How can we adopt an untethered attitude to life, especially when it comes to expectations of travel? C.L. Stambush talks about how her experience of motor-cycling around India taught her more about herself, and how she brings that to her daily life. We also talk about connecting with people across cultural and language barriers, when taking risks is worth it, and how we need to keep pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone to live a more expansive life.
C.L. Stambush is an award-winning writer, journalist, editor and author of Untethered: A Woman’s Search for Self on the Edge of India.
- Taking risks and discovering that life improves because of it
- Riding alone on a motorcycle around India
- Breaking down barriers when we travel to different cultures
- Getting over our fears around traveling
- If we are not pushing forward, are we sliding backward?
- Cultivating an untethered state of mind
- Recommended travel books
You can find C.L. Stambush at clstambush.com
Header and shareable image generated by Jo Frances Penn on Midjourney and edited on DALL-E.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: C.L. Stambush is an award-winning writer, journalist, editor, and author of Untethered: A Woman’s Search for Self on the Edge of India. Welcome, Connie.
Connie: Thank you. I’m excited to be here, Jo.
Joanna: This is such an interesting topic.
You traveled around the edge of India by motorcycle back in the late 90s. Why did you choose that trip in particular, what led to that happening, especially back then, when it really wasn’t so common?
Connie: That journey was a long time in the coming. I would date it all the way back to when I was in kindergarten or first grade when I was very shy kid and I just hugged the wall and kept one shoulder to the wall at all times. But as I became aware of what I was doing, I didn’t like this aspect of myself. I felt like I was really losing out on engaging in life, because I just kind of watched it from the sidelines.
So over the years, I wanted to become braver and put myself in situations like forcing myself to stay up and watch scary movies or get past this very scary stuffed bear in the museum alone, and just kept pushing myself farther and farther. By the time I got to India, which is in itself a very long, convoluted story, I was working for a pharmaceutical company, and they were downsizing.
I never imagined that I would leave the United States. And I literally had this overnight revelation where I just woke up the next morning and said, I quit. I sold everything that I had, I bought a backpack, flipped a coin, bought a one-way ticket, landed in Germany, and kind of went, ‘Oh, I didn’t really have a plan or anything as to what I would do.’
From there, I progressed on through Europe and then Eastern Europe and then the Middle East. I wound up working in India as an editor for a wire service, the women’s feature service and then when that contract ended, I decided I was ready to leave Delhi but I was not ready to leave India.
I didn’t want to see India on India’s public transportation. So the motorcycle seemed the most obvious thing for me to do, because everybody had a Royal Enfield Bullet. You have this wonderful bump, bump, bump sound. And it just called out to me. So I decided, I’m just going to do this.
Joanna: We’re going to go back into the book, but I just have to ask as a child, you decided to become braver and force yourself to try these things. And then, like you said, you quit, you sold everything. There’s definitely something in your personality that makes decisions quickly, and then does these difficult things. But of course, this book is set back in the 90s. But that’s not the end of your story. How has this attitude to travel and taking risks impacted your life since then?
Connie: I think that it has allowed me to take even greater risks than I probably wouldn’t have. When I came back, I decided I wanted to get a master’s degree. And so again, I just up and left what I had going on here and went to New York and got a degree from Sarah Lawrence College, in creative nonfiction writing, and then came back.
So it has given me the freedom to understand that the world will keep going and keep getting better for you if you just keep trying the things that you want to do, but are a little hesitant to do anyway. Nothing comes to a crashing end when you try something new. Usually, it works out better.
Joanna: I like that. Let’s step into the book. Now, I’ve been to India a number of times. And of course, much of India is ancient as well. And there are some really beautiful places. What are some of the most memorable places that still stand out for you even all these years later, either because of beauty or an emotional or spiritual resonance?
Connie: I had lived in India for over three years by the time I took this journey, so I had traveled to various places. And then when I did this travel journey, I was basically on the edge so not necessarily in some of India’s most famous places. But during my time in India, the places that stand out to me would be the desert.
I’ve always drawn to the desert, Jai Samir, and then also the mountains and South India because it’s just so much lusher and greener down there.
In terms of the things that stand out to me, it’s not really places, but people.
I met just so many amazing people while I was there, even people I didn’t necessarily have a conversation with or engage with, just people who were friendly.
First of all, as a woman alone, riding a motorcycle, I didn’t really look like a woman, I looked like a Westerner. I had full gear on, I had a motorcycle helmet on. And they couldn’t really tell that I was a woman.
But at one point, it was early on in my journey, and I was riding along the highway, and in front of me was this overloaded truck with all these women that had gathered from a field where they were out working, and were being taken back home again. They were very listless and just sort of worn out from working in the hot fields all day.
One of them began to watch me. And as she watched me, she became more intent as to try to figure out who I was, then she began to nudge a woman next to her. And soon, they’re all looking at me. And smiling really big, because there’s the recognition that this is a woman doing something that women just don’t do in India, which is one being on a motorcycle at that time, as well as traveling alone. And then it was just great. They just all smiled and waved, and it was just really uplifting.
There were many experiences where I ran into women. There was another time when I got stopped at a train station, and there was no train on the track, but the barriers were down. And the minute I stopped as a foreigner, the men would sort of begin to crush in on me because of the space or the lack of space that we have between the US culture and the Indian culture. And so they got quite close to me and kind of closed in on me. And it was very hot and I began to take off my gear a little bit at a time.
And the minute they noticed that I was a woman, they didn’t know what to do with me at that point. So they all just kind of stepped back. But this gave an opportunity for these tribal women who had been standing at a far-off distance with some of their sheep flock. They had been watching, but there had been no opportunity for them, so when the men moved away, the women just moved in.
They wanted to feel my hair and compare it to their hair, and feel my skin and compare it to their skin. And I felt like at that point, because I was quite lonely on the road – and this was even still, within the first month or so of my journey – that it was just really a lovely experience to feel that I wasn’t so alone because riding a motorcycle as a woman alone in India, I felt very much like an outlier. And to have these women come up and tell me, we get you. You’re different. We’re different. It was just a very beautiful connecting moment for me,
Joanna: It’s one of the things, isn’t it, with travel there that you feel there are always people who can help. I was cycling in India and I came off my bike. It was after the monsoon rains. And I came off my bike in this tiny village and cut my knee and I was in shock. I was on the ground; I was crying my eyes out. And like you say all these women came out and brought water and tried to help me and we didn’t share the language. They obviously didn’t speak English, but I just remember everyone was so kind.
There’s that human connection, even if you’re a very, very different person from a different culture, right?
Connie: I agree. I think that’s what travel really does is it breaks down all these assumptions that we have in our mind when we’re back in our own culture. We’re back in our own hometown, we’re back in our own familiar settings. But when we’re out, all that is just stripped away. And it’s just people connecting to people, which I think is the most beautiful thing.
Joanna: You mentioned there about being a woman alone. And that example with personal space. I felt that too and it can feel quite claustrophobic. It can be quite scary.
What fears did you face along the way? You must have gone through some really difficult times and how did you overcome them?
Connie: I think by then I had become a much stronger person, obviously, than the person I started out as a child. I had been working very, very hard and very long to become braver. But it is a scary thing to be out there on your own. I found that when I was not in threatening situations, but just in situations, I would use my height to create a larger presence for myself in a space.
As a woman alone, I found that to be an effective thing just to stand taller, to feel broader in just in the normal space of walking down the street. I didn’t have a lot of scary experiences, but I had some I have, for instance, I believe that all the gear really made me stand out and made me, like I said earlier, a very other type person. But there was a time when these children came up to me, and they wanted to shake hands. And I wasn’t very obliging, and they were very fun, but they just kept on and then this little old man came along, and they pushed him into me.
They had become rather menacing. I don’t know what they wanted, but they weren’t just happy children any longer so they pushed the little old man into me. I got very, very angry, not at the children so much, but at the kind of cultural circumstances are allowed this and all these men then crowded in on me. I ended up slapping one of them, and ended up chasing him down an alleyway, which was a very scary experience because I had become somebody quite other than anything that I knew at all. And it wasn’t until I tripped and fell that I came to my senses.
Joanna: Wow, that seems that’s quite extreme to find yourself in that situation. It’s like you learn these lessons to make yourself less afraid. But I’m certainly listening going, I would not cycle around India alone, I wouldn’t do that. And I know a lot of people listening would feel the same.
But there are lots of things that we can be scared of that stop us in life, even if those things are smaller than the journey you did. What are some of the ways that you might encourage people listening to, some people would say, Oh, I’m not I couldn’t even travel to India. from the US.
Or I’ve met people in the US, say in New York, and someone would say to me, “Oh, you’ve been to New Orleans? I’ve never been there. I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t.” And I’m like, it’s in your country? How have you not traveled that far?
How can people get over the fears of things being different?
Connie: I think that’s a great question. I would hear people when I lived in the downtown section of my hometown, I would have people tell me, “I would never live down there, I won’t even go down there. I don’t think that’s safe.” So I really think it starts in our mind, what we think of someplace. And maybe these are places we don’t even know.
We have to begin to educate ourselves on what those places are and who those people are. And I just feel like in my experience, when I’m in a place that I don’t know that it’s the people that make me feel welcome there. I find people everywhere make me feel welcome, when I go to these places, whether you go to New Orleans, or to India.
I get that riding a motorcycle is certainly not for everyone. And it’s not even for the majority. But going outside of your comfort zone is something that we can do in small ways. Even if it’s just like a small thing, like, oh, I would never feel comfortable eating in a restaurant by myself, well, that’s a kind of a small thing that we can do. And we can get used to that.
When we get used to that, we find that there’s nothing really bad happening to us. We just perceive that something bad would happen, or we would feel not comfortable there. But then when we experience it, we understand that it is okay. And that inches you along, I think, to try different things. It’s not a big leap. I didn’t go from living in Evansville, Indiana, to riding a motorcycle. There were so many little incremental steps along the way that you just keep elevating to the next level.
Joanna: I agree with this pushing out of the comfort zone, and particularly during the pandemic, I really felt that my comfort zone shrank and we all were so trapped in our areas. I will walk the same paths around and around. It took quite a lot for even someone like me, and I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve lived all over the world, to push myself back out there again. Is that something that happened to you? Have you found that just incrementally you’ve been able to keep pushing this comfort zone out?
Connie: I think that when you stop doing it, then when you try to start doing it again, it gets harder, you’ve kind of lost some ground, don’t you? Once you’re in the groove of keep pushing yourself out there, then it gets more and more comfortable when you stop doing that. You stall a little bit and you’ve got a little bit of a restart to get going. Again, I think that’s pretty usual for most people.
Joanna: I almost feel like if you don’t keep pushing outwards, it shrinks you and shrinks you and shrinks you and that’s why a lot of older people I feel as you get older and obviously maybe you don’t want to travel so much in your 80s for example, but I feel like if you don’t push it, then it will kind of come closer to you and shrink you.
I felt personally that my life shrunk a lot more in the pandemic, and part of this podcast was really just keeping my own horizons expanding.
Connie: I think you’re right. I think if you’re not moving forward, then you could be sliding backward. And I think having that awareness of who you want to be and where you want to be and the type of person you want to be, and keep pushing yourself out that way.
My mom’s a great example of somebody who does the things she knows she needs to do, even though she would rather not do them. Forces herself to go out, and she’s in her 90s now, so she forces herself to go out, to do things just to keep engaged with other people when it would be easier just to not go out. So maybe I get that from her.
Joanna: I think you’re right. And also, the wonderful thing about travel is that you’re meeting people in real life. Whereas I feel like a lot of the media, a lot of social media, we get the wrong idea. And we might find things that reinforce stereotypes, or that are completely wrong half the time. So it’s almost like going to these places and challenging what we think we know often makes us see that we didn’t know it after all, especially in a huge place like India, which is so diverse.
Connie: Yes. And I think that’s very good. There’s a line I think that the Buddha said is, “Don’t believe everything you think”, and I really try to remember that because that is so true. When we think we know something, and then we meet the thing that we think we understand, we usually find out okay, I was completely wrong, at least in my experience.
Joanna: What were you wrong about on that motorcycle trip?
Connie: Oh, I don’t know that I was wrong so much about anything on the motorcycle trip because I sort of took it moment by moment. I tried to get through. I had no experience riding a motorcycle, I had taken a one-week course in Indiana. So there were 12 motorcycles in an empty parking lot, which does not at all prepare you to be on a motorcycle in India, where there are billions of vehicles on the road.
My neighbor had given me really great advice. He said ‘just practice stopping.’ That was his advice. So when I got back when I got the motorcycle in India I took it slow and got used to it and got comfortable with it and then took it out on the road.
I didn’t have these big objectives to meet each day. In the beginning, I could not ride very far at all. A couple of hours and I was aching very much and it was very hot and it was very hard and roads could be very dangerous and there would be traffic coming at you and not necessarily staying on their side of the road. But the longer I did it, the more miles I got underneath me the more comfortable I got with it all.
Joanna: You named the motorcycle Kali, a goddess I also identify with. I wrote about Kali in a thriller of mine, Destroyer of Worlds. But a lot of people listening might not know anything about Kali.
Tell us more about Kali and why you chose that name for your bike.
Connie: She is the most badass Goddess that there is. I think there are about 33 recognized gods and goddesses and something like 330 million additional ones that not everybody agrees on. But she’s one of the main Hindu goddesses and she is half benevolent and half warrior but all the images of her are very fierce.
And why I chose her is because one of the things that she’s known for is revealing our true selves. In a quest to discover who I was, she seemed to not only be the right goddess to have as a partner with me, but the right one to help me on this particular journey, which I’m trying to identify who I really am and who I really want to be.
Joanna: You say fierce, but most of the images of Kali are holding a decapitated head and there’s all these hands and it’s basically death and multiple arms and pretty, pretty scary. That’s a more extreme version. When you told people along the way were they surprised that you even chose this goddess?
Connie: No, they didn’t seem surprised. I had Kali stenciled on this side of the tank in Hindi. So people recognized it. And one day I was in a hotel and the hotel clerk gave me a note from a traveler who had seen me arrive on this motorcycle. This just comes back to people who are just so helpful and so encouraging along the way. They had seen me ride in on the motorcycle and left me a note telling me, “To the rider of Kali, I wish you all the best of luck in your journey.”
Joanna: That’s lovely.
How did religion or spirituality play a part in your journey other than just the name of the bike? And did you visit any particular temples along the way, because there was an underlying theme that wasn’t there?
Connie: Yes. So in order to navigate around this large country on its own, I decided that, as a woman trying to find out who she was, trying to put together the type of person I wanted to be, that I would visit the Kali temples. Now the Kali temples – there are 52 and or 51, depending on which version you read – contain these pieces of the Goddess Kali that fell to Earth.
And then these Shakti Peetha temples sprang up, so they are power temples. Each one of these temples has a piece of the goddess. So my plan was to visit each of the temples and reassemble Kali as I went along the way. But I discovered that I really didn’t enjoy visiting the temples. And when that discovery came to my mind, I realized that I had created that as almost a crutch for myself, and that I no longer needed that.
Joanna: It’s interesting, because I do feel like having a deeper meaning, and or having a framework for a journey, in the way that you did there, is better than just saying, “I’m just going to motorcycle all the way around India.” I almost feel like even though you changed what you wanted, it did start you out with a direction that was more than just get on the road. Do you think that plan helped you?
Connie: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I think what it taught me was what I took away when I felt like I no longer needed to find because, for one reason, they were very difficult to find. I had a map, I had locations, but people didn’t always agree on which was a Shakti Peetha temple and which wasn’t. So it became increasingly difficult to discover the actual temple.
Now, I knew that I wanted to make it to the end and reached the Kali temple for the Kali Puja, and I managed to do that. But it certainly did give me that kind of understanding that I needed this in the beginning. And then when I realized, hey, I don’t really need this, that felt like a growth for me. That was what Kali was doing for me because she is the goddess of rebirth.
Joanna: Sometimes the search for self involves something dying in order for something new to be reborn.
And Kali is definitely the goddess of death. I like that.
When I heard the title of your book, Untethered, I knew I wanted to talk to you because I have also got Untethered as a title or draft title for a book, which I’ve had around for a while it might be around for as long as yours was. What does ‘untethered’ mean to you?
Connie: That’s a great question. I feel like because I felt as a child bound and tied to and stuck to this wall that that being untethered was both a physical and but more a psychological undertaking. So I wasn’t physically scared any longer or attached to this wall.
But being untethered for me is really a state of mind, the way you look at things. I saw myself much younger and even as a teen very attached to certain things. But as I became untethered, I became unburdened by the things that I thought I believed, I felt like that they, in the end, were weighing me down as well.
Joanna: Was that also about the USA? Because I feel that a lot of Americans who’ve traveled a lot or who end up as living as expats in other countries, they are trying to untether themselves from what being American is. Is that something that you were trying to untether from and how have you come back?
Connie: I don’t think I was trying to untether from being an American. I think that when I was out in the world, I felt like I needed to be a representative of a good American. I met a lot of travelers who were Americans who would have Canadian flags on their backpacks and things like that, but I always felt like it was it was up to me to show the world that the way that they see Americans isn’t necessarily true, through my own actions.
Being untethered is really the way you look at your life, whether you see yourself tied down or you see yourself as free.
I think it really became a state of mind for me.
Joanna: When you returned to the USA and like you said, you studied a Masters in quite a traditional industry now, the publishing industry in writing. Have you retained that sense of being untethered, even as you’ve gone back home?
Connie: I think it’s the constant moment-by-moment, where you keep asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing now, or about to do, taking me to where I want to be?” As far as the state of mind, if you don’t pay attention any longer to what you’re doing, you can slide into being back where you are a person that you didn’t want to be. So for me, it’s just a constant moment by moment of trying to figure out, will thinking this way, free me or enslave me?
Joanna: What’s an example of that?
Connie: Oh, I imagine in American politics, or just seeing people as what we think that they are, rather than seeing them for who they are. Everybody’s got the good and the bad in them.
Joanna: So you mean looking at other people in terms of an untethered attitude? I guess I thought it was more about living your life with a certain amount of freedom in terms of I don’t know, for example, not buying a house would be an untethered way of living.
Connie: Yes, I still do not own a house. And I think you’re right. I recently was looking at buying houses and thought again, no, that is like an anchor for me. So you’re right, that would be an untethered way of living.
But I also think it’s not just the physical tethering to the ground. I feel grounded now that I’m back in the United States, but I don’t feel tied down. I feel like I have the freedom to do the things that I want to do. Because the trip taught me that I’m – in fact, all the travel taught me that – that I can pick the time in which I want to do them now.
Joanna: This is something I ponder about a lot. Because up until the pandemic, I didn’t feel like I had a home. And that didn’t matter. Because I like this idea of being untethered. And I can find it, I can make it home wherever I am in the world, right? We’ve lived all over the place. Maybe home is the people that you love, things like that.
But I’m starting to change my mind about the concept of home. I have bought a house in a community and I almost feel like I’m putting down roots. That’s kind of scary for someone like me, who wants the freedom to be untethered.
What do you think about the word home and putting down roots? Are those things that you think about or want?
Connie: They are and like you, Jo, I feel like I could make a home anywhere. But I have been thinking about if I did make a home, what would that home be? I would want a small home so that I wouldn’t feel as anchored by it.
I have gotten rid of a lot of possessions. The more I’m in one place, the more I gather. So I tried to keep an eye and a mind on exactly how I can keep letting things go, keep untethering myself from the physical world like that.
I think it’s nice to think about nesting, it’s nice to be in your home and have your things around you. It’s hard to be on the road for a long period. I was on the road for five months, with nothing more than would fit into the couple of bags on a motorcycle. That is a very stripped-down way of living.
Joanna: It’s very tiring, isn’t it? I had [ digital nomad Nora Dunn ] on the show recently, and she said the work of travel, which is finding somewhere to sleep that night and getting the money right. And in India, finding water that you can drink. There’s work associated with active travel.
Connie: There really is. And it’s on a level that we don’t think about when we’re in our own environment, the things that we take for granted. But when you’re out in the world, and you’re really stripped down of all those securities, you do have to work at finding those sorts of basic things again.
Joanna: That’s also quite nice in our local environment is to try and look at things with the eyes of a traveler, and figure out what would be difficult if someone comes to our country. When I first went back to the USA after the pandemic, a country that I’ve been traveling to for decades, I felt like a stranger for the first time in a long time. I saw some weird things about America that I hadn’t really noticed before.
Do you notice things with the eyes of a traveler now?
Connie: I hope so. I hope that I’m still keeping that fresh in myself. I try not to walk the same path. I’m always trying to shake it up. I try to go down alleys because they’re very overlooked pathways in our city but you get a completely different perspective when you go down an alley, then you go down the front of a street. So I constantly try to push myself to change it up so that I can keep seeing things fresh and new.
I do think that is the danger to fall back into not questioning things, to not asking why is it that way? Or how can I see this differently? Or how would this person see this? Because it’s easy to become complacent like that.
Joanna: And then it turns into a sort of jaded, take-it-for-granted attitude, which is why I think people sometimes are unhappy is because they’re not looking at things with new eyes and trying new things.
Connie: That’s very true. Yeah, that’s a good point. I also think people, they just believe what they think. And they don’t even know why they think that way.
Joanna: And that questioning can really help.
The subtitle of the book is ‘A woman’s search for self on the edge of India.’ Did you find yourself? Or are you still looking?
Connie: As I alluded to, earlier, I became someone that I did not expect that I would be. I would have never predicted that kind of behavior and myself. And it came as sort of a combination of many things.
I was feeling very tired, the heat of it, the emotional isolation of it – that became very stressful and heavy for me. And then when I was in this situation, I really just felt like I cracked and went over the edge. And then I literally went over an edge when I chased someone. And that is not at all who I am. But I think it showed me that I have the potential to be people I don’t know. I can be good or bad.
Joanna: When you take these trips, when you travel in a certain way with this openness, it often doesn’t end up the way you expected or the way you planned. And if it did, I guess it would just be a holiday.
Connie: Yeah, and I think we can take that even to our hometown, own town roots too. Because if we have these expectations of people just in our everyday lives, that often doesn’t turn out the way we expected or wanted either.
So if we just keep an open mind, and then open our heart and that mindful presence in each moment without putting expectations on things. That’s where the disappointment comes when we expect something to go one way, but it doesn’t.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. So this is the books and travel show.
Apart from your own book, what are some books that you recommend about travel in India or just travel in general?
Connie: Oh, there are so many good books out there, so many written by women that really helped me even understand the kind of story that I wanted to tell.
One of the first ones that comes to mind is Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. A woman who solo trekked across 1700 miles of the Australian outback. She’s this woman who decides she’s going to get these camels, and she’s never handled camels ever, and then take them across this huge journey. So I thought that was very inspiring to see women doing things that women aren’t really expected to do.
The other one would be Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: Lost and Found On the Pacific Crest Trail. I thought that was a great book to really understand what it was like for her, again, to do something that she wasn’t really experienced or trained or skilled to actually do. But she learned and she grew into that as she went.
As far as being in India, one of my favorites is Hindoo Holiday, which is a very old book by J.R. Ackerley. I think it was published in 1932. But it’s very funny. It takes you into the day-to-day life of someone living and working in India, in New Delhi, I think, maybe not in New Delhi, but in India.
And then the other one would be William Dalrymple, City of Djinns, which is about his year of living in Delhi. Again, there are all sorts of characters that he meets and culture clashes, where his own culture and his own expectations are really turned upside down when he’s in a different situation. And then how do you deal with that?
Joanna: All fantastic books.
Where can people find you and your book online?
Connie: My book is just about everywhere. It is, of course, on Amazon and is in Barnes and Noble. If you’re anywhere in the world, if you wanted to have your local bookstore order it, they can order it through Ingram Spark’s global distribution. There is a paperback there is an ebook. And hopefully, by the end of the year, there will be an audiobook of it as well. My website is www.clstambush.com.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Connie. That was great
Connie: Thank you so much. I enjoyed talking with you.