When Bilbo Baggins left Bag End to go off on an epic journey with Gandalf and the dwarves, he never thought he could be anything other than a comfort-loving hobbit. To his own surprise, he turned out to be a talented ‘burglar’, applying his wits and common sense in times of danger. And when he returned, he was no longer the same.
They say travel can change you profoundly. But it wasn’t until recently that I saw the truth of it. As a child, I didn’t get the chance to explore my country, let alone the world. I won’t bother you with the whys, because my parents might chase after me with a stick. In any case, I’m an introvert, and wanderlust doesn’t exactly run in my veins. The prospect of making a bucket list of countries-to-visit doesn’t excite me. But I love what travelling did for me when I took up a master’s degree in the United Kingdom.
The first two weeks had me cringing at every pound I spent. Rupee-to-pound conversion isn’t pretty. Little did I know then that currency wasn’t the only thing being converted. In a month, I’d gotten adept at cleaning; my pampered self was in tears. In three months, I’d turned into a professional cook; six months later, I’d gained six kilos. In the year that followed, I made a few solo trips; the curfew-bound Indian girl in me had taken flight. When I returned home a year and a half later, all plump and independent, my mother couldn’t recognise me.
It’s amazing what travel can do for us. The mere virtue of being in a new place, experiencing new cultures can trigger subtle tweaks in personality. Arunima Maji, an IT professional, travels a lot for work and leisure alike. In her opinion, it’s not necessarily a you-will-meet-new-people-make-new-friends scenario. She says, “I’ve always found it hard to talk to new people. But globe-trotting has forced me to open up. My travels didn’t make an extrovert out of me, but they certainly taught me to socialise better.”
Arunima has a point. Socialising truly is at the heart of thoughtful travelling. Guidebook author and travel TV host Rick Steves in his TEDx Talk The value of Travel speaks about how important it is to interact with people while travelling. He admits that meeting people from different cultures during his travels has dispelled the idea that the world is a pyramid with westerners on top and the rest of the world trying to scramble up from the bottom. Experiencing new cultures has broadened his worldview. “Travel wallops my ethnocentricity, and I’m very thankful for that. It’s something to celebrate,” he says.
I’ve experienced something similar. While studying in London, I grew very fond of my Pakistani classmate. It was only then that I learnt of the many similarities and far fewer differences between India and Pakistan. Take this, for instance: Pakistanis too, like Indians, are fond of golgappa (a street food variety). Only, in Pakistan, it’s breakfast, whereas, in India, it’s an evening snack. I’m sure many Indians would love this idea! If it weren’t for my friend, I would only ever know Pakistan as a country India shares a border with (or fights for it). Today though, her gift sits on my desk–a blue wooden box with ornate designs on it. It holds all my wishes, hopes and dreams on small pieces of paper–a kind of positivity trap. I fondly call it ‘Pak Box’.
Travelling certainly prompts a reality check on beliefs and broadens perspectives. It also teaches us to manage our lives a little better. For some, it brings about discipline. Entrepreneur Abhishek Kumar is a vacation-monger. He believes travelling keeps him more organised. “Taking frequent vacation breaks has made me more responsible. I’ve learnt to plan and cater to both family and business needs while I’m away,” he says.
Of course, travelling isn’t always hunky-dory. It’s especially tricky if you’re a lone traveller. Safety is always a concern. Frequent solo travellers will tell you one thing: instincts make for a safe journey. It was certainly true of Swati Satyashankar, a language teacher, when she met a chatty eighteen-year-old boy, Namgay, in a shared taxi from Thimphu to Punakha in Bhutan. When Namgay asked Swati if she’d like to stay with his mother in his native village, she couldn’t refuse. Gets you worried, doesn’t it?
But an hour’s hike up the mountain and across the fields later, Swati found herself in a humble home nestled under tall, snow-covered Himalayan peaks. Her hosts were warm and cordial, and it turned out to be the most memorable trip for Swati. Her instinct paid off. She had no cause for worry. Swati observes, “Travelling has refined my social interaction and taught me to read people. I’ve learnt to strike a balance between my safety concerns and openness.”
Travelling needn’t result in an epiphany, but it opens doors we never knew existed. Mark Twain once wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” It’s true. Swati’s trusting nature, Abhishek’s well-organised mind, Arunima’s openness and my independent streak (and of course, the Pak Box) all stand testimony to the holistic perspective travel bestows. Sure, we might need visas to travel the world, but we can let our minds transcend borders.