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.