In the past 12 years, I’ve travelled to 53 countries; in the last two years, 13. When I stand in line at immigration, officers frequently raise their eyebrows and make statements such as, “Your passports open like an accordion.” What started off as fieldwork in my early years of anthropology training grew into an insatiable desire to step out of the familiar, into the unconsidered, into the astonishing variety that constitutes our world. What prompts me to write on why I travel is that I’m often accosted by people who think that the world has largely been discovered, and that there is nothing left worth exploring. But, with each subsequent journey, I realise that nothing could be further from the truth. Planning with comparative ease a winter in Antarctica after a summer in Alaska has only now become easily possible.
Considered opinions on the world are no longer the sole domain of diplomats, merchants, evangelists or experts of any kind. Societies that were once on the periphery have begun to assert themselves. Societies that were once in the centre are being described by the periphery, demolishing the armchair lament that our planet is becoming a homogenised place. I never go anywhere to relax. I can accomplish that in the snugness of my bedroom. I travel to encounter places, to approach them as if they were people, to surrender to them as the friends I hope they will become.
The most revelatory travel often turns out being one that’s undertaken in the opposite direction of the pack. In Trinidad, dancing on the streets at carnival time in no more than a gold-string bikini shifted my idea of where ‘normal’ lies. Ice-fishing in the -25°C Arctic chill taught me patience and endurance. A street urchin in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, offering me a bite of his last apple taught me generosity.
Discovering the cure for my sinus by swallowing a green ant, as suggested by a diplomat, in the Daintree Rainforest, Australia, showed me the value of alternative ideas in medicine. The most remote outpost is usually someone else’s everyday habitat. Negotiating the rope bridges in Cherrapunji after a three-hour trek had everyone — irrespective of bank balance and golf handicap — panting and puffing, underlining the fact that nature truly is life’s great equaliser.
Nothing alters perceptions of the world as being elsewhere does. As a wise man told me on one of these journeys (every journey has its wise folk), “Much of the unease and hostility in the world stems from a fear of the unknown. It is born of second-hand mediated reports and insularity. The antidote is interaction, communication and openness.” As a student trawling through the thickets of London, I was rescued by a black woman from a knife attack by a white schizophrenic man gone off his meds. The wider I travel, the more stereotypes dissolve. Almost everyone ends up better off by engaging — the visitor and the visited. On fieldwork in a little Pawra village, in Shirpur, it was the tribal women, who we had ostensibly gone to teach to write, who ended up teaching us about herbal medicines, ways of weathering the cold and the meaning of tenacity.
We transit through this planet but once. And, I would rather go out of it with fewer shoes in my cupboard, negligible objects to clean and a little less money in my account. I’d want to go out of it with more soul connections, more understanding and plenty of stories. If I’ve read less news reports in favour of more first-hand experience of the world, and received my words from walking further and climbing higher, instead of living my life through received wisdom, at least the discernment is mine. The discomfort I felt eating poo-smelling pig intestines in China was matched by the queasy glances from the local chef on trying the leafy salad I proffered. As I heed this humbling lesson, I am reminded yet again that everything is relative.
That I’ve rarely stayed more than 15 days at a stretch in any city (including my own) has had people calling me an obsessive-compulsive travel freak. Others wonder what it is that I’m running from. To them I say — I’m not running away, but towards. Towards incandescent seas, icy peaks, rainforests and life pulsating with energy — a constant reminder of the gift that the world is, and the limitless, unbounded species that we have the potential to be. Jumping off cliffs, sleeping with cockroaches, cutting my hair off and binding my breasts to gain access to a men-only club, being smacked with a branch as part of an authentic Maori massage — I’m always curious and eager with anticipation that my next experience is going to be as revealing and soul-expanding as the previous one was. I’m as joyful to meet the man content to be lying in a hammock in the Seychelles, knowing that it’s his home and there’s nowhere he’d rather be, as I am to be me. In fact, the time away makes me return to the solid basics of life with greater zeal, deeper gratitude and renewed commitment.