I was born in Bombay just over four decades ago. Foreign travel will never recapture the allure it possessed when I was growing up. Those who recall the 1970s will remember that it was very rare to encounter a child who had been abroad, even among India’s most wealthy citizens. Economy tickets cost the equivalent of years of earnings, visas were nearly impossible to obtain, and government currency regulations made it very difficult to legally marshal the vital foreign exchange required. The very few exceptionally fortunate among us who did travel – even to nearby countries – basked in the achievement of the unattainable for the rest of their childhood. I remember one classmate who was admiringly referred to as ‘Singapore’ all the way into college, the rest of us lastingly envious about a trip taken as a toddler.
Even if the prospect of foreign travel was exceedingly remote, however, fevered dreams about it consumed our time. Geography was always a favoured school subject – the lot of us competing furiously to memorise the names of national capitals, American states we had no hope of ever visiting, mighty river systems and mountain ranges. During free periods, my friends and I succumbed to a craze born of poring over atlases and an old wooden globe in the school library, making and remaking lists of the top 10 places in the world that we wanted to visit. I had a huge world map plastered across my bedroom wall, with pins marking out my travel priorities: the Great Wall of China, Luxor, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the plains of the Serengeti. Long before I got my first passport, I would think to myself while going to bed every night, One day I will get to all of these destinations.
Unlikely as those childhood dreams might have been, even more improbable is the speed with which they came true. Again the 1970s was the hinge, the tipping-point decade where airlines around the world embraced newly developed ‘jumbo jets’, widebody aircraft that could each cram in up to 400 passengers. Airfares started to decline, a process that seems to continue irreversibly today, the age of budget airlines.
But even then, travelling from India was neither easy or comfortable, and still completely unaffordable except for the wealthiest few. I was lucky – my unmarried uncle worked at Air India. He carefully hoarded freebies to give to his beloved sister and her brood. Still, that first flight, in 1977, was an unforgettable ordeal that lasted more than a day. We staggered onboard in the middle of the night, and the plane took more than 20 hours to reach London from Bombay, via an extraordinary route including Delhi, Tehran and Moscow.
It was just over 30 years ago, but that age already seems as distant as the time of the dinosaurs. Spinning that ancient globe in the school library, none of us geography geeks realised that the world was about to dramatically open up for us. Almost every friend I had in my class wound up studying abroad, and more than half have migrated for good. I myself ended up going to high school and college in the US, travelling relentlessly to just about every country that would let me in. Before I turned 20, I had already Eurailed twice, travelled across Russia, Uzbekistan, Kenya and Tanzania, and spent a summer working in the West Bank, near the Dead Sea.
Just a few years later, my wife and I, newly married, trekked slowly through pristine rainforest to the spectacular cataract of Angel Falls, deep in the interior of Venezuela. The world’s highest waterfall is forbiddingly remote; it became known to the world only after 1933, when an American aviator flew past it. On that day, sitting deliriously happy in the sun, still some years before my 30th birthday, a final tick-mark was placed against a childhood dream that had once seemed sheer fantasy. I had ventured everywhere on my top ten list of lifetime destinations.
Sum of the experience
By then, of course, I had long since absorbed the basic lesson that journeying is to be savoured on its own merits. This was Travel 101; I learned considerably more from travel books by Robert Byron, Bruce Chatwin, V S Naipaul, and many others who were introduced to me by Granta magazine’s terrific, groundbreaking 1980s special issues on travel writing.
Most of all, however, I learned to take the journeys as they come. For one thing, there was no choice. Where once I backpacked alone, tightly leashed by resources, now I am forced to roll in like a parade, with an entire household retinue ranging from toddler to octogenarian. In the old days, I could crash out in any corner. But to house my crew in 2011, it takes a village, and they will eat all the livestock too. (Three boys get through a lot of chicken, for one.) It is interesting now to see just how many of our family travel photographs feature a baby strapped to my chest – my boys became part of my gear, along with their diapers in my camera bag.
The way I see it, you are given only one choice: Travel or not. It is only recently that I have found myself capable of the negative option; earlier, the answer has always been yes. I have known the open road, its lure irresistible since the beginning. Now that wanderlust is abated somewhat, but I realise that, in many crucial ways, what I am is the sum of my travel experiences. It is the journeys my wife and I have taken together on five continents that define our marriage, the crucible in which the identity of our young family has been forged.
It was ever thus. So many formative experiences have occurred on the road.
The summer I turned 17, my friend John Kim and I inexplicably found ourselves volunteering to work as guides at a desert wildlife reserve of ancient wadis in sight of the Dead Sea. We were unaware that the reserve did not usually take volunteers, and had no system in place to look after us. We were expected to feed ourselves, from minimal supplies available from a hole-in-the-wall shop for an hour each day. Before the baking sun rose at dawn, we were driven to a remote wadi entrance. Our job was to hike ahead of potential visitors, several hours on treacherously narrow desert hillside paths, towards the shaded cool of a waterfall, then wait out the hottest part of midday before trudging back for pick-up, ensuring that everyone exited ahead of us.
I still cannot figure out why John and I did not just quit, turn right around and head back to civilisation. Instead, we did not even tell our parents about the specific conditions under which we laboured that summer. We survived on omelettes and Nutella chocolate spread, filled long hours with wisecracks and learned to rely on each other. By the end of the summer we walked quite differently, full of confidence. College was not going to be a big deal after this.
And that is what travel can be, a kind of university of the self. It was trips with my younger brother that prepared me for eventual fatherhood. My wife-to-be and I figured out everything we needed to know about each other on a year-long adventure in half-a-dozen countries before we walked down the aisle. These lessons were quite apparent to me by the time our family started to expand, but I believed that I learned them the hard way, coming from a boyhood of rootedness in 1970s India. Could travel still have the same meaning and value for my children, born in the Easy Jet era, who started criss-crossing continents in airline-provided bassinets attached to the bulkhead?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes, but it has nevertheless taken a certain amount of effort to retain the power and magic of travel. We have learned to choose our destinations very carefully, to span the needs and interests of our entire crew, three-year-old to 43-year-old. We now know to take much more time in a place than most people think necessary – in fact, it always proves barely sufficient. We have figured out that our kids need a quiet day of rest for every couple of days on the road. Most of all, we have learned to ignore most people who say, ‘That’s no place for children,’ or especially, ‘Your kids will be bored there.’ Every time the well-intentioned and right-thinking start to chorus in that vein, you are certain to profit by doing the exact opposite.
Hear and near
We have taken a gleeful three-year-old and three septuagenarians to a remote coastal village in Belize, the former British Honduras, to live in a tiny fisherman’s cottage on the water opposite the second-longest coral reef in the world. It was the opposite of luxurious, but the setting was astonishing, unbeatably spectacular. There were no restaurants, but we feasted all day on mangoes and fresh fish at absurd prices – 50 fat mackerel for 50 cents! Our friends had blanched when we told them that we were going to have to fend for ourselves on the Central American coastline. But what we experienced was paradise itself, the unalloyed original pleasures of the Caribbean, still available if you look a little bit.
What has really shocked me is the incredible adventure available to all of us right here in the Subcontinent. Since our youngest son was born just over three years ago, we have taken at least one long annual trip in India, and our experiences have been consistently mind-blowing. While our peers have flocked in droves to Spain and Singapore, my family has had fine times at destinations as unsung as Chikmagalur and Cherrapunjee.
The latter is a perfect example of why you should always ignore assurances that certain places are inappropriate for children. When I proposed going to Assam and Meghalaya last summer, my neighbours made it clear that I was bringing the entire apartment building into disrepute with such eccentricities. When I suggested that we might linger in the Khasi Hills high above the Bangladesh border for a couple of days, instead of wheeling in and out from Shillong, my uncle, the family expert on the Indian Northeast, specifically called me from Chennai to tell me how foolish the idea was. Then he e-mailed dire predictions of doom, copying the rest of the clan so the disgrace would be complete.
In the event, the Khasi Hills were fairytale, utterly marvellous. Everywhere waterfalls, tumbling silver down spectacular jungle gorges. Far below us, Bangladesh stretched pale green and blue to the horizon. Charming little villages dusted an occasional ridge in the distance, tiny wooden houses clustered around a whitewashed church. The air was like champagne. All the while, mists rose from the plains to wreath the hills.
For several wonderful days, the children chased giant, wobbling butterflies in the magnificently situated garden of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, an improbable oasis of hospitality at what felt like the end of the world itself. They skinny-dipped in crystal mountain streams, and clambered down extraordinarily steep staircases cut into rock slopes in order to reach living root bridges, vines and lianas – like something out of Tolkien – trained to grow together over centuries to span torrential streams and rivulets.
My eldest and I crawled for a kilometre through a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. We visited graveyards and a hushed sacred grove where insectivorous plants gaped up as our troupe filed by in silent respect. We came back a family transformed, a resourceful team. Now we’re thinking Nagaland next summer. Everyone says we’re nuts, which means it’s going to be just great.
~ Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer based in Goa, and contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveler India.