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February 24, 2018

Anchors Aweigh: How Travelling Can Change Your Mindset

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Gouri Katdare

Travel satisfies different needs in different people. We discuss the myriad reasons why people venture afield and how it can change their lives

For years I have daydreamed about leisurely cruises. Any waters actually: the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Baltic, and closer home, the Indian Ocean. Just the ‘idea-image’ of azure blue lapping the sides of a ship gently trips me into a reverie. I become surreptitiously jealous when family and friends talk about their cruises and share their travel tales by bombarding us with emails and Instagrams. The wish-you-were-here kind of messages, which are really telling you: ‘Look what a good time we are having while you are stuck in your boring routine and chores….’ They paint a picture of themselves as explorers of the Norwegian fjords perhaps or the Arctic, encountering glaciers or cavorting with polar bears. Not to forget the stopover in Saint Petersburg and its magnificent Hermitage Museum. Or, the quaint architecture and bazaars of Tallinn, the Estonian capital on the Baltic Sea.

Cruising along
But then, once the envious sentiments subside and I reign in my raging lust for travel, I remind myself that I went cruising thrice — even before I turned 11 years old. Long before most of my friends even set foot on any ship. It was in an era when one travelled to other continents by ocean liners. Of course, we (my family and I) were not going on a ‘cruise’: the ship was just a means of transport from one place to another. My father had been posted to Washington DC, and we were merely sailing from what was then called Bombay to the exotic port of New York, with a week’s break in London to feel the ground beneath our feet.

The second lap of the journey was more turbulent; the Atlantic Ocean was in an angry mood at the time. Not even the majestic Queen Mary (before its avatar as a ritzy ocean liner decades later) could stop swaying, sending most of the adults scurrying to their cabins and beds. So, while our parents remained sequestered for much of the journey, my sister and I — and the children of another Indian family who were also headed to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC — wandered about, unchaperoned. We had the whole of the stately Queen Mary to ourselves and could indulge in all the games the ship stewards had laid on for the hardy who seemed to have quickly acquired sea legs.

I recount this story about the two long crossings to make the point that we did not get from Point A (Delhi to begin with) and Point B (the eastern seaboard of the United States) in a jiffy — well, in less than a day as we do today. We had weeks to take in the distance with shifts between different lands and changing social behaviours — not least of which was what was happening within ourselves. We were encountering different kinds of people who were not at all like our families and friends back home. Perhaps, on the way out we also began to distance ourselves from where we were coming, allowing our imaginations to conjure the new world towards which we were headed. It all spelled anticipation and adventure. A supersonic jet today takes the mystery out of the journey: you are there before you can say Robinson Crusoe. The traveller is left without the indulgence of time to unleash the imagination. Nor do they have the time to adjust their body clock.

Muses abroad
For some writers, the journey itself is the destination. For others, places visited become mirrors of the self. The late American author James Baldwin, who exiled himself to Paris, wrote that Europe was where he ‘encountered’ himself. Painters and writers have often gone to other continents to acquire the distance and perspective to better understand their own countries, and perhaps, more importantly, themselves. While American writer Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky) went to Tangier and got the prose flowing, the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin ventured further afield to Tahiti to find his muses and subjects.

Travel satisfies different needs for different people. A wise, anonymous person once wrote: ‘We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.’ Elsewhere often becomes a reflective pond — hopefully not the kind that Narcissus kept looking into, having fallen in love with his own image. Elsewhere also provides insights into the lives and minds of others. As writer Anaïs Nin wrote: ‘We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.’ Some writers, as was the case with her lover, the American writer Henry Miller, believe that ‘one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things’.

Life certainly looked different from the Parisian suburb of Clichy for Miller who grew up in New York in the United States. His seminal autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer, which was published in 1934 and shook up the canons of American fiction, might never have been written had he not left the shores of the United States and immersed himself in a Paris where writers and artists broke rules. Where a Bohemian spirit reigned and, most importantly, where he met Anaïs Nin.

Travel doesn’t just open other worlds; it can change you in meaningful ways. As the great wit and traveller Mark Twain wrote: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ It is also an antidote to loneliness. An elderly friend came across a woman who went from one cruise to another. Curious, he asked her why she was always ‘at sea’. Her reason: she was never lonely, she didn’t pay rent, need to shop or cook or go looking for doctors since it was all available on board. He now cruise-hops as well.

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