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Why Travel?


Iíve decided to try and put down what it is I like about travel and wandering.  Not that any of this is new or deep insight.  Many hundreds of thousands wander the world everyday for the sheer love of the activity and many millions through history have been compulsive wanderers and fine writers.  There are also experts and academics with both greater acumen and sound theoretical foundations for their arguments who have analyzed travel and the need for it in human lives.   Nevertheless it helps serve my own process of self-definition and perhaps even some self-discovery to put down what I like about it.


On a purely sensational level there is the visual experience of travel. Just gliding by humanscapes and landscapes is itself, in my book, an engrossing thing.  This can happen on foot or on transport of any conceivable kind.  It can even happen while you are entirely in stasis and the visual field moves by you.  I enjoy sitting in bus and railway stations and on park benches and even have a history from a less rushed and less polluted time, of visiting the airport nearby to watch the passing parade of people, reactions and emotions as they arrived and departed.  It is perhaps a bit like viewing art - a sensation is created on the eye and is then processed and interpreted by you. There is unobtrusiveness and a physical passivity to this.   I find it difficult to capture any of this even on film.  That tends to feel like too much of an intervention.  I become self conscious and you have to interfere with the real life canvas by trying to frame some of it into a composition.  There is then the open-ness to interpretation and interpolation that follows the visual experience.  Only the imagination and the ability to construct detail limits the vividness of narrative you can weave around what befalls the eye.


Conversations (of any kind) are the next level of engagement.  Transient traveling companions, partners in transactions (all the inquiring, buying, sharing of opinion, etc, involved in the process of travel), new acquaintances made along the way, random interactions as you pass by people, shove or be shoved, and so on.  Each results in both an immediate conversation and a residual one where you reflect on what you said or had said to you or heard said to someone else.  All of these are not necessarily agreeable or pleasant Ė but their transient nature makes them something you can only reflect on and cannot fully resolve or settle.  This presents an opportunity to try and understand the viewpoint expressed without being able to respond or react and without a choice around whether to try and influence it in any way.  Over accumulated interactions of this kind you try and construct a description of the mindsets of the people you encounter and converse with.  A lot of cultural summarization (of questionable veracity, perhaps) can be performed and you get to play amateur behavioral or cultural psychologist.


Geography is a powerful parameter of physical travel, for me.  Somehow, the sense of where I am on the map of the country or the globe and where I am worming my way across it, is itself of some intrigue.  Extremities of any sort (easternmost, southernmost, tip of coastline, latitudes, longitudes, rivers, and so on) are of unquestionable interest.  Beyond the obvious need, perhaps, to locate myself and in the bargain to provide myself larger significance through foot-printing, I donít have an explanation for this urge.


Place and history are what drive most of us to travel and even those of us who might be the happiest-at-home kind.  The need to visit different or beautiful lands gets the most contented to take the train.   The need to travel back in time to see relics of the past is certainly a big motivation for many millions.  In my own case, too, there is a goose-bumpy sense of being able to, in a muted way, experience the past while staring at a relic from a thousand years ago.  This is also the reason it becomes most important for me to comb the labels (often sadly inadequate in our museums) to understand if the object I am considering is the original or a reproduction.  With landscapes, different and beautiful are both legitimate and equal motivating attributes to my mind and most often the former implies the latter, although not necessarily the other way around.


Religious reasons for travel are perhaps the most powerful drivers of people movement in our culture.  The ghats of Varanasi, or the Triveni sangam in Allahabad,  Rameswaram, Gangotri or the major temples, dargahs, churches and gurudwaras are all huge testimony to the power of religion to make people journey.  In an indirect way this is also one of my travel determinants. While I have not traveled for the specific religious transaction itself (to make offering, prayer, confession or seek outcome) I nevertheless always visit such sites in the hope of experiencing, in some way, the source of their attraction.  Invariably such sites remain the richest in terms of the flow of people as well.


Cultural curiosity is another great draw, especially to distant or different parts of the country and the world.  I am burned by the curiosity to know if there is something innately different about another people or their ways of functioning in the world.  In our rapidly homogenizing world, this is often a disappointing examination, at a superficial level.  Nevertheless it is eternally interesting to see if subway users in Delhi, Tokyo, and Mexico city relate to this global modern technology in different ways.   While literature and art are probably deep and authentic reflections of cultural perspective of a people they are not always easily accessible nor do they seem as direct, unfiltered or individuated a representation as observing and interacting with people in their real lives.  Cultural comparison is an automatic subsequent mental process - how and what do our own do in similar situations? 


As I accumulate undesirable mental baggage into middle age, I find a powerful reason to get out is the need to leave 'the mess' behind, at least for short periods of time, and recoup through the distance and perspective that travel offers.  Relationships that suffer from grinding over-familiarity, the monotony of the routine, the exaggerated pettiness of daily life, all get somewhat refreshed.  Beyond this is the suspension of personal history when one travels that seems to offer a special sense of freedom.  You are not known, not pegged by your past, and hence not evaluated by it when you get out on the road.  More centered and balanced individuals perhaps have ways of achieving all of this even while in the thick of their daily lives, but travel offers me an easy, if transitory, fix.