Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reality vs Potential

I recently came across a quote along the lines, 'Every year, a vast majority of kids are cheated into believing they have potential'. Meet the typical middle aged man and ask him this question – are you content with the way your life has shaped up? I can safely bet that the majority of the response would have a negative tone to it. A common reason behind this feeling of disappointment would be that they failed to reach their potential and they could have done far better. It is also hard to hear a response with hope for the future, saying they see themselves reaching their full potential in so and so time frame. If we dig further and probe as to why do they think they fell short of their potential, the most common answer would be along the lines that they did not try hard enough or just luck was not in their favor. Both are definitely strong possibilities. Also, quite likely that they have given up trying and are struggling in some way to accept the reality that they might never realize what they think to be their potential and they will just continue to be a compromised version of themselves.
Consider the case where one tried as hard as they could, but still ends up with the regret that he/she could not reach their full potential. This kind of seems like a paradox. Now, stepping back one step further, what if we were wrong in analyzing our potential and what if we were largely misguided in estimating it? If reaching one's potential is the goal, then estimating it cannot be ignored. Right from early childhood, we are led to believe from multiple sources that everyone can lead an extraordinary life and everyone can leave a legacy behind. All it needs is hard work, determination and hundred other qualities. If we try hard enough, nothing is impossible. This all sounds great, but it misses a fundamental point that everyone cannot be extraordinary, for the simple fact that the very idea of extraordinary is based on a relative scale and everyone cannot be at the same level on a relative scale. The hard fact is that for any given skill, if we plot the number of people versus the expertise, it will end up as a bell curve, with the majority ending up in the middle of the curve. An interesting related article Being Average. No doubt that the people at the far end of the curve have put in lots of hard work in reaching there, but they had something in them to work on. As an analogy, I can think of polishing a rough diamond. The whole hard work will reveal a diamond only if it was there in the first place. The hard work of polishing cannot create a diamond out of nowhere.

The Universe does not play the role of Robin Hood, where it would rob skills from those at the top and distribute it equally to everybody else! For whatever reasons, the Universe has it's own mind and does not care much for equal and fair distribution. Given this, by claiming that everyone has the potential to reach the top, we are invariably setting up the majority to end up disappointed and dejected. Of course, with time, these people will accept the reality and move on. But, this is not easy. Just for the sake of discussion, is there a better way to set the right expectations, so that the majority would not feel like losers for not reaching their imaginary potential ? Instead, consider the case where people are made aware of the reality of the bell curve early in their lives and they are better trained to identify their optimum position in the curve. This would possibly help the majority in setting the right target and having a realistic chance of reaching it. Understandably, this is a far more difficult process. Just imagine the complexity involved in analyzing and understanding each kids true potential and helping them accept it and try for it. Instead, the easier way out is a generic approach 'everyone can reach the peak and if you don't, you just did not try hard enough and good luck in dealing with the regret'.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Work culture - Significance, Impact and Challenges

Work culture, Cultural misfit, American/European/Asian work culture, Startup work culture, Tough work culture – key terms I have been hearing for close to 6 years now. Have been curious for quite some time to understand what exactly this means and why so much significance attributed to it. What prompted me to write this post now is this article Amazon-insiders-tell-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly. Am not vouching for its contents, but it raises few interesting points to consider. Also, this post is not intended to be a critic/analysis of the work culture at my current employment. Am just trying to put together my generic understanding of this topic.

Online search for ‘what is work culture in an organization’ throws a bunch of responses. An interesting article What-is-organizational-culture for further reading. Each of us would have developed a set of ideals by which we lead our lives, we have our own priorities and goals and ways of reaching them. We could extend it to a group of people, say a family or a sports team. The same when extrapolated to an organization could possibly explain most of its work culture. Apart from people, there are a good amount of other factors which could impact work culture – location, size, industry, market dynamics, so on and so forth. 

I don’t claim to have a mastery on this topic, but what I am more interested in is how this could potentially impact me as an employee and impact an employer’s hiring choices. Is there an ideal work culture which would work across the spectrum and an ideal employee who would fit in all cultures? If there is one, there would be no conflict and misfits. But, I believe there cannot be a one size fits all culture. We could look at it this way – each employee has a set of expectations from his/her employee and same way, each employer has a set of expectations from his/her employee. For example, consider an employee who is ambitious career wise and has work as his topmost priority. If he finds an employer who is willing to give him the required opportunities at a challenging pace, then they could be a perfect match. But, if the employer believes in the idea of slow and steady career growth, then we have a potential misfit. In this case, note that there is nothing wrong with either the employee’s expectations of rapid career growth or the organizations belief in slow and steady career path. It is just a case of misfit. These misfits are expected and inevitable, but that is not the problem. The problem I feel is that the idea of work culture is generally not well defined for all layers in an organization and the process to identify a fit/misfit continues to be a bit vague and more of a trial and error.

How important is it to have a cultural fit between the employee and the organization? From my understanding, this is critical and it will only gain more significance going forward. All the more so for new age organizations which are trying to build a culture of zero tolerance for mediocrity and expectations of top notch performance 365*24*7. This is relatively easy if we are talking of a small team in a startup, but a mammoth task to achieve in a large corporation. I don’t find anything wrong with an organization having this expectation from each and every one of its employees. Question is – what is needed to retain and motivate such a workforce? It is a given that an organization with such expectations has to ensure that the rewards are proportional to the expected performance. I don’t think there is any disagreement on this. By and large, such organizations are more than willing to pay top dollars for appropriate talent. If not, their only option is to cut down on expectations. 

I feel there is another challenge which is generally ignored and more like an elephant in the room. The issue is that the path towards excellence and towards burn out tend to be eerily similar. There is always a risk that in the pursuit of excellence, there could be exhaustion and burn out. The movie Whiplash covers this conflict pretty well. The question then is, in the path to meet 24*7 top notch performance, if an employee loses track, is the organization willing to give enough time and opportunities for the employee to recover and rejuvenate or treat the employee as a spent force to be discarded ? The answer to this question can be significant in shaping an organization’s culture. 

It is definitely quite tricky for both the employee and the employer to find the right match and my observation has been that this process is yet to evolve completely and there is a lot of room for improvement. The cost of a mismatch is high for both the parties involved. Will be interesting to see how this challenge will be addressed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bangalore - Choosing to live in this mega-slum

One common thing I have been hearing off late from friends/colleagues is that getting out of Bangalore by the time they turn 35 or 40 is on their wishlist. Understandable, because it is on my wishlist too! Yet to meet any person who is content with the direction Bangalore is headed. Almost everyone seems to be frustrated with this city. What makes it all the more annoying for me is that I have seen Bangalore deteriorate from a calm and beautiful place to one of the most chaotic and disliked urban jungle. 

Almost everything about this city seems to be in a mess – infrastructure, alarming levels of pollution, water resources, waste management, growing disparity in wealth distribution, increasing crime rate, rapid influx of migrants. The list almost seems endless. Well, one might say these are all inevitable in a rapidly expanding city. To be fair, Bangalore was never meant to be a metropolitan city and I doubt anyone could have predicted this growth 2 decades back. But, what makes the situation scary is that the city administration is no where close to addressing the challenge. Forget addressing the challenge, I am worried they are far from grasping the magnitude of the challenge. 

I wonder what is it that is so repelling about urban life. Given a choice, am sure most of us would opt to not live in a chaotic city like Bangalore. Here is a neat summary an acquaintance told me once - 'the biggest drawback about urban life is that it effortlessly kills the little joys of life'. Notice how everyone around seems to be in a rush, constantly chasing a deadline, always caught in the fight for survival. The problem with this is over a period of time, we get caught in this survival mode and forget that we survive to live. In fact, urban life can be demanding in terms of meeting the survival necessities and sap us of all our time and energy in this. End result – people hardly have the drive to pursue the finer aspects of life and are content with just surviving and making ends meet. I guess this is a common thread for most big cities worldwide. On top of this, cities like Bangalore(or most cities in developing world) have to deal with the pathetic living conditions. 

Am sure most agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with urban lifestyle. But, what intrigues me is what keeps people glued to cities they don't like to live in. The only answer I can think of is the available economic opportunities. Take this one factor away and I don't see any good reason to tolerate this nuisance. As long as we want an easy access to these opportunities, we have to grin and bear the associated drawbacks of urban life. Once we make this choice, we implicitly agree to give up the joys of living a simple and serene rural lifestyle. These are two non converging choices. We might try hard and dream of finding a middle ground between these two choices and get the best of both worlds, but am afraid the middle ground is more like a mirage and quite elusive.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Transition

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - if I have to split this journey into 3 phases, it would be preparation, execution and transition. The previous 5 posts were mainly about the first two phases and this post is about the last one. I have asked myself as to why should I be sharing this post, does it add any value at this point of time or for that matter, does anyone care? I don't have clear answers for these, but I know for sure that I need to share this for my own sense of completion.

Now, when I look back, the transition has been the most challenging of all the 3 phases. Thanks to this phase, my respect and admiration for people who pursue multiple travel breaks has increased drastically.

So, what was the first challenge? The travel hangover. Remember the feeling of returning to the routine after a week long trek/vacation ? I used the past experiences as standard and was well aware that the hangover will be lot intense than any I had earlier. But, honestly, my estimation was way below the reality. I was pretty much blank the first week I returned home. The change was too drastic – from backpacking in the magical Himalayan belt to being stuck in the chaotic Bangalore, all in a matter of less than 48 hours.

Thankfully, one of the wisest men I met during the journey gave me a timely warning that the biggest challenge I would face immediately after returning home would be the lack of people who seem to understand or appreciate the journey. He could not have been more accurate. Imagine attending a 3 month sports camp, say football. Throughout the camp, you are surrounded by people who enjoy football and discuss it with passion. You return home and continue talking football to all around. But, not many would be interested. Even if they show some interest, the conversation would just not be the same as with friends from the camp. One cannot blame the people around. Am quite sure I will not be in a position to have an interesting conversation about an hobby I don't pursue. Sounds simple, but it still took me a couple of weeks to accept that the days of randomly bumping into exciting and inspiring travelers are over.

My break was not over yet, the great Indian dance of democracy was around the corner and I got a chance to work with some enthusiastic, well read and passionate volunteers working towards the elections. Maybe, the next post should be about this experience. The elections in my state was in mid April and its completion also officially pulled the curtains on my 9 month long break.

Then, what next? With time, I guess a few weeks for most, one accepts the reality and eventually start focusing on the task of rebuilding one's life. The career is possibly the most significant part of the rebuilding process for most. The fact is that being away from work does not add much value to one's resume. Might sound harsh, but that is the reality. Actually, I feel one of the most misunderstood idea about a travel break is that it adds value to your resume, irrespective of the field you are working in. The skills acquired and the experiences gained does not really contribute to one being a better engineer and it is naive to expect it to. I can safely assume that it goes the same for most professions. The bottom line is that being away from work puts one at a slight disadvantage and better be prepared for it. The impact might vary from field to field, but it is not something which is insurmountable.

With time and required efforts, the rebuilding process will be complete and one gets back to a life which might not be visibly different from what it was prior to the break. So, what has changed? Would it have not been the same if I did not pursue this break? Does it mean that the journey has had no or little overall impact? Maybe, it all comes down to one significant question – was it all worth the efforts ? Have asked this question myself many times and the answer has always been an YES. I would not trade the experiences and the memories for anything else, in spite of all the associated risks and challenges. Am I proud of this journey? Definitely yes, but more than this, I am just glad that I pursued what I believed in and this has been a very satisfying feeling. One thing I know for sure is that for any reason if I did not pursue this break, I would have ended with a truckload of regret and the regret would have possibly lasted forever.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Places and People

This happens to be the 5th post related to my travel break. Possibly, this could be the last one. Before I get into the post, a big thank you to all who took time to read the previous posts and provide feedback along with generous appreciation. Its been a pleasure to share my little experiences and this sharing has been an integral part of the transitory phase to life in Bangalore.

Two primary reasons why I wanted to write and share. One, the journey was too rich and beautiful to experience alone. Two, all through the planning and execution, have benefited immensely from multiple sources on the Internet. And all this guidance came at no cost!! So, I think it is my duty to contribute back in whatever small way I can. If these posts can help anyone in pursuing his/her travel break, then I would consider it a job well done.

One common suggestion has been to write about the places I got to visit and travel. In this post, will provide a brief summary of all the places. The idea of the post is to highlight the places and not provide a detailed description. But, if any of you do plan to visit these places, you can always contact me for more detailed tips and guidelines!!

Jammu and Kashmir
I started with 3 friends and we flew from Bangalore to Srinagar. I would not count Srinagar to be the most hospitable of places. We only spent a day there, before heading to Leh by bus.

Srinagar to Leh
In Leh, we hired 3 motorcycles for 1 week and drive to Nubra valley and Pyongyang lake. If riding excites you, then very few experiences can match the high of a drive through the mighty Himalayas. Would totally recommend this. One suggestion is to always try to keep it one person per bike and avoid pillion drive. You get bikes of all varieties in Leh, ranging from 500 cc Royal Enfields to 150 cc Pulsars. Quite easy to get a bike, but the challenge is in managing fuel. Other than Leh, hardly any petrol pumps in other towns/villages. So, always a good idea to carry extra fuel(in separate storage cans). Which bike to choose? The terrain is tough and though a low end bike might get us through, the drive might not be very enjoyable. So, always advisable to go for an Enfield or an Avenger, even if it means a few extra bucks.

Apart from the motorcycle drive, we also managed to go for the rafting in Zanskar river.

Leh city
It is mandatory to get a permit to visit most places in Ladakh. So, one of the first things after reaching Leh should be to visit the concerned office and get the permit. Make sure you list the names of all the places you intend to visit. Unlike other districts, they do check the permit in detail at various check posts in Ladakh.

Once you have the permit, bike and fuel, hit the road and drive safe !!

On the way to Nubra valley
Pyongyang lake
On the way to Pyongyang lake

Himachal Pradesh
It was time to say good bye to my 2 friends and head to Kaza, Spiti Valley for the first volunteer stint with Ecosphere. For details on the volunteer work, check the previous post Volunteer Travel . As far as Spiti Valley, what can I say. It is sheer magic – the most beautiful of the mountains and an equally beautiful and hospitable people. If there is a place I would go back to any day, then it is Spiti Valley. The valley is home to some of the most scenic and pristine villages I can ever think of. It also hosts few splendid lakes. Just look at the below pictures – remember that these have been captured by someone who struggles with Auto mode, but the place makes any picture taken using any camera look beautiful.

Kibber village

Langza village

On the way to Tabo


After Spiti Valley, headed to Dharamsala for a couple of days. Maybe since I was using Spiti Valley as a reference, Dharamsala did not seem even half as good. Nevertheless, there are a good number of trek routes and temples/monasteries to visit in and around Dharamsala. 
Sikkim
Sikkim by far is the most beautiful and developed of all the 12 states I got to travel. If I have a choice to settle down in any of the states I visited, I would choose Sikkim. Amazing landscape and very sweet and kind people. Sikkim is home to my favorite town Pelling and my favorite city Gangtok. Also, got to spend time in Yuksom, which serves as the base for the GoechaLa trek. As far as GoechaLa is concerned, it is just heaven. I cannot think of a better way to describe it. Again, the pictures below can do more justice than my words.

Pelling
GoechaLa
GoechaLa


Uttarakhand
After Sikkim, headed to Uttarakhand to volunteer with Waste Warriors Corbett. I was quite fortunate to work and stay in villages around the Corbett reserve area. Needless to say, an amazing terrain. If you are looking for a reliable travel guide in Corbett, I would recommend to check Mountainways Outdoors .

                                                                   Bhakrakot village

I also went to Rishikesh, mainly for the Bungee jump! A great experience, thanks to Jumpin Heights . Though Rishikesh and Haridwar is way too crowded with tourists and travellers, they have a special aura. Maybe, it is the wide spectrum of people we get to observe which adds to the aura.

Rishikesh
Delhi
This was my only brush with a metro city in all the 221 days and was more of a transition point on both occasions. If you are reading this, thanks Ankur for hosting me on my second visit to Delhi. 

West Bengal
Was here primarily for the Sandakhphu trek. Generally rated as an easy trek, with cold being the only challenge. But, extremely beautiful and scenic. Also spent a couple of days in Darjeeling, which serves as the base for the trek. If you are in Darjeeling and if you are interested in trekking, the HMI museum is a must visit place.

Sandakphu
Sunset in Sandakphu

North East
The article by Thrillophila Things to do in North-east India served as my guide thorough out. North East is beautiful, unexplored and culturally rich. On the flip side, quite an volatile region. Bandhs/strikes gets called often and can derail ones travel plans. On top of this, getting Inner Line Permits can be a burden at times. Before you travel to any state, check if it is necessary to get an ILP. Also, owing to the not so great infrastructure, travelling between states can be time consuming and exhausting. Nevertheless, if you have time and the required motivation to explore, North East can be a great Travel teacher.

Assam
The state where I spent the most amount of time in the North East. The last volunteer stint was here, in the town of Digboi. Apart from this, also visited Sivasagar and Kaziranga, which are pretty popular destinations. Also had the chance to visit the Manas National park, situated along the Indo-Bhutan border and is just a couple of hours from Guwahati.

Kaziranga

Sivasagar

Chandrapur village

Manas national park
Nagaland
Was here mainly for the Hornbill festival. The festival is undoubtedly a great place to explore and understand the tribal culture of Nagaland. If you are planning to attend the festival, make sure to book accommodation in advance. I missed doing this and landed in Kohima(capital city) only to find all rooms booked. Was very lucky to get a home stay, who turned out to be the most hospitable guests. One thing which stands out in my memory of Nagaland is the hospitality of the tribal people. One has to experience to believe it.

Menu in Nagaland !!
World War II memorial in Kohima
Hornbill festival
Meghalaya
From my limited experience, this is the most stable and developed of all the 7 north eastern states. Spent a few days in Shillong and Cherrapunji. These are quite popular on the tourist circuit. Still, lots of opportunity to skip the crowded tourist places and explore the beautiful mountains. If you ever visit Cherrapunji and are on a budget travel, consider staying in 'By The Way' lodge, which is right on the highway. The owner is possibly the most traveller friendly host I interacted with. 

Noh Ka Likai falls


Indo - Bangaldesh border

Arunachal Pradesh
Had the chance to spend a few days in Tawang. The Tawang monastery complex is massive and is testimony to few hundred years of rich history. Apart from this, the India China war memorial in Tawang is worth visiting.

Tawang monastery
India China war memorial

Tripura & Mizoram
It was quick travel through the respective capital cities of Agartala(Tripura) and Aizawl(Mizoram). The Ujjayanta palace is right in the heart of Agartala and the Neermahal is a couple of hours from the city. Do consider visiting the Indo-Bangladesh border checkpost in Agartala. They host a gate closing ceremony everyday at 4 pm.

Ujjayanta palace


Neermahal palace

Surprisingly, Aizawl was more developed than I expected and boasts of good infrastructure. Did not spend much time here, but the walk through the crowded bazaars was a good way to explore the city.

Aizawl city

Hope you enjoyed reading this post. Again, thanks for all the feedback and appreciation for the previous posts. I have tried my best to share my experiences in a way which can be helpful for someone out there looking for guidance and inspiration to take the plunge and pursue his/her travel break. Can only end with the hope that these posts do come in handy for someone reading this, just as the experiences shared by some random traveller from some remote part of the world served as the much needed guidance and inspiration for me at times.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Volunteer Travel

Volunteer travel – If I have to choose the best part of the journey, without a second thought, it has to be the 3 volunteer stints. During the planning stages, I came across an article in Times Of India which was my first introduction to the idea of volunteer travel. Ecosphere(the first organisation I volunteered with) was mentioned in the article and I contacted them and discussed the opportunities available. The plan was to start the journey in Ladakh and then head to Spiti Valley to volunteer with Ecosphere. In fact , the original plan was to volunteer with Ecosphere only. But, it was such a rich experience that I extended it to 2 more organisations in 2 different states working on completely diverse projects.

Before I get into the details of each stint, I will share my understanding of volunteer travel. It was a new concept for me when I came across it the first time and a common question have been asked is – what is this volunteer travel ? In simple terms, ‘It is taking time off to work on a cause one believes in and mixing travel with it’. Few of us are associated with different causes and we voluntarily contribute towards it in our own ways. Now, think about doing the same while travelling – we have the best of both worlds – a great travelling experience and a rewarding volunteer stint. I cannot think of a better way to explore a place than volunteer travel. We get to work for the people who know the particular region in and out. Far better than any travel guide. Next, we are spending time with the localites working on projects which concerns them and what better way to understand the intricacies of local culture and history. Not to forget, volunteer travel works out far cheaper than conventional travel. Add to this, we are working on projects and causes which we believe in and passionate about. We might have theoretical knowledge about the areas we are interested in, but nothing matches field experience.

Now, how does one start with volunteer travel? Here is an article which I found quite helpful – Guide to Volunteer Travel in India. Two of the organisations I volunteered are on the list! Actually, I came across this article a few months after I started. How do we go about choosing the organisation ? If I have to list the steps:
  1. Narrow down on the place – There are opportunities available all over India(even in cities) and the first step would be to choose where do we want to spend time.
  2. Choose the right project – There are organisations working on multiple causes, each doing commendable work in their chosen field. It is important to choose a project which we believe in. Else, I feel it will be tough to maintain the volunteer spirit. Also, not all organisations might have active projects to accommodate us. So, it is important that our skills fit in their requirements. It is also possible that the organization might reject our application in case if this does not match.
  3. Plan the duration – Most organisations have minimum duration commitment (ranging from few weeks to few months) and few don’t. Irrespective of this, I feel anything less than a month is not a good idea. It takes time to gel with the new team and understand the work culture before we can contribute anything meaningful. Though there are volunteer stints for a week or two, I would not recommend it to any of my friends.
  4. Budget – A common question again – is food and accommodation provided by the organisation? This varies from organisation to organisation. In some, food and accommodation is completely on the organisation. In few, we have to pay a fixed amount, generally in the range of few hundred rupees. This should be the last of the points in decision making. Choosing Volunteer travel only because it is cheap is definitely not going to help either the volunteer or the organisation.
A brief summary of the 3 stints:

Ecosphere, Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh 
Could I have asked for a better start ? Almost certainly NO. If anyone from Ecosphere is reading this, a big thank you for being amazing hosts. Actually, I published a small post on this stint on Ecosphere blog - 40 days with Spiti Ecosphere . I wrote this towards the end of my stint and the memories now are just as magical as they were then.

View of Kaza(Spiti Valley)

Waste Warrios Corbett(WWC), Bhakrakot, Uttarakhand
This was not in my original plan. In fact, Uttarakhand was nowhere in the initial plan. I met the founder of WWC in Spiti Valley and was quite impressed. After Spiti valley, went to Sikkim and was considering volunteering in Sikkim. But, later decided to head back to Uttarakhand, which meant 2 days of train and bus journey. In hindsight, a decision which worked out brilliantly. Waste management is something which has always been close to my heart and to work on this at the ground level was great learning. Again, if anyone from WWC is reading this, thank you for giving me this opportunity. To know more about the work at WWC, check their Facebook page Waste Warriors Corbett .

WWC team in Ringora village
Fertile Grounds, Digboi, Assam
One thing led to another and as if it was all destined, ended up volunteering in Assam. I contacted couple of organisations in the north east, but only got a response back from Fertile Grounds. If you are reading this, thank you Peggy Carswell. The opportunity was to volunteer in the field of organic farming. This was something where my knowledge was practically zero and each day was filled with loads of learning and new perspectives. Also had the chance to work with a partner organization called Axum Agri. This by far was the most intense and rewarding stint. To know more about the organizations, check Fertile Ground and Axum Agri .

Chandrapur village near Digboi(Assam)
Personally, all the 3 stints turned out far better than I expected. Would totally recommend including volunteer stints for anyone considering long travel break. Does this mean it always works out this way? Not necessarily. Have heard from fellow travellers about not so good volunteer experiences. Could be because of multiple reasons – choosing the wrong organization, the wrong place or just a mismatch between the skill sets and the opportunities. If you search for blogs and forums, there are a few which discourage volunteer travel. Nevertheless, the odds of a not so good experience are far less compared to a memorable and enriching one and I would say with confidence that it is worth taking a chance.

In the next post, possibly the last in the series, will share a brief summary of the places I got to visit and travel.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Understanding Travel

The previous 2 blog posts were about answering some of the most common questions have faced. This post is primarily about some pertinent questions have asked myself about travel.

The terms tourist, traveller and visitor are often used interchangeably. But, am sure that most of us acknowledge that there is a wide difference between a tourist and a traveller. Similarly, there is a huge gap between visiting a place and travelling to a place. But, the question is, what is the difference?

Back in 2009, a bunch of us decided to hire a cab and go around Karnataka. We stopped at all the famous points along the way and made sure we captured pictures -both group and individual!! We had a fixed plan and we were not willing to change it under any circumstance. We saw all the places on our list and we hardly interacted with anybody outside our group. Actually, I don’t find anything horribly wrong with this approach. Just that we were not travelling, but we were touring and visiting places. I would safely guess that this is how most of us begin. Such tours continued and somewhere along the line, I realized this is not exactly the same as travel. I don’t recall how this thought came to me. To be honest, it was hard to find people around who understood what travel is and from whom one could learn.

The first time I came across travellers was in September 2012. They were a couple of westerners who were on a travel break and seemed to have a different approach. One striking difference was that they did not have an agenda set in stone and they were more than willing to experience anything which comes their way and their ability to observe and learn was quite evident. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet few more such travellers and the most notable among them was a person I met a few months before I took up my little journey. For the first time, I came across a person whose life is built around travel and whose personality has been shaped significantly by his journeys. Undoubtedly, it is a long road from a tourist to a traveller. If we can take an analogy of a school of travel, I would say I have finally managed to gain admission into the school. But, a long way to go before I graduate from this school.

In the 221 days, there were many days when I woke up in a new town and realized that I had no plan whatsoever. I ventured out for breakfast, spoke to a couple of localites and figured out what to do for the day. In the end, it all turned out fine. Now, what has changed between the time we hired a cab and went around few places in Karnataka and this Himalayan Odyssey? If I have to highlight one thing, it has to be my ability to go with the flow. I gradually got rid of my plans and cut down on my expectations. Consequently, there was very little chance to be disappointed. The amount of preconceived notions had reduced significantly and was in a better position to experience things as they are and not the way I had envisaged beforehand. This experience includes everything – people, terrain, culture, food and the list goes on. In other words, I was more open to absorb the new experiences. This I feel is the single biggest difference between a tourist and a traveller – the ability to trust the journey and go with the flow. This attitude to trust the journey and firmly believe that whatever happens along the way is a welcome experience is one thing which clearly sets apart a traveller from a tourist. Definitely, this is not the only difference and more importantly, have not understood all the differences. This is just my understanding based on my limited experience.

Next, have asked this question myself many times – what is so great about being a traveller? Why is it that so many quotes, books, blogs, forums are dedicated to discuss the greatness of travel. Most important, why do people seem to be so desperate to travel? To be honest, I feel travel is one of the most misunderstood and exaggerated concepts. This might not go down as the most popular opinion. Misunderstood because people tend to equate visiting places to travelling to a place. Visiting places is almost like going to school. We might go to the best of the schools and pursue the highest of the degrees. But, it only increases the probability of learning and does not ensure it. Same way, one can tour for years, but still might carry the attitude of a tourist and not grow much beyond that. On the other hand, one could have visited only a couple of places, but might possess the attitude of a traveller. When I hear people claim ‘I have travelled all across India’ or ‘There are only a few states left, but I have covered most part of India’, (you can replace India with any other country name here :), it just reinforces my belief that we more often than not tend to confuse between visiting a place and travelling to a place. Exaggerated because I feel that the learnings from travel are generally blown out of proportion. Is listening to the story of our neighbour much different from listening to the story of a stranger we meet while travelling?  Do our cities don’t offer any chance to learn from people of other cultures? Are the mountains and rivers closer to our hometown any less beautiful than the ones thousands of miles away? Not really. No doubt that travel is a great teacher, but a lot depends on the student.

In spite of the exaggeration, there is definitely unbound magic in travel, which I am still trying to unravel. Travel teaches a lot, no two thoughts about it. One thing I have observed is that when we are travelling, we are mostly focused on the present and not living in the past or the future. It is like all our senses are focused on that very moment and our ability to observe, learn and absorb seems to have gone up by many notches. Being away from our comfort zones and putting ourselves amidst new people in new places makes it mandatory for us to live in the moment!! Maybe, this is what makes the learning so effective and profound. And what better way to experience this than going solo!! One is not bound by the limitations and expectations of the group and we are all by our self to trust our instincts and go with the flow. If one has to experience the better teachings of travel, my sincere suggestion is to try solo travel. During the planning stages, was in discussion with a couple of friends about doing this journey together. Looking back, I feel sorry for them that they missed this magical experience. On the other hand, am also glad that I had the opportunity to go solo.

Does this cover my complete understanding of travel? Definitely NO. It is a work in progress and this post is an attempt to share my observations and understandings at this point of time. With time, it is bound to change and evolve.

In the next post, will share about the best part of my journey – the 3 volunteer stints!!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Expectations, Impact and Trade-offs

In the previous blog post, I tried answering one of the most common questions – Why did I take up this journey? Now, let me take a shot at answering the second most common question and possibly the tougher one to answer - What is the ultimate impact this travel break has had on me?

Before I started, was discussing with a good friend as to what is the expected outcome of this break and what if I fail to achieve it? I remember saying ‘at the least, am sure it is going to be a happy journey, if not anything else. At the other end, it might turn out to be a life changing experience’. Today, as I write this, have to admit that the outcome is actually somewhere in between, but more towards a life changing experience.

These 221 days were undoubtedly the happiest 221 days I ever had. Even if this was the only outcome, I would still say the journey was worth it. It might sound simple, but are there many things which are important than just being happy? Maybe not. Thanks to this journey, my standards for defining happiness have gone up. Also, often we tend to keep our expectations a bit lower, so it is easy to achieve and hard to be disappointed. But, this journey has given me the faith and the confidence required not to be afraid to push the bar for defining happiness.

No doubt it started off as a happy journey, but slowly transformed to something more deep and impactful. As I mentioned in the previous post, every aspect of this journey is directly or indirectly tied to one or the other little passions of mine. In effect, what I had was the chance to experience how it feels to pursue things one believes in. How it feels to be in places one connects to. How it feels to be surrounded by people one can admire and respect and who are in a better position to understand what you are trying to pursue. I have experienced a combination of one or more of these things earlier, but all the things coming together at once is a rare occurrence. In all likelihood, this is what made it a happy journey more than anything else. I would have heard a hundred times before that there is joy in pursuing what you believe in. But, what better way to understand it than to experience it. Given this situation, what would have felt like a major hindrance earlier just seemed like a minor challenge. Few examples:
  • Skid off the track on a trek? No problem, just dust yourself off and move on. If any member from the Goechala team is reading this, they will relate better.
  • Reach a town at 11 in the night without any arrangement for accommodation? Not to worry, something will turn out.
  • Work for almost 3 weeks at a stretch? Not an issue at all.  
  • Travel alone for 43 hours with Indian railways and reach your destination at 1 am in the morning, as against the expected 5 pm the previous evening? Not such a bad deal.
  • Get stuck in a town bordering two states because some random group has called for a bandh on the other side? These things keep happening.
The next biggest takeaway has to be meeting tens of interesting, inspiring and lovely human beings – Faith in humanity restored!!  I have to tell this, if I had an option, I could build a new world with the people I met as the family and friends in it. Not to say that the existing set of family and friends would be discarded, but the new ones will be welcome additions :)

To meet these sweet people and learn about their journeys was inspiring, to say the least. I got to learn quite a lot just by patiently listening to their experiences and observations. I am extremely fortunate that I had the chance to spend time with these people and also work with few of them. Each had a story to share and a valid viewpoint to present. They also had the patience to listen to me and correct me whenever I was wrong.

Looking back, I would rate these things as the biggest takeaways – Just being Happy, Doing what I believed in and meeting tens of interesting and inspiring human beings. I could list a few more fringe and unexpected benefits. But, I will save them to share with you people when we meet and not reveal everything in the blog :)

Now, let’s look at the trade-offs. We cannot ignore the trade-offs, whenever we make a conscious choice to get one thing, we are invariably losing on something else. So, this journey comes at a price, both literally and figuratively. The third most common question I have been asked is, how much did this journey cost? I generally refrain from giving a direct answer, not because I have not kept track of the expenses, but because I don’t want any of my friends to make the mistake of judging the worth of this journey by the money spent. If one needs to know the budget, so he/she could plan a similar break, I am more than happy to share the budget and maybe also help with few tricks have learnt along the way for low cost travel. Overall, I did not go fully low budget, for the simple reason that I did not have to. I am not a big fan of the romanticism associated with low budget travel. I can tell with confidence that the amount have spent and the amount have lost because of being away from work (which is substantially more than my expenditure) seems totally worth considering the experiences have gained. So, the first trade-off is the financial part. One cannot go on a travel break and still expect to get a message at the end of the month saying ‘XYZ rupees has been credited to your account’!!

The second trade-off is more individualistic. If one is lucky, you might have family who completely understand and appreciate your journey. This is one end of the spectrum. The other end is where they might feel ashamed of your move to quit work and go on a travel break. I would say, the reality is generally somewhere in between. As I said, it completely varies from one to another. So, be prepared for the reality, whatever it be in your case.

I was aware of these two trade-offs all through the journey. But, one thing I am realizing now is the effort needed to transition to the next phase. This is proving to be a bit more challenging than I anticipated. Am still working on the transition, so might be in a better position to talk more about this a couple of months down the line.

Well, that’s my quick summary of the expectations I had, the eventual impact and the inevitable trade-offs. Hope reading these experiences gives you some food for thought and helps you when you are planning/working on your travel break.

In the next post, will write a bit about my understanding of travel and the associated myths and realities.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey - Motivation

The Magical Himalayan Odyssey – this is the name I have chosen for my little journey which spanned from 31-July-2013 to 08-March-2014. In brief, this travel break was for 221 days across 12 Indian states and involved 3 volunteer stints, along with 2 long treks in the Himalayas. Before I go into the details of this journey, I would like to explore why did I take this up in the first place? Firstly, this is the most common question I have been asked – why are you doing this? And also I am quite convinced that for any task the most critical question is the WHY, once this is clear the rest becomes easy to handle in terms of how, what, when etc. Something which I have tried to understand better in one of my previous posts as well –The critical factor called 'Motivation'.

I had the chance to meet a wide spectrum of people during this journey and almost everyone has asked this question in various forms. But, one traveler I met in Spiti Valley put this question in the most articulate way – what made you take this up, is it the Push or the Pull? In simpler terms, what he meant was, am I pursuing this journey because I am passionate about it or am I just running away from reality? Well, the honest answer is that it is a combination of both. It is tough to give a quantitative percentage split, as to X% pull and Y% push. But, for sure, it involved both.

Let me elaborate the PULL factor first, it sounds more positive! When I started, I was facing the question most of us in our late 20’s do – what next in life? I had a fairly clear picture of what I am passionate about and what I am good at and had pursued those things at various phases. It is just that I needed to pursue them more vigorously and see it for myself how much did I truly believe in them. This journey gave me the perfect opportunity for the same. The places I chose or the volunteer stints I opted for or the treks I did was all directly or indirectly tied to one or the other little passions of mine.

I started on the 31st of July and it was only in the last week of July did I decide to take this break. I instinctively decided to quit my work, did all the planning and preparation in one week!! NO, THIS IS A LIE and such things generally happen only in movies. The reality was that there was a lot of preparation behind this decision and I considered the pros and cons in detail. Most importantly, I had taken up good number of short travels before, which helped me develop the faith in the process of travel. Actually, from September 2012 to July 2013, on an average, each month I was travelling for at least 5 days, which included my first trek in the Himalayas, a visit to the Andaman Islands for a scuba diving course, a motorcycle drive across 3 south Indian states for 8 days and a good number of short treks and bike rides. Even before I did my first trek in the Himalayas in September 2012, there were fair number of short travels in my home state Karnataka. These details are not to boast, but to reiterate the point that there was reasonable amount of effort and experiences before I could muster the courage to take the big leap and it would be a mistake if I make it sound like it was a heroic spontaneous decision.

Now, coming back to the Push and Pull phenomenon, I was explaining the pull factor to another traveler I met while on a trek in West Bengal. Her observation was - all this motivation stuff is fine, but is it not possible to pursue these things being in my hometown while still continuing with my work? Honest answer, it is possible. Here is where the PUSH factor comes in. Being away from home and being away from the routine also translates to being away from things which had been bothering me for some time. If this is called escapism, so be it. In fact, I believe escapism is an integral part of most travels and no point in hiding it.

Before I started and during the journey and after the journey as well, the reaction from most people, especially in my age group was ‘wish I could do this as well’. Generally, my immediate question used to be, why do you want to do this and not often do I get a convincing answer. Is it cool to quit your work and go on a break like this? Of course, it is!! But, is that enough motivation to do that? Definitely not. As much as the road is enriching, it is intense as well. At all levels - physical, mental, emotional and beyond. I personally feel that if one is not convinced enough, it is tough to be on the road for a long duration. I might be wrong with this observation as I am drawing this conclusion from a very limited experience, but almost everybody I met who have pursued long travel breaks were very clear as to why they were pursuing it.

Well, that was my push and pull justification and it need not be the same for anyone else. If you are thinking of doing something similar and if you have the opportunity and the required resources, my honest advice is to spend some time away from all the travel blogs and forums and ask yourself few simple but tough questions – Do I really want to do this and why do I want to do this? If the answer to this question is in the negative, that is fine as well.  It is absolutely ok not to be interested in this and there is no need to pretend as though one is very passionate to pursue, but just does not have the resources. This is not to discourage anyone, but just trying to be bit more realistic. If the answer is in the positive, please go ahead and pursue it, trust me, you will never regret it. I am saying this from my personal experience and also from the interactions I have had with people who can be considered PhDs in travel!!

The next obvious question is – did I get what I was looking for from this journey? Strong YES. In fact, I got more than I expected and surely more than what I possibly deserved. I remember  the conversation with another traveler I met in Uttarakhand and I was going gaga over how super motivated I was and how I could be on the road for few more years. This was in November and by then, had spent little more than 3 months on the road. She said that it is just the initial euphoria and it would die down and I would eventually start looking forward to going back home in a couple of months. Actually, I was originally planning to return in December, but ended up cancelling my return tickets and she was wrong in her prediction :) The road is extremely rich and with each passing day, I was more convinced than ever about what I was doing. This understanding and appreciation of the journey is possibly my only credit and rest was just magic. I could have easily spent a few more years on the road, am not kidding about this, I did consider the realistic chances of this at one point of time, in December to be precise. But when I eventually decided to return, I was not short on motivation, but the other required resources were drying out!! Well, good times don’t last forever and I had to accept this and return back home. Nevertheless, these 221 days were undoubtedly the most rich, beautiful, intense and memorable days of my life.

Hope this post was worth your time and possibly gave some critical insights. In the next post, will answer the second most common question – What is the overall impact this journey has had on me? Look forward to share more about my little journey.