How Travelling Has Changed Me
Seeing a way of life other than yours can be a big learning, and it can sometimes lead to transformation within
Learning to Live and Let Live
It was the first time I noticed him properly. His eyes had a certain radiance: they sparkled with mischief, or the promise of a bright future, or, perhaps, both. Before this, Yuddhishthir had just been the friendly young chap assigned by the hotel to accompany me on excursions into the wildlife park nearby. But then he caught my attention by asking me to shut up.
"It's just a garden spider, don't scream!" he said in a hushed tone, befitting a jungle. I had indeed screamed - I was in the front seat of a safari jeep and the spider was on my leg. I couldn't get off the jeep in the middle of the park and even if I could, I wouldn't have, as I was paralyzed with fear by the scary little thing.
"It's a white garden spider," he repeated, looking at the creature with more affection than I could muster for most humans.
"I don't care what it is, make it go away!" I said, this time whispering urgently. I was terrified, and he was interested in the classification of the species! I wanted him to pick the thing up and fling it out of the jeep right at that moment. He did something quite else.
He pushed his leg towards mine and held out the cloth of his trousers to gently let the spider on to his own leg. He then drove on, as if nothing had happened. The spider crawled a little bit and then just stopped there, clinging to his knee. I sat there staring at the spider for any sudden movement - if a tiger had walked by then, I would not have even looked at it.
I was aghast that the man was completely at ease with a creepy, white spider dangerously poised on his knee. I looked up at him but he seemed to have moved on from the incident, and was back to focusing on the park. About 15 minutes later, he pushed his knee forward to the dashboard and the spider immediately clambered off his knee and on to the jeep. "The poor thing had been trying to get off me," he said, when he saw me looking quizzically at him. "I only noticed now that it was trying to reach the dashboard, so I helped him along."
I wondered then about this man, who clearly had more depth than it first appeared; who thought about the spider with such tenderness … Where and when did I lose my empathy towards the unfamiliar?
This was the beginning of a tentative friendship - between me and creepy-crawlies. I, who, before this, shouted, hated and felt positively icky when faced with anything that had more than four legs, learnt to calm down. This little incident taught me that a) I was in their territory and I had to respect that, b) they don't want to be near me anymore than I want to go near them, and c) observing them makes you feel less scared of them.
Now, when faced with a row of ants on the staircase, my first instinct is no longer to attack them with a can of Hit. I just skip over them and we both carry on. The ants were already wise, but thanks to Yuddhishthir, I learnt to live and let live with, at least 'conventionally', the not so beautiful bits of nature.
Learning to Accept Differences
In Switzerland, I learnt not to judge people for eating meats that I don't. We were a group of international journalists attending a travel seminar in the Jura Mountains. It was summer, a Swiss summer, which often means non-stop rain and gloomy weather. On this trip I learnt a few things: why people in the West crave the sun (after seven days of constant rain), and that there is another version of the famous Swiss dish, fondue. In this version, you dip different meats into boiling water, broth or even hot oil (instead of cheese) and then, once it's cooked, you eat the pieces with a dipping sauce. It's a community dish; four people share one large soup bowl.
There were people from Holland, China, UK, Greece, and, of course, India and Switzerland. The meats were pierced on to the ends of long skewers and everyone dipped theirs into the bowl and ate and chatted merrily. Horsemeat was one of the meats on offer - it's quite common in Switzerland. I like to be a little adventurous on my travels (there's no point if you don't add to your experiences when you return), so I tried a piece of it, but my Chinese colleague refused.
"You don't eat horsemeat?" the Swiss media guy asked. He looked surprised, as he added: "It's quite delicious."
"I love horses," the Chinese replied. "I have a pet horse, I can't eat one!"
"I don't understand you Western people," the Chinese journalist said as an afterthought. "You judge us for eating dogs, because they are cute pets, but you are eating my cute pet without a problem."
Everyone laughed, but a little awkwardly, now that they were made aware of their double standards. I was stunned by the simplicity with which the Chinese man underlined the truth. This was 2006, and 10 years later, I can still remember the scene exactly - I will never forget the lesson learnt. From that day on, I have always tried to understand the unfamiliar behaviour of others and if I don't, I still accept it as different, rather than be quick to judge. With one sentence, my Chinese friend had made me a better person.
Learning Not to Crave for More
I once met a young man from Jodhpur who, in the prime of his youth, decided to give up his corporate job and become a nature guide at Kanha National Park. He lived in the middle of a forested area, taking people on treks, tracking wildlife in the area, earning less than I spend on movies and dinners, and with no one but the local chaiwalla and fellow guides for company. He was well educated, spoke fluent English and had good knowledge of the world around him, so I wondered why he lived like this.
"What do we earn for?" he asked me, as we walked. "I am at peace here, I am happy."
He celebrates his birthdays at the chaiwalla's. When his girlfriend calls, he can hardly hear her because of the bad connection, WhatsApp messages don't get delivered because he doesn't get data for days, he has no access to the latest movies and no shopping mall for hundreds of kilometres. Amazon doesn't deliver where he lives. He is not even 30.
How many 30-year-olds am I likely to meet in the city who can live without all these modern-day comforts? If I hadn't ventured out of my city, I would have never asked myself the question: What do we earn for?
In 2013, I quit my 10-year-old comfortable, safe job with a big media company - I was miserable doing the same thing for a decade - and stepped out into the world of financial insecurity. I would earn much less, I knew that, and, in 2016, I can tell you that I have earned much less than before, but I have one security that I didn't have earlier: I am more peaceful. I'm happier.
Learning to Do Something New
I have friends who discovered their love for dance, pottery, art, photography and even God on their travels. I picked up birding as an interest while travelling across central India. Earlier, I would wonder how anyone can spend so many hours squinting into the sky, wondering if it was a bird or a leaf, but now I know birding is not about the sighting.
It's the walk, the silence, the sounds of nature, the excitement of possibly sighting a rare bird, it's the thrill of listening to the call of a bird and trying to locate it … Today no one has to tell me the difference between the Malabar pied hornbill and the Oriental pied hornbill, but, more than that, it's a hobby that has helped me slow down, be a calmer person and just take it easy once in a while. Walking among the greenery is soothing even if you spot nothing. That's another thing I have learnt: A holiday is a break, a break from doing things. So take a holiday to do nothing and just see how relaxing it can be.
It is true that travelling is the best type of education you can get. In Italy, I fell in love with the language and am learning Italian now. Looking at other people - how they live, eat, dress, behave - can also make you introspect and think about how you can live better, how you can spend your time on earth more effectively. There are other adventures, other learnings. Over the years, during my travels, I have also found love, once fleeting, once more long-lasting - but that's a story for another time.