Are you a travel addict?

Or should I even be asking this question, considering you are reading a travel blog? For traveholics? Named ‘Itchy Feet’? On a week day?

I came across 21 signs you are a travel addict and they had me at No. 1. “Your travel bucket list is 4 pages long.” Other people count down from 100 when they can’t get to sleep. Me, I spell out the countries I want to visit, drawing up detailed travel itineraries in my mind at 3 a.m. Sometimes I reach out for my smartphone to check for cheap fares but that’s not a detail I’m particularly proud of sharing.

That apart, my surest sign is that I am always planning my next trip when I am currently travelling. I often get angry looks for handing out small change in unrecognisable currency – Croatian kuna anyone? And I seriously judge people (there, I said it) who don’t travel (yes, yes, I know – money, kids, work, health, ho hum, yawn).

Now, if I can figure out how to fit my life into a giant backpack, I am all set.

Anyway. Much as some of would love to be on the move all the time, we cannot. Vagabondish helpfully suggests Six Ways to Prolong the Joy of Travel – so get cracking on these right away.

Thoughts on being a tourist

And the tourist versus traveller debate rages on…

Of my favourite types of travellers to dislike (and there are many such) is the one who takes immense pride in being an untourist. Sure, I am all for spending enough time in every place I visit, taking in the experience and not ticking off boxes of must sees and dos. But some people taker it to the other extreme.

I came across this defence of the tourist trail on Lonely Planet recently; the writer says, “In a Cairo hostel, I met a girl who announced that she’d been in the city for three months and had yet to see the Pyramids. Her tone suggested she was waiting to be awarded a medal for most subversive traveller.” Definitely read this very insightful piece on how it is not wrong to do the things everyone does (and how going off the beaten path is in itself a myth).

There are many ways of being a better traveller than the average “if it is Tuesday, then it must be Paris” person. Here are some of my suggestions to make your travels more experiential:

See the sights

By all means, see the main sights – they are after all, what primarily define a place (think Taj Mahal). Can you really say you have seen Cambodia till you have spent time gazing at Angkor Wat and Bayon in awe? It is also a good way to gauge the mood of the country – in Sri Lanka a coupe of years ago, I found local tourists at every site I visited and that told me about the country’s slow limp towards peace more than any other visible sign.

Eat where the locals do

foodAnd try local food. Avoid the restaurants and cafes around the main attractions (especially those where waiters stand outside and recite the menu in English to lure you inside) and explore the lanes and residential areas of a city. Any place that is crowded with locals is the place to eat at.

The best thing would of course be to have a meal at a local’s house and while that may be possible in some parts of Asia, is not really an option in most countries. At the least, ask a local – your guide, your hotel manager or B & B host, a stranger at a pub – for suggestions. Little holes in the wall, family run trattorias, street dining options – go forth with an iron stomach and conquer.

Stay in an apartment

While hotels are usually the average traveller’s first choice, give B & B places a whirl. That way, you get to interact with a family from the town who can fill in a lot of knowledge gaps. Even better, try a short stay apartment – websites like VRBO and Airbnb are your best choices (but beware of the latter since it seems to get into some controversy or the other regularly – that said, I have used it and never had a bad experience so far). Get out of your comfort zone, say hello to other building residents in the lift, and cook occasional meals.

Visit a local market

marketsEspecially if you want to cook. Or even if you just want an authentic local experience. I don’t mean shopping for ridiculously priced souvenirs here. I mean a supermarket (I can spend hours checking out local brands) or a fresh food market where people living in the area go to regularly to stock up their refrigerators (or in some places like Provence and Tuscany, buy fresh every day). So if in Bangkok, do shop at the glittery malls and make a trip to the floating market, but also head to places where locals get their everyday bargains, if only for the experience.

Travel off peak season

Choose the shoulder months (since the really off season months can be a bummer sometimes if it rains or is just too hot to venture out) – for instance, April or October for Europe. The weather is usually just right, hotels and flights are usually cheaper, and there are infinitely less people around. It is an excellent way to take in a city at your own pace without being jostled around.

Use public transport

By all means, walk your shoes out and take cabs when you are just too tired to move. But get on to the metro (my husband and I make it a point in every place we visit where there is metro available – from Tokyo to Cairo), take a local bus or a short ride on a tram wherever possible. It’s great for people watching.

Hang out at a park or pub or cafe

parksI found the parks the most charming things about Paris, in Amsterdam I nursed a beer at five different places just to get a feel of the city and pretty much everywhere, I try to find a small cafe with wifi where I can kick back and relax for a while.

These are places where residents come and go, hang out, play chess or meet friends. And what better way is there to absorb the local vibe?

So my point really? By all means, be a traveller but please don’t be a travel snob – and don’t sneer at those who rush from one spot to another. Perhaps, their resources – time and money – are limited, or they just enjoy travelling that way. This tourist versus traveller distinction is all in the mind – yours.

How to write

Since I regularly get emails asking for tips and advice on writing, here is a link to writer Shoba Narayan’s great piece on how to write (yeah, yeah, linking is not the same as blogging – just call me lazy).

Not to scare you but as she says, “No matter what kind of writer you become, realize that it is a painful lonely life.” I agree. Ergo, the discipline – routines, deadlines, timely queries, patient follow ups and such.

And today, Shoba has also linked to an interesting piece from Brain Pickings on routines for writers – I am heading there to read it now. You too?

While on this, here is a longish post I wrote a couple of years ago on breaking into travel writing (yes, that seemingly glamourous profession where you get to cavort across the world, all expenses paid. Not). Have a dekko.

Seeing the world

I’ve found me a sparkling new way of feeling all angsty (as if there wasn’t enough earlier) – for the last week or so, I have spent every day going through travel blogs that I have discovered lately. Many of them are round-the-world travel type blogs – high on the angst scale, since this is something I never see myself doing. A few days, a few weeks at a time, yes (and it is abysmal, how little I have actually seen of the world – don’t even mention it), but months and even years on end, no.

My first brush with these RTW types was in Ladakh earlier this year. Prior to this, I’ve always known in a distant, pleasant kind of way that such people existed – people who have taken it on themselves to see the world, literally. So, there was this Chinese couple from Canada spending a year each in India and China. And there was this solo female traveler from Singapore traveling around Asia for eight months.

And best of all (hi! if you are reading this) were Paul and Claire on their grand world tour. We spent a few days together in Leh, drinking lukewarm coffee on the rooftop of Lala’s Art Gallery Cafe and tucking into huge dinners at the Oriental Guesthouse – and took a day trip to Lamayuru monastery. You cannot listen to them talk and not want to go off to South America right now.

When I was talking about such travelers to a friend back in Bangalore, she and I both agreed that we did not see ourselves ever doing this. Her reason was being away from friends and family for so long (well, what is the internet for, dearie, I asked). Mine was, among other things, that I could never survive travel for months on end, being a vegetarian.

Turns out that is not such a big problem after all (dang! I need to think of new excuses now. Or perhaps, reconsider this notion that I could never do a RTW trip). For, I came across several travelers who have survived being vegetarian on the road and come back to tell their tales. Perhaps it is possible that I join the ranks of the Great Unwashed.

The fabulous A Little Adrift has a whole section of posts devoted to food – with a vegetarian slant – I particularly love the way she describes her new-found love for curd. Go read this blog – in her latest (mis)adventure, she cheats on her backpack and finds that she falls flat – literally – with a suitcase.

Then, there is Akila and Patrick’s blog – As the Road Forks – I first came across their blog through a link that someone had shared on their 99 lessons learned traveling. Check out No.55, heh! And then check out the rest of their blog.

As we travel is another of the blogs I have spent my entire day today – and surprise, surprise, see what I found (among many other interesting posts) – on vegetarian travel. Sofia and Nathan also have some great travel tips, especially on packing and traveling light (and you thought I only thought about food all the time?).

That brings me neatly to the other blog I have discovered recently (why did I not know earlier, I wonder) and spent way too much time on – Backpacking Ninja aka Aparna Shekhar Roy. Aparna also has this great post on packing light – No excess baggage (note to self: repeat these three little words a hundred times every morning – and reread these posts before packing for the next trip).

And on an unrelated subject, an interesting post from Twenty Something Travel – We’re All Travelers Here – on this whole snobbery about being a traveler and not a tourist. Hey, I have been guilty of this myself in the past – but this is so true – My problem with this attitude is that it turns the act of travel, which is awesome and fun, into a pissing contest. Travel is NOT a lifestyle competition. It’s not a battle for who has the lightest backpack, or visits the most obscure places. It’s not about what you should or should not do; it’s about meeting interesting people and doing interesting things and seeing the world, because you want to. A must-read piece.

From the lawyer-on-the-move – my latest blog find – here are 13 reasons why everyone should travel.

And finally, foXnoMad with tons of interesting how-to tips and travel stories.

So have a fun, totally (un)productive week! And let me know your favourite travel blogs so I can have one too…

A new way of seeing

Imagine this situation. Your friends are visiting from out of town and you have gone out with them. They are new to your city and stop to stare and comment over every single thing they see on the way. And you gamely join in their conversation, trying not to show your impatience. You are thinking, what is the big deal anyway? I have seen this a hundred times. Sounds familiar so far? And suddenly, you spot something that grabs your attention: a shop, a signboard, a temple, or even a large tree that you notice for the first time.

And you think, how come I have never seen this before? At that time, you look around and are truly aware of your surroundings for the first time that day. You have started seeing your own city through the eyes of an outsider.

And what a wonderful feeling that is! French writer and essayist Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Sometimes, it is nice to step back and look at the familiar, in this case, your own city, with fresh eyes. A quick in-town vacation serves to renew your fondness for your city and acts as a refresher for your tired nerves. However, we tend to take familiar things for granted and it is not always possible or easy to see something new and exciting in a place we are used to. American writer Helen Hanff’s book ‘Apple of my eye’, an unabashed tribute to her beloved New York, was written after two months of exploring the city with her friend Patsy. Hanff began her own voyage of discovery when she was commissioned to write copy for a book of photographs on New York, and realized that she actually knew little about her city. And towards the end of the book, Patsy remarks, “We own this city now. Do you feel that way?”

So here are some ideas on how to rediscover, and thus, own your city.

1. Change your usual mode of transport – If you normally drive around town, walk for a change. Walking is really the best way to take in the sights and sounds of any place. Walking, especially walking without a purpose forces you to slow down and notice the small details that make things seem new and different. It lets you stop where you wish, to take photographs or just stare and assimilate. You could even take a guided walking tour through an interesting area of the city. For instance, try Bangalore Walks or Delhi Magic one weekend for personalized walking tours of your city.

Alternatively, take a round bus tour, getting off to explore where you find something interesting. To enhance this experience further, use this time to indulge in your particular passion, as when you travel. For instance, you could take a quick spa vacation within the city (hunt for and indulge yourself in the two best spas in you town on two consecutive weekends), or a heritage tour say, covering the churches of Goa or the Portuguese remnants in Cochin or the Nawabi lifestyle in Hyderabad.

2. Eat at a restaurant serving authentic local food – This may sound like a crazy idea (especially if you eat the same kind of food mostly at home), but it is one of the easiest ways to start thinking afresh about your city and culture. When I lived in Ahmedabad, I used to be surprised by how many locals thronged specialty Gujarati restaurants like Vishala or Agashiye but it was soon clear that they were there to savour their culture as much as their food. These need not be fancy or expensive restaurants; for instance, if you live in Bangalore, make a weekend evening trip to the thindi beedi (food street) at V.V. Puram opposite the Lalbagh Gate or the small popular eateries of Malleswaram and Basavangudi to sample local Karnataka fare like obbattu or benne dosa.

3. Explore a local market – Close on the heels of eating authentic local food is visiting a local market – preferably a specialty fresh food or flower market. A stroll through a marketplace offers a variety of experiences, many of them new even to a long-time resident. There is truly nothing that radiates the essence of a city, or offers the experience of cultural immersion better.

“Every time I start to feel tired of Delhi, I head to the lanes of Chandni Chowk with my camera”, says a photographer friend, adding, “It is a great experience, at the same time to get away from it all while getting more absorbed in the city’s rhythm”. You could go shopping, either by yourself, or with friends or visitors and hunt for unique souvenirs or specialties that your city is famous for. The other exciting part about market visits is that such places are usually filled with people from other towns who have moved to yours for a living. Talking to them is a wonderful way of seeing your city from an entirely new perspective.

4. Accompany a guest to famous city landmarks – This may be an often-visited place or one that you have been meaning to visit but never did so far (Helene Hanff admits in the beginning of her book that in all those years in New York, she had never visited the Statue of Liberty). While on this trip, be aware of your own experience and look through the eyes of a tourist. And if you find that cannot bring yourself to see your city through fresh eyes, borrow them! Allow the enthusiasm of your visitors to rub off on you.

You could pack a hamper and take your visiting friends to Lodi Gardens (in Delhi) or Cubbon Park (in Bangalore) for a leisurely picnic lunch (especially recommended during the salubrious winter months). Or take guests early in the morning to see the splendour of Howrah Bridge (Calcutta) or the Chinese fishing nets (Cochin) or the Meenakshi temple (Madurai) – and you will be surprised by how attractive your city really is.

5. Peep into a guidebook on your city – This could be a Lonely Planet equivalent for your city which directs you on places to visit, dine and have fun. Be a tourist for the day, carrying a guide book and a map, if required, and go exploring. You would do well to pay particular attention to the ‘off the beaten path’ tips that such guides offer.

Better still, read a book about your city and then go out to explore. This need not be a travel guide; it could be a traditional travelogue or a work of fiction with the city as the protagonist. Examples are ‘Madras Rediscovered’ by historian S.Muthiah, where the stunning black and white photographs alone are sure to make you long for an era long gone, or William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ where the past and present intermingle to create an ode to the city as it stands today. Or ‘Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa’ edited by Jerry Pinto and Geoffrey Moorhouse’s ‘Calcutta’, which delves with patience, and even fondness, into the complex fabric of Calcutta’s history and contemporary society.

It is time to get into rediscovery mode now. Pretend that you are moving out of the city and devote a weekend, or even a week to doing all the things you will later regret not doing. Happy in-town vacationing!

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