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Why we need to travel

The many ways in which travel can break life's frustrating gridlocks and renew us

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

We were lying on the bed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa in Costa Rica. The room had no television, only glass windows that overlooked the large-as-life, cone-shaped Arenal volcano that had erupted one morning in 1968 and buried everything around it in rocks, lava and ash. Large rocks were flung more than a kilometre away at a rate of 600m per second, according to one account. The volcano has been dormant since 2010, but this was 2008 and it was in a mood to show off on the nights we had those ringside seats.

A few days later, we drove through the Peruvian Andes, up, up to Machu Picchu, stopping to take photographs with grazing alpacas and to drink chicha de jora (corn beer). “We’ve only seen Indians on television. You look as beautiful," a woman told us when we stopped for food. Somehow, the husband and I had got a few months off from work and we had booked ourselves two round-the-southern-hemisphere plane tickets. We travel for sublime memories that can be summoned in the blink of an eye even years later.

Right on cue, a friend calls to convince me to go on a trip that mixes a bike ride with military history. He’s hoping that being on the road and walking through a historic battlefield will work as a magical midlife reboot. “You remember the time you used to play carrom? When the coins were stuck and sometimes you just had to take the striker and hit it hard so that it opened up the game for new play?" he says. He’s a storyteller, full of cross-referenced wisdom, and I wait for the gem he will use to explain why he travels. Today it’s Fight Club’s Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you." We travel to inspire ourselves to break life’s unceasing routines and frustrating gridlocks.

Every year, birds migrate thousands of miles for food supplies, more successful breeding, to escape disease and in search of tropical conditions. We travel like birds—for our family, a good meal, health and the weather. Like them, we travel to go back home. If animals migrate to explore and breed, we travel the distance for a sandy lover who smells of the ocean. We travel for holiday sex.

“I feel most at home with my family when we are away from our house—when we are between homes. Everyone is free and we are all together. This is the definition of family for me," writes my fellow columnist Natasha Badhwar in her recently released book of essays, My Daughters’ Mum. We travel to feel at home.

Some people, especially those with children, are drawn to the comfort of a familiar destination. One friend travelled to the same resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic every year with her family. They liked the fact that they could pay for everything, including the meals and water sports, in advance. Their days consisted of grabbing a shady spot by the pool and staying put until late afternoon, sipping mama juana (rum, red wine and honey steeped in tree bark and herbs) and watching the children play in the water. By the third year, they were favourites with the resort staff. We travel to give our children a childhood.

Then there are all those magical accounts that lie spine-to-spine on our bookshelves. “The poet lived along a lonely stretch of river, in overgrown orchards of apricots, alone in a two-roomed hut…his fingers gripped my arm… ‘Patagonia!’ he cried. ‘She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.’… For the next two hours he was my Patagonia." So wrote Bruce Chatwin in In Patagonia. We travel because of all those explorers and chroniclers who romanticized restlessness.

Increasingly, we are inspired to undertake epic journeys that are guaranteed to change us. A sailboat with an historic all-woman crew of navy sailors from Goa is attempting to circumnavigate the globe. They will return home only in April. A couple of years ago, a couple with two preteen children drove from Bengaluru to Paris. They zipped through more than 50 cities in their 22,780km journey that took 111 days. We travel for adventure.

About a year ago, Major General Somnath Jha embarked on a journey across the length and breadth of this country to pay homage to fallen soldiers. The retired army man cycled 2 minutes for every soldier who has died in independent India. He says the journey helped him step outside the bubble of military life, one in which he had resided for 37 years. “It helped me assimilate and integrate with the real world and also helped me put behind me my past life and work on a new beginning," he says. We travel to move on.

We travel for reunions. To go home to parents who live in different cities or countries, to meet cousins who visit every December, to get drunk with old friends and catch up on each others’ lives, to revisit childhood haunts. We travel to renew and reconnect.

These days we’re ambitious. We want to go faster and further. We want to travel beyond our planet. Our hero is a man who has $20 million and who says he won’t be happy until we colonize Mars. He’s already begun working on this project through his space exploration company. But even before Elon Musk came on the scene, we were already dreaming of being intergalactic explorers. Why else would we give all those probes and rockets that have taken the first steps of this journey fanciful names such as Voyager, Mariner, Sojourner, Pioneer and Curiosity. We travel to be bigger than ourselves.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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