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March 20, 2008

Serengeti from my armchair

Text by Ratna Rajaiah. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Chocolate baths in Perugia, water skiing among hippos in Kenya, dolphin counting in the Adriatic – travel is getting more adventurous and imaginative all the time. But, if you’re the scared-of-flying or the no-time-to-holiday kind, virtual or armchair travel empowers you to roam the world in 80 clicks, enthuses Verve

I’m not equipped to trot the globe. And it’s not that the wanderlust doesn’t rage in my capillaries. It’s just that I don’t have the right hammock bottom for it. Let me explain. Sapphire waters picked out in shimmery-silver spangles of sunlight. Bright blue sky, sighing blissful white puffs of cloud breaths. And stretched across the sands, hooked on to two convenient palms, a hammock. Out of which spill long, languid, golden limbs, sequinned with that same sunlight. And attached to a delicate little bottom just large enough and heavy enough to make the hammock dip just that little bit in the middle to make a perfect boomerang.

My bottom? Well, let’s just say that it’s hammock-challenged! I’m disqualified in other ways as well. I am petrified of flying, I can’t swim and I am a vegetarian. That rules out about 99.8 per cent of the globe, so I prefer to sample the joys of surfing largely by pressing buttons on a remote control. But I constitute an infinitesimally minuscule minority.

These days, it seems that everyone’s travelling. And for the sheer pleasurable heck of it. Sample the stats – 8.3 million cheerful Indians (roughly the population of Austria) streamed out of India last year, and not necessarily to do Europe in seven-nights-six-days, khandvi-dhokla-dosa breakfasts and the Sistine Chapel explained in Gujarati. Many of them went in search of faraway lands, exotic Shangri-Las to ogle and gasp at strange and wondrous sights, to taste and do stranger things and thus get their annual fix of the heady romance for travel.

So, we’re taking the kids mamba watching in Mombasa this year. And next year, it will be glacier gazing in Patagonia. Or kayaking in the Sea of Cortez. Or opal prospecting in Coober Pedy. Where’s Coober Pedy? For that matter, where’s the Sea of Cortez? (Mars, maybe?) Ah, now see that’s how discerning travellers choose destinations. If you have trouble pronouncing the name of the place and can’t tell whether it’s in Africa or the name of an Aussie beer and if you’ve heard that it has the best pure tea in the world, book your tickets. Now.

And in that great never-been-here-or-done-that yonder, the same rules apply for the food. If you’re not sure whether what you’re eating flies, swims or eats humans, if you have no clue what is unagi or fufu, if your gelato is flavoured with jasmine or bergamot, it means you’re looking at the right menu.

In other words, we’re hopping off the beaten track and on to a slow boat in search of our inner Marco Polo — as we count dolphins in the Adriatic, water ski among hippos in Kenya, or learn to blend Scotch in Glasgow, or stargaze lying on a kilim in the Sahara. Or wallow in a chocolate bath in Perugia, gulp lungful of cardamom-laden air on the Cardamom Hills. (Where else?), lock gazes with Bactrian camels in Mongolia and even look for the blue Himalayan poppy in the Valley of the Flowers!

Though, the beaten path is not totally ruled out as along as what you’re doing on it is offbeat. So, if it’s Singapore, you’re there to sample mooncakes at the Mooncake Festival (key ingredient – duck egg yolks to symbolise the full moon). Spain beckons because you’re in quest of the world’s best balsamic vinegar. London is on because that’s where you’ll find one of the world’s hottest water bars. (Choose from still, sparkling, tropical rain, volcanic pool, ancient glacier ice or perhaps even Ganga jal?) If it’s beaches, it must be Vietnam or French Polynesia.

Trek, but on dromedaries in Timbuktu and climb mountains only if they are called The Remarkables. As for camping, it’s glamping now (‘glamorous camping’), to watch wildebeest hurtle across the plains of Tanzania as you sip champagne in the comfort of your air-conditioned, Persian carpeted, gauze-curtained… do I dare to call it ‘tent’?

All the while remembering to amble and loiter, diddle and dawdle, not to mention loll. Because it is also the age of meaningful tourism. If it’s not exotic, it should at least be eco-friendly. And very, very slow-mo. So disconnect your BlackBerry and connect with Mother Nature. Walk, don’t drive, bike, don’t fly. Hug trees, dance in the rain, get kissed by morning dew, dine by the light of fireflies, listen to forests breathe and marvel at harlequin frog before it disappears.

I know what you’re thinking. Travel advice from Ms ‘100 curd rice joints to visit before you die’ armchair amma? Puhleez.

The buzz is that the next hot craze might just be cyber tourism. Perfect for folks like me who crave to trawl the high seas in search of adventure (and Atlantis?), but from the comfort of our armchairs. The best part? I can have a perfect hammock bottom. Virtually.

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