Long way from home

Travelling isone of mankind's most loved activities. But, why do we travel? Lakshmi Palecanda has a map full of reasons

Long way from home
Do you like to travel? If you do, you are definitely not alone. Even in the past, when people thought the Earth was flat and you would fall off if you travelled to the edge, or that there were fire-breathing dragons which would devour you, there were intrepid travellers. And they travelled, because…

…Back in the day, there were a lot of places that were unexplored. You got some money from the rulers of the day, got to these strange lands first, and hey presto, you owned the land! Then you raised a mercenary army and killed off all the people who had lived there forever with manufactured wars and new diseases and looted the riches. If ever there was an incentive to travel, this was it. Old Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Co. found this to their taste. Then there were the followers who had only one thing on their minds: gold. The conquistadors, professional soldiers, travelled to strange lands with barbarous cultures just to make money.

Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, along with Niccolo’s 12-year-old son Marco, were great travellers too. In the year 1270 AD, they travelled the legendary Silk Road, the road to Emperor Kublai Khan’s China through Persia and Mongolia, to ply their trade. Of course, no one can undertake that kind of a trip today — it lasted 24 years!

Many others, including Englishmen, travelled for their livelihood. With primogeniture being the order of the day, when the eldest inherited all the wealth of the parents, the younger sons were left with extremely small incomes and had to seek their fortunes, when and wherever they could.

There was another purpose for which upper-class British and other Europeans travelled around Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, on what was called ‘The Grand Tour’. The purpose was to observe the culture of different Western countries, and see and experience art that could not be done in their own lands.

Yet another motive for travel in the 18th century was disease. Yes, many patients with tuberculosis or ‘consumption’ were prescribed life in the warmer, drier, and more salubrious climes of tropical counties as compared to the cold and damp British climate. One such notable patient was Robert Louis Stevenson who travelled to Hawaii and eventually died on a Samoan island in the South Seas.

Of course, we cannot talk about travellers over the ages, without mentioning the missionaries of various religions. Proselytisation of ‘ignorant savages and heathens’ was the incentive that caused many ordinary people to brave strange people, weird cultures and horrible diseases in order to perform their ‘God’s will’.

Well, fast-forwarding to today: it is a fact that travel and tourism accounted for about 9.6% of India’s total GDP, about 208.9 billion US dollars in 2016. With globalisation in full swing, it has become far easier to travel inside and outside the country in this century than in the past. Though there are no more lands to conquer and savages to ‘civilise’, people do love travel, not only for their work, but also for fun. Also, with higher disposable incomes, leisure travel has become more affordable to all.

But even in this day and age, travelling involves a lot of hassles, doesn’t it? For one thing, it is money down the drain —you have nothing tangible to show after a trip, discounting the tacky souvenirs. Then there is the acute physical discomfort. Air travel means sitting in a cramped space, to go by bus means aching all over, and trains take forever to reach the destination. And can you ever forget the food problems you encounter — what to eat, where to eat, how to identify what you are eating, etc etc…?

In spite of all these problems, there is no doubt that we humans, as a species, love to leave home for a while. We may lose half our holiday to jet lag. We may need a second vacation to get over the physical rigours of our first one. We may have come this close to ordering a horse-meat burger or actually eaten an unknown species. But mention a trip to an unknown locale, and we sit up with gleaming eyes.

Miles to cover
The number one reason why we Indians, especially, like to travel, is for pilgrimages. For, however powerful the deity nearest to us is, there is a more powerful one farther away. India is dotted with holy sites all over its vast domain. Kanyakumari, Thiruvananthapuram, Udupi, Mysuru, Nanjangud, Thanjavur, Madurai, Pandharpur, Nagur, Velankanni, Dwaraka, Tirupathi, Mathura, Amritsar, Vrindavan, Goa, Palitana, Sarnath, Kashi, Bodh Gaya, Agra, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Manasarovar, Kailash… These are but a few of the innumerable places of worship in this land, which counts godmen as some of its richest citizens.

In the hoary past, pilgrimages would be undertaken with great piety and a lot of effort. People mostly walked, camping overnight alongside the roads, or in the homes of kind people. These journeys took a long time no doubt, so young families and working people could not have embarked on them. The journeys were so arduous that they would have a feast in their village, if ever they managed to make it back from the pilgrimage in one piece, like a Badri samaradhane after a trip to Badrinath.

Nowadays, these journeys are condensed to a few days. However, the physical rigours and the devotion are still great draws. My 72-year-old grandmother undertook a journey to Badrinath with great enthusiasm; she wouldn’t travel to the next town normally…

Unless… it was to attend a wedding. Let’s face it, people: the other thing after religion that binds Indians is ‘family’. This happiest occasion in every family had to be attended by its members and it usually meant travel. Even those who wouldn’t otherwise spend money and time to visit a place, packed some jazzy formal wear and set out for a faraway place to witness their brother’s son or uncle’s daughter get married. In my GOD (good old days), leave letters and bogus doctor’s certificates would be dispatched as soon as the wedding invitation with its turmeric-yellowed corners was received. It was okay to squander precious casual and sick leave thusly, because no one ever took a vacation and visited a place for its own sake.

But these days, vacation days are as rare as honest politicians. So, on receiving the e-vites, people send a WhatsApp Best Wishes complete with the appropriate emojis. However, this concept of travelling to weddings has got a huge boost, thanks to…

Destination weddings! Yes, those extravaganzas thrown at tourist destinations! Where you once went to a destination for a wedding, now you travel to a wedding for the destination! Goa, Hawaii, Greece, Monaco… the more spectacular the wedding, the better! And if the marriage doesn’t last, why, even better! There will be another destination wedding to go to because… When you travel, you get bragging rights! Yes, you can say that you’ve been there, done that, and even got a T-shirt to prove it. To some people, the stamps on their passport are validation of their existence. To have seen the ‘Eefel Tavar’ and ‘Libarty Stachoo’ is a really big deal, whether you understand what they stand for or not. Collecting souvenirs and fridge magnets is to a tourist what collecting scalps used to be for a self-respecting Native American warrior of the yesteryear. I should know: you cannot see my refrigerator for the magnets on it.

Tacky souvenirs are enough if you are an ageing tourist. But if you are aspiring to be ‘cool’ and be somebody on social media, you have to do more than pick up souvenirs. At one time, visits to Jog Falls or Malpe Beach with an excursion group was a huge deal. But mention your trip to these places on your Instagram post, and you might as well bury your virtual self in a shallow grave. You might get away with visiting such uncool places if you went there with a biker’s group, or walked backwards, or swam with the dolphins, or did some such exclusive thing. You went to Sri Lanka and Bali? Oh, just forget it, you’re so lame, you’re practically limbless. These days, you have to have taken a hot-air balloon ride over the Niagara Falls or a white-water rafting trip down the Colorado river in order to even get noticed by the ‘in’-crowd. Yup, even bragging is a lot harder these days.

What’s not done before...
The truth is, some people find it a fulfilling challenge to get out of their comfort zones, and see what they are capable of. “We must have walked miles at the Louvre! My feet were screaming at the end of it,” a person boasts with pride at having done something s/he had never done before. A friend of mine went paragliding for the first time on a trip abroad, and found a facet of herself she never knew existed. The question is: would she have gone paragliding in her home town?

The answer is obvious: no. Even if there were opportunities for her to paraglide in good old Bendha-kaalu-ooru, I doubt if she would have done it. We lose some of our inhibitions when we get away from the stultifying environs of our daily life. Even old stick-in-the-muds get frisky and feel like trying something new in a place where they are not known. Some like to rough it out while others like to test the limits of lazing and lounging. It is freeing to do and try new things, to test our capabilities, in unfamiliar places.

Another way to get out of the comfort zone is to travel alone or in groups of strangers. This is a huge step out of the comfort zone, especially for women, who have always travelled with the security of their husbands or families. On her first trip alone to the States, she was a basket case, said a friend. Now, she regularly takes solo trips, where she can have both physical freedom and financial independence, and comes back with renewed confidence and a sense of achievement. Women can also journey with groups like WOW, Women on Wanderlust.

Sometimes people leave home to seek fresh perspectives after a heartbreak or tragedy. There is nothing like going to a totally alien setting to help them get a new outlook on life.

When I polled my friends, every one of them told me that they love the new experiences that travel gives them. It is an investment that pays handsomely in experiences, they said. To get away from the same old-same old, to go where no one you know has been, is simply awesome. Finding a good restaurant, seeing an interesting viewpoint, making contact with a ‘native’ can be a big ‘Chris Columbus’ moment. To see new places, new cultures, and new ways of life gives such a thrill that we forget the travails we went through to get there. We have only one lifetime and we want to cram as many life experiences into that one lifetime. And as experiences are always coloured by food, it follows that …

…Food acts as a motivator to travel. There are two kinds of people — those who need familiar food, and those who want to try new things. There is a very good reason Indians can travel to Warsaw, Versailles or Yakutsk and still get their roti, dhal-chawal and masala dosa. Indians like their comfort food and Indian tour operators know it. So they tie up with Indian eateries to provide for those who’d rather play it safe. On the other hand, there are the risk-takers who like to play ‘what-am-I-eating?’ guessing games. Whichever group we belong to, it is definitely a thrill to spend a month’s grocery budget on one meal and talk about it throughout your lifetime. I once spent a hundred rupees on one hot chocolate in London — everyone I know knows about it. By the way, one reason I love to travel is the hotel stay, where I can get room service, instead of me being the room service. Aah, the luxury of ordering coffee, lunch and snacks while lounging on a bed made by someone else… It is so worth it. I’m sure there are others who feel the same.

There is another surprising explanation as to why many of us love to travel — to go back to our ancient roots. Most of us love to go to scenic spots or national parks where we can see other animals in their natural settings. Curious — it is as if members of our species want to put themselves back, at least for a short while, in the time and space where we once co-existed.

It is as if we want to get away from everything we have created for our safety and comfort, and get back into the very situations we evolved to avoid. Hiking in cold, soaking rain, or living among wild lions while on a safari — didn’t we learn to build shelters and live in communal groups to avoid just these circumstances? It is as if we’re daring ourselves, to see if we can still do it.

But the ultimate purpose for travelling is pure and simple: wanderlust. We all have this in varying degrees, and seek to slake it in different ways. The ultimate wanderer in mythology is the Greek warrior Ulysses, who reached his home on the island of Ithaca after 10 long and arduous years at sea … only to leave again. Lord Alfred Tennyson describes Ulysses as a victim in the throes of wanderlust: ‘I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees’. Even though he is old, he still wants to travel to gain knowledge. His words strike an answering chord in us: ‘Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.’ And we, as the human race, travel for one main reason… ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

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