This piece appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Mid-day as ‘How google almost ruined my holiday’ – I had initially titled the piece ‘Death by google’ 🙂
Mild disorientation I can live with (and do, all the time), nausea and headache too. Breathing trouble? Ah, not life-threatening. So far, so good. And then comes the bit about High Altitude Pulmonary and worse, Cerebral Edema (hi! my friends call me HACE). And I have just seen 3 out of the 6,17,000 results that Google throws up (pun unintended) for ‘Altitude Sickness’. I am in Gangtok getting ready for my trip to the high altitude areas of North Sikkim and looking at Google to help me through the perils of altitude discomfort. And that is how we almost end up not going to Gurudongmar Lake in the north.
As Google provides the ailments, so does it provide the cure. In this case, Diamox (chemical name acetazolamide) said the Google gods. None of the pharmacies in Gangtok seem to stock it, indeed many of them have not even heard of it. And I am panicking. A couple of mornings later, we are heading towards Gurudongmar taking deep breaths all along the way to stock up on oxygen. Everything I have read online about altitude sickness flashes through my mind, as every mild cough feels like a death rattle. No, I don’t think your brain is swelling, your head feels larger because of the three scarves you have wrapped around it – I can hear my husband’s thoughts.
And so we reach Gurudongmar Lake, breathtaking, somewhat literally as to be expected at that height, but more in its beauty. And as I get off the cab, I am greeted by the sight of dozens of large families; six year olds and sixty year olds are walking around (the former running) with an insouciance that suggests not even a nodding acquaintance with cerebral edema, or indeed altitude sickness. They have merrily got into their Tata Sumos and headed to 17000 feet, clutching packets of popcorn, the locally recommended panacea for any altitude discomfort. And to think we almost cancelled this trip. We spend too much time on the internet… we both have the same thought.
American journalist Charles Kuralt is supposed to have said sometime in the course of his famous television series ‘On the Road With Charles Kuralt’, Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. That was in the late 1960s in the USA. Now in the early 2000s I can say with confidence that thanks to the World Wide Web, it is possible to travel across the country, indeed the world without moving from your seat in front of the computer.
There are books (and ebooks) that promise to prepare you so thoroughly for your travel that all you need to do is catch the flight on time – and I am sure there is a note instructing you in words of single syllable on how that can be achieved. An absolute personal favourite is Peter Greenberg’s epic ‘The Travel Detective: How to Get the Best Service and the Best Deals from Airlines, Hotels, Cruise Ships, and Car Rental Agencies’.
Extremely useful, since recent research suggests that the average traveller now makes 12 searches and visits 22 sites before actually booking anything. My submission however, is that if you need a guidebook to understand how to get the best service from say, a restaurant, you would do well to first practise your basic manners as mother taught them (say Thank You, son).
Earlier, the traveller packed a careless backpack, throwing in on top a well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet – or a Frommers or Rough guide if he wished to seem discerning. Now, there are guides on the internet to cover every contingency and taste – family travel, travelling with children (and in case of the British, with pets), gay travel, wine-tasting travel, tee-total travel, how-to-nearly-get-killed travel (in some circles known as adventure travel), gap year travel, and so on. There are even websites that offer to research your travel research (such as this one called UpTake which says, among other things – We sifted 20 million opinions to give you a recommendation based on what other travelers said.)
There truly seems to be no dearth of ‘How To’ guides out there. Imagine this. You have reached your destination safely (having got the best flight deal and caught it on time and then having got the best hotel deal and – you get the point). The next morning, you set out bright and cheerful, having tucked in a huge breakfast (part of the hotel deal, of course) and find, follow me carefully, a bunch of monkeys on the street outside the hotel. Fear not, for there is help at hand. A quick glance at How to Prevent a Monkey Attack (on that fabulous website WorldHum) before you set off and the monkeys will soon know they have been in a fight. The Situation: Among the many worries a traveler may be forced to contemplate—catastrophic bus fires, itchy money belts, hemorrhagic fevers—one menace is typically overlooked: monkeys.
Indeed. I may be wondering why blazing buses and itchy leather accessories figure in the same list but I am taking nothing away from this piece cautioning the frequent traveller against monkey attacks. I put myself in this situation – a drive on non-existent roads to a high altitude lake when I have to worry about cerebral edema and monkey attacks. Enough to make one not want to travel, what?
Now I am all for the need to research, to be knowledgeable and prepared. It is one of the high points of a traveller’s life to be finally in a place he has read or even dreamed about endlessly. My own first experience with travel déjà vu was extremely pleasant, even eagerly anticipated. That was when I first started travelling around England soon after I had landed there as a student. From P.G. Wodehouse to William Wordsworth all the way through Enid Blyton had prepared me for what was to come. In fact, one of the first trips (call it a pilgrimage) was to Ickenham, home of the irrepressible Uncle Fred (known in exalted circles as Fredrick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the 5th Earl of Ickenham).
Careful research (not to mention simple logic) tells me the main reason for this increasing dependence on armchair travel research is the need for more bang for the buck – optimizing the time and money spent on travel (recession or no recession). Research helps you prioritize and ensures that you do not miss out on any unmissables. Further, the anticipation of travel that research and planning creates can be almost as pleasurable as the travel itself (blasphemous, I know but true); your trip begins days or even months before the actual dates of travel and you know exactly the best places to get that fabulous view and the cheapest cafes for eating at. I am all for this; user reviews helped me find some excellent (and otherwise little-known) home-stay places in Sikkim – and they also reminded me to take adequate warm clothes.
Quoting from travel writer Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding, “And, as Phil Cousineau pointed out in The Art of Pilgrimage, I tend to believe that “preparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.”
However, an age where there exists a ‘Journal of Travel Research’ (brought out four times a year by the venerable Sage Publications) is clearly one where there is too much significance given to travel research, don’t you think. Whatever happened to the joy of spontaneous, unplanned travel that the poet sang of (now don’t ask me which one, knowing these poets, one or the other of them is bound to have sung of such a thing)?
There is much to be said for leaving the guidebook (and if possible the guide too) behind to just walk, look and see. Jan Morris vouches in an interview for what she calls E.M.Forster’s guide to Alexandria, The best way to know Alexandria is to wander aimlessly. Potts further says in his book, The key to preparation is to strike a balance between knowing what’s out there, and being optimistically ignorant. The gift of the information age, after all, is knowing your options – not your destiny – and those people who plan their travels with the idea of eliminating all uncertainty and unpredictability are missing out on the whole point of leaving home in the first place.
And if you don’t believe me, go now and browse through the ‘Sudden Journeys’ series on National Geographic to understand what it feels like to break away, to give in to the impulse, to succumb to the “aesthetic of lostness” (as did writer Ray Bradbury). Go feel the wind on your face and do not panic if you find mild difficulty in breathing; it is just that heady rush of adrenalin, and not the initial signs of pulmonary edema.