Why We Travel

P1170703I wrote this essay for Verve  www.vervemagazine.in  some years ago but it is still relevant. Women respond intuitively to travel .Don’t defer the dream of travelling- it’s good for inner beauty 🙂

Chella,Bhutan .Prayer flags for the dead

Any woman who travels will tell you that when a journey calls it is difficult to ignore its summons.It is like some deep-seated response to a primordial call. If ignored or pushed aside by the daily demands of life it stays wedged insidiously somewhere at the back of the head, a silent buzz that makes sure it gets heard.

Places call with no rational connection to why we want to go there. The journey begins with whiff of a conversation, a chance mention of a place, the coincidental meeting of like minded travelers and suddenly develops a life all of its own. As Women, I believe we have always responded intuitively to travel. Sometimes the call comes from past lives lived in distant lands.

Call me fey, but on a trip to Cairo I was amazed to find myself giving confident directions to the Al Azhar mosque and Khan el Kahlili market, insisting the driver change routes twice.This was before google maps and GPS. He was confused until he figured I was taking him from an old forgotten route that was no longer used. I did not know where this knowledge came to me and the driver refused to believe it was my first trip to town. It was obvious to me that a past life had spoken but not everyone subscribes to that school of thought. Often we are summoned to be vicarious participants in someone else’s journey or remain armchair travellers of sorts, as so many women have had to be content with, when travelling was deemed unsuitable for ladies.

It did not deter my grandmother though. She sailed alone to England in 1919, in a Parsee style saree, all she ever wore while a student at Oxford. Bitten by the travel bug thousands of miles away from her native Lahore, she traveled across the continent whenever she could. We had old diaries of hers charting meticulously, in neat copperplate, her various trips. One I remember was to see the Northern lights in Norway and her descriptions of the Aurora Borealis were read to me when I was four, by my enthusiastic older sister who had mastered the art of reading.

My grandmother Dev Shobha Sinha Bali

There are many such grandmothers whose journeys deserve telling. But even the armchair traveller is a traveller, for who can muzzle the travels of the mind that can run riot, become almost frenzied in its imagined adventures and absorbed by its own traveling glory? The expanse of the mind is limitless and other people’s anthologies, travelogues and diaries are all at our beck and call to abet our mind’s journeys. It is a premise delightfully explored in Alain de Boton‘s ‘Art of travel‘.

But now more than ever for an entire generation of women, travel is the drug of choice, heady beyond description.We are choosing to travel more and more as women opting to go solo or in groups of women bound by a similar passion,often jettisoning our men along the way.

Going on a holiday or journey is making a tacit pact that you agree to be immersed in an experiential surround that may bring about a certain residual recklessness. Foods we may have scorned become manna,clothes we would not dream of wearing back home become our garb of choice,and the flirtations we could not possibly condone become deliciously permissible.

When the call to travel is loud and clear it demands instant action. Which woman has not known that feeling? The packing of bags, a frenzy and flurry of activity, the stress of knowing that nothing is right about our clothes, our shoes, our supplies, then the ensuing whirligig dissolving into the heaving relief of knowing we have managed to get on the train, the ship, the flight and sometimes even the camel or bullock cart that will take us away magically to a place where we will meet ourselves once again, even as we meet the world.

Travel is the most powerful way to connect, to change the experiences of daily life. It is also to dance with the risk of knowing you may come back and find that you have changed beyond measure and the confines of the old life too small to hold your new spirit. Or you may return to the comforting cocoon of the familiar, to finally know that coming home is the best journey of them all. Sometimes you may find, as Frances Mayes says so poignantly in her book, ‘Bella Tuscany‘ that, “Home is actually a far away place”.

Bhumthang ,Bhutan. Buckwheat fields

My mind travels greedily picking up stories of travellers- Pico Iyer, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris, Harold Stephens, Santha Rama Rau,Michael Palin, and jealously wanting to do all that they did and more . I travel soaking in sights and sounds and stories selfishly wanting to be alone with my experiences.

To anyone who cares to listen I will talk of the moonlight over Bagan in Myanmar,waking up to buckwheat fields in Bhumthang high up in Bhutan,the sight of the Coptic church in Cairo, the beauty of Halong bay in Vietnam, walking on every tilt of the leaning tower of Pisa before it was shut to footfalls, seeing the spectacular Oregon coastline, gasping at the first sight of Himalayas, walking through the New Forest in England.

bagan wikipedia
Bagan Myanmar -picture from Wikipedia .
Oregon coast . Pix credit: Meenakshi Rao

But more than seeking an audience these are the sights that stay in the mind’s eye to be conjured up to remind myself as I travel through Mumbai’s road rage that I did go there. There are other memories too- memories of being cold, of feeling unsafe and scared, of being hopelessly tired and lost and homesick, all of which comes with the territory but which never deter a traveller from planning the next trip.

The more remote your destination the greater the awareness of a deep cosmic isolation which is unnerving at first and then contemplative and meditative in power. Sitting Wrapped around by stars near the Siachen glacier in Ladakh makes you feel there is a greater purpose to life until you dash into a warm tent or room losing that moment.

To coin a cliche, Experiences are everywhere. In the cities and the streets, in the malls and the mountains, in airports and at railway stations.

When you travel in a group the dynamics of the journey take on an altogether different shape. People change, friends we thought we knew intimately suddenly seem strangers or we discover hidden depths in people we dismissed as frothy or lightweight. Experiences get multiplied by the people we are with or then we get crowded by a surfeit of them never being able to hold on to any one.

A seasoned traveller knows that the best way to travel is to do so without expectation because the script you set out with is rarely the one that will unfold.

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