There are about 200 countries in this world and 29 states in our own country (India). For most people, this is much more than they can cover in their entire lifespan, barring of course those (lucky) few who not just get to travel across but also get enough time to feel in the essence of that place. I am not one of those lucky few. But instead of sitting back and behaving like a sore loser I have decided to travel, without traveling. Having said that, I have traveled a fair bit, across the touristy circuit of Western Europe, across the entire length and breadth of the UK and more recently to Greece and Macedonia. My physical travels have more been a reinforcement of my virtual travels across the world. It may sound quite counter intuitive but at times it’s the travels that I have completed without traveling that have given me the most satisfaction.
To start with, I have a fear of flying. Like most others with aviophobia (I would have been happier had it had a fancier name such as necrophobia or even arachnophobia), I fear losing control when sitting inside the belly of a monster machine, trying to put in all my trust onto the pilot whom I may not even have seen for once (trust me it’s worse than the Indian system of arranged marriage. Atleast in an arranged marriage you are not hurtling at a speed of 600 miles per hour 40,000 ft above the ground). And hence my travels do come with their fair share of anxiety.
Second and most importantly, like many mere mortals, I toil hard 5 days a week in the corporate jungle for subsistence. Here weekends are treated as the elixir of life and paid days of leave are aptly called ‘earned’ leaves because you have to really ‘earn’ them the hard way. Not to mention the constant struggle that I have with the bank in being able to maintain a decent balance in the face of the daunting loan EMIs. But then all said and done, he (and of-course she) who loves to travel, will travel.
Enough said. Let me begin with how its all done.
Map it up
First and foremost just as beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder so does travel lie in the eyes of a traveller. And very literally, I have a beautiful laminated map of the world hanging right up by my desk. Every morning and night, while brushing my teeth, I stand in front of the map, gorging at the contours of the countries, revising the names of the capitals and tracing my fingers across the world. It’s almost a daily ritual now (although weekday mornings are more like a touch and go where having enough time to even brush my teeth is a luxury). I must admit I have become much proficient at winning those rounds of Capitals and Countries against my loving husband; one of the few games he used to beat me at.
I was recently planning a trip to Japan. The first and the most obvious thing any traveller would do would be to read up Lonely Planet or a similar guide and look up Tripadvisor for trip and hotel reviews. I take it a step further by scouring the entire world wide web for any traveler posts on the places that you intend to visit. These are probably the most genuine and informative articles that you will get (most others can be sponsored to some degree). Often these reviews tell you those little details about places which you won’t find elsewhere, such as the perfect time to visit a place to get that postcard pic (read a pic devoid of the milieu of tourists you would otherwise find) or that nondescript local food joint giving you the perfect local flavour at rates your pocket will bless you for.
I lurk on AirBnB ever so often, just randomly putting in places and dates then peeking into people’s houses with the intent of getting the real hang of the culture of a place. Unless you have done that yourself it is hard to believe how much it can tell you about the place you intend to travel to. It tells you how people in Prague prefer the staircase to the lift even if it is climbing 5 floors, how the Japanese have mastered the art of ‘small is beautiful’ with tiny sized fully functional apartments coming equipped with a comparably tiny square of mobile WiFi, it also tells you that the Greeks will definitely equip your kitchen with a pair of wine glasses even if they miss out on the essential coffee cups.
If you switch on your television sets and surf through the bouquet of lifestyle channels almost every channel you see will be airing a show with travel in it. There are these cookery shows where the cook will invariably be cooking off from a makeshift stove against the backdrop of a sparkling ocean or the jaw dropping skyline of that coveted European city. There is simply no escape. And there isn’t a need to escape either. Just soak in the visuals of the scenery and feel transported immediately; maybe jostled back to reality only by the whistle of your own pressure cooker. But the feeling, although transient, is one of pure ecstasy. And then there are those pure travel shows anyways which take you along with them to almost every place on earth that can be visited. So just surf through the channels and you are sure to chance upon an episode showing the place that you have decided to travel to, atleast virtually.
There is no better way to understand a place- its landscape, its people and its culture but through the literature of that place. No one can deny that the quintessential British uptightness and its dry humour is reflected the best through the works of P G Wodehouse as is the cultural amalgamation of the West in Japan (and the Japanese reverence for cats) reflected through the writings of Haruki Murakami. What better way to understand the political strife of the people of Turkey and neighboring countries than from the works of Orhan Pamuk. And it is not necessarily those celebrated authors that have to be read through, even the likes of Folk Tales of Russia reveal a lot about the underlying values of a country. So my fellow traveler, pick up any book of your liking and lap it up, years down the lane you may not remember every detail you read but the pages are sure to leave a photographic imprint on your memory which you will cherish forever.
This one is quite interesting and something I picked up when I was researching (or virtually traveling to) Japan. Every evening I will tune into the NHK News and remain stupefied at the amazing place Japan is. I learnt how the most hygienic and cost effective fresh food can be had from the basement floors of the local super markets, how Japan has the most cleanest public toilets of the world and how the Japanese culture nurtures the concept of putting others first so much so that they would be more than glad to clean up after you without even a stare. The channel also had a few shows teaching elementary Japanese to those who wanted to travel to Japan, something which may not be part of every news channel but something surely worth picking up.
And lastly, if you get to meet the people from the place you wish to travel to, don’t miss the chance. Whilst I was planning a trip to Spain, I was invited to a Sunday lunch at one of my neighbors and met the Spanish chef de cuisine. I was in one of the most chatty selfs that day, sitting right across the table with the saffron Paella stationed in the middle, adding to the atmosphere. You get to know things first hand and there is no substitute for that. And with the world shrinking at the pace of a melting ice cube in a glass of whiskey, you have a higher chance every day of bumping across someone from the country that you wish to travel to. And in my experience I haven’t yet come across a person who wouldn’t want to talk at length about his home country filling you up with the most amazing insights and fanning his own sense of pride.
So if you have been drooling over those Facebook travel pics that your friend has been relentlessly posting, ditch the social media and try the above instead. Whilst I would definitely not ill advise you to photoshop yourself into travel pics but you are sure to feel much better after days or even weeks of virtually traveling. But surely with everything said and done, do take the best opportunity to go out there and breathe in that air (don’t do it in Delhi though or for that matter in Beijing) because in the words of the great traveler Ibn Battuta “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” So don’t wait. Pack your bags and go out there, because a story is waiting to happen.