Journeys Through Six Continents
It’s like any other addiction, I suppose. One needs a fix, maybe not right away, but the hankering continues until satisfaction looms inches away. The frequency varies but the desperation rarely does. One can feel it in the bones, evoking a very physical response. Occasionally living vicariously feeds it, but mostly it makes it worse. Like other addictions, it invariably causes problems. Especially of the financial kind. How does one without deep pockets feed the habit?
Wanderlust is both my purpose and undoing, all at the same time. This addiction to travel drives me to the ends of the earth and drags me into unpredictable experiences. It has been this way for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, if I was not outdoors and on my feet, I could be found on a tree, book in hand, reading about faraway lands. It’s an integral part of me, makes me who I am. Never believe someone who claims to be free of addictions. And never befriend them if they truly are so.
I am a millennial but my travels make me feel older. Wiser, you ask? Ah, that I’m not too sure of. A wise woman never calls herself wise, anyway.
My pre-teen years were more-or-less equally spent straddling Africa and Asia. Botswana and India to be specific. It was in parts idyllic, tumultuous, raucous, shaky, comforting, and scarring. Everyone has a unique childhood that no one can take away from them. And this was mine.
Back then few people had heard of Botswana. That may still be true, and that’s a good thing, especially as far as Africa goes. I didn’t realise this as a kid and was embarrassed about living in a place nobody had heard of, Gaborone. What wouldn’t I do to live such a life today. This addiction of mine has its roots here, in this cradle of humans. Well, close.
Botswana was a spectacular, albeit unusual place. Even for Africa. Across the border in South Africa, apartheid was still around and rampant. But oh no, not on this side of the border. All was right and everyone equal here. It is the moral duty of a child to eavesdrop. Adults talking about friends of friends in neighbouring countries being robbed or murdered was fodder for young gossip mongers, the more gasp-worthy, the better.
Botswana was the luckiest place in all Africa! The one country in the whole continent that had no civil strife ever, was not colonised in the true sense of the word (it was a British protectorate which is wholly different), had no (visible) discrimination, was flooded with wildlife and livestock, and basically heaven on earth. Yes, that’s Botswana for you. The icing on the cake was the discovery of diamonds almost on the heels of the British packing their bags and leaving, making it one of the richest countries in Africa. It was a country where good sense and happiness generally prevailed. Well, that’s my memory of it, and I believe it to be largely true even today. A happy memory ought to be clutched closer than a cherished dream, methinks.
Holidays would involve driving into the bush with my parents (and later, my sister). In Botswana. In South Africa. Even Swaziland. Yes, it is a country, and a beautiful one at that. I could identify giraffes and hyenas, rhinos and zebras almost as soon as I started talking. I could tell African and Asian elephants apart (and leopards and cheetahs too for that matter), before I had learnt to eat by myself. When offered the role of Simba in my pre-school Lion King skit, I was firm enough to insist on playing a hippo instead. I strongly felt that it was gross injustice done to the magnificent hippopotamus, which ought to be the rightful ruler. Surely even a lion will tremble at the wrath of a hippo mom!
There was a lull in the travel department after my return to the homeland. Things got exciting again about a decade after we moved back to India. In the interim, like most other middle-class families in India, the emphasis was on school. And for someone who was constantly down with some illness or the other, I had an additional challenge that I had set for myself, more of a healthy goal, if you will – winning the annual award for 100% attendance. Between school and other activities that used to engulf teenagers those days, travel took the back burner.
The shift to Mumbai turned out to be life-changing in more ways than I could have anticipated. One thing was certain, it fanned and enabled my wanderlust. I was able to sneak treks and hikes over the weekend within a month of moving here, thanks to the timing. It set the tone for the years to come. I shifted fields and from being a desk-bound computer scientist, I transitioned into a field that enabled my addiction – wildlife biology.
It’s a strange affliction, this wanderlust. When one is bedridden, all one yearns for is to travel. And when one does explore, one ends up overdosing to the point of collapse, yearning for some respite. Just as I was settling into my new life, I got to experience something new – cancer. I was bedridden for several months, hardly leaving campus. It was forced rehab of a different kind, and one I definitely wasn’t happy with. So a month after my treatment, I piggybacked with some friends to Sikkim. I was in my element again – hiking in the rain, learning to make charcoal sketches of craggy Himalayan peaks, scrambling for birding, struggling to make momos, and guzzling spicy cheese chutney by the gallon. Prep for this trip started with puffing and panting up the IITB hill a few times and a few miniscule hikes in Mahabaleshwar. That first climb up the hill was very emotional – a few days earlier I hadn’t been able to even walk to next room or hold a book due to some treatment-related complications.
Three months after I was declared to be in remission, I was out studying carnivores in Kutch. After several months of enviously watching people post photos from places on my bucket-list, I did the unthinkable – I quit Facebook. I was free from the trappings of social networking, and it turned out to be an awakening of a different kind. That journey was an escape from the din.
Like most engineers, my first visit to the continent was to the USA. And like most engineers, it was for graduate school. Walking a mile early morning, braving the cold Chicago winter, to capture and put GPS taggers on cottontail rabbits was crucial to the journey in realising that ecology was my passion, and computer science the tool.
One semester later I packed my bags and headed back home to find out ‘what I really want to do’. While that’s an ongoing journey, I made the discovery that I’m an explorer at heart, and am all the happier for following my heart. There were adventures aplenty along the way, but then, ain’t that what makes each journey unique and special? The challenges and the accompanying sense of accomplishment, among other things.
My first visit to Europe was to the UK. In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, I happened to win an all-expenses-paid trip for a travel blog post that I’d written on camping in the Death Valley. More travel thanks to prior travel. Needless to say, I went completely berserk, from converting the ferry ride from Wales to Ireland into a pelagic birding session to making a day trip to Edinburgh to meet one of my favorite authors (who had actually replied to fan mail) and swapping stories with him about Botswana and literature, to gallivanting all over England in a day (from Bath to Stonehenge to Stratford-upon-Avon), munching on pasties and scones and all those things one grew up reading about in Enid Blyton books!
Some of the strangest things that ever happened to me were on a different trip though. I was backpacking in Berlin, finding the cheapest hostel I could and rooming with a quirky Russian girl with eye-popping pink hair. I truly had just a backpack on me and was museum hopping. The first incident involved getting hauled up at one of the museums for sitting on the bench inside the art gallery and massaging my sore foot. I didn’t know what hit me but I did receive some sympathy from the other tourists at the venue. I was massaging my foot, for crying out loud!
The second incident gave me a good dose of the German love for rules. Each country has its own quirky transportation system and an even more confusing ticketing process. The Netherlands used a card that you swipe on entry and exit, France follows something similar to the US, and I was not surprised that it seemed different in Germany. From the looks of it one simply had to buy the tickets and travel. I had dutifully bought day passes for the trip and had the receipts.
I was on the train to the airport for my return to Amsterdam, just rejoicing over successfully having seen a new country in under INR 10k and mulling over all the great experiences. Just as I got up to get off at the airport station, someone (in plain clothes) came to check everyone’s tickets. I confidently whipped mine out only to have him ask me to step aside. He demanded a fairly expensive fine and I had only a handful of Euros with me. Turns out that one is also supposed to validate the ticket in a machine that I had assumed was a water pump or water hydrant! I showed him all the tickets and the receipts with dates on them, and explained that I was late for my flight. That gentleman insisted that ‘rules are rules’ and that I have to pay up. Slight problem – I didn’t have the cash. He walked me over to an ATM and told me to withdraw cash, and of course my card suddenly didn’t work for some strange reason. I was getting frantic, and he started grabbing at my passport and asking me to tag along to police station, which really didn’t help ease my panic. Thankfully a different card worked and I ended up barely making it to my flight. It did get me a great conversation starter – want to hear about the time I was almost arrested in Germany? True story.
I was diving away to glory, basking in the sunshine and beaches of the Andamans, as part of a marine ecology module, when I heard the happy news that my partner was invited to be the keynote speaker at a conference in Argentina. How can one write about travel these days without a mention of … visas?! So here goes.
As a tourist, I got my visa without having to do anything – easy peasy. My partner’s case was tricky since he was invited by the folks there. You read that right – him being invited made getting a visa nearly impossible. After much drama, we got our visa to Argentina pretty much the day before we left. We ended up making our hosts run around quite a bit, obtaining an affidavit with a bunch of signatures, and having them courier it two days before our trip. Since there was no way the document would reach the Embassy in Mumbai before our departure, we begged and pleaded our way into showing the scanned document and the courier details, and guaranteeing that it will reach them in a few days. The visa was granted with the officer saying, “Well, India makes it very hard for our nationals to visit,” with a lot left unsaid.
Relieved, we had a wonderful time exploring the country. From watching wildlife in Patagonia, to visiting winter wonderland at Ushuaia (the gateway to Antarctica, and called ‘el fin del mundo’, or ‘end of the world’), having whisky on the rocks (freshly broken glacial ice) after hiking up to the Perito Moreno glacier in the Andes, and watching more wildlife in the tropical Iguazu Falls on the border with Brazil, it was magical all the way. The southern hemisphere in winter is spellbinding.
A week after we got back home, we got a call saying the embassy was yet to receive the affidavit. All we could say was that well we’re back in India, if we’d been told about this while there, we could have done something about it. And importantly, did I already mention that we’re back in India? Bah, visas! Makes one think they were invented to keep people from traveling and serve no other purpose!
Australia was the last continent I got to visit. It was more of a stepping stone to New Zealand, having spent just a couple of days in Sydney. New Zealand was sheer magic. We landed in Christchurch around midnight and managed to hire a magnificent camper van the following morning. We lucked out by getting a gorgeous Mercedes RV with bed, bathroom, kitchenette, and dining area for a steal since it needed to be dropped off at Auckland and since winter is their off-season. This was our home for the next couple of weeks, during which time we covered about 3000 km driving it all around South Island before crossing over to the North Island and eventually dropping it off in Auckland, where the spouse had a conference to attend.
I made significant progress on my bucket-list during this trip, checking off sky diving in Lake Wanaka with the Southern Alps as backdrop, bungy jumping from the legendary Kawarau River Bridge near Queenstown, whale watching at Kaikoura, watching penguins near Dunedin, taking a helicopter ride and landing on the Franz Josef glacier, camping at spectacular locations that were part of the Lord of the Rings franchise, and generally marvelling at the fantastic wildlife and raw natural beauty at every turn.
New Zealand taught me to take things slow, experience every minute, and feel alive. If only I could translate these to other aspects of life. That’s travel of a different kind, I suppose.
As cliche`d as it may sound, I do believe that life is a journey and everyone is a traveler. But having said that, there are different kinds of travellers, and traveling vicariously is not quite my cuppa tea. The first years after dealing with cancer, I was in a hurry to see the world. That was my nightmare – dying before I’ve seen and experienced everything. Everything. And then the journey changed. I realised that even good health and fitness are journeys, and while I’m a traveler many times over, the journeys never quite end as long as one breathes. There are as many journeys as there are travellers, and some journeys are harder than others. Wanderlust is a strange mistress alright.
(This was written explicitly for the travel-themed issue of Fundamatics - July 2017)