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Stranger in a strange land: For the love of travelling

Unwilling to be a marathon tourist anywhere, a writer prefers to stop time by simply going in the opposite direction.

Written by Anees Salim |
Updated: December 17, 2017 12:00:18 am
travel, travel plans, writer travel journey, journey, wanderlust, travel plans, travel mood, travel season, indian express, indian express news A whole new world: The view from Mount Lycabettus. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

A few months ago, someone who shared my love of roads recommended a mobile app. We were sitting in a café in Hua Hin, Thailand, waiting for the rain to stop so that we could get out of the café and resume work. But when the Thai skies kept pouring, my companion borrowed a pen from a waitress and started to detail out the virtues of the app on a paper napkin. He drew a world map first, which looked more like an upside-down dinosaur than anything else, and then added tiny teardrops — those were the nations — inside it. This is how the app worked, he said, ticking off the countries he had visited. You can erase the countries you have visited from the digital map — the more you travel, the less crowded the atlas on your phone becomes.

He said it could influence one’s travel plans in two ways. First, every time you look at the map you feel an urge to erase another country by visiting it. Secondly, it will discourage you from going to the same country over and over again. When the rain finally stopped, and we got out of the café, he scribbled the name of the app on a napkin and handed it to me, saying that he was surprised that I didn’t already have it on my phone — it would perfectly fit my mindset.

The truth was it didn’t fit my life one bit. I am a strange sort of traveller. Call me old-fashioned, or seriously disorganised. Some people say I compose the most senseless and laughable itineraries. Would anyone, for instance, go to Europe and stay in one city for a fortnight, when you can hop on a train and cover most of the continent in a matter of days? I would rather stay at home than turn myself into a marathon tourist. I travel to make myself feel stranded in a foreign land, to find a temporary home in a strange city.

Invariably, I arrive in a new place with an inexplicable sense of loss and, days later, I will leave it with a heavier heart, saddened by the fact that I am bidding farewell to the hotel room, the views its windows open to, the by-now familiar street below, the café next-door, the small convenience store across the road, the taxi rank around the corner. I promise myself — and the city I am leaving — that I will return, to the same hotel and, if possible, to the same room.

In every city I visit, I develop a weird pattern for sightseeing. I fall in love with one spot and spend half of my visit going to that same place, over and over again. It can be a famous monument or a park bench under a tree. Just as the holiday draws to a close, I am overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, and, to do justice to the money I have spent on air tickets and hotel bills, I dedicate the remaining days to have a flash, almost perfunctory, expedition through the rest of the city — taking photographs, buying souvenirs or doing whatever the other tourists are doing.

Last summer, I spent half a month in a sweltering Athens, where you could see heat waves rise from the blades of pedestal fans in roadside cafés. Everywhere I went I sensed an air of distress, of suppressed anger. Almost every street had walls decorated with graffiti; every second intersection had a migrant family looking on the verge of asking for alms; every short walk led you to a menacingly deserted backstreet, some of which had men lingering uncertainly outside doors that had white bulbs shining, even in broad daylight, above doorways. They went in and sometimes came out almost immediately, heading for the next door topped with white light. Later, I found out that the white light was the Greek way of advertising the red-light area, and the men were pleasure seekers, many of whom looked like refugees.

Not all places in Athens painted such a grim picture, though. The ruins were magnificent, the museums well-organised, and the quiet lanes of Plaka quaint. But I still could not find that one place I wanted to visit every day and feel nostalgic about later. The Acropolis could have been that perfect place, but not with a sea of humanity milling around every pillar.

On the streets of Athens. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Then one day, while taking a taxi to the Acropolis for the second time, the driver took interest in me and started quizzing me about the places I had visited. He laughed as I listed out the places I had been to: the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the National Archeological Museum, the National Garden, the Panathenaic Stadium…He said I hadn’t seen Athens until I had gone to Mount Lycabettus and had an aerial view of the Greek capital. He “volunteered” to take me to Aristippou Street in Kolonaki for just € 7, and from there I could take a funicular train to the mountaintop. I declined, suspecting he was hardselling the destination just to earn a ride and make me pay through the nose.

The next morning, deciding against paying a third visit to the Acropolis, I took a taxi to the cable car station. The ride cost me exactly € 7. But as I sat in the funicular train, I began to suspect the credibility of the driver’s recommendation again. If it was such an exotic destination, why was I the only passenger in a train that could have seated at least 40? I should have googled Mount Lycabettus before coming.

It took me less than 10 minutes to reach the mountaintop. The moment I stepped out of the station, I knew that not only had I reached the highest point in Athens with a 360-degree view of the city, but the highest level of satisfaction any place had ever given me. A few flights of stairs frilled with blooming willow trees led me to the lip of the limestone cliff, from where winding concrete stairways meandered down to the wilderness composed of acres of pine forests, and tens of thousands of houses that looked tinier than matchboxes. On top of the hill sat the tiny chapel of St George and I imagined the angels on duty taking the first cable car service to the hilltop every morning and the last service back at night.

Instantly smitten, I spent the rest of my holidays visiting Mount Lycabettus daily. The lady who sold train tickets at the station-cum-souvenir shop started to size me up with mild distaste while the caretaker of the chapel began to nod and smile at me. Then, before I knew it, the time had come to bid farewell to Athens. It is my habit to say a silent goodbye to hotel rooms, and, as I did this time, the sun was just creeping up the horizon and the room I was leaving behind was filling up with golden light.

I am still to download the mobile app that friend had recommended me in Hua Hin. I don’t think I ever will. I prefer surrendering to the charms of one place to exploring many. I can do well without apps, maps and compasses.

Kochi-based Anees Salim is the author of Vanity Bag.

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