The soul has many lessons to learn and travel surely teaches a few.
Surrendering to the unknown, embracing the new, looking at the unfamiliar with the wide-eyed wonder of a child; the wisdom that comes with seeing the similarities; falling deeply in love and having to let go; not wanting to leave yet knowing with new-found clarity where home is; leaving something behind and taking back more; wanting to capture and hoard lots but realizing you can absorb only a few to revisit in moments of quiet and nostalgia.
Reflecting upon the opportunity given and sifting through gratitude to pick out the lesson that is there somewhere is what travel means to me.
As a young child I was told that the tiny black mole on my feet meant I would travel a lot.
The prospect excited me even then and I believed it true, since my family was already very far from our ancestral home in India’s Jammu Province.
Growing up I didn’t know many who spoke my language or understood my ethnicity.
It taught me a valuable lesson – that of looking at everybody as my ‘own’, every person irrespective of the language they spoke and the different names with which they called their Gods was a potential friend.
If others did not know me I took it upon myself to know them and picked up a lot of languages and accents along the way.
For a person from a tiny village comprising mainly of the same Khajuria Clan, my Father was the first traveler my family knew. He chose Kolkata over Mumbai for his Engineering and traveled 3-4 days to first arrive at his University.
He later worked in a small town in Madhya Pradesh and then the lovely City of Ranchi.
Moscow was the first foreign star in his traveling cape, where he trained for six months.
Somewhere in between we lived for some years in Durgapur, West Bengal and a couple of years in Nigeria too.
It can be safely said that I was trained young and trained well. I completed my studies in the two very different cities of Delhi and Mumbai. I even went on to marry someone very far from Jammu.
I clearly took every one who is my ‘own’ to heart.
With him I lived in Mumbai where I again did not find anyone who spoke my tongue so I learned to understand theirs. Eight years of a suburban American life was followed by becoming a Londoner after a lot of bribing and promises of more travel by the husband. I was ready to pack and go home.
So what my Father started, my Husband continued. The tiny black mole on my feet had faded but the travels have increased.
In my adult life most of my travel plans have been sudden and unplanned but undoubtedly welcome because someone rightly said that all “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God”.
I got a chance to go to Spain last weekend.
I am not a happy flier preferring solid earth beneath my feet always.
Landing tired and hungry as we drove into Barcelona City in a rental car I soaked up the City in its nocturnal beauty. Even through a fog of sleep I registered this was different from the other European Nations I have visited.
The first thing that enveloped me was the welcome warmth as the temperatures were in the pleasant teens. Rain was predicted and we only reasoned that the rain in Spain could not be worse than the freezing relentless English rain.
The next morning proved otherwise and the Weather Gods were benevolent allowing the sun to shine down on us, his loyal worshippers. As we walked around the City I could only gasp, go quiet, gasp some more and click away.
Barcelona is delightful and so pretty. The City reminded me of home at every corner though Gaudi’s architectural feats are unparalleled.
In some houses I saw the Houses of South Delhi, almost expecting the gates to open and reveal a Punjabi household go by its day.
I turned a corner and there stood a house which could very well have been in Kolkata or Ranchi. In fact the house looked very similar to a Bengali school friend’s circular house in Ranchi, with its pillars, and wooden window shutters. I had spent some lovely time in that house and enjoyed a meal there and it all came rushing back. I almost saw the Mashi Ma I knew as a child behind one of those windows, clad in a white saree, worn the Bengali way, with keys tied to one end of her pallu dangling down her back.
Time stood still but I roused myself and hurried past a quaint charming Church on the quiet street which was reminiscent of Goa and its beautiful houses of worship. I am a person of Faith and the presence of Places of Worship fills me with calm and comfort.
Barcelona is surrounded by hills and the morning light revealed the brick-coloured houses perched on the slopes.
This and the serpentine river which we saw later as we drove away from Barcelona and up the mountains took me instantly to Jammu, my eternal City of Joy and the Mother of all my other Homes.
The river which hugged the mountains and cut its way past the rocks with joyous abandon must definitely know all the rivers in my home state, I thought; they even looked similar. They too must be plentiful in winters and barely there in the peak of summer.
I could have walked up and down the quiet, cool streets of the smaller Catalonian Villages and Towns for in those, besides their timeless charm, I saw the gallis and Mohallas of my beloved old City Jammu.
We drove through tree-lined roads. The sun and the heat made these Spanish roads resemble the beautiful Arnia-Pandori Road in Jammu Province, which takes me to my village.
The magnificent Montserrat Monastery, tucked away in the Mountains with its majestic Basilica took my breath away. Up and far away in the mountains is the abode of Shakti who watches us all in the Jammu region from above her home in the Trikuta Mountains; just as the Montserrat Basilica is the abode of the Black Madonna who is visited by her followers from far and wide.
I saw a lot and am still greedy for more.
Take every road that you come upon but never forget the one that takes you back home…
Enrique Iglesias, the crush of every teenage girl my age growing up, crooning on the radio in his velvet-smooth voice, as we traversed the Spanish Countryside and into the picturesque tiny Country of Andorra only added to the atmosphere.
I was in Spanish heaven and it was even better because India and particularly Jammu peeped from every nook and cranny.
When you travel far and wide, home only becomes more precious. You also acquire a discerning eye.
You see your treasures and your rubbish too and in our case literally. For Spain and India to be similar is not surprising, many of us even look alike but what is striking is that we literally need to ‘clean’ up our act.
Swachhata Abhiyaan cannot only be part of a political manifesto or a photo-op; it must become a practice for each one of us back home.
I also wish we would not give up on our Kaanche/baante wala sodas for Margeritas; the English tea is fine but the kulhad wali chai is something else.
The rajma/chhole kulchas must not give way to Burgers; Dosa should always win over the pizza; the famous Kolkata egg roll must stand above a subway foot-long.
For us in Jammu we may love the chocolate cake and mozzarella but kaladi and Kud ka Patisa is who we are.
May we embrace the different and foreign but never shy away and give up what is local and purely us. People do not travel far and wide to eat at KFC and McDonalds. They travel to soak up culture and eat at the chaat wali redi in the corner. It is the Santoor and the folk songs that are hauntingly beautiful and in our Mountians.
It is the flute and drums which reverberate as people sway to the beat of the Kud Dance. Without roots we may remain adrift and aimless.
Travel teaches us acceptance of the unfamiliar and removes contempt, fear and judgment. From travel we hopefully also learn to walk the roads of our own City with the wonder of a tourist; finding new things in the oft walked streets and treating them with respect.
It makes us fall in love with home all over again and fills us with a pride of belonging. Travel shows us how we are all related despite the distance and cultural differences. Love speaks the same language everywhere and music in any tongue has the power to move.
I wish travel upon everyone.
Travel does give us new eyes.
Take every road that you come upon but never forget the one that takes you back home.