Why must we travel?

Open-Up! Datia

“When you are a young person, you are like a young creek, and you meet many rocks, many obstacles and difficulties on your way. You hurry to get past these obstacles and get to the ocean. But as the creek moves down through the fields, it becomes larger and calmer and it can enjoy the reflection of the sky. It’s wonderful. You will arrive at the sea anyway so enjoy the journey. Enjoy the sunshine, the sunset, the moon, the birds, the trees, and the many beauties along the way. Taste every moment of your daily life.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Never Fear! Tsingy de Bemaraha

My philosophy of life has not been anything different; I believe life is a beautiful journey that must be undertaken with compassion and love for everyone. This journey is enjoyable as much as the destinations. There are many phases in human life; each different and enjoyable. If youth has energy and vibrance, old age has maturity and experience; while in young age we want to see more, as we grow mature, we see deeper. Travel is integral to understanding the many philosophies of life. Travel brings us in contact with new people, often from different social, religious and cultural backgrounds. These interactions make us open to appreciate and accept objects, rituals, cuisines and cultures other than our own. Travel also enhances the managerial skills – the most vital one being the management of time. It makes us dynamic; makes us understand that more over success and failure what matters is the enjoyment. 

Soak-in! Ajanta

This fundamental understanding of the many benefits of travelling were instilled earlier in my life by my parents; particularly my father, who himself was an avid traveller and even now in his 70sm he is still an active traveller. My early travel memories are spread around the length and breadth of mainland India; short trips, family picnics, annual trips to our ancestral house in Bengal were a regular part of our growing up. Spread over my schooling years, these trips made me immensely curious; Philately and Numismatics further added to my enquiries. In our summer break 1990 we went for a gala trip covering Haridwar – Rishikesh – Dehradun – Mussoorie. This austere trip introduced me to the many beauties of nature; I was thoroughly charmed by the bright fluorescent bloom of Cassia Fistula popularly known as Amaltas. My love for Amaltas has not diminished in all these years. Annual trips to rural Bengal exposed us to the unseen charms of simple village life. 

Beauties of Nature; Bandhavgarh

Between 1994-2000, our travels were routine and not really exciting. They can be termed as familial travels where people, food and gossiping over trivial matters are considered more important than exploration, and the destination itself. I still remember how I would accompany my relatives to the Taj Mahal time and again without knowing anything about its origin, conceptualization, construction and controversy of it originally being a temple. By 2001, at the age of 21 years, I attained economic freedom. This enabled me to travel as and when desired; although my partners kept on changing. I was literally on a spree; racing past destinations, without understanding much about them. For example, I first visited Khajuraho in 2006 during the rains. We could see the whole temple town and Kalinjar in just a day without understanding an iota of its iconography. Can such cursory visits take us to the soul of any place? Later I visited Khajuraho around 5-6 times, each time learning something new. After a string of visits I could finally do a guidebook on Khajuraho – Xplore Khajuraho. 

Meet People; Bhubaneshwar

The next type of travel that we all undertake are associated with official trips. Hugely under-rated, these trips can be immensely productive if planned well. They can be useful as a Survey or Scouting lead for future visits and can also be converted into a full-fledged trip by augmenting them with leaves. My work provided me with a galaxy of opportunities to explore; from Jammu to Kochi, and from Birpara to Jaisalmer I have literally criss-crossed India during my 20 years of professional association. The best part about my official travels was, they were not superficial or limited to the urbanscapes or meeting rooms but took me to remote places that are not really on any tourist map; from the innumerable tribal hamlets to the very heart of rural India through the cities, towns and muffosils in between. These travels turned me into a seasoned and efficient traveler, making the best use of every minute.

Explore the uncharted; Onkadeli

Koraput in southern Odisha is one such special place that I visited in connection with my work. It was for a field audit and Jeypore was our base camp. Reaching Jeypore was an experience; an early morning flight from Delhi to Vizag followed by a 6-hour drive through the stunningly beautiful Araku Valley. A serene small town surrounded by hillocks on all sides presented a picture perfect. Photographs of Bonda Women at the restaurant struck me immediately. “Excuse me, Can you tell me more about these images? I asked a waiter. He replied, “Sir, I am an outsider, I am calling a local guy.” Soon I came to know about Onkadeli, the tribal hamlets in the inhospitable terrains close to Machkund on the Odisha-Andhra border. Equipped with local information, a vehicle was requisitioned for an early morning trip. Traveling to Onkadeli was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sun god was playing a tug-of-war with the morning fog gradually opening up the verdant greens. The roads were devoid of any human presence whatsoever. When we reached Machkund, the gutted police station invited us. Should we move ahead? Curiosity prevailed over our fears.

Appreciate Architecture; Orchha
Feel the divine; Orchha
Fun-n-Frolic; Orchha

Another interesting trip took place sometime around 2006 with one of my friends and office colleagues. The terrain was different but the twists were not. We were traversing Bundelkhand and after a daylong stay at Orchha, moving towards Shivpuri. Originally we were scheduled to reach Shivpuri before dark but a detour to Datia caused some delay. Finally when we started our journey for Shivpuri on a hired vehicle, it was already getting dark. To take away the fatigue, we opted for a nap as our driver focussed on driving with local songs playing in the background. Everything was pretty normal before a pile of boulders in the middle of the highway brought us to senses. Soon, some shaky silhouettes of men with guns moved into the frame.  It took very little for each one of us to apprehend where the whole scenario is heading. We were sitting helplessly inching closer to the dacoits. Suddenly our driver slowed up, to pretend that we were about to stop. This action made the armed men somewhat lax; they were nearly sure of having successfully intimidated us. When the separating distance was less than 5 metres, a spike of acceleration shook up the car. Avoiding the boulders, our driver charred the men on the sidewalk who immediately retreated backwards to safety. By the time they could take hold of their guns, we were already cruising. After a long silence, we asked, “What was the need of all this? What if they had fired?” Answering in a confident manner, he replied, “Daratey hai bus … Goli nahi chalatey! Piche koi doosra mil jayega unko.”   

Unveil the Unbelievable; Tsingy Rouge
Welcome Surprises; Dhenkanal
Ge Bedazzled; Orchha

Every travel has a theme and every traveller has a personal favorite; some destinations infuse many themes. Some like mountains, others like beaches. Natural Sanctuaries and Wildlife have their own share of pursuers. A natural paradise with teeming wildlife set amidst a mountainous landscape can be of interest to both nature and mountain lovers. In addition to the many charms of mother nature, man-made objects also make up for many types of travel destinations. Historical sites, Art, Architecture, Heritage and Culture also classify as popular travel destinations worldover. I started travelling with heritage as my favorite, fiddled into wildlife and nature and finally evolved as a comprehensive travel lover who gets a high merely at the prospect of travelling to a new place. I have developed that eye to see beyond the obvious and enjoy the real things. Personally, I never go to over-popular, over-crowded places but rather believe in discovering rare gems. It’s like going to Chail, Naldhera, Mashobra over Shimla; Naukuchiatal, Sattal over Nainital!

Go Slow; Gangaikondacholapuram
Go Steady; Srirangam

In Dec 2006, I embarked on my first major solo trip through the temple towns of Karnataka. It was a life changing experience; winning over many unseen unfounded fears, I could accomplish a grand trip of 12 days covering Bangalore, Mysore, Somnathpur, Belur, Halebidu, Harnahalli, Doddagaddavalli, Arsikere, Hampi, Badami, Pattadakal, Aihole, Sidlapadhi, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Bidar and Hyderabad. Making effective use of public buses, taxis, trains and flights, I raced past my well-planned itinerary. Tamilnadu was explored in another trip in Dec 2008 with stopovers at Chennai, Madurai, Chettinad (Karaikudi, Koviloor, Kundrakudi, Pillaiyarpatti, Kanadukathan, Pallanthur, and Devakottai), Trichy, Srirangam, Thanjavur, Darasuram, Gangaikondacholapuram, Pondicherry, and Kanchipuram. I was growing as a traveler; as a photographer; as a chronicler and as a person.

Get Close; Darasuram
More Closer’ Darasuram

With time my travels became more detailed; in search of the real India, not the facia but the soul. In Jan 2010, I planned a grand family trip to the uncharted Hadoti region of Rajasthan. While Bundi had been a long pending one, I had come to know about Jhalawar recently during a “Music in the Park” concert at Nehru Park. In between the recitals, Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar threw light about his fathers role as a Dewan at Jhalawar. Bundi however was more famous; written about by Rabindra NathTagore, Rudyard Kipling and had featured in Satyajit’s Classic – Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The trip offered a range of perspectives; If Bundi showcased raw beauty, Jhalawar had sophistication. Gagron, Jhalrapatan, Kota and Amer were planned in between as excursions. This trip can be categorised as a well-planned one with systematic readings (Kipling’s Kim and Todd’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajputana). 

A work of Goblins; Bundi

My travels went Global in 2013; I had always wanted Angkor Wat as the reason for my maiden foriegn trip. “If I ever go abroad, then Cambodia will be my destination and Angkor should be the motive” … That’s how I would often reason out. But technically, the first visa that got stamped on my passport was not of Cambodia, but of Thailand that we touched on transit. Another behemoth of a trip, we travelled for 9 days straight; frantically wandering along the ruined temple towns of Koh Ker, Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Vihear, Beng Mealea and Bakong in addition to the more popular Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Other than Banteay Chhmar, we could cover all that we wanted to. Khmer ruins across Cambodia are an enchanting sight, more so for ruin-lovers. Starting early in the morning, we would cover a whole gamut of art, architecture and culture before returning into the soulful surroundings of Frangipani. 

Art over Engineering; Banteay Srei
Zenith; Koh Ker (Drawing by Louis Delaporte)

Have you ever traveled with babies? Or Do you think travelling with babies is practically not workable or less enjoyable? Well! I can tell you from my personal experiences that travelling with babies is so much fun; it is never a problem if planned well. We have travelled to a host of places since my daughter was just 4 months old. When it was about her first birthday, we wanted to travel again. We gave her three options on paper chits – ANGKOR/ HALONG BAY/ PETRA; she picked up Halong Bay. “It’s too adventurous a destination, let’s do a retake!” Result remained the same as we rolled the chits for a final third time. The “Biggest Trip Ever” proved to be a super success, an once-in-a-lifetime affair, made special by energetic participation from all. If Vietnam surprised us with its natural beauty, scintillating Singapore left an indelible impact. We are grateful to Brinda, who chose “Halong Bay” over Petra and Angkor, and gave us this wonderful sojourn. It was because of her strong conviction that Halong Bay happened.

Adventure; Halong Bay
Solitude; Halong Bay

Things were going routinely when we felt a breather is required. I was nearing 40 and steadily losing the vigour and will power. Is “Chollish perolei Chaal Shesh” (literally meaning when you cross 40 you cease to move around) really true? Despite the practical issues of travelling with a 3-year old baby coupled with exorbitantly high cost of flight and travel, a 21-day trip to Madagascar was finalised. It was challenging in every respect; from booking hotels and flights, making travel arrangements, and the actual travel through the eighth continent. Majority of people in Madagascar do not understand English; their food habits are quite alien. At times, we had to somehow survive on packaged food and Maggi made on an electric kettle. Wagh Bakri Masala tea bags helped us retain the Indian flavour. Arranging for local currency – Malagasy Ariary – before we moved into small towns was another issue. But the rewards were equally rare – from Lemurs to Sifakas, Fosas to Fanalokas, Geckos to Chameleons, Weevils and Spiders, Tsingy de Bemaraha to Tsingy Rary through Tsingy Rouge … It was simply stupendous!         

Oddities; Madagascar
Yes! Babies can travel, Mantadia National Park

After my 40th birthday, a growing sense of contentment took over; I often expressed my gratitude to the almighty for fulfillment of all my desires – big and small. For a self-made person coming from a humble beginning, life has been exceptionally generous. It has given me much more than I had ever imagined. And the benevolence continues in the form of another exotic trip to the Silk Route. Uzbekistan opened up new avenues; art and architecture but so different and so unique. Travelling through Tashkent, Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva we had a glimpse of the splendorous arab life. Unlike Madagascar, Uzbekistan is a modern country with all modern travel amenities at an affordable price. Can you imagine, we flew business class for just 3800 INR for a hour long flight from Urgench to Bukhara. Uzbeki people are warm and friendly; inquisitive about Indians. During our 9-day trip, we posed with many locals. They know and love Bollywood, especially Shahrukh Khan. The affection that we received at Uzbekistan only proves humanity comes first, over anything else.  

Outrageous; Samarqand
Hand-made; Samarqand

Planning is pivotal to any travel; literally a detailed itinerary should be the first step. This must be done after considering the crew members – age, agility, eating habits etc., travel timings with buffer for exigencies and time zones, Essentials – Passports, VISA letters, Medicines etc., and electronic gadgetry such as mobile phones, cameras etc. I always believe in a minimal functional wardrobe with good footwear. Shades are a strict no-no as they significantly impact the natural colors. Reading is a good option for streamlining your trip, however many times suggestions can go wrong. Like in Tashkent, we walked a long distance to find “National Food,”  a place for savouring traditional cuisine, only to find that despite being Non-Vegetarians, we still need to develop a taste for the Uzbeki delicacies. Shiny fleshy Tomatoes and Orange juice came handy for dinner.

Dusk; Badami
Splendor; Amritsar

There is another misconception widely prevalent amongst the Indian middle class – Travel is for people with deep pockets, not for the ordinary. I have found this to be wrong during my own low-cost trips around India and abroad. My opinion has further been validated by many budget travelers I have come across during my expeditions. If you still think travelling is for the rich, then read through the hugely popular travel diaries of Che Guevara. Memorable trips are made possible by resolute will power, and not money.  I salute Mohana and Vijayan (70+) of Kochi, Kerala who have already travelled to 23 countries, supporting their travels by selling tea and coffee, and saving every day to travel more. My recent inspiration is Parimal Kanji, (55+) traveler from Kolkata cycling around India who believes, “Aukaat nahi hai lekin pair to hai naa!”  

Happy Travels!