There is a Marathi saying, “kelyane deshatana, pandita maitri, sabheta sanchar …”
I can’t quite remember the second half, but the first part can be roughly translated as follows: Traveling abroad, the company of learned people, and attendance at intellectual gatherings will enrich one’s life.
As a little girl, I had only one dream: that of traveling around the world. My ambition was not derived from the famous adage, but rather, the adage validated my dream. I would read travelogues written aboard ships sailing past the Cape of Good Hope, I would read novels by Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, I would fantasize about faraway places with exotic names like Malaya and Zanzibar.
Back then, we had no television, so my visions of distant lands consisted only of mental images. Travel writing was then a literary genre; if there were any guidebooks in existence, I was not aware of them.
Nowadays, many more people travel. They watch television. They know what Venice or Paris or London looks like. They can zoom in on a street in Auckland, New Zealand, or Cancun, Mexico, on a map on the internet.
Yet, this flood of information has been detrimental to our psyches. For, we see places, not through our eyes, but through the eyes of Fodor’s or Frommer’s or worse yet, Rick Steves. The element of surprise is gone. We know exactly what we are going to see when we get to Vienna or Varanasi or Vanuatu.
So it felt on my recent trek across Europe by buses, trains, and airplanes. I was chagrined to discover that certain places exist only for tourists, that in many parts of the world reality has been suspended for 400 years.
Take Venice, for example. It is a dead civilization that lives only for visitors.
So I could not help feeling like that proverbial tourist who hires a taxi and shoots into the Louvre to do a two-minute tour of the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. I felt I could not do justice to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Duomo in Siena, or the British Museum in London in less than a month.
So I abandoned the guidebooks and decided to be spontaneous. I awaited the epiphany that happens when one is not beholden to an itinerary.
In Venice, I split up from my friend to traverse the maze of narrow alleyways, exploring bridges and canals we had not seen before. I loitered in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, watching little children spraying water on each other. I wandered into the neighborhood Chiesa to listen to evensong, only to be forced to rise at the behest of the local women, who eyed me suspiciously as they followed the priest into the cloister.
By the time we had changed one bus and four trains to arrive in Riomaggiore, the first of a series of five medieval villages called the Cinque Terre–Five Lands–set along terraced sea-cliffs on which Italians have grown vineyards for centuries, I was suffering from an overdose of culture. So I set off on an early evening trek uphill toward the sanctuary of Madonna de Montenero. Unfamiliar with Italian trail markings, I soon got lost. Ah, but how delicious it was to be floundering in this paradise of creeks running through ravines sheltering grape vines and wildflowers, only to arrive at the ancient ruins of an abandoned villa.
The next day, long after tourists had disappeared from the coastal path, I staggered down the stretch of rugged trail between the last three villages, to come upon a man in a vineyard making lemonade. After recounting to him in rudimentary Spanish–he knew no English and I knew no Italian–my sad saga of the camera I had dropped and broken on the path between the first two towns, the man offered me a free shot of homemade Limoncello.
Lo and behold, the Limoncello must have had magical properties, for not only did it take away my sadness, as promised, but after a train ride back to the hotel, I discovered that my camera had miraculously repaired itself.
With renewed vigor, I set off toward the ridge the third day, past the cemetery in Vernazza, toward distant sanctuaries in the mountains. Not a soul was around. By then I was familiar with the red-white-and-blue trail markings, which proved hard to locate on the mountainside nevertheless. Soon, I was on the other side of the ridge, looking down on distant villages inland. Convinced that I was lost, and wondering if I was ever going to make it to back to civilization, I chanced upon a man emerging out of a thicket. In desperation, I followed him, until, turning around, he took pity on me and offered to show me the way. So we walked companionably through the forest, speaking in broken English and French. He told me of the impression he had of India as a powerful presence in the world today; I told him of my disappointment at the defeat of Segolene Royal in the recent elections.
On my last day, in Paris, as I walked in the rain from the Marais district to my hotel, I happened to chance upon a Sunday mass in Notre Dame. As I listened to the heavenly chorus accompanied by the deep notes of the organ, I could not help wondering if, next time, I should simply stop being a tourist and just follow the locals around.