For: Two months
On his return journey to the US, Bajaj stopped over at this artist residency for two months to complete the novel.
Like a relationship boot camp
"Previously, I preferred solo travel. I had some hesitations about travelling with a partner, but this trip was certainly made more special by being shared together. Undertaking a journey like that is like a relationship boot camp. We went through so many tough moments together – sleeping outside train stations, losing money, long bus and train journeys, homesickness – that we hardly ever argue about anything now. The small discomforts of modern life don't bother us much, we are delighted by simple pleasures, and we know exactly how to cheer each other up when things don't go our way – because we had a ton of practice over months of intense situations."
— Karan Bajaj
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