This morning, I read a rather funny tweet to the effect that Justin Trudeau seems to have had a perfectly fun trip in India with his children and has gone back with many memories but Indians can’t understand it because most of them go searching for vegetarian thalis in China! I am still chuckling over it. While a lot of Indian travellers may get offended by the stereotyping, the stereotype exists for a reason: It is true.
Most Indians, in fact, most people regardless of nationality, tend to travel inside a bubble, reluctant to partake of local cultures, lifestyles of the places they are travelling to, reluctant to empathise with “foreigners”, reluctant to allow themselves to imbibe even a little bit of the spirit of the place in which they are.
It may seem a bit mystical, but every place has its spirit. The author Elizabeth Gilbert associates every city with a word that defines it — Rome with “power”, for instance — in Eat, Pray, Love. However, even if you are reluctant to narrow it down to one word, those of us who travel enough, with enough openness, can immediately feel the spirit of a place. Like each time, my flight touches down in Goa, I feel happiness, a lightness of being, which has nothing to do with beaches and parties. It just is. By allowing yourself to partake even a little bit of this spirit, by being open and receptive, you allow travel to transform you.
How Travel Transformed Me
Ultimately every journey is a journey within. Or, should be. Travel is meaningless if it doesn’t change you—if you come back having ticked the sights, having shopped at the biggest stores, having partied with people like yourself (if not the exact set of friends and family from your hometown), having eaten vanity meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and yes, vegetarian thali meals and samosa in Beijing or Ghent with the same inner life as you had when you arrived at those places. You may as well have never stepped out of your home.
Travel changed me. In 2011, you may not have recognised me. I don’t recognise that older self too: I was burnt out, focussed on all others except my own self, had piled on the kilos, was anxious about the future and dressed badly amongst other things. In November that year, I found myself in a small village in Umbria. We were two chefs and two food writers on a gourmet journey through Italy; Spoleto, a medieval village known for its olive oil and for having more restaurants than people, was our stop for one night. It could have been hunky dory, me in my bubble of unhappiness despite the sylvan surroundings, but something changed that night.
As I slept in an old outhouse converted into a modern room of a beautiful guesthouse amidst an olive grove, something of Spoleto’s remote spirit seeped into my bubble, bursting it. With no phone or internet, nothing to tether me to “reality”, I felt the stirrings of freedom. A weight lifted and the joy of existing in this moment started what would become a journey of transformation.
The After Effect
For the next five years, as I travelled incessantly to many new, undiscovered corners of the world, I began discovering myself as someone I had wanted to be but never imagined could be. All the trappings of the “normal” or “ordinary” started coming off. How could you be ordinary after a magical night out in Rovaniemi, snow clad and magical sitting on the Arctic Circle, where you mysteriously find yourself at a karaoke bar singing along with a bunch of Finnish strangers? How could you be “normal” after an encounter with the negroni for the first time in your life in a piazza in Florence, with a beautiful live band playing on the steps of, no, not the Duomo, but Santo Spirito, the other Brunelleschi building no one pays attention to? And how could you stubbornly remain aloof in your bubble after a snowmobiling accident which leaves you sitting hugging a stranger for hours to gain body heat?
Travel demolishes our boundaries. If we allow ourselves to, we can connect with people in astonishing ways, deeply. In the process, we discover truths about ourselves that we never suspected existed. We unravel mysteries, we live in the moment, kick off our uncomfortable heels and wander around Prague at midnight, bare feet. We jump into the ocean, scared witless but come back thrilled. We discover unlimited joy and freedom. The potential of life itself. That we also see buildings, buy things we don’t really need, and come back to post envy-inducing pictures on social media are corollaries. Consolations for when we haven’t really travelled despite our stamped passports.
The best travels and adventures remain those that we never speak about, because not all meaning can be reduced to words.