Travel is awful

View of Tawang town

There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.

Bird photography in Arunachal with the wrong lens

The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.

Fountain in Hamburg when the temperature was below freezing

I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.

If you focus on details you find that Rome’s most famous fountains require cleaning

Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.

Contrary to what brochures say, Goa is not full of locals busy having a holiday

Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.

Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.

The most interesting thing in a village is always the foreigner

Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.

It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.

People of Bhutan

Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.

Wangdi’s place

It was evening when we reached Wangdue Phodrang; the name means Wangdi’s Place. The highway passed by a dzong high up on a cliff. In the evening light it looked forbidding, as the intention must have been once. A dzong is today the administrative headquarter of a district (called a dzonkhag) in Bhutan. The origins of the country are tied up to these dzongs, which once were the religious, military and administrative centres of a region. Even today a dzong has rooms for the Penlop (governor) of a province as well as monks. I hear that the Wangdue Phodrang dzong burnt down a few years after I took the featured photo, and is still under repair.

Telephone shop in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Soon after this we left the highway and turned into Wangdue town. It is the smallest town I’d seen in Bhutan till then. It population must have been a few thousand. The center of the town seemed to be the main bus stop, where you could take a bus to Punakha, Trongsa, Gasa, or Thimphu. There were a few people waiting for buses. Shops were open, and one prominent place was taken up by a phone center. Mobile phones were new in Bhutan, and connectivity was very poor. So the B-mobile shop also had booths where you could use a land line. At that time these STD/ISD centers were common in India too. I took a photo partly because of the policeman, the first I had seen outside Thimphu. I liked the way he was gently nudging the stray dog away from possible traffic.

General store in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

We wandered around the town center for a while. The Family admired the two-story wooden house whose ground floor was the town’s main general store. It sold everything from cooking gas to toffee. The Family likes to buy local sweets. She inspected the collection and found that most of them came from India, but a few were from Bangladesh. She bought a stock which would come handy during our long drives. We admired the traditional Kira (skirt) and Tego (jacket) that this lady was wearing. Bhutanese wear traditional dress to work. The men wear the Gho (gown) in public, tied at the waist with a Kera (belt).

Evening fell quickly. The warm interior of this tailor’s shop contrasted with the restaurant next door which had shut after the last bus left. We decided it was time to find accommodation for the night. Our driver, Dinesh, knew two options. The nearer one was ruled out, it had been completely booked by a company of people who were riding motorbikes across the country. The other had rooms for us.