I’d never met a nomad before.
Neelkanth Mama was dressed in a crisp white kurta and dhoti, a large, bright yellow turban sitting on his head, adding a certain distinction to his six-foot frame. Neelkanth Mama belongs to the Dhangar tribe, a nomadic herding community that traverses the Western Ghats. He owns neither land nor home, just sheep and cattle, or rather, milk and fertiliser that he negotiates for stay and food.
As Neelkanth Mama took the floor to represent his community at a conference on the Western Ghats, several things struck me at once. I’ve grown up reading about nomadic travellers, gypsies, and banjaras; learned the meaning of the word in school and caught romanticised glimpses in movies. Neelkanth Mama was nothing like that. In fact, as I listened to this expert old man address a group of learned conservationists on the threats to biodiversity, the core meaning of a life on the move revealed itself: a lived knowledge of the places he halts at and leaves behind, a deep awareness of earth, agriculture, livestock. He projected a far more meaningful understanding of home. For him, home wasn’t a lease on a stamped piece of paper; it was literally the land he travelled, making his call for action on conservation, vital. In theory, I had always known what he was talking about, but through his experiences, sitting together in the midst of the gorgeous Chorla Ghats he was endeavouring to protect; he connected the dots for me.
It is for those insights, connections and beauty that I travel. Relentlessly.
Neelkanth Mama. part of the Dhangar community, a nomadic tribe that traverses the Western Ghats. Photo: Sejal Mehta
“I wish I could travel like you.”
This is usually how the conversation goes when people learn what I do for a living.
That statement always makes me wonder. Why don’t people travel more often? I think it’s because most people equate ‘travel’ with ‘holiday’. And that immediately makes it a luxury. Travel is not a luxury. It is an education. For you, for your children, for your parents. It’s as important (if not more) as attending school. Many schools, including Harvard Business School, have been recommending a year of travel for years. If I had the power to, I’d make it a compulsary part of the curriculum.
I never really equated travel with chemistry. I’d left CO2 and its friends in the classrooms I’d battled them in. A month ago, I was walking through a sugarcane field in Palsambe, Kolhapur, tall sugarcane stems towering over me on either side of a narrow path and I saw sunflower seeds being planted into the soil on a patch of land. Devadatta Naik, the naturalist at The Camp, explained how sugarcane uses up a great deal of nitrogen, and sunflower seeds, basically oil-based crops, help establish the balance of nitrogen back into the soil. This was pure textbook but of course I have no memory of ever studying it. Now, having seen the crops at the farm, I’ll never forget it. The fact that travel leads to learning isn’t really a recent revelation. And yet, we hesitate to get out.
It was on a journey to the northeast that I discovered the living root bridges, sturdy double-decker bridges made from roots. No number of photos I had seen prepared me for this genius brainchild of the Khasi tribe. It was on a night trail through the forests of the Chorla Ghats that it was clear that humidity + bioluminescent Mycena = trees that glow in the night. I learned, on a nature walk in Devrukh, about a bird whose call sounds like it’s saying, “Did you do it?” a fact that helped my niece in a project for school. It was on a journey through a forest in Madhya Pradesh that I saw my first tiger in the wild, ten years ago, and I lost my heart to the wilderness forever.
The glowing forests of Goa are home to Mycena, a bioluminescent fungi. Photo: Sejal Mehta
And even aside from individual exploration, what about our collective perception? Travel enables understanding of our surroundings, and that leads to empathy. Towards people, towards landscapes, towards species. Doesn’t travel then become a responsibility, too?
Paul Lennon, coach and thinker, said this of young people and travel in a TedxAAS talk: “Yes, we travel to know ourselves and the world around us. But it’s more than that. We know the current economical, political, consumerist model creates more hunger, more violence, more poverty. So the stand we’re asking you to take is a moral one. Do we really care? I truly believe that independently travelling alone can help us to care again. We can become much more than competent tourists, who simply see sights. We need to find some balance. And how is balance possible when every nook and cranny of our busy worlds is filled with computers? We need to disconnect to reconnect.”
Travel to connect, to empathise. A school teacher in Palsambe, Kolhapur. When I asked him if he needed any pens or books for the children, he said, we have enough stationery, send us science instruments. The kids are very interested in the world around them. Photo: Sejal Mehta
Disconnect to reconnect. What stops us from travelling more? Here are 5 steps to break it down.
Cost: Travel is an expensive affair. And the larger our families, the tougher it gets. But if we thought it essential, we’d find a way to do it. We would save up and find places that are affordable. Our Features Writer Kamakshi Ayyar went from Mumbai to Neral, for an overnight stargazing adventure of galaxies and black holes and came back with an incredible story. I spent the first day of the new year at Morjai Plateau, in Kolhapur, and stayed at The Camp, a delightful homestay in Palsambe, all for a trip that cost me less than Rs 4,000. Travel need not always clear your wallet out.
A settlement in Panhala, inside a historical fort from the time of Shivaji’s rule. The architecture was a stunning mix of old and new. A few hours from Kolhapur, this place was a delicious discovery. Photo: Sejal Mehta
Comfort: We are uncomfortable about long journeys, but there is no need to jump the continent every time we’d like to take a trip. There is so much see just a few hours away. Try and take trains instead of flights, buses instead of trains (sleepers are surprisingly comfortable), pick homestays (again, cleaner and more comfortable than cheaper hotels). We are picky about bathrooms (me, ridiculously so) but as long as they’re clean, I promise you it will cease to matter. Think of it this way. It’s an hour of your day in the morning, that use of a bathroom. An hour of discomfort versus two days of great adventure.
Taking leave from work: Travel can be a series of smaller journeys till you get a longer one. Collect your leave, save it up for the big trips, but till then, nothing stops us from leaving the city on Friday, and returning on Sunday.
Safety concerns and lack of companions: In 2014, I travelled like I believed the apocalypse was imminent and that I wouldn’t have an opportunity later. I was out practically every month. Each time, I joined groups that provided safety in numbers. I’ve made a list that you can use. This is by no means a comprehensive list of travel groups, just the ones I (or trusted friends) have travelled with. These are my picks.
White Collar Hippie
Herpactive: Only for those with a serious interest in snakes and other reptiles.
Sprouts: For some of the best village homestays I’ve been to.
Breakfree Journeys: For backpackers, road trippers, nature and heritage tours
Women on Wanderlust: For women comfortable in an all-women group
Now start. Resolve to travel. Make new friends. Allow yourself the questions that come only when you’re away from your idea of home. How do I want to live? What is important to me? What makes me happy? How can I help the people I’ve met on my journeys? If you start to think of travel in this context, you’ll pack your bags far more often, maybe more often than a travel writer.
is an editor, writer, and the former Web Editor of Nat GeoTraveller India. An old travel hack with a bias towards big cats, Sejal has also worked for Lonely Planet and Saevus Wildlife. She tweets as @Snaggletooth_00.
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