If one scrolls through Instagram, there are innumerable people, bloggers and influencers posting pictures from exotic locales, or with stunning sceneries as backdrops. As travelling has become a commercial trend, we find car loads of people descending in throngs on beaches or taking road trips across mountains.
But how do we travel nowadays? We roll by in luxurious cars, eat at expensive multi-cuisine restaurants and stay at five-star hotels which offer more comforts than our own homes. In a short span of a few days, we breeze through several places, indulging our touristy whims while putting up envy-arousing pictures that equate one to being a “traveller”.
But is that what being a traveller really means? Where are the hardships faced on the road, or the nights spent hiding from the rain or even getting lost in unknown lands? How many of us indulge in local cuisines and customs? Do we even immerse ourselves in the true experiences of travelling?
Instead of a car, what if we decide to explore a place on foot – walking around, taking in the scenery, observing the flora and fauna of a place, interacting with local communities and partaking in their food and way of life?
That is precisely what the book Charanik: The Walker by Mohonlal Gangopadhyay, offers its readers – an altogether different perspective on travelling; something more akin to exploring.
Written in Bengali, the travelogue is based on the author’s walking tours around undivided Czechoslovakia in 1937 with a friend called Mirek. Recently, an English translation by Jayanta Sengupta was published by Rupa Publications.
In the book, the protagonists ditch their suitcases for rucksacks, which they fill with clothes, flasks, rain covers, sleeping bags, some food items and innumerable pairs of socks. Their most prized possessions are good pairs of boots, crucial for the long foot journeys that they will embark on.
Their first target was attending a national folk festival at the town of Uherske Hradiste in southern Moravia. But on reaching their designated lodgings, a hostel belonging to the Youth Association, they found that it was crammed. Instead, they went to explore a nearby village called Vlcnov and ended up spending the night at a farmer’s cottage. They took naps under apple trees, had humble meals of bread, honey, cheese and milk and even indulged in farm work – cutting grass and collecting clover.
Such meals, which the local people eat, is what they would have throughout their travels. There was no wish or even thought of having favourite dishes which are not native to that place. They were also content reaching far off places via bus or train and then walking to desired destinations – usually the tops of mountains.
Since they were walking on offbeat trails through dense forests and woods, they had to rely on their compasses and physical maps of those areas. They learnt to study maps, gauge altitudes and locate freshwater streams – a key resource for drinking water on such journeys. As they didn’t have tools like Google Maps, they weren’t in a fix when there was no network. More importantly, they learnt to follow the rules of nature to survive.
Not that they didn’t get lost. On their trek in the high Tatras, they decided to take a shortcut through a forest of creeper pines in order to reach their lodging before nightfall. Unfortunately, they got lost in it. In the thicker part of the forest, they literally had to walk on the thorny branches itself as the ground was unreachable. Miraculously, they survived with only a few cuts and bruises but couldn’t reach their cottage that night.
So, they resorted to spending the night in the freezing cold in a small cave, while it was pouring outside, saved only by spoonfuls of cognac. They did not even give in to sleep as there was a possibility of freezing to death. At the crack of dawn, they set out on a small path, hoping it would lead them out of the forest. Suddenly, they were accosted by the calls of wild deer, and “we turned around and beheld a sight that we shall never forget: a long line of deer walking along the side of the hill, very close to where we were standing”.
While such indelible sights can make readers pack bags and set off for the nearest forest, the highlight of the book was how the two friends learnt to locate bilberries, strawberries and the delicious hribi mushrooms by smell while exploring different forests and woods. This was their source for lunch on most days. Not only did it save costs, but the travellers learnt to procure from nature – a survival skill which is absent in today’s urban populace.
While there were dangers, they were far outweighed by the thrills and adventures resulting from such travelling. Today, we are cocooned from such risks in curated treks, where there’s a promise of warm food and a bed or a tent at the end of the day. Roads too have been improved massively so that travellers have a smooth run on their luxurious road trips, while feasting on Punjabi food even in obscure Himalayan towns.
However, the question is: have we lost out on the richness of experience while imbibing modern comforts? Have we forgotten the thrill of adventure and the unknown while gaining ease of access to diverse places? But to each their own. Some might like luxurious vacations while others might opt for difficult treks just to catch a beautiful sunrise on some peak.
Perhaps the answer lies in whether one finds more joy in taking videos of synchronised swimming pool jumps in picturesque Maldives, or going to sleep on bales of straw and hay under starry nights in the middle of nowhere. If you fall in the second category, put on your boots and set off – your adventure is waiting for you.
Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.