Pico Iyer wrote in his essay over a decade ago about the ebbs and tides of travel – how one is driven by beauty, meaning and wanderlust. At the heart of his essay is the idea that we travel to find ourselves. In this essay I propose instead, we travel to find others.
Much of travel planning is to do away with the drudgery of our daily lives, to cast aside a routine lifestyle for the thrills of a journey where who knows what will unfold! The excitement of walking to the international terminal of the airport where everyone around you has a different coloured passport and at the end of the journey your currency will also have as many hues.
As a woman in her twenties, for me, travel signifies much more than just the fun of exploring new places (although that’s an important part of it). Having grown up in a middle-class family, as a kid, a country outside of India only meant Hershey’s bars and pictures of places that looked cleaner and shinier than the cleanest part of Vashi. And Vashi is quite clean. I lived a pretty comfortable life but international travel was out of the question. My folks just couldn’t afford it. And no one expected them to afford it.
I stepped out of Vashi and to Bombay for college and then out of Bombay to Boston to study further. I was 24 and had taken a plane maybe twice before in my life. Just that first journey was a significant step since it stood for a number of things: financial independence, self-sufficiency, the ability to get into an Ivy-league school, for my SOP to resonate with a faceless set of advisors who would perhaps never know (or knew full well) that I dreamt of international policy making but had never set foot outside the Indian subcontinent. And in a new city far removed from where I came from, I met a number of people just like me who had lived the exact same life in very different environments. There was Ani from Georgia who knew far more about Chinua Achebe’s writing than even an average Nigerian would, and someone who went by only ‘Al’ from the Dominican Republic who told us some terrifying stories that his father had told him about Trujjilo’s regime. Every cabbie in New York never failed to mention Shah Rukh Khan once they knew I was Indian and the partner of a law firm in Zurich once told me (straight faced), every Indian goes to Interlaken and you should too. A guy we met from Israel in London asked us to send to him the Youtube link to that ‘I love India’ song (“I love my India”) because it reminded him of his journey there with his father many years ago. And once we got thrown out of a restaurant in SoHo because we were “too Indian”. But in all these stories, some parochial and racist, others stereotypical and yet others plain endearing, I learnt things about others. And I saw that indeed, most others were trying to learn about me too.
There was also this universal language I was learning. The unwritten rules of travel-speak that everyone follows like a shared code- the reviews are always right, 3 bad reviews on Tripadvisor and the hotel is doomed. No matter how much of a backpacker you are, you will always find a hostel that has wi-fi, even in Burma! Democracy is a privilege; don’t ask questions about a country unless you already know the answers, especially about its political history. Don’t give in to the stereotypes – not all men from Brazil are good at football (both literally and figuratively) and remain prepared to defend your stand about India’s apathy to toilet paper.
When travelling, you hold a flag from your own country and try and discern the flags of others, like ships at high sea. But American sitcom, Facebook and the love of food binds everyone. You may never write on their walls except on birthdays, but it is wonderful to see the lives of so many people progress around you – they marry, have babies, change jobs. And yet they are not around you, they are in Berlin or Singapore. But maybe you shared a meal with them once and exchanged a few stories and you will feel warmly about them all your life. Maybe if you lived next door or grew up together, you would have never been friends! Maybe if you had more things in common, you would detest each other. But it is the shared stories that you fight to find in common that triumph over inanities and that make your short-lived engagements last for a lifetime. Everyone loves chicken curry or gluhwein no matter what language you speak.
There’s also the dirty underbelly of travelling – travel “companions” that make you pay and never pay you back, others that want to photograph every second of your time at that wonderful place and when you look at the pictures you realize you saw none of it, all you saw was a camera flash. There will be times when you feel alienated because no one gives you a friendly nod and at others just plain cheated because either the brochure looked far better than the real thing or you just bought one fridge magnet too many to rid yourself of the hounding of peddlers. But in the larger picture none of this matters – in the painting Starry Night, do you ever remember the Cyprus bush in the foreground?
Some stories are told many times, others remain hidden. Through your travels you will find that you develop a deep empathy for a historic tragedy or a place that is far removed from your own life. I remember preparing myself for many months before going to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. I had scourged through everything over the internet about the horrors to prepare myself and yet I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to see anything quite as visceral. In the end though I did go and I remember grieving for a long time from the shock and sadness of it all. I felt exactly the same emotion about Kashmir, although I have never lived in a place quite as beautiful in my life.
And through each of these journeys, I thought I was transforming. What is travelling then? It’s education. I did not see things as black and white. There were wonderful friends teaching me about the writings of Kafka and Dworkin, Sen and Arundhati Roy. I read those and several others devotedly. But none of that taught me quite as much about liberalism, the idea of justice, morality, feminism, tolerance, self respect and secularism as travelling did. All these “big words” transformed into everyday situations. How someone wears a Hijab out of choice just like my mother will wear a bindi and I won’t. I saw a poster of a woman with her arms up, arm pit hair showing at a friend’s place and then read up about a feminist movement that centered around this. I read about the Indonesian elections this year only because I was planning to travel there around the time. And how the finest way to say ‘Jakarta’ is with a raspy voice! But above all, I learnt that I was enormously privileged to live life on my own terms, to move, to grasp, to share and to participate - a privilege that most women my age all over the world do not have even today.
You are you every day; why not try living the lives of others once in a while? And in doing so, as Pico Iyer suggests, you might just find yourself.
(Guest contributor Shalaka Patil is a lawyer who lives and works in Mumbai.)