How did the wanderlust start?
The fact that I love to travel is well chronicled in this year-old blog by now. I have managed to dedicate an enormous amount of space over the last year to much of my travels, and although I have skipped over a few (mostly due to boredom and laziness than lack of trip-related fun), I think I have managed to convey to the reader (always assuming that someone else reads this) that I have, in the last year, spent more time in an airplane than on the potty. It should come as no surprise then that I am writing this on an airplane as well!
It was as I got talking with some friends that I realized that this year has been pretty hectic in terms of travel. I sat down and went through the trips I have made and realized that I have traveled to some location in almost every single month of 2011! Lets see, Sep’10-Oct’10: Hongkong, Sri Lanka; Jan-Feb: India — Mumbai, Igatpuri, Baroda, Kerala, Coimbatore; March: India again; May: California, Dallas; June: Dallas; July: Ithaca in New York, The Rocky Mountains in Colorado; August: New York City; September: Belgium, Amsterdam; October: California; December: India! Phew!
So I got to thinking why this was so, and how it got to be so. For a long time now, I have been traveling to many places around the world — the summer of 2010 was the only one when I did not got to Europe in the past 5 years; so the traveling bug is not recent. As one of my roomies put it, I have a small bug up my rear-end that starts to get restless if I stay put in Austin for too long and I have to pack my bags and leave. However, if I think back to a little over 10 years ago, things were extremely different. So how did it all change? When did I go from being a Chembur-only boy to a globe-trotting hippie?
The first international trip that I made was to Nepal. This was way back in 1998, when I was still in school, and we were living in Mumbai. The trip was amazing, and I still remember jumping into the river and swimming alongside the small boat that was ferrying me and my parents back to the mainland after a visit to a small Buddhist temple on an island. I had also rented a cycle to take a trip around town and on noticing that I had spent close to an hour away, my worried father rented a bike himself and tried to follow my path in search of me (remember this was before cellphones). Luckily, neither of us had lost our way and we both came back safely, ending a perfectly wonderful trip. I really enjoyed my first “international” trip, but this was not when the travel bug bit.
The second trip — much longer — was to France. A small sleepy town called Angers (300 miles south of France) threw itself open to us when I was in junior college. My father was a visiting professor for a year at a University there and we had decided to accompany him through November. This was just after the fateful 9/11 attacks in NYC, and I distinctly remember a reference to this on one of our Yahoo! voice/video calls. At that time it did not seem like a big deal — hell, we had read of worse in Kashmir, and had witnessed worse in 1993. We stayed in a small apartment on a busy street, imbibing the culture of a country whose language none of us spoke! In spite of our obvious amateur status as travelers and the lack of the ability to speak or read or understand French, I have to say we managed pretty well! We visited Paris, took a nice trip to Disney Land and pretty much frolicked our way through the month. But again, this was not the turning point, or so I think.
I have this theory that there is not one major thing that changes one’s life. When one looks back at things, it is easy to think that something big happened at a particular instant and changed the course of one’s life forever. I think it is a bit more subtle than that. While there are things that stand out in memory, I think we build the big push piece-by-piece, and it obviously unfair to call one particular incident the turning point. All events prior to that influence the turning point in some fashion, building up straw-by-straw until the camel’s back is broken. So while I state that these trips were not the turning points, I associate quite a bit of importance to these trips, which obviously imprinted travel in my still-developing consciousness.
The big “turning point” I think came in January 2007. We had started to travel quite a bit around India by then and I had spent every summer of my engineering years taking a trip to previously unexplored parts of the country. Given the vast nature of my home country and its varied locations, as well as our penchant for visiting Kerala quite often (we have a soft corner for it), I cannot claim that I have seen a good portion of my country; but the engineering summers did acquaint me with the torrid summers of Delhi and Ghaziabad, the pleasant peace of Amritsar, the rustic elegance of Punjab, the chilly mountains of Vaishnav Devi and the wonderful sweetness of West Bengal. The turning point, as I said, came in the Spring of 2007.
This was to be the last year of engineering and I had sent in my applications to the universities in the US, thereby sealing my fate for the next 5 years, when I got an opportunity to do an internship at a small university in France. Now, while this may seem routine for some Indian engineers from elite schools, at “ordinary” universities such as mine, internships were unheard of. The educations system was so unyielding that it as almost impossible to do an internship during the course of the semester — even if it was your last semester in school! Somehow I managed to convince the HoD and the Vice-Principal that what I was about to embark upon was good for me and the school at large, and using the few contacts that I had, and pulling all the strings that I could, I managed to get permission to miss classes for two months without repercussions, so that I could go for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As fate would have it, I was to stay in Angers — the same place I had visited the first time around! This time though, I was better prepared. I had spent the previous semester learning the basics of French and had some ability to string together not-completely-incoherent statements, that sometimes managed to convey the gist of what I was hoping to convey. Looking back, those were really hectic days, and I am surprised that I managed all that I did. Let me digress a bit here and describe that, before I come back to Angers and the “turning point”.
During the last semester of the third year of engineering, I managed to get up by 6 every morning and visit the gym for an hour, from where I’d quickly leave for French class. I had a neatly packed breakfast (cereal, milk, fruits + nuts +raisins) in my car (kudos to amma) just after class. Then I’d drive up to school and attend classes starting at 9.30, staying there till about 5 in the evening. Evenings were generally more relaxed, but I’d still go out, have some fun, and do all the TP and french homework that I could before repeating the schedule for 6 days a week. I had to sacrifice my violin classes for this, and to this day I regret not trying to squeeze the class into my evening schedule!
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. In Angers, I stayed with a French couple — Aliette and Bernard — about whom I had written extensively in my previous (now defunct) blog. I am not going to repeat all of that here, but instead I’ll simply state why I think this was the turning point. Aliette and Bernard were possibly the most outgoing and most accepting people I had met in my life. They were not hippies who contributed nothing but pot-smoke to the world. They were hard working nurses, who made a difference each day to every single person who walked into their hospitals. In spite of this, they had managed to visit quite a bit of the world. Granted that much of their travel was limited to Europe (they had visited China though, and are soon to visit India!), but still, their amazing enthusiasm for traveling and the amount of perspective in brought about in them was evident. They were not only globe-trotters, but were enthusiastic cyclists who had done trips just on their cycles. Travel was not all that they did. Aliette painted, Bernard was a master carpenter and craftsman and an excellent photographer. This was my first exposure to DSLR cameras and I could see the mastery that Bernard had achieved over his craft over the years. It does not end at that. As a hobby Bernard collected water dispensers — the kind that spurts out water into drinks in bars — and had built a case to house all of that. Apart from all of this, they managed to have a rocking social life (one in which they made me an active part), visiting and entertaining friends and family. Indeed, the first day I reached their place, they were having a dinner party at their house!
To me, this was the so-called “turning point”. I took short trips around France with them, and learnt of the beauty of appreciating other cultures through their tales and photographs. I learnt of the joy that one gets when one takes time out to do the things that one loves. I had my hobbies and had pursued them before, but not with the gusto and zeal that this couple radiated. The complete lack of inhibition with which they approached any task was something that I admired. Maybe it was my growing maturity, maybe it was just the couple, or maybe the events of the past had slowly accumulated like the straws in the analogy above, but I had started to see the beauty of culture, of personal enjoyment and satisfaction and I had a brief glimpse of the kind of life I’d want.
I came back to India a happy man, and soon took the longer trip to the land of the stars and stripes, and thus began the saga of travels without limit. As I saved up enough to buy myself a DSLR, and began to mature over the years in the US, I started to appreciate even more the experience of that spring, I began to appreciate the joys of travel and cultural immersion. I became the constant traveler.
There are paths to tread, long and deep
Woods to hike through, in this life brittle
And the world to see in years so little
I have miles to go before I sleep,
I have miles to go before I sleep.
(With due apologies to Frost!)