An ode to armchair travel & adventure

An ode to armchair travel & adventure

Don’t let the confinement hold you back as no force in the world can stop you from travelling, writes Ashis Dutta

You can stop the train, shut down airports and barricade roads. But you can’t take travel away from someone who’s an over-the-top traveller, a dreamer, a vagabond — not necessarily in that order. If you aren’t one yet, you can still be one. And then, no force in the world can stop you from travelling.

A traveller, the likes of Pico Iyer, with numerous travel books under his belt, talks of months of reflection, sitting still at his desk, for every week of physical voyage he journeys through. And Iyer is not alone in this. Graham Green or Naipaul, Theroux or Bryson have spoken of the numerous journeys they have made in their minds for every moment of being physically out there. A journey for them is never a single, one-time bodily affair. Even while on the road, in crowded trains across hot and dusty plains, Theroux speaks of the parallel journeys he simultaneously goes through — his journeys within.

Travel, thus, plays out in our experience in myriad ways. Thinking or daydreaming of travel. Vicarious travel. Planning for travel. Physically putting the foot out of the door. Reflecting on journeys made. Going through pictures, videos, albums, notes. And certainly, I have not hit the tail of the list.

The great travellers of the world have always rejoiced in their journey of the mind. Before he ever stepped out of his city, young Marco Polo had spent countless mornings and copious evenings by the harbour of Venice, staring ceaselessly at the sea, watching ships sailing out to faraway lands. He sailed in his mind a thousand times before setting off on his maiden voyage.

And you don’t have to be a Paul Theroux or a Marco Polo. You can slouch in your armchair and take a flight. I had the calling of armchair travel since childhood. Books and the school Atlas, my companions. As a naïve teenager who had never seen the inside of an aeroplane, I once went on to correct a just-US-returned relative that Washington DC is not in Washington. I learnt two significant lessons from my endeavour. Firstly, contradicting a socially powerful snob has consequences. I had to endure ridicule — what do YOU know about USA? Secondly, the epiphany: travelling does not necessarily broaden the horizon of the mind. Rather, it can just increase the ignorance quotient of the arrogant. Travelling, along with reading and reflecting, do the magic. Mixing travelling with reflecting is that heady cocktail which India-born writer Lawrence Durrell always indulged in. In his own words, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”

Often these parallel journeys — travelling, reading, reflecting — to the same place do not match up with one another. It didn’t for me when I visited Jerusalem way back in the late 90s. From the numerous books I had read before, I knew my imagined Jerusalem like the back of my hand. It was later that I realised that both the journeys had their own truths, their own valid perceptions. I re-read all my Jerusalems and this time, each was an altogether unique journey. 

Another advantage with armchair travelling with books is the thrill of time travel. How about travelling in the 1930s as a lone English woman on a shoestring budget through Persia (modern-day Iran) by foot, camel, donkey and occasionally by car, roaming around Levant, sometimes map-making for British Intelligence, on one occasion slipping through French military cordon into the ancient city of Damascus, befriending tribes fierce and friendly, and often living dangerously in the wilderness among trusting and questionable characters without much knowing who’s what? That’s Freya Stark for you and her 30-odd books. Want to go back farther? Try the 14th-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta.

At this moment, as you are reading this, there are hundreds of cycling enthusiasts around the world who are sweating it out with virtual cycling in their drawing rooms. How does it work? With a special gadget and application, you can prop up your cycle and connect to the TV. Choose a cycling track. Give flight to your fancy, how about choosing the Bourg-en-Bresse to Champagnole track of Tour de France?

Now sit on your cycle and cruise along as the TV will show the actual track chosen. You will even feel the extra torque in your paddle as your track climbs up.

As societies have locked down, virtual cycling has become a rage in the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries with a passionate cycling culture. Today, with a plethora of travel videos available on the internet, armchair travelling needs less imagination.

Instead of having to create your own experience from craftily written words of books, the experience is visually fashioned and doled out. So, don’t let the confinement hold you back.