What they don't tell you about travel.


Dancing atop cars in Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

Photo of What they don't tell you about travel. by Mahima Kohli

Toothbrush, sunscreen, a contingency snack – I went over the final touches and zipped my backpack shut. I was ready for my flight to Bangalore. Mother had given me a hug before she left for work. I picked up my bags – too little for a rather longish trip – and said goodbye to my sister. She asked if I had enough money and my phone charger, and why I had decided to wear that sweater. We went on to exchange a slew of mock insults, and then I was out the door. It hadn't yet hit me that I would not be back home for another five days.

But it hits you, and at the oddest of moments.

Like the night before, while I was packing my bags – a practice I have come to excel in over countless trips – and my mind went into a downward spiral of self-doubt. Why was I going on this trip? It was a perfectly good long weekend that I could spend at home catching up on my never-ending to-do lists. Why on earth could I not sit in one place for long enough, and why had I even planned this trip? Why so restless, Mahima? Are you running? I convinced myself I had a problem. I was always in escape mode. I began wondering if I should cancel my tickets – there were no hotel bookings to forfeit, since I was planning to stay with friends. My clothes lay scattered in piles all over the bed as I slid into the hole of my own making.

In a fit, I decided to share my indecision with mother. And as it often happens, in an entirely unexpected manner, she helped me make my decision. Because when she heard of my dilemma, she suggested checking cancellation charges and, if they weren't too ridiculous, cancelling my tickets.

And that was it.

In a heartbeat, I knew I had to go. Because her words reminded me of why I'd even started travelling – it was to pull myself out of comfortable patterns of routine and familiarity. It is to consistently push myself out of my comfort zone that I sign up for new experiences all the time. If I let a little self-doubt and anxiety derail my plans, what kind of a traveller, or indeed person, would I be?

It took me five minutes to pack my bags after that.

Why do I travel?

Travel is not a hobby for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of skill and perseverance and brings out your best and worst instincts. But for some, it comes as naturally as the sound of burps at a Punjabi restaurant during lunch.

I’ve been travelling since I was too little to recognise anything but my parents' arms. I blame them for being the worldly, ambitious young couple they were, going about exposing a little kid to the joy of travel at an impressionable age. I became so used to the idea of leaving home for a road trip or a weekend in the hills that once I was past my teens, it was natural for me to want to travel even more, and on my own. It was a recreational activity I'd been brought up to love.

We were by no means rich or even comfortably well-off for most of my childhood, but travel isn't expensive. It's ambitious, but rarely expensive.

I grew up staying in government guest houses, military stations, and tiny hotels – whatever my parents could arrange, calling in favours from all those people they happened to know. Today, my decently well-paid mother refuses to set foot in budget accommodation and makes eyes at the mention of hostels. But brought up to adjust to all kinds of circumstances, I developed a taste for challenges early on. Now, I go out looking for hardship even though I don't need to. Like that school trip to Nainital I insisted on joining in eighth standard. 10 days of trekking to a new camp every day, staying in shared cottages and leaky dormitories, and relieving my bowels in makeshift structures that had rattan curtains for doors. I returned home the eleventh morning, two waist sizes smaller and with a mortal terror of breathlessness. But those remained the best days of my young life.

Snowclad Himalayan peaks - a treat for sore eyes

Photo of Auli, Himachal Pradesh, India by Mahima Kohli

Why do YOU travel?

Glossy magazines, television shows, lifestyle blogs, and overpaid ‘influencers’ with those rose-tinted glasses paint an aspirational picture of travel nowadays. Go to Maldives and Seychelles, they say. Have you made plans for each of this year's thirteen long weekends, they ask. Let us help you plan your travel, they offer all too charitably. They create so much noise repeating the same things again and again that you forget to ask the most important question of all – why should I travel at all?

Honestly, when was the last time you asked yourself that question? Did you look deep enough inside yourself – your lifestyle, aspirations, desires and limitations – to find an answer, or did you look for answers in one of those "5 reasons you should travel on the third weekend of every third month" articles? Let's see. Meeting new people isn't a good enough reason – you can meet plenty new people at Rajiv Chowk metro station. Exposure to new experiences doesn't count either – try dousing your hand with kerosene and then juggling with a lighted diya if you're after new or ‘unique’ experiences. Wanting to see beautiful places isn't sufficient cause, because the world was beautiful even when you couldn't be bothered with stupid things like ‘travel’. If you travel for the thrill of eating maggi and drinking beer while squatting in the middle of a river, you should probably never step out of your door again. Any other social media-inspired reasons come to mind? Negate them all.

Now take a deep breath and think like a true thinking individual – why do you travel?

If you ponder long and hard, you'll come across the real reason you travel. Or maybe you'll discover you don't much like travelling. Perhaps the uncertainty and flexibility of travel scares you. Maybe you've really just been aspiring for new social experiences, and travel seemed like a fancy way to achieve that in a picturesque setting. No form of travel is inherently right or wrong, just as eating with your hands isn't any more right or wrong than eating with cutlery or chopsticks. It is all about what you're willing to let go of, and towards what end.

They tell you travel is a hobby we must all aspire for (because how else will the economy run?) What they don't tell you about is the loneliness inherent to the very idea of travel. I have lost count of the number of flights, buses, and trains I have taken in the last three years. But, no matter how far or near I go, there's a lump in my throat every time I leave home. To travel is to leave behind everything that is familiar and step into a new setting, with entirely new challenges and possibilities. Whether it is for five days or a month, in the hills or on the beach, with loved ones or on your own, there will always be a hesitation, a sense that you don't belong. Not initially anyway. And in its fundamental form, travelling is all about this foray into the unknown.

Descending from heaven to earth on a chair lift

Photo of What they don't tell you about travel. by Mahima Kohli

Countless journeys later, I still doubt my intention to travel sometimes – am I really going somewhere, or is it just my current situation I want to escape? Is twenty-first-century travel, after all, just a means of escape? Is there really something out there – some kind of peace, belonging, or deep learning – that I'm looking for, or am I another one of a generation of millennials high on the collective belief that they're on to something?

Until I figure it out, I'm going to keep blaming my parents for everything that's wrong with me, including this thing you call ‘wanderlust’.

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