Wherever you go, that place becomes a part of you”- Anita Desai
I remember taking annual vacations to hill stations such as Mussoorie, Rishikesh and Nainital every summer with the extended family. Back then, train reservations were made in advance, with 30-odd family members (yes, you read that right!) travelling in second class non-AC coaches along with the trusted family help who would assist the oldest member of the family, my Badi Maa as she manoeuvred her wheel chair through tricky paths. We rented cottages, ate freshly-baked bread with cheese under the glowing gaze of the enchanting Himalayas and wandered around the town, enjoying the simple local delicacies and chatting up with other tourists like us. Shorter trips were made to nearby places such as Puri, Digha, Chandipur, Darjeeling and Deoghar. We delighted at the sight of our parents returning from the sea with sea shells that we treasured and later endlessly played with. Vacations were taken more seriously than the class tests of fifth or sixth graders. After a while the lot of kids also stopped complaining and learnt to give in to the whims and plans of the more sensible elders.
Right from childhood, it was ingrained in us that travelling is a way of understanding and appreciating the world around us, in a way that reading text could not. With changing times, travelling has become a “hyped” thing with people checking in on social websites as they take in the beauty of the Duomo in Florence or the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the check-in happens before occurrence of the event itself!
As I moved from Calcutta to Chennai, I got the chance to travel to the southern states and appreciate the cultural diversity of our country. From exploring the tiger-infested jungles of Bandipur, soaking in the cool air of Mysore, traversing the vast ports of Vizag to witnessing the pristine back waters of Kerela, it was an enriching experience. With most states ticked off in India (North East, Kashmir and the western Himalayas still rank high on my bucket list) and some savings, I planned a solo trip to a few European cities. The idea was to use the Hague, Netherlands as the base and explore nearby cities via regional trains. The plan however got extended, with my mum joining in and together we charted out an itinerary that comprised the major cities of Italy such as Rome, Florence, Naples before we headed to Paris and Amsterdam during the final leg of the 3 week trip. Unlike the majority of Indian tourists, who attempt to cover 10 countries by hopping across major cities throughout Europe, we felt that exploring lesser places would be a better and more relaxed experience for both of us.
With the same spirit of travel intact, we consciously chose to stay in dormitories as well in homes of the locals, hoping to get an insight into varied cultures, lifestyles, food habits. From befriending Elsa, the sweetest care-taker in Rome, to troubling our charming and ever-patient Parisian host Charles, we had several one-of-a kind experiences. We climbed endless flight of steps, with the heavy suitcases clattering behind us, learnt and un-learnt the modes of public transport in every city we set foot on, and used Google maps like our lives literally and practically depended on it! We spoke to a group of young Italian girls who accompanied us to our homestay in Naples, using sign language as a means of communication. At another instance, a Morrocan girl and a South African boy helped us take a bus to Parisian neighbour-hood, dispelling any pre-conceived notion we harboured due to sheer ignorance on our part. We also cannot forget the kindness of a young Asian couple who walked with us in the dead silence of the deserted streets of Florence, to ensure that we reach home safely. Innumerable time, we felt humbled and bewildered as we encountered old citizens who enthusiastically climbed stairs at train stations as they took out time to direct us to the platform, validate our ticket or simply asked us to follow them to save time and confusion! Encounters such as these re-enforced the belief that all people are essentially good and have good intentions.
What was a startling revelation for both of us was the fact that people were aware of India as a country, with 1 out of 3 either having travelled to or having stayed in India at some point in their life. “Of-course you’re in Indian, we know that! Which part of India are you from? Wait, let me guess, it is Mumbai or Delhi?” was the most oft asked question. I asked to myself, when was the last time I asked a German which city he belonged to- Munich, Hamburg or Berlin?! While some studied with Indian classmates, a few had Indian girl friends who they later went on to marry. Charles had mentioned to us that the scrapping of high value Indian currency was covered widely by the French press, the first time he read of an international event besides a war or a natural calamity. It was also equally disheartening to meet Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis doing odd jobs to support themselves as they recounted stories of how they had escaped from their homeland in the hope of a better life for their family. Some belonged to Punjab and worked as farmers in the hinterlands of Italy, toiling under extreme and harsh weather conditions. A few were shrewd enough to set up stalls in prominent sites of tourist attraction such as the Vatican Museums which guaranteed them a regular source of income and a good life for the families back home. Without exception, each of them was extremely kind to us, and suggested us nearby Indian restaurants if we were craving for a plate of biryani or chole-paranthe. Observing the absence of male company, they asked to keep an eye on our belongings and avoid the many tourist traps peculiar to every city.
From discussing Indian movies/ sitcoms (read: Star Plus show Anandi) with a Spanish exchange student in Italy to first hand witnessing the display of love for Shahrukh Khan by women irrespective of their nationality, it was all at once exciting, hilarious and highly insightful! We also met folks just like us from different countries like Japan, Abu Dhabi, Australia, Germany, US to name a few who had taken out time from their busy schedules to travel. While some were students enjoying summer break, few were between jobs and others had simply taken a sabbatical. “When else could I do it? This is the only time I have to see the world,” they quipped. As Indians, it’s hard-wired in our DNA to work hard and then work harder. The concept of travel being educative or informational is slowly catching on, with millenials staying away from home, whether it be in India or overseas.
Next time, when your travel agent picks perfect spots for you on your first Europe trip, do yourself a favour by giving the long and exhausting itinerary a miss and plan your vacation around your interests! It may not be the perfect holiday, but it would be an unforgettable adventure, or the start of a series of adventures.
Travelogue by Devika Bedia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.