|Image: Marcus Benigno|
Baba Zohran stopped me in mid-cycle in a customary aside that generally lasts for a few moments depending on the potency of his last drag. This time, the encounter – not entirely adventitious – began with a courteous palm-clasped namaste and quickly segued into a jeremiad about his aching back and ailing cash reserves. The Croatian national in his 50s sported a black-billed fedora over his straggled, salt-and-pepper hair, and his serpentine smile produced a drawn-out hissing that trailed his speech. His trademarks have made him a fixture in Thamel, the Kathmandu tourist hub, where he has idled in and about for years.
Characters such as Baba Zohran, whose epithet conjures the likes of an ostensible sadhu on a pseudo-spiritual quest, are ubiquitous in Southasia. Like clockwork, he can be found under the shade of a canopy at a garden guesthouse off Thamel, smoking up and drilling out fatuous dictums with likeminded folk, such as a Dutchman who snorts and injects ketamine (a high-powered tranquiliser meant for horses) like candy and carries a feather-duster as an accessory, and an American creationist whose conspiracy theories about ‘liberal’ Western intelligentsia have impelled him to flee to Nepal to author a trilogy on intelligent design. Unsurprisingly, that same American has incurred massive debt, overstayed his visa and subsequently been forced to barter his belongings, including a laptop and a digital camera, for room and board. But who am I to judge?
For the last two years and counting, I have played nomad. Resembling many a washed-up hippie, I have refused to cut my hair. It is the only tangible reminder of how long I have been away from home. My travels have brought me far and wide: traversing Siberia on the legendary railway, yachting in the South China Sea, horseback riding on the Mongolian steppe, among other idyllic expeditions, easily romanticised and commodified.
Writers have long codified the voice of travel literature, from the time-honoured such as Ibn Battuta and D H Lawrence to the more contemporary like Bruce Chatwin and Alain de Botton. Their compositions paint pictorials of fanciful excursions and transitory crossings. Their subjects are incidental and their objectives often hedonistic. Their tales serve as reason for the millions of us who venture across geographies for exploration and diversion.
In the Burmese hamlet of Kalaw, a hike away from Inle Lake, a recent retiree and frequent flyer from Canada expressed her disappointment with the country. For her, it lacked a certain ‘wow effect’. She then regaled me with a list of sites and attractions that indeed dropped her jaw – the Andes and the Himalaya, the Pyramids and the Great Wall – all telltale anecdotes of a spectator-tourist.
Amid the Kodak moments, however, the bulk of vacating our ‘real life’ often has us replicating the very things we attempt to escape. During my recent travels, half my days have been spent on my laptop, in cyber cafes and Internet-connected coffee shops, updating my various accounts, talking with a loving, worrying mother and catching up on news reports from back home. My compulsion to stay connected, when I should be disconnecting, cuts me off from my surroundings and begs the question: Why did I leave home in the first place?
Fascination with the ‘other’ fast subsides, and the only remedy is to keep moving. But how much ‘authenticity’ can a traveller discover, let alone experience? To how many temples, churches and stupas must I pay homage? How many new flavours must my taste buds put up with? Tourist season becomes open season for the exotic and can escalate to a level of quixotic gratification that panders to obscure and even reprehensible impulses and fetishes. Accordingly, the tourism industry often conforms and caters to these drives. For instance, Nepalis are prohibited from gambling in Nepal, but almost every top hotel in Kathmandu houses a 24-hour casino for tourists. Pattaya in Thailand is notorious as a playground for satyrs searching for happy endings to their golden years.
Groping for purpose
It is dawn. I am awake, but for the few seconds before the sleep crumbles from my eyes, my arms flail out of the covers while my mind flounders to register my location. Rangoon smells like a crematorium in the morning. The shopkeepers burn sandalwood as a line of saffron robes snakes through the city’s streets for daily alms. Unfortunately, the novelty of the morning observance has faded and the complimentary bento breakfast at the hostel has lost its appeal. No matter where I am in my wanderings, the indelible question lingers: What the hell am I doing here?
Gratuitous restrictions on tourist visas, limited paid leave, and even gap years and sabbaticals can allow for guiltless getaways. Due to Russia’s strict adherence to a non-renewable, 30-day tourist visa, ‘flashpacking’ (that is, travelling a vast expanse on a short timetable) through post-Soviet small towns and canteens never bores. But for long-term travellers without a predetermined date of return, the road as a lifestyle, however Bohemian it might sound, paves a solipsistic journey that incites bouts of anxiety and disenchantment. The difference between definite and indefinite travel plans is comparable to that of a long-distance relationship slated for a reunion and one without. Where there is an end in sight, a harmonious rapport is more likely attainable.
The noncommittal liberties of being able to jet-set at whim, sleep into a midday siesta, awake and go whenever and wherever one pleases, seem ideal. But when one is spoiled with such an erratic routine, the disquieting feeling of futility can overwhelm. The constancy of routine, no matter how unusual or seemingly spontaneous, will always mirror the constancy of the nine to five.
Despite my wilful dismissal of a fixed schedule, I find myself reverting to a one-dimensionality in dire need of structure. My day planner has become so deprived that I have begun to list errands dictated by hygiene and hunger: brush teeth, eat lunch. Check, check. At times, the irregularity of my itinerary has been so distressing that I have resorted to diurnal accounts of absurdity. In one log, for example, I described my vesper ritual in numerical folly:
It takes me 46 seconds to get into bed: three to denude, 20 to whittle down my urges, ten to clean up, five to swathe myself into a tight cocoon that for the first two hours of night will keep mosquitoes at bay, and the remaining eight for prayers that begin but never end.
My rant continued in shameless admissions out of despondency and ennui:
A flurry of particles shed as I doff my shirt – snowfall in Varanasi. The crumbs in my sheets taste like gingerbread but Christmas never comes. It’s been six days since I have bathed and three since the bedding has been changed (assuming the sheets were clean when I checked in).
Doing nothing becomes a chore.
The traveller’s affliction resides in his unsettled status, fleeting agenda and most of all his involuntary detachment from people. Locals are local. Tourists tour. Trekkers trek…
Conversations with travellers in passing, especially in common rooms at international hostels and ‘CouchSurfing’ meet-and-greets, are usually shallow and devolve into matches of competitive globetrotting: Where have you been? How many countries? How many years?
Friendships made on the road are transient. The thousands of faces that come and go without heed discourage social investment, and Facebook only prolongs acquaintances. To date, I have 1239 friends on the social network, many of whom I will never see again. When my fellow compatriot Erin left me in Kathmandu, returning to Portland for her studies, I wished her a full and happy life: ‘Die well!’
For the constant traveller, settling down holds a negative connotation. But the fatigue of travel, notwithstanding tests of tolerance to the grit and grime of backpacking with a full sack, the white nights of 13-hour bus rides, and the hours-long delays of Subcontinental trains, has forced me to do or die – find purpose or go home. For five months I have lived in a guesthouse with no ready access to a kitchen or refrigerator. Every meal I have eaten has been dine-in or takeout, which is not always healthy or cheap. And on some mornings (and late nights), all I want is a bowl of cereal.
But luckily, my course has shifted and apartment hunting is underway. Freelance writing has supplied structure without stricture and a virtual nexus of flexibility and stability. So for now, the moveable feast of an itinerant flâneur (wanderer) has come to a halt but not without its own set of sapping doldrums, pressing deadlines and expatriate mixers. It is no wonder why veteran voyagers such as Baba Zohran hold fast to their substances. It is a nonstop trip.
~ Marcus Benigno is an American freelance journalist and traveller momentarily billeted in Kathmandu.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).