Why I travel: Reflections on a Mountain Month

I've been in Himachal since the 1st of June, mostly in the Kullu-Manali valley, with a week in Spiti. I also did a 5-day trip near Mcleodganj at the end of March... all together, about a month of the last 3 months has been spent in these beautiful mountains. The 5 day trip was a solo trip -- my first in India -- and the Kullu-Manali part has been Mom and me, with a couple of visits from friends. The Spiti one was a group tour -- Mom and I were among 9 people packed into two jeeps and several hotels and homestays over 8 days. Because these trips have been so different from each other, they offer me an interesting glimpse into why it is that I set out on these trips to begin with... and a useful insight into how to structure the travels from here forward. I travel for two main reasons: I travel for solitude, and I travel for relationships. While they may seem contradictory, they are in fact complementary. Let me explain.

I travel to be alone. I travel to let the too-many thoughts in my head occasionally play out in all the different directions that they want to play out in. I travel for silence and for writing time. I travel to get away from technology. I travel because the mountains and the deodar forests, in particular, allow me to enter a quiet, calm space from which I always return rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.

I travel for relationships. I travel to step outside myself. I travel to look at everyday life as new and fresh. I travel to have conversations with the vegetable vendor and the milkwoman in new places, such as I'd never have with the vegetable vendor and the milkwoman back home, if they exist. I travel for anonymity. Because I am no one in particular in this new place, I can be whoever I want to be. I travel to try on new avatars, not consciously, but definitely.

When I traveled alone in March, I walked everywhere, for 6-8 hours a day, then returned to my homestay and passed out early at night. I woke up at sunrise, ate breakfast to the birdsong, wrote, and set out again. As I walked along those little mountain roads, I was suddenly struck one day by the realization that I had learned to walk on such roads. I do not remember learning that, of course, but it is (I believe) the reason I am still so at home here. These roads recognize me; these deodars remember. Those long solitary walks helped me recover from months of insanity in less than a week.

But it wasn't only the silence and solitude that healed me. It was also that I met so many people and created so many more quick, beautiful bonds. An old lady in Naddi invited me home for lunch and tea. Two little boys made me a fire from their garbage. A shopkeeper was intrigued enough by my solitary travels to take the time to chat. A taxi driver told me about the foreigners who come to this town but never emerge from their hotels before dark. The grandfather at the homestay told me about the changes over time in the relationships between the Himachalis and the Tibetans in the area. In listening to these people, in reaching out and connecting with them and carrying them home in my heart, I created space inside me. In opening up to them, I re-touched something inside myself that had been dormant for a while.

Would those relationships have been possible in Delhi, in my hometown? Perhaps, although I'm not sure. In some cases, they wouldn't have been simply because I'm moving from one thing to another there and seldom have the time to sit down and talk to the shopkeeper for an hour. In other cases, they wouldn't have been because (let's face it) I'm not really that interesting to a random stranger in Delhi -- most people are more interested in someone from somewhere else.

But I am going to resist the temptation to say that it wouldn't have been possible because no one in the big city has time. I had some of the most interesting random encounters of my life while I lived in New York, mostly on buses and in trains and while waiting for buses and trains. Somewhere I have a poem draft about all the fascinating people I met while using public transportation in NYC -- those encounters and conversations were the highlights of many days and weeks that I spent in that city. Ditto for Mexico City. Many of them started from a simple "where are you from?" and, while I might be wrong about this, I'm not sure the conversations would have gotten very far if the answer had been "here."

But I digress. The point is: I've seldom had those encounters when I am with a friend, and I've never had them when I'm with a group of people. I couldn't help noticing during this time's trip to Spiti, too, that the only authentic conversations I had with locals were when I disassociated from the group. Like the one day, in Tabo, when I did have the time to wander off from our group. I took advantage of a couple of open hours one evening, skipping an organized group walk up to some nearby caves, and went down to the town's monastery. Because the main temples were all locked, there were no tourists around; I had the gorgeous mud structure complex, filled with birdsong and the rumble of a nearby river, all to myself for over an hour. I sat, breathed, wrote. It was wonderful, all the solitude I had been craving. Then I walked over to a nearby shop and spent a long time talking to one shopkeeper, who was from Nagar and described the town's life to me from the perspective of someone who comes in annually to set up shop for the 4-5 month long tourist season. Then I met another woman who is also a shopkeeper and from Tabo -- she told me about most of the locals going away to spend winters in a nearby Buddhist temple because Tabo gets too cold. The next morning, I got up at dawn and went for a solitary walk to the river. Then I met an agricultural worker from Shimla whose family spends half the year cultivating peas in Tabo. Later that day, I met the two shopkeepers again, this time with my mother, and the Tabo lady invited us home for tea. We were in a rush because the group had to leave, so we had to take a rain check -- I do intend to return and take her up on that offer of tea. When I look back on this week, I realize that Tabo was the only town on our itinerary that I feel I visited authentically. That i created relationships in. That I want to return to.

Our homestays allowed for some of that experience too, especially in one home where I stayed up helping the cutest little seven year old with her Hindi homework, but our hosts told us (Mom and me) themselves that they seldom talk much to their guests. They don't think most of their guests are interested in them -- they are there for the room and for the food and perhaps to observe the way the locals live, but not really to create relationships with the locals. Maybe that's not true -- maybe most of the people who come do want those relationships -- but that doesn't seem to be the general impression, which is sad for both parties.

Of course there are advantages to groups: I'm glad I did Spiti the way I did it because I could never have done it in my own, not this first time -- it's an incredibly hostile terrain, and getting around on my own would have been impossible. But I also wish, so much, that I could have done it differently...more authentically. And I will, one of these years. In the meantime, at least I now know for the future that, no matter how small a group is, and no matter how much I like the people in the group, I won't be able to enjoy either solitude or real relationships if I am traveling in one. (solitude, for obvious reasons, and relationships because people then treat me more as "one of the tourist group" and less as me).

For the next round, then, it must be solo travel... or travel with a very carefully selected companion, such as my mother, or such as Mauro, who taught me to travel authentically in the first place. but that's another blog post.