Monday, April 7, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Understanding Travel

The previous 2 blog posts were about answering some of the most common questions have faced. This post is primarily about some pertinent questions have asked myself about travel.

The terms tourist, traveller and visitor are often used interchangeably. But, am sure that most of us acknowledge that there is a wide difference between a tourist and a traveller. Similarly, there is a huge gap between visiting a place and travelling to a place. But, the question is, what is the difference?

Back in 2009, a bunch of us decided to hire a cab and go around Karnataka. We stopped at all the famous points along the way and made sure we captured pictures -both group and individual!! We had a fixed plan and we were not willing to change it under any circumstance. We saw all the places on our list and we hardly interacted with anybody outside our group. Actually, I don’t find anything horribly wrong with this approach. Just that we were not travelling, but we were touring and visiting places. I would safely guess that this is how most of us begin. Such tours continued and somewhere along the line, I realized this is not exactly the same as travel. I don’t recall how this thought came to me. To be honest, it was hard to find people around who understood what travel is and from whom one could learn.

The first time I came across travellers was in September 2012. They were a couple of westerners who were on a travel break and seemed to have a different approach. One striking difference was that they did not have an agenda set in stone and they were more than willing to experience anything which comes their way and their ability to observe and learn was quite evident. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet few more such travellers and the most notable among them was a person I met a few months before I took up my little journey. For the first time, I came across a person whose life is built around travel and whose personality has been shaped significantly by his journeys. Undoubtedly, it is a long road from a tourist to a traveller. If we can take an analogy of a school of travel, I would say I have finally managed to gain admission into the school. But, a long way to go before I graduate from this school.

In the 221 days, there were many days when I woke up in a new town and realized that I had no plan whatsoever. I ventured out for breakfast, spoke to a couple of localites and figured out what to do for the day. In the end, it all turned out fine. Now, what has changed between the time we hired a cab and went around few places in Karnataka and this Himalayan Odyssey? If I have to highlight one thing, it has to be my ability to go with the flow. I gradually got rid of my plans and cut down on my expectations. Consequently, there was very little chance to be disappointed. The amount of preconceived notions had reduced significantly and was in a better position to experience things as they are and not the way I had envisaged beforehand. This experience includes everything – people, terrain, culture, food and the list goes on. In other words, I was more open to absorb the new experiences. This I feel is the single biggest difference between a tourist and a traveller – the ability to trust the journey and go with the flow. This attitude to trust the journey and firmly believe that whatever happens along the way is a welcome experience is one thing which clearly sets apart a traveller from a tourist. Definitely, this is not the only difference and more importantly, have not understood all the differences. This is just my understanding based on my limited experience.

Next, have asked this question myself many times – what is so great about being a traveller? Why is it that so many quotes, books, blogs, forums are dedicated to discuss the greatness of travel. Most important, why do people seem to be so desperate to travel? To be honest, I feel travel is one of the most misunderstood and exaggerated concepts. This might not go down as the most popular opinion. Misunderstood because people tend to equate visiting places to travelling to a place. Visiting places is almost like going to school. We might go to the best of the schools and pursue the highest of the degrees. But, it only increases the probability of learning and does not ensure it. Same way, one can tour for years, but still might carry the attitude of a tourist and not grow much beyond that. On the other hand, one could have visited only a couple of places, but might possess the attitude of a traveller. When I hear people claim ‘I have travelled all across India’ or ‘There are only a few states left, but I have covered most part of India’, (you can replace India with any other country name here :), it just reinforces my belief that we more often than not tend to confuse between visiting a place and travelling to a place. Exaggerated because I feel that the learnings from travel are generally blown out of proportion. Is listening to the story of our neighbour much different from listening to the story of a stranger we meet while travelling?  Do our cities don’t offer any chance to learn from people of other cultures? Are the mountains and rivers closer to our hometown any less beautiful than the ones thousands of miles away? Not really. No doubt that travel is a great teacher, but a lot depends on the student.

In spite of the exaggeration, there is definitely unbound magic in travel, which I am still trying to unravel. Travel teaches a lot, no two thoughts about it. One thing I have observed is that when we are travelling, we are mostly focused on the present and not living in the past or the future. It is like all our senses are focused on that very moment and our ability to observe, learn and absorb seems to have gone up by many notches. Being away from our comfort zones and putting ourselves amidst new people in new places makes it mandatory for us to live in the moment!! Maybe, this is what makes the learning so effective and profound. And what better way to experience this than going solo!! One is not bound by the limitations and expectations of the group and we are all by our self to trust our instincts and go with the flow. If one has to experience the better teachings of travel, my sincere suggestion is to try solo travel. During the planning stages, was in discussion with a couple of friends about doing this journey together. Looking back, I feel sorry for them that they missed this magical experience. On the other hand, am also glad that I had the opportunity to go solo.

Does this cover my complete understanding of travel? Definitely NO. It is a work in progress and this post is an attempt to share my observations and understandings at this point of time. With time, it is bound to change and evolve.

In the next post, will share about the best part of my journey – the 3 volunteer stints!!