Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Travel Odd/ Travel Free

I’m not sure when the 'odd-travel' bug kicked in. Maybe it was post my board exams when everyone went to Goa, and I was hauled off to Bangladesh as a treat, by my hippie mum and ayurvedic-reflexologist aunt. “It’ll be so much fun!” They said with excitement as I sulked over the un-ringing landline, thinking of my friends donning bikinis (!) on beaches. Despite my whiny apprehension, it was fun. It was a whole lot of fun. We spent a few days in Calcutta and then made our way across the border by bus. We caught a boat and then floated down the rivers of the Bangladeshi Sunderbans for days…lying dreamily on the top deck watching bruise-like sunsets, buying fish from tiny boats going past, trekking barefoot through mangrove forests, chasing tiger paws, listening to Jim Morrison renditions early morning. I was 15 with a terrible “boy cut”, braces and baggy jeans but I’d never felt cooler, and when I got back to school I knew I’d been somewhere better. I’d been off the beaten track…

This year, 12 years later, my aunt, mum and I took another trip. This time we chose to explore the Kingdom of Sikkim. Once again we flew to Bengal (Bagdogra this time…my mum and aunt are both half-Bengali which may explain why we cosmically route everything through there), and took the road across the border at Rangpo. What followed were the best ten days I’ve had in a long time. Craggy peaks, Changu Lake surrounded by snow, yaks with woolen orange horn warmers, a million orchids, rosy cheeks, the Dalai Lama, ancient monasteries and baby monks skipping past us at every step. I came back misty-eyed, breathing easier.

Every time I’m back home from an ‘odd’ trip, once I’m through with Phase One of reminiscing, I put up a whole bunch of photos. Yup, I’m the girl that bombards you with an album full of sparkling blue water, cute kids, location-specific fauna, meals from afar and swoon-worthy scenery, every time I re-enter Delhi. And every time I do, I get a lot of comments on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the other numerous noisy portals I use to communicate with the world. People write to me saying, “Those are beautiful,” and “wow,” and what not but most, most often I get this message: You’re so lucky.

Now here’s what – I won’t for one second tell you I’m not lucky. Because I am, and I am eternally grateful to God, the Universe and a guy called Nauriyal, who all changed my life in some way by making my main means of income travel. But I’ll also say this, that the Facebook album is a lie. Well, half a lie. It’s true, you only get to see the good bits. But there’s a whole different album and diary that you haven’t seen. For every luxury trip to the Maldives there’s a trip to a place like Digha. For every journey by business class, there are so many on three-tier trains that arrive in village destinations at 4am. And for every meal made in a French kitchen, there are five in a row that taste exactly the same as each other. My Spain album had a generous amount of pictures of me kickboxing with hot men on the beaches of Barcelona, but it didn’t tell you that we slept an average of 3 and a half hours a night, got in trouble with the police, got food poisoning and STILL shot a record 8 episodes in 10 days. There’s always a flipside…for instance, the Andamans are gorgeous, but they’re also a prime place for spiders in your teacup, scorpions in your shower and snakes slipping past your feet (all three did happen).

I began to notice that a lot of people confused ‘good’ travel with ‘luxury’ travel, too often. That a place is only worth oohing over if Anthony Hopkins was the last person to have slept in your bed (yes, that was at Tony Robbins’ resort in Fiji – Namale Spa). But that’s not true. I took one of the best trips of my life when I agreed to travel the Himalayas for someone for a month for a tiny (really it was TINY) amount of money. Because it was the Himalayas. Because a small compromise may be the richest ticket you ride. And by limiting your idea of great travel to “fancy-ass travel” you cut down your options (of course), but you also cut down how you see the world. If you won’t take a train, if you won’t trek, if you won’t live in a tent, if you refuse to walk, if you won’t eat from a street stall…you wont do a hundred other things either. And those other 100 things are all something you want to do.

I asked a few friends to come with me on certain trips. The non-luxury variety of trip. I promised it would be fun, and that all they had to pay for was their own travel there…in some cases, even this was taken care of. Some of the people I asked were the ones who had most mailed me complaining about how “dull” their lives were and how “lucky” I was. It was surprising then when most of the replies I got went something like this, “But where will we stay?” or “Do they have good food there?” Some even went as far as to say, “But I’ve heard there’s nothing to do there.” Of the ones who did come along, it was very few who saw the trips for what I did – as an opportunity to get out of the city, explore a weird (and maybe wonderful) new place, get lost, forget yourself and come back refreshed. There were consistent complaints about a lack of booze shops, the quality of hotel, the shitty restaurants and the bad service. This was small town India we were traveling and tiramisu was unfortunately not on the menu. I was disappointed. In fact, I was disappointed enough to blog about it here…something I haven’t done in a long time.

No adventure comes clean. Adventure is not easy. You cannot view the entire valley if you don’t climb to the top of the mountain. So here’s what…you can cry over dirty sheets, ugly hotels, cockroaches and musty rooms; you can complain about not enough food options and a tear in a towel, and that’s okay, but are you willing then to miss out on secret beaches, hidden treks to spectacular viewpoints, random gems, meeting beautiful strangers and being the first person to step foot in a new place? I have used the worst loos and I have gone hungry for hours on end but I have also dined on foggy hills with baby monks, and had them walk me through secret forests…I have eaten cherries fresh of trees that weren’t aware they had sprouted them yet. I have swum in freshwater lagoons so lonely, they have wept and turned to salt on seeing me. I have thrown up for two hours from seasickness then jumped into freezing cold water anyway, to have a shark grab the cage I’m in and shake me around like a leaf. I have wandered through Haryana’s dry hinterland for hours to find a mosque in which there was, housed and nurtured by a priestess, a temple and a gurudwara. It’s not hard to ignore the discomfort for a bigger dream.

Here’s a story… I took a boat ride out to sea one day in Orissa. The boatman told me for 500 rupees he would show me something special. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this but I had an hour to kill and it was hot. I took a look at the boat and found it grubby and mouldy with a floor full of slime. “It’s worth seeing,” he said half-heartedly. I felt a bit sorry for him so praying what he wanted to show me wasn’t a knife or his nether regions, I trusted his kind face and set off in his boat. He began rowing and I noticed we were heading towards an island just off the mainland.  When we got there I hopped out and scanned the beach…I found there wasn’t a single footprint on it. He got out of the boat and began walking…I followed him and he walked me down the sand to a point where the river met the sea. We stopped finally and he breathed in the salty air. “Look,” he said, “how even though they’re both water, one is one shade of blue and the other is another.” Then, shaking his head he said, “ How is it, that this one doesn’t turn to salt…and that one doesn’t become sweet.” It was special indeed. I had a feeling while standing there that we may be the last people left on Earth. Sighing he began to walk on…I thanked him for showing me something special but he shook his head and pointed further up the long beach. We walked for a while, silently, no sound but the water, the wind, the shuffle. In the distance I saw a shadow, and as we approached it he said, “I found her here yesterday, but she’s gone now. The fishermen injured her…idiots.” On the beach, quiet and sad was a huge Olive Ridley Turtle, still majestic even in death. We sat there a long time quietly, nameless to one another, and mourned in the breeze. Then almost at the same moment we rose and walked back to the boat both affected forever by what we had shared in that long moment of sadness.

There is adventure knocking at your door at all times. But adventure doesn’t wear a pretty summer dress and smell like roses. Adventure is what takes you to the perennial valley of flowers. The choice always hovers. But it’s yours to make.

The two images here (above and below) show aspects of the same locations. The ones above are the ones I showed friends, the ones below are the meals I ate alone at each place, and are images I chose not to share.

Below: the stunning Buddha statue that HH Dalai Lama inaugurated while I was in Sikkim. Right next to it is the loo I used between the inauguration speeches. If only I could have captured the odor!