I read an article in the newspaper a while ago, about the ‘worst things to put on your online dating profile’- one of them was ‘loves to travel’-because who doesn’t? Saying you love to travel is kind of like stating the obvious- very few would give up the chance to see the world if money was no object. Its one of life’s greatest gifts, yet a privilege that is accorded to very few.
I myself am not very well traveled-in my childhood, summers were spent at my grandmother’s house in Kerala, apart from an occasional trip to the hills-though that seemed like more than enough at the time.
When I was 18 I went on my first trip abroad, to Singapore. I could barely contain my excitement-but I remember feeling a sense of disorientation while I was there. The flashy airport was impressive, but it did nothing for me. I was a bit taken aback at the artificiality of the place, the perfection, the harshness of it all. I got used to it in a few days though, and I ended up having an absolutely wonderful time-yet it felt like something was missing.
My next trip outside India was to London three years later, and I’m lucky enough to have visited this city a couple of times after. I felt like a wide-eyed five year old when the flight was landing, with my face against the window, looking down at the city trying to spot the landmarks that I had so far only read about or seen in movies. I was fascinated with the city even before I got out of the airport-Heathrow was like a microcosm of the world. While standing in line at immigration, I looked around in awe-I had never seen so many people of different races and nationalities in my life.
In front of me stood a tall American man in a sharp suit trying to hold on to his briefcase while he took calls on his two blackberries-the Wall Street kind of guy yelling about stocks and shares and other things I have never bothered to understand. Ahead of him were a group of African women in colourful headdresses and kaftans talking loudly and animatedly in a language I couldn’t follow. Right at the end of the line stood a group of Saudi men in their white ‘thawb’ and ‘keffiyeh’.
Each time I’ve visited this city, I’d been very excited to do all the ‘touristy’ things-visiting the Big Ben and Houses of Parliament,Buckingham Palace, walking around Trafalgar Square, Notting Hill and so on. Looking back though, its not these places that have stood out for me- the city has revealed itself to me in much smaller, yet profoundly amazing ways.
Watching Coldplay live was a dream come true-and I will cherish the experience all my life. Yet the standout moment for me didn’t take place while the concert was on- it was right after, a sense of pure unadulterated joy that I felt while walking from the stadium to the tube, along with the massive crowd of spectators, singing, (or rather yelling) Viva La Vida. It was a feeling of freedom and belonging I had never experienced before-it didn’t matter that we were on a busy street in the middle of the night, it didn’t matter where we all were from-we had all just witnessed something beautiful-and that’s all that was important.
The first time I took the tube alone, I remember feeling quite self conscious and anxious. I was relieved that I’d managed to get on the right train, and I sat down trying to make myself inconspicuous. A few stops later, a girl got in, she would’ve been about my age. She had very long platinum blonde hair, with yellow, pink, green and blue streaks, and her black sweater had stars on it in all the same colours. She sat down and proceeded to apply the brightest pink lipstick I’ve ever seen in my life- I caught myself staring at her, and realized I was being rude/creepy. Nobody else seemed to notice, nobody gave her as much as a second look. Coming from a country where appearing anything apart from ‘normal’ invites stares, comments, or worse, this was so surprising to me-such is the level to which we are conditioned to fit in and make ourselves invisible, that the simple act of a female just being herself, and not being judged for it came as a shock to me, it felt like a privilege, or rather a right that I wish I had.
I’ve been to a few museums here, though only a couple stood out for me. The first time I went to the Imperial War Museum, I was looking forward to it. It was something I was interested in, and I walked around for hours as everything I had studied about in my World History lessons in school came alive before my eyes-displays containing the uniforms worn by Germany’s SS (Schutzstaffel) during the Second World War, newspaper cut outs announcing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie- the immediate cause of World War I, a Union Jack unfurled behind a glass case, that was unearthed from the rubble that was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11.
Seeing these things has a way of giving you a sense of perspective-something that I do need from time to time. However, the hours I’ve spent in that building have given me so much more- I spent a lot of time in the Holocaust exhibit-trying to understand what drives people to do the things they do-and the last time I was there I witnessed something that I don’t know how to describe- a group of Orthodox Jewish men (Hasidic, I presumed from the way they were dressed), standing in front of a glass case full of little things-spoons, bowls, combs and so on-that belonged to the prisoners at the Chelmno concentration camp- I couldn’t even begin to imagine what they were thinking-standing in front of concrete reminders of the way in which lives of 6 million of their own community had been erased. There are some moments for which words just won’t do.
Every time I visit this city it surprises me in little ways-each time someone stops their car to let me cross the street, the way in which everyone is spoken to and treated equally regardless of backgrounds and occupations, the way in which my personal space is respected even when I am out in public-and so much more.
Maybe that’s the purpose of travel-to make us realize that there is an exciting world outside whatever it is that we’re going through, to remind us that there are still so many experiences that will leave you wide-eyed, and most of all, to remind us to stay curious-because in the midst of dealing with the crap life throws at you, that’s always the hardest part.