I am writing this as I wait for my flight at the Bengaluru international airport.
I am travelling to the land of chocolates, cheeses and the Alps—Switzerland. This journey has me disconcerted. For the first time, before embarking on a journey, all I have is a neatly printed but hardly seen itinerary. Having received this from my host, I tucked it away in the back pocket of my bag. I have no exhaustive knowledge of the places I will be visiting. All I know is that I will be skiing and most likely fall on my face. The rest of the journey is just a blur of printed words. I have not committed to memory whatever little I know of the places I will visit. This is a deliberate omission on my part.
This state, for me, is quite baffling. It is unlike me and unlike the numerous others who plan a trip in this day and age. These days, the minute we zero in on our places of travel, we Google them. We don’t stop till we know the details of inners worn by its citizens. The Internet provides you with an endless list of listicles— ten foods to eat, ten ways to eat it, 16 must-see sights and 16 sights you must not see.
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Once we have read different versions of the same information written by people from different continents, we check out the photos of the place from every possible angle. And when you board the plane, you have a preconceived notion of your voyage. You want to see Inti Punku in Machu Pichuu the way your favourite Instagrammer has seen it. When you finally deplane, you get that feeling of déjà vu as a result.
It seems to me that every place in this world has been seen by every possible travel blogger and by every user of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Ninety-five million photos and videos are shared on Instagram every day. You can perhaps guess how many of these are travel-related. It is as if a place has already been seen and experienced by someone before us and someone before them and all we are doing now is walking on a highly polished trail, merely rediscovering what has already been discovered.
What is new for a traveller? Have listicles and Google search blinded individuals? Are we only seeing the world through borrowed eyes? I wanted to experience Switzerland without a prefix. I decided not to use Google this time. I did not read any information other than what was absolutely necessary.
I wanted to travel to a place the way Ibn Battuta would have in 1325. My favourite wayfarer from Morocco, Ibn Battuta left home at age 21, alone, on a donkey, and with what he called was an “overmastering impulse” to visit the sanctuaries of the world he had heard about. He wanted to discover these places on his own and not through borrowed eyes. He travelled for 29 years and visited 40 modern day nations. This was more than Marco Polo ever did. Battuta returned home after visiting China, which was then called the “edge of the known world.” He recorded an oral travelogue called Rihla. The beauty of words of travellers such as Ibn Battuta is that they allow for individual discoveries and experiences. I’m sure Battuta would have jumped off the Great Wall of China if asked to write a 10-point listicle about it.
Choosing to discover a place with a new gaze also ferrets out the chapters and verses about one’s self. Maybe, in Switzerland, sitting on the snowy slopes, I would discover that I’d rather watch the sunlit peaks of the Alps than ski down its slopes. Would that make me any less a traveller? No, it would just make me a different kind of a traveller. I don’t have to sign up for those “must-do-before-you-die” acts.
By all means, behold a place through the hundred eyes of others, but discoveries happen only with renewed vision, so I wish every traveller in the coming year a new pair of eyes you can call your own.