I recently heard of a small enterprise in India’s vast travel industry that specialises in planning surprise vacations. How it works is you fill out an email questionnaire on your preferences and dislikes, specify a budget and they tell you what to pack and when to reach the airport or station. All you have to do is show up at the appointed place where somebody hands you the ticket. Till then, you know nothing about where you’re going or what you’re going to be doing.
The person who tried this out ended up in a very comfortable caravan, drove through the night to Corbett and watched the sunrise in a forest. It was followed by a safari, a five-course dinner next to a bonfire and a weekend in a luxury tent. (For the uninitiated, the term for this is glamping, glamorous camping.) However, since everyone’s idea of fun isn’t nodding off under the stars to the sounds of a crackling fire, other options include deep-sea diving and even a temple pilgrimage for the devout.
Travel is by its very definition, discomfiting, because you’re out of your comfort zone and your routine. Even if we actively seek a change of scene and that feeling of pleasant displacement that only comes from waking up someplace else, travel can also be anxiety inducing. It’s the reason why so many hotels in their ads, promise to make you feel at home while you’re away. The discomfort for a vacationer begins right at the planning stage. Deciding on the destination, checking TripAdvisor for hotel reviews, comparing airline prices. It’s a painful task, which is why it’s not so surprising that there are people willing to pay to not know where they’re going. It’s tempting to read somebody choosing a surprise vacation as being a reckless thrill seeker but I suspect convenience (not having to make any decisions) is a big part of it.
Personally, I loathe surprises since I have mostly experienced them as awful shocks. On the one time in my life I decided to throw a surprise party for a boyfriend turning 30, his dog died. Some years back, I left it to a travel agent to plan a holiday to Egypt. For unfathomable reasons, he chose an itinerary that included three nights in the Gurgaon of Egypt, a new city full of highrise glass buildings and glitzy malls where I was stuck, stewing, with nothing to do. I remember waiting in line and screaming at him from a payphone.
Today, the thought of leaving, say, a precious 10-day vacation to the imagination of a random I don’t know, would leave me fraught with worry no matter how qualified or highly rated the company might be. Younger people, it appears, are comfortable trying a surprise vacation and very wisely tend to look at it as an exciting new adventure. Besides, for them social media is an important aspect of a trip and it’s definitely Instagram brag-worthy to be able to say, oops, so this is where I landed up. When you’re older you’re more prone to thinking I have this much money, how do I get the most out of it.
The problem with this way of operating is that you close yourself off to new experiences, and fall into the trap of taking exactly the kind of holiday you’ve always been taking. Or being herded around like a goat by a tour guide to bucket-list destinations. Truth be told, most holidays include days where you have to try hard not to think that you could have been home drinking tea and watching Netflix. It sounds like a cliche but in life and in travel, the most meaningful moments can never be scheduled according to a plan. And certainly not on a holiday. However, it can never hurt to be invisible for a few days in a different culture because any journey, takes you somewhere new.