The Nature of Travel


I have this big itch. Every two weeks or so, my brain and body begin to buzz. The only comparable feeling is a sudden craving for Amma-made food. And left untended to, it builds up to an unrelenting helpless restlessness. At first undiagnosed, it soon became clear to me. It was just me telling me, you need to go somewhere. Anywhere. Sometimes I manage to keep a hold on myself for a few days, weeks. Sometimes, I just need to go. The satisfaction derived out of a good scratch on your itchy backside is incomparable.

Why do I love to travel? B'coz I love to? That is too simple an answer. What is the emotion underlying that love? Scratching is perhaps only a temporary medication to an affliction that has worthier patients across the world. The growing intensity of the itch has led me to make an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Travel. Purely from a philanthropic view, much like Adam Smith did.

To travel is to seek. On a basic level, we seek some of the simpler pleasures of life. Solitude. A quiet walk. Birdsong. Sleeping under a starry sky. The list is endless, depending on the seeker. For a seeker, a destination is only an excuse to travel. That is the difference between a seeker and a tourist. A tourist has deadlines, targets and payment schedules to meet. A seeker doesn't quite know what he is to do or even find. He started off with an excuse and makes up extempore as he moves.

People often talk of travelling to "find oneself". Its actually quite the opposite. We travel to unfind ourselves. To get rid of the skin that we wear every day to work; to interact with family & friends; even in traffic. That shell is not us, it is what we try to be for others. When travelling we can cast away that skin. No one you meet on the road knows who you are or what you are like. They don't expect anything from you. They may not even understand your tongue. Travel rejuvenates for this very reason. It scratches away at that shell and scrapes it away. Below is us. Like a snake rubbing itself on rocks. The reptile that emerges in a few days is beautiful & glistening (still a snake though!).

Photo of The Nature of Travel 1/3 by Sunil R

This is why travellers, often unconsiously, look for a difficult journey. Sleeping rough, driving bikes in the summer sun for a few hundred kms and drinking liquids of unknown provenance are all a part of this. On the road you are at the mercy of strangers (chaiwallahs to 'guides') and the environment. The secret is to keep moving, keep seeking. This is why we tend to fondly remember journeys which start with the bus breaking down 16 times and end with a dysentry.

Travelling teaches you like no textbook can. People you meet on the road are often those you may be overlooking daily. Friends who travelled with me during the field trip to Orissa will remember Vinod. He ran a ramshackle tea shop at Tikarpara, a forest village beside the Mahanadi inside Satkosia WLS. He cooked roti & dal dinners lovingly for us by firelight. The mere fact that we (to him, rich sophisticates from the city who wouldn't bother to look twice at his shack) returned to his place even on our return trip, reduced him to tears of happiness. And we gladly returned to him (a guardian angel in a place where we otherwise would have mostly starved) for stories drenched sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in hope and for jalebis fried in fish oil. To this day I can remember his lined, aged beyond years face and the shabby shawl thrown across his shoulders.

Travelling is one of our only remaining ways of touching nature. It may not be what everyone seeks, but to me atleast the pleasure of walking amidst giant trees and watching birds and beasts where they are meant to be cannot be found elsewhere. We are lucky to be in a land of such diversity, stretching from mountains to oceans, from the desert to vast river deltas. The sights and sounds of these places are all reminders to us of what we are and what we have abandoned.

Photo of The Nature of Travel 2/3 by Sunil R

Even the simple act of driving along a deserted highway can give you insights. Though I don't really know what to do with some of them. Like the fact that cows remember to look right and look left before crossing, only when they are in the middle of the road. Of course, they always decide that the middle is the safest place to be once they do.

Once an agitated middle aged man flagged me down on the Alwar-Jaipur road. He had just hopped out to answer the call of nature when the bus he was in took off without him while his bags continued their onward journey. He wanted me to 'catch' the bus. Ordinarily, I coast along at a very relaxed pace on my bike trips, watching the new places, people and birds around. Content to let the SUVs & demented Travel Corp buses roar and lurch their merry way on. This was a particularly fetching piece of the road as it winded its way through classic Aravalli countryside. And I almost never entertain lift seekers. Yet I did that day and am glad I did.

It was quite a chase with my de-bused friend shouting insults at bullock carts that showed the impertinence of slowing us down. Soon we came upon a precariously packed bus throwing itself around corners with people hanging out of windows and others holding on for dear life on the top. We thumped regally past and waved the speeding bus to a screeching halt. I was preparing for receiving a show of profuse gratitude when my friend realised that it was the wrong bus. Too late, a grizzled driver poked his head out and released a torrent of very ugly driverese. Before the passengers could join in, we cleared out with my Old Man showing remarkable reflexes. I kept the chase on, as much to find the 'sahi' bus, as to evade the 'galat' one. Finally we came upon the right one. To be fair to my unfortunate friend this one was similarly packed and driven eerily similarly. As that ad goes, the price of the ride: missed sights & clogged ears; the price of satisfaction earned: priceless.

You lose something; You find something. Thats the idea.

At the very end, travel seems to me to be a cut and run. An escape from the harsh realities of our personal life to the harsher ones of the world. The monotony of our daily grind wears us out and renders us dull. Travelling sharpens our edge. It is a heightening of the senses. A polishing of the intellect. A broadening of view. An opening of the self. It seems to be motivated by instinct rather than personal preference. Truly, not all those of us who wander are really lost.

So is there a cure for this itch? Even if there is, I think I'll leave the formulation to better people.

I think I'll keep scratching.....mmmm...that was good ;-)

P.S: This one is a little too long. Hope others can add their diagnosis on the issue. The itch keeps getting worse you see. It might please my parents to know that my big travel dream has shifted from coaxing Old Man up to to rugged Ladakh (not that I'll pass on a chance to do that). The new ones are even more attractive. A ride down to Kochi. A trek to the Valley of Flowers. And will someone please show me a tiger in the wild before they are left just in my head ????

Photo of The Nature of Travel 3/3 by Sunil R

This post was originally published on Follow the Lodestar.