We’ve all dreamed of biking across India’s glorious landscapes, watching the sun rise from a different part of the globe each year, and taking time off to unleash our creativity and maybe even contribute to the planet. Here are five people who have spent the last few years proving that the dream of following your wanderlust isn’t out of reach. Sonali Gupta lives in Gujarat and pitches in at events in India and abroad. Four years ago, Ajay Makhija never thought he’d leave Mumbai to launch a wellness retreat in Thailand. Clive Richards achieved his lifetime dream, then sold all he had to journey around the world and make art. “Travel is satisfyingly unsatisfying,” says James Claxton, who found an unexpected family connection to his love for wandering. Irma Delacombaz talks about the impact of travelling constantly for over two decades. Read on.
Sonali Gupta is a freelance event consultant, blogger and travel photographer.
At 23, I ended my relationship with Mumbai. I had a good job and felt successful and yet, something was amiss. I was yearning to deconstruct my routine so that I could connect more intimately with life. I quit my job and moved back to my parents’ home in Gujarat without any firm plans. It wasn’t an easy decision but I knew that it was time.
In a few weeks, I was rather apprehensively buckling up for my first solo trip – to Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, to volunteer for a month with Ecosphere. I wanted space and time to identify with myself. Spiti seemed enchanting and untouched, and I hoped to contribute meaningfully through Ecosphere, which has been working closely with the locals in Spiti and providing sustainable living methods across the region.
I visited four villages during the first 10 days, assisting and understanding the daily chores of the locals, from cutting grass in the highlands to plucking peas, learning pottery and observing women cook and take care of children. I was humbled by their spirit.
Sonali with her favourite child in Langza, Spiti. Photo courtesy Sonali Gupta
My days in Spiti began at 6a.m. and ended by 7p.m. The limited electricity and lack of mobile network opened me up to so much more – I spent time writing, reading, hiking, stargazing, having plenty of conversations and finding my own answers about what made me happy. The raw beauty and calm of Spiti sharpened my senses and my ability to be patient and tolerant. I made peace with myself and appreciated solitude.
My last two weeks were spent helping with the daily functioning of Ecosphere’s head office in Kaza. I had my most memorable experience here, when I got the chance to assist with the building of a greenhouse and installation of solar panels at a nunnery in Pin Valley that had survived so far without electricity.
Work in progress at the greenhouse. Photo: Sonali Gupta
From the onset, I found myself drawing comparisons and judging their lives but as that day progressed, a lot of my preconceptions dissolved. They showed me that simplicity and faith is enough to be happy, that the choice of how to lead our lives is purely ours and how we deal with the consequences is also our decision. The joy, smiles and gratitude I saw on their faces when the lights came on in their rooms changed a part of me forever.
There were hard days when I would question myself for having taken up this trip – miles away from all luxuries, working at a stranger’s home with no proper working toilets, and going without a shower for days. But the feeling that it was all a mistake would pass away with the warmth and love I received from the same strangers, with the gratification from assisting monks and nuns, and the smile from the kids who I played and danced with.
I returned from Spiti alive, but also calmer, with a clearer mind and an inspiration to achieve more. On the last day of my trip, I realised that the happiness and self-assurance I was feeling was probably what I had been seeking. The trip redefined what I had perceived were the bare necessities of life.
As an army officer’s family, we constantly moved around the country. But when Mumbai became my base, I became a tourist on my travels. After my trip to Spiti, I realised that I missed the nomadic lifestyle. Over the two years since that first journey, I have been able to successfully maintain a flow of trips within India and abroad. My trips are spontaneous; I describe them as a calling, and trust my instincts when choosing a destination. It takes a lot of dedication and planning to not drift away completely. As a freelance event consultant, I take up destination projects that help me financially and allow me the freedom to travel. I try and volunteer during my travels so that I can learn and contribute at the same time. Travel is no longer just an experience but a way of life.
Ajay Makhija is the founder of Gaia Yogashala, Thailand.
Ajay channelling his inner ninja on Beach No. 7, Havelock Island. Photo courtesy Ajay Makhija
Four years ago, I travelled to Bali on my first solo trip. I had come to Bali to surf, but beneath the surface of things, it was really to get away from it all – my life, my job, my friends, my family – and to meet myself for maybe the first time. Like most people I knew, I grew up in a bustling city, to Indian parents from the upper middle class, attending school and university with friends who I was always subconsciously trying to measure up to, and surrounded by media, movies and television peddling a specific version of reality. Regular life, no? One day – well, I say one day but I guess it happened over a period of time and it just hit me one particular day – I remember feeling as if I had been moulded into Me, without actually having much say in the matter.
Four years later, I am setting up a yoga and wellness retreat in Koh Phangan in Thailand, and looking back, it’s pretty amazing to see how all the different places I travelled to since then have played their own intricate part in knitting the web that I now stand before.
Scuba diving in Bali on that trip a few years ago was where my mind completely switched off for the first time. I was in awe at the rainbow-rioted, critter-filled underwater world that I encountered. That was probably my first meditative experience.
My next trip was to the Himalayas. I did a 10-day vipasanna silent meditation to quiet my mind, and had my first out-of-body experience – while slowing down my breath and heartbeat, I suddenly felt like I was floating 100ft in the air while staying connected to my torso, altering my perception of time. I met people from all over the world and realised I felt more in tune with them than most people back home. It was where I realised that life isn’t all about earning money, having a family and settling down – life is about living fully.
Like the butterfly effect, a host of tiny moments of serendipity nudged me to newer and more magical experiences. The biggest one was on my next stop in Goa, when someone put me on to Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Runon endurance running, and then took me for a post-joint jog. I started running long distances for the next couple of years, which was what led me to meeting a girl with whom I shared the most special relationship.
The Andaman & Nicobar islands completed my India circuit. I spent half a year there, managing a four-star boutique hotel, bedding down in a 3x3m beach hut, watching the sun rise barefoot on the beach and with my headphones on, cycling to work, and spending hours on the prow of a dinghy. I fell in love with life, with being on my own, and I was happy for four months straight. It’s also where I DJed for the first time, which eventually led me to DJ professionally when I returned to Mumbai.
Koh Phangan, Thailand is where I met my current business partner, and was introduced to the therapeutic technique of Transformational Breathwork. That was less than a year ago and we just opened Gaia Yogashala – a centre for yoga, meditation and breathwork. I have a new career again – transformational breathworker – and right now I’m back in Bali, in Ubud this time, for further training. I’ve been here for five days, but I already know that this place and this trip are going to change my life in amazing new ways.
Not all of this has been a smooth ride; I’ve probably had more ups and down than a lot of other people – not to mention lots of worrying by family and friends – but it’s been completely worth it. My travels may be external, but they have facilitated the most amazing internal journey for me. And having just turned 30 a few months back, it feels like I’ve only just begun.
Clive Richards is an artist and a carpenter, and has made travelling a lifestyle.
Clive building a children’s play fort from mostly recycled materials at Chateau de Burnand in France. Photo courtesy Clive Richards
Although I have enjoyed living in some amazing places, I always felt like there was something more fulfilling over the horizon. After 25 years in the US, I moved back to Vancouver Island in Canada, certain that living out my dream of having my little wood shop and beachfront art studio with an ocean view would bring contentment. I soon realised that there is no perfect place. I would have to forfeit my creative spirit for practical production, to pay the rent and get by. I made a decision to keep my creative spirit alive! I felt I had stayed in some of the best places in the world – I grew up in Vancouver and lived in Los Angeles and Maui, Hawaii – and it was clear that neither money nor a particular location would help me achieve that.
Leaving what I thought was my identity and security behind and travelling to India was out of my comfort zone, but intuitively, it felt like the right thing to do. In a bold move, I sold the bulk of my tools, gave up my beachfront studio, and bought a plane ticket to India. I soon found that the more I let go of material possessions, the easier it became; it is an amazing freedom, one you will only know by letting go.
I spent nearly five months in India. The first seven weeks, I volunteered at a reforestation project on the outskirts of Auroville in Pondicherry (Puducherry), where at 52, I was more than twice the age of the average volunteer. My anxiety heightened when I entered the large and impressive bamboo hut where lunch was being enjoyed by about 50 people, and I was sure I heard, “who’s the old guy” – I felt totally out of place.
I was introduced to a couple of other newcomers, and quickly realised that although our age and appearance were different, I was in familiar company. I spent the next few weeks meeting great people and feeling a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment on a daily basis.
I ventured off with new friends, heading 3,000km north to McLeod Ganj. Besides the journey itself being a great adventure, I heard the Dalai Lama speak and spent a month drawing in a little room at the base of the Himalayas, after trekking to the edge of an ice field to enjoy the freshest water in India.
Even if you only walk the streets of an unfamiliar town, there is an energy that you absorb, almost by osmosis. The people, the architecture, the sounds, the smells from a local bakery, all tell a story, part of which will infuse your soul, adding to the richness of the person you are and will be.
Clive’s painting is inspired by the colourful harbours of Malta. Photo: Clive Richards
Travelling was a lot like starting a new class or joining a new club, I realised – you are a little nervous walking through the door but by the end of the week, you have made two new friends. There seems to be a common thread that connects people; we all want to interact and share our experience, and travel is the best way to enjoy this connection. I think travel could be considered a tool in our global quest for understanding, peace and tolerance of different ideas.
I am currently in Norway, on a little island just above the Arctic Circle, and will volunteer at a permaculture project in Tuscany, Italy, before heading to southeast Asia for the winter. In Malaysia, I will start with volunteer carpentry on a 24m sailboat that is being outfitted to do environmental scientific research, and end up in Nha Trang, Vietnam.
Since leaving India, I have been travelling as a volunteer in exchange for room and board. There are several websites offering to connect volunteers and hosts; the only one I use is www.workaway.info. There are volunteer opportunities worldwide, which you can look at for free. If you’d like to communicate with potential hosts, it costs about €24/₹1,780 for a two-year membership.
Like everyone else, I need money, but it is no longer the main priority in my life and I am now more excited, content and fulfilled than ever before. I started out with some savings and money from the sale of my tools and vehicle and am now able to sell a painting or do a small job to get the little money I need. I travel very cheaply in Europe on budget airlines, for as little as €10-30 on many plane fares; I can do this by taking only carry-on baggage and having flexible travel dates – a factor that also ensures cheaper train and bus fares.
For me, life has become not about one big goal, but about the fulfilment I get from small daily achievements. The volunteer work I do is very satisfying and I still have plenty of time to explore and create. My paintings are always inspired by my environment and as my environment evolves, my life and art evolve along with it.
James Claxton teaches law in Kobe, Japan.
James (centre) with his family in Aix-en-Provence, France in 2009. Photo courtesy James Claxton
My father was 72 and my mother 62 when they got their first passports. They needed them to attend my graduation ceremony in London. I remember thinking that they would hate the city. It would be too big, too crowded, too cold, or too small – the hotel rooms, the streets, the toilets, the condiments. When I was young, our travels did not take us far from Tennessee. We tended to go to Florida where we had all the comforts of home plus sunshine and shrimp cocktails.
In fact, my parents loved everything about London. My mother delighted in the museums, my father in cheery pubs. A trip to France followed where just enough went wrong to make it feel like an adventure. A mix-up with our Eurostar tickets meant that we had to stand on the train from Paris to Lyon, but all was long forgotten by the time we reached Nice and found a cracked ceramic sheep at a flea market. My haggling for the sheep and my family’s obvious stares from a nearby cafe, severely undermining my attempts to look disinterested, became family legend. Back in Tennessee after the trip, my father, who had never uttered so much as “déjà vu,” bought French language tapes. My mother got art books and took online quizzes to test her knowledge of famous paintings.
By that time, I had become a wanderer. I moved to Colorado for college and learned to love long, ambling road trips across the American West. During school breaks, I would rack up miles and spend more time in my car than out of it. The more I saw, the more I wanted to see.
In the years that followed, addresses filled the pages of my mother’s day planner as I moved around and held various odd jobs. I hauled tomatoes in an 18-wheeler in the Central Valley of California, walked dogs in San Francisco, managed content for a start-up in Portland, and eventually moved abroad, dragging my feet for months at a time in South America and Europe. As so often happens, the hassles of that period have now softened into pleasant memories. Carrying an octopus across Madrid in a plastic grocery bag splitting at the seams was a nuisance then but is whimsical in my mind’s eye. The same is true of eating empanadas every night in Buenos Aires because my host mother, paid by my language school to provide dinner, was saving her money for a facelift.
I like what George Santayana wrote about travel: “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.” It is a beautiful notion worth repeating, but my own wandering is probably explained by motives far less grand. Travel is satisfyingly unsatisfying. Curiosity inspires me to go somewhere new and, more often than not, I am more curious at the end of my visit than before. Travel answers some questions only to raise others. It keeps life fresh, unpredictable, and animated.
I am writing this on what would have been my father’s 80th birthday. When I visit my mother in Tennessee these days, some of our happiest moments are spent looking at pictures of our trips to Europe and laughing about things like the train to Lyon, the sheep negotiations, and Dad’s way of pronouncing “cheeky.” I live in Japan now and would have liked sharing a Japanese adventure with him. I am nevertheless grateful to have travelled with my father in Europe and perhaps to have gotten a glimpse of the source of the thrill that I take in wandering.
Irma Delacombaz co-manages a museum of Tibetan art and is a travel agent.
A view of Dhankar Monastery from Irma’s recent visit to Spiti. Photo: Irma Delacombaz
I started travelling more than 20 years ago. It all started because of a coffee-table book about ethnic groups around the world that my brother and I received when we were kids. I still remember the pictures of the Uros people from Lake Titicaca in Peru, and the images of the Kayan women from Myanmar, wearing big brass coils around their neck. This book opened up new horizons where people were different, had different beliefs and habits. It was intriguing and exotic – I grew up in a lovely village in the Swiss Alps where there were no foreigners, and it seemed essential to go and see for myself if the world was really as the book said.
I haven’t seen all the tribes from the book, but I’ve learned a lot of things from going around with my backpack. Travels are made of many things: magical moments you share with unknown people, amazing landscapes and art that you get to see, delicious dishes you taste… On some occasions, everything seems right, you feel that you are at the right place, with the right people; it’s very exhilarating and you want to keep experiencing such moments.
But to receive such presents, sometimes you need to take challenging paths. You must be ready to be destabilised, to be taken out of your comfort zone, to change your habits, to face deception. Sometimes you fall sick, sometimes important documents like your passport get stolen, and as a woman you often fell more vulnerable, especially when you travel alone.
Irma in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Ajey Shetty
Interestingly, travelling also affects your life when you’re not on the move. Because of my travels, I went back to University for a degree in religious studies and anthropology. I needed to understand and to make sense of some of the things I had seen and experienced on my journeys. Later, I took a job as a travel agent, so that I could combine my passion with my work and motivate other people to go and see the world for themselves.
But travelling is not only about seeing as many places as possible. It’s also about how you feel about them and how you let the different experiences transform your inner self. I’ve learned to adapt, to ask for help, to let go of some of my fears, to take life and events as they come, to be patient. The most benign event can be the most transformative. Coming from Switzerland, I’m used to punctual public transport. I remember getting up very early in Vietnam to catch a bus that would first go around town to pick up passengers and their goods, and finally depart two hours later. I was upset, but once I accepted that this is how it worked, I started to enjoy the ride across town and it just became another way to visit the city. In India, women I stopped to ask for directions would ensure that the rickshaw driver would take me exactly where I wanted to go and for the right fare.
Travel keeps shattering my biases and certitudes because nothing and no one is ever as you expect them to be. I try to not only use these new skills when I travel, but also in my everyday life, which is not so easy. I still fall back on old habits and forget about them but then, I travel again, and events, situations, and people remind me that learning is a process.
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