General


Myself & the spouse are leaving on a much saved-for, planned and awaited trip to Europe. Thats two weeks of lolling in the Lake District, traipsing around London, sight-seeing in Paris, doing nothing in Colmar, and winding up in Amsterdam. I am not therefore likely to be blogging. I hope Artnavy will be on though, not allowing the blog to feel too lonely, when it is left behind 🙂

Sometimes the best writing about a place comes not from focused travel writing per se, but from fiction that lays no claim to being any sort of guide to travel. These places could be in a time long gone by, like the post-war Britain of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, or contemporary, like the desolate Sundarbans of Amitava Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. In either case, the fiction informs us of the realities of a place, perhaps stripping it of romanticisation, in the process. The Hungry Tide, definitely did that for me, removing any illusions of the mangrove swamps as a broad swathe of communion with nature and instead painting a far more gritty picture where natural forces are at war with human beings.

My reading of Africa in fiction then, has been largely confined to two writers – Ben Okri and Chinua Achebe, both fantastic in their own right, but writing from sub-cultures based in Nigeria. Chinua Achebe, in particular, is not just a story teller, but in some sense, a chronicler of colonization and lost culture.

But surely, beyond colonization, lost cultures, poverty, AIDs, aid and such themes, Africa with its hundred countries must also be a place where people live today ? In a Granta collection , writer Binyavanga Wainaina has this lovely satirical piece on How to write about Africa. The antidote to such stereotyping then, is surely, Alexander McCall Smith, which brings me to his novel that I just finished reading, Blue Shoes and Happiness.

For those who haven’t read this writer before, his novels are set in Botswana, and the main character is Mma Ramotswe or Precious Ramotswe, who runs a detective agency with her deputy Mma Makutsi. The novels are delightful, there is simply no other word to describe them! You literally heave a sigh of relief, on realising that this is not another work on the ailments of Africa. Rather, people living in African countries also have stories just like people on other continents do !

Mma Ramotswe is no Hercule Poirot. She rarely gets called upon to solve murders. Rather, she is the detective of daily life, her cases the stuff that ordinary people’s problems revolve around – theft, adultery, small-time blackmailing, and in Blue Shoes and Happiness, perhaps what is a major case for her, witchcraft. The cases then are what not keep you engrossed, unlike a conventional detective novel. It is the way McCall Smith describes life in Botswana today from Mma Ramotswe’s perspective. It is an ordinary life, this life in Gaborone, like life in any other capital city. At the same time, it is unique to this time and place. She often reminisces about life in her old village, and it is not something central to the novel, but the contrast between urban and rural life seeps in there. It is a sort of constant reminder that atleast in Botswana, life goes on in pretty much an ordinary way. What is interesting is that the bush, the wild is not just a romanticised place with wild animals and safaris; people live there, villages exist, and one may even find out that while bush tea comes from the wild, it may not necessarily be served there !

“Mma Ramotswe rather liked the idea of a run down to Molokodi. Although she lived in Gaborone, she was not a town person at heart – very few Batswana were – and she was never happier than when was out in the bush, with the air of the country, dry and scented with the tang of acacia, in her lungs. On the drive to Molokodi, she would travel with the windows down and the sun and air would flood the cabin of her tiny white van; and she would see, opening up before her, the vista of hills around Otse and beyond, green in the foreground and blue behind…She tried to remember if they served bush tea there; She thought they did, but just in case, she would take a sachet of her own tea, which she could ask them to boil up for her.”

Bush tea is ofcourse a favorite of Mma Ramotswe’s along with other peculiarities such as quoting Seretse Khama on everything, and calling her rather overweight self “a traditionally built woman”. Mm Ramotswe’s full traditional figure, and her dilemma of whether she should diet or not, is a matter of much importance in Blue Shoes and Happiness. Finally, one of her acquaintances convinces her that she needs to drop the diet, as a mark of solidarity with other traditionally built ladies.

“Mma Ramotswe!”, she exclaimed. “If you go on a diet, then what are the rest of us to do? What will all the other traditionally built ladies think of they hear about this? How can you be so unkind?”

For all those who consider going to “Africa”, reading Alexander McCall Smith is a must-read. It makes one realise that while civil war is going on in some countries and Darfur may be the world’s most ignored atrocity zone, not all parts of Africa are the same. And Africa is not just about the land and the animals – who knows, on your travels there, you may even meet characters like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, traditionally built ladies sipping their bush tea, and debating on whether a new pair of blue shoes are essential to happiness, just like you and me!

If you thought travelling light was the best way to go, check out Dethroner’s recommendations on the top ten “essential” travel gadgets, essential being the operative word.

Via Philobiblon, I came across this piece on why Australians are now the lowest species of traveller, ranking somewhere on par with those ugly Americans. Stereotype or truth I don’t know, since the only Australians I’ve really seen are the cricket team.. (Ha, what did Gavaskar say…)

Travel is not just about the places ofcourse, its also about meeting people, and how could we forget, eating food from different places and cultures ! Darren at Travel Rants reports on Devil’s Curry, surely a dish no one would want to miss…

Finally, via Uma, a rather strange article by William Dalrymple that appears to contrast the largest city in North India – Delhi, with so-not-on-the-same-plane, small South Indian cities…

Via Blogbharti, I landed up at As I see it, where Ms. N has an interesting post on travel snobbery. While her point is on travellers looking down on non-travellers, it set me thinking about the distinction between travellers and tourists which seems to have become very popular stuff these days.

The fundamental premise seems to be that travellers experience the culture and places they travel to, while tourists just tick off a number of places on their list, usually very popular ones. The traveller then feels highly superior to the tourist, superior for his immersion in a culture, his off-beat destinations and his therefore superior experiences. The tourist is some sort of dumb person who talks too loudly and mainly gawks at Big ben or the Taj mahal before returning home.

Now, I am not going to argue this from the perspective that one should not be judgemental. Hell, how many times are you really non-judgemental about others’ choices? And I am not even sure that every choice is sacrosanct and not to be examined, just because its personal.

Rather, my take on this is, that to be a traveller, in the sense of what many “travellers” truly consider to be one, takes time, and by association money. Before people jump up and say that many travellers do extremely budget travel, money does not just mean comfortable budget on-road. It also means a fairly tolerable or comfortable situation, or security net. Think young Western (white usually) traveller hitting the road with a minimum of money and therefore roughing it out at budget destinations, eating at the cheapest places, travelling second class only etc. This person is still affluent by comparison to many third world country citizens. For one, thing, he/she has the luxury of taking time off a job ! This could be because, on return, even if a job is not available, there is still an unemployment benefit available, which, even if tiny, will atleast pay for some things. In most developing economies, such safety nets are unavailable.

Then, a Western culture is largely based on being responsible for and making the most of one’s one life. Children’s education/marriage etc are important but not something to be saved up for. In India, would middle class or even fairly well-to-do people consider long travel something justifiable in the face of such responsibilities? Definitely, the way we look at travel will depend on these cultural factors, and not just whether we are dolts looking to cross stuff off a list handed down by a guidebook. Sometimes, the most popular places may just be the cheapest ones to get to. Not everyone knows how to get to those off-beat destinations, not everyone can afford to, or feels confident enough travelling on their own.

Again, travelling cheap seems to have become some sort of an ideal in itself, with message boards often echoing with discussions of who travels cheapest. Its not uncommon to hear Westerners saying for e.g., that you haven’t “really” travelled India if you haven’t done second class. But this is such reverse snobbery. The only ones who can glorify cheap like this are those who’ve never had to do it compulsorily. All through my childhood, we travelled second class. Yes, it was fun looking out of the windows, it was fun meeting other kids, it was fun feeling the wind in our faces. But – it was no fun when mean looking people occupied your seats, it was no fun using unbelievably smelly toilets. Certainly not when we didn’t have a sanitised Western country to get back to. So I have no hassle in saying that as far as possible, I try to travel AC today, when I can afford it. Whats with this business of the “real” thing being poor and as far from your culture as possible ? Thats called exotic I think, not real. But these are the people who smugly pat themselves for being travellers, not tourists.

I wholly agree that as much as possible, it is worthwhile trying to understand other places and cultures while travelling. But, I may have little time to do that, on my 10 day holiday, which is all I can afford. I don’t think that should tag me as a dumb tourist, or have anyone tell me that I shouldn’t be travelling. While part of the fun is in meeting new people and learning, sometimes travel is also just a means of relaxation. We each try to experience the world in our own ways, and so long as we try to be respectful of other people while we’re travelling, I think we’re doing good enough. Beyond that, this whole traveller versus tourist thing is such a Western mindset that comes from a background of affluence. So can we realise that travel is not some sort of contest as to who travels cheapest/farthest/most out-of-the-way and stop this snobbery please…

A long way Ahead, is my space for writing about travel – my own, as well as links to other interesting pieces, travel writing, the travel industry etc.

When I was six or so, and we were to set off on one of our annual vacations, my sister,sliding down the banisters, had a fall and got her forehead stitched up. That album has her beaming, with the bandaid shining in the warm Ooty-hill-station sun. Ever since that earliest vacation (that I can remember), travelling to ‘other’ places has been a magical thing for me, something awaited as much as experienced. Half the thrill lies in reading about places yet to be visited, foods yet to be eaten, people yet to be met. When we returned from that holiday, my sister’s bandaid came off, but perhaps those early travels made such an impression on us, that all three of us siblings have turned out to be crazy about going places.

I am not a long-term traveller. I have a regular, day-job in a fairly taxing profession, that ensures my stay in the here and now. But I do try and sneak out as much as possible. And – I love to read about others’ travelling, enjoying their experiences second-hand.

Most of my travel, until now, has been within India. So the writing on this blog, that relates to my own travel, is likely to be India related. Other than that, I plan to link to pieces from all over -distance is no bar to enjoyment ! So, come on board, and I hope you enjoy this journey.