Suraj was browsing through the headlines in his news app when he found another article ranking top tourist destinations around the world. He felt some solace in having visited 4 out of the 10, yet he couldn’t digest stacking one spot over another, as if experiences of a place and time could be measured so arbitrarily in print. Mumbai was ranked last for least friendly passerbys, yet it is where he felt the most warmth from the people. Zurich was ranked above Istanbul but how can a city that boasts of the greatest investment of foreign currency reserves in its Swiss coffers surpass a city that so stunningly connects Asia and Europe? That list was valid only for the inventor of those rankings himself.
A native of Mumbai, Suraj had lived in London for most of his adult life. The predominant winters of the city rarely succeeded in cooling his short temperament, yet they kept him frozen in his lifestyle. His only commute was to his sound proof office cabin and one bedroom home. The other side of his bed remain unoccupied since the time he moved in, except for a stranger every now and then from a night out.
Over time, anything that didn’t go his way manifested into a complaint. Suraj had become so accustomed to affirmations from those reporting to him and the acquaintances who gave him company at his expense that he had lost familiarity with ‘No.’ Despite an abounding social circle, he would have to struggle to name even one as a sound contact in a time of need.
One winter, an incident of road rage on his part damaged his luxury ride, yet he miraculously remained unscathed from the accident. With his vehicle out for repair, he was forced to ride public modes of transportation for at least a week. As he stood inside the populated tube, his mind was quick to churn out complaints of those around him. The crying baby; the lady with the annoyingly audible music from her headphones; the overweight man whose arm touched his. He had experienced greater invasion of personal space riding on packed Mumbai trains in his youth, yet those instances had not evoked as much frustration then as his privileged life had hardened him now.
The tube came to an abrupt halt, moments before arrival at his stop. The conductor announced a delay due to a technical fault in the line and there was no word on when the train would resume its motion. It was a sufficient stimulus for him to curse and bang his fist on the side door. His actions startled those around him. He wished to scream out loud that very instant, yet restrained himself on account of the stares that passed his way. Any deviance in normal behavior in such a perfectly organized city is likely to be treated as a mental disease.
Two weeks later, he shifted his base back to Mumbai. The mob like congregation of locals at frequented city spots, the deafening sounds of vehicular traffic, and the general disarray of humanity, in its overwhelming wealth and misery alike, somehow brought him ease. As Suraj stood facing the waves at Juhu, he let out the scream that had waited its release since years. The enveloping chaos of the city soothed his mind and taught him to accept how little was in his control. In Mumbai’s ineffable disorder, he finally found peace.
Chandan worked as a peon for several bosses at a large trading firm and traveled on the same crowded bus every morning and night for the past five years. Even in his routine commute, there was plenty variety in the passengers who occupied every space that could possibly accommodate another human being.
An amma peeled a ripe mango for her grandson to eat and threw the garbage out the window; a baby was being discretely breastfed under a lady’s burqa; and like an acrobatic feat, a man sandwiched between two other standing passengers managed to read an entire newspaper with one hand. Normalcy was not a constraint.
The pollution of Kolkata’s air mingled effortlessly with the noise pollution of the city. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace. For an outsider, it would be nothing short of a miracle to see the city function in such a haphazard fashion. People’s bargaining chatter, the priest’s pious chants, the police’s sirens beckoning to bribe, the pitiable cries of red light beggars, and rattling sounds of passing rickshaws, diesel trucks, and scooters, all blended into a uniquely powerful sound pattern that no earplugs could defeat. At work, the chaotic commotion continued in other forms with the onslaught of admin tasks that were shouted Chandan’s way in a most patronizing manner.
A chance application into a visa lottery system brought him the rare opportunity to work as a taxi driver in New York City. Chandan was more than happy to escape his current city and start his life anew. With a loan from a distant relative and the small bit of savings from work, he made his airline reservation, bought a bigger suitcase, and packed all his essentials into it. The distant relative was assured he would receive regular remittances from Chandan in return for his loan.
The day Chandan quit his job, he gave no notice and didn’t show up for work. He was easily replaced and his absence went largely unnoticed. Riding on a plane for the first time was not as spellbinding as his first impression of Manhattan. When he made his way into the city center from the airport, he was amazed by its orderly flow of operations. For him, it was nothing short of a modern day oasis.
A year into his job, he felt immensely grateful in spite of some its harsher working conditions and tiny accommodation shared by other poor immigrants. Even then, he found no reason to complain. Every morning, he would take a quick stroll in one of the City’s beautiful parks where he saw locals following their designated path to cycle, throw their trash in designated bins, and pick up their pet’s poop in designated pet stations. Outside the park, folks neatly parked their vehicles in marked lots and walked in neatly assigned sidewalks. In New York City, he found the one thing he had been yearning for all his life — calming orderliness.
Folks in developed nations travel to so-called “exotic” countries for the same reason folks in developing countries travel to US and Western Europe – to see what they don’t have.
Personally, the No. 1 place to travel would be the local library where you can find an ideal book that will help you traverse continents, time zones, and adopt new roles, all for free 🙂 In other words, the No. 1 place to travel is within the depths of your own imagination.
p.s. Rankings of any form of art or place limit the soulful gifts that it offers, in all its poverty and beauty alike. This is relevant for any form of artistic absorption, say reading a book or listening to music.